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On Sunday afternoon I took Albee outside with me while I hung up the laundry. The neighbors were out in their fenced yard with their two yappy-barky dogs, so Albee ran over to visit them. This behavior normally makes me cross with him, but this time I had a brainstorm. I pulled out the banana I'd brought out with me, walked over to the fence, and got his attention, then gave him a bite of banana. I asked him to sit and gave him banana.

Then I started to move away from the fence. I called his name, and he ran over to me to get his bite of banana. As he was eating it, I released him and told him to go back over to the fence and dogs. He LOVED this game, and was brilliant about coming away from the fence to me for the first time ever. I was so overjoyed that he was actually recalling away from barking, bouncing dogs that I let it go on a little too long and he got too excited and couldn't come away anymore. Even so, it was a HUGE breakthrough for us.

Spurred by this miraculous discovery, I started brainstorming how I could manufacture situations like this in which to practice. Certainly I can keep practicing with the neighbor dogs, but how can I translate this game to when we're out and about in the world?

Today after work, the perfect opportunity arose. Albee and I were out behind my building when he suddenly went stiff and frozen. "Oh no," I thought, "He sees a dog!" But then my trainer brain kicked in, and I loosened the leash (the other dog was far away, so no chance Albee could get himself into trouble) and busted out the banana I'd been carrying in my back pocket for just such a situation. I walked up to Albee and fed him a chunk of banana. That snapped him right out of his dog-staring reverie, and he started throwing behaviors at me: sit, swivel into heel. I asked him to look at the dog, then called his name and rewarded him mightily for turning back to me. I gradually increased the distance he had to come to get to me (as much as I could on a 6' leash!). The dog and its owner then walked out of sight behind a building. Albee was being an angel and I had plenty of banana left, so he and I speed-walked the opposite way around the building and caught sight of them as they came around. We continued playing "stare at the dog, then recall back to me" as the dog meandered in and out of view. The one and only time Albee barked was when the dog and its handler both ran to chase a squirrel, and even then it was just one little half-hearted bark as he was turning back to me.

It probably sounds silly to any of you who haven't owned a reactive dog, but this was a huge, huge, huge breakthrough for us. Albee's learned to be SO good around almost every distraction - squirrels, little kids, squealing college students, even other dogs in class settings - but other dogs outdoors are his kryptonite. I've been really struggling to figure out how to help him translate his in-class skills to outdoors, but it's so hard to set up training situations without recruiting friends to walk their dogs around aimlessly while I work.

Lessons I've learned:

1. Albee does a lot better when he has work to do. Having a concrete rule structure and a task to focus on really helps him ignore distractions. Just doing loose-leash walking or voluntary attention wasn't cutting it; he needs more engaging activities, and he needs me to engage him 100% in the work.

2. I need to use the big guns. Albee's not very foodie; he'll now eat lesser treats outdoors (he wouldn't eat at all around any kind of distraction when he first came to us), even around distractions, but there's no way he's eating that crap when there's a dog in view. I need to bring a banana with me every time we go out, and I need to practice getting it out and into his face quickly.

3. Keep the damned leash loose. One of my goals for this summer is to read Click to Calm (which I bought a year ago but haven't had time to read yet) and work some of the exercises with Albee. I need strategies for how to bail out of situations that are too much for Albee without having to bodily drag him away, which triggers his frustrated barking and rearing.

I am walking on sunshine! It may still be a long way away, but I've now seen that there is, in fact, a light at the end of our tunnel.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 1st, 2012 11:08 am (UTC)
I know you probably have, but if for some reason you haven't, you should read Control Unleashed. The Look at That game (which is similar to what you're doing) made Crow go from a dog who barked hysterically at the sight of another dog to a dog who could calmly walk through a crowded agility arena without an issue. It's amazing.

Good work. :) Banana is a weird treat, but he is a poodle so... ;)
May. 1st, 2012 01:55 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, Control Unleashed has been a huge lifesaver. I'm actually considering driving an hour and a half each way every week to take a CU class. I did a pseudo-CU class at a local place, and it felt like we were achieving miracles.

LAT made a huge difference for Albee, too. He can now go to classes, walk politely on leash among other dogs there, and watch other dogs run. He can recall through other dogs - in class. We're just having a hard time translating it to the "real world". I think it's in part because he's always been *incredibly* environmentally stimulated, and outdoors is a tough environment for him to focus in, and partly because our outdoor time is often not as structured as our in-class time. I need to remember what he was like in classes a year ago and do that level of management and that rate of reinforcement when we're outdoors.

Is Crow a super-picky eater? It's kind of amazing how non-food-motivated Albee is. When he's distracted, he'll just refuse to eat, even his favorite foods. Even if he hasn't eaten in 12 hours. Even, sometimes, if there's nothing obviously distracting around. He's definitely kicked my ass into getting better at using Premack, especially environmental rewards. Is that a poodle thing, or just a special-snowflake-Albee thing?
May. 3rd, 2012 12:33 am (UTC)
Crow is not a super picky eater, though he was for a while before we realized he was allergic to chicken -- he'd get ear infections and generally felt crummy, and that impacted his desire to eat.

He's food motivated to some degree and toy motivated to a much lesser degree, but his biggest motivation across the board is praise/interaction/cheering. I have no idea how I got the magical praise motivated dog, but I did. It's sort of insane.

I also got the dog-reactive, dog-obnoxious poodle and the completely dog social doberman, so clearly my dogs have failed somewhere. :)
May. 3rd, 2012 02:39 am (UTC)
Albee is also pretty motivated by cheerleading (and finds social disapproval extremely aversive). I've learned to really use my voice and body language to keep him engaged and reward him when he's working.

Basically, me running and jumping around like an idiot, squealing praise is what he wants. Good thing I'm not very self-conscious! ;)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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