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!"
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.