Tuesday, August 31, 2010

CU Seminar: Whiplash Turns

Sorry, I don't have a picture of this from the seminar.
Instead, look at this pretty picture of Maisy
at this little park near our hotel in Omaha!
Also, hey, another use for whiplash turns: taking pictures!

Another one of the foundation exercises we practiced at the CU seminar was the whiplash turn, which is a great game to play with any dog, reactive or not. Simply put, the end goal is to get your dog turning his head towards you so fast when you call his name that you think he’s going to get whiplash.

There are endless applications for a whiplash turn. It is the foundation for a brilliant recall. It allows you to get your dog’s attention when he’s distracted. It can even serve to interrupt the beginnings of a reactive response, assuming your dog hasn’t gone over threshold.

Whiplash turns are easy to teach, and the way Alexa taught it is also fun for the dog! All you do is toss a treat to one side, letting the dog chase after it and eat it. (Side note: It’s wise to give the dog a verbal cue signifying that the treat is his- something like “get it!” works great. Giving permission will help him later on when we teach when we teach leave it.) Just as he finishes eating, call his name. The timing here is important, because you can essentially stack the deck in your favor- your dog was likely to look back at you at that moment, anyway. When he does, click and toss the reward treat in the other direction.

Tossing the treat isn’t required to play the game, but it is recommended in the early stages because it helps set up the exercise again. Also, if your dog is anything like Maisy, you’ll get a dog that quickly learns where the treat is likely to show up next, and as a result, dashes off to that location, ping-ponging back and forth like crazy. That’s actually okay because you’ll end up conditioning a speedy and enthusiastic response to your cue.

Once our dogs were doing great whiplash turns with relatively low distractions, we upped the difficulty. Alexa came around holding tempting, tasty treats in a closed fist. All of the dogs naturally ran over to her to sniff her fist. Again, we tried to stack the deck in our favor by allowing our dogs a moment or two to sniff, long enough for them to realize that Alexa wasn’t just going to give up the goods, but not so long that they’d already turned back to us. The goal was to call our dog’s name right at that sweet spot so that we could get a response.

Even so, the responses were generally not as impressive as just a moment before since the exercise suddenly got much more difficult. If we had timed our cue right, the dogs generally looked, even if it wasn’t with the speed and enthusiasm we hoped for. But if they didn’t, it wasn’t a big deal. We simply lowered our criteria and accepted a smaller response. Then we built it back up in subsequent trials.

Anyway, when the dogs finally responded, we clicked and told our dogs to go take the treat from Alexa. Most of the dogs weren’t expecting this, but they sure welcomed it! Giving the treat like this was a demonstration of the Premack Principle: if you turn away from that yummy treat when I ask you to, you’ll get to eat it anyway! This allows our dogs to learn that we won’t always end their fun. They don’t need to choose between us and the fascinating environment, instead, they can get access to it even faster by responding to us.

Maisy and I plan on playing this game some more. While she has a pretty decent whiplash turn, it could be more consistent. There are times where it’s brilliant. For example, at the hotel, Maisy began running down the hallway. She was off-leash (I was tired and not thinking clearly), but I didn’t want her too far from me, so I called her name… and she turned on a dime to come tearing back to me. Talk about brilliant! Then there are the times where she barely responds, like when there are chickens around. Certainly this has to do with the level of distraction present, and like anything else, I need to proof out her whiplash turns, especially if I want them to be useful for reactivity work.

But what about you guys? Have you trained this behavior? If so, how good of a response do you get? What influences this? I’d love to hear if you’ve got any good stories!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

CU Seminar: Reorienting

This dog does a great job of reorienting to Alexa.
Photo by Robin Sallie

One of the first exercises we worked on at the Control Unleashed seminar was reorienting. Although Leslie talks about reorienting in the book, I’ve never really thought about it as a CU exercise, mostly because it is deceptively simple. Simply put, reorienting means that any time your dog passes through a boundary- a door way, coming out of his crate, walking into the obedience ring- he should turn to sit in front of you, all while making eye contact.

There are lots of benefits to teaching a dog to reorient. It creates a routine for the dog, which pretty much all dogs like. For reactive dogs, though, it creates a sense of predictability, and helps them know both what to expect, and what is expected of them. This relieves some of their anxiety.

Reorienting also teaches the dog impulse control; instead of rushing off to check out the exciting new environment, the dog learns to contain himself and check in with you first. This, in turn, leads to increased team work and attention to the handler- skills we definitely want in our performance dogs!

Finally, reorienting helps mitigate some of the sudden environmental changes that happen when you move from one location to another, largely because the dog becomes patterned to look at you automatically instead of scanning the environment for a potential trigger.

Ironically, after Alexa discussed the value of reorienting at the seminar on Saturday, I experienced first hand how valuable reorienting can be. Maisy and I were walking out of our hotel room, and as we headed into the hallway, an older man was walking towards us. Because Maisy has not learned to automatically reorient to me, she shot to the end of her leash and barked and growled. She was truly over threshold; nothing I said or did was able to get her attention. Although I’m quite sure she would have been nervous about the man no matter what, I believe that if she’d been conditioned to automatically turn to me, there is a decent chance I could have prevented that reaction. Needless to say, I’m going to teach Maisy to reorient!

