Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Fragile Circle

It's summer time, and with it have come some exciting new additions and changes that I can't wait to write about and share.  However, I've been pretty silent here for a few weeks because I know that part of sharing the new adventures also means addressing a pretty big elephant in the room that I just haven't wanted to write about.

Within the span of four months this winter and spring, Lowell and I said good-bye to our first two dogs, Jade and Tristan.  Jade was 16 years old.  Tristan was 14 1/2.  We were blessed to have so much time with both of them, and their passings came at the end of a period of decline, so they were not a surprise.  We knew it was likely to be a rough winter.  That knowledge didn't make it any easier though.

Jade 11/28/99 - 12/23/15

Jade was our first dog, and I always say he changed our lives.  We adopted him as soon as we closed on our first condo, and brought him home the day after we moved in.  He was 11 months old, and we assume he was a lab/shepherd mix.  Behaviorally he was one of the most easy-going, stable, friendly dogs you would ever meet.  He had energy and drive to burn though, so we signed up for a basic manners class.  We were lucky to find a positive-reinforcement based trainer even back then who was not phased when Jade came bursting into class practically bouncing off the walls in excitement.  She walked over to us with some cheese, immediately got him working, smiled and told us what a cool dog he was and how much fun we were going to have with him.  She was right, and yet, how different a path it might have been if, like so many owners I have met since, she had condemned him for how unruly he was and kicked him out of class.  I remember her and her kindness every time someone walks into our classes now with an adolescent dog on overdrive.

She encouraged us to take agility classes, and helped us locate a flyball team, and dog sports and training rapidly became our obsession and took over our lives.  Every day became a new adventure for us and Jade - every day we looked for new ways to have fun with him.  The people, dogs, and experiences that road brought us to we owe all to Jade.

Jade excelled at flyball.  His fastest times were 3.9 seconds, and his turn on the box was amazing for a dog his size.  He was retired after achieving his Flyball Grand Champion award, and he is still currently ranked 36th in top point earning labs in NAFA.

Jade slowed down a bit when he was diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis and he had a unilaterial tieback surgery when he was 11 years old, which greatly improved his quality of life for the next several years.  He gave us a few scares in those last few years, as a side effect of the surgery makes dogs prone to aspiration pneumonia, which he acquired at least once.  He always bounced back, until on December 23, 2015, when his body simply had just worn out after such a long, full life.

Tristan 8/13/01 - 4/9/16

About ten months after adopting Jade, as we were getting actively involved in flyball and agility, our flyball captain showed us a 10-week old tricolor Border Collie pup when we visited her at an agility trial.  We took him home to spend the night with us, and while we fell in love immediately, I had cold feet.  Could we take on a second dog so soon?  I loved BCs and had wanted one ever since growing up with my aunt's collie, but knew all the warnings about what a challenging, intelligent high energy breed they are.  I felt we shouldn't get in over our heads, and let him go back to his breeder with our flyball friends the next day.  Lowell disagreed with the decision, and after I broke down sobbing taking down the spare crate that the pup had spent the night in, I came to my senses too and made some phone calls.  Two days later I drove to Canada to pick up Tristan.

Tristan was never really a puppy - he was wise from the time he was born.  I trusted him completely.  He was totally reliable off leash, never failed to come when called, was friendly and accepting of every human he met, and he could diffuse any situation and any interaction with other dogs.  To this day, I've never seen a dog more savvy and with better body language with other dogs than Tristan had (and in fact, several photos of him appear in a popular dog body language handbook).

Unfortunately, Tristan's life all too frequently was painful.  He had TPLO surgery for a partially torn ACL when he was less than 2 years old.  He struggled with ongoing back, neck, and shoulder problems throughout his life.  Through it all he remained incredibly stoic and tough, and he never gave up.  With diet, supplements, physical therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic care, we kept him going, and it wasn't until just a few months before his passing that his activity became significantly limited.  His flyball career was short, but he managed to compete in agility for several years, even earning placements in CPE Nationals two years in a row as a veteran.

However, on April 9, 2016, Tristan woke up in too much pain.  His kidneys had also been failing, he was increasingly incontinent and uncomfortable, his vision and hearing were poor, and he was often confused, so that afternoon we helped him be free from any more suffering.

There's so much to say about those two, the dogs of our early adulthood, the dogs who started everything - but I still just can't.  But since I can finally look at them, I want to share two of the last pictures taken of them.

This is Jade on the night he fell ill for the last time.  We were sure that he was not going to make it through the night, so Lowell, Tempo, and I spent the night on the living room floor with him, my hand resting on his chest constantly to see if he was still breathing.  He survived the night, and woke up actually feeling somewhat improved, and we ended up having two more full days with him before it was clear he was just too weak to bounce back this time.

A couple weeks before Tristan passed, we were set to attend ClickerExpo.  We had rented a house outside town so that all the dogs could come, but we weren't sure whether we should go.  In the end, we went, and though it probably was physically hard for T at times, I think he enjoyed it.  Our friends and housemates for the weekend, Samantha and Catherine, gave him lots of attention, and he had one last adventure with us.  For our parts, we were a bit frazzled throughout the conference, knowing that our dog was dying, and we opted to miss a lot of the conference as we ran back to the house to care for and be with him.  It was all worth it.  This photo was taken on my phone by Sam on the last night we were there.  I was pretty numb thinking about facing another death so soon after Jade's, but Sam knew I would need to remember this last special trip, and grabbed my phone and took pictures of him.  I am so grateful she did.

Take pictures of your dogs.  Even/especially when they are old.  We know we want to remember them in their prime, in their youth, but you will want to remember their full life cycle too - the grey muzzles, the cloudy eyes, the sweet wise gaze.  Be grateful that you get to experience that stage with them because it is beautiful.  Enjoy every part of their lives, because they are never long enough.

I'll end with a quote I read the night after Jade passed, which expresses everything I've learned in the last six months:

"We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan." 
-Irving Townsend



Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Emotional Bank Accounts: Neutral is Not Enough

This weekend, on one of the most beautiful days of the spring we've had so far, Lowell, Maebe, Fate, and I had paused at the side of a popular multi-use pathway in a well-traveled city park by our home in the middle of a mid-day run.  Fate and I were standing well off the trail, she was on leash and right at my side sniffing some grass when a roughly 50 year old man dressed in running clothes (yet presumably also under the influence of drugs or alcohol while out for some exercise) came running down the trail and rushed straight at Fate and I as he hurled threats and obscenities at us and physically threatened to kick Fate, coming within inches of us.  He continued his verbal assault at the top of his lungs as he continued to run down the path out of sight and earshot.  It was jarring, to say the least, and mostly Lowell and I stood there in disbelief.  I tried to not let the experience wreck my lovely day, and for the most part I succeeded.

The next morning though, as we were walking the dogs along the path again, I felt myself become irritated as I saw two female runners approach.  When we pass other trail users, we as a rule cue our dogs to step off the trail and stand to the side to let them go by.  I did this as always, but this time I felt a twinge of resentment and reluctance to share the path with a runner and felt myself wishing they weren't there.

On today's walk, we were passed on the road by a runner bearing roughly the same demographic profile as the man who threatened us, and I felt myself have a physiologic fear response as my sympathetic nervous system was activated, and I automatically clutched the leash to pull Fate closer to me.  Of course, like the vast majority of runners, this man simply wished us a good morning as he passed.

What went through my mind as I observed this involuntary reaction on my part was how many stories I hear from owners who can point to a pivotal scary event that impacted their dog's behavior in response to a certain trigger, whether it be other dogs, the veterinarian, cars, or toe nail clippers.

Lowell is a runner.  I am a runner.  Heck, we were on a run at the time.  We run with our friends, also runners.  One of our favorite weekends of the year every year is a three-day running event.  I encounter runners just about every time I leave the house.  Overwhelmingly the encounters range from neutral, to (perhaps even more often) friendly and cordial.  I usually have pretty good perspective and coping skills in general, but even with that healthy "bank account" of good experiences built up, I am having a temporary negative conditioned emotional response right now.  So, why do we expect it would be any different for our dogs?  And what if I didn't have that history of positive associations?  What if this was the first runner I had encountered, or the first time I'd gone to that park?  What if I had encountered a high proportion of other unfriendly runners in the past?

I hear owners all the time dismiss the importance of continuing to create positive associations and good experiences because their dog is "fine" with people, dogs, handling, noises, etc.  I tell them neutral is not enough - I want the dogs to LOVE these things.  I want them to work on building that bank account and creating the most resilient dog that they can.

Because the fact is, sometimes unpleasant things out of our control happen.  Even the best practices and habits can't prevent everything, and if we want to live our lives and let our dogs do the same, we are always running that risk.  The event this weekend happened on a popular multi-use path at a prime time of day on a gorgeous weekend when people were out and about.  We were minding our own business and had not been engaging the runner/assailant in any way.  The only way we could have reliably prevented that encounter would have been to sit in our living room on a beautiful spring morning and hide away from the world outside.  Which of course is no way to live.

