Monday, July 12, 2010

Bug's Aggression "Problems"

I just wanted to spend a little time discussing the main behavior issue we've been working on with Bug - dog-dog aggression. Before I start, I just wanted to clarify that "aggression" here is just a word. I'm not really exactly sure how to define the behavior. Reactivity? Hyperactiveness? The behaviorist we worked with suggested the term "arousal." I'll just call it aggression for the purpose of this blog.

The best way I can explain what I'm talking about is to provide an example of a typical scenario where the problem behavior arises: Bug and I are walking down the road and we see another dog walking towards us. As Bug sees the dog approaching from a distance, she becomes alert, her tail starts wagging, and she starts pulling to the end of her leash. As the dog approaches even closer, Bug becomes even more riled up, pulling harder. Usually by now her hackles are raised and she's starting to growl and bark more. Her tail is quickly switching between wagging furiously and being raised stiffly in the air. It seems as if she's struggling at this point between happy excitement and aggressive impatience.

By the time we actually get close enough to the dog she's behaving as if she wants to attack it - lunging, snapping, growling. In many situations, the other dog is displaying all the "right" behaviors. Calming behaviors, like sniffing the ground, turning it's head away, or licking its lips. Bug seems to have issues either seeing or understanding what these signals mean, or just not caring about them.

Obviously this is frustrating to us as her owners, not only because of the tension and embarrassment that arises but because it's obvious that this is affecting her in some negative way. My desire is for her to be able to greet other dogs politely. Even if she shows complete disinterest, I'd be completely happy. She doesn't have to love or even like every (or any) dog she meets - I just want her to behave appropriately (i.e. calmly and politely). I have no interest in ever taking her to a dog park, but it would be great to be able to take her to the pet store without having to deal with these little bouts of "aggression."

There are a few things, just for the sake of discussion, that I believe contribute to these issues; the primary item is the fact that she was taken away from her litter at far too young an age (it was estimated that she was three weeks old when she was removed from her litter). She never had a chance to learn all the polite doggie behaviors that most dogs learn from their littermates - like bite inhibition, initiating play, and backing off when a dog requests it. (She learned a lot of her bite inhibition through playbiting sessions with us. I'm surprised I don't have the scars to prove it!)

Also, when she was a very young puppy and first entered her foster home, she was attacked by the other dog living in the house (a dog she still, not surprisingly, has issues with today). These early life events had to have had an effect on her development and her current behavior. Again, this doesn't really change how we're trying to help her make changes, but I just wanted to bring up these points for the purpose of discussion.

Last year things started to get worse as she got really snappy with her two doggie friends (my parents' German Shepherd/husky mix, Echo, and my sister's Basenji mix, Kody) and fights started to spring up more frequently. I finally got in contact with an animal behaviorist in the Milwaukee area (unfortunately, she recently moved to California, but we were able to get a lot of help from her before she left). She helped us identify Bug's triggers and find ways to manage her behavior. We used her "touch" cue (touching her nose to our hand - a targeting behavior) whenever she saw another dog in the distance, but was still below her threshold and able to respond to us. Through this, we were able to get her to focus more on us as the dog approached her. After two training sessions, we were able to walk side-by-side with another (strange) dog only a few feet apart with no issues.

What I primarily do now with clicker-training is to click and treat her whenever we're near other dogs that she notices. For example, we were on a walk the other day when two large and loud dogs charged a fence we were walking past, clearly wanted to play with Bug. Bug started to react by raising her hackles and snarling but before she got too riled up, I was able to get her to refocus on me. We walked a few feet down the sidewalk - still well within the view of the strange dogs - and I started to click and treat her every time she looked at the dogs without reacting. Eventually, her body relaxed and she would look at the dogs with her tail loosely wagging. After about a minute of this (by this point, the other dogs had lost interest and were wandering around their yard), Bug turned away on her own and decided to continue our walk.

Hopefully as we continue this training, we'll be able to work more on managing her behavior near other dogs to the point where she can quietly greet another dog and move on, without ever getting worked up over it. I've also been consulting the book Click to Calm by Emma Parsons, which I highly recommend to anyone with an aggressive, highly reactive, and/or fearful dog.

