Tuesday, February 9, 2010

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. Frank tied Vanya up and continued with his work, and Vanya quickly calmed down when Frank was out of reach. Then he quickly chewed through his line and zoomed right over and started leaping, barking, leaping, barking. This time Frank got a metal chain and tethered Vanya with that, and Vanya quickly calmed down again.

I said something silly like "oh, I'm sure he was just playing. Carry treats and ask for a sit if you think he's about to start doing it again."

Frank replied: "I don't know Nancy....I think this is why his family got rid of him. He was terrifying."

The next day, Vanya did it to me, and I realized how terrifying it really was. His mind seemed to shut down: he was 50 lbs of pure muscle and frenzy and noise, and the treats I whipped out were just about as ineffective as the "sit" cue I called out.

I had joined a few positive pit bull forums and I was lurking at the clicker-solutions yahoo group, where I had learned about Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed. Just the ticket, I thought, and ordered my own copy, and began asking lots of questions on the CU yahoo forum,  the clickersolutions yahoo forum, and the positive reactive dogs forum as well.

The advice, support, and feedback that members of these forums offered me were a lifesaver. I can't say enough about how welcoming, helpful, and sympathetic the professional trainers and pet owners were. I spent a lot of desperate hours at the computer with Vanya tethered beside me, while I googled and searched for approaches that would help him calm down.

Here's a sample I posted soon after getting him: 
"Vanyagoes from 0 to 60 in 1 second). Vanya's doing great, overall, and he's learning more self-control, but he has definately gotten overwhelming at times (mouthy, jumpy, seemingly going instantly from collected play to piranha-puppy with the zoomies. Very cute when it's focused elsewhere, but scary when it's focused on me!).

We have another rescue pit, (12 yo female, incredibly calm and gentle), and they now play together very well. Playing with her used to get him so wired that he would turn to us and try to play as physically (not good). We weren't sure whether to stop him from playing with her until he learned not to ramp up, or whether suppressing his play-behavior with her would only make him jumpier (option two seemed more likely--4 mile daily bike rides and long walks weren't tiring him out, but playing with her does). So we clicked/treated like mad for good play with her, and that seems to have worked--he doesn't get as over- excited either with her or with us. And now, if he gets into intense play behavior with me, I can ask him for a sit, and he throws his butt on the ground fast as can be, instead of zooming at me."

It sounded hopeful, but Vanya soon learned if he ramped up, he could train me to do a nice chain: he starts to get the zoomies, I ask for a sit, he gets a treat and starts the cycle over again. And of course, if he got really ramped up, he couldn't respond to the sit cue or to treats tossed over his head.

For the first few weeks, CU exercises worked very well. Here's one post I sent to the clickersolutions group:
" 'Control Unleashed'focuses on helping an exuberant dog learn self-control, and at least for Vanya,
that's exactly what he needed. Teaching "default" behaviors was particularly useful, so whenever Vanya gets excited now, he knows to offer a sit for attention, instead of lunging and grabbing for attention. (This meant a zillion click/treats for the behavior we wanted--ie, sits, and then 'leave its', and 'watch me's'). Radically increasing the rate of reinforcement also helped a lot, so we were giving Vanya a lot more help in understanding what we consider desired behavior. Working on the "Off-switch" game also helps a lot, and so does the "premack principle".

Now, just a week after working on the "Control Unleashed" exercises, Vanya's lunging and grabbing (and rough play with his dog-housemates, also a self-control issue) have decreased about 95%..."

But then the snow came, and it seemed to ramp him up much, much, more--so much that at times I feared my own dog. I wasn't worried that he was 'human aggressive', but I did worry that he was so quick to arouse, that he might go right over arousal into something that could hurt people--not me so much, as someone else who responded by screaming and running away, thus imitating a squirrel. 

Here's another post from that first week of December--how chipper my tone sounds, considering how worried I was about Vanya:
"After a midwest ice storm, it's hard to get the dogs much exercise. I took Vanya, the pit bull adolescent, out in the ice & snow to work on the off-switch game from Control Unleashed, and realized how important timing is. I jumped up and down to get Vanya excited, then cued a sit (we do this inside all the time, and it works great, and we also do forms of "freeze" tag--go wild, then freeze and reward a sit). This worked fine for a few runs, then the novelty of snow and ice plus a new game (new for outdoors, anyway) revved him into overdrive. So he changed the rules of the game from "dance around then sit for a click" to "dance around then jump and hang onto an arm and shake and do a little play-growl and wag your butt real hard and see what happens". Oops.

Soon we were inadvertently doing a routine of sit/click/treat/ grab the arm/sit/click/treat/grab the arm ....He had figured out the best way to get a click/treat was to grab my arm, then offer a sit. Ow! Once I got the timing better, and starting
rapidly reinforcing his calm moments, we made it back inside (before running out of treats...) Even though he's a very friendly pit bull, there's still nothing like a pit bull dangling from your arm to make you want to realize how important timing is. I was trying to click/treat his moment of calming, but I think I was capturing his moment of excitement, not calming.

Back to trying this inside a bunch more...

[a few days later]....Oww! He did it again today (snow sure gets him excited). I am a little worried about the pit bull part of all this (if he did this with a child, etc etc). He's doing really well with learning self-control, but it can't happen quickly enough, especially for our two elderly female dogs' sanity. Our very old but still fast female pit bull can't believe what this pup gets away with. He did what?! He put his teeth on a person?!!!! She plays nicely with him, but one tiny bit of pushiness from that boy, and she has him on his back, waving his feet in the air, licking her jaw, playing the submissive little puppy, in a flash. It's impressive."

We kept working and working on this, and soon I learned to always go out with a drag line on Vanya and walk with him along fencelines. Whenever he started to zoom, I would drop the line over the post and stand just out of reach, ignoring him completely until he calmed down. Eventually, this helped. I never went anywhere without treats, and for a while I carried something (usually a water jug or tug) in my hand, so he could redirect onto that instead of me.  Slow progress, but progress. He still got mouthy with my husband, and training my husband not to roughhouse with the dog was much harder than training Vanya to calm down.

Some other things I learned: turning my back only seemed to make him worse (he ran around to see what fun things might
be on my other side--I must be turning because something cool is over there, right?). Long walks would increase the behavior, and so would excited play with our elderly pit bull. After huge amounts of helpful advice from folks on the list, here's what eventually worked for us.

First, of course, I tried hard to learn the look in his eye that meant he was about to jump, so I could cue sit and then toss treats in the other direction. But if I missed that moment, tossing all the treats in the world wouldn't distract him from the great joy of jumping on my back. So:

1. instead of turning my back or folding my arms, I played "be a tree". This is what kids in school are now supposedly being taught as a response to excited dogs. You stand, head down, arms down, fingers laced--boring as a tree. Supposedly, you become so very very dull that the dog sniffs your fingers and soon wanders off in boredom, no longer reinforced by your turning around or folding your arms. I was doubtful, but I found that it did work surprisingly well.

2. I also taught Vayna that the "be a tree" posture was another cue for sit. I did this a zillion times

3. then whenever he jumped, I acted like a tree, and if he sat, he got a treat. Repeat a million times. If he gnawed at me, I looped his leash over a handy fence-post (we walked along fence lines a lot that winter) and stood like a tree just out of his reach. Pretty quickly he would realize he couldn't contact me, so he would sit for his treat. Repeat a zillion more times.

(I couldn't expect my farmworkers to have this kind of patience, so I gave them all cans of spray shield (citronella) to carry. After a couple spritzs of citronella in his face, just the sight of the spray shield can made him sit for his treat. I am, of course, not recommending this aversive to anyone--just reporting honestly that I didn't rely on 'be a tree' alone.)"

To work on his overall arousal levels, we did the following:
  • Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol
  • Zen games
  • Off Switch games in CU
  • Give me a Break in CU (but I was never sure I really understood those--still trying)
  • Lots of default sit work
  • Freeze tag: an off switch game
  • Nose work: at first just scattering his kibble in the grass, then food puzzle games, eventually home-grown tracking work which we still try to do often
  • wrapping him up tightly at night (not in an anxiety wrap, just in a blanket--what a difference that made with night startles
  • melatonin when he was waking up a lot at night and scanning the ceiling
  • L-theamine now
  • lots of long, slow walks in the woods where he could be off leash and sniff around
  • lots of wandering around in the our fields, orchard and prairie
  • lots of hanging out under the trees reading (well, I read; he stuck to his bones--he's smart but not that smart)

1 comment:

  1. It's funny that you mention how you inadvertently taught him chain behaviors - react, sit, c/t, react, sit, c/t. I've accidentally done the same thing with Inara. My trainer noticed that Inara will BARK BARK BARK! at the other dogs, and then look at me, at which point I c/t for the attention. Lather, rinse, repeat. I had TAUGHT her to bark at the other dogs. I felt like quite the ass.