Highs and lows: Stories from our morning

Deep in clover
Deep in clover, deep in thought.

A few highs and lows from my morning with Pyrrha.

HIGH: Squirrels, the most delightful of temptations

So, we’ve discovered the one thing that gets Pyrrha really, really excited: SQUIRRELS. Birds are mildly exciting, cats are very interesting, but SQUIRRELS, OMG, SQUIRRELS. She just loses her mind for them. I love it, of course, because it’s an opportunity to get to see her act like a normal dog. If she spots a squirrel, our gentle, slow walker TAKES OFF like a rocket (and nearly dislocates my shoulder). She jumps in the air, she lets out these adorable, frustrated barks. I’ve even seen her try and climb a grove of trees to try to get to a squirrel. Of course, she’s never even come close to one, but it is perfectly endearing to watch her try.

HIGH: A fondness for beagle-shaped dogs

This morning on our walk, for the first time, Pyrrha expressed a desire to actually run up and meet a dog on leash! A man was walking his beagle mix past us, and I drew Pyrrha off to the side of the walk to let them pass. Instead of her normal tail-tucking, hackles-raising display, she rushed forward to greet the dog and gave a play bow. No snarling at all! The dogs sniffed and Pyrrha was all happy wags (not slow, threatened wags). As the beagle mix and his human walked off, Pyrrha let out an excited, playful bark, with her tail wagging vigorously, as if to say, “Where are you going? Come back and play with me! I’m not even scared of you!” So, that was encouraging.

I say that she likes “beagle-shaped dogs,” because the few dogs that she hasn’t shown any fear of have been beagles or small hound mixes. (Lucy, the dog she met off leash, was a small hound mix.) Not sure why this is, but it’s a good trend to recognize.

LOW: Training mistakes

I just got my copies of Control Unleashed, by Leslie McDevitt, and On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugaas. These are two books that I’ve been waiting to read for a long time now and both have been repeatedly recommended to me, as the new guardian of a shy dog. I’ve only read a handful of pages in each, but so far, they’re both great.

After reading the first 20 pages of Control Unleashed last night, I decided it may be good for Pyrrha to learn how to target. Pat Miller recommends teaching them to just touch an open and extended palm with their noses as a first step.

This morning, I pick up the clicker from Pyrrha’s basket and then go cut up a treat into many small pieces. I put the clicker and treats in one hand and call Pyrrha. Big mistake. Why, you ask? Because as soon as she spots the clicker–this strange object–she bolts. Pyrrha is now very susceptible to bribery, probably because of my errors. I tried to pair delicious things with scary events (such as grooming, ear cleaning), like all the books told me to, but Pyrrha gets herself into such a state that she will refuse treats in the moment and try to get away. Now, if I ever approach her with a treat or an object that’s unfamiliar, she immediately assumes I’m trying to bribe her into doing something scary and terrible and runs away. So, that’s problem #1.

Problem #2 is that I still tried to teach her “touch” after she ran away. Clearly, I should have stopped and tried again later. But I was frustrated. And that was problem #3. It was such a simple, non-threatening request! At least it was in my mind. To Pyrrha, the extended palm in her face, even when there were treats nearby, was alarming and too much for her to handle. I should have stopped and walked away. Instead, I tried a few more times, and then finally accepted that she wasn’t going to get it and so I put the treats down and left the room.

I left the house very disheartened this morning, but it was a good reminder that I really have to start at ground zero with this dog. She is not going to learn like a “normal” dog is going to learn and seemingly non-scary things–like extended palms or concealed little plastic objects–will frighten her. I mentioned this to my boss, a fellow crazy dog lady, and she recommended that I maybe try to teach Pyrrha to “look at me” first, instead of targeting a palm; this could be less intimidating to teach.

Anyway. I’m trying not to feel too dejected. She’s harder to train that I expected, and Pat Miller makes it sound so easy in her book! But Pyrrha is not an easy dog. This is the one thing I know.

And so we move back to square one.

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9 thoughts on “Highs and lows: Stories from our morning

  1. One of my favorite classical conditioning tips is from Kathy Sdao and it sounds deceptively obvious. The order is critical. Whatever the animal feels about the second thing will transfer to the first thing. So a bell causes salivation but only because the bell comes first.

    In counter classical conditioning, this means the good thing MUST come after the bad thing. Sounds easy but it isn’t always. I know I’ve gotten this wrong with my own dogs because you don’t always know when the dog perceives the trigger. Here is an example. I see a truck approaching and get out a treat to ccc the approach of the truck. The dog eats the treat THEN notices the truck. Oops! The negative feelings of the truck now are clouding the previously positive impressions of food. If I had just waited five seconds to make sure the dog noticed the truck, this would have been avoided.

