THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

15427431 - naughty playful puppy dog after biting a pillow tired of hard work
Sometimes puppies will destroy things when they are unsupervised and sometimes they do that when the are distressed. Close supervision and careful attention to the dog’s behaviour will help you to better understand when he is struggling so that you can help him to find a better outlet than the upstairs couch cushions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN

THE BARE NAKED DOG

Originally posted April 2013

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Bare Naked And Beautiful!  Photo: Melanie Wooley

Recently a competing dog training school posted pictures of their graduating class to their Facebook page.   The album featured six smiling families with their dogs in a sit and a graduation certificate and individual brags beside picture.  On five out of the six dogs, they were obviously wearing prong collars.  Interesting.  Two of the six dogs showed clear signs of distress and one dog appeared to be really frightened.  All the people were wearing big smiles and the instructor made a point that he was graduating six well trained dogs.  Hmmm.  Why do six well trained dogs all need prong collars?  And why do well trained dogs look so stressed?  Could it be that the people feel that their dogs are under control by virtue of the equipment that they wear?

Jumping back twenty years or so, I remember when the leash laws first came into Guelph.  There was a lot of publicity about dogs being leashed on a leash that was no more than two metres in length and being under control without a lot of information about what exactly under control meant.  One fine summer day, I was out in the park in a legitimate off leash area with my dog off leash.  Being a dog trainer, I was doing what I am prone to doing; I was training my dog.  I left him on a sit stay, and walked about 50 metres away.  A woman came along with her two kids and stopped dead and then began to scream at me to get my dog under control.  Fifty metres away, my dog sat panting and looking around, and this woman continued her tirade about dangerous dogs.  My leash was around my shoulders as it usually is, and my dog was relaxed and I was really confused.  At first I protested that my dog WAS under control.  This seemed to rev the woman up even more.  After several minutes of this, I called my dog and she and the children began to shriek.  My dog came and I leashed up and the woman finally relaxed a tiny amount and told me that the new law required my dog to be under control.  I had an aha moment.  By under control, she meant ON LEASH.  Under control means something entirely different to me.

19204095 - running beagle puppy with his master on the walk
This puppy is off leash, outdoors and running, but he is STILL under control. His intense focused look is just what we expect to see in a puppy learning to come when called!

When I first started to offer dog training classes I mostly had my students using the traditional chain slip collar that we now understand can cause a lot of injuries.  I don’t use them any longer and don’t allow them on my training grounds.  The risk of injury to my students’ dogs is just too high, and I think that they really gave us a false sense of what it meant to be under control.  When control is entirely reliant on stopping bad behaviours from happening, then we aren’t actually teaching dogs to have self control; we are teaching them that if they do things we don’t want, they will get hurt.  Again, I have to reflect that as a society we have a funny way of thinking about “control”.  We spent most of our time teaching the dogs what they could not do and how badly we could hurt them if they stepped out of line.

In my introduction to dog training class, I had an activity that I did with one of my own dogs.  I dressed him up in every piece of dog training equipment I owned.  I put on a halter and a harness, a chain collar, a flat buckle collar, a martingale, a dog coat and a prong on him.  I would put him through his paces and one by one take all the equipment off.  I would point out to my audience that my dog was happy to work bare naked.  I did a lot of work with that dog and it was wonderful exciting happy work, even though I started him on a pain based system.  What I learned with that particular dog is that it is not the equipment.  It is the relationship.  Control doesn’t depend upon the collar, it is reliant on the relationship.

Relationship is what really creates a dog under control.  At Dogs in the Park, we start all of our dogs on flat buckle collars and two metre leashes, and we do the first few classes with the dogs tethered to the wall.  We recognize that we are not starting with dogs who have self control or even owner directed control.  We work towards getting the dogs off the wall as quickly as we can.  We want the dogs to be successful and the people to be successful too, so we take out the variable in the equation of the dog making the wrong choice.  We tether and work on SELF control.

Dog with ill eyes pulling leash walking at winter park
I am much more concerned about this on leash dog than I would be about the off leash puppy above. Everything about this dog tells me that he doesn’t want to be with the person on the end of the leash and that he is pretty intent on getting to where he wants to go. Being in control has nothing to do with the equipment the dog is wearing and everything to do with the amount of education that dog has, the relationship he has to the person he is working with and the situation that the people have put him into.

My dog out in the park was demonstrating self control.  He was controlling his impulse to go and run up and say hi to the kids.  He was controlling his impulse to go to the river to swim.  He was controlling his impulse to lie down.  My dog was in control of himself and he was doing what I wanted him to do; he was minding his manners and staying where I had left him.  This is the level of self control that is easy to live with.  I didn’t have to worry about this dog pulling people over; he wouldn’t dream of pulling on leash.  I didn’t have to worry about him leaving either; he knew that staying was the game at the moment.  In training, that is the goal.  A well trained dog is a dog who is happy and confident and who will mind his manners, even if he is bare naked.

