Saturday, April 28, 2012

It's a Matter of Control

In my view dog training and parenting have a whole lot in common. Not that I think dogs are little people in fur coats but the role I play for both my children and my dogs is to keep them safe from harm, keep them from annoying other people, and equip them to be able to function safely and well in human society. Lately this has me thinking about the issue of control. In our society young children and pets have virtually no control of their lives. The grown ups decide when they eat, what they eat, where they go, when they go, and on and on and on. My children are 18 and 12 now but I remember the wise woman who told me when they were small that the reason so many parents and toddlers develop issues around eating, sleeping, and toileting is that these are the  only three areas completely under the toddler's control; you can't make your kid eat, sleep, or potty. Light bulbs went on in my head when I heard that. What she said was so obvious and made so much sense and instantly explained to me why some parents had a pretty adversarial relationship with their children and some did not. You can't make your child eat but you can provide them with healthy, attractive, tasty food that they will want to eat. You can't make your child sleep but you can make sure they have enough mental and physical activity during the day to make them tired at night and you can create relaxing calming rituals around bedtime. You can't make your child potty, nature takes care of making them need to; your job is to make doing it in the place you want worth their while and/or create expectations that they will engage in approved toileting activities. In short you can try to control them or you can create circumstances most likely to lead to the behavior you want and let them control themselves.

I think it's true for dogs as well. Short of having her vocal cords surgically removed I can't keep Finna from barking wildly at the delivery person but I can do my best not to put her in a situation where she's frightened by the delivery person and feels it necessary to bark ferociously. Her barking is not under my control. I can only physically remove her once she's begun to bark. Yes, I know there are bark collars, and shock collars etc. but those only punish her for barking they do nothing to teach her to control herself. At best such devices will teach her to be afraid of what's going to happen if she barks. This is not what I want for her.

The question is, how do you give them opportunities to practice control without endangering them or annoying others. It begins with understanding and empathy. I understand that Finna wants to keep the scary people away from her territory and her pack. I can empathize with this desire since there are many occasions when I would dearly love to make the noisy neighbors go inside and stop making a ruckus. My desire to control my environment really isn't that different than hers. The difference is that I understand which things are under my control and which are not. I can't make the neighbors be quiet, they are simply loud by nature but I can remove myself from the noise. So what I want Finna to learn is that she can't  make everything be the way that she wants but she can make choices that can improve the situation--that's what I'm doing when I go inside because the neighbors are being too noisy.

Teaching Finna control begins with giving her choices where all the available choices are equally positive for me. When we play ball Finna tells me which type of fetch she wants to play. She can choose between playing find the ball in the bushes where I throw the ball as hard as I can into the bushes and she races after it, finds it, and brings it back; rolling the ball down the hill and having me bounce it back so she can snatch it out of the air; or catching the ball as it rolls off the roof. It doesn't really matter to me which version we are playing and there is no wrong choice so the choice is hers. She gets to control which game of fetch is played. When she goes outside she snatches a ball out of the bowl and goes to the place in the yard where we play the version she wants to play. She drops the ball and I obediently scoop it up and chuck-it where it needs to go. Of course I could insist that Finna play my choice rather than hers but that gives her one less area where she can make choices and exercise control. I believe that if I give her safe choices to control she's both less likely to fight me for control in areas where I need to be the one in charge and she is having the opportunity to learn to make choices for herself. The more she gets to control the better she will be at controlling herself and making good choices. It worked with my children and with Ranger, I'm hoping it will work with Finna as well.

Here is Finna waiting on the hill for me to throw the ball again.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Canine Social Skills Take Two

Living with Ranger and now Finna has taught me a lot about canine body language. I learned quite a bit about the subject from Ranger but Finna has been a master's class on reading canine body language. Thanks to living with them I'm much more aware when interacting with dogs how they are feeling about things and what dogs are saying to each other. At the dog park recently Ranger had had a good long romp and we were heading out to the the car to go home. Ranger, or as we've taken to calling him lately, Saint Ranger the Good, generally doesn't need to be leashed until we get to the gate when I leash him up as a safety precaution while we're walking though the parking lot to our car. About half way to the gate we met a woman bringing in a mixed breed that to my eye was overwhelmed. He was a young dog of about a year that had never been to a dog park before. Ranger and I were being accompanied to the gate by his new Lab mix pal.  This pal never had much opportunity to learn canine social skills and I'd been enjoying watching Ranger interrupt LabX's inappropriate play overtures; Ranger is firmly of the opinion that body slams and muzzle punches are only allowed between dogs who know each other extremely well and play together often. As the pal started to make a straight line toward the newcomer Ranger exerted very subtle pressure by simply leaning slightly toward his new pal and keeping that small amount of pressure on him so that the two approached in a big curve. A curving approach is a calming signal to dogs and I could see the newcomer relax slightly. Ranger then hung back and let his LabX pal greet the newcomer first so that the new dog who was still on leash wasn't overwhelmed with too many greeters at once.

