Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rumble in the Bronx - and by Bronx, I mean my living room

I'd like to start out by saying it was just a normal day...a day like any other. In hindsight, however, that just wouldn't be very accurate. Yesterday was a bad day for Sarah. I knew this, I acknowledged it, but I didn't add it up until it was too late. 

Sarah was feeling rather grumpy and moving kind of slow. I asked her to come lay by me while I was on the computer working so we could enjoy each other's company. She obligingly got up from her resting spot and laid down on her pillow and let out a deep, contented sigh. I went back to my computer screen to send a message to my boyfriend that went like this "I'm worried about Sarah. She isn't looking so hot..." In the middle of sending that message, the fight broke out. And it scared the crap out of me.

A little history: B is a very, very socially inappropriate dog. I (very seriously) liken her behavior to that of someone with Asperger's Syndrome:  she doesn't understand dog signals and body language, she avoids eye contact but will often stare at Sarah until eye contact is made and then she looks away. She is extremely sensitive to her environment and becomes overstimulated quickly.  She doesn't reciprocate smelling of hineys, meaning she's "allowed" to smell another dog but she gets very stiff and uneasy when another dog tries to smell her. And that is the exact behavior that landed her in a fight yesterday afternoon.

While Sarah was relaxing, Bizzle went in for a sniff of her lady parts. Normally, Sarah dismisses Bizzle's unfair and invasive actions with no more than a dirty look. I'm usually able to intervene and redirect their attention. Like I said, though, Sarah was extra-grumpy and she decided Bizzle needed to be told where to go. Sarah is pretty fair when she tells off another dog. She sounds ferocious but it's all noise...if the other dog says "Uncle", she lets them off with a warning. Bizzle is a do-or-die kind of dog. B doesn't say "Uncle". Sarah snapped at her and lunged on top of her. Bizzle screamed and retaliated. I yelled "HEY!" but it wasn't enough. I banged on the kitchen counter to make an interrupting noise but even that went unnoticed. My next move, although it is not recommended, was instinct. I got in the middle of it and tried to break it up.

I know, I know. Your not supposed to do that. But I'm sorry! Adrenaline was pumping, there was so much screaming and growling...I did what I thought I had to do, not what I should do.

The girls were latched on to each other before I even had time to process what was going on. There was no escalation. It was just all out brawl from the get-go. I always go for Sarah first. She's the biggest and can do the most damage. This leaves me plagued with guilt, though, because when I stop Sarah from fighting I'm now allowing Bizz a clear shot...and that is completely unfair.  Bizz is the kind of dog that goes back for more.  She doesn't run off sulking and hide to nurse her wounds. Nope. She gets right back in the fight, barking mad with her eyes wild. So when I grabbed Sarah by the collar and got her off of Bizzle's neck, B ran in for more and bit Sarah's tail many times before I could stop her. I was able to grab Bizz by her scruff in the middle of one of her lunges and separated them for enough seconds that the tension was eased.

It was quite a site - there I was, pushing 93 lbs of dog up against the wall with one hand while holding the scruff of a scrappy 20 lb puggle in the other...and all of us are panting like crazy. I separated the two of them and started triage. Score: Sarah received two punctures, one of which substantial but not enough for stitches, several lacerations and a swollen leg. Bizzle received three punctures, two received stitches, and several lacerations.

I couldn't help but feel completely useless as a dog owner and as a trainer. If I can't make better decisions with my own dogs, how can I expect to be worthy as an educator to other dog owners?! Thankfully, a lot of my peers comforted me back to reality. The truth is, like I'm always saying, dogs are not machines.  They are living, breathing, thinking creatures who happen to have sharp teeth capable of solving any disagreement. As a trainer, I give my clients my undivided attention.  I'm watching them like a hawk, studying their body language - I am far more prepared than when I am at home with my own dogs.  To expect myself to be on guard 24/7 is unrealistic.  To expect my dogs to get along every day of their lives is also very unrealistic.

The girls come home from the vet later this afternoon.  They are getting shaved, cleaned and stitched. As expected, the repair of their physical state is doing some significant damage to my bank account. :( When they get home, they will be separated for several days until they can prove to me that the beef between them is over. And then we carry on.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Take THAT World!

Oh. My. Dog. Today was the most amaaaazing day for Bizz! After getting rained in yesterday, the dogs had to spend the majority of the afternoon by themselves as I met with clients. I assumed the moment I got home, Bizzle would be in a terrible, rambunctious, bouncing-off-the-wall mood.  Well, she was. :) We suited up and I knew, I just knew in my gut, that I was not mentally prepared for this walk to go poorly.  I'd had a long day, a long weekend and I needed today to go well.

Usually when I telepathically beg and plead with Bizz in this manner, it somehow communicates to her "Go berserk and react to anything that moves." Today, however, the gods of reactivia (that's not a yogurt) decided to smile upon us.

