Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Twilight Zone

Last week Ulysses and I met someone from a local rescue who hoped she could help with his behavior issues. Unfortunately, I knew we wouldn't be able to work together the moment she said that my chihuahua was exhibiting dominance by begging for treats. Veterinary behaviorists, accomplished trainers in many fields, and pretty much the entirety of the dog training community would agree that Ru begs before treats because he has been rewarded for doing so in the past. Only TV dog trainers and those who want to set dog training back thirty years would insist that my chihuahua begs for treats because he believes himself to be above me in our pack structure, and would automatically cease this behavior if he learned his proper subordinate place relative to myself.

Suffice to say I won't be reverting to any outdated beliefs in the mythical pack structure of wolves in order to work with Ulysses. I'll be sticking with the principles of behaviorism, which work on everything and not just dogs.

Working with Ulysses is fascinating because he is so very different from Brisbane. I am fortunate to have a dog who broadcasts his emotional state so effectively, it's easy to tell when Brisbane is too excited or stressed to learn because he is hysterically screambarking. I made a graph to illustrate this:

It is worth pointing out that Brisbane will still take treats even when he is having hysterics. Ulysses is much more subtle, and he acts deceptively calm almost all of the time.

At a certain point Uly will lunge and bark at exciting things, but well before that he gets stressed enough to stop taking treats. He is probably giving other signs of his stress level as well, but for now the only way I can tell when he crosses over into the Twilight Zone is when he stops taking treats.

On Sunday Uly and I went for a nice walk on the trails at a very low traffic time of day. When we were walking together on the empty trail, he stayed in the operant zone. Passing other people on the trail puts him into the Twilight Zone. Passing another heeler/Australian shepherd mix running alongside a bicycle put him all the way up to biting stuff, and kept him excited enough to pull on the leash instead of walking nicely.

Ulysses seems to be naturally good at loose leash walking, but I would like him to check in rather than just exist at the end of a slack leash. Fortunately, Uly's default behavior seems to be checking in, so when he does hit the end of the leash I just wait patiently for him to come back and look at me. I give him a treat, and we keep walking.

The exception to this pattern was when we saw the other dog run past. Uly ran to the end of the leash and stayed there, staring down the trail in the direction she had gone. When he finally came back to check in, he took the treat I offered and then dropped it. As soon as we resumed walking, he hit the end of the leash and leaned against it again, so I waited for him to finish watching down the trail and come back to check in. The fourth time we did this, Uly finally ate his treat, and when we resume walking he was again relaxed and walking nicely on a loose leash.

I like training with food rewards for a variety of reasons, Brisbane is incredibly food motivated and it's a great way to get his attention off an incoming dog or passing UPS truck. Ulysses is less motivated by tasty treats, but food rewards are just as important for him because they are a useful barometer for his stress level. Uly's response to food is currently the only way to tell whether he is truly relaxed and happy, or whether he has crossed over into The Twilight Zone.

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