I'll recover, because I know that overall the world and people are generally pleasant.  My genetic predisposition and past history tells me so, but still I'll appreciate every friendly runner who passes me with a wave and smile and helps remind me of that in the coming days.  And as for Fate - she's fine.  She wasn't touched and she barely noticed a thing.  Clearly her bank account is bigger than mine!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Things My Parrot Is Teaching Me About Dog Training #1

Probably anyone who has come within the slightest contact with me in the last six months knows that we have recently added some feathered family members to the household.  The first of these was Presto, a Congo African Grey parrot who we rescued from the Humane Society of Huron Valley in November when he was surrendered along with 40+ other birds in a hoarding case.  I've been enjoying living with and training a new species, and while Presto has spurred a growing obsession with all things ornithological, he's also helping me appreciate the art of animal training in general.

Presto and I have been working on a cup stack trick where the ultimate goal will be for him to stack multiple nesting cups.  I began by first shaping him to pick up a small cup and give it to me.  I then began presenting the larger cup underneath the small cup when he would pick it up, and mark/reward when he let go and the small cup fell into the large one.  I am now at the stage where I want him to make some effort to get the small cup in the right location, so I am holding the large cup in place (to make it easier to hit) and am rewarding for dropping the small cup so it at least hits the large cup - I'm not worried right now about it nesting correctly.  I'm holding the large cup next to the small one so he really just needs to turn his body a bit to drop his cup correctly.  My goal is for him to make some intentional effort to get the cup in the right spot, and rely less on my help (but as you will see, I do fall back on "helping" more than I want to).

When I am shaping behaviors, my goal is to as much as possible be striving for "error-free learning" where I am upping the criteria so gradually that the learner is able to make continual progress with minimal mistakes made and a very high rate of reinforcement throughout.  However, I have found myself getting a little bit stuck with this exercise in figuring out how to raise criteria enough so that we are progressing, but not so much that he starts making repeated mistakes.  I find that is the real art of shaping - splitting that criteria just right.

I've probably had a couple sessions too many in a row where I've messed up this balance - raised criteria too much, resulting in his frustration after repeated mistakes, and then my compensating by lowering criteria again to help him be successful.  So we've pretty much established a trick of him lifting the cup, me placing the other one below it, and then him dropping it onto the large cup.  I think we both felt a bit stuck in this exercise, and last night Presto, rather hilariously, showed me he was bored with it.  No doubt, dogs get frustrated/confused/bored too when our training gets stale or unclear, and they might begin throwing new behaviors out, but Presto tends to do it with flair.  I swear he has a sense of humor, and if he gets bored with something, it is as if he is showing me something he thinks is more fun instead.

In the video, you will see him offer a behavior I have never seen before at all, which struck me as actually a little bizarre - and pretty funny.  You might also be able to guess what his current favorite trick is - one I did a better job training so has a higher reinforcement history and therefore is a lot more fun for him.  Now I need to get that one under better stimulus control, clearly!


How often do we do this same thing with our dogs?   In our determination to "fix" our dog's weave poles, contact performance, heel position, etc., don't we sometimes drill the exercise to death until both the dog and we become bored and cranky by the very idea of it?  Sometimes the best thing I think we can do is set things aside, do something else for a while, and come back with a fresh approach to make the activity new again.  I know I had gotten into a rut in recent months with my dogs, just working on the same sets of behaviors over and over.  With our new approach to keeping things interesting, I literally am drawing a couple behaviors out of a jar each day now, and working on those.  In the last couple weeks we've worked on components of formal retrieves, agility, treibball, and basic good manners, and I think we are all finding it much more interesting.

I think we will put the cups away for a few days.  (And as I was writing this, it occurred to me that I might next try using an even larger cup as the destination cup, so he is more likely to be successful with less intervention from me.  We can then scale back down to the red cup over time.  But that's not for today . . .)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Barn Hunt

In our new effort to make training fresh again, Lowell and I are doing something we haven't done in a while - taking in-person lessons with our own dogs again!  Having decided the dogs could use a new activity, we decided to sign up for some barn hunt lessons with Tempo, Cadence, and Fate.  We thought it seemed like a fun option for all of them.  It is a terrier's dream for Tempo.  Cadence has done a bit of nose work in the past and enjoys it, and the physical demands of the sport are within his capabilities.  Fate just likes to do stuff.  Anything.  But, honestly, she tends to be so handler-focused, that an exercise like this where she needs to problem-solve independently is a good thing for her.

