Harnesses — they’re not just for sled dogs

I can’t believe how long it’s been since my last post! Somewhere there’s a lost draft of an end-of-the-year-roundup, but let’s not dwell on the past. ¬†ūüėČ

Life has been crazy busy with ups and downs, but training with Ziva has been the one constant through all of the challenges. It’s still always tough for me to not compare her with other dogs we know or see on the street, because she is still reactive to other dogs and she still quickly loses her focus on me when we are walking. However, she is so much better than she used to be. And, I still struggle with being self-conscious of how she behaves when we are out in public, but I am getting better at that, too. One thing that helps us (me) is a new harness that she wears when we are in challenging environments.

Ziva sits by a sign that reads We’ve gone through a whole bunch of harnesses to find one that fits her well. Being 50 percent German Shepherd, she has a big chest, but a tiny belly. (Lucky girl, right?) Most of the harnesses we’ve tried slide around her body too much. There is a Kurgo model that is very adjustable, but it is a nightmare to get on her — it involves lifting her foot up, and also fitting a small opening over head. Both of these things get her soooo worked up, it’s like wrestling a wild mustang. So we have used it when we go on hikes, but it is so much of a hassle for all of us that we never use it on everyday walks.

Ziva running on the beach

photo credit: Kim Johnston

When we went to the beach last fall, I thought a harness would be best there, too, because I wanted let her play in the water on a long leash. I couldn’t imagine trying to get the Kurgo one on and off her multiple times every day, and I also thought it would be too hot in the Carolina sun. So eventually I found a nice, sturdy mesh one from Canada Pooch, that was pretty easy to put on her, seemed to be comfortable for her — and was easy to wash out at the end of every day, and dried out in the for the next day’s adventure. ¬†(Shout out to our local pet store, Mutt Mart, who had a variety of sizes in stock. If you are in the Baltimore area, stop by and give them a look.)

But here’s the thing about Ziva and a harness. She suffers from sled-dog syndrome. The instant I switch the leash from collar to harness, she bolts ahead. When we were at the beach, that meant she basically dragged me down the beach. I admit I kind of gave in to that and assumed that’s how it had to be. Looking back now, I should have tried harder to keep her on the flat collar, and just switched to the harness when we were ready to go in the water. (We hope to go back to that same beach again in 2018, so believe me — I have to plans to do better next time. It’s a learning process.) I guess I thought I could get her to walk on the harness, but it just didn’t happen. I don’t know if it will ever happen. I’m hoping to get some help from our trainer about how we might make it less of a sled pull, because for example when we go for a walk in the woods I like to give Ziva a little bit of freedom to sniff. But it ends up with her pulling me up or down a trail. Depending on the muddiness this is sometimes more manageable than others.

Ziva wearing her new In Training harnessSo, here’s what we’re trying out now when we go out into public: Julius K9 harness with “In Training” patches, a flat collar, and a prong collar.¬†So what’s the point of a harness if the leash is on the prong? Well, maybe it’s more for me than for her. We still do a lot of remedial work when we are walking in public. And all that walking back and forth, stopping, behavioral downs, bridging — it can look kinda of funny to someone who has never been through it. When Ziva is wearing this harness, and I’m just standing there on the sidewalk next to her in a behavioral down, we get smiles and nods. When she’s¬†not wearing it, we get suspicious looks and avoidance. Or, the opposite, like the time when Ziva was really struggling to calm down at a shopping center, a woman came right up to her and reached out to pet her as she kept trying to get out of her behavioral down. I had to ask her not to pet her. (In my experience, kids are¬†so much better about asking to pet my dog — while adults just march right up and say “so¬†cuuuuuute!”)¬†

This harness has a lot of different velcro patches available, so I’m hoping this is something we can use for a very long time. For example, I do plan to get back to more structured Nose Work, because Ziva still really loves that activity. There are patches for that! There are also side bags that fit the harness, and I’m more comfortable with her wearing this harness attached to the seatbelt that having it on her collar in case of an accident when we’re driving somewhere. We’re all going a little stir crazy with the winter weather and I’m hoping to get out on some good long hikes soon. ¬†If she gets used to wearing a harness every time we go out, maybe some day she will stop pulling. Well, with a lot of training. ūüôā

So. What’s your experience with harnesses? What’s your advice?

Baby steps, baby steps

Ziva sits on a sidewalk next to large green painted footprintsJust like everyone else, our lives get pretty busy this time of year. I’ve started and never finished so many posts here, always intending to write more often. Usually I start writing when Ziva has settled into her bed, but honestly that can only last for a short period of time and then she’s back up and wants to do something. Anything.

Fortunately, we have a lot of tricks in our bag now, as far as “things Ziva can do.” For example, over Thanksgiving, Ziva and I spent the night at my father’s house. I had hoped she would be pretty chill, given that she spent the entire day playing vigorously with several canine cousins. And she might have been, if there wasn’t also a cat living at my Dad’s house.¬†Earl the cat is a very cool cat. He remained on his perch, and aside from hissing at Ziva a few times, was otherwise not interested in engaging with her at all. Which of course drove Ziva crazy. I tried to distract her with a bully stick, and with a toy, but although she might stop paying attention to the cat for a while, she was still very restless.

That’s when I remembered her nose work, and I asked my brother if he’d help me do a couple of rounds in the living room. We did 4 rounds, with my brother holding Ziva in the hallway and me hiding treats in 3-4 spots around the room. My Dad and brother were amazed at how quickly she sniffed them out each time — she’s good at this! And because she really uses her brain as well as her nose, it was enough to wear her out so that after 4 rounds of this she lay down and went to sleep. No longer interested in the cat, the stairs to the basement, or anything else.

So its really great to have nose work as an option on days when the weather is bad or circumstances mean she can’t really get the physical exercise she needs to get rid of extra energy — for example, my Dad’s yard is not fenced so she has to stay on the leash when we go outside. And despite going on long walks when we’re there, she never really gets “worn out” when we are there. So she is usually restless. Nose work gives her something to do, and exercises her brain if not her body.

I am also trying to take her to more new places. The picture above was taken on a busy street near our house. I realized I had gotten into a rut of taking her on the same predictable neighborhood walk every day. Because I like predictably. But it’s not good for her, because then when we inevitably¬†do go somewhere new, she is still getting used to being calm in new environments. So now, sometimes I change it up and we walk along the busy road in one direction or the other. Sometimes we walk right past the front doors to the 7-11, which can be quite busy at times. She’s really doing very well, I am happy to report. I can still see in her body language that she gets excited at new sights, sounds, and smells, but she keeps it together. She doesn’t pull on the leash, and she doesn’t bark at people. I always take tons of good treats on these walks, and constantly tell her how good she is being and reward her again and again. She turns her head and checks in with me a lot on these “new” walks, and I reward her every time.

In that picture above, she is not looking at me. So that I am not happy about. I would love if her focus was totally on me. But, I was busy with my phone and she “checked out” while I fiddled with taking the picture.¬†But … she stayed in her “sit,” and when I said her name after taking the picture she looked right back at me. So yea, baby steps, baby steps.

We’re really having fun at Rally class, and we have a lot of “moves” to show you soon. She is picking this up so quickly that she’s kind of ahead of me in some ways. Next week we will practice a course in class for the second time, and I’m really excited about it. In life, different dogs like different activities — think about how some dogs love to play fetch, while others are all “meh.” In Rally class, there a few dogs in the class who are clearly just going through the motions because the owners are asking them to do the moves. They are very obedient, but they seem about as excited to chase a food lure from cone to cone as they would be to do a simple “sit” at the vet’s office.¬†Ziva on the other hand,¬†races from cone to cone. When I command “Down!” she throws herself to the ground, front legs splayed out dramatically. ¬†It’s like all that energy and excitement she has bottled up finally has a place to go now. She looks me in the eye as if to say, “What next?????”

We’re practicing a long list of moves throughout the day. Before she eats her breakfast I do a few commands — she is very food motivated then! My wife works with her some during the day, and then in the evening I do more after we’ve had some play time. The trickiest thing we’re trying to learn right now is for her to move from sitting in front of me to come around my right side, behind my back, and end up sitting on my left. Mostly difficult because it involves me showing her the food is in my¬†right hand (unlike any other time), and transferring said food from right to left hand behind my back, and rewarding her at my left side.

Because learning in “baby steps” includes me, too!

 

Steady Progress … And a Secret Love

Ziva sleeping with her head on a pillowDuring the past few weeks, I’ve noticed some real positive changes in Ziva’s behavior in a variety of ways. For one thing, she just seems overall a whole lot calmer. Don’t get me wrong, she still has a lot of energy, and even this morning we got back from our long walk that usually wears her out but she still wanted to go out back and run around for a while. ¬†But in general, she seems to have come down a few notches in her demeanor. And today even, she finally settled down and is ignoring the sounds of dogs barking outside.

The reason why this change in her overall demeanor is so important is evident on our walks. The last couple of mornings we’ve run into our neighbor doggy Peggy. Peggy is an older gal, and in the “little dog” category. She’s a sweet dog and not dog reactive at all. But Ziva has always been so excited at the site of her on our walks that it’s been hard to get them close when on leashes. But the last couple of days Ziva has seen her from a short distance and yes, barked a few times. But I was able to do some bridging by saying “That’s Peggy, dih, dih, dih. Yes!” So were able to approach Peggy and they sniffed noses, and Ziva did a play bow, and then sniffed the grass, and then back to Peggy.

That was an important meeting because it meant Ziva could keep her excitement to an appropriate level, and also that she could turn her attention away from the other dog, and then return again at an appropriate level of interest and excitement.  The visits were just a few minutes in length but so different than a year or even a few months ago, when she would have barked her head off and pulled on the leash.

So what’s wth this “secret love,” eh?

Ziva has been getting much better at being in the backyard — she still barks more than I would like, but that’s getting better. Cats just drive her crazy. As well as bunnies. She doesn’t bark at squirrels any more, and she usually likes to sit on the top step just outside the back door and just keep an eye on things out there. But sometimes I will hear her barking, barking, barking. And when I go to check on her it is either a cat or a bunny but either way they are just sitting in a neighbor’s yard. The bunny because it is scared to death and afraid to move. The cat because, well, just because it’s a cat. Because torment dogs is just what cats do. I know. I’ve had enough cats.

Anyway, one night this week Ziva was outside after dinner. It was dark, and she was being very quiet. I stepped out back and called her (she’s been so much better and at coming in when I call her like this. including the night when I was in the middle of cooking and I called out through the screen door “I have¬†bacon!” — I’ve never seen her move so fast!!!) But this night she didn’t come. And I thought I heard her whining. So I walked toward the end of the yard where I heard her rustling around. As I approached, I knew she was definitely whining. But it sounded different than her usual “bunny whine,” and I became worried for a moment that she had injured herself. But then in the darkness I saw something move on the other side of the gate. After a startling moment when I thought through all the possibilities (rat, cat, possum, raccoon, fox), I realized it was a dog’s tail.

Lo and behold, our neighbor’s dog Pharaoh was at a the back gate and he and Ziva were playing! They would run along the fence, and then they would come together at the gate (it’s a wide double gate at the driveway into the backyard). The gate has checked wire so they would sniff noses, tails wagging, play bowing. And then one or the other would race off into their respective yards — only to run back to the gate again, and noses together once more.

Pharaoh is a medium-sized dog who lives just across the alley, and we hear him a lot more than we see him. He is usually in the backyard barking to be let in. His family has a large number of kids and it’s not that unusual that he gets out of their fenced yard when the gate os left open. He seems to stick close to the house though, and I’ve seen him running around the alley before. But it’s been months since the last time Ziva was out at the same time, and then she barked her head off at him. It was nothing like what I was seeing in front of me.

I just stood there in the dark in amazement. They were both having such a great time! I wasn’t about to rush them off. But after a few minutes I wondered what I should do about Pharaoh being out of the yard. Worried that he might roam off and get into trouble. And just then I saw light come on at the front of the neighbor’s house, and I heard a quick, loud whistle. Pharaoh heard it too, and turned and bolted back to his house. ¬†I didn’t have any treats on me, but I gave Ziva so much loving then, and told her how proud I was that she was being so good with the other dog. She came back in the house with such a goofy smile, her tongue hanging out of her mouth. I wonder how many times this has happened before and I never knew about it? Have they been having secret trysts? (Cue Sade singing “The Sweetest Taboo.”)

Ziva on the back porchIt’s been a lot of work this year but it has totally been worth it. She is constantly surprising me now with what she is capable of, like hanging out with Pharaoh. As I’ve mentioned before, Ziva’s foster mom said to me once before we met her that, “The sky’s the limit for this dog,” and I think she is really starting to shine. Seeing this progress across the board now, really gives me the extra energy to push ahead — to go to more places, and to push our boundaries, both literally and figuratively. ¬†And I can’t help but think that it will all build upon itself. Sometimes I find I’m a little jealous of some of the other calmer dogs in the classes we attend, and then I realize they are all 3-4 years old and Ziva is just 2. So with this base of training and behavior modification strategies, in a year or 2 she is going to be really amazing. I think she has a future in Rally. If I am up for it. And then beyond that, who knows! Maybe we’ll just play in the yard all day.

 

She’s a Superstar!

Superstar character form Saturday Night LiveWell, maybe Ziva’s not really¬†quite a Superstar yet, but I think she could be. She has really taken to Rally training, and she catches on so quickly to new commands. She is also pretty food-driven which definitely helps. And she is fast, and nimble. She’s a good size for this — the bigger dogs seem to struggle more to do quick turns, and the smaller ones seem harder to lure with food. At 50 lbs and a lotto energy Ziva seems like a natural. I, on the other hand, still struggle with some basic stuff. Like hand eye coordination, or saying things at the right moment. But … I’m getting better, I think.

Ziva stands in the middle of a room full of dogsFor the past couple of weeks Ziva has spent the day of class at Doggie Daycare. I drop her off at about 7 am, and then I arrive at around 5 and take her for a little break outside. We walk around the grassy area so she gets a pottie break, and then I give her a small¬†snack and some water at the car. We also practice our leash work for a few minutes, walking back and forth in the parking lot — she’s always pretty excited at this point and it helps her to focus. She loves daycare. She loves the people who work here, and she has some doggie friends in the group so it’s really¬†good socialization. (One of the dogs from Rally class is also in Daycare on these days.) It also gets a lot of energy out of her, so that when it’s Rally Class time, she can focus a bit more easily. Generally speaking , anyway! But she really seems to need that little period of down time to wind down between Daycare and Rally. When we get back inside the building before class, I usually do some CR massage, and that definitely helped last night.

We’ve got a lot to work on in the next couple of weeks. Our next class isn’t until after Thanksgiving, so that’s plenty of time to improve on what we have learned so far. We got a “Perfect” from Tecla, our trainer, last night on our heeling exercise called “find the leg,” but then we learned to expand on it and I flubbed a little. As I said,¬†I’m the one who needs the most practice here. But so far, here’s what we’ve learned and what we’re practicing:

  1. “Find the leg”: the dog is in Sit, the trainer says Heel, steps left leg back, and moves treat in hand around and behind to the left leg, steps left leg forward, and with ¬†hand at hip the dogs ends up next to you, and gets the treat at the left hip.
  2. Extended “Find the leg”: Same as above, except the dog gets reward when the trainer’s left leg is still back, then when the left leg is parallel to right, and then when left leg is forward.
  3. Stand: There are 2 versions, one from a moving position and one from a Sit. From moving, you basically put the treat in the dog’s face and take one step back. When the dog steps forward, she stops when her nose bumps into your hand to get the treat you say “Stand” and then “Yes!” From a sit is a little tougher. You still stick the treat in the dog’s face, but this time you move it under their chin, and in their effort to get it they invariably stand up. At this point we just say “Yes!” instead of naming it as Stand. Once we get it down consistently I think then we will be naming it. (Tecla’s really good about training things so that the dog does not get confused, and can progress to the next step easily.)
  4. “Suicide” spins: Anyone who has played any kind of sports in the past 50 years must remember “suicides,” where you race from one cone to another, touch the ground and race back to the first cone. Well, in this exercise, you hold a treat in your hand and lead the dog quickly to the second cone, and then whip your hand around so the dog spins around to get the treat, As soon as she spins you say “Yes!” and give her the treat. Ziva¬†loves this one. (Yeah, she’s¬†that teammate — the one who loves suicides!) And she’s so good at it that Tecla told me I need to go faster, and also further. So Sue’s getting her exercise on this one, for sure!
  5. Modified suicide spins: This time you do sets of 4, and randomly in that set you wait till the dog completes the spin and then command “Sit.” You have to mix it up so they don’t anticipate it coming say, on the third time. (Because they totally will.) You then also do this exercise with Down.
  6. Focus when moving: She also really likes this one, and I am trying to harness that enthusiasm. She can be a little snappy for the treat in this exercise, which I asked Tecla about last night. The snappiness means she is very driven, so I don’t want to diminish that drive. But, to be honest, it can really hurt sometimes! The advice was to get a thin, sturdy glove — like a golf glove, or a wide receiver glove — and try not to pull my hand back when I’ve giving her the treat. I’m sure I am pulling back sometimes in anticipation, but that’s really a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ziva’s doing pretty well with this one, and has improved from the start when she used to jump up. So I’m confident we get this under control. It’s another example of¬†me learning what¬†I need to do. Which, let’s be honest, is about 90% of dog obedience training.
  7. Trainer walks around: Put the dog in Sit, transfer leash to left hand, and walk around the dog (leading with right foot). Dog should stay seated, trainer stands to right of dog and gives reward. Also do this with Down.

So. If you wonder how we get to this, it’s a lot of work, but totally worth it:

Ziva lies sleeping on the floorIn our next class, we’ll get to try doing an actual Rally course — that should be interesting! ¬†I have a feeling Ziva will once again do great, and I am the one who will be flubbing it up. I just googled “Rally novice signs” and it turns out that this is, like, a whole “thing”: You can even buy Rally course signs on etsy:¬†rally novice signs. ¬†Watching videos on Rally, I always wondered how people understoodd so well what they are supposed to be doing with those turns and spins, and it seems that people buy these signs and study them. It’s always amazing to me how many things there are in the world that have their own culture and following.

Maybe Ziva has found her place.

Sweetest Devotion

Do you know what the title of this post represents, I mean, other than of course my undying love for this furry beast? It’s also the title of one of the few songs that help Ziva calm down when we’re in the car. So yeah, Ziva has her own playlist, and it’s very heavy on Adele. “Sweetest Devotion” starts playing and Ziva stops whining and puts her head on the arm rest. I can sometimes get her to expand her tastes to a little Amy Winehouse — “Valerie” has a nice melody. And I recently added Tash Sultana’s “Jungle,” and she seems to enjoy that one a lot. But mostly, it’s “Hello” on an endless loop.

We have been traveling with Ziva in a crate in the back of the SUV for many months because, if you have read the early days of this blog you will remember, a year ago she would be so wound up and excited in the car that it was impossible to drive. She would spin herself around on her seatbelt leash and practically choke herself, or, she would stand with her mouth at my right ear and bark, and bark, and bark. Good times.

But recently we had to take the crate out of the car in order to move some furniture, and I thought I would give it a try with Ziva in that back seat again. We’ve done a few short trips since then and she has done pretty well. She still gets excited, but it’s nowhere near the previous level. And if she sees a dog out the window, she still barks, but she is able to get calm again — a year ago that was not happening. A year ago she would just continue to wind herself up. And up. And up. I thank Conditioned Relaxation behavior modification for this change (and of course the wonderful trainers we have worked with for the past year!). Ziva has always loved to go for a car ride — in fact it’s the only way we were able to catch her the couple of times that she escaped the yard. (The fencing has been repaired!). She ran around the neighborhood at the speed of light, and there was no way we could grab her, or get her to come to us. But drive up in the car, fling the door open and say “Wanna go for a¬†ride?????” And she would hop right in. She likes to sit and look out the window, and she doesn’t really like to sit in the crate. So I am glad that it seems like we can move her back to the back seat and keep working on her being calm. Adele is fine with me. The Enya was a little much.

Anyway, its been longer between posts than I intended. But as I’ve mentioned before: when life gets busy and it’s a matter of writing about the dog or spending time with the dog, no offense but she comes first. Right now, it’s Saturday morning and we are back home after a successful time at Pack to Basics and Behavior Modification classes. Ziva did really, really¬†well, and is now enjoying a well earned nap:

Ziva sleeps, resting her head by a laptop

I just want to tell you how great she did this morning. We haven’t been to either of these classes in a few weeks, and there were a couple of new high energy dogs today. One in particular was a challenge to Ziva because it has so much energy. She’s a small Lab mix named Oreo, and boy does she remind me of Ziva 12 months ago! During Pack to Basics she and Ziva got a little too close for each other’s comfort and both made some ugly noises, but it was easily dispersed and they didn’t pay each other any mind after that. But what really amazed me was during the Behavior Mod class. We did “doggy yoga” to start, and we ended up being just a few feet away from Oreo. The way this “yoga” works, is that the dogs have to face away from the other dogs (i.e., their back is to the other dogs), and they have to remain calm. We started out with Ziva sitting to my left, and Oreo about 5 feet behind us. Oreo had a really hard time sitting, and she definitely did not want to sit to the left of her mom. She whined, and she kept getting up. Her mom kept putting her back in sit, and she kept getting up. My heart went out to that mom. It’s so hard to stay calm and keep putting the dog back into a “sit,” over and over again.

And do you know what Ziva did?¬†NOTHING! oh my freaking god. She sat and she looked at me, and sometimes she turned her head and looked at Oreo, and then I would do bridging (“That’s a dog, dih dih dih dih, Yes!”), and she would return her focus to me and lose interest in Oreo, who was still whining and constantly getting up.

It was so incredible, that later, when we left the building, I saw Oreo’s mom and I told her “Hang in there — it really does get better! A year ago, this one was just like that!” And she seemed amazed and said “Really?¬† Because there are just some days ….” And I replied “Oh, I know! Believe me, I know — all that¬†energy!” I also told her that Ziva definitely still has her moments but ….

See, when you have a reactive dog, or a dog that is adrenalized so they are almost uncontrollable, it can be so emotionally difficult. You constantly feel that other people are judging you. It can be a vicious cycle, where the dog misbehaves in public and you get nervous and upset, so then you go out in public and the dog senses that you’re nervous and upset so¬†they become nervous and upset. And misbehave. So it takes a lot of work to just keep going, and taking the dog for a walk even if strangers are looking at you spraying vinegar on your dog’s nose while it barks at another dog across the street. Or you’re standing on her leash while she’s in a behavioral down and still whining at the dog over there. It doesn’t look like you are doing anything, but of course you are doing exactly what the trainer has taught you. And over time¬†it works!

I clearly remember in the early days when some of the other dog parents would say to me “She’s doing so much better!” (Shout out to Bruno’s mom, who always said encouraging things, even when Ziva was being far from perfect.) I feel lucky to have found a community where there is so much support. It is a place where Ziva clearly feels safe — and so do I! And that means we both feel confident to push ourselves. For us, that can mean just going for a hike in the woods, knowing it is quite possible we will encounter another dog. That may seem like a tiny challenge, but trust me, its enough to keep many an owner and dog at home. And that’s a shame. Because, this:

Ziva sits on a hike in the woods

Fine motor skills, and focus

We started training on “Focus” on Friday, and it’s a lot harder (for me) than you would think. As with most of our training, Ziva has caught on pretty quickly, and it’s me who has a hard time learning. Jokes about “old dogs learning new tricks” aside, I think there is something in the adage. Ziva has that innocence that kindergarteners posses. When I was in graduate school, my prof asked us one night: “Who here knows how to sing?” And predictably, about 2 out of 20 hands went up. ¬†The rest of us thought “dear god, is she going to make me sing???” But then¬†she said, “What do you think would happen if you ask a group of kindergarteners ‘who knows how to sing?” Over time we learn to hold back — I say ¬†“I don’t know how to sing” because I’m not very good at it, not because I don’t know how.

I think adults can learn a lot of new things — I’ve taken French lessons as an adult. I’m teaching myself to play the ukelele (no, really, I am!) But I have no doubt it’s taking me longer to learn that, just like it’s taking me longer to learn some of this handling business because I totally over think everything. As I described in the last post, to teach “Focus,” the dog sits at your left, you have their food in your right pocket. You take a handful out with your right hand, transfer it at waist level to your left hand. When the dogs you in the eye, you say a very hearty “Yes!” and left your left hand to your left eye and then down to the front of the dog — just enough in front of their mouth that they have to reach out just a tiny bit.

This very patient face will tell you that it has taken some time for me to master this process:

Ziva sits, looking up at the cameraIt has taken me some time to get the timing down of all the hand transfer of treats. Not to mention the actual giving of treat to mouth. We are supposed to be using their food, so since Ziva eats kibble I figured that would be pretty easy. If you read back to the early posts of Obedience 1 class, we fed her kibble from our hand for many weeks as a way to build the bond and reinforce behavior. The difference is that then we could feed a handful, whereas in this training, it is one piece per “Yes!” Our trainer suggested a couple of different brands of food that have larger sized kibble (and softer too). ¬†But to be honest they are out of our process range. So we tried with the little kibble, and guess what? It went flying everywhere.

Two sizes of kibble are shown, one much larger than the otherI went to a PetValu store and asked about kibble sizes, and we are very happy to have found a kibble for large breed dogs, which has larger-sized pieces. It may seem like a silly thing, but look at the difference in the sizes here, and imagine trying to gracefully give one piece at a time. You have a small handful of food in your palm, and you manuever one piece to hold between your thumb and first finger, in order to give to the dog. And if you drop a piece, the dog is not supposed to eat it, because all the food is supposed to come from your hand. This poor dog was so patient with me when one of the little pieces of kibble would go flying and I would tell her no. I have nothing against small kibble, but my fingers just could not hold onto these things while I was trying to remember to transfer at waist level, hold up to my eye and then down to her mouth.

But we’ve been working on this for a couple of days now and we both seem to be getting it. I’m definitely much smoother with my part (thanks, large kibble!, and she understands the rules. She doesn’t get any other treats right now — not training treats, even. So we have been mostly playing in the backyard rather than going on long walks, because I can’t really do much bridging if we see other dogs. We’ve been doing a ton of fetch and tug in the yard, and so far that seems to be getting enough energy out of her (along with so)me short walks around the block when it’s not high dog-traffic time.) I’m going to work not his for a couple more days in the kitchen, and then our next challenge is to set a baseline of how long it takes to eat a meal’s worth. Say, 4 minutes. Then we go someplace else — maybe just the back yard, or the front yard — and then see if we can get it done in 4 minutes. The goal is that she can focus on me no matter what other distractions are out there. And so, while at first I was annoyed that a cat walked through the room when we were trying to do our training, or some other interruption happened, now I see that’s all part of the process. We start with the little distractions and build, build, build.

