Saturday, July 31, 2010

Trial Report: APDT Rally hosted by the Minnesota Mixed Breed Club

Maisy and I attended an APDT rally trial today, hosted by the Minnesota Mixed Breed Club. We entered in two level 2B runs.

I was really proud of Maisy today. She was initially quite stressed when we entered the building, and did some minor growling (but no lunging, so yay!). She quickly settled in, though, and it seemed like the longer we were there, the calmer she got. By the end of the day- about three hours- she was flopped on her side and quite relaxed.

The other cool thing came from Jeff, who is a provisional judge, and who we met last summer. Because he's a rational human being, he remembers and is smitten with Maisy. (Or at least, he seemed to like her an awful lot.) Anyway, he commented about how much more outgoing she was today than she was last year. He said last year, he couldn't get close enough to touch her, and this year, she was really into him.

After he said that, I realized that she was really interested in seeing the other dogs, too. She's never been one to initiate greetings with other dogs, and today I had to keep calling her off the other dogs, lest I run the risk of being the "rude" dog that has to say hi to everyone. What a change!

We did have a bad moment, though, and it was in the ring during our second run. Even though it's kind of embarrassing, I decided to upload the video for you guys to see:

I chose to upload this video for two reasons. First, because this is a blog about reactivity, I wanted you to see what her reactivity looks like. It used to be worse, but this is pretty typical for her these days. I'm actually pretty proud of the reduction in intensity.

Second, because I am so stinking proud of her. Okay, I know that's a weird thing to say, given that she was reactive in the ring, but look at her ability to bounce back from stress! What you can't see in the video is that she was startled by a dog who suddenly came through a doorway near that corner... a large black dog who is paralyzed, has no use of his back end, and who was in a sling and being carried/pulled by his owner. So, there's a sudden environment change, which is an iffy proposition for her anyway, and it's a dog who looks like a dog, and yet doesn't move correctly and is wearing weird stuff, and... that can't really be a dog, can it? But then what is it? OMG I MUST FREAK OUT!!!

Right, so, I thought the reactivity was understandable (if a bit embarrassing). I chose to put her on leash for safety measures (she's never gotten into anything with another dog, and we certainly don't need to start), and then finished the course. I wanted her to end on a good note, for both our sakes. And she bounced back really well. If you look carefully, you can see that there are a few instances where she looks back at that corner, although they seemed more obvious at the time than they do on the video. I used extra treats to reinforce attention, mostly because I could, what with the fact that we'd already NQ'd and all. But overall? She was very focused on me and generally relaxed, which is evident both in her body language, and by the fact that her mouth was very soft as we moved through the remainder of the course (she gets "sharky" when stressed).

So, even though we NQ'd, even though it was a bit embarrassing, I was still so incredibly pleased with her performance. I mean, barring that bit in the middle, it was a beautiful run! And then, afterwards, we hung around the trial site for another hour and a half. I expected her to be edgier as a result of the cortisol that was surely flowing through her blood because of that outburst, but instead she was on her side and quite relaxed. How cool is that?

Oh, and our first run? She scored a 205 and 4th place! We lost three points because of a handler error (well, tactical decision- I chose to move inside the six foot line for the send over jump exercise since I've never really properly trained jumping), so really, that's like a 208!

I was also really happy with me- my ring nerves were the lowest they've ever been. I was just a teensy bit nervous prior to going in the first time, but since I wasn't working on a title or QQs or anything, there was nothing to lose, and everything to gain. And we did gain it. We worked together like a team. Despite stress, despite reactivity, we were both able to bounce back and act like the champions we want to be someday.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

What's in a Word?

Is this dog reactive?

Thanks to everyone who commented on my post about whether or not reactive dogs should be allowed at trials. I said this in the comments, but just to clarify: no one is seriously suggesting that reactive dogs will be banned from trials. The Rally Advisory Committee did not suggest this, nor did the AKC. It was the personal opinion of a few list members. Most of those people were pretty clear that their objection was not to how a dog is described, but rather to what a dog does. I reiterated that idea, as did all of you, in the comments.

But I wrote the post as a personal reaction to one poster, who criticized a handler they saw at a trial. That handler had described their dog as reactive, and kept the dog in the car until its turn to show, because the trial site was too busy/stressful for the dog otherwise. Even though the dog worked beautifully, and interrupted no one’s performance, the poster thought it was inappropriate for the dog to be there.

Now, maybe this poster is just a jerk. It’s easy to dismiss a differing opinion that way, after all. But I think there’s more to it than that, and I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss that person’s concerns with an insult. Really, I think it comes down to semantics. Specifically, what does it mean when we describe a dog as reactive?

I’ve tried to explain it before, but each attempt seems to have fallen short of the mark. I’ve captured parts of what it means, but “reactivity” is such a nebulous concept that I don’t know that we’ve really agreed on what it all means. Oh, sure, it is pretty universally accepted that a dog who barks, lunges and growls at something is “reactive.” However, there are three areas that I think are still kind of cloudy.

The first area was touched upon in comments: how do you know when a dog is reactive vs. green and inexperienced vs. excitable and over-the-top? Those are three different concepts, but they can look similar. I suspect that each of us might assign the same dog to different categories. I also wonder if the categories don’t overlap. Maisy is, in general, pretty excitable, and I think that fuels her reactivity at times. But where is the line between excitable and reactive? What’s the difference? Is there an underlying personality trait that makes one excitable dog reactive, while another excitable dog is not?

Which brings me to my second question: is reactivity a personality trait, or is it a specific behavior? If someone describes a dog as reactive, do they mean that the dog as a whole is prone to snarky outbursts? Are they describing a personality type? Or are they referring to the behavior in front of them at that moment, the one that looks like barking and lunging? If so, does that means a dog might be reactive at times, but not at others?

