A battle of wills, part two

June 2, 2011 § 4 Comments

Dog training is not a one-and-done situation.

A switch does not magically flip.

There is no clear-cut demarcation of “the past bad dog” and “the present good dog.”

Dog training is a constant practice. Dogs are credited with having the capacity for unconditional love; what comes with that unconditional love, though, is a requisite present-focused mind. Know why your sweet pooch loves you even though you punished him? Because he doesn’t remember being punished. This is not to suggest that dogs can’t learn. Of course they can. But the learning becomes an ingrained piece of their personality pie through repetition, reinforcement.

Key to reinforcement, of course, is patience. Many of us struggle with this one. We wish our dogs could speak English or at least had a little white matter in those frontal lobes with which to reason.

“Spot, the reason I don’t want you on the couch is because you smell really bad, and I have company coming in two hours.”

“Oh, Spike, hissing is a warning from your feline buddy. She doesn’t want to play; she wants you to leave her alone to luxuriate in that sun spot.”

“Rascal, it would be terribly helpful if you would refrain from piddling all over my luggage. I promise I’ll return home in a few days.”

“Milton,” I might say if he could understand me. “Would you mind not getting so ramped up over food? It happens every day, twice a day. You are guaranteed to eat. I’d really like it if you approached your bowl more calmly. And, while we’re at it, it sure would be nice if you would back away from your bowl and sit when commanded, as well.”

Sigh, if only.

But no, this is not the case with dogs. (Or cats or birds or monkeys or anything else that lacks a human adult brain. …and even then…)

Our dogs rely upon us to reinforce the positive behaviors we want to see and to consistently discourage those behaviors that are not acceptable.

This means two things: requisite patience and specific expectations.

1. Requisite Patience
Spot has a behavior you want to change. You create a particular command that has a clearly intended result. Spot learns this command and performs the desired result over a few more days. You feel proud. You begin to believe that Spot has changed. Spot repeats the unwanted behavior.

Here is where you self-evaluate. The last time that Spot was given the command, did he really perform the way you wanted him to? Was he just a little too excited? Did it take him several times to hear the command before he responded? Did you have to approach him or touch him in any way to encourage the result you wanted? If so, I have bad news for you. Spot hasn’t learned the command.

Another possibility, of course: maybe Spot has learned the command (particularly if his naughtiness happens after a long period of appropriately responding to the command) and is instead pushing his limits and boundaries. Dogs are toddlers. Tell yourself that, embrace it. It’s true. They are toddlers. You cannot reason with a toddler (anyone ever try? This sound familiar? “But why???” or “NO!”). Don’t waste your time on the reasoning. Just remind yourself that you must return to this command over and over and over, regardless how well you think Spot has learned the lesson.

2. Specific Expectations
This is the one I personally struggle with.

What are you trying to get out of your dog, really? Should she be absolutely perfect and angelic, practically a statue of a dog rather than the real thing? Or are you looking for something that is “good enough”? Something that “will do”? (Now, don’t start to pooh-pooh my idea just yet…hear me out.)

You are not going to receive perfection from your dogs. You can’t expect perfection in yourself, so how is it fair to expect it in animals? Instead of perfection, identify the specific result you desire.

Is Precious piddling all over the house?

Well, first self-evaluate: what are you doing wrong? Are you ignoring her pleas to go outside to potty? Are you giving her enough opportunity to potty when she’s outside? Is she just plain not letting you know, or have you maybe not learned her potty signs?

Once you’ve identified the issue (which obviously takes a great deal of time in and of itself, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to breeze through it here), then it’s time for you to establish for yourself and Precious exactly what you want her to do. Plan a command for going outside (ours is “potty”) and say it over and over and over as she sniffs the ground. When she goes, praise the hell out of her: “good potty!” But you must have the expectations that she will sniff the ground. Some dogs (especially puppies) need to sort of “walk it out,” so you have to be ready to go on a tour of the yard or even the entire neighborhood for a potty break. If you’re not willing to make this commitment…then you might reconsider the commitment to owning a dog. Just sayin’.

