Neutering my German Shepherd

I’m going to do it. Actually (remembering my childhood, where our family actually gelded our own pony, and it was common in those days to do that, maybe it still is, with elastic bands) I’m not going to do it, but my veterinarian is going to do it. She’s also going to do a gastropexy while she is at it, hopefully protecting him from torsion/bloat risk.

It’s hard to decide to neuter a dog. With Tigerlily, I waited til she was 3 years old. She was a rare breed (barbet) and in spite of how shy and prey driven she was, how she was really smaller than her siblings, I held onto that dumb desire to maybe breed her til she was three years old. She had a pretty miserable spaying procedure. Poor Tiger. I slept with her, holding a hot water bottle on her incision that night, and that helped. I wished I had spayed her earlier. Surgery doesn’t get easier as they get older.

M’Ocean is 3 years old too now. I am getting him neutered because I am realizing, I never want to breed him. I guess it takes me 3 years to realize that. Too many people use shock/prong/choke on these dogs and I don’t have a long list of people I would trust who want a GSD puppy. Also, a shock collar to teach him to avoid sexy coyotes seems like a worse training plan than neutering. As Denise Fenzi said, “If someone told me I could never eat another meal again, and there was a way to get rid of my craving for food, it seems like a no-brainer.”

M’Ocean is fully mature. 94 lbs. He’s basically a very confident assertive funny and friendly dog. I hate to do invasive things, but being a dog owner is invasive. Leash walking is invasive. The dog/human symbiotic relationship is as invasive as the hills. That dog has already left the doghouse. We’ve domesticated and changed dogs and we continue to do that.

It’s weird. Weird to have dogs who really feel like they are part of the family. My dogs feel like they are humans, kinda. They seem to believe I am their mom, or their Guru. They worship me, kinda. They aren’t looking to start another family. Well… my spayed older dog Bee is DEFINITELY not looking to start another family, but if I let M’Ocean spend a few days out in the woods this week, especially if I left bowls of food, probably he would go start another family, unless the male coyotes killed him first. But he’s living a good life amongst the humans, and in general he seems satisfied and well adapted to this domesticated dog arrangement.

I’ll let you know how it goes, and if neutering him changes anything in our lives, in good or bad ways. It’s going to cost me maybe $1000.00 which is just one more aspect of the ordeal. I really don’t like doing it, but after thinking it through, our risk versus benefit analysis, neutering him feels like the more responsible, safe, smart thing to do. And then next year, when we are hiking the Appalachian trail, I won’t have to worry quite so much about the dangerous ways sex hormones can influence coyote and dog behavior.

Why did you get a dog?

Lion with Matilda, a guest dog.

One day, I was upstairs writing and Dandylion was downstairs barking. I did NOT want to answer the door. I said “thank you!” several times, and finally, sighing, I went downstairs to see what the dog was barking at.

He was staring at the woodstove, barking his head off. The temperature gauge on the stovepipe was far above the dangerous red line. Chimney fire! Apparently a chimney fire makes noise! Who knew?!? I shut down the stove, gave Lion leftover chicken, called the fire department.

If Dandylion had been “obedient,” he would have shut up the first instant I said “thank you.” And the house might have burnt down, with me in it!

Canine eyes, ears, sense of smell are different than ours. Dogs can understand and do and know things that we can’t do or know. I like that. I want my dogs to trust me enough that they can disagree with me sometimes, and tell me what they know.

Once, we were fixing an old boat on a dock in Puerto Rico. It was nighttime, we were sleeping when Tigerlily started going nuts. I guessed feral cats, and told her “Thank you!” But she kept on barking, waking up the whole marina, racing up on deck, staring into the water, so I had no choice, I had get up. And oh look, there’s a teenager in snorkle gear getting ready to steal our dinghy! Good girl Tigerlily. Another time she woke us up barking because a junked ghost ship had broken off a mooring and was drifting up, about to smash into us. I learned to appreciate the value of seemingly “naughty” (confident, independent, communicative) behaviors.

Another time, I was renting out the house we’d built for extra summer income, and we were living in a nearby funky cabin. Our renter came to our gate needing some sort of assistance, and my dog Bee (this is well after Lion had passed away) went nuts, barking at the guy. How embarrassing! That’s my paying client! I’m afraid I spoke sharply to her. Stop that! Sit! So Bee gives me a look, but she is a good girl and she sits, I open the gate and the guy falls through, grabbing me on his way down, drunk as a skunk. Fortunately my husband was home and came out to see what the commotion was all about, but I apologized to Bee, and vowed never again to disrespect her when she was trying to tell me something.

Bee with my granddaughter.

Many many years before these dogs, I had a wonderful smooth coated St. Bernard, Sampson. I was working double shifts dispatching emergency services at a police department 4 pm til 8 am, and during the day me and Sampson would go to the local pond. I’d swim and sleep and he would just hang out, sleeping beside me, good as gold. One day I woke up and he was barking, I’ve never before or since heard barking like that, it was more like ROARING, circling around me.

I looked up to see three men headed towards me, with shovels on their shoulders. They were actually headed towards a little cranberry bog dike that was on the other side of me, to shovel it out. I tried to take Sampson’s collar, but he wouldn’t let me touch him. He just pranced in a circle around me, daring them to take one step closer. The workmen were forced to veer off, a big detour. My dog didn’t settle down til he saw them starting to shovel out the dike.

So, while I compete and train in obedience, I appreciate some “dis-obedience” in my dogs! Brains are good. I don’t want dogs to stop thinking. I try to help them develop their brains. I try to be more like their guru, and less like a prison guard.

If we are going to work or play together effectively, they need to trust and understand me. I need to understand them. So I’m not so much aiming to “command” them around , but we’re building skills so we can share a better life. I have dogs because there are things we can know and do with dogs that we could never do without dogs. Why do you have your dogs?

Whose fault is it? (dogs need space)

[I found this in my diary from several years ago.]

My 12 year old dog, Tigerlily, shocked me. We were coming in to port on our dinghy and I had two dogs on leashes, still wearing life jackets. I let both my dogs jump off the dinghy, and as I was still holding their leashes, this helps hold the dinghy to the dock, and gets the dogs out of my way, and helps me get up onto the dock as we tie the dinghy up  and disembark.

Just after the dogs jumped onto the dock (still on leash) I saw an old man approaching, walking along the narrow dock. I was fairly discombobulated, hanging onto the leashes of my dogs (who were eager to get off the dock and go pee!) and balancing myself as I tried to get off the dinghy and onto the dock. I assumed the gentleman was going to give me a second to get all the way off the dinghy and untangle myself and my dogs, but he just kept walking, passing right over my two excited dogs. Tigerlily, who has lots and lots of training, many hours of experience providing pet assisted therapy to children, sick, and elderly, jumped as he passed, grabbed his pants leg and apparently also nipped at his hand. I saw the pants grab, not the hand nip, but the gentleman showed me blood.

It was a scratch not a puncture, but it was not okay. I apologized profusely, and the gentleman fortunately accepted my apologies. He said, “My brother was a dog trainer, and so I know, it’s not your fault. I’ll just put a bandaid on it.”

That was generous of him. He wasn’t looking to blame, not looking to be “right,” not looking to add insult to injury. It was kind, honest to admit that he shouldn’t have walked so fast and close to unfamiliar dogs who can’t get away from him on a rickety dock.

And I don’t want to apologize so much that the old guy decides now I owe him money, or that my dog deserved to be treated as a dangerous dog, but it was really my fault. There is liability and risk in connection with dog ownership. If gun owners were required to handle their dangerous weapons as responsibly as dog owners must handle our sometime lunkheaded dogs, guns would need to be a lot cuter.

When Tigerlily jumped up and nipped, she was less than three feet away from me, on a leash. Twenty five pounds. The dock itself is only four feet wide. Offloading in a place they had never been before, Tigerlily was getting old and blind and deaf. Me too. Probably the stranger, too. He appeared out of nowhere, rushing and stressing us in an already somewhat wobbly situation.  

He suddenly invaded the space of unfamiliar dogs and humans, but still  I could have looked up, said a loud clear, “STOP!”  And I should have scouted the docks more carefully before off-loading.

After the incident, I was anxious for the rest of the day, just waiting for that man to come to my boat, and label me and my old poodle. I was so upset and ashamed, I felt like such a failure, that I imagined saying, “Here. She’s your dog now. Here’s the list of words she understands. Here’s a bag of dog food. Just take her and do whatever you think is best!”

But in spite of how dog/human social interactions can be challenging, anxiety provoking, dangerous, we keep on keeping our dogs. Humans and dogs continue to make mistakes. I’ve had off-leash dogs charge and bark at me and my dogs, I’ve had a sweet old black lab on a beach bite me pretty badly when I tried to get back my $15 Planet dog ball.

What bothered me about the dock incident was that I was right there, I had my dogs ON leash, I imagined my dogs were safe, but an accident happened anyway.

The best way to prevent dog bites or nips, no matter how well trained the dog, is to keep plenty of safe space around our dogs. Practice saying, “Stop! My dog needs more space!” Say it with a smile! Or try “Stop! My dog doesn’t want to be so close.” Even if our dog MIGHT do perfectly great, there are risks. Maybe our dogs need more space, and also more TIME.

Can we recognize those dangerous moments where our dogs are being pressured by other dogs or people?

Most dog bites come as a big surprise! And whether it’s a bite or scratch, knocking someone over, muddying clothes or just creating a scare, it’s OUR fault. We chose this responsibility. It’s up to us to do everything we can to prevent accidents.

Dogs Learning. No rush.

Training social skills is a little bit different for every dog. My 94 lb German Shepherd Dog (working and tracking lines) M’Ocean just turned three years old, ready to compete and earn more ribbons in rally, and start entering agility and tracking events. With warm ups and slow introductions, he often, but not always, displays amazing social skills. He loves people, he’s lovey dovey with my grandchildren. He’s gentle with guest puppies and dogs, he plays nice in big dog groups, he herds my ducks without harming a feather, but sometimes, when he’s leashed in the park, especially if another dog is staring at him , he’ll bark intensely at the other dog.

And in general, no one wants to see your german shepherd tell another dog off. German shepherd dog barks sound like a five alarm fire drill, extremely threatening, loud and scary. And even when M’Ocean is desperate to be friendly, 94 lbs of friendly german shepherd is more friendly than many people or dogs want.

There are many things on my training plan, upocoming rally and agility events, tracking events, some freestyle tricks I want to train, titles I want to collect. But nothing is more important than having a dog that won’t embarrass me (or scare/hurt anyone else). This is also true for dog owners in general, amirite?

So here’s where I stand with my “social” training plan. At the park, where lots of dogs are popping out everywhere, some on leash, and some off leash, I’m going “back to kindergarten.” That means, I will make lessons easier, clearer, train closer to the car for a while. That way, if M’Ocean whines or makes a small mistake, I can deliver a friendly consequence, and pop him back in the car. I don’t want to get myself in a situation where I have to keep on giving him a lovely walk in spite of the fact he just yanked the leash or barked at the off-leash dog. I want to be prepared to show him very clearly which behaviors earn more “privileges” and which behaviors mean he’s going “back to the car.”

We can measure our training progress partly by what gear the dog requires, and which environments are more comfortable and easy for your dog to be successful. My GSD is 3 years old now, and still at kindergarten (head halter) training level in many environments. As my goal is to have my dog become comfortable and reliably responsive off-leash in almost any environment, I need to progress training, and start practicing flat collar in more environments. For clarity sake, as well as safety sake, when he’s on a flat collar, I need to stay near a car or crate, so that if he’s naughty, I can stop the game. When my dog is responding well on a head halter around the car, and not reacting there even when other dogs cross the parking lot, then I can practice a bit on his flat collar. If he makes mistakes, I can put him in the car (or we could bring crates), and put his head halter back on. When he’s not making mistakes on his flat collar, then I practice long line games, and build some distance control, practicing stationary behaviors, and sending him to the car, and adding duration and distractions. Reinforcing crate games in the park may provide more confidence and clarity than all the frustrating not-loose leash walks in the world. Do you see how this delivery of incremental freedom, in responses to self control, can progress to great off-leash skills?

Yes it takes time, but if you don’t want to train, why did you get a dog? With my old dog Tigerlily, who was a super shy, very prey driven reactive barbet, it took me SIX YEARS! Partly, my second dog Bee helped me supervise Tigerlily, but as she hit about 5 years old, though she liked kitties more than dogs as “friends,” her visible reactivity went completely away. I brought her everywhere. I flew several times with her, she provided pet assisted therapy at Spring Harbor Hospital in the pediatric psychiatric unit (often outside in the playground with kids). Tiger and Bee sailed thousands of miles with us, from Puerto Rico to Maine, Maine to the Bahamas and back, visiting many classrooms along the way. The two of them were amazing, fun and easy, off leash on the beach, even around chickens and lizards! Just because your dog isn’t there now, doesn’t mean he never will be. We grow these skills. Tigerlily died at 16. My dog Bee is 11 now. She rarely needs a leash. M’Ocean is 3. Just three. Of course, he’s still learning how to handle his 94 lbs of energy. It takes time, and planning, for dogs to really trust and understand your guidance.

Moving skills forward means remembering that when I go out in public, I am rewarding self control and responsiveness with privileges and freedom. And if he’s being a whiny prancing overly excited pain in the butt, he’s going back in the car.

