deborahjross: (Tajji in meadow)
One of life’s aggravations is that all too often things happen in their own time and not when I think they should. Writing progress, weight loss, getting from hither to yon on the freeway, you name it.

Dog training definitely fits in this category. Sometimes they “get it” right away; you can see the lights go on in their eyes. Then they’re delighted that things make sense. It must be frustrating to them to not understand what we are asking them to do and why we are unhappy with them. I think that’s why positive (reward-based) training works so well, because it provides a way for us to tell the dog that he did what we wanted. Anything besides the desired behavior -> no cookie, try again. Desired behavior -> cookie! Happy dog -> let’s do it again! We’ve paired something we want the dog to do with something wonderful. Complex behaviors can be broken down into component parts and chained, with lots repetition so they become one flowing behavior.

Behaviors that are naturally part of the dog’s repertoire are easier to train, especially if the dog offers them just by being a dog. This requires patience and precise timing of the reward. Since it’s highly unlikely we’ll be able to offer a treat within a second of the desired behavior, we use a marker, like a clicker or “Yes!” that the dog has come to associate with the reward. Then we have to set up a training environment in which the dog has the choice to offer the behavior we want, or something close to it that can be then shaped. For example, if we are training “Down,” instead of luring the dog with a treat, we bring the dog into an enclosed space (so there are some limitations on what the dog can do) and wait. And wait. And wait. Until the dog lies down, which is then rewarded. Rinse and repeat. Usually, the dog will soon begin lying down many times in rapid succession. Then we add the cue word. It may take longer for the initial connection, but once that’s made, the dogs joyfully perform the behavior. It’s fun to watch dogs that have been trained this way. At the beginning of a new session, they run through all the behaviors they’ve ever been rewarded for, watching carefully for the trainer’s response. Often they’ve learned how to try new things, the doggie version of being creative.

If we lure or place the dog into position, we get the desired behavior right away, without having to stand there as neutrally as we can while the dog tries this and that. However, the connection between the behavior, say the Down, and the reward is not as clear for the dog. He thinks, Am I being rewarded for sniffing the treat? For extending my head? For having the trainer’s hand on my back? Or for lying down?

All this has to do with connections we want the dog to make: “Down” cue + Down behavior -> Yes! + cookie. What if we want to break a connection the dog has already made?

In the case of Tajji, our retired seeing eye dog, she had become traumatized during her work, especially to the presence of other dogs. Read more... )
deborahjross: (Tajji in meadow)
It’s been a few months since I’ve posted our adventures in rehabilitating our retired service dog. Tajji, a 10 ½ year old German Shepherd Dog, could no longer perform seeing eye work due to extreme reactivity to other dogs and sometimes strange people. We’ve had her a year now, and most of that time has been spent working on making her retirement calm and happy.

When Tajji came to live with us, she was not accustomed to cats, although we suspect she had been exposed to them in her pre-training foster home. Our two dog-savvy cats, black male Shakir and brown-tabby-and-white Gayatri, patiently taught her “cat manners.” She in turn taught them fun games. Shakir in particular will invite play with her and the two of them romp about the house. Tajji will gently place a paw on Shakir’s back and he must not mind terribly, because he never hisses or lays his ears back. We haven’t found them curled up together yet, but they often sleep within inches of each other. On the few occasions that Gayatri has escaped the house, Tajji has happily “herded” her back. (Since our neighborhood is also home to coyotes, bobcats, and the occasional mountain lion, we keep our cats indoors.)Read more... )

One source of stress for Tajji was the entrance of human visitors into our yard. We put up a sign on the back gate, asking folks to ring the hanging bell or call us so that we could settle Tajji in her crate before letting them in. After some practice, Tajji became comfortable just being in the house. Recently, we have found her sitting inside the gate when a friend (or sometimes she’s never met) comes to call, politely waiting to be introduced. Her greeting skills have improved, too. Since she knows “touch,” we ask the visitor to hold one hand at their side, palm out. We tell Tajji, “Touch,” and the moment she does, we call her back for a treat. She now understands that it is not okay to jump on people, although if she gets excited, she will jump sideways in front of them.

