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.

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