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.

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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

THE BLAME GAME

Originally posted August 2013

One of the most popular games that people play with their dogs is the blame game.  As a society, we love this game.  If the dog is rude and overbearing with guests, then it is Dad’s fault because he plays roughly with the dog.  Or if the dog attacks other dogs it is because the older dog taught the younger dog in the house to growl at strange dogs.  Blame is lots of fun.

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I think this is often how my clients feel when they have a dog with a problem behaviour.  Blaming people for the problem just isn’t helpful.  Blame doesn’t change the behaviour.  Blame is what we do when we want people to take responsibility for things that we want changed.  Image credit: bowie15 / 123RF Stock Photo

As a behaviour consultant, I don’t get to play the blame game.  It can be interesting to know where the problem originated, and sometimes it is helpful to know when a trauma occurred or if the dog suffered an illness that prevented him from going to puppy class, but the fact is that the blame game just doesn’t work with dogs with behaviour problems.  It is often said that dogs live in the now, and when it comes to specific behaviours this is really important information.  The dog doesn’t pee on the bed while you are away because he is angry; he pees on the bed because his bladder is full and he doesn’t have to stand in a puddle of pee if he pees on the bed.  As a behaviour consultant, I have to look at the behaviours that are problematic and instead of blaming someone for the problem, look at the variables to determine what can be changed to change the behaviour.

It can be helpful to look at a case in order to get the idea of how to look at behaviour problems without blame.  If we have an adolescent Labrador named Lulu, and she is jumping up on people and knocking them over, we have a problem.  If her people, Larry and Lucy come to me for help, I will ask a bunch of questions about Lulu.  How many pups were in her litter?  At what age did she come home from the breeder’s?  Did she go to puppy class?  What have Larry and Lucy tried already?  When did she last go to the vet, and is she healthy?  In gathering this information, I want to know things that will help me to rule out some strategies that might not work.  If there were very few puppies in the litter or if she was a singleton, she is more likely to have impulse control issues.  That tells me that we may be looking at teaching her impulse control exercises.  If she came home before six weeks of age, this may also contribute to a lack of good impulse control.  If she didn’t go to a puppy class then the chances are that Lucy and Larry may not have the skills to address the problem, and Lulu may not have had enough of the appropriate people to help her to meet people appropriately.  Puppy class can help you to find the right people to meet and greet with a solid structure on how to do that.  If Lucy and Larry have already tried penny shake cans, kneeing Lulu in the chest, stepping on her hind feet, and grabbing her roughly around the neck, then I know that Lulu may be conflicted about wanting to greet but not knowing how to do that properly.  If Lulu went to the vet and she has an eye infection, and the jumping up got worse since the eye became infected, she may be quite agitated and uncomfortable and may not be making great decisions.

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Dogs who are ill often don’t make great behavioural decisions.  Getting sick is no one’s fault, and laying blame in one place or another doesn’t help.  Realizing that the dog is sick and getting him help is a much better solution when changing behaviours.  Image credit: edu1971 / 123RF Stock Photo

The next thing I am going to look at is what is maintaining the behaviour.  Why does this behaviour keep happening?  Lulu doesn’t jump up against cement walls, or the fridge door.  She doesn’t jump up against the hood of the car, or her crate; she only jumps up on people.  Likely, even if people do their very best not to interact with Lulu she gets something out of the behaviour.  She gets attention if you make eye contact, she gets touch if you hold your arms up against your body to protect yourself and if she is confused, she resolves her confusion by jumping up and eliciting the known response when she does this; see my blog “THEY DO IT TO GET ATTENTION” at http://dogsinthepark-suenestnature.blogspot.ca/2013/06/they-do-it-to-get-attention.html.

Notice that so far, there is no blame; just facts.  The first thing I am going to do from here is to define my target behaviour.  With Lulu, I want her to learn to greet with all four feet on the floor.  I don’t care how happy she is or how excited she is, I just want to her to keep her feet to herself when she is greeting.  We can do this lots and lots of ways, but before I decide what technique or method I will choose with Lulu, I will decide what I want her to do.  Given that Lulu appears to have a likelihood of impulse control issues, and Larry and Lucy have already tried to stop the unwanted behaviour by doing things that are unpleasant to the dog, I am going to start with some tactics that may not seem to have anything to do with the problem at hand.  I would start by taking a week’s vacation from greeting anyone other than family members, so that Lulu stops practicing the unwanted behaviour.  When the family greats Lulu, I will have them drop treats on the floor so that Lulu is doing something that she cannot do while she is jumping up.  I will also have the family crouch to greet Lulu for this week so that once she has cleaned up her treats, then they aren’t setting her up to greet inappropriately.  Still…no blame.

Once Lulu has had a whole week of not practicing the undesired behaviour, then I can start to teach her the skills of keeping four feet on the floor when greeting.  If we are approaching her and she has her feet on the floor we can mark that behaviour and drop a treat on the floor and move away while she is eating for instance.  Or we can use a delta signal to tell her to change her behaviour and then mark the undesired response and she can lose a turn.  There are dozens of very elegant solutions to teaching a dog not to jump up when greeting, but the important part is to keep in mind that Larry and Lucy have already tried using an unpleasant outcome without success, so we want to avoid doing that again.  I don’t blame my clients for trying tactics that I might not try, but I can avoid repeating things that didn’t work.

