Friday, March 30, 2012

On Losing Luna

They were the original "Good Dogs!".  Luna on the back left, Walden on the right ...and my baby the little Bliss in the front row.  All gone now -- they are the dogs that first inspired a career (Walden- the Golden) and the ones that followed Luna & Bliss, the Belgian Tervurens as the training bug took hold.

Losing them all was very hard - losing Luna this past December was perhaps the hardest of all.  She was just days away from her 16th birthday on December 24, 2011.  I am sure her loss was harder because she represented the last link to so many parts of my life now passed.  Dogs lead such short lives, even Luna's life of nearly 16 years didn't seem long enough.

She was there in those unsteady days emotionally and financially when I left one career to start another - making the decision to train full time.  She was there when my father got the news of Alzheimer's disease, she was there when I lost my father.  In fact Luna's life spanned the loss of both of my parents, a best friend to breast cancer and of course she outlived Walden and even baby Bliss.

One dog's short life that touched so many more, my own, and the many dogs and people she helped as we worked together.  To reflect on her life, is with the bittersweet recollection of all that a dog's life brings us.

After her loss I found Jon Katz' book "Going Home, Finding Peace When Pets Die" to be very comforting to me.  From Jon's book...

"In my dreams, dogs don't die.  In my dreams, my dogs talk to me.  They speak to me of life and loss, of love and joy, of the gates through which they entered and left my life.  This is comforting.  And nourishing. And very real to me. My dogs touch me in ways that stick.  And that does not die."

How has a dog's life touched your own?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

First Do No Harm

I was consulted recently to help a family with a small breed dog who had bitten a pet sitter.  The bite had barely broken the skin.  The family was concerned about the dog's behavior and whether or not it would escalate to more biting and more serious biting in the future.

We are right to be concerned about dogs who bite -- a bite is a "red flag" that the dog is experiencing some sort of stress and seeks to resolve it through biting.  It is important to realize one thing...

All dogs bite.  All dogs can bite.  If you poke, prod, chase, tease, hurt or stress any dog intensely enough it will bite you - all sentient beings have the potential to show aggression, the thresholds for this aggression vary.  The severity of the aggressive responses vary.

As a trainer and behavior consultant it is my professional responsibility to know 1. when to refer to a Certified Veterinary Behaviorist 2. to first do no harm.  

My clients often want to show me the dog's aggressive behavior first hand,  I don't need to see the dog I am visiting demonstrate any aggressive behavior whatsoever. Regardless of the problem I don't need to see the dog snarl, snap or bite to understand the nature of the problem.  Furthermore as someone hired to help the dog with the issue - creating a situation where the dog does indeed growl, snarl, snap or bites means I am making the dog worse.  Because any time a dog is triggered to make an aggressive response that behavior is being rehearsed again - each time it occurs the dog is getting better and better at being aggressive.  I was hired to help the dog and if I provoke it to bite I am making the dog worse.

In this case the dog was two years old, he had a history completely free of any biting until this incident.  He had been to the groomer many times, the veterinarian many times, to dog training classes, to doggy daycare - he had met and interacted with hundreds, if not thousands of people in his lifetime all without demonstrating any aggression whatsoever.  People had handled his collars thousands of times. So what did happen that day?

A strange man entered his home when he was in the crate, he was scared -- he let the petsitter know that through growling.  (the pet sitter made no efforts to get to know the dog)  The pet sitter opened the crate.  The dog was still scared and ran downstairs to their lower level...the stranger followed.  The dog was still scared and continued to scamper away, the man followed.  The dog was finally cornered - the dog was still scared.  He grabbed the dog by the collar...the dog bite him.  The bite barely broke the skin there was no bruising.

This is a good dog -- it is a dog who when under severe distress bit but bit with a great deal of inhibition.  The dog had said over, and over and over and over again...please I am scared, leave me alone.  The petsitter's intentions were also good (I need to take you for a walk) but his behavior was at fault.  He continued to place social pressure on the dog - instead he should have taken time to get to know the dog and put it at ease.  If he could not put the dog at ease pet professionals should be knowledgeable about how to leash the dog without putting themselves at risk or being bitten.

I reassured my client's that indeed they had a good dog.  We did spend some time working on some obedience behaviors in the home they wanted to polish up.   As pet owners we do need to be concerned about aggressive responses we see in our dogs, we should consult with someone qualified to help us with the problems we are seeing right away.    And it's essential that we are advocates for our dogs - no one needs to enter our homes and poke, prod, pull on or provoke our dogs into biting.  That kind of behavior is not helping our dogs - it is causing harm.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Methods, Sheer Madness & Dog Trainers

We live in a world of experts and actors - so who (or what) is the real deal when it comes to the world of dog training?  With all of the information out there how do you screen it out and decide what is right for you and most importantly what is best for your relationship with your dog.

I think it's important to point out that there is just one way to train the dog and that is the science of how dogs learn.  Every trainer is applying the laws of learning theory.

There is absolutely no such thing as "Cesar's Way", "Janet's Way" or "Acme Dog Training's Proven methods" to correct unruly behavior in your dog. You can respond to an informercial, you can buy a book, you can enroll in a dog training school but there aren't any secrets of professional dog trainers that you can purchase for $19.99.  If there was you'd have bought it and you wouldn't be reading this.

All we have and frankly all we need are the laws of learning. Every dog trainer, veterinary behaviorist, and pet owner is applying them (some I might argue better than others) but there is no escaping the science of how animals learn.  Every time anyone interacts with an animal it is learning, every time an animal responds to something in it's environment it is learning.

Every animal and that includes your dog wishes to control what happens to them - it is truly that simple.  Your dog didn't come with a "genetic desire to serve man", nor did your dog come with a "genetic desire to take over the human race".  Your dog is simply your dog, an animal with a desire to affect those things that happen to him.  Believe me when the dog is sleeping on the sofa all he is thinking is "this seems like a nice spot"-your thoughts may differ from his but that is the only thing on his mind.

The dog is moving towards things he desires, wants, finds rewarding and he is moving to avoid those things that he finds unpleasant, non-rewarding, punishing.

So when it comes down to who is or isn't whispering to your dog look at what is happening.  I do want my dog's behavior to improve but are the methods producing a happy dog or are the methods producing a frightened dog?

Because YES the point of training the dog is to create behavior that you prefer but we also need to look at what the costs are to your relationship with the dog.  What price is the dog paying?  What price are you paying?  

You see I can train your dog with old fashioned "yank and crank" methods.  I can put a choke collar on your dog - I can teach your dog to heel through a series of leash pops, I can push your dog into a sit, I can force your dog into a down.  I can praise your dog mightily but all I am doing is training your dog with physical punishment.  Doesn't matter if I am smiling all the while the dog isn't working to please me, he is working to avoid something unpleasant. The wag of his tail is merely his relief that right now he isn't being punished. There is very little doubt that the dog pays a price for this training choice - and done poorly the dog pays a very high price.  He's hurt or he's made afraid. I might get quick results, at least it looks that way when the dog is on a leash (which also happens to be in my hands) but the dog pays a price.  

I can also train the dog with rewards and a reward can be anything the dog wants - food, toys, an opportunity to do something.  Your dog will be moving to experience something pleasant. I think when you train with rewards you pay a price - you have to be smarter.  It will require more of your brain power but in the end you'll also have the enthusiastic wag of your dog's tail and after all isn't that why you got the dog after all?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Circus Dogs!

A few weeks ago I listened to this interview about Francis Metcalf who owns Friends Of The Family Dog Training and his Circus Dog classes in Berkeley California. I was immediately intrigued and impressed. I think the classes he is teaching are absolutely inspired and fresh - and frankly they simply look like loads of fun!

I had to offer the first "Circus Dog" classes in Lansing Michigan.

On the surface it might all look like a lot of fun and games and frankly it is. But if you look at what the dogs are really learning, there is a lot going on here. The dogs are learning to do tricks - that part is obvious but the dogs are also learning to stay while other dogs (and people) are moving around them. The dogs are learning how to use their to balance on all four legs or on only two or three of them. They are getting used to strange things hoops, jumps, bikes, skateboards -- and again to stay while people or dogs are jumping through hoops, wearing hats or riding on skateboards. The dogs are getting used to wearing really adorable costumes with ruffles or that jingle with bells.

The dogs are learning how to control themselves and how to work with their owners and this is all going on while being disguised as wickedly FUN! Because it training is fun, dogs are amazing.

Look at this great video from Francis of his Circus Dog Classes (there are many more up on You Tube).

I'm busy buying and making props for our first Circus Dog class -- Silly & Raven are polishing up their tricks. If you are interested in joining the other future Circus dogs in Lansing visit the website to enroll now. Don't worry if the three spots remaining fill, we'll just add another section -- I haven't been this excited about a new class in a very long time. Polish up your tiaras and dust off your top hat...ladies and gentleman it's time for the greatest show on earth!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Not Food Motivated

Susie from New Hampshire asks..."How do you reward a dog that is not particularly food motivated?" You can see from the photo, her dog Gus is super enthused about my answer.

First let me say, you may be the only owner of a hound dog to ask that question. Generally beagles, bassets and mixes thereof spend about 50% of their waking hours thinking about food and the other 50% following their noses around in the pursuit of food. I personally, have never won a race to the pantry with a beagle and I'm pretty fast. Gus apparently begs to differ, as long as it's not for food.

All dogs unless they have been diagnosed as anorexic are food motivated - so if your dogs are alive (and they are) food is motivating to them. There are many ways to reward a dog besides food but because food is so convenient, and carrying a rabbit around in your pocket is not - let me first address how to increase a dog's food motivation.

1. Use really remarkable treats. Your dog is probably no more excited about an organic carrot bit than you are - so use bacon, salami, hot dogs, cheese, chicken, turkey to motivate your dog. Dogs tend to enjoy things that are smelly and gooey. Find something your dog loves and use that only for training treats. You can buy dog treats but buy good ones, not those wretched green and red dog biscuits. I personally like the Natural Balance food rolls (no I don't eat them...not this week anyway).

2. If food is not always available, food is more motivating. If you leave a bowl of kibble out all day long, stop. If food is always available, food is not all that motivating - if something is a bit scarce it's value suddenly goes up. So feed a dog twice a day - leave the bowl down for 10-15 minutes and pick it up and remove any uneaten food until the next meal.

3. If your dog is still not responding to really good treats or is not hungry when food is scarce...then we can get really extreme and NO MORE dog dish. Temporarily put the food dish away and your dog will earn all of his food throughout the day from your hand. I often use this as a way to increase motivation with a dog or to bond with it. When I work to rehabilitate a shy/fearful/aloof dog - that dog literally receives every bit of food he gets from my hand. I quickly become very important to that dog.

But let's talk for a moment about why your dog may not be hungry -- I know from our past conversations that your dog (or at least one of your dogs is fearful) -- if your dog is ordinarily somewhat enthusiastic about food but suddenly is not (new place, new person around, new sound) etc. your dog may be "above his threshold" meaning he is too excited, nervous, anxious to eat. The situation is creating an emotional response in your dog that is so strong, the need for food is gone. If that's going on you need to back up and re-evaluate. That's also probably a topic for another day.

O.K. so what if after everything I've said, and everything you've tried -- the dog is just not food motivated. I personally would leave that dog on the coach and get another one to train (I AM KIDDING).

Animals, all animals want to control what happens to them. All animals are moving towards things that are rewarding, moving to avoid things that are not rewarding. Throughout the day your dog does let you know what he likes and what he dislikes. If you are working with a dog, the first thing you need to do is learn what makes that dog tic - what does this dog enjoy? What does he choose to avoid?

When I know what motivates a dog then I can train the dog. It's faster and easier if they love food (or toys) but you can work with the dog anyway. (can anyone tell I've trained chows)

Use life rewards - what is a life reward? Opening or closing the door, getting in the car, tossing a ball, petting, a chance to play with another dog, a chance to say hello to the neighbor, a chance to chase the squirrel, a chance to pee -- in the case of a hound a chance to sniff! In other words you control what happens to and for your dog (you have the bigger brain and the opposable thumbs). You'll get a bit of behavior you want and then viola' you'll reward the dog with one of those life rewards.

Use functional behavior rewards - what is a functional reward? moving towards something you want, moving away from something you wish to avoid. Let's say I have a dog that is fearful...I want the dog to move closer to something he is afraid of. If the dog moves in that direction...I can reward the dog by moving him away from the scary thing. Take one wee step towards the tacky lawn ornament. GOOD DOG! now we'll move away from it. The next day I might ask for two steps ...GOOD DOG! now we'll move away from it. Before you know it the dog may be moving all the way up to that tacky garden gnome.

Susie I hope that helps -- if it doesn't please write to someone else (I am kidding - give me some examples of when you are having trouble with your dog and we'll see if I can come up with a way to reward your dog in that situation).


p.s. If you are still here throw me a bone (ask me a question) and I'll do my best to answer it, if you are in the greater Lansing area join us in a class at Good Dog! Training.

Welcome to Good Dog! Training's Blog...

Woofs and welcome to Good Dog! Training's blog. I thought it was time to talk about dog training in a new format - on this blog you will find posts related to new things happening at my business Good Dog! Training, you'll see articles about new things in the world of dog behavior/training and you'll have an opportunity to toss me your own bones (i.e. send me a question or suggest a topic). If it has anything to do with dog behavior or training I'll do my best to answer.

Good Dog! Training has been working to improve the relationship between people and their dogs since 1998, currently we offer up to 14 dog friendly dog training classes every week with all levels of pet dog training, introduction to dog sports, behavior classes and our brand new circus dog classes. Let us help you bring out the amazing in your pet!