Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Spooky Anacostia hike

After the departure of the Swiss, I made Florian promise me that no matter how exhausted we were, we would take the time to go on at least a little hike with the dogs. 

I had a hankering to go along the Anacostia River somewhere. The Anacostia runs through some of the poorest parts of DC, a once-beautiful river and network of wetlands long left for dead. 

Though it's still terribly polluted, many of its wetlands filled and developed, I love the hikes we've taken along the Anacostia.

There are a ton of trails, including the ones we usually go to along the wooded northwest branch, where you'd never know the river is polluted and the trail is right near a dense urban area. 

But somehow I love even more the trails that take off right from the most urban neighborhoods. 

It brings me hope that the city has invested in trails and public open spaces in these areas, and that people and their dogs use them and enjoy them. 

And for some odd reason, Florian and I enjoy spooky industrial areas. Some of our happiest dates have been driving around in neighborhoods full of scrap metal yards and car washes.

This time, Hurricane Sandy was already threatening and the sky was glowering and tense, which added to the spooky fun of an industrial Anacostia hike. 

We drove through the city and got a bit lost near H street in downtown DC, but then followed Florian's intuition along Benning road until we saw signs to the Anacostia and saw a wide, green grassy area. We did not take long to discover a trail through the riparian forest along the Anacostia and a connected trail through Kingman Island and Heritage Island parks.

The islands were created in 1916 by the Army Corps of Engineers from sludge dredged from the Anacostia. Rapid development and deforestation around the river had led to massive soil erosion, and the river became clogged with silt. Mudflats became breeding grounds for malarial mosquitos, and local residents demanded that something be done. 

The islands were created, but nothing was done with them until recently. The original plans, for a parkland that would serve the recreational needs of the local community, were not acted upon, but fortunately neither were competing ideas for an airport, a housing development, or a landfill. 

The National Park Service no longer owns the islands as of 1995, but it appears they are safe from development even in the hands of the DC government, which has pledged to preserve them in their natural state and build the Kingman Island Environmental Education Center. More on this fascinating history is here.

There is now a Heritage Island loop trail, and a really cool wooden bridge connecting the Anacostia with the islands. 

You can look out over the mudflats and see nesting herons, 

and you can appreciate the stunning fall foliage surrounding the old wooden walkway.

or you can enjoy the view of a spooky old factory rising up out of the riparian forest.

Especially fitting for a pre-Halloween, pre-hurricane thrill.

Having lived Halloween to the fullest prior to the event, now the pressure's off and my sister and I are going to just go out and have a nice dinner and drink to avoid the trick-or-treaters!

Do YOU have a favorite alternative Halloween activity?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Swiss Invasion

Last week Florian and I had a long-anticipated visit from his sister and three nephews from Switzerland. 

I love Florian's family and like most of the Swiss they are outdoorsy, warm people. But I have to admit that the thought of three boys aged 10-15, one of whom was reputedly scared of dogs, staying in my small house for four days did not inspire within me expansive feelings of relaxation.  

I envisioned kids screaming, Fozzie jumping and humping and launching, gates being left open, neighborhood cats being eaten.

In short, utter chaos.

But things were not nearly so bad as I imagined.

Everyone loved the dogs and the boys were incredibly gentle with them. Theo, the oldest boy, was calm and affectionate with the dogs. 

Mattheas, the middle boy, especially loved Fozzie and every night wanted to sleep with him. 
Alex, the youngest, who we thought would be terrified, adored Fozzie and couldn't get enough of him.

Fozzie was absolutely in heaven with the house filled with new people to cuddle. 

I think some of Florian's relatives in Switzerland had some trepidation about those kids being around a big scary looking pit bull mix thing. Of course we told them he's a good boy, but with four boys around (Florian's son Quentin joined us too) there is going to be a lot of action and movement, and that predatory drift thing could take over and something bad could happen. 

Then there's just the insanity of having that many teenage boys in one place 
(Theo, Mattheas, Alex, Quentin, Fozzie, and Florian). It's a wonder nothing blew up, burned to the ground, or collapsed, and not one person was killed. 

All those boys made me very proud!

And Fozzie didn't do any of the terrible things I envisioned. 

OK, except maybe a bit of humping.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Dogs Learn Some Pilates

Dance class just gets more and more fun each week. This week we learned several new tricks that Fozzie just loves.

First was weaving through the legs.

Have a treat in each hand. With dog on left, take one big step forward with right foot. Lead dog under right leg and forward. Stop and treat dog using right hand.

Take big step with left foot. Lure dog under left leg, stop and treat using left hand. 

Put it all together and you are walking forward, your dog weaving in and out of your legs! 

Be sure to take plenty of time out to rest. This is exhausting!

Next, we broke out the Pilates balls. 

I wasn't sure how this would work with such a heavy dog. 

Getting the dog to support first some, then eventually all, of his weight on the ball helps develop core muscles that are key to getting up on hind legs.


Fozzie loved it! I held the ball steady at first, but quickly was able to let it move under him as he climbed up. Watching him roll over it, finally getting all the way over it with back paws dangling, was priceless. 

Good job Fozzie, time for another break.

Keep it up and you'll be right up there with those stars in class.

Finally, we did some work on sitting up and begging. This is another great exercise to strengthen the core. When the dog is able to sit up and beg, he is on the way to being able to stand on his hind legs, and even walk on two legs unsupported.

When I saw this was on the agenda, I really didn't think Fozzie would be able to accomplish much. He is such a heavy, big-chested beast, and for all his fine qualities, balance without the help of his front paws is not his strong point.

The key is taking it slow with lots of support. First, put out an arm and prompt the dog to put first one paw, then the other paw on it. 

Get the dog to try balancing more of his weight on his own by holding the treat way up above his head, then slowly removing the arm support, then bringing it back.

Fozzie was able to at least put both paws on my arm, and start to balance more of his weight on his hind quarters.

Not like some of the stars in class, but hey--gotta start somewhere!

Michelle and Joey prove the fancy stuff is not just for the Aussies and Border collies
Regina and Link were dancing up a storm too
It was so much fun to see everyone learning new things in this class. 

Next step? See what music Fozzie wants to dance to!

Monday, October 22, 2012

An unexpected forum for relaxation

We don't watch TV much in my house, and the TV we have is Florian's old model from about 1993. We did, however, tune in to the last debate, which meant that we and the dogs, and the budgies because they like to listen to TV and radio, crowded all together in to the small bedroom.

I won't go into my political leanings too much (okay, if you must know, I think Romney is a rich privileged dude who knows nothing about the struggles of normal people and will look out only for rich white people and big corporations, while I think Obama is hugely disappointing with respect to environmental protection but is essentially a good person trying his best in challenging circumstances), but I do enjoy TV nights because the animals seem to really love doing something as a family  together. 

Fozzie couldn't bear to watch the debate, so he had his cool nose buried in my neck.

Lamar lay in the dog bed I brought in for him. I thought about how Lamar gets less attention generally since he likes to lie in his own space, while Fozzie has no concept of his own space and so generally lies on top of his humans. 

But Lamar loves attention, as long as he can be comfortable while receiving it. So while Mitt and Barry duked it out, I lay down on the dog bed with Lamar.

And I just began stroking him. Rubbing my hands up and down his side, his neck, his scrawny legs. Getting out huge amounts of fur with each stroke, in the gentlest of deshedding techniques. And Lamar took a deep breath, stretched out, and looked more relaxed than I've seen him in weeks. 

For the entire duration of the debate, while the politicians nagged and jabbed at each other, I just stroked Lamar and relaxed with him on a great big orthopedic dog bed. 

When I finally got up to cuddle Fozzie for a minute before going off to brush my teeth and go to my own bed, Lamar remained there, stretched out, blissfully and deeply asleep. 

Years ago, when I lived in New Mexico and was a year or so out of college, I went to massage school and then practiced for about a year. I know all about how massage can make the lymph flow better, improve sleep, stimulate the immune system, process toxins, and give a great big boost to well-being, but somehow I just don't take the time to do it with my own dogs. Sure I pet them and scratch them and cuddle them all the time, but seldom do I really devote all my attention to giving a really good rubdown. 

Doing it reminded me how different life was back when I took the time to do relaxing things, to give massages and get them, to really think about how to stimulate healing in myself and others. 

The pace of life was different in New Mexico, and the pace of life was different without Florian's bright zinging current of energy running through my every day. I wouldn't trade my life now for that life, but there must be a way to recapture the sense of inner reflection, of stillness, of time stretching out before me and around me, that I often had then.