I have an airbnb guest staying in our training suite, and last night, M’Ocean opened the door and walked in, visiting the guest and his dog. Fred was like, oh wow. Big dog! And his dog Molly was like oh wow! Sexy! But there was no barking or hysteria, it was super friendly and funny interaction, M’Ocean scouted the room, they sniffed and wagged, Mo grabbed Molly’s dog toy and left! It’s a “good sign” when we see calm friendly dog/dog interactions. I’ve got to give Molly and Fred credit for handling the surprise with aplomb! But they had seen each other previously, out in the yard, across the gate, and so now he was walking around treating her like a member of the family.

Slow social experiences are good. Like humans, dogs do best when they get to know dogs a little bit at a time. People often hate the slow growth, we all want quicker fixes, but quick fixes tend to come with side effects. If we can relax and accept where our dogs are TODAY, and not worry about the fact that they still need to get to tomorrow, maybe that can make the learning process feel less fraught. Oh I just thought of a good thing to put on our blackboard in front of the farm stand. “Dogs Learning. No rush.”

Why do people teach their dogs to pull on the leash?

There are some good reasons, but mostly, people train leash pulling by accident. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it often does, that leash pulling is not a “natural” behavior. It’s a learned behavior.

Okay, how do you teach a dog to pull on a leash? You see something that the dog wants to investigate or reach, put the dog on the leash and then hold some tension on the leash as the dog charges to the prize. Over time, each practice session you should hold more and more tension in the leash as the dog runs, now dragging you, to the prize! Well done! Dogs will learn to drag almost any amount of weight to get to a prize.

What’s the prize? Well, where does the dog “arrive” when he pulls you? Where’s he going? Often, my dog is in a hurry to poop. Or to smell where a dog or mouse or interesting event has occurred. Dogs are frequently attempt to drag their handler through the main gate, entering Whole Dog Camp.

If you actually DON’T want to train your dog to be a world class leash puller, practice loose leash walking indoors, grow your early “loose” leash walking skills in environments where most of the reinforcement is associated with YOU, around with lower intensity distractions. Train the head halter and loose leash walk on the head halter from one “pot o gold” (that YOU find and hand to the dog) to another. I leave high value kibble in tiny piles on window sills, up over the door frame or shelves etc. So I walk around holding my dog’s leash sort of like I’m dragging a beach towel in the sand on a lovely afternoon. No tension in the leash. And just wander around, giving your pup a prize, sort of plucking it out of the air! “Oh Barney! Look what I found!” Your dog will think you are amazing!

You’re relaxed, but make sure you are leading Barney and not the other way around. So, make it fun and interesting for Barney to keep his eyes on you, and see what you’re up to! You find treats in the darndest places! Make sure Barney thinks you’re a laugh riot and is having a good time on this head halter tour of the house.

Good at it? Sometimes, no offense, it takes some practice to learn to not be an asshole when holding a leash. Sometimes we all pull the leash, but far better to use our words, or give the dog a little poke if he gets distracted, “Hey, we’re going this way!” And then trot away! If your dog is disinterested in you, and disengaging to do his own thing, try moving a bit faster and making it more interesting. Just running with your dog, laughing and playing like a dog might play, delivering treat-surprises, can help your dog engage and discover, oh, we’re on a journey about finding treats.

Then take the gear off and rest. When you’re good at these indoor walks, practice the same walk around the outside of the house. Hide treats in the crotch of the trees, in the mailbox, on the car, etc. Lead your dog from one cool discovery, to the next.

The most common resource that reinforces dogs’ leash-pulling behaviors is the opportunity to sniff or visit. So instead of just mindlessly letting the dog sniff or visit in ways that reinforce the behavior of leash pulling, we can more consciously deliver “sniff” opportunities as a prize for displays of self control.

Every time we leash walk, I have a plan for how I will reinforce his “loose leash” behavior. At the park,, we practice loose leash walking all over the parking lot and if he isn’t doing a good job, I can put him back in the car. Dogs learn to earn that walk! Practice and reinforce highly, all around the parking lot, into and out of the car, and if they make a mistake, they go back in the car! But then when they are quiet in the car, they respond to a “sit,” well, come on out then! It’s a game.

If you’re trying to go somewhere, that’s fine, but that’s not a good time to train a dog to walk on a loose leash. Practice makes perfect and you don’t want to practice the wrong behavior. When you are training a dog to walk nicely on a leash — and you should, a little bit, every day– it’s about training, and you shouldn’t be actually trying to go anywhere.

Put some treats on top of your car, and walk around the car, around the parking lot. When your dog is focused on you and heeling perfectly, say, “lets go!” And run with your dog! That’s the best reward! And run back to the car and deliver a treat. And every 10 to 30 steps, have the dog sit as you position yourself close to a tree or a lightpole, or a well peed-on rock (you can food reinforce the sit if you like) and then say, “go sniff!”

Don’t walk further, nor let your dog drag you to a new location, but do give the full leash length, and a few minutes to get a really satisfying snoot-full of just that one location, and then call the dog to walk on.

Sometimes I pull along a drag toy, or I have a couple of popped soccer balls and kick them to keep my dog focused on me. I give him carrot to crunch when a dog is walking by, but I definitely can’t forget to deliver lots of “go sniff!” cues. On a thirty minute walk when my dog is a beginner, I will easily deliver “go sniff” as a cue 30 times. I mean, that’s what a walk is all about, right? But I don’t deliver it for nothing. On a long line walk, I can cue a hand target, a recall, or a sit and then “go sniff!” in a moving “sniff!” As the dogs learn to trust that you really aren’t a big meannie, with-holding the sniff opportunities, but that instead you are delivering them, at a satisfying rate, then they relax more on leash. They trust you and your awesome itinerary. It might be the most challenging thing we train, but also the best rewards!

How Animal Trainers Make Big Problems Littler

In 2016/2017 my husband and I sailed to the Bahamas and back with 2 dogs aboard. Along the way, we visited many elementary schools where I would play my guitar and have the dogs do some tricks and explain how a little bit about the amazing field of behavior science.

I called my program “How Animal Trainers Make Big Problems Littler,” and I got my husband to participate. It was a wonderful adventure, and my husband just published a story about the trip on one of our favorite little sailing magazines. They put me and my dogs on the cover! It was a great adventure and I’m so grateful that we got to do it. Here’s the link: http://www.pointseast.com/our-current-issue/

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Canine Body Language (and why context matters)

by Jenny Ruth Yasi, CPDT-KA

Canine body language reading has become a “fad.” People look at a picture of a dog, describe the lift of the ear, the flick of the tail, the curl of the lip, the stance etc and then “read” the body language. I’m sure you’ve seen trainers observe dogs and state with certainty that the dog is “fearful” or whatever. I do it too, telling people, “your dog needs to poop” or “he’s asking for water” and when that appears true, they look at me like I’m a pet psychic.

But I’m not.

Think about how this works with people. Look at this image, for example. Great people at a dog event. What can you read from the body language? Honestly, not much, but knowing the context is a big help! People waiting. Focused on a speaker. You start guessing. But human body languages, like canine, are built over habits and many emotions going on at the same time, and we can’t read anyone’s mind from looking at a photograph. Amirite?

Oh how about look at this video, it’s got some great examples of canine body language. First please listen to it with the sound off and see if you can guess what’s going on here.

It’s actually a pretty interesting example of lots of classic, “easy” pieces of canine body language for you to read, and there is even some context shown, to be fair. Now listen to it again with the sound up. How did you do? Were you close? I’ll give you a little more context. The dude with the box is Charlie and he was nearly dead of starvation, a feral dog, when we brought him home from Puerto Rico a few years before this video was made. So he was well recovered, and he’s eaten many boxes I’m sure in his lifetime, so I always let him shred and eat a little bit of boxes if he wanted. It helped him handle the frustration of waiting for breakfast. The poodly girl was about 8 years old, I had her from 8 weeks, so she was my “old pro,” at waiting for breakfast and the yawning hound had been rescued almost one year previously, so she was the most recent addition to the pack, and still learning what she needed to do to get breakfast delivered. And she was best friends with Charlie.

Yes, sure, great that you noticed the yawn! Yawns are great little stress relievers, and we humans ywn too. But she wasn’t “terribly” stressed. One of the problems of this fad of canine body language reading is that people exaggerate what they see. OMG the dog YAWNED! That’s like, OMG the kid twirled her hair with her fingers!! We are always expressing little bits of tension and anxiety, little splashes of excitement and frustration, nervousness and boredom. We are full of all sorts of thoughts, emotions, feelings and we express them. They are fluid and changeable.

Of course it’s important to see how a dog is RESPONDING to various situations. “Response” is all about looking at body language in context. And so you’re maybe seeing how Charlie expressed some impatience (I want breakfast!), and the other dogs were in agreement. I don’t know but it seems as if Charlie was the spokesperson and Bee was the diplomat. Tiger was just staying out of trouble, confident that she didn’t need to say anything. Then you see how they react to what I said, and the only reason they react that way is because they’ve heard those words before. Notice how my poodly girl looks completely relaxed, laying on the couch. That doesn’t mean she isn’t every bit as anxious, excited, “stressed” as the other dogs. It means, she is choosing a behavior that has been highly rewarded in the past. She is performing learned behavior.

I’m not keen on pet psychics. We can’t “read” body language in ANY animal like we “read” a book. For example, what is this guy thinking?

Out of context, it looks like he’s waiting for a bus. But what Bernie said is that he was pretty much overcome with emotion, watching the inauguration. He was reflecting.I bet he was thinking about his own journey. He was not cold. And doesn’t Bernie usually look like that?

I’m not saying body language doesn’t matter. It’s very helpful to observe your dog’s body language and see how she acts in different contexts. Watch her body language when you serve dinner, when you get out the nail clippers, when she sees another dog, when she a friend knocks on the door versus a stranger. You get so you can tell, “oh, that body language means daddy, and this other body language means the UPS guy.” Watch her body language in the veterinarian waiting room (see the dander poof out of her coat?). And then you see the dander poof out in another situation and realize, oh, she might be nervous. How does YOUR dog express that she needs to pee? How does she ask for water? How does your dog show you that she doesn’t feel well? But can you tell if your dog has a toothache? Probably not from a photo, and maybe not even from a video.

Many dogs have quirky body language. Their friendly “grin” looks like a snarl, or they freeze and slink around, but they are just being polite and careful. No one can see a photo or a brief out-of-context video clip of a “wall eye” or a pricked ear, and read the dog’s mind. Just like humans, body language is about itches, arthritis, learned behaviors, indigestion, and not just about emotions. Body language can be intentionally deceptive. Much like humans, dog can bluff and act confident, when actually they are afraid.

My poodle girl used to sometimes appear like she was on her best behavior, when she was actually plotting to blast off after a squirrel. Actually her behavior in this video is a great example of how she looks when she is “plotting.” Resting, relaxed and calm, but maybe plotting to get that box when Charlie wasn’t looking.

“Analyzing body language,” can be helpful, entertaining fun and there is surely a grain of truth to it. But don’t fall for the “pet psychic” extremes of this fad. We can’t “read” canine body language any easier than we can “read” human body language. Can anyone read your body language like a book? They can certainly try, but they might be mistaken.

Intact

My 3 year old german shepherd dog is intact. This was on the recommendation of my veterinarian, who suggested if I am not having a problem with my dog’s behaviors, his reproductive hormones actually come with a host of benefits. I’ll let you google all that, but recently I noticed a potential downside.

We were out walking in the woods, and he began sniffing around in a manner that I’ve never noticed before. It wasn’t the way he sniffs when he is checking our a squirrel or deer poop. And a thought flicked through my mind. “I wonder if a coyote in heat might leave scent that is fascinating to a dog.”

Kind of a scary thought. I definitely don’t want my dog to discover that he could take off on me to find a coyote or wolf in heat.

So I did some research and it turns out that wolves and coyotes typically go into heat January through March. It’s near the end of January now.

Fortunately M’Ocean has been really good at sticking with me, and when I see him start to sniff around and drift in his thoughts, I clip a long line to him. The issue I get is when I start heading home, and he doesn’t want the walk to end. So I’ve added a new trick, which is leaving a raw beef bone in a container just inside my gate when we head off into the woods. He seems to remember that I left it there, and it has a different impact than the treats I carry, that poor sad unguarded bone, hanging out all by itself. This seems to make him more interested in getting home, less interested in diversions that might prolong his walk.

Dog training isn’t rocket science

I hear myself saying that a lot lately, and by that I mean, you need to use the parts of your brain that are about empathy, not “objectivity.” A dog is not an “object.” You are not an “object.”

I’m a firm believer in behavior science. So we do need to “count things” in behavior science. Maybe we can count how many barks, bites, successful retrieves, how many repetitions of undesirable behaviors. Count how many nuggets of meat, how many seconds, minutes duration, latency. How many weeks, months, years of sustained performance.

That’s the science. That’s the way we collect data and evidence, that’s the way we assess success or failure, but that’s not the way we APPLY behavior science.

We apply behavior science via lifestyle. That’s where we see behavior play out. Sure, exercises are good, but we can’t just take one behavior we observe at toilet time and deal with that separate from the whole picture of an organism’s life and environment. One behavior is connected to the next. The whole picture, as I see behavior science, is about understanding the importance of “lifestyle.”

So, more on that later, but with rocket science, we also aren’t sharing breakfast with the rocket. We don’t need to empathize with a rocket. But we do need to understand how rockets work. Rockets have rocket fuel. Dogs and people have reinforcement. Reinforcement is a lot more complicated than rocket fuel.

And it’s “all relative!” What’s reinforcement? I can promise you it isn’t always “petting,” and not always “roast beef” either (though I’ll take the roast beef when I’m training my dog). Dog’s won’t always take food. An icy orange popsicle is only appealing certain moments, but at that moment!! There’s nothing better! Understanding reinforcement isn’t rocket science. Not at all. It’s much more complex.

