Outsmarted by a Sheltie

We’ve been working on our own version of the  ‘engage-disengage’ game.  (If you want the longer explanation with examples of the engage-disengage game, read my post titled Look at her now! ) Today, Sasha added her own twist.

“I’m cute & clever, too!”

Once Sasha disengages from barking at an approaching dog, I verbally “click” and treat. Ironically, we haven’t encountered many dogs while walking in the past few weeks, so Sasha apparently decided a creative adaptation was needed. On today’s walk she paused, barked briefly–at nothing I could see–and then looked at me for her treat.

She then proceeded to test her “bark followed by no-bark gets me treats” strategy by responding to dogs barking behind fences, dogs in houses, and (being an equal opportunity barker) at two kittens dozing in the sunshine across the street.

One thing’s for sure: training is never boring where Shelties are concerned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Look at her now!

When Sasha first came to us last year, she was terrified of loud noises (clickers at obedience class frightened her senseless), anxious around strangers (men in particular), had no leash skills to speak of, and tended to be very vocal around other dogs. And judging from the condition of her coat and skin, grooming was an unknown experience. To appreciate how much has changed, here are “then” and “now” photos:

Surrendered to sheriff February 2016

Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to “now” took a lot of patience and training supplemented by good food, grooming, and veterinary care. Our biggest challenge has been managing her reactivity to cyclists, vehicles, and DOGS. Sasha’s never been the kind of dog who appreciates the up-close-and-too-personal sniff and greet, but after she was jumped by off-leash dogs, her fear level went sky-high. I’ve dedicated hours to what I think of as targeted training and positive reinforcement.

We started with “Look at that!” (LAT training) to help her react calmly to cyclists and vehicles, and Sasha has reached the point where she rarely reacts to bikes, cars, and trucks. And while I was pleased with our progress using LAT training, I needed expert help to keep her moving when other dogs came into view. I turned to certified trainer Shanthi Steddum KPA-CTP who runs the Northwest Arkansas School for Dogs. With Shanthi’s help, we’re making good progress using the Engage-Disengage game. After just a few sessions (supplemented by daily at-home training time), Sasha is noticeably calmer and confident in the presence of other dogs. If you’re inclined to watch, fast-forward to the 5:23 point to see the first dog come close, and then 13:50 for the second dog’s approach. They make me laugh about the 14:25 mark when they’re clearly having a 10-second silent conversation, and again at 14:36 when the “neutral” dog breaks first!

And notice I’m using a clicker here–that’s another step forward for us. There’s a limit, though, to Sasha’s tolerance for the clicker, so I use verbal clicks and say yes or good instead. Her tolerance level varies from day to day (true for all of us, I think), so I adjust as needed.

And isn’t she gorgeous???

If you have a reactive dog, working on engage-disengage may help you!

For the text lovers among us, check out Alice Tong’s article Reducing Leash Reactivity: The Engage-Disengage Game I found on Karen Pryor’s clicker training site. Here’s an infographic from that article illustrating the basic steps (click to enlarge):

 

If you prefer video over text, these may be useful to you:

Both Sasha and I are learning as we go. For my part, I’m getting better at interpreting her body language and vocal signals. If we pass a house with dogs in the back yard, for example, Sasha will bark (hey, she’s a Sheltie!); sometimes it’s a quick bark or two, and other times it’s a clear “conversation” between the two! If she freezes in place at the sight of another dog, I stand still and secure the leash without pulling on her martingale collar.  I don’t say anything but ever since I started counting silently, I’ve realized she’ll bark up to a count of 11 (sometimes less) and then disengage by looking away and/or back at me. Then it’s treat time and we move on. Progress indeed!

My next goal is helping Sasha develop confidence in calmly walking with other dogs and walking past other dogs without comment. (I still have the Canine Good Citizen “Reaction to Another Dog” test item in mind.) Stay tuned!

Celebrate!

Sasha is officially three years old today!

When we registered Sasha with the AKC via their Purebred Alternative Listing (PAL) program, we opted to rely on the veterinarian’s estimate of her age because the details of her life before she came to us are largely unknown. We chose July 4th for her “official” birthday and she’s now formally recognized as Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha.

We chose Ozark for our locale and Highlands for her heritage; we’re actually in the Ozark Highlands, so it’s a bit of a double play on that last word. We included Summer because she has a warm sunny spirit. And I wanted her call name included because she came to us with that, so including Sasha gave us a bridge between her past and present.

The PAL program is intended for purebred dogs of AKC-recognized breeds who, for various reasons, had not been registered with the organization. Registration means that Sasha is eligible to participate in AKC events such as Agility and Rally Obedience which both promote performance skills and opportunities for handlers and dogs to work as a team. If you’re interested in the PAL program, you can find eligibility details here. And if you’d like to learn more about AKC’s Reunite (a lost pet recovery program) and microchipping, click here.

Sasha enjoyed a smidgen of feta cheese with her morning meal and will munch on cucumber (a BIG favorite) at dinner time. We’ll round out the day’s celebration with backyard frolics and be safely indoors long before fireworks boom across the county again. Happy birthday, sweet dog!

 

 

The Big Bang: Tips for the 4th

Sasha and Buddy The Wonder Cat will be celebrating the Fourth of July indoors with plenty of sound camouflage in the form of music, movies, and one particularly loud standing fan that’s reminiscent of a C-130 in flight. The freezer is well stocked with ice cubes (Buddy likes to bat them across the kitchen tiles when he’s not pushing them around in his water bowl) and the fridge has low-fat cheese and cucumbers for Sasha’s snacking pleasure. Add in treat balls stuffed with special yummies and these two will be able to tune out the scary sound of fireworks.

Here are a few reminders about pet safety on the 4th:

Whatever and wherever you celebrate, here’s wishing you a safe and happy holiday!

Sizzling Summertime

Summer is officially underway! With temps on the rise, I make sure Sasha and I finish our 2-mile walk before the sun gets too high above the treetops. Even so, days with high humidity tend to leave both of us guzzling water along the way and taking breaks in the shade.  The photo at left was taken at 8 a.m. on a day when the temp was in the low 70s but the humidity was over 90%, leaving Sasha to make a beeline for her favorite row of junipers at the local park. Down-stay appears to be her default comfort position no matter where we are, and the lure of dew-soaked grass usually proves irresistible on warm mornings.

Whether you live in an urban environment or the quiet countryside, there are some basic ways we can all keep our pets safe in the heat. I’ve included my personal “must know, must do” strategies in this post, and will likely add more as the summer wears on. Have ideas of your own to share? Add your own suggestions and resource links in the comments section!

Use the 7-second rule. Asphalt, concrete, and brick–all commonly found in sidewalks, streets, and patios–quickly absorb and retain heat, making it dangerous for your pet’s paws. Test the heat by pressing your palm (or bare foot) against the pavement. If you cannot hold it for more than 7 seconds without discomfort, it’s too hot for paws! You could invest in booties or special paw wax, or just walk in the coolest part of the day. Whenever possible, stay off pavement by walking on the grass.

Never leave your pet in the car. Even if your vehicle has an efficient air conditioning system, remember that it’s almost always warmer toward the back of the vehicle. I drive a small SUV and even with the rear seats down and sunshades on the tinted rear windows, Sasha could easily overheat. If we absolutely have to travel during the heat of the day, I use the travel crate with mesh on three sides and position it so Sasha can enjoy the cool air streaming from the vents. A full water dish and a battery-operated fan help keep her comfortable, too.

Watch out for health hazards. Ticks, fleas, bee stings, snake bites, poisons, heat stress–any and all of these can turn a carefree summer outing into a bad situation without warning. You can lower some of the risk by keeping your dog on regular flea and tick prevention, removing potentially poisonous materials from your yard, keeping fresh water readily available, providing cool shelter, and maintaining a basic first-aid kit for dogs. You can buy a pre-packaged kit or put one together yourself. The website Irresistible Pets has a great article complete with a list of all the essentials you should consider when compiling a kit for your own pets.

Heat may be the most significant of all summertime hazards. Whether your pet is at home, in the car, or vacationing with you, know the signs of heatstroke and have a plan in place to deal with heat-related stress. Here’s a terrific infographic from Murdoch University’s Pets in Summer Series that’s definitely worth bookmarking for future reference. Click to enlarge image.

 Have a favorite keep-cool strategy to share? Add a comment to this post. Happy Summer!

At the Crossroads of Fact and Fiction

In Dangerous Deeds (#2 in the series), Waterside Kennels owner and amateur sleuth Maggie Porter finds herself caught in the crossfire when community members take sides over a proposed “dangerous dog” ordinance to ban specific breeds. For the record, Maggie agrees with the AKC that breed-specific legislation (BLS) is not the way to go. Her refusal to support the ban leads to a smear campaign and a boycott organized by a few who want to seize Maggie’s property for their own. When one of those nefarious characters turns up dead on Maggie’s property, everyone at Waterside comes under suspicion.  Sheriff Lucas Johnson is forced to step aside because of his close ties to Maggie and her employees, and the lead investigator doesn’t seem inclined to look beyond the kennel to find the killer.

As you might expect, it’s a struggle to keep the kennel running amid a boycott and murder investigation. Fortunately, there’s a loyal group of customers who want to see Waterside Kennels stay in business. They ask Maggie to lead training classes as part of a “Good Dog!” campaign intended to promote responsible dog ownership. Maggie agrees, and preparation for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test is soon underway.

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At this point in the publishing timeline, I’m feeling a bit disjointed. While all ten items in the CGC test are in the book, Sasha and I are still working to master several of the items. (You and your dog must pass all ten to earn the title.) If you have a reactive dog, #8 might be the most challenging:

Test Item #8: Reaction to Another Dog. This test demonstrates that the dog can behave politely around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 20 feet, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries.

Sasha generally ignores other dogs when we’re at Lowes, PetSmart, or other dog-friendly businesses. Outside? That’s a different story. Sasha’s been charged by off-leash dogs on three different occasions, and it’s been a struggle to regain her confidence when another dog comes into view. If you have a reactive dog, here are a few ideas that may help reduce anxiety and boost confidence. “May” is the key word here, because what works for one dog might not work for another. And sometimes what works one day won’t work the next! When that happens, remind yourself that Every Day is Training Day #1, and go from there.

“Are you sure those dogs are friendly?”

Socialize. Since those encounters with unleashed aggressive dogs, Sasha tends to freeze and bark. LOUDLY.  To help rebuild her confidence, I joined a Pack Walk group to give her time around other leashed dogs. True to recent form, Sasha reacted to all the dogs who came anywhere close but no major panic outbursts, thankfully. She barked off and on (more on than off) as we followed the pack, with treats dispensed during every quiet lull. It occurred to me that she didn’t like to bring up the rear; when we reached a spot with a wide grassy verge we moved off and up so we were parallel. More quiet than bark, so of course TREATS!

After a few pack walks in April we took the plunge and went to the Dogwood WalkWith 450+ in the crowd, I admit to being nervous but Sasha clearly enjoyed the day. We started by taking some time to stroll across the open meadow so she could get a good look around.  She had quite a bit to say to a few of the smaller dogs who ventured too close, but otherwise seemed content to wander quietly along the booths. We stood in the shade next to a BIG retriever and she ignored her. Ditto the handsome Sheltie and adorable Pomeranian when their mom stopped to visit. And she was gracious in allowing some folks to offer her treats (provided by me) and to pet her. I adored the children who asked to pet her–and kudos to the parents who taught their children how to approach strange dogs and ask politely for permission to visit!

Train. There’s just no substitute for regular training.  I like to mix it up with quiet indoor training time (handy in April when the rain fell in torrents and flooding kept us home) and varied outdoor activities. There are a few places–and dogs–that seem to trigger Sasha’s nervous reaction, so I work hard to capture her attention and keep her focused on me when we hit those trigger spots. If I see neighbors approaching with leashed dogs, I’ll move to the other side of the street whenever possible, or at least get to the side and 10 feet away. I first tried following a trainers advice to put Sasha in a sit-stay with her back to the dog and to keep her focused on me, but quickly found greater success if she can see the other dog while in a safe position. What’s working for us: I put Sasha in a down-stay and we wait while the others pass us by. She rarely barks from that position (unless she’s very excited or stressed) and is more likely to carry on what I think of Sheltie-speak while she watches the dogs pass by.  I keep the ZiwiPeak air-dried venison treats  (expensive but worth it, and recommended by top trainer Dr. Ian Dunbar) as her special reward for being good around other dogs. The rest of the time I train using Pet Botanics Mini Training Rewards; they’re a soft low-calorie treat that’s easy to split into two.

Dr. Dunbar, by the way, has some wonderful material online. Check out http://www.dunbaracademy.com/ or this TED Talk, or connect with like-minded folks via his Facebook page.

Be happy. Dogs are downright brilliant when it comes to sensing emotions. Emotions travel up and down the leash! Let your dog know you’re happy to spend time together, and celebrate all the good things that happen. When I’m praising Sasha–particularly when she’s managed something difficult and done it well–I’ll laugh and dance and praise lavishly. She knows when she’s done A Good Thing, and she’s clearly pleased with herself and my reaction.

We’re starting agility training this month. That’s just one more opportunity to socialize, to train, and to be happy. If she enjoys herself there as much as she did in obedience class, we’ll continue. Stay tuned for news!

News from the training trenches

Karen Pryor I-Click dog training clickers

It’s taken more than a year, but we are now officially a clicker-happy household!

If you’ve been following the blog you may remember that Sasha panicked at the sound of just about any loud or unusual noise. Clickers, in particular, left her cowering in fear, which presented more than a few challenges during obedience class..

When even the quietest clickers (like Karen Pryor’s I-Click clickers pictured here) set her off, I stashed the clicker deep in a drawer and worked on reconditioning her reaction to noise. It took a while, but we’ve made good progress. During obedience class we worked with verbal clicks and she learned to ignore the repetitive clicking by other people. She’s much calmer at home, too; these days she hears the coffee grinder and she jumps into training mode, anxious to earn her special TREAT.  (That success is recounted here.)

In the past few months I’ve been coaxing Sasha though a variety of challenges, and one of them is reacting calmly to the clicker while we’re out walking. I sweetened the deal, of course, with tasty soft treats (the tiny one-calorie kind I can break in half). I use the clicker when cars approach; as soon as she focuses on me instead of the car, I click, praise, and deliver a tasty treat. While she still occasionally barks at a passing vehicle, she no longer lunges toward the street.

Every now and then, she outsmarts me. This morning she sat quietly as a car passed by, accepted her treat, and then she barked! We’ll definitely be working on that behavior.

Our most significant challenge is still very much a work in progress, and that’s walking calmly past another dog. It hasn’t helped that we’ve been rushed a few times by unleashed dogs, which has resulted in renewed hyper-vigilance when another dog–even when leashed and seemingly oblivious to us–enters her line of vision. Once she sees another dog, it’s a struggle to get her moving again and focusing on me. We’ve had sporadic success, but we’re a long way from a reliable reaction.

On the good-news side, her bark tone and body language–head up, ears forward, tail wagging furiously, and no hackles in sight–tells me her reaction excited rather than fearful. Once she’s quiet again and moving where I lead, I click, praise, and treat. Clearly, though, I need a tastier motivator. I’ve ordered ZiwiPeak Good-Dog Venison Jerky dog treats, which come highly recommended for training. Stay tuned for a progress report once those arrive!

Helping Sasha feel comfortable, confident, and safe in any environment is an ongoing effort, and some days we seem to lose more ground than we gain. Still, I’ll celebrate every success along the way, no matter how small or trivial it might be. And we’ll keep our eyes on the goal!