Zika’s focus is getting stringer and stronger. Meanwhile, my fine motor skills have never been better!

Ziva Marie!

Sue and Ziva sit on a deckWe have a lot of nicknames for Ziva: Z, Queen Z, Zivie. But last night at the very end of our first Rally class, Ziva got the ultimate “you are in so much trouble” callout from the trainer. It was a fairly successfully class as far as Ziva behaving herself, but by the end the Queen was done. When it was our turn to exit, I said “with me!” to begin our walk out of the large multipurpose room. I took one step and Ziva lunged ahead. So I stopped and tugged the leash. What happened next was a bit of a glimpse from walks past: Ziva bucked like a bronco, bouncing up in the air. And that’s when I heard Tecla call out from across the room: “Ziva Marie!” And then, “You know you are in trouble when you get the first and middle names!”

After about 10 minutes of CR massage in a corner of the room, Ziva was calm enough to exit in a more dignified manner. So let me describe the class and you’ll understand why she was so ready to go.

As is often the case in the first class of anything, most of the time was spent listening. We stood in a circle with our dogs beside us and listened as Tecla told us about the sport of Rally, the basics of what we were going to learn in this 10 week class, and some housekeeping about the schedule over the holidays. Ziva started out fairly quietly, with a couple of barks, but that was not unexpected as there are 2 other pretty energetic dogs in the class and she definitely feeds off their energy. (The other dogs are familiar to us, having been in other classes with us. )

Then we finally got to do some actual work. But for Ziva, it must have seemed like really boring work ‚ÄĒ despite being an easy way to get treats. For the first 2 weeks we work on getting the dogs focus. And that is all. And we do that by feeding them bit by bit as they look at us. So in other words, if you can picture this, for 3 and half minutes, (repeated twice) Ziva sits to my left and I make a noise to get her to look at me, and then I give her treat, treat, treat, treat, as she keeps looking up, probably thinking “ok crazy lady, moar hot dogs please.”

But that was the extent of her activity. And for an energetic dog like Ziva, she must have thought this was all pretty disappointing. I mean, this is the building where she gets to walk around, and sit and lie down and run, and do all kinds of stuff. But last night was just sit here, eat a little bit, go home.

She must really wonder about me sometimes.

But now the work begins. It all seems to be really on the handler at this stage. You have to be fluid in giving that reward so that there is no confusion on the dog’s part: “if I look at her I get food.” I admit I fumbled last night. Because you want to give them treat, treat, treat, you have to have a handful of treats ready in your left hand. Which are stored in your right pocket. So you have to deftly pull treats from your pocket with your right hand, transfer them to your left hand, looking at the dog the whole time, and making sure there is not a m moment when the dog is looking at you and not getting a treat or praise. Whew! ¬†And! Hot dogs get really slippery. Ziva was being very gentle taking the treat, but there was slobber. Much slobber. Fortunately — or unfortunately, we shall see — training begins tomorrow with her meals. Much like we did in Obedience 1, she will only get her food from hand when she is focused on me (or Laura). If she doesn’t focus, she doesn’t eat. It really sounds cruel, but I have no doubt she will pick this up real quick. Ms Smarty Pants (ooh, another nick name!) has learned so many things so quickly. She’ll get this down, as long as I am consistent.

It’s harder than it sounds ‚ÄĒ last night I got dinged for my posture! Without realizing it I was leaning down and around when I gave treats, and Tecla said that the dog will eventually learn to be in front of me, and that’s not what we want. She’s a stickler but it makes sense: Train the basics correctly and you don’t have to go back and fix bad habits. Oy.

We have 2 weeks before the next class. I hope I can get some video of us trying to do this.Or at least of me trying to do this. This is gonna be really interesting ….

We’re baaa-aaccckk!

After a brief hiatus from blogging, I expect to be back at it regularly now. Tonight Ziva begins her first Rally class, and I cannot wait! What is Rally, you say? Well, I came across this great little video of an older gentleman and his adorable middle-aged looking dog, who both seem to be having a wonderful time in their beginner competition. The video has German signs, and the dog is off the leash — two differences in our training that begins tonight. But anyway, enjoy!

I just love watching this video, because that is the world’s happiest dog. When you doubt the saying that “every dog needs a job,” remember the happy dog in this video.

So. We have some work to do, lol. ¬†But — we have come such a long way in one year. The most important thing is that Ziva has learned how to calm herself down in new and stimulating environments. She is still a very energetic dog, and she will be for many years to come. But when she came to our family 12 months ago, she would wind herself up into a state of frantic panic whenever she was stressed. (Read the very first posts in this blog to see just how far we have come.) She still barks at strange dogs, yes. She still has a hard time not getting too excited when she plays with other dogs, yes. But! Last year at this time, we were wrestling with her trying to fit a “no-pull” harness on her, and then getting dragged down the street by her. We were trying to leave the house without her practically leaping through the window, barking and whining. We were trying to keep her from going after the cats.

Today, Ziva walks on her leash, heeling with a few reminders. She is often home alone all day, and sleeps most of the time (she still steals a shoe or two and puts it in her bed. Knock on wood, she hasn’t chewed them.) Ziva and the cats are now good friends, and although she still often lifts her head when one of them walks into the room, she doesn’t leap off the couch, and a simple “Leave it” command gets her head back down and her eyes shut.

Her self-control has gotten so much better! She knows “Sit” and will hold it until you release her. The other morning my wife told Ziva “Sit” in the kitchen because she was a little bit in the way while we were both getting coffee and puttering. Then Laura started to leave the room, and I called to her and pointed at Ziva, who was holding her “Sit.” “You have to release her,” I said. Laura said “Free!” and Ziva ran to her, tail wagging and grinning face, “Look how good I am!”

A year ago? uh, no. No way.

And because she is so much better now, I am really trying to take Ziva to more places, which I know is crucial to desensitizing her to a lot of the things that stress her. Because she is better, but also because I feel more confident about how to handle a blow-up — or better yet, keep the blow-up from happening in the first place. ¬†Last week I took her for the first time to get a bath at a pet store. It was a week day, and fortunately there were no other dogs in the store at the time. But it was a totally new experience for her, and she did really well. We went for a hike beforehand, and then when we got to the store I had her do a Behavioral Down on the sidewalk just outside the door. She struggled to calm down, and while she was straining a bit two suburban moms came walking by and went “awwwww.” The one reached out to Ziva, and I said “uh, we are trying to get calm.” And she said, “Oh!” and pulled her hand back. Now, I never for a moment worried that Ziva would do anything bad, like bite her or anything, but this lady didn’t know that! Ziva was totally fine, except that it got her more excited. But really. ¬†Reach out to a dog that is obviously very excited and straining on the leash? I know Ziva is “pocket” GSD, but seriously? Don’t do it, people.

Tonight’s class starts at 6 p.m., which should be very interesting since Ziva usually begins to get sleepy about 7. But I’m working from home today, and am trying everything I can to make sure she is successful tonight. We’ve already had one good walk, and will do another later this afternoon. Hot dogs (yes, just for Rally training), lots of exercise, and some CR massage, and she should be good to go. Stay tuned for more ….

She’s better than she used to be. Except when she’s not.

Its our last day of vacation so I’m going to slip in one more post here before we leave the beach tomorrow morning. I haven’t really had much time to write or to read this week. I knew that bringing Ziva along on this trip would mean a lot of work, but even I underestimated just how much time she would require. So, no sitting on the beach reading, which is one of my favorite past times. But I did have a few minutes where I could sit on the beach with her and she would be still (until she decided to dig a hole and get to the cooler sand — then it was “cover your eyes! look out!” and sand went everywhere.) And I certainly got a lot more exercise than I normally would have in a week at the beach. All in all it has been a good week. With some challenges, like this afternoon.

We had left Ziva alone in the house a couple of times this week for short periods of time and she did really well. She’s been so exhausted that she seems to either go into her crate or jump on our bed. But either way, she seemed calm when we got back, and she didn’t get into any trouble. So today we left her again and we did a little sight seeing at a local light house and had a quick sandwich. And again, we got home and everything was fine. ¬†The worst she had done was to drag one of my shoes into her crate. But she didn’t chew it:

shoe in Ziva's crate

After we were home for a while, I thought I would take her back to the beach as a reward for being so good. So, there I am again thinking things that will make no sense to her. By the time we get to the beach, her time alone in the house will be a distant memory. There is no way she connected the two events. This, was a mistake.

We had about a good 10 minutes or so, where she was on the harness at the beach and she was seeming calm enough. Clearly she was excited, but I could call to her when the length was at full distance, and she would come romping back to me. Some pre-teens asked if they could pet her, and she was appropriately excited, but still under control.  And then. sigh. And then she saw a chocolate lab that was sitting calmly under and umbrella, and she just. went. nuts.

One of the things that has gotten me through all the training this past 12 months is the knowledge that she is¬†so much better than she used to be. But today was like we had traveled back to Day One. Ziva barked and lunged and I really struggled to control her. I tried to get her into her behavioral down, but she was in the harness and she was ¬†trying her best to slip out of it. So I was grabbing her gruff, and she was sounding really nasty as she got frustrated, and I start thinking “Oh, great. She’s going to bite me and then she’s going to slip out of her harness. And we lost her dog tags when she was romping with Murphy in the surf.”

Right about this time, a man came sauntering up to us. I figured he was going to offer help, maybe he’s a dog trainer. But no. He just wanted to ask me her name. Hahaha. Yup. He was pleasant enough but it was kind of odd — I felt like maybe was a therapist, to a counselor of some sort? He’s standing there saying very calmly, “They should make certain color collars for rescue dogs so people know.” Me: “Uh huh. ZIVA! Dog!¬† duh duh duh duh¬†Oouch!”

I finally just told the man that I was taking Zva off the beach for the afternoon, and he said “oh are you going to walk past our dog?” And then I felt pretty good about myself because I said “The black dog? I think your wife — yes? your wife? I think your wife took it back to the house. So we can walk past now.”

Because even if I wasn’t handling Ziva perfectly, at least I was still looking out for her and being aware of my surroundings so that we could get a clean exit. Where upon we got lots of sympathetic smiles and nods from people who had no interest in actually petting Ziva, but who seemed to recognize that we are trying. Then I put Ziva back on her flat collar, off the harness, and had her walk “with me,” and she did great.’

So, clearly we still need to work on the dog reactiveness. But here’s the thing. She played really well with her cousin Murphy, but for a few times when she had to be told “enough.” And when she was with Murphy and Luna and saw another dog, she still barked. But we were able to redirect and bridge her, and she got through those events. The difference today was that she was alone — she still didn’t feel secure with me, the way she did with the other dogs.

Sue walks Ziva on the beach

photo credit: Kim Johnston

But there have been times, oh there have been times. She has run into the surf and she has had no fear of the waves. She has chased seagulls, and she has dug holes in the sand. She has even walked with me on the leash, without pulling. And she has come back to the beach house and slept for 3 hours in the afternoon.

I can’t even imagine what has been going through her head this week. Does she think we’re going to live here now? (I wish, Ziva! ¬†I wish!) The smells, the sounds, the people and the dogs. It must be pretty overwhelming for a sensitive dog. I’m glad she seems to be able to be alone, she knows a safe spot — she’s in her crate now as I write this. And we’ve had some really good times — we’ve even watched the sunset from the rooftop deck together:

Ziva watches the sunset from the rooftopTomorrow we attempt the long ride home again. But this¬†time, I have a feeling she’s going to be sleeping for at least the first part of the trip. Fingers crossed.

A day at the beach (actually, a week!)

Ziva running on the beach

photo credit: Kim Johnston

It’s been quite an eventful few days for Ziva (and for us). We’re spending the week at Oak Island, North Carolina, in a beach house a few hundred yards from the beach. It’s been a wonderful, exhausting week for everyone. My brother and his family, including two large dogs, are about half a mile down the beach from us so we’ve seen them quite a bit. I was initially quite worried that Ziva would be afraid of the waves, but she went into the water with just a little coaxing — not so deep that she can’t keep her feet on the ground, which is okay with me. But she is not afraid of the waves crashing and doesn’t mind getting splashed. Her favorite thing though, seems to be running through the pools of water — and wrestling with her cousin Murphy. ¬†She’s still working on controlling her excitement, but for the most part she is doing much better than I expected.

The week didn’t start out so carefree — with Hurricane Irma demolishing much of the Caribbean while we were making our travel plans, we were preparing ourselves for the possibility of canceling our trip, or at the very least cutting it short. Fortunately for us, the weather missed us for the most part, with just one rainy day so far. ¬†The trip itself took¬†forever. ¬†We both ended up working later on Friday than we had hoped, so didn’t get nearly as much done the night before the trip. That meant a lot of hurrying around on Saturday morning, and despite taking her for a long walk, Ziva started to get worked up about all the activity. Every time I took bags out to the car, she whined and scratched at the door. My brother mentioned they had give one of their dogs benadryl before a trip and it helped knock him out. I used to give our previous dog benadryl for itchy skin and it would make him sleepy too, so I thought it might be a good idea for Ziva and help her stay calm on the 7 hour drive.¬†Wrong! It turns out a small percentage of dogs¬†have the¬†opposite reaction. So instead of lying down and going to sleep, she whined and barked and pawed at the crate. For the entire ride. No that’s not right — there was one long spell of about 70 minutes near the end, when she must have just exhausted herself, because she curled up and slept. But then she popped up again. Ziva is pretty good about letting us know when she has to go out, and she was acting like this throughout the trip. So we kept making stops, where she would indeed pee — but just a little. So I don’t know if the benadryl made her¬†feel like she had to pee? Anyway, she will never, ever have benadryl again, that’s for sure.

Ziva lies sleeping in her crateOnce at the house, she has settled in pretty well. We brought her crate inside, and she sleeps in there at night — by her choice. We have not put her in there or shut the door. Although yesterday, after a morning of romping in the surf with her cousins, we were back at the house for lunch. And I realized Ziva was being very quite — I found her curled up on our bed, where she stayed for the next 2 hours. This has been such a great time for her — she has gotten more exercise this week than ever before with us, anyway. She’s been wearing a harness and we keep her on a 30 foot leash. The beach is not very crowded, so we can usually just let her run on the leash — the water, out of the water, back in again.

It’s been a challenge for us to keep up with our training, but we’ve been trying. We have a nice quiet road behind our house and I try to take Ziva for a walk there every morning, so we can work on our leash work. It’s a challenge because there are so many scents, and people, and sometimes dogs. I’m sure the people who see us think I’m nutty, with my “yield to me, follow me.” But I really do not care. Likewise, when she barks at another dog — because she still often does — I know that she is so much better than she used to be, and I don’t care what you think. But, to be fair, this is a¬†very dog friendly place, and no one seems put off by her sometimes barking. Everyone has their dog on a leash, and while Ziva barks at them they give me a wave, a smile, and a nod.

Ziva and Murphy stand next to each other on the beach

photo credit: Kim Johnston

Generally, I can distract Ziva with the water. If she is barking at a dog up the beach, and call her over to the surf. She runs in, runs to me, then sees the dog again and barks. Repeat. ¬†It’s been great for her to spend time with my brother’s dogs — both get a long great with other dogs, and Murphy at 9 months already 80 pounds. Murphy and Ziva romp and wrestle and play nicely — for the most part. Yesterday after noon, Ziva got so excited, she started in on her old ways of getting too ramped up and playing too aggressively. Play started getting too rough, and my niece and I decided they needed a little apart time. Which they were fine with. They were still near each other by a few feet, but not in wrestling distance. ¬†Ziva even went and found a shady place. So I still have to keep an eye on her adrenaline in a situation like that. She still doesn’t always know how to turn it down when she starts to get too excited. But for the most part, Ziva and Murphy play very nicely together, and that’s been a great experience for her.

I’ll try to post again this week — I really thought I would have more quiet time, but it’s been hard until now ¬†to have more than a few minutes where Ziva is not needing attention. I think she is settling in now, though. This is her first big trip away from home, and its understandable that she would be restless. All the exercise is finally paying off though, and she is able to be in the house and calm. In fact, as I write, she’s in her crate, sleeping away. I’ll have to rouse her to go the beach soon.