Puttering Along

I didn’t mean to go so long without posts–and many thanks to those of you who sent me concerned e-mails. It warms my heart.

I haven’t been posting because life is very slow and boring here. Which is not complaining, by the way. Boring is one of my favorite things in the universe. It just doesn’t inspire a lot of exciting blog posts.

So, here are some musings of a not-earth-shattering variety.

1) I have decided that I’m going about Silas’s nail trimming all wrong. Silas is a dog who adores–and NEEDS–process and routine. I keep trying to do wait until he’s calm and happy, then whip out my nail clippers for a little counter conditioning. He is never going to be okay with that. Surprises are his least favorite thing in the universe. Instead, I’ve decided to make the whole process as he already knows it less scary for him. We trim his nails with him standing on the kitchen table, where I can see what I’m doing and he doesn’t squirm. Instead of conditioning the clippers, which is getting me no place meaningful, I’ve started working on the other part–picking him up and putting him on the table, then letting him get back down. Or, even just picking him up and putting him right back down, then giving him a big treat. I wish I could train him to put himself on the table, but I’ve never been able to manage it. I can’t even say how much better it made bath time when he learned to get in the tub on his own. Standing him on the table is hardly the most sensitive and humane way to do this, but it’s what he knows. That goes a long way with Silas. Basically, I think the best I’ll ever be able to do with him is to make him as happy as he is at the vet, where he loves everything except the actual exam.

2) I have realized with kind of a dull sense of dread that we’re due back at the behaviorist in January, and she’s going to ask lots of questions like “did you finish the relaxation protocol?” and “how many times a week is he getting out?” Gulp. I guess I need to start doing “real” training again.

3) I put a new thermometer on the end table on Wednesday. Silas sniffed of it and walked on by. This counts as progress.

4) Our winter weather is a fickle, fickle beast. It’s never colder than about 30 degrees here, which probably seems warm to a lot of you, but our house is exactly the opposite of everything warm and snug. Poor nearly-naked Silas was miserable last week when the temperature inside the house dropped from 75 (our summer air conditioning setting) to 65 in the span of one day. This week should be warm again; maybe Silas’s winter coat (to the extent that he gets one) will come on in. He has a sweater that he hates. If any of you have great ideas for keeping a short-haired dog warm, please let me know. He’s all warm and happy in this picture, which is how he stayed until he stood up and realized that his sweater was attached to his body OMG I HAVE TO SCRAPE IT OFF NOW BEFORE IT KILLS ME.

Warm and sleepy

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You’re Going to Make Mistakes

While I let Silas off the hook of being “perfect” years ago, I have a little harder time with myself.

Which is why I’m here to remind you that you are going to make mistakes with your dog. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when” and “what do I do now?”

Every dog trainer makes mistakes. For those of us with less well-balanced dogs, it’s painfully obvious when we screw something up. Anxious dogs have long memories, and they seldom “get over it” no matter how much time you let pass. Overestimate their abilities to handle a situation, and you can undo a lot of hard work.

It’s easy to say “be more careful,” and then beat yourself up when something goes wrong, but that doesn’t help you or your dog.

Untitled

Here’s my example from today:

Silas and I were playing a retrieving game. It was going great.

Then it went off the rails. First, I got greedy. He was having so much fun! It was our best retrieving in months! So I thought “Let’s do just one more!” (Pro tip: train yourself to say, in response to that little voice, “Nah, we’re good.”) Except the one more was really slow and kind of bad. “I don’t want to end on that! I’ll do one more, so we can stop on one of the great ones.” DANGER. ABORT MISSION. The last retrieve was perfect! I was so excited! I threw a big excited party, like all those trainers tell you to!

Except noise-sensitive Silas, focused on the second ball I was holding, wasn’t expecting a big party. He dropped his poor ball like it was a hot coal and cowered in terror.

Now, despite my best efforts at damage control in the moment, he is apparently terrified both of his ball and of bringing me things. (Yeah, this is really going to be a big setback on the retrieve front.)

And here’s where letting go of perfection is useful.

Instead of wallowing in self pity (although I might have, for just a minute, and that’s okay too), I am making a plan. When Silas wakes up from his nap, we’re going to do some hand-touches with high-value rewards. The absolutely most important thing is to make sure that he doesn’t get skittish about running up to me, so I’m going to go back and re-invest heavily in that step.

I’m also going to do some free-shaping games with the offending ball. (Depending on how this goes, I may change over to a different ball, but I don’t think he’s quite that frightened.) We’ll progress from there back to the retrieve game only once he’s comfortable with the toy again.

In a completely different context (probably with his favorite tug) I am going to work on his tolerance for sudden noise while he plays, just in case I forget myself in the moment again.

You’re going to make mistakes. Accept it, let it go, get on with a plan.

October Goals? Big fail.

Back at the beginning of October I wrote that my goal this month was to successfully trim Silas’s nails.

It has not happened.

This is not entirely from lack of effort, although I did flag a little mid-month. (We ran out of our A++ value cookies, and I was thwarted in replacing them.)

You know what the problem is? Silas is too smart for this game.

He’s perfectly happy to do anything involving the nail clippers, short of actual clipping. We worked through all of the following:

  • Approaching me while the clippers are nearby
  • Approaching me while I hold the clippers
  • Him touching the clippers with his foot while the clippers are on the ground (foot targeting is one of the first behaviors he offers in a shaping session.)
  • Offering me his paw while the clippers are nearby
  • Offering me his paw while I hold the clippers
  • Letting me hold his foot for moderate duration while I hold the clippers.
  • Letting me touch his nail with the clippers

But the little rat is quite capable of believing both that “this is some bizarre but okay shaping exercise that involves the clippers as a prop” and “Hell, no, you are not actually clipping my nails.”

We’re in a vicious cycle now, where his nails are long and very sturdy, but probably also sensitive because they are too long and clack on the floor constantly. I broke down last week and trimmed a few of the worst ones on the front. At that point I realized that my clippers have gotten really dull and are squeezing his nails too much. (It also hurts my cause that I went ahead with the clipping, but I am only human and couldn’t take it anymore.)

So, the next part of our action plan, in a roughly chronological order:

  1. Acquire new clippers. (Check.) Repeat as necessary until I get a pair that’s sharp.
  2. Persevere with the non-clipping parts of the counterconditioning, even though they don’t seem to be adding up to real change.
  3. Make him a scratch board and see if I can train him to “file” his own nails.
  4. Think about my actual clipping mechanics and match them better with the counterconditioning sessions.
  5. Focus on clipping the tiniest possible amount, rather than actually getting them to a tolerable level.

October Goals

We’ll be working on lots of things in October, because we’re always working on lots of things. Tricks, obedience behaviors, and sidewalk-walking will all continue apace. I’m hoping to improve Silas’s rear-end awareness, and we’re continuing our quest to have more fun.

But, we also have official goals this month.

Nineteen of them, in fact.

Dog nails that need to be cut

Yep, that’s a real-live, just-taken photograph of how horrible Silas’s nails are.

Silas hates having his nails done. Like a lot of his handling issues, we’d settled on the pragmatic–do it fast, get it done, have a party afterwards. Because Silas’s very first stress response is to stop eating, he’s tricky to counter-condition with food in the moment. But while the post-procedure party worked wonders for bath time, nail trimming was just not improving. Then, for reasons that are only reasons to an anxious dog, it started getting worse.

Now Silas has determined that he will not be put on the table, then only place he didn’t squirm too much for me to safely trim. It wouldn’t be too important, except that Silas spends very little time walking on concrete, so his nails grow quite quickly.

That means my big October goal is to counter-condition the process of nail clipping. I really hope it doesn’t take all month, but it may. Past attempts to work through this have always hit a plateau somewhat before actual clipping can happen.


 

I had this post largely drafted yesterday, when I heard that Dr. Sophia Yin had passed away. I’m incapable of writing a tribute that can do her justice, but this post is very much in her spirit. Dr. Yin cared deeply about how dogs and cats felt about being handled during grooming and medical procedures, and she used her position within the veterinary community to both advocate and educate on their behalf. I can’t write her an appropriate tribute; I will try to practice one instead.

Progress Is Not Always Obvious

Silas with his bed

Wednesday afternoon, morbid curiosity drove me back into the blog archives. It isn’t a place I go often, just in case I said something that would horrify present-day me. Instead, I was left feeling the need to give my old self a serious hug.

It’s been about two years since I started the blog. Silas turned one in May of 2012, and I started the blog in August that year. I suspect, reading my first few posts and remembering some of the things that prompted them, that I started the blog out of despair.

We went to the vet every month from March to September or October that year. One of the things that came out of that was his food allergy diagnosis, which meant that by August we were doing a tedious and emotionally draining food elimination diet. It took over a year before we were at a sustainable diet again. On our summer vacation that year, Silas erupted in hives so bad he looked like a dog-shaped cauliflower, prompting major (and thankfully unfounded) panic that he was going to have severe seasonal allergies.

At the same time, it was becoming obvious to me that he was not just afraid of a few things, he was afraid of almost everything. It took me a long time to really process that, during which time his behavior continued to deteriorate in many situations.

On top of all that, he was an adolescent male dog. He’s never had significant bad behaviors at home, but dog adolescence has its problems for everybody.

I knew we were having a rough go of things, but I don’t think I was capable of processing how miserable it all was. It’s one of the more adaptive and useful traits of the human brain. However, an inability to really assess the situation right this minute means that you can’t, by definition, see if you’re making progress or not.

A lot of those issues–the stuff that used to drive every decision that I made, every day–just quietly went away with time, and we developed patterns of behavior to mute the others, further blurring the distinctions.

I adjusted to Silas’s food issues. We have four proteins he can eat now, and I buy the same five or six kinds of “safe” treats all the time. I got used to the grosser parts of preparing a raw diet. He’s still a finicky eater at meal times, and he still has serious stomach problems, but we get by.  I also know when to watch for and how to manage his seasonal allergies, which are fairly mild but do exist.

We’ve reached a middle ground with his anxiety, thanks in no small part to his medication. He’s stopped reacting badly to neighborhood sounds, which lessened my stress levels by about 99%. I’ve learned to live with every street-facing window in the house completely blocked. I know what he can handle, what he can’t handle, and what might be a good learning experience. I’ve let go of many, many expectations.

Silas also grew up. His temperament and energy levels stabilized. The last of our “regular dog” behavioral issues around the house (like chewing on the bathroom rug) went away. We did so much training to channel his energy that he’s a really good dog at home, and there’s even some residue of it finally showing up in other environments.

On Tuesday, when we went to the park and he was happy and well-behaved, I was a little stunned. Like I said, it’s hard to tell these days what’s really improving–Silas’s behavior or our ability to mold our life around his problems. And those, of course, form a fairly complex web. For example, I manage Silas’s barking out the front windows by covering them all up, but every day that he doesn’t practice that behavior is also lessening his need to do it.

When you have a reactive dog, or an anxious dog, it’s easy to see the setbacks. I could tell write you a list right now of behaviors that I’m working to improve, from the pragmatic to the most dog-geeky. Progress, though, is so silent and so slow that it’s easy to feel like it isn’t happening at all.

Have faith, and stop to look around once in a while.

Five Things We Couldn’t Do Before

Today’s trip to the park was nothing short of miraculous. At least five things happened that would never have happened this time last year.

1. Voluntary checking in. What happened to Mr. I Can’t Look At You I Have To Constantly Scan For Danger?!

Autumnal Equinox at the park

2. Sniffing a tree. No, wait, that one has always happened. How about continuing to calmly sniff the tree even after a strange man (in a hat!) walked up out of the bushes? Not the trail. The bushes.

Autumnal Equinox at the park

3. Eating some cookies.

Autumnal Equinox at the park

4. Loose-leash walking. He’s always had terrible leash manners at this park, because there’s no clearly defined trail.

Autumnal Equinox at the park

5. Sitting down, hanging out, watching the cars go by. (!!!)

Autumnal Equinox at the park

 

A very good day.

The Missing Piece of Our Training

I never made September goals. Even if I don’t always post my monthly goals here, I’ve usually made them.

September has been a big blank, though.

It’s not that we aren’t doing anything. We’re working on Silas’s retrieveI’ve been doing some foot target shaping. We’ve been walking our tiny sidewalk walk.

Still, I want something else, and I’ve been struggling to articulate it.

I’ve been putting off making my goals, waiting for this missing piece to click in. For two weeks, my mind has been spinning and whirling, but not really getting anywhere.

Today I realized that I’m not dealing with an intellectual problem. It’s not that I can’t prioritize my training plan. It’s not that I need to review another book before I decide what to do, or ask more advice from my more experienced friends.

The missing piece?

FUN

We’ve gone from one issue to the next this summer. While we’re in a good place now, it’s been a slog from time to time. We had the car thing, and while I was distracted by that I let some of Silas’s old-reliable indoor behaviors go to pot, and then as I started to get those in order his stomach problems flared up. It’s easy to think about a dog like Silas as just a collection of problems to be solved, but that really destroys all of the good stuff in your life. You can’t have a great relationship with a collection of problems. You can only have a great relationship with an individual.

So, finally, my real goals: to have some fun with my dog, and to focus on the joy in our relationship. That may look like dog training–Silas loves dog training–but it may not, and either is great.

Find Your Joy