Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 Year in Review

So it’s that time of year again. As 2011 comes to a close, it is time to reflect on what the past 365 days were like for us.

Goals and Progress

While it is logical to start here, it’s also a bit embarrassing. My goals for this year were… ambitious. Not in the sense that they were impossible to accomplish, but in the sense that I didn’t really work on them. Oh, sure, I had the best of intentions, but somehow they slipped away from me.

 Maisy showing off her best trick.
I had a list of official goals, and then a list of unofficial ones. Sadly, I did much better on the latter. I guess those were the things I was more interested in.

Officially, I was to work on writing training plans and keeping records. Although I did keep some records (and was quite enthusiastic about it, too), I fell off the wagon early on. Another great in theory/bad in practice goal was trying to achieve stimulus control on three basic behaviors. Complete and utter failure. I did a bit better on my goal to teach Maisy 12 tricks… but only a bit. I taught two. I did the best on my goal to train in shorter sessions. I’d say we still go longer than 3 minutes sometimes (which was my goal), but a session almost never goes more than 5 minutes.

Unofficially, I wanted Maisy to be more comfortable with life (huge check), and go to a trial and/or runthrough (check and check). I wanted to become a cleaner trainer, which is a work in progress, but at least it’s, you know, in progress. I failed at getting more things on verbals, but I was very successful at taking more videos and photos. We definitely went hiking (maybe not enough, but some), and had tons of fun.

Thankfully, I can call the year a success. As I said last year: no matter where we’re at in another year, as long as we’re together, I’ll call it successful. And so we are.

Trials and Accomplishments
We made it! Hooray! After retiring her last year, we had three very good experiences. Back in April, Maisy and I went and hung out at an APDT trial. Then, in November, we entered (and did quite well at) a CDSP runthrough. Finally, just this past Monday, we entered a CDSP obedience trial, where she was awesome.

Medication and Behavior
We’ve probably made the most progress in this area, but then, this is where we’ve spent most of our time, energy, and money.

Great Danes? Scary? Nah...
We continue to visit our veterinary behaviorist at the U of MN, Dr. Duxbury. Seeing her was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, as Maisy has made so much progress with the addition of medication. She continues to take 10mg of paroxetine every day. Over the summer, we experimented with trazodone (a complete and utter disaster), and then switched to clonidine for use in stressful situations. It’s nice to have a short-acting drug for things like boarding and extended times away from home. (Speaking of which, Maisy had her first boarding experience this year, too.)

Maisy has definitely improved in her ability to relax, both at home and in public, and I have been able to relax along with her. I no longer feel the need to scan the environment constantly for potential triggers, and I can walk her without fear of over-the-top reactions. She’s still reactive at times- I don’t think it’ll ever go away entirely- but it’s rare, and she recovers much quicker than ever before. She’s been able to hang out with strange dogs without issue, including former “trigger dogs” (large, black dogs with prick ears), and she's even been a decoy for another reactive dog!

We also graduated from reactive dog class this summer. This wasn’t entirely planned- our instructor moved, and we never really joined another class- but it seems to be okay. I haven’t seen any backsliding, and although we didn’t discuss it directly, at our appointment in December, Dr. Duxbury didn’t seem to think we needed to get back into class.

Skills and Training
I was incredibly inspired by the Denise Fenzi seminar in July, and have since spent time working on Maisy’s obedience behaviors again. Well, “work” might be the wrong word here- one of the things I really took away from the seminar is that work is play. We are finally both having fun with obedience training. Maisy’s heeling is about a billion times better than it was last year, and she has something approaching a real retrieve now. It still needs work, but we’ve come a long, long way, and I finally believe it’s possible.

Me and My Growth
Finally, I feel like I’ve done a lot this year, too. Not only have I continued to learn, I’ve also gotten some hands-on experience with other dogs, too. To top it off, I’ve done some pretty cool dog-related activities.

Knowledge first. Although I didn’t do a very good job at keep track, I’ve continued to read plenty of books on dogs. The ones I know I’ve read includes: SOS Dogs, Inside of a Dog, and So You Want to be a Dog Trainer. (Next year, I'll definitely do a better job of keeping track!)

Sara and I at the Fenzi seminar. Photo by Robin Sallie.
As you all know, I’ve also been to a ton of seminars. I think my favorite of the year was the aforementioned Denise Fenzi seminar, but Clicker Expo comes in as a close second. That was so much fun, and I’m sad not to be going again next year. I also saw Sarah Kalnajs, Kathy Sdao, Ken Ramirez, and Patricia McConnell.

One neat experience that I had- but didn’t write about here- was acting as a trial chair for a UKC obedience and rally trial. I was pressed into service when the previous chair moved away this summer. I was really overwhelmed by everything I needed to do, but I had a lot of support, and the trial went off without a hitch. WOW, though. There is so much work that goes on behind the scenes. If you take your dog to shows or trials, please take a moment to thank the host club and the workers for all they do. Better yet, volunteer to help out if you can. I guarantee that your assistance will be greatly appreciated.

I began volunteering with BEST this year, too. This program was started by my friend Sara as an extension of Paws Abilities Dog Training in Rochester, and provides free training classes to dogs in shelters and rescues in order to make them more adoptable. I’ve worked mostly handling dogs during class, but also did a bit of teaching.

Speaking of teaching, I became an official dog trainer this fall when I began teaching reactive dog classes for Paws Abilities. It’s been challenging, but it’s also been fun to see the growth in my students. Working with a reactive dog is not easy, and I’m excited to help people develop the skills they need to be successful.

And so...
2011 was a pretty awesome year all the way around. On pretty much every front, Maisy and I made at least some progress, and I cannot tell you how incredibly proud I am of my little muppet dog. I am just so happy with her. It will be pretty difficult to top 2011... but I'm sure going to try! I can't wait to see what 2012 brings! 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

CDSP Trial Results

Well, it finally came! After 16 months off from trialing, Maisy and I have returned to the world of competition! What's more, instead of doing rally, like we've done in the past, this was our very first time doing obedience. I chose CDSP for our venue because I knew it would be a small trial, relatively low-pressure, and because I could take treats in the ring in case things went horribly wrong.

They didn't.

In fact, they went very, very good. See for yourself:

The trial was a success in many way. First, as you can see above, her performance was very good. Although there were a few missteps here and there, she did well enough to score a very respectable 192 in the ring! This score, incidentally, was good enough to tie us for first place! As a result, we had to do a run-off:

Huge thanks to my friend Laura for getting video of the run-off. I did not expect to need to go in the ring a second time, so Maisy was in the car when we were called. In the midst of running to get her, I didn't even think about getting video. Laura did, though, and even uploaded it for me!

Anyway, we lost the run-off, but I can't say I'm too upset about that. I mean- look at her! She did really well for having absolutely no warm-up. I stuffed two cookies in her and went. Still- 2nd place at her very first obedience trial? NICE.

On top of that, she also ended up being the high-scoring mixed breed of the day as well as the high-scoring club member (I belong to the club that hosted the trial- the Minnesota Mixed Breed Club.)

The trial was also a success in terms of her attitude. We were connected throughout the majority of the run, and she just seemed happy to be out there with me. She was a bit stressed, too, to the point that I actually scratched her from the second run, but I did that more to prevent issues than because we were having them.

And I think the trial was successful for that reason, too. It is easy to push a dog too hard, especially on the heels of success. But when you're working with a reactive dog, it's important to avoid putting your dog in a situation she cannot handle. We were toeing that line today, and I am proud of myself for being able to recognize and act on that.

Anyway, it was an amazing day. I am so incredibly happy with how Maisy did. What an awesome little dog.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Healing Your Heeling, Part 2

A few months ago, I attended a heeling handling skills class presented by Nancy Little, a popular local trainer. Earlier this week, I posted about her general strategies, as well as information about pace changes and halts for heeling. (If you missed it, you can find it by clicking here.) Today, I'll share what she taught us about all the turns, including the figure 8 exercise.

Get it Right (and Left)
While it might seem that the right and left turns have little in common (they do require very different skills from the dog, after all), Nancy actually had us handle them almost identically. Her biggest advice was that neither turn should be too sharp. She said you don't want to do a “military turn”- a very tight 90 degree turn- because that makes it extremely difficult for the dog to maintain the correct position. At the same time, if your turn is too round, the judge is very likely to deduct points.

Therefore, what you need is a very mild curve. Nancy used the visual of a street corner. I don't know what it's like where you live, but here in Minnesota, most street corners have a defined right angle while still being rounded off. Alternately, check out the way a notebook with rounded corners looks- that is the kind of gently curved path you should follow.

Since Nancy isn't big on exact footwork, she said you can start the turn on either foot, but recommend taking three steps through the turn. On the first one, your foot should be angled at roughly 30 degrees, the second at 45, and the third at 60. For those of you who struggle with math concepts, it will look like this:

Badly drawn Paint diagrams for the win.

Do a 180
About turns can be tricky for the dog since they can look a lot like right turns. As a result, it's not uncommon to see a dog go wide on the about turn. You'd think that the solution would involve very particular footwork, but that's not how Nancy taught it. In fact, she said not to worry too much about your feet; while they do have to do some work, it is more important to think about how the rest of your body moves through space.

As you enter the about turn, above all, you need to stay balanced and keep your feet directly under your shoulders. You should plant a foot facing straight forward (Nancy said it's generally easiest to do the right foot). As soon as that foot plants, look to the right. Your shoulders should follow, and this, more than anything, is what your dog will look at as his cue. Your feet should then rotate in place (envision yourself standing on a paper plate, and try to keep your feet in that area). I found this much easier than trying to remember how to make my feet form a “T” or do other fancy footwork! Don't get me wrong- you can do the “T” if you want- it's just that she doesn't think it's a deal breaker if you don't.

