Friday, April 30, 2010

Pat Miller Seminar: Functional Analysis

Last weekend, I had the good fortune to attend a single-day seminar with Pat Miller in Wisconsin. (No, I don’t spend all my time going to seminars, but yes, I’ve been lucky in the canine education department lately.) I had seen Pat previously, and the seminar was basically a scaled-down version of what I had seen a year ago. Even so, there were some very thought provoking moments, and of course, I want to share them with you!

Pat spent some time talking about operant conditioning, which I always enjoy thinking about. Of course, since I do spend a fair amount of time reading about operant conditioning, it was mostly review. (I’ll assume this is the case for most of my readers, but if anyone’s interested, I’d be glad to write an Operant Conditioning 101 post.)

What I found really helpful was Pat’s discussion of “Functional Analysis.” This is where we look at a behavior systematically using the mnemonic of “ABC” to remind us to look at the antecedent of the behavior, the behavior itself, and the consequence following the behavior, which either reinforces or punishes the behavior. The consequence is defined not by what we think should happen, but rather what actually happens.

In other words, if we do something as punishment, but the behavior doesn’t reduce in frequency or intensity? It wasn’t a punishment. If the behavior continues, it was simply aversive, and the dog has learned nothing. If, on the other hand, the behavior increases, our action was actually a reinforcer.

Although we can often correctly predict how the consequence will be perceived by our dog, we will sometimes be wrong. For example, Maisy thinks that getting squirted in the face with water is superawesomefun. If I were to use a squirt bottle as a punisher and didn’t pay attention to her response, I would be in for a pretty big surprise when the behavior I thought I was punishing actually increased. Since the dog’s subsequent behavior determines which of the principles we utilized, Suzanne Clothier is probably right: some of us trainers think too much.

Pat’s discussion on functional analysis yielded something else that was pretty cool: we actually have two opportunities to change behavior. You can manipulate the consequence so that behavior either increases or decreases, but you also have an opportunity to change behavior before it even happens. If we change or prevent the antecedent, we might be able to change the behavior. Doing it this way does seem a little iffier to me, but it’s definitely possible!

How? Well, management is one way. Although management has a high risk of failure at some point, it doesn’t always fail. And management is a good, useful, and sometimes necessary thing, not to mention often easier. I’ve written before about things I do to help manage Maisy’s reactivity.

For behaviors rooted in emotions, like reactivity, we can also prevent the behavior by changing the dog’s feelings about an antecedent. For example, if a dog always barks and lunges at a bicycle, we can change the dog’s feelings about the trigger through classical conditioning. (Again, I assume my readers are familiar with classical conditioning, but if you want a post on it? Just let me know!)

This discussion of functional analysis took topics that I already understood, and helped me think about them in a more sophisticated way. Has it changed the way I train? No, not really, but it has helped me understand why I do what I do a bit better, and I’m quite grateful for that. So, thank you, Pat, for the great discussion!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Twist on the Five Times Challenge

So, about six weeks ago, I posted about training schedules. In an effort to drill less and have more fun with my training, I decided to do something I called the “Five Times Challenge,” where I would train five times a day for 60 to 120 seconds. I did that for a few weeks, and then found that I really hated trying to keep track of it. It’s easy to do, but I tend to get a bit rigid about things like that. If I only did four sessions and not five, I felt like I’d failed for the day, which is patently silly, but even so, it created more stress than it was worth. So I quit doing it.

Which means I needed a new training plan. Now, as much as I get stuck when I create plans, I also need plans to keep me on track. The trick is creating a plan that helps keep me on task while allowing me the flexibility necessary so training remains fun.

I started by taking a look at my 2010 goals. I thought about the things I’m doing, and the things I’m not doing. Then I made a list of what I needed to be doing in order to meet those goals.

It looked like this:

I’ve been wanting to include more pictures in my entries because it’s supposed to be more interesting to readers. I’m not sure this actually qualifies.

Which is when I realized… a lot of the specific exercises I needed to work on could be done anywhere. My living room, my back yard… and… on walks?

YES! On walks! We’re already out and working together. I need to practice with distractions anyway. And I can use treats and environmental rewards!

And so I started something new. Every few blocks, I do an obedience exercise. I try to switch it up so I’m doing different things. Sometimes I repeat an exercise, sometimes I don’t do one at all. But at frequently during the walk (I’m not counting, because that makes me crazy, but really, it’s gotta be more than five times), I stop and have Maisy auto-sit, or do a moving down or a moving stand, or practice sit and down stays, or come front, or do finishes, or do about turns or pivots or change pace, or… well, pretty much anything you might see in rally or obedience except jumping or food bowls. (Those we do outside in my backyard on the weekends.)

It’s amazing. I’m getting so much more focus, and I swear, today I felt ready to tackle that CD-H, or maybe even a U-CD! For now, anyway, this variant of the five times challenge is working wonderfully!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: Wrap Up

Wow, who knew that a two day seminar could inspire over a month’s worth of blogging? I want to thank everyone who commented on these blog posts. The discussions we’ve had over the past month have really helped me think about the things Suzanne said in a far more sophisticated manner than I could have alone.

I just want to touch on a few of the highlights from those conversations today. If you haven’t, I encourage you to go back and read the comment threads. There are a lot of smart, dedicated, and talented people in there sharing differing perspectives. Although we dog trainers will probably never agree 100%, it’s nice to consider other ideas, either to refine our own thoughts, or to strengthen our positions.

For me, I have found that the seminar and resulting discussions have strengthened my commitment to positive training, even if the term is a bit of a misnomer. As everyone noted, it is impossible to use solely positive reinforcement. I strive to teach enough foundation skills that I rarely need to stray from that principle of operant conditioning.