Ideally, Lulu would have come from a larger litter, come home at about 8 weeks, gone to a great puppy socialization class, and learned early how to greet appropriately before she was 16 weeks of age.  Ideally, Larry and Lucy would have tried more effective interventions than they chose, and ideally, Lulu wouldn’t have an eye infection.  None of the things that happened to Lulu are anyone’s fault but they do contribute to how we approach the behaviour now, and blaming Lucy for insisting on getting a very young puppy or blaming Larry for giving Lulu a bath and getting dirt in her eye isn’t going to change what we are dealing with in the here and now.

Prevention is always the best cure.  We can make ourselves feel really great if we think we always know the right answer, but we don’t always know, and neither do my clients.  As we learn more, we do better.  We know now that the best way to prevent jumping up is to teach the dog to greet politely when they are young and reward for the right answer, but when we are looking at behaviour, playing the blame game just doesn’t change the behaviour of the dog we are working with in front of us.  When clients come and ask for help, it is important that I recognize that they are not looking for blame; they are looking for help.  They have taken responsibility for the problem and they are addressing that by coming to me for help.  As long as they are coming to classes and working on their problems, then blaming from me or from the family members shouldn’t be a part of the program; it just isn’t going to help.  Lucy and Larry and Lulu are tangled up in a problem and they are looking for solutions not blame.  I need information, but not so that I can assign blame.  I need to know things in order to formulate a solution.  People tend to use blame when they think that someone isn’t taking responsibility when they ought to.  If clients are in my training hall they have already taken responsiblity, and so blame just doesn’t belong there as a part of the process.

THE BLAME GAME

THE SALVADORE DALI CAFE

Originally Published August 2013

Imagine what it might be like to live in a completely behaviourally random world.  You go to the cafe and order a latte, and the cashier asks for your hat and coat.  As a cooperative citizen, you give it to the lady who throws it in the trash, as she calls out “NEXT” and turns her attention to the person behind you in line.  You move down the counter to pick up your latte, and the barrista, comes out from behind the counter and grabs you and begins to waltz you around the Salvador Dali cafe and throws open the door and turfs you out onto the sidewalk.  On the sidewalk, a bear in a business suit offers you a Rolex, cheap from inside his waistcoat and when you say no, he pulls out some flowers and hands them to you and approaches someone else on the street.  Still wanting a latte you go back into the store, only to find that it is now filled with pink balloons and you cannot make your way to the counter.  After much struggling, you catch the eye of the cashier and mention your latte and she says “no latte today, m’dear, only champers and cheese” and hands you a plate of candied almonds.  Nothing you do can change the maelstrom of activity you have found yourself within.  How would you feel?

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Living in our world as it is depends on understanding things like the rules of the game, that gravity controls what floats and what doesn’t and who people are.  When things stop being predictable, then it becomes very difficult to learn what to do.  Salvador Dali had a talent for showing this concept visually in a playful and interesting way, never the less, few people would want to play checkers on a board where the pieces persist in falling through the board and where time expands and contracts independently of what the players do.   Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

When we work with dogs, they are forever looking for the way through the maze; the way to control their environment, the rules of the game.  There are lots of games you can play and learn the rules through experience, and training is one of them.  Yesterday, I worked with a lovely young terrier who is trying to figure out the rules.  When she barks, she wants attention, and as a youngster, it worked well.  She can make her person do all sorts of things by barking.  Not wanting to disturb people, her person will come in to her and pick her up, or give her treats or tell her to be quiet or point a finger at her or tell her to lie down.  Like trying to order a latte in the Salvadore Dali cafe, everything changes at every step of the game.  So how can we make training an experiential fun game for the dog?

Think about games and activities that you have learned through experience.  If someone invites you to play Scrabble and you have never played before, it might run like this.  Your opponent will give you a hint or a clue or a starting point.  Perhaps they will start by giving you a tile tray and some tiles and ask you to make some words in your tile tray without showing the words that you have found.  Then your opponent will put down some tiles and the board and explain how the scoring works.  Then it is your turn and you can take your letters and place them on the board to make a word that intersects the first word.  You do this and your opponent scores your word for you and then it is his turn again.  He makes a word that intersects a word on the board and you work out the scoring together.  Turn by turn you learn the rules of the game, what strategies work and which strategies are ineffective.  This is exactly how dogs learn when we train using operant conditioning.

Coming back to my terrier friend (she really is a friendly dog who is just trying to make sense of her world), what we set up for training was a contingency that allowed her to learn some rules through experience.  The first thing we did was use a tether to limit where she could go; we set up a playing area so to speak.  Then we clicked and treated to remind her that the game was starting and give her some information about the game and how it would work.  Then we used four basic rules; if she was quiet, her person would stand close to her and wait.  If she was barking, her person would take one step back for each bark, until he got to the far end of the room.  After barking started, if she were quiet, her person would come back one step at a time.  If she lay down, her person would click and treat.  At first, she didn’t know the rules so she did a lot of different things to see what would happen.

When she barked, her person would step back.  This frustrated her and so she barked louder.  When her person was about twenty steps back, she stopped barking and he stepped forward.  Then she barked again and he stepped back.  For about five minutes, she learned how her behaviour affected the behaviour of her partner.  Then abruptly, she lay down.  Her partner came in and fed her a treat.  And she barked.  He backed up.  She stopped barking and stood up.  He stepped closer.  She lay down, he gave her a treat.  A very simple, but very predictable game, in which she controlled the behaviour of her partner.

