Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Supplements for Reactive Dogs, Part 7: Valerian Root and Chinese Medicine

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.

Valerian Root
What is it? How does it work?
Valerian is a plant which has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. The leaves can be brewed into a tea, or the root can be ground up and ingested. It has been used as an alternative to benzodiazepines because it appears to have sedative properties, and is thus used for insomnia, anxiety, and as a muscle relaxant.

What are the risks of using it?
Although there are few adverse side effects, some people have reported agitation as a result of using Valerian. It does interact with other drugs, so consult a vet prior to use. I am also personally wary of using sedatives with dogs with reactivity, largely because of the warnings against tranquilizers such as Ace.

Availability and dosing considerations.
Valerian root is available over the counter in the US. This site states that safe and effective dosing recommendations have not yet been established in pets.

Are there any scientific studies supporting its use in canines?
I could not find any canine (or animal) specific studies, and most studies on Valerian have been small, with design flaws, and had inconsistent findings.

Chinese Medicine
What is it? How does it work?
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on the belief that the body is made up of systems connected by meridians. To be healthy, your “qi” or “life energy” must be balanced. When meridians are blocked or the qi is otherwise imbalanced, you become ill. TCM seeks to balance the qi through a variety of methods.

The specific Chinese remedies I’ve heard mentioned for reactive or anxious dogs includes Reishi, which is a mushroom, Shen Calmer (sorry, I couldn’t dig up much info on it), and Calm Spirit, a combination of various roots, herbs and seeds.

What are the risks of using it?
Since the various remedies are made of everything from mushrooms to seeds, the risks also vary. Speak with your vet regarding possible drug interactions and other side effects prior to use.

Availability and dosing considerations.
Some remedies are available online, though you usually need to see a TCM practitioner in order to obtain most of them.

Are there any scientific studies supporting its use in canines?
Most of the research into TCM has been done on acupuncture. The various herbal remedies have not been well-studied, though there are many anectdotal reports supporting various preparations. I have personally had acupuncture done, and loved it. Maisy loves acupressure. As a result, I would be open to various TCM herbal remedies, but would only want to use them under the guidance of my vet.

In Conclusion: This is the last entry I've prepared on supplements for reactive dogs, but I'd be glad to do more if there's a specific supplement you're interested in. Drop me a comment and let me know. I've really enjoyed reading some of the research that I've come across.

Edit February 2015: Why I Chose Medication Instead of Supplements 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Choosing a Vet

Maisy just adored the old vet clinic. So did I.

I received some devastating news last week: my beloved vet clinic is permanently closing on Friday. I spent the first 12 hours panicking and calling and emailing everyone I know (including several local yahoogroups), looking for a vet referral. The next 12 hours were spent googling like crazy, doing a cursory review of the clinics I’d received feedback about. I reluctantly ruled a few out due to location, and in the end, narrowed down the feedback to three clinics that look promising.

I’m now in the process of touring these clinics, an undertaking which is both fascinating and overwhelming. It’s required me to think about my priorities, both in terms of what I need from a vet, and what I simply want. I then took those priorities and came up with a list of questions to ask prospective vet clinics. As a side note, I found Speaking for Spot by Dr. Nancy Kay very helpful; there is a chapter on touring vet clinics, and supplied a few additional questions. Today, I thought I’d share what the process has been like so far.

I started by making a free-form list of things that are important to me in a vet clinic. I didn’t try to organize them or rank them in order of importance, I just wrote everything down. Once I’d exhausted my brain, I labeled each item as either a “must have” or “would like to have.” In case anyone is interested, my “need” list includes: being good with fearful/anxious dogs; having a clinic-wide dedication to low-stress handling; being exceedingly patient with drama queen dogs and their paranoid owners (I’m being honestly, okay?); and accepting both dogs and cats. The “want” list includes: a clinic that uses a blend of western and holistic approaches, which I define as taking a minimal approach to vaccines, being willing to use titers (especially for rabies), being open to a raw food diet, but also being willing to use antibiotics, flea and tick preventative, and heartworm medication as needed; a clinic that will be available for urgent visits; a clinic knowledgeable in behavior, and especially positive reinforcement training; and a clinic that’s conveniently located.

From there, I created a list of questions. I went down my list and wrote down different questions I could ask in order to figure out whether or not a clinic meets that need or want. I included general, open-ended questions, as well as specific questions. I quickly realized that my questions fell into five broad categories.

Handling and Behavior
Since one of the most important things to me is how well a clinic handles my pets, I am asking specifically how they do this: What are their general procedures for restraining a pet? How many people usually help with blood draws? Who will be doing the restraint: a vet tech or a kennel assistant? How do they modify their general procedures for fearful dogs? Are they familiar with the work of Dr. Sophia Yin?

In this category, I’ve also included questions on a clinic’s knowledge of behavior. I’ve been asking scenario types of questions. What would they do if my dog growled at them while they were handling them? If my dog was having on-leash aggression, what types of tools would they recommend? Under what circumstances should I use a prong or shock collar? How should I discipline my dog when she does something naughty? All of these questions helped me suss out if they are on the same page, training-wise, as me.

Appointments and Hospitalizations
Since I really want a clinic with good urgent-appointment availability, I’ve been asking questions about making appointments. What is the length of their typical appointment? At multi-doctor practices, will we be able to see the same vet for routine visits? I also want to know about how they handle hospitalizations because I have pets with chronic health problems. Specifically, how are pets supervised overnight? Where do they recover from anesthesia (under direct supervision, or in a kennel in the back)? How do they assess stress and pain, and what are their visiting hours and policies? Can I go “in back” with my pets? Do they have an isolation ward for contagious pets?

