Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sarah Kalnajs Seminar: Appeasement Signals

Appeasement signals, also called cut-off signals or calming signals, are what a dog does when he wants to say “I'm not comfortable right now, but I mean you no harm. Please stop what you're doing.” In other words, these signals are used to diffuse a tense situation. As a result, they are often offered during greetings. However, they do not necessarily mean that the dog wants to get away from the dog (or person) the signal is given to entirely, only that the dog is feeling a bit pressured with the situation itself. Sarah said that this means that appeasement signals often display a lack of confidence. Further, they are meant to be reciprocal. The dog feeling uncomfortable offers the appeasement signal, and the other dog replies in kind to communicate that he understands, and that he, too, is no threat.

As I've said previously, I've included photos when I've had them. If you have a picture of your dog doing one of the signals for which there is no photo, please email it to me (address is in the contact tab). I'd love to post it (with credit, of course!).

Look Away or Turn Away
When your dog deliberately looks away from you (and not to look at some distraction in the distance), he's doing it to tell you he's uncomfortable. True to the category, this gesture communicates that the dog is no threat. Interestingly, every time I pull a camera out, Maisy looks away, and sometimes it's quite challenging to get her to look at me. Turn aways are similar, and include the whole body, not just the head.

Here's a great example of the look away in action. Via (the puppy) tells Maisy she's feeling stressed by licking her lips. Maisy responds by looking away in order to tell Via she's not a threat.

Paw Raise
This happens when the dog lifts just one front paw.

Although all signals must be taken in context, this is especially important with sniffing. Pay attention to what causes it, when it ends, and what else is going on. If there is truly a good smell, and the sniffing takes place independently of what's going on around the dog, then it's nothing to worry about. On the other hand, if another dog approaches, or something odd is going on in the environment, and the dog begins sniffing at nothing, it's probably because he doesn't know what else to do.

Trust me- the ground is not that interesting! 
This picture was taken during the middle of an over-the-top play session.
Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

Sneezing is another signal that can have multiple meanings. Sarah said that if the dog gives fast, repetitive sneezes, it's probably excitement, not stress. However, if there are just one or two large sneezes, it's probably appeasement.

This dog is about to sneeze. Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

Again, this signal is very context-dependent, and you'll need to pay attention to what's going on when the dog scratches.

 This was taken during an off-leash hike with five other dogs, 
three of whom Maisy hadn't met before. Photo by Laura Waudby.

Although you might think it would be difficult to pick out appeasement blinking, Sarah said it really isn't because you won't notice a normal rate of blinking. Therefore, if you notice blinking, you can assume it's an increased blink rate, and an appeasement gesture as a result.

Jess blinking following a too-long photo session. Picture courtesy of Sophie.

Shaking Off
Sarah said this is a very common gesture, and perhaps the most common appeasement signal. She said it is akin to a “reset” button, which is a very apt description.

In this video, Maisy's play with Malcolm gets a bit intense, so she sniffs the floor, shakes off, and then sneezes before resuming play again. What a great combo of appeasement gestures! She uses them to say she's just a bit uncomfortable. Like Sarah noted, it's not that Maisy wants the play to end. Instead, it seems more like she just needs a bit of a break before it continues.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sarah Kalnajs Seminar: Anticipatory Behaviors

Anticipatory behaviors are also signs of stress, however, they're generally not as significant as the straight-up stress signals we talked about in the last post. Sarah said these behaviors are often a sign of eustress (that's the good kind). Still, stress is stress, and with it comes increased arousal and the possibility of aggression, so we are wise to notice and respond to stress when we see it.

Although these signals are classified as a general indication of excitement, remember that you have to take all things in context. They may indicate something more serious in your dog, just as some of the stress signals in the previous post indicated anticipation for some of the commenters' dogs.

Surprisingly, I've only got a video of one of these things!. If you have a photo or video of your dog doing one of these things, please send it along! I'd love to post it (with credit, of course!). My email address is available under the “contact” tab. I got a great response to the last post, so check back soon- I bet I'll have some then!

Smiling is very similar to the “submissive grin,” however while the latter is typically an appeasement behavior, smiling is an indicator of excitement, and is usually a signal of good stress. The difference is in how much of the teeth are showing. Smiling is when the dog lifts his front lips and shows just the front teeth. The submissive grin happens when the dog lifts his front lips and pulls the lips back so you can see the molars. In both cases, the mouth is closed.

The lovely Dahlia demonstrates her smiles here and here. Photos are courtesy of Crysania, who also posted several more links (and descriptions) in the comments.

Penis Crowning
This is when the tip of a male dog's penis comes out just slightly.

Stress Vocalizations
These behaviors include whining, dry panting, and howling. I've always thought this was straight up stress, but recently, Maisy has begun to do a lot of whining and panting when she's super excited to meet another dog. And, upon reflection, I guess she does do the dry panting when playing ball. And here's a bit a frustrated (and highly anticipatory) whining directed at the turkey in our neighbor's back yard:

Teeth Chattering
This is when the dog's teeth literally “chatter” or clack together. It's a very distinctive sound. It can be a sign of both good stress and bad stress, but either way, it's a sign of very high arousal. Unless it's related to anticipation, you need to remove the dog from the situation that's stressing him.

Piloerection is the fancy term for the dog's hair standing up. You've probably heard someone use the term “hackles up,” which is the hair over the shoulders standing up, but piloerection can also happen in other areas, such as the tail. This is a very definite sign of arousal, and while it's indicative of stress, it is not a sign of impending doom on its own. I found that interesting since it's often a signal that's used to portray an aggressive dog. Sidenote: Sarah said that piloerection is a sympathetic nervous response, which means the dog isn't aware that he's doing it.