And when does reinforcement begin? Did it begin before you even give your dog a cue? When you stick your hand in your pocket to get the treat? Or maybe when you were chopping it up on the counter? Maybe the reinforcement began when you said, “sit!” And definitely when you put the food in the dog’s mouth, UNLESS you have a handful of treats, and you put one treat in the dog’s mouth, and you take six treats away (from the dog’s perspective).

Oh yeah, there are things to count, in the warp and weft of behavior and environment. Yes we can numerically influence behaviors by making specific changes to the environment. Well okay. I guess that is kinda like rocket science.

Resource Guarding versus

Trust me

Some say, “I don’t care WHY the dog does this, I just want him to stop!” And if you don’t care why dogs resource guard, read something else. But I find helpful to wonder why. When I think about it, “resource guarding” might be a somewhat “normal,” or understandable, defensive response.

Picture your reaction if someone tried to steal a bite off your plate . That happened to me once, and I almost snapped! Imagine if someone borrowed your bed, car, boyfriend or job without getting your permission first! It may be somewhat “instinctual” for us to guard, hide and protect our stuff,  but aggressive behavior around resources is expressed where resources feel threatened, or where there’s a sense of competition over a limited resource. Imagine if you felt there was only so much water to go around. Maybe you’d fight for your share?

Some dogs learn that dramatic noises or behaviors chase away “threats.” The feeling of power when another dog runs away squealing! Snarling over a bone or other resource can feel pretty good! Unfortunately, that feeling can become a form of entertainment for many a bored dog.  :

First, rule out physical issues with your veterinarian. Tick born diseases, thyroid disease, pain, dementia, seizures, rabies, toothache etc can all contribute to aggression arising in dogs. Veterinarians can also prescribe anti-anxiety medications. The meds can make next steps easier.

Next, make an inventory of everything that seems like a problem. Write in a journal all the details that surround everything that goes wrong in your relationship with your dog.  Where do problem behaviors take place? What time of day? What’s the weather or other circumstances? Is someone cooking or cleaning or visiting? Is it noisy or quiet, hot or cold, bright lights or dark? Is the dog tired? Hungry? Are YOU tired hungry? Recently immunized? What is going on? Is the dog frightened? Excited? Bored? Is the dog hunting? Is the dog frustrated? What is the dog frustrated about or stimulated by?

Some dogs have been previously punished for growling, so they don’t warn you about their feelings. Instead of growling when they feel pressured, they go straight to a bite. So I say “thank you for letting me know!” to a dog that growls.

A client dog, Barney, loved to aggressively guard almost anything. If a dog regurgitated on the ground and I cleaned it up, two days later Barney would be laying on the spot of scent, ready to startle any dog who dared approach. For Barney, resource guarding was pure entertainment. More addictive than facebook!  As soon as you see resource guarding, enlist your entire household to change the game into one that makes everyone, not just the dog, happy.  

Some recommend that you pick up and keep all resources away from the dog. That doesn’t work very well, as it is makes each resource even MORE valuable, and you can’t possibly pick up and put away every stinky spot on the rug. And what if the thing they are fighting over is you?

Instead try teaching the “trust me” game.  Many trainers call this game “trade ya,” and it should be a regular part of life with any dog. The idea is to show your dog that whenever you (or another dog) takes anything away from your dog, your dog gets “paid”  with something even better. Start the game by giving him something low value – maybe a cardboard box to play with, and then trade it with a piece raw beef. After he’s eaten the beef, give him back the cardboard box. That was easy!

You can also do this with dog/dog trades. If you see one dog steal a toy from another dog? Give the dog who lost the toy an even BIGGER prize. Reward your dog when the other dog takes his stuff.

Practice trades dozens of times a week. Practice saying “trust me!” as you take away the popped tennis ball and give him a hunk of chicken. When the chicken is gone, give him back an even better tennis ball! You want the trade to turn out better than the dog expected. Who wouldn’t love that? “Trust me” as you take away your broken eyeglasses (oops, hate it when that happens), and reward him with a piece of flavored rawhide. “Trust me” when the sibling dog takes away his favorite toy, give the sibling dog a milk bone and give the stolen toy back to the dog who loves it. If YOU are protecting your dog’s “special stuff,” your dog doesn’t need to protect it.

We aren’t rewarding the dog for stealing eyeglasses, we’re rewarding him for giving them back. After all, how can s/he  know which items are his/hers and which are not?  My three year old dog had one toy that he REALLY loved (till it was destroyed) and I gave it back to him every time his sibling dog took it. The next thing I knew, the two dogs were playing with the toy together! His confidence that it was “his” toy, that he didn’t need to guard it (because I kept giving it back to him) had increased to the point that he wanted to share it!

Our goal is to see tails wagging and happy eager ears whenever someone intervenes in whatever the dog is doing. Over time, dogs learn to “trust” that you kicked them off the bed … because you wanted to show them the raw chicken wing you “found” in the crate! They learn to “trust” that if another dog steals their ball, you give them a hotdog or another ball (or their special thing). They “trust” that there is PLENTY of good stuff for all! Over time they learn which items are available for chewing and which are not.

 Safety gear — leashes, gates, crate training, muzzle training—are essential, especially if you have kids or other animals, or your dog is displaying dangerous behaviors. But often, the biggest success comes with cultivating your dog’s sense of resource abundance and security.

 I cultivate resource security partly by flooding the environment with resources. You want identical resources. If I have six dogs, I dump out a bag of 24 brand new tennis balls. If one dog gets a dog bone, they ALL get dog bones and there are lots of extra bones too.

When dogs behave aggressively around food treats, if you can, practice with the dogs on opposite sides of a safe fence or gate. If this is too much, you could hang a piece of fabric over the fence to reduce the visual stimulation. Throwing handfuls of identical low value food (many tiny pieces, such as Cheerios, or pieces of bread, or “Charlie Bears.” ). You’ll have the dogs grazing on both sides of the fence. Throw the food far, abundantly, by the handfuls so dogs and treats are spread out, and the dogs sniffing around at a comfortable distance from each other. You can also try giving each dog long lasting chews on both sides of the fence, to help dogs habituate to seeing/smelling/hearing each other dogs eating, while safely separated, without experiencing any threat. Allow dogs to have the space and privacy they need.

Skills to learn:

Playing jump up and off is fun. Ask the dog to jump up, and then get off the bed, because you found some chicken over here!  Practice jump up and get off for a treat.

If you need/want to practice taking an item away from a dog, first play with a tug toy. Drop the toy and with one hand gently take the dog’s collar. Don’t touch the item in your dog’s mouth. Have an excellent food treat in your hand other hand. As soon as the dog drops the toy, yay, praise and give him the treat as you release the collar. Then, give him back the toy again, playing a little game of tug. Take the dog’s collar as before, while dropping, not touching, the toy. Wait and when the dog drops the toy, say “drop it!” This time give the dog a raw beef bone or something chewy and long lasting as you deliver praise. Pick up the toy and put it away. My goal is to teach dogs to “trust me” when I ask them to get off the bed or take the toy (or bone or dead mouse), and reward them highly!

Evaluate:  Are you reinforcing your dog(s) enough for sharing? Is there plenty of “good stuff” to go around, or is your dog being asked to share too much? Do you reward him EVERY time you take a toy or other item from your dog? Go over your inventory. What the dog is experiencing? When? Where? How can you make the learning process more fun for you and your dog? If s/he “trusts” you, she will want you to be in charge of guarding the resources!

Everything you always wanted to know about head halters, but were afraid to ask about in class.

Learning to become a better animal trainer is a life long process. And it’s pretty “normal” for trainers to disagree about all sorts of things. When I take dog classes, I might disagree with my instructors, but I try to keep my mouth shut for the most part. One common disagreement is about gear. In AKC clubs, I’ve seen people with choke or prong collars on their dogs, and I’ve been told head halters aren’t allowed! What?

So disagreements are to be expected, but it drives me crazy when I hear people saying that head halters are dangerous, they can cause neck injuries, interfere with a dog’s ability to smell, or just “dogs hate them.” So when I was in a dog class where the teacher said students should take their dogs to see a chiropractor if they’re using a head halter, you can imagine how hard it was for me to say nothing! (here’s a link on first steps in training a head halter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jjw98m9J9YQ )

But after a few gasps of protest, I clamped my hand over my mouth and focused on observing the dogs. And at the very moment two unruly young dogs in body harnesses were causing some commotion, barking and lunging while the teacher made a pretty good display of not being bothered the slightest by barking and bouncing dogs. “That’s not predatory aggression,” she said, and remarked what she could tell from his body language. “He just wants to play.”

It sounded like famous last words to me. Canine body language can surprise us. The only certainty in my mind was that the dog was excited, aroused, barking, and pulling with all his might at the end of a leash attached to a woman who didn’t know what to do. If the handler lost her grip on the leash, the dog would blast off and my young German Shepherd’s relaxed down-stay on his mat would be tested.

Head halter handling is much like holding the hand of a toddler. Most of the time you have a light touch, but you might give a little squeeze when you’re crossing the road. Head halter training helps us to avoid “opposition reflex,” as illustrated in the above photos. The opposition reflex leads your little buddy to naturally pull away from restraint. In agility, we use that reflex to build speed into a “blast off!” So when untrained handlers pull or balance themselves by hanging onto the dog’s leash, it naturally stimulates dogs to pull in opposition. Restrictive body harnesses work mechanically, by restricting shoulders, and preventing the dog from shifting weight back onto their hips, but they can also stimulate opposition reflex. Muscles regularly restricted and inhibited in this way can slowly deform and disable growing bodies, just like keeping your toddler in a straight jacket. But because it can be challenging to put on and off the dog’s harness, many handlers keep dogs in body harnesses all the time, even when the dogs are off leash!

In any case, body harnesses are essential when you want your dog to pull, as they help distribute weight over the dog’s body. I use body harnesses to cue my dogs that yes, now it’s okay to pull.

A head halter is not good for tracking, or pulling. And it’s not like prong, choke or shock. Head halters can’t be just slapped on and go. Much like driving a stick shift, handlers and dogs need to learn how to drive, or walk nicely, on a leash with a head halter. Used properly, head halters should not be aversive, and they can be far less aversive than body harnesses.

ANY training tool handled improperly, can be aversive.

Internet head halter propaganda shows an anatomical sketch of a dog’s head laced with bundles of nerves and veins and this caption, “this is why I don’t use a head halter.” Did they forget that veins and nerves are all over the dog’s body? And anytime ANY gear cuts off circulation, it’s being used improperly.

Head halter trainers do not “pop” or “correct” dogs on a head halter. The head halter leash needs to be held lightly, loosely, like the reins of a horse. What changes is WHERE you are holding the leash (up near the dog’s head when the dog needs more guidance). Trainers try to never pull on the leash. Just as horses can develop a “hard mouth” from trainers who pull on the reins, dogs develop “hard necks” when handlers habitually have a tight leash.

There are different types of head halters, just as there are different types of body harnesses, and I prefer head halters with cheek straps and a safety clip to the flat collar (like the”Walk n Train”). ” Cheek straps make it easier to keep the nose loop loose without falling off, and that loose/tight contrast is essential for communicating clearly with your dog. When the nose loop is usually loose, dogs can notice when it tightens even a little bit.

As trainers, we need to help handlers prevent injuries in themselves, as well as their dogs, and handler injuries are far too common. Handlers get hurt when dogs yank. And I’ve also seen dogs with collapsed tracheas from flat collars. No matter what gear we are using we should ask ourselves, our veterinarians as well as our trainers, “is this safe?” I ask my veterinarians, “Are you seeing head halter injuries?” and they invariably say, “maybe I saw some fur rubbed off once?” but, no, they’ve never seen a neck injury due to a head halter. Ask your veterinarian if you get a chance and report back what s/he says in the comments! And it’s not that dogs don’t pressure test head halters.

Body harnesses are often cueing my dogs that now it’s okay to PULL.

Lisa told me she had her dog on leash with head halter. She was holding the leash sitting the back of their station wagon when the dog suddenly surprised her, lunging out after another dog. They both got yanked, but neither was seriously injured. If that had happened on a flat collar, or a body harness, would the results have been better, worse or the same? I don’t know, but when you hear that a handler has been injured, or if you see or hear of a dog altercation, I do ask about and observe what type of gear the animals are wearing.

Without training, dogs can wipe a head halter right off their face. So head halter training requires pet owners to learn about operant and classical conditioning, reinforcement, and choice based learning. When we hold up a head halter, head halter trained dogs come running to put it on. Handlers handle their leash gently, like the rein of a horse, to avoid stimulating the opposition reflex. Handlers have practiced putting the head halter on and off, until it is easy, so that later they can carry the head halter in a pocket, pop it on if a dog seems overly excited, and take it off when the dog has calmed himself. A head halter teaches handlers to pay attention to their dogs, and to progress training so that a dog isn’t stuck forever in a restrictive harness. Head halter trained dogs graduate from head halter, to flat collar, to off-leash freedom in more and more environments.

So if you hear a trainer saying that head halters can damage necks, take a careful look around your training classroom. Which dogs seem to be straining their necks? It’s probably not the dogs who have learned to relax and accept hand holding with a head halter. But the big bouncing barking dog, with a handler hanging on dear life?! I would definitely call the chiropractor for that!!

Off Leash Freedom!

How do you wind up with an adult dog who comes when called? There are lot of pieces to that puzzle. A lot of it is practice, practice, practice! But some of the pieces might be genetic. Some dogs have a natural urge to hunt, which can be a tremendous asset, as long as they are hunting for the things you want them to hunt for! But what if they take off after deer or chase cars or squirrels?