That's about the time I caught up to the dogs and in a friendly manner greeted the owner and suggested that letting her dog off leash would be less stressful for him. As I like to explain it; I'd be pretty uncomfortable if I walked into a party attached to someone's arm and everyone at the party rushed me at once wanting to greet me, touch me, and generally crowd into my personal space. I'd be even more uncomfortable if the person I was attached to made me stay by their side and put up with all this. It would make me much more  comfortable and relaxed to be free to move away and create a little space for myself. Once she'd let her dog off leash Ranger and his pal escorted the new dog back to the other dogs playing and Ranger watched, running occasional interference, until the new dog's tail was no longer tucked. Once it was clear the new dog was going to be fine we left for home.

I never tire of watching Ranger interact with other dogs. He has exceptional social skills and by living with and observing him I'm constantly learning. All in all it was a good day's work at the dog park. Ranger was able to demonstrate good canine etiquette for his new pal and to ease the initial introduction to the dog park for another dog. I was able to share a bit of useful information  with a novice owner that will, I hope, make her dog's life a tiny bit better.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Happy Finna Report

Life with Finna is a wild roller coaster ride that's for sure. And after a steep dive that leaves me thinking we've bitten off way more than we can chew and even that maybe Finna would be better off if we had her put down there's the sudden ascent and I see the awesome dog she should be. We've climbed another hill and I'm looking around in wonder at how it should be.

Two happy progress reports this time. A little background on the first one. At our house the standard joke for animals who do something that they shouldn't have is that it was done by the evil twin. The Great Catsby, for example, knows that he should not be on the kitchen counters. The cat we find trolling the counter is The Great Catsby's evil twin. Until very recently Finna didn't have an evil twin, she didn't have good behavior with which to compare the actions of an evil twin. It was a great moment when I heard my husband in the kitchen saying, "I don't want the evil twin, I want the good quiet Finna. If you go and get her I'll give her treats." That's when I realized that we're now living with Finna and her evil twin. Finna is now behaving well enough in general that we're ascribing her bad behavior to her evil twin. That's a huge improvement. Finna lets Dad move around the house but her evil twin still chases him up the stairs at bedtime.

The second happy progress report is that Finna now smiles a genuinely happy and contented smile. I've been seeing excited smiles ("yes, yes, please, throw the ball") for awhile but now we're seeing relaxed contented, genuinely happy smiles on occasion. When she walks over, sits in front of me, looks me in the face and smiles with soft eyes it makes it all worthwhile. I wish I could capture a photograph of her smile. She's the sweetest, happiest, most content looking dog when she smiles like that.

Not that life with Finna is all sweetness and light. No doubt there's another steep dive coming on the Finna roller coaster but right now we're in a good place and for right now that's enough.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Five Months of Finna

It's hard to believe that Finna has lived with us for five months now. It seems like we've been on this roller coaster forever. Finna and her raft of issues have taken over our lives. Sometimes it is extremely hard to see where she is improving because there are so many areas that are still problems. And often it seems like each new day reveals more problems and more areas of concern. At the same time there are days when she's just a normal dog that needs training. It helps to look back as well as to look at where she still needs help.

Improvement: Finna is having fewer incidents of barking, growling and lunging at my husband.
Concern: When Finna has an incident it is a more intense episode of barking, growling and lunging. She's letting him move around more freely without reaction but when she does react it is bad. And for some reason that I cannot figure out when he goes to bed she reacts very aggressively, leaping off the futon, running down the hall, and chasing him up the stairs snapping at him. I can't make any sense of this behavior since she is on the other side of the house and he is going away from her. I can't think why this would be scary and I don't know what she thinks she's accomplishing. It looks as if she's trying to prevent him from going to bed and yet once the bedroom door closes she relaxes and hops onto the futon to sleep. At this point we take her outside until he's safely up the stairs. If nothing else we're making it harder for her to practice this undesirable behavior.

Improvement: Finna is better able to ignore noises, barking and shouting in the distance.
Concern: Finna has developed an intense dislike of the neighbors on the other side of the fence. In some ways I don't blame her. I'm not terribly fond of these loud and inconsiderate neighbors which no doubt contributes to her anger with them. Unfortunately, she discovered that she could slip under the fence to confront them directly. We've been working hard to find places where she can slip out and to fix them and we've started using abandonment training. Whenever she heads toward the fence with intent to make a scene we immediately tell her goodbye and head into the house. So far she'd rather be with us than escape to bark at the neighbors. In good news though, on the first day of Spring Break it happened to be sunny and nice, one of the few days of real spring weather we've had. Lots of kids were out playing in the street and Finna was able to ignore the shouting and excitement and to stay calm and play ball or wrestle with Ranger. These were much more appropriate outlets for her as the noise revved her up. Ranger is a big help with this part of Finna's training. When she starts to bark he immediately runs to her and does his best to entice her into a game of wrestle and race. It gives her a safe outlet for her excitement.