Figure it Out
The figure 8 exercise is possibly the hardest of all the heeling exercises because it has so many components: the dog needs to move fast, slow, turn both right and left, and halt several times. That is a lot of work in a very short amount of time! To handle this exercise well, you need to make sure that your dog has time to transition between each individual skill component.

Start by setting up several strides away from the midline of the figure 8. You want to get several strides of heeling in before you turn so that the dog is up and moving with you. If you starting turning or curving from the sit, he will likely lag or forge (depending on which way you go) from the first step, which will also impact his performance on the rest of the exercise.

You can choose to go to the left or the right first; either direction is acceptable according to the rules. No matter what you choose to do, you need to make sure that your circles are the same size so that your figure 8 is nicely balanced. Everyone's circles will be slightly different based on their dog's size and flexibility, of course, but as a general rule of thumb, you will probably walk approximately 2 to 3 feet away from the stewards. Whatever this distance is, make sure it is the same in both directions. Both circles should be the same size.

At this point, I must point out that using the term “circles” is a bit misleading. While you do want to make your turns nice and rounded, you also want to have straight lines, not curving ones, when you're moving between the two stewards. This is because straight lines give your dog the time he will need to recover and adjust his speed from slightly slower on the left turn to driving forward through the right turn.

There is a sweet spot in which you switch from straight line to turning and from turning to straight line again. To find this spot, mentally draw a line between the two stewards. Then draw a line perpendicularly between the stewards. Your spot will be 2 to 3 feet away from the steward (depending on the size of your circle) on this line.

When you get to one of those sweet spots (indicated by the blue dots in the diagram below), you should walk in a straight line to the next spot. The path you walk will walk something like this:

As you're moving from spot to spot through the figure eight, you need to make sure that your body supports what you're asking your dog to do. The easiest way to do this is by directing your gaze in specific places throughout the exercise.

As you are approaching a circle, you should look at the sweet spot; that keeps your gaze straight ahead, and as a result, your shoulders will be straight, too, which tells the dog to match your pace. Once you've entered the circle, you should look at either the steward's feet or the sweet spot on the other side of the steward (again, indicated by the blue dot on the diagram above). When you're going to the left, this drops your shoulder backwards, which tells your dog to slow down. When you're going to the right, this rotates your shoulder forwards, which lets your dog know he should speed up.

As you are exiting the circle, you should change where you're looking to the next sweet spot by the other steward. Again, this keeps your gaze and your shoulders straight forward, letting your dog know that he should match your pace, and giving him time to recover and prepare for the next change in speed. It will also help you to walk in a straight line. Make sure that as you move from one steward/circle to the next, you cross over the invisible line between the stewards as close to the middle as possible. This will help you keep your circles the same size.

Truthfully, this is all pretty tricky, both to do and to describe! We practiced quite a bit to make sure we were getting nice straight lines and evenly sized circles. While it is important to practice each handling skill before you introduce it to your dog so that you know what you're doing (and look natural doing it), it is especially important to do so with the figure 8.

As I said in part 1, this is not the only way to handle heeling. There are many options, and it is more important that your method feels natural and is understandable to your dog than it is to adhere to any particular style. I do like what I learned from Nancy, and I will be striving to teach these body cues to Maisy. Still... I'd love to hear what you do with these specific exercises. Do you do something similar, or completely different? Share in the comments!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Training Tuesday: Just a Training Session

On Sunday, I rented some open ring time at a local training facility. We mostly worked on heeling, did a little jumping, and a couple signals and drops on recall. Nothing fancy. See for yourself:

Overall, I was pleased with the session. I didn't do any warming up before starting the video because I wanted to get a sense of how much I should work with her prior to going into the ring (our trial is less than a week away now, yikes!). I'm still not sure. I know from previous experience that I shouldn't overdo it, but she clearly starts out a bit distracted. She did much better after a potty break, although I'm not sure if it's just that she needed that much time to warm up, or if she was uncomfortable.

What I really like in this video is the special guest star (starting at about 5:10). Yes, that is my husband playing with Maisy. He has never done any heelwork with her before, and yet look how awesome they are together. She gives him tons of attention and even does a drop on recall for him! So cool!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Healing Your Heeling, Part 1

A few months ago, I signed up for a dog training class without my dog. It sounds weird, I know, but Nancy Little, a popular local trainer, was doing a two week class on handling skills for heeling right when I was struggling to figure out how to cue halts with my body, not my voice. The class was well worth my time. I'm going to share a little about what I learned, but honestly, if you live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, you should contact her. Nancy is incredibly nice and encouraging, and she's a great teacher. No wonder she's so popular!

You'll notice that I described the class as a handling skills class, not as one on footwork. This was deliberate, as Nancy doesn't do footwork. Surprised? I sure was, but her explanation- that dogs aren't looking at your feet- made a lot of sense. Almost every dog is trained to look up as part of the heeling picture. As a result, Nancy taught us to use the way we move our bodies to cue what's next in heeling.

That said, you will see a lot of notes to what your feet are doing. This is partly because it's what makes sense to me. Some of what I'll write here is not exactly what Nancy said, but rather how it got translated in my head. (I guess I think about my feet a lot or something, but the point is that any stupidity in this post is probably my fault, not hers.) But I also write a lot about feet because they are part of your body, and there are times where what they do matter. You just shouldn't obsess over them; Nancy has found that excessive worry over feet tends to make people tense up. This throws off the rest of the body, which defeats the purpose.

Before we dive in, a reminder: handling is not training. You need to focus on your job, and let the dog do his. You can't compensate for the dog in your handling; if he makes a mistake, he needs to fix it, not you. You should always be predictable and clear in your handling so your dog knows what's coming next.

Going along with that, we had a conversation about whether or not you should make (and keep) eye contact with your dog when heeling. Nancy's preference is to avoid doing so. She's found that people who maintain eye contact struggle to walk in straight lines, which is a critical heeling skill. Also, dogs can't see your body as well when they're busy looking in your eyes. As a result, she prefers to look slightly ahead of the dog, keeping him in her peripheral vision, and looking up/where she's going regularly. That said, she knows people like to make eye contact, so if you're going to do it, you need to remember it is an indicator that the dog is in the correct position. If the dog forges or lags, you should break eye contact, and instead look where he should be. This will make an error in heel position very clear to your dog and it will help him know when he's right again.

The Basics of Heeling
For Nancy, almost everything revolves around the shoulders. They are the biggest, most obvious thing that the dog sees when he looks up. She emphasizes keeping your shoulders over your hips; not only will this help you keep your balance, but it will also keep your dog in line with your hips- which is, incidentally, where heel position is. You should never twist your torso forward or back unless you're turning, because this will pull your dog forward or push him back, too.

This applies at all times, including when you're stopped, waiting for the judge's command to heel. Many dogs- Maisy included- will forge on the first step or two, and then fall back into correct position. Nancy explained that this happens when the handler leans forward during the first step and fails to keep her shoulders over her hips. Make an effort to lean back slightly on to your heels, and step out with your feet first. (Of course, if your dog lags on the first step, you might want to lean forward slightly on the first step. Know your dog.)

It is also important to make sure that when you're heeling, you're making smooth, rolling steps. Nancy shared that many people tend to walk flat footed or even with their toe hitting the ground first. This causes something like a shock wave to go up and through the body, creating jerky movements that look to the dog like a cue to STOP.

Nancy advised us to avoid this by walking so that our heels hit the ground first. The step should roll through your feet: heel-ball-toe-heel-ball-toe. This feels a bit awkward at first- at least, it did for me- but it provides for a nice smoothness and helps the dog understand that forward motion is expected.

A Change of Pace
Going faster is usually easy for most dogs, but even so, giving very clear body language will help support your dog. It's also pretty easy: lean forward, so that your shoulders are ahead of your hips, raise your eyes/head so that your focus is higher, and bend your elbows to bring your arms up into a running position. If you heel with one hand resting on your belly, move it to the side in order to do this. When it's time to return to a normal pace, your shoulders should go back over your hips, your eye gaze will go back to its normal location, and your arms will resume their usual place.

The slow pace, on the other hand, is typically more challenging for dogs. Not only do most dogs prefer speed, but they also tend to get confused about whether you're simply slowing down or if you're going to stop. If you've ever seen a dog do that butt thing where he keeps almost sitting during the slow, it's because he isn't sure what's coming next.

Make it clear to your dog that you're going to keep moving forward by remembering your heel-ball-toe foot movements and leaning backwards slightly. Then quickly ease into the slow pace. Wait, what? I know that sounds confusing, but here's the thing: if you suddenly slam into a slow pace, it will look like a halt to your dog, no matter what your feet are doing. At the same time, if you take too long to change pace, you will need to go that much further at the slow, leading to the risk that you'll get "run into the wall" before a turn. Nancy suggested that we move into the slow pace over the course of two to three steps. Doing this allowed us to be prompt about the pace change without confusing the dog.

Stop Right There
If forward movement is communicated to the dog by rolling foot motions, then it only makes sense that the halt is cued by breaking that smoothness. We need to roughen things up a bit, and Nancy had us do that with our feet. Again, it's not so much about what the feet are doing, but rather, about how they are doing it. As a result, it really doesn't matter which foot does what.

The tricky part about the halt is that you don't want to slow down, because the dog will adjust his speed, thinking you've simply changed pace. If that happens, the dog will either sit very slowly, in a forged heeling position, or even fail to sit entirely. At the same time, you don't want to be too abrupt, because again, your dog will sit in a forged position. To combat both these problems, Nancy uses three distinct steps to clearly communicate to the dog what's expected.

