Friday, May 28, 2010

On Manners and Meeting New Friends

Well that was scary!

I was walking along the side of the reservoir this evening sniffing some greenery. There are crickets living amongst the flora and I find them to be the most curious thing. The quiet was disrupted by a rather large dog that came barreling around the corner. The young man walking the dog was saying "heel" but said dog was clearly not paying attention.

I was excited at first. Most of my experiences with other canines have been positive. I wagged my tail, put my head down low, and avoided direct eye contact. It's my usual way of making a friendly introduction with a new dog.

While I was making preparations to say hello a woman suddenly came from the other direction with two large dogs on a tandem leash. She was struggling and appeared to not be in control of her dogs and the young man was struggling and appeared to not be in control of his dog.

It was at that moment that both I and the human knew that trouble was brewing.

It happened very quickly. The human first paid attention to the woman with the two large dogs. To her credit, she was aware she wasn't able to control her dogs and she was walking into a difficult situation: she went around a corner with her dogs and down a hill. The young man with the Boxer decided they were going to meet us with my human turned in the other direction and kept approaching.

With the human's back exposed, I felt that I clearly needed to protect him from the Boxer coming toward us. The human turned back to me as I was moving from play position to a protective posture. What follows takes awhile to explain but in reality took up about five seconds of time.

The hair in the center of my back from the nape of my neck to the base of my tail stood up in a mohawk. The dog lunged, lurched, and leaped toward me and the human. The Boxer wasn't paying attention to me and what I was communicating. My hair was up, which is a sign suggesting that it's not a good time to play. I was looking to the side and licking my lips which is a sign that I'm trying to calm myself and the other dog. Think of it like this, when I do that I'm saying: "hey, leave me alone, I'm not a threat because I'm not looking at you but can't you see my hair, if you keep coming there is going to be trouble."

Well the boxer kept barreling toward us and the young man was being dragged along. In a split second the boxer came directly toward my face. He growled while continuing to approach. I turned and fixed my stare directly on him and snarled. He still did not stop and when he was inches away from my nose I snapped but did not bite.

While all this was going on the human pivoted between me and the boxer, and shouted in a friendly voice "hey big puppy" just as I snapped a warning at the dog. The human said "focus" and I immediately moved from the boxer to him (this happened thanks to practicing this command thousands of times). The human put himself between the two of us because he knew I was attempting to protect him, he read the dog as being out of control but not aggressive, and wanted to startle the other dog to try to distract him off his approach.

Unlike the young man with the boxer, my human did not pull hard on my leash. The boxer was choking on his pinch collar, which was likely raising his anxiety levels. It wouldn't do any good to pull on my leash because I wear a harness, not a pinch collar. Well that plus my human knows that a good way to increase the probability of a problem when dogs are meeting is to tug hard on a leash or communicate anxiety to the dog.

As soon as my focus shifted the human said "follow me." (I don't heel, by the way, the human believes in taking turns--sometimes he leads, sometimes I lead). When he says follow me he always means business: it's time for me to stop sniffing and exploring and walk quickly and quietly by his side. He walked away from the other dog at an right angle from the direction in which he was approaching. He was calm yet quick.

Big crisis was averted. Don't you think?

So what's the message here? Humans needs to be keenly aware of how their dogs communicate, and have a working knowledge of some of the basic ways other dogs communicate. With that knowledge, humans need to be paying attention and reading the situation when dogs meet for the first time.

This dog wasn't coming to me to politely shake my hand and ask me if I'd like to play. He looked like he was going to rough me up, or rough my human up, and I didn't like that. In all likelihood he probably just did not learn proper social skills as a puppy and doesn't know how to make friends.

I read the signs and was moving to protect my human and myself. My human read the signs and knew that there was danger brewing. If he hadn't been paying attention there could have been a bite, a fight, or worse. Even with his careful attention the situation could have ended poorly. He made a calculated decision to change the dynamic by getting between us. He trusted our developing bond and hoped that he could get my focus and lead me away.

What's a dog owner to do? It's not enough to teach your dog to sit, stay, and come. I hear lots of folks are doing this at home by reading books and watching TV shows. It's a start, mind you, but not enough.

Too many dogs are out there pulling their owners around and lacking in canine social skills. Take your puppy to a good puppy class. From an early age, a puppy class is a great opportunity for dogs to get feedback from other dogs and learn how to communicate in dog. Watch puppies and dogs as they interact and socialize. Learn to read a dog's body language as it relates to lots of different contexts. Keep your eyes out for experienced dog handlers--watch how they interact with groups of dogs. Ask lots of questions.

And please, don't ever let your dog meet another dog without first asking if it was okay. Had this young man with the boxer done this basic step, this whole situation would have been averted. The human would not have had his back turned, he would have already asked me to sit, and he would have asked the young man to stay at a distance. When given a choice, my human never lets me meet new dogs that have owners who are not paying attention and in control of the situation.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Curing my Anxiety Disorder

Yes that's right, I'm not afraid to admit it. I have a phobia. Every since I was a little puppy I had a phobia of metal grates on sidewalks. Sure, there were other things I was afraid of: elevators were super scary at first. It's still touch and go when I see women wearing sunglasses and hats. For the most part, I was exposed to just about every kind of stimulus as a young puppy so while I might be cautious, I'm also curious.

Only a particular kind of grate bothered me. You see, sewer grates were okay. I would sniff them, walk over them (assuming my paws didn't fall through), and generally be okay with them. I was fine with the metal coverings that some trees in urban areas have. They are a wonderful storehouse of smells: I tend to stop at each on of them and smell ever square inch.

There is a particular kind of metal grate that they use to cover subway access vents that really bother me. Some grates that cover electrical vaults under the sidewalk also really bother me. I avoid them at all costs. I walk around them, I sit down and look at the human with pleading eyes, and well, you get the picture. There is a bridge that we walked over once that was entirely a grate: I made the human carry me all the way across the bridge.

No one really thought of this as a huge problem. There were plenty of places for me to walk where there were no metal grates. It was easy enough to go around the metal grates. It never got in the way of my enjoyment or that of my human. I'm small enough that in an emergency I could be carried (like the bridge).

My human tells me that my grate phobia was on his list of things to work on in the future. He's got more pressing things to teach me, so he wasn't in a rush. In the end, this required no work on his part at all: a friend who discovered a well placed piece of food did the trick.

Before we get to explaining how I was cured of my anxiety disorder, let's talk about two popular techniques that are frequently used in helping fearful dogs: flooding and systematic desensitization.

Flooding is a behavioral technique involves exposing a dog to the fearful stimulus until the dog remains calm. This tool is popularized in Cesar Millan's television show, The Dog Whisperer. In my case, I would have been placed on a grate and forced to stay there until my fear response dissipated. An important key is that there is no punishment applied at any time: I would be simply confined to a metal grate and left there until my fear response ended. Flooding is a tool that was researched in the lab with humans. For example, someone who had a phobia of snakes might be locked in a room filled with snakes. The human isn't let out until they stopped trembling.

It's highly effective. It's also dangerous. If a human lacks the necessary skills to induce a relaxation response the episode of flooding can induce a traumatic response. Phobia + trauma equals more problems, not less. This also seems more than a little cruel to me, does it to you? How would you feel if I locked you in a room of snakes, spiders, or growling aggressive dogs? You wouldn't like it? Then why would you want to do that to me?

Another tool is systematic desensitization. In state-of-the-art behavioral treatment for phobias, humans are generally taught a variety of techniques to induce a relaxation response. When the human has mastered these tools they are gradually exposed to the stimulus that triggers the phobia. A person might think about snakes and then practice a relaxation technique, for example. Once a human masters thinking about snakes without inducing a panic response the stimulus becomes progressively more intense. The human looks at pictures of snakes, the human looks at other people handling live snakes, the human looks at snakes closely, and finally the human touches the snake.

Since dogs don't understand English, humans can't teach them progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, or other distress tolerance skills. Dogs can only be confined to an area where they have to cope with a stimulus. Humans can only hope the dogs nervous system is effective enough that some sort of relaxation response will naturally be induced. If it doesn't happen, the dog is likely to develop secondary behavioral problems as a result of the flooding.

So what's a caring human to do? Dogs can be desensitized to fearful stimuli. It just takes a lot of time, effort, and love. My human has let me sniff the scary metal grates for months. This was preparation for his intervention. While I was scared of the grates and wouldn't step on them, I was fine sniffing them. I've had hundreds of opportunities to sniff the metal grate and discover that nothing scary happens. His next step was to start rewarding me every time I sniffed the grate. A "good girl" or a pet behind the ear would suffice. Again, he'd do this every time I sniffed a metal grate (which is at least four times every work day). Eventually the human would catch me touching the grate. Maybe my nose would touch it or perhaps even my paw. My human planned on having a big party every time this happened. An excited "good girl", a scratch behind the ear, or maybe even a little piece of turkey. Yum. Turkey.

