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.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+6: The Couch

I thought about not posting today because it's been a long week, and I'm tired, and nothing much happened today with the Staycation. But then the platypus came through with a picture for you all.

You're welcome.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+5: The Pause Between Breaths

I feel like I'm misleading you guys; I feel like you probably think that I'm spending a lot more time with Abe than I actually am. I've spent a lot of time describing how I illicit confidence and human interaction from Abe, but the truth is that I am spending much less than half an hour each day directly working with him.

Doesn't sound like much, does it?

The other twenty-three and a half hours of the day, Abe is doing one of two things: he's either crated while I work or hang out with my own dogs, or he's in the same room as we humans, but we're ignoring him. This time spent "being ignored" is actually an extremely important part of Abe's rehabilitation. While we're ignoring him, Abe is learning what people are like in their natural environment (a house) and how he fits into that picture. At first, Abe was very concerned about what we were doing, but over time he has relaxed and for the most part is comfortable with our basic routine. This process - this reduction in anxiety to a trigger because of repeated exposure - is called "desensitization," and it's crucial to Abe's recovery and future as a pet dog.

Desensitization is closely related to another process called "flooding." Flooding is the dark side of desensitization, and it is to be avoided at all costs. Flooding is taking the arachnophobic person and closing them in a coffin full of spiders until they stop screaming. As you can imagine, there is a great deal of fallout with flooding. It increases anxiety, inhibits learning, and often increases aggression. I won't say that I never use flooding; it is a tool in my tool box. But in a decade of formal dog training as a teacher, I can count on less than one hand the number of dogs I have used it with. And I would certainly never use it with an unstable dog like Abe.

Which sounds all fancy and nice to say, but walking the line between desensitization and flooding with a shut down, shy dog like Abe is tricky. Unfortunately, some flooding may be unavoidable - he is too full of fear. My goal, then, is to reduce the amount of flooding that happens as much as possible. This is why Abe had access to only a couple of rooms to begin with. It's why he hasn't met any humans except me and my husband. It's why we haven't introduced the other dogs or the full back yard yet. The smaller we make Abe's world to begin with, the more room he has to feel secure where he is.

How do I know we're doing more desensitization than flooding? Abe is making great progress. He is, unless we move suddenly or loudly, comfortable interacting with us. He has gone from two rooms to the full top floor of the house and still feels safe. He can eat meals and take treats. He can learn new behaviors. And he can enjoy new experiences.

Like his first nap in the sun.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+4: The Taming of the Platypus

I've started training Abe. Now, you could say that I've been training him all along, and you wouldn't be wrong. For the sake of this post, however, I'm talking about more formal, ABC training. And the first question I need to ask is, "How do I know he's ready?"

Well, Abe tells me. He follows me around from room to room. If I bend down, he approaches. If I walk toward him slowly, he no longer pancakes but looks up at me to see what we're doing. He's seeking out new ways to interact with people, and I want to support that. So we're working on a few simple exercises like sit and hand target and chin rest. I want you to keep in mind, though, that what we are training is not as important as how we are training. I'm going to say it again because it's a really big deal:

What we are training is not as important as how we are training.

My goal here is not to get specific behaviors on cue. That's a bonus. My goal is to help Abe understand that people are fun and predictable and easy to work with. So the exercises we're working on are fun and easy and don't require a lot of thinking on Abe's part. I'm aiming for a high rate of reinforcement because the more I reinforce, the more fun this is for Abe. I'm shooting for six to ten rewards per minute because he's a slow chewer (for a dog that's less slow, I'd be aiming for ten to fifteen rewards per minute).

There will be time to teach less reinforcing behaviors like stays or zen later. We're not working on those now because there is zero room for failure. If Abe feels like he is failing, he's not going to have fun. He already sees failure were there isn't any, and it melts him to the ground. So I won't even use a no-reward marker at this point in the game. If he gets something wrong, I set him up so he gets it right the next time, and we're moving at a pace that means he hopefully won't even notice the error.

We're also keeping sessions extremely short - only a minute or two at a time. Remember sitting through an hour long math class and feeling zoned and exhausted afterward? I keep things short so that Abe doesn't feel overwhelmed with new information. After all, he's probably never had a formal training session before in his life. And I want to leaving him wanting. I want to keep him coming back for more.

