Stress is Not a Single Category

In the dog world, I have come across the concept of ‘stressing up’ (zoomies in the ring) versus ‘stressing down’ (avoidance, sniffing, scratching, etc) as a dog’s response to stressful situations. It came up during the Intro to Herding workshop that Sei and I took with Kynic Stockdogs a few weeks ago. And I have been thinking about it ever since.

Prior to introducing the dogs to stock, we were asked whether we anticipated our dogs stressing up or stressing down. Thinking back to our work with toys (ball, disc, flirt pole), I guessed that Sei would stress high. When introduced to stock, Sei was pretty unsure/unconfident about the sheep at first, and pretty classically stressed down, avoiding looking at the sheep and sniffing around. This did not surprise me at all. I know that he is often unsure in new situations at first and takes some time to watch the situation before gaining confidence and jumping in. So I had a bit of cognitive dissonance going on. I guessed that he would stressed up, but also expected him to stress down; contradictory beliefs. I could not sort out in my brain the times in which Sei was going to ‘stress high’ or ‘stress low’, but I knew that they are both in his repertoire of reactions to stress.

I explained my lack of understanding to the instructor, and how when frustrated Sei would ‘stress high’, as compared to what she had just seen with his reaction to stock (which I had said at the time didn’t surprise me). Helene pointed out that the stress experience by Sei that was initiated by frustration/unclear criteria caused a different reaction in him (‘stressing up’) than the reaction to stress initiated by anxiety/uncertainty/fear (‘stressing down’/avoidance). This was one of those lightbulb moments for me!

The issue in my thinking was that I was picturing ‘stress’ as one big amorphous thing. I was lumping stress caused by all sorts of different stressors together such that they had one type of behaviour as a reaction. On some level I must have known that this wasn’t a good model for behaviour under adverse conditions, because I recognized that Sei had two different reactions to different kinds of stressful situations. However, I seemed to be getting caught up in the baggage in the human world around the word ‘stress’, and had not been able to look clearly at the behaviour my dogs were showing me.

‘Stress’ is not a single type of situation, but rather a broad category of different kinds of situations that elicit emotional states that the dog needs to find a coping strategy for, such as frustration or anxiety (I’m having trouble coming up with more at the moment, but this will be stuck in my brain for a while, so I’m sure I will come up with more). To be a better trainer and advocate for my dogs, I should be aware of their coping strategies for different kinds of stressors, so that I can better give them what they need to be comfortable in difficult situations. Something to observe and work on going forward!

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October 30, 2017 – Learning Puzzle 4

Day two of working through the learning games from Brain Games- Puzzles for Canines  course. We have to skip around the order a bit, because our yard is flooded out (also meaning no rally for Perrin today, so he played this game with Sei and I instead). I figured that snorkling for cookies might disrupt the intention of the outdoor experiment! So today we are doing Puzzle 4, which is a barrier challenge like yesterdays puzzle.

To complete this game, I set up Sei’s x-pen in a V shape against the wall, with a gap on one side. This is done in a different room than the first game. Several variations are completed:

  1. A cookie is dropped on the inside of the x-pen while the dog watches (handler stays outside the x-pen). The dog is then timed for how long it takes them to find the gap in the x-pen to get to the cookie.
  2. Exercise 1 is repeated, but the side of the x-pen that the opening is on is switched while the dog is out of the room.
  3. The handler walks around the barrier, puts the cookie inside the x-pen, walks back to the dog and releases them to go get the cookie. The dog is again timed.
  4. Exercise 2 is repeated, but the side of the x-pen that the opening is on is switched while the dog is out of the room.

During the experiment, I also added my own scenario out of curiosity. I pulled the x-pen away from the wall so that the dogs could go either way around, then let the dog watch while I walked around, placed the cookie and walked back. I was interested to see if they went the same way I did when they had the option to go either way.

Sei:

 

Sei really only looked at me at first to see if I was going to be the source of the treats. After he figured out the game he searched very independently without any input from me. For the first set up, he had times of 20 seconds,  and 10 seconds. He also cheated once, by pushing the x-pen in until he could reach the hot dog bit through the bars. I added an old frying pan to contain the treat after that to prevent it from happening again.

