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

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

This is my blog on the mystery, mastery and amazement of muzzles.  I love muzzles.  Each one of my dogs has always had their own muzzle and when we go to the vet, we almost always have our own muzzle with us.  In fact the last time I was at the emergency vet I didn’t have time to grab a muzzle and the vet was completely surprised.  Do my dogs NEED the muzzles?  To be completely honest, I don’t know.  I would never ask my vet to find out the hard way!  My veterinarian spent many years after high school amassing a huge amount of knowledge to be the best animal doctor he could be, and I don’t think it is the vet’s job to avoid being bitten; it is his job to give my dog the best medical care possible, and my part in the deal is to make his job as easy as possible.

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This is one of my dogs, D’fer, having his foot looked at. He had a very deep laceration and the vet needed to have a look. You can tell that he is pretty stoic by the look on his face, but he was willing to co-operate. He was wearing his muzzle not because I thought that he would bite the vet, but because I don’t want to take the chance that this could happen.

A muzzle has even saved one of my dog’s lives once.  When Bear was about 14 he got sick; he was so sick that we booked an appointment to euthanize him.  We took him into the vet’s office and the vet needed to listen to his heart.  The key to getting a good listen to a dog’s heart is to prevent him from panting, and when dogs are distressed, they often pant heavily.  After about ten minutes of trying to hold Bear’s mouth shut, and he getting more and more wound up, the vet said “I am sorry, but I cannot hear your dog’s heart today but I don’t think we need to put him to sleep.  If only I could hear his heart, I could help him.  I asked why we didn’t just put a muzzle on him and the vet’s jaw dropped.  He thought that since I was a dog trainer, I would be very offended if he suggested that.  Just the opposite.  I pulled Bear’s muzzle out of my pocket and put it on.  He stopped panting and in fact relaxed a bit because we were doing something he was familiar with.  His heart was healthy and we were able to get a simple blood test that told us that he had Lyme disease.  With treatment, he lived another 18 months.

The fact is that although my dogs are all trained to accept all sorts of handling and frightening situations, if they are really truly and deeply afraid or in pain, they might bite.  Muzzles prevent bites, plain and simple.  My vet is an intelligent, well educated professional and his job is to help my dog to stay healthy, and to resolve health problems when my dog gets sick.  My vet’s job is not to put himself at risk of getting bitten.

I regularly work with dogs with serious behaviour problems including aggression.  I have had more than one student come to class with a dangerously aggressive dog who has already injured someone and be reluctant to muzzle their dog.  More than once a client has said to me “you are the dog trainer, don’t you know how to handle the dog without a muzzle?”  The expectation seems to be that I have some magic that will protect me when handling a dangerous dog.  I am good, but I am not magic! 

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This is a groomer’s muzzle. They are inexpensive, easy to obtain, and easy to fit. When teaching a dog to wear a muzzle, this kind of a muzzle can really help your dog to learn that wearing a muzzle is fun because it is easy to give treats through it.

When I worked a service dog, I often had to travel.  When I was on an airplane or a train, I always carried a cloth groomer’s muzzle in my briefcase.  More than once my briefcase was searched and the agent would find the muzzle and ask me what it was for.  In the event of an accident where I needed to be evacuated, I wanted to be prepared that I could muzzle my dog if transport might be difficult.  I always try and plan for every contingency possible and one of those contingencies is that I might need to be carried out of an airplane on a stretcher, and my dog might need to be lifted up by someone he didn’t know.  A muzzle makes that much safer for the rescuer, which makes it much more likely that my dog would be saved in an emergency.

So how do I get my dogs accustomed to muzzles?  I start early for sure!  When my puppies are very young, I will sometimes feed them out of a coffee cup to teach them that they can take treats out of a confined space.  Then I move on to yoghurt containers as they grow, and smear peanut butter or some other soft gooey food item on the bottom.  When my dogs start seeing a yoghurt container as an opportunity to get their faces into something yummy, I cut a small hole in the bottom of the yoghurt container, and duct tape an elastic to make a head strap on the wide mouth.  I smear something in the bottom, and when the puppy is licking away, I slip the elastic strap over his head.  The elastic should be fairly loose to start with.  And then it is a quick step to shoving treats in the front of the muzzle.  Puppies think this sort of a handling game is lots of fun.  If the puppy fusses about the elastic or the yoghurt container, I just don’t pop the head strap over his head until the pup is really confident about the whole thing, and try again in a few days. 

Once the puppy, or sometimes the older dog, is happy about having the loose elastic strap around his head, and is not bothering the yoghurt container, then I switch to a regular muzzle.  My favourite brand of muzzle is still the jafco (https://www.jafcomuzzles.com/ ), but I also use a groomer’s muzzle for training; they are easier to carry in my pocket and they are the type of muzzle that the veterinarian will likely have.  I put the muzzle on loosely, and feed through the front.  I keep doing this until the puppy or dog is happy about the procedure.  From there it is fairly easy to get a puppy to accept the head strap being tightened.  In my experience, dogs accept the jafco very easily, and once I can tighten the head strap, I make sure that my dog has lots of chances to engage in fun activities such as playing with friends while wearing his muzzle. 

Once my dogs understand how to wear a muzzle and once they are relaxed and happy about going for a walk while wearing one, the key is to keep that skill fluent.  You have to practice regularly.  In my house, we sometimes have happy muzzle day on Mondays.  Happy muzzle day is the day that you get to play muzzle games, or go for an off leash walk, or play with your friends while wearing your muzzle.

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Here is my handout outlining how to get a dog started on muzzle training.

Muzzles are a little bit like shoes for babies.  Babies don’t like wearing shoes.  They don’t enjoy having their feet confined.  Dogs and puppies don’t like having their faces confined either!  If you take the time to properly train your dog to wear a muzzle, then your dog is not going to fuss when he needs to do so.  Additionally, puppies who are taught to wear a muzzle properly rarely mind wearing a head halter unless you put a lot of pressure on the leash when using the head halter.  That is a topic for a whole other blog though!

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

JUDGEMENT CALL

Originally posted June 2013

Humans are social animals.  For reasons that hit deep into the DNA of our species we are set up to live together in groups and to trade favours in order to get along better.  Trading favours is one way to describe an evolutionary concept called reciprocal altruism.  In other words, you scratch my back and I will scratch yours, and presumably, mutual back scratching will improve the likelihood that each of us will survive long enough to pass along our genes.  One of the most important ways that we have to trade favours is to warn one another of dangers, especially if they are avoidable.

What would you do if you observed the following:

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Image credit: waldru / 123RF Stock Photo

Would you call out?  Would you help?  If you knew a train was coming, would that impact your choice of response?  Would you be angry if someone tried to help?  Think about it.  As an adult coming across a child playing on railroad tracks, if I saw this, I would say something, especially if I knew that a train might come along.

In the past two weeks, I have three times been accused of interfering, being judgemental and being an expert without empathy.  Maybe that is a sign that people are beginning to read my blog.  Maybe I am just rude; not my intent, but I would allow for that as a possibility.  Maybe people know that they are doing things that are not a terribly good idea.  And what have I alerted on that is so horrible?  I have told people when their dogs were showing signs of stress in images.

The point has been made that the images are but a moment in time, and this is entirely true.  When a camera takes an image, it is taking a picture of that one instant in time.  Have a look at the image below, and think about what you see.  Is the child happy?  Or sad?  In the moment, there is a definite emotional event happening.  Believe it or not showing an image of a child who is sad in the moment does not mean that child has a terrible life; it means that at one instant in time, the child was unhappy and a picture was taken.

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Would you send your kid to basketball camp, if this were the type of image that was used in advertizing the camp?  Do you think your child would be interested in going to basketball camp so that he or she could feel this way too?  Image credit: duplass / 123RF Stock Photo

Now let’s think about advertizing.  If you were looking for a child’s dance class, would you want to take your child there if all the images of the children in the advertizing literature were crying?  This is a situation I face when I cruise through the websites of some of my competition.  I see page after page of accurately working dogs who universally look unhappy.  I see long series of pictures of classes full of dogs showing whale eye, pinned ears, head drops and occasionally a snarl.

I also face this day in and day out when I see family pictures of my non dog training friend’s and their dogs.  I see children hugging dogs, and people putting dogs in awkward positions, and the dogs are clearly showing signs of discomfort and distress.  In fact, a lot of the images I see are not just dogs who look sad, but dogs who are in the early sequence of getting ready to bite.

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I see this sort of image in my Facebook feed on a daily basis.  This dog is helpless and unhappy and has begun to bite the child.  Often the image is posted with a caption such as “Missy and her new puppy are bonding; aren’t they cute?”  All I can think about is “If I don’t say something, this child is going to get hurt.  I don’t want the child to get hurt.”  Image credit: tonobalaguer / 123RF Stock Photo

When I talk to people about these pictures, they regularly tell me that the dog often looked like that and was perfectly happy and that the dog never hurt anyone.  I am tired of telling people that they were darned lucky.  All too often, I get first contact with a family after the dog has bitten and often after the dog has bitten a child.  Here is a news flash; dogs don’t like being hugged or kissed.  They really don’t.  When you look at hundreds of images of dogs showing signs of stress and you know you are going to be talking to the families at some point down the road about behaviours that lead to biting, then it is incredibly frustrating to hear that you are being mean, unkind, thoughtless or misusing your education when you speak up.  For me, to see an image of a child hugging a dog, while the dog is giving whale eye, is squinting, or has pinned ears is like looking at a picture of a kid running into traffic.  It turns my stomach and makes my blood run cold.  The reason that I get so upset about these images is not that I don’t want people to have great experiences with their pets; it is because if a bite comes and I didn’t speak out, I feel like I was complicit.  It feels like I could have prevented a bite, if only people didn’t think I was attacking them.

Several of my colleagues have pointed out that I am willing to do unpleasant things to dogs from time to time in order to suppress or decrease behaviours, and that not everything we do to dogs is always wonderful and pleasant.  My colleagues; you are right.  The images I am talking about are moments in time, and they show the dogs in discomfort or distress for that moment.  I am not saying that the dog is being abused, or that the dog’s welfare is at risk; I am saying that at that moment in time, the dog is uncomfortable.  Sometimes the dog is showing me that he will bite and soon.  When people use these pictures to show their best work, it is a sad situation.  When people knowlingly put their dogs into this sort of a situation, and then take a picture of that situation, it is not fair to the dog.

