On the adventures and training of Cinnamon Snapdragon, a papillon destined for greatness.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

first rally o course

Today was the first day of a new session of the Intro to Rally Obedience class I co-teach at Metro Dog. After the students left I brought out Dragon and we went through the course. Initially he was a bit suspicious of the signs but after sniffing a few he was willing to work around them. He did the course beautifully! I was so proud, and I really wish that I'd gotten it on video! I rewarded him every two or three signs with a game of tug. He did start to lose interest in the tug toy around the tenth sign or so, so I switched to treats. If I'd been using his very favorite toy (a tennis ball on a string) he probably would have worked a bit longer. He doesn't yet have much stamina for long chains of tricks or heeling for a long time. I think that I tend to fall into the same trap as many people who enjoy teaching tricks -- I spend a lot of time getting brand new behaviors, but I don't spend as much time getting them on cue, proofing them, and building stamina for behavior chains with lower reinforcement schedules. Hmmm, this is something I need to start fixing ASAP or I'll be working against our plans to compete!

This weekend we have a working spot in a Denise Fenzi seminar about drives and motivation. I can't wait! I just hope I manage to get up at 5 AM both days -- I usually get to sleep in until 9!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

jaw update, and different ways of training a retrieve

I don't think that Dragon's aversion to holding a plastic tube in his mouth is due to physical pain after all (or, if it is, it's only a small factor). I think that he was actually shutting down because he didn't understand the exercise. I came to this conclusion after watching him carefully during play and training and checking in multiple times with my awesome, intuitive boss. I thought back on previous times that Dragon had been reluctant or completely shut down during training. He's a "soft" dog -- if he feels overwhelmed by the environment or training set-up, or he's confused about what he should do, or if I try to push him to do something he's not comfortable with, he stops being operant and displays stress signals, or he leaves and finds something to chew on instead of training. I have to be quite careful to keep training sessions short, with lots of encouragement, and most importantly, have to raise my expectations/criteria in baby steps, and only when he has a clear understanding of his job.

The last part is what has been biting me in the butt sometimes. I think that I'm raising criteria only a tiny amount, and he should be able to succeed, but when he doesn't understand what's happening he shuts down even with a high rate of reinforcement. For example, I was trying to train him to hold onto a plastic tube by initially clicking/treating for taking hold of it, then for taking hold of it behind his canines and not farther forward or back in his mouth, and then for holding it just a fraction of a second longer. But the idea of "sit still while holding something in your mouth" is not currently in Dragon's repertoire -- he was sure that he was supposed to be doing something. He was confused and frustrated because he didn't understand why he was getting the click sometimes and not other times. The high rate of reinforcement was not enough to override it, and so he spit out the tube and left the training session.

At least, that's my analysis. I can't know what really went through his head. But based on what I know about him, and the insight of my boss (who has plenty of experience with soft, stressy dogs), it's my best guess.

Now, similar moments of confusion happen all the time when a dog is being shaped to perform a new behavior. It's important to minimize frustration and confusion by keeping sessions short and upbeat and of course raise criteria slowly. But beyond that, I think the problem was that this was just a concept that was hard for Dragon to grasp, just like some people are better able to understand spatial reasoning or language arts than mathematics.

My solution is to change the way I'm trying to teach Dragon this skill, and hopefully find a way that will make more sense to him. He already has a strong "bring to hand" behavior (in fact, I think the strong reinforcement history for moving and targeting when he takes something into his mouth was part of the problem in understanding the new criteria of "just hold it"). So now instead of holding my hand out to him as a clear target on his way to me with an object, I am sometimes keeping it up and then lowering it once he's closer. Sometimes I lower it more slowly than other times. My goal is to start lowering my hand more and more slowly until he is effectively standing still with the item in his mouth and waiting. Then I will start waiting to lower my hand at all until he has stopped in front of me and is waiting and holding.

If this doesn't work, another method I've read about is teaching a dog to place his lower jaw onto a person's palm, and teach them to grab a dumbbell/retrieve object, and then to combine the two behaviors. Dragon does not currently have a duraction contact behavior with his nose or mouth, so this method would involve more new skill sets for him, and that's why I'm not using it as my first choice. Down the line, of course, it would be nice to teach him a chin target.

Eventually, for a formal retrieve, I'll also need to teach him to sit in front while holding onto an object, but I'm not worrying about that yet.

Other aspects of retrieving that we have been working on:
- reaching underneath or into a small space to reach the retrieve object
- reaching up high to reach the object, especially pulling something down (this is quite difficult for Dragon because sudden falling motions scare him)
- pulling something out of a box or over a barrier (speaking of spatial reasoning, this is helping him to develop it!)
- retrieving larger, heavier, or awkwardly shaped objects
- retrieving objects by name (inspired by Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her work with Alex, I'm starting off by trying to teach him the names "ball" for his orange floaty ball and "sock" for his sock tug, next items will probably be "stick" and "hoof" for his pig hoof)

My eventual goal is to have both a formal retrieve for the obedience ring as well as a useful service dog-type retrieve of named objects. I can't explain why but retrieving is something that I really love training with the clicker, and all these variations on the behavior keep the training new and engaging for both of us.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mendocino Botanical Garden

On Friday we drove and drove and drove to the Mendocino Botanical Garden, which is unusual in that it allows dogs on leash within the garden. I adore botanical gardens, and I enjoy traveling and exploring with Dragon, so how could I resist?

Mendocino Botanical Garden

It was a lovely place, with grassy paths by the entrance, giving way to gravel, and then to the natural landscape by the Mendocino cliffs.

Mendocino Botanical Garden

Dragon wore a dashing new harness.

Mendocino Botanical Garden

If I knew anything about conformation this photo might be useful? I can tell that he's funny-looking for a papillon -- long nose, long legs.

Mendocino Botanical Garden

His expression in this photo cracks me up.

Mendocino Botanical Garden


Mendocino Botanical Garden

Mendocino Botanical Garden

As usual he was very curious about the water below the cliffs.

Mendocino Botanical Garden

You can click on this link and scroll with the "next" button to see a handful of flower photos from the garden.

I was quite happy that Dragon did not get carsick despite the long drive through the hills. I gave him a dose of Dramamine before we left, but it seems that he's slowly becoming less prone to motion sickness.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Agility lesson recap; pride festival

On Friday we had another private agility lesson with Maureen Strenfel. We spent most of the hour learning sends. It feels like we're doing "real" agility moves now, haha! It was very exciting.

At first the sends were with Dragon lined up right in front of the jump. I would take one step with the foot next to him, point that arm forward, and say "go." He was to run ahead and take the jump, then wrap around the upright to return to me for his reward. We added some angles and a little distance. Then we switched to learning our first truly fancy handling move -- sending him past the jump, to turn around and take it on the way back to me. Oooo. I had to really work on my coordination and body movement here. I have to make sure to stand all the way to the side of the upright, so that there's enough distance that he doesn't get confused and think he should take the jump on the way out. Then I have to make sure not to turn my foot toward the jump as I step forward to send him (this was really hard!). Then I turn toward the jump after he's crossed the "refusal line" (the imaginary line extending from the jump bar). Needless to say, both the dog and I will need to practice this one a lot.

Finally we pulled over another jump and did a sequence! I would send him around the back of the first jump, turn, and run together over/past the second jump. Now I need to make a second PVC jump to practice with at home!

Today we stopped by the Oakland Pride Festival for an hour or so. I carried Tiny Dog through the crowds and we saw all manner of people dressed in unusual ways, as well as plenty of children. He was a bit overwhelmed (loud music and an overload of people), but I don't think that the stress was greater than his excitement at seeing all the new sites. At least, I hope not! I think that overall it was a good socialization experience. We rode the subway to the fair and back, and as usual he was a good boy for that, though he did attempt to chew on his crate pad once.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Jaw update

This afternoon we had another private agility lesson with Moe. I'll go into the details of the lesson later, but I wanted to write down for myself what I saw in terms of Dragon's possible jaw pain. During the lesson he was eager to eat (ZiwiPeak, softened by chicken broth, and smeared with chicken fat from a soup I made last night), and we also tugged some with his tennis ball on a string. He was very enthusiastic about tugging. After we got home he was put into his crate while I went out for the evening. He did not have access to his pig hoof at all today, just a plastic chewie and an apple to play with/chew on.

When I returned home I decided to give him his dinner via a training session. We started off with working on holding a plastic tube. This is the same exercise that had prompted me to schedule a vet visit when he was reluctant to hold the tube. I saw more of the same this time. He initially licked at it and opened his mouth slightly at it, but when I increased the criteria to taking hold of the tube behind his canines, he started throwing stress signals. He lip-licked. He licked at the tube a lot. He stood up and didn't want to sit in front of me again to restart the exercise. The one time he did hold it, he set it down very gingerly after I clicked, which made me wonder whether the issue is not pain but just a fear of the tube falling and bouncing erratically. However after I ended that exercise and moved on to other things, he started to take the food less enthusiastically, until he stopped eating. He didn't leave the training session, but he would keep his mouth closed and turn slightly away from the food. I tried lightly stuffing a kong with the rest of his meal and he pawed at it but did not eat any. This really looks like a response to pain. Something that may be an important difference between breakfast and dinner is that this afternoon his food was room temperature (after sitting in the back of the car for the hour-long drive to San Jose) and in the evening I'd just pulled it out of the fridge and it was cold.

I'm going to switch from the ZiwiPeak to some pre-packaged raw patties and canned food. It'll probably be a struggle again to get him to eat enough every day, but it will help rest his jaw. I'll give it a week and then retry the plastic tube.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Back from vet check

We just returned from a trip to the vet, because I'd seen signs that Dragon might be having pain in his teeth or jaw. Dragon did not appreciate having his teeth examined but Dr. Johnson was very patient and gentle with him. She sat on the floor with him, gave him chicken, and used minimal restraint. She found some inflammation in his gumline around his front teeth, but nothing major. The plan of action now is:
- reduce the amount of time he spends chewing, to rest his jaw (he spends a LOT of time chewing on a pig hoof, so his jaw muscles might be sore)
- I bought a gel which I will apply to his gumline once a day, which should help quell the inflammation
- continue giving him chicken feet 1-2 times a week to keep his teeth clean
- monitor and note any changes

I'm glad that there's nothing really wrong, but on the other hand it would have been nice if we had a clearer reason for his odd behavior. Also I feel really bad that I'll have to limit his chewing, but I saw that one coming. On a side note, Dragon has gained a pound since his last check-up in spring, from 7.11 to 8.13! Some of that might just be regular daily fluctuation, but I'm glad that I've managed to fill him out some. I think that his ideal weight is 8 pounds or just slightly over. It's hard to get him to eat enough to keep his weight up.