In the moment

It seems to me that dogs are superstars at being “in the moment”.   Watching Tai running across a stream for the first time or playing with a same-age puppy friend last week underscores that point and it’s something I love about my dogs and try to learn from.  They don’t seem to dwell much about what just happened or what is about to happen.  I don’t mean to say they can’t anticipate good things coming – like mealtime, a walk, an agility run or any other favorite activity.  I just mean that when they are engaged in an activity of their choosing or an activity that we have built value for through our training…they show all signs of LOVING it, no regrets.     I guess that is what good dog training is all about.  Creating moments that our dogs love and look forward to and immerse themselves in for that time. Dogs seem to have a capacity to reach a sense of playfulness and joy that we humans have a harder time reaching.  That may be one of the reasons why we love being with our dogs so much.  Just watching them be in their moments, helps us be in our moments – if that makes any sense.

Last weekend I competed in the AKC Nationals with my sheltie Breeze.  After all the course analysis, walk-through, planning, visualizing and watching others, when it was our turn to run, I was striving to be  “in the moment” with Breeze.  As I prepared to run, I mentally revisited some of our more playful moments together.  I looked at his happy and anticipatory face.  To do our best, I had to let go, to believe that we would be together and in sync…using a finely honed handling language that would keep us in tune.  It would build on years of living, training and just plain fun…that he and I have had together and I could look to him to keep me centered.  We did well at the Nationals, making it to the Finals and placing 3rd overall.  To celebrate, I’ve posted a picture of Breeze in a “moment”.  I’ll continue looking to him and my other dogs  to teach me, hoping more and more of that magic will rub off on me!

The State of Play

Defining play in words is tough – although we usually recognize it when we see it.  Here is one definition: Play is something that’s done for its own sake, it’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it’s something that takes us out of a sense of time and it includes a diminished consciousness of self. I love that.  Achieving that State of Play is what attracted me to dog sports.  And it certainly defines what we see when our puppies … and our kids….play.

That definition comes from Stuart Brown, M.D. , medical doctor, psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and the founder of the National Institute for Play.  What I love is that he has made “play” the center of his work since retiring as a clinical psychiatrist.  Why? Because in his practice he had the opportunity to study the developmental background of a group of mass murderers, finding the absence of normal play to be a distinguishing feature from the control population.  This began a clinical interest and passion in the topic that led to the formation of the Institute of Play.

We’ve all been told how important it is to give our puppies opportunities to play with other puppies.  A session of play between two well matched puppies is dynamic, intense and by all appearances fun!    Research shows that it’s also critical to the development of social animals. Play aids the development of emotional regulation, social competency, the ability to be flexible with something that is happening that’s unexpected, and the capacity to adapt to a changing world.   Depriving rats from just one form of play – rough and tumble play — results in adult rats that do not have the capacity to tell friend from foe, they don’t mate properly and they don’t handle stress well.

I’ve been lucky to have friends with same age / same size puppies.  and we have been getting the pups together regularly.   Next time you see puppies play…smile at their antics and enjoy watching all the neural connections that are being made!

Link to podcast with Dr. Brown:

I love my crate

Puppy Tai – now 10 weeks old — was introduced to crate games this past weekend.  I mean Susan Garrett’s version of Crate Games.  Of course, he had been spending time in a crate prior to this…sleeping and eating; riding in the car; sometimes just hanging out watching the activity in the kitchen.  But now, thanks to crate games, Tai is starting to LOVE his crate.
Have you watched Susan’s DVD?  It’s such a great model of dog training to watch Susan take a 6 year old German Shepherd through Stage 1 to Stage 3 of Crate Games.  Mechanics?  Well thought out.  Criteria?  Clear as a bell.  Timing?  Perfect.  The result…a dog who totally understands what is being asked and is getting mightily reinforced for it!

I appreciate the value of crate games first hand – my six year old Breeze is a crate game “pro”.  He learned his release word at just about Tai’s age via crate games, waiting for a release from his crate and practicing self-control virtually every day after that introduction.  Ok…ok…. we’ve struggled with his start line.  Nonetheless, crate games have been an integral part of his agility training. For example, I use crate games to build drive to and self control on obstacles like the dogwalk and weaves.  Crate games can “amp up” any training session for Breeze – a great way to  get him driving lines and increasing obstacle speed.

So…how did it go with Tai?  Was our session as perfect as Susan’s in her DVD? Hmmm…maybe not 🙂

For those who don’t know…stage 1 to stage 3 are done within one session.  The dog is not allowed out of his crate until he successfully enters stage 3.   I prefer a wire crate to a hard shell crate…it’s just so much easier to see what the dog is doing.  In preparation for our session, I put duct tape along the bottom of the crate as Susan suggests to prevent the dog’s toes from getting caught in the wire opening.  But curious Tai saw this as a perfect opportunity to find just the spot where the tape wasn’t quite flat and made a game out of trying to rip it out.  Ok…ditch the duct tape for now.

