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?

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.

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.

Our little graduate

Ok, ok, I fell a little behind with my posting. Life comes at you fast, as they say. I work in education, and summer disappeared and the Fall term arrived with a vengeance. ¬†So now that we have a few minutes to catch our breath, I’ll try to catch you up: We passed our Obedience 2 test!

Ziva sits looking up at Sue, who is holding her certificateI cannot tell you how thrilled I was. She did great — I had a couple of flubs, but the trainer had faith in Ziva and let me redo when I messed things up a bit. He knew it was my nerves making me stumble on my words, I’m sure. Because on all the tests where it was totally on her, she did great! For example, when she had to sit and stay in place while I walked back about 6 feet, and the trainer came walking by, tossing a frisbee — she stayed in place! She had to do several commands, and I won’t list them all here unless you comment that you want to know more. But I¬†will tell you about the elusive “Here!” command, because that was a great success.

You can see in the photo that she is wearing a harness. We did that because in learning the “Here” command, we realize that she has developed her boundary corruption¬†correction so well, that any tug on her collar would make her stop. The boundary correction exercise helps her learn where the end of the leash is, so that she will not lunge and pull. To teach this, you let the dog roam around, and the second they get to the end of the leash you give it a quick pop, say a very excited “Yes!!! What a good girl!!” and reward with food. Ziva picked this up really quickly, which is great, but that meant some complication when learning “Here.” In this exercise, the trainer held her on a very long leash (30 ft), then I love on Ziva and get her a little excited, run about 20 feet away, turn, and call “Ziva! Here!” Once she reaches me, I give her high reward food (chicken) and put her short leash on.

The first time we tried this, Ziva started to run in my general direction but then felt the tug on her collar and stopped. She was really confused. So it was suggested that we try it with a harness. We have purchased a few different types of harnesses to get the right one for her. We have a Kurgo one that I really like, but it s a little complicated to put on her, and she gets so excited that it’s an ordeal. I have hopes she will get used to it. But meanwhile I found the one she’s wearing in the photo online, which is a “step in” model. Even getting her to “step in” is not a simple task, but it is easier than trying to get the other one over her head. But this one’s lightweight, mesh, and she seems very comfortable in it.

I enlisted my friend Amy one day during the week before the Saturday test. We went to a local park and used the tennis court to practice “Here.” The first couple of tries were less than stellar, but as I’ve seen before with Ziva, very soon something “clicked” and she started running right to me. It was a hot day, and there kids and dogs around, so it was really a test for her concentration. Ziva still reacts quite strongly to other dogs, and so when a man came walking along right by the tennis courts, we had to take a break. Once they were out of site though, Ziva was able to get back to work.

So! When it came test time, she was a star! I have such a wonderful memory of that moment when I turned and said “Ziva!¬†Here!” and she came at me at full speed. Straight to me, despite there being other dogs and people in the room, with a look of pure joy on her face. It’s a good thing the trainer had her on a very long leash, because I don’t think he expected her to be quite as fast as she is. She is¬†fast. I really hope that some day we can do agility, because she¬†loves to run, and I think she would be great at it. But, we’ve got some more obedience to work on before we get to her listening to my commands for an entire course. But racing from one side of the room straight to me is an excellent start. And if you met her a year ago, you’d understand just how far we have come.

We have much to keep working on, so we’re taking a little break from the Obedience classes. But we’re still going to go to Pack to Basics and Behavior Modification classes for a while. The only really frustrating thing for me right now continues to be her reactiveness with other dogs. Until she understands that she does not need to bark at every new dog she encounters, we’ve got work to do. My goal is to get her to a point where we can go to public places and have her ignore other dogs. I don’t necessarily expect her to be friendly to every dog she sees, but just to ignore them, understanding that we’re a team, and we’re ok. She’s getting there. ¬†And so am I.

