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.

1 comment:

  1. I love reading these updates. I hate to think of what might have happened to her if someone with less know-how and patience than you and your family had gotten her.

    She's coming along! You'd better start thinking of some other way to refer to her than "Psycho Bitch" - she's a bitch (female dog) but she won't be "psycho" forever! You're doing good!

    Your son is learning too. Does he keep updates, too. Would that be helpful to his project?