WHY PLAY DOG SPORTS?

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Teaching Treibball at DogzWorth in Montreal was tremendous fun and I had the chance to reflect on a lot!  Thanks to everyone who attended and to the hosts Ally and Melody!

Originally posted May 2013

I am on the train home now, after a fantastic weekend teaching Treibball with Dogzworth in Montreal.  Great dogs, great people and a fantastic time.  AND sushi for lunch.  When I do workshops like this I often have the opportunity to visit people who are excited about a new sport or activity with their dogs and who are keen on learning new things.  I get this at our own school too, but it is interesting to see a whole group of people who are new to me and watch them develop skills and tools to become really proficient at something brand new to them.

There are a wide variety of sports you can play with your dogs now.  Obedience is possibly the oldest dog sport still widely played, where the handler and dog negotiate a series of activities directed by the judge, including walking on and off leash, allowing a stranger to pat the dog, and coming when called.  Rally Obedience is an offshoot of obedience which allowed us to be marked on the preparatory exercises that we do to train for obedience trials.  Agility is the fast sport of jumps, tunnels and obstacles.  Flyball is a relay race you play on a team of four dogs and their handlers.  The dogs race over four jumps, grab a ball out of a box and then run back and another dog goes.  There are other sports too; protection, tracking, herding and retrieving all have their own competitions.  And now there is Treibball.

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Eco was really good at treibball and although we never competed it was something we really enjoyed doing together. Photo credit: Melanie Wooley

In the group I was teaching we had a wide variety of dogs with a wide ranges of backgrounds and talents.  Of course there were a lot of flyballers and agility people there, but there was also a really talented Belgian who does obedience.  I had a great chance to reflect on what doing sport gives us with our dogs, and what in particular Treibball gives us to support other activities.

First and foremost, I do sport with my dogs because we enjoy it.  I love teaching sport because the dogs and the people are generally so happy.  Especially when I am teaching a one day workshop.  The only people who come are those who actually want to learn about what I am teaching; they are not coming to resolve a problem or to make a point; they are coming to have some fun while they learn something new with their dogs.  Some folks get themselves all stressed out about competing and many people train for the sport and play on their own to avoid this stress.  It is essential that we remember that we do this to have fun with our dogs, so if it is stressful, find another sport or find a way to play without the stress.

Secondly, dog sports, regardless of which ones, are activities that you and your dog do together.  Your dog cannot go to class without you, and for the most part, people are not going to go to dog classes without their dogs.  This joint activity makes for an interesting and fun way to connect with your dog.  If for no other reason than the connection, dog sport is something I highly recommend for people who want to have a better relationship with their dogs.  When you do sports with your dog, you have the chance to travel with your dog to places where you will meet with other dog people and their dogs.  I have spent many happy days in the company of my dogs at obedience and rally trials.  About two years ago, one of my instructors and I went to a trial together in Belleville.  She drove and I slept; I haven’t been able to live that down yet.  We had a terrific time together, cheering for one another when we won ribbons and sharing our disappointments when we made mistakes that prevented us from qualifying.  Our dogs travelled beautifully together in crates side by side and we walked together in the morning before breakfast.  Dog sports is all about relationships, both between you and your dog but also between you and the other people who play the sports with you.  At the workshop this weekend, many people knew each other from previous events and their dogs knew one another too.

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In his younger days, D’fer enjoyed agility. Here Deef is learning to run down the teeter, with his eyes closed! Photo credit: Karen Brodie

In order to play dog sports, you have to have a set of skills.  Obedience classes cover skills, but often we don’t have much context for those skills.  We love our obedience classes, but one of the reasons that our students come to us is usually because they want to solve a problem such as pulling, not coming when called or not staying when told.  When you put obedience skills into the context of a sport, the dogs and the people both get more out of the experience.  Yes, there are foundational skills to develop in order to play the games, but really, if you only ever developed the skills and never used them for anything useful what motivation would you have to maintain those skills?

As I taught the Treibball workshop yesterday, I was able to make ties between the skills we were teaching and a number of other sports.  We do a one hour down stay.  This teaches the dog to relax and to watch things around him.  Dogs who watch things carefully are tuned into what their handlers want and what is happening around them.  This is useful in obedience, rally, flyball, agility, protection, and herding.  A dog who will lie down and stay for an hour is also a dog who is easier to live with.  When you can ask your dog to lie down and stay for an hour, you can weed the garden, change the oil in your car, bring in and put away the groceries or bathe your baby all in the company of a calm and self controlled friend.

We teach a long go out in Treibball.  Distance work is a big part of a number of other sports; agility, flyball and utility all include being able to send your dog away from you.  We actually teach this in a number of ways; there is the go to mat, convenient for agility pause tables, and the go round directional control which is also useful for agility.  The dogs who understand that we want them to go away from us and DO something can do all sorts of things, either at home or in sports.  If you have your hands full and you want your dog to move out of your way, a good send out is really helpful.  In context most dogs like to do things that are difficult when taught in isolation.  If the dog doesn’t see the point of you sending him away from you, then the ONLY reason he is doing it is for the treat.  If you teach your dog to go out so that he can jump a jump or go through a tunnel, then it makes sense to him and the food becomes a quantum of information that tells him what and how, within the context of why.  Without the why, many dogs just don’t get the point and even though there may be a treat in it for them, they baulk or refuse outright.

We also teach the dog to go in the direction that we tell them to go.  This can be extremely handy when you have a dog headed to the wrong obstacle in agility, or if you want him to change directions in a search or when retrieving multiple items.  In obedience the dog who understands directionals is going to have an easier time of the directed jumping and retrieving because you can cue the dog more precisely where you want him to go.

An interesting paradox in dog training is that although we set up the situation, the dog is really the expert in how to do much of the job.  In agility, I can tell you how to handle and how to set the dog up to succeed, but it is the dog who knows where to put his feet on the teeter and when to shift his balance to make it tip.  In flyball, it is the dog who knows how far each jump is away from the previous jump and although we can teach the dog to do a swimmer’s turn and to grab the ball at just the right moment, and we control the moment at which the dog takes off, we cannot do that for the dog.  Sport forces us to let the dog do his part of the job.  There is no human fast enough to gather sheep into a group and then balance them through a gate and into another pasture.  We cannot do the dog’s job!

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It doesn’t matter if you get a ribbon when you compete in a dog sport because any activity you do WITH your dog and other like minded dog people is a win!

Conversely, the dog is ill equipped to do our job.  I like to think about dog sport in terms of me deciding what and when, and the dog deciding how.  As a partnership, my role is to make the choices and take the actions that I am suited to and my dog must be permitted to do his part of the job in the way that works the most efficiently for him.  I remember once getting some coaching from D’fer’s breeder about retrieving ducks.  D’fer had been taught how to hold a dummy and a dumbbell and he had held some real ducks, but I was having all kinds of difficulty getting him to take the duck by the body when I threw it in the field.  He would grab the duck by the wing tip and try and run back with it.  He would stop and regrip.  He had even been known to throw the duck out of his way when he was frustrated by tripping over it.  Amy suggested letting Deef figure out what the best way was to hold the duck might be.  She suggested and quite rightly so, that I stop trying to micromanage his part of the job.  We set up a couple of dozen short retrieves for him and allowed him to make all the mistakes he wanted.  At about fetch number fifteen he decided that picking up the duck by the body would work best, and he learned through trial and error, not because I told him how to do his job.  By doing my part well (directing him and allowing him to work it out) he was able to figure out how to pick up the duck (the way I wanted him to!).