So, how do you teach reorienting? Alexa had us start with the dogs exiting their crates. In turn, we each opened the crate door and fed a constant stream of treats as long as the dog remained inside the crate. If he tried to exit without a release cue, we calmly shut the crate door and then tried again. Pretty soon, we had a group of dogs that really enjoyed being in their crates! This step helped create some impulse control in the dogs.

Next, we stood next to the crate so that we were facing the same direction as our dogs, and called them out. As they did, we watched for the tiniest movement in our direction. Even an ear flick or a slight head turn earned the dog a click and treat. Each time, we waited for a little bit more of a turn in our direction. It really didn’t take long for the dogs to rush out, make the u-turn towards us, and plop down, watching us expectantly. (The sit, while not necessary, is nice. It is an added demonstration of self-control, and it also means that if your dog is feeling especially wild, you have a better chance of catching him if he's loose.)

Astute readers will notice that we didn’t give any cues, verbal or otherwise. We didn’t ask them to “wait” before getting out of the crate, and we didn’t call their name or otherwise ask them to pay attention to us. This was a deliberate choice, because we want the dog to learn to reorient to us based on environmental cues. The cue to seek out the handler is the transition from one location to another, not anything we said or did. This gives the dog the ability to think and make the right choice, which creates both confidence and self-control. It also means that you don’t need to be constantly nagging your dog with commands, something that I find mighty appealing.

Once the dogs were easily reorienting while coming out of their crates, we worked on reorienting while walking into a box made out of ring gates. Again, the process was similar. We would approach the opening to the ring, and stop and wait. Some dogs automatically reoriented, while others would take a few moments before they turned back towards their handlers, impatient about the lack of movement. At the first sign of turning towards us, we clicked! We repeated the process again as we moved through the gate into the interior of the ring. After only a few repetitions, the dogs were offering up the reorienting behavior on their own.

This is something that would be easy to practice at home. Practice it when your dog comes out of his crate, as you let him into the back yard, or as you go through the gate to your fenced in yard. All of these are pretty low-distraction environments, so it should be easy for your dog to learn. Once he gets good at the game, you can make it more challenging by putting a toy or bowl of treats on the other side of the boundary.

Reorienting a simple behavior, but it’s a powerful one, too. Like I said, I’ll definitely be working on this one with Maisy. But I want to hear from you guys. Have you taught your dogs to reorient? Has it ever helped you and your dog? I’d love to hear your examples!

Friday, August 27, 2010

CU Seminar: Crate Time

Photo by Robin Sallie.

In my last entry, I laid out a plan for teaching Maisy how to get my attention. In the comments, Laura (rightly so) questioned the wisdom of this. Do I really want to teach Maisy to be pushy? Wouldn’t it be better to teach her impulse control? I know this sounds contradictory, but the answer to both questions is yes.

See, the truth is, Maisy already has a “demand behavior.” She’s barking, growling and lunging at other dogs in an effort to get my attention. And let’s face it: it works. No matter how hard I try, I can’t completely ignore it. It’s also embarrassing, and if she’s going to persist in being obnoxiously pushy, she might as well do it in a quieter, more socially acceptable way.

Beyond that, though, I really believe that she needs a way to alert me to her needs. We already have one way in the Look at That game, which Maisy only initiates when she’s feeling anxious about something, but she needs something she can do when I’m not looking at her. While teaching her a demand behavior may backfire (and knowing this dog, it’s quite possible!), I think there is enough potential value that it’s worth the risk.

Still, I don’t exactly want a pushy dog, either. And I certainly don’t want her to be dependent on me for all her needs. My ultimate goal is to help her become confident enough to relax in the face of stress without any intervention on my behalf. Which leads me to the second (and probably more important) thing I got out of the CU seminar: creating a plan to help Maisy learn how to relax.

I already knew this was important- after all, part of the problems we’ve had at trials is waiting for our turn. I really wanted Maisy to have a safe space where she could relax, but I didn’t know how to create this for her. While a crate seemed like the ideal choice, Maisy often became reluctant to go near it after a few hours at a trial site. I experimented with using her mat as a safe space instead, but this was problematic, too. Without the solid barriers that a crate can offer, the visual stimulation became too much for her, and she often seemed more stressed by the end of the day than when she’d been in the crate.

I knew that I needed to build enough value for her crate that she’d happily hang out in there, so we began playing Crate Games. As a result, Maisy is comfortable in her crate at home, but we’ve still struggled with being calm in her crate in other places. Luckily, the seminar provided exactly the opportunity we needed: 10 hours in a new, yet relatively low-stress, environment so we could practice.

At first, Maisy seemed uncomfortable. She shifted positions a lot, peeked out the top, and just generally had difficulty relaxing. I tossed a treat in her crate every 20-30 seconds or so, and dropped in a handful of treats every time she lay down. Soon, she was lying there quietly, rolled on to one hip with her chin on the ground, and I was able to gradually lengthen the time up to two minutes between treats.

The seminar provided the jumpstart we needed, because by the end of the weekend, I had a crate junkie. More importantly, it helped me turn my goal of “help Maisy be more comfortable in her crate” into a fully formed plan. Here’s what it looks like:

First and foremost, do the Relaxation Protocol from start to finish. Although Maisy and I have played with it from time to time, we’ve never completed all fifteen days, mostly because it’s mind-numbingly boring. Still, Alexa encouraged all of us seminar attendees to do it with our dogs. I’m modifying it slightly; we’ll do it lying instead of sitting, and in her crate instead of on a mat.

Next, we need to continue to build duration. I’ve created a schedule which starts with Maisy lying quietly in her crate for a duration of five minutes, receiving a treat every 30 seconds, and ending 42 steps later with a duration of an hour, with treats every five minutes. I’ll repeat each step with her until she is relaxed before moving on to the next step. Once we’ve completed the entire process, we’ll take it on the road, first at training class, then to a local obedience club, and finally, as the ultimate test, we’ll go to run-throughs or trials that allow unentered dogs on site.

Finally, I’ll incorporate impulse control and off-switch games with her crate. I’ll talk more about how to do this in the future- Alexa spent a fair amount of time on both, and I think it’s important enough information to dedicate an entire post to the subject- but suffice it to say, the entire program ought to teach Maisy how to relax in her crate even when she’s aroused or distracted.

Since all of these things are incredibly important, but not terribly exciting to do, I’ve decided that I’m going to retire Maisy from competition until we've done this. Returning to trialing is dependent upon both completing the entire relaxation protocol, and the real world test of laying quietly in her crate in a new environment for an entire hour, with treats no more often than once every five minutes.

I know that this is going to be boring, and you all can expect a whiny post from me in a week or two about how this is the dumbest idea I’ve ever had. When that happens, remind me that the result is going to be awesome, okay? Because I really think that this is one of the biggest things missing in Maisy’s foundation. Boring or not, I really believe this is the change we’ve needed, and I’m excited to see it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

CU Seminar: Developing Better Communication

With my attention elsewhere, the probability that Maisy will have a reactive outburst increases substantially... but why?
(Photo by Robin Sallie.)

I love going to trials, but I find them exhausting. Maisy needs constant management in order to stay calm. If I keep my full attention on her, I can see and respond to her stress points so that she does not lunge, growl, bark, or otherwise act poorly. However, if I shift my attention elsewhere for even a moment- to check the rule book, for example- she tends to lose it.

After our last two trials, I realized something needed to change. Not only was I finding the experience to be more frustrating than fun, but I also felt like a hypocrite. After all, I had been writing about whether or not reactive dogs should be allowed to trial, and if so, what skills they need or behaviors they ought to exhibit, and here I was with a dog who lost her mind both in and out of the ring.

But I love going to trials, and Maisy appears happy in the videos. Stressed or not, I don’t think she needs to stop going. She may not care about going one way or the other- I fully recognize she’d be just as happy going hiking at the state park- but at this point, I don’t think that it’s wrong to take her to trials. Even so, I knew that we needed to get some of this reactive behavior under control so that we can both enjoy trialing more. The problem was, I had no idea how to do that.

Fast-forward to the seminar this weekend. I went with my friend/trainer, Robin, which was awesome. Not only was she excellent road-trip company (thanks again for driving!), but she also sat next to Maisy and I at the seminar. We had the same issue that we have at trials: Maisy’s fine as long as I’m paying attention to her, but when I look away, she behaves reactively. The interesting thing was what Robin saw…

As way of explanation, you should know that Maisy has been trained to play the Look at That game. The way we use it is that when she sees something that stresses her out, she looks at it and then whips back to look at me for her treat. I notice this, reassure her that the scary thing isn’t a big deal, and then Maisy’s fine. But if I miss her cue, she growls (or lunges or barks).

When Maisy did just that this weekend, Robin said that she growled while still staring at me, not at the trigger. Which means that the problem wasn’t that she was being reactive, but instead, that she doesn’t know how to communicate with me when she can’t make eye contact! In fact, she was doing exactly what I’ve taught her to do- look at the trigger and look back. When that failed to get her the reassurance she needs, Maisy, being a smart dog, found another way to get my attention.

Suddenly, all the pieces began to fall into place. Although I already knew that Maisy’s reactive behavior was fake- that is, that she was only acting reactive, not feeling reactive- I had misunderstood the motive. I thought that I’d created this mutant behavior chain of pretend to react/receive treat, so I’d been ignoring the behavior I didn’t like.

Truth be told, while this probably was part of the problem, it wasn’t the complete picture. Yes, the reactivity was fake, and yes, she probably did figure out she’d get a treat. But she also figured something else out: she could get my attention by doing this. So, while I had had mild success with the “ignore the behavior you don’t want” approach, it still left a huge void. In the absence of clear instructions on what to do, Maisy kept falling back on the only behavior she knew.

So, what’s the solution? Well, I do think I was on the right track. Ignoring the behavior does send her the message that it doesn’t work. However, I also need to teach her an alternate way to get my attention… something that is quiet and polite, but also quite obvious. Something that doesn’t require me to be looking at her. Something easy…

Something like targeting. I’ll talk about this in more detail soon, but a lot of the Control Unleashed exercises involve targeting, a point which Alexa made several times throughout the seminar. Going to place is a targeting exercise. Reorienting to the handler is a targeting exercise. Even Look at That is a (visual) targeting exercise.

Interestingly, Maisy has recently begun to do some of this herself. There have been a few instances where I’ve set Maisy up in heel position, and then turned to talk to someone. If I didn’t return to the exercise quickly enough for her tastes, Maisy took it upon herself to poke my leg with her nose, a gesture I interpreted as, “Hey, we’ve got work to do here!” What I need to do now is to capture this offered behavior, and teach her that it's a better way to get my attention than to growl or lunge.

So, here’s my plan: I’m going to start by doing some simple targeting exercises. She already knows how to touch my palm with her nose on cue, but I’ll transfer this behavior to touching my leg. Once that’s solid, I’ll begin giving her the leg-touch cue after her fake-reactive-outbursts.

Do I run the risk of creating an even more annoying behavior chain? Yes, I suppose I do, which is why I’m planning on ignoring the outburst, waiting five seconds or so, and then cuing the leg-touch (and then jackpotting the heck out of that leg-touch). By doing this, I’m hoping to minimize the attention she gets for the reactive behavior, and maximizing the attention she gets for an alternate behavior. If I’m lucky, she’ll just decide that it’s easier to just cut to the chase and offer the leg-touch instead of the growling or lunging.

Incidentally, I thought about adding the leg-touch as another step to her Look at That behavior, but ultimately chose not to because it would muddy up the criteria for her “look” behavior. I really like the way LAT works for us right now, and I don’t want to change that. Also, it would probably be annoying for her to leg-touch me that much.

Will this work? I have no idea, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Even if it doesn’t, I’ve still gained new insight into why my dog acts the way she does. At any rate, you all will be among the first to know how it works out for us.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Getting Unstuck

At the Control Unleashed Seminar. Photo by Robin Sallie.

I’ve been feeling kind of dejected lately. I know that’s silly- Maisy has made a ton of progress over the last year, and I am very proud of her. Still, behavior modification is slow work, and sometimes it’s a bit disheartening to realize you’ve been working on your dog’s issues for over a year and still aren’t where you want to be.

This is nothing new, of course. In the time since I’ve started this blog, I’ve gone through similar funks twice, once back in December, and once in February, when I actually contemplated retiring Maisy from dog sports. I chose not to at the time, but after our last trial, I began to think about retirement again.

These thoughts were fueled by a conversation I had with someone who, upon hearing how hard I have to work at managing Maisy at trials, wondered why I bothered at all. The truth is, I really enjoy trials, enough that I’m willing to put in the hard work of behavior modification. And while Maisy doesn’t care about the ribbons or the social aspects of trials, she does enjoy being with me- enough, I think, that she, too, is willing to participate in the hard work.

Despite our mutual willingness to work on our issues, I’ve continued to question whether or not it’s fair to subject her to the stress of both the training and the trials. She’s come far enough in training that’s she’s a perfectly pleasant pet, able to enjoy walks and family outings, and shouldn't that be enough?

So, for the last few weeks, I’ve been pondering the ethical implications of trialing with a reactive dog. I had been leaning towards taking a temporary break from competition while we continue to work on our issues, but I felt stuck. I had no idea what needed to happen before we could go back to trials, and I knew that unless I could figure that out, our temporary break would turn into a permanent one… something I didn’t want.

At about the same time that I was wrestling with all this, I learned about a Control Unleashed seminar that was happening in Omaha, Nebraska. While that’s a bit of a drive, these seminars are pretty rare, so I jumped on the opportunity. What’s more, there was a working spot available, so this past weekend, I took Maisy to the seminar, which was taught by Leslie’s friend and one of the authorized seminar presenters, Alexa Karaoulis.

There was a lot of review- remember, Maisy and I have been attending CU-style classes for over a year now- but it really reminded me how important a good foundation is, and there are definitely a few areas where I can shore things up for Maisy. I also saw different ways to teach familiar things (Alexa teaches Look at That differently than I taught it to Maisy), and I grew a deeper appreciation for positive training in general.

More importantly, though, I learned more about my dog and about her reactivity. My feelings of dejection are gone now, replaced by hope and enthusiasm. I still don't have all the answers, but I have a better understanding of what Maisy needs from me in order to succeed. I have some ideas on how to move forward, and I have complete faith that in the long run, this will only deepen our relationship further. And when it comes down to it, that's all that really matters anyway.

I can't wait to get started. And I can't wait to share it with you all.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

She Trusts Me!

Sometimes, dogs are reactive because they feel they need to take charge. For whatever reason, they’ve decided that the best way to take care of an anxiety-provoking situation is to act instead of looking to their handler to take care of it for them. For the longest time, Maisy has been a take-charge kind of gal, and I’ve always felt a bit sad about this. I felt like I was doing something wrong, letting her down somehow. Even though I’ve gotten a lot better about protecting her over the past year, Maisy has continued to feel the need to take care of things herself instead of turning to me to do it.

In the last couple of weeks, however, Maisy has finally begun to trust me with more responsibility. In our reactive dog class last week, we were doing our usual “box work,” where each dog does some simple exercises with a high rate of reinforcement in order to develop the ability to focus and work when other dogs are around. Maisy was one of the watchers- she was supposed to remain calm and on her mat while the other dogs did silly things like interact with a tippy board.

