Thursday, December 31, 2009

TAG! I'm it!

It is said, and rightly so, that instructors should continue to learn unfamiliar things so that they stay empathetic with their struggling students. This week, I learned to ski.

I had been skiing before. My first experience with the sport was in college, when my roommate and I (both ski-virgins) were taken to the slopes by our respective boyfriends, both experienced skiers. To be specific, my boyfriend grew up at 8,000 ft and started working Ski Patrol as a teen. This wasn't exactly a good starting match.

Jamie and I signed up for a lesson while the boys went off on their own. We found that we were the only members of the ski class over the age of 8, and our male instructor was apparently greatly intimidated by having two females of his age in his group. He coped by pretending we didn't exist, speaking only to the children, ignoring our questions, and never making eye contact with us. Jamie and I finally reconciled ourselves to eavesdropping on his directions to the kids and copying them ourselves. When our hour or two was up, we met the guys and went to apply what we'd learned.

It was disaster for me. I tumbled down the hill time and time again, knocking myself hard in the head. (This was before ski helmets were as popular as now.) Once, Jon followed me down the slope and watched me splat across the hill. As I blearily reoriented, Jon sped up and hockey-stopped inches from my face, spraying snow over me and laughing.

Yeah. I did not learn much that trip.

I went skiing once or twice more, with Jon's family of avid skiers (I did marry the guy despite the ski incident), but I never really progressed beyond managing to stay upright on the bunny hill. This year, however, Jon's parents decided that their Christmas gift to their kids would be a ski trip, and so off we went to the slopes.

Jon's parents are nice people, but we don't always speak the same language. "You make a pizza pie," his father (another former Ski Patrolman) explained, "and then your left ski is cheese and your right ski is pepperoni, and you keep saying cheese and pepperoni as you go downhill." Uh huh. I had a sneaking suspicion that I could scream "cheese and pepperoni!" repeatedly and ineffectively as I bounced head over heels, scattering skis and gloves and goggles to the winds.

But I had a plan. Last year I went ice skating for the first time, with a former figure skater friend who gave me instruction. As she explained what I needed to do, I translated her words into TAGpoints in my head, verified them with her, and then tried to apply them. The result was that I learned in a few skating sessions far more than I'd expected and surprised her as well, I think -- not that I was anywhere close to accomplished! But I was proud of what I'd learned. I wanted to do the same on this ski trip.

So I began translating, occasionally asking Jon for clarification. "Pizza pie" became "inner wedge" in my head (form a triangle with the skis, weight on the inner edges). I dropped the "cheese and pepperoni" metaphor for the image of pressing one heel downhill and then the other to start gradual turns. "Ski with your feet" became "knees over toes."

The pizza metaphor is apparently a popular one in ski instruction, because I heard it screamed every time a novice blitzed past en route to a tumble or narrow escape. "Pizza! Pizza!" a parent or helpful friend would shout after them. "Don't lean forward. Don't lean. Turn. Turn! TURN!" Me, I was chanting my personal TAGpoints consciously and constantly. "Knees over toes, knees over toes, knees over toes!" This kept me upright, at least, and I started making at least a bit of distance between falls. Then my coaches determined that I'd graduated to more challenging slopes, and "take the slope out of the mountain so you don't gain so much speed" became "ski horizontal (across the slope)." I started to stay upright on whole green runs. And then, "Face down the mountain so they can take your picture" became "chest downhill."

I tumbled down the mountain and landed splayed and laughing. "I get it!" I called uphill to Jon. "This is supposed to happen!"

Jon skied down to me. "Increased criteria means a temporary drop in performance?"

"Yep! See, when I know why this happens and that it's even supposed to happen, it's not frustrating!"

Yeah, we've both come a long way since that first ski lesson.

We reached the bottom of the slope and got in line for the lift. Jon's dad helpfully advised, "You want to keep the weight off your uphill ski when you turn, because that's what's slowing your turn. You need to face downward and push harder into the boots, and just keep it tucked in. The angulation of the ski's edge to the snow is inversely related to the cosine of the Fibonacci number sequence...."

I started to lose track. "What does keep it tucked in mean?"

"Don't worry about it," Jon interrupted.

"Knees over toes?"

"Knees over toes."

"I want you to TAG me," I told Jon. "Just watch me and say a short 'yes' when I've got 'chest downhill.'" And on the next run, he skied backwards a short distance from me (a skill I'd previously found infuriating) and tagged -- or didn't -- with each turn I made. I think that was Jon's first experience tagging. I fell only once on that run, a blue. Whee!! Progress!

As the afternoon went on, I found myself starting slopes without my TAGpoints, recalling them only when I started to run too hot. When I did need them, I alternated points as necessary. Being right-handed, I turned better to the right, so that TAGpoint was "chest downhill." For left turns, where I still wasn't confident in turning aggressively, I dropped to the lower criteria of "knees over toes." Then I gradually and unconsciously faded the TAGpoints altogether.

But I didn't fade the skills. By the end of the day, I was running blues repeatedly without falling, in decent form and good control. I was very proud of myself; though I'm still nowhere near their skill level, I'm at least capable of having a good time now.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Human Cruelty

I read something today that just absolutely blew me away.
"'s true that these breeds love fighting so much that we could discuss about whether dogfighting is -- in the case of these breeds -- mistreatment of the dogs..."
What's truly mind-boggling is that this statement did not come from a professional dogfighter. It's not from a gang lord or a drug dealer to justify using dogfight gambling to make and move money. This is from a professional dog trainer.

How any professional could think that dogfighting -- torn skin, deep punctures, broken bones, and the abusive "training" to prepare and then separate fighting dogs (one method of breaking apart is to hold flame to a dog's genitals) -- is not "mistreatment" is utterly beyond me. The statement that a pit bull sincerely enjoys this justifies the abuse and criminalizes the breed.

I do agree with some of what this person said, that pit bulls should not be given greater latitude in behavior or temperament simply because they are poor, victimized pit bulls. I am not in favor of passing an iffy dog through a temperament test because of breed, whether that dog is a often-abused pit bull type or a can't-be-really-aggressive Golden Retriever. I do agree that people shouldn't choose a pit bull just to make a point or just to coddle one and they should be aware that the breed -- like every single other breed -- has advantages and drawbacks. But I am utterly, wholly, madly against criminalizing a breed and justifying the worst of human cruelty.

There are many, many sites with awful, graphic photos of the results of dogfighting. These should be enough to convince that it is far beyond "mistreatment," but I'm going to include a link to photos taken just this past weekend, of an abandoned fighting dog left to die on the side of a road -- one broken foreleg, one previously-broken and badly healed foreleg, more than fifty punctures "large enough to put a finger in," and more. This dog could not be saved and was euthanized. But tell me -- could you look into this dog's face and say you believed he enjoyed this? Can you look at this dog and say that it's not abuse, not mistreatment, not a terrible human problem creating trouble for our community and our dogs?

EDIT: Indy Pit Crew's flier on Dog Fighting Awareness can be downloaded here! Fight illegal dogfighting!

EDIT #2: I wanted to share the following comment (from someone else, on the dog in the photos) as well --

"Poor, injured, tortured dog, limping toward strangers on its broken forelegs, seeking help. Things like this make me think that the people responsible need to suffer similar treatment. It's just awful... and tragic for the dogs."

I find it amazing that this dog, after all it had been through, was still seeking people. The true human-friendly origin of the breed is still in there, despite all that's been done. We humans need to own up to our actions.

New Suit and a Trial

Saturday morning I took Laev to training and introduced her to a bitesuit jacket. She didn't have much hesitation at all in transitioning from a sleeve to a suit; I was almost suprised at how quickly she moved from an arm bite up to biting on the back and shoulders. She *loved* winning the whole jacket; she took it back to the car with her and wrapped all four legs about it as she held on with her mouth. She did out when requested, but she is clearly into this new game.

We're introducing suitwork because I would like to take Laev to a UKC-SDA dog sport trial, where we can do obedience and protection work without gunfire. We're still having trouble with that; for every bit of progress we make, we then have a setback, as when I was gone over a weekend and target practice began next door, inducing a fresh panic attack. /sigh/ Honestly, sometimes I despair of ever getting past this. It frustrates me so much, because (as I know I've said, sorry for repeating) she did not have this fear as a young dog; it's been wholly learned. And it's preventing us from showing off what we can do.

At least she's having fun with a suit. I have to teach some new exercises for the other venue, but that shouldn't be too hard.

Then I drove up for an APDT trial, Sunday only. (I'd wanted to do Saturday, but I'd never heard back from the secretary who'd told me to just email my entries and pay when I arrived. I'm glad I called a friend at the trial before driving several hours -- she was able to confirm that though the secretary had received my email, I wasn't on the Saturday list!) Shakespeare ran four classes and got four legs, never scoring under 205*, and legitimized his ARCHEX (I'd thought he'd gotten it before, APDT records disagreed, I went back for extra QQs. I probably screwed up my counting!) What most impressive is that I've hardly worked with him at all -- read, once or twice -- since his last trial in March. He is such the reliable Old Man. What a guy.

* APDT runs have 200 possible points, plus an optional 10-point bonus exercise.

Laev, on the other hand, was a total ditz. I took her into the building once just to acclimate (I wasn't going to try to crate inside, as it was a small area), and she glanced around and then promptly downed and focused on me, picture-perfect. I was feeling pretty good. We came in for her first run, and she set up nicely just inside the ring gate, cute and focused. Great. We moved forward and I set her up for a recall over a jump, the first exercise. I cued her to "sit" as I prepared to step away (we don't use a "stay" cue) and she popped into an obedience stand.

Laev has a superstitious head movement with her obedience stand, so it's very obvious when she's standing in response to a cue as opposed to standing accidentally or casually. This was a perfect obedience stand.

That's an automatic NQ, but I thought we could at least continue the run as if we hadn't NQ'd on the very first exercise. I asked her to come into heel and then cued sit again. Pop! Perfect obedience stand. And, once more.

I have no idea why "sit" suddenly meant to stand, but it clearly did. More, Laev was clearly getting frustrated at being told to sit and stand repeatedly. After the third mistake, I left her in a stand and went to recall over the jump, which she did. We were rattled, though, and the connection was gone. She was seized by the desire to examine the food bowls in the figure-8 (no eating and she did recall to me, so it wasn't a total disaster) and we made up the rest of our course, ending on a slightly better note. Total ditz.

She needed only one leg to finish her RL3 title, so we still had a chance in the afternoon trial. I took a moment to review "sit" and she seemed to get it. :) When it was her turn for the last run (the trial dragged late), I brought her in and, stupidly, thought I'd get a couple of directed retrieves (this run's bonus) before going in the ring. I set up my focused dog in the emptying crating area and put out her dumbbell.

We were a good fifteen feet from the nearest line of crates, but the trial had been running long and I suppose the crated dogs were sick of it. The crates were uncovered, and as Laev trotted out, a line of dogs lunged at their doors. Laev aborted the retrieve as she whirled to look for the attack, and I called her back to me, feeling angry and stupid. I'd just wanted an open space to warm up, and I'd picked a row of grumpy dogs! Another dog came by us, very close, and Laev jumped and snarked, still hackled defensively. Oh, stink.

And then we were up. I knew Laev wasn't mentally recovered, but what else to do? We went in and faced that same first exercise, a recall over a jump. Laev sat, I cued her to wait, she popped into an obedience stand, wholly distracted. Yep. We flubbed through the course 'til we could end on the backward heeling exercise, which she does very well, and asked to be excused. Whew.

