Thursday, February 25, 2010

Management 101: Exercise

One huge component of living with a reactive dog is management; it’s relatively easy to carry out, not very time-consuming, and often yields huge dividends. It’s also not a very sexy blog topic. After all, how many times can you write a short essay on the value of crating your dog when strangers come over? But management is so important to our dog’s daily lives- especially the reactive ones among us- that I’ve decided to do an infrequent and irregular series of posts on management.

Today’s topic is exercise.

I always knew that exercise is important for dogs. After all, who hasn’t heard the dog training adage, A tired dog is a good dog? It’s true, of course. Many of our dogs were bred to work in some capacity. For example, Maisy is half corgi, which is a herding breed. As such, she was bred to work cattle in the field all day long. Since I don’t have any cows, she has an endless supply of energy that needs to be channeled productively. I’ve long suspected that exercise is important in both channeling that energy as well as mitigating her anxiety, but I’ve never really had any proof- scientific or anecdotal- that this is true. This week, I found both.

Earlier this year, I set some dog related goals, and one of them was to increase Maisy’s exercise. I have been quite diligent about this (despite the fact that it’s the middle of winter in Minnesota) and have been averaging 30 to 45 minutes with her every day (about 1.5-2 miles). Everything was going well until a couple of weeks ago, when her booties finally wore out for good. Maisy refuses to walk in the snow and ice without booties, so I needed to get some new ones.

Now, if you’ve ever tried to shop for dog booties, you know how frustrating it can be to get booties that have a good fit and stay on. On top of that, I wanted water resistant booties at a reasonable price. I finally broke down and made some, but not after wasting over a week looking for, buying, and then returning, various booties. And of course, we did not walk during this time.

It showed. Maisy became progressively edgier, jumpier, growlier and just all around more anxious. She was barking at things I couldn’t see or hear around the house. She was startling at sudden movements while in the backyard or on a walk. And despite her successful night last week, she did have a few bark-n-lunges in our reactive dog class this week.

It’s clear that exercise matters. And not just for Maisy: there’s a new study out that shows that regular exercise reduces anxiety symptoms by 20%. Although the study was done on humans, I have no doubt that the same general principle holds true for animals, too.

I’m not sure why exercise makes such a dramatic difference in her behavior. Certainly, as I already mentioned, it’s important to get rid of pent up energy in a socially acceptable fashion. My trainer, Robin, suggested that it’s not the exercise itself so much as the regular exposure to novel stimuli, both for the socialization components as well as providing her with interesting experiences. That makes sense to me. I get to leave the house every day for work, but if I don’t take Maisy somewhere, she spends her entire life in our house and yard. Beyond that, there’s probably some science at work; I’ve long heard that exercise creates endorphins, the feel-good hormone.

No matter what the reason, after this week, my suspicion that exercise is important for managing Maisy’s reactivity has been reaffirmed and even upgraded to a firm belief. Since it is a relatively painless thing to do, I view exercise as one of the easiest things I can do to help Maisy feel more comfortable and happier.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's working!

About six weeks ago, I posted about my rather unorthodox training plan to reduce Maisy’s reactivity. In that entry, I said that Maisy had learned that a bark-n-lunge would be rewarded if she turned back to me immediately. As a result, my trainers and I theorized that I had created a rather undesirable little behavior chain.

Since the easiest way to get rid of undesirable behaviors is through extinction, we created a two-pronged plan. First, I ignored the bark-n-lunge. I didn’t call her back to me, I didn’t reward her for returning to me voluntarily, and I didn’t even look at her when she did the whole I’m pretending to be reactive routine. Second, I very heavily reinforced appropriate behaviors, both proactively as a counter-conditioning measure and as a reward when she chose them instead of a bark-n-lunge.

Now, as a reminder, I know this isn’t the typical method of dealing with a reactive dog, and it isn’t the course of action I would normally recommend, or even follow. I did this under the guidance of two highly qualified and experienced trainers. If you’re dealing with a dog who barks, growls and/or lunges at people, dogs or things, I highly recommend that you seek help from a good positive reinforcement trainer.

