Sunday, May 30, 2010

Management 101: Mental Stimulation, or, The Joy of Food Toys

I think everyone knows that regular physical exercise is important for dogs. After all, the old trainer maxim, a tired dog is a good dog, is well known. And while I agree with this, I think dog owners often overlook the importance of providing our canine companions with mental stimulation. In fact, if I could only have one or the other, I’d choose mental stimulation, hands down.

For the “normal” dogs among us, mental stimulation helps relieve the boredom that can lead to problem behaviors like destructive chewing, digging, and excessive barking. It also helps burn off excess energy, to the point that Patricia McConnell says in her book For the Love of a Dog that she believes a half an hour of mental stimulation will provide the same energy-reduction benefits as an hour of physical exercise. For the reactive dogs, whose behaviors are often rooted in fear, mental stimulation can help build confidence by allowing the dog to solve progressively more difficult problems.

Mental stimulation can take many forms: training, going to new places, allowing our dogs to sniff new smells, playing games, and visiting other people and dogs. And while all of those are great, they do require a certain amount of time from the owner. Now, you all know that I have no problem spending time with my dog- it’s one of my preferred activities!- but there are times when I’m tired, busy, or even sick. Unfortunately, that’s when I have the least amount of time or energy to tend to Maisy’s mental needs.

Which brings me to my favorite type of mental stimulation: food toys.

I love food toys. In addition to providing mental stimulation, they slow down how fast my dog eats, and give me a break from the constant thudding of a tennis ball in my lap. It doesn’t hurt that Maisy thinks they’re pretty cool, too.

The most famous of the food toys has got to be the Kong, and don’t get me wrong- it’s pretty awesome. I feed Maisy breakfast from her Kong every day. It’s great to leave with a dog who will be alone during the day, and it gives puppies (and other dogs that like to chew) a legal object to chomp on. The biggest downfall to the Kong is that it takes a bit of time to stuff, especially if you feed kibble. Thankfully, there are so many kibble-dispensing options that are quick and easy to load…

Maisy’s first food toy was the Tricky Treat Ball. She got it when she was 5 or 6 months old, and loved it from the start. It’s probably her least challenging food dispensing toy as it rolls around readily, and the treats come out of it easily.

A similar toy, though more difficult, is the Buster Cube, which is a cube shaped toy. It is supposed to be adjustable so you can make it easier or harder for the kibble to come out, but I’ve never been able to get it to change. Ditto for the supposedly-removable core. Still, it’s a great option, though it can be loud unless it’s on carpet.

The next two toys are very similar: Nina Ottosson’s Dog Pyramid and the Bob-a-Lot. (Incidentally, if you do a Google search for “Nina Ottosson Pyramid,” the third result is two YouTube videos. Guess who is the second video?)

These toys are pretty cool. They have a weighted bottom, and the food comes out when you tilt them sideways. These were great for building Maisy’s confidence because she found the motion a bit scary and intimidating at first. Now she runs those things all over the house.(Both of these videos are from the first time she used the toy. I really ought to take new video to show how quick she is with them now!) I think the Pyramid is a bit more difficult, but the Bob-A-Lot is a bit easier to fill. Kong has also come out with a similar product, but I haven’t tried it.

Maisy’s final food toy is my favorite, and hers, hands down: the Tug-a-Jug. This is probably one of the most difficult food dispensing toys on the market, and it did take Maisy awhile to figure it out. (Actually, it was her second ever food toy, and it scared the bejeezus out of her when I first brought it home. I actually had to slather it in peanut butter to get her to approach it.) Still, it’s our favorite, and it makes for a great party game- really! When we were on vacation, and Maisy stayed with our aunt and uncle, I sent her Tug-a-Jug along. They were so tickled by her performance that they invited the entire neighborhood over to watch Maisy eat.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are tons of food toys on the market, and Maisy and I couldn’t live without them. But I want to hear from you: Do you use food toys? Why or why not? Which is your favorite, or your dog’s favorite? Do you see a difference in your dog’s behavior when you use them?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Thresholds: What they are, why they matter, and why every dog owner should understand them

In my last entry, I mentioned thresholds in passing, and M.T. asked how you determine what your dog’s threshold is. I responded, but I’m not sure I really answered her question very well, so let’s do that today! (I also realized that I use a fair amount of jargon in this blog- not on purpose, mind you, but I eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff, so it’s rather ingrained at this point. So, if I ever gloss over a concept and you’d like to know more, please comment and I’ll try to make a post covering it in more depth.)

Keeping dogs sub-threshold in my reactive dog class. Photo is by the amazing, wonderful, talented, absolutely fabulous (and beautiful) Robin Tinay Sallie.

The term “threshold” can have a variety of uses, encompassing everything from the threshold of a house to pain perception to the point at which a dog becomes reactive or aggressive, but when you get right down to it, they all refer to the same concept: a clearly delineated point at which something changes. Just as going through a doorway makes it obvious that you are moving from outside to inside, crossing the stress threshold is a signal that your dog cannot handle any more right now. Simply stated, it is the line between desirable and undesirable behavior.

All dogs have a threshold. Some dogs, like Maisy, have relatively low thresholds- their behavior becomes undesirable fairly quickly in the face of stress. Other dogs have high thresholds, and if you’re lucky, they’ll never experience enough stress to cross the line.

Dogs also vary in their response to crossing threshold. Some shut down and withdraw into themselves, and may avoid the stressful object or situation that pushed them beyond their capacity to cope. Many people fail to recognize this for what it is, thinking their dog is simply uninterested or aloof. Other dogs “may posture by screaming, lunging, snapping, and generally making a huge display of their anxiety and arousal.” These are the dogs we call reactive- like Maisy. (Quote taken from page 44 of Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident Dog by Leslie McDevitt.)