Stage 1 is “I Love my crate”.  A series of reinforcements are delivered to the dog in this manner: Open crate door, lean in and deliver a highly desirable (soft) treat high and to the back of the crate, stand up and close the crate door.  Repeat.  Since the treat is being delivered high, the dog will usually sit…which is the desired position.  We got through this stage without a hitch.

Stage 2 is “Are you a Gambler?”.   In this stage, Tai learned to maintain his sit position while I clipped on his leash and while I held the crate door open for a few moments.  At any time if criteria were not met, the door closed.    Tai was a superstar in this stage.

Stage 3 is “Yer out – Yer In”.  In this stage, my hand on the crate door cued Tai to sit (perfect), I put on Tai’s leash while he maintained a sit position (perfect), then gave Tai his release word and waited.  The idea is for the dog to come out of his crate on leash, find no other reinforcement, and then choose to go back into his crate – the place where he has just received untold number of treats.    This is where we ran into a bit of a snag.  Tai came out and started chewing on his buckle and leash and showed no signs of wanting to go back into the crate.  Oops.  Remember the duct tape I mentioned above?  This puppy can make a game out of just about any object he comes across.   I tried to lift up the leash so he wouldn’t be able to bite it but that just encouraged him because he thought I was tugging.  I only let this go on for a bit and decided plan B would be in order.  I just needed to quickly figure out what Plan B would be.

I quickly enlisted my husband and between the two of us we created a circle of space for Tai.  I took off the leash. He couldn’t leave and we didn’t acknowledge him — even when he gave Dad puppy kisses — so he must have thought “oh what the heck” and he chose to go into his crate.  Whew.  Then we had a little party with a handful of treats thrown into the crate and lots of praise.  I repeated the Yer in Yer Out game a couple more times using the same technique.

And we’ve been building on stage 3 all week.  I’m seeing his drive increase to get into the crate and I’m starting to use just a little restraint to build drive into the crate,  he understands my hand on the crate door means to sit,  I’m upping the ante on self-control with the crate door open and he understands his release word.  We’re on our way.

More than I bargained for…

Socialization is still my top priority for my puppy Tai.  Now that spring has suddenly arrived in the Northeast (I hope permanently), a whole new world is opening up for my youngster who turned 10 weeks old yesterday.   And I’m learning to be ready for anything.  Example: We had a busy day planned this past Thursday.  Walk in the morning with the older dogs, train with friends in the afternoon along with a  little friendly human socialization for Tai and puppy play early evening with a same age puppy.  That was enough but the day turned out to be filled with more than I bargained for including:

– Goofy lab encounter (came out of nowhere on our walk).  He was friendly but the “out of nowhere” part, startled Tai.  He recovered quickly.

– Icy bath. Unexpected opportunity to play with 15 week old golden retriever puppy (a good thing) but the only safe place to play was my friend’s agility field that looked snow covered but in fact the warm weather had created slushy ice-cold puddles under the snow.  So, Tai had his first experience being wrestled down by his puppy playmate into an icy bath.  He stood up, shook off and headed for higher ground.   I quickly decided maybe this wouldn’t be the best experience for him.  We’ll try again another time!  I can also note that my friend lives on a busy road and Tai paid no attention to the traffic going by.

– First encounters with skateboarders,  rollerbladers, bicyclists, teenagers swinging on park benches, puddles to walk through, AstroTurf, pea gravel, a dog screaming and lunging at the end of its owner’s leash, cars moving by us in the parking lot.  All these encounters – which he took completely in stride — happened when I added a 20 minute stop at a local park to our agenda for the day.  Nearly 60 degree weather brings everyone out!

– We also encountered loud squeaking park swings.  Tai startled but was curious enough to investigate.  We turned it into a positive experience when the teenagers on the swings were happy to meet and treat Tai.

The puppy play with the same age puppy “Grace”was great.  Got a few recalls in, rewarding his response with a good game of tug (food isn’t interesting enough). 

I love the way Tai’s confidence is growing as he learns about this crazy world he lives in.  He’s now walking confidently out of the front door of our house and down the driveway, fully recovered from the septic tank experience and as I mentioned above habituating nicely to traffic.    But it helps if I’m ready to speed recovery from uncertainty by turning potentially negative experiences into positives.  This means observing my puppy and having a pocketful of good treats and a toy on my person at all times.

Yesterday I decided to give him some practice on our basement stairs and check on my laundry at the same time.  Tai has been in the basement a few times.  We’ve played in the finished portion and he had a chance to explore the unfinished area once before.  As we walked into the laundry area, he heard the dryer and metallic clicks of zippers, etc hitting the sides of the dryer.  He stopped and then backed up a couple of steps.  I walked calmly to the dryer and squatted down, with my back to the dryer.  After a moment,  he approached as his curiosity kicked in.  I tossed a few treats on the ground to draw him in a little closer which he ate quickly.  A dog that will eat is really not that stressed.  Then I presented a toy to have a game of tug next to the dryer.    He grabbed onto the toy and we played and played.  This whole sequence happened within a couple of minutes.    He would have figured it out on his own eventually but I’m glad I was ready to speed up the process.  Just to be clear, I never reward a puppy for being afraid.  I rewarded his decision to approach the dryer and created a positive association at the same time.

It’s raining today and that will be a first for him too.  It’s a big wide world out there!

Getting to know you…

Tai’s been with us now for 2-1/2 weeks.  It’s been a busy and fun time getting to know him and watch him get to know us and his new home.  We have a pretty good routine going at this point, basic training is going well and the “pack” dynamics are interesting (more on that in a future post).

But my biggest priority at this stage is socializing Tai.   In part, that means creating positive associations with a wide variety of people.  Tai has loved EVERYONE he meets and the variety of people we’ve met in our outings range from babies in strollers to toddlers to teenagers to  “cranky” old men.  I carry a pocketful of treats of course and always ask the new people we meet to give him one or two or three.   I’m not shy.  I go to public places and stop complete strangers to “meet my puppy”.  I’ve only had a couple of people decline (“He’s cute but I’m not into dogs”).   And my dog friends have been very cooperative.  We had a “meet and greet” in the parking lot of a local trial this past weekend and it was a great success.  We’ve gone visiting.  Here is a friend’s son and Tai interacting in their home.  I think you can see that Tai was very appropriate with Ryan who wasn’t totally into petting the puppy.  It also means habituating him to a wide variety places, sights, smells, touch, sounds, motion and even movement under his feet.   He adapted nicely to riding in a crate in the car.  On his first couple of trips, I positioned the crate so I could put my fingers to comfort him.  It only took a couple of trips for him to settle quickly and now he is a “pro”.    This was our first experience together where he was initially a little afraid (as evidenced by a little crying) and then “learned” that riding in the car is really ok.   In other words, he “bounced back” or recovered and that in itself is a huge learning experience.

Many new encounters evoke very little reaction other than curiosity and in my observation, this includes most things in the “natural” world.  So encounters with sticks, grass, dirt, mud, snow, creeks, birds, insects, flying and honking geese, fighting crows, puddles, creeks, horses, manure, etc have all been taken in stride.

It’s the “built” environment that poses the biggest challenge for our puppies.  In the house…hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, microwaves, radio, tv, flushing toilets have generated no reaction at all, probably because his earliest days were spent in the middle of a house.  Since I live in a suburban neighborhood Tai has been exposed to plenty of human generated noises just from our backyard including distant traffic noise, trains and even drills and hammers.   If I’ve noticed any reaction, it’s has been to listen or watch, take it in and then go about his business.

One encounter though was particularly unpleasant for Tai.  Last week we walked out of the front door together to take a short walk in the neighborhood.  I noticed an idling truck in the driveway of my neighbor’s house directly across the street.  It didn’t seem to me to be particularly noisy so I barely noticed and was surprised when Tai’s began bucking at the end of his leash, wanting to get away…Then it hit me…the smell that is.  My neighbor was having his septic tank emptied.  YUCK YUCK YUCK!   I gave him a few moments and then decided to retreat to the house as he wasn’t quickly recovering.  Can you imagine how overwhelming that smell must have been to him?  The next time we walked out of the house later that day and long after the truck was gone, the negative association with the driveway and street in front of our house had been formed.  He wanted nothing to do with it and  had to be carried to the car but settled immediately and calmly into the security of his crate.

So, what to do?  I was completely confident that he would get over this eventually as many good things – like walks! – were going to begin in our driveway.  So, over the next few days, I simply spent a few minutes with him a couple times a day, letting him explore the front of our house…letting him decide how far down toward the street he wanted to go (not far at first).  As I suspected, curiosity is getting the better of him, along with the scent of our neighbor’s cats and that negative association is surely being replaced with positive associations.  He’ll now walk to the car on leash.  Yesterday I fed him his lunch in the car parked in the driveway with the back open and we added playing some games in the street.

The other “built” environment encounter he’s still habituating to is moving cars. Quite sensible actually to feel a little vulnerable to that much noise and motion.  His reaction is to sit and watch and if the car is quite close to want to move away.  Like I said…quite sensible.    So, he came with me to the doctor’s office yesterday where I spent a few minutes with the hatch up sitting with him watching cars go by from the security of his crate.  A few cookies may have been dropped in as well :-).

Today’s schedule includes his first vet visit and a puppy play date.  The sun is shining and we’re sure to get rid of more of this snow.  A good day.

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