CAT-COT-COG-DOG

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

ONE OF THE GANG

One of the important things that I do when I work with any dog is to include him in my daily routine. My dog isn’t just an inhabitant of my home; he is my partner in pretty much everything I do. This morning for instance, I included Eco in my ironing; I am working on a craft project that requires ironing, and so when I got the iron and ironing board out, I included Eco in the activity. How might that look? It probably doesn’t look very interesting, but when I opened the closet door, Eco poked his head in and then when I reached for the iron and board, I asked him to back up and he backed out of my way. While I was setting it all up, I asked him to lie down and pointed to where I wanted him to go. I didn’t ask him to stay so when I go out the fabric that I wanted to iron, he got up and took a look at what I had in my hand. When I asked him to go back and lie down, he did. After I was done ironing, I needed to get access to my craft table and he was in the way, so I was able to ask him to change his resting place to another point across the room. When I was done with that part of my project, I need to go downstairs to get some water for the steamer in the iron and I asked Eco to heel beside me down the stairs, which he did. We worked together to get the task done. Was it strictly necessary to have 48kg of black carnivore supervising my activities? Did he contribute? Not really. But we do things together and this morning I was ironing.

 

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This is the kind of help I like to see dogs giving! The dog is obviously part of the activity, and engaged with what is happening but also has the skills to participate in a way that is not going to interfere with the activity progressing. This is what results when you have a good training relationship with your dog! Copyright: halfpoint / 123RF Stock Photo

Sometimes I do things he likes; when I take my daily morning walk, for instance, I throw his feed pan. As a big strong dog, he needed a big strong toy and the thing that worked best for him was a rubber livestock feed pan. It makes a lousy frisbee but he likes it, and he will bring it to me and suggest that I throw it for him. On a good day I can throw it about 20 metres. He includes me in his games and activities because although he doesn’t need a great big primate to amuse him, it is part of how he and I relate.

The bottom line for me is that we share our activities with one another and we each bring skills to the table that the other can ask for and respond to. This is the gift that good reciprocal training gives to me. When Eco was a baby, I did more things that he found interesting than things that I found interesting with him. I spent many hours sitting on the floor playing tug and touch, fetch and search games. As we got to know one another, I began to teach him the words for the behaviours I wanted him to do. This in my opinion is the best kind of teaching to do with a puppy; I didn’t spend so much time at that age formally asking for or prompting sit or down, but sometimes in the course of our interactions, if he offered me a behaviour I was interested in keeping, I might respond by naming the behaviour and then playing a game that Eco wanted to play. It didn’t take long for him to figure out that the names for the behaviours corresponded to what he was doing and that if he did them when I asked, I might do something he would find enjoyable.

A sad tale for me is the story of so many dogs who are not really “one of the gang”. Many of these dogs are well loved and well cared for, but they are not yet partners with their people. The people and their dogs share space and activities in parallel instead of in partnership. The thing to understand about partnership is that it is a two way street, and deep partnership involves more than simply co-habitating and ensuring that your dog has enough to eat and drink. Deep partnership means that we should be aware of one another and respond to one another in a meaningful way. That is probably the biggest reason that I train my dog.

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Informal training sessions with puppies where I engage with what the pup is interested in doing provides me with the best opportunity to teach my puppy about what being my partner is all about! We do things that the pup likes, such as tugging, and when the puppy does what we like, we name it and continue playing. Activities that set up opportunities to trade desired behaviours like sit for tug, set the puppy up to look to us for information about what is happening and being a good partner. Copyright: inspirestock / 123RF Stock Photo

Dog training is the way that I develop a language to use when I am talking to my dog. I do a lot of informal training when I include my dog in my daily activities, but I also need to develop a language that we can share to do more complex things together. If I want to take my dog into the bush and go camping with me, I need him to be able to come when called, lie down and stay off leash, go around obstacles or over them as is necessary and I need him to connect with me so that if there is a challenge we can overcome it together. This is where teaching my dog in a formal setting can really jumpstart what we do together. Sometimes exercises in a class can seem disconnected from what we do informally, but if you start to look for opportunities to incorporate your formal training into your daily life, you not only improve your dog’s overall performance in those exercises, at the same time that you create a better bond with your dog.

If you go back to my ironing exercise, consider all the times when my formal training was integrated into that informal activity. The behaviours that I used during my ironing included backing up on cue, lying down, going to place, moving from one place to another place and heeling so he wouldn’t trip me on the stairs. These are all behaviours that I taught formally in obedience classes. I think that it is interesting that when I use behaviours in context I rarely need reinforcers to maintain them. If my canine partner thinks he is doing something important to both of us, he rarely asks to be paid to work, and I think this is an important clue to successful training. When your dog feels that they are an important part of what you are doing, they are often willing to participate in the activity, and if they have learned the skills to participate, reinforcement is rarely needed.

ONE OF THE GANG

Normal

Originally Posted Sunday, October 30, 2011

I am very fortunate to see a good many dogs in my day to day life, but not all of them are normal.  There is for instance, my own very intense, military lines German Shepherd.  Nice guy.  Not really normal.  Or my Chessie.  Another nice guy.  Also not normal.  I have an intern with me these days; nice lady, with a very normal Keshond.  In fact he is pretty much the only normal dog I know at the moment.  I also have a six month old lab and a four month old German Shepherd in the house who aren’t normal either.

All of the “not normal” dogs I have really ARE normal, in the context of what I do.  Eco, my GSD, works his behind off for me doing sport.  He would be equally happy as a police or military dog.  He would be a menace as a house pet.  D’fer, my chessie works hard taking care of me as a service dog.  Similar to Eco, he would not make a very good pet.  He is altogether too intense and active to make a good house dog.  Unless you would like to know when you are anxious, and when you should take your meds and when you should get up in the morning.  These dogs have responsibilities, and they thrive on their work.

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Eco is not really normal. He is a little more than 48kg of love of life and how many bad guys can I chase. He is not “normal” in that he has been bred for an extreme form of work. In my house he is really happy but he would be unlikely to be happy in most pet owner’s homes because he is such an extremely active, interested, keen and excited dog who really likes to work. Photo copyright Sue Alexander 2010

Widget the six month old lab is a service dog in training.  He does pretty intense training on a day to day basis, and he is also doing public access training regularly.  He is a pretty responsible guy all things considered.  He might make a good pet for someone who desires to have brains and enough energy to run a nuclear submarine in one loving package of chocolate Labrador.  Friday is also a service dog in training; she is 16 weeks old and keeps us on our toes.  She has just started doing public access visits too.  I don’t think she would be happy as a pet though; just not enough structure or training or exercise for her taste.

All my dogs are pretty far off of normal.  That is just fine for me as I know that each has strengths and weaknesses, and I play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses.  That does not always work out for my clients.  My clients in the Good Dog program come to me with dogs who are not normal too; often though, the people they live with don’t recognize that their version of not normal needs some special handling.  One of the most important questions that I ask myself as a behaviour consultant is “Where would this dog be “normal”.  Today I met a sweet little dog who would be very normal as an only dog on a quiet mountain farm where she did not have to meet anyone new, or any new dogs, or climb any stairs.  Preferably in an open concept house.  The dog currently lives in a busy two story home in the middle of town.  My job is to make the compromises so that this dog can find a peaceful way to live in an environment that is alien to what he would like to live in.

In my mid twenties I worked for the federal government.  I was an agriculture inspector.  I was not a very good agriculture inspector and I didn’t like the work.  In fact I hated the job, and in that job I was extremely NOT normal.  I ended up on stress leave and when I got back, the federal government did me a huge favour.  They fired me.  They decided that I was just not the right person for that job.  I feel very lucky that they fired me; I didn’t want to do the job, I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t know enough about myself at that point to do something other than that job.  I felt stuck, like I didn’t have any choices.

For many of the dogs I meet, they grow up understanding one reality, and end up plonked down into another.  They may have the genetics to do one job, and be stuck in another.  When we look at what “normal” is for a particular dog, we can often figure out what compromises we can make to make the situation “normal” for that dog.  Unlike me, they are unlikely to get fired and end up in a better situation.  When we start to look at what would be “normal” for our abnormal dogs, we start to be able to find middle ground where we can start from.

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This is a Keeshund. In Canada, they are pretty happy and normal. In the southern United States, they are not terrifically normal! Copyright: isselee / 123RF Stock Photo

Where we can make the biggest difference in the lives of dogs is to think about what “normal” looks like in your life before you choose your dog.  Does your normal include a lot of people?  Because if it does, then no matter how much you like that guarding breed, his “normal” isn’t going to be the same as yours.  If your normal includes lots of hunting and fishing and camping, and you love the look of a greyhound, you and the greyhound are going to each have to make some serious adjustments to make that work out.  The greyhound is not going to enjoy river rafting even if you do get a life jacket on him.  And you are not going to enjoy hanging out indoors when it gets cold and rainy.  Your normal is the best place to start when you are thinking about what kind of a dog is going to fit into your life.

My intern’s Keshond is an interesting example of normal.  He is normal at the moment.  In Canada.  In the fall.  At home, in the southern United States, he really is not normal.  There, for nine months out of 12, he is not normal.  He is hot and uncomfortable in that incredible coat.  In order to live there, his people keep the air conditioning turned down as low as they can tolerate it and they walk him only at night.  And interestingly, her most recent dog is not a Keshond.

Normal

IF YOU DON’T HAVE TIME…

IF YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO DO IT RIGHT….when will you have time to fix it?

On Facebook recently a colleague brought up the issue of behaviour clients who when asked why they didn’t go to puppy class respond that they didn’t have time. We hear this regularly. Families get a puppy and then don’t have time for class, don’t have time to train, don’t have time to exercise and then they come to us when the puppy is about 8 months old and tell us that the dog is now a nuisance. Further these clients often tell us that they have limited time and resources to fix their issues.

Everywhere I go, I hear about the pressures of time, and how often we spend time doing things such as surfing Facebook and Twitter or doing things that are empty time fillers. I hear about how fast paced life is and how much we each have to do in such a busy society. Apparently the time saving devices such as laundry and dishwashing machines, computers, faxes and phones have in fact created situations where we have so much more to do in our lives that we are busier than ever. In the face of the pressures of busyness at work, social commitments and activities, exercise demands and the pull and push of taking care of ourselves, our family and our community commitments, then when you get a puppy, he can fall between the cracks of other demands on our time.

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The telephone and the computer have all been promoted as labour saving devices, and yet often they are just adding to the amount that we try and do! Your puppy needs your actual attention and he will learn quickly if you are not paying attention to him. Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

I would like to suggest that a puppy, in all of his frenetic and exciting behaviours is an invitation to slow down for a while. To put aside the busy in your life and take the time to do it right. It doesn’t mean that you have to radically change everything you do, but it does invite some reflection on how we structure our lives around change. What you do in the first 8 to ten weeks that you have a puppy will impact the rest of his or her life. Think about that for a minute. If you get a puppy, and you don’t have time to do it right in those first 8 to ten weeks, when will you have time to fix that?

Getting a puppy can be an expensive proposition in terms of money but also in terms of time. We often hear from new puppy families that they are surprised at the costs they are facing both in terms of money and time, so if you can, it is wise to prepare ahead of time. Before a puppy comes home, carve out the time you will need to spend to help that pup develop to the fullest potential. In our experience, a new puppy requires about three hours a day most days, and five hours a day every day you go to puppy class in order to be successful. Luckily those hours don’t all fall consecutively or we would not get anything done!

In the morning, right off the start, we spend about twenty minutes toileting and feeding our pups. Later in the morning we spend half an hour to 40 minutes with the pup. We repeat this at lunch and dinner and then there are a couple of hours in the evening where the pup spends time with us; we don’t count this as time we have to carve out because we are integrating the puppy into what we do instead of carving time out for things that prevent us from doing what we would normally do.

On class days we have to do all that we normally do plus drive to class, participate in class and then drive home. Sometimes we also carve out time for play dates or to invite guests over to meet the puppy, so three hours is an estimate of a normal day, not a day where we do extras. As the puppy gets older, we shift our interactions with our pups so that they are integrated more and more into our lives, but it is important to recognize that having an adult dog is still going to take an hour out of your day each day to do things like feed, water, and exercise your dog.

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Making time for your pup and your kids, without the pressure of busyness is healthy for everyone and helps to raise your pup to be who he has the potential to be! Copyright: ilona75 / 123RF Stock Photo

If you don’t have three hours a day to devote to getting a puppy, plus a couple of hours each week to take him to puppy class wait to get a dog until you have that time. Far too often what we see are nice families who want a puppy and who get one and initially spend 6 to 8 hours a day on the pup and then drop that down to an hour a day after the first three days. Sadly you cannot pack all that a puppy needs into the first three days! Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to raising a successful puppy! On the first day home, I like things to be quiet and calm for the pup. I like things to be low key so that the pup can quietly get accustomed to living in a new home with new routines and rules. When bringing home a puppy is a big to do, a party and an intense activity, and then you don’t follow that up with the day in and day out needs of the pup for structure, supervision and training, there is terrific potential for fallout.

Puppies are a lot like human toddlers. They need guidance and help to understand the world they are learning about. When toddlers are neglected, we know that grade one is much harder for them. When toddlers don’t get their basic needs for play and social interaction with children their own age, they struggle later with making friends when they go out in the world. This is where taking the time to do it right when your dog is under 16 weeks can really matter. If you don’t teach your puppy when he is young what you want him to know then when he inevitably develops problems then solving them is going to require more time and effort than preventing them.

I personally don’t enjoy the puppy phase very much. Cute just doesn’t motivate me! Never the less, when we have a puppy I take the time out of my day and I do the work that is needed to ensure that my pup will grow up to fulfill the potential he deserves. If I don’t have time to meet the puppy’s needs means that I don’t get that particular puppy. Something I think people sometimes forget is that puppies are always going to be available, but not every time that I want a pup will I have the time to meet his needs. If I don’t have time to do it right, I keep in mind that I likely won’t have time to fix whatever problems develop later.

Getting a puppy is a time where you can reflect on the fact that in our busy lives, there is value in carving out that time to slow down and do the job right from the start. Enrol in puppy class. Give yourself a few extra minutes to meet your pup’s needs. Turn off the TV, the Wi, the Xbox, the net and take that time and repurpose it to meeting the needs of the new life you are bringing into your home. The time you take and give to your pup now will mean a world of difference to his life with you forever. If you don’t have the time to do it right, plan on the time you will need to fix it.

IF YOU DON’T HAVE TIME…

WHY TRAIN YOUR DOG?

Originally posted Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I often encounter people in the general public who are interested in having a well behaved dog but they don’t want to come to class. I also encounter colleagues on a regular basis who are professional trainers who still pay to take their dogs to classes. Why is there such a disparity? Could it be how people see dog training?

The main reason that people come to my classes in my experience is that they are having a problem of some sort. Really, that is too bad. That is kind of like only going grocery shopping when you are out of food and hungry. You don’t always make great choices then; often you are so hungry and annoyed that you grab the first thing that appeals to you and you forget all about your goals and objectives when eating healthy home cooked food.

Ideally, you would plan what you want to eat before you got hungry and before you went to the grocery store, and you would only buy things that you actually want to eat. Having a dog should be a little bit like that; you should start out with goals in mind and then decide how you want to achieve those goals, and include a training class and a trainer in the planning process. I love when clients call me BEFORE they get their pups and talk to me about their plans for training. It is a lot like making a very exciting grocery list.

There are several reasons that I personally have for training my dog. To begin with, I can avoid a lot of problems by training my dog what I want him to do instead of going back later and fixing problems that have developed. One of the first things I like teaching puppies is to keep four paws on the floor when they are greeting. It is so easy to do with a young pup and it is so much fun. Far better to teach a puppy what you want him to do instead of what you want him to stop doing after he has practiced and gotten really good at the behaviour I don’t like.

 

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This young puppy is learning that having his collar grabbed is fun and that kids bring good things in an early puppy class.

 

I can also change behaviours that I don’t like and make them into behaviours I do like. I had one dog who would greet people by bouncing at about nose height. He never put his feet on you, but he sure did like to see you up close and personal. That drove many of us a little crazy. It was a behaviour we worked on often till he was about two and gave it up. I want to be clear; he didn’t out grow it-we changed it. We morphed his lovely bounce and turned it into a flying swing finish. Very snazzy! This taught him a behaviour that could earn him treats and toys and because we asked for it in a number of different contexts while teaching him to do other things when he met people, he developed the skills we wanted him to instead of continuing an annoying behaviour.

 

The third reason I train my dogs and go to training classes is that it is a ton of fun. Every week, or in my case, every day, I get to go and meet people I like and work at an activity with my dog that we both enjoy. Often I hear people complain that they wish that there was a place they could bring their dogs and do things with them; well there is! Training class is just about the only place I know of that is designed to permit you to bring your dog and do stuff with him. My dogs have tried a wide variety of sports from obedience and rally to tracking and protection. Structured activities that I can do with my dog are held several times a day and they are designed to help me have more fun with my dog. If you are going to a training class and the goal seems to be to see who can make you feel the most miserable about what you are doing with your dog, then you really need to re-examine what you are doing and why. There are tons of people friendly classes out there and if your class isn’t making you happy, then look for another one.

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Tugging with rules is safe and fun for people and dogs and we do this in our Levels Classes on a regular basis!

