Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Year in Review

January was a boring month. Maisy celebrated her gotcha day with a trip to the dog park and one of the best photos of all time. 

 Maisy received her first paycheck in February. And that was about it. Well, that and I learned how to knit. Which has absolutely nothing to do with this blog, but I'm pretty sure it proves that I'm a wizard, so that's cool.

In March, I registered Maisy with the AKC so she could participate in lure coursing. She hasn't had the chance to do it yet. Also, we went hiking and Maisy climbed a tree.

Maisy had her second modeling job in April, when she modeled several Halloween costumes. She didn't end up on any packaging, but it was still a fun experience. She also earned her first two QQs towards her ARCH, something we'd be trying to do for years.

May was the month of Maisy's first (and unbeknownst to me, last) backpacking trip. We spent five days in northern Minnesota hiking the Superior Hiking Trail with our friends Laura and Piper. Laura and I also attended the Midwest Animal Welfare Conference for a day of talks on behavior. We did not take the dogs. 

In June, the results of Maisy's first modeling shoot turned up in stores. She also officially graduated from being followed by the veterinary behaviorist when we agreed to cancel Maisy's appointment because I had absolutely no behavioral concerns.

July was AWESOME! Maisy earned her ARCH, a multi-level championship title in APDT/WCRL rally. I also attended a Steve White seminar (Maisy had a working spot!), and went to a Paco collar making class. Maisy is all pretty now.

August was (I think) the month Dog Sport Skills, Book 1 by Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones came out. This might not seem like it has anything to do with me, but I worked as the editor on it, so this was pretty exciting! I also had the best birthday ever, and began dating my new boyfriend.

Do we have to remember September? Because this is the month that Maisy almost died. She was diagnosed with immune-mediated inflammatory disease of the spinal cord. Two weeks later, she ended up back in the ICU with a 7mm bladder stone blocking her urethra. You all rallied around me, helping me pay most of Maisy's medical bills, for which I am very thankful. I also took the CPDT-KA exam, although that was completely overshadowed by Maisy's illness.

In October, I got the news that I passed my CPDT-exam. Later in the month, I got my first foster dog. 

And a week later, in November, I officially adopted my foster dog. I also hosted Thanksgiving for the first time ever, which was both challenging and exciting. 

December marked Maisy's first recurrence of her immune-mediated inflammatory disease. Or rather, the early stages of what we assume was a recurrence. I also attended the Kim Brophey seminar, which was absolutely fascinating.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

More than Just Training: Changing Your Lifestyle to Change Your Reactive Dog

Maisy is a normal dog these days, health concerns not withstanding, of course. I take her places that I would have never dreamed possible in the old days, and I do it without even thinking about it. I put her into chaotic situations- block parties, playing with children, outdoor festivals- without worrying. I used her as a decoy dog for a BAT session with a German Shepherd, completely forgetting that that breed was once one of her biggest triggers.

And guys? It's pretty awesome.

But it took a lot of work to get to this point; our (former! Sad face!) veterinary behaviorist told me that she's only seen this level of improvement a handful of times in the past ten years. Maisy's normalcy is not, well... normal. And yet, here we are.

This progress was not the result of any one thing. Medication was a huge factor, as was some environmental management/change. And of course, I did a ton of training. But when you're working with a reactive dog, this training is not limited to attending class and doing your homework. This training needs to be happening all day long.

Back when I was in the throes of reactivity with Maisy, her days consisted of either management or training. That's it. I was either doing something to prevent her from reacting, or I was actively working on her reactivity. This required me to change my lifestyle in order to accommodate her needs.

Every single walk we took required a clicker and cookies. We played Look at That. I closely monitored her body language and used the Whiplash Turn to interrupt her when she got close to going overthreshold. Sometimes, I would turn around if there was a dog or a kid or a bike up ahead that I knew she wouldn't be able to handle. I reinforced good choices liberally. I did a ton of classical conditioning: every barking dog resulted in cookies. Every screaming child resulted in cookies. Every bike that whizzed by resulted in cookies.

At home, Maisy went in a crate when guests or workmen were expected. She did not go to many dog-friendly gatherings because I knew I would be distracted and unable to give her the undivided attention she would need. That made me sad (I love having her around), but it was the best thing for her. If I knew that something was reliably difficult for her (garbage day or the neighbor's house being re-roofed or whatever), I would put her in a quiet room with a chewy and calming music playing loudly enough to drown out the sounds. (Later, after we'd started using medication, I would also give her a short-acting, as-needed anxiety drug.)

I paid attention to the things that set her off at home, like the sound of a car door slamming outside or the mailman coming or even the cats boisterously playing together. I always had treats in a pocket, and every one of these things was followed by a cookie so I could change her association with those triggers from bad to good.

We did go to classes, and we did do our homework. You really have to; if your dog only practices skills in stressful situations, those skills become predictors of bad or scary things, and can actually add to your dog's stress level.

In other words, I changed the way I lived my life so I could help Maisy. Sometimes I failed. I was tired or sick or had a bad day and just couldn't deal with her. That was okay. I managed what I could and just promised myself I'd try again the next day. There were times that I put her in situations that required a judgment call- and I made the wrong one. Those, too, were okay. I would take note of the problem and work on it later. But over time, my consistent and constant work paid off with a normal dog.

My lifestyle had to change drastically in order to reach this place, but it has been worth it. Having a normal dog is freaking awesome, and I am thrilled beyond belief that I can enjoy her company in so many more situations now.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Confessions of a Ribbon Whore

I love ribbons. While many of my friends donate theirs back to the host club, I keep mine, every single one. Even the Q ribbons, boring as they are. I like the shiny satin, the golden lettering. I like that they prove yes, my dog was awesome that day. I like showing them off on the internet, to friends and family, and even by hanging them on my cubicle walls at work.

To be fair, ribbons aren't the only reason I compete. I also enjoy the process. I enjoy training and the challenge of getting a flashy ]heel. I enjoy watching my dog go from skill-less to a superstar. I enjoy going to dog events and hanging out with other people who “get it.” But I'd be lying if I didn't say that I also like the ribbons.

Still, as much as I enjoy the training and the trialing and the trophies... I would give it all up in a heartbeat. Because here's the thing: I love my dog. I love her silly mismatched ears. I love the way she teases me, snatching away the ball when I reach for it in some twisted game of canine keep-away. I love the way she snuggles with me when my alarm goes off in the morning. I love her enthusiastic greetings when I return home, even if I only took the garbage out. I love her joy and enthusiasm in everything. And I love spending time with her.

Training and trialing are fun, but only because they are something for us to do together. There are many things I like to do with Maisy, and honestly? Trialing (and even training) are probably at the bottom of that list. If I'm honest, there's nothing better than a good off-leash hike in the woods. Or endlessly throwing a ball in the backyard. Or even just sitting with her pressed up against me while I read a book.

So yeah, I love ribbons. I know which clubs have awesome ribbons and which are lacking... but I keep them all anyway. And yeah, I display them prominently and proudly, and not just because it strokes my ego to do so. Mostly, I love my ribbons for their sentimental value. Ribbons don't prove anything, but I love them as shiny reminders that my dog and I are a team, and that no matter what life throws at us, we can succeed. Together.


I wrote this entry months ago. So many months ago that I never imagined that Maisy would nearly die, that I never dreamed I'd have a second dog by the end of the year. If I were to write this post today... well, I wouldn't. Today, faced with the prospect of both endings and beginnings at once, ribbons mean much less to me than they did once.

Still, I love the sentiment behind this post. If there's anything that the past few months have taught me, it's that my ribbons mean nothing more than the fact that, as I wrote, Maisy and I are a team. Life has thrown us some nasty curveballs, and we will succeed. It's just that the idea of success... well, it doesn't mean winning anymore. It might not even mean living.

As for what it does mean... well, I don't know. I suppose it's about being brave in the face of the unknown. About being fully present in the life we do have available to us. About the fact that really, today is no different than the day before she got sick: a beautiful gift.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: Evanger's Freeze-Dried Treats

This month, chewy.com gave us the opportunity to try Evanger's Freeze-Dried treats. When I got them in the mail, I noticed that the packaging said they are for dogs and cats. My dogs are greedy and will eat basically anything, but my cat is a bit pickier, so I figured he was the best test-taster this time around.

And the verdict? Kitty likes! I like that they were fairly easy to break up into smaller pieces without crumbling all over like some of the other freeze-dried treats we've tried. I also like that they are single-ingredient and from the US (ie, not China).

And of course, I have to tell you that I received this product free but was not told what to say, nor compensated in any other way.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Well, I'm Not Entirely Incompetent

The hard thing with a new dog is that you don't know when something's wrong, because you don't know what their normal looks like. When I first got Pyg, he was energetic and playful, but that slowly went away until I thought that maybe the excitement of those first few days was just some weird stress response, and that this new mellow version of Pyg was just who he is.

At the same time, his house training got more and more irregular. I figured this was because it's December in Minnesota, and therefore snowy and cold. And I'm sure that didn't help, but I potty trained Maisy in January weather (always worse than December) for goodness sake. Plus, well, I don't know how well he'd been potty trained before, so... Like I said, it's hard when you don't know a dog's normal.

I have learned a bit about Pyg's normal, though. First, no, the playfulness was not a stress response, and that his personality is to be a funny, goofy, excited little dog. And second, I'm not an entirely incompetent trainer, because Pyg has been peeing outside again!

So what happened? Well, I did that thing that trainers like me always tell clients to do: I took him to see a vet. As it turns out, there was indeed a medical cause for Pyg's subdued nature and training regression. We just don't know what it is, exactly. (Figures. How do I end up with these dogs?) Anyway, his urinalysis did not show any bacteria, crystals, or white blood cells. But it did show some old red blood cells. The vet told me this could be a ninja infection (I'm pretty sure those were her exact words), or congenital bladder stones, or a kidney problem.

We decided we liked the first option best (because ninjas) and started treating with a broad-spectrum antibiotic. And lo and behold: peeing outside! More playfulness and energy, too. Also, I'm not totally incompetent at potty training. Good news all around!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Project Gratitude: Secret Santa

In September 2013, Maisy became suddenly and critically ill. Our blog readers rallied around us, providing us with the emotional and financial support needed to get through a very stressful time. Although I will never be able to pay everyone back, I can pay it forward through Project Gratitude. Each month, I donate my time or money to a person or organization that needs it. Please email me at reactivechampion(at)gmail(dot)com if you know someone in need.

For this month's Project Gratitude, I played Secret Santa for one of my social work clients. This means I can't share too many details, but basically, this family just tugs at my heart like no other. For financial reasons, they recently had to move from a single-family home to an apartment. They brought their pets with them, but they've had difficulty affording things like food. For everyone. And while they can use food shelves for themselves, it's much harder to obtain pet food, so I bought two large bags of pet food for their dog and their cats.

For what it's worth, their local food shelf does give out pet food, just in very small quantities. I don't think people realize that some food shelves will accept donations for household goods (including pet food). For many low-income families, food shelves can mean the difference between eating and going hungry... for both them and their pets. So although I gave directly to a family, you can help keep pets in their homes by donating to pet food to your local food shelf.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Worried and Scared: A Maisy Update

In the last week or two, I've noticed that Maisy seems... off. She's just slightly stiff. She needs to take a break halfway up the stairs. She's reluctant to jump in the car, and she's slow and sad-looking on walks. Things that would be easily attributable to aging- Maisy is seven, after all- but these are some of the same things I saw emerge over the summer. You know, before her immune-mediated crash? The one that almost killed her?

I called Maisy's neurologist, who told me to increase Maisy's prednisone from 5mg every other day to 5mg every day for 7 to 10 days. Then, we have three options: do 2.5mg daily, 7.5mg every other day, or add in cyclosporine (which tends to be quite expensive). He recommended option one, so that's what we'll do.

But then he added that it is not unusual for dogs to have a recurrence of immune-mediated inflammation after one or two months of reducing the dose. Which we did for Maisy about six weeks ago. He also added that dogs who recur at this point tend to have "less longevity" than dogs who successfully transition to no steroids at all.

It's one thing to suspect that your dog likely won't live as long, but it's quite another to be told so point-blank. I may have cried at work. I'm trying to be positive, though. Not only is Maisy very sensitive to my moods, but being sad and scared and worried won't help me enjoy whatever time I have left with Maisy.

Which I hope is a very long time.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Congratulations! It's a Puppy!

Perhaps it's just the passage of time, but I do not remember Maisy being this much of a pain in the ass. Then again, I got her much younger than I got Pyg, and she came with the bonus of already being crate-trained. Also, she had her CGC by the time she was Pyg's age. Also, I think she was just too flippin' scared of the world to be naughty.

Whatever the reason, as Pyg has settled into life with us, he's become progressively naughtier. This is not a huge surprise. Not only had I suspected he would come out of his shell, but he's also an adolescent without much training. And normal adolescent dogs without much training are, well, annoying.

He's constantly getting into things. Yesterday, the treat drawer was left slightly ajar, and so he opened it and invited Maisy to his all-you-can-eat party. They went through probably a dozen bully sticks, several rawhides, a nylabone, a couple of cow hooves, and who knows what else. Today I came home to find a roll of thread (WTF?) destroyed. Last week it was a yardstick and the cat litter scooper.

And the recycling. Oh, the recycling! Pyg loves rooting around, especially in the cardboard recycling. He pulls out boxes and just shreds them. This doesn't really bother me, but it would be nice to come home to a semi-clean house.

Pyg's decided being short is stupid, and so is always jumping on everything. Counters, the chest freezer, my sewing table (from which he snitched the thread), my bed side stand (where he knocked my pill bottles down but thankfully didn't open them)...

Peeing is meant to be done anywhere, anytime, and poop is clearly meant for consuming. Dead squirrels found on walks? Tug toys. Conveniently decapitated bird heads? Bedtime snack. Your nose? A slightly-too-chewy chew toy.

Let's just say I've been rethinking my training priorities. I've already started with “off” and “gimme that,” and there will definitely be a viewing of Crate Games in my very near future!

