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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.
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.”
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
Thanks to the iPod nano that Lilly and I received as a prize for raising money last summer for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley I have a new appreciation for music lyrics. There’s something about being audibly cocooned with songs that allows me to hear the lyrics in a way I don’t if music just plays in the background. Here’s a song that struck me as a good agility road trip theme. So, in honor of all of you who will be traveling to big trials all over the country heading into Independence Day “weekend,” here’s a little tune.
Tom Petty “Big Weekend” from album Highway Companion
The chorus lyrics go like this:
I need a big weekend. Kick up the dust.
Yeah, a big weekend.
If you don’t run, you rust.
We teach our dogs “Watch me” for a number of reasons. I, for example, mostly use it to distract Lilly from anything that might upset her. Since her list of scary things is ever growing, we spend a lot of time looking at one another. Truth be told, she passes the better part of every day monitoring my every move and every word. Lilly is the queen of watching me. Yet, there’s a bigger reason we want our dogs to watch us.
On page 177 of her book “Animals in Translation,” Temple Grandin, PhD, explains it like this: “Through all the years dogs have been living with humans they’ve developed a lot of ability to read people, to know what people are thinking and what they’re likely to do. We know this from research comparing dogs to wolves. Even a wolf who was been hand-reared by human beings never acquires the ability to read people’s faces the way any normal dog does. A human-reared wolf mostly does’t look at his master’s face, even when he’s in a situation where he could use his master’s help. Dogs always look at their owner’s faces for information, especially when they need help.”
When I read that, something clicked.
Yes, I want Lilly to focus on me when she’s scared, rather than the trigger-du-moment. But, I also have a responsibility to use my face to instruct her. Not only does this highly sensitive border collie read every inflection of my body, but she reads my face too.
I’d best learn to be a better actor real soon.
In the book, Grandin often discusses these topics in relation to animal aggression, especially towards people. On that same page, she says, “I think that as dogs were learning how to read us, we were learning how to read them. The reason dogs don’t hurt people more often is that dogs and people belong together.”
So, “Watch me” is more than an attention-getting cue. It’s a healthy way to convey partnership and to say, “It’s you and me, kid.”
We do not approach others as blank slates. We make all manner of assumptions about them based on how they look, what they do, what they say. This is especially true when dogs are involved. Those of us who adore our dogs make assumptions about other dog owners — most of them good. It’s called a “fundamental attribution error.”
I know that sounds like something bad, but Alan Beck, ScD, who is the director of Purdue’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond, explains that it simply means we attribute certain characteristics to people with dogs. Research shows that we assume they are nicer, more caring, more successful, etc. (I had the chance to interview Beck a while back for a piece I wrote for Healthypet Magazine about people who take their dogs to work regularly.)
For example, say you see someone out for a fitness-related walk alone. You likely don’t think much beyond, “Hey, that person works at being healthy.” However, if you see that same person out for a walk with a dog, suddenly the same act of walking becomes a profoundly “good deed.” We think, “Look at that nice person taking her dog for a walk.”
A good example of this is author Elizabeth Wrenn, whose first novel “Around the Next Corner” chronicles one woman’s adventures with raising a service puppy. I interviewed Wrenn in early 2006 before her book came out. The article appeared in The Bark in summer 2006. (You can also find the full article in the writing samples section of my website.) If you’re looking for something to read this summer, I highly recommend the book. It’s very, very funny (and also sad), but well worth it.
Anyway, Wrenn herself raised a guide dog puppy as research for the novel. Often she would walk her pup near a fire station. The firefighters would fawn over the puppy all the time. Once her pup returned to Guide Dogs for the Blind, Wrenn continued her walks. Even when she said “Hi,” the firefighters did not recognize her.
Dogs do more, however, than make us look better to others. There is all kinds of research that shows how dogs improve our health — lower blood pressure and all that.
But, Temple Grandin in her book “Animals in Translation”, takes it a step further. On page 108, she says,
“A dog’s oxytocin levels rise when his owner pets him, and petting his dog raises the owner’s oxytocin, too. I’m sure that’s one reason why so many people have dogs in the first place. I don’t think anyone has researched it yet, but I expect we’ll find that dogs make humans into nicer people and better parents. Oxytocin levels shoot up right before giving birth, and research shows that those high levels spark maternal warmth and care. Oxytocin produces caring ‘maternal’ behavior in men, too. So for parents, owning and petting a dog is probably like getting a ‘good parent’ shot every day. Dogs are probably good for marriages for the same reason.”
Many handlers use some word or phrase to alert their dogs that the fun is about to begin. We use “Ready?” Followed by “Now,” as part of our start-line ritual. Sure, it’s important not to catch your dog offguard with your first obstacle command, but the power of anticipation is great.
Once again, I’ll defer to Temple Grandin, PhD, who is currently an associate professor at the Colorado State University. She’s the author of many books, a widely sought speaker and food-animal industry expert. She’s also autistic, and she brings that perspective, which she believes is much like that of animals, to her work.
In her book, “Animals in Translation,” Grandin explains that the area of the brain once thought to be the pleasure center is really about seeking — like the thrill of the hunt. This area of the brain activates when rats search for food, but when they see the food, it shuts off.
(Both animals and people enjoy this seeking state of mind. It’s that whole journey not destination thing.)
On page 96, Grandin says: “That’s not as surprising as it sounds when you think about it. At the most basic level, animals and humans are wired to enjoy hunting to eat what they kill: they like the hunting part in and of itself. Depending on their personalities and interests, humans enjoy any kind of hunt: they like hunting through flea markets for hidden finds; they like hunting for answers to medical problems on the Internet; they like hunting for the ultimate meaning of life in church or a philosophy seminar. All of those activities come out of the same system in the brain.”
Here’s what I get out of that statement. Indeed, many dogs enjoy agility or whatever sport they do, but it’s that anticipatory moment that really fires up their brains. We, as trainers and handlers, can use that knowledge to our advantage.
Lilly gets that same frantic, can’t-stand-the-excitement look on her face right before I throw the ball.
I also hear Grandin’s words and think about my own motivation in this training odyssey. Trust me, I really, really want Lilly to have a breakthrough. And, yet, the research Grandin cites says that my brain also enjoys this search for solutions.
As I began trying to teach Lilly more complicated behaviors, it became oh-so clear that I needed to understand how she thinks. Once I figure that out, it’s usually pretty easy to break down the task, then click-treat and shape it to our goal. This really struck me for the first time when I tried to teach her to Roll Over.
From a Down, she seemed completely baffled about Roll Over. I tried all the tricks, like getting her to track a piece of food with her head. Nothing.
So, I taught her to Lay Flat from a Down as an intermediate step. I figured laying flat on her side on command might come in handy some day at the veterinary hospital. Once she got Lay Flat, then Roll Over suddenly made more sense to her. Victory.
I only had to ask for Lay Flat for a day or two before she automatically shot from Down to Roll Over.
Still, we haven’t had much luck with other tasks. For example, I still can’t get her to Bow (play bow) on cue, despite many attempts, many different strategies.
When we began training in Rally Obedience I tried to teach her her to Stand from a Sit. And, the best we’ve done so far is that I have to lure with one hand and touch her hindquarter, along with the cue.
She has a great Stand-Stay from a heel (we call it Freeze), but that’s it.
We have a similar issue with going from a Down to a Sit from a distance. If I’m close and can step into her a bit, she’ll sit up, but from a distance, she looks at me like, “huh?”
She can go from a Sit to a Down from a distance, but not the other way. It kind of makes sense, though, since Down is a more submissive body posture, and Lilly is often very happy to be close to the ground.
Our latest challenge — mostly because it’s getting embarrassing at our work-and-play class — is Whoa (which is supposed to mean stop right where are). We’ve tried stopping her between cones, at a leash laid on the ground as a marker, in doorways, at the edge of stairs, and none of it makes sense to her.
Now, part of the problem is that I’ve ALWAYS worked with her and treated her up close. She’s very focused on me and being right there, so suddenly to ask her to stop far away seems weird.
Yet, she can hit her agility contacts without me standing right there. She can often make her weave pole entrances without my help, but stopping … just stopping, makes no sense to her.
Gigi Moss, our big-picture trainer, suggested this week that I try targeting, like how I first taught contacts. So, Lilly and I will spend some quality time with a paper plate and see what we can figure out.
While I’m at it, I’m also trying to teach Walk Up, which is a herding command. (I would like to try herding at some point with Lilly, but everything I’ve read and heard from pals who do it is that the training methods might not work well for a soft dog like Lilly.)
Anyway, I just went back and read what I’ve written so far and something dawned on me. I wonder if I should try Freeze as her overall stop moving word. Hmmmm…
We’re also working on The Hokey-Pokey. So far, we’ve played with Right Foot In, Right Foot Out, using a hoola-hoop on the floor. But, for the life of me I can’t think of a way to have Shake It All About make sense to her since she already has a Shake command and a Lift command (where she just picks up a front foot on cue as a calming signal when she’s stressed).
For “do the Hokey-Pokey,” I’m just using my hand gesture for Spin, so we’re good there.
But, after that the challenge will be coming up with something for “that’s what it’s all about.” I’d like her to bark a few times at that point. I guess I’ll need to introduce a hand gesture for Speak.
Do you see how I spend my time? I know these are just silly things, but I hope that if I can figure out how to make these fun things make sense to her, then maybe someday we’ll have a break-through in agility.
The average dog trainer is fine for typical pet dog training. Such a trainer probably can help solve typical puppy/dog issues like jumping up, chewing, etc. When you move into the realm of performance dogs, or even dogs who will do more than hang out in the backyard, then I think it’s best to seek out top trainers in your area, who specialize in the various training you need and who really keep up on the latest animal behavior research. When a dog’s challenges cross beyond typical and into abnormal, then it’s time to consult with a behaviorist … especially if the behavior is dangerous.
Now, a lot of people call themselves behaviorists who really aren’t. True behaviorists are PhD’s who are certified applied animal behavior professionals. There are also veterinary behaviorists with extensive animal behavior credentials, in addition to their medical ones. Here’s a link to the certifying body’s website, if you need help finding a real behaviorist near you:
There is also a link the sidebar to the right, in my Blogroll, for a behaviorist blog from Animal Behavior Associates here in Colorado. I highly recommend it, if you want to learn more. They are very good at explaining complex topics to “regular” people.
They have no magic elixers, though. Hiring a behaviorist requires hard, often long-term, work. Based on my research and reading, it’s much better to call for help sooner rather than later. So, keep that in mind as you face any doggie drama in your life. Don’t assume weird or scary behaviors will go away or get better on their own. Most times, they won’t.
On a personal note
So far, I’ll admit, I have not gone this route with Lilly because we both adore Gigi Moss, who I call our behaviorist-type trainer (http://www.gigimoss.com/index.htm). Gigi reads a lot, researches a lot, attends conferences to learn more from top trainers. She’s not pedaling old crappy methods or ideas. She adjusts strategies based on each dog’s needs, not on some formula that only works for “normal” dogs.
Lilly loves Gigi’s classes. She howls with joy when we turn up the street to the dog park in Boulder, where Gigi holds drop-in classes. It’s the one place Lilly has worked well or learned to recover.
Gigi hangs in there with us, even when things get tough.
Unlike many of our classmates, Lilly and I started our pet dog obedience work elsewhere, but the dogs who started with Gigi as pups are stellar. I’m not kidding. These dogs are phenomenal, and their handlers adjust as needed to help me manage Lilly’s environment so that it is not so “scary.”
These are good people with great dogs, and I’m grateful to have them in our corner as we look to expand what Lilly is capable of doing. They help us build confidence so that Lilly doesn’t feel like she needs to be on guard all the time.
At these classes, Lilly is mostly practicing behaviors she already knows. In fact, one of Gigi’s interns called Lilly “The Ringer” when we first started going because her skill level was so much higher than the pups in the class (usually 9 months to a year old).
I usually refer to it as our work-and-play class because we take play breaks so that the dogs DON’T learn that every time we call them the fun is over. Lilly doesn’t really play with the other dogs. Once in a while, she’ll take up the chase and pretend she’s herding the pack. But, mostly, it’s a victory for her to poke around on her own or stay calmly by my side, even though noisy, rambunctious dogs keep racing by.
It’s not so much a place for Lilly to
learn new behaviors in the traditional sense. It’s a place for Lilly to learn to trust. It’s a
place to practice doing simple things even though
other dogs are around. And, for Lilly, that’s hard work.
Sure, Lilly knows all kinds of regular tricks like shake, high-five, and rollover. In addition to all the agility things she later learned, Lilly originally jumped through a hoola-hoop and snuck across the floor on her belly. But, I’m always looking for ways to up the ante. So, I got out my exercise ball last summer and came up with something new.
It’s called Roll It, where Lilly pushes the ball in front of her, while walking behind it. She can go straight for long distances. She can make turns. It’s pretty funny. We do this up and down the driveway. People stare.