ONE LAST TRIP?

Originally posted May 2013

I am on a train to Montreal, with D’fer my service dog.  At ten, Deef is getting to be an old man.  Late last night when I was preparing to leave, John asked if I had D’fer’s rabies certificate.  I checked his pack and we were three days overdue.  Immunologically not a problem, but Via Rail specifically requested that he have his rabies certificate available.  Not an unreasonable request, although it did throw a bit of a glitch into our morning plans.  This morning we stopped into the Woodlawn Vet Clinic and they thankfully were able to squeeze him in right away.  Thanks!

Unfortunately when the vet was listening to his heart she noticed that he has a fairly significant heart murmur.  Blarg.  At ten we have noticed him slowing down, and now we have a better clue as to why.  The murmur is a big whistle between beats.  Very worrisome.  We booked another appointment for mid month to check into this, but this probably means that this is D’fer’s last big trip.

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One of D’fer’s firsts; the first time I incorporated him into a statue.  Not the last mind you.  D’fer has posed with statues in Ottawa, New York City, a park in New Jersey.  I think he likes it.  I have quite a collection of pictures of D’fer with statues.  Great early socialization allowed him to join in with my fun and pose for pictures with everyone from Frank Morris and Buddy, the first Seeing Eye Dog team, to Laura Secord and Sir Isaac Brock.  This was a fun first.

When you have a service dog you often confront a series of firsts and a series of lasts.  I still remember our first train trip; to New York City, travelling west out of Guelph and crossing the border where the Via Staff sat down and the Amtrack stepped up.  We had several opportunities to stop and let Deef out to pee.  What a great trip.  Going through customs on the train can be a long and sometimes arduous process as the customs officers board the train and you have to fill out paperwork.  Going into the states Deef didn’t get a second look.  Coming back, the Canadian customs agents had a million questions.  Everyone was really helpful and D’fer was just about perfect.  In my memory, he was completely perfect, but I am betting that the first train trip was pretty stressful for both of us.  The hands of time really do ease off the pressure I felt at the time.

Travelling with D’fer is successful for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, he has the genetics to support the acceptance of the unusual.  He is not reactive at all and although he is interested in things, he doesn’t startle easily.  We chose a great kennel to get him from, and he is the result of a breeding program that produces stable, well tempered dogs with excellent resilience.  The few times I have seen Deef startled, he has come back down very easily.  He is relaxed and calm in most situations, and new things don’t phase him.

The second thing that makes D’fer a joy to travel with is puppy class.  At the time that D’fer was a puppy we didn’t offer puppy classes at Dogs in the Park; I was primarily offering behaviour consulting with one obedience class to meet the needs of the students whose dogs had completed our behaviour program.  We took D’fer to Montessaurus Puppy School and he was one of the last puppies who was in the founder, Jenn Messer’s classes.  What a great experience that was.  I credit what we learned in Jenn’s class with two things; it helped us to create the perfect candidate to be my service dog, and it gave John the bug for teaching puppy classes.  John is an awesome puppy class teacher and it is in part because of the passion he developed in that class.

With genetics and a great socialization program on our side, we prepared D’fer for almost anything by providing the right training to prepare him for the situations we would face.  D’fer will toilet on grass, gravel, asphalt, and most especially sewer grates.  Once, I flew into Fredericton New Brunswick to speak for the Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers.  We got off the plane and I didn’t know when I would be able to get D’fer to a toilet, so I asked him to toilet on a sewer crate on the tarmac.  I turned towards the terminal to see all the ground crew, the other passengers and the terminal staff staring at my dog-peeing on a grate has been the source of many accolades as a trainer; people seem to be extremely impressed by that.  We also taught him things like leash walking skills, a super duper automatic leave it, how to get under tables and chairs and how to pick things up for me.  About two years went into getting D’fer ready for our first train trip, our first plane ride and our first grocery store, pharmacy and doctor visits.

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D’fer where he has been for almost eight years.  This is his final trip.  I just wish it was his first, even though first are not my favourite either.

 

Most of D’fer’s firsts are long gone in our past, and now we are facing a lot of lasts.  This is likely his last big trip with me.  It is also likely his last train trip.  I am pretty sure we have already had his last airplane ride.  Likely we have also taken the bus for the last time.  We have a few more grocery stores in us, and doctor’s appointments, and I am sure he has some more picnics and trips for ice cream, but yes, I think this is his last big trip.

I have trained over twenty service dogs now.  I hate the firsts.  The first time the dog sees construction, or hears the air conditioning start and stop on trains and planes can be very tough for young service dogs.  Here we sit on the Via Train, and the lights and fans have all turned off.  I can hear the diesel engines revving up.  How will my next dog deal with this?  Friday, the dog who was destined to be my service dog is rock solid in her ability to cope, but she doesn’t love working with me.  She much prefers working with John and where possible, we allow our dogs to choose the work that suits them best.  Likely I will make several trips with Friday before all is said and done and she and I will have these firsts and lasts too.

My computer died on the train today; my fan failed, and this interrupted my writing.  Deef slept most of the day on the train.  That heart murmur sits on my shoulder now.  Is it fair to have asked D’fer to come to Montreal this time?  He looks pretty comfortable.  We met our host in Dorval, and went to dinner and did a few errands.  All day, this heart murmur has been coming back to ask me questions.  Is this my last night in a hotel together?  Probably.

After a nap in the hotel room, Deef asked to go out and I followed his lead; something that I often do when we travel.  Where ever he wants to go I follow.  But now I know he has a heart murmur.  Should I do this with him?  We tracked someone through the field adjacent to the hotel.  We walked around a big industrial complex.  D’fer found a set of open steel stairs and asked to go up.  Socialization again; he loved the challenge of new surfaces as a puppy and as an old man, he still loves the physical challenge of new footings.  We had a great walk; over gravel and turf and overgrown grass, across asphalt, and to a loading dock, his stairs and as we walked, I noticed glimmers of young D’fer; he pranced and he bounced and he explored and he showed me all the funny things to see in the land around our hotel.  I remember the firsts, and recognize that these may be the last, but the in between is what is what matters the most to me right now.  I think I made the right choice to bring him this time, and I know that even if I didn’t that walk around the industrial area that surrounds the hotel was important for him, and for us.  I am worried about this, but I also appreciate that he is doing work he has loved for his whole life, and the gifts that we give one another in our rituals when we travel.

