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.


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I think you're spot on with Maisy's analysis. As soon as i started reading this post I jumped to the same conclusion of Maisy's plea for attention.

I think you have an interesting way of doing it though. do you think that she NEEDS a way to get your attention because of insecurity and as a way of preventing an outburst? I only ask because you are teaching her a way to DEMAND your attention at that moment. A thing that can definitely be helpful if you think she needs it because of her reactivity, but if she doesn't need to know how to demand attention in this pushy way then I would probably go about it differently. With Vito, not reactive in Maisy's sense, I just rewarded attention to me when I wasn't looking at him, gradually lengthening time between treats and strengthening impulse control.

Crystal said...

Well... honestly, she already HAS a demand behavior- the growling/barking/lunging. I'm just trying to change it into a more socially acceptable demand behavior.

But to answer your question, yes, I do think she needs my attention sometimes. She never initiates LAT unless she's stressed, and this weekend, Robin noted that prior to looking at me (and then growling), she would tense up first. This indicates to me that she's feeling anxious, and really does need me to reassure her that everything is fine.

I'm actually really pleased that she's able to stop staring at the trigger and instead looks to me for guidance. Of course, it is my intention to teach her to how to cope without my intervention at all, so that she won't even NEED my reassurance. Ultimately, I want her to be able to confident enough to relax, even when it's stressful.

I actually have a plan on how to accomplish THAT, too, but this post got a bit too long to include that. That's just as well, because it really deserves its own post anyway.

K said...

interesting post and I can't wait to read about your next plan as I think it might just help us!

Cinnamon said...

In this post you have written both what I have been feeling and what I didn't think about.

The former is that the dog starts to react as soon as the handler's attention on it diverts somewhere else. Cinnamon is just like that. So, I always find it difficult to keep my attention on Cinnamon while listening to the instructor in the class.

The latter is that the handler could teach the dog an obvious way to tell the handler that the dog wants attention from the handler for reassurance, whether it is a good idea or not. Cinnamon also touches my leg when she wants my attention. If she needs some reassurance from me, it might not be a bad idea to teach her to touch my leg when she wants my attention, at least at this stage. Or, if the touching itself becomes enough to make her feel reassured, that will be better.

I look forward to your report on how it went for you.

Cinnamon's mum

Crystal said...

Oooh, how interesting that you and Cinnamon have the same problem. I've done a lot of reading on reactive dogs, but there have been a number of things that the books don't cover. I was beginning to think that we were just weird/unusual, but then I get a comment like yours...

I have no idea how this plan will turn out, but I'm excited to see. It would be especially cool if the touching itself could be enough to reassure our dogs.

Sara (and Layla) said...

I never would have thought of the reasoning behind Maisy's "fake reactions," but this totally makes sense!

Layla's cue that she needs my attention is taking a deep breath. This may not sound like something that would be obvious or demanding, but believe me, it is! She'll take in a big breath, then blow it out through her nose quickly, making a huffing noise. Arousal is a major challenge for us, so I wanted a behavior that would not allow her to get more amped up or frantic. We actually have a heirarchy of behaviors now: if everything's okay, she'll lie quietly and watch me. If she's starting to get worried or needs my attention but it's not too bad, she offers putting her head on the ground between her front paws. If that doesn't work and she really wants to communicate that she needs something, she starts taking deep breaths and blowing them out at me. Just a note: if you ever decide to teach "take a deep breath" on cue, don't use the clicker! I accidentally shaped air snaps while trying to capture deep breathing. Oops! A soft smile to mark the behavior and fairly boring treats to reward with worked much better.

One problem we've run into with targeting is that it allows her to become more amped, and she'll offer harder and harder pokes as her arousal level increases. This wouldn't be a problem, except that if she's amped she's more likely to redirect and pinch me with her incisors - which hurts like hell and leaves an interesting bruise! I think Maisy has much better impulse control than Layla, but wanted to mention this potentially painful downfall of targeting. I've had some interesting bruises on the back of my knee. :( As far as I can remember Maisy doesn't redirect, so it's probably a non-issue.

LOVING the CU seminar posts (and pictures)!

Crystal said...


I'm not too worried about redirection. Maisy doesn't really do that. I'm also not too worried about amped up targetting- she tend to "air target" when we do hand touches anyway. It's pretty hilarious (and probably the result of a mis-timed click way back in the beginning). I suppose it's possible we'll get some frantic touches if she's stressed, though...

Which means I really like your idea of deep breathing. I think I'm finally good enough with the clicker that I could work on biofeedback. In the past, I never had much luck with capturing blinks, etc, so I never tried it. I think I might have good enough clicker skills now to try it though. Although it sounds like I might want to use my verbal marker... hmm... I'll have to try out a variety of approaches.

Anonymous said...

I could see this turning into a monster of a behavior, with Maisy poking your leg all the time for attention. That said, it's definitely better than growling or having an outburst for attention.

Crystal said...

Yeah, Krecik, it's like choosing the lesser of two evils.