The Point is This….
My point is this: patience and appropriate expectations are key to training a dog. But you must also approach every single “naughty” encounter or moment of struggle as a training opportunity. For Milton, every single meal (two meals a day every single day) is a new approach to the bowl. His memory isn’t that good…he’s a dog. He recognizes patterns and gets into habits, so we are attempting to recreate his current habits and shape them into positive ones. (We’re the only ones placing judgment, remember. Dogs don’t know what’s going to be considered “naughty” or “good.”) But every time we prepare to have a meal, both Milton and I (and Robert, of course) must approach the bowl as though it’s a brand-new day. I cannot hold a grudge against him because he growled at me the previous meal. He doesn’t even remember doing it. And he was punished already. It’s done. We’ve moved on.

I firmly believe that approaching each encounter as a new opportunity to reinforce will make each subsequent encounter a little less harrowing, a little less difficult. Because your dog will create new habits…which look like “learning.”

But we cannot hold our animals accountable for a level of reasoning that we expect from other adult humans. They are not thinking about or plotting how they will come into this new encounter. That’s our responsibility as the owners. We must self-evaluate (are we feeling anxious, scared, angry, impatient today?), reassess our expectations, and prepare to reinforce from the very beginning exactly what we’ve been doing all along.

Along those lines, just because your dog has a behavior that you are trying to reshape into something else does not mean that you have a bad dog. Milton is a very good dog. He’s great with cats and with puppies. He’s awesome in big groups. He’s good with kids and will be a great “helper” when we have our own children. He’s attuned to what’s going on around him so that he is able to alert us when something is out of the ordinary. He’s also possessive over food (and sometimes toys or me, even). This is something we’re working on, but it does not negate all the positive qualities that make Milton who he is.

Training animals is not as difficult or “special” as some people make it out to be. You do not have to be a celebrity or have a facility or certification in order to train your dog. You do not have to have been a dog owner for most of your life in order to train your dog. (Hello: cat person, over here. Milton and Annie are the first dogs that I’ve ever lived with, and we’re doing just fine.) Sure, you may consult resources to help you answer questions for sticking points, but you do not have to aim for perfection. Aim for what is right for you and your dog.

And always remember to approach every single encounter with your dog as an opportunity to reinforce.

A battle of wills

June 1, 2011 § 19 Comments

Milton and I are currently embroiled in a battle of wills.

At every single meal, he and I challenge each other for dominance over the food bowl. Annie merely waits patiently on the sidelines, occasionally whimpering when Milton gets in trouble. (Sometimes I fear she’s being traumatized…but she doesn’t seem to be frightened of me, which is a relief.)

Milton has food possessiveness issues. I hesitate to call them “aggression” because he does respond to corrections…most of the time. I have been bitten a few times at meals, which is where we are right now.

Last night at dinner, he bit my thumb. I have two red marks that would have bled had he clamped down just a little bit harder. This morning at breakfast, he threatened to bite again. I practically sat on him to pin him to the floor. Last week, he bit my hand. In the past, before we really started on retraining him, he had bitten my arm if I attempted to take his food away from him or even to toss a stray kibble back into the bowl.

One day, there will be children in this house, and I will not tolerate a dog who will bite at people.

We’ve been working on his behavior for several months now. Sometimes we feel triumphant and proud of Milton’s progress. Sometimes we want to scream.

My technique is imperfect, but I’m doing my best. And for the most part it works to at least snap him out of the biting headspace.

Last night, for instance, Milton was eating out of his bowl when I told him to “leave it.” “Leave it” means step away from the bowl and sit down. Wait patiently until you have been given permission to continue eating. Milton ignored the command that he knows. I bent over to offer him a correction on the side of his ribcage. (A firm but gentle “nudge.”) Milton hunkered down over his bowl and growled at me. I commanded “leave it” again. He bared teeth and turned his head toward my hand. Faster than I could react (really, I was thinking, “It couldn’t be. He wouldn’t bite me. Again.”), Milton turned around and clamped on my thumb by his side. With my free arm, I blocked his head and pushed him down to the ground so that he was laying on his side. He continued to fight me, kicking at me and “hissing” (more like a gator, less like a cat). I pressed his head down with my forearm against his bottom jaw. We sat there until I felt his body relax and his breathing slow. I examined my thumb and started to shake at the reality: had I not stopped him, he might have caused some real damage. My thumb was really sore.