When I describe Maisy as reactive, I mean it as a description of what she’s capable of. In a bad week, one full of stressful things like trials and big scary dogs and bicycles, she has, at most, 60 minutes of reactive behavior- barking, lunging or growling. Sixty minutes out of 10,080 minutes in a week. That’s one-half of one percent of the time.

But I still call her reactive, not because it’s an accurate descriptor of what she’s like most of the time, but because it reminds me that there is the possibility that she’ll go over-threshold. Because I call her reactive, because I have that reminder, I do things differently with her than I would otherwise. I leave her at home instead of taking her to the big family barbecue where there are half a dozen kids running around. I enter her in one day of trials, not two. Calling her reactive reminds me that I need to honor her needs, and that I must protect her from excessive stress.

She’s improved greatly over the last two years, and that number has dropped dramatically. Which brings me to the last thing that I think is confusing: can a dog be cured of reactivity? Is there ever a point where a reactive dog will abandon the bark-growl-lunge behavior? And if it does, is that the result of good training, good management, or both? Assuming that a reactive dog can be trained to the point that it no longer displays reactive behavior, how long does that need to go on before we quit calling the dog reactive? Do we need to worry about the possibility of regression? And, if the dog ends up in a new home, will the reactivity re-emerge or go away entirely?

I ask this last question because I think that if I treated Maisy like the typical American dog- one that hangs out at home instead of going to classes and trials- she would probably have so few episodes of reactive behavior that I would have never realized she has this tendency! But, I like to do performance stuff with her, and I daresay she enjoys it, too, so the reactive behavior is present in our lives. But if it wasn’t, if I had chosen to just hang out with her at home, she would still have the same personality. How would I have described her then? As nervous or fearful or mildly anxious? Because all of that is true, too.

Going back to where we began, do you see now why I wondered how the commenter in question might define reactivity differently than I do? Did he, perhaps, believe that when a dog is called reactive it refers to behavior, not personality? Or did the handler with the reactive dog in that story call her dog reactive as a reminder to honor her dog’s needs, and not as an assessment of how the dog behaves the vast majority of the time?

I know I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what we mean by words, perhaps more time than is really necessary, but I’ve always believed that there is power in words. More importantly, we can prevent misunderstandings and the hurt feelings that result if we are clear in what we mean. I would love to see the terminology around reactive dogs cleared up so that we all know exactly what it means when we give a dog that label.

Now it’s your turn: what does the word mean to you? How would you answer any of the many questions I've asked? Do you think it matters how we define the word, or am I over-thinking things? I'd love to hear your opinions!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It isn't easy being a baby-sitter, but someone's gotta do it...

The only question is, who is baby-sitting who?

Sometimes my dog trainer needs to bring The Kidlet to class. The Kidlet is a surprisingly well-behaved 8 year old (give or take a year), who, not surprisingly, has great dog sense. As such, while The Kidlet understands that she needs to sit quietly during class (and often does so in the back office), she just loves it when she gets a chance to interact with the dogs. It just so happens that she especially loves Maisy.

The Kidlet won the lottery last week when I opted not to participate in an exercise (restrained recalls- they’re pretty intense for Maisy in general, and she was already a bit stressed that night), which meant that Maisy and I went to visit The Kidlet in the back. The Kidlet was thrilled, of course, and immediately wanted to put Maisy through her paces.

First, she practiced sits and downs. She quickly discovered that Maisy will offer a paw, so she did that with Maisy. Then, The Kidlet decided to give Maisy a little discrimination test: could Maisy offer the correct paw when she reached with one hand instead of the other? What if she used the “wrong” hand? Maisy played along valiantly. After all, The Kidlet doles out treats at a much higher rate than The Momlady.

Then, The Kidlet decided that Maisy might be an agility dog, and wanted to test her ability to go through a play-tunnel. Maisy needed a little coaxing, but pretty soon, we had Maisy running back and forth along the tunnel, going from one end to the other. Again, The Kidlet decided to increase the difficulty, and tried to get Maisy to enter the tunnel at the end she indicated. Maisy did surprisingly well.

Next on the list was jumping. The Kidlet was disappointed that I wouldn’t let her do any height (we had a bar but no standards, and the only props upon which to place it were objects about three times Maisy’s jump height), but even so, she enjoyed cuing Maisy back and forth over the bar laid on the ground.

When I thwarted her attempt to send Maisy from the jump to the tunnel (citing the fact that Maisy is not actually an agility dog), The Kidlet gave up agility for freestyle, and began working on having Maisy go under, between, and around her legs. I’ve put very little effort into such tricks, so The Kidlet had to work pretty hard to get Maisy to do figure-eights around her legs. With some creative treat placement, though, they were successful!

Finally, The Kidlet decided to play some scenting games with Maisy. She put a treat under one of three cups, mixed them up like in a shell game, and had Maisy find the treat. This wasn’t very challenging for her, which is probably good, because at this point, Maisy had been interacting with The Kidlet for the better part of an hour, and was beginning to tire of her antics.

It was nice to see her interacting so well with The Kidlet because Maisy can be a bit iffy with children. Overall, though, she’s getting better and better about overcoming her fears and interacting with those formerly scary things. I still don’t let children I don’t know interact with Maisy, and I certainly wouldn’t let any other child spend that much time playing with her, but it’s nice that we have at least one decently dog-savvy child in our lives- heck, I think Maisy even enjoyed it!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Should reactive dogs be allowed at trials?

The AKC recently released its Rally Advisory Committee Recommendations on proposed changes to the rules and exercises of the sport. Now, I don’t currently do AKC rally, but I do belong to a general rally obedience email list, and these changes have been one of the prominent topics of discussion lately.

I’ve been skimming most of these posts- they don’t really apply to me, after all- but one thread did catch my eye. It started out discussing the committee’s recommendation for a new class (Rally Master) in which there are group stays, but ended up being about reactive dogs. Some people were worried that rally has become the sport for “unsocialized, reactive, or aggressive dogs,” and strongly felt that such dogs shouldn’t be allowed at trials.

While I agree with the people criticizing the presence of dogs who are acting poorly at a trial, I disagree with those who completely dismiss all reactive dogs, simply because they are reactive. Don’t get me wrong- bad behavior has no place at a trial. It is not fair to anyone involved. It is not fair to the other dogs and owners who are on the receiving end of snarky behavior. It is not fair to the dog itself, who is clearly over-stressed. And it’s not fair to the handler, who will be embarrassed, ostracized or just won’t have fun.

But some people were upset with those who simply describe their dogs as reactive, or with people who leave their dogs in the car between runs because the dog has difficulty with prolonged exposure to a trial environment. I really think such criticism is unfair, because if you’re trialing a reactive dog, you need to protect your dog. Beyond that, though, just because a dog is reactive does not automatically mean it is going to behave badly. In fact, I have taken Maisy to trials where people looked at me with disbelief when I said she was reactive- that’s how relaxed and happy she was.

I’ve said before that our current terminology just isn’t very good, and in this case, I suspect that those critics- the ones who say no reactive dogs should be allowed at trials- understand reactivity differently than I do. Where others seem to see reactivity as a problem that is fixed in stone for life, I see it as something changeable. After all, when it comes down to it, reactive behavior is just that- behavior. And behavior can be modified.

Surely part of the problem is that the label of “reactive” really doesn’t get at the root cause of the behavior. Is it due to genetics? Is it due to poor socialization as a puppy? Is it due to a bad experience? It might be just one of these, it might be a combination, or it might be something else entirely. But I think it makes a difference when it comes to predicting future outcomes.

Many reactive dogs can recover to a normal (or at least near-normal) state. A dog who learned reactive behavior as a response to a traumatic incident can overcome its anxiety through careful counter-conditioning. A dog who missed out on critical socialization as a puppy can make up for it as an adult (although it is slow-going, and will never be as good as it could have been).

Even dogs who have a questionable genetic background- dogs like my Maisy, for example- can make huge strides in improving their reactive behavior. They may not recover fully, but they can learn to keep it together well enough that they can successfully attend a trial. They may need modifications to the usual routine- they may need shorter days or to rest in the car- but they can do it.

Even so, I don’t think this is the case for all reactive dogs. For some, the damage is just too deep, the behavior is too ingrained. Some will always be right on the edge, always in danger of falling off the wagon, so to speak. Some of these dogs will never be able to manage a trial environment, and for those dogs, I believe it is inappropriate to enter them in trials, no matter how talented they are.

So, those of us with reactive dogs need take a critical look at our dogs. We need to be honest with ourselves about where our dog is at, both in general, and on any given day. We may need to forfeit entry fees on days where our dogs just can’t pull themselves together. We may even need to retire them entirely.

After all, when it comes to working with reactive dogs (and maybe the normal ones, too), the process is more important the result. I am certainly aware of the fact that, despite my dreams of championship titles, we may never attain them. Regardless of how far we go, whether Maisy retires tomorrow or whether she gets an OTCH, in the end, I will know that we have done our best together.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Supplements for Reactive Dogs, Part 5: Dog Appeasing Pheromones

This is part of an ongoing series on supplements recommended on the internet for reactive dogs. I am not a vet, nor have I personally tried most of these supplements with my dog, which means that I cannot tell you if you should or shouldn’t use them with your own. I’m also a lazy researcher, and used Wikipedia for my starting point. Google filled in the rest, and while I think I’m pretty good at separating the good sites from the propaganda, I cannot verify the accuracy of their claims. If you want to use a supplement with your dog, do your own research, and consult with your vet.

In other words: Use this information at your own risk.

Dog Appeasing Pheromones (DAP)
What is it? How does it work?
Dog Appeasing Pheromones, most commonly referred to as DAP, is a chemical synthesized to act like a hormone produced by nursing mothers. This hormone is an “appeasing” pheromone, which helps comfort puppies and promote mother-puppy bonding. DAP is used to treat anxiety, fear and other stress-related behavioral problems.

What are the risks of using it?
There are no known side-effects, however, the spray form should not be sprayed directly on your dog. The diffuser should be unplugged once it is empty.

Availability and dosing considerations.
DAP is made by Comfort Zone as a plug-in diffuser, a collar, and a spray, and is available on the internet and at pet stores nationwide. The diffuser and collar are for long-term stress relief and need to be replaced monthly, while the spray can be used as needed for short-term stress relief. The spray should be used 15-30 minutes prior to stressful events, and needs to be refreshed every 2 hours.

Are there any scientific studies supporting its use in canines?
This study found that DAP was effective in reducing fear and anxiety in puppies in puppy classes. This one found that it helped reduce symptoms of stress such as barking and increased resting rates among shelter dogs. This page discusses some other studies, and concludes that although more research is needed, DAP appears to be a useful addition to behavior modification plans.

The general consensus on the dog training email lists I belong to is that DAP is generally useful, although it does not work for all dogs. I do use DAP with Maisy and have had some good experiences with it. It certainly is not a cure-all, but it seems to take the edge off when she’s in stressful situations.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Playing Matchmaker with Reinforcers

Does this look like a dog who wants to do... well, anything except go inside?

