Friday, November 1, 2013

Three Faces of Ranger

I have three photos of Ranger with different expressions on his face.

The kids in class didn't have any trouble identifying the expression on Ranger's face in the third photo. He is clearly angry and threatening. Ranger will tolerate the furminator for just so long before he's done. It probably wasn't the kindest course of action to push him to the point of snarling but I really wanted an angry photo. 

The second photo was also pretty easy for the kids in class to identify. Ranger is smiling. It was much easier to get a picture of him smiling than of him snarling. 

The first photo was much much harder for them to figure out. Before you read further go back and look at it again. What do you think his expression is saying?

Had another look? Good. The kids in the class were about equally divided between thinking it was a happy smile and thinking it was a peeved look. It's a perfect example of why so many people get themselves in trouble with dogs. Some dogs are especially subtle in their expressions. I'm lucky because as a rule Ranger is not very subtle when he's communicating with people. He seems to understand that he needs to be very clear or the humans won't understand. 

In that first photo I had been petting Ranger and discovered that he'd romped through a burr patch. I was working out burrs and he was just starting to be annoyed. When I look at the picture I see that his eyes are getting hard, his muzzle is starting to wrinkle and his lip is just beginning to curl. I need to stop what I'm doing or I need to provide some pleasant distraction like a treat. If I just keep working out burrs the next thing I'll see will look like the third photo a full on snarl and if I ignore that my hand is going to wind up in Ranger's teeth. 

The difficulty people have in decoding dog expressions is what gets them into trouble and what leads to a bite. It's why I try so hard to educate kids and adults too so that they can read a dog's communications and keep both species safer. 

I'll end with a more typical photo of Ranger. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"What I'll Take on My Trip"

I am having a wonderful time teaching kids about dogs. I like finding ways to help them relate to what is going on in the dog's head. Today's lesson was about how a dog figures out what the rule is; what the person wants. A clicker trained dog is brilliant at figuring out the rule, although you have to be careful that the rule you think you're teaching is the same one that the dog is learning.

When I was a kid my father used to load everyone in the car and drive around. It never seemed like the goal was actually going somewhere as much as simply all being together in the car with him driving We played a lot of games on these car trips. It was enforced family time and many of those car games have stuck with me over the years. One game in particular seems to correspond well to how dogs figure out the rule. The person beginning the game says "When I Go on My Trip I'm Going to Take a _________________" filling in the blank with something that fits the rule they are using. The next person has to take something that fits the rule plus whatever the first person took. If their item fits the rule they can go if it doesn't fit they don't get to go.

We played a variation on this in class today. I didn't worry about whether they could remember all the previous items or not only about whether their item fit the rule. I began, "When I Go on My Trip I'm Going to Take a Rug." In this first round not a single kid guessed that the rule was it needed to begin with an R; they guessed things that went in houses, things that were similar to rugs, thing that rhymed with rugs, etc. When it was my turn again I said I'd take a Rug and a Radish. About half the kids figured out the rule then, but it took a third round for everyone to get it. They were learning to figure it out much like a dog does. In the second game of "What I'll Take on My Trip" I began with a cantaloupe, the kids all thought the rule would be things that began with the letter C and that looked like a promising strategy with the kids bringing cake, candy, cherries, and carrots being allowed to come on the trip. Everyone was surprised when I said the kid bringing a cat couldn't come. So the rule wasn't just words that began with C, clearly that was part of the rule but not the entire rule. Canned Corn could come on the trip but the Camera couldn't. Kids began to test their hypotheses and eventually figured out that the rule was things to eat that begin with the letter C.

Dogs do the same thing, they observe what gets them rewarded and try to repeat that. Finna for example is learning to sit and scratch herself if she wants/needs an out. Initially, I was simply trying to get her to sit rather than barking wildly and launching herself onto me but she was stressed enough by trying to figure out the rule that she'd sit and scratch as almost one motion. This was marked and rewarded often enough that she began to suspect it was the rule. It amused me that she would sit and scratch as a way of asking to be let out that I made that the official rule. She's still not positive that it is both together and will sometimes scratch while standing and often offer just a sit. I only mark and reward when her behavior matches all of the rule and she's becoming more certain of what she needs to do to get me to take her out. Just like the kids in the class she tests hypotheses and tries different strategies.

