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Category Archives for Dog Training Update

Agility Fears Revisited

While we’re revisiting our behavior modification and training plan for Lilly, it seems like a good time to revisit some of what got us here in terms of our long absence from formal agility training — group, private, or otherwise. I made many mistakes because I didn’t fully understand how fearful Lilly was and how many things contributed to her negative reaction to an agility course (and the monsters she thinks live there).

In response to Friday’s Training Update, Sam from over at MargeBlog asked:

BTW, I know Lilly is too scared still to even do private agilitylessons. Why is that? If there are no other dogs around, is she anxiousthat they might appear? Or is she stressed by having someone watch her?Does she exhibit any of the same signs at home if you were to have herplay around on the equipment if someone was watching? I have beenthinking about this and meant to ask you.

The simplest answer is that so much went so wrong in Lilly’s agility training that she immediately shuts down, and I mean full-on shuts down, any time she sees agility equipment anywhere other than at home. Our dog trainer, Gigi Moss, went with me to the agility field where we were took private and group lessons as well as did our own individual, drop-in training toward the end of our formal agility work. As soon as she saw the depth of Lilly’s fear reaction, she advised me to pull Lilly and keep her far from this setting for a while. That was about two years ago.

If you missed it way back, here is what Lilly “told” an animal communicator about agility and rally training.

For a while after we gave up classes of any kind, Lilly did OK for drop-in work, as long as we waited for all the dogs to leave. Once we were alone, she raced around like crazy. But, even that changed sometime in May 2007, when it got so bad that the place needed to be empty from the time we arrived to the time we left, otherwise it was a wash. And, it got really old driving an hour each way, only to have Lilly flip out and refuse to budge. I could afford drop-in fees, but not what it would cost to reserve the whole course just for us at a specific time each week.

And, if I’m being honest, it was a place where EVERYONE competes at a high level and few had much patience or sympathy for a newbie with a fearful dog (Elayne at Days of Speed excluded, of course). Many of those dogs had issues of their own, which I’m sure Lilly knew too.

Via the clarity of hindsight, I will say that it was more than worry about other dogs. It was more than the agility equipment itself, especially the much-feared teeter. It was such a complicated and mixed-up mess of experiences and associations, sites and sounds, that unraveling it felt impossible.

So, we quit going. Period.

Since home is the only place where Lilly has ever truly run agility without worry (most of the time) we experimented with various “audiences.” Lilly typically will run her home course, if people watch. Sometimes, she is a little slow, but she will run. Lilly can also do agility with mules, horses, goats, and cattle watching … at close range. Her home course backs up to a big ranch, and she indeed has done agility with very large animals mere feet away. So, I once mused that her animal fears were species specific.

As we began having Lilly’s few dog friends over to the house to help with our training, we learned that even here she will not do agility with other dogs (even ones she likes and trusts) watching or anywhere nearby. This includes our big boy Ginko, Lulu’s big brother Pitsch, and even Katie, Lilly’s former best, best friend the borzoi.

Now, we do have video of Lilly doing an agility-like task with Katie right there, so there is some hope. But, keep in mind that Lilly and Katie had a VERY special bond.

And, there was once last spring when I got Lilly, Katie, and even GINKO to do a series of jumps together out back, but we were mostly screwing around and not really training.

For a while, after we quit training in agility, I would still take Lilly to outdoor trials just to sit off to the side and watch, far from the equipment and dogs so that she could get cued into the trail environment, but we pretty much gave that up too because I realized that I was trying to do too much and needed to take about a million steps back.

If and when we return to private agility training , it will be at a new location, with a new trainer (a friend of Gigi’s), in an environment where competition isn’t as important or touted. I’m guessing that will be sometime in spring 2010, unless the weather is amazing this winter and we make faster progress on other work that our behaviorist wants me to complete before we re-introduce an agility training center.

Really, I just want to be able to run full courses with Lilly so that she can gain experience and confidence and so that I can learn to be a better handler so that I’m not a complete wreck when/if I have another agility dog in the future.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but we’ll see what Lilly decides.