We start agility again next week, and I'm hoping that this year will start off much better than last year (more on this later).

Also, we started some preliminary loose-leash walking training the other day - I'll write more on this later, as well.

Friday, July 2, 2010

New Crate

We're going camping up north this weekend and last year we came to quickly realize that we should have brought Bug's crate along for her to sleep in at night. Every little sound had her jumping up and running to the door, whining and barking to be let out.

This year, we were planning on taking her some-what-portable-but-nott-really wire crate - rather bulky and awkward. Then, I was at Target and found a nylon collapsible crate. I brought it home and knew that in order to make her comfortable in it, I would have to teach her that it was a good place to be.

So, I tried shaping again. This being the third new behavior she's working on with clicker training, she really got the hang of it - after looking at it just once she was already offering a paw inside of it. After about three minutes, she was going all the way in. About two more minutes later, I could close the flap on the front, leave the room for about fifteen seconds, and come back and she didn't make any fuss. She would just lay in there, tail wagging.

At this point, I felt it was a good idea to stop while we were ahead. I told her "okay, all done!" and rough-housed with her for a few seconds to signal that work time was over. I turned around to put away my treat bag and clicker and I hear this "plop" behind me on the floor. I turn back around and see Bug laying in the crate again, looking up at me expectantly, wagging her tail. It was adorable and I was so thrilled that she was so eager to learn and work (or play, as I'm sure she saw it as a fun thing to do). So I gave her an extra big treat which she proceeded to take into the bedroom to lay down and savor it.

Next big task after vacation: loose-leash walking. I'm crossing my fingers!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

101 Things to Do With a Box

Karen Pryor came up with a game called "101 Things to Do With a Box." This is a really excellent tool for teaching a dog about what clicker training really is - really, it's about teaching a dog how to learn on its own. Since Bug had been previously trained largely with methods like luring (luring a dog into a behavior with a treat) and modeling (physically moving a dog into the position you want it), she was at first stumped when it came to this game.

So first, I started simply by teaching her to leave a treat in my hand - "hand Zen" as Susan Ailsby calls it. Every time she would leave my hand be, she would get a click and the treat would drop onto the ground. After she had the hang of this, we started on 101 Things to Do With a Box.

Bug started by just sniffing at the box and slowly, through shaping with clicks and treats, she eventually climbed in and sat down - one step at a time, we got there. It took about three separate sessions and a total of maybe 20 minutes. I'm now working on putting that behavior on cue, but for right now the activity served its main purpose - to get her to start offering behaviors on her own.

I decided to just go for broke and try teaching her something I've always wanted to teach her but never tried - how to walk on a treadmill. Being that we live in Wisconsin, winters here can be harsh and, being a pit bull, Bug is sensitive to the cold and can't go on very long walks, even with her booties on. Being able to exercise her in the basement in the winter is a huge bonus.

Anyway, I took her down into the basement with some treats and a clicker and started shaping her to get onto the treadmill with it off (I followed the guidance of Maggie Ouillette - you can find her video guide here). That took all of thirty seconds - she offered paw on the treadmill a couple times, then I upped the criteria since she caught on so quickly, and within just a few more seconds she had all four feet on. I then got her to walk to the end (albeit, with a little luring, but I was able to fade the lure very quickly).

After that, I turned the treadmill on and set it to the lowest speed. I expected her to be a little wary of it now that it was making noise and moving, but it took her only a few seconds to figure out that this was the same game, just with new rules. I was amazed at how far she progressed. So far, about three minutes had passed. She still seemed 100% in the game, so I kept going. By the end of the training session (about two minutes later) she had gotten on the treadmill while it was moving and walked a few steps. I couldn't believe it!

The next day, we picked up where we left off. She remembered right away what this game was and was back on the treadmill in just a few tries (sometimes she would playfully "attack" the treadmill with her front paws, as if it was something to catch - it was cute, but she didn't get an click for it!). By the end of this session - about three minutes - she was consistently walking in place on the treadmill with occasional luring. I was able to increase the speed a little, as well.

I can't describe the feeling of being able to experience this kind of success in training her. I taught her (or rather, she learned) a relatively complicated behavior without any physical contact from me, and she learned it in two short sessions. We were on a roll!