Wednesday, July 31, 2013

ARCH Maisy!

We did it! Maisy got her ARCH this weekend! This has been a long-term goal of mine, and one that I had feared would be unattainable. And yet… we did it!

The ARCH is a multi-level APDT/WCRL rally obedience championship title. In order to earn the ARCH, you must first earn the level 1 and level 2 titles. Then you must earn a Q in both level 1 and level 2 at the same trial. Each Q must have a score of 190 or higher. And you need to do this 5 times. While you are doing this, you have to earn points; you get 1 point for a score of 191, 2 points for a score of 192, and so on. You need 100 points, 30 from level 1, 30 from level 2, and the remainder from either class.

And we did it!

For a long time, I didn’t think it would be possible because getting the double-Q means you are at a trial for a long-ish period of time. In 2010, Maisy’s limit was about 2 hours; not enough time to earn the QQs. I finally pulled her from competition because she was getting worse at trials (behavior-wise, I mean; her scores were always decent), not better. We didn’t return to APDT rally until April of this year when we earned 2 QQs towards the ARCH.

I was hoping- but not expecting- to earn the ARCH on Saturday. To do so would require doing six rally runs for 3 QQs, and doing them well. It would require Maisy to do what I told her, and for me to cue her correctly. Oh, and I had to actually, you know, do all the signs (I seem to have a harder time with that than I should!).

But we did it!

It was a long day. We got to the trial site around 7:30am, and didn’t leave until 4:30 or so. After earning her first perfect 210 in the first run of the day (which yay!), her scores steadily went downhill. By the end of the day, she was T-I-R-E-D despite the naps she was able to take in the car between runs (it was mid-60s, a serious stroke of good luck for a July trial!). In fact, she was so tired that as we approached the sixth, and last, run of the day, I was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to score high enough in order to finish her ARCH.
Best. Scoresheet. Ever. 

So I got out a secret weapon: sugar. There have been some recent studies showing that performance improves when a dog gets a glucose boost, so I went for it. I emptied two sugar packets into my hands, and she ate those suckers up. Fifteen minutes later we were back in the ring and…

We did it! A score of 206 (her second best of the day!), and her ARCH.

The final tally was six runs, scores ranging between 194 and 210, four 2nd places, one 3rd place, one 4th place, her ARCH, and she was the high-scoring mixed breed for the day! I am so, so, so, so proud of her.

Also, I'm bringing jelly beans instead of dog treats to trials from now on.  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Kathy Sdao Seminar: So Many Choices!

As trainers, we make lots of choices. We talk a lot about what behaviors we want to teach, and how we are going to get those behaviors. We talk about our criteria, when to raise it, and the best way to set a dog up for success. We talk about how often and how long we should train. We talk about whether or not we will choose to use punishment at any point in this process.

What we often overlook, though, is that we aren’t the only one making choices. There are two living, thinking beings involved in training, and it’s important to realize that our dogs have “agency.” This means that they have the ability to act independently and make their own choices. In fact, our dogs encounter dozens of “choice points” every day, and Kathy argues that we should not prevent them from making decisions when they arise. If we do, our dogs might become overly dependent on us, or worse yet, they might learn that their behavior doesn’t make a difference in the world, which can lead to anxiety or learned helplessness.

I let Maisy decide to explore this tree branch.
So we need to let our dogs make decisions. Because they live in a human world, most of us will train our dogs so that they make decisions we like. This is really fairly simple; all we need to do is notice when our dogs make choices and reinforce the ones we like. As Kathy pointed out, we have to feed our dogs anyway, so we might as well take advantage of it! Even better, Kathy urged us to become “choice architects.” This fun term means that finding clever ways to get our dogs to choose the option we want.

Choice architects typically manipulate the environment so that when a dog comes to a “choice point”- a situation in which the trainer will allow him to make a decision- he makes the correct decision. Sometimes this is done by making the behavior that the dog prefers (and that trainer dislikes) harder for him to do. Sometimes it’s done by making the choice that the trainer would prefer easier for the dog. Often, it’s best to do a combination of these; using just the first choice is often inefficient or unsuccessful.

