The Merlin Chronicles: Clicker Expo 2018 Edition

When I first got Merlin, as a young pup, I took him with me to Clicker Expo 2011, in Chicago.  He was a difficult dog even then.  I tried to take him to a lab, and he barked so much that we were asked to leave. He barked so much, that I ended up crating him in the hotel room with my friend Kama’s dog for most of the conference. Despite being reinforced heavily with attention, food, and being taken out, for all the barking, I think Merlin enjoyed his conference experience at Chicago Expo. He met lots of people and did lots of things.

Fast forward to Clicker Expo 2018, which I have been eagerly anticipating, as it is being held in my hometown, St. Louis.  I thought I might bring my old man dog, Nitro, for his last hurrah.  Then as his health faded, I decided I should try to work with Merlin enough that he’d be able to go with me.  Not long before Expo, I had to let Nitro go. I stepped up my work with Merlin, taking him to classes with my dear, patient, kind, friend, Tina, and working with him at home quite a lot. I kept good records, I felt we were making progress.

Then the French Bulldog puppy, Niko, happened. He was acquired in a rather convoluted way, for my adult son, Orion, who had always wanted a Frenchie.  But getting him to Arizona from St. Louis was a challenge, especially since I was leaving town to go to work for 10 days.  I decided a road trip was in order. So, on February 22nd, I left for work, returning on March 2nd, turning around and leaving again on March 3rd to drive to Arizona with two kids and a French Bulldog. We got to Arizona, did some vacation time and family time with my son/kids’ brother, then spent some time in New Mexico and Oklahoma, arriving home on the evening of the 15th.

Clicker Expo began on the evening of the 15th!  The morning of the 16th, I went to several sessions, then went home at lunch to get Merlin.  After lunch we had one teaching session, Sarah Owings’ On Source, Nosework class,  then the working lab.  Merlin was barking and problematic throughout the session, and toward the end we had to stand in the back, with him outside the door, and me inside, trying to learn the skills!  I was extremely frustrated, and really disliking him. I really do feel like we have tried so many approaches to deal with the barking, but it’s just who he is, and it does slow down considerably once he acclimates to a space, it just takes a visit or two. He was very overstimulated, and trying to hump and nip everyone who tried to pet him or talk to me.  When the lab began he was better.  He worked well, and was very focused, particularly considering the fact that I hadn’t even seen him, let alone worked with him, for 22 days.  Almost a month! He got tired and toward the end of the lab was a little crazy, obviously tired and overstimulated, so we left a few minutes early, to better manage him.  But I really appreciated Sarah Owings, and her patience with his barking, and I really feel like we did learn a lot and get a lot out of the lab.

Today was the second day of sessions and labs.  Jacob was kind enough to bring Merlin to the hotel just for the lab time, so Merlin arrived at 1:45 and stayed until 3:45.  The lab was Hannah Branigan’s Orient Express, which was excellent.  Merlin was more acclimated to the space, and he worked very well, with minimal barking.  He did get tired toward the end and lose focus on what we were doing, but overall, he did really well. I was proud of him today.  He may not be my dream dog, he may not be easy, but he’s the dog I have, and he’s trying hard, so I’m going to continue to try hard, and to not overface him with challenges he isn’t ready for, but to keep high expectations and train to whatever level we are able to achieve together.

Tomorrow morning, we have another learning lab at 9 in the morning, the topic is Animals in Control. We’ll be working on communication and giving the animals choices. I am hoping that Merlin chooses to say yes.

 

 

Merlin Chronicles Part 2

Merlin and I went to our second Obedience class on Feb 5th.  He and I both performed much better. I went in with a plan, there were only two of us in class, and Merlin was more comfortable in the space, since he’d been there before.  Our training together has been much better.  Again, this is because I start with a plan, I am keeping a journal, and I’m working hard not to do the thing that humans always do, push past the learner past the point of learning and into tedium and frustration.  This is the most difficult piece, of course, because having successes in training is reinforcing to the trainer.  Like all living creatures, I want more reinforcement!  I have managed to video my last two sessions, but I can’t post the first one, because the Witness Protection Pup makes a guest appearance as the second trainee.

