Monday, April 30, 2012

Finding Her Inner Terrier

Yesterday, Maisy found her inner terrier.

We headed over to the Arctic Blast Fun Day, where they had several terrier events: terrier racing, go-to-ground, and barn hunt. We had so much fun! This was my second time at an Arctic Blast event (I went to observe a trial with a friend last fall), and I absolutely love the people. They're so laid back and welcoming. They taught me what the games were about, and modified things so that Maisy would be comfortable.

The first game up was terrier racing, which is similar to lure coursing in that the dogs chase an automated lure. However, it is quite different because multiple dogs run at once. The dogs are placed into a start box, chase the lure in a straight line for about 200 feet, and then enter a small hole built into a wall of straw bales to enter the catch pen. All dogs must wear muzzles for safety (both their own, and that of the catchers).

I wasn't sure what Maisy would think of this game, but she loved it. She watched one race and was hooked! She absolutely rocked her first time on the course; some dogs are a little unsure at first, but Maisy knew she wanted to chase that fake bunny, and she wanted to chase it now.

She wasn't a fan about the start box though. She ran from the box twice- once with the top open, and once with the front doors open (hopefully this makes sense when you see the video). She had no problem at all when the front door was open, but she struggled a bit with the door shut. I think this is because the mechanism that releases the front door is a bit loud; she was momentarily startled when it opened, and it took her a few seconds to recover and chase the lure. The rest of the time, I simply released Maisy from outside/in front of the box. Like I said- the terrier folks were really accommodating for us beginners! Maisy was also a bit uncertain about the finish line. While she had no trouble going through the hole when my husband or I were in the catch pen, she only went through it about half the time if one of us weren't in there.

This was the first time Maisy has worn a muzzle for extended periods of time. Although we have spent a lot of time playing with the muzzle, most of it has been shaping her to put her nose inside it and hold it there- she hasn't actually done stuff while wearing it before. She did great though! She didn't even know it was on while she was waiting her turn, and she only pawed at it after her race was over once or twice. After that, she was completely fine wearing it.

After the terrier races, they set up the go-to-ground and barn hunt games. Both of these games involve the dog finding a live rat (I felt kind of bad for the rat, even though it was safely contained). In go-to-ground, the dog must go through a series of tunnels, find the rat, and then show "sustained interest" (usually by barking) for 30-60 seconds. In barn hunt, several cages are hidden in a pile of straw bales. One has a rat in it, the others are decoys. Again, the dog must find the rat.

This was a total and complete bust. I wasn't surprised; Maisy is a cautious dog, and I didn't expect her to either run through a dark tunnel or jump on and burrow into a pile of straw bales. Again, the terrier people were really nice and brought out a rat in a cage so that Maisy could see it. The hope was that she would realize there was a point to the games, but instead, she merely sniffed at the rat, flinching slightly when the cage moved. After a few minutes of investigation, she looked at me as if to say, "That's it?"

Whatever. We still had a totally fun day. Maisy thinks terrier racing is the coolest thing she's ever done, and I was proud of her for handling an incredibly chaotic environment (all that barking!) without becoming unduly stressed, upset, or reactive. I'm already looking forward to the next fun day!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

I am a Huge Hypocrite

As someone with a (recovering) reactive dog, I hate off-leash dogs. Like many dogs, Maisy does not want other dogs to rush up to her and get in her face. We've also had some bad experiences with both not-so-friendly and way-too-friendly off-leash dogs. In either case, the result has been the same: behavioral set backs. This is why I love leash laws so much. While they aren't perfect, they do help reduce the number of unfortunate incidents we have.

At the same time, though, I kind of hate leash laws. I strongly believe that dogs need opportunities to run free. Whether they spend the time leisurely following scent trails or zooming around as fast as they can, off-leash time enriches dogs' lives. And leash laws limit that.

It's especially hard when you live in a large city, as I do. We would have to drive a significant distance to reach a rural area where it would be legal to allow her off leash. While there are many dog parks nearby, they aren't an option for us; like I said, Maisy doesn't like having strange dogs in her face. What's more, while I'd usually encourage the use of Flexis or long-lines, Maisy is a pretty, pretty princess who can neither walk on a Flexi nor tolerate dragging a line behind her. Issues, she has them.

So what's a girl to do?

