Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Episode IV: A New Hope (part 2)

I did another session with Laev behind the fence with the cat. My perfect plan would have been to do it Tuesday, to take advantage of any possible stiffness or soreness from her hours of running and wheeling on Sunday, but it didn't work out -- and she didn't look that sore, anyway. Dratted fit dog.

Today, though, I stopped and bought a new tripod on the way home and set up the video camera, fed the cat, and hit record. The cat was eating happily about 25' outside the fence, a comfortable distance for her. She was not active at all, just still and eating and then still and bathing, no real movement to speak of.

(The cat is always free to leave at any time, but she doesn't mind the food and the amusement of driving the dog nutty.)

Laev went bonkers for the cat, right on cue, but it was much less than I'd expected. No screaming, no biting at the fence, just running. She looked almost manageable. However, she couldn't interrupt her running for a long time, even though I got a few "dry" clicks (she didn't stop for her cream cheese) as she glanced briefly in my direction.

She finally did recall the nature of the game, though, and she stopped running at a time well short of three hours. ;) It was very obvious, though, when I over-faced her with a request ("sit") she couldn't bring herself to obey; she took off running again, even though she'd shown no inclination to run the moment before. Again, Laev handles all internal conflict through movement or her jaws; it's self-reinforcing to dump that stress. I'm going to have to figure out a way to prevent that, though, so that she can't get more R- by running than R+ by staying.

But Laev pulled herself together and actually started thinking for a short time, before my husband pulled in the drive. At his approach, the cat ran about 15' away, and Laev lost all brainpower. It took her QUITE a while to bring herself back. In the end, we were able to heel all the way to the house again, but it wasn't quite as good as Sunday, I don't think. (I'm not terribly proud of my technique today, either; I was a bit slow.) We did go through an entire 8 oz can of cream cheese, which might be a problem if Laev weren't running it off so efficiently.

I don't know if I've mentioned that Laev has indeed caught prey, including cats, before; we're working against previous reinforcement as well as genetics here.

I'm rendering that digital video now and will review it and then edit it to a manageable length, to ask some friends and gurus for help. I want to make sure we're progressing as quickly and smoothly as we can.

Episode IV: A New Hope (part 1)

Forgive the post title, but I attended a Star Wars party over the weekend. And this is our fourth post on The Cat Incident and its fallout.

(With only a few minutes' notice that we were attending, I dressed as Callista-Sue Jade. Photo upon request. If you don't know who Callista, Mara Jade, and Mary Sue are, be glad of your social life. ;) )

Back to Laev.

Sunday afternoon, Laev spotted a cat outside the fence and began running the fence line, losing all semblance of control. I know that dragging her away from the cat only creates a stronger desire, born of frustration -- hence the adage of, "Always leave 'em wanting more!" And it's not that simple to catch a Laev in full cat-mode, either. I read somewhere that tests showed the aural-processing bits could actually shut down during true frenzy, and I think I have a sample case.

So I thought I'd try extinction. Let's see how long it takes for Laev to give up on the cat she can't reach, right? Couldn't be too long? The cat was sitting quite still, just waiting about 30' outside the fence for a human to happen by and feed it supper, so she wasn't actively stimulating the dog.

After about 30 minutes I gave up and went inside. After over 3 hours had passed, I didn't want to wait any more. I gave up on the idea of getting a baseline for extinction ("3.5 hours +") and went back outside with a clicker and a can of dispensing cream cheese. (The cat, by the way, hadn't moved; she was sitting exactly as I'd left her. So Laev had kept it up that long on just the visual, not any movement.)

Sometimes I wonder why we even bother to train for the AD*, when it's obviously so natural and easy for a fit dog.

I stood somewhat behind Laev. (I'm not foolish enough to risk my knees by standing in the path of a prey-frenzied dog; I've known two trainers who spent months on crutches after similar encounters and another pet owner who needed months of recovery.) I waited. I waited. I said nothing. Laev slowed to a long trot instead of a gallop. I waited. And then Laev paused, four feet on the ground at once, and I clicked.

No response from her, but I didn't really expect one, either. She continued running the fence. This went on for a while, my clicking whenever she happened to pause for a half-second or so and then her running on.