This is how I think the best training works.  The trainer decides on the game for the day.  The trainer decides on what the contingencies are.  Then the trainer allows the dog to work out the contingencies.  The dog gets to decide if he wants to play or not and if the trainer has done his job well he has set up rules that make sense to the dog and the dog wants to play.  In order to do this we have to understand some things about the game and about the dog we are working with.

If I have a dog who LOVES liver, but doesn’t love cheese, then it doesn’t matter what I want the dog to do, cheese is not going to help him to learn the rules of the game.  Likewise if the penalty is something the dog doesn’t care about, then using that as a penalty isn’t going to work.  If in the scenario that I presented above the dog was afraid of the handler and barking made him go away, the dog would learn that barking resulted in something he wanted and he would do more barking.  I see this all the time in training.  The person thinks that their dog should like something, and they offer it as a reward, and the dog when working out the rules figures out that he will get something he doesn’t want to have if he does a particular behaviour.  This isn’t about the dog not wanting to play your game; this is about the dog not wanting what you have to offer.

Sometimes the task we are asking the dog to do is of no interest to him.  If we ask a herding dog to go sit in a boat and retrieve ducks, no amount of liver is going to make that as fun for him as taking him out to herd sheep.  In the best training the activities we do with our dogs are of interest to the dog.  That said, there are always parts of the game that we might not enjoy; I hate setting up the board in Scrabble, but if I don’t do that part, I cannot do the part that I like doing.  Manners are an example of activities that your dog must do in order to get to do things he likes better.  Behaviours like greeting with four on the floor, taking treats gently, and keeping quiet are all behaviours that the dog must learn in order to be able to do things like playing agility, herding sheep or retrieving ducks.  Teaching good manners allows us to do more fun things with our dogs later and also allows us to establish that the dog doesn’t live in a random world where nothing he does affects the world he lives within.

Luring is a tool that I often see in the training game that can be quickly and dangerously misused.  Imagine if in my Salvador Dali coffee shop, the cashier kept holding out that latte that I wanted, but I could only get it by following her around.  I might tolerate a lot of Rolex selling bears and pink balloons to get my lattte, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy the experience a whole lot more.  Luring should be only used with caution and with respect for the dog.  When a novice trainer discovers that he can make the dog sit by holding the lure over the dog’s head, it is a short and dangerous step to using the lure to get the dog to do things he might consider otherwise risky.  Consider the dog who is not confident about getting onto a piece of agility equipment.  The trainer puts the lure on the equipment, and the dog is then in a conundrum; he can get the treat, but he isn’t learning to control his environment any longer.  He is conflicted because he wants the treat, but he has to do something that he considers dangerous to get that treat.  He doesn’t learn to play the game as much as he learns to balance the conflict between what he wants and what he doesn’t want to do.  Luring is even more dangerous when it is used to get the dog to interact with people or dogs he isn’t sure of, because he may at that point become aggressive.  Luring, properly used tells the dog how to position his body, but that is all it should be used for.  If the dog is concerned in any way about what you want him to do, pairing the thing he is concerned about to the thing he wants is a much safer bet than making his interaction the contingency that results in a treat.

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Luring is a tool that can lead the dog into the Salvador Dali Cafe.  It is best used to help the dog understand how his body ought to be positioned, but if it is abused and used to coerce the dog to do things that are uncomfortable or risky, then the dog loses control over how he interacts with the world and then he can end up in situations that don’t make sense to him or that actually put him at risk.  In general, targeting can achieve the same results, with fewer risks.  Image credit: simsonne100 / 123RF Stock Photo

As soon as worry comes into the game, then it is not fun anymore.  Then it is time to play a different game; a game that will allow the learner to figure out that he is safe and that the world is a good place to interact with.  When the dog is worried the game should simply be “see that scary thing?  It produces treats”  This game is great when it is played with the frightening thing far enough away that the dog can cope with his fear.  Only when fear dissolves can you switch back to a game of “if you interact with the thing you are worried about, you will get a treat”.

When we think about training as a game, we can set up a series of rules and outcomes that the dog can be successful at.  Teaching dogs to be confident is contingent on the dog being repeatedly successful.  If the dog is successful over and over again, the dog starts to think that he can do many more things than he used to be able to do.  Perhaps the worst thing we can do to our dogs is create a random world where they cannot control what they live with.  Overwhelming dogs with repeated conflicts or failures results in a dog who lacks confidence and who doesn’t want to participate in training games.  If your dog feels like he is living in the Salvador Dali coffee shop, don’t be surprised if he stops participating in the training game, or if he becomes tense or fearful or anxious.  Just writing about the Salvador Dali cafe is difficult because none of it makes sense and there is no control over the outcomes.  When there is no control over your world, learning is inefficient and upsetting and pretty soon you have a dog who just doesn’t want to participate any more.