Be a hypocrite, I guess. The truth is, I let my dog off leash, and I don't always do it legally. I have a few places I do this regularly. One of them is private property, and since I don't have permission, I suppose technically I'm trespassing. I don't worry about it too much; the property in question is one of the colleges I attended, and I figure that since I'm still paying for my time there, I'm entitled to use their land. But I also let her off leash in parks or on hiking trails, despite the numerous signs warning me that my actions are illegal.

I know I shouldn't do it, but I rationalize my decision by telling myself that Maisy has a very good recall. It's not perfect, but it's rare that she'll blow me off when I call. I also know which circumstances are likely to result in her ignoring me, and I avoid them. For example, if there are winged creatures (chickens, geese, turkeys, ducks, whatever), she won't listen. So I don't let her off leash in situations where we'll encounter them.

I am also very selective about when and where I let her off leash. Even though I am confident I can call her away from approaching other people or dogs, I don't want to take that risk. That's why I only let her off leash when we're alone, and only on trails where I have an unobstructed view of the trail ahead and behind us. She goes back on leash when we approach hills, turns, or heavily wooded areas, or any other situation where we might encounter others. It's still illegal, of course, but I figure the benefits outweigh the risks.

In the end, I have a real love/hate relationship with leash laws, mostly because, for all my self-righteous indignation when we're approached by an off-leash dog, I know that deep down, I'm a huge hypocrite.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

America's Next Top Doggy Model

About a month ago, Maisy auditioned for a gig modeling Halloween costumes for Target. The audition was held by Animal Connection, a local animal acting company owned by Barbara O'Brien. Sadly, Maisy didn't get the job, but we had a wonderful experience and we got some great photos out of the deal.

Original here.

First, I cannot say enough good things about Barbara, both as a person and as a photographer. Maisy is a funny little dog; she loves people, but she generally shies away when they try to touch her- even people she knows well. But she loved Barbara, and flirted shamelessly with her. Maisy must be a good judge of character, because I found Barbara to be warm, welcoming, friendly, patient, and kind- all great attributes for a photographer specializing in animals!

Original here.

The audition itself was very interesting. It was held at a local training center. There was a small waiting area in the foyer and then a larger area with a full-on photography studio set up. I don't know all the technical terms, but in addition to the flooring and backdrop you can see in the pictures, there were some large, bright lights, two of those huge umbrella things, a full computer set up, and then the large, intimidating camera. For a dog who's used to smart phones and point and shoots, it must have been overwhelming.

Original here.

Maisy handled it like a pro. There were a few moments of uncertainty, but no fear or reactivity. She sat where I told her, stayed when I asked, and was very, very cute. Well, I guess that last one goes without saying! Seriously, though, it was a really fun experience, one that even a year ago I didn't believe was possible. Thank you so much, Barbara, for the great experience!

You can see all of the auditions photos at this link. Maisy is about halfway down; there are about a dozen more that I didn't post here. You should also look at the other dogs that auditioned; there are some seriously cute dogs in that gallery!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

We Can't Save Them All

What I’m about to write is not going to be popular. It will probably make some people mad. I may even lose a few readers. But it’s something that needs to be said.

We can’t save them all.

A Facebook friend linked to a story about 800 war dogs in Britain who were euthanized. Her thoughts echoed many of the comments on the story: this was an awful thing. Which it is. The prevailing belief was that surely these dogs could be rehabilitated. Which they probably could have been. But who was going to do it? And at what cost?

In this blog, I have documented Maisy’s journey from reactive and anxious to functional and basically normal. I absolutely believe that the combination of training, management, and appropriate medical care can help dogs live more normal lives. However, it takes a significant investment.

Don’t get me wrong- it’s been worth it- but it’s taken a lot of time. I worked with Maisy diligently for several years, and the sum total has been hundreds of hours of work. This also came with a cost; trainers, veterinary behaviorists, supplements, medications, books, seminars- it’s all expensive. I’ve spent thousands of dollars in my quest to help my dog. And it has taken its toll emotionally, as well. It is not easy to have a “crazy” dog.

What’s more, Maisy wasn’t that crazy. She was reactive, yes. She was anxious, yes. But she was not aggressive, and she does not have a bite history. We’ve had some close calls, but thankfully she’s never made physical contact with another dog or a person. She also responded beautifully to training and medication, something that does not happen for every dog. Taken together, Maisy has been a relatively easy dog for one with issues.

And it still took years. And lots of money. And a fair amount of heartache along the way. I love Maisy, and if I’d known then what I know now... well, if I'm honest, I’d do it again. She is worth it. But I would also think twice before purposely adopting another dog with issues like hers, and I can’t imagine choosing to take on a dog with even more severe behavioral concerns.

Yes, some of those dogs in the article probably could have been saved. But by whom? How do you find 800 homes that have the skills, the time, the money, the patience, and the desire to rehabilitate them? Especially when there are thousands of physically and behaviorally healthy dogs dying in shelters every day?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work with dogs with issues. I believe that when we take on responsibility for a dog, we owe him our time and money and patience. But we don’t all have the skills, time, or money to “fix” them. For those who fit this description, there is no shame in finding a better situation for that dog. Unfortunately, while some of these dogs can be rehomed, some cannot. In my state, if a person rehomes a dog with a bite history and the dog bites again, the original owner can be sued, even if they disclosed this information to the new owner, and even if the new owner takes on full responsibility for the dog.

The decision to euthanize a dog is not easy. One of my friends had to put his beloved dog to sleep when it began to aggress towards the new baby in the home. This man spent a ton of money on excellent trainers and veterinary behaviorists- the same ones, in fact, that helped Maisy and I. He put in the time and effort. And yet the dog- who was wonderful in many ways- still posed too great of a risk. My friend ultimately did the most responsible and loving thing he could: he gave the dog one last wonderful day, and then let him go peacefully, surrounded by people who loved him. And it broke my friend’s heart that he couldn’t save his best friend.

As for the dogs in the article? I don’t know their story. I don’t know what was tried, and what wasn’t. I don’t know why the government chose to euthanize those dogs instead of place them in new homes. Although I truly hope they tried- after all, if humans choose to use dogs for work, there should be a long-term plan for them after they’ve completed their service- there simply aren’t enough details to form an opinion.

The truth is, rescues are often in a tough spot. They have limited resources. If they’re lucky, they have a trainer who volunteers to try and help the dogs in their care. Many dogs have minor but workable behavior problems that can be resolved prior to (or even after) adoption. But some problems pose a huge liability. Should one of those dogs bite a person in their new home, it can reflect poorly on the specific rescue, and damage the reputation of rescue dogs in general.

So while the story my friend linked to was indeed awful and made me sad, I have a hard time getting worked up about it. While it’s a terrible thing to kill dogs, I also recognize that some dogs are just too far gone. For whatever reason, their behavior is too unpredictable, and their futures too uncertain.

In the end, all I know is this: We can’t save them all. And that sucks.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Anatomy of an NQ

Despite our success at the CDSP trial last weekend, our first run was an NQ. I was totally bummed out about this. It wasn't the NQ itself that bothered me (they happen), it was how it happened. See for yourself (the non-qualifying moment happens about about 3:20):

I knew we were in trouble as soon as I walked in to the trial site that morning. Maisy was wild with excitement. Last week was difficult for two reasons. Although I don't think it really impacted her much, in the days leading up to the trial, the city was tearing up a street near our house. It made some weird noise, but Maisy seemed okay.

What probably made the bigger difference was me. I've been doing some physical therapy for a shoulder injury, and while I'm seeing improvements, it's a painful process. This has meant that Maisy has not gotten much (okay, any) attention in the last few weeks. Her life has been very boring, so when we got to a trial! With friends! And people who might be friends! Maisy was pretty “up.”

Here's the thing: although it was good stress, it was still stress. A lot of the same neurotransmitters and hormones are at play whether it's eustress or distress, so the end result was basically the same. Maisy was highly aroused.

The honor was also located in a very difficult location. You can see that we are standing directly next to the ring gates, and on the other side was the general crating/warm-up area. What's more, our backs were directly to the main door in and out of the trial site. So there were a lot of distractions in all directions.

As you can see in the video, despite all this, Maisy performed very well during the rest of the exercises. She was remarkably focused and responsive to cues, a fact that I attribute to her knowing what's expected of her. We have worked on those other exercises often. I train using her tennis ball so that she can learn to think through arousal, and we work in high distraction environments. She understands heeling very well.

But if I'm honest... I haven't put even a tenth of the effort into stays. I find them boring, so I haven't spent the time I should have proofing them. While I've taught her to stay put, and I've made a half-hearted attempt to introduce distractions, I really haven't spent the time needed to create a stay worthy of a trial. Bad trainer.

So all of this came together- a difficult week, an aroused dog, a tricky honor location, and a complete lack of training- to form an NQ.

