Monthly Archives: January 2012

Proofing Waits

If one is proofing bread dough, one is letting it rise (which, I suppose, proves that the yeast is growing well); if one is proofing dog behavior, one is making sure that the dog understands what is expected of him (her) no matter what distractions there are.

Let us take a particularly egregious example: Dancer is incapable of attention to me (or anyone) in the presence of a cat. Cats fascinate her. She desperately hopes they’ll run, so that she can chase. How would I proof Dancer’s behavior against cats? I’d have to start with a cooperative cat (perhaps a stuffed one?) at a distance where Dancer could pay attention, reward heavily for attention, then move slightly closer… and repeat over and over and over.

At this point, with Dancer almost six and that distance at over 100 feet, I’m not sure I’ll do anything other than manage the behavior. Thankfully, I have never seen a cat at an agility trial.

However, I am proofing Rush’s waits, the same way I proofed Dancer’s (having learned from Elly). Wait to me means: pay attention, stay in exactly that position, and wait for me to release you. It’s an attention behavior. (Actually, having learned from Dancer as well as Elly, I am going back and proofing Dancer’s waits too.) I started with a sit-wait for Rush. Sit there, wait while I take a step back, step forward, reward for the wait, say “okay” as a release word… The classic three D’s of any dog training: duration, distance, distraction. Once I thought Rush understood sit-wait, I started training stand-wait and down-wait. (Down-wait is the weakest at this point.)

I kept training waits (in any position). I added distance, I added weird behaviors (like dancing and singing before I said “okay”). I pounded on the tunnel with his toy (and put it away and took him back to his original position when he broke his wait). I walked in a circle behind him; I dropped his toy… He’s getting really good at waiting to be released.

I’m almost ready to try again asking him to wait while I do something with Dancer…. The last time I tried that, it was a spectacular failure; I ended with two poodles happily playing with each other and ignoring me.

Training

Poodles being as smart as they are, I’ve found that I need to have a training project in mind for each dog. Even Elly, who is now eight years old, spends her spare time thinking up mischief if I don’t keep her brain occupied. Maybe I should say especially Elly!

My current training projects with Elly are three. First, there is the perennial project of trying to teach her loose-leash walking. I wonder now if I would have been more successful if I’d been more consistent when she was a pup; I was so clueless about training that I didn’t understand why I shouldn’t allow her to pull me into the agility ring, even when it was pointed out to me. Anyway, my current method, applied consistently over the last six months or so, is starting to show results. Keep in mind she doesn’t have a collar; I use a harness because of her shoulder and hip issues. That makes it harder. In any case, I’m finding that stopping and backing up (not turning around, backing up) as soon as she’s about to pull (not once she does) gets the point across far better than anything else I’ve tried. (I use the same method with Rush, who pulls very little already; more below.)

Second, I’m trying to teach Elly not to bark out the window so much. This is challenging because she loves to bark at any dog walking by; since we live on a corner lot, this happens a lot. I was determined when I got Rush that he would not bark, so I consistently rewarded him to coming to me when Dancer and Elly barked. He now runs to me when the bark, and gets rewarded; Elly and Dancer have noticed this and Dancer now comes running when Elly barks, too. Elly seems to prefer barking to food, at least for a bit, but is starting to interrupt to come for treats too. My goal is to get her to interrupt sooner.

Third, I’m working on WAIT with Elly. She never had much of a start-line stay, because I never really trained it. Now that she’s not competing any more, I am training it. Go figure. She now has to WAIT for her dinner; to get out of the car; to go out a door; to go into a tunnel; for just about everything—and suddenly she’s learning to wait. Funny how easy consistency makes training. I can even walk around her in a sit, sometimes.

(Note: I use Elly to practice my shaping for various tricks I want to teach Rush. She’s very clicker-savvy, loves shaping and playing games, and I don’t care what the results are, which makes me that much more relaxed. It’s a good way for both of us to learn.)

With Dancer, I’m focusing on the CPE Nationals in June. This week Debbie and I worked on her double jump. She’s been nervous about it; we tried using a stride regulator (jump bump) to help her learn where to put her feet. The stride regulator is four feet from the front bar; she needs to take off from just inside the bump. It really surprised me what a difference it made to her jumping form. I am also working on her contacts, on weave entries (and fast weaves), and practice shaping her path. I’d like her to be more confident on the teeter, as well, so I’m rewarding the teeter a lot.

Now that Rush and I have started first level agility class and he’s begun to learn equipment (jumps at four inches, the tunnel, the hoop, the end of the dog walk and the bottom of the a-frame), I feel like he’s learning at lightning speed. It’s pretty clear that I have to get new things right the first time, because he learns so fast! At class on Saturday, he was introduced to the ladder. He was so tentative and so unsure. I took him through slowly, gave him lots of treats for every step he made through it; when we came back around to do it a second time, he trotted through with his tail held high like he’d been doing it forever.

I’m struggling with Rush’s excitement level in agility class. He gets so excited that he forgets his manners and jumps up and snaps at me. I remember when Dancer used to do the same thing. I know what Rush is thinking: get a move on! let’s go! come on! you’re so fucking slow! I stop and I wait for him to calm down but I want better results and I want them now—I’m as bad as he is. Dana suggests I take a step into him when he starts to jump up at me. I’ll try that the next time I get a chance.

Debbie is trying to help Rush get his focus off me and onto the equipment; we’re using his toy as a target. The final exercise this week was to send him over a jump moving away from a second jump, then wrap the jump standard (using a front cross) and send him over the jump to his toy. He did well with it, but he sure was annoyed at first, until he figured it out. There’s a lot of dog training that is very zen: to get the toy, he had to not want the toy and move away from it. It’s a lot like the “It’s Your Choice” game (my description here), which is all about not wanting the cookie to get the cookie.

Finally, I’m working on loose-leash walking with Rush as well. He doesn’t pull like Elly (meaning: he’s not a freight train), but he also isn’t a relaxed leash walker like Dancer, which is what I want. BUT… I’ve been completely consistent with Rush. He’s not allowed to pull into the house, into the arena, into the barn, through the gate, anywhere. Not ever. The first time I walked him around the block, I think I walked backward more than I walked forward. Walking backward turns him right around starts him toward me; when he’s halfway to me, I start walking forward and he ends up right at my side. Three or four steps and I reward. If I reward every ten feet or so, I have a beautiful loose-leash walk even in the excitement of class. Outside of class, we can go all the way around the block. The next part of that is to extend the loose-leash walking with more duration, more distractions, and less instruction from me; I want it to be the default.

Did I mention the fleas?

Ten days ago, I went to clip Elly; I was planning on using a 4FC blade, but when I started, I saw fleas. Lots of fleas. I swear, they weren’t there before, but now they were. I clipped her all over with a 9, even her tail. I clipped Dancer with a 9; I clipped Rush with a 9. Everyone got to keep their topknots. I bathed them with a natural flea bath (lots of flea-repellent oils)–twice. I treated with a topical at the back of the neck–once per dog. I treated the carpets (boric acid and flea-repellent oils) and vacuumed the whole house–twice. I bought a flea trap (I have no idea if it actually works, but it makes me feel better.)

Everyone is scratching a whole lot less.

I know it’s a cliche to say “I’ve never had problems with fleas before” but it’s true. I’ve never had problems with fleas before. But I’ve talked to several people who say it’s been a terrible year for fleas, so I don’t feel that bad.

End of the fear period?

Yesterday, Rush was all about the cuddling. He slept in my lap while I read; he slept in my lap while I watched TV. Having a fifty pound puppy in your lap might seem like a bad thing, but he’s very sweet about it. In class yesterday, he didn’t mind a bit when I handed the leash to Dana for a long recall; he was calm while I tethered him and ran out to the car for something; he wasn’t tentative in his greetings of other people (nor was he overly bold), just relaxed and confident. If in fact it was a “fear period”, I’d have to say it was over.

Of course, there’s other possible explanations. His hormones could be settling a bit; the training could be working; cleaning up the fleas could have helped with his general agitation level; or he could just be a month older.

It’s not all about the testosterone….

Yesterday was Rush’s first puppy agility class, with Dana Stillinger at Best Friends Agility School. There were eight dogs there (I think it was eight, it was busy, anyway). There was a tunnel and some hoops. There is a homework assignment. It was a wild and hectic hour, with dogs barking (Rush was one of them), running, and learning.

Rush did really well. He was mostly focused on me; he played with his tug without hesitating; he took treats at all times (although he got kind of sharky as he got excited).

Fear period?

I’ve never much believed in the idea of fear periods with dogs, because the research just isn’t there. But… about six weeks ago, Rush decided he was worried about the vet. So worried, in fact, that he told her not to touch him. Paige tried to listen to his heart; he growled, and very, very gently put his mouth around her arm. The message was clear: I could bite you if I wanted to, so don’t do that. He really didn’t want to be held by anyone but me.

With the help of Greta Kaplan (a professional behaviorist and a friend who knows Rush well), I started a plan to make sure he was okay at the vet. I took him to the vet’s office, fed him lots of treats and played with his ball, and left. The vet’s cooperated by letting me take him into an examining room and give him treats there and play with him there. I did that two or three times a week for a month; every time I was anywhere near the vet I stopped in. I had everyone who was handy give him treats.

I held him by wrapping my arm around his body (the position a vet will use for restraint during some procedures) and threw his ball. After I threw it, I released him and told him to get his ball. He got more tolerant of being held.

I asked people who knew him well, that he trusts, to touch him gently and then give him treats.

Yesterday he finally went to the vet for the appointment that was scheduled in November; his anal glands were checked (they were clogged in October and needed to be re-checked); he got his rabies shot.

I took in about two cups of treats: mixed hot dog bits, chicken hearts, and kibble. I took his ball. I played with him and gave him some treats while the vet tech and I talked; Paige came in and did the same thing. While he had his anal glands checked, I fed him treats, and he did okay, just turning a few times to glare at Paige.

He was quite clear he didn’t want the rabies shot; he tried to bite the syringe and refused to be held, by me or by Paige. I made a big show of rattling the treat container, opened it, and let him eat right from the container. While he wolfed down the treats, Paige gave him his shot, and I don’t think he even noticed. He got a few more treats and we left.

What caused his “fear period”? I have no idea. My theory is that it’s related to the surging levels of testosterone in his body.

I obviously need to continue taking him by the clinic for regular treat-and-play visits, and I need to continue to work on handling him, but the progress was palpable.

Rush and the onset of adolescence

Rush will be eight months old next week (January 11th). He is showing all the signs of impending adolescence. Testosterone peaks at 8-10 months; I can tell he’s changing. He has a deep manly bark; his muscles are maturing; his testicles are larger and he’s feeling a little more touchy about things. (I thought about using the word “testy”, but since the root is the same as the one for testicle and testosterone it didn’t seem to bring anything to the party.) He got into a nasty little squabble with his brother Clooney about a tennis ball a few days ago but once it was over they were friends again. He’s easily distracted by just about everything. He’s 50 pounds now, 23″ or so, and so strong that I worry about falling over when we play tug.

He reminds me of a 15 year old boy. I met a lot of them when I was teaching. They’re not sure of their place in the pecking order, and they’re worried about everything. They’re inclined to say things like “why are you looking at me?” and they lash out at their best friends for no reason at all.

At least Rush doesn’t have acne. So it could be worse.

He does have a bad grooming job, though. I had to clip all three dogs down, after I found fleas on Elly. They all got clipped and had a bath, the house got cleaned within an inch of its life, and they’ve had a topical flea treatment. A whole lot less scratching is going on, although I still have the creeps from the whole thing. Gack! It was like finding head lice on your kid; you have to tell everyone who might have gotten them, and it’s just so embarrassing.