Okay, with the disclaimer out of the way, I am so pleased to report that the preliminary results are in…

At first, Maisy seemed quite confused. A behavior which had reliably paid off for her in the past was no longer producing the results she was hoping for. As the first week wore on, she became increasingly frustrated, and on the fourth and fifth days she demonstrated an extinction burst.

On both days, we were at a local pet store that has a large training ring that you can rent by the hour, working on jumps and heeling past distractions. On both days, Maisy saw a trigger and had a huge reaction- no, it was an overreaction. Something that would normally get several barks was treated to an extended round of barking and growling. It was actually quite embarrassing, as I knew I had to ignore it, but the trigger- in both cases a person carrying a large bag of dog food- looked at Maisy with some reservation. More than that, since I had to completely and utterly ignore Maisy’s behavior, I continued my heeling pattern (sans dog), which probably made me look quite crazy! At the time, I was fairly certain that I was seeing an extinction burst, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to get worse or not.

Thankfully, it has not. As the weeks have gone on, she has continued to try the behavior out occasionally. However, both the frequency and intensity of her reactions have dramatically gone down. For example, she’s been to two trials during that period. In both cases, despite being stressed, she held herself together and only had one minor outburst at each trial. They each consisted of a brief bark, a small lunge, and then a self-interruption. And, even more exciting, this week she got through our entire reactive dog class without a single bark, lunge, growl, huff or wuff. She was truly amazing!!

I don't think Maisy will every be a completely normal dog. I know that she will have days where she regresses and falls back on her old behavior patterns, especially when stressed. I also know that there will be days that I have to manage her more than others. And, of course, I know that my first priority will always be to help her feel safe and secure, a task which will require eternal vigilance on my part.

We still have a lot of work left to do. As the reactive behavior has reduced, she has shown more behaviors that look like poor impulse control. She is doing a lot of “friendly lunging”-she’s pulling and straining towards things while on leash, but with huge, sweeping tail wags, and more importantly, quietly. She now looks ill-mannered rather than aggressive. The interesting thing is that what she’s doing now is very similar to how she behaved as a puppy.

At this point, we have been working Control Unleashed exercises for about a year, and realistically, I expect that we have at least another six to twelve months of hard work ahead of us. For example, I’m hoping to increase the duration of calm periods so that I'm not constantly shoveling treats in her mouth. I also need to help her learn to demonstrate calm behavior with increasing amounts of stress. Of course, each time the environment gets busier, I need to decrease my duration criteria, so I think we’re entering a period in which the level of reinforcement ebbs and flows based on the environmental distractions going on. This will take a level of training sophistication that I intellectually understand, but will need to practice to get it right... which, of course, will lead to the inevitable setback.

Even so, I am so thrilled with the progress Maisy has made, and can’t wait to continue to learn and grow with her. I am determined to put in the time and effort to help Maisy feel and act better. She is a truly amazing dog, and she deserves it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

And now for something different

I train with Maisy almost every day. She's a busy dog who needs mental exercise to stay sane. Usually I train performance-related behaviors, but this week, I decided to do something different: the Go Click Challenge. This week's challenge was to teach your dog to push a ball with her nose.

The problem with this challenge was that one of Maisy's natural behaviors is to push her ball with her nose. It's incredibly adorable, but not something we ever taught her to do. It's just how she brings the ball back after we throw it. So, in order to make it a challenge for her, I worked on putting the behavior on cue (I had hoped for stimulus control, but didn't quite get there).

Once that was done, I worked on generalizing the behavior to other things. First with other balls (my husband was amazed when he saw her pushing the exercise ball with her nose because she is- well, was- incredibly scared of it), then we worked on cylindrical things like batteries and pop cans. Finally, we worked on boxes of all sizes.

I did need to do some shaping for the not-ball items. The large box was the hardest one to teach, and required the most steps during shaping. I did cheat once: we got stuck on the step where she touched the box with her nose. I couldn't get her to do any more force. To get around that, I showed her what I wanted by pushing the box with my hand, and then clicking and treating. On the very next trial, she pushed the box with her nose! This isn't the first time that she's learned through observation, but I gather that it isn't very common.