Good genes provided a solid foundation.  Great socialization provided a great framework.  Everything else from our firsts to now, our lasts and our close to last is the magic that makes D’fer and me something special.  That foundation and framework allowed us to get on a train when he had never done that before and be successful our very first time out.  The foundation and framework allowed us to board a huge variety of airplanes and travel as far north as Edmonton, as far west as California, as far east as Fredericton, and as far south as Raleigh, North Carolina and be able to depend on one another every step of the way.  This heart murmur in a way is a first.  It is the first concrete indication that 10 is getting old for a Chesapeake.  This is a first I really don’t like.

Friday is supposed to step into D’fer’s shoes.  I could have brought her this time.  I thought about it.  I wonder if I should have.  These lasts are hard, but the firsts are harder in a way.  I chickened out, and now that I am in a hotel with a podcast playing and Deef asleep on the floor beside me, I can reflect that no matter how selfish it is, I appreciate this opportunity to have another trip together.  This is not a physically difficult trip, and as a last trip, it is pretty good.  I just wish we had a few more trips in us, and I hope that we will have good news when we next see the vet.

ONE LAST TRIP?

NEVER MIND “LEAVE IT.” “TAKE IT!”

Originally posted April 2013

This week I posted an image on my Facebook page of one of the dogs in our class doing an automatic leave it.  In our group classes, we store all of our treats on the floor in front of the dogs.  When a dog tries to snatch a treat out of a hand, we just close our hand around the treat and wait for him to ask more appropriately to get that treat.  The first thing we teach all of our puppies is that rude behaviour gets you nothing or a time out, and good behaviour allows you to ask for what you want and to get that.  A colleague commented that likely “it all has to do with the overall amortizing of value the dog has to the handler versus the quality of treats” and I disagreed.  Here is why.

When we train we use food in two ways.  Firstly as a currency to communicate what we want the dog to learn.  If we want the dog to learn to sit on cue then we “pay” the dog in treats every time he sits and then we increase our criterion so that we only pay when we ask the dog to do something.  This is a very simplistic situation and I think if we stop at that point in our use of food we short change ourselves and our dogs.  The second way we use food in training is as a joint goal that the dog and handler get to together.  I think of training beyond the basics as a maze that I am negotiating with my dog to get to an end goal.

Given that we use food in these two ways, we have to start out by teaching the dog that food has value and he can get it if he does something.  I use a tool that most modern trainers are familiar with as “doggy zen”.  I put the dog on a leash so he cannot leave, and then I hold out my hand with a treat on it, just under my dog’s nose, so that he could if he wanted, take it.  Most dogs will immediately try for the treat.  As soon as I see the dog try for the treat, then I close my hand around it.  The dog controls what happens; if he hesitates, I leave my hand open and if he tries to get the treat, I close my hand.  When I can leave my hand open for a count of three I say take it and put the treat in the dog’s mouth.  Some dogs actually try not to take the treat at all at this point, but I make sure they get it.  We usually start with REALLY high value treats.  Once the dog understands not to snatch things out of hands, we do this with items on floors, on tables, on chairs, and so on, until the dog understand that he must stay back in order to get what he wants.  And if you are paying attention at this point, you should notice something very significant about what I have not done.  I have NOT said “leave it”.  I feel that leave it is actually a big problem for many pets and their people.

I am going to switch tracks here and use a little story to explain why “Leave it” is a problem.  Imagine for a moment you have been given tickets to a very fancy event; say a play.  It is ultra swank.  It is an all inclusive, get dressed up, have your hair done, fancy live theater event, and part of the event is hors d’ouvres at intermission.  At intermission, you and your absolutely stunning date, who is equally spiffed up as you are, get out of your seats and go to the lobby.  In the lobby you will find penguins.  The guys dressed in the fancy black and white serving outfits, holding lovely trays of canapés, and little bits of cheese on crackers, and some delicious fish and strawberry thing.  And your date breaks into a run, bashes into the first penguin he encounters, grabs the tray with one hand, and with his free hand starts grabbing hands full of the food on the platter and shoving it into his mouth.  Implausible?

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It is generally considered very bad form to tackle the penguin and eat all the appetizers at a fancy party! Most of us know this and help ourselves to one or two things and leave the rest for the next people who show up!

This is how I think most dogs approach food; it is so rare and valuable and so hard to get to that when they see an opportunity, they go for it.  And what does the handler do?  “Leave it.  Fluffy, leave it.  Leave it, Fluffy.  LEAVE IT!  I said LEAVE IT!”  And then Fluffy takes the item anyhow.  Why did Fluffy disregard the human’s request?  Simply because Fluffy knows that leave it is a signal that she won’t have a chance to get what she wants.  It is in effect, a no reward marker.  It says “no matter what you do, you cannot have that”.  Leave it is the cue used in the moment to moment bits of life that you encounter with your dog to tell him that he cannot have what he wants, even though he has been minding his manners all the way along.

Going back to your date, imagine for a moment that you knew what he or she did to penguins at parties.  So as you get up you remind your date to be polite.  Your date, being the cooperative person they are agrees that this time they are going to be polite to the penguins.  You remind them not to rush the penguin.  You remind your date that everyone will get a turn.  Does this sound like a date you want to spend time with?  This is the contract that I see being made more often than not with the dogs and handlers that I encounter.

Coming back to “take it,” let’s think for a moment about a service dog.  I use a service dog to navigate the world.  When I go grocery shopping he is often faced with delicious food, right at nose level, or food on the floor.  Before we ever went out into the public, I taught him that he could have anything he wanted if he asked for it nicely, although sometimes he would have to wait.  I could not go through the grocery store and identify items one by one that he could not have.  He cannot have the soup that slopped on the floor outside the deli, or the cheese that is on the shelf at nose height or the bread and baked goods that are shelved in his reach.  He cannot have the cookie that the little boy is waving as he walks by us either.  He can ask, and I might say yes, or I might say later or I might say no.  When he was a young dog, I usually said “I have something better” and gave him a tidbit that was appropriate for him.  He asked, and I wanted to make him certain that I would listen any time he asked for something.  In that moment, I was using food at the currency to teach him to ask me for things he wanted.

Over time, I would sometimes say “later” and give him a tidbit every few times.  I would also begin cuing behaviours he really liked when he asked for things.  So if my dog asked for the crouton that fell on the floor in the bulk food aisle, I might say “not now, but if you want you can carry your leash for a moment”, a behaviour he really liked doing.  And over time, he generalized that if he REALLY wanted to have something, ask and I would listen and if I could, I might give it to him.

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One of the constant challenges of travelling with a service dog was simply that people would drop food in the train or on the plane, and my dog could not avoid either having it dropped on him or lying right next to something edible. I never had to remind D’fer not to eat things because I didn’t teach him to leave it; I taught him that nothing was available to him unless I told him he could take it!

The next thing I teach dogs when I am training is that the click predicts the treat.  I increase the time between my click and my treat to about thirty seconds, but between the click and the treat, my dog and I are working TOGETHER as a team to get to the food treat.  I start by standing right beside a table of treats.  I click, reach and treat, and then repeat.  Then I take a step away from the table, and I click and we walk back together to get the treat.  Then I do two steps and so on.  With my own dogs I will often take them out on the farm and I will click, run with them to the other end of the farm, and get a treat, and then click and run back and get another treat.  I want to increase the time between the click and the treat so that when I am working in a condition where I cannot immediately treat, everything following the click is part of the reinforcement cycle.  I once as an experiment at a conference clicked my dog for a behaviour and then left the ballroom we were in, walked down a hall, across a lobby, to the elevators, waited for an elevator, went up to the 8th floor, walked down a long hall way, opened my hotel room door, took my dog off leash, went to the bathroom and when I was finished, he was sitting by the treat bin on the dresser.  He understands that clicks predict treats and treats may come much later.  This is essential (although most dogs don’t need to be able to wait that long) to teaching a dog that they can rely on me to follow through with the treat, which is the step when food stops being a currency and starts being something we are both working towards.  We are a team.  Yes, I use treats as currency but once I have established a number of behaviours I don’t use it as a currency as much as a goal my dog and I work towards together.

I will often when I am travelling and I order food, order something for my service dog.  I order things like doughnut holes at coffee shops, and sugar cookies in delis.  Over time, my dog has learned that if I pay and put the item in my pocket it is his later.  By using doggy zen and take it instead of leave it, my dog has learned to ask.  By using clickers and delaying the treat, my dog has learned to wait.  This way I can eat my meal in a restaurant and my dog can look at the fry on the floor under the table and ask me, “can I have that?” and I can say yes or no.

What I have described above is a significant part of how we work with our students and their dogs in our classroom.  In our Levels classroom, all the students put their treats out within reach of any off leash dog.  We don’t start everyone off leash, but it comes very quickly; in under a month, most dogs can work around treat bowls and because of the philosophy, the feedback we get about this is that this carries over outside of the classroom.  See the video below for an example of a typical day in our classroom.

When you start looking at more complex situations as situations where you and your dog are working together to get to a goal, then you build relationship with your dog.  Perhaps the biggest criticism I have seen of operant conditioning is that it is about manipulating your learner into doing things for you.  Certainly it is a model that will allow you to increase or decrease behaviours, but that is just the start.  We would hardly say that a child should not learn the foundations to reading and arithmetic because in the end we don’t want him to just recognize letters and numbers.  In the end we want children to be able to grow up and use what they learn in very broad contexts.  Once I have a foundation of behaviours built on a currency, then I can use those behaviours to do meaningful activities with my dog.  Regardless of what that is, if you look at the behaviours you ask your dog to do as a joint project together that has meaning for both of you, then you don’t need the food itself to get things done, and you don’t need to wave the steak under the dog’s nose get him to do something.  When you have worked carefully at teaching your dog both that he can have what he wants and that you are working with him to get it, then you have a cooperative partner instead of a dog who is scouting the world for things that he can get if he is only fast enough to get it before you utter the magic leave it words.  And THAT is the goal of teaching take it instead of leave it!

NEVER MIND “LEAVE IT.” “TAKE IT!”

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DOG BRINGS YOU A DEAD SKUNK

Originally posted April 2013

Once upon a time, D’fer was a puppy.  He was a very happy go lucky, plucky, out of the box kind of puppy.  And he is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  D’fer’s breeder told me that she felt that chessies are more playful than many other retrievers and in the absence of legal “stuff to do” they will make up their own games.  This has proven true over Deef’s whole life.

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D’fer was a very plucky puppy!

At about nine months, my beloved dog came with me on a walk with about a dozen of my clients.  I had just started to do some serious retrieves with him, and he was working hard on “bring to hand”.  We had been working mostly with retrieving bumpers, those black and white plastic things that float, but I had given him a duck to fetch and he was doing really, really well with it.  I was a very happy dog trainer on that fateful spring day.

I remember the weather well, and how I was dressed.  I was wearing my spring windbreaker, along with a pair of leather gloves.  It was a very lucky thing that I had gloves on because D’fer chose that day to try something brand spanking new related to retrieving.  He brought me a dead skunk, at the state of decomposition where it is still recognizably a skunk, but it was past bloated and gross.  Partially dehydrated, and in one piece, Deef recognized this as “a valuable item to bring to your person”.  Which he did.  The $5000 question is…”What do you do when your dog brings you a dead skunk?”

If you are wearing gloves, you take it, and then cue your dog to your left side and you throw it and send him for the skunk again.  My students were to say the least, gobsmacked.  This was NOT what they had thought I would do!  I am not sure what they were expecting, but throwing the skunk was not on the list of things they had in mind.  D’fer on the other hand was VERY impressed.  Great game.  We played fetch about six times, and then I put the skunk and my gloves in a thorn tree and carried on my walk.

There are layers of lessons in this particular five thousand dollar question.  The first layer is “if you want your dog to be a working duck retriever, when he brings you dead stuff, find a way to make it worth his while.”  I didn’t want D’fer to decide that next time, he should hide his find and maybe roll in it.  Yes, the skunk smelt bad and yes, so did D’fer, but frankly I was going to have to bathe him anyhow, so why not capitalize on his “I brought you dead stuff” behaviour?  For the cost of one pair of leather gloves, I solidified in Deef’s mind that fetching dead stuff was just exactly what I wanted.

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An activity that D’fer found interesting.  I didn’t need to get in with him to share his joy in the activity.

In fact the next time he brought me something dead, a ground hog, I used it as a heel while carrying exercise and had him drop it and do seek backs with it.  After twenty minutes or so of THAT game, we heeled out to the deadstock pit that we kept for chickens, and I had him drop it in and then do a sit stay while we buried the groundhog.  After the ground hog burial, I got out a Frisbee and threw it in the swamp for him for another ten minutes.

The next layer to learn is that retrieving and in fact most of the things I teach my dogs to do are not behaviours in isolation.  They are behaviours that are part of activities that we do jointly that have meaning for both of us.  D’fer is my service dog.  Airports, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and city buses are not in general fun for the dog.  In fact, there is a whole lot of boring involved with the work that Deef does as a service dog, and there is not a whole lot of inherent reinforcement for doing what I need him to do.  Hours and hours and hours of heeling just isn’t fun and heeling makes up the lion’s share of what D’fer does as a service dog.  In order to make this something that he is willing to do, that he offers on a regular basis even when he doesn’t have to,

I think of the work we do together as needing meaning to both of us.  Deef has activities that he loves to do, and I integrate them into my day on a regular basis.  Deef loves meeting people he knows.  When we meet, I always make sure he gets a chance to say hi.  As a result, D’fer recognizes airports we land at, and he knows exactly who he is looking for.  When we land in New York he is looking for Cissy and Woody.  When we land in Cleveland, he is looking for Linda and Brent.  When we land at home in Toronto, he is looking for John.  The day we landed in New York and were picked up by Dennis, he was pleased to see his friend Dennis, but he was disgusted that Cissy and Woody were not there and he didn’t straighten up until we got to their house.  He travels to New York to visit Cissy and Woody, not Dennis, even though he really likes Dennis.

Making my work meaningful to my service dog has shifted my perspective on training a lot.  I recognize that D’fer’s motive for doing what we do is different than mine, but he isn’t just doing it because I reinforced him for doing it.  It has meaning in and of itself for him.  Like fetching the skunk, my motive was to get a reliable retrieve of anything, anytime and anywhere.  Deef’s motive was to play a game he likes.  Distilling this down to I reinforce behaviours I like is valuable in terms of understanding the training cycle and the process of developing behaviours, but it is simplistic in its evaluation of the overall life that D’fer and I share.  Recognizing that my dog has a different motivation than I do allows me to look for things that he might be interested in and sharing those activities with him.

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This is an activity that both D’fer and I enjoy! Looking for activities that are meaningful to both you and your dog is really important!

Having a relationship with a dog can be impersonal, like the kind of relationship you have with the guy who pumps your gas, or it can be deeply meaningful like the kind of relationship that you have with your spouse or it can be anything in between.  When all of your interactions are transactions the way that you have financial connection with the guy who pumps your gas, then you are missing the possibilities and potential for so much more.  When you recognize that your dog may have different motivations than you do and may have something of value to share with you, you deepen the meaning of your relationship with your dog, and you gain so much more.

Sharing in your dog’s interests, freely and with an open heart means accepting and understand something about the core of dogginess.  It means accepting that a skunk may be a great prize even if you don’t like it yourself.  It means that some of the time, you may have a dog who smells bad or who has done things that you find disgusting.  But it also means that when your dog shares things with you, you have a chance to expand your experiences, and often in a very good way.

There was the time for instance when I was staying at a friend’s house with D’fer.  I was packing to leave the next morning and Deef was at loose ends.  We have done recreational SAR with D’fer and it is perhaps the game he loves best.  At home, if I am working around the yard and he is loose, he will often come with a stick or a toy and sit beside me and “ask” me to throw it.  If I am able I often do.  If I am not able to do that, then I will just tell him not now, maybe later.  In the yard, when he is told not now, he will often go and carefully place the item some distance away from me.  Then he will come back and get back into heel position; the position that he starts in during SAR.  One day when he did this, I cued him to search, and search he did.  He had placed the item, but he likes games, and I observed him racing all over the farm.  He looked in the woodpile and he looked around the flower beds and he looked in the trash pile and he looked in the horse paddocks.  He checked both under and on top of the lawn chairs and the bar-b-que.  And then he finally after about five minutes went to where he had put the item and “found”.

The night I was packing to leave, D’fer came and brought me a toy and I told him that I couldn’t play then, but may be later.  He took his toy and disappeared into the hallway.  A moment later, he came back and sat in heel position.  I cued him to search.  He looked in my eyes with complete disgust.  He really was appalled.  He went to his bed and lay down and sighed.  A minute later, he came back and asked again.  Not taking the hint the first time, I sent him to search again.  He made a leap forward like he normally does on a search and then sat back down and looked at me.  Curious, I stepped forward and looked out of my room.  The toy was on the floor.  I went to the toy, and picked it up and Deef joined me doing a chessie joy dance.  Then he took the toy and shook it and bounded up and down the hall for a moment.  I went back to my packing.

A few minutes later, he came back without the toy and sat again beside me and made eye contact.  This time, I thought I knew the game, so I went out my door and looked in the hallway.  No toy.  I looked in the adjacent bedroom.  No toy.  I looked in the bathroom; there it was.  This time, Deef didn’t join me in my find.  He sat in the hall and watched me search.  He did what I normally do on a search.  I watch what he does.  When I found the toy I made a big deal out of it and brought it to him and THEN he did the chessie happy dance.

The third time he hid the toy, he hid it in the adjacent bedroom and he tightened up his criteria for what he wanted me to do.  The third time I found the toy and he looked disappointed.  By tuning in to him, and sharing in his game I got more out of the whole experience.  I learned that he wanted me to do something more, but I wasn’t sure what it was.  I put down the toy and he sat.  We stayed that way for perhaps a minute and then Deef did something I find quite remarkable.  He showed me what he wanted.  He sniffed the book shelf.  He looked under the bed.  He looked under the night table.  He sniffed the dresser.  And then he looked at the toy and sat back down.  So I followed suit.  I looked carefully at the bookshelf.  I looked under the bed.  I opened the closet.  I looked up high and I looked down low.  And then I “found” the toy.

