3.23.2008

pupdate part 2: training update

For wmtc readers interested in dog training, here's an update on our wonderful maniac.

In the fall, I blogged about Tala's crazy behaviour on-leash and in the car.
When we walk on-leash, Tala goes wild for passing cars and bicycles. The bigger and louder the vehicle, the crazier she goes. It's clear that if she weren't on the leash, she'd be a car chaser - among the most dangerous habits a dog can have.

If we can anticipate the coming car and put her into a sit-stay, she can hold steady as the car goes past. But how many times on a walk can you do that? And you can't always anticipate the cars.

The other area is her in-car behaviour. In a word: insane. We have her in the hatchback, behind a dog barrier. She barks at every passing car - three times at each car - ruff-ruff-ruff, ruff-ruff-ruff, ruff-ruff-ruff - while running back and forth between the side windows, turning in circles, clawing at the windows...

We can't talk, we can't listen to music, we can't do anything. Telling her "no" or "leave it" doesn't make any difference. We might as well not be in the car.

We tried applying the general principles of positive dog training that we've learned so well over the years. I sat in the back seat with treats, rewarding her for sitting quietly. It worked while sitting on the driveway. Once we drove off, it's like I wasn't there. I'm dangling roast beef - roast beef! - through the barrier and she's ignoring it. Amazing.

We had a session with a trainer, and some time later, I posted this update:
We were on the right track, but we were asking too much of Tala, not breaking down the training into small enough steps. The trainer gave us a game plan and some new ideas.

The early stages went beautifully. Tala learns fast, and she does great in the house or in the backyard. And that's where it ends. So far we've made no progress either on the leash or in the car.

The trainer also told us something I hadn't thought of before: barking at cars and bicycles is "self-reinforcing". Dog barks, car drives by, dog thinks, I did it, I chased it away!

If Tala was just barking once or twice at passing cars, I wouldn't mind. But flying into a frenzy, running in circles, pulling wildly on the leash trying to get the car - while I'm walking two dogs, often while I'm trying to clean up after them - not good. The behaviour is pretty extreme. If Tala wasn't on-leash, she'd definitely be chasing the car. That is, until she was killed.

Shortly after this, we got lazy or busy or frustrated (or all three), and gave up on the training for a while. Then we took a deep breath and started again. We re-committed to working with Tala every day we're available - four days a week - and to generally being more strict.

Every on-leash walk is a training opportunity - and also an opportunity to go wild and bark, i.e., for negative training. It was too difficult for me to walk both dogs and do training, especially in the winter. So every morning, Tala had her negative behaviour reinforced. So after 20+ years of morning dog-walks, I stopped walking them in the morning. Now they have morning backyard outdoor play time instead. And from now, any walk on the leash will be done correctly, with training.

We also decided to be stricter in the house. Like most dogs and cats, Tala loves to stare out the window, and she has great views both up- and downstairs. But when a cat or a squirrel would get too close, she would go wild - not just barking, but throwing herself at the window. After she pulled down the curtains, we realized we had become a bit too lax.

The trainer very rightly pointed out that this wild window behaviour was contributing to all her other wildness, on the leash and in the car. Now Allan and I each keep a small container of training treats on our desks. When we hear Tala flipping out, we call out the command - "Good Quiet!" - and (usually) she runs over to get a treat, at which point we can refocus her and calm her down.

But the biggest problem is definitely the car, and we decided to really focus on that.

The principle is simple: reward calm behaviour. Tala earns praise and treats when she pays attention to mommy, instead of to passing cars. Allan drives, and I get in the hatchback with Tala, and give commands, and praise her, and give rewards. She's wearing her harness and lead, which helps keep her still. At least theoretically.

We started out super slowly, just sitting on the driveway, giving her the feel for being in the car and being calm. Then we drove slowly down the street. Then around the block. Tiny, gradual steps. And slowly, slowly, she progressed. We got up to the point where we could drive around our neighbourhood - quiet streets, with a few passing cars, also moving slowly - and she could mostly pay attention to me, listen to commands, get rewards, and be relaxed. This took weeks, but we could really see progress.

