Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Progress Takes Forever, But It Happens

I haven't posted in a long, long time, but I wanted to update in case anyone stumbles across this.

If you have a reactive dog...please, if I can tell you anything, its that it takes a ton of work, a ton of time, but it does get better. Every good dog trainer will emphasize the importance of consistency, and it is almost doubly important in the case of the reactive dog. It means consistency that stays consistent over the course of years. It's a depressing thought to think you may be training on something for years, but...I don't think reactivity ever goes away, or at least, reactivity becomes a mindset, a way of working with your dog.

Rocket is coming up on her third year of living on this earth at the end of October, and this of course is a major part of who she is and her reactivity. She is growing up and mellowing out, just like she should be, in so many ways. I have always felt that some of her reactivity would just go away on its own...maybe a little when she turned three, and a little bit more every year. I think I see that happening in her already.

Age though, means something more than getting older (and slower, hopefully? ha!). I think I'm seeing her body catch up with her brain. When Rocket has a reactive "fit" or "attack" or whatever you want to call can watch her go through a tumultuous battle with herself. She knows what she's supposed to do in the presence of a strange dog: its her cue to look at me and follow my direction. Eye contact is really the strongest default behavior she has for this situation, and she knows she can rely on it for stress relief, comfort, and "something to do" in the face of what makes her freak out. As she's gotten older, I can see her now work much harder against her body's reaction - by this I mean the heavy breathing, the excitement, the border collie stare, and at a higher level of arousal, barking and lunging.

Today, for example, she saw a small dog on our walk, and she started to breath heavy and "lock on" visually. I told her to leave it, and she started working her routine, she actually came around and worked very hard to look at me and watch me as we walked by. I encouraged her, giving her the "yes!" cue for looking at me, and talking calmly. She responded so well to this - the encouragement seemed to help her focus, and she seemed to get a boost from being told, "Yes, you are doing the right thing". She almost looked like she might "lose it", but she got more and more focused with the encouragement. She gave me the best eye contact and the most beautiful heel right in those crazy moments! She worked through it and we were able to enjoy the rest of our walk without incident.

Reactivity, at least from what I have experienced with my dog, is really a physical thing, a brain/chemical type reaction, and I think that as we give our dogs the "tools" to manage stress and behaviors they can use instead of a "reactive explosion", they learn that that is what they actually prefer. I don't think Rocket enjoys freaking out...and I think I am seeing her work against her brain chemistry to overcome the physical/body reaction toward the unknown. This is choice making on an incredible level in an animal. She also seems to need and love the helped her to get a handle on her excitement. She went from a somewhat glassy eye-d look of reactivity with heavy breathing to focused, happy, and on point. When she was watching me and moving forward today...she was the most focused that she would be all day.

Keep working with your dog - what they learn and what they are able to learn from reactivity training will give you a relationship with your dog that will surprise you. It surprises me every day - I have gotten to see the amazing ability of a dog...she is smarter way beyond what I ever have imagined, and we have a working and sport relationship that is so exciting. I am constantly amazed by how rewarding it is to work with this dog. I have never seen a dog so willing and happy to work...a dog so motivated to work well and "get it right". If I would have given up on her when the going got tough, I would have missed out on the coolest dog I know.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Update on the Head Halter

So I mentioned in an earlier post that Rocket hates her head halter and I was attempting to re-introduce it, as it does have some benefits over more traditional type training tools.

Well, we worked and worked, and she still just flat out hates that thing. I mean, just hates it. I've never seen her look so tortured in her life when that is on her. Does she not pull, and walk nicely with me? Yes. Does she seem to whither and curl up in hatred? Yes. Does she refuse to even look at me, or even take a treat with it on? Yes! 

For the record, I have used almost every training device on Rocket known to the human world, and the head halter is the only thing that elicits total agony from her, somehow to her, its a torture device. She will gladly wear harnesses, collars, clothes, car safety belts, hats, scarfs (fashionista poodle), glasses, gloves, elizabethan collars for sick days, everything. She wore reindeer antlers at Christmas time a couple years ago, and posed for pictures. She is extremely tolerant of all sorts of goofy stuff - but the head halter? Never.