 Do not approach this dog! In addition to piloerection, the dog's head and neck are low, 
the eyes are hard, and the stare is direct. This dog WILL bite if you come near her Kong. 
Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sarah Kalnajs Seminar: Signs of Stress

Today's post is all about the things our dogs do that Sarah said are signs of stress. Remember, you need to take all of these in context, so don't freak out if the first time you see your dog do one of them. Look at the whole picture. Still, it's important to notice even possible signs of stress, because stress can lead to aggressive behavior (more on this in a future post). By recognizing early warning signs, you can take steps to protect both yourself and your dog, so let's get started!

Note: I have included pictures when I had them available. Some categories are difficult to catch in still photos, and some are things Maisy simply doesn't do. If you have a photo of one of the missing categories, and would be willing to share it so I can post it (with credit of course), please email me. My address is on the “contact” tab above.

This is one of the most common signals you'll see; almost every dog does it when feeling stressed.

Dilated Pupils
When the pupils are larger than they should be, given the amount of ambient light, it's probably a sign of stress. This is an involuntary action; it naturally happens when under stress as part of the fight-or-flight system because dilated pupils allow the dog to take in additional visual information which might be helpful.

(Click to embiggen. It's the only way to see the pupils clearly.)

Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

Lip Licking
If your dog licks his lips, especially in the absence of food, it's probably stress-related. Pay attention to when the behavior begins and ends to determine what's stressing him out.

A stress stretch looks very different from one done upon waking or when very relaxed. It will be very quick and abbreviated, typically only half of a normal stretch. It can look a lot like a play bow, so it's important to observe the dog for additional signals and check out the context in which the behavior happens.

Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

Pinned Ears
Also called “bunny ears,” this happens when the dog's ears are pulled back against the head. It will look slightly different from dog to dog since there's such a wide variety of ear types out there.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Smith.
This excellent shot of Toby includes pinned ears, dilated pupils, some muscle ridges,
and a head turn (which will be featured in the post on appeasement signals next week).

Excessive Shedding
Often combined with a very stiff posture, a sudden onset of shedding is an excellent indicator of stress. It's not limited to dogs, either- one of my cats is a fur-generating-machine when at the vets!

Slow or Little Movement
This is a very significant behavior, and indicates a very stressed dog. A dog demonstrating this signal is neither loose nor stiff. There's no acceptance of what's going on, nor is there any struggle. Instead the dog is checked out. Sarah described it as “the lights are on but nobody's home.” If you see a dog doing this, she recommended doing something to get the dog moving- squeak a toy, toss a treat- whatever it takes!

Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche, who shared that Layla didn't move 
for hours after waking up from sedation to find this bandage on her foot.

Not Eating
If your dog normally likes a food item and suddenly refuses it, it's probably due to stress. Pay attention to your surroundings; is there a pattern to when he stops eating, and when he starts again?

Uro-Genital Check-Out
This is where a dog looks back at his own genitals. Some dogs are brief, and do just a quick glance, while others will do a prolonged search and sniff. Either way, Sarah said that it's a sign of stress, and often serves as a displacement behavior since the dog isn't sure what else to do.

This picture demonstrates Maisy's own take on the check-out: spinning or biting at her tail. I've noticed that she often looks back and/or snaps at her tail when she's over-aroused or stressed. It's similar to the check-out, though not identical, proving that dogs don't read the books on body language!

Pacing or an Inability to Settle
If your dog can't stop moving, he's probably stressed. He may switch positions (sit to down, for example) repeatedly, he may walk back and forth, or he may just seem hyper. No matter how it looks, it's stress.

(Discussion on this video is available here.)

Photo courtesy of Melissa Smith.
This photo of Toby would be funny if it weren't so sad.

Tucked Tail, Weight Shifted Back, Low Body Posture
This is the classic “scared dog” posture.

Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

 Many dogs will put their tail between their legs and touching their bellies, but interestingly, this is as far as Maisy's tail ever tucks. I think it's because she has such a high tail set to start with, once again demonstrating that each dog is an individual.

Maisy is cautious and low, but interested.

Tucked tail.
Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

Muscle Ridges Around Eyes and Mouth
Easy to see on dogs with short hair and expressive faces, but ultimately challenging on a dog like Maisy, muscle ridges are similar to furrowed brows in people, and a great indicator of stress.

 Ridges around the eyes, courtesy of 2dogcrazy.

Ridges around the mouth. Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

Lots of ridges. Photo courtesy of 2dogcrazy.

Increased Respiration Rate, or Shallow/Fast Breaking
If a dog is panting more than seems reasonable given the weather or the dog's activity, it's probably stress.

It's hard to tell in this picture, but Maisy is definitely panting in this photo. I don't know if this is true for all dogs, but Maisy's stress pants have her mouth opened only a small amount, as opposed to her tired/happy panting, which is with a wide open mouth.

If the dog is shaking, shivering, or trembling, he's probably stressed. This great video example is courtesy of Sara Reusche:

Sweaty Paws
This is a more significant signal- if you can see sweaty paw prints or feel a damp paw, Sarah said you should immediately adjust the dog's environment. Interestingly, the only time I've seen Maisy have sweaty paws is when playing ball- which is a happy thing for her. As a result, I'd classify this as more of an anticipatory behavior, at least for Maisy, and in that one context.

Photo by Aditi Terpstra.
(And his foster mom reports the sweaty paws are disappearing quick!)
Excess Salivation
The more you see, the more stressed the dog likely is. Again, you'll need to take other factors into account, such as tasty food items in the vicinity and breed of dog, but salivation for no reason, or more than seems normal, is probably stress.

Cheek Puffing
When the dog's cheeks puff out, it's a sign of extreme stress. Sarah said it's not very common.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sarah Kalnajs Seminar: Body Language Overview

Last month, I attended a seminar presented by Sarah Kalnajs. I was really excited for it because I absolutely love her DVD The Language of Dogs, which is all about body language. Saturday's seminar presentation was basically an expanded version of the DVD (with bonus material on stress), except with lots of new footage. I have to say, Sarah is a genius at getting great video of dogs.

Sarah broke her presentation on body language down into five sections: signs of stress, anticipatory behaviors, cut-off or appeasement signals, distance increasing signals, and distance decreasing signals. Although I'm going to post about each section separately, it's important to keep in mind that body language does not happen this way. You may see body language from multiple categories at the same time, which makes sense since some categories go together neatly- signs of stress quite often accompany distance increasing signals, for example.

Regardless of category, you'll often see several different behaviors instead of just a single one. It's possible that a dog might be subtle with his body language, or that he might show conflicting signals, which is why it's important to take everything in context. Just because something can be a sign of stress (or appeasement, or anticipation, etc.), doesn't mean it is. Further, dogs don't go to seminars, so there will always be the odd dog that uses body language in ways that contradict what Sarah said. This doesn't mean she's wrong, it simply means that every dog is an individual, and as such, it's impossible to make broad generalizations that are correct 100% of the time.

I'm really looking forward to sharing this information with you. I know that the first time I saw Sarah's DVD, a whole new world opened up to me. I had no idea my dog was telling me so much. The more I learn, the more I am amazed by the subtleties to my dog's movements. And I know I'm missing a lot more than I catch. Still, I have been saving up a ton of photos of Maisy exhibiting various body language signals, so this series of posts promises to be awesome, informative, and adorable!

Here's a teaser photo to get you started. I absolutely love this photo in terms of body language. Look how beautifully the barely-eight-weeks-old Via communicates! (Too bad Maisy was kind of being a jerk, though.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Treating the Autistic* Dog

In my last post, I talked about sensory processing disorder (SPD), and speculated on whether or not sensory issues might play a role in reactivity in dogs. I tend to think that while it may not fully explain reactivity (a lack of socialization and genetic anxiety disorders are other relevant factors), there may be some elements of SPD present in reactive dogs.

Ironically enough, yesterday I attended a training presented by Audrey Omdahl-Chaput of Metro Therapy on SPD! While I understood the basics well enough to write the last post, I was absolutely fascinated by Audrey's presentation. She discussed some of the neurology behind SPD, the symptoms and assessments they do. Now I kind of want to be an occupational therapist...

Anyway, today I want to talk about sensory diets. Sensory diets are often used in helping people with SPD find their “optimal arousal level.” Some people (and dogs) are “high strung” and need a way to reduce or better modulate sensory input. Others need more sensory input, and without it, are sluggish or lethargic. Either way, the goal of a sensory diet is to assess the sensory needs of a particular person (or dog), and meet them with complementary activities.

A sensory diet is not a cure or a complete treatment. Instead, it's a supplementary activity that helps support what is done in the therapy sessions. In dog terms, a sensory diet is more like management. What I really like about them, and the reason I am writing about them today, is that they provide a very structured, systematic way of thinking about environmental changes we can make to help support our dogs.

The first step is to figure out what our dog needs. Is he sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding? I suspect that most reactive dogs are in the latter category, and that their behavior is the result of too much stimulation. I certainly think this is true for Maisy, anyway. Keep in mind that, like people, dogs are not static beings, and thus they will likely show both seeking and avoiding tendencies at times. You will need to adjust the sensory diet to meet the individual's needs in a given situation. However, I think that most dogs will fall into one of the categories more often.

Once you've figured out your dog's general sensory orientation, it's time to figure out which senses are most affected; is he more sensitive to sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch? (Touch can be further broken down into proprioception and vestibular needs.) This checklist is meant for kids, but I think it gives us dog owners a nice starting point to figure out which senses are feeling overpowered, and which could use a bit more activity.

Next, watch your dog. What specifically does he do? Does he run through the house like crazy? Does he avoid tile floors? Does he hate being touched, or does he seek it out? Do certain sounds or sights make him crazy? In addition to learning the types of sensory input that your dog is seeking or avoiding, you'll discover what the specific actions he uses to get those needs met. This will give you insight into the kinds of things he needs in his sensory diet.

Also pay attention to your responses. How do your actions affect your dog? Can you calm your dog down or rev him up when needed? What can you do that is most likely to get the response you want? You probably already intuitively know what your dog needs- all you need to do is use that knowledge more consciously.

Now that you have a pretty good idea of what your dog both needs and wants in his sensory diet, it's time to find the right ingredients. Here are the food groups from which you'll choose:

Proprioceptive input, which refers to the sensations from joints, muscles, and connective tissues that lead to body awareness. Audrey said that when proprioceptive receptors are fired, it sends calming signals to the brain. As a result, it seems like every reactive dog could benefit from proprioceptive input. Common suggestions for people include pushing and pulling activities, weighted vests, and squeezing things or being squeezed. I see some easy things to do with our dogs in this category- we can use Thundershirts (or a homemade equivalent), have them to wear a weighted backpack, and even teach them to pull a cart or on leash. Unfortunately, Maisy really hates wearing things, and the time I tried a homemade anxiety wrap, it made her worse:

(Suggestions on possible alternatives would be welcomed!!)

Vestibular input, the sense of movement and positioning in space, might include activities like rocking, swinging, running, or jumping. Running and jumping is easy enough, and we can teach our dogs to rock wobble boards and balance on yoga balls. Heck, pretty much the entire sport of agility works well in this category. Of course, this is all pretty stimulating input, but slower, more rhythmic movements can be calming and should be considered. Interestingly, Audrey said that the vestibular sense is processed in the same part of the brain that processes visual stimuli and is responsible for focus and attention.