Anyway, this was very fun to do, and while I probably won't do every Go Click Challenge, I'll definitely be doing more!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Just Because You Can, Does That Mean You Should? The Ethics of Trialing a Reactive Dog

Although she was entered for both days of the APDT trial last weekend, I chose to scratch Maisy’s entries on Sunday. The reasons are complicated, and quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure I understand them myself. I just knew somewhere deep inside that it was the right thing to do.

Part of the reason I scratched was due to my disappointment in how Saturday turned out, although I’m aware that that probably sounds pretty silly. After all, she had decent scores, completed a title with honors, and even placed in both trials she was entered in. I know that part of my disappointment lies in my desire for perfection. I want first place and high (if not perfect) scores. But it was more than that: there was a real lack of connection between Maisy and I on Saturday.

The reason I do dog sports is because I love that element of teamwork necessary to do well. It’s wonderful to watch and it’s amazing to experience. When I think about our best runs, I remember not scores and placements, but the sheer beauty of two different species coming together to move as one. The focus and attention we both have for one another is absolutely thrilling, and it was that element lacking that really disappointed me.

I have struggled to figure out why that sense of teamwork was missing, and as best I can figure, it was due to two reasons: stress and poor training. The latter is easy to address: we need to practice more in the face of distractions. Training at home is one thing, but what we really need to do is take our work on the road. We can do that, and we will. No, the hard part is dealing with the stress.

Now, Maisy has made a lot of progress. She’s calm and relaxed around our house, and isn’t anywhere near as edgy as she used to be while on walks. She’s an absolute joy to live and play with. What’s left to work on is helping her learn to manage her fear and stress in the face of the busy, chaotic environment often present at trials.

But is that possible? And if it is, is that fair? Can I call myself a positive trainer and then ask my dog to do something stressful?

I’ve spent most of the week freaking out about this. And, okay, “freaking out” is probably an understatement. I had pretty much decided that we would quit trialing entirely, giving up on my dreams and her potential. Still, this didn’t feel right. In fact, it felt like a cop-out because we didn’t achieve perfection.

So I began talking about this with my trainers. One commented in an email that this is what she goes through with her dog, “wanting to ‘fix’ him, knowing that he’d rather stay home and watch TV.” But… that’s not Maisy, I said. Maisy loves to go places. She is so full of joy when I tell her we’re going somewhere. She rushes to the car, jumps in gleefully, and just about pulls me off my feet when we arrive, whether that’s the training center, the pet store, or even the second day of a trial.

In fact, the only time that she has clearly told me she does not want to do something has been when I’ve tried to crate her at trials. She will slink along, or even plant her feet and refuse to go. It’s as if she’s saying, I’ll be here with you, I’ll do this for you, but you must be with me, too.

I spoke with my other trainer on the phone today. She said that, yes, Maisy looked stressed at the trial on Saturday, but that she’s seen her worse. She also said that she doesn’t think that Maisy will ever be completely comfortable at a trial. Of course, I asked her if she thought it was fair that I ask her to do it anyway, and she responded with a story:

A few weeks ago in class, we had a wobble board out. Maisy was very concerned while another dog was using it, so when he was done, I took Maisy over to see what it was. I just wanted her to smell it, but because we’ve been working on pivot boards so much, she put a paw on it and immediately freaked herself out, running away, tail tucked, to the end of her leash. (She hates when things move underneath her.)

I asked her to come back to the wobble board, with the intention of giving her treats while she was near it. Almost immediately, she put her paw on it again, and again, she was scared. I called her over again, but this time, a bit wiser, though perhaps a bit slow, I put my foot on the board to hold it steady. Again, she almost immediately put not one, but both front feet on the wobble board. I jackpotted her, and then we walked away from the dog-eating wobble board.

“Crystal,” she told me, “you can’t avoid stress. That wobble board was stressful for Maisy, but she did it because you asked, and because she trusts you.”

“But should I have asked?”

“You exposed her to stress, yes, but life is stressful sometimes. The more important part is that you knew when to stop. Let Maisy guide you. If she is willing to try, go ahead and ask.”

“So what you’re saying is I should quit thinking and listen to my heart?”