Most the time I am strict and stubborn with Rocket, so what I say, goes. At the same time, I respect her, and with some things, I think its good to listen and let her make her choice 

So...there you have it. 

Wins Are Everywhere

The problem with reactivity is that it can be a problem for a long time. A very long time. So, I haven't posted in a few days because we just have been chugging along. We have major "wins" (and some fails) on every single walk, so they are a big deal to me, but maybe not blog material.

I have started a journal in just a plain old notebook, I am taking notes on every single thing we do - walks, training, everything. I am taking down note on what she's eaten, what training tools we used, what training we worked on, every last little detail to help myself remember so I can go back and reflect. I also take notes on what changes I want to make, or what I want to try for next time. This journal, only a week old at this point, has already been a huge benefit. I am already noticing patterns and it is already informing my decision making. I highly recommend it for anyone training.

Other than that, we have had some ups and downs. One wild reaction this week to a few dogs walking by on-leash across the street, but many more instances where Rocket obviously came to a mental fork in the road and chose to not freak out.

I am working on getting quicker with noticing where she is at on the reactivity scale, and stopping escalation before it starts. This, for me at least, has been difficult to learn and master, and takes a lot of time. Reactivity takes forever to fix not just because its hard to change a dog's hardwiring, but its hard to change our own as well. We must allow ourselves time to become more adept trainers with quicker reflexes to situations.

One of my mentors, a professional handler, is practically telepathic with dogs. She is always 5 steps ahead of the dog. She's not just fast, she's in the future...and she is excellent. She makes working with dogs of all kinds look easy. I hope someday I can have at least a smidgen of as much talent as her!

So, we keep going. I am trying to celebrate every single success. Did Rocket check herself and look at me instead of chasing after the squirrel? Win. Did Rocket ignore the child that approached us (before I told her to go away, poor kid)? Win. Did Rocket approach a neighbor today, who was at a distance, and literally not give a single care? Win. Did Rocket walk by the scary man with the scary weed whacker blaring away and keep her focus on me? Win!

The good thing about having a dog that is this bad, is everything is a big deal, which means wins are everywhere!

Stay positive!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

For A Reactive Dog, Calm is Important All the Time

Rocket missed her calling as a racing greyhound

My boss, an avid dog lover, and I were discussing Rocket's reactivity today and she brought up some really amazing points on calmness. She got the conversation going about times when maybe dogs are not so calm, maybe even reactive, and we as owners might "let it go" - to their detriment.

If reactivity is an episode where the dog goes over threshold, and we assume this episode can/does alter their brain chemistry, which in turn will increase the likelihood of future, and possibly more violent, reactions, then it is our goal to never allow our dog to go over threshold. Each time he or she does, we take a step back. This is why it is so important to remove a dog from the stimulus as soon as we recognize there is a problem, to stop the dog from "rehearsing" the behavior, and therefore making the problem worse and more long term. It is always important to stay away from the problem situations until you can get professional help.

Up until recently, I really only thought about this in terms of the environments where Rocket had reactions that I deemed problematic. I have been lately thinking about all the other times she might raise her arousal levels too high. What about when looking out the window? What about seeing the squirrels in the backyard? These are all instances when Rocket has a reaction, maybe a different kind - not nearly as bad as with dogs on leash - but still, arousal is happening. She is getting keyed up, and we are throwing adrenaline into her system. I then assume that with these added doses of excitement  we must be hurting our chances of success for when we get into the "big deal" situations...such as on-leash.

This line of thinking has been in my head the past few weeks, and I have been working to make Rocket's in-house time as calming as possible. Then, today, my boss mentioned something that really flipped my thinking on its side.

What about when she goes running off-leash? It got me thinking to how a typical off-leash romps go for her. (These are in a safe, enclosed, empty dog park).

