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?

Thursday, October 24, 2013


I’m amazed at how well Maisy is doing… and feeling bad because it’s (now) obvious that Maisy was not feeling well for quite awhile. Over the summer she became hesitant to jump in the car. Since she didn’t seem to have trouble getting on the furniture or the bed, I thought maybe she was getting carsick. Nope. She’s now bouncing into the car, even running to it hopefully at other times. Well okay then!
I’d also forgotten how much ENERGY this dog has. She’s been a nutcase (in a good way): having evening zoomies again, playing with the cat, even playing with obnoxious adolescent chi-mixes. Although she had never stopped playing ball, she’s redoubled (retripled? requadrupled?) her ball-bringing efforts. It’s getting a bit obnoxious, honestly.
Not that I’m complaining! I’m so thrilled to see her feeling so well! She clearly feels better than before she got sick. Yay steroids! I’m so relieved she hasn’t had any negative behavioral side effects with them.
Bladder-health-wise, Maisy had a urinalysis on Saturday. I had at done at 3 weeks, which was a bit early (she needs them every 4 to 6 weeks for awhile), but counting is hard. Or something. I’m not sure how I did that.
At any rate, it makes the results THAT MUCH MORE exciting as they came back pretty good. Ideally, she should have a urine pH of less than 6.5 and a specific gravity (USG) of less than 1.020. Maisy’s pH was 6.5 on the dot and she had NO crystals! Yay! Her USG was high: 1.050, which means that her urine was more concentrated than we want. We did do the test first thing in the morning, so it had probably been 10-12 hours since she had peed last, but either way, I need to encourage fluid intake. Which is so hard with this dog.
We will continue to check her urine every 4 to 6 weeks for six months (when she is due for an ultrasound to confirm there are no stones). The vet- our regular practice vet, not from the hospital- and I discussed other preventative things we could do; she agreed that while effective, the prescription diet is nasty, so in a few months I’ll be consulting with a nutritionist to get a raw/home cooked diet formulated for her. The vet also recommended probiotics and a cranberry supplement (which I already started Maisy on).
Any suggestions for increasing fluid intake? I’ve tried broths (usually but not always successful) and adding water to her kibble (I don’t like doing that because I prefer to put her kibble in food toys, but I guess maybe I need to). I want to try drink mixes or even just sugar added to the water. Girlfriend has a sweet tooth like woah. What am I missing? I'd love to hear some other ideas!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Project Gratitude: MN SNAP

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’s Project Gratitude recipient is MN SNAP, the Minnesota Spay and Neuter Assistance Program. This is a great organization that offers free or reduced-cost spay and neuter (and vaccines and a microchip, if so desired) for shelters, rescues, and low-income pet owners.

MN SNAP actually came to my attention when I helped someone get their dog neutered through this program. For $100, the dog was neutered, given all his vaccines, and received a microchip. While I think these things are important for pet dogs, they would also be out of reach for many people due to the cost.

One newly de-balled dog. Thanks MN SNAP!

In addition to providing low-cost services, the people who work at MN SNAP are incredibly nice. They treat people with respect (which should be a given, but doesn’t always happen), and I was impressed with the quality of the neuter. Which, considering that’s basically all they do, yeah. They should be good at it. They provided excellent follow-up instructions, including contact info and referral to a vet clinic that does a sliding scale.

MN SNAP relies entirely on donations, and I was happy to help them. Money is tight right now (for obvious Maisy-related reasons), but I was still able to give them $20. If you’d like to donate, you can do so at this link.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Steve White Seminar: Introduction

In July, I attended a two-day seminar with Steve White. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he’s a seasoned K9 handler who has worked for both the Army and the Seattle Police Department. As such, he learned about training using the old school Koehler methods. As time went on, though, he grew tired of always having to fight with his dog. In the early 90s, he decided to find a better way.

Enter the clicker movement. He got in contact with Karen Pryor, and began reading, watching videos, participating in online discussions, and attending conferences. He applied what he learned and began having successes. At one point, he actually left a job because his boss didn’t want the unit divided by training methods and forbid him to train using more modern methods.

Now, closing in on 40 years of training dogs, he’s an in-demand speaker for both the law enforcement community and for positive dog trainers. I was very excited to see him; I’d previously heard recordings of his presentations and thought he had a lot to offer.

And he does. I enjoyed the seminar, and I enjoyed getting to know him. He’s actually a pretty neat guy beyond the dog stuff; he’s a whiz at accents, owns a kilt, and has a great sense of humor. Oh, did I have fun laughing and joking with him, and he even let me take a ridiculous picture of him and Maisy.

You gotta watch out for those Midwest Muppet Dogs, man. They'll turn on you.