General Orientation to Medicine
I really want a vet that will be open to alternative medicine, and yet still be able to recommend more conventional approaches when needed. As a result, I’ve been asking questions about both flavors of medicine. What is their recommended vaccine schedule, and how do they feel about titers? What diet do they typically recommend for a healthy dog, and would they be able to help me formulate a home-cooked diet? How do they feel about those people who feed raw? (Note: that question is specifically worded as though I have a bias against raw feeding. I don’t, but if the vet does, I’m hoping this question will pick it up.) Do they ever prescribe supplements, and if so, what kind? On the flip side, at a more holistically-inclined vet, I’m asking about their vaccine schedule for puppies, under what circumstances they would recommend antibiotics, and whether or not they prescribe heartworm medication.

I am definitely an owner who wants to know more before I make decisions. I like research, and I like being able to ask questions. As a result, I asked what kind of resources they have for patient education, whether or not they will give me print-outs detailing my pet’s lab results, and whether or not I’ll be able to talk to the vet between appointments.

Professional Skill
It might seem odd that this question is last. After all, a vet should be a stellar clinician first, right? But here’s the thing: I have no way of knowing if a vet is good or not. I’m not a vet, so how can I really assess their skills? Instead, I checked my state’s board website to see if any of the vets I’m considering have anything on their records. I checked to see what, if any, accreditation they have. Then I asked about their techs: are they certified, and why or why not? What kind of continuing education events do the vets attend? How often do they have staff meetings, and what types of topics do they cover? Where are their lab work and x-rays developed and read?

Even more important, I want to be sure that my future vet knows when a case is over their head, and so I’ve been asking what types of specialists they have a relationship with, and what types of cases they typically refer out. I’m asking what types of surgeries they do on a regular basis.

The answers have been interesting, and so far, I haven’t found the “perfect” clinic. It probably doesn’t exist. I’m not quite ready to make a decision, but I’m close. But no matter which clinic I choose, my tours and interviews have helped me feel more comfortable.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What to Do After a Stressful Event

Maisy rests in her daddy's lap after a stressful day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the effects of stress this week. I guess this is to be expected, because last Thursday, Maisy and I had another run-in with a loose dog. Long time readers will remember that this is not the first time this has happened to us, but I learned from that experience, and now carry citronella spray on all our walks. I’m glad I do, too, because this was not a friendly dog. (As a side note, it is not actually comforting to have an owner yell, “She doesn’t bite!” as their dog is rushing at yours full speed, growling and snarling.)

Although the incident was very scary, it had the best possible outcome. I was able to get the citronella spray out quickly, which was effective in driving the other dog off; it never got closer than five feet from Maisy. I was pleased with Maisy’s response, too- instead of rushing forward toward the dog, as she has in the past, she hid behind me. Perhaps I’m being anthropomorphic, but I like to think she did that because she trusts that I’ll protect her.

Even so, there’s no denying that stressful events like this really affect her. A certain amount of this is to be expected, and I’ve even written before about the effects of stress hormones on the body. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we should do for our dogs after a stressful experience.

My initial response seems to make a big difference in Maisy’s response. My goal is to help her through the immediate crisis by acting calmly and taking control of the situation as much as possible. Maisy is incredibly sensitive to my moods, so even though I felt incredibly panicky and like crying hysterically afterwards, I had to keep it together for her sake. I made a deliberate effort to breathe normally, to walk loosely, and to talk to her in as normal of a voice as possible.

Part of this is possible because I prepare for the worst. In this case, I had practiced using the citronella spray, which allowed me to remain calm and act quickly. I had also done some desensitization and counter-conditioning with the it (thanks to Sara for the idea) so that it didn’t add to Maisy’s stress. I also carry treats with me every time I take Maisy somewhere. As we were walking away, I fed Maisy a continuous stream of treats. This allowed me to both assess her mental state (not too bad, actually) as well as do “damage control.” I’m quite sure there are no amounts of treats that can overcome the emotions that come from an experience like that, but it offers a certain amount of normalcy.

Because subsequent stress can retrigger a new wave of stress hormones in the body, I’ve found that it’s incredibly important to keep the first 24 to 48 hours low-key. I’ve seen a number of references that suggest that the most important factor in recovering from stress is rest. As a result, the first day or two should be as boring as possible.

For Maisy, this means we don’t leave the house except to go potty. Even time in the yard needs to be minimized as you never know who might walk by your yard. No demands should be made on her during this time, and this includes training. If she initiates play, that’s fine, but it should be kept short and sweet. For the most part, she should be sleeping.

After the initial 48 hours, I gradually add activities back in to her routine. Easy training activities (nothing new!), extended play time in the yard, and very short walks in the neighborhood (longer ones are okay only if I know we won’t encounter scary stuff) are incorporated back into our lives as I see less edginess and her startle response decreases.

It might seem excessive, but I try not to return to "normal" for about a week; this site says it can take up to six days for the stress hormones to return to normal, and I believe it. Maisy is definitely edgier for several days after a stressful experiment. On Monday- four full days after the incident- Maisy growled over things that normally wouldn’t provoke a response: kids on skateboards a block away, a person sitting under a tree, a motorcycle parked in a driveway.

