Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Reality Bites, Cinder's First Tricks Class, & An Epiphany About Reactivity

Left to right: Cinder, Buzz (middle) & Gilley resting.
Some days I like to think my dogs will live forever, or at least, as long as me because I love and enjoy them as my truest friends and constant companions.  I have a hard time imagining life without any of them even though I know it is a reality I will have to face eventually.  However, the realist in me knows they have a limited lifespan and my boys are beyond their half-life point, reaching the category of “seniors.”  This is a sad reality for me as I know that from this point, my boys have very different needs.  They both still think they can run 

faster, jump higher and farther; last longer on the go, or, certainly as long as any young pup.  They would be wrong and I know that now more than ever.
     One often fails to realize what “beyond the half-life” really means.  It means they’ve reached an age which veterinary standards consider upper middle-aged to seniors.  My boys are now senior dogs at only 8 and 10 years old since the average lifespan of Border Collies is 11-14 years; and senior for them is considered to be eight years and older.  My beloved boys are aging seniors – ouch.  Today the reality of that is hammered home by witnessing Buzz and Gilley last night and this morning, following over three solid hours of rambunctious, rigorous work and play with Cinder yesterday.  Buzz was obviously tired last night, sprawled in his special “NO Cinder Zone” rest area, so soundly asleep he missed supper call twice before I checked on him.  Watching him as he struggled to his feet and wobbled his way to SIT to eat his supper, I could tell he was exhausted and sore.  Gilley also slowly made his way to his food dish, limping on his sore front leg, holding it up a little as he slowly nibbled at his supper too.  Cinder, in her youthful pup way was quick to gobble her supper and circled the boys like a vulture, hoping for their left-overs and getting none.  The boys resumed lounging the rest of the night and grumped at Cinder’s few efforts to entice them to play. The boys slowly began this morning slower, a little sluggish, and still a bit off in their strides.  As I watched Buzz, now nearly 11, walk from the breakfast bowl to lay at my feet, I saw his hips sway somewhat, almost uncontrollably for a moment until he stopped to stretch and groan; then came to lay beside my chair with a sorrowful moan punctuating his effort laying down.  Gilley, a little less pained than last night but still a little off stride, walked over to me for his morning love-fest with me a little slower than usual; and sat placing a front paw on my knee, head lowered atop it, resting while I stroked him.  The signs of my boys aging could not have been more obvious.  Both my boys have always been the living epitome of the Border Collie reputation as relentless workers and players of many physical games of daring, agility, speed, and constitution – until now.  Now, they clearly need less physical stimulation. Now, they are truly “getting too old for this sh—,” and need to scale back on their work and play.  This is a sad reality for us all.
     Sadder than the reality that my boys have reached an age at which their limits are defined by their diminishing physicality, is the fact that they are teamed with Cinder, a pup of 11 months and undefined limits of energy and youthful vibrancy.  The boys, undaunted by Cinder’s youth, are usually determined to keep ahead of her rather than accepting being able to keep up with her or letting her take the lead.  They seem unaware they will now pay a real, physical price for trying to best the young pup in games of physical prowess and endurance. I guess they feel they are her pack superiors and/or her mentors and as such, are trying to maintain their places ahead of their young apprentice in all things.  
     Brian (my husband) and I had a discussion about the need to consider more separate exercise for the boys that doesn’t involve Cinder accompanying them on their outings; and constantly challenging the boys to keep pace.  After about 20 minutes of discussion including what is or isn’t best for the boys physically, I ended it saying, “But YOU don’t understand.  I do because I AM that old, out of shape athlete that can no longer do what I once did so I DO understand: you’ll break their hearts by trying to shelter them from doing what they love because it makes them tired and sore.  Part of what’s keeping them from being more tired and sore than they are is doing the things they do.  Controlling how long or how much they do something may be good, but trying to eliminate their opportunities to feel useful and have fun will only punctuate their age with depression and reduce their vitality.  It will break their hearts.  When they truly can’t do things they love, that’s when we won’t take them to do them. Until they can’t do something at all, we can limit the time and conditions, but not the opportunities to go and do things.”  Brian conceded.  I said, “I’d rather they die happy than feeling old, left out and miserable. If they die working or playing, they’ll die happy doing what they love.”  This is the start of what I’m sure will be many more discussions about how the boys are aging and at what points we employ more limits or stop them from doing things; and start sheltering them from the reality that we all grow old and have to stop doing things we love eventually.  Reality bites and there's no way around it sometimes.
Cinder waiting at the door to go to class.
   Meanwhile, Cinder’s been doing well in her training and we began a class to learn tricks a few days ago.  It’s a four week class, one night per week to teach four tricks per week.  The class had space for 15 and only six signed up.  That’s perfect because it means we have more space, fewer diversions, and more time with the instructor. We didn't sign up as much for the tricks instruction as to keep her momentum of improving controlling her reactivity in the company of others-learning new tricks is the bonus. 
     When I got out our "school bag," Cinder headed for the door to our garage. This has become her habit upon seeing me get out our "doggy bag" each week for her obedience classes.
      Our "regularly scheduled" instructor had been called away on business and had one of her colleagues teach the first session.  We know and like that instructor too, so it was all good.  The first lesson included: high five, figure eight around my legs; placing a treat on the nose and flipping it to catch it; and jumping through my arms held out in a circle, close to the ground.  Cinder got the “high five” almost immediately and decided to capitalize on it for an abundance of liver bits.  She had high five down like a pro in less than five minutes.  The nose-flipping a treat to catch it…not so much.  She actually seemed to kind of hate that and never really cooperated or tried to figure it out-she was working more on how to get the treat any number of other ways (including continually offering high five to see if she got rewarded as earlier). We moved on to the figure eight around our legs. Cinder would do a circle around my left and could NOT be enticed around my other leg no matter what we tried.  I was SO disappointed-she ultimately laid down and disengaged from that exercise.  Gilley does that one so well and it’s fun.  I hoped Cinder would get that one easily and like it too but, she was disinterested.  The start of the jump through arms trick was interesting. Cinder jumps through a Hula Hoop and jumps over and on anything so I was sure she would learn and love the jump through our arms trick.  Nope.  She couldn't get past the first basic step of that one and would only try one direction when she tried at all.  I felt so disappointed when the end of class came and all we’d achieved was high five.  I was so busy with her that I didn't see the others to know if they had any better luck.  The instructor gave us all a pep talk about it and reminded us that we’re only learning how to start the tricks and once the dogs get those first basic steps of them, they will probably all progress to learning the complete trick quickly; so the need to keep practicing is key to the whole thing.  I knew that, but I really hoped Cinder would be a wonder pup and learn them all in one lesson, then perfect them all with practice like her uncle Gilley did.  Gilley was awesome at learning things fast and perfecting in practice.  Cinder, not so much-so far.  I guess that’s what practicing at home is supposed to be about – learning and improving. 
    After the class, our instructor talked with me on the way out. She said, “You forget that you’re working with a smart little girl who has a lot of stress just being around strange dogs.  She’s been doing great and despite YOUR disappointment, she did great tonight.  She totally got the high five immediately and the others didn't.  She at least tried to focus on you and what you wanted her to do.  Just because she didn't DO the tricks right away doesn't mean much.  She TRIED and she stayed focused on you the whole time without any reactivity during class. That's HUGE.  Cinder’s reactive and no matter how well she does and how easy it SEEMS to be for her to be here, it’s not.  She’s a Border Collie and they’re natural thinkers and problem solvers, but for her, the process itself involves a major problem she’s constantly trying to solve – controlling her world and the urge to react fearfully to things she can’t understand or control.  You may not realize it, but not reacting is a major accomplishment for her EVERY day, EVERY time she is faced with something new or out of her control.  It saps her energy and divides her processing abilities under that stress. You may try these tricks at home and have great success there that we may never see in class.  But, the more she does something, the more habitual it becomes, and THAT increases the likelihood that eventually, she’ll do those things no matter where she is when you ask her.  So, keep trying and don’t be so impatient or in a hurry.  She’s a smart girl and she’ll get there if you just keep trying. Give her credit for trying to stay on task and trying to figure things out.”
     Boy, did I need that reminder!  Cinder’s reactivity is essentially a disability and I failed to think of it that way!  Learning to control her reactivity is a continuous process that saps a lot of her energy and divides her ability to process things just like many humans and their disabilities!  Being disabled myself, I should have realized the effort Cinder’s constantly making just leaving the safety and known world that is “home.” Like a human, her disability presents challenges, but it is never an excuse-merely an explanation of cause.  It’s never a reason for failure or negative behavior, but it is the reason to have patience and seek alternative solutions if something doesn't work.  Cinder isn't a freak or faulty, she just has a disability which really means she’s differently-abled!  HALLELUJAH!  I've had another epiphany that could make a world of difference in understanding Cinder’s reactive behavior and help me help her more!  It sure helps to have professionals and others with experience with reactive dogs to help me learn how to improve Cinder’s life. 
     That’s it for this installment.  Again, not compelling reading about great or unique adventures, but life as it unfolds while continuing our daily journey of Raising Cinder.
Be good to yourself and others!


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Basic Obedience Class I - Cinder's Been There, Done That

     Eight weeks ago, Cinder and I embarked on the journey shared by many-participating in a basic obedience class.  While many complete similar training journeys successfully, I entered the class with serious reservations about whether or not Cinder could successfully participate in a group class without issues surrounding her reactive behavior getting us into trouble or kicked out.  After all, if my Gilley (who isn't reactive) was so highly prey driven he got us thrown out of our first couple of obedience classes before I found trainers who knew how to work with high drive herding breeds, I had reason to question Cinder's ability to make it through a class with her reactivity. However, I specifically chose to put her in a class with a known instructor that specializes in herding breeds and behavioral challenges because I felt if we could have success, it would be under her guidance.
     The first night, Cinder did much better than I anticipated, but had  reactivity issues with the little pups-the kind that are small, hairy, cute and yap a lot.  Cinder reacted to all forms of barks, yaps, yips and bouncy movement.  Basically, if she couldn't see the others or as long as they were quiet and didn't move, she was fine.  That made my job stressful since it meant ALWAYS having to keep Cinder's focus on me and when I couldn't, working hard and fast to reacquire it. Sometimes the task was easy and a few times I failed. However, all things considered, Cinder was challenging but did well most of the first class. That boosted my confidence in her and when we spoke with the instructor, she was encouraging too.
     Each class yielded new information and training tasks that kept us all busy encouraging our pups to learn in class.  Most of the time Cinder did very well with only a few brief moments of reactivity from which we quickly recovered. Rarely she would react so badly that she was in any way uncontrollable, but it sometimes felt that way at the time.  By the fourth class, I got things figured out with only rare instances of negative behaviors from which she recovered faster each time.  A few times I had a hard day and my patience and responsiveness were lacking so when Cinder reacted, the instructor came to our rescue and took over for a few minutes using it as a learning and teaching opportunity for Cinder and the class; and giving me a few minutes of respite to regroup.  Overall, Cinder's reactivity became less severe and less frequent while my ability to control her improved along with my confidence in her.  When I say, "control her," I don't mean the kind of control that is heavy-handed, stifling, or restraining.  I mean that I've become more adept at keeping her focus where I want it and not on things that escalate her to react. It requires getting her focused on me and her tasks rather than other things around her.  When she is highly reactive, we have to find a way to remove her or the trigger to a proximity that allows her to feel less stress and enables her to calm down and re-focus.
     Once we got past some of the stationary lessons and moved to more mobile activity, I feared the worst.  Cinder's at her worst with other dogs in motion coming her way-especially if they're also bouncy and barky!  However, once we began our walking work, Cinder rose to the challenge and we garnered some of the highest praises in the class on several occasions.  When others would pass us as we clipped along at my pace, Cinder would barely glance, if she noticed at all - she was generally focused on me. YAY.  A few times during our walking work, we'd have someone come too close while passing, or we'd need to "about turn" and be virtually on top of another dog who had been too close behind us, but Cinder was great.  I could often see in her eyes that she knew the others were too close and it bothered her, but rarely enough to make it worth her attention.  That's when I knew we'd made real progress as a team. I didn't care that we did or didn't achieve the same success as the others in the class because I knew we were doing our "personal best" every time. We achieved more than I ever thought we would at every class.  Most of the class specifics were things Cinder and I already worked on as individuals throughout our summer together before the class.  I had ONE primary objective in taking the class: determining Cinder's ability to participate in a group with other dogs and be controllable.  In my mind, if we actually learned new material, it was a bonus. Obedience is good for all dogs, but it's a pre-requisite for pursuing most other dog sports and activities.  Ideally, I'd love Cinder to learn agility-whether we compete or not (probably not).  To get into agility classes, she has to be able to pass the obedience classes first.  Could she even get through a group obedience class?  YES!!! And, we did learn things, so we achieved more than my original goals by far! Cinder went from being reactive to anything and everything all the time, to being far less reactive far less of the time; and she was definitely controllable.  We even worked on a line-up beside dogs on both sides of us (at least 4-6 feet between us) each of the last three classes.  The first effort was challenging because she kept trying to watch and bark at our neighbors so they wouldn't come near us (even tho' we were all going the same direction); but she was still controllable. The second time she was highly successful in the line-up games when I stepped up my game and got her to focus on me better. By the third time, we'd achieved peace with dogs working beside us, tho' clearly she was aware of their presence nearby.
     Finally, we arrived at our eighth and final night of class last night.  I found myself not wanting it to end!  It seemed as if we finally found our rhythm and we were finally doing everything in class without much stress. It had actually become more fun than I ever thought I'd have despite needing to continuously monitor Cinder and her proximity to others at all times.  Cinder finally got to the point of being quite happy to go to class too.  She especially liked being able to see our instructor and loved it when Marilyn would call her name (even more when Marilyn did something with her).  The bittersweet end of class seemed to arrive faster than all our other classes.  Marilyn created graduation certificates for each pup and handler, rolled and tied with a ribbon and a big dog cookie.  Cinder had the cookie eaten quickly even tho' it was the biggest cookie she ever ate! That concluded our first obedience class.  Cinder and I made it through eight weeks of class to achieve our goal - successful completion of a group class.
     Sadly, there are no classes for obedience or agility until January 2015 - the holiday season nearly upon us, it makes no sense to offer them before next year.  However, there is one fun class we signed up for with our favorite instructor for the next four weeks - "Tricks" class. We're to learn four tricks a week for a total of 16 tricks between November 10th and December 1st.  I'm sure we may already know a few of them, but probably no more than 5-6 of them and more importantly, we are still going to a group class with other people and dogs.  That will help keep our momentum for at least a little longer.  I'm not sure what we'll do about the classes in January.  If we're going to have a real winter in Ohio again this year, signing up for classes in January - February may be pointless for us since travel at night in bad conditions in our area is not a good idea for something you don't NEED to do. 
     It feels good to be able to say that Cinder is officially a successful group obedience class graduate. I think we both learned a lot more than I thought we would.  We both have more confidence in ourselves and each other as a partnership; and that was totally worth every minute and every penny!
     Next week, a new class with different objectives.  Can Cinder learn 16 tricks in four weeks? I guess we'll soon find out!  It will be another adventure in learning for us both.
       On the other hand, at home on our own, Cinder's displayed continuing desire to be my little "helper" around the house.  She continues showing me that my alarm clock and other alarms are on.  Additionally, she's displayed a shift in her mental learning skills by exhibiting an honest ability to now transfer meaning of a learned word.  We use the word, "hand," when playing ball or Frisbee with our dogs.  "Hand" means they are to place the ball or Frisbee in our hand.  I choose my training words with full intent and this is no exception.  Other word options used by other people include: drop/drop it, give, out, release, and others.  We use those other words for other applications.  If I want something in my hand I use the word, hand, to denote that.  If I want my dog to "drop it" that's a whole other thing.  Cinder took a few months to get the "hand" concept figured out reliably.  However, the proof she truly understands what it means is in her recent ability to transfer that meaning to other concepts beyond our games.  First, I dropped a kitchen towel while Cinder was in the kitchen with me and on a whim, asked her to "hand" and pointed at the towel.  To my astonishment, she did it!  We repeated the exercise several times equally successfully.  We've also successfully transferred it to a hairbrush, a pen, a bracelet, some cleaning cloths, a dropped fork, and several bags.  Each time she has fun figuring out how to hand the new item to me.  It's both useful and indicates a developmental shift in her ability to learn new information and how to use the new information.  It's a perfect time to do a tricks class!
     That's it for this installment.  It's not edge-of-the-seat reading, but it is reality in our lives as we continue the endeavor of Raising Cinder.

Be well and be good to yourself and others!