Friday, August 31, 2012

K9 Sign with Dad: Communicating with the Hard of Seeing

Those of you who've followed this blog know that Ranger has learned several "words" in a shared gestural language called K9 Sign. See the first post in this blog for more details. This morning while I was throwing the ball for Finna my husband was trying to "talk" to Ranger in K9 Sign. I was highly entertained how Ranger replied.

To get the full picture you need to know a few signs. "What" is the pinky on the right hand moved horizontally left to right, "Is" is formed by moving the right hand pinky vertically top to bottom and "This" is made by pointing with the right hand index finger. I make the sentence "What is this" with my elbow against my side and my hand moving maybe an inch from the line formed by my arm. My husband is learning the signs and tends to make them very broadly. "What is this," when he signs it is the whole fore arm moving along with the fingers and hand. His signs cover feet rather than barely an inch.

Ranger was being asked to identify treats that "Dad" had for him. Dad had a handful of generic treats to which Ranger would sign "Food" by lifting his left paw up and setting it down. When Ranger tells me that I have "food" for that people in the park are packing treats his sign is very subtle a quick lift and place that most people don't even notice.

Watching Dad sign "WHAT IS THIS" Ranger obviously concluded that Dad must be hard of seeing because Ranger responded with highly exaggerated gestures replying "FOOD." It really made me laugh. When Ranger answers my small quick signs you have to watch closely to catch his reply but when replying to my husband's slow exaggerated signs Ranger answered in kind.

I suggested my husband go inside and bring out the video camera so I could record their conversation but he and Ranger went off to do something else.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Finnaversary Month Nine: Celebrating the Tiny Victories

Nine months into our adventures in rehabilitating our unsocialized, grew up with animal hoarders, damaged dog and I can safely say we're learning a lot! One of the things we're learning is the importance of celebrating even the tiniest victory.

Having lived with Finna there are some things that I can now say with a certain amount of confidence. Simply because of the way that she is wired Finna will always be a more high strung and intense dog. That's how she's made. However, I'm convinced that if she'd been brought up right and socialized as a puppy she'd be a confident and amazing dog rather than the highly reactive fear aggressive dog she is today. Socialization really is that important.

I found something in an article about positive dog training that really says it all. "He had already found that it was much more effective to condition an animal to see the world as an environment in which something positive could occur at any moment." the full article can be found here http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/how-technology-from-30-years-ago-is-helping-military-dogs-perform-better-no Ranger grew up in that world and that's the one he believes in. Finna grew up in a world where her environment taught her that at any moment something negative might happen. We've worked hard to change Finna's expectations but her early experiences are still dominanting her beliefs.

Living with Finna we look for any victory that we can find. Here are some of our recent victories. Finna has realized that she can look to the rest of us for threat assessments. Thunder in the distance one morning had Finna worried and looking in every direction for the threat. Then she checked our reactions and realized that no one else was worried and she relaxed. Finna was also concerned when an owl flew low along the fence line. She barked an alert and Ranger ran to see what the problem was. He reacted to the owl with indifference (you called me for that?) and my daughter and I were reacting with wonder (how cool is that, I don't think that owl is even 10' away). Finna saw those reactions and dismissed the owl as anything about which to be concerned.

The other morning while we were out playing ball the garbage truck came. This is something that used to set Finna off, all that clanking, banging, and then they take away "our stuff." Finna's ears flickered a few times but she stayed connected and focused on playing ball. Garbage truck came and went without a barking frenzy.

Finna was able, on the third session, to take treats while at the trainers. Think about how upset your stomach feels when you're nervous and stressed. Do you want to eat when you feel like that? I know I don't and from her behavior that's the way Finna was feeling. Being able to eat at the trainers was a huge leap!

Down is proving very difficult to teach Finna. Her sit is getting better and better but down remains elusive. Usually, it takes holding one hand lightly on her lower back when she's sitting to get her to down. In a training session the other day we had two unassisted downs. She was following the lure but previously we couldn't get her to down without a hand on her back even with the tastiest of lures. Ranger has a really good down from either sitting or standing so we're asking him to down as an example to Finna. The only time Finna downs consistently is on the slope when we're playing ball. We're working on naming that down trying to build the connection in her head between the word and the action. It's a slow process but we'll get there someday.

Finna has learned to put two front paws up on the balance board. We have a board set on two cinderblocks in Ranger's enclosure. We set it up when we were teaching Ranger to feel comfortable with unstable surfaces (board bounces slightly under his weight)  and never bothered to take it down. Helping Finna figure out that we wanted her to put her front paws on the board was a great training exercise. So much of what we're training her to do is critically important to our ability to keep everyone safe that an exercise that had no real point was great. There was no reason for getting frustrated because even if she never learned to put two paws on that board it wouldn't matter. In actual fact it will be a useful skill as we generalize it. At some point we'll probably teach her to use sandpaper on a board to keep her claws worn down, for example.

For months whenever Finna was inside our living room was off limits to Ranger and my husband. She'd decided this was her territory and she was very happy to defend it. I'm pleased to say that both of them are now allowed at least part way into the room quite often. There's still some territoriality but it's slowly diminishing.

It is now possible to work with both dogs together. Ranger thinks training time is a lot of fun but he wasn't enjoying it much when he'd do what we asked and Finna would shove herself in and grab his reward. Finna can now hold a sit while I give Ranger his treat and then give Finna her treat. I'm hopeful that the lightbulb will go on in Finna's head someday soon and she'll realize that she can copy Ranger to get treats. He has a wide repertoire of behaviors that I'd like to have Finna learn.

Finna remains somewhat leery of my husband and if he walks past when she's sleeping she usually jumps up to scold him. Twice one evening she simply slept through him walking past. I didn't even see her ears flicker. Finna also reacts with barking to the sound of the bedroom or bathroom door opening. Last night as my husband went to bed Finna lay quietly on the floor enjoying some petting.

The dog that didn't know there was any meaning attached to the sounds that come out of human mouths now recognizes a few nouns, a skill that goes beyond simply recognizing behavior cues such as sit. Finna knows ball and I was pleased to discover that she knows hedgehog. I often ask her to find her ball when I've lost track of it. I think she's still amazed at how I can lose the ball in the dark and not find it by smell. Finna is very good at finding the ball and showing me by pointing with her nose where it is. She was restless the other day and I didn't want to go back out in the 90 degree heat. I thought a nice game of fetch with the squeaky hedgehog would be just the thing. Making conversation I said something to Finna about I wonder where your hedgehog is. We need to find your hedgehog. Finna trotted off and returned with the hedgehog!

These are the small victories we celebrate. They are the bright spots in our life with this highly reactive and unsocialized dog. They are signs that we are getting through to her and that she is getting better even if it is very very slowly. Finding the small victories is what makes it possible for us to keep going.

I'll close with my favorite victory to celebrate. We now have a dog that smiles. She  smiles quite a bit now. My daughter snapped this photo during a recent training session. Two happy attentive dogs smiling.