Cop-out, I know. We’ll be back in full next Wednesday :-).
For some reason I have always been a fan of winter. Maybe it is because we are lucky enough to have seasons here in DC so by the time winter rolls around I am way sick of sweating and air conditioning, or maybe it is because some of my favorite fostering memories are from the fall/winter (it is, after all, about this time two years ago that I brought Mr. Baxter home!). Whatever it is, as the air starts getting crisper and the final leaves fall from the trees, I immediately find a spring in my (now booted!) step.
This year has been no different. I am, as usual, crazy busy, but my time with Paco has continued to be fun and exciting as the cold sets in. We’re finding new ways to work together since during the warmer months our go-to training location was his front yard. We also haven’t let the cold stop our other activities together. Paco is a surprisingly fantastic running buddy, and the colder it gets the happier we are that we won’t have high temps holding us back from keeping up the pace during our runs. Cold weather running has always been my favorite (versus the summer – ick, no thanks!), and with a simple wardrobe addition, Paco is set to join me.
Don’t get me wrong – Paco is a good running buddy but he also snuggles like the best of ‘em (as if I didn’t make that clear in previous posts). In between training for KPA and running and hiking and playing tug, you can find Paco right here:
I find winter – and of course the Thanksgiving holiday – to be an excuse to look for things around me that I should appreciate, like awesome running weather or sunset skylines like this one from my house’s balcony. It might not be full of beaches, sunshine, tans and flip flops – but for this crazy dog lady, winter is a reason to celebrate!
What a whirlwind of a week it’s been. Like I mentioned in my last post, we had our second workshop weekend for the Karen Pryor Academy this past weekend and, to my surprise, it went well. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Leading up to this workshop my nerves were sky high. I am a bit of a worrier, and that carries over to many aspects of my dog training. With Paco, I jump to the worst possible outcome with every situation, mostly because I have worked with dogs for a while now and I know what could go wrong! For example: he’s not staying in the crate at night anymore – oh no, he’s not going to be used to it for our workshops and he’ll bark the whole time! (Even though the majority of the last workshop he didn’t make a peep in his crate.) He’s had two negative on-leash encounters with dogs in the past six weeks – he’s going to be reactive to the dogs in class now! (Even though he was perfect with them last time.) His cues aren’t under complete stimulus control – he’s going to be too distracted to focus during class! (Even though we’d practiced many of his cues ad nauseam and I’d prepared lots of high value reinforcers).
My fears of what could go wrong began to get in the way of my progress. It’s funny that even though in class we learn to focus on the positive because reinforcing the behaviors you like – even those from yourself – will mean they become stronger, and yet I could not help but be so negative about how Paco and I were progressing as we headed to the Unit 2 Workshop. Luckily, when we arrived there early Saturday morning, my mindset quickly began to change. As we walked around before class, Paco didn’t try to eat any other dogs, and in fact was fabulous at staying calm in their presence. He settled right down into his crate without a single sound. We began going over course materials, and I felt completely up to speed. Whew. This was, surprise surprise, not going to be as bad as I had convinced myself it would be.
The weekend continued to improve. Paco and I really hit our stride together. I cannot truly put into words the way I feel about Paco and our connection. When we met three months ago, we were brand new to each other and brand new to training. Our relationship was sticky and weird – it even initially felt a bit forced (which, actually, I suppose it was). We have since taken every step of this journey together. It is not even in a teacher-student or parent-child sort of way. It is a partner-partner bond. We are in this as a team and we share every up and down. He helps me improve and I help him improve. I marvel at his successes and he shows me when I have done well. We work hard and then wiggle and coo and celebrate like the best of them. It is an interesting feeling, knowing that he is not my dog – but I think that actually brings us even closer because we have formed this relationship under unique circumstances. I love him so much and I am so proud of him and how far he has come.
I left the workshop Sunday evening feeling great. Not because I do not have challenges and many difficult weeks ahead of me – but because I now feel like we can actually do it. Paco and I do have what it takes to kick butt these last two units and accomplish what we need to for our final exam. It might take some blood, sweat and tears, but we will take this new found confidence and run with it. Our eye is on the prize – certification – and we will be putting 110% effort into it until February 16. Wish us luck and stay tuned!
Of course Paco would decide to do this to himself the week before we have our second assessment workshop for the Karen Pryor Academy:
He is fine. He stepped on a rake and put a hole in his paw, go figure. Kids these days! But it’s got him all gimpy and sad and it’s been tough for us to practice to our fullest potential. I am, to be honest, a little nervous about this upcoming weekend! Unit 2 (out of 4) had sooo much information packed into it. Are we ready to show off what we learned? Will we be the flunkies of the class? Will everyone wonder what the heck we have been doing for the past six weeks? Because I feel like it will be all of the above. Hopefully I am just underestimating our team and Paco will prove to me that I need to think more positively! Wish us luck!
We are now about one third of the way through the Karen Pryor Academy, and Paco and I have learned so much about how to teach (and learn) new behaviors. While I am mastering my shaping and capturing skills, I still haven’t been thrilled with Paco’s progress. I had dreams of us being like those freestyle teams where the dogs respond instantly to anything the handler cues. Paco and I often found ourselves frustrated because either he didn’t understand what I was asking, or I wanted a better, more polished response from him. How was I going to teach him to be an allstar?
It was right about then that we began learning about precision, latency and speed (P-L-S) in our coursework. The more I read about these three behavior characteristics, the more excited I got – this is what would help Paco and I become an impressive pair! Precision refers to the accuracy and polished look of a behavior. Latency is the time it takes for an animal to respond once it perceives the cue, and speed is how long it takes for the animal to complete the behavior.
In our lessons, we learned different techniques to sharpen our precision, latency and speed. One piece of advice that stuck with me as I was going through the unit was that latency and speed are contagious, meaning if I am quick in my movements and timing, Paco will likely be more eager and quick with his. I was excited to practice this with him during our next training session.
I first tried with our most basic cue: sit. You might think that for someone like me taking a course like this, I would never have a problem getting my dog to sit. Wrong. I took for granted that Paco knew the cue sit before I met him so I never officially taught him, and then he often had trouble responding correctly (my fault, of course). I turned teaching a quick and correct sit into a game, sort of like the “suddenly settle” game some of you trainers out there might know. I ran around my house, got Paco excited and then would suddenly stop, and as soon as he sat, I clicked and treated and off we went again.
He loved this game. Paco is a people dog and, like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, gets real jazzed up when he gets to interact with you. At first, I wouldn’t cue him and would just wait for the sit. Once he seemed to have it down, I added the cue. His response times got quicker and quicker. If he was sluggish in responding, I turned around and walked away without him in sort of a “nope, try again” fashion. He quickly caught on to the game.
Our success with this game has now translated to other instances. Previously, if there was even the slightest distraction, Paco would have trouble responding to any cues, even sit. Now his sit is down pat! I know it was just about re-teaching the sit cue, generalizing and then perfecting our P-L-S, but this game really seemed to help it click with Paco (no pun intended!).
I have been playing this game with most of the new cues he is learning, which now includes down, spin, touch, contact, up, jump and more. We have a long way to go, but I feel like we are really starting to hit our stride – which is good because we are less than two weeks away from our next testing weekend!
We’ve all seen the movie or at least heard of someone in this kind of relationship: a girl goes nuts trying to get a guy to pay attention her, only for her efforts to go unnoticed. That’s sort of how I feel about my relationship with Paco right now. Seriously. I just can’t seem to get this boy’s attention! Let me explain.
Paco has proven himself to be a challenge to work with - in a good way! He makes me think outside the box and causes me to work extra hard in perfecting my communication skills. He’s a great dog to become a teacher with. My latest challenge with him is finding a good motivator. This is, yet again, another lesson I am grateful to learn the hard way early on: not all dogs are super motivated by food. While food is a primary reinforcer, meaning animals are hard wired to want it (and therefore work for it), Paco generally doesn’t fall over himself trying to earn a treat. Up the value, you say? I’ve tried: peanut butter, cheddar cheese, chicken jerky, stupid overpriced training treats from the store, hot dogs, canned chicken, Natural Balance log roll, squeeze cheese, and more. It’s all the same to him. So, we have to try something different.
This is where the scene of a girl trying super, super hard to impress a boy comes into play. Paco generally loves attention, praise, petting and encouragement. This is great! Supplementing food rewards with attention for a dog like him should do the trick. I should note here that during shaping sessions, this encouragement comes after the achieved behavior as a reward, versus while Paco is trying to figure out what he is supposed to be doing. Verbal encouragement as a prompt instead of a reward during shaping can actually throw the dog off more and slow learning.
Turns out, I have to really put on a “Paco is the best ever” show for him to keep him engaged in our work. Sometimes when we do training sessions I feel like I am literally jumping up and down and standing on my head squealing, “Look at me, Paco! That right choice was so exciting! You want to keep training with me! It’s so fun, I promise!” Yeah. . . kinda sounds like a girl desperate to get a guy’s attention, right?
I guess you could label me as that desperate girl at this point. We’ve got such a long, tough road of learning ahead of us and Paco and I need to be on the same page. After a discouraging week, I think we finally had a breakthrough. It’s been a lot of trial and error to figure out what motivates him; something I feel like has set us back in our coursework, but will benefit us, our relationship and the quality of our work in the long run.
So, if you’re ever in a DC neighborhood and hear a lot of clicking and cheering, that would be me and Paco working together. Just call me the crazy dog lady.
I’ve been so bogged down lately with KPA coursework, clients and my normal nine to five that some of my favorite shelter doggies have moved to the back of my brain. It’s not that I want it that way it’s just what happens when this thing called “life” comes calling. That’s why I am always thrilled when they randomly pop back into my life.
Some of you might remember Rojo, the shelter dog my neighbors adopted about a year ago who I wrote about once or twice on this blog. He’s totally handsome and stole my heart along with many of yours after I featured him on here.
I mentioned in one of the posts that he was working on his reactivity towards other dogs. He also had some separation anxiety issues that left his family scratching their heads about what to do. They consulted their vet, worked with trainers at Your Dog’s Friend, and more – they put so much into this dog to make him (and subsequently their family) happy. The rescue coordinator at his shelter and I would often talk about how lucky he was to go with this family, because we weren’t sure many other people would have stuck with his issues like they did.
When I got an email update in my inbox, I wasn’t sure what it would say. To say I was ecstatic about this update would be an understatement. See for yourself:
“Rojo is doing great, and I can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since we adopted him. (We just re-hung the coat rack that he pulled down from the wall during his first week home, ha ha!) While he’s still crated when we’re not home during the day, he has become a much, much calmer dog, almost like someone flipped a switch around what we think was his 2nd birthday in August. So you can tell all those adolescent dog owners out there that there is light at the end of the tunnel!