The reason it is so important to recognize if your dog has crossed her threshold is because once she has, she is too stressed to learn. Going over threshold causes the dog’s fight or flight reflex to activate in the brain, which diverts energy away from everything not directly related to survival… like learning. Since so much of modifying a reactive dog’s behavior involves learning in some manner, whether it’s classically or operantly, you need to keep your dog sub-threshold.

The tricky thing about thresholds is that they are “fluid and depend on context” (page 48, Control Unleashed). That is, they can change from hour to hour, and many factors can influence where the threshold is: location, the number or types of people or dogs present, physical considerations, events that happened yesterday, hormones, past history or associations- the variables are really infinite! What all of this really means is that you can’t simply say, “I need to keep my dog at least 10 feet away from large, black dogs (or balloons, or people wearing hats, or…).” That may be a good general rule, but today your dog might be able to handle only 5 feet, while tomorrow she might need 15, or more.

Dog owners, and especially those who have reactive dogs, need to learn how to assess their dogs continually, and be able to respond to their dog’s changing needs in order to keep their dog sub-threshold. As Leslie says on page 44 of Control Unleashed, “learning to gauge your dog’s threshold and work under it, or help him settle after he crosses it, is vital.”

So how do you gauge your dog’s threshold? Largely through observation, which, incidentally, can only be done if you are actively paying attention to your dog. When I need to focus on something else, such as listening to an instructor, I keep Maisy in my peripheral vision so that I can monitor her emotional state. I keep an eye on four major things: Maisy’s overall body language, her automatic reflexes, the environment, and Maisy’s response to the environment.

Every reactive dog owner would do well to learn as much about body language as they can. I highly recommend Sarah Kalnajs' DVD, The Language of Dogs, but there are lots of resources out there. Find one, study it, and then go sit in the dog park (without your dog), and just watch. And while you’re at it… start watching your dog, too. What does she look like when you’re playing together? When she’s eating? Right before she reacts? Learn how she holds her ears and tails during a wide variety of emotions. Likewise, watch your dog’s automatic reflexes. I’m talking about really basic things like breathing and heart rate. Learn your dog’s body.

I also pay attention to the environment and Maisy’s response to it. You’re watching for two things. First, you want to watch for triggers and patterns. Notice which things cause your dog to go over threshold. Do some of them happen only in the presence of others? You want to be able to predict what will cause your dog to react, without anticipating a reaction- heaven knows that my behavior can cause or prevent a reaction in Maisy. But being able to predict a reaction allows you to adjust your distance or the intensity so that you can work sub-threshold instead of being surprised by a reaction!

As your training goes on, though, you will find that your dog’s threshold is changing. She should be able to keep it together better, and longer, in the face of former triggers. So you also want to be watching your dog’s responses to the environment in order to assess her progress. Since there will inevitably be set-backs, you want to be able celebrate the small successes where you find them.

For those of you who are lucky enough to have a “normal” dog, it’s still good to learn your dog’s body, and watch how she responds to the environment. Remember, all dogs have a threshold, and your best chance to never have the experience of seeing your dog cross hers is to be there for her when she needs you most. A wise dog owner will recognize early signs of stress and help the dog become more comfortable, whether she’s reactive or not.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pat Miller Seminar: Two Ways of Treating Aggression (and Reactivity)

My last entry on the seminar was quite awhile ago, but I really did want to say more about it! Since this blog is about reactive dogs, I wanted to share what Pat said about them.

Pat says that almost all aggression and/or reactivity is based on some sort of stress, whether it’s because someone is threatening the dog’s territory or resource, or because the dog is scared or unsure. Since it’s based in emotions, most people choose to treat it classically, but in recent years, some people are adding operant components to the treatment. Let’s analyze the two, shall we?

Classical Conditioning
Since aggression is based on stress, it makes sense to treat that underlying emotion. If, for example, the dog displays aggressive behaviors when he sees a big scary dog, we need to teach him that bog scary dogs actually aren’t scary. In fact, they’re awesome! We do this by pairing something awesome (usually high value treats) with the sight of the big scary dog.

In order to do this effectively, we must keep the dog calm enough that he can see the trigger and eat the tasty treat. If he displays aggressive behaviors, we need to reduce the stimulus (usually by moving further away) and increasing the value of the treat. Pat recommends working with a single stimulus, at the same intensity, for 20 minutes or longer before switching to a new trigger or a new level of intensity. This helps the dog learn that seeing a big scary dog is actually a predictor of good things.

Sometimes, detractors will say that this is foolish, as we are simply bribing our dogs. Done correctly, this is not the case. We aren’t trying to prevent a reaction or distract the dog. We aren’t holding the treat out as a lure. Instead, we are allowing the dog to form a new association.

Operant Conditioning
Over the past ten years or so, various trainers have been coming up with ways to treat aggression in an operant, yet still “positive” manner. Pat talked about one of the first of these methods: CAT, short for Constructional Aggression Treatment, and showed a video of her doing CAT with a dog named Juni. I’d seen the video before, at the last seminar I saw with Pat, and I have to admit: I didn’t like the procedure then.

To do CAT, you stand with your dog (or you tether him), and bring a trigger to his threshold. You don’t go over the threshold, you simply bring him to the point of noticing, but not reacting. When the dog offers a socially appropriate behavior, or when the dog reduces the intensity of his aggressive behavior, the trigger retreats. Basically, you’re shaping calmer behavior, with the ultimate goal of “switch over,” which means the dog begins to offer affiliative behavior.

