Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Very sad

Vanya is fine! But a good friend of mine died suddenly of cancer--well, of the surgery and its fallout. Three weeks ago he was fine. Over Memorial weekend, a minor problem peeing led to the discovery of renal carcinoma. And now he's dead, after surgeons at Mayo tried to save his life.

It blows me away that half of us get cancer--a rate that is nearly double the rate 40 years ago, when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. And yet we're not protesting in the streets. Superfund sites abound, and my friend lived near one, and handled industrial solvents that are linked to kidney cancer. How have we come to accept this as normal?

Vanya is subdued, probably because I'm so sad. He's a sensitive dog. He's had a busy week, down on the farm chasing bunnies, hunting in the prairie, bounding into pickup trucks (filled with dogs, but he ignored them for the chance to lick strangers). This evening, after a 6.5 hour drive, he had his weekly calming session with Lana and her reactive pittie Amber. Amber seems so very calm compared to Vanya. Eventually, we had both dogs in their crates, 10 feet or so from each other, and they both calmed down pretty well. Vanya ate vast quantities of cheese in the calming down process. I think this all is helping. Who knows.

The sun is setting, in spectacular fashion, over Lake Superior, and my friend will never see it again. I feel so very sorry for his wife and children and grandchildren. All of us on Roman's Point will mourn his death.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Over threshold, but trying hard....

Last night was Vanya's first practice with Lana's  young pittie, Amber. Vanya was very, very excited (but calmer than he might have been....). He really, really wanted to go meet Amber, and when he wasn't allowed to, he shrieked. A couple times, he even did his "trout-on-a-fishing-line" imitation, thrashing around at the end of his leash. I put on his gentle leader in hopes of getting a bit more control, but then I felt like I was jerking him around a bit too much. We tried various things--distance, using the car as a visual barrier--to help him calm down, and he did stop shrieking and pulling, but he kept up a low whine for most of the time. Ah well. He was able to do parallel leash walks with Amber (who remained a good ways away--perhaps 40 feet?), and he did calm down enough to do his obedience exercises about 40 feet away from her. We spent about an hour and a half working with the two dogs--first Amber with the plush dog, while Vanya waited in his crate, and then the two of them at opposite sites of a field, and then eventually a bit closer together. Not perfect (ahem), but progress. 

I did try some of Nancy Williams "response prevention", approaching the trigger until Vanya went a little over threshold, then walking backwards with him until he calmed down, treating him, then approaching again. Well, that's the theory, anyway. Here is how the approach was described to me:

"Patient dog approaches trigger. At the point of reaction, the dog is turned away from the trigger towards the handler (hence the equipment) with the handler backing up until the dog stops reacting. Then the dog is fed. For the dogs whose focus is on visiting, the dog is simply allowed to reapproach, although a combination of treats and reapproach can work too."

This didn't quite work as planned, in part because Vanya doesn't just go a little over threshold, and then he doesn't calm completely down. I wasn't sure if his eventual calming was just a bit of flooding, or simple exhaustion, or real calming. Onwards and upwards. 

BAT with distance as the reward seems backwards for Vanya because he so badly wants proximity to the other dog. For now, we'll work on a curving parallel walk, getting closer to the other dog as the reward for a bit of calming, moving away from the dog (and possibly moving behind a visual barrier) as the response to shrieking.  

This sounds similar to the classic cat-desensitization exercise recommended on PBRC 

"What you need:

    • One cat-aggressive pit bull
    • One very mellow cat
    • Lots of treats
    • A Gentle Leader head collar
    • A good strong, leather leash
    • A lot of patience!
I always do this in my living room with no other distractions. I'll put my kitty in a far corner. (My kitty will hold a down stay, but you can give your kitty a bowl of wet food to keep them in place if you want. This will also counter-condition the cat to aggressive dogs!) I'll then bring the dog down the hallway towards the kitty. You must stay calm! When they start to freak out, I'll just walk backwards down the hall without saying a word and without any leash corrections. I'm always facing the cat. I don't turn around at all.

When you walk backwards with a dog on a head collar, their face turns toward you. There's your opportunity to reward them. I don't give commands and I don't ever reprimand. This is desensitizing, not obedience! If you do this every day, a couple times a day, you'll be amazed at the results! (Just be careful the cat doesn't get too fat from eating all that wet food!)

When you get to the point where the dog is getting used to the pattern (if I aggress, we go the other way), what you will be looking for is unsolicited looks. You want the dog to turn and look at you before the leash gets tight. That's when you know you're making progress! The whole point to this is so the dog gets the pattern. When they see a cat, you want them to look at you to get the treat, not look at the cat.

