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.