A choice architect will set things up so that when the dog comes to a choice point between a good choice and a bad one, the bad one is harder to engage in than the good one is. A really good choice architect will not only create this situation, but also pay close attention to the dog and reinforce him as frequently and generously as possible when he makes a good decision.

This is different from management; we aren’t preventing bad behavior. Management effectively takes the choice away from the dog so that the trainer is the only one making decisions. And while it’s important to allow dogs to learn that their choices and their behavior matters, management does have a place in training.

For example, untreated, my dog’s anxiety and reactivity could have become dangerous; she threatened to bite children on several occasions. I used management to prevent her from doing so. At the same time, I set up very controlled situations (read: safe) so that Maisy could learn to make good decisions when she was feeling scared or anxious.

Over the years, Maisy has gone from heavily managed to being allowed to make many decisions on her own. Because I built these new skills up slowly, gradually generalizing them to more and more difficult situations, she was able to develop confidence her in ability to make good decisions. These days, I allow her a lot of latitude; I will ask if she wants to meet someone or not, which direction she wants to go on walks, and what she wants to eat at mealtimes. I am a choice architect.

But I’m getting off-topic. Kathy was talking about training in general, not the specifics of working with reactive dogs. That’s just my area of interest! Anyway, reactive or not, how do you act as a choice architect? What do you do to make the behaviors you want from your dog the most attractive option?  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

In Which Maisy is a Real Dog Now

While many of my friends suffer from collar addictions (friend Laura actually strung all of hers together in some sort of strange streamer and decorated with hers last summer. It was AWESOME), I don’t. Don’t get me wrong- I could, it’s just that you really can’t see them on Maisy, what with all the fur. In fact, my friend Sara (jokingly) says that dogs don’t become Real Dogs until they have a fancy collar. Poor Maisy; at six years old, she’s never had a collar that cost more than $10. And they’ve all come from PetSmart.

Until now. That’s right, Maisy is now the proud owner of a Paco Collar. Better yet, I got to design it. Did you know that Paco does collar-making classes? Because they totally do, and it’s totally fun. Bianca from Paco was in-town-ish (two hour drive away), and taught us how to bling out our collars. It was surprisingly easy, and very, very fun. And I love the result!

Maisy came with to the class. Despite the presence of strangers (people and one other dog), she was sweet, friendly, and relaxed. She even took a nap during class! This was absolutely amazing because apparently collar making requires a lot of loud pounding. Long-term readers will know what a big deal this is; historically she’s been afraid of both loud noises and new situations. Now, she’s all like, “I got this, mom.”

I am incredibly grateful I got this opportunity. I almost didn’t go (ugh, money), but at the last minute, things came together so I could. I don’t know who made it possible for me to go, but I’m so glad I got to! I love, love, love the collar.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

T-Minus 7 Weeks!

In less than seven weeks, the fall testing period for the CPDT-KA exam starts. I have signed up to take the exam, and based on feedback from my Facebook friends, a lot of you are, too. Because so many of us are in the same boat, I thought I’d post about what I’m studying each week so we can share resources and thoughts!

Here’s my study schedule so far:

Week 1 and 2: Instruction Skills 32%
This week and next week, I’ll be reviewing instruction skills. 32% of the exam will be on this. According to the official study objectives, this includes interpersonal skills, teaching skills, and managing the training environment. As a social worker, I’m pretty confident in this area; my people skills are excellent.

Week 3 and 4: Learning Theory 32%
This section of the exam covers reinforcement, punishment, operant and classical conditioning, cues, management, and training problems. I’m confident that I could do this section in my sleep, but even so, I’m going to review for it!

Weeks 5 and 6: Ethology 20%
Another section I feel pretty good about, it covers domestication, development, and body language. I will definitely brush up on the development portion, but I think I’ll be fine here.

Week 7: Equipment 7%, Husbandry 6%, Business Practices and Ethics 3%
These are probably my weaker areas, so thank goodness they are also the smaller portion of the test.

