Thursday, February 8, 2018

Brockle - Protection Dog Fail

My boy Brockle grew up some in the last few years. He filled out and came into his own as my right hand dog. He still spends much of his spare time watching me and the rest of his time walking at my side.

Thanks to my excellent trainer (HMT), protection work taught me a lot about my dog. By channeling Brockle's aggression, I was able to gain control of it. By gaining control I was able to discover how much he didn't want to bite. Brockle doesn't want to bite anyone, or anything for that matter.

If he felt danger approaching he would become anxious.  At least he did if I was on the other end of the leash, he was perfectly willing to let the HMT be eaten by the bad guy (decoy). He would offer every kind of delay tactic he could think of, while becoming more and more agitated. Finally he'd explode and go after the decoy with everything he had.

Brockle will go down in history as the dirtiest biter the HMT ever came across. This is not a good thing. Dirty biters refuse to honor the protective sleeve they are trained to grab.

He was never rushed. We were several months into obedience, playing tug and encouraging prey drive before he went to defense. Still, the first time he actively defended me, something triggered and he began to try to bite in earnest.

Brockle would knock the sleeve aside and go for the throat, belly, thigh or groin. He would slither up under it and go for the face. It got to where he wouldn't play with the sleeve anymore. He was becoming wary of our decoys, even his best friends.  Brockle didn't see protection work as an amped up tug-of-war like the other dogs. He saw people he trusted acting in a threatening manner. My dog was not amused. In his defense, he always listened to my "Leave it!" and faded off, it seemed like he was relieved.

We decided to back off and just play ball on our weekly workouts.

My good friend, Batman, was always one of Brockle's favorites too. He worked on our place most week-ends and the two of them put in a lot of ball time. He was also a kick ass decoy - the last one willing to work my dog.

Batman offered to play with Brockle. After all, he wasn't geared up, what could go wrong?
He threw the ball out in the field, and my dog bounced after it, his tail a flag wagging in the wind. He scooped up the ball, Batman called, "Good boy!" and clapped his hands. Brockle bounced over, all happy and cute, until he was maybe a yard from our friend, spit the ball out and leaped for his groin. He caught his jeans, but not any skin. Like I said, dirty biter.

That was the day we ended protection training.

We still went to training, but now it was to bring him down. To make friends with the people he felt had crossed the line. A lot of ball, a lot of obedience work and tons of ball slowly brought him back.

As the summer progressed we did the same at home with the crew working on my barn. Batman was there to keep an eye on things and I figured out his triggers. By fall, Brockle was almost back to normal. His recall was about perfect, I could put him on and call him off and he was reliably friendly with the people coming in and out of our place.

He will nip the goats when I tell him to "Put em'up!" He will air snap at a horse trying to slip out a gate and he still fights with my rat terrier Charlie. That, of course, is still Charlie's fault. He'll chase down a rabbit, roll it and let it go, just like he used to do in the dog park. Like the many dogs he rolled, the rabbits don't appreciate him-even if he doesn't want to bite.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018


A few months ago I had a knock-down-drag-out with my daughter. It was the kind of fight often seen in families, where old hurts and unspoken resentments jumped out, swirled together, obliterated the original point, and turned into a flying shit-show. Lucky me, we conducted the entire fight through text, so I had proof of how right I was.

The next day was therapy day, and I immediately began bitching to my therapist, Wonder Woman. I couldn't wait to rat out Clare, and triumphantly handed her my phone with the message exchange.

"Well, wait a minute," Wonder Woman said two sentences in, "you're every bit as bad is she is."

"Wait, what?" I said. "She was wrong."

"That's not the point, you let her pull you into arguments about everything except the subject at hand. You two got mad enough to quit speaking without ever getting the very simple yes or no answer you needed."

"She was still wrong."

"How many times have we been through this?" Wonder Woman said. "You two are masters of misdirection. You started bringing up old issues that had nothing to do with the matter at hand."

"You're supposed to be on my side." Petulance is allowed in therapy.

"This has nothing to do with taking sides and I am on to you. Focus on the matter at hand." Wonder Woman takes no prisoners.

I sat back and thought for a minute. Then I had one of those awesome break through that make all my years of mind untangling worth it. "This is just like colt starting, hell, it's like all horse training."

Wonder Woman put her head in her hands. "Mugs, you make me tired."

"No, this isn't misdirection, this is awesome. Just listen. Let's say I start a colt, or take on a problem horse, the key to getting things done is staying on task. If I want the horse to go forward, I have to keep that task clear in my mind no matter how the horse tries to change the subject.

"If the horse goes backwards instead of forward, I have to keep my goal of moving forward clear in my head and not begin dealing with the fact we're going in reverse."

"How do you keep moving forward without dealing with the backward?" Wonder Woman asked.

Ha! I had her!

"I just keep thinking forward. There's different methods, it's mainly getting the horse's feet going the right direction. If I keep my goal clear, the second I feel those feet take even a single step in the right direction, I can release the horse from my cues. Even if I release for a split second, it registers. Forward feet - good, backing feet - bad.

"What if the problem escalates?" Wonder Woman asked.

"Nothing changes. If the horse bucks, think about not falling off of course, but getting those feet moving forward will smooth things out a lot quicker."

"How would you apply this thinking with Clare?" Wonder Woman is pretty good when it comes to redirection.

"Wait a minute," I said, "this thinking applies to the dogs too. I can't believe If I'm working on a recall, I can't let the dog misdirect me with say, fence-running with the neighbors dog, it's about the recall. Or, maybe when I'm trying to clean up our heel work, if I stay focused on just a butt swing, and reward increments, instead of worrying about the entire picture, I'll probably get a lot more done in less time.

  "This will help me with Brockle turning his cues into ways to manipulate me. I've been so blown away by his even thinking of ways to using his training against me, I've been misdirected into not getting anything accomplished. Ha! The rat bastard. I can't wait to go work on this stuff."

"Well, you can go on ahead," Wonder Woman said, "we're out of time and you've managed to completely duck the issue with Clare."

"Oh really? Gee, I'm sorry. Well then, thanks and see you next week."

Wonder Woman gave me a weary wave of her hand. "Just go."

Friday, February 2, 2018

Tiny Dog

I have a chihuahua. There, I admit it. Can't believe those words were ever put on a page I'm responsible for, but there you go.

Her name is Triscuit. She tops out at seven pounds, so she's not a tiny chi, although I'm pretty sure one of my feet would weigh more. She has ridiculously dainty feet and she walks like a model on the cat walk. Her eyes bulge every bit as much as a tree frog and her tiny mouth can't hold all her teeth. There is a giant vet bill in my near future. She has the ear-splitting yap all chi's seem to treasure and humps the pillows on my couch.

Triscuit isn't one to toe the line. She's a free spirit and feels no need to honor the rules my scrum of dogs are expected to follow. When all my dogs sit and wait for a cookie, Triscuit stands, looking impatient. If I really focus and try to actually teach her to sit, she will offer the stupid ballerina dance all chi's seem to have as their go to. Or, she'll stand. If it's rainy, cold, windy or too hot she poops in the house.

I have heard many times that if a chi was the size of a pit bull they would the most dangerous dog on the planet. It's a funny, I've noticed this broad generalization usually comes from folks that normally stand firm on "It's the owner, not the breed!" beliefs, but in this case, they're right. If chis were the size of pit bulls they would be plotting world domination-and would probably succeed.

When Triscuit came to live with us, she was a very bad dog. If we were going somewhere in the car, she would bolt as soon as I opened a door, and leave. Gone, baby gone. If she escaped from our yard, which she did on a regular basis, she would hang around until somebody called her, then, ZIP!!, gone again. She stole food off of plates, begged until she was picked up and then bit us in the face. She attacked joggers and any child under ten, completely living up to the name "ankle biter." She guarded laps like a Romanian stray with a big meaty bone.

My first training effort was to simply park her butt on the floor and treat her like the other dogs. Then, I ignored her. One of the benefits of having a scrum of dogs is how much they vie for my attention. Pushing, snapping, growling dogs don't get any. Fighting, biting dogs get put outside. Quiet dogs, that sit patiently, get their chin and chest scratched. It's simple, but it works for me.

My ignoring technique gives me time to think about each dog, the trouble they're causing, and what might be the root of the problem. Triscuit is too small. Her life is spent being stepped on, sat on, scooped up by people she doesn't know, pushed aside by other dogs, and dealing with a strong prey drive, when she herself is the size of most prey. Being tiny rightfully pisses her off.

Triscuit liked living on the floor and acclimated to staying out of the way quickly. It soon became apparent she hated human faces shoved into hers. Think about it. If my head was the size of a tennis ball and some old denture-breath snatched me up and stuck her face close enough to count her blackheads, I'd bite her too. The people rule became, "Don't pick up the chihuahua." Ear scratches, a little butt rub and she was content.

After a month of giving her space, she started asking, politely, to sit on our laps. A month after that
she would snuggle under a willing chin. The growling, biting, shaking behavior stopped. At the first ear flick of lap guarding, she was back on the floor. Once she started craving contact I had a training tool that worked.

I finally got a recall by being happy to see her every time I stepped outside and then, let her stay outside. She loves being outside. I have a feeling tiny dogs spend their lives being clutched, shoved back or locked in. Triscuit was delighted when she found out she got an enthusiastic greeting every time I called and it didn't stop her fun.

My chihuahua is crazy brave. She faced an angry pair of goats and a rattler with grim determination. A young hawk swooped towards her one morning and before he could strike she spun and sunk her deformed, nubby teeth into his chest. He shrieked, my big dog Brockle hit him with everything he had and we had an ugly few seconds before the hawk left without his breakfast. Triscuit was scared witless and came flying to me. I held her close and picked several feathers out of her mouth. She learned to stay close to Brockle and I, but she didn't hide.

She is still an escaping, egg stealing, trouble making shit, but she's kind of cool. Still is not a dog I would have chosen, but my husband, Jim, did. She was his constant friend during the last two years, as illness and dementia claimed my once strong and funny biker dude. Triscuit lived in his lap. When he was bed-ridden, she lay by his side, always ready to snog his cheek and share his lunch. She was polite with the hospice workers but kept a close eye. The night he died, she sat with me, confused, while Jim was loaded for transport. When the engine started she bolted, faster than she ever escaped from my car. The transporters barely got the door shut in time. As the hearse pulled away
Triscuit screamed, the shriek of a dying rabbit. I was sure she'd been hurt. She raced from window to window repeating her unearthly wail until the other dogs began to howl. In the past, I would never humanize a dog to the point of saying their heart could break. I will now. Her pain was too real for me to take in. When the tail lights blinked out of sight, she turned to me, broken with sorrow and curled next to me on the couch. That is why I have a chihuahua.

Triscuit moved to my bed and sleeps with me at night. She is still quiet, and sad much of the time, but this morning, she went after the goats with everything she had. Her tail was curled high and her yap as obnoxious as ever.  I'm thinking we'll be all right.