Category Archives: Training Milestones

More Than Meets the Eye

I have an autonomic disorder called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome – POTS for short. It’s a mouthful that means that I have issues with low blood pressure, a fast heart rate on standing, and chronic nausea, among other things.

Having a chronic health condition like this impacts my life, but with lifestyle changes such as keeping hydrated, avoiding standing for long periods of time, wearing support stockings, and eating a diet high in salt, I’m able to function quite well 95% of the time. Medications help too, and I’m grateful that my heart, blood pressure, and nausea meds help to manage symptoms.

What does this have to do with dog training? Well, quite a bit. You see, my dog Layla has a chronic health condition too. She was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder – GAD for short – in 2008. This disorder causes her to be hypervigilant, hyperalert, and to have difficulty resting.

Having a chronic health condition like Layla’s impacts her life, but lifestyle changes such as keeping to a set routine, managing her auditory environment, providing plenty of physical and mental exercise, and avoiding anxiety-producing situations help her to function quite well 95% of the time. Medications help too, and I’m grateful that Layla’s daily sertraline and situational trazodone and alprazolam help to manage her symptoms.

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My POTS was not easy to diagnose, but after extensive testing and a definitive tilt table test, it became very clear what my disorder was. Before diagnosis, I often fainted multiple times a day upon standing, and was too lightheaded to work or carry out daily life tasks. Now that I have a diagnosis, my condition can be managed with regular blood pressure and heart rate readings. I simply monitor these numbers from supine, sitting, and standing positions to get a better idea of what’s going on with my body at any point in time.

Layla’s condition was not easy to diagnose either, but after extensive training and behavioral modification it became clear that she needed further help. She simply wasn’t making the progress that a “normal” dog would be expected to make. I kept records on her behaviors and took representative video of her life, which were reviewed by a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Based on her symptoms, the behaviorist diagnosed Layla with GAD.

Unlike POTS, GAD doesn’t have handy numbers we can look at. We can’t measure the level of available serotonin in Layla’s brain to see whether she’s lacking. We don’t know whether the early trauma she experienced caused her hippocampus to shrink or her amygdala to become larger than normal. We can’t even begin to test the levels of the complex stew of neurochemicals in her brain.

We can’t measure anxiety-related issues as easily as we can measure heart-related issues. That doesn’t mean that they’re not every bit as much of a physical problem, though. My POTS is not my fault, and I can’t just “get over it” with lifestyle changes and a positive attitude. Layla’s anxiety is not her fault either, and she can no more “get over it” on her own than I can suddenly have an autonomic system that functions normally. Her brain doesn’t function normally, but it works much more normally now that she’s on medications. In fact, that’s a big part of how she was diagnosed. When we tried anxiety medications for her, they made such a huge difference in her ability to function that it was clear that they were correcting a true chemical imbalance. The dog whom I’d never seen sleeping was suddenly able to take naps. She was less twitchy, less explosive, and suddenly all the training we’d done together started to show. Her personality didn’t change, but it was like the static of the anxiety was turned down enough for her to access the skills we’d been working so hard on for the past three years. Before her diagnosis, Layla was frantic the majority of her waking time, and awake much more than most dogs. With medication and a diagnosis, Layla’s condition can be monitored with regular attention paid to her sleep cycle and reactivity.

Invisible disabilities come in many forms. People don’t know that I have a chronic health condition from looking at or talking to me. They also can’t tell that Layla has a chronic health condition from watching her work or play. I look like any other person, and Layla looks like any other dog. However, the physical abnormalities in the way our systems work are very real.

One of my greatest hopes is that someday we’ll be able to measure anxiety, to point to a definitive test and say, “yes, your dog has a neurochemical imbalance that needs to be addressed with medication” in much the same way we currently address thyroid or heart issues. How many dogs like Layla are currently suffering without treatment for lack of a diagnosis or their owner’s misunderstanding of the very real chemical basis of anxiety?

One hundred years ago, my fainting issues would have been seen as “female hysterics” and dismissed out of hand. Today, we look back on that attitude with horror and sympathy for the people who lived with very real autonomic issues.

