Fearful Puppies: Protocol for Touch

dog training, puppies, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, treat and retreat

This is part two of the sample translation of chapter 8.3 (Early interventions for fearful puppies) of my German-language puppy book. Click here for part 1: Protocol for Proximity.

While these are sample chapters from a geeky book about working with fearful puppies, the protocols are relevant for fearful or insecure adult dogs as well.

Special thanks to canine sports medicine extraordinaire and FDSA colleague Sue Yanoff for proofreading, and for her thoughtful feedback! 

 

Work through the Protocol for Proximity before working on the Protocol for Touch.

Protocol for Touch

 

Your Dog’s Chest

 

Now it is time to raise criteria again. Approach your puppy just like before. Squat down. This time, reach towards the front of her chest, but stop your hand at about 10 inches distance – do not touch her. Click, drop the treat, and retreat. Wait 15 seconds between reps, and stay at this level of difficulty for at least 5 reps. If your puppy is comfortable with the hand reaching towards her, move your hand 2 inches closer the next time. Click, treat, retreat. Wait 15 seconds, and repeat. Raise criteria only when your puppy appears confident and relaxed.

 

You should soon be able to move your hand up close to your puppy’s body. Now you are ready to gently touch the front of her chest. Gently put your hand on her body, barely touching her. Repeat this step at least five times without your puppy showing the stress signs described in the ladder of aggression (see body language chapter). She should remain perfectly relaxed: the muscles are soft, the tail rests on the floor or wags gently in expectation of a treat. The body isn’t stiff, but loose. Rolling over onto one hip is a good sign.

dog training, fearful dogs, protocol for touch, puppy training, counterconditioning, desensitization

 

Did your dog stay relaxed or show signs of happy expectation? Excellent. In your next rep, put a little bit of pressure on your dog’s chest with your hand – the same amount of pressure you would use when petting a dog. Repeat this step at least five times, and make sure your dog is comfortable. Once you can do this, you are ready to slowly stroke your dog’s chest. Move your hand over her chest for three inches. Click, drop a treat, and retreat. After five reps of this, move your hand over her chest for 6 inches. Click, drop a treat, and retreat. Repeat five times, and raise criteria to 9 inches. (If your dog is very little, 2, 4 and 6 or even 1, 2 and 3  inches may be better suited!)

 

Your Dog’s Chin

 

Once this works well, it is time to move on to a different body part. Your dog’s chin tends to be a good second spot. Again, start with extending your hand towards her. Stop your hand at about 10 inches distance from your puppy’s chin, click, drop a treat, and retreat. Work your way up to touching her chin, just like you did with her chest. Once you can touch her chin, scratch her with your fingers for one second before clicking, dropping the treat, and retreating. Gradually extend the time you spend scratching your puppy’s chin by counting in your head: “One good puppy.” Click, treat, retreat. “One good puppy, two good puppies.” Click, treat, retreat. “One good puppy, two good puppies, three good puppies.” Click, treat, retreat. Work your way up to 5 good puppies before moving on to the next body part.

 

Your Dog’s Side

 

Next, you will desensitize your dog towards touching her side. Just like before, start by reaching towards her without actually touching her body, and work your way up to a 9-inch stroke (less if your dog is very small).

 

Your Dog’s Withers

 

A good fourth spot to work on is your dog’s withers. Be patient – this may be more difficult for your puppy than the previous body parts. Follow the protocol until you can stroke from the withers back to her rump. Does she seem enjoy you touching her rump? If so, step five should be initiating touch there, and gently scratching her rump with your fingers. Work your way up from “One good puppy” to “Five good puppies!” of rump scratching. If she doesn’t enjoy her rump being touched, leave out this step.

 

Your Dog’s Head

 

Equally difficult is your dog’s head – your sixth spot of touch. Take your time, and only increase criteria when your dog is completely comfortable with the previous step. Your goal is being able to stroke from her head down to her withers.

 

Your Dog’s Chest and Belly

 

Number seven in our list are your dog’s chest and belly. Start when your dog is relaxing on her side, but not asleep. Allowing you to approach while exposing the belly is a sign of trust! Gradually build up your approach again before physically touching her body. Your first spot of touch is just behind the front legs. Build up to stroking her all the way back to her belly. If your dog doesn’t usually rest on her side when you are around, that is okay – skip this step for now, and move on to spot number 8. On the other hand, if your puppy enjoys being touched on her chest and belly, feel free to experiment a litte and gently scratch different parts of her belly. Never keep your hands on her for more than 5 seconds at a time (“Five good puppies!”) before clicking, treating, and retreating.

 

Your Dog’s Legs

 

Now you are ready to work on another sensitive body part: your dog’s legs. Start with the shoulder of a front leg, and gradually increase how far your hand slides down. Most dogs prefer a medium amount of pressure to a very gentle touch on their legs. Your goal behavior is slowly sliding your hand down from the shoulder muscles to the toes. Go through the protocol for both front legs, followed by both hind legs.

 

Generalization

 

Repeat all steps when your dog is standing instead of lying down. Choose a time of day where your puppy is calm and relaxed, and start from scratch: take a step towards your dog, click, drop a treat, and retreat. Gradually decrease the distance, and then add touch. Start with every new body part like you did when your dog was lying down: the front of her chest, her chin, side, withers and back, head and neck, chest and belly, front legs and hind legs.

 

Puppies under 16 weeks of age should be able to go through the protocol for proximity and touch relatively quickly. Dogs that age are still behaviorally flexible. The fear response isn’t fully developed yet, and positive experiences quickly lead to positive associations. Nevertheless, a puppy between 12 and 16 weeks will already require more time and patience to learn to like your touch than a puppy under 12 weeks would. The socialization window has already started to close.

 

dog training, puppy training, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, desensitization

Have you successfully worked through the entire protocol on your puppy both when resting on her bed and when standing upright? Good! It’s time to generalize what she has learned! Keep practicing in different rooms of your house as well as outdoors. At the same time, the other members of your household should work through the protocol as well. Dogs do not generalize well. Everyone who works through the protocol needs to start from the very first step. Don’t worry though – with every new helper, your puppy will make faster and faster progress. Once your puppy is comfortable being touched by your entire family, it doesn’t hurt to ask dog-savvy friends to work through the steps as well. Choose calm helpers you trust with your dog, and give them clear instructions on when to feed and retreat. Click for them in order to help their timing. The more people your puppy learns to trust in this way before the age of 16 weeks, the better: women, men, children, and elderly people. Equally important is generalizing proximity and touch to as many different environments as possible. Work in different indoor and outdoor locations in order to generalize her positive associations to touch as widely as possible.

 

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala, and teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Registration for Out and About , her April class at FDSA, is still open! Join me to learn more about advanced recalls, leash manners, getting past distractions, and keeping everyone safe on your dog-based adventures!

 

The pictures featured in Nur Mut! and in this post were taken by Olga Maderych of Gadabout Photography.

Fearful Puppies: Protocol for Proximity

dog training, puppies, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, treat and retreat

I’ve been too busy to blog, but I recently finished translating a second sample chapter for Nur Mut! (click here for the first English sample chapter). Here’s a sneak peak at one of the protocols from chapter 8.3 Early interventions for fearful puppies. Part 1 is my protocol for proximity. Part 2 will be the protocol for touch.

While these are sample chapters from a geeky book about working with fearful puppies, the protocols are relevant for fearful or insecure adult dogs as well.

Protocol for Proximity and Touch

[…]

Part 1: Protocol for Proximity

 

Before diving into the protocol itself, you need to establish how close you can get to your puppy without causing a stress reaction. No matter whether her threshold is 3 feet or 15 feet – add 2 steps to this distance. This is your starting point – a point where your puppy is perfectly relaxed.