Before each training session, we have some backyard play, throwing the ball for Tala to get her to run, to help get some energy out. Then it's back in the hatch with my container of treats. I end up covered in white fur, and often smelling like whatever treats we're using. Note to self: never use sardines again.

We did this religiously, four days a week.

Then one day we went to the dog park - which involves driving on major roads with lots of traffic. She went wild in the car, and the whole thing came undone. Three weeks' worth of work gone in one morning. It took four training sessions to get back to where we were before the trip to the dog park.

But we can't stop going to the dog park until Tala's training is complete. She needs the socialization with other dogs. Plus it's just so much fun for both dogs. And will her training ever be complete? We don't know.

It was very discouraging.

I had another phone consult with the trainer, got some extra pointers, and we started again.

Now we're trying to make a bigger leap, drive at least a short way on a major road with more traffic. She did all right once, then had a big backslide. And when she loses it - once she's barking and going wild at every passing car - she can't calm down and get back under control. (That's very typical for all animal training.) But at that point, we're out in traffic, and even the shortest route home gives her way too much reinforcement for her negative behaviour.

We were talking about this on Friday with James and Lori, and they suggested making an audio tape of passing traffic. We might be able to use the noise to desensitize Tala to the sound, or possibly for more controlled training, since we would be able to switch the sound off at will. It's certainly worth a try.

Meanwhile, I am discouraged. Looking back, I see we have made a lot of progress. But looking ahead, it's hard to imagine a time when I'll be able to sit in the back seat and do the training, never mind sit in the front and Tala will just be quiet in the back.

I know I have to follow the advice I recently posted about emigrating to Canada: one step at a time. Don't look too far ahead, just keep plugging away. But a big part of me just wants to say, this is how she is, we'll just put up with it. One day she'll outgrow it.

dogs in the sun 10

Good thing she's so cute.

13 comments:

Scott M. said...

This might sound silly, but would there be some kind of blindfold she could use while in the car?

Admittedly she would be able to hear the cars, but you might be able to desensitize that easier...

L-girl said...

As silly as it might sound, we've thought about that too! Because part of it is definitely visual. We have wondered if there might be a way to cut down on the visual stimulation.

It's worth thinking about, seeing if we can come up with something. Thanks, Scott. :)

Amy said...

That does sound pretty unbearable. Is she any better on the leash these days? Did the halter work better than the gentle leader? Our dog is fine in the car, but still goes bonkers whenever we pass a dog while walking her.

BTW, I bought and just started The Hidden Lives of Dogs. I hope it doesn't make me feel too guilty about having only one. One question based on the little bit I have read: did this woman walk all those miles and miles following Misha every day/night? That just seems hard to believe. How could she keep up with the dog? Oh, well, guess I will have to read to learn more.

Best of luck with the car training.

L-girl said...

Is she any better on the leash these days? Did the halter work better than the gentle leader?

She gets very little leash time these days. Most of her time outdoors in spent running in the backyard (a lot of that), and working on her car behaviour.

The Sense-ible harness is good for her. It's only when a fast or noisy car passes that she really loses it.

We'll be able to do more on-leash once the snow melts. Whenever that will be...

BTW, I bought and just started The Hidden Lives of Dogs. I hope it doesn't make me feel too guilty about having only one.

Guilty?? Oh no, I can't see how it could make you feel guilty. Marshall Thomas is all for human-dog companionship. Why did it give you the impression you might feel guilty?

One question based on the little bit I have read: did this woman walk all those miles and miles following Misha every day/night?

No. You could never keep up with a dog on foot. She rode her bicycle, I believe. She explains it.

I'm glad you're reading the book! I think you'll enjoy it.

Amy said...