"It's a young dog," the judge told me. "Not THAT young," replied. Seriously, Laev, you're brilliant in many aspects, you can do so many things beyond simple rally exercises -- what's up with this silliness?

Very frustrating, overall. Between the gunfire hangup and this flubbed trial, I'm feeling rather defeated.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Dangerous Dobermans & Rabid Rottweiler Make a New Friend :-)

We had a couple of visitors coming in last week, costuming friends (I'll use their industry names, Saeru and Elemental) coming to stay the night and do a photoshoot. I was excited to have them. Then my sister reminded me that Elemental didn't like dogs.

I had totally forgotten this fact, because for the most part Elemental is a fairly neat person and I don't include dislike of dogs in my definition of "neat." But what the heck, we could manage for a day or two, surely. I have a large enough house that no one has to share space if they don't want to.

There was a reason for her dislike, I learned; she'd grown up in a less-than-idyllic neighborhood, where dogs were generally kept for the purpose of keeping other people away. My Dobermans were of a size and coloring which implied danger, and she froze up for a moment upon seeing Inky; it was a Rottweiler which used to break its chain and chase her down the street.

We were wholly disorganized on the day of their arrival, though, and they had more dog exposure than I had initially planned. When we packed up to depart for the photoshoot, Elemental realized she'd forgotten an item and ran back into the house with my husband. Shakespeare ran alongside them, happy and bouncing, and I felt a moment of chagrin. He was no threat, of course, but he was distinctly too close for someone who didn't like such things.

When Elemental returned to the van, she turned to face me and said sharply, "Your dogs break all the rules!"

Oh, no, I thought. Here it comes, I'm being a bad hostess and friend--

"They wag their tails and they're happy to see people and they're friendly! Dogs of that color scheme aren't supposed to be friendly! You're messing with my head!"

Well, there were worse things that could happen. :)

That was Saturday, when Elemental first met the dogs and learned how to invite them for petting or send them away neutrally. Sunday night, she was reclining on the couch, with Shakespeare in her lap, Inky leaning on her shoulder, and Laev upside down on the floor at her feet.

Monday it was decided that Saeru would move on without Elemental, rejoining at the convention where we'd all meet again that weekend. So Elemental stayed in the House of Dogs a bit longer.

Wednesday morning, Elemental watched a shaping session with Laev and then trained Shakespeare herself, teaching him to place his right front paw in a bucket on the cue "kumquat." (Hey, it was a random word not used for another cue!) She was pretty good at it, too! catching on faster than most. Her timing was very good for a novice, too; probably because she's a both a video gamer and a professional photographer.

I was very proud of my dogs and of my friend Elemental, both. And that, dear readers, is how we fight and overcome BSL -- by presenting good canine ambassadors and by being open-minded enough to see past appearances. Trapped in my house, Elemental amused herself by discussing philosophy and worldview with me. We spent a good deal of time on racism, I recall, and yet I never thought at the time how it was directly related to "breed-ism" in that judgment was made based solely on appearance. But that's what we had, and what we demolished, this weekend.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Snake! Snake! Oh, it's a Snake!

I heard Laev barking outside. This wasn't a normal bark of "Hey, I hear something," or "Hey, squirrel, come back down here!" -- there was a defensive note to it.

As this was the day after my parents' horses were stolen just a half-mile away, I took my phone and went to investigate.

I found Laev circling a spot on the ground and immediately recognized that she'd encountered a snake, probably basking for a last bit of solar energy before going to hibernation. It was now coiled upon itself and was striking at her as she darted at it. This explained the frantic note in her barking; she's not used to prey that fights back!

We don't have a real risk of venomous snakes in our area, so Laev wasn't in much danger, but I like our snakes and I don't want them harmed, either. I walked up to the deadlocked pair and frowned. I knew Laev wouldn't want to turn her back on what she clearly considered a threat, so a recall wasn't likely to happen -- plus, if she turned away and was bitten, it wouldn't do my recall cue much good, either! I decided to simply walk up and take her collar. But Laev could circle the snake much faster than I could....

It's terrible that I have to admit that I needed a moment to realize I could simply cue the dog to stay where she was. /facepalm/

I called "down!" as Laev ran around the snake, and she responded beautifully, dropping instantly a couple of feet back. The snake froze as well, and I stepped up and knelt beside Laev, taking her collar for safety. I didn't want to immediately take her from the snake, which I knew she would interpret as a punishment for her quick down, so my plan was to praise her, stroke her quietly, and then lead her away when she had come down from her fevered high. It was a good plan.

Laev, however, was pretty sure that she was going to be rewarded for her instant down with a chance at the snake. After all, when I call her into position from the bad guy, she often gets to go for him, right? So she remained pretty keyed, tense in her sphinx down and thrashing her long tail fiercely. When it became apparent after a moment that I was not releasing her to the snake, she began displacing energy a bit, sniffing at the ground and glancing from side to side.

She glanced to the left and saw a long black shape whip through the tall grass. SNAKE! She tensed and started to lunge--

Oh. That's just my own tail.

Laev gave me an embarrassed look -- "did you see me almost do that?" -- and then relaxed. After a moment, I stood and she walked nicely with me away from the unmoved snake. We had a good laugh about it later.

* For those who don't understand the title reference, click here. No, I can't explain it either. Such is the internet.

** Yes! The stolen horses were recovered. Thanks again to all who helped spread the word; I credit social networking and the power of the internet for their return.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Trial Report -- DPCA Nationals

First, for those of you wondering how I'm able to do two Doberman Nationals in the US in a single year, let me mention briefly that the United Doberman Club and the Doberman Pinscher Club of America each hold a weeklong national show.

Today I took Laev to her first AKC Open attempt. I hate AKC Open, I really do. I like all the individual exercises, but I despise the group stays with a passion. This is why Laev has had her CD for a while and yet has never done Open.

But today, we tried Open. Fortunately, I iterated a few minutes before we went in the ring that we weren't out to do well or even necessarily to qualify today, that I just wanted ring time and that I considered our entry my donation to the club's trophy fund. It wasn't that I didn't think we had a chance; Laev actually did very well last night when I took her to a local store for practice in a strange environment, nailing her out-of-sight sit even while a store employee invited her to come and see him. She twitched, then settled back into her sit and grinned to herself. "Nope! I'm waiting for Mom!" So I returned, treated, and then took her to greet him, which they both enjoyed. So I knew it was theoretically possible.

Real life, though, doesn't always follow theory.

Bad stuff first: The moment we entered the ring, Laev disconnected and looked sniffy as she gazed about. She was slow to set up, looking a bit vacant about the eyes, and I knew we weren't ready. But we had to begin, and so we started forward on the judge's order. Laev heeled about 10 steps and then disconnected again, heeling wide, sniffing the air and occasionally the floor, and then she left me altogether -- something I did NOT expect today. She didn't try to bolt from the ring or anything, but she was very interested in sniffing a particular corner. Who knows why?

She wanted to reengage during the figure 8, but she just couldn't quite swing it. I think if I'd had five seconds to down her and cue her into heel again, she'd have had it, but I didn't think of it before the judge's order and she couldn't quite make the leap while moving.

Laev missed the drop on recall. She normally has a lovely drop on recall. This was her stressing out and trying to return to me, I think. She did drop nicely into heel position and for the first time seemed to know what she was doing. Too bad she skipped the down in order to recollect herself with me!

I was actually happy with the retrieve on flat. Laev ran eagerly out to the dumbbell but knocked it with her foot as she reached it, and the dumbbell flew out the back of the ring -- through the ring gate, by the sniffy corner. Oh, no! Laev ran promptly to the dumbbell, stretched her head through the gate, and started to bring the dumbbell back in. Oh, no, again! I had visions of the entire ring gate returning to me. But Laev paused, worked out how to fit the dumbbell through the hole, and brought it to me. The front was crooked, but I didn't care; she was totally on task and thinking! Yay!

Move to the retrieve over high jump. Again, Laev did everything okay (imperfect front again). But she was getting frustrated and stressy again; I'd had to down her and cue her into heel position for the setup. Hmm.

The broad jump was the final exercise, and Laev did NOT want to set up for it. She actually trotted over to the boards as we moved to our place and began to sniff them -- very odd! I called her back, popped her into heel, and sent her over the jump. She jumped acceptably but got lost, hesitating rather than coming directly to front. Silly dog.

There was a pattern to all this madness; Laev needed about one minute when we entered the waiting area to settle and focus. Last night at the store she needed 30-60 seconds each time we switched aisles to be on again. Each time we went to a new location within today's ring, she unfocused again. We need more new locations in our training! She doesn't have fast-focus in new locations.

Now, the good stuff, because there was good stuff too.... When we entered the obedience area today, Laev got very tense, and then she downed herself and looked directly at me. I was so pleased that she had put herself into a calming focus-down on her own! Even though she wasn't "on" yet, she had downed herself and checked in. She really did try to focus all day, even under tough circumstances.

One story: another handler, moving around us, stepped squarely on Laev's tail. Laev yelped and jumped and got frenzied for a moment, as this reactivated all the stress she'd been unloading, but after a few seconds of jumping she was able to settle on her mat again. The handler was very apologetic; she had seen the butt and walked around, she said, but she hadn't even thought of looking for a tail! Ah, the perils of a natural dog. :) Laev recovered, though she was more sensitive about touch for a few minutes.

Other good stuff -- I already mentioned the dumbbell problem and solution, which was nice to see. And a fellow competitor commented that Laev had a very happy face while running to me, where many of the dogs were offering a lot of appeasement behaviors in the ring. (Laev was stressed, too, which was why she missed the down, but she wasn't worried about me at least.)

And I stayed calm while things didn't go well. I didn't think of everything I could have done to help her (quick down, hand target, etc.), but I didn't get upset and make things worse. That's a good thing. (It helped that I didn't have high expectations for today, but still, I get more nervous trialing Laev than any other competition or hobby I do!)

In the bigger picture, Laev was MUCH calmer than normal in the trial area. Even though it was tight quarters, with strange dogs bumping into each other in the way I hate, she never hackled or got worried about another dog. I was very pleased with that. And while we were a part of the 80% of our class which NQ'd, my dog and I had happy attitudes about the whole thing and we enjoyed our outing, which is what matters.

(EDIT: I don't mean to say that Laev normally hackles when she sees other dogs, of course! I meant that even in startling situations -- as when two dogs come around a blind corner and physically collide, as happened yesterday -- she just shrugged it off, whereas before that would have resulted in a bit of hackle as she jumped back.)

It was sad that we had to end the day on a bad note. I signed Laev up to donate blood for the DNA databank, and the blood draw workers restrained her in a way that made her very uncomfortable. I informed them that I could hold her safely, but they didn't buy it. I kind of understand that -- when I tell my vet that I can control the dog, my vet knows me well enough to believe it, while to these folks I was an unreliable stranger and they don't want to be bitten -- but Laev did not appreciate having a total stranger straddle her and wrap her head while another stranger tried three times to find a vein in her neck and finally moved to the leg for more attempts. She was upset enough by it that afterward she hesitated to take a treat from the worker -- which says volumes, considering Laev's appetite.

So Laev, bursting with pent worry, kind of exploded from the blood draw area, jumping on me and careening at the end of her leash. I didn't have a toy to hand her, which would have given her an acceptable outlet for the energy, and so she looked like a bronco for a moment. I didn't mind, really; I knew what was driving it and I knew that she'd be okay in a moment. (I did feel bad when Laev, recognizing my sister, jumped up and bashed her cheek with a giant schnoz.) But someone came and told me where I could buy a pinch collar at the show, which was sad; it was just a stressed dog dumping energy. I said that Laev would settle when I asked, and indeed she did, but the damage was done; she'd looked like a crazy out-of-control dog. Ah, well. I can't control everything.

