Agility Spaz

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Celebrating Failure

Most days, canine failure to generalize provokes resistance and frustration on my part. An A-frame is never just an A-frame. It is an A-frame with rubberized contacts outdoors, which differs from an A-frame with rubberized contacts indoors, which differs from a slatted A-frame indoors, which is, metaphorically speaking, a whole other ball of wax than a slatted A-frame outdoors. Did I mention the difference between dirt floors and artificial turf? Today, however, I am celebrating my dog's failure to generalize.

Viva hates crates. She tolerates them because I am larger than she is and they require opposable thumbs to open. It didn't occur to me until recently to ask her breeder what her early crate experiences were. The one I know about involved cross-country air travel when Viva was an eight week old puppy. She didn't look at all traumatized when I picked her up at the airport, but looks could have been deceiving. Plus, she was really, really really cute, so I might not have been paying enough attention to her stress level. Perhaps it's simply that crates means the end of reindeer games. Regardless, anyone who has watched us at trials knows that when the time comes for me to walk a course/time/scribe/set bars/etc., Viva charges off in the opposite direction from her crate, tugging as vigorously on her leash as possible. She may not be able to speak English, but every bit of fuzz on her little body communicates, "No, no, you can't make me, I don't wanna, how could you, if you really loved me you wouldn't . . ."

Given this antipathy, I was reluctant to purchase a soft-sided crate, convinced Viva would become one of those dogs who bust out at trials while their handlers are off doing something else. Then the crate I wanted went on sale (close-out special!), so I bought it and set it up in my study, leaving the door open and occasionally throwing treats inside. Viva has decided this particular crate isn't nearly as evil as the other ones. While she doesn't spend a lot of time inside of it, she does enter now and then, and seems to like snoozing with her back mashed up against its front edge.

Elsewhere, I have continued to use her hard-sided crates. However, at a Leslie Renaud seminar this weekend sponsored by Animal Inn (thanks again, Toni!), it occurred to me that I might be able to change the whole I-hate-my-crate dynamic. If Viva hates crates because I or someone else essentially conditioned her to hate crates by causing them to be associated in her mind with abandonment, cessation of fun, or inability to react to something she disliked in her environment (like other stressed dogs), the possibility might exist that I could condition her to like crates (or at least a crate) by generating a different set of associations. Particularly if the crate involved was different enough that it didn't automatically generate Association Set #1, otherwise known as the "No, no, you can't make me" set of associations.

Today, we worked on some new associations. Mr. Soft Side Crate came outdoors with us this afternoon. Viva's Barb Davis Contact Trainer was waiting in the back yard, and I had a pocketful of treats and another pocket stuffed with the cherished Toss 'n Treat flying disc. Viva has been consistently willing enter her soft side crate on the cue, "Go Cabana!" Usually, this gets her a treat or two, with nothing further demanded. I began with that, asking for a "Go Cabana," treating her in the crate, revving her up for an agility exercise, and releasing her to charge over the contact trainer. Good dog, reward, play. Go Cabana.

She seemed really eager the whole time, so I upped the ante. This time, I asked her to wait in the crate for a fraction of a second. Okay, are you ready, release to charge again over the contact trainer. Good dog, reward, play, Go Cabana. This is the first time I've ever seen Viva in a crate looking excited and happy. My dog, my I-hate-my-crate dog, associated this crate with the game. Go Cabana suddenly meant we were playing agility. It meant cookies, it meant tugging on her Toss 'n Treat, it meant joy and fierce happiness. That's the only way I can describe Viva's reaction.

So if you ask me next week how I feel about my dog's ability to generalize, I will tell you that I love that it's as poor as it is. Mr. Soft Side Crate is not the same as her other crates, and that's something I'm celebrating today.

Meanwhile, back to those four frickin' types of A-frames . . .