When I felt like he was ready, I stood up, commanding him to stay down on the ground the way he was. I eventually allowed him to come to a seated position, but we moved farther away from the bowl. I made him wait several minutes longer, ignoring the long trails of drool coming from the sides of his black lips, waiting for him to stop shaking. He finished his meal half an hour after we began it.

I was livid.

I’ll admit that I did call him names. And I did raise my voice when I told him “NO!” as he was biting me. But after the meal was finished, I took him to go potty. And we spent the rest of the evening cuddling.

This morning, he threatened me when I corrected him, but as soon as I reached out to pull him down to the ground, he practically collapsed on his own. We sat there, waiting for his breathing to slow down. It was 7:15 in the morning. Way too early to be getting so worked up, especially over food.

Currently we feed Milt and Annie separately. Annie eats in the kitchen (slowly, and patiently–she allows me to mess with her face, put my hands in her bowl, pick up her bowl, everything. In fact, when I go to mess with the food, she’ll sit without much of a command, although I do say “leave it” for good measure.). Milton eats in the living room. He can hear Annie’s license hit her metal bowl as she chows down, which I know upsets him more. But I couldn’t really care less about that. Milton has it in his head that the food in the plastic blue bowl is his food. We’re trying to teach him (and Annie, too) that it is our food that we are allowing them to eat.

Quick proud story: Annie always finishes eating before Milton, often before Milton has calmed down enough to eat in the first place. She’ll walk around the house, sometimes coming rather close to the plastic blue bowl. She will look at the bowl and sniff the bowl, but only twice has she actually snuck a kibble from the bowl. When I see her look at the bowl or sniff it, I command her to “leave it” because I want her to understand, just like Milt, that this is not “her” food.

Note: I say “I” a lot in this post, but I mean to say “we.” Robert is involved just as much as I am with this initiative. Although the biting tends to happen when Robert’s either not in the room or not in the house. I think it’s because Milt doesn’t respect me as a master the same way he respects Robert. But I fully intend to win this battle of wills.

Puppy’s First Birthday!

May 18, 2011 § 7 Comments

Happy birthday, sweet Annie-girl! 🙂

Our little Annie has turned ONE!

We’ve only had her for about nine of those months (since the end of August last year), but we have thoroughly enjoyed our time with her during this first year. 🙂

So, in honor of Annie’s birthday, here are her accomplishments:

1. Sit. One of Annie’s first commands to learn was “sit.” All I had to do was gently press on her haunches, say “sit,” and give our hand signal. She learned to sit in about two weeks.

2. Wait/Stay. This was probably the second of Annie’s commands. It took her only a few days to learn to wait/stay.

3. Potty bell. Annie learned fairly on that the back door is for going outside to potty…but she wouldn’t tell us that she was by the door. Next thing we knew, she’d have an accident because she couldn’t hold it. So, I nailed a jingle bell to the wall by the door, showed her to ring the bell while I said “potty,” and she learned it in only a few days. Now she’s smart enough to know that if she rings the bell, then she gets to go outside to sniff and walk around.

4. Shake/High-five. With the help of a treat and some nudging, Annie learned “shake” fairly quickly. Annie learned “high-five” the same time she learned “shake.” She loves to do either and both because they make me so happy. She’s so adorable when she does these commands.

5. Quiet/Hush. Shortly after Annie grew into her “big girl” bark, we taught her “quiet” and “hush.” These days, when we tell her “hush” after a particularly painful bark, she tends to do a little rumbly “back-talk.” Maybe she’ll grow out of that soon, too.

6. Lay down. A cookie on the ground just a little ways away from Annie. That’s all it took. She picked it up immediately. Now Annie knows that she has to shake, high-five, and lay down in order to get a cookie. Sometimes she does all three at the same time. It’s the cutest damn thing I’ve ever seen!