Often in Finna's life the rules get more complicated. When we started teaching house manners Finna's rule was not to bolt out the door as soon as it opened. Once she'd mastered that the rule became sit and do not bolt out the door. Now her rule is sit, do not bolt out the door, make eye contact and wait to be given permission before going out the door. As she has learned the intricacies of the game the game has gotten more challenging.

Next week my two legged puppies will be meeting Ranger and learning about dog body language. I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

If You Were a Puppy Just Coming to Your New Home

I teach classes about dogs to kids K-3 and 4th-8th grades. Right now I'm teach a class I named Paging Dr. Dolittle. I'm pretty sure if I'd called it "Introduction to Animal Behavior" or "Beginning Behaviorism" my classroom would be empty but give it a fun sounding name and you can teach introductory animal behavior and beginning behaviorism in a full classroom. My goal in this class is to have kids think about the way we treat dogs and about how we interact with our dogs. It's my small contribution to improving the lot of pet dogs.

In class today we did what I found to be a really fascinating exercise. I asked my students, 9, 10, and 11 year olds for the most part, to imagine they were new puppies I'd just adopted and brought home. We repeated this exercise three times with three different scenarios.

In the first exercise I welcomed them in a neutral manner, provided no direction and ignored them for the next several minutes. Some students tried to engage me with questions, some sat quietly waiting for me to pay attention to them, some engaged each other in conversation and ignored me. At the conclusion I asked them how they'd feel about joining a house like that. The response was that it's very unsettling not to know what's expected, that they didn't like the complete lack of feedback.

In the second exercise I welcomed them in a brusque manner ordering them into their seats and giving them a firm "no" and rattle of the pencil box for any noise or wiggling. Some students froze, some leaned back in their chairs away from me and a few leaned forward across the table and misbehaved more and more. One girl, that I know to be extremely bright and confident, cowered in a corner. At the end of the exercise the students all told me how much they didn't like the noise and being corrected all the time. The ones that had escalated their misbehavior told me they'd wanted to push me into stopping what I was doing and that if I was going to correct them all the time they were going to fight back.

For the third exercise I welcomed the students in a friendly manner and encouraged them to sit in their seats. Sitting quietly and giving me eye contact was marked with a clicker and rewarded with an M&M. All the students sat quietly, leaning slightly forward in eager engagement. At the end of the exercise most of the students didn't know the entire criteria for what I was rewarding but they all knew sitting quietly was part of it. They all enjoyed the experience and liked that they were given positive, enjoyable feedback to help them figure out what to do.

I don't think anyone will be surprised to learn that the students unanimously preferred the third exercise. I love working with kids these ages. They're young enough that playing let's pretend is still interesting and old enough not to become too identified with who they are pretending to be. My bright, confident, young lady who cowered in the corner articulated her choice as "If I was a puppy and kept getting scolded, I'd feel like hiding in a corner and never doing anything."

It was an interesting class, in addition to the exercises we talked a lot about dog behavior, how to politely meet a dog, and what motivates dogs. We covered why dogs are often more leery of men, taller, looming, weight carried forward, and deep (growly) voices. We touched on why dogs bark, and jump on people--because it works they get what they want. And the kids were fascinated by the idea that I'd learned something new recently about dogs. When I explained that I'd learned that you have to ask both the person with the dog and the dog for permission the kids immediately grasped the idea. People don't always know how their dog is feeling or remember that the dog might not be feeling social right then so you ask the person and if they say it's OK you ask the dog by turning to the side and crouching down. If the dog wants to socialize with you the dog will approach if the dog doesn't want to socialize or be petted the dog will not approach. And over and over again we discussed the fact that dogs are going to repeat behavior that worked. The Chihuahua that jumps up on people to get attention is going to continue to jump on people. The St. Bernard that barks until he gets dinner is going to keep barking for his dinner. If it works the dog will keep doing it.

I'm going to really enjoy teaching this class.

Finna has finally learned how to cuddle. Here I am on the futon petting both dogs.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dogs are Dumb Animals, Right?

Let's begin today's tale with the fact that I am a very intelligent woman. I have a doctorate in Political Science, I'm a teacher, I'm widely read on a variety of subjects including dogs and dog training. When I'm working with my dogs I try to plan and anticipate potential pitfalls and I pride myself on how successful I am. Successful that is until it came to Finna having knee surgery on her right hind.

