Friday, August 31, 2007

Alpha Rolls, Treats, and the Dog-Cat Relations

In my previous post I admitted that Lori alpha rolled CC a few times and that it had a positive impact on her behavior. Looking back on that, I must admit I have some mixed feelings. My favorite dog-training book is "The Other End of the Leash" by Dr. Patricia McConnell, and I am sure she woudn't approve of an alpha roll or anything else you might see on the "Dog Whisperer."

Did it work? I think it's hard to say, but two things are clear:
  • The immediate effect was to modify CC's behavior in a significant and positive way - we saw reduced jumping and much more response to command instruction (that is, when Lori asked CC to sit, she was more likely to sit).
  • I don't believe it will have any long term effect -- I think the only value of what happened is that perhaps it created a window of more subdued behavior during which we can use extinguishing and lure-reward (that is, ignoring CC when she jumps and treating her when she sits).
  • The situation was our fault - lure-reward and extinguishing could have been adequate had we acted much sooner. The reason we couldn't apply it in the more extreme case was logistical: CC is big enough and has sharp enough claws that if we ignore her and she persists in jumping, we can get scratched pretty badly.
If you look up Cesar Milan on Wikipedia you'll find that a lot of heavy-weight academic behaviorists are pretty unhappy about what he glamorizes on national television. I don't agree with all of their criticism, but I do agree with one: what he does is complex and very sensitive to timing, amount of force, and very careful reading of the dog's behavior. If you use lure-reward training, the worst thing that happens is your dog gets fat. But try what Cesar Milan does without his particular natural aptitude for dogs and you're likely to make the dog a lot worse, and possibly get injured in the process. I can only hope there aren't too many "amateur Cesars" out there trying to mimic bites with their hands and issuing corrections that are too harsh, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons.

(On the other hand, I think that the Dog Whisperer does contain some reasonable advice - increasing the time of CC's walks has done more to curb bad behavior than anything else, and we have realized how much our mental state and body language affect her behavior.)

As for the dog and cat, the situation continues to be problematic. Nala is quite nervous about CC and is easily scared off by a bark. Furthermore, she prefers to try to get by the dog when we are not watching, which means that a dog-cat chase tends to break out just when we think that we don't need to be paying attention. (Turns out that we need to be paying attention all the time.)

To try to improve things, we moved the dog's crate away from the door to the room with the cat's litter box, so the cat wouldn't have to approach the dog so closely to get in. This seems to be helping - the cat goes down there more often and doesn't seem to hesitate, and the dog barks at her less.

CC will respond to a verbal correction or a command -- if I am trying to keep the dog away from the cat what seems to work best includes:
  • Early detection. If I catch CC watching the cat and give her alternate instructions, she will virtually always comply. Once she is up and going after the cat, she tunes us out.
  • Blocking - it's not necessary to touch the dog to get her not to chase the cat. Putting a leg into the space she wants to go to, blocking her, will cause her to stop motion in that direction.
  • Stay - she'll hold a stay (in response to a flat "stop" hand out) and keep her eyes following me if requested.
  • I've actually found the "Cesar Milan ssh" noise works really well - it doesn't make her more stressed, or raise her excitement, anxiety or aggression level, but she always notices it and refocuses on me. The noise Cesar Milan makes strikes me as consistent with Dr. McConnell's research on the effect of frequency and duration on animal behavior. "ssssh" definitely gets better results than "no", I think because of the difference in pitch.
My hope in the long term is that with enough practice (I'll sit on the stairs and feed the cat while dog watches - the dog gets a treat if she stays calm during the exercise) I can break the cycle of dog-chases cat.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Bob Vila would not chase the cat

We just finished our second week of puppy-kindergarten with CC. It's been a transitional time for her behavior, and what we see in class illustrates it pretty well.

When it comes to demonstrating the things she's "supposed" to be learning (sit, lie down, watch me, come here, etc.) CC is the star. If the trainer needs someone to demo a trick, she's good for it. She is very motivated (especially for treats) and a very fast learner. She had learned most of her homework after one day last week.

But...when you stop working with her and ignore her, that's when things go down-hill rapidly. She'll bark and jump up and generally instigate until you pay attention to her. Looking back, it's clear to me that these behaviors are my fault - I taught them to her. When we first got her, for the first few weeks, her behavior was just totally unmanageable. She wasn't listening to us at all, so we felt like we had no control of the situation. I got fed up with it and decided that, no matter how long it took, I would teach her to reliably sit, lie down, and stay.

I work at home, so I have access to her all the time, and it turns out that "how long" was only a few days. She's really smart and figures out what you want her to do for a reward in no time. But, with such success with "training behaviors", I would use training as a way to keep her busy when she was bored, and that evolved into training her when she "asked" to be trained by barking, jumping, and generally being bad until we paid attention to her. So essentially I trained her to bug us for attention.

I'd been struggling to understand this last week - one of the reasons I think the behavior wasn't more clear is that this is also the week that Lori decided to deal with domination-related jumping. When Lori first got CC, her reaction was to give her a big hug and go "I love you so much" and crawl around on the ground with her. If you watch the Dog Whisperer you can see how this can amplify behavioral problems by a combination of not establishing dominance (e.g. letting the dog jump on Lori), rewarding bad behavior, and exciting the dog all at once.

This week Lori tried something different - she came home and CC ran to her. Lori said sit and the CC ignored her and jumped up. At that point instead of just backing away, Lori scruffed her and pinned her down. After a few applications, CC has stopped the dominance jumping (she'll still jump up to get attention, but I think you can tell by how she jumps what her intention is) and obeys commands much more readily when Lori issues them.

In the process of all of this, CC had a period of trying to dominate me. I'm not sure what her dog-logic was, exactly, perhaps something like "I can't be number 3, I have to be at leaset number 2 in the house". So intermingled with bad behavior for attention we've also had a reorganization of our pack, which led to some confusing behaviors. I think we're past the worst of the dominance behavior though, so we'll see how the next week goes.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

I went to the vet to get tutored!

While Lori and I were on vacation we boarded CC at the local vet, and neutered her. She got her stitches out today. (And despite all of this vet-related trauma she still loves the car and thinks the vet is a dog park. She has a very optimistic personality.)

Just when her fur had grown back, they shaved it off again!

"What? You brought the dog back??"

This is how I learned that an unsupervised dog who likes the dig, left in the back yard with the sprinkler on, is not a good idea.

We had started to crate-train CC before her trip to the vet, but after a week of boarding she was pretty much used to it. This works out well for us...the sun-room isn't air conditioned, so we didn't have a good place to keep her when we wanted to go out and it was hot out.

"I'm in jail!"