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.