Still, there are times when a consequence is needed for a less-than-desirable behavior. The challenge is to find such a consequence which is neither physically painful nor which causes excessive emotional stress. Of course, there is the challenge of defining how much stress is too much, but I’m afraid I have yet to figure that one out. So far, it seems to be a matter of knowing the dog well enough to be able to stop while we’re ahead, but that’s a rather ambiguous answer, and one which is undoubtedly frustrating for the less experienced trainers out there.

I have decided that for my dog, the best way to deal with unwanted behaviors is to use Premack’s Principle. I’ll admit, while I understand the principle intellectually, I don’t quite get why it works so well. At any rate, I’ve had some amazing results with Premack, and so have others.

When it comes to our “silly tricks”- my name for competition behaviors which really only matter because I have a goofy hobby, and not because they’re vital life skills- the consequences for an incorrect response is generally removing the reinforcement or doing a time out. Time outs work well; Maisy loves to train, and she loves to spend time with me. Removing my attention for a short period of time is a far more effective punisher than withholding a food treat.

I do occasionally use mild verbal corrections, but Maisy is so sensitive that I have to be careful with using these. I try to avoid them, as well as no reward markers because they tend to frustrate both of us. Similarly, I use some pressure/release techniques with her, such as body blocks or light physical pressure, but I have to be careful with these, too- she’s incredibly sensitive to physical touch. In fact, I once tried using a body wrap on her, which are widely promoted for reducing anxiety. It did not go over well, and in fact, actually caused more anxiety. Although both verbal corrections and physical prompts can be useful tools which fall on the more positive end of the “consequence spectrum,” they are things which I must use sparingly with my dog.

Which brings me to my favorite part of the seminar: Suzanne’s repeated insistence that we view all dogs as individuals. I love that she says training is humane only when we check in with the dog regularly in order to get his perspective. Can you do this? Is this okay with you? How can I help you? These questions focus on building up the relationship in the name of training, and I’ve always said that training is only about the relationship between me and my dog anyway.

Finally, I think the biggest benefit I got from the seminar was learning to give Maisy the information she needs to be successful. Her statement that dogs look to their people for clues on how they should react really encouraged me to look at what role I play in Maisy’s reactivity. I’ve always known that Maisy is sensitive to my moods and reactions, but being forced to confront that reality at the seminar has really improved my awareness of my own body. Making a conscious effort to remain calm and confident in the face of triggers has gone a long way in soothing Maisy’s fears.

All in all, that weekend was one well spent. I really think I grew a lot as a trainer as a result of the things Suzanne said, and again, I really appreciate each and every one of your comments.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: Where Clicker Trainers Go Wrong

It came as no surprise that Suzanne considers herself a humane trainer. I knew that by reading her book, by the fact that she calls her method “relationship centered,” and by the observation that the positive training community has rallied around her. So, I was completely unprepared for what she said next:

“All positive training is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.”

Come again? Aren’t you for training our dogs in positive ways? What do you mean, it’s “stupid”? Needless to say, this statement really set me reeling. But you know what? She had some valid criticisms, and I think it’s important that as clicker trainers, we consider what she says, and find ways to improve our training as a result. Again, my understanding of her criticisms are my own, based on stray comments she made. This entry cannot be considered a complete commentary, and I only hope that it’s accurate. That said, in reviewing my notes, I found four ways we often go wrong:

Clicker Trainers are Too Cerebral
As I mentioned previously, Suzanne believes that consequences are useful in training dogs. Although I disagree with some of the consequences she believes are acceptable, I do concede that they can have a place in a thoughtful training program, and I’ve since found some ways to improve my training with Maisy as the result of using them.

The problem is, clicker trainers sometimes shy away from consequences entirely because we’re thinking too much. I know I fell into this category! When I was considering a consequence, I would think about which of the operant conditioning quadrants it fell in. If it fell in the “wrong” quadrant, I wouldn’t do it. Instead, Suzanne encouraged us to look at our dogs, and to decide if the consequence is humane or not. As long as we aren’t hurting or scaring our dogs, we’re probably okay.Instead of thinking about our actions based on some chart, we’re better off thinking about our dog.

Clicker Dogs Have No Impulse Control
Okay, this is a bit of an over-exaggeration of what she said, so don’t go around quoting this verbatim. What Suzanne actually said is that when she sees a dog throwing behaviors, she knows two things: it was clicker trained, and it has low impulse control. This does not mean that all clicker dogs struggle with impulse control, but it can be a by-product of the training method if we don’t get adequate stimulus control over the behaviors we teach our dog, and if we don’t take the time to teach our dogs how to relax.

I love having a dog who wants to work, but sometimes I think I’ve created a monster because I haven’t worked that much on teaching her how to just be. Sometimes, I don’t use the clicker at all because it is creates too much arousal. She loves it so much that she loses control over herself.

Clicker Trainers Micromanage Their Dogs With Cookies
There are two sub-points here. First, clicker trainers tend to rely too much on management, and don’t spend enough time teaching their dogs to be responsible for themselves. (I wrote about this previously in this entry.)

Second, clicker trainers tend to rely on cookies far too much. Suzanne is not against cookies, she just thinks we need branch out. She said that what we really need to do is harness intrinsic motivation. We need to teach our dog to work for other things. Life rewards such as getting to go for a walk or using play as a reinforcer fits here, but Suzanne is big on using praise and the social relationship as a reinforcer, too. Cookies are great, but they’re the icing on the cake of social relationships.

Clicker Trainers Rely on “Recipes” Too Much
Finally, Suzanne was critical of clicker training because it can result in the handler treating the dog like a computer: we train them based on stimulus and response, or input and output. We would find it insulting to be treated this way, so why wouldn’t our dogs? Instead, we need to see the whole animal, and tailor our plans to their needs and preferences. Even counter conditioning will fail, she said, if we don’t keep the dog safe. Training recipes might be a nice starting point, but we need to go beyond them.

As I mentioned, I know I fall in the “think too much” category. I also recognize that my use of the clicker could have contributed to Maisy’s impulse control problems, because I'm just not that good at getting things under stimulus control. So far as micromanaging with cookies… well, guilty again. I do rely a lot on management, and I’m just learning how to use things other than food as a reinforcer. I think I am safe on the last point; but I think my strength lies in being able to evaluate various “recipes” and tweak them so that they work to both Maisy’s strengths and my own.

So, fellow clicker trainers, do you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions? If so, what are you going to do to improve your training?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One Week

It's been one week since Maisy and I encountered the off leash dog that may or may not have been attacking her. I've decided to view it as an attack, not because I know the other dog's motives, but because of how Maisy perceived it; there has been some fall-out as a result of the encounter, both physically and emotionally.

Twenty-four hours post-attack, I noted that Maisy was limping slightly. Well, limping is probably the wrong word. She looked stiff in the hips, and when she walked, her legs rotated in a figure-8 type pattern instead of moving smoothly forward and back.

I treated Maisy with arnica every 12 hours for the first three days, then daily until I ran out. I know a lot of people look down on homeopathy, but as soon as I ran out of this natural anti-inflammatory, Maisy began to have symptoms of pain, primarily through excessive, heavy panting. (Then I treated her with buffered aspirin.)

We went to her veterinary chiropractor today, and I just have to say, if you're in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, you really ought to check out Dr. White at Whole Health Vet. They are always so wonderful about taking the time to listen to my concerns, evaluate Maisy, and provide excellent care. Maisy is still stiff, but she's moving so much better tonight.

The most interesting thing is that Maisy is now afraid of hedges. She is also much more nervous while on our walks. Overall, she enjoys them, but if she hears a dog bark, her mouth gets hard. She has, at times, entirely refused to walk, though I can't parse out how the physical effects and emotional effects are interacting.

She was much more on edge at our reactive dog class last night, though. She looked at the other dogs much more frantically, became upset (indicated to me through a hard mouth and a "wild look" about her) when they moved around, especially when she was watching the other dogs do off-leash recalls.

She didn't actually have an episode of reactivity, but she did make some attempts at lunging. Each time, though, she interrupted herself and returned to me. There were many, many cookies handed out, and I am so, so proud of her. She was legitimately stressed by the situation- our classmates are all larger dogs, one looks a lot like the dog who attacked her, the room had been rearranged, she was in pain, and there was a new dog last night. And even so, despite all of that, she was able to remember that she shouldn't lunge, and continued to work with me. This really gives me a lot of encouragement for the future.

Going Forward...
I know we have a lot of work to do. I will need to lower my criteria for awhile on acceptable behaviors around other dogs. I'll need to make situations easier, too- crowded trials will have to wait for awhile. However, I am optimistic that we can return to our previous level of functioning, and I am told that the behavior will even be stronger afterward.

I have become less tolerant of loose dogs, though. I have paired citronella spray with treats, so Maisy is not bothered by it being sprayed very near her. All loose dogs will be treated to a lovely citrus perfume from now on, regardless of whether they look friendly or not. I don't want to take any more chances, and I want Maisy to learn that I will do my best to defend her from unsolicited visitors.

Hopefully, this will be my last post on the topic. For one thing, it's not the most interesting thing to write about, and for another, I'm optimistic that this will be just a temporary blip in the radar with no significant side effects.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: Humane Training

Perhaps the most interesting- and challenging- part of the seminar was hearing about Suzanne’s training philosophy, and the way she implements it. There wasn’t an official session on what she considers “Humane Training,” but I think I have a decently accurate picture based on her general themes and random comments. I hope so, anyway! I’d hate to misrepresent her in any way.

Suzanne seems to define humane training as knowing the difference between asking your dog “will you do this?” and “can you do this?” This really resonated with me since Maisy is the kind of dog who will try her heart out for me. I’ve asked before if Maisy’s willingness to do something is an indication of her actual ability to do it, so I greatly appreciated Suzanne’s statement that the goal of humane training is finding fun things to do with your dog while keeping her physically sound, intellectually sane, and emotionally safe.

So, why did I find this so challenging? Largely because her implementation of this philosophy is different than mine. Throughout the weekend, regardless of the issue or the dog at hand, there were two recurring themes: responsibility and consequences, both of which I struggle with.

Responsibility is a bit easier for me to swallow, although Suzanne’s emphasis that it must go both ways was a new way of thinking to me. Both the handler and the dog have a responsibility to the other, but sometimes, I think I focus more on the handler’s responsibilities. I definitely put more responsibility on myself than I do on Maisy, as I firmly believe that training problems lie in my failure to adequately communicate. I think Suzanne would agree that our dogs are generally doing the best they can- as she said, dogs want to be right.

Where I often fail, however, is in giving Maisy responsibility for what she’s learned. Sometimes, I work so hard at setting her up for success that she can’t really make any choices. This isn’t so bad during the learning stage, but in my effort to be all positive, I sometimes lean a bit permissive.

Which leads to consequences, the more difficult of the two themes. The first time Suzanne said the word, I had a visceral reaction to it- I’m pretty uncomfortable when people begin to discuss consequences because it often implies physical corrections. And I don’t do physical corrections. Still, Suzanne was clear that consequences need to be tailored to the dog, and that you should always use the least amount of force possible, but she did say that for some dogs, a well-timed physical correction can be useful. She’s even okay with shock collars under very specific circumstances. At the same time, you can’t do this with very sensitive dogs. Often a firm word is enough (or too much!) for them. She went so far to say that such dogs need our support, not our criticism, and so the way we approach them will be very different.

I was very glad that she made this distinction, although I do not agree with her regarding physical corrections. Do they work? Certainly, but even so, I don't find them acceptable. I suspect that part of my adamant opposition to physical corrections is due to the fact that I have one of those sensitive dogs. Regardless, it was good for me to consider the idea of consequences. As Suzanne pointed out, sometimes a consequence is simply saying, “No, thank you,” to a particular behavior our dogs exhibit, and as I mentioned earlier, I do tend to trend a bit permissive with Maisy.

So, how do we humanely use consequences? First and foremost, we need to teach the dog how to be right. Suzanne said that in her experience, people don’t build strong enough foundation skills. I know I certainly fell into that trap, and I think training classes in general could do more to help teach people how to build stronger foundations. She also stressed that while building foundation skills, it’s important to give the dog choices, but to set the situation up in such a way that the dog can make the right choice. This gives the dog more responsibility for her behavior, while also helping her learn.

Gradually, we make the choices harder, rewarding heavily for correct decisions while imposing consequences for the wrong one. Again, the consequence depends on the dog. She gave the example of teaching a dog to walk on leash. It is the dog’s responsibility to stay nearby. If the dog fails, we may not use a leash pop, but we might use some collar pressure to make things a bit uncomfortable. It’s not given as a punishment, but it is a consequence of the dog’s behavior.

I’ve struggled with good loose leash walking skills with Maisy. She doesn’t pull, but she likes to stop and sniff interesting rings, and I’m afraid that this is transferring over to the obedience ring. Because I haven’t wanted to use anything aversive, even if it’s only mildly uncomfortable, I’ve stopped and called her name. In essence, I’ve nagged her, which has only taught her that if she ignored me, she could sniff longer.

Suzanne would say that she needed a consequence for ignoring me, so I took her advice and started a new program: Sniffing is only allowed when I explicitly cue it. Furthermore, she must disengage and come with me when I tell her sniffing time is over (I’m using the cue, “let’s go”). The first time I said “let’s go,” she didn’t make an effort to move. It was very hard for me to just start walking, and I did end up pulling her for a few steps. When she caught up with me, I praised her effusively. By the end of the walk, though, she began to choose to disengage and move with me when I said, “let’s go!” We’re still working on not sniffing unless I cue it, but it’s getting better.

So, was that positive punishment? Yes, and that makes me feel bad. I feel slightly dirty just writing about it. But… did it hurt her? Was she confused about what I was asking from her? Did it cause her to feel unsafe? No, I don’t think it did, which means it was an appropriate and humane consequence.

There’s more, of course. Suzanne said a whole host of interesting things about clicker trainers… but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for my next post to hear about those! In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on consequences. Do you use them, or do they make you feel a bit weird like they do to me? How do you use them in your training, and if so, how does Suzanne’s criteria for humane consequences sit with you? Let me know!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Management 101: Routines and Downtime

So, this is what I meant to post on Wednesday, but instead was consumed by the Great Off-Leash Dog Incident. Maisy's doing okay, by the way. Seems emotionally fine so far, though she does have a vet appointment next week. She continues to have an intermittent limp on the rear. It's probably nothing, but we'll get it checked it out either way.

My husband and I were on vacation last week, and so Maisy had the good fortune to spend 9 days with her aunt and uncle. (Well, okay, they’re actually my husband’s great aunt and uncle, but let’s not quibble over semantics, as fun as that might be.) She had a wonderful time: extra long walks every day, older children who were willing to throw her ball endlessly, treats that she didn’t have to earn, people home all day long, and lots of snuggle naps.

We’d been home for three days before we went back to our reactive dog class, which was, in theory, time enough for both of us to re-adjust to our regular schedules. There was only one other dog in class last night, a dog whom she’s seen regularly for half a year or so, and whom she’s basically ignored in recent months. Maisy and I pranced in, settled down on our mats, and practiced relaxing during the check-in portion of class.

And then she lost it.

Okay, maybe “lost it” is a bit too severe of a description, but she flew off her mat at the other dog every single time the other dog got up and walked around. She hasn’t done that in a long time, and she repeated this over and over, no matter how much I lowered my criteria and tried to pre-emptively stuff her full of cookies.

The instructor commented that she hadn’t seen Maisy like that in a long time, and it’s true, Maisy’s improved a lot since we joined the class last fall. And, even in this burst of reactivity, she was fairly quiet without much barking or growling, and she immediately self-interrupted and returned to me. She even bounced back pretty quickly each time, able to settle on her mat calmly after each reaction.

The whole experience really cemented in my mind the importance of creating routines for our dogs, especially the easily-stressed. The predictability of a schedule can do a lot to help the nervous among us know what to expect, and thus feel more secure and confident.

I also suspect that the reduced amount of downtime contributed to her increased reactivity. Although I often feel guilty about leaving Maisy home alone for 40-45 hours a week, I've learned that she does better when she has ample opportunity to rest. A constant barrage of stress, good or bad, will accumulate and push a dog closer to her threshold.

And while Maisy got plenty of time to rest and relax while on her vacation, the novel environment undoubtedly made it harder for her do so as thoroughly as she is used to doing at home. In addition, her naps probably weren’t as long as they likely are when she’s home alone all day.

Although Maisy had had a great time while we were gone, it was definitely a big change, and it was interesting to see how much that affected her. It was also nice to have some confirmation of how important both routines and downtime is to her.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

24 Hours Later...

So, I thought I'd give everyone a quick update on how the first 24 hours after the unfortunate incident went.

First, yes, I called animal control first thing this morning. The gentleman that answered the phone was very nice. I explained what happened. He told me that since Maisy didn't have any puncture wounds, they couldn't investigate it as an aggression case, but that they'd investigate and likely cite the owners for the loose dog violation. I did tell him that I kicked the other dog, and he was very understanding. He said that I was within my rights to do whatever I needed to do to protect my dog, and while he understood that it doesn't feel good, he would have done the same thing.

Speaking of which, people have kicked -no pun intended- around some ideas here in the comments and over on facebook about what to do about loose dogs. There's no easy answer, of course. Usually I try to body block the other dog, and I'm usually pretty successful at this. I've been teaching Maisy to "switch sides" to make this easier. But this particular dog was on top of her before I even saw it coming, so I didn't have the option to body block or "switch" anyone.

