WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DOG BRINGS YOU A DEAD SKUNK

Originally posted April 2013

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

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D’fer was a very plucky puppy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DOG BRINGS YOU A DEAD SKUNK

THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN

I was listening to an audio book recently that was written in the late 1800s, and in one scene, the kids of the town got all excited because of the colourful handbills that appeared advertising a circus coming to town.  Now, I am not keen on circuses, however in that era they were rare and exciting events, and when the handbills started to appear, the information spread throughout the town like a wild fire.  Everyone talked about it for days.  The first clue that a circus might be coming in fact happened long before the handbills were posted.  The first hint of a circus was when a character from another town arrived in town and mentioned that he had seen the circus several days earlier packing up to get on rail cars in a distant town.  The rumour mill went wild!  Next came a letter from a friend in a town a little closer talking ab out plans to attend the circus that was coming to their town.  In fact all through the book that was not about circuses at all were mentions here and there, whispers, rumours and hints about the circus coming to town.  This was such an exciting event for the characters in the book, that it was mentioned over and over again, and there was an escalating tension that the circus was coming to town!

Circus show Snow Queen
In years gone by, the circus was an amazing and unusual spectacle. When the circus came to your town, you might write a letter to tell someone up the tracks that the circus was coming. These rumours allowed people to prepare for a big upcoming event.

When I walk into my training school, I am super sensitive to the expressions on the dog’s faces.  There is Fido, looking regal if a little worried in puppy class.  Is someone going to grab him and scare him?   He is a little worried about strange men and sometimes John the Puppy Guy is a little scary to him.  And Fluffy.  Fluffy is a happy go luck soul who is never phased by anything.  She is loose and floppy all over and you could pick her up and open her mouth and look in her ears and she would still be loose and floppy and happy all over.  I see Ralph.  Ralph is an instructor favourite; he is mischievous and silly and always looking for an opportunity to pull a prank like untying shoelaces or finding the ONLY treat left in your pocket…from the outside in.  I see the dogs and their facial expressions are sort of like the rumours of the circus coming to town.  I don’t need Fido or Fluffy or Ralph to be extreme to know how they are going to react. I hear the rumours and I know a little bit about what is coming up without having to go into more detail.

Contrast this with my students.  Fido’s family is constantly surprised that Fido is afraid.  Fido cannot give them a rumour of how he feels.  Fido has to hire a neon sign, send them emails and then get a brass band before his family recognizes the signs.  By the time that Fido’s family is aware of his fear, he is over threshold and may have peed on the rug.  They don’t hear the rumours of what Fido has to say, so they cannot respond to what he needs in time to head off a problem. 

I have been working professionally with dogs for over 25 years, and at first, I didn’t hear the rumours either.  In fact, I could be downright cruel in my insistence that my canine partner was “fine”.  The fact is that the majority of dogs I knew were more like Fluffy than like Fido.  They never put up handbills announcing that the circus was in town because they didn’t need to.  They weren’t that concerned about things.  They weren’t going to produce a circus at any moment.  Fluffy doesn’t give off a whole lot of subtle signals because for the most part, Fluffy is happy go lucky and either doesn’t care about the things that concern Fido.

And what about Ralph?  Ralph’s people are just plain fed up!  Yesterday Ralph climbed on the dining room table, grabbed a plastic bottle of ketchup, and ran through the house with it.  No one noticed him initially, but eventually he punctured the bottle and left dots of ketchup on the rugs throughout the house everywhere that he dropped the bottle.  He settled down in an upstairs bedroom and completely decimated the bottle, leaving bits of plastic all over the room, accented with streaks of ketchup on the bed, the desk, the chair, the dresser, up two walls and on the door.  Ralph finished his handiwork with pawprints in ketchup down the hall and into the bathroom.

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Sometimes puppies will destroy things when they are unsupervised and sometimes they do that when the are distressed. Close supervision and careful attention to the dog’s behaviour will help you to better understand when he is struggling so that you can help him to find a better outlet than the upstairs couch cushions.

Ralph is a bit like Dennis the Menace.  Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.  He is not intentionally getting into trouble, but his communications are so subtle that his family doesn’t notice that he needs something in time to head off disaster.  He is curious and engaged in his world and he has no idea that his behaviour is unwanted or unsafe.  The interesting thing is that some of his behaviour, like racing through the house or not settling are rooted in confusion, a lack of training or anxiety.  Ralph is unable to ask to go out, so even though he had a good start at toilet training and only toileting outside, his people didn’t notice the rumours of his need, so he had to look somewhere else to go.  His first efforts included peeing in front of the family on the rug, but that made the people angry and that frightened Ralph.  Ralph bolted because he was frightened, and learned two things.  First, he learned not to pee in front of the family and second, he learned that when he was uncertain, anxious or upset, running would relieve that feeling.  Some running leads to more running and pretty soon, Ralph was running through the house all the time. 

Ralph also learned some other lessons inadvertently.  He learned for instance that there are many fun games for puppies if you don’t shout loudly when you are playing.  He learned that being in the same room as his family meant that he wasn’t allowed to do these fun things.  Things like getting on the dining room table.  Ralph learned that he doesn’t need to spread rumours because he can take care of things himself and do all the fun stuff he wants if he doesn’t communicate too much.

In all three cases, the family will have a better relationship with their puppy if they learn a little bit about their dog’s body language.  In Fido’s case, he will be less fearful.  In Fluffy’s case, the family will become more aware of the big things because they are not usually big things for Fluffy.  Taking her needs into account will give them an even bigger world to explore together.  And in Ralph’s case life will just be a whole lot less chaotic.

Almost everyone recognizes the brass bands and circuses of their dog’s communication.  The dog who barks and lunges wants space.  The dog who cringes and cowers is afraid.  The dog who bounces through life like a rocking horse come to life is happy and relaxed.  But what about the rumours?  What about the quieter signals?  What do they look like?

Freezing is a signal that most of us see but don’t see.  It is a rumour so it is easy to disregard.  Your dog sees something and he pauses, or freezes and most of the time, once he identifies what it is that he is looking at, he moves right on.  The freeze is like a decision point.  It is a point where the dog identifies something as relevant, but not necessarily as important.  When we see this happening, we should take note.  Fido freezes a lot because his world is pretty scary.  Fluffy freezes rarely because she is much more confident, so when she freezes we should take note that something fairly important may be going on for her.  Ralph freezes rarely because he doesn’t often stop to look at things; his response when the other two puppies would freeze is usually to bolt without thinking. 

Yawning tibetan mastiff puppy embracing sleeping tabby kitten an
This puppy is yawning and looking away. He might be tired, but more likely he is fed up with what was most likely a long photo shoot to get him into position with the kitten. Yawning is a way that dogs have to show us that they are a little concerned, but it also happens when they are tired. Just like us!

Yawning and shaking off as though wet when they are dry are two other subtle signals that dogs use to show us that they are overwhelmed in one way or another.  These are more of the rumour type of signals; they can fade into the background when you aren’t paying close attention.  Fido does this a lot and it often gets disregarded because his people often think he might be tired.  The dad in Fido’s family explained the shake off as Fido being dusty!  Fluffy only yawns when she is tired or shakes off when she is wet.  And Ralph is such a busy boy that his family hasn’t noticed him doing either behaviour.  It is hard to observe a dog who is conspicuously absent.

One thing that we are often frustrated with as instructors is when a client says to us “but he does that all the time” when we try and share what we know about what dogs are saying through their behaviour.  When you cannot read the rumours, you may not realize how often your dog is in distress.  When we point this out to you, we don’t do that because we dislike you or your dog; we do so because we recognize that your dog is upset and we want to help.  Dog body language is a long study; we will never be as good at reading it as the dogs are, but there are many good resources.  A favourite is Barbara Handelman’s Canine Behaviour A Photo Illustrated Guide.  You can find it at https://www.dogwise.com/canine-behavior-a-photo-illustrated-handbook/ .  I helped to edit that, so I know that the images and text are well laid out and well explained.  Another good resource is The Language of Dog DVD.  You can also find that on Dogwise at https://www.dogwise.com/the-language-of-dogs-understanding-canine-body-language-and-other-communication-signals-dvd-set/

In the story that started me thinking about this blog, the message that a circus was coming to town started out as a whisper, a rumour.  Then it was talked about a little bit.  In the end, it was a big hairy deal.  The handbills were printed and everyone went down to the train station to see the arrival.  The whole town talked about the circus and a brass band was on hand to make sure that everyone knew that the circus had arrived.  It is well worth spending some time learning more about what your dog is “saying” since he is going to be talking to you through his behaviour for the rest of his life.  When we hear the whispers of what your dog wants to say to you, instead of depending upon the brass band level of message, we can often avert the circuses that ensue when the dog feels he needs to get the message across immediately.  Your dog should not need a brass band to tell you when he is afraid, distressed or upset, and both your life and his will be much easier when you can address his issues quickly and efficiently because you heard the first rumours of what he is experiencing.

 

THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN

ANDREW’S MOM

Andrew is a nice guy who has been training with Dogs in the Park for the past couple of months.  Andrew has a wife(P) and a daughter (B) and a dog (Henry) and of course he has a Mom.  Andrew’s mom is terrific.  Really she is!  She comes over and helps P to clean the house once a week.  She babysits so that Andrew and P can have an evening out (and B can have ice cream for dinner and they can blow bubbles in the livingroom).  She brings homemade cookies, and takes the family on outings they couldn’t necessarily do without the help of a grandma to co-ordinate the logistics, and she is sensitive to not overstaying her welcome. 

There is just one small problem.  Andrew’s mom doesn’t actually understand dogs.  And Henry struggles with anxiety.  I guess that actually makes two problems, neither of which would be nearly as large a problem as the two issues coming together is.  When you have someone in your life who just doesn’t understand dogs and you have an anxious dog, things can go haywire pretty fast.  In fact, almost every family with a dog has someone who plays the role of “Andrew’s mom”.

Senior woman baking
“Andrew’s Mom” can be anyone in your life who doesn’t follow the rules with your dog. Usually “Andrew’s Mom” is someone who is kindly and well meaning but who just doesn’t understand the situation.

Andrew’s mom is the person in your dog’s life who behaves in such a way that your dog just cannot succeed.  Often the person who plays the role of Andrew’s mom really, deeply and passionately cares about dogs in general, and often about your dog in specific.  In the case of Andrew’s mom, she really loves to love on Henry.  Henry does not love being loved on quite THAT much.  He appears to feel confined when Andrew’s mom tries to hug him, and that can cause him to tremble in fear.  The harder he trembles, the more that Andrew’s mom will try and get him into her lap, to hug him, to hold him, to stroke him and even to kiss his muzzle.  Andrew’s mom is in fact the reason that Andrew brought Henry to our school.  One afternoon, Andrew’s mom came over and cornered Henry in the livingroom.  B. was down for her nap, and Andrew’s mom was in need of some cuddling, so Henry was it.  Henry had been resting and made the error of looking Andrew’s mom in the eye when he woke up.  She came over, loomed over his dog bed, crouched down, and then gathered him up in her arms for a big “grandma hug”.  Henry, being sort of sleepy, and not really happy about hugs to begin with, had finally had enough.  He squirmed to get out of the hug and when that didn’t work, air snapped four or five times just to the left of Andrew’s mom’s ear.  Needless to say, pandemonium ensued.  Andrew’s mom screeched, Henry bolted for the back room where he liked to hide during thunderstorms and P yelled at Henry.  B woke up and began to cry, and Henry lost control of his bladder.

When the dust settled, P called Andrew and Andrew called me and I got the family (minus Andrew’s mom and B) in for an appointment.  When Andrew and P relayed what happened, I could see where everything fell apart for Henry, and the bite was not unexpected.  Did I say “bite”?  Yes.  In the business we consider this to be a bite, albeit a very inhibited bite.  A number of factors stacked up to create a circumstance where a bite was very likely.  Henry was resting and relaxed.  Then he saw Andrew’s mom.  Andrew’s mom was the first stressful thing, or trigger that he noticed.  Then Andrew’s mom came closer to Henry than he was comfortable with; that was the second trigger.  I would lay good money that if I had a video of Henry in that moment, I would have seen some warning signs that would have told me that Henry was uncomfortable, but even if she noticed the signs, Andrew’s mom did not listen to his cues to tell her that he was uncomfortable.  Not being heard could be another trigger for Henry.  When Andrew’s mom loomed over Henry on his bed, that is a third trigger.  When she reached for him and hugged him, that was a fourth trigger.  When Henry tried to wiggle away but could not get loose, that would be a fifth trigger.  Five or possibly six triggers was more than enough to elicit a bite!  The video below gives you more details about trigger stacking.

In fact, Henry pulled his punches and did not do any damage to Andrew’s mom.  Henry could have landed a serious bite causing her significant harm, but instead he air snapped near her face and then retreated.  When he was hiding in his safe place, he was so distressed that he lost control over his bladder.  Andrew’s mom felt really bad, and her response a day later was telling; she interpreted his losing control over his bladder as him being submissive and regretful of his bites, and so she ramped up her attention on Henry.  In fact losing control over his bladder most likely happened because of his extreme fear. 

Almost every dog with behaviour problems that I work with has an “Andrew’s mom” in his or her life.  These people are usually kind, thoughtful and caring people, who just don’t understand the whole situation.  I have seen many extreme forms of “Andrew’s mom”, from an uncle who allowed a very aggressive dog out of her kennel and into a holiday party of thirty guests, where she mauled someone, to the toddler who follows the dog everywhere all day long and never lets the dog rest.  As a behaviour consultant Andrew’s mom is so frustrating!  What we need are strategies to address the people in our lives who intentionally or otherwise subvert our efforts at helping our anxious, aggressive, reactive or fearful dogs.

One of the easiest strategies I have for guests is to hand them a cup of tea on a saucer with a cookie on it before bringing the dog into the room.  I don’t have to tell the guest to ignore the dog because they cannot interact with the dog while holding a full cup of tea on a saucer.  As soon as you say “don’t pay attention to the dog” your guest will inevitably look at the dog and often that sets Andrew’s mom up to interact in ways that are not productive.

Traditional teacup and saucer held in elderly woman's hands.
Andrew’s mom will have a really hard time reaching out for your dog if she has a cup of tea and a saucer, with no where to put that down when the dog first enters the room. This way you need not tell the guest to ignore your dog!

Another strategy I have had great success with when working with dogs and kids is to have a structured activity such as hide and seek to play.  The game goes like this.  The dog starts out in his crate and the kids get to hide something that would be of value to the dog.  You have to teach the dog the game first, but if you have a dog who will search for things, then it is easy to implement the game.  The kids get a set amount of time to hide the item, and then they have to sit at a table or stay in a room that the dog cannot get to while the dog does the search.  When the dog brings back the item, he waits in his crate while the kids hide the items again.  The kids don’t end up being Andrew’s mom because they have to wait their turn while the dog is loose, and the dog is confined while they hide the item.  This can work very well for kids up to about the age of 7.