Rocket will run, and run, and run, and run. She will gladly chase a ball, but she's in it for the running, and will often not bother to bring the ball back, and just go for another few loops. She is starting to make me think she's an "adrenaline junkie" - because Rocket will just run, for however long you let her, and now I have to ask myself, per the inspiration of my boss' comment, at what point is she running for joy, and and what point - if this is happening - might she be tipping over into "joy meets fear = system crash" levels of adrenaline. This theory could be supported by the fact that after a good bit of running, Rocket will start doing things like running the fence or barking. These could be identified as anxiety activities. Originally, I would assume that all exercise, all running is good for her - but now I have to wonder, is it really? Or, should I be on the lookout for activities that might be adding to her reactivity?

The bottom line is this: many of the things I used to think were "she's just being a dog" activities I am examining with a closer eye.

How many people see a dog that gaurds the door constantly and deem that dog "a good guard dog"? How much do you want to bet that dog barks its head off at everything that walks by? Or the dog that barks at this dog "just a good guard dog" or is it an anxious dog, a dog that never can relax?

What about the dog that melts into a wiggly, licking, whimpering pile when meeting someone new? Someone might say "Oh what a friendly dog, he loves people!" We have all heard this - but we must actually listen to the dog. Is this dog really friendly and loving of all people, or is he actually quite worried or uncomfortable and acting ultra-submissive?

Lastly, this is the reactive dog owner's arch enemy, the "friendly dog". The dog that lunges, barks, twirls, whines, screams, and nearly kills itself trying to get to your dog when passing by on a walk. One might say "Oh he's friendly! He loves dogs!" Well, maybe both of those things are true, but maybe this dog is not experiencing life in a comfortable or healthy way. Maybe this dog initially was both friendly and dog-loving ten minutes ago, but maybe now he is presented with a stimulus that he cannot, or does not know how to, handle, and is so overloaded with adrenaline that he can't really even function anymore. Maybe this dog is reactive.

Our dogs cannot speak to us, so we must listen to what they can give us, and we must start to look at our reactive dog as a reactive dog all the time, and promote calm and confidence all the time. Some of the "dog just being a dog" activities might not actually be normal, or healthy. We have to re-examine what our criteria for our dog's wellbeing are. In the past, maybe this behavior seemed "okay", but the more we learn, the more we must challenge traditional approaches to dog behavior. Our goal is a healthy, happy, calm dog...what does that really look like all day, every day?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Importance of High Value Treats

The past few "field trips" we have been on has really made me want to write this post about treats.

Long story short, high value treats and a high rate of renforcement is critical. I cannot say this enough, and it may seem obvious, but I think it needs to be said...and have its own post to boot!

Rate of Reinforcement
This is something I was lacking on but have started to fix. I realized that my rate of reinforcement was just not high enough for certain situations. Think about if you are treating often enough. For example, if the dog is walking past a distraction, think about breaking that exercise down into the "baby steps". A dog might not be able to complete an entire might want to be treating for every two or three steps. This is a higher rate of reinforcement and at the same time, you are breaking down the task into easier chunks.

Something as little as taking a step can be monumental for a dog, so remain sensitive to this fact and treat accordingly.

I always make sure I have more than enough treats in my bag. We are still at a point where if I run out of treats, I am completely unarmed to deal with any situation. I always make sure we head home before the treats run out. I say "before" because if I run out and then turn to head home, get in the car, walk five feet from point a to can bet that something catastrophic will fall from the sky right into Rocket's face. It always does. I know this from bad experience!

So, load up that treat bag and be ready!

Currently in mine we have cheerios, soft chewy treats, kibble, and then I carry in the front pocket "the big guns" - hot dogs and cheddar cheese. I like to switch up every so often to keep things exciting and interesting, and I like to make sure I leave some very high value treats for only very "special" things - such as recalls.

Rocket will actually work for kibble, which may not work for your dog, but this and the cheerios count as low value treats. I give them for when she offers a behavior that maybe wasn't "that big of a deal"...and on the reverse, I break out the hot dogs for the "big deal" and for emergency situations. She loves food, so she is always more than happy to work for kibble when she is at stress level zero. As distraction/stress increases, then I have to remain aware of what I am giving her.

Other dogs = hot dogs. Sitting when no one is around and she's totally calm = cheerios.

I like all of these things because they are small which means I can literally be shoveling treats in her mouth for the whole session and not actually feed her too much. I always take into account her treat intake to make sure she is getting balanced nutrition.