Grabbing the other dog by the legs and swinging was mentioned, although I have to admit, I'm not sure I have the coordination for that. In the right situation, though, it could be a great idea.

Someone else suggested throwing treats at the oncoming dog, which is a great suggestion, and one I've heard from Patricia McConnell, among others. In fact, I did have a pocketful of kibble with me, but in the stress of the moment, I didn't even think of throwing it. I do have some reservations about this, though, as Maisy has a tendency to resource guard me when she knows I'm packing treats. In a situation like this, I'm not sure if throwing treats would be a good distraction, or if it would just create a bigger problem.

Citronella was also discussed, but I dismissed it completely, figuring that the spray would also punish or repel Maisy, making the whole experience even worse for her. Then my brilliant friend Sara suggested buying two cans: one for potential attackers and one to use in advance to counter-condition Maisy so that she associates the citronella spray with treats. I think I'm a good trainer, and one who understands the concepts behind training, but I don't think I would have ever thought of that. Seriously, remember her name, because she's going to do amazing things some day.

Anyway, the most important part is that Maisy seems to be doing well. She was completely normal at home last night and this morning. We also went for a walk again this afternoon as I didn't want to change up the routine too much. I brought a dog-less friend along so that I would have a distraction that would help keep me from being stressed and weird. (And it doesn't hurt that Maisy adores this particular friend.) We also chose not to walk down the street with the offending dog, and we probably won't for a long time, which helped me stay more relaxed, too.

As proof of her ability to bounce back, she seemed emotionally fine on the walk. We walked by barking dogs without a problem. No freezing like yesterday, and nice loose, relaxed body language for the duration of the walk. I was much more liberal with the cookies than I usually am, and will continue to do that for a few days.

Of course, I don't know is what kind of fallout I'll see with Maisy's reaction to dogs in closer proximity. We won't push it this weekend because I want to give the stress hormones and the other chemicals in her brain time to recede. Even so, class next week is liable to be interesting. I'll have to remember to keep my criteria low and my rate of reinforcement high. I know Maisy and I can work through this, I just need to let the past remain in the past.

I am slightly concerned about her physical condition, though. Maisy got stiff halfway through the walk and began limping on the rear leg again. She even asked me to carry her part of the time. Clearly, I'll need to keep walks shorter for the next few days, and if it doesn't clear up, we'll make an appointment for next week.

Anyway, I'll try to return to our regularly scheduled program this weekend. Maisy has clearly moved on from this incident, and I need to do the same. There's no use in dwelling on it, and in fact, that might only make matters worse. Of course, I'll let you know if anything interesting happens, but from now on, I'm not going to worry about it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


This is not at all the post I was planning to write tonight. For one thing, I have several more Suzanne Clothier seminar recaps left to go, and for another, I had already started drafting one about the importance of routines for our reactive dogs. However, life has intervened, and I simply must talk about it.

When I got home from work today, I took Maisy for our usual afternoon walk. We generally follow the same path, and today was no exception. I headed up the same street we always take. The only real difference is that today I didn't have my iPod on. (Is it geeky to listen to dog training podcasts while I'm walking the dog?) I'm glad, too, because as we began to walk by a particular house, a large, dark grey dog came out of nowhere and bowled Maisy over. I didn't even see the dog coming- it was just all of a sudden there.

So, Maisy's on the ground, yelping, I'm holding on to her leash, which is inadvertantly jerking her around as she tries to escape, and there's this huge dog trying to do who-knows-what to her. I've got about a million thoughts running through my head: Should I drop the leash? How do I get this dog off? Is Maisy okay? How can I keep her safe? Does she know I'm trying to protect her?

In the end, I held on to the leash, though after an emergency call to one of my trainers, I decided that next time I'll drop the leash. She probably could have gotten away, and she has a darn decent recall; she would have come back. Getting jerked around on the leash only prevented her from protecting herself, probably hurt and/or scared her, and was probably not very helpful.

I also did something I feel awful about: I kicked the other dog. Hard. I'm really not one to use punishment, and I was pretty angry at the presumed owner for doing so just moments later... But it was a knee-jerk reaction, and it worked; the kick stunned the dog long enough that Maisy and I were able to get away. The probable owner then grabbed the other dog by its choke chain and briefly hung it off the ground. I wanted to tell him that wasn't going to help, but what could I say? I had just kicked his dog.

Did that help the situation? Or was I at risk of redirected aggression? Will that make the other dog worse in the future? What could I have done instead? Why haven't I bought that citronella spray yet, and even if I had it, would it have helped, or would it have stressed Maisy out even more? Did Maisy see my action as protecting or defending her, or did she see it as evidence that I might be a wee bit unstable? And, what else could I have done to help her feel like I had her back?

So far as the most important question, that of "Is Maisy okay?", well, only time will tell. She seems physically okay. She was limping slightly on her left rear, but she had a chiro visit yesterday with orders to take it easy for a week due to some issues we found, which means that that slight limp could have been unrelated to this incident. But I have no idea how she is emotionally. Her immediate response was pretty good; she bounced back quickly, and we walked away eating treats without too much stress. However, later in the walk, she froze and looked worried when she heard another dog bark. What kind of fall out will I see, and when?

And... was it really an attack at all? I'm not sure. It all happened so fast, and I'm just not that good at reading dog body language. Was it simply a very over-enthusiastic greeter? I suspect so, because if the dog had really wanted to do damage, he could have.

So, if it was just a dog being a dog, albeit a poorly mannered one, should I report this to animal control? The dog was off leash, and my city has pretty strict leash laws, at least on the books. But was he dangerous? If I report this, will his owners punish him again, or worse? Will they retaliate at me because I kicked their dog? At least they live several blocks away... I'll have to see if I can report anonymously, or at least have my name withheld.

