RESPONSIBILITY ON THE TRAIL

At Dogs in the Park, we encourage everyone to use the local trail systems to responsibly exercise their dogs OFF LEASH.  Why you might ask?  For a whole pile of reasons!  To begin with, off leash exercise is much more effective at burning off energy for dogs as it allows them to move in ways that are normal and natural; fast at first, and then slow; suddenly stopping to sniff and taking off again in a hurry, on no one’s agenda other than their own.  And what about the opportunity to play?  Play cannot happen when you are constrained by a line that limits where you can go and what you can do!  Off leash exercise, in a trained dog is a joy to behold and energizing to experience, but you do have a responsibility to be aware of the risks before you start.

 

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Walking with my dogs on the trail is a special thing that I get to do on a regular basis with dogs.  In order to do so successfully, I have to take a number of factors into account.

 

The first risk to consider of course is the environment.  Is it a safe environment for your dog to be in?  When trail walking you should know your terrain and you should avoid areas that may be difficult for your dog.  Some of these things include (but are not limited to!) cliffs (yes, I have watched a dog run right over a cliff and although he was not injured, he could well have been), water (heavily coated breeds are especially at risk of drowning if they are waterlogged), heat, cold and toxic plants are all things to consider when choosing where you walk your dog.

Next, you should consider your dog’s age and training.  Young dogs, under 16 weeks rarely stray; they are busy staying with the group and keeping up.  This is the very best time to train your dog to come when called and to follow where you lead; in fact I wrote a whole blog on that at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/off-leash/.  Older dogs need to prove to me that they will come when called, and that only happens when I have trained the dogs to do that. 

Thirdly, you need to consider the traffic risks that you will encounter.  No one would intentionally allow their dogs to rush into the road and get hit by a moving vehicle, but there are other sorts of traffic to consider; you need to think about off road traffic such as snow mobiles and ATVs.  Often, these vehicles are the ones that break the trails we use when we are walking our dogs.  This means that we need to keep in mind the risks we face when we are out on the trails, especially when there are corners and intersections.  I never recommend wearing ear phones when out on the trails because you never know when you might be faced with an oncoming moving vehicle.

Wildlife often follow regular travel lines, much as motor vehicles do, and you should get to know the habits of the animals that you may encounter.  Locally, I am aware of the game trails left by deer, coyotes and raccoons; the three species of wildlife I would prefer my dogs did not interact with.  All three of these animals leave clear marks on the ground where they have been.  It makes my walk much more interesting to keep an eye out for new trails and see how often established trails are being used.  When I know that wildlife is especially abundant, I may chose that location to leash up and do some on leash training in the middle of my walk; this makes the wildlife itself the cue to the dog that some training fun is about to happen, and that can lead to a dog who comes to me instead of chases after a scent when they encounter a wild animal.  THAT is worth its weight in gold!

 

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Paying attention to the wildlife around you can lead to magic moments where you get to see animals that you might not if you are wool gathering!  It also provides an opportunity to choose a regular place to put your dog on leash and just practice some training exercises.  

 

Perhaps the final thing I want to consider when I am choosing a trail is the other trail users on that particular trail.  Often I will explore a trail without my dog before walking with him.  This gives me a chance to find out what the culture is of a particular trail.  Is it inhabited mostly by serious hikers wearing packs and carrying binoculars?  Are they birders?  Then I won’t bring my dogs along and interrupt their fun!  Is it mostly full of families with toddlers?  Again, then it is not my first choice for walking.  Is there a known aggressive dog who regularly walks there?  If I hear about this, then I will avoid the area.  

My ideal walking trail is one where dog walkers are common, and there is little to no poison ivy (few people realize that the oil on poison ivy can transfer to them via their dog’s coats).  It will have polite walkers who pick up after their dogs, and who don’t litter.  I like trails with some variety in terrain, and that have some water for the dogs to use to cool off.  I like trails that have a parking area away from the main road, but not too far away as those often have poor driveways with lots of potholes.

As a final word, I would like to mention what I keep an eye out for when I see other dog walkers.  If the other walkers leash up their dogs, I leash up mine.  There is nothing worse than having a dog who needs to be on leash harassed by someone’s off leash dog who “just wants to say hi”.  It is a small thing, but if you encounter an on leash dog, either down your dog or dogs, so that they can pass by, or leash up and avoid any issues.  If the other dogs are off leash, I will determine if their dogs are friendly by observing their behaviour.  Friendly dogs approach in a loose arc or S pattern, and they are frisking along moving sort of like a Rocking Horse, with their front end up and then their back end up.  Unfriendly dogs often move in straight flat lines, often very quickly.  Sometimes it is too late to do anything by the time that I recognize that the other dogs are on their way, but often I can intervene by getting my dogs to lie down and stay and then stepping in between the oncoming dog and passively splitting the interaction.  If that is not safe, I will try tricks such as throwing food at the oncoming dog, and calling to their owner for help.  In a pinch, throwing my car keys down between the unknown dogs and my dogs can interrupt a dog rushing in.  Always though, I want to make sure that my dogs are in a down position where I know that I can take steps to protect their best interests.

RESPONSIBILITY ON THE TRAIL

THEY DO IT TO GET ATTENTION

Originally published in June 2013

I had lunch with a colleague the other day and we got to talking about attending to behaviours, applied behaviour analysis and reinforcing with attention.  She works with children and I work with dogs.  How often do we hear parents, teachers and other adults talking about children misbehaving because it gets them attention?  We hear the same thing in the field of dog training.  “He is just doing it to get your attention” is a statement I often hear from my clients when their dog is doing something fairly benign that will result in a mild unpleasant consequence.

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Learners never work to get an unpleasant consequence, but if the unpleasant consequence is not a bad as being uncertain then the known unpleasant consequence may increase the likelihood of a bad behaviour happening.  Image credit: Cole123RF / 123RF Stock Photo

 

If you misconstrue the attention issue, you can completely miss what is happening when you are training.  To begin with, it is important to understand that no learner will work for the opportunity to have an unpleasant consequence.  It is also important to understand that just like reinforcers can be arranged on a hierarchy, so can punishers.  For D’fer, throwing a bumper into the water is better than throwing a Frisbee on dry land which is better than a piece of liver which is better than kibble.  There is a hierarchy of what is important to him.  Likewise, getting a dirty look is less annoying than being yelled at which is less annoying than losing a turn and being put in your crate which is less annoying than being shocked with a shock collar.  Perhaps the most annoying punishment for many learners, both children and dogs, is uncertainty.  In the hierarchy of punishers, uncertainty can be as unpleasant or more unpleasant than electric shock.