Despite the reduced amount of activity, I try to keep things as normal as possible. I must admit, this is hard because things like our daily walks or evening training sessions are a huge part of our routine. Still, I feed her the same things on the same schedule, play with her if she asks, and allow her free range in the house, even if that does mean she doesn’t rest as much as she might otherwise.

This is what seems to work for us. I suspect that some version of the same things would work for most dogs, although the timeline will likely vary a bit dog to dog. Similarly, some dogs may be able to tolerate more or less activity at different times than Maisy can. I think the real key is watching our dogs’ body language and adjusting our expectations as needed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Training Tuesday: Update on the Relaxation Protocol and Other Foundation Tasks

Malcolm continues to "help" me do the Relaxation Protocol.

Despite the boringness of this whole relaxation thing, Maisy and I continue to plug away at it. Please note, dear readers, this should not be construed necessarily as “dedication” so much as “sheer stubbornness.” At any rate, I’m pleased with the progress we’re making. We’re also working on a few other tasks, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to update on those, as well.

The Relaxation Protocol
We’re doing well with the Relaxation Protocol. Although it’s still boring, we’ve been working on it for about a month now, which means it’s becoming more of a routine and less of a chore. Although I still don’t get it done every day, I manage most nights, and Maisy seems to enjoy it. If it starts to get late, she’ll whine and nudge at the travel crate, as though to remind me we haven’t done it yet. I must admit, this helps motivate me.

Last night, we did Day 5 for the first time. There is a definite pattern in our work- the first time we start a new “day,” she’s worried and a bit anxious. She won’t remain lying down, and she gets a bit frantic when she takes treats. However, I’ve noticed that we’ve needed to spend fewer sessions on each day before she relaxes for the duration of the exercise. While we had to spend seven sessions on Day 2, we did five sessions for Day 3, and only four sessions for Day 4. (We only needed to do Day 1 once, but that doesn’t really count as we’ve done that one a lot here and there over the past year.)

I repeat each day until Maisy seems calm, relaxed, and even a little bored. For Maisy, I’m looking for the following things: to remain lying down for the duration of the exercise, to roll over on to a hip instead of being in an “alert” down, to periodically rest her chin on the floor, to have sleepy or droopy eyes, to quit making eye contact with me, and to take the treats with a soft or “lazy” mouth. I find the eye contact to be an important indicator, as it lets me know that Maisy is switching from “working” mode to relaxation. Similarly, the way she takes treats tells me a lot; snatching the treats indicates higher levels of arousal.

Although I’m not sure yet, I think she’s beginning to figure out that even when the tasks change, she can still relax. It used to be that during the first session of a new day, she would remain anxious for the whole session, but yesterday, she seemed to calmer by the end. For example, one of the tasks for Day 5 is to walk to an entrance and touch the doorknob, an action which is done three times. Maisy found this unsettling, and every time she heard me touch it, she would stand up on her hind legs and peer out the top of her crate. The first time this happened, after I returned, she remained standing until I finally cued her to lie down twenty seconds later. The last time, though, she offered a down shortly after I returned.

Crate Duration
Another thing we’re working on is lying calmly in her crate for longer durations without the distractions of the relaxation protocol. I started out with a duration of five minutes, giving her a treat every 30 seconds. We slowly stretched out the length of time between treats, and got up to five full minutes with a treat only at the end! I was pretty excited about this, because that’s a long time lie still for a dog like Maisy.

Just like the Relaxation Protocol, she’s been needing fewer repetitions of each stage before we can increase the difficulty. We spent four sessions with a treat every 30 seconds, and another four sessions with a treat every 45 seconds. After that, though, I was able to spend only two sessions on the intervals of 60 seconds, 90 seconds, and two minutes, and she only needed one session each for the intervals of three minutes, four minutes and five minutes!

Last night, I increased the duration from five minutes to ten minutes. Since I made the duration longer, I reduced the length of time she needs to wait for a treat from five minutes back down to two, but I should be able to work up to five again quite quickly. Ultimately, I’m working towards one hour of calm crate time with a treat every five minutes.

“Poke” is my either awesome-or-crazy strategy to teach Maisy a new way to get my attention. I’m hoping she’ll learn to poke at me instead of lunging at another dog when she’s feeling stressed. It’s going well. I started out by transferring a hand target to my leg, then worked on it while I was sitting, standing and lying down. Once she was reliably poking my legs, I added the cue, and then started working in different rooms around the house. She’s poking on cue about 90% of the time, even when interspersed with other known cues like sit. Last night, we started working on poke outside. Although she was confused at first, she figured it out pretty quickly.

The last major thing we’ve been working on is reorienting. We’ve mostly worked on it while going through the fence gates in or out of our yard. The back gate is easier, and the reorienting is almost automatic there, although she’s a bit quicker going into the yard than when leaving it. The front gate is a bit harder because there was a bunny outside that gate one time a few months ago. Ever since that, she scans for the bunny every time we walk through. Still, she’s reorienting quicker every time, and last night she only looked for the bunny for three or four seconds before she turned back to me. I’m going to need to transfer it over to other locations soon (the car, the training center, etc.).

Overall, I’m very pleased with this focus on foundation work. Maisy is really doing a great job at learning to relax- no easy task! I’m hopeful that this is the piece we’ve been missing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

CU Seminar: Final Thoughts

Mostly relaxed in her crate at the seminar.
Photo by Robin Tinay Sallie.

