Sunday, November 12, 2017

1. Indoor Brewery Pass: 56 Brewing

It's cool: Kaylee is perfect, and gets more perfect every day.
November in Minnesota is a terrible time to have a puppy. I mean, it's a pretty miserable time up here in general, unless you're a hunter or . . . you know what, I can't even think of what else there is to do in Minnesota in November unless your hobbies include being covered in mud and frozen. It's hard to socialize a puppy when everyone is hiding in their homes trying to stay warm.

Fortunately, the Twin Cities metro area seems to get more dog friendly every year. To get Kaylee out and experiencing new adventures, I picked up Sidewalk Dogs' Indoor Brewery Pass. The pass gets us a free beer and unlimited socialization at ten of the metro area's dog friendly breweries. We also get $10 off at three local pet stores: Bone Adventure, Chuck and Don's, and Lulu and Luigi's. Since the pass is only $25, it pretty much pays for itself right there. Plus, who doesn't need a few adult beverages while raising a puppy?

Yesterday, Kaylee, our friend Megan, Kaylee's brother Earl, and I set out to check off the first brewery on our passes.We chose 56 Brewing as they had food truck, Gastrotruck, serving food on Saturday. I chose the Walnut Joy stout with some of the best meat loaf I think I've ever had. Kaylee and Earl did great for a couple of three month old puppies. They already have some great mat skills, and they're well on their way to being perfect patio dogs. Great puppers, awesome company, good beer, and yummy food made this adventure a winner for everyone. 

Chillin' on their mats like good puppers. 
If you're interested in getting your own Indoor Brewery pass, you can check out Sidewalk Dogs' website here. And if you're stumped on which brewery to hit up first, the folks at Sidewalk Dogs have created a handy, up-coming event list for the breweries on the pass. As a bonus, a portion of the proceeds from the Indoor Brewery Pass go to Can Do Canines, a local service dog organization. So anyway you slice it, this pass is a pretty pawsome deal for everyone.

One more 'cause she's cute.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Deaf Dog Training

Today at lunch, a few of my coworkers were asking me about what it's like to train a deaf dog. Essentially, it's just like training a hearing dog. Except for the parts where it's not.

So I videoed part of today's lesson on mat work so I could show you what I meant. And then I cropped out the bits where I look like an idiot.

The goal of mat work is to have a dog who settles on a mat - in this case, a fleece blanket - in a variety of different environments. For my normal dogs, I use their mats as a place to be when we're out in public and I need to split my attention between them and another activity. For example, I have them lay on their mats while eating outside with friends. For my, um, less normal dogs, the mat is a safe space where nothing bad will happen to them. Having a portable safe space is invaluable for places like the vet.

In this video, I'm using a thumbs up as a marker - a way to communicate to Kaylee that she's done something I like and want her to repeat. For my hearing dogs, I use a clicker or a verbal "yes." I've found that the problem with the thumbs up is, of course, that Kaylee needs to see it. This is a bit of a problem because the first step in mat training is to mark the dog for looking at the mat.

It's possible you see my dilemma.

I miss my clicker. But we persevere! The goal of a marker is to give the dog instant feedback on their behavior, and so in situations like this where I can get food into her mouth while she is doing what I want, sometimes I skip the marker. You can see in the video that it's working. Kaylee definitely has some idea that interacting with the mat makes cookies happen. And so learning happens.

However, the real lesson here is much more subtle and much, much more important than simple mat work. Kaylee is learning one of the most crucial concepts of her entire life - that working with me is interesting, fun, and very worth her while. Kaylee is not a particularly food motivated dog. She likes food, but she's also very invested in her environment, the other dogs, other people, and oh, hey, look! A shiny, tinfoil squirrel!

Building a strong foundation of enjoyable work - an investment in working together as a team - is going to take us a lot further in competition and life than any amount of cookies or punishment or shiny tinfoil squirrels ever will.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Kaylee Ann

Allow me to show you the newest, permanent addition to the horde.

Now, I know what you're thinking, friends: "WTF. Laura, that's not a terrier or a bulldog!" How very astute of you, friends! You are quite correct. This little lady is actually an English Springer Spaniel.

Part of growing up means realizing that you will never own all of the different types of dog you would like to. While "springer spaniel" has never made it onto my short list of breeds to get before I die, she does have one very important characteristic that *is* on my short list.