Still... I don't regret adopting him. Sure, he's a pain right now, but he will be an absolutely lovely dog when he grows up. Hell, he already is a lovely dog. Besides, when he curls up on my chest and naps, the oxytocin totally gets me.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Puppies: Proving I Suck at Potty Training Since 2007

Sometimes I meet people who tell me that they can potty train any dog in a weekend. I'm never quite sure how to respond to them, but I'm pretty sure it's a mixture of wanting to yell “BULLSHIT” and “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY” because I suck at potty training dogs. I'm not sure why this is; the concept is simple enough. Take the dog out on a regular schedule, watch them like a hawk in between times, and confine them when you can't.

Either both of my dogs are difficult to potty train or I suck at this whole thing. With Maisy, born in a puppy mill and then lived in a small cage at a pet store until I found her at about 14 weeks, it made sense. She had always just squatted and gone where she was.

Pyg, though, lived in a foster home for a good six months. He likely had some potty training before I got him. Even so, I'm finding myself struggling with him, too. I know part of it is that it's December in Minnesota (read: cold), and I just don't want to bundle up and go out regularly. And I'm clearly not very good at supervising him.

"Just wait until I figure out how to open this window, Squirrel."
A big part of this is Pyg's absolute determination that he will not be confined. Perhaps I should have named him Houdini, because he is an escape artist. The first day I had him, he scaled a four-foot tall x-pen. Then, he went through three baby gates, which had been placed floor to ceiling in the kitchen doorway. I would have loved to have seen that.

Crating worked for awhile, but two weeks ago he figured out how to get out of a wire crate. I'm not entirely sure how he did it; the door was tightly latched, all the bars remained straight, and it was not otherwise destroyed or popped apart. I assume he slithered out somehow, but until I can get him reliably crate trained (a work in progress), he is now left loose in the house, complicating the potty training.

I know this too shall pass. Maisy, impossible as I found her potty training to be, now has a bladder of steel. She rarely has accidents, even when she's got a UTI. I can potty train a dog. I can. But until that happens with Pyg, I'm grateful for belly bands, maxi pads, and my steam cleaner.

Monday, December 2, 2013

In Which My Training Priorities Surprised Me

To be perfectly honest, I really haven't done much training with Pyg. But I have done quite a bit of behavior modification. Some of my friends don't think there's much of a difference between these two things, and perhaps they're right. But things are so much more fun in my head (there are narwhals, after all) that the distinction matters to me.

Maybe a better way to talk about it would be to say that I've done quite a bit of classical conditioning with Pyg, and not much operant conditioning. I've been very interested in creating good emotional associations with things, in changing the way he feels. I haven't done much in the way of changing how Pyg behaves. Of course, I do realize that changing feelings often changes behaviors, so yes. My friends are probably right. But so am I. Or at least, my point stands.

Anyway, if I had to sum up what I've done with Pyg over the past month, it would be in one word: husbandry, with a focus on handling and grooming. Maybe it was just the stress of transport, or maybe he'd had bad experiences, but when Pyg first came home, he was a bit hand shy. Oh, he was friendly enough, but if you reached towards him, he'd skitter away. It was hard to catch him long enough to put a leash on him so he could go out to potty.

I started with doing lots and lots of collar grabs with him. Reach out, touch collar, give treat. Reach out, grab collar, give treat. Reach out, tug on collar, give treat. Over and over and over again at each step, until Pyg was happy to see my hand coming towards him.

Next I worked on being about to touch him anywhere on his body. Touch his hips, give treat. Touch his thigh, give treat. Touch his back, give treat. Touch his shoulder, give treat. Touch his ears, give treat. Look in his ears, give treat. Hold head still, give treat. Over and over and over again until I could trim his nails without protest, until I could examine his teeth, until I could trim up some of the fur around his face.

Hey! Someone left their peanut butter in the tub!
Most of this- even the nail trims- went surprisingly fast. Trimming his face was a bit harder (he does not like the scissors). But hardest of all has been trying to get him in the bathtub. I have no idea why, but he is freaked out scared. This is frustrating if only because he is so greasy and smelly at this point that I have contemplated throwing caution to the wind and just getting it done.

I haven't, yet. I am patient, and he does have to eat twice a day, after all. Right now every meal is going towards the bathtub thing: being fed while held near the tub and having special treats in the bathtub. Once that's done, we need to work on taking medicine (which is going to be hard, because he does not like the dewormer I'm giving him right now), and then a bit more on medical exams.

One of these days, I'm going to have to actually train him.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


It's Thanksgiving here in the U.S., and while it seems a bit cliche, I'm going to take a moment to be grateful for all I have... especially these two little creatures:

Maisy has been my rock this year, carrying me through some hard times. I almost lost her in September, so I am also so grateful for all of you who donated to her vet bills. I'm also thankful to have Pyg. We don't know each other very well yet, but we do love each other. I feel so fortunate to have found him. Finally, as always, I am grateful for the friends who've become my family. Sara, Laura, Ryan and Lauren, Megan, Elizabeth, Margaret, Nicky, and Cesar. I'm so fortunate.

So, here's to you and yours. May you always have a furry face and the love of friends and family surrounding you.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pyg's Personality

It's been about a month since Pyg came into our life. That really isn't very long, but he's fit into our lives so seamlessly that it feels like he's been here forever. I cannot begin to express how much I love him and how happy I am that fate brought us together.

I knew going into it that foster dogs/newly adopted dogs often take several weeks or months to really settle in and express their true personalities. I definitely saw glimmers of who Pyg is early on, but it's been fun to watch him blossom.

Here's what I know about Pyg so far:

He's playful. Perhaps this is just youthful exuberance, but Pyggy loves playing. Whether it's with another dog or by himself, Pyg has a cheerful attitude. Maisy still adores playing with him. I see her initiating play with him at least once every day, sometimes more. For her part, she's getting less awkward. At first, she was convinced that humping him was the best invitation to play ever, but now she's doing more appropriate play bows.

He can entertain himself. This is awesome, because if Maisy doesn't want to play and he does, he's perfectly content to go off by himself with a toy. His favorites are long floppy toys that he can shake and kill. He's not much into dissecting them, which is fine with me. He also likes to pick up Kongs and throw them in the air, and oddly, empty cat food cans.

He has an off-switch. Pyg is also quite happy to take a nap or chew quietly on something appropriate. He loves his Nylabone (Maisy never touched them as a puppy), and Kongs, too. He's a fan of bully sticks and cow hooves. And when he's tired of chewing, he'll take a nap. I suspect some of this will change as he gets more comfortable. The other day he chewed on a wooden yard stick.

He is less intense than Maisy. Although this will likely change as he continues to settle in, so far he's a bit more subdued. Whereas she will clearly (obnoxiously) make her desires known, he tends to be a bit subtle about it. After two brief scuffles, he's learned not to take food from Maisy, and if anything drops in the kitchen, he'll back away. Poor Pyg; Maisy can be a bit of a bitch. That said, he's not afraid to take advantage of things. The other day he swooped in and stole Maisy's Kong when she left it to tell off the cat.

