Sunday, October 16, 2016

Jun's First Agility Trial

I have been training Jun in agility for about a year, doing online classes. We have mostly worked in our back yard with jumps and tunnels, but I have occasionally had opportunities to train contacts and other obstacles. Recently we decided to give trialing a shot. She knew how to do all of the obstacles required for CPE level 1 and in our practice, she was doing qualifying runs on full courses with no toy in my hand, in brand new places. She even got her ACT1 a few weeks ago no problem! So I kind of expected the trial to be a breeze! I expected a little sniffing, maybe a couple "refusals" (but CPE doesn't fault refusals). I did not expect what I got....a completely disengaged dog that I had to walk off the course her second run. We Qd zero out of five runs. We didn't even finish a course. BUT, I learned a TON and in watching the video I got, I know how to do better next time! Here's a recap, and the video below shows our first run (Jackpot) and our last run (Jumpers)

I was a little worried about this being the first class of the day. Jackpot involves a gamble, which requires sending your dog to obstacles from a distance. The distance was probably only 5 feet (which she can easily do at home), but in a new place without a toy, I was pretty sure we could not do 5 feet. I was right, she wouldn't send. We just went on and did a few more obstacles, but we were over time trying to get back to the table that stops time. I was bummed at the time, BUT---watching the video later that night, I saw so much that I missed at the time! I saw a dog that performed TWELVE obstacles for me! Five of those were HARD obstacles for her: A-frame twice, dog walk, and two tunnels. She doesn't like tunnels away from home and I guess I can't blame her--being deaf, she completely loses me in a tunnel. She did ALL of that for me! She disengaged twice, but CAME BACK TWICE, and she was with me on the last line of jumps! And what did I do? Pushed her off the last jump since we were over time to go to a 4" table, which is something she'd never seen in her life, and then instead of having something I could praise her for and throw a party, I got another disconnect and had to go collect her. ALL that hard work, and she got nothing for it. Makes complete sense that her next run went like this:

Jump, jump, disconnect, A-frame, disconnect, jump, disconnect for good. Lots of sniffing. Had to collect up my girly and walk her all the way across the ring. Sad times.

I may be inexperience at trialing, but I'm not completely dumb. I asked my friends to help me come up with a plan to do 1-2 obstacles, throw a party, and be done. I switched to FEO with the judges permission, set her up in front of the last two jumps on the course, had her do her startline stay, but didn't really lead out at all. Ran two jumps with her, and lots of praise! I had her leash in my hand and she grabbed it and tugged a little. She was HAPPY!! So that was a good decision.

It was tempting to try to run the whole thing, since it was only 8 obstacles and I could avoid the contact obstacles, but there was a tunnel and she had only just done two jumps before, so that would have been 4x as much. I went with a nice looping arc of 4 jumps, partied, and left the ring. Happy girl again!

She did so well the last time, I decided to go for it. 15 obstacles and two tunnels, but I decided I would just skip the tunnels if she didn't want to do them, ignore any off courses or refusals, and just do as much as we could, get to the last jump and party at the end. This one is on the video as well and while it wasn't perfect, it was SO MUCH improved! I didn't make her stay at the start, but I did have a little trouble getting her collar unbuckled, so she unfortunately had time to look around while that was happening. But she started running! Ended up having to skip the first tunnel, but she did the second one! Got some disconnect a couple times, and a quick visit to the judge, but got her back, finished the course, and partied. And LOOK at her!! She understands praise and accepts it as a reward. So cute!

So what next?
1. Build value for contact obstacles and tunnels
2. Next trial, do a short run first to ensure success and build value for the ring, increase number of obstacles as she is ready.
3. Skip contacts and tunnels for a bit in trials, or limit the number
4. We are doing a UKI trial in December, so I will have the opportunity to use rewards in the ring. I will make it a priority to reward after contact obstacles or tunnels

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Relationship Part

Eight years in, I think I'm finally starting to get the hang of the relationship part of dog training. The respect and trust part. The part that puts one's own agenda aside and listens to what the dog is telling you.