As you can see, I have many, many questions, and very few answers.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: The Trial Environment and Reactivity

In my last entry, I discussed how reactivity is often compounded by the personality of the typical performance dog. I also mentioned that we as handlers often fail to give our dogs the information they need in order to be successful in our environments, especially the trial environment. During the weekend, I picked up two main ideas from Suzanne relating to dogs who are reactive in trial environments, and both are absolutely true for Maisy and I.

First, Suzanne said that a huge mistake handlers make is in using management far too often. Although management is often useful and necessary, excessive reliance on it can create problems. For one thing, it’s often exhausting for the handler to micromanage the dog’s every action. I know that I find trials tiring for that exact reason: I spend so much time taking care of Maisy, there’s no time to take care of me. Beyond that, management will always fail at some point. It’s impossible to control everything all the time. Somewhere along the line, we will fail.

At this point, an audience member asked what she should do with her dog. If she doesn’t manage him closely, he’s snarky with the other dogs there, which is clearly not acceptable at a trial. Suzanne’s response really struck me: “Have you taught him how to deal with crowds? He might be missing a skill he needs.”

Maisy certainly has impulse control issues. She finds it hard not to try to go visit other dogs. The problem with a trial is that there are so many other dogs, it seems like she gets over-stimulated, tired, and then reactive. Perhaps gradually exposing her to longer and longer periods of time in chaotic environments would help her learn how to deal with the stress of a trial site. Beyond that? I’m not sure what other skills to teach her. How to walk by (and ignore) other dogs, I suppose, and maybe a relax or settle cue. I’ll need to think more about this (suggestions welcome).

The other big idea I picked up about reactivity in trials had to do with handler nerves. Performance dogs are often very sensitive to their handlers- it’s part of what makes them so good in the ring. The problem with that is that when we get stressed out because we’re nervous about being judged, the dog can’t understand that. We may know that it’s all in fun, and that the outcome ultimately doesn’t matter, but our dogs have no way of understanding that. We must, Suzanne stressed, learn to deal with our issues away from our dogs. After all, if you are at the center of your dog’s world and you fall apart, the dog has nothing to lean on.

This, too, really struck me. When Maisy and I went to our first trial just over a year ago, I had no idea what to expect. I certainly didn’t know enough to be nervous! I thought we’d go for the experience, and hoped that by the end of the year, we’d have just one qualifying run. Instead, we titled that weekend. Maisy did great. The next week, when we started our first reactive dog class, the instructor told me she’d seen us at the trial, and couldn’t understand what a happy dog like Maisy was doing in that class.

We went to a total of five trials last year, and at each one, Maisy became progressively more reactive. At the same time, I became progressively more nervous during each trial. I am quite sure that we were both feeding off the other’s negative emotions, and I'm worried that we’re at the point where I’ve conditioned negative feelings about the environment in general, even if I weren’t nervous. Of course, I am nervous, and not entirely sure how to conquer my ring nerves. Again… suggestions welcome!

A few weeks ago, my trainer asked me if I thought I was going to enter Maisy in the next rally trial. I answered that it depended on whether or not Maisy was ready. Then I stopped, and amended my statement: “It depends on whether I’m ready.”

Although I believe Maisy has some limitations due to her reactivity, I do have to wonder how much I’ve contributed to it. She is an incredibly sensitive dog, and while I’m often glad she trusts me as much as she does, I feel awful that I can’t be a better partner for her… which is probably why Suzanne’s words hit me as hard as they do. I don’t think there is any point in regretting the past- you can’t change it, after all- but it does challenge me to think of ways to improve in the future. And knowing is half the battle.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: Performance Dogs, Their Personalities, and Reactivity

Although the “this is how to work with a reactive dog” information was interesting, Suzanne’s take on the causes of reactivity took things to a whole new level for me. She said that one of the major reasons dogs become reactive is because we as handlers fail to give our dogs the tools and information they need to be successful in the environments we’ve created for them. This is especially the case for performance dogs, both because the environments are more demanding, and because the dogs themselves are generally different, personality-wise, than the typical pet dog. Today, I’m going to talk largely about the way the performance dog’s personality affects reactivity.

Performance dogs are usually chosen because they are smart, confident and highly responsive to humans. These factors make the dog very good at their jobs, but they also come along with certain drawbacks. For one thing, Suzanne pointed out that responsive dogs typically have more trouble modulating their emotions and actions. Plus, as a result of being smart and confident, they tend to assume that they know what you want, and then react based on faulty assumptions. And of course, there is the ever-present problem of mistaking overly aroused, out of control dogs for ones with “drive.”

The problem is often compounded because it’s so much more fun to teach skills, especially fast-moving, highly-active ones. As a result, we often shape our dogs into frantic beings who don’t know how to relax. What we really ought to be doing with them is laying a groundwork of self-control, such as through off-switch games, also called jazz up and settle down.

We can also get more impulse control from our dogs if we teach them to wait for explicit directions, especially when it comes to exciting things like greeting people and other dogs. We can help them out by teaching them that just because they want to go say hi, it doesn’t mean they get to. If saying hi is dependent on receiving permission from the handler, the dog doesn’t make the assumption that he’s allowed to say hi to everyone.

Further, by keeping these greetings short, we can ensure the dog is successful in his social encounters. Some dogs become reactive because, while they desire interaction, they don’t have the social skills to maintain an ongoing interaction with strangers. We can help them build these skills by following the three second rule: we cue our dog to go say hi, count to three, and then call the dog away. Suzanne said that most dogs won’t disengage, even when they’re uncomfortable, because to do so would be rude. We can relieve that discomfort by calling them away, assessing their feelings, and allowing them the option to return-or not- dependent on their comfort level.

