piątek, 1 stycznia 2021

Building speed

This is bonus material from my How to tame a T-rex diary, and of course this is HUGE subject and there are as many solutions as there are dogs, so I'm just sharing some of my general thoughts on speed in agility as I see it.

First of all, paradoxically I think the worst you can do is to actually "push for speed". Nothing kills speed as much as physical or psychological pressure.
I'd like to share one video with you, this is Brava's first ever competition start:

Ignoring the super weird distances on this course and my equally awkward handling, you can still see that Brava, as cute and sweet as she was, was yet far from being one of the fastest dogs in Poland and one of the best agility dogs in Europe that she would become later.
I really believe that speed in agility is by-product of three components: structure and physical preparation, motivation and understanding the task. Therefore I don't really focus on "my dog needs to run fast", but rather on preparing my dogs when it comes to those three elements. You need to also remember that they change in time: the dog develops both physically and mentally, they learn more skills, they become more motivated and as it happens, they also become faster. So I assume if I take care of those three elements, the dog would work as fast as they can at this moment and you need to appreciate them, reward them and praise them for that.
This is exactly what you see on the video - Brava was running as fast as she could at this moment and I just made sure she knew she was the greatest, the most pyrfect and fantastic dog ever.
Coming back to the elements of speed:
  1. Structure and physical abilities of the dog. We cannot influence structure (so pay attention to this when choosing a puppy), but of course we can help the dog to develop coordination and muscles.
  • as always, I repeat: long walks = happy dogs. The dog needs regular walks, during which they can RUN. Agility is a sprint and the dog must have the chance to practice it. Nothing can replace long, off-leash walks, fullstop.
  • secondly, proper conditioning exercises. I really encourage everybody to consult a good physiovet, who can help you evaluate your dog's structure and would advice on exercise program. There are also lots of excellent online resources on canine fitness and conditioning, the once that I used myself and can fully recommend are:
Avidog.com (by famous Chris Zink) and Dogs4motion, but I'm sure there are more great ones.
2. Motivation. This in itself is a huge topic, so just some basic points:
  • find what your dog really LOVES. It's not true that the dog has to play with toys, has to tug or has to retrieve to be great in agility. It is useful, it makes it easier FOR US, but if your dog loves nothing more than chicken hearts or liver sausages, use that.
  • reward actively! reward that is running away is more attractive that the one that just pops into dog's mouth. Move, praise your dog lavishly (watch out, some dogs are actually overwhelmed by too loud praise), choose a toy that you can throw or drag on the ground, use a clam ball (lotus ball) if your dog works for food, race your dog to the reward, experiment, find out what is best for your dog.
  • reward often and for small steps. Plan the training in such a way that the dog is mostly successful, divide the behaviour into little steps that you can reward. Use backchaining and frontchaining (you can see that on the video with Reksio). BUT that doesn't mean you need to reward everything! Actually lack of clear criteria is very frustrating especially for softer dogs and might cause frustration and shutting down, because the dog doesn't know what to do to get the reward, and still obviously they can see whether the trainer is genuinely happy or not.
  • reward for speed. That seems obvious but actually is one of the most common mistakes I see on the seminars. People for instance stop to reward, so the dog also stops and hence, gets rewarded for being static rather than running. The other example is rewarding right after the dog omits obstacle or starts sniffing etc. Reward when the dog is doing something correct and fast.
Again, I can recommend excellent trainer for motivation issues: Polona Bonac, one of the greatest trainers ever in my opinion, with lots of insight and lots of ideas on how to engage your dog.
3. Understanding of the task. The better the dog understands the behaviour, the faster they can perform it. Be patient, it's a process. It's normal then when the dog is learning the behaviour, it won't be as fast as later - very simple example is the grids that you can see on the video. Notice the difference in speed when he was first doing the grid and now, several weeks later.
NEVER try to get speed before understanding, it's a recipe for disaster 😉, if you ever saw dogs that seem deprived of self-preservation instinct and demolish the course, those are the dogs that have physical abilities and motivation but lack understanding.
The three elements of speed are all interconnected and you can not reach dog's maximum potential if you neglect any of them.

sobota, 2 maja 2020

Caught between the extremes

In those uncertain times, one thing is still certain: whatever you're doing, someone knows you're doing it wrong and will comment on it in non-specific way on their social media, which is like the famous soapbox in Hyde Park nowadays.