Improvement: Finna exhibits much less intense separation anxiety.
Concern: Now that she's moving beyond being a velcro dog it turns out she has a pretty poor recall. We're working on it. It's gotten pretty good inside but outside it's a lot harder.

Improvement: Finna is generally more relaxed.
Concern: When she does get spun up it is more frightening. I'm not sure whether this is due to her freak outs being more intense or whether it's simply the contrast between her relaxed self and her out of control self. I suspect it is the latter but it's hard to be sure. Still, on the upside, more and more often it's becoming possible to interrupt the spin up cycle and keep her more relaxed.

Improvement: Vastly improved house manners.
Concern: There aren't really any concerns about this one. She's not perfect yet but she's gone from a dog that has no idea how to behave to one that understands sitting politely is the gateway to everything she loves. She can't wait very long at the open door yet (five-ten seconds) but she can wait. Not bad for a dog that arrived with the idea that an open door must be bolted through immediately. And as an added bonus the more she learns to wait the more self-control she is learning. She's also finally learning the "down" cue. She's not great at it yet and has to be lured still with tasty treats but when you think about it down is a pretty vulnerable position, it's much harder for her to leap up and frighten something away. It's tremendous progress that she's able to assume that position at all when asked.

Living with Finna is living with constant stress both hers and ours. It's hard not to be stressed living with a dog that has so many arousal issues. Among other things she is a distressingly accurate emotional barometer; reacting to everyone's moods. If my son is frustrated when playing his video game or my daughter is stressing out over school work Finna is going to have a freak out. If I'm tired and grumpy Finna is going to be more spun up. When my husband trips over a box left on the kitchen floor and reacts negatively she's going to go after him. Living with her is definitely a crash course in learning self-control and how to not let things get to you. Reacting to her reactivity only makes her worse so we're learning not to do that.

Sometimes I know I make it sound like life with Finna is a constant hardship. That's not entirely true; there are some things that I love about Finna. She's very smart and she's picking up on more and more cues. It makes me laugh that I can say to her after she's released to go out the door "meet me at the throwing place" and she will make a beeline straight to the place and wait for me to get there with the chuckit and the ball. And I'm amused by her determination to carry the ball back to the porch when we're done playing. It's delightful to watch her learn to control herself at the door. She'll often still jump up as my hand starts to reach for the knob but you can see her correct herself and plant her bottom back on the floor. She is making progress. If only she didn't have so very far still to go.

She's so sweet when she's asleep. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Things I Wish the Public Understood

There is a myth that every dog out for a walk is going to be bomb proof. Sadly, it’s just that—a myth. Ranger is about as bomb proof as they come, even toddlers running up to him screaming and sticking their hands in his mouth (to cite one particularly egregious example) don’t faze him.  Our recently adopted scaredy dog Finna, on the other hand, is closer to being a bomb waiting to explode than to being bomb proof. Unfortunately, she’s adorably cute with her great big ears and little stub of a tail and as a result too many people just assume she’s going to be as happy to greet them as they are to greet her. Trust me, we’re working on it but she’s nowhere near ready to meet random strangers safely.

If only I could teach the public at large to ask before approaching a dog. If a person stops at a respectful distance and asks if they can meet her I can explain why that is not a good idea at this time and ask them to help with her training by yawning, turning their back and after turning back slowly, walk around her in a big curve. When a person does these things it helps my unsocialized, raised in the backyard of an animal hoarder by a pack of dogs, fearful little bitch learn to trust people; after all if they do what I just described they’ve clearly communicated their peaceful intent using the language that Finna understands.  Instead, however, too many people make a beeline straight toward her, staring at her, leaning down to her with a hand outstretched; in dog communication, which is what Finna is most attuned to, these are all clear indications of aggressive intent. These people are offended when I turn and run away with my dog. And before someone wonders, I only walk her at times of day when we are least likely to meet people and do my best to walk her away before the overly friendly  stranger gets close enough to frighten her but living in a busy suburb this isn’t always possible. 

Finna's fears make walking her akin to taking a stick of dynamite on a stroll. I have to regard every person we see as a potential threat because that's how Finna views them. Walks are not fun and relaxing outings. In fact we don't take Finna for many walks anymore. We're all happier when she stays home and plays ball in the yard. But maybe that wouldn't be such an issue if people understood the need to ask and how to communicate with dogs. Most well socialized dogs are fairly fluent in human body language. Too bad most people aren't as well versed in canine body language. I can only imagine how much better that would be for Finna and dogs like her.