Thursday, July 24, 2014

Change Directions Dogs

Today is my dog Bill's 10th birthday.  Billy the Kid is an Australian Cattle Dog that I got as a tiny, not even 6 week old puppy.  I got him from a ranch type breeder and not a good ranch breeder, I'm afraid.  When I got Bill 10 years ago, I still believed that if I had the dog from a young enough age and if I did everything right, I could mold him into just the dog I wanted him to be.

Billy's mother wasn't outgoing and his father was in a separate pen and super high energy and active over the top.  Still, I felt that if I did it all right, I could make him into my dream obedience, rally, agility dog and use him to work with reactive dog clients.  

As a puppy Bill was super focused and a blast to train.  By just a few months old he had a slew of learned behaviors under his belt.  He loved to train and work with me.  He was social and outgoing and friendly with people and seemed to love everyone.  He came to my puppy classes, was well socialized and traveled out of state with us as a young puppy.  He started in foundation agility class very early and loved it.  I was also training him for obedience and rally.  He began off leash hiking with me early on and loved that too.  He was an impressive and reliable demo dog in my classes.  He was everything I wanted him to be and we were headed in the right direction.

At about 10 months old, I began to notice changes.  My once happy-go-lucky puppy was walking around to avoid people on the trails.  This was only the beginning.  He became less comfortable with other dogs, reactive on leash with people and dogs, reactive with new things, environmental changes, novel anything.  My heart was broken, but I persisted in working with him.  Nothing scary or bad ever happened to Bill.  He wasn't abused, but is afraid of people.  He was never "hit by a man", but is fearful of new men.  This wasn't "caused", this comes from his genetics, it is just a part of who he is.

I dabbled in herding, but my focus with Bill was obedience, rally and agility.  He did great at these things, but not in a competitive environment, like a trial.  Still, I continued to work with him and entered him in fun matches, agility trials and rally trials.  One day we were at an agility trial and Billy had completed a couple of runs, but still had two or three to do.  I remember having him put away and me sitting there watching the other dogs go and feeling sick and anxious wondering if the judge's tie dyed hat would bother him and feeling panicked about whether the Boxer I saw would be in the ring just before or after him, and how he would be able to cope with being measured.  In that moment, at that trial with multiple runs to go, I calmly packed up my stuff, took my dog and went home.  I cried all the way home realizing that I would not be continuing to pursue these dreams with Bill.  It wasn't fair.  It wasn't fun for either of us.  This wasn't what I had in mind.  I told him I would never ask him to compete again and I haven't.  It is one the best and kindest decisions I have ever made in my life.  It was the right thing to do for this dog.

If you look closely you can see stress in his eyes.

Over the years I have continued to work on Billy's reactivity.  After deciding to discontinue showing him, I made the decision to discontinue neighborhood walks with him as well.  We landscaped our backyard to have a huge, ball area for Bill where my husband continues to play ball with him nightly.  We take him to parks or Point Isabel, the huge off leash dog park near our area.  He has a good, happy and fulfilled life, at least it seems that way to us.

Almost immediately after I stopped pushing so hard and pressuring so much, Bill did begin to get better.  He accepts any and all dogs that we bring here from Dachshund puppies to senior foster dogs.  He is easy peasy to live with and is the most "well behaved" dog we live with.  He has learned to make friends that come into our home easily if they are women, not as easy with men, but he accepts them and can cope.  

We work hard to listen to Bill, to continue to give him opportunities to do and learn new things and we always give him the choice to not engage or interact if that is what he requests and let me tell you that has gone a LONG way.  Instead of being my obedience, rally, agility dog he became the best teacher I could have hoped for, teaching me about fearful and reactive dogs, learning about how to help them feel better and about how important choice and listening to the dog is.  I encourage everyone to listen to your dogs.  If you really want to show or do rally or do agility, but your dog is telling you that they don't like it, or don't want to, or CAN'T do it, listen to them. It will do wonders for your relationship and your dog's well being. Today we celebrate 10 years with this magnificent beast.  Happy birthday Billy the Kid!

Billy the Kid, 10 years old.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Rules, Ethics and Honesty in the Dog Show World

Social media is an amazing thing.  Sites like Facebook allow us to keep in touch with friends and family, to reconnect with old friends and to share what is going on in our own lives.  This should be a positive thing, but there is also a dark side.  Facebook, forums and other social media allows people vent publicly about things that bother them or that they are upset about and the dog show world is no exception.  The comments made publicly were bad enough with the dog forums, but Facebook is a whole new territory with our Facebook pages making our feelings and opinions an open book for our friends, family, dog show competition and anyone we are "friends" with to see.  Many times people are Facebook "friends" with people that they are venting about, so it's sometimes more about saying what you want to say to someone without actually having to say it.

I am sometimes humored, sometimes astounded and sometimes horrified at the different things that I read. Most of the negative posts I see are in some way complaining about either the rules, someones personal ethics and honesty or lack thereof.  

This one is easy.  Rules are rules and you are either following them or breaking them.  If you break the rules, you risk getting caught and facing consequences for it.  The great part about the rules for dog shows is that they are written and they are specific.  If you break them and it can be proven, you may be punished for it. My personal opinion is that when it comes to dog shows it is best to follow the rules, not only because you can get yourself into trouble for not following them but also because it is just the right thing to do.  For me personally, I know the rules and I follow the rules, plain and simple.  It makes it really easy for me if someone suggests I broke a rule.  I wouldn't do it on purpose and if I did it inadvertently I would do whatever I had to in order to rectify it.

This one is a bit more sticky because ethics are a personal thing.  Something that one person feels is unethical may be perfectly acceptable to someone else.  I see people doing a lot of complaining about someone else being "unethical" but again, this is their personal opinion.  I have observed people complaining publicly about all of the following, just to name a few:
  • Moving a finished dog up
  • Not moving a finished dog up
  • Showing after a dog may be finished
  • Not showing after a dog may be finished
  • Committee chairs having someone show their dogs at a show where they are chairing
  • Committee chairs changing ownership of dogs so that they can be shown
  • Making negative to others about dogs at ringside
  • Commenting about others publicly on social media 
  • Breaking a major (even if for a very genuine reason)
  • Showing under a judge that you know, or that owned a dog you bred to, or that you had put you up before, or that you had lunch with two years ago, etc, etc, etc.
  • "Liking" pictures of dogs someone views as not a good dog
  • The judging, basically, disagreeing with the judging sometimes to the point of publicly insulting a judge because their dog wasn't put up
This is by no means a complete list, just some things that I have seen people complain about, usually on Facebook and rarely in person.  The thing is, these are situations in which each individual has a choice and a right to choose.  Of course most of us would probably say that it isn't nice to speak negatively about someone else's dog at ringside and that it isn't the right thing to do.  But, many of the other things are very individual and subjective.  I feel strongly that it is my right to move my finished dog up as a special if I choose to or to leave him in the classes, if I choose to.  However, I have seen people get pummeled for both of those options.  People can make a choice that they genuinely feel is the right, ethical and correct choice but it will still make some people mad.  You know that saying that "You can't please all the people all the time?" Well, that is the understatement of the century in the dog show world.  Not only can you not please everyone all the time, but some of those that are not pleased by your decisions will see your choice as a personal attack on them.  The bottom line is that you are not going to make everyone happy, so your best option is to follow your own gut and your own conscience and do what you want and what you feel is right for you and your dog.

What I find particularly frustrating is that some people will go on a social media rampage about this person or that person doing this thing or that when they do similar things themselves.  Of course, they are able to rationalize their choices and behavior, which is fine as long as they are willing to offer that same courtesy to others, unfortunately not everyone does.  They go on and on about other people and all their crimes and shortcomings and see themselves as completely justified in all their choices.  This is not a good look and not something I recommend.  Double standards are never a good thing.

I couldn't decide whether to talk about integrity or honesty here.  Integrity is really about being ethical which could include honesty, but honesty is really about truth.  Like rules, the truth is what it is, either it is true or not.  In the dog show world people can be so unbelievably untruthful that it is mind boggling.  To me dishonesty is a serious character flaw.  It isn't something I can accept or cope with in a friend and for the most part, I would choose not to be closely affiliated with people that I don't feel are honest.  And so, I don't.  I think it goes without saying that being honest is part of being ethical.  Does that mean that I have to sit at ringside and rip some dog to shreds because I'm "just being honest"?  No, it doesn't.  I think that a good option for ringside judging is that if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all until you get someplace private with someone you trust where it is appropriate and safe to vent .  In the case of saying it to the owner, if you aren't asked, don't tell.  On the flip side, if you DO ask, make sure that you are prepared to hear the answer.  Asking someone what they think and then being upset with their opinion isn't fair either.  

Several years ago I showed a friend's dog to a big win.  The dog was nice, the judge was good and the win was honest.  Later that day, my friend was walking past a group of people who said, "Congratulations.  Isn't (insert the judge's name) getting a puppy from you?"  Uh, no, the judge didn't even have the same kind of dog and there was never any discussion of a puppy or of the judge and the dog's owner being in business together.  It was so ridiculous that it was laughable and that's how we handled it, we laughed.  What else can you do?  It was just another case of people making up their own stories and fabrications to create suspicion about the win.  No truth to it at all.  Saying "Congratulations" just before saying something snarky doesn't make the comment sting less.  My skin has gotten thicker and I try not let this stuff get to me, but I do find it sad and disheartening when I see lies, sometimes quite vicious ones spread about dogs and owners who never did anything to deserve it.  Sometimes success can make you a target and there is just no way around it.

Sadly, this behavior is not uncommon.  There are just people out there who say things that aren't true. In the case above and the times that I have been subjected to this type of behavior, I simply try to ignore.  There is no law against being dishonest, lying about people or spreading rumors.  So the best I can do is to not give it much thought, laugh it off and walk away.  Oh, and file that experience into my memory and my mind so that I can be thoughtful and careful about the people that I choose to trust, interact with and invest in.   

The just plain stupid category is one you have to just walk away from.  Of course, not everyone can do that. We are human and sometimes people need to defend themselves, fire back or say something and sometimes, it's reasonable and warranted, but, I propose that a lot of the time t's not worth it.  Sometimes it's better (and healthier) to walk away and be the better person and not feed the negativity.

In the end, we each need to decide for ourselves where we stand and who we are in terms of our ethics and honesty in the show ring and out.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

I'm entered...just kidding!

Tomorrow, my 1 year old standard wirehair Dachshund, Betty Spaghetti, is entered in her first rally trial. Guess what?  We're not going!  Yup, $33 down the drain and I feel great about it!  Honestly, I'm good.

The thing is, I haven't been working Betty that long in rally.  We started about a month and a half ago and while I am thrilled with where she is in terms of reliability and understanding, I realized that she is not quite ready to be expected to perform in an actual trial.  I took her to a park to practice the other day and she did her best, but the young fledgling birds learning to fly and freshly mowed grass were really difficult for her to work around.  When I took her to the pet store to get some stuff, she did really well, but was a little barky at a few dogs who barked at her.  She really is doing well, but I know that asking her to perform in a trial, on grass, with other dogs and people around is probably a bit much for her now, so I have decided not to go.  I think that this is the absolute right choice for my dog and I.

I talk to a lot of people who are so anxious to get their dogs into the ring, either for conformation or another dog sport and I think that is fine as long as our dogs are adequately and properly prepared.  Betty is only a year old and has only been working on rally for a month and a half, but frankly even if she was 6 years old and had been practicing rally for 5 years, if I don't think she is ready I won't put her in the ring.  I get calls all the time from people who want to start training their dogs but have already entered them in a dog show not realizing that it will take a little more time to properly prepare the dog!  A lot of people feel that minimal training is necessary for the conformation ring and then get frustrated when their dogs don't perform well. The truth is that much of the time the dog has just not been trained reliably if at all.  Two weeks before an event you entered is not when you should start training and preparing your dog for the ring.

I know that some people get agitated about pulling a dog from the conformation ring after you have entered due to a possible drop in points, but the truth is that we are our dog's advocates and we should be most concerned with our dog's well being and preparedness.

So, back to Betty!  When I started working rally with her, I had set June 1 and this trial specifically, as my goal.  We are very close, but I think we need a little more work and I am very good with that.  I will not be taking her to the rally trial tomorrow.  Instead, I will continue to practice with her.  I will attend a rally trial/dog show with her next weekend just to watch and support Roy, a bearded collie who is her training partner and just see how she does around all the dogs there.  We will continue to do our weekly rally practices adding in more locations and distractions as her skill level goes up.

If I chose to, I could show Betty tomorrow anyway, knowing that she may not be ready.  I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing as long as I am prepared to 1) not qualify, 2) not get upset about it and 3) not be upset, disappointed or frustrated with Betty.  That said, I would prefer to go in this as a team that feels as ready, prepared and fully connected as possible.

It is great to set goals and it is okay to change your mind and decide that the two weeks between close of entries and the actual event wasn't quite enough to be where you want to be.

Photo by Dianne Morey

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fearful Dogs and Trigger Stacking

Zen Django is my 3 year old Chinese Crested.  I adopted him when he was just under two years old, knowing that he was fearful and shy.  He has come a long way and is my canine freestyle partner.  He is great with other dogs and people and despite his debilitating sound sensitivity has learned to cope very well in the world around him.  He used to dart around and panic on walks, but can now walk happily and confidently.  Our walks have gotten much better and just last week I noticed that he ignored both a guy using a loud saw and a lawnmower running.  Those are both huge improvements for him because in the past, both would have sent him reeling.

I just got back from a neighborhood walk with Django.  The first half of the walk was awesome and I was thinking to myself how great he is doing and how amazing it is to see him to relaxed and comfortable.  Just over 1/2 way through our walk, Django's worst nightmare appeared...a Fed Ex truck.  The noise of large trucks with their hydraulic screeches and random booms, as well as construction equipment are extremely scary for him.  I noticed it before he did and so I stopped heading in that direction and knelt down next to him.  I held the leash so that he was close to me and didn't have room to dart around just petted him and told him he would be okay.  After the truck was gone we continued with our walk.  After the truck passed he was no longer panicked, but was no longer relaxed and comfortable.  From the time we saw the truck, he became more reactive to cars which hadn't been bothering him before, as well as other sounds, even the sound of the leash attachment clinking with his harness.  He was still able to eat food, respond to me and walk, but he was walking faster and his movement was more jerky.  He was just clearly now "on edge". Unfortunately, we saw another large loud truck and again I had to comfort him until it passed.

There are two things about this that I wanted to discuss.  The first thing is "trigger stacking".  Trigger stacking is when there are more than one trigger in the environment and each one creates a layer of anxiety that lowers the dogs threshold for coping.  For Django, while he is much more comfortable going out of the house, there is a still a level of elevation in his normal emotional state when we go out.  Not enough for him to be bothered by vehicles or saws, but if he is exposed to something scary, like a Fed Ex truck, things he normally could cope with become more challenging and scary.  I realize that every time I take him out there is a possibility of us seeing a truck, however, I feel that because we usually don't see one, it is worth it for him to continue to be out in the world going on leash walks which he really enjoys.

Trigger stacking is something I see often in show dogs that are fearful or reactive.  They may be worried about one piece of the dog show experience, such as the judge or other dogs or the table, or they may be worried about many of those things.  If they are worried about several of these things, there is definitely trigger stacking happening because each trigger is breaking down the dog's ability to cope.  This is why it is so important why we deal with EVERY issue that a dog has with being shown before throwing him into a situation where he will be forced to deal with things that scare him.

Dogs, just like all other animals, including humans cannot help it when they are afraid of something. I have a fear of flying.  I have never been hurt in a plane and I can reason with myself that I will be okay, still, I have a panic attack every time I fly.  It isn't fun.  I would stop feeling that way if I could, but I can't.  It is the same for dogs.  There is no animal that will act fearful if they can help it.  If a dog is acting afraid, it is because he is afraid.  Dogs are incredibly honest that way.  I have actually had breeders tell me that "in their breed" dogs will "act afraid" so that they won't have to do things or to manipulate us, which of course is ridiculous and not at all true.  It is truly scary that people who have such a distorted view of how dog's behave have such a strong influence not only on a breed in general but also in people who buy their puppies who will listen to that and actually believe it.  But, I digress...

The other point I wanted to make of this story is that you may have noticed that I comforted Django when he was afraid.  There are still people who mistakenly believe that if you comfort a fearful dog you will "reinforce their fear".  Fear is an emotion, not a behavior, so it doesn't work that way.  If I was getting robbed at gunpoint and someone came up and started handing my $100 bills, do you think I would be more afraid the next time because I was reinforced for being afraid?  No, because at the time, I was not "learning" in that way, I was just trying to stay alive.  Any learning I would be doing would likely be "classically conditioned", meaning that it was learned from associations, not consequences, like reinforcement.  So, I could learn to be afraid of going to that same location because I had been robbed there, or I could even develop a negative association to a type of car that happened to be sitting nearby or to the shoes I was wearing that day because my brain happened to have made an association between those two things - that scary event and my shoes that I had on that day.  But, I wouldn't be more afraid because I was reinforced during the robbery.

This is all important to think about when dealing with a fearful or reactive dog.  I want Django to be comfortable with walks and I hope that one day I can get him to be okay with loud trucks, although I am not sure he ever will.  What I see now is that he is "better" than he was.  He still becomes very obviously afraid, but he doesn't completely panic to the point of trying to escape me like he used to.  Protecting him and comforting him has helped.  What would never, ever help him is what I see many people do when their dog is having an anxiety attack which is physically correct them.  Many owners view this as an intentional behavior of the dog acting up, but these fearful responses are not something the dog is doing as much as they are something scary that is happening to the dog.  Another important thing to think about because correcting a dog for being afraid is extremely relationship damaging.  It breaches the trust between the dog and owner which is never a good thing.