It’s important to prevent dogs from rehearsing behaviors that you don’t like. Some trainers use shock collars to stop dogs from chasing the wrong thing. I resist doing that, most especially with young dogs, because shock experiences can undermine a dog’s confidence and drive. It can leave them second guessing themselves and reluctant to experiment — an essential part of successful problem-solving. I don’t want my dogs to be afraid of trying something new.

The head halter to off leash progression in this video, (“Increments of Freedom” with Whole Dog Camp lead trainer Jenny Ruth Yasi) https://youtu.be/SU1XjbmgccI should be just one small part of your larger games-based recall training plans. This isn’t about coming when called, but it’s about understanding and using your leash and training gear as conditioned reinforcers, as well as cues. The head halter to off leash progression rewards dogs with one little increment of freedom at a time, around gradually increasing distractions! Dogs can understand that they aren’t just working for cookies, but they are working for something MUCH more interesting: freedom! Head halters and long lines set dogs up to succeed in trading responsiveness for privileges.

Rewarding with privileges — rather than giving privileges before the dog is ready and then punishment because the dogs makes mistakes — is a more fair way of working with your dog. It’s not fair to expect dogs to perform successfully off-leash if they can’t even perform successfully ON leash. I hope we all can become more awareness of when we are giving a dog a privilege and when we are taking a privilege away, and how that may influence behavior. When dogs understand that they aren’t just working for hot dog, but they are working for what they REALLY want, this leads to happier, less frustrated and more robustly confident dogs. Thanks for leaving me any questions or comments, here or on youtube!

Socializing your dog from a (coronavirus)safe distance

Use it or lose it applies to social skills. Especially for younger dogs, under 3 or 4 years old, there is nothing better for their social skills than the experience of regularly having to use them.

So now what? How can we safely keep our dogs socialized through this period of “distancing?”

If you have your own little pack of dogs, you can help them practice self control, practice sharing and taking turns. There’s a lot to that, as dogs have an acute sense of what is fair and what is not. You have to be able to read your dogs. Rather than going into lengthy details on that, I’ll share a little video of me practicing a two toy game with my puppy, and the rest of the pack watching. I make sure everyone gets a turn (not all in this video) and when I give one dog a piece of rawhide, I make sure they ALL get a piece of rawhide.

If you have an “only” dog, rest assured that effective dog socialization can take place from a distance. When dogs can see, hear, and smell other dogs without having to worry about getting pounced on, they learn to relax. Distance helps dogs relax around unfamiliar dogs.

A well-socialized dog is rather like a well-socialized human being. They can play nicely with others when the situation calls for this, and mind their own business when the situation calls for that.

In the wild, the most frequent cause of death for wolves is other wolves. I’ve observed feral dogs maintain safe “getting to know you” distances from other dogs. At first they give wide berth. Over a period of days, they gradually dare to move closer, and even more slowly the attempt to share food. The “slowly getting to know you” period promotes peaceful pack behaviors. “Physical distancing” now is our perfect excuse to lengthen the “getting to know you” experience for community dogs.

It’s not our excuse to stay home, but to seek spacious outdoor environments with new dogs in the distance. Regularly seeing, hearing and smelling other dogs from a distance can benefit canine social awareness and skills more than wild paws-on play. We don’t give children the the keys to the car before they’ve graduated from drivers ed. Why should we give dogs off-leash close-ups before they’ve fully master social skills (and emotional self-control) from a distance?

Take advantage of this “distancing” time to re-fresh your training plan with your dog, and commit to educating rather than just trying to “wear out” your dog. Simple training plans can be very fulfilling and enriching. Load up on hotdogs, put him on a long line, and practice calling him to your for a treat. Having more distance between your dog and other people and dogs should make it easier for your dog to practice success! After your dogs understands the game, only food reward the prompt responses, and the dog will learn to respond faster!

Get outside in the fresh air, where you have plenty of space. It’s not a bad idea to wear a bandana as a face mask, and protective eye glasses, and have wipes convenient to wipe your hands. By now you likely know the hygiene rules. You’ll want to bring and use your own gear and treats, carry your own poop pick up bags. Don’t pet each other’s dogs. We can do it! During this period, if we play it right, our dogs will be learning to ignore each other. That’s not a bad thing!

Why I don’t knee a dog in the chest, yank the leash or otherwise be a “jerk”.

 

Here’s my shortest explanations of why “jerks” in dog training are wrong, and  “kindness” is more effective .

  1. Someone told you to knee the dog in the chest?  Dogs do this as play. The more you land a knee to their chest, the more aggressively physical the dogs think you play! If you’re thinking, in that case, knee REALLY HARD in the chest?   Unfriending a dog with violence never makes teaching a dog easier.
  2. Someone told you to jerk on a dog’s neck? Don’t do it. Also, don’t let a dog drag you down the street. If  you constantly are keeping the leash tight (getting dragged) while walking, or while “correcting” or just while oblivious, your dog will  just figure that’s the way leash walking goes. Dogs develop a “tough” insensitive neck, where they’ve accepted the status quo, and can’t discriminate softer other leash guidance , much like horses with tough mouths can’t  feel the rein .
  3. Tempted to yell at your dog? Then how will your dog know if it’s a REAL emergency?  Save it.
  4. And I don’t shock, prong, choke because it damages dogs, just like it would damage you if you were taught that way.  Aversive related anxiety may show up where you don’t expect it, in reactive barking, aggression, destructive behaviors, or in dogs who shut down. Aversives cause anxiety, and anxiety gets in the way of thinking.
  5. So, don’t hurt your dog, and don’t hurt yourself. Training mistakes are opportunities to grow.  The best thing you can do is record your training, you learn so much. Below is Tiger when she was about 4 years old. She is  15 years now, and I look back on things I tried with her, how I pushed her, and I think, what was I thinking?!  I’ve grown as a trainer.  Give yourself room to grow. There’s no shame in making mistakes, the shame is in making the same mistake over and over and over!  Everyday,  make a new entry in your training journal. If you make small goals, and achieve them with kindness, you can’t go wrong. Kindness to your dog and also,  kindness to yourself.
  6. img_20150113_144457775_hdr

Things your trainer might not tell you

IMG_2522I had a student once who exclaimed, “I don’t care why the dog does this, I just want him to stop!”

Clients like this are the bane of dog trainers, not because we don’t enjoy a challenge, but because our goal is to make you happy. If you don’t want to know why a dog does something, we’re not going to force the information on you.

Most pet owners, like trainers, do care about why dogs behave the way they do. But many are afraid to know whatever it is we don’t want to know, and frequently we don’t want to know how our behavior is driving the dog’s behavior.

Dog training can feel more embarrassing  than a nude dance class.  Your dog reveals all your flaws.  To spare your ego,  your trainer might let you blame your dog for whatever your dog is doing.  Do you need to step up your training , improve the value of your reinforcement, train your dog to wear a head halter? Your trainer might tell you once, but don’t expect him or her to tell you twice, twist your arm, or the leash connected to it. After all, the dog isn’t paying for these training classes!

Am I right?

56F486B5-24A5-4AF4-B26B-70F3E28C8BEBSo here’s your warning:  your teacher will grow to  tell you what you want to hear, because if she is telling you stuff you don’t want to hear, you will find another trainer.

I just realized recently that my doctor never told me when I was getting a bit overweight. My weight was “average” for a woman my age, but not really my healthiest weight. After I lost twenty pounds I started to wonder why he never mentioned that really, I had technically become almost obese. I’m a healthier weight now and so it’s easier for me to see where I was going wrong before.   And I realized,  my doctor didn’t blurt out “you’re getting fat!”  for the same reasons it is often hard to tell dog-clients, no matter how carefully, anything that sorta means, “you’re not doing it right!”

To advance and grow as dog trainers, we have to believe that we can do better. It’s nice to believe you’re doing great, until it means you aren’t growing as a trainer . Don’t worry,  your dog training instructor isn’t going to give you a “C-” !  You’ll just never know what you don’t know. These classes are electives. You really need to go after your education, challenge yourself (that’s why competitions are so helpful) if you want to grow.

Is dog training an adventure for you, or a chore? Cross species communication, reinforcement schedules, behavior science, cognition:  dog training is a delightfully enlightening hobby, that helps us make more sense of the world.  And since you have a dog anyway… grow with it! And when you can handle knowing more, your teachers will show you more! 0D331F6E-B6ED-4A41-B82C-0C29AB773C78

 

Am I your teacher?

It does no good if you can’t or won’t do the things a leader suggests to you.

You won’t learn if your focus is on the dog, and changing his or her behavior. To be a successful animal trainer, the focus has to be on changing our own behavior, because that’s how we can best shape the behaviors in our environment(s).

So, if you know right from the start that you don’t want to crate train, or if you are sure that the problem is something wrong with your dog that has nothing to do with you, then maybe I’m not your teacher! If you think that animal training is a sort of magic that is completely different from the ways we educate and socialize our human children, then maybe I’m not your teacher.

Animal training, in my experience, is about building a relationship based on trust with the animal. It’s about learning where reinforcers and punishers exist in the environment, and learning how to control consequences to help our animals adapt to our environments and understand our rules and games. It takes time. And just like humans, animals can unlearn things as fast as we learn them. Animal training requires a consciousness of YOUR responsibility for the state of your dog’s behaviors.

Mo'sheadhalter
Mo at 10.5 weeks

We control our dog’s environment in order to control available reinforcers. For many dogs, but not for tiny ones, a head halter gives you great control over a dog’s environment. Crates, gates, mats, doorways, fenced in yards, rooms in the house, hallway, in and out of the car: each one of these environments can be very carefully controlled to help condition a dog’s responses to distractions and exciting transitions.

But if we can’t control our own behavior, our dog’s behaviors won’t change.

So, that’s the challenge in animal training: we have to be fine with the idea that behavior modification is about us, too. I make mistakes every day, and everyone does! I open the door and the dog goes out. “Oops.” It really doesn’t destroy my training plan, it’s just our quirky imperfect style. Perfection isn’t perfect! If you don’t value mistakes as a natural part of the learning process — and powerful opportunities for growth – then maybe I’m not your teacher.

But if you want to create a plan to feel better and have more fun with your dog; if you aren’t afraid to use real “choice” (rather than force) to motivate your dog; if you expect dog training to be a lifelong activity that you do with your dog, and not just a temporary thing that you can do and it’s “done,” then  I would love to share what I know with you!

IMG_9033

Stay with us

Want to go on an affordable “get-away” weekend with your dog(s)? Come stay with us! You’ll have a dog friendly bedroom that opens into your own private entry and dog yard, with your own private bathroom.

You are welcome to stay and train independently (you must follow our humane protocol, no shock/prong/choke or abuse), or I can help you evaluate where you are and help you kick off a more effective training plan.

Our goal is to integrate physical fitness with behavioral fitness. So of course, we pick fresh food from the organic gardens! We sing around the campfire, run barefoot through the fields, and play in the snow! Come prepared to live a casual outdoor lifestyle. All animals behave best, when we feel best! Yes, we’ll show you how we observe behaviors, keep training charts and respect science, but if animal training isn’t fun, we change up the music! Our motto is “Dancing IS training!” We want you to have fun with your dogs.

We’re offering a special one week as we kick off this residential dog training program! $795 per couple or only $595 for a single person with one dog! Bring additional dog(s) $150 for the week.

Our dog friendly environment can give you a new perspective on how environmental cues build or harm your dog’s responsiveness. We are getting older now, and we’ve found it valuable to use our dogs to build our own fitness. We specialize in hosting barefoot field games (you might want to wear “barefoot” or very low structure sneakers that allow you to feel the ground. Ask us and we can recommend some brands). When you are here you can train to music, explore our gardens, or hike through the woods to the S. Freeport Village and Marina. The Portland Maine waterfront is 20 minute drive away. Bicycles and joggers are flying by here regularly. We’re happy to watch your dogs while you go out to play.

And you can go home with a training plan and new insights into your relationship with your dog(s).

Need a second room? A second bedroom room is available, comfortable for a couple, beside the bedroom and bathroom with your dogs.

Don’t have a week? If your booking is for 2018, family rate for both rooms for 2 nights/3 day weekend is $395 for your whole family, all your dogs. It includes up to four private dog training lessons. Go home with a better understanding of your dog and a plan to grow the behaviors you want to see. We can customize your experience. Tell us what you need.

We are LGBTQ and all kinds of other friendly! If you love behavior science, humane training, dogs, organic gardening, and blueberry pancakes, if you enjoy awkward scientist-organic gardener types, you’ll enjoy a learning vacation here in our home.

Control or cooperation

I like the idea of reinforcement based training, that’s how I see my approach, but part of reinforcement based training involves understanding the function of punishment, and noticing where it is, what it does. Maybe the best way to describe a training method grounded in behavior science is to observe how trainers control both reinforcement and punishment.

56F486B5-24A5-4AF4-B26B-70F3E28C8BEB
Understandably, it’s harder to observe behaviors shrinking and disappearing, than to notice and observe growing behaviors. Punishment is the function that shrinks behaviors. And most often, punishment is unintentionally shrinking behaviors the trainer WANTS.

Punishment can interfere with creativity, make an animal nervous, avoidant, less interested in the game. It can demotivate dogs. Very often, I notice people are “flattening out” their dog. They want him to behave so badly, they’re like back seat drivers, turning the dog into a passive puppet on strings. To achieve all that is possible with a dog, I think I need to encourage my dogs to think, not just “obey.” That means I have to let the dog make mistakes, have choices, learn from their own decisions, help me solve problems. Seeking “obedience” in dog training might lead towards more authoritarian body language and unintentional punishment, than training aimed more at enrichment, education, cooperation, and games of choice.