We have those training fads as well. Like all those years ago we discovered clicker training in Poland and everybody was shaping and just being positive and clicker training zyliards of tricks and people were sharing new batch of tricks each month with their puppies and everybody went oooh, aaaah and there was this sort of competition who would teach the most tricks and the most creative ones. Then suddenly we discovered calming signals and that whole methodology and everybody was spying on "oh, but he licked his lips, he's clearly not comfortable in this situation" and taking part in communication classes and what not. Now it's fitness training and conditioning and half of the world is obsessed with dogs maintaining proper stance on two objects and there is this whole progression from stable objects to unstable ones etc. Me, I actually love all of it and learnt from each - I have this kind of mind that likes synthesis, so picks up bits and pieces and somehow joins them together (which is also what I'm doing here, it's not a detailed historical survey of training methods, just several examples that caught my attention at some point or other). On the other hand, my mind hates extremes and likes to look for the "middle ground" or "golden mean". 

What is kinda new is people actually bragging what their dogs cannot do yet ;). "My dog is fifteen months old and can only do a straight tunnel". "My dog is one year old and he cannot do ANYTHING, I just let him be a puppy". This is usually in response to someone posting a video of young dogs doing relatively advanced things... or sometimes not really, sometimes it's young dogs doing anything. Well, I find this peculiar.

It's a bit like saying "I want my children to have childhood, I don't teach them anything". Well, I don't think we should enroll babies in all possible classes, so they could play the piano, sew, cook and talk in three five different languages by the age of four, but if you're saying that, probably you're lying through your teeth, as most likely you taught them to use the toilet, dress themselves, say "thank you" and "please", eat soup with a spoon, look both ways before crossing the street and so on (or at least I really really hope so). Same goes for dogs, if you're against training on agility equipment before certain age, fine, but I certainly hope you're teaching your dog to come when called, play with you in different locations, walk on leash nicely, ignore distractions, maintain sit-stays, having their nails cut and so on and so on so why don't you brag about that? What I mean here is that I find it much more constructive to list what you can do with a puppy (and there is lots) rather than pointing fingers at someone doing it differently. I really like the idea of "follow my puppy's progress" kind of courses, where famous trainers show what they are doing and how and why, thus giving good example and ideas. 

Also, in the end, even if there is right and wrong way of doing things (which is generally a very complex subject), what someone else is doing is their responsibility and their decision. People are entitled to make mistakes and they can even, wait for it, make mistakes and NOT learn from them (that's idiotic, but it's their problem). And you might feel it's super unfair, but sometimes people make mistakes and get away with it ;). 

I always give example that Brava could weave as one year old - it's true. She was also running sequences at that time. When questioned about it, I also said that she was super easy to train and she learnt much faster than I expected (huh, I might be the first one to come up with "I just have a genius dog" explanation, do I get the credit for that?). That was also true, I didn't even have everyday access to equipment at that time (it was 40-60 minutes drive away and I had a toddler to take care of, so two or three times a week I actually got up at 5:40, left home at 6 am, got to the training place at 7 am, trained four dogs, including warm-up / cool-off and left at 8:15 at the latest to get back home by 9, when my husband had to leave for his work... so much for drilling and overtraining... and yes, I admire my own dedication from that period).

I didn't start teaching weaves that early with any of my "later" dogs - not because it hurt Brava - it didn't, she is still in great shape and was actively and successfully competing until almost 11 years old and now enjoys healthy and active retirement, but because since then, I've found things that I'd rather do at that time, and weaves are pretty easy to train anyway ;). There are also things that, unlike one year old Brava weaving, really make my skin crawl when I look at my old videos (like for goodness sake, I was running agility ON SNOW!) and that I wouldn't do today, because I know better. But I'm glad I was allowed to make my own mistakes. And I'm glad it was not discussed on FB at that time ;). 

What I'm saying is that: 
- you should do things your way, the one you feel comfortable with,
- you shouldn't do things you don't feel comfortable with (it's that simple: if you're against training equipment before one year old / before growth plates close / before you teach particular flatwork skill / etc., just don't do it),
- you should have some argumentation behind it (like why you're doing things in specific time, in specific order and in specific way), especially if you want people to follow your way,
- and that's it. What other people are doing with their own dogs (or children) is really their business, as long as it doesn't endanger you or your loved ones (hence my hope everybody teaches recall...). 


wtorek, 25 lutego 2020

Being an owner of a difficult dog sucks

Being an owner of a difficult dog is very taxing thing. Or to be more precise, being a RESPONSIBLE owner of a difficult dog (otherwise, you just don't care and let the world deal with your problematic dog). By difficult I mean dogs with behavioural issues such as fearfulness, aggression, anxiety, reactivity etc., not dogs that for one reason or another fail to fulfill their owners expectations of perfect show / sport dog. That's another story and I don't really want to discuss it now.

