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

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Body language at the vet's

We had another check-up with the ophthalmologist last week, and I took my camera along to document Dragon's body language.

ophthalmologist visit

It's a real shame that this picture came out blurry, because it's a nice shot of him looking excited but not stressed. His mouth is open in an excited pant, with the tongue resting comfortably within his teeth. His eyes are soft, not completely round. His ears are out and back a little in a relaxed position. His tail is high over his back and the fur is going in different directions because he was wagging it very quickly.

We went into the exam room, and his expression changed to this:

ophthalmologist visit

Wide, round eyes. Mouth open with tongue hanging out and flattened. Some people call this "spatula tongue", and it's a sign of stress. His ears are pull together at the top of his head. His tail is still high but it is no longer wagging fully and loosely.

ophthalmologist visit

On the exam table: more spatula tongue, and round eyes, though less dramatic than before.

ophthalmologist visit

I pulled over a spray bottle for him to check out and get treats for being brave. He's sniffing it, but look at his front legs: he's keeping as much of his body as possible pulled away from the bottle as he stretches his neck forward to sniff. His center of gravity is lowered so that he can move out of danger more quickly. He's suspicious of the bottle.

ophthalmologist visit

After the initial exam: more stress panting, and ears pulled high and back. With all dogs, reading ears, tails, and eyes is a matter of recognizing their baseline and measuring degrees. I can recognize this ear position as meaning that Dragon is stressed, but on another dog that might not be so.

ophthalmologist visit

I asked him to do some tricks to give him something to do and help him be calmer. His pupils have dilated due to the medication he was just given. His ears are now together and forward, on alert. His mouth is tightly shut as he concentrates.

ophthalmologist visit

I also tossed him treats to find, a great calming game.

ophthalmologist visit

He is calming down and now looking at me with a closed mouth and ears up and forward.

We got home and he rolled around in happiness.

after ophthalmologist

after ophthalmologist

Then he shook off, a common way for dogs to relieve tension/stress. He looks like a demon because his pupils are still artificially dilated.

Good news: his eye is healing slowly but nicely. He no longer has blood floating in the back or bottom of his eye, although there's still a bit in the front, just behind the lens. We are weaning him off the last of his medication, and recheck is in three months. What a relief for this ordeal to be ending.

Quick pic

Pt Isabel

Just eatin' some grass.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Handling and nosework

Yesterday I met up with Sarah and her dog Frankie. We've been online acquaintances but had never met in person before. We decided to use each other as decoys in training our dogs. Frankie is reactive toward strangers, so I was the decoy for a couple of BAT sessions. In return, Sarah acted as a mild distraction for Dragon while he was heeling with me. She just walked around and I heeled him closer and farther and rewarded him for looking at me instead of her.

For another excercise I would walk Dragon up to Sarah, put him in a stand-stay, and had her lean down and do a short exam (as for obedience). I would throw his ball forward for him to chase as a reward.

Later I held Dragon in my arms, gave Sarah the treats, and she did some desensitizing to reaching over his head. Hands reaching as he's being carried is a trigger for Tiny Dog and he snaps at the hands to make them go away.

We ended up doing some nosework as well, as Sarah had her kit with her and noted that the clutter-filled loft at Metro Dog was a great space to practice in. I'd never thought of that! Frankie is very advanced and she placed five simultaneous hides for him, using all three odors. It was so cool to watch him work. He got down to business right away, even when the scent carried him closely past me, the scary stranger. Then Sarah kindly did some hides for Tiny Dog and gave me advice. When I first brought him up to the loft and gave the cue "searching", he started zooming around in a circle in excitement. It was hilarious, but she noted that on one of the runs he caught a whiff of the hide, slowed down, and then started running again. We had done an unpaired hide to test his response. She suggested that if we had paired it, he probably would have gotten down to business right away, and that means we should go back to pairing more often. Will do! We did a few more hides paired with food, and he found them reasonably quickly.

Sarah and I agreed that it was rewarding to work with other trainers who have experience with shy/fearful dogs and know BAT, so we didn't have to do any extra explaining to each other. We will work together again!

