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.

Hitting the wall

In the weeks since we finished Obedience 1 Class, it’s felt a little bit like we hit a plateau. Going on our walks, Ziva seemed to consistently challenge the “With me” command, constantly trying to walk ahead of me rather than by my side.  We have a neighbor up the street with a couple of dogs who sometimes bark from behind a wooden privacy fence, and that has set her off at the start of walks so that she doesn’t seem to be able to keep herself under control. It had started to feel like we just can’t get past this challenge.

Neighborhood walks have also become a little stressful since one of our little canine friends, Peggy, was attacked by a loose dog while on her walk. Peggy was fortunately only bruised, and the loose dog was collected by animal control. But it made me nervous, and I started carrying a stick with me. I should probably still carry it, but I found that I had too many things in my hands. I’ve just gotten to the point where I can hold the leash, put my hand in my pouch for treats, reach for the spray bottle of water/vinegar, and keep an eye out for dogs/squirrels/cats/bunnies. So then I started to feel stressed about not having a stick.

But yesterday we had just the best walk. It was short, but doing behavioral down Ziva calmed herself before we left the house, and immediately she sat down when we went out the front door. Then she did a very nice “With me” down the street, with just a few corrections. I kept telling her what a good girl she was, she kept glancing up at me, so then I kept giving her treats. It really was pretty much textbook good walking. And what made me even happier was how happy she seemed to be. Because sometimes she lets me know how frustrated she is that I’m not walking faster, or that I keep stopping to get her lined up beside me. (How? She talks to me! Or rather, she talks back to me. She definitely has that vocal German Shepherd gene in her mix.) But yesterday she just seemed so happy. So when we got back home, we played in the backyard for a long time, and she kept bringing the tennis ball to me — another new thing (usually she needs a lot of coaxing to bring it and drop it).

A tired dog is a good dog, and a good dog is a happy dog. Tomorrow we begin Obedience 2 classes, and while a few days I ago I was starting to feel a little stressed about it and thinking we’re not making any more progress, now I’m back to looking forward to learning new things with Ziva and helping her reach her full potential — whatever that may be! Maybe I was stressing her out, and then she was stressing me out, which then made me stress her out even more. But she can be such a big love bug, I really just need to breath deeply, and remember this face:

ZIva lying on the bed

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 …

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: