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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book review: Teach Your Dog to Read

I read a lot of dog books, but I don't normally post reviews. This was such a cute and creative book, though, that I wanted to spread the word about it. Yes, the title really is Teach Your Dog to Read. It's written by Bonnie Bergin, whose background is working at a center breeding and raising/training service dogs.

I had already seen, in person, a couple of dogs trained to read words. The words are printed in plain black font on white printer paper, large enough to almost fill the page. Click here to see sample cards provided on the book's website. It's easy to get the dog to respond to the first word, because they will assume that any time you show them the giant flash card, it means "down" or "sit" or whichever first word you taught them. Getting the second word, and getting the dog to realize that what's written on the card in important, is the most difficult part. It's an amazing circus trick, it really gets your dog thinking, and there are some interesting real-world applications suggested in the book.

Dr. Bergin has a systematic plan for teaching the dog to really read the words. The dog must first reliably respond to each cue you will be putting on the flash cards on a verbal cue. (Hand signals would also work, but verbals are better because then you can hold totally still and not distract the dog visually from the card.) She suggests starting with "down", a cue which most dogs know well, but is not a default behavior like "sit" is, so the dog is less likely to be just guessing. She gives helpful tips for teaching the dog to lie down when you show him the "down" card: start with your dog standing in front of you, hold very still after you present the card so that the dog can get a good look at it without being distracted, look at the top of the card rather than staring into your dog's eyes, and give the "down" verbal a moment after you present the card. Once your dog reliably lies down when you show him the "down" card, move on to "sit". He will initially lie down, of course, but you will verbally cue him to sit. When the dog is able to discriminate between those two cards, you introduce a third, and at that point your dog will have learned to really look at the cards rather than guessing or anticipating. Stick with "discrete" behaviors at first -- ones which have a clear beginning and end, like stand, playbow, spin, or roll over, rather than heel or stay or back up.

Where the book became really interesting, for me, was in the next section in which she moves on to teaching the dogs to respond to doggie "stick figures". Click here to see the amusing stick figure cards. Dr. Bergin shares some amazing stories of dogs recognizing the meanings of the stick figures without even being taught an association between a verbal cue and that particular card. Talk about revealing the power of the dog's mind! Even though the stick figure stories were more impressive, she does recommend teaching the word cards first, so that the dog is already used to looking carefully at the cards and understanding that they hold some meaning.

There were a few training points I disgreed with. Dr. Bergin writes to advance to the next level of difficulty when your dog is responding correctly three out of five times (60%). That's only slightly better than chance (50%). I would only raise the difficulty when the dog is responding correctly four out of five times (80%), or even better, nine out of ten (90%). She suggests using a calm, quick "no" as a no reward marker. I would prefer to reset the dog without using an NRM, which can be quite stressful for a dog learning a difficult task like this. She suggests asking the dog, "What's it say?" any time their attention wavers without really teaching them that those words mean anything, so it's unlikely to get the dog to actually concentrate on the card. Finally, when working on responding to a sign showing a circle with a line going through it to mean "leave it", she suggests bopping the dog on the nose if he tries to approach the forbidden item. However, these are all minor points, and overall the book presents a comprehensive training plan that is easy to follow for any person who wants to teach their dog this neat skill.

She had some impressive ideas for truly utilizing a dog's ability to read. It allows the dog to communicate to his owner what he wants in that moment by approaching the appropriate card on the wall, such as water, food, or potty. For a person with diabetes or other health problems, the dog could clearly indicate a card meaning low blod sugar or some other warning. For cancer detection dogs that have learned how to identify bladder, prostate, ovarian, and breast cancer cells in urine samples, they could indicate the appropriate cards to tell us what kind of cancer they smell, or "nothing" if no cancer is present. Amazing stuff.

If you love teaching your dog new tricks, and you're up for a challenge, I would highly recommend that you give this a try. I guarantee that everyone who sees it will be beyond impressed that your dog can read! Dragon and I have plenty of other stuff to work on right now (agility, obedience, nosework, freestyle...), but eventually I plan to pursue reading with him.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Private contacts lesson #3 with Susanne

It was only 10 am but it was about 70 degrees, so Dragon quickly started to pant and tire out. Thankfully our lesson was only 30 minutes since we're only focusing on contacts.

We started with the teeter and I got to show off the huge progress he's made. I've spent a lot of time on foundation for the teeter, with months playing on the wobble board, months again practicing just jumping onto the end of a tippy board, and the past couple of months working with my teeter lowered way down. It seems that we've crossed a significant point in Dragon's comfort with the teeter movement. In recent sessions he's been running over to the teeter and walking over it as soon as I take him outside. In the past two sessions at home I've been able to raise the height quite quickly -- the high end went from 5 inches to 11 inches off the ground!

Back to our lesson today. Susanne put the teeter on its lowest setting and we stared at it for a bit. The high end was about 1.5 feet off the ground -- higher than he's ever tipped it before. Normally I would have put a sandbag under the heavy end so that it wouldn't tilt so high, but my gut told me to go ahead and try Dragon on it. My gamble paid off. Dragon did slow down at the beginning of the contact zone the first time he ran across. But the second time he didn't slow down until partway through the contact. The third time he very fast until more than halfway through the contact zone, and the fourth time his toes touched the bottom edge of his target! We stopped there, other than having him also practice jumping onto just the end of the teeter and riding it down. His quick increase in confidence filled me with pride. Susanne also buttered me up with plenty of compliments about the extensive time I've spent on his foundation and confidence-building.

Also noteworthy was the fact that the teeter was next to a pine tree and once I slipped on the pine needles and went skidding on my side. Dragon didn't miss a beat.

One more teeter note is that I often have Dragon run back across the teeter and tip it again rather than releasing him forward from the target. I do this because I've seen a clear increase in his confidence (always looking for that!) when he runs back and forth rather than around and resetting. The interesting thing is that he consistently stops on his target when he's on the target end and runs off the edge when he's on the other (thanks to the running contacts training). I'll have to watch out when the teeter is higher than he doesn't start jumping off before it hits the ground.

Teeter homework is to continue the work we've been doing.

After that we moved on to practicing the dog walk. Again we pushed his training. We've been practicing a lot with a plank on the staircases at home. I said that I thought he was ready to run all the way across the lowered dog walk (about three feet off the ground). Boy, that dog is fast. One end of the dog walk was pointed right at his crate, and the second time across he zoomed past me and into his crate. Woohoo!

Our homework is to continue the plank work at home. On the steeper set of stairs, if I lay the plank flat on the stair edges he will take a little jump on the way down. So I will backtrack on that set with the plank lower, and raise it back up when he's not jumping at all. We're looking for even striding going up and going down. If I get more chances to work the lowered dog walk, I need to practice ahead, behind, and to the side, and just get lots of reps in. When his plank running is consistent we'll be ready to do the same thing on the full height dog walk.

The last thing we did was one of Susan Salo's set point/striding exercises to help not just with his jumping ability, but also his striding on the planks. We put him in a sit two feet back from a jump with no far. Four feet was that was a jump with a bar at 8 inches. I stood two feet in front of that and dropped a toy, and released him to get it. We were looking for smooth, even striding between the jumps and on the final landing. I had been wishing that our group class would do some jump work, because I don't know much about it, but the good news was that I was able to tell when he was jumping too soon and when his striding was off. So we will continue with that exercise at home. I can also challenge him further by putting a third jump four feet beyond the second, again with no bar, and again looking for even bouncing between the jumps and after the last one.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Great contacts session

I put out the teeter on its smallest pivot point and got him reved up. Once he was super excited about it, there was no excess slow down. Next time I will put it back on its PVC base, on the lowest setting. So excited about this.

Then I moved the board onto the staircase leading up to the main house. The neighbor's kids were out and I asked them to help me. Rather than doing a lead out and climbing up and down the stairs myself, I had one of the kids stand at the top of the board while I stood at the bottom, and I sent Tiny Dog up for treats and then called him down for more treats. We were able to raise it up to the fifth step, and he was much more jazzed up than when it's just me doing the exercise. I will definitely use their help again. They loved helping, of course, and it's great for building Dragon's confidence around children. (When I first got him he would growl and be suspicious of children, but through the liberal use of treats he's now happy to see children of the 6-10 age group.)

Back when I built the miniature equipment, I was cautioned by a couple of instructors about using it. Now I'm very happy that I have it. This is a great way to build his confidence and enthusiasm for the obstacles, and it's transferring well to our work in class. Otherwise I would be stuck paying out the nose for us to rent agility space and make progress at a snail's pace.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Using a platform to teach changes in position (fronts, finishes, etc)

I'm using the platform to reinforce the proper movements as Dragon does left and right finishes and moves into front position (for obedience or rally). This helps him learn how to swing his back end around properly. He already moved from front to heel quite well, but the reverse tended to be crooked. His right finish has been shaped solely with a platform so far. The platform can also help with building confidence in close, automatic tuck sits.

Multi-sport weekly recap.

Nosework class. We worked outside, along a wall. Did great. Our homework is to go to new interior locations.

Went to OSH to practice Nosework. Each hide was in a different aisle, and he didn't get a chance to check out the aisle before we started. Really happy with how focused he was. When we practice in other places, he sometimes stops working and starts just sniffing around and checking things out if he's confused or can't get a whiff of the odor. This time that only occured once.

There was a weird lady who saw him sniffing the merchandise and putting his front feet on a low shelf and started saying, "You can't do that. That's not allowed." I thought that she was upset that he would get the merchandise dirty, which was a fair concern, although this IS a hardware store where no one would expect the items to be germ-free. But then she continued on to say, "This isn't a place for animals." I smiled and I replied, "Dogs are allowed!" She shook her head and said, "That's not right. You shouldn't do that. He shouldn't be here." I decided to ignore her and moved on with my dog as she kept mumbling at us. Later we walked by her, Dragon being perfectly behaved (didn't even try to approach her to sniff), and she again started up, "This isn't a place for animals. You shouldn't do that. You should have him a short leash in here." (He was on a six foot leash, which I was shortening when we passed by people.) "I know you're ignoring me..." We just kept walking. I guess she's afraid of dogs or something. All of the employees we passed smiled at Dragon and said hello and one of them crouched down and pet him.

I finished work early and was able to attend the weekly private agility practice session at Metro Dog. This was my first time being able to join them, since usually I'm working until after they're done. The other students are all much more advanced than me. One of them suggested a few basic exercises for me to work on. We did lateral distance at a lead out of two jumps. Then we did a lead out that either sent him straight ahead or included a front cross. I kept cuing the front cross late. The other student also gave me one of her old tug toys, which Dragon had pulled out of her bag and enjoyed playing with.

Practiced our contacts at home. Dragon was really reved up and did GREAT on the teeter. The high end was about 6 inches off the ground and he was running across quickly and slamming it down. PERFECT! I used tugging, wrestling, running back and forth, and cuing other fun tricks like his hand target and spinning in order to keep his arousal up.

Then I moved the teeter board onto a set of three stairs leading to the street and practiced running contacts. At first I threw his food toy, but after two throws my tug toy fell out of my pocket and Dragon stopped and stared at it. I invited him to tug and we had a great session using just tugging as his reward for running. This felt wonderful. I tried tugging with him like we used to when he was younger, and before his eye injury. I kneel on the ground and pull him up onto my legs/stomach/chest with the tug, so he uses my body to brace himself backwards. After a few tries, I was able to let him win the tug and then jump back up onto my stomach to bring it back to my hands for more tugging. I like doing this because it gives him an easy way to leverage his weight against the toy, and makes it an intimate game.

After my evening rally class I took him through the course, using wrestling with my hands as the only reward. He was still really high and my hands ended up pock-marked and red. That means it was a good session!

Finally, before bedtime, we did yet another training session for Nosework. I'm glad that Miki told me that I need to stay back and give him more room to work. I'm seeing his search patterns and body language more clearly than before. When he starts the search he tends to run a couple of fast circles around the perimeter of the room, hoping to catch a quick whiff of the odor. If he doesn't, his circles start to slow down and be more careful. He'll go farther into corners and underneath furniture. Then he starts checking higher surfaces, such as chairs, the couch, and the bed, as well as places he's learned from experience that the odor tends to pool in.

As I was getting ready for bed he played with Jasper. Somehow he was still energized!

Did a nosework session with my car. He was a bit distracted and wanted to wander off. There was a high wind so it was a harder session.

In agility class my goal was to tug more, since he'd been so into it all week. Sure enough, he was more exuberant about tugging in class than he'd been before. I was able to use the tug as the sole reward on a couple of easier exercised, and a couple of times when I tossed his food toy as a reward, he wanted to keep tugging on it longer than usual. So happy!

We did a great teeter exercise. A helper stood by the higher end of a lowered teeter with high-value treats. The owner had the dog on leash and allowed him to approach and step on the teeter (however he was comfortable doing so) and eat a bunch of treats from the helper. After a few treats the owner used the leash to pull the dog away before he was done eating. Immediately the dog was allowed to return to the teeter for more treats. Repeat. The teeter was about a foot in the air. The first three times Dragon put his front feet on a bit hesitantly, but by the end he was sailing onto it to get to the treats faster.

The instructor started the class on the weave poles. She's using channel weaves with an x-pen around them. I'm doing to teach Dragon 2x2 weaves, so we skipped this exercise. I'll start with those after his contacts are solid, so I can focus on one category of exercises at a time. I've been neglecting our jump and sequences training while working on the contacts. I just don't have time to do it all.

Dumbbell game

Dragon used to have a problem with picking up the dumbbell crooked in his mouth. We've been playing with burying his dumbbell in a blanket to teach him to drive down and really think about how he's picking it up. We've finally made progress!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Another barometer

Dragon and Jasper just played for the first time since immediately after his eye injury in mid-October! I am over the moon! I've said it before but now it feels more true than ever: I have my puppy back!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Agility Foundations, week 2-2 recap

We had a new instructor today, Wendy. We spent the hour doing jumping and contacts review and then a short jumps-and-tunnel sequence so that she could assess where each team was with their handling and training. Her emphasis was on getting the dogs more reved up before their work, and on going back to reward stays frequently. The reminder about reving up was good for me. I tend to get too focused on the "how" and "why" of an exercise and forget to add that extra enthusiasm for Dragon. His performance is of course much better when I am able to get him more excited!

At home, we've done a couple of sessions of plank work on stairs, and it is building his confidence nicely. Here, too, it greatly helps if I jump around, run him in a circle, wrestle with him, and send him straight to the board instead of doing a lead out. In the meantime I think that I will not put him on the dog walk at all in class, not even to backchain it.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Agility and nosework class summaries

Thursday's agility class was nothing new. We need to work on lateral distance more. Otherwise it's continuing on the same skills as the last two weeks.

On Saturday we started an Intro to Odor (nosework) class. This was our first nosework class in almost a year! We've been practicing at home, and with Miki's guidance I've already started him on birch and exteriors and vehicles. However during the past six months I've barely practiced nosework with him in favor of agility and obedience. I was happy to find the appropriate level class for us starting again at a time I could make it.

There is only one spot where we can put crates where the active dog won't see them, and the other two dogs in class are reactive. They were crated in the car and I brought in Dragon's soft crate so that he could get more experience chilling in it. I let him chew on a bully stick for most of class and toward the end I switched to giving him treats for just lying inside.

He did very well in class -- I was quite proud of him! He had never been to that building before, and he was excited to see Miki, but as soon as I gave the cue "searching!" he was off like a rocket, nose to the ground. We did two sets of four hides. I got critiqued on my body language. I usually follow him around the whole time, thinking that that way, he won't know if he's close or not (because I'm not moving in when he is getting close), and I can watch his body language. Miki pointed out that my constant movement may be causing him to be also moving so much that he has trouble slowing down enough to pinpoint the location of the odor. Also I can actually see his body language better if I'm farther away. Yesterday we practiced in the lobby after work and I made sure to stay out of his way. I was definitely able to see more easily how he was reading the wind currents.

On Sunday we hiked five miles with my sister, whom he adores, and a dog she borrowed for the hike. We completed the hike in just under three hours. We had never been to Sunol before, and it was his first time seeing cows. He started to approach with great caution, until one of the cows mooed at him and stood up and we quickly called the dogs farther away. He also allowed four riders on horseback to pass us while beautifully playing the Look at That game. Proud moment!

Monday morning was my second private agility lesson with Susanne Cohen to work on our contacts. There is a noticeable improvement in his comfort level running down the boards, and now we need to work on driving up. My teeter board is the longest one I have (6'8"). Since it's not on its base right now (just pivoting on the metal pipe attached to the bottom), my homework is to put it on the front steps and work on running up and down. As he gets more comfortable I'll put the top edge higher up on the stairs. It will teach him to really drive up the a-frame and dog walk and teeter, as well as help his running contacts. We also practiced the lowered teeter, and with that I'm continuing as before. Slooowly make it more tippy, keeping the exercise high-drive and fun above all else.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Contacts - private agility lesson with Susanne #1

On Monday morning I had a 30 minute private agility lesson with Susanne Cohen, our current class instructor. (Unfortunately the class is changing instructors a second time due to scheduling issues. A shame, because I really liked learning from Susanne!) My goal was to make progress on our contacts, since I didn't have much confidence in teaching them on my own.

We started off with the teeter. Dragon will have running contacts on the dog walk and a-frame, but on the teeter I am using a target at the end, feeding on the target, and giving him a release. The advantage is that it gives him a clear spot to drive into right at the end of the teeter. I am focusing all my training efforts on teaching him to drive to the end rather than slowing down or stopping midway across the board, and many under-confident dogs do.

In my practice at home, we went through a short period of him slowing down as the mini-teeter tipped. However I have licked that problem by putting the board back directly on the ground, pivoting only on the 1.5" pipe attached to the middle, and putting towels underneath the ends of the board to break down the motion into even smaller increments. This morning I took it outside and practiced changing my position (as Susanne says, "ahead, behind, and to the side") as Dragon drove forward to the target. There was a brick lifting the near end of the teeter where he jumped on but the far end was pivoting down a couple of inches as he ran across, and he did great.

The wonderful tip that Susanne gave me during our lesson was to break down the teeter behavior even further between having him bang it to make noise (have already done LOTS with that), having him run across and feel the tip (slooowly integrating this more now), and separately teaching him to run UP a stationary teeter and drive all the way to the end. She shoved a jump pole between the ground and the top edge of the teeter and held in it place as he ran up to his target. He had no problem with this -- he would even stop with his foot fur slightly hanging over the edge. We will practice this more and then start securing the up end slightly lower, so that it moves down a teensy bit as he runs to the end. This is much, much harder for Dragon. He doesn't know how far it will drop down, unlike the lowered teeter that will definitely stop when it hits the ground. Eventually the two methods will meet in the middle.

For the dog walk, we are simply backchaining the boards. I placed him on the down ramp, told him "go!" and then rewarded him with a toy thrown forward. I have to remember to release him when he's looking straight ahead. I click for his paws hitting the lower end of the contact zone. I don't think we'll have any problem with this obstacle at all.

The final contact obstacle is the a-frame. Susanne said that we are not ready to train the a-frame yet. Sure, in class she had people practice their 2o2o at the base, and I had been putting Dragon on it and having him run down. However she was not planning on teaching the actual obstacle any time soon, and we don't expect the new instructor to do so, either.

We have a couple of options for it. We could backchain it, same as the dog walk. We could use a guide wire or box to keep him from jumping off. She said that some people like to use a big, obvious guide and some people taper it down over time so that the dog doesn't see it until they're right at it. The third method was to use a PVC box as a target. I forgot who she said it was that developed that technique. You build a rectangle with the same dimensions as the contact zone and teach the dog to stand in it with all four feet, facing straight forward. Then you teach them to run into and out of the box with all four feet. Then you add jumps in front as stride regulators. Finally you put the box onto the contact zone of the a-frame and reward the dog for hitting his feet in the box. Susanne said that this method is very thorough and she's seen good results from it. I am a little bit reluctant to commit to all those props. I honestly can't see Dragon being a dog who would jump off the a-frame and miss the contact zone. He is too careful when going down stuff. However maybe that is naive -- after all, I am working hard to increase his speed and drive. As of right now I'm not sure which method I will use.

I bought a package with two more lessons, spread one week apart. My bank account is not happy, but damn, this sport is addictive and I want to be competitive.

Genetics of coat colors

I've been reading about the genetics of coat coloration in dogs recently. Not all of it is known, and there are some different interpretations out there. However I went by what was written on this papillon site and looked at Dragon's phenotype (the physical characteristics we can observe and measure) to have a guess at his genotype (the underlying genes which determine his coat colors).

(Least flattering photo ever. It looks like his eyes are pointing in different directions.)

Ahem. Locus S, determining the amount of white (non-pigmented) hair on the body: PIEBALD: The sp or piebald allele is responsible for producing a coat which is about 50% white and 50% color. Papillons are affected by the sp allele for piebald. Normally, the white areas are found on the chest, neck, legs, belly, around the loin area, and the tip of the tail. However, due to modifier genes, there is a lot of variation in the amount of white that an individual Papillon can have.


Locus A, determining the placement of eumalin (black pigment) in hair and restricting it to allow pheomelanin (red pigment) to show. Dragon is a tricolor. TRICOLOR: The fourth allele, at, is responsible for the tricolor. A tricolor has solid black body spots and gold markings which are more commonly referred to as "tan" points. The tan points are located over the eyes, a little on each cheek, some in the ears, and under the tail. The tan points range from shades of pale cream to deep red... A different variation of the hound tricolor is where the face retains the classic tricolor’s tan points, but gold or tan hairs are produced at the back of the head.


If tri-colored dogs have pigment underneath their tail, it will be brown and not black.


Dragon is mostly white underneath his tail, but there is a handful of brown hairs.

Locus S, which can dilute the pheomelanin (red) to a light cream or lemon shade. Dragon does not express the diluting genes. FULL PHEOMELANIN:  The [C-] genotype is the most common allele combination at the C locus. It allows for full pheomelanin (gold) pigment in the phenotype. Most Papillons are [CC] (a.k.a. [C-]) and therefore show regular gold coloring in their coat.

Locus E, which can create a mask, an all-red/yellow dog with no eumelanin (black), or have no effect. (The site listed above also says that this gene can create brindle, but other sites I've read (example here) say that that has been disproven since it was originally hypothesized.) EXTENTION: The E allele does occur in Papillons and is relatively simple to explain. If a Papillon is [E-], it will be whatever color the other genes express. The allele E does not produce any color of its own; it just allows the coat colors from the other series to show. It seems that regular E is recessive to Em (which creates a mask), and masks are very common in papillons, but Dragon does not have one.

Locus G: The G locus is responsible for graying or frosting in Papillons. A dog who is [gg] at the G locus shows normal coloring throughout its life. It may grow some gray hairs when it is old, but this has nothing to do with the G series. In dogs who are [GG] or [Gg] some of the dark hairs are replaced by non-colored, or white, hairs. These new interspersed white hairs cause the coat to appear faded. This lightening may start immediately after birth or after several months, and it may stop after the dog has grown its adult coat or it may continue throughout the dog’s life. There is also great variability in how much graying will occur. So far it looks like Dragon does not have the graying gene.

Locus K: A dog who has at least one K allele will be black in color regardless of what other alleles the dog has on other loci. Clearly Dragon is kk: A who is homozygous recessive [kk] will not be black. His color will be affected by all the other alleles.

Locus T, for ticking. It is hard to photograph, but Dragon has black ticking all over the white portions of his back, brown ticking down his legs, and even a couple of brown spots on his muzzle. The T locus is responsible for ticking or freckling. The dominant allele, T, is responsible for producing spots of color on a white background. The amount of ticking varies greatly. On Papillons it usually occurs on the legs or muzzle. However, there have been Papillons who have exhibited ticking over all the white regions of their coat. Interestingly, ticking is not visible at birth. It usually demonstrates itself when the puppy several weeks of age.

I am continuing my education about the genetics of coat colors and am excited to compare what I've learned with the dogs that I see every day at work. Some are very easy to figure out (like Labrador Retrievers) while others still mystify me.