THE SALVADORE DALI CAFE

TRAVEL AT THE SPEED OF DOG

Many years ago, I had two clients in class.  One very energetic bouncy happy lady had a very energetic bouncy happy border collie.  The other very quiet laidback low key lady had a very quiet laid back low key Malamute.  When it came time to teach the dogs to come when called, the very energetic bouncy happy lady handed me her dog’s leash, I held the dog by the collar and she jumped up and down and up and down and made squeaky enticing noises and ran away and called her dog.  Her very energetic very bouncy happy dog raced joyously to her and promptly bounced her to the ground where the two of them had a very energetic, very bouncy happy love fest.  Next, the very quiet laidback low key lady handed me her dog’s leash and I held her dog by the collar as she ambled slowly away and stopped half way to the end of our training field to tie her shoe lace.  She got up and slowly continued to the end of the field where she turned and calmly asked the dog to come.  I released the dog’s collar and he very slowly, very quietly and calmly ambled towards her, stopping once to sit down and scratch, and then to sniff and go pee, and then he wandered off towards the other dogs in the class waiting for their turn at the exercise.

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If I want to teach THIS dog to come to me without bouncing me to the ground, I will need to ask him to come in such a way that I don’t cause him to come so quickly that he cannot stop without hitting me. This is just one aspect of what I need to do in order to be successful when I am training a dog. Copyright: bigandt / 123RF Stock Photo

Week after week, I coached these two trainers on how to get better recalls.  Relax a bit I told the very energetic bouncy happy lady, and he won’t knock you over when he gets to you.  Get a little more excited and interesting for your dog I coached the quiet laidback low key lady, so that your dog is a little more excited to get to you.  The more I coached them, the more extreme each of these ladies seemed to get.  The very bouncy lady got bouncier, and the quiet lady got calmer and even more reserved.  One day in exacerbation, I had them trade dogs and each dog had a much better recall.  Of course over time, each of the handlers DID improve however the bouncy lady was still bouncy and the quiet lady was still quiet.  Luckily they each had dogs to suit their own temperaments!

This scenario really highlights something I see in my classes though.  We have to give the dogs what they need in order to learn.  We can only teach the dogs what they have the foundations to understand and we must present the material we want them to learn in such a way that they will be successful in their activities.  If we don’t we won’t be successful in our training.  In short, we have to travel at the speed of dog.

When I see dogs struggling in class I start out by asking myself if the dog has all the information he needs in order to learn the task.  If we are teaching a dog to go away from us for instance, and we start by asking the dog to move out 20 metres, and the dog doesn’t know how to go two metres away from us on cue, then we are very unlikely to be able to build a solid, happy and energetic go out.  We need to understand the mechanics of what we are working on (coming when called usually works better when the person is a longer not shorter distance from the dog for instance), what motivates the dog, and what the dog already knows in order to be successful.  I have taught the long distance go out a number of different ways, all depending on which dog I am working with.  The point is that I have to travel at the speed of dog in each and every instance. 

Another thing I need to consider when I am teaching dogs is what their own way is of moving through the world.  I tend to be a fairly intense, high energy handler.  I do best with confident, pushy dogs who enjoy my big personality, but as a professional dog trainer, I have to train calm quiet dogs, timid dogs, energetic silly dogs and dogs who just defy classification.  In other words I have to be flexible in the way that I interact with dogs. 

I also have to be flexible in my behaviour when I am teaching different exercises.  When I am teaching a dog to perform a self control exercise such as the down stay, it is better to start out by being low key and neutral.  When I want to teach a dog to come to me from a distance, it generally pays better to be a little bit exciting, unless of course you are working with a dog like my student had who was charging her and knocking her over. 

Another aspect to travelling at the speed of dog is the rate at which we give the dog information.  Ideally we want the dog to offer enough iterations of the behaviour that he can get sufficient rewards to tell him what it is that we want.  We have to set up the dog so that he gets the right answer quickly and efficiently and if he has not received a reward recently we cannot be surprised when he disengages from the activity and does his own thing. 

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This dog is engaged in his own activity, so you would need to be very aware of how much information you need to give him, how fast that information came, and not overusing his name to nag him. Copyright: chalabala / 123RF Stock Photo

Not only do we have to give the dog enough information to know when he is right, but we also have to give him cues in a timely manner.  I have watched many students say the dog’s name and then wait and wait and wait before giving the dog the cue to the behaviour that will earn a reward.  The only thing this achieves is a dog learning that in the training context, he should disregard his name!  If your dog is engaged, you likely don’t need to use his name at all.  You can learn more about how to effectively use your dog’s name at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/13/your-dogs-name-an-operating-manual/ .  Similar to this issue is when you have a dog who has performed a behaviour, and the handler delays the next cue for a very long time.  This leaves the dog hanging so that he doesn’t quite know what is coming up next, and if he is not eagerly engaged in the activity to begin with, he will just wander off to do his own thing.

Travelling at the speed of dog requires us as trainers to be aware of a number of variables and factor them all in when we are working with our dogs.  If the dog we are working with tends to be excitable, we need to tone down.  If that same dog needs to perform that behaviour with exuberance, then we can bring our own enthusiasm up a bit and help them to express the appropriate amount of energy for the given activity.  We need to avoid overwhelming the dog with too much or too little information.  Developing the ability to juggle all these factors can feel very overwhelming for many of us, however then they are all in balance, the dog travels along through the training game along side of us and learns effectively and efficiently. 

TRAVEL AT THE SPEED OF DOG

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN, DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD

At Dogs in the Park, we have two mottos.  The first is “It Depends..” It is on all of the staff uniforms to remind people that the answer to dog training questions are dependent upon many variables.  The second is less commonly said, but almost all of my students will eventually hear me say “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.  I was reminded of this by one of my staff the other day.  She had been challenged by a colleague at school to train a dog to do a trick.  The problem is that the trick required the dog to roll back onto his very arthritic and dysplastic hips.  My staffer replied “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should,” and she is right.  She COULD teach the dog to do the trick, but she shouldn’t because it will cause the dog more injury than not.

