Monday, March 20, 2017

A small celebration

Tonight was our last agility class for a while.  We're taking a break to decompress, to build better engagement, and to work on desensitisation to the car.  It was our last class for a while, but we could not have ended it better.  I'm posting this so that I can remember, when things get frustrating, that

Normally at class, all of the dogs are crated behind a barrier until it is their turn; today, everyone sat (leashed) in the "arena" until it was their turn, and all of the dogs worked great with the other dogs around.  I was worried about Ida, but... I didn't need to be.  She did fantastic.  When it was her turn, we walked out.  She ignored the other dogs until I too her leash off and then decided to look around.  When she spooted them, she made one small woof without breaking her sit.  She was completely engaged with me in between reps.  She relaxed in the crate while I was out of view.  She even tolerated watching the other dogs moving to set up in position, although she couldn't hold it together while they were actually running.

But I don't care.  She was able to be in the room with three other dogs (and within 5 ft of the nearest one!) without fixating on them, without freaking out, and she was able to work - and work well - knowing that there were other dogs in clear view.

We'll get there.  And probably, we won't even notice that we've arrived until the "Welcome Sign" is right in front of us.

<3 <3 <3

Fear, Anxiety, "Stress", and Trigger Stacking

I started this post months ago, and then got distracted, but I feel like it is something important and not talked about enough.

It's not really recognized well among dog training resources, but I think that there is a difference
Everything is a little bit scary
between fear and anxiety.  Certainly they are linked together - how often do we talk about dogs with separation anxiety as being "afraid of their owners leaving"?  While I am not sure right now that they are one and the same, I am having a tough time conceptualizing why I feel that way other than to say that while Ida has certain definite fears, at home she just seemed to be generally "worried".  Unable to fully relax unless she was sleeping, but there was no readily identifiable or specific reason for it.  Wikipedia indicates that anxiety has a component of internal conflict, so maybe that is it.  Maybe, being at home Ida "knows" that she is safe, but she still has those nagging "what if" moments.  Maybe I'm anthropomorphizing a whole lot.  But I think for some dogs there is an area between "fine" and "fearful", a kind of generalized worry or anxiety that we just don't talk about because it doesn't noticeably affect the dog's behaviour in ways that Joe Blow Owner would think is a problem (or maybe just not a problem worth fixing).

While "trigger stacking" is talked about some, recovery times are rarely discussed.  Time-frames longer than a single outing or day are rarely explicitly addressed, which is probably why it took me so long to recognize Ida's long-term trigger stacking.  For her, it wasn't so noticible over a single day, but her stress builds up incrementally over the course of multiple days, or even weeks.  Sometimes it happened almost invisibly; she would be completely fine/normal inside the house, but would get worse and worse outside of the house.  Especially since, before medications at least, there were so many things that were likely adding to her stress (even just things like the cat showing interest in her food!) that I think now were likely adding to her stress, going forward it is going to be important for us to regularly take a step back and take a look at the all of the pieces in the puzzle, not just the most obvious ones.

I really noticed the long-term trigger stacking when we started taking two classes per week.  That meant long car rides, and two classrooms full of strange dogs.  Several days in between was not enough for her to recover; even though she acted fine at home in the back yard and in the house, her fuse got shorter and shorter. Seeing Ida so stressed out just sitting on the front step that she wouldn't eat hot dogs was heartbreaking and is really what kickstarted this blog.  Even now, I don't know if we'll ever be comfortable enough with car travel to compete in agility, but at the very least she should be able to be comfortable around her own home!

I don't think trigger stacking, and especially latent trigger stacking (where the stimuli has been removed but the dog is still feeling the emotion effects), is explained to owners enough - or at all, really. I think the end result is a owners that put their dogs in stressful situations on a daily basis in order to counter condition it before the dog has full recovered from the last exposure; the dogs who take longer than that to recover don't actually get the chance, and do not get better - or get worse.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Dog In Front of You - A reminder

I don't know if it's just getting familiar with the space, or if it is the meds, but Ida was a rock star in agility last night.  She played with toys (which I paired with food to help build that drive some more), she ran right past me, she jumped up on the instructor.  She was a good, happy, albeit kind of ditzy, baby girl.

While working on blind crosses, The instructor kept reminding me to reward from my hand (so that she would follow it and stay close).  Ida would cross and then blow right past me - something that she's never done in this facility and rarely at all.

When I tried to explain that blowing by me has never been a problem for us, she reminded me to train the dog in front of me - not only the individual, but what that individual is doing in that particular moment.