The first will be what's called a break step. Nancy often shuffles this foot- you land on the front part of your foot and kind of slide so it causes a slight scuffing noise that acts as an auditory cue. The second step will be a half-stride in which you step flat; the whole foot should hit the ground at the same time, and it will remain planted. Finally, you'll “close” with the first foot by stepping in line and stopping. It takes some practice, but I found that it was pretty easy to do when I thought about my footfalls as: roll-roll-roll (judge calls the halt) break-step-close.

These are some of the basics of heeling. Again, this is not the only way to handle heeling, but it is one that Nancy has found to be quite successful. I really what I learned because it emphasizes a relaxed, natural feel. I also like it because it relies more on counting the number of steps than using the right foot or the left foot at a particular time. (True confession: I am awful at remembering the difference between left and right, especially under stress. I'd be in a lot of trouble if rally signs didn't have arrows or the judge didn't demonstrate the heeling position ahead of time. Oddly, I am amazing with cardinal directions.)

I'll post again soon on how Nancy advised us to handle all the turns, including Figure 8s, but in the meantime, I'd love to hear how others handle some of these same moves. Do you do something similar? Completely different? Do you even think about how your feet (and body) is moving? I'd love to hear what you do!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

You Can't Fix It All... And That's Okay

 Photo courtesy of my friend.

A few weeks ago, one of my friends- a fellow reactive dog owner- emailed me, distraught over an incident she'd had with her dog while hiking. As far as things go, her dog's reaction was pretty reasonable (she lunged at a group of 25 or so high school kids hiking with cross country ski poles), but my friend was still upset. To her, it felt like a huge setback after a period of steady progress, and she thought that her dog's behavior was a reflection of her shortcomings as a trainer.

So what caused her to feel so bad? Personally, I think it's at least partly due to the societal belief that with enough love and training, it is possible to “fix” every dog. The problem with this, of course, is that it simply isn't true.

Look, I'm not saying our dogs are lost causes, because they are all capable of making progress. With some time and effort, all dogs can behave better and feel more comfortable. But each dog is an individual, and as such, the outcome for each dog will be different. The ultimate training goal will not be the same for every dog, and we should not measure our dog's progress against others.

In her email, my friend wanted to know if she should keep trying. She wanted to know if she should keep training to overcome the issues her dog still has. She wanted to know if she had failed her dog in some way because, despite everything, her dog still doesn't enjoy things like hiking and going to pet stores. She wanted to know if she was a bad trainer because her dog still isn't “fixed.”

Of course not.

We need to accept that dogs are not all the same. It is not fair to force them into a one-size-fits-all box. Instead, we need to be realistic about their unique personalities. As I emailed in response, my friend's dog is happy and comfortable with the activities they are doing. My friend is happy and comfortable with the activities they are doing. Maybe these activities don't involve the things society expects of dogs, but that is okay.

What my friend really needed was permission to accept her dog as she is. She needed to feel like it's okay that her dog isn't “fixed.” The truth is, though, that her dog is just fine: what I haven't told you is that my friend's reactive dog has been certified through a well-known national organization as a therapy dog. This is a very impressive accomplishment, and it is a testament to my friend's dedication to her dog and, yes, her skills as a trainer. Maybe her dog can't do everything society expects our dogs to do, but my friend has found something her dog is both good at and loves doing.

So, friends, I'm here to tell you that you can't “fix” everything about your dog. It's an impossible goal, and it will make you crazy trying. Find things you both enjoy doing together, and give yourself permission to let go of what others think your dog should be and do. Because your dog may not be perfect, but he's yours. And you know what? That's okay.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Training Tuesday: Behavior Edition

With the cold weather and short days, I've been making an effort to take Maisy to pet stores to train. This not only gives us much more room for heeling than our small house, but also provides a bonus in the way of distractions. She's doing very well, and I think we've got some of the issues with the fast pace worked out (I hope!), but today's post is much cooler than that.

 A video still from yesterday's training session at PetSmart.

Last week, I took Maisy to PetCo in the late afternoon and was surprised by how busy they were. While we where there, we saw several children in the 5 to 10 age range, quite a few men in hats, some women pushing carts, and most notably, there was a training class with several dogs in it going on. The class was working on loose leash walking in the aisles, and one of the dogs was straddling that fine line between over-exuberance and reactivity. He was straining on his leash and making that awful wheezing noise- a sound Maisy particularly dislikes.

Maisy and I worked through it all. We did fronts and finishes. We practiced heeling with auto-sits. We changed pace, both fast and slow. We worked very, very hard to walk past stray bits of kibble on the floor. We did stays. And we did it all within five feet of people and kids and dogs. I was happy with her performance, and I made some mental notes about things we need to work on, and thought about how I might adjust criteria in the future.

It wasn't until several days later that I realized the sheer awesomeness of Maisy's performance. Her obedience was good, yes, but her behavior was even better. There is absolutely NO WAY that she could have handled that kind of environment a year ago without flipping out. And yet, somehow, there she was, not only ignoring all the craziness around us, but eagerly engaged in work.

