Since our training, I’ve been thinking about what my ultimate goals are for Silas. The truth is, while you read nearly miraculous training stories, those things are not a guarantee. Not even “if I just work hard enough.”

I could hire every coach that money can buy. I could practice four hours a day. I would still never be great at swimming. I’m short and the wrong body shape. I’m not naturally athletic. Now, does that mean that I have to resign myself to the kiddie pool? Of course not. If I really wanted to, I could swim laps, even pretty good ones. But what if I were twelve, and my dad was the only one who cared about me swimming on the team? I really wanted piano lessons, but instead I had to relive someone else’s childhood dream? How good would I get at swimming, then? (Note: this is an example, not a childhood trauma. There wasn’t a swim team in 100 miles of my school.)

I try to keep that in mind when I think about dog training. Is this a significant investment of time, money, and energy, just to do something that makes my dog miserable?


Happy dog

It’s hard with a dog, because you can’t exactly say, “Hey, do you enjoy this at all? If we worked through a few things, would this be awesome?”

That’s why I don’t have goals like, “Take Silas to next year’s Pet Expo.” It’s possible that in a year, with a lot of work, he could tolerate it. Maybe after a year of work a miracle would happen and he would even like it, who knows? But it’s not a goal that’s about the dog. It’s a goal that is about ME ME ME, and how I want to do X, Y, and Z with my dog.

I think it’s most useful to look at this from the other side. What does my dog like to do?
–play ball
–go to the park
–sleep on the sofa
–chase birds off the patio
–meet quiet, friendly people (he will voluntarily seek out people who don’t scare him)
–play with dogs

Now, what are his obstacles to enjoying those things?
–not having good play structure, so sometimes the humans get frustrated
–being afraid of cars
–leash pulling (getting much better!)
–reacting to sidewalk noises
–being scared of loud, fast people
–being much better with dogs than with their people

Fixing those things¬†would be a bona fide improvement in Silas’s quality of life. So, that’s what my “big picture” goals are.

Tiny Habits

Last week, I put my husband and Silas in boot camp. A very mild, gentle boot camp, but that’s what I called it to get the point across.

See, Silas has the pair of us neatly slotted into roles. I am the serious one. I do the training. I give the medicine. I feed the meals. I play, but my games have rules and end points.

Silas expects K to play, all the time. Which would, honestly, not be terrible. He was asking to play, though, by leaping into K’s chair and play-biting him, usually his clothes, until in desperation K would tell Silas to go find a toy.

We’ve made some new play rules that I may talk more about soon.

It’s the second prong of the plan that I’m really loving, though. I wanted K and Silas to practice their obedience cues together. I saw this as a listening exercise: “Oh, sometimes that guy has the cookies in his pockets, too! I should pay attention when he says things.” I also wanted this to be the smallest possible amount of time. This was just a quick practice, not a commitment.

A small, finite amount of time. In a flash, it hit me: I make tea every afternoon, which involves a four minute timer. K and the dog could do training while I make the tea, because we’re all usually in the kitchen anyway. Four minutes, exactly, by the timer, doesn’t seem onerous.

At the time I didn’t think much about it; just that the time seemed workable. If you’ve ever done research on forming new habits, though, you’ve read that the one of the best ways to build a new habit is to link it to an old one. I’ve been incredibly pleased at how quickly “tea time dog training” took hold. It’s also (much like tea time for the people) an excellent bridge to the rest of the evening–a good way to take the edge off of “You’ve been at work all day!!!! I Love You!!!!”

One tiny habit that sets a precedent for success. I like it.

Training Lesson:

Thursday was our first private training lesson. These were, if you remember, intended as a bridge to help Silas work up to going back to classes.

It was great. Silas was his usual self (kind of anxious, a little barky, very distracted), and we talked about all of it. Now we have a lot of homework, plus lots to think about.

First, we are supposed to use Premack-based rewards for attention, in both everyday and stressful situations. Silas wants something, like a toy that’s out of reach, or to sniff a bush? He can have it (assuming it’s something okay for him to have) after he checks in with me. Check in, get a treat, get the thing you want. The treat step isn’t necessarily required, but the trainer thinks it will help raise the value of the treats for Silas. The thing I love about this is that it rewards active attention, not passive. The usual advice to “give a treat whenever you catch your dog looking at you” rewards staring at me all the time, which is pretty high on my Do.Not.Want list. Silas is an independent little dog, and I like that about him. As much as he might like to, though, he’s incapable of handling the world without my help. A happy medium exists somewhere. (Here’s a fantastic article on Premack and how it works. You can scroll down to “Be the Broccoli.”)

Next, we’re doing some mat work. I first ran across the idea in Leslie McDevitt’s book Control Unleashed. I’ll have to review that some day. Basically, you teach your dog to have a happy place. Wonderful, soothing things happen when your dog is on his mat. Eventually, you can take this portable “safe place” with you, to help your dog feel more secure in the world.

We also got sent away with what is apparently the gold standard of anti-anxiety conditioning: Karen Overall‘s relaxation protocol. The protocol was originally published in an academic journal, but Champion of My Heart has a copy linked from her website. I’m still reading through it. The program is at the most basic, 15 enumerated daily lessons of sit or down stays around very precisely detailed increasing distractions. Just reading day one, I’m thinking it will take us somewhat longer than fifteen days. Success is the goal, not completing on schedule.

Far from least, the trainer and I talked through a couple of our everyday training things and “special problems.” Like, if I put Silas’s leash on indoors, he is terrified. It was quite an hour.

Class wore Silas out, poor baby. He crashed out on the sofa for the afternoon, looking resentful when I did things that woke him up. (Like, take his picture.) It’s a good thing he doesn’t realize how busy we’re going to be for the next few weeks. I’m supposed to be making sure Silas gets out more, on top of doing more entirely new training than we’ve done in a long, long time.

Worn Out

I’ll keep you all posted, of course.

Allergy or intolerance, revisited in excruciating detail:

I posted about this last week, and I gave you all what I saw as a clear and articulate breakdown of the difference between an allergy and an intolerance.

Interestingly, while that’s the difference as I’ve seen it in most things I’ve read that are meant for the general public, the science behind this is . . . lively.

This is insanely technical, in a way that I am not entirely qualified to explain, but has to do with what kind of antibodies are being generated.

If we think of this in terms of the allergies we’re most familiar with, human seasonal allergies, you know that the fastest solution is to take an antihistamine tablet. The histamine reaction that you are suppressing is triggered by (treating this very simplistically. If you are a biochemist or some such PLEASE let me ask you a zillion questions about histamine; I am desperately curious.) one particular antibody, called Immunoglobulin E. But there are other immunoglobulins that can be inappropriately sent out, aside from just E. (G, M, and A.)

Some research says that only the reaction of IgE/histamine is an allergy. Other reactions, by that definition, are just “sensitivities.” Another, broader, definition is that any immune response to a non-threat is an allergy.

The European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology classifies the IgE response as an allergy: “The antibody type, that may cause an allergic reaction, is called IgE.” But, just in case you thought that cleared something up, they also go on to say that “Although IgE is normally involved in allergic reactions, the immune system is very complex and other immune pathways can sometimes be involved. Examples of non-IgE mediated food allergies are gluten intolerance (Coeliac disease) and systemic allergic contact dermatitis.”

If we go back to our lactose intolerance example, that is purely a lack of digestive enzyme. Physically, your body can’t break down the lactose, so you get really uncomfortable until your body can get rid of it. There is no immune response at all, histamine or otherwise.

What it looks like to me right now is that there is a concrete definition for “intolerance” (your body can’t physically digest something) and a concrete definition for “allergy” (IgE reaction). Then there is something of a murky area in the middle that is defined either as a “non-IgE allergy” or just as a sensitivity. The fact that an intolerance, by definition, doesn’t produce non-digestive symptoms is probably what produced the distinction I discussed last time, that non-digestive symptoms prove allergies. But, it isn’t that simple. Non-digestive symptoms only prove that something is not an intolerance. What it is is kind of a who-knows.

The pragmatics of this are, as I mentioned last time, less than zero. Avoidance is still your only solution.

In fact, even the non-pragmatics are iffy. Traditional serum allergy tests are looking for the histamine related antibodies. IgE testing for food allergies is highly inaccurate in humans and in dogs, as shown by double-blind exposure tests. So, even if you know for sure that your dog is having a “real” allergic reaction, a test may not show it. Jean Dodds has created a new test for dogs that can theoretically test for two of the other antibodies, IgA and IgM. She believes that this can accurately diagnose food sensitivities. She pointedly separates the IgA and M reactions from allergies, which is, as I showed above, a semantic morass. I got sucked down the science rabbit hole trying to decide if her test would be useful for Silas. (I have come to no conclusion. I suspect that, putting on my realist hat, I would never trust the results enough to make much use of them. Curious hat might win anyway.)

Now, if only someone would write “The Biomechanics of Allergic Reactions, Incredibly Precise But For Non-Experts.” I’d read it.

Dinner Time

Silas has never been really excited about eating. Ever. Even now, with his stomach better than it’s ever been, mild interest is the best we get. Silas has never done silly dog things, like try to climb my legs to get his food faster, or knock the bowl out of my hand. Those things take extra effort, and food isn’t worth effort. As a result of this, I’ve never particularly cared about what he did while I was getting the food ready. If he happened to be around, I would have him sit while I put his dish down.

At breakfast time, he sits on the couch and waits for me to call him.

At dinner, lately he does this:

Sitting for Dinner

He sits on his mat behind me when I start clanking his bowl around, and stays sitting until the food is just about level with his nose. I could probably teach him to sit until the bowl is on the ground, but it just doesn’t matter to me.

Every night I think, “Silly dog. Owners all across the country are working so hard to teach their dog this on purpose.”

Book Review: Help for Your Fearful Dog

Help for Your Fearful Dog: A Step-by-Step Guide to Helping Your Dog Conquer His Fears, by Nicole Wilde.

Nicole Wilde

I forget how it happened, but in a little internet serendipity a few weeks ago I found myself at Nicole Wilde’s blog. I read around for a while, and thought, “I like her. I wonder if she wrote a book?”

Not only did she write a book, it turned out, but she wrote a book on kind of my pet topic. And my, what a book it is.

I’ll go ahead and get my niggle out of the way first: one of the first things Wilde recommends is that you “establish a firm foundation for your dog” by “becoming a good leader.” If your dog has to ask for permission to do anything he wants, he will understand his place in the world, see you as a benevolent leader, and magically become less anxious. Cue my NILIF groan.

Otherwise, this book is very, very good. (And I do think anxious dogs need structure; I just have a long list of gripes about strict NILIF as a panacea.)

In fact, for the casual reader, this book may be too good. I read the Kindle version, but the print copy is listed at a hefty 432 pages. All this room lets Wilde take a three-pronged approach. First, she outlines the causes of fear in dogs and some basic strategies, from a veterinary exam to some training cues, that you should undertake as a foundation for the rest of the book. Wilde also takes the time to discuss things like body language and the various appearances of fear in dogs.

The second section contains specific treatment plans for a variety of fears. What I loved about this is that she really does cover all of the biggies. Noises, people, dogs, thunder, grooming, riding in the car. I haven’t seen another book that is so comprehensive. She does make the standard counter-conditioning assumptions that you have both a dog who will take treats in stressful situations and an endless variety of friends and dogs to help you. I found it less obnoxious here than I have elsewhere, for some reason. If your dog has a specific fear, and you struggle to generalize counterconditioning advice to that situation, you should check to see if Wilde covers it.

The third section was the most interesting for me. Here Wilde details all those touchy-feely helps for fear like massage, T-touch, compression wraps, herbal remedies, homeopathic medicine, and even acupuncture. There’s also a short section about conventional medications. While the information is mostly intended as a primer and a basis for further research, it was, again, impressive in the breadth of coverage. You can’t do more research about a remedy if you don’t know it exists.

This is not a great book for an average dog owner. The last book I posted would probably be better for someone who isn’t really interested in all the details. It isn’t that Wilde gets bogged down in esoteric details. The book itself is quite readable. It’s just that it is a big book. Also, I could easily see an unsympathetic reader getting to something like Wilde’s discussion of homeopathic medicine, disagreeing with her, and then discounting the rest of the book. “If she believes that, she must be a quack about all the other stuff, too.”

Bottom line: I liked it.