Maisy was there because we had a working spot. I’m definitely glad we did (it was kind of a last-minute decision, to be honest) because I do learn best by doing. Being able to try out what we were learning was much more useful than simply watching others do.

But more than that, I gained some very valuable information about Maisy: she’s still reactive. Now, I knew that. Although I tend to call her normal these days, I am well aware of the fact that the reactivity neural pathways will always be there.

Steve acknowledged that as well, and said that a huge part of his behavior consulting business is about helping his clients accept reality. This is not always easy; how often do we humans rewrite history to better suit us? But the truth is, what has happened has happened, and no many times we revise the story, that doesn’t change the truth. Similarly, when it comes to behavior, you can’t erase a reinforcement history.

Instead, the only solution to pollution is dilution. Steve used an awesome example to illustrate this: Imagine that he has a cup of arsenic and drank it. He would probably die if he did this. Now imagine that he took that same cup of arsenic, mixed it into a bathtub full of water, and then drank it. He would definitely get sick, but he probably wouldn’t die. Now imagine that that same cup of arsenic was mixed into a swimming pool full of water before he drank it. This time he might not even get sick, but the arsenic is still there, and is still probably affecting his body, albeit in minute ways.

So what does this mean? Simply, that once a behavior is in there, it’s in there. Although Maisy is more like a swimming pool these days, reactivity is always a part of who she is. It will come out sometimes.

All of which is to say that yes, she had some reactivity over the weekend. I want to say that I was disappointed, but in truth, I’m really not. I felt bad for Maisy; she was clearly stressed and not feeling so hot. But Steve also spent a lot of time telling us that failure is just information. Which is what Maisy’s reactivity was: information.

The information Maisy gave me was that I have not adequately taught her how to cope with prolonged stress that happens in a situation where there are lots of dogs in a small area, and that happens in spaces where she feels trapped by a leash or a crate. Although I can expect her to be fine at friends’ houses, on camping trips, on walks, at the pet store, or even at a dog park, it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time teaching her how to act in those situations. I haven’t done that with seminars.

I have two options: I can work on this with her, or I can stop expecting her to be “perfect” at seminars. I’m not really sure which option I want to choose, but either way, this is entirely my responsibility. As Steve said, dogs do not fail. They perform as we have trained them to, or what we have prepared them for.

Besides, as Steve said, perfect is the enemy of good. We should focus on progress, not perfection. So, while Maisy had a very hard time over the weekend, I’m pleased that she was able to relax in her crate at times. I’m thrilled that she didn’t seem to have a “stress hangover” and that she bounced back quickly. I’m very happy that she remained responsive throughout the seminar. I’m absolutely ecstatic that she would calm down when I verbally told her “Mais, it’s okay. You’re fine.”

Anyway, the seminar was awesome, and I had a good time. I’ll talk more about the specifics in the future, but for now, just know this: you should go see Steve White if you get the chance.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Week of Good News!

Both Maisy and I received great news this week! (Finally. Last month was hard.)

Maisy's Health
Maisy on her 7th birthday earlier this month.
Maisy had a follow-up appointment with the neurologist at the U of MN on Monday. He saw her during her first hospitalization for immune-mediated inflammatory disease of the spinal cord. Although Maisy really, really, really did not want to enter the vet clinic at the U (and really, who can blame her?), she was a good dog for her exam. Perhaps a bit more drama-queen-y than usual, but she didn't try to bite anyone, so I'm calling it a success.

The neurologist was pleased with her quick recovery and said that I could treat her the way I normally do- no activity restrictions! She does tire a bit easier now, but that's largely because she isn't in the same condition as she was before all this. She will continue on daily steroids (down from twice a day) for three weeks, and then will take 5mg of prednisone every other day for 4-5 months.

Maisy has had no appreciable side effects from the steroids. Some dogs get thirstier (and thus need to pee more); this hasn't happened with Maisy. Some dogs will have behavioral effects (heck, I get incredibly grumpy when I'm on high doses of steroids), but Maisy hasn't. If anything, she's friendlier. About the only thing I've noticed is that she wants to lick my face more than usual. I have no idea if that's related or not, and while it's annoying, it's also manageable. The only side effect that might yet show up is muscle wasting. I hope we don't get that!

Of course, Maisy had two issues last month, the other being her bladder stones. She is still on her very restricted diet, and she will need regular UAs and other monitoring. However, this is a highly manageable condition, if expensive. I now have three jobs. It sucks, but what can I do?

Crystal Thompson, CPDT-KA
 That's right! I got my exam results back this week (hey, I took the professional dog training exam the first day Maisy was sick, remember?), and I passed. I am now officially a CPDT-KA. I am thrilled to report that I got a 97% on it! Yay me!