This weekend’s workshop really pointed out to me how nicely Treibball can tie together many other sports and skills.  If you have a puppy, you may be reading this because you are thinking about sports to do with your dog.  There are so many benefits to playing games and sports with your dog.  As I travel with D’fer I can see how our years and years and years of demos and teaching and doing dog sports have tied us together.  I can tell him where to go and how to get there and although he may not always see the point right away, we have done so many things together that when I ask him to do things, he doesn’t ask why; he knows there will be a point to what I am asking.  This trust is a testament to the relationship we have built, together over the years.  The trust runs both ways too; if Deef tells me that I am making a mistake or if he wants to do something special, I trust that it is important to him and that I will ultimately benefit if i follow his lead.  I have rarely been disappointed when I have followed my dog’s lead.  This is what I would love to offer to every student of mine who comes in with a puppy.  A means to communicate with your dog, while you have fun and do meaningful things together.  If you are at the beginning of your training journey and you haven’t yet thought about it, try a sport.

WHY PLAY DOG SPORTS?

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?

SO….YOU THINK YOU WOULD LIKE TO BECOME A DOG TRAINER?

Originally posted in October 2010

About once a month, someone from outside of the training school calls me up asking how to become a professional dog trainer.  About twice a year, these folks are nice animal lovers who don’t own dogs!  In the spirit of helpfulness, I would like to talk about how to become a professional dog trainer.  It really isn’t any harder to become a professional dog trainer than it is to become a professional anything else.  You need a solid education in the field along with some experience, and where necessary, you need to write qualifying exams.  For example, if a doctor got the sort of call I get from a very nice person who wanted to become a doctor that I get, I imagine that the conversation might go something like this:

“Hello, this is Dr. Mike.”

“Hello Dr. Mike, this is Sally and I would like to be a doctor.  What can you suggest that I do to achieve this goal?”

“Well, let’s start with volunteer experience.  Have you volunteered at a hospital or in a doctor’s office?”

“No, I want to be a doctor now.  I don’t want to volunteer.”  Or alternatively, “Oh, I would love to volunteer in your office, doing examinations and surgery!”

Sigh!

If you want to be a professional dog trainer, likely an image such as this comes to mind; playing with a group of well behaved dogs all day long while you earn a living. That may happen, but that is only one tiny aspect of the dog industry. Most of us have to have impeccable people skills. Copyright: mezzotint123rf / 123RF Stock Photo
If you want to be a professional dog trainer, likely an image such as this comes to mind; playing with a group of well behaved dogs all day long while you earn a living. That may happen, but that is only one tiny aspect of the dog industry. Most of us have to have impeccable people skills. Copyright: mezzotint123rf / 123RF Stock Photo

This is the sort of conversation I have with people who want to be professional dog trainers.  They want to start where I finished up!  I have to admit that I started out as a dog training instructor the wrong way round, but back in the day, when I started teaching, there were few options other than the way that I started.  I started out by purchasing a dog and spending two years learning how to train her.  After that, I borrowed two dogs from a room mate and took them to classes.  I showed all three dogs in matches and trials.  A few years later, I got a second dog and trained him.  Then when my boyfriend at the time had a dog who was aggressive, I worked with that dog and started a little training club for me and my friends.  After a year of volunteer coordinating, I charged a small fee to join our classes.  I taught this way for the next seven or eight years and then I opened Dogs in the Park as a school.  By that time, I had read thousands of articles, participated on a wide variety of internet chats and BBS’s, and had read hundreds of books on the subject, as well as attending workshops and seminars to learn more of my craft.  Once the school was opened, I went back to university and took some upper year behaviour courses.  Then I wrote and passed the Certified Pet Dog Trainer exam (now the Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed exam, through the Counsel for the Certification of Professional Dog Training-www.ccpdt.org) and was grandfathered into the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants as a clinical member.  This is not how I would recommend that you go about it now!

The first thing I would suggest that you do if you want to become a dog trainer is get a good feel for what the job is.  There are two basic types of dog trainers-those of us who take dogs in to board, known widely as pro-trainers, and those of us who are actually teaching people as training instructors.  Figure out which job interests you.  There are spaces available for each type of professional, but what you want to do is going to dictate how you go about developing your craft.  Pro-trainers tend to have a specialization such as working with gun dogs, or protection or detection dogs.  Instructors tend to have a solid base of pet owners to work with and then a few clients in the upper levels of a particular discipline.  A very small number of people train medical service dogs-the demand for these dogs is very high, and thus they are very, very expensive to purchase, but the overhead for the trainers is also very high and you will find that if you want to go into this field, you need to have a very extensive knowledge of disabilities and disability related issues on top of your training and teaching experience.  Explore the field carefully before you decide what you want to do, because if you do end up in this field, you will work long hours and many days without days off to make it work.

Next, train a dog through to a minimum standard.  I don’t mean teach a dog to sit after you have asked him three times, or after you have waved a steak under his nose or when you have physically forced him to do it.  Train a dog through a title, where a third party has looked at your dog, and has determined that your dog knows all the things he must know to pass a test.  If herding is your sport this means training a dog to the upper levels in that sport and passing at least a Herding Intermediate test, not passing the Herding Instinct Certificate.  The same is true of obedience (you should be able to train a dog through Companion Excellent at least!), retrieving (Master Hunter) and Agility (Agility Excellent).  If competitive sports just isn’t your thing, then train a Service Dog from puppyhood to placement, train a Search and Rescue Dog and work that dog.  If you haven’t done work with a dog to the extent that you have taught him to do tasks and done them with him, then you aren’t a dog trainer, plain and simple.  You should try and get out to three to five events per year where you can strut your stuff with your dog, and if you can get out once a month, so much the better.

This handler is competing with his border collie.  Sending a dog away from you is difficult to train and you can see the judge's clipboard on the right side of the picture!  The judge is marking the team on their work together.  Copyright: alfredhofer / 123RF Stock Photo
This handler is competing with his border collie. Sending a dog away from you is difficult to train and you can see the judge’s clipboard on the right side of the picture! The judge is marking the team on their work together. Copyright: alfredhofer / 123RF Stock Photo

At some point, you will need to start to get experience with a variety of dogs and in front of groups of classes.  If you are someone who describes yourself as someone who prefers the company of animals to that of people, you may want to rethink working as a professional in the field of dog training.  If you are intimidated by job interviews, then working as a pro-trainer for individual dog owners is not for you-because every dog you train comes with an owner who should and often will grill you about your credentials, the dogs you have trained and the titles those dogs have earned.  If you don’t love people to the core of your being and if you aren’t willing to bend and flex and change how you do things on a day to day basis, then training service dogs probably isn’t for you either-your clients in this case will need your very best efforts at understanding how they learn, and figuring out how to make things work for them.   Service dog training is the ultimate in customer service, and the stakes are high-do your job wrong or poorly and instead of contributing to someone’s quality of life, you will decrease it.  If standing in front of a group and explaining concepts and activities and making abstract ideas into the concrete doesn’t thrill you, then reconsider being a training instructor.  So with all those caveats, where can you start to get some experience?

