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.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+10: Separation Anxiety

Once the baby gates are uncovered and if everyone is still happy, the next step is to bring the dogs closer together. There's a few ways I do this is our house. For example, I'll crate Abe or a couple of the other dogs in the same room, and then we'll all hang out and watch a moving. Another exercise we do is bringing everyone up to the baby gate and then passing out treats. This point in the Staycation is also where I will often move the foster dog's crate into the main bedroom.

Abe's crate is staying in the second bedroom.

Genetics being equal, dogs who have been bounced around or experienced early trauma are more prone to developing separation anxiety. This risk increases if you do something like let your foster dog bond with you. These dogs have had people they've bonded with disappear on them before, so I think they get worried people will leave them again. Or in Abe's case, he's never had a healthy human relationship, and he's not sure about this whole current-love-of-my-life leaving thing. Abe also has another risk factor - he's probably always lived with other dogs. He's never had to learn how to be alone. Alone is often a difficult idea for dogs.

Abe does not have separation anxiety. He makes angry bulldog noises for a few minutes after you leave him in the crate or if he hears people that sound like they're having more fun than him, but that's pretty normal behavior. On the other hand, I know for Abe's history and his risk factors. I weighed the benefits of bonding versus the risk of separation anxiety and felt it was worth it. And I can't change the rest. However, I want to prevent real separation anxiety from developing, so I'm going to continue giving Abe the opportunity to practice being alone in his crate at night and while we're away from home. I need to be particularly mindful of creating time for Abe to be alone as we relax the Staycation and start spending more time together.

It's hard to manage introductions and a camera at the same time,
so here's a picture of Abe tasting a cat instead. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+9: Baby Gates and Picture Windows

Once the dogs pass the glimpse through the baby gate phase, the next step in introductions is more exposure. I gradually lengthen the amount of time the blankets are off the baby gates. Typically, this can take a couple of days, but Abe is doing very well and will be ready to tackle the next step in relaxing our crate and rotate protocol tomorrow.

The cats, for their part, are please to have a new way to torture a dog that doesn't understand their games. Yet.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+8: Breath Deep, Go Slow

I can't tell you how to crate and rotate. I don't know you, I don't know your dogs, I don't know the dog you are trying to integrate into your family, and I don't know the layout of your house. I can tell you how I crate and rotate, though.

For the last week, my home has been in the midst of what I call "full lock down" crate and rotate. This means that dogs don't even get to see each other. Now, I'm not fooling anyone here: my dogs are well aware that there is a stranger in their house, and Abe knows that the other dogs live here as well. The point of "full lock down" is to give the dogs a chance to gather information about each other without forcing them to interact. It's breaking introductions down into the smallest possible steps. The smaller we can break down introductions, the less overwhelming they will be. The less overwhelming introductions are, the higher the chance of success.

I have nothing to lose by going slowly. I have everything to lose by moving too quickly.

The crate and rotate set up in my house involves several baby gates. In lock down, the baby gates are covered by blankets. For us, the first step in relaxing our system is to get rid of the blankets. I start by pulling part of the blanket away for fifteen to thirty seconds. I'll do this three or four times the first day to make sure I'm reading all the dogs' signals correctly.

What I like to see is that the dogs notice each other, maybe sniff a little, and then move on with their business. That's perfect. The dogs are telling me that everything is cool, and they're ready for the next step.

Sometimes, though, that's not what I get. When I brought Marnie into our house, she completely ignored the dogs on the other side of the baby gate. No sniffing, no looking, no interaction at all. Marnie, if you remember, had anxiety around other dogs. When I started pulling away the blankets, Marnie started playing ostrich - if she didn't notice the other dogs, they weren't really there. If they weren't there, she didn't need to be afraid of them. Marnie was sticking her head in the sand. She wasn't ready to push things further, so she stayed at the "brief glimpses" stage of the Staycation for several days (almost a week, if I remember correctly). When she started watching the other dogs, I knew she was ready for the next step.

Another common reaction to seeing each other at the baby gate is that dogs will start to play with each other. I'm not crazy about this behavior, but I'll take it. Play indicates a higher level of arousal; the dogs are more excited. For our socially awkward bullies in particular, there's a fine line between play arousal and fight arousal. I want introductions to be as boring as possible. If dogs start playing, often I'll hang out here for another day or two to see if they calm down.

The last behavior I commonly see at this stage is that dogs will get tense and start to snark or fight. The moment I start to see tension between the dogs, I cover the baby gate again. This pretty clear language from the dogs: they're not ready for this stage. If I get tension or snarking, I cover the baby gates and don't uncover them again for at least another full forty-eight hours. Remember, I have nothing to lose by going slowly. The dogs will tell me when they're ready to move on.

So how did Abe do? Well, he sniffed at the baby gate, watched the other dogs for a moment, and then wandered away to go chew on the buckle on my backpack. My dogs didn't even bother to get up from the couches. Perfect. Well, except for my poor backpack.



Monday, February 6, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+7: The Dog Thing

The place where we get the most push back about the Two Week Staycation is definitely over keeping dogs separate. I get it. I hate it, too. You always feel like you're not giving enough attention to someone. It's not easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

I can promise you that it's worth it, though.

There are many advantages to crating and rotating through at least the first week of having your new dog in your house, but there are two primary reasons to do it. First, it's the easiest way to get all the dogs in the house to get along. Smooth transitions count for a lot in the early days, both for resident animals, and the poor dog who has just had his world turned on it's head. It's hard to fix a bad first impression. If you do a proper Two Week Staycation with crate and rotate and only moving forward when the dogs say they're ready, and the dogs still don't get along, chances are that you have a poor placement - the incoming dog simply isn't going to fit in, and you'll be fighting nature to keep everyone happy.

My dogs, in all their overwhelming glory, have had more than a few guests in the house. They are very used to new dogs, and unless that new dog is a giant dick, the horde can get along with pretty much anyone. Abe was found in the same crate as several other dogs, and I have seen nothing to indicate that he doesn't have perfectly acceptable dog-dog manners. In short, I have no reason at all to think Abe wouldn't get along with the rest of the horde absolutely swimmingly. I'm actually pretty sure that once Abe is integrated with the rest of the dogs, his confidence is going to increase dramatically.

So why bother keeping them separate?

The answer is that crate and rotate is important for the incoming dog's mental health. While it may be true that Abe's confidence increases around other dogs, eventually, he will not be living with my dogs any longer. And if he borrows confidence from my dogs, that confidence will disappear with them. I find that shy dogs who are forced to develop their own confidence independent of other dogs end up more confident in the long run. I have exactly zero scientific evidence to back this up, but I do have a lot of experience. And my experience says that this might not be a huge edge, but it's an edge. And Abe could use all the extra help he can get. Could I require that Abe go to a home with another, confident dog? Sure. But each extra requirement narrows the group of qualified homes and makes Abe harder to place. I don't want to do that unless I absolutely have to. So I will help Abe develop a little extra courage to take with him to his next home.

The other piece of Abe's mental health that I want to address without the interference of other dogs is human bonding. Human bonding is not something I typically encourage from with my foster dogs. They can bond with their new family, I'm just here to keep them alive until they go home. But Abe has never had a healthy relationship with a human being. And this was reflected in his shelter assessment: Abe scored very low on pro-social behavior. He didn't want much to do with us people. I want to know that Abe is capable of bonding with a person. Additionally, while Abe may not have other dogs in his new home, he will certainly have a person. If Abe can borrow courage from a person, he has a good chance of living a pretty happy, normal life.

And that's the part that I really care about.