Sunday, January 30, 2011

Your Puppy's Parents- and Their Experiences- Matter

I recently read an article on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. Basically, scientists are discovering that life experiences can alter eggs and sperm, and that the resulting changes can be passed down through the generations.

Functionally, this means that the things that happen to you can change the genes of your great-great-grandchildren because an alteration in a parent’s genes can result in organ abnormalities, diseases like diabetes, and structural changes for thirteen generations, and maybe more.

So what does this have to do with our dogs?

Well, I recently watched Pedigree Dogs Exposed, and read SOS Dog, both of which are critical of modern breeding practices. While I don’t agree with everything presented in either source, it gave me a lot to think about, especially when it comes to line-breeding and exaggerated physical traits (and my favored breed- the Cardigan Welsh Corgi- does seem to be especially affected by the latter). Still, I figured that I’d be safe so long as I chose a breeder who has done the requisite health testing, and who bred for a more moderate dog.

The information on epigenetics, though, made me pause. If anything from food (or the lack of it) to chemical exposure can have serious consequences on many generations of puppies… well, how do you ever find a healthy, sane dog? Long-time readers will sympathize with my quest- after all, Maisy sort of lost the genetic lottery. Not only is she emotionally unstable, but she also has twenty different allergies and chronic back problems.

Thankfully, scientists have discovered that good experiences can be passed on, too. This fascinating study found that temporary environmental enrichment in pre-adolescent mice could not only overcome their genetically defective memories, but that the result was also passed on to their babies.

Which brings us back to what Ian Dunbar said at the seminar I attended: we can't waste puppyhood, something that starts with choosing a breeder who is diligent about socializing their puppies. More than that, we need to choose breeders whose dogs come from a long line of well-socialized dogs.

Although it's probably impossible to find the perfect breeder, it's no doubt worth the effort to be picky. At the very least, for those who buy instead of adopt, there's a lot to think about.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What the Steward Saw: Thoughts on Trial Stress

You can tell Maisy is stressed in this picture because
she's licking her lips and doing a "look-away."

Last Sunday, I got to steward for a local obedience trial, something I enjoy doing. Not only do I love watching highly-trained dogs working in harmony with their handlers, but I also appreciate the behind-the-scenes insight you can only get from working closely with judges. Unfortunately, a lot of what I saw made me sad. There were many stressed dogs with equally stressed handlers, which led to a vicious cycle of each stressing the other out even more. Worse, it seemed like many people were oblivious to their dog’s stress levels. How, I wondered, could they not notice?

I’ve been pondering this all week. Initially, I wanted to dismiss the question with a judgment about their priorities or training methods, but that seemed hypocritical (after all, Maisy and I are no strangers to trial stress). It’s also unfair, because let’s be honest, we handlers have a lot on our minds at trials, which makes it difficult to see the often subtle signs of stress in our dogs. Even so, it was hard for me to watch, and I wish I could have said something to those competitors with stressed dogs. I didn’t, mostly because I’m no expert on the matter, but being a steward offers a unique perspective. Today, I’m going to share what I saw.

First and foremost, I don’t think that any of the dogs I saw were purposely misbehaving. Yes, some of the dogs were blowing off their handlers, but I really believe that it was due to stress, not naughtiness. As a result, it seems to me that each competitor needs to learn how their particular dog acts when stressed. Each person should know if their dog tends to stress up or stress down, as well as the specific body language displayed.

I know that Maisy stresses up, and about the only good thing about it is that dogs that stress up are pretty obvious. Maisy barks and lunges, but other dogs might run around like crazy or bark excessively. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the dogs I saw this weekend were the kind that stressed down. Instead of getting excited and out of control, they responded slower, wandered away from their handlers, and just generally checked out. Their accompanying signals of yawning, panting, and lip licking were pretty subtle, which may be why their handlers didn’t notice. Other signals- like avoiding eye contact, sniffing excessively, and scratching themselves- could have been overlooked as distraction.

That’s the tricky part with stress- context matters. For example, Maisy gets the zoomies when she’s having fun, and sometimes stuff smells good, and yes, there are times when dogs just aren’t interested in working with us. However, a lot of the dogs that I saw this weekend demonstrated multiple stress signals in quick succession, which is why I believed that the issue was stress instead of misbehavior.

A dog that is too excited is clearly not going to be able to focus in the ring, but neither can a dog who’s taking a mental vacation, so once we’ve learned to identify stress signals, it becomes our job to help the dog work through them. I saw someone at the trial who did a great job of managing her dog’s arousal level. Before she went in the ring, they played a low-key tug game which really seemed to get her dog in the zone. Then, between exercises, she used simple things like encouraging her dog to jump up on her as a reward, as a method of stress relief, and as a way of connecting with her dog. Her dog looked happy the entire time, and they turned in some darn nice scores, too.

I also think that it’s important that we avoid contributing to our dog’s stress. Part of this is getting a grip on our own ring nerves- another topic in itself- and another is working hard to act the same way at trials as we do in training. Excessive cheerleading or increased focus on our dogs might seem helpful, but if this isn’t how you normally act, your dog is likely to perceive your actions as weird and worrisome. If you can’t control the way you act at trials, then my advice is make it normal by acting weird in training, too.

Similarly, we need to learn how to manage our reactions when our dogs screw up. I know that it’s frustrating when our dogs make a mistake, and especially when we can’t figure out why. We work hard to get ready and then spend a lot of money to enter a trial. I won’t lie- I’ve been deeply disappointed at trials before, and it’s hard to keep your dog from picking up on that. Unfortunately, I think that Sunday was one of those disappointing days for a lot of people; every dog entered in utility NQ’d.

