Adventures in Herding #4: Reminding Mick of the Lie Down

Remember how I said that I had asked Mick to lie down before starting our round pen session? Well, it was not easy for him to lie down, even though I asked for it with a closed door between him and the sheep.

Before getting my own sheep, I had started building a fold-back down. I refined it in Helene Lawler’s Herding Flatwork Foundations FDSA class up to the point where I put it on a verbal cue (“Easy!”), and increased distance and duration.

Now that there’s sheep on my property, Mick is struggling to remember what a lie down looks like. Even far from the sheep, he’s having a hard time with the behavior.

Mick is not the kind of Border Collie who’ll lie down naturally. In fact, I’ve only ever seen him lie down when taking a nap. Otherwise – if he’s relaxing and watching the world go by – he’ll usually sit or stand. I have worked more on his down than his sit, but offering sits is still something he is more likely to do.

After watching an hour of the MacRae Way Starting Young Dogs tutorial over the last few days, I resolved to polish Mick’s down: Alasdair keeps reminding us of the importance of having a strong lie down throughout his video.

This is the first lie down reminder session. I’m choosing the biggest possible distance from the sheep: I can’t go further back because the grass behind us is too long to work. The sheep are behind the green fence, and Mick knows it.

I counted out my treats: 20, not one more, to prevent me from training too long. 20 hot dog slices gives me 10 reps of “Easy!” – reward in position – release with a “Get it!” treat thrown towards the sheep. I’m throwing the “Get it!” treat this way in order to further reinforce the lie down with an opportunity to get closer to the sheep.

Mick is distracted with staring at the sheep. That’s okay. He’s on a line. He can’t wander off. It’s up to him whether he wants to wander around me, stare at the sheep, or walk up to me, which will be my cue to say “Easy!”, help him complete the behavior with a hand signal if necessary, and feed a treat. Staring at sheep may be fun, but the only tangible reinforcer available are my treats (hot dogs – knowing this was hard for him, I brought out the big guns).

I wasn’t sure how much engagement I’d get, and whether me asking for a down and paying with hotdogs would be a reinforcing activity (be started by him more and more often) or something that merely got in the way of his sheep staring (in which case it would be punishing, and he’d come over to me less and less often as the session went on). He did come over more and more often, especially towards the end. Yey! When I had used up my treats, I asked for one more lie down, and rewarded with an opportunity to walk closer to the sheep (since we were headed that way anyways!).

Here’s the first session of lie down (“Easy”) reminders (Wednesday):

I had another session later the same day, and Mick started out the way he ended in the video above: much improved, and able to lie down on a verbal cue alone. By Thursday, Mick had progressed to the point where he didn’t disengage between the down reps. Yey, Mick!

Adventures in Herding #3: Round Pens!

There’s So! Much! to keep track of: I don’t want my dog to hurt my sheep, I don’t want my sheep to run me over in a panicked stampede, I need to keep Come By! and Away! straight, and the dog should do a nice flank when moving from me to where the sheep are. That’s too much for a beginner like me to keep track of. Round pens to the rescue!

With the sheep in the round pen and Mick and I outside, I don’t need to worry about Mick hurting them, about them running me over, and about the shape of Mick’s flanks. I can concentrate on three things: naming the Come By! and the Away! direction of travel (clockwise and counterclockwise, respectively), and praising Mick for finding the balance point (his 12 o’clock to my 6 o’clock). That’s what I did today. Low stress for me, and I got to observe how Mick gravitated to the balance point! This is so cool to see!

Before letting him start, I asked for a down (not on video), which was reinforced by getting to work. To end the session, I picked up the leash, and told him “All done!” rather than calling him away from the sheep. For now, I never want to call him when I’m about to end the fun.

Grit insisted she wanted to work sheep, too. Since I already had them in the round pen and they didn’t seem particularly stressed by a dog on the outside, she got to have a go as well. This is what it looked like at first:

… but then she calmed down – and she, too, found the balance point!

Adventures in Herding #2: Moving Sheep without a Dog

Today, I learned that sheep are incredibly hard to move. You know the saying “It’s like herding cats”? Well, maybe it should just be “It’s like herding sheep”! Today, I tried to move 3 of my 6 sheep into their round pen – without grabbing them, without luring them, and without the help of a dog.

I just used my own body to put pressure on the sheep … And while that gave me some control over their movement, they also had a strong will of their own, and and no interest whatsoever in going through the dark, narrow corridor between two buildings that would lead them to the round pen! I did feel the bubble though and could push them around the field – just not where I wanted them to go, because the narrow, dark opening they had never before moved through wasn’t at all inviting to them.

I did end up catching the three and moving them through the corridor and into the round pen against their will. Now I’ve got a new appreciation for why a dog might want to bite an unwilling sheep: grabbing them did feel a bit like I was biting them, and the reason I ended up doing this was that by merely playing with the bubble, I didn’t get them where I wanted them to go. By means of grabbing them, I did get them where I wanted them – so my grabbing behavior was reinforced. I imagine the same happens to a dog who bites sheep out of insecurity or because he doesn’t know how else to control them: biting will work, i.e. be reinforced by its consequences, and the biting behavior will get stronger. Note to self: unless truly warranted, biting should never result in success for Mick.

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program. Her September workshop Walk with Me! Leash Skills for Pet Dogs is currently open for registration.

Adventures in Herding #1

Herding! I’s been a dream for a while, and this year, I’m making it happen. I’ll be sharing my meanderings, and the trials and errors of my learnings under the Adventures in Herding category. I’m looking forward to learning from my mistakes, my dog, and my sheep while striving to be kind and fair to all of them, keep in mind the scientific principles of learning, and resolve new challenges on the basis of positive reinforcement.

On Friday, 6 sheep moved in. They are Dorset x Pelibuey crosses – 3 brown ones and 3 white ones. Otto has started them for me, so being herded is not completely new to them.

Herding sheep isn’t completely new to Mick, either, but he hasn’t had a chance to work sheep in a long time. He’s starved for sheep work, and highly excited.

This is what we did today:

I had Mick in a harness and on a 15-foot (5m) long line, and took him into the enclosure where my sheep currently are. Holding on to the long line, I called Mick. I waited until he came, cued “Sheep” (the marker cue I’ll be using to release him to work sheep), and let go of the line. I allowed him to chase/play. After several months without working sheep, I suspect he needs to get out some steam before he can work them calmly and quietly. I mostly observed at this point: I’m learning about both Mick and the sheep, and how the behavior of each species affects the other.

When Mick tried to bite rather than just chase, I stepped on the long line, and got him back: biting without a good reason results in the loss of the opportunity to keep herding.

This, again, set me up for the next rep of calling Mick away from the sheep. I’d say his recall cue (Magpie), wait him out, mark moving towards me with “Sheep!”, and reinforce by dropping the line so he could go chase sheep again.

He worked himself down relatively quickly. In the beginning, his tail was up; he was highly excited. He was hunting/playing rather than working. After a few reps of interrupting him for getting too wild, he lowered his tail into a working position, and his movements became more methodical. As a consequence, the time I let him chase sheep got longer.

In order to end our brief session – it was about 10 minutes altogether – I stepped on the leash and told him “All done” – my end of work cue for my dogs – and walked him away with the help of the leash.

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program.

The Death of a Chicken

I need to learn how to pluck a chicken.

Grit killed today. On our morning walk, she silently dove into the undergrowth – she often will; there are smells to be smelled and sticks to be found. I whistled, and she reappeared, carrying a chicken. The head, on a surprisingly long neck, swung back and forth with each of her joyful leaps; there was nothing to be done for the bird.

The chicken must have strayed too far from my neighbor’s house, and ended up in the forest. There had been no screams, no sounds of a scuffle. Death came fast and on silent paws. Grit carried the chicken like a pointer carries a pheasant; holding a full grip on its chest and back without breaking the skin.

We continued our walk, leaving the chicken behind a tree to pick it up later. I looked at my phone. 9AM. Good; I’d have time to drop off the dogs in my yard, head to my neighbor’s to apologize, pay for the chicken, and be back in time for my training appointment. I’d tell Juan Antonio, my neighbor, Grit had killed one of his chickens, and then I’d ask him how much he wanted for it. I was going to give him a chance to overcharge me if he was so inclined.

We had a good walk, the dogs and I. The morning sun filtered through the canopy of leaves. The forest vibrated with the sounds of insects and birds; I heard the one that sounds like a bicycle bell.

The death of the chicken didn’t upset me. I’d pluck it, and I’d feed it to the dogs. Maybe I’d have some of it myself. I have no fridge – a logistical challenge; we’d have to eat it soon. Juan Antonio raises chickens to sell the meat. The chicken was always going to die and be eaten.

