Sunday, March 18, 2012

Feeling Safe

Recently, I watched this YouTube video by Suzanne Clothierhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwnSdvHI8mg that I think does a brilliant job of describing what we're up against with Finna. There are many things that frighten or did frighten her. Her fear has different levels of intensity.  At a low level of fear where Finna says "I'm uncomfortable with this" she can in fact habituate to whatever makes her uncomfortable. An example is dogs barking in the distance; this is something that used to worry her that now she is able to ignore.  At a medium level, think of it as Finna saying "that's scary" classical counter conditioning can work pretty well. The sound of the garage door was initially a frightening sound but now the sound of it opening predicts a scattering of kitty kibble and  her reaction to that sound isn't a panic attack but a beeline to the catfood bin. At a high level of fear "I'm so terrified I can't even think" the equation changes. If Finna feels terrified nothing is going to change. At that level she's too frightened/feels too unsafe for any learning to take place.

I've been struggling with ways to make my fearful Finna feel safe when my husband is moving around. It's no longer just him in general that is frightening for her it's him moving when she doesn't know where he's going or why. In the mornings when he has a very predictable routine she doesn't react fearfully, in fact she often doesn't even move from where she's sleeping. With his morning  routine she feels perfectly safe. It's in the evenings when he tends to wander from project to project depending on his mood or what he considers most important that she is terrified. She's willing to train with him and take treats if he's just sitting in fact she's becoming conditioned to him sitting being a sign that treats will be forthcoming. But even dropping a steady stream of high value treats while he walks around isn't enough to compensate for the terror she feels when he moves around in ways she can't predict/anticipate.

Things we've tried; maintaining one room of the house as off limits to husband so she has a safe territory; providing a crate as a safe place in her safe territory; acting as if we were body blocking him to show that we'll keep him back from her (that just persuaded her that he really is a threat); having him spend more time just sitting, shoveling treats, and watching TV (frustrating to an active man); having him play with her outside (she's a fetch fanatic) where she feels safer (she ignores him and brings the ball to someone else and if no one else is out there she takes the ball and hides it); calming signals (if she's scared enough she doesn't respond to them but they sometimes work if given early enough); allowing her to sit on my lap (this works for lower levels of fear but not when she feels like she has a gun pointed at her head); removing her from the house and playing ball with her outside while he does whatever he wants to do (this is management only but it does allow us all to live together).

This is a subject that really resonates with me right now and something that we're really struggling with.  We need to answer two questions. First, why is it that his unpredictable movement is so terrifying. I feel like if I could understand why it is terrifying I'd be in a better position to figure out ways to help her feel safe. It's very frustrating especially since much of the time when his movement panics her he's actually moving away from her. And second, and more importantly, how can we make her feel safe so that she can learn. So far we haven't been successful but that doesn't mean we're going to give up. It does mean we'll be spending a lot of time thinking about what being safe feels and looks like.

Here's Finna waiting for me to throw the ball again. Camera angle distorted her proportions.

Here's one that gives a better idea of how she's built. 

In both photos you'll notice she's very focused and poised to move in whichever direction I chuck the ball this time. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Where We Began and Where We Are: Month Four with Finna

Sometimes it seems like we're making no progress and that Finna is going to be a crazy unsafe dog all her life. That's why it helps to take a look back at the end of each month with her and see that really there has been progress.

I was realizing last night when I got up to got to the bathroom just how far Finna has come. When we first brought her home she couldn't spend the night on her own, my son was sleeping downstairs with her every night and doing his best to reassure her when she panicked and panic was a nightly occurrence. Today Finna sleeps loose in the house usually outside my bedroom door but sometimes downstairs on the futon. Initially, if I got up in the night for any reason Finna would have a meltdown unless I came out of the bedroom and spent time with her. Today, if I get up in the night I can simply go back to bed.

Finna often peed in the house in the beginning and needed regular trips outside at least every three hours 24 hours a day. I can't remember the last time she peed indoors and she goes eight or nine hours at night without the need for a potty break. To start with she sometimes couldn't even make it off the porch before she had to go now it's go outside and wait for me to throw the ball, chase the ball down and stop about half way back to go. I laugh at her now as she can't seem to go potty without a ball in her teeth.

Finna who came to us as a dog with no idea how to play with humans and no concept of fetch is now a fetch fanatic and will chase the ball as long as I'll throw it. And when I lose track of the ball she understands that she needs to show me where it is. Thank heavens I've also taught her "Finished" so that I can stop throwing the ball sometimes.

Barking wildly at the neighbors was a regular occurrence at first. Today I can call her back before she starts to bark and call her off if she's barking. She's gone from being a dog that couldn't be left in the yard without human supervision to a dog that spends time outside with only Ranger for company.

Finna arrived with no self-control, no impulse control, and no idea what training was. She's got a ways to go before she's mastered self-control and impulse control but the foundation is there now. And as for training Finna now loves to train. The dog that bolted out the door the instant it was opened no matter who she had to run over to get out is now a dog that can be told "No, Finna" and will stay inside as I leave. She's learning to wait at the door and that she should wait to be released before going out.

She's come a long long way. The problem is that she has a long long long way still to go. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in looking at how far she still has to go and to forget to look back and see how far she's come. She still has issues with my husband but she's gone from barking, snarling and growling at him any time he moved to a dog that tolerates him moving around much of the time. We're still trying to figure out what he's doing differently sometimes that sets her off. The other night is a great example, he was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher and Finna was curled up on the futon sleeping. Then suddenly she sailed off the futon and flew into the kitchen barking ferociously. Since he'd been loading the dishwasher for several minutes without any reaction from Finna we have no idea what set her off, Something clearly did but it was outside our merely human ken.

She is learning and getting better. I keep telling myself that every day is another brick in building her new life and another chance for her to grow and develop. One things for sure I'm learning a whole lot on this journey.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Of Cats and Dogs

Best. Game. Ever!! I'm sure that's how Ranger views opportunities to herd The Great Catsby. Catsby no doubt views it differently but personally, I think I'm more inclined to agree with Ranger. I enjoy watching Ranger work and seeing how very much he loves it. Unfortunately, we live in a suburban environment and don't have stock for him to work. Well, except for the cat.

Our cats have been indoor only cats since Ranger came to live with us. The Great Catsby is a recent addition and unlike the other cat Meowzart, Catsby sometimes wants to go outdoors. Ranger and the children have other ideas on the subject. The first time The Great Catsby made a bid for the outdoors Ranger zeroed in on him with the laser like stare of a Border Collie and Catsby backed slowly away and back into the house. The children, knowing that indoor only cats live longer and generally healthier lives praised Ranger enthusiastically and the battle lines were drawn. The Great Catsby tries to go out and Ranger prevents it.

Recently, The Great Catsby escaped into the yard and Ranger herded him back to me. Just to see what would happen rather than put Catsby back inside I put him in a box that was sitting on the porch. The box was fairly deep and Catsby disappeared inside it. Ranger stood there calmly regarding the box and slowly Catsby's ears, head, eyes and nose crept up over the edge of the box. Ranger focused intently on Catsby and walked up in a beautifully controlled move, the kind herding dogs use to put just enough pressure on the stock to move the animals. Catsby disappeared back into the box. Ranger backed up and calmly watched some more. Slowly the tips of The Great Catsby's ears became visible, then his head, eyes, and his nose. Ranger focused and moved in slowly and Catsby disappeared. Ranger was having the very best time, he was doing  what generations of his ancestors were bred to do; he was controlling the movement of another animal. Ranger would have been happy to do this all night but Catsby decided he'd had enough and the next time the  door opened he jumped from the box and dashed inside.

Interestingly, it is only when The Great Catsby is trying to or has succeeded in getting out the door that Ranger feels called upon for cat herding. When Ranger is inside with him Catsby is free to roam where he wants.  Obviously, in Ranger's view cats indoors are in their natural environment, cats outdoors must be safely returned to their proper environment.

Watching the interactions of the various animals with which I live is a source of endless enjoyment and entertainment.