Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Walking Club

This summer Speedy, Tessa, and I are the Walking Club!!  We went, for the second time, to King's Gap, and took a short hike.  It is hot out today, and Speedy isn't exactly in top condition, so we did keep it short.  It was nice, though.

Because it is so buggy (the bugs are horrible this year because of the mild winter we had), I made sure to put on some Avon Expedition.  The scent of Avon Expedition in the woods on a hot day always reminds me of letterboxing on the Outer Banks!!  Good times!

Out on our walk.  Speedy is definitely happy to be out walking in the woods, and Miss Tessa approves just as much!

Last time we stuck to the short paved trail, but this time we went further afield.  We ended up on the paved trail at the end, though.  I got a nice shot of the tall pines.  I love pines - I think that's why I enjoy hiking around here so much.

I tried to make Speedy and Tessa pose for a picture, but neither were impressed!

Tessa:  Stop playing photographer!  Let's hike!!

It was a nice hike, in spite of the abundance of insects.  I'm hoping that we will go at least twice a week.  I'd like to see Tessa gain just a bit more strength and power.  I'd like to see Speedy gain back a little more strength.  And I want to lose 15 - 20 pounds.

Good goals for the walking club!!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"The Handler Gets the Dog he Deserves"

Years ago, when I used to train at a different facility, those words were printed on a laminated card that hung on the wall of the training building.

And I always hated them!

Back then I was working with Speedy in his earliest stages of training and I often saw that sign and wondered, "What could I have done to deserve this?!!?"  Speedy was fearful of dogs and people, and far too easily overstimulated.  At that time he was both fearful and reactive and I was a new handler who was just learning what to do with a dog like that.  There were times when it was completely overwhelming, frustrating, and absolutely discouraging.  I just wanted to learn to train and have fun with my dog.  How on earth had I merited a lifelong behavior modification project?

In retrospect, I know that I didn't deserve Speedy.  There is nothing that I could have done to deserve a dog who is that creative, artistic, perceptive, and talented.  As I observe him at 11, I only see the amazing dog that he truly is, and the "issues" that we dealt with back time are properly in perspective.  They were serious issues and I don't pretend that they didn't require a lot of work and learning to work through.  But, also in retrospect, there is nothing that I could have done to deserve the opportunities for learning and growth that Speedy provided.  Speedy is, and always has been, an amazing dog who deserves my respect.  I no longer think of him as a "lifelong project" but as the gift of a lifetime.

But I still hate that phrase.  It always seemed judgmental.  It probably wasn't intended that way.  It probably meant something as innocent as, "if you train your dog, you'll have a trained dog and you'll deserve a trained dog because you trained your dog".  But I always took it to mean, "if your dog has issues, you caused them because you get the dog you deserve, so you must be at fault". 

The more I work with dogs, especially now that I am working with a dog with a rock solid temperament, the clearer and clearer it is to me that nobody "deserves" a dog that is reactive, fearful, anxious, easily stimulated, or overstressed.

Certainly, good training can help a dog with a less than perfect temperament become more confident, relaxed, at ease, and in his or her right mind.  That can take years of dedicated work, and a long process of one step forward, five steps back, but there is always potential for incredible improvement, and can help the dog considerably.  At 11 years old, Speedy is normal in almost all situations.  He is no longer reactive to any triggers, and his fear only rears its head in response to certain triggers, such as dogs barking at him from crates.  He plays off leash on the beach with other dogs running about, he walks through public parks and streets, and nobody would ever know he had been so severely fearful and reactive to begin with.

However, because of his underlying fearful temperament, he will never be entirely free of fearful responses in certain situations.  In other words, he will never been completely "normal".

One thing that is often overlooked is that a dog's temperament is what it is.  Training can help override it to some degree.  Training can help a dog develop coping skills.  But temperament is not created through training, and it cannot simply be trained away.  Tessa has an incredible ability to recover and bounce right back from a fear response.  Dean needs some recovery time to come back from a fear response.  After experiencing fear toward something, Tessa does not usually regard that thing something to be avoided at all cost - in fact, she is often downright curious about things that originally frightened her.  Dean will avoid anything that he associates with a noise that put him into panic mode and it will take careful work on my part to change that association.  The difference is temperament.

And a handler doesn't "deserve" a dog's temperament.  I didn't deserve Speedy's fear of dogs and people any more than I deserved Maddie's natural love for, and enjoyment of, dogs and people.  I don't deserve Dean's tendency to stress any more than I deserve Tessa's rock solid ability to bounce back.  And I didn't deserve Speedy's early reactivity any more than I deserve his natural ability to move beautifully to music.  I didn't deserve Maddie's early lack of drive for Agility any more than I deserved her sheer enjoyment of the trial environment.  I don't deserve Dean's noise phobia any more than I deserve his 100% unconditional love and affection.  And I don't deserve Tessa's hesitation toward people any more than I deserve the most strength and resilience that I have ever come across in a dog.

Truly, I don't deserve any of these dogs.  They are all gifts from God, given with love and boundless generosity.  If I must work with them on various and sundry issues and challenges, it is not because I "deserve" those issues and challenges.  It is because God has seen fit to allow me the opportunity to learn and grow as a trainer, and to give something of myself to these dogs who give me far more than I probably even realize.

"The handler gets the dog he can learn the most from and grow the most with".  That is what I would love to see on the wall of a training building. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Considering TACT

Ever since it was released several months ago, I have been very interested in checking out the TACT program by Emma Parsons and Julie RobitalleThis program is intended for dogs who have fear of people, and I am interested in possibly using it (or elements of it) for Tessa, and, of course, to help fearful dogs in my Confidence and Self Control classes.

It was on sale a couple of weeks ago, so I finally bought the DVD set.  One of my biggest questions about the program has been, "are there any techniques in this program that are distinct from those found in Control Unleashed".  I have never gotten a sufficient answer to this question, although I have asked it in several online venues.  So, I am now seeing for myself.  The basic answer is - yes, some.  There are also some elements of the TACT program for which I will substitute Control Unleashed games and structures, there is a good bit of overlap, but there are also some elements of TACT that are distinct from CU that I believe will be useful in their own right.

The first couple of DVD's provide and introduction to the program, and then detail foundation behaviors, management strategies, and safety considerations.  It is mostly all good stuff, but very little of it was new to me.  There is one foundation technique, "check it", where the dog learns to actually nose touch something (or someone) on cue, that was somewhat new to me.  In the context of CU I have had handlers teach their dog to nose touch another person's hand, but that's not really a CU game per se.

Also, "look at me" is recommended in the TACT program, and I much prefer "Look at That" from CU.  "Look at me" can be good management in a case where the dog is not ready to see a particular trigger, or the handler just wants to distract the dog from noticing something, but it is limited as a technique to actually teach a dog to see and deal with triggers in a more proactive and appropriate way.

That said, later on in the DVD, dogs are reinforced for looking calmly at their triggers, so there are LAT elements in the program, even if the technique is not named as such.

Finally, around the middle of the 3rd disk, the TACT program proper begins.  I have only gotten into that a little, but so far I like what I see.  I really like the idea of having set rituals that the dog does in the presence of a trigger, as a gauge to how well the dog is dealing with the presence of the trigger.  So far there isn't much deal with "touch", but I'm hoping that is coming soon in the parts I haven't seen yet.

One thing that I really appreciate about this program is that it is very well presented and clearly explained.  Someone who is brand new to reinforcement based behavior modification could watch this and understand it, and have a place to start in helping his or her dog.

For me it has been a great reminder that I need to get out there with Tessa and start doing some DS/CC work with her.  Thus far I have allowed her to lead the way, and she has gradually become more and more comfortable with people around her.  She actually loves the trial or competition setting where there are scads of people, all of whom are ignoring her completely!  But she has it in her to be a confident, friendly, and affectionate dog with people.  Not all shy dogs do, but Tessa certainly does.  I believe that taking her through some of the steps in TACT will help her to become exactly that.

Tessa has learned, through her former experiences, that she needs to worry about hands reaching toward her.  She can unlearn that.  She has already unlearned much, much more than that.  Tessa can learn that hands reaching toward her are a good thing that she can welcome.

This summer we are embarking on this work.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tessa's CPE Adventures - Part 1

I've been meaning to write up some entries about Tessa's CPE experiences since her first CPE trial in March, but I haven't had a chance with all of the work that the last couple of months of school required.  But here we are close to the beginning of summer break and I can finally take the time to sit down and write all about it.

Tessa's first CPE trial was back in March.  I entered her in Snooker and Colors on a Friday evening.  I thought this might be a good introduction to the venue since there would be less people present and it would be a bit quieter on the Friday evening.  This was a wise decision.

I had very mixed emotions about taking Tessa to this trial.  On one hand, I was eager to try CPE with her and I've always loved Westminster.  On the other hand, Westminster trials were always a "Maddie and me" thing.  Because it can be loud there, I never take Dean.  So Westminster was always "girls day" with Maddie.  And she and I always loved that.  She also ran very well there, and Snooker was Maddie's game.  She loved Snooker and excelled at it.  I knew that I was going to be missing Maddie the entire time, and that, while I would also enjoy being there with Tessa, it was going to be a tough hurdle to get over.

But it had to be done.  I was enjoying NADAC, but I missed CPE.  I missed the games, I missed the atmosphere of the trials, I missed the people, and I really wanted to go play CPE with Tessa.  If I'm going to do that, all of the "first time without Maddie" hurdles are going to have to be cleared.  CPE Agility is going to have to become something that Tessa and I do together, and not just what Maddie and I did together.  Fast forward to now, and this is definitely happening.  But back in March at Westminster, we were literally taking the first step and it was kind of emotional for me at times.

Westminster isn't a "dog place", as many of the other trial sites are.  It is an indoor sports complex.  Tessa found it very overwhelming at first.  She hesitated even going in the door because there was a set of two doors with a small vestibule in between.  That's a "small room" to Tessa, and she is wary of small rooms.  But another dog came along and went in before us and Tessa tucked herself in behind that dog and went through the entry.  I hadn't seen her do that in ages and it showed me how strange and unfamiliar she found this particular venue.

It didn't get better once we were inside.  The first area we came to was an area along the side of the arena separated from the Agility field by plexiglass.  I doubt Tessa has ever seen anything like this in her life and she was set to turn tail and get out of there.  But . . . there was noplace to go.  The doors behind us were closed and, to her perception, there was really no way out.  So she followed me down the hallway, slipping on the floor all the way!

I honestly didn't realize how overwhelming that was going to be for her, but really there was no alternative than to just get through it.  Once we came out into the area where crating was, she found some relief.  There she understood that she was in a "dog place" and she was eager to get to a spot of her own.  I set up her crate and she popped right in, obviously glad to find herself somewhere familiar.  As yet I don't think she realized that there was an Agility ring very close by!!

After that I had to get her measured.  That took some doing, but we got it done!

Then I needed to go to the car to get more of our stuff.  Tessa did not want to go back out into that strange corridor.  She hesitated at the entry to it, but when I went that way, she followed.  She didn't slide around quite as much this time, and she stayed very close to me as we moved through.  I was a bit concerned that she might not go back in the other way when we came back, but that wasn't the case.  When we returned, she entered with an air of "I know what we're doing now".  She hardly slid at all that time, and she obviously understood that it was merely someplace we had to go through to get to the "dog place'.

I am proud to say that by the end of that evening, Tessa was literally prancing down that corridor, tail held high and eyes bright with confidence and pleasure.  I think she felt a real sense of accomplishment in having conquered a fear of a strange new place.  Maybe I'm anthropomorphizing this just a bit, but clearly she went from almost panicked at first to downright pleased by the end, and she clearly felt very good about that.  And so did I.  There was a time when I doubt I would have gotten her in there and watching her become comfortable with it that quickly was a real testimony to how far she has come, and how ready she really is to be out and about doing these things.

End of Part 1 - More to follow about the Agility portion of the evening in Part 2!!