We played this game seven or eight times.  Being willing to follow D’fer’s lead and play his game was an incredibly rewarding experience.  Deef has offered this game from time to time since, but not often.  I never would have had this opportunity if I had distilled the sum of our relationship down to behaviours I had reinforced and made stronger.  If I had not always looked for the deeper meaning in the work that we did together, I would have missed this experience altogether.  I would have short changed myself and I believe I would have short changed D’fer too.

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Traveling by public transit is pretty borng for a service dog, but sometimes it takes you to places that are really interesting for both you and your dog!

The story of the skunk in many ways epitomizes what I try and share with my students.  Yes, by all means, understand reinforcement theory and understand how learning works and teach your dog lots and lots and lots of behaviours.  More than that though seek opportunities to include your dog in your life, and share with him what you do, and then be willing to let him share with you what is important to him.  If you do this, if you are diligent in this, then when you ask your dog to do things that are difficult or boring, that may not have meaning to him, your dog will begin to look for the meaning in what you are doing together.  Not everything that your dog wants to do is yucky or disgusting; often it is the mundane. When I was touring Wall Street, D’fer caught a scent and tracked someone on concrete for over ten blocks.  By being willing to follow him, I was taken into a deli I never would have visited, I went into and immediately left a very seedy bar, and I stopped at a mailbox that would not have caught my interest.  When we got to the park on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, I was treated to the sight of boats and ferries and birds and all sorts of magic that I would have failed to notice in my effort to get the most out of visiting the financial district of New York.  By being willing to share what D’fer felt was important, when he asked for a swim in the ocean, he was willing to accept not now as a legitimate answer to his question and he was willing to continue on our journey together.  All in all there is no greater gift than a partner who will share his skunk, and all of the Atlantic Ocean with you.  My relationship with my dog is truly magic.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DOG BRINGS YOU A DEAD SKUNK

INSIDE OUT

Originally published July 2013

At the end of June, I had the great opportunity to watch the SPARCS (http://caninescience.info/) conference on the web, and heard some terrific speakers.  One of the speakers discussed the different perceptions from around the world about how people ought to live with dogs.  I want to start out by saying that I have a way I live with my dogs and it is likely different from the way that you live with your dogs and that is okay.  In fact, how I live with my dogs is actually different from the way that John, my husband lives with our dogs.  The fact is that every relationship is different and there are some great advantages to those differences.

The way that I live with my dogs is that they have time alone in their crates for eating and then they have time in their yard with each other and the rest of the time they spend with me.  If I am going out to do chores, I take a dog with me unless it would be dangerous to do so.  If I am going to have a nap, a dog accompanies me.  I use a service dog, so if I am going grocery shopping, my dog goes with me too.  In the car or the truck, my dogs are in crates for their safety.  Living on the farm, I don’t tend to walk my dogs as much as I used to, although I still do enjoy that if we have a chance to do that.  Mostly they get enough exercise accompanying me while I do things like feed the horses and check the fences and weed the garden.

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When I go to the doctor’s office or wait at the dentist, or to a cafe D’fer waits with me. Here he is alerting to an oncoming medical event. This is how we live together, but it is not the same as how others live with their dogs. Photo: Anne Munsch

In order for my dogs to do what they do with me, they must have some skills.  This is part of what drew me to training in the first place.  When I am mixing gasoline to put in the tractor or the chain saw, I cannot be chasing a dog around if he is running too close to the road, nor can I have him sticking his nose into what I do.  I teach my dogs to come when called, to lie down and stay, to lie down at a distance, to bring things back and to follow when I walk away all in order to be able to do the stuff I want to do with them.

On the surveys that the scientist speaking at SPARCS was showing, there were some marked differences in attitudes about how dogs should live with us.  In the Caribbean for instance most people felt it was cruel for dogs to be kept indoors.  In North America, it was felt to be cruel for dogs to be left outside.  In some parts of the world, dogs are kept strictly for work.  In other places dogs are kept strictly as companions.  Some dogs live free much as raccoons and squirrels live.  Which is right?  To quote the inimitable Suzanne Clothier, ask the dog.  When you ask the dog, you do need to be ready to turn the world inside out.

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This dog is typical of the dogs you might see on vacation in the Caribbean. He is quite thin, but in good coat. He is not looking at the camera and is not attached to any one person, but likely makes his living by eating left overs at garbage sites, or at the back doors of the resorts or restaurants. If you asked him, he would likely say that his welfare is good. If he is owned by a particular person, the attitude in the Caribbean in general is that dogs should not be kept indoors. The values of the people there are different than the values of the people in much of North America. Image credit: hanhanpeggy / 123RF Stock Photo

I think that if you asked my dog D’fer, he would tell you that his life is pretty good.  Meals are predictable and he knows the ebb and flow of my schedule.  He is “helping” me to write now, by lying quietly by my chair and sleeping.  Sleeping is a good thing to do if you are a dog and nothing else of interest is happening.  He has had his breakfast, he has been out to pee after breakfast, he helped me to get my morning started and supervised me making coffee.  Until I get up and do something else, he is pretty much off duty and can do what he pleases and what pleases him seems to be sleeping next to me while I write.

 

What about the dogs who are kept strictly for work?  I am thinking here of herding dogs, some Search and Rescue Dogs, some Police and Military dogs; is it fair to them that they come out of a dog run and go to work for a period of time and then go back into their kennel?  My dog Eco would like that very much.  He is intense and he loves to work hard, but he also appreciates his unstructured down time.  He is quite happy to spend more time in the kennel or the yard than D’fer is.  He was bred from police and military lines of German Shepherds, so in a way you could say that his genetics fit that kind of a life; work hard, play hard, learn hard, and then rest hard.  He is not the kind of dog who would make a lot of people happy because of the level of intensity that he brings with him.  When he works he works hard.  When he is not working, he can be in the house with us happily, but I think he is equally happy with down time alone, provided he is getting enough work.  Enough work for Eco is about eight to ten hours a day.