7. Come/come back. This one has been the hardest one to learn, but Annie’s getting there. We use cookies sometimes and shower her with lots of love when she obeys. “Come back” is for when we’re walking around and she gets ahead of me. Right now, we’re doing “come back” on the leash. I’m hopeful that one day we’ll be able to do it off the leash. That will be an important command to learn for the park.

8. Go get it/bring it back. These are for fetching. We’re working on teaching Annie to wait until we command her to “go get it” before she gets the chance to run after a tossed toy in order to “bring it back.” She is always so proud of herself when she brings a toy back.

9. Night-night. We tell Annie this when it’s time for her to go to the guest bathroom, which is where she spends the day when Robert and I are out of the house.

10. Leave it. Annie knows to step back and sit when we tell her to “leave it”–this can be for food, toys, treats, cats, whatever. Sometimes the cats are more difficult to leave alone, particularly Callie. But she’s learning. Maybe by her second person we’ll have this one down! 🙂

What we’d like to learn next year
I think over this next year, I’d like her to learn how to come/come back without any trouble, and particularly to leave Callie alone with little verbal direction. I’d also like for her to learn “quiet/hush” without back-talk. I’d love to take her to the park off the leash. I’ve seen people running with their dogs (something I’d love to do with her once my back is healed up), and they’re often off-leash. Finally, I want to teach her some more “fun” tricks like “roll over,” “play dead,” and fetching frisbees in midair. Robert would like her to learn “put it up,” so she can learn to put her toys away. Also, he wants her to learn “get down” better–so far, she still gets hyper when we tell her “get down,” but she really needs to learn to “get down” off the couches when we tell her to.

In the meantime, though, I am pleased with the kind of dog our little puppy girl is turning into.

Happy first birthday, Annie!

Mutual of Omahab Presents: Nesting Woogs

May 8, 2011 § 9 Comments

Know what happens when you have a Woogs in your house and you don’t make your bed?

Oops...I believe I disturbed her beauty rest...

...and back to sleep...

Okay, okay, I know it’s kind of a cop-out to do a photo entry for the post-a-day challenge, but, eh, this is what you get today, folks. I’m kind of behind the 8-ball with writing deadlines (entirely arbitrary and self-imposed, but whatever), so no new news to deliver. Have a happy mother’s day all you mothers, and all you children of mothers!

For a detailed explanation of the nickname “Woogs” for my cat Beatrice, please see her profile page and the entry “Beatrice: The Woogs of the Bathroom.”

Bird-watching from my home office

April 30, 2011 § 3 Comments

I find myself spending time frequenting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’sAll About Birds” website (http://www.allaboutbirds.org). The reason? The bird feeder just outside my office window.

Since Spring began, our front and backyards have been awash in color, both from flora and fauna. Our wrens have chosen a different place to nest, and I believe their eggs hatched yesterday (just guessing from all the commotion). We also have several pairs of couples who frequent our little feeder ranging from house finches to cardinals to titmice to chickadees. (Fortunately for me, these are among my favorite birds!) I’ve loved listening to their different songs and guessing how far along the females are in their respective gestations.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been a fascinating little tool–all I have to do is look up the shape of a bird, and they’ll help me narrow down which kind it is. This is much more useful than typing “small brown bird with long beak and short tail” into Google.

I have managed to snap a couple of photos of our more frequent visitors. No matter the time of day, you are bound to see a pair of house finches and American goldfinches eagerly noshing at Chez Hab. They can be a tad possessive, particularly when the females are close to laying. (As the mating pair below is.)

House Finch: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/House_Finch/id

Look how round she is!

The female is on the top left-hand perch while the male is on the bottom right-hand perch. The male warded off another young male house finch so that the female could eat in peace. Occasionally, he offered her a little peck on the head too…not entirely sure what that was about, since he worked so hard to get her a place at the table from the get-go.

American Goldfinch: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Goldfinch/id

So pretty!

I love Goldies. So very very much. Aside from chickadees, they appear to be fairly docile little eaters…except when they’re really after a meal, in which case they are satisfied with simply flying to their intended perch and scaring the bejeezus out of the perch’s occupant until the offending party flits away. When a family of goldfinches wants to eat, though, you better watch out!

It took absolutely no time whatsoever for this family of four to clear off the feeder for their own dinnertime needs.

Move it, or lose it, buddy! We're eatin' here!

So far, behaviorally-speaking that is, I have only observed the male house finches engage in any all-out physical violence. (Nothing, that is to say, quite to the extent of the dreaded house sparrow…dreaded if you’re a poor little bird who nests in a nestbox. Also, house sparrows are those little brown birds you might see hopping around in parking lots. They’re pretty cute…but they’re vicious toward other birds. If you don’t have an iron stomach, you shouldn’t Google for proof of their meanness. It’s pretty grim.) No, the male house finches I’ve observed tend to just stick to pecking on the head and flapping their wings wildly until they get their way. The American goldfinches, as I said, sort of just dive-bomb the other bird. I haven’t observed any pecking from them, but the behavior is just sort of presumptive: “I’m landing here, if you don’t mind.” The other bird doesn’t have a choice but to move…or get landed on. Those are the options.

So, these are the birds I get to enjoy observing. 🙂 They truly make work in the office less drudgery and more pleasurable.

UTI rears its ugly head…for the third time

April 23, 2011 § 6 Comments

And, just like that, Annie’s back on an antibiotic. This is her third UTI since September. Of course, she wouldn’t offer a urine sample despite the fact that she desperately had to pee moments before we quickly loaded her into the car. This time, I thought, this time she’ll actually offer a urine sample! Annie did start to potty after a several-minutes-long tour of the outdoor facilities at the vet clinic, but when the tech moved forward to catch the sample in a cup, Annie turned around, wagging her tail. She thought the tech was playing. It was too sweet, really. But her behavior alone (incessant post-potty licking, dribble trails around the house) convinced Dr. Vet (who we absolutely adore) to prescribe her some meds. We went home with our own cup to catch a urine sample in two weeks. I’ve already done this before, so I know it won’t be terribly difficult.

We’re at the point now where we’re discussing dietary options. She’s on Science Diet Puppy, but she’ll turn one in May, so she’s close to adult food anyway. Dr. Vet wants us to try Royal Canin or ProPlan before we start talking about a prescription diet. I hope either of those works well–I’m worried a prescription diet would be expensive.

But you know what? Annie’s our sweet little angel-girl, and she’s worth any cost. Even if it means paying for more meds. Even if it means changing her diet. Even if it means buying stock in Resolve. She’s a good girl with a fickle urinary tract.

Such a sweet face.

The value of exercise…in dogs

April 17, 2011 § 3 Comments

I am looking at two dogs that have mastered a convincing portrayal of death. They are both utterly passed-out in the living room–Annie doesn’t seem to notice when a cat meanders by; Milton rests facing the back door, an attempt at guarding the domain.

What brought them to this state?

Why, a fun-filled, action-packed day with their favorite doggy pals at A and R’s house!

At the house, there were not two, not three, but six furry friends to chase, tackle, and sniff in the backyard-o-joy. All six dogs were of varying sizes and ages (Milton and little Ali were the oldest while newbie Digby brought up the rear at eleven weeks). In between were Tana, Lucy, and Annie (who, by the way, just turned eleven months yesterday).

What I have noticed after my two rambunctious monsters make their way back home is that after a day in the backyard-o-joy (or even the house-o-joy, Milt and Annie are not prejudiced when it comes to spending time with Ali, Tana, and Lucy) is that they utterly collapse. If they could melt through the floor, I’m sure they would.

Yes, exercise is beneficial to the physical health of a dog. That is undeniable–exercise is beneficial to the physical health of any creature.

But I love that I have observed a difference in the benefit of exercise between cats and dogs: in cats, it’s mostly for physical health and socializing. In dogs, it’s about physical health, socializing, emotional health, and submission. Milton, for instance, is in training for his food “aggression.” (Quotation marks because he has never actually bitten anyone, but he sure as hell has threatened me.) We’ve been working on a new regime over the past couple of weeks, and some days are hit or miss. This evening though? Dinner went by in a breeze because Milt was too exhausted to fight. It was beautiful.

If only we had a fenced-in yard, they’d spend a great deal more time outside running around.

One day guys, I promise. We will move, and you will have a fence. That is a promise.

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