By far, Tajji’s biggest challenge remains other dogs. After a break of about a month from her “reactive rover” practice sessions, we expected some backsliding when exposed to a strange dog in the class setting. Our teacher paired her with a fairly relaxed young female Golden Retriever, who had a short threshold for dog reactivity. She placed the Golden outside a round wire pen used for agility training, and Tajji outside on the opposite side. At first, they walked parallel to one another, then one would stay still while the other moved, since movement increases reactivity, and gradually the distance was lessened. Somewhat to our surprise, Tajji sailed through the session without a single bark. In fact, when it was her turn to remain still, she lay down with her back to the Golden, a sign of relaxation. Clearly, she has continued to process and integrate the training of other dogs = good things, no danger.

Tajji has had particular difficulty with small dogs. One day, while Dave was walking her, a small terrier mix got free from its yard and charged her, yapping away. Tajji went into bark/lunge arousal. Since we know she has excellent bite inhibition, he dropped the leash; dogs who are restrained — on a leash or, worse yet, tied up — are much more reactive than dogs who are free to take care of themselves. Tajji rushed up to the terrier who turned tail for home. When called, Tajji returned to Dave with a big happy doggie-grin and much less arousal. In fact, she has been less excited by small dogs ever since.

We have worked with Tajji on recall (coming when called) since we’ve had her. We did this using highest-value treats (like freeze dried liver or lamb lungs) and settings when there were no overwhelming distractions, until she was solid. By solid, I mean that within a second or two, she runs full speed back to us. Most of the time, she will come to a sit right in front of us. This training was put to a test a couple of weeks ago when we tried her out on deer. Deer are a perennial pest to all gardeners, of course, but the drought has driven them down from the hills in search of water. The mountain lions follow the deer (and one has been seen near the elementary school, so this is not a good thing). A small herd of deer hang out in the meadow adjacent to our property and they have gotten very bold. Noticing three of them, I waved my arms and yelled, “Shoo!” but they just stared at me. As an experiment, we let Tajji off leash. It took her a moment to focus on the deer as she does not have the high prey drive of most German Shepherd Dogs, high prey drive not being desirable in a guide dog. She lunged, the deer took off, and she got the idea. She chased them out of the meadow at a full-out run. Just as they were heading up the hill on the other side of the street, Dave called Tajji. She whirled around and raced back to him, tail wagging. The deer may be a good game, but making her people happy is even better.
deborahjross: (Default)
Bats use polarized light to set internal compass, say scientists. The greater mouse-eared bat uses polarized light patterns at sunset to calibrate an internal compass, say researchers. This helps them travel long distances at night. How cool is that??

Punishment affects both the dog and the owner. The effect of using coercive methods may have other unsuspected consequences: it may also impact  the person inflicting the punishment. It’s likely that how we interpret our dog’s behavior directly affects how we think and feel about him, but also, how we relate to other people.

Top Ebola doctor in Sierra Leone contracts virus. Khan, 39 years old, is one of many health care workers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone who has contracted the disease as a result of firsthand involvement. Though health workers in the region are required to be thoroughly covered in protective gear, many who are tending to the ill have contracted the virus. A BBC reporter at a clinic in Freetown in Sierra Leone said dozens of nurses at a government hospital went on strike on Monday after three health care works died from suspected Ebola infections.

Researchers identify more than 80 new genes linked to schizophrenia. In what is deemed the largest ever molecular genetic study of schizophrenia, a team of international researchers has pinpointed 108 genes linked to the condition - 83 of which are newly discovered - that may help identify its causes and pave the way for new treatments.
deborahjross: (Oka)
As Tajji, the retired seeing eye dog that we are rehabilitating for extreme reactivity to other dogs, progresses through her curriculum, one thing stands out over and over again: every dog is different. It’s one of those utterly banal, self-evident statements, and yet how many times do we, even knowledgeable dog owners, take a one-size-fits-all approach to their behavior?

Each of the four dogs in the class (Reactive Rover, taught by Sandi Pensinger of Living With Dogs) is reactive in some way. To other dogs, to strange people, to sudden noises. Yet even dogs who are triggered by the same type of stimulus express their distress in different ways. For example, both Tajji and George are reactive to other dogs. Tajji has greatest difficulties with small dogs, while George, a solidly-built chocolate Labrador owned by an elderly woman, reacts most strongly to other large dogs. We have no history on Tajji’s problems, except for her fractured tooth, whereas George’s problems stem from a specific constellation of events – the deaths of his male owner and his female canine companion plus an attack by another large dog. Tajji has extremely good eyesight and could easily spot a small dog on the other end of the field (275 feet) while George did not appear to notice the small dog until he had advanced quite a bit closer than that.

Today’s exercise, as you can tell, involved exposure to a “decoy” – last week it was a stuffed dog, this week a well-mannered small dog. The decoy would be led out from behind a blind (a waist-high portable screen) at the far end of the field. If the student dog did not notice, its handler would take a step at a time toward the decoy, waiting after each step.Read more... )
deborahjross: (croning)
We’ve started the Reactive Rover class given by Sandi Pensinger of Living With Dogs, in order to help Tajji with her reactivity to dogs and, to a lesser extent, people she doesn’t know. The first two sessions were watching videos about reading canine body language and specific relaxation techniques. We’d recently seen both, as Sandi invited us to attend the “classroom” part for a previous class that was full. Because the dogs work individually in the “fieldwork” part of the course, each class limited to four dogs. So watching them this time was a repetition.

We felt Tajji had made progress on her walks. She’d gone from barking at pedestrians to looking at them and walking by. Although she still reacted to other dogs, even at extreme distance, we were piling up more times when she came away with us readily, sometimes with a bark or just a huff. There were even instances where she was able to look at the other dog – the old black Labrador who shuffles very slowly up and down the street and then lies down in the sun, in particular – without barking.

So when Sandi, our teacher, said to not give our dogs any opportunity to “rehearse” reactivity, we thought we were doing pretty well, anyway. The idea is that the more times the dog reacts – barking, lunging, (heaven forbid) biting, piloerection (that’s hairs standing up along the spine), etc., the more deeply that behavior gets “etched” into the dog’s brain. She compared it to a road, where each passage digs deeper and deeper ruts, ruts that become more progressively difficult to jump out of. While we are creating new, positive behaviors, we want to not give our dog the chance to “rehearse” the old ones as well.Read more... )
deborahjross: (Oka)
Tajji, our newly-adopted retired seeing eye dog, came to us with strong reactivity to pedestrians and especially to other dogs. She would bark and lunge as soon as she saw any “triggering” stimulus, and her vision is excellent. Sometimes, she would be triggered when the other dog or person was 1/8 mile away. This distance is called the threshold of arousal, meaning that stimuli farther away don’t cause the dog to “go ballistic.” Tajji’s threshold was so long, she basically didn’t have one. If she could see the dog, she reacted.

We’ve been working on decreasing her reactivity and giving her alternative, highly rewarded behaviors. These have included teaching her eye contact (“Look!”), hand targeting (“Touch!”), sniffing (a self-calming activity), and puppy zen, a calming exercise. We have also been as careful as we can to remove her from any situation where she is overwhelmed.

After a time of regular practice, we noticed that when we turned and walked her briskly away from the other dog, she calmed down in a shorter period of time. We were able to turn her back around to face the other dog, rewarding her for calm behavior. One of the lessons was that we would protect her, that she could trust us to not force her into a situation she couldn’t manage. Then we started to see her attempt to calm herself, mostly by sniffing, but occasionally using the non-threatening gesture “Look Away.”

A couple of weeks ago, we noticed that Tajji’s reactivity to pedestrians was markedly reduced. Using the calming techniques that were now familiar to her, we helped her to tolerate increasingly short distances from the folks walking in our neighborhood. Eventually, she was able to do a “pass by” without becoming reactive.

But would she ever be able to do that with dogs?Read more... )
deborahjross: (Oka)



Waiting for the ball

 Our friend Mitch Wagner recently adopted a female shepherd/basenji/terrier mix  that shares some of Tajji’s “issues. He writes that Minnie “lunges and goes nuts when she approaches another dog when we're walking.” One of the things we’ve learned from our trainer, Sandi Pensinger, is that this kind of excitement is not fun for dogs. Whatever their specific history, they act this way because they’re overwhelmed. They no longer can calm themselves or communicate friendly intentions to the other dog. One way to look at this is the dog attempting a “pre-emptive strike” because bad things have happened around other dogs in the past. Dogs on leashes are particularly vulnerable to feeling threatened, because their freedom to act in their own defense (or escape) is impaired. Dogs that are tied up are particularly dangerous.



Another way of thinking about this behavior is in terms of self-confidence and trust. A confident dog with good social skills with other dogs is capable of lowering the tension not only in herself but in the other dog as well. Contrary to the “alpha dog/dominance” model, dogs are highly cooperative, social animals. They communicate their feelings and intentions to one another all the time, and many of these signals are calming signals. In earlier blogs, I’ve discussed how Tajji learned to communicate her peaceful intentions to the cats once she’d found a signal they both understood – the “look-away.” Turid Rugaas’s book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals beautifully illustrates this. Here is a slide show from her book, illustrating the “look-away,” play bows, lip licking, and lying down, all powerful calming signals. 



Dogs who are poorly socialized with other dogs or who have had traumatic experiences can be easily overwhelmed (“flooded” with negative stimuli), especially in situations where the other dog is approaching head-on. A direct approach is threatening, as is fixed eye contact. Our dogs need our help in reducing the degree of threat and resulting arousal. The dogs in Rugaas’s slide show aren’t “friendly” in the human sense, but they have excellent social skills and confidence in themselves.



How do we help a dog re-build her self-confidence? Read more... )

deborahjross: (Oka)
Tajji and Dave training in the "The Meadow" next door
In "the meadow"

“Rulers should always avoid giving commands…for commands, being direct and verbal, always bring to the subject’s mind the possibility of doing the opposite. But since rituals are non-verbal, they have no contraries. They can therefore be used to produce harmony of wills and actions without provoking recalcitrance; if a man finds himself playing his appointed part in li [ritual] and thus already — as it were de facto — in harmony with others, it no more occurs to him than it occurs to a dancer to move to a different rhythm than that being played by the orchestra.” 

Master Zhuang, 4th century BCE Daoist philosopher
and proto-anarchist

 

That quotation was seminal in creating the anarcho-monarchical politics of the Panarchy, the interstellar polity that’s the setting of the space opera Exordium. The Panarchs and Kyriarchs all wielded theoretically unlimited power, but most of them died, or were killed, before they learn how to work the hyper-complex network of interlocking traditions, institutions, and governance that executes their will.

 

It’s also, I now find, a perfect encapsulation of the rather Daoist aspects of the positive dog training techniques that Deborah and I are using to rehabilitate Tajji, a process more like conversation than education, and certainly one in which learning flows both ways. Certainly, our work with Tajji is teaching me that much of dog training, if not all, is about the negotiation, establishment, and performance of rituals rather than the issuing of commands.

 

As Master Zhuang might have said, those who do not acknowledge the power of ritual will find themselves helpless against it, and it can be argued that this is a fundamental reason there are so many ill-trained dogs in the world: dogs that have established their rituals as the rule of life for a household.

 

Read more... )

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Deborah J. Ross

May 2017

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