Follow-up on our January training goals

How did we do on our training goals for January?

Kitchen pups

Oh, these little weirdos. They make our lives so crazy, and yet, what would we do without them?

January Goals for Pyrrha

Omg let me in
OMG MOM LET ME IN
  1. Curbing jealousy directed at Eden. I am very happy to report that this is going a lot better. Pyrrha seems a lot calmer about Eden’s presence and a lot more tolerant of her adolescent antics.
  2. Crate-exiting calmness. This is also going better, although she seems to have good days and bad days with this. The turning point has been that I’m finally figuring out what helps her here. She gets amped up when I let them out of the crates, and she then redirects that energy onto Eden. Our helpful practice now has been to let Pyrrha out of her crate, and I spend some time stroking her and speaking to her until she calms down, and then Eden can come out. This has been working so far, and it’s something we practice daily.
  3. Avoiding leash reactivity on our walks. Lately, I’ve been walking them by myself, so I just avoid areas that I know tend to be populated with dogs. If Guion is with us, however, we practice our strategy of letting the confident baby (Edie) go first and Pyrrha follows behind, with me doing our classical conditioning protocol for when she perceives dogs. I think we’ll always be doing this with Pyrrha, to some degree, and it can feel disheartening, because the progress is SO incremental, but I’m glad that we at least have a plan in place now for her leash reactivity.
  4. Classical conditioning protocol for seeing small children. We’ve been practicing this on walks and particularly at the mini-park/playground that’s near our house. On pleasant days, there is usually an assortment of kids at the park, so I keep Pyr at a fair distance away and treat her for every time she is looking at or perceiving a child, especially small children. She doesn’t seem to notice/be bothered by kids older than the age of 7 or 8, so we’re focusing the most on the smallest ones.

And now for the crazy baby:

January Goals for Eden

Gourd girl
Gourd girl.
  1. Sitting to greet people. This is sort of going well… she at least seems to know now what we want her to do: sit on the ground and wait for pets. But she just has so much love in her heart that it is difficult to contain! And we need to be more consistent. The hard part is when we have visitors (which we normally do). We need to have a strategy in place for telling guests what to do — before they walk in the door! — if Eden tries to jump on them.
  2. Crate-exiting calmness. Super! She is now showing a lot of self-control in this area, because we’ve been clicking and treating for calmness (sitting quietly until the crate door opens). This is also helping Pyrrha’s crate-exiting craziness (above).
  3. Not feeling the need to bark to announce herself in the backyard. I can’t say that her feeling this need has decreased, but our new strategy is kind of working: If I call her to come while she’s barking, and she comes, she gets treats. This plan has greatly improved her recall, which is a side bonus, but it hasn’t decreased her need to bark. I have a feeling this need may always be here, but we can keep working on the recall.
  4. “Leave it.” Totally forgot this was one of our training goals. Whoops. Yeah, need to work on this one.
  5. “Come!” She’s getting this down in a yard-to-house recall, but we need to generalize this to the home and to other areas.
  6. Not counter-surfing. I also have no idea what to do here. How do you get your dogs to stop counter-surfing? (Pyrrha has never tried this, not even once, so we’re kind of at a loss.) Yelling “off” isn’t really helpful.

Coming soon: Goals for February!

Training goals for January

Attentive ladies

Have you heard? January is Train Your Dog month! Of course, training should be happening all the time (and it is, even when we think we’re not training them to do something), but it’s nice to have time set aside to really focus on those specific training goals.

Accordingly, here’s what we’re working on in our household:

