Falka’s progress

Since the last blog about Falka, she has completed her second puppy course, passing a KC Puppy Foundation course. She is progressing really well, although true to her breed, she started to show some challenging characteristics. She is much sharper and has lower threshold for reactivity than Yarpen. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that in the society that we live in, we need to be extra careful in managing this.

Firstly, the resource guarding from other dogs. She has made great progress with it and now does not react even when a strange dog is close by when she is fed treats. I have been doing a lot of training with Yarpen as a stooge, where they both get treats while sitting next to each other, each gets a treat separately after I say his/her name. She has never reacted to him in a way which would be obvious to us, humans, but if watched carefully enough she can be seen sending some very subtle signals that clearly show she wants to guard whatever she values. I don’t scold her, but if she “gives him an eye” (a quick glance toward him, with a bit of a whale eye), or blocks his access by moving into his space, she doesn’t get the treat. If she escalates in any way, the treats and my attention are removed altogether. I really am blessed that Yarpen is such a patient and non-possessive dog (having said that, if he’s got something and she comes over and tries to take it, he will growl at her. But it is a polite and low-intensity growl, as opposed to hers “give it all now, as I want it, I’ll bite you if you don’t!!” so I allow this). We still have to work a little on her jealousy over me, but hopefully that will come in time.

With other dogs, I try to reward her every time a dog comes close to us (mostly me, as she is guarding me and food), so that she associates their approach with good things and doesn’t feel that she will lose anything. I NEVER feed or give attention to a strange dog in front of her, unless it’s a carefully managed, set up situation.

To further improve her relationship with other dogs I have let her play with a young husky pup we’ve met in a park. I could observe the pup in a group of other dogs and was quite pleased with her body language. Normally I wouldn’t want her to engage with strange dogs, but I felt she needed some positive experience with some new dogs so I allowed it this once. She really did have a ball and this one play-date helped her enormously. Now when we meet dogs I do allow her to shortly greet them, for which she is rewarded, but then I recall her and engage with me. In total, I would say that she was allowed to play (and I mean a proper play time) with less than 10 dogs in her life. The number of dogs she has met in a “greet and recall” situations would be closer to a hundred.

 

Secondly, we have now entered the stage where her guarding instincts are kicking in. Possibly related to a fear period. She is still friendly with strangers, but only on her terms. She will be happy to greet (sniff, gentle stroke), but any sort of rough play from the stranger is met with defensive reaction from her. This is actually a step up from Yarpen, who did not like strangers at all at her age, so I am not overly worried by this. Of course, we are addressing this, but the main lesson here is for me to be her advocate and not put her in a position where the stranger’s action come first before her wellbeing. For the time being, she is now off limits to most strangers on the street, but spends some time with my dog-savvy friends (most of whom are either professionals or advanced and experienced handlers), where she learns to trust them and is not pushed over her current limits.

 

Thirdly, her walks are now separate from those of Yarpen. When I first started taking her for walks, I used to walk them together quite a lot. Partly because his presence was giving her a lot of confidence, partly because I wanted them to bond. Common walks are a typical method of creating a bond between previously strange dogs. However, over time I noticed this wasn’t bringing desired effects. Yarpen was too sore to engage in play with her, which was frustrating both him (as, if I would allow it, she would still try to tease him to play with her by pulling his ears or biting his ankles) and her (as she just wasn’t getting the attention she needed). Also, it started affecting her relationship with me; where previously she would put play with me over that with Yarpen, now she would leave my side to investigate what he was doing.

 

Fourthly (is that even a word?), we are continuously working on her body awareness, agility and body coordination. This is something I believe is not necessarily innate to our breed (or many other giant breeds), and at the same time is very important for injury free life and success in competition. A simple example: when I first started training Yarpen competitively, I was trying to use food games as a way to increase his motivation and speed (as at the time I did not know how to engage him in play). “Trying” being the operative word here. Games like food chases, or catching food in air don’t really do much, if the dog is more likely to get the food stuck between his eyes without even opening his mouth… So we do a lot of food chases and we started on food catching gamers (throwing treats so she catches them in the air). I also introduced a sound which I make when I toss a treat on the floor (“weeee”) so that it’s easier for her to switch to a food chase mode. I am also using interactive toys, such as treat balls which require her to work out how to get to the food. These things are not something that can be learnt in single sessions, it’s more of a long-term development of skills so I expect this to carry on throughout her life.

 

The journey we are going through now is extremely enjoyable. She is changing extremely fast, both in terms of physical and mental development. This calls for great flexibility on my part, but also makes it very entertaining and engaging. I am trying to use the time we are actively spending together to the limits. Every moment is a chance for training/learning about world. I am definitely seeing the fruits of our work, but at the same time, this work carries with itself a lot of time commitment. We have now joined the IPO club, as well as continue our previous classes. This means that we have structured training 4 times a week, plus obviously, several short training sessions per day (when I say sessions, I mean moments when my attention is entirely devoted to her, usually with some goal in mind, but not necessarily strictly training related. For example a session would be a play session, where I am aware of the duration, her engagement levels and for example the type of toy we play with). Putting this together with Yarpen’s treatment plan which requires 3h commute twice a week, I do feel like a dog-taxi most of the time! And yet I’ve never been happier with the way my passion for my dogs is progressing.

 

Puppy Classes

We have now completed one of our puppy classes, with the other due to finish next week. Falka has been a star pupil, with most of the exercises almost being reliable on cue. These behaviours are mostly pet dog behaviours – but for now this is what makes our life together easier. We have covered:

  • Changes of position – sit and down are now on cue, although we need to work a bit more on generalisation. Stand is almost there… It works well from down, but sit/stands are still a bit iffy. Definitely not cue-worthy yet!
  • Leave! – this is one of our favourite exercises. We have used the It’s Your Choice Game for this, which we have practiced from very early on, and the results are great. She actually turns her head away when presented with kibble and told to leave it… We have built it up so that she can leave a treat gently tossed on the floor in front of her.
  • Loose leash walking – as Yarpen, she is generally very good at that. I am pretty consistent at not letting them move forward if they pull and that seems to work well, so this exercise didn’t cause bigger problems.
  • Touch – We have started this early on, so the beginnings were quite easy… until we started moving! I was a little stuck, as Touch is one of those tricks/commands which usually comes really easy and dogs tend to enjoy it. And yet, when I would start to move, Falka would lag behind and show no great desire to actually make contact with my hand. Initially I thought that I need to go back a step and increase the reinforcement frequency and/or value for stationary touches. But, while I did that, I also raised the criteria for the actual touch. When before I would be satisfied with a gentle contact between her nose and my hand, now I was asking for a push. Then for some duration. And… voila! It seems to have sorted the issue with movement too. Now her devotion to the touch is very good and I can both lead her on a hand target (without a treat in hand), or ask for a couple seconds of a strong sustained touch.
  • Stay – we have two different methods for down stay and sit stay. With down stay we are now well over a 1min without reinforcement, after which I took her to 2mins with a few treats in between. She could probably stay for a bit longer, but I didn’t want to push it too far. We haven’t done any distance work on down stay yet. With sit stays we don’t have much in terms of duration, but we have practiced adding some distance (about 2m) and some very mild distractions.
  • Weave between my legs – a trick which we prepared as a homework, but I never put it on cue and will probably leave it here, as soon she will be too tall and long to be fluent with this.
  • Switch sides behind my back – very useful trick which I have never really trained with Yarpen, but might just give it a go with Falka!