The Canine Perspective: The Blog

Dogs, dogs, and more dogs.

“Help! My dog sees another dog/squirrel/cat/person and all of his training goes out the window!”

Does your dog listen perfectly when there are no distractions, but once you add in anything new and shiny all that training goes right out the window? No worries, you are not alone, and your dog is not trying to thwart your efforts! This is probably one of the most common complaints I get from my clients, and it’s one that is pretty easily remedied if you’re willing to be consistent and put in a little work.

The fact of the matter is that dogs are not great at generalizing behaviors to different contexts. What this means is that even though your dog may ‘know’ sit and be able to respond in one context or environment, it doesn’t mean he will be able to do that everywhere else. A common example of this is when an owner asks their dog to “sit” at their side while walking, and the dog either looks at the owner like he just grew six heads or automatically re-orients to the front of them, because that’s where “sit” is supposed to happen for reinforcement. (For more information on how to tell if your dog truly “knows” sit regardless of context, check out: http://www.dogstardaily.com/training/sit-test)

Additionally, when you try to transfer ‘known’ behaviors to more exciting environments, we are introducing what are called ‘competing motivators’ to the dog’s environment, so the issue becomes “If my dog is refusing to come when called at the dog park, it’s probably because what I am offering is simply not more reinforcing than play with other dogs”. It’s not your dog being willfully disobedient, or spiteful, or dominant. It’s simply your dog making a decision about what he’d rather do!

This is why a process known as “proofing”exists in training. Once our dogs are performing the behavior reliably in a low distraction, familiar environment, we begin asking our dog for the behavior in new places with distractions that get more difficult gradually. So, you have an idea of why your dog may not be listening to you in the presence of distractions or in a new context, but how do we fix it?

  1. Baby steps
    • Just because your dog knows “come” in the house and backyard doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to do it at the park yet! You have to lay down a really solid foundation for your dog first, and then increase the difficulty in tiny steps to proof the behavior. Teaching your dog “come” indoors is like teaching a kindergartener the ABCs, it’s just the beginning. Asking your dog to “come” in a high distraction environment after only practicing indoors is similar to asking a kindergartener to write your PhD dissertation. It’s probably not going to end the way you want it to!
  2. Premack it
    • The Premack principle states that a more likely behavior can be used to reinforce a less likely behavior. This is a great option to use when your dog is totally disinterested in food around something distracting that they want to get to (i.e. other dogs or prey animals). For my dog Regis, he learned that he can chase squirrels up trees (the more likely behavior) only if he can either walk nicely next to me to get there or check in with me before hand (both less likely behaviors). It was only when I started using the Premack principle with Regis that I was able to teach him how to walk nicely on leash.
  3. Know your dog (and their competing motivators)!
    • Your dog will find certain distractions more exciting than others, and just because one dog can’t focus around other dogs doesn’t mean that will be your dog’s number one distraction. My dog, who is fearful of strange dogs, doesn’t want to go say hello at all to unfamiliar dogs and so is able to focus, but when he smells a squirrel or rabbit he has more difficulty concentrating. Meanwhile, I walk a lab who literally doesn’t blink twice when he sees a squirrel dart out three feet in front of him, but wants nothing more than to say hello to strange people on leash. (FYI, if you have an over-eager greeter, using the Premack principle to train them that they can “say hello” if they show calm behavior first works like a charm!)
  4. Distance is your friend
    • Anytime we’re working with a stimulus that is exciting to a dog, whether it’s because they want to say hi, scare the thing away, or eat the thing, if your dog is over-reacting (barking, lunging, whining, generally “freaking out”) the number one thing you need to do is create distance. In the case of a scaredy dog, that extra distance allows the dog to feel safer and thus think more clearly. For a dog that wants to say hello or chase a prey animal, I imagine the extra distance makes them pause to think  “the thing I want to get to is so far away, there’s no point in trying, especially since my human has treats!” Of course, this is my own speculation since I can’t read my dog’s mind, but regardless of the situation, if your dog is already too far gone to focus or concentrate, that’s a sign to you to increase distance.

 

With a little effort and planning, you can have a dog that listens to you in the face of distractions. Just keep your training short, positive, and successful, and you’ll have a dog that’s happy to comply with what you’re asking!img_3133

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My top five favorite activities for cold weather enrichment

Brrrr, it’s cold out there! It’s officially January here in Chicagoland, and with extremely cold temperatures and blowing winds come shorter walks and cabin fever! When it gets below freezing I don’t like walking with Regis for more then 15 minutes at a time, so we have to get a little creative here in the Thompson household to make sure that Regis isn’t bored to tears (and Mary isn’t driven crazy by Regis’ excessive energy!) The following list are my go-to activities for keeping my dogs entertained while we eagerly wait for spring:

1. Puzzle and Food dispensing toys (Store bought and home made!)

Disclaimer: I’m a huge fan of having dogs work for their food in all seasons, not just cold weather! Regis rarely eats out of his bowl, and we have a number of store bought and home made food dispensing toys that we can use. There is a behavioral phenomenon in dog behavior where, even if they are offered ‘free’ food, the dog will choose to work for their food. It’s called contra freeloading, and is a great way to crate enrichment opportunities for our dogs.

