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.