When Finna first came up lame we tried restricting her activities but this wasn't a very successful strategy. Have I mentioned that this dog has enough drive for an entire fleet of Lamborghinis? Realizing that the solution was likely to involve surgery and  a long recovery time I started planning what we'd need to make this successful. First, Finna was going to need a strong crate. We'd been building her a crate out of plywood and it was clearly the new priority to completely finish it. We added the doors and a sturdy sliding bolt to secure the crate closed. Bolting the doors shut I grabbed them and gave them a powerful yank; a little bit of movement but the hinges and bolt hold. Good, she can be secured now to teach her to be comfortable closed inside. It's hot so we move her waterbed inside and we practice locking her in her crate for increasing lengths of time. She's very happy secured in her crate while life goes on around the house but we also need to be able to secure her in one room.

Open plan houses are more of a challenge when it comes to blocking off one room but two free standing puppy gate look like they'll do the trick. Part of the opening between the living room and the atrium is already blocked off by a bookcase and backed onto the bookcase is a computer desk, slide one end of a gate into the space between the bookcase and the desk and it's pretty well secured. Place the end of the other gate between the wall and the tall CD tower, overlap the gates in the middle and Finna is limited to one room.

We'd been giving her anti-inflammatories and pain medication since her first instance of lameness and while it had taken a bit of experimenting to figure out how best to give Finna pills we'd found that rolling the pill in chunky peanut butter worked great. The chunky texture disguised the shape of the pill and she'd gulp it right down. She was comfortable in her crate even with the doors closed. She accepted the puppy gates and stayed in the living room. We'd figured out how to successfully give her pills. We were as ready as we'd ever be and her leg wasn't getting better. Surgery was scheduled.

Finna is not a good or safe patient. She was raised by animal hoarders and never handled or socialized but everyone involved knew and understood her issues and the surgery went smoothly. In fact her veterinarian thinking about what a high drive dog she is opted for a double run of suture material to replace the badly damaged cruciate ligament. Still she did pretty well with the surgical prep, great during surgery, and when the vet's office called the report was that she was coming out of the anesthetic well and I could pick her up in a couple hours.

It should have been a warning when I went to pick her up and she'd already managed to remove the plastic cone. She was still groggy enough that she was having trouble with her coordination but she'd managed to get rid of the cone. Still, I'd known she wouldn't like the cone and had supplied myself with an inflatable cloud restrictive collar so I thought it was all going to be fine. Ha! Little did I know.

We brought her home and secured her in her crate where she snoozed away the rest of the day. After a short bathroom break and her dinner I attempted to give Finna the prescribed dose of pain medication. She was supposed to receive one and an half tablets twice daily. I wrapped the dose in chunky peanut butter and Finna eagerly gulped the resultant glob off my finger. Then she casually spit out the whole tablet onto the floor. I wrapped it in more peanut butter and Finna looked at me like I was crazy and limped back into her crate and flopped down. I threw away the pill and peanut butter, debated trying to find something else to package the pill but opted instead to just secure her for the night and head upstairs to bed.

Finna didn't want to be secured for the night; she barked, she whined, she cried, she pawed the crate and I huddled in my bed hoping and praying she'd settle down and go to sleep. I wasn't one of those mother's that let their child cry it out and listening to my dog carry on I remembered why I'd never been able to go that route. Then suddenly all was quiet either she'd finally settled or one of the children hadn't been able to stand it anymore and released her. I considered going to see which but if it was the former I'd only set her off again and if the latter, well, both kids, 14 and 20, were responsible enough that they wouldn't leave her alone to roam the house.

The next morning I came downstairs to discover Finna asleep on the couch. Less than 24 hours after surgery my dog that is supposed to be on restricted mobility is found to have been roaming the house and jumping onto furniture. When I questioned the kids both denied having released Finna, puzzled, I gave Finna a potty break, fed her breakfast and attempted to dose her with pain meds. She consented to take the whole tablet this time but spit the half back out. OK, I thought, I get the message, the whole dose is too much. I put Finna back in her crate and watched in astonishment as she leaned on first one side of the french doors and then on the other, back and forth. As she did this I could see the sliding bolt gradually loosing contact with the piece it slides into. The mystery of who let Finna out in the night was solved; she'd done it herself. OK, new plan, smaller doses of medication and opening the futon out so that family members could take it in turn sleeping with Finna and putting up the puppy gates so she couldn't roam the house.

The puppy gates worked great, right up until the moment Finna heard something that needed her to investigate immediately. She tore through the wooden puppy gates like they were tissue paper, raced down the hall, and bounded onto the couch where she danced up and down barking wildly. That night she refused to take her pain meds in any amount no matter what I tried. Next morning she still wouldn't take her pain medications. She wasn't having any objections to taking her post surgery antibiotic or anti-inflammatory but no way would she take the pain meds. I called the vet's office and explained the situation including my feeling that it wasn't pain that the was the issue that the issue was her incredible drive. The vet concurred and prescribe a sedative to be used for the next ten days. She took her first dose of sedative without complaint but was so groggy and unstable that I was afraid she'd hurt herself falling on something. I reduced the dose and for 48 blissful hours Finna was calm and spent most of her time sleeping on the futon. Then she decided she was done with sedatives and on a potty break outside did her best to chase a squirrel up a tree. She only made it about a foot off the ground but I really did not need my recovering dog climbing trees at all. I hit the exotic foods aisle of the local World Market and brought home every type of pate they carried. At bedtime she took her sedative in lobster pate. In the morning she wouldn't touch lobster pate but agreed to consume liver pate. Liver wasn't acceptable at bedtime but tuna pate suited. Next morning pate was not acceptable in any flavor or form. But I had a brilliant idea, chunks of hot dog! This will work, I thought, I have a plan. We cut up a hot dog and I carefully selected a piece and tossed it to her; I was going to set up a rhythm, tossing chunks of hot dog without medication in them until she was used to just gulping them down then I'd stuff her sedative in one and she'd gulp it down. I tossed, she caught it and carefully bit it in half, dropped it on the ground and scrutinized it for pills. None found she gulped it down. I tossed another bit, she again caught it neatly, bit it in half, dropped it on the ground and checked it for pills before eating it. So much for that plan. The next thing I tried was grinding the pills and adding them to meals. That worked for several days until someone got sloppy and just put the pill in whole. She didn't eat that one but Ranger did. That's when we discovered that a sedative dose that is barely enough to take the edge off of 50 lb Finna is enough to completely knock a 90 lb Ranger out. In fact it took him down so fast that we actually called the emergency vet who had us bring him in. That was a comedy of its own but the upshot was that Ranger had a really good night's sleep and when the emergency vet's office was done laughing they didn't charge us for the visit.

Finna stopped taking sedatives, my husband rebuilt the puppy gates, and I added additional sliding bolts to Finna's crate. She continues to mend; her leg gets stronger everyday. We restrict her exercise where we can but I've resigned myself to the knowledge that Finna's recovery period will be far less than textbook. And now when people say "dogs are just dumb animals" I shake my head in disbelief thinking, if only they knew.

Finna thought it was all a great joke, including when we had to add a soft cone on top of her cloud collar because she figured out a way to reach her incision with just the cloud collar.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Triumph of the Ordinary

Petting, touching, handling, snuggling, cuddling--all things that are remarkably ordinary when you live with pets; you're used to sitting down and having a furry friend join you or having a dog or cat begging for petting and attention. It's completely ordinary and taken for granted. That is, unless you live with a Finna. 

When we adopted Finna she was uncomfortable being petted, at the time I put it down to fear. When I discovered recently that she has no idea how to cuddle I realized something that makes my heart break for her. Dogs that are being raised to fight get better socialization than she did, they get more handling and more time with people. Michael Vicks dogs were probably better socialized than Finna! No one ever handled this dog before she came to live with us, no one petted her, loved her, played with her, or even simply examined her with touch. I often think there needs to be a special place in the darkest pits for people who instead of nurturing those that are dependent on them neglect and abuse them. Whether the dependent one walks on two legs or four if you've accepted them into your life you owe them care, care that Finna is only now coming to know and expect.

Since I realized that Finna didn't know how to snuggle or cuddle I've been trying to spend a few minutes every day laying on the floor and asking her to cuddle with me. Sometimes I've managed to get her to lay down by my feet or just out of reach for a minute or two but for the most part my success has been limited to a couple of seconds of cuddling before Finna gets overwhelmed and refuses to cooperate. It's hard to believe that I'm having to actively spend time teaching her something that is so unremarkable and ordinary. That's why it was such a triumphant victory recently when Finna came, hopped up in my chair with me, lay down along the arm of the chair and went to sleep. She only slept for about five minutes and freaked out when she woke up because my elbow was too near her sore leg (just some growl and grumble) before hopping down and sacking out on the floor but simply that she would sleep next to me was a huge victory. My lessons on snuggling seem to have paid off.

Victories like this are what make it all worthwhile. It's the triumph of getting behaviors that in other dogs would be so normal, so ordinary, as to be totally ordinary that keeps me hoping and keeps us working to rehabilitate our damaged dog. Today she smiles a lot and she's learning to cuddle and snuggle. Finna is gradually growing to more and more resemble an ordinary dog and that is a huge victory and triumph!

Finna is getting ready for a nap in her newly completed Finna Bin--a plywood crate we built for her. I like the way you can see her eyelids getting heavier and heavier.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ranger Recommends Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Fear, Frustration and Aggression in Dogs by Grisha Stewart

Ranger recommeds Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Fear, Frustration and Aggression in Dogs by Grisha Stewart. Actually Finna is even more likely to recommend it since she's the one with more experience with this training protocol. It is making a marked improvement in her abilities to cope as well.

Behavior Adjustment Training BAT uses functional rewards to adjust a dog's reaction to stimulus. When Finna looks at one of her many many triggers and glances away we mark and reward the behavior by turning and walking away. After all, when Finna barks and lunges at a trigger what she's really trying to do is scare it away in order to increase her distance from it. When she gets to move away from the trigger by offering a more polite response--glancing away, turning away, sniffing the ground, etc.--she's being reinforced for the more polite behavior by giving her what she wanted to achieve through the inappropriate behavior. Think of it this way, if you could get what you wanted either by saying please or by having a tantrum which would you rather do. I'd much rather say please since that involves a lot less effort. Dogs are just as lazy as I am; if the same result can be achieved by less effort they'll choose the easier method.

Stewart does a very nice job of laying out the step by step set ups without becoming boringly repetitious. Her prose is clear and easy to understand and I found myself nodding along thinking, yes, that make sense and oh, so that's what's happening. It's definitely one that will remain in my all things dog library.

One of the things I found most striking in the book is how much of the BAT protocol I've always used with Ranger. Ranger has a significant advantage over Finna in that he is both much better socialized and also a very effective communicator. Ranger was raised with people and learned to make the broader gestures that people see when he wants something from them. Finna was raised by a pack of dogs and had extremely limited and inconsistent socialization with people. The part of BAT I'm having the most trouble with is learning to recognize Finna's signals. They are small and subtle particularly when she's walking in front of you and all you have is the back of her head, body, and her stub of a tail. I catch the big gestures, when she turns her head or sniffs the ground, but glances are much harder for me to observe from my position. It is obvious that teaching her a really nice heel is a high priority so that she walks naturally in a position where it is easier for me to observe her more subtle cues.

BAT is an effective training tool that is empowering to both the handler and the dog. Finna is learning that I will move her to a safe distance when she asks which takes much of the pressure of her--she doesn't have to worry all the time that she's going to be unable to escape. I am learning that she can make better choices than to lunge barking wildly at the extreme end of her leash and that make me more relaxed. It's an excellent book and we all recommend it highly.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dog Safety

I teach a class for kids 5-9 most years about dogs. The class started out with the goal of simply getting kids to think of their dog at home as being more than just part of the furniture and landscaping. Over the years this basic goal has remained but the class has expanded to include dog safety, simple behaviorism, basic clicker training, and introduction to a variety of working dogs.

I was delighted when a friend shared this adorable video with me, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36Z9RRjiQMA. This little song was perfect for class. In fact I took the liberty of writing many more verses that we learned in class.

 I Speak Doggy tune of London Bridge is Falling Down

What dogs like I understand,
what dogs like I understand
‘cause I speak doggy

I hug friends I don’t hug dogs,
don’t hug dogs,
don’t hug dogs
I hug friends I don’t hug dogs
‘cause I speak doggy

I pet with one hand collar to tail,
collar to tail,
collar to tail,
I pet with one hand collar to tail
‘cause I speak doggy

When he eats I walk away,
walk away,
walk away
when he eats I walk away
‘cause I speak doggy

When he sleeps I walk away,
walk away,
walk away,
when he sleeps I walk away
‘cause I speak doggy

If he jumps I freeze like this
freeze like this,
freeze like this
If he jumps I freeze like this
‘cause I speak doggy

If he’s rough I’ll be a rock,
be a rock,
be a rock,
if he’s rough I’ll be a rock
‘cause I speak doggy

I will never stare at him,
stare at him,
stare at him,
I will never stare at him
‘cause I speak doggy

With a dog I will not shriek,
will not shriek,
will not shriek,
with a dog I will not shriek
‘cause I speak doggy

I will ask before I greet,
before I greet,
before I greet,
I will ask before I greet
‘cause I speak doggy

To greet a dog I’ll give my hand,
give my hand,
give my hand,
to greet a dog I’ll give my hand
‘cause I speak doggy

A wagging tail, can tell me stuff,
tell me stuff,
tell me stuff,
a wagging tail can tell me stuff
‘cause I speak doggy

A calm relaxed dog wags like this,
wags like this,
wags like this
a calm relaxed dog wags like this
if I speak doggy

A hyper dog will wag like this,
wag like this,
wag like this
a hyper dog will wag like this
if I speak doggy
Greet the calm dog this I know,
this I know,
this I know,
greet the calm dog this I know
‘cause I speak doggy

If he’s hyper I’ll let him go,
let him go,
let him go,
if he’s hyper I’ll let him go
‘cause I speak doggy.

If he warns I’ll walk away,
walk away,
walk away,
slowly I will walk away
‘cause I speak doggy.

Be respectful to the dog,
to the dog,
to the dog
be respectful to the dog

‘cause NOW you speak doggy!

I love the idea of setting good dog information to familiar childhood tunes. They are fun, easy to remember, and just maybe it will make the life with my fearful Finna a little safer. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why Ranger and I Are a Therapy Dog Team

Ranger has had a busy time lately. Wednesday he was at school with me helping kids learn about dogs, Saturday he joined other Therapy Dog International dogs at a local nursing home, and the following Wednesday he listened to kids read at the library.

At school Ranger got to show the kids that he listens and obeys better if you speak to him gently rather than shouting at him. He showed them why you don't stare at dogs and how dogs don't really like hugs. Ranger and I have a very good relationship and I take a calculated risk and loom over him staring at him or throwing my arms around his neck and hugging tight. It's hard to miss how he backs away and looks uncomfortable when I loom and stare (although to be honest by now he's been through this demonstration so many times that he doesn't react very strongly) or how his happy smile disappears when I hug him tightly.

Ranger makes me laugh, all 15 kids in the class petting him at once is just what he likes. I keep a close eye out for any kid that isn't treating him appropriately or any sign of stress on his part but I almost never have to intervene. After my Dig those Dogs class Ranger usually waits through my next class in the back of the car but Wednesday was warm and sunny, too hot to leave him in the car so he got to stay for my second class. After all the kids petted him I handed his leash to the TA who'd come in just for that purpose and set about testing another one of those projects you can find on the internet. It turns out you really can dye fabric with sharpie pens and rubbing alcohol. While most of the class continued adding designs to the dishtowels I'd brought for dyeing one student asked if he could pet Ranger instead. As he put it "I have sharpies, towels and rubbing alcohol at home, I don't have a dog." He spent half the class petting Ranger and I noticed that one by one other students finished their designs and came to love on Ranger until probably half the class was petting him. As the kids were heading out for pick up by their parents the one that had first asked if he could pet Ranger told me that he'd been having a lousy day, and that he'd been kind of stressed out but after petting Ranger he was feeling calm and relaxed. That's why we do what we do.

At the nursing home Ranger interacted with a lot of people and made them feel good but two women stand out. One was slumped in her big walking frame and completely disengaged from everything. I asked if she liked dogs and took her vague noise as a yes. Ranger walked up beside her and she continued to slump there doing nothing. Thinking she might be blind I told her that if she'd slide her hand to the side it would land on Ranger's head. She complied, letting her hand flop onto Ranger, after a couple minutes her hand began to move in his fur and she straightened slightly. When Ranger indicated that it was time to move on one of the other dogs in our group took his place. By the fourth dog the woman was sitting up straight and smiling.

The other woman was sitting in a chair when I asked if she'd like to pet Ranger she indicated that she could hardly move the hand on the side nearest him but that she'd like to pet him. I asked him to move closer to the chair and she reached across her body with her other hand to pet him. After a bit another dog came to take Ranger's place and we moved on to someone else. When I glanced back I saw her reach out with her bad arm to pet the dog. In petting the dogs she'd forgotten that one arm was damaged and was so engaged that she used that arm to pet. That's why we do what we do!

