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Category Archives for Musings

Anxiety: Cross-Species Commonalities

This New York Times Magazine article on anxiety chronicles pioneering research, going back some 20 years, into the innate tendency of some people to be more anxious than others. A few things revealed in the article amused me, including the commonalities I see between parenting an anxious child and training an anxious dog. And, here is the kicker … dog people like us know the “right” answer.

Whereas animal behaviorists believe about 10% of dogs have a genetic predisposition to be fearful, those who first studied human babies found that 20% fell into the “high-reactive” category. So, if anyone ever says that dogs are more neurotic than people, don’t believe them.

The following paragraph in Robin Marantz Henig’s article tells me that animal behavior science outpaces human development science.

How so? Keep reading.

“Attempts to see what kind of parenting works best with an anxiety-prone temperament leave almost as many questions asked as answered. Which is better for a fearful, high-strung child — a parent who CODDLES the child and says everything will be alright, or a parent who sets firm, strict limits and has no tolerance for skitishness? You could picture it as going either way, really. On one hand, it might be good to shield children from the things that worry them. On the other hand, it might be better to urge them, maybe even FORCE them, to confront the things they dread.” (emphasis mine)

Fellow dog people, are you laughing?

I practically had to sit on my hands to avoid being Horshack (for those old enough to remember). Ooh, ooh! I know the answer!

Yet, studies on the human side have delivered mixed results. Researchers really need to look at the dog data that proves what works and what doesn’t.

Force is never the answer with people OR dogs with this sensitive predisposition. And, while I quibble over the term “coddle” since it’s often used in a derogatory manner, I stand with both feet and all the conviction I can muster in the camp that says we can COMFORT, PROTECT, and TEACH fearful beings at the same time.

Weekly Training Update (Oct 16)

To compensate for concentration gaps lately, I really should keep notes on what I want to report each Friday. So often, the good ideas get lost in the hubbub of the week. What on earth did I want to share? Hmmm … This is all I can remember.

Off-Leash Work
On a particularly warm and traffic-free day last week, I unclipped Lilly on our usual walk, and she did a spectacular job for two of the three miles we typically walk. The half-mile closest to home is much more likely to include cars driving too fast (we have no sidewalks) and/or loose or barking dogs, so I won’t test her that much in tough situations.

BUT, on a rural road with only the birds (and wind) as company, Lilly does a lovely job staying right with me (not necessarily at heel). She even resisted the invitation (or challenge) from one of our neighbors horses, who often runs toward us like a puppy who has been home alone. This horse really wanted Lilly to run along the fence, but I tossed out a LEAVE IT and upped the ante on treats so that Lilly found greater rewards staying with me. Small victory, I think.

Relaxation Protocol on the Road

We continue to work on SIT-EAT-RELAX at various locations around town. And, yes, most times I have Lilly hop out of the car off leash because she is getting so good. We amused a man waiting in the lot at the pharmacy the other day. It wasn’t so much how cute Lilly was sitting and eating as it was her attempt to jump back into the Mini. Even though it’s much lower than the 4Runner, she still doubts herself because the crate sits farther back and the landing surface isn’t as level or solid.

So, she stood on her hind legs, front feet on the bumper, and jumped straight up several times. It really was funny. I finally had to ask her to backup and try again with more of a running start before she managed to leap all the way into the car and crate.


Here are a couple shots from this week and earlier ones.

Lilly at the small, local hardware store, where she soon took a treat from one of the men who work there. You can tell by the pulled-back ear position that she’s feeling a bit amped up, but she is smiling, so she is doing relatively OK here.

{Please forgive the photo glitch. All the photos for this blog post (and many others) got lost in a techno mixup.}

Here, she is resting on a bench, keeping an eye on some kids at a local park near the creek path. I tried to get her to look at me, but she needed to see and track the shrieking. Everything else about her looks pretty good to me.

The Predator at Dusk

I took Lilly out with me Wednesday evening to get the mail up on the road. It was dusk, which is coming earlier and earlier these days, and Lilly got to be a natural born predator … when a rabbit took off like a shot as we walked out the front door … and … when a herd of deer I had not noticed in time, took off running as we walked back.

My LEAVE ITs were worthless in the face of such temptations. (We’re nowhere as accomplished at the wildlife challenge as KB and her pups.)

So, rather than pitch a fit, I trusted the rabbit and deer to outrun Lilly, then called her too me. Once the rabbit went under and the deer over the fence, Lilly returned.

