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!