I have an exercise I used to do when I ran my fun-gility workshops.  Fun-gility is informal agility.  I would get out all the cavellettis (small light jumps for teaching dogs to take off and land smoothly; they are about four inches high), and place them as close together as they can go.  There is about four inches between each jump.  Then I ask all the humans to walk through the twelve or so jumps.  People with really big feet slide their feet in sideways, and people with little feet slip in between the jumps toe first.  One very athletic man in the last workshop danced through them like a ballerina on point, pronking up and down in the manner of a gazelle.  Once everyone has walked through these, I challenge everyone to go through as fast as they can.  The only person to every run through these successfully was the man I just mentioned-but he said afterwards it was really difficult and uncomfortable. 

Next I spread the jumps out so that each is one of my foot lengths wide.  Everyone expresses relief at the ease at which they can place their feet.  When they run through though, they are once again frustrated by the lack of room to solve the problem of where to put their feet.  Some people just take two jumps at once and then congratulate themselves on coming up with such a neat solution.  At this point I ask them; “Would it be okay if your dog chose to do two jumps at once if that was easier for him?”  Most folks who have been through the exercise reply that yes, it would be okay with them if the dog solved his problem that way.  If I were to ask someone who is serious about agility though, the answer might be different-the person might decide that the dog must take each obstacle one at a time, regardless of how uncomfortable that might be for the dog.  That brings back the statement of “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should”.  Just because I can make the dog take jumps at an uncomfortable striding, doesn’t mean I should.

I come across this situation when I work with dogs with behaviour problems.  I have had clients with dogs who are noise sensitive.  I prefer to resolve problems like this by working below threshold, so that the dog is not being set off repeatedly.  When the dog gets to relax a little, they often become bolder and more willing to accept some noises they weren’t previously.  Recently, I was at a community event and I saw a little dog sitting terrified under her person’s chair.  I approached the person and told her that I thought her dog was afraid of the noise of the crowd, and the owner replied that yes, she was, but the dog had to accept that this was part of life and must get over her fears, and so she was brought out to as many noisy events as possible.  I bit my tongue but what I wanted to say was “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”  When it is my client who is doing this though, I try and help them to understand that just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should!

54380485 - border collie weaving through poles at a dog agility trial
It takes a long time for a dog to learn to weave properly and efficiently and when you want him to do so. Many dogs sort of learn to weave and they may go through the obstacle to your satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean they are truly ready to compete. This is the sort of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” situation that gets competitive trainers into a lot of trouble! Copyright: herreid / 123RF Stock Photo

 

I think we need to consider this carefully when we work with dogs and other animals.  We CAN make a dog go out in public when he is afraid to do so, but should we?  We CAN make a horse jump over a fence when he is physically uncomfortable, but should we?  We CAN make a child stand up in front of a group of people and recite Evangeline…but should we?  As trainers and teachers, we hold a very powerful position, and Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should applies to our jobs on a daily basis.  Just because we can make a student take a risk we are comfortable with when training our own dogs doesn’t mean we should make our students do so too.  Part of what we need to teach when helping people to train their dogs, is that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Keeping “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” in mind when you are training your dog can really help you to do two things.  The first thing it helps with planning your training.  Many of us have asked our dogs to participate in sports they don’t really have the skills to succeed in.  Often the dogs “fake it till they make it” and we feel like we are able to do the sport even if we haven’t trained for it.  This is the classic case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.  Better by far to teach your dog to do the skills and then participate in the activity. 

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We cannot tell what is causing this dog to be afraid for the pinned back ears, the giant pupils and the tense paws and muzzle all point to a dog who is being exposed to something he is deeply uncomfortable with. Here is a case of just because you can, does not mean that you should make this dog get close to whatever is freaking him out! Copyright: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

The second thing that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” helps with is acknowledging what the dog is struggling with.  If the dog is shy, let him leave when he has had enough.  If the dog is bold, don’t put him in situations where he is going to take risks that are dangerous to his health and wellbeing.  If the client lacks confidence, I don’t put them in situations where they are going not going to succeed.  Setting up for success means a lot more than just setting up to get the right answer, it also means taking into account that sometimes, the dog cannot or the human cannot do something and allowing them not to do that thing, all the while balancing that they need to be challenged sufficiently to continue to move forward.

 

 

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN, DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD

MICROMANAGEMENT, THE QUEEN AND MY BROTHER IN LAW

Recently a number of Good Dog clients have started my program after having gotten only so far with obedience classes with us or other schools, and there seems to be a trend in why their training is not working for them.  Micromanagement is how we describe what is happening when people tell the dog about every single thing that they are supposed to do.  They often have a spectacular leave it, but only when they tell the dog.  The dog will wait nicely at the door, but bolt on through if you haven’t specified that this is one of the times that the dog must wait.  The dog is more than willing to get off or stay off furniture if he is told, but in the absence of information, he is right up there and on the couch.