In time, I'd be walking across the metal grates. It's not rocket science. It's also not very sexy. Systematic desensitization is slow, methodical, and frankly rather boring. This kind of work doesn't make for exciting television, either. It is however humane, highly effective, and enduring. It also builds a bigger foundation in the human/dog bond.

This brings me to my story. My anxiety disorder wasn't particularly intense. The human never forced the issue thus increasing my fear. I sniffed the grate, walked to the side, and went on my way. It was a minor fear, with inconsequential consequences.

Thanks to a psychologist friend paying close attention yesterday, I was cured of my phobia in a minute. The two humans were talking psychology things (some sort of complaint about insurance companies, I think) when we encountered a metal grate. My human walked to the side so we could avoid it. He wasn't paying attention to me (the nerve!) but the other human was. She saw me sniff the grate and I happened to have the edge of my paw on the metal. She made a big deal about it, said my name in a super excited voice, and got down close to the ground. I got carried away with her excitement. She seemed to excited that I thought there surely must have been something exciting for me to investigate. I walked right over to her on the metal grate. It was a lucky coincidence that there was a piece of food lodged in the grate. I licked and licked and licked, and totally forgot I was standing on something scary.

The humans said goodbye at the T stop and we walked back to the office. We passed by that same metal grate and--you guessed it--I walked right onto it looking for the food. The human was prepared for this and had some turkey in his pocket. Yum! Turkey!

Mind you, I'm still wary of other metal grates--just not the one I found food it. My human tells me to expect to find food in random metal grates from this time forward. By the middle of summer I'll probably we walking on all of them.

That was easy, wasn't it?

Wednesday Smile

I hope she is wearing sunblock!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Wednesday Smile: Friday Edition

I'm a little late on this one. My love of sticks never gets old. Here is what I was up to today while on a walk. Hope you smile.

Sit, Stay, and Other Feats of the Therapy Dog

As many of you know, one important task of any well mannered therapy dog is an ability to sit and stay. This comes easy for many dogs. It's comfortable to sit, for example. Additionally, many of us discoverer than when we sit, good things happen like treats appear or we get a toy. That's pretty cool.

Others find this task a little more difficult. Being part basset hound, I have a mind of my own. I give my best effort, most of the time. Even when I don't want to I will give a begrudging hover over the ground giving the illusion of sitting. Still, there are times when I'm just going to ignore the request. Why? Because I feel like doing something else. My history is replete with ancestors who were selected for thinking on their own. I follow scents. I make choices about what is interesting and then follow those choices with my nose.

The problem is mostly with this test I'm taking. To become a registered therapy dog, I have to demonstrate a good sit/stay (in addition, there is the talent competition and the swimsuit competition, I'll talk about that later). More then the test, being able to sit/stay is a useful thing. It makes shopping at the pet store easier on the humans. It makes people more interested in saying hello to me when I can sit/stay and wag my tail (though I think it's much more interesting to climb up on their shoulders and provide copious kisses).

What's a frustrated human to do? Real world training. I'm nearly 100 percent compliant with a request to sit/stay in situations where there are few distractions. Add in something more interesting and your results might vary.

The other day while on a walk along the river we stumbled upon an ideal situation for some real-life practice. Two birds and their babies were enjoying some shade. I wanted to sniff, investigate, and perhaps heard them into the river. I actually did get to do that with another family of geese. Here is a view of my handiwork. They do not look nearly as amused as I was. The more they yelled at me the more I decided that herding them into the river was the right thing to do. It's not very nice that they complain after I encouraged them to take a refreshing swim.

I'm digressing, however. You see, I got to do something fun and rewarding (herd the geese) and then the human asked me to do something for him.

The idea here is to have an opportunity to practice a sit/stay with a lot of distraction. Those of you who following along here know that I've practiced this in lots of interesting places like the subway station, at the river, and just about everywhere I go.

It's takes a lot of patience. There is a lot of stopping and starting. Try rewarding your pup when they sit down for just a second. If they sit for two seconds, add in the word stay. Build it up longer and longer and before you know it, your dog can sit/stay like I did in with these geese. I sat for a full minute before the human said "okay" which is my cue to get back up and do whatever it is I'd like to do. In this case, I nudged the family into the water for a refreshing dip.

Remember the premack principle: a more probable behavior will reinforce a less probable behavior. In this case, I'm much more likely to herd geese. The human "reverse engineered" this over time so that I get rewarded for a sit/stay by getting to later chase geese. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Danger Will Robinson, Danger!

A reader of my blog had asked a question about how to teach a dog a good emergency recall. I started to type a response that ended up being long enough that I figured it deserved a blog post of its own. As you'll see, I have a lot to say about this.

Sometimes life offers up some dangerous challenges. Dogs chase after cars, other dogs, and squirrels. In my case, sometimes I need to run away from the dreaded flexi-lead. These are all times when humans would like their dog to come when called. These are also the times when we dogs are least likely to listen. Think of the B9 robot in Lost In Space. Your command just simply does not compute. Like I'm going to be even able to hear you when a squirrel catches my attention? I've got so much adrenaline in my body that the only think I can see or hear is my prey.

Still, it's probably a good idea for me to come when I'm called. As I demonstrated with the flexi-lead incident, there are times when dogs can easily be injured or die if they do not respond to a command. How to get through to us during these situations--when we might be charged up with adrenaline from great excitement or fear?

Practice my friends. Practice.

I started working on this when I was twelve weeks old. I was on a long leash (12 feet) and got to play this fantastic game. One human would run ahead of me, call my name and say come in a super excited voice, and I'd charge after them. Sometimes I would run so fast I'd end up with my tail in front of my head. This was the best game ever! While playing I learned some important things: my name, the word come, good things happen when I listen, and that it was fun to go walking.

As the first few weeks passed the game got more challenging. With my long leash still on, one human would run off and hide behind a tree. They'd call my name and say come in a super excited voice, and I'd come running. Sometimes I'd just here a whistle, and would come running to that. What fun?! This game was always played in a safe area: there were minimal distractions, the road was a long way away, and no other humans or dogs were around.

Still more weeks passed. The humans continued to play this game, only they stopped calling my name. They just said come. We practiced it outside. We practiced it inside. We practiced it everywhere we could possibly practice it.

A few key points you want to remember. First, eventually, stop using your dog's name. Just say come. Otherwise every time your dog hears their name they will come running. This generally is an okay thing but can be a problem sometimes. For example, if you say Maggie sit, and instead I come running to you, you'll be annoyed with me. Yet, I'd just be doing what I was taught.

Second, always make it a good thing when your dog comes to you. No matter how annoyed you are or how scared you are, never ever yell at your dog when they come to you. It is important that your dog always associates the word come, and the behavior attached to it, with good things. If you teach your dog to come, and then yell at them when they do it, they will not come when you call: they will run in the other direction. Similarly, if your dog doesn't come when called, don't yell at them: if you do so, they will be even less likely to come when they are called.

These days, being almost a year old, I'm still practicing. Now there is a new step to the game. I do a sit/stay or a down/stay. The human then walks all around. Sometimes just in a small circle around me (especially at first). Now that I'm getting the hang of this he is walking in bigger circles. He sometimes even leaves my line of sight. He's careful to make sure that he doesn't push it so far that I stand up and move. He always comes back to me four or five times, says good girl, and occasional gives me a reward (bit of food, pet, etc.). Sometimes the human will even bump into me, and I am rewarded for staying in the same spot. After we finish practicing this the human will walk off somewhere: sometimes just a few steps in front of me, sometimes he'll be behind me, sometimes he'll go into another room or behind a tree. Where the human goes depends on the environment. Again, he wants me to be successful with sit/stay or down/stay. If there are a lot of people around he won't go very far as I'm likely to stand up an move. If the environment is safe and generally free of distractions he'll go out much further. Anyway, he'll eventually say "come" and I always run to him with glee. After all, I've learned since I was 12 weeks old that good things always happen when I come running when called.

Well, almost always. Sometimes the human says "come" and I get put in my crate. The human learned never to do this as my ability to listen was reduced for weeks after that one. I'm still very suspicious about coming when called upstairs. It's going to take a long time to repair that mistake.

The next steps in learning an emergency recall are going to be a challenge. Jason is expecting me to sit/stay or down stay in more challenging situations. For example, I'm asked to do this when patients come into the office. I am increasingly expected to wait until I'm requested to come say hello. That's hard! I'm also expected to sit/stay or down/stay when I am at dog school. This is especially a challenge when I first walk in: I really want to say hello to everyone and play. These tasks are useful because they are teaching me to inhibit my impulses. I am learning to wait.

Jason is paring these situations with the command "come." I listen at school (doesn't everyone listen better in school?) but totally ignore him at work. I want to say hello to the patients and that's that. It'll be a challenge but eventually I will come to Jason before I go say hello to a patient.

Once I get a hang of that with reasonable consistency I'm going to do something even harder. I'm going to do a sit/stay, Jason is going to call me, and then he is going to tell me down. I'm supposed to stop immediately and (depending on the command) sit or go down. Ha! I'll see about that. This is super hard. I need to fully understand the commands down and stay. I need to have developed an incredible amount of impulse control. I've been practicing this since I was 12 weeks also--I'll have to write about that in another post. Most importantly, I need to completely trust my human. I need to know that when he asks me to do this, he is asking because he is putting himself between me and danger. He's doing the same thing I would do if someone tried to hurt him.

This isn't a sure thing. I won't always be able to listen. Sometimes the bird will look too delectable. I am a dog, after all, and respond very deeply to prey. To make this even more complicated, my genetic make up includes strong impulses to chase animals, herd them up, and keep everything in order. The good news here is that I'm more likely to run in a circle (around birds, children, people, dogs) then dart after things and keep running.

Back to my point.

This might be the most important thing I ever learn as it has the potential to save my life in a dangerous situation. For example, if I'm running into the street and hear down, and go down, I won't be run over.

The training will go something like this: sit/stay or down/stay, come, and then sit/stay or down/stay. Over and over again we'll practice. The human will add lots of distraction. We'll do it at home. We'll do it around the cats. We'll do it in the park. We'll do it at dog school. We'll do it around food. Practice, practice, practice.

Sit/stay, come, sit/stay, then come all the way to the human for the biggest reward he knows how to give. Unlimited praise, love, pets, and tasty food (and the ever-present clicker!). It will be a party every time I do this.

That's how I'm learning an emergency recall.

Of course, this is going to take a lifetime of practice and emergencies aren't planned. There will; be emergencies well before I master all of this. As demonstrated by the flexi-lead episode, even when I'm on leash I can still be in trouble. In a true emergency, humans have to be bigger than life and bigger than the stimulus that the danger presents. Call the dog in an excited voice and run away from your dog. More often than not, the dog will follow. Lead us away from danger and resist your impulse to chase us. If you do, you'll chase your dog into danger.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Maggie and the Hydrant

So a recent reader of my blog posted a comment saying that her dog Mandy was really afraid of cameras. After careful observation they noticed Mandy was responding with fear to flash photography. After practice outside without the flash, and then practice outside with the flash, Mandy has become a little more accustomed to getting her picture taken. Still, if there are lots of people with lots of cameras, she's a little afraid. Who likes being chased by paparazzi? I know I don't.

While I've never been fearful of cameras, my human has still been prone to finding me annoying while he takes my picture. I don't sit still. I can't tell you how many great pictures he gets of the tip of my tail or the inside of my mouth (I love trying to lick the camera).

This is apparently a common dilemma. Never fear as I have a few simple solutions. First off, you need a lot of patience. Let go of taking the pictures you think you want. Go with the flow and let your dogs be dogs. They'll do lots of cute things. Focus on catching something unexpected rather than composing what you want. It makes for better images anyway.

Secondly, if your pup is afraid of the camera go slow. Think of it from our point of view. You disappear behind a strange object. Sometimes you get mad or anxious at us when you are behind it. When we least expect it, the thing will flash a bright light at us. You'd be scared too. Make it into a game, and incorporate the camera into our daily activities. Have the camera with you when you feed your puppy a meal. Put the camera in front of your face and give us a bit of our favorite food. Before you know it, the camera will be an object of delight rather than one of fear.

Finally, take lots of pictures. Digital photography is cheap. Take hundreds of pictures of your animal. At first maybe you'll get an interesting one for every 50 images. You'll quickly begin to learn what works and what doesn't. The quality of your compositions will improve.

As you can see, I did a photo shoot this morning by a local fire hydrant. As usual, there were a voluminous amount of photos that just didn't work. These were just a few. Part of the problem is that the human's digital camera is a bit on the slow side. The second between when he presses the button to when the image is captured is just enough for me to find something else to do. The first photo I am demonstrating how I like to move just a bit out of the frame. Isn't that nice? The second photo demonstrates how I like to hide my face. Photo three is evidence that I have a wandering eye: there were birds that needed investigation. In the last shot above I'm sampling a new variety of grass. It was might tasty.

There were a trio of shots that ended up being reasonable. Here are my picks for the day:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Wednesday Smile

Here is a video double play demonstrating some of the things I do when I'm not roaming around Harvard Square working hard as a therapy dog. I suspect it is also ample evidence that my human has a little too much free time on his hands.

Here is my gentle side:

And here is my rough side: