Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An attempt to define...

A number of times over the years people have mentioned to me they wish their dogs would act a bit more like mine. (Obviously these people have managed to avoid their crazy ratbag moments... LOL) The implication is that their dogs are just too (silly, wild, crazy, stubborn, insert something) to act like that which simply isn't true. I point out that Hope didn't naturally come with these skills (no dog does - nor any person for that matter, hence the terrible twos in most people and the fact that some people have yet to learn it as adults!) but rather we train for calm focused attention.

I always seem to get met with dubious and disbelieving stares though and queries as to what I mean by that and then fumble around trying to explain. It encompasses a lot of things, much of it simply how we do things in daily life as really the same basic foundations that make your dog well mannered in daily life are the same as those on the training field. The two biggest overall concepts though I find myself reminded of are that you get what you accept and you reinforce what you accept intentionally or otherwise. That includes impulse control, self control, self restraint and the ability to bring oneself down from an excited emotional state! If you accept a dog who pulls and barks nonstop and is out of control as just how things are, then by virtue of not reinforcing sitting, quiet, self-restraint, emotional regulation, attention and manners - you not only allow those things to be self reinforcing and well rehearsed you are essentially training (however inadvertently) for them!

Calm, attentive focus requires attention on their partner (you, who are also required to give it back), self-control and self-restraint, deference based in trust and mutual respect in your relationship and partnership, an on-of-switch so they can utilize the high drives when they need to and turn them back off in situations where a couch potato is called for. (May have to revise that list as I'm sure after I mull it over I'll remember stuff I've forgotten to add.)

For anyone who thinks that Hope naturally came that way though or her personality is inclined toward it may I submit Rin. The insane-o teenage working Border Collie with a less than stellar start who was given up because she was, well... an insane-o teenage working Border Collie with a less than stellar start. She is rapidly learning the same skills and she came to me as a untrained 1 year old with a history of humans being fun at times but generally irrelevant to getting what she wanted in life and sometimes an out and out hindrance to be gotten around. Rin was a dog who was working for her own interests and had little inkling why anyone else ought to matter to her let alone have their desires be deferred to. She also had a wonderful set of bad habits that led to her owner feeling he had to find someone or put her to sleep. These included:
  • pulling on lead and lunging while scrabbling desperately towards whatever caught her eye (oxygen? that's for whimps...)
  • jetting away the second she could and only coming back when she felt like it (Bless her owner, not only did he not teach a recall he taught her to run away when approached as a game!) With her previous owner this meant they'd find her 4-5 km away.
  • obsessively scanning for anything even remotely able to be construed as edible to steal, counter surfing (as well as landing on the stove, poking her head IN the oven etc), mugging people for food they were holding (carrying a sandwhich on the plate? now you see it, now you don't...) and once snatched you'd need the jaws of life to regain possession of
  • screaming if her collar was touched (and I mean with a single finger) loudly and blood curdling to the point at one event one day I had a number of people and a comp rep come dashing to our tent to check the poor dog wasn't being horribly mangled and hacked to pieces with a machete. Primarily because she feared it would mean being locked up again.
  • she could not abide being confined - crates, small rooms and cars resulted in screaming-fits and bashing around the back of the car boxing the windows trying to get out because she had a history of being locked up all day, out for a few hours and then locked up again.
  • an impulse control that would've made a gnats look wildly impressive
  • a tendency to randomly eat carpet/linoleum flooring/walls/furniture if you weren't looking, even if appropriate and high value chew items were available (whoops, couch arm fell into my mouth ma!)
  • and despite being a good natured, personable, fun loving, happy-go-lucky little gem of a sweetheart that I was head over heels in love with - all the social graces and politeness of an Ork.
Suffice to say after the first few days my husband was a bit dubious that my mental faculties were in working order every time I enthused to him what a cool dog she was.

The first time I took Rin out on lead (mind this is long after we'd worked on manners at home - we always work in babysteps!) she wanted to pull. And pull. And bounce. And whine. And eat her lead. And paw her collar off to get loose. And play Gandhi and flop over. And croc death roll. And pop up, lunge and pull. And attempt to drag me off after one unlucky pull succeeded in knocking me flat on my bum. And screech that glass shattering excited screech Border Collies seem so talented at when she discovered I was hanging on. After having spent so much time perpetually locked up, in a new place with so many potential things to do and see and sniff and jump on and chase had her in hyperdrive! As far as she was concerned I was a minor obstacle to get around rather than the person who could give her access to all these wonderfully cool things if she cooperated with a few rules.

We were in the parking lot and we stayed there, far away from everyone. The first thing we did was reinforce "mom opening the car is a cue to plant my posterior and wait because it is the only thing that will ever, ever, ever work to get me out!" That was very hard work when her poor little brain was just smoking in overload and considering she'd never HAD to put any pause between impulse and action in her prior life.

When we had some self restraint in the car she was invited out and immediately lost her brain again, dashing headlong towards all the interesting things once her body felt that rush of forward momentum. (And yes she'd had a very solid bit of exercise beforehand!) Unfortunately for her as she discovered she was on lead, so after an initial tanty she remembered herself enough to reorient back to LLW and I reinforced attention with our "Rin Would Jump Through Flaming Hoops For This Stuff" level treats. We sat to play with eye contact while standing, eye contact while sitting, eye contact while laying down and laying on her side with eye contact. We played with a few tricks and targeting, sticking with simple and known behaviours that alternated between active and calm/passive ones. From an outside perspective it probably looked like we were achieving a fat lot of nothing sitting there and goofing around. When we went to training the first time we missed out on her entire actual training classes - the cost thrown away on that fee and a 45m drive a pittance compare to the cost of teaching her ill manners could WORK... SOMETIMES. (Slot machines work sometimes too... and idiots all over pump coins into them knowing full well sometimes isn't likely to be this time because MAYBE it will be.) We lathered. We rinsed. We repeated. We moved to walking in small circles and patterns in the area. Over a few weeks we got progressively better and were able to work up to becoming progressively closer, occasionally having moments where she'd forget herself in the excitement and we had to move back a step or two before quickly regaining ground.

She would still get excited (the joys of working with motion sensitive hyper-environmentally aware Border Collies) but we simply used that as an opportunity to reinforce calmness and attention. Not only was I looking for her ability to engage me rather than be drawn by the environment but I wanted her to learn she could retain the ability to CHOOSE to engage me over it. The ability to choose and be in control of herself rather than taken for a ride on the neuro-chemistry of her impulses.

We'd already done quite a bit of doggy zen and related games so she had some basis of familiarity. Zen would include some of Sue Eh's stuff, bits of Susan Garrett's It's Yer Choice which we've used the techniques of for many years before they were given a formal outline and name and other bits and pieces. Likewise with Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol.

We did McDevitt's Look At That games, as well as the old standard eye contact (which completely apropos of nothing my brain insists amuses itself by chirping "Look at moi Kimmy!" instead of LAT when I do it). We played rev up and rev down games and combine them with zen. I'd introduce the tuggy, rev her up by dangling it and teasing, waving it and running off hiding it, razzing it over her toes and ears, dashing and zig zagging it, tossing it in the air and catching it before giving her the cue to take it. We'd play hard and then cue out, with a big reward and lay down - sculpting the time it took her to gear down from a big one to brief. The quicker she relaxed under my hands, the quicker we'd get back to the game and bigger it'd be when it came.

We played with marking muscle relaxation, when she was laying there on her side and watching the other dogs, I'd lay my hands on her and softly but firmly draw a long stroke on a leg muscle or along the lips or eyebrows and mark and reward the action of the muscle relaxing under my hands. (Not the relaxed muscle but the act of of it releasing it's tension under my fingers.) I use this as a Conditioned Relaxation response later on, where I can touch them on the shoulder or midsection and their bodies flop over already relaxing before their brains even take time to think on it.

The general idea of all of it was that:
1.) even in the face of excitement you need to control yourself and stay aware of me as your partner (as I do you)
2.) I will give you the tools to do so and help you learn how and be a good leader and provider so we've built trust and our relationship so you can feel confident in deferring to me
3.) choosing me over the environmental distractions and self-controlled choices over blindly following impulses is something you can do; here's how and it pays well
4.) choosing to do so is the only way I will give you access to the other exciting things
5.) in the face of temptation a default known behaviour to center and ground yourself and relax
6.) if you need aid in gearing down I will assist you with the Conditioned Relaxer

It took several attempts before we went anywhere near the field or other dogs, let alone followed along with the drills when we went to training but in doing a lot of "nothing" sitting there we started laying important foundations that will make the training on the field that much easier and builds our relationship, builds trust reliance and partnership and continues to reinforce my value as the gate-holder of all fun and good things.

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