At the Library Ranger listens to reluctant and hesitant readers. I love it when they're reading a book with a strong rhythmic component. Ranger will often huff along with the beat or echo it. The kids get the biggest kick out of Ranger reading with them. At the end of their session the child has enjoyed a very positive experience with a book and a big dog. That's why we do what we do.

I know I used this same photo recently but it captures things so well. Ranger is a Therapy Dog.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Dog Training Dog

If only I could be as clear, unambiguous, and have excellent timing like Ranger when I train. He really is a master and I learn a lot from him.

Recently we went for a walk with a friend and her dog. She has a young cattle dog typical of the breed. His favorite game is chase and herd and he barks at the head of the animal he's trying to turn, in this case Ranger. Ranger loved the off leash running in the woods and playing herding games with his pal but Ranger does not love having someone bark in his face. Because he doesn't like having someone bark in his face Ranger set about training his pal. Running, chasing, cutting each other off, and even stare downs were fine and Ranger would happily engage in herding dog play but bark in his face and Ranger immediately stopped engaging with his friend. He wouldn't run, he wouldn't chase, he wouldn't even look at his playmate. He would simply freeze and pretend his friend wasn't there. As soon as the barking would stop Ranger would re-engage. They had maybe half an hour of off leash time together. In the beginning there was a lot of barking by the end there was hardly any.

Let me recap. Ranger knew exactly what behavior he wanted to end--barking in his face. Ranger rewarded any play behavior that wasn't barking in his face and Ranger never rewarded the behavior he didn't like. His playmate got reinforced for all play behavior except barking. The barking was nearly extinguished in half an hour of play. What Ranger did not do was use positive punishment to end the undesired behavior.

I need to take a brief digression here to talk about punishment and reward as defined by behaviorists. Behaviorists assign things to four categories, positive reward, negative reward, positive punishment and negative punishment. Please, remember I am not a trained behaviorist but as I understand these categories, positive reward is adding something to increase the chance of the behavior being repeated--Ranger playing with his pal for any behavior that wasn't barking was giving his friend a positive reward, play, for playing that didn't involve barking. Negative reward is removing something to increase the likelihood of the behavior being repeated. When Finna glances away from one of her triggers and I immediately take her further away from that trigger I am giving her a negative reward--something that she found scary is not as close anymore. Positive punishment, adds something to decrease the likelihood of the behavior being repeated--if Ranger had growled at his playmate to get him not to bark that would have been positive punishment. Negative punishment removes something to decrease the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. Ranger removed his attention and engagement from his friend in response to barking. The calculation for his friend became simple and went something like this, "Bark and Ranger won't play with me, don't bark and Ranger will play with me. I like to play with Ranger so I won't bark."

Ranger is easily twice the size of his cattle dog pal so physical intimidation would be pretty easy for him but Ranger didn't use positive punishment. He used positive reward and negative punishment. His friend was given clear feedback and could make his own choices about how he was going to play with Ranger. If barking was the only way the pal could play he could have kept barking but he wouldn't have had a playmate. Rather than shutting his friend down with a growl or snap every time he barked Ranger provided a clear choice don't bark and we can play or bark and we can't play.

I don't consciously use positive punishment in training Ranger and Finna although I'm aware that sometimes they may interpret thing that I do, such as hugs, as positive punishment. I do my best to be clear and consistent but after watching Ranger training his friend I'm even more aware than usual that my timing is lousy and my consistency is slipshod. I'll just have to keep practicing and keep watching Ranger for training tips.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ranger Recommends: Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out

Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out: Training Crazy Dogs from Over-the-Top to Under Control by Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP is another of those books that Ranger and even more Finna would heartily recommend. I picked up the book because the title made me laugh and definitely captured life with Finna. It turned out to be the perfect 'textbook' to go with what our trainer is teaching us.

When we're working together on training Finna with her right there we don't have the luxury of going into the logic behind what our trainer is asking us to work on. I have a wide ranging knowledge but very little practical experience--although I sometimes think that by the time Finna is done with me I should be able to pass any test for training certification with my eyes closed. Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out is the perfect bridge between the practical hands on work our trainer directs and the theoretical knowledge I've gained through my wide reading.