Humans are a species that gather information verbally.  We listen to details like “don’t get on the couch” and store that information for later use.  If we are told “don’t get on the couch” every time we go to get on the couch, most of us store that information and don’t do that behaviour.  Dogs are a little different.  Although dogs readily learn “if I get on the couch in the presence of the human I will be told to get off” they don’t seem to generalize that information to “never get on the couch”.  I suspect that this is a reflection of a few things, including how we train them.

The first thing that this reflects is that dogs don’t have language in the same way we do.  Yes, they have communication, where they are able to send units of information to another individual who can receive and interpret them accurately.  Think about the last time you saw two dogs interacting; if one dog wanted to play, how can he convey that information to the other dog?  Dogs have a whole lot of gestural communication including (but not limited to!) play bows, play faces, head tilts, paw lifts and tail wags.  The receiving dog will either accept the invitation, and a play session will start (full of rich gestures that convey all sorts of information between the players) or turn it down and we can tell which choice the recipient made based on the behaviours we see.  None of this information conveys anything like “later on, when you go home, please don’t touch my toys that I left behind the couch”.  Canine communication is immediate.  It happens in the moment and it pertains to the moment.  Even wolf communication involved in hunting runs more along the lines of “let’s go hunting”, “okay”, “I hear caribou over this way”, “I will flank the herd”.  The last guess may in fact be more than they actually convey in their gestures, but it makes for a better story to illustrate the point!

Next we should consider that when we train our dogs we teach them to attend to what happens next.  Sit when I am making you dinner?  Then I put your dinner within your reach to eat.  Jump up on me?  Then you can have a quick trip to your crate.  Harass the other dog while he is trying to rest?  Then you can have a turn out in the yard on your own.  Lie down nicely in front of the cookie cupboard?  Then you can have a cookie.  On and on, both formally and informally we teach our dogs to pay attention to immediate outcomes.  Practically this is the most efficient way to teach dogs what they should and should not do.

Dogs do learn what your habits are of course, but most often those habits come with predictable immediate outcomes.  Dogs learn for instance that every day at 3pm the school bus passes by and the kids arrive home and when the kids arrive home, you almost always get to play ball.  Some dogs will anticipate this sort of activity by bringing the ball to the children as they come in the door.  This most likely evolves when the ball is handy and the kids are available and the dog puts two and two together, not because the dogs are preplanning the equipment needed to make the activity work better.  Over time and with repetition, dogs can develop sophisticated routines that look like preplanning but there is little concrete evidence that dogs are preplanning in the way that we do.

So what does this have to do with the Queen?  Or my brother in law?  Or my students who are struggling with micromanagement?  Simply this.  If you were invited to the UK to visit the Queen, you would have a meeting with a very nice person who would explain what was going to happen, what you were supposed to do and what you were not permitted to do.  When you arrived at the Queen’s “house” (castle, palace or what have you), there would most likely be a nice person to point you in the right direction and prompt your every step.  Stand here.  Turn that way when I signal you that her Majesty is coming.  When you first see Her Majesty do this.  When you are greeted say that.  When she turns away from you, do this.  If she hands you something take it like this.  Don’t touch her.  Don’t initiate conversation.  Answer in this way.  Every little detail is preplanned and organized so that you know exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it.  And if you goof, then it is most likely that someone will help you out and make a suggestion about what you should do instead.

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Meeting Royalty is a very carefully scripted event and for most of us, we need the help of someone like a protocol officer to guide us through the experience without any glitches. This is not real life for the vast majority of the world however, and it is a stressful and difficult way to interact because it necessitates someone else directing your every move.

This is how many of my clients treat their dogs.  The client behaves like the Queen’s protocol officer!  They walk up to a door and say “sit”.  Dutifully, the dog sits.  They open the door and the dog, not getting another immediate prompt drags them through the door and into the training hall.  There is a dropped treat in front of the dog, and the client says “leave it” so the dog quite politely does, but when there is a treat the person doesn’t notice, the dog snarfs it up before the client even has a chance to do anything!  How often I have been greeted by an otherwise normal human being chanting “be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice” as though saying these two words fast enough and for long enough will ensure that the dog will “be nice”.  Invariably the human effort at being the protocol officer fails and the dog greets me by launching himself at me like a canine cannonball.

I would argue that if you were taking your dog to somewhere truly different and out of the ordinary, you might want to be the protocol officer.  So if you have to take your dog to say a ballet recital, you might possibly want to play protocol officer.  But UNLESS you are asking your dog to do something truly difficult, such as meeting a world leader, your dog needs to be able to just fit in.  This is where visiting my brother-in-law comes in.

79736599 - woman with a weimaraner dog at the leash who plays with a puppy
This is a difficult situation, made more difficult by the fact that the dog who is on leash is pulling and thus being pulled back by the handler. If instead the dog had been taught that when she wanted to play with a friend, she should sit, and offer eye contact and then look at the other dog and look back at the handler, the situation would look much different.

My brother-in-law is a nice guy.  He likes to sit out on his front porch with a cup of coffee and the newspaper on a Sunday morning.  He likes to go cycling.  He is pretty approachable, and will invite you in for a beer if you walk by on a Saturday afternoon while he is puttering in the garage.  He doesn’t own a crown, or a thrown, and he doesn’t care if you turn your back on him when you are in his presence.  He goes to work Monday to Friday, he enjoys his family, he is the master of the bar-b-que.  In short, he is a pretty laid back typical Canadian guy.  And if you visit him, there is no protocol officer to tell you where to stand, what to do or not do, how to dress and what to say.  No one will micromanage your behaviour when you visit my brother-in-law.