Maybe just by giving Lamar a massage once a day.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Impulse control for the fence barker

I recently went to a seminar sponsored by Your Dog's Friend on impulse control, which as you know is one of my favorite topics. I learned some useful tidbits!  

Like this: did you know that when a dog shakes himself off, it's one sign that he is shifting from hindbrain mode to forebrain mode--in other words, into a state where he can once again think and learn?

When I think of all the times when Fozzie reacts and barks and lunges at another dog when we see one on our leash walks, and then, when the dog is past, shakes out and then looks up at me, it makes perfect sense.

The other really useful thing was a little primer on what to do about the fence barker. 

The dog who, like Fozzie, goes absolutely nuts running along the fence line and yodeling up a storm when the poor mailman comes by, or when our friend with the huskies walks past. 

Why not try this:
  • Go outdoors with the dog on a leash. 
  • Do some structured attention work with the dog while no triggers are present.  At a time other than mailtime or husky walk time, call the dog's name and give a treat when he looks at you. Do the Watch Me game: Hold a treat out to your side, and wait til the dog looks away from the treat and into your eyes--then click and deliver the treat. Do some Sits, Waits, and Hand Targeting. 
  • Do this in your front yard, or wherever the dog does his fence barking, for a few minutes every day for a few days.
  • Then go out with dog on leash when you know there are going to be some triggers, like just before the mailman comes. Start getting some calm attention and eye contact with treats. 
  • Then its just like you would do with your reactive dog exercises during a leash walk. When the mailman comes, and your dog becomes aware of him--but is not yet flipping out and straining to get at him--say "Look at that!" then click and treat. 
  • Your dog may not be able to look at you at this level of excitement, but if he does, great. If not, stick the treat right in front of his mouth. Back up to just inside your doorway, or some other location farther away from the mailman. 
  • If your dog starts flipping out immediately when he sees the mailman, just say "whoops!" and bring your dog back inside.
  • As you practice presenting treats when the mailman comes each day--ideally, at a point when your dog notices the mailman, but before he is freaking out about him--then he will become calmer and more able to process information over time. 
The process is really just like reactive dog training--working sub-threshold, doing open bar/closed bar desensitization and counterconditioning with the dog's triggers.  I just never thought of putting together a structured protocol in this way. Brilliant!


Do YOU have a fence barker, and a good way you've found to work with those less-than-desirable behaviors?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Blue goes home

I just got a wonderful update from the Washington Humane Society. Blue has been adopted! She is now called Emma and she's settling right in and learning tricks like crazy.

And she's already all dressed up for Halloween!

Monday, October 15, 2012

More dancing

Fozzie and I had even MORE fun at last week's Doggie Dance class. 

This time, Florian had to rehearse for his own dance show over the weekend--a show that would not, alas, include Fozzie--so he couldn't join us. My friend Francine was with us though and took some really good pictures. 

First we practiced a bunch of spins. 

This is a trick Fozzie's known for some time, but I never thought of Fozzie doing them beside me as I walk forward, or doing them as part of a dynamic shifting total dance event.

Fozzie got really good at spins--at one point he did a quadruple pirouette!

Again I was so impressed with how Fozzie was getting into it. I've always suspected he would be a natural dancer, as there are so many dance-like movements that he really enjoys. 

We practiced what we learned last week a lot, and really worked on going around, through the legs, then back and forward together. Going forward is easy, but getting the dog to back up when he's between your legs is a bit tricky! If you can't see the video, bear with me...we are still a bit in the dark ages technologically.

Then we focused a lot on paw behaviors. 

That's right, Fozzie actually got to be rewarded for putting his paws on my arm, on a prop, around my leg, and on my butt. 

The goal is to actually get your dog to interact with all sorts of things with his paws, 

and eventually get him to hold onto things with his paws. 


It was easy to encourage him to paw whatever body part or target I presented him with, as Fozzie is a natural paw user.

Fozzie loves to grab onto things--most often, Florian's leg when he is getting into a humping sorta mood--so it is so great to have a positive outlet for these tendencies.

The grand finale was a couple of really fun tricks I've been wanting to learn for a while.

How great is it to have a big scary looking Mastiff mix man who can do a play bow on cue? 

What better way to let people know his true nature?

We call our bow "Bravo" so Fozzie doesn't get confused hearing "Bow" for a behavior that is so similar to "Down." 

To do it, we lure his nose straight down from a stand, the treat going from the nose straight down to the floor, but we have one arm under Fozzie's belly to keep that butt up in the air. 

We click and treat when the front elbows hit the ground...and then we get him out of it by luring the nose straight forward, so he goes out of the bow into a standing position and doesn't conflate Bow with Down.

The last trick was one we already know, going into a down and then crawling forward. Carolynn recommended actually kneeling over your dog to get him to do this, so he doesn't get up when the treat is moved forward. I didn't find this to be necessary when I taught Fozzie...he just naturally crawled forward as long as I kept the treat close to the ground.

I feel just like one of those ballet moms Florian is always going on about.

I'm so proud of my little dancer boy!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Training the next dancer in the family: Canine Musical Freestyle

When I first started seeing videos of agile Border collies bending and twisting in time to music, spinning around their owners and going between their legs, I thought wow--cool! What a great way to engage your pup, get exercise, listen to music, and build an incredibly responsive and attentive relationship through moving together.

As I got to know Fozzie better over the past two years, saw how easily he learned paw tricks and spin tricks and agility tricks, I thought he would be a natural for doggie dance--but what doggie dance class would allow in a student with such impulse control and reactivity issues?

My friends at Your Dog's Friend have come through for me again! Fozzie, Florian and I had our first Canine Musical Freestyle class last Thursday night with the delightful instructor Carolynn Williams and her stunning Australian shepherd Rafe. 

I know Fozzie has made a lot of progress over the past 2.5 years, but I still thought he wouldn't be able to focus at all in class. I thought he'd be a squeaking, quivering mass listening to every rustle by another dog in class, with no interest in treats and no attention on me.

He actually blew me right away. He squeaked and quivered a little when he noticed other dogs in class, but once I broke out the treats he was positively eager to focus and do whatever fun thing I asked him to. Default sits like crazy, then he tuned right in when I led him around me for an "around" and through my legs for "come through." 

He pranced around, wagging and smiling and dancing and checking in with me, looking up like he was so proud of himself as he stepped it up like a little ballerino.

He absolutely loved it!


When he burned out and needed a break from working, I let him play with his squeaky hippopotamus and roll around on the floor, get a really good butt rub, or whatever he wanted. I just couldn't believe he was able to focus at all, let alone be so engaged and happy to work for extended periods. 

Carolynn was so wonderful and put our minds right at ease with respect to any of Fozzie's "issues." Although she's often taught the class with dogs off leash and out in the center of the room, she readily shifted the format when a few students wanted to sign up for this session with reactive or exuberant dogs. Everyone who needed it--Fozzie and 3 other dogs in the class--had a nice pod to work inside to give themselves the visual shield they needed to focus. Most importantly, Carolynn kept reminding us to just let our dogs have fun, with no expectations, and if they needed a break that was just fine. She was confident that Fozzie would be able to accomplish something, and that made me more confident, and that helped Fozzie relax and achieve so much. 

We have been practicing our new tricks and can't wait for next week!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Bull Run Park and embracing the consumer culture

Saturday evening was Florian's night to go teach his private ballet lesson in Virginia, and we decided to take advantage of the gorgeous fall weather with a nice little hike. 

The best thing about fall and winter is that you can go on a hike with the pups, then let them mellow out in the hippie/soccer mom van while you go shopping. And because humans are an adaptable species and we have learned to take pleasure in many things that disgust us on some level, but are ubiquitous, one of our favorite things to do is to go for a hike then go check out discount consumer items at one of those big stores in those malls that are all exactly the same throughout the DC metro area, or really pretty much everywhere you go.

First, we went off to find a nice little hike in Bull Run Park. 

Fozzie is still a bit of a lunatic in the car, and if I don't have the front window open so he can stick his head out, he'll climb on my lap and scratch at it.

We found a really nice, flat trail along a stream--which must be Bull Run--that went on and on. There was absolutely no one out and about, so Lamar got to go off leash. 

Though I love the challenging trails we sometimes go on, pretty much all of us were ready for an easy, mellow walk. 

Florian's been choreographing and rehearsing like crazy, I haven't been sleeping a lot due to a situation at work that makes me feel a constant level of low-grade panic, and Lamar is starting to show his 13 years in his hips and his energy level.  

Fozzie is never low on energy but he doesn't mind a mellow leash walk either, as long as he gets to have lots of sniffies.
I loved the steps going through the water, allowing dogs and humans to cross in the manner most comfortable for them. 

Fozzie went right across on the steps, 

but Lamar felt more at ease putting those skinny legs in the water and wading across. 

My poor little man, maybe that felt good on his arthritis. 


This walk was paved in some parts, wooded and spooky in other parts, and it even went past an old archeological site which I thought looked pretty neat. 

A gorgeous way to enjoy the still-warm temperatures and take in the stunning colors of a beautiful spot. 

The dogs got nice and tired, settled in the van, and then we went to Ross Dress for Less and bought 3 years' worth of really good-smelling discount health and beauty products. 

What's YOUR favorite guilty consumer pleasure?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Loose leash walking

Though I've taught it in lots of classes, I never have felt really confident about training Loose Leash Walking--especially to dogs who really need it. 

I'm sure there are plenty of dogs out there who will respond quickly to the "be a tree" method--when the dog pulls, stand still until she looks at you and gives you some slack, then go forward again until the dog learns that she can only go forward when she gives you a slack leash. 

But a dog like Fozzie needs something more intensive. So I was glad to see that the APDT has a free webinar on Loose Leash Walking--which I believe is available to everyone here, even if you don't have an APDT membership. This webinar is offered by Gail Fisher, and goes through the steps of a nice, relationship-centered way to help a dog learn to walk calmly on the leash.
Lamar, always concerned with keeping his flock together, walks on a nice loose leash and checks in frequently
I always find that writing things down helps me learn them, so I've summarized the steps below. I hope this is useful to you too.
  • Choose an alert sound like This way! or a smoochy noise. Use this sound to let your dog know you're going to start working.
  • Make your alert sound, and when your dog looks at you, mark (click or say "yes!") and toss a treat on the floor. When dog looks up at you, click and toss again. Repeat 5-6 times in place.
  • Then walk backward, continuing to mark and reward for the dog looking at you.
  • Once dog is walking along with you and getting into this game, pivot, turning away from your dog, so you're facing in the same direction.
  • After you turn, mark & reward first step going in same direction. Walk with your dog a few steps, marking and rewarding for each step she stays in loose leash position. 
  • To turn, make smoochy noise to signal first then turn. Say Lets go to let dog know you're going.
I like this protocol because you are working towards loose leash walking through establishing a relationship with your dog, and being clear about what you want.  

Important points: you're not luring the dog into position, and you're not rewarding just for attention. You are marking and rewarding moments where the leash is loose, even if the dog is not looking at you.   
Florian always gets Loose Leash Lamar, while I get pulled along by Fiendish Fozzie
What about when your dog gets out of loose leash position? The usual instinct is to yank back, but here's something to try that's a lot gentler and more fun:
  • As your dog starts to pull, but before he gets to the end of the leash, make your alert sound (smoochy noise)  
  • Walk backward to reconnect, as at the beginning
  • Mark, then reward only with verbal praise--no treats. Treats are only for forward walking
  • Turn and walk forward, then click & treat for a loose leash!
This seems like a great protocol for dogs who are over-eager on the leash, but still interested in treats when out on a walk. 

But what about for dogs who, like Fozzie, are so stressed out, anxious, or excited on walks that they lose interest in treats?

This is why I found the end of the video, which talks about the Lost Opportunity marker, so interesting. The steps outlined are exactly the method I discovered and outlined here as the only thing that really works for Fozzie, once he gets a bit excited: Using a No Reward Marker like "whoops!" when he pulls out ahead toward a trigger, then immediately turning and walking in the other direction until he gets more calm. Turning back toward trigger if he can handle it, but turning away while saying "whoops!" if the leash goes tight again. When he can handle it, allowing him to approach all the way to the thing he wants.

This method is putting the Premack Principle to work for you: giving the dog something he wants (to approach the object of his fascination, whether another dog or a good-smelling bush) in exchange for giving you something you want (calm behavior and a loose leash). Whoever Premack is, he is a godsend to those of us with dogs who--for whatever reason--are not food-motivated.

The rest of the video tells you how to build the behavior by gradually increasing the time between rewards, introducing turns, training in new locations, and adding distractions. It also includes the good advice that if you don't have time to train on a walk, use equipment, like a head collar or no-pull harness, that will keep your dog from pulling and practicing the behavior. 

Check out the video for a really thorough explanation of these great methods. I'd love to know what works for you.