The reason I objected to CAT before was because it upset me when the dog did go over-threshold (and anyone working with a reactive dog knows that despite your best efforts, it happens). I didn’t like that the handler ignored her dog while he was upset, either. I also thought it looked like it could be flooding. On seeing the video a second time, though, I concluded that it probably wasn’t. To truly be considered flooding, the dog must be exposed to the stimulus at full intensity, and that exposure must remain until learned helplessness occurs. In other words, the dog would have to shut down emotionally. However, this is not what happens in CAT; it’s a highly regulated level of intensity, and the dog’s behavior controls whether the stimulus remains or not.

CAT is not without its critics, and there are even offshoots of the procedure attempting to make it more positive. Still, I’m no longer opposed to it like it was. Although I don’t think it should be the starting place for treating aggression, it is a useful tool for some dogs.

That, and… during the seminar, I found myself wondering: is this what I did with Maisy? I know that my plan wasn’t exactly CAT, as I did counter classical conditioning along with it, but when I did misjudge a threshold and she went over, I simply ignored it, and waited for a moderate duration (ten to twenty seconds) of calm, appropriate behavior before I rewarded her with attention or treats.

It worked, and it worked quite quickly. It did cause some stress and confusion in the short run, so I suppose that it was part of that 1% of the time where I’m not strictly “positive,” but Maisy quickly reached “switch over,” and has been pretty amazing ever since then. She seems far less stressed and much more interested in social interactions.

Anyway, I really enjoyed hearing Pat speak about aggression again. It’s amazing how much a year’s worth of reading and experience and, well, growth, allows you to take new things away from familiar ground.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Not a dog park dog... but not a loner, either!

I quit taking Maisy to the dog park long ago. There were a lot of reasons for this, but my main one was that she just didn't enjoy it. She didn't really play with the other dogs, and generally seemed kind of stressed while we were there, so I figured she was more of a loner.

Well, she's not.

My friend Elizabeth had me, Megan, and Jane over for supper last night, and of course we brought dogs. All told, there were five dogs: Maisy, Beckett the greyhound, Buzz the English springer spaniel, Boomer the lab, and Fritz who is probably a lab/shepherd mix.

I think we were all a bit worried about how it would go. I was worried because of Maisy's reactivity and spotty history at the dog park, Elizabeth was worried because Maisy sort of hops like a rabbit (and she has a greyhound), and Megan was worried because Fritz plays with his paws, and Maisy was, by far, the smallest of the group.

The beauty of hanging out with dog people, as opposed to the variable nature of the folks who go to the dog park, is that we were all very attentive to our dogs. In fact, I think Elizabeth and Megan were more protective of Maisy than I was! We were careful to introduce dogs one at a time. We allowed the big dogs to run around and blow off some steam before Maisy joined the group. Beckett wore a muzzle when he got too excited, and time outs were given when someone got too rambunctious.

In the end, everyone got along really well. Maisy does a really good job of communicating to the other dogs when she needs more space, but she does it appropriately. She also responded well when other dogs told her to back off just a bit, and again, they did it appropriately. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to let Maisy play off leash, and know that the other owners aren't going to freak out, or stand by and do nothing.

Maisy still isn't a dog park dog- there are just too many variables that I can't control- but it's nice to know that she can play with other dogs from time to time.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Whose responsibility is it, anyway?

Over on her blog, Kim asked “How much responsibility do you take for your dog’s reactions to things, and how he acts?” It’s a really fantastic post, full of questions but no answers- which makes it even better, in my opinion, since it lets you think through the answers for yourself.

And really, the answers are yours, and yours alone. After all, no two dogs are going to be alike, nor are any two handlers alike. I really think that the amount of responsibility we take for our dogs’ actions depends on the personalities involved.

Because of each of our personalities, when things go wrong with Maisy, I tend to assume that it was my fault. Maisy is a wonderful dog. She is smart and creative, tributes which have taught me the necessity of being clear in my requests. A failure for her to do something, and especially when she’s learning something new, is usually my fault, not hers.

I’ll never forget the exact moment I realized this, just over a year ago. I’d been trying to teach Maisy left pivots for what felt like forever. We’d done rear-end awareness exercises, like brick work, I’d tried luring and shaping her, and she just wasn’t getting it. But I knew she was smart, and since I’d tried several different training approaches, I decided to look at what I was doing. I realized that my body language was confusing her: my left shoulder was hunched forward, which was one of my nonverbal cues to move forward. I tried a huge, exaggerated backward movement with my shoulder, and she practically raced backwards!

This is true with known behaviors, too. Fronts get crooked if I hold my hands differently. Stays are broken if I don’t maintain eye contact with her. Seemingly small differences have huge impacts on her behavior.

There are also times where her failure is the result of my pushing her too far, too fast. I’m terribly impatient sometimes, which is definitely detrimental in the training process. For example, there have been times when I’ve called her and she hasn’t come. While she may be blowing me off for something more interesting, a close examination of the circumstances reveals the fact that I haven’t adequately proofed the exercise. Every time she’s “blown off” a recall, it’s been in a situation with higher distractions or longer distances than I’ve trained for.

But what about the times where she thoroughly understands the exercise, and where I’ve proofed it for the current level of distraction, distance and duration? Aren’t those failures her responsibility? Maybe… but maybe not. And here’s where another element of Maisy’s personality really informs my decision: She is a dog who wants to please me… at least enough to earn the reinforcement that might be waiting! As a result, I don’t assume that she is being willfully disobedient, at least not for the sake of being disobedient.

Last summer, she began to refuse jumps, even in the back yard. We’d been working on jumping in the backyard all summer, so I knew that she understood what I wanted. I was pretty sure I wasn’t doing anything different, so I was perplexed as to why she was failing to do what I asked. It was only later that I discovered that she’d pulled her iliopsis muscle. She wasn’t refusing to jump- she couldn’t jump, at least, not without pain! I’m glad I didn’t punish her failure to respond- I would have felt awful!