“I doubt you’ll quit thinking; you live in your head. But you have good instincts when it comes to your dog, so listen to those and you’ll be fine.”

Instinctually, I know that Maisy can do this. After all, I know that Maisy loves to train, and that she loves to go places with me. Just about the worst thing in her world is when I do something or go somewhere without her. I really think that Maisy would rather be with me in a stressful environment than at home, safe, but alone.

And it’s true, you can’t avoid stress, but you can learn to balance it. Trials may be stressful for her, but Maisy is still willing to play the game. In fact, she seems to like the game. As my trainer pointed out, once we got in the ring, Maisy’s stress level went way down. She likes to know what her job is, and she likes to do it.

So, we’ll keep training, and we’ll keep trialing… for now, anyway.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Maisy, RL2, RL1X, CGC

Did you notice the new initials after Maisy's name? She completed her APDT Level 2 Rally title today, and earned an Award of Excellence because all three legs were over 190. Good dog, Maisy! In addition, she picked up a third place and and second place.

We had some really lovely moments today. Both courses had jumps in them, and she did the jumps both times! I introduced her to jumps last summer, but didn't do much training with them. Then she had a back injury in the fall, so we really haven't been able to train much on jumps... needless to say, I was a bit worried about an NQ on that station. I needn't have worried; she just flew over those jumps.

She did well on the off-set figure 8 (AKA, the food bowls), too. Okay, "well" might be an overstatement, but we did them! It was actually kind of comical. I wish I'd gotten it on video, because she was looking at those food bowls so hard that I had to slow waaaaaay down to keep her with me. Still, she only sniffed one- and it was the last one, after she'd resisted the rest.

She had some really nice heeling moments, especially anything to the left, but she also did the fast forward from a sit! Twice! Since we've struggled so much with the fast pace, I was very proud of this!

Although she wasn't at her best today- and I'll talk about that in a future post, because this is a celebration post- she worked her tail off for me. One of the things I really love about Maisy is that she always gives me everything she's got. Sometimes, that isn't much, but she'll always give it anyway. She was stressed today, but even so, she turned in a solid performance, and I'm incredibly proud of her.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Training Plan- Results!

I've spent just over a week working on the training plan I created. Here are the results:

Exercise: Get-ins
Criteria: Sit straight when in heel position
Data: During the first trial, she succeeded 40% of the time. On the final trial, she succeeded 80% of the time.
Notes: Interestingly, this was the only set of data the reflected steady upward growth. All of the other exercises went up and down day to day.

Exercise: Attention heeling
Criteria: Maintain eye contact with the first step of heeling
Data: The data here was all over the place, starting at 90%, dropping to 50% and then returning to 90%.
Notes: I am unsure what her true ability is here as I just don't have that much data. Part of it was complicated by the fact that I was working on two elements of heeling- separately, but still, I think this made things a bit messier. Sometimes she got clicked for the eye contact, and sometimes she didn't. I think this could be made much clearer if I just worked on one aspect. And, I believe Laura said that in the comments, as well. Laura is massively talented; I should have listened.

Exercise: Fronts
Criteria: Sit straight and roughly centered (between my feet)
Data: She started at 60% and ended at 50%. In the middle, however, she tested at 60% or 70%.
Notes: This is the only set of data that I do not feel is an accurate representation of her abilities. During training, I would guess she is at closer to 90%. I'm not sure why the test was so poor today.

Exercise: Duration heeling
Criteria: 300 peck heeling, more or less
Data: The first day we did approximately 50 feet without a treat while maintaining attention. Today, we did approximately 120 feet without a treat while maintaining attention, and I think she could have gone further.
Notes: I am unhappy with how this was tested. Since I didn't want to set her up for failure, I didn't push her until she quit, so I never got the full sense of her abilities. Also, I didn't get fun percentages. I like percentages.

I really enjoyed doing this. I like charts and checklists and such, so I often write training goals, but this is the first time that I've written out exactly what my criteria is as well as tracked the results. I definitely want to do this again!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Six Words

There's a bit of a meme going around the dog world right now. Basically, you're supposed to describe your dog in six words. I've been through a number of variations, but I think I've settled on:

High octane shadow with mismatched ears.