While walking dogs on leash, almost everyone you encounter has the potential to be Andrew’s mom.  Almost all of us have heard variations on “dogs like me” or “I don’t mind if he misbehaves” and it can be very difficult to fend off these well-meaning strangers.  One of the easiest ways I have to keep people’s hands to themselves is to muzzle your dog.  Often a muzzled dog gets to walk through the streets undisturbed where an unmuzzled dog seems to be a target for every person passing by. 

Alternatively, I have simply said to people “I am in a terrible rush, sorry, I cannot stop to talk” and walked right on by.  Some people just won’t take no for an answer though, but breaking into a run and hurrying on by can actually help.  I have also sometimes been successful with telling people that my dog is ill and we have to rush home and get his medication.  Keeping the conversation flowing is not the goal though; you have to say your piece and then move on.

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When heading off Andrew’s mom, leash manners don’t count! Putting yourself between your dog and Andrew’s mom helps a lot, as can breaking into a run and hurrying on by.

I have even had trouble with professionals being Andrew’s mom.  At the vet’s office, I have often had to advocate for my dog when the vet or the tech want to proceed more quickly than my dog was ready for.  Things are improving for sure, however, we still have times when the vet may not realize or recognize that my dog needs a little more time.  When this happens, you sometimes have to be really clear with your vet that you need to travel at the speed of dog, and slow things down a little.  Use common sense when negotiating this with your vet however; don’t do this if you are in the middle of a medical emergency.

I think it is important to recognize that Andrew’s mom is well meaning, but still set clear boundaries about what is happening with your dog.  A good behaviour modification plan includes making sure that your dog has the time and space to process what is going on, and we cannot expect our dogs to become more tolerant if they keep getting triggered.  Knowing what your dog’s triggers are and setting things up so that the people around your dog don’t set those triggers in motion are essential to the process of successfully training your dog.

ANDREW’S MOM

FALLING IN LOVE

So, I have been the dogless wonder for almost two years now.  By this I mean that I earn my living as a dog trainer, but I don’t actually have a canine partner of my own.  My last two dogs were incredible partners, who died one year apart to the day.  Losing those dogs, first D’fer, and then Eco was difficult, but the loss was not why I didn’t run right out to get another puppy.  I have been very busy with my own growth and development and really don’t have the time right now to raise another puppy.  I am also not really sure if a dog would fit well with my current lifestyle:  I like to hunt and I spend long periods of time alone in the bush, canoeing and camping.  I like to take car trips on weekends too.  And I spend about two hours a day riding my horse.  So, getting another dog right now might not be the right thing to do.  But still, I consider the possibility.

For me, the process of getting a dog and developing a partnership is a bit like falling in love, and I have a good model for that to follow; having been married to John for the past twenty years, I can recognize the signs.  There are several stages.  The first stage is the looking around stage.  When John and I met, we were both in university.  We each had friends and things that we did, and at some point, our interests intersected and we met.  It was NOT love at first sight.  It wasn’t that we didn’t get along or anything, it was just sort of neutral.  I wasn’t looking to fall in love; I just wanted someone to go out with and to spend some time with.  John was nice, and we got along and we started to do things together.

When I get a new dog, the first step is finding a breeder who is breeding the sort of dog who will intersect with my interests.  I have a laundry list of things that the dog must be interested in.  It starts with being outside.  Outside is really important to me.  I go outside a lot.  Today I spent about 8 hours outside even though the temperature is just about freezing.  When I am outside I hike, fish, camp, canoe, hunt and ride my horse.  So I need a dog whose interests are going to be compatible with all those things.

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Sleek, athletic and thin skinned, the whippet would not be happy fitting into my life! In the look around phase, I would discount this breed for me, even though he might be perfect for someone else.

Knowing what my interests are means that no matter how pretty I think that a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is, I won’t look at them; they just aren’t sturdy enough to do the kind of heavy hiking I do and they would likely find my winter activities too cold.  No matter how funny I think basset hounds can be (and trust me, if you haven’t worked with a basset hound, you have no idea how funny they are!), they would not really like the canoeing I do.  No matter how much I admire many of the guarding breeds such as the Rottweiler, they most likely won’t enjoy being a resident dog at a dog training school.  German Shepherds can struggle with this work too, but if I choose carefully, I can likely find a good candidate, and my Chessies have all enjoyed this sort of work.  Having narrowed the field to two particular breeds, I need to keep in mind that I enjoy hunting.  A lot.  Which means that a Chessie is a better choice for me at this point in my life. 

The next stage is the stage where I am at right now.  It is the get to know you stage.  During this stage in my relationship with John, we went to the movies together, we went hiking, and we learned a lot about who the other person was.  Somethings we tried didn’t work out so well.  I never really enjoyed cocktail parties, and he used to go to a lot of them.  He really didn’t like swimming.  So we each had to figure out if those were things that we needed to do together, or if we could do without them.  Luckily, John doesn’t need to go to cocktail parties anymore, and we have agreed that for the very most part, I can swim without him!

In the dog world, once you know what breed or type you are looking for, it is time to get busy and look for a breeder who is going to meet your needs.  I will go to the dog shows, and visit breeders and meet brood bitches and sires, and eventually, find a breeder I like, who is breeding a bitch I like to a sire I like and then I will talk to them about their upcoming litters.  In the event that a litter is likely, then I will eventually purchase a puppy.

After that, there is the infatuation stage, and this is the stage that prompted this blog.  In this stage, everything is about being with the person you are madly, passionately, incredibly in love with.  This stage is so much fun.  The other person can do no wrong!  You want to be together all the time.  You think of nothing other than the other person.  It is so exciting.  This is the stage that I see the most often with people who have a dog new to them.  Everything is great!  Except that this puppy that people are so in love with has a number of frustrating habits.  Like chewing things up.  And stealing tea towels.  And running around the house randomly.  And not doing as asked.  I won’t even tell you about John’s frustrating little habits that came to light during the infatuation stage!  Luckily this stage is designed to help us to deal with these little deal breakers, and so we forgive the object of our desires and move on to the next stage.

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Puppies represent so much hope and the early days of a relationship reflect that hope for us all. Infatuation is part of what helps us to overlook the really difficult parts of learning to live with one another and it is an important stage, however it is not the best stage to be in.

The next stage in falling in love is where you get to really know your partner and you start to deeply appreciate them.  This is the long slow process of building a life long love affair and this is the part I think is the most important part of having a deep relationship with a dog.  Reflecting on this, I think it is probably the most important part of having a deep relationship with your human partner too.  This is the stage where you know your partner’s quirks, and you may even have a love/hate feeling towards those quirks.  Honestly, how hard is it to remember that the gate gets left opening IN to the kitchen?  If only John could remember!  On the other hand, if I came into the kitchen and the gate was left open the correct way, I would wonder who had been in the kitchen!  During this stage with D’fer he would regularly set up toys on the top stair to chase down.  He would place them “just so” and then nose them down and when they got to the bottom he would throw himself down the stairs after the toy.  Interminably cute, but insanely noisy and downright dangerous!  I could always tell if he was playing the game because of the suspicious silence while he set the game up and then all that banging and bumping as he ran down the stairs.  I loved that he had figured out this crazy, noisy and fairly sophisticated game, but honestly…who needs all that noise?

This is the stage in training where you no longer have to set up every training scenario as though it were a complete mystery to your learner; you and your canine partner have enough of a common language that you are able to figure out where the training game is going, what the point of the exercise is and how you will apply it to your lives.  If you have an Einstein of a dog, you may need merely expose him to the situation!  If you have a less intellectually gifted dog, you may have to walk him through the training scenario a few times, but he will trust that you are not leading him astray; he will follow along the game trusting that you will show him the point soon enough. 

Likewise, at this stage of training, your dog may tell you no and instead of making him do as you ask, you can trust that he will do his best and if he is refusing, he is refusing with good reason.  You may find your canine partner starts to offer “suggestions” of activities too, and you are tuned in enough that you can follow along with these ideas and see where they go.  I remember many years ago meeting Attila Szkukalek and his amazing dog Fly.  Attila and Fly are famous for their Gladiator routine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0RjKJfuPbE )amongst others, and we were talking about how he had trained various moves.  Attila related about how Fly herself had “suggested” one of the moves in the routine.  He felt the idea would work, so he took the idea and did that part of the routine in the manner that Fly had demonstrated it to him.  This level of understanding, trust and communication are the kind of “love” that I value deeply as part of my training relationship with my dogs.

As this stage of love grows, my dogs age, and with age comes the realization that dogs never live as long as we do.  Towards the end of his life, D’fer would anticipate my actions so accurately, and then offer me such funny ideas that I felt like he was reading my mind!  He would make me laugh when I was most in need.  He would give me the answer when my creativity could not come up with a solution on its own.  At that point in our relationship I came to realize that there is nothing more important than true love, and in the end, he taught me how to love better than I could have learned in nearly any other way.  He forgave my errors, he supported me when I needed it, he filled in the blanks when I didn’t know what to do.  When I reflect on all I have learned over the years, I have come to the realization that my human loves are a good template for how to love a dog, but also that a dog’s love will ultimately help me to love my human friends and family even better.

FALLING IN LOVE

OWNING A GUN

Originally posted May 2013

**Please note*** Since writing this blog I have relicensed to hunt, which you may have seen reflected in some of my other writing.

 

I am a gun owner.  As a gun owner in Canada, I have to follow certain rules, and in fact, I follow even more rules than I am required to follow because I really want to make sure that I never ever allow my gun to fall into a situation where it might be used to commit a crime or to cause harm to someone.  I got my gun when I was pursuing a hunting license in order to be able to hunt food for myself.  Now that I no longer hunt, a good argument could be made that I no longer need a gun, but I might go back to hunting at some point and at that time, I would need a gun again, so in the meantime, I am a responsible gun owner who stores her gun in a manner that prevents people from getting the pieces, putting them together and firing the weapon.

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Guns must be kept in a secure lockable containment system.  Dogs with aggression issues must also be kept safely to keep everyone from harm, including the dog.  Image credit: michaklootwijk / 123RF Stock Photo

My approach to gun ownership is very much like the approach I take to living with my dogs.  John and I live with three dogs, all of whom in various ways could create havoc if they were improperly managed.  D’fer, our oldest is not terrific with puppies.  Preventing him from harming puppies is pretty straightforward.  No matter how much your puppy wants to meet my adult dog, I don’t allow that to happen.  I keep him crated, behind a fence or on a leash when a puppy is around and this keeps puppies safe.  Would he harm a puppy?  Probably.  I don’t want to find out, so I will never give him the chance.  This means that there are a very limited number of people who are permitted to handle D’fer.  I don’t just leave him with a friend, because I don’t want to risk that they might mis-understand or put him into a situation where he might make a mistake.  Deef is my responsibility, and I take that responsibility very seriously.

Eco, my German Shepherd was bred for protection work and I did a certain amount of that with him.  Although he has met children, he doesn’t know them very well and he is over 45 kg.  Without trying, Eco could easily harm a child, just by running and bumping into one.  For this reason, Eco is not a dog park dog.  He is not permitted to run loose in public because I don’t want to risk that a child or even a small adult might be hurt if he ran into them.  Once again, there are a limited list of people I would leave Eco with because I don’t want to put anyone at risk.  If I left Eco with someone who didn’t clearly understand the risks of handling him, and the boundaries we have to be aware of, then I would not be behaving responsibly towards my dog or the public.

Friday knows more about kids than Eco does and she likes puppies, but she is also a large dog at about 30kg, and she is young and sometimes foolish.  She is a dog I could leave with some folks, but not with everyone.  Not everyone is set up to deal with a young, goofy adolescent dog.  She is a good girl, but she is creative, thoughtful, agile, and sometimes a little too much for your average person to deal with.

Most of the work that I do is with dogs with serious behaviour problems.  Some of these dogs are extremely dangerous.  I have worked with dogs who have mutilated people and killed other dogs.  Some of these dogs will never ever be completely safe in public and yet they live safely in people’s homes.  How does that work?  On our uniform sleeves we have the motto “It Depends…”  The answer to how does that work is “It depends”.  It depends on the problem, it depends on where the owner lives with the dog, it depends on what risks there are in the lifestyle of the owner and so on and so forth.  The bottom line when living with a dog who is dangerous in one way or another is risk analysis.

When working with dogs who are dangerous, it is important first and foremost to look at the physical premises and determine what would make the most sense when living with a dog with a problem.  A dog who is predatory towards chickens should not be asked to live loose on a farm with hens.  That would just not be safe for the hens and we would be exposing the hens to a significant avoidable risk.  That same dog might well be perfectly safe and content living in a city in an apartment, where hens are extremely rare.  I would not necessarily trust such a dog with a parrot however.

I frequently get calls from families who wish to add a dog to their home when the resident dog or cat either doesn’t like other dogs, or has caused a significant injury to another animal.  I have helped many people make this work, but one of the first things to think about is “is this a good idea?”  If it is not a good idea, then no matter how much the family might want to add another dog, that doesn’t change the fact that it is a bad idea.  A lot can be done by using crates and gates with care, and avoiding the problem, but if you have a resident animal that doesn’t like other animals, is it actually a caring move to add another animal to the home?  I would suggest it might not be a kind thing to do.  This falls under the category of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

When a dog is dangerous to the public at large, it is our responsibility to protect the public.  There are tons of ways to keep people safe, and if your dog has ever caused harm to someone in public, be it a human or another dog, you must keep everyone safe at all times.  I would like to make it cool for dogs to wear muzzles in public.  If a muzzle will keep people safe, then why shouldn’t your dog wear one?  Keeping large boisterous dogs on leash can help a lot too.  Walking in places where other people don’t walk can really help a lot.  And finally, choosing your time to walk is important too.  I had a client who got up at three in the morning for four years to walk his dog because that was the one time that he could pretty much guarantee that his dog aggressive dog would not harm anyone else’s dog because other dogs just weren’t out at that time.

Owning a dog who has already caused harm to the public is a huge responsibility.  It is as big a responsibility as owning a gun, but because this is a thinking and feeling gun, we often forget that the dog can cause an enormous amount of damage.  Knowing how much damage a dog can do, and understanding that a dog is a thinking and feeling being requires a healthy dose of awareness, and compassion, without tipping yourself over into paranoia or soft heartedness.  When you live with dogs like this, you have to be entirely and dispassionately rational about what your dog is able to cope with, and what he should not be exposed to.  It is easy when you love a dog and you live with him to forget that he may have caused an incredible amount of damage, especially if you have not seen the action.  It is equally possible to become overly protective and never allow your dog to live a normal life at all.  The middle road can sometimes be difficult to find, and it can also sometimes be difficult to follow once you have found it.

The other issue to consider is that it is not only what YOU do with your dog but what others do too.  Consider the situation where you have a dog who has seriously injured another dog in a dog park.  Perhaps this happened when you weren’t with your dog.  Perhaps this happened before your dog lived with you.  If it happened at all, it is now your responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and this is where other people come into the equation.  Perhaps you can take your dog to the dog park when no one is there.  If you are able to see when other people show up, then you can leash up and leave.  If you are unable to see people coming, then you cannot reasonably let your dog off leash to play.  You cannot count on other people who don’t know your dog to take the kind of care that you do.  Another alternative is to find dog friends who ARE safe with your dog and meet them together to keep his skills with other dogs fluent.  All this falls apart though if you hand your dog over to a dog walker who doesn’t understand the risks.  Or if someone comes to the park and as you are leashing up, unleashes their dog to come and molest your dog.  When you cannot control who comes into contact with your dog, you really cannot take your dog into the situation.

One tragic incident happened to a client of mine many years ago.  She knew her dog was not good with strangers, but it was her family’s year to host Christmas dinner.  I suggested boarding her dog.  Not keen on that idea, she chose instead to put her dog out in their outdoor kennel while her guests were there.  An uncle, who had met the dog as a puppy decided he knew better than the owner and went out to the kennel and let the dog out.  After playing with the dog for half an hour, he let the dog into the home, where she mauled one of the other guests.  The owner appeared to be behaving responsibly, but she could not prevent her uncle from doing something that we knew would cause a problem.  It isn’t always what the owner does, but what the people around the owner do that can cause havoc.

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When you have guests, containing your dog at home may be a good idea if your dog has aggression issues, but often it is a better idea to send your dog to a professional boarding kennel where he can be safely cared for. Image credit: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

There are lots of dangerous dogs living in communities, and when everyone is brutally realistic without being paranoid or soft hearted, we can make it work.  When you own a dog who might be dangerous, it is your responsibility and no one else’s to protect society from harm caused by your dog.  As members of society, when an owner tells us that a dog is not friendly, you are not helping in any way by insisting that you know better.  You don’t.  You have no idea what the history of the dog you meet is and if the owner or handler tells you that the dog is not safe or not comfortable with being touched, then don’t press your luck; it is not worth it in any way.  Staying safe when working with dogs is like owning a gun.  You don’t leave it out where people who don’t understand it might have access, and you don’t leave it in a place where someone who might use it to commit a crime might find it.  With dogs with behaviour problems proactive handling, preplanning and organizing a plan B so that you can avoid problems is just common sense.  Kind of like living with a gun.

OWNING A GUN

WAIT A MINUTE!

At Dogs in the Park we run a drop in gym style program where students can come to more than 15 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 of our classes each week, although we have had students try and do so.

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 advertise 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.

French bulldog sleep in bed
If you have ever been advised to “sleep on it” when trying to solve a problem, you were being told to use latent learning to your advantage. Dogs do this too!

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.

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. 

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This dog looks like he is asking a question! Maybe his question is “what are you driving at?” This is a common question during training!

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.

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.

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Teaching a dog to jump onto an obstacle to do a trick can be broken down into a number of steps. In this image we can see one person helping the dog to balance while the other person holds a toy for the dog to focus on. Helping the dog learn the parts of the behaviour gives him the foundation to hold a stand stay on the object later on. The dog will put the parts of the behaviour together over time.

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 analyse 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:

waitaminute
This is how I think of teaching a compound behaviour to a dog. I like to think about all the foundation behaviours, and then about grouping them into chunks and finally putting them all together. This is of course a very simplified version of the process for scent discrimination with a retrieve!

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.

 

WAIT A MINUTE!

I WENT TO THE GYM ONCE

Originally posted May 2013

I used to belong to the local gym, and I used to go every workday morning.  It was a great start to the day.  I would lift weights, and ride the exercise bike and swim and then have a hot tub and shower and get ready for work.  I had friends at the gym who would share their lives with me, and I would share my life with them.  Then we moved out to the country and the gym was really inconvenient to get to, and I was really busy, so I stopped going.  I am not in the least bit surprised that my weight went up and my fitness went down.  I used to be a gym rat, but not anymore, and frankly when you don’t go, you stop reaping the benefits.

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Once…I was this fit.  Not so much any more!

Dog training is like this.  Coming to puppy school when your dogs are really young has become the norm, and we think this is terrific.  In puppy class we teach people about recognizing when their dogs might be overwhelmed, when play is getting too rough and how to introduce your puppy to the family.  We teach older puppies how to sit, lie down, come when called and stay out of the trash.  Almost everyone in class meets someone who has a puppy who is a good play match for their dog, and they continue to stay connected with one another throughout their dog’s lives.

All too often though, we have families who tell us that they are “taking a break” from classes and training, and periodically we get a client who returns to us when their puppy has grown up into a four year old Dennis the Menace.  Bad habits creep up, and the family works around them.  The problems aren’t addressed, and then suddenly they are overwhelming.   Maybe the dog has learned that coming when called is an optional behaviour that results in driving away from the dog park.  Quite often the behaviour that brings people back to class is a dog who is pulling on leash.  Hard.  Every day.  Quite often the client will say to me “but we went to puppy class”.

Puppy class is a great foundation.  I really, sincerely do believe that every puppy deserves puppy class and I believe this so strongly that I am giving puppy classes away for free.  If you do nothing else with your puppy, come to class before he is 12 weeks of age.  Never the less, if you come to puppy class before twelve weeks, and you never come back, don’t be surprised if your dog’s skills and socialization decay and aren’t reliable.

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This pup is learning that being caught by a child is a safe thing!  This is one of the foundation skills that pups learn in puppy class, but you have to keep practicing in order to maintain the skills.

Building skills to begin with is like going to the gym.  When I first went to the gym, I didn’t have any skills.  I started out by doing weightlifting that started out small and built up.  I started out lifting small weights, and built up to my top lifts of 200 lbs.  I started out with short light aerobic work outs on the stationary bike and the eliptical machines.  Each day I did similar routines that carefully built up my fitness.  Each week the routines became more challenging and helped to increase my fitness level.  I became stronger and more aerobically fit.  Sadly, I have taken a break and I am not where I was at my peak of fitness.

If I wanted to get back into weight lifting and get back to my best ever bench press of 200 lbs, then I would need to establish a base line.  What is the most I can lift now?  I would bet that with my current tennis elbow and terribly out of shape body, that I would probably be able to lift somewhere between 60 and 70 lbs.  That is a far cry from what I could lift when I was working out with weights every day!  60 to 70 lbs being my baseline, I would work out with weights that are less than that to build strength.  I might lift 4 sets of ten reps of 40 lbs for a week, and then move up to that work out with 45 lbs.  In dog training, when you have taken time off, you need to figure out what your dog’s baseline is when you start back at class and then work up from there.  There is no point in starting at your dog’s best performance; that is not where he is.

If I had kept going to the gym instead of stopping and starting over the years, I might have exceeded my heaviest lift ever instead of getting flabby and out of shape.  Things got in the way though, and my priorities shifted.  I know this happens with our puppies too.  When it happens though, we cannot be surprised when skills decay.

Not only do skills decay if you don’t practice, but so can socialization.  Socialization is the process of carefully exposing a puppy to everyone and everything he will encounter as an adult.  If you do this diligently, and then keep your dog in the backyard for the next four years, he will no longer be confident about the things that he encounters as he passes through life.  Thus it is important to take advantage of the early window of time to start socialization, but throughout your dog’s life, you need to continue to keep him socialized.  A large gap between initial socialization and ongoing socialization can create a problem where the dog is no longer confident about stimuli that he may once have been very tolerant about.  If your dog has had a gap in exposure to the environment either due to illness or the vagaries of our busy lives, he may develop the kinds of problems we hope to avoid by doing socialization activities in the first place.

When we start training with puppies, we are not surprised that they don’t know much and we work at the easy things such as restraining yourself against snatching treats, and work up to the more complicated things like leash manners and coming away from play or food.  When I am passing my students on their various obedience skills I often point out to them key exercises that they should practice throughout their dog’s lives.  Some of the exercises that we do with the dogs form the foundations for other exercises and again there are similarities to exercising at the gym.  I think of these exercises as the warm up stretches that we do before we work out.  If you have been to class but now you cannot return for whatever reason, then you can maintain your dog’s skills by practicing some of the simple skills that you worked on early in your dog’s career.  If you can do this, then taking a break from classes is not going to ruin the work you have done.  I am stronger now than I was when I got my horse a year ago because I began lifting heavy feed bags and hay and other items involved in caring for my horses.  I am not as strong as I was when I worked out every day, but I am stronger than I was.

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This chocolate Newfoundlander practices his down stay in the presence of treats in our Levels Class.  Continuing classes through adulthood keeps skills sharp and helps you to develop new skills as you go along!

I may go back to the gym at some point, but for right now, I exercise by caring for and riding my horse.  My dogs come to classes regularly and we practice regularly both at home and in class.  When I get my next pup, he will go to classes three to five times a week until he is about a year.  At that point, I will likely ease up and go only once or twice a week to develop skills for competition or sport.  My dogs go to classes for their whole lives, because I like the benefits of continuing classes over the long term; like the gym, classes yield benefits in other parts of my life.  Not only do I have dogs who have current skills but I also have fun at class.  There are people I see regularly who I enjoy talking with, and sharing experiences with.  Come to think of it, I am missing the community I built at the gym.  It might just be time to go back.

I WENT TO THE GYM ONCE