And then there’s stress… Maisy is insanely sensitive to my moods (can you say “ring nerves”??), and she finds certain places, sounds and sights kind of scary. When Maisy fails to respond during these times, I don’t blame her for it. I can’t. I’ve been in situations in which I was so shocked or scared that I felt like I couldn’t move. It’s a horrible feeling, so I have empathy for Maisy when it happens to her. It may not be my fault that she isn’t responding, but it isn’t really hers, either.

There’s also my personality to consider in all of this. I am a person who naturally takes on a lot of responsibility… some might call it guilt. Add to that the fact that I’m a hopeless perfectionist who is harder on herself than on others, and it’s not hard to understand why I take responsibility for Maisy’s failures more often than I blame her.

I recently had someone say to me, “I didn’t fail, I just didn’t succeed.” That’s how I feel about Maisy: her failures are never final, and there’s always another chance to get it right. Does that mean we might NQ at a trial? Oh, definitely, but it doesn’t really matter who screwed it up. In the end, all that really matters is the fact that we got to play the game together.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Performance Dog Conditioning Class: Session 2

On Monday, Maisy and I went to the second of three sessions of our performance dog conditioning class. We got a new set of exercises this week. Since some of these exercises build on last session’s exercises, check out those exercises before you try these!

Sideline Sit-Ups. This is the same as we did before- same methodology, and same repetitions.

Stairs. Also the same as before.

Down to Stand. This exercise builds on the muscles we developed in the sit to stand and diagonal leg lifts exercises from last session. It works the rear, shoulders and core, so it’s a great overall exercise! To do it, put your dog in a sphinx down. Then, grasp one of your dog’s front paws and lure the dog forward to a standing position. The dog shouldn’t sit first. Then repeat, holding the other front paw. This exercise should be done daily, 10-15 reps per leg.

Active Shoulder Stretches. Since active stretches (ones your dog does) is always better than passive ones (ones you perform for your dog), this exercise helps teach your dog to stretch his shoulders. It’s useful for strengthening the shoulders, and makes an excellent warm-up exercise. It will specifically improve your dog’s performance with weaving. To do it, put your dog in a sit, and ask your dog to shake. Shape your dog to do a full outward extension of the paw by moving your hand further and further away so she has to reach further in order to touch your hand with her paw. You should do this exercise daily, 15-20 reps per leg.

Spins. Instead of simply having the dog spin in a circle, like we did previously, we’re going to add in more drive and lateral movement. This will help build the core and front end. To do it, put your dog in a sit and toss a treat or toy behind your dog about 6-8 feet. You’ll need to toss the toy so that your dog will turn to the left on one rep, and to right on the next. The dog will chase after the toy, which will extend the shoulder when he turns and pushes off, and since she will be driving off with more force, it will build strength. Do this daily, 10 reps in each direction.

Beg to Stand and Back. There’s actually three exercises here, and you need to progress at the dog’s ability level, since we are building core strength and balance.

The first step is to lure the dog into a begging position where she is rocked back on her haunches, not standing on the hind legs. A dog who goes straight up on the hind legs is using her front end, not her core or hind. The dog should hold the begging position for about 3-5 seconds (basically, however long it takes the dog to become balanced). Do this daily, 8-10 reps of 3-5 seconds each.

The next step builds on the first. Once the dog can get into a begging position, lure the dog from the beg to standing on her back legs. This requires core strength, balance and hind end strength. As such, it increases the intensity, and once you progress to this level, you should do only 6-8 reps, every other day.

Finally, once your dog is doing well with the second step, you’ll lure the dog from the beg, to the standing position, and back down into a sit, all while remaining vertical! This is very difficult for the dog, and you do not want to rush this. Again, it’s an every other day exercise, of 6-8 reps only.

As a side note, Maisy was quite good at going into a begging position and holding it. In fact, the instructor was quite surprised that Maisy could do it at all, since long-backed dogs typically lack the core strength necessary to do it.

Wheelbarrowing. As the name implies, this exercise requires you to lift your dog’s back feet off the ground and then encourage her to “walk” with the front feet only. The easiest way to do this is by setting out a line of treats, approximately one foot apart. Doing this exercise is really good for the shoulders and scapula, and will improve your dog’s ability to do downhill work (like the A-frame, teeter, etc.). However, it is vital you do it correctly, because failure to do so will invert the back and cause injury. Because of this, I think I might pass on doing this exercise; I'm terrified of back injuries! Anyway, you should be grasping under the dog’s body, near the groin, and just barely lift the back feet off the ground- an inch or two at most. You will either need to bend over, or with the shorties, you can use a towel instead. This is a high intensity exercise, and should be done every other day. Do 3-5 reps of 5-6 feet each.

I think her back feet are too far off the ground in this picture, but hopefully it gives you an idea of what the exercise looks like.

We also discussed the use of cavaletti, which is a series of slightly elevated poles. They are not officially a part of the program, but Lin said they are good exercise as they help develop flexion, extension and balance. Even better, you can adjust your dog’s stride length by using them, which can help teach better jumping skills. Cavaletti is a core rehab exercise for injured dogs, so if your dog knows how to do them in advance, rehab will be much easier.

To do cavaletti properly, the dog should walk over the bars, not jump. Eventually you can progress to trotting over them, but that tempts the dog to jump, so start at a walk. You should set them up so that they are approximately half the dog’s body length apart. The closer together they are, the harder they are. They should be about hock-high off the ground; high enough that the dog needs to work a bit, but not so high that the dog is tempted to jump. You should always do a group with a minimum of 6 bars. This exercise should be done 2-3 times a week, with 36-40 bars (so, six reps of six bars) each time.