Some of my favorite food dispensing toys are the Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball, the Kong Wobbler, and the original Kong (See “How to Stuff a Kong” for ideas on how to feed your dog’s meal out of the kong). You can also purchase puzzle toys such as this one created by Nina Ottosson. Each of these are easy to use and put your dog’s regular kibble in. Just put your dog’s kibble in it, and watch them work!

You can also create some food toys at home with cheap materials such as boxes, toilet paper rolls, milk jugs, and old material. For a food dispensing toy, try put holes the size of your dog’s kibble or larger through a milk jug using a drill or sharp knife and fill it with your dog’s meal. You can make a home made snuffle mat using leftover fleece material and a rubber sink mat. And, like I did below, you can simply stuff a box full of toiler paper rolls and scatter their food or treats into each roll so that your pup has to pull them out to get to the food at the bottom of the box. Your options are only limited by your own imagination.

 

2. Nosework

It’s a well-known fact to anyone with a dog: dogs just love to smell. According to Alexandra Horowitz in her excellent new book “Being a Dog”, “every dog has hundreds of millions more cells devoted to detecting smelly stuff than humans do. Dogs have from two hundred million to one billion receptor cells, depending on the breed, compared to the six million in our noses.” And because of our dog’s ability to mentally discriminate and dissect individual scents, it can be incredibly mentally taxing and enriching for them to use their noses.

Nosework is easy to start in your own home. All you need is some stinky treats, a few boxes, and a dog. Start with your dog and one box, and toss a treat or two into said box. Choose a cue to tell your dog to start using their nose (find, find it, seek, look, pickle, whatever you’d like to call it!), say the cue, and when they find the treat successfully give them another treat in the same box for the successful find. Continue to do this until your dog starts automatically searching for food when you say the cue. Gradually add more boxes, putting boxes inside of each other, stacking them, and increasing the difficulty of the search. Start asking your dog to wait in another room, and then release them into the room once you’ve placed the treat so they haven’t seen the placement at all. Practice in different rooms, constantly changing the scenario and asking your dog for more. Need proof that this will mentally time out your pup? Here’s Regis after his first nose work class:

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He didn’t move for two and a half hours. How’s that for enrichment?

3. Indoor Dog Parkour

 

Dog Parkour is an awesome new sport designed with canine fitness in mind. The sport is designed for the outdoors but is plenty easy to start and practice inside. The concept of Dog Parkour, also sometimes called Urban Agility, is finding obstacles in your environment and asking your dog to perform certain behaviors on them. You may be asking for two paws on, circling the object, going under the object, and any number of behaviors on found objects. Check out the website for some information on what requirements each title is asking for. Some things I’ve used include:

  •  Laundry Baskets
  • Boxes
  • Chair/Broom combos to create jumps, overs, and unders
  • Tables
  • Ottomans
  • Computer chairs for moving objects
  • Fitpaws Equipment

Again, the sky is the limit! Get as creative as possible! img_2183

4. Trick Training

Does your dog know how to ‘clean up’ his own toys? How about getting you a beer from the fridge or jumping through a hula hoop? There are a multitude of books on trick training dogs such as this one by Kyra Sundance and lots of positive training videos on youtube such as those by Kikopup and Zak George that can show you how to teach these tricks, step-by -step! The great thing about clicker training, positive reinforcement, and shaping is that if your dog is physically able to do what you are asking them to, chances are there’s a way to shape the behavior! Similar to reading a good book or completing a crossword or sudoku for us, trick training is mentally tiring for your dogs, and can help them settle down if physical exercise isn’t an option. Regis and I are currently working on figure eights through my legs and getting his ‘spin’ behavior onto the verbal cue only!

5. Hide and seek recalls

This is a simple and efficient way to get your dog up and moving, and to practice their recall at the same time! You can do this with just one person, or as many as would like to participate. If it’s just you, make sure your dog has a reliable ‘wait’ or ‘stay’ cue, ask them to wait while you go into another room and then release them and call them to you. When they get to you, reinforce them, praising them and giving them cookies, have fun!  If your dog doesn’t have a reliable ‘wait’ yet, you can ask someone to help you by holding your dog’s collar while you go hide, then call them to you, and when your dog gets to you keep them occupied until the other person calls to him. Continue to increase the difficulty, going multiple rooms away instead of just one, hiding in more difficult places, using more people, etc.

Get creative with the enrichment opportunities you offer your dogs, and change it up! Chances are if it involves food and their favorite humans, they’ll be happy participants!

 

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One simple New Year’s resolution to make for your dog

For most people, New Years Eve is a time to reflect and think back on our year, how it went, where we are now, and where we’d like to keep going. I know Regis and I have come pretty far since January 1st 2016, and I’m a big fan of thinking retrospectively about what I want to change for next year, especially when it comes to my interactions with those I love in this life (both human and animal!). I know a lot of people think resolutions are over-rated, but even if I sometimes don’t follow through with them, for me it helps to focus my intentions going into the new year.

And so, I have one simple resolution to suggest to you, my fellow dog lovers. I would love it if we could all focus a little more on the wonderful things we love about our dogs, instead of focusing on the ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ behaviors. Of course, this is a trainer speaking who is hired because of complaints that dog owners have about their dogs, so it should come as no surprise that I hear more complaints about people’s dogs then praise. It should also be noted, I’m not suggesting we ignore any problem behaviors or behavior modification that really needs to happen.

But after a year of training dogs, helping owners, growing my business, and trying to expand my training and behavior knowledge as much as possible, I’ve seen that, usually, our dogs spend more of their time behaving and being ‘good’ then they do time being ‘naughty’, and I think we often forget to notice when our dogs are behaving. This could be attributed to something called the ‘negativity bias’. The negativity bias, according to wikipedia, “refers to the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things.” So, in laymen’s terms: our brains are pre-programmed to focus on the annoyances and negatives of most things in life, including out dog’s behavior. It’s not our fault, it’s not our dog’s fault, it simply… is. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it though!

So my challenge to you, in this coming year and years after, is to notice when your dog is behaving, and not letting the negative behaviors impact your relationship as much. Praise your dog as much as you can, and when he’s behaving let him know! When he’s misbehaving, figure out why it’s happening, fix it, and move on, instead of lingering on it. Improve your relationship with your dog with a ‘glass half full’ mentality, and don’t focus so much on the small stuff like running away with socks or tearing up papers. We only get so many years with our dogs, and it’s up to us to make sure we’re making the most out of them.

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And for Regis and I, we’re hoping to get into nose work this year, sit for the CCPDT exam, write weekly blog posts, take some group classes, head back to Peaceable Paws for my second Pat Miller Academy, go to the Pet Professional Guild Summit, and successfully integrate Regis into a home with a cat. Wish us luck!

Here’s to a very happy, positive, force free, fun, adventure filled 2017! -Mary and Regis

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The real reason I don’t use punishment to train dogs.

As a force-free dog trainer in a community that has more punishment-based trainers than not, I spend a lot of time justifying my methods to both owners and other trainers, and trying to change the status quo. It’s a slow and sometimes frustrating process, but I’m definitely seeing more dogs being walked on harnesses and flat collars than I used to, and fewer prong and choke chains. It’s an uphill battle, and an important part of that battle is being able to speak your truth without judging and using facts to back yourself up.

The tricky part about trying to speak to people who have used punishment with their dogs before is that it may have worked. And like dogs, humans do what works. So you’ll often hear that those methods worked in reducing the dog’s unwanted behavior, that their relationship with their dog was wonderful because of it, and that their dog never developed resource guarding or reactivity (two examples of behavioral fallout that can happen when applying aversive techniques and dominance theory). And that may be true.  If used correctly, punishment can work. That’s why for so long it was the main tool for trainers to use. If it never worked, it wouldn’t have been a popular option. This is where force-free trainers will typically respond by commenting on the efficacy of force-free training, and the possibility of behavioral fallout due to aversive stimuli using old-fashioned methods. We have the science to back ourselves up that coercion can cause serious behavioral repercussions, just look at Murray Sidman’s “Reflections on Behavior Analysis and Coercion”.

We must appeal to science and facts when we’re making the argument for force-free training to people who have seen punishment work, because it speaks to it’s efficacy and safety. But the science and the hard facts behind force-free training are NOT actually the biggest reason that I will not use punishment or aversive stimuli in my training.The real reason is that I think it is a moral and ethical imperative that we train using the least harmful and most effective methods available to us.

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Call me a bleeding heart hippie, but positive dog training appeals to both my mind and heart. When we make the choice to bring a member of a different species into our home, should we not be prepared to do whatever it takes to keep that animal safe? When we, the supposedly superior species with our big giant cerebral cortex, choose to take another species into our care, how can we possibly justify using compulsion and coercion to force them to do what we want when there are more humane and engaging methods at our disposal?

My absolute favorite quote in the world is from Maya Angelou. It’s simple and sweet.

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

We know better now. We know that our dogs are not trying to overthrow us for world domination. We know that usually if they’re ignoring us it’s OUR fault as their guardians for not properly proofing them, not theirs. We know that we can effectively teach our dogs to walk at our side using a clicker and treats, instead of harsh leash corrections and intimidation. We know that a growling dog, more often than not, is fearful, not ‘dominant’. And now that we know better, we need to do better. Don’t our best friends deserve at least that much?

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How to Positively Modify Undesired Behaviors

One of the biggest criticisms of “positive-only” training (side note: there is no such thing as “only” positive training, this is a misnomer based on a misunderstanding of the quadrants of operant conditioning. But I digress…) is that we never ‘correct’ our dogs for doing the wrong thing, so how could they possibly learn what is ‘wrong’? Many ‘balanced’ trainers (meaning trainers who use all quadrants, including positive punishment and negative reinforcement)say that without this information, dogs will be unruly and out of control. However, the idea that our dogs do not have consequences to behaviors that we don’t like is simply untrue. Force-free trainers will make use of negative punishment, which means removing something the dog likes, to teach the dog that their behavior can make good things go away. The true difference isn’t that we don’t provide consequences for undesired behaviors, it’s that we take an ethical stance against using force, pain, and intimidation as consequences.

The following is a five step process that can help you modify many of your dog’s undesired behaviors:

  1. Figure out EXACTLY what it is you don’t like about what your dog is doing. When we’re working with another species, we can’t explain to them in our language what we’re working towards, so we need to make sure that the criteria is crystal clear for all involved.
  2. Figure out EXACTLY what it is you’d like your dog to do instead.
  3. Generously reinforce your dog for what you WOULD like them to do.
  4. Remove reinforcement for the undesired behavior.
  5. Manage the dog during his training to prevent slip ups.

The following is this process put into the specific context of ‘loose-leash walking’:

  1. I DON’T like that my dog pulls forward like a freight train on leash.
  2. “Not pulling on leash”, while self explanatory for us, could mean any number of things to our dogs. Would we like them to be behind us? At our side? On one side?  Walking on their hind legs? (I wouldn’t suggest that last one for long durations, but a fun trick to teach!) We must be specific in our criteria. For this example, we’ll say the “dog can be anywhere in front, to the side, or slightly behind us, but the leash MUST be loose.” So, we have one criteria we’re looking for: a relaxed, loose leash.
  3. When you’re out walking your dog, bring your clicker and treats, and allow the dog to move forward as long as the leash is slack. For an extra layer of training, we can click/treat our dog every time they walk nicely by our side (I like to think of the dog’s head lining up with my knee as the ‘clickable’ moment) and click/treat them when they give us eye contact.
  4. When your dog DOES pull, and the leash goes tight, say “Oops, too bad” in a light, relaxed tone as your no-reward marker, and turn around to walk in the opposite direction. This is a consequence, but no pain or fear was needed. We taught our dog “Oops, pulling loses you the opportunity to sniff that tree”, and you remove the desired thing (the opportunity to sniff).  The minute your dog catches up with you, you can click/treat them for position, and then raise the rate of reinforcement as you approach the area your dog was pulling toward, teaching him “yes, you can absolutely sniff that cool thing, but you have to walk with me to get there first!”
  5. Management for this behavior would include a front clip harness to decrease pulling, as well as to keep you safe from being pulled over. Additionally, you can precede each walk with an exhausting game of fetch or tug to attempt to tire your pup out before the excitement of the walk.

You can apply this same formula to almost any other behavior that you don’t like, and you never have to use pain or fear to make your dog behave the way you’d like! Will it take some time and consistency? Absolutely, and the more practice you and your dog get, the faster the desired behavior will develop. But what a wonderful thing it is to know that you never have to scare or hurt your dog again to modify their behavior!

 

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An open letter to the punitive trainer who made fun of my “fanny pack”

Dear Joe Jerk-and-shock,

That’s not really your name, I know, but it’s what I’m going to call you, because that’s what I see. I see a man who thinks it’s okay, and maybe even fun, to bully a dog into doing what he wants. I see a man who makes a dog cry out in pain by choking him just hard and fast enough, and then pats himself on the back. “Good job, Joe. You sure did make that 27 lb adolescent dog submit.” I see a man whose life work it is to convince others that their dogs are trying to usurp them, that they must physically harm the dog to teach them who is the “Alpha” (side note: BARF), and who resists learning new, better, HUMANE ways to do things, because he is insecure and fearful of the fact that he is becoming obsolete.

So, when you saw me working with my client and thought it clever to make fun of my ‘fanny pack’ (AKA treat pouch AKA bait bag AKA something that doesn’t cause physical or mental trauma to my client dogs), all you did was prove to me your cowardice and ignorance. Oh, and your immaturity. I know some 8th grade boys who can come up with better material.

Trainers like you make claims that dogs listen to them because of your “status”, your “presence”, your “magical dog whispering essence”. And people believe, because they have a totally overwhelming adolescent doofus dog and because they trust you to make good, sound decisions for them and their dogs as a supposed expert in your field. So even though they may not like the fact that you kneed their dog in the chest, or grabbed their dog’s muzzle hard enough to make the dog whimper, or hung them up by their choke, they feel like they have to believe you, because you’ve told them there is no other way.

I’m mad at myself that I couldn’t think of what to say back to you in the moment. I was kicking myself for weeks. I should have called you out, I should have criticized you for your lack of understanding and empathy. I should have spoken out for that poor dog. But I didn’t. So here I go: you’re not magical, you don’t have a “calm-assertive” presence, and your methods are… feel free to insert the expletive of your choice here. The dog isn’t acting out because he’s AFRAID of you. You’re making fun of me for wearing a bait bag, and act like you can control the dog because of your special dog whispering abilities. That dog is listening because he knows if he doesn’t, he gets strangled, prodded, and yelled at. I choose to tell my dog what is right, and redirect him when he’s inappropriate. You choose to give the dog no other choice but wrong, and then physically hurt him for choosing the only answer he was given. You’re a sorry excuse of a human.

