Chix-A-Lot Friday: Me + Dude = one Canine Good Citizen

Well well well, my little brother is all grown up. He graduated from his class that was supposed to teach him to be basically obedient last Tuesday!

For his last class, he got to do a mock Canine Good Citizen test (is that anything like a mock turtleneck? Because if so, I sure am glad I didn’t have to go). The difference between the real test and the mock turtleneck test is that mama got to use treats to help him, and some of the elements were easified for him. It was just supposed to give him an idea of what he’s already very excellent at and what he still needs me to tutor him on so that he can be a CGC (with no mock turtleneck)!

Here’s how he did:

1. Accepting a friendly stranger / 2. Sitting politely for petting. Doodlebug loves friendly strangers and because of his most excellent calmness, he is great at staying dude-like during pettings from nice people. I am also good at this one.

3. Allowing basic grooming procedures. Duder is great at this too. I hate to admit it, but this is one element where I should be wearing a mock turtleneck but Dude can go naked: he doesn’t mind any kind of touching, but I can become what my mom calls “Witchy” sometimes if a stranger starts touching my back paws. What are you doing back there anyway, buddy? Maybe I will have Doodlebug teach me more about this one before I take the test.

4. Walking on a loose lead / 5. walking through a crowd. Doodlebug is getting pretty good at this, and I am most excellent. I can pull like the best of ’em, but if mama just reminds me that we are doing The Rules, I walk like a total gentleman.

6. Sit/down on command and stay. I hate love to toot my own horn, but: I am an ace at the “stay” concept. Doodlebug? Not so much. Mama taught him a pretty decent sit and down, but the second she takes even one step away, his butt is back up and he’s going with her. They are working on this now, and he’s getting a little better. I love to lay on my chair and watch while they practice, and heckle when Doodlebug messes up. Silly dude.

7. Coming when called. This is another one that I totally dominate, but Duder is still working on. He is very much like his namesake The Dude in how slowly he takes life — never rushing. So when they practiced their “come” command in class, Duder moved very slowly and did a lot of “shopping” along the way to mama. Since then, they have been practicing “come when called” with his dinner — big raw duck meatballs — and amazingly, he’s gotten much faster!

8. Reacting appropriately to another dog. Again, I win, and Doodlebug loses! I mean– Duder needs to work on this one, it’s his biggest challenge. He gets way too excited and sometimes inappropriate when he gets within about 5 feet of another dog. I keep trying to show him how to stone cold ignore the other guys, but he thinks they’re much too interesting. Keep working, Doodlebug!

9. Reacting calmly to distractions. We both ace this one — we don’t care if a maniac is running around making noise while spinning a kayaking paddle, we’re gonna just channel our inner Dudes and be cool.

10. Calmly enduring supervised separation from the owner. Easy as pie for both of us!

So Duder’s assignments for the next few weeks are to work on his stays, finding more motivation to come when called, and learning to chill the heck out around other dogs. Once he’s gotten better at those — especially the last one — he’s going to go to CGC class, where he’ll learn how to not have to wear a mock turtleneck anymore!

And me? I just need to get better at being groomed by weirdos. Mama has a plan, and in a few weeks I’m going to take the test with no class at all!

Since you're such a good groomee, I will lick your chinny-chin-chin!

What our dogs are saying when we’re not paying attention

How many of us have, in speaking about a dog, used the phrase “with no warning” or “out of nowhere” to describe an action or behavior? Most of us, probably. And those of us who haven’t used those words ourselves have certainly heard them over and over.

But here’s the thing. Most dogs actually communicate quite clearly, we’re just often not listening. Take dog-to-dog greetings, for example. Many dogs — like Chick — are shy and nervous around dogs they don’t know, and they tell us over and over. They just use their own language. If we don’t listen and they lose their trust in us to protect them from unwanted interactions, we sometimes run into problems.

Although it took us years to figure it out, Chick has some brilliantly clear signals to show us that he’s not ready to interact closely with another dog:  turning his face or body away from the other dog (completely pretending it’s not there), sniffing the ground suddenly and with great interest, licking his lips, and his very dramatic and Chick-like blinking. Dogs vary in the clarity of their communication, but Chick’s signs are like neon blinking lights — he’s amazing to learn from. In each of the photos below, Chick is telling the other dog that he’s not interested in coming any closer at this time. It’s very polite, and to the other dog, very clear. The photos with the Dude were taken in the first couple of weeks they were getting to know each other, so their relationship was not yet solid and comfortable. If you study carefully, you can tell that Doodlebug was interested in being friends from the start (his body language is facing Chick and he is calm and relaxed), but he politely gave Chick the space he requested. In many cases — and this is nicely skilled dog communication — Dude even mimicked Chick’s signs to show him “I see that you are unsure so I’m going to show you that I am not a threat.” The last photo of our two boys shows this nicely. Way to go, Doodlebug.

With Dora the Explorer (the pretty blue dog), Curious Georgia (the lanky black one) and Gonzo Bunny-Ears, the feeling was less mutual — the other dog was intensely interested in being pals. In those cases, it was our responsibility to make sure that Chick had the space he needed, because after all — we need him to trust us to keep him safe so that he doesn’t feel the need to take matters into his own hands.

When we see Chick starting to show his “I’m nervous” signs, we quickly and matter-of-factly help him gain more space and distance — this applies to meeting dogs, meeting people, and trying new things. The better we get at respecting his preferences, the more safe he feels and the more calm he can remain in uncertain situations. Just over the course of fostering, we noticed a big difference. Chick is visibly less stressed in being around new dogs than he once was, because we have proven to him time and again that new dogs are not a threat to him.

For those interested in learning more about dog body language and how to build trust through reading dog communication, there’s a great book available on the subject. It’s called On Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas — we’re reading it now, and we think it’s fascinating!

Who else is going through the wonderful discovery process of learning and interpreting their dog’s body language?

Chix-A-Lot Friday: I am a graduate too!

I know everybody knows that my brother Doodlebug is learning to be basically obedient and graduating from classes, but guess what: I am a graduate too!

But I am a graduate in kind of a fancy, secret way that only me and mama know about — and now you’ll know too.

Mama has mentioned in the past how I am not so great at meeting other dogs and how I used to give her panic attacks when we were out in public and there were other dogs around, right? Well guess what? Mama says that I passed my impromptu final exam this week and that I’m now officially a graduate of all that nonsense!

The other day mama took me on a dog hike with some of our trainer friends and some other dogs who are working on themselves and their people (who are working on themselves too), and I really turned up the shine for mama. Here are some things that happened:

  • Some off-leash dogs came running by us on the trail and I turned my head away to say “no thank you” and just coolly ignored the heck out of them;
  • I bedded down for a nap in the tall grasses on a break just a few feet away from several other dogs; and
  • I got to play a helper role, posing as a dog resting right on the edge of the trail as everybody else practiced Walking By Distractions (me!!), keeping my composure even if the other dogs barked or stared at me.

Those of you who knew the Before Chick really understand what a Very Big Deal this is.  I did awesome!

I’m not showing off just for showing off’s sake — I’m mostly bragging to remind my friends of how far a reactive dog can come with hard work, training, and mutual trust between dog and person. All throughout our hike mama kept saying — I can’t believe he’s the same Chick!

Of course I’m the same Chick, mama. But during all that time you were busy worrying about me, I was busy learning some important lessons: I don’t have to approach a dog if I’m worried about it, I know you will protect me whenever I’m concerned, and I can always look to you for help figuring out what I’m supposed to do.

After I learned those things, everything else is a piece of cake! I’ve been practicing the Good Behaviors for a long time now, I just don’t think that they really sank in the whole way for mama until recently. I just had to keep showing her and showing her and showing her. I guess this week, she finally understood!

Years ago when we were just beginning our journey, mama never would have guessed that someday we’d be able to hike off-leash with six dogs I don’t know all around us — with me sticking right by her side like a good boy, not even worried about what everybody else was doing. But check us out here — aren’t we just the picture of wholesome fun?

School Days: A fun-and-games extravaganza!

Week five is up already, and at last week’s class to celebrate all our dogs’ new-found skills, we had a “fun and games” night! Naturally, the purpose of fun-and-games night is not just for fun and games. It was also a great opportunity for dog-and-handler teams to practice their basic obedience skills in combination, and to work against the distraction of music, other dogs moving around, and obstacles.

We started with a simple team relay game, in which each dog/handler had to complete five timed tasks as quickly as possible — a loose leash walk between two points, a full-minute sit, a full-minute down, a 20-second play session with a toy, and then a 40 foot recall. As expected, Dude aced the first three points (the walk, the sit, and the down), did a passable but not impressive job with the toy play, and totally bombed the recall. Why, you might ask? It’s simple: we haven’t been practicing. Our training center teaches a recall using a dog’s favorite toy, and for most dogs it’s quite effective. For dogs who aren’t into toys, we recommend building toy drive first — and we’ve been working on this with the Dude, making very slow but steady progress over the past few weeks. While we’ve been working on toy drive though, we have neglected to practice his recall at all! So when we got to this portion of the exercise, we teased the Dude with this duck and sweet potato treats, ran across the field, and called him as excitedly as we could. And Doodlebug — in true Doodlebug form — casually sauntered in our direction, pausing several times to sniff the mulch, hunt for kibble in the grass, pee on a tuft of weeds, and investigate the other people standing around to see if they had any better treats. Eventually — we did not give up — he got back to me, and we had a big party. Better late than never, right?

Who, me?? Not perfect??

Next, we played musical chairs. We started with all dogs loose leash walking in a big circle around some plastic lawn chairs to some music (I believe the song was, aptly, Who Let the Dogs Out). Whenever the music stopped, everybody had to walk (on loose leash!) to the nearest chair, sit in it, and get their dog into a sit also. The last dog standing was out. We played and played until it was just Dude and one other dog still in the running — a beautiful white-and-black pit bull. Then the music stopped, we got seated first, and the Dude won — woohoo!

However, the Dude was not a total winner. In fact, last week’s class was the night that we pretty much skipped from phase 2 to phase 4 of Dude’s (relatively mild) reactivity. He had been polite around all the other dogs in the past, but during games night he decided that two of the other dogs in class were just too exciting, and a few times I caught him staring and then growl/woofing at them. After I regrouped from my initial embarrassment, I quickly realized that I had not been managing him correctly — I had been letting him stare quietly at other dogs for weeks. Staring is impolite and can sometimes lead to reactive behavior — behavior I may have avoided, in Dude, if I had taught him not to do it earlier on. On two or three occasions in class, Dude barked smack at another dog, and I died a little bit on the inside. At the end of class, even though Dude had won the musical chairs game, I was feeling pretty low.

Luckily our head trainer — who knows me well at this point — picked up on my frustration right away, and gave me a valuable pep talk. We regrouped, refocused, made a plan, and looked at the bright side. Then the next morning, we woke up and went on group hike with our trainer and a bunch of other dogs who are also working on themselves.

Homework was self-directed, based on each dog’s performance during games night. Ours was abundantly clear: start drilling come when called, continue working on toy play, and keep working on leash walking among distractions — like other dogs.

Stay tuned next week to hear about the Dude’s graduation week!

Meet Shasta. She is working on herself.

Last week, we had the pleasure of taking care of this darling girl for a few days:

Her name is Shasta, and she is working on herself.

When Shasta was dropped off at the shelter by her former owner, she was so frightened and worried that it took volunteers a while to figure out how to gain her trust. She was pulled by Austin Pets Alive, and over time she made a few friends — but only the most experienced, patient handlers were able to make a breakthrough.

Eventually, Shasta moved to a foster home, where she fell deeply in love with her foster mama and doggie sibling, and has been living happily ever since. But this is all part of the problem.

Shasta moves quickly from total “stranger danger” response to over-attachment, skipping that critical emotional state of relative indifference. Every new person is a potential threat, and every familiar person is a can’t-live-without-’em need to Shasta.

With this attitude, it was difficult for Shasta to go out into the world and meet potential adopters — or anybody new at all. So Shasta came in to the Canine Center (where I work) for an evaluation, and a plan was hatched.

Shasta needed to learn that any stranger was potentially a friend who could provide her everything she needs, and regular training and socialization just wasn’t teaching her this important lesson. So Shasta entered a special, three-week “socialization immersion” program to help her make the important connection.

Over the three weeks, Shasta would move between the homes of six trainers/handlers who would follow a strict set of rules and give Shasta everything she needs — food, shelter, toys, games, snuggles, and walks. Just when she started feeling at home and like her new person was her best friend, another new person would show up, ring the doorbell, take her leash, and off they’d go.

Ours was the fifth home she came to, and by the time she got to us, she settled in within a matter of a couple of hours (the first new homes had taken days). By the end of the first evening, we were best friends. I dressed her in a new Sirius Republic “Lily” collar that complements her dainty, sweet self.

Over those few days, Shasta showed me both her most timid and fearful side and her most darling side — the side that hops like a bunny rabbit after a toy, can jump six feet high in sheer jubilance, has perfect house manners, and loves snuggling up with a person more than anything in the world. And then, just like that — a new stranger showed up, took her leash, and off they went.

The purpose of this program is not to torture the poor little gal, but rather to teach her a lesson that regular training was not getting through: anybody can take care of you. Any new person might be your new best friend.

In a few days, we all convene in Shasta’s true foster home for a big party — Shasta, her foster, and everyone who participated in the immersion program. By this point, Shasta will hopefully have learned something new about accepting strangers into her home and in her life — and she’ll have six new friends!

Shasta is a two-year-old adoptable dog in Austin, Texas. To learn more about adopting Shasta, visit her adoption page here.

Five phases of reactive dog ownership

Raise your hand if you already knew that Chick is a recovering reactive dog. Good, that’s a lot of you. We have written about it openly in the past, in the hopes that we can help others stop feeling ashamed of their dog’s unsavory behaviors.

Ok, now raise your hand if you knew that Doodlebug is a reactive dog too. What’s that? None of you? Well, that probably makes sense, since until about a week ago, we were on your team too.

How can this snuggle-pile be full of reactive dogs?

We’ve done a lot of thinking and learning about reactivity over the past years, but a lot more over the past week or so since we’ve started to understand that we’re dealing with a bit of it in our Doodlebug. Just yesterday morning I was thinking about the phases of caring for a reactive dog — the long period of not understanding or not admitting it, then the scary journey toward facing our fears and moving forward, and finally that sense of accomplishment that comes with knowing that we have a plan for whatever situation we find ourselves in. Our journey with Chick’s reactivity has been lifelong, but we spent years in the pre-action phases and reinforced a lot of bad habits before we found the courage to move forward. With Dude, we figured out what was going on in a snap. It may still take months or years to get to our end point, but just knowing that a positive path exists and we’ve taken the first step is a huge sigh of relief.

Our five phases are based solely on our own experiences working with reactive dogs in our home — everybody’s phases might be different!

1. Realization. Maybe your new dog took a while to come out of her shell, and was perfectly polite and neutral toward dogs at first. Or maybe your puppy didn’t start showing signs in the first year of his life. Or maybe you built up a high wall around your dog so she never had a chance to express her reactivity before. There is a whole catalog of reasons that you may not realize you have a reactive dog on your hands — these are just three. With Chick, we were in this phase for a few months, and with Dude, we were there until last week.

2. Denial. Then something changes, and maybe you start to see hints of reactivity here and there. A surprising growl at a motorcycle whizzing by the house. Or a lunge and snap at a cute puppy on the trail. Or some extreme pulling, panting, and whimpering every time you pass a dog jogger in the neighborhood — suddenly more intense and focused than in the past. But obviously, these incidents are flukes — easily explained away . . . right? The motorcycle just startled him. He was just excited to play with the puppy. He is jealous of dog joggers and wants to join in. She can’t be reactive, she lives with other dogs and three kids! But, you’re in denial. Denial is one of the two dangerous phases of reactive dog ownership because during this stage, we’re constantly testing our dogs. We assume that the growl or lunge or bark or whine was just an isolated incident, and we keep putting her into situations where she should prove us right — after all, she is not a reactive dog! We keep running them through crowded areas or bringing them to the farmer’s market, and they keep proving to us that they’re not comfortable. We keep making excuses “She’s just nervous,” or “He’s not feeling well.” In the meantime, our dogs are getting more and more practiced in the art of growling, lunging, barking, staring, or — in rare cases — biting. We spent about a year in this phase with Chick, and only about a week with the Dude.

Ready to practice my lunging and barking.

3. Panic. After sufficient testing in which the dog proves that she does not, in fact, know what is expected, most of us with reactive dogs get to this phase. And it’s not a fun one. Only the experienced dog handler — or the person who came into the situation understanding that she is dealing with a reactive dog — can skip over this stage altogether. The panic phase is characterized by the kind of handling that actually exacerbates the dog’s reactivity rather than helping the dog make better choices. Every time we seize up on that leash or yell at a dog who is barking and lunging, we are sending a message: “There is indeed something to be worried about. I am worried too.” For sensible and experienced dog handlers, this phase is short-lived. You realize that you don’t know what to do and your dog certainly doesn’t know what to do, and you call in professional help. For others of us — especially novices like I was when I adopted Chick — the panic phase can last months or years. During this time we can accidentally be training our dog to be aggressive, by sending the exact wrong signals during moments of stress. We sometimes joke that you have to first train a dog to be aggressive before you can become a good dog trainer — and at the center where we train, it’s true of almost all of the staff. The panic phase is a dangerous one, so it’s best to take a deep breath, have a stiff cocktail, and regroup as soon as you’re able. You can work through it! We panicked for a year and a half with Chick before we sought help; with the Dude we were in this phase for two days — from last Sunday until this past Tuesday.

4. Progress. Eventually, you might realize that you don’t want to live in fear, looking over your shoulder the whole time you’re walking your dog. You want to be able to proudly take your dog in public and understand what to do in a variety of scenarios. So you seek help. The bravest of us pick up a good book — like Patricia McConnell’s “Feisty Fido,” and go it alone. Others will look for an experienced private trainer. Still others will join a group class — whether a simple obedience class or a specialty class for reactive or fearful dogs. We reach out to friends and colleagues for advice, and we start to take baby steps. Eventually the baby steps add up, and we start to see a positive change. We gain confidence and keep moving forward. Sometimes we take a deep breath and congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments.

5. Management. I’m so lucky in my new line of business that I get to be exposed to dogs in all stages of the reactivity. The most inspirational — obviously — are the ones who started out totally wild when exposed to their triggers, and have gone through all five phases and learned so much in the process that they can now comfortably go anywhere and do anything. This is where we all hope to end up. But management is a broad spectrum — some dogs are cured, so to speak, of their reactivity, while others still need to be worked, reminded, and handled skillfully in challenging scenarios. Chick falls into the latter camp. If we let our guard down completely and let him be in charge of his interactions, he might get into trouble now and again. But as long as we keep him focused and working in tough situations (like when walking or hiking around off-leash dogs), he can really shine.  For Doodlebug, we’ve set our sights even higher. Follow along on our journey as we help him work on himself!

If you’re a dog owner caught in the denial or panic phases right now, please seek help. There’s no shame in reaching out for assistance. Reactivity is rooted in a million different causes — fear, frustration, playfulness, panic, medical issues, and others — but the common elements are usually  (1) a dog not understanding what is expected; and (2) well-practiced inappropriate reactions. Both of these elements can be countered, and the sooner you start working on it, the sooner you will succeed!

School Days: down/stay, impulse control, and leash walking continues!

Week four flew by before we knew it and just like that, class five of six is upon us! Dude has been on a quest to be basically obedient for the past four weeks, and we have been chronicling his progress each week — you can catch up with the first three sessions here, here, and here.

As always, we opened the class with some tiedown approaches (teaching the dogs to relax for attention) and loose leash walking. Then, we quickly moved on to teaching a “down” command. This can be taught in about a zillion different ways, but for Dude the simple lure approach worked — luring him into a sit with a treat, and then gradually bringing the treat down between his paws until he touches the ground, marking the moment that his chest touches the ground with a verbal “DOWN” cue. We practiced downs and releases, and the Doodlebug was much more advanced than some of his colleagues — probably because he had already worked on this one at home with his mama. For the overachievers like Dude, we added a “stay” component, just like we had done with the “sit” command a while back. We got our dogs into a “down” position, and offered praise and treats every 5 seconds for a full minute, then released the dogs and let them take a walking break for two minutes. Then, back to the down and treat every 5 seconds. Once this became easy, we went to a treat every 10 seconds for a minute, then every 15 seconds, etc. The goal is for the dog to be able to hold a “down” for a full minute without treats. The Dude isn’t quite there, but he’s getting pretty close! We also learned a neat trick: a lot of dogs tend to pop right up after they get that first treat. For those dogs, it’s good to hold the treat all the way down on the ground between their elbows instead of at eye level or above their heads. If they learn that down on the ground between their paws is where they will reliably receive treats, they will be more focused on staying down than on popping up to where the treats originate (our hands). Neat, huh?

Next, we worked on an impulse control game that we call “Take it / Too bad.” For this game, we put a treat or some kibble in our hand, and hold it about 6-8 inches in front of the dog’s face. If the dog moves forward, we close and lift our hand, and say (in a happy voice) — “Too bad!” right as the dog backs his face away. We open our hand and bring the treat back, and then lift it and close, saying “Too bad!” as the dog moves away from it. After a few times, the dog understands that grabbing the treat out of the hand won’t do the trick, so the dog will stop going for it — at this point, we put the treat in the dog’s mouth and say “Take!” We do this a few times in a row, a few times per day. It doesn’t have to be high-value treats; kibble works just fine. This not only teaches the dog that a phrase of our choice (in our case, “Too bad!”) means that they have just broken a rule and lost a privilege (we use the same phrase for time-outs), but also teaches the dog not to grab things out of human hands — very useful! Dude aced this one as well, since he had a head start — we have been using this game with Chick for years now to remind him to be gentle with hands.

Finally, we talked about house rules, and how to enforce them. We posted about this a few weeks ago when we wrote about time-outs, and this is the essence of what we discussed in class. The Dude started working on his barking at dogs on the street and the mailman approaching the house, and he’s almost cured of both bad habits. Now we’re working on not getting up on any of the furniture without permission!

Wait . . . the blanket means I have *blanket* permission to get up, right?

Our homework was to continue practicing leash walking, downs, and sits, and to keep working on our dogs’ play drive. The next session — session five — is a game night, in which the dogs compete on teams in a relay-style race incorporating all of the skills we’ve learned so far. It’s going to be a blast, and let Dude’s team the best team win!


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