I’m looking forward to working on all these exercises with Maisy. There’s only one more week left, and at that session we’ll get our maintenance exercises. It does take a bit of time, but a little bit of prevention will hopefully go a long way in preventing injuries!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Continuing to Challenge her Label

Tonight was session two of the Performance Dog Conditioning class (and I promise to post about the exercises later this week). Last time we were there, she did a really good job of managing her stress, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that she did really well this week too... but I was. This is largely because she was quite easily aroused this weekend, and mildly reactive while on a hike at the state park yesterday. As a precaution, I gave her some Rescue Remedy, and sprayed her mat with D.A.P. Do these things actually work? Well, I know that Rescue Remedy helps me feel a bit calmer, but whether that's a placebo effect or not, I have no idea.

Anyway, magical supplements or not, she was a great dog! She was much calmer this week. Her mouth stayed much softer, with only one or two instances of sharky treat taking. She was soft through her body, with a loosely wagging tail most of the time. She did need to play Look At That a few times- it took on an almost frantic quality- but she quickly calmed down and returned to her mat once I increased the rate of reinforcement. She also gave a few soft wuffs, but they were in response to another dog in class who was occasionally vocalizing.

There was only one concerning moment. We were sitting next to a little Sheltie. I had Maisy's mat on my left, and the Sheltie was about three feet to my right. I also had Maisy's bag of treats sitting kind of behind me on the right side. At one point, the little Sheltie strayed a bit close to me, and Maisy lunged at him. However, it was a completely silent lunge, and based on the way she moved, I really believe it was more of a resource guarding behavior than a reactive one.

Maisy was also wonderfully affiliative with the instructor, all loose body movements and helicopter tails when the instructor praised Maisy's core strength. I guess Maisy's as proud of her abs as I am!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Choose to Heel

Heeling is one of the hardest behaviors to teach and maintain, or at least that's the conclusion I've come to over the past year and a half that I've been interested in competition. I read about people needing to "retrain" heeling, and I've even done it myself- although I guess it's more accurate to say that I didn't really know what I was doing the first time around, so now I'm actually training it.

Since I've already admitted that I'm not very good at doing structured, formal training sessions, I do most of my training while on walks. For heeling, I've done a lot of Dawn Jecs' "Choose to Heel" method. Surprisingly enough, I couldn't dig up a good description of "Choose to Heel" on the internet. Basically, you click/treat every time the dog comes into heel position on her own. I've found this to be a powerful way of teaching heel because it creates a reinforcement zone so powerful that the dog just loves to be next to your left leg. (I also click/treat for eye contact, regardless of her position. I figure that attention is one of the best things she can give me, and reward that accordingly.)

I discovered how powerful this can be last weekend at the state park. We had Maisy off leash, and she was happily running around, enjoying herself. After awhile, she ended up in heel position, so I rewarded her. As soon as I did, she took off, got about six feet... and you could almost see a light bulb go off over her head. She slowed down, dropped back into heel position, and got another treat. She took off like a shot, and again, more deliberately this time, dropped into heel position. Another cookie. This time she didn't go as far away, and soon she was choosing to heel past all manner of interesting sights and sounds and smells!

She does this a lot on our regular walks. Heel position is just an awesome place to be, but when you're on a six foot leash, it's not like you have a whole lot of options. Heel position kind of becomes a default. But to have her choose to heel while off-leash, in a brand new environment? I was thrilled. Better yet- it's been easy. I haven't had to do much work. And if I don't have a clicker and treats, a smile and some verbal praise seems to work, too!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Magical Heeling

One of the really cool things about obedience is that if you and your dog are having a good day, it looks effortless. You walk around, and your dog is right there, paying attention to your every move. If you're really good, you shouldn’t even need to speak a word. Your dog should be able to anticipate your every move, somehow knowing when you’re going to stop, speed up, or make a turn. In short, to the casual observer, it should look like magic.

Except it’s not. Instead, the hours upon hours of work you have put in with your dog has created a common language that you both understand: body language. Every move you make is intentional and has meaning, or at least comes close. The way you hold your hands, move your shoulders, and even the way you walk all can have deep meaning to your dog.

I’ve struggled for a long time to make my footwork clear and consistent. For one thing, a lot of the movements are kind of unnatural, and they simply require practice in order for them to become part of your movement. Once you figure it out, you have to do it every time, so that your dog comes to associate that plant-right-foot-close-with-left-foot as a cue to sit.

For a long time, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was doing with my feet while Maisy and I were heeling. I knew where my shoulders and hands ought to be, more or less, but I didn’t even know where to start with my feet. However, over the past year, I’ve started to become more comfortable walking in weird ways (I often practice in the hallways at work- is it any wonder my co-workers think I'm a bit odd?), and I’m finally starting to see the payoff!

Because I thought it would be interesting (and it is, or at least, it’s interesting to me), here’s what some of my footwork and body language looks like these days:

Heel: Step forward with left foot, left hand hanging naturally at side. If she starts to forge, I drop my shoulder back slightly, which also brings my hand back a bit.

Sit: While heeling forward, slow slightly, then plant my right foot, and close with my left foot. It’s hard to describe what’s happening when I “plant” my foot- I’m sure the rest of my body changes somehow, and I know it feels differently than if I just stop walking, but I’m not sure how.

Stay: Left hand moves in front of her nose in a stop type of gesture, with the fingers pointing downward. I leave by stepping off on my right foot first. When I return from the stay, I walk around her, making certain that as I step into heel position, I put the left foot next to her, and close with the right one. If I do it the other way around, she thinks it’s a sit cue, and will break a down-stay.