Tactile input has to do with the sense of touch, specifically that of pressure, texture, temperature and vibration. This one is a little harder to adapt, because human suggestions depend on “messy play” with shaving cream, finger paints or play-doh. Thankfully, I don't need to figure it out because this article does it for me by discussing how TTouch can help.

Auditory input is a useful category since music is a very easy way to provide auditory input to people and dogs alike. I'm a huge fan of Through a Dog's Ear, the psycho-acoustically arranged music designed to calm dogs. The accompanying book encourages us to take stock of all the sounds in our dog's environment and consider how they might affect our dogs. For example, is your television or radio on constantly, and if so, can your dog escape to a quiet room if he so desires? How do different sounds affect your dog's behavior, and what can you do to modulate the types and amounts of auditory input your dog receives?

Visual input is important to consider as well since it can be so overstimulating for many dogs. Likewise, many suggestions for humans revolve around reducing visual stimuli. For people with SPD, the suggestions include using solids instead of patterns and neutral colors instead of bright ones. Since our dogs don't see the same way we do (according to the book Inside of a Dog, they see fewer colors, and have grainier/less focused vision, but are more sensitive to motion, have better night vision, and have a larger peripheral vision field than us) we will need to adjust these suggestions. Personally, I think the best thing we can do is close the curtains or otherwise block the dog's ability to look out windows all day long.

Olfactory and tasting input, the interrelated senses of smell and taste, is perhaps the most difficult to implement in a dog's sensory diet. For people with SPD, recommendations include using aromatherapy and playing “tasting games.” While I imagine we could use aromatherapy with dogs, I'm hesitant to recommend it since they have so much better noses than we do. I'd hate to overpower (and possibly overstimulate) them with our good intentions. However, I am a huge proponent of “sniff walks.” These are when you allow your dog to set the pace, and allow him to sniff when he wants, where he wants, for as long as he wants. Not only do they provide some slow, gentle vestibular input, but it seems possible they provide some important olfactory input. The trick is to watch and see if this helps your dog feel better or worse.

Now it's time to take all of our ingredients and mix them together in a way that makes sense given what we've already learned about our dogs. Since each individual's needs are unique, every recipe will be different, but the end result will be the same: a diet of sensory activities designed to help our reactive dogs cope with the world.

To be honest, I haven't done this kind of systematic assessment of Maisy's environmental needs, although since learning about sensory diets, I've been thinking a lot about what might benefit her. If I have time, I might write one up for her this weekend.

In the meantime, though, feel free to share ideas about ingredients that might fall in each “food group.” Although they aren't senses, exactly, I do think a good management plan for a dog involves careful consideration about physical and mental exercise in addition to some of the above ideas, so feel free to share other elements of management that might be helpful to someone with a reactive dog. And of course, I'd love to hear about things you're already doing with your dog!

*Again, I recognize that using the term "autistic" in my title is both inaccurate and a bit flippant. It was the catchiest thing I could think of, and really tied in with the previous post better, too.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Is my dog autistic?

As the “about me” section on this blog indicates, I am a social worker. I have been working with people with disabilities for ten years, and I must admit that I am sometimes fascinated with the corollaries between my career and my hobby. I guess this shouldn't be a surprise; the principles of behavior are similar regardless of species, after all.

Recently, one of my clients with autism was really struggling, so we called in a behavior analyst to help figure out what's going on with him. In doing so, I learned about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a controversial condition which is not fully accepted by the medical community. SPD and autism are not the same thing (which technically means that my post title is inaccurate, even if it's catchier this way), but sensory issues are common in people with autism.

So what is SPD? It's what happens when a person's sensory system cannot process sensory input (what they see, hear, touch, etc.) the same way other people do. Some people over-process what's going on around them, while others under-process sensory input, but either way, they are typically quite sensitive to the environment. As a result, seemingly normal levels of sensory input can result in what might appear to be odd behaviors. I'm sure the behavior seems completely logical to the person, though. In fact, if you or I experienced a similar intensity of sensory input, we'd likely react the same way. In short, it's the amount of sensory input required to "feel normal" that seems to differ between the person with SPD and the one without it.

According to SensorySmarts.com, these are some common signs of sensory processing problems:
  • Out-of-proportion reactions to touch, sounds, sights, movement, tastes, or smells.
  • Motor skill and body awareness difficulties.
  • Poor attention and focus.
  • Uncomfortable or easily overstimulated in group settings.
  • Difficulty with self-confidence and independence.
Sound familiar? All of those symptoms, save perhaps the second one, are often seen in reactive dogs.

The first one is especially relevant: by definition, reactivity is when a dog overreacts to something. The intensity of their behavior- Maisy lunges and loudly barks or growls, for example- is out-of-proportion in comparison to the the stimuli that triggered that reaction. I've always assumed that reactivity is rooted in anxiety, but is it possible that the anxiety is because the dog is having trouble processing the sensory input around him? Maybe. I know that many of my clients with sensory issues are also diagnosed with anxiety, so there could be a connection.

Poor attention and focus is often seen in our reactive dogs, too. They often seem distracted, and need to look around a lot. Maisy used to scan the environment for prolonged periods in response to innocuous sounds. It seemed like she couldn't filter them out the way other dogs can. Is this because her brain has trouble processing auditory input?

Being easily overstimulated in group settings is a no-brainer, at least for Maisy. While she can maintain her composure fairly well in small groups, each additional person or dog pushes her that much closer to her threshold. This is getting better with medication, but it really does seem like she becomes more uncomfortable when there are too many things to keep track of. Is this anxiety? A lack of socialization? Or is it because there is too much sensory input to process?

Difficulty with self-confidence might seem like a stretch, but even so, I can see how it fits: Maisy has always been cautious and worried. She hates when things move underfoot, she's reluctant to walk on odd surfaces, and she's generally suspicious of novel experiences. In other words: she lacks confidence. It make sense, in a way: if she's having difficulty processing what's going on around her, wouldn't that affect her confidence in her ability to interact with the world?