    I think she covers this in her DVD What Not to Err. Realizing the critical importance of timing here absolutely changed my training. Now I focus on when the dog perceives the trigger rather than when I perceive it to make sure I don’t pollute or contaminate my reinforcers.

    1. Thank you, Kerry! This is really helpful–and clearly what I was doing wrong! I was trying to groom and feed treats simultaneously, which was not working. Will definitely be modifying this in the future…

  2. Kerry gave some great advice. Timing truly is everything and it can be really hard to get right. I am so lucky my dog bounces back so quickly!

    I know all about training frustration! It can be so hard not to push a little, especially when something seems so simple. But if the voice in the back of your head feels at all unsure, it’s probably best to stop and take a break.

    But hey, the way I look at it, you had two highs and only one low. That’s something to celebrate!

  3. Sorry for the discouragement. But I’m sure you and Pyrrha will recover soon.

    In working to lessen Honey’s fear of moving objects, we often experience set backs. No training process is progress all the time. We go forward and back over and over again.

    BTW, the learning about the beagle shaped dogs is very important.

    And you may be able to use the squirrel knowledge too. Maybe you want to buy a realistic looking squirrel toy for Pyrrha. Maybe it will turn out to be an effective reward.

  4. It sounds like you’re pushing her too far with the counter-conditioning, too, which is probably effecting her more than the timing. Think about it this way: if I’m afraid of snakes. You want to teach me to be less afraid of snakes, do you: 1. Put me in a closed room with a few snakes, then let me out and offer me some cheesecake. 2. Offer me cheesecake, then put me in the room with snakes. 3. Hand me cheesecake while I’m in the room with snakes. These all offer different timing, but in all three scenarios, what would happen is that I would probably end up more scared of snakes, and you, and that room, and I probably wouldn’t want cheesecake for a long, long time. Instead, you should take me to the zoo, where I can observe some snakes behind bulletproof glass, from whatever distance I please, and leave when I feel like it, and then we’ll go out for ice cream. That wasn’t so bad. Ding ding ding!

    Also, it sounds like she’s learned that you only pull out treats when something scary is about to happen, so that needs to change. I would start over with her, without the clicker, just using the word “yes” and tossing treats, then walking away. After a while, wait for her to approach for the treat, then wait for her to touch your hand. Then do lots of very short (2-3 min) fun training sessions, asking for very easy things, interspersed with playing, chase, tug, whatever, then put the treats away. Get her super-pumped and build her trust in you by showing her that you won’t put her in scary situations. Then, once that trust is built, you can push her a little bit. But just a little bit!

    Once you want to reintroduce the clicker, I’d just pull it out, make the noise, drop some treats, then put the clicker away. Do that for a bit, then click/treat 10 times, then put it away, etc. The point is to make her believe that all that clicker means is treats, nothing else. If she’s scared of it, it will do the opposite of a reward marker.

    When in doubt, if she isn’t enjoying something, or if you aren’t enjoying something, just quit for the day, play a game instead, and save training for some other time.

  5. Poor Pyrrha! What it must be like, to be just that afraid and suspicious of everything 😦

    I like Pamela’s idea of trying to find a squirrel toy! I know that I found a mechanical rat (potentially terrifying) at Wal Mart. It’s in the cat aisle, and takes a battery or two, and rolls around on its own. Elka has had a love/hate relationship with it.

  6. I’ve been lurking around here for a while and I have to say I love reading this blog.

    Just curious, does Pyrrha have “safe havens” to run to around the house? She seems pretty unsure and unconfident and having safe places near high-traffic areas might help reassure her a bit.
    My family has a naturally cautious, fearful dog and by introducing his dog bed, which is in the middle of the living room, as a “safe haven” (when he is there, we don’t play with him, we remove scary things if possible, we send him there when he is eating a messy treat, and do not disturb him otherwise unless we have to). As a puppy, everything freaked him out in the house, and we would simply send him to his bed whenever he panicked and bolted. Eventually, he learned to run to his bed to escape any scaries he encountered throughout the day, and would thus quickly return to a more sane, secure state of mind in his safe place. Because his safe place was in the living room, he would experience the many scaries the house contained throughout the day at varying, but relatively low intensities. After 2 years of running to his safe place and observing, he started to realize that all those scary things he would watch parade past his bed never actually did anything. Now I’m not advising this as your only tool, but this seemed to work with at least one fearful dog.

    People are often advised to give fearful cats high places they can escape to throughout the day to build confidence. We just pulled our own twist on the idea with a dog.

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