Exception to the above: There is one time I break all these rules: On the 1-2-3 steps forward exercise in rally. When you do the odd number of steps, it’s impossible to both step off on the correct foot and give the correct auto-sit cue. In rally, you’re allowed to talk, so for the 1 and 3 steps forward, I step off on the right foot and give a verbal cue. This allows me to use the correct footwork for the sit cue, which is the part she has more trouble with, anyway.

Moving Down: We’re still working on teaching this one, but I pause mid stride, with one foot in front of the other, and kind of curtsy so that my left hand moves close to the ground in front of her nose. I should pay attention to see if she responds better depending on which foot is out front. I bet she does.

Moving Stand: No specific foot work yet, but I do give her the stay hand signal to indicate she should stop moving. What do you all do?

Pivots: Pivots should be done so that you don’t move in space, so I pretend I’m standing on a paper plate and move my feet. I don’t think much about it. I either drop my shoulder back, or bring it forward depending on if I’m pivoting left or right. I also point to the spot I want her to sit.

Right Turn: Still working on this one. What do you guys do?

Left Turn: Slow down slightly as I approach the turn for about 1-2 steps, then drop my shoulder back, and point slightly behind me. No specific footwork yet.

About Turn: Slow slightly, then plant my right foot before bringing the left foot up and placing it perpendicularly in a T shape. Then move right foot so it is next to the left foot, and step off on the left foot. Shoulder should be slightly forward.

U Turn: Still working on this one. I drop my shoulder more or less like the left turn, just further.

Fast Pace: Plant my left foot, lean forward slightly, and move off faster with the right foot.

Slow Pace: Lean slightly backwards, take a half step, and then slow down.

Normal Pace: Relax into a neutral body position and walk normally.

So… what did I miss? I’m sure there’s something. And what do you do differently? I’d love any guidance you guys have since I’m still learning (and occasionally switching things up as I find out what works better for us).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Asking the Questions, Over and Over and Over Again, or, Children Really Aren't That Bad!

One of the biggest things that I learned from the Suzanne Clothier seminar is to really pay attention to what Maisy is saying. Suzanne has set out what she calls the elemental questions, and has emphasized that we ask them every time we interact with our dog instead of assuming that since we've asked them once, we know the answers forever.

The first time I did this exercise, I was really surprised by what I learned, specifically regarding children. You see, I thought that Maisy didn't like children, because she often "cringed" when they tried to pet her. She would get slinky and low to the ground, and look at me with misery-filled eyes. But then, while I was asking the questions one day, a child approached, and Maisy clearly indicated that she would like to go say hi.

It happened again today. I had dropped my car off for service, and when Maisy and I went to pick it up, there were two small, toddler-aged children in the small waiting area. Maisy really wanted to greet them, and was quite bouncy. I had her sit and wait, since the children were hesitant about interacting with her.

I spoke to the girls (who were, quite frankly, jumping, screeching, and generally making me uncomfortable), and coached them on how to greet a dog: Don't touch the doggy's head, only pet her chest or back, always ask first, etc. Meanwhile, I'm watching Maisy, and her tail is helicoptering in circles fast in furious, and she's begging me with her body language to go say hi. Finally, I instructed Maisy to go do a hand touch, and she was thrilled.

This is clearly not a dog who dislikes children. In fact, it would appear that she rather likes them. She got a bit nervous when they got too animated, but was still clearly interested in them. In fact, the only time she looked like she wasn't enjoying the process is when the younger one pet Maisy on the head, which is totally understandable, and why I coach children on how to interact with her. Still, you can't control two-year-olds, so I think that in the future, I'll tell them to "let the doggy touch you" instead of letting them touch her, especially since Maisy thought the hand touch game was so fun.

As a side note: I'm absolutely thrilled with the amount of self-control Maisy demonstrated by waiting to greet the children until I told her she could. She was sitting like a rock.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The joy of a well-trained dog

Last weekend, my husband and I took Maisy to a local state park. It was a beautiful day: warm, but not too hot, mostly sunny, and perhaps best of all, while the clouds were ominous, it didn't actually rain. I call this the best part because it meant we were virtually the only people there, and as such, there was very little risk to letting Maisy off leash.

Maisy had a great time sniffing new scents, investigating critter holes and fallen logs and such, and just generally getting a chance to be a dog, but despite the awesomeness of being in a new environment, she was really good about staying close. She never got out of eyesight, and rarely went more than 20 to 30 feet before she would stop and look at us. Most of the time, she'd either wait for us to catch up, or wait for me to acknowledge her before running off again.

I also used the opportunity to practice recalls. I purposely chose times she was focused on something else, and would call her. I was thrilled to see a "whiplash" response where she would turn the second she heard her name. When she arrived, I'd give her a treat, and then send her out again, thus using both positive reinforcement and Premack.

All the recalls paid off, too, when I saw a cluster of people heading toward us on the path. Maisy saw them too, and she did hesitate before responding, but she came. I clipped her leash on, asked her to sit in heel position, and waited for the people to pass. As they did, they commented on what a good dog Maisy is. She is, of course, but I tend to take it for granted these days.

Anyway, it was a really fun afternoon. I bought a year-long pass, so I see many more hikes in our future!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Performance Dog Conditioning Class- Session 1

I mentioned that I took Maisy to a performance dog conditioning class the other day, but was so excited by how well she handled a stressful environment, that I neglected to share the details of her structural analysis, as well as the conditioning exercises we were given. And, both of those things were really interesting, so I definitely want to share that information!

First, and most exciting: There is nothing structurally wrong with Maisy, or at least, not wrong enough that doing agility would be bad for her. The instructor, Lin, actually had very little criticism of Maisy’s structure. She apparently has a nice angulation in the rear, which affects her ability to jump, overall balance, and endurance. She also has a fairly flat back, which is good. Maisy is slightly higher in the butt than the front, but that is apparently common in herding breeds. At any rate, it isn’t high enough to impact her movement. Maisy had surprisingly good core strength. People gasped when they saw it- I think that, with her having such a long back in relation to her legs, they expected her to be weaker in the core. Frankly, I did, too.

She does have more trouble in the front, which is unfortunate since more of the dog’s weight is carried in the front than the back (approximately 60%). Thus, the front acts as a shock absorber. I was already somewhat aware of this because of the Suzanne Clothier seminar, especially what she said about the short-leggers having altered structure. Anyway, Lin said that Maisy has pretty good shoulder extension, both forward and back, although Maisy was ouchy on the right shoulder when she did the backwards extension. She had that problem about a year ago, and then it improved, and then after the attack, she had problems with it again. I’m hoping that it heals up nicely. Maisy is also slightly shallow in the chest, which can result in poorly supported elbows.

But, none of it is seriously flawed, and with some good conditioning, she ought to be able to do agility with little risk. Although I’m not sure I will ever compete in agility with Maisy, we’d like to learn more about it. I think Maisy would enjoy it, and I’ve heard great things about it building confidence in fearful dogs.

Anyway, for the next two weeks, we have six exercises to work on, in addition to the regular exercise a dog needs anyway.

Heads up heeling. This forces the dog to be balanced and collected, and it’s even more effective if you do figure 8s, circles, etc. We are supposed to work on both the left and right sides, for a total of 10 minutes a day.

Kickback stands. This is moving from a sit to a stand with no forward motion from the front feet. This helps to build the quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors. We are supposed to do 20 reps twice a day.

Diagonal limb lifts. In this exercise, while the dog is standing still, the handler picks up one rear leg and then the diagonal fore leg, holding by the toes. This helps build core strength. You should do 10 reps for each set of limbs, holding the rep for the count of 10, twice a day.

Spins from a sit. This exercise is to have the dog do a complete spin, starting from a sitting position. Do it twice a day, ten times in each direction.

Sideline sit ups. In this exercise, you have the dog lie flat on her side, and using a treat lure, have the dog lift her head toward the hip. She should be bending up, not curling around. This helps improve core strength, which in turn will reduce the amount of stress on the front and rear. It will also help improve the dog’s ability to weave. This is a high intensity exercise, so we only do 10 reps per side every other day.

Stairs. I haven’t figured out how to do this one with Maisy yet: her legs are too short. What she’s supposed to do is go up and down stairs, using one step per leg. It helps build the quads, stifles, hips, knees, and hamstrings in the back, as well as the shoulders and biceps in the front. Because this is also a high intensity exercise, we’re supposed to do 5 round trips of a normal length stairway every other day. She suggested I find some way to make platforms to do this. I’ll have to see what I can jury rig up.

At our next class, in two weeks, we will keep some of these exercises, build on others, and drop others entirely. I can’t wait to see how it goes!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

...and maybe I spoke too soon.

Maisy may have been amazing on Monday night, but on Tuesday night, she was... not. Truthfully, I knew that I will always need to be cautious with her. In times of stress, she will probably always fall back on her old, reactive coping skills.

And she did last night.

We went to our regular reactive dog class, and she did okay for the most part. She started with a play lunge towards another dog, and slowly deteriorated from there. She had a number of loud, obnoxious lunges, some with barks, some just rushes, none of it awful, though still mildly disappointing, especially after the awesome night just 24 hours prior.

I can't say that I was surprised, though. I mean, Monday night was off-the-charts stressful, and Maisy held herself together amazingly. Still, it had to have elevated her adrenaline and cortisol levels. Although I have yet to find anything definitive, most sources suggest that it can take 72 hours (or more) for cortisol to dissipate from the body after a stressful event.

This website does a nice job of discussing the differences between adrenaline and cortisol, and this one does such a nice job of explaining how those elevated stress hormones affects reactivity that I have to quote a brief portion:

High levels of adrenaline are associated with heightened vigilance, anxiety, lowered thresholds of sensory perception; these make the dog more reactive to stimulation, rather than thinking. Higher levels of glucocorticoids cause an overactive stress response and depression. After a stress response it can take days for the glucocorticoids to go back down to baseline levels. If the dog has another stressful situation before this happens the entire cascade of the stress response starts all over.

As an interesting side note, today, while I was trying to figure out how long those hormones remain in the dog's body, I read that you can help reduce the cortisol levels through exercise immediately following the stressful event, massage, and, interestingly, some dietary things, such as magnesium, omega 3s or vitamin C. I'll have to try both the exercise and the massage, and do more reading on the dietary factors.

Anyway, all of that is simply to say that Maisy's reactivity last night wasn't really a set-back. In fact, it was actually an expected result. That not only helps me feel better about it, it also confirms the decision I made a few months ago to scratch her from a second day of trialling. At the time, I just didn't think she could do the second day, but didn't understand why. My trainer had agreed, saying that she thought Maisy was probably a one-day dog. Now I'm quite sure of that. That's really a valuable thing to know about my dog, and so I'm grateful to have had the experience last night.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I'm Beginning to Think I Shouldn't Call Her Reactive Anymore...

Last night, I took Maisy to a Performance Dog Conditioning class taught by Lin Gelbmann, a vet tech with thirty years of experience in equine and canine rehab. The class is designed to do structural and gait analysis of your dog, and then provide exercises to get and keep your dog in the best shape possible. I signed up because I really wanted to get a structural evaluation on Maisy, mostly because I wanted to know if there was anything there that would preclude starting Maisy in agility classes.

And it was awesome.

The class was held at held at On the Run Canine, a local agility school. When I signed up for the class, I didn’t really think about what that meant, so when I walked in and saw all the motion, heard all the barking and teeters slamming, and realized that it was basically just controlled chaos (in the way that agility is, not because of anything this school was doing), I was pretty sure that this was not going to work. Even worse, the classroom area was not blocked off with visual barriers (let alone sound barriers), and I began to silently panic.

