Saturday, February 27, 2010

Control Unleashed - Week One

Iris started her Control Unleashed class (taught by Emma Parsons) at the MSPCA on Wednesday. The class is based pretty closely on Leslie McDevitt's book, Control Unleashed. If you haven't read the book yet, I highly recommend it. The basic goal of the class is to learn focus and self-control.

Our class is six dogs with a huge range of personalities. There's a sound sensitive BC who gets nervous around sudden changes in the environment, an very friendly Golden who wants to go say hi to everyone, an Aussie who also wants to visit everyone but not quite to the extreme of the Golden, and a VERY reactive dog who I think think is a BC (Emma had the dog stay mostly behind a barrier so the dog wasn't getting overwhelmed by all the other dogs in the room). There was also a mixed breed (looks a little like a Bearded Collie, but bigger with a coarser coat and all white) who is really pretty well behaved but is taking CU before starting agility.

In her book, Leslie emphasizes starting each class with massage or TTouch as a way to connect with your dog. Emma told the class that she thinks this is one of the hardest parts of class for the dogs. Iris agrees! One of the easiest ways for me to manage Iris around other dogs is to have her actively doing something (hang targeting, the space game, etc). Asking her to "just be" while I massaged her on her mat was very hard for her. I'm thinking about picking up a book on TTouch.

Look at That!
The next thing we worked on was the "Look at That" game (LAT). Essentially, you click and treat you dog every time she looks at the stimulus (something that is either concerning or exciting). For Iris, this is other dogs. It's important to c/t before the dog starts having a reactive response so the dog learns it is possible to notice another dog without exploding!

Emma said to feed the treat so that the dog has to turn back to you. In Iris' case, the other dogs were toward her right and I was offering the treat slightly toward her left. She had to break her stare (I was only letting her look for a second before I'd click, so it wasn't much of a stare) and reorient toward me for her reward. Emma told us eventually what will happen is the stimulus will become a cue to reorient to the handler. "Hey mom, did you see me looking at that other dog? Where is my cookie?" Then you can start to c/t the resulting eye contact. Emma mentioned in the future it will be good to start with LAT in any new distracting environment. When the dog relaxes, shift your criteria to rewarding for the resulting eye contact.

Leslie says, "A dog that is strongly conditioned to watch his handler no matter what doesn't get the chance to learn to cope with his environment."

I think that really sums up why LAT works. The dog learns a structured way to deal with the stimulus. "I look at the dog, I turn back toward mom, I get a cookie!" By c/t each time the dog looks, it becomes a trick instead of the beginning of a reactive response. Plus, you get the added bonus of classical conditioning - another dog appearing means cookies.

Iris did really well with this exercise in class, although we went through a lot of cookies! By the end of class, she was actually alternating between looking at the other dogs and choosing to offer eye contact (depending on how much movement there was in the room). I was rewarding both. She made it through the entire class without exploding once!

Default Behavior
The next thing we talked about was default behaviors. The ultimate goal of a default behavior is that the dog will offer it when you haven't given another cue.

Leslie explains it better, "These are behaviors that the dog automatically gives you when he wants something from you or doesn't know what to do and is asking for more information."

So, if you stop to chat with someone while out of a walk, the dog will offer the default. Or if the dog is getting excited while you're making dinner, she offers the default. A few different behaviors you could choose from are sit, down, hand targeting, or eye contact. I chose to use sit.

In the center of the room, Emma had set up a box of ring gates. She then had each student bring their dog individually into the box to practice the default. While one dog was in the box working, a second dog and handler walked around the box. The other four dogs in class were spread out around the room on mats working on LAT. The room we're in is the smallest place I've taken a class. Emma said it was about half the size of the other location she teaches at (Masterpeace), and I think she's right. The dogs are fairly close together.

Iris did really well. When it was her turn in the box I was cuing the sit, taking a step back, and asking her to sit again. At this point, there was too much distraction for Iris to offer any behavior on her own. Having a cue helped. Actually, I was really happy she was able to be in the center of the room surrounded by dogs and still able to work with me. When it was Iris' turn to walk around the room, she also did REALLY well. I was more worried about this than being in the box. At least inside the box, she had a visual barrier between her and the other dogs. Walking around the room, she had to pass dogs without any barrier. She stayed with me and offered a lot of eye contact. Good girl!

Iris is an old pro at hand targeting. It's one of the things I use a lot to manage her around other dogs. Before Iris explodes, she stares at the other dog for a few seconds. If I can break the stare by asking her to turn and target, I interrupt her explosion. I think partly because it's been rewarded so many times, it's one of her favorite tricks. One thing we did in class that I actually haven't really worked on with Iris is moving when I ask her to target. If I'm walking and ask Iris to touch, will she? She had trouble with it in class but has since done great with it at home.

Whiplash Turn
To get the whiplash turn in class, Emma had us toss a treat. After the dog ate the treat, we'd say the dog's name. As the dog is turning back to you, c/t. You want to c/t for the movement of turning toward you. Ultimately, you want to the turning back to you so quickly at the sound of her name, she might get whiplash!

This one has been surprisingly hard for Iris. In class, I thought she was just very overstimulated, but she's also had trouble with it at home. I think I have to reevaluate how we're practicing this at home, but since this post is getting little long, I'm going to make a second post about our homework.

In class, I had Iris wearing her Gentle Leader. While we were working on the whiplash turn, I noticed that Iris does not like to look up at me if she has the GL on. She will look up with her eyes, but she won't turn her head up to look at me. When we were working on LAT, I was sitting on the floor with her on her mat so I didn't notice this. I'm debating about whether I want to try her without the GL next week or not.

Doggie Zen
For doggie zen, you hold a treat out to the side and wait until the dog makes eye contact with you. The dog learns that making eye contact is the way to get what she wants. I've played this before with Iris, so she really didn't have any problem with it in class.

Go to Mat
We've been working on this a lot at home before class started. Mats seems like they're a pretty important part of CU - both going to the mat on cue and then relaxing on the mat. In the book, "go to mat" included in some of the more advanced exercises so I wanted to have it trained or at least mostly trained before class started. I'd just put it on cue at home a few days earlier. Since Iris is just starting to understand the cue with no distractions, I didn't even bother cuing it in class. I did get her to offer the behavior a few times and rewarded her for that. It was the very last thing we worked on in class, so we only went over it briefly. I'm glad I already have a head start with Iris.

We have a lot to work on now! I already feel like I've gotten a lot out of this class.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


In case anyone hasn't seen these, I thoroughly enjoyed the Westminster photography from the Boston Globe. Very nice work!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Vet Vist

Time for a more positive update! Iris had a visit with Dr C on Wednesday morning. We had been planning on switching to acupuncture every two weeks with this week being our week off. With Iris' seizures last weekend, we decided to do a visit this week and have next week be the off week.

We had a very nice appointment with Dr C, and I feel a lot better about her seizures last weekend. I felt like it was a big set back, but Dr C thinks we actually saw some good improvement. She went about 5 weeks between seizures, which is a little longer than her usual roughly 4 weeks. Also, she had 3 seizures with about 10 min between them. I thought this time period seemed worse than before when she was going 2-3 hrs between seizures. Dr C pointed out that last weekend her entire episode lasted about 20 min. In the past, it's been an 8-10 hour affair. Interesting, I hadn't looked at it that way. Also thinking about it some more, she recovered from her seizures faster than she has in the past. After the seizures, I fed her breakfast and we curled up on the couch and went back to sleep. No pacing, no desperately trying to steal food (in the past, even breakfast wouldn't have been enough). By the afternoon, she was acting back to normal. Not spacey like she usually is.

We're going to continue with the acupuncture on an every-other-week schedule for now. Also, Dr C put Iris on Cholodin, a Choline supplement.

Choline is a B vitamin-like molecule that is naturally produced by the human body. The body uses choline to produce certain brain chemicals, to mobilize fat, for normal transmission of nerve impulses, and is used for a range of body functions... Studies show that it may be an excellent memory tonic having positive effects on our thought processes and mental well-being, as well as muscle control. (

In addition to being good for the brain, choline also has positive effects on the liver. Even though that's not the reason Iris is getting it, it's a nice little bonus given the possible side effects of phenobarbital she's also on.

Dr C also wants to start Iris on a Chinese herb. I can't remember the name of it right now. It was back-ordered so Dr C didn't have any when we were in there. I got a call on Fri saying that they did get it in, so I have to go pick that up too. I feel like we're slowly getting on the right track even if my kitchen does look like a pharmacy of doggie prescriptions and supplements!

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Just to give everyone a quick update. Iris had three more seizures over the weekend. They were very close together - about 10 min between each seizure. That's unusual for her. She usually goes about 2 hrs between seizures. I am bummed. She was doing so well. I was thinking about it, and Iris did get a few different points during her acupuncture appointment last week. We were planning ongoing two weeks between appointments this time (we've been going weekly). That's why she got the additional points this time. Did that change things? I'm going to call Dr C in the morning to see what he says.

I'm on a canine epilepsy email list and there was a recent discussion about dogs that were retired from agility after starting phenobarb because of the lethargy, ataxia, and weight gain associated with the drug. It made me a bit depressed. The list ranges from being very informative to being very sad. Don't get me wrong, the list members are extremely supportive of one another. It is just difficult to read about dogs deteriorating so quickly. I think in some ways it's not an accurate sampling of the population. The people with dogs that are doing well are not the ones posting on the list.

The overwhelmed part is mostly because of a big project at work. Basically, I'm working for 8 hrs and then going into Boston to shoot restaurant exteriors from 6:00 to 9:30. Very long days and very cold nights! I am exhausted, but Iris thinks this new schedule is VERY cool. The only way I can manage to work the long hrs and still get Iris her meds on time is to bring her to work with me. She's thrilled! And she's getting tons of exercise walking around Boston, which is good because Dr C wants her to lose a few pounds. Just in case I disappear for while, it's because I'll be working late for the rest of the month most likely, not because anything has happened to Iris.

On a much lighter note, the one night I won't be working late is Wednesdays. Iris is starting class again this week and I refuse to miss it! It will be the first time I've had her in a regular class since last summer (probably July?) Much too long. I miss being in a class. This one is a Control Unleashed class, and I'm really looking forward to it! After that, I'm hoping to get her back into agility. Maybe that's why the discussion about retiring agility dogs on phenobarb depressed me. Just because Iris will be 7 years old in May doesn't mean I'm ready to retire her yet.