Not that anyone reads this blog I never post on, but there is a new kid in town. Meet Ira.
Photo by Sara Bruekse

Ira is perfect. He is the most honest dog I've ever met. He has a huge work ethic and is so very full of try! Ira is a dog who will work his heart out for his person. But he is also sensitive.  He needs his person to be his anchor. He needs his person to support his choices. Eight years ago, I wouldn't not have been able to do that. The concept truly would not have even crossed my mind! I am so thankful for Lok, Jun, and Elo for slowly chipping away at my ego and selfishness. If it weren't for them, I think I would have truly struggled with this dog. This fantastic, amazing, perfect, willing dog who wants nothing more in life than to make me happy. I don't think I would have been able to see it. I would have pressured and been overbearing and constantly disappointed. Me--a "positive trainer!" I would have ignored him when he told me he was uncomfortable with strangers touching him. I wouldn't have heard him when he told me he didn't want to be touched anywhere other than his head. I would have gotten upset when he didn't let me trim his nails or bathe him. When he was unfocused in training, I would have seen a stubborn dog, not a worried dog who was doing his best.

Because my previous dogs taught me (or maybe more accurately, forced me to learn) to listen and respect their choices, my relationship with Ira is starting out on a foundation of trust. And it's beautiful. He has a choice. Always. For example, I made it clear to him that he had a choice in interacting with strangers and that I would respect his choice and make sure others did as well. And now instead of hiding behind me or rolling over at people's feet like he did in the beginning, I have a dog who happily greets people---some people, the ones he wants to--and he knows that when he is done he is allowed to be done and he can just come back to me. I have a dog who trusts me to touch him all over, because I worked on desensitizing and counter-conditioning, rather than forcing. I have a dog who will lie still for nail trims. He knows when he gets overwhelmed he can just get up, and he can make the choice to lie back down when he is ready.

A couple months after Ira came home, I was working on teaching him a dumbbell hold. He was NOT getting it, which made no sense, because he loved putting toys in his mouth and he had proven to be a quick study at shaping. He was very operant and creative with offering behaviors. I blamed the training first. My criteria must not be clear enough. I must not be splitting the behavior down enough. I must not be explaining this to him well enough. I put my "good dog trainer" hat on and made a better plan--short sessions, clear criteria, HIGH value rewards. The first session I got mouthing. The second session I only got nose touches. The third session, I got sniffing the ground....... Despite the fact that Ira had JUST had a dental a few months earlier and his teeth should have been fine, I thought, I should check his teeth, just in case. Sure enough, he had a canine that was absolutely mangled! Broken in half the long way and the short way. He also had a premolar that I suspected may be abscessed (it was). Wow! All this time he had been playing tug, catching discs, chewing on bones. There was no indication that he was in pain, except his "refusal" to learn a hold. I suspect the higher arousal nature of toy play allowed him to work through the pain. But the pain was there and it was our entire problem. After surgery to remove the painful teeth, we had our hold in one session.

Ira likes to stare at other dogs. He's a border collie. He's motion sensitive. It's normal. But 99% of the time he redirects easily and focuses really well on me when we are working around other dogs. Then occasionally he doesn't. To others, it probably looks like bad behavior. It looks like a dog I need to be harder on, to demand focus from. But in reality he fixates on other dogs when is nervous or afraid or over-the-top aroused, and has nowhere to hide. It's like a default behavior. A familiar behavior pattern he reverts back to when his brain just can't process anything else. Thanks to my previous dogs' lessons, I figured this out after the second time and not years down the line.  He was like this in class the other day. I'm not sure why--maybe the weather (he doesn't like storms, but it wasn't really storming), maybe he wasn't feeling well. The reason doesn't matter. What matters is, he was clearly telling me with his behavior, "Mom, I can't." And I listened! We went home early. Despite external pressures (that, lets be real, were probably all in my head) of potential judgment from others, and internal pressures of the need to perform well in class and the feeling that my dog should be ok. It didn't matter what should have been. Only what was. I respected my dog that day first by hearing "I can't" where I would have previously heard "I won't" and then by responding to "I can't" with "that's ok, you don't have to." I think it's that kind of thing that builds trust. And trust builds relationship. And when you have a relationship with turns out, that's what this dog training stuff is really all about. That's where the magic really is.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

So, this happened...