In my last entry on training with reinforcement, I talked about using choosing the right value of reward for the situation. There were several great comments about what types of reinforcers work for people’s dogs, and in what circumstances. I loved these comments because I really believe that in order to use reinforcement well, you need to play matchmaker. Today, I want to talk about three circumstances that might cause you to choose one type of reinforcement over another.

Circumstance #1: Your dog’s mood and arousal level.
Good training always takes the dog’s mood and arousal level into account. How does this effect which reinforcer you use? Well, you need to know how various reinforcers affect your dog. In general, play and movement tend to be exciting and arousing. Food is usually calming. Verbal praise and petting or other physical rewards can go either way- it depends on your dog, and how you do it.

So, if your dog is looking bored and uninterested, perhaps a high-intensity reward would help pep him up. Maisy hates too much repetition, and even the best food in the world won’t help her enjoy it more. However, if I mix it up, and reward a good response with a game of chase or ball instead, she’s much more enthusiastic about the exercise.

On the flip side, if she is overly-aroused, adding more intensity is the last thing I want to do. In those cases, I typically give her food treats instead. Foods of medium value seem to work best- if it’s too good of a treat, she sort of loses her mind. (As a side note, I’ve found that the clicker tends to amp her up, so if she’s too aroused, I use a verbal marker instead.)

For reactive dogs, I think it’s vitally important to know which reinforcers help them calm down, and which amp them up. For Maisy, if she was approaching her threshold and was just on the verge of reacting, but still chose to look at me (or look away, or sit down, or whatever amazingly good behavior she offered), it would be throwing fuel on the fire if I threw here tennis ball. It would just excite her more, and what she needs most in that moment is to calm down.

Circumstance #2: Your dog’s physical state.
Like gauging your dog’s mood, his physical state matters, too. Anyone with a small dog knows that long training sessions can be difficult- they just get full so fast! In the same way that my favorite foods sound completely unappetizing after Thanksgiving Dinner, our dogs just aren’t going to find even the tastiest morsel all that tempting when they’re already stuffed.

Likewise, if our dogs are getting physically tired, chasing after a tennis ball isn’t going to be that much fun. No matter how much I love doing something, like horseback riding, after hours in the saddle, I can guarantee you that getting out of that saddle is going to be more desirable to me than riding another mile. Now, everyone’s tolerance for an activity is going to be different- I might want to get off the horse sooner than you do- but at some point, you’ll get tired, too.

The only word of caution here is with instinctual behaviors. Since they are, by definition, instinctual, a dog is much more likely to continue to engage in the activity when they’re tired. For example, even when she’s panting and flopped out on her side in exhaustion, Maisy will always chase a thrown tennis ball. You need to use a certain amount of common sense along with evaluating the dog’s response.

Circumstance #3: Environmental considerations.
Finally, it’s important to consider the environment you and your dog are in when choosing a reinforcer. What your dog finds reinforcing may change based on the environment you’re in.

This is especially true when it comes to the weather. For example, my dog loves getting squirted in the face with water, and I know she’s not alone in her love of water games. While this can make a great reinforcer in the summer, it’s not so pleasurable during a Minnesota winter! (This holds true for indoor temperatures, too, of course.) Her favorite game- playing ball- isn’t as fun when it’s extremely hot or extremely cold. Frozen pieces of meat (or even just ice cubes) may make a great summer treat, but they aren’t so appealing in the winter. I’m sure you guys can think of lots of other examples.

Another environmental consideration is what’s going on in the environment. This is a big topic- so big that I’ll write a separate post on it alone- but basically, if there is something in the environment that your dog really wants to get, or really wants to get away from, you can probably use that as a reinforcer, too.

So, what kind of matchmaking do you do with your dog? Have you found that some rewards work better at one time than another? If so, why do you think that is? And more importantly, have you figured out how to use that to your advantage? I’d love to hear about your experiences!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Examining Maisy's Conformation

One my my favorite bloggers, Joanna at Ruffly Speaking, recently wrote a post on soundness. What I loved about this post is that she demonstrated how to evaluate a dog's conformation. I've never been much good at evaluating conformation, not back when I was into horses, and not now that I'm into dogs, but this post was quite good, and inspired me to try my hand at evaluating Maisy.

Now, I've had a hands-on evaluation when we went to our Performance Dog Conditioning class, so I have a general idea of what Maisy's structure looks like (short answer: decent, not great). Still, I wanted to try it myself, so here we go. I'm quite sure that I've messed something up- this is my first try, after all- so please feel free to critique my work!

Here's the reference photo (click on any photo for a larger version):

This picture was taken in June at my aunt and uncle's lake cabin. The very first thing you'll notice about the picture is that she is not standing square. In fact, in photos, Maisy rarely stands square. Part of the problem is that in photos, she rarely stands still, but the point stands. It may be a coincidence, but it may be an indication that she stands askew in order to feel more comfortable.

Joanna says the first thing to do is to draw a vertical line through the shoulder and elbow, and one across the topline:

Already, I'm not sure if I'm doing this right. I chose to draw the topline from the withers, but look how much higher her rear is! Well, I guess I knew that- I was told that she's butt-high at our conditioning class, and in the comments, Joanna comments that she's roach-backed. When I look at pictures of Maisy as a puppy, it seems that this roached back is due to her genetics, and not an injury, especially since Joanna said that puppy-mill poodles often have a roached-back, and I was told Maisy's dad was a puppy-mill poodle. Assuming I've drawn this line in the right place, although it's not particularly pretty, Joanna says this upward curve is still sound.

