Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wishes and What-Ifs

Lately I've been spending a lot of time reading up on the various strains of German Shepherd Dog here in the U.S. Show lines, working lines, import lines, distinctions between various import lines, and so on and so forth down a rabbit hole to infinity. I've even picked out one or two kennels I like, although adding another Permanent Dog is verboten for at least a few more years.

My next competition dog -- the one I frequently refer to as Imaginary Future Schutzhund Dog, even though I've never once in my life been to a Schutzhund competition or even attended a training session in person and have no idea whether I'd actually enjoy the sport -- will very probably be a German Shepherd from European working lines, most likely Czech or East German. They're a little smaller than some of the other types, they don't have the extreme rear end angulation of the show GSDs (which, to my mutt-accustomed eye, looks deformed), and, most importantly, they are bred to have stable temperaments coupled with high intelligence and a powerful desire to work.

That's my perfect dog right there. A smart, steady dog who thrives on learning and working and, eventually, competing.

I don't have that dog right now. It pains me and makes me feel incredibly guilty to admit it, because I love my dogs so much and I know they try their hardest for me, but there's that pernicious, persistent grass-is-greener fantasy lurking in the back of my mind: What if Pongu weren't pathologically fearful? What if his physical structure were sound? What if I could have a dog with his intelligence and devotion and joy in work, but without the extreme neophobia and anxiety and that crippling old injury in his foot?

I've built up Imaginary Future Schutzhund Dog in my mind as a perfect version of Pongu with all his flaws magically erased (also, 20 pounds bigger and totally unfazed by jerks on the street who bother us after dark and/or intentionally try to scare him, because what the hell, this is my imaginary perfect fantasy dog and unlike poor frightened Pongu, he will EAT YOU if you try that. Yes, this addendum is motivated by a group of teenagers who intentionally stomped and charged at my dog to frighten him. Yes, I'm still angry).

Minor rant aside, I know why I've been spending so much time thinking about this lately: because we're about to undertake a new challenge and I am afraid we won't do well.

In a couple of weeks I'll be starting a competition obedience class with Pongu. I don't know what to expect. I have a great fear that he won't be able to do competition obedience, because he is shy and fearful and easily stressed. It's lightyears better than it was, but the exercises in competition obedience are targeted straight at the things that are hardest for him: being approached and touched by strangers, working at a distance from his handler, holding long-duration Stays out of sight.

Even if he can do it, will he enjoy it?

Pongu loves Rally because he's good at it, and the reason he's good at it is because Rally asks for the things he likes doing: staying close to his person, paying rapt attention to everything his person does, occasionally taking easy jumps, and never really having to go near the judge except when his leash goes on or off at the start and finish lines. He can do these things very well and that builds his confidence, which is the whole reason we got started doing it in the first place.

But we're almost done with learning Rally. Pongu has gotten all the Level 3 exercises down to a satisfactory level in familiar environments. There's still a lot of polishing and perfecting to be done, and I expect he'll continue to fall apart and NQ in the competition ring a few times, but the learning is done. He knows the exercises. All that's left is proofing and practice -- and, of course, competing intensely for the next 18 to 20 months until he earns his ARCHMX and gets nationally ranked and beats the game.

Now is the time to start learning something else. I love agility, but we can't really do it because of Pongu's aforementioned crippling physical issues and also the simple lack of space that comes with condo living in the middle of a city (really, if I were sufficiently hardcore about it, we could do agility in small doses on pop-up equipment, and we might yet take a shot at it... but given those limitations, we'd never be serious competitors, so I can't get all that interested in it). Nosework's an option, but I'm inclined to leave that one on the back burner for when Pongu's older and even less athletic than he is now. That leaves obedience, where the obstacles are primarily psychological rather than physical, as the one big obvious candidate.

But I am afraid that perhaps I'm expecting too much, or pushing too far, by trying to get my little fearful rehab mutt into the oh-so-intimidating obedience ring. It's the oldest of the dog sports, its top honor is still considered the Mt. Everest of competition titles by some, and its culture can be pretty nasty in some quarters between the snobbery of some purebred aficionados and the lingering hold that punishment-based training has in places. Dogs are specially bred for this sport, and even with obedience in their blood and the aid of hardcore handlers, they fail by the dozens. And people are pleased about it! As far as I can tell, competition obedience is meant to be unwelcoming.

I honestly don't know if we're up to it, but if we enter, I damn well intend to win. And I don't know if Pongu can win, given his assorted problem areas. I don't know if he can even compete. I worry that pushing him too hard here will cause him to backslide in other areas and perhaps even ruin his enjoyment of Rally, where he's doing so well.

So I spend a lot of time fantasizing about a dog who has no fear. I daydream about the ultraperfect Imaginary Future Schutzhund Dog, who has none of my 'fraidy little pound dog's issues. Because I'm afraid.

It's not a good place to be, but that's where we are right now.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dog Mob: Assistant Bartenders

Subtitled: a marginally (very marginally) more useful exercise than Utility scent articles.

At the beginning of the month, I decided that my next seasonal trick was going to be teaching Dog Mob to make Cinco de Mayo margaritas. I announced this on April 1 so, understandably, a lot of my friends thought I was joking and it was an April Fool's gag.

But nope, I meant it. Of course Dog Mob can't literally make margaritas because they have no hands, and while it is possible to get a dog to open a screw-top bottle, any liquor bottle big enough for Pongu to get a decent grip on the top would also be too big for him to lift and pour. So actual margarita making was off the table.

What we did instead was a series of scent discrimination and object targeting exercises. Here's the finished version:

And here's how we got there...

Step 1: Scent Recognition

The first step was for Dog Mob to be able to distinguish one liquor bottle from another. They can't read labels, and the bottles' appearances are sufficiently similar that they had a hard time with purely visual recognition (however, the plastic lime looks different enough from the other mixers that Pongu could identify that one by sight, so that portion of the trick is based on visual recognition).

In my experience, the easiest way to teach scent recognition to a dog who has no prior familiarity with that exercise is to rub a bit of smelly food on the article to be identified. Food smells are inherently interesting, so it's easy for a dog to pick out the object that smells like cheese or hot dog juice or whatever else you're using. Once the concept is clearly understood, you can use different scents and have the dog identify those.

I got it in my head that it would be pretty funny if I could teach Dog Mob to identify different liquors by scent, so for this trick, I dabbed a little bit of the relevant liquors onto a cottonball and then dabbed the cottonball onto the paper labels, figuring that would hold the scent better than the glass bottle. Really, dogs' noses are good enough that I'm sure they'd be able to find it on the bottle too, but I did it this way anyhow.

After waiting a couple of minutes for the alcohol to evaporate (otherwise it acted as a mild aversive, as I discovered when I asked Pongu to pick up the tequila bottle too soon after dabbing it), I invited Dog Mob to sniff the bottles. Any contact to the scented object got a click and treat.

Step 2: Paw Touch/Directed Retrieve - Single Object

Next, I put the scented article on a platform by itself and asked the dog to either retrieve the object (for the lime and tequila bottle) or mark it with a paw touch if it was too big to retrieve (Cointreau bottle, sugar box, salt container). Both dogs already knew these actions, so I didn't have to shape the movements from scratch; it was just a matter of getting them to target the intended objects. So we practiced it a few times, and each correct gesture earned a click and a treat. Once the dog was doing the correct motion with no hesitation, we moved on.

Step 3: Selecting Correct Object

The third step was for the dog to be able to select the correct object from a lineup of dummy objects. For Crookytail, who was new to this sort of thing, I started with just one dummy and one correct object, then slowly worked up to two dummies and one correct object. Pongu is more experienced with object discrimination exercises, so I started him on multiple dummies right away.

At this stage, picking the wrong object gets a NRM and an invitation to re-try, while every correct answer is given a click and treat.

For the salt/sugar "what goes on the rim?" question, I wanted each dog to select a different answer, so I put the other dog's answer in the lineup too and treated it as a dummy (i.e., Crookytail was asked to choose between the sugar box and the salt container, and rewarded only for choosing the sugar box; vice versa for Pongu).

Step 4: Putting It All Together

From there, all that was left was putting the whole thing together.

The final version of the margarita trick is done exclusively with off-camera hand gestures. Other than each dog being released from Stay by name in the last segment, there are no verbal cues, because my attempts to work verbals into the dialogue resulted in both dogs anticipating the cues and doing the exercises as soon as I started talking, instead of waiting until they appeared to be responding to my questions. So instead of giving them verbal cues, I used a very simple system of "stop/move" hand gestures for both dogs. The only cue I'm giving tells them when to move and when to stop; everything else is determined by the context and props.

I also realized that for the last segment, I had to release Crookytail first, because he is so used to holding a Stay while Pongu works that he wouldn't budge once Pongu moved. Unless I specifically asked him to do something, and asked him first, Crooky thought that, as usual, his job was just to keep out of the way. So, again, we adjusted the sequencing a little to achieve the desired effect. (I probably could have gotten it to go the other way eventually, but for a jokey thing like this, why?)

And that's how we did the margarita trick.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Pongu Turns Three

Happy birthday, Pongu!

Today (well, within maybe a week of today) he is THREE YEARS OLD.

By coincidence, there was a doggy ice cream truck outside Morris Animal Refuge -- the shelter where Pongu's from -- this afternoon, so we stopped by to grab some ice cream and then took a few pictures in front of the Morris mural.

It gave me occasion to reflect on just how far we've come together since the summer of 2010, when I saw a terrified puppy huddled in the back of his shelter cage and, without knowing anything beyond "poor little guy," took him home.

It's been a long road of behavioral rehab since then, and our lives have changed a lot. And while I often say I wouldn't do it again if I had known then what I know now, I can't deny that it's tremendously rewarding to look back and reflect on how far we've come together.

In the summer of 2010, we started here:

...and some two and a half years later, we're here:

Learning and working with Pongu has been an amazing journey. He's my first dog, my heart dog, the dog I love more than anything in the world. And we've got many more adventures ahead.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

ARCH TDCH Pongu the Insane, RL1X

Well, we cut it awfully close, but Pongu earned his ARCH before his third birthday. Exactly one week before, in fact; he turns three next Saturday.

And he picked up his RL1X for good measure, so he'll be a triple champion when he is three. Symmetry!

This weekend's trial was held at Kellar's Canine Academy, located in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, about 15-20 minutes outside of NYC. This might have been the first time they'd hosted a World Cynosport Rally trial, but you wouldn't have known it if the staff hadn't made a point of mentioning it. Everything ran super smoothly and efficiently; they finished two trials with five classes apiece (the standard Levels 1, 2, and 3, plus Puppy and Junior; there wasn't a Veteran class at this particular event) in just over six hours, which is absolutely lightning speed.

It was a very well-run trial, and I would recommend the hosting club to anyone who happens to be in the area. Plus, the ribbons were extra pretty, and for me at least, that's not a small consideration. It doesn't matter so much for the Q legs or even the individual level championships like the RL1X, but for the "big" titles -- ARCH, ARCHX, ARCHEX and ARCHMX -- I'm not above admitting that I try to earn that last set of Qs at a club that's got extra nice ribbons. Those four titles are big events in a dog's career, and I want to have ribbons gorgeous enough to commemorate them. Tied with the Dog Training Center of Chester County's, so far Kellar's ribbons are my favorites... and yeah, I'll make a two-hour drive to trial for those, at least if my dog's up for something big!

The entries ran the gamut from Level 1A newbies to one dog who was closing in on her ARCHMX (the highest title in APDT/World Cynosport Rally), and who very probably earned it that day. Pongu was completely exhausted by that point, so we had to leave and I missed seeing the dog's final run, but she was showing so beautifully that day that I'd be willing to make a pretty big bet she nailed the last Q too.

There was a beautiful deaf white border collie pup who, despite his handicap, was able to communicate clearly with his handler via sign language and whose joy at working was really inspiring to see. Deaf dogs don't always have their gifts appreciated, but it was obvious from watching them for even a minute that this dog was enthusiastic as hell and just thrilled to be in the ring with his person. I didn't get the best picture of them working together, but I wanted to try, since seeing that bond was so inspiring.

There was also a junior handler who I would guess was maybe around 10? (I'm not sure, I'm so bad at guessing kids' ages!) and who was running her mom's CDX Labrador Retriever in the ring. They made a very cute team, and I was particularly impressed by how smoothly her mom combined praise for the kid's efforts with gentle guidance so she could do even better in the future.

As for Pongu the Insane, he made me proud. It was a new venue, and the field of dogs was stellar, but he distinguished himself and placed in the ribbons three out of four times, missing only the run that was by far the most stressful. It was the last Q we needed and the last chance we had to get it before my arbitrary self-imposed deadline (which suddenly became a lot less arbitrary once I saw how nice those ARCH ribbons were...), and it was a Level 2 course riddled with landmines aimed directly at our weaknesses: Send Over Jump, Moving Down and Forward, and Moving Down Leave Dog. Oof.

Other people may dread the legendary Figure 8 around food bowls, but I'll take twenty food bowls any day over that cursed Moving Down Leave Dog bonus exercise. Moving Downs are our kryptonite... one of several varieties, anyhow.

Alas, the choice wasn't mine, so we struggled to get that final Q on the course we were given. And Pongu actually did a really good job, despite his person making bizarre crazy panic noises constantly and flailing around like an idiot. He balked on the jump, but (THANK GOD) did not pass the uprights, so we took the 3-point hit for a retry and got it the second time. He did fine on the first moving Down, but balked on the second, so that was another 3-point hit on repeated cues. A pop-up on a Sit-Stay (he didn't break the Stay, but did stand up as soon as I turned to look at him) cost us a final 3-point penalty, resulting in a total score of 201.

It was the lowest score he earned all day, but it was more than good enough to get our last QQ, and I am so not complaining. His performances are continuing to improve steadily, and I am thrilled with how he's coming along.

As an epilogue, we NQ'ed our first attempt at a Level 3 run on just the third sign. Sigh. It was a Recall Over Jump, and at that point in the afternoon Pongu was tired and stressy and not into it anymore, so we took the NQ and went home. He had been sick earlier this week with a stomach bug, and although our vet cleared him to attend the competition, I don't think he was feeling quite up to 100% after a day of hard work.

I didn't mind. We're not really ready for Level 3 yet anyhow (I mostly just signed up for the run to see how we'd do, and it confirmed that yep, we're definitely not ready yet!), and Pongu did great otherwise. We can always try again next time, or the one after.

Because he nailed his ARCH and his RL1X, and got not one but two huge gorgeous championship ribbons to hang on the trophy wall, and so for a little while I can afford to be patient again.