17 December 2009

In which today, an epic and over long and probably boring treatise on how dogs choose things and involves little cartoon devils and angels.

So Paul, a very loyal Team Small Dog reader, took a break from snow shoveling yesterday to offer a piece of advice. Right on, Paul! I can't imagine a life where there is snow and you have to move it from here to there in a genuine shovel! I had to wear a long sleeved t-shirt today and susnscreen! The gist of Paul's advice, try to be more fun than the things that distract your dog, and in that having fun, dog won't fall prey to distractions.

So I don't think that's bad advice, by any means. Agility is about interaction and total, get down, party fun between a dog and handler. So yeah, it's got to be totally fun and totally rewarding. And that's got to be a consistent habit. Agility is always super fun. When it's not, that's some troubles for all. You have to rebuild the bond, rebuild the relationship, back everything up. I am 100% for the idea that every single thing about agility has to be fun. Stinky old tables, and holding still on startlines and EVERYTHING, has to be fun to be good agility.

But the old rule, be more fun than what distracts your dog, this is the part that I don't totally buy into. Chasing squirrels or running border collies or whatever floats a distraction dog's boat, that's always going to be a high value reward. REALLY fun. Agility itself can be self rewarding. And I think that when distractions stress out a dog, there's a couple of results. Shutting down, or getting totally over the top insane. A party on, fun handler might not be the answer. A lot of dogs go missing in stressed out sniffing. No amount of fun from the handler can un-do stress. Stress has to be de-stressed. Distraction and stress, I don't think totally related to a lack of fun.

I can have both problems with Gustavo. He get so wound up, and so out of control that he starts doing TUNNELS! The jump OVER there! Does not see I just front crossed over HERE! Or, he gets so wound up, and overwhelmed by everything else going on around him that he RUNS under the score table where someone is feeding their dog some chicken and will EAT THEIR chicken then say hi to 4 people then run back on course and finishes in record time. Or he finishes his course, at 100mph, and explodes OUT of the ring in a frenzy to where he doesn't even see or hear me anymore. Let alone his leash that he has worked so hard to learn how to find after a run.

Like the fun circuit and the everything else circuit have crossed wires and this is fun but it is also confusing and his brain is playing Led Zeppelin 4 backwards and like the world all of a sudden TURNED INSIDE OUT MAN AND IT'S MELTING!

I think that Leslie McDevitt takes this on with all her Control Unleashed stuff. I had this book. I meant to reread it. I lent it out. Anyone have my book out there? Because I think I need it!

For dogs that have issues of being distracted, instead of trying to constantly have a handler that is more fun than eating squirrels and cats or chasing down RV's or running around after border collies, or self rewarding one's self with extra added agility obstacles, the dog learns to make the choice that will end up with a really good reward AND a choice that helps the dog not be so stressed out to where dog wants to chase the border collies. Dog learns a way of thinking that helps clear the brain synapses. Nothing turned inside out anymore, nothing melting, just a clear road to the reward.

Leslie McDevitt has good ideas. When Gustavo was freaking out over teeter totters, she had the good idea of getting the pressure off of him. Let the reward be running away from the teeter totter. Every time he gets near it, run away! Then gets closer, gets to run away. Hola! This, and making it a super high value, always fun and ampley awarded thing, made the teeter totter a-ok. It's maintenance level at this point.

Dog freaks out at other dogs? Teach it to look at other dogs. Let a calm look become reward worthy. Instead of forcing the dog "Watch Me! Watch Me!" dog goes from distraction to his own choice to focus back on the handler. That's what's rewarding. The dog making the choice.

So I think that Crate Games sort of has this idea, too. Dogs learn to make their own choice. Impulse control. I see this with Otterpop all the time. She is truly learning to control her impulses, which are almost always evil. It's like they're a little cartoon devil and angel over each of her shoulders. And Devil says, Go Get THAT! and Angel says, Stay there and Be Calm and she has to decide really fast and she has over time, learned to listen to the Angel. Usually. Sometimes the devil wins. But not a much anymore.

Example. Oh, this is becoming boring and epic. Come back and read later. Don't I get a day to be boring and epic occasionally?

Example. Today, we were practicing and this mangy old Watsonville street chihuahua came sauntering up the road and to the edge of the fence. We were working on Otterpop staying on a blanket, Ruby in an xpen with the door open, and Gustavo in a crate with the door open, and one dog at a time released to run around with me and play with the toy. Gustavo much of the time had his door shut, because, guess what, Training Hole and he can't do this if someone else is playing with a toy. Baby steps.