Because Sei’s sit stay isn’t quite up to snuff for this yet, my partner held Sei while I set the cookies, then let him go once we were ready. For the second set up, he had times of 3 seconds, and 14 seconds.

The part of this that is really, really interesting to me is that during the alternate set up, Sei consistently went around the same way I did. Out of 6 trials, he went around the same way I did 6 times, even when I mixed up the order.

Perrin:

Please excuse Sei’s noise. He gets very upset when it is his brother’s turn to work.

Perrin looks at me a lot, and requires some encouragement to keep searching instead of staring at me. I suspect that this is partly personality (his brother Dex would definitely just stop and look at you to make something happen), and partly a factor of training impulse control around food and eye contact. He took 28 seconds, 13 seconds, and 38 seconds to solve the first puzzle.

The second puzzle he was considerably faster with times of 5 seconds and 20 seconds. He also doesn’t want to get out of his sit stay to find the cookie in the x-pen because I had more treats in my hand. I think he needed convincing that this wasn’t some sort of proofing exercise before he went off exploring.

With the alternative set up, there wasn’t a strong pattern to which side he was choosing. It was about 50/50 with the side I came around, and he seemed to have a slight preference to the left side. I would have to do more trials to get any useful info.

His tail just looks so happy whatever we are doing!

Comparison

Perrin and Sei had very different approaches to the puzzle. Which is not surprising given how different in personality and thought process they are. Perrin definitely wanted more handler support than Sei needed, and I think Perrin was a bit confused about what he was supposed to do with the set up (should I get the cookie or ignore the cookie? Which is the purpose of this exercise?). I will be interested to see how/if this changes as Sei ages and we work more on impulse control around food (of which he currently has very little as we haven’t worked on it much). Sei clearly was doing some sort of tracking of me, because even when he could go around the barrier either way, he always went the same way as I did. Perrin did not have a strong pattern of doing this. Perrin usually solves puzzles that involve me (shaping), and doesn’t opt into much puzzle solving on his own (trying to get things he wants around the house for example). This is consistant with him looking to me to solve the food problem rather than going off to figure it out himself immediately.

October 29, 2017- Sei – Learning Puzzle 1

Day one of Sei and I working through the learning games from Brain Games- Puzzles for Canines  course. This game was designed to test memory and mapping skills.

The idea was to set up a barrier between me and something the dog wants, then have a helper release the dog into the room, and see how long it takes him to figure out he can go around the barrier to get to it. This is timed.

The second part of this experiment uses the same set up, but the dog is held and watches while I walk behind the barrier, then is released. The dog is then timed on how long they take to solve the puzzle this time.

Here is Sei’s first run:

And his second:

I ended up running the second scenario three times because I noticed something interesting and wanted to test it.

In the very first run (not shown) I placed the cookie just slightly back from the opening on the floor, so it could be seen, but I did not call any attention to it. Sei didn’t even look at the barrier and ran right to me. So the second time (the one shown above), I stuck my whole hand with the cookie out of the gap to show him where it was as he ran over. He figured it out pretty quickly and ran right around the boxes to get his treat.

In the second run, Sei took roughly the same amount of time to come around the box (except the middle attempt, where he just ran straight to me. I forgot to show him the treat in the gap so he just ran to me), but he consistently went around the boxes in the same direction I did. I thought it was a fluke the first time, but he did it the next two times too. I find this fascinating, especially because he routinely came around the far side, when it would have been closer to where he started to come around the near side.

I think his timing has more to do with when I pull the cookie back far enough from the hole that he can’t reach it, than it does him ‘figuring out’ the puzzle. As soon as I pulled the cookie back from the edge, he stopped pawing at the boxes ran right around the barrier. It was very consistant.

I would like to compare this with Perrin’s behaviours. They are very different, but they have also had different foundations. I have not done a lot of impulse control around food with Sei, whereas Perrin had a ton of it as a pup. Would Perrin lay down and wait until given permission to have the food? If so, how would he respond to a set up that took me out of the picture, with a sturdier set up and just the cookie behind it that he has to go around the barrier for? Interesting.

I di try this with Perrin, but he nearly destroyed the cardboard boxes in about 3 seconds, so I will have to make a sturdier set up for him!

 

 

October 28, 2017 Training Log

Today Perrin and I did a lot of Rally practice. I got a cyber rally course set up in the back yard, and we ran through it a few times. Turns out that setting up a course is about as hard as running it! I never did get the set up quite right. For cyber rally, you can set up your spacing as it works for your size of dog, and it took quite a lot of trial and error to figure out what worked best for Perrin so that we had enough room between stations to set up properly for the next one, without being too far apart and still fitting into the space that we have. The weather wasn’t cooperating either; I had to pull all my spice jars out of the kitchen to weigh down the signs, but they still sometimes blew around and ruined our run. We did get one run that is probably a Q, but it isn’t quite what I want.

  • Our 360 degree right would have not been good in CARO, because I did not stay on the spot, but it appears to pass the Cyber Rally rules
  • I don’t think our ‘slow’ is clearly different than our ‘normal’ pace, and this is partly a spacing issue with how I set up the signs in this section of the course. They need to be a bit farther apart to have clearer transitions.

So we will keep practicing until I get one that I am happy with.

I was perusing through my Fenzi library today, and found an old course I hadn’t thought of in a long time: Brain Games for Canines. It is part ‘getting to know how your dog thinks’, and part ‘brain games to play inside’. It is the former that I am very interested in. There are 16 different games that evaluate different things about how the dog thinks/responds to stimuli/approaches problems, as well as a few different lectures to go through. I think this will be really fun to work though with Sei now when he is 6 months old, then maybe again when he is older and see how/what/if he changes.

October 25th, 2017 Training Log

Big week around here! Perrin got another title this week, as our novice parkour video submission results came in. Now Perrin is Perrin ETD PKD-N! Both Perrin and Sei’s trick dog certificates also arrived this week.

I finally got all of their title submission videos uploaded, so here they are:

Perrin -ETD

Perrin – PKD-N

Sei- NTD

We have been picking away at different skills this week, but nothing too coherent. I took a look back at Cyber Rally-O today, and am contemplating working at that again with Perrin. So that inspired today’s work with Perrin. Our yard isn’t big enough for all of the cyber rally courses, but all the ones designed for narrow spaces will work. The trick there is that a few of them require schutzhund turns, which Perrin and I had never worked on before. So I tried it today. Turns out Perrin got the idea in a flash! And they are kind of fun.

His heel position is pretty sloppy, too sloppy even for rally, but for day 1 of teaching a new skill I’m pretty happy! I will go back and do some more pivot work to refresh some muscle memory on heel position, and get pickier about which reps get rewarded. Part of the issue is me however. You can see when he swings his bum out, it is often because I am turning my shoulders into him when I turn my head to look. I need to work on not doing that. A lot of discussion went on over the last week on the TEAM facebook page about that handler error, and made me look more closely at my heeling. Sure enough, I am very guilty of it! I also learned that our fronts need a LOT of work, our circle to heel and ‘loop’ to heel behaviours are strong, but not very precise. Overall, I was happy to see that he was a happy worker (he has been on and off with Sei bugging him when we try to work, and with his hotspot bothering him as it heals), that he took to the new skill quickly, and that he still has his cues for the finishes. Lots of stuff to pick away at though!

One of the things Sei worked on was waiting in a crate while Perrin worked.  He is definitely getting better (there was no chewing on the crate today, and he was quiet for the first half, rather than barking the whole time), but we have lots of work to go. We also worked on getting his 2-foot peanut roll shaped, sits, downs, play skills and stays. Over the weekend I shaped a scratchboard behaviour, so that he can work on filing down his own nails while we work on creating a positive CER to foot handling.

Yesterday I also got one of Sei’s advanced trick dog behaviours on video (3 behaviours at 10′ distance).

October 22nd, 2017 Training Log

Sei went to his very first workshop! On Sunday Sei and I got up at 4:30am and drove 4 hours to attend a +R Intro to Herding workshop with Kynic Stockdogs. It was amazing!

Quite honestly, it is the first really awesome dog related experience I have had in a long time. Sei wasn’t a wiz kid at it (he is a little too young yet. Talking with Sei’s breeder, she said that dogs in his line tend to turn on to sheep around a year and a half to two years old), but we both  had an awesome time! And it didn’t fill me with anxiety about a performance future.

I really loved getting to work sheep with the trained dogs. I’m not completely inept at it. The farm setting and the expectation of overarousal in the dogs dropped my anxiety about being judged for my dogs ‘improper’ behaviour (of which Sei had next to none)

Me and the instructor were really are on the same page training philosophy wise, and personally (she totally understood my random reference to how particle fields are similar to sheep herding rather than looking at me like I had 8 heads!). Watching her work with an older farmer who is refusing to give up on his border collie who has a problem biting sheep was really great. The owner had tried the traditional approaches and the problem kept getting worse, so he went to her. Listening to her explain anxiety based issues, stressing up, how punishment makes it worse and the solution was fixing the dog confidence, clear communication on what he should be doing, and the skills to solve the issue without biting the sheep to the farmer in a non-dog-behaviour-geek way was enlightening.

I have never been exposed to instinct sports, and it was fascinating to watch the Border Collies do what they were bred for. The difference between channeling behaviours that are instinctual versus behaviours that are strictly taught is going to be another rabbit hole for me to fall down.

Sei was AMAZING behaviour wise. All sorts of crazy dogs, running livestock, new people etc and he never went over threshold. Kept his head about him and settled really well waiting his turn in challenging conditions.

Its 4 hours away, but I am definitely planning on going back when Sei is old enough, and I am planning on taking her online foundations course at the working level over the winter. I may even see if I can take some lessons even though I don’t have a dog old enough yet so that I can be a better handler for Sei when he is ready. I’m really excited by the possibilities and to work on foundations. And quite frankly I have been putting off disc/agility flatwork due to performance anxiety. It’s really nice to be genuinely excited again about doing training other than nonsense shaping.

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Release Cue Hesitation Observations

Today I made some really interesting observations while working on playing tug with Sei.

Sei has only recently gotten strong enough at playing tug for me to require an ‘out’/’drop’/’give’ cue, so we were working on that today. One of the ways to teach that, is to say ‘drop’, then put your hands on both sides of the toy near their mouths and wait until they let go, then immediately releasing the dog to the tug again (so dropping the toy on cue always leads to more play). I did this three times times, Sei dropped the toy immediately with my hands pretty far away from his face, and things seemed to be going to plan. Until I held the toy out with both hands horizontally and gave Sei his tug marker (release to tug/marker word), and he hesitated. I had to cue him twice more and take a few steps back before he believed me.

Sei hadn’t shown hesitation before this and it gave me pause. I had come across an article/podcast at some point in the past, I think it might have been something by Sarah Stremming? I can’t remember now, but I had read/heard an article/podcast somewhere on proofing done poorly, and how when dogs get hesitant about their release cues, it’s a sign of confusion. This wasn’t a proofing scenario, but the hesitation around an understood release cue was there, so I started looking at the situation for what Sei might be finding confusing. I figured it was likely that my presentation of the toy, with one hand on either end of the tug, held out horizontally so it is easy for him to grab, might look too similar to me having my hands on either side of his mouth on the toy. Really, the difference between my hands in both scenarios is only a few inches.

So, I tried again, but without the pressure for the release. Adding verbal cues is hard for me, and I generally hesitate to add them until I am *really* sure the behaviour is ready. But I was in experimentation mode so I tried anyway. I tried making the toy as ‘dead’ as I could (no motion, which is hard because Sei will keep backing up until there is tension on the toy again, but I did my best), standing up in a less playful stance, and then said ‘drop’. And he spit the toy out (which he had never done with the body language process alone). Then immediately went back to it when I said tug. We tried a few more times in that session, and again this evening without any more hesitation.

I figured something out on the fly in a training session! That might be a first! I get so worried about having to do everything perfectly the first time with Sei, for fear of ruining behaviours forever that I don’t start working on anything at all. It is the little moments like this one, where something doesn’t quite work, but I am quickly able to notice what is happening and pivot directions with no ill effect, that are slowly getting me out of that analysis paralysis. Its not gone yet, but hopefully it will get a bit better!

October 15-18th Training Log

Ah, midterm season. Leaves room for little else.

We have continued to work on different things around here. On Sunday I finally got around to finishing the videos for Perrin’s expert trick dog title, and Sei’s novice trick dog titles. So now they both have new titles! Whoohoo! I will get around to uploading the videos on YouTube eventually…

Today Sei went for his first cruise by the local dog park. He doesn’t see many dogs in his life, and I was curious to see how he reacted to many dogs doing crazy things in the distance. He was solid! Looked at them interestedly, but didn’t get excited or over aroused. He easily played with me instead, but got distracted from time to time. Good start! His walking on a leash leaves lots to be desired though….Funny how having a yard (ie no leash required for bathroom trips) has put leash walking lower on my list of things to do.

I need to start working on practical things with Sei, because it’s getting a little out of hand. Playing in new places (he plays *amazing* in the back yard, time to take the show on the road), stationing/staying in an open crate while Perrin works, recalls, and loose leash walking are priorities.

I tried putting the manners minder in the soft crate for Sei while I worked Perrin, and that worked great until it was Sei’s turn to come out. He wouldn’t. So I left him there and Perrin and I went upstairs (crate was open) and turned the downstay function off so he wouldn’t be getting any treats. Well that was a bad idea, because once Sei came upstairs I went down to take the manners minder out of the crate. Perrin and Sei followed me down, and Perrin stuck his head in the soft crate while I was in it pulling the manners minder out. Sei found that extremely offensive, and made it very clear to Perrin that he thinks that space is his alone. Luckily Perrin is a sensible guy and didn’t escalate things. Guess I will have to come up for a better plan, because I don’t want Sei guarding the crate. The prospect of a dog fight in a crate is not a good one.

October 7-14th, 2017

Between Thanksgiving, midterms and assignments due this week, there was no videoing of training sessions. A quick run down of things worked on this week:

Perrin: Wrapping different objects, discerning the difference between wrapping clockwise and counter clockwise. He also goes along for the ride when Sei works on sits, downs and stays.

Sei: Sei has really got shaping figured out, so now we are playing with ALL THE THINGS. So far this week I have played with shaping front foot targets, ‘be sad’ (face on floor while laying down), holding objects, shaking a paw and we also shaped a bow and started putting it on cue. We also work on sits, downs and stays over the course of the day. Play skills continue to be worked on, specifically bringing back a toy that has been thrown to me rather than dropping it part way back. I’ve been looking up different solutions, but am still trying to decide what approach to try first.

Other revelations this week is that my big goals I made a few weeks ago are just not that helpful to me right now. With so little time in the day, I need to have better planning than a far away goal in order to get anything productive done. I need specific ‘Today I am going to work on sits’ or ‘Today I am going to shape the nose touch portion of a mouth hold’ type steps. So, back to the start on coming up with a cohesive training plan. I also need to decide to focus on something rather than flitting around from flight of fancy to flight of fancy if I want to make any concrete steps towards anything.

There is so much to be worked on too, some of it life skills, some of it ‘fun stuff’: co-op care, stationing skills to make working with two dogs easier (I really need this), life skills for Sei like loose leash walking, stays, happy crating, etc, ‘fun stuff’ with Sei like learning how to shape, tricks, agility foundations, etc., Perrin’s skills work on rally/obedience/tricks, competition skills with Perrin like reducing reinforcement, ring confidence, chaining behaviours, etc, working on Perrin’s online titles for parkour, rally, tricks and freestyle, working towards Sei’s trick dog title… Decisions decisions…

Sei Frustration Musings

Before I picked Sei up, one of the many things his breeder told me about him was that he would demand clarity in training. While that became clear in our other training endeavors, it has become glaringly, in-your-face obvious now that I am attempting to use a frisbee or a ball as a reinforcer. Im suspecting there are two big underlying reasons for this:

1. In shaping and capturing, I am using food as my main reinforcer. Food and toys encourage very different arousal states for Sei, and the arousal state produced by a toy is much more active, energetic, demanding, and less patient. Perfect for teaching many behaviours, but less forgiving of mistakes. Which leads me to…

2. My lack of skills using toys as a reinforcer. Perrin never really liked toys enough or consistently, so they didn’t really come into his list of useful reinforcers. I am just starting to learn what training a dog in a ‘toy arousal’ state looks like: which behaviours lend themselves best, which type of play (chase, catch, tug, etc) works best for which behaviours, where to deliver reinforcement for which toys and which behaviours, which types of reinforcement/delivery locations need different marker words, etc. It’s a bit of a steep learning curve with both theoretical/judgement skills and mechanical skills to learn.

3. I am better at shaping and capturing because I have done it more, so I make fewer mistakes and set up better training plans. This leaves fewer gaps for Sei to be frustrated in.

I’m trying to do my best for Sei by learning as fast as I can, but there are going to be a lot of mistakes for a while. I am going to have to up my planning game and stop setting  Sei and myself up for failure by going into training sessions unprepared.

I’m not skilled at using toys for reinforcement in training yet, but I am just so happy that I at least had the knowledge to identify the likely problem when Sei suddenly started jumping up and biting my arms in the middle of toy training sessions. Knowing even less than I do now, I would have likely put that behaviour down to a ‘lack of self control’ around the toy, rather than recognizing it as a frustration behaviour initiated when I was being confusing and his path to reinforcement was unclear. The pieces of the puzzle that made me think frustration were:

  • It was not happening in the beginning of the session, but in the middle after the novelty of the toy had worn off a bit
  • He doesn’t do it when we are just playing with toys (and I didn’t think what we were doing looked much different than that. It was high on the playing and low on the asking for skills. Clearly Sei disagreed)
  • His body language and bark is different when he is really excited versus when he is frustrated
  • It was only happening when I was trying to cue newer behaviours that had never been practiced with a toy (and quite frankly were not on the verbal well enough for me to be trying it with him so excited and focused on the toy).

This seems childish to me, but I am also happy that I was able to think logically when he was biting me, rather than applying an emotionally driven answer (‘he is an entitled little brat thinking he can just take the toy from me!’), or lashing out when he hurt me. That is progress from where I was three years ago. The last reason is actually one of the reasons why moving to +R philosophies made my world a happier place. I find that the only time +P methods tend to pop into my head as an option is when I am extremely frustrated or in pain (usually the triggers occur in the form of constant barking or being nipped, respectively). And at that point my decisions weren’t logical, or based on behaviours science, its strictly an emotional lashing out. Then I would feel so bad because Perrin would be so sad and I was mad at myself for making him feel that way, and also for letting my emotions take over to the point of lashing out

While I may not know what to do all the time, I’m finding that I am more and more able to at least identify the problem (or at least a short list of likely ones). Which means I can think through them and try a new approach or go out and find more information on the problem. I’m slowly making progress!

So, back to the disc incidents. I continued to use my three different markers for toys that I have so far (catch = the toy is going to be tossed into the air for you to catch, tug= come to me and tug the toy in my hand, chase= I am about to throw this ball/disc/whatever for you to run after), which I think makes a big difference. He clearly knows what each of them means. I also put more thought into what I was asking him to do, where we were and how he is feeling. Rookie mistake assuming that what he can do in the house for food, he can do in the yard for a toy. After re-adjusting my criteria and ensuring I was consistently using the correct markers, I am happy to say that I haven’t been bitten since.

Its a shame for poor Sei that he had to yell so loudly (bit me twice) before I understood the troubles he was having. I will work harder to be better for him.