So Laev left on a more stressy note, but if I log more location miles, it shouldn't matter in the long run. And we didn't do well in our first AKC Open attempt, but that's okay; after watching the line of obviously stressed dogs in the stays, I'm not sure if I care enough to do it. I want to go on to Utility, but I just hate those Open group stays. It's not an example of real-life function -- I would NEVER leave my dog alone in a stay with a bunch of strange dogs in real life! -- and I don't think it's safe. (Even today, I had brought a backup person whose purpose wassimply to call Laev out if it looked as if there would be an altercation in the ring.) I think obedience should be about teamwork, not nerve-wracking out-of-sight stays. (End of soapbox!)

I need to find some UKC trials; I prefer their honor stays and single group stay. Laev's not done any UKC yet.

But I learned something today, and I hope that Laev did, too. And we had a good outing. Yay, dog sports!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Tourist Trap

I've decided not to leave Laev where she might encounter gunfire without me, so I took her with me to our annual outing to Nashville, a tourist destination small town trading on its down home rural appeal and its spectacular fall foliage. It was rainy and cool, so Laev was perfectly happy to nap in her car crate. I stopped at the car to let her out, but she mostly wanted to continue her nap.

Then I took her out to work a bit in the town, which I thought would be good practice. Boy, was it! I don't know why this was so hard for Laev, who has been out in public regularly since puppyhood, but she was very distracted by the environment. She wasn't out of control or anything, but I knew I didn't have her attention. She just couldn't focus.

Alena and I stopped by a leather workshop for some supplies, and that was where Laev finally settled. Maybe it was just the staying in one place for a while? I don't know. But she finally started offering me unprompted behavior and she began to relax comfortably. She also served as store greeter while we were there, as at first we were waiting outside the open door, but as time passed and I conversed with Alena inside, we crept in out of the rain and Laev parked on the entry mat, looking for all the world like a well-trained dog. We chatted with the shopkeeper, Laev accepted pets from customers, and she almost got a job. ("Are you guarding the shop today?" a visitor asked. "No, anyone can get in, but she will only let you out with a minimum purchase." The clerk responded, "She can stay here all day!")

After that, I tried a bit of out-of-sight stays in the parking lot (with Laev on a long line and Alena only a few feet away!), but it was too much for her in that environment. She didn't move, but she would stand in place. Wish I knew what the big deal was, there!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

On Embroidery & Poisoned Cues

One thing about studying behavior and OC, it messes with your whole perspective on everything.

In my other life, my non-dog hobby is costuming. A couple of years ago I purchased a sewing machine with embroidery attachment to help my group produce more amazing pieces; I also had glorious visions of selling personalized dog beds and other materials.

Yeah, right. That embroidery machine declared its supremacy upon arrival and never let me make a bid for recovery. It all but alpha-rolled me. I appreciated the upgrading sewing capability, but each attempt at embroidery left me frustrated and angry. The software seemed straightforward enough, but the infinitesimal margin of error in setup and operation resulted in an incredible parade of thread tangles, broken needles, jammed hoops, and other accidents I could not have even imagined.

It wasn't long before I was avoiding embroidery tasks. Not only did I abandon my visions of extra projects -- I have veritable heaps of dog bed materials lying abandoned about me -- but I began to avoid the costume embroidery for which I'd purchased the machine in the first place. When I did tackle an embroidery project, I had profound physical reactions -- my muscles tensed, my breathing changed, and I was irritable and sharp.

And that blasted beep. The machine has only one sound, a double-beep. This double-beep sounds once for successful completion of an embroidery block ("beep-beep!") and thrice for each and every error, jam, tangle, break, explosion, or other unhappy event ("beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep!"). Whenever the machine beeped, I jumped, even if it were announcing success -- because the initial sound of success was identical to the initial sound of failure. Even after I realized that it was the good kind of beep, I felt only a weary relief instead of the joy of accomplishment.

This, I reflected, was a poisoned environment and a very poisoned cue.

Tonight I realized that I could no longer put off the embroidery which needed done for our present costuming project. I spent an hour and a half preparing, reinstalling the embroidery software and carefully arranging all materials, testing and retesting the fabric in the hoop. I set up the machine and, hesitantly, pressed the start button. Then I sat anxiously watching, shoulders hunched and fingers curled.

The machine beeped. I jumped. False alarm; the thread wasn't really broken. Restart. Beep. Jump. Ah, first block finished. Start next block. Beep. Jump. Slipped bobbin thread caused a mess of my highlighted gold. I carefully reset the machine and redid the messy part, hand-cranking the machine to avoid jams.

Restart. Beep. Jump. Nothing appeared to be wrong. Restart. A horribly-familiar clunking sound; the needle had been broken. Upon examination, I found that the bobbin thread had slipped again, tangling the embroidery foot and breaking the needle. Rage.

Clean up, new needle, restart. Beep. Nope, this was fine, just a bit of confusion in the machine with a mid-block restart.

Still, I'm listening carefully, and whenever I hear some stress on the needle as the machine goes partially over previous stitches, I stop it and hand crank. Machine programming notwithstanding, this still beats picking out each stitch by hand!

Eventually I start the machine again and sit back. It's running right now, but I don't trust it. At this point I've probably hand-cranked a couple thousand stitches, but I much prefer that to the lost time and materials of a ruined piece, broken needles, etc. Even though right now everything seems to be peachy, I can't just relax and wait for the cue to start the next block, because I don't trust that cue. The sound does not offer me clear, unambiguous information -- it's a threat of bad news.

Superstitious behavior is rampant in this project. I watch the machine constantly, occasionally even stopping it when I turn away to the computer (as now) as if that could prevent accident. Some of my dear readers are probably laughing at me right now. Go ahead and laugh -- it's not as if I don't find myself ridiculous in this as well! -- but I'm still watching the machine. Reinforcement is a powerful thing, even if I know it's only a superstitious behavior.

It did jam royally once -- I had to cut out the hoop from the bobbin tangle, restart the block and manually fast-forward about 5,000 stitches to finish -- but now, finally, the embroidery is finished. It looks pretty good, and it cost me only one needle. I am pleased. However, I did not feel any pleasure at the final "beep-beep" of completion; that cue is too poisoned. The slowed needle retraction is not intended for indication or communication, but it is a far more valuable signal to me!

Not A Completely-Bad Weekend, Either

I'd forgotten, in my gloom, that Laev had done a fairly nice track on Saturday morning. Despite the 5k race alongside our track and a brisk wind, she stayed focused and worked pretty well, only pausing to sniff where some stupid park dog had pooped on our track (grr) and missing one article at the end where her stupid handler made an error (grrrrrr). Overall, though, pretty good.

I had the track taped to provide footage for Jen, and I captured an image from it, just to prove that the weekend wasn't all bad:

Monday, October 05, 2009

Not A Good Weekend

Well, I'd thought we were making decent progress with Laev's gunfire fear. (Quick review -- Laev was not fearful at all for years, but developed a phobia with exposure to a neighbor's LONG gunfire sessions. She became very sensitized to real [not recorded] gunfire and also to thunder through this, to the point where she shakes and her obedience is possible but not reliable.) We'd gotten to the point where Laev could hold her down while I fired at a distance and then returned to treat, and I'd even fired a couple of times from my right hand while we were heeling. (It's tough training alone...!)

But, hunting season is fast approaching, and apparently it's time for all the hunters in my area to get together for target practice. This means the hours of repetitive shots have returned this week, and not just little pistol shots -- I don't know what's over there, but it sounds like a freakin' cannon. If it's a rumbling boom even inside my house with 6" walls, it's of course a disturbance to my dog....

So much a disturbance, in fact, that when I left Laev in her kennel outside one day, I returned to find that she'd leapt out through the 6-foot-high roof, breaking welded wire to escape. I was NOT pleased.

And of course our gunfire progress has gone to pot. I can't control her exposure and keep it at her threshold; we're right back to what created the problem in the first place. I may have to start keeping Laev in my car, taking her whenever I leave home so that she's never alone with the neighbor's target practice.

Friday I had a very upsetting incident, and while I was fully functional on Saturday, I probably still had some emotional spillover. Laev was present on Friday and probably still a bit confused or worried on Saturday, but she gave me some really nice send-outs. (I've been rebuilding distance; I'd worked so much on close, controlled send-outs while making sure that she didn't keep running due to stress that now I need to go back for distance.) Her turn-and-downs were lovely, really made me happy.

Then Laev had much bigger fish to fry, because it was her first bitework session in three weeks! I'd been limiting her work to give her knee a chance to recover. I knew she was pumped to get back, but I wanted to check her knee, and so our first exercise was a control exercise -- not exactly setting up for success! Fortunately I was getting some video footage of anticipation and arousal work for Jen White, and this was indeed a great example of a dog getting too high to respond to known cues. Laev was NOT performing to standard -- she ran to the blind instead of to me, she needed two cues to return to heel from the blind, she was a bit mouthy on the outs instead of her usual ultra-clean response.

I'm not really worried; I know we'll have it all back in a week. It's actually good for me to see her pushed because I know where we need to work. But it was frustrating, after losing so much elsewhere.

I really don't know where we'll be for the fall trial. Our problem last time was the gunfire; if we lose all our gunfire progress to hunting season, we'll be exactly where we were a year ago, with lovely skills but no way to show them off. I'm really depressed about the whole thing right now.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Knee Injury. I Am Not Happy.

Laev came up lame last week, having (I believe) slipped on wet grass. We took it easy for a few days, and when she didn't improve (she had only a very mild limp, not noticeable to most, but it was persistent) I took her to the vet. The verdict was that she had no discernible serious injury, and I should give her a bit of anti-inflammatory and continue to work her for short periods. I asked specifically about the work, as bitework is a full-contact sport, but I was assured it would be okay.

The anti-inflammatory seemed to do the trick, as Laev was no longer limping after a couple of days. I took her to training Monday night and she did short but happy obedience. I outlined a short bitework session consisting primarily of transports to avoid long runs and smashing into the helper. I thought we had a good plan.

But first I did a blind search. Laev heeled wonderfully to set up and sat at heel, one of her hardest exercises (how can the simple setup be hardest?). Beautiful. I sent her and she went pretty wide around the first blind; I made a mental note that I'll have to train a tighter turn. I sent her to the second blind, where the bad guy was hidden, and Laev shot right past it...! It almost looked as if she made no attempt to turn, but her enraged barking as she went by revealed her anger and frustration. She hadn't been able to make the turn, and she knew he would escape... as he did, because I'd given him instructions to do so just as an exercise for her. She did manage to turn and catch him, but obviously her knee was not up to making a sharp turn at high speed.

I finished the session with our short, safe exercises I'd planned (and Laev did even better than expected, good girl!), but I was upset. No more turns and no jumping for a long while. I'm not going to risk a more serious injury 'til we know exactly what is going on here.

We will of course take this at Laev's pace. But I am going to be very peeved if I manage to finally conquer our gunfire issue and then cannot compete and title due to a soft tissue injury.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Happy Obedience!

Man, Laev was on fire tonight. I felt like a jerk for not bringing her tug out on the field, as that was clearly what she wanted to work for. (She accepted the treats, though!) She gave me bright, happy heeling -- even with the very noisy distraction I'd invented for tonight, someone circling us shaking a metal bucket with chains. As part of our new Noise With Heeling protocol, it was a fabulous start.

She also gave me absolutely perfect (short) honor downs, even while the horses galloped in the pasture opposite us. What a good girl.

I am still worried about her knee, but I couldn't refuse her all bitework again, especially when she was working so well. So we did a very short side transport session, where Laev did no turning and no pulling (I had the helper slip the sleeve immediately). It did blow her mind to start with the side transport instead of a more active exercise; she had a tough time getting started and keeping position. She ended well, though. Good girl.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Bitework & Society

I know it's late and I should just let this go, especially after I posted today about avoiding reactivity. ;-) But I am really disturbed by this.

Someone asked online about bitework and safety. Is it not true, it was suggested, that bitework training creates a dog which will more readily bite a human aggressively and inappropriately?

I get this question a lot. A LOT. And most of the time I just answer it and move on. But what made this one different was that someone answered talking about me, not in a good way, and suddenly the question shifted from rational to emotional.

But I shall try to answer rationally, still.

Let me ask this: Has it not been suggested that playing tug, chase, wrestling games, and/or feeding meat, feeding human food, feeding raw, etc. all will create a dog which more readily bites a human aggressively and inappropriately? Don't we all know (at least, I hope we do!) that none of these things will in itself create aggression?

I do not argue that bad bitework training is abominable and potentially dangerous. You will never hear me defend bad training. But good training is just that -- good training.

Both my bitework-trained dogs also tested successfully for therapy work. Picture my dog lying on the ground, surrounded by mentally-handicapped children who are shrieking with excitement. One boy, flailing his arms because he's not sure how else to express himself, steps on my dog's ear. I move to intercept, but my dog lies quietly and calmly makes eye contact with me as if to say, "No sweat, Mom, I understand that he doesn't know what he's doing." And this is the same dog who scared off two creepy guys late one night with a minimal show of aggression, escalating no higher than necessary to make them move away.

This is stimulus control. This is good training. This is the same concept that means my martial arts practice itself never made me more likely to mug someone.

I'm sorry if I sound defensive. Some bitework trainers have been called awful things. I wrote earlier today that aggression was a sign of fear; we can be reactive because we ARE afraid. We have been told we are not welcome in communities, we have seen legal attempts to ban our sport. Positive bitework trainers have been called liars because some ignorant folk think bitework must include abuse. We're afraid because no matter how many times we explain and even invite others to come and watch for themselves, we see people prefer their base fears to learning something new -- and it's a real risk to us and our dogs.

It's as if someone attacked freestyle because it is so inherently unnatural for a dog to do those things, it must be psychologically abusive to train them. It's as if someone protested that flyball dogs must inevitably develop into a danger around children with bouncy balls. What if your dog suddenly, classically conditioned by the fun of flyball or agility, jumped over a fence or ran in front of someone and tripped them? What if a trained herding dog tried to gather a bunch of kids? These sports should be banned! I hope you think this sounds ridiculous; trust me that this is what anti-bitework worries sound like to a good trainer.

I'm not defending that creepy guy torturing a panicked dog into biting anything that moves; that guy would create a monster even if he were playing at flyball or freestyle. I'm talking about real training. We try to protect the public and ourselves; occasionally our club politely rejects an inappropriate dog and/or an incompetent handler. We don't want bad things to happen, either. We're dog lovers, too!

One time, I left my Shakespeare (that's the one who's worked with thousands of kids) with someone else for a moment. While I was away, a handicapped child (unnatural body movement) who was on crutches (even more unnatural movement and visual intrusion) wanted to greet the dog (who had never met him) and pinned him in a corner (the person with the leash wasn't attentive to situation). What did my bitework-trained dog, the one allegedly with lowered bite inhibition and a conditioned reflex for aggressive behavior, do when trapped before this very unnatural, unpredictable, grasping and clutching kid? He just barked. I heard him, came and saw what was happening, and was able to intervene.

There are an awful lot of dogs who haven't had bitework training who would have responded more aggressively. Why didn't the predictions of bitework opponents come true here? Some might even argue that Shakespeare was able to more accurately assess a true threat and/or the total stimulus package to cue biting, so that he recognized this was not a time to bite despite his acute discomfort; I don't know. But you won't hear that discussed by those who have already decided that bitework is necessarily dangerous.

Bitework is the pit bull of dog sports; wonderful fun if known for what it should be, but scary when viewed vaguely from a distance through a filter of preconceptions and bad examples.

I have long maintained that I will be happy to introduce my bitework-trained dogs to anyone interested. (It's telling that NOT ONE person telling me bitework must be bad has ever accepted an offer to meet my dog or view our training, even via video.) Please, don't just declare my dog's greatest love to be a menace to society and to dogs. Don't make false claims that legitimate bitework training creates a more dangerous dog. Please trust that I love my dogs dearly, and I would never risk them by putting anyone else at risk.


I have been a bad trainer. While writing this, I was focusing primarily on the negative comments regarding bitework and me personally, even though there were also positive comments.

More, the vast majority of people I've met and spoken to about bitework have listened with interest, asked intelligent questions, and accepted that it's valid training with real benefits. I didn't write about their reasonable questions, assessments, and conclusions; I reacted only to the relatively limited unwanted and threatening behavior. Bad trainer. Yes, reactivity truly does come from fear!

I'm going to attempt to be a better trainer now. I will leave the post up, because what I wrote is still true, but I want to specifically thank all those who have listened, questioned, and cheered good training even in this sport, even though it isn't your own. I should listen more to you and less to the few naysayers. :)

Reactivity, Aggression, & Fear, or, "ZOMG ther R stupid ppl online!"

I admit it was entirely my fault; I did laugh aloud.

I took a break from what I was doing yesterday afternoon and glanced at Twitter* activity. One of the accounts I follow is a gentleman with some right-wing political leanings. And when I say he leans to the right, I mean where most people's blood vessels are mapped in red and blue, his are all arteries. He's really a nice guy who does a lot of travel writing, but he does like to engage in political debate online.

Hold on, this does eventually relate to training! Stay with me a moment.

Yesterday this person was retweeting insults sent from liberals with whom he was debating. I had just arrived to browse and obviously wasn't following the full debate, but the comments he was reposting were sadly amusing: a blender of "lame," "stupid," "shame," etc., and mostly mentioning his age. "Is that your great great great great great grandfather in your avatar?" kind of thing. So I replied that while I was solidly politically moderate, I was amused by the "we disagree because you're old!" approach.

That was my mistake. Seconds later, I received an angry message from one of the liberal posters. "Re-read... Stay on the side." And immediately after, "...How did you reach such a simple-minded conclusion?"

Now, I don't follow this other (liberal) poster. I mentioned no names. He doesn't know me. He must be tracking every reply to the (conservative) poster -- something simple, aboveboard, and relatively anal. I was surprised, but answered, "Wasn't taking sides 'til someone told me to stay on the side. ;-) ... If you don't intend age comments, don't use words like 'stone age' and 'great grandfather'."

I thought this was relatively straightforward. But no, no it wasn't. "Oh, we meant age comments, FOR SURE. His age is not why we disagree though."

So you disagree for unknown reasons; I'm fine with that. But you're making age insults then out of pure malice? Isn't that even worse than "we disagree 'cuz you're old"?

I was highly amused by all this reactivity (featuring more name-calling of me) and wavered dangerously close to becoming an internet troll for a few minutes. It would have been easy to provoke more explosions for my personal amusement and possibly the amusement of others (all these messages are public online). But I had work to do, and I resisted the temptation.

Within a few minutes, though, I had a number of new followers on Twitter. Either this enraged liberal is trying to watch me under other names, or others were also amused or swayed by this reactivity.

Now, if you've even made it this far, you're wondering what this possibly has to do with training. Well, a couple of things, actually.

Reactivity in training -- First, reactivity is bad. But we're often the cause of it. When we are working with a reactive or aggressive dog, we often absolve ourselves of blame. Labels are the simplest and most subtle way of doing this -- "it's an aggressive dog" indicates that it's the dog's problem, not ours, just as "he's old" or "he's liberal" is an easy way of avoiding the real discussion. That's not to say that the dog's behavior doesn't need changing! I'm not advocating that we simply take away the word "aggressive" and leave the dogs as they are. But recognize that the dog does not exist in a vacuum.

Even though the original insult was posted publicly, I prompted the aggression toward me by reacting to it, even indirectly. The poster was clearly loaded already, ready to explode; I was the trigger.

Much of the dog aggression I see as a trainer is caused by humans, either though inattention and neglect (failing to notice stress signs and other precursors or the dog's attempt to avoid a situation) or directly (setting the dog up for a situation it's not yet capable of handling, or even direct aggression toward the dog [often in the guise of "correction"]). Most clients are amazed when I point out the dozen or so signs predicting an aggressive response, giving them plenty of time to prevent it if they just notice -- and I've lost count of how many calls I get pleading for help because the dog growls or bites "when we go to correct him."

Long ago I coined a phrase while working with a couple of troubled dogs, when I'd often get unwanted advice from others. "Violence indicates the dumb end of the leash." I no longer think that's exactly true; violence indicates the confused and afraid end of the leash.
If a dog reacts violently to a human, it's because it does not know what else to do. If a human reacts violently to a dog, it's because he doesn't not know how to handle the situation otherwise.
If I stay calm, cool, and collected, and I focus on what I want to train rather than simply escalating our reactions, I have a much better chance of success. I'm slowly learning to simply walk away when emotion starts interfering with training.

The problem is, sometimes we can be too emotional to see that we're emotional.

Reactivity in discussion -- Here again, I still firmly believe that aggression indicates where confusion and fear lie. If someone gets upset and starts name-calling, that's a pretty good indicator that he's already exhausted all the logical arguments available to him. Even if that may not be true -- for all I know, the liberal poster might have had some good points that I might have agreed with -- it certainly gives that impression. And more importantly, I will never know now if he had any good points. If I should see his user name, I'll recall petty insults and won't take much of anything he says seriously. He's no longer a potential source of information, just an embodied tantrum.

Someone asked me once, "How do you handle being at a trial where there are people punishing all around you and you know they could do better?" I answered, "Shut up and show off." I can't change people's minds against their will, and people who are stressed enough to be going off on their dogs are also not presently receptive to other information. I wait until someone is looking for another option, and then I'm happy to share what I have.

Sometimes I can't really show off. It's a clicker dog, not a robot. We have bad days, too, and I admittedly shirk training for some venues where I know I can slide by. This blog, too, is hardly good propaganda; I post a lot more about struggles than successes, probably because I spend more time thinking about the struggles. (Even as a clicker trainer, I'm still sometimes drawn to focusing on the negative!) But most of the time (not always) I try to handle failure with grace and concentrate on what is important -- yes, my dog botched an exercise, but I didn't create any additional problems with a bad reaction and I know how to fix it for next time. We'll get there.

Even if we make a mistake, I'm starting to understand, it doesn't change who we are and what we have. I don't fear that I might be wholly wrong in what I'm doing, so I don't need to be reactive.

This is NOT the same thing as not being open to learning more! In my video discussion last week, I talked about a tool which I used to espouse and no longer do. I will continue to learn and modify and grow until I die! But I'm not afraid, and that means I don't have to be aggressive.

Sometimes I see requests or comments from others who are engaged in debate with traditional trainers. I love debate. I adore matching wits and deductive skills. But it's pure logic for me; once it gets too emotional, I'm done, because I know neither side is capable of learning from the other. I can discuss rationally for a long time, but name-calling and other aggression is a sign of irrationality.
If I argue with a traditional trainer who is displaying reactivity and aggression, I am merely creating emotional baggage for that person to work through later before he can really look at anything I've said. A bad reaction in training can set back a training program hugely; the same is true in shaping a trainer to a new view.
A better way is to respectfully disagree and leave a good impression on any bystanders or spectators. If I'm on the fence, which person am I more likely to follow and ask for help -- the one breathing fire and calling names, or the one who smiles and looks comfortable (but not haughty)? (This is not a trick question -- I'm still solidly politically moderate, and the experience even reinforced my belief that most liberals are more emotional than thoughtful.)

