Thursday, March 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Go Dawgs!

Mr. Tough cowers in submission when he meets the giant blue bulldog.

You can find these giant painted bulldog sculptures dotting the streets of Athens, GA, in honor of the UGA Bulldogs. Additionally, it seems like almost every house has a small bulldog sculpture out front. With all the local hype about bulldogs, we sadly never see any real bulldogs around. Luckily Spartacus has since learned that these stoic oversized bulldog sculptures are not giant rainbow mastiffs, and now he can pass them comfortably.

He's also quite fond of this other public sculpture.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

New Class, New Approach

Even though Spartacus is dog reactive, we truly hope that we will see other dogs on walks. That's the only way we can work on his reactivity. For some reason, we rarely see any dogs around lately! In keeping with our goals, we knew Spartacus needed to be enrolled in another class in order to get guaranteed regular exposure to other pups. We have been curious to try clicker training with a professional and googled around only to realize a Foundation Clicker Class was starting the very next day in our area. So Thursday of last week we headed out to the introductory class, sans Spartacus, and got the low down from an all positive trainer.

The trainer we are working with has lots of experience and among her specialties, she has worked with many aggressive and fearful dogs. She works with dogs who have killed other dogs and landed people in the hospital - so Spartacus with his showy reactions on leash is nothing to her. The class itself consists of mainly adolescent dogs without any serious behavior issues, and our trainer wanted to do a private evaluation of Spartacus before approving him for this crowded intro course. 

We've recently been managing his behaviors based on what we learned in our Behavior Solutions class, and we are forever grateful for that experience. Still, there are so many approaches out there, and we're really curious about a purely positive approach. Our last class was what I'd call a balance of positive reinforcement and some dominance techniques. The main method of learning was through classical counter conditioning and operant conditioning (I think, it's so confusing to me).

Today I took Spartacus to our new trainer's house so she could observe him meeting her five dogs individually. Armed with hot dogs, I approached test dog number one with Spartacus on his Gentle Leader. He didn't react with barking, lunging, or growling, but his posture was stiff, ears forward, and hackles raised. Rather than cue Spartacus for eye contact, the trainer advised me to just wait for him to offer it. With him on a Gentle Leader, I wasn't too concerned that he would get out of control, so we stayed just a few feet from her Jack Russell. Within a minute or two, Sparty was volunteering eye contact and his posture was showing signs of calmness. Eventually his tail was wagging and he was trying to greet the other dog. We let them get closer. We didn't let the dogs greet on their own, but the trainer picked up her dog and let Sparty sniff her butt so she could watch his response. Spartacus showed positive interest with no sign of aggression. He proceeded to work through the same nervousness around two more dogs - starting off nervous and then settling down beautifully all on his own, wanting to play. Test dog #4 was a little jack rabbit who was bouncing all over the place. Spartacus reacted to this dog dancing in front of his face with a little bark/lunge. The trainer said the behavior itself was warranted, but Spartacus didn't give any warning signs which was problematic. Test dog #5 was a blind geriatric Italian Greyhound with a lame back leg. Most dogs are freaked out by his odd way of walking and acting. The poor old guy was barking in the wrong direction, and Sparty remained calm. Go Sparty! 

He was approved for the group class, and we're also going to do a few private sessions working on Behavior Adjustment Training (B.A.T.) or the variation, Constructional Aggression Treatment (C.A.T.). I like that these methods ask the dog to volunteer behavior. The trainer believes a dog that teaches itself a behavior learns better than a dog ordered to respond to cues. These two training methods also reward the dog for a variety of calming signals, not just eye contact with the owner. It'll be really interesting learning to read all the subtleties involved in dog communication. We've been learning these for a long time, but we learn something new every day it seems!

Have you tried using B.A.T. or C.A.T. on your reactive dog?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Chilling Out, Spartacus Style

We recently started working with a new trainer. She hasn't met Sparty yet, but based on everything we have described she thinks he might have an anxiety disorder. We're not too sure ourselves.  Certain situations stress him out, but you oughta see him when we go on vacation to South Florida to visit family. He eats up it just like a regular old human tourist.

Strolling through historic neighborhoods, smiling about all the pretty colors.

Taking water breaks and time to sniff the flowers.

Laying out on the patio.

Lounging on luxurious beds in the sunroom.

Enjoying leisurely swims, and daintily fetching pine needles.

Followed by more laying out.

We'll keep you updated on his anxiety issues. At least he laps up the good life as much as any normal dog!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Tropical Games

Our special training class for reactive dogs just ended less than two weeks ago. Admitting our dog was reactive and focusing on training him was a bit of an emotional journey. We went a good year and a half in denial of Sparty's mounting aggression. Enrolling in a class and starting this blog helped us recognize our issues, define our goals, and document the huge leaps we've made together - but it's been draining too. After the countless hours of training walks and special trips to the dog park just to work on training, everyone was ready for a short vacation. Within days of finishing class, we packed up the pooches and even our kitty and drove down to visit family in South Florida.

My dad owns and lives on a tropical plant nursery with his who-knows-what-mix Ollie and his Pomeranian mix Sadie.

Spartacus lived here with us the first year we had him and it's his favorite place in the world thanks to all the running, swimming, and sunbathing he gets to enjoy. Delilah thinks it's pretty cool too.

We wanted our dogs to relish in plenty of fun and relaxation, but in keeping with our goals, there was lots of training to work on too. Enter hide and seek.

One of our goals is to develop a bombproof recall with our dogs. In an attempt to make recall a fun command, we started playing hide and seek in our house in the last few weeks. Our dogs can't get enough. We put them in a stay, and one of us monitors them while the other goes to hide and call them over. We use "come" but there are plenty of words and noises you can use for recall instead. Once released, Spartacus is very enthusiastic darting from room to room sniffing out the air with intense focus. When one of them finds us, we throw a party with praise and high value treats and of course the other dogs get rewarded too once they arrive. We thought Sparty and Delilah were seasoned enough with the indoor version to take it out into the nursery. We hid behind trees, tractors, trucks, the stuff nurseries are made of.

Ollie caught on quickly and added even more pep and enthusiasm to the game.

Spartacus seems to use his nose in this game more than the others, so we think he'd be a good candidate for nose work sports eventually.

We did have some issues making this a three player game. Ollie is the world's most happy go lucky dog, but she lacks in training and became a bit greedy with the treats we were dishing out, scaring off our dogs from their reward. Overall, though, the game seems to have a really positive effect on our recall with the dogs. They are coming immediately when called about 80% of the time now, compared to about 50% a few weeks ago. Their recall is 100% for at least an hour after a hide and seek session. We try to always use a spirited happy voice to call them, which also has made a big difference. The best part of the game is how fun it is for us humans too. We feel like little kids again, giggling with our hands clasped over our mouths as our dogs run right past our hiding spot.

What kind of training games do you play with your dogs?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Safety First

We just returned home from a road trip to South Florida with the whole pack. Spartacus is a veteran of the 10 hour long drive from North Georgia to South Florida in our beat up 99 Jeep Cherokee. This was Delilah's second time making the roundtrip journey. The dogs and even our kitty (with a nice dose of Rescue Remedy) always seem very comfortable in the back of the Jeep with the seats down. This time, we used dog seat belts for extra security. 

This harness is designed to attach to an actual seat belt, but with the seats down, we just strung leashes through and hooked them up to some handles in the car. Restrained by six foot leashes, the dogs still had a lot of mobility to visit us up front, but they stayed put on their Molly Mutt bed for the most part. Despite the occassional tangling of leashes, the harnesses seemed really comfortable. In the event of an accident, we felt better knowing they were strapped in. We're grateful all our pets are good sports when it comes to long hauls cause we love to have them with us. Not to mention, boarding is difficult for them. Luckily it was smooth sailing there and back, and we'll be updating more details about our adventure later this week.

How do your dogs feel about long car rides? Any road trip cats?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Catdog

Once upon a time, a small dog came bounding from it's yard and ran right up to Spartacus.
When she got up close, we realized she was not, in fact, a dog.

But she said hello like a dog.

Sparty thought she was a dog too.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Behavior Solutions Training Class Week 8

Yesterday was our last Behavior Solutions class. We took a field trip to the patio of a popular downtown pizza joint. Athens experienced the first spring weather we've had here in the South, and it felt like the whole town was there with their dogs. This was a perfect situation to test all our new skills. We all hung out in the sunny patio with our dogs, walked them around downtown, and enjoyed ourselves without incident. It was the perfect graduation for a reactive dog class imaginable.


We can't say enough how healing it was to be in a judgment free classroom surrounded by others dealing with reactive dogs. Possibly the most important thing we gained from the past eight weeks was the ability to be calm in situations where our dogs are stressed. Before taking this class, our heart rates shot up anytime we saw a dog being walked. We'd anticipate the barking, lunging, and growling, and the harsh stares from strangers whose dogs wouldn't hurt a fly. No doubt our anxiety was transferred through the leash to Spartacus. In the classroom, in a way, we looked forward to a few reactions each class - so we could study them and learn from them. Reactions aren't the end of the world, and now that we can keep our cool, we can prevent them more easily and snap Spartacus out of them quicker. Learning to chill out has been empowering for us, and we know it's the first step in helping Spartacus too.

Of the rave reviews we could provide for our class at Pawtropolis, perhaps their greatest asset is their flexible and balanced methodology. They offer one class that uses 100% positive methods to teach basic manners, whereas our class seemed to borrow from the best of different training concepts. When we asked our trainer if she recommended any books, her honest answer was that mixing and matching different training philosophies is what works best in her experience - so no single book could provide all the answers. At the same time, when we expressed interest in clicker training, she entertained the idea of putting together a clicker class for reactive dogs if there's enough interest.

Overall, over the past eight weeks, we introduced a lot more positive reinforcement into our handling than we had been doing before on our own. Our treat belts reeked of hot dogs week after week.

Here's an overview of concepts we covered:
  • Reading dog body language 
  • Rewarding every millisecond of eye contact with treats and "yay!" or "yes!"
  • Hand feeding to build the bond and teach the dog to understand all food comes from you. Also reinforces eye contact.
  • Body blocking to own a space, such as doorways, between dogs, food on the floor, you name it
  • Nonverbal leave it
  • Heel using "crazy walk" (constantly changing directions) to teach your dog to follow you
  • Effective timing for affection/reward and for discipline
  • Backing your dog up until they make eye contact as a way to break their attention from their trigger
  • Lots of real life practice set ups

After eight weeks of specialized training, we feel that we can take on almost any situation on leash as long as we have a few feet of space from other dogs. Spartacus really benefited from being around other dogs who learned to respect each other's boundaries. In class yesterday, he was sunbathing a couple feet next to other reactive dogs. None of them tried to sniff each other, everyone kept to themselves, and it was beautiful. Of course, 99% of the dogs we pass on the street are pulling towards us, often with their owner's consent, so we still have a lot of counter conditioning to work on. Also, we've learned to be vocal and advocate for our reactive dog with the simple words "my dog needs space". At least we know Spartacus can happily co-exist with other "bad dogs" and that he doesn't inherently hate all dogs on leashes. It took eight weeks to learn that, and it's a beautiful thing!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Goals for Spartacus

Rehabilitating Spartacus has become something like a part-time job. A job we love! Something really clicked for us a few months ago, and we realized his behavior wasn't going to magically change overnight. Every day that we weren't working on training him with focus and commitment, Spartacus had the opportunity to continue practicing and perfecting his problem behaviors. His reactivity and insecurities were holding us all back from things we want to do together like going camping, having road trip adventures, and showing off our gorgeous dogs around town comfortably and safely. This afternoon we have our last Behavior Solutions training class for reactive dogs. Over the past eight weeks of consistent training, our optimism for Spartacus' future has sky-rocketed. As his owners, we have built up confidence realizing that our handling can make a big difference. We see that with our dedication, we can have a happier, more confident dog living a fulfilling life.

In order of importance, here are some behavior issues we still need to work on A LOT before we have a chilled out Spartacus. It's a lot of work, but we're committed to helping our dogs live the best lives they can. Delilah's goals are a separate post!

Leash Reactivity toward Dogs

  • Continue to learn more methods, read more books, and implement clicker training while avoiding punishment. 
  • At least 10 training walks a week in dog prone areas, working on attention, heeling, emergency exits, sit-stays and down-stays in public places.
  • At least 2 training sessions a week in high dog traffic places like dog park entrance and doggy daycare parking lot. Practice auto-watch using clicker.
  • Try to set Spartacus up for success 100% of the time, using distance as a tool to avoid going over threshold.
  • If instructor agrees to it, enroll Spartacus in 4 week CGC Prep course in May for further socialization and practice.
  • Goals: Pass other dogs on same sidewalk eventually. Pass CGC by end of 2014.

Recall and Off-Leash Attention

  • Develop an emergency bombproof recall by throwing a party whenever my dog comes to me. Use a new word that has a cheery ring to it like "zazoom!".
  • Start by practicing in house/private dog parks/yard. Increase distance slowly. Increase distractions over time. Seriously practice at least once a week.
  • Use hide and seek to make it fun.
  • Continue to build up our bond and trust with positive reinforcement training and games off leash.
  • Goal: Have Spartacus come 100% of the time when called in high distraction situations.

General Anxiety, Separation Anxiety, and Insecurity

  • Start working on Dr.Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol using a mat and down stay position to make the mat a safe, happy place to relax.
  • Perfect "go to mat" command.
  • Teach some new tricks for confidence building.
  • If instructor allows it, try a dog sport eventually.
  • Goals: Staying calm when one of his parents disappears from site, especially in a public place, such as the supervised separation exercise in the CGC. Not to mention, more tail wagging and a less anxious disposition in all situations.

Guarding the House, Porch, and Car

  • Continue to do time-outs in the bathroom for barking in the house, every time. This seems to be working really well.
  • Practice counter-conditioning to dogs while in parked car at least once a week using clicker and auto watch. This can be done outside dog park, doggy daycare, veterinary office, etc.
  • As weather gets nicer, do leashed training sessions on the porch. Work on Relaxation Protocol, starting at odd hours and slowly working up to when people and dogs are passing. Also use clicker and work on counter conditioning to people and dogs passing. Practice at least twice a week.
  • Goals: No more barking in the car, house, or on the porch.

Jumping when Excited

  • Perfect the "go to mat" command when visitors are coming.
  • Consistently work on down-stays when Spartacus meets someone new who gets him all excited and wanting to hug.
  • Goal: No more jumping, ever!

Friday, February 28, 2014

A Funny Looking Dog

The other day we were out walking our pups and a young lady parked her car nearby. She got out of the car smiling and exclaimed "that's a funny looking dog!". There was no doubt she was referring to Delilah.

Besides her deceptively calm demeanor at the pound, Delilah's adorably odd features drew us to her. Her short legs are disproportionate to her toned muscular torso. She rivals Spartacus in length but is 1/3 his width. Her colors and markings are almost identical to Sparty's, but she's flanked with subtle merle spotting. She has a ridiculously long neck, and sports permanently oversized paws.

Delilah's giant ears take on a range of expressions that change her whole face instantly. 

Each ear is an individual, making decisions independent of the other.

Her lips are pursed and her amber eyes are determined. When she makes eye contact for treats we can practically hear her counting the seconds in her head. Her eye contact is intense!

Full grown at 35 lbs, we think Delilah is probably a Basenji mix. Maybe some Corgi or Daschund to account for her dwarfed legs. Maybe some Australian Cattle Dog, Jack Russell or Feist type dog. Her temperament matches the description of Basenjis to a T: alert, energetic, curious and reserved with strangers...has a strong prey drive...should not be let off the leash, for they are swift, agile chasers who are impossible to catch...will develop selective hearing if there's something more exciting to pay attention to (are there any dogs that don't fit that description?)...

Delilah compared to a purebred Basenji. See the resemblance?

Whatever this funny looking dog is, we couldn't be happier with our silly Delilah! Spartacus is our rugged handsome boy and Delilah is our delightfully bizarre little girl.

What breeds do you see? 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Strawberry Fields Forever

Spartacus discovers a Christmas tree farm

Nestled in the mountains

And tries wild strawberries for the first time.

And he is happy.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Loving a Distemper Dog

Spartacus has gotten himself into some very unpleasant situations. He's our reactive dog, and he can be an embarrassment, a hassle, a liability, a real pain in the ass. People think we named him Spartacus because we wanted an aggressive warrior dog. Little do they realize, Spartacus earned his gladiator title with honor, fighting for his life. And if you know his story, we think it's impossible to blame the poor little guy for being a bit troubled. 

He knew far too much suffering as a baby puppy. When a good samaritan picked him up off the side of the road in Miami, he was in rough shape.

Now Spartacus is all grown up, his fur is silky, his eyes are serene, and he's handsome as ever. But there are things about Sparty that make him very unique. Like his head twitch. At first glance you might not catch it, especially if he's doing zoomies past you. But once he settles down, it's impossible to miss. 


He has had this head twitch since before we adopted him when he was seven months old, almost three years ago. It is the result of permanent damage to his central nervous system from the canine distemper virus. It doesn't seem to get better or worse, it just is. His neurologist said even when he's under anesthesia, his twitch will go on twitching. We have ascertained that Spartacus caught, suffered, survived, and passed the distemper virus long before his rescuer changed his life and took him in. He was not an active carrier of the virus by the time he saw a vet, indicating that the worst of it was behind him.

According to the Baker Institute for Animal Health, canine distemper is estimated to be fatal in 50% of cases affecting adult dogs, and in 80% of cases affecting puppies. Spartacus, our special fighter, was one of the lucky few to make it out alive after weeks of respiratory, gastrointestinal, and neurological distress. For all we know, he suffered for weeks alone as a stray puppy, dehydrated, vomiting, having bloody diarrhea, coughing, enduring seizures. What's worse is the possibility that someone threw him out on the street when he started showing signs of sickness and left him to fend for himself. We'll never know the details of his past, we just do our best to ensure his future in a safe and loving environment.

There is no cure for canine distemper, and although Spartacus doesn't carry the virus anymore and can't infect other dogs, we're told the disease can continue to wreak havoc on him for the rest of his life. The course of the disease is unpredictable. He may develop a seizure disorder or suffer further neurologic damage from the virus as he ages. We hope that Sparty will be spared any more suffering, but we've been taught how to handle a canine seizure in case that day ever comes. He's had a handful of partial mal seizures that were luckily uneventful - just some funky leg shaking that came and went in under a minute. So far nothing alarming, nothing that necessitates medication.

In honor of National Pet Dental Health Month, we can't forget about Sparty's "unique" teeth. That's the nicest way of acknowledging the weird brown icicles we call his chompers. The distemper virus destroyed his ability to form tooth enamel at a cellular level. Because he was a little puppy, he never had a chance to develop normal, pretty teeth. This condition is known as enamel hypoplasia. His teeth are still totally functional for now, and we try to get on brushing. Generally we rely on the plaque removal from Sparty chewing on raw meaty bones. Next month he is getting a full dental cleaning done with the veterinarian. 

And the real kicker, Sparty's nightmares. Spartacus has little episodes throughout the night, every night, of trembling and whimpering accompanied by rapid breathing. Sometimes his eyes roll back and his legs jerk around a little. Even our perfectly healthy pup Delilah gets the occasional bad dream and gets shaken up similarly, so we don't think it's a neurological issue with Spartacus. Just the result of a very stressful first few months. The cure is always the same: petting him, whispering "it's OK Spartacus" no matter how late it is. If he's having a particularly tormented night, we cuddle him through it and fall asleep to the clicking sensation of his twitching head. No matter what any trainer advises, Sparty always has a guaranteed place in our bed. 

It's possible distemper contributed to his anxious and reactive nature toward other dogs. Maybe not. He's making so much progress with training, we don't believe his reactivity is medical in nature. All we know is we're so lucky to have such a special dog in our lives, behavior issues included. We're so grateful that Spartacus had the will to fight for his life. We try to reward him everyday for sticking around and just being Spartacus. And when we're feeling down in the dumps, we look to Spartacus for inspiration, because in our eyes he embodies perseverance. And even though his demons come to haunt him at night, we think he's a pretty happy dog. 

When we first brought him to a dog neurologist, she told us love would make a big difference in his outcome. Three years and loads of love later, he's still cruisin on by. Love definitely didn't hurt. And the love he gives in return makes it all worthwhile. 

Do you have a dog who survived distemper or has other health issues that make it unique?
We'd love to hear from other folks whose pets are also survivors fighting the good fight!