I have a feeling that I'll need to keep being reminded of this, as Ida blossoms from being a ball of anxiety into the gregarious creature that she is at home.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

It has been two weeks of medication.  We're still going to class (the last one is tomorrow).  Ida is happier at class, quieter in her crate, less concerned with what other dogs are doing, and much, much happier actually in the ring.

At home - where she was her most relaxed - the changes are more subtle, but still noticeable.  She looks more relaxed; her brow is not furrowed all the time.  She lazes about more stretched out instead of curled in a ball.  She no longer gets up in the middle of the night.  She is MUCH more okay with being by herself (e.g., being crated in a different room than a person).

She doesn't chase the cat for no reason.  She guards food less often and less intensely from Snowball.  Her resource guarding has never been extreme (they've only scuffled twice, both times over someone very high value that they were BOTH guarding).  She used to stare Snowball down if he walked into the room while she was eating; now when he enters, he gets just a brief glance.

Finally.... this past week she stopped shaking for a couple of minutes while in the car on our way to class. This is the first time in six months that she's stopped shaking for more than a few seconds.  I have no doubt we're on the right path to Ida's best self, but now I have a glimmer of hope that we'll also be able to deal with this car thing too.

Since Ida will be "trapped" at home for the next several months, I'm going to try doing more things
Photo credit to Shae Grismer‎.
with Snowball.  We participated in a barn hunt fun match this weekend, in which he passed his instinct test (or would have, if it had been a sanctioned trial), and then I flopped horribly in two novice runs.  First by moving him along too quickly, and then by not moving him along fast enough.  Oops!  We'll get better at it with practice, I just know it.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

What even is "bad enough"

"The fear wheels turn and all you can think about is what you'll never be able to do instead of finding what you can do."

A facebook comment on an internet acquaintance's page, who also went through anxiety/fear stuff with her young dog.  It rings very true with me.  How many countless hours have I spent worrying that Ida's life will never be as happy as it could be if she weren't so anxious?  Too many.  And it doesn't matter.  I am much better off focusing that worry-energy into helping her overcome her fears, in boosting her confidence, and making sure that her needs - her true needs, and not the ones that I wish she had - are met.
I don't like going to the doctor either, Ida.

Which brings me to the topic of this post.  I have spent a lot of time justifying to myself that Ida didn't need medications.  She wasn't "bad enough". Her issues are not as severe as the other dogs that I know who are on them. She's not (obviously) suffering at home, and her biggest triggers for fear/anxiety were outside of our property.  Which would be fine if she were in a typical pet home, doing regular pet stuff, and had a regular pet home that was content to let her stay at home for the rest of her life.  For better or worse, I am not that home, and I really want to DO stuff with Ida... which means I need to do more to help her be comfortable outside of our home.  And I didn't think Ida needed meds to overcome those fears.  We have made progress without them, but it has been slow and inconsistent and... if I can safely speed up the process, why wouldn't I?

It's taken me months to come to this conclusion, and I know some people saw it coming befire I did.  But this week we finally saw the vet about medications.  I was on the verge of tears when we started to discuss it.  I explained her issues and how behaviour modification has made some impact, but that we've come to an impasse.  He started by suggesting herbal supplements.  At that point I described what we'd tried (herbal supplements, with minimal effect, the thundershirt which started effective and no longer is), and that I hadn't used the synthetic dog appeasing pheromone because a systematic review that I found indicated little evidence for its effectiveness. I clarified why I was 100% certain that her issues in the car were not car-sickness (no vomiting, no salivation, won't take treats with the car running even if it hasn't moved).  He seemed hesitant to suggest medications until I flat out told him that we wanted to pursue it.  We briefly discussed what her triggers are (traffic, repetitive noises, strange dogs, the car) and training strategies. I was pleasantly surprised when my vet described the DS/CC protocol that I had already formulated in my brain to implement once the drugs are on board.

My vet's hesitancy to prescribe meds was both reassuring and disheartening at the same time.  I wonder how many dogs he sees who would probably benefit from medication, but the owners are not willing to go down that route.  I wonder how many dogs he sees and the owners don't even acknowledge that there is a problem.  And I wonder this fulling knowing that, even knowing the benefits of medications for mental health issues in humans and knowing people with dogs who are on medications and doing great. I can only imagine what it is like to convince people who don't think humans need medication for mental health issues that their dog should be taking it.  Some pieces of our society are so messed up that they would rather refuse to acknowledge that people (or dogs) are suffering than see them take medications for it.

