Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Two-Month Countdown

Yesterday I dropped Pongu's very first CPE agility trial entry in the mail, and today the mail carrier came and took it away, so I can't break into the office mailbox and steal it back anymore. No chance for second thoughts!

So we are scheduled to have our Official Agility Trial Debut on Saturday, January 24, at Bella Vista. We're entered in two Standard runs and one Colors run. I have no idea what a "Colors run" actually is, other than what I've gleaned from reading my friends' blog posts on the topic, but honestly my comprehension is not that great so I still have pretty much no clue what that means on the ground. I guess I'll find out.

I'm not expecting greatness. Bella Vista is (I think?) a good choice for our agility debut, since Pongu has trialed there many times for Rally and he's got a mostly-good performance record at that venue. Far from flawless, but about as good as it ever gets for my wildly inconsistent, anxiety-raddled crazydog. I'm told that the judge is a good one for newbies, too, so that helps. And we're only doing three runs, and I tried to pick the easier course options, so that ought to help as well.

But we've only been training in agility since... August maybe? ...and that means it will be just about six months from the time that Pongu and I took our first class in this sport until our first attempt at trialing. Even given that he's got some experience in other sports, and even allowing for the relative ease of CPE Level 1, that's not nearly long enough for me to have any reasonable expectation that we'll Q.

I still want to try it, though. I want to see how Pongu does in a new environment (which this will be for him -- he's been there for Rally, but he's never been there when the place was set up for agility), with the noise and adrenaline of an agility trial surrounding him, on unfamiliar equipment for the first time.

If he can handle it, I think we should have an okay-ish chance of maybe qualifying in one out of our three runs. If I stay close to Pongu and give him a whole lot of support going over each obstacle and never veer away until he's over each jump and through each contact zone, then in two months, we might have a chance.

Or we might not! I have no idea! Both of us are green as green can be. Seasick frogs, leprechaun Packers fans, you get the idea. Pongu's never done more than about 6 to 8 obstacles in sequence, and most of his fake course practice has been at the Zoom Room, where the obstacles are significantly smaller than regulation size and packed much more tightly together.


I know we're not really ready. I don't think we'll be ready in two months, either. I can't read a course map worth a damn, my handling is a perpetual thing of sadness, and my dog is still terrified of half the obstacles on the course.

But I think that part of how we're going to get ready is by doing this trial as an experiment. I want to see what I can get from Pongu in a real live trial environment. And I want to see what it's like, too. I've never even been to a CPE trial myself; every time this fall that there was one reasonably close for me to watch, we had a conflict with a Rally trial or some other project, so I couldn't go.

So we'll just go and try to have fun and see how it goes. Let the countdown begin.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Silver Goes Home, Pongu Finishes His MX2

Last Friday, Silver went home with a couple of awesome adopters.

It's been the better part of a week and they haven't called yet to say that they're sending her back, so I guess it's safe to say at this point that she has officially been Adopted! and is, hopefully, off to a happily-ever-after.

All the best to you, little dog. Have a great life.

On Saturday, Pongu and I drove up to Andover NJ to finish up his ARCHMX2 championship (and his RL1X7, because eh, why not).

I don't have a whole lot to say about that one. It was an unspectacular performance; Pongu barely scraped out a triple Q in his first set of runs. He's frequently stressy at that venue, it was an extremely cold morning, we had Crooky in the car because Peter was out of town that weekend, and I hadn't slept at all the night before. All in all, neither Pongu nor I was in great form at that trial.

His fronts and finishes were quick and straight, and his heeling was actually pretty good (lots of head drops, but his position was better and more consistent than I've ever gotten at a trial before), but Pongu was too anxious to pay attention to my cues, so he kept guessing what I wanted and often he'd guess wrong. I got a couple of missed fronts where he went straight to a finish instead, a couple of reluctant Downs where he only went partway down and then popped back up into a Sit, a finish instead of a backup on the Level 3 bonus exercise, and... just a bunch of stuff like that. No broken Stays or blown jumps, so no NQs, but our scores were pretty sad.

But Pongu did finish his MX2 in the first set of runs, even if he did cut it close.

I scratched the second set because I had to get back to work and also, with zero sleep, I was legitimately concerned about being a road hazard on the way back if we stayed the whole time. It was shaping up to be a long trial, and I didn't think I could handle another four to six hours of being awake before trying to drive home in the dark. Probably Pongu would have done better on his second set of runs after having had a few more hours to acclimatize, but oh well, didn't happen.

We have a couple more Rally trials in December, but nothing else big on the horizon. Pongu's MX2 is the only major title he had left to finish this year. I aaalmost wish he hadn't gotten it so that we could have finished it at our home club on December 7, but then I would have had to stress about "what if he misses it? what if we don't get a triple Q?" and so it's probably better to just have that worry off the table.

Pongu is the 13th mixed-breed dog in the history of the world to finish the ARCHMX2 title, the 60th dog overall, and the 10th dog in all breeds to get it this year. (Those last two achievements might need asterisks, though, as there were two other dogs who also won their MX2s that same weekend, and I have no idea which of them actually was first in time.)

Hoo-ray. I guess I should finally think about putting up another ribbon board in my office.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Silver Gets Ready to Go Home

We are winding down our time with Silver. Tomorrow she's scheduled to go home with wonderful adopters, and I hope she'll go on to have an amazing life. I always feel so lucky to be able to help these little guys move from a desperately bad situation to some of the most caring and committed homes in the world. Where they go is lightyears better than where they've been, and every time I place a dog, I'm thrilled for that dog and sad for the others who didn't roll such a lucky number in life's lottery.

But anyway.

In her last few days here, we haven't really been working on anything new. Some other stuff popped up over the past week or so that's unfortunately derailed a lot of my attention away from training the foster dog, so poor Silver has mostly been on the back burner this week.

One of the things we have been working on is impulse control in outdoor environments, also known as "not freaking out and losing your mind when another dog walks by on the sidewalk, plz kthx." On Sunday, Silver suddenly started jumping and barking at other dogs she saw around our neighborhood. I'm not entirely sure what's going on there, except that it seems to be some stripe of excitement/frustration/territorialness and not a fear reaction. Which is good, because excitement is much easier to fix than fear.

So we've spent some time figuring out Silver's threshold distances (i.e., how close she can be to another dog before she starts losing her mind) and then working on various alternative incompatible behaviors at or below threshold distance. I'm prompting her for attention, immediately rewarding that, and then either prompting for a Sit or a quick, happy walk away from the other dog, depending on which is more appropriate in that particular situation. If the dog is already moving away from us, I ask for a Sit. If the dog is either staying in place or moving toward us, then I prompt Silver to move away.

That gets rewarded too: once we're sufficiently far away and Silver is paying enough attention to me, I throw a big party of treats and praise and a little bit of chase/tag play or petting depending on whether I want to ramp her up or calm her down.

After three days of this, we've made enough progress that we're pretty much back to where we were on Sunday right before she started reacting at all. We took this picture on a side street this morning with another dog about 40 feet away on a cross street:

...and that was one of five or six pictures I was able to get with only the briefest diversions of eye contact away from me. Silver held that Sit for almost a full minute and was, with only sporadic reinforcement (because I was trying to take pictures and couldn't rapid-fire treats the whole time), able to ignore the other dog at that distance.

I am, accordingly, pretty confident that her adopters should be able to get a handle on this behavior without too much trouble. They seem to be pretty on top of things, and Silver is not a dog that I'd currently characterize as "reactive." Her behavior is no worse than what I've seen from many, many excitable sport dogs on the competition circuit. You can't have a firecracker that doesn't throw a few sparks!

But, on the flipside, it is an issue that we're dealing with right now, and it is not hard to accidentally make reactive behavior worse by putting the dog over threshold or turning it into full-blown defensive aggression by employing punishment at the wrong times (these borderline excitement/frustration cases are really, really one of those situations where if you are going to use punishment, getting the timing right is super important -- one of many reasons I don't choose to go that way), so it's definitely not a place where you'd want to go "okay, problem solved" and just ignore it. This is going to need continued work to strengthen and maintain.

Also Silver met a cat today:

She was reaaaally fascinated with that cat. I think she was as amazed by the invisible forcefield protecting the cat, and the cat's resultant fearlessness, as the presence of the cat itself. Silver is still a little bit confused about glass doors (she's finally stopped walking facefirst into the glass doors around our condo, but that took about a week, and I can see her get confused by other glass doors that she encounters on walks), and this glassed-in viewing portal just about blew her mind.

On the health front, I'm keeping an eye on the two raw spots on her legs. When she arrived, she had a ton of little nicks and cuts all over her front legs and paw pads. I'll never know for sure how she got them, but I would guess that she probably picked up those cuts while wandering around in the woods. It can be a rough life for a dog out there.

Most of her cuts healed up within the first week, but she's got two that are not healing like the others, and I'm starting to wonder if she's been worrying at them and turning them into hot spots. I haven't caught her licking or chewing at them, but it's possible that she's been doing that in the crate while I'm at work and can't watch her. The spots themselves appear inconclusive at this time -- they're not definitely hot spots to my eye, but they also aren't definitely not hot spots. If they persist for more than a week post-adoption, or if they get any worse, that might warrant a look from a vet.

Finally, she's been spending a lot of time playing biteyface with Crookytail, up until Pongu intervenes and ruins their games (which he always does, because Pongu thinks playing is Against The Rules):

And that's more or less where we are as we start wrapping up Silver's stint as a foster dog. Tomorrow morning I'll pack up her tiny suitcase, and tomorrow afternoon she is scheduled to go home.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

End of Week One with Silver

We're coming to the end of our first week with Silver.

Training is going well. She's pretty good on a loose leash (she's started pulling toward other dogs, but this is normal and is typically just a phase that lasts until she realizes that it never works and only good behavior ever gets anything), potty training is progressing nicely (we're now down to approx. 10 minutes of walking around outside before she potties, and there have been zero accidents since that first rainy day), and she's beginning to do a default Sit at the door to go outside instead of trying to jump up and scratch at it to get me to open the door. Her "Sit" is starting to transition to a pure verbal cue without any hand gestures.

She still cries in the crate a little when she's bored, but this has been steadily diminishing for the past several days and I'm pretty sure it will vanish altogether by the end of next week. Crate crying is a behavior that has a high chance of regressing when she moves to a new environment, though, so her adopters should probably be prepared to start all over again on that one. As far as I can tell, it's just run-of-the-mill "I'm bored/lonely/have to potty and I want to get out" crying, not indicative of separation anxiety. Silver has shown no separation anxiety while I've had her, and by this point I would have expected it to start showing up at least a little bit if she had that issue.

One important caveat there is that I can't tell if she has isolation distress. I don't think she does (I haven't seen any signs of it), but I can't make a 100% guarantee about that one.

(Footnote explanation: These terms are often used interchangeably, especially in quick-and-dirty "training 101" materials on the Internet, but they actually refer to two slightly different things. Separation anxiety refers to a dog who becomes distressed upon being separated from a specific person or creature. The presence of a different person or creature does not console the dog. Pongu might be considered to have separation anxiety, because he only cares if I'm around; he does not care if anybody else is around. The presence of any other person or animal, even if it's Peter the Spousal Unit or Crookytail, does nothing to make him feel better. If I'm not there, he gets panicky. That's classic separation anxiety.

Isolation distress refers to an animal who becomes distress upon being isolated from all other people or creatures. The animal is not attached to one (or two) specific person(s) or animal(s), and can therefore be consoled by having another familiar creature around. Crookytail used to be like this when we first got him: if he was left alone, he would panic. If he had another person or dog around -- even if the other dog was Pongu, who was just a complete jerk to him back then [not that this has changed] -- then he was okay. Because Crooky is not actually a crazy dog, he got over this on his own within a couple of months as he became more comfortable in our home and more accustomed to our routines, but we did have a few months there where he really didn't like to be left totally alone and would very carefully wreck one thing every time he was isolated for more than a few minutes.)

The reason I can't be 100% sure about Silver and isolation distress is because, at least so far, she's never been totally alone while I've had her. Either Peter or one of the other dogs has always been around. I honestly do not think this is an issue for her, but I'll note it in the interest of full disclosure: that's a potential blind spot in my evaluation.

Everything I can evaluate, however, leads me to believe that she's an awesome little pet dog. She really hits that balance of playful and mellow that everybody asks for, she's picking up good manners at a quick clip, and she's appropriately sociable with everyone and everything I've introduced her to so far (by which I mean: she doesn't mug people for attention but she doesn't cringe or snap either. Friendly neutrality and occasional curiosity seems to be her default attitude, which is exactly what I think makes for the easiest dogs).

As to whether she'd be suited for dog sports... eh, I think it's still too early to tell on that front.

I did introduce her to Lotus Balls a few days ago. This is her first attempt:

...and then we started doing some suuuuper basic introductions to a bar jump. This is her third session overall, second one where the bar wasn't just flat on the ground (it's raised about 3 inches in this clip).

Silver has a good, quick recovery from being startled by the noise when she crashes into the bar and knocks it off the cups, and she's easy to motivate with food, either indoors or outdoors. She has pretty decent interest in toys (both chase and tug toys) but I haven't really attempted to use toys as motivators or built up her play skills in any serious fashion. I don't imagine it would be difficult, I just haven't put the time in to do that.

Her attention span is increasing noticeably even over the course of this first week and our training sessions are beginning to get a little more structured, which is nice.

So that's pretty much where we are at the end of this first week. Silver has meetings with two sets of prospective adopters this weekend. Both seem like very nice homes and I'm hopeful that she'll hit it off with one or both.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Day Four: Silver Starts Training

Day Four with Silver, and we're finally to a place where we can do some foundational training.

The first order of business with a new foster dog is always housebreaking (and, because we live in the middle of the city with no yard, loose-leash walking -- as a practical matter, we always end up working on those two skills in combination). I can't really do much indoor training with a dog who might pee in my kitchen at any moment, so formal training has to wait until we've got the potty situation at least marginally under control.

Fortunately, Silver crossed that threshold yesterday.

We are, as usual, following Sue Sternberg's potty training protocol. I take Silver outside regularly and walk her around for a while until she potties. Every time she potties, she gets free run of the house for 15 minutes, plus another 15 minutes for each day that passes without an accident (so 30 minutes on the second day, 45 minutes on the third day, etc.). Then she goes back into the crate until it's time to go outside again.

Currently it takes her about 20 minutes of walking around outside to get relaxed enough to potty, but she's been pretty consistent about that for the past couple of days, and probably that time will go down as she gets more comfortable with the city. There haven't been any potty accidents since her first day here, which was a super stormy and windy day and probably scared her enough that she couldn't make herself go. Other than that one unusually blustery day, we really haven't had any trouble.

I'd be lying if I said she was totally potty trained, but she's making very good progress, and I don't anticipate that her adopters will have any trouble finishing the job.

So, now that we've accomplished a minimum level of reliability, this morning I started introducing the clicker.

Here's a short video of an early session (we're eventually going to be working on establishing Sit as a default behavior, but Silver doesn't really understand that yet -- this is very much a snapshot of the learning process in its earliest stages, not the finished product):

It's too early to tell how she'll take to it, but we'll play around with shaping/capturing/luring games for however long I've got to work with this little muppet. I'm toying with the idea of starting her on agility jump drills (seems like a thing she might enjoy, and I need the practice), but Silver has a cut on one of her paw pads that's causing her to limp right now, so that may not be such a great idea at the moment.

I feel like she has a lot of promise to be a fun little starter sport dog. Again, it's too soon to be sure, but I do feel like Silver has it in her to be a firecracker, if her eventual owners decide to go that way with her.

Tuesday night, she had her first visit to the local dog park. It went pretty well. The park was mostly empty when we arrived (which was good, as it gave Pongu a chance to do a little bit of agility practice) and then suddenly filled up with a lot of new owners who really hadn't done much with their dogs (like, to the point where said dogs actually tore holes in my shirt jumping on me because they were trying to mug me for treats, and of course paid no attention to their owners' half-hearted attempts to get them off).

(I put the jumps away because, given the environment and crowding, it wasn't safe to practice those, and reverted to Rally practice instead. Pongu held his Heel perfectly throughout this level of distraction and, indeed, never broke eye contact even while unruly dogs were jumping on me and trying to hump him. I AM SO PROUD OF HIM. <3 <3 <3)

Anyway, Silver was great at the dog park, played appropriately with all the dogs she encountered -- many of whom were perfectly nice but also totally untrained -- and was quick to break away if I indicated that I might want to work with her. She followed me out of the park without being called when it was time to go, and waited patiently to be harnessed up with the rest of Dog Mob. I was very pleased with her behavior on that first visit.

She also showed a lot of interest in Pongu's agility work. Maybe I should get going on those jump drills with her after all...

Monday, November 3, 2014

Three Days With Silver

It's been three days since Silver came to stay with us, and she's starting to emerge from her shell.

I'll be honest: the first 24 hours that we had her, I was a leeetle bit underwhelmed with this dog. Silver was super shut down and pancake-y when she first arrived. On the ride home from Newark, she just sat on the far side of the car seat by herself, showing no apparent interest in engaging with me or looking around her surroundings. She flat-out refused to go down the dark scary stairs in the parking garage (we ended up having to take the freight elevator) and she wasn't a whole lot more enthusiastic about the stairs in the condo.

She just had no confidence whatsoever. And while this is not at all unusual, and plenty of our foster dogs have been pancake-y and overwhelmed those first few days, it does make for a tough introductory period. Silver was initially so withdrawn that I wasn't sure what to expect from her. I try really hard to avoid picking shy or fearful dogs -- the whole reason I got into fostering in the first place was to ensure that other adopters didn't accidentally wind up with their own little Pongus -- and for a minute there I was worried that I might have gotten one.

Happily, I was wrong. On Sunday, Silver started coming out of her shell. She got over her terror of the stairs (thanks in no small part to Crooky modeling casual confidence for her and showing that the stairs were not, in fact, a secret treacherous deathtrap for unsuspecting dogs, but were actually a great way to coax cookies out of me). She got more comfortable about walking on leash outside.

On Sunday night I took her out to the parking garage to run around with Dog Mob. I had to go out there anyway to do some agility homework with Pongu, and I figured it would be a good opportunity to let Silver blow off some steam by slamming herself into the concrete a bunch of times (...or something).

Mostly I just wanted to see what she would do without much guidance from me. What were her natural inclinations? Did she have the natural impulse control to hold a basically untrained Sit with the other dogs nearby? Would she follow me around the parking garage if I dropped her leash and didn't do anything to coax or cajole her either way? What kind of dog did I have on my hands?

Here's how that went:

Silver held a completely untrained Sit-Stay for five seconds, with other dogs nearby, knowing that those other dogs were (nominally) available to play with (although not really, as the video shows). That is amazing. To me, a dog who can do that right off the bat on her very first try, with zero formal training on Sits or Stays or anything else, is a remarkable dog.

Then she played with Crooky (Pongu, as usual, wanted no part of this frivolous nonsense). Good enthusiasm, a little uncertainty, a lot of rolling over and other appeasement signals. This was their first time playing together, though, and she consistently went back to re-engage him and didn't seem overly stressed or worried, so I view that as a very promising first session. A few times Silver ran back to me and dodged Crooky around my legs, which I also interpret as highly promising (since at this point we have no real relationship).

She did follow me around the parking garage unprompted, even while playing with the other dogs. I never had to chase her down to get her back at the end of each play session; she came back freely each time, even with no recall training.

It was a good session. Silver was a little squeaky and protest-ful when I tied her to a pole so Pongu could do his agility homework, but nothing terrible.

On Monday I took her out for a 90-minute walk around Old City and Society Hill. Silver is very good at walking on a loose leash now; she stayed by my side almost the entire time with no pulling except once when she wanted to greet a puggle (which I didn't allow because I don't want to start setting a precedent where she thinks she gets to greet every dog on the street. Noooo. We ignore the other dogs on the street).

Then we went home and I let her sit around on the deck while I harvested one of my fabric pots full of carrots, because she hadn't pottied outside and I was resigned to letting her go on the deck just to get it over with before I left for work.

She never did, though. She just lazed in the sun and watched me.

Carrots: not very interesting to the foster dog.

So that's where we are heading into our first week together. I'm hoping to be able to start formal training soon. I did a little introductory clicker work during our walk, but out on walks is not the optimal environment to introduce that concept, and until she gets more reliable about pottying outside, we can't do a whole lot of work inside.

Hopefully soon, though.

In the meantime she's turning out to be a pretty great little dog. Easily engaged, enthusiastic, fun and playful, but content to lie around patiently if I'm not actively trying to do stuff with her. Highly dog-social, but good at turning that on and off.

She'll make a really nice dog for someone.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hi-ho, Silver!

Last night at 1 a.m., we drove out on a cold and blustery Halloween night to a rest stop in Newark, Delaware, to collect Temporary Dog #26: Silver!

It was a slightly terrifying drive. Halloween must be a much bigger DUI holiday than I realized. We saw two incredibly nasty wrecks on the way there and back; judging from the recency of the glass and machine parts spilled across the Interstate, the number of emergency personnel on the scene, and the lack of backed-up traffic, we must have missed each accident by mere minutes.

One of them was a three-car accident where two cars were damaged and the third was completely destroyed. The other was a one-car accident where somebody somehow dodged between two guard rails and smashed into an overpass support pillar at an insanely high rate of speed. The car was just crumpled and the back end was sticking out into the air at a crazy angle, it was like something out of a movie. No way did whoever was in that car survive that one.

So that was a little scary. But we made it safely out to Newark and we made it safely back, and our drive was pretty uneventful. Around 3:30 a.m. we brought this little muppet back to Philly:

Silver is a mystery mutt from Robeson County, North Carolina, where she was picked up as a stray wandering along the side of the road. One of my Facebook friends guessed that she might be a whippet/husky mix, and that's as good a guess as I can come up with (both in terms of her appearance/build and what I've been able to discern of her personality so far), so we'll go with it. In truth, though, that is a total guess and I have no real idea what her breed mix might be.

She's about 35 pounds, which is a healthy weight (maaaybe she could stand to gain another 1-2 pounds of muscle, but she really doesn't need much more). Good athletic build. Very sweet disposition, gentle and tolerant of body handling. Highly dog-social; she's tried her best to ingratiate herself with Dog Mob and make friends with Crookytail while avoiding Pongu's wrath. I no longer have a guinea pig (RIP, little dude), so I haven't been able to see how she does with other types of pets; I'll probably have to make an educated guess based on how she reacts to whatever we encounter on walks over the next few days.

At the moment, Silver is completely overwhelmed by culture shock, so I have not yet had an opportunity to get a clear read on her personality. We're just going to take it slow for a few days and give her some time to get more comfortable with the huge change from rural North Carolina to the middle of Philly.

The first order of business is to get her accustomed to walking on leash (her first night was a disaster -- I have never seen a dog wind herself around so many light posts in such short order! -- but she's picking it up quickly, and I feel pretty confident that she'll have the basic idea down in a few more days) and pottying outside. Crooky is being a big help in teaching her both of those things, and she seems to be grateful for his TA'ing her crash course in City Dog Life 101.

After she relaxes a bit more, we'll start work on basic manners and figure out what sort of home would be a good fit for her, and then maybe if I have time and she shows any inclination, we'll goof around with some other training games.

Too early for any of that yet, though. She's still settling in.