The tippy board, basically a miniature teeter, made some banging noises, which caused Maisy to get a bit upset. However, instead of barking or lunging, Maisy instead got off her mat and sat pressed up next to my leg. She still watched what was going on, and she was still distressed by it, but instead of reacting, she appeared to be letting me handle the situation! (For my part, I told her how awesome she is, fed her a few treats, and then quietly took her out of sight of the scary tippy board.)

As if that weren’t cool enough, she did the same thing around some kids! Long-term readers will remember that Maisy has conflicting feelings about children. She’s interested in them, but at the same time, they kind of scare her. I don’t blame her: they can be loud, they tend to run around erratically, and they don’t do a very good job of stopping when they should.

Anyway, we were invited to join my father-in-law for a family cookout at a nearby golf resort. I debated whether or not to bring Maisy along, because I knew there would be kids present, but as it turned out, she did fabulous. There were two young girls there, ages 3 and 2, who thought Maisy’s “trick” of repeatedly bringing back a tennis ball was fabulous. For her part, Maisy thought that their “trick” of repeatedly throwing it was pretty awesome, too.

Well, at least she did until the girls began chasing her when she was chasing the ball. I could see by her body language that Maisy was getting overwhelmed, and the last time that happened, she air-snapped at my nephew. She didn’t make contact- didn’t even come close- but because I live in the world of better safe than sorry, I decided I’d better step in earlier this time. But before I got a chance to call Maisy away from the girls, she trotted over, put me between her and them, and pressed herself up against my side!

I was so proud! It’s one thing to make good choices in class- it’s highly structured, and we go to the same place and see the same dogs every week- but it’s another thing entirely to make good choices in a new environment with new people around. Despite the challenges, Maisy was still able to say, “Mom, could you please take care of this, please?” So I did, feeling honored that she finally asked.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

100th Post!

When I first started this blog, I had no idea what I was going to do with it... or even if I'd post regularly! Well, I've clearly made blogging a habit, and one that I quite enjoy at that! As for content, I thought it would be mostly a chronicle of personal stories about Maisy with limited appeal to others. Instead, it's morphed into part personal stories, part information and education. And I'm constantly surprised by someone new commenting.

Today, I'd like to celebrate what this blog has become by hosting my first ever giveaway! I'm really excited about this, because Jessi of Cholula Jewelry has agreed to provide a custom, hand stamped dog tag to the winner! Her jewelry is gorgeous; please go check it out.

The winner of this contest will win their choice of either the paw print tag seen above (see more views here), or a bone tag (see it here.)

As an added bonus, Jess, a dog trainer in Southwestern Minnesota, is offering any Lupine collar in her store so you can show off that gorgeous tag properly!

Alternatively, if you win and already have a tag and/or collar you just love, you can elect for a surprise dog toy to be sent to you instead.

To enter, all you have to do is comment below! Although it's not required, I would absolutely love it if you'd give me some feedback in the process. Tell me which post of mine you enjoyed the most, or what types of posts you'd like to see more of in the future. Make sure that I will be able to contact you- either by having your email address in your blog profile, or by leaving the address in the comment. I will choose a random commenter on Monday, August 23rd.

Thanks, everyone! Your comments and feedback have really challenged me and helped me grow. You've encouraged me and cheered me on! I have really enjoyed the blogging community, and look forward to another 100 posts!

Thanks to everyone who entered my contest. I chose a random number:

And found the matching comment:

So, congratulations to Krecik, our winner! Incidentally, Krecik makes gorgeous plushies. Go check out the puppies she's made- they're amazing!

Thanks to everyone who entered. The next 100 posts are going to be amazing thanks to your feedback!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Supplements for Reactive Dogs, Part 6: Homeopathic Remedies and Flower Essences

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.

Homeopathic Remedies
What is it? How does it work?
Homepathy is based on the “law of similars,” in which a substance that causes the symptoms of the disease being targeted is given; this is said to enhance the body’s ability to heal itself. The remedies involve diluting different plants (such as herbs or flowers) in water or alcohol. The level of dilution is expressed in numbers such as 2X or 1C, with higher numbers indicating a more dilute substance. Homeopathic remedies come either as liquids or small, dissolvable granules.

The specific homeopathic remedies I’ve seen referenced for reactive dogs includes PetCalm, and Newton Homeopathic’s Fear and Nervousness.

What are the risks of using it?
Homeopathic remedies are generally considered safe. Proponents of their use say they are natural, and diluted so that they are not dangerous. Critics claim that since they are nothing more than water and alcohol, they are therefore safe. They do note that the most serious risk of homeopathic remedies is the failure to obtain conventional medical care when warranted.

Availability and dosing considerations.
Homeopathic remedies are widely available on the internet, as well as from holistic vets. The doses should be listed on the bottle’s label.

Are there any scientific studies supporting its use in canines?
This review of research done on homeopathic remedies found that studies which had favorable results tended to be smaller, and of poorer quality. It concluded that there is weak evidence supporting the use of homeopathy, and that improvements were largely due to the placebo effect. Other studies have found that there is a placebo effect in an owner’s interpretation of their pet’s health, and possibly a placebo effect in theanimal itself.

Flower Essences
What is it? How does it work?
Flower essences are similar to homeopathic remedies in that they are diluted in water or alcohol, however, they are not chosen based on the “like cures like” philosophy of homeopathy. The are based on the belief that illness is caused by imbalances in the body, and that the essence of the flower can help the body achieve balance, and thus heal itself.

What are the risks of using it?
Like homeopathy, there are few risks of using flower essences.

Availability and dosing considerations.
Flower essences are widely available on the internet, from holistic vets, and in health food stores. The most common brand name is Bach, although others are available. Dosing instructions are given on the label.

Are there any scientific studies supporting its use in canines?
This literature review suggests that the effectiveness of flower remedies is nothing more than a placebo effect. This study studied the effect of flower essences for anxiety, and concluded the same thing.

On a personal note, I do use Bach’s Rescue Remedy for both myself and Maisy. Although I cannot speak for Maisy, I have found a measurable reduction in ring nerves when I take the Rescue Remedy. It may be a placebo effect, but I don’t care. I feel better, and there’s little risk involved, so I continue using it.

I also use a variety of homeopathic remedies, including flower essences with Maisy. The flower essences are targeted specifically for her reactivity. About six weeks ago, I ran out of her flower essences. I didn't think they made a big difference, so I didn't rush to refill them. However, after about two weeks, she became incredibly jumpy around the house, although I didn't notice much change outside the house. We just started up on them again this week, and she already seems calmer. Placebo effect? I don't know, but I like her behavior (or my perception of her behavior) when she's on them!

Edit February 2015: Why I Chose Medication Instead of Supplements 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Who's training who?

There’s a saying that during every moment spent with a dog, one of you is training the other. Now, I probably spend more time than the average person training my dog, both in formal training sessions and by simply requesting a behavior before doing something she wants, like throwing her ball, which is why it always comes as such a surprise when I discover that she’s trained me to do something.

Recently, Maisy trained me to give her a cookie in the mornings. If I do, she will reinforce my cookie-giving behavior by going outside. If I don’t, she will decline to go outside, and instead remain in bed.

Here’s what happened: The Husband and I both work full-time during the day. I leave first, and for awhile, left the dog-letting-out duty to him so that she’d get “last call” as late as possible. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to be pressed for time in the mornings, which meant that sometimes he’d skip letting her out. To Maisy’s credit, she really didn’t have any accidents. Even so, I felt it was unhealthy to go from 10pm the night before until 4:30pm without peeing, so I decided that I’d be the one to let her out in the mornings.

The problem was, she wasn’t interested in going! Instead, she would much rather remain in bed with The Husband, and when I’d ask her if she’d like to go out, she’d barely open her eyes. When I told her that going out wasn’t really optional, she’d lift her head and look at me sleepily, clearly not interested in moving. She’s obviously not a morning person- er, dog- and there was no amount of begging or demanding that would get her out of bed.

So I resorted to bribery. One morning, after Maisy ignored my calls, I rattled her treat jar. Being essentially a stomach with fur and legs, she came running, and once out of bed, happily went outside. I was pleased that she had responded so well, and was hopeful that she would come a bit more promptly in the future. But the next morning, I was back to where I began, desperately rattling her treat jar.

Although she’s coming a bit more readily now, she won’t actually go out without the treat. If I try to shove her out the door, she’ll immediately bark to come back in. If, on the other hand, I give her the treat before sending her outside, she’ll happily putter around the back yard for 5-10 minutes before coming back in.

I guess I can’t really blame her, though. Given the choice between staying in bed to snuggle with The Husband, and getting up to go to work, I know where I’d rather be. It’s only the promise of a paycheck that gets me out of bed, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that she feels the same way.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Fixing a LAT Gone Wrong

Who, me? Bark and lunge at things? Never!

In my last entry, I cautioned people who are playing the Look at That (LAT) game to make sure their dog is sub-threshold. If not, you might end up with a dog like mine, who has learned this annoying behavior chain of barking and lunging, then returning to me for a treat.

It’s been seven months or so since we figured out that’s what Maisy was doing, and while we’ve made progress, she still does it. Trust me- even though it’s a bit slower in the beginning, in the long run, it will be easier and faster to do it right. Still, I made the mistake, and I know I’m not alone in that. Since LAT is such a great game for reactive dogs, I wanted to share with others how I’ve been fixing a LAT gone wrong.

First, make sure you’re working sub-threshold. You do not want your dog to continue to practice the behavior. If your dog barks and lunges, regardless of whether it’s due to anxiety, or as part of a behavior chain, move away. There’s no reason to add to the problem. Do not give a treat, and resist the urge to speak. Simply move away.

Next, if you’ve attached a cue to the behavior, change it. The cue you’re using now has come to mean “look at that dog, bark and lunge at it, and return to me.” That’s what your dog thinks you want when you give the cue, so don’t give it. Use a new word and start over. Although you could try to teach the behavior with a trigger, I think it makes more sense to start with a neutral object, like a stuffed animal hidden behind your back. Using a neutral object should change the picture enough to prevent the barking and lunging.