Borrow dogs.  There are loads of dogs in your life who would benefit from training and at this stage you don’t need to take them to classes.  Keep training notes and get commitment from the owners to allow you to work for a specified period of time.  At this point in the process, there is little to be gained from fixing behaviour problems.  Learn to teach skills before tackling behaviour modification, which is a whole field unto itself.  If you are so inclined, work with shelter dogs-but beware that you will be limited in what you can teach them due to time constraints and the limitations that shelters put on volunteers who are learning to train.  You cannot learn to teach a dog to come from two hundred metres if you are not allowed to take the dog off leash, or to leave the facility.  Some rescues may allow you to do this, but they are not all that common.  The time to work with dogs in rescue and shelters is when you know enough to be effective quickly.  It is important to respect the dogs in rescue and not use them as guinea pigs for your learning.  When I hear about people using shelter dogs to practice basic training skills when they don’t have any background, I think that we are chipping coins into a pot of disrespect and disposal-this dog is a throw away item, and can be assigned to whatever person who comes along.  Go and spend time with these dogs by all means-but don’t learn your trade on the backs of the disadvantaged.

Dogs in rescue or shelters need help, and this may seem like a great place to start practicing your training skills, but if you make a mistake and teach a dog something unsafe such as jumping up, bolting or pulling on leash, you decrease the dog's chances of being successfully placed.  Once you have some good skills, volunteering at a shelter may help you to publicize your skills, but leave shelter training until you have the skills to really help.   Some newer shelters have train the trainer programs and these can be really great if you can get into one, but good programs can be hard to find.  Copyright: adogslifephoto / 123RF Stock Photo
Dogs in rescue or shelters need help, and this may seem like a great place to start practicing your training skills, but if you make a mistake and teach a dog something unsafe such as jumping up, bolting or pulling on leash, you decrease the dog’s chances of being successfully placed. Once you have some good skills, volunteering at a shelter may help you to publicize your skills, but leave shelter training until you have the skills to really help. Some newer shelters have train the trainer programs and these can be really great if you can get into one, but good programs can be hard to find. Copyright: adogslifephoto / 123RF Stock Photo

If you have come this far with your own education, it is time to invest (yes, that means spending money!) on some more formal education.  All the way along, you need to participate in on line discussion groups, read blogs like this one, and borrow or buy books, but at this point you need to get serious.  You need to spend the money to go to seminars, to get books and training equipment and sometimes to take university or college courses.  The investment in time and effort and money will only pay dividends, even if you walk away from the seminar thinking “well, there is something I won’t do”.  When attending seminars, I strongly urge students to NOT take their dogs at least at first.  Go to the seminars, listen, take notes, record if you are allowed to do so, but leave Fido at home.  Why you might ask?  Simply because Fido is not there to learn; you are, and he is not likely trained to spend eight hours in a day hanging out at a seminar.  From the standpoint of a dog, these activities are BORING!  If you really want to give it a shot, book a private session (yes, more investment!) with the speaker after the event.  Clicker Expo is on my list of must see events for all trainers at least once, and preferably twice.  Beyond twice, I don’t think there is much to be gained.  Suzanne Clothier seminars are good too, and so is her book.  Ian Dunbar is entertaining and worth the price of admission at least once.  Beyond these three, there is such an incredible amount of information out there that it is worth researching other speakers and considering them.  You should plan on attending three to five weekend seminars a year for the first five years of your career.  Minimum.  If you can get to one a month, that is even better.

If you are starting to think that this sounds like about as much work as a university degree, you are right.  It is about the same amount of time, effort and money to do a three year degree program as it is to learn to be a professional dog trainer.  And at this point in the process I am describing you haven’t made a nickel to show for your efforts!  You should however have a broad network of professionals who have helped you, who are willing to continue to help you and who can give you suggestions about where you might like to end up.  This is the time to use that network to find a placement for your “co-op” so to speak.  You need to find someone who is willing to mentor you through assisting in classes or assisting in protraining dogs in a given discipline. THIS is the part that I missed, and it is really the most important thing you can do.  When my students had problems that I didn’t know how to solve, I didn’t have a mentor to turn to (I do now, by the way!).   You may be fortunate enough to have two or more mentors or a school you have attended to help you get even more exposure and experience.  By this time you should probably also be looking at your second dog; and you should be very picky about what you are looking for in that dog.  That dog should be your business card and your thesis paper all rolled up in one.  That particular dog should help you to move from the point of being a student to the point of being a professional.  Look for characteristics that will help you, not challenge you; because you want to be able to train that dog to the extent that you can bring him to a job interview and count on him to show off what you can do. (tip; keep notes and video of everything you do in choosing, training and developing this dog!  You never know when you may be asked if this is REALLY your work!)

You should plan on being an assistant for one to three years depending upon how much time you have to do this, on how good you are, on how much education you have and on the mentor you have.  Your goal should be to be doing elements of the end job as you gain competency.  Some people will get to that point quickly and some people will take longer.  You need a mentor who is willing to coach you and give you challenging things to do and teach and you need to devote the time to making that worth your mentor’s time.  If retrieving is your discipline, that means volunteering to chuck ducks in the cold and mud for hours at a time, in odd hours and in your spare time.  If you are hoping to become a training instructor, expect to sweep the training hall, hold leashes and check off enrolment forms.  If you are hoping to become a service dog trainer, expect to spend a lot of your time cleaning kennels, walking dogs and helping set up training scenarios.  This phase involves a lot of grunt work and some of it unpleasant but in my opinion it is an important phase of development.  I learned more about horses from the time I spent cleaning stables than I ever did during my riding lessons, and the same is true of dogs and the dog industry.

At the University of You, you get to choose what you study, who you work with, and when you are finished.  When you are done though, you can have confidence in the validity of your education because you chose what went into it!  Copyright: mdorottya / 123RF Stock Photo
At the University of You, you get to choose what you study, who you work with, and when you are finished. When you are done though, you can have confidence in the validity of your education because you chose what went into it! Copyright: mdorottya / 123RF Stock Photo

Around about this time, you need to start considering what sort of certification is going to be most helpful to you as a trainer.  The Certificate of Professional Dog Training (www.ccpdt.org) is a really good bet; it has the advantage of being administered like a board examination, and there is no single course or career path to take to get there.  The path described above will help you a lot, with the caveat that you will need to get actual teaching time on the ground under your belt if you want to take that.  Different disciplines may have other opportunities too.  Because you will be attending the University of You-you get to figure out what is going to benefit you the most.  Follow this path, and in three to five years, you too can become a professional dog trainer.

SO….YOU THINK YOU WOULD LIKE TO BECOME A DOG TRAINER?

UNRAVELLING MY KNITTING

Originally Published November  2013

Lately a few of my students have been struggling with very intelligent, high drive dogs who enjoy pushing their person’s buttons.  If you say sit, they lie down.  If you ask for got to mat, they offer a trick.  If you send them to fetch up a dumbbell, they go out, turn and face you and sit.  If you leave them on a down stay they bark.  When I work with these dogs, I can often turn them around quickly and get the desired behaviours, often to the frustration of their people.  What am I doing that their handlers are not, and why can I turn this around when other trainers cannot?  I will start with the caveat that I am NOT magic.  I just have a few pieces to the puzzle that my students often don’t have.

The key factor that I have is a better understanding of how learning works.  When we read training books, it often sounds like all learning is linear and builds upon itself.  Training plans are often presented like knitting patterns, where if you follow all the steps and you use the right wool and needles, you will get a predictable outcome every single time.  While this is somewhat true, there are a few things that we have to take into account when working on learning.