This doesn’t mean that there are not expectations for your behaviour while in my brother-in-law’s home.  He would prefer you didn’t break his stuff, and please don’t eat all his food all at once.  Please don’t take his things away when you leave, and please do take off your shoes when you come in the house.  The thing is that his expectations for your behaviour are common enough that you don’t need someone to explain what to do at every step.

Commonly Micromanaged Behaviours and Their Alternatives
Behaviour Common Micromanagement Strategy Alternate Strategy
Dog snatches any edible item within reach Teach the dog to leave things on cue and tell the dog to leave it Teach the dog that he must automatically leave any edible items he finds UNLESS you tell him to take it
Dog jumps on guests Teach the dog to cease jumping up on cue and tell the dog to stop jumping Teach the dog that a guest approaching means that he should sit or lie down
Dog bolts out the door Teach the dog to sit on cue and tell the dog to sit when you see the door opening Teach the dog that an opening door means that he should sit
Dog is more engaged with other dogs or people when he sees them than he is with the handler Teach the dog to make eye contact on cue and ask for eye contact Teach the dog to make eye contact with you and then look at the dog or person he wants to greet and then re engage with you
Dog barks at passersby Teach the dog to “hush” on cue and then tell the dog to “hush” when he is barking Teach the dog that passersby do not need to be barked at
Dog chases the cat in the house Teach the dog a solid leave it on cue and then tell the dog to leave it when he is chasing the cat Teach the dog that chasing the cat is not permitted at all, ever
Dog grabs the toy before you can throw it Teach the dog to leave it on cue and then tell the dog not to touch the toy until you have thrown it Teach the dog that you will throw the toy when he is calm and not touching you, or even when he is sitting and making eye contact

 

The problem I see with many of the dogs who come through my door at the training hall is that the human partner in the team seems to think that day to day interactions need to be handled like a visit to the Queen.  I see people telling their dogs to sit at the door all the time.  And to leave the treats that are within reach.  And not to jump on people as they approach.  The problem with this strategy is that if you aren’t there to micromanage the dog, the dog will do just as he pleases.  If you don’t tell him to sit at the door, he might barge right on through.  And if you don’t tell him to leave the treats on the floor, he will just dart out to take them.  If you don’t prevent him from jumping on guests, then he will greet impolitely and possibly with disastrous consequences!  None of this is what the human wants, but the only solution they have tried is to remind, remind, remind, remind and then remind again.

What if instead of reminding we took what we know about how dogs use information and taught them an expected behaviour.  What if we taught the dog that the door itself was the prompt to sit and wait?  Or if instead of teaching your dog to leave a treat when told, we just taught him to keep his nose out of treats that you haven’t told him belong to him?  What if we taught him that a person reaching out to say hi means that he should sit or lie down?  What if we looked at training as if we were preparing someone from a different country to visit my brother-in-law?

63553113 - cat and dog, abyssinian kitten and golden retriever looks at right.
This sort of interaction doesn’t happen by accident! Likely these two animals were posed for the picture, however they would not be completely relaxed in the image if the dog had been taught that he could chase the cat unless told otherwise. Dogs need immediate relevant consequences to teach them what they should do. If this were my cat and my dog, the dog would learn very quickly that every time he chased the cat, he would have a turn in his crate for a short period of time. This works especially well with young dogs. Copyright: dikaya37 / 123RF Stock Photo

Turning the training paradigm around so that we are no longer teaching the dog to do as he is told, but instead to know what the conventions are is a very easy way to resolve a lot of problems.  To do this, you must spend some time thinking about how to accomplish making the trigger to the behaviour the cue to the alternate behaviour, and some of the time it means providing a consequence such as going to your crate or losing a turn at play to stop the undesired behaviour.  It usually takes a little longer, but in the end, you have an adult dog who knows what to do, when to do it and doesn’t need a protocol officer to micromanage all of his behaviours!

MICROMANAGEMENT, THE QUEEN AND MY BROTHER IN LAW

WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL

 

For anyone who has been in my classroom, you likely have realized that I am not going to ever be a supermodel.  Aside from being 40 years too old, and the wrong body type, I just don’t care about clothing, hair and make up enough to bother.  Incidentally, if you are curious, it is Sue writing, not John, but he probably would not be a super model either.  Aside from being the wrong gender, and the wrong body type, he really just doesn’t care enough about clothing, hair or make up to bother either.  Which brings me to a thought about our dogs.  How many of our dogs are being asked to do jobs they just don’t care about?

Training is the way that we acquire skills and it doesn’t matter if you are a human, a dog or a dolphin, skills are important.  In theory I have the skills needed to be a supermodel; I can walk, and wear clothes and if pressed, I can sit around while someone plays with my hair and puts make up on me.  Maybe I don’t have the fine tuned strut that a model needs, but I can wear clothing, and I can walk, so what is preventing me from being a super model?  Opportunity?  Nope.  I just don’t have the patience for the work!  I would need a great deal of training and incentive to do that and you would have a very hard time convincing me that the work is relevant to my wellbeing.