For anyone not familiar with barn hunt, it is basically tracking for live rats hidden (in safe, secure tubes) among bales of hay.  Lest anyone worry about the welfare of the rats, rest assured that all the barn hunt rats I have known are also loved family pets who are specifically desensitized to dogs and the tubes, are trained to go in on their own, and most I know are also given the choice on any given day whether or not they want to get in the tube to be the decoy.  I can tell you that the rat our dogs first learned on was so bold that he was trying to reach through the bars of his cage to get to the treats I was giving to my dog inches away.  I like rats.  I've had them as pets.  I wouldn't do any exercise that I felt was traumatic to them.  If you are worried, you can read more about barn hunt rat care here.

The way the terrier and the BCs took to the sport was quite different.  For Tempo, it is pure predation and terrier drive.  Once he saw the rat on the first day, he was hooked, but if anything his arousal and excitement becomes a barrier to him being able to think straight and figure out what is relevant.  His first couple runs tend to have a frantic, unfocused pace.  Rats! Hay! Barn! Smells!  Once he has bounced off every bale of hay a few times, he settles into it better and starts to think.  I think he finds the tube a bit disappointing though.  I think it is a little bit of a let down when he can't see the actual rat, so every now and then the instructor lets him have a little glimpse of the rat, which seems to make him happy.

When Cadence and Fate saw the rat in the cage at the first lesson, they were actually a little disturbed by him.  Once he was in his tube and they didn't have to look at him, they got into it as a nose work exercise though.  There is much less predatory drive at play for these two - instead it is a problem-solving task.  Cadence has done the most nose work, so he is picking the sport up the fastest of any of them.  His barrier right now is building confidence to climb up on the hay bales due to his coordination problems.  I can usually tell now if he thinks the rat is up high, so then I show him a safe way to get on the bales (which I'm told is legal as long as I don't touch him).

I think Fate honestly thought this was all a little bit stupid until halfway through the second lesson, when she finally started to put it all together.  Once the light bulb went on, she started straining to go between hides, so I think she's beginning to like it.

Here is a video of Cadence at his second lesson:

And one of Tempo:

(Lowell is asking if it is legal for him to use his body to block Tempo from attempting to jump straight off the top of the bales of hay - which he had already done once - and to guide him back to a safer climb down.  It was.)

Monday, March 28, 2016

Fresh Start

Wow, coming to my blog site today I realize it is approaching two years since I last made a post!  The reasons behind that I'm sure are varied.  When I started this, I was actively competing in dog sports with multiple dogs, and most of my posts were about those experiences and what I was learning along the way.

While my dogs, and dog training, are still huge parts of my life, competition hasn't been lately.  Dogs aged.  Dogs retired.  Cadence retired prematurely due to a random neurological event, and that more than anything took the wind right out of my sails for quite a while.  I had a lovely new agility prospect in Fate (and still do), but my heart wasn't into the competition anymore.  On weekends, we felt more inclined to stay at home with all the dogs and go for hikes, play in the yard, and do training games, rather than take only two of them off to a trial while the others sat home with only a mid-day bathroom break.

In addition, our training lives changed as well.  After a few years volunteering at the local humane society, we began teaching dog training classes to the public there.  Soon after we both became Certified Professional Dog Trainers, and we started our own training business.  Helping owners and dogs work through often difficult behavioral challenges has become a passion, and I feel grateful and surprised every day about the fascinating road this is leading me on.

Our own dog training never stopped.  We set up agility courses in the backyard.  We teach new tricks.  We continue to reinforce good manners in public.  We try new training challenges.  We meet with other trainer friends for training outings and pick different things to work on.  And we brought new family members of the feathered variety into our home and became fascinated by how they learn as well.  But without the motivation of competition or the ritual of logging and tracking my progress, I felt like things were getting . . . kind of stale.

So, coming back from ClickerExpo 2016 last week, I felt like I needed a new program to clarify my training goals, really start tracking progress again, and pushing myself to work towards a higher performance - whether that means competition (I hope so) or just my own pleasure at watching my dogs' (and birds') successes.  I got some great ideas about how to make sure my daily training stays fresh from my friend Chris's blog, and found a cool new on-line training log being started by the family of some trainer friends that while only in beta version is quite useful already!  I figured with these new ideas and tools, the last piece for keeping me accountable should be also resurrecting this blog, which, even if it is only for my own amusement and interest, is a nice way to see where we've been and where we are going.

So, if you are interested in watching along with my training adventures with some border collies, a terrier, and a couple of parrots, stay tuned, and I'll do my best to get back in this blogging habit.