Agility recap

Another week, another set of agility skills to learn! I enjoy the complexity of the sport, and how smooth and effortless it looks when everything comes together. But boy is it NOT "effortless"!!

We had a sub last week, Dorothy -- she had started off teaching our class last year but after five weeks had to leave due to scheduling conflicts. She started us off with a sequence that she thought we would be able to handle, but it was longer and a bit more complicated than our dogs were ready for. It was just two jumps in a line > u-shaped tunnel > two more jumps in a line > 180 turn and do it again. Nearly all the dogs (including Tiny Dog) were confused by the 180 turn. I think part of the problem was that the second set of jumps pointed us back to our crating/resting area, so the dogs thought they were done. A couple of the dogs were staring at their handlers between the jumps and had trouble going in a straight line. Dragon was okay with accelerating down the line but the end of the tunnel pointed more toward an off-course jump and each time he powered out of the tunnel and no amount of calling got him off of that jump. Glaring gap in our training!

I've done a LOT of rewarding of driving ahead towards toys or food or obstacles. This was needed to build his speed and his confidence working away from me. But now it is time to go back to the basics we need so that Dragon will turn away from obstacles when needed and be able jump collected and wrap back towards me. Currently he will only wrap if I'm stationary next to the jump. We did deceleration drills with the handler slowing down before/next to the jump and he would either still blast past me with a long stride, or he would lose confidence and slow down and take the jump with barely any momentum, looking worried. Fortunately Susan Garrett has been posting a lot of jump drills on PuppyPeaks (a subscription service showing lots of videos of her training her current puppy). I'm placing or tossing toys into the "reward zone" right next to the jump standard to clarify the training for him. I'm also working on adding a verbal cue to help him understand when he's expected to take the jump and wrap.

We did some more rear crosses and he's doing well with them, as if we'd been training them for a while already!

Next up was the dog walk and guess what -- he started jumping right over the contact zone! Running contacts fail. I'm not disappinted, though. It means that he was really driving forward as fast as he could, which makes me happy. I've decided to continue with running contacts, using the "hoop" method. I made a standing square of PVC and am training him to run through it. I will start putting it into sequences to reinforce running through it as fast as possible. Then I will start putting it at the bottom of the dog walk and training plank. The idea is that if you place it just past the down contact, it forces the dog to keep running (rather than jump) to make it through the "hoop" -- it's just tall enough for the dog to run through. Over time, the hoop can be switched to one made of thinner and thinner material to fade its visibility, or the handler can choose to use it regularly in training and it will just be gone in trials. Wish us luck!

Last big agility note is that he's doing great on the class teeter on its lowest setting, and our homemade teeter set about 5-6" off the ground. Time to raise them up a wee bit!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Teaching attention

During our lesson Denise said to me, "You train behaviors, I train ring readiness." That short sentence sent a jolt through me. I haven't been making the effort to get Dragon out and about for practice. I've been focusing on first getting the behaviors solid at home and at the training space at work. However it's past time that we started proofing more! Currently Dragon breaks off to stare at motion by people, animals, or things in the environment, reacts to sounds, and of course loves to sniff new territory.

There are a handful of different methods for training attention among distractions or in new environments. For example, Michelle Pouliot likes to isolate the issue by rewarding eye contact as the dog does a stand-stay on a platform and the handler moves around and/or works toward longer duration. She noted at the seminar we attended that a great way to teach eye contact in various environments is to go to new places and just focus on rewarding eye contact for a couple of minutes. Dragon has had some reward history for isolated eye contact here and there. I decided to try driving to a new but quiet area (just two blocks away, but not along the route we usually walk) and click/treating Dragon for offered eye contact and see what the result was. Surprisingly, the result was that he became frustrated. Sure, the treats for eye contact were nice, but he wanted to either walk and sniff around or to get more engagement from me. I was leaving him mentally stranded by offering no engagement or direction other than C/T and praise for eye contact. The training session was boring and didn't feel good, and listening to that gut instinct is critically imporant. (Not to say that this training method doesn't work, it just isn't a good fit for us at this time.)