Aggression comes from fear. Remember that. A couple of months ago I was attacked online for my religious views by someone who wrote furiously (and badly) that he had read more science and had more knowledge than ever I would in my entire life. (To my amusement, his message arrived while I was writing my conference workshop on the neuroscience of behavior modification for patients with a particular brain disorder.) I didn't feel very threatened -- but a bit of research showed he was a teen beside a philosophical crisis point, most likely confused and worried. I wasn't confused or worried; no need to be angry.

Enough pontificating; I'm going to get off my soap box now. Just remember that aggression indicates fear; what are you afraid of?

* A crash course on Twitter, if you're not familiar with it -- it is an exchange of very short messages to convey your status, a helpful tip, an advertising message, a joke, a link to web content, etc. You elect whose messages you'll see (friends, companies offering coupons, etc.) and ignore all the rest.

Saturday's Training

I hadn't been tracking in a while, so of course I made a big challenge for her, right? :) Laid a track that zig-zagged over another dog's track, scented with original track, dog running track, handler, and several people following handler.

The distracting track was typical, multiple straight legs. Mine was almost entirely curved, just a few very short straights, as I'm still using serpentines nearly exclusively to help Laev focus and move more slowly. I made sure to include an article sometime after each crossing, as reinforcement; I placed seven articles in all. In fact, I was concentrating so hard on curving my serpentines unpredictably, marking my track with flags to avoid personal confusion but not give additional indicators to Laev, and placing articles, that I completely forgot to put down any of the food I'd carried while laying the track. So this tough track had no food to help, except for a few steps at the very end before the last article when I suddenly realized what I'd done.

I didn't time the aging, but I wanted it to be close to half an hour; that's when chlorophyll scent is weakest and human scent is strongest, from what I've read. Of course Laev has done crosstracks before -- we track in public parks, of COURSE there are crosstracks on even the first tracks we do! -- but this one was admittedly tougher.

Ran Laev, with people following us. She wanted to be faster, but the curves made her focus on each step and she stayed pretty good. She hesitated slightly and thought through the first crosstrack, but showed little trouble with any others. Downed promptly on all articles but one, and she hit that one when I bumped the line to interrupt her forward movement and told her to check again (blatant helping!). Not sure what happened there.

However, the single 90-degree corner that was totally clean -- no crosstracks, no articles, no known distractions -- was the one that knocked her for a loop. She actually picked her head up and gave me the "I don't get it" look. Obviously there was *something* I didn't know about, but it was astounding to see her breeze over the crosstracks and twisty weaves and then sputter out at a very simple (to me) corner. I put her back on and she found the next leg, but still!

I did not go on to protection; no bitework for Laev right now. I noticed a slight limp in a rear leg this week, and while it's stayed very mild, it hasn't gone away after several days. She and the helper slipped on wet grass last week, and it's possible she tore something then. I'm going to keep an eye on her; I hope it's nothing serious.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Where I Am

It's been quite a while since our last update! I've been really crazy busy -- doing clicker seminars, costume workshops, manuscript editing, photoshoots, all kinds of stuff. I've been sleeping very little and living on caffeine -- most unusual and edgy for me! -- and while I often think of blog posts, by the time I get to a keyboard, I just check email and then collapse. Sorry; I've been inactive on most lists, too.

But Laev's been doing pretty well. We're still recovering in obedience; she's tolerating our small gunshots but has a much lower threshold on our club field still. That will continue to be our project and our nemesis for the fall trial.

Today I went to club training and took a turn walking another member's dog about. This dog isn't always comfortable with other people, and so his handler has asked others to walk him around and do simple obedience, so we were just doing as asked. The walker before me had to fuss a bit with him as he was scraping at the muzzle he wore, and we made a few jokes about the dog potentially removing the muzzle. No big deal. Then it was my turn, and as I took the dog he scraped at the muzzle again. "Look, he knows a pushover when he sees one! Amazing how they can instantly recognize who means business and who's a softie."

Now, this was the exact same behavior which had just occurred with the other walker; there was no reason to think the dog was doing anything for a different reason now. There was a time when this would have really irritated me, being labeled unjustly. But today, I just mentally noted that it was in fact the exact same behavior and went on walking, slightly surprised to realize that it didn't really bother me.

So that's where I am. I am still training Laev (though not as much as I need to be doing!) and I am still blogging, or at least thinking of blogging, but very slowly while I divide my time among far too many demands. And I am not a pushover; I am merely non-reactive. There is a very real difference (as some can tell you!). Apparently my non-reactivity is expanding slowly. Interesting.

I hope we will have time to complete our gunshot training before the fall trial. We'll see.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Live Video for Discussion, Q&A on Lure/Reward vs. Shaping: Advantages & Uses

Today I experimented with a new (to me) technology, running a live video feed with open comments and questions via Twitter. I got some very nice feedback on the result, and it looks like I'll be doing this again.

You can see the archived video here: What do you think -- could this be a useful educational tool?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pit Bull Video

I discovered this video via Twitter (I'm CIA_k9s, if anyone wants to join me!) and I think it's great to see another view than what's usually hawked about the internet!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

And More Progress, On Another Front. Wow.

Okay, I don't have time to write up a proper update, but here's something....

This week Laev gave me quite a few proper sits during bitework, first in setting up for the blind search (which is classically hard for her) and then in heeling about and AWAY FROM the helper. In other words, exactly what we've been struggling with.

The possible solution? I went to "get her dressed" for her turn, but the previous dog took longer to finish than I anticipated and we had time to kill. So we did lots of sit-at-heel for clicks by the car, rewarding with food, with the constant lower stimulation of bitework on the field. She never failed to do it, but it was obviously harder for her in the beginning. By the time we got onto the field, however, something must have settled in her brain, because she heeled mostly nicely to set up for the blind search and then sat when cued. I clicked and handed her a last piece of food I'd kept back (surprising her, I think!) and then sent her around the blind.

After that, I split heeling away and turning to sit (as for the courage test) into finer bits, doing quarter turns and such, building up to the full 180 degrees. She isn't quite there yet, but it was loads better.

As someone else noted, "working on it on the edge of the excitement area, but not in it, and then repeating right away on the field, was the key."

Baby steps!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Woo-Hoo! Happy Dance!

I just have a moment to quickly update, but this needs reported....

So, Laev can lie on the mat, chin down, comfortably resting, while I fire the cap gun right beside her. Even repeated shots. Even repeated shots, live and dry firing.

Aw yeah. :)

Lots more work to do, obviously, but we've made the first step!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I see progress -- I swear, I saw it!

So, as mentioned previously, I finally deduced that Laev has developed an anxious response to gunfire, though she displayed not trouble at all with it in her early life. Knowing where it came from doesn't help, but I told myself that what was learned can be unlearned and started a new path. My goal was to teach Laev to relax herself and slowly introduce gunfire.

This was easier said than done, of course. My first attempt to install a conditioned relaxer, by pairing a verbal cue with a naturally relaxed (sleepy) state, just didn't take. Laev sleepy is not Laev relaxed, it is Laev sleepy. When Laev is aroused, she's not going to go sleepy. Ain't gonna happen.

So I tried matwork, a la Control Unleashed, Laev had done matwork before, of course, but it was always infused with the thrill of training. She could be still on the mat, but not relaxed, and not always even still (as described in a previous post). I persisted, swapping to a different clicker. (It was suggested to me that I use a verbal marker instead of the exciting clicker, but I knew I needed the split-second timing a clicker afforded to capture Laev's minute muscle extensions. The Clicker+ was familiar enough to recognize but different enough that it didn't spark the same kind of excitement in my dog. Your mileage may vary.) Gradually, I got Laev to relax onto a mat.

Feeling pleased with myself, I introduced the gun. I'd bought a cap gun, keeping noise and gunpowder scent while reducing the intensity of both. Within a few days, I was able to fire the gun while Laev lay on her mat and then present her with her supper, without Laev bolting into the hinterlands with displacement activity. I was so happy.

The next day, I sent Laev to her mat and dry-fired the gun (no cap, no bang, just a hammer click). Laev couldn't handle it, began wandering restlessly about. Displacement activity. Stink. We'd had success, but we got it too fast and it didn't have enough foundation.

Back to relaxation on the mat... I learned that she could hold the mat for two or three dry-fires each followed by individual clicks and treats, but even if successful and reinforced she was then over threshold and couldn't stay through the next. It's very frustrating, because her stress signs are SO VERY SUBTLE and I have a very hard time identifying her threshold. Back to work.

And a change of venue. One thing I'd noticed is that Laev had definitely associated gunfire with geographic location. She could hold a lovely 10 minute long down on one side of the field, where we never practiced those, but got twitchy after 30 seconds in our usual trial down location. So tonight I took the mat to club training and threw it down in the front yard, where we've done little work and no gunfire. Laev was initially interested in the local wildlife but after a couple of moments settled nicely, resting her chin on the mat and waiting for her click. (The chin rest starts as "faking it," not real relaxation, but like method acting, she does start to relax after a moment of practice.)

When Laev was nicely stable, I took the cap gun from my pocket, held it to one side, and dry-fired. Laev kept her head on the mat. Click/treat. Repeat.

I worked for a while, trying to ride the threshold. If Laev moved at all when I dramatically presented the gun to one side, I simply replaced it behind my back. No dry-fire, but no treat. But it worked wonderfully. I called a friend over, whose dog was also having gunfire issues. "Look! I just want someone to watch this and verify that it really happened!" I brought out the gun and dry-fired once, twice, thrice, at five second intervals. Laev kept her chin on the mat and her muscles loose. "Look! It really did happen!"

/happy dance/

I wanted to carry some of this relaxed success to the field, loaded with all sorts of emotions. But I didn't want to let myself get greedy, so I deliberately put the gun back in the car before we trekked out to the field. Went to the trial honor down location and dropped the--

WHOA! Laev lit up and a jillion volts of electricity spattered everywhere. There was something in the tall grass beside the field, and she was standing on her hind legs against the leash, too jazzed even to vocalize in her intensity. I haven't seen that much from her in a while; this was something much more important than a rabbit. Coyotes? I held on, somehow dropped the mat, and gradually manipulated her backward with the leash, asking her to down (I knew she was incapable of looking for the mat). She did, but she was too buzzed to bother with treats. I started pegging her with treats as I clicked, knowing that if it actively bounced off her body, she'd turn and eat it. After a moment this worked, and she started giving me quick glances between turning back to the field. From there, it was a long road to shape relaxation, but that was my goal.

Good thing I'd left the gun behind; my goal here was just to get a semblance of matwork!

We were doing pretty well, actually, and we probably just went too long. Laev suddenly flipped a switch from mostly stable to leaping off the mat and lunging toward the field again. Again I blocked with the leash, brought her back, and started working slowly toward self-control. It took quite a while, but I'm pleased to report that Laev finished the session with her chin between her front paws and her hips rocked to one side, which is pretty darn impressive for her non-sleepy mode and near miraculous for her predatory mode.

I put Laev away and returned to where club members had gathered to start bitework. "Was Laev getting dirty?" one asked me with a grin. "Is that why she had a mat?"

I only smiled. "That's her security blanket."

And it is, in a way. When she can handle actual shots again on the mat, we'll fade it, but for now, I am very happy with what we accomplished tonight.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Scales & Tails

I was extremely proud of Laev on Saturday. We attended an event called Scales & Tails at our state museum, where Laev worked nicely among LOTS of dogs, cats, ferrets, raptors, lizards, snakes, and the public. I was very, very happy with her self-control around the kittens in training (who helped by staying nice and calm), even when they were inches from her nose (never loose!).

She did a couple of demos on training, nothing fancy. We showed how to teach nose targeting and then how to use that to get loose leash walking and easy handling for vet exams and nail trims. The kittens showed beginning cat training (just nose targeting; they'd come from a shelter only two days before and weren't far along) and Shakespeare happily volunteered behavior for audience members who got to try shaping for the first time.

When we first entered the building, Laev got a bit overwhelmed by the crush of excited dogs and people. I glanced down as we were en route to our area and saw her quiet, but hackled. (Remember hackles can be simple arousal as well as fear-aggression!) We paused, I spoke briefly to her, she glanced up and gave me a wag, and the hackles went down. Off to our spot, and she was fine all day after that. I didn't give her a chance to get riled about the kittens (she had not seen them before) which were crated next to her; I took her from her crate, immediately clicked her for looking into the kitten crate and noting them but BEFORE she could get excited, and quickly got her looking at the kittens as a visual target. She offered a down and glanced happily but calmly at the kittens. Yay!

Overall, good behavior at the museum.

That night, however, Laev depressed me during our training session. She had MUCH better things to do than recall from distractions. Finally got her working, but ugh. Still in remedial school on some things!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

When CU goes wrong, or, my nutty dog :-)

I put Shakespeare in a crate with a chew (which, offended, he did not deign to eat) and Inky in another with a chew (which she ate) and kept Laev out for a training session. I had two exercises in mind.

1) open her mouth, with a big "say Ahh" movement
2) relax on a mat in preparation for gunshot desensitization

I'd started the open mouth idea a full year ago, but I'd not worked very hard on it and hadn't kept it up. No reason to. Now, however, I suddenly need to fill more time at our demos this weekend, and Laev needs a cute trick. So back to the open mouth game. I'd done one session on it last night, just enough to remind her that jaw movement works for clicks. (It's very hard getting jaw movement with no vocalization!)

It would be very wrong to say that Laev doesn't do much with her mouth; Laev is quite oral. But she doesn't lick or kiss or pant like most other dogs on the planet. Seriously, I generally see her pant only during summer bitework or after mile 10 on the AD. It's not even a common stress signal for her. So it was bizarre when I sat down to start our open-mouth session and she was panting.

Not really panting, after a moment. Just sitting there with her mouth open. Did she actually remember the open mouth? I didn't think so; she was just "stuck" that way. This was not as good as it sounded -- I couldn't click her opening her mouth!

So I abandoned that project and went to the other side of the couch, where I set out a mat. Laev parked promptly, but I wanted to shape her into relaxing. I clicked for chin down, etc., but she was faking. She wasn't relaxed, she was working the click system.

It took a long while before I could click a hip flop. As I clicked, she immediately popped back into a sphinx down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. She tried the other direction. Cool! Mom will click either hip flop! Watch me work both of them!

Finally I got her stable for a few seconds. She looked at me, lying on one hip, and gave me a big open mouth. And another. Way better than before.

I don't want to click the wrong behavior in the wrong place. Back to the couch and clicking for open mouth.

Laev started getting the open mouth, offering it more regularly. (Never as good as on the mat!) She had some superstitious body movement too, but I can live with that; it's just a silly trick. I decide that we're not going to have time to finish the full open mouth and hold before Saturday, so I'll go with an open/close/open/close movement and call it something to do with "goldfish." :-)

Back to the mat, on the other side of the room. Laev starts working the hip flops, never actually relaxing, just trolling for clicks. I stop clicking hip flops and click only what can be accomplished with muscle extensions -- legs extending, head lowering, ears relaxing, etc. In theory, this should relax the dog.

I just had a FABULOUS session yesterday with a dog in this. This fear-aggressive boy used to aggress at dogs across the street; relaxed on his mat, he was able to lie quietly and calmly while Shakespeare did happy treat dances back and forth about 15' away. I was thrilled with his progress, and in theory I know the concept of shaping relaxation on the mat.

But not with Laev. Determined to make me click, she started throwing everything she could think of at me -- crossing and uncrossing her front paws, flopping from one hip to another, raising and lowering her chin, and opening her mouth repeatedly. ALL AT ONCE. She looked like some sort of demented Rube Goldberg device. I couldn't help laughing, but we were not getting relaxation on the mat.

Finally got an instant of stillness, clicked and threw the treat off the mat, and let her reset. Clicked and treated for stillness. Not relaxed, but at least less like a steam engine about to explode.

Back to the couch and the open mouth, where I started adding a cue. We don't have the behavior anywhere near stimulus control yet, but I think it'll be good enough to fake for Saturday's demos.

Back to the mat. I settled for clicking for a hip flop and chin rest, though she was faking. She wasn't really lying still, not in her brain. She was ready to launch if I asked!

So... yeah. She's not nervous on the mat, but she's not relaxed. We have a way to go. :)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Bad Dog!

I wanted to do some training, so I pulled a bag full of chopped treats from the freezer. The treats were of course frozen together, so I left them on the counter to thaw a bit.... This was my preferred training treat bag, with a waistband and a French hinge and a little pocket for my clicker storage.

My mother pulled into my driveway, and I went out to see what she wanted. I was standing on the porch talking when I heard what sounded like a click. And then another. And then another click. Yes, those were definitely clicks.

I turned and peeked through the window! "Get off of there, you mutt!" I laughed. Laev had jumped onto the counter and (probably) whacked the treat bag, activating the clicker. Marked, she had then happily reinforced herself from the bag. She was now merrily clicking and eating (though I don't know how much of the clicking was still intentional by the time I noticed).

Laev, reproofed but happy to see me, moved away from the treat bag and peered through the window, wagging. "No, all the way off," I pressed, and she dropped back to the floor. I should have been more outraged, but the idea of her clicking herself for getting on the counter was kind of funny in a bad-dog way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

We Survived.

Well, I made the right choice. Laev bombed her track on Saturday, which was I think part loaded-for-failure (as I said, we weren't going in good shape) and far more lack of preparation. She's tracked another person only three times in her life, and she triple-checked the start of the track, which is very unusual for her, so I knew she was uncertain. Once she got off the track, she kept casting as requested, and I could see a slight hesitation as she crossed the track -- but she was looking for my scent in a field where I'd never been.

I wasn't upset; why worry that my dog didn't do something I hadn't trained her to do? We track over other people and crosstracks all the time, and Laev has learned to look for my scent among others. I need to enlist other tracklayers, and Laev will get it quickly. I'm not worried.

More importantly, I've had time to think about re-training. Laev is talking to me again ;-) in that she played with me on the training field (no gunfire) and, while not nearly where she was, is performing her obedience with more enthusiasm. I also set her up for two long downs, traditionally her worst exercise (because *I* hate training duration), and she never offered to budge, even when a loose dog headed for her and made her tighten anxiously. (The dog was called off before reaching her.) I think part of that success was a change in location on the field; there was no history of gunfire in that long down geography. But it's something I can use.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Those on the Ground Have No Fear of Falling.

So... yeah.

A couple of weeks ago, I realized that Laev had a gunfire problem. A real gunfire problem, not just the minor twitch I thought we had. It's tough with Laev; she doesn't show stress very obviously, and it's not until extremes that she starts to look as bad as she is. Where other dogs will be whining, panting, showing the whites of the eyes, or raising a paw, Laev flattens her ears and pulls back the corner of her mouth only. It's easy to miss. Then something goes wrong, and I wonder, "Where did that come from?"

There's also a consistent delay, because Laev really does have a nice work ethic, and she will try to continue for a while before things collapse. This is why Laev twitched at the gunfire in December but didn't break the heel until about 20 seconds later. This, I have gradually realized, is a regular pattern. Okay, I'm slow.

So I felt really stupid when I finally realized that her two major stressors in a trial were the reporting in (her first experience involved a dogfight) and the gunfire. Those can come in quick succession in a trial. She never used to have a gunfire issue, which is probably why I wasn't paying close attention, but we have a neighbor at home who likes target practice and I think he's done some sessions while Laev was trapped in her kennel, unable to escape the hours of ceaseless, intermittent shots, and she's now sensitized.

No problem, I thought naively. I borrowed a starter pistol and enlisted an assistant. I'd just have him fire a number of shots as we heeled and I'd reinforce heeling with me, and then we'd be fine!

I tried to split, I really did. But Laev does not react to recorded gunfire, only the real thing -- and it looks like distance is not necessarily a factor once she is sensitized. All I did was poison my cue, confirming for her that heeling with me predicted gunfire; she very quickly became so reactive that she'd jump just at the sound of a box clicker.

I left town for four days, which gave her time to flush the stress chemical cocktail from her system (takes about three days to purge so that the dog is starting with a clean slate). When I came back, I was able to heel her at club training with two gunshots, and she didn't have a panic reaction. She did, however, show me subtle signs of stress. "I didn't see anything, she looked fine," said most of the club, but I knew that if I'd pushed, I would have lost her again.

So today I went out for one final practice, after working a while without gunfire. Our trial judge, already in town, came to watch and offered his opinion: I was not firm enough with the dog. She broke not because she was afraid of the gunfire -- "look, her tail is wagging, she's fine" -- but because I had not taught her to "down or die."

I broke down, to my complete horror, and there is NOTHING more shameful than crying in front of a training director and a German judge. It's like crying in boot camp. Seriously, I should turn in my gear now. (The only thing worse is crying with sinus issues, which I had, making it all even more sniffly and gruesome.) I explained that though I wasn't going to sound rational now, I had rationally thought about this, and a week before the dog was shaking and crying during gunfire, so I knew it was a gunfire stress issue, I suspected where it had come from (the judge agreed with me there) and that I knew my dog well enough to know that she was stressed, though she didn't look typical. (Really, a wagging tail can certainly be a stress indicator as much as a happiness indicator! Look how many people get bitten and protest, "but his tail was wagging"!) He conceded that perhaps I did know my dog to know that she was upset, but that the issue was not the reactivity, but her lack of respect for me as a handler. It's good to love my dog, he said, but I had to force control.

My club friend had more immediate advice. "Don't take it so personally! It's a frickin' dog." He grinned.

"It's my frickin' dog!" I answered, but I took his point -- I shouldn't take it personally that Laev is sensitive. I blame myself for utterly destroying her training and I do get upset that she can't just trust me for five minutes, but I shouldn't think of it that way; I should think of it as a chance to improve her. Right after I get done destroying her training.

I know these people are experienced and are offering advice that has worked for them and others, but Laev and I don't work like that. He said that if Laev breaks the down to come to me during gunfire, I should require her to heel to punish her for the error. Heeling should be something she doesn't like to do. But I think heeling should be something Laev wants to do! and it should be a reward, not a punishment. And it used to be something she liked, before I destroyed years of training in just a few sessions by linking heeling and her trigger. /facepalm/

"There is no other way," he told me. And he believes it. So do my club friends, who all mean the best.

I believe there is another way. I have been told so many times, by so many people, that I will never get X without force. I've heard that it is impossible to train something the way I say I did. Yes, it may take me longer sometimes, because I don't really know what I'm doing 'til I've done it, but not having a map doesn't mean it's impossible to get there.

I hate being in disagreement with people who are trying to help me. I'm not trying to be unreasonable, and I'm not trying to be rude; I'm trying to do something I want to do. I know it's different than what they want, and sometimes I think that others think I'm judging them because I'm doing something different. But the truth is, I'm trying something here. I've never said I'm an expert -- heck, I just said I don't have the map! But that doesn't mean I can't try, right?

More, I have an ideal. I refuse to be the lesser of two evils -- if I have to force my dog to work with me, then it's no longer a game I'm interested in. Laev used to prance along with me to the field, even volunteering heeling en route -- today she was reluctant to work with me at all. That's not right; I miss being her first choice. If Laev heels or downs because it's that "or die," then I've lost sight of the reason I got a dog in the first place. We're a team; we'll get through this together.

Somehow. Honest. I'm pretty sure. I'd like to think so.

Anyway, I've changed her entry. We're going to just do a track only tomorrow morning. And it probably won't go well -- stressed dog, mega-stressed handler, thunderstorms all night and through the morning, and I don't know if the tornado watch will still be in effect during tracking -- but who cares? Those on the ground are not afraid of falling, and we can't get much lower. I'm going to support my club trial and support my trialing friends, and then I'm going to step back and do some serious evaluation.

I just wish I didn't feel like I had let down my friends, my dog, my training colleagues, and everyone who had wished us luck for this weekend. I'm supposed to know better, I'm supposed to get results. I hate having expectations.

Friday, May 01, 2009

UDC Report: A New Tracking Title

Now don't get excited; it wasn't that great a performance.

It's the penultimate day of UDC Nationals. The day started well, though, in that we weren't having the thunderstorms originally predicted. We left the hotel parking lot at technical sunrise and drove an hour to a horse farm, where we laid tracks on hayfields. The grass was much longer than I'd been using, and it was thoroughly wet. My pants, shoes, and socks were all squishy soaked by the time I set my flag. (You can blame the USPS for my lack of moisture-appropriate gear.)

The judge didn't let my track age as long as was legal, which is normally appreciated by competitors. I'd been working Laev on older tracks, however, and I worried that the fresh vegetation scent would be too strong to require much focus from her. As it turns out, that wasn't our problem.

No, Laev walked out into that field and lit up. "THERE ARE PREY ANIMALS HERE," she thought. She spent the first few minutes hackled with arousal and quivering, tail up, as I waited for the final aging of the track and the discussions between judge, translator, and assistants. I stroked Laev, trying to calm her and get her more into a tracking frame of mind, and while I got her hackles down and her tail less rigid, I did not succeed in getting her really calm. She hit the initial scentpad like gravel down a chute.

The track was fresh and easy; she could trail along it easily while thinking of other things. She went back and forth across the footsteps regularly. She did manage to corner correctly. The judge said in his critique that I had helped her on the corners with the line, but that's not so; because of my lack of depth perception, I know darned well that I can't correctly identify a corner from more than 30' away, and I won't risk correcting a dog who's probably more correct than my correction. Still, I'm not arguing; I probably was tugging on the line as I tried to keep her at subsonic speed. I was tempted to run along behind her!

Laev left the track by just over a body length on the second leg to pounce on something in the grass. Apparently she was unsuccessful, because after a moment of browsing, she returned to the track without prompting and continued on -- missing the first article entirely due to her detour. She cornered and settled in on the third leg, as if suddenly recalling that we were here to track! She was much more stable then and downed promptly, if crookedly, on the second article. I had to dig it out of the deep grass; she had absolutely been scenting it properly, as it was pretty deep.

Baaaarely a pass, with 70 points. I wouldn't have been surprised if we'd failed; we are capable of much, much better than that. We started back after our critique and promptly flushed a bunny, exciting Laev again. Was another rabbit what had distracted her earlier?

"Judge refused to accept bunny as article," I reported via the power of mobile technology, "but we passed by the skin of our teeth."

"By a hare?" came the text reply.

Yeah, my friends are like that. ;-)

Back to the trial field for BHs. Laev served as the neutral dog for the traffic testing. I watched the WH (watchdog test) for the first time, and I wished I'd registered for it; I think Laev could have done it and had fun. Maybe I'll ask my club to train for it.

So Laev now has a T1 tacked onto her name, though it was a near thing. We'll try to do better next time!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A View of Councillor Speedy's letter on Breed-Specific Legislation

Councilman Mike Speedy has sent an open letter in response to protests of his breed-specific “at-risk dogs” proposal. I thank him for this, because it is perhaps the clearest indication yet offered of his motivations and thoughts in this process. Here are my observations on his excerpted letter; the letter in its entirety can be read below.

Dear Colleagues and Community Leaders,

Note that this letter does not address veterinarians, behavior professionals, nor even the animal shelter executives who wrote to oppose his proposal (whose quoted letter was still attached to Speedy's response). Councilman Speedy is apparently not only disinterested in expert opinion, but disinterested in even conversing with those who work daily in this field.

That’s a rather harsh statement from me; I don’t usually dismiss people so quickly. But we’ll look at Councilman Speedy’s "public discussion" in a moment, which will explain my assumption.

We are now living in a city where one of its citizens could be severely mauled or killed at any moment by a dog, someone’s pet. This due to continued abusive conditions & overpopulation surrounding one small group of breeds.

At any moment, eh? Shall we look at the statistics?

The old line about “lies, damned lies, and statistics” has even more relevance in an arena with such obvious emotional connections; it seems everyone has an opinion on dog bite numbers. The Center for Disease Control tracked dog bites and breeds for a time but abandoned the process, concluding that the numbers accumulated were not an accurate indicator of risk (due to both incomplete data and inaccurate breed reporting).

It is both significant and disgusting that while the CDC itself warns their incomplete statistics are not to be used in policy decisions, many still do cite these statistics in their efforts to limit certain breeds or types of dog. Yet the CDC itself recommends a non-breed-specific approach to controlling bite risk in communities. Funny how Speedy and his sources missed that in their research, though it’s on the very same page as the statistics they would like to quote.

But, to the numbers. The CDC reports an average of 16 dog-bite fatalities a year. This includes what may be called human-induced attacks, such as the abandonment of an infant in a dog yard or where the owner was convicted of murder using the dog as a weapon. It seems to me that sixteen deaths a year, in a country of well over 300 million people and over 70 million dogs, is the kind of “at any moment” risk I can comfortably live with.

In fact, a quick browse of the CDC site shows that an average of 15 children a year die on playground equipment. Yes, the risk of playground-related death is approximately that of dog-related death; where are the proposals to limit playgrounds and publicly vilify homeowners with swings (the most dangerous piece of home equipment, statistically speaking) in their yard? And over 15,000 older adults die each year from falling; what about them? That seems much nearer a risk of “at any moment” than a dog attack.

But wait, Speedy or another may protest. There are more to dog bites than just fatalities; in all, about 386,000 bites a year require emergency treatment.

Yes, in fact, 20% of reported dog bites require medical attention. But again, let’s keep things in perspective – about 45% of reported playground injuries are considered “severe” (fractures, internal injuries, concussions, dislocations, and amputations).

I’m not belittling the problem. About 31,000 people a year do require plastic surgery after a dog bite. I was one of them, after receiving a bite to the face and throat. While that's hardly a risk of "at any moment," I do consider dog bites a serious issue, and as a canine behavior professional I do work to minimize that risk to others. But as a behavior professional, I know that bite risk is not a breed issue.

It seems to many there is an institutional rationalization of inhumane treatment toward pit bulls from the animal welfare community. Pit bull advocates have been giving their all for the last 10 years to pit bull specific spay/neuter, adoption, outreach and training programs with little progress. It is time that we admit as a community they need our legislative help. They are unable to achieve the needed results solely by voluntary programs. And as I have come to learn, pit bull type dogs warrant and deserve laws that provide them with extra protection.

Aw, how sweet – this is for the dogs! We want to protect the dogs!

But wait a minute. How would this law possibly protect a pit bull? Under this law, these dogs would be publicly labeled a risk, possibly limiting proper training and socialization opportunities. How will requiring a posted warning to passersby that the government considers this dog genetically vicious (without scientific support) possibly protect a dog from abuse? How would mandatory spay/neuter keep a dog from being abused, exactly?

It’s much easier to justify the abuse of a “bad dog.”

Imagine, just for a moment, that Councilman Speedy’s proposal addressed not dogs, but demographics. These particular young people, say, face many challenges –- broken homes, pressures from gangs, temptations of drugs and alcohol –- and many of them fall into crime. Because of these challenging circumstances, it is suggested that they wear badges indicating they are “at-risk youth.” Imagine the outcry! There would be shrieks of Nazism and witchhunt and more, all with good reason –- such an action would further splinter those youth, making it nearly impossible for them to integrate with mainstream society. Discrimination would be easily justified as the government condoned mistrust and segregation. How could holding these subjects apart possibly help them to be treated normally and with respect?

In the same way, I predict more trouble for labeled dogs. I see this as an opportunity for those who already abuse the pit bull to strengthen their position – “See, even the city fears our dogs, so now we’re really tough! Now I can post the government sign as an even more obvious status symbol!” And so the city, under the guise of protecting these under-socialized, untrained, fear-aggressive dogs, in fact furthers their inhumane treatment.

What a splendid way for our children to learn to judge appearance, not character.

Note, too, that there is no provision in this “dog-protecting” proposal for responsible owners with dogs for the right reasons. I snapped this photo of a pit bull service dog at one of my costume conventions, working quietly among 15,000 strangers. Councilman Speedy wants this dog to be advertised a risk to the public, wants this handicapped owner to warn the public away from and to pay for extra insurance coverage for what is legally her medical equipment. This Staffordshire Bull Terrier, a local certified therapy dog who lives with a handicapped individual, would also be posted as a risk to the public. Anyone competing in dog shows with any “pit bull type” breeds is simply out of luck – there are no exceptions for dogs which should not be spayed or neutered for competition or responsible breeding.

(Note: the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, while specifically listed by name in Speedy’s proposal, has NOT ONE documented fatal bite incident recorded in published statistics. Not one. Stellar research, guys, showing just how factually-based this proposal is.)

Here’s what this proposal does NOT include for the dogs’ protection –- prosecution for animal cruelty, prosecution for illegal dog fighting, prosecution for the use of dogs as weapons, prosecution for animal neglect. “The pit bull is the most abused breed in America and in Indianapolis” –- Speedy admits that pit bulls face a horrific chance of abuse due to the breed’s macho image, and yet his response is to attack responsible owners who are already doing the right thing.

Speedy’s showcase event, the tragic attack on Brenda Hill resulting in the loss of her leg, would not likely have been much different if these restrictions had been in effect. The owner of those dogs did not have adequate fencing, did not have medical care for the dogs, did not regard the existing animal laws. The dogs had previously bitten, without change in the way the dogs were handled or trained. Why would we expect him to behave differently for this law?

I agree that it’s tough to get at the root of the problem – drug rings using dogs to guard labs and drug houses, dogfight gambling for profit and money laundering, gang wars – but that’s the real root of the problem. I often ask, if these people are already committing felonies, why do we think they’ll change their behavior for a little dog law? Really?

Also, the tactics used to portray unified opposition have been unbecoming. They have pressured, arm-twisted and where needed, resorted to character attacks.... They do not want a public discussion offering alternative, effective solutions.

Let’s talk about reasonable public discussion, shall we? (For those keeping track, this is where I finally decided that Councilman Speedy was simply not interested in education or discussion, no matter what he claims.)

Councilman Speedy claims that, “Opponents to the At Risk Dog proposal agree ... that a breed specific solution is needed.” This is wholly untrue, ignoring the many voices which claim that any dog can bite, that citizens deserve to be protected from dangerous dogs of any breed, and that the existing dangerous dog laws should be more stringently enforced. In fact, what prompted Councilman Speedy’s open letter was a plea for the council to put aside this breed-specific proposal while animal welfare groups drafted an alternate plan which would address dangerous dogs of any breed and welfare for every breed.

Perhaps Councilman Speedy misunderstood the letter? Let's look:

"The Humane Society of Indianapolis and the entire animal welfare community cited by name on our attached position statement is completely opposed to ANY BSL ordinance and will adamantly work to defeat any such ordinance."

That bold print is original. No, I don't think he could have been mistaken. This letter was still attached to Councilman Mike Speedy's reply-all response -- why would he pretend there is unanimous support for breed-specific legislation? Does he think his constituents are really that stupid?

Next, let’s examine the “public discussion” which Councilman Speedy wants. His only public citation for his pit bull data is, whose “study” is admittedly merely a survey of media stories -– not data from behaviorists, animal control officers, medical personnel, trainers, veterinarians, or experts of any kind.

Why aren't news stories accepted as reliable data? Because they’re not reliable. Media inaccuracy is one reason the CDC gave up collecting statistics; news reporters are not trained to identify breeds and:

“attacks by one breed are more newsworthy than attacks by other breeds.... [incidents] may be differentially ascribed to breeds with a reputation for aggression” (
The National Canine Research Council has preserved just a few inaccurate reports with photos.

Anyone familiar with the psychology experiment in which witnesses reported a knife stabbing (while the “weapon” was actually a banana) knows how preconceptions can color perceptions. We expect to see a knife instead of a fruit because we’ve heard of stabbings; we expect to see a pit bull instead of a Labrador because that’s the popular image of a vicious dog. (Have you noticed how most media-reported dog bites cite purebreds -– almost never mixed breeds or unidentified types?)

So uses news stories, a source deemed unreliable by the CDC due to bias, as their sole data source for their report to support more media bias. This would be laughable were it not so serious. With the validity of this false study already in question, now let’s look at the “public discussion” available at, Councilman Speedy’s preferred source. Here are just a few of the many “Acts that Evoke Being Banned” (italics are mine):

– The Forum is Not Intended for Pit Bull Advocates. (The forum is for promotion of anti-pit bull material only; discussion not permitted.)
--Denying the genetic heritage of the pit bull breed will not be tolerated. (Disagreeing that pit bulls are inherently and genetically vicious will result in banning. Scientific discussion of genotype versus phenotype is not permitted.)
--Falsely representing yourself as a supporter of will not be tolerated (Forum members must toe the party line –- dissension will result in banning.)
–New users should participate immediately upon joining. If one has not posted a message with a few days or week upon joining, you will automatically be banned. This activity is called "trolling." We must ban all new members that appear to be trollers to protect our active member discussion. (Aside from the inaccurate language –- “troll” means something else entirely –- this tidies the forum nicely for the promotion of anti-pit bull material only. You must post to be a member, and you may post only the site's views or be banned. Why exactly does merely reading endanger active member discussion? No, I couldn't think of a reason, either.)

"Pressuring and arm-twisting," indeed.

So to review –- Councilman Speedy’s only cited data comes from a pseudo-study consisting of non-expert accounts collected by those with a stated bias –- not admitted under any academic standard. The CDC and other reputable organizations specifically urge that dangerous dog legislation exclude breed-specific language. Why, then, are we wasting time and money in drafting a new law instead of enforcing the laws on the books –- laws which could have prevented several of the high-profile attacks in recent years, had they been enforced?

I am committed to moving forward with the attached proposal. I’m sure it can be improved with the thoughtful insight of reasonable people. I welcome that.

Given that Speedy has endorsed, which has a certain reputation among animal professionals and whose bias and unreliability have been reviewed above, and given that he very specifically lied regarding unanimous agreement on breed-specific measures, I rather doubt that he is open to insight from reasonable people. He has already chosen suspect data over expert observations and recommendations from the Center for Disease Control, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society of the United States, and more. I wish I believed he would welcome open discussion; I want to reduce bite risk as much as anyone.

But here’s a serious suggestion -– let’s enforce the laws on the books. We already have leash laws, animal cruelty laws, vicious dog laws. Quite a few of these horrific attacks came from dogs previously cited for dangerous behavior or owners with a history of dangerous dog behavior. Let’s be fair in our approach –- if the city plans to vilify the owner of a show dog or therapy dog or service dog, will they also knock on the door of the gang with the pit bulls chained out front? Why not just deal with the gang directly and leave the good owners alone?

I continue to learn about this crucial, public safety issue and the plight of the Indy pit bull. It is unacceptable in this great city for people to live in fear or at risk of being killed or seriously mauled at any moment by a dog, or to continue to institutionally rationalize inhumane treatment of pit bulls.

I agree entirely, Councilman Speedy. I really do. Dog bite risk should be minimized, and it is utterly unacceptable for animals to be abused. I would very much support the enforcement of existing laws and the empowerment of Animal Control officers and police to crack down on dog fight rings, etc. No dog, not even a pit bull, should have to live on a chain or in a tiny pen, in hunger, without social comfort, in pain from fight wounds, in fear of abuse, without hope. No reasonable person should blame an animal for a human’s cruelty.

Can we really expect that by removing pit bulls, these abusive owners will give up their abusive ways? That they will not flaunt the law and keep their abused pit bulls anyway, or that they won’t simply select another breed and do the same? Shouldn’t we address the real issues?

If you are interested in working with me, please let me know. What we accomplish together for At Risk Dogs could easily augment and empower the Animal Welfare Summit in full stride.

This grammar point is telling. After his suggestion that all pit bull types be automatically labeled “Dangerous Dogs” drew such protest, Councilman Speedy amended his proposal to call them “At Risk Dogs.” This is truer than he meant; pit bulls are the dogs most at risk here. Councilman Speedy admits that pit bulls face unimaginable abuse and his response is to blame the breed and label them. There is no mention anywhere of holding abusive owners responsible for their inhumane actions.

I want to include this except from the book Fatal Dog Attacks, a study of both statistics and the stories behind them. It is the author’s conclusion after researching the data behind fatal pit bull attacks that the breed is no more inherently dangerous than another, but that the human factor is the real issue.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

If we, as a society, are to be judged by our treatment of Pit Bulls, we will all surely be damned.

...The phrase “the Pit Bull problem” is used here not as an indication that we as a society have a problem with Pit Bulls; it is meant as a reference to the problem Pit Bulls have with our society. And the problem is shocking. For the past 20 years, Pit Bulls have been subjected to cruelty, abuse and mistreatment to a degree and on a scale that no other breed in recent history has ever had to endure.

The stories are brutal and sickeningly common. Dogs are tortured, teased and abused in hopes of making them mean. Dogs are pitted against each other in fights. Those refusing to fight or who lose are horribly killed or left to die in alleyways. Dogs carry huge chains and padlocks around their necks and live in squalor. Inexorably intermingled in these cruel pursuits are drugs, guns, and theft. People from the worse segments of our society seek these animals out to guard drug houses, intimidate other gang members, thwart police action and enhance their vacuous self-esteem. Any real or imagined viciousness on the part of the Pit Bull breeds pales in comparison to the brutality, callous disrespect for life, and inhumanity of many of their owners.

The commonality and level of cruelty of so many of these cases is what should be shocking to us as a society. But we do not become outraged until a Pit Bull kills a child; then our outrage and shock at the “viciousness” of this breed is loud and clear. How much easier it is to dismiss this as a breed problem! Addressing the real issues of crime, poverty, animal abuse, ignorance, greed, and man’s lust for violence is far too daunting a task for most people and so we blame the dogs for our societal ills.

[Stories, examples, statistics cut] ...The treatment, behavior and condition of the Pit Bull in today’s society is a reflection of the cruel innernature and inhumanity of our species; it has almost nothing to do with dogs.

And so, please, Councilman Speedy –- your goals are worthy and your assessment of the abuse of pit bull types is accurate. But the answer is not to blame the dogs; they are but a tool. I urge you to please increase enforcement of existing animal cruelty laws and dangerous dog laws, and to crack down on those crimes which rely upon the use and abuse of pit bulls to flourish. The problem is not in the look of a dog; it’s not that simple.

Denver, Colorado enacted draconian breed-specific legislation after a highly-publicized attack, seizing hundreds of pet pit bulls for destruction and driving many owners outside of city limits with their pets. Oddly enough, however, Denver has three times per capita the bite incidents of nearby Boulder, which has no breed restrictions. The Denver laws affected responsible owners, not the abusers, and the resulting false sense of security belied the fact that the problem remained, even after the punishment of citizens and dogs who had done no wrong.

An often-asked question is what breed or breeds of dogs are most “dangerous”? This inquiry can be prompted by a serious attack by a specific dog, or it may be the result of media-driven portrayals of a specific breed as “dangerous.” Although this is a common concern, singling out 1 or 2 breeds for control can result in a false sense of accomplishment. Doing so ignores the true scope of the problem and will not result in a responsible approach to protecting a community’s citizens. (A community approach to dog bite prevention, American Veterinary Medical Association Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions)

Please, let’s not fall back on the unscientific premise that looks define behavior. Let’s deal with the real causes of the problem, not the symptoms, and let’s enforce the neglected laws already on the books.

Original letter:

Dear Colleagues and Community Leaders,

With all due respect to Mr. Aleshire and select members of the animal welfare community, this is first and foremost a public safety issue and a specific dog issue. I applaud the effort to form the Animal Welfare Summit, but human welfare views need to be included and proactive legislative tools adopted & implemented in concert therewith. We are now living in a city where one of its citizens could be severely mauled or killed at any moment by a dog, someone’s pet. This due to continued abusive conditions & overpopulation surrounding one small group of breeds.

Keep in mind, no other “bad rap” breeds such as the Rottweiler, Doberman or German Shepherd ever endured more than 20+ years of abuse, torture, neglect, dog fighting, and less desire to adopt from the public. It seems to many there is an institutional rationalization of inhumane treatment toward pit bulls from the animal welfare community. Pit bull advocates have been giving their all for the last 10 years to pit bull specific spay/neuter, adoption, outreach and training programs with little progress. It is time that we admit as a community they need our legislative help. They are unable to achieve the needed results solely by voluntary programs. And as I have come to learn, pit bull type dogs warrant and deserve laws that provide them with extra protection.

Also, the tactics used to portray unified opposition have been unbecoming. They have pressured, arm-twisted and where needed, resorted to character attacks. They have degraded, silenced and shoved aside many in the animal welfare community who have differing opinions or have given their professional lives to pit bulls and elected officials who see it as their number one duty to protect people. They do not want a public discussion offering alternative, effective solutions.

I am committed to moving forward with the attached proposal. I’m sure it can be improved with the thoughtful insight of reasonable people. I welcome that. I continue to learn about this crucial, public safety issue and the plight of the Indy pit bull. It is unacceptable in this great city for people to live in fear or at risk of being killed or seriously mauled at any moment by a dog, or to continue to institutionally rationalize inhumane treatment of pit bulls.

If you are interested in working with me, please let me know. What we accomplish together for At Risk Dogs could easily augment and empower the Animal Welfare Summit in full stride.

Thank you for your time in reading this email.

Mike Speedy
Councilman, District 24
City County Council
City of Indianapolis, Marion County
4733 Moss Creek Terrace
Indianapolis, IN 46237
T: 317-786-6689
Community Affairs, Public Works & Parks & Recreation