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Reinforcers have a hierarchy; out of these five things, each dog will have a most favourite, a next most favourite, a third most favourite, a fourth most favourite and a least favourite option.  Punishers or aversive stimulus work the same way.  If the choice is between going to your room or being uncertain about the outcome, many children will choose going to their room, as evidenced by their behaviour.  Dogs faced with a squirt of water in the face or uncertainty will also often choose the least unpleasant option, and choose to have water sprayed in their faces by doing the behaivour that will result on the known outcome.  Image credit: kentoh / 123RF Stock Photo

Behaviour analysis is a tool that helps us to understand how we change behaviour, and it works when applied to any learner, human or non human.  Consider the scenario of a young child who is told “If you spit at your sister, I will send you to your room”.  This leaves a huge window of uncertainty.  The question in the child’s mind is “If I don’t spit at my sister, what will happen?”  In an anxious child, the uncertainty builds and builds and builds and builds until being sent to one’s room is a relief.  When there is an unpleasant consequence to a behaviour, the learner needs to know what the consequence is for the other or desired behaviour.  If instead of framing the contingencies for a child in terms of “if you do X, this bad thing, Y, will happen” you frame the contingency in terms of “if you don’t do X, this good thing, Z, will happen” you allow the learner to make a better choice.  Now you can say to the child “if you don’t spit on your sister, we will have ice cream.”  For children who are deeply affected by uncertainty, the second statement can be very helpful.

What about dogs?  Dogs are not able to understand complex language (if/then statements for instance) so we cannot outline outcomes and contingencies.  Dogs learn by experimentation and experience.  How often a client has come in and said “but he knows that I will spray water at him if he jumps on the counters!”  In this case you have several forces at play on the behaviour.  Jumping on the counters sometimes results in a treat; even the chance to smell the roast you put there the night before can be a potent reinforcement.  The spray bottle is contingent on your timing and ability to guard the counter, so the dog is gambling that you won’t be able to get the spray bottle in time to prevent him from jumping on the counter.  Not only that, but let’s say that for this dog, being sprayed with water is annoying, but not VERY annoying.  And there is no clear picture of what will happen if he stays away from the counter.  So much uncertainty and the dog has a dilemma;  jumping on the counter may alleviate the uncertainty of what will happen if he doesn’t jump on the counter.  In this case, simply marking when the dog is close to the counter but not jumping up and then treating him away from the counter, you remove the uncertainty.

Extinction, the process of changing behaviour by waiting till the behaviour ends is a very sound practice when done well, but can completely backfire if you don’t understand the mechanics, or if you set up contingencies where there are uncertainties.  When a dog is howling in his crate for instance, and you want to wait him out, the fact is that you can only wait so long before you must let him out to toilet him.  If the first time you set up the dog to wait him out, you wait an hour, but you have to leave the house and you need to toilet the dog before you leave, so you let him out, then what you have done in effect is reinforced one hour’s worth of howling.  If the next time you try, you wait 90 minutes, and then your roommate lets him out because she just cannot stand it any longer, then you have taught the dog to try even harder, and that if he doesn’t try for long enough the door won’t open.  The next time you try you may be able to wait for two hours and in effect, you teach the dog to howl for longer instead of getting rid of the howling altogether.  The dog is left in an uncertain state of mind; what will happen if he barks?  He might get out.  What will happen if he doesn’t bark?  No one has explained that.  In order for extinction to work, you have to set up two contingencies; what will happen if the target behaviour happens, and what will happen if the target behaviour doesn’t happen.  If there is only one contingency, then there is uncertainty about the other contingency, and if there is uncertainty and then the first contingency doesn’t play out, then you have created a situation where the behaviour won’t change and the dog will remain uncertain.

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With a dog who has practiced barking for a very long time, you may need to look for a loophole in the behaviour in order to be able to change it.  Waiting this little fellow out may take longer than you can do.  Image credit: reddogs / 123RF Stock Photo

With behaviours such as the dog howling in the crate, few people have the where withal to sit out a dog who will howl for hours on end, and reward the lack of howling.  Luckily there is a loophole in this particular behaviour, and we can use that to our advantage.  In fact, most behaviours have loopholes if we look carefully.  The loophole that is relevant to crate barking is that a dog cannot bark without inhaling at some point.  When the dog inhales, we have a little tiny hole of silence, and we can mark that and reinforce.  There is another loophole too; if we reinforce barking very early in the sequence, we can teach the dog that it doesn’t take much barking to get the treat.  By interrupting the barking early and often with a reinforcer, we actually weaken the behaviour.  In effect, what we do is remove the uncertainty of the situation for the dog.  When people try and use extinction, and then they don’t follow all the way through, the uncertainty problem arises and then the dog doesn’t know where he sits and the behaviour gets worse instead of better.

When you are working with learners who have undesired behaviours, looking for the loopholes can really help you out.  The child who spits at his sister has to turn his head in order to aim.  If you mark that head turn by calling the child’s name and reward him for controlling the spit, then you are reinforcing something other than spitting, even though it was the behaviour that happens just before spitting happens.  Do that often enough and the uncertainty of what happens if he doesn’t spit goes away.  Over time, the need to mark and reinforce the desired behaviour also goes away.  You don’t actually need to reward good behaviour forever; it eventually falls into a bigger context of self reinforcing cycles where not spitting makes the learner’s sister more pleasant to him.  Looking for loopholes allows you to choose an alternative that doesn’t leave the learner in an uncertain state.

When we have behaviours happening that we don’t like, then we need to think about a number of things when we try and get ahead of those behaviours.  The first is to define what behaviour we do want.  Saying that we want the child to refrain from spitting or hitting leaves the door wide open for a child who is creative to find other ways of being socially unacceptable.  Maybe that child will try kicking, or biting instead.  Looking for the loophole like head turning, gives us a definable behaviour we can mark and reinforce.  The same is true of the dog who was want to refrain from jumping on guests or climbing on counters.  Defining what we don’t want can be a helpful starting point, but it won’t really move us forward in terms of developing a good training plan.  Stating the problem in terms of what we DO want is a really important starting point.

The next point in making a training plan to change behaviour is that if the behaviour must be stopped immediately, and you are going to choose to use an aversive, the aversive must be strong enough to work in the first three tries or you are not actually making a change.  In human learners, telling the learner the possible outcome without telling them what the outcome might be if they choose to do something other than the undesired target behaviour sets up uncertainty and uncertainty may be more punishing than the consequence that is offered.  If you are inconsistent about your contingencies in your canine learners the same is true.  The canine learner determines that some of the time a bad thing happens and some of the time nothing happens, but has no information about what will happen when they make a different choice.

Finally if you are going to actually use extinction, you have to go all the way or not bother at all.  If you have taught your dog that barking opens doors, then you are likely going to get more barking before you get less.  If you change the rule the dog will need to learn this by experience and the first thing he is going to try is not going to be silence.  Let’s say that you have a determined barker.  If they bark for forty five minutes and then you get frustrated and open the door, you have just set the bar for the next time you try extinction.  In really determined cases, you might be waiting for hours.  If this is the case, it is easy to argue that it is more humane to either reinforce shorter spells of barking, or use a very significant aversive with a solid plan for when the dog isn’t barking so that he can identify the desired behaviour.

Uncertainty is perhaps the most aversive thing I see used in training, regardless of the species, and I see it in the world of positive reinforcement from time to time.  I have seen it in dogs who are being offered as many choices as they could possibly think up to get a click and treat.  Without parameters, some dogs stop thinking about the next step and start to throw behaviours out like confetti.  This can be especially true of dogs who have been inconsistently trained in the past.  I am working with a dog right now who has been through a number of different training systems; we know he worked with a balanced trainer at one point, and he has been clicker trained for about a year now.  When we are shaping he is sometimes really anxious.  Recently, we use a mild aversive when he got too aroused and started throwing himself around and grabbing his leash.  He had a sudden lightbulb moment; don’t do THAT!  When he understood both what was going to get clicked and what was going to result in the aversive stimulus, he was able to settle down and think.  If a learner understands the outcome for both the target behaviour and the alternative, then he can make a choice.  But if one of his choices is uncertain, then he may choose the behaviour you don’t want in order to control what happens to him, because certainty is more reinforcing than uncertainty.

THEY DO IT TO GET ATTENTION

Guest Blog-Good Dog Lola!

It has been a while since I have written a blog, and I am really missing doing them.  This time, we have a guest blog from Bojan and Amy who live with Lola.  Good Dogs are often difficult to live with not because they aren’t nice dogs, but because living with a Good Dog can present a number of challenges when it comes to navigating the universe.  Amy and Bojan work really hard with Lola to work through their challenges.  Here is there story in their own words, and hopefully that will inspire me to get back to some writing soon!  Thanks for the writing folks-it is an honour to work with you and Lola!

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Lola!

Lola is a shepherd-hound mutt, and is the first dog for both my husband and I. She used to be a street dog in Greece and was brought over to Canada by a rescue agency. When we adopted her, we had a soft spot for street dogs and had never heard of reactivity, instead imagining that all dogs loved everything! As it turns out, she loves us but loses her mind over everything else, including people waiting at transit stops, people who pick things up off the ground, people in general, other dogs who are on leash, small prey, bicyclists, skateboarders, streetcars, buses, trucks, and especially kids with sticky fingers or any fingers at all. Some of our friends have questioned how seriously we’re taking things with her and have asked us if it’s really “that bad.” We usually tell them that, if it happened to them, they wouldn’t like it very much.

 

We have a protocol for everything from how to get Lola out of our seventh-floor condo (hint: it doesn’t involve the elevator) to how to get her from each of her daycares to the car. Both of us walk her together so that one person can be on look-out duty for triggers and the other person can focus on her body language. To share with you what it’s actually like trying to keep her below threshold and not panicking (i.e. barking and lunging and terrorizing) in everyday situations, here’s a breakdown of one of our recent walks. We happened to be 15 minutes late and left our place at 6:15 a.m. instead of our usual before-6:00 a.m. departure.

 

Similar to superheroes, no reactive dog’s life is complete without an arch nemesis, so our walk began with Lola’s arch-nemesis-neighbour-dog barking at us from inside their unit as we were getting Lola into the stairwell. Lola heard it and froze but disengaged when Amy cued her onwards. Not waking up all of the neighbours on our floor = small victory!

 

As we exited the stairwell into the alleyway, there was a running truck at the other end that she fixated on, so I played Look At That twice before she would move on. A male in his 30s was waiting to cross the street about 20′ ahead of us and we waited for him to go ahead. In the next alleyway, we heard some noises which made her anxious and did our emergency Oh No Let’s Go U-turn twice just in case. Lola loves this cue and thinks it’s a fabulous game of chase so she completely forgot about the noises.

 

At the parkette, there was a person waiting for the streetcar that she started staring at and we played Look At That once. After that person got on a streetcar, another woman was walking on the sidewalk towards the streetcar stop about 30’ away. Lola had a hard time disengaging as this woman was looking at her and we played Look At That while backing up a few steps at a time and she finally broke her focus.

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Teaching a dog to look at you can help them to learn to look at things away from them, and then return their attention to you. The goal should never be to create a dog who stares at you, but rather to teach your dog to look away from you and then return their attention to you. This allows Lola to spend time with Bojan and Amy out in the parks around their home.

We kept moving and got to the main park where a male jogger in his 40s passed by her field of vision about 15’ away. This was an “oh shit” moment because by the time we noticed, he was already too close, approaching her directly, and neither of us were in a position where we could easily block her without causing her to panic anyways. I tried to play Look At That but it turned out Lola could not care less as she was busy sniffing for the perfect spot to poop. With that done, we went into the baseball field to get some more space. A male construction worker walked through about 30′ away and I played Look At That until he was 50’ away. We saw a few off-leash dogs in the distance which she handled well with low arousal, although we still played Look At That since she wasn’t easily disengaging on her own.

 

Her favourite thing is to play chase, so we ran around with her and then did some obedience practice. We saw an off-leash dog about 30’ in the distance and started playing Look At That, during which she offered a down. We never cue the down so that she can choose to do it when she feels relaxed enough to and it gives us an indication of her stress levels. While we were focused on the dog, we didn’t notice an approaching construction worker who was about to pass us at about 15’ away. Both of us expected her to lunge and bark at him, but she stayed in her down. At one of the park entrances, we saw two familiar small black dogs coming in off-leash, wearing lights on their collars. These dogs have a habit of running up to everything while barking and Lola thinks that dogs who light up are aliens, so it was time for us to go.

 

We got up to leave, got to the sidewalk and saw a crowd of 3-4 construction workers who had just gotten out of a parked car on the other side of the street. She froze and I played Look At That, but a large dog on leash was approaching on the same sidewalk so we doubled back but were trapped by another on leash dog on the path behind us and a group of three people walking towards us on the sidewalk from the other direction. To add to that, a construction worker was walking towards us and cutting it too close for comfort. Lola was giving me a lot of eye contact so I was worried that she wouldn’t notice the person until they were too close and she wouldn’t have any other option but to freak out, so I played Oh No Let’s Go to get her to back up 5-10’ to a safer distance.

 

She handled all of this craziness like a champ and we tried to leave again once it cleared, but an off-leash dog that looked similar to her jogged towards Lola. Lola stopped on the sidewalk and perked up, wanting to greet, but the other owner called their dog back. She got to the end of her leash but wasn’t overly aroused, so I was careful to not put any extra tension on the leash. The other dog came back and they immediately started playing, as she doesn’t have any problems with dogs who are off-leash. The owner approached to leash their dog and ended up very close to Lola, who sniffed her from inches away. In this moment, I had to stifle my own panicked flight-or-fight response and just let things happen because any reaction from me would’ve made it much more likely for the whole thing to go south. The woman leashed her dog while completely ignoring Lola and walked away after Lola had a quick sniff. It was a huge success but my main feeling was definitely relief. I regained my thoughts enough to remember to give Lola a handful of cheese and lots of praise!

 

We had been trapped here long enough that the two small black barky dogs had completed a full circle around the park, and one of them approached Lola while barking, about 5’ away. Lola had voluntarily sat down since we weren’t moving and was unconcerned with the dog. My husband blocked the small dog from getting any closer and finally their owner was able to call it back. With nothing else scary remaining except for the group of construction workers at their car, Lola started to fixate on them and we played Look At That to get past them while on the other side of the street. In the home stretch, we also ran into an owner and an on-leash lab across the street, a 40sM walking towards us from 15’ away, and two people walking in front of the condo building, all of whom we were able to somehow avoid or manage. We got upstairs, closed our door behind us, and my husband and I looked at each other wondering what the #*@^$ just happened because in no way would we have guessed that she could handle even small pieces of that, nevermind all of it together.

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Here is Lola relaxing in the snow, getting to do the things she likes to do. One of the things that really helps a dog like Lola is to have time just being a dog and not being triggered by all the things that make her morning walk a challenge.

Let me say that I did not think taking my dog for a morning walk would be the equivalent adrenaline rush of going to a shooting range on a daily basis. It’s extremely stressful for my husband and I, but things are slowly getting better and we can only imagine how difficult and scary it is for Lola in these situations when we have a hard time just observing and guiding her.

 

On many walks since this walk, there have been similar incidents that Lola was not able to handle. We used to torture ourselves with the “Why?” question more often, asking ourselves why she was able to do this one day but not the next, but we’ve now mostly come to accept that she’s a different dog on different days and, as Sue likes to say, “It depends.”

 

 

 

Guest Blog-Good Dog Lola!

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One of the many things I love to spend time on is a good puzzle.  Word puzzles are a ton of fun!  In particular, word morphs can keep my attention for hours.  A word morph is a puzzle game where you are given a starting word, and an ending word, and you change one letter of the word at a time to come up with the end word.  The challenge is to get from one word to another in the fewest number of steps.  Often the words are somehow linked, such as cat to dog, or help to safe.  Maybe it is these puzzles that really draw me to training using shaping.

Shaping is the process in training where we start with the dog doing something and change that something into something else through successive approximations.  What that means is each training step brings the dog closer and closer to the end behaviour.  As an example, let me describe teaching a dog to approach without jumping up, as I did with a client’s dog last night.  This dog, a young exuberant labrador loves to rush up to people, and throw herself at people.  At about 30 kg, this dog is big enough to really hurt someone if she chooses the wrong person to jump upon.  This is like the starting word.

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Training is a process of steps towards a goal. If you try and take too many steps at once, you will stumble and fall back down to the beginning. When you take the process of learning step by step by step, you go from can’t to can and success with your dog. Copyright: cristianbr / 123RF Stock Photo

The desired behaviour is to have her come up to me, and keep her feet on the floor while I touch her.  In behaviour parlance, we would call this the target behaviour and I always like to break that behaviour down into the simplest terms possible.  I don’t like to use more than 7 words to describe that behaviour because the more simply that I can describe it, the easier it is to find the steps to achieve my goal.  Let’s call this behaviour “approach with 4 feet on the floor.”  That is 6 words, so it fits my desire to have no more than 7 words to describe what I am training, but you will notice that it cuts out the touching part.  By limiting myself to 7 words at most, I prevent myself from lumping too many things into one training session.

Now that I have the starting behaviour and the ending behaviour, the rest of the training session is a matter of inserting the intermediate steps.  This part of shaping requires that I let go of the idea that I am going to run the entire training show without input from my training partner.  It requires that I allow my learner to do what she wants without interference.  During the training session she may do exactly what I don’t want, and for the purposes of this example I am just going to let her do that.  I think that for some of my human students this is perhaps the hardest part of shaping.  Most of my students whose dogs jump up are so deeply appalled by the undesired behaviour that when it happens they give the dog feedback that may or may not be helpful.  Usually, the feedback they give the dog is just exactly something that will maintain or even strengthen the behaviour.  Pushing the dog down may feel like a solution but in fact, teaches the dog that you are more than happy to play a vigorous wrestling game for instance and from the dog’s perspective, yelling is just noisy barking that humans do sometimes.

Here is how the session played out.  We let the dog off leash in the training hall and she began to run around away from me.  This is not an uncommon reaction when the dog is off leash, so the very first thing I did was to set the dog up so that she was unlikely to do the undesired behaviour.  Setting up so that you get what you want is the hallmark of great training.  After about three minutes, she approached me and her person, and I clicked my clicker and threw a treat behind her.  I should mention that this dog understood what a clicker was and what it meant, so if you want to try this out, you should teach the dog that click means treat before you start.

When I clicked the clicker, the dog stopped dead in her tracks and stared at me.  For her, this was probably the first time that she had received any feedback about approaching other than yelling or pushing!  She was genuinely surprised at the outcome.  I made sure she could see me throw the treat and she took off like a shot to chase the treat.  Once she took the treat, she started to explore the training room again, sniffing the toys and finding dropped treats that had been left by previous trainers.  It took her another two or three minutes to approach us and again she approached us at a run. I clicked again and threw another treat behind the dog.  This time there was a short light bulb moment for the dog; approaching me was a safe, interesting thing to do, and it resulted in treats!  From there the dog began to approach me right away after getting her treat.  7 clicks and treats later she was coming in towards us eagerly but under her own control.  Throughout this time, I simply chatted with the client, never giving the dog directions, never micromanaging the dog, just clicking the dog for approaching, and throwing the treat away to get the dog to leave in order for me to set up a chance for the dog to return.

From that point forward, I wanted the dog to start to approach more closely while maintaining her self control.  To get her to do this, I just delayed clicking until she approached more closely.  About 10 more clicks and she was walking right up to me.  I had a little bit of history with this dog, working with her on the down stay, so she made a quick leap of logic and without any prompting or cuing or other information from me, she approached me and lay down.  I really liked that, so I clicked and threw several treats; I made approaching and lying down really, really valuable!

As I said at the beginning, shaping is a lot like a word morph game.  In this case the steps were approach, approach and stop, approach under self control, approach more closely under self control, approach and lie down at my feet.  You will notice that the learner added in something I had not planned for; lying down.  If she had added in sit, or stand and make eye contact, that would have been fine with me too; in this case, it doesn’t matter to me what she did when she arrived as long as it wasn’t putting her feet on me.  In five steps, I achieved my goal of “approach with four feet on the floor”.

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This is what my goal behaviour looks like for the labrador retriever I was working with. Knowing what I want is an important part of shaping. If I don’t know where I am going, it is going to be much harder to take steps towards that goal. It is important to be able to form the goal behaviour in terms of what I do want, not just what I don’t want. Copyright: lightpoet / 123RF Stock Photo

In order to get my goal of being able to touch this dog, I would have continued to train, clicking and treating for approaching and lying down while I first stepped towards the dog, and then stepping in and reaching but not touching, then stepping in and touching her and finally stepping in, reaching, touching and stroking her.  The important thing to notice in this case is that once the dog is doing what I want her to do, I am shaping the activity that happens around her while she is doing the behaviour that I want.  This is an important next step in most training; trainers might call this proofing.  What we mean is for the dog to continue to do the target behaviour no matter what else happens around them.

It is popular to only define shaping in terms of reinforcement training but in fact, shaping can happen in any of the four training quadrants; you can certainly use punishment to shape behaviour too.  With this very same dog we did this to keep her safe after she jumped up on a treat station and broke it.  We have small flower pots on the wall to hold treats, and like many dogs before her, she tried to jump up and use her claws to pull the pots off the wall.  She broke a pot and it would be dangerous to her to continue to do this, so we didn’t want her to do that.  When she jumped up on the wall near the pots, we called out “that’s enough”.  If she stopped right away, we would toss treats for her to clean up.  If she continued to the pot, we would call out “too bad” and then quietly and calmly catch her and put her in the classroom crate for a few minutes.  Then we would let her out to try again.  In this way, the dog learned that jumping up on the wall near the pots was a behaviour that would predict an outcome that she didn’t like very much.  It wasn’t stressful for her, it was just something she didn’t like.

It took about five repetitions to teach the dog not to jump on the walls, but that was really only the first step; we really wanted this dog to stop fixating on the pots altogether, so the next step on this shaping protocol was to call out the warning as she approached the wall.  This time she learned the game even more quickly; it took her three repetitions to decide that approaching the wall near the pot was not a desired behaviour.  From there, almost half an hour passed before she tried the behaviour again.  In this way, we had shaped the behaviour we wanted using a negative punishment protocol.

Shaping can work with extinction too.  We use extinction to teach dogs not to snatch treats until they are told.  Extinction is the process of doing nothing at all until the behaviour changes and then reinforce the lack of the behaviour.  At first, we ask only that they not touch our hand when a treat is extended towards the dog.  Then we require that they stay off the treat for a second.  Then two seconds.  Then three, five, seven, ten and so on until the dog learns that trying to get at the treat just won’t work.  We essentially teach the dog to stop trying to get the treat for longer and longer periods of time.

The important thing to understand about morphing behaviours like changing words is to make changes slowly.  If you want your dog to pay attention to you when there are other dogs in the vicinity, then don’t start in the middle of the dog park; start far away, and pay your dog for giving you his attention at whatever distance he is already successful.  Some dogs struggle so much with attending to me out of doors that I start out with just hand feeding outside my front door.  Then I take them to places in the car and just feed them in new places.  In general, if I have a really distracted dog, I want them to take treats nicely in ten places before I start asking them to do anything at all in a new place.  Then I start asking for things they will do at home on my front step or in the driveway.  From there, I take them in the car and ask them to get out of the car and do something really easy.  Each time, I pay really well for whatever the dog does what I ask.  Just as teaching the dog a new skill requires that I increase the difficulty of the skill in a step wise manner, so does working in a new environment.

Just like changing words one letter at a time, shaping or morphing behaviours is a lot of fun.  One of the biggest reasons it is a lot of fun is that if you are only changing a little bit at a time, you are going to be fairly successful in very short order.  It is a lot less fun when you try and change more than one thing at a time.  When you are training, if you are not succeeding, ask yourself if you are changing too much too fast and if you are, slow down and enjoy the success.

CAT-COT-COG-DOG

A TIRED PUPPY IS A HAPPY PUPPY…OR IS HE?

Originally published April 2013

One of the platitudes we hear over and over and over again in dog training is that a tired puppy is a happy puppy.  When I think about being tired, I think about that feeling of having lots to do and not enough time to get it done, of deadlines, of the desire to do more but the inability to do so.  Or I think about the end of a work out, where I just want a shower and to be left alone.  I don’t think about tired when I think about content.

Don’t get me wrong.  Exercise is an important component of good health for both us and our dogs.  Reasonable amounts of exercise that is.  Yesterday I took my horse out to exercise her and she was very full of herself.  We went to a new area to her, and I got out my longe line and asked her to walk in a circle around me.  This is a very common way of exercising horses and my mare is very familiar with it.  In a new place though she was very spooky and nervous and when a truck rumbled by and blew its horn she took off.  She galloped around me for a solid ten minutes, and that was before we even got really organized.  After her spook, I worked her in the other direction so that she would not get stiff on one side, and then I walked her for about twenty minutes to make sure she would be properly cooled out.  With horses we have to be very careful about keeping them properly limbered and properly warmed up and cooled out and when a spook like this happens we often end up exercising a horse more than we would prefer.  At the end of her work out, Kayak was very tired.

Today when I brought Kayak out for her daily work out, she was very subdued.  She was loose and moving well, but she was obviously tired out from yesterday’s work-out.  Today I worked her very lightly because although a tired horse can be an easier to handle horse, a tired horse is also a horse more prone to injuries.  This is true of all athletes, horse, human and yes, dog.

Often when I talk to people about the behaviour problems they are having, an interesting pattern has developed for the dog.  As a young pup, the people would see the puppy get the zoomies and thinking that their puppy needed an extra walk, they would take the puppy out for progressively longer walks.  Very quickly, the zoomies move out of the realm of an emotional response to being over tired to an operant way to get more walks.  It takes very little time for a dog to learn that racing around results in a walk.

As the puppy grows, so does his stamina and then next thing that often happens is that the puppy develops a lot of stamina.  A young Australian Shepherd is perfectly able to run hard for most of the day, regardless of the effect on his future health.  This is an active breed that was intended to move large numbers of sheep for hours on end.  The race between stamina and the amount of exercise that a young dog can absorb becomes a vicious circle where the human gives the dog exercise, and then the dog is naughty and the human gives the dog more exercise.  It is not just herding dogs like the Aussie either; I have seen this happen in spaniels, retrievers, and working breeds.  If your dog comes from a genetic background where he needed to be active, then the more exercise you give him, the more exercise he seems to need.  Furthermore, if you have been exercising your dog whenever he seems restless, you are inadvertently creating a dog who will need more and more and more exercise.

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Attempting to exercise a dog into fatigue who was bred to do this for ten hours a day is an exercise in frustration for families, but likely also for their dogs.  Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_kitzcorner’>kitzcorner / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Often the next stop on the journey of exercise junkie is dog day care.  There are great dog day cares out there, where the dogs have structured days that include rest periods and down time, but a great many dog day cares are one revolving door of activity, activity, activity.  One of my clients came in after his dog was dismissed from daycare because he was aggressive to the other dogs.  The daycare would not permit a video to be made to determine what exactly was going on, however from what we can determine, the dog would arrive around 7 am and more and more dogs would arrive until about 10 in the morning.  As the dogs arrived they were permitted to race into the day care and plough into the play group.  From ten till about two in the afternoon, these dogs would be a more or less stable group, but any time they settled down to rest, a staffer would go out and get them moving.  At two in the afternoon, dogs would start going home.  By five when my client would pick up his dog, his dog was exhausted.  When we added this dog to our play group, it was really clear that he didn’t mind rough play at first, but over time, as he tired, he would begin to build a bigger and bigger space bubble around him.  By keeping his play sessions short and not permitting him to play when he was tired we resolved a good chunk of this dog’s problem.

The allure of the dog coming home tired is very attractive to many owners of young dogs, but if the day care doesn’t make sure that the dog gets down time and rest time, then you can be contributing to a dog becoming an exercise junkie.  This leaves us with two questions.  The first is “How much is enough” and the second is “When should you exercise the dog”?

The answer to how much is enough is completely dependent on how much you think you can live with.  If you cannot live with a dog who needs 5 hours of hard exercise a day, then don’t start building up your dog’s exercise tolerance to that level.  I have a colleague in Sudbury who is extremely active with her dogs; she does sledding and hiking and biking with her dogs, and she could live with dogs who are able to tolerate five hours a day of hard exercise.  This is not typical of my students though.  If you cannot tolerate this level of exercise, then don’t get your dog up to that exercise.

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When a dog starts exercising stressed, he is going to also be stressed during exercise at least for the first while.  Look at this guys’ rounded eyes, pulled back ears and pulled in tongue.

There is a minimum though; dogs do best with at least an hour a day of off leash hiking with their people.  Not all of us have the luxury of this, but that is likely the optimal for most dogs and it is doable for more folks, so as a middle of the road guide line, an hour a day off leash is a good amount of exercise.  When you cannot give your dog this, you can substitute things like walking (not bounding!) up and down stairs, training games that involve searching for specific items or treats or learning new tasks.

The second question of when to exercise your dog is an interesting one.  If you exercise your dog at the same time each and every day, you will create a situation where your dog anticipates exercise and becomes difficult to handle because of that.  As the moment of exercise approaches, the dog becomes increasingly aroused and excited.  If you then exercise your dog he will learn that being excited and aroused predicts a walk.  When nothing else is going on, he will behave in an excited manner and then you will eventually respond by giving him that walk.  Although you may be planning your walk at a specific time, your dog may begin to think that his excitement is what produces the walk instead of the other way around.

On the other hand, if you walk your dog more or less randomly, he will begin to tune into your subtle cues that a walk is coming and you have exactly the same issue that you might in the event that you walk your dog at the same time every day.  Putting down your reading glasses and picking up your phone means that you are going to go for that greatly anticipated walk.

To avoid these common walk problems, there are a few things to do.  First, understand that puppies under 12 weeks who zoom around like small jets are probably tired and need a nap, not another walk.  When you see this behaviour, call your pup, put him in his crate with a kong or other appropriate chew and let him be for a while.  After twelve weeks you can start to give your puppy more exercise and start to build towards a level of stamina you can live with, while meeting his minimum needs for exercise.  If you have an older dog who has the pre-walk fidgets, use that as an indicator that you need to crate him till he settles down too.  When the dog is settled, you can take him out if appropriate.  We find that most young dogs conk out pretty quickly and take a nap.  Older dogs can learn that being silly and excited in the crate does not open the door.

Once you have broken the cycle of being excited and aroused before the walk, establish a routine before your walk.  Start out by teaching your dog to lie down.  Lying down is a calm and controlled position.  When your dog is down, feed him treats, one by one and then work on being able to move around the room, while he stays.  If he breaks the stay, just re-cue him and work with him on staying in a down position for ten minutes.  At about the ten minute point (sometimes 9, sometimes 10, or even 11 minutes), call your dog out of the down position and go get ready for your walk.  Work up to being able to get ready for the walk while your dog is down.  If he gets tense or excited (you will notice ears and eyes perking up), then keep working on the stay, continuously feeding as you move things around and get ready to go.  When your dog is relaxed, actually calm, that is when walks will start.

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This dog is ready to go for a walk.  He is calm and he is showing us that his face and body are relaxed.

If you work on this regularly and reliably, then what you will get is a dog who is calm before walks.  If you only walk your dog when he is aroused and excited then you are only going to have a dog who is aroused and excited, and that is not much fun to live with.  A tired dog is a tired dog.  A calm dog is usually a happy dog.

A TIRED PUPPY IS A HAPPY PUPPY…OR IS HE?

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

SO…YOU THINK YOU WANT A SERVICE DOG?

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D’fer!  My constant partner for the past 8 years or so.  So many things I would not have been able to do were made possible by this incredible dog.

Originally posted February 2013

Every week we get multiple requests from people who would like to train a dog to be a service dog.  The people contacting us are quite varied, but there are common threads of information that they are looking for.  Regardless of if you are a person with a disability, a person who knows someone with a disability and would like to train a dog to help a friend, someone who is just starting out in dog training who would like to consider working in the field of training dogs to help the disabled or someone without a disability who would like to take a pet out in public with them, you all need to know the same information.

At Dogs in the Park we are unable to help everyone who wants to train a service dog through our classes.  There are too many issues that surround service dogs that take up time in a regular training class and too few people locally to support a class specifically for service dogs.  There is enough demand however to support an annual seminar and we have now been offering such a seminar for over five years.  These annual seminars offer information both for those who are beginning their journey and those who have been training for many, many years.  We include information on access, laws, how to train your dog and tasks that your dog can do.  For this reason, we have developed this article to help people who want to train their dogs to assist them.  We are happy to respond to emailed questions on this topic but please read through the following questions and answers before emailing us and if you have a question that is not addressed then please feel free to contact us.  If you phone the office, please leave an email where we can reach you to respond to you.

Do you or the person you want to train for have a disability?

This question is the first question you need to answer before you can move forward.  In most jurisdictions, you cannot use a service dog in public unless you have a disability.  In each legal jurisdiction there is a specific definition of what a disability is.  In general, you are considered disabled if you live with a condition that limits your ability to carry out the activities of daily living.  Usually, The activities of daily living means you cannot go to school or work, or you cannot shop for your groceries, get yourself to your doctor or cook or clean.  This does not mean that you could do it, but you don’t like to, but rather that you are unable to do it.  If you do not have a disability, in North America, there is no way for you to legally take your pet with you out in public.

Do you have a condition that is best helped with a dog?

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D’fer alerting.

Dogs have been used to help people with a very wide variety of problems, from autism to diabetes to mobility issues to psychiatric illness and beyond, but in every case the dog has to DO something.  In some cases having a dog who can interpret the environment for the handler and the handler can determine if they are seeing something real helps a handler determine when they are experiencing hallucinations and when they are seeing real things.  This is a filter that the person can take everywhere with them, but it is something the dog does; it is not just something that happens.  If you cannot think of what you do will DO, but only that you would like him to be with you, then your dog is not normally permitted to be out in public with you.  If you can think of something that can be done with a dog but that can be better done with technology, technology may be a better alternative for you to consider.

Do you have a suitable dog?

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This sheltie is not a common breed used for service work, but he does a really good job!

The work of a service dog is challenging and often quite difficult.  Your dog must be able to enjoy changes of environment and footing, must be able to tolerate unexpected pats from strangers and accept grocery carts bumping into them.  They work in places that are not meant for dogs to go to, and they must do it without complaining, startling or becoming frightened.  If you have a dog who startles and becomes frightened when a truck backfires, or who barks at things like people who walk by while wearing a funny hat, then your dog is the wrong dog for the job, and you will spend more of your time addressing your dog’s needs instead of him helping you.  It is important to have someone to help you to determine if your dog is actually appropriate for the work-having a second pair of eyes to look carefully at your dog’s suitability is important.  A huge variety of breeds have been used for service work, from tiny Yorkshire Terriers through giant English Mastiffs, as well as a wide variety of mixed breeds, but each individual must be considered on his own merit.  You cannot simply say that you have had a dog of a certain breed who was perfect for service work and then randomly choose another dog of the same breed and expect to be successful.  Choosing the wrong dog is not fair to the dog and makes your job of training much more difficult than necessary.

Did your dog have appropriate early socialization?

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This young dog is learning that he is safe on a tile floor in a public atrium, before he is 5 months old.

Most dogs cannot overcome a lack of socialization and go on to become confident, happy working service dogs.  Socialization for service dog puppies means the careful exposure of the puppy to everyone and everything you expect him to cope with as an adult and it happens before the puppy is 16 weeks of age.  If your pup was rescued out of a barn at 20 weeks, you might be able to teach him to cope with the world you want him to work within, but it will not be a fast or easy job.  If your dog missed early socialization, you must realize that you will need to spend more time and energy teaching him to accept the world than you may have the energy to commit.  If you have a puppy under 16 weeks, you really should be in a good puppy socialization class.

Does your dog have the appropriate training to help you?

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Leash manners are important skills to have!  Training takes time, effort and patience and is often costly.

Service dog training can be divided neatly into two categories; public access and task training.  Public access training is all about leash manners and the ability to not touch things that your dog will encounter in public.  I like to think about service dogs as conspicuously invisible.  They must never bark at people or animals or things that startle them, or pick up food off the floor or solicit attention from the people he encounters when he is working in public.  Then your dog must also have the skills needed to help you; alerts for medical conditions, picking up items if you cannot or opening doors to let you through for instance.  It generally takes between ten months and two years to train all the behaviours that your dog will need, and until that training has occurred, your dog is not going to be helping you.

Do you require certification to take your dog out in public?

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Certification is not required in most places, but you must know the laws of your community! Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_dzejmsdin’>dzejmsdin / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

This question depends entirely on where you are.  You need to know the law where you are at any given time.  If you live in North Carolina and you visit Ontario, you would be covered by the laws in the community you are in at any given time, not by the laws of where you are from.  It is important for you to know the laws where you are living, but also the laws where you are going!

If you live in the United States, then you will not need certification for your service dog, but you may not have the right to bring your service dog in training with you as he learns.  The right to be accompanied by a service dog is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the right to bring service dogs in training is covered individually by each state.  You can find information about service dog in the Americans with Disabilities Act here:  http://www.ada.gov/

If you live in Ontario, where Dogs in the Park operates, you will need to know the information that is contained within Ontario Regulation 429/07 under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005, Accessibility Standards for Customer Service,  found at http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/source/regs/english/2007/elaws_src_regs_r07429_e.htm

If you live somewhere else, you will be governed by the local laws.  It is not the intent of this article to provide an exhaustive list of links to laws around the world, so you will have to look up your own laws locally and become familiar with them.

I have heard that my dog must be certified to have public access.  Is this true?

Please reread the above section on the law; it is going to depend on where you are and what the laws are relative to where you are.  Be aware though of organizations that will sell you certifications for your dog; most of these organizations are willing to take your money and print out a piece of paper.  You can do that yourself for the price of a little time and a piece of paper through your printer.

Where can I go to train to be a service dog trainer?

At the moment there are a few private programs that train people to be service dog trainers, but the truth is that most service dog trainers for programs come up through the ranks, working first in the kennels and then learning to train service dogs within the organization they are working for.  Other people begin privately training dogs for others based on their abilities as a dog trainer.

Where can I send my dog to be trained as a service dog?

There are a wide variety of private programs that train your dog to be a service dog, but check your references carefully and be aware of programs that claim they can train your dog in under six months.  Training a dog properly requires that dogs be allowed the time to obtain and integrate the information that they are being asked to learn.

Does my dog have to be able to do three demonstrable tasks to be considered a service dog?

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D’fer will pick up items such as his leash for me if I am unable to bend over due to my disability.

 

No.  That is the criteria that the organization Assistance Dogs International (ADI, found at http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/) has established for its member organizations.  ADI is a coalition of not for profit assistance dog organisations and has nothing to do with owners who train their own service dogs.  On the other hand, you dog must be able to do something that helps you and in many jurisdictions you may be asked to demonstrate that your dog is trained to assist you.  If you are just bringing your dog along because you like to do that or because you think it will be fun, that is not a service dog.

Will you train a dog to assist me at Dogs in the Park?

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A dog in training at Dogs in the Park

We occasionally take clients on after they have attended our annual service dog seminar.  If you attend a seminar with us and you would like us to train a dog for you, we will consider taking you on as a client.  We choose the dogs we train for our clients; if you already have a dog we will not train that dog for you.  If you would like to take private lessons with us, you can do that with the objective of training your dog as a service dog, but we will not be doing the training in that case; we will be acting as consultants only.

How much does it cost to purchase, raise and train a dog from puppy hood to adulthood?

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It can cost a LOT of money to prepare for, select and train a service dog.  Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_123frank’>123frank / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

This question depends entirely on how you go about doing that.  If you wanted us to train a dog for you from start to finish, including attending our conference, you might be looking at as much as forty thousand dollars USD.  If you are an experienced dog trainer with access to the right dog to start with, you can expect to spend as much as you might on a sport dog by the time they attain their second level of title (the equivalent of training a dog through his CDX or RX title).

My school or employer won’t allow me to bring my dog to their establishment, or a hotel wants to charge me extra for having my dog with me.  Can you help?

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We cannot provide legal advice.  Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_eric1513′>eric1513 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Sorry, no.  You need to speak with a human rights lawyer in your area.  We do not keep a list of human rights lawyers; you will need to do your own research about that.

I need to know something that isn’t listed on this page.  Can you help me?

Yes!  If you have not found the answer you need here, please email me at sue@dogsinthepark.ca with your question.  If you call my office leave an email address so that I can get in touch with you.  If you wish to speak with me on the phone, I will be happy to do so for a fee; please email me for details.

ADDENDUM:

Recently a few people are very persistent in wanting to come visit me and speak with me in person about their service dog projects.  I take on very few service dog clients each year, and I only take clients who have been to my service dog seminar.  If you want to discuss your service dog project with me in person there are two ways to go about that.  You can EMAIL me and I will provide you with details about my professional fees to discuss your project on the phone or in person, or you can EMAIL me and outline specific questions which I will respond to at no cost if the specifics of your question are not addressed in this article.  I will respond to what I consider a reasonable number of questions at no charge by email.  I will not discuss service dog projects by phone or in person until I have been paid to do so.

Over the past fifteen years, I have spent thousands of hours sharing my knowledge and understanding of service dogs with others via email and over the phone and in person.  I cannot do this any longer as I must make a living if I am going to continue to do service dog work at all.  I am able to help you with my blog and in a limited way by email, and I still contribute to a variety of email lists, yahoo groups and Facebook pages, but I can no longer spend hours on end on the phone or in person helping people for no fee.  While I appreciate how difficult it is to wade through the large picture of developing a service dog, I hope that you the reader will appreciate how I must limit my participation in your project at no charge.  I just cannot afford to do that any longer. 

SO…YOU THINK YOU WANT A SERVICE DOG?