I'm not upset with Maisy at all for her performance, although I am sad that she broke her honor in order to bark at the other dog in the ring. (Incidentally, when I apologized to both the judge and the other handler, neither of them had realized what Maisy had done! What's more, the judge told me not to worry about it- dogs bark at trials, and there's really no difference between doing it in the ring or two feet further away outside the ring. Since both dogs are on leash, nothing bad can happen.)

In fact, the NQ brought about one of the moments that I am most proud of: the way Maisy checked in with me before barking at the other dog. If you go back and watch the video, you'll notice that she stands, tenses, and then looks at me for direction. I asked her to lie down... and she did! If I had been thinking quick enough and rewarded that, I might have been able to prevent the subsequent rush towards the working dog. So even though the end result was the same, I am beyond thrilled; it's a long cry from the days when she didn't even consider where I was or what I was doing when she was at her threshold.

I didn't plan to take her back into the ring for the second trial, but she had relaxed in her car crate, taken a nice long awareness walk in the field behind the trial site, and then insistently pulled me back into the building. When we got inside, she laid down, rolled on to one hip, and just chilled. She was still mildly stressed (video here), but nothing that I was overly concerned about. So I entered the second run, and came back with a 197 and 4th place.

I'll admit it: after the trial, I was freaking out. My philosophy has always been that obedience should be fun for both of us, and that if Maisy is overly stressed, I won't make her do it. The trick, of course, is figuring out how much is too much stress. So, I emailed Maisy's veterinary behaviorist. She said that while Maisy had “a bad moment” during the honor stay, she didn't think we needed to quit entirely. Because Maisy looked really good in the ring, because she was able to recover and do so well during the second trial, and because her stress behavior outside the ring was so mild, she thought that if I did a better job training the stay so that Maisy would know what to expect, it would be just fine to continue competing with her.

So that's where we are. I'll spend the next couple of months working on stays with Maisy. Hopefully, when the next trial rolls around in July, we'll completely rock it and get her title. And if not, well... we'll have fun trying! And that's the most important thing anyway.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

CDSP Trial: 2nd Novice B leg!

Maisy and I went to a CDSP obedience trial this weekend. Although she's not perfect (we had an NQ on our first run of the day- more on that later this week), she tries hard and is capable of some excellent work:

She received a 197 for 4th place. She was also the high scoring mixed breed of the day! Go Maisy! 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Be True

Have you ever heard the expression, “The only thing two trainers can agree on is that the third trainer is wrong?” While a bit hyperbolic, the underlying message is true. I spend a lot of time lurking on email lists and blogs. I’ve read dozens of books. I go to seminars every chance I get. And if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that there are some strong disagreements about the best way to train a dog.

So what’s the deal? How can all of these wildly contradictory methods be right? Are some of the examples just a fluke? Are people lying? I don’t think so. Even when I’m sitting there, shaking my head, I still believe that their method works. Just not for my dog. Or, perhaps more accurately, for me.

I began thinking about this recently after I attended the Jane Killion seminar. As I said then, Jane is an incredibly talented trainer, and I have no doubt that she gets amazing results from the dogs she works with. But I just couldn’t imagine emulating her. No matter how wonderful her results, I just couldn’t see myself doing those same things with my dog. Not because she’s wrong. Because I am not her.

When I was in college, I was taught that the social worker’s greatest tool is not the theories we were learning. Nor is it the interpersonal techniques we learned. Instead, the social worker’s greatest tool is her self. We spent an almost painful amount of time exploring our past. We needed to examine how our personalities, beliefs, values, cultures, and experiences would impact our work. To become a good social worker, we were told, you must master both the clinical skills learned in school and authentically integrate your self into that process.

Although I hated those classes, I have come to appreciate the message. I cannot be anyone except who I am, and trying to put on what I perceive to be the “correct” social worker persona has been fruitless. People can spot a fake a mile away, and since my work is dependent on my ability to form relationships with my clients, I need to be genuine. My professional knowledge and skills are best implemented when done in a way that is consistent with my personality. Or to put it more simply: my best work happens when I am honestly and truly myself.

The same thing is true when it comes to dog training. It seems to me that perhaps the hardest part of teaching our dogs is not learning the theories and the skills needed, but rather, finding a way to use that knowledge and those abilities in an authentic way.

Of course, this is not to say that we shouldn’t adapt our approaches. One of the most basic principles of social work is to meet your client where they are. Regardless of the species, everyone I work with is an individual. You have to train the dog in front of you. Therefore, the challenge in dog training is finding a way to meet the dog’s needs while still remaining true to your self.

Personally, I have found that I do best- with both people and dogs- when I can praise often and laugh with abandon. It is impossible for me to separate out my sometimes quirky sense of humor from my professional self. Sometimes I need to temper it, but I would be as fake as a five dollar bill (bonus points to anyone who gets that joke!) if I couldn’t express that part of my self at all. As a result, I have found that Denise Fenzi’s highly energetic and enthusiastic style resonates deeply with me, and I am forever grateful that she showed me it’s possible to train that way.

What about you? How do you use your self in training? Have you found some styles work better with your personality than others? Let me know!

Further Reading on the Concept of Self in Social Work
The Conscious Use of Self, by Heydt and Sherman
An Introduction to Use of Self in Field Placement, by Walters
Use of Self and Ethics Risk Management, by Reamer

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Training Tuesday: High Distraction Obedience

Maisy and I are attending an obedience trial this weekend. I'm hoping to finish her CD-C title. We haven't done much obedience training since our trial in December. Our house is small, and it was cold and dark when I got home from work, making our training field difficult to use. Thankfully, spring came early to Minnesota, and we've been working diligently over the last few weeks!

Today's video is HIGH DISTRACTION. You can't see it, but you can certainly hear the half a dozen or so kids on the playground that's only 30 feet or so away from where we set up. (It's just barely off camera to the right. If you look carefully, you can see the sandy edge of playground in the middle right side of the frame.) You'll also notice that I put a ball on the figure 8 “post” in the beginning. And yes, those are children on bikes in the background- two of Maisy's big triggers.

Some notes: first of all, no, I do not normally train on concrete. I don't think it's good for her joints to run/chase her ball like that, so usually we work on grassy or sandy surfaces. But I didn't think one session would hurt, and I wanted to set up there so we could work near the distractions (and there was a convenient place to set my video camera).

I find it hilarious that Maisy is getting “jump sucked” in the video. I worked hard to build value for the jump. Now I need to help her build some self-control. After the trial, I'll start working on proofing that.

A number of bad habits have reemerged over the winter. She's forging again, her sits are terribly crooked, and she's going wide. I suspect all of this is partially due to her short stature- it's hard to make eye contact when you're close and in proper heel position! Some of it is also probably because she's a little stressed. This was a hard training scenario, and whenever you increase one criteria, you have to loosen the others temporarily.

But I also think that some of her going wide is because of how I walk. Look how my left foot sometimes swings out towards her (and how she compensates for that). It's especially obvious at about 2:30 in the video. Boy, do I have some stuff to work on.

Overall, though, I was really happy with this session. I love Maisy's enthusiasm and engagement during the session. She's giving me a lot of attention, too! Although I have a sneaking suspicion that if we Q this weekend, our score might not be as high as our first time out, I'm pretty excited for the trial anyway. Time spent with my dog is always awesome.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

True Confessions: My Dog is Spoiled

She begs shamelessly during meals, jumps on visitors, and sleeps on my pillow. Unless she wants to sleep somewhere else, of course. Rules? I think she’s up to four now, and one is really more of a suggestion. And if you were to tell me that my dog walks all over me, I’d show you the pawprints on my t-shirt. Literally.

Are you surprised? Although I’ve always been honest in my blog, lately I’ve been a bit more formal. Part of this is because I’ve begun teaching classes and I don’t want to completely embarrass my boss. I figure I should reflect positively on her business, and a poorly behaved dog is probably not a great advertisement.

It’s hard to hide the fact that my dog is spoiled. It could be different, of course- I know how to teach her the skills she’s missing- but I don’t care enough to teach them. She begs because I don’t mind. She jumps on me because it’s easier for me to reach her that way. As for sleeping on my pillow, frankly, I find it endearing. Still, I’m sometimes embarrassed about her “bad” behavior because I know that society expects my dog to act a certain way.

Well, so what? I have spent my time and energy on the things that matter to me. Maisy has a gorgeous heel, is reliable off leash, and gives me an enviable amount of attention. She’s capable of turning in excellent scores in competition. She’s so easy to live with these days that sometimes I forget she ever had any behavior problems. And, if I ask her to, she can act like a good dog. I have taught her “leave it” and “off,” after all!

The truth is, everything we teach our dogs is artificial. It’s stuff that we humans have decided is desirable. Some of it is hygienic- I’d rather not have bodily waste in my house. Some of it is about safety- I really don’t want my dog to bite a child. And some of it is just a preference.

I try to keep this in mind when I’m teaching. As a positive trainer, I avoid the use of force. My goal is to find ways to motivate my dog to choose to do the things I want. I try to do the same thing with my students. It’s easy to feel frustrated when they choose not to do their homework, but one look at my own dog reminds me that it is their choice. Although I can explain the benefit of a particular exercise, ultimately, it’s up to them. Only they can decide what they want their dog to do, what they can tolerate, and how they want to spend their time and energy. 

And if they choose to let their dog beg, jump, and sleep on pillows… well, who am I to judge?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Help! I think my dog is reactive! What should I do?

It was the fall of 2008. I was all settled in at my first post-college job, and I finally had the time needed to pursue dog sports. Excited, I signed up for an obedience class at a local training club. Maisy was just barely two years old, and while there had been warning signs that she wasn’t exactly normal, I didn’t know enough to recognize that. I’d heard of reactivity, but was thankful my dog wasn’t like that. So the first time she barked and lunged at another dog in class, my heart sank.

I was completely unprepared for what was to come. I knew so very little. I couldn’t read Maisy’s body language, I didn’t understand how stress impacted dogs, and I had absolutely no clue what I should do next. What I needed was someone to help me, but our instructor- as wonderful as she was- couldn’t. This is not unusual; there is a huge difference between training obedience skills and modifying undesirable behaviors, and most trainers are experienced in the former with little understanding of the latter.

I’ve learned a lot since then, and I’ve chronicled much of it on this blog. Unfortunately, this knowledge came a bit late, so today, I want to share what I wish I’d known back then. If you’ve just realized that you have a reactive dog and are wondering what you should do next, here are my suggestions.

Take a Break
One of the biggest mistakes people make with reactive dogs- myself included- is to keep putting their dog in situations they can’t handle. It’s easy to do this. At first, I simply didn’t understand what was triggering Maisy’s behavior. It’s hard to avoid things if you don’t know what those things are.

Later, I kept putting her in those situations in order to “socialize” her and “train through it.” This was a mistake. Every time I put Maisy into a situation she couldn’t handle, she learned that I couldn’t be depended on to keep her safe. Maisy is a resourceful little dog, so when it became clear I wasn’t doing anything about the situations that made her uncomfortable, she decided to. She barked and lunged. And every time she did, she got better at it. Reactivity became a habit, and anyone who’s tried to break their own bad habits knows how hard it is. This really slowed down our progress.

This is why my first (and possibly most important) suggestion is to simply take a break. Stop exposing your dog to things he can’t deal with. This might be training classes. It might be trials. It might even be going for walks. Don’t let your dog rehearse behavior you don’t like!

Consult an Expert (or Two)
Of course, it’s both impossible and undesirable to avoid the world forever. Most of us want to do things with our dogs and to take them places, so while taking a break is good in the short run, it’s usually not a long-term strategy.

While on your break, you should use the time to consult with an expert. If the behavior change is sudden, a vet check may be in order. Medical concerns can change the way a dog acts. Although Maisy’s issues aren’t solely the result of her health, they do get worse during allergy season or when her back hurts. Get your dog checked out.

Next, find a trainer. I’ve written before about why I think you need a trainer. Reactivity is a spectrum; there’s a huge range of behaviors your dog can display, and the reasons behind them can be just as varied. It is highly likely you will need some help parsing it all out. As I already noted, you don’t want just any trainer. While there are very talented folks teaching obedience, agility, etc., you need someone who’s had experience and success with behavior issues.

Read, Watch, Go
If you have a reactive dog, you need to learn and you need to learn fast. If you’ve hired a trainer, it is possible to skip this step… but I don’t recommend it. There are many ways to approach reactivity, and it’s helpful to understand multiple perspectives. Even if you have the best trainer out there, sometimes hearing things from a different point of view will help give you the clarity you need.

Start by learning about different training methods. I strongly favor positive, reward-based methods. It’s not that other methods don’t work- they can- but there is a higher risk of fallout. Check out this position statement by the AVSAB for more information.

Next, learn about dog body language and stress signals. It’s amazing how much we miss simply because we don’t know to look for it. There are tons of DVDs, books, and websites devoted to learning to understand what you’re dog is telling you.