A day at the beach is no walk in the park

Ziva sits by a sign that reads In my ongoing quest to expose Ziva to as many new things as I can, yesterday I decided to take her to a dog park that is on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. As I learn more about dog handling skills, I know that what she needs the most, in order to lessen her adrenalized reaction to new situations, is … to experience more new situations. Because she really just needs to begin to understand that everything is going to be ok. As our trainers have said to me many times, “she needs to learn that you have her back.” So I took the day off from work, packed a lunch and lots of water, and we set off on an adventure for both of us. I had never been to this park, and it’s in an area of Maryland with which I’m not very familiar. But we made it with only one wrong turn (following gps leading us to a gate across the road from the actual entry to the park — the attendant said “yup. everyone does that.”)

I unloaded Ziva from her crate in the back seat, and she actually stood quite still for me to put the harness on her. The last time I put it on it her it was like putting a saddle on a wild horse. All bucking and jumping. So I don’t know why she was so subdued this time, but it was very helpful! I wanted her to wear the harness because I knew she would end up pulling on the leash, and I didn’t want her to get used to feeling it pull on her collar. She’s been doing really well on the “With me” command while walking, and I don’t want to blow that with a walk in the woods.

We walked the short distance through a wooded path from the parking lot to the beach. She did a lot of sniffing along the way and I did not hurry her. She very patiently sat for me to take her picture by the Dog Beach sign — it was only 10 am but it was¬†very hot at this point, and we were in the full sun. When we got to the actual beach, I was a little disappointed at how small it was, but there was no one else there so we had a chance to test the waters without encountering other dogs. Ziva¬†loves to jump into the large fishpond in our backyard, but I have no idea what her experience is with large bodies of water — and specifically, with waves. The waves of the Chesapeake Bay are very small — ripples, really. But I think it’s safe to say she found it a little stressful.

So how¬†does it look when a dog gets “adrenalized” in a stressful situation? The following video is Exhibit A. It seems playful and fun, and I was talking to her and laughing with her, but honestly, she is ramping up the adrenaline in this video:

Notice how she runs at the water and growls? Her tail is also wagging pretty quickly but not maniacally. So she’s not out of control, but she is making herself get¬†very excited. She’s kind of scared of this new thing, “waves,” but if she gets herself really wound up it feels good! ¬†In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been laughing here — I probably should have been bridging her with “Water, du du du du, YES!” But it’s hard to remember what to do when in the thick of it.

But I’ll tell ya, I remembered how to bridge when another dog showed up! Because Ziva was already so wound up that she just started barking and barking and barking. And then a¬†second dog appeared, and she was really almost more than I could handle. She barked, but she also pulled on the lead so hard that I almost lost my footing a couple of times in the wet sand. (Note to self: Why do you¬†always think Tevas are a good idea at the beach? They are not. Sand gets in the velcro and the next thing you know the shoes are flopping off your feet. )

Anyway, I was just about at the point of thinking that we would need to leave — I was trying to stuff hot dog in her face and bridging, and also trying to distract her with a stick — when her barking began to decrease, and then she started to pay more attention to me. And suddenly I remembered the two golden rules of Ziva: Bridging and Paying for Engagement (with me). So I continued to do bridging with “Dog” and I continued to distract her with the water and really praise her and keep her focus on me and not on the other dogs. The other dogs, by the way, were both Labradors. And neither one was very interested in anything beyond their tennis ball in the water.

Ziva stands on the beach as other dogs are in the backgroundWe were at the beach for only about an hour, but it seemed like that was enough for this day. It was very hot — in the upper 90’s — and while Ziva seemed to enjoy the water, by this point she seemed just as interested in the grassy marsh area behind the beach. According to her DNA report, she is a quarter Lab, but that percentage had been used up by this point. ¬†So we sat in the shade for a little while and had a drink of water. And I was so very happy to see that she could do this — be in the presence of strange dogs with out caring much about them. She watched them at a distance of about 20 feet, without barking or getting excited. Hopefully she knows: I have her back.

 

A tale of a tail

Ziva sitting in the car

Ziva seemed very excited to be back at the Training academy. We did some socialization and behavior modification work, then took a quick break in the car with water and snacks before we went back in for Obedience 2 class. Next week I guess I need to pack TWO peanut butter sandwiches ….

We had a great day at our first Obedience 2 class on Saturday. It is a very small class — only 4 dogs, and two trainers! It’s almost like getting a personal training session. Ziva did really well with the new commands we’re learning: verbal and visual cues for sit and down, and for “watch me.” Previously we just did sit and down with leash pressure, but she picked up on the verbal cues very quickly. She also did really well with “Watch me,” which is something that had been suggested to us at the very beginning of her days with us as a way to get her to stop paying attention to other dogs. It was never successful then, and low these many months later we know that would never have worked with her adrenaline so high. So it’s really a case of understanding each dog’s personality and temperament, and knowing what will work, when — and what won’t. I guess there are levels of dog reactiveness? And if you have one at the level of Ziva when we got her, you need someone who specializes in it, not just someone who kind of just does it along with a lot of other things.

I also learned something new about dog communication on Saturday. Most of the other dogs in this class were in Obedience 1 with us, and Ziva knows them and doesn’t react when she sees them. We don’t do leash greetings in class, but we sit or stand just a few feet apart, and after having done 30 minutes of Pack to Basics, and an hour of Behavior Modification, Ziva has been just fine to ignore the other dogs lying a few feet away. So I was really taken off guard when she suddenly started barking and pulling on the leash towards Lucy Lu, a dog with whom she had been very friendly for the past 7 weeks.

Lucy Lu is young — only about 8 months old — large, white and fluffy. I knew her breed at some point, but I’ve forgotten. I just tried to google that up, as my 93-year old Dad would say, but am not coming up with the right breed. She has long, white, shaggy fur and looks kind of like an all white English Sheepdog. Except she’s not, and she also didn’t have long shaggy fur on Saturday, because she had been to the groomer. She had very short hair, and a little pompom at the tip of her tail, which was kind freaking Ziva out. My first thought was: “Why wouldn’t she recognize this was Lucy Lu? She knows her smell.” But the trainer explained that it wasn’t that she didn’t recognize her, it was that she didn’t know how to read that tail! It was only then that I noticed that the poof of hair at the tip was bobbing all around. Of course Ziva got stressed, and of course her initial reaction was to get excited.

So that was definitely a “teachable moment” — for¬†me! I was being pretty relaxed, not really being aware of the dog near me, because Ziva “knew” her. But I really needed to be aware of the environment there as well, which on this day included Lucy Lu’s tail.

But once we got Ziva settled back down again, class went off perfectly. So much so that I decided to take Ziva in to the offie with me on Monday. I’m trying to get her into as many new environments as I can, all the time working on our leash work and our relaxation methods. Monday July 3rd was pretty dead in my office, since so many folks opted for an extra long weekend with the 4th of July holiday on Tuesday. I had gotten my boss’s okay to bring in Ziva, and made sure it was also okay with my colleagues, since we now work in a totally open office space. There would only be 4 of us on Monday in this large room, but we do try to be respectful of each other in there. They all said “Bring her in!” So I did.

Ziva lies on the office floor, pantingWell, she did¬†okay. We only lasted about 4 hours, but that was kinda what I expected. It was a very hot day, and we went on a very long walk before we got to the office, but she was still pretty ¬†excited to be in a new place. I brought lots of things from home, like a blanket for her to lie on, but as you can see from the picture, she didn’t lie on it. She also was not very interested in her usual bully sticks. She would lie down for a few minutes, and then she would start whining. I also brought in the nose work equipment, and we entertained everyone a few times by doing “Find.” She did better than I expected, to be honest! It just wasn’t enough to wear out her brain. But, she did cheer up a lot of people who were working in an office when most of their friends were at the beach or by the pool! She’s a long way from being a “therapy” dog, since although she loves to meet new people, one stroke from a new person sets her into a joyful squirm. But that’s just who she is right now. And I love her for it.

And all of these new adventures and experiences help to make her more relaxed at home, as well. I know that as time goes on, she will be able to expand her relaxation to new places. But for now, well, remember in the early posts when I wrote about how she would scare the bejeesus out of the cats because she would race towards them? Well, The cats definitely approve of the “new and improved” version of Ziva, even if she’s not sure what’s going on with them:

Ziva on the couch with a cat on her back

Juliet is the shyer, more skittish one of the two cats. But when Ziva is calm, she loves to come over and rub against her.

Sometimes I feel like a fraud

It’s Friday evening, which in my life right now means I’m pouring a tall gin and tonic and chopping an enormous amount of hot dog. Because Saturday is a full day of training and behavior modification. We start with “Pack to Basics” from 8-8:30, then right into Behavior Modification class from 8:30-9:30. That class often runs over a bit, and then we have Obedience 101 from 10:30-11:30. (I bring a cooler with some water and snacks, and we stroll around the area and Ziva rests in the crate ¬†before Obedience class.)

So it takes some planning to be ready for Saturday mornings. For example, need a lot of chopped hot dog. Any one class might require a baggie full of chopped hot dog, but we have Behavior Mod and Obedience. Plus, we have bridging to do all morning. Because as soon as Ziva exits the car, she is still learning to ignore the other dogs. So after a 30 minute car ride, we head to a grassy spot for a wee, and she sees another dog and starts to get excited so I start bridging: “Dog! duh duh duh duh. Yes!” and hot dog. We get into the building and she needs to lie quietly in behavioral down ¬†until Pack to Basics starts. Sometimes that’s easy, but sometimes, like a couple of weeks ago, there’s a new dog (or two) that make all the dogs get worked up. So there’s some more bridging (and hot dogs!)

My experience has been: prepare more than enough treats for training — and then add some more. I have just finished chopping up an entire pack of hot dogs for tomorrow. How much hot is that?

containers of chopped hot dogYes, that’s an entire package of hot dogs. Other folks in the class use different treats. Some use cheese, or other brands of treats (Zukes is popular, and I also use that sometimes, too.) For us, hot dog seems to be the highest value treat, and with bridging it’s all about high value.

But okay, so what’s with the title here. Why do I feel a fraud sometimes?

Because sometimes it feel like as much as I see progress — I also see setbacks. For example, walking on a leash. We’ve been working on this for months, since we started the private lessons in January. Ziva is so much better than she used to be, but there are still days when we are walking and i feel completely uncoordinated and out of control. This often seems to happen right after a day when I’ve felt like “we’ve got this!” We’re walking, and Ziva is by my left side — not pulling. Those are great moments. But then the next day, she’s all over the place — pulling, wandering off to the left. I’m turning right and she’s not following. It’s kind of a mess.

And then we go to Obedience class — after being in Pack to Basics and Behavior Mod all morning — and she’s great! Last class we had a competition of leash walking and we got a 10 out of 10. Whut??? ¬†It was a great feeling to be one of the best in class, but then we get home and walk in the neighborhood, and she’s all over the place again. And the first Obedience class (this go-around that is — remember, this is try #2), Ziva and I were asked to demonstrate the first leash walking activity. ¬†We did well — she was exhausted, after all. But knowing how she still is in the neighborhood, I really felt like we were a bit of imposters.

It’s slowly coming together. There are good days and bad, but mostly days that are just in between. My fear in writing this blog is that I’ll come across as someone who knows what they are doing — I surely do not. I am learning every day, and every step along the way. ¬†All I know is that there are more days when it works than days when it doesn’t.

I guess that’s what it’s all about?

Ziva lies next to Sue on the couch

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 …