 

Training acts as a form of communication with your dog. You develop a language that helps your dog to understand what you want and you to understand when your dog needs something. You can even teach your dog a basic language to express his needs. Teach a dog to ring a bell and then ask him to do it before you take him out to toilet and it doesn’t take long for most dogs to learn to ask to go out in a polite socially acceptable manner. Teach your dog that barking will result in a trip to his crate for a period of time and it doesn’t take long for your dog to stop asking to be separated from the family. When your dog understands both what you mean when you ask him to do something and the consequences, both desired and undesired of his behaviour.

There is a saying in the music world that “perfect practice makes perfect performance” and it is equally true in dog training. When you go to training classes you get a second set of eyes to look at what you are doing and help you to practice as perfectly as possible. Little things count. Things like how you hold your leash, or where you present your treats or how you use your body are things that you might not notice, so in order to get perfect practice, you need feedback from someone who can watch you. When I am getting ready to compete in obedience or rally I always book a lesson with my coach to clean up any handling details; if it is good for the professionals, why not for the amateurs too? I think that having a coach in a class is one of the best reasons to come to a training class.

If you have never been to a training class, perhaps you don’t know about the wide variety of classes available. There are puppy classes for dogs under 16 weeks; if you start later than 16 weeks, you are heading into adolescence so you are not going to puppy class any longer. Lately we have been seeing a variety of classes popping up for puppies; pre-sport classes for people who want to try a dog sport and work on the skills necessary to develop a great sports dog. We also see early puppy classes such as our Every Puppy Deserves Puppy Class that is designed solely for dogs under the age of 12 weeks. Some schools are offering senior puppy classes for dogs between 16 and thirty weeks-they are very popular.

 

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Puppy class!  Organized chaos and loads of fun for puppies and people.

 

For adults we have family obedience classes that focus on the skills needed for a family pet; sitting, lying down and staying; going to place, coming when called and walking on a loose leash are behaviours that are often covered in these classes. Schools are now offering classes and workshops that focus exclusively on specific behaviours that people are interested in. We offer two workshops like this; one called Loose leash which is a full day about leash manners and one called Instant Recall which is all about coming when called. Family dog classes are really important in order to help develop behaviours that make dogs into better canine citizens. A well trained family dog is a joy to take to the local soccer game or family picnic.

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Leash skills workshops are becoming very common for people who want to learn a very specific skill.

 

There are also all kinds of sports classes for dogs; obedience is a formal sport much like ballroom dancing; it is precise and choreographed (no music mind you!) where teams of people and their dogs compete against one another to determine who is the most accurate to the test with their dogs. There is an offshoot competition called Rally Obedience which consists of a series of exercises set into a course that you follow and you compete on accuracy and time. Both sports can be a ton of fun, especially if you have someone to practice with and later compete with.

 

Agility is a well known sport that is great for building connection and responsiveness to you. I find that a lot of people want to try agility but few people understand the degree of commitment that it takes to be successful. Teaching the equipment is easy; you can teach most dogs all the equipment in less than a day. What you cannot do is teach accuracy, speed, responsiveness and handling in a day; that is what takes time and effort and that is what attracts so many people to the sport; the intricacies of the training.

 

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D’fer works on targetting the yellow part of the teeter in agility.  Agility is loads of fun and can require a very high level of training with lots of dedication that yeilds a great connection and responsiveness!

 

There is also flyball, Treibball, tracking, herding, carting, protection, nose work, and recreational search and rescue. The advantage of training for sports is that you have a goal to achieve with your dog. You also get to meet cool dog people, and learn more about yourself, your dog, how to change behaviour and what dog body language means. Top that off with internet chat groups, facebook pages and endless blogs about your favourite sports and you can fill every hour of the day with dog sport information.

 

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Eco and I loved playing treibball!

 

Finally there are courses, seminars and workshops dedicated to work that your dog can do such as assisting you with a disability or delivering therapy programs. These programs focus on the manners your dog needs to have in order to visit public places that dogs don’t normally attend. These courses address issues such as leaving items that they come across on the floor, keeping their leashes loose, staying in one place for long periods of time and allowing everyone to handle them with dignity and calm.

 

If you have a dog and you have not taken a training class I challenge you to give one a try. Most of us in the training business love to help people to learn about our passion and we are interested in learning about your goals for your dog and helping you get there. And if you have taken a class but you aren’t taking one at the moment, consider revisiting class and trying something new. There is nothing I can recommend more highly to make your relationship with your dog better, while having a great time.

WHY TRAIN YOUR DOG?