Why I thought it might make me feel guilty: the blurb on the back says something about how what dogs really want is other dogs. My dog LOVES other dogs, but rarely gets to play with them. When she does, she is usually overly "friendly"---jumping all over the other dog. Other dogs usually end up growling at her. I have often said, "We should get her a playmate." Harvey thinks that's crazy, given our schedules, our house, etc. He's right on the logic of it, but I do think she would be happier if she lived with another dog.

We will be adopting some kittens soon (our two elderly cats died within the last year), and she loves her cat friends, but they are not the same as dogs.

L-girl said...

Ah, I see. And possibly you're prone to feeling guilty? :)

Dogs who are socialized young do love the company of other dogs. But it's not as if dogs know what they don't have, either.

Many people think it's wrong to have a dog if you live in an apartment. We had dogs in apartments for nearly 20 years. They got tons of exercise, tons of loving care, and they had great lives.

One time when I was feeling guilty about that, my sister told me, Your dogs don't look through Better Homes & Gardens and think, boy, I wish I lived there, that house looks way better than mine. They want to be with you, because you are theirs.

I think it's the same thing. Dogs do love the company of other dogs, but your dog loves you and Harvey above all else, and she doesn't know what she doesn't have.

That's my take, anyway.

Could you bring her to dog parks more often?

Amy said...

Me prone to guilt? Now, what makes you say that? My DNA? :)

Believe it or not, there are no dog parks around here. There are parks, but all posted with signs that say, "No dogs allowed." There are woods with trails, but I don't trust Cassie off leash because of her reaction whenever she sees another dog. Our yard is fenced, and we have friends who sometimes bring their dogs over to play, but that's about it.

Your comment about "ignorance is bliss" makes sense to me. We sometimes wonder about Cassie's life before we rescued her. We know she was picked up tied to a tree in a trailer park, so we have always assumed she has had a much happier life with us.

L-girl said...

Believe it or not, there are no dog parks around here. There are parks, but all posted with signs that say, "No dogs allowed."

Oh, that's a shame.

There are woods with trails, but I don't trust Cassie off leash because of her reaction whenever she sees another dog.

I understand that very well. Our Shepherd-mix Gypsy was a great off-leash hiker, but her little sister Clyde had to be leashed all the time on trails. Tala may always be the same way.

We know she was picked up tied to a tree in a trailer park, so we have always assumed she has had a much happier life with us.

A very safe assumption. :)

I'm sure she has an excellent life. Great name, too. I have a wonderful niece named Cassie. :)

Amy said...

I'm sure she has an excellent life. Great name, too. I have a wonderful niece named Cassie. :)


Thanks. She sure is well loved. (You can see a picture of her as she is my photo on my Facebook page!)

impudent strumpet said...

Because part of it is definitely visual. We have wondered if there might be a way to cut down on the visual stimulation.

Do you have a crate with opaque walls? (I don't know if you're crate people or anti-crate people, but it's the first thing that came to mind)

L-girl said...

Huge crate people. In fact, Tala is still crated when we're out, and she sleeps in her crate (with the door open). We call it her little house.

But it's a bar-style crate, like a wire cage. We like that kind because the dog can see the people in the room.

But it's a very good idea. I wonder if we should buy another crate? Would it be worth it? Would it fit in the hatchback?

I wonder if we could try a crate to see if it made a difference before we bought one.

Very interesting idea, ImpStrump!

Scott M. said...

If your existing crate fits in the back, you could try placing cardboard on the exterior just as a test. You can leave the top and a bit of the forward-facing side open so she can see you.

Alternately, if you're OK with driving with your side mirrors, you can cardboard up the back windows and dog barrier, just letting a little hole through so she can see you. The dark may calm her down as well.

Then, if either of these things "take", you could reasonably assume that an opaque crate would do.

Heck, a large box with holes in the top could be a temporary opaque crate if necessary, no?

Scott M. said...

All that being said, perhaps a blindfold would be simpler. She'd have freedom of movement, etc. Surely they have doggy blindfolds...