Sunday, February 28, 2010

Another pass-by

Another little success today: we did another pass-by with the yellow lab, and Vanya was too bored to even yodel. Yippie! Doing these pass-bys after I ski-jor with him helps a lot--although he wasn't too tired to yodel at a nice couple passing by, who laughed at him, because he was wagging his tail so hard he almost knocked himself over.

I still don't have the nerve to try this with a regular dog walking by on the sidewalk, since Vanya in full cry does a passable imitation of an emergency warning siren.

I've been traveling for work, so Vanya hasn't gotten as much practice as I'd like. We've skijored a couple times in the past week, but I think we're all getting tired of mushy snow and mud. We're working on recalls a lot more, since they've degenerated a bit, probably because of using the e-collar (on very low stim, but it still changed the cue from meaning: "run really fast to Nancy because I'm about to get the most amazing treat and game possible!" to "I'd better amble on over, otherwise something ucky might happen".  Our emergency recall cue was going to be "Cheeseburgers!" but I shortened it to "cheese!" to remind me that this is about Vanya WANTING to come, not about me forcing him to come.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Going to Town

Today we went to the village. How exciting! Well, for Vanya it is. We got to practice: walking calmly past the yellow lab in his kennel, greeting the lab, coming away from the lab, greeting two people (the lab's owners) and trying hard to sit politely while they scratched his ears, looking at other people and not screaming when denied the chance to greet them, walking calmly through the main street of town and ignoring the decrepit souls going into bars at midday on Sunday.

He did much better at all these activities. He was able to keep a loose leash and unfurrowed brow while we approached the kenneled dog, and he wasn't particularly interested in greeting that dog (Jake, by the way).  We passed by the lab 5 times, and each time he was able to glance at the lab and then focus on other things. He did try to jump up on the nice lady (Peggy) who petted him (and who owns Jake) and he did begin to yodel when the worker across the alley didn't have time to say hi to him. And he was pretty intense on the village streets, stressed, but not vocalizing at people (having trouble watching me, however, when cued to do so. Bribes helped). Overall, he did much, much better than he has in the past. Even though he wasn't very relaxed about town yet, at least he didn't go over threshold at all. I tried hard to capture and mark and reward his moment of relaxation and calmness. Now he is very tired. Me too!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

More Shaping

We shaped front feet up on a perch, rear end circling around, in part for me to practice clicking for behavior, treating for position.

Here's the first clip, when I'm still trying to figure out where to stand:

Another stuffed dog

On another forum, someone who also has a leash reactive dog asked if it's possible to use a stuffed dog to teaching a dog more appropriate greeting behavior. In Click to Calm, Emma Parsons suggests that those of us with reactive dogs can shape better greetings in our dogs, starting by teaching our dog to do a quick nose-target to the new dog (face and bottom) and then return to us for a treat. I was a little dubious about doing this with an actual dog, much less a stuffed dog, but I figured more practice with targets can't hurt. 

Here's a clip of Vanya going over to his familiar Miss Plushy and the new plush spaniel (Puppy) for a nose-target or sniff, then turn run back to either me or the Manners Minder  for a treat. He caught on quickly, although it really seems like target practice, not greeting-a-new-dog practice: 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A real dog!

Today, after a week of Miss Plushy, I got up the nerve to do meet and greets with a real dog--a huge, intact male yellow lab, who is the calmest, least reactive dog in the world, so far as I can tell. The dog lives in a kennel along the bike trail in Monticello, and several weeks ago, Vanya ran up to the dog and greeted him (separated by a fence) reasonably well: play bows, low wagging tail, some wiggles, which is a huge improvement over the usual screaming, lunging, tasmanian devil imitation.

Today, Vanya was very good with the real dog, able to approach him calmly on a loose leash, and actually pretty uninterested in him once he got a chance to go sniff and greet (they were separated by the kennel fence). Vanya was much, much more interested in greeting a person who walked by than in greeting Real Dog. I've never seem him so calm around an actual dog, so maybe this many-times a day encounter with Miss Plushy is working! To be honest, I think the most important thing about Miss Plushy is that she shapes calmness in ME. I've been so worried about screwing something up in actual dog encounters and ending up with someone else's dog hurt, that no matter how hard I try, I get tense. The first few times with Miss Plushy, I could tell my heart was racing, even though the stakes were low. So I'm getting calmer each time, and so is Vanya.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When Pigs Fly: shaping games

My copy of When Pigs Fly arrived this afternoon, when I was supposed to be preparing for a seminar I'm leading this evening. So I put aside my notes for the seminar and started reading all about flying pigs. Killon starts off by reminding us owners of non-biddable dogs about the need to shape rather than lure behavior. (Being an impatient sort, I nearly always lure.) So I dug out a wine box, set it on the floor, and started shaping. Vanya likes to play games. If something new appears in his environment, if he can't eat it, he usually steps on it:

At first, I shaped getting in the box, although it hardly counts as shaping if that's his first impulse (sniff? look at the box? nahh, I'll just hop inside). Then I shaped sitting in the box. Then I flipped the box over and aimed for standing on the box, then sitting, then once he started to lie down, I figured my next criterion could be: lying down on top of the box.

Cute, isn't he?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentines Day! Youtube clips of Vanya and his sweetie

Here are some video clips of Vanya and his valentine, Miss Plushy.

First, Vanya is trying to be calm as we walk, on leash, near Miss Plushy. He can manage this for a little while, but then he gets frustrated and tries to pull out of his harness: (he's blurry and off in the distance, upper left of screen); see this video and the others after the break....

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Vanya meets Miss Plushy; falls in love

Vanya got to meet Miss Plushy yesterday, and today they had their second date. I think he's in love, or at least in lust.

Yesterday, he was behaving politely near her, so I let him off leash and gave him the "go say hi!" cue, which I also use with the chickens (and it means: sniff and wag, but no teeth). If Vanya had zoomed over and attacked Miss Plushy, I would have been worried. But instead, he bounded over, tail wagging, sniffed her mouth, then curved around and sniffed her bottom then her groin. He began to seem a little puzzled and came back to her mouth and started licking her muzzle. She fell over (what a nice submissive pup!) and he went back to sniffing her groin, then doing some play  bowing in front of her. Eventually, it seemed to occur to him that she was awfully unresponsive, so he started chewing her nose, and at that point I called him away. Then I moved Miss Plushy to new places around the farm, and every time I walked him back into sight of her, he got excited once again: A DOG! Woo Hoo! (Ok, maybe Vanya's not the sharpest knife in the drawer).

I was very reassured that his response to her was to greet her, not to attack her.

Today we went through the routine again. He once again got very, very excited to see her off in the orchard, and had a bit of a hard time heeling politely as we walked in her direction. When I released him to go greet her, he bounded over, tail wagging, and started licking her. So, he's not polite, but at least he's not too aggressive. Just frustrated. Today he decided to try humping her to see if she's wake up and start playing (the very first thing I've ever seen him try to hump). When that didn't work, he decided to chew her toes (ok, I have a pervert for a pup).

Thursday, February 11, 2010

LAT with chickens, Miss Plushy part 2, village walk

Yesterday Vanya did a very nice job being calm with the chickens. His main concern with the chickens right now is getting to eat their food scraps, of course, but he can still play LAT (even though at first he thought I must have been referring to a squirrel, so he scanned the woods for squirrels rather than looking at the hens). That's fine:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

feb 2010: practicing with Plushy, the stuffed life-size dog

Our life-sized plush husky came today (from amazon; Melissa & Doug is the brand), and much to my surprise, from a short distance, she really does look real. I had set her up in the snowy orchard for some LAT/shaping calmness/focus around distractions work with Vanya, but I had no idea if he would be persuaded by her, or if instead he would wonder why a stuffed toy was standing out in the snowstorm. My husband drove up, however, and he thought the dog was real--he also thought I had lost my mind, coming home with another dog from the pound.

Once I calmed Frank down, he went out to "play" with the plush stuffed dog in the orchard (let's call her Plushy), while I put Vanya in his harness combination, armed myself with treats, and walked out around the barn, perhaps 100 ft from Plushy and Frank. The instant Vanya saw the two of them, he started pulling and vocalizing with excitement and trying to run over to them (he had already greeted Frank, so this wasn't about seeing Frank--it was his classic attempt to greet a new dog or person. Not aggression, but over threshold. Oops).

feb 2010: apostle island sled dog races

My first sled dog race! What a blast! I want to be a sled dog when I grow up. As a friend said to me, in the midst of the pandemonium from 200 excited sled dogs: "I never thought I'd be around dogs who make Vanya look calm." 

For a taste of the sound and excitement:

feb 8 2010: successes

So many of these posts are about Vanya's challenges. But he's also had tons of successes, so here's a quick list of things that used to trigger a stress reaction and now do not. Thanks to Control Unleashed, DS and CC, and tons of cheezwhiz.

feb 7 2010: consult with Sarah Kalnajs of Blue Dog

After a 3 hour private consult with Sarah Kalnajs of Blue Dog Training, she felt Vanya was one of the more hyper-aroused dogs she had ever seen. The Dog's Best Friend private trainer back in Feb. 2008 had said pretty much the same thing. He wins a prize!

Seriously, new environments do get him wound up. For all the progress we've made with him on his arousal issues, he has a long, long ways to go. Wish us luck! We're both exhausted. At some point I will write out the homework and training goals Sarah set for us, and possibly even describe the consult, once I've digested it a bit more.

winter 2010: skijoring

I had tried to start ski-joring with Vanya the first winter I got him, but he was too hyper, so I put that idea on hold. This winter, I figured I'd try again. Juneau had been a wonderful ski-jor dog, and she hadn't ever really needed training. With Vanya, because I'd spent much of the past 2 years training him NOT to pull on leash, teaching him to pull in harness was challenging.  But a blast! He is proving to be a champ at ski-joring, and we have a wonderful time doing it. 

fall 2009: the wonderful manners minder

Youtube clips from Fall 2009:

For my birthday, I got a Manners Minder. Oh wonderful thing!

I started by following the excellent training DVD to teach Vanya calm behavior when visitors come. Here's a youtube clip of him learning how to handle actual people (before the MM, I would keep him on the leash and have him sit when he greeted people, while I shoved treats into his mouth, since otherwise he would jump all over them in an effort to lick their faces. He adores all new people):

Oct 2009: another unfortunate consult with private trainer

In October 2009, I went to yet another private trainer to work on Vanya's leash reactivity. My goal was to get him to a place where he could socialize off leash with other dogs, so that his counterconditioning to leashed dogs could proceed a bit more smoothly. A kind trainer had suggested earlier (online) that I read Jean Donaldson's book FIGHT and look at the section on "Tarzans," because she thought my Vanya sounded a lot more like a Tarzan than an aggressive dog--ie, a dog with terrible social skills who was desperate to meet and frustrated by being restrained around other dogs. So I had embarked on a search for a trainer who would work with me to get Vanya to the point where he could be off leash with some selected dogs. (First I had bought him a basket muzzle and conditioned him to stick his nose into it for cheezwhiz). The e-trainer ran socialization sessions and after she watched Vanya on a long line around another dog, she thought it wouldn't be a problem to get him to that point, because she also thought he lacked social skills but wasn't showing aggression. 

This was a very well-respected e-collar trainer, and because the e-collar had worked so well to stop Vanya's livestock chasing, and because I was feeling a bit desperate to find socialization opportunities, I thought: well, okay. We first went to her for a consult in July 2009, and her work with Vanya around another dog was pretty overwhelming (read: flooding), but it did seem to have some benefits right afterwards--he was able to play briefly (muzzled) with another male dog (but too roughly), and then he was able to approach that dog several times, leashed, without completely flipping out. So I tried to do the homework she gave me, and then when I returned to southern Wisconsin in the fall, I went to see her again in October, hoping that we could try some socialization around other dogs. 

oct 2009: loose leash walking

We tried a number of different things over the years (sensible harness, gentle leader, "be a tree", silky leash, etc). Here's what worked best for us:

"Teaching loose leash walking (LLW) has been quite a struggle for me with my
young, reactive pitbull. We've tried tons of different methods, and they've been
about 90% successful, but when he sees something he really really wants, he
pulls. I finally (this week!) figured out a method that works. It's pretty
obvious, of course, why my dog wasn't learning before: I was increasing criteria
too quickly, and my reinforcements weren't strong enough, and the rate of
reinforcement was too low. So I sat down, with my nifty new toy the Manners
Minder (which has quickly become my dog's favorite thing on earth) and wrote
down a plan. It's a mixture of Lindsey Newman's LLW game (posted in the files
section on the Clicker Solution's yahoo group website, at and a modified version of the penalty yards game
posted at

This may seem obvious to everyone else, but breaking the process into tiny steps
and writing them down really helped us.

sept 2009: fight

Much to my dismay, Tiva and Vanya got into a fight over a package of raw chicken a guest put on the ground between them, and they each bit the other. The fight lasted maybe 10 seconds, and neither dog grabbed or held the other--it was all flashing teeth. But the teeth made contact, for the first time, and Tiva required stitches. (When my husband picked Tiva up and held her over his head, he thought Vanya's teeth got her as he pulled her away, leading to the rip. Who knows). They've had a few little snarks in the past, but they were all vocal displays and no bites. This was very upsetting.

 We were prepared to crate and rotate, since our farm is well set-up for it (two floors in a loft that can be separated with a baby gate), but I wanted to get them calm together again. This is what I did, and it has reduced their tensions enormously:

feb 2009: cattle chasing

Vanya once again chased the neighbor's cattle, getting through the double fences we had put up. This time he got kicked, was lucky to survive, and it was clearly time to think about other options. 

I wrote to the clickersolutions list: "He chased the neighbor's cattle again, getting under the 2 fences we had erected (let's not talk about the $8000 bill from the fencing company that did a lousy job, and then $1000 worth of materials and weeks of work I did on the rest of the property to completely enclose it. All I can say is: a fence is a wonderful thing, especially around 20 acres.). He got kicked badly. I wrote: "But last night, in the dark, in the 10 minutes of chaos when I got back to the farm, he somehow got under our fence, bashed through the state wildlife land marsh, and under the neighbor's cattle fence. When I called him, he came back down the hill, covered with blood and poop and barely able to drag himself. (At least he has the recall down pat.) Now, with the help of the emergency vet clinic, he's recovering (I hope) from a kick to the ribs and a (mild) lung contusion. It breaks my heart to see exuberant Vanya so quiet for the first time in his life.

summer 2008: CU and leash reactivity

After that Feb 2008 class, Vanya became super- leash reactive. We immediately took him to a Dog's Best Friend for a two hour private LR consult, and he got so wound up--lunging, screaming, super-aroused--that the trainer didn't offer much hope, or at least I wasn't able to hear any hope in what she said. I started trying to find dogs I could practice Look at That on from a long distance--100s of yards away--but I couldn't find any nearby. We went into the village on a few snowy, icy days, and Vanya's proper loose leash walk (on the farm) turned into skidding, screeching, sliding over-arousal, just at the sight of new cars, people, houses. The city--actually, even the tiny little village of Monticello--seemed to push him into such arousal I couldn't reach him. He never redirected at me, and never showed an ounce of aggression toward me, but I worried.

When May came, I headed up north to Lake Superior, where I spend summers doing my forestry research, living in a tiny cabin on an acre, surrounded by public forestlands and a lot of neighbors with unleashed dogs nearby. At first, our two elderly female dogs came up with me and Vanya stayed on the farm, since we figured that farm life was a lot better for him than life on a leash.

feb 2008: disastrous class, or how to create leash reactivity

Vanya hadn't met new dogs since the first class hadn't worked out (except once on the bike trail, an unleashed big chocolate lab came bounding up to us. Vanya alerted and seemed very interested, but he didn't shriek or whine, and the lab ran off into the wood once he got to within 20 ft of us.)

I knew he needed to learn to be calm around other dogs, but because I wanted to be a responsible pit bull owner, I also knew I couldn't just let him loose to play with stranger dogs. So I signed up for a "barkers" class offered by a local trainer. I emailed with trainer, describing Vanya, and she said he would be perfect for her completely positive class. No aversives, she promised. None whatsoever.

Here's what I wrote, in tears, after the first class. 

nov 2008: hyper-arousal; or piranha pittie

The day we brought Vanya home, it was clear that he had a lot of energy. A lot! And it was also clear that the chickens weren't going to be free range for a while--back in the fenced chicken yard for them, since Vanya couldn't resist chasing them. Not a problem--the hens have a great big yard. Training proceeded nicely: I pulled out my clicker and started working on crate games, sit, down, come, stay. He was brilliant--very quick to catch on to the clicker, very eager to eat treats, very very eager to get any possible attention.

Of course, at night he didn't want to settle. He never wanted to settle. I had several days at home on the farm, so I kept him tethered to me while I worked on the farm and on my lectures, and gave him a vast variety of chew toys. He was very mouthy, but he could quickly redirect to chew toys. 

10 days or so after Vanya came home with us, I got home from work and asked my husband, Frank, how Vanya had behaved that day. "Not so good," was the answer. It turned out that Vanya had been out in the field of oats, off leash with the other dogs (Tiva and the ancient husky cross, Juneau), and after romping a bit with the other dogs, he had gotten the zoomies and redirected onto Frank: leaping and barking and whirling around Frank, grabbing at his jacket. Frank reported that Vanya's tail was wagging fast as could be, but he also reported that this was terrifying, because Vanya seemed SO intense, and SO checked out of his brain.

halloween 2007: adopting Vanya; first class

We adopted Vanya from the Rock County Humane Society on Halloween 2007. He had spent 2 months in the shelter, after being dumped by his owners (a stray, but it seems that when his owners were tracked down, they surrendered him).  We chose him because he's absolutely adorable and friendly with people, and wanted to ooze against each person who walked by. And he wasn't barking in his cage, unlike most of the other dogs. He was able to go on a parallel leashed walk with our two female dogs outside, and greet them in the meeting room, without getting too excited, which was a key factor in our decision--the much calmer pit we were considering went into screaming, lunging, barking when he saw our females, so he was not a possibility.