Being an owner of a difficult dog engages so much of your mental and psychological resources. 
You try to control the dog, so you need to be always vigilant and ever watchful. If your dog doesn't really like other dogs, you need to watch for all those fucking friendly golden retrievers, who are always off-leash with the owner hundreds of meters away yelling joyfully "he only wants to say 'hi'!", in order to distance yourself before your dog lunges, before you get into yet another verbal fight with the said owner after his stupidity caused you a major setback in your work with your reactive dog. You tend to walk in those abandoned places or in unearthly hours to avoid meeting anyone. The walks are hardly the fun they were supposed to be when you decided to get the dog in the first place. 

You try to control the environment, keeping your dog under threshold, which quite often is impossible, because well, the world is unpredictable and full of children on bikes, birds, dogs wanting to say 'hi', plastic bags flying over from nowhere and also, unfortunately, people deprived of even tiny shred of imagination and consideration. Seriously, you never notice that, until you have a difficult dog and then of course the weirdest things happen exactly when you are working with that one dog that might have problem with them. Like you know, of all of our dogs, Flaszek used to be the fearful one, and of course it was him I was running when some lady decided to shake off her blanket in the very precise moment when he was weaving two meters away from her etc. I mean Brego wouldn't even notice, so it didn't happen to him. 

You try not to lose hope, while at the same time progress might be unbelievably slow and more often than not it feels like you're taking one step forward and two steps back. 

You try not to blame yourself, but you do. After all, there must be a reason why other people have normal dogs, dogs that behave, dogs that don't bark their heads off when the agility judge pulls a hood over his head in the rain, dogs that don't vocalise when left alone in the appartment, dogs that never attack other dogs or people, dogs that are ok with being touched by strangers, dogs that are not resource guiding like maniacs and so on and so on.

You try to find help, while at the same time ignoring all the unsolicited advice of self-proclaimed experts, people telling you that you're doing it wrong, people telling you that you're not trying hard enough, that you are trying too hard, that it will never work, that it's not for you. People who offer you platitudes that everything will be fine, you're doing just great are also dangerous, as they either lie and badmouth you behind your back or don't really know what they are talking about. 


First of all, not all dogs are created equal. 

So no, it's not your fault. You were dealt a shitty hand. You were faced with a situation that you didn't sign up for. Did you make mistakes? For sure you did, but don't beat yourself about it. You were doing your best at that time, with the knowledge you had, with the abilities you had, you progressed by trial and error. Some mistakes can be repaired. Some can't. Could someone else do a better job with that dog? Perhaps. Would someone else give up long time ago or mess things up even further? For sure. 

Secondly, at the end of the day, there are only some things you MUST do. You must ensure safety and relative comfort of your dog, other dogs and people. This is your responsibility and your duty, especially if your dog is aggressive. 
But don't forget about yourself. As I said, taking care of a difficult dog is exhausting and stressful and prolonged stress is one of the leading causes of depression. Seek help for yourself if you begin to feel this is just too much. 

Otherwise, you don't have to do anything. You don't have to fix your dog. Sometimes it's not even possible. You don't have to explain yourself to anyone. You don't have to make a success story out of your difficult dog - you might manage to do so and it's great as it gives hope, but every great trainer has a story of failure as well.

I do feel that in the end you get rewarded for all that trouble one way or another. Maybe all your hard work pays off eventually. Maybe one day you realise how much you've learnt and that you have knowledge and experience you would have never gained otherwise. Maybe your difficult dog gets old, a little deaf, a little blind, a little less active, a lot less reactive and suddenly you enjoy peace and understanding in your relationship as you never knew before. Maybe one day you get another dog that is that easy-going soulmate you've been dreaming about all that time. But that doesn't change the fact that while it lasts, being an owner of a difficult dog sucks. Cut yourself some slack. Take care of yourself.

poniedziałek, 6 stycznia 2020

Back from B.A.C.K 2020

Today is the day almost everybody I know on FB writes "back from B.A.C.K." posts so I'm gonna join the crowd for once ;).

