Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dogs at Play

There is something very satisfying about watching Ranger and Finna play together. She's always been able to engage in proper play with Ranger so it isn't just a new thing but watching them together is always special. In one respect we definitely chose well when we brought Finna home. Her play style meshes very well with Ranger's; they both love to race and to wrestle.

They both play together so appropriately, there are frequent pauses, no one is being hurt so there is no yelping, since they play together a lot they only use abbreviated play bows, and all the growls and other noises are simply in play. I suppose someone who wasn't used to watching dogs play would assume they are fighting but I've watched enough dogs at play that I can usually tell when it starts going beyond play. Once early on, when Finna hadn't been here very long, I stopped their game because I saw Finna's hackles coming up. That's the only time I've ever seen things start to head toward inappropriate and after I stopped the game for a minute her hackles relaxed and Ranger went after  her again; several laps around the yard later they were tired and happy dogs lounging in the grass panting side by side. 

Ranger tends to be lazy and exert just enough effort to accomplish his goals. In general play he's fast but Finna is faster. What Finna didn't know for a long time is that Ranger has two more gears beyond where he usually plays with her. He has what we call putting it into gear where he really moves and what we refer to as going to afterburners where he flies. Finna likes it when he puts it into gear because that's a real challenge for her. The first time he went to afterburners it blew her mind because he can literally run circles around her when he does that. I suspect that if we ever get her unwound enough that she's not carrying any tension in her hips she'll be a challenge for Ranger even when he's gone to afterburners but for now there's no way she can keep up at that speed.

In my years of watching Ranger play with his pals and now watching him play with Finna I've noticed an interesting thing. Ranger often takes advantage of the tendency for dogs being chased to look back to see if the other dog is gaining on them. He used this on Finna the other day. He's chasing her and she's fleeing at top speed. Ranger peels off and angles to cut her off just as Finna looks back to see how close he's getting. Finna ploughs into his shoulder and looks astonished--he was behind her, what on earth is he doing blocking her way, how can he be in two places at once. Since Finna is really smart it didn't take her long to figure out what it is that he does and to try it herself. Except Ranger never looks back. As a result he sees what she's doing and rather than plough into her he leaps over her. He's able to physically block her in a  race game because she'll look back but she can't block him because he doesn't look back.

Finna is roughly half Ranger's size and she's developed one form of attack that Ranger hasn't figured out how to counter yet. Finna will lower her head, drop her shoulders a little and run underneath Ranger. She's not quite tall enough to high center him when she stands back up underneath him but she is tall enough to make him have to dance to get off of her. Sometimes she'll zoom back and forth underneath Ranger's belly and I wonder if she's enjoying the sensation of being petted with a furry blanket.

There is no doubt in my mind that Ranger is the higher status dog at our house but the confidence that makes him so high status also allows him to assume submissive postures with no loss of status. Finna is always thrilled when she manages to knock Ranger to the ground although watching what I see is Ranger letting her knock him down. She loves getting him on the ground and chewing on his ruff and on his front legs. Ranger lets her wear herself out doing this then as she gets tired he'll leap up and take off after her. When Ranger wants to take Finna somewhere he'll take the side of her face in his teeth and lead her around.

Here's a bit of video of Finna and Ranger at play. Of course I would film this on a day when all my deck furniture is in the front yard for pressure washing and the dogs would insist on wrestling in the dirt. I left the audio as recorded so you can hear the play growls.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Finna Levels

Trying to describe the different levels of intensity/insanity/out-of-controlness that is Finna I came up with the description that I want to install a rheostat on her. 


noun Electricity .
an adjustable resistor so constructed that its resistance may be changed without opening the circuit in which it is connected,thereby controlling the current in the circuit.

Finna came to us with her rheostat stuck between hyper-vigilant and frenzied. There really didn't seem to be any setting lower than that for a long time. Today her settings have a range beginning with relaxed/happy and continuing all the way up to frenzied. Sadly we do still see the frenzied setting from time to time but there are quite a few more settings than just watching for things to fly into a frenzy about (hyper-vigilant) and has completely lost it and cannot think at all (frenzied). 

We don't see relaxed/happy as often as I'd like but Finna is spending more time in calm/alert than ever before. My goal is to get her rheostat stuck between those two settings. At those settings she can think and make good choices. At calm/alert she hears the scary garbage truck on the street but chooses to stay focused on playing ball. I love that she can do that sometimes. 

As she escalates past the calm/alert setting Finna goes through 
concerned where she's thinking about whether something is scary to 
worried where she thinks that it is scary but can still think about whether she needs to react to 
upset where she's reacting to the frightening thing but can often re-engage her brains and dial it back down to 
freaked out where thinking goes completely out the window and she reacts with fear and aggression to 
hyper-vigilant and then 

Actually we don't see hyper-vigilant all that much any more; she seems to blast right through from freaked out to frenzied. When she gets to frenzied we have no control at all, at that level I'm not even sure she knows us. She does seem to know us at freaked out and I can sometimes see her trying to respond to us and our efforts to help her by removing her from the problem but the pathways just aren't well enough marked in her brain for her to be able to find her way back to sense once she's freaked out. At that point all we can do is remove her and give her time to settle down. 

Still, on the upside we don't spend nearly as much time at the high end of her settings as we once did and there are additional settings so we are making progress. Just very very slow progress. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Eighth Month Finnaversary

It's hard to believe we've only been living with our psycho bitch for eight months. It feels more like a lifetime. It helps in our efforts to rehabilitate this damaged dog to reflect back each month and consider where we are and where we've been.

Lately I've been using car metaphors when talking about Finna. We went to the Kitsap Humane Society looking for an econo car that my son could put some work into and have a decent ride. Finna was supposed to be his 4-H project dog; one that he could work with and learn some training skills and end up with a nice family dog and good friend. It didn't take us long to realize that rather than a car that needed some work we had a wreck. The outside didn't look too bad but the internal workings were pretty thoroughly trashed. We started to work trying to get the engine running and everything patched up.

We began with a dog that had no trust of any human, no idea that it was possible to play with a person, one that believed she had to grab what she wanted, that peed in the house regularly and that both craved and resisted touch. Today she has a good bond with me and to a slightly lesser extent with our son and daughter. She's learned to play with me and that she can't always have what she wants. She only pees in the house when she is very very stressed and enjoys a certain amount of petting. She came to us wound so tightly that she could barely function. The slightest noise would send her barking wildly trying to scare away whatever it was. She's not nearly as tightly wound today; I was astonished the other day when Finna was able to focus on playing ball despite the fact that our noisy neighbors had decided to disassemble their old washing machine with a sledge hammer.

Now that the engine is running, albeit still pretty rough, we're discovering that what we have is not a nice econo car but a Lamborghini with unreliable brakes and steering. Sometimes I can see flashes of the awesome dog she was meant to be but right now she can be scary to live with because she's still very reactive and unreliable. Imagine trying to drive a car that it takes just the slightest touch on the gas pedal to have it go instantly from 0 to 120 mph but the brakes and steering  only work below 35 mph! That's what it is like living with Finna.

Still we've now gotten to the point where it's possible to enlist the services of a professional trainer or as my daughter calls her "the doggie therapist." That always makes me laugh since I immediately picture Finna stretched out on the psychologist's couch saying "My mother was a real bitch!" Actually, I wish it was possible to psycho-analyse Finna and find out what terrors there are in her past so that we could address them.

After our first meeting with the professional trainer it's clear that we have Ranger to make me look good and Finna to keep me humble.  Finna was so stressed by the car ride that she arrived over threshold and never really recovered. The trainer saw Finna where she was right then and noted that we have a long long way to go. I could see Finna in relation to where she was and found it encouraging. There was some aggressive barking at the trainer but no lunging and Finna was able to explore. She didn't freak out at the mirrors or her reflection and she stayed connected and responsive to me. Eight months ago none of that would have been the case. Finna was able to play ball and tug by the end of the session. My timing for mark and reward was pretty lousy but I did learn how much  it was off and have been working on improving it.

It was very useful to talk to a professional who was coming at this process with fresh eyes. For example we'd gotten so focused on protecting my husband from Finna that we were actually making him irrelevant to her. He's now the one that feeds Finna morning and night and we try to make sure that he plays ball with her every day. It's too early to be sure how much difference it's making but my sense is that it is helping.

In the last eight months I've managed to get the beginnings of a good default sit from Finna. The trainer wants a reliable default watch. We'd already begun working on that but we're now stepping up the training. Finna still isn't very comfortable watching anyone else but the amount of time it takes her to watch with me is steadily decreasing. I'm really liking the fact that the trainer we're working with is all about capturing the good behavior and not about punishing the bad our instructions are to ignore bad behavior and to do our best to not put Finna in situations where she can practice bad behavior. This isn't always possible but I was really encouraged the morning we were outside playing ball and the noisy neighbors started screaming at their dogs. Finna broke off the game to react, recovered, broke to react, recovered and asked to go play in Ranger's enclosure where the is a lot less pressure from the distressing noises. She made a really good choice to remove herself from one of her triggers.

Another nice thing about working with the professional trainer is that some of the things in the books I'm reading suddenly make sense in a new way. Lately, I've been reading "Control Unleashed" (expect a Ranger Recommends Review on it soon) where the author describes a game she calls 'Give Me a Break' that helps a dog learn to focus on the handler. The nutshell version is that you dismiss your dog to go do whatever it is that's distracting them before they wander off on their own and because you're stopping while they still want to play they soon learn to keep begging you to play (and training, done right, should be fun play for the dog). In light of what I learned from the trainer this suddenly made sense in a good way and I've been trying to incorporate it into our ball playing time. Saying to Finna "Check it Out" the instant I see her attention start to shift and removing my attention from her is making a positive difference. She's finding that she'd rather play with me than run to the fence to bark at the noisy neighbors. It's a bit like the reverse psychology parents use on kids.

There's still a huge long long way to go for Finna to be a good canine citizen and not an unsafe dog but sometimes I actually think we might get her there. We have gotten her to the point where she's pretty good at home in her safe environment with just her family to deal with. In fact my husband recently asked if it was his imagination or if she was starting to grin. She is smiling a lot now and even smiling at my husband. That's a wonderful bit of progress.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reading to Ranger at the Library

Ranger loves being a registered therapy dog. Today he spent a couple of hours listening to kids read to him at the library. There were three teams in a big conference room. We got there first so I picked our spot in a nice corner with a nice cool brick wall to lean on. Our corner wasn't instantly obvious from the door and I was amused when Ranger moved away from the corner to lay more in the middle of the room where no one could miss him.

There were quite a few kids wanting to read to the dogs. It was nice that there were three dogs for the kids to read to so there wasn't a lot of waiting and the kids were good about taking turns. I got a bit tired of "Gilbert Goldfish Gets a Pet" and "Fancy Nancy and Pajama Day" which several of the kids picked to read to Ranger. Fortunately, for me several of the kids read very quietly so I didn't have to hear every word over and over. Ranger doesn't care what books they read to him. He's just happy to listen and get petting.

When we first registered with Therapy Dog International I made some trading cards of Ranger. I had a new batch printed and we were giving them to the kids. The other two dogs had bookmarks. the kids seemed to get a kick out of collecting all three items. On Ranger's card it lists K9 sign as one of his tricks. One boy was especially impressed by this. His cousin goes to school where they use sign language. He asked me if Ranger could sign ABCs and I talked about why Ranger couldn't make all the same gestures to sign that a person can. For example, Ranger's wrist doesn't bend the same way a human's does. When we compared the signs for water it turns out that they are very similar. The sign the boy showed me mimed drinking out of a cup or bottle. In K9 sign the gesture is brushing the left paw along the side of the mouth and cheek. It was pretty interesting.

Most of the adults were interested in the fact that Ranger knows some K9 sign. One of the librarians even came in to meet him because she heard some people talking about one of the dogs knowing K9 sign. And one of the other handlers was very interested. I hadn't brought any special treats, just whatever was in the bag in the car so I didn't have any chicken or cheese just "food." The other handler had some cheese flavored treats that she shared with me so I could demonstrate that Ranger knows the difference and uses different signs for food and cheese. 
One of the boys that came to read to Ranger had a Wimpy Kid book with lots of questions. He was having a really good time posing the questions to Ranger and I was answering them for him. One of the questions was "what practical jokes have you played on your parents?" I remember one joke that Ranger thought was very funny that I didn't think was nearly as amusing. We were at the dog park and Ranger had jumped up onto the picnic table. I told him to get off and he ignored me. When I reached for his collar to tug him off he growled and barked at me. I backed away and looked at him in surprise and disapproval. That's the point where Ranger gave me a big doggie grin and laughed before jumping off the table. He thought it was a great joke.

One of the girls that read to Ranger was a very reluctant reader. I'm not even sure she could read and she looked to be about 8 years old. It was good to watch her relax into reading the pictures as Ranger laid there listening. When she'd use words to tell the picture that were in the text I'd show her the words on the page. These are the kids that benefit the most from reading to a dog. 
Two hours was a long time. We took a break after about an hour and went out so Ranger could have a drink of water. It amuses people no end that Ranger drinks from a water bottle. I had him paws up on the edge of a flower bed so all the water that he doesn't drink goes somewhere useful. About 45 minutes into the second hour Ranger completely sacked out. He looks so sweet when he's asleep. At the end of the time we'd agreed to be there we went back outside and Ranger had another long drink of water. He was ready to go back in again but agreed to go home when I said we were done. 
If you want to read Ranger's version of reading at the library you can find it at http://www.dogster.com/dogs/658330/diary/Wag_more_bark_less/788472