My main study plan is to read the book Coaching People to Train Their Dogs, by Terry Ryan. Rumor has it that the test runs pretty close to the book. If I have time, I will also read (or re-read, as the case may be) Excel-erated Learning, by Pam Reid, and Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution, by the Coppingers, plus whatever else is on my bookshelf that looks useful.

If you’re taking the exam, give me a holler! Let’s share study tips in the comment section. I’m going to try to check in each Friday about what I’ve studied so far.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Kathy Sdao Seminar: Introduction/Outside the Seminar

Author’s Note: This post was written shortly after I attended the seminar. I knew I could wait until later to write about the content of the seminar because I take excellent notes, but because this post is about how Maisy did while we were there, I wrote it right away because I wanted to be sure I remembered all the details. Maisy has blossomed over the last year, so some of the things that I was amazed by back then are things I take for granted now! Still… this was an important step in our journey, so while it’s much belated, I want to preserve it.

In October, I saw Kathy Sdao for the third time (assuming you count the sessions at Clicker Expo as one). This meant that much of what she presented was review for me, so I probably won’t post as comprehensively as a result. But even if I’d heard it before, I had a great time anyway. She is such an amazing, energetic, intelligent, dynamic speaker that I think I could listen to her read from the phone book and still enjoy it.

This time was even more exciting because Maisy and I had a working spot. I was very excited for Maisy to meet Kathy (although Maisy seemed to prefer Dorothy Turley, Kathy’s assistant. Seriously, Dorothy took this picture of Kathy, Maisy, and I. It didn’t turn out well because Maisy was so squirmy, trying to get to Dorothy).

Because the seminar was held in Urbandale, Iowa, a five hour drive away, today I'm going to tell you about our traveling experiences, as well as how Maisy handled the whole thing in general. While this isn't technically about the seminar, I'm so proud of her that I just have to share.

We left just before noon on Friday afternoon because I have an Iowan friend whose house was on the way that I wanted to visit. Maisy and I spent about two hours with my friend and her 11-year-old daughter who decided Maisy was the best thing ever. Which means that Maisy spent two hours repeating the same three or four behaviors over and over and over and over again... for like five Cheerios total.

I watched Maisy pretty closely, and she was surprisingly happy throughout the visit. I did enforce a few breaks even though Maisy didn't really seem to need them. It just seemed prudent. Maisy was relaxed and responsive the entire time, which is a far cry from the dog who threatened to bite kids a few years ago. Like I said: proud.

We drove down to our hotel, checked in, and then found a park to walk in. We were surprised by an off-leash dog, and Maisy just wiggled at it, excited to say hello. Seriously? Who is this dog? Note: Ha. This behavior has become very typical of Maisy. It doesn’t surprise me at all anymore.

At the hotel that first night, Maisy barked once at the door. I decided to give her some clonidine, but I don't think she really needed it. Honestly, she did a lovely job handling all the strange noises (including another dog down the hall that barked all night long), and slept through the night soundly.

The seminar was a bit more difficult. I'd guess that there were around fifteen working teams, and probably thirty or forty people there in all. We were supposed to crate at our training stations, but I set Maisy's crate up next to me in the seating area so I could keep an eye on her. There were a few dogs who might have benefited from something similar; one barked quite frequently throughout the day- when people walked past, or there was a loud noise- in turn setting off nearby dogs.

Despite all the noise, Maisy settled in and ate her trachea treat (she won't eat chewies if she's too stressed), and then stretched out on her side and fell asleep. That's right: she slept in her crate at a dog event. I don't think that had ever happened before. Yeah, I was proud.

Still, it did take its toll on her, and she did a small bark and hop (not really a lunge, but not nothing, either) at a Golden at lunch, and later in the afternoon, growled and lunged at an adorable prick-eared dog. Although I found this disappointing, I was able to quickly redirect her back to the task at hand.

That night at the hotel was a bit more difficult; she probably barked a total of three or four times. Most were in the evening, but one was in the middle of the night. Still, she did sleep quite well. Interestingly, during the most difficult part of the evening, she chose to sleep in the bathroom away from me, returning after she had rested up to spend the rest of the night closely pressed up to me. Note: I’ve noticed this trend over and over again since. When Maisy has had a hard day, she needs space to decompress. It’s been a great way for me to gauge if I’ve pushed her too hard.

Sunday at the seminar was surprisingly good. She was quite clear that she needed to be crated in the car instead of the building (she couldn't chew or rest inside but could in the car). Still, she was eager and happy to come in to work, and didn't have any reactivity during the day. It probably helped that Sunday's training task was easier for us both, meaning that my attitude was more upbeat. Maisy feeds off emotional energy from me like crazy. Note: Okay, yes, I was frustrated during the Saturday training task, but I think there was more to it. My close friends will know what I mean when I say that this is about the same time that the fall started to get hard for me. For everyone else, suffice it to say that getting divorced is emotionally hard. Maisy reacted to that.

We drove home that night, arriving home around 10pm. Although I worried that she'd have difficulty settling in, she really didn't. She barked once, and then slept solidly until 10am the next morning, when I forced her to go out for a walk (which was really more of a stagger). I didn't see any residual stress, which is so different from the days where she needed five days to recover. Of course, I kept things low-key for several days anyway.

So she wasn't perfect, but I was so proud of how well she did. It was a really difficult situation for her to adjust to, and she did a really lovely job. Maisy will never be a “normal” dog, but she fakes it pretty well. Note: Ha. I pretty much think of her as normal now. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Shameless Self-Promotion

I’ve never done this before (this being promoting my classes; I’ve been teaching classes for reactive dogs for two years now), but I’ve had some emails lately from local folks wondering about when and where I teach. So, if you’re from the Minneapolis area, read on. If not, you should move. Our winters are awesome!

I teach for Paws Abilities Dog Training. While the main location is in the Rochester area, I teach in the Twin Cities, and I have some classes starting up here in a few weeks. The schedule is here. I teach two different classes: Growl (levels 1 and 2) and Agility Unleashed (levels 1 and 2). Both classes are taught with two instructors. This time around it will be me and the awesome and amazing Laura.

Here’s a quick run down on each class:

Growl Class
This class is limited to four students, which means we have one trainer for every two students. This class is designed primarily for dogs reactive to other dogs. If your dog is also reactive to people shoot me an email at reactivechampion(at)gmail(dot)com and we can chat about whether or not the class can be set up to meet your dog’s needs.

Level 1 teaches the basic skills you will need to help your dog survive the scary world. Many of these exercises are taken from the book Control Unleashed, but the curriculum does vary slightly based on the dogs that show up in class. No previous training experience is needed. We use barriers to help keep dogs under threshold, and generally speaking, dogs will not see each other until the last few weeks of class- if at all.

Level 2 builds on the skills learned in level 1, and includes more systematic exposure to the other dogs. By the end of the level 2 class, the dogs are usually working parallel to one another.

Agility Unleashed
This class is limited to six students, again with 2 instructors, for a 1 to 3 ratio. This class is meant for dogs who can look at other dogs without immediately going over threshold but who struggle with the increased motion or chaos often seen in agility (or obedience!) trials and classes. It’s also great for dogs who are easily stressed around other dogs and need to build up more confidence in a structured format.

Agility Unleashed is very well-suited for performance dogs, but it is not an agility class, and I am very upfront in saying that I have only a rudimentary understanding of the sport. This makes the class very interactive; I expect my students to speak up if I’m teaching them something that contradicts what their agility instructor has taught them. (Don’t worry- this doesn’t happen often!) I do have pet dogs take Agility Unleashed; sometimes Growl 2 graduates continue their work in this class.

Level 1 teaches many of the same basic skills introduced in Growl, but progresses through them quicker and includes additional exercises as well. We do some single-obstacle exercises in level 1, usually a jump, but we can modify all exercises for dogs who don’t know how to do a particular obstacle.