He's definitely a lap dog. Oh my. Where Maisy really, really doesn't care to be touched (she will cuddle on occasion, but only briefly, and only when it's her idea), Pyg loves nothing more than to be with people. He will curl up on my lap, or worm his way between me and my boyfriend when we're together. He loves to be petted, and we've begun to discover all his favorite rubbing spots. If I stop petting him, he'll rub his face on my hand. It's adorable.

He doesn't like to be left alone. I wouldn't call it separation anxiety, but it's clear that Pyg's had a bit of upheaval in his short life. I've been watching him pretty closely, and he's definitely getting better about it, but if he had a choice, he'd go everywhere with me. On a similar note, he does not like being contained. Four foot x-pens? Yeah, he climbs over them. Baby gates? Knocked over. Wire crates? Escaped from... although I don't know how. It wasn't destroyed. Sigh.

He loves food, and he's an eager learner. I'll post soon about our training, but let's just say that he is quite willing to work for kibble at home, and that I'm having a ton of fun putting some foundations on him. It also inspires me to get back to training with Maisy again. I'd like to get them both into classes sometime soon, but... money. And time.

He's a bit cautious about new dogs. This is perhaps the most interesting thing of all, and I'm curious to see how it'll shake out. He's had a few minor outbursts. Nothing I would call true reactivity, but given his age (10 months) and the fact that reactivity tends to emerge during social maturity (a year and a half or so), I'm being pretty proactive with him. Again, I'll write about this soon, but right now he tends to be a bit wary, though it is lessening as he settles in.

That said, he's a confident little bugger. The other night he was up on a wobble board like he'd done it his whole life. Maisy, who has actually been around wobble boards her whole life, just looked at him like he was crazy. He will jump on counters and climb on uneven surfaces. He is so different from Maisy in this way.

He definitely makes me laugh. Although he's kind of physically ugly (a matter of personal preference, I know), I can't help but call him cute when I watch him running around. He's just... wonderful. I adore this little dog, and I'm so very grateful to everyone who cared for him when he was a pup and made it possible for him to come home.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What is an NQ, Really?

Not an embarrassment, nor an effort to humiliate you,
not even an act of stubborn defiance.
An NQ is a tribute to your dog's willingness to try,
and a demonstration of your own character.

Your dog doesn't know or care that there was no score.
This fact may remain in the record forever
but no one will remember when you accept it with grace.
And few humans do that well without practice.

Though an NQ may damage your pride,
through it you can practice humility,
learn to accept defeat with dignity,
and show courage while facing your fears.

An NQ says that you loved spending time with your dog,
that you viewed her as a worthy teammate,
that you believed in her so much
that you wanted to show the world how wonderful she is.

In a world of multi-tasking and shallow interactions,
an NQ shows that you shared a deep connection,
that you gave each other everything you had,
and that your dog is a cherished friend, not an ego stroke..

Because when the day is done and the trial over,
an NQ proves that you accept your dog, flaws and all,
that you respect her efforts, no matter how poor,

and that it is not winning, but love, that matters.

Author's Note: This post was inspired by both What is a Title, Really?, a lovely take on why we do dog sports, and by some appallingly bad sportsmanship I saw last weekend. It is not intended as criticism of the original. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pyg's Past

It all started when I received Pyg's health records from Secondhand Hounds. The precious few sheets I had- those that told me everything I would ever know about his past- were confusing. Dates didn't line up like I thought they should. Some of the info didn't jive with what I'd been told. His supposed breed mix was different on various documents, as was his birthday. He was a mystery.

My friend Nicky advised me to let it go. I would never know about his past, she told me. Let go now and just enjoy the dog in front of you. Sound advice, I know, but... well, I have amazing google-fu. If something exists on the internet, I can almost always find it. And I knew something had to be out there about Pyg.

There was.

On April 30, 2013, Pyg was “rescued from a very neglectful situation” along with his mother, Belle Belle, and his two siblings, Princess Leia and Wookie. Belle Belle was a three-year-old shih tzu (or maybe a shih tzu mix), and the puppies were about three months old. 

Click to embiggen.

The Animal Rescue Foundation in Mobile, Alabama, who took in the dogs, is a no-kill, foster-based rescue. Belle Belle found a home quickly; she was adopted on June 5, 2013. I don't know when Pyg's brother and sister found homes, but I assume it was relatively quickly. Pyg, though... I cannot for the life of me understand why, but he languished in rescue.

Then again, using this as his Petfinder picture probably didn't help. Such an ugly little face.

He was, by all accounts, sweet and friendly, but there just weren't any takers, even after he went to a large event called Adopt-a-Palooza in October. Of course, I am happy this was the case, as Pyg was meant to be my dog. But for that to happen, he needed to travel cross-country from the gulf coast to the frozen wastelands of Minnesota.

Pyg took a plane from south Alabama to north Alabama thanks to an organization called Pilots N Paws. Then, he had a car trip to Chicago, and then another plane ride. I actually found pictures from that first leg of the trip on facebook, and as I read the comments from the volunteers who had lovingly cared for him over the course of six months, I was touched. These women truly cared about the dogs they had selflessly taken in. They cried as Pyg left on his grand adventure. I am so grateful that they took care of him until Pyg and I could find each other.
Leaving on a jet plane! (Is "jet" an overstatement?)

There is still much that remains a mystery about Pyg's past. I assume that he lived in a rather deprived environment during his critical socialization period, an assumption backed up by his occasional fearful behavior and tendency to get overwhelmed by new situations. But at least now I know the rough outline. Oh, and did I mention I dug up some puppy pictures? Yeah, totally did. 

Ew, kid cooties!

Probably around 12 weeks old.

Awww... he was even an ugly puppy. (PS- please don't be offended when I call him ugly! I know lots of people find the underbite endearing, but... I just don't. However, he has an absolutely ADORABLE personality, and I love him to pieces. I am so very happy I adopted him.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dear Maisy

Dear Maisy,

You have been an exemplary dog for nearly 7 years, and I have never before needed to write a letter of warning to you. Even through the worst of your reactivity, we have been able to work out a nice balance of special accomodations and appropriate behavior. However, your behavior today was simply inexcusable.

Now, perhaps you've been feeling a bit ignored lately- after all, we have recently hired a new canine companion who has changed some of the social dynamics here at the Thompson Household. However, I would like to remind you that you did participate in the screening and hiring process of Pyg.

Or, maybe you've heard my comments about how you are "the most expensive dog ever" these past few months. I'd like to point out that this was hyperbole on my part, and not to be taken seriously. In particular, it was not a challenge to which you need to rise.

I will state this as simply as possible: Rat poison is not food. Further, when vomiting is induced following such a dietary indiscretion, the resulting puke is also not food.

Please refrain from eating either of these substances in the future, or I may need to take further action.

CEO of the Thompson Household

Note to blog readers: Maisy is fine. She attempted to eat some rat poison at a neighbor's house this morning. Since I wasn't sure if she actually got some or not, I contacted our vet, who advised us to induce vomiting, which I did. There did not appear to be any poison in her puke, and she's been just fine since then, but still. THIS DOG.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Steve White Seminar: Get To or Got To?

 As a crossover trainer, Steve naturally had some interesting things to say about the comparison between primarily reinforcement-based training and mostly punishment-based training. The cool thing is that he’s not dogmatic about it. As a current K9 cop, he really can’t be. If he gets preachy or holier-than-thou, he’s not going to be able to reach anyone.