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When a dog spends a good chunk of his day searching for lost people, or practicing searching for lost people, then spending a good chunk of his day resting and relaxing in a low stimulation environment is probably good for him. Instead of looking at a dog in a kennel and instantly feeling bad about the dog and how he is kept ask the dog; if he is relaxed and resting, he is probably in a good situation. If he is pacing, panting, or otherwise stressed, then that is not a good situation for him. Don’t assume that a dog in a kennel is automatically unhappy; many dogs are quite happy with kennel life. Image credit: Koljambus / 123RF Stock Photo

And how about the dogs in the Caribbean who live outside?  Is that fair to them?  The consensus was that people in that part of the world felt that it is not only fair but unfair to do otherwise to them.  They live in a hot climate, and that is an area of the world where dogs are not often used for things like herding sheep.  I imagine that if you asked them, the dog would be quite happy.  One of the really intriguing things about dogs is their level of flexibility.  They adapt to a very wide range of situations and they seem to succeed and thrive in these situations.  It does not mean that every individual will succeed in every environment, but when the environment matches the background of the dog, it can work very well.  In the Caribbean, one of the most common dogs you will see is the “Potcake” or village dog.  These dogs live on the beaches, they live in the yards of people and they scavenge for food.  When they are made into pets, they have the right kind of coat and structure to live outdoors and the perception locally is that this is the most appropriate place for them.  These dogs also have skills that allow them to be successful.  They stay close to particular parts of the community, but they don’t try and push themselves into the house.  They may attach themselves to particular people and follow them around, but they aren’t usually living within the house with people.

Then there are the truly feral dogs.  More and more often we are seeing advertisements for these dogs, rescued off the dumps in the far north, or off the streets of Asia or South America or India and transported here.  In Moscow, there is a well known population of dogs who are extremely successful at using the city to find food.  These dogs will even use the subway to get from one place to another.  This report from the Wall Street Journal shows healthy dogs in good coat who are of good weight or even slightly overweight.   Where you to ask these dogs if they were comfortable and confident about their existence, I be they would say yes, they have a good quality of life.  When we capture these dogs and take them into our homes, we often decrease their quality of life at least for a time because they don’t understand the environment that they are transported to.  The skills that are required to live on a dump or to live in the suburbs of Moscow and commute in during the day to beg food from Moscovites are not the same skills that are required to live in a home with humans in Toronto Ontario, or on a farm in the north of Scotland or a sheep station in the outback of Australia.

http://www.noob.us/miscellaneous/russian-stray-dogs-ride-the-subway/

Dogs are flexible in both their ability to cope with a huge variety of environments, and often in their ability to cope with new environments.  Many dogs make the transition from one situation to another.  This is why when dogs are abducted off the streets of a city in India and transported to a suburban home in Canada, they often make the transition, even though they may have difficulty.  The dogs who are most successful at making transitions are the dogs who have two important things going for them.  The first is a genetic “recipe” for resilience.  If the dog is overly vigilant or nervous, then the dog is not going to be able to cope with the variance of environment that he will encounter.  These dogs work out in homes that are very consistent and very careful about what they expose these dogs to.  And the second thing that successful dogs have is a successful exposure to a wide variety of people, animals, vehicles and flooring during their critical socialization period in puppyhood.  As was pointed out in the SPARCS lectures, we are learning more and more all the time about when and how this developmental period occurs.  Those dogs who get a great role of the genetic dice and a good socialization period, are great not only with the skills they need in a given environment but also in new environments.

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These healthy dogs live on the street.  They look relaxed, in good body condition and good coat and they are minding their own business.  Do they need rescuing?  Is this a bad existence for a dog?  Or is this their natural environment?  If you asked the dog, would it be less stressful for him to be on the street, or to be captured, transported and then rehabbed to become a pet?  Dogs live in as many environments as we do, and thrive in those environments.  This environment is a normal environment for a dog.  Rabies vaccination campaigns and sterilization campaigns may do them good, but catching them and homing them may actually deteriorate their welfare instead of improve it.  Image credit: supereagle / 123RF Stock Photo

When we look at how a dog is living I think we need to really look carefully at the environment from the point of view of the dog.  Is the dog in the kennel actually unhappy?  How do you know?  Is he frantically trying to escape all the time?  Is he spending all day stress panting or pacing?  Is he relaxed and resting in his kennel?  How about the dog living on the 16th floor of an apartment building?  Is he happy or unhappy?  Is he relaxed for most of his time?  Is he licking his feet all day?  Or is spending all day resting or interacting appropriately with the people he lives with?  How about the feral dogs?  Are they of good weight and good coat?  Are they any less happy than the other wildlife they share the environment with?

When we look at the many environments that dogs have successfully lived within, we will find many individuals who are perfectly happy in the most unusual circumstances, and when we ask the dog, and we look at what they are doing and how they are doing it, we often find dogs who are perfectly happy living there.  When we are looking at how dogs are kept, we need to not think about how we like to live, or even how we like to live with our dogs.  We need to think about how the dog likes to live-is he happy and well adjusted in his environment, and keep him there.

INSIDE OUT

RAISING TWO IS AS EASY AS RAISING 11

 

One plus one is 2, but two ones are 11.  I remember being fascinated by this fact when I was about six.  When I was in my early twenties and doing the family budgeting for myself and my first husband I learned that this mathematical truism has practical applications.  Each of us alone needed a certain amount of money to survive but together, somehow or another pooling our assets and renting only one apartment felt like it didn’t work out as a more frugal alternative.  There seemed to be so many things that we needed that I hadn’t felt the need for as a single person.  Even simple things that seemed like they would cost less if we were buying for two often resulted in buying two brands of the same product.  Two CAN live as cheaply as eleven.

 

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Eco is the black German Shepherd and Yarrow is the White Standard Poodle. They were the very best of friends until they hit about 6 and seven months respectively. Here they are playing together when Eco was about 5 months and Yarrow was about six months.

The same is true of raising puppies.  Raising one puppy takes a certain amount of time, effort and cost.  It seems like you could only be doubling the effort if you get two dogs, right?  Plus they will keep one another occupied when you have other things to take your attention, like your children, your spouse, your home, your car or your job, right?  If only it were that simple.

 

I have lived in a multidog household for most of the past twenty years.  John and I usually each have one dog of our own, and sometimes one or the other of us will have a second dog who is significantly older or younger.  Realistically though, we try and space them out to a new dog every three to four years.  We are coming up to the time when we will be considering adding a new addition in the next year or so.  At various times for various reasons we have raised two dogs at the same time. 

When Eco was a puppy, we were raising a service dog candidate; a standard poodle.  They were merry friends who spent a lot of time bouncing around with one another.  The poodle was about a month older than Eco and for the first six months or so, he ran the roost.  He was faster, stronger and more developed.  And then Eco overtook his speed, strength and agility, not to mention that Eco cared a lot more about who got things first, who ran the fastest and who controlled access to resources such as me.

When the poodle puppy came home, we enrolled him in puppy classes (all of our pups go to puppy classes, both our own and those of other schools).  When Eco came home four weeks later, we enrolled him in different classes.  Why not put both pups in the same class you might think.  There are two reasons for not putting both pups in one class.  The first is that the older puppy needed to start sooner than Eco.  And the second is that jockeying for position that I mentioned above; in a class setting we might have had to restrain one pup while the other played in order to avoid the inevitable ganging up that can happen of these two closely aligned friends against all the other pups in the class!  So already, even though John and I were raising two pups and there were two of us, and we both went to both sets of classes, we didn’t double up on the enrolment and put both puppies in the same class.

 

Then there is the whole issue of equipment; surely with two pups, we could get by with a little less equipment, right?  Not so much.  Even with a month between the two puppies, we needed full sets of collars and harnesses, leashes, bowls, crates and beds to accommodate both puppies.  Furthermore, we had to pay for vet visits twice as often, and usually we find it is better to bring dogs separately to the vet; there is less confusion and we can focus with the vet on each dog as an individual.  That means that not only did we have to pay for two veterinary appointments, we chose to attend the vet together, with each puppy on a different day.  Considering that our vet is a fifteen-minute drive from home, that means that we had to allocate about an hour for each vet visit for each of us, and pay for an hour’s worth of gas in total to get both dogs to the vet.  In a busy family with a company, that was really quite tough! 

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2 leashes. Two head halters. Two collars. And because each of these dogs was being trained for different work, each dog had to have a whole different set of equipment. Yarrow was destined to be a service dog so he had a series of packs that he needed to use in his work that Eco didn’t need. Eco on the other hand needed dumbbells, jumps and tugs related to protection work that just didn’t apply to Yarrow.

We had to allocate time to train each dog separately and again, we tried to make sure that each of us got in a training session each day with each dog.  We also made time to walk each of the dogs separately each day.  That made for more time into this project.  John and I like to teach our dogs to trail walk, and for the most part we did that together, so we could cut down some of the doubling up on that front, but honestly we didn’t save much time, and the time that Eco (the BLACK German Shepherd) to Yarrow (the snow white Standard Poodle) swamp walking, we really wondered why we had any dogs at all!

Two baths.  Two grooms.  Two classes, two vet visits, two sets of everything.  And eleven times the mess!  We have found that when we compare raising one versus two puppies at a time, having pups one at a time allows us to get to know the puppies better and creates so much less chaos in our lives that when we can, we don’t try and raise 11 puppies at once!

RAISING TWO IS AS EASY AS RAISING 11

SO YOU THINK YOU WOULD LIKE A SERVICE DOG PART 2

Originally posted September 2013

Lately I have been inundated with requests to help train people’s service dogs.  Here is more information about how to get started in training your own service dog.  Before you go through this blog, please read the first blog I wrote about getting a service dog.

DO YOU HAVE A SUITABLE DOG ALREADY OR DO YOU NEED TO FIND ONE?

Many people email me telling me about their special dog who helps to make them feel better.  Perhaps they are diabetic and their dog always comes to them when they are about to test their blood sugar level.  Or perhaps they come and cuddle just when the person’s chronic pain becomes intense.  Perhaps you are afraid to go out in public and you hope that your family pet might help you to do this.  My question is always the same; is the dog you have suited to the work you want him to do?

To answer if your dog is suited to the work, you have to first define what work you want your dog to do.  This complex question involves looking at what you do every day and where you might include your dog.  If you are thinking about sending your dog to school with your child, you have to have a dog who is very calm and confident around the things that children do.  You don’t in fact want a dog who is obsessively friendly with children as that would disrupt your child’s school mates.  If you are looking for a dog who will accompany you to the office and alert you to alarms and sounds that you cannot hear, then you don’t want a dog who barks incessantly.

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D’fer is an example of a very rare case; he is a dog who was living in my home who happened to be suited to the work I needed in a service dog.  As a professional trainer, I had the skills to recognize his potential and then to cultivate that into a successful working dog.  This is the exception not the rule.

HOW DO I FIGURE OUT WHAT MY DOG’S WORK DAY MIGHT LOOK LIKE?

What your dog does will depend a lot on what you do.  Take an inventory of what you do every day for a week.  Include everything including bathing, brushing your teeth, cooking meals, and everything you do both in and out of the home.  Then go through your week, and ask yourself what the dog would be doing at each point you have inventoried.  If you shower with the assistance of a human aide, your dog should not be underfoot; the person can reach the soap and towel for you.  On the other hand, if you want to shower independently, you may wish to train a dog to lie calmly beside a running shower and be able to reach items on a low shelf and hand them to you.  At each step of your week, figure out what your dog will be doing.  Then you can look at if your current dog is suitable or not.  If you think your current dog is suitable, then you should get a trained professional to help you to determine if your dog really is suited.  A second set of eyes is always a great idea.  Unless you are a professional dog trainer, you really should consider getting someone else to look at what you want to do.

IF MY DOG ISN’T SUITED, HOW DO I FIND ONE THAT IS?

Hire a pro.  Really, hire someone who can evaluate the dogs you meet and match them up to the work that you do.  The person you hire should have experience selecting, training and placing service dogs.  They may or may not have worked with someone with your particular disability profile, but they should be able to help you to determine if a dog can do the work you have outlined.

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This dog took me 6 months to find as a puppy, and then two years to train.  As a training professional I need to be paid for the work I do evaluating breeds and breeders, lines and litters and selecting the right dog, for raising the puppy, for the training and training classes I provide as well as for the placement coaching I do with the person who ended up with this dog.  All of that can cost a lot.

I AM ON DISABILITY, WELFARE, PUBLIC SUPPORT OR A PENSION; WILL YOU DO THIS FOR FREE?

Here is where things start to get difficult.  I would love to be able to afford to find, train and place dogs for everyone who needs one.  I really, really would.  I too live with disability, and if I didn’t have the support of a wonderful husband,  I too would be on some form of support.  It is really hard to say no when someone asks me to help them, especially when I know how much my service dog does for me.  The sad fact is that I have expenses related to doing the work you would like me to do, I have bills to pay and I need to eat.  I cannot do this for less than what I charge.

There are programs out there that DO provide service dogs at little or no charge to disabled persons.  You can find many of them listed at the Assistance Dogs International website at ADI.org.  If you are approaching a professional trainer, it is fair to ask them for a possible budget, but it is not fair to ask them to cut their professional fees.  You put the professional into a very difficult situation when you do that; we hate to say no, but if we say yes, we won’t be able to afford to help anyone because we will be out of business.

WHAT SORT OF BUDGET SHOULD I CONSIDER WHEN I AM PLANNING FOR A SERVICE DOG?

As of this writing, the least expensive program trained dogs run about twenty thousand dollars USD and the most expensive dogs cost about $60 000.  What is the difference?  This is depending upon how many dogs the program is turning out, how much they pay their trainers, and what kind of program they run.  To train your own dog, you need to account for the cost of the dog (as low as $250 if you are very, very fortunate, to as high as $3500 if you are getting a rare breed that you have to research, find, and ship),  a professional to help select the dog (between $250-$1500), puppy classes (anywhere from $99 for six to $800, depending on location), private consultations for the first two years (about $3000), group classes (another $3000), plus food, vet care and equipment.  On the low end, that is about $8000, and on the high end, that could be about $16000.  If anything goes wrong, you may have to start all over and pay all that money again.

WHERE CAN I GET THE MONEY TO GET A SERVICE DOG?

I don’t know.  I wish I did, but I don’t.  You can talk to local service groups, churches, friends and relations and see if anyone wants to fund you or is able to donate the money to you, but sadly, there is no central place to get money for service dogs.

I HAVE THE MONEY, I AM DISABLED, AND I WOULD LIKE SOME HELP.  HOW DO I FIND A TRAINER?

There are a number of ways to find a trainer.  You can look up trainers at the Counsel for the Certification of Professional Dog Trainers at ccpdt.org and find a local trainer.  You can then contact the trainer and ask them if they train service dogs.  If they do, then please don’t tell them all about you or the dog you hope to train.  Ask them how many service dogs they have trained, what disabilities they know about, and where they learned to train.  Ask them questions about how they work with clients.  You are looking at hiring a professional, and at this point, you are interviewing candidates and looking for referrals.  If you have a child with autism, and you call me up looking for help training your dog to help him, I am in the end going to refer you to the local program that trains dogs for autistic children.  I know little about autism and would not take on a project like that.

The initial phone or email contact should be to establish if the trainer is able to help you.  If they are not able to help you, please don’t spend all afternoon telling them about yourself and your dog and your hopes and desires.  On the other hand, if the trainer asks you questions, please don’t change the subject or tell us about where you vacationed last year (yes, I had a client do that!).  Answer the question and help us to help you.  Most of us got into dog training because we like to help, and we cannot help when you are telling us things that don’t pertain to what you want to know.

Once you have found a trainer who can help you, then you need to meet and find out if this person espouses values similar enough to your values that you can work together.  Do your research.  If the trainer has a blog or a website, read that.  Don’t worry if they have mostly written about their agility career or how they do visits to hospitals; learn about who this person is.  If you work with this person then you will be spending a lot of time and money with them and you want to make sure that you have a good idea about who this person is and what they do.  The time you spend doing this research is going to pay off in the end, and may save you thousands of dollars and months of time.

Once you have found a trainer who DOES the work you need, and who seems like the kind of person you want to work with, you will need to meet with that person face to face.  Please be prepared to pay them for that time.  Many of us will waive our fee if you have done your background work and have prepared yourself for this interview, but we should not be expected to do that.  If I had been paid even minimum wage by those who have dropped in and taken up my time when I am at my office, I would be financially much better off than I am.  This is my work, and I need to get paid for it if I am going to continue to do it.

WHAT IF I CANNOT FIND A TRAINER LOCAL TO ME, OR IF I DON’T WANT TO WORK WITH A TRAINER?

If you have to be your own professional, you are going to need to grow a very specific set of skills.  There are fantastic resources on line that help people to learn about dog training and you can take advantage of those resources, but do be aware that if you are working on your own, your chances of success decrease a lot.  One of the most difficult situations is when you have a dog who is for whatever reason just intuitive enough and well enough behaved that he can do the work without any training, and then he has to retire.  This situation is difficult because the person who has this dog often doesn’t realize that the dog is not representative of what dogs are like in general.  In general, dogs don’t walk out of the womb willing, able and skilled enough to do service work.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

That depends on what route you have worked out.  Ideally, I would suggest you work with a trainer.  Realistically though you should expect that interviewing a trainer, and then finding, purchasing, raising, training and preparing a service dog for the work he will do as an adult is a three to five year project, and at any time, the dog you have may wash out.  Some sources suggest that 60% of all dogs selected wash out between the time they are selected, and they have completed the first six months of full time work as a service dog.  This means that you may end up with one or more dogs in your care who are not service dogs.

Be very realistic in your expectations of yourself, your dog, the trainer and the parameters of the disability that you live with.  It may take you longer to completely train a service dog.  Or you might get unlucky and have a medical event that prevents you from training for a period of time.  Or you might get lucky and finish ahead of schedule.  If you are realistic, you won’t be disappointed.

SO YOU THINK YOU WOULD LIKE A SERVICE DOG PART 2