Look, little platypus, how fun the roller coaster can be!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+3: Consent

Abe is getting naughty. He now has three rooms to explore: we added the living room last night. He was afraid at first and went back to pancaking any time we looked at him, but after a few hours, he was clambering up on top of the couch to discover the joy of cushions. That's why we go slow - we break the scary things down into smaller pieces so they're easier to absorb. But I digress - this morning while working on my computer, I found Abe next to me, munching on the zipper of my hoodie. When I moved the hoodie, he decided to see how the table tasted. And he has a new, fun game: head butting the cats! These bits of naughtiness make me happy - I think there might be a personality under all this fear.

But what I want to talk about today is consent.

Specifically, I want to talk about consent and how it relates to petting dogs. Abe has handling issues. "But Laura, he lets you touch him all over!" Yes, thank you for bringing that up, imaginary person. Abe lets me touch him all over: I can look in his mouth, stick my fingers in his ears, roll him into his back, pick him up, and pet him all over. He doesn't tell me 'no.'

He can't tell me 'no.'

And that's not okay. It's part of his brokenness. Dogs should be able to say when they're not comfortable with certain handling. That's normal dog behavior. "Not saying no" is not the same as saying "yes." This is a big, complex issue, so I'm going to focus on just one little piece of it - getting Abe to say "yes!" I want Abe to learn that people touching him can be a fun, positive experience, and his passive consent - his "not saying no" - gives me no help in figuring out what he does like. It's really easy for us to ask dogs to give their consent, and we don't do it nearly enough. Here's how to ask a dog for their active consent:

Stop what you're doing.

Now, what does the dog do? Do they walk away and avoid you? They might have let you pet them that way, but they didn't enjoy it, and they probably don't want you to do it again. Does the dog step away, shake off, maybe sniff a little, and then come back? You might be on the right track, but whatever you were doing might have been a little intense. Try calming it down a little next time. Or if you stop, does the dog look around, find you, push their head or body into yours? That's "YES! Give me more!" That's active consent. Keep doing what you're doing.

Active consent is another way to give shy dogs control over their situations. If I pet Abe on top of his head, he has to shake off and step away for a moment. But if I scratch his chin and stop, he leans into me and pushes his head into my hand. "Yes, person! More!" Because he can't clearly tell me if he's uncomfortable, I stop frequently to ask Abe if he's still having fun - every five to ten seconds at this point. He has control of how his body is touched.

Consent = control = confidence

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+2: Choices

Control is important, for people and for dogs. The more control you have over a situation, the more confident you feel. Why are roller coasters so scary? Because you can't control when the ride stops. Control is doubly important for a shy, melty dog like Abe because it's so easy to override his control and force him into situations he's not comfortable with. He's afraid to be picked up and handled, but he's not going to bite me, either. But if I take away his control of a situation, he's not going to see it as safe. He needs to be able to choose when to get on and off the roller coaster.

So I try to give Abe as much choice about what he does as I can. It's his decision to come out of his crate: I don't try to bribe him with treats or force him or influence his decision. It's his choice to make, he has control over this. Nothing bad will happen either way. If he stays in the crate, he's safe, but it's pretty boring for an adolescent bulldog. If he comes out, it may be scary, but nothing bad will happen (there's nothing he can get into in his two rooms - I have set him up for success there), and he can explore his environment. But it's his choice - he has control.

I do this same process with more outgoing, exuberant fosters, too. Do you know sit? If you sit at the door, I will let you outside to play. If you don't sit, nothing bad happens, but you don't get to go outside. It's your choice. I cannot think of a single situation in which fostering confidence and control would be a bad idea for a dog that has just had his world turned upside down.

Today, Abe is working on a very specific choice: the decision to interact with people. Abe is very conflicted about people. I think that he enjoys some petting, but he is also very afraid. He melts when people notice him, and if they touch him, he freezes and licks his lips - both serious signs of stressing. Petting may be enjoyable to him on some level, but it also significantly adds to his already high stress level.

So today, I laid down flat in the kitchen and hid my face. Abe made the choice to come up to me all on his own! I gave him a few chin scritches (this seems to be his favorite place), and then slowly got up and walked away. I didn't use treats because I don't want to bribe him into a decision he's not comfortable with. We've done this a couple of times, and now he is following me from room to room! He even lets me look at him 50% of the time without pancaking to the floor. People are a little less scary today. <3

Choices = control = confidence