There is lots of things I loved about this competition, which I will list below, but I'm pretty sure from now on if I ever have agility nightmares it will be about 5 minutes long coursewalkings with yellow numbers on white background, standing on a yellowish sand in dimly lit hall at 8 o'clock in the morning.

I mean, seriously. 5 out of my 6 runs with Brego were on the ring with those numbers, 3 were early in the morning, I was in the first coursewalking group with no chance to watch the judge measuring the course or others coursewalk first and I lost like 2 minutes each time just trying to locate the numbers. I'm normally quite good at coursewalking, but this time it really felt as I had no time to think and test different solutions and then I was running as no. 9 which also gave me no time to watch the others and well, I made some stupid handling choices as a result, so I had just one clean run with Brego out of six, which is kinda disappointing, since he was awesome as usual. 

The things I loved though:

- the venue, as always, particularly because I could spend hours walking my dogs (yes, still obsessed with #longwalkshappydogs idea). I walked like 50 km in three days and even took some photos,

- some of the courses, which gave me lots of training ideas and made me super happy about our choice of judges for Silesian Open ;),

- salmiac vodka from Finland,

- watching some great runs from others,

- meeting friends with special mention to watching the finals with Carmen and Laura (you were great company :D),

- most of my runs, hahaha. Results wise it's not so impressive, since I didn't even qualify to the finals (combination of bad luck when Mojo knocked the wall in otherwise awesome agility run and stupid handler in jumping where I got totally lost on the course), but in general I'm super happy with my dogs and their skills (might consider introducing another verbal for the wall though, since knocking it seems to happen to Mojo now and then and we don't really train it often enough),

- Mojo won jumping 3 on Friday, getting us pretty cool prize, that is an sport dog evaluation with Dogs4Motion. I decided to take Pucek instead, since a/ Mojo tends to get really stressed by things like that, b/ I was worrying about Pucek's coordination and structure a bit (it got much better since he is with us, but I still wanted some tips). It was really good and thorough and actually seems like everything is fine and we're on right track with the things I've been doing with him, but still got some more exercises to work on.

- the "sometimes you win, sometimes you learn" aspect of the competition. This time it was more about learning than winning, but that usually pushes me to do better, so let it be :D. 

Another thing that I didn't like so much and you might hate me for that, was the fact that children automatically qualify to the final... First of all, with some notable exceptions, I'm not particularly fond of  very small children (I don't mean teenagers) competing in agility in the first place (long story, but MOST of them really can't handle properly and then get frustrated about losing pretty easily and then get angry at the dog etc.). Secondly, I really think - again with some notable exceptions, as Sun Zenner's run in the final was amazing and really gave me goosebumps - that MOST children are not ready to handle the attention and the pressure connected with running the finals and generally are not even ready to run at this level (I mean, if they were, they could just qualify according to the same rules as everybody else). So in the end we watched some performances... well, that I'd rather not watch, particularly in the finals. I don't think it's fair for both the dogs and the children and maybe it would be better idea to just give them special prize for their other runs to encourage them if you want to do so.

Anyway, mostly I'm full of plans and ideas and that's a good thing in the beginning of the year I guess.

środa, 25 grudnia 2019

Long walks, happy dogs...

Suprisingly enough, this is a controversial topic 😂but then perhaps maybe not so suprisingly, since everything related to dogs seems to be controversial topic (seriously, enter any dog related FB group or forum and you'll learn that soon enough). 

Anyway, when as a child I pestered my parents for a dog, one thing I heard every time was: "But the dog has to be walked. Every day, in every weather, for all of his life". Of course there were also other concerns and in the end I only got a dog only when I was living on my own, but the point is that those 30+ years ago even non-dog people, like my parents, understood that walking the dog every day is like a pillar of dog care, apart from feeding it, training it and providing vet care (seriously, my parents are totally smart people as there is not much I could add to this list). Actually, one of the main reasons why I wanted a dog was so that I wouldn't have to walk alone anymore. 

Somehow, what was obvious all those years ago, is no longer obvious, especially when it comes to puppies. I was blissfully ignorant and just walking my puppies from day one (that is, when I got them from their breeders at 8 weeks of age). The first one got shorter walks initially, since I never kept quarantine (except with Vigo - my vet scared me that there was some vicious diarhoea attacking puppies at that time - I regreted it later and never made the same mistake), all the others had normal walks from the beginning, just with an option to rest when needed (Brava got in the baby pram, since my son was a baby then, with the others I used puppy backpack for a couple of weeks), nevertheless, all my puppies walked the whole distance with the rest of the pack by the time they were 4 months old (yes, they also got special walks just with me for training, bonding and socialisation reasons). 

Mojo at 8 weeks during walk with Brava 

3mo Mojo swimming

If I had entered any (particularly UK based) FB groups before, I would have learnt that I was a bad owner, ruining my puppies' health and future, since (and this is an actual quote from British Kennel Club site):

 "Puppies need much less exercise than fully-grown dogs. If you over-exercise a growing puppy you can overtire it and damage its developing joints, causing early arthritis. A good rule of thumb is a ratio of five minutes exercise per month of age (up to twice a day) until the puppy is fully grown, i.e. 15 minutes (up to twice a day) when three months old, 20 minutes when four months old etc."

Fortunately I haven't read anything like that until quite recently, so I managed to raise 7 healthy dogs from puppy to adulthood (the others came to me as adults, so I have no data on how much exercise they got as puppies), walking them from day one, teaching them to retrieve, allowing them to play with my other dogs , starting agility training way before their growth plates closed etc. Some of those dogs are old now - Sunday is no longer with us, but when I x-rayed her at the age of 12 yo, the vet said if she didn't know her from puppyhood, she would have never guessed those were the joints and spine of an old dog. Vigo is 15 yo, so obviously he has some ailments - but most days he still goes for a long walk with us. Brava was x-rayed in spring, as a 10 yo, no sign of any arthitis. 

4 mo Zelda chasing daddy Evo

3 mo Brego retrieving

So when I found out such puppy exercise recommendations, my approach to them was rather of advanced skepticism, not religious devotion. 

You might of course question my qualifications here. I'm no vet, I'm no physiotherapist either, my evidence is purely anecdotal (plus I own dogs who are medium sized - the biggest breed I've ever raised was a Dutch Shepherd). But, as I mentioned before, I am quite skeptical and down to Earth, I also cooperate and consult with a very good vet and physiotherapist that deals with sport dogs, and I will provide some sources that I trust at the end of the post, so what I do and how I raise my dogs is based on more than just "it was always done this way and it works for me".

Very often you might see the diagram of when particular growth plates close in a dog. You might also see completely misinterpreted picture of a new born puppy, claiming the puppy has no joints when born and the bones have to grow a lot to form them (😂 the emoticon is quite appropriate, since I really can't decide whether to laugh or cry when seeing this). You also see totally stupid posts like "you wouldn't ask your 6 mo baby to walk 2 km, so why are you doing that to your 6 mo puppy" (duh, because puppy rate of development is EXACTLY the same as human baby rate of development, right?). You also see super detailed charts of what and when can you do (some are downright ridiculous, like actually listing the number of steps you can walk your puppy on leash), some of which are at the same time promoting advice which I find harmful - like letting the puppy explore the garden without limits (wait, what? do they actually expect a puppy to EXPLORE the garden on their own? Now I no longer wonder where all those posts about "My puppy is digging in the garden" or "My puppy has eaten stones" come from) or doing kibble trails in the garden (yeah, right, wonderful idea to teach your puppy they can eat anything they find in the grass and start looking for it). But basically the common thread through all this advice is LIMITING puppy's activity. Avoid the stairs (yes, there is actual research you should to do... until the puppy is THREE months old, later it doesn't matter at all). Avoid the slippery surfaces. Don't let the puppy jump on and off the furniture (the Puppy Culture website actually claims they do it until the dog is two year old! I don't even know how to comment). Don't jog. Don't go for long hikes. Do not throw the ball. Do not... the list just goes on and on and on.

I wouldn't be discussing it if I didn't think it's actually harmful advice. First thing, and this is something you really notice if you come from stlightly different cultural approach is how understimulated lots of those puppies are. Seriously, through all the years with dogs, I've never seen that many posts about puppies destroying the garden, eating socks and having to be operated, biting hands, vocalising during the night etc. as I do regularly on (again) particularly British groups (I guess the responsible Polish owner still thinks it's mandatory to walk the puppy, whereas the responsible British owner reads the KC recommendations). Secondly, to give good support for the joints, the muscles need to develop somehow - it won't happen properly if you stick to 5 minutes per month of life / 1 minute per week of life rule (and I also seriously wonder how on Earth anyone is realistically able to do it and not get mad). 

Human growth plates close in the late adolescence, in some bones even later, around 30 years of age. Did you ever hear anyone actually telling you to limit your children physical acitivity? This is obviously very different from generation to generation - my generation couldn't be kept inside, whereas now we have huge problems with children using the electronic devices all the time and not getting enough exercise at all, having problems with obesity, proprioception and many others. Bear in mind I'm not discussing professional sports here, as that might actually not be so good (moderation in everything). Still, noone in their right mind would tell you: don't let your son play football with friends, his growth plates are not closed yet! Don't let your daughter ride the bicycle, she is not physically mature to do so! Sounds absurd, right? Moreover, has anyone seen a mother wolf telling her children - enough of that running and wild play, let's explore in slow pace? Or adolescent wolf that he cannot hunt just yet, as it might get arthritis later? (BTW, if you're interested, some info on wolves development - here).
So why would anyone think similar advice concerning dogs is reasonable? (also, and that's a philosophical question, why doesn't anyone try to sell the same advice concerning cats? oh yes, because good dogs do what they are told, whereas good cats do whatever they want). 

I seriously wonder if anyone writing "puppy needs much less exercise than fully grown dogs" has ever met a real puppy older than 5 weeks or so. 

You know, there was an experiment conducted once in which the researchers asked a group of physical education students to follow and repeat the activities of kindergarden children on a playground... guess what, the students were soon exhausted and couldn't do it.

I found similar to be true when it comes to puppies. My adult dogs are happy to spend most of the day napping, whereas with every puppy that I've ever owned I wondered if there is something wrong and they forgot to equip it with the snooze button (oh yes, they got tired now and then... they also recharged awfully quick). 

Honestly, I think any formal recommendations for puppy exercise are not necessary if you own a couple of brain cells and a bit of common sense. It boils down to the following guidelines:

A/ Observe the puppy. Puppies vary in their temperament, structure and rate of development. When the puppy seems tired (that might also mean getting more hectic, barky or nippy), let it rest. If the puppy is reluctant to perform particular movement, don't ever force them to do it and consult a smart vet. Maybe there is something wrong with the puppy or maybe there is something wrong with you to ask that of a puppy. 

B/ Avoid drilling and repetitions of the same movements (drilling is stupid and boring anyway). Best what you can do is let the puppy move offleash in varied environment, but if you need to walk the puppy on pavement to get to the park or wherever, don't obsess about the number of steps you need to take. 

But if you feel you need more detailed guidelines and from an actual authority in the field, here is the website and chart you can consult.

EDIT: if you also need a bit more of actual research, take a look here (and I was so glad that was published AFTER my blog, because some arguments sound awfully similar... common sense?). 

czwartek, 5 grudnia 2019

Three days, three weeks, three months...

The title of this post refers to how it is said a dog adapts to his new home. Pucek has been with us for a little over than 6 months now, so perhaps time for a little summary 😃. 

Three days... the beginning was totally honeymoon 💙. As I wrote before, the circumstances were sad, since we got Pucek after death of his owner, who was our friend, but Pucek seemed to fit right in. House trained, crate trained, with perfect recall, nice loose leash walking skills, friendly with people, nice with dogs, tons of drive and being super cute on top of that - we could hardly wish for a nicer dog. Some years ago I've met Nanga's brother (Nanga is mother of Zelda and Puck) and he was so totally beatiful that I've dreamed of having a dog in this type ever since. Well, Pucek is even more beautiful (of course). And since he did a bit of agility before, I started with some training with him right away - wow, tons of speed and enthusiasm, really nice reaction to handling, super potential in general, awesome, just awesome in every aspect. 

Three weeks... the reality hits. I guess Pucek realised that it is not just a holiday🏊 and he's here to stay and then suddenly he became a bit stressed. It didn't help that Zelda got in season and he started fighting with Brego over her. A bit later he started having some minor health problems (everything under control now) and it turned out he didn't like going to the vet at all, we had to use a muzzle to do a blood test.  At the end of summer I also wanted to start a bit more "serious" agility training, weaves and contacts and initially that wasn't going so well either. Even though as I said, he was really well trained in general, and was physically mature to learn "adult agility stuff", he lacked the kind of preparation I normally do with my puppies and at some point I realised he lacked some skills that I assumed were there. Sometimes he got frustrated, started biting me or barking like crazy 👾, sometimes he struggled with coordination or compression skills, sometimes after he made a mistake he couldn't really get over it and would just repeat it again and again. Obviously, he was still super cute and super nice dog in general and we also understood that some of those things were to be expected, as he underwent a major change in his life, so we just started working on the issues step by step.
Lots of socialisation with our vets, just coming along for visits with our other dogs and getting treats. Teaching him I can restrain him and nothing bad would happen. Fun activities alongside with Brego, so he had positive associations with him. Lots of shaping games, some tricks to help him with coordination and body awareness. Physiotherapy to get rid of some ugly tensions of the muscles. 

I needed to work on myself as well - on how to best explain behaviours to him, how to schedule sessions, how to reward, how to keep myself from getting into similar frenzy as he did (not so easy, when you're trying to think while someone screams in your ears or bites your hand). Sometimes I got frustrated as well - methods and ways that were tried and proven with my previous dogs didn't really work with him - so I made notes, I experimented, I tried this and that. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. It's still work in progress, though progress I see. And a lot of it. 

Three months... or actually a bit more. We have so many successes together. He doesn't fight with Brego anymore, they can walk, train, be in the same room together at home. There is still a bit of tension between them, but now they can communicate, say a few insults at each other and then go away rather than actually fight. He doesn't need a muzzle with our vet anymore and he even started enjoying his physiotherapy sessions.  He learnt to weave and then all of a sudden he can do even quite difficult stuff, work distance etc. His contacts training is still work in progress, but we're getting there. We competed in jumping competition last weekend and he was perfect, doing sit stays, listening, paying attention to bars even on slices <3 It was so fun to run him!

At some point I checked my messenger history with Jitka, Zelda and Pucek's breeder, and I saw that when she was sending me puppy videos, I always liked the boy in the red collar. So guess who is that puppy now? Yes, it is Pucuś and I feel like we were meant to be. Now I cross my fingers for our next thirty years together 🐕👧😍

Photo: Leona Ortenberg

czwartek, 29 sierpnia 2019

How we approach behaviour is an ethical stance

I watched "Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats" today - and I could write a whole post about that documentary and it's logical fallacies, but one sentence in particular caught my attention and nudged me to write a post on a subject that I was thinking about for a while now.

That sentence, said by Bernard Rollin, PhD, distinguished professor of philosophy, is:

"How you approach behaviour is an ethical stance".

Now, I need to make a disclaimer, before I continue - what follows is my view on the subject, it is what I find acceptable and ethical - am I no expert, nor I consider myself an authority on matters of ethics, dog training etc. Moreover, my stance might change over time and hopefully it will, otherwise it would mean I stopped learning. And while I do believe there is black and white distinction between the opposite ends of the dog training spectrum and approaches to dog ownership (which in itself is a controversial term), I also believe there is a lot of grey area and while there are some universal guidelines, each and every dog is different, each situation is different and all of that might determine your personal choice. 

But the reason why this sentence struck me as so true, is that I really believe your choice of training methods, your approach to the relation between yourself and your dog is an ethical stance. No more, no less. Some people claim that aversive methods don't work (while on the other hand disdainfully labelling them as "quick fix"), other people claim purely positive training doesn't work either - the truth is, dogs are wonderful creatures and are so adaptable and so forgiving, that pretty much every method can work, provided the dog can get at least some clarity what is expected of them. So yes, you can achieve results that you are looking for, with different methods. Therefore, the big question is: which methods work for your dog (and yes, that might differ depending on your dogs sensitivity, temperament, drive etc.) and which are morally acceptable for you. 

I've read really interesting post today, unfortunately only in Polish, about giving dogs choice. It started with assumption that the very term of dogs ownership is somehow outdated, and more and more people are perceiving themselves as caretakers of their pets rather than owners. Personally, I don't really see it as mutually exclusive - I am my dogs' owner in legal terms (that also means I'm legally responsible for both their well-being and for their possible misbehaviour), but that very term means an obligation to take care of them in the best possible way - in terms of meeting their needs, providing them with food, exercise, appropriate veterinary care, training, cuddles (yes, there is an emotional factor for me as well). 