Since publishing this blog article, I encountered this article by a DVM about why behaviour medications should not be a last resort.  This part especially makes a lot of sense:

In my opinion, medication should be considered as a first-line treatment option for the vast majority of dogs with true behavior problems – including aggression, compulsive behavior issues, and any type of pathological anxiety.  When we try to reserve the use of drugs as a last resort, something that we only try if the case is “really bad”, or if nothing else has helped, I believe that we do these dogs a tremendous disservice.
To me, this is similar to saying that we don’t want to use insulin in a diabetic patient unless he’s crashing with DKA, or that we don’t want to treat an infection with antibiotics until full-blown sepsis sets in – it makes no sense to withhold a basic treatment option with minimal risks and lots of potential benefits, until the situation becomes truly desperate.
Far better, if we can, to prevent this from happening in the first place with a well thought-out, comprehensive treatment plan in the beginning.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Happy Birthday Baby Girl

We don't get the dog we want, we get the dog we need.  You've taken me places I never thought to go, and taught me more than I ever thought I'd know.

Happy Birthday Ida. <3

Monday, January 30, 2017

Trick Training Tutorial

I posted this trick on my Facebook page, and a friend of mine then asked on Facebook how I taught it, and after I had written out a 500 word essay, I thought I should maybe post it here instead, complete with videos.

Getting Started:
Like any behaviour, there's more than one way to do it, but any way you choose should address the basic components of the final behaviour. These are: 1) jump over a thing; 2) jump accurately over a specific point; 3) jumping through a narrow space between two objects, and 4) jumping with something above their head; 5) all of those things at the same time. If the way I did it isn't working for you and your dog, think about what part of those 5 seems to be the problem, and then you can work on just that part some more.
- Ida started out already having a "jump" command, so we skipped most of the "teaching to jump" part.
- what I'm calling a baton can be literally anything that is a couple feet long and easily graspable with one hand - a broom stick, a ruler, a wooden spoon, a jump pole, etc. Just something straight(ish) and rigid.
- When you start making a hoop with your arms without any other props, it helps to have a mirror so you can see what you're doing. It is surprisingly hard to tell what's circular from the side!
I started by teaching her to jump over my arm using a baton as an extension to make it easier for the dog to figure out the initial behaviour of jumping over a thing. Once she was consistently jumping over my batarm, I shortened the baton part by adjusting my grip further and further down, so less of it extended from my hand, until I was able to drop it altogether and she was consistently jumping over just my arm. We worked on arm jumping until she was comfortable jumping over my arm at shoulder height when I was sitting. This didn't take us very long because we've been doing set-point for agility and she's easily clearing 24" from a stand-still.
Tip: If the dog tries to go under or around instead of over, lower your arm until it is easy for them to step over and then raise it a tiny bit with each rep until they’re jumping. The baton also helps with this… I was almost laying on the ground initially, so having the baton meant I could teach her to jump just over the baton leaning on the ground to start and then slowly angle it up.
Once she was comfortable jumping over my arm, I slowly started angling the baton/pole upwards, which helps the dog 1) jump over your arm while it curves slightly, and 2) get used to jumping in a more confined space. This was the first date we started working on it; initially when I started to angle the baton, I put my hand back down on the floor to make it easier, with the baton angled up.
Once she had the hang of it though, I raised it up more.

Once she was comfortably jumping over my arm with the baton upright, I angled the pole back out again and started moving my other arm into position. I started just with it angled over my head and gradually lowered it with each successful rep until I was eventually holding onto the pole with both hands with about 18" between. A bigger dog might need more space to be comfortable. This helps the dog get familiar with jumping through an enclosed space but with lots of room still.
Once she was jumping through the closed hand-pole hoop, I made the hoop gradually smaller by moving my hands closer together an inch at a time. The pole adds additional benefits here: 1) holding it with both hands makes sure you're actually making a closed hoop for the dog to jump through, and 2) it teaches the dog where to jump in relation to your arms. When we initially started fading out the pole, Ida jumped "outside" my arms if my hands weren't lined up well – she’d kind of jump between my hands instead of through my arms. I think keeping the pole in play until she was consistently jumping through the middle of the hoop would have eliminated that.
I don't have any videos of the intermediate part where I was holding the whole pole. :(
Once my hands were a couple inches apart, I got rid of the pole altogether and started making loose arm circles with my fingertips a few inches apart. Then I gradually closed them, and voila! A dog jumping through my arms.