So there you have it: if Maisy were a person, she might have SPD. Of course, she's not a person, so all of this is really just anthropomorphic foolishness on my part. Then why make the comparison at all? First, let me assure you that I am certainly not trying to make a negative comparison, although I'm aware this post could be offensive to people who live with autism or SPD in one way or another. I have several friends and loved ones with disabilities, so this is certainly not my intent.

Instead, beyond the fact that it's intellectually interesting to speculate about, I also spend a lot of time trying to help people with autism or SPD obtain services that allow them to interact with the world more fully. Since my goal is to help Maisy do the same, it seems natural that there might be some concepts in treating humans that I can borrow for my own purposes. In my next post, I'll talk about one especially interesting idea that I recently ran across. I'm excited to share it with you! In the meantime, though, let me know what you think. Does my comparison have any merit, or have I crossed a line I really shouldn't have?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Training Update: Baby Retrieves!

It's been a very long time since I posted any kind of training update. Honestly, I haven't done much lately. I started a new job recently, and it's left me kind of wiped out. Still, we go to class regularly, so we're still making some progress:

I'm really pleased with how she's doing with her retrieves. It took forever, but we've mostly gotten rid of both nudging the item with her nose and the paw lift when I reach for the item. Both things pop out once in a while, but given how hard it is to train out superstitious behaviors, I'm happy with how far she's come! I also like that we're getting a bit of duration.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Rethinking Normal

Maisy chilling at my husband's office- a relatively unfamiliar environment.
This behavior is normal now, but it wasn't six months ago...

Last week, I wrote a post in which I shared a video of Maisy in a fairly busy, novel environment. I was pleased by that big helicopter tail and her willingness to interact with people. I was happy that she was willingly entering the seminar room, and even pulling me to get in. And mostly, even though I knew she was a bit stressed, I was just thrilled with how well she was handling it. She could never have done that six months ago.

So I was quite surprised when Dr. Duxbury, Maisy's veterinary behaviorist, responded to my happy email by saying that she didn't like seeing Maisy so stressed. Now, I knew that Maisy was stressed in the video- she was moving slightly quicker and tighter than usual- but I thought it was pretty subtle. I guess I should be glad that I have a veterinary behaviorist that is skilled enough to see more than I can, but mostly I was embarrassed. After all, while she may be the expert on dog behavior, aren't I supposed to be the expert on my dog?

After several phone calls to trusted trainers (and friends), and what might be a potentially unhealthy level of obsession, I think I've figured out why I missed it. The key was in what Dr. Duxbury said- that Maisy was “on hyperdrive” in the video. In other words- all that moving around? Stress. Even though I know that excessive movement or pacing can be a sign of stress- heck, it was discussed at the very seminar where I took the video- I didn't recognize it as such because I thought it was normal for Maisy.

As Maisy begins to stabilize on medication, I'm learning a very hard lesson: I have no idea who she really is. Sure, I have some clues- she loves playing ball and chasing chickens, for example- but her base personality? Well, it's possible that I'm just now seeing it for the first time.

You see, when Maisy was a puppy, I thought she was a social butterfly. In puppy class, she flitted around on the end of leash, going from person to person, and she never stopped moving. I thought she was simply excited and happy to see everyone. Meanwhile, at home, she had a never-ending source of energy. I never saw her sleep until she was almost six months old, and then only because she'd just been spayed. She was constantly on the go, getting into things and climbing up the stairs obsessively.

As she grew older, the sociability morphed into leash reactivity, while her energetic nature began to express itself in constant scanning and pacing. Although I knew the reactivity and hypervigilance was a problem, I thought the rest was just part of her personality. She's a herding dog mix, after all, and aren't herding breeds known for being sensitive and high-energy?

This explains why I looked at that video and saw Maisy acting normal, and Dr. Duxbury looked at it and saw a stressed dog. For awhile, I played with the idea that she was wrong, that she just doesn't know Maisy as well as I do, that she has no idea who Maisy is. But when I thought about, I realized that wasn't right at all. When I take an honest look at the dog Maisy has become, I am convinced that all that excitement was a symptom of her anxiety.

These days, Maisy is a pretty laid-back little dog. She no longer gets the nightly “zoomies” like she used to, and she isn't constantly dropping a tennis ball in my lap anymore... or chasing the cats... or just wandering around aimlessly. As I write this, she is flopped out on her side next to me on the couch, which is pretty much the norm now. This isn't to say that she's drugged or lethargic; on the contrary, she can go for a two hour off-leash hike, and still be begging for more while I'm dragging my sorry butt back to the car. Even out in public, she's pretty relaxed. For example, when we hung out at the rally trial recently, she spent most of that afternoon in my lap or rolled over onto one hip. And while she was pretty excited to see some of her human friends, it wasn't with the same frantic abandon that she demonstrated in that seminar video.

The truth is, there are enough red flags in Maisy's puppyhood that I believe she suffered from anxiety from an early age. Just because certain behaviors might seem normal for her doesn't mean they're part of her true, non-anxious personality. I can't compare her behavior only to who she was. While it's important to do so in order to recognize how much she's improved, it also leaves me with some pretty big blind spots. I need to check those areas, and instead of assuming that something is simply part of who she is, I need to consider how the average dog would react, and ask myself, “Could this be stress?”

Of course, I know that Maisy is an individual, and as such, she will never conform perfectly to the notion of what a normal dog is, but then, no dog can. Therefore, I also need to compare her behavior to how she acts in familiar environments. Although this might apply to a wide variety of places, she's most comfortable at home, so I need to think about how she might react if we were there instead. If the behavior would seem odd in a familiar context, I need to consider that it might be stress, no matter how often I've seen her do it in the past.