Behavior is LAWFUL. When we change behavior, we have a choice and become active participants in the modification process. We can choose pain and fear, and yes, it will work. I saw that same dog walking nicely a few weeks later, still on the choke chain and being corrected every 10 feet or so (p.s. this means that the owner isn’t willing to create a large enough punishment to stop the behavior entirely, so nice job instructing the owner to create a punishment callous.) His ears were back, his tail was low, and he walked stiffly. Heeling? Yes. Happy? Not so much.

Or, we can choose compassion. We can choose empathy. We can choose current science. And we can choose to make our dog an equal player in this game. My dog walks with his nose to the ground, occasionally checkin in, his body loose, and his tail held high. When the leash tightens, we stop, he comes back to me, and on we walk. Side by side, free from pain and fear. This is my choice.

The dog training world is changing. People are educating themselves, and are learning what is and isn’t okay. And they’re deciding to seek out better methods for their best friends. So, rest assured, the day you hang a “closed” sign on your facility door and can no longer make a living hurting animals and damaging relationships, I’ll still be here. Wearing my fanny pack.

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Walking is something we do WITH our dogs

Picture this: You and your closest friend are walking in your favorite downtown area on a beautiful fall day, taking in the sights and the sounds. You couldn’t ask for better weather, and you don’t have a care in the world. You decide to stop at one of the store windows to read a poster for a local band, and your friend yanks impatiently on your arm. “Come on, let’s go!” You’re mildly annoyed, but you were just checking something out, no big, so you keep moving right along.

The next time you stop they do the same thing. “Can you please just wait one second?” you say. Nope, YANK.  Next time, the SAME thing. Then, you see a poster with your favorite author on it, and you immediately put the brakes on. You NEED to read this poster! Are they coming to town?!

Your friend says “Come on, let’s go!” and tugs on your arm when you stop to read the poster. You plant your feet. This is important! Then they say “Seriously, hurry UP.” And pull harder. Ouuuuuch! What would you do? Put yourself in these shoes, and really imagine just how tolerant you would be of this behavior from someone you consider your closest friend. I know I wouldn’t tolerate this kind of behavior from someone, no matter how much they meant to me.

And yet I see this behavior ALL the time, just not between two people. I see this behavior all the time when people are out walking with their dogs. Dog stops to sniff, human keeps walking, gets to the end of the leash, and YANKS. Sometimes the dog is on a harness if they’re lucky, but many times (unfortunately), the dog is on a choke chain or prong collar.

In a dog’s life their walk is one of the most mentally and physically enriching activities they get. They spend an awful lot of time indoors, biding their time until we decide to interact with them again. Shouldn’t we, as owners and guardians of our dogs, respect their walks then?

The fact is, dogs see the world with their nose, and every time they stop to sniff, they’re learning tons about their environment. What other dogs were here before? Any other critters? Ooooh, someone had a hamburger wrapper here a few hours ago… It’s similar to how we would stop to read a sign or poster, or even how we stop to talk to our neighbors.

I know what some of you are thinking: “If I let my dog sniff everything they wanted to sniff for as long as they wanted to, my walks would all last five and a half hours!” And that’s fair. I’m not asking you to always let your dog fully investigate every tree they come across, but I am asking you to compromise with the canine companion you chose to bring into your home by making the walks as much about their enjoyment as it is about yours.

So, what can you do? Here are some tips and ideas:

  1. PUT THE PHONE AWAY. The fact of the matter is that, in the digital age, it’s hard to unplug from our texts, emails, and facebook. But when we’re out walking our dogs, we are walking with our friends, and having  a phone in our face the entire time definitely takes away from that. It’s not really fair that we expect our dogs to stay engaged and focused on us, but we don’t reciprocate, is it? Plus, it’s probably good for you to take a break from the web (take it from someone who is addicted to the internet! It’s nice to have a long walk totally unplugged).
  2. Give a cue to let your dog know you’re moving! It’s amazing how often we forget that we have trained our dogs to certain cues that can work in this context. Call their name, if they respond, praise them and reinforce them (if you have treats, use them! Dog trainer confession: I always have treats.) and then keep going. You can ask your dog for their recall cue, or ask for a nose target “touch!” to your hand. I don’t like overusing my dog’s recall cue, so I decided to train an entirely separate cue called “let’s go” that tells him that we’re getting ready to move. Think about what your dog already knows, and instead of pulling or yanking on your dog at the end of leash, give your dog a cue so they have an idea of what you’d like from them, and then praise them for their response.
  3. Buy a harness. The simple fact of the matter is that we’re humans, and humans make mistakes. As primates, it’s very natural for us to swing our arms as we walk, and yank or pull simply as a knee-jerk reaction to a taut leash. Because of this, I urge all of my clients to use body harnesses on their dogs (front clip harness for the pullers), simply because that way, when we do accidentally pull on the leash, we’re not yanking on the most delicate part of our dog’s body (their throat houses their esophagus, windpipe, and thyroid gland!)
  4. Practice the 10 second rule. If I use my “let’s go” cue and my dog is still resisting, it tends to be a sign that he’s smelling something REALLY interesting and he would like to investigate a little longer. It’s my own personal rule that I let my dogs sniff at least ten more seconds after that. I have found that usually after that extra time, the dog keeps moving easily, eliminating the need to have to pull him away from the smell, and the next time he needs to sniff it’s not for quite as long of a time.
  5. Sniff at the beginning and end of each walk. This one works with my beagle mix really well. We start the beginning of each walk and he’s allowed to sniff whatever he’d like for as long as he’d like. I like to think that he has a “sniffy” reservoir that he needs to fill, and that it helps him to get a head start at the beginning of the walk. Then, once we get moving, he sniffs at a quicker pace, and then we end the walk with some leisurely sniffing as well. This is all purely anecdotal, but I swear it works!
  6. Allow more time. A lot of people get frustrated with their dogs on walks because they have to get to work, get to school, etc. and the dog’s sniffing is taking too much time. If you find this is often the problem on your walks, the problem is simple. Make more time for your walks. A little extra walking never hurt anyone, and this will make your walks less stressful. It may also help to keep all walking equipment (treat pouches, poop bags, leashes, gym shoes) in one central area so that you can get yourself and Fido ready and out the door in record time!
  7. Long-line sniffy walks. Go out, buy a 50 foot long line, and find a big park or forest preserve (far away from any traffic!) to have leisurely sniffy walks at. This way, you can keep moving while your dog is sniffing, and then when you get to the end of the long line, call your dog to you to keep moving. You’d be amazed at how exhausted your dog can get with a combination of running on a long line and getting to sniff as much as he’d like.

Using these tips and positively training your dog for loose leash walking can make your walks together one of your greatest joys. I think one of the best gifts we can give our dogs is being more mindful on our walks, so put the phone down, take a deep breath, and enjoy.

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Using Retrospective Thinking While Training

Confession time: I did not train Regis to walk on a loose lead for the first four years of his life. At all. Nada. He’s always been on a harness, and around a year I put him on an easy walk harness, but that’s it. No “one step-click-treat”. No “300 peck” training method. No ‘Be a Tree”. He essentially dragged me wherever he wanted to go every time we went for a walk. And to be honest, I really didn’t care all that much. I knew he wasn’t trying to be ‘alpha’ (since Alpha/Dominance theory has been totally debunked and all), I was strong enough to hang onto him, and I was trying to focus on his reactivity while walking. Not only that, but I had a few years under my belt of walking dogs in the shelter system and as a job, and once you’ve been dragged by a 60 lb pit mix on a back clip harness down a row of kennels, not much will phase you in terms of pullers.

But I digress. When I decided to start my own training business, I decided that I needed to start working with Regis on his leash manners, because, even if I didn’t mind his poor behavior, it certainly didn’t look good for my business. And there was that one time he yanked my arm just a little too hard, and I realized no one else would be able to walk him like that. So I figured, it might be a good time to start training his leash work. So we worked.

And worked.

And worked.

And worked.

You see, when you’re training an adult dog, even if they haven’t had a single minute of formal training, they have a reinforcement history for their behavior. Because they’ve been alive, and operating in their environment, and been reinforced (counter-surfing usually gets me something good!) and punished (Eating bees kinda hurts, maybe I’ll stay away from them) for however long they’ve been alive. Your dog is always learning, whether you mean for them to be or not. 

So Regis spent the first four years of his life learning that pulling and impulsivity get you where you want. To compound this issue, he’s really not terribly food motivated, and once he’s over-stimulated by his environment, begins rejecting food. So needless to say, teaching him polite walking has been far from a walk in the park (pun intended).

And about 6 months later, I’m proud to say that 90% of the time, he’s “in the game” and content to walk on a loose leash, and I can get his attention back from squirrels and other dogs. However, we still have some rough days, especially when we’ve seen a lot of dogs to react to, and that’s when I really have to focus on the progress we’ve made. It’s easy to have a picture in your head, and say “This is what I expect this end behavior to look like”. And when we focus on where we’re going instead of enjoying the ride, it can sometimes feel like it’s taking foreeeeeever.

So, as a dog trainer and a dog owner, I urge you to take the occasional look at where you’ve come from. Use retrospective thinking as a constructive tool. We all can see forward, and think about where we want to be (I want Cujo to be able to walk by other dogs on leash without flipping out on the same side of the street) but we rarely think about where we’ve come from (Wow, I can’t believe we saw six dogs on our walk and Cujo didn’t bark and lunge once! That’s never would have happened six months ago!) Especially in today’s world, filled with Google for immediate answers, Amazon prime for immediate deliveries, and smart phones for immediate contact, it’s easy to forget that some things take time, and this is especially true with building difficult behaviors. 

So be forgiving of yourself and your dog, and when it’s tempting to move faster and you feel disappointed or frustrated, look at how far you’ve come, and be proud of all you’ve accomplished with your dog. 

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Decoding Trainer Speak: Figuring out what those labels could really mean

It’s a little known fact that dog training is a completely UNREGULATED business. That’s right, that living, breathing, feeling creature you call your best friend? Anyone in the world can go online and begin advertising themselves as a professional dog trainer whenever they’d like to regardless of education or experience. And some do. After watching one episode of reality television and teaching their dog how to sit, suddenly they think they’re the next great dog trainer.

In truth, learning how to train any animal takes time and practice. Different dogs need different motivators, and a good trainer needs to know where best to use operant versus classical conditioning.  So the fact that anyone can label themselves a trainer (or worse, a behaviorist!) is frustrating, to say the least. It also means it can be difficult to figure out exactly what a trainer is saying when they throw terms like “balanced”, “purely positive”, and “cpdt” around, since there’s no one around to fact check them.

In this post, I’d like to introduce you to some terms that are frequently used in the dog trainer world, and what they mean. The following are abbreviations that mean the same thing across the board:

  • CCPDT: Stands for the “certification council for professional dog trainers”. The council is currently the only certifying body for dog trainers, and provides the titles of “CCPDT-ka” and “CCPDT-ksa” to those that pay for and pass their tests. Please note, while the CCPDT does have a code of conduct, trainers certified through them can still use positive punishment and negative reinforcement and certification does not guarantee force free methods.
  • Cpdt-ka: Stands for “Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assessed”. Anyone who has these letters following their name has put in a number of hands on hours as either an assistant trainer or lead trainer and has been tested using a standardized multiple choice test. 
  • Cpdt-ksa: Stands for “Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge and Skills Assessed”. To meet the rigorous standards of this title, a trainer must both pass the test for the knowledge assessed title, keep track of their hours training and working hands on with dogs, and also film examples of their training to be sent to the CCPDT and be assessed. There are far fewer trainers certified as Cpdt-ksa than Cpdt-ka.
  • Apdt: Stands for the “Association of Professional dog trainers”. While membership to this society may show that a trainer is continuing their education, it is not a certifying body. Anyone can join this association and use their logo if they pay the fee, and being a member of the APDT does not necessarily guarantee a force free professional.
  • PPG: Stands for “Pet Professional Guild”. Similar to the APDT, the Pet Professional Guild is a professional group that anyone can join to learn more as both an owner and a professional. However, unlike the APDT, the professional applicants for this association are screened to make sure they only practice humane, scientifically sound techniques. They also cater to other animal professions such as groomers, doggy day cares, and feline/equine/avian behavior specialists, so are a little more diverse.

And the following are phrases and buzzwords commonly used by trainers when discussing their methods. First are the phrases that typically mean humane, science based training methods are being used:

  • “Purely positive”: I’m torn about the use of this terminology. While I understand that those who use this mean to say that they use and are totally committed to the use of positive reinforcement, at the same time it’s poor use of scientific terminology. I’ve yet to meet a force free trainer who doesn’t also use negative punishment (the removal of something the dog wants to decrease a behavior). However, I would not say “stay away from trainers who use this phrase”, it’s really just some food for thought for science nerds like myself.
  • “Force-free”: Force free is meant to describe training methods that do not use pain or intimidation to compel your dog to do something. If a trainer says they are force free, there should be absolutely no use of choke or prong collars, or shock collars. Force free professionals work using positive reinforcement to tell the dog what the trainer likes, and negative punishment (removal of something the dog wants, not to be confused with positive punishment, adding something scary to keep the dog from doing something) to deter the dog from doing undesired behaviors.
  • “Operant and classical conditioning”: Operant and classical conditioning are the two ways that all living organisms learn, and any dog trainer worth their salt should know exactly how and when to use each of these. If you find a trainer who knows how to use these two terms correctly, you know you’ve found a trainer who is knowledgeable about learning theory and behavioral science.

And the following are labels and terms to stay far, far away from when looking to hire a trainer:

  • “Pack theory”, “Dominance”, “Alpha”: Many trainers who still embrace old school (read: outdated) training methods are firmly rooted in pack theory. Pack theory is the theory that the human must assert his ‘dominance’ over the dog to remain an alpha, or the dog will get too confident and will start to try to usurp the human for the dominant position. This theory is so outdated it’s not even funny. Wolf ethologists, animal behaviorists, and dog trainers have all disproven this theory, and it just won’t die. Rest assured, your dog is not trying to dominate you, and you do not have to do anything like alpha rolls, muzzle grabs, or scruff shakes to show your dog who is boss. In fact, this will damage your relationship and may get you bitten. Stay far, far away from anyone who still subscribes to this theory. 
  • “Firm leader”: As a dog owner and guardian, you should strive to be a benevolent, loving teacher to your dog. While our dogs sometimes look to us for leadership, I have found that trainers that tend to use this term subscribe to the above mentioned pack theory. Again, be wary and ask lots of questions of anyone using this phrase but not specifically subscribing to force free methods.
  • “Traditional”: A nice word for old fashioned, outdated methods. Traditional trainers have stopped learning, and still practice training that is damaging to the dog-human relationship. No need for that.
  • “Balanced”: The  term ‘balanced’ was originally coined to mean a trainer that uses all four quadrants of operant conditioning (positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment,and negative punishment) to train a dog. A balanced trainer, by definition, is not a force free trainer because at some point they usually employ positive punishment (the addition of an aversive). I think the word ‘balance’ is appealing to us as humans, because it brings to mind moderation (everything in moderation!) and balance tends have positive connotations (balancing work and play, etc.) Don’t let the positive connotations associated with ‘balance’ cloud your judgement, a balanced trainer is simply one that has expanded their knowledge base but will still use rough, compulsory methods if they feel they can justify it.
  • “Guaranteed Results”: NEVER trust a trainer that guarantees results. Dogs are living animals. Not computers to be updated. Every living thing has a different brain, a different history, different levels of hormones and cortisol in their system. To guarantee something you must be able to predict, and that is simply not possible with a dog or any other living thing. 
  • “Immediate Results”: Another term that should send off major alarm bells. The only kind of training that will produce immediate results when working with a living animal is the suppression of a problem behavior, typically suppressed using pain and fear. True behavior modification takes time and consistency, and anyone promising anything else is looking to make a quick buck using unreliable methods that will fail in time.

So there’s that! It’s not easy to find a reliable, committed, science based trainer, but if you look for membership in associations that help to continue education, certification by the CCPDT, and keep an eye out for those buzzwords, you will be able to categorize trainers in no time. Your dog will appreciate the fact that you looked for someone who will help to strengthen and deepen your relationship, rather than damage it using fear and force. 

                                                 

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Some Thoughts on Mourning a Best Friend

It’s no secret that the hardest part of having animals in our lives is that usually, at some point, we have to say goodbye to them. It’s an all too unfortunate truth that dogs don’t live nearly as long as we’d wish they would.  And when we must say goodbye, we’re left feeling lonely and sad, with a major part of our heart missing.IMG_0976

I said goodbye to my girl Maxi the morning of May 26th, at 10:30 am, after twelve years of companionship, and unconditional love, and a true appreciation of Cloudstar’s buddy biscuits, like a sommelier of fine dog cookies. I find solace in the fact that she will no longer have to deal with her terrible skin allergies when they flared up in the summer, and that she won’t have to be paranoid about horseflies in Michigan. She can have as many cookies as she wants across the Rainbow Bridge, and never put on another ounce. (Being a diet coach is really hard when you’re trying to tell Beagle eyes no!)


My family found Maxi as a stray by our cabin in Michigan. Her arrival was timely, as I had just presented my parents with my PowerPoint presentation on why we should have two dogs. (That’s right, a PowerPoint presentation. I’m still waiting for my award for weirdest middle schooler ever). There was a lot of “no, we’re not taking her home” and “we’ll bring her to the shelter when we get back to Illinois”. Well, that just wouldn’t do, now would it?

Needless to say, she stayed with us, and we named her Maxi due to the fact that she was in heat when we found her. Not everyone names their dogs after feminine hygiene products, but we sure did. (WHERE IS MY AWARD?!)

Some things Maxi (affectionately nicknamed Maxipad, or simply ‘the pad’)loved:

  • cookies
  • Cookies
  • aldi’s brand beggin strips (classy lady!)
  • walks
  • sniffing
  • wrapping herself in blankets until you couldn’t find her

Things she despised:

  • Water
  • baths
  • rain
  • lakes
  • puddles
  • soggy grass
  • slightly wet pavement

I’ll never forget the way she would tiptoe when it was raining, like that would help her keep dry. Or the way she would howl to demand a cookie, and by the time she was 12 her howl was old and scratchy, like she’d been smoking doggie cigs for the last 10 years. Or how she would run to me when I got home from work, ears back, tail wagging in wide circles, howling a good old “welcome hooooome!”

A week and a half ago, one of my best friends died. She was sweet, and brave, and smart, and loved to talk and zoom around the house. She was basically a garbage disposal living inside of a dog. Sometimes she was a little obnoxious, maybe a little stubborn, but she was ours, and she had us wrapped around her little paw. She was my first rescue dog, the first dog I really trained, and despite the fact that we have no idea what the first six months of her life was like, may have been one of the most temperamentally stable dogs I’ve ever met.

I suspect that we as humans like to have our companion animals with us because they teach us how to live in the now. Despite the fact that our brains are bigger, and we have more capability for critical thinking, those big brains of ours sometimes get in the way of our own happiness. Maxi taught me every time we went on a walk together to stop, and breathe, and sniff. Enjoy life. Slow down (I’m still learning this one…) These lessons will be with me forever, and I hope to dog that the pain of losing my canine friends never outweighs the sheer joy of having their companionship for the duration of their too short lives.

So. Stop, smell the roses, eat the cookie, go for extra sniffy walks with your dog. Know that one day, even though they may have to leave you, the lessons they teach you, the memories, the pawprints on your heart, will always be there. Be proud that you gave them your all, because they sure as hell gave you theirs.

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