16 HOUR FOSTER DOG

Holy moly do I miss fostering. I knew I missed it, but I didn’t realize quite how badly until I was walking through the kennels at work and saw this adorable little face staring at me through the wires of her kennel door.

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The funny thing is that I was actually heading back to the dogs to check out this adorable pit puppy we’d just gotten in, but this girl with no name caught my eye. She was just so mini and waggy! I cooed at her through the gate, which just made her melt into me more, which then made me melt… I was done.

I went to inquire about her. She was a stray, which explained why she didn’t have a name. I had had had to take her out. I had to spend more time with her! She was just so cute. I hadn’t felt this way about a dog in a long time.

She came and hung out at my desk and did wonderfully. Bringing a dog to my cubicle is a good test, and can actually give me a lot of information about the dog. Does she settle well? Is she super extra curious? Does she get freaked at the office noises she hears? Can I occupy her with a chew? This pretty girl, of course, passed her test with flying colors. So obviously I had to take her home for the night.

Yes, I would say this is one of the perks of working at a shelter: being able to have a foster dog slumber party whenever you want. I geared the little one up, and off we went for our 16 hour adventure together.

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At this point she still didn’t have a name, so I called her Penny. Because she can fit right in my pocket.

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I brought her home and obviously my roommates fell in love with her. I also obviously broke my very own #1 rule of keeping a foster dog’s world small during the transition, and out we went with Penny to Meridian Hill Park. I made sure to bring lots of treats with us so I could show her the behaviors I did want from her while we were out (attention to me, loose-leash walking, etc.). Turns out, Penny rocks. Here are some pictures from our adventure:

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So then of course she was so tired that she was extra snuggly in bed with me that night, which is my absolute favorite part of fostering. It might have only been 5 pm to 9 am, but the time spent with Penny was a nice glimpse of what fostering was for me at one time and what it will be for me again one day. For now I will just continue to enjoy the times I do get to steal shelter dogs and call them my own… for 16 hours.

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PS – Penny was of course scooped up right away. Watching her walk out of the shelter with her new mama brought back some crazy bittersweet feelings!


Playing Catch Up

Whew… the Holidays are over! Life is back to normal, right? Sort of? I feel like I haven’t written a real blog post in FOREVER and that I need to just give you a long catch up entry about everything that’s been happening over here at PLF. However since I don’t want to bore you with those details, I’ll stick to one of the most major commitments in my life right now: the Karen Pryor Academy. I know you’ve read a lot about it over the past few months, but it’s still new and exciting and sort of scary so I want to continue to share my experiences with you all.

It feels like just last week that we had our second testing weekend. Well, it was much earlier than that because this past weekend was workshop #3! That means our next workshop in mid-February is the big exam weekend… YIKES.

This third weekend went much better than I thought it would. Unit three covered a lot of intense material, and I felt a little behind heading into the workshop. Turns out I understood the content better than I thought and had so many *a-ha!* moments that the entire weekend was extremely reinforcing for me. Just like weekend two, I left thinking you can do this, J.  I also left thinking wow, you really, really love this behavior stuff! Talking nerdy dog speak officially gets me going (speaking of: see you in March, Clicker Expo!).

This latest workshop left us both exhausted.

This latest workshop left us both exhausted.

We’ve covered so much in KPA up to this point. We’ve learned everything from proper clicker mechanics so that you’re not bribing your dog to how to build behaviors using shaping and capturing to how to teach cues to fluency (meaning they have precision, low latency, high speed and can be performed around distractions, from a distance and for whatever duration you choose) and put them under stimulus control to why building a relationship entirely around trust is so important for your dog’s ability to learn and be happy. I seriously CANNOT GET ENOUGH of all this knowledge. The fact that it is coming together so perfectly – all the long lessons and assignments and readings are finally all making sense in the big picture – is just so thrilling to me.

It hasn’t been easy though, and it won’t be easy moving forward. Not living with Paco has presented the challenge of scheduling and time. It’s funny to look back at our previous challenges though to the ones we are experiencing now. Before I couldn’t get him to focus on me, I couldn’t for the life of me find a reward that was exciting enough to keep him engaged and he would shut down after two minutes of attempted shaping.

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Now, I’ve got a bouncy, happy puppy on my hands who will work with me whenever I request it. It’s no longer a matter of what to use to keep him engaged. He’s happy to train, sometimes I just need that little bit of extra yummy to really keep his focus. I especially noticed our progress at the workshop this weekend when we were doing a shaping exercise. Shaping was one of the first topics we learned about in KPA, so Paco and I were still new to each other and never very good at it. He generally bowed out of the exercises pretty early and I would get frustrated – not a good combo. During this workshop exercise I successfully shaped a new behavior in a brief five minute session almost without even realizing. Working together has become so natural to us it’s hard to realize how in sync we are now! I touched briefly on our budding relationship after weekend #2, but holy moly do I love that little dog.

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Yes I am aware that he does not look thrilled in this photo. He loves me back, just not when I squeeze him like a teddy bear.

 

For the next six weeks, Paco and I will be tirelessly working on our ten-part chain, the ultimate test of our knowledge and skills from this course. You can see an example of a 10-part chain here on YouTube. Basically I have to teach Paco at least ten cues to fluency and then chain them together (a concept we learned about in our course). While the video you watch might not look *that* impressive, there are lots of technical details that make it the perfect way to showcase all that we have learned and taught our dogs. It is an impressive feat in the end!

While it’s a lot of work and stressful to fit in between my 9 to 5 and training clients, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered something that came so naturally to me (except maybe loving my foster dogs, but I think this is all related). The science behind animal training and behavior just makes sense to me, and I am realizing more and more that it will be yet another opportunity where I can help dogs – and people – in this world. How lucky I am to have discovered this passion (along with so many more) and been given this opportunity so quickly in life!

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Distraction, Duration & Distance: The Key to Improving Your Photographs

In the second unit of the Karen Pryor Academy, we learned about behavior fluency. Fluency means that when an animal perceives a cue, they start the behavior right away (low latency) and they perform it precisely (precision) and quickly (high speed). Fluent behaviors are pretty impressive to watch. I wrote a bit about how I was working on fluency with Paco in my post about playing training games.

In this third unit, we are covering three more aspects of fluency: distraction, duration and distance. Those characteristics are all for the most part self explanatory. Distraction refers to being able to perform the behavior in distracting environments, duration means holding/continuing the behavior until released and distance means being able to respond to the cue even when the handler is not directly next to the animal.

These three aspects of fluency – I’ll call them D/D/D – are also impressive to watch. A dog who can respond to a “down” or “wave” cue from across the room is likely to be quite the crowd pleaser. As you can guess, mastering D/D/D takes a decent amount of time and practice. You have to work on each aspect individually while temporarily relaxing your criteria for the others.  They all sort of build on each other, so once you have one mastered, you can begin working on the next and then inevitably adding them all together down the road.

Like pretty much any dog who is just starting to learn, Paco needs work in all three categories. He started out by being easily distracted, jumping up as soon as he performed behaviors and only really responding when he was right next to you. I am happy to say he has improved a bit since we have been practicing. By slowly adding distractions to our sessions – never adding too many at one time – he has become less sensitive to them. By shaping duration (basically rewarding him for holding behaviors for different amounts of time) I am now able to give him certain cues and know he will hold them until I release him. He is even getting better at “sit” and “down” from a few feet away from me. Slowly but sure, he is shaping up to be quite the great little performer.

I didn’t realize it until I took him out on the town the other night, but these skills are really going to help me improve my photographs of him. Before, I would give him the sit cue and as soon as I would back up to take the photograph, he would follow me (which you might have noticed because of the amount of close ups I have of him – ha!). I am looking forward to the day where I can plant him somewhere and get whatever shots I want! And have him be happy about it, of course. The whole point of teaching him D/D/D with clicker training is for him to hold these behaviors and respond to cues from far away and not worry about distractions because he wants to, not because he is worried about what will happen if he doesn’t.

Here is a photo from week one of working on D/D/D. I plan to have many more for you moving forward, thanks to Paco’s new found modeling skills!

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Guess Who’s Here!

I have a house guest for the week! Does this big guy look familiar?

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That’s right. Otie is hangin’ with us for the week while his dad is out of town. He’ll be bouncing back and forth between my house downtown and my parents house in the ‘burbs since it’s a lot of work to hide him from my landlord keep track of him while I’m running around all weekend. I was pretty nervous bringing him to my house because he can be barky and anxious and I didn’t want to drive my roommates nuts, but he’s actually done really well! And my roommates are enjoying having a dog around.

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It’s nice having him around again. I missed him! He’s also still perfect when I bring him to work (whew!). photo 05 photo 04

I’ll tell you guys about how the week goes. We have some adventures planned for this weekend (shocking)!