However, when you look at the quadrants, we start to see problems: she's carrying too much weight on the front. According to Joanna, when you draw these lines, you want all of the head and most of the neck to be in one. If you see that, then you know that the shoulder is laid back correctly, and that most of the weight is behind the neck, not under it. Since I learned at our conditioning class that 60% of a dog's weight is carried on the front legs, good shoulders seem to be vital to soundness. Unfortunately, I already know from that class that Maisy doesn't have good shoulder angulation... and these lines seem to tell the same story.

The next line is the weight-bearing line, and is drawn through the middle of the paw:

This line should appear to be through the body, not the neck like it does here. Again, Maisy's front end is carrying more weight than it ought to, indicating that she may have shoulder problems down the line. (Indeed, she already does- we started seeing a chiropractor last year when she became intermittently lame on the front right foot.)

The next line is the rib line:

This one is drawn vertically at the last rib, and lets us know if the dog has enough lung capacity to do its job. It should be more than half the dog's body, and I'm pleased that Maisy has finally passed a conformation test!

Next, we draw in the shoulder and hip angles. I have to admit, these may not be correct, but I felt Maisy's body, traced the bones, and I think I'm close:

The balance actually doesn't look too bad- both angles are similar. What doesn't look good is when she moves. Joanna looked at Maisy's rally video (I'm assuming from this post) and thought that her back legs had short strides. I've thought that myself, and have noticed that Maisy's back legs sometimes swing from side to side instead of forward. Joanna says this type of movement puts stress on the spine, and based on Maisy's chiropractic visits, I'd say this is true for Maisy.

In fact, in light of Joanna's comments, I went back and felt for the rear angulation several times. Her rear angulation, as drawn in this picture anyway, isn't bad. My understanding is that you want it to be no more than 90 degrees- any more and there isn't enough power for running and jumping. But in our conditioning class, I was told that Maisy has nice rear angulation, and in feeling her body, I have to say, it's definitely not where I would put it based on the picture. If that's true, if she does have good rear angles, then the short strides would probably point toward an injury. Maisy did pull an iliopsis muscle last fall, so perhaps it's related to that? I'll have our chiropractor check her out more closely on the next visit, though, just in case something is still going on.

The front angle, though, is not good. It's open more than 90 degrees, which indicates a high or straight shoulder. Of course, this isn't really surprising, given what we learned when we divided her in fourths, and again when we drew the weight-bearing line.

So, assuming I've gotten the lines somewhat accurate, it's the same picture: weak front, decent the rest of the way around. Given that Maisy's already had issues in the front, I am a bit worried about her long-term soundess. Although we were told at the conditioning class that we could do enough conditioning that Maisy could probably do agility, I have to wonder if it's worth the risk. Add to that Maisy's reactivity, agility definitely seems to be out of our reach. I guess it's a good thing I enjoy both rally and obedience, and that there are enough opportunities out there for us to compete for as long as Maisy's body will allow her.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Obedience Run-Through!

Tonight, my friends Elizabeth and Beckett and Maisy and I went to an obedience run-through. We both did Novice CDSP.

Maisy waiting patiently for Elizabeth to pick us up.

It was the perfect kind of run-through: Laid-back. The "judge" for the night let us redo exercises when we needed to, and gave great training advice. The best part is that the "judge" is a local R+ trainer, so all over her suggestions were things I am willing to do!

Maisy did wonderfully. Here's the play-by-play:

Honor: The entire reason we went was to practice the honor. Maisy and I struggle with stays. I find them boring to train, and she has issues with impulse control. Since the honor requires her to stay while another dog moves (and moves quickly!) I wasn't sure if she would be able to do this exercise. Well, she passed! We did a sit, and she held it very well. She did look around a bit, but I was able to get her attention back without problem, and I didn't even have to give her a second cue!

On-leash Heeling Pattern: Maisy's heeling has improved a lot this year. Elizabeth said that Maisy never took her eyes off me! We've worked hard to build focus and attention, and I'm glad it paid off. The best part was that we did the entire pattern- normal, halt, normal, right turn, slow, normal, about turn, fast, normal, left turn, halt- all of that with no treats! And she still paid attention! Okay, so she lagged on the fast pace- we've struggled with that for awhile now- but I'm still quite happy with her performance. Handler-wise, I was encouraged to walk faster, something I've been working on, but clearly need more work yet.

Off-leash Figure 8: We spent a lot of time on this one. She did well going to the left (where she is on the inside), and I was pleased that she didn't go visit the "posts." However, I really lost her on the right, and she lagged quite a bit. Again, I'm not surprised, as this is one of our weak areas. We worked it several times, and I got excellent advice.

The big thing was they encouraged me to do was to run on those right turns, and to not look back at her. Every time I looked back, she got slower. I was also told that I need to make my circles "softer" and rounder, instead of turning so sharply. Finally, the "judge" correctly noted that every time she slows down and sniffs, I slow down too.

Moving Stand for Exam: Other than the fact that I should have read the rules, we did well. I've been practicing having her stop and stand or stop and down while I keep walking, so I did that at first. I guess I'm supposed to stop, too. Once I figured that out, it went well.

Recall over Bar Jump: Whoops, NQ. Didn't expect it here! I set her up about 10 feet away from the jump, then I went to the other side about 10 feet away, and called her to "come front." She went around the jump. I thought perhaps my cue was wrong, so I set her up again, this time about 8 feet on either side of the jump, and cued "come jump," the correct cue. Again, she went around. When we set her up at 3 feet on either side, she got it. It was a very nice jump, too, so clearly it was just a lack of training instead of a physical issue tonight.

Reactivity: I'm pleased to report that Maisy handled herself very well. We were there for about an hour, and okay, she did growl a bit at a lab (only when the dog was 50 feet away. When the dog was sitting right next to her earlier, it was fine, and she was fine once the dog got close again. I have no idea what to make of that- perhaps the dog moved oddly?). However, it was a single isolated incident towards the end of our time there, and she was easily redirected, so I'm not going to stress over it too much.