 

Click – Treat – Retreat

 

Choose a time your puppy is resting calmly on her bed or another comfortable spot, but not asleep. Walk up to your starting point. Mark her relaxed body position with a click. Throw a treat to her. Turn around and retreat.

 

Retreating is an important part of this protocol. Not only do you pair your approach with food (classical counterconditioning), but you also negatively reinforce your puppy’s relaxed position by means of removing yourself – a potentially stressful stimulus – from her space. Wait 15 seconds, and repeat the exercise. Again, you will walk up to the starting point defined above, click, treat, and retreat. Keep your session to 5 minutes or less, and give your dog a break. Then, start the game again by means of walking up to your original starting point, treating, and retreating. You are explaining to your dog that you are playing the game she already knows. All she has to do is keep relaxing and wait for you to throw her a treat. What a great deal!

 

Do not walk closer to your dog until you are convinced she understands that your approach predicts a treat. Watch her body language: does she lift her head and start wagging her tail when you walk towards her? She is beginning to understand that something good is about to happen!

 

Once your dog is clearly happy about your approach, you are ready to walk one step closer your next rep. Click, throw a treat to your dog, and retreat. Stay at your new click point for at least 5 reps. Does your dog look equally relaxed and happy about your approach as before? Good! Walk another step closer in rep number 6. Click, treat, and retreat! Stick to your new click point until your dog looks forward to your approach. Then, walk one step closer again.

 

Depending on your starting distance, you may already be standing directly in front of your dog at this point. Avoid leaning over her and looking into her eyes. Dogs can find this typical primate posture threatening. Instead, look at the floor between you and your dog – right at the spot you are going to drop the treat. Make sure to not let your session run over five minutes before giving your puppy a break.

 

dog training, protocol for proximity, fearful dogs, puppy training, counterconditioning, treat and retreatIf everything went well, start your next session one step behind the final starting point of your last session. The first rep of this new session is just a little bit easier than the last rep of your last session. Gradually work your way closer again, just like you did before, until you are standing right in front of you puppy. Is your puppy perfectly comfortable or happy and curious? Excellent! Bend your knees just a little before you click and drop the treat. Straighten up, turn around slowly, and retreat. Again, wait 15 seconds in between the individual reps.

Can you do five reps of walking up to your puppy, bending your knees, and dropping a treat between her paws with her looking perfectly relaxed or happy to see you? (Review the body language chapter if you need help reading your dog!) You are ready to raise criteria! In your next rep, you will squat down completely, click, and reach towards your puppy’s front paws with your treat hand. Do not touch her paws, but drop the treat in between or right in front of them. Get up slowly, turn around, and retreat. Repeat this step several times, waiting 15 seconds in between each rep. Your puppy should look perfectly relaxed or happy to see you – anytime she appears concerned, move your click point back one step!

 

Cold Trials

 

Before we raise the level of difficulty again, it is time for a cold trial. You are going to test whether your puppy has really learned that you squatting down in front of her and reaching out with your food hand is not a threat – even if you do not gradually work your way closer. Choose a time when your puppy is relaxed, but awake. Walk right up to her and squat down. Does your puppy appear just as comfortable with you being close as before? Great! You are ready for the next step.

 

Does she cower, retreat, bark, growl, snarl or snap? Freeze your movement the moment you notice her insecurity, and wait for your puppy to calm down. Count to five in your head: “One good puppy, two good puppies, three good puppies, four good puppies, five good puppies.” Then retreat and give your puppy a break. The reason I am asking you to freeze and count to five before retreating is that we do not want to negatively reinforce the potentially operant behavior of barking, growling, snarling or snapping by means of rewarding it with an increase in distance. Instead, we give the puppy five seconds to calm down or stop barking, and then reinforce her calm behavior with an increase in distance. Anything that doesn’t resemble offensive behavior does get reinforced by your retreat. In either case, try to avoid the need to use this kind of extinction of unwanted behavior in the first place. Ideally, all your training sessions will take place well under threshold. If your puppy hasn’t calmed down after 5 seconds, retreat either way.

 

Take a deep breath. Have a cup of tea and think about something else before you go back to training. Frustration and disappointment don’t make good teachers. Remember that all behavior is information. Now you know that your puppy isn’t yet ready to stay calm when you walk right up to her without gradually decreasing the distance. That’s okay. Go back to your last successful click point, and explain the game to your puppy again. Gradually work your way closer, just like you did before. End the session squatting down and dropping the treat between her paws.

 

Take a longer break, and then do another cold trial. Does your puppy stay confident and relaxed this time? Excellent! If your puppy struggles, be patient and explain the game from the beginning. If your puppy still struggles the third time you do a cold trial, find a competent trainer or behaviorist to help you develop a plan for your puppy to learn to tolerate and even enjoy your approach and touch (See chapter 10.6 Finding the right trainer or behaviorist).

 

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Guatemala, and teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. In April, she will be teaching Out and About at FDSA – a class that is about a passion of her own: taking your dog on urban walks, nature hikes, and other adventures while having fun and staying safe. Registration opens today – come join me!

 

The pictures featured in Nur Mut! and in this post were taken by Olga Maderych of Gadabout Photography.

What We Choose to See

For the past few days, I’ve walked past a litter of street puppies in between Antigua’s bus terminal and market. It’s very busy there, loud; there’s lots of traffic.

The first time I saw the puppies, I noticed that someone had given the mom blankets, and made a makeshift cover of a plastic tarp to give her shade.

The puppies are still tiny; their eyes aren’t open yet. Today, I walked past them again, just as an elderly man was finishing making a slightly more stable and larger shelter for them. He used an old metal cart for a roof and wooden boxes as pillars, draped with the plastic tarp and additional blankets for walls. A water bowl was chained to one of the boxes.

The man had grey hair, and lots of little wrinkles in his sun-burned face. A big smile revealed an almost toothless mouth when I greeted him. “Are they yours?”, I asked, and he proudly agreed. These dogs – the mom, who was sleeping soundly, trustfully, while he built a shelter around her, and the white dog standing next to him, looking into the distance – he considers them HIS dogs. They have no collars; they probably don’t live with him, and he probably hasn’t bought or otherwise chosen them. Their paths must have intersected – he, selling things at the market; they, looking for scraps of food. The dogs, or the man, or all three of them decided to claim each other. They are his dogs now. And he is their human. The big white dog shoved his nose under the old man’s hand while we were talking.

The man pulled back one of the blankets a bit so I could peek at the puppies. “They are sleeping,” he explained. “They can’t see yet. A few more days …!”

He probably doesn’t have much, and he probably doesn’t need much. Neither do his dogs. Life at the market is loud, and colorful, and rough sometimes, and there is love in it. Days go by like this. Weeks. Months. Years. Not a lot changes.

This image – a big, white dog shoving his nose into an old man’s hand in the middle of a bustling market – is the kind of image I choose to keep in my heart forever. I’ll remember the details: the white shirt the man is wearing, with thin blue stripes, tucked into a pair of washed-out blue jeans held up by a worn leather belt. The valleys and trenches dug into his face by the years and the sun, and his open smile – the shared happiness of two strangers as he lifts the blanket to let me peek at the three puppies and the sleeping mom. He lifts it just a bit, so he can give me the gift of a look without disturbing her. The old bottle crate cart, the roof of the makeshift shelter, must have been blue once. The paint is flaking off, and the metal bars are rusty. The grey plastic tarp that makes the roof. The red fleece blanket the mom is resting on. The sounds of a bustling market. Honking. The rumbling of tuk-tuks going over cobblestone streets under a bright blue sky. People advertising fruit, and tortillas. Motorcycle engines firing. The sun. The dust. One of my favorite places in the world.

People like our greedy Austrian ex-landlord? Sure, I’ll keep him in my memories (he makes a most excellent story, and I get better at telling it every time!), but not in my heart. The room in my heart is reserved for people like the old man and his dogs, and the smile the size of his heart.

I think that’s why I meet warm, nice, generous people wherever I go, and why I genuinely like humans. We choose what to keep in our hearts, and it defines us. It makes us either more cynical and bitter the older we get, or softer and gentler.

We choose what to see when we look at a scene, too. The scene today? If you wanted to, you could see irresponsible dog ownership, I’m sure. You could see sadness, and poverty, and dirt. The fact that you could see these other things is what makes me hesitate to share my story. I don’t want you to take this good story and make it into something bad. But you know what? I do want you to see it through my eyes. So here it is; my gift to you.

The old man put his hand on his white dog’s back. “He’s the dad,” he said.

The Development of Game’s Interests and Ability to Stay Engaged in a Class Environment

Time flies! Game is already 17 weeks old today. 17 weeks! That’s more than 4 months! It’s crazy.

A favorite colleague of mine invited us to use his puppy class for training and socializing Game. We’ve been going since I’ve had Game. We don’t participate in the exercises, but just hang out in the corner and work on our own things. It’s important to me that my puppies learn to be able to work in the presence of other dogs, and I really appreciate being able to use the puppies and their owners as a distraction for Game. We don’t join their play and socializing time, and we don’t stay for the entire hour, but only as long as it feels right for Game. The very first time, we were only there for a few minutes, and we stayed behind a fence, at a greater distance. The second time, we added a few minutes more, and so on, until we reached our current class time of between 20 and 30 minutes, which is plenty for any dog.

Since I discovered how to draw pie charts in Keynote the other day, I thought this would make a fun way to show you how the allocation of our class time has changed over the course of the last weeks!

The last two charts were drawn right after class. The earlier ones are reconstructed from my memory, so they are probably not 100% accurate. Still, it gives you an idea of how Game’s attention span and interests have developed!

I’d love to show you a video of how we work in the presence of other puppies, but unfortunately, I can’t film at the puppy class. So I’ll add a written explanation instead. Feel free to comment if you have any questions!

11 to 17 Weeks Puppy Class Pie Charts Game

Let’s look at my categories in a little more detail!

How to read the pie charts

The slices of play, work, sniffing, looking, and check-ins you see in the chart represent the percentage of the class time we spent with each of these activities. However, they don’t happen chronologically and one junk at a time, but we circle back and forth between them. For example, in a 20-minute session, we might spend 3 minutes looking at stuff and sniffing, 2 minutes offering check-ins, engagement, and extended focus, 4 minutes playing and working, 1 minute sniffing and looking, 1 minute checking in and engaging, 2 minutes playing, 2 minutes working, another 2 minutes looking around and sniffing etc.

Play (blue)

Personal play and playing with toys (various tug toys, balls, Kong Wubba …). As for personal play, Game gets to climb on me while I lie on the ground, we play opposition reflex games, I turn away from her and she tries to find my face, and I tease her, trying to grab her paws. As for playing with toys, we work on fetch, tug, out, the beginnings of shoving the tug in my hands, switch between different toys, switch between toy reinforcement and food, and going from high-arousal toy play to a food reinforcer for an easy behavior, and back to toys (switching between states of arousal). We also work on distinguishing different marker cues: tug (strike the tug toy) vs. chase (I’ll throw a toy for you to fetch). (1) Our play also includes engagement elements.

Work (green)

The distinction between work and play really is an artificial one. I try to make “work” and play equally fun. When I say “work,” what I mean is we practice the behaviors we’ve already worked on at home: first, I introduce them in a distraction-free environment, and then, we take them on the road. So far, the skills I have worked on in puppy class include:
+ come when called (verbal cue “Ygame!”)
+ distinguish between different marker signals (good = keep doing what you’re doing; I’ll deliver the treat right into your mouth; click/tongue click = I’ll give you the treat, and the behavior is over; ok, get it = I’ll throw a treat for you to chase; treats = I’ll scatter a few treats for you to search for in the grass). Our work includes various elements of food play in the different reward sequences.
+ hand touch (and verbal cue “touch”)
+ tuck sit (verbal cue “sit”)
+ stand (lured or hand signal)
+ fold-back down (lured or hand signal)
+ front feet on disc
+ touch a vertical target
+ chin target
+ mouth a retrieve object (a piece of garden hose)
+ walk over the A frame
+ climb/jump on a low table (food lure or hand touch)

Auto check-ins/Auto check-ins and extended focus (yellow)

This is me clicking whenever Game offers eye contact/looks in my direction. The first two sessions (11 and 12 weeks), there’s only auto check-ins, but no extended focus: Game would occasionally glance at me, but look away right away. That’s okay – I knew the duration would come.

From her third time at the puppy class onwards, Game has been able to give me extended focus: she didn’t need to look away after the fraction of a second, but could keep her focus on me longer and longer, up until a few seconds. When I saw her ability to do so grow, I started marking not only for looking at me, but for keeping up the eye contact, and I started rewarding several times in a row. This is also when I started going from offered focus to extended focus to a little play. Game stayed engaged when I played with her, starting from her third time at the puppy class. I didn’t have to work hard to keep her attention – she had told me she was ready, and I responded with short play sequences. I always make sure I end the play while Game would still like to continue.

Look at Stuff (orange)

Look at stuff is just that: looking at the world. In the puppy class situation, the world includes the other puppies (an aussie, a lagotto, a dachshund, and two staffordshire bullterriers) and their people (men, women, and a 6 year old girl). It’s an outdoors class, so there’s also the occasional bird to be looked at, and various passers-by outside the training field: people on bikes, hikers with dogs, nordic walkers, cars). It’s not a heavily trafficked area, but there are a few people passing by every time. Plus, of course, there is training equipment in the training field.

You can see in the charts that the first three times, Game had to do a lot of looking. Everything was new – of course she had to look! I didn’t worry about it. We came into the training field (or the adjacent field, in case of the very first class), and I’d just let her look for as long as she wanted. I stayed at a distance where she’d be okay looking and didn’t need to fight the lesh, trying to get to the people or dogs. With Game, I never, not even once, asked for engagement. She’s environmental, and I’m not sure I could win. So rather than trying to compete with the environment, I gave her all the time she needed. Eventually, she’d look back every time, and I could click and reinforce that. The first part of every class we were just hanging out and looking at stuff. Then, there were a few clicks for auto check-ins. The time Game needed to look at stuff before she was ready to check in grew shorter and shorter every time. By the third session, she began offering extended focus after a few auto check-ins. And again, with each new session, the extended focus happened sooner and sooner.

So the biggest junk of looking happens at the very beginning of a new class. Then we’ll go to check-ins, extended focus, and eventually play, and then work. After a circle like this, I circle back to looking at stuff and/or sniffing. Game is a puppy – I don’t expect her to pay attention for several minutes at a time! There’s maybe three minutes of doing stuff, and then I encourage her to sniff or look at the world again. She’ll do that, and once she’s done, she’ll let me know with check-ins. When she gives me extended focus again, she’s letting me know she’s ready for another round of play and work. The time we keep playing and working grows longer the older she gets.

I don’t want to overwhelm the environment, and I don’t want Game to forget her surroundings. That’s why I keep going back to looking and sniffing after each little round of work and/or play.

I stay connected to Game when she is watching the world by her leash. Sometimes, I’ll also sit down with her, calmly stroking her back while we both observe the class together.

Sniff (red)

Game loves to sniff. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had such a nose-driven dog since Snoopy, my Dachshund. Game can spend a long time sniffing a leaf, or a twig, or an interesting spot on the ground. She can even spend a long time sniffing my pants or shoes when I come home, savoring every scent molecule of information.

Like with looking at stuff, I doubt that I can compete with sniffing, and I don’t worry about it too much. Game is a dog, and dogs like to sniff! So when we get to a new place – such as the training field that lots of different dogs and people have walked through since we were there the last time -, Game gets time to sniff and look around until she lets me know she is ready to work. Every time we go, she has needed a little less time to sniff and look. This reinforces me for my approach and let’s me know I’m on the right track.

In between play and work sessions, I’ll also give Game opportunities to go back to sniffing. Sometimes I’ll cue “Treats!” and scatter a few treats for her to find in the grass. Sniffing isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s relaxing and helps to ground the dog because it requires her to breathe consciously, like we do when we do a breathing exercise.

In the first 4 sessions you can see in the pie charts, I stayed in the same general area of the training field for the entire time. There were more than enough new impressions there! The last two times, I’ve walked a few meters around the periphery between our play and work sessions, giving Game time to look and sniff as we strolled forward on a loose leash. She gets to sniff the ground, the equipment, the water bowl … until she lets me know she’s ready for another round of play and work.

(1) If you want to learn more about how to improve your training by means of using different marker cues, check out Shade Whitesel’s toy classes at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

Grit and Game: Similar, but Different …

I just LOVE seeing Game develop and thinking back to Grit at the same age. They are the same breed, after all – but from two very different lines, and two very different personalities. It’s fascinating how much variation there can be within one and the same breed!

Let’s look at them through the categories Denise Fenzi developed in Train The Dog In Front of You:

Grit (Igrit vom Heustadlwasser)
Austrian IPO line

Grit as a puppy

Grit as a puppy.001

Grit today

Grit today.001

In many respects, Grit is exactly what I’m looking for in a dog. I’ve never had a dog I found as much fun to train and live with, and I honestly can’t imagine I’ll ever love a dog as much as her. She has four qualities the person and trainer I am today loves in a dog: she’s a serious dog (as opposed to a goofy one), she is a one-person dog (as opposed to a very social one), she’s got a perfect balance between handler focus and environmental focus, is biddable and has lots of working drive, but medium energy (the perfect combination), and she is able to think when under stress (which can be eustress or distress – she can problem-solve even if her arousal is high because of a toy, and she is able to listen to me even if she’s in a situation she is overwhelmed by). She is extremely smart and learns well by shaping. Puppy Grit really was perfect. The one thing I’m not so happy with in Grit today is the fact that she developed a fear of people. She had one bad experience at a highly impressionable time in her life (when she was 6 months old), and having the wrong experience at the wrong time triggered a general weariness of people. We’re working on it, and it’s slowly getting better – but at this point, it’s hard to imagine her being happy in a trial environment (and I wouldn’t want to take her there if she felt bad). But we’ll see what the future brings. Step by step, I’m trying to help her re-discover her confidence.

Game (Ygame van’t Merlebosch)
Dutch KNPV line

Game as a puppy

Game as a puppy.001

Grit was a self-confident puppy – Game is even more self-confident. She is fearless when it comes to new people and dogs. Unlike Grit, who would challenge new dogs even as a puppy, Game is open and friendly to new dogs and people. Game is also my first environmentally focused dog since Snoopy: Phoebe, Fanta, Hadley, Grit – none of them are environmental. Game is interested in everything around her, particularly all these interesting sights and smells! Currently, the world is more fascinating than me – but we’re working on it, and I can see that she is able to engage better and better. I also haven’t had a nose-driven dog since Snoopy! Game loves to follow her nose and explore the scents of the world. I’ve promised her she’ll get to do nosework! She has more trouble learning through shaping, and learning in general, then Grit had at this age. But we’re getting there and improving a little bit most days. Game is higher power than Grit. That is to say, she is determined to get what she wants – and she’ll complain or fight back if she doesn’t get it. I also suspect that Game is what people call a hard dog (which is not unusual in KNPV dogs). She has a high pain threshold, and she works for the reinforcers rather than in order to please me. She’s still a puppy, so these qualities aren’t written in stone. I believe that biddability is at least partly built by means of the relationship we develop with our dogs. Since I’m plannin gon building a great relationship, I’m positive that her biddability will increase, and her hardness will not. She has already started caring more about my opinion than when we first met. For example, she will now let me redirect when she’s puppy-biting my sleeves or tugging on my pants: unless she’s overly tired and overexcited, she’ll be like, “Oh, I see, you don’t want me to tug on that or bite that? What can I bite or tug on instead?” And I respond by offering an alternative. Her attention span and her rate of auto check-ins has already increased, and I am starting to see her happiness to play and work with me awaken.

Training Challenges

I see two training challenges in Game’s future: her environmental focus, and her lower biddability, which – unless I change it – will make it hard to work when I don’t have access to classic reinforcers. Again, she’s a puppy, so this may well change completely in the course of the relationship we develop! Most of these categories aren’t really suited to be applied to puppies anyways. But it’s fun to do all the same: I’m taking a snapshot of the puppy in front of me right now.

I’m excited about this new training challenge, particularly the environmental part. When I had Snoopy, I really struggled with his environmental focus. I’m excited about tackling the same challenge with the knowledge and greater experience that I have today. I’ll keep blogging about how I work with it, since I think the approach I’m taking is non-traditional (and, like so many things, inspired by FDSA).

It’ll be interesting to see if and how both dogs change in the course of time. Personality traits are a result of both genetics and environment. There is a STRONG genetic component – it sets the frame of what is possible for a given dog. That frame is always a lot smaller than the entire scale – but it’s still a frame, not just a point. What point within this frame the dog falls on can change depending on her environment and her experiences. Think of human traits like introversion and extroversion. You’re usually born an introvert or extrovert and stay that way all your life. However, it’s entirely possible to start out as a strong introvert, and get more and more social in the course of your life. You’ll still be an introvert, but you’ll have moved away from extreme introversion and more toward the middle of the scale. You’ll surround yourself with people more often and need a little less time to recharge.

In Grit’s case, you can see that two values have already changed between her puppyhood and now: both her confidence and her handler hardness decreased. I’ve lots to say about these two factors and how and why they changed – but that’s a post for another time.

Grit: the new arrival

I picked up my 8-week old puppy! She already  makes me so happy! The drive home, stuck in the car crate, she took turns sounding like a crying child and an angry little raptor – for 1.5 hours. The moment I took her out, she was all bouncy, happy puppy love. She curiously explored the house and yard with me, sniffed and climed on everythign she could reach, tail wagging confidently. She met all three dogs, one after the other, and curiously approached each one of them without fear or hesitation. I introduced them outside, the adult dogs on a leash. Fanta and Phoebe were good. Hadley lunged at her with a bark. She jumped back and fled a few steps, then stopped and watched him hesitantly for a brief moment before she approached again. I put Hadley away and tried again later, separated from her by a baby gate. He gave her a cold, hard stare and a growl. Again, she jumped back and fled for a few steps, then was ready to approach again, all curious and waggy. I decided to keep them separate for now and treat and praise Hadley for hanging out in the same room (but out of reach) from her in order to change his emotional response.

 

 

Later on the first day, Grit was in her ex-pen and Hadley was lying in his favorite spot under the couch. After snoozing for a bit, he opened his eyes, stared hard and growl-barked while hardly lifting his head. This time, she did not jump back, but stiffened and growled right back without so much as a flinch. I was impressed by this 8-week old puppy’s confidence. She had been happy and curious about meeting him twice. He had told her he didn’t like her, and by the third time, she seemed to have decided that in this case, she wouldn’t like him either.

 

Luckily, there was only one other incident so far where he growled at her (and again, she stiffened and growled right back). Otherwise, I’ve fed him lots of treats and praised him for hanging out in the same room, at a safe distance, and I’ve given him time being out in the yard without her (he wouldn’t mind staying out all day anyways). Whenever given a chance and not growled at, luckily, Grit still wants to approach happily. He has started turning his head sideways and licking his licks when she walks past him, and has also chosen to simply walk away on several occasions. Of course, I’m making sure to praise and give him attention in order to honor his good decisions. This might take some management and work, but I’ll get them to get along just fine. I’m seeing little improvements in him already.

 

I wonder whether the audacity to growl back at a larger and older dog is what the breeder meant when he called Grit “a dominant female”. From what I could tell, Grit and one of her brothers were his favorites in the litter. In the right hands, he said, these two would make excellent working dogs – and they were, he said, the “dominant” ones in this litter. I never really know what people mean when they say that a dog is “dominant”. Depending on who you ask, the definition of the term will be quite different. Some people will even tell you that dominance does not exist at all. After buying in the alpha theories myself when I had Snoopy, my first dog, I read Barry Eaton’s Dominance in Dogs – Fact or Fiction? and took a dog trainer course run by Anne-Lill Kvam. Both of them convinced me that dominance and social hierarchies among dogs were, in fact, pure fiction – I became one of the people who denied its existence. But in the years that followed, I learned more, read more, worked with more dogs, fostered and owned new dogs – and changed my belief again. The attitude that dominance does not exist is a reaction to the fact that the term has been misused as a justification for highly aversive training methods – it has been suggested that owners need to “dominate” their dogs in order not to be dominated by them. If you ask me today, I will tell you that yes, I believe dominance does exist, and so does social structure in communities and families – both canine and human ones. However, the fact that there is a hierarchy does not justify aggression – in fact, the entire reason for hierarchies within groups of mammals is to avoid aggression and always know where one stands rather than having to “fight it out” time and again. In The Other End of the Leash (149f), Patricia McConnell defines dominance as “a relationship among individuals, with one having more status than others in a particular context”. It is “priority access (I get it first) to preferred (I really want it), limited (there’s not enough to share) resources (the best food, the best sleeping place, the best office […])”. If we go with this definition, being a dominant dog would mean that Grit is likely to rise in the social hierarchy above other dogs once she’s older – it means she’ll be the one who gets to sleep on the couch and greet me first when I come home. Is this what my breeder meant? I don’t know – probably not. Maybe he meant that Grit doesn’t tend to back down easily? That she doesn’t give up when she wants something? That she isn’t soft and sensitive? People mean so many things when they call a dog dominant, and depending who says it, it can be a compliment or an insult. In any case, the name Grit seems to fit my puppy, because she’s quite the gritty little person already. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what she is: a gritty little person. That’s a good thing, and all I need to know for now.

 

A technician came to fix something at our new house on her first day. Grit greeted him happily and confidently. She has, so far, not shown real fear of anything, and bounced back quickly from any little startle. She has played with me – she takes everything she can carry into her mouth and proudly runs around with it! -, she enjoys games of tug already, and she tries to engage Phoebe in play. Phoebe is not quite sure about how to play with her yet because she’s so small, but she’s starting to respond, inhibiting her exuberant nature in order not to hurt her little sister.

 

We’re letting Grit sleep in our bed at night. I believe this helps build a strong relationship and makes a puppy feel safe in her new home. Plus, when she wakes up, I wake up and can take her right outside to potty. And it spares any neighbors you may have the pain of listening to your puppy cry through her first night in a crate. I crate-train puppies as well, but during the day.

 

Speaking of crate training: this is going to be my first challenge. Grit does not appreciate being restricted in her freedom of movement. Whenever that happens, her inner baby raptor comes out in protest. She is fine going into her open crate to eat, but if I close the door – even if I remain sitting right outside, next to the crate door – she protests and complains in her angry baby raptor voice, interspersed with fits of crying child. I’d prefer closing the crate door, waiting a few seconds, and opening it again (with the puppy remaining quiet all the time), then slowly increasing the time the door stays closed. But Grit starts complaining the instant the door is being closed – so I’m waiting her out, even if it takes half an hour or more. As soon as I can count to ten without her whining, barking or growling, I let her out. We’ll see how this goes.

 

I’m less worried about frustrating her a bit, for example by keeping her in the crate, than I am with most dogs or puppies. She is the most confident puppy I have had, and she is not as soft and sensitive as Phoebe and Hadley were when they were little. So I doubt that a bit of frustration will dampen her spirit – in fact, I think it may even be good for her to figure out herself that her raptor impression does not open doors – but quietly waiting will. And better teach that now than when her voice is even stronger and her stamina bigger!

 

I’m more than happy with my choice of breeder. Grit has no problem stepping onto new surfaces, and figuring out how to get around or over obstacles. She’s not noise sensitive – Hadley found a balloon, bit it and popped it right next to Grit. There was a loud noise – Hadley fled. Grit didn’t even flinch. She’s also not overly sensitive to touch. When she is calm and quiet, I can play with her paws and toes, touch the toe nails, look into her ears and into her mouth, and she stays relaxed throughout the process. On day one, she figured out to sit politely to ask for something. She may have learned that at the breeder’s – in any case, she already knows sitting opens doors, gets attention, rubs, and treats, and restarts a game. She’s a smart and cooperative little girl. Getting to know her makes me think there must be an even bigger genetic component than I thought to many things we value in our dogs, such as confidence, sensitivity to touch and sound, play “drive” etc. Phoebe and Hadley both may come across as rather confident dogs these days, but neither of them was born this way. Phoebe was nervous, and her confidence and ability to optimistically approach new people was something I carefully built. Hadley was afraid of everything when Tom got him: dogs, loudish noises, skateboards, children … The first few months of his life, Tom wasn’t home much, so I took over working through his issues. I set up lots and lots of situations where he could meet friendly dogs and children in a way that made him feel safe and raised his confidence. I worked on desensitizing him to noises, sudden movements, and weird objects … You wouldn’t be able to tell today, but he was a very fearful puppy. If clients approach me with puppy problems, it’s usually also because they have fear-related issues: hiding, running away, freezing, or fear-aggression. Grit is nothing like that. She’s definitely one of the most confident puppies I’ve ever worked with, and I’m really excited about this!

 

So far, I’ve given her time to explore the house and yard, worked with the crate a bit, and played the name game Judy Keller and Deb Jones suggest in the Focused Puppy book so both her name and the clicker get associated with good things. Apart from that, I’ve reinforced asking for attention by means of sitting, and I’ve played, played, played with her – personal play and toy play. I believe the most important foundation you can build with a dog is a good relationship. If you have that, everything else will fall into place. And playing with puppies is the most fun way to a great relationship, if you ask me! Of course, I’ve also let her fall asleep on my lap, stroked and cuddled her, which she seems to enjoy, and informally practiced handling various body parts in between these relaxing massage sessions. I’ve let Tom play with her and feed her treats for sitting politely as well, and explained to him that lifting your feet when a puppy is attached to your shoelaces communicates to her that you’re playing tug of war. And while Grit was sleeping, I’ve not only found time to get some work done, but also spent a little quality time with Tom, who just got back from a conference in Baltimore. It has been a good first few days!

 

I’m just starting to get to know Grit, but I’m already in love with the little one. We’ll have lots of fun, and she’ll be a most wonderful, challenging companion and training partner.

Grit: on puppies, priorities, and not taking my own advice

A new puppy is about to move in. In the last years, I’ve thought long and hard about my breed of choice. It was not going to be another Poodle or any other breed that required extensive grooming, stripping, or clipping. I hardly ever brush my own hair – I just don’t want to deal with grooming. I love Phoebe, but even when kept in a very short coat, Poodle hair is not low maintainance. I clip her hair about ten times a year – that’s about 9.5 times more often than my own.

For a long time, I thought my next dog would be a Border Collie: I was excited about learning about the fascinating sport of herding. I thought I might work my way up and compete in trials one day. I like the idea of dogs doing what they were originally bred to do, and it is deeply fascinating to see a good sheep dog know certain things about working a flock – without any training or previous experience. I was going to name her Fly.

 

But – life happened. Tom got Hadley, and Hadley is a BC. Hadley is a great pup; he made me want a BC even more. But Hadley is also the (one and only) reason Tom and I fight. I have all these ideas about the ways BCs should be raised and handled, and so does he – only problem is that our ideas are very different. It’s been hard for me to let Hadley be Tom’s dog, and not intervene. I’m pretty sure it’s been really hard for Tom to be with me, because I have very strong opinions about working breeds, and what they require to be well-rounded canine citizens. I think it would not be good for our relationship to add another BC to the family. I don’t know whether I could resist the temptation of telling Tom to do things this way and that way and using my dog to push my agenda. My job in our relationship is to be his girlfriend, not his dog trainer! Keeping this in mind is hard enough without having the same breed of dog. I don’t want to put additional Border Collie-related stress on our relationship. I’m a challenging enough girlfriend without having a BC, and I want to keep Tom for many more years to come. He is my best friend, my favorite person, and so, so much more. So – no BC for me! There are so many dogs out there, but there is only one Tom. Yep, I love living and working with dogs, but I have other priorities as well.

 

Still, I wanted a new challenge: I wanted a dog who was different than any of the dogs I had had so far. It didn’t have to be an easy dog – I have time, and I have patience, and the dogs I love most are the ones who make me a better trainer. I’m an “It’s all about the journey” kind of person. I needed it to be a dog I could grow with and learn new things with. A dog who would lead me out of my comfort zone. A dog who I could discover new sports with. A dog who would be the reason I connected with new trainers and mentors and grew as a person.

 

At first, I looked at other herding breeds. Working Kelpies sounded fun! I contacted a number of breeders. Unfortunately, there are very few in Europe – most breeders breed Australian Kelpies (the show line). The Working Kelpie breeders I found either didn’t sell to people without stock, didn’t have another litter planned, or already had full waitlists. I dropped the idea of getting a Kelpie – it seemed too difficult to find one.

 

Apart from BCs, Kelpies and Koolies (an even rarer breed in Europe), there was no herding breed I was interested in. I didn’t particularly like the sturdy built of Cattle Dogs, and I didn’t like the fact that they were mostly used as show dogs, not for herding. How would I know what I was getting?

 

I narrowed down my choice to working line BC (again) and Malinois. BC because I knew I liked them – a lot. Malinois because I thought I liked them – a lot, but I hadn’t known too many in person. So I ventured out, contacted breeders and owners, and met a few Mals. And – I fell in love. I loved their slim built and their intensity. Their looking right into my eyes with a bright, intelligent spark in theirs. It helped a lot to talk to an FDSA friend who breeds Mals – she told me she even takes hers herding! She’s in the US though, and there are all-breed herding trials, so herding Mals are more common than in Austria.

 

When I first started falling in love with Mals, I still held on to the idea of doing herding (and obedience). Two disciplines; this way we wouldn’t get bored. I also found an Austrian breeder and got in touch with him. I liked how straightforward and uncomplicated he seemed. I even found one (and probably the only?) Mal from this breeder’s kennel who did herding. I got in touch with her owner; she said her Mal was untypical – she didn’t know of any others in Austria who’d rather herd than kill sheep. There are no all-breed trials in Austria, and there are no trainers, she told me, who have experience working a Mal on sheep. She herself went to Hungary for her dog’s herding lessons.

Mals work differently than BCs, and if I was going to take my dog herding, I wanted it to be with a trainer who knew what she was doing. And it would have to be someone in Austria – I don’t have the time or the money to go to Hungary twice a week.

 

Anyways, herding or no herding – I had already fallen in love with the breed by now. What else were Mals doing? Of course, they were doing IPO. That’s pretty much the main thing they do in Austria. Looking at my pup’s pedigree, there were lots of IPO3 dogs on both her dam’s and her sire’s side. I hadn’t been in touch with IPO a lot – only via a friend who did it with her Giant Schnauzer. I had seen her train and not been very happy with the way her trainer treated dogs and people, and the methods they used. There was a lot of shouting; the trainer seemed rude and short-tempered. The sport as such was fascinating though: being able to control a dog “in full drive” is beautiful – if you’ve trained it without force, that is, if the dog isn’t obviously conflicted between choosing what he wants (bite that sleeve!) and the fear of your punishment, but happily obeys because he knows that cooperating with you will get him what he wants. Certainly, there were people who successfully trained for this sport without brute force? Of course there were, and not only in the US, but also in Austria. I watched videos, I ordered books, and I talked to my breeder. Wow – what a new world! What an intriguing sport, consisting of three disciplines: obedience, tracking, and bitework. Obedience and tracking I could train for via the FDSA. No worries here – it would be fun. For bitework, I needed a mentor. Someone who knew what they were doing, who had experience working with Mals, and who was a motivational rather than punishment-based trainer. Who would challenge, but respect me and my philosophy. Would I find that kind of trainer?

 

Back in Austria after the summer in the US, I finally met my breeder in person. I like him. He seems like more of an observer than a talker. He does what he loves: lives in the middle of nowhere with horses, sheep, Mals, and his girlfriend. He has lots of experience and does his thing without forcing his opinion on others. I like people like that. He told me about the things he was proud of in his litters, and about the things that had gone wrong in his breeding program. He told me of healthy, successful dogs, and about ones that got sick; about what seemed to be a genetic predisposition to obsessive compulsive disorders in one of the lines. About trainers who did too much too early, and ended up with problems. He told me about the temperament of the dam whose litter I was interested in – she’s not the friendliest dog in the world, and he didn’t try to conceal that. I liked his honesty. I’d much, much rather buy a dog from someone who is open and honest about what the parents are like than from someone who keeps telling me that everything is perfect. (“Everything” is never perfect – and that’s okay.) The dam has already had a litter – all the puppies turned out very well, as did the pups from the sire’s previous litters. I met one of Grit’s 1.5 year old half-siblings and watched her work. A very nice dog – intense, and levelheaded.

He told me, “You’re getting a very good dog. It’s up to you what becomes of her.” I believe him. He only breeds dogs who, to his knowledge, are both healthy and good workers, and he socializes them well. He pointed out four elements that make a good dog: genetics, socialization, the relationship you build with her in everyday life, and the skillfulness of your training. “World champions aren’t born, they are made,” he said, or something along these lines. I laughed; I’m not planning on any champion titles. But he was right, of course. His dogs are good dogs. With the right trainer, most of them have the potential to be successful. “A Mal is a great dog, but he’s not a toy.” I liked this guy. He didn’t lecture me. He would have been happy just observing me interact with his dogs and not talking at all – it was me who had questions. He was happy to share though. He said I had a strong training background; he thought that was good. He also pointed me to motivational trainers with Mal experience when I asked. I’m pretty sure he’s more of a balanced trainer himself, but he didn’t argue or challenge my philosophy, and I appreciated it. I felt like it would be okay to ask him anything Mal-related, and that if things went wrong, I could come back and ask his advice, and he would be helpful rather than judgmental. That’s what I’m looking for in a breeder: a person I feel like I can be myself with. An authentic person. A person who I want to stay in touch with and keep updated about my dog’s development, but not someone who’s trying to control what I do with her and how I work with her.

 

I went to see the motivational IPO trainer the breeder had recommended, and watched him work his own dogs and his students’ dogs; three Mals and a GSD. One of the Mals I saw him work with is Grit’s half-sister I mentioned above. I liked what I saw in the training session. I’m sure this trainer has lots to teach me – and I feel like he might be the kind of person who I will be able to disagree with every once in a while, and still keep a good relationship with.

 

The one red flag about Grit is her dam. She is not a friendly dog. She’s confident, she reigns supreme in the IPO ring, but she is not a fan of visitors. When someone comes to see the puppies, the breeder has to take her away first – she wouldn’t let anyone near her litter. He purchased her as an adult dog. She was for sale because her previous owner claimed he couldn’t handle her – he might have made a few training and/or socialization mistakes; in any case, when the breeder got her, he said, she was a “mean” dog. He took her because she had a great pedigree. He worked with her, he won her trust, he successfully trialled with her. I met her outside, away from the puppies. She checked me out briefly, said hi and then went about her business. No sign of fear or nervosity.

 

I’m not concerned about her temperament for several reasons. She is not fearful or nervous – this would be a no-go. Her issues might be related to poor training decisions in her youth rather than a genetic disposition – or not. In either case, she is not scared of people, which is important to me. She is okay with strangers in public, and she has no problem focusing on her work when there are people around the ring. Her issues are isolated to situations such as defending her puppies, and she probably would not appreciate a stranger making a fuss over her.

 

In any case, if someone else asked my advice about buying a puppy, I would still tell them the dam was a red flag, and I’d caution them against taking a puppy from a dam whose temperament is anything less than stellar. However, I rarely take my own advice. This might be especially true when it comes to puppies: the way I raised Phoebe was also at odds with many of the things I tell my pet dog clients. I also don’t think the dam’s temperament, even if she passes it on to my pup, will be much of an issue for me. Tom and I just left Vienna and moved to Lower Austria. We’ll be pretty much at the end of a dirt road – there’s really not much going on here. I’m not living in the city anymore where there are people and kids wherever you walk your dog. I don’t want kids myself, so Grit won’t have to tolerate my kids or their friends running and screaming. I also don’t necessarily need her to be a “take-everywhere” kind of dog: I already have two dogs I can take everywhere. I usually bring Phoebe or Fanta when I go out and want to bring a dog – one at a time, for a special you’re-the-only-one-who-gets-to-hang-with-the-humans-tonight evening. If Grit turns out to be a take-everywhere dog (I will socialize her well, of course) – great! If she doesn’t – no worries. I already have two dogs to choose from for these kinds of things. I also don’t necessarily need her to work as a decoy when I’m training clients with reactivity issues. Again, I can use both Phoebe and Fanta for these jobs. If Grit turns out to be well-suited for this kind of work, that’s great – she’ll get her chance to play the decoy. In either case, I will socialize her with friendly dogs of all sizes, ages, shapes and sexual statuses in puppyhood. But if she turns out to not be a social butterfly when it comes to dog-dog enounters, that’s okay, too, and I won’t force the issue. I already have two dogs who can do this kind of work, and I don’t necessarily need a third one. If she doesn’t get along with strange dogs, well, then she won’t come on hikes with dog friends either.

 

There is one job I want Grit to do though: I want her to be my dog sports companion. I want to try something new and train IPO with her, ideally twice a week at the training field. So I need her to be confident and able to work under distractions, and I need her to be a biddable, drivey working partner. I hope for her to be a little more serious than Phoebe, and I hope I’ll be able to find the right kind of balance between drives and control. As I do with Phoebe, Grit and I will do some training at home every day – we’ll go tracking and play obedience, we’ll just play and build our relationship. So even if she doesn’t go out to dinner with me and my friends, and if doggy playdates aren’t her thing, she’ll get plenty of physical and mental stimulation. I believe I’m getting the right kind of dog for these things. Everything else she gives me is just icing on the cake.

 

Anyways, so that’s the story behind Grit! I know, some people have heard me talk a lot about herding and about my dream of having a working BC. I did lots of research, met people, watched BCs work. But you know what? I love dogs, I love figuring out who they are, building a trusting relationship, and working with them. I can fall in love with anything that involves a training challenge. I love training challenges. I can find people I connect with in all kinds of dog-related activities – this has never been hard for me. It’s going to be IPO for us, Grit and me, rather than herding. Will I be sad that I didn’t get a BC and ended up focusing on a different sport? Highly unlikely. When it comes to dogs (and travelling!), I tend to embrace whatever experience I end up having, and I end up believing the path I took is the best one I could possibly have chosen anyways. So, R+ IPO, here we come! A new adventure. We’ll see where it takes us. And if it doesn’t work out? Well, then we’ll find something else to be nerdy about, no doubt!

 

Temperament: stable vs. tweakable traits

I’ve been learning a lot about breeding, puppy evaluations, and making the right match between puppies and owners. Why? Well, this is a facinating topic, and I’m getting closer to adding a new puppy to my four-legged family – a puppy who I don’t only want to be a performance prospect for herding and obedience, but also a potential future breeding bitch. This decision warrants lots of research!

I’m currently taking Avidog‘s Introduction to Transformational Dog Breeding course. It’s a fascinating, in-depth class about everything from setting breeding goals to selecting breeding stock, best feeding options, raising puppies, evaluating potential homes, evaluating puppies, and matching puppies to available homes. I’m particularly intrigued by Gayle Watkins’ differentiation between (1) skills that can be seen in puppies vs. skills that can’t be seen in puppies, and (2) stable vs. tweakable traits. It makes a lot of sense to look at dogs from this perspective, yet I’ve never consciously done it this way and also don’t think it’s a very common approach. So I thought I’d share parts of it with you – maybe it’ll blow your minds like it is blowing mine!

(1) Skills that can be seen in puppies vs. skills that can’t be seen in puppies

Gayle gives two examples: selecting a future hunting dog, and selecting an agility prospect. As for crucial hunting dog skills that can be seen in puppies, she mentiones a good nose, birdiness, ground speed, and a love for water. Hunting dog skills that cannot be seen in puppies include marking, the ability to handle pressure, persistance, and the dog’s passion for his sport/job. In agility, Gayle names ground speed and athleticism as skills that can be seen in puppyhood, and again the ability to handle pressure and the dog’s passion for the sport as skills that cannot be seen in puppyhood.

The skills that can be seen in puppyhood can be tested through a variety of systematic puppy evaluations including temperament testing, health tests, and structural evaluations (for example, is the puppy built correctly in order to be able to excel in a particular job or sport?). There are a number of tests available that allow the evaluator to score the puppies on various dimensions in order to place them with their ideal homes. Learning about these tests is another particularly intriguing element of the class – I’ll definitely do these kinds of tests with my own litters one day (yep, one day …!). Just reading about them has made me realize how many subtle and not-so-subtle differences there can be between the puppies in one and the same litter, and how evaluating a litter systematically (rather than just going with the breeder’s gut feeling) leads to the best possible matching results for puppies and owners. And well-matched puppies make for happy dogs, happy owners, and a happy breeder!

If you’re as fascinated by puppy temperament and working ability evaluations as I am, check out the following tests:

Avidog Puppy Evaluation Test
Sheila Booth’s Positive Puppy Preview (can’t find a working link)
Volhard’s Puppy Aptitude Test
Suzanne Clothier’s Animal Response Assessment Tool

As for skills that can’t be seen in puppies – how can breeders find out about them in order to make good mating choices and match puppies and owners well? For these skills, Gaile recommends a thorough pedigree analysis of the litter, selecting the breeding stock with a focus on the attributes desired in the puppies, and guiding future owners when it comes to training methods that may help build the skills important to them.

(2) Stable vs. tweakable traits

Gayle defines stable temperament traits as traits that “vary little over a dog’s lifetime,” and are difficult to to change by means of training, socialization, and development experiences. Stable traits are “best accomodated or managed”.

The stable traits Gayle lists are energy level, environmental focus, forgiveness, handshyness, pain threshold, people focus, stress type and 3-dimensionality.

Wow – first of all, yes, indeed, all of these are very important traits for working dogs – and, depending on what kind of handler you are, you want stronger or weaker scores in certain ones! Second, I had not bee aware that forgiveness and handshyness were stable traits! Pretty cool stuff – I need to learn more, and I want to know how to evaluate and score these traits in puppies as well as adult dogs!

It’s interesting for me to look at my own dogs by means of these categories. Phoebe is definitely a high energy dog with a strong people focus. I am not sure how Gayle defines handshyness, but if she means dogs that don’t like to be touched a lot, Phoebe scores moderately high on that level. Forgiveness would be moderate as well. As for 3-dimensionality, I’m not sure what this means in dogs, so can’t comment on it. I’m also not sure what exactly she means by stress type – is it whether a particular dog tends to stress up or down? In that case, Phoebe would definitely someone who stresses up – in contrast to Fanta, who stresses down.

I made a table and quickly and very unscientifically scored Phoebe, Fanta, Snoopy, Hadley and my hypothetical ideal future puppy on these traits. Wherever I didn’t write anything, I don’t know Gayle’s definition of the trait in question.

stable-traits

In contrast, tweakable temperament traits are defined as traits that can be influenced by training, socialization, and development experiences. Gayle says they are best dealt with by the owner’s actions during the first 16 weeks and the following 8 months of life. Tweakable traits according to Gayle include assertiveness, biddability, drives, focus, learning speed, problem-solving style, resilience, self-confidence & courage, sight & sound sensitivity, and stability. Again, I am not sure how some of these are defined (problem-solving style? staibility?), and I’m not sure which drives Gayle distinguishes. However, I was surprised to learn that biddability was a tweakable trait – I’ve thought of it as a more permanent one!  Wow – so many possibilities, assuming these traits really are tweakable! Since it’s fun, I made another quick and unscientific table with scores from Low to High. As for drives, I randomly chose to use food drive, toy drive, working drive, and hunting drive, and to define “drive” as “love for …”. This might not have been what Gayle had in mind, but it was fun to think about the dogs in my life along these lines all the same! As for Hadley, things like biddability have a question mark because I don’t work with him – Tom does. I sometimes wonder if some of his traits would be different if I trained him. Now that I’m looking at a table of “tweakable” traits, I’m assuming that this is entirely possible. Fascinating stuff!

tweakable-traits

… and now it gets even more interesting! Gayle points out that there are no perfect puppies, no perfect owners, and no perfect matches. However, the goal of the responsible breeder should be to make the best match possible – even if this means that a potential puppy buyer will have to wait for the next litter or find a different breeder, or has to keep one of the puppies yourself because there is no good match for them available. In order to do this, she thoroughly interviews puppy buyers in order to really learn about their expecations, experience, and preferred training style.

Top working and sports homes need a structurally healthy puppy that can thrive in its sport or job. These evaluations seem comparatively easy to make – vet exams, and structural evaluations by an experienced, objective person. However, what kind of energy level does a potential owner prefer in her dog? High energy dogs may look beautiful when working, but can be hard to live with in everyday life. What is the puppy buyer’s preferred training style, and how experienced is she? A puppy who isn’t very forgiving and resilient could still thrive with an experienced, motivational trainer, but might shut down with an inexperienced trainer who relies on force. If there are mismatches between dogs and owners on stable traits, Gayle honestly points them out to her buyers, and together, they decide whether to still make the match – or not. According to her, the most common mismatches on stable traits are energy level, enviromental focus, and forgiveness. Are the puppy buyers willing to adapt to their dog or manage these traits, or do they want to wait for a better match?

Tweakable mismatches pose less of a challenge. As far as these are concerned, everyone who buys a puppy from Gayle gets a training plan that is tailored to their wishes and the puppy’s temperament, with the goal of smoothing out the mismatch as much as possible. The training plan details how to socialize and train the puppy, what developmental opportunities to present him with, and what to watch out for. Tweakable, Gayle adds, always only means tweakable to a degree – a puppy who showed hardly any biddability in his first 8 weeks of life may be trained to become a bit more biddable, but he will never be a highly biddable dog.

Gayle’s further reading recommendations about matching include an interesting article by Denise Fenzi – check it out here: The Match Game: Matching Specific Puppies to Specific Handlers.

Okay, so now I really want a puppy from a breeder who will not only raise the litter according to Puppy Culture principles, but do temperament evaluations and match the puppy’s personality to mine! Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. For the kinds of dogs I’m interested in, it’s hard to find breeders who do at least basic socialization and don’t exclusively raise their puppies outside, in a barn or kennel – at least in Europe. North America seems to have a slightly bigger choice of top-notch breeders, mainly because the puppy programs I’m into originated here. Well, I’m not getting a puppy in North America, but in Europe. Anywhere in Europe is fine, really, but driving distance from Vienna would be preferred. I do have my eyes set on a litter already. No, these are not Puppy Culture puppies, but they do get basic socialization and are not exclusively raised outside. I’ll be able to visit the litter regularly as the puppies grow up, watch the dam work, and talk extensively to the breeder about the kind of puppy I’m looking for. I’m prepared to rely on my gut feeling when it comes to the breeder: I want to get to know him and his dogs. If I feel like we understand each other and he “gets” me, I’ll trust his recommendation on a puppy for me. If I feel like our personalities clash and he doesn’t get what I’m looking for (something slightly unusual for the breed I’m thinking about), I’ll be ready to walk away. But I’m hoping for the former scenario … And I’m cautiously optimistic. Luckily, I’ll also have an expierienced friend by my side who shares my philosophy and will help me decide … And, if the breeder allows us to test his puppies, we might even do Deb Jones’ and Judy Keller’s performance puppy evaluation test with the litter (the test is explained in the Focused Puppy book). And nope, I’m not telling you more about the four-legged little landshark I’m thinking about – not yet, that is. 🙂

The Little Rascal Files 6 – Checking In & Recalls under Distraction

Mr. H. has been a very good dog, so he’s been allowed lots of off-leash fun on our walks. I think it’s really important to work on good off-leash manners and a solid recall before adolescence kicks in and the once-brilliant puppy brain stops working for several months or even years. My hope is, of course, that if we practice these skills now, the little rascal will be able to keep some, if not most of his privileges in those difficult times yet to come.

For me to be happy with my off-leash dogs, I want them to do two things: 1. come when called, and 2. check in voluntarily on a regular basis. That is to say: I want them to know it’s their responsibility rather than mine to make sure we don’t lose each other.

This is how I work on the voluntary checking-in with me:

Step 1 – continuous reinforcement.
On every walk, I try to set aside at least a few minutes where I concentrate on reinforcing every single time Hadley chooses to look at or come towards me without being asked to. We know: behavior that gets positively reinforced will happen more often in the future. For Hadley, I mainly use food treats. I usually have a puppy trail mix in my treat bag: there’s some special kibble, cheese, and hot dog slices all mixed together. Hadley never knows what he’ll get, but he loves all of them.

Step 2 – intermittent reinforcement.
Once Hadley has his checking-in down, I’ll switch to an intermittent schedule: I’ll reinforce most of his check-ins with praise and attention, but only some of them with a tangible reinforcer like food or a toy. This creates a slot-machine effect, i.e. a dog who will check in with me a lot!

Phoebe’s checking-in is on an intermittent reinforcement schedule, and if you know her, you’ll know how often she does a drive-by on walks. For her, the reinforcer I mainly use these days is the happy voice and then telling her to run ahead, play or go do doggy things.

Recall away from dogs & people

We also did a little bit of intermediary recall training today: I walked towards a group of people and off-leash dogs in the distance, then called Hadley back after noticing them without changing direction. The smart little bugger did very well! For the recall, I use the highest value reward of Hadley’s choice: liver paté.

… and morning zoomies!

Of course, there’s also plenty, plenty opportunity to play and have fun on every walk. Here’s today’s morning zoomies with some random happy recall practice.