Really, I'm saying that I need to rethink normal. I can't simply pass something off as part of of her personality because I don't really know what that is. Maisy is growing and changing every day, and I'm constantly surprised by what she's capable of now. I can't limit that growth by fixating on a “normal” that's no longer true. Instead, I need to be willing to challenge my assumptions about who she is, and accept who she becomes. Only when I do that can I help her move forward and realize her full potential. It's going to be hard, and I won't always get it right, but it's going to be worth it in the end.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Closing Session with Patricia McConnell- Emotions and Dogs

Patricia McConnell made us cry. Even people who had heard her talk on the subject of emotions and dogs before, who knew what she was going to say before she said it, didn't escape with a dry face. Yes, for all that we talked about theory and science and data at Clicker Expo, when it comes right down to it, we were there because we love our dogs.

But do our dogs love us? Do they have emotions? Trisha said that the evidence points to yes.

Here's the deal: emotions are primitive things. They integrate the body and environment. They are as important to us as is rational thought, and in fact, actually allow rational thought. Emotions enable us to make decisions, and without them, we would be unable to do things as simple as filing a piece of paper. It stands to reason that animals would need emotions to make decisions, too.

What's more, the limbic system- the part of the body that regulates emotions- is present in all mammals. Although some areas are bigger in some than others, we share all of the same brain structures. We also share many of the same hormones, such as oxytocin, which is critical to process of bonding and attachment in mother and young.

Still not convinced? Well, Trisha said that we often share external expressions of emotions with other animals. Things like fear, happiness and anger look similar among species. She showed us a great slide show demonstrating this; if you'd like to see the pictures, check out her book For the Love of a Dog. (And then read the whole thing- it's fabulous.)

The truth is, most biologists agree that mammals, including dogs, have emotions. However, there is a great deal of controversy over which ones they have, and how they experience them. Generally speaking, it appears that dogs can feel disgust, fear, anger, happiness, and “seeking.” They probably don't understand more complex emotions like jealousy, sympathy, or guilt.

But do they feel love? Well, it certainly seems so. Who hasn't spoken of the “unconditional” love of a dog? But is it truly unconditional love, or is it that they can't talk back? Their nonverbal status certainly enhances the primal connection we often feel with our dogs. They also elicit nurturing behaviors and empathy. Who hasn't cooed at a puppy, after all? These behaviors result in the release of oxytocin, which helps us bond to them even stronger. Perhaps that hormone also leads to the perception of unconditional love.

There's one thing we can all agree on though: No matter how they feel about us, we certainly love them. Trisha made us all cry when she shared the story of her beloved dog's death. Even now, I tear up just a little, knowing that I will (hopefully) outlive Maisy. I have such a hard time imagining life without her, and I have no idea how I will survive.

So go. Turn off your computer. Spend some time with your dog. Train if you wish, but don't worry about the result- you're a good trainer, and you could teach almost any dog to do that behavior. Instead, enjoy the process. Revel in the beauty of the relationship you have with your dog. Simply enjoy being together. Love him. And if you can, let him love you too.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

(Mostly) Wordless Weekend

"Mom! Mom, I see something!"

"It's a turkey! In the neighbor's yard!"

"Open the gate! Please! Now!"


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh- Let's Make Some Noise!

Maisy hates things that move under her feet, and she's not too fond of strange noises, either, so when I heard about this session on building confidence in dogs by using noise and movement, I knew I had to go. At the same time, I was also a bit skeptical. My general experience has been that when dog people talk about building confidence in dogs, it's in mildly worried dogs, not the truly terrified ones. I'm often left with the feeling that, yes, that might work... but not for my dog.

I did not leave Eva and Emelie's presentation feeling that way. To the contrary, I felt like they really, truly get what an anxious dog is all about. I believed that they have met dogs like Maisy and worked through their issues. They did a great job of breaking down the concepts, explaining ways to make it easier, and offering alternative solutions. I was super impressed with them, their presentation, and their ideas.

Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh are agility people, and their book, Agility Right From the Start, has received a lot of positive buzz. So naturally, they are concerned about dogs learning to love noise and movement because of the agility obstacles, especially the teeter. However, they were quick to say that their session was about more than just agility, and that noise and movement is not simply a distraction to overcome. Our lives are full of noise and movement, and if a dog doesn't learn to enjoy it, his quality of life suffers.

Although they did discuss applications to agility, and used agility-related videos, as a non-agility person, I did not feel this detracted from the presentation in the least. They did a great job of presenting the concepts of noise and movement as something people like me could use to help their non-agility dogs. Again, I was so impressed.

Eva and Emelie shared that there are several ways to approach noise and movement with dogs who are cautious or fearful of it. The first is habituation, in which the dog simply ceases to respond to the stimuli. When a trainer helps a dog to habituate to noise or movement, the goal is for the dog to not mind or not notice when it happens.

The second method is to teach the dog to like the noise or movement through classical conditioning. This isn't a bad approach, and in fact, Eva and Emelie said you need to do this step before you can move on to the next one. Basically you teach the dog that when they hear a noise or feel something move, great stuff will happen. It's not contingent upon the dog's behavior; the dog is simply experiencing awesome treats and super fun games and toys as a result of noise or movement.

Eva and Emelie shared that this is a great thing to do for all agility dogs, even the ones with a solid temperament. If they love noise and movement, they'll be eager for it to happen, and you'll get a far more enthusiastic performance from your dog. For the worried dogs, though, it's vital. When you are pairing the noise and movement with good things, you'll need to gauge whether your dog was simply cautious or whether he was truly scared. Depending on where he's at, you'll need to adjust your training. Dogs on the cautious end of the spectrum can receive relatively low-value treats and work for many quick repetitions. Dogs on the more fearful end of the spectrum, though, might only be able to do one or two trials a day, and will need the awesome thing- whether treats or play (and they prefer play because it's a higher energy activity that results in a better, happier response)- to happen for a very long time.