Getting from the point of being tethered to the wall and learning to not take treats and to not knock people over when they come in to greet to being able to be left on a sit stay or a down stay at fifty metres does not need to be painful for the dog, but it is an important step in developing self control.  It should in fact be fun for everyone.  At home, you should be doing most of your training off leash.  The leash is a great tool but it is only a tool and it is not about great training.  It is what we use when we must, not what actually teaches the dog to do something.  What actually teaches the dog to do things is not the equipment he wears or the words that you say, but the direct outcomes of his own behaviour.

The key to getting from point A, the dog who is out of control to point B the dog who will do distance stays while his person is being screamed at is a process of steps.  Seeing the pictures of the graduating class of the other school reminded me of how important steps and stages are.  At the very beginning, I have to acknowledge that the dog does not understand what I want.  If pain is the tool we choose to explain this to the dog, then we need to be able to set the dog up to learn quickly and efficiently that there is a way to avoid pain.  The pain should be minimal and rare and the dog should understand how to not get hurt.  In the old days when I was first learning to train we would do set ups where we would set the dog up to fail so that he could learn that he would be hurt if he made the wrong choice.  I realize now, especially when I look at pictures and video from those days that my dog was often concerned about being right and worried that she would get hurt.  The picture of the graduation class brought home some pretty strong memories for me, some of which I am not entirely proud of.

Now when I look at the journey from point A to point B, I ask myself if the dog is relaxed and happy.  If the dog is relaxed, then I know that he understands what I want him to do.  I look not only at if the dog can do the skill, but also if the dog is comfortable about it.  If the dog is not comfortable I reassess what I am asking him to do.  When we start a dog in training at Dogs in the Park, they start on the wall and we ask the question; “are you comfortable enough to take treats?”  If the answer is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to click and treat?”  If the answer to that is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to refrain from taking treats when you should not?” and if the answer is yes, we ask the question “are you comfortable enough to offer behaviours?”  If we get a no, then we work with the client to determine what we need to do to make the dog feel safe and comfortable enough to work in our classroom.  We ask the dog.

Training is not just about skills acquisition.  It is also about the emotional state of the dog, and the relationship that the dog has with you.  When a dog feels confident about you and the work you are doing, he is eager and keen to try new things.  He doesn’t look worried or concerned.  He doesn’t look like something might go wrong at any moment.  When a dog feels confident about what he is doing he is willing to engage in things with you, and that is what partnership is about.  It is not just about skills acquisition at all; it is about everything that the dog is thinking about and experiencing including how the dog is working with you.

So I come full circle back to the graduation pictures that my competitor posted.  The people look thrilled and proud.  Half the dogs look relaxed.  The instructor describes his clients and their dogs as well trained dogs and people.  But three of the six dogs look unhappy and at least five of the six dogs are wearing devices that operate on pain.  None of the dogs is looking at his person as though that person was interesting or cool.  This is where we started at Dogs in the Park.  I am really glad we moved on to where we are now.  The pictures I post of my clients don’t show a whole lot of graduations.  We don’t graduate dogs anymore.  We celebrate when they achieve levels.  And we see a lot more happy and a lot fewer stressed dogs.  I am really proud of what we are doing here, and I hope my students are just as proud of themselves; our dogs learn skills and they also learn about partnership and relationship and trust.  And when you dog trusts that you have his back, he will do nearly anything for you.  One step at a time, towards a goal that is meaningful for both of you.  I am so glad my competition posted their pictures.  Sometimes I just need some confirmation that I am heading in the right direction.

THE BARE NAKED DOG

WE GOT HIM FOR THE KIDS!

Originally posted April 2013

The family dog probably has one of the world’s most difficult jobs.  Compare life as a family dog to life as a herding dog.  Every morning, the herding dog wakes up with the sheep, guides them to pasture and moves them from place to place.  Between times, the dog rests and relaxes and at meal times goes up to the house to get a meal.  The family dog however gets up with mom or dad earlier than the kids and likely goes out to the bathroom, and for many family dogs, that is the last predictable thing that happens all day.  The kids get up, and Michael, eight, who is supposed to feed the dog,  has a throat infection.  Sally, ten, has a report due at school and she wants to spend time finishing that instead of taking the dog out for his morning play session.  Mom has to reschedule her morning meeting with the lawyer so that she can take Michael to the doctor and she is busy hustling Sally through her report and breakfast so that she can make the bus.  Dad is in the kitchen making breakfast so that Sally and Mom can get their mornings started but the griddle won’t heat up and he has a bowl full of pancake batter sitting on the counter and all the other frying pans are dirty.  He puts the pancake mix in the fridge and gets out cold cereal, all while Michael is complaining that he can’t eat because his throat is sore.  Meanwhile, the dog is bugging Michael for his breakfast and Mom and Dad are so frazzled that it doesn’t immediately occur to them them that Michael is feeling so crummy that he hasn’t gotten to feeding the dog.  The day often devolves from there.

Yes, the dog gets fed and he gets walked, but often the expectations we have for family pets is a little out of line with reality for the pet.  Often I hear “Fluffy belongs to the kids, and she is their responsibility”.  I am certain that most parents don’t really think that Fluffy is entirely the kid’s responsibility, but too often it is presented as though the dog is their whole responsibility.  If we re-framed this about a younger sibling things would look much different.

Imagine for a moment we weren’t talking about Fluffy but rather Ryan, Michael and Sally’s younger sibling.  Imagine for a moment that Mom and Dad got up in the morning and changed young Ryan’s diaper, and then it was Michael’s responsibility to feed young Ryan and Sally’s responsibility to get him dressed and ready for the day.  The idea that an eight  year old and a ten year old would be responsible for a young child is appalling, and yet we hear this regularly in our puppy classes.  In one family, if the child did not feed the dog, he went hungry.  And if the other children didn’t toilet the dog outside, they had to live with the mess inside until one of the children took it upon themselves to clean it up, usually with much nagging and screaming on the part of the other members of the household.

I am a person who strongly believes that we don’t give your youth enough freedom and responsibility in our society.  As a Scout leader for many years, I was constantly faced with boundaries that we were not permitted to allow our kids to cross, often limits that made little or no sense.  When one of my groups of kids wanted to go bowling I helped them to plan the trip and reminded these 14 to 17 year old kids that they needed to figure out how they were going to pay for the trip.  No one wanted to confront the issue, so in spite of weekly reminders, they never sorted that aspect out.  On the day of the trip we all gathered and they had no money to go.  I let the group work out how they wanted to resolve it.  One of the parents stood to the side very agitated feeling that I was being unfair to the kids when he could just give them the money they needed.  I gave the kids the chance to figure out a solution, which they did.  A phone call was made and the group committee arranged to drop off the funds needed (we had arranged this ahead of time).  The desire to not let the kids miss out on something they hadn’t planned for was so strong that the parents in attendance would have bailed the kids out before they solved their problem.  I absolutely believe that kids should be permitted to fail early and often and develop resilience and problem solving abilities early.  I just don’t believe that should be done at the expense of a pet’s well being.

When a family gets a dog, the adults need to understand that it is the family dog, not the kid’s dog.  Rarely do six and seven year old kids have the resources to research an appropriate breed, purchase, arrange transport to and from the breeder, arrange and pay for veterinary visits and do all the training of a young dog.  I love having kids in class, and to make it successful we have to take a number of things into account.  First and foremost, we have to understand what a child is capable of.

Preschoolers are not capable of walking your mastiff, no matter how cute it might be in theory.  A large or giant breed dog needs only to walk quickly to knock down and drag a young child.  With preschoolers we teach them in class that they must ask their own guardians and then the dog’s person before offering to greet the dog.  If the dog chooses to back away, then the greeting is a no go, and that should be the end of it.  Often preschoolers are not as interested in greeting the dog as Mom and Dad are in having the kid greet.  Many years ago, when I was training the first service dog I ever trained, I was out in the mall with him and a mom with her toddler spotted us.  “Look” she said; “A doggy, in the mall!”  I kept walking.  The child was in her arms and clearly not interested.  She followed us down the length of the mall, through a crowded bookstore and into a coffee shop all the while babbling to her kid about the doggy in the mall, describing him, and his jacket and that he was inside the mall.  Finally the child showed interest, and she offered him the chance to pet the dog.  After this whole scene played out, I turned to face her and said “I am sorry, this is a working service dog and you may not pet him”.  Her response was interesting.  She turned beet red and said “Some people have NO manners” and left in a huff with her now screaming child.

Preschoolers are a slightly difficult group because they are interested in the world, but in short bursts.  They don’t need to have long periods of interaction to be successful.  If they are not initially interested in the dog, there is lots of stuff that we can do to make them safe around dogs other than interacting with them.  In general, my guideline for working with preschoolers and dogs is that they need to work at the speed of the preschooler and if the preschooler isn’t interested, then give them something to do along side of the dog, instead of insisting on an interaction they may not be interested in having.

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This is a beautiful idyllic image, but this dog could seriously harm the child if he bolted.  Mom and Dad should be holding a second leash!  Image credit: auremar / 123RF Stock Photo

 

5, 6 and seven year old kids are often very interested in dogs.  They may draw the dogs or spend time reading books on dogs independently.  This age group is a group that needs to learn safety rules around dogs and can assist with some of the care of a dog.  They may be able to leash walk a smaller well trained dog, but asking a 6 year old to be responsible for the exercise and feeding of any dog is really more than we should expect.  Kids in this age group can be included in training sessions where the dog already knows the behaviour.  I recently spoke with a Mom on the phone who wanted to be able to drop her six year old and their 7 month old intact male German Shepherd off at my training hall for the hour lesson.  Accepting them in the class would have been completely unrealistic in terms of training the dog or helping the seven year old to be successful with the dog.  When working with kids, it is essential that as the instructor, I set both the dog and the child up for success.  Usually this means training the dog ahead of the child and then including the child in a separate training session where the dog follows the kid’s directions and Mom or Dad assists the child in being successful.

The process of training a dog may be boring for kids if the dog doesn’t know what to do, so make sure that your dog understands what you want and then teach your kid how to make the behaviours happen.  Integrating kids into training is a matter of learning how to make the activity interesting for both your child and your dog.

About two years ago, we had a family with a Springer Spaniel come to class.  This family got it.  Everyone came to the first class.  The two kids, 7 and 9 years old, sat down near Mom and Dad with colouring books and crayons, reading material and video game.  Mom and Dad worked on our down stay exercise and then included the kids in the feeding stage.  They played statues with the kids while the dog learned to stay.  Mom and Dad worked in cooperation with one of them working with the dog and the other helping the kids to be successful.  After the stay, Dad worked on leash manners with the dog and the kids went back to their books and games.  When the dog started to get the hang of it, Mom organized the kids into stations and the dog walked back and forth between the kids, with the kids treating after Dad clicked.  This went on for all eight weeks of the classes; a beautiful dance of dog, kids and parents, working together.  When it works it works really, really well.

As kids get older, they develop better coordination and balance, strength and ability to follow directions.  By the time kids are about ten years old, they can continue work that Mom and Dad have started.  So if the parents are capturing sits, downs, stands and touches, the kids can be in charge of the clicker and the treats.  As the dog gains skills the kids can start working on chains of behaviours with the dog.  The nine to twelve year old group is developing the skills to be able to work more independently but still under direction with Mom or Dad on site.  They still are not able to take on the full responsibility for the dog though; they shouldn’t be asked to take the dog to the vet for instance.

Thirteen is the age are which we accept volunteers at Dogs in the Park in our puppy program.  In Ontario you have to do a certain number of volunteer hours in order to graduate from high school and we are pleased to be able to share our program with teens.  Young teens can be quite competent dog trainers and we allow this age group to handle their own dogs within reason.  If the dog is extremely strong or unruly, then we do not allow them to work unassisted, but if the dog is an appropriate size and temperament we allow this age group to work their own dogs provided that a parent or guardian is on site.  At this age, we love to see the ability of both the dog and the kid begin to shine.  What we don’t allow is kids under 16 to be dropped off and picked up while the child is solely responsible for the dog.  In the event of a veterinary emergency, the child would not be able to drive the dog to the vet clinic for instance.  This is just not appropriate.

Young teens can be very responsible for the family dog.  They can be responsible to feed and exercise the family dog, but parents still need to be aware of this getting done; if it isn’t done, someone needs to notice, because the dog should not take the fall for an error on the part of the child.  Veterinary care and training decisions still need to be made with the parents though; expecting a child to be solely responsible for the dog is unrealistic and unfair to your dog.

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Puppy Class is designed to help families to work with their puppies.  Children should not go to puppy class without their parents.

The key with family dogs is to recognize that an adult needs to be responsible for the dog.  We would not expect a child to be responsible for the upbringing of another child including feeding, enrichment, medical care and education.  We should not expect children to be solely responsible for the upbringing and care of a dog either.

WE GOT HIM FOR THE KIDS!

ANDREW’S MOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANDREW’S MOM

FALLING IN LOVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FALLING IN LOVE

WAIT A MINUTE!

At Dogs in the Park we run a drop in gym style program where students can come to more than 15 classes a week with their dog and learn about dog training.  When they have passed enough basic exercises, advanced classes open up to them.  When dogs come to training classes we always tell people to practice their skills regularly and often.  What we intend is that you will learn skills in the classroom that you will then take out and practice in the rest of your world.  If for instance, your dog has learned to sit at school in the classroom, we expect that you will practice at home, in your yard, at the park and on the street.  What we don’t expect is that students will attend all of our classes each week, although we have had students try and do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WAIT A MINUTE!

I WENT TO THE GYM ONCE

Originally posted May 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I WENT TO THE GYM ONCE