Continue your education by learning about the different protocols designed for reactivity. From basic desensitization and counter-conditioning to more sophisticated programs like Control Unleashed and BAT, there are lots of ways to approach the problem. Find out more about them, and discuss them with your trainer. Find out what she prefers and why. Together, choose one that you both feel comfortable with and that seems like a good fit for your dog.

Finally, build up a support system. Blogs, email lists, and in-person friends are all places you can go to exchange ideas, commiserate about set-backs, and celebrate successes!

Keep Records
I know, I know. It’s really not that much fun, but records can be incredibly valuable. It wasn’t until I started logging incidents that I realized just how anxious my dog was. I was so accustomed to her behavior that I didn’t really recognize it as abnormal. Seeing it all in black and white helped me understand just how much help she needed.

This doesn’t need to be a massive undertaking. Your records can be as simple as a brief note on a calendar or as complex as an Excel spreadsheet. The format is less important than simply doing it. They will help you identify triggers, notice subtle behavior patterns, and track your progress.

These are the things I wish I had known almost four years ago. I’ve learned much since then… most of it the hard way! Although there is no shortcut through reactivity, the sooner you enlist help, the quicker it will be.

For those of you who have been there, done that, what do you wish you’d known? For those of you who are new to this, what other questions do you have? I’d love to hear from you!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Training Tuesday: Trick 3 (In Progress)

No, I haven't forgotten about my 12 tricks in 2012. But I have officially fallen behind because I chose the hardest trick IN THE WORLD. Or at least, it's hard when you have a dog with short, stubby little legs. We're working on "cross your paws," and honestly? We're getting close. See for yourself:

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Reactivity is a Spectrum

In my day job, I work with children with disabilities, and roughly half of them have autism. They range from non-verbal to incessant talkers. Some are completely dependent on others, while others are thriving in society. A few of them have intense behaviors, while others are well-adjusted kids. In other words, none of them are the same. There’s a reason they call it the autism spectrum.

The more I learn about dogs, the more I become convinced that reactivity is also a spectrum. While we tend to label any dog who demonstrates over-the-top behavior as “reactive,” there are an almost infinite number of variations on the theme. It’s not a neat, linear spectrum, either; there’s no orderly progression of behaviors going from one end to the other. Just like with autism, things combine in unexpected ways in reactive dogs.

Some reactive dogs are like my own. Much of Maisy’s over-the-top behavior was fueled by a clinical anxiety disorder. Although we’ll never know for sure, I tend to believe that there is probably a strong genetic component to her behavior.

Speaking of genes, we have created breeds of dogs that are very focused on their environment. For example, many herding dogs are sensitive to motion- they need to be in order to move stock! But when left unchanneled, this tendency can look a lot like reactivity.

Dogs who don’t receive adequate socialization as a puppy can grow up to be fearful or unsure about novel experiences. This fear can result in a fight-or-flight reaction, and “fight” behaviors are often what we call reactive.

On the other hand, puppies who were allowed to greet and play with everyone they met may be wonderfully socialized while simultaneously having no manners. If they don’t learn how to control their impulses, their frustration may turn into reactivity.

This list goes on and on... I’ve met dogs who were wound too tight, who had medical conditions that impacted their behavior, who had learned they could get attention by acting a certain way, who were trying to gather information about their environment, and I’m sure you can come up with even more.

What’s clear to me is that while it makes sense to group all of these dogs under the label of “reactive” to make it easier to talk about them, it’s nearly impossible to make generalizations or definitive statements. While we can certainly discuss training approaches, handling strategies, and the use of medications or supplements, there is no one-size-fits-all.

It’s the same in my day job. Just as none of the reactive dogs I work with are the same, neither are any of the kids with autism. But what I tell all of my clients, human and canine alike, is the same: they are the experts, not me. Since there is so much variation in behavior, the parent/owner will always understand their child/dog better than I do. 

This doesn’t mean that I’m not an educated professional.  I know a lot about autism and reactivity, but I don’t live with my clients. I have no way of ever knowing all the ways it plays out in their lives. Despite this, I'm quite good at what I do. In my day job, I am able to find the resources parents need to help their kids, and in the evenings, I can coach people in training exercises that are highly likely to help their dogs. But in both contexts, they get the final say. 

The way I see it, my job is not to be right, it’s to help my clients find what’s right for them. I have to be willing to listen to my clients, and then to respond flexibly. It has to be this way, because whether we're talking about autism or reactivity, it's a spectrum. And that means that every case will be just a little bit different.