With conditioning like this, it is vital that you get the order correct. The noise or movement happens first, then the awesome thing. This is especially true if your dog dislikes noise and movement and you do it the other way around, you'll associate the treat or the toy with bad feelings. They called this “backwards conditioning,” and said it will cause you far more headaches in the long run.

Another suggestion for truly worried dogs, is to be sure that you never use noise or movement as an aversive. Don't say “ah-ah,” don't make “sst” noises, don't yell “no!” Doing so will work against you. Your goal is for noise and movement- any noise and movement- to predict great things, not punishing things, no matter how small that punishment might be.

The third method- and the one Eva and Emelie prefer- is to teach the dog to create and then demand noise and movement through operant conditioning. While classical conditioning is controlled by the handler, operant conditioning gives control to the dog. Since worried dogs often feel like the world is out-of-control, giving them the power to exert influence on their world can be transformative.

They start by simply teaching the dog how to create the noise through the handler. They do this by treating the noise or movement as a secondary reinforcer, just like a clicker. They will shape behaviors using a noise or some movement in the place of the click. You can use any noise- jingle some keys, or hit two spoons together, or shut a cupboard door- and then follow it up with a treat. Using movement is a bit more difficult, but they recommended having the dog on a very small wobble board or even in your lap, and just moving slightly in place of the click. This results in a dog who wants the noise or movement to happen. It also lets him control how often the noise happens. They did say it should be offered, voluntary behavior, because if you use a cue to get the behavior, it can both wreck the cue (because the cue will predict something scary), and it takes away the dog's choice.They demonstrated this concept with pretty simply behaviors- turning, raising, or lowering a head, for example.

Next, they teach the dog how to create the noise and movement on his own. They shape the dog to do things that like knocking over a book or a soda can, putting metal spoons in metal buckets or on baking trays, etc. Start small- knocking a book over onto carpet is a fairly muffled noise- and build up to larger noises, like knocking over huge stacks of pots and pans. You can choose to click either the dog's movement or the product of his movement (ie, the noise/movement). Eva and Emelie said it doesn't really matter which, as long as you are consistent.

Finally, they work towards having the dog demand the noise and movement. This is really just another level of “create,” but it's a more intense, active version. During this phase of training, you will make creating the noise or movement more difficult by adding resistance. For example, if you're teaching him to shut a cupboard noise (which will both move and bang when it closes), you might hold it lightly so that the dog must push it with more intensity.

No matter which level you're working at, you want to keep your sessions very short, with very slow escalation in the amount of noise or movement. They recommend doing 1 to 3 reps at a time. Any more than that and the dog's brain starts to produce adrenaline because of the fear reaction, which makes it harder for him to learn from the process. They also recommend varying the intensity. The first rep might be very easy, the second quite hard, and the last somewhere in between.

Always watch your dog's expression as you start a session. Eva and Emelie said that the way a dog approaches a session tells you more about how he's feeling than the way he reacts during the session. That said, if you see any signs of worry during a session, do a very easy rep, and then take a break- a long one. They recommended taking breaks of a few days to a few weeks long so the dog has time to forget that it was scary. Remember the goal is to make noise and movement fun for your dog, not simply something to tolerate. Always make it a fun, easy game.

These are some pretty cool ideas, and I know my words do not do their concepts justice. How can you boil down 90 minutes of brilliance into a thousand words? Like I said- I walked away really believing that this would work with Maisy, and that doesn't happen too often! Their video was amazing, and really helped clarify how to use these concepts.  Still, I hope that this at least gives those of you with cautious or fearful dogs some ideas of how to proceed. I'd love to hear from anyone who has tried these ideas!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Kay Laurence- Raising Criteria

I really, really enjoyed Kay Laurence's session on raising criteria. One of the most difficult parts of shaping is knowing when, and how much, to raise criteria. Or at least, I think so. At any rate, there is a definite art to it, and I loved seeing Kay's take on it.

Although each presenter used slightly different words, the theme of “think-plan-do” recurred over and over at Clicker Expo, so it should come as no surprise that Kay emphasized the importance of planning your sessions in advance. Kay explained that planning helps you develop clear criteria. If you don't know exactly what you want, how is your dog supposed to figure it out? At best, unclear criteria slows down learning. At worst, it creates messy, inconsistent behaviors.

Therefore, you need to decide what your criteria is, and then click only the behaviors which meet it. If in doubt, don't click. It is more confusing for the dog if you click several variations of the same behavior than if you don't click several perfect versions. Of course, this is easier said than done. I know I often have the tendency to want to help my dog by clicking good tries, but Kay said that it is nearly impossible to tidy up messy behaviors later on. As a result, it becomes clear that knowing when to withhold the click is as much of a skill as knowing when to click.

So choosing your criteria and sticking with it is important, but it's also important to make sure that you are picking small, easily achievable steps. Kay said that a clicker-savvy dog should be able to figure out what the criteria is in two clicks. If it takes longer, your criteria is probably too high. Although you want quality from the outset, you can't set the bar so high that the dog can't find it. You will get further with lots of quick, small steps than with fewer, bigger steps.

As for how quickly those steps should be taken, Kay recommended increasing the criteria once your dog is able to do five repetitions of the behavior without error and without hesitation. It is important to get five solid reps; raising criteria too quickly means that you're building the behavior on a shaky foundation.

While raising criteria too fast, too soon is more problematic than too slow, a failure to raise criteria at the correct time can be detrimental, too. If you stick at a lower level too long, you run the risk of “locking in” that level of behavior, and making it harder to raise criteria as a result.