Another Playdate With LuLu

Stay tuned next week for a LuLu update. We’re heading up the canyon to their house Sunday for a visit with our new Australian Shepherd / agility friend. This should be interesting since LuLu is now 4 months old and about 20 pounds. (LuLu’s photo gallery on the Fuzzy Bullet site)

Betsy says that LuLu is learning to read other dogs’ discomfort, so we’ll see how the two girls do. I’ll bring some super-high-value treats with me.

I would love if they could be friends, but I’m also well aware that LuLu is in that critical period, so I don’t want Lilly to scare her.

Maybe Thunder Too
We hope to see new borzoi pal, Thunder, soon too.

Tom got to meet him recently. Thunder is really good off-leash, I hear. BUT, he took off up the mountain at one point to chase some deer. The difference between Thunder and Katie (our first borzoi friend who we still desperately miss) is that Thunder has a strong recall, so once he was done chasing he came right back.

The Age of Acceptance

As I watch Smart Dog University’s ongoing video blog series on dogs and toenails (part 1, part 2), I know deep down that dogs of any age can overcome various issues with enough work. But, as I think about Ginko, I wonder if I’ve simply reached the age of acceptance with him. He is nine now, and I just don’t know if worrying about his few remaining sticking points is useful.

Would I rather not have to muzzle him and have toenails be such an ordeal? Sure. Did I make mistakes that got me where we are with his toes? Yep! Is starting over NOW worthwhile? I’m beginning to think not.

I’m well aware that various real-life drama may have reset my priority meter, but I wonder if other serious dog people simply reach a point where working on something in a dog who is really pretty happy 99% of the time is an exercise in something other than dog training.

Oh, No! Do Si Do

Schedules, looming tasks, and mismatched timing typically sink any plans for a whole family walk. That’s why it’s almost always Ladies Night (or day) around here. But, yesterday, we convinced our boys to come along on a nice leashed walk. That means a MUCH shorter distance so that Ginko’s knees don’t get too sore. It also ends up being a slapstick-worthy spate of errors as we make our way up the road.

For a number of reasons, Ginko’s leash-walking skill is nowhere near Lilly’s. He lags behind, then shoots out ahead. He veers from left to right, back to front. He prances BOTH sideways and backward, while waiting to see if my hand reaches for the bait bag. In other words, Ginko does just about EVERYTHING but walk in a straight line.

To avoid the leashes getting tangled or anyone tripping, the task of avoiding disaster falls to me and Lilly because thanks to our agility work and near-constant, side-by-side companionship, we’re like a couple of Dancing With the Stars pros compared to Tom and Ginko’s amateur attempts (no offense, honey!). Lilly has learned over the years to read my body and other physical cues well.

The result of our valiant efforts, I suspect, looks something like a really bad square dance — with Lilly and I Do Si Do-ing in and out, up and down, back and forth, around our two handsome fellas.

Despite the less-than-relaxing nature of these full-family outings, we’re just happy to have the boys along enjoying what’s left of not-miserable walking weather.

Update: Teaching “Clean Up”

So, we continue to chip away at our new trick CLEAN UP, where Lilly is learning to put away her toys. After just 3-4 short clicker training sessions over the last week or so, we’re making good progress. She will now pick up and put away up to four toys in succession. BUT, I’m stuck at soft toys only at this point, including plush babies, ropes, soft frisbees. I cannot get her to generalize the behavior to any rubber, chew, or food-delivery toy (like a ball, Kong, Canine Genius, or Busy Buddy Waggle).

I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong. Thoughts? Advice?

I can get her to bring the toys from two different rooms over to the toy basket. I can get her to bring the various kinds of soft toys we have in the house. She understands, as I mentioned earlier, that it doesn’t count if the toy flies into the basket with such abandon that it pops out.

But, she doesn’t yet get that the food-related toys fit in the same behavior category. If it were only the food toys, I’d guess the problem stems from those being primarily solo-play toys, where she engages with the toy instead of with me. Typically, at our house, softer toys equal engaged play together, like fetch, tug, or keep-away.

We’ll keep working at it, and I promise video eventually, but I wanted to share our progress and struggles.

Safety Issue: Dogs in Cars

Lilly loaded up and went with me to run errands on Tuesday. When the weather allows, I use the frequent stops as part of our ongoing transition training (where Lilly learns to hop of the out car in a variety of locations, SIT, and relax quickly … thanks to classical conditioning). That continues to go well, but I’m always surprised how many dogs we see traveling the canyon, the highways, and local roads completely unrestrained in the car. Roadworthy, my recent article for the AKC Gazette, addresses this safety issue.

I found the following stat from my research shocking: Near a dog park in California, officers tracked the number of dogs who were and who were not restrained inside the car. And, 98% of them weren’t.

Maybe the dog people in our local circle of friends and fellow training students are unusual, but I would guess at least 50% of the dogs are crated or seatbelted in the car, even in our “pet dog” classes. Obviously, in the “performance dog” group, the percentage would be much higher.

Here, again, is our set-up in my Mini Cooper. It still needs to be tweaked, but between the crate and the car’s airbag system, I feel pretty good about Lilly’s protection when we drive.

{I’m sorry. The photos for this post got lost in the great blog photo glitch.}

Ask your car insurance company about coverage for pets injured in an accident. Progressive, for example, recently raised its coverage to $1,000 (per accident, not per pet). When I went to insure the Mini, I asked our insurance company, and they only offer $500 of coverage. I took the opportunity to let them know that their competition was offering twice that amount and that folks like us pay attention to such things.

Teaching “Clean Up”

After seeing this video of a ridgeback putting away toys, I decided that’s something I want to teach Lilly. So, we started shaping the behavior with a clicker and cheese last week. The first training session made me laugh. She got the idea quickly, but her enthusiasm for the job hampered our efforts. Lilly flung the toys into the basket with such abandon that the toys often bounced back out. No clicks for that, I decided, but it completely stumped Lilly. She often got frustrated and offered a DOWN with CHIN, which has become the universal sign that Lilly is either A ) not having fun or B ) is upset (shutdown).

Ridgeback Video

I knew Lilly and I were making progress, though, when she began using a front foot to hold the toy down inside the basket once she placed it in there.

However, my fear is that she will learn / believe that the foot action is the thing I’m clicking. It’s so similar to the cardboard box game, where sometimes she gets rewarded for sitting in the box. Other times, it’s putting just her rear feet in the box, etc.

I’m sorry there isn’t video of our tribulations, but by the time I eek out some clicker time, trust me, I’m not camera ready.

BUT, if we get the trick solid, I’ll be sure to get a clip of that so that we can brag.

P.S. I’m also working on getting a clip of Lilly truly “spinning like a border collie” as a reply to the ridgeback video. Lilly indeed does spin like a dervish before I let her outside in the morning, but lately, when I point a camera at her, it ruins the moment and she demurs.

Weekly Training Update (Oct 2)

I spoke too soon in last week’s Coping With Changes post. While working on the basement, Tom felt water dripping on his head. It turned out our dishwasher was leaking a LOT in its final death throes. So, in addition to changes upstairs and changes downstairs which Lilly seemed to handle well, my sensitive border collie girl had to deal with disruption in the kitchen too. And, it freaked her out.

We had fans and heaters going to dry the floor. We had a gaping hole in the bottom cabinets, where the old dishwasher once sat. We had tools and towels, wrenches and water, and a couple of grumpy people clomping around for a little over a week.

Perhaps the worst part came when I did the dishes by hand. Sure, that put me at the sink and near the SCARY kitchen window for extended times But, the sloshing around in the sink made Lilly the most nervous.

You see, she gets very worried, slinks away, and worms like she is the most fearful dog on the planet when I try to wash her face. (Tom lets her lick the bottom of his yogurt cups, and her nose gets crusty from the yogurt, if I don’t wash it off.)

So, any time she saw me near the sink with a wet rag, she thought she was in for. After a few days of no face washing, she got less worried. It helped that I kissed her and gave her treats for approaching me and even hanging out while I did the dishes.

I’m happy to report that Tom installed our new Bosch dishwasher this morning. This beauty is heavily encased in a rubber-ish shell that provides serious sound dampening. The only thing you can hear when it is running is a little swish-swish of the water. It’ll be interesting to see how Lilly copes with that.


Spontaneous Recovery
The other big training issue this week was the spontaneous recovery of attention-seeking behaviors. That’s when something you’ve trained “away” comes back with full force. Earlier this week, Lilly began fussing at me for attention, fussing at Ginko for attention, and being an all-around nervous girl. The whining, the whining nearly drove me nuts.

Two theories. One is that the winter winds began in earnest this week. Even with chimes now banned at our house, the gusts still make Lilly jumpy. The second theory is that she perhaps could hear new borzoi pal Thunder up the road as he too fussed as he gets used to his new digs.

Either way, it made for an interruption-packed day, as I got up and left the room for 30 seconds each time she fussed at me and as I grabbed Ginko and brought him into my office for 30 seconds each time she fussed at him.

That bought us 15 minutes (tops) of peace before the process began again and again and again. I got pretty frustrated, but I didn’t say anything. I just withdrew myself or Ginko so that it was clear being difficult did NOT result in anything good.

The relentless retraining must have helped because she hasn’t been as fussy since.

Sniffing is Not a Crime

When Lilly and I took our first in-the-ring “obedience” exam when she was about 9 months old, we lost a few points because she sniffed the ground during HEEL. She still took first place, by a LONG shot, but looking back (knowing what I know now about dogs and training), I have to laugh. I understand that in such a formal setting doing anything other than the task at hand is akin to a balk or refusal in the agility ring, but seriously, sniffing is not a crime. With that in mind, I’ve been paying attention to Lilly’s need to sniff on our walks lately, and here are my “clinical” observations.

Lilly sniffs less during the out part of our out-and-back route. The distance gone before turning around does not matter. If we go all the way to the ridge, where we can see the Continental Divide, or if we merely go to the top of the first hill, she sniffs more along the edge of the road on the way back. So, it isn’t time or distance. It’s retracing our steps that causes her to sniff more.

That seems counter-intuitive to me. Any ideas on why that might be?

I also work hard NOT to tug, cajole, or otherwise convince her to move on. Whereas Tom regularly hurries her along, I consciously let her sniff because I learned during research for a magazine article I wrote recently on keeping a dog’s mind busy that dogs truly live their daily lives awash in smells of all kinds. Where we typically live in a visual reality, dogs live in a scented one.

Think if it like a constant news ticker running up their noses and into their brains. It’s like a CNN news crawl inside their snouts. Or like learning a foreign language in your sleep, or listening to books on tape while you drive.

So, using a strategy I learned from Gigi Moss, our trainer, I let Lilly sniff as much as she wants, then reward her with either click/treat or praise/treat when she picks up her head and moves along of her own accord. Essentially, it’s a way to teach that tuning out the smell-sensory overload and turning back into me is a rewardable action.

At the same time, though, she knows (I hope) that I understand that the mental work of sniffing is as much fun and as important as the walk itself and time together.

Secret Handshake

Our training and blogging friends over at BoulderDog recently entered a new verb into our dog training lexicon. In a post called Please Don’t Blagojevich My Dog, Deborah decries the audacity of a stranger requiring her lovely poodle Sadie to perform an additional task in order to receive the treat meant for straight-forward socialization. In other words, the act of taking a treat from a stranger wasn’t “enough” for this guy. He wanted something in exchange for that treat, a treat that Deborah provided, by the way.

It’s an action now known as “to Blagojevich” because for some people something is NEVER enough. As I noted in the comments, I’ve had people get mad at me for handing over treats without asking the dog to “do something.” And, honestly, if Lilly is being a mooch, I’d prefer she do something for the food (thank goodness for her strong default SIT), but it made me wish we had some secret handshake or mysterious code phrase with which to discern our kind of dog people from the rest.

What are we Free Treaters? Bait Baggers? Praise-o-holics?

Maybe we need a secret agent code question along the lines of this welcome mat to ID each other … because so much of our hard work proceeds in microscopic increments that are likely invisible to outsiders.

Or I ask, “What’s inside a Kong?”

And, you reply, “The gift of time.”

Or I ask, “Who whispers in the night?”

And, you say, “Only that idiot on TV.”

Maybe we should all wear discreet lapel pins shaped like +R (for positive reinforcement).

Be it from an abundance of networking (social and otherwise) or from the waves of scary-life things, I’m more attuned to the power of and my need for a certain brand of togetherness.

I recently learned, for example, that if one Mini Cooper driver flashes her lights at another Mini Cooper driver it’s called “winking.” So far, most that I see on the road wink back. Silly, I know, but it’s a happy little exchange in a world that can be otherwise much of the time.

So, next time you see someone you suspect is a like-minded dog person, say something nice because that dog sitting so nicely on the side of the trail may just be working really hard at something that looks like nothing.


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