You see, this perfect little girl happens to be completely deaf.

Many of you who have listened to me describe my next dog over the past several years will realize that this puppy and the puppy I thought I would have are very different. There's a long story behind that, with more than a little heartbreak, and a lot of right-place-right-time. Suffice to say that I am very pleased with this addition to our home, and I'm excited to go on all the adventures the future has for us.

As the great philosopher once said, "You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need."

ARCH Allister

I gave up on this dog.

So many times my heart aches to think of it. For years, our training sessions ended both of us screaming at the other – literally. More than all of the other dogs combined (and that’s a lot), this dog has brought me to tears again and again. I considered rehoming him several times. But like a bad habit, I couldn’t give him up.

So we grew up together. We measured progress not in steps forward or back, but in how little or much we hated the other –or not - at the end of the day. And day by day, our relationship repaired. And finally grew. Allister is my Ferrari dog, and like a really good sports car, once I figured out how to drive him, he took me on one hell of a ride.

Like many titles, this championship is not a handful of letters, but a lifetime achievement: a testament to not giving up. All ten of Allister’s runs for this trial placed in the ribbons. Every Single. One. And every single leg brought us either High in Trial or High Scoring Mixed Breed. In addition and true over-achiever style, our trail yesterday bought us both High Scoring Mixed Breed and High Scoring MMBC Member with two runs of perfect 210s. Nine of his ten runs were over 200. I am still in awe.

Allister has taught me that it is not breed or age or even time spent training that counts the most. It is relationship – who you are as a team – that is the most crucial aspect of competition.

And I am so very, very proud to be Allister’s teammate.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+14: Integration

And so things have returned to normal here at the Horde House - or as close to normal as anything can be with seven dogs living under the same roof. Everyone is more or less integrated now. Cannon is still irritated by the new comer, and so will get frequent breaks away. Rubi, as always, bears careful monitoring with any dog that doesn't know her quirks, and so she and Abe will be separated for a bit yet unless we are directly watching them. But overall, everyone can be out together at the same time.

Abe has made great progress in the past two weeks. He's comfortable in all the rooms of the house, plus the back yard, and we've started on the garage. He has a few basic manners (although he also maintains a fondness for buckles). He's figuring out the house training thing. Most importantly, Abe has a place to come back to that feels comfortable and safe. This is going to be very important in the coming weeks.

Abe is not healed. He still has a long road ahead of him, full of scary and unpredictable things. I have not "fixed" the neglect he has experienced. What I have done is give Abe a firm foundation to rely on and build upon as he goes on with his life. I have shown him that there is good in the world, and now that good is a part of him.

Wherever he may go.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+13: Leveling Up The Training

Abe has had a full dance card today: we've hung out with Piper Ann and Cannon, and then Allister. I expected Abe to be a little more interested in the other dogs than he has been, but I'm not at all concerned about how any of the dates have gone. More impressively I am happy to report that Abe has begun exploring the backyard on his own instead of remaining in a five foot radius of my legs. Curiosity is a good sign.

So that's the theme of today's post: curiosity and creativity. I want to teach Abe courage; I want him to learn new ways of interacting with the world around him. Abe has done very well with formal training so far. He mostly knows sit, and he's doing great at hand targets and chin rests. These are all lured behaviors, so they don't involve much thinking on Abe's part. He only needs to follow the treat. Now, I want to encourage creativity and problem solving, so our next project is to learn by shaping.

Shaping is the "hot or cold" game. I have an image in my head of the behavior I am looking for, and I'm going to break the behavior down into little steps. Then, I will mark and reward each step up to the finished behavior. It's the dog's job to figure out what behavior I'm looking for. Originally, I was going to start with mat work, but someone else mentioned that they're having crate trouble with crating, so I'll use that instead. Turning crate time into a game often helps dogs feel happier about their kennels.

So, we'll start by breaking down the process of crating into little steps:

  1. Look at the crate.
  2. Step toward the crate.
  3. Take more steps toward the crate. 
  4. Put your head in the crate. 
  5. Put one foot in the crate. 
  6. Put two feet in the crate
  7. Put three feet in the crate.
  8. Put ALL the feet in the crate. 
  9. Stay in the crate for a couple of seconds.
  10. Stay in the crate while I close the door. 
  11. Stay in the crate for longer amounts of time.
Now we have a bog behavior - crate training - and we've broken it down into eleven steps. If the dog is struggling, you can break it down ever further. What's smaller than a step? How about a lean in the direction of the crate?

For each step, I wait until the dog is performing the mini-behavior consistently before advancing to the next level. So for example, I wait until the Abe is offering me both feet in the kennel nine times out of ten before I start waiting for three feet in the kennel. So what happens if Abe skips a step and puts all four feet in the kennel? Jackpot! Instead of handing out one treat, I pass out five or ten. Congratulations, dude, you're brilliant!

And then I stop the training session. It's important to keep shaping sessions short and sweet, particularly if the dog is struggling. Remember math class? Don't you wish the teacher would have given you a couple of easy problems and then let you go home afterward? Be like kindergarten addition, not college calculus. Frequent breaks also take advantage of of latent learning, where a dog (or person) takes the session, thinks about it for a while, and then comes back sharper and with new ideas. Latent learning is the lazy dog trainer's best friend. 

Shaping will help to create new neural pathways in Abe's brain (I have science to back this up, but I'd have to go dig it out of whatever rock I put it under, and I have other things I need to get done today). It teaches him new ways of interacting with his world. It will also teach him persistence and creativity in problem solving. Currently, Abe has one solution to problems: he freezes and hopes he doesn't die. But if I can get him to consider other ways of behaving, I think he'll find that the world isn't such a scary place. In a way, I'm hoping to teach Abe that the world isn't full of problems to hide from - but it is full of challenges to be overcome. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+12: Platypus Dates

Once the dogs are interacting as closely as I can manage - and no one seems unhappy - I start arranging play dates. Now, play dates at my house are going to look different than play dates at your house. Mixing and matching seven dogs takes a bit of finesse, but many of the basic principles are the same across staycations.

Before I start introducing dogs without the aide of barriers, I make sure to set everyone up for success. If I'm concerned at all that dogs might not get along, I enlist an extra set of hands to help with the play date. I'll also have the dogs drag leashes so that if there is a fight, the dogs are easier to separate. I use our backyard for play dates as it's a larger space. This means the dogs have room to be as close or as far from each other as they would like. Last, I have a handful of treats available to distract or reward as needed (if the new dog has issues with food around other dogs, I will have picked up on it when I was passing treats out at the baby gate earlier).

I always introduce dogs to Piper Ann first. Of my dogs, she is the most chill. She's also the most responsive to my cues - if I ask her to come to me, she will drop whatever she's doing and come right away (mostly). Ideally, I want play dates to go the same way uncovering the baby gates did: a couple of friendly sniffs, and then move along, little doggies. Nothing to see here.

Of course, some times play happens on play dates. I don't stop play immediately, but I do watch very carefully to make sure it's healthy play. As I mentioned earlier, play is arousing, and it's easy for play-arousal to turn into fight-arousal. Unless the play I am observing is extremely comfortable and the dogs are playing like long lost friends (this has never happened to me in approximately a billion years of fostering), I interrupt play every ten to fifteen seconds by passing out treats.

What does healthy play look like?

This is going to take longer than a paragraph to answer. There are actually hours long seminars and lectures on the topic. But there are a few things I look for. Is the play equal? Are both dogs having fun? Dogs who are strangers will trade rolls. For example, if they are wrestling, they should be sharing time as the dog jumping on top of the other and the dog closer to the ground. I also watch for calming signals. Good play should have calming signals, and the dogs should mirror each other's signals. So if one dog stops to sniff, the other should stop to sniff as well. For play to be healthy, the dogs should naturally interrupt themselves, just a few seconds every fifteen seconds or so. If the dogs aren't interrupting themselves, then I definitely need to step in.

Frequent interrupting helps keep arousal levels low and under control. The longer dogs play without interrupting, the higher the risk of play turning into a dog fight. If dogs are just chilling in the same yard, the first play date will last about twenty minutes. If dogs are playing, I'll stop the date after about ten minutes - less than that for intense play. If the first play date goes well, I will start gradually increasing the amount of time dogs spend together. However, I will always error on the side of keeping things sort and sweet. A dog fight at this point can be disastrous, and you may end up spending months repairing a bad first impression.

At the risk of sounding redundant: you have nothing to lose by going slowly. You have everything to lose by moving too quickly.