We saw a total of ten fuh-reaking dogs!! Bizzle reacted!! The first dog is whom we refer to as the Balcony Ambush.  He's a fiesty Dobie that very silently lies in wait and as soon as you're underneath him, he erupts in snarls and scrabbling and nails scratching on the deck.  Trust me, it's very dramatic.

The second and third dogs came as a pair.  Two lanky, well-mannered Greyhounds that may have some issues of their own because their owners tend to always keep a 100 yd. distance from us. Bizzle was so calm that we got to practice our "Coooool! Look, it's a dog!" game. Repeatedly, Bizzle calmly looked at them and then looked back at me. I had to tell myself not to get too excited - this will blow up in my face any second.

The fourth was, and always is, one of our biggest challenges.  He's the kind of dog some "Alpha" people dream of owning.  He's a beautiful Dobie who was taught using the strictest of training.  His person expects no less than 100% compliance because, well, he said so. His person also let's this pretty boy traipse up and down the sidewalk, pooping here, peeing there, claiming this, barking at that...all while he gabs on his cell phone (never to return to pick up the countless piles of feces his dog leaves behind...grrrr!).  Why? Because that's just who this guy is. If his dog decides to run after something, he loves to wait until the very last second before recalling him. Just to show off how wonderfully trained his four-legged trophy is. Normally, I have a pretty big scowl on my face when it comes to this guy. He's let his dog run up on mine in the past so I expected that this time but like I said, the planets must have been aligned because today as he talked into his cell phone, he also commanded a "sit" and "stay" of his dog. Could it be!?! This afforded Bizz a chance to walk by without the pressures of a moving target. We got within 30 feet when I saw what was actually happening: the Dobie was hard-staring at Bizz!! His ears were tight in the air, his neck was craned forward just a tad and his chest didn't even move as he breathed. He was watching her like he wanted her for dinner! That is VERY intimidating for a dog like Bizz...or any dog for that matter.  But she did great - not one bark!! We got past the dog and I threw down a fistful of cheez-its, freeze-dried chicken and freeze-dried fish.  Eat up Bizzuckachu. You deserved that!

Even after such great successes, I found it hard not to be a skeptic when we approached the next six dogs individually.  Granted, we still had to do exercises like "touch" and "ready, set, get it!" (I throw a bunch of food on the ground and she gets to forage). I also had to sprint a couple times to get out of the line of fire. But as long as Bizz doesn't get a chance to react, then I'm willing to do anything!

We came a loooong way today.  Honestly, I don't know what it was about the formula that made it all work today.  I was using semi-new treats. I was alert and paying more attention to detail (something I've found I do when I come back from appointments with clients). I remained upbeat no matter how I felt inside. Somehow, it just all worked.

I told my boyfriend I felt bad that I didn't say thank you to Arrogant Cell Phone Guy.  I should have thanked him for putting his dog in a sit/stay - that was a kind gesture towards me and I have no doubt it was a contributing factor for Bizz's success today. Next time I see him I'll let him know how grateful I am that he did that.  I don't care how many piles of his dog's poop I have to step in if it means my dog gets a chance to learn. :)


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sit. Good Dog. Good Sit.

We praise our dogs when they do something correctly and our praise tends to be something like “good girl” or “good dog”. Because we usually pet our dogs at the same time, we condition them to understand “good dog” means affection will follow. That being said, some dog owners are overzealous and decide to throw in the cue with the word “good”, which brings us to the topic of the day: Good Dog. Good Sit.
When you ask your dog to perform a behavior (sticking with the “sit” example) the goal is to get them so used to performing that behavior on cue that they could do it anywhere, anytime regardless of distractions.  So if I ask my dog to sit and I’ve previously rewarded him with “good boy” when he completes that task, then he understands he has done well. If I were to ask my dog to sit, he complies, then I say, “good boy! good sit!” technically, he should sit again because I just issued the cue. Agreed? People often think that saying “good sit” will convey to the dog that his behavior was sit and it was performed to the level of “good,” which is not what the dog thinks. He understands “good” to be a marker of the behavior he performed - the one that achieved him the reward of affection, treats, etc. 
Dogs win the grand prize when it comes to tuning people out. Husbands, girlfriends, kids - no one can hold a candle to dogs.  They hear so much of our banter on a regular basis that they’ve learned exactly when to ignore us. When we use the words “Good Sit” we are using a word that is a cue for Sit Your Butt Down. Your dog hears this and may or may not comply.  Chances are good you didn’t notice you said sit that second time so you don’t reward them. They soon learn “when she says Good Sit, it doesn’t mean anything.” You’ve now trained your dog to make a judgement call about when to listen to your cues. While we are always striving to create a “thinking” dog with clicker training, we don’t want a dog who second guesses a cue and its consequences.  We want our dogs to understand that every time they hear the cue, they should perform the behavior and in return, a reward.
So, yes, it sounds nit-picky. If you’re wanting a dog with proofed behaviors, though, you have to pay attention to the things you as a dog owner might be doing to affect their performance.