Behavior work is so slow and gradual that sometimes it's easy to miss progress as it's happening. It's easy to take improvement for granted since it looks so much like the day before. And sometimes- like today- I step back to see the whole picture and am absolutely awestruck. I am so, so proud of my dog. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

One Year on Meds: Recheck with the Veterinary Behaviorist

So Maisy's been on meds for a bit over a year now. The difference between the way she was then and the way she is now is nothing short of miraculous to me. Of course, it's not a miracle at all, it's simply the fact that the biochemistry in her brain is not correct, and the addition of paroxetine makes it so. Whatever. The point is, medication has made such a huge impact on our lives that I am absolutely awestruck when I think about it- like when we have an appointment with our veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Duxbury.

Our appointment this time around was actually pretty short and sweet. We didn't discuss behavior logs (although I took them, and I'll share them here today), and we only watched one video. We talked about what daily life is like now- uneventful, really, but that's a good thing in this case. We also talked about some of the challenges we still face- children, mostly, as well as our disastrous (if you're a chicken, anyway) Thanksgiving. But really we just admired how well Maisy is doing.

Here's a link to the behavior logs/charts from a year ago. At baseline, before medication, she was averaging 3.58 incidents (defined as overreacting to unnoticeable or mild stimuli when at home) per day. About a third of these happened during the night, and frequently woke me up. It was not uncommon for these incidents to include prolonged scanning of the environment/general vigilance, up to and including leaving the room to investigate. After six weeks on medication, this was down to 1.33 incidents per day.

Although this was a great improvement, we decided to increase Maisy's medication slightly. I took another set of behavior logs (link here), and after eight weeks at the new dose, we were down to 1 incident a day, on average.

Things have improved since then, and honestly, it's not even worth making a chart. I kept logs for seven days. Over the course of six of these days, I saw a grand total of three incidents, which makes for an average of 0.5 incidents per day. It involved stuff like “Maisy was lying in my lap while we were watching Star Trek. She heard a car go by with loud bass. She lifted her head and growled.” No vigilance, low intensity, and just all around typical dog behavior.

That seventh day, though? Was awful. She had four incidents that day, mostly because my husband was wrong about everything and forced me to yell at him. Okay, not really, but for some reason we were just really crabby with each other that day, and I was amazed by the impact it had on Maisy. Including the seventh day, her logs shoot up to an average of 1 incident a day. Marital bliss is good for more than just the people involved, I guess.

I also took logs after we got home from Thanksgiving. Every year, we spend five days at my parents' house in South Dakota. It's a significant disruption to her routine, there are tons of cats and dogs and horses and chickens, and it's just hard on her. I also took logs last year after we got home, which means I can compare how she recovered both times:

Her stress recovery period actually took longer than I expected, although it's still an improvement over last year.

The coolest thing about all this doesn't come from the numbers, but rather from her general behavior. The video below was taken back in October. I had left work early to do some much needed yard work. It was a very windy day (that white thing you'll see bouncing around is a styrofoam cooler lid), and across the street you can just barely make out approximately 50 elementary school-aged children playing during recess. And through it all, she did this:

Maisy's behavior was not in any way cued or encouraged by me. She chose to lie down. As Dr. Duxbury noted, Maisy's acting like a normal dog. Who knew she had it in her?

Miraculous or not, both Dr. Duxbury and I are quite pleased with Maisy's progress. In fact, the sum total of Dr. Duxbury's advice to me was to continue to be alert to both the environment and Maisy's body language, and to remove her from situations where she might be triggered, but before she reacts. I think I can do that.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Training Tuesday: Lazy, Lazy, Lazy

You guys, I have been so lazy the last few weeks. I always intend to train when we're at my parents' house for Thanksgiving, but I never do. Plus, Maisy found the disruption so stressful that I kept her home for a week so she could recover. Also, it's cold out. Also, well, I'm lazy sometimes.

Thankfully, I'm part of an informal training group that meets on Sundays, and that got us out of our slump this weekend. Here's a little slice of what we did:

For two weeks off, I think she looks pretty good in this video. I, as always, struggle with my handling skills (I seriously need to get better about treating using my left hand instead of bending over and using my right). Still, we did some 15 foot retrieves, a bit of heeling (including working on that pesky fast pace, moving laterally, and backwards heeling), and a bit of fronts and finishes.

Our trial is less than three weeks away now, so I need to be sure to get out training regularly! Please send motivational vibes our way!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: Science-Based Training?

 Training with dad. Note the clicker in his hand.

A lot of people call clicker training (or positive-reinforcement training in general) “science-based.” But is it, really? What do we know, scientifically, about training dogs? In this, my last post on Patricia's seminar, I'll discuss some of the studies she shared with us.

I'm always astounded by the number of people who don't train their dogs. These are the people that, when they learn I do rally and obedience with Maisy, or that I teach training classes, always laugh and say, “My dog could use some obedience!” I'm usually then regaled with increasingly horrifying stories of near-death incidents resulting from a lack of training. But then Patricia shared two studies that made me wonder if most people even want a trained dog.

The first study looked at 118 dogs. Roughly half had no training, or only one basic-training class. The other half were highly trained agility, schutzhund, or search and rescue dogs. Each dog was tested on his ability to manipulate a box in order to get food out. Twice as many of the dogs in the trained group were able to get the food, suggesting that higher levels of training is associated with better problem solving skills.

The other study tested dogs' ability to discriminate quantities. The dogs were allowed to choose between small and large piles of food; in general, both groups chose the bigger amounts. However, the difference between highly trained dogs and untrained dogs became apparent in the second stage of the experiment, when the dogs watched their owners choose the smaller piles before being allowed to choose for themselves. The untrained dogs typically followed their person's lead, and also chose the smaller amount- this despite the fact that they earlier chose the bigger piles. The trained dogs, however, chose the larger piles, suggesting that training creates independent thinkers.

Independence? Better able to solve problems? Dare I say it: improved ability to think? I really don't think the average pet owner wants to live with a smart dog. Perhaps it's a good thing that pet dogs don't receive high levels of training!

Once we've made the decision to train our dogs, though, the next question becomes: how often should we train them? When Maisy and I were actively attending training classes, we were advised to train in short sessions, several times a day. At the very least, we should try to get in 5 or 6 sessions a week. As it turns out, though, this may not be the most efficient use of time.

Two separate studies found that training once a week results in “better learning performance.” They discovered that dogs acquired the skill in fewer sessions when trained less frequently than when trained daily. (One of the studies also looked at how well the dogs remembered what they'd been taught, and found that the dogs in both groups retained the task equally well.)

I think Patricia put it best: maybe the dogs learned in fewer sessions, but come on: it took eight weeks to teach a simple targetting exercise. Maybe it takes a couple of extra sessions, but by doing several sessions a day, the same task could be learned in just a few days. Still, she said these studies point out the importance of processing time; dogs need rest periods in order to learn most efficiently, especially for more complicated tasks.

Finally, every trainer has to make decisions about how they will train. Patricia shared that there are a number of studies showing that force-based training has negative effects. For example, one study showed that dogs trained with shock collars exhibited more signs of stress, even when compared to dogs trained with “fairly harsh” methods. Another found that punishment was associated with increased behavior problems, like aggression, distractability, and overall lower obedience levels. And the study I found most interesting discovered that punishment was associated with increased anxiety in fear in small dogs, but not in large ones.

There are also studies showing that reward-based training has good effects. These dogs are more likely to interact with strangers, be more playful, and are generally better at novel training tasks than dogs who are trained with punitive methods.

Patricia felt it was only fair to share a study whose results we may not like: it found that search and rescue dogs were more successful in advanced stages of training when there was “an increased use of compulsive methods.” Generally speaking, though, it seems that science favors reward-based training, which leads us to the clicker conundrum: should we use them?

One researcher trained 20 dogs to target a ball with their noses. Half the dogs were trained with a clicker, and half were trained with the verbal marker “good.” The results showed that the clicker trained dogs learned the task faster than those trained with the verbal marker (about 36 minutes as compared to 59 minutes). Patricia believes this is because the clicker makes a short, abrupt sound with a very clear start and stop. It's also a “broad noise band”- it covers more frequencies than the spoken word. All of these things make it more distinct and easier for the dogs to notice.

The last study that Patricia shared with us looked at the use of clickers and food versus food only in training. Thirty-five basenjis were taught to target a traffic cone, and once they learned the task, were variably reinforced for a maintenance period. The researchers found no difference in the amount of time that it took the dogs to learn the task; despite proponents' claims, the clicker was not found to speed up learning.

Then the researchers did extinction trials in which they quit giving food to both groups of dogs, but continued clicking the dogs in the clicker group. The results showed that the clicker-trained dogs were more resistant to extinction, to which I just have to say: DUH. The clicker is a reinforcer- it's a secondary reinforcer, not a primary one, it's true, but it's still a reinforcer. Of course the behavior didn't extinguish as quickly. They were still being reinforced. (To be fair, the study authors state that this suggests the clicker does, indeed, act as a secondary/conditioned reinforcer, and I guess it's nice to have that scientifically verified.)

So, with all of this in mind, will it train the way we train? Personally, the answer is no. I train because I enjoy it. Yes, I have a smarter dog as a result, and yes, that can make her more difficult to live with sometimes (I often wonder who is training who). But I train for the experience moreso than the end result... which is probably why I play endless shaping games but have pretty much nothing on cue. (Sigh.) And my methods? Well, those are unlikely to change, too. My choices have been made on my personal moral and philosophical beliefs, not science.

What about you? Will you change anything about your training based on these studies?

If You Want to Know More
This post has been edited for clarity (see comments). It originally said: "Independence? Better able to solve problems? Dare I say it: improved ability to think? I really don't think the average pet owner wants to live with a smart dog. Maybe instead of training the dogs, we should focus on teaching the people how to manage situations better." I think the new version is a better reflection of the study.

    Thursday, December 1, 2011

    Patricia McConnell Seminar: Communication

    It's another quiet night at home. I am curled up on the couch, absorbed in a book, when Maisy walks over to me and gazes intently at me. I'm not sure how something as silent as a stare can be so piercing, but it sure does wonders to get my attention. I smile and ask, “What do you need, pumpkin?”

    She dashes away into the other room, then comes back to the doorway and stares at me again. She wants something, I can tell, so I set my book day and say, “Show me!” She leads me to the den, where she nudges at her Kong, then looks at me pointedly.

    And people say dogs can't communicate.

    Patricia took some time at the seminar to dispel this myth. Of course we attendees know that dogs communicate, and I'm sure we all have stories like the one above. But it's still nice to see science delving into the topic, so today I'm going to share just a few of the recent studies on canine communication.

    What's all that noise?
    Whether they're feeling threatened, protecting some food, or just having fun, dogs can make a lot of noise. Experienced dog owners know that a growl can mean many different things, but are they merely depending on context? Scientists set out to find out, and recorded dogs growling in each of those three contexts and then analyzed the sounds acoustically. They found that play growls are shorter and higher pitched, but that there is little difference between a growl directed at a threatening stranger or while resource guarding.

    Despite this, the dogs could still tell the difference. The researchers placed a dog alone in a room with a tempting bone, and when the dog approached, would play a recording of the different growl types. Unsurprisingly, the resource guarding growl was more effective at stopping the dog than the other growls.

    Other studies have found that dogs can tell the size of a dog by its growl. Using recorded growls and images projected on a screen, the scientists tracked where the dogs looked. The vast majority of dogs would look at the correct sized image.

    Wag the Dog
    We all know that a dog's tail can wag for a wide variety of reasons. Patricia likened it to a human smile- it's usually a happy thing, but sometimes it's forced or faked. Scientists wanted to learn more about tail wagging, so they created a special box with a camera mount, placed the dog inside, and then presented him with several different stimuli type to see what his tail did.

    When the dogs saw their owners, their tails were more likely to wag further to the right. They also wagged to the right when the saw unfamiliar people, but there was less amplitude. When the dog saw another dog who was unfamiliar to him, the tail tended to wag to the left. The same was true when the dog wagged while alone. The most interesting response to me was the dog's wag when he saw a cat: most dogs would wag to the right (the same as for people), but with the least amount of amplitude of any wag.

    Patricia shared that the conclusion is that the right-sided wag probably indicates that the dog is interested in approaching and investigating, while the left-sided wag probably indicates the dog's desire to withdraw or avoid the situation. It makes me wonder how a fearful or reactive dog's tail might wag when faced with unfamiliar people.

    And your point is?
    One of the very interesting things about dogs is that they seem to intuitively understand pointing gestures by humans. Research for years has been mixed on whether or not dogs understand pointing better than other animals, such as their canine cousin, the wolf.

    Monique Udell has done some pretty interesting research on this. She found that wolves can following pointing gestures, and in fact, that they do just as well as dogs... if the conditions are right. Wolves can do it if the experiment is done outside. Pet dogs do best if they're tested inside. Interestingly, shelter dogs tend to fail miserably when the experiment is conducted indoors, scoring worse than even the wolves. Patricia believes this is because of stress, both in general and that of the testing environment.

    Udell also studied a variety of point types. Directly touching something- and maintaining that position- was the easiest gesture for dogs to understand. They also did well with a sustained point. While they could understand other types of points, including momentary taps and points, as well as those held both to the side and when across the midline, they didn't do as well with those gestures. Keep that in mind next time you're trying to show your dog something.

    The Dog Watchers
    This last study was the most interesting to me. Researcher Michelle Wan collected 30 videos of dogs and had them rated and categorized by eight experts. She then played them for over 2100 participants. These people ranged from those who had never owned a dog to professionals who'd worked with dogs for more than ten years. Each participant was asked to categorize if the dog was feeling happy, sad, fearful, angry, or neutral, and then to rate the level of safety, boldness, fearfulness, stress, etc.

    The results showed that people with more dog experience were more likely to label dogs as “aroused” in some way. They were also more likely to observe “negative” emotions like fear, sadness, or stress. This rings true to me. The more I learn, the more I see miserable dogs. Once you learn that a yawn can mean more than tiredness and that a lip lick is more likely to be about stress than hunger... well, it's hard to ignore those signs.

    Anyway, that's just a small sampling of what science knows about dog communication. I'd love to hear your stories about how your dog “talks” to you. Does he growl? Point? Understand your gestures? Share in the comments!

    If You Want to Know More
    A Dog's Growl Announces Its Size
    ‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls, by Farago, et al
    Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli, by Quaranta et al
    Study on Human Perception of Emotions in Dogs, by Michelle Wan
    Patricia's blog post on Monique Udell's Pointing Research