My hope is that one hundred years from now, we look back on the current treatment of mental health issues like Layla’s GAD with much the same horror and sympathy. When we know better, we do better. I’m so grateful that I was able to do better by Layla. Her life, and mine, are all the richer for it.

3 Puppy Life Hacks

Recently, I started fostering again after a one-year hiatus. While I’ve fostered over one hundred dogs, this was the first foster I’ve had since moving in with my boyfriend and his brother. Both guys commented on some of the choices I made for Alex the foster puppy. While these choices seem like common sense to most trainers, many pet owners neglect them to their puppy’s detriment. So, here’s a list of my three favorite life hacks for puppy raising.

alex wobbler

1. If you love it, put a leash on it. Would you allow your toddler to roam about your house unsupervised? If not, then why would you give that freedom to a puppy?

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Even in our fenced-in yard, Alex wore a leash.

Puppies learn about their environment through exploration. Lacking opposable thumbs, most of this exploration is done with their mouth. In addition, until your puppy has learned where you want him to toilet, he’ll do so whenever and wherever the urge hits him.

Keeping your puppy on a leash gives you the chance to supervise him and help him make good choices. When I could watch him, Alex dragged his leash. If I couldn’t watch him, he was tethered to me (I hooked the handle of the leash to my belt loop with a simple carabiner) or to a sturdy piece of furniture. Had I had Alex longer, he would have gradually earned off-leash privileges when I knew he was empty (right after a toilet trip outside) and when he was consistently able to make good choices about what to chew on.

2. Throw out the food bowl. Alex ate about five cups of puppy food a day. He got some of this food from puzzle toys such as Kongs, the Kong Wobbler, and the Magic Mushroom. These toys kept him entertained when I couldn’t supervise him, such as when I showered, as well as keeping him happy in his crate when I had to leave. They also provided important mental enrichment for his developing brain. The only time he ate out of a food bowl was if I was practicing food bowl approaches.

puppy zen

Alex demonstrates puppy zen with several pieces of his kibble.

The food that didn’t get delivered in puzzle toys was hand-fed to Alex throughout the day for making good choices. I carried a bait bag with two to three cups of his food in it whenever Alex was out of his crate. Any time he sat, lay down, chewed on puppy toys, or pottied outside, he received several kibbles. He also received a lot of food during short (thirty to sixty second) training sessions a couple times an hour. We worked on leash manners in my driveway. Alex learned about hand targets, focusing on me, stay, puppy zen, and leave it. With his age and natural intelligence, he quickly picked up on this basic obedience, all while eating his daily food ration.

3. Socialize, socialize, socialize. Puppyhood is a lot of fun. It’s also a very short window of time in which lots of important experiences will shape who your dog becomes as an adult. By the time you bring a puppy home at 8 to 10 weeks, you have less than a month before the first socialization window closes forever. It’s much harder to socialize an adult dog than a puppy, and even harder to help a dog overcome bad experiences from this time.

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Playtime with friendly adult dogs is one important part of socializing your new pup!

Remember that socialization refers to positive experiences with new things. At four months, Alex was a bit past his primary socialization window, and this showed in his tendency to be suspicious of anything new or different. He needed a little bit of time to hang back and observe when he encountered anything new. A few times, he growled softly and hid behind me, telling me that we needed to start further away from the new thing. That said, he was still young enough that he quickly gained confidence and became curious in new situations with a little time to habituate. He never refused treats in these situations and explored within a few minutes.

During his week with me, Alex met close to sixty new people. Most of them fed him treats. Many of them were men with facial hair. He met different ages, including children, as well as different ethnicities. He met old dogs and young dogs, playful dogs and crotchety dogs. He rode in the car both crated and wearing a seat belt. He met kittens, nice cats, and a mean cat. He met chickens. He was crated at dog classes in four different facilities. He got to try nose work. He had his toenails trimmed and his teeth brushed. He saw flapping plastic bags, all sorts of vehicles, bikes, a hose, a balloon, and even power tools from a distance. He worked for treats and toys, learning about tug and fetch. He napped in several new locations and played in several more.

Alex has been adopted, and I hope his new family will continue teaching him how to be the good dog he wants to be. If you have a new puppy, he or she wants the same thing. Help your puppy succeed using the tips above in addition to enrolling in a good puppy kindergarten class, and you’ll be well on your way!

 

Fearful Dogs

Last week we discussed brittle dogs, those dogs who have a hard time coping with stress despite the best start in life. The dogs we discussed were born that way, and couldn’t deal with scary or uncomfortable situations even with their golden-spoon upbringing. But brittle dogs can also be created in spite of a solid genetic basis. Today, let’s discuss those dogs who don’t have the best start in life.

Some dogs lose the socialization lottery. Maybe your dog was born or raised in a puppy mill or kept in someone’s barn or garage. Maybe your dog was a stray. Maybe your dog grew up in a no kill shelter that didn’t have enough volunteers to get all of the dogs out and about or which kept puppies sequestered due to concerns about disease. Maybe you just didn’t know about the importance of socialization and so didn’t get your dog to puppy class before his socialization window closed between twelve and sixteen weeks.

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Whatever the reason, if your dog missed out on critical socialization he may still be okay. Or he might not be. If you have a brittle dog whose early experiences were less-than-ideal, studies show that you could have a long haul ahead of you.

Ongoing studies on Romanian orphans have shown us just how crucial early development can be. The “socialization window” during which the majority of social brain development outside of the womb seems to take place appears to be about two years in people compared to the shorter three to four months for puppy development. However, many of the developmental processes are identical.

So, here’s what we know: children with neglectful upbringings do not develop the same way as children with supportive and enriched environments. Their brains are physically different. They develop less white matter, or myelin tract, which leads to deficits in their abilities to form neural connections. The neural pathways in their brain are weaker and the electrical activity of their brains is significantly reduced from children who grew up in supportive environments.

In addition to this alarming physical deficit, many of the children from neglectful environments also appear to suffer from adrenal impairment. Their bodies produce significantly less (or in fewer cases, significantly more) cortisol, a stress hormone, than other children’s bodies, and this causes them to show altered stress responses.

The parallels to our dogs who come from neglectful, unenriched environments are obvious. Many of the dogs with the very worst behavioral issues that I work with have low heart rates even in situations that obviously cause them a good deal of stress. These dogs sometimes appear to suffer learning disabilities and to have issues with impulse control. Their owners report that the dogs develop new fears at the drop of a hat, but that it takes months or years to get over any fear even with appropriate behavioral interventions.

Taking all of this in can be overwhelming to the owner of a brittle dog. If your dog’s history suggests developmental disabilities, it’s important to realize that your dog is not a normal dog. He has special needs. Asking your dog to suck it up and go to the dog park or to stop cowering behind the couch every time visitors come over dismisses the very real disability your dog lives with every day. It’s as insensitive as calling someone in a wheelchair lazy or laughing at the retired combat veteran next door when he asks you to please give him a head’s up before you light off firecrackers. We wouldn’t ask a dog who was missing a limb or an eye to engage in behaviors which were potentially dangerous to him, but because we cannot see the damage to the brain of our previously-neglected dog with our naked eyes we oftentimes forget to give him the same respect. It’s unconscionable to ignore a disability just because it’s not instantly visible.

So, how can you help your brittle dog? Once you acknowledge that your dog needs some special help, the research is very promising! There’s a lot we can do to help these dogs become more confident, happy, and behaviorally healthy with some simple interventions.

First of all, the five suggestions for brittle dogs with positive socialization histories apply here. Go review them now. We’ll wait.

Finished? Great! In addition to supporting your dog in all of the ways mentioned last week, research also suggests that you work to create new neural pathways for your pet. The brain is remarkably plastic, and new neural pathways develop anytime we learn a new skill or experience a new sensation. The trick is to do this without putting more pressure on your dog. Introducing your dog to TTouch obstacle work, agility (with a skilled instructor who will free-shape your dog to interact with the obstacles on his or her own terms), trick training, or canine nose work can allow them to interact with their environment in new and interesting ways. Feeding from puzzle toys or using other search and find games can also be helpful. Anything that engages your dog’s curiosity is good! Be patient and let him or her progress at the pace that makes sense for them. Encourage exploration and applaud small efforts.

The progress many of my clients see in their previously fearful dogs when we create safe places, actively teach coping skills, socialize appropriately, utilize classical conditioning, consider medication, and promote the development of new neural pathways through nose work or trick training is absolutely astounding. These dogs flourish in ways that they’ve never done before. They grow and they learn and they surprise the hell out of us at every turn. They impress us to tears. There’s nothing quite like the first moment when a fearful dog completes a successful search in nose work class or works up the courage to eat in the presence of a stranger. These magical moments of bravery show us how hard these special dogs try and how very much they can overcome with patience and a plan.

If you have a brittle dog, one of those special dogs who lost the socialization lottery, I hope this blog post has given you a better understanding of your dog’s very unique needs and a sense of hope at all that you can achieve together. I’d love to hear your stories, tips, and tricks about your own special dogs, so please share them in the comments section below!

Opting In

We’ve all known that parent: the mom who enters her toddler in beauty pageants because she wanted to be a beauty queen when she was younger, the dad who pushes his son into organized sports to relive his glory days as the star quarterback for his home team. Whether it’s theater, academics, swimming, music, or something else, we’ve known the parent who lost sight of the child in front of them as they pursued the child they had always dreamed of having (or perhaps of being).

It’s natural to dream big and to want the best for those you love. Parents dream of their children becoming the next president or the next famous chef. They look at all of the amazing potential that their child has and they want wonderful things for them. This is normal, and to a certain degree it’s healthy.

Photo by Jesse Moore

Photo by Jesse Moore

We’ve all known great parents who followed their children’s dreams, supporting their son or daughter as they explored their own interests. Whether it’s learning about cars or about horses, we’ve known parents who followed their children on paths they never would have chosen on their own, and we’ve watched as the children thrived.

We’ve also seen this same normal, healthy desire to help their children have a better life turn dark. We’ve seen parents scream at Little League umpires or require their children to practice something so frequently and obsessively that the child’s social life or rest time is negatively impacted. Just like so much in life, balance is important.

Dogs are not children. We choose the dogs we bring into our life, and once we bring them home they stay with us unless we choose otherwise. They never grow up and move away. They eat when we feed them, sleep when and where we allow them to, and don’t leave our houses unless we permit it.

One of my favorite exercises to assign to my clients is the “perfect day” thought exercise. I ask them to tell me about their dog’s perfect day. If their dog got to decide, how would he choose to spend his day? What would he want to do? Which ten activities would he include in his perfect day? Chasing rabbits? Rolling in deer poop? Playing with other dogs? Swimming? Sunbathing? Snuggling? Eating roast beef? Digging up your lawn? If your dog got to call the shots, how would he spend his time?

It’s important to remember that dogs are individuals. Your dog is his own self. He has his own thoughts, likes, and dislikes. He’s aware of his world, and he perceives it differently than you, your other dog, or your previous dog of that breed. He is capable of making choices, and he has opinions about things. When was the last time you asked him what he lives for?

Here’s something to consider: dogs cannot opt out of relationships. They can check out, they can act out, but they cannot get out unless they act so far outside of their owner’s standards of acceptable behavior that they are euthanized or rehomed. They have the cognitive abilities of two- to five-year-old children, and like parents it is our responsibility to watch their behavior to learn what’s working and what’s not working for them in their world.

There’s a common recommendation in the agility and other dog sport worlds for young, anxious, distractible, independent, or enthusiastic dogs. Convention states that unless the dog’s owner is the center of his universe, their relationship is somehow fatally flawed. In order to become the center of his universe, owners are advised to prevent their dog from doing anything he enjoys that doesn’t include the owner.

If we follow this recommendation to its conclusion, it’s easy to see how it could be quite effective. If your adolescent dog loves to play with other dogs more than he loves agility, never allowing him to play with other dogs may indeed increase his enthusiasm for agility. If your child loves to surf the web more than she loves to play the violin, taking away her computer access may indeed make her more likely to practice her violin. If it’s the only game in town, it’s going to be better than nothing.

As a good parent, you might require your child to practice her violin for a certain amount of time before you let her log on to the web, and as a good dog owner you may ask your dog to do something for you (perhaps heel politely to the play area or sit and look at you) before you allow him to play with his doggy friends. Balance is important. But if you never allow your child to log on to the computer or never allow your dog to play with his friends out of some notion that letting them be themselves will harm your own goals, is that really the relationship you want to foster?

It’s normal for us to dream big, whether you’re gazing at a new baby human or a new baby dog. Both are full of possibilities, and it’s wonderful that we want the best for them. But in our quest to help those we love achieve greatness, let’s not lose sight of the individual in front of us. If you just pay attention, your dog will tell you what they need.

Layla told me that she didn’t enjoy agility trials but loves competing in rally obedience. Dobby told me that he would rather be petted under his chin than along his sides. Mischief frequently tells me that because she’s still young and learning about her world, she needs a moment to just sit quietly and watch the other dogs work in class or get used to the commotion of a new environment before she can focus on me. While their opinions may not always jive with my own goals for them, my respect for them as individuals is such that I am willing to listen, and to comply or to compromise, as the case may be. And our relationship deepens each time I hear them, and I get chills each time I learn more about the fascinating, wonderful, unique individual each one of them is. They’re their own selves, and there’s something absolutely amazing about that.

Your dog is her own self too, with her own opinions and passions. The choice of how you “parent” her is all yours. Please step lightly and choose wisely. Your dog may not be able to opt out, but she can opt in to a lifelong relationship with you. And that’s a beautiful, powerful thing.

Squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks, oh my!

It was the wee hours of the morning before I got a chance to walk my dogs. I had finally finished a couple of large writing projects whose deadlines had been breathing down my neck and was enjoying the warm night. The moon was nearly full, and the sky was sprinkled with stars. My dogs snuffled about in the grass and wandered about together on long, loose leashes as we walked through the park, and I took a deep breath and enjoyed the perfection of the moment.

Mischief is always on the lookout for critters. Photo by SC Studios.

Mischief is always on the lookout for critters. Photo by SC Studios.

The stillness was shattered by Mischief’s yodeling “BAROOOOO” as a young rabbit bolted right in front of her. Layla immediately swung into heel position, staring lasers at me in the hopes that I would give her permission to chase after the little bunny. Dobby yipped twice, then remembered himself and offered a sit.

Mischief, however, did not look at me, or swing into heel position, or even sit. Instead, she strained at the end of her leash, baying like a Bloodhound. Her cries echoed in the park, and I cringed, feeling guilty that my dog was being so noisy when the neighbors were trying to sleep.

Heedless to anything but the quickly disappearing rabbit, Mischief continued to yodel until I picked her up, thirty pounds of squirmy adolescent pup determined to escape the confines of her leash and give chase. Holding her firmly, I praised the other dogs and asked them to “leave it” as we walked in the opposite direction the bunny had run. Layla gave the departing rabbit one last wistful look, then huffed and bumped my pocket with her nose, hinting that good dogs should be rewarded. I handed treats to her and Dobby, and after several steps was able to set Mischief down again without her resuming her cacophonous protest. The entire incident took less than 10 seconds, and I hoped that my quick action had prevented my puppy from disturbing anyone’s slumber.

Photo by ap. on flickr

Photo by ap. on flickr

Squirrels and rabbits are one of the most difficult distractions many people deal with on walks. Dogs love to chase, and there’s something about that quickly-departing fluffy tail that makes many dogs completely out of control. The more predatory the dog, the more difficult this can be to deal with. When Layla was younger, she broke through collars and climbed me like a tree in her attempts to catch small critters, and to this day she regularly kills and consumes birds, chipmunks, and other small animals in my little fenced backyard. My clients have been pulled over and injured when their dogs decided to give chase, and many have expressed frustration that their dog doesn’t even care about food or toys when a squirrel is in sight. Some people turn to electronic collars to control their dog’s prey drive, but many others (myself included) do not believe in the use of these tools due to the potential for fallout and lack of proof that they are any more effective than reward-based training.

So, what can we do to control our dogs around rabbits, squirrels, and other small critters?

Enter Premack. The Premack Principle states that a less likely behavior can be reinforced with a more likely behavior. In plain English, that means that we can use something our dog is already likely to do (such as chasing squirrels) as a reward for something that they’re less likely to do in that same situation (such as looking at us). Here’s how it works.

In the beginning stages, we need to make sure that you can control your dog so that he only gets a chance to chase squirrels when you give him permission to do so. Keeping your dog on leash is a great way to manage this, and you can add in a front-attach harness (I use the Freedom harness for Mischief) or a head halter (such as the Gentle Leader) for more control if your dog is especially quick or powerful.

Now we need to figure out what your dog can actually offer at this stage of training. With Mischief, she has a great whiplash turn where she turns her head as soon as I say her name, so I used this. In the case of a more predatory dog, such as Layla, I had to start with accepting even a tiny head turn, sometimes just an inch in my direction. Start with what you can get.

The training is simple. Walk your dog somewhere where you will see squirrels or bunnies. When your dog sees one, stand still and wait for them to offer a behavior you like, or cue them to do whichever behavior you’ve decided on. In Mischief’s case, I say her name as soon as she sees a small critter she wants to chase.

As soon as your dog offers the behavior you’ve decided on, reward them with the opportunity to chase. In Layla’s case, turning her head an inch in my direction caused me to click my clicker and take several steps in the direction of the bunny or squirrel. For Mischief, who is still a fairly predatory dog but who is not as tightly wound as Layla, I say her name, click when she turns towards me, then run after the squirrel or bunny with her. In both dogs’ cases, I keep them on leash and allow them to chase with me holding onto the leash for safety. This may not be as satisfying to them as chasing off-leash would be, but it’s safer in an urban environment with cars and other hazards and still satisfies them enough that they are willing to work for the opportunity.

In the beginning stages, it can be very difficult for a dog to switch from their instinctive predatory behaviors to more operant learned behaviors, like looking at you. It would often take Layla several minutes to turn her head even the tiniest bit away from the critter, so I had to be very still and quiet as she worked through the problem. Be patient and wait for a behavior you like, then click and move towards the critter. If your dog is absolutely out of control, you can either back away and try this from a greater distance (such as a block or two away), or you can wait for a tiny break in their frenzy (such as when they take a breath) and click that. I prefer to back away because I don’t want my dogs practicing such over-the-top behavior, but know other trainers who have had a lot of success with the latter method as well. Do what makes the most sense for you and your dog.

With Mischief, I started taking her on walks separate from the other dogs so we could work through this problem. As soon as she saw a critter, I would stop moving and wait for her to look at me. If she looked like she was getting more wound up and was going to start yodeling, I would say her name once, which always caused her to swing her head in my direction. Regardless of whether she remembered to look at me or I had to remind her, as soon as she looked in my direction I would click and tell her “get it!,” running in the direction of the critter.

Photo by Davide Simonetti

Photo by Davide Simonetti

Like most dogs, Mischief loves this game! She understands that by working together with me she can earn the chance to do what she wants. She began offering to look at me when she saw a small critter, clearly testing the premise to see whether the rules applied in all sorts of different situations. They usually did, although in unsafe situations or with animals I didn’t want her to chase I would tell her to “leave it” and reward her for her cooperation by letting her play a chase game as I ran in the opposite direction. She didn’t like this quite as much, but was willing to work with me.

Mischief’s training just started last week, so it’s still a work in progress. That said, I can report that walks are already much more peaceful, and there hasn’t been any yodeling since the one late night incident at the park. Even better, she’s learning that paying attention to me pays off, even in really distracting situations. Instead of fighting her, I’m teaching her to cooperate and become a better partner. All of this is happening without electric shocks, verbal reprimands, or any sort of force. It’s also mostly happening without the use of food rewards (although I do give her little pieces of food after a chase game when I ask her to “leave it,” since that’s still tough for her).

At this point, I plan to continue walking Mischief separately from the other dogs until she’s a pro at the Premack game. Once she reliably chooses to look at me after spying a squirrel or rabbit, I’ll start walking her with one of my other dogs, and eventually begin walking the entire pack together again. Dobby and Layla already understand the rules of the game, so on future walks I will be able to play it with all three of them, waiting until all three dogs have offered a behavior (Layla offers to swing into heel position and hold eye contact, and Dobby offers a sit) before initiating a chase.

If I want to transfer these behaviors to off-leash hikes, I can do so by walking Mischief on a long leash for awhile. I’ll keep working on her recall, and reward recalls with the chance to chase small critters. This will eventually pay off as I’ll be able to call her off a chase if I need to, and once she’s reliable I can ditch the long leash and let her be completely free.

I’ve used this same technique to return sanity to walks for countless dogs and their people. Have you used the Premack principle in this way? How does your dog respond to little critters? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

Moving with Minnie

[Note from Sara: recently my friend and fellow Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Katie Kelly, moved with her Shih Tzu, Minnie. I was so impressed by the way that Katie supported Minnie and problem-solved to help her adjust to apartment living that I asked her to write a guest blog post about her experiences. Enjoy!]

Minnie is my little sidekick. She goes with me absolutely everywhere: to the pet store, to the park, and to visit with family and friends. She has also moved with me countless times. We’ve lived in a couple different homes in Rochester, multiple places in Winona, and at one point, maintained residence in Zumbrota as well. However, the two of us had grown accustomed to the private life of living in a house. Neither of us had ever truly experienced apartment living until recently.

Minnie and Katie

Minnie and Katie

In the first couple days of living in our new apartment, I could tell Minnie wasn’t truly comfortable. She would find her hiding places and shut down: she didn’t seek out attention, she didn’t play with her toys, and she didn’t chew on her bones. She needed some time to adjust, and then she’d return to being normal happy–go-lucky Minnie. At least that is what I thought.

Technically, dogs are not allowed at my apartment complex, but the landlord did me a favor and allowed us to take residence regardless. Because of this, I figured Minnie might be the window of opportunity: that she might provide a positive image for responsible dog owners who were looking to rent. As the only dog in the apartment building, I felt that it was important to make a good impression on the other residents as well as the landlord.

A week or so after moving, she was coming around little by little. But instead of turning into the superstar I had hoped for, she started to become the stereotypical little yappy dog. I actually set up a video camera to see how she did when I wasn’t around, and I found she would bark incessantly, finding it difficult to calm herself. Then it hit me. I had just moved this five-year-old dog, accustomed to household living, into an apartment building. While it wasn’t too much of a change for me, I soon realized that it was a drastic change for Minnie. In her mind, there were loud scary noises coming from every direction. She had no idea who was making these noises, nor what they predicted. I started to truly hear it. There was door banging, knocking, stomping feet, and conversation in the hallways. Minnie didn’t have the capability to seek out or make sense of any of these things.

We started counter conditioning. I wore my treat pouch every moment we were in the apartment. Every time there was a slight noise, I would press the clicker before Minnie had the chance to react to it and treat her with high rewards. If Minnie did react, I’d call her or lure her (depending on the severity) away from the door and started treating her until I could see her physically calming down. However, this wasn’t enough. What happened when I was gone? Surely, all our hard work would go down the drain as those loud noises would stir her up without me there to help her cope.

We tried the Thundershirt, the DAP collar, the DAP diffuser, stuffed Kongs, puzzle toys, rawhides, bully sticks, and Through a Dog’s Ear classical music. I tried in every possible way I could think of to keep her busy, and to keep her feeling secure and calm. I thought of taking her to daycare, but she is fearful of other dogs. I figured the stress of daycare would just carry over to our home environment and make things worse.

I decided to shoot around for ideas. An idol of mine, who has an incredible amount of knowledge in canine behavior, was very helpful. She had mentioned everything above, and when I told her I had exhausted those efforts, she recommended the Manners Minder. Genius!

The Manners Minder is a treat-dispensing machine. I created a colorful note outside my door that let my neighbors know that I was working on Minnie’s issues and also invited them to be a part of the solution! Alongside the note, I taped the remote control that directly dispensed the treats from the Manners Minder. Inside my apartment, on a table next to the door, was the almighty, praise-worthy, treat dispenser (as Minnie saw it). While I was at home, I could see people were already willing to send Minnie magical treats. They’d walk by (with the associated stomping, talking, and slamming doors) and press the button on the remote taped outside my door. The machine would beep letting Minnie know that treats were on the way, before dispensing them before her very eyes! This machine allowed me to go to school, and while at home, Minnie could be counter conditioned by others who made those scary noises outside the door!

People = treats! My neighbors were very generous about using Minnie's Manners Minder.

My neighbors were very generous about using Minnie’s Manners Minder.

I had to laugh because there were times where I’d check the video camera and watch her progress when I’d get home from school. Many used the remote, but there were also instances where people walked by without using it, and to my surprise Minnie still wiggled her way over to the door expecting goodies. Those loud scary noises finally started to predict good things, and she no longer felt the need to bark.

Finally, Minnie was truly able to relax and feel comfortable in her new home.

Helping People Enjoy Their Dogs

It was clear to anyone watching them that the little dog and his owner loved each other. Despite all her frustration and her ineptitude, the little dog’s owner was trying her very hardest to help him. And despite all of his anxiety and stress, the little dog was trying to work with her.

And they were failing miserably.

Photo by Rosa Money

Photo by Rosa Money

They had been failing together for five years. The owner would take her little dog to classes and agility trials and seminars. She went from one trainer to another, collecting a plethora of habits and ideas along the way. A patchwork of training methodologies and theories clung to her. She tried and tried and tried, and her dog tried his hardest too. And they failed, and they failed, and they failed again.

The little dog was on edge all the time. He tried to listen to his handler, worked his heart out for her really, and yet when it all got to be too much he couldn’t help lunging and barking. He truly couldn’t control it. The stress would spill over and he would crash and burn yet again. His owner would drag him away, raging and out of control.

When I took the dog’s leash in class and began working with him, his eyes cleared. His movements slowed and he started taking treats less frantically. He took a deep breath and shook off. I demonstrated the exercise for his owner, and when I went to hand the leash back to her, her little dog didn’t want to go. He tried to follow me away from his owner, and I saw the embarrassment and frustration and guilt cross her face in a raw and naked moment that broke my heart.

The owner had the best of intentions. The dog adored her. But the pure relief of working with someone who was clear with him, who listened to and respected him and his limits, and who was not themself on edge, was more important to him in that moment than those five years of pain and hard work that his owner had put in.

This is the challenge that professional dog trainers face.

Any trainer worth his or her salt can take a dog’s leash and help that dog. We can read your dog and adjust the exercise to perfectly suit his needs in the moment. If we’re any good, we can do this so quickly and make such minute adjustments that you won’t even realize that we’ve just split our criteria in half and upped the rate of reinforcement by 50%. You may not even be able to see the tiny changes in the amount of pressure we place on your dog, turning our body slightly to the side or moving a few steps away from a stressor. This stuff is automatic for us, because we’ve been doing it for years and we understand the dance that true training entails.

It looks like magic. And it’s meaningless, unless we can help you do it too.

The little dog’s owner was on edge and jumpy herself. She automatically tightened up on the leash and administered constant tiny little jerks on her dog’s collar (a technique she’d learned years ago) whenever she got nervous. The more she tried to control her dog in these situations, the worse he got. She took him to classes and trials constantly in the belief that if she didn’t continuously expose him, the little dog would backslide. She delivered treats quickly and imprecisely, not to mention far, far too infrequently to provide the amount of information her dog required to feel comfortable. Her dog was miserable. She was miserable. And they both loved each other, through all the misery and frustration.

This is the challenge of a professional dog trainer, then.  Not to make myself look good, but to give you the skills you need so that you can do that too. Paws Abilities’ motto is “helping people enjoy their dogs,” and that is my primary mission as a professional trainer.

So what could I do for the woman and her little dog? Frankly, I could be kind. I could be as patient with the owner as I was with her dog. I could help her change her behavior in tiny little bits. Just as a rehomed dog with a patchwork history may take months to trust a new owner, I would never expect a client who has worked with so many other trainers to change her ways all at once, or even to trust that changing her ways was the right thing to do. Instead, I could show her the possibilities and help her set manageable and realistic goals.

Professional trainers sometimes forget that human behavior can be shaped in the same way that we shape animal behavior. If you are dealing with problematic behavior in your dog, you owe it to yourself to find a trainer who will respect you every bit as much as they wish you to respect your pet. And if you’re working as a professional trainer and cannot remember to be as kind to your human clients as you are to their dogs, frankly, you need to find another profession. The principles that shape solid animal training: shaping new behaviors through successive approximations, building solid foundational skills, adjusting our criteria based on the individual in front of us, and using a high rate of reinforcement to cement understