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 — 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 — 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 ….

Continuing “behavioral down” … and more

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the holy trinity for us has been behavioral down, conditioned relaxation, and bridging. Doing these three things has had an amazing effect on Ziva and her ability to control her energy. It has taken months of work, and some setbacks along the way, but we are so far from where we started. She is still such a happy joyful dog, and still very energetic. But she is able to calm herself in most situations, to a more manageable level. She’s still not able to ignore other dogs without assistance, but she’s getting there.

We do behavioral down before every walk. For the past few months, Ziva has been doing pretty well at settling down quickly.  But I have noticed that in last week or so, she has been getting really ramped up when I put the leash on her, and it’s taking longer to get her to settle down. I’m not really sure what’s causing the backslip. The weather? The hot dogs? Who knows! But this is the way it goes — a few steps forward, a few steps back again.

So here’s what we do: We practice, practice, practice.  Yesterday, I took a video of Ziva doing behavioral down on the front porch, which we haven’t had to do for a long time, but clearly we needed a refresher. We always do behavioral down before we leave the house, usually in the hallway by the front door. For a long time, this has been enough to get her into the right frame of mind to have a successful walk. But when we first started this method, we did behavioral down in the hallway, on the front porch, and again at the bottom of the steps.  In this video, Ziva had struggled to get calm in the hallway, but finally did settle. But once we stepped onto the porch, she was wound right up again. So I just stopped and did behavioral down right there. In the beginning of the video, she is lying down but still very alert. If your dog is sitting like a sphinx, she’s not relaxed she’s still very alert. Eventually Ziva put her head down, and on the scale of 1-10 I would guess she was at a 3/4. I got her up at this point because I didn’t think we were going to have much more time before neighbors/children/dogs/squirrels etc. etc. came by and she got herself up again. In a perfect world, I should have  stayed there until she reached a 1. Let me know what you think:

This is probably a good time to talk about the collar. I’ve been putting off broaching this topic because it is a hot button one — everyone has an opinion. Here’s our story:

We are using a “pinch collar,” which you can see clearly in the video. This was recommended by our trainer, and we were not allowed to use it on walks until we had been trained in its use, which took several weeks. We use it on walks as Ziva learns to walk on a leash, and for specific training such as “sit” and “down.” Ziva does not wear it around the house, and doesn’t wear it when she is with other dogs.

What is a “pinch collar”? It is a metal collar with with short prongs that put pressure on the dog’s neck when the leash is pulled. Sounds horrible, right? Of course, because that’s only half the story. The other half is that we are learning to use the leash as a communication tool, so that it is never tight and the prongs are never more than a reminder pressure. When we are walking and Ziva starts to get ahead of me, I don’t “pop” the leash as other trainers have recommended with other collars. Instead, I very lightly give the leash tug and turn to the right. I give Ziva a big “Yes! What a good girl!!” and a treat. It is a very conscious process, and the collar should just put enough pressure to get Ziva’s attention, never to cause actual pain. It’s the difference between a tap on the shoulder, and grabbing an arm. I’m tapping.

It would be nice if Ziva would just listen to me, but she won’t. It reminds me of when I was at the mall recently. It was pretty crowded, and as I strolled past the Baby Gap store, I heard a little squeal and then saw a toddler making his way out the door and into the crowd of people walking along. I glanced around at the people near him, and no one seemed to belong to him, so I quick glanced back at the store from which he appeared, and out came a very tired looking mom, whose shoulders visibly slumped when she saw how far he had gotten. I caught her eye and smiled, because he was right next to me now and I wanted to let her know he was ok. She started to make her way toward us through the mass of people, and I wanted to stop the little guy, but not startle or scare him. So I just tapped him on the shoulder and said “Hey there little man. Where are you going?” It was enough to make him stop and look up at me, which gave his mom time to reach us. Now, I could have called out to him, and his mom could have called out to him, but he wouldn’t have stopped.  He needed a physical correction, but nothing forceful or certainly not painful, just a tap on the shoulder. That’s what we’re aiming for with Ziva.

Every collar or harness has its pros and cons. The pinch collar must be worn up under the chin, so that it won’t put pressure on the trachea which could cause injury. (You can see in the video, Ziva is wearing it properly. ) No-pull harnesses are very popular, and are great for some dogs, but have also been shown to cause shoulder damage to other dogs. “Halti” and other head harnesses can cause neck injuries to some dogs. “Choke” collars, which I have used with previous dogs, usually slide down the neck and end up putting pressure on the trachea when pulled.

So. Find a trainer who is experienced with the collar you choose, and get trained yourself. The bottom line is that whatever you choose should be pain-free and effective for your dog. Onward and upward.