She was also incredibly good about being chill and hanging around. I had her mat, of course, and she went right to it. She mostly sat on it, although she occasionally lay down, too. She looked happy and relaxed about 95% of the time, which is really encouraging!

Overall, I'm quite pleased with her progress. I feel like she's come a long way in the past six months or so. Although I'd been considering trying CDSP at the next local trials at the end of the month, now I know that I want to spend some more time training first. Maybe Elizabeth, Beckett, Maisy and I can make our obedience debut together next winter, instead!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What Ring Nerves Have Taught Me About Reactivity

I have really bad ring nerves. I know everybody gets nervous to some degree before competition, but I’ve got it bad. In the interests of keeping this blog tasteful, I won’t explain my problems in detail, but suffice it to say, stomach medication has a prominent place on my trial packing list.

Although I’ve been working hard on curbing my ring nerves, after our last trial, I realized that ring nerves are a lot like reactivity. This realization has brought me to a whole new level of understanding of what reactivity is like, and great empathy for my dog. Today, I’m going to present you my list of how ring nerves are like reactivity.

It’s different for everyone.
It goes without saying that every person experiences ring nerves differently, both in intensity and the symptoms experienced. I have pretty intense ring nerves- I’m physically nauseous, and desperately wish I was anywhere but the trial.

It’s the same way for our dogs. Maisy’s reactivity is, thankfully, pretty mild at this point, and while she does still lunge at other dogs, a lot of the growling and barking has faded away. I believe dogs can express “reactivity” in other ways, too, but when I say this, what I really mean is that they can express their anxiety in other ways. I know it’s a fine distinction, but the term “reactivity” has come to be shorthand for “this dog lunges, barks and growls at other dogs.” Certainly, this is a part of how reactive dogs act, but the other symptoms of stress- such as physically shaking or getting the zoomies- is often overlooked as a result. I could probably write an entire post on this alone, so let’s just leave it at the idea that reactivity is different for every dog, and move on.

Even if it’s a “silly” fear, you can’t rationalize with it.
Look, I get that my performance anxiety is a bit ridiculous. At the end of the day, I still get to go home with the best dog… sometimes literally! Maisy consistently scores well, places in the ribbons, and has won her fair share of first places and high scoring ribbons. I have nothing to worry about, and heck, it’s all in fun anyway, right?

In the same manner, I can’t get upset with Maisy when she’s being reactive. I know she’s trying really hard to use the skills I’ve taught her, but sometimes whatever has triggered her is physically and emotionally out of her control. I can’t stop my stomach from hurting at a trial, and she can’t always stop herself from lunging.

You can’t “just get over it.”
And if you can, could someone please tell me how? I’ve been working really hard on conquering my ring nerves. I’ve read books, done visualization exercises, practiced deep breathing, used supplements, and even got hypnotized all in an effort to combat my anxiety. All of this has helped, but it takes time.

This realization really brought me the most empathy for my dog. I have no idea why she fears some of the things she does, but I know that I can’t force her to get over it anymore than I can make my own anxiety disappear. Instead, like with my ring nerves, we can chip away at her fears a little bit at a time using counter-conditioning. I can teach her other things to do, and reward the brilliant responses. But it takes time and patience.

Sometimes, the best you can get is less.
Inevitably, whenever you start discussing ring nerves, someone will say that when you no longer feel nervous at a trial, it’s time to stop competing. The argument is that everyone who is invested in the sport will have at least a little flutter of anxiety once in awhile. Although I don’t know that I agree with the implication- that if you aren’t nervous, you don’t care- I understand the sentiment: fear and anxiety are normal. We were designed to biologically respond to perceived threats. If we didn’t, we’d be dead. If you don’t automatically jerk your hand away from a hot stove, you’d get badly injured. Every living being has this self-protective instinct.

Over-reacting is a problem, it’s true, but most of our dogs can learn to curb their reactive impulses enough to pass as “normal.” Still, I think some of our dogs will always have reactive tendencies. Maybe they’ll never get stressed enough to fall back on their old coping strategies, but even if they do, the goal of training is to reduce both the intensity and frequency of those reactions. My dog might not ever be bomb-proof, but lessening her anxiety is certainly a worthy goal.

Comparing my ring nerves to Maisy’s reactivity has really given me a new understanding of her behavior. Although I intellectually understood all of these things, I never really got it on an emotional level. After I stopped to reflect on what my own ring nerves could teach me, I developed a new empathy for Maisy. I love my dog to pieces, and I have to trust that she’s working on her issues (with my help) as much as I’m working on mine. Together, we’re going to make it!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Working with a reactive dog is slow, painstaking work. It's hard to tell if you're making any progress at all, especially in the beginning. Gradually, your dog reacts less often, and the intensity is reduced, but because these changes happen in such small increments, you often don't notice until something huge happens.

Something huge happened this week.

Way back in the beginning, when I first learned that Maisy is reactive, one of the first triggers I identified was bikes. Oh, did she have some over-the-top displays around bikes. She barked. She growled. She rushed after them. Mostly, I think she wanted to chase them, but that impulse came out all sideways and backwards. It embarrassed me, and it scared me a little, so we started going to classes. I learned the skills needed to keep her under threshold, and I began to counter-condition her like crazy. Slowly, slowly, she's improved.

I knew that, of course, but it wasn't until this week that I really appreciated how far she's come. My husband and I were walking near a park with her at dusk, and there was a large group of pre-teens hanging out. As we neared a street corner, this whole pack of them- 8 or 10, I think- got on their bikes. As we headed into the intersection, so did the kids on their bikes, looping in huge circles and yelling to one another.