So here is my problem.  I see the situation.  I comment.  Inevitably, someone takes offence that I have an opinion.  Sometimes they get angry.  Usually they are upset.  Should I comment?  I feel compelled to comment for so many reasons.  Like the Lorax, I speak for a creature who cannot speak for himself.  When I am working as a behaviour consultant, I advocate for the dog within the family.  Often when people can see the discomfort they can change what they do, and the dog’s overall welfare improves.  Not only that but the safety of the family improves.  When it works, I feel like I am contributing in a positive way to society.  When it doesn’t I feel outcaste and like a failure.  When I cannot reach the client or the family or the community and a bite happens, I feel even worse.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not all about me, but on the other hand it is.  As a society we have grown so far away from our agrarian roots that we often don’t recognize the signs of stress in our dogs.  When we recognize them, we often dismiss them as unimportant.  We put ourselves and our dogs into situations that are unpleasant and often dangerous.  We have both high and low expectations of ourselves and we translate those expectations on our dogs.  We expect that life will be hard and we put up with that.  We expect that our dogs will tolerate discomfort and put up with that too.  How is this about me?  It is about me because I have been trained to recognize the signs of stress in dogs.  Once you know what you are looking for, it is really hard not to do something when you see the signs.

When I point out a dog in distress this is not a judgement about you or who you are, or your family or your value to society or if you have a nice dog or a not nice dog.  This is not a judgement about the choices you made.  I assume, correctly more often than not, that you don’t see the signs of stress because you don’t have the training I do.  This isn’t a bad thing, it is just a thing.  When I point out that a dog is in distress, and I tell you about it, to me it is like telling you your shoelace is undone.  I want to participate in the co-operative behaviour of a society and protect you so that if I am in danger and you know about it, you will tell me.  For me, this is no more judgemental than “I noticed that you didn’t turn off the stove when you left the kitchen; shall I go check and turn it off so we don’t burn down the house?”

This blog is a bit of a rant, and I am aware of that.  I don’t often write about how my job impacts my life, but it does.  When I go to a family picnic and I see a dog being harassed by the kids, the picnic is no longer any fun for me because I know that the dog is uncomfortable and that the only way he can avoid the discomfort is to warn and then bite those who are causing discomfort.  If I say something, then I risk that you will think that I am judging you and ruin your day.  If I don’t say something then I risk that I will be sitting in yet another appointment with a friend or a family member and have to explain to them why their dog bit their child.  Some of the time, not saying something results in the dog behaving so dangerously that the family chooses to kill the dog.  For me, the stakes are very high, and the last thing I want to do is share in the heartbreak of yet another family who got a dog because they love dogs, and end up afraid of dogs because mishandling led to a tragedy.

JUDGEMENT CALL

WHAT’S THE POINT?

For those of you who know me well, you likely know that I don’t really enjoy repetitious drilling.  I am pretty sure that most of our animal learners don’t either.  I had a riding coach who once told me “you got the move right, why are you practicing what you already know?” and I think she had a good point.  Once you have mastered the behaviour, what exactly is the point of practicing it over and over and over again until it becomes stale and boring for your animal learner?

For me, this is one of the real challenges to training young puppies.  The early skills that you have to teach puppies are important in order to build a solid training history, but once my puppy has a solid grasp on them, I want to move on.  I DO train my puppies of course, and I encourage others to spend the time with their young naïve dogs teaching them the foundation skills that they will need too, but it is not my most fun training time.  If I could just install sit, down, touch, go to mat, stay, come when called and you control the click as a little program without doing the work I probably would so that I could get on with the stuff that is more fun.

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Teaching a young dog that click means treat and that they can control the click is an important part of foundational training, but clicking and treating hundreds of times would be tedious and is unnecessary.

Here is the problem with dogs who have been in training for a few months.  Most dogs get to the point where the foundation behaviours are known and they aren’t much fun for the dog any more!  Sit?  Got it.  Not worth the kibble any more!  This sequence is not an uncommon sight in my classrooms.  The dog has learned the behaviour, and the owner then asks for that behaviour over and over and over again.  The dog knows how to do it, and he has gotten to the point where asking for it, drilling it and repeating it leads the dog to start to mentally ask “what’s the point?”  I will point out that he is not articulating that in words, but from what I can see an awful lot of dogs don’t want to keep practicing things just because you want them to do it.  At this point in training one of two things needs to happen.  Either the trainer needs to start to move the training along, or the trainer needs to start to apply the behaviour to something that makes sense to the dog!  Both strategies are useful.

So let’s look at sit.  If you have a young dog who knows how to sit, you can start to make that more challenging to the dog right away.  It isn’t difficult.  I like to make a mental list of all the places I have asked my puppy to do this.  In the kitchen?  Yup.  The living room?  Yup.  The bathroom?  Oooohhh!  That one is trickier!  I keep adding rooms until my dog is able to sit in any room in the house.  Then I start to add in places outside.  Front yard, back yard, on the porch, the driveway, the sidewalk, the park.  When I run out of places, I add in objects.  Can you sit on a mat?  A cushion?  That one is tricky!  A boulder? A stump?  A wall?  A bale of hay or straw? In a puddle?  The technical term for this process is generalizing.  I am generalizing the dog’s ability to perform the behaviour to a wide variety of places and contexts.  You can think of this as the Green Eggs and Ham of dog training. 

There are other ways of generalizing too.  Can your pup dog the same behaviour no matter who asks for it?  When your dog is able to follow your directions in a number of venues, will he follow it for your brother?  Your daughter?  Your best friend?  Your trainer?  I am looking to train every cue such that my dog will follow that cue anytime, anywhere, for anyone, and that means getting very specific about what I am teaching.  I cannot expect my dog to follow the instructions if he doesn’t know them and if he hasn’t had the chance to follow a cue in new places and with other people, I cannot expect him to be successful.

Still though, these are just foundational behaviours, and after practicing sit here, there and everywhere, my dog is going to start asking that all important question “what’s the point?”  Why should he sit?  What if he doesn’t want to?  What if it isn’t worth a piece of kibble?  I am willing to do many things, but some of the time, I just don’t feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if you offer me money or some other incentive to do it.  the caveat is that if I think there is a good reason to do something, I will do that boring little thing, often for no reward.  This is the important point to remember when our dogs hit that point where they have mastered the foundation behaviours but those behaviours don’t have context.  When there is no point to doing the task, the dog may begin to refuse to play the game.

So how do we give context to behaviours?  Simply put, we stop rewarding them with food, play or touch.  We start to put the behaviour into other activities.  Most dogs willingly sit for dinner; that is part of the ritual and routine for many dogs, so it makes sense to them to just do it.  In fact, you can really annoy some dogs by offering them a treat before you put down the bowl.  The reward for the behaviour is to get to eat dinner, however most of the time, the dog is just thinking about what the routine might be for getting to the meal.  The same goes for dogs who are required to sit before doors open, or who have to sit before they get their leashes on.  The sit just fits into the routine, and it has meaning to the dog. 

Dog at summer
Once your dog knows how to sit, you should start asking him to do that in a wide variety of places and conditions. Just because he can sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean that he will necessarily sit on the front lawn, in the park or at the vet’s. And just because he can sit on the floor doesn’t mean that he will sit on a mat, on a chair, on a stool or on a low wall. Generalizing the behaviour means that your dog will do the behaviour anywhere, anytime and no matter who asks him to do it!

We can go one better than that though.  We can start making games for ourselves with our dogs that involve the foundation behaviours that get so boring so quickly.  Using sit as our example again, we can start asking our dog to sit before we do things together, such as fetch, search or find me (or even better, find someone else!).  The sit becomes embedded in other activities and gains meaning as part of other fun activities.  Now the dog has a reason to perform the behaviour and that makes the behaviour itself much more meaningful to the dog. 

You can kill the joy of the sit if it is the only behaviour you integrate this way however.  If you only embed the sit, it is a little like playing scrabble where you only get four letters, a, e, s, and t.  There are a very limited number of words you can spell with those four letters and if you try and play scrabble with these four letters, it is going to be a tedious and boring game.  You might choose to play that way at first in order to teach someone the concept of the game, however in the end, you will get tired of the limits set upon you by having so few letters to use.  As your dog gains more behaviours, you can start to play the same games with more “letters” or behaviours.  Now, instead of only having sit to insert into your activities, you can make the required behaviour a surprise.  You start making dinner for your dog, and before putting it down, you ask your dog to lie down, or sit, or touch your hand with his nose.  When your dog gives you the behaviour you ask for, you can give him his dinner.  In this way, behaviours become letters in the infinite game of training scrabble.

Cute little Shiba Inu dog sitting on doormat at home
When there is context to a behaviour, dogs are more willing to do the behaviour. Many dogs know that if they sit by the door, it is quite likely that someone will open the door for them. Once the dog has the context for the behaviour you need not reinforce the behaviour with a treat; the door opening is certainly a reward, however, it is also part of the communication that we share with our dogs as part of the activity, and this is all part and parcel of having a well trained dog. When he understands the behaviour in context and the behaviour is part of the formula we don’t need to reward it every single time.

You can in fact extend this game into more and more complex activities that become meaningful for you and your dog.  At Dogs in the Park, we run a games class each week for the dogs who have passed the foundation behaviours needed in order to play.  We play things such as musical chairs (integrating leash manners, sits and downs into an activity), leap frog (go to mat) and recall relays (coming when called over and through distractions).  By participating in group activities where the behaviours are applied instead of just drilled dogs become more willing and eager to perform those behaviours that have become stale and boring when you just drill them. 

It is important to note that advanced behaviours can suffer the same fate as those foundational ones; drill the agility tunnel or the perfect front in obedience for too long and your previously enthusiastic dog will start to ask “what’s the point?”  Once your dog asks that question about behaviours you have worked hard to polish, it doesn’t take long for an advanced dog to start asking that same question about more mundane behaviours too.

WHAT’S THE POINT?

KIDS TRAINING DOGS

Originally posted June 2013

When I was about twelve, I wanted to teach the family dog some tricks.  The process of connecting with an animal and imparting information fascinated me as much then as it does now.  We had a dog in our family named Thurber, and she was my constant companion, and I wanted to do more.  My aunt had a titled Golden Retriever, and I was mesmerized by the work they did together.  I asked my aunt how she trained her dog and she suggested that I use a chain collar to tell the dog when not to do something and a piece of food to tell the dog when she had done something right.  That was all the coaching I ever remember getting, but it made a big impact on me.  I taught that dog many tricks; most of them involving jumping over or climbing onto things.

As an obedience instructor today, I have a lot of parents asking him about getting their children involved with dog training.  Indeed, dog training and children can go hand in hand, but it is the unusual and rare child who is as interested in it as I was.  Most kids are looking for some early successes and don’t persevere through the early stages where the dog doesn’t know what is happening and neither does the child.  This can be even more difficult when the child and the dog are in a classroom full of adults and other dogs.  The pressure to succeed can often result in frustration for the parents, the kids and the dog.

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We LOVE to include children in our classes, and it works best when the adults help to tailor the activities so that the children and the dogs are successful, such as at this socialization party.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

How can we make this more successful for the kids?  For a while we ran a family class which was a levels class just for families and their kids.  Sadly, not enough families could come out to make this worth carrying on with.  We would go along nicely with four or five families in class for eight or twelve weeks and then it would dwindle and get taken over by families who wanted their dogs to meet and like children but who weren’t bringing children to class.  Certainly there are schools who run classes specifically for children but there aren’t too many of them.

As an animal trainer who also works with horses, I think we can learn something from what we do in the horse world.  It is accepted that it is not a good idea for an untrained, inexperienced young rider to be mounted on an untrained, inexperienced young horse.  Instead, we prize those rare ponies who are well suited to teaching youngsters to be confident around and on horses.  We start the kids in lessons where the pony knows what to do and the kids can learn from a horse who already knows the work.  When the kids are proficient on a well schooled calm and older pony, we give them a more challenging mount or more difficult work on the same horse.  When they master that, we give them a bigger horse, and bigger challenges.  By the time a child is about twelve, he can if he has been taught carefully and properly begin schooling younger horses and by the time a child is about fourteen he can begin to teach young horses to be ridden.

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This child is being set up for a successful riding experience by pairing her with a safe pony and supervision (she is on a long line to help her to successfully control the pony).  She is wearing the appropriate safety equipment.  The pony is the right size for her and he is calm and well behaved.  We aren’t asking her to control a large unruly and untrained horse.  Ideally, this is what we would do when we pair a child with a dog in an obedience class!  Image credit: davetroesh / 123RF Stock Photo

This is how I recommend that we help youngsters to work with our family dogs.  When mom or dad starts the training, and teaches the dog the skills and then helps the child to master the skill with the dog who already knows what to do, then the dog and the child can develop skills together.  When the child has mastered the basics, then moving forward to more complex and interesting work makes for a more successful experience for both the dog and the child.

In practice what that means in our classes is coming to class and learning to click and treat effectively.  Then take the skill of clicking and treating home to your kids and help them to master that part.  Even very young children can be successful with you clicking and they treating.  By working WITH your kids where you click and they treat does a lot of things.  It teaches the dog that the click predicts the treat.  It helps with your timing.  It involves the children with you and the dog in an activity.  Later you can change roles and let your kids click while you treat.

When you have mastered clicking to mark the behaviour you want, you can teach your dog to do a lot of different things; sit, down and come when called are really easy and useful behaviours to teach your dog so that your kids can participate in training.  When your dog will sit when you say “sit” and you can click when sit happens, you can integrate into your training.  You can start out by demonstrating the behaviour with your dog to your children.  Once your child understands the activities that you want your dog to do, then you can play a variety of games with the behaviours your dog knows.  Get your child to say “sit” when your dog sits, you click and your child can give the treat.  This teaches your dog to follow directions from your child (very important!) and you mark when both the kid and the dog get the right answer.  When your dog is following the direction from your child, you can start giving your child the clicker and you cue the behaviour for the dog.  This gives you a chance to coach the timing of the click so that your child clicks at the right moment.  When your child has had a chance at the cueing, the clicking and the treating separately, then they can start working on all three at once.  I like getting kids to do five of the same behaviour in a row, before we start working on second and third behaviours.

Once the kids get the hang of the process with behaviours that the dog knows, then I like playing a game of call and response; I tell the kid what behaviours to use, and they ask for the behaviour from the dog and click and treat.  When the dog and child are successful with five or six different behaviours in a row, then the kids are ready to start teaching new behaviours.  The dog should by this time understand ten or twelve behaviours, so the dog understands the process of learning.  It is really important that the kids understand that they are marking the right answer for the dog before they start trying to shape new behaviours with the dog.

I have a dozen or so throw away behaviours that I use to help people to learn to shape.  Throw away behaviours are behaviours that don’t really matter a lot to me; tricks are throw aways, and if the dog doesn’t learn them exactly right it is not a big deal.  Throw away behaviours are not the sorts of behaviours that the dog’s life depends upon, like come when called or lie down and stay.  Lying down with your head on your paws is a great throw away behaviour for kids to play with.  The child cues the dog to lie down, and then instead of clicking we just give the dog a treat; the click ends the behaviour, and we want the dog to stay lying down.  Then your child can wait till your dog drops his head towards his paws, and click at that moment and then treat.  If your child is sitting in front of your dog while he is lying down, then your dog will likely keep lying down.  Help your child to offer the treat low between the dog’s feet to help your dog to continue lying down, and if he gets up, then help your child to recue your dog to lie down and then help your kid to continue to click only when your dog drops his head down to his paws.

Notice here that the parent needs to spend a lot of time training, supporting and coaching in order to make this successful for both the dog and the child.  Training, supporting, and coaching set up your dog and your child to be successful and start to work independently.  You cannot do this for either your dog or your child, but without input they are likely going to flounder especially in a busy classroom.  Once your child has trained a few throw away behaviours or tricks with coaching, then it is time for the parent to step back, and supervise but not do it for the team.  These first steps of training independently need to be successful to keep both your child and your dog engaged.  It is also important to recognize that there is no imperative to work for a whole hour in a class-if your child and your dog are comfortable working for ten minutes and then they need a break, then let them take a break; it is not worthwhile to keep them working when they are no longer interested.

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This is the sort of trick that little girls teach their dogs to do.  The dog has to learn somethings first; lie down and stay for instance.  If we help the dog to learn the behaviour and then teach the kids how to get the dogs to do what they know then the dog and the kids can both have a great experience!

Small successful steps lead to a long lasting bond between your dog and your child, but you also have to put the training in context.  This is true for adults in training classes too; “what is the point?” is always an important question to answer.  If you have been working on sit with your dog and your child, then make sure that you use that behaviour with your dog and your child in the context of their day to day activities.  You could for instance start getting your dog to sit before your child puts the dog’s breakfast down.  Or you could get your dog to sit before your child throws a ball or a Frisbee for your dog.  It is really important to make training relevant to both your dog and your child.

Often when parents ask if we include kids in class, they forget that we are dealing with three learners in class; the adult, the dog and the child.  Few training classes are really geared to meet the needs of a child learner, and dropping a child into an adult class is not fun for the child, the instructor or the dog.  We cannot expect the child to learn in the way that adults do, and when we pair the child up with a dog who doesn’t understand the work either, then the adult, the child and the dog go away frustrated.

When parents work with the school and take the dog through the work before they take the child through the work with the dog who already knows what to do, this makes it much easier for everyone.  Communication between you and the instructor about your goals in bringing your dog and your child to class can really go a long way to being successful too.  As an instructor, I want to know about your training goals and be a part of your successes.  From time to time a child appears in my classes with their parents and the parent steps back too early, and the whole experiment falls apart.  Not only is the child turned off one of the most magical activities that I was blessed to experience in my childhood, but the adult and the dog are frustrated too!

And what about the child who takes a class and is successful?  When the child and the dog move through the world together and they come up with an idea together, they can explore that with a common understanding of how to communicate about what they each need.  Then the child gets what I got as a child.  A magic relationship with another being.  That is what I wish every child could get when they come through my classroom.

KIDS TRAINING DOGS

THE MILLION DOLLAR RECALL

Originally posted in June 2013

When clients come in with a dog and tell me that they want their dogs to come when called I always tell them that they are off to a good start because they have their dog at the moment.  At some point, the dog came when called.  He may have come slowly or he may have come by a very long route, but he did come back to them at some point.  The recall or come to me behaviour is probably the single most desired behaviour in pets, and the after leash manners the one that gives people the most difficulty.  When asked, fewer than one in every ten of my students can tell me how they originally taught their dogs to come when called.  When they can tell me how they taught the behaviour, I can trouble shoot the problems.  When clients cannot tell me how they taught the behaviour to begin with, often they didn’t teach the behaviour at all; they just started calling the dog and hoping for the best.  Hope for the best is not a really good way to train; results are really dicey.

How we look at the recall can be very helpful in how we teach it.  I look at the recall as a puzzle for the dog to solve.  At first, I make the puzzle really easy.  I hold the dog and have the handler feed the dog and then run away.  I get them to stand up and call their dog.  This makes the puzzle really clear to the dog and he can get the right answer really easily.  I get my students to grab their dog’s collars and then feed to help the dog to understand what the right answer is.  The puzzle starts out as “how can I get away from the person holding me and to the person who wants to touch me and feed me.”  This simple puzzle lays the foundation for the more complex puzzle of “I am rolling in dead fish, and I hear my person calling me, and there is probably a really good reason to leave what I am doing and go find my person, who I cannot see and may only be able to hear faintly.”  The steps in between are important and what I find is that most people don’t put enough recalls in the come when called bank before they try and get this upper level of behaviour.

Dog retrieving ball for his dad in park
This behaviour is one that can be morphed into a recall fairly easily.  Coming back with a ball is a game for many dogs, and it helps to put pennies in the recall bank.  Image ID: 86327139 (S)

I also think about recalls as a bank account.  I am aiming to get a million recalls in the bank.  Every time that I call and the dog doesn’t come is a withdrawal.  In order to get a million recalls in the bank, I have to do hundreds of thousands of practice calls that WILL be successful before I do any recalls that might not work.  If I am overdrawn on my recall account, then I have undermined the work that I want to do.  Here is how I do the accounting.  If I call once, and the dog comes once, that is a penny in the recall account.  If I want a million dollar recall, then that means that I need to have 100 million successful repetitions of one call, one dog with me.  Every time I call and the dog doesn’t come, then that is a penny out of the account.  So if I call and the dog comes, five times, I have a 5 cent recall.  If I then call two times and the dog only comes once, I am down a penny, meaning I only have a 4 cent recall.  You may be thinking this is a drattedly long training process, but I have a few cards up my sleeve.

The first card is the set up card.  I say “here” and grab my dog’s collar and feed him a treat.  One cent.  I say “here” and grab my dog’s collar and feed him a treat.  Another cent.  But wait, you may be thinking.  The dog didn’t go away.  How does that make up a one cent recall?  Remember what I said to begin with about not thinking about recalls only as a come when called?  Another way to think about a recall is as an opportunity for your dog to get a treat.  When I say “here” it means that a treat is coming.  I just happened to grab your collar in between the name and the treat.  I can get in a good dozen recalls in the amount of time it takes you to read this paragraph.  I am not thinking of recalls as getting to me from a distance, but rather as the number of times that a treat has been associated with my call.  In the amount of time it took to type the last sentence, I can get in another three.  Four.  Five.  And so on and so forth.

If you are calling your dog and he isn’t coming and you call and call and call and call, and then he comes, you are down four cents of a recall, so another important aspect to consider is that if your dog isn’t coming, don’t keep calling.  This afternoon on our weekly dog walk, a client was calling her dog and he would not come.  I went to where he was gleefully rolling in a dead raccoon and he started to play keep away.  He ran straight in to my vet student volunteer who corralled him and gave him a treat.  With a weak recall, his person spent four cents on her million dollar recall, so she will have to work on recalls at home to put money back in the account.  The lesson is simple.  Don’t spend money you don’t have.  If you don’t have a strong recall, don’t call your dog, just go and get him.  Going to get your dog gives you another successful recall or penny in the bank.

A lot of my clients have emergency recall systems that they have accidentally developed just by living with their dogs.  One of my clients discovered that calling out “Good Bye Boson” her dog would come running as fast as he could.  Several of my clients have figured out that getting in the car will result in their dogs coming very quickly.  I am not entirely sure about how these tactics develop, but if it is utterly reliable, it can be very helpful in a pinch.  My advice is that as long as you don’t over use them, they can be very helpful in avoiding making excessive withdrawals.

I have worked with a number of clients who look at the million dollar price tag and ask “isn’t there a cheaper recipe?”  In the right hands, yes, there is.  In the wrong hands, on a dog who is not confident, or in the wrong environment, you will actually overdraw your account, and the risk is not really worth the result.  I have many clients who have read on the net, or even gone out and purchased a shock collar in the hopes of getting a fast and reliable result, and have made their recall problems worse.  In the interest of honesty, I will share that thousands of dogs are taught to come when called, happily, and reliably on a shock collar.  When the trainer knows what they are doing.  When the trainer doesn’t know what he is doing, the results are not only not reliable, but are often the opposite of what you may have wanted.  Properly executed a shock collar trained recall is a very fast and very reliable method.  Improperly trained you can end up teaching your dog to associate the shock with something other than his own behaviour of leaving you.  It is much easier and safer for pet dogs to be taught the long way round, and it can be every bit as reliable.  I see far too many dogs whose owners have tried this and who have regretted the choice, but in the interest of honesty, you should know that the people who train this way are not lying and they are not necessarily killing their relationship with their dogs-but you may not be able to replicate their methods and there is a huge risk involved of making your recall worse not better.

Once I have a dog who understands the two parts of the recall; that the cue “here” means that there is something he wants available as soon as he is close enough for you to grab his collar, and that it is a puzzle to figure out how to get to you so you can grab him, then it is a matter of setting up as many millions of scenarios that make this happen as possible.  One of my clients had a beagle and their dog was notorious for not coming when called.  When we turned the puzzle around and sent her out to find someone, suddenly, very suddenly, she became the worlds fastest recall beagle.  Every night for an hour, the family would go for a walk in two groups.  Half the family would head out in one direction in their local park and the other half of the family would set out in the other direction.  A few minutes into the walk, the first group would send their dog out to find the second group.  When she found them, they would catch her and feed her, and then send her out to find the first group.  Turning the game on it’s head and making it about finding, not coming and we had the most reliable recall I have ever seen on a hound.  After playing this for several months, the family stopped sending the dog and started calling her.  Familiar with the game of being sent, it was a small step for the dog to learn to come when called, reliably and quickly.

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THIS is what a dog coming quickly to you looks like.  Your goal is to frame the game into a fun activity for your dog, so that your dog comes when called even when he might have something that he is really interested in doing!  Image ID: 37362458 (S)

Many dogs avoid being caught at the end of walks because they know that the fun is coming to an end.  Like a child at a playground, they realize that if they don’t come close enough to be caught, they can keep playing.  The key to solving this recall issue is to put more pennies in the bank during the walk and release the dog to play again.  The more often that you do this, the more reliable your recall becomes, recognizing that you have to pay handsomely at the end with a treat or toy the dog really likes to make the final recall the most, not least valuable to the dog.  Calling your dog to you in mid walk just to prove you can, might also backfire though.  If you call you must have a reason for doing so.  Many dogs do significantly better if you call, leash up, do some training and then let them go and have more fun for a while.  They see the point in coming to you when you call if you are going to spend some energy attending to them, than if you simply give them a treat and send them along.

There are significant breed differences in recalls.  I have always found my German Shepherds learn to come when called and maintain the behaviour more readily than my Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.  None the less the principle is still the same.  Don’t sabotage your training by spending recalls you don’t have in the bank.  If there is any doubt about your dog coming when called, then go get him.  The recall is so important to most of my clients that it pays to pay attention to how you teach it and make sure you don’t sabotage it.  The more recalls you have in the bank, the more reliable your recall is and the more pleasant it is to call your dog.  It is also more pleasant for your dog to be called to you, because he has enough recalls in his account to understand that coming when called pays off more often than not, and it is quite likely that you will pay well for his attention.

THE MILLION DOLLAR RECALL

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL

I feel like “Fair is not Equal” has begin to replace “It depends” as my motto at work these days.  I have a number of cases these days where people want to give perfectly equal treatment to two dogs in the house.  On the surface of it, the idea of treating everyone the same way seems like a good idea; after all you would not want to be excluded from a party because you are the only woman, or the only tall person, or the only dog trainer in a group!  That would not be fair at all.  The problem is that when you try and give equal treatment to two people with very different needs.

When we have a baby and an older child, we often see people around us try and give equal treatment to both children.  If grandma comes to visit and she brings a toy for the baby, then she will most likely bring a toy for the older child too.  This sounds fair, right?  If you have two dogs and you bring home one special chew bone, and give it to your favourite dog, the other dog is likely going to be pretty upset about missing out.  This in fact is likely a quick way to a dog fight!  When we try and make fair equal, we can actually get into trouble though.

Little toddler boy, playing with his little brother at home
These brothers have different needs, abilities and interests. Treating them equally would not be fair to them! Instead if we engage them in activities that take advantage of their differences, they will both be happy and successful.

Consider for instance what the older child might think if grandma arrived with two rattles both designed for a child of about 6 months of age.  If the older child is two, he may or may not care, but if he is 5, he is going to care a lot.  The same is very true of our dogs.  If you have a puppy and a middle aged dog, the pup is going to be interested in very different things than is the middle aged dog.  This is the situation that prompted my blog today.

I have a client who has a 7 year old retriever with degenerative disc disease.  Her 7 year old has been her constant companion for his whole life and they have done all sorts of cool things together; from hiking in Northern Ontario to sports classes locally, and road trips across Canada, to quiet family dinners with her aging parents, my client has taken this dog on every possible dog adventure his heart could wish for.  Now that he is suffering from back pain though, he isn’t allowed to do as many things as he used to do.  The one thing that they still do together is sit on the floor with her head on her lap while she grades her high school student’s homework.  Every night after dinner, she sits down with a pile of paper on one side, and her special buddy on the other.  They have done this ritual for the past seven years, from September till June, at least five nights a week.  Recently though, this client has been missing some of the training activities she did with her 7 year old, so she brought a new puppy into the family.

This particular lady wants to be fair to both dogs, but sometimes she gets fair confused with equal.  The first way she got confused was when she signed her puppy up for puppy class.  She felt guilty that her older dog wasn’t going to training too, so she signed him up for a class as well.  The problem was that she didn’t have time to devote to two sets of classes, so some of the time she missed class with her older dog and then she felt bad about spending money on a class she didn’t attend.  Not only that but her older dog was often stiff and painful after his class, which really wasn’t fair to him at all.

The next place she got confused was leash walking her puppy.  Young pups don’t actually know how to walk on leash.  When she brought her youngster out for a leash walk with her older dog, he just got all tangled up and annoying!  No one was happy; not the lady, not the puppy and definitely not the older dog. 

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Sometimes this is what I think people think that they are aiming for when they make absolutely everything the same for two dogs in the home. Instead of trying to make everything equal, try making everything fair by taking into account what each dog needs.

My client knew that puppies need to eat more often than do adult dogs, and she wanted to be fair, so when she fed the puppy, her adult dog always got a meal too.  He got his normal two meals a day, plus a little extra at lunch time.  Her adult dog gained a few pounds, and that was hard on his joints, which meant an extra trip for him to the vet, and extra medication for pain.

Perhaps the least fair thing that this nice lady did for her two dogs was let the puppy have free run of the house with her older dog.  She just didn’t feel good about her puppy being in his crate much of the time.  The puppy took to harassing the older dog, which resulted in a grouchy adult dog, and an overtired, overstimulated puppy.  The last straw came when school started in September though; on her first day sitting on the floor grading papers with her nice sedate adult dog, her cup of tea and her whirling dervish of a puppy.  Within minutes her neatly organized evening came apart at the seams with papers strewn all over the room, her adult dog snarling at the puppy, and a hot cup of tea all over the floor.

When we met, my client said to me “I don’t remember puppyhood being so much work with my older dog!”  The thing to reflect on with a case such as this is that at the time she didn’t have another dog to compare to, so instead of trying to give her first dog exactly everything that she gave to another dog, she just gave him what he needed.  Fair, is rarely if ever equal.

So how did we resolve this?   We acknowledged that fair is not equal and she stopped trying to give everything to the puppy that she gave to her adult and vice versa.  Her adult dog does not need an extra class or a daily extra meal.  Her puppy does not need a leash walk, or freedom of the house just yet.  Once we stopped doing things that weren’t good for each of the dogs, we could really look at what each dog needed. 

In the first few months, puppies need a lot of extra attention, training and structure.  It isn’t forever, but it is important.  We stopped all leash walking and added in two ten minute training sessions each day.  Instead of wrestling a young strong dog on leash around the block with one hand, while trying to encourage her older, sedate and slightly painful older dog to keep up, all the while trying to avoid the inevitable tangling of the leash, she returned to her fifteen minute strolls around the block with her old friend.  Her young dog benefited from the extra training sessions and her older dog got the time and attention that he needed from his normal routine.  Not equal, but fair.

To address the lunchtime habit, we moved the older dog’s walk from first thing in the morning to lunch time, so that the puppy could have quiet alone time in the house with her lunch, while the older dog got what he needed.  This helped to take weight off sensibly, and avoided the issue of the older dog mooching around the pup’s food bowl.  Fair is not equal but each dog can get what they need when their needs are properly addressed.

Dog in cage. Isolated background. Happy black pug in iron box
Using a crate for meals can make room for you to address the needs of another dog while this dog is having his needs met. Fair is when both dogs get what they need, even when what they need may not be the same thing.

Finally, we addressed the issue of the pup having free run of the house with an ex-pen in the living room.  This allowed my client to have time with both dogs in the room, but without trashing her student’s assignments, spilling tea or harassing the older dog.  Over time she will be able to give the younger dog more and more freedom as long as she is minding her manners.  These few changes took the household from equal but completely unfair to not equal, but much more fair. 

I think it is easier to identify when fair is not equal when we are talking about medical issues.  My client was really trying hard to make things both equal and fair, but each dog had different needs.  When her older dog was sore from gaining weight and being too physical, she didn’t feel the need to bring the younger dog to the vet for medication; that obviously would be neither fair nor equal.  Likewise, she did not feel that she needed to revaccinate her older dog; her older dog was not due for vaccines for another 18 months, so just her puppy got vaccinated.  When it comes to medical issues, we are much more clear about fair and equal and we do what is fair.  When it comes to the rest of our dog’s lives, we are much more muddled.  We try and do the things that we do with one dog with both, even if it would not be fair.  To be fair, we have to take in the needs of the individual instead of the activities that we do with one or the other dog.

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL