Sunday, July 29, 2012

Tuning In

A few months ago Sue and Harry Parker of Dynamic Dog Training hosted a seminar with noted trainer/behaviorist Grisha Stewart, the mind behind Behavioral Adjustment Training (BAT) it was a great opportunity to see her at a local venue and I jumped at it. I always bring a pad and paper to these things to scribble down notes, details etc. but what I really hope will happen is for one really strong idea to emerge and stick with me once the lecture or seminar is over. For that one it was a question that precedes every exchange with a animal, "How is this for you?" It's such a simple idea but what really struck me about it was how easy it is to forget to ask that basic and so important question. That question is empathy distilled down to it's simplest form. "How are you doing?" "Is this alright?" "Are you enjoying this?" In earlier posts I've framed my move from traditional to science based positive reinforcement training as identifying problems and making them stop to understanding why those problems occur and addressing the underlying cause and effect. In other words traditional training doesn't ask or care necessarily (beyond vaguely arrived at notions) why something bad might be happening, it just wants it to stop. Behaviorists like Grisha Stewart are asking these profoundly simple, relevant questions and blazing a trail for trainers like me who are keen on distancing ourselves from the dark ages of traditional training. In a recent interview with Allen St. John of Forbes Magazine, Dr. Ian Dunbar described his training methodology like this, When I’m training a dog I develop a relationship with that dog. He’s my buddy and I want to make training fun,” - “Training a dog to me is on a par with learning to dance with my wife or teaching my son to ski. These are fun things we do together. If anyone even talks about dominating the dog or hurting him or fighting him or punishing him, don’t go there.” That's about as good a way of capturing the spirit of modern dog training as I've ever read. It's absent any pretentious notions, any narcissism. It's someone relating the process to something they do with a loved one, with someone they care about. 

Of course trainers are going to be called on to intervene in situations where the human and dog are no longer buddies and they're no longer having fun. Does Dr. Dunbar's model apply here?

Yesterday, I started the day with with Jean, a dog owner in Cranston who'd lost her husband two years ago. This was our 3rd schedule lesson together. Her dogs, Samantha and Rudy, a 10 year old Chihuahua/JRT and 4 year old Lhasa mix respectively, had helped her through a difficult time. Recently however, Samantha had begun to behave aggressively, biting her several times with little warning. Resource guarding the bed and food appeared to be the antecedent. We took a multifaceted approach. With a clean bill of health from her veterinarian, Sam was prescribed fluoxetine (antidepressant), we changed their food and set about training them. Even at 10yrs, Sam's energy level is relatively low. Jean had become fearful of handling her and their relationship had deteriorated. How were we going to right this failing ship? Our ace was Rudy, a lively, happy go lucky little guy who bounced around the house not a care in the world. He was the polar opposite of Sam who was serious and appeared to have little joy left in her. More specifically, Rudy, who Jean trusted completely, was the dog we wanted Sam to be more like and Samantha, we agreed, was not about to let Rudy get all the attention. At our first session, we headed out to the yard with Samantha on a 6ft leash and Rudy on a 30ft leash. Jean would walk around the yard with Rudy at the end of his 30ft leash practicing his recalls. I picked a prime stationary spot with Samantha where she could see Rudy having all the fun, getting all the treats. It didn't take long until Sam's interest in participating peaked and she was straining at the leash to get in on the action. We swapped leashes and dogs and just like that Sam was doing recalls for treats. Jean was on the right track and it all started with a simple hypothesis, "How do we think she'll react to Rudy getting all the attention?" or "How will this be for her?" It even managed to be fun. The exercise represented a dramatic shift in momentum for Jean, it was an eye opener since we were able to draw a behavior from Samantha without force, by putting our heads together and without putting anyone in a situation where they could get hurt. When we were done, Sam was exhausted, (a tired dog is a good dog). Jean would leave a leash on Samantha whenever she was home and awake. This provided her with a way to move Sam out of situations (e.g. chicken bone falls on the floor) without exposing herself to a potential bite. She now knew that she could draw Sam out of her malaise by turning her attention to Rudy. We found ourselves resorting to this approach again yesterday morning when Sam's aggression resurfaced momentarily during the 'down' lesson. No one was bit, though Sam could easily have done so if she wanted to. She'd shown restraint. Was this the fluoxetine? The training? Was it the change of food? It could be any one or the combination of the three. No way to know for sure but there's little doubt that this constituted an improvement in her behavior. Nevertheless it remained inappropriate so, Rudy to the rescue! Sam had to sit out the next several minutes (five for fighting) as Rudy did 'down' after 'down' with Sam initially sulking then perking up again with earnest, as if to say, "Can I try again?" We were looking for that indication so when we brought her closer for another try, plunk! Down she went again and again. That lesson could easily have been derailed by her initial outburst but with Rudy there to help shape the situation and Jean ever mindful of the question, "How is this for Samantha" it was productive on several fronts. In a sense she had managed to teach someone to dance who initially wanted to bite her. Not bad Jean, Tango on.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Archie at Fifteen

Fifteen years ago, Sue and I were reeling from the loss of Louie’s younger brother Floyd. The pain of his loss was extreme both because we loved him and because it had been preventable. Floyd was a wonderful little dog and remarkably close to his big brother Lou. It stings to this day, right now in fact as I think back on it. Louie had softened measurably since we’d brought Floyd home. Fearing a return to his earlier ways we began in earnest to look for a similarly sized companion dog to fill the terrible void left by Floyd’s loss. Our search eventually brought us to a farmhouse in Exeter, RI where a litter of Jack Russell Terriers were up for adoption. Only one was left, a chubby little white and brown fellow that had escaped attention while his litter mates had found homes. Even in the big workman’s hands of Eugene, the breeder, it was apparent that Archie was, like Lou before him, big for his breed. “He’s a fat little guy.” said his son Eugene Jr. We were smitten, Lou was somewhat indifferent, perhaps understanding on some level what we were up to and perhaps not altogether approving of it.

We had just moved into the house we’d purchased in Warwick. Situated near City Park, we were looking forward to walks in the woods with Louie and Floyd. Those days would not come as we’d imagined but with this helpless pup who for weeks I could not help but call “Chet” for my friends Jon and Maria’s JRT who I saw when I looked down at him. His name came to us after quite a lot of brainstorming. The comic strip "Andy Capp" came to mind, the little British guy with his newsboy cap and a ciggy hanging off his lip, but he didn’t strike us as an “Andy” for some reason, so I began to think of other comic strip characters, there had to be a gem there somewhere. “Jughead” came up and was quickly dispensed with but of course you can't consider “Jughead” without some thought of “Archie”. We looked at each other, Sue and I. We knew we’d hit upon it. He was Archie and that’s all there was to it. Over the years, he's picked up the nicknames, "Bear" and "Scrapper", depending on the mood.

It wouldn’t take long to realize what we’d gotten ourselves into. Though we hadn’t been influenced by Jack Russell Terriers in the media, eg. Skip, Wishbone, Eddie etc. we had not done our homework. Chet was the only real point of reference. Chet was funny, smart, enormously entertaining and friendly as can be. He’d clearly seeped into my consciousness. Archie was different though. Not as bouncy, there was a nervous quality to him. He’d been born in the summer and while the impact of thunder, lightning and fireworks are well known to me now I understood next to nothing about early canine development at that point. Nutricalm for dogs and later Thundershirts were both heaven sent but there would be years of intense panic whenever those terrifying sounds were present. An early encounter, in hindsight, during a fear impact period, with an off leash dog triggered a panicked race around my leg. On a leash he’d unwittingly tangled himself around my leg, aggravating the situation. I tore into the dog's owner, “Is that a leash in your hand?”, “Uhhh,...yes”, “Then maybe you should put it on your goddamn dog huh?” He leashed his dog, a goofy, harmless Golden Retriever but the damage was done, Archie was never completely at ease around other dogs from that point forward. Archie was a handful in ways we'd never encountered with Louie or Floyd. A preference for TV remotes, sneakers and wallets would develop. I wasn’t a trainer then, but between Floyd’s loss and our new bundle of joy I had all the reasons I would ever need to get some help. First, and with no sense whatsoever of the impact it would have on my life, I worked with my friend and fellow trainer Ron (who’d also introduced me to Sue. Do you think I might owe him one or two?) Archie and Lou would be the first two dogs I’d ever train. I was a traditional trainer in those days. Choke chains, pinch and e-collars were in my toolbox and regrettably on my dogs. Miles is the beneficiary of the mistakes I made working with Louie, Archie and later Reno. They were an integral part of my learning process. I think (hope) they’ve forgiven my shortcomings. I’ve tried to make it up to them.

I love Archie intensely. He’s been a gigantic pain in the butt throughout his life but I think I’m finally old enough to appreciate how much I’ve learned because of who he is. There was never a conscious decision on Archie’s part to engage in some twisted, life long, altruistic endeavor to shape me into an empathetic dog trainer. “Archie you asshole.” was likely the first use of an obscenity my son Keir ever heard. No dog’s made me angrier, more frustrated and no dog, not even Reno, has given me more to think about when it comes to the bifurcated  approach of behavior modification coupled with management. I’ll come clean. Archie is the reason that while I love dogs in general, I’m a big fan of terriers. Man do I love that defiant quality. That, “Who’s gonna make me?” bravado that seems imbued in so many of them.I can remember not caring for them much as a kid, terriers seemed,...grouchy but Archie and other dogs like him have grown on me in no small way. The attitude is infectious and rarely fails to make me smile. Over the years I've tried to relate that to every client with a Cairn, Scottie, Westie, etc. Oh, and Jack Russells of course. You've got to love them if you're ever going to put up with them.

Fifteen years ago I was a different person. Less wise, less fat, less grey and by no means a dog trainer. I wasn’t a father yet either. Keir’s entry on the scene brought to light one of Archie’s most endearing qualities, his lifelong fondness for Keir. At his most frustrating, I was always impressed with Archie's intelligence, taking to anything I spent the time to teach him. At his physical peak he was something to behold, a natural athlete, but when it all shakes out, it was his obvious and enduring affection for Keir both Sue and I appreciate the most. Tomorrow Archie turns fifteen years old. His hearing has started to fade as has his eyesight. He’s not the marvelous physical specimen he once was. What he remains in spite of these losses is content and that sustains me as I wrestle with being Dad to two geriatric dogs (Louie will be seventeen in October). Always assessing their quality of life, asking the question, “Are they still happy?” As I type this, Archie is asleep, stretching from time to time on the rug by my feet. He is happy, and I am too. Thank you brother, and happy birthday.