A “Bridge” over the River Ziva

One of the best techniques we have learned is called “Bridging.” This is a truly positive method of training, and from what I understand it was originally developed for working with zoo animals, to desensitize them to “triggers” or targets — anything that might make them upset or excited, such as getting examined or having someone or something in their area. So you can try this with any animal: your cats, your birds — heck, apparently even your goats!

So, they’re not speaking English in that video, but it doesn’t matter. Here’s what is going on there. The woman is trying to get the goat comfortable with having a collar on. So she names the target — if it was in English she would say “collar.” Then she makes a series of hard consonant sounds —  she says “gee gee gee gee gee,” while have been using more of a “duh duh duh duh duh” sound — while the target is near. In this case, she’s getting the collar closer each time. As the goat stops reacting to the collar, she stops making the bridging sound, and says “Yes!” (or whatever she is saying in this video), and gives a food reward.

We started using this method for Ziva’s dog reactiveness. It is similar to what our first trainer and other friends had suggested, which was to have high value treats and give them whenever a dog was nearby.  But the problem was, once Ziva saw a dog, she became so wound up that she never really cared about the treats. I was holding the leash with one hand while she pulled and lunged, trying to stuff treats in her mouth with the other, all the time saying phrases that I don’t think she even heard: “leave it!” “take it easy” “it’s just a dog”

Needless to say, that wasn’t going too well. My phrases turned into “Stop it!” “No!” “Ouch! You’re pulling my arm!” At least those were the G-rated versions.

We started doing the bridging method during private lessons at TK9, with another dog standing on the far side of a room. Our trainer Will came in the room with a delightful Golden Retriever who couldn’t have cared less about us. Ziva started to pull and bark, but I said “Dog! duh duh duh duh” and stuck some hot dog pieces in her mouth, with a “Yes!” . She stopped to eat the hot dog, and I said again “Dog! duh duh duh duh” then “Yes!” and a treat. Over and over and over again. To the point that when I said “Dog!” Ziva whipped her head around, not paying attention to the dog any more but to me! (well, and the hot dogs).

It has taken a LOT of practice with this method, but we use it on our walks, and we even started using it around the house. I believe it helped Ziva calm down enough to be able to be around the cats, to the point now where they kiss noses, and the cats rub up against her. Our cat Zeke is the more interactive one with Ziva, because she still can get too excited for Juliet’s taste. But to get from Ziva flying toward the baby gate whenever she saw one of them in the hallway to where we are today, where she lies in her bed and watches them walk by — that only happened after we started saying “That’s Zeke! duh duh duh duh. Yes!” And “That’s Juliet! duh duh duh duh. Yes!”

This method has been crucial to helping Ziva learn to control her energy — this, along with Behavioral Down and Conditioned Relaxation. But this technique has really made the most profound and obvious change in our daily walks. What a joyous feeling when I realized that I was actually hoping we would encounter another dog on our walk so that we could practice bridging. That was a real “Whoa!” moment for me:  We had gone from dreading the idea of running into dogs to actively seeking them out.  If you have a dog-reactive dog, you understand how powerful this change in mindset is.

I’m not being overly dramatic to say this is life-changing. Using bridging has gotten us to the point now where Ziva can lie down in a small room, waiting our turn to go into a room for Nose Work practice, even with a not very social Belgian Malinois and a perky Pomeranian just a few feet away (not to mention 4 other lively dogs in the room!).

Other dogs waiting for their turn to do Nose Work

Ziva was lying at my feet in Behavioral Down while I took this picture. Another dog was behind that blue wall doing a search, another small dog was practicing what I call “little dog tricks” to our left, and a Lab and a Cocker Spaniel are sitting to our right.

When we started this journey with Ziva, she was unable to participate in a Basic Obedience class because it was too much for her to handle her adrenaline in that situation, being around other dogs. And now? She is able to enjoy new experiences like Nose Work. I don’t know if we’ll keep up with the Nose Work or try to get certified, but she really seems to love doing it, so …

The doggie IEP

Ziva doesn’t really have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), but … well actually she kinda does.  Remember when I said the head trainer took me aside after Ziva blew up in the parking lot of Tecla’s K9 Academy after seeing all the other dogs, and said, “we can fix these behaviors”? Well, while I watched some other classes, and Ziva waited patiently in a crate in another room (I’m kidding — she barked continuously for over an hour), Tecla wrote up a multi-page, year-long plan of training. I won’t lie — it was pretty overwhelming considering I thought I was just signing on for Basic Obedience. But she went through everything in the plan, and then told me to take some time and think about it, and then call back with any questions.

Looking at the total for all the classes, it was also a lot more money than I expected to spend on training. But Ziva is only a year old, and I started thinking about the next 10 or more years with her, and how stressful this behavior was getting for all of us — including Ziva. It seemed like an investment that we needed to make. So in January of this year, we began our series of trainings.

Ziva stands in teh doggie daycare room, with other dogs in the background

Ziva at one of her first days at day care. Looking a little unsure of what’s going on, but definitely not stressed about it.

The plan, hereafter known as The Plan, really started with the extreme basics and built up from there. We started with one week of Doggie Daycare, which let Ziva get to know the staff, and let them get to know her and watch her interact wth other dogs. I picked her up at the end of each day and she was always so happy! I felt that we were on the right track, and this gave me energy for the work ahead.

Which was good, because the next thing on the agenda was pretty scary to me — something called “Pack to Basics.” On the face of it, this sounds nuts: Take a bunch of dog- and/or people- reactive dogs and their owners, and have them walk around a room for 30 minutes. But this is one of the thing that the folks at All Shepherd Rescue had specifically mentioned about TK9 — acknowledging that “I know it sounds crazy but … it really works!” And it does!

Tecla is certified in this method, and she always has at least 4 other trainers in the room as well who keep an eye on things. It’s simple: we arrive one by one and stand spread out along the walls of a large multipurpose room (think middle school gym class). Your dog is in Behavioral Down. (We usually do some “bridging” at this time, which I haven’t explained yet but which is a reward/ redirection method that keeps Ziva happy with treats as a new dog enters the room). When everyone is settled in, we begin walking with our dogs on leash, in a counter-clockwise direction. One by one, Tecla calls out a dog’s name and the owner unhooks the leash, and keeps walking. Eventually, all dogs are off leash, and their owners are walking in a circle around the room.

The trainers have long bendy poles with a feather on the tip to tap a dog that might be getting too close or comfort to another (think, inappropriate sniffing). And they keep an eye on dogs that are too energetic. For Ziva’s first few weeks (we go every Saturday morning), they had her drag a slip leash behind her to sort of slow her down a little.  She had to learn how to be social and not get in the wrong dog’s face. The owners don’t interact with the dogs at all — except to clean up after them, since all the dogs seem to make a point of pooping after a few minutes of their constitutional. But everyone helps everyone else with this, and it’s good bonding for the owners as well.

I don’t mind telling you what a proud momma I felt the first times I saw Ziva in this situation. She loves to hurry around the room, but constantly comes back and checks in with me. The dogs aren’t really supposed to “play” but they are supposed to interact and to keep walking. Some dogs stick right by their owners’ side, while others like Ziva tour the room. I have seen dogs come in on Day One petrified to be near so many strange dogs, only to see them weeks later running along with this one, then that one. It’s beautiful.

And Ziva. Well.  I took this too short video recently, and that’s what inspired me to start this blog. Because here’s a dog who used to lunge and bark and be unmanageable around new dogs, and look at her now:

And here’s a slightly longer version. You’ll see that Ziva is trotting off ahead as the video begins, and she just keeps trotting along, checking in with other dogs and people as she goes. I think this video might give you a better sense of what the room is like. The owners are just strolling along, and one of the trainers takes a step forward toward Ziva at one point just to make sure everyone is behaving. She takes the hint and keeps moving, stopping to check in with a white german shepherd that she has never met before for just a second before moving on again.

So, as I mentioned, we’ve been doing this every Saturday morning for 30 minutes. And then we go right to Behavior Modification class for an hour. We have learned a ton in that class, as well as in a series of private lessons we took with a trainer at TK9.  I’ll go into some those techniques in the next post ….

Plenty of praise and payment

Whenever I tell someone that we’re not doing “purely positive” training with Ziva, I’m always afraid it sounds like we’re being really mean. But the truth is that she gets more praise and reward than any animal I have ever had, because we are spending so much more time consciously training her than any animal I have ever had.

During the 7 weeks that we are in Basic Obedience 101 class, we’re feeding Ziva her morning and evening meals from our hand. She gets food when she looks at me. She also gets tons of crazy praise. Because when we are trying to reinforce positive behaviors, the praise needs to be effusive — consider this:  You finish a project at work and your boss notices. But she says “Oh. Thanks” rather than “Fantastic job! You’re awesome. Well done!”  Obviously as silly as it may sound, the second version is more meaningful to you. Same thing here. Here’s a quick video of me feeding Ziva this way. Thankfully we’re only doing this for 7 weeks, because it is pretty time consuming. I thought I was doing enough by having Ziva wait for a minute after I placed her food bowl down, but our trainer said (to the class in general, because I guess this must be a common misconception), “Making your dog wait 1 minute for an entire bowl of food is not making her work for it. That’s like telling you to sit still and you’ll get a million dollars. That’s what a bowl of food is worth to your dog.”

I won’t lie and tell you that we do this for every single meal. Life happens, and sometimes I’m in a rush to get out the door, and I do put her food in the bowl. But I would say about 90% of the time we do the hand feeding right now. Here’s a quick video:

Beginning with Behavioral Down

The first Obedience 101 class at Tecla’s K9 Academy was people only, but with lots of homework. So we thought we did pretty good with the homework, but with no context of how far along we should be, it seems we hadn’t done enough. The most important part of this week was to learn “Behavioral Down.” This is a really simple technique that helps the dog learn to control their own behavior and understand that they can get quiet and settled — and that it is a pleasant feeling. Just the ticket for Miss Ziva.

But Miss Ziva was not so enamored of the technique at first.

Ziva riding in the car

Ziva in a moment of calm, when she was not barking in my ear while I was driving home from obedience class.

So, the actual technique is just to put the leash on the dog, and then step on the leash towards the dog’s end, so that it pulls them down slightly. That is, it’s just taut enough that the dog decides it would be more comfortable to lie down than to continue standing. So this is where we start to move away from purely positive training. And let me say, if purely positive training works for your dog, that is awesome. But I believe some dogs — and Ziva is one — benefit from a gentle nudge. I mean, if you watch actual dog moms and their pups, they will give more than a “gentle” nudge when a pup is misbehaving. This technique is in no way painful to the dog, it is simply less comfortable standing like this than to lie down. The dog makes the choice.

The class was warned that the first few times we tried Behavioral Down it might take up tor 90 minutes for a dog to lie down and become completely settled. The goal is to reach 0: lying on her side, eyes closed, calm breathing. The good news was that it never took a full 90 minutes for her to cut her energy in half. The bad news was that we never got below about 3 or 4. I realize typing that,  it sounds like we just needed to persevere. But she would get to 3 or 4 after about 30 minutes and never get below that.  And the first 10-15 minutes was pretty wild: she would stand for long time, leaning forward. The she would start barking. Then she would finally lie down and start trying to roll around.

Ziva and Laura in the park practicing leash work

Some early leash work in the park.

We practiced this in the house, several times a day for a week. She got better, but couldn’t seem to get below 3/4. By the time Saturday morning rolled around, we felt nervously ready. We tried to wear her out a little by throwing the ball in the back yard, and then loaded her into the back seat for the half hour ride. During which she barked the entire time. Somehow we managed to survive that first class — she was pretty bad at her Behavioral Down, constantly trying to get up, barking, and being in general, very wound up. But other dogs were also doing some of that as well.

We practiced our next homework for the week (some basic leash work), and then on Saturday I took Ziva on my own because my wife couldn’t make it that week. “No problem,” I said. And 30 minutes later — after Ziva had stepped on the seatbelt release and ended up in the front passenger seat, and I had gotten her back in the back again, and she stood with her head behind my right ear and barked for the rest of the trip — we pulled into the parking lot. That’s when Ziva saw the other dogs also waiting in the parking lot, and basically went out of her mind. She barked and spun and barked and spun — all in the back seat. I tried redirecting and then distracting with treats, and finally I carefully put the leash on her, and let her out of the car, both hands holding tight on the leash. My biggest fear was that she would get loose and run away.

She didn’t get loose, and she didn’t run away. But she did bark and pull and lunge. Tecla and her assistant came over to talk to me, and I realize now that she knew immediately what was going on with Ziva at that moment. She led us into the building in a quiet room apart from the other dogs, and said that she believed that Ziva is a dog that is addicted to adrenaline. That Ziva had learned to deal with stressful situations — such as being around dogs, being in a new place, meeting new people, etc. — by ramping up the adrenaline, because that feels good. She said she could help us with a plan of training for Ziva to address the adrenaline, by teaching her how to be calm, and helping her see that calm feels good, too.

She also said: Ziva is only a year old, and this is completely fixable. “Or, you can wait a couple of years until she has gotten into a dog fight, or has run away — which is when most people come to me.” I remembered Ziva’s foster mom telling me over the phone, before we met, “The sky’s the limit with this one. She can do any activity you want to try.” And I felt we owed it to her to help her learn to be a better dog. The awesome dog she could be.

So, doggie IEP in hand, we left the building that day with a new outlook and a new future. And we haven’t looked back since!

Next up: Just what was in that doggie IEP, anyway?


So, I tried to to a video of Behavioral Down tonight, which we do now every time we go out the door. She had been alone in the house for 8 hours today, and we had taken a trip out back but we usually also go for a walk in the neighborhood.  Excuse the mess in the hallway and the crazy camera work.  I’m new at this. The key is at the end of the second video, when she lets out a big sigh.

I thought I could film the entire process with one hand, but I had to stop to get the leash on her and then stat filming again: