P is for Progress?

My favorite guys

My favorite guys

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re making progress or not.

As I’ve explained in previous posts, I’ve been taking Leo to a parking lot to work on desensitizing him to bicycles. During the cold, dark months, I discovered that the adjacent residential neighborhood has many fewer bicycles and joggers than our own neighborhood, so that’s become a regular walk route. Now that it’s warmer and lighter, we’re starting to challenge ourselves around distractions again.

The parking lot is next to a sports stadium that’s encircled with chain link. Leo pretty much ignores what’s happening on the field. Instead, he’s often triggered by teenage hooligans skateboarding through the lot. There’s a dirtbike park and a skate park next to the parking lot. That’s actually why we go there. The idea was to bring Leo close enough to the bikes and/or skaters to be interested, but not react. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to predict when a cyclist or skater is going to cut through the lot.

Lately, the jog-away technique has been surprisingly effective.

We’ve had a couple of glorious, peaceful strolls, even when there’s a lot going on: high-school soccer in the stadium, little kid soccer on a nearby field, a little kid P.E. class on a patch of grass directly across the street from where we walk. I’ve noticed that if Leo’s leash is completely slack when he sees a stimulus like a moving bicycle (at a decent enough distance), it removes his barrier frustration and he is capable of remaining calm.

The other day, despite the soccer games on the nearby fields, and the shady characters hanging out in their parked cars (to sell drugs to the skater kids, I can only imagine. Unless they’re parents waiting to pick up their skater kids, who are also honor students), the parking lot had a very serene energy.

Skaters and cyclists were enjoying their parks, but the lot itself was quiet. Leo and I made two successful approaches where he watched the skaters and cyclists, then looked away. I praised him and we moved farther away.

He was sniffing some grass when a car pulled alongside us and a woman said through her open window, “Your dog is gorgeous.”

Yes, yes, I know, and if you look at him a second longer, he’s going to bark at you in 3, 2, 1 …

I smiled and said thank you and sort of shrugged off the barks. What does she expect from a German shepherd in a ThunderShirt?

I decided to make a third approach and get Leo to watch the dirtbike riders in particular. We walked to the fire hydrant just outside the chain-link fence. He sniffed and peed, and then noticed the group on wheels. I noticed a man leaning against a pick-up inside the stadium on the other side of the fence. Maybe a maintenance worker.

Leo watched bikes of all sizes leap through the air while maneuvering the dirt moguls. He turned back to me and I praised him, enormously proud.

Then I noticed the maintenance guy running toward us and I recognized him. Several weeks ago, he did the same thing — race toward me and Leo on the other side of the chain link. He happens to be developmentally disabled, which explains why he didn’t understand not to run directly toward us, although it does not excuse Leo barking at him. Leo would bark at anyone running toward him.

I called out, “You can’t run toward us; he’ll bark,” then turned and ran away, chirping my stupid, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” cue that I give when I’m trying to redirect Leo from something scary.

Leo barked a few times; it wasn’t the scariest sound he’s ever made. (The last time he barked at a bicycle in the middle of this parking lot, it echoed throughout the stadium. I was quite grateful there were no sporting events happening at the time.) What bummed me out was feeling like we’d just had a tremendously successful exposure to the bike park, and I didn’t know what effect the running man incident had. Did it completely negate the “progress” I thought we’d made 5 seconds earlier?

Leo and I left the parking lot and made our lap around the apartment buildings where apparently no one jogs or bicycles. My mild discouragement evaporated as I realized the experience would make a good post for P day of the A to Z challenge.

Before we got back to the car, I moved Leo into a driveway to get some distance from a bicycle. I kept his leash loose and let him look. He did not bark.

So I guess he’s made some progress after all.

P is for Progress!

P

Powered by Linky Tools

Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

 

D is for Dominance

I’m so encouraged that Bark and Lunge has received the following endorsement:

Bark and Lunge is worth reading slowly for the details and for the joy of it. The book recognizes the inappropriate use of simple dominance theory, which is so common and so wrong for dogs. Many dog owners will recognize some of the questions they have, and now, will have some answers.
— Professor Alan M. Beck, Director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond, College of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University

Oh no! Mia's on my pillow! She's trying to dominate me!

Oh no! Mia’s on my pillow! She’s trying to dominate me!

It’s almost absurd that I had to learn about Dominance Theory the hard way.

At least as far back as 2001, Dr. Ian Dunbar wrote in Before and After Getting Your Puppy:

If you physically force and dominate your puppy, he won’t respect you. He may heed your commands — grudgingly and fearfully — but he certainly won’t respect you. More likely, your dog will grow to resent you. …

Push-pull, leash-jerk, grab-and-shake, alpha rollover, and domination techniques are now considered ineffective, besides being adversarial and unpleasant. These out-of-date methods are now, thank goodness, by and large a thing of the past.

Dunbar, by the way, is a veterinarian and has a PhD in animal behavior. Cesar Millan, despite being the founder of something he called the Dog Psychology Center, does not have a degree in psychology. So forgive me if I refuse to accept this diagnosis on his website:

Dog aggression stems from the dog’s frustration and dominance. The dog’s frustration comes from a lack of dog exercise, and the dog’s dominance comes from a lack of calm-assertive leadership.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. (The aggression/dominance connection, anyway. I do agree that frustration often can be alleviated by increased exercise.)

Victoria Stilwell, another dog walker turned trainer turned television personality, advocates for science-based dog training. In her book Train Your Dog Positively, she writes:

Unfortunately for dogs, a dominance-related misdiagnosis of their behavior problems usually leads to the worst-case scenario: traditionally prescribed behavior-modification techniques usually include punishment, intimidation, fear — precisely the opposite of what dogs really need to overcome most behavioral issues.

This is why so many trainers and behaviorists take issue with the Dominance Theory. It prescribes owner dominance as the treatment for dog aggression because it misdiagnoses the cause as the dog’s desire to dominate the human. In truth, most dog aggression is caused by fear. When you treat a dog’s fear by trying to dominate the dog, the prognosis is more fear. More aggression.

D is for Dominance. Don’t Do it.


Powered by Linky Tools

Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

Separation anxiety (mine) and the canine oxytocin connection

While in Atlanta for BarkWorld, I missed my doggies like crazy. More than usual, probably because I was thinking about dogs and surrounded by dog-lovers all weekend.

The highlight of the social “petworking” conference for me was meeting Victoria Stilwell. As a fan of her television show, I already knew that she is a champion of positive reinforcement training, but I did not realize the depth of her passion for educating dog owners and old-school trainers that force-free methods are the only humane way to work with animals. Her talk at BarkWorld was inspirational.

On the flight home, I began reading her book, Train Your Dog Positively, appreciating its well-written, scientifically backed explanation of dog psychology mixed with anecdotes about her own dogs and client dogs.

On page 51, I had to nudge Rob to take off his earphones and listen to this:

When we pet a dog lovingly, for example, the warmth and happiness we feel comes from a release into the bloodstream of oxytocin — a “bonding” hormone that has a powerful effect on dogs and humans. Dr. Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, a doctor and professor of physiology and a pioneer in the study of oxytocin, studied this hormone release by taking blood samples from dogs and their owners before and during a petting session. When owners stroked their dogs, they had a release of oxytocin similar to what mothers experience while nursing babies.

Interestingly, petting also triggered a burst of oxytocin in the dogs themselves. Miho Nagasawah, of the Department of Animal Science and Biotechnology at Azabu University in Japan, showed that even eye contact between a dog and human causes an increase in oxytocin. This interaction between our two species has a powerful physiological effect on both of us, promoting feelings of love and attachment while lowering blood pressure and heart rate, soothing pain, and lessening stress.

Oh my god, yes. Forget eye contact, I feel releases of oxytocin just by saying my dogs’ names.

Here’s a scenario that played out in about a dozen variations throughout the weekend: Rob would mention one of the dogs, let’s say Mia. I would moan, “Meeeeeeyaa. I miss her so muuuuch.” Then I might chant her name, “Mia, Mia, Mia,” or sing the song Rob made up about her resemblance to a bear, then autotuned and used as the soundtrack to this montage of photos:

 

The Leo version often included some form of his nickname: Leo Bug or DJ Leo Bug, which I then abbreviated to DJ LB, realizing that LB also stands for Little Boy. Little Boy Leo Bug.

