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!


Before we get too ahead of ourselves ….

My original plan was to post about Ziva’s wonderful progress last week, graduating from Basic Obedience 1 and also getting a certificate for completing the Intro to Nosework class. And I’ll still get to that, but not before letting you know I was just reminded that, at somewhere around 18 months old, she still has a lot of puppy left in her. So when I was vacuuming, and she was being sooooooo good, I probably should have been suspicious. I thought she was just lying in her bed waiting for me to finish the hallway. But no, she had grabbed a baseball cap that I had found on the floor of the hall closet. In my mission to finish vacuuming I tossed the cap next to me when I found it, rather than putting it back on the shelf where it belonged. And at some point Queen Z came up beside me, took the cap, and proceeded to give it an “extra” distressed look:

A yellow baseball cap that has been chewed on the billIt’s been a while since she chewed anything, so I guess I had this coming. (I still need to catch you up on “What Ziva Ate While Her Moms Were in Scotland,” but that’s an entirely separate  post!)

So yes, it’s stops and starts. But mostly starts. And with the starts come milestones like this one:

Ziva lying down behind her Obedience certificateAnd this one:

Ziva's certificate if Achievement for completing Nosework classJust the fact that Ziva could be in a room full of strange dogs long enough to complete these classes still amazes me. She still has her moments, of course. During the final Obedience class we somehow ended up being positioned between the two most restless dogs in the class, and Ziva struggled at times to ignore them. But working as a team, we got through it. And if you can read the tagline on these certificates, it reads “Obedience through relationship.” What I have learned in the past 8 months is not just how to train my dog but how to read my dog. So, at the beginning of the class, when I realized who we had on either side of us, I certainly had a moment of “oh no!” But the difference between now and 8 months ago is that I felt confident that I could anticipate a problem before it happened. And when Ziva started to pay too much attention to one of these dogs, I took her a couple of steps away and redirected her and had her lie down back in the original spot. And at this point, that is all she needs. But we have to work together on this. I have to anticipate, and she has to obey.

In a week we start Basic Obedience 2. I cannot wait!

Travels with Ziva

Last night we had our “Nose Work” class, which is kind of an extra thing we thought we’d just try out to keep Ziva interacting with other dogs -and also because she has such an active mind as well as body, it seemed like a good “hobby” for her. She has turned out to be pretty good at it, considering we don’t practice as much as we should. But she really seems to enjoy it, so I think it is something we will continue with, at some level. It’s really very easy to practice: I have a collection of small cardboard boxes, and in a couple of them I put some hot dog (of course!). Then I bring Ziva in the room and say “Find!” and she races around the room from box to box looking for the ones with the hot dog. When she finds one, I can tell because she tries to open it. We’re not working at any specific way for her to indicate to me that this box is “the one.” That can come later if we choose to do this “officially.” For now, it’s just a fun game.  She enjoys it more than I ever thought she would. And it has the added benefit of exercising — and therefore wearing out — her brain.

I’ll share some pictures, and maybe a video if we can get our act together, in another post. In this post, I really wanted to talk about Driving with Miss Ziva. Traveling in the car has been a learning experience for all of us. The first few times we went anywhere, I think she was still in sort of a daze about where she was and who we were so she was relatively calm. But as we began going to more places and she seemed to understand that we were all together now, she started to get a little crazy in the backseat.

That is, when she wasn’t suddenly appearing in the front seat.

I’ve never had a dog that was so restless in the car. At first, we tried just putting her in the back seat, but it became clear immediately that she was not going to stay back there, no matter how you put your arm across the divide, or if you had one person driving and another holding her back. So next we tried the seatbelt attachment that clips onto the collar like a leash, which is what her foster mom had used. The first time I took her to our private lesson by myself, she spun herself around in circles so much that she had shortened the leash until there was only enough length for her to be lying on the seat with her head next to the seatbelt. Scary to me, and pretty darn uncomfortable — not to mention dangerous — for Ziva.  A few more spins and she would have been choking.

We had started working on teaching her how to “get easy,” so I began using this phrase with her on our drive to and from lessons. I lengthened the leash attachment and used the phrase and she seemed to be calming down. “Seemed to be” because I didn’t hear her. I didn’t hear her because she was busying chewing through the leash. She appeared in the passenger side front seat while we were stopped in traffic on I-895 one evening. Traffic began moving and I put my foot on the gas but we weren’t moving — Ziva had leaned on the gear shift and we were in Neutral.

We eventually got to class that night, and the trainer suggested we put vicks vapor rub on the leash to keep her from chewing it. That did indeed work for a while (and cleared my sinuses). But then she seemed to understand she could step n the seatbelt clip to undo it, as one does to release the seatbelt.

And on top of all this, she was still really worked up during these drives. One time she stood behind me and barked in my right ear for the entire 40 minutes.

Eventually, we tried a new tactic, which is what we do on all trips now and which seems to be working for us all: a crate. I got one of those plastic travel crates, which has ventilation holes but which limits how much she can see outside. We did a few really short drives to get her used to it, and she seems to be pretty happy in it for the most part. She does better if I’ve really exercised her before we go anywhere, and settles down. But she also knows when we are almost at our destination and starts whining and moving around as we get close. I drive a little Nissan Versa hatchback, so the crate sits on the backseat. I’ve strapped it down as best I can so it won’t go flying in case of an accident, but there is still little give when she is really moving around in it. She gets really excited when we’re almost home, and that’s when she really starts moving around int he crate. Last night we were about 5 minutes from home, sitting at a red light. And she’s back there, whining and spinning around, because she knows we’re in our neighborhood and almost home. And all I can think is that the people in the next car must think I’ve got a T-Rex back there, or some other Jurassic Park wannabe.

Safety experts will tell you that you should have your dog restrained in the car, and you really should, especially if you’re doing any highway driving. You wouldn’t let your kids sit without a seatbelt, why would you let your dog? The best setup is either a harness and seatbelt arrangement, or a crate. I’m happy the crate seems to be working for us, and I think she will continue to get more and more used to being in it during car rides.  (She loves her crate at home, and even puts herself to sleep in it at night. She sleeps in there all night, with the door wide open. She doesn’t come out until my alarm goes off, and then she jumps on the bed. No sleeping in around here!)

As with all things Ziva, we are both learning. Happy trails!

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 …