Get closer only when the dog isn't reacting as intensely. Also, don't do this for more than a few minutes at a time at first. This is intense stuff for dogs! This also does not cover outside cats! If they see a running kitty outside, they're gonna go after it! Staying calm and having patience is key.

And finally, is this a surefire way to get your dog to love cats? No way. But, can you get your dog to the point of being in the same room with that particular cat and not freak out? Yes, if you're diligent about it."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Good boy, Vanya!

Today, on our early morning walk (when I expect NOT to see unleashed dogs), we had 3 unleashed dogs and a cat come running up to us (in 2 separate incidents). And Vanya handled himself very well indeed--only one brief shrieking episode, and several reasonably polite, very short meet-and-greets (muzzled).
Good boy, Vanya!

Most of the shrieking being done on the walk was by me, imitating a fish-wife when I tried to get my neighbor David to come outside and collect his two ENORMOUS malamute mixes who were circling me and Vanya, barking at us at the top of their lungs. Vanya was remarkably collected, I must say (pulling on the leash, but not barking or shrieking back at them). Once the neighbor came and got his huge dogs, I slipped the muzzle on Vanya and we did a very brief, 2 second, meet-and-greet with each Malamute, which went well until David let the big dogs go and they started circling and barking once more. Well, life isn't perfect.

David then collected his dogs once again and as they went back to their house, Vanya was able to follow them politely (at perhaps 40 ft distance), loose leash, offering me glances when requested. If a dog isn't looking at him, he's now often able to be quite calm about it.

A hundred yards later, another neighbor let his little poodle Buddy out to play with Vanya. Buddy actually LIKES Vanya, at least when Vanya is leashed and muzzled. We practiced many two second meet-and-greets, and Buddy did his best to get Vanya to interact--play-bowing and dancing around. Vanya made an effort to act like a regular old dog (hard to do when that annoying Treat Lady keeps saying ENOUGH! and turning away with you every two seconds. Jeez, lady.) Then the curious cat then came bounding right up to us (well, 2 ft away), to see what was happening. Vanya just whined and at that point, I decided enough was enough and we headed home. He didn't shriek or scream when we left, although he sure wasn't ready to leave and go back to the boring life at home.

I should add that on weekends, I rarely walk Vanya around here because there are too many people and dogs (I'll drive instead to a quiet forest service dirt road nearby). I miscalculated and figured that, early on a cloudy, windy, drizzly Saturday, we could walk a half mile on the dirt road without encountering too much excitement. Wrong! But he handled it all like a champ.

Perhaps what's helping are: prozac, l-theanine, window film, and lots of clicker practice sessions working on two things: clicker-training his turning politely away from distractions 


and rewarding calmer responses on a mat near stuffed dogs:


(this clip followed his shrieking by about 20 seconds:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RPx4RIiQcc )

And here he is, being forlorn when I "play" with the stuffed dog--but then he can calm down again.

A few minutes later, he was quite calm with the stuffed dog 15 ft away. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Recalls when trained with and without R-

Over on the yahoo list clickersolutions, a lively discussion about poisoned cues is underway. The only research supporting the hypothesis that R- will indeed poison a cue is a single-subject experiment that hasn't yet been published.

So I will do a little anecdotal study (we can hardly call this an experiment) to explore how Vanya responds to a new recall cue trained entirely without R-, versus a new recall cue trained with 20% trials backed up with R-

The R- will be pressure from a long line when he doesn't immediately respond. (For those who get confusing about operant conditioning terminology, when you remove something (negative: pressure on the line) to reinforce, or increase the frequency, of a desired behavior (running toward me), that's negative reinforcement.

Here's what we'll do: train two new cues (let's call them A and B). One I'll train with R-; one without. Start from the very beginning with each cue. Train each with increasing levels of distractions. I'll set up the training protocol on Vanya's blog, in case anyone is curious.

Then have a neutral handler (known as The Friend) come in for the experiments themselves. My friend won't know whether A or B was trained with R-. She will give the cues, under increasing levels of distractions, and she will record how promptly, how enthusiastically, and how reliably under distractions, Vanya responded to A versus B.

Then I'll train the same cues for another set of time, to see if the responses change with greater levels of proofing.

Nope, this isn't scientific, but it will help me learn what works better for my particular dog. I'll report on the results here, for those who might be curious.

Training plan, more details about methods,  and logs for the new recall cues are posted here: http://sites.google.com/site/thevanyaproject/training-logs/recall-cues-a-and-b

Sunday, June 13, 2010


The weekend is over, without incident! Yippie! Two GSDs bouncing around next door, and Vanya didn't shriek once. Amazing.

Poor shepherds. One was a barker, and the owners use a no-bark (shock) collar on him. Saturday morning, they left the two dogs in the tent while they went kayaking. I heard: whine, whine, YELP, silence. Whine, whine, YELP, silence.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Nope, they're two males. Two huge, shaggy male German Shepherd Dogs, with no leashes (because they have their shock collars, so who needs leashes?), that bark a lot. But the owners seem like nice kids, and they agreed not to let the dogs run over to my fence and bark at Vanya. Here's to hoping for a rainy, foggy weekend!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Off leash dogs again

The woods are suddenly swarming with off-leash dogs. On the path to Lost Creek, the spaniel Jake and his distracted, elderly owner Ralph came bounding up. I put Vanya's muzzle on, and let them have a brief greeting (not quite brief enough). Jake got to choose whether he wanted to come up and greet, or just stay away from Vanya, and he chose to come up, several times. Vanya was at first pretty wiggly, and then stiff and a little worried (he sat while Jake sniffed his rear), but he did relatively well, until Jake moved off, then he shrieked like a little madman. Jake came pouncing back to nip at Vanya (not fair! Vanya's muzzled!), but when I asked Ralph the owner to keep Jake from biting my muzzled dog, he did comply. (Later, another neighbor mentioned that Jake is also a rescue with issues, and does a bit of fear-biting with people, so this zipping around and nipping a retreating dog wasn't unusual.)

Lord knows if these greetings are helping Vanya or not. Since I can't control what unleashed dogs do, at least I can control my own reaction--Vanya's muzzle keeps me nice and calm and upbeat.  I talk in a happy voice, give Vanya a ton of cheezwhiz, and don't have to worry about my Vanya hurting someone (nor do I have to worry about him redirecting onto my hand when I pull him away by his harness. He's never done this, but he has snapped at the leash before I got the muzzle). If we have to have unleashed dogs around here, I sure wish we could get a female or two. Update: my next to neighbors just emailed me that their relatives are coming up to the next cabin this weekend, with their two dogs. Eek! Let's hope they're females. Let's hope the relatives believe in leashes!  Let's hope it keeps raining all weekend so it's not an issue!)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Day 9 Update

An update on the update for Vanya: it's only day 9 for his prozac, but something seems to be making a huge difference. (He also went back on L-theanine the same day, this time in the Anxitane formulation, so that might be part of
it. Plus I got the window film up, which is also playing a role in reducing triggers).

His OCD scanning and shrieking episodes are declining, and today he was able to have a very good meet-and-greet (muzzled and leashed) with the yippie mini-poodle, Buddy. When Buddy told him off (Buddy had found a bit of goose
poop, so Vanya came over to investigate), Vanya didn't snarf back. He did shriek when (unleashed) Buddy first came bounding up to us, but he calmed right down when I muzzled him and let him greet Buddy. Each time Buddy bounded away for a time-out, Vanya whined but didn't lunge or shriek. And when Micky, the world's bravest (or dumbest) cat came up to investigate, Vanya was very interested, but not barking or lunging, and able to take treats and watch me even as the cat came to within 5 feet (ok, dumbest cat).

For your average dog, all this may be no big deal, but for Vanya, it's huge.

Then, when we dropped in to visit his favorite neighbor, he was able to greet her and quickly settle on the couch with a kong--amazing for Vanya, who usually vibrates with excitement the whole time he's in her house. When numerous vans drove by us, he was able to sit and take treats instead of shrieking at them.

So it may be a day too soon for the Prozac to be at steady-state in his bloodstream (according to the one good study I could find), but whatever this is, I'll take it! 

Thinking About Pit Bulls

Last fall, on a clicker-training forum, we got into a lively, at times impassioned, discussion about pit bulls. Some forum members characterized them as "weapon dogs" whose vicious aggression is essentially determined by their genes--dogs trapped in their genetic histories. Some forum members seemed to believe that the dog aggression that was part of their history would inevitably bleed over into aggression against humans. Many forum members, however,  defended pit bulls, with some advocates arguing that their dogs are no different than other dogs. Other pit bull lovers argued that their dogs are indeed fundamentally different than other dogs, and their dog aggression could never be bred out of them without destroying what was essential to their other good qualities: intensity, determination, human- friendliness, toughness, comic good humor. Finally, a group of pit bull lovers argued (or at least we hoped) that it might be possible, with selective breeding,  to maintain what's wonderful about pits while also decreasing their dog aggression. Dogs don't stay fixed throughout their evolutionary history. But selective breeding has a troubled history--often, in getting what you wished for, you also get surprising and undesirable traits as well.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Vanya has been sleeping a lot while on the prozac, and being  a lot less bouncy, but I expect that he needs a bit of time to adjust to it. 

Yesterday: a great walk, until the cat came running up, and then he went into prey-shrieking mode (which he doesn't do at deer, curiously enough). He was able to calm down quickly and practice the emergency turn-arounds with me. For those, our cue is: "this way!" called out in a happy voice, with lots of cheez-whiz for rewards. The idea is simple: let's blow this popsicle stand before Vanya tips over into a screaming frenzy. My goal is to work on his happy turns, even in the face of provocation, so I don't have to drag him off, which quickly leads to shrieks and howls. The cat certainly provided the provocation. Vanya was fine with her as long as she was lying down in her driveway, and he performed quite a few impressively calm LAT with her, and then practiced his calm "this ways" quite a few times. Then she got curious and came bounding up to us (oop!), which was more than Vanya could handle. 

But he was quite calm with the deer at the end of the driveway--barking once, then telling me to hurry up with the LAT game.  And he got two visits to the sea caves beneath the cabin for off-leash hunt time. 

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Remedial socialization Attempt # 2

Today we met up with Lana and her calm, huge dog-loving dog, Andre, in hopes that Vanya could follow Jean Donaldon's remedial socialization protocol for unsocialized Tarzans that she describes in her manual Fight: A Practical Treatment for the Treatment of Dog-Dog Aggression (pp 27-41). The idea is that Vanya could get some remedial socialization by playing, while muzzled,  with Lana's dog Andre, a dog who loves playing with pitties (Andre is housemates with Amber, a pit bull with a play style very similar to Vanya's body slams). Then Vanya could better work on his CC/DS protocols, keeping a loose leash as he played LAT with Andre in the distance.

Well, it didn't quite work out that way. At first, the two dogs were ok--not playing, but investigating--but Vanya, as always, came on too strong, and when Andre told him to buzz off a bit, Vanya failed to do so. They danced around for a while, and then Andre had enough of Vanya and nipped at him, and we ended the session because Andre was clearly feeling overwhelmed by Vanya.

When I pulled Vanya away from Andre, at that point, he started shrieking and trying to pull out of his harness, and I had to drag him out of sight. He took quite a while to calm down, even though he was crated in the car. When we then walked over to the picnic area where Lana and Andre were waiting and tried LAT from a distance, he was still far too wound up to do it. So then he went back to the crate in the car for another cool down, and then he was able to stay calm (more or less) and do LAT with Andre in the distance. We could actually get quite close without Vanya reacting, just so we went back to the visual barrier of the car for brief cool-downs. Targeting a lid was also quite helpful.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Day 2

Another calm day, snoozing in the sun for 16 hours, with occasional breaks to lick the UPS Man, greet our neighbor Tim while on a walk, chase squirrels, terrorize chipmunks, chase a few more squirrels, pounce on the everlasting treat ball, explore the caves, and hunt down the buster cube. All in all, a good day. He may have been guilty of a little over-excitement when Tim and the UPS guy showed up, but they think he's cute and they're flattered by his extravagant joy when he sees them. He was able to shut up and sit momentarily for each of them.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Much calmer day....

Today is much, much calmer for my hyperalert little pup. We went for a short stroll on the quiet dirt road, and when the van went by, he managed to sit and watch it without flipping out. Good job, Vanya! For the rest of the walk, he was a bit too alert--scanning a lot--but he never started whining, and he was able to relax and sniff.

The big news is: I just talked with Dr Chris, his wonderful vet. Vanya's starting Prozac. I hope it will help him a bit, relaxing some of his obsessive/compulsive fixations (ie, scanning and screaming at spots of light), and I hope it will allow training and his counterconditioning protocols to work a little better.

The rest of the day, we've been exploring the sea caves beneath the cabin, which are now, officially, Vanya's Favorite Place.

I can hang out on the mermaid rock and Vanya can scramble up and down and inside the little caves, clamber up onto promentories, and generally have a wonderful time. I try not to think about how unstable these cliffs are, nor do I think about how many rocks come tumbling down each spring. It's such a good thing for Vanya to have a safe place where he can hunt and explore off-leash.

He gets very cheered up down in the caves, and he loves to come bounding over, leap onto the mermaid rock for his treat, and then go flying off the rock onto the sandstone ledges. (Last year, he screamed his little head off each time he got onto the mermaid rock and then couldn't figure out how to get back down. This year, he magically realized he could simply jump down, flying safely over the waves. Progress!)