These responsive dogs are often quite human-centered, as well, which means that when they’re faced with a novel situation, they will look to us, their humans, for information on how they ought to react. When we fail to give them the information they’re seeking, they sometimes decide that they’d best do something, because it’s clear we’re not going to. We can help them by acknowledging them every time they check in with us, even if it’s as simple as a smile and nod. “Yes, I noticed that bicycle. Interesting, isn’t it?” This way, the dog knows if they ought to worry or not, instead of making an assumption.

Unfortunately, we handlers sometimes do something even worse than fail to give information: we end up giving the wrong information. I think it’s fairly common knowledge that tension runs down the leash. Suzanne stressed that it’s important to allow slack in the leash whenever possible. We don’t want to let the dog pull us, of course, but especially during greetings, we should move closer and allow slack in the leash. This can go a long way towards reducing the tension in a social encounter.

But tension isn’t just communicated via the leash. Performance dogs are often quite sensitive to human moods, so we need to make sure that we keep our bodies as relaxed as possible, too. When faced with a trigger, instead of stiffening and holding our breath, we can be deliberately relaxed by keeping our bodies relaxed and moving loosely. A soft face, tilted head, and even breathing will go a long way towards telling our dogs there is nothing to worry about.

I got to experience the profound difference this can make the very same day I learned about it. I took Maisy for a walk, and while we were out, saw one of her triggers: someone riding a bicycle. Reflexively, I stopped dead in my tracks so that we could let it pass us without getting any closer. Of course, Maisy lunged and barked. I immediately realized that her response was the direct result of my behavior. I had, in essence, “frozen,” which in dog body language means that I was worried about something. Since I obviously wasn’t going to do anything about that scary bike, Maisy took it upon herself to protect us.

I decided to take Suzanne’s advice, so the next time we saw a bike, I kept walking, moving in a large arc away from the bike instead of freezing, and made a conscious effort to remain loose and unconcerned. It was hard, but you know what? Maisy looked at the bike, looked at me, and decided that there was nothing for her to worry about. Amazing!

Since then, I’ve been working hard at controlling my body language so that I’m sending Maisy the right signals. I’ve also been doing my best to pay attention to her requests for information, and to respond to them appropriately. It’s paying off, too. In the last two weeks, she’s done really well in a variety of challenging situations, including everything from walks by bike paths to small, crowded pet stores. I am so proud of her.

So, what do you think? How does your body language affect your dog? Do you know? Or, are you like I was, and inadvertently sending the wrong signals? I’d love to hear what your experiences have been.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: Working with Reactive Dogs

We spent some time on both days talking about reactive dogs, and naturally, I found this to be perhaps the most useful part of the weekend. So useful, in fact, that I have to split this entry into parts! This one is about the official “how-to” of working with a reactive dog.

Suzanne’s work with reactive dogs really isn’t that much different than a lot of what is out there, but it is the subtle spin that she puts on the already familiar territory that’s fascinating. Instead of teaching a dog “watch me” or “look at that,” she teaches an auto check-in. The auto check-in has two primary goals: First, for handlers to reward their dogs when they choose to be attentive to the handler, and second, for the dog to choose to voluntarily be attentive to their human when faced with a decision.

The check-in is exactly like it sounds: Every 5-7 seconds, the dog ought to look at handler without being prompted to do so. The auto check-in depends on the dog volunteering the behavior instead of the handler requesting it because Suzanne strongly feels that a requested behavior is only as strong as the handler’s willingness to ask for it at the right time.

There are some pretty strong benefits to teaching the dog to willingly offer this behavior. Suzanne said that, in her experience, an unprompted behavior is more persistent and more durable than one which is prompted by the handler. Since the dog is choosing to check-in with the handler instead of acting reactively, it means that the handler doesn’t have to scan the environment for the dog. This allows the handler to be more relaxed, because she can trust that the dog will make the right choice. It’s also easier because sometimes it’s impossible to identify a trigger before the dog does.

In fact, Suzanne said that the handler shouldn’t scan the environment looking for triggers, though she acknowledged this is difficult. Instead, we should watch the dog, and let the dog tell us when there is something to be worried about. She told us about a neat study (I wish I had the citation) where the researchers set up a dogs and their handlers with barriers situated in such a manner that the handler couldn’t see when a trigger approached, but the dog could. When the handlers could see the trigger, the dogs reacted when it was approximately 15 feet away. However, when the handlers couldn’t see the trigger, the dogs wouldn’t react until the trigger was an average of 3 feet away.

Anyway, Suzanne said the auto check-in is truly a gift. She wrote in the hand out, “The dog himself has chosen to seek the social interaction with the handler instead of tuning them out in favor of an outwards draw by whatever is upsetting, attracting or distracting him.” This is pretty awesome, especially since prompting a check-in does very little to shift the dog’s motivation or emotions.

Teaching the auto check-in is pretty easy, as it is simply captured. Suzanne didn’t use clickers, she instead responded to voluntary eye contact by having the handler become incredibly excited, animated, and generous, with about 10 seconds of continuous reinforcement using both high value treats and praise. Dogs picked up the auto check-in pretty quickly during the demos.

The next step was to present the dog with a distraction. Naturally, she talked about thresholds, but I liked that she broke it down into distance, duration and intensity. Usually when people talk about working with thresholds, they talk about distance only. Suzanne said it’s important to control all three elements of a trigger. I understood this instinctively, but it was really nice to have it verbalized. Interestingly, when I thought about the different situations in which Maisy has gone over-threshold, I realized that most of the time it is due to duration. Yes, there are some stimuli that are too close or too intense, but if they come and go quickly, she is far less likely to react. For example, recently, a bike (one of Maisy’s triggers) came whizzing by us very fast (high intensity), and very close (about 2 feet away, so very little distance), but because it was there and gone so quickly (low duration), she was fine. (And yes, she got jackpotted like crazy! I’m so proud!)

When she presents distractions, she wants it to grab the dog’s attention. The goal is not to have a dog focused on the handler only, while ignoring the environment. Rather, she wants the dog to split his attention back and forth between both the environment and the handler without becoming overly aroused. She calls this the “think and learn” zone, and said that just as it is impossible for a dog to think when over-threshold, “sub-threshold” learning is also useless.

If the dog fails to check in regularly, Suzanne recommended using passive prompts. Instead of calling the dog’s name or using a cue, she recommended stepping into (or out of) the dog’s peripheral vision. If this doesn’t work, a light touch would be okay. As a last resort, it is okay to verbally prompt the check-in, but this would be a sign that perhaps the distraction is too great.

I liked the auto check-ins, and was very impressed by the responses of the dogs. Also, I do hope you’ll excuse a bit of self-congratulations here: I’ve always felt that playing Look at That made more sense unprompted. While Maisy does know the word “look,” I usually let her initiate the game instead of prompting it. It was nice to have some confirmation that that decision was sensible. However, I do tend to prompt Maisy with her name fairly often. It’s very useful, but as Suzanne points out, it hasn’t really taught Maisy what I’d like her to do.

I’m pretty excited to work on teaching her more auto check-ins, and to rely less on active prompts. I’m also excited about some of the other stuff I learned about reactive dogs, which I’ll tell you about soon.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: Structure and Function

In the morning of the second day, we spent some time discussing structure and function. She defines structure as how the dog is physically put together, while function refers to how it works together. Good structure doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog will physically function well, just as a dog’s ability to run and jump and such doesn’t mean it is well-structured.

Suzanne starts evaluating a dog’s structure and function by looking at how the dog stands naturally. She wants to see a balanced looking dog. Although she didn’t define what this means, she did say that it’s fairly obvious when you’re looking at an unbalanced dog. It’s true, too. We looked at several dogs throughout the weekend, and it was pretty easy to see where certain dogs just looked off.

She also looked at the topline and the bottomline. The topline should be fairly flat and level. Any concavity to the back probably indicates a structural issue that will affect function. The bottomline, or the belly, also ought to be quite taut, especially in a performance dog. This bottomline tells you about the dog’s core muscle strength, which in turn tells you something about how the back and hips will work.

Suzanne also looks at a sitting dog. A dog who is sitting with a “tight tuck,” that is, with the hip, knee and toe lined up, has better structure than one whose toe comes farther forward. I was sad to hear this; Maisy often has her feet well under her in a loose sit. She also looks to see how long it takes the dog to shift positions. The sooner they shift, the more uncomfortable they are. She also said that if a dog never offers a sit, that is a sign that the dog has physical discomfort as well.

Next, Suzanne has the dog walk (walking is easier to evaluate than trotting) away from her and back towards her, as well as perpendicularly. She’s looking for fluid, flowing movements, and is checking to see that all joints bend. If a knee joint doesn’t bend, this will change the rotation of the hip, and eventually affect the back. She’ll also look at the range of motion a dog has. In the front legs, a normal ROM shows forward extension perpendicular to the ground.

She also sometimes checks the hocks to see if they hyper-extend. To test this, she puts gets the dog to put her back foot underneath him, and to have her put weight on it. Then, she’ll lightly push on the back of the hock (towards the front). Ideally, the hock shouldn’t move much- it should “lock” into place. This locking hock, in addition to strong core muscles, gives dogs the power they need to jump. Interestingly, in order to jump, a dog needs to be able to bring their center of gravity up to half the height of the jump before they ever leave the ground. (I did try this test out with Maisy later; she failed.)

I asked specifically about short-legged, long-backed dogs, seeing as how I have a particular interest in such dogs. Suzanne first made the point that there are no “long-backed” dogs. If their legs were of a normal length, their backs would appear proportionate. Not only that, but back issues on the short-leggers tend to be a result not of the length of the back, but rather of the structure of the leg. To make the legs short, the bones need to change. If you ever look at the front of a short-legged dog, you’ll notice that the bones curve in an hourglass shape, and that the feet or toes turn out. This specifically affects the “landing gear” of a dog who is jumping. They need to get their feet underneath them perfectly. I found this bit absolutely fascinating. Although Maisy is always quite willing to jump up on to surface, like the bed, she is occasionally resistant to jumping down off a surface. That resistance makes so much more sense now.

This doesn’t mean that all short-leggers should be prohibited from jumping, but it does mean you should be very cautious, as they are more likely to develop shoulder problems in the future. When I asked if I could mitigate the effects of being short in the leg through passive stretching, Suzanne told me that I needed to ask myself if I ought to be having Maisy jump at all. She later amended this to say that a single jump, such as in obedience, is probably not a big deal, but that I should think long and hard about activities like flyball or agility.

Suzanne also stated that the longer legged dogs aren’t immune to problems. As legs get longer, the muscles do, as well. There is the same amount of muscle mass, but since the muscle is stretched, which practically means that there isn’t as much support for the joints and ligaments.

Although you can do a lot to help support your performance dog, Suzanne did say that there is a limit to what conditioning can do. You can never turn a basketball player into a gymnast, after all. Her basic rule of thumb is that if you can see or feel a bone, there are fewer muscles available to help support that joint.

The fascinating part of all of this was that Suzanne reviewed several dogs who were having performance issues- refusing to lie down on the table, getting tired quickly, etc. Each one had a physical issue contributing to their performance problem. As a result, she told us to remember that if we have a willing, compliant dog who knows what the job is and fails anyway, it is highly unlikely they are “blowing us off” or “being dominant.” Instead, it is likely there is a structural or functional problem at work. We should always trust that our dog is giving us her best effort.

I really enjoyed this section of the weekend as I knew pretty much nothing about dog conformation. I can name some of the parts, but have no idea how they ought to look, nor the implications of how they’re put together. Obviously, Suzanne had to gloss over a lot of it, but I still really enjoyed the little taste of it that I got. I will definitely be reading more on structure and function soon.