But what I noticed is that each dog’s stress level- and success later in the day- was greatly affected by the way their handler reacted when things went wrong. Some people got louder, used a firm or scolding tone of voice, had angry looks on their faces, or got stiffer in their movements. I’m not sure if they were just struggling to control their emotions or if they were trying to get their dogs to shape up and act right. Either way, usually the dog just got worse.

Others spoke encouragingly to their dogs, kept an upbeat attitude, or even smiled and laughed at their dog’s error! Is it possible that by doing so, they reinforced their dog’s mistake? Sure, but those dogs also learned that being in the ring is fun, happy, safe place, and this enabled them to return for a later class and ace it. To be honest, I’m not sure why some people reacted differently than others, but I suspect that this, too, is something we need to practice.

And finally, I think we all need to remember that this is just another game we play with our dogs. Every team has a bad day, and if there’s anything I’ve learned from stewarding, it’s that the judges know this. They can see past the mistakes and appreciate the beautiful moments, and they don’t like to give out NQ’s or bad scores any more than we like to get them. So relax. Take a deep breath. Have fun and enjoy the moment with your dog.

Anyway, that’s just how I saw things, sitting ringside as a steward. I know that stress at trials is a big issue, and there's no way I can cover everything in one post. I’d love to hear what other people have learned, especially the seasoned competitors.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Training Tuesday: Trick 1- Prairie Dog!

One of my goals for the year is to teach Maisy twelve tricks. Today, I bring you the first one: Prairie Dog!

My husband chose the cue word, which is good, because I would probably have chosen something boring like “beg.” Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I do appreciate fun cues for fun behaviors, and I’m horrible at coming up with them. The hand signal is my right hand held palm up and moved towards Maisy/away from my body.

I have to confess, I taught this trick with luring. I tend to prefer shaping behaviors, but luring just made so much sense for this one. I was careful to do it right, and only used the lure half a dozen times or so before moving to air cookies. I did air cookies for a session or two (so maybe 10-15 reps- I didn’t write it down, and should have), then switched to the hand signal.

Once she was reliably sitting up for the hand signal, I started adding the verbal cue. Since I was curious how long it would take her to figure it out, I kept good records on this. In her book The Thinking Dog, Gail Fisher says that it takes 25 to 50 reps to attach a verbal cue to a behavior. Initially, I thought Maisy was going to do well, because performed the behavior following the verbal cue only on the 23rd time. Unfortunately, that must have been a fluke, because she didn’t do it again until the 57th time!

Here’s the video of trials 56 to 65:


Out of those ten times, she only got it on the verbal three times. (I didn’t reward the offered behavior between trials 7 and 8 because Gail says that once you name a behavior, you should only reinforce the dog when you’ve asked for the behavior. This is supposed to help get behaviors under stimulus control.) During the next ten times, Maisy got it on the verbal cue 9 out of 10 times- and that was in a room I hadn’t trained in at all! Therefore, I’m going to call this behavior done!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Maisy Jane: Agility Super Star

Maisy has a long history of being afraid of objects. She especially hates stepping on objects that move, even if it's only a very slight movement.

Which is why, despite the fact that these two videos are probably pretty lame to those of you who are real agility super stars, I'm super excited about them.


Video by Robin Sallie.



The second one is my favorite, if only because it combines scary objects with children (also scary, although not this one). Oh, and also because when we showed this to my trainer, her jaw literally dropped.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Medication Update: 6 weeks at 10mg


Maisy has now been on the increased dose of paroxetine for 6 weeks. After the awesome logs two weeks ago, the behavior logs this week didn’t look so good. I did three days of logs, and Maisy had a total of 10 incidents where she seemed to overreact to small or undetectable stimuli, for an average of 3.3 per day. Just two weeks ago, she’d had only one incident in three days.

When I wrote Dr. Duxbury, Maisy’s veterinary behaviorist, after the first two days to let her know, I theorized that the disappointing results might have been due to the fact that I’d slacked off on my behavior modification work. Dr. Duxbury agreed that was a possibility, but also added that sometimes dogs get a bit quieter after starting a new med or dosage, and perhaps that's why the logs looked so good last time. She also said that dogs often cycle through “good” times and “bad” ones, which certainly seems possible. When I went back through the previous posts I’ve made on Maisy’s progress, I saw that the numbers do fluctuate from week to week.

Personally, I prefer my explanation, not because I don’t value Dr. Duxbury’s expertise (I do!), but because mine seems the easiest to control! I don't like it when I can't fix things, and my theory lends itself best to action. So, I decided to test my theory. After I took those two days of logs, I spent the next 24 hours diligently tossing treats as part of our counter-conditioning plan. Then I took another day’s worth of data. The end result didn't exactly prove me right, but it suggested that my theory has merit.

The first two days of logs showed an average of four incidents per day. The last one showed an average of two. The duration of each behavior also dropped, from an average of 9.6 seconds to 3.0 seconds. And, while she both left the room and displayed signs of vigilance 25% of the time during the first two days, she didn’t do either during the last day. Obviously, I can’t draw any firm conclusions from such a limited amount of data, but it’s enough to convince me: medication is more effective when combined with behavior modification.

Despite the worsening numbers, the overall trend remains positive. Maisy is sleeping well. She relaxes around the house and no longer needs constant interaction. She recovers quickly, and overall, the intensity of her reactions is way down. And hey- she’s no longer waking me up in the middle of the night! I am really, really happy that we chose to give her medication. It wasn't an easy decision, but it was clearly the right one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How, When and Why to Keep Behavior Logs for Your Dog

When I scheduled Maisy’s first appointment with the veterinary behaviorist, they asked me to do a number of things, but the hardest was keeping behavior logs. I had a vague idea of how to go about it, but wasn’t really sure what to include. As it turns out, I’m not alone. An internet search doesn’t turn up much useful information, and I’ve had several emails asking about my experiences with them lately. Today, I thought I’d answer the most common questions.

Who should keep a behavior log?
Behavior logs are amazing. I’ve learned a lot about my dog through them, and I think that more people should be using them. Anyone whose dog is reactive, anxious, fearful, shy, aggressive, resource guarding, or otherwise labeled in some way, should be keeping logs. If you are worried about what you’re seeing, but aren’t sure if it’s an issue, you should be keeping behavior logs. If you’ve decided to see a trainer or a veterinarian to discuss your concerns, you should definitely be keeping logs.

Why are they so important?
Behavior logs can help you see the scope and severity of a problem. I knew Maisy was wound tighter than normal dogs, but the behavior logs were incredibly eye-opening. I had no idea she slept as little as she did, and I certainly didn’t remember the fact that she was regularly waking me up in the middle of the night.

Behavior logs can also demonstrate your concerns to a professional in a clear, objective way. Before we consulted with the vet behaviorist, I tried to discuss Maisy’s issues with her vet. Unfortunately, because dogs are often nervous at the vet’s office, Maisy didn’t seem that bad. If I would have had data to show what she was like at home, it’s possible that her issues may have been taken more seriously.

Finally, behavior logs provide you with a baseline that will allow you to look back and measure progress over time. Done regularly, they can show both improvement and regression. It is much easier and quicker to troubleshoot a treatment plan if you catch the relapse early.

What should I write down?
In the broad sense, you should keep track of anything that you’re concerned about or that seems unusual, but be sure you’re tracking behaviors, not interpretations. For example, I started keeping logs because I thought Maisy was “anxious,” but to prove that I needed to document what Maisy was doing that led me to that assumption.

I also think tracking the flip-side can be helpful: keep track of how often or how long your dog engages in normal or desirable behaviors. Sometimes, the fact that there is so little normal tells you more than the fact that there is so much weird.

With that said, let’s talk about the specifics you should include. I’m firmly in the “the more, the better” camp. If you have too much data, you can discard the extra, but you can never go back and fill in what’s missing. Still, I know not everyone is as detailed as I am, so at the very least, your logs should include the date and time, what triggered the behavior, and how your dog responded.

For the triggering stimulus, you’re recording what caused your dog’s behavior. Of course, sometimes you just won’t know- and that’s okay. You can make your best guess (just be sure that you notate it as such), or you can write “unknown.” When you’re pretty sure of the cause, I’m in favor of lots of information- you never know which detail might be important. For example, Maisy doesn’t care for dogs with prick ears, which seems like a relatively small detail to me, but it’s huge to her. Simply writing “a dog walked by” won’t get at that as well as “a Doberman walked by.”

It can also be helpful to record what was going on before the trigger happened. Include information such as location, your dog’s activities, who was nearby, and what they were doing. For bonus points, go back even further and try to remember if anything stressful or out of the ordinary occurred earlier in the day, or maybe even the day before. Triggers “stack” for many dogs, and including earlier stressors in your logs can help you figure out which combinations- if any- provoke a response in your dog.

When describing a behavior, you want to do just that- describe it- and you want to avoid interpreting the behavior. Record your dog’s body language, vocalizations, movement, etc. Try to be very objective, so that someone who wasn’t there could understand exactly what your dog did. For example, instead of “Dog barked a lot,” describe the pitch or volume. Clarify what “a lot” is, too, either by counting the number of barks or estimating how long the barking continued. Was the behavior sustained, or did the dog interrupt himself before resuming the behavior? Be as clear as possible.

Once the behavior is over, include how long it takes your dog to either return to his previous activity or to calm down. Knowing your dog’s recovery period can be critical information to have, especially when you’re considering medication. In fact, I really wish I’d done a better job tracking this with Maisy. I think her ability to bounce back has improved tremendously, but unfortunately, I can’t prove it.

That’s a lot of work! How can I easily track all that?
At this point, if you’re thinking that this is a lot of work… well, you’re right, it can be. My best advice is to make it easy on yourself. I initially tried making charts and graphs to fill in, because I like that kind of thing, but I found them frustrating to use. Eventually, I settled on just jotting notes down on a piece of notebook paper, although sometimes I email it to myself instead.

However, even with a simple tracking system, it can be pretty time-consuming to keep track of what’s going on, especially if you discover that your dog’s behavior is happening more often than you realized. I learned early on that Maisy “dive bombs” the cats a lot, and quickly gave up tracking those because it was so overwhelming. Instead, what I should have done was just count how often it happened, even if I wasn’t including all the details.

Of course, the details can be important, too, so if you choose to keep tallies, I recommend doing time interval recordings to supplement your data. You can choose the intervals that work for you, but whether you observe and record data for 10 minutes every hour, an hour every day, or even one day out of the week, it will help provide you with a clearer picture. After all, while you’ll get the most out of a more complete log, some data is still better than no data.

Now that I’ve got all this information, what do I do with it?
That’s up to you. I had a lot of fun looking for patterns and creating statistics, and it made it much easier to track Maisy’s progress, too. The basic approach requires you to figure out the average number of incidents per day and the average duration of a behavior. However, you might also look at the time of day, types of triggers, or correlation between certain people and events and the behavior. Look to see what types of things are repeated- those are your training opportunities. When I did this with my own logs, I discovered that Maisy has a lot of trouble with door-related noises, so I’ve included that in my behavior modification plan for her.


Okay, I know that was a lot of information, but I wanted to make sure I gave this topic the attention it deserved. Of course, the chances are good that I missed something, so feel free to comment with any questions you might have! If you’ve kept logs in the past, I’d love to hear about the way you structured them, what you wish you would have included, what was the most helpful, and what you learned. If you decide to keep logs because of this post, I’d be very interested to hear what you learn, and whether or not you thought it was worth your time. Good luck guys, and happy behavior logging!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hey, Baby, What's Your Sign: On Labels and Perceptions

Is this the face of a Libra... or a Virgo?

Have you heard the news? Because the moon’s gravitational pull has caused the earth to “wobble” on its axis, your zodiac sign might not be what you think it is. According to an article that came out last week, this shift means that the dates commonly associated with the various signs are off by almost an entire month.

This means that I’m now a Leo, not a Virgo like I always thought. Wait. A Leo? Me? That couldn’t possibly be true. I mean, I’m a classic Virgo: analytical, observant, reliable, independent, and yes, I do tend to over think things from time to time. But as surprising as this revelation was, I was even more surprised by how upset I felt, especially since I don’t really put that much stock in horoscopes. Still, being told that I’m not a Virgo after all this time felt weird. I’ve spent my entire life believing one thing about myself, and it’s hard to accept this new identity.

It makes sense, though. Humans like to categorize things because it helps us make sense of our world, and once we classify something in a particular way, we are very reluctant to change the way we think about it. That’s probably why I feel so resistant to the idea that I’m really a Leo, even if I do have some of the typical characteristics.

We do this to our dogs, too. We label them with words like “dominant,” or “submissive.” We call them “shy,” or “outgoing,” or “fearful,” or “confident.” We might even call them “reactive” and “anxious.” And each time we do this, we begin to think about our dog differently.

Is this bad? Not necessarily. Labels give us easy ways to describe complicated concepts. They can help us understand why our dogs are acting a certain way. They can help us feel empathy for them, even when they’re doing things we don't like. They allow us get them the help they need from trainers or vets.

But because labels shape the way we perceive our dogs, it can cause us to give up on them or do unpleasant things to them. How many people don’t bother training their dogs because they’re “stubborn”? How many dogs are subjected to forceful procedures because they’re “trying to be the alpha”? How many dogs are put to sleep because they’re “aggressive”? And how many dogs could live better lives if their people were able to look past the labels they’ve been given?

So, what’s the answer? To be honest, I’m not sure. Part of me wants to say that we should quit labeling our dogs, but I know that labels can be just as helpful and they can be harmful. There’s no point in throwing out the baby with the bathwater, after all.

I guess the best course of action is to assign labels cautiously. Are we labeling our dogs because it helps us understand them better, or because it allows us to make excuses? Does this label limit my dog’s potential or will it help him grow? How was the label chosen; is it based on careful, objective observation, or are we throwing around words with little meaning? Does the label apply all the time, or only in certain circumstances? Is this label accurate?

And of course, we should always question that label once it’s been given. Does this label still make sense? Has my dog changed and outgrown the label? Does using this label improve my relationship with my dog, or does it damage it?

I have labeled Maisy as many things, starting right at the beginning with the title of my blog. I’ve called her reactive, a word that has a negative connotation, even though people can’t seem to agree on what it means. Has that changed my feelings about her? No, not in the least, but whereas calling her reactive gives me a framework for helping her, it may have unintended consequences. Maybe it unfairly changes the way others view her.

Maisy’s visit with the veterinary behaviorist garnered her a whole new set of labels: generalized anxiety disorder, fear aggressive and resource guarder. I have to admit, I don’t like that middle one. It conjures up images that I do not associate with my dog at all, so it’s one that I don’t use when I think about or describe her. Still, those labels allowed us to access the medication that has improved Maisy’s quality of life so much. I just hope people can see past the labels and into her heart.

Clearly, labels have power. Because of that, we need to be certain that the labels we use are accurate. More importantly, we need to be willing to question those labels instead of blindly accepting them. If someone gives your dog a label, you need to decide if it matches up with reality. Not your own perception, but reality, because if you’ve labeled your dog in some way, you owe it to him to reexamine what led you to that conclusion. If the label is helpful- if it helps you make better decisions for your dog, if it allows you to understand him better, or if it deepens your bond with him- keep it. If not, look for another. Don’t settle for labels that damage your relationship.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

On Growling

Maisy barks and growls at the river.

I don’t remember the circumstances surrounding the first time Maisy growled at another dog, but I know I was surprised. Maisy was social and eager to interact with her fellow puppy-class attendees, so the growling seemed out of character. Likewise, I can’t remember the circumstances surrounding the first time she growled at a person, but I definitely remember how horrified I felt. My sweet, outgoing, friendly puppy loved people, she didn’t hate them! Why would she be growling? How do I stop it? And what should I do now??

Why do dogs growl?
I think the answer that growling is a form of communication is fairly obvious. The real question is: What is my dog trying to communicate? Scientists have wondered this, too, and in the past year, there have been at least two studies published discussing just that. The researchers found that a dog can derive specific information from another dog’s growls, which leads to the assumption that dogs growl to communicate that information.

In the first study, electronic sound analysis found that there are two distinct types of growling: that done in play and that done as a warning. This probably doesn't come as a surprise to most dog owners. However, what I found notable about this research is that even though electronic analysis couldn’t distinguish between different types of warning growls, the dogs in the study could. Upon hearing a recorded growl, dogs could determine if it was a resource-guarding growl or a stranger-associated growl. Building on that, the researchers later discovered that dogs can tell the size of a dog simply by listening to its growl.

I’m not overly concerned about play growling; most people can tell the difference and seem to understand that it is no cause for concern. No, it’s the warning growls that worry people. Which leads us to the next question...

How do I stop my dog from growling?
I’m going to answer this question with another question: Why would you want to?

It’s true that growling makes us humans uncomfortable. People often perceive growling as a sign of dominance or aggression, which are characteristics that have a negative association. Leaving aside the issue of dominance, which would be a whole post in itself, the concern about aggression, or more specifically, about getting bitten (and I do think that biting does not necessarily mean a dog is aggressive), is fair.

But that’s exactly why I like it when my dog growls. It’s a warning sign that my dog is feeling uncomfortable enough to consider biting. It’s a warning that says, “I don’t really want to bite you, but I will if I need to.” It’s a warning that gives me a chance to protect myself, others, and Maisy herself.

If you teach your dog that you don’t want him to growl, ever, you’ve effectively taken away that warning sign. What you’ll be left with is a dog who goes from mildly uncomfortable (and while you might be able to recognize those signals, I guarantee that your two-year-old nephew can’t) to biting “without warning.” Well, of course he did. You told him not to give warnings!

But if we want our dogs to growl, the next logical question becomes...

What should I do when my dog growls?
Imagine what you would do if a stranger walked up to you on the street, waved a gun in your direction, and said, “This is my side of the street. Cross to the other side or I’ll shoot you.” You probably wouldn’t take the chance that the person was joking, right? It doesn’t matter if the gun-wielder is being unreasonable or not- you’d probably move away pretty darn quickly. So then why are we unwilling to heed our dogs' warnings?

Reasonable or not, growling is the canine equivalent of "back off or I'll shoot." If your dog is willing to tell you that he’s uncomfortable, listen to him. If the growl is directed at you, stop what you’re doing. If the growl is directed at another person or dog, create some distance. Don’t worry about whether or not that’s letting him get away with a bad behavior- right now, it doesn’t matter because that bad behavior is about to become much worse. Instead, you need to worry about damage control; cut your losses and keep everyone safe.

If his growls are isolated, don’t worry about it too much. Honor his communication and move on. However, if a pattern appears- if he always growls at children or when he’s eating- it’s time to take action. The action will depend on the situation, of course, but for the majority of dog owners, it’s probably time to enlist an experienced trainer to help figure out what the action plan will be.


This information isn't new- there is a lot of information on the internet on dogs growling. Some of it's good and some... not so much. If you're interested in reading more about growling, I'd recommend starting with these:
The Gift of Growl, by Pat Miller
Jolanta Benal’s Quick and Dirty Tips
Smart Dog University’s PDF on Growling
Whole Dog Journal’s Five Things to Do When Your Dog Growls at You

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Training Tuesday: Training Plans and Training Logs

You guys, if you are not writing plans and keeping records, you need to start. It immediately made my training so much easier that I can’t believe I’ve never done this before!

To be fair, I’ve tried. The problem was that I had no idea how to organize things or how to track things. For awhile, I simply wrote down what we worked on in a notebook. That gave me a nice record, but it wasn’t instructive; it didn’t move my training along any faster. Then I tried making weekly checklists of things to work on, but the tasks were too broad, and it was very difficult for me to adjust my criteria while using them.

Then, within the span of a month, I came across two things that helped me figure out a method that would work for me. The first was this post from my friend and trainer Robin, in which she discusses the way she keeps records. The visual diagram included made sense to me. Then, I read the book Dog University, by Viviane Theby. She described what she calls “stoplight training,” and combined with Robin’s chart, I found a way to keep training logs that work for me.

In stoplight training, you do five repetitions of a task, keeping track of how many your dog did correctly. If he does 1 or 2 correctly, you’re at a red light. Stop- the task is too hard, and you need to make it easier. If he does 3 or 4 correctly, you’re at a yellow light. Wait, because you know you’re on the right track, and should keep working at that level. If he does 5 correctly, you’re a green light. The dog has understood the task, and you can go on to the next level of difficulty.

With that in mind, I made a chart to record my progress (click to embiggen):


As you can see, down the left, I split the behavior (a formal retrieve) into small units. Specifically, I’m looking at holding the dumbbell with duration. Then starting at the top, I did each task five times. I would stop, record my results, and adjust my criteria as needed. I made any relevant notes at the bottom.

The very first day I tried this with Maisy, I was blown away by how quickly we moved through the levels. I had no idea she could hold the dumbbell for as long as she did- 4 seconds!- because the previous day, I was still struggling with 1 to 2 seconds of duration. This gave me a quick and easy way to assess our progress and decide how to adjust my criteria. Since I’ve often had trouble doing this on the fly, it helped take the guesswork out of the equation, and allowed us to work at a quick pace.

There are clear benefits to keeping a training log during a session, but I think it will be helpful to look back at several days worth of sessions and evaluate ongoing progress, too. For example, you can see that when she’s at home, she often struggles when we hit the step where she holds the dumbbell for an average of four seconds. I’m not sure if it’s the duration, or if it’s because she’s getting tired and making errors due to fatigue. Maybe both. However, with that knowledge, I can experiment a little bit, and continue working at her level.

At any rate, I really liked this method of planning sessions and recording progress. I will definitely keep working on this, and am excited to see the long-term effects. I expect great things!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ian Dunbar Seminar: Wrap-Up

Whew! Over two months and 13 posts later, I’ve finally finished my series of posts on the Ian Dunbar seminar. It’s taken a lot of time and work to organize my notes and write up these posts, but I think it was worth it; we’ve had some great discussions in the comments section, and I’ve really thought a lot about how and why I train the way I do.

Today, I just want to take a few minutes to cover the things that didn’t fit neatly into other entries. These are just random odds and ends, and I’m presenting them simply because I think they’re interesting. There is minimal commentary here, and they’re presented in the order in which they appear in my notes.

First, Ian thinks that animal shelters can do a lot of harm. They unhousetrain dogs and typically teach them to be hyperactive. They also isolate companion animals. As a result, Ian has founded something called Open Paw. Check it out, and poke around at their minimum mental health guidelines. If you’re like me, you’ll feel horribly guilty that you’re not doing enough with your dog!

Next, are trainers more likely to have crazy dogs than the general public? Ian thinks so, and even coined the term “The Trainer’s Dog Syndrome.” He thinks that we are more likely to have multiple dogs, and as a result, don't have the time to socialize our puppies properly. We are more likely to pick a “crazy” breed. And, we tend to be more over-protective our puppies and create problems as a result. Personally, I think trainers are also more likely to have crazy dogs because they have big hearts and take them in because no one else could handle them, and become trainers in the first place after having worked through their crazy dog’s issues.

Last spring, Premier Pet Products was sold to RSC, a company that makes shock collars. In response, some positive-reinforcement trainers decided to boycott the company. Ian was not one of them, and in fact, supported the decision. At the seminar, I found out why: he has some neat ideas for products. For example, pressure sensitive mats that reward the dog as long as he remains on it. Or how about a leash/collar combo that coaches the human to reward the dog when the leash is loose? And then, there’s his dream of a machine that can monitor a dog’s vocalizations when he’s alone, and dispense treats when he’s quiet. Sounds intriguing. I hope some of them pan out.

Here’s a neat idea: when you’re teaching verbal cues, use a neutral tone and volume. Then, teach that if you shout the cue, the dog will get better treats. This helps improve reliability in an emergency.

Regarding the “negatives,” Ian says that the problem with these quadrants is that you must remove something that has been present for awhile. This means that you must start something in order to remove it, which can be difficult (or even aversive). Further, Ian believes that negative punishment (ie, timeouts) is a waste of training time. It’s also easy to punish the wrong thing when doing a time out, especially if you grab a collar in order to do a timeout. Negative reinforcement, however, is powerful, and Ian believes it’s best for proofing. The drawback is that it can damage a dog quickly since you have to start a bad thing, which can create fallout. As a result, Ian described his training as roughly 85% positive reinforcement, 10% positive punishment, and 5% negative punishment.

I love this one, and I think it applies not only to dog training, but also to life: learn to ask the right question. When you’ve figured out what the question is, you already know the answer. To ask means that you have enough knowledge to formulate the question in the first place, so the solution will be easy. (For example, instead of asking “How do I punish my dog for barking when I’m not home?” you should ask “How do I reward my dog for being quiet when I’m not home?”)

How is food used in training? Well, it can be used as a lure (to give instruction), as a reward (which is a surprise consequence), as a bribe (presented in order to coerce the behavior, which is silly because antecedents don’t change behavior, consequences do), and as a distraction (show the dog the treat, set it down away from you, and request the behavior).

And that’s it! That is officially everything I wanted to share with you guys about the Ian Dunbar seminar I attended. Thank you so much to everyone who has commented on these posts. Your thoughts, questions and conversations have been fascinating, and I’ve learned just as much from analyzing the content with you guys as I did from listening to Ian. I would be sad that this series of posts is over, but I’m signed up for Clicker Expo in March, which pretty much guarantees another dozen or so posts, followed by a weekend with Sarah Kalnajs in April. I can’t wait to discuss everything I learn with you guys this spring!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Medication Update: 4 weeks at 10mg


I love Paxil.

That’s what I told Maisy’s veterinary behaviorist when I updated her on Maisy’s progress. Needless to say, the report was absolutely glowing. You guys, I love Paxil.

As a reminder, at baseline, Maisy was having an average of 3.58 incidents a day in which she barked, growled or startled at undetectable or minimal stimuli. It wasn’t uncommon for those incidents to last longer than a minute. She would trot around the house vigilantly, scanning the environment, looking for… something. After two weeks on paroxetine, that had reduced to 2.5 per day. At four weeks, it was 2.67. At six weeks, 1.33. At seven weeks, it was up again to 2. Then we increased Maisy’s dosage from 8mg to 10mg, and after two weeks, she was having an average of 2.5 incidents per day.

I took three days worth of behavior logs this week. Guess how many incidents she had. No, go on, guess. I’ll wait…Okay, are you ready?

She had one.

Not per day. One. Total. For three whole days. And the incident was pretty minor at that. I’m not entirely sure what happened, as I wasn’t in the same room with her, but I heard her bark twice. The barks were somewhere between an alert bark and a play bark, and when I went to check on her, she was sitting in the living room, wagging her tail, and looking through French door at her cat, Malcolm. Malcolm was next to the front door, and if I had to guess, he probably made some small noise that startled her. There was no vigilance. She didn’t leave the room, and the incident wasn’t long and drawn out. She just barked. And that was it. That’s all that happened in the last three days.

At Maisy’s re-check appointment a month ago, I told Dr. Duxbury that I was hoping to reduce the number of incidents from 2 to 3 per day down to 2 to 3 per week. I guess we made it.

I love Paxil.

But that’s not all the good news. For instance, Maisy continues to sleep. In fact, this weekend, I emailed my friends to ask how much their dogs sleep, because Maisy is now averaging 17 to 18 hours of sleep per day. (For the record, this was pretty much right on with what their dogs do.) Whereas she used to pace, harass the cats, or incessantly drop a tennis ball in my lab, now she tends to simply curl up next to me and snooze.

Along those same lines, the other day Maisy was doing just that, and when I got up and left the room, she didn’t follow me. This has never happened before. She has always followed me, even if I was just moving a few feet away. Not that I minded, of course, but I always felt bad that she would jump up as if startled just because I moved. I actually love that this time, she just sleepily watched me walk away.

Another first happened when my husband came home late (think 2 am) one night. Usually, this causes an explosion of barking and growling, but she didn’t make a peep that night. She woke up, and she was excited to see him, but she was quiet. (While I count this as a success, I have to admit, I never really minded that she was so loud when someone entered the house late at night.)

She’s doing great in class, too. In our shaping class on Sunday, there were two new dogs present, and Maisy was initially a bit stressed as a result. Then I realized that I had fallen back into my old habits of trying to shovel treats in her mouth as quickly as possible. When I realized what I was doing, I remembered Dr. Duxbury’s advice to take slow down when I’m working with her. Immediately, Maisy relaxed. Wow!

Tuesday night in reactive dog class, Stella, the bouvier that Maisy always reacts to, was back in class after an eight week hiatus. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but Maisy silently watched Stella from her crate, jumping up only once. Later on, she barked at Stella as she left, but she settled down pretty quickly. So, while she wasn’t perfect, she was pretty darn good!

In fact, she’s been so good that Dr. Duxbury wanted me to confirm that Maisy is still energetic and playful at appropriate times. And she is. She loves her walks, chases her ball enthusiastically, is eager to train with me, and still gets the nightly zoomies. Her personality hasn’t changed at all. She’s just more comfortable.

Have I mentioned that I love Paxil? Because I totally do.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ian Dunbar Seminar: Off Leash Reliability

Who doesn’t want a dog that’s reliable off leash? From hiking in the woods to running agility courses to simply hanging around the house, you would be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t interested in having a dog who listens to them no matter what the circumstances.

Ian Dunbar agrees. A dog who is reliable off leash will have a higher quality of life because he'll be able to go more places with his owner. In fact, Ian thinks it's so important for dogs to be reliable off leash that he spent a lot of time discussing how to achieve this elusive goal. Here are his seven steps to off leash reliability:

1. Define the rules.
You can’t achieve a reliable performance if you don't know what you want, so the very first step is to figure out what the rules are for you and your dog. You need to consider how you want your dog to act, both at home and when out and about. Is he allowed on the furniture? Where can he sleep? Does he need to do anything before you’ll open the door or set down the food dish? The answers will be different for every dog-human pair, and that's okay. You simply have to know what you expect from your dog.

Next, make a cue dictionary. Write down what your dog knows- or what you want him to know- including both the spoken cue and the hand signal that goes with it. Define what that cue means, and when he is to perform it. Doing this can help you set goals, identify holes in your training, and help you remain consistent.

2. Teach off leash from the beginning.
Now that you’re ready to teach new skills or brush up on old ones, think about how you’re going to approach training. Ian believes that leashes are crutches that do nothing more than handcuff the dog to you. They can be hard to phase out, and right from the beginning, they prevent you from obtaining off leash reliability because you depend on them to control the dog instead of establishing verbal commands. Of course, this means that you need to set up your training sessions carefully. Train in low distraction environments first, and gradually build up to more difficult situations

3. Centripedal attraction.
Next, you want to teach your dog to pay attention to you. The goal is to create a dog that is drawn to you, that wants to be near you. When you’re training at home, use “stay delays” where you draw out the length of time between the time the dog does a behavior and the time you give a treat. Since he'll be expecting a treat, he'll stay near you after performing a behavior instead of running off to do something else.

For a puppy that is between 12 and 18 weeks, Ian recommends the following exercise: Take your puppy somewhere safe and let him off leash. Don’t try to keep him near you by calling him to you constantly, just enjoy a little time together. If the puppy goes more than 10 yards away, silently turn and walk away. If it’s more than 25 yards, hide and let him look for you. You can give hints, but make them brief. The goal is to teach your puppy not to let you out of sight or you may disappear. Ian says this may be stressful, so only do it once.

For adult dogs, hiding may or may not work, so Ian recommends doing off leash following exercises instead. It’s best to do these on a trail, since dogs naturally follow the strong scents present there. Don’t try to call him or keep him near you artificially. Instead if he gets too far away, simply turn and walk in the other direction until he notices and catches up with you. You can also do this in an open field instead of on a trail: just keep moving away from the dog. Require him to stay close to you, and don’t compensate for his mistakes.

