Report: Speed & Motivation Class

Lilly slunk her way onto the training field and took up her position under the shade netting, against the fence. Her body, her face, her mouth looked fairly relaxed … at least from a distance. Up close, however, a different story . Her pupils dilated. Tiny, uncontrolled tremors. Heart racing. I pretty much knew she wouldn’t run any of the exercises, but I thought she might settle in and just watch. I was wrong.

I sat with her and used accupressure points to get her breathing pattern to slow somewhat, but once the exercises turned to teeter performance, Lilly went into a full panic. Her gums looked nearly white.

I took her back to the car and watched the rest of the course alone.

Of the many strategies we discussed, one in particular seems perfect for Lilly … at least for those times when I can get her on the training field alone.

Our trainer called one exercise “Lighten Up,” where you simply run around the course, dog at your side, and any time the dog takes an obstacle, you have a big party. No cues, no set pattern, just run around and celebrate anything the dog does.

I think Lilly would like that game. I think she’d be good at it, when she’s calm enough to get up off the ground, that is.

I’m happy to say that Lilly doesn’t seem upset with me for taking her to the class. Unfortunately, she’s still pretty pissed about the bath from a couple weeks ago.

Return the favor

Last Friday, I took Lilly to watch a 60 weave pole challenge. We sat way off to the side in the shade under a tree to keep her stress level as low as possible. As always, I clicked and treated her for staying calm, looking at other dogs without responding, etc. She did great, and yet … a competitor asked us a favor.

It turns out her dog hates the clicker noise. Hates it. Hates it. Hates it. So, she asked, could we please not click when she and her dog were on deck and during their run at the long, long, long line of poles.

I apologized and was happy to comply. I slid my clicker band up my arm so that I wouldn’t forget, and instead, I switched to our marker word (yes!). Even that, I said quietly to Lilly and slipped her food as needed for the rest of our stay.

I see some important lessons here. First, even our best efforts to take care of our own dogs in our own way can annoy the crap out of other dogs and other people. So, as much as I get frustrated at times by things people and dogs do that upset Lilly, I need to remember that sometimes we probably bug people too.

And, I believe, handlers should have the right to ask for our help in such situations, even when what the person or dog is doing is truly within handling “norms.”

It’s a tough spot to be in. Lilly’s list of things that cause a reaction or fear or shut down is nearly endless. Most times I simply cannot ask everyone we encounter to cater to our needs. Yet, there are times when a simple act can completely change Lilly’s day or her experience.

So, I’m happy to say that I made a deposit in a the favor bank. Perhaps some day when it really matters, someone will do the same for me.

Dog books are HUGE

An article in yesterday’s New York Times notes the hot dog-book market. It’s something those of us in the dog world have known for years. In fact, it’s partly the reason for this blog.

Click here to read the article “Best Sellers That Woof and Meow.”

I was happy to see that Temple Grandin’s book is doing so well. I’m also a big fan of Jon Katz’s work. If you haven’t read his books and have border collies, you really should. They are very funny, very interesting.

I’m sharing this news because it’s always interesting when trends gain momentum enough to be noticed by the New York Times (who … full disclosure here … I also write for on occasion).

But, I’m also telling you this because I began blogging about Lilly, in part, because I want to write a book about her someday (soon, I hope). And, an element of getting a book deal is proving to agents and publishers that there’s already a strong readership.

I’m even going to order Lilly her own business cards to hand out when people stop us on the street, which they do … a lot!

So, first of all, thank you, thank you for your interest, support and regular visits to Champion of My Heart. I would be forever grateful if you could tell your pals about Lilly’s blog so that I can build our subscriber list.

Please … (imagine the relentless face of a begging border collie here).

Fast fear, slow fear

There are two kinds of fear. Fast fear and slow fear. (FYI – slow fear takes a whopping 24 milliseconds.) Either way, Lilly can react faster than I can even process what she’s seen or heard. Author Temple Grandin explains it like this: “The reason fast fear can be so fast is that accuracy is
sacrificed for speed. Fast fear gives you a rough draft of reality.”

So, there you go. Lilly is living a rough draft life.

I’ve said before that I sometimes wish Lilly thought a little less, that she could simply let go. Yet, reading about this kind of brain research makes me wish she’d process stimuli just a tad longer. Maybe if she thought about it more, she’d be less afraid.

Alas, Lilly may be a one-draft wonder … which is great for writers, not so hot for reactive dogs.

Then again, knowing the kind of time splits we’re working with in her high-powered brain makes me feel a bit less lame for not being able to react fast enough to help.

Unfortunately, this stuff is hardwired into her grey matter in a way that makes it hard to divert.