Please remember, always make good choices when it comes to your dog's diet: consult with your veterinarian.

Notes From a Dog Walker: High Value Treats for DINOS

Kikopup/Emily Larlham: Calm Treat Deliveries

Kikopup/Emily Larlham: What Treats to Use

Trying Again After a Major Fail

I gave Rocket a day off yesterday save for a walk. Our walk was a little discouraging, as she barked at a neighbor who was a considerable distance away. No walk, however, is just a walk. I was armed and ready with treats and the second he came into our view, I was working with her.

I have been watching Leslie McDevitt's video "Pattern Games: Clicking for Confidence and Connection" and have learned a bunch of new patterns we can use - a couple of which are already working well for us! I highly recommend this video.

Today we went to the dog supply shop I mentioned in a post (the day when everything went terrible). I know, I sound foolish - why am I taking her back there when I just said I wouldn't? Well, we took a different attitude toward it.

We did not go in, did not even get near the door. We just hung out around the place, walked around the shopping mall, and stayed at a very far distance. This was actually the right amount of stimulation for her. We only saw a few dogs and they were all very far away, and we worked on reacting to people and sounds. The place had the right amount of business that we had things to do, but never got overwhelmed. We did pattern games, worked on exercises, played lots of Look at That!, and clicked for looking at me instead of distractions. It went pretty well, she had amazing focus and seemed to really enjoy some of it.

1. Offered lots of great behaviors, started making a lot of choices about looking at me in the face of distractions.

2. Offered great obedience, was able to work even with people walking by for the most part.

3. Barking did not seem like "normal crazy reactive dog" barking...but I put this in negatives too because I dont want it happening!

4. Beautiful focus and heeling

5. Loose leash walking was really phenomenal today.

6. I worked on catching her even earlier with stares and other would-be-reactivity behavior. I started to realize this while watching McDevitt's video.

1. It continues to shock me just how hypervigilant she is. I'm paying more and more attention to how she is in and out of the house, and its really a concern. I am starting to get a deeper and better understanding of where she is really at, and it can be very sad for me to see her like this.

2. People reactivity. Some people she was fine with, others she would bark. She only barked a few times, and it was not a reactive mess like in the past, but nonetheless, I want to prevent this as much as possible.

3. More on the barking: she is doing this "BARK then turn and look at me all at the same time" thing which makes clicking a little bit of a challenge! I dont want to click for barks, I do want to click for turning to look at me! Its hard when the neck turns and the bark comes out at the same time!

4. A growl. Rocket growled at a woman that passed by. It was quick and as she was walking toward me as a part of her "look away from the distraction and look at mom to get a treat" (basically same timing as with the barking - growl happened simultaneously with the head turn). I did not correct her and I didn't click her. I immediately increased distance (I already was doing this at the moment of the growl anyway) and got her focused and then began clicking for those exercises. Again, this wasn't really high reactivity/over threshold moment. She was in a heightened state, but not over...but she still growled. After the incident she seemed a little more tense, but focused just fine. This really bothers me.

For the Look at That! Game and other great stuff:
McDevitt, L. (2007). Control unleashed: Creating a focused and confident dog. (1st ed.). South Hadley: Clean Run. Retrieved from

Monday, April 1, 2013

First Day at the Dog Gym

Our first day at the dog gym went very well. I am calling it a dog gym for a reason - it is a place that is open all day and you can reserve training space. They have classes and other fun activities for dogs to do - it is a genius plan.

We reserved a time during the day when there was very little activity, and it went really well. We were blocked away physically and visually - since seeing things is what gets Rocket keyed up - and we had some fun practicing obedience and playing.

She only looked away a couple times and maybe "woofed" once or twice.

I was like a ninja trying to get in and out of there with her - and the owner helped me to make sure the way was clear to avoid any run-ins with dogs.

For a long time I was really unsure about telling people Rocket is reactive - people really dont like reactive dogs, and for good reason. For this place, however, I contacted the owner and told her our story, and she has been extremely helpful.

So my tip for today, be honest, ask for help, don't ever let your worries get in the way of helping your dog!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Some Days Don't Go So Well

Today we went to our favorite dog supply shop to buy some things and take Rocket out into the world. I had spent all week being in no-dog zones with her, working on her games, and really getting her ready, so I thought we might be ready to try a place with a couple dogs around.

It went okay, but then again, it was not a good day for me. Rocket never went over threshold into full blown reaction, but she was chomping down on her treats like jaws to the point where it got painful and we had to work on just that, and things in general just weren't working. I get so focused on her body language and where she is at, I just know when she is just barely riding the line between okay and reactive. It was a rough, rough trip, and we cut it short and got the heck out of dodge.

I knew I made mistakes, which frustrates me. I should not have taken her there, which also frustrates me. I think I had confidence because our trainer was able to take her so many places. We spent so much work on focus and I felt like I had set everything up correctly, but it just didn't work out.

Working with a reactive dog is an emotional roller coaster. Some days are good, and some are bad. Its frustrating and it hurts to see the dog that you originally had big plans for unable to simply leave the house. It is extremely frustrating to just not have the skill level as a trainer to handle such an advanced dog.

We will dial back the criteria and try again, in a better situation.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Really Getting to Know Your (reactive) Dog

One of the best things I am learning about dealing with reactivity, and honestly, just being a better dog owner, is listening to and watching my dog.

Every time I think I am getting really good at watching Rocket, or understanding her, I am surprised by how much more insight I gain.

This happened to me today when we were out for some training and just "being" outside*. It really hit me just how much of a worrier she is. My trainer said it, and I completely believed her because I agreed, I have seen it in her before, but today for some reason it was as if I cleaned my doggy glasses and saw things more clearly. I looked right at her and saw just how worried everything made her. She was not necessarily super stressed or even on the "mild" threshold scale...but nonetheless, she operates at such a high level of awareness. She is on a full time job of checking the world out. "Hypervigilant" is what my trainer called it - and I completely agree. But today, I saw more of Rocket's world, and it kind of shocked me all over again.

This inspired a whole new level of patience and readiness to help her. It inspired me to do some new exercises with her, to play a bit, and to just spend some time walking around in lazy circles thoughtfully.

Keep watching your dog's signals and patterns. Focus on everything, their eyes, mouth, tail, muscles, ears...everything. Everything speaks on a dog. Patterns speak loudly...what patterns are you seeing? Keep learning about dog behavior and signals, and just keep your eyes, ears, and heart open as much as you can. Its amazing what your dog might be telling you!

*Just being outside is a huge training situation for Rocket - just that alone. For her, working on being calm and "managing" all the things going on around her is actually a lot of work! So we do not take for granted how much energy it takes or what a big undertaking is for Rocket.

Good References:
Zoom Room Guide to Dog Body Language

Kikopup How to Communicate with a Dog In His Own Language

Monday, March 25, 2013

Getting Back to Basics, and Our Walk Today

Our training plan is to get back to basics, work on our foundation, and to start moving forward again from there. A few of the things we are going to work on this week are:

The Look at That! Game (McDevitt, 2007)
Whiplash Turn (McDevitt, 2007)
Mat work (McDevitt, 2007)
Relaxation Protocol (Dr. Karen Overall)
Leave It
Reorienting out of kennels, doors, etc. (McDevitt, 2007)
And lastly, re-conditioning to the head halter.

The Halter
I am thinking about using the halter again. At this point I still feel like I need some way to "break" Rocket's "border collie" rock solid laser focus stares that she will set into when she sees something she may react to. Being able to move her head helps us when we start to get "in too deep" (reactivity is a threshold issue, you go through certain levels, like mild, medium, HOT...sometime around "medium" she needs to be broken away and cannot do it herself). I have disliked it very much in the past, and she has too! But, I am thinking with some extra sharp cheddar cheese and a week of very slow, careful conditioning, maybe we will like it. I admit I was too impatient conditioning her to it the first time, so hopefully I can fix my mistake. I will be sure to update progress.