Once your dog understands the new cue, you can start using it with triggers, but again, make sure you’re sub-threshold. Start with lots of distance in order to prevent any lunging and ruining the new cue, too. Gradually reduce the distance, but don’t rush things. You want your new cue to mean look, not bark-and-lunge, and there's no need to hurry this process along.

Since the beauty of LAT is that your dog learns that seeing a trigger is a cue to look back at you, changing the name of the behavior alone won’t fix the problem. You’re going to need to implement an extinction plan. Extinction happens when a learned behavior is no longer reinforced. If a behavior no longer results in the expected reward, the behavior is unlikely to continue. We’re going to make the behavior of look-bark-lunge-return quit paying.

To do this, continue to play LAT as normal. When the dog looks, click and treat. I like to increase the reinforcement by using higher value treats or by using jackpots. I have no idea if it makes a difference, but I do it anyway. When the dog looks and barks or lunges, do not click, and do not treat. Take a few steps backwards in order to increase the distance (and hopefully get your dog sub-threshold in the event the behavior was motivated by anxiety instead of the result of a learned behavior chain), but otherwise do not react. Do not look at your dog. Do not talk to your dog. If you were talking to someone, continue the conversation without pause. Carry on as if nothing happened.

Keep in mind that when you use an extinction program, you are likely to get an extinction burst, which is a temporary increase in the frequency, duration or intensity of the behavior. If you’re not expecting it, it will look like the behavior is getting worse, but in reality, this is how you know it’s working. Extinction bursts typically happen quickly (although not every animal will go through one) and the length of time they last is generally related to how long the behavior has paid off in the past.

The downfall of extinction programs is two-fold. First, there is the possibility of spontaneous recovery, where the dog tries the behavior again in the future. This can happen long after you thought you got rid of that pesky behavior! The good news is that even when a behavior spontaneously reoccurs, the intensity and duration is typically lower, and it will continue to get lower each time.

The other downfall of extinction programs is that they can be environmentally dependent. That is, while the dog may understand that barking, lunging, and looking back to you no longer works with bikes, they may need to go through the entire process again for big black dogs. And balloons. And children. And every other trigger they have.

For these reasons, you really are better off teaching LAT correctly in the first place! I know I sound like a broken record, but when you’re working with a reactive dog, it’s important to remain sub-threshold. Slow and steady really does win the race.

Alright, now it’s your turn. Someone please tell me that I’m not the only one that’s screwed up this behavior! For those of you who have, how did you fix it? Did you use an approach similar to mine? Even if you haven’t made the same mistake I have, can you think of any other suggestions to fix the error? I know I have some really smart people reading, and I’d love to hear what you would do!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Look at That!

In my work with Maisy, I have used the principles and games from Leslie McDevitt’s great book Control Unleashed as the foundation. And, of all of the excellent stuff in that book, my absolute favorite tool has been a game called Look at That (LAT for short). I use LAT constantly, and it has brought Maisy and me a long way.

So what is LAT? When you cue your dog to “Look at That,” you are telling your dog to look at a trigger, and then look back at you for a treat. This behavior is deceptively simple, and sometimes even seems a bit counter-intuitive. Why would you want your dog to look at something that upsets it? Well, in the words of Leslie herself, LAT works by “simultaneously building focus and changing attitudes” (page 122). Strictly speaking, while it isn’t counter-conditioning, it does tend to have the same effect, and teaches the dog to associate triggers with yummy foods.

But LAT goes far beyond that. It also reframes the entire experience for the dog. In the past, looking at a trigger has been a scary proposition, and has likely resulted in reactive behavior. By playing LAT, the dog learns to look at a trigger not out of discomfort or fear, but in order to earn a treat. The entire reason for looking changes. What’s more, since LAT requires the dog to look at the trigger and then back to the handler, it teaches the dog to interrupt itself. This prevents the dog from fixating on the trigger, and instead to focus on you! Finally, the trigger eventually becomes the cue to look at you, which means you don’t have to worry about spotting the trigger first.

Teaching LAT is incredibly simple. You’ll need two things: a clicker and a handful of treats. Although you can use a verbal marker, I think you will get better, faster results if you use a clicker, especially in the early stages where the dog hasn’t yet learned that looking at a trigger will be rewarded. This is because the dog will be focused on the trigger and may have difficulty hearing you, especially if that “fight or flight” part of the brain is engaged. The sound of the clicker can bypass that, and will get processed directly by the amygdala, which means your dog is more likely to respond than if you used your voice. (For more information, check out chapter 10 of Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor. It’s an amazing book.)

To teach LAT, take your dog, your clicker, and your treats out where you are likely to encounter a trigger. When your dog looks at it, click! Your dog should look back at you to get her treat. If she doesn’t, give the treat, and then move back 5-10 feet so that it’s easier. If you’re struggling to get your dog to look back at you despite the increased distance, or if your dog cannot remain sub-threshold (able to think, and not barking or growling), it’s best to teach the cue with a neutral target object instead of a trigger. To do this, hold an item behind your back (anything works, like a ball or a stuffed animal). Quickly hold it out to your side. Your dog will likely follow the movement, and you can click and reward.

Dogs quickly learn to look at the trigger and then look back at you for a treat. Once they’re doing that, you can attach a cue to the behavior (I say “look!”), although I tend to rely on the presence of a trigger to be the cue to look at me instead of actually telling her to look. Either way, the dog learns that seeing a trigger not only predicts good things happening, but also knows that it can do something to earn that good thing!

I’ve already mentioned it, but just to be absolutely clear: your dog must be under threshold. If she is barking or growling, you are too close, and you cannot play this game. Back up and try again. If you don’t, you’re going to end up with a dog that thinks the game is not Look at That, but rather, Bark at That… or worse, Lunge at That. As someone who didn’t heed the sub-threshold warning well enough, trust me, this is not something you want. Remember, what you click is what you get. Make sure you want what you’re clicking!

Even though I messed up this game a bit in the beginning (more on that soon), I still love it. It’s an easy way to counter-condition, and Maisy has definitely learned to self-interrupt. Since the game chains in eye contact with the handler, it’s automatically built in increased focus and attention. Her reactivity has reduced considerably, and I suspect that had I not made the mistake of going over-threshold with her in the beginning, we’d be even further. I’ll write more about how to fix a LAT gone wrong soon, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you guys. Have you tried Look at That? If so, how did it work for you? Did you love it, like I do, or did you struggle with it? Let me know!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Skills Reactive Dogs Need for Trials

Maisy reluctantly shows off her impulse control skills.

We all know that success in dog sports requires a lot of work. Your dog needs to learn a lot of skills- and learn them well- in order to break into the ribbons. But for reactive dogs, learning the exercises is the easy part. Of all the time I spend training each week, 25% of it- at most (and probably less)- is spent on performance exercises. The rest is devoted to teaching my dog the skills she will need to cope with the stress and chaos that you find at trials. What are those skills? Well, I’ve come up with four things that I think every reactive performance dog needs to learn.

Impulse Control
It’s been my personal theory that reactive dogs tend to have impulse control issues. Am I right? I have no idea! But it makes sense to me; if a dog gets stressed and overwhelmed, there are basically two choices: to shut down, or to over-react. It seems logical that the dog who has impulse control issues would be the reactive one. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but a dog who can learn to control his impulses with low-stress things is going to be better prepared to deal with high-stress things than the dog who has no impulse control at all.

My favorite way to teach impulse control is by teaching “wait.” This is not a formal stay- it’s a temporary ceasing of activity- and there are about a million ways you can practice during the day. Wait for your food bowl. Wait to go out the door. Wait while I open the crate or car door. Wait at a street corner. Wait while I throw the ball. Lately I’ve even been able to stop Maisy’s forward motion simply by saying, “Wait!”

There are other great ways to teach impulse control, too. “Leave it” is great for this, and so is “doggie zen”- where the dog has to not only leave an item, but make eye contact with you instead. I tend to take doggie zen to extremes- hold treats in both hands and wind-milling them around crazily, which encourages my dog to ignore both the treats and movement.

There is a ton of down-time at trials, so being able to relax while there is crucial. Maisy and I have done a ton of mat work in class, and I take it with almost everywhere we go. A natural extension of mat work is the Relaxation Protocol by Dr. Karen Overall, which encourages the dog to relax on its mat even while you’re doing crazy things.

There are a number of other options to help a dog relax, too. Maisy gets regular massages. T-Touch is also popular, and the Anxiety Wrap is often used along with T-Touch (although it didn’t help Maisy). I’m a big fan of the Through a Dog’s Ear CDs, and of course, you guys know that I am interested in and use supplements, too.

The Ability to Navigate a Busy Environment
This is a more practical skill, but anyone who has been to a trial will recognize the need for any dog- not only reactive ones- to be able to walk through a crowd. There will inevitably be people and dogs milling about, sometimes right near the ring entrance, and your dog simply has to be able to do this. In fact, while you could get away with managing the relaxation piece (by keeping your dog in the car, for example), unless you have a very small dog that you can carry, your dog simply must learn this skill.

Teaching a competition heel is helpful, of course, but for really tight spaces, I like to use targeting. For taller dogs, I suppose a nose bridge or “sticky target” would be especially useful- where the dog maintains physical contact with you- but I simply point a finger for Maisy to watch. It’s been surprisingly effective and easy, and gives her something else to focus on, which allows us to easily move from place to place while at trials.

A Rock-Solid Interrupt Cue
Part of the trouble with reactive behavior is that when a dog begins to approach (or worse, go over) their stress threshold, their brains begin moving to that “fight or flight” state, and quit processing your verbal cues as well as it should. This means you have to work very hard to create a rock-solid cue that you can use to interrupt your dog’s behavior. (You also have to have the presence of mind to use it, which is another story entirely.)

You can use any cue you want- come, leave it, watch me, whatever- but the cue should be useful in any situation. I think my favorite one is to create a “whiplash turn” to the dog’s name. No matter what you choose, you’re going to classically condition your dog just like Pavlov’s dogs so that they don’t even think about what you’ve asked, they just automatically do it in response to the stimulus.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with this list? If so, tell me how you teach these skills. Would you add anything to this list? Remove something? Tell me about that, too! If you trial with a reactive dog, how much time do you spend on general coping skills vs. actual performance? I’d love to hear about your experiences!