Fear never forgotten

Fear recovery may change outward behavior, but research shows that real fear is NEVER forgotten. Even reactions trained to “extinction” can come back in a flash.

On page 212 of “Animals in Translation,” Temple Grandin explains: “However, it turns out that extinction doesn’t actually wipe
out the fear from your brain. It’s still there. If you teach an animal to fear
a tone that precedes an air puff to the eye, and then teach him not to fear the
tone because there’s no more air puff, he hasn’t forgotten. He stops blinking
reflexively every time he hears the tone, but all you have to do get him
blinking again is to pair the tone with the air puff again just once and the
animal is right back where he started …”

Later on that same page, she adds: “Both animals and people can ‘get over’ a learned fear. But
today we understand that getting over a fear isn’t the same thing as forgetting
a fear. Extinction isn’t forgetting; it’s new learning that contradicts old
learning. Both lessons – tone is neutral and tone is bad – stay in emotional

Ouch … again!

When I read that, it gave me hope about new learning. But, it also added to my growing list of worries. I already feel a mountain of pressure to help Lilly cope with anything in the environment that may set her off, and now, it seems, one scary thing can put us back at square one.



Play as reward (not for fearful dogs)

There is one ball Lilly loves more than any other toy in her sizeable toy basket. I had to teach her to love the ball, but once I did, there was no going back. I now use it to train her to play with new toys or to do agility (at home). Tug on the rope, get the ball as reward, for example. Or, if she’s learning something hard, we’ll take a break and play. However, she gets food rewards when she’s learning something new or when she’s working in public because the ball doesn’t cut it when Lilly feels nervous. She won’t play … at all. And, that fact blows a big hole in the make all learning like play theory (at least now that we’re already in trouble).

I thought perhaps it was one of Lilly’s many oddities, but there’s research that shows fearful animals do not, will not, simply cannot play.

In “Animals in Translation,” Temple Grandin writes about lab rats immediately ceasing play when they smell a cat, even if they’ve never seen a cat. On page 207, she says, “Since frightened animals don’t play, that’s a good
indication those rats are afraid.”

She adds: “Since a huge amount of what we know about the psychology of
learning and behavior comes from lab rats, you have to wonder how much of that
knowledge came from terrified rats. This is an extremely important question, because learning done in a state of fear is different from learning done in a state
of calm.”

That explains why sometimes it feels like I’m training two different dogs — the calm one and the fearful one.

Fear is worse than pain

I like to think that I’m a good dog-mom. Of course, around here dog care goes well beyond food, water, and shelter. Ongoing behavioral training is another must, especially for Lilly. And, yet, I read something in Temple Grandin’s book, “Animals in Translation,” that stopped me cold.

On page 189, Grandin says, “The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally
is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals I think it’s worse than
pain. I always get surprised looks when I say this …”

I read that and got a big knot in my stomach. Here I am — training, shaping, and working myself into a tither over Lilly’s emotional state and her ability to perform one way or another in “public.” Clearly, such outings cause her fear (or at least anxiety). Suddenly, I thought, I’m bad, bad mommy … especially when I recall the many times I took her to class, in the early stages of her meltdown, with the idea that she’d get used to it and learn not to be afraid.

In furthering her comparison between animals and autistic people, Grandin adds later on that same page: “I believe animals have lower pain and higher fear than
people do. My other reason for believing this at least provisionally is that
it’s the same with autistic people. As a general rule, we have lower pain,
higher fear, and lower frontal lobe control of the rest of our brain than
nonautstic people. Those three things go together …”

“You almost have to work with animals to see what a terrible
emotion fear is for them. From the outside, fear seems much more punishing than
pain. Even an animal who’s completely alone and giving full expression to
severe pain acts less incapacitated than an animal who’s scared half out of his
wits. Animals in terrible pain can still function; they can function so well
they can act as if nothing in the world is wrong. An animal in a state of panic
can’t function at all.”

It’s true for Lilly. When she panics, there is NO reasoning with her. It’s as if she cannot see or hear me. It honestly looks like she’s left her body on flee-autopilot.

Her regular, every-day fear can look like anything from shyness, to nervousness, to total shut down. In our vernacular, shut down is very different than panic. When Lilly shuts down, she looks like someone trying to mentally circle the wagons, to close out all stimuli and regroup. It is hard to reach her in this state, but she’s more “reasonable” than when she panics.

Grandin explains the different between fear and anxiety on page 191:

“Fear is a horrible problem for people with autism – fear
and anxiety. Fear is usually defined as response to external threats, while
anxiety is a response to internal threats.”

Then, on page 192, she talks about vigilance and its connection to anxiety. This made a lot of sense to me since as a border collie, Lilly is ever vigilant to every movement, every sound around her.

I once had a classmate whine, “But, we’re way over here,” when Lilly reacted fearfully in class. That’s when our instructor explained that Lilly was reacting to a dog about a quarter mile down the trail. She misses nothing.

“The reason I think vigilance may be linked to anxiety is
that anxious people are always on guard, always watching for trouble,” Grandin explains.

That’s Lilly in a nutshell.

And, then, on page 195, I read the one thing that made all my hard work, all my worry, all my efforts feel even more like failure than usual.

Grandin says, “No animal goes back to acting nonchalant about a person,
place, or situation once he’s been scared half out of his wits. It just doesn’t


Crackdown — patio dogs

There’s been a recent crackdown in Denver on restaurants (including coffee shops) that allow dogs in their outdoor patio spaces, which in many cases are just tables and chairs on a sidewalk out front. I guess it’s a health code thing, but it’s not like the dogs are in the kitchen. Such bunk hasn’t made it’s way into my town yet, but I suspect it’s only time. And, that makes me crabby.

I love taking Lilly with me to lunch, or whatever. It’s something she’s very good at. She simply assumes a down-stay position and for the most part stays put. No muss, no fuss.

When an article in The Denver Post cited the crackdown, it spawned a bunch of online postings. Click here to read the article, take the poll, and read the ranting the ensued. It got nasty, as such discussions often do.

Three things struck me:

1. Since Colorado and Denver are often touted as “dog friendly,” I was suprised that the vote was nearly evenly split (at least when I checked late last week).

2. Insulting dogs by calling them “accessories” made me laugh. Lilly is NOT an accessory or a fashion statement or anything like that. If you think so, then you truly don’t get it, and nothing I say will change that.

3. The main thing made me smirk is the idea that dogs pose a health risk, including to people who are allergic. In other words, some government agency should protect people with such conditions from dogs in public settings.

Following that logic, then, some agency should outlaw grasses and trees from public settings since I’m horribly allergic to all kinds of pollen.

In my mind, banning dogs from patios is just as silly.

Adventures with the Tug-a-Jug

The first time Lilly played with her new Tug-a-Jug, it took her more than 2 hours to figure it out. She tried everything she could think of, every toy method she’s learned to date, but still the mysteries of the Tug-a-Jug endured.

Essentially, the Tug-a-Jug is a food-dispensing toy, but the harder the dog pulls on the rope, the less food comes out. Actually, no food comes out with that method.

It’s like that Chinese finger puzzle, where the more you pull the tighter it gets. Only by pushing in can you get relief.

But, it look Lilly a while to figure it out.

She tried the Buster Cube method … rolling the jug around with her feet and nose, hoping food would fall out.

She tried the Kong method … poking her tongue in the narrow end, hoping to pull food out.

She got mad and tried chewing open the big end, with no luck.

She tried dropping it.

She tried swinging it.

Eventually, she figured out how to tip the jug over and push the rope in to get the food, but even that takes a long time.

So, if you need to keep your dog busy for a while, I highly recommend the Tug-a-Jug. But, I do suggest starting outside, away from anything breakable since the plastic jug is really hard. Now that she understands it better, I let her play with it inside (supervised, of course).

I first heard about it last year from Animal Behavior Associates. They even have a video on their website, showing the toy in action with their pets. Check it out.

Time magazine dog essay causes stir

An essay by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen from the July 2, 2007, issue of Time caused a stir and a growing pile of hate mail, it seems. In “Demoting the Dog,” Lisa describes how her dog went from pal to pet to pest after her daughter was born. That’s where the uproar began.

Click here to read the entire essay, including a link on that page to see Lisa’s rebuttal to the hate mail and a whole bunch of online comments hence.

A couple things struck me when I first read the essay. First, as a former animal shelter volunteer and former board member on the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, Lisa’s story is actually quite common. A lot can change between people and pets once kids are born.

While she will keep her dog for the rest of his life, other people in similar situations often give up their pets. What I learned all those years at the shelter is that noting the birth of children as the reason for relinquishment is only part of the story. Such pets almost always have behavior issues that people put up with until … they don’t. The baby then becomes a convenient excuse.

It’s the same with the “we’re moving” reason people sometimes use. At the shelter we used to joke, “Oh, yeah, and pets aren’t allowed in (insert name of state/city).”

That’s rarely the real reason, and it used to make me mad that people would dump pets like that.

But, after reading Lisa’s essay, I mostly felt sad for her dog and wondered whether a new home might not be the more compassionate solution. Surely, he has no idea why he’s suddenly the bad guy. He hasn’t changed. She has. Or, at the very least, the rules of engagement have. And, in life (and training), that’s not fair.