Kay believes that you will make the most progress if you take frequent, short breaks. She has found that alternating 20 clicks and treats with a 10-20 second break ten times will yield more progress than 200 clicks and treats in a row. This is partially because it gives you a chance to quickly evaluate how your dog is performing. It's much harder to make this decision on the fly, while training, so she advised us to take a break in order to have time to think.

Another thing to consider during your breaks is your location. Kay said that dogs are very geographically aware, and recommended playing with the environment as part of the criteria. Change the direction you're facing, or introduce small objects as distractions. Use props that help your dog be successful and fade them out later on. Explore how these things affect your dog's behavior.

Breaks can also help you evaluate if your treats are helping or hurting your progress. Tossing a dark colored treat on a dark colored surface is going to slow your dog down. So is throwing treats that break into little pieces when they land, causing the dog to sniff around to find them all. You might also find that your dog is anticipating where or how you're going to give him the treat, so you might need to vary the delivery. If you're tossing treats to reset the behavior, randomly alternate which direction you're throwing it, as well as if you're throwing it overhanded, underhanded, or like a frisbee.

On the subject of tossing treats to reset the behavior, Kay said that it's okay to toss a treat even if you withheld a click. Tossing the treat lets them know they were on the right track, but didn't quite meet the criteria. As odd as it sounds, she said dogs really do seem to understand that the absence of a click means they need to try harder next time.

Like Cecilie Koste, Kay said you should make breaks clear to the dog. Either you're working with him or you're not. Do your best to avoid confusing him. Although she didn't recommend using stations, she did say that when you're on a break, you shouldn't look at, talk to, or otherwise engage your dog.

Overall, I really enjoyed Kay's session. It was a lab, which meant I got to see her interact with a wide variety of dogs. She often chose criteria points that I wouldn't have thought of, which was interesting. The biggest thing is that I tend to shape forwards, towards something, and she seemed to be shaping backwards. For example, when teaching a dog to go around a cone, I would probably start by clicking orientation towards the cone, then steps toward the cone, etc. Kay started with trotting towards the trainer. Then she had the dog trot towards the trainer with the cone visible next to her. She gradually moved the cone into the dog's path so that the dog had to choose to go around it to get to her.

I also really appreciated her emphasis on quality; I'm not very good at being clear with my criteria, and often accept “close enough.” This, of course, prevents me from getting precise behaviors. Sometimes this is okay, but sometimes I would like more consistent results. Watching her train really helped me understand the importance of selecting a clear clickable moment, and I'm looking forward to implementing this in the future.

But what about you guys? How do you choose what your criteria will be? When do you know your dog is ready for the next step? How quickly do you move? What problems have you had, and what do you think you might do differently? Let me know!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

This is a stressed dog?

Last weekend, my husband and I went to a Sarah Kalnjas seminar, hosted by Paws Abilities Dog Training. The seminar was great, but that's not what I want to talk about today (don't worry- I'll tell you all about it if/when I ever finish my posts on Clicker Expo!). Instead, I want to tell you how awesome my dog is.

The seminar was held in Rochester, MN, which is about a ninety minute drive each way from where I live. Because that would be a lot of driving, and because we wanted to hang out with all our cool Rochester dog friends, my husband and I decided to stay in a hotel for the weekend. Since it was Easter weekend, though, we couldn't leave Maisy with her usual puppy-sitters, which meant that we had to bring her with.

Hotels can be stressful places for dogs: it's an unfamiliar environment and there are lots of strange noises. Maisy has stayed in hotels before, and generally finds them difficult to cope with. Still, I was hopeful that given her medication, and her recent good experiences with stressful environments, it would go better than it has in the past.

It did, though it didn't go as well as I had hoped. The first night, she barked, growled or alerted to every single little noise. This was complicated by the fact that this hotel had fairly poor sound-proofing, and no fan in the bathroom (which I always use for white noise). Still, she did settle in and sleep through the night okay. I got her out of the room at lunch, and spent an hour throwing a ball for her in a nearby park after the seminar finished for the day, but she was moving just a bit quicker than usual, and taking treats a little harder- both signs of stress.

The second night actually went better, which surprised me. Usually when under stress, she does worse as time goes on if the source of her stress is not abated. But that night, she only barked once, and that was when someone rattled on our door at 11pm- a perfectly reasonable reaction, and one I rather liked. It seemed as though she was getting used to the environment.

Despite this, she had a harder time navigating the hotel hallways on Sunday morning, and did lunge at a couple people. I found this disheartening. I know that she's a recovering reactive dog, and as such, is prone to relapsing. Beyond that, even "normal" dogs have stressful moments, but still... It was hard to see her so stressed.

All of which is to provide some context for this video:

Does this look like a stressed dog to you?

Seriously, this video was taken on Sunday during the lunch break- so after she's spent over 36 hours in a pretty stressful environment. Although the room isn't overly crowded, there are quite a few people in there, and most of them are strangers (she did meet a few of them the day before). Although she does shy away from someone part way through the video, it's a pretty minor reaction (and the only time I saw her do it all weekend).

The best part is that she recovered quite well from all the stress. We returned home that night, and she slipped right back into our daily routine. She did have two outbursts in reactive dog class on Tuesday- so I know the stress was still affecting her- but she was able to cope quite well at home. This is a huge difference from last fall, when she had a very hard time recovering from Thanksgiving weekend with my parents

Again, I'm just so thrilled with how Maisy is doing. I know the medication has helped her a lot, and it's fun to see her true personality shine through as a result. It's fun to see her being such a social butterfly, to see her being so much more confident and willing to interact with people. And the coolest part is this is how she acts when stressed. I actually had people look at me disbelievingly when I told them this was my reactive dog. Sarah Kalnajs herself said she wouldn't have known Maisy's a "problem dog" unless I'd told her.

But that's probably because she's not. For all that she has reactive tendencies, she's really becoming pretty darn normal.