At last, though, she tipped her head toward me as she passed and I clicked and held out the cream cheese and she STOPPED. I quickly clicked and treated repeatedly, squirting cream cheese into her mouth as rapidly as I could click. Then I hesitated, she glanced up, and I clicked for eye contact.

Ah! The beginnings of communication!

She couldn't hold herself still for long, though, and she went off to run the fence again. But this stretch of running wasn't nearly so long, and soon she was able to pause by me again. I was quite pleased.

I gradually raised the criteria, requiring eye contact for clicks and then sustained eye contact, up to two seconds. Yes, that sounds tiny in print, but trust me, it was big! She kept glancing at me and then hurriedly looking back at the still cat. (The cat was fed by now, eating happily in place.)

I asked for a sit, and that was too much -- she hesitated and then bolted. Conflict must be resolved in movement, with Laev, and if she couldn't move from a stand to a sit, she had to run.

I waited (what had I to lose?) and clicked her back to focus again. This time she could sit, and follow me a step or two. Everything was fine 'til the cat moved.

Laev went berserk, screaming and biting the wire of the fence, trying to tear it out of her path. (This after *hours* of running?!) I waited; it's not as if I could do much to interrupt that, anyway. It would take an awfully strong aversive, and I don't want to go there. Fortunately the cat was content with the chunks of solid cheese I threw across the fence and she settled down about 15-20' away and watched with feline amusement.

I gradually clicked Laev back to focus and rebuilt our short spans of attention and movement. I called her to front, parallel to the cat. Cream cheese reward. I turned after a couple of reps and asked her to face the other way, still parallel to the cat. No problem. Then I took a giant leap and stepped back from the fence, asking her to front with her back to the cat.

It was almost possible to see her brain smoke, but she did it. She kept glancing over her shoulder, but I kept the cream cheese coming as fast as possible in short spurts, and she stayed with me. We went back to parallel tasks (sit and front), with heavy reinforcement for looking at me instead of the cat.

Our crowning achievement was working up to two steps of heeling, with full eye contact, with Laev between the cat and me (looking away from the cat to me). I reinforced massively and then led Laev, step by step, clicking and treating at nearly each step, away from the fence back to the house -- which is at least a couple hundred feet and that's a lot of clicked steps, if you ever wondered.

I wish desperately I had video of that session. We achieved a lot, and I'd love others' feedback on it and suggestions for improvement. Also, it'd be nice to have proof of what Laev's prey frenzy is really like, as it's hard to describe, so I don't always get relevant advice.

But Laev makes me -- forces me to be -- a better trainer. :)

* The AD is an endurance test of physical fitness and ability, consisting primarily of a 12.5 run alongside the biking handler.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Better Day

Last night, I was doing some basic distraction work (my husband has Laev's supper, and she has to recall to me and do work for a click and a send to him for a snack), which took much longer than usual due to my dog's difficult in re-focusing. She was constantly scanning for prey. Once, during a recall, she never made it to me, pausing midway to pounce double-pawed on a passing leaf. Ouch. We HAVE regressed, haven't we?

I was scheduled to do clicker training demos for a veterinary open house today, and drizzly weather meant the event was moved entirely indoors. I got for my training area a very nice matted area -- which also happened to be where the boarded cats lived in one corner of cattery runs.

Oh, stink.

No matter! This is an excellent opportunity for training and working through our current issues. I would try it with Laev. If she were too bad, I'd just stash her in the car for the day; it's not fair to traumatize the cats, who didn't sign up to be guinea pigs. But if she could learn to work beside them, that could be a giant step forward again for us, right?

Fortunately, I'd brought three levels of treat values for the day.

The cats were perfect; I'd like to rent this batch for the future. One shy kitty was covered so she didn't have to see us, and the other two were just awesome -- nice and laid back, not particularly active or spooky. If Laev got too close, one hissed at her, but there was no frantic prey movement and that was ideal.

I did my first acclimatization before any spectators arrived, with Laev safely on leash so that she couldn't rage against the cattery cage doors if she were inclined. She did alert on the cats and go all predatory, but I stayed calm and backed away until she turned, at which point I clicked and treated.

We gradually worked our way closer and closer, until Laev was sniffing most eagerly at the cage doors but could, with great effort, tear herself away when asked. Since I would not have guessed we'd ever be able to get to that point in several weeks, I was very pleased, and we stopped there.

Laev and Shakespeare each did some shaping demos, and Shakespeare "volunteered" for training by a number of visitors. He's forgiving enough that slow or mis-timed clicks, while confusing and frustrating, don't stop him working entirely, and I am coaching to keep the rate of reinforcement high enough that it's worth his while.

Intermittently, however, I'd bring Laev out and work her. When we could heel off leash past the cats without losing eye contact, I thought we'd achieved some sort of training miracle. It's been only three days since The Cat Incident! Is this Laev? Is she ill?

Then we went out front for a bit, where chaos reigned. The building was crowded with an entire fair's worth of exhibits and activities (ferrets, wildlife rehabilitation, toss games, tortoises, raffles, quizzes, a food bar, pet caricatures, photography, etc.) compressed into one space, and of course there are always folks not watching where their leashes pull because their dogs are nice and won't get into trouble, they assume. Laev was pretty freaked out by the press and activity, actually cowering and even trembling twice. (That is NOT my dog.) She snarked at one dog who pushed cheerily right into her face, but only for the second it took to remove the offender. I had given her a toy to carry, so that helped vent her stress safely, but she was clearly having a rough time of it.

But that can't stop us! We were going to work through it. I pulled out the squeeze cream cheese (which had been working miracles near the cattery) and began treating her regularly for sitting still beside me, buffered by myself and a wall. It took probably 10 minutes, but she was soon working promptly for her licks of cheese -- no more hesitation or glancing about. Another 10 minutes, and she was a pro, moving about and not even glancing at the other people or dogs that pushed about us. While she was sitting at front, eyes on me, a strange dog jabbed its head between my legs -- I simply closed my legs to push it out and treated Laev, who barely blinked at it.

I would really like to have returned to the busy lobby later for another practice round, but we didn't have a chance. But it was an excellent experience for her.

Of course, my high came to a crashing end when I arrived home and discovered our outdoor cat beside my car as I released Shakespeare. He chased her (he enjoys making cats move) and Laev, watching through her crate door, went slightly berserk. I didn't release her for some time, hoping she'd forget about it, but nope! she downed and waited nicely for the door and then went screeching off in search of the cat, finding it in the tree and going quite mad below. I collected her physically and put her in her run, but that battle was a loss.

Still, in the grand scale of the war on predation and distraction, I have at least one victory.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

For Sale: One Doberman

Yeek. I just came in from working with Laev in our field here at home.... I am not pleased.

Sunday evening, she was doing nice work with a strange dog in this field. She was a bit distracted by our spectators (man and baby, and she's still very distracted by the baby), and she wasn't as good as I'd like her to be, but she was not bad at all. She did her BH heeling patterns, heeling loops around the strange dog, etc.

Yesterday we had The Cat Incident, reviving all her hyper-predatory insanity.

Today, she had a tough time heeling with any duration. If my feet kicked up a leaf, she broke focus to look at it. And then she scented a mole nearby, and twice I had to go and collect her head from the mole hole where she wanted to dig instead. Aversives (verbal rebuke, tightened collar) kept her from the mole but made it harder for her to focus on me. And my treats were raw chicken!

This is not good. I am not pleased. I'd like to just start over, I think.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kiss Control (and Trial) Goodbye

I've been meaning to post for a while, but I had trouble logging in and it wasn't worth it to fight with the system. This morning, however, I can get it, just in time to report that there will be nothing good to report for a while.

Laev has what would be traditionally termed a "high prey drive." I dislike the highly unscientific and non-specific terminology (Hull's Theory of Drives was discarded decades ago and so the words "high drive" mean something different to many people or groups), but for quick shorthand, Laev has an obscenely high prey drive. In her first AKC obedience trial, Laev really surprised me with her focus and excellent performance, far beyond what I'd expected from a dog approaching her first birthday, until the group stays -- where we were actually excused from the ring, due to Laev's noticing a bird landing and flapping on the ground THREE RINGS AWAY. Ye-ah.