January Goals for Pyrrha

  1. Curbing jealousy directed at Eden. Pyrrha only exhibits this behavior when I’m present, but she can get sassy/cranky (growling, body blocks, scruff biting) with Eden from time to time. *I* seem to be the resource she’s guarding (it’s not exhibited over a toy or food; she never acts this way when Guion is around), and so I confess I’m not entirely sure how to work on this. Anyone ever dealt with jealousy when you’re the guarded resource? What helped the jealous dog?
  2. Crate-exiting calmness. She’s gotten better about this, but we can still work on her waiting patiently during crate exits. Related to her jealousy issue (above), she can also redirect her crate-exiting craziness on Eden (with growls and body blocks).
  3. Avoiding leash reactivity on our walks. Continuing all that we learned from our reactivity class, via classical conditioning. I think she’s making progress, however subtle it may be. We’re also hopeful that Eden’s bouncy, confident presence will be calming to Pyrrha.
  4. Classical conditioning protocol for seeing small children. Pyrrha is frightened of children (about toddler age up to pre-teens), and so our trainer has recommended working on the same classical conditioning protocol that we did with leash reactivity when we see kids. Baby steps right at first (working far away from kids, just when she only perceives them, and then gradually closing the gap)!

January Goals for Eden

  1. Sitting to greet people. We’ve been working on this already, and it’s adorable how hard she tries not to jump. Her whole little body is just quivering with excitement, and she can hardly contain herself when people enter the room. But she’s learning quickly what we want her to do. I think we need to start pairing some extra incentive with it (e.g., food), although the affection and attention when she does sit seems to be working well.
  2. Crate-exiting calmness. Already working on this, and she gets the jist of it, but we can make this behavior (sitting quietly until the door is open) more solid.
  3. Not feeling the need to bark to announce herself in the backyard. As I mentioned, she doesn’t seem to bark nearly as much (or at all) when Pyrrha is in the yard with her.
  4. “Leave it.” I introduced this to her a few days ago, but we need to take some time to repeat and practice it.
  5. “Come!” This little turd really does not want to come to you when you ask her. She doesn’t even respond to the inviting body language (bent down, clapping playfully, even a play bow). She’d rather do her own thing and explore. Again, need to start using higher-value incentives here!
  6. Not counter-surfing. Thankfully, she’s never actually grabbed anything off the kitchen counters (so she’s not getting rewarded), but she is desperate to see and smell what’s up there. Need to work on this in a more patient, concentrated way.

Eden will also be taking her first obedience class near the end of this month, and Guion and I are looking forward to it. She’s so bright and eager to please; I just don’t want us to screw her up!

Are you setting goals for your dog(s) for Train Your Dog month? Do share them! And of course, if you have ever trained some of the issues that we’re working on, feel free to share your advice!

Graduation from reactivity class

Every relationship takes work. #lovethem
Every relationship takes work.

Last night, Pyrrha had her last session for the reactivity class we’ve been taking. For graduation, we went to practice “in the wild” at a pet supplies store. It was STRESSFUL, but so is real life with a reactive dog, right?

The goal was to have the handlers use the store aisles as buffers–easy obstacles for us to duck behind–and keep working the “Pavlov machine” of treating the dog for every perception of a trigger (e.g., another dog). Pyrrha was already overwhelmed by the new environment that the addition of her big fear (other dogs on leash) brought her to a fairly high level of anxiety.

I anticipated that this might be the case, so I brought her into the store early to let her sniff everything and get the lay of the land, per se. This might have helped her during the actual practicum, but I confess it was hard to tell. There were cats up for adoption in cages on the floor, which got her prey drive kicked into action; there were tons of treats left at dog-level for easy snatching (you sneaky pet store owners! I know what you’re doing, and it’s working…); and there were lots of other reactive dogs milling about AND unsuspecting customers and their dogs and children.

Suffice it to say, last night was a perfect storm of triggers for Pyrrha–but again, that’s the real world, and you can’t contain it or control it.

Deven encouraged us to go outside and take breaks when needed, and we did that a few times. Pyrrha’s mouth was getting really hard, and she was just about taking off my fingertips when I delivered treats. Taking a break to sniff outdoors seemed to help her regain herself.

She had two reactive outbursts last night, and both were my fault. One was at one of her reactive classmates, while I was talking with Deven, and the other was at a customer’s boxer, who came bounding in the front door, and I was talking to a human classmate when it happened. That’s the tricky thing about reactive dogs; to manage them in the wild, you have to be a pretty rude human. If I was paying attention to her and to the environment, I could have prevented both of those outbursts, but a minute-long conversation was enough to divert my focus from her and let her express fight mode.
Mea culpa, Pyrrha.

Concluding thoughts about our reactive dog

We learned a lot in these past six weeks, and I am so glad we took this class at Canine Campus. I wish everyone I knew with a reactive dog could come to town and work with Deven! She’s amazing. I feel so lucky to have a trainer like her in my hometown.

Last night was a sobering reminder that we still have a lot of work to do with Pyrrha and that I can’t let myself get lazy. She’s so calm and easy in our house that I can forget that she still has a lot of anxieties when she confronts the real world.

I got a chance to talk with Deven last night about Pyrrha, and she said that Pyrrha has made a lot of progress in a year. It’s hard for me to see sometimes, being so close to Pyr, but it was nice to have that external confirmation. She also recommended I look into the following things to continue to help Pyrrha with her anxiety:

  • T-touch (Tellington touch)
  • Aromatherapy
  • Nose work classes (which she offers)

I know a little bit about all three, and they sound appealing to me. Have any of you worked with any of these strategies for your fearful dog? Which have you liked or disliked?

The trigger becomes the bell (Week 1, Reactivity Class)

Notes from Week 1 of the Feisty Fidos class
Deven Gaston, Canine Campus

Put herself in time out. #pyrrha #gsd
Our feisty fido, looking demure.

Our first class, as with most of Deven’s first classes, was dog-less. She gave us an overview of her training philosophy, the goals for this class, and particularly focused on getting us humans in the right mindset. Her teaching style reminds me a lot of what I’ve seen of Suzanne Clothier; she’s very frank and funny and clear. Deven always tells it like it is.

The phrase that’s stuck in my mind after our first class is: The trigger becomes the bell.

We’re going back to classic Pavlov in this reactivity class (the “bell” referring to the sound in the classic experiment, signaling that the reward was coming). This means that this is going to be a long, slow behavior-modification process. We don’t have labs where we can knock this thing out and create new neural pathways and associations. We have to practice this in real life, with real-life interruptions and mistakes and uncontrollable variables.

Training dogs out of reactive behaviors will take weeks and months, maybe even years. “This is not an exciting class,” Deven told us. “You are going to need tons and tons of patience and repetition and consistency. But it will work. If you stick with it.”

Key takeaways

  • Distance is always the biggest factor in intensifying fear. Dogs get into the fight/flight zone when they are too close to their triggers. The leash keeps them from flight, which is why so many dogs have on-leash reactivity; they don’t have the option of running away, so they decide to put on a “fight” display.
  • Distraction training (“look at me”) doesn’t really work. It doesn’t change the dog’s feelings toward the trigger, and in many cases, it can often make it worse.
  • Before implementing a new technique, always ask yourself, “Would this work for ME?” If this was how someone was trying to modify my behavior toward a fear trigger, would this tactic help or hurt?
  • With reactive behavior, be aware of the “audience effect.” Reactive dogs are embarrassing. We tend to treat them differently than we know we should when people are watching (e.g., a smack on the head, a jerk on the collar). Be mindful of this. It’s just making your dog more scared and confused.
  • Reactive aggression is NOT a character trait, and it’s NOT a choice: It’s a REFLEX. This is just the primitive part of the brain firing in the fight zone; the frontal cortex is not even engaged. Decision making is too slow for a dog confronted with a fear trigger, so they just react.
  • Remember that dogs start learning these displays over time. They will begin to generalize eventually. A man with a baseball cap scared me once? OK, I’m just going to react to all men with baseball caps from now on, just to cover my bases.
  • In classical conditioning, always remember that food is NOT a reward here; it’s a way to form an association. Remember with Pavlov: The dogs didn’t do anything to get food. The bell rang, regardless of what the dogs were doing, and out came the food. With this training, your dog’s fear trigger becomes the bell.
  • In this class, you are blazing a new path of associations. The old path (reactive behavior) has to grow over and become unused for the new path to remain intact.

As Deven reminded us, “The goal of this class: Your dog is comfortable in the presence of her triggers. This does not mean that she is comfortable interacting with her triggers but that she can remain in their presence without a display.”

It’s a lot to take in, but, wow, I am already really thankful for this class, and I am committed to the long road ahead!