I really enjoyed going to the Control Unleashed seminar. Seeing the demos in person and getting feedback on my handling skills was amazing, but perhaps the most profound lesson came in two short, simple statements. The first is simply a reminder:

Practice doesn’t make perfect… it makes permanent.
Every time a dog (human, whatever) does or encounters something new, that novel experience creates new pathways in the brain. (I’ve heard this referred to as “dendritic branching,” though I'm probably grossly simplifying the concept.) Initially, that pathway is faint, like a deer track in the woods, but each time that the dog does that behavior, the pathway gets stronger.

I think of the well-practiced behavior as an interstate: easy to get on, fast to get you where you’re going, but difficult to turn around if you discover you’re going the wrong way. And just like the roads the ancient Romans built thousands of years ago, these behaviors can become permanent. While that may be desirable for some behaviors, it is less than ideal when it comes to reactive ones.

The take-away message is obvious: Don’t let your dog practice behaviors you don’t like. Find ways to manage the situation, manipulate the environment, or distract your dog so that you avoid reactive outbursts. I really believe this is part of the problem I’m experiencing with Maisy: she’s just practiced lunging at other dogs so much that it’s the most obvious path for her to take when she’s feeling uncertain. I just hope that action isn’t yet permanently part of her world.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to prevent behaviors you don’t like, which brings us to the second thing:

Don’t be afraid of a high rate of reinforcement.
This advice was actually kind of ironic. Not a week before, I’d been complaining about how hard I have to work to prevent Maisy from reacting. As long as I kept my attention on her, and kept feeding her treats, I told my trainer, she’s fine. But that’s exhausting, and inevitably, I need to shift my attention elsewhere, so my efforts fail. I said that I wanted to be able to use fewer treats.

After the seminar, though, I don’t think that should be my goal. After all, a high rate of reinforcement can prevent a reaction. A high rate of reinforcement gives the dog something to do, and it gives them something to focus on. It keeps them on a path you like, and off the troublesome ones- not to mention the fact that it can prevent those pesky brain interstates.

Instead, the goal should be twofold. First, I need to get better at reading Maisy’s body language, and shifting my expectations based on what I see because there are legitimately times where Maisy can make good decisions. She can think through a situation and choose to do something I like, and I have no problem reinforcing those moments. But at other times, she’s too stressed to think, let alone make a good choice. Even if I think she should be able to handle it, I need to honor what she’s actually telling me. I shouldn’t delay a treat that could prevent a reaction just because I think she should be able to handle the situation.

I also need to help her build new roads. I’ve begun doing this in two ways. I’m helping her learn to relax through the relaxation protocol, and I’m helping her learn new communication strategies through the either-brilliant-or-idiotic “poke” cue. Both of these things will hopefully build new paths that are easily accessible, and maybe someday even more accessible than the current ones.

It’s funny how hearing the same old thing in new words can make all the difference. Neither of these ideas are ground-shakingly new- I’ve heard them both before- but the way Alexa phrased them really helped me understand them better. Or maybe I was just ready to hear them now. Either way, I have to believe that in the end, we’ll be a better team as a result of our time with Alexa.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Playing Ball

One of my guilty pleasures in the summer is to lie in my hammock in the backyard and read. I can spend HOURS, even entire DAYS, reading out there. And, since I love my dog, I always invite her to come hang out with me. Unfortunately, this can be annoying, as Maisy would find her ball and whine at me to throw it. Incessantly.

While Maisy is very good about bringing her ball back when she wants it thrown, it's kind of annoying to have the ball brought back and placed directly beneath you while you're in a hammock. You can't exactly reach it there, you know? So, I taught her that if she wanted it thrown, she had to put it in the hammock with me. Otherwise I ignored her.

Now, perhaps you've noticed that Maisy is a bit short. She can get the ball in the hammock with me, but it's kind of a pain, and so she usually gives up after a couple of throws and takes a nap instead. All of which is just fine with me.

Apparently this wasn't fine with Maisy, because earlier this week, I was reading in the hammock, and looked up to see this:

That's right. She decided to play without me. I know the video quality isn't great, so you may need to click through and embiggen the screen to see what's happening, but basically, she's pushing the ball through the slats of the fence, where it rolls down a slight incline and (usually) rolls back through the slats and ends up at her feet. I have no idea how she figured this out, but she did this for over half an hour the other day.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

CU Seminar: Give Me A Break!

This dog takes a break while Alexa explains
how to play the Give Me A Break game.
Photos by Robin Sallie.

The last exercise that Alexa showed us at the CU seminar was a fun game called Give Me A Break! GMAB is a game designed for the easily distracted dog. The goal is to build attention, and to teach the dog that paying attention to the handler is more fun than going off and sniffing, looking at other things, or whatever else the dog might find attractive. It also builds in regular breaks for the dog. This is important because it gives the dog permission to blow off some stress, and forces the over-zealous handler to take a step back.

GMAB is easy to play. Before you start, count out sets of ten treats. Each set of ten will be one round of GMAB. To start, you probably want to play three or four rounds. Once you’ve got your treats ready, you and your dog go into a small, enclosed area with a chair in the corner, but without any other distractions (at the seminar we went in a small box made up of ring gates). You let your dog off leash, and then rapid-fire click and treat for any attention or behavior your dog offers. Eye contact is nice for early stages (later on, heeling is a great activity for GMAB). The goal would be to get rid of all ten treats in ten to fifteen seconds.

Once you’ve given all of those treats, you tell your dog to take a break, and go sit down. Some dogs will take the opportunity to sniff the floor or to explore the perimeter of the box. That’s fine. You don’t do anything or say anything, you simply wait. The moment the dog comes back to you, give him a treat, and jump up and play another high-reinforcement round. Once the treats are gone, you’ll dismiss your dog to take a break again.

