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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Comparing Public Dog (13) & Agility classes

Monday was supposed to be our out-and-about class, but Ursula wanted the opportunity to work the dogs off leash in a fenced in space so we met at the training building.  The rest of us were in the building, with the enormous industrial door open to the outside.  I set up off to one side with our own personal door leading right to my car.  I also set up a visual divider, but only one so Gimme could still see the dogs around the side.

While Ursula and I have discussed using distance more to relieve pressure, I am still not doing it effectively.  Partly I unconsciously think I have to listen to exercise instructions, despite whether Gimme needs a break.  I agreed to Ursula's recommendation to follow along in the class and heed hers and Elizabeth's suggestions.  So I think I have to live up to that too.  Also there is a certain social pressure to look like I'm not babying Gimme.  In reality I'm not living up to my primary obligation, which is to look after Gimme's needs.

I want to talk to the Ursula again to say that I want to remove any "expectation" that I will participate in class exercises.  I will participate only when Gimme is comfortable and able to have a decidedly positive and confidence boosting experience - not just get through it.  Maybe its okay for pets to simply "get through it", but with my performance goals I'm going to need a lot more than that.  I want confidence and attitude.

I also have to talk to Ursula about Elizabeth's lack of familiarity with Gimme.  Ursula and I learned early that Gimme does not show her stress in obvious ways.  One deceptive thing is that she has what I call "leaky tail" and her emotions leak out her tail.  All of her emotions: happy, joy, fun, stress, anxiety, fear and uncertainty; they all result in wagging.  To complicate things there isn't much difference between the quality of the wag either.  Her tail only stops wagging when she is totally relaxed, asleep (though it often wags then too) or when she is about to have a reactive outburst.  Frankly, a wagging Gimme tail just means she is still breathing.  In any case, I'm going to tell Ursula that I'm going to "Just Say No" when Elizabeth suggests things unless I am confident that doing the exercise will be "a decidedly positive and confidence boosting experience".

During this last two classes in the building, while Gimme wasn't becoming emotional or reactive, no feeding frenzy, etc... I've noticed a couple of things. She is externally still, but not able to relax.  Her responsiveness to cues has dropped way down.  Sometimes she doesn't hear me at all.  Other times she responds with the wrong behavior (like down when I cued "sit") or responds very slow. This tells me the environment is still putting too much pressure on her and she's still too close to threshold.

Also, after the first few minutes in class, she is no longer able to work for cheese - which she's always loves. She still eats cheese, but after that first few minutes the only way she can "work" is if I bring out the peanut butter. On a scale of 1-10, PB is a 20 for her. I refer to it as her "doggie crack". She will do anything she is physically capable of doing to get it. In the past, I've used it in tight situations to lure her through and as a reward for her best efforts.  Now in this situation, I find I have to use it to get any focus and still her responsiveness has an erratic quality to it. She does what I ask and we get through the exercise, but its certainly NOT "a decidedly positive and confidence boosting experience". I think of her desire for PB like an addict's desire for their drug of choice.

In this case I think her knowledge that I have PB and will reward with it for everything, is acting as a lure, but one that has a compulsive nature to it - as in obsessive/compulsive.  I don't mean compulsive as in compulsion training - though there could be that element as well, since I'm essentially using it to "force" her to work when she otherwise couldn't.  I am also concerned that she may be learning undesirable lessons - such that working around other dogs is uncomfortable, Mommy doesn't look out for me and the training building is no longer a fun place.  There is also the possibility of peanut butter becoming poisoned.  For example, if it shows up most often when she has something to worry about, then it could become a predictor of yucky stuff.  I want to get back to where I'm using the peanut butter for a lure in a pinch, counter-conditioning as needed and to reward her best efforts.

The other concern I am seeing is there is no increase of offering rewarded behaviors. For instance, if I reward check-ins with PB in this situation, I don't get a noticeable increase in the frequency of check-ins. She is still looking at the other dogs, somewhat intently and getting stuck. Then she'll offer me a check-in, almost like when she needs another "hit" and once she gets it, she goes right back to looking.

To me, it all comes down to the same thing, I must manage the distance better to help her feel comfortable.  Gimme could easily do all these behaviors if she were starting from her usual comfortable base.  I need to step back and regain the stable footing we had, before I can ask her to stretch to achieve more. After all, if you have to stretch up to get something way out of reach... do you pile up a bunch of unstable boxes and other stuff - or would you prefer a nice sturdy a-frame ladder.  So, I think we are going to be spending a lot more time right outside the building.  Frankly, I would be perfectly happy to spend our whole hour sitting right outside the door next to my car with Gimme relaxed and doing light training, while knowing the other dogs were nearby. I'd rather do that, than spend the hour inside with the dubious benefit of "getting through" exercises, where no positive experience is accruing. 

So, in reviewing this I made a list of signals that she is near/over threshold.  Thus far I have: 
  • inability to work well for rewards other than PB
  • incorrect or slow responses to cues
  • lack of response to cues
  • getting stuck looking 
  • lack of offering rewarded behaviors
I know that was a long blather about where we are at and what I'm seeing in class... but indulge me and read the difference between that and tonight's agility class...
Blynn, our instructor, is a real gem and lets me do what I want. We started out relaxing 40 feet from the building and Gimme was distracted and unfocused, unable to LAT... not because the distance wasn't enough, but just that her mind was not in the training game, yet. Our first turn on the course was a bit wild at the beginning, the middle was lovely with some nice work and then I messed up and let the rate of reinforcement fall off when we were working the final challenge, so I lost her attention. 
Our second session of relaxing 40 feet away was much better, she was at times comfortably relaxing and even playing LAT while still laying down sphinx style. We walked on a loose leash into the arena and she did a really nice job on course with pretty close to full attention. When we were walking off the course, another team was walking in just 25 feet away and Gimme was able to LAT a couple of times, still on a loose leash, and then just ignored the dog in favor of getting to the water bowl. 
BTW this was all done with a combination of cheese, peanut butter and toy. I used a little more PB to start with, but then was able to reserve it for her best efforts.  This really encourages me. It feels like my instincts are supported by the results when I do it my way. Ideally I'd want to have focus and attention throughout the session, but if I can't have it all the time --- I think its better when I have more focus and attention at the end of class than at the beginning. To me that says our rewards are working, the training is progressing and she is learning. 
Another thing I realized today was how different Gimme was driving home and throughout the evening between Monday after Public Dog class and last night after agility.  On Monday Gimme was exhausted after class and was asleep before we got to the main road, but still alerting to every little road bump or noise.  When we got home she continued to act tired and when I tried to train there was no brain left.  During the evening she was more edgy - alerting then barking at noises outside.  Candy can testify that during the course of our phone conversation, I repeatedly had to check to see why Gimme was barking and all four times it was things I couldn't see or hear.  I had noticed that Gimme has been edgier since the false pregnancy and I just thought it would take time to dissipate.  However, last night was an eye opener. 
After agility Gimme snoozed comfortably all the way home.  She woke up from time to time and looked around, but then quickly resumed napping.  Once we got home she remained relaxed.  While outside she found a toy that had been unearthed by the yard man, and brought it in to destroy it.  After that she laid around comfortably snoozing, without alerting to anything outside even once.  And last night I heard noises outside.  She'd have happily trained if I asked her to. 
This comparison makes it clear to me that the classes are still too stressful for her.  With agility class, she leaves contented and happy.  I should also mention that while we were outside before our second session, we were snuck up on by an off leash black lab (black dogs are a special trigger) and I had to do an emergency u-turn to get her out of there.  Minutes later she was working with focus and attention and a happy waggy butt - which shows what her bounce back should be like. 
It all gets back to me doing my job to honor and support her needs... first and foremost, above all else.  PERIOD - END OF DISCUSSION...

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