Would I, under the same circumstances, have seen more than just a chicken in the past? I’m not sure. Today, in any case, it is just that: a chicken. The Trump administration is now targeting immigrants who are legally entitled to welfare programs, Pam Fessler told me on my weekday morning news podcast. What’s the death of a single chicken (always meant to be eaten) at the teeth of a dog in the light of the death of Jimmy Aldaoud (and so many others like him) at the hands of democracy? The US keep moving the mark of what large-scale cruelties are politically acceptable, and Europe is following suit.

chicken politics

I’m not scared of telling Juan Antonio that my dog killed his chicken. We’re just two people living on a mountain, doing the best we can. There was a time I’d have been scared of the conversation, scared of Juan Antonio, scared of what he might think of me, and my dog. Scared of potential consequences and implications. I might have obsessed about it for hours, days even. I might have self-righteously framed it to be his fault: why didn’t he take better care of his chickens? Out of fear, I might not have said a thing, and I’d have wondered if he knew it was me for days and weeks to come. I’d have avoided him in the street. We might not have eaten the chicken, either (how pointless a death it would be!): every second I’d have had to look at that chicken would have been one shameful second too many, reminding me of my failure (as you know, the lack of chickens killed at the teeth of your dog defines your worth as a person, your professional expertise as a dog trainer, and how deserving you are of love). The story I’d tell myself would be different, and the story I’d tell you wouldn’t exist since it would be a story too shameful to share.

The person I am today isn’t scared of individuals, or of conversations, or of dogs killing chickens. The things that move me deeply today are not fear. They are love and sadness, anxiety sometimes (about trivial things, but not chickens). The world is getting scarier – I appreciate that on a cognitive level – and I have become less fearful in spite of it, or because of it, or maybe just less fearful, period.

In a world that makes little sense, I want to be the kind of person who’ll tell you my dog killed your chicken, even if you’d never find out for lack of witnesses. The fact that my dog killed a chicken says little about me. The fact that I’m going to own it does. That may not be much, but it’s something: it also means I’m seeing the mark that gets moved, and I know that I’m part of the problem – as are you, and you, and you too – unless … we find a way to pay for that chicken. I don’t know how to do that, but maybe tomorrow, I will. For now, I’ll keep training dogs and telling you stories like this one, because those are two things I know how to do.

The Dog Who’d Take Praise Over Food

Mick, Mr. Border Collie, is having me think about language, and comfort levels, and biddability. He came to me at age 2, after having lived with a traditional herding trainer. His native language of relating to people is different from the way I usually relate to my dogs. He’s been studying my language and is getting better and better at it – much like someone who’s learning a new language as an adult.

At the same time, I’ve been learning Mick’s language, and I’ve discovered a number of interesting things: when Mick first got here, he didn’t know it was okay to take food from a person’s hand – not only was it permitted, it was encouraged to do so! However, he had a very strong concept of verbal strokes. A stroke is a unit of social recognition: if I smile at you when passing you in the street, that’s a stroke. If you respond by saying “Good morning!”, that’s another stroke. Back to Mick, who greatly appreciates verbal strokes. When I talk to him in a soft voice – and that has been true from the day I first met him – he’ll respond by wagging gently. If he’s tense, I’ll see his body relax. The tucked tail will come out, the closed, hard mouth will open slightly, the tension in his ears will fade; piercing looks will turn into soft eyes.

While Mick didn’t know what to do with the treat I was holding out, he knew very well what praise meant. His body language showed that he greatly appreciated receiving it. Even out on a walk, when I’d call him, he’d soon come, and not take the treat – but he’d start wagging upon hearing my voice. And his recall got better – my praise was indeed reinforcing.

Is the effectiveness of praise as a reinforcer purely due to what we call “will to please” and consider an inherent trait? How much of it is environmental rather than hereditary? Could it be that the Border Collie’s upbringing has given him an appreciation of verbal strokes that is more widely generalized than what we typically see in R+ raised dogs?

 

border collie malinois personality

Mick & Grit

Let’s take a look at Grit. She has been with me since puppyhood. Grit has a strong will to please, too. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s define will to please or biddability as the willingness to work for the acknowledgement of one’s efforts alone – for praise, pets, or other non-tangible paychecks. Grit will do things I ask her to even when she’s exhausted; she’ll do the same thing 20 times in a row, and she’ll try as hard the 20st time as the first one. She’ll come when I call her even when she’s too hot to eat or isn’t interested in my treats. She does things because I ask her to – even if I don’t pay well – and doesn’t question my wishes.