He even showed us a few hard-to-watch videos of “training.” He always warned us before he did so (there’s no shame in not wanting to watch someone abusing an animal), but felt it was important that we understand the reality of the world out there.

Despite his willingness to watch and discuss punishment-based methods, he believes that it is not suitable as a teaching tool. People and dogs alike do not learn what to do through punishment; by its very definition, it’s suppressive. Because of that, punishment should only be used as an emergency brake. (It’s not clear to me how much or how often he uses punishment, nor under what circumstances.)

For him, using primarily positive methods comes down to a very simple fact: he wants to work with dogs who believe they get to do things instead of dogs who think they’ve got to. In his opinion (and he stressed that there is no science behind this, just anecdotes), with positive training, you have to put a lot of effort in up front, but down the road things get much easier. In contrast, traditional training starts out fairly easy, but over time, the “got to” component makes it so that the trainer has to work harder and harder. In his estimation, “get to” dogs require about 80% less training over the course of their lifetimes than “got to” dogs.

Interestingly, Steve sees training as a continuum of force. At one end, the traditional end, there is a lot of coercion. The dog has to do things, or else. The trainer uses pain to get compliance. At the other end of that continuum, we have the so-called positive training methods. But even this, Steve said, is inherently manipulative. Think about it: we trainers control access to resources, forcing our dogs to earn things they want. This isn’t necessarily bad, but we do need to acknowledge that our actions are not all sunshine and rainbows.

Despite this, I think it’s so much better to create a dog that gets to work in order to earn what he wants than a dog who’s got to work in order to avoid unpleasant things. The former tends to create dogs who are willing, while the latter can create dogs who perform grudgingly. Steve himself experienced that- he crossed over because he was tired of constantly fighting with his canine partners.

I love my “get to” dog. I may be manipulative, but it’s benevolent manipulation, and I somehow doubt that Maisy experiences it as force. But what do you think?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review: Merrick Hungry Dog Value Pack Dog Chew Treats from Chewy.com

This month, Chewy.com was kind enough to send us the Merrick Hungry DogValue Pack Dog Chew Treats to review. Now, we've reviewed a lot of things for the blog, and we've liked them all well enough, but here's something I really, truly will buy again.

When the box containing these chewies arrived at my office, my first thought was: whoa. Did they run out of normal-sized boxes? Because that box was big. But no. The bag of treats was big, too. In fact, it was 2 pounds, which is a huge amount of treats for less than ten bucks.

Something that cheap, you expect to get junk. It's not, though. I can't claim to know everything that Chewy.com sells, but everything I've seen on their site is good quality. (I wouldn't feed it to my dogs if it wasn't, free or not.) These chewies, for example, are all U.S.-made. None of that scary crap from China!

The Hungry Dog Value Pack is more like a surprise grab bag than a standardized product. When Merrick has an item that's misshappen or too big or too small to sell as part of their standard line, they instead package up all those things as the Value Pack. Consequently, you get some a random mix of odd-sized/shaped items. The pack we received (only half of which is pictured since the rest was eaten before I thought to get the camera out!) included ears, snouts, tails, hooves, and knuckle bones. The reviews on Chewy.com suggests that others have gotten horns or antlers.

My dogs loved these. Like, gobbled them up and begged for more. So I was surprised when I saw several reviews stating that the Value Pack is only suitable for big dogs, or that the items are too big for smaller guys. I mean, I have small dogs. Maisy is 16 pounds and Pyg is 12 or 13. Neither of them had trouble with anything in the bag.

So, two thumbs and eight paws up from our household!

Disclosure notice or whatever: Chewy.com sent me these for free, but didn't tell me what to say. I just really liked these!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Project Gratitude: Helping Typhoon Haiyan Survivors

In September 2013, Maisy became suddenly and critically ill. Our blog readers rallied around us, providing us with the emotional and financial support needed to get through a very stressful time. Although I will never be able to pay everyone back, I can pay it forward through Project Gratitude. Each month, I donate my time or money to a person or organization that needs it. Please email me at reactivechampion(at)gmail(dot)com if you know someone in need.

This month, I donated money to the UN World Food Programme to help survivors of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The pictures of the aftermath are heartbreaking, and the stories on public radio are just heartwrenching. People are desperate for basic things like food and water; they are dying due the lack of medical care. This, on top of the loss of people's homes and family and friends.

I can't even imagine.

There are a number of great organizations doing relief work in the Philippines, and I hope you will consider donating. There are a number of great organizations doing relief work-  find a charity you'd like to support here!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Dog Named Pyg

While waiting for my foster dog to make his way to Minnesota, I began to think about names. I knew it was foolish to name a dog I’d never met and who was supposed to be only temporarily mine, but deep down, I knew he wouldn’t leave.

His rescue name was Han Solo. Now, as much as I love that character in Star Wars, it’s a bit of a mouthful for a dog. I thought about what I wanted in a name. Something with two syllables, but that can be easily shortened to one. I prefer names that sound in an “ee” sound, but Maisy isn’t very good at verbal discriminations, so I decided to avoid that. I also decided to avoid anything starting with M or with an “ay” sound in it. A shortened version needed to both be distinct from “Maze” and not sound dumb.

I began making a list. Wanting to keep with the Star Wars theme, I initially thought that perhaps Jedi would be a nice name. That was what my boyfriend and I called him during the week we waited for him to arrive, but I also kept a list of names I liked. I’ve since lost the list, but among the names I remember are Pilot, Flyer, Carbon, Ewok, Wicket, Crumpett, and (awful best friend’s contribution) Pollo.

When I picked him up, I took one look at his so-ugly-it’s-cute face and said, “This is not a Jedi.” He did, however, look an awful lot like an Ewok, that helpful alien race in Star Wars, so that’s what I called him… except it didn’t stick.

This is not unusual for me. At the risk of sounding a bit new age-y, my pets often choose their own names. Maisy was just Maisy, right from the start. My ex-husband’s cat originally had a different name, but one day we suddenly started calling him Malcolm. It just fit.

And so, when I started calling the new pup in my house Pyg, I knew that was his name. I originally thought it would be short for “Pygmy,” but it’s not. It’s just Pyg. I’m sure this is not the exciting tale some of you were hoping for- I know there’s been some excitement about learning the logic behind his name- but there you go. His name is Pyg.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Steve White Seminar: Training to the Power of Three

Steve is big on what he calls “Training Triads,” which are teams of three people per dog. This might sound like overkill at first, but he thinks it’s valuable to have so many sets of eyes on the dog. No one person can see everything, and after experiencing training triads, I agree that it’s a valuable experience. All of our working sessions took place in triads, and each person on the team had a specific role.

The trainer is the person who works directly with the dog. They do the hands-on implementation of the training plan. Their most important job is to be fully present. They should not try to talk and train at the same time as multitasking does not truly exist. What we think of as multitasking is actually rapid task switching; most of us are not good enough to do this while working with an animal.

The coach works with the trainer. They help facilitate the design and execution of the training plan. After the training session, they provide either affirming feedback (that looked great!) or adjusting feedback (this time, let’s change this…). The most important thing the coach does is nail down the specifics of the training plan; exactly what the criteria are, the number of reps, the amount of distance, etc.

The observer probably has the hardest job because they work with the coach. They watch the interactions between trainer and coach and help clarify miscommunication. The do not provide any dog training advice except when necessary to prevent a complete train wreck. This is so hard! Before each training session, the coach and observer clearly state to one another what they are about to see the trainer do.

Roles should be traded regularly, and done so in a manner that everyone performs each role in relation to one another. In other words, both of the trainer’s teammates should act as the coach at some point.

Training sessions are structured as pre-brief, be brief, and debrief periods. During the pre-brief, the trainer and coach create the plan and define criteria. The training phase should be brief; Steve recommended a maximum of 60 seconds or five reps, etc. During the debrief, the coach and trainer discuss if the plan worked, and how to change things for the next rep. This naturally leads into the next pre-brief.

Before we ever brought our dogs out, Steve insisted that we work on our mechanical skills. During the first round of doing the triad, I worked on treat delivery in heel position. My teammates refined hand signals and heeling footwork. Only after we had done this were we allowed to bring our dogs out to train. It really made a difference.

In fact, I was so impressed with this that I’ve decided to change the way I teach Growl Class (reactive dog class). Currently, the class is structured so that the first week is held with people only- no dogs. We do a LOT of talking, and while I think there is a lot of value in that, I think we could use that time better. Two things that I see my students struggling with, especially during the first week with dogs, is mat relaxation with slow treats and the humans continuing to breathe! Although we manage things well, the dogs are amped up the first week, which makes the humans tense.

Each week, we have people come in and set up their stations first, and then bring in their dogs. I’m thinking that it might be nice to have a little human-session before dogs come in (weather permitting, of course). Otherwise, the use of crates or second handlers might be helpful… it will be interesting to play with these concepts and see if they help my students be more successful sooner.

Do you use training partners? How have you done it? What about practicing mechanical skills separately? Is that something you’ve done? I’d love to hear about your experiences with either of these things.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Search for Pet Insurance

I was hesitant to adopt my foster dog because of the timing. Well, that, and money. Let’s be honest: Maisy’s vet bills in September alone topped $7000, an amount that would have been out of my reach had you guys not helped me. Your donations made it possible for me to pay for her care. Even so, things have been tight, so getting another dog… well, not only did it feel irresponsible fiscally, but I was also concerned ya’ll would think I was taking advantage of your kindness, or that you’d think I didn’t really need the help.

(Ed. Note: In the time between when I wrote this and when it got posted- often a delay because I don't have internet service at home and have to go to the library, and because I schedule several posts at once- someone did indeed raise this concern. Please know that I examined my finances very closely before I even agreed to foster. Although $7000 in one go was not affordable, the day to day expenses of a second dog is with a few modifications to my budget.)

Regardless of whether or not it was a good idea, Pyg is here to stay. With that decision made, I decided that I needed to protect myself from huge vet bills again in the future. I needed pet insurance. Getting it for Maisy is pointless; she has a pre-existing condition on practically every body system there is. But Pyg doesn’t.

I started my search by asking ya’ll on Facebook which company you use. I got four answers: Trupanion, Healthy Paws, Embrace, and PetPlan. I called around for quotes, and quickly got overwhelmed. Deductibles, limits, exclusions, co-insurance, on and on.

I did some internet research to learn about my options. I decided there were a few things I absolutely wanted: a plan that covered the vet exam fee (some don’t, surprisingly enough, and that was a pretty big portion of Maisy’s care!), prescription drugs, payment based on the actual vet bill, not a schedule, and specialist consults (including a veterinary behaviorist, which I sincerely hope I do not need). I also looked at whether the deductible was per year or per incident, what the annual and lifetime maxes were, and whether or not complementary/alternative approaches (including PT/rehab) were covered.

I chose PetPlan, largely because the premium vs. benefit schedule worked out best in my favor. Of course, the next step was to choose my coverage level. I chose the Gold Plan, which has the highest annual coverage (it covers up to $22,000/year). Then, because I’m a dork who loves charts, I used the calculator on their website to figure out how much of the bill would be covered if the bill was $500, $1000, or $5000 and based on the size of the deductible ($50, $100, or $200) and the reimbursement rate (80%, 90%, or 100%). Here, maybe this will help explain what I mean:

Next, I got a quote for each of those combinations. They ranged from about $18/mo to $43/mo. I didn’t want to pay more than $20 to $25/mo, which narrowed my options quite a bit. Then I looked at that first chart and decided that at that price range, I would get the best coverage with a $200 deductible with a 100% reimbursement rate. This is honestly not what I was expecting to choose, so I’m glad that I made the chart!

Now, is this the right coverage level and premium amount for you? I don’t know. I also don’t know if this is the right company for you either, but I’m hoping that by sharing my decision making process, you will be able to make decisions about what you need and want.

Finally, I just want to say that I loved working with Fabrice over at PetPlan. I asked him a ton of questions, and took up a lot of his time. He was patient with me, and explained everything in great detail. I can honestly say that the customer service I received from was amazing. (If you decide to use PetPlan, you should call him. He’s extension 2411.) And no, PetPlan did not pay me to say this. I just had a great experience.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

When Maisy Met Pyggy

I picked up Pyg- my first foster dog (and first foster fail)- from the rescue late in the afternoon on Monday, October 28. I loved him from the moment I set eyes on him. He was trotting around the rescue office with another dog. I said hi to him, and he was happy to come over for some treats. He seemed calm and friendly, and given what had happened to him in his short life, I was impressed.

Pyg came to me through Second Hand Hounds, a rescue based here in the Twin Cities metro. They got Pyg from a (high-kill?) shelter in Mobile, AL. They sent his vet records with him, which indicated his birth date as January 31, 2013, making him 9 months old. Those records had him down as a cairn terrier/yorkie mix, but I have no idea if that was a “best guess” or if they knew something. Second Hand Hounds thought he might be a yorkie/shih tzu mix. Personally, I think he’s a Midwest Muppet Dog, like Maisy. Damned if I know what he was doing down south.

His records showed that he was neutered at 15 weeks old. I was told this meant he’d been adopted, as the shelter doesn’t spay/neuter until the dog has found a home. Makes sense; why subject a dog to a surgical procedure or waste veterinary resources for a dog who will be euthanized?

At some point in the not-so-distant past, Pyg was returned to the shelter. We don’t know why. I think this question will plague me forever, as I simply cannot figure out why anyone would give him up. He’s wonderful, and someone had obviously done some training with him in the past.

At any rate, Pyg became part of the Second Hand Hounds family, so on the Saturday before I met him, he got on a small commuter airplane and flew from the southern part of Alabama to the northern part. He then got in the car and was driven up to Chicago. I don’t know where he stayed on Saturday night; somewhere along the way, I suppose. I know he spent Sunday night in Chicago, and that he took a second small plane from Chicago to a (small) local airport. I met him a few hours later, put him into one more car, and took him home.

Because I knew that I wanted Pyg to be my dog, and not just my foster dog, I created a plan for introducing him into the household that would give us the best chance for harmonious relationships. The first step was to leave him in the car while I went inside to shut Maisy, my cat Nicky, and my doggie houseguest Maus into separate rooms. After a quick potty break, I brought Pyg up and let him explore his new digs.

I ended up integrating the animals much quicker than I had anticipated. Once he had the lay of the land, I put Maisy behind a baby gate so they could see each other. Both were clearly interested in the other, and so after an hour or so, I let them meet. (I later did the same thing for the cat- who was indifferent- and Maus, who has a rotating foster in his home and therefore was all like “yeah, whatever.”)

Not just interested in each other, but Pyg and Maisy adore one another. Maisy has solicited play from Pyg on numerous occasions, including that first night. It is pretty rare for her to want to play with another dog- she tends to be a parallel-player instead. If she plays with another dog, it’s usually chase games. With Pyg, though, she will wrestle, something that she’s done like once or twice before. Uninterested in tug games, she’s begun to parade around with toys, try to lure Pyg into grabbing an end of it. It’s adorable.

Pyg was interested in Nicky-cat, but for the most part has respected his space. Nicky just ignores Pyg, although if he gets too close and/or obnoxious, Pyg will get a swipe across the face from a fully-clawed paw. This doesn’t happen too often, because I can usually call Pyg away (seriously… this dog is amazing).

He loves to train, and will work for his meals. He’s got a good grasp on impulse control, and knows to sit when he wants something. He’s potty trained, especially if I take him out on a schedule, but he has asked to go out a few times.

He’s incredibly personable. He’s very sweet and a big cuddler. This is a nice switch from Maisy, who has never been big on being touched. She does now curl up near me, but only on her terms. Pyg just wants to be with people (and especially me). He also makes me laugh and laugh. He’s just so dang cute with his puppy antics. For example, the first night he was with me, he found an empty cat food can and decided it was the best toy ever.

Oh, and did I mention that The Pyg has an off-switch? Yeah, it’s bizarre. Not only can he occupy himself by finding an (appropriate) chew item like a Kong or a Nylabone, but he will also just settle down and take naps, too. On Saturday, Pyg was napping on the couch, and Maisy jumped up to join him. So adorable.

All in all, Pyg is an awesome little dog, and I knew I couldn’t let him slip through my fingers. In the week and change that Pyg has lived in my home, he’s begun to shine. Of course, I know that when dogs arrive in new homes it can take weeks or even months for their full personalities to express themselves, so I’m excited to get to know him better.

He’s not perfect, though. There are a few little things that may be issues, or they may not be. Only time will tell. For now, I’m working on mitigating or preventing those things. I’ll tell you about them soon. In the meantime, have some bonus videos. Both are from Pyg's first night with me.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Deal Breakers and Desires

In the week leading up to Pyg’s arrival, knowing that I was hoping to foster fail, I made a list of things I really hoped he had/was, as well as a list of things I just didn’t want. I’m really glad I did, because once he arrived, all those pesky hormones kicked in and decided I didn’t care what he was like. I wanted him.

Doggie Deal Breakers
First up: a list of things that would mean no way, no how. I had thought about this, but friend Sara encouraged me to be specific so I went back and redid my list. Then I asked my Facebook friends what would be on their list, which was a good idea. They said things that I hadn’t thought of, but that I didn’t want in a dog. They also listed a few things that, while I didn’t exactly want to deal with, I would be okay with.

Here’s my list:

Cat Aggression
My cat is 13 years old. He has arthritis, and has had some bladder stones and blockages. And, frankly, he was here first. Cat aggression is a no-go in my household. I decided that it was okay if the dog was interested in the cat, but he couldn’t be obsessed. In other words, I needed to be able to redirect him to something else. Cat chasing would not be tolerated. And while I expected that my cat might hide for a day or two, if he was still hiding after a week or two, that would be a deal breaker.

Maisy-Directed Aggression
You’ll notice this doesn’t say “dog aggression,” and for good reason: I’m actually okay with some dog aggression (ie, reactivity). Occasional snarks and disagreements are fine, but they should be mild and rare, and if Maisy is looking bothered by him, I should be able to redirect him. I am also not willing to crate and rotate. My dogs need to get along without excessive management. Some management, yes (eating in separate areas, for example), but not to the point that only one dog can be out at a time.

Human Aggression 
Again, a bit of reactivity is okay; growl to your heart’s content, little dog. But I do not want a dog that bites people unless seriously provoked. Teeth on skin while pissed off or scared is just not something I want to do. I also wrote that play biting, while not aggression, is acceptable as long as there is some decent bite inhibition with it.

Untreated, Chronic, or Expensive Medical Conditions
I just don’t have the money right now. Of course, emergencies can happen (see: September), making this about the dumbest time ever to adopt another dog, but… yeah. Trying to stack the deck in my favor, you know? I included clinical anxiety here because I just can’t afford to see a vet behaviorist right now. This also includes awful structure. I don’t need a conformation-worthy dog, but I do need one that’s going to be more-or-less sound. This kind of goes back to the “money is tight” thing. Maisy needs regular and ongoing chiropractic and massage to stay sound, and I just do not want to do that again. Plus, I want a hiking buddy, because I think Maisy’s backpacking trips may be limited…

Separation Anxiety
I work full-time. I live in a shared space. I just cannot accommodate a dog who can’t be alone. Not only is it unfair to a dog to be so anxious that he vocalizes all day, but it’s also unfair to my downstairs neighbors. I decided that I was okay with some mild separation distress as long as it improved within a week or two. I also decided the dog needed to be able to be confined (x-pen, bathroom, crate, whatever) without destroying things.

Desires and Dreams
I also made a list of things that I really hoped my new dog would have. Not that the foster dog would have to have any/all of these, but hey. It would sweeten the pot. This list is long, but not as detailed:

Has Easily Identified Motivators
Ideally, the dog would be willing to work for both food and toys, and specifically a tug toy.

Pre-Installed Off-Switch
HAHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAAHHAHAHAHAAHAH. The foster dog I was waiting for was an adolescent terrier-mix. My friends and I had a good laugh at this one.

I wasn’t really sure what this meant, other than the fact that I wanted a dog with tons of personality and able to make me laugh.

No Reactivity
I could deal with it, but I’d prefer not to.

Should Be Friendly, But Not Obnoxiously So
Honestly, friendly with other people and dogs is fine, but not to the point of losing-his-damn-mind, you know?

Low Grooming Needs
A bath once in awhile, nail clipping, and brushing him once a month or so is fine. Daily grooming and/or needing to go to a professional groomer regularly is not. Yes, this means he will probably shed. Yes, I’m perfectly fine with this.

Okay in the Car
Excessive fear just makes it hard to take a dog somewhere. And I like to go places with my dog.

Some independence is okay and even desirable, but dangit, I want a dog who is interested in working with me (or at least, working me for my cookies). Maisy is insanely biddable and I love it.

Obviously Pyg passed the test, but I wasn’t sure he would at first… Soon I’ll tell you about who he is and how he measured up.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Happy Gotcha Day, Pyg!

It's official: we foster failed! I signed the paperwork tonight. Pyg has found his forever home.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Steve White Seminar: The J-Curve of Change

I absolutely loved the slide Steve showed us of the J-Curve of Change. So much so that even though it was only one, single powerpoint slide, I’m making it into an entire post. It is not an idea unique to Steve; a quick google search will show it being used to explain everything from the economy to political change to psychological progress. Still, it’s an amazing way to explain dog training skills of both the people and the dogs.

Simply put, the J-Curve of Change shows that any time there is a change, there is a natural dip in progress. Here’s a great graphic I found on this website (and then modified slightly to remove confusing bits) that helps illustrate the concept:

Before you start something new, such as a person crossing over to more positive methods, there is a certain level of mastery. You might be getting results you like using a prong collar. When you step out of your comfort zone to try something new- in this case, clicker training- there is often a decline in performance. Steve attributes this to the intense concentration needed to learn new skills. All that thinking often makes it hard to be successful.

Since we expect that progress will go up, not down, we often give up at the deepest part of the J-Curve. This happens either because we don’t believe in the method, or because we begin to assign harmful labels to ourselves or the process (“I’m stupid,” for example). This really is unfortunate as recovery and improvement will happen if the new procedure is better and if we stick with it. Steve recommended that we have a coach that can help us maintain faith in the change and encourage us to keep moving forward.

I definitely think this is something I see with my students who are working on reactivity. Not only is the dog learning new skills, but the handler is, too. I sometimes hear people say in the first few weeks of class that their dog is getting worse. Of course, by the end of the class, they have both made so much progress! I’m really excited to have a way to explain this to my students.

I also really appreciate that Steve showed us the J-Curve of Change before we started working dogs. “Failing” was seen not only as useful information, but also as an expected part of the seminar! Well, then! No pressure on us to be shining stars. I really felt like I could learn without worrying about judgment.

But what do you think of the J-Curve of Change? Is it something you’ve seen in your life, either in dog training or not? I’d love to hear some examples of how others have experienced it!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Our First Foster (Fail)

For several years now, my Facebook friends have played this game where they post pictures of cute dogs to my wall. I have seen some mighty cute dogs, so when this little guy showed up in my feed one Monday morning, I commented "zomg cute" like I usually do, and then went on with my week.

His name was Han Solo, and he was coming into Secondhand Hounds, a local rescue. He needed a foster home, but I dismissed the idea immediately; the timing was terrible. Not only had Maisy just recently started feeling better, but her vet care had completely drained me financially. Add to that the fact that my friend Laura was going on a two-week vacation, leaving me in charge of her dog Maus. One doggie acquaintance and one doggie stranger at the same time? I'm not that dumb.

I'm really not sure why, but I kept going back to this dog. Now, it wasn't just his adorable scruffiness- like I said, my friends have been playing the "post muppety dogs to Crystal's Facebook" for awhile now. There was just something in his expression. 

I don't really remember why, but that Thursday, I was telling my friend Nicky about him over lunch. Of course she encouraged me to foster him. I figured that something so cute was probably already spoken for, but I went back to that original Facebook thread and asked if he had a place to go when he arrived.

He didn't.

I filled out the foster application, clearly noting that if he got along with Maisy and my cat, I would probably become a foster failure rather than a foster home. I anxiously waited for them to check my references and contact my landlord, but soon enough I was approved to foster.

If I thought waiting for that was hard, waiting for him to arrive was even harder. Originally scheduled to arrive on Sunday, he actually ended up getting here eight days later. It was nerve wracking. I was so scared it was going to fall through.

In the end, it was probably a good thing; it gave me time to thoughtfully make some lists of what I wanted- and didn't!- in a dog. At the encouragement of my bestie, Sara, I was very, very specific. What exactly did it mean to be cat aggressive? Precisely how much reactivity was I willing to work with?

He's lived with us for about 72 hours now, and I'm 99.99% sure that I will be adopting him. I'm going to wait another week or so, just to make sure nothing awful pops up, but other than the fact that he's an adolescent terrier-mix, he's pretty awesome.

I know you probably have some questions- about the "foster" dog, about how Maisy is doing, what was on my lists- and I'll update you as I can. But I'll admit, this dog has way, way more energy than Maisy does, and I'm exhausted!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Steve White Seminar: Dog Training is Like Mapquest

Dog training, Steve told us, is like MapQuest. There are really only two things you need to know: where you are now, and where you want to go.

It’s important to know where you are because if you don’t, you might just go in the wrong direction. While a dog’s past can give you some insight into his behavior, it can also color your perceptions. It’s important to know where your dog really is, not where you think he is.

This is why baselining is so important. It gives you an objective way to know where you and your dog currently are. For each training task that a dog/person team worked on, we took a baseline. We found that Steve was right when he said the easiest way to get a useful baseline was by doing one rep of the behavior. This one rep could be done cold or it could be done after the dog was warmed up with other behaviors. Either way, we would quickly know where the dog was.

We used a really cool chart, which I have recreated in Excel for illustrative purposes, to take the baseline:

As you can see, this actually measures six different components of that single repetition of the behavior. The first three have to do with the fluency of the behavior. (Fluency means that the dog can perform without thought. However, this may only happen in a single environment or with a particular person.) Accuracy refers to what the behavior looks like. Did the dog do the behavior correctly? Latency means how quickly your dog responds to the cue. Speed/Intensity refers to, well, how fast or intense the behavior is.

The next three have to do with generalization. (Generalization is when the behavior is fluent in any environment with any person, and despite competing environmental demands.) Is the dog able to do it with duration? From a distance? When there are distractions?

For each component, you choose whether the dog’s response was unacceptable, needs improvement, met the standard you set, exceeded expectations, or was considered excellent. If your dog scores all 3s or above, then you can increase criteria.

The really tricky part of baselining is making sure that you are very clear in what you’re looking at. A sit is not just a sit. To one person, a sit may mean that the dog’s butt hits the ground within 5 seconds or so. To another, a sit may been that the dog’s elbows are straight and the hips square, that the dog did a tuck sit (where the back legs come under him rather than the dog rocking backwards into the sit), that the response happens within a second of being cues with a single verbal cue, and that the dog remains in the sit until told otherwise.

Pretty big difference in those two descriptions, isn’t there? During the working sessions, we spent a lot of time nailing down exactly what we were looking at. I was sometimes surprised to discover that I envisioned the behavior looking completely different from the way my teammates had envisioned it. We got quite good at describing what we were about to do very clearly: I am going to stand in front of my dog while she’s standing at a distance of 3 feet, then give her a single hand signal to sit. I expect that her but will be on the ground within 2 seconds; I don’t care what the sit looks like.

This might seem picky and pedantic, but not only will it help you get an accurate baseline, it’s also important to do this when you start your training sessions. Remember, part of MapQuest is both knowing where you currently are and knowing where you want to go. Just as there is a big difference between Madison, Wisconsin and Madison, South Dakota, there is a big difference between a competition sit and a puppy sit.

Now, I’ll be honest. All of this seems like a lot of work. I probably won’t be busting out the forms any time in the future. I’ve tried record keeping in the past and honestly, I’m just lazy. But I do want to play with the idea of a single-rep baseline and I will definitely be better about articulating my criteria before I start training.

What about you? Will you incorporate any of this information in your training?