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When you are knitting a scarf from a pattern you can put the project down and nothing will likely change.  There are not knitting gnomes who come along and unravel your work or add extra bits when you are not looking.  This is not true of training.  When you are training your dog, a lot of things can change from session to session or even within a training session that can effect the outcome of your training session.  Image credit: dole / 123RF Stock Photo

The first thing to take into account is that learning is only linear when the skill set upon which learning is built is solid to begin with.  If the dog has a fuzzy idea of the foundational skills that are needed for an advanced version of the same behaviour, then he is not going to be successful at the advanced version because he doesn’t have the background to understand the more difficult work.  Think back to learning how to read; if you gave this blog to a first grader they would be hopelessly muddled in multisyllabic words, clauses within sentences and my sometimes non linear route to an idea.  They don’t have the foundational skills necessary to follow along on the sentences that build upon “see Spot, see Spot run!”

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This is a very complex behaviour that is built on strong foundational skills.  In order to get this picture, D’fer had to be able to sit and stay, to follow my cue to jump the correct jump and to look in mid air for the next cue.  If the foundation is not solid then the end goal behaviours will not be solid either.  Photo Credit:  Karen Brody

Next I also understand that success is built on success.  When you are working with a dog, starting new work cold without doing a few things he is good at means that he is not starting from a point where he has gotten a few answers right.  When I am teaching something new, I usually start by getting the dog to do something he knows well for a few repetitions, and then do the foundational work with him and then start stretching his brain with new work.  In order for learning to be a fluid process, you have to start from where the dog is at when you start the training session, not from where he was the last time you worked on the behaviour.  Learning is not like knitting that can be put down and picked up and carried on from one session to another.  Learning is a much more fluid and dynamic process and in between training sessions, learning is still happening.  Sometimes that learning may impede the next session, and other times it may help that session to move forward.

Yesterday one of my staff came over to learn more about horses and riding.  He has had a couple of ground lessons with Kiki, John’s mare (whose real name is MacKenzie), and has learned to groom her, to lead her and to mount and dismount and ride on the lunge line fairly successfully.  Yesterday I asked him to lead her unsupervised through a field to where we were going to work.  He got about fifty metres into the 200 metre walk and Kiki put her head down to graze.  Kiki is very committed to grazing.  She loves grazing.  She also knows how to walk politely for a stranger.  I coached him through the final 150 metres and he eventually got her to the riding area.  Then I took the lead rope and asked her to step forward.  After twenty minutes of starting and stopping and grazing and getting reinforced for fiddling around instead of walking forward, she was baulky and difficult to handle.  Keep in mind that for me, I can walk her through a hay mow with feed pans of grain on the ground and she normally would not baulk.  Never the less she gave me a very hard time about moving forward.  Why would she do this?  Because between the last time I walked her somewhere and this time, she had learned that stopping to graze might work and that by planting her feet she could get more opportunities to graze.  The twenty minutes that she spent with a novice handler unravelled some of the training we have already done and I had to go back and review some of the “walk beside me without pressure on the lead rope” lessons we have already done!  Often in class, the work that a student is doing may be interrupted by what they have learned between lessons.

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Kiki is a wonderful mare who will do anything for John.  She will however learn tricks and undesired behaviours in between training sessions and those tricks can be frustrating to deal with.  She can for instance learn that grazing, perhaps her favourite thing ever, is a great idea if the person leading her doesn’t prevent her from starting.  Once she has started to graze, she will often keep going for a long time, and then if John or I ask her to do something else, she may drop her head and start to eat.  What happens between training sessions is as important and sometimes more important than what happens during training sessions.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Another thing that can happen is that behaviours that we don’t want get inadvertently reinforced.  I have a number of students who click after the behaviour has occurred.  When they are working on simple foundation behaviours this can actually help them to have early success because they don’t click until the dog is firmly in the sit or firmly in the down.  When you are trying to train very precise behaviours though, late clicking means that you are clicking for things you don’t want and the dog develops the habit of fidgetting or fiddling with the behaviours until the handler clicks.  In an extreme situation what you end up with is a dog who thinks that your target behaviour is not what you asked for, but a whole string of behaviours that terminate with the asked for behaviour.  I watched a dog this week when asked to sit go through the following string of behaviours; he sat, lay down, crawled backwards, sat again, stood, barked, and then sat and held the sit for a micro second.  Then the handler clicked.  This dog is very, very smart and he is pretty sure that the behaviour his person wants when she asks for sit is this long chain, because he is reliably being clicked for it.  Not only that, but he seems to be reinforced by his handler’s frustration.  The more frustrated she gets, the more fidgety he gets when she asks for simple things.  He is a brilliant dog, but very frustrating to work with because when he doesn’t get feedback in the right place, he throws in all sorts of embellishments.  While embellishments might make for a nice sweater, they can make for a very frustrating teaching experience when the trainer has an idea in mind for what behaviour they need the dog to learn.

When I watch this particular team, I am reminded of a skit I saw once of a couple at a restaurant.  They are served their meal and when the waiter returns to ask what they think of the food, they hesitate, so he whips their plates away and replaces them with a “better” plate of food.  When he returns and asks again, the diners are not fast enough to give him feed back so he takes their plates away again and brings them back with “improvements”.  This happens six or seven times, the chef is brought out, the maitre d’ and finally the manager and the closing comment is “some people….you can never please them!”

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When trainers don’t have a clear target behaviour, I think this is how some dogs must feel; nothing they do will make the trainer happy.  Like the wait staff at a restaurant where the customer gives little or no feedback, the dog keeps trying new things to make the client or in this case the trainer happy.  Image credit: lisafx / 123RF Stock Photo

I think that when the dog is not reinforced at the right time, he must be left feeling the way these diners did; like nothing he can do will meet the needs of his handler.  This is a bright dog who needs immediate feedback  for each and every iteration until he understands what is wanted.  This particular dog also tends to go through a long and protracted extinction burst when he finally understands what you want.  This can be endlessly frustrating for handlers.  I watched him working on item discrimination recently.  He really knew the item that they were working on.  When put in a pile of four other items, he reliably chose the wrong item, looked at his handler, and then repeated the drill.  Sometimes he would go to the other items ten, twelve or even fifteen times before he picked the right item.  This is a dog who really likes to be sure!  An extinction burst is a phase of learning that dogs go through that can drive trainers nearly screwy.  What happens is once the learner understands the criteria, then they go through a period of not giving you what you ask for, over and over again.  This is important because of what is happening in the brain.  It implies that the brain is not only collecting data on what earns the click, but also that it is collecting data on what doesn’t earn the click and that information may be every bit as important to the learner as what does earn the click.  While this may feel like your learner is unravelling the knitting, in reality, they are just adding some interesting pieces to the pattern.

The final issue I see regularly in class that impedes learning is when the trainer hasn’t determined a target behaviour for the dog.  If the trainer has a “sort of, kind of” definition in mind, then the dog is going to give you “a sort of, kind of” performance.  When the dog knows the behaviour and they are embellishing it, the fastest and easiest way to overcome that is to take a moment to clarify in your own mind what behaviour you want and then train THAT.  Getting upset that the dog may have known the behaviour at home, or may have known it yesterday isn’t going to help.  Likely there is a good reason for the dog fiddling around with the behaviour, but the reason doesn’t change the fact that you have to reknit when you the behaviour has decayed.  When Kiki wouldn’t walk on, I could have been angry and frustrated, but she is a smart horse and my frustration is just an indication to her that she can keep her feet still and drop her head and sneak in a bit of grazing while I am busy losing my cool, which brings me to my final point.

Dogs are the masters of picking up cues.  They know when you put your running shoes on to dash out to the car and retrieve your paperwork so that you can call your insurance agent that a walk is not imminent.  They also know when you put on your running shoes in preparation for a walk.  It can be very baffling to the trainer how the dog knows the difference when both cases involve getting the shoes out, sitting down on the bench in the hall, putting the left shoe on before the right, tying the laces, and then standing up and reaching for your keys and walking out the door.  When you are frustrated with your dog because he has yet again undone your knitting, he can tell when you are just going to deal with the behaviours you have in front of you and when you are going to actually deal with those behaviours.  He has determined the cues that precede actual training with the opportunity to play with you.  Training is a mirror image activity.  While you are training your dog to carry out specific skills and activities, he is training you.  If you are unclear on your target behaviour for the session, don’t be surprised if he is really, really clear on his target behaviour.  Every time you reinforce your dog for a correct answer, he is busy training you to give him reinforcements himself.  If sitting makes you throw the frisbee, then throwing the frisbee makes him sit; it really is a closed loop where you and the dog have an agreement about two behaviours you are willing to exchange.  The more advanced your training, the more elegant the interaction becomes.  When your dog enjoys your frustration behaviours (and yes, some dogs do!) then you are exchanging frustration behaviours on your part with your dog’s fiddling around and unravelling the knitting.  Having a rock solid picture of the target behaviour allows you to change the cycle and come to a different agreement, and ultimately to complete the knitting project you have taken on with your dog when you train.

UNRAVELLING MY KNITTING

CONSISTENTLY CONSISTENT

Regularly I get students in my classes who tell me that they want other family members to attend classes so that everyone will be consistent. Consistency is important in training, but what I mean by consistent and what my students often mean by consistent is often different. My students often spend a lot of time trying to replicate cues to their dogs that look identical regardless of who is giving the cue. I have often watched students who give an absolutely perfect imitation of one of the instructor’s body postures and positions when it comes to giving the cue and I know of people who have practiced cuing in the mirror. I am fairly sure that the dogs don’t care how consistent the cue is however. When learning, I think that MOST dogs care a lot more about how consistent the outcome is.

There are several learning stages that dogs go through when they are being trained. An easy way to think about the stages of learning in dogs is what I refer to as the 4 As. The first stage is awareness. During the awareness stage of learning, the dog gets a vague notion of what you are trying to teach. Either you lead him through the activity, or you shape it, or you capture it, but you make it easy for him to develop an awareness of what you want him to know. At this stage, you would not normally use a cue to tell the dog what you want because he does not yet know what it is that you are driving at.

Trainers often refer to puppies as blank slates. This doesn't mean that they don't come with their own preferences and personalities, but rather that they haven't learned anything yet. They have no awareness of the behaviours that will earn reinforcers. Copyright: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo
Trainers often refer to puppies as blank slates. This doesn’t mean that they don’t come with their own preferences and personalities, but rather that they haven’t learned anything yet. They have no awareness of the behaviours that will earn reinforcers. Copyright: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

The next stage is acquisition. This stage is where you add the cue, and the dog gradually develops proficiency in the behaviour. The third stage is application and this is the stage during which the dog learns to do the behaviour in a wide variety of circumstances, and if you have been using prompts, props or lures, you would fade these. In the fourth stage, always, the dog always performs the behaviour in context and on cue and never offers the behaviour when it would be inappropriate to do so.

In the first two stages, awareness and acquisition, it is essential that the outcomes are always consistent. If for instance, you are teaching your dog to stand on a platform, then in the awareness stage each and every time the behaviour occurs, the trainer MUST produce some sort of an outcome, and that outcome must be consistent. I like to use marker training for sits, and sits are an early foundation behaviour for my dogs, so I click and then throw a treat away from the dog for each and every sit until sits are super reliable. I would bet money that in a given training session if I have been reinforcing sits, the dog will finish that session up by offering me a sit after each treat. Why wouldn’t he? I have been extremely consistent, and he likes treats, so he is going to do what gives him treats! The click just marks exactly what it is that I am training (the sit) and the click is always followed by a thrown treat. This makes training very, very clear to the dog. Our job as trainers is to help our dogs to understand what behaviours will predict what outcomes.

If you have been in the world of dog training for any amount of time you have likely heard about variable schedules of reinforcement as a way to maintain known behaviours. While this is a very useful way to help dogs to learn duration of behaviour, it can backfire when you are working on the early stages of behaviours. In the first two stages of learning, you really want to work hard to make sure that your dog understands exactly what will result in a predictable outcome. In the final two stages we can start to change up the variables, but only when we are certain that the dog understands what the cue means, and what will happen when the behaviour is carried out.

An important part of consistency is to know which stage you are in and to work within that stage. The first stage, awareness, is all about learning the mechanics of the behaviour. You may need to use equipment, the landscape and your reinforcers very carefully at this stage to “explain” the behaviour to the dog. You know that your dog is ready for the second stage when he starts to offer the behaviour readily after each reinforcement is delivered. If you have been consistent, your dog will get through this stage in very short order and be ready to move on to the second stage.

We know that the puppy is able to sit, because we have seen him do so. When we make him Aware that the sit will earn rewards, he becomes Aware that the behaviour is relevant. Pair the behaviour with a reinforcer often enough and you will be able to put that behaviour on cue, and he will have Acquired the behaviour. Copyright: pryzmat / 123RF Stock Photo
We know that the puppy is able to sit, because we have seen him do so. When we make him Aware that the sit will earn rewards, he becomes Aware that the behaviour is relevant. Pair the behaviour with a reinforcer often enough and you will be able to put that behaviour on cue, and he will have Acquired the behaviour. Copyright: pryzmat / 123RF Stock Photo

In the acquisition phase, you can start to name or attach a cue to the behaviour. From the dog’s perspective the only thing that really changes between awareness and acquisition is that a cue is attached to the behaviour, and if you don’t give the cue, the predicted outcome won’t occur. At this phase you might start to do the behaviour in slightly different locations or under slightly different circumstances, but your dog should still be able to count on the consistent outcome to his behaviour. Coming back to the example of teaching your dog to step onto a small platform, and he is offering to put all four paws on the platform willingly and eagerly each time after he has received his treat thrown off to the side, then you are ready to name it. As your dog is on the way back to the platform you might say “pose” as he is on his way back to get all four feet onto the platform, and then mark the correct behaviour and throw a treat away for the dog to get. Over several repetitions, the dog will begin to associate the cue with the behaviour. Although the cues should be accurate, keep in mind that repeating your cues absolutely exactly time and again will not necessarily serve you well. If you have been careful to cue accurately in a certain pitch and cadence, then there is a pretty good chance that if you have a cold, or if you get startled when cuing your dog may not feel that the cue is sufficiently accurate to follow. In my experience, slightly messing cues can actually help the dog. Now this doesn’t mean using “pose” some of the time and “pretty” at other times, but saying the cue word slightly differently is not the end of the world. What will degrade your training more than anything will be if after your dog starts to offer the cued behaviour you suddenly start to use difference consequences. In these important learning phases, your dog counts on your to provide the same outcome to the behaviour he offers, each time he offers that behaviour.

After Acquisition comes Application, where the dog learns to do the behaviour in a number of different places and under different circumstances and for different reinforcers. Copyright: lightpoet / 123RF Stock Photo
After Acquisition comes Application, where the dog learns to do the behaviour in a number of different places and under different circumstances and for different reinforcers. Copyright: lightpoet / 123RF Stock Photo

You know you are finished with the Acquisition phase of the learning process when you can cue the behaviour, casually, formally, while sitting down, while standing up and still get the same high quality behaviour that you built in the awareness phase. If you have been careful to not move beyond this phase until your dog is truly ready for it, then you will be able to move smoothly into the phase where consistency starts to run the other way; instead of you being consistent for your dog, you can start to teach your dog to be consistent for you. The third phase of learning is Application and this is the phase where we start to work towards anytime, anywhere for anyone.

To start the Application phase, I want to continue to be consistent for my dog. Now though, I will start putting my new behaviour in a chain. Let’s say that my dog knows how to come when called and he is really good at it. Returning to my go to platform example, I might ask my dog to come away from something that he was doing by calling him, and when he came to me, I would ask him to pose. This is a two behaviour chain (come to me, pose) and the pose behaviour is the one that I reinforce. Once I had marked and rewarded the desired behaviour, in the case the pose, I would ask for a different behaviour such as the sit and then ask for the pose again and mark that and reinforce. I would keep doing two chains and then three, four and five chains until I could get pose into a very long sequence of behaviours, consistently reinforcing that last. Once my dog was willing to pose even after doing a whole bunch of other behaviours, then I would ask him pose and add in a second behaviour AFTER the pose. For the first time, I am being just a tiny bit inconsistent. I am starting to teach the dog that when I ask for a behaviour, I need him to consistently give it to me. This is where the nuances of consistency come into play. When he is reliably giving me two chains, then I start asking for longer chains, and I really start to take the behaviour to new places. If the new place is particularly difficult (say in class with a big and active adolescent beside you), I might go back to the second phase of learning, Acquisition, before practicing chains with the dog. The more you mix it up at this point though, the better your dog will get at consistently offering you the same behaviour over and over again. This is the point at which you can also start to offer a wide variety of reinforcers for the behaviour. If you started out using food treats, you can switch to using toys. The dog has a really good idea about what the behaviour is, and now you can start integrating the behaviour into his life.

When you would bet me a nickel that your dog will do the desired behaviour on cue, you are in the final or always stage of learning and you can expect that your dog will consistently offer the behaviour when you cue him to do so and not offer it to you when you don’t ask for it. At this point you need to know where you want this behaviour. With the pose behaviour, you might practice it from time to time to maintain fluency, but you really don’t want to just ask for the behaviour in random situations and expect to get it. Gratuitous tricks annoy dogs just as much as they annoy people. If you know how to type, you will willingly do that when you want to communicate, but you won’t likely be pleased if I ask you to do so at a dinner party or in the middle of a game of tennis. Just because you CAN type, doesn’t mean you will want to do so all the time. Let’s say you taught your dog to do this behaviour so that you could get him to stand still on the vet scale. By all means, practice it and reward it from time to time, but don’t just ask for it randomly. Ask for it in context and it will be there. Throw it into behaviour chains from time to time to ensure that he is fluent in the behaviour, but don’t ask for it all the time or you will decrease his consistency in giving you what you ask. If you have been consistent all the way through, he will continue to be consistent when you need the behaviour.

Always means anytime, anywhere and often for no reinforcement. Copyright: amaviael / 123RF Stock Photo
Always means anytime, anywhere and often for no reinforcement. Copyright: amaviael / 123RF Stock Photo
CONSISTENTLY CONSISTENT

HAGRID’S DRAGON

Originally posted April 2013

Friday...Our Dragon Puppy.  She even had a dragon toy to keep her busy!
Friday…Our Dragon Puppy. She even had a dragon toy to keep her busy!

It would seem that we are the proud owners of our very own, nine week old dragon.  At least that is the joke in our house.  She is endearingly sweet, fluffy, and wickedly smart, but she is a dragon none the less.  She is particularly a dragon at 7 in the morning when I want to sleep and she wants to get up, go outside to the toilet and then come in and play.  Our dragon is Friday, our German Shepherd Puppy.

Friday was supposed to be my service dog when she outgrew being a young dragon.  D’fer, my ten year old Chesapeake Bay Retriever is getting close to retirement.  He has one bad hip and thousands of miles of travel taking me to conferences and school and meetings all over North America, and he is showing his age.  Friday the dragon is the result of several years of research and planning and more than one rejected opportunity.  Although we call her our dragon puppy it is a phase, not reality.  She won’t outgrow this behaviour without guidance and training, but like a little kid who doesn’t know what to do at a fancy party, she can wreck havoc without effort because she doesn’t yet understand the rules.

I reflect that for some of my students, they end up with dragons when they didn’t intend to.  Friday is a dragon because she makes dragon noises in the morning, she is quite sharky and bitey, and she surprises us with her tenacity and resourcefulness even at this young age.  We were quite aware that choosing a German Shepherd was going to mean that some of the time, she was going to behave in ways we didn’t like, but that in the end she has the potential to grow into a service dog, if we put the time and effort and training into her.

Similar to Hagrid in similar in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, many of my students choose dragons as pets, believing that cute trumps reality.  Many of these dogs just don’t belong in their lives.  Hagrid’s dragon in the story incubated in his fireplace in an iron pot and then hatched on his kitchen table and promptly set Hagrid’s beard on fire.  In the book the dragon caused all kinds of mischief for Hagrid, and with much regret he sent his dragon to live in Romania at a sanctuary.  The truth is that when we choose a puppy, we cannot chose based on what we hope or wish a dog will become but rather based on what the puppy has the potential to grow up to be and on how much work we are willing to put into that goal.

My clients sometimes choose dragon puppies because they just don’t know what to expect.  First time dog owners often choose dogs based on a single individual they have met, or on looks or colour.  Sometimes they choose a dragon because of a dream dog they wished they had as a child.  Sometimes they choose a dragon because a “bloke down at the pub traded him to me for a pint.”  And when they have a mismatch in their hands, it is much more difficult to get rid of the dragon than it was to get it.

I began my search for Friday about eighteen months before she came home, contacting friends and colleagues and learning about upcoming breedings of Labrador Retrievers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and German Shepherds, with Shepherds being lowest on my list.  I didn’t find any chessie breedings I was interested in; I was looking for a very particular dog.  I have a hard time imagining myself working a German Shepherd in public; German Shepherds have always been my sports dogs; the dogs I goof around with and compete with, but not the dogs who have alerted me to oncoming anxiety.  When a German Shepherd litter was available to look at that I was interested in, I went to see, and found what I was looking for; a puppy who is willing to do things my way, who is interested in the world but not spending all of her time exploring it on her own, who is confident and outgoing, but not so over engaged with people that she cannot cope with being in public and not being able to greet everyone she meets.  The upside to what I found was that she fit the traits that I wanted.  The down side is that she also has some dragonish traits to work through.

As a professional trainer, I recognize her dragon traits and I am prepared to live with them and train through them.  I don’t expect her to outgrow her dragon traits; I expect to have to teach her and show her what it is that I want.  My clients often end up with dragon puppies and hope their dragons will outgrow this phase without any work from the family at all.  There is a great tag line that my friends at Urban Dog made into a poster that goes like this.  Dogs don’t grow out of behaviour problems, they grow into them.  Hagrid’s baby dragon set his beard on fire but as an adult, that dragon would have seriously hurt or killed someone.  Or from Hermione’s perspective, worse, he would have been expelled from school.

When you have a dragon, it is important that you are clear about what traits make him into a dragon and which of those traits you can live with, which ones you cannot and which ones of the ones you cannot you are able to change.  If I had not been so picky about the dog I chose when I chose Friday, I might have had a dragon with traits I would not want or could not live with.  By spending time and effort in making a good choice, I have a dragon I can live with.

I have a big advantage over many of my clients though.  When I think “DOG” I think about the many different dogs that I know, and I understand that they have a wide range of temperaments and innate traits.  Some of my clients have lived for many years with a dog who was very well loved, but extreme in some way or another.  These dogs are dogs who may be extremely confident, or they may be very nervous.  Perhaps they are impulsive, or have a behaviour quirk such as sensitive feet that make it difficult to cut their nails.  The dogs you know inform the picture you have of the dragon you see.  If you are accustomed to seeing dogs who spin and bark in their runs because all of the dogs you see are in an overcrowded shelter, then your expectation is that all dogs will behave this way.  The same is true if the only dogs you know are calm and easy to handle.

When clients bring me dogs who are dragons, they often identify problems that are different from what I see as the most important issue.  I have a client who has a lovely dog who has a very rough play style.  This dog is actually quite normal in his play; he is just fast and rough.  This client had shelties in her past, and was surprised when her retriever played in a way that she had not seen in her shelties.  On the other hand, she had not ever considered it a problem that her dog would not allow her near his food bowl; that was an acceptable behaviour to her because all of her previous dragons had also behaved this way.  The resource guarding was a much more serious behaviour problem that could get the dog in a lot more trouble, but in her experience, it was an acceptable and normal behaviour.

Many of my clients expect dogs to exhibit dragon behaviours.  This weekend I spoke with a lady and her daughter, who had been bitten by a family member’s dog.  Mom considered the bite justified because he was a very protective dog.  I think if we were to translate this into a people centric scenario, then we would have a different picture.  Imagine visiting a friend’s house and her teen aged son appeared out of the basement with a sword and began threatening you.  Would you be okay with that?  Would you excuse the behaviour as the son being protective of the house?  Would you be upset if he sliced open your daughter, or would you excuse his behaviour as protective?  Most of us would view the young man’s behaviour as outrageous and dangerous and if it happened too often, the police and child services would be called out and measures would be taken to prevent this behaviour from continuing.

Dogs and humans have lived together for over fourteen thousand years, and for perhaps as long as 30 thousand years.  In general, we have worked out ways to live with one another.  Village dogs, the true ancestor of the modern dog, hung out like squirrels do, in our yards.  They came close to us, but in general we didn’t touch them or handle them.  We still see them from time to time when they are rescued off beaches and resorts.  They often struggle as pets, not because they are dragons in their native habitat, but because our homes aren’t their native habitat.  If you want a dog who cuddles in bed with you, who will accept all new people, and who never resource guards, then it is quite likely that these dogs will turn out to be dragons in your home.  Yes, there are some who make stellar pets and some who compete in dog sports with great success, but there are more who live in people’s homes not meeting the needs of the family and not having their needs met.  It is not just the family that has difficulty when a dog is a dragon; often the dogs are not enjoying themselves either.

Being a normal dog in one scenario can translate into being a dragon in another.  Herding dogs can also be dragons.  I had an elderly client who was given a border collie puppy because she spoke so frequently of the border collies she had lived with as a girl on a farm in the UK.  As an apartment dweller, who loved to visit with friends and neighbours and who had a bad hip, she was not prepared to deal with the needs of an active young border collie.  This dog developed into a barking, whirling dragon who knocked people over; not at all the calm, well exercised working herding dogs of her youth.

Any dog can be a dragon.  Retrievers who fetch everything are often shoe dragons, and terriers who dig are garden dragons.  I have known mastiffs, Saint Bernards and Newfoundlanders who are slime dragons from all their drool.  German Shepherds and labs can be hair dragons.  There are down sides to every type of breed, and if you are willing to live with the dragon side of the dog you have, that is wonderful for both of you.  The important thing is to know what dragon traits your dog has, and work with those traits where possible.  Hagrid’s dragon ended up in a dragon sanctuary where he could “be with his own kind”.  The sad fact is that too many dog end up in shelters, rescues and yes, permanent sanctuaries because the family was unprepared to deal with the dragon traits that come with the particular dog they live with.  Before you get a dog, make sure you choose the right dragon.  And if like Hagrid, you live in a wooden hut (in the books at least!), perhaps a dragon is not the pet for you.

Friday is no longer a dragon...most of the time!  As one of the stars of our demo team, she did jump into the audience to visit a friend though!  Slightly dragonish behaviour!
Friday is no longer a dragon…most of the time! As one of the stars of our demo team, she did jump into the audience to visit a friend though! Slightly dragonish behaviour!

Our dragon, Friday, learned alternatives to most of her dragon behaviours.  She no longer makes dragon noises at seven in the morning.  She is well exercised, goes to training classes several times a week and has lots of human and doggy friends.  She is excelling at rally, obedience, Treibball and as John’s hiking companion.  Friday is a competent service dog, but she doesn’t love the work the way D’fer did, so we are once again, looking for another service dog for me.  Sometimes, the intended plan for a dragon doesn’t correspond to the traits they bring along with them, so having a fall back plan is always a good idea.  You cannot ship every dog to a sanctuary in Romania where he will be happy with his own kind.

HAGRID’S DRAGON

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At Dogs in the Park we run a drop in gym style program where students can come to 11 classes a week with their dog and learn about dog training. When they have passed enough basic exercises, advanced classes open up to them. When dogs come to training classes we always tell people to practice their skills regularly and often. What we intend is that you will learn skills in the classroom that you will then take out and practice in the rest of your world. If for instance, your dog has learned to sit at school in the classroom, we expect that you will practice at home, in your yard, at the park and on the street. What we don’t expect is that students will attend all 11 classes each week, although we have had students try and do so.

We love it when students come to class regularly and when they practice a lot, but sometimes letting your dog take some time off to think about what you have taught can be very helpful to them.  You and your dog both benefit from being able to sit back, reflect on what you have done and make connections about what you have been working on.
We love it when students come to class regularly and when they practice a lot, but sometimes letting your dog take some time off to think about what you have taught can be very helpful to them. You and your dog both benefit from being able to sit back, reflect on what you have done and make connections about what you have been working on.   Photo copyright Sue Alexander 2014

The problem with going to school every day is that the dog never gets a chance to experience something important called latent learning. Latent learning is the kind of learning that happens when you are not paying attention. Latent learning is the kind of learning that creates eureka moments for you. One of the greatest learning moments of my life came about when I was struggling with a pamphlet to advertize my previous business. I had been struggling off and on with my printer, the software and my computer to try and figure out how to make a double sided colour pamphlet using just the tools I had. I tried all sorts of things and nothing was satisfying my vision. Eventually, as we all do, I gave up the struggle with my problem and went to bed. At about four in the morning I sat bolt upright in bed with the solution. I rushed down to my home office and tried out my idea and then spent the next four hours printing exactly what I wanted. Let’s examine the steps that led to my moment of clarity.

The first step was getting a sense of what I wanted to do; I defined the problem. This is a bit like when your dog is first exposed to a behaviour in class. The dogs get a sense of the problem and they sort out what it is that you are driving at. Sometimes this phase of learning can go along for a very long time. For some dogs and for some people they need to probe the question for a long time to discover what it is that they are driving at. There comes a point though, when probing the problem just needs to stop in order for the learner to reflect and make the connections between the pieces of the puzzle.

