Sunday, November 11, 2018

100 Days of Dog Training

I decided that I'm going to go for it and shoot for completing the 100 days of training!  It's started some fun thoughts in my head for little behaviors that I could train Dom to do.  Things that I wouldn't otherwise have a reason to try out, but wanting to keep having something new to post will, I think, help keep those creative juices flowing.  And Dom loves training, so it's really a win-win.

From my general search on Facebook, the 100 days of dog training challenge is to do a daily post about a trick, behavior or exercise that you're working on.  A nice broad area.  I will post daily on the Facebook page, but I think I'm going to still stick with weekly blog posts that involve a wrap up the videos that I've posted.  We'll see how it works out.

Our first submission is around the counter conditioning I'm doing with Dom in the hallway outside of my bedroom.  I either didn't realize or it didn't manifest until after Miley's passing, but Dom is pretty uncomfortable walking past the baby gate in the hallway.  Previously, Miley was the one who wasn't comfortable and I focused on her and Dom seemed to be fine.  After Miley passed, it became readily apparent that he wasn't comfortable moving around the gate.

Dom's nose touch to my hand is a strong behavior that has a solid reinforcement history.  It's a fall back behavior that I can use to assess his comfort level.  It's also a behavior that he feels very confident performing.  Having him do a behavior that he is confident in around something that he is less comfortable with has helped to counter condition his response to something that he's not completely comfortable with.  I also worked him both directions in the hallway on alternating days so that he didn't become okay passing the baby gate in only one direction.  Though I only apparently recorded on days where he was moving out of the bedroom.

Initially I focused on rewarding for the nose touch, but I changed up the location of my hand based on which direction he was showing some discomfort in.  If he eye balled the baby gate in between nose touches or cocked an ear towards it, I would place my hand in the direction of the baby gate.  This allowed him to do the behavior that he was confident in while being able to keep a solid visual on the thing that he was less comfortable with.  After a couple of strong nose bumps, I'd move my hand elsewhere.  I'd do the same thing if he was starting to give the bathroom the hairy eye. 

Gradually I would take a step backwards so that he had to also gradually move further out into the hallway.  I would stop taking steps backwards once the "pull" from him was too great.  Basically, once I felt that he wouldn't voluntarily move forward any further without me actually luring and essentially taking him beyond the point where he was most comfortable.

Progress was slow, but he was ending each session just a smidge further into the hallway than the previous session.  We finally hit a point where I felt that we had plateaued and we weren't gaining any ground.  I decided to change the picture a little and add an additional element.  I've trained him previously to touch an item with his feet and it's been a pretty solid behavior.  I would warm him up with nose touches to my hand and then add in the foot target.  Initially he wasn't entirely sure about the set up.  I started by rewarding him for effort.  He may not have been hitting the foot target every single time, but he was definitely trying.  It was just a matter of increasing his confidence in doing this behavior in this setting.

I also started adding in jackpots for steps forward, which was the ultimate behavior that I was aiming for.  Any time that Dom took a step forward with any foot (which did require me paying attention to the back feet that I couldn't always see super well) I would jackpot the foot movement, regardless of whether I had asked for any other behavior.  That saw a larger improvement in willingness to move down the hallway with a happy attitude.  Happy attitude I based off of ear placement and how he was taking the treats.  Ears up and faced towards me was the desirable position.  Taking treats neither too hard or too hesitantly also indicated that he was comfortable with the position that he was in.

He is now comfortably working down the hallway and the number of glances towards the baby gate has decreased.  Even though I have hit the desired "end behavior," I will continue working on the counter conditioning for a couple of reasons.  One is that I don't know for how long of a period of time he has been uncomfortable moving past the baby gate.  Miley was obviously uncomfortable and he may very well have been flying under the radar.  So he quite possibly has a longer history of being uncomfortable than comfortable, that I would like to counter balance.  And two, it's and easy and fun way to warm up to a training session of other behaviors.  I can also continue to add in other behaviors with a longer reinforcement history to spice things up and keep it fun and interesting.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

What's Next?

So what's next?  Three words that have been plaguing me in so many areas of late.  This short little sentence has been bouncing around in my head and every time I think I've answered it in one area, it attaches to another. 

At work, it frequently has to do with training plans.  What behaviors are we training for next?  How are we moving forward from one stage of the behavior to the next?  What equipment do I need to work on next to keep things moving forward?  Got everything under control withe colony, great, what projects are you tackling next?

At home, it centers around Dominic.  He's an only child, but we don't plan to keep it that way.  So what's next?  Getting on a puppy waiting list!  It's a happy thought to look forward to and not being in a hurry is the best position to be in.  Breedings are never a for sure thing, so I don't plan on saying much about the upcoming puppy until I have my greedy little hands on her. ;) But yes, we are going with another great dane and we are going for a little girl.  I love great danes and having the next puppy in the house NOT be one just didn't seem possible.  Maybe eventually we'll add a non-dane to the household, but that's still a ways down the road.

So what's next for Dominic in competition?  That is an answer that will be constantly evolving.  Currently, Dominic is officially retired from the conformation ring.  We're 99% sure that Dominic has wobblers.  He's seen a neurologist and she's pretty certain, but he needs to have an MRI done to officially diagnose him.  He thankfully isn't very symptomatic.  Most of the signs I doubt other people would notice, I'm just so used to what is off with him, that it seems blatant to me.  The most obvious symptom that he has is a slight tremor in his back legs while he's standing still.  Of late it's become more frequent.  He has no major mobility issues otherwise, just a slight tremor while standing still.  At the moment I'm doing strengthening exercises at home to try and help him keep up the muscles to support himself.  I periodically video the exercises so that I can later assess if he's declining.  I'll start incorporating more descriptions and explanations about how we work with his abilities and challenges, in future posts.  In the mean time, the short answer for Dominic's competition career is that I'm still figuring out what that will look like for him.  There are plenty of sports that he can still do, but there are others that are not in the picture for him.

What's next for training Dom?  Excellent question!  I'm afraid that I'm going to jinx myself by saying this, but I seem to have managed to set and stick to an actual freaking training schedule with Dom!  And we're even getting walks included in that! (insert wide eyed amazement emoji here ;) ) The only downside to actually being consistent with our training sessions is that I'm getting a little bored with the way that I've set it up.  I have two training plans that each involve five behaviors/exercises to work on.  I alternate each day so that we don't do the same training plan two days in a row.  Great!  Except that now I'm a little bored with the monotony of it and I'm wanting to add in a little something to keep Dom and I both jazzed to train.  With no set thoughts on competition in the near future (dude, it's the holiday season and there is no derailing my focus on that!), I've been mulling over what to do to keep things interesting and to keep me consistently training.  I am currently toying with the idea of the 100 days of training challenge.  I just am not sure quite how interesting that would be.  I started an Excel file (because I freaking love excel) just so I could start generating a list and see what I'm working with, and I think I can make it interesting.  So stay tuned!

I've also had the thought of what's next for this blog?  I have to admit that I pretty regularly wonder if I should keep the blog going.  I do enjoy it, but I wonder if my time and efforts would be better focused elsewhere.  I have the Facebook page for the dogs now.  Admittedly, I let that page falter and haven't done a ton with it, but I am getting back into that as well.  This blog seems like a good place for my dog related ramblings, but that's kind of what the Facebook page could become as well.  I'm just not really sure on that.  That's an area that I'll shelf for the moment, but will keep coming back to.  I also keep wondering if blogging is going to be one of those media forms that sort of fades into the distance.  I LOVE podcasts and would listen to podcasts over reading blog posts.  But there are several blogs that I still read, I just get them sent to my email to make it easier for me to stay up on.  I'm also not entirely sure that what I have "to offer" is enough to keep the blog going.  When I first started, I was soooooo enthusiastic about this blog.  I dove into it and the dog blogging world in general.  My life has changed a bit and my time commitments have most definitely changed.  And I've been wondering if keeping up the blog is one of those things that will change as well.  Who knows.

Changes are a commin'.  Mostly exciting.  I'm sure there will be enough of them that I couldn't anticipate, but I am looking forward to the ones in the works. :)

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Continuing Education

The froth is strong with this one.  Now picture that, while training.  Only add more froth...

Carrying on with my plan to have a monthly continuing education post, this month I'd like to bring attention to Alexandra Kurland's Equiosity podcast.  Alexandra is likely best known for her book "Clicker Training for Your Horse."  While her podcast does focus primarily on horses, the principles and methods that she discusses can be applied to any species.  Her attention to small body movements, animal stance and her ability to split behaviors into ever smaller sections are beneficial to anyone interested in training.  I enjoy listening to trainers of species I don't normally work with because they often have a slightly different way of approaching something or may use equipment or the environment in ways that I hadn't thought of before.  It allows me to broaden my horizons and learn to start looking at the animal I'm working with and the space I'm working in, in a more perceptive (I hope) manner.

The Equiosity website also offers webinars with leaders in the field of animal behavior and training.  Last month I took the Dr. Susan Friedman webinar and loved it!  The webinar itself was two and a half hours long and well worth the price.  You can also purchase the webinars after they've aired at a slightly higher rate.  And as always, I love the fact that the webinar gets saved so that I can view it at my convenience.  With the added benefit of being able to replay any section that I want while I'm taking notes.  This was my first time taking an Equiosity webinar and I definitely recommend it.

On a less education based note, I have thoroughly enjoyed The Habitat podcast.  This podcast is based around the lives of a group of people who volunteer for a one year project to synthesize what astronauts will have to deal with on Mars.  The group stays mostly contained within a habitat on a Hawaiian island and they chronicle what it is like as they emulate situations that astronauts will be dealing with on the eventual manned trip to Mars.  I didn't anticipate being super into it, but I really enjoyed it.  It's not as nerdy as it might sound.  Think of a less dramatic reality show about fake astronauts. :)

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Paw Pods

Dominic is working his way through his Halloween attire.  The coat is more than a little big.  I made it for Heffner as one of my first attempts at making less expensive, holiday themed dog coats.  I was going for a longer cut on Heff and it was even a bit big on him.  So Dom basically has a Halloween themed cape.  It works.

I can't believe I'm able to say this, but I've been keeping up with a regular training schedule.  It's the weirdest damn thing.  It does involve protecting that time on a week night.  And I have implemented some things to help get me better organized.  Things like this awesome dry erase wall sticker!  I'm better organized when I have notes that I can look at as to what my game plan for training is that day.  I put the sticker up on the side of my kitchen cabinets facing into the area of the house that I usually train in, so it's very easy for me to glance up and remind myself of what the goal and exercise is.  I'm a fan.

I'm also toying with trying out a training challenge at the end of the month.  I just need to get a little more organized to ensure that I'll be able to accomplish it all and not overload myself.  When I write out a plan, I'm finding that it's helping knock down the feeling of being overwhelmed.  At least a little. 

And I'm happy to say that I actually have a training video!  I got Dom up on all four paw pods.  I'm mostly sure that I haven't used the paw pods with him and really sure that I haven't had him do all four paw pods.  He does have a lengthy reinforcement history for putting his front feet on things, which helps a lot in training this.  And I've also worked with him on rear foot targeting, though he doesn't have the depth of history with that as the front feet.

I did decide to use the flatter disc as an intermediate step prior to introducing the rear foot pods.  Dominic's confidence has been a little lower with Miley's passing and I want to really make sure that I set him up for success.  Plus, it's not like I have a deadline of when I need to have this behavior "finished" by, so why not break it down a little more?

In the process of looking back through old videos to see if I have anything of Dom on the paw pods (I didn't), I did find this video of Miley and Heff. 

That, made me very nostalgic. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Language Matters

Whether we like it or not, the language that we use matters.  Specific terminology helps to keep everyone at the same level of understanding and theoretically helps to avoid confusion.  It's when one or more parties use a word incorrectly, that things can go astray.  This is a fact that I seem to keep running into.

Case in point was a talk at a conference I went to this year.  For work, I will occasionally need an animal to ingest a bitter or displeasing compound.  A task that can be rather daunting if I am limited with the amount or type of food item(s) I am allowed to disguise said compound in.  When there was a presenter at the conference giving a talk about training for just such a circumstance, I was very excited to hear what his shaping plan was.  I was more than a little disappointed, however, when it became apparent that what he did was exactly what I usually do, and that was disguising the flavor in a treat.  What he described as training was really desensitizing the animals to taking a food item from his hand.  For me, that's a very important distinction. 

To me, training an animal to ingest a bitter compound means that I present them with said compound in whatever vehicle it's made up in, and regardless of how much of that displeasing flavor is there, they will ingest it in it's entirety.  In this case, this involves teaching the animal to over come the aversive flavor in order to gain a positive reinforcer.  I'm not sure why, but training an animal to voluntarily, and often repeatedly, consume something that tastes terrible is more challenging than training them to present a leg for a voluntary injection.  Both involve aversives, but for some reason the aversive in the mouth is more challenging to get past than the aversive of a needle poke.  Something that I'm sure anyone who has tried to pill an uncooperative pet can start to understand.

In the case of the presenter, there was no training to take something that the animal had clearly indicated was distasteful.  Instead, they disguised the flavor.  No training involved.  Well, maybe the training of the handlers who had to figure out how to mix the food items up.  But generally speaking, it wasn't training that he was describing in his talk.  It was desensitization that he was describing.

Via Wikipedia, desensitization is defined as the diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it.  Initially the animals had a negative emotional response to his presence and were reluctant to take a regular treat from his hand.  After continued positive interactions with the animals, they all got to the point where they would take a treat from his hand.  He had built up a bank of positive associations and was then successful at administering the compound.  He then proclaimed that positive reinforcement training works.  Which is a great outcome all around, but the language needs work.

Fast forward to more recently, but again surrounding discussions of training animals to voluntarily ingest something bitter.  This time the mode of desired administration is via a large syringe that the animal can drink from.  A lot of non-pet animals will build up negative associations with syringes.  A syringe frequently means that they are going to be sedated or have an injectable medication administered.  Both of which can be undesirable outcomes for the animal, which leads to building up a negative emotional response to syringes.  Getting them to overcome this negative emotional response and voluntarily drink from a syringe would fall under the category of desensitization.  Technically you could also lump it under training, as long as you were specific about your outcome.  If all you're wanting is for that animal to drink a liquid that it finds appealing from the syringe, that's not so complicated.  If you want them to drink an unappealing liquid from that syringe, you now have a process that requires desensitization AND training and you really better be specific about the outcome.

In addition to specific word choice, how we communicate our definitions is also important.  Frequently everything gets lumped under the word training.  Which is not entirely incorrect when you're being very general.  It's when you get specific that the waters start to get muddied.  Lets take this syringe drinking for example.  Lets say you have one party who is requesting the training of an animal and you have another party who is providing the training of the animal.  Both parties use the word training as the descriptor in their communications.  Lets say that the requester knows that the whole reason they want their animals trained to drink from a syringe is because they will eventually be ingesting something very aversive tasting from it.  Maybe this lighting gets brought up in the conversation, but the emphasis is always placed on training for drinking from a syringe.  And lets say that the person providing the training generally knows the reason behind wanting this behavior.  But both parties keep using the same phrase, training to drink from a syringe.  This is where using the correct language would greatly help when the trainer does not end up producing the actual desired outcome of the requester.

The trainer desensitizes the animals to drinking from a syringe and they will happily drink appealing liquids from said syringe.  Given an aversive liquid, the animals will not.  The requester is disappointed because they have not gained the desired outcome that they need.  If both parties had been specific in their language, confusion could have been avoided.  The person providing the training, having more experience with the specific terminology, should have also explained that what they were capable of providing were animals who were desensitized and should have explained the difference between the two terms in this particular case.

I catch myself starting to say that it's annoying that we have to be specific, but really it's not.  Being specific helps us all understand each other better.  It helps us try to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.  It helps us to be honest and to be seen as honest in what we are trying to convey.  Yes, it may take a little effort initially, but it really is worth it.  Just like when you start training for the very first time.  It takes effort to learn the mechanics and the language, but it's so incredibly worth it. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Random Thoughts

This post is going to be a hodge podge of thoughts that have been tumbling around inside my head.  I've been trying to come up with a specific focus, but I don't have anything that's actually ready.  I have training video clips, but they are better utilized once we're further along and I can explain why we're working on the exercises that we are.  So no videos to put together.  We've continued doing our closer to home light hikes, but I feel like those are really a wash, rinse, repeat.  So nothing super exciting there.  I suppose that I could say that things are going well as I have nothing terrible to report.  That's always a plus.  Now on to random thoughts!

Nutrition.  I LOVE canine nutrition.  I feed a raw, or species appropriate, diet, which has me taking a very direct role in the food that my dogs eat.  I did a fair bit of research before switching Heffner and Bess and I've continued to read more about what people are doing, the science behind it and of course, listening to podcasts that talk about it.  Taking a more involved role in what my dogs are eating has me feeling good about what's going into them and maintaining their overall health.  With that being said, I have a more heightened sense of striving for a high quality of life with some longevity to it.  In that vein, I've been diving more deeply into supplements.  As much as possible, you want your pets to get their vital nutrients in their whole form from the foods that they eat.  However, different health conditions, different activities and different environments that you take your dog into can have deleterious effects on your dog.  Sometimes their diet can use some additional help.  And sometimes I get hooked on a topic and get a little bit obsessive about it and trying to keep my dogs around as long as possible.  So I'm making some tweaks to the supplements that Dominic is receiving.  I'll share more as it progresses, but I like doing what I can to help keep him happy and healthy for as long as possible. 

Obviously my concern with longevity has a more recent emphasis with losing Miley at the age of 4.  Losing her at such a young age has spawned so many thoughts in my head.  As I'm in the process of working through all of this, Facebook pops up a memory of Heffner and Bess from 9 years ago.  9. Years.  It's nuts.  I think back to the mental space I was in with those guys and it's such a different reality than what I have now.  I knew that I would out live them.  I knew that their lifespan would never be long enough.  But I had been through so much with them both and they were both so vibrant and influential in my life, that I couldn't fathom what it would be like to be without them.  I knew that they would die, but at the same time, that fact seemed very unreal.  They were this constant in my life that influenced everything for me.  They tackled so many things with me and made it through various hurdles that without realizing it, I unconsciously started to believe that they would just always be there.  Losing those two rocked my world view.  Being involved in the dane community, I knew plenty of people who had lost their dogs.  And being involved in the conformation arena, I knew many breeders whose reality was that they would have many danes in their lives.  It was a fact that was interwoven in all that they did.  Yes each loss hurt, but they had accepted that to continue with the breed meant that they would know and love many in their own lifespan.  That fact didn't sink in fully until I lost Heffner and Bess.  Losing Miley cemented it.  This is my reality with this breed.  If I continue to choose to have great danes in my life, the truth is that there will be several.  I have no illusions that any of my dogs will just always be there.  Losing them young is unfair, but there's also no age that I can think of where I would just shrug my shoulders and say "yeah, that was enough."  It makes me think of the comment my dad made when I got Heffner paw print tattooed on my back.  He asked me "are you going to get a tattoo of EVERY dog you have?"  At the time I thought why not?  Thinking about it now, that's potentially quite the back piece.  It's just such a weird thing to think about.  And I don't know how much time I should give to thinking about it.  I don't want to intentionally stop myself from that thought process as I already know that "method" of working through grief tends to not be positively productive.  But I also don't want to dwell on it.  I don't know.  It's a process.  And it sucks.  I just keep coming back to my most recent thought process of just missing Miley.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hiking Is The Best

Before I get into the actual topic of this post, I would just like to point out that the Cleveland Browns won their game this past Thursday night!!  I have been a Browns fan for several years now and last season was a rough one.  The Browns joined the ranks of the Detroit Lions with a win less regular season.  As I am not a bandwagon follower *cough*Ducks Fans*cough*, I have stuck with them regardless of what they're record is.  With that being said, it feels really good for your team to win a game after such a rough season. 

And now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

Hiking really is the best.  It's good for the soul and it's good for the body.  I have read other dog bloggers who have stated the many benefits of getting out into nature and I've also heard a podcast recently extolling the benefits of grounding for your pets.  For me, personally, I need it to feel more balanced.  I'd love it if I could go on a hike every morning, but drive time and work are not currently compatible with this.

Yesterday Tanner, Dom and I went hiking with a few friends and their adorable dog Ginger.  Much enjoyment was had and areas that Dom could use some confidence boosting on became abundantly clear to me.  Bridges are not Dom's best friend.  There were a couple of bridges that you would expect on a hiking trail and Dom was not a super fan of them.  He got over them, but there was much encouragement and it definitely wasn't a quick process.  It's been kind of a recurring theme since Miley passed that his confidence level has gone down a fair bit.  At times when Dom was feeling uncertain, he would literally lean on Miley.

Without the physical support of Miley, Dom is now having to find his way and is floundering a little bit with it.  Some areas I feel better equipped to help him through and others I'm figuring it out as we go along.  And I'll be honest, there are times where it's frustrating for me.  There are moments where I can't stop the thought of "he was fine with this when Miley was around."  I can't fault him, but that doesn't mean that it's always easy.

I'll continue to try to be mindful of the hikes that I take him on and work on the areas that aren't as easy for him.  It's great physical and mental exercise for him and it's something that I can't live without.  I just need to remind myself that he's not Miley and what he brings to the table is different and unique.