On nearly every page I found myself thinking "Oh, so that's how those pieces fit together. That's great. Now I get it." For example, I've read a lot about the limbic system and how it affects a the way dogs, and other mammals too for that matter, respond to stimulus. We've worked a lot on impulse control with Finna and on giving her tools that allow her to respond thoughtfully. Baugh provides a simple graphic at one end is the fight or flight response and at the other is the rational thoughtful response. As she describes it dogs are born somewhere on the continuum between these two extremes. Dogs like Finna are born much closer to the fight or flight response and dogs like Ranger are born more toward the rational thought end. Every dog has it's own genetically programmed range on the continuum. Good training can move a dog like Ranger who tends to think before he acts anyway to a position on the continuum where he is darn near bombproof. Good training can move a dog like Finna out of the fight or flight response into an area where she can think. She's never going to be as bombproof as Ranger but she is able to learn much better responses than barking and lunging at anything she finds frightening. I looked at Baugh's graphic and her brief description and suddenly all the things I've learned about the limbic system and all the work we've done with Finna on impulse control meshed and I understood how the two related and it all made better sense.

Reading Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out helped me to connect my theoretical knowledge and the practical applications and made me a much better trainer. Ranger and Finna both highly recommend it for anyone who is dealing with a crazy dog. Not only was it extremely helpful but it was also a very enjoyable read. We all recommend it.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Finnaversary number 16

Let me start by saying I love our trainer. She gets me and she gets Finna. That counts for more than I can say. We have a dog that is genetically predisposed to be a pessimist whose early upbringing reinforced her expectation that whatever happened it wasn't going to be good for her. Ranger by contrast is predisposed to believe whatever happens next will be good and his early upbringing reinforced that belief. One of the things that frustrates me the most about Finna is that her pessimism can be tempered by experience. If it was new to her when she began living with us she's fine with it. A dog that is hardwired to be afraid of everything would have a hard time learning to use the treadmill or tolerating the vacuum cleaner. Finna mastered treadmill use in about 10 days and she'll let me vacuum to within about six inches of her before she gets up and moves. She didn't immediately embrace these things with enthusiasm but we went slowly and gave her room to think about it. One slow step at a time; the first step was just being in the same room as the moving treadmill belt. From there we asked her to be a foot away, take treats with her head over the belt when the treadmill was running, to touch the moving belt with her paw, to step onto the moving belt and eventually to trot at speed. If we'd had her from the time she was a puppy and she'd been introduced to everything in the same slow deliberate fashion she wouldn't be the mess she is today. Imagine if instead of introducing the treadmill one small step at a time we'd dragged her over to it, turned it on, tied her so she had to run on it and bumped it up to a goodly speed. I'm afraid that's the way most things happened for Finna in her formative years.

Finna is a very conflicted dog; like all dogs she's hardwired to want to be social; to be part of a group. Unfortunately, she's also a dog that is pessimistic about the outcome of social interactions. This means that she both craves and resists contact. She'll beg for petting and ear rubs but mouth at my hand while I'm delivering the petting (harder to mouth the hand that's rubbing her ears plus ear massage is relaxing). Where it really gets frustrating is in terms of Finna's relationship with my husband. She'll lay there next to him with her head in his lap but will snap at him if he tries to pet her. She wants to be close to him but her genetic pessimism and her early experience are totally at odds with what she wants. Talk about conflicted--she wants to be touching him but not to have him touch her.

In great news Finna has found a way to not get protective when my husband wants to bring me something or talk to me. She grabs a rubber ball and chews it like a piece of gum. She finds it sufficiently relaxing that she even lays down while chewing it when he comes near! He's learned to pause for a bit while she finds her chew ball and all is well. If he forgets to pause she gives him what we've dubbed the wait, wait, let me get my ball bark, he pauses she finds her ball and everything is fine. And best of all now that she's found a way to soothe herself when he's moving around I'm noticing that she's needing to do it less all the time! As you know if you've been following this blog you know this has been an ongoing issue so I'm totally thrilled that she has something that works for her that allows him to move around the house freely and even come close to me without Finna behaving badly.

And for bad news I realized today that Finna has been such a velcro dog for so long that she never learned a solid "come." Guess what we're working on now. ;-)

All in all though, 16 months into this adventure we have a different dog than the one we started with. The dog we have now can usually think and can make better choices for how she wants to behave. Finna is now taking group classes for reactive dogs and at our last class she was so good that other participants wanted to know why she was there!! She's come a long long way from the initial meeting where our trainer tried very gently but clearly to warn us that not all dogs can be rehabilitated.  Here's the dog we adopted in a photo taken very soon after we got her home.
This is not the dog we still have. The Finna of today is more relaxed and confident. She still has a long way to go but I think she really can become the dog she was meant to be.