4. Practice body position changes for generalization.
Ian wants his dogs to be able to both discriminate what his words mean, as well as to understand that sit always means sit: sit means sit when you see a cat… when we’re running… when a child is jumping rope… As a result, Ian practices a lot of position changes (sit to down to stand). He practices them randomly, so the dog isn’t simply learning a pattern, but rather, listening to the words, and he does it in many, many environments. There are infinite training opportunities, and you can easily run through three or four position changes while you’re waiting to cross the road or to check out at the pet store.

5. Work on distance cues.
In off leash situations, Ian generally prefers to have the dog sit and wait for him approach the dog instead of using a recall. He feels that, in general, it’s safer to do this. As a result, he works on adding distance to his cues early on. He also feels that this makes it easier to proof stays, because you can then easily use instructive reprimands/RRNR when the dog is simply thinking about breaking his stay.

6. Proof stays.
Ian proofs stays the way most trainers do: by adding distance, duration and distractions. Proof in small sequences, work both in and out of sight, and use a low key release word. Don’t forget to give periodic feedback, but remember that your dog needs to be able to stay even if you’re silent. As mentioned above, use instructive reprimands/RRNR when needed.

7. Walking on leash.
Finally, teach your dog to walk on leash. It might seem funny that part of developing off leash reliability includes walking on leash, but a dog pulling on leash is simply a dog who has been prevented from running away. Therefore, teaching loose leash walking helps develop off leash reliability despite the presence of the leash. It’s also the hardest thing to teach: the criteria isn’t as clear as heeling, and makes no intuitive sense.

Ian recommends teaching a dog to walk nicely on leash by starting with the off leash following exercises discussed above. Then he teaches the dog to heel off leash. Then, finally, he puts the dog on leash, but he drapes the leash over his arm or his shoulder instead of holding on to it. Finally, the ultimate test: hold the leash and a very full cup of coffee in the same hand.


And those are the seven steps that Ian identified to off leash reliability! I love that Ian emphasizes knowing the rules and making a cue dictionary. I’ve never done that, but maybe I should. I also like the following exercises, although I’m not fond of the hiding component because I’d rather avoid causing stress if possible. I’m not saying I’d never do it, but I’d be cautious about which dogs I do it with. I do absolutely teach skills off leash first (mostly because I have horrendous leash handling skills), and I think that contributes to Maisy’s off leash reliability.

How about you? Is your dog reliable off leash? If so, what did you do to achieve this? How many of the exercises that Ian recommended did you do? Or did you do something else instead? Do you avoid any of these exercises for any reason? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2011 Goals

Last year, my goals revolved around skills I wanted to teach Maisy. Better heeling, fronts, learning to jump, that kind of stuff. This year, my goals are mostly about me. I want to be a better trainer.

Criteria? What criteria?
Photo by Robin Sallie.

And while there are lots of ways that I could improve my training skills, I want to keep this list on the short side so that I don't get overwhelmed. So, here are my five dog training goals for the year:

1. Write training plans.
As the picture above implies, I'm not so hot at maintaining criteria. Part of the problem is undoubtedly because I don't always think through what my criteria should be. Writing training plans should help this. Training plans should also help me adjust the criteria during a shaping session, and hopefully prevent me from getting stuck at certain levels.

2. Keep training records.
What good is a plan without records? I'm hoping that keeping records will help me stick to the plans, allow me to celebrate successes more often, help me readjust my approach when things aren't going well, and just make me a better trainer all-around.

3. Train in shorter sessions.
When Maisy is doing well with a task, it's really fun. I love the thrill of success, and I hate to end it. Unfortunately, when I keep pushing for "just a little bit more," Maisy almost always starts to fall apart. Then I get frustrated, so she does worse, and it's a vicious cycle. Worse, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and as a result, I don't want to work on the task anymore. Shorter sessions (and I'm talking in the 1 to 3 minute range) should make things better for us both.

4. Learn how to achieve stimulus control.
Stimulus control means that, during a training session, the dog will immediately respond to the cue when it's given, the dog will not perform or offer the behavior without the cue, the dog will not perform the behavior in response to a different cue, and the dog will not offer a different/wrong behavior in response to the cue. I don't have anything under stimulus control, so this year, I want to get sit, down, and stand under stimulus control with both verbal-only and hand-signal-only cues. Wish me luck!

5. Teach Maisy 12 tricks.
They're all tricks to the dog, so this is really just 12 behaviors. However, I do want the bulk of them to be actual tricks so that when friends or family ask about all that training we do, I can show them something a little more impressive than a front or finish (normal people just can't appreciate a good front). Teaching 12 tricks will also give me a way to practice writing plans, keeping records, and working in shorter sessions. Stimulus control will not be required, however generalization is.


I have a number of other things I want to do this year, but they aren't official goals. I want to keep working with Maisy on her reactivity so she's more comfortable with life. I hope to go to a trial, or even just a run through, without her going over threshold. I'd like to become a "cleaner" trainer- get the food off my body, use fewer body cues, etc.- and get more things under verbal command. I want to make more videos and take more photos. I definitely want to take Maisy hiking as often as possible.

And mostly- I want to have fun with her. The goal of all these things is to continue to build trust and deepen our relationship. That has always been what trialing and training has been about for me, and no matter where we're at in another year, as long as we're together, I'll call it successful.