Reorienting Exercises
A little on reorienting. We have been working on reorienting in the home, the easiest way for me to train was coming out of the kennel. So, she comes out of the kennel, I am slightly behind to the side, so she must come out, turn and find me, and sit. This is the same for coming through a door, or getting out of the car. It is already proving to be invaluable for helping Rocket stay focused!

Going on a Walk
Before walks, per the advice of my trainer, I am starting to take an entirely new attitude. We do some focusing work in the house, before we even walk out the door. Then, coming through the door, I ask for her to whip around and look at me (this is all explained and taught by Leslie McDevitt in Control Unleashed (2007)...I highly recommend it! Once that is over, I do a couple little focus exercises, assess how she's looking and taking in the scenery, then we go on our way. Then its my job to have eagle eyes and manage anything and everything that comes our way - I am armed with multiple games, such as Look at That!, to battle the evil forces of reactivity.

Today our walk went was windy, cold, and not very nice out, so it was short, and I noticed it was a little frightening for Rocket. The leaves blowing and just the general nastiness seemed to unsettle her, so I kept it short and kept a high rate of reward going. It worked.

We saw a "scary strange woman", on whom she immediately locked her gaze. She set herself up, looking big, tail up in the air, ears forward, she even placed herself in front of me. Not reactive, but ready. Vigilant. This is the beginning stages of "mild" for Rocket. Staring at the woman, I noticed Rocket was saying "I am unsure, what is that, I am on watch" I started to play Look at That! with her. At one point, she let out a small woof, so we took a few steps away, continued to work, and when I rewarded her, I threw three or four treats on the ground, allowing her to "forage". I have noticed "foraging" or just sniffing around like that is great for helping bring her down a bit. Sniffing is a natural stress activity for this seems to play very well into what she needs.

This walk was only 15 minutes at most, but it was jam packed full of experiences and we got home before it got too overwhelming. I would say, day well done!

McDevitt, L. (2007). Control unleashed: Creating a focused and confident dog. (1st ed.). South Hadley: Clean Run. Retrieved from

Dr. Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol

A Great Video on Muzzle Conditioning, which is guiding my head halter conditioning process:

Kikopup Muzzle Training

Friday, March 22, 2013

Starting Over

Rocket loves to run.
Rocket is a two year old standard poodle. She is beautiful, smart, funny, and persistent. She's loving, but she's snarky. She's sweet. She will work for you, even when she doesn't understand and gets frustrated, she'll come right back around and try again. She is incredible. She is also a worrier, she is high drive, and she is dog/leash reactive.

Rocket is my first performance dog. She is the realization of a childhood dream. I brought her home when she was nine months old, and just a month or so later, we started our first obedience class. That first night, we walked into the building, and something happened that I had never seen before.

My poodle exploded.

Figuratively, of course, but "explosion" is probably the most accurate description of how Rocket looked that night. This black mass of fireworks, noise and energy shooting every single direction. She whirled. She strained. She lost her mind. She didn't know what to do, and I did not either! Everyone stared at us. Immediately I was "that person". The shocked and dumb look on my face probably didn't help. What was this?

Well, it was reactivity of course! After a while of reading, calling trainers, and learning, I learned that Rocket was reactive. Rocket didn't know how to deal with the situation she was in, everything became overwhelming, and adrenaline pumped to the point where she just couldn't deal, and just, well, started to do everything at once. She went "over-threshold". Rocket is the kind of "confident" reactive dog, when she sees something that alarms her, she throws herself at it. She tries to be intimidating, she just starts throwing whatever she can think of in the strange thing's direction hoping to get some kind of information from the strange thing.

Looking back now, I dont remember what exactly she looked like those moments before walking into the building, but she was probably over-threshold long before the "explosion" hit. She was telling me all along, every step she took into the building that something big and bad was going to happen - but the problem is, I didn't know to see it. I didn't recognize it, I didn't know to look.

A year and a half later, and I know much, much more than I did then. I have learned a lot, and Rocket has been through training with some professionals - including a month with a professional who worked exclusively on reactivity with her. Now that she is back home with me, we are ready to start a new game plan. I am better educated, and she is too, and we're ready to start doing this right.

This journal is to track our journey through reactivity and back out into the world...where we can be calm, have fun, and learn together.