That's right. That's a picture of Elo with a first and second place ribbon. Contrary to what you might think, this was not a "biggest asshole" competition!! It was legit rally obedience. How did this happen, you ask? I'm still not totally sure. About a year ago, my goal for Elo was for him to be able to perform cues, like sit, around other dogs. I can gauge where he is in relation to his threshold pretty well by his response to the cue "sit."
  • Barely hanging on = no response, will either start looking around or just stare at me with the "I'm trying SO hard not to bark right now" look. 
  • Doing ok, but moderate management required = will look around on the first cue but sit on the second cue. 
  • Well under threshold = Immediate response to cue, but breaks attention and looks around after getting a treat. 
  • Normal dog response = Immediate response to cue and remains focused on me.
A year ago, "barely hanging on" was the only level we had. Sometime last summer, Elo developed an actual threshold. Last fall, he began to be able to actually work while under it. Within the past couple months, we have gotten to "normal dog response."

I can't tell you how this happened, except that I've put a ton of work into my dog. There came a point, when BAT, LAT, CC/DS and all the other alphabet soup of reactive dog rehab just wasn't getting us anywhere anymore. I can't describe what I'm doing now with any of those terms, although they're all still a part of the plan. I'm just working my dog, pushing his limits as appropriate. Asking him for a little more every time. We are taking "normal" classes now and they require me to be 100% ON the whole time. It's exhausting, and so rewarding as he seems to be making exponential progress now! I've discovered that Elo LOVES to work! And I've been able to use the opportunity to work as a reward for not flipping out at other dogs. Now, when I have him on his mat behind a barrier, he gets all growly and sassy at me, telling me mat work is boring and let's go work around the other dogs. Some of his recent accomplishments include:
  • Working in a class of 3 other dogs WITHOUT a barrier! This is a tricks class and the other dogs are in motion constantly including riding skateboards. Elo has been able to focus and work, even doing complex tricks and shaping exercises. There is a bathroom that we escape to for breaks every so often, but when we're out all the dogs are in full view.
  • In that same class, last week, he spent the last 10 minutes or so pretending he wasn't reactive. He was just chilling on the floor, giving me eye contact. I wasn't playing any particular game with him. I was talking to the instructor and only rewarding every 30-60 seconds. Every once in awhile he'd calmly glance at the other dogs, then back at me. Not in the "I need to look back at mom before I lose it" manner, but in the "huh, the other dog is a mildly interesting thing in my environment manner." (And, might I add........!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
  • Oh, and then there was the rally trial. This was a fun match that was held for the dogs in his rally class. Granted, there were no other dogs in the room during his run, but there were dogs in the building. And 6 dogs ran the course before him and got their scent all over it. He was focused, he was engaged, he was brilliant. He showed off what a happy little worker he is! So proud!
There is a light. It's faint, but I think I can make it out! I'm starting to think that we ARE in a tunnel after all, and not in an abyss!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

On Engagement

Hello there. It's been a long time since I blogged. Not much has happened in the interim. Jun is still crazy. Elo is still an asshole, but less so. We've been taking classes and he's slowly but surely getting better. We've moved beyond reactive dog class and semi-integrated into real classes! We've found flexible, accommodating instructors that largely let us do our own thing. Currently we are taking a rally class and it's going pretty well. But something tonight struck me as worth musing on.

Let me preface by saying, I am a difficult student. I don't do what I'm told. I don't see a teacher as authority. I question everything. I'm not TRYING to be difficult, but I'm a very independent thinker, I have strong ideas and opinions and if a suggestion I'm given doesn't fit within that framework, I have to think it over before I'm willing to fully commit to it, or in some cases even try it. The problem is, in class there is no time for philosophical discussion, so I come off sounding like a bitch when I try to fit my objections into a one-sentence "thanks but no thanks" soundbyte. Really what I mean is, "I'd like to think about that and I'm happy to discuss it further, but at the moment it doesn't fit into my training plan," --but that's never what comes out.

