Monday, April 9, 2018

A side-trip to impostor syndrome

There seems to be a disconnect between human and veterinary medicine, at least in public discourse.  For sure, human and veterinary medicine are not identical, if only because every species has anatomy and physiology that makes them their own species.  And it irks me when, for example, physicians for humans make informal recommendations in public dog-discourse based on what they know about drug action/affects in humans.

As an epidemiologist, I have been trained to evaluate reports of health/medical studies for biases that may hide the true relationship between a disease and an exposure.  I am perfect at it, but I have more training in evaluating sound medical science than the average person.  And I have always felt that this training carried over into veterinary medicine.  The features of a high quality study remain the same whether the subjects are human or canine!  If anything, there are a lot of parallels between canine epidemiology and pediatric epidemiology (especially in babies/toddlers): both dogs and toddlers rely entirely on their caregivers to meet their physical and emotional needs, to teach them how the world works, and make appropriate health decisions with their best interests at heart.  In addition to all of the biases that normally come along with observational studies, both pediatric and veterinary health studies are prone to placebo-effect affecting the caregiver.

There are very few reasons why my training in evaluating human literature should not apply to veterinary literature as well.  I am not an expert in human physiology or anatomy either; lack of expertise in veterinary physiology/anatomy is not the difference here.  In fact, I have more training in animal physiology/anatomy than the human equivalents.

Despite my internal inadequacies, it was really nice to get some validation in this area.  It came in the form of summary notes from a workshop put on by one of the biggest names in veterinary behaviour (that I wish I had attended, but that's another story).  It was nice to see that we had the same conclusions in a lot of behavioural treatments, based on the evidence in the literature.  And it was a good reminder to myself that hey, even if I don't feel like I know what I'm doing, and even if random internet people who don't know my qualifications tell me I'm not qualified because I'm not a vet*, it doesn't matter.  I'm not out to lunch on this stuff - the training holds true.

*Vets are really great professionals and I have a lot of respect for them, but - like human physicians - the focus of their training is on diagnosing and treating disease, not designing studies or evaluating study methodologies.  But that is a rant for another time.

Monday, March 12, 2018


If you're already at a destination, one that you go to routinely, it's easy to not think about how you got there. Think about your commute to work this morning. Chances are this is the first time since arriving at work that you've thought about how you got there. And probably, unless something unusual during your drive - a crash or stall that caused you to change your route, for example - you didn't even really think about your commute to work while you were commuting... and even then, since you've travelled the route so much, chances are that any detours are easy, short affairs because you still know exactly where you're going.

On the other hand, if you're taking a trip somewhere you've never been before, if you're like me, you spend every few seconds checking for markers that provide assurance that you're on the right route to get where you're trying to go. An unexpected detour may, or may not be stressful - depending on whether you already know a clear path how to get from the detour back to your original route or not.

And I think the same thing can happen on our journeys with our dogs. Whether it's a sport-specific problem - like bar-knocking in agility or dumb-bell chomping in obedience - or deficiencies in regular life-skills like leash pulling or fearfulness, it can be really easy to fall into the trap of thinking of your dog mainly in terms of those problems. If you're actively working through those kinds of problems, then that's what your brain is putting its cognitive abilities towards when you think about the dog. You don't think about the things that aren't a problem because... that's just not what you've been working on.

Sometimes its okay to take a step back, soften your focus, and appreciate the good things about your dog. Whether that's how pretty she is, or how good she is at playing fetch, or how fast she can run. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it is something that you love about your dog.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

It has been really hard for me to work on Ida's car anxiety this year. It's been over a year since I first identified that it was becoming a problem, 10 months since she started on medications and stopped going for unnecessary car rides, 6 months since I sat down and wrote a clear and specific training plan, and four months since I put a system in place.

And I needed every single one of those to be in place before we could make progress: so that I had a step-by-step plan, so that I knew what I was looking for, so that I could put my own anxieties about the process aside, and so that I could keep myself accountable.

Over the fall, we worked on rolling down the driveway with the car engine on before I bit the bullet and decided to try moving powered by the engine.  We went slow, only a little bit at a time, she was relaxed, ears up, tail up, happy the whole time.  We're not finished yet (she is not happy always), but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and I'm pretty sure it's not a train.

Although it was a super long, drawn-out process, I really wanted to make note of the key points that I think have helped us be successful this far, so that when something else catastrophic blows up in my dog training, I can come back to this post and remind myself that I can in fact fix it, and here's how I did it last time.

Identify the problem
Remove the trigger
Develop a plan
Hold yourself accountable

This time, the first two were hardest for me.  I tried to hard to identify the specific thing about driving that was bothering her, and it turns out that it's all of it, which resulted in trigger stacking.  But the hardest thing of all was pulling her out of classes and not driving anywhere we didn't have to.  I know now that my difficulties didn't really have much to do with Ida, but training classes are a safe space for me to geek out as much about dog training as I want without worrying about people thinking I'm strange for being so enthusiastic about dogs and training, and it turns out that's a really important thing for me to have in my life.