Hit any key is a tempting solution to computer problems, but getting frustrated with your dog when he isn't learning as quickly as you might like is not going to work any better than hammering your computer would.  Waiting, sitting back and reflecting and  allowing your dog time to reflect are viable training tools.  Copyright: stuartphoto / 123RF Stock Photo
Hit any key is a tempting solution to computer problems, but getting frustrated with your dog when he isn’t learning as quickly as you might like is not going to work any better than hammering your computer would. Waiting, sitting back and reflecting and allowing your dog time to reflect are viable training tools. Copyright: stuartphoto / 123RF Stock Photo

The next step is trying out solutions. With my problem I tried changing the settings on my printer, and changing the format of my document. This is the same stage of learning that dogs go through when they try out variations on their idea of what you are driving at with training. This is the stage where the dog may try not doing the behaviour to see what the outcome is. As a trainer this can be a very frustrating stage to go through and we can make life a lot harder on our dogs by endlessly drilling at this point. Most dogs, like me, need to have the chance to give their ideas a try and fiddle a bit but then they are better off to take the time to back off and think about the issue for a bit. Trainers benefit too because when they reflect on the issues they are working through they may come up with novel solutions and better ways of explaining what they want to their dogs.

After fiddling for a bit, I went through a very annoying phase. I would have been better to have gone on and done something different after I had fiddled with it, but being that I am stubborn and try really hard, I decided I would try even harder. I see some of my students going through this phase when they attend a daily levels class but don’t go away and think about what they are teaching their dogs. They don’t go away and think about alternatives. They don’t leave the behaviour alone and let the dog think about the work they are doing. Like me, they just push and try harder and they frustrate themselves, their instructors and most of all their dogs.

When you get stuck in this phase of learning something, you start trying things that normally you would not try. I once caught myself picking up my printer with the intention of dropping it to see if that would prompt it to print. In case you are wondering, dropping the printer won’t make it print. If you have ever been frustrated by a print job that just won’t work, you have probably also been tempted to shake up the printer a bit. It just won’t work. The equivalent to that in dog training is when the trainer abandons the lesson in favour of the result. I watched one student of mine lift the dog onto a piece of equipment and then reward him, over and over again during this phase. The dog learned that being on the equipment predicted treats, but he didn’t learn how to use his body to get onto the equipment, so in the end, the dog didn’t learn what the trainer had set out to teach him.

The “leave it alone and let the dog think” method of problem solving usually gets you better results. Allowing the dog to have some time between when you first explain the behaviour to them and when you next ask them to offer the behaviour can yield some surprising results. Often the dog needs a chance, just like I did with my print job to just let the training percolate a bit. If you allow the dog to have the time and space to think about what they are doing, you can end up with faster more effective learning.

I should be clear though; latent learning won’t work if you don’t lay a good foundation and revisit the exercises from time to time, but if you just hammer away at the problem for days on end, you never give your dog the chance to just think about it. So often I have watched a dog come along very quickly after they have had a few days off, if they have had a good solid exposure to the things you are teaching first. If they don’t have a solid exposure, then they don’t make those leaps. Latent learning is especially important for the intermediate and advanced dogs; they have a lot of education and learning under their belts and to deny them the chance to use that experience to support what they are learning by reflecting is really unfair.

Using your nose to find a treat under a cone is a possible foundation exercise to scent discrimination where the dog chooses an item that you have touched and brings it to you.  Photo credit:  Sue Alexander 2013
Using your nose to find a treat under a cone is a possible foundation exercise to scent discrimination where the dog chooses an item that you have touched and brings it to you. Photo credit: Sue Alexander 2013

So how do you know that you have done enough foundation work and you just need to leave it alone? To begin with, this is most applicable in training of more complex, chained behaviours. If you have been doing your foundational work with sit, down, stay, target with the nose, target with the paw and so on, then when you start putting together chains you may notice that your dog slows down a bit in his learning. Work on something for ten minutes and then give it a break. Work on something that the dog is already really good at for a few minutes. Then come back to what you were working on to begin with. Just this little break may allow your dog to regroup and be more successful. If that doesn’t happen, leave the whole thing for a couple of days. Come back to it when you and your dog are fresh again. If you still aren’t successful, leave the whole thing for a couple of days and then come back to it again with fresh eyes and a fresh start.

In the days between when you introduce an exercise, and when you reintroduce the exercise, review in your own mind to make sure you haven’t skipped steps or become so focused on the goal of the exercise that you haven’t reinforced the foundational work sufficiently that it will make sense to the dog. The time you take away from the training session will benefit you too! It gives you a chance to reflect on and analyze your training, to form questions to ask your dog when you get back to it. Down time is really important to good training for both you and your dog.

The one caveat about using latent learning is that there is probably an optimal time for each learner to leave the learning alone, and that time is probably different from individual to individual. If you wait too long between sessions, you risk that the learner will forget the foundations you have worked on. My general plan is to make a mental map that will allow me to help the dog find the way through the process of obtaining the skills towards an end behaviour. It might look something like this:

This is the sort of training map I form when I am teaching a complex behaviour.  I teach foundation behaviours first and then combine those to form new complex behaviours and then combine those complex behaviours to form my end behaviour.  There is nothing wrong with reviewing the foundations and then leaving the whole project alone for a period of time to allow the dog to reflect on and put together the steps that I am interested in teaching.  Time to reflect can help me learn to be a better trainer too!  Copyright Sue Alexander 2015
This is the sort of training map I form when I am teaching a complex behaviour. I teach foundation behaviours first and then combine those to form new complex behaviours and then combine those complex behaviours to form my end behaviour. There is nothing wrong with reviewing the foundations and then leaving the whole project alone for a period of time to allow the dog to reflect on and put together the steps that I am interested in teaching. Time to reflect can help me learn to be a better trainer too! Copyright Sue Alexander 2015

When you make a map of where you want to go in training, it is easier to see where you are going and where you are going wrong. I might teach the Foundation Behaviours months before I work on the next level of training. I might review the Foundation Behaviours in the weeks ahead of working on the next level. Then I might introduce the “Two Steps to Glue Together” as two different behaviours and work on that for a few days. Then I might leave it alone for a couple of days or even a week. Then I might go back and see how the dog is doing with that second step. If he is not getting the behaviours, then I might review the Foundation Behaviours again and try the next level behaviours a second time. Then I might let it sit for a while again. When the dog is able to give m the second level of behaviours easily, then I might introduce the end behaviour. At this point in training some dogs get the idea right away and some of them need to try it a few times before they get it and a good number of dogs need to let the idea sit for a week or two. I just keep revisiting success and then come back to the more difficult step or stage later until the dog puts the pieces together.

Latent learning can feel like a giant leap of faith. It can feel like you are not really training at all, but with advanced dogs, it can really make the whole training process easier. With my advanced students in our drop in classes, I often recommend that they attend one or two advanced skills classes each week and then one or two regular levels classes each week. By training this way they can ping pong around the more difficult behaviours and let the power of latent learning work for them. Wait a minute. Let the dog think. Reflect on your work. Are there holes to fill? Pecking away at the problem with breaks of days between is often the most effective way to train, and it is a whole lot more fun than getting to the point where you want to drop the printer or get frustrated with your dog.

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