Within only a few rounds, most dogs will refuse to take their break, and will instead want to stay working with you. This is good! It means that the dog is making the choice to hang out with you instead of investigating the environment, which is exactly what we want.

At the seminar, Alexa played this game with a cute dog that has a history of running off and disengaging with his handler while on the agility course. She played the game inside, and the dog did great, barely taking any breaks. The dog’s handler, though, felt that it would be more difficult for the dog outside. Luckily, the seminar location had a small fenced area adjacent to the building, and so we all went outside.

The dog was a bit more distracted initially- there were birds and squirrels out there, after all! Even so, it didn’t take long before the dog didn’t want to quit playing with Alexa. This is pretty typical, actually. GMAB is a powerful game.

Truthfully, I haven’t played this game much with Maisy- she hasn’t really needed it. I’ve really been blessed by her willingness to work and learn, and her eagerness to engage with me. In fact, I’ve struggled with the “break” part of GMAB more than anything else. Still, it was cool to see GMAB in action. What about you guys? Have you tried it? Did you get awesome results, like Alexa did? I’d love to hear about other people’s successes.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

CU Seminar: Off-Switch Games

Alexa and Reese demonstrated off-switch games. Moments before this picture was taken, Reese was wildly tugging on that toy. Now he offers a default behavior- calm eye contact- to get the game started again. Photo by Robin Sallie.

When people talk about the Control Unleashed program, it’s often in the context of helping a dog calm down, relax, and control his impulses. These are important skills, and ones that are often missing with reactive dogs. What I love about CU is that it can help any dog, with almost any issue. A dog doesn’t need to be reactive in order to benefit from the games. It’s great for fearful dogs, anxious dogs, or even just inattentive and out-of-control dogs.

While any dog will benefit from CU, there is no denying that it was created and written with performance dogs in mind. This means that it’s incredibly important to teach our dogs how to engage in highly arousing activities while maintaining self-control. They need to be able to think on the agility course so they don’t resort to the zoomies. They need to be able to pay attention to their handler during the subtleties of a competition heeling pattern. And they need to be able to walk through a busy, crowded trial site without incident.

They need off-switch games.

These games not only help teach the dog how to think through their excitement, but also help the handler learn how to gauge their dog’s arousal level, and then adjust it in order to find the optimal level needed for a good performance. After all, being too relaxed can be just as bad as being too amped up when it comes to competition. Off-switch games help both the dog and handler learn how to attain this delicate balance.

Alexa demonstrated a very simple off-switch game with her dog Reese. She offered him a toy and then tugged with him for about 15 seconds. Then, she asked him to let go of the toy, and she simply waited until Reese offered a default behavior. (A default behavior is one that dog offers without be cued. Typical default behaviors include sits, downs, and eye contact. Maisy’s main default behavior is a down.) Once he offered the default behavior, she started up the game again.

Easy, right? Well, from experience, I can say yes and no. The concept is simple, but it can be a bit frustrating in the beginning. The play part isn’t a problem for most teams, although if you are tugging, it does require that you be able to get the toy back reliably. You also need to be able to read your dog and ask for the toy before he gets too amped up. For most dogs, playing for 10-15 seconds is doable, but for the super-excitable among us, that may need to be reduced to 5 seconds. Maisy doesn’t tug, so we play with a ball. That’s pretty easy since she’s really reliable about returning and releasing the ball.

Here’s the frustrating part: waiting for the default behavior. This will be easier if your dog already understands that a default behavior will be rewarded. If your dog doesn’t have one, you’ll want to teach that first, separately from the off-switch game. I taught Maisy’s default down by simply praising her every time I saw her lying calmly. After a few days of that, I’d get some treats and stand with her in the kitchen, verbally praising her and giving her a treat for offered (not cued) downs.

Anyway, so you’ll play tug, and then stop and wait. And you may need to wait awhile, especially the first time, because your dog won’t necessarily understand what you want. Even now, when Maisy is super excited, it can take upwards of 30 seconds to get a (very reluctant) default down. It may help to put out the dog’s mat as a subtle environmental cue. Once your dog has offered his default behavior, play!

After your dog understands that the game starts when he does the default behavior, it’s time to make the game more difficult. Now, in addition to the default behavior, you want to look for some signs of relaxation before starting up the game. For Maisy, I look for eye contact (instead of doing the herding dog stare at her ball), rolling on to one hip, putting her chin down and softer breathing (as opposed to heavy panting).

Once you’ve got both a default behavior and some relaxation, it’s time to start increasing the time on how long the dog remains relaxed before you re-start the game. My goal is for Maisy to immediately lie down, and then relax for about 10 seconds before I restart the game. Sometimes I’ll ask for a bit more relaxation, sometimes a bit less. It depends on how amped up she is, and if her arousal level is really high, or kind of low. If it’s too low, it’s a sign she’s going to disengage from the game entirely, in which case I’ll throw her ball immediately in order to help her get excited about playing with me again.

When your dog is reliably at this level, it’s time to increase the difficulty by lengthening the amount of time you spend playing before asking for the default behavior. Again, you’ll need to adjust that time to match your dog’s arousal level, but I think it’s reasonable to work towards the goal of a solid minute or so of intense play before asking the dog to relax again.

Anyway, that’s a little bit about how Alexa introduced off switch games, and how I play them with Maisy. Trust me, Maisy and I are far from perfect at this- there are days where we can play intensely for several minutes, and then she’ll automatically offer that default behavior, and then there are days where just seeing the ball causes her to lose her mind. I strive for more of the former than the latter. Writing this has reminded me that I’d like to see more relaxation after she offers the default behavior, too.

I’d love to hear about how you all play off-switch games. I’m sure there’s more than one way to do this, both in the game itself, as well as in the way it’s played. Do you do something similar- rev the dog up, and then calm him down? How is it different from what I’ve outlined here? Do you do something entirely different in order to install an off-switch? I’d love to know… mostly because I’d love to have another game to play with Maisy!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

CU Seminar: Look at That

Maisy looks at Reese. Photo by Robin Sallie.

Okay, so you all know that I love the Look at That game (henceforth “LAT”). It is my favorite CU exercise, and it is the one that I use most of the time. Even though Maisy and I are pretty proficient at LAT, I was still excited about seeing how Alexa explained the exercise, as well as how she played it.

As a reminder, LAT is a game where we reward the dog for looking at an object, especially something they find worrisome. Although this seems counter-intuitive to people at times, it really does make sense. After all, if you were walking down a dark alley, and someone was following you, you’d probably want to look and see who it was, right? And if the person you were walking with told you that you couldn’t look, you’d probably feel even more anxious, or at least you’d probably tune out your companion’s chatter in order to listen for the footsteps behind you…

So LAT is a great game that allows our dogs to take in information about something that’s scaring them. When you cue your dog to look (or when you respond to your dog’s look), it also acknowledges to your dog that you saw the scary thing, too. Both actions help reduce anxiety. That said, Alexa was clear that Look at That is just that- looking. It’s not scanning the environment, looking for something to be worried about, and it’s not staring at the scary thing. Both behaviors only lend itself to increased anxiety.

Alexa also said that LAT should be a very controlled exercise, and said that we should control what our dogs look at. We do that by deciding when to give the cue, and when not to. I found this bit a little confusing, as it is not how I do it. Certainly, I want Maisy to look when I tell her to so I can point out triggers she hasn’t noticed yet, but I also really like it as communication- I want her to be able to tell me when she’s feeling worried about something that I haven’t seen.

In fact, that is exactly how I played the game with Maisy during the seminar, and Alexa didn’t direct me to do it differently, so I must admit that I’m a bit confused on her views of the game. It might just be that I was confusing the way that Alexa teaches the exercise with how it is done long term. Most of the other participants hadn’t played LAT before, so she didn’t really talk about how to do it once the dog becomes more advanced.

Right, so, let’s talk about how she teaches LAT. Alexa taught it in three stages, and the first two involved using a neutral object. When I posted about it before, I said that I just started by clicking when my dog looked at something, which is actually skipping ahead to Alexa’s third step. I also wrote about the potential downsides of the way I did it, so needless to say, I like the foundation steps Alexa taught.

Alexa had us do all three steps while our dogs were on their mats in order to help them understand that LAT is a visual targeting exercise, and that they should move only their head to look instead of their entire bodies.

In the first step, we did a simple open bar/closed bar with an approaching person. Alexa walked toward each of our dogs, and as she came closer, we allowed our dogs to look at her, and then began to feed a stream of treats. When she retreated, we stopped feeding. This step was to create a good association with someone coming nearer, as well as to help the dog understand that it’s okay to notice what’s going on around them.

In the second step, Alexa walked over to our dogs while holding a neutral object between her back. Then she moved the object out from behind her back, and when our dogs looked, we clicked. We did that a few times, and then began using a cue as Alexa brought the object out. All of the dogs picked up on this pretty quickly.

Alexa used a water bottle at the seminar, but you could use any neutral object. She cautioned against using anything scary, obviously, but also against a toy or other fun object which might excite the dog. We want a truly neutral object, one that causes the dog to look and say “big deal.” Done properly, this helps the dog learn that the cue “look at that!” means that there is something boring and non-threatening to look at. Without this step, the dog may learn that the cue means something scary is around, and might trigger the dog to begin scanning the environment instead.

Once all of the dogs were looking at the neutral object on cue, we added another dog to the mix- Alexa’s demo dog, a lovely, calm border collie named Reese. This allowed her to adjust the difficulty level for the beginner dogs (for whom Reese simply sat outside the ring, or walked sedately) as well as for more advanced dogs like Maisy, which was really cool. Maisy really struggles with watching recalls, and as time has gone on, she’s begun to anticipate the dog’s movement by reacting to the sound of the handler calling their dog. Alexa took Reese out of the equation entirely at first, and worked on just letting us desensitize to the sound of her calling, and then added Reese back in as Maisy calmed down. I was surprised how quickly she settled in to the exercise.

For my part, I learned that I need to adjust my criteria a bit quicker. Since Maisy knows that the behavior is look at the object, then look back to get the treat, I tend to wait for her to look back before clicking. But sometimes, she begins to stare, which increases the likelihood that she’s going to rush toward the object. I can (and should!) prevent that rushing by clicking for just the look when she’s a bit more tense in order to interrupt the staring.

At the same time, I need to tighten up my criteria by being a bit more insistent that Maisy remains lying down the entire time. Maisy has a tendency to raise her butt up into a bow sometimes. Alexa said that she thinks Maisy is doing this in an effort to get ready to rush off, while still technically complying by not standing, and that it’s a sign that Maisy is feeling nervous or uncertain about what’s going on. She’s completely right, but since I think of that position as a play bow, I hadn’t read it as a sign of stress.

These were great things for me to learn, and I’m really glad that Maisy and I got a chance to play LAT with Alexa. As I had hoped, it helped bring the game to the next level for us, and by getting some concrete feedback on how and when to adjust my criteria, it should help me help Maisy even more!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Training Tuesday: The “Good Lord Why Did I Decide to Do This?” Edition

Maisy and Malcolm doing the relaxation protocol.

It has been two weeks since I instituted the “no more trials until I finish the relaxation protocol” rule, and as predicted, I’m hating myself already. (Actually, I started hating myself a week ago, but whatever.) Thankfully, I posted it quite publicly, and enough of my real life friends read this that I know I won’t be able to gracefully back out. This is good, because holy cow, this crap is boring. BORING.

It’s also working, thank god, because I don’t think I could sustain the motivation needed to get through this tedium if I wasn’t seeing glimmers of progress.

First and foremost, let it be known that the relaxation protocol, while challenging for the dog under any circumstance, is even more difficult when there are cats involved. Obnoxious, nosy, food-obsessed, den-loving, clicker-trained cats. In other words: they are constantly right there when the clicker, treats and/or crate comes out. Unfortunately, Maisy has a bit of a problem with resource guarding when it comes to the cats. This, combined with the fact that Maisy has self-appointed herself as the resident kitty cop, means that it can be very, very difficult to convince her to relax when they’re around. Which they are. Constantly.

While they slow the process down, their presence is a huge help. For one thing, they make an excellent distraction, though not as intense as what we might encounter at a trial. Beyond that, Maisy has a long history of rushing the cats and bowling them over, so when she is able to control those impulses around the kitties, I know we’re on the right track.

In fact, it was just one of those moments last week that helped me know that she’s making progress. During one session, one of the kitties did something that Maisy has decided is naughty, something that she would usually discipline them for. Her entire body tensed up, and she raised herself just slightly from the ground. But then she stopped herself, evidently thought about it, and quickly lowered herself back down. She wasn’t relaxed, exactly, but neither was she reacting mindlessly!

I’ll admit, I’ve been a bit lazy with it all. I just can’t bring myself to do it every day. We’ve done it 9 times over the last 14 days. It’s not perfect, but that’s not embarrassing, either. We advanced to day three in the relaxation protocol on our last session, although that session was a little rough. If the next one is as bad (she had a hard time staying in a down, although a sit isn’t really the end of the world), we’ll drop back down to day two for a bit. I’m also working on duration in the crate, and she’s currently managing quite well with a treat once every 60 seconds over the course of five minutes.

I could probably push her further faster, but I want to build this foundation strongly and carefully. As a result, I’m spending several sessions on each step, waiting until I see her relaxed before I move on. Some of the things I’m looking for includes being rolled on to one hip, rather than in a sphinx down, resting her chin on the ground, and taking treats softly instead of grabbing them roughly.

For her part, Maisy is loving this. She’s inside the crate before I can even get it fully set up. When I call her out, she jumps back in before I can break it down again. And every night, at about the time we do the protocol, she starts to whine and poke at the folded-up crate with her nose, all while looking at me hopefully.

Speaking of poking things with her nose, I think that my possibly hare-brained scheme, is working. It was quite easy to shape her to touch my leg, although she tends to think the proper location is in the left kneecap. That’s fine, really, and maybe even better than doing it anywhere else. After all, this way she’ll have to turn away from whatever’s bugging her in order to poke me there. It was a bit more work to convince her that she could poke me when I’m standing, too, but she figured that out.

Right now I’m in the process of assigning a verbal cue to the behavior. She’s got it about half the time, and once it’s a bit more solid, I’ll start cuing that behavior when she’s whining to get my attention. On one occasion, she did use the nose poke to communicate that she wanted something from me (a rawhide), so I think this could work. I must admit, I’m really excited about the possibility of reducing some of her whininess, although I’m aware that the poking could become even more annoying. I hope I don’t regret this!

Anyway, overall I’m very pleased with the progress she’s making. It’s slow, but I’m hoping that as she understands it better, we’ll be able to pick up the back a bit. I hope so, anyway, because at our current rate of progress, this will take six months otherwise! Although that sounds like forever, I know that the time investment will be worth it. I’ll keep you guys updated, of course!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

CU Seminar: Leave it

Picture is unrelated. But cute, no?
I did take it in Omaha, so it's kind of on-topic.
And if we pretend that I told her to leave the ball, it's fully relevant.

Leave it is another foundation exercise we worked on, and it’s one that I think is incredibly valuable. Maisy has a pretty good leave it, but even so, I enjoyed working on leave its with Alexa. She reminded me of places I can strengthen the cue for Maisy, and brought a few interesting twists to a familiar game.

Leave it is pretty self-explanatory: the dog leaves “it” (whatever that might be) alone unless you allow him to have it. Alexa was clear that leave it is not about proofing a stay. She doesn’t expect the dog to hold a particular position while performing a leave it. In fact, she views leave it as a movement exercise; the dog actively chooses to move away from the distraction. I like this view, because my reactive dog is always rushing towards whatever is bugging her. I’d love it if she came away from it instead!

She started teach leave it exactly the way I do: hold a treat in your hand, and let your dog investigate. As soon as your dog moves away from your hand (which can take awhile for the dog who is new to this game), click and treat. Repeat this process with the treat in an open hand (which you will close into a fist if the dog tries to eat the treat), on the floor under your foot, on the floor in the open, and then gradually dropping the treat from higher and higher distances.

Maisy can do all of those steps as long as I give her a verbal cue. However, Alexa encouraged people to teach their dogs that all treats are off limits unless they are handed to the dog, or unless the dog has been given explicit permission to take the treat. This means that when you’re training the exercise, you don’t need to give a cue to leave it (although I think it’s nice to teach one anyway). It also means you should always use a consistent cue to tell your dog he can have the treat now. Ultimately, you want your dog to learn that a treat on the floor is an environmental cue for the dog to move away from the treat and turn back to the handler.

I really like teaching it like this, because Maisy is like a vacuum: if there’s a treat on the floor (or if she thinks something is a treat, like a bit of lint), she’ll dive on it. This is clearly not good in the performance ring. It’s worse in obedience, where you can’t talk to the dog, but even in rally, where you can, there’s no guarantee that I’ll see the treat before Maisy. Add to that the fact that Maisy has food allergies and you can see why I love this approach so much!

Although Maisy will sit and ignore a handful of treats that is raining down on her head, it’s much harder for her to ignore a treat that I drop while she and I are both walking. The movement really seems to make a difference with her, which makes sense. For a long time, I only trained leave it while she was sitting, so the whole picture changes when she’s moving. We did start working on this earlier this summer while on walks, but even so, it’s a struggle for us, and she utterly failed when we got to the point of walking over more than four or five treats scattered on the ground.

Maisy and I will definitely work on leave it some more, because it is a great exercise. In addition to the benefits it will provide for competition, it can keep dogs safe, especially if you’re prone to dropping human medicine, like I am. It also helps teach our dogs impulse control. I especially like leave it when it’s done with environmental cues, not verbal ones, because I like the additional layer of self-control, which gives our dogs another opportunity to think and make good decisions. Most importantly for our reactive dogs, leave it is also great for creating a rule structure in which the dog learns that it’s always best to control his impulses and turn to his handler when he wants something or is distracted by something.

Tell me about leave it and your dog: do you have it on verbal cue, as an environmental cue, or both? How far can your dog go before he can’t resist anymore? What do you need to do to take your dog’s leave it to the next level?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

You Can Take the Geek Away from the Dogs...

She's down there... somewhere...

On Tuesday night, I went to the Lady Gaga concert. Wait, wait! I promise this will relate to dog training. After all, you can take the geek away from dogs, but you can’t… stop her… from thinking about dogs? I don’t know- I can’t make the metaphor work, but you know what I mean.

Anyway, I know that The Lady is not for everyone, and that’s fine. I’m not here to convince you that she’s the best thing to hit the airwaves in the last 10 years (although, in my opinion, she is. Before that, the best thing was Bree Sharp). But no matter if you love her or hate her, I think we can learn from her. As a result, I present to you…

The Top Four Things I Learned About Dog Training from Lady Gaga

1. Success takes hard work.
When Lady Gaga puts on a show, she goes all out. I was amazed by the fact that she could dance that well for that long. I mean, over 2 hours of all-out cardio would probably cause me to die of a heart attack. Not her, though. It’s clear that she’s put a lot of effort into her stage show, plus, she writes all of her own lyrics and plays the piano. She’s worked hard to get where she is.

Don’t get me wrong- success also takes talent, and a little bit of luck. But far and away, the most important ingredient for success is working hard. This means taking the time to build strong foundations for our dogs, proofing the exercises through increasing distractions, and educating ourselves on the best ways to train.

2. It’s not all about you.
Lady Gaga’s stage show was one-part charity fundraiser (for Re*Generation, a charity tackling youth homelessness), one-part social cause (gay rights, to which she devoted several songs), and one-part fan appreciation. The Lady really loves her fans, and she even delivered a lovely message that at the end of the night, we shouldn’t love her more, but rather, love ourselves more.

I suspect that the people who read my blog will agree with me: Dog sports are not all about us, the handlers. Part of why I enjoy training and trialing is the bond that I form with my dog in the process. I love the way it deepens our relationship. And I constantly remind myself that I will never sacrifice my dog’s well-being for the sake of a title. My dog doesn’t “owe” me anything, and her purpose is not to make me look good or to stroke my ego about what a good trainer I am. We’re a team. If she’s not having fun, if she doesn’t want to do it, that’s it. We’re done.

3. You have to follow your dreams.
Lady Gaga is really all about embracing your “inner freak.” She acknowledged that sometimes the media sends awful messages about how we ought look and think and act, but that we shouldn’t let society’s judgments stop us from being who we are, or who we want to become.

I think it’s easy to become discouraged sometimes, especially when you have a non-traditional breed, or a Dog with Issues. And yes, it will be more difficult for my friend and her greyhound to do obedience, or for Maisy to become a champion. We might never get there- see point 2 above- but that doesn’t mean we should give up before we even start.

4. Live in the moment.
I know this might sound odd, given Lady Gaga’s over-the-top costumes, crazy antics, and general theatrics, but the overall vibe I got from her was that of humility and thankfulness. She seems to know that popularity can be fleeting, and she doesn’t take that for granted. I think she’s loving every minute of what she’s got, knowing that it might be gone next year.

And isn’t that an important message for us all? It’s easy to dream big, or to get so focused on what we want that we forget to appreciate what we have right now. No matter where we are, whether it’s winning first place in the ring, or napping in the back yard with our dogs, we should appreciate that moment for everything that it is.