Level 2 builds on all the exercises learned in level 1 while increasing the number of dogs working at once, the amount of motion, and the difficulty of the tasks. Depending on the dogs present, we will do short sequences (usually 3 obstacles).

Both classes are a ton of fun for me to teach. I absolutely love seeing how much progress the dogs (and their people!) make. And, since one of the class rules is Have Fun, chances are good you’ll have a good time. Let me know if you have any questions, and I hope to see some of you there!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

ZOMG Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones Wrote a Book!

I recently had the supreme honor of editing the new Denise Fenzi/Deb Jones book. Dog Sport Skills: Developing Relationship and Engagement is the first in a series, and it’s a damn cool book. You should totally run out and buy several copies.

But I beg of you, don’t tell me if there are any grammatical errors. Please. Look, editing is not easy. Not only did I “copy edit” for grammar, but I also helped take two very distinct writing voices and help them blend together so that it will (hopefully!) provide you with a more cohesive reading experience. This is, all in all, way more work than I could have ever imagined.

Not that I’m complaining! Not at all; after all, I got to read the book way before most people. It’s just that I poured a ton of work into this book (not as much as Denise and Deb of course), and I still found errors when I did the last read-through. Dear G-d, I hope I found them all. I probably didn’t. I’m sorry. But please don’t tell me.

So! About the book.

I think the thing I like best about this book is that there is something for everyone. I know that Denise and Deb wanted it to be accessible for people new to training in general or crossing over from traditional training techniques while still providing value to experienced positive trainers. I think they did a nice job achieving this goal. As someone with a fair bit of training experience, parts of the book were review for me. Even so, I really enjoyed it.

I appreciated their honesty throughout the book. Sometimes positive trainers don’t like to admit that traditional training works, but… it does. Denise and Deb acknowledge this, but they also clearly explain why they choose not to use it. They believe that it is the trainer’s responsibility to “clearly communicate expectations to the dog, rather than the dog’s responsibility to figure out what the trainer wants.”

They also take on some of the myths around positive training. I love this excerpt in particular:

One criticism of positively trained dogs is that they are not as precise or reliable as those trained with pain compliance. This is simply not a valid argument. Strong performances have more to do with the effectiveness and experience of the trainer than the training method used. Because motivational techniques are relatively new, particularly in competitive dog sports, trainers using pain compliance techniques are generally far more experienced. There are very few experienced trainers that exclusively use motivational techniques. One of our goals in writing this book is to change that!

They display similar candor when they acknowledge that all dogs and all trainers are different; they point out that it’s impossible that a “training recipe” will work for everyone. There are two chapters to help someone newer to positive training get started; one on the theoretical knowledge, and one on practical applications. The theory chapter points out that there are numerous dog-friendly ways to train the same behavior, a fact that I think is often overlooked by critics.

Regular blog readers know that I’m big on the human-animal bond, so it’s probably not a surprise that I really enjoyed the chapter on relationships. But I’d never considered that there is a difference between what Denise and Deb call the “personal relationship” and the “working relationship.” They describe how these are different, make a good case for why each one is important, and then discuss how to develop them both.

Another thing I really appreciated was a frank conversation about the fact that a wise trainer will consider the dog’s “genetic package” when creating a training plan. They urge readers to accept the dog they have, but also note that, “dogs with all sorts of baggage can become successful performance dogs with the right environment and training.”

There is an entire chapter on stress, and I wish I could have read it several years ago. Denise and Deb discuss how to recognize stress as well as how to “inoculate” your dog against it. I also love that in their discussion on drive, they talk about the difference between enthusiasm and frantic behavior, something that many people mix up.

Another fabulous section is on the difference between attention and focus. They rightly point out that when dogs have to work away from their handler (agility, upper levels of obedience), unwavering handler attention is not helpful. The dog needs to learn how to focus on the right task at the right time.

But maybe the best part of all is that this book is the first in a series. I’m not sure how long the series will be, but I do know the second book will offer instructions on developing motivators- including personal play. I’m definitely looking forward to that!

Dog Sport Skills Book 1: Developing Relationship and Engagement doesn’t have a release date yet (this whole book publishing thing takes longer than one would think), but I know it's been sent to the printer, so... soon! Go like The Dog Athletepage on Facebook to get the official updates.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review: Orijen Freeze-Dried Treats from Mr Chewy!

Mr. Chewy recently asked Maisy and I to try out the Orijen Freeze-Dried Treats and let you all know what we think of them. Answer: they are awesome!

Well, they are awesome unless your mom makes you do foot-leave-its with them. Then they're stupid. But then, if you're allowed to eat them, they are awesome again!

Seriously, these are great treats. There's around 60 of them in a bag, and unlike other dried treats we've used in the past, they are easy to break into smaller pieces. I also love that they are a single protein with no other ingredients (no grains, carbs, starches, preservatives, etc.), making them excellent for a dog with food allergies! And, since they are all meat, they should be highly desirable to dogs!

Maisy gave them four paws up!

I received these free from Mr. Chewy and received no other compensation. I honestly liked these treats, and I would buy them again. Blah, blah, disclaimer, blah. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Putting It All Together!

On our last day at Shedd, Ken summarized the week with three main points:

1. Get to know your animal.
Ken believes that animal training can be enhanced by having a good relationship with your animal. Certainly, knowing what does and does not motivate the individual in front of you will make your job easier, but Ken also wants to ensure that each animal he cares for has a good life. Relationships promote this.

Of course, relationships are not required for good training. In these cases, you will need to know about the individual’s species. Like most other folks in the zoological world, Ken works at Shedd because he values conservation. Training allows the public to learn more about species they would otherwise not have contact with; good experiences may spur these people to consider animals as a whole when they make decisions, whether that’s about funding research, habitat destruction, or hunting laws.

As an unrelated side note, training can also help wild animals. Ken told us about how behaviorists were able to manipulate the environment to facilitate Condor breeding at a time when there were only 19 left in the world. He shared a fascinating video on remote training the Stellar Sea Lion to help facilitate research on why the population was declining. And my favorite story- how he was part of a group that trained dogs to find sea turtle eggs after the Gulf oil spill. In three days, ten dogs were able to find 29,000 eggs, which were relocated so the babies would have a better chance of survival.

2. Continue to expand your knowledge.
It follows that getting to know your animal, whether individually or as a species, depends on you as the trainer continuing to learn. One way to do this is through research. Whether you conduct it or simply read the final report, we all benefit from it. But there are many ways to learn, and you should find a way that makes sense to you, whether that’s through books, seminars, or videos. Networking is another great way to continue to learn; share ideas or visit their facilities, classes, or simply observe them in a training session.

The knowledge needed to be a good trainer is not limited to learning about animals, though. Learn about people, too. Many people become animal trainers because they don’t like interacting with other humans. This is unfortunate, because in my opinion, the best trainers are the ones who can share their knowledge with others. Ken recommended reading books such as 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Bringing out the Best in People, The Power of Nice, or Whale Done!.

3. Practice and gain experience.
Finally, training is a skill that you must practice. Simply knowing a lot does not mean that you are a good trainer. You have to do. Train your pets to do silly tricks, simply to improve your skills. Work with other animals, whether you are helping a friend or volunteering at a shelter.

Sara is an animal.
You can also play training games where one person acts as the animal and the other as the trainer. We spent several hours doing this on our last day at Shedd, and it was eye-opening. We experimented with adding cues, creating behavior chains, and using No Reward Markers. When it was my turn to be the animal, even though I knew that I was being trained, I was so confused. This quickly turned to frustration, and I never did complete the task in the time allotted. I left the exercise absolutely impressed that my dog has learned anything at all from me!

And thus concludes the Shedd Animal Training Seminar Series! I had the most wonderful time at this seminar, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Getting to go behind the scenes, watching training sessions, and interacting with exotic animals was amazing. Best vacation ever.