Is there a doctor in the house?

Sasha with her “Puppy”

…Or maybe it’s a seamstress we need!

This week marked the second anniversary of Sasha joining our household. Freezing drizzle and a silly injury of mine has kept us housebound, so we’ve celebrated with toys. And that is A Big Deal.

Why? (Glad you asked!) When Sasha came to us, she didn’t know how to play. She was anxious, easily startled, and tended to shy away if one of us made sudden movements or raised a hand. When we tossed a soft Frisbee, she’d tremble or retreat from the action. Ditto with balls of all sizes and textures, although Buddy The Wonder Cat demonstrated the fine art of chasing after toys for her. The variety of toys we piled into a basket might have thrilled any other dog, but Sasha just walked on by.

Then, a few months later, she received a Sock Monkey, and suddenly it was game on!  (And thanks again to the sponsors of the Humane Society of the Ozarks who donated all those treats and toys.)

Fast-forward 18 months. We were wandering through the local pet supply store when Sasha discovered the toy aisle. She browsed through every shelf at nose level until she found the red stuffed squeaky toy pictured above and now known as “Puppy.” (Ask her to fetch Puppy and she’ll bring you this toy. Every time.) She nosed that toy out of the bin and examined it thoroughly, to include a few exploratory nibbles, before carrying her prize triumphantly to the checkout counter.  Since then, she’s learned the fun of “fetch” and “bring it” and enjoys a rousing game of tug. And she’s generalized that experience to her other toys, so we’re now treated to play time with Puppy, Sock Monkey, and Squeaky Duck.

Today, though, it was all Puppy.  I think we’d hit 15 rounds of “fetch” and “bring it” before she decided “tug” was the game of the day, followed by a tear-the-stuffing-out session. By that point I was laughing too hard to focus, which explains the slightly fuzzy photo above.

Time for a patch job!

Winter Fun and Games

This morning’s temperature hovered at zero and the wind chill of -7 or colder motivated Sasha to set a new speed record in the yard.  With brutal cold predicted for days to come, I’m going to be smart and substitute indoor work for our daily neighborhood walks. Fortunately, Sasha enjoys any sort of training time. Recently, I’ve challenged her to go beyond obedience drills to working through games, puzzles, and tricks. Teaching tricks is a great way to mentally challenge your dog, help them focus, and have fun with you!

Sasha earned her Novice Trick Dog title in December, and she enjoyed that so much we’re aiming for her Intermediate title. The tricks I’m sharing today include some that we learned at a recent seminar held at the NWA School for Dogs. If you can’t attend a training seminar, you can go the DIY route and watch the video links included in this post. (There are a LOT of videos freely available on YouTube.)

If you and your dog are new to tricks, start with brief sessions when you’re both relaxed and interested. Sasha, for example, tends to be more focused when I break our workout sessions into 10-15 minutes blocks.  Most importantly, have fun with your dog!

One of Sasha’s favorite tricks is the Scent Trick. Place tennis balls in a muffin tin, then hide a savory treat (bits of hot dog, cheese, chicken, or anything special) under one of the balls. Place it on the floor and let your dog use its nose to find the treat. I started with a 6-muffin tin and placed treats under 4 of the 6 balls, and then once she understood the game I gradually reduced the number of treats, and then used a larger muffin tin with just a couple of treats hidden. If your dog gets frustrated when the muffin tin slides around, try placing it on a non-skid mat.

Some dogs like to nudge the ball out with their nose, while others use their paws. (Sasha’s a nose girl with this game.) If your dog flips the tin over to get the treats, try wedging the tin under something sturdy to discourage that quick solution and make him think. Here’s the basic how-to:

If your dog enjoys the challenge of scent training, you can play hide-and-seek using a treat-stuffed sock or a Kong toy. Put your dog in a sit-stay, then give your dog time to catch the scent by sniffing the sock. For the first round, I recommend letting the dog see where you place the sock/toy. Return to your dog and tell them “Find it” or “Fetch” or whatever command you want to use. Remember to be consistent with your commands.

Some prefer to have the dog return to you with the “find” for their reward. When I want Sasha to return to me with the item, I use the command “Bring it.” Adapt to suit your dog’s interest and ability level. Be sure to praise the find and reward with a piece of whatever treat’s in the sock/toy. Once your dog understands the game, increase the challenge by placing the object out of sight, gradually increasing the distance and difficulty.

Another fun trick is the Spin. Lure with a treat at nose level while dog is standing. Encourage your dog to follow the scent as you move your hand in a large circle. Go slow, and be patient!  If they stop before making the entire circle, treat where they stop, then go a bit further next time. If you use a clicker, click and treat; otherwise, use verbal praise. Here’s a “how to” demonstration:

Trick training can be a great way to help your dog learn basic tasks. Here’s how to teach your dog to carry a basket:

Ready for something a bit more physical? Try the Weave. Fair warning: this one takes a bit of balance!

Start with your dog on your left, then spread your legs. Holding a yummy treat in your right hand so it’s visible, coax your dog to move between your legs as you lure the dog through your legs and around to your right. Repeat going the opposite direction. Here’s a visual:

If you’re working with a big dog, you may want to teach them to Crawl first so they can more easily move between your legs. In this demonstration, you’ll see the trainer places her hand on the dog’s back. It’s important to note that she is not pressing down or forcing the dog in any way!

Whatever you choose to do, make it fun for you and your dog!

A Day To Remember

Monday morning walks can be a challenge, and today was no exception. Sasha was on high alert right from the start, with barks aplenty at anything and everything that moved. The incessant wind gusts didn’t help, either; this is one dog who does not appreciate leaves and dust swirling around her face.  She was already worked up and fussy when we turned a corner and saw a group of young boys playing ball far down the street and several men visiting on the opposite sidewalk.  Males of all ages, unfortunately, seem to be a trigger for Sasha, and she’s quick to voice her disapproval.  The usual “leave it” and “let’s go” and “walk on” didn’t work at all, and she looked set to bark her way down the block–and it’s a long block. That’s when inspiration struck.

Training Time! I’ve no idea why it never occurred to me to run a mini-training session in the neighborhood, but today was the day. It was wonderful to see her snap to attention when she realized what we were doing. We worked through the different positions to include both the right-side sit from front center and the left heel from front center and the “circle round me” heel to end in a sit on my left. There’s a limit to what I can do without dropping the leash, but I got creative with a few rounds of sit-stay, down-stay, and having her in a down while I walked around her and stepped over her to re-position myself.  Sasha loved it. The generous dispensing of treats helped, of course, but this girl loves to be mentally challenged.

After that little session, Sasha walked on, clearly pleased with her performance. She didn’t bark or even alert on the people as we went by, which is something of a minor miracle. (Hey, she’s a Sheltie. She talks. To everybody.)  The people, however, certainly noticed her! One of the adults gave us a thumbs-up and a big grin as we went by.

 

Training Time is typically on the 30-foot long line at the park, when we work on the long down-stay, recall, and down on command. Smart Sheltie that she is, she knows the long line means play time and training, and she’s always ready for fun! And then there’s indoor Training Time, which goes back to our first days together when we realized that loud noises scared her and the sound of the coffee bean grinder sent her scrambling to hide. It took a long time, but now the sound of the coffee supplies coming out has her quivering with joyous anticipation, because she knows that it’s time to go through the paces and earn a treat. We’ve progressed to practice off-leash heeling in the house as part of Coffee Time Treats, with Buddy The Wonder Cat perched on a tall stool watching the action. Today’s session, though, is the first outside in the neighborhood while walking with the standard 6-foot leather leash.  Now that I’ve seen how excited she became at the idea of a walk-time work session, we’ll be doing this again, and often.

 

The BEST news, though, came thirty minutes later. We’d walked around the neighborhood and were approaching the local park when I saw an (always) off-leash dog and owner headed our way. I told Sasha “Cross” (I’ve taught her to pause on the sidewalk until she hears that command) and off we went, angling away from the unleashed dog.  Sasha stayed focused on me and (of course) the treat in my hand. We actually passed within 20 feet of the dog without so much as a mumble, grumble, or growl. Now, it’s possible Sasha never saw the dog, although that’s highly unlikely, as she’s prone to alert on movement two blocks away. Whatever the reason, she stayed focused on me and walked calmly forward until I gave her a well-deserved reward in the form of a bigger-than-usual treat.

We may never reach the point when Sasha is able to calmly walk past any dog without reacting, but today was a shining example of what’s possible. For that, I’m grateful.

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!