Wait. I missed one on learning theory?

All in all, it's been a great week. Hopefully things continue going this well!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Denise Fenzi Seminar: Working Spot

Apparently I didn't take any pictures at the seminar, so here.
Have a photo of dogs in party hats for no reason other than it's funny.
Once again, Maisy and I had a working spot in Denise’s seminar. We worked on heeling (because heeling always needs work!) and scent articles. I was just getting sick at this seminar, so mostly I was out of breath, dizzy, and coughing up an almost literal lung. (I promptly went home and needed a week off from work because pneumonia.)

Soooo… I don’t remember things too well, but I am pretty sure that Denise said that Maisy is the cutest dog she’s ever ever ever met in her entire life, and would I take a million dollars for her. I was like hell no! and then she cried. It was pretty sad.

(Note: that probably didn’t happen.)

She also said that Maisy is not a dog that can come straight out of her crate and go into the ring. I already knew this, but it was nice to have it confirmed. I have a pretty heavy warm up routine that involves a lot of heeling and pivoting and cookies, and only one or two reps of the trickier things like a moving down or whatever.

The other thing is that I really need to adjust my style for the situation. The way I play and get Maisy excited during training at home just does not work for her in a public setting. My excitement level actually made her disconnect, so Denise had me sit with her quietly instead. Oh, Maisy, you complicated dog, you. I’m not surprised by this information, but the confirmation that I need to adjust my style based on circumstances was helpful.

Maisy’s biggest heeling problem is lagging, so we did a lot of work with the invisible dog. Basically, I heeled in big circles, and every so often, I would offer a treat to the dog at my side. If Maisy was there, she got the treat. If she wasn’t, the invisible dog did. Let me tell you, she was a bit miffed when she realized that! She definitely drives up into heel position when the invisible dog is out with us.

We started from scratch with the scent articles; I hadn’t done much with them. I had five metal tins (small Altoid tins), and we put food in one of them. Then we set them out and waited for Maisy to check out the tins. When she showed interest in a tin, we would open it and show her what was inside. If she found the right tin, she would get the food! If she didn’t, we simply shrugged and told her we were sorry (and then removed the tin from the pile because we’d touched it).

This is all we did in the seminar, but the advice going forward was to not worry about the retrieve (that can be taught separately and added in later, although at home Maisy is usually bringing me the tin when she’s interested in it). Then, once she is very certain about the food 100% of the time, we are to put a cookie in the tin every other time to fade out the use of food. We haven’t done this yet.

Honestly, we haven’t done a ton of training since the seminar, though we’ve done bits and pieces here. It’s been a long year, what with the divorce and all, so Maisy and I have mostly just hung out together and done easy stuff like hiking. But in the last few weeks, I’ve started working on Open stuff again, because I really would like to get her CDX and maybe even the UD. I know that the things we worked on with Denise will help us with that! So, stay tuned!  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Hopeful for a Full Recovery

Cross your fingers, knock on some wood, put a rabbit foot on your key chain… anything to prevent me from jinxing things here, because I think Maisy might have a full recovery.

As you know, September was a hard month for us. First she landed in the ICU for what turned out to be immune-mediated inflammation of the spinal cord. Then, just as she was starting to recover, she ended up back in the ICU with some pretty bad bladder stones (and a very uncomfortable procedure to remove them). It’s been almost two weeks, though, and over the weekend Maisy started showing signs of being herself again.

She has more energy and stamina again. She’s enjoying her (short, for potty breaks only) walks again instead of plodding behind me like we’re on a death march. She’s even asking for longer walks. Her coordination seems to have returned as well. She’s not tripping over her own feet when going up the stairs anymore.

Her enthusiastic naughtiness is back, too. She’s bringing me tennis balls whenever I’m… well, awake, really! Last night she shoved open the bathroom door and insisted on sitting on my lap while I was in there. She’s joyfully nipping at my heels and running circles around me in the morning.

And, instead of sleeping in the other room or at the far side of the bed, she’s back to sleeping pressed up to me, and last night she slept in my arms for at least half an hour. Oh, I missed that! Perhaps of everything, I missed that the most.

I’m optimistic that she will have a full recovery. Visions of hiking trips and dog shows have returned, and I’ve begun making plans again.

Of course, that isn’t assured. Last night we did the first reduction in her steroid dose. She had been on 7.5mg twice a day, and now it will be 5mg twice a day for a week or so. We’ll see how (if) that changes things. She sees the neurologist next week, and I assume that we’ll discuss steroid use then. Worst case scenario (I think/hope!) is that she’ll be on them for the rest of her life. Since they don’t seem to be affecting her behaviorally, that’s just fine. After all, I take steroids twice a day, too.

The bladder stones actually seem to be the bigger issue at this point. She’s on a prescription diet that I hate, but that I also have confidence in. I’ve had a hard time not giving her little extras; she’s not supposed to have any treats at all. I have always shared everything I eat with her. I wasn’t able to do it cold turkey, but I’ve really cut back, and each day it’s a bit easier. I still plan to consult with a nutritionist at some point.

She will also need pretty regular monitoring, at least for a while. The U of MN Urolith Center actually has a lot of good info on it, with recommendations on how often to test and what parameters to look for. She will need a follow up urinalysis every 4-6 weeks until the specific gravity is less than 1.020, the pH is 6.5 or ungder, and there are no crystals. After that, follow up UAs should happen every 3-9 months. They also recommend either x-rays or ultrasounds every 6-9 months to evaluate for stones. Since none of the billion x-rays Maisy had last month showed any stones, I’ve decided to do ultrasounds.

For now, though, I’m just going to enjoy having my dog back. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Denise Fenzi Seminar: Rewarding Your Dog

When Denise talks about rewards in dog training, they seem to fall into one of two categories: things or activities.

Rewarding with things is very common in the dog training world; these are the ones that require that you plan ahead and have food or toys available for the reward process. Both food and toys are important rewards. Denise prefers to use toys when she working on happy, enthusiastic performances and food when she’s working on precision, but when it comes down to it, she believes attitude is more important than precision.

Where Denise really shines, though, is rewarding with activities. These rewards are ones that don’t come with something tangible, but instead in doing something. For example, Denise does a lot of personal play with her dogs. This is different than toy play. Instead, it’s about the dog and handler interacting together in a fun way.

You know what's fun? Running!
Denise also talks a lot about making activities in and of themselves rewarding. She told us about a study (sorry Science Geeks, I don’t have a citation) where researchers split kids into two groups. Both groups were told that they were studying some new puzzles, and they wanted the kids to play with them and then answer some questions. The first group was told they would be paid at the end, and the other was not paid. After the kids played with the puzzle for a specified period of time, they were told the researcher would be in to ask them some questions. While the kids were waiting, the group of kids who were not paid continued to play with the puzzles, while the paid group did not.

What does this have to do with dog training? Well, as this study demonstrated (and as many of us know from experience), activities done as volunteers often yield more satisfaction than those done for pay. In other words: we enjoy work more when we find it intrinsically rewarding. Dogs are the same. We shouldn’t need to pay them for things that are fun… and training can be fun! Many dogs naturally enjoy retrieving or jumping or running.

Of course, you have to make the work interesting for the dog. Make it an exciting privilege for your dog, like a child getting to go to DisneyWorld. Teach your dog that if he’s going to work, it needs to be at his full capacity. Or, to paraphrase Master Yoda: Work or or don’t work. There is no halfway.

Be sure that your dog receives one unit of reward for one unit of effort. Denise and Deb talk quite a bit about this in their upcoming book, but basically, if your dog tries to do something that is very difficult for him, compensate him fairly for it- kind of like hazard pay. As your dog gets better at that same thing, you can reduce the amount of reward he receives because it doesn’t require as much effort any more. Doing so often naturally leads to the reduced reward schedule so necessary in trials.

Finally, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Denise told us that the more things your dog does wrong, the better. Mistakes help a dog understand what won’t be rewarded, meaning that in the long run, he will have a better idea of what will. If you feed your dog so much that he never fails, all he learns to do is to eat, not work. Teach your dog to work.

How do you reward your dog? Personally, I tend to be a bit dependent on things. A lot of this is because I compete mainly in venues that allow me to take food in the ring, so I don’t have a ton of incentive to develop activity rewards. For the few times I do compete somewhere I can’t use food, I’m fortunate enough that Maisy does find my smiles and praise rewarding.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: Merrick Natural Beef Jerky Strips from

In the midst of all of Maisy's crazy health problems this month, I sort of forgot about the very awesome Merrick Natural Beef Jerky Strips that sent us to review!

I also forgot to take an actual picture, so here. Have some badly-drawn Paint art instead.
 I really liked these! Maisy likes jerky strips, but so many of them are made in China, and I categorically refuse to feed treats from there. These, however, are sourced and made in the United States! Yay! The only thing I wanted to comment on is that they are described as "tender and chewy" but the ones we received were crunchy. That means these aren't great for training, but I like them for jackpot type situations where a bigger hunk seems appropriate.

The Merrick Jerky Strips arrived the day Maisy got home from her first hospitalization, back when her appetite was kind of iffy instead of her usual I'll-eat-anything-that's-even-vaguely-edible. Still, she scarfed a few of these babies right down, which is really saying something!

Have you and your pups tried these? What did you think of them?