When that dog came up to the fence, Ruby ran out towards it once, I called her, and she turned on a dime and came in and continued to run around with me and play with her toy. She had to think about that good and hard, but was able to continue on playing with old Mr. Mangey sniffing around at the fence.

Wasn't sure if this would work with Otterpop. But boy oh boy, she barely even batted an eye. She knows how to not talk to that devil and made the choice to stay and run around with me and her toy and go back and lay quietly, not barking, on her little blanket. I KNOW that Otterpop, even a year ago, wouldn't have made this choice. This is new and improved Otterpop 2.0.

Gustavo? I didn't even let him loose. I KNEW he would run out to that fence, just to go see. And I KNEW I'd have to call him in 3-4 times before he'd refocus to me and come back and do his job. So I didn't even give him a chance. And whereas Ruby or Otterpop would have GET RID OF THAT DOG on their mind, he'd just want to go and see it, see if it scared him, and then if it didn't, see if it wanted to go get tamales and a beer. The devil, that I don't even think he knows is a devil, it's just Keanu Reeves or someone, says, Go forth and be Free! And take a free tunnel on the way! Angel doesn't much have a chance, maybe a couple minutes later. So yeah, he's blowing me off. Because I haven't trained him how to make his own good choice.

So yeah, I helped him make the choice by being pretty fun. And the reward was super fun. I am going back to how I used to reward him all the time. We just run around and he chases a furry thing on a piece of rope. Today's furry thing was a dirty old sock filled with fish. Uh huh. For like 30 seconds of him focusing, he gets to chase me and my pet dead sock on a rope filled with stinky fish for like 2 minutes. It's a sweet deal to be my dog. But he still has to make the choice.

Imagine the distraction of a giant dog show and dogs and chicken and ladies and toys and tunnels and everything all at once. This is the training hole I'm figuring out how to fill up.


Agilejack said...


I, for one, am eating what you're cooking!!! Having Jack Russells, and one particulary distracted Jack Russell, I find that anyone who tells me to just be more fun has their head planted firmly up their ass!!!

If you were sitting next to me at my desk, I would kiss you full on this lips to thank you for this blog entry!

I've said for years that in order for the dog to "find you more fun", you have to put in a lot of work so the dog "chooses" to find you more fun. All that impulse control stuff.

You are brilliant and insightful! I will tell everyone how much fun you are!

Anne in SLC

team small dog said...

Well, I dunno how brilliant and insightful since I have a training hole of distraction with my but maybe hindsightful? We'll all just keep working hard!

Cedarfield said...

Not sure if this will help you in any way but it helped me in dealing with Devon's ring stress. A wisewomantrainer said to me "All dogs stress when doing agility at trials." Period. End of story. Some stress up, some down, some in-between. They stress at different times over different things. They go for awhile with no stress then they stress then the stress goes away until it comes back.
Once I thought about that and accepted that stress is a fact of life in agility, I relaxed about the stress Devon was exhibiting. And once I relaxed, so did he. Now that he's more relaxed, so am I. And now that I'm more relaxed, so is he.
Pretty soon we'll be so mellow that we will float through the courses.

team small dog said...

Super-wise! Right on and a MOST excellent thing to remember. And a very good, almost yoda like way to think about it.

Many amateur ladies at horse shows enjoy a cocktail before entering the ring. At 11am. I sort of get it now.

Cedarfield said...

I personally love the idea of a ring-side bar where one can sit and sip a martini while one cheers on one's agility comrads. So very civilized.

Lisa B. said...

I have occasionally had a Mikes hard lemonade before a run ... I've found that I do much better in Schnocker than in Snooker! But it really helps me not be so nervous ;-)

team small dog said...

Do you think that this is a good market for agility trials? A travel bar? Because I was looking for a good reason to buy a super cute little trailer. Would the drinks have to be bartered, like paid for with little buttons or something, to avoid having to get a liquor license? I have always wanted a button collection. That was sarcastic. Maybe this is more like a speakeasy?

But seriously. All the dog agility vendors sell things like fleecey leashes. T-shirts with horrible dog cartoons on them. But there are no BARS! I feel like this is a potential business model?

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