Welcome to my journey! This blog is about my adventures in dog training, pet therapy work, rescue work and life with my menagerie of animals. Enjoy!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Putting the cart before the horse in dog training

   Humans are such verbal creatures; we talk and talk and babble and babble, even to our dogs!  I absolutely advocate lots of talking to your dog in the form of loving praise and adoration, what I try to remind people to avoid is barking commands at your dog or puppy, that they haven't been taught yet.

     Repeating your brand new puppy's name at him in no specific manner does not teach him his name means anything, unless his name is repeatedly paired with something good. Yelling sit, Sit, SIT at your dog when you haven't actually TAUGHT him what the word sit means, is just going to frustrate you AND your puppy!

   If you want to teach your puppy to not jump on you, just yelling "off" at him or pushing him down over and over does not teach him what "Off" means and furthermore it does nothing to teach your puppy what you would prefer he do instead! That is often where people get lost. They get so focused on the unwanted behavior and the cycle of punishment, they don't stop to think what they actually WANT their puppy to do! Instead of arbitrarily saying "off" over and over, zip your lips and reward/focus on the behavior you do want, like all four feet on the ground!

    If you want your puppy to drop something in his mouth, yelling "DROP IT" over and over before he has been taught what that means is just wasting your time and making your puppy more and more unsure of you when he has something in his mouth. This is where puppy proofing comes in play, if your floor has lots of inappropriate things available and you follow your puppy around yelling "drop it" or "leave it" wherever he goes, you will find he develops a habit of either resource guarding or grabbing things and playing keep away, neither of which are easily fixed! Teach your dog what "drop it" and "leave it" actually mean (they are very different!) through training that is fun, clear, consistent, and rewarding.

   By all means talk to your puppy or dog, just don't expect them to perform for cues that you haven't actually taught them! Set you and your puppy up for success!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Your Dogs' Reinforcement Account

      As a positive reinforcement trainer that uses food in training, I often have people ask me "when can I stop giving him treats?" My answer is "never...and why would you want to?" Now, to clarify that a bit further, what I am really saying is, reinforcing behavior you like from your dog, should never stop. I really like my job but if I stopped being paid for it I would probably stop doing it on a regular basis, unless I really wanted to. See how that can translate to your dog?

      In my classes and private lessons I teach people to train their dogs using the biggest motivator around; food. I also teach them that there are other types of reinforcers that can replace food for every day behaviors, ie: sit doesn't always have to mean a cookie, sit can mean the Frisbee gets thrown or he gets lots of lavish attention. But those reinforcers are usually used as back ups to the tried and true food reward when new behaviors are being taught. For a dog, food talks!

      I like to talk about making deposits into my dogs' reinforcement account. What that means is I pay him heavily and on a consistent basis for behaviors I expect him to perform, such as coming when called. If I pay him every single time for coming when called, with food, attention or play, the one time I REALLY need that behavior to occur and I don't have any major reinforcer with me, I won't have damaged the behavior. Think of it as a checking account, if you are constantly in the black then you feel pretty secure knowing you have the ability to make a withdrawal when an emergency hits, without decimating the account altogether. Conversely, if you are constantly making more withdrawals than deposits, pretty soon the account will run dry and stop working for you! Your dog will work the same way, if a behavior stops working for him ie: being reinforced, it will die off or become very unreliable and for a behavior like coming when called, that can be extremely dangerous.

       So the goal in training your dog should not be to stop reinforcing the behaviors we like; it should be to get to the point where the frequency and type of reinforcers can change to better suit everyday life. If you want consistent, long term success in the behaviors you teach your dog they need to be well reinforced on a consistent basis, even into adulthood. Remember, any behavior that is reinforced will be repeated. Figure out what behavior you want your dog to repeat on a regular basis and reinforce it!!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Respect or Fear: Which works best for long term success?

   What makes a good leader, teacher, parent, spouse, employer, president? Does instilling fear make them capable of leading and teaching people effectively; or does respect get more, well, respect?

   In Dog training this question is bandied about on a regular basis. "Dogs need a 'Pack Leader', they need to know who is boss.' I agree, to an extent, although I don't use those terms simply because they leave a bad taste in my mouth and have different meanings to different people. But take the word 'Leader' out of that context and it is a very innocuous, sometimes even highly regarded word.

   Let's look at it first in our human relationships. Remember back to your high school or college days. Were your favorite teachers the ones that made learning a chore, boring, monotonous and sometimes even punishment based, drudgery? Did those teachers garner your respect by making you fear punishment for talking or misspelling a word? Did you want to work harder for those teachers or just do the bare minimum so you were not punished or humiliated? Did you respect them? By respect I mean not only acting respectful by not talking back or speaking out of turn but did you feel they were someone you could look up to, someone to be revered?

    Perhaps you were in the military where respect and loyalty are paramount to your survival. Did you develop true, meaningful respect for the leaders that were relentlessly abusive to you or the people you served with? How much loyalty would that type of person garner? How hard would you push yourself for the type of person that never made you feel that they had your back or were supporting your growth and learning?

   What about friendships? What kind of friend is someone that is unpredictable in their behavior, abusive in their language and makes you feel worried every time you are with them? How close would you let them get to you, how hard would you work at that relationship?

  Employers that undermine your work or threaten you with long hours, pay cuts or disciplinary action to serve their own purposes, how hard would you work for someone like that? Sure you may work long hours to try to remove the threat of job loss, but will you be happy doing it? Will you enjoy going to work every day or will you be fantasizing about tropical beaches and perhaps the prospect of your employer getting fired!

    Now put these scenarios into play in your relationship with your dog. Knowing that dogs have a limited ability to understand our language, lack of reasoning capabilities and cognitive abilities equivalent to a 3 or 4 year old child, would it be effective to train your dog using fear as a motivator? Fear is indeed a motivator, we wear seat belts for fear of injuries in an accident, we wear helmets, bullet proof vests, ear plugs, etc. for any number of activities that carry the fear of pain or injury. These things keep us safe, but they don't teach us HOW to be safe. Driving instructors teach us how to drive safely, gun safety courses teach us how to handle weapons; it's the teachers that are important.

   For long term effectiveness and success with your dog (and human relationships!), be a leader that makes learning a game, gives respect to your dog, understands how they communicate and leaves fear in the dark. Teach using love, kindness, compassion, clear rules and support and you will have a dog that WANTS to work for you, that finds you the most amazing thing in his life and sees the world in a much better, less scary way.
Be that kind of leader, those are the best!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Training Sadie...Finally!

I recently attended a seminar that was very enlightening. I learned many things; as well as questioned things I thought I already knew. One of the enlightening moments was the insistence of the speaker to engage with your dog, especially in dog sports, but also just in general. I do this with Jojen and it is delightful! So much so that I fantasize about being able to quit my job and just take classes and play in trials for the rest of his life.

Then there is Sadie. I know I am not helping her reach her potential, I know she could do so much more, she's so smart. The caveat is she is not as much fun to work with! Why is this? Because she is a challenging dog. She's reactive, whiny and so incredibly distractible she barely notices my presence when we are out and about. With Jojen and even Beanie, I was the center of attention during training, they were easy.

But as I listened to the speaker at that seminar I began to see that her challenges are what I need and how amazing would it be to have the same bond and connection with her as I do with my boys. She's a natural athlete, really smart and very funny. She deserved my attention too! So I signed us up for a class and with all good intentions went to our first one. It was a disaster! Half way through she stopped looking at me and did her best to pretend I was not there. She was trying her hardest to deflect my frustration and very clearly wanted to work with the instructor instead. I could see happening to she and I exactly what I see happening to my students when they come to class with a challenging dog. Their dog looks for any port in the storm; anyone with clear expectations and signals; anyone that does not want to throttle them at that moment! It broke my heart and I contemplated giving up (as I am sure many of my students do). The one advantage I have over my students is I knew what I was doing wrong, I knew my dog was responding to me and I knew how to change it. So I gave us a few days to cool off, asked nothing from her and instead just showered her with affection.

I had to re-establish her trust in me, that is the cornerstone of any working team; trust. With a dog like Sadie, her soft, slightly anxious nature, she needs to have someone she can trust. I needed to step up and be that person. I am not perfect, I have a short fuse most days and I get frustrated far too easily, however as I've gotten older I've accepted the challenge of laughing in the face of those imperfections and proving myself wrong. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail miserably, but at almost 40 my competitive streak has hit it's stride and I want to beat my own personal best in most everything! So I made a list of goals for Sadie and I to reach, they are not all lofty but they are no less challenging for us and I set about working on them with joy and lowered expectations, I set her up for success!

I have 4 goals right now (I'm sure as we progress there will be more or they will change):

#1 Sit straight: She is the floppiest dog I have EVER met. She can not sit straight and flops into a down after only a second or two. It can be VERY frustrating! However our wonderful teacher made some suggestions on helping her with this, so we have a plan!

#2 Loose Leash Walking and eye contact: This is really as simple as her acknowledging my presence on leash. I practically cease to exist once the leash is on and we head into town. Admittedly she has improved but it's been glacial so I would like to get more consistent eye contact from her when on leash (as well as not pulling, but really the eye contact is more important to me!)

#3 Polite Greetings: Yes, this is not as important to me as the other two. She is a very "enthusiastic" greeter and it is mortifying as a trainer to have a dog that throws herself at people in sheer adoration, but recently I had the ability to see her through someone else's eyes who was truly captivated by her sweet, overly friendly nature and who reminded me that there are far worse things your dog could be than overly friendly! So, yes, we will work on it but I won't squelch her enthusiasm for making new friends!

#4 (long term) Enter her in a Rally trial by Dec. 2015: Trying to achieve this goal may bring to light other goals and milestones we need to reach and that is exactly what I want and look forward to. I am excited by the prospect of feeling we are ready to enter a trial setting and have a reasonable chance of finishing a course! So even in my lofty goal I am humble, if we can just finish a course I will consider it a rousing success!

I am happy to say our "training" sessions during the week went well and our second class was light years better than our first; even though she ran the opposite direction on recall so she could visit with a person and shove her nose in their treat bag; even though she balked at trying to sit straight while against a wall. The difference was me. I never once got frustrated and if I felt it coming on, I got out her rope tug toy and played with her instead of continuing to ask for something from her. The effect was magic! Her attention on me was fantastic, her whining was almost non-existent and she only jumped on the instructor a couple times! All wonderful successes! Plus at the end I was able to start using one of her favorite positions as a rewardable behavior, we've begun working on "bow" and she is a natural! It was a fun class for both of us! I can't wait to go back next week and I think she'll be happy to as well!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Are you having fun?

There is no question, training your dog is serious business. Having a dog that is comfortable with body handling, has some self control and can return to you when you call are some very important behaviors to master. However, getting those serious behaviors can still be fun! It all depends on how you view training and working with your dog! If you find it monotonous or something you HAVE to do, you will find it to be drudgery work. If you look at it as an opportunity to bond with your dog and marvel at his intelligence and stretch your own mental capabilities, you will enjoy the process so much more.

In my experience it is impossible to smile a true smile (not a smirk or a forced smile) and feel unhappy or angry. So when I train with my dogs I think about how much I love them, how much they make me laugh and I smile. Doing so also gives me more patience than I normally have which only enhances the training session.

You can be happy and silly and still teach the very serious business of recall, in fact it is of the utmost importance that you are happy and silly during this important process. Showing your dog that it is great fun to come to you only serves to increase and strengthen the behavior. I encourage all my students to harness their inner silly child and show their dog they are the most fun thing around! Of course, there are those scary times when you call your dog to you out of panic and it sounds anything but fun, but if you've worked enough with your dog and the experience has always been positive, the outcome is much more likely to be positive. Besides once your dog gets to you, your relief and happiness can come out and your dog gets a bonus of happiness at the end, despite the initial recall being a little panicked.

So smile when you train, use a nice sweet voice (even men can speak sweetly), and think of how much you love your dog while you are working and you will both find the training session to be enjoyable. Remember though, if you've had a bad day, are frustrated or upset for any reason, don't train! Instead, sit on the couch with a good book and cuddle with your dog, they will work their magic and make you feel so much better!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Driveway training...

I have talked about this before but I think it bears repeating...frequently! The best way to train your dog is through the natural course of the day. Use the every day activities you do with your dog to work in a little training. I'll give you an example; I have a driveway that is about 150ft. long. This morning I needed to go out to put some letters in the mailbox that is at the end of the driveway, so I called to Jojen and we headed down the driveway. Now, I could have just let him wander around sniffing and playing in the snow but I decided to use the time to my advantage (it's difficult training one dog in the house with 2 others clamoring for your attention). I realized I had no treats with me so I used his desire to go explore as his reward for working on heeling with me. I made sure I gave him constant verbal praise as he walked close by my leg looking up at me and then I would release him with an "Ok, go play" and he would romp around and then come back on his own and we'd begin again. We did this on the way up the driveway and then again on the way down. I could have done a few more passes but I decided to end on a good note and after some pretty stellar heeling we celebrated by playing a game of chase mommy! He was thrilled and all of this took maybe 10 minutes and it was all while doing something I needed to do anyway! So maybe you don't have such a long driveway, it doesn't matter! You can make a few passes or just work a little at a time. You can use a hallway in your home or even just walk the perimeter of a room!

The training possibilities are endless too, it doesn't have to be just working on heeling or leash walking. You can practice recalls, automatic sits when you stop walking, "watch me", leave it, stays, touch, Rally obedience moves, freestyle routines, tricks, etc. You can even use this time to work with your dog if they have any fear or reactivity issues. Building their confidence in small blocks of time is optimal as they don't become overwhelmed and neither of you get frustrated.

So I'll say it again (and probably again some other time), make training part of your everyday life and it won't seem so daunting a task!

Friday, October 25, 2013

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure...

 I have had quite a few private lesson clients lately that are dealing with Separation Anxiety in one form or another. Separation Anxiety, SA, is a blanket term used to describe behaviors exhibited by a dog stemming from varying degrees of anxiety. Dogs can suffer from milder forms such as Isolation Distress (anxious when alone) all the way up to clinical SA where a dog can cause great destruction to the home and/or to themselves. Rather than go into the intensive protocol used to rehabilitate dogs suffering from SA (perhaps in a future post), I would like to address those with dogs that DON'T have SA and talk about prevention.

 One of the biggest mistakes (done with good intentions of course) many people make when adopting a new dog or bringing home a new puppy, is to spend every waking minute with the new dog (and sometimes the non awake hours too!). While it is very convenient to bring a dog or puppy home during vacation time, it can create problems that may not have been there previously. I am not saying never to bring a new dog home on vacation, but do so with the understanding that it's OK to let your dog spend some time apart from you, in fact it's recommended!

 Teaching your new dog or puppy right from the beginning that being separated from you isn't horrible, and in fact it can be awesome, will go a long way to building their self confidence as well as allow you to take a bathroom break without a four legged supervisor!

 New dogs coming into an adoptive home need an adjustment period. Some need longer than others but at the very least the first two weeks are the settling in period. Any training done at this time needs to be positive and taken at a snails' pace, with very low expectations, to allow your dog some success without becoming confused and frustrated.

Here are some quick and easy ideas to help you show your dog separation isn't the end of the world:


  • Reward your dog or puppy for calm behavior when physically separated from you. Is he sleeping in a bed across the room from you? Toss him a treat for that! Does he go explore something away from you? Toss him a treat for that! Take this gradually to more difficult steps by adding a gate in between you both, remove yourself from sight (for a second), close a door between you two. Reward all calm behavior as you progress and if your dog gets stressed at any time, decrease the difficulty a little.
  • Make all departures and returns calm and boring. You can absolutely say hi to your dog when you come home or goodbye when you leave but don't break out your Academy Award performance for them, it can increase stress in your dog.
  • Teach your dog to be ambivalent about you putting on your shoes or picking up your keys or any of the other things you do as you prepare to leave the house. You do this by randomly, throughout the day, picking up your keys and then putting them down, putting on your shoes, walking around and then taking them off again, open the door and then close it again, etc. Done over the course of time your dog will find these departure cues unimportant, thereby taking away the power they can have to induce anxiety in your dog.
 Just practicing a couple preventative measures can go a long way to making your dog or puppy comfortable being on their own when necessary and will make your life so much easier!