I thought of other methods for teaching focus. One is Control Unleashed's "Take a Break" game. I've used this a bit in the past. I do frequently give Dragon breaks to look and sniff around when we're in a distracting area. (Unless we're on the agility field, where I don't allow him to sniff to prevent him from rooting around for treats.) I should return to this more. I like that it encourages the dog to ask to work, rather than relying on the handler to initiate.

Denise also sets up wonderful training sessions in which decoys are present and she turns them into a cue for her dogs to pay more attention to her. I am not so skilled at this, but I have been working on it in the lobby at work. I give Dragon verbal feedback and a high rate of reinforcement for heeling/doing tricks while other people are bringing dogs through, sometimes barking and pulling and jumping. He is improving.

As I thought of these things and practiced with Dragon on the street outside our apartment, I realized that there was also something else holding us back -- Tiny Dog had developed a habit of stopping to look around after eating a treat or breaking off play with me. He did this nearly every time we worked outside our home or the distraction-free training room at work. I hadn't worried about this when I first started training him outdoors. I assumed that after some time, his needing to look around would fade away and the training would be fun enough that he would re-engage right away. Instead, it became in a habit. I realized that I needed to stop him from taking the opportunity to disconnect and check out the environment, and instead do my best to immediately get him moving with me and following my cues again.

I've been focusing on that for the past week, as we trained outside in the dark, at the little park just off our regular walking route, and at Point Isabel on a crowded Saturday morning. At first I had to wave my hand in front of his face and cue touches to get him to look at me while swallowing his treats. Slowly but steadily is response is improving, and with it, I am seeing a greater ability to ignore distractions. I was worried in the beginning that I would be putting too much pressure on him and I watched for signs of stress, but I honestly think his reaction is, "Oh, are we not pausing after each treat anymore? Okay, I can do that."

Of course at the same time I am making sure to keep the sessions fairly short, and mixing together obedience training with lots of tricks. We're doing lots of right-side heeling so that we can work on moving together past distractions without my worrying about getting the footwork or position "just right". We're switching sides, doing leg weaves, spins, meerkat, playbow, backing up, changing positions, and hitting positions out of motion. And we're both having fun!

I would like to plan out a freestyle routine for us soon, and working on that will provide a great foundation for performing obedience as well, since we will need to do long chains of behaviors without primary reinforcers (food, play, petting). Obedience, freestyle, and agility may be very different sports, but my consistent training methods for each mean that any time we are working on one, we are improving our ability to work together as a team for any one of them.

Follow-up on obedience lesson with Denise Fenzi

Here's the initial report on implementing Denise's suggestions when I had a lesson with her a week ago.

The bad news first: we've regressed further with the dumbbell. We put too much pressure on Dragon during the lesson; he can be very sensitive. I tried putting the dumbbell out at a few feet away from me and I thought that he would still be okay with picking it up and I could click/treat for that. He didn't even want to put his mouth on it.

I changed tactics and decided to lighten the mood by holding the dumbbell firmly in my hand and encouraging him to play with me. He was confused but I got him to bat at my hands and push into me while I was holding it in my right hand. When he was more relaxed about the whole thing I tossed the dumbbell out farther and went back to square one: C/T for looking, for moving toward, for putting his head down toward it, for putting his mouth on it. I stopped there because I could see his anxiety increasing again.

My plan is to pull out the liver treats and reteach him the pick-up as if he didn't know it at all, and continue playing games with him while it's nearby. Crossing my fingers that it won't take us long to overcome this setback. Later I'll use a platform in front of me to encourage him to get close in and stay there as I (very, very carefully) take it. And no more practicing on wooden floors!!

In the meantime I'm working on encouraging him to bring other objects very close to me and right into my hands, rather than having to reach for them myself. Seeing quick progress on it with his toys, tennis ball, and leash tab (his first retrieve object).

Moving on, the problem with him getting up from his sits in front or at heel hasn't appeared again other than here and there when he anticipates. It's possible that I will see it again in future situations when I am more nervous. In the meantime I am occassionally extending the amount of time I expect him to told a sit and giving multiple rewards for it. Not worried about it.

Our stand for exam is continuing to improve. I've practiced setting out his tennis ball or a big treat and releasing him from a stand-stay while he's focusing on it. Then I moved on to feeling him up while he stares at it and immediately releasing him to get it. We also did three repetitions of that with my sister, whom he adores and can barely stand still for, and he did well -- the "exam" was only 1 second to keep him successful.

Other things I have decided to work on: I need to reteach the stand cue. Once he's in the stand, he's great, and he recognizes the cue in the way that I do it for agility start line stays. However his response to the stand cues (both verbal and hand signal) in front and at my side in non-agility settings has diminished. No problem, we'll just start again and be more thorough this time.

We've been working on "go and throw", as outlined in the book Agility Right From the Start. It's a simple method: line your dog up, say the word "go", and then throw a toy forward. As your dog starts to anticipate the toy being thrown and starts running ahead, you deliberately start to delay the throw so that your dog is being rewarded for running farther and farther ahead. My tossing abilities are not great, however at the park he ran forward about 10 feet confidently, which is a great foundation. This isn't just for agility -- it can also provide a good foundation for the go out in obedience.

I mentioned recently that Dragon's appetite for Primal raw food was diminished. I switched to putting it into a food tube rather than on a plate, and making a mini training session out of breakfast and dinner. This has been a phenomenal success. Not only is he eating all the raw food, but his enthusiasm for it quickly started to increase! He now comes into the kitchen and stares at me as I prep his meal. I'm even able to use it as a reward outside.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Obedience lesson with Denise Fenzi

Last Wednesday I had a 30 minute lesson with Denise Fenzi, a competion obedience trainer who uses positive methods (a rarity in this sport). We've had a couple of lessons with her before, but nowadays most of my training budget goes to our ongoing agility lessons, so it's been a few months since I last saw her.

As usual we started with heeling, since it's so important in competition. Denise liked his turns (both left and right) and his halts. He over-rotated on the left turns, but that's because he was putting in too much effort, and that's a better problem to have than not enough effort. For the first couple of minutes I didn't use any treats or toys to reward him, I just stopped and wrestled with him -- that's a big improvement in our training since Denise last saw us. His attention was drifting a fair amount, since he wanted to sniff and explore. I blabbed at him too much. I do that when I'm nervous. She had me do some large circles to the right so that I could concentrate on my rhythm and connection to him without worrying about footwork. She cued me to alternate praise, silence, and rewards. He doesn't need me to talk to him as much as I do when I'm nervous. Instead he needs me to praise him for making an effort to focus on the work.

We talked about working around distractions or in new environments. Denise noticed that I would call him back to me when he ran off and resume work. She commented that it seemed he had no idea that running off was "wrong". She suggested I use a clear no reward marker to communicate that he shouldn't run off to greet the neighbors or check out a smell. If I have to use it more than a handful of times, then it's not effective and I need to try a different tactic. I don't use NRMs often but I think she's right that this would be the right situation for it.

I had his crate set up and I would cue him to go in when we would stop to talk. If I didn't, he would immediately wander off to explore. He needs a clear structure of "down time in crate" versus "engaged work time". No grey area in which I expect him to just hang out with me while I pet him. 

We practiced fronts and the recall next. Last time I saw her, we were just laying a foundation for fronts, using my hands to guide him to sit straight and then tossing a treat between my legs for him to chase. After that we went through a phase in which he would put his front paws on my feet and/or sit pretty. I fixed this by feeding him low to keep his body lowered toward the ground, and I didn't reward the times that he put his feet on my feet. We also spent a lot of time with me pivoting in place and rewarding him for adjusting to be straight again. His fronts are looking much better in terms of the angle. Oddly, he kept standing up from the sit every time I rewarded him at Denise's, something he never does at home. It must have been because he was nervous and/or I was moving a bit differently out of nerves. Denise suggested I feed him from up high again, as it looked to her like I was cuing a stand. Also if he stood up, I would pull the treat away, and he caught on quickly to that part.

We moved on to the dumbbell. Dragon had been doing very well with this, however shortly before our lesson he had dropped the dumbbell onto the wooden floor at my parents' house, and the sound traumatized him. He associated it with coming close to me and my reaching my hand to take the dumbbell from him. The result was that during our lesson he would pick it up when I tossed it, but he didn't want to bring it in close, and he refused to take it into his mouth when I held it out for him. Denise was coaching me to hold my hands close to my body to encourage him to come in, rather than reaching my hands toward him, but each time he felt the dumbbell's weight shift as I took it he would jump back with a scared look. This was very disappointing to me. I had known that he hated the noise and motion of dropping things, but thus far I'd managed to avoid that happening with the dumbbell by carefully reaching and taking it from him. Despite all the time we'd already spent on the dumbbell, the one time he dropped it on a wooden floor outweighed the positive history.

Denise tried to help him work through his fear by kneeling down and placing the dumbbell  close to her body and giving him lots of happy talk and encouragement to lean in and pick it up. He was extremely conflicted. He circled her, darting his head forward and back, he rubbed against my legs and climbed on me for support, and a few times he did mouth the dumbbell but did not pick it up fully. We gave up with that exercise.

The last exercise we did was the stand for exam, which went better than expected. I'd been practicing here and there with my coworkers, but mostly we focused on the "person approaching while dog holds a stay" rather than the actual exam. We did just a few reps with Denise approaching and then she was able to give him a light pat down while he held his stand-stay. Good dog! She recommended that I work on this by myself as well. We want him to be focusing his attention on something else besides the person touching him. Usually that "something else" is me standing just a little distance away. If I'm by myself, I can set a treat on the ground for him to focus on while I play judge.

The next lesson will be in a few weeks. I'm about to also post a follow-up of how our next handful of training sessions at home went.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Agility class recap

Due to many rainy days and Dragon being ill for almost a week, we haven't been practicing agility at home for about three weeks! Of course, there's some stuff that can be worked on in the home (such as jump wraps and the table), but when we're stuck inside I tend to practice tricks and obedience. It's been good to get to the agility field and practice on equipment again. Suzanne was subbing for Wendy this week.

We did a lot of jumping. We worked on adding lateral distance and reinforcing looking ahead at the equipment. Last week we had done rear crosses for the first time while moving (as opposed to stationary foundation, in which the dog does a sit-stay and you practice switching sides and rewarding their head turning). We had done a tunnel > rear cross > jump exercise. I was pleasantly surprised that Dragon did it perfectly! This week we did a send from a stay to a jump, rear crossing as the dog took off. Dragon was again 100% when crossing from right to left, and about 80% the other way. Then we did a send to tunnel with a rear cross, turning toward a jump. The first time I ran alongside the tunnel too far and pushed him to make a very wide turn and miss the jump. Next time I stopped at the plane of the jump and just rotated my body as he exited the tunnel and he got it. It was so exciting to see all this handling stuff coming together!

We did another Susan Salo basic jump grid, five jumps placed 4' apart for Tiny Dog. He now does an adorable bunny hop all the way through the jumps.

Our only contact practice this week was on the dog walk. Suzanne asked if we were ready for the full height dog walk, since it was almost the end of class and it hadn't gotten lowered. I wasn't sure about it but agreed to try it and get a measure of how he handled it. We went across three times, and halfway through each run I would toss his ball forward to keep his momentum up. He did slow down each time at the top of the down ramp, but it wasn't a big speed difference, and less so each time. (Again, this is one of the reasons that I felt running contacts would be a good choice for him; he's always quite careful when climbing down stuff and is unlikely to throw himself over the down contact.)

At this point we had played and jumped and run a LOT. I used about 75% wrestling or tugging as a reward and only 25% was food, mostly to reward walking by my side or start line stays. He was much more worn out than when I used to just give food. I was quite happy with his fierce biting of my hands and pulling on tug toys.