(I learned this spring that her sire is like this, too -- a great working dog, I was told, but far beyond average in prey reaction. Whee!)

So we've been working on this self-control in the temptation of prey business, and we've come a long way. Laev can now walk past a cat on the way to the field and then work the helper (she used to be unable to focus on even an agitating helper if she'd seen a cat; my training director said that he'd never seen it so bad). The other night while I had three dogs holding down stays for supper, my husband stepped on the cat upstairs, making it screech -- and Laev's eyes bugged, but she stayed in her down. That's an enormous accomplishment.

All that was just undone.

Saturday I was working Laev in obedience on our training field, and I could tell she was distracted. She was looking at me, when I politely insisted, but it's quite possible for a Doberman to keep steady, bright-eyed contact on my face and to know exactly what is going on at the far end of the field. And finally, when I was doing some out of motion exercises, she broke and ran full out to the woods at the end of the field.

I yelled once, and then I didn't even call her -- I could tell she was "in the zone" and wouldn't hear a word. I turned and left. I saw Laev race along the edge of the woods (now several hundred feet from me), cut into a horse pasture and react mildly to the electric fencing (she's never known such a thing) and loop back. I slipped into a blind and stayed out of sight.

Laev noted I was missing and got visibly agitated. She began to search for me, looping the field, racing past my blind back to the cars, finding other people and discarding them instantly. Each time she passed me, I could see her coming and slip to the other side of the blind, running a little circle so that even if she caught my scent she couldn't see me. Finally I let her find me, and she was quite, quite stressed -- panting and licking, and Laev almost never licks! I immediately had her do some simple heeling, a down 'til she got her panic done, and then some more heeling. She stayed right with me.

That makes the second time ever that Laev has left me in her life, and the first time (at UDC Nationals this year) I hid and she did not leave me again, even though she and I both knew the area was populated by small, fast-moving critters. Apparently losing me was aversive enough to suppress that crittering -- and in hindsight, now I suspect her motivation for breaking the down-stay when she heard animals in the tall grass, twitched, and then ran for me. "I can't notice the critters -- I'll lose Mom!"

So I thought that this might have shut down the leaving forever, or at least in this area -- she was far more upset this time than in the spring. I expressed the hope that she'd have nightmares and made a mental note to test the field vigorously before our trial fast approaching, but I didn't panic too badly.

Now, now I'm upset.

My husband stepped on a cat again this morning (a different cat, our outdoor farm cat) on our porch, waking and alerting Laev. As she was now awake and barking, he thought to let her out, and he collected her from the crate and took her back to the front door.

This is our outdoor cat, whom we often miss during the summer as she feeds herself on mice and such. She is brilliant at teasing the dogs but very good at knowing just how fast they are and how much room they have. I have seen her taunt slower dogs by running partway to a tree, waiting until the dog is near, and then skimming up just out of reach. (She does not do this with Laev, who will climb trees after her.) She respects dogs, but she doesn't fear them. And in colder weather, when she returns for supplemental feeding, she is to get a fair warning before we release dogs so that she can hide.

My husband had just fed her, which is how he tripped on her as she pushed for her food, so she was quite near the house. And he didn't give any warning before releasing Laev.

The cat got away, reaching a tree in time. But Laev screamed with such amazing vigor and frustration that I woke, certain something was dying, and rushed outside. I found instead Laev leaping at a tree, obviously in a limbic predatory state such as I have not seen in months and months and months. She was so insanely focused on the cat that she did not even notice my husband walking up to take her collar, which was very disturbing, as she hates to be removed from prey.

At that moment I kissed my trial goodbye.

Junkies cannot have another hit. We are going to be so long recovering from this predatory adrenaline rush.... If a leaf blows during training, I'm going to lose her focus. If a leaf blows during the trial, she'll probably break. I am very frustrated; I had so much positive comment on how she's matured and how she was certain to do well this trial, and it's all gone.

I think I should get some credit for not venting at my husband. He hasn't had to warn the cat since March or April, and he was just out of the habit. I'm not really angry at him. But I sure do wish it hadn't happened.