I know. I’m completely insane.

But saying their names, thinking about them, looking at their pictures in my Facebook albums — all of these fill me with a warmth and happiness reminiscent of petting them and kissing their soft heads.

Naturally since we’ve been home, I’ve been on an oxytocin bender. Every time I leave the house, I look forward to my next opportunity to revel in our scientifically proven bonding ritual.

Our dog sitters (Grandma and Grandpa) reported that Mia seemed anxious while we were gone, but Leo was his normal self. Maybe he wasn’t distraught by our absence, but I can tell by the smile on his face that he’s sure happy we’re back.

Leo sports his new bandanna, courtesy of Unleashed by Petco

Leo sports his new bandanna, courtesy of Unleashed by Petco

My “normal” dog

The magic of Mia is that I can take her anywhere. Truly. She doesn’t even need a leash; she sticks right by me. Even on a leash, she doesn’t bark and lunge at any of the usual suspects.

My original plan for the Festival of the River was to take Mia with me both days, but then I decided to leave her at home the first day while I set up the booth and got a feel for things. As last year, I watched dogs walk by all day long and looked forward to having my buddy with me the next day.

When Rob and the doggies joined me that evening, we left Leo in the car while we picked up a few items I’d left at my booth. After we set up our tent in the woods, I took Mia on a second trip into the crowd to get a slice of pizza. Both times, she was an exemplary ambassador for the German shepherd breed, accepting oohs and aahs of admirers with a quiet grace and politely greeting other leashed canines large and small.

mia tent

The next morning, as we walked Leo and Rob back to their car, I said, “I’m so proud of Leo. I consider this weekend to be a complete success. Of course, now that I said that, probably Mia will have a complete meltdown. Ha ha ha.”

At the booth, I tethered Mia’s leash to a table as I rearranged my display boards and put out brochures, stickers and temporary tattoos. I set out a bowl of food and water. Early arrivals strolled between the booths, and before I even noticed the white pit bull and its owner, Mia barked at it.

Oh, no. No no no.

A few minutes later, another pair of dogs sparked the same reaction. A biologist working a booth across from me called out, “Kari, I don’t think your dog likes pit bulls.”

True, one of the pair was a pit bull, but I knew this wasn’t a breed-specific reaction.

“If she’s going to bark at every dog that passes by, this is going to be a long day. Ha ha ha,” I said. But I was thinking, If Mia barks at every dog that passes by, no one with a dog is going to stop at my booth, and people who are afraid of German shepherds aren’t going to stop here either. This was a really bad idea.

What am I going to do now? I can’t leave her in the car. I can’t just leave the festival. I have no cell phone reception, so it’s not like I can easily call Rob to come get her.

I had these thoughts because I have a history of owning reactive dogs. Leo’s barrier frustration makes him bark at passing dogs. If he were off leash and allowed to run up to every dog he saw, he would be perfectly friendly. I think. But because he is a redirected biter, I will not test this hypothesis.

Mia is not reactive. I knew she didn’t mean any harm by her barks, but her intent was irrelevant. I could not have a barking German shepherd at my booth.

Mia was unconcerned about other dogs on leash the night before, so what was the difference? Being tethered to a table?

Maybe I’ll just undo her leash and let her roam around my booth. Mia walked to the edge of the booth, nearly touching a vendor of geode wind chimes, and peered behind my vinyl curtain. The geode vendor gave me the stink-eye, so I leashed her back up.

I kicked myself for leaving Mia’s rubber Chuck-It ball in the car that Rob drove home. I tossed her an apple-shaped stress ball in hopes that she’d occupy herself with tearing it up for the next twenty minutes. She sniffed and ignored it.

Think, Kari, think. You know how to solve this problem.

Positive reinforcement. I filled a poop bag with treats and stuck it in my pocket. The next time I saw a dog approach, I gave Mia treats. My initial strategy was to get her to associate treats with the passing dogs, but Mia is so food-motivated that she was distracted enough to seem not even to notice the other dog.

An airedale, the same one we saw tethered to an RV earlier that day, lingered with its owner at a neighboring booth. Mia noticed her and barked a few times. I redirected her gaze in the other direction and wondered, Am I going to have to do this all day?

As it turned out, no, I didn’t have to do it all day. Either the positive reinforcement worked, or Mia just got used to the idea that other dogs were going to walk by. (Or both.) I gave her treats every time I saw another dog coming, but I also worked my booth, meaning I put temporary tattoo application and fish consumption rate explaining above Mia management. One guy entered my booth as I was treating Mia and I thought she might bark at the approaching dog as soon as I took my attention away from her, but she didn’t make a sound, and when I finished with the other guy, the dog was long gone.

While Mia may have driven off a dog-fearing festival-goer or two, she was a major attraction for many, many more people. Far more people asked, “Can I pet your dog?” than asked me to explain the importance of raising the state’s fish consumption rate, although you can bet I used Mia as an opening.

Here, Mia proved to be the bomb-proof dog I know her to be. At one point, I was concerned briefly she might frighten a toddler mid-pet by barking at a passing dog, but she did not. Perhaps strokes from a toddler are as positively reinforcing (and/or distracting) as a handful of treats. Other children cuddled her, rolled on top of her, and even put their sunglasses on her. (I wish I’d gotten a photo of that one.)

Mia and I both relaxed and I was so happy to have her with me. Her presence brightened my day. Gave me someone to talk to during the slow stretches in the afternoon.

As much joy as she brought me, and as much as I know she loves being by my side, it occurred to me that Mia might not actually be having the best time ever.

I had a similar feeling the night before, blissfully snuggled with Rob and the doggies in our tent. Rob had gotten stuck in horrible traffic on the way into the festival, and nettles scraped his legs as we set up camp.

“Are you having fun?” I asked.

“I’m just trying to get through it,” he said, perfectly amiably. I love that about Rob. The outing didn’t meet his expectations, but he didn’t punish me for it. Like Mia, he was there for me, making sure that I had a better time than I would have alone, but not getting all that much out of it himself.

That’s what our dogs do for us. If you asked Mia, she’d tell you she’d rather go with me anywhere than get left at home. But as the responsible adult, I recognize that bringing Mia to the festival was more fun for me than it was for her.

She was bored, lying on the grass beside me for hours on end, with the occasional break to walk to the port-a-potties. Worse, the constant assaults from strangers took a toll. Late in the day, a man asked if he could pet her and Mia barely raised her head to him before letting out an exhausted sigh. Sure, whatever, I’m here for your amusement.

My last post illuminated what I learned last weekend about managing my barrier-frustrated dog, Leo. I also learned a lesson about my perfect, normal, senior dog, Mia. Next year, I won’t force her to work the festival with me. (And Rob doesn’t have to drive down to camp out with me. Unless he changes his mind.)

Sleep tight, Mia Bear, you worked hard.

This post is part of a Senior Pet Awareness blog hop, brought to you by BlogPaws.

senior pet

Powered by Linky Tools

Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

Leo’s metaphoric ladder of success

Weekly Photo Challenge: Forward

leo forward

Leo would love to climb this ladder, but I doubt he ever will. He doesn’t seem to understand the nuances of his hind legs. Not that he’s disabled in any way. He can run and jump just fine. He is capable of jumping or climbing on the furniture, but half the time, he just rests his front paws on the bed or couch, leaving his hind feet on the floor. I help him out by lifting his back legs up the rest of the way. It’s weird.

I took this photo yesterday to represent a commitment to move forward. To help our Leo be the best Leo he can be.

He’s sort of a problem child. I found myself saying the other day, “Leo is not reactive like Isis was. When he barks at a bicycle, he’s doesn’t have a full-blown, out-of-his-mind reaction. We just have to watch out for his redirected biting … oh, who am I kidding? He’s reactive.”

Leo experiences barrier frustration. When he’s on a leash and sees a bicycle, he barks at it. Confined by the leash, he can’t get to the bike. He gets frustrated and lashes out at the nearest thing. Sometimes Mia’s head, sometimes our legs. Mia’s head can take it. Our legs are more sensitive.

Joggers and other dogs present a similar problem, but usually I can get him far enough away that he doesn’t bark. Lately, bicycles have become more of a challenge. Rob and I like to walk the dogs after dark, when there are fewer people around. Last Saturday night after 10 pm, we encountered two bicycles. I couldn’t get Leo far enough away. He barked and lunged.