I have learned a number of things about Merlin, now that I’ve taken the time to actually work with him.  He has little rear end awareness, but more importantly, and possibly having more impact on his ability to perform, he has very little core strength. So, even if he wants to perform precision pivots and tight tuck sits, he may well be physically impeded from doing so at this time. To remedy this issue, I’ve implemented an exercise plan from Dr. Chris Zink’s Conditioning for the Canine Athlete. I should have done this much sooner. He can easily walk three miles or more, but walking and playing at the dog park are not working his core. As an athlete myself, I am well aware of the pitfalls of having no core strength, the biggest of which is back injuries. We are going to avoid injury and create strength for performance. (in both of us!)

Today was a day when I was yet again reminded that a good trainer, or at least an adequate one, needs to be able to modify a training plan on the fly, as needed, to suit the abilities of the learner. My basic outline for today was this:  (which is WAY too much, BTW!)

Training:

  • Find target with Rear feet
  • left pivots
  • figure 8 with stops
  • tuck/kickback on pause table

Workout:

  • High 5/wave both sides
  • Rocker board-hind legs
  • Snoopys
  • ladder
  • beg

Transitions/Play Breaks:

  • tug and fetch

I started with Find Small Target with Rear Feet (small phone book platform).  Merlin had some frustration with this, as he knows it pays to find it with your front feet, and luring him to try to get the back feet on was frustrating (for him and me), every time he felt the platform with the back foot, he tried to avoid it, not step on it.  I was able to get a few well-timed clicks in as his foot ran over the target, and he is savvy enough to understand, then started putting his foot on the target. Getting both feet on at once was a challenge, so we did one foot at a time, then a few clicks for both feet.

Then a tug/fetch play break

I’d planned to switch to working pivots on the bowl perch.  He has done well with this in the past. Today, he could pivot to the right, but fell off the bowl every time I tried to get him to offer, or tried to lure him left. Clearly the bowl was NOT the way to go today, if we wanted success.

Put away the bowl, tried pivots on the ground, with just doodle steps.  He does beautiful doodles to the right, and decent pivots. He does not do either  very well to the left.

We did a short block of heeling to see if he could do clean left turns while moving. This has been something he could do in the past, but not today. I’m not sure why, but video should help with diagnosis. I have a feeling it’s something in my body language that’s causing the issue.

Tug/Play break.

This is where the plan change came in!  I decided that working exclusively on rear end awareness and strength was more important than trying to work on left turns, and would benefit our left turns in the end. So, we skipped from pivots, dropped figure 8s, and brought out the full sized platform.

Full sized platform (10 x 34 inches).  The first thing Merlin did was offer front feet perching. Then barked in frustration when I didn’t pay for that. I lured one foot onto the platform, and clicked that. He was still frustrated. Then I used my brain for a moment and remembered that he already knows 2on2off with his hind feet from agility. So I stepped back and to the side and turned the front of my body away,  for a 2o2o, and he complied.

I paid for some straight alignment in 2o2o, then walked forward toward him and clicked for backing up and moving his front feet onto the platform as well. Multiple clicks for all four feet on the platform. Tossed treats away and waited for him to find a standing front position on the platform several times.

Moved to some Tuck sits in front position on the platform, then Tuck sit to kickback stand on the platform.

Then held a treat magnet on his nose, moved myself into heel position while he was on the platform, several clicks and treats for that.

Last we practiced a tuck sit on the platform in heel position.

More tug and fetch, to end our session.

You may note that we did not do our core exercises, which I’ll do later this evening, too much at once is too much, even if we were both having fun. Always end on a high note!

Next session, we’ll work on finding heel position on the platform from different positions, as well as sits, and possibly downs on the platform.

What was my big takeaway from today and our recent training sessions?

I haven’t been fair in working with Merlin. I”ve gotten frustrated too quickly with him.  I haven’t given him the chance he deserves. He was always second fiddle to Nitro, and later in Nitro’s life I still felt guilty about giving time to Merlin and not Nitro. I still find it difficult to work with him in situations where he barks a lot and is generally embarrassing, because not only is it embarrassing, I feel like it makes me look like a bad trainer, which just adds to my anxiety, which adds to his anxiety. Finding a safe space to train, where I know people care for me and my dog, and aren’t judging him, me,  or either of our abilities, makes a world of difference. I feel this way about my Tracking group, and my Obedience class, and the classes I took with my friend Kama earlier this year. It’s a component that shouldn’t be overlooked when choosing where and with whom to train. My heart is healing from the loss of Nitro, as much as it ever will, and for the first time in a very long time, I’m really excited to be training my dogs.

 

Beginning Dog Training: Merlin Chronicles

I’m calling this Beginning Dog Training, because every time we start to train our dogs, we’re beginning dog training. I don’t care how advanced my training skills may or may not be, or how advanced my dog’s skill set may or may not be, every single training session is a new beginning. So get into your beginner’s mind, and start training!

Since the loss of Nitro, almost two weeks ago, now, I have decided that I owe it to Merlin to give him any opportunities for interaction and training with me that I can give him. We have trained for foundation agility, barnhunt, tracking, and nosework, in the past. I’ve also taught him very rudimentary obedience behaviors, and lots of tricks.

Merlin is a special dog. All dogs are special, in their own ways, but in some ways Merlin is, what I might call “Extra Special”. He is easily aroused, easily distracted, intolerant of touch (doesn’t enjoy being petted much, and only for very short intervals), cannot tolerate grooming without being heavily medicated, and even then is nearly impossible to pedicure. He is friendly, but after an initial greeting, he becomes so over-stimulated that he will hump the new friend, and likely grab their clothing with his incisors. He doesn’t bite, but he does grip. With smaller children he is likely to squash them against the wall and hold them there, while barking at me to acknowledge that he has “captured it”. He exhibits some herding-type behaviors in situations where those behaviors are completely unacceptable. He exhibits some generally obnoxious overstimulation behaviors.  Training alternate behaviors has not been effective, for many reasons, including a multi dog and multi human household in which consistency is often nonexistent, nor has using “corrections”, which I won’t go into here, and which I know don’t work, and  I do not recommend for any clients, ever. Management is the only really effective strategy with him thus far, though now that Nitro is gone, more effective training may be possible.

Overall, I have found Merlin to be a difficult dog to work, or to find any type of partnership with in a working context. he frustrates me with his hyperarousal, and his inability to retain information he has seemed to master to the point of fluency in the past. His very different work ethic from Nitro has also been a contributing factor to my frustration. Nitro was a “what are we going to do next!” dog. Merlin is a, “I’m frustrated, I don’t want to play anymore, this is too hard, I’m going to stand at bark at you, or grab you” kind of dog.

Given this information, I have again begun to attempt to work with Merlin, because I know, as a trainer, the faults lie with me, not him. I need to work hard enough to find the best way to communicate information to him, without becoming frustrated myself. I know that the more exposure he has, with appropriate management and training at the same time, the better his behavior will become. I have been like Merlin, “this is too hard, takes too much effort, too frustrating”, and the time has come to move forward past that.

Monday we went to obedience class. I was overall pleased with his work there. He was able to focus on me, do some heeling, and generally do the work. However, he barked almost non-stop, which is his default behavior when stressed. He barks in a high pitched, same key, monotone, and doesn’t appear to realize that  he’s vocalizing, which is how I know he is feeling very anxious. Fortunately, I chose a class with an instructor whom I know very well, who understands anxious dogs, and classmates who are also very understanding. I know that next week he will be less barky and yappy, the overarousal and anxiety will slow down with each consecutive visit to the new place and new people and dogs. Not to say that it doesn’t cause me great anxiety and stress, it definitely does. But I will work through that. It’s only behavior.

Tuesday we had a great session of working on tuck sits, play, heeling, and a few other things. I was jazzed, and he was also relaxed and happy.

Wednesday I came into our training session “pre-angry”, because I can’t find my platforms, the house is too messy to have enough space to set up cones for figure 8’s, and life in general was difficult. I was also fatigued. Needless to say, our session did not go well.

After the session, Jacob stopped me to remind me that it’s not that I haven’t worked with Merlin, and tried to train him, it’s just that he’s extremely difficult and frustrating, and that I’ve quit multiple times because he’s so frustrating. I thought about this quite a bit. This is a serious thing, not in the way that Jacob meant it, but because as a trainer, I KNOW that it’s NOT the dog’s fault. It’s may fault, even if my sweet husband wants to give me an out by reminding me of what a pain in the ass the dog is, in general.

So, this morning, I baked bread and thought about training generally, and Merlin specifically. What he knows, what he doesn’t know. He knows so many things, I can’t even remember them all to list them (which I was doing Monday evening as I was formulating a training plan). What he doesn’t know, is what I haven’t taught him. One of those things is to find heel position after I turn left and only take one step. This came as a surprise to me, since he can find heel position from anywhere if I am moving, in a circle, serpentine, or straight line. He can find heel in one step/pivot to the right. But I apparently have neglected to teach him to find heel moving/pivoting left. Well. This is a thing we need to work on.

After the bread was in the oven, we went outside to play in the 23 degree weather. We played fetch with his holy roller ball, (I think it’s his favorite, and I’ll be taking it to class with me on Monday) then went to the pause table. He loves the table, so we worked on teaching the tuck sit, by having him reach forward to touch, without falling off the table. This worked very well, we’ll be working on changing the cue from “touch” to “Tuck” and rename his sit from there. No more rocking back 10 feet!

We played more fetch/tug, then did some heeling. Every left doodle step, he stayed sitting and barked at me. But if I move at least 5 steps to the left, he can find heel easily. Tomorrow, platform/bowl with left pivots.

What is the take-away here? For me, the lessons I am re-introducing to myself are:

  • Start where you/your dog are. You cannot build a wall (or a behavior) without a solid foundation.
  • Don’t go to a training session angry. Better to skip it altogether and just play with the dog.
  • The trainer has to work as hard, or harder, than the dog.
  • Don’t just have a training plan, use it! Use it to do the teaching piece, and to analyze your success/failure rates, and to plan the next steps.
  • Choose what you want to work on. Don’t try to fix everything in one training session. Pick a behavior or two to build on in each session.
  • Keep a journal. Not only will it enhance your training plan, give you data points to analyze, but it will also help on days when you feel all is lost, all is failure, to look back and see progress.
  • Remember that you love your dog, and why you love your dog. Remind yourself.
  • It’s just behavior. It’s not personal.

These are all things I tell my beginning students and private clients. All my trainer friends know these things. This is basic information for training any animal. Some animals just require better application, more effort, more time, and more finesse. If I want to be successful with Merlin’s training, I need to apply all these basic principles, and consistently. As a trainer, and a pet owner, I owe it to the dog and to myself to do the work.  Back to the basics we go!  Happy Training, all!

Does Your Dog Guard Resources?

It occurred to me today while working with a client’s dog that many dog owners really don’t know if their dog guards resources or not. So many people never give their dog anything that is truly considered high value by the dog, that sometimes we find out the hard way that the dog will guard something he or she considers valuable. Many dogs who live in single dog households also have never really had an opportunity to guard something from another animal, so it may not be recognized until later in the dog’s life, when he or she happens to have something valuable in the presence of another animal. I once had a client dog with no history of guarding begin guarding me and my treat pouch from the other household dog, she had never had a high value treat and wanted to keep them all for herself! We worked through it quickly and easily, because I recognized it immediately, she was not given the opportunity to practice it successfully over time, and, because training and behavior is what I do for a living, I already had a plan in mind to change that behavior quickly. But if the dog had been left to continue and become successful in the guarding behavior, it could have escalated quickly into a dog fight, and both the dogs, myself, and the owner could have been injured. Resource guarding is a normal, adaptive behavior in dogs. If a dog in a group of dogs with no human intervention didn’t protect what he had, he is likely to miss a lot of meals! Normal resource guarding looks like a slight hunch over the item, or lying on the item, a low growl in the direction of the other animal, a hard eye toward the other animal, and possibly a lifted lip.  In an appropriate interaction, the other dog will read the signals clearly and move away.  In normal dogs, I expect some low level of intra-species guarding (dogs guarding from other dogs), and some inter-species guarding (from the family cat,possibly), of things the dog considers super-high value. For instance, a raw, meaty marrow bone. The best policy for giving your dog a super high value food/chew object is to manage carefully, keeping the dog either in his or her crate, or in a space where no other animals or people will disturb him/her while chewing, until the dog has finished with it, or you are prepared to take the object away, by trading for a consumable of equally high value (slice of bacon, perhaps?). Resource guarding becomes maladaptive and unacceptable in household dogs when it is directed toward people, or is focused on various, random objects, like tissues, Legos, bits of paper, or specific spaces, like the couch, the landing on the stairs, or the space near a known food source like the pantry. The good news is, with professional help and good management, resource guarding is definitely modifiable, and most dogs who guard objects or space can be worked through the issue to the point of being safe for other people in the home. If you should happen to find out that your dog has started to guard something from you, don’t panic, don’t chase the dog, or threaten, it may cause your dog to swallow the object, or to bite you. Move away to a non-threatening distance, throw a high value consumable item, bacon, braunschweiger, cheese, etc., into an area with a door or barrier you can use to separate the dog from the guarded object, remove the object, then release the dog, and find a professional to work with you on this issue, before it becomes a bigger problem. If your dog begins to guard an object from another animal, move the other animal away, then trade your dog a consumable item for the object, and move it to a place out of reach of both animals. If the object was extremely high value, plan to manage your dog carefully next time he or she is given that sort of object, and don’t allow those items when both animals are present in unconfined space. If you feel that the guarding is escalating, consult a professional for tips on management and training plans to minimize risk for both people and animals. Things to remember about resource guarding:

  1. it is a normal behavior, but can escalate into behavior that can create a dangerous living situation
  2. guarding can crop up unexpectedly, the dog decides what is valuable, so watch carefully when giving new toys/treats/beds/etc.
  3. proactive management to prevent the guarding from happening is the best course of action
  4. If you have issues with resource guarding, working with an experienced professional who understands positive reinforcement and behavior modification, like a CBCC-KA, CAAB, or Veterinary Behaviorist, is going to be the most productive use of your training time and dollars

Canine Life And Social Skills BA Level Evaluations!

Last night, 5 of my student teams from the last 3 sessions of C.L.A.S.S. did their formal skills evaluation for the BA Level. They were a self-selected group, and of the 5, one team, Deb and Zorg Frank, passed the evaluation, with Honors. At that moment in time, I was feeling terrible, and thinking I was not a good instructor and had somehow failed my students. In retrospect, after some time to process, and some input from students, and a half a night’s sleep, I have a better outlook!
After my initial distress about several students not passing the Canine Life And Social Skills BA Level Assessment, I have had some time to reflect. I think that it’s a great curriculum and a great assessment tool. I think it actually does require mastery of true public access skills, unlike any of the other assessments available for pet/family dogs. I really appreciate that it requires independent assessment from a qualified Evaluator (thanks again, Susan!) And I think my students did a great job. After all, this is what assessment is about, finding the points where you need work. If everyone passed, every time, the assessment would hold no value. Like any formalized competition (even ones in which you must meet criteria, not compete against other teams), if the criteria are so low that all teams meet them, it’s not much of a challenge, and doesn’t show much about the work you’ve put in, or your skills mastery.

I also am proud to have been among the early adopters of the program, and I think I’ve learned some valuable information about things to tweak in class, and ways to adjust class practice to prepare human students better for testing situations, and have their dogs rock solid for the little details that make all the difference.

Teaching classes is alway a learning experience for me, possibly even more than for my students.  I thank them for the opportunity to learn from them and their dogs, and I hope I get the opportunity to work with all of them again.  I hope that my skills continue to improve, as theirs have done.

I am excited to continue offering the C.L.A.S.S. series, and look forward to great success for all of my student teams in the future!