Wordless Wednesday: School’s Back in Session!

Our favorite park, the one that runs all the summer camps, is back on the menu!

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Choose Your Reinforcement

I swear, some days with Silas come with big neon signs: LESSON. OVER HERE.

We took advantage of a rare cool day to run out to the park on Sunday. I was hoping to get some video footage to send to the behaviorist. I forgot Silas’s treats (that first year, when he wouldn’t eat outside ever, seems to have permanently taken them off of my park checklist), so all I had were toys. Silas didn’t want to work with my toys. The few snips of video we shot were mostly Silas ignoring me. Left to his own devices, Silas picked up a stick instead. Suddenly he was happy enough to do a few commands. Even better, stick was good enough for a game of “look at that!” with some people who walked past. One bark, then “Who cares about them? I have a stick!” (Of course you all know that sticks can be pretty dangerous for dogs. Use your judgment.)

Later on, back at home, I was trying to do some routine training exercises. I had Silas’s favorite toy. My husband was tidying up the house, bless him, and kept rattling bags of cookies. Silas was gone like a shot. This is my dog who almost never prefers a treat to a toy. “Oh,” rational brain said, “it’s twenty minutes before his dinner time. He’s starving.” I grabbed a handful of cookies and he was absolutely focused no matter what else was going on.

Moral of this story: if you’re training with positive reinforcement, it doesn’t always matter what your dog “always likes.” To get really great results, it matters what he likes at that moment.

Relaxation and the Action Dog

There are two tiers to dog relaxation.

1) Is your dog capable of relaxing while you are ignoring him? If you are using the computer or cooking dinner, does your dog just hang out? Or is he poking you with a toy, staring at you, or nudging you for pets?

2) Is your dog capable of relaxing while you are looking at him? Or does the faintest breath of your attention turn your otherwise relaxed dog into a behavior offering machine? “She’s watching me! She must want me to sit! No, down! No, roll over! Where’s my ball?!”

The problem with a dog who always prefers to be moving is that they will try to turn calming behaviors into action behaviors. These dogs can be trained to a great sit or down stay, but it’s like a border collie and the start line of an agility trial–it’s a job. If you want the dog to actually, you know, chill out, you have to work it a little differently.

I didn’t really recognize how much Silas was this way, because he isn’t the quivering with energy type. He’s never frantic. We went through puppy class with a labradoodle who literally was not capable of keeping all four feet on the ground. Even sitting, she was paddling her little fluffy feet and wagging her whole body. Silas isn’t like that. He’s just on the move all the time, unless he’s asleep, usually trying to get human attention in one way or another.

The good thing is that relaxation can be taught.

We started with a two pronged approach. I picked up all the toys. All of them. I was down to leaving out just one or two anyway, but for a few weeks I put them all away. Play time is not all the time. I also started giving him a Kong around 5:30, which is about an hour into Silas’s evening busy time. Frozen solid, they take around thirty minutes for him to eat.

Now, with half an hour of the evening free of toy-poking, my husband and I decided on the amount of play that we thought was reasonable. I give Silas a puzzle toy and do some training during the day, then usually do two more short play/training sessions in the evening. My husband plays with him pretty hard right as he comes in from work, then once more later in the evening. Outside of that, we ignored his poking and rewarded him for going to his crate or his bed. (For the record, the training/play mix is incredibly important for us. There are times when I can tell Silas just really wants to work rather than play, as weird as that sounds.)

In two weeks or less we had a really dramatic turnaround. Now that Silas knows what to do with himself he’s happy to do it. The bonus for us is that the overtired, overstimulated deterioration of his behavior as the evening goes on is pretty much gone. He’s still busy, but much less obnoxiously so.

I’m filing this one into my “Why didn’t people tell me this when he was a puppy?” file.

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You wanted me here? Why didn’t you say so?

Equally Attractive Alternative

A lot of colleges have rules about alcohol being served at mixed student/faculty parties. These range from “hell no” to “whatever.” A friend of mine went to a school with an “equally attractive alternative” rule. There had to be something non-alcoholic that was pleasant to drink–say, some sparkling fruit juice next to the wine.

We’ve been working on getting Silas to settle down in his own space. He’s had the same dog bed for ages, and he’s never really liked it. Instead, he wants to be on the couch or sitting wherever I’m sitting, usually partially on my legs. Neither of these things are a problem, really. We just thought it would help him to understand  what it means to settle down if he could do it in a dedicated dog-settling-down place.

Enter the equally attractive alternative.

One day I picked up the fleece mat from Silas’s crate while I was sweeping (he pulls it out all the time) and tossed it into the dog bed. He loved it. From then on, he would go find that mat, drag it to the big dog bed, and sleep on it. He still preferred the couch, but bed-bed (as we started calling it) was okay.

Bed-bed became even better when we bought a second one of his favorite crate-style beds. I was not going to look at his bedraggled fake fleece crate mat all day. The new little bed fit perfectly inside the bolsters of the original bed. After that, he started sleeping in bed-bed a good bit. Voluntarily, even.

Then I gave him an old throw pillow I found when I was cleaning out the closet. He took it straight to his bed and it hasn’t moved since. Now Silas’s bed-bed is probably the most comfortable place in the house. You can tell, because he spends about eight hours a day exactly like this:

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Equally attractive alternative indeed. Have you ever seen a dog that spoiled? I’m going to have to start asking for my snuggles.

Dog TV

My parents have fancy satellite television. One of their new channels this season is Dog TV. Apparently it’s meant to be what you leave on for your dog while you’re away from home.

The minute or two I watched were calming classical music, which is scientifically proven to have a positive effect on dogs, accompanied by pictures of dogs lolling in meadows or what have you. The nice thing I could see about Dog TV is that it gives you something to turn on quickly that, at least in the “relaxing” program that I saw, isn’t likely to have trigger noises like barking or doorbells. Until the last six months or so, Silas freaked out whenever a doorbell rang on a TV commercial. Silas has never seemed to actually watch anything on TV, so I assume the pleasant dog pictures exist mostly to make the owners feel better. As weird as it seems, the Dog TV people have their head in the right place–they even suggest you make sure to watch the programs with your dog the first time, to make sure that he enjoys them without becoming too excited. Not something that I’d pay for, but it seems harmless enough.

One afternoon while I was running some errands, Mom got the idea to turn on Dog TV for Silas. She felt bad for him, because he was just sitting on the couch, “looking sad.”

After a few minutes, he got up, went to the other room, and got into his crate.

There goes my lucrative spokes-dog contract.

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I don’t watch just any old TV program.

The Food Allergy Diet, A Year In

I realized last week that we had officially been on Silas’s food allergy diet for over a year. I moved him to eating just turkey early last summer, in June or July.

Here’s what I’ve learned: when people tell you that food allergy trials take a long time, they’re lying.

Food allergy trials never end. They take a long time only in the sense that infinity takes a long time.

After 14 months, Silas has three known safe proteins–turkey, sardines, and pork. His known allergens are duck, beef, salmon, and lamb. These are my facts. The sum total of what I know. In reality, given that a full test is 12-16 weeks, that is a lot to know in 14 months.

There are lots of grey areas, too. He had what seemed to be a chicken allergy as a puppy, but I have not retested it. I still wonder if his duck “allergy” was just that he hated duck so much that he was going hungry and triggering his acid reflux.

Other things don’t seem to cause any problems, but for one reason or the other they haven’t been subjected to a full trial. Eggs, yogurt, cheese, grains, fruits, vegetables, and non-salmon fish all seem fine in small/occasional quantities. These things come and go in his diet depending on where we are in a trial. The first few weeks of a new food are very strict, then I gradually loosen the rules. You have to, at a certain point, to make your life reasonable to live.

I’d like to get Silas to four proteins, which is usually considered a sustainable number. (Because most food allergies in dogs are caused by over-exposure, an allergy dog who only eats a few foods is highly at risk for becoming allergic to them. Experts who are willing to commit to a recommended number of foods to rotate seem to settle on four.) I have no idea how long that will take. We’ve just ruled out lamb, so in a few weeks after his stomach heals we’re due to try venison. I have a whole pantry full of venison tripe that I bought when it was discontinued and then got nervous about feeding him. In this mythical land of four proteins, I will probably stop with the protein trials for a while. Instead I will probably do some more thorough testing of the “small quantity okay” foods I listed above.

With all the “novelty” proteins out there I could easily do another two years of protein trials. Bison, quail, rabbit, kangaroo, brushtail, goose, emu, not to mention individual kinds of fish. I probably won’t, both because those things are expensive and because I need to save some things in case he does develop allergies to our existing safe foods later on.

It all probably sounds terrible and tedious to you, but in reality it does gradually become your way of life.

After a few months, you can no longer imagine just walking into the store and buying a bag of treats without reading the label at least three times, even in the “good” store. It becomes as weird as driving up to the gas station and selecting a random fuel grade for your car.

You learn how to turn down dog treats without offending people.

You learn not to have a panic attack when your dog eats a kibble off the floor at PetSmart.

You learn how to make your own treats, because the only ones your dog can eat cost a fortune. After six or eight months, if you’re like me, you’ll even stop resenting having to do it. (Except liver. Blech.)

You will learn how to pick a pet store in a new city that might possibly have one thing your dog can eat, and you learn how to navigate it when they don’t.

Most importantly: you will develop food contingency plans, and backup contingency plans, and food trial schedules, and then you will stop worrying so much.