For the last three weeks of class, we are running courses; and this is perfect for Elo because all the other dogs are out of the room. However, this was the first time he'd actually been fully inside the main training room (Normally, we hang out in a supply closet adjacent to the training room and open the door as he can handle it.) Not having a lot of time to work slowly into the room and let him acclimate,  of course he was immediately over-stimulated. He knew there were usually dogs in that room, he could smell them, and he was looking all over for them. It was tough to get his attention, but he wasn't totally gone and was checking in with me periodically, which of course I rewarded.  After I somewhat had his brain, we started the course. He was only able to give me a couple seconds of attention at a time before sniffing and scanning and he was having a hard time responding to cues.

And then the instructor said something to the effect of, "You need to tell him what he should be doing. Stop letting him keep nervously scanning the room. When he stops paying attention to you, mark it with a 'no' and don't let him do it. Every time he goes out away from you and comes back and you reward him, he's learning that he can do that."

We'll let the complete absurdity of the phrase "mark it with a no" slide, and talk about the rest.

It's not harmful advice. It's not going to hurt my dog. It's not even necessarily bad advice. In fact, for a second I thought, maybe I should just be more firm with him. also didn't seem quite right to me.

First off, I didn't really understand what she meant because I can't MAKE Elo do anything. When he's in that mindset, he's not hearing a word I say. A calm "no" isn't even going to enter his consciousness if calling his name and speaking in happy voice doesn't. After clumsily noting my objections, I choked up on the leash a bit and kept him at my side. He looked more under control and the instructor seemed happy. But really, the same thing was going on. He was checking out and I was rewarding when he checked back in. Because that's what he needed.

As much as I (lovingly) call Elo an asshole, he is a good, GOOD dog! He's on a hair trigger sometimes and has developed some very frustrating habits, but damn he TRIES! One thing I've discovered about Elo over the past year is his fabulous work ethic. That little dog loves to work! He loves to train! He loves to play and interact with me! So much so that I've been able in some situations (now that he has a threshold and can sometimes think around other dogs) to leverage the opportunity to work as a reward for NOT reacting to dogs. If Elo is checked out, it's because he cannot handle the situation. Not because he's being naughty, stubborn, or purposely blowing me off.

Ultimately, the entire reason I'm in this thing is for that joyful partnership, the feeling that comes from doing things with a dog that happily and enthusiastically chooses to do them with me. I have no desire to make Elo do anything. And that's been the basis of our entire training relationship. I give Elo an easy choice and reward him for making the right one, gradually making the situation more difficult. The fact that the situation was too difficult in this case is 100% on me.

I don't fault the instructor. She was trying to be helpful, she clearly has a different training philosophy, and I doubt she expected me to put this much thought into it. She also does don't know me, doesn't know Elo, doesn't know where we started, where we've been, or really even where we are. It's a tough position to be in. I've been there myself. But ultimately, after having time to reason it through, this is a piece of advice I will reject. It doesn't make sense for my dog and it doesn't fit within my training philosophy.

Thankfully, Elo and I had a second chance to run the course. With him a bit more settled, he showed off what a happy, precise, thoughtful little worker he is!

Monday, March 4, 2013


Today, Jun was discharged from Dr. Duxbury's care back to our regular vet. Dr. D is quite pleased with her progress, and to be honest, so am I. While the progress was excruciatingly slow and there is still work to be done, looking back at where we were when we started this behavior modification journey two years ago, it is clear how far we both have come.

Take as an example, her behavior at her first exam compared with today's. Two years ago I brought a very unhappy and perpetually stressed dog for her first appointment with Dr. Reichl. Though she was terribly afraid of Dr. R she pulled at her leash to go investigate and when Dr. R moved a finger, Jun snapped at her hand before running back to me, tail between her legs and ears low. She was hypervigilant and unfocused and fidgety.

Today, I brought a happy, calm dog with relaxed body language into Dr. D's office. She was mildly concerned about Dana, the assistant, but other than a brief stare, she felt no need to interact, kept her leash loose, and kept her attention on me. She offered looks at Dana for treats, comfortable with the rule structure of "new people" and trusting me to keep her safe. After a minute or two she laid on her mat, flopped on a hip with a loose body and soft eyes and mouth. She kept her attention 100% focused on me, glancing at Dana obligingly when cued, for no other reason than it would earn her a treat. When Dr. D came into the room, Jun looked, as cued, and stared a moment. After a couple of stares to satisfy her that there was no danger she went right back to relaxing. When she got bored she picked up her mat and offered it to me to play tug with. She was relaxed, happy, and playful, even in the presence of two strangers. Yep, we've come a long way.

