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.