Grit’s biddability is tied to me as a person. She wouldn’t work for just anyone 20 times in a row. In fact, she wouldn’t work for anyone else at all, unless that person first built a relationship with her. Grit is short-fused (like most dogs in her lines), she’s hot-headed and intense. But never has she growled at me or said NO to something she knew how to do. Grit makes me feel special because it is clear that her will to please is tied to me as a person.

Mick is like Grit – but then again, he also isn’t. Mick, even though we are only just building our relationship, will come when I call him in difficult situations, and be all wiggly and happy if I praise him. Mick is a soft dog: he appreciates verbal strokes, and shrinks away from loud voices, raised arms, and objects being carried. At the same time, he is – for lack of a better word – opinionated. He has growled at me more than once when asked to go into or come out of a crate or through a gate before he was ready to do so. He’s not only interested in pleasing me, but also in standing his ground. He cares what I think, yet speaks his mind.

Mick’s appreciation for verbal strokes is not tied to me as a person. In contexts he’s comfortable (herding), he will work for the praise of others, and he’ll do so confidently. He has worked for two herding trainers here in Guatemala on the first day he met them. He responded to their voice and body language beautifully. He instantaneously recognized that they spoke his jargon – the jargon of working sheep – and he engaged in a conversation with them without hesitation. He didn’t appreciate their physical pressure – but he could read it; he spoke it as fluently as he understands praise. Mick’s appreciation of strokes is a well-generalized trait. Grit’s biddability isn’t. Why is that?

Interestingly, neither Mick nor Grit are confident around strangers. Grit does well as long as I provide clear leadership around new people. Mick does well as long as he can talk sheep with new people. He’s fluent in the language of herding – no matter whether he has talked to the person sharing his jargon hundreds of times or never before. It’s fascinating to see how suspicious he’ll be of a new person visiting my house, yet how effortlessly he’ll work for a new person as soon as sheep are in the picture. The parallel to human nature is hard to miss. If you’re an introvert and a dog person, you may not know what to do if thrown into a random social gathering. You’ll be like Mick, slinking around the edges of the room, picking at the label of your beer bottle, wishing you were somewhere else. But put you into a room full of geeky dog people, and you’ll make friends in a heartbeat.

Maybe Grit simply doesn’t have her version of sheep – she doesn’t have that jargon that ties into a genetically hardwired passion of hers, and can easily be shared with others who share that passion as well. Maybe the lesson of Grit and Mick is that every dog needs her sheep. (Who would you be if you didn’t have dog geekery?)

Nature and nurture can’t be pulled apart – the two are always working hand in hand. In the end, the reason that Grit is who she is, just like the reason that Mick is who he is – and the reason I am who I am – are related to both genetics and experiences. Genetics define the frame of what is possible. Experiences decide what parts of that framework get colored in.

Would Mick’s biddability be as well generalized if he had been raised in a different kind of home? Would Grit be as selectively biddable if she had been raised in a more traditional training environment? Maybe less so? Maybe more so? Would she, like Mick, be able to talk to strangers if she had been doing instinct sports all her life? Would Mick be more dependent on a single person if he’d never met a sheep? Does biddability generalize if verbal strokes are a limited resource rather than unconditionally given? Is the very reason Grit is the incredibly biddable dog she is due to the fact that verbal strokes, and positive regard, aren’t something she has had to earn? Oh, we cannot know! But it’s fascinating to think about anyways …

Is your dog biddable? How does their biddability express itself, and what do you attribute it to? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments!

 

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program. Her Calling All Dogs class class (FDSA) starts today. Gold spots are sold out, but you can still join at the Silver or Bronze level!

A Perfect Circle

… is not only a band worth checking out, but may also be your ticket to a relaxing walk with your dog. A few months ago, Denise Fenzi started experimenting with walking the dog in a circle around the handler in order to reduce leash pulling. Her method has since grown into a pragmatic approach that doesn’t only address excitement-based pulling, but also reduces reactivity and anxiety in some dogs.

I experimented with my own as well as my clients’ dogs, and found Denise’s circle method to make an excellent addition to my leash walking toolbox. It’s both simple and powerful, and it lends itself to being combined with and used in addition to other leash training strategies I was already using. Clearly, it needed to be part of the new FDSA class I was working on as well: Out and About already included several leash walking approaches for my students to choose from.

Three of my Gold students chose to use circles on their urban walks and nature hikes. Their dogs were very different, and all three of them uploaded multiple videos of their leash walking assignments. The circle method turned out to be helpful to every one of them. Here’s what I learned from further exploring it with my Out and About students and their dogs while also continuing to play with it in real life:

  1. Most people find it easier to circle on a collar or front-attachment harness than on a back-attachment harness.
  2. If your dog has a hard time allowing you to lead him into the circle, practice giving in to leash pressure at home. This seems to do wonders for the dog’s understanding – especially if you use the leash pressure game to walk your dog in a circle around your own body.
  3. Going back and forth over familiar terrain – for example, walking the same short loop two or three times rather than walking one longer loop – helps highly excited dogs calm down.
  4. If your dog speeds up, trying to get out of the circle and pull as soon as he gets close to his starting point, add another circle immediately. This tends to slow the dog down, and decrease his speed even on the first circle.
  5. If you’re on a trail that’s too narrow for you to get a radius of more than a few inches, walk ellipses rather than circles.
  6. Walk at your normal speed – don’t run just because your dog would like to go faster. Channel his energy into the circles until he has learned to adjust to your walking speed.
  7. If it makes sense for your dog, combine the circle method with food (food scatters; treat magnets; mark/treat for auto check-ins; the LAT game; counterconditioning; eating as an alternative behavior etc.). While the circle method doesn’t require food, treats can make a big difference if your dog doesn’t “just” pull, but is also reactive, fearful or anxious.
  8. Unless your dog is circling, always encourage and allow sniffing. Most dogs find sniffing to be relaxing, and I’ve seen it reduce both pulling and anxiety.
  9. Acknowledge your dog’s checking in with you! You can mark and feed, or simply praise your dog.

Speaking of circles: Denise’s Cutting Corners webinar will be offered for the third time on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Check it out!

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Riding in Cars with Roberto

Disclaimer: this is not a dog training post.

 

***

My car broke down today. I went to my neighbor’s workshop to ask for help.

 

Roberto, the mechanic, is in his 50s. He’s got a bit of a belly, the dirty fingernails of a good mechanic, and a formerly white Toyota that looks older than he is, but is still going strong. We took his Toyota (I miss having windows that can be opened manually) to go to San Cristónbal El Bajo where my car had broken down. A yellow teddy bear with long legs and long arms dangled from his rear-view mirror, and he had one of these little flasks with “new car smell” in his old car; a tiny tank holding a purple liquid attached to the air vent. There was a reassuring amount of dust on his dashboard. We’re in the dry season – la estación del polvo. Open the windows and don’t clean your car for a few days, and there’ll be enough dust on your dashboard to leave visible traces in it with your finger tips.

 

The first time in someone’s car, you learn something about them. Like the first time in their house. You notice things (like the teddy bear. Like the radio with a screen that came to life when he started the car. There was a USB stick plugged in, but the music was turned off. What someone listens to, and whether they turn on the radio or not – it tells you things about a person that go beyond their use of cars).

 

Roberto didn’t turn on the radio. I wound down the window, and we exchanged the usual semi-ritualized politenesses: how long had I lived here? Were he and his sons from San Pedro Las Huertas originally; had they always run the workshop? What did I do for a living? These four questions is all it takes to know whether you’ll want to continue the conversation, or get through whatever time you are having to spend together in silence, avoiding further engagement. Whatever result you come to – ideally, it’ll be mutual. Mutual silence? That’s okay. Mutual conversation? That’s okay, too. One person talking and engaging, and the other one decidedly looking out the window, playing with their phone, turning on the radio? Awkward.

 

Roberto and I unspokenly agreed that we were going to have a conversation while the wind was blowing late morning heat through the car. Noon was in the air, and dust – always dust.

 

“I’ve heard San Pedro used to be controlled by a gang. This whole concept of gangs … it’s foreign to me. It doesn’t really exist where I come from. Can you tell me about it?”

 

And he did. “It wasn’t really a gang,” Roberto said. “People like to exaggerate. It was a bunch of boys. Ladrones del pueblo. They’d steal stuff  – chickens, for example. Anything they could get their hands on, really. They’d threaten people and take things from them, or break into houses.”

 

“That’s interesting … It seems like San Pedro Las Huertas isn’t full of super rich people. Who’d they steal from?”

 

“Oh, everyone. It didn’t matter if you had little or a lot for them to take it.

 

We didn’t have problems with them for a long time. My dad … he was the kind of man who doesn’t get involved in the lives of others. You know, the kind of man who doesn’t get upset as long as the ladrones harass someone else.”

 

I nodded.

 

“But we did have issues with them at some point …”

 

“What happened?”

 

“My brother was walking … right here, in this street. Walkmen had just gotten popular, and he had his walkman and headphones. They took it …”

 

“They stopped him and threatened him … with weapons?”

 

“With knives, yes.

 

We knew who they were, of course. We knew where they lived.

 

And then they took my brother’s bike, too, the next time they saw him.”

 

“Wow.”

 

“Yeah. So my dad, who usually didn’t get involved, went to their house, and he knocked on their door …

 

He said, ‘Why did you take my son’s things?’

 

They denied it, but my dad just took the boy’s machete from him … And he told him to return my brother’s stuff.”

 

I could imagine Roberto’s dad – probably looking much like Roberto did now – threatening that young man at his door. The mechanic would speak calmly, and look directly into his eyes, exuding power by his mere presence. I pictured him wearing an oil-stained red polo shirt, like Roberto was wearing one today.

 

“They gave it all back, and they didn’t steal from us again”, said Roberto. “Some people let others take their stuff.  So they will keep taking stuff from them. Others confront the ladrones; they stand up to them – and they’ll be left in peace.”

 

“What happened to the ladrones? They are gone now, aren’t they?”

 

“Yeah … one of them went to prison. One was murdered. One left … None of them are here anymore.”

 

“… until another group just like them takes their place?”

 

“Yeah. There was another group already. They tried to do the same thing. But people stood up to them, and the group didn’t last.”

 

We got to the place I had left Bergziege, my car. Roberto unloaded a rusty yellow toolbox and a large piece of cardboard, and his upper body disappeared under the chassis. There’s something reassuring about a person’s legs sticking out from under a car, for some reason. I sat down on a concrete step and told him to let me know if I could assist him in anything.”De acuerdo,” he said, “Okay.” He wasn’t a douchebag kind of guy who believes women can’t hold a hammer.  

 

The problem, he said, was the transmisión. Bergziege had lost a few screws. He took something off the undercarriage: a long metal tube with a joint in the middle.

 

“You can drive like this, without the transmisión. Just not up very steep hills; you’ve only got front drive now. It’ll take a few days till I get the screws, but then we’ll put it back on.”

 

“Okay. I’m supposed to drive up a hill today though … That’s actually what I was going to do when the car broke down. I need to take three bags of cement up there. You think I’d better not …?”

 

“Nah, better not until you’ve got the 4WD back. You may not make it up with the cement.”

 

I asked him if he’d help me. Could we take the cement up the hill in his car?

 

“Sure; I’ve got time.”

 

We loaded the cement out of Bergziege and into the Toyota, and then it was my turn to tell a story. His daughter, now 27, used to really, really want to see the snow when she was little (he said).They got a Christmas tree, and covered it in styrofoam crumbs to give her a glimpse of the experience.

 

My story, then, needed to be a story about snow. I told him about a particularly snowy winter a few years ago, when I lived on a hill in Austria. I seem to always end up on hills of some kind. We’d walk up the hill, through the forest, in the snow – they only cleared the street once a day, and if it kept snowing, cars would be useless. (The way it feels to walk uphill in fresh snow; how it gets exhausting, but is also its own kind of beautiful? What it’s like to walk at night, taking a shortcut through the forest, when the air is crystal clear and cold and dark, and if there were no highway close by, it would be completely silent except for the sound of your feet? The way the snow makes time slow down, and your thoughts too? Also, being in warm houses when it’s snowing outside; the beauty and the relentless cold and all the things that fit in between.)

 

We had delivered the cement, and he stopped on the bottom of the hill to let me out where Bergziege was waiting. “Thank you, really,” I said. “What do I owe you?”

 

“Don’t worry about it. Come by on Tuesday and see if I already got the screws we need for your transmisión.”

 

I closed the car door, and the sun spit his Toyota back out into the dusty street.

 

***

 

What can we learn from this? At least five things. In chronological order: people tend to exaggerate when talking about crime. Quiet people are more powerful than loud ones. Cars come with large metal parts that aren’t essential for them to work. I’ve got lovely neighbors.

 

(Also, something about human nature and the fact that standing up to ladrones pays off, but I’m not sure about the details of that lesson.)

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.