Weekly Training Update (Oct 30)

In response to last week’s Training Update, my professional writer and dog-loving friend Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell (who blogs about living large in a little house) asked for some background on why exactly I would work so hard and continue to put so much effort into training Lilly. Here is my best attempt at answering that question, which is bigger than I suspect Kerri ever imagined.

Kerri asked: I wonder if you would explain a little of your motivation with Lilly? You seem to work very hard, and I’ve never seen anyone work as hard in training unless it is to eventually have some sort of service or therapy dog, or for dog shows.

If you too are new to our blog and wonder what on earth all this is about, I suggest catching up via a handful of early entries filed under Backstory. You can always find them under Category Archives in the sidebar to the left. In particular, see my second-ever post entitled Why Champion of My Heart? (A much-shortened version of that post lives permanently in the sidebar, under Lilly’s smiling photo.)

A couple years later, let’s revisit this question of WHY?

Essentially, living with Lilly, a dog with such generalized fears around the house, to noises and motion, with people, and particularly with other dogs, transformed me into a different kind of Dog Girl. To communicate with Lilly and to help her LEARN to handle the world, I had to move far beyond what most people consider dog training and well into the realm of behavior modification.

I’m not kidding when I say that I’m earning my PhD from the University of Dogs With Issues.

I’ve made mistakes and gotten terrible advice. I wasted a lot of time, especially trying many “holistic” options before turning to the medications that are now helping so much. I’ve cried. I’ve felt like the biggest failure in the history of dogs. I’ve quit. I’ve started again. I’ve cried some more.

Performance Dog, Not Pet
Lilly is my first-ever “performance” dog. And, yes, that is a kind of “show dog.” Leave it to me to have a a performance dog with performance anxiety.

While our ultimate GOAL is indeed to return to serious agility training (and, we hope, some competition before she gets too old), let’s be clear that the dog came first, the sport second.

I did NOT set out to adopt an “agility dog.” I adopted a dog who sorely needed a job, and agility was an early contender for Lilly’s “work” because it’s hilarious and a serious mental and physical challenge for person and dog. (I even took a human agility class for a while so that I could improve my sprinting skill and speed, as well as overall fitness.) Plus, agility is much more accessible than competitive herding and way more laid back than competitive obedience.

Initially, Lilly was downright amazing at agility, and I got hooked … on the puzzle of it all, on the great people I met, on the rock-star dogs. Dog training became a new hobby, or even avocation.

Then, The Trouble Started
Lilly had always been fearful or shy, but as she matured things shifted into something more. Her fears continued to worsen until we had to quit agility lessons entirely … and focus on fixing our increasing problems across all venues at home and in public.

And, that’s where we’ve been for a couple years now. We began a progressive medicine and methodology routine in summer 2008 with an eye toward returning to agility training. Our behaviorist STILL believes we could compete at some level. I think she is overly optimistic.

Our Current Work
In the meantime, we continue with behavior modification, tricks, and agility in controlled settings because Lilly needs to work and learn. We continue to take what I call advanced “pet dog” classes with our AMAZING dog trainer (Gigi Moss). We continue to have regular contact and consults with our certified applied animal behaviorist (Jennie Jamtgaard) from the veterinary school at Colorado State University.

The Bigger Why
Spending so much time and effort and mental bandwidth on helping Lilly be happy and productive (not fearful and shutdown) has become a major part of my life. Call it a habit, if you like.

Beyond the obvious activity, however, is the personal growth for both of us.

Everything that has happened in the last five years taught me that we can have a profound relationship with our dogs. Forget this “dogs as children” thing. I do refer to myself as Lilly’s Mom, but it’s more than that.

We have a kinship and communication that’s unlike anything I’ve ever had with a dog. (And, I’ve had a canine in my life since I was a toddler.) We have a partnership that’s meaningful in a way I cannot yet fully explain. We have a connection that I believe eclipses the day-to-day work we do together.

So, I guess the ultimate answer is that I continue to do all this with Lilly, for Lilly, and for me because it has become part of who I am as a Dog Girl. I think once you experience a bond like this, forged through training and teamwork, you can never go back.

Still, you should know that MANY agility people, including former trainers, told me to “retire” Lilly to life as an at-home pet years ago and simply start over with a new dog.

Because of my inherent loyalty and, for lack of a better word, monogamy, that isn’t an option. At least one of those former trainers now says it shows “character” that I haven’t given up on Lilly. Most times, I think that’s a euphemism for crazy or stubborn.

But, in my heart, I try to think of it as hope.

Weekly Training Update (Oct 23)

Thanks to the earlier Lilly and Lulu and trick progress videos and updates this week, let’s instead circle back to our behavior consult from a few months back and check our progress against goals and the second phase behavior modification plan that builds upon work we started with Lilly way in summer of 2008. Our saga, of course, predates even that original consult by several years, but here is a recap of our current training orders from our certified applied animal behaviorist.

To return to regular training classes and eventually agility classes, with the idea of potentially competing

Medication Plan:
75 mg clomipramine twice daily
.75 mg alprazolam (aka xanax) twice daily

Behavioral Plan:
1. Address resource guarding of me by removing myself from room (and taking Ginko with me, if necessary)

2. Retrain transitions by driving Lilly to many different locations and using our customized version of the Relaxation Protocol for a few minutes in each spot.

3. Once arrivals improve, then work both the Relaxation Protocol for people, movement, noises, etc for anything that happens during the transition work.

4. Progress to sitting to the side of doors at various non-pet stores so that people are headed in, but not toward us specifically. Pair any activity with food as usual.

5. Using various locations invite strangers to toss Lilly food but not approach her.

6. Repeat store process at pet product stores, starting at the back of the lot and moving closer and closer to the doors, with the goal of eventually going inside.

7. Attend training classes when possible. Arrive early to give Lilly time to adjust, then work in sit-relax anytime new people or dogs arrive.

8. When ready, schedule a private agility lesson.

Progress Report:
I do think the increase in the alprazolam from .5 to .75 has helped. The best example of that is my ability to open the scary window in the kitchen.

Lilly is somewhat better about resource guarding me from Ginko, but (as predicted) Tom hasn’t been following the rules when she guards him because he thinks it’s cute, so the behavior isn’t gone by any stretch.

Our transition work has been going really well, so we’re typically working on steps 4 and 5. We’ve tried hanging out in the back of a Petco parking lot a few times, but it’s not exactly in our usual route of errands, so I’ll need to make a special trip to complete that task. I also need to get better at asking people to throw Lilly food.

We have being going to class as the locations and timing fit into our nonstop-family-medical-drama-filled lives. You’ve seen past reports on those events. A check of the calendar reveals we haven’t been to class since mid-September, though. I’d like to go more regularly for step 7 before I even think about step 8.

The ultimate goal of doing agility for real still feels out of reach, but we’ll see. I’ll likely have to do another consult if/when we return to agility lessons (even private ones) to get a plan for handling whatever comes up there.

You’ll note that I’m still practicing the ZERO visiting rule with other dogs, for the most part. When we are in public or class, I NEVER ask or allow Lilly to engage with other dogs. The only interactions she gets are the ones we plan with friends’ dogs in controlled situations. And, honestly, Lilly seems fine with that. (Though, I know she misses Katie terribly.)

I’m less and less concerned with Lilly’s fears of other dogs that I allow her to meet. I feel, most times, like we’re at a place where it’s more about other dogs figuring out how to put up with her poor social skills than it is about me being able to teach her “normal” skills. Sadly, I think that normal boat sailed a long time ago.

So, that’s where we stand. Classmates and others who get the chance to see Lilly in daily life or working in public, feel free to report on any changes you’ve seen in recent months.

Lilly’s New Trick: Clean Up

Allow me, please, a brag. In just a few clicker sessions, Lilly learned a new trick we call CLEAN UP. We were inspired by this video of a ridgeback putting away his toys. Lilly got the idea in just one session, but she tossed the toys into the basket with such oomph that they bounced out, which was against the rules. She caught on fast, though, and began holding the toys down with one paw, which is just about the cutest thing.

I’m thrilled to report that we overcame the issue of Lilly not generalizing the behavior from soft toys to food-delivery toys. Once I really honed in on rewarding her for interacting with a Kong, she got it in about five clicks. That’s it.

From there, she easily transferred the behavior to other non-plush items. In fact, one night when she kept missing a dirty old tennis ball because the lighting in the kitchen was low, she tried picking up her stainless steel food bowl to put in the basket. If that isn’t a solid generalization, I don’t know what is.

I shot this video below myself, while clicking and trying to give treats, so you have my apologies for the roughness of it. I gave up on treats and just clicked for the last few toys, and Lilly gives her opinion on that at the end. She also decides to play at bit at first, but that’s fine with me.

And, yes, I know I’m likely talking too much, but she is still learning toy by toy. Eventually, I hope to cue the entire CLEAN UP with just one verbal cue, but for now, I cue each one and cheerlead as necessary. As one of my early trainers said, “It’s a good thing you have a dog with a big vocabulary.”

Lilly Meets Lulu, Round 2

Sunday, Lilly and I drove up the canyon a few miles to visit our friend Betsy and her Australian Shepherd puppy, Lulu, for the second time. The visit lasted about an hour and resulted in two distinct parts. The first half went great. The second half either went badly or was confusing.

It has been nearly two months since our first visit, when Lulu first came home. Today, she is 4 months old and about 20 pounds. Lulu is turning into a mature puppy, who knows how to tone it down and how to read other dogs. And, of course, she is an amazing beauty.

lulu 4 mos
How It Went Well

Lulu no longer jumps in other dogs faces. And, she seems to have much better bite inhibition, with those razor sharp puppy teeth. Lulu likely learned all this, through her active socialization work and via puppy corrections from other dogs, including Lilly.

Lilly seemed to appreciate the new maturity, and she even tolerated the few times Lulu put her front feet on Lilly’s back.

The two girls poked around and sniffed together.


The height of Lilly’s tail in the previous photo and the tension in her mouth below shows that she wasn’t quite as comfortable as Lulu was, but Betsy and I thought the girls did great together.

open mouth, closed mouth 2

Here you can see Lilly trying to decide if Lulu is a threat or needs to be bossed around. Notice the droopy ear position and lifted paw.

open mouth, closed mouth

Several times, Lilly ran along as Lulu played fetch with a plush toy or Lilly’s favorite ball. Lilly had no intention of getting the toy, but I was glad to see her trot beside, without barking or being bossy. (Sorry I don’t have video of that.) Lilly also ran next to Lulu when we did restrained recalls, and to Lulu’s credit, she continued responding to COME, even with Lilly providing a distraction.

This video shows three separate interactions that I think reveal more about Lilly’s growing comfort around Lulu than these photos do. Watch for clear calming signals and other coping mechanisms. Like last time, I muted the sound of all the praise and dog-mom chatter because it’s tedious and because it’s easier to focus only on the behaviors without sound.

How it Went Not So Well
After a while, Lilly began showing her teeth to Lulu, even when the pup didn’t deserve it. So, I would call Lilly off and walk her away, and Betsy would call Lulu. It happened again and again, which was frustrating.

But, here is the weird thing. Betsy says Lulu is really good at reading this sign from OTHER dogs, but Sunday, she didn’t budge when Lilly curled her lips and grumbled.

Betsy and I speculate that the reason Lulu didn’t back off is because she realized that Lilly didn’t really mean it. As you may recall, Lilly often showed teeth and growled at her best, best friend Katie (the borzoi), but Katie continued playing anyway. If we take into account that Lilly has clumsy, malformed social skills, there is a chance that the teeth thing was her way of trying to play with Lulu.

Or, the visit simply lasted too long, and Lilly felt grumpy.

I should also add that there were SCARY construction, metal banging noises and screeching coming from the house across the street, so Lilly may have been over threshold from the auditory challenge.

Yet, here is a shot of Lilly that I took right before we left. Lilly was in a SIT-STAY on the ground. Betsy had Lulu in her lap on a nearby bench, and Lilly and I were playing the LOOK AT THAT game from the book Control Unleashed. Lulu is about two feet away, and Lilly looks happy to me.

So, next time we do a visit, Betsy and I decided we’ll make it shorter (30 rather than 60 minutes), even though it’s so nice for us people to chat longer. Or, the other option (as weather and Lulu’s size allows) is to have Lulu come here since Lilly tends to do better on her home turf.