Trainers need to be aware of any punishment or reinforcement in the environment, and how it may be influencing our dog’s behaviors. Often, we need to condition our dogs to reduce the impacts of a sometimes punishing environment. That’s the core of communication. We control reinforcements and punishments to reduce suffering and strengthen cooperation.

Understanding behavior science is like understanding gravity, or even more, it’s like understanding chemistry. Understanding all the environmental elements of reinforcement and punishment, how they go together to impact behaviors, we can begin to recognize what shapes our own behaviors, not just our pet’s behaviors! This is one of the fun rewards of training with your dog!

Use Your Words!

In dog training, you’ll often be told to say nothing. And I don’t mind that. People talk too much, I know that, I definitely talk too much, and our mindless babble can easily confuse, distract or distress a dog who is trying to THINK!

But then we might also get told to manipulate the dog with the leash, to tug him this way or that, to give him a pop if he starts heading in the wrong direction. And that’s not saying nothing! It’s better to use your words.

One reason people tell you to “say nothing” is because otherwise we might say words that are not conditioned cues, that are not providing clear information, that distract the dog. All good points, but don’t think that physical force has greater clarity, because it doesn’t.

I’ve trained verbal directional cues for two decades, mostly with my water dog Tigerlily. Once, we dropped her off the boat into moving water to retrieve a sinking much-loved baseball cap. We were cheered as she responded to my verbal cues, which were probably something like this: “Oopsie! Uh oh! Turn! Yay! Circle circle circle! Good girl! Get it! Yay!! Yay!” and she dove and saved it just as it started to sink.

When dogs know what they are doing, of course we want to say little and stay out of their way.

But when we can give the dog useful information (I knew where the cap was sinking), it’s nice to be able to tell her. Also  in the clip above, if I said nothing my dog would be wolfing down the rotten grass compost my husband helpfully spread yesterday.

When we positively condition response and meaning to each one of these words, I can use verbal cues, not manhandling, to motivate my dog.

All animals seek information. Verbal cues can be like little hotdogs of information. Not that way, but this way? Yes? This way! Yay! Yay! Yay! I’ve got it!!!” Responding even to the “no reward marks” are associated with a big win!

Videotape trials and examine body language and words. What  untrained or confusing signals do we see?  Does the dog cringe or deflate, or hit their stride with greater confidence? Verbal cues can be used to increase drive and joy, as well as potential for success, in both handler and dog.

Socializing your puppy

2C108FD7-E1F0-4124-9F25-659BBC5CC775You don’t have to be sniffing butts to be socializing. Socialization, for us as well as for our puppies, involves  success in a wide range of environmental challenges. Socialization is about building confidence, a history of good experiences,that helps your dog set his/her expectations in a positive way.

I adopted an eight week old german shepherd puppy 4 weeks ago, and as we are hoping to join a Search and Rescue dog team,  great socialization is essential. He needs to be able to respond to people, other animals, environments  with calm confidence.0D331F6E-B6ED-4A41-B82C-0C29AB773C78

My puppy’s breeder gave M’Ocean a jump start by exposing him to a variety of environments, horses, chickens, cats, adult dogs, kids. And since I brought him home at 5 weeks ago, we’ve gone to puppy classes each week in at several different locations, we’ve been to adult dog seminars, scent work classes, we’ve met  people on ferry boat rides, in the ferry terminal, at the YMCA, in a horse barn, friend’s homes, sheep and cow barn. We’ve visited country parks and city parking garages. He’s been in elevators and  visited cats, ducks, chickens, goose. Mo has played on beaches, in pack walks, at parties, around bonfires, on docks. I keep a journal recording each new place we go, and we’ve been doing something quite interesting every single day. Sometimes social events are short,  but always sweet!

56F486B5-24A5-4AF4-B26B-70F3E28C8BEBSocialization is about learning to cope with many different environments. It’s about being comfortable while alone as well as in a crowd. Think about how we socialize as humans. We don’t  entertain every stranger we meet nor shake hands with every person we see as we cross a sidewalk. We learn  to maintain a socially appropriate distance, and not touch or interrupt !  And that’s what we need to teach our puppies as well. Puppy playgroups that include free-for-all puppy romping might be unintentionally teaching your puppy the wrong lesson entirely.

76B8DCC1-3A1C-40DE-9AAA-6C50ABA57624

Good socialization does not require physical romping, but it does require you take along your puppy to many different activities. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Socialize your dog with friendly nicely mannered adult dogs. Adult dogs with good manners won’t jump all over your puppy, but they can be very helpful in helping your own dog develop nice manners.   I’ve been bringing my puppy to agility classes, taking a noseworks class and tricks classes. Even though my puppy is too young to go over jumps, he learns a lot by relaxing as he watches other dogs working.
  2. Keep your dog safe and just say no. We wouldn’t let a stranger knock over your child or even pat your child on the head, right? Just say “no” to fly-bys and treat any  interaction with a stranger the same way for your dog as you would for your kids.IMG_6280 Example: Recently I was at the ferry terminal, and a young woman had a large young dog who was staring and pulling towards my puppy. My pup started to bark. The woman said, “Is it okay if I let them meet?” I said, “not while my puppy is acting like this!” My puppy settled down and then he visibly sighed with relief as they headed off in another direction. When  your dog knows that you are not going to force him to put up with unwanted advances of pushy strangers, your dog is going to relax a lot more. He’ll learn to trust your judgement.
  3. Greetings should take place when everyone is relaxed. I can’t tell you how many times people with dogs dragging them down the street have said to me, “My dog is much better once they sniff! Can they sniff?” That’s kind of like saying, “My kid stops screaming once I give him the icecream.” Sometimes it reminds me of a drunken uncle charging towards a child, “let me pick you up!” Eek! I only let my dogs physically connect with others when when all the dogs are responding to their handler and behaving politely.  I’ve gotten very good at saying no, and my dogs really appreciate that.534d3199-201f-48bb-8a6f-582c4c48c138.jpeg
  4. Don’t try to use dog parks or dog daycare to “wear out” your dog. Dogs that are being “worn out” by other dogs may develop an undesirable emotional reaction to other dogs.

Socialization is not about wearing out your dog. It’s about exposing your dog to many safe environments, and many variations in those environments: alone, and in groups, day, night, sunshine, rain, snow, city, country.

Today my puppy experienced his first elevators, and also his first parking garage! Tonight we are going to a nose works class. Socialization is a lifelong process, not just for puppies, but forever! What good places do you go to socialize your dog?

IMG_5500

Your cues are showing!

What are cues? Cues are your dog’s language. You will want your dog to respond to your cues from a distance, in many different settings. If you train in many dog activities/sports as I do, you won’t want the cue you use in rally or freestyle to conflict with the cues you use in agility or in the kitchen or on the trail.

What is a cue? Obviously words can be (and should be) trained as cues. But also your leash is a cue, your targets are cues, your body language is a cue. Your door, crate, environment is a cue. We often talk about “fading” the cue, which in agility might mean getting rid of a target, and in real life it means getting rid of a leash. While at first you might need to use a verbal cue to have your dog sit at the door, eventually that cue is faded and simply being near a doorway is a cue for your dog to sit.

https://youtu.be/JboZy9YD-fE  76B8DCC1-3A1C-40DE-9AAA-6C50ABA57624.jpeg

Most of the mistakes I see in teaching cues happen when trainers don’t really understand how a cue is added or changed. They just lure their dog and they think they are teaching the dog. When the food or imaginary food in the luring hand goes away, the dog is clueless. I try not to laugh when I see a handler butt up, hand down, trying to cue their dog to lay down. If you are still luring your dog into a down, I am sure you can’t do that from a distance.

Another big mistake I am seeing is with people who are teaching directionals, or handling skills to their dog. The example that immediately comes to mind is when people teach dogs to turn around by using a lure and circling their hand over the dog’s head. Of course you can’t do that from a distance, but even worse, you often can’t do it from right beside your dog! If your dog is heeling beside you on the right, and you use your right hand to try to lure the dog to peel away from your body, first off your dog might not be able to even see your entire gesture, but secondly, you are sending a very mixed message: cueing the dog to heel at the very same moment you are cuing your dog to peel away from your body.

Eventually, many smart dogs learn to interpret our mixed messages.  You teach your dog to follow your body language, and he learns that he needs to ignore your body language sometimes, just as sometimes dogs learn to ignore our words because we cue our words wrong, and they follow our body language instead! But we get a much better more consistent response when we know really how and when to add or change a cue, and how to be consistent with our cuing across all of our training platforms.

That’s one reason I don’t like luring, and I avoid it in favor of operant conditioning.  Are you teaching the dog to ignore the food distractions or to focus on the food? That inconsistency takes a bite out of your dog’s performance!

 

Bite-y Puppy!

89DD90BC-F756-4A56-9A27-ED41D982B3A1There is nothing like having a german shepherd puppy to develop more empathy for clients who complain about biting puppies.

My now 11 week old puppy hasn’t drawn blood yet, but like many puppies, he explores the world with a mouth filled with razor sharp teeth. The other day I was trying to put on my socks and boots to keep him from biting my feet but he was biting my socks and pulling them off faster than I could put them on! Someday, this might be a useful trick, but for now, it’s like having a pet shark! And yes, there are some tricks to dealing with this.

  1. Tired puppies are bitier puppies. This is REALLY important and very true.  My pup has a nap schedule and when he starts to get tired he gets definitely like “let me bite your arm! your face! your hair!”  When I’ve had enough, he has also had enough. I put him down for a nap with a good chewy thing in his crate, and he wakes up much more gentle and calm. At 11 weeks, he seems to be sleeping two hours, then awake two hours all day long, but then he sleeps 10 hours through the night. Puppies, especially large breed pups, need a lot of sleep.
  2. Give him something else to bite. Sometimes, I stick his own paw in his mouth, or his tail and that seems to be very helpful in helping puppies learn not to bite so hard. It’s convenient too!  I keep other toys conveniently located too (tied to my belt), ready to redirect and engage his play in a positive way. People worry about rawhide, but I use small pieces of rawhide (just one “rawhide chip” a day) and my pup chews and chews and chews and turns it into gum. That seems much safer to me than the raw beef bones which he turns into shards of glass. Carrots are good. Half a pig ear is good.
  3. Collar grab/ drop it games. I practice toy games so that he learns “drop it.” If he won’t drop my pants leg, sleeve, or toy, I gently hold the collar and wait, being as still and boring as I can be so that now his “toy” is inactive.  The instant he drops whatever he’s grabbed, I release the collar and reward (often with a game of tug)! If he re-grabs my pantleg, I re-grab his collar. I aim to be gentle and just hold the collar, freeze, while he figures out that dropping his mouthful means I drop his collar. If I don’t feel like more games of tug, I reward the drop by feeding.
  4. While sometimes I can’t help but shriek “ouch!” and sometimes shrieking might let provide good information for a puppy, other times it might be more rewarding to bite you if you shriek! Puppies don’t understand that they are not supposed to make us shriek. So I try to set myself up to be “bite proof.” My boots mean he can’t herd me if he bites my ankles. Gloves mean I have the upper hand. Sleeves mean he can bite my arm and I still am going to pick him up. My goal is to teach him that his bites do not influence my behavior. I’m in charge, bitey puppy or not.
  5. Use lots of food and chew toys to keep his teeth where they belong while you are socializing your puppy. Give him big soft toys to chew, and these will give him something to do with his mouth while the kids are patting the puppy. Warn people, kids especially, not to yank hands away. Keep very close tabs on when you socialize your pup (NOT when he’s tired!).
  6.  Condition your puppy to love a head halter and crate. If he is biting a lot, playing intensely as a pup, you know you have a good dog with a lot of drive and you’re going to need that gear when he is a teenager. Train train train.
  7.  Teach a hand target, and only mark and reward when he targets your hand with his nose, don’t reward when you feel a tooth.
  8. Deliver food rewards to the tongue, not the tooth. How to practice: Put peanut butter in the palm of your hand, and present your closed fist to your pup.  When you feel his tongue “click” and open your hand for the puppy to lick the peanut butter, but if you feel a tooth, take away access to the peanut butter.
  9. I play with my puppy in all the ways you should never greet a strange dog. I stick my fingers in his mouth  and stick my face in his face (while carefully guiding his mouth safely away from my face. I  try to get him used to biting gently. In some situations, if he is being too intense biting on my hand, it works to stick my hand a little bit further into his mouth, rather than yank my hand away. When you yank your hand away, that can unfortunately reward the dog for biting and also rip open your hand. Instead, if you go in the opposite direction and move into his bite, he probably will back right off.
  10. I change my expectations. Puppies explore the world with their mouth. I don’t expect my puppies to never bite, but I know that they will. I help them find out what kind of biting is part of our games,  and what kind of biting ends our fun games.A1DA808C-4437-4478-898B-E5170196F048

Mo’s training Plan

Mo'sheadhalter
Mo at 10.5 weeks

His name is Mocean, or Mo for short. I’ve had him 2.5 weeks. I have a training plan that I keep taped on the fridge, I fill it out in pen as the day goes on, then at the end of the week, I enter that as a simple training record on an Excel file. At the end of each week I modify that file by adding in a few new exercises fields, and then monthly I’ll start with a whole new training plan.

So, among the things I’m doing daily, is desentizing the puppy to various training tools, ie: crate, dremel, brushes, blower, pen, leash,booties,harness and chief among them is head halter. Every day I practice feeding him through his head halter and taking it off. At this point now I am clipping it on him completely, with no leash but that clip attached to his collar and heeling around the living room. I like this type of head halter to start, as it isn’t so easy to wipe off with a paw, but we will eventually graduate to the simpler “Gentle Leader.” I want him to be super comfortable and relaxed with his head halter, because he is going to be a big dog. Head halters are valuable learning tools, and once the dog is demonstrating learning and understanding, then it’s easy to fade and eliminate the head halter (and then fade and eliminate the leash). Here’s a video I did that demonstrates how we ultimately fade the head halter. Head halter 

But how do you fade a prong, or a body restraining harness? Beats me. So I train to a head halter, and also to a non-restrictive harness. I would never want to use a no-pull harness because when my dog is on a harness (for skijoring or tracking), I want him to pull! The body harnesses we use are unrestrictive as possible, and I allow pulling and sniffing when on harness.   Sled dog type cross back harnesses can help me cue  my dog to track, scent, or pull ahead of me.

But when I want a dog to “walk nicely?”  Head halters help dogs learn that trick much faster than any other system.  I think of it as being very similar to handling the reins of a horse: f you are a gentle responsive handler, you can teach your puppy to be respond very well to gentle handling. There’s no need to jerk/choke/shock or yank on a leash.

I did a pet behavior survey where I asked pet owners what type of gear they used, and whether they were successful in teaching loose leash walking. Some pet owners tried 6 different types of collars and harnesses, and still struggled in vain to teach their dogs to walk nicely. Head halter trainers stood out as the group that seemed to have the least difficulty not just with leash walking but with their dogs in general. When dogs aren’t simply “managed,” but when they actually “learn,” then they have the opportunity to earn more freedom. That means, they don’t get utter freedom as puppies and then grow up to be a dog in a straight jacket, but we dole out freedom incrementally, and they earn ever more freedom as they  grow.

Teaching an alert, or “Show Me.”

There are a few different kind of alerts that you might want to teach your dog. The natural alerts, ie: “someone is in the driveway!” Or maybe the not so natural alerts, as when you train a dog in hearing service behaviors ( “there’s a weird noise coming out of this machine!”) or Search and Rescue,  where a dog might notify you, “I found the missing person!” 27140714_10214692136127914_666002942_o

Regardless of the sorts of alerts you are thinking about training, there are a few that you already might know how to train, and these are good behaviors to think about for examples in how you are already training alerts.

For example, does your dog tell you he needs to go outside to go to the bathroom? Maybe you’ve taught him that you will open the door when he bashes a bell, or maybe he whines at the door, or maybe he comes and says “woof” and you know to follow him back to the door. You’re rewarding his alert (whatever it is) with following him to a “reinforcement zone,” or “reinforcement machine.” You operate that machine by letting him out to do his business.

At the simplest level, this behavior equation is:  Dog offers behavior,  you reward it by following him to a “reinforcement machine” that you know how to operate.  We can change the conditions in the formula.   What do we want the dog to do to alert us to act? How can we help the dog discover how this “reinforcement machine” is operated?

To help me think through what sorts of alerts I want  with my new puppy, I’m experimenting with training several different “alert” alternatives  in my older dogs. I’m re-training really, as they have previously learned other alert behaviors, and so of course they begin with offering those old behaviors (Bee steps on my feet to alert me to a sound machine, or they bark me to come), but they are quick to understand a few simple new rules to our old games.

Today I began with anew alert, but previously conditioned RZ.  Individually, training one dog at a time, I click and treat the dog to “nuzzle” my toy,  I have two  balls on a rope that we haven’t played with  before. Click and reward that behavior, then “yay! Okay! Show me! Mat” And  back on the mat we have the big reinforcement party.  In these games, Bee to learn that the nuzzle is what gets me on my way to the RZ,  I fade the old cues to go to the mat, but she heads to the mat anyway for a treat after nuzzling the toy. From here, all I need to do is elaborate on the conditions in which I am willing to play the game.

With hearing alerts, it’s too easy to ignore  sounds that you can hear, but if you want your dog to alert to things you can’t hear, you’ve got to reinforce many times when you didn’t really need your dog’s hearing assistance. I want the dog to think, “oh maybe that’s one of those sound game things! I’ll show Mum! She rewards me when I let her know.” It’s really very similar to what happens when the dog thinks, “oh there’s that “I need to pee” sensation ! I’ll alert Mum because she rewards me when I let her know.”

The hard part about training any alert is that if you ignore the alerts, then alerting behavior is not reinforced and it goes away. The good news is  if you don’t open the door when the dog scratches at it, he’ll stop scratching at it. But he still might pee on the floor. So what alert behavior do you want  to reinforce? Ultimately, we want the natural dog’s sensory awareness (I need to pee! Or, I hear a funny noise! Or, I smell something!) to cue an alert behavior and set off your reinforcement machine. Subtle body language might be all you need to understand that he is alerting you to his need to go outside, but if you want him to alert with bigger behavior, you need to condition bigger alerts. If he pulls at your sleeve, or nudges your toy, click and treat that behavior and then further reinforce it by bringing him to a RZ .  Never ignore that special nuzzle. The alert becomes the dog’s way of cueing you into a RZ operation!

7A8FB71E-7A01-4A3F-8C32-AB9B07C64036

Getting ready for (another) pup!

I found my puppy! I believe he meets all of the criteria of my search ( see https://wholedogcamp.com/2017/05/13/is-this-my-puppy/ ) except he will be bigger than I thought. Since I don’t REALLY want even a 50 lb dog landing on my back, or catching too often in my arms, probably a 95 lb dog has other advantages, such as leaving me feeling safe to walk in the woods where we have coyotoes and who knows what else.

I’ll call him Mo, short for M’Ocean, and someone will call him a Mofo or Mr. Mojo, Mopey mope, Mosey Mo, Moshe, Mosheski M’cean motion,   I haven’t even met him in puppy yet and I’m in love. Quest M’Ocean Von Kleinenhain.

27140714_10214692136127914_666002942_oThe breeder sends me new pictures and video every other day, and we plan to do a facetime! I found this breeder through a fellow trainer, who met this competitor who has german shepherds and competes in the same venues (agility and rally) and she knows the dogs and knew there was a litter of dogs on the ground whose parents all have SAR credentials. The breeder had three males, 4 weeks old, all the dogs in the line health tested and trialed and she was considering which one she might keep. I told her my training plans, we facebook messenged like mad, and she sold me this puppy I’ve been calling Mo.

Albert just gave me a birthday card (I’m now 59!!!) with Mo’s picture on it! Happy birthday to me! He will fly in from Kentucky when he’s 8 weeks of age (in about 2 weeks)! Here’s  my training plan for introducing Quest M’Ocean to my 13 year old dog, my 8 year old dog, and our world. We’ll find out how many times I have to change my plan as we go! But my hopes are as follows:

  1. I’ll walk in the door with Moses in my arms. My dogs will come around and I well explain. “No Tigerlily, this is for Bee.” I’ll gate Tigerlily off separately. “Bee, is this your baby! Yay! Are you ready? Bee! Yay!  puppy!!  Sorry Tigerlily, no no, this is for Bee.” I’ll have Albert videotape this.
  2. I’ll do the above for about 2 minutes, and then take the puppy outside, and then crate in the room with me and my other dogs. In an out of the crate and other pens and yard, under constant close supervision.
  3. Today. I am already setting up crates and gates. When I don’t have the puppy in my arms, I’ll have him in the thick of things, but contained in some variation of crate/x-pen or smaller gaited room, never walking around the house unattended until he’s fully housebroken, beginning around one year of age.
  4. Already, I’m pestering and questioning and driving my breeder nuts to hear about all the things she is doing that will influence what work is ahead of me at the start of the monumental journey of conditioning Mo’s association to people, toys, mat, dremel and blowdryer, crate, head halter, birds, sheep, cows horse cats kids wheelbarrows, bicycles, brooms, hats, police men, nighttime, etc. . The whelping pen has a big influence on puppy temperament. I feel lucky that my breeder is experienced and a trainer as well as a breeder.
  5. To the best of my ability, my plan is to condition Bee and Tigerlily to view Mo as a prize, a reward, a special and limited opportunity, a new toy. Or at least, like the halter, something tolerable and they can control with good behavior and never need to resort to obnoxious behavior to discipline the puppy. So Mo himself will be hopefully conditioned as a reward , in limited doses as reward for cued/planned behavior. Then put him away when the reinforcement period is over! Short doses are easier to digest!
  6. Planned trips: first, when he is 8.5 weeks, we will expand his sense of his place in our tribe by hanging out with our children/grandchildren and their small dog. I’ll carry him around  to visit our immediate neighbors. Veterinarian.  Then at 9.5 weeks, I’ll  carry him back and forth on the CBL Ferry boats, twice that week, hoping for nice exposure to school kids, dogs, passengers etc on the boat ride.  Sit on a bench and listen to kids in a playground, 20 minutes each day possible? Find friends with cats. Visit Cathy and her alpacas! Walk in island neighborhoods, where there are feral cats, visit horses, visit fire department?
  7.  10.5 weeks, shots fully kick in and we can hang out around LLBeans where people often train dogs, go to Wolf’s Neck Farm on family day and smell some new smells, see some new sites, such as back bay Portland (East end beach dog park hours? Maybe?), start to introduce him to waterfront boats, docks, beaches,
  8. I think I’ll call some of the local daycares or schools and see if they would enjoy a visit from a puppy, and learn about how we teach dogs with a clicker! And demonstrate how puppies learn, and how we can condition dogs to relax and settle down on cue, by taking special attention to the puppy and rewarding calm behaviors.
  9. We will have at least 2 sessions per week of each: exposure and response to moving wheelbarrows, bicycles, brooms, rakes, vaccuum cleaners. Evaluate all the above and write next plan.
  10. At 12 weeks, the waterfront park, training in front of LLBeans, have first visits in classes in various training facilities, foundations training begins in earnest.

Teaching Emotions

I just viewed a valuable training mentoring video from my training Guru, Susan Garrett, in which she explained that you can’t train emotional reactions, and of course she’s right.

We can understand dog emotions simply by understanding our own emotions. When I’m crying, don’t ask me to do anything! If I’m pissed, which of course only happens to other people, or  anxious, which I’ve been constantly since about 2016, it has various degrees of influence on all my behaviors, requiring different life strategies for myself.

But also, I used to be terrified of deep water. That happened because my mother’s friend wanted to teach me how to swim. I must have been 6 years old. She carted me out to water where the waves washed over my mouth and I felt like I was drowning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“You’re shivering,” I remember her saying. “Are you cold? If you’re cold I’ll bring you in but Im not bringing you in just because you’re scared.”

“I’m FREEZING!” And that’s when I learned how to lie, because she promptly brought me back to shore.

And that was the beginning of years of me being terrified of any kind of water activity. My mother finally brought me to New England Divers for special remedial classes for kids who feared the water. A pretty curly haired young woman who in my memory looks so much like I did myself at that age, she taught me not to worry about the water. I could hold onto the edge, I could do whatever I wanted to do to feel safe. I didn’t go anywhere I didn’t want to go. I could do what I wanted, and she was just there to help me and to show me stuff.

Now at 58 years, swimming has been a HUGE part of the big joy of my life, swimming across Casco Bay in Maine, off the many islands, snorkling through the thousands of miles my husband and I have sailed, thru the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, the East Coast, Cape Cod! What a world flows through my arms when I swim, which I do strictly for meditative purposes at a rate of three miles a week at the Y.

So my emotions have changed completely regarding the water. Yes, of course emotional learning can happen. If only I knew the name of the New England Divers teacher who helped me recover from my fear, I’d love to let her know how she is a heroine of my life.  I think of her so often, with amazement at how her few lessons in a swimming pool truly changed the entire course of my life. Of course,  all my companion swimmers also, so many who’ve contributed to my emotional  courage  that makes possible all the amazing swimming adventures of my life.

Emotions can change! But you really can’t learn when you are upset, overly excited, scared or not feeling well.

Dogs are not so good at abstract reasoning. Their brains work a bit differently than ours do, but emotionally, they are very similar! They can feel upset, or confused or frustrated. They can be over the top excited.

A dog doesn’t have to be displaying big emotions to be experiencing them. Dogs often hide their injuries, they act “stoic,”  maybe because displaying weaknesses is  not a  survival skill. Because somewhere along the way, some dogs, learn to lie. So we know some dogs that show emotion by shrinking very slightly.  Instead of barking, yapping in reactivity, their reactions look like they just freeze up a bit.  The dog becomes still, withdrawn, maybe depressed looking, sad, freezing or shrinking slightly or entirely away, often in a sort of slow motion. I know some people who can react that way too.

Thanks for posting any comments here on my blog rather than on FB where your comments get lost! Don’t make me cry! But we need each other’s help to heal our emotions, it’s very hard to do that by yourself.   I used to have really terrible stage fright. I cried on stage in 6th grade, when I was put in “over my head” on stage! So don’t put your dog or yourself in “over your head.” And thanks to many teachers I don’t have stage fright anymore.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What is an animal behaviorist?

I just participated in an interesting facebook discussion regarding what IS an animal behaviorist, and who has the right to put that “title” after their name, or even to use that phrase as a descriptive phrase when describing yourself as a dog trainer.

Legally speaking, you can give yourself any title you want, as long as laws do not require special certification or licensing for your title. As far as I understand currently, the term “dog trainer,” just like the term “animal behaviorist” is unlicensed, unregulated descriptive phrase and anyone can described as a dog trainer or animal behaviorist just as we can describe ourselves as herbalists, artists, left or rightists. Anyone can call themselves a “love nugget,” or “doctor of procrastination.”

 

 

 

A title is a little bit different. A title becomes part of the way a person is addressed on letterhead, or on a sign by the door.  For example, Joe Schmoe, Animal Behaviorist. Or Jane Smooth, Ph.D.  Or Donald Trump, President. When someone uses a phrase as a title,  we all expect some sort of justification for the title. Maybe an employer or University has awarded the title. There’s been an election. But also a title can also be self-awarded. Think Joe Schmoe, Herbalist, or Mary Contrary, Doctor of Unintended Spider Bites, Betsey Boop, Pet Psychic.

So, titles are a marketing tool. If you aren’t trying to sell something, rule over or influence someone, you don’t need a title.

For human beings, reputations and titles function strongly as reinforcements and punishments. Dogs don’t work hard simply because they want to be called, “Sampson, King of the Yard,” but humans do. I had a friend years ago who had a triangular sign on his front lawn over his name and the word “author.” So there are whole industries  built on the incredible value of  credentials.  There are many that are available.  Some of these programs are really great, some aren’t.  But you don’t need a credential to be many things, and the endless list of of what you could be without a license includes author, artist, cook, animal trainer and animal behaviorist.

A Veterinarian Behaviorist on the other hand is a licensed professional title for a Veterinarian who is versed in prescribing behavioral medications and treatment plans for stressed animals. They will have DVM after their name. That stands for Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and you have to be licensed and graduate with a degree in Veterinary medicine to use that title or to describe yourself as a veterinary behaviorist.

In my business, I title myself “Head Trainer” because I want guests to know that the buck stops with me here.  I also describe myself as an herbalist,  animal behaviorist, performing artist. I have a bachelors degree from a self designed study in Animal Behavior and character development that I completed at Vermont College, but they gave me the initials B.L.A. and I think B.S. is what it should really be called so I don’t bother putting the initials after my name!

Animal behaviorists may be lay or professional practitioners of behaviorism. What’s the difference between an animal behaviorist and the many other sorts of dog or other animal trainers?

Behaviorists use terminology,research and concepts from the field of behavior science as it goes back to Pavlov, B.F.Skinner, Watson and other behaviorists. Here is a brief overview: https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/Cognitive-Development-in-Children-from-Watson-to-Kohlberg

You know you are working with a behaviorist where  instead of “training commands,” you learn how to  “condition a cue.” Instead of discussing your “energy” or “dominance,” or “pack behaviors” or “pack rank,” behaviorists talk about “stimulus and response,” “operant and classical conditioning,” “reinforcements” and “marker signals.”  Instead of “showing the dog who’s boss” by entering a door or eating a meal before a dog,  behaviorists show how the behavior of passing through a doorway is functioning as a reinforcement or punishment of desirable or undesirable doorway behaviors.

Terminology such as reinforcement and punishment are scientific terms. The biggest difference between what I will call “traditional” or “program” pet dog trainers and those who refer to themselves as animal behaviorists SHOULD be (if I was Queen for a day) that animal behaviorists use behavior science terminology correctly. Just as herbalists should be able to identify many different plants, animal behaviorists should be able to identify positive and negative reinforcements or punishments, cues, stimuli, etc.

Behaviorists, like behaviorism, focus on visible behavior and avoid straying into  Freudian or Jungian style analysis regarding sad childhoods or abused puppyhoods. Behaviorism is about  behavior as it is happening in the present moment. Behaviorists have learned to “see” emotions more as physical behaviors, maybe appearing as a surge of activity, or a depressed affect, or trembling and whining.  Behaviorists focus on behaviors that are  visible and avoid attributing emotions such as jealousy, anger, protectiveness, pride, shame laziness etc on behaviors. But people describe themselves all sorts of ways, and  there is no guarantee that any self-described “dog trainer,”  “pet psychic,” “behaviorist” or “whisperer” is describing their abilities accurately or simply marketing themselves.

As in any field of study,some “behaviorists” might also be economists, pharmacists, ethologists, or have credentials in a related or unrelated field. Some animal behaviorists are specialists in a particular type of behavior (flock, herd, human, pack, economic). But all behaviorists are interested in behavior science, and believe that behavior science has the best data, and researched strategies for understanding and shaping the behavior of any animal.   So, in addition to dog training, animal behaviorists might also be able to help you with your cat, bunny, birds, goats, horse cow and snake (But if it was me, I’d tell you to get rid of the snake!). IMG_6280

Dear fellow dog trainers who are frustrated by those who give themselves some misleading titles, I hear you. I have an issue with people describing themselves Pet Psychics or Dog Psychologists, but even they have the right to do that and you have the right to market your services however you see fit as well. If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to read crack open the goldmine that is behaviorism. Get in the game with reinforcement marker signals,  operant and classical conditioning and matching theory. Empower yourself. Avail yourself of the science. Take classes, learn from the best. Continue to grow. And feel free to describe what you are doing in the most accurate language you’ve got.

Resource Guarding, part one

IMG_9490
Picture the behavior you want to see.

“Resource guarding” is aggression that occurs around a dog’s possessions. The possession might be a food dish, dog bone, a soft space on the couch, or it could even be YOU. It’s the opposite of what we want, which is  a relaxed attitude, a dog who isn’t worried about anything.

IMG_0124IMG_0192Resource guarding is the dog saying “Stay away!” It might mean stay away from my bone, my pups, my corner of the room, my human. It’s one of the most common behavioral problems I see, but fortunately one that is highly responsive to training.

First off: Why do dogs do this? Like almost all aggression, resource guarding typically starts as insecurity, and a lack of confidence, a dog who can’t predict what’s going to happen with a resource. Over time this can develop into aggression. Some dogs might be genetically more prone to this. I saw a puppy once that was scary aggressive, resource guarding at 16 weeks, and I was told euthanized by 6 months. Something was wrong with that pup.  But that is very rare. Far more typically, resource guarding is triggered by the environment, regardless of genetics.  Resource guarding is almost always a learned behavior. The dog has learned to act aggressively, because it allows them to control access to limited valuable resources.

IMG_0251This is why trying to pick up and control all potential triggers often fails.  You can’t eliminate every possible resource in the environment. When you limit some resources, you’re making every other resource in the environment seem more important,   MORE valuable, and this has potential to escalate things a  dog may choose to guard. We will never be “done” with our mission to  prevent development of resource guarding in all of our dogs. Behavioral health requires a  sense of  resource security throughout the lifespan.

When you’ve  flooded your environment with other resources,  the stinky spot on the rug doesn’t stand out so much. Space is an important resource. Six dogs,  24 tennis balls, half acre, half an hour. Begin with balls just laying there, don’t throw them right off the bat! Give beginner dogs several sessions to not worry so much about balls.  Let the balls just lay there. Ignore the balls, let them do what they want. Add more balls.  I’ve seen dogs learn how to relax, again and again, in a resource flooded environment. They sometimes collect maybe six tennis balls, plus two bones and a rag, but then  settle down and feel foolish because none of the other dogs cares a bit about what they’ve got. All the dogs have all the balls and chews they need. What does this tell you about the world?! I don’t know, but maybe something!

These ideas are not a prescription, but  reflective of experiences I’ve had with dogs who  stayed with me. As an old friend used to say to me when talking about bee keeping, “you need to think like a bee!” The same thing is true regarding resource guarding in dogs. We have to think of how we would feel if someone came and took our iphone out of our hands! IMG_9288

 

 

“Instant Results” in animal training

When I have worked with feral dogs, it’s amazing to see how quickly one dog might show or tell all the other dogs “there’s a new supply of food over here!”  Once they’ve found a hole in the fence you probably won’t need to show them that particular hole again.

But that’s not the sort of learning so-called trainers are typically talking about when they  promise they can “teach” any dog to stop jumping up or  stop barking, or come when called in just one day or one week.  Here, their instant method involves shock or prong or other painful or fear-inducing punishment.

Of course it’s true that animals try desperately to avoid pain discomfort or fearful situations, and you can see that response in so-called “instant training.” The handler shocks the dog, and the dog naturally cowers immediately and tries to avoid whatever caused the shock.

It can look impressive, if you don’t look too hard or too long, but ask to see the dog in a year. In a new location, with a new handler, a new collar or a new situation,  dog owners may feel encouraged/required to shock/prong or choke the dog again, and again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPunishment creates unpredictable variable results over the long term.   Some dogs (typically mature dogs who already understand many behaviors and have a confident relationship with their handlers) might actually learn to leave the horse alone. But other dogs seem to be hard as nails. Pet owners might say, “he doesn’t even feel it.” Puppies might be completely confused, have no idea how to avoid the pain and become emotionally damaged. Think of animals who’ve learned to chase cars, or hunt porcupines,  and they keep chasing cars and hunting porcupines in spite of having been run over and quilled  repeatedly. Sometimes this isn’t because they’re tough, but they don’t associate their disaster with their fun. But let’s assume that your dog does associate the shock or prong or punishment with you or your commands (or your yard). How might that effect your dog’s behavior over the long haul of the next weeks and months and years?

Animals learn by association. It’s difficult to truly associate a punishment with a behavior that is or has been naturally rewarding to a dog. If I shock you every time you eat chocolate, you might not hate chocolate as much as you dislike me. At best, you might wind up with a dog who weighs his choices, who associates his own desired choices with risks. If he hasn’t learned that polite greetings (or coming when called, or waiting quietly in the kennel) is super rewarding,  he will weigh the risk of doing what he naturally would enjoy with the risk in the environment. Is he wearing the nasty collar? Is the handler who delivers pain nearby? And if he isn’t trapped by the situation or handler, he might well do what he finds reinforcing. 100_1335

Dogs are never learning just one thing. They are processing multiple associations at the same time. I’ve seen dogs who were “trained” by a choke or shock  who no longer want to get in a car, who freak out every time the microwave oven beeps, who chronically chew their paws raw, and who physically express anxiety(diarrhea) and “learned helplessness,” or  unwillingness to play or learn or explore anything new. Punishment methods aren’t  actually teaching dogs that sit or down or come on cue are wonderful things to do. They teach dogs to fear or distrust/feel anxious and want to escape/avoid training situations.  Shock/prong can damage your dog’s ability to trust you or to feel confident and safe in interacting with the world. Anxious dogs are far more at risk of behaving aggressively in  unfamiliar or unexpected situation.  People often don’t expect much of dogs, which is maybe why they don’t realize when they turn smart eager pups into depressed nervous wrecks.

Shock and choke also isn’t great for trainers. Animals instinctively will hide their response to pain and injury, because any appearance of vulnerability can make them more prone to attack. That’s why teeny nervous dogs act so tough. Trainers may misinterpret that response. “The shock doesn’t bother him,” just because the dog is not displaying anxiety at the collar (but instead the dog is likely displaying anxiety elsewhere).

You know from your own experience that animals (including human trainers) mature and grow and learn bit by bit by bit.  Think about how long it took you  to learn to speak French. Think about how you learned to  wait patiently. Don’t begrudge the time it takes to teach your dog a language and polite behaviors based on trust and mutual understanding, rather than on fear and pain. The end result — a curious happy dog who trusts you and enjoys working with you — is worth the time spent.

 

 

Tick Talk

IMG_6280Those of you who have been coming and playing at Whole Dog Camp can confirm that we aren’t finding ticks on the property. How do we do it? Let us count the ways (again)!

1. Fencing. We don’t just fence in dogs, we fence out deer. We fence out fox. Fence is important.

2. We mow and mow and mow and mow. We mow so much we should get tired of mowing. We weed wack. We keep grass under 4  inches long ALL the time.

3. We reduce and remove mouse and other critter habitat. Around the barn, that involved installing wire mesh. We still have a few piles of lumber where chipmunks play so the piles of lumber are being reduced asap.

IMG_63264. Tick tubes x 3! Spring, midsummer and again in the fall. Due to travel, we bought our first batch of tick tubes and installed them in the spring. Expensive! For round two, I have saved toilet paper tubes. I put cotton balls in a big ziplock bag, spray sawyers permethrin into the bag (while wearing disposable gloves). When cotton balls are saturated, I lay them on a board in the sun to dry, then I put them in tp tubes and stuff them around where rodents play. They take the cotton balls to line their nests, and this kills the ticks in the nests. You’re welcome, mousies!

5. The dogs are treated with pesticides.  I haven’t been using repellent on myself, except if mosquitos are out, but we do tick checks like it’s our religion.

There are more things you can do, such as make sure sun can get to your lawn, removing acorns and other rodent feed, washing diatomaceous earth into your garden soil, good clean organic growing practices, making barriers (gravel paths) between lawn and woods. We are fortunate that our fields are bathed in sunlight until late afternoon, so we romp and roll barefooted and bare legged. Tucking (treated) pants into socks is good in the woods, but then you can’t see if there is a tick on you! Do a naked tick check twice every day, treat dog beds (with Sawyers Permethrin) as well as dogs (with whatever your veterinarian recommends), and live well!IMG_6285

No-fault No Reward Markers

IMG_6235By Jenny Ruth Yasi, Head Trainer Whole Dog Camp

100_0755
This was from before we were “Nana and Papa,” when Whole Dog Camp was on Peaks Island. We were demonstrating paired walking, where we reinforced this crazy puppy Tigerlily for walking beside us by opening the space between us as a response to her hanging back, and closing the space between us (with her behind it) as a response to her surging forwards. It works really well for partners teaching a puppy!

I love the internet’s ability to allow trainers to discuss and share experiences regarding controversial geeky training devices like no reward markers. I tend to defend the use of trained NRM, while also telling trainers, “stop saying no! Stop telling your dog that he’s wrong!”

To explain that, I wanted to tell this story of my almost 4 year old grandson, who is learning to brush his teeth.

He was spending the night, and so I gave him his own special spongebob vibrating toothbrush and stood him in front of a hall mirror to brush his teeth. Weird for him to have a Nana who is also a dog trainer, because  I know I’m helping train my grandson to brush his teeth! And frankly,  he wasn’t doing it perfectly, but there is no way I would ever dream of doing anything but praising his awesome toothbrushing. After I admired the toothbrushing for quite some time and he was done, I recall I did suggest one more round! And it was the kind of toothpaste you’re supposed to swallow, so that part didn’t matter.

IMG_6240
We didn’t have to say “no.” Bee was just checking, just in case it was for her, but it wasn’t.

We don’t need to criticize puppies, children, partners,  friends or most of all, OURSELVES. It’s empty and unhelpful when we cue disapproval, “wrong,” and turn an interaction sour, with some idea that this is wrong or not good enough, but uncertain, or even no idea, about what to do to make the wrong right.

That’s different than the way I train and use a NRM. We train reward marker signals (RMS) first of course, but animals need to know what the good choices are. Training RMS gives the dog lots of rewarding experiences in the choices you want him or her to make.   Later, when he knows at least one successful behavioral strategy or route to reinforcement, a NRM is paired with those moments when he’s not on the route, or when he is working and made a choice that is not leading to the reinforcement prize. My signal is “Oopsie!” With my dogs, a NRM is information that helps them, realize, “oh not this! It must be that!” and find the prize. It contains information my dogs want to know!  If you were accidentally headed the wrong way down a one-way street, and I hollered, “You’re going the wrong way!” You’d appreciate the information.  And you’d have a good idea about what you need to do to get back on the path. If you were looking for your wallet and I said, “It’s not on this table,” you would appreciate the information. That’s how we train and use the NRM at Whole Dog Camp, in games that could help your dog actually find that wallet.

IMG_6245
Papa passes on pancake making wisdom to the next generation. Tigerlily supervises.

More about Training Levels

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Self-evaluation is valuable for the trainer, the dog and our broader community. At Whole Dog Camp, we aim to collect valid training data so that we can evaluate training techniques and understand more about influences on behavior, shaping behavior as a science, as well as an art. Members have a file that helps them participate in training data collection. Your first training evaluation will provide you with useful data.

Look at  description training levels on the registration page to get an idea of what behaviors are evaluated. Almost every team will test out at “many levels.” Your dog might be an expert (blue!) in one thing, and a complete beginner(orange! red!) in another area. Levels are determined by a teams’ minimal level of performance.  If your dog evaluates at a level orange in social skills, but a level blue in agility, your dog has orange level privileges. Once identified “orange” skills are at least at a green level, your dog can be evaluated again, and pass to gain the privileges of Green dogs. Team level represents the lowest level of  performance, so a “Blue level” Dog will behave at the blue level or higher in every area of the evaluation.

Reinforcement versus Punishment, and why they are both a bit tricky

IMG_0216In behavior science terminology, Reinforcement (R) and Punishment(P) are functions or “consequences” that either strengthen(R) or weaken(P) behavior.

You won’t see reputable zoos or marine mammal trainers trying to show their animals “who’s boss,” not only because it’s a dumb idea to try to boss around a dolphin, but because punishment stimulates anxiety and unpredictable escape/avoidance behaviors. These difficult to control, potentially aggressive, destructive, and unhealthy behaviors can emerge (and continue) well after punishment has ended.

Many dog trainers now call themselves “force-free” or “all positive.” Although I too recognize what marine mammal trainers and zoo-keepers and other behavior scientists have learned about the dangers of punishment, I don’t call myself an “all positive” trainer because I know that even a leash is not all positive from the point of view of many dogs. Any dog might understandably rather avoid a veterinarian visit, a toe nail clipping, or even ending a fun game. We can and should remove aversive things such as shock, choke, prongs from pet training programs, but the function of punishment is not so easily eliminated. Eliminating punishment, sounds like a good idea, but it’s like eliminating gravity. In spite of our best efforts, punishment happens. Our job is to recognize what punishment is and where it is happening, and do what we can to prevent it from weakening the animal behaviors we want to cultivate.

Accidental reinforcement is not quite as harmful as accidental punishment. Kindness, compassion, generosity, love does not ruin animals or make us mentally or emotionally ill, as excessive punishment does. Sure excess hotdogs are fattening, but they don’t really “spoil” a dog. What “spoils” behaviors is associating desired things with undesirable behavior, thereby reinforcing (strengthening) behaviors you don’t like.

Training is about associating the desired behaviors with desirable consequences, and undesirable behaviors with undesirable consequences. With humans, we can just explain (“after you do your homework, we’ll watch a movie”). But animals learn by experience, so training requires perfect timing for animals to clearly associate behavior and consequence. Delivering hotdogs right after the dog begs at the table? Toenail clipping right after the dog comes when called? That is a confusing.

The environment delivers rewards as well as punishments arbitrarily, sometimes reinforcing bad behavior (I found a cookie!) as well as punishing good behavior (puppy sits and someone steps on her tail). Hate it when that happens! This is why trainers place so much attention on setting the animal up for success with a carefully controlled environment. But even when you are working in a carefully planned low distraction environment, and you’ve set up your dog for success, mistakes happen. One common mistake is misuse of cues.

Ask yourself this: do cues function as rewards? Or punishment? Neither? Both?

Maybe this can gets to the crux of many training problems. To the degree that any or all cues (down/stay/sit/come etc) are disappointing/oppressing or bothering your dog (or kid!), expect those cues to fail. The function of punishment is to weaken or stop behavior and it does so because animals work to escape or avoid punishment. If your “sit!” or “down!” or “off!” cue is often functioning as punishment, your dog will be working to avoid it.

But, you’re a great trainer, and your cues are welcome opportunities, fun paying jobs that your dog loves! Your cues are music to your dog’s ears, like the tinkling bell of the ice cream truck! Like Pavlov’s dog, you cue “come!” and your dog salivates!

That’s great! But if you want that conditioned response to strengthen desirable behavior, it needs to be delivered during or just after the dog is performing a behavior you like. Conditioned reinforcement strengthens the behavior it follows. So if your dog is chasing a cat and you are yelling “come!” it might actually (oopsie!) strengthen the chase response. Or, if you say “sit” or “heel” and your dog doesn’t immediately sit or heel, and you say it again, and again, you’re strengthening the dog’s poor response. Much like feeding hotdogs when dogs beg at the table, some pet owners ignore their dog’s good behaviors, and feed them cues only when they are misbehaving!

So what does this mean in real life terms? Partly it means, don’t let your dog chase the cat. Set your dog up for success and prevent rehearsal of undesirable behaviors. You know where you and your dog are and what you are doing when your dog screws up. Don’t do that! If a plan (or no plan) is not working, change it. Make a plan to set your dog up for success and to practice and reward the behaviors you’d rather see happen. When accidents happen, as they surely do, just go get your dog and leash or crate or move her away, don’t stand there delivering conditioned reinforcement (cues) when you know she is not responding.

IMG_5500When my dog breaks a sit or a down, I avoid a re-cue. Instead I can deliver a “release signal” (“okay! all done!”) which leaves her wanting more. WHAT?! The game is over? Let me try again!

Don’t set the game up to fail. That is, don’t expect to condition your dog’s response to new cues in a highly distracting environment. Condition the response you want in a low distraction environment, and then build on that by practicing in many different environments, increasing the distractions and difficulty slowly. I also train conditioned “encouragement/discouragement” signals (“yay” versus “oopsie!”) and use them to help dogs think through and solve a puzzle. Like the game “colder colder/hotter hotter,” conditioned encouragement and discouragement (“oopsie” and “yay!”) can help dogs develop confidence in solving behavior problems and finding prizes, reinforcing behaviors that I like.

“Things” can function as both reinforcement or as punishment, depending on when and how you use them, and how you build your associations. Hotdogs are not always reinforcement. Lures, for example, often appear to function as punishment when trainers withhold food too long under the dog’s nose, and the dog gets frustrated, confused and gives up. The dog might be wondering, “Can I have that hotdog or can’t I? Am I supposed to follow the food in your hand, or will I get in trouble for doing that?”

Animals work to get information, and they work to avoid confusion. Animals aren’t born with any understanding of human language. Their response to cues is a conditioned response that develops through real-life learning experiences and associations, and not because you’ve shown the dog who is boss.

That’s enough for today! I enjoy comments or questions, and specific examples if you have them, below!

Is this my puppy?

I’m getting ready to pick out a new puppy. In my lifetime, I’ve owned 10 of my own dogs, and directly lived with and trained hundreds of other dogs (approaching 600 now), as well as heard stories and been consulted on many more. I know that choosing our dog determines so much about what will follow in our life with our dog.

Here are the things I consider when looking for my new puppy.IMG_3209

Coat: Personally, I want a smooth-ish coat. Partly that’s to avoid excess hair, grooming time and costs and so that it will be easier for me to do tick checks. But I don’t want a coat that is so short that my dog will be cold in winter. I am looking for a coat that is not long enough to get snarled and matted, but thick enough to be warm in winter. I like a non-shedding coat, but I know they cost more time and money to maintain, and snow clumps up on them, so although I’ve loved my non-shedding dogs, non-shedding is not my current choice.

Size: I want a dog who is just big enough to enjoy skjoring, but not so big that he will take up a ton of space or become too heavy as we age for us to lift up on our boat. I want a dog who I can catch in my arms or who can jump up on my back. So I am looking for a dog who will be no heavier than about 50-60lbs as an adult.

Gender: I currently have two females, including one who considers herself “Queen Bee.” Usually I choose spayed females, (intact dogs are such a pain! yuck!) because I don’t like to deal with all the leg lifting and penis conversations that often come up with even neutered male dogs, but this time, to make my dogs happy I think this new puppy should be a little boy. Same-gender dogs in multi-dog households can cause strife, so  I’m getting a boy to help ensure that my Queen Bee won’t be jealous.

The tricky decisions regard breed. Rather than think in terms of “breed,” I think in terms of behavior and personality traits. I want a very smart healthy dog, but I don’t want a dog who naturally obsesses on squirrels or cats and birds.  Been there done that. It’s so much easier to have a dog who is more interested in human beings than in prey.

Prey drive can vary a lot between dogs even within the same breed — you can have prey driven collies and shepherds and terriers, and others of the exact same breed who care not a whit about squirrels. There is some association between prey drive and shyness. Shy dogs tend to have more interest in hunting and less interest in humans. Shy dogs are more difficult to train, more at risk of becoming reactive/aggressive, and they have less predictable and more time consuming responses to training (because they would often rather be avoiding social interactions).  I certainly learned a lot from my shy dogs —  but I absolutely don’t want to choose a shy dog now.  I’m in the mood to teach fun tricks and games, not the mood to spend three to five years working to counter-condition a reactive anxious or prey-driven dog. I am not going to choose a breed that will make it impossible for me to get homeowner’s insurance, nor a breed that is unlikely to live a long heathy life.

So, I do want a super athletic dog. I want a sociable energetic puppy who tugs and is eager to play with me, who might grow up to jump through hoops and run agility for half an hour and still want to play some more. I want a puppy with healthy bones and eyes and ears. I want a smart dog who is likely to live a long time. I want a dog who is emotionally healthy, responsive and fun to train. I want a puppy who plays well with other puppies and humans.

My best dogs have all been mixed breed rescues. Buying a purebred dog might make it easier to “know what I’m getting” (and maybe that’s what I will ultimately do), but there are no guarantees in terms of health or longevity or temperament, and no one breed “has it it all.” I’m starting my search as I always have, by looking at sheltered puppies.

IMG_7205The best way to evaluate what size, coat color and behavior traits will be like as an adult is to choose an older puppy. It’s almost impossible to evaluate how a “breed unknown” 8 or 10 week old puppy will mature, but it’s even harder to know what size or shape a pup will grow up to be if you aren’t certain about the puppy’s age. If you adopt a 6 week old puppy believing it is a 10 or 12 week old puppy, you are likely to wind up with an adult dog who is MUCH larger than you expected. So I will try to find a puppy where the actual date of birth is known. If I select a BIRTH DATE KNOWN 8 or 10 week old puppy who is between 8 and 15 lbs, my adult dog is likely to grow into the “medium” size range than I am hoping to adopt.

Now evaluate temperament. The best test is just watching the pup play and interact. If you drop a metal spoon, does the pup shy away from it?  I want the dog where curiosity wins out. I want the pup who sniffs the spoon or pan (even though he maybe was startled by it at first). I bunch up a ball of paper, toss, and I like the pup who goes and gets it and brings it at least part-way back towards me. I want the pup who is very curious and interested in me, who prances and dances and seems happy and playful and cheerful. I don’t mind if he bites at my ankle and demands to play. I hold the pup and touch his paws and tail and try flipping him over. If he seems to want to play with me, if he is smart and funny and active, I like that. I’ll look at his body. Does his shape look balanced and healthy and normal? If I know the mother dog, does she seem limber? Is there any concern about vision or hearing or other functioning?

I watch how the puppy plays with other puppies. Is he happy and confident? Is he in the thick of things or staying off to the side? I want the playground leader,  definitely not the wall flower for me, but the playful cheerful littermate.

There are no guarantees. Purebred as well as mixed breed dogs have arthritis and dysplasia, they go deaf and blind, they can have thyroid and behavior problems. Purebred puppies are born with the same numbers of problems that shelter dogs have. No matter what dog I select, I am going to need to deal with his health and training issues, defend his health and happiness for the rest of his life. So at this point, it’s just a matter of enjoying the process of meeting many puppies until my heart is fully able to answer the question:  is this my puppy?IMG_5493