After I stopped all car rides, I played around with behaviour modification for the problem.  It got a little bit better, but without having a plan and system in place, I frequently made mistakes that set us back.  It wasn't until I sat down and wrote out a plan that we finally made consistent progress.  I started by identifying the specific senses that were involved in a car ride - from putting on her harness in the house to the actual driving - and then the individual stimuli that affected each of those senses (e.g., the sound of the radio, the feel of the vibrations of the car, the smell of gasoline burning, etc.).  Once I had a list of what to work on, I also planned out how I was going to work on it.  I needed to structure my training plan in a way that would set both of us up for success: removing barriers that prevented me from working on the problem, and ensuring that we could progress steadily without falling into the "one more rep" trap that frequently catches me.  I would aim to do at least one session every day, and that sessions would only be 10 dried anchovies long.  Limiting the session length was really important so that "Finding time" didn't become a barrier preventing me from working on it.

Even having a concrete play laid out, I still didn't do as much as I felt I should.  I was doing about one or two sessions a week, and things felt tedious because we were not making very much progress.  I also happened to be learning about human behaviour change techniques as part of a project at work, and decided to set up a visual cue and system of accountability.  It is not very complex - I printed off monthly calendars and bought some stickers, and voila.  When I work on a thing, I get to place a sticker.  It's not a perfect system, but it's definitely helping to keep me motivated, or at least prompting me to work on it!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Dilemma

I have been thinking a lot about how much Ida enjoys obedience/rally work, how much it makes me feel like we're really a team, and what that means for her car issues. I don't really know how to proceed going forward. All of the options I cam come up with have questionable chances of success and the potential for real negative consequences.drawbacks.

I could try giving her xanax for every training session that involves the car moving, and try DS/CC that way, while she is medicated to prevent her from being re-traumatized every time. But that seems like over kill and since the Xanax should be on board for about an hour beforehand, means we likely won’t have many opportunities for training and/or if I do make the effort to work it every day, run the risk of creating a physical benzo dependency.

After our last experiment with the Xanax and the drive just around the cul de sac being a pretty okay success, I now question whether she might have some car sickness. Which means trying gravol and/or ginger…. But because she already has a CER- just to getting in the car, even if an anti-emetic fixes her car sickness (which I have no evidence that she has, other than she stops eating and shakes when the car moves for more than a few seconds), I still need to be able to create a CER+ to riding in the car, which means riding in the car and something amazing happening, over and over again, to break down that old CER- and build up a new CER+. Part of me wants to put her in Rally classes in the next session at the facility 10 minutes away (and no highway driving!), just to see what would happen – that 10 minutes of driving to go to something that will be awesome and fun (there is inherently potential for a much higher ROR in Rally training than in agility) might start to counteract her previous CER- to the car.

I could try a Control Unleashed approach utilizing a mat as a “safe space”. I do not know how Ida will respond when her “safe space” (the mat) becomes also the scary moving thing. Or maybe I just need to condition her to moving on the mat = okay?

I could also try crating in the car. But Ida does not like being confined when she is left alone (i.e., in isolation - she is fine confined to a bedroom with our other dog). She will escape if she is confined by herself while we are gone for more than a few minutes. She won’t truly be alone while crated in the car, but I have put quite a bit of work into making crates a safe space so that she can chill in crates for if we ever trial, and using a crate in the car may wreck that. Or it may not, since she’s not always great at generalizing, and maybe the close quarters will be comforting to her, since as a puppy, small spaces (like under our bed) were where she sought comfort/safety.

I am just…. stuck. Choice paralysis is a real thing, and in this case, the consequences for fall out for all of the choices are pretty serious to me. What do you do when every option before you has a real possibility of ending in punishment?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Ida was in a moving car today.

Ida chose to stay in the car when the door was opened.

Ida jumped right back in when I lured her out.

We have a long way to go still, but at least now I'm pretty sure we can get there.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

An Ode to Snowball

Snowball's first morning in our home
This blog is primarily about Ida, but Snowball and I have been spending a lot of time together, taking Rally Obedience classes, and it's really brought me awareness about how lucky I am. I started typing this up as a FB post, but it's really too long for that. So I'm posting it here instead. Today, I am grateful that you have been my first dog. You're the reason that became interested in dog behaviour and training, and how I ended up with R+ right from the beginning. Although I had planned to take a dog training class when we got our first dog, classes at the shelter (which uses R+ training methods only) were a requirement with your adoption. Although I learned a lot about learning theory, the quadrants, and counter conditioning, in those classes, I left with some questions still; they mainly served to whet my appetite about dog behaviour.

From those classes, we went on to many, many walks together, all over the neighborhood. And eventually, to the off-leash parks around the city. You've always been up for a walk, rain, snow, or shine (but not in wind, it messes up your hair too much), and although you've started to slow down in the last year or two, it's still clear that you love going out and about, checking the pee-mail.

I wish I could've seen you as a baby puppy. Certainly at 8 years old you were no slouch, and I can only imagine how much energy a younger, more athletic you would've had. I'm sure you were a ton of fun. You "eskie grin" is contagious and always brightens up my day.

I hope our journey together will serve as a guidebook for all of my future dogs. I have made mistakes that would have ended much differently if you were larger, younger, or more determined. I hope that I never forget that even though some days I felt completely hopeless and inadequate, and that you surely would be better off somewhere else, that we still achieved our goals. It just took time, patience, and consistency. I am also lucky that you have been so forgiving of my mistakes and haven't put too much effort into training me. 🤣

Whether it's driving to Calgary to prove that yes, you are in fact a good dog, or hiking 10 km up a mountain, or just laying around the office while I help less fortunate doggos, you go with the flow. Sometimes you don't understand why I want you to do a thing, but (most of the time) you do it anyway. I'm sorry that I can't make you getting older any easier on either of us, but I hope that you're around for a long time to come. The house is going to be very lonely when it's not furnished by your borks. <3

Friday, September 1, 2017

Dreams and Goals - Update

I am just reviewing and revising my dreams/goals for each dog and myself.

Snowball's Dreams
- TEAM1 Title
- "Compete" in rally and/or scent detection
- Get his intermediate trick dog title (strikeout)
- Get his advanced trick dog title

Ida's Dreams
- Be comfortable around traffic
- Be comfortable around other dogs
- Get her CGN
- Title in agility
- Have running contacts
- Title in Rally

My Dreams
- Build a career that involves dogs

- That's really the only one that matters


Submit the papers for his Novice Trick Dog (NTD) by Friday, January 13, 2017
Complete!  Snowball received his NTD certificate February 22, 2017.

New Goal: Film and submit ITD before December 31, 2017. Selected tricks:
  • Go around a cone
  • Close a door
  • Leg weave
  • Perch work
  • Roll over
  • Shell game (nose=1, paw=2)
  • Back up (2)
  • Cross your paws (2)
  • Distance work (Sit, down, stand; 2)
  • Place (left finish)
Enter the Barnhunt fun match in Red Deer in March 2017.
Complete! Snowball “passed” the instinct test with the second fastest time in his category; we did not Q for either Novice run, but we had a lot of fun anyway.
Hind end conditioning with the end goal of pain relief for his arthritis (and improving his sit)
Ongoing. Regular perch and pivot work

New goal: Continue perch/pivot work on both sides, and work on building a stronger sit/eliminate him walking backwards into a sit.

New Goal: Fade out rewards during rally sequences in preparation for trialing in the future.
Submit papers for her NTD title by Friday, January 13, 2017.
Compete!  Ida received her NTD certificate February 22, 2017.

New Goal: Film and submit ITD before December 31, 2017. Selected tricks:
  • Go around (“fly”)
  • Jump wraps
  • Baton jump
  • Jump through circled arms
  • Perch work
  • Place (left finish)
  • Sit pretty
  • Soccer
  • Go to mat
  • Directional casting
  • Back-up (2)
  • Directed retrieve (2)
Attempt TEAM1 by May.
We have cleaned up several components; and are starting to do run-thrus.

New Goal: Film TEAM1 by December 2017.
Learn weaves and teeter by Summer 2017
Ida has 6 weaves in easy situations (low distraction, low-medium arousal).

New Goal: Work towards 12 weaves and building fluency with high arousal, from different entry points, etc.  Will be put on hold when snow flies.

Teeter work on hold until I have access to equipment.

Car conditioning. I aim to do at least one session per day.  Sometimes I do none, and sometimes I do three, c'est la vie.  We have made notable progress - she is no longer bothered by the sound of the car being started (when she’s not in it), but she is still nervous of the car when the engine is running.

Take Snowball for a walk every day, even when the weather is bad*
*walking a circle around the cul-de-sac counts in really bad days.
Write out cue dictionary
Train at least 5 minutes per day with each dog.  Seriously me, 5 minutes isn't that long, set a timer if I have to.
The amount that I train has significantly increased.  I have also added an easy limit on Ida’s car desense - 10 dried anchovies per session - which has made it far less intimidating for me.
Drink at least 1000 ml of water every day for the rest of January.
I failed at this.  New goal: work on a more creative solution.
Take at least 7500 steps every day for the rest of January.
I have been keeping up with this.  I won’t say I’ve been perfect, but I have been adding in small things, like taking the stairs down instead of the elevator and parking my car a bit further away and walking to my office.