Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It's a beautiful thing (aka A little bit of Rebel)

Ever since I began agility classes at the place I'm currently taking classes at, I've noticed a change come over Dahlia.  It happened quickly and it took me by surprise.  She was never a timid dog, but she was a soft dog who was overly sensitive to certain things: being run into, loud noises, and dogs who wanted to play rough, specifically.

I had her for over two years before we began classes here and she had yet to overcome any of these things.  Some of that was because I simply allowed to it be.  I didn't work on acclimating her to being run into.  I didn't work on getting her used to loud noises.  And I kept rougher dogs away from her.

The first of the trio of "issues" she has (being run into) has been successfully solved through this class.  We got her so involved in tug that I started to incorporate running into her as part of the game.  We'd play tug for a time and then I'd step forward and run into her side, or use my legs to manipulate her side.  She would hang into the tug and growl and start tugging harder.  It was a signal for "amp up the play, girl!" and she took to it brilliantly.  Once she was comfortable with my running into her during play, I would begin to run into her on purpose and then offer her the tug toy.  She'd grab onto it and play.  Now she sees running into her as a signal to play and she is instantly up and excited.  If I don't have a toy there, she settles right down.  But she's not shutting down and that's the important thing!

The second of the trio I'm only beginning to work on more, so we'll leave that for another day.

It's the third of this trio of "issues" that is the real subject of this post, though seeing her play with the tug toy the way she has been is also beautiful in and of itself.  But this last one, playing with dogs who are rough, has been something that has weighed on my mind for some time.  Generally, interaction with a wrestle play type dog goes like this:

1. Dog approaches.
2. Dahlia gets super excited about meeting this dog.
3. Dog jumps on Dahlia.
4. Dahlia issues a pretty clear warning growl.
5. Dog either persists and gets more warning growls or the owner pulls the dog away because my dog is "aggressive."  (This depends on the person at the other end of the dog's leash.  More knowledgeable people recognize the warning.  Less knowledgeable people think she's starting a fight.)

I've gotten used to this.  I really have.  And I've explained to other people so many times that my dog "is really just a chaser and doesn't like to be jumped on."  I've apologized countless times and tried to explain to the less knowledgeable that "no, she's really not aggressive...this is just how dogs communicate."

Saturday morning before class we saw one of the other dogs approach us.  Rebel is a lab puppy who is approximately 8 months old at this time.  Dahlia has met him before and he has certainly gotten the warning growl.  His owner is, thankfully, one of the more knowledgeable people and recognizes that Dahlia is helping to teach him something.  On Saturday morning Rebel clearly had a lot of excess energy to burn because as soon as he saw Dahlia and I, he took a flying leap...straight up into the air.  And then he came bounding toward Dahlia, alternately leaping in the air and rearing up.

I was expecting to experience my list above, step by step.

But I didn't get that.

Instead, he immediately rushed up and jumped on Dahlia.  Dahlia backed up briefly, but then launched herself at him with a big excited growly play face on and leapt on him.  She just pounced, like she pounces on her stuffed toys.  He jumped back.  She rushed forward and jumped on him again.  And they briefly wrestled.

It brought tears to my eyes.  Yes.  For real.  I admit to being a complete sucker when it comes to my dog.  Any time I see her grow like this, I get all teary-eyed.  I told Rebel's owner that this was amazing and I'd never seen her do that before.

And her response?

"I guess all she needed was a little bit of Rebel in her life."

Yes.  I think we all need a little bit of Rebel in our lives!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wordless Wednesday


The UPS truck

The walk begins and it's fairly normal.  Stop.  Start.  Stop again.  Sniff a lot.  Pee on bushes.  Sniff some more.  Start walking again.  Walks with Dahlia are fairly slow and this one is no different.

Suddenly she rushes forward onto the grass between the sidewalk and the road and sits.  Her ears are up and forward.  Her eyes are bright and focused.  Her whole body quivers in anticipation.  And that's when I spot it.  The Holy Grail of vehicles: The UPS truck.

It's sitting on the side of the road, currently driverless.  He's delivering a package in one of the houses nearby.  But this doesn't stop Dahlia from staring in excitement.  She knows what's coming.

The driver returns to his truck and smiles at the dog whose tail has started to wag, while the rest of her body remains in the seated position, quivering from barely-contained excitement.

He turns the key and starts the truck up.  VROOM!  It makes a huge sound, a gigantic thundering sound of what, to Dahlia, must surely be sheer awesomeness.  She jumps up and immediately starts to bark.  This is not a bark of fear.  This is not a bark of aggression.  This is a bark of pure joy!  Her face is set in a smile, her eyes are bright and excited.  As the truck moves off, she races on ahead after it, barking all the way.

When finally the truck has pulled further away than her leash will extend, she rushes back to me with a huge grin on her face as if to say "Mom, that was awesome!"  I squeal in delight, for I share her joy and love to see her like this.

And then she spots the truck parked further down the road.  Another package to deliver.  She races on ahead and looks back to me as she does so.  "Mom hurry up! We can do it again!"  I run with her.  Her excitement is infectious. 

We stop just slightly in front of the truck and Dahlia immediately goes into her sit, quivering with excitement yet again.  The whole process repeats itself until the truck has driven on, around the corner, and is no longer of interest to the crazy black dog who is left panting at the side of the road.

The UPS truck is endlessly fascinating to Dahlia.  Other trucks (including those of Fed Ex and other package delivering vehicles) are passed by with barely a glance.  Why the UPS truck holds such a fascination for her when the others do not will likely remain a mystery to me.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The dog is back!

Every summer, David and I look at each other and say "I'm worried about Dahlia."  Why?  Because she's listless.  She lays around the apartment, looking sad and miserable.  She walks slowly, ploddingly.  We worry that she's getting older (we don't know her real age, though we're guessing she's somewhere between 4 and 5).  We worry that something is wrong with her.  She has little interest in exercise and would much rather just lay in the grass for a belly rub.  In fact, she usually looks a little like this.


But then there comes a time when I leave the apartment on a walk with Dahlia and she simply races down off the porch.  She'll stop and sniff and when I say "Are you coming?", she'll jump up from her sniffing and race on ahead of me.  Everything she does is with a bounce in her step and she's moving fast, excitedly.  She wants to run and chase and jump.  She looks joyous, thrilled with life.  Her face is set in a huge grin.


What has resulted in such an amazing revival?

The weather.

It's suddenly dropped to around 60 degrees for a high and Dahlia, ever the cold weather dog, loves it.  She'll be even more thrilled come winter, when she tends to get even more excited and get the zoomies.


Here's a little secret, though.  Her mother feels the same way.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Love the place you train

Last April, as some of you may recall, I signed up for a class I was hesitant about taking.  Something about it made me nervous and it wasn't until I walked in the door, felt the unfriendly atmosphere and saw the amount of leash pops and jerks on both choke chains and prongs that I realized why I felt so uncomfortable before even going to the class: The website listed no solid training philosophy.  They had the "teaching philosophy" page, as most do, but nothing on it gave a specific method.  Their basic training philosophy was this: 

Instructors will help you to understand your unique dog and how to communicate clearly with him. And they have many methods in their "toolboxes" for teaching certain skills and for help with problem-solving.

There was nothing specific there, no one belief.  I had hoped, when I signed up for the class, that their teaching would be rooted in the "positive first" methodology.  Instead, I discovered quite the opposite.  While no one told me to put a choke chain on my dog, it was clear I was to treat her as if she had one on: use leash pops, drag her into areas she was afraid to go.  Dahlia was nearly shut down on the first day of class.  I walked out of the second.

I will not lie.  Finding an awesome place to train is hard and it's especially hard for those who want to train using positive, force-free methods.  A quick search in any locality will find you many places whose training philosophies do not revolve around positive methods.  In a search of one city, I found the following training philosophies cited on various web pages:

1. Our concept of canine training as we define it, begins when the puppy is born. Training is not simply a set of exercises (loose leash walking, sit, stay, down, down-stay and so on) that a dog must learn when he has reached a certain age. Instead, we approach training holistically as an integrated process that spans the dog's whole lifetime and includes many different facets of the human-canine relationship.  

This says very little about how they actually train.  Holistic probably sounds good to most folks, but then I start noticing Cesar Millan terminology like "calm submissive pack member" and I'm quickly turned off to the whole thing.  This is going to be dominance-based training and it's going to be utter nonsense.  Next!

2. My philosophy is rooted in the fundamental idea that companion animals are social beings, and they need to be treated with respect and dignity. Specifically, dogs are pack animals and need to understand the hierarchy of their social group. Dogs aren’t little kids in fuzzy coats, and I believe that they understand best when communicated to in their own canine language.

Unfortunately, this "fundamental idea" is entirely wrongFor an excellent article on this, check out Ian Dunbar's recent article, Let's Just be Humans Training Dogs.

3. Our natural approach uses positive encouragement to reinforce behaviors we find desirable. It associates commands with these behaviors to develop conditioned responses, so the dog truly understands what you are trying to communicate.  (Sounds good so far but then...) At the same time, a natural approach means understanding that dogs naturally make a lot of mistakes, lose their attention, or are sometimes downright defiant. In those cases, the use of correction or negative reinforcement is necessary, to discourage and stop or modify behaviors we find undesirable.

This makes the training not quite so positive all of a sudden, doesn't it?  Many people are taken in by the idea of a "natural approach" but frequently that begins and ends with the erroneous ideas of dominance, submission, and who's going to be the alpha or pack leader.  Sure enough, if you continue reading this site's philosophy, you ultimately end up with a discussion of "wolf pack theory."  Here's a hint to people who don't realize it: Dogs are not wolves.  And not only are they not wolves, but they're not pack animals.  Those who have studied feral dogs have discovered that they form loose social structures, but not a strict hierarchy (check out the work of Raymond Coppinger).

That leads me to the training philosophy of where I'm now training.  I began training a little while ago at a place whose main focus is agility, but whose training can also spill over into obedience or general training to be a good citizen.  I found the place through an awful lot of searching.  One thing's for sure, places based in positive training are hard to find!  It's much easier to find places like the ones listed above, who were among the first to come up in a Google search.  The new place I go to has the following training philosophy:

If the dog can have a positive experience, then you will have positive results.  The training approach is based on positive training methods,working to build desire and drive... 

They go on to state that they do not allow the use of training collars (choke chains, prongs, or shock collars) and that their entire philosophy is rooted in having fun.

Now doesn't that sound better?  It sure did for me, which was why I signed up with no hesitation.  On top of the lack of training collars, I have noticed a distinct lack of some terminology in this class.  The word "dominance" has never been used.  Not once.  Neither have the words alpha, submissive, or pack leader.  My dog is not out to take over the world and I like that!  During the classes, Dahlia has learned to play tug for fun and has, rather quickly, become an even more confident dog than she was before.  It is fun and that's the most important thing.  Beyond basic obedience (sit, stay, come, etc.), dog training is not ultimately necessary.  So why subject your dog to something stressful and painful simply because you want to do it?  I'm a firm believer in having fun with my dog and this class has been perfect.  

I love the place I train.  Do you love your training facility?  If not, maybe it's time to look elsewhere for someplace you will love.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A visit to the groomer

Every 3-4 months Dahlia is off to the "beauty parlor" for a little bathing, a little brushing, a little clipping, and a bit of R&R.  Well, probably a lot of R&R.  The groomer we take her to, which is only about a 15 minute walk (30 minutes if you go with Dahlia as she has to sniff and pee on most everything on the way down), is a really awesome place.

The dogs who are friendly get bathed and allowed to dry a bit and then get to hang out with some of the other friendly dogs there.  Dahlia loves it.  We know this because they tell us this.  One time I was at a dog festival and ran into one of the trainers who work there.  This is what she said to me:

"Dahlia is such a flirt."

That's right.  Our girl, the flirt!  I'm not surprised.  Dahlia is super social, both with people and dogs.  Apparently she is at the groomer's place as well.  She floats around the room and visits each dog for a little while and also spends some time with the humans overseeing things.

Following her around is Chester, an older black lab owned by one of the trainers.  Chester has a thing for fluffy black dogs, she tells me, and so he follows Dahlia everywhere because she's a beautiful black fluffy dog.  She's quite happy to have this older male doting on her.  She does seem to have a thing for the older dogs (Douglas, her "boyfriend" who passed on last March and Chester who must be 11 by now).

So yesterday was Dahlia's visit.  As always, she slinks away from David as they take her to the backroom.  I guess she has to put on a good show.

The groomers say she is lovely, easy to groom and always happy.  She's had a hot spot recently and David warned them about it.  They cleaned it up with some medicated shampoo, and trimmed away a bit of the fur around it.  They assure us that it's healing up nicely and that Dahlia was not bothered or upset about their being back there cleaning it at all.

Like everyone else who meets our girl, they're amazed at her constant calmness and how she's always sweet.  We get charged the minimum for a dog of her size and coat type because she's so easy to take care of.  It's good knowing that even when left with someone else, our girl does well!


They do such a good job with her, don't they?

Wordless Wednesday