Still, I’d paid good money to be there, so I figured we’d try it. I figured the worst thing that could happen would be that we’d be have to leave, in which case I’d try to schedule a private consultation. I picked a spot on the edge of the class area, as far away from the agility ring and the rest of the dogs as I could, and set up my mat and treats. Then I went out to the car to get Maisy.

We walked in, and I fed her lots of treats. She pulled a little bit on the leash because she was so excited, but it was happy excitement, not stress excitement. When we walked into the class area, she spotted her mat and promptly flopped down on it, and offered her “flat dog” behavior.

We were there for 90 minutes, and during that time, she did not have a single reactive episode. Not one! There was one soft “wuff,” and one very low and brief growl (quieter and shorter than another dog, even). She even had a fairly soft mouth throughout the evening. After we’d been there about 20 minutes, she did have a short period where she took the treats harder, which usually indicates an escalation of stress, but that abated after five or ten minutes, and she returned to taking the treats softly again.

Even cooler than that is the fact that there was a point where something clearly upset her, and she began to lunge for it. She got about a foot off her mat, and suddenly stopped herself, turned around and slammed her body down on the mat. It really seemed like she realized, “I’m not supposed to be doing that! Mom likes it when I lie on my mat instead.” Needless to say, I jackpotted that.

I was pretty proud of my handling skills, too. Throughout the class, I was constantly monitoring her body language, and when she was more nervous, I increased the amount of treats I gave her. Then, as she calmed down, I reduced the amount of treats she got. It was difficult to shift the criteria that rapidly, but I think I got it right. It helps that I understand her triggers well- last night, fast moving people, loud dogs, and the sound of the teeter were all stressful for her. Understanding that, I was able to use the treats when those things were going on, and then could back off when it was quieter.

By the end of the class, Maisy was pretty relaxed, and was far less jumpy about noise and motion. We even got up and did some light obedience work! I put her in heel position, did pivots, and had her heel on both sides. And she worked beautifully! She was heads-up attentive, completely focused on me, doing ten foot stretches with turns with no treats. She looked like a real obedience dog!!

I was absolutely elated. You know how you feel at trials when you get a really great score, or a new title? It felt like that. I was so proud of her, and just thrilled to see all the hard work I’ve put into her is paying off.

Look out world: Maisy has arrived!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

99% Positive

Ever since the Suzanne Clothier seminar, where she said that being “all positive” is impossible, I’ve been obsessed with how we ought to use consequences in training.

I suppose that Suzanne could criticize my current obsession; I recognize that I may be overthinking this issue, after all. But let’s face it: this is who I am. I think. A lot. I am fascinated by science and research, and I love dog training, so really, it ought to be no surprise to anyone who knows me that I think about this stuff often. So, given all that, I’m going to continue to think about this stuff.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is, indeed, impossible to use only R+ methods in training. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try. While there may be times that it’s necessary to use some of the other principles of operant conditioning, my personal goal is to remain firmly in the R+ area 99% of the time.

The other night, I went out with some friends. As it always does, our conversation turned to dog training. We were comparing different methods, specifically the various pros and cons of luring, shaping and capturing behaviors. I shared that for the first year, I lured every behavior with Maisy exclusively, but that she seems to learn faster through shaping.

The next morning, on one of the many dog-related email lists I belong to, the incredibly delightful Crystal Salig responded to a thread about teaching the recall by tugging on the leash. She said:

I used to mildly coerce the first part of recall also- just very light pressure on the neck with the leash and released it when the dog started to move- it wasn't harmful, it just wasn't as good as a completely uncoerced recall. I'm still trying to find a less aversive way to stop when a dog is pulling on leash so that it doesn't hurt or surprise the dog as much. When I switched from lure-reward to clicker training, I started to become even less aversive than I was before- seeing how much faster the dog learned if I didn't even lure him let alone use a physical prompt.

This all got me to thinking about my recent venture with Maisy, specifically her sniffing while on walks. Basically, if she stopped to sniff something without having been cued “go sniff,” I’d been telling her “let’s go” and kept walking. If she didn’t keeping walking, the resultant tug on the leash was a natural consequence of her behavior. And while this approach has been working- Maisy knows that “let’s go” means it’s time to stop sniffing and keep walking- I’ve felt bad about doing it.

Crystal Salig’s post helped me understand why the leash tug didn’t sit right with me. Although my action wasn’t inhumane- it’s not physically painful, nor did it appear to be causing stress on Maisy’s part- it did involve coercion, as minor as it is. I commented to my friends that Maisy learns better when she thinks something is her idea, which is why shaping seems to go faster than luring does. Tugging the leash makes Maisy stop sniffing, but it’s not her idea, so while it’s working, it’s slow and frustrating.

This doesn’t mean I think that what I’m doing is wrong. I wouldn’t have tried it if I did. But I do think there has to be a more positive way to teach this. I’m pretty sure that it includes using Premack.

So, here’s the first draft of my plan: I’m going to be vigilant on our walks. I will heavily reinforce the behavior I want- walking in a loose heel. I will also reinforce eye contact, as paying attention to me is incompatible with sniffing. I will pay close attention to her, and when I see the early signs of sniffing (and I think I can pick them out), I’ll call her back to me, ask for some kind of behavior (heeling, a sit, eye contact- it doesn’t really matter what), and then reinforce the behavior by cuing “go sniff.”

I’m quite sure this will not be the final draft of my plan. These things seem to evolve over time, after all. But from now on, all training has to pass the “feel test”- if it doesn’t feel right, then I won’t do it. And in the process, I hope to become 99% positive.