Dr. Duxbury asked what I believed made the biggest difference in her transformation. The medication has clearly helped. Trazodone takes the edge off of her general anxiety. Clomipramine, while not eliminating her fear, has allowed her to learn ways to cope with it, such as the "look at that" game. But the thing that made the biggest difference, without a doubt, was my adjustment of my expectations.

I have high expectations. Of myself. Of others. Of my dogs. Of who they will be and what they will become and accomplish. Yet slowly, each in their own way, they have taught me that they are who they are and not necessarily who I want them to be or who I think they should be. And the more I fight to mold them to my ideals the more damage I do not only to them but to our relationship. Jun was to be my dog sport rockstar. We were supposed to travel the country competing in disc. She was supposed to get obedience titles. She was supposed to be friendly and outgoing and confident. She had been all of these things so WHY could she not just snap out of it? WHY could she not respond to classic behavior mod protocols? WHY was she so difficult?!


But wait.......I am asking the wrong questions. WHY can I not accept what my dog is trying to tell me? That she is afraid. That she doesn't want to be touched or interact with people. That while she may like going places and doing things she finds it all very overwhelming and stressful. That in fact, really, she would just like to stay home, thankyouverymuch. And I don't know where the shift happened or why or how. But somewhere along the line I changed ME. And when that happened my dog began to blossom.

Now rather than demanding change, I simply create opportunities for it. Rather than expecting progress, I am grateful for it. Rather than wishing my dog was something else, I embrace all the good that she is. And rather than fearing the loss of what I hoped she would be, I realize I have lost nothing. In fact, I have gained----a deeper and more trusting and more real connection than was possible when I imposed my expectations on her instead of accepting and appreciating who she is. And in the end, that's really all that matters.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jun's Rules

Jun went to class tonight for the first time in nearly a year. I wasn't sure what to expect, because she's been especially agitated at home lately. But she blew me away! Reactivity? What reactivity?!

She worked with three unfamiliar people and two unfamiliar dogs, movement, closer proximity than she is used to. All of her triggers. And the worst I got from her was a few tongue flicks. No hard stares. She relaxed enough to follow cues. Soft body language and facial expressions. She was even taking treats with a soft mouth the entire time! And I think she worked for about half of the hour, way more than I've ever asked her for! This is leaps and bounds ahead of where she was when we left off last year, and we've done about zero behavior modification work in the mean time.

So why did she do so well? Well, first of all, she is Jun, and thus unpredictable. I think she just as easily could have been a wreck. But I think we have been doing some valuable things that have been helping. First, we've been doing a lot of nothing, which has reduced her overall stress level and leaves her better able to handle the stressors I do expose her to. We leave the house maybe once a week, and usually that is to go to the park or "grandma's." She is exposed to unfamiliar situations less than once a month. Secondly, Jun is a dog who thrives on structure and predictability and even though she's had fewer experiences lately, 99% of them have conformed to the structure I've set up for her, which increases her trust that things will go according to plan.

Some of the rules she's learned that help at class are:

(1) The crate and mat are safe places for relaxing. As soon as we got to class she headed right for her crate where she instantly relaxed. We also did quite a bit of mat work and when she needed a break I was able to just bring her back to her mat even though it was not behind our barrier. She gravitated towards it and even though she was much more relaxed than typical throughout class, she was even more relaxed in her "safe zone."

(2) I'll warn you when there is something scary. When I cue her to look at a trigger, she is MUCH better able to handle it than when she is surprised by it. If we are playing in the yard and she catches a glimpse of a neighbor she will usually react....unless I tell her they are there first. If that happens, she can take a quick look and go right back to playing.

(3) Nobody will touch you. You don't have to interact with people. You can come to me when you're not sure. These kind of all go to together and aren't anything that I've actively taught her, but are just a product of the trust that we have built. She has met several new people lately and done REALLY well. Thankfully, my helpers have been very cooperative and followed all the rules. Whereas she used to react to a new person by startling, barking, muzzle punching, etc., now she will usually just kind of keep her distance for a bit. She initiates the look-at-that game and knows she can come to me for a treat and reassurance. Once she's decided the person might be safe she'll usually go up a few times for a sniff or two. I instruct people to completely ignore her, not touching or making eye contact. Usually at this point she decides they are awesome and jumps on them for petting or finds a toy for them to throw, and then she has made a new best friend. She really does like people. She just wants them to behave in predictable ways.

I don't work set-ups anymore, I'm not following a plan, I'm not even worrying about her occasionally going over threshold. All I've done for the past year is try to build stability and trust. Make sure she knows that above all, I am here. The very first piece of advice I got from a veterinary behaviorist was that I needed to start ignoring her so she would learn to comfort herself. Funny that it's the exact opposite that has worked for her. Jun is not capable of comforting herself. She needs me to be her rock. She needs to be able to look to me for guidance, even if it's just to put a mat down for her and treat her for relaxing. She needs to be able to come to me and lean on me. She finds touch comforting. It may not be a proper behavior modification plan, but my dog is happier. She may not have learned not to fear her triggers, but at least she can count on me to help her cope. And maybe down the line that will be all she needs. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thoughts on some trick training

Not that I have been doing much lately. But a little here and there.

Jun has been working on "limp" again. Picking up her paw was easy. The hardest part was getting her to lift her other paw off the ground at the same time. I finally got that by having her jump UP to a nose touch, and then working to a lower jump, then pulling it forwards. But how to get more than one step? I put her on a stay across the room, asked for a paw raise, used my best ESP, and somehow, miraculously, she got it and took one hop-step within just a few sessions. Then for awhile I got one hop-step every 2-3 sessions. Then it started getting more consistent. Then one day I got two!! And now, all I seem to get is her lifting her paw then putting it down and walking to me normally (which I have never clicked, not even by accident!!!) mixed in with the occasional clickable hop-step.

Seriously, I don't know what her deal is.  When I click Elo for something he keeps doing the thing he got clicked for (which admittedly sucks when I click the wrong thing, but that's my problem). I don't know why Jun insists on continuing to do behavior that is NOT earning a click.....Actually if I put on my dog-trainer-with-a-working-knowledge-of-learning-theory hat, I could probably figure it out. Part of the reason, maybe, is that being right-freaking-next-to me is more reinforcing than the food. And the non-clicked behavior gets her to me faster. I could maybe make more progress if I worked it in heel position. Alas, she can't see my paw-raise signal in heel position. I could train a new one, yes, but it is too damn hard to see whether her paw is up when she's next to me. I tried a mirror. She was VERY confused about why I wasn't looking at her and wouldn't do anything but try to go-out and target the mirror (which is pretty much the correct response on her part when presented with the situation of "heel position and me looking straight ahead" so, go Jun!). And if I just try to swivel my body around to see she takes it as a "stay in heel position at all costs" drill and does weird things. Oh well. I am about ready to put this trick away again for another year.

She did successfully learn a "pray" or "hide and go seek" behavior. Two variations. One in which I kneel on one leg and she puts her paws up on my thigh and her forehead between her paws. And one in which she does the same thing on the couch. I've also been trying to teach her to hold a sit-pretty while I walk in a circle around her. I hold her clicker-light out in front so she has something to focus on. But tonight it worked even better when I showed her a treat, put it on a table in front of her, and then did the same thing. Seemed to keep her attention forward just a bit better.

Elo is learning a bow. I spent the LONGEST time trying to shape it from scratch and didn't get very far. He's never play bowed spontaneously in real life. I think because of his missing leg it's just not a position he feels comfortable in. So after a gazillion sessions and a few method changes I had one front paw stretched out and a head-tucked hold for about 1.5 seconds. I couldn't get the other paw stretched out and if I withheld the click longer I either got backing up or scratching the rug (products of my stupid late clicks). So I put this one away for awhile. Then one day I realized, Elo DOES bow spontaneously....when he's looking under the deck or fence for rabbits! It took all of 5 seconds to teach him to duck into a bow with his nose under a chair. I've been playing with different ways to fade the chair, but tonight I just sort of moved away from the chair a bit and fed him his treats next to the chair instead of underneath. And eventually with much deep thought and concentration, he finally put himself into a bow position next to the chair instead of under it. And I jackpotted the hell out of him!