We were surrounded. Bikes, yelling children, fast movement- a year ago, Maisy would have lost it. Now? She looked at the bikes, did the doggy equivalent of shrugging her shoulders, and popped into heel position, where she never took her eyes off me.

It took a lot of self-control for her to resist the temptation to chase and bark at the loud, quickly moving bikes, and yet she was able to not only get through a tough situation, but was able to offer up some gorgeous heeling, too! Needless to say, I was so proud!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

High Value or Low Value? Choosing the Right Reinforcer

I am a clicker trainer. As a result, I use a lot of reinforcement when I work with Maisy. When I first started out, each click resulted in a treat purchased from the pet store. Since Maisy ate everything I gave her, I really didn’t think too much about the relative values of what I gave her. A click meant a treat, end of story.

As I’ve learned more about training, I’ve branched out into using toys and activities as a reward, and I pay attention to what she likes best (generally people food). I have made lists of all the things she likes, and I’ve ranked them by value. Some of you have played along with this game, too, which delights me. But while I enjoy making lists and categorizing the items, the exercise doesn’t have much practical value if you don’t do something with the information afterwards. Which is why today, I want to talk about how I use this knowledge in training.

Who hasn’t heard someone- generally a new dog owner or inexperienced trainer- say, “But he does it at home!” We all know why this is, of course: the dog wasn’t adequately “proofed” for the distractions present in a new environment. Every time we increase the difficulty, whether by introducing distractions, or by increasing the distance or duration at which the dog is expected to perform, we need to increase the reinforcement.

Now, this can (and should) be done by increasing the frequency of reinforcement, but it can also be done by increasing the value of the reinforcement. I like to match the highest value reinforcers with the most difficult tasks. If Maisy responds to “come” across the backyard, that might earn her a piece of kibble, but coming away from a dog at the fence might earn her a piece of hot dog, or even a rousing ball-chasing game.

This recall, done during Maisy's first visit to the State Park, will earn her several pieces of beef liver.

However, even when I don’t increase the difficulty of an exercise, I do like to reward the best responses with the best things. Using the recall as an example again, if Maisy comes away from the fence slowly or hesitantly, I’m going to reinforce her response- after all, it was difficult, and she still came. However, if she comes quickly and with enthusiasm, I might give her an even better reward: potato chips. (Remember, on Maisy’s lists, there is pretty much nothing better in the world than a potato chip. Not even hot dogs. You will probably need to use something different for your dog.)

If I don’t have something of higher value, I might use a jackpot, which is simply 5 or 10 of the good treat, given one at a time over the course of 15 to 20 seconds, paired with effusive praise. The use of jackpots is questionable- some people say they don’t really work- but I use them anyway. Even if they don’t work, they can’t hurt.

However, it is important to remember that when following this rule, you really do need to save the outstanding reward for the outstanding response. If you use the high value treat for a simply adequate response, two things could happen. Either you reinforce a less-than-optimal response, thus limiting your progress. Why work hard if you’ll get the tastiest stuff for a mediocre effort?

The other possibility is that you may devalue the treat. Kay Laurence talks about this in her book Teaching with Reinforcement (which is fabulous, and you ought to read it if you’re interested in reinforcement based training). Her argument is that dogs often find novelty reinforcing. Part of what makes a high-value reward so high value is its relative scarcety. I have certainly noticed this with Maisy. She might go crazy for something the first time she gets it, but if I then use it on a regular basis, it no longer provokes the over-the-top response it got before. As a result, if you use high value rewards for run of the mill behaviors, you will likely use that high value reinforcer so often that it becomes kind of boring. Once you’ve discovered what your dog really values, it’s wise to save it for the really special moments so that you can maintain the value of that reinforcer.

In the past, I haven’t been so good about doing this. I’ve used treats rather indiscriminately, and haven’t spent much time thinking about the relative values of the rewards I’ve given, nor have I considered if the response earned that level of reinforcement. Lately, though, I’ve tried to pay attention to this. I generally keep two types of food treats on me at all times: a “regular” value reward (usually a kibble and store-bought treat mix), and a high value reward (generally freeze dried liver or salmon jerky). Both exceptional responses and responses which were difficult (due to distraction) earn the high value reinforcer, along with effusive praise and a lot of attention. Maisy loves attention. I really think it’s helped, too. Her recalls have improved a lot over the past few months, and her moving downs are simply lovely now.

Your turn, now. Have you tried using high value reinforcers like this? If so, tell me about it. I’d love to hear some examples, as well as whether or not you’ve seen it make a difference.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Supplements for Reactive Dogs, Part 4: Omega 3 Fatty Acids

This is part of an ongoing series on supplements recommended on the internet for reactive dogs. I am not a vet, nor have I personally tried most of these supplements with my dog, which means that I cannot tell you if you should or shouldn’t use them with your own. I’m also a lazy researcher, and used Wikipedia for my starting point. Google filled in the rest, and while I think I’m pretty good at separating the good sites from the propaganda, I cannot verify the accuracy of their claims. If you want to use a supplement with your dog, do your own research, and consult with your vet.

In other words: Use this information at your own risk.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids
What is it? How does it work?
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential nutrients which must be obtained from food. There are three main types: ALA, which is derived primarily from seed oils, such as flaxseed, EPA, and DHA. The latter two are found primarily in fish oils.

Essential fatty acids potentially appear to be quite beneficial for a wide variety of mental conditions in humans, including memory impairment, schizophrenia, depression, and hyperactivity. This is because Omega 3s are thought to have membrane-enhancing capabilities in the brain, possibly by increasing the myelin sheaths, although there also appears to be some effect on dopamine levels as well.

What are the risks of using it?
There are few risks associated with Omega 3 fatty acids. Their use may be contraindicated for those with cardiovascular issues. Failure to take them balanced with Omega 6 fatty acids may result in altered metabolic function. A healthy ratio would be 1:1 to 4:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3. The reason you hear so much about Omega 3s is that the typical Western diet is heavily skewed from 10:1 to 30:1.

Availability and dosing considerations.
Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in flax seed oil, fish oil, and in grass-fed meat, especially beef.

Are there any scientific studies supporting its use in canines?
This study found that the aggressive dogs they tested had low levels of Omega 3s, although the researchers cautioned that they could not say if supplementation with Omega 3s would reduce aggressive behaviors.

Since Omega 3s have been found to be effective in treating osteoarthritis, and may help dogs suffering from allergies. As a result, (and on the advice of our vet) I do give fish oil to my own dog. Maisy’s reactivity is steadily improving, but I have no idea if the Omega 3s are contributing to that or not.

Edit February 2015: Why I Chose Medication Instead of Supplements 

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Conflicted Nature of Reactivity

Katie, over at Lessons From and For 4 Legs, has been posting about reactivity, and what it’s like for her dog, Maizey. The picture in this post is wonderful. It’s a great shot of what I called “the conflicted nature of reactivity.” Of course, Katie just had to ask me what I meant by that, a question which ended up being harder to answer than I expected! But, I love questions that make me think, so here is the expanded version of what I told her.

First, I really think the term “reactivity” is a bit of a misnomer. Every dog will react to environmental stimuli, so to say that a dog is “reacting” really doesn’t tell us much other than the fact that the dog in question is alive. What the term really reflects is the idea of overreactivity; that is, that the dog reacts to something inappropriately. Even this is a problematic statement- it demonstrates a value judgment that we place on our dogs based on a very human understanding of their culture.

Still, problems with the nomenclature aside, it seems to me that the term reactivity has become shorthand for “a dog who is displaying aggressive-type behaviors, but who isn’t actually acting aggressive.” Having a succinct word to describe this concept is important, because labels really change the way we think. If we call a dog aggressive, it changes the way the owner sees their dog. It causes embarrassment and shame at best, and at worst, costs a good dog his life. It also means that others won’t be able to see the wonderfulness of our dogs because of preconceived notions.

By being able to call my dog “reactive” instead, those in the know immediately understand that my dog is all bark and no bite, while the less dog-savvy among us can ask questions and learn what I mean by that without having visions of Cujo dancing in their heads. (As a side note: I think it is important to recognize that all dogs, reactive or not, can and will bite if the wrong circumstances come together. Thankfully, it’s rare that those circumstances converge upon the so-called normal dogs. And if we learn to protect our reactive dogs, it can be a relatively small risk for them as well.)

It is this definition, “a dog who is displaying aggressive-type behaviors, but who isn’t actually acting aggressive,” that really gives us a clue into the conflicted nature of reactive dogs. Reactive dogs are stressed dogs. They are insecure, fearful or simply unsure of their role in the world. If I may be anthropomorphic for a moment, they desperately want to be good dogs, but don’t know how. Although they might bite if pressed into the wrong circumstance, they don’t want to.

What a reactive dog wants is to get away from whatever is stressing them out. If left to their own devices, they will generally choose to run away from the stressor instead of trying to attack it. But when they can’t remove themselves from the stressful situation- such as when they are behind a fence or on a leash- they have to find another way to escape. Some dogs shut down entirely in this situation, and we label them shy or afraid. But reactive dogs are probably afraid, too, but they are the ones who make a big scene. They bark, they growl, and they lunge forward towards whatever has caused them fear. Again, this might be a bit anthropomorphic, but I presume that they are trying to out-scare the scary thing. If they can look tough, perhaps whatever is stressing them out will go away.

Thus, reactive dogs are conflicted. They don’t really want to hurt the other dog (person, balloon, whatever is scaring them). They don’t want to get into a conflict, but they don’t see any other options to resolve the situation, so they pretend that they are the baddest dog on the block, in the hopes of bluffing well enough to get the other dog (person, etc.) to back off. It’s pretty clever, really- reactive dogs are pretty much the equivalent of Vegas card sharks.

Even though the behaviors displayed are basically the same, careful observers will be able to see the difference between a reactive dog and a truly aggressive one. In the picture above, Maisy is encountering the Bob-a-Lot toy for the first time. It has a weighted bottom which makes it rock back and forth- something that is a bit scary for her. You can see how she is feeling conflicted in the picture: she's both leaning back out of caution (look at the diagonal in her front legs) and leaning forward out of interest (her head and neck is stretched forward).

Katie’s picture of Maizey is an even better example, though, as it catches the dog in a stressful moment, as opposed to my Maisy's cautious interest. Katie very rightly notes that Maizey is both “hunched back on her haunches yet at the same time stretching toward the trigger.” That is two very different communication signals. Her dog is saying both, “please leave me alone,” and “I can be scary, too,” hence my comment that the picture perfectly captures the conflicted nature of reactivity.

I think the most important thing an owner of a reactive dog can do is educate themselves on canine body language. I love The Language of Dogs DVD by Sarah Kalnajs. It’s broken down into small segments, so it’s easy to watch a few minutes here and there. For those who want a book, Turid Rugaas’ Calming Signals is a short, easy read, but packed with great information. There are lots of other great resources on body language, too, so pick one up and start learning!

But once you’ve done that, you need to see what your dog’s particular accent is. A prick eared dog’s communication will look different from one with drop ears, and a full tail will express things a docked tail cannot. Once you learn which signals mean that your dog is stressed, you’ll be able to see the conflicted nature of reactivity, too.