Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Dog Headcollars - why we are trying one out

Cybi is an odd little dog. When we are training in a "formal" environment like Good Citizens class or at obedience he is incredibly switched on, focused and driven to get things right. An absolute pleasure to work with, in other words. Outside of the classroom, not to put too fine a point on it, he's an absolute pain in the butt.

He applies his collie laser focus and then will not be swayed from his course. It's making walking him fairly miserable - I made a big effort to take him out without Daisy to practice walking on the lead, but he just pulls and pulls and won't be distracted from pulling by the bribe of treats, or a toy waved in front of his nose, which instantly blows the theories from training class out of the window because they rely on the dog being willing to work for a reward from the handler.
The only thing that makes him stop pulling is letting go of the lead completely (I assume because it takes away his safety net - he knows he can pull because he knows where I am due to pressure from the lead, and once that's gone he has to pay more attention) but obviously that isn't workable as a long term solution, or even a short term solution on roads, given he's had to be trained out of car chasing and still occasionally tries to indulge if a particularly noisy one passes us.

I have even tried taking literally one step at a time, and stopping each and every time he pulled ahead of me. It took us 40 minutes to get to the end of our street and by the end of it he was agitated, stressed and spinning on the spot with frustration, and I was about ready to rehome him. I'm joking, but only just.

With normal dogs, taking one step and stopping when they pull quickly teaches them that until they come back to their designated place (by my side) they don't get to go on a nice walk, with the extra bonus of being rewarded with treats for walking in position. With Cybi, all that happens is we stop, and he pauses where he is, at the full extent of the lead, facing away from me, and poised to take his next step. And I wait for him to realise that he is out of place, and come back to me, and he waits for me to take another step so we can keep moving forward. And I wait, and he waits, and I wait and he waits, without ever moving position. I can wave a high value treat or a toy in front of him and shout his name til I'm blue in the face, it doesn't get his attention. Even physically guiding him from where he is standing back to the correct position by my side doesn't dilute his focus on being out in front, so when I take my very next step he'll be back out at pulling at the full extent of the lead. Which is how it can take 40 minutes to travel 100 metres. when every step involves stopping, waiting, and then physically adjusting his position from in front of me to next to me.

Anyway, having tried him on a harness, to no effect (except having even less control of his pulling) I'm at my wits' end on how to get him to respond to me when we are out walking on lead, so I'm going to give walking on a headcollar a go. My thinking is that if I can turn his head when he pulls, he will have to be deflected from his chosen path, which gives me the opportunity to get his attention without yelling or pulling on the lead. I'm currently taking a good look at the range that's out there, in an attempt to get the right one for the job. I hadn't realised there were so many options until I needed one!

See the rundown of the options here: http://www.thetailoftwocollies.co.uk/2014/11/doggy-headcollars-reviewed.html

Monday, 27 October 2014

Spooky Pupkins for Halloween!

We were sent a link today by the Guide Dogs, to their Guide Dog Pumpkin Carving templates. They look absolutely BRILLIANT! I wish the mad collies or I had any artistic skills at all - we'd be all over this. Might give it a go anyway, though it won't look like this once we're finished...

See more images and get the templates here.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Sniffity sniffity sniff, or, scent tracking for beginners

A few days ago, Daisy, Cybi and I went for our first tracking lesson with Heather Donnelly, of Tracking Lines. I've been wanting to try tracking training for a while, especially with Daisy, while she's such a "sniffy" little dog, so I was looking forward to our introduction to it - I want eventually to try working trials with my pair while trials seem such a good hybrid of obedience, agility and scent work, but I'm a bit intimidated by the whole sport. It seems like such a small group of people doing it,  there are so few clubs and the dog has to be at such a high standard even to do the basics! My thinking is if I do some sessions that cover the different elements then perhaps I'll have the nerve to take them along to an actual club, and we can see how we get on.

Finding the actual field proved to be the most challenging part of the whole undertaking, as it turned out - I got to the general vicinity without a problem but then took the wrong minor road (there were two to choose from, and the unerring ability to pick the wrong path is a universal in my life - who knows, maybe it's some kind of metaphor?!) But we got there eventually, and got started.

Daisy had eaten her harness a few days earlier. She executed a surgical strike on the clips, leaving the fleece untouched, the the little horror. (Side note: the guys at dog-games-shop deserve an award for their customer service - I emailed them to see if they did repairs: they don't but they sent me replacement clips for nothing) so we had to borrow one from Heather - a beautiful tracking harness made from bridle leather. If tracking was something either of them end up being good at, I'd seriously consider buying one. And then keeping it well out of chewing range.

Teaching the absolute basic track using lots of treats was fairly straightforward for both of them, as both my dogs have quite a lot of confidence in going ahead of me, and enjoy figuring things out for themselves, and so they really quickly got the idea that they could follow a (short, straight) marked track and get lots of lovely treats along the way, as long as they sniffed them out. Even at the very start of their training, it's obvious that Daisy is quite careful and methodical and enjoys actually working her way down the track, where Cybi is motivated to do a job (in this case track) and is rewarded by the praise and treats he gets at the end.

Thanks to Heather's expertise, they learned to do their first corners (apparently tracks that are laid for competition are made of a series of straight legs, linked by 90 degree corners) and also figured that out quickly. Based off our first lesson, it would seem that it's me that is going to be the weak link - I now need to learn about tracking line handling, track setting (including paying attention to wind speed and ground conditions), encouraging the dog at the right moment, knowing when to let them work it out for themselves....fortunately, I have a handout covering the basics, but I'm sure I'm going to be the one screwing it up for a while yet.

Here are the tracks we learned over the course of two hours (the second two also repeated with the corner going the other way):

The dog started from the bottom of the track in each case, and the dotted line marks the "walk in", or where they learn to pick up the scent they're going to be tracking. The triangles are posts with flags on them - first post to indicate the start of the track, and the second to show the end  (or a corner). These later flags will be phased out over time but are there for the moment to give the dog (and me) confidence that they are going in the correct direction.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Doggy ASBOs

As of yesterday (20th October) the law was changed in England and Wales to provide an extra level of support to those dealing with problem dogs. While the new laws seem like a very good idea on paper, I have to admit to a little scepticism about the merits of the changes in practice.

I like that there is a non statutory component to the recommended way of dealing with dogs causing issues in their community (such as "acceptable behaviour contracts") because for any owner who has the dog's welfare at heart there's less of a social and financial burden to bear in being issued with a contract imposing certain conditions, rather than being taken to court. This is likely to increase compliance, rather than have the owner simply give up and have the dog rehomed or put to sleep - and practical application of the ABC by Eastleigh Council and Hampshire Police shows this to be the case. with 15 contracts in place and 15 dogs with improved behaviour that are no longer an inconvenience to their community.

My concern comes (as with any law related to dogs) with that small percentage of owners who have the dog as a tool or status symbol and treat it as disposable, rather than a member of the family. In much the same way that these dogs are unlikely to be microchipped when the law on identification changes, neither are they likely to be taken to a training class, or walked only at specified times.

If the non statutory approach does not work, then problems can be escalated via Community Protection Notices (I'm not a lawyer, but these look similar to an ASBO for people); an Injunction or a Criminal Behaviour Order (primarily where someone is using the dog for intimidation or has trained it to fight) .
The new legislation also allows the creation of Public Space Protection Orders, which prevent or require certain activities in specified areas (e.g no dogs in kids' play areas, dogs must be on leads etc) and are used much as Dog Control Orders were historically.

The down side to yet more dog-behaviour related legislation is it requires more knowledge to ensure that remedial action is taken via the most appropriate path way. For a lot of low-level irritation to the community (an owner persistently allowing a dog to foul, dogs that can escape and stray at will) these approaches create an addition to the local council or local police's arsenal, where previously their options were "do nothing" or "escalate via Dangerous Dogs Act or Dogs Act into the Court system", so in that case the advantage is fairly clear. For other issues (bites, damage) the issue is less clear cut.

That said, hopefully the new rules will decrease the cost and increase the efficiency of dealing with nuisance dogs, and thereby bring the average level of dog behaviour across the country up. One of the problems of being a responsible dog owner, or at least trying to be, is that often we don't get the benefit of the doubt because someone's mind is already made up on dogs due to unpleasant experience in the past. If this could be minimised, interactions between dog people and non dog people could be an awful lot less fraught.

Press release from gov.uk
Guidance on the administration of the new scheme

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Our first show

Daisy and Cybi have been somewhat on hiatus from training while I've been recovering from surgery, but last Thursday was their first week back in obedience class, and then this weekend was their first show. I debated not going, as I didn't really know what to expect of their behaviour, but then decided that since it was a Companion Show and there were lots of novelty classes as well as obedience, it would be a good day to get them out and about in a busy show environment to see how they got on.

Cybi did both his obedience rounds as training rounds, since we were ineligible for the bottom class as I've won things in the past, and to do the middle class he had to do a retrieve of an article. Currently his retrieve involves going out to fetch something, bringing it halfway back, lying down and plain refusing to budge or, when training from the "hold" first (ie getting him to hold the article first before slowly getting him to pick it up and then bring it back) he will touch the article with his teeth, then let go like it's hot and just stand there looking miserable. Most normal dogs seem to try to do something when they're left in a vacuum, and Daisy figured out the "hold" because when she didn't get a treat for just mouthing the dumbell she experimentally took it out of my hand and then got her reward. But Cybi is a super focused little dog, and is perfectly fine with just waiting....and waiting....and waiting....for his next instruction. Which means somewhere along the line I have to find an interim step to teach between him closing his mouth quickly round the dumbell and then letting go and actually holding the thing.

It's going to be a slow process, but we're in no rush.

Daisy got to do the class with the retrieve (and heel free - I had no idea if she was actually going to even walk next to me, but she was actually very good!) as her lower class. I was very proud of her - she tried ever so hard, and managed to stay switched on for long enough to get through the whole round. It was also the first time she'd ever worked a round without clicker and treats, so I was delighted that she kept her focus (albeit with much more verbal encouragement and claps and noises to keep her attention than normal). And she pulled a beautiful retrieve and recall out of the bag from somewhere, which was great.

The judge commented on what a happy little dog she was, which made my day as well, possibly even more than the eventual outcome...

Yep, third, in her first ever obedience round. It might not be much to people who are working Test C week in, week out, but I'm chuffed to bits.

Her second round was another thing of beauty, but for all the wrong reasons. We ended up going very late in the day, and Daisy was tired and getting silly. Her heelwork was all over the place, apart from one bit that the judge said was lovely. What the judge couldn't see, as she was walking behind me to mark, was that Daisy was hanging onto my sleeve with her teeth. So her back end was perfectly in position, while her front end was pretty much off the ground and swinging on my jacket. I decided not to share that information though...
Unusually, the class had a "learner" sendaway and a "learner " scent, both of which were new to Daisy. The sendaway just involved going to a pot that contained treats, which was close enough to a game we play where I hide treats for her and she runs off to find them that she figured that out very easily. The trainee scent test was another matter. It was ten cloths, all pegged securely to a line so they couldn't be moved, and then one cloth which had the handler's scent on it, which was loose. The judge took this one cloth and placed it somewhere in the line of cloths, and then the dog was sent off to find the right one. It was very impressive how many dogs, having never done scent before, figured out what was expected of them.
Daisy watched the cloth be put in line by the judge, then rocketed off to the nearest cloth and tried to pick it up. But it was securely held in place so she couldn't. So she pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and kept pulling to try and get the first cloth in line, while the spectators, judge, steward, judges in the other ring, show sponsors and random passersby all fell about laughing at her efforts to pick up the damn cloth.

She gave up after a good five minutes of effort (during which time I neither encouraged her nor discouraged her, just left her to figure it out while trying not to laugh too hard at her) and the second she stopped pulling the nearest cloth she obviously scented the correct cloth, trotted over to it, picked it up and brought it back like it wasn't a big deal. So that was a successful end to a fairly entertaining exercise.

I also entered Cybi in the "Most outstanding ears" class and Daisy in the "waggiest tail". Sadly they both spectacularly failed to get placed, but I'll forgive them because they behaved beautifully and it was for charity. So a grand day out was had by all, and with my housemate having been placed in a breed class with her Aussie and winning the "best cross" and being placed in the "best trick" with her beautiful Aussie x collie we had plenty of rosettes to decorate the kitchen.

Monday, 6 October 2014

The problem with fireworks

Neither Daisy nor Cybi have yet had to deal with a proper bonfire night - Cyb because he wasn't born until a fortnight after November 5th last year, and Daisy because she was only 9 weeks old and in foster care in a remote area. Knowing their personalities, I expect Daisy will take it in stride: she might jump a bit at the loud bangs, but in general she deals well with most things that life throws at her, and as long as the people around her are cheerfully unconcerned she is unfazed. Cybi I'm a little more concerned about. He does respond quite negatively to loud and unfamiliar noise, and can be reactive when he's fearful.

As an attempt to minimise the possible impact of fireworks on and around Bonfire night, we've started working on safe spaces and desensitisation training early. Cybi was crate trained when I got him, and has always used his crate as his little hideaway when he's stressed. He's also recently started using an area among the storage boxes under my bed as a secondary place to go when the world gets a bit much, and while it's a nice small space (smaller than his crate) that seems to make him feel secure I've been encouraging him to take his timeouts there. By nature, Cybi is quite prone to sensory overstimulation, poor little chap, and sometimes he gets so worked up and stressed that he doesn't really know what he wants to do. Gently guiding him into his timeout space, which is quiet and dark, just gives him a few minutes to calm down and reset, and then he's completely ok again, and as boisterous and happily outgoing as usual.

For noise desensitisation training, I'm using the excellent Sound Proof Puppy Training App (link is to the Android version; also available on iPhone) which has 26 pre-recorded sounds ranging from a crying baby and barking dog to a train and a helicopter. There's also a space to record your own, but when I thought about it, I couldn't come up with anything that my dogs would be exposed to regularly that wasn't already on there. The sounds start quiet on the recording and get progressively louder, and the volume can also be controlled by the volume on the phone.

At the moment, I am only really using the fireworks sounds regularly, with occasional quiet plays of crying babies, barking dogs and kids. Once Bonfire night is over, we'll do much more on these three, as Cybi particularly immediately focuses intently on the source of the sound whenever he hears them, and usually answers the barking dogs back, no matter how quietly the recording is played.

I started by playing the fireworks sounds really quietly in the background when the pups were being fed, progressing to increasing the volume at dinner time and playing them quietly when we had just got back from a walk and they were tired. By gradually increasing the volume and introducing the sounds at odd times of day we are now at the point where I can play the recorded sound at maximal volume as background to anything else that's going on, and neither dog will react at all. I've always been careful to never react myself, as in the early days when they still acknowledged the noise they were waiting for behavioural cues from me as to how to respond. They never got praise for not reacting and we just treated it as completely normal that there were now firework noises emanating from some part of the house, which has meant over time they have also considered it completely normal that for example the sofa has suddenly started to sound like a Catherine Wheel.

The next step is to hook the phone up to my speakers and slowly ramp the volumes up to the kind of level that the dogs will experience if someone near the house has a Bonfire Night party , while making sure that they both (but particularly Cybi) are clear that they can take themselves off to their safe spot at any time they choose. If the pair of them continue to progress the way they have I'm pretty optimistic that by the time 5th November rolls around they'll take the whole thing in stride.

Daisy failing to react to rockets going off across the room

Post updated to add: a couple of non-UK readers want to know what the big deal is about 5th November anyway. "Remember, remember the 5th of November!"

Friday, 3 October 2014

Sumo vs Kong...the clash of the dog toy titans!

I recently temporarily mislaid* one of the terrible twosome's red Kong toys, and while giving two dogs one Kong and expecting them to share is a recipe for disaster, I wanted to acquire another one to keep them amused for a few hours while I was on a series of conference calls. Minor disaster struck when it turned out the local pet shop had run out, so in an attempt to find something similar we ended up with a Ruff N Tuff "Sumo" (like this one listed on Amazon - Ruff N Tuff Sumo Large Treat Dispenser, though doesn't seem to be in stock at the moment. It's also not over a foot tall, despite the description's claims. It's just about the same size as a "large" Kong)

First impressions were that the Sumo is not a great substitute for a Kong - it's much less flexible (so less "chewwy"), and the hole in the base of the toy is much larger, so you need to be more creative in terms of what goes into the toy to make it challenging for the dog to get out. My smaller dog (Daisy) initially lost interest very quickly, as her snout was little enough to be able to shove part of her face into the hole and easily extract the treats within, and even the big dog figured out that just grabbing and shaking meant lots of treats everywhere

However, once I'd thought about it a bit, and put some longer chew strips folded inside the toy so the treats were wedged into place the sumo really came into its own. The pups threw that thing around the place like it was alive - they absolutely loved it! And the more vigorously they chased it, the more strangely it bounced and the more excited they got about chasing it about.

Cybi waiting for the sumo to start flying around the room, after a pause to refill it

So a worthwhile purchase, albeit a dismal failure for the original purpose, which was to keep them quiet while I was working. In fact, things got so excited that while on one particular skype call the guy on the other end wanted to know if I needed to "go break it up". Fortunately he is also a dog lover and has big dogs, so was pretty familiar with large, playful chaos, but still...embarrassing while trying to appear professional!

*it wasn't me, but I don't know who it was that caused it to end up inside my welly boot