I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of training this behavior away, because of what I went though with Isis. Writing her memoir, I’m still living those two years when I was obsessed with fixing her. With Isis, we got to a point where I could safely walk her around the neighborhood. I need to revisit those techniques to make Leo less reactive.

We started last week by taking Leo to a neutral location with Rob’s bicycle. Leo had no trouble walking beside us while we walked the bicycle. We got overconfident and tried walking around a larger area, inhabited by other people. A person riding a bicycle passed. I clicked and treated Leo, who didn’t react. Hooray. I let my guard down further and missed the approach of a second bicycle. Leo barked and lunged.

I burst into tears, something I don’t remember doing with Isis at this phase of her training. I failed him. Why is this so hard? 

Nothing is worse for reactive dog training than losing your cool.

I realized we need to go back before we can go forward.

We tried again yesterday with the goal of keeping it short and successful. Make sure Leo is calm before we get started, able to make eye contact with me. Have Rob walk by with bicycle. Click and treat Leo for calm. Have Rob ride bicycle slowly past us at a distance. End on success.

Leo became very agitated when Rob mounted the bike. He barked a high-pitched nervous bark (as opposed to the Big Boy ferocious bark) and I could get him to calm down. I moved him farther away, had Rob get off the bike and stand next to it.

Leo could not calm down 50 feet away from Rob standing next to a bicycle. Part of that could be anxiety because he wanted to get to his daddy, but it shows that we tried to move too fast.

So, that’s our starting point. Next time we will start with Rob standing next to the bicycle at a greater distance away. I will try some BAT techniques of rewarding Leo by moving him farther away when he shows calming signals.

We’ll take it from there. Move forward.

PTSD: When your dog bites someone you know

Isis bit someone once. She broke the outer layer of skin and left a nasty bruise and an ache that I’m told lasted months.

Fortunately, her victim didn’t require stitches, or even seek medical attention. Or report her. On the one hand, we were lucky that he was someone I knew. He told me, “No one could be more understanding than me. No one.” Then he referred me to a trainer who introduced me to the wonderful world of positive reinforcement and made a huge difference in Isis’s behavior.

But since he was someone I knew, I had to see him again. Not often, but enough to haunt me. Every time I saw him, I thought, “That’s the guy Isis bit.” Clearly the memory haunted him too, because he never failed to ask, “How’s your pup?” He meant well. I think he was trying to let me know that he didn’t blame me or hate Isis for what happened, but I didn’t need to be reminded of that awful day.

Once, he and I were in the same room with another person who was there the day Isis bit him. Years after it happened. He felt the need to say, “This is the woman whose dog bit me, remember?”

Yes. I’m pretty sure he suffers from post-traumatic stress too.

The first time I saw him after Isis died, he noticed a photo of her and said teasingly, “There’s the villain.” I took a small amount of sick satisfaction in saying, “She died,” thinking maybe now he’ll stop bringing her up every time I see him. Like it’s the only thing that connects us. Although to be fair, it is the strongest thing that connects us.

I saw him yesterday. In the same place where the bite happened. I had Mia with me. His first words to me, before he knew Mia was there, were, “I got a new dog, an Australian shepherd. You got another dog didn’t you?” Actually, he’d met Mia before, but seemed to have forgotten, so I introduced her again. In the very place Isis, a dog of similar size and appearance, viciously attacked him for no good reason.

I could have gotten out of the situation without his even seeing Mia, and I wish I had, even though he was perfectly lovely. Mia was perfectly lovely. I have no way to know for sure if he flashed back on the moment Isis seemed to come out of nowhere, backing him into a corner and biting his legs. I didn’t exactly flash back on it myself, but afterward, I felt a jittery sense of foreboding, because Isis’s behavior from four years ago still haunts me.

Is it possible that seeing Mia could have been in any way therapeutic? Seeing a very mellow, non-reactive dog who didn’t bite him? Because I hate the idea that he walked away thinking, “Every time I go to that place, some terrifying German shepherd comes after me.”

Isis devours her toys, Christmas 2008