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This is just not me! I would not be happy doing this type of work. Sometimes we ask our dogs to do work that they don’t understand or like. We should ask ourselves if this is actually a good idea. Copyright: fashionstock / 123RF Stock Photo

So what about our dogs?  You will hear me say over and over again that trained dogs get to do more, and that we should be willing to teach our dogs to do different things, so why not take up whatever sport the handler wishes?  Recently, one of our instructors came to me to let me know that she had pulled out of one of our advanced classes, not because she and her dog were not learning things but rather because her dog was not enjoying the work.  “My dog is doing this to please me, but she doesn’t actually like it” was the message I got.  And good for the handler in recognizing that.

There are behaviours that I want every dog of mine to learn, regardless of how they feel about it; coming when called, not dragging me down the street, allowing the vet to examine them and lying down and staying for instance.  These are the skills that allow our dogs to live successfully with us, but they are not their job.  Have you thought about what your dog’s job might be?  Many of us come to obedience classes because that is what we are supposed to do with our dogs, and then slot them into the jobs we want them to do without much more thought than that. 

The problem with this is that many of our dogs are not actually interested in doing the work we wish them to do.  As a behaviour consultant this is a daily frustration, as the Good Dog students probably all know.  Consider what happens when we breed a dog to herd sheep 8 hours a day, and we expect that he is going to enjoy sitting on the couch day in and day out without any exercise.  What might happen?  Might that dog begin to engage in behaviours such as racing around the house and barking at traffic going by? 

Many of my students want their dogs to participate in sports such as rally or agility and for most dogs, they really get into that.  Some dogs don’t though.  Some dogs prefer things like nosework, or tracking.  When we put together our advanced classes, some of our students try and take as many of them as they can, and while we encourage everyone to give each class a try, it is really important to stay tuned in to your dog to discover which of these classes make you both happy. 

All this preamble is probably bringing you to the point of asking yourself what to do if your dog doesn’t want to do the one thing that is really important to you?  What do you do when you love agility and your dog just doesn’t like it?  Or maybe the only thing that matters to you to do with your dog is hiking and your dog just doesn’t like to go out in anything other than the ideal weather?

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Agility is a sport that many different dogs like, but even in such a middle of the road sport, there are dogs who don’t think this is fun. It is important to listen to our dog’s preferences especially as we ask them to perform more and more difficult or advanced work! Copyright: mackland / 123RF Stock Photo

The first thing I like to do is to is to try and figure out why the dog doesn’t want to engage in the behaviour.  I once had a client who purchased a husky to go and run with him.  As it turned out, we happened to have a very hot summer when he was just the right age to start running at about 18 months.  The husky learned very quickly that running gear meant that he was going to become hot and uncomfortable.  The husky was no dummy!  He learned that running was uncomfortable so he didn’t like running..  He LOVED to run, but not with the owner or on leash.  The only thing we had to do to change the activity was to choose running times when the weather was cooler.  By taking the dog’s comfort into account, we were able to teach him to like the activity.  As the old saying goes, if I had a nickel for every dog who was uncomfortable in the desired activity, I would be a whole lot richer! 

Sometimes the dog is behaviourally unsuited to the work that the owner wants to do.  Recently I saw a post on a hunting list I follow.  The person on the list wanted a dog to go duck hunting with, but his wife wanted a German Shepherd.  The person asking the question wanted to know how good German Shepherds might be at duck hunting.  As it happened, I once had a German Shepherd who was pretty decent at fetching ducks.  He enjoyed it and he was technically good at it, but there were a few problems.  Firstly, he got a LOT of water in his ears.  There is a really good reason why retrievers ALL have dropped ears!  Secondly, once he was wet, it took a long time for him to dry off and if I had asked him to retrieve in the late fall when goose hunting usually happens, he would have gotten very wet and cold and likely he would not have thought that retrieving was quite that much fun.  Even though he was good at retrieving, including in water, he much preferred to do tracking.

14438710 - dog retrieving a canada goose
This dog is big enough to pick up a goose and carry it and he has enough coat to tolerate the kind of weather in which goose hunting happens. He should also like to swim, and be tolerant of gun shots to be good at this work. In other words, this is a job for a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, but likely not for a Yorkshire Terrier! Copyright: schlag12 / 123RF Stock Photo

Sometimes something happens during training that makes the activity you want to do more difficult for your dog.  If you keep changing your mind about the behaviours you want when preparing do to an activity, the activity itself can become very frustrated.  I did this to one of my dogs early in my obedience career.  I kept changing how I was approaching training with this particular dog, and ended up just confusing the dog.  The dog got to the point where she was confused, annoyed and frustrated and just really didn’t enjoy obedience competitions.  I had a coach who noticed that I was creating frustration and we were able to work through it however, if I had persisted I might have eventually caused much more damage to the relationship I had with that dog.  We went on to have a great relationship once I straightened out my training program.

If an activity with a dog is really important to you, consider that BEFORE you get the dog and choose a dog who is going to start out with an aptitude and an interest in that activity.  There is a reason that we usually choose hounds for trailing, and herding dogs for rounding up sheep.  These dogs have been bred for a long time to do that work, and allowing the dogs to do what they were bred to do helps a lot. 

If you already have a dog and he doesn’t like doing the activity, you may want to either do less of the activity, or stop doing it altogether.  If you have a dog who does a lot of things they really like, and you only ask the dog to do something you like that the dog doesn’t some dogs might be willing to “play the game” to humour you if you don’t ask him to do the activity too often.  The key is take your canine partner into consideration, and like the trainer at our facility, choose activities that both you and your dog will enjoy.

WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL