Sunday, 29 July 2012

Teaching Little Girl How to Swim and Retrieve from Water

Little Girl loves the water and always feels compelled to leap in to the nearest puddle - a typical black labrador!  However, despite muddling about at the edge of ponds or on the sea shore she had not yet learned to swim properly.  
So, during our recent stay at Castle Sween (Scotland, built in 1100's) on the spectacular shores of Loch Sween, we taught her to swim.  She loves to retrieve, especially her tennis ball, so over the space of three days we took her down the water's edge and using the tennis ball gradually encouraged her out deeper and deeper until she swam without thinking about it.  There was a jetty for small boats and it was suggested that we should throw her off that and she would naturally swim back to shore.  I suspect that she would have done so, but I also believe she would have been really quite alarmed by the experience so we let her do it in her own time.  
On Day 1 we threw the ball in to the water, a little further (and thus into a little deeper water) each time and she happily charged in after it.  At the end of the exercise the water was at a depth where she had to stand on her nails when she went out to retrieve, but she was still relaxed and happy and enjoying the retrieve from water.  
On Day 2 we again threw the ball in to deeper and deeper water, but this time she was on the lead, and using treats we encouraged her each time to come out a little further, then a little further until she retrieved the ball.  On this day her whole back end was being lifted off the bottom by the wave motion but she still declined to swim.  There were occasional lunges forward when she found herself unable to touch the bottom but the sensation of water closing over her back (and sometimes her head) scared her so she would immediately retreat and we would have to build up her confidence again.   
On Day 3 we almost immediately threw the ball in even deeper water than before and without a moment's hesitation she charged in to the water then swam out to retrieve it.  Her little tail was wagging constantly until her body realised that tail wagging didn't work when swimming and she had to turn the tail in to a rudder as nature intended!
She is now quite relaxed about swimming and all that remains is to gradually build up her stamina and strength when swimming.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Big Boy

Big Boy will be 8 years old in October, if he lasts until then!   He has a very long medical history:  
  • he developed Elbow Dysplasia when less than 6 months old, had several operations to scrape cartilage off bone and allow it to renew; 
  • he developed a lifelong ongoing gastritis condition as a result of his medication; 
  • being a labbie he stole chocolate and ate the end off a horse lead rein so required treatment and in the case of the lead rein an operation to remove the blockage; :)
  • he developed a perforated ulcer and consequent abdominal operation as a result of his pain medication; 
  • his anal glands needed emptying monthly; :)
  • he developed multiple allergies requiring gluten-free food, natural products, evening primrose oil for his coat, anti-histamines all summer long etc etc, 
  • as he aged he developed hip dysplasia despite the excellent scores his parents had recorded;
  • his spine is very stiff and inflexible - probably spinal arthritis
  • two years ago he developed a mast cell tumour (Category II) on a back leg.  At 6 years old he had an operation - a large amount of tissue removed from his thigh muscle; followed by a follow-up op at the vet hospital.   After two operations and chemo-therapy he was a physical wreck.   After a period to recover from the ops he had chemotherapy - which was interrupted as his white blood cell count kept dropping - but it did eventually came to a close.  However, his fat and muscle mass was re-distributed due the chemo and steroids so his skeleton was never the same again.
  • He is now on just over 20 pills a day, the latest being the third of three painkillers (Previcox, Paracetomol and now Gabapentin) but it has improved his pain level and he is much happier.
  • At the moment he is happy but despite his relatively young age, when he has more bad days than good days I will grit my teeth and make the decision that it is time to say good-bye and send him over the "Rainbow Bridge".

Olympic "Gold" for Little Girl!

What excitement!  After only a few months training Little Girl achieved 3rd place in Beginner Class of Agility Club's end-of -term fun competition!  
Feel very, very proud as she has only mastered Dog Walk in last couple of weeks (is high up, off ground so a bit scary as she is quite clumsy) and only managed see-saw (scary as moves and bangs when hits ground) in the last week or so. Couldn't believe she did so well so need to keep up training until session starts again in August!

Monday, 9 July 2012

Is your Pup Really a Wolf in Dog's Clothing?

There are numerous variations on the theme of dog training, many based on misconceptions around wolf behaviour.  A study in the 1990’s by Dr. David Mech of the University of Minnesota concluded that much of what was widely believed about wolf packs was mistaken, but it was these misunderstandings that had underpinned the dominance hierarchy / alpha leader version of dog training.  Dr Mech studied natural wolf packs in the wild for over 12 years and attributes many of the misconceptions to observations of unnatural packs of unrelated wolves in captivity.  He identified that the natural wolf pack is typically a family, with a breeding pair of adult wolves and their offspring and the terms "alpha" or "dominant" are less appropriate than "parent."  A wolf pack should be seen as a family unit which serves to raise the young, with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group before the young disperse to pair up with other dispersed wolves and form a breeding pair and a pack of their own.  To ensure their survival, canines have developed body language and behaviours that have a calming effect so the animals can co-operatively hunt for prey, raise their young, and resolve conflicts without violence.  

Although dogs are not wolves, they are pack animals and they want someone to take charge.  They want to be led by a calm, even tempered leader; someone who will deal with whatever situation arises with confidence, and communicate to them that they are safe and secure – a parent figure rather than a tyrant figure.  A handler taking on the role as pack leader has to communicate that they are in control, are the source of the dog’s food, are in control of the space in which it lives and the resources it wants to access, and help the dog understand those actions that constitute acceptable behaviour through positive obedience training and building a close, trusting relationship with their dog.

Dogs learn very quickly and from an early age – both from each other and from humans.  Puppies can learn behaviours quickly by following examples set by experienced dogs.   Studies have also shown that dogs engaged in play with other dogs change their behaviour depending on the attention-state of their partner.  Play signals were only sent when the dog was holding the attention of its partner. If the partner was distracted, the dog instead engaged in attention-getting behaviour before sending a play signal.  Similarly in a training environment handlers have to secure the attention of their dog before giving it an instruction.

To train any animal the behaviour of the animal must be understood.   A bond between trainer and animal must be developed so that the responses of each become predictable.  The animal needs to learn that the trainer will respond predictably when the dog offers certain behaviours, i.e. the trainer will offer rewards.  Similarly the trainer learns that reinforcing the desired response makes the response more likely to be repeated in the future.   One of the aims of dog training classes is to train the handlers to be predictable so that the dog realises that responding in a certain way has a desirable outcome.

Reinforcement is a reward for desired behaviour and gives the trainer a means of managing the behaviour of the animal as whenever a particular activity is reinforced, the chances of that activity being repeated are increased. To be effective, a reinforcement must be given almost simultaneously with the desired behaviour (and certainly never before).  A reinforcement can be a food reward, a verbal reward (praise), a physical touch (stroke, tickle etc) or even a game (throwing a ball etc).

Inducement training can also be used to shape and reinforce a behaviour that at first approximates the desired goal behaviour.  Through further selective reinforcement and shaping, the dog's behaviour eventually meets the handler's requirements.  Psychologists identify this process as a form of operant  conditioning.  The inducement can be in the form of a favourite toy, or a treat.  When the dog responds with the desired behaviour, the behaviour is then reinforced by verbal praise.

So to summarise:
·         The handler has to understand what a dog is – a pack animal that wants to live in a co-operative family unit with a firm but fair pack leader who makes the dog feel safe and secure. 
·         Owners should remember that dogs are not wolves, and breed personalities have been shaped by selective breeding during domestication.
·         Dogs learn quickly, from both other dogs and humans, and through selective breeding have acquired the ability to interpret subtle social cues from their handlers.
·         Dogs need to be trained using positive reinforcement methods, and handlers must understand that they need to demonstrate predictable behaviour to the dog so that the dog realises that behaving in a certain way has a desirable outcome in the form of a reward.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Extinguishing Behaviour

Today tried to teach Little Girl to 'Hold' when bringing back retrieve - but managed to start to extinguish her 'Retrieve' in one action.  Here's how - so you don't make the same mistake...
Threw toy, asked her to retrieve, she did, but holding it for a few seconds when I said 'Hold' instead of dropping it near my feet as usual, so rewarded her with a treat.
Threw toy, asked her to retrieve, she did, but despite me saying 'Hold' dropped it near my feet as usual, so I turned my head away and ignored her to illustrate my disapproval.  
Not having made myself clear about what I wasn't happy about, she thought I disliked the retrieve, so when I next asked her to 'Retrieve' she stood looking at me blankly - something she never does.  I realised immediately MY mistake and we started a play-game of 'Retrieve' so she is back doing that OK and we will work on 'Hold' later!