But from that assumption of not really owning another living, feeling creature comes a conclusion that we need to give our dogs choice (and what follows is a list of situations in which we should do it and I generally agree with it) and this is something I've been thinking a lot about recently. And it actually determines the use of training methods. Because if I believe dogs should always have a choice, that limits my choice of methods to the ones that make my dogs happy, if I deny them choice, it means I use whatever methods I deem appropriate for getting a behaviour I want. So while I consider myself to be on the positive/ respectful end of the spectrum, I wouldn't be myself if there wasn't a BUT. 

I somehow have a hierarchy of things pertaining to dog training. Some things are important. Coming when called is the most important. Accepting touch / grooming / veterinary procedures  is important.  Resting at house is important. Loose leash walking is quite important, because few things annoy me more than a dog trying to walk me rather than the other way round (oh, they do get offleash walks every day and they are allowed to run, smell things, roll in grass etc. to their hearts' content then). Doing agility is not that important. Doing tricks is not important at all. My dogs playing with other dogs is totally not imporant - they don't like it mostly and I protect them from people and dogs who think they should. And so on. How much choice my dogs are given relies on that hierarchy.

So yes, generally I want my dogs to have a choice, first of all, out of respect - they are living, feeling, thinking beings. Secondly, I want them to feel safe and let me know if they don't want to do something. I make sure their good choices (like working with me or doing what I ask them to do) are so rewarding that if they refuse to do it, they must have a very good reason, and usually it is a physical reason and a signal we need to head to the vets asap. But sometimes their choice can be really limited: if I think the reason for not working with me is that an adolescent male would rather lick bitches' pee, sure, he can choose not to work with me, but he won't be given the option to lick the pee either (so yup, there is a choice: you either do something fun with me or you don't do anything fun at that time). Bear in mind that I believe dogs have certain needs (food, safety, play, social contact, rest, investigating the environment and so on) and before you ask anything of them, you should be sure they actually satisfy those needs on regular basis - denying them this option is an abuse as well, but sometimes I'm the one to decide when they can do it.

I also avoid using physical coertion when teaching behaviours, particularly when it concerns agility, because, well, it's just agility. I want my dog to let me know if they are afraid of let's say, see-saw - they can refuse to get on it, they can jump off it, etc. I want my dogs to let me know if they find the exercise frustrating, difficult, if they don't understand what I want from them - then it's my job to adjust, explain, make it easier. If my dog ever left, refused to work with me - that would be a wake up call and I would try really hard to understand the reason and then, give them the better reason to keep working (not the "or I make you do it" kind of reason). I do my best to prevent such situations in the first place - for instance, I teach my dogs that keeping on trying pays off really well, that generally working for me pays really well and it's really fun, I plan my sessions, I analise them and so on. 

But before you assume I'm all rainbows and unicorns, there are also some situations in which my dogs don't have a choice, same as there are situations in which my child doesn't have a choice, simply because sometimes I know better. Basically it boils down to any situation which concerns safety of my dogs, myself or any other being. Like at the vets, my dogs ultimately don't have a choice and I teach them early on to accept it. If I want to have their blood tested, the blood will be tested, even if the dog is like "naah, I don't feel like it today". If there is something painful and the vet needs to examine it, it will be examined. If my dog wanted to chase and kill another animal, I would stop that behaviour by whatever means and so on, and so on.  I always start with positive approach and 99% of time, I get what I want. But if this is something I consider very important and if I'm not able to get the result I want by solely positive approach, I would eventually use other methods as well - this is sort of last resort, I give lots of consideration if it's really necessary (what I'm writing about here is conscious decision to use an aversive method or to deny a dog a choice and not getting angry at the dog and flying off the handle - which we shouldn't, but then, let him who is without sin cast the first stone). 

Some things are not acceptable for me. Using a shock collar to teach puppy to sit is not acceptable (and stupid). Burning the bowl (that is feeding ONLY from hand in exchange for certain behaviours) is not acceptable for me either (well, maaaybeee it can come useful as a temporary measure in some cases). Dragging a dog that knocked down a pole back to agility field after it been yelled at and fled, is not acceptable. But then again - some behaviours are not acceptable either. Dogs do use aversives themselves (and they do is SO WELL: immediately, never dragging it on, stopping the unwanted behaviour once and for all... think of an older dog teaching a younger one not to disturb them when they are sleeping). And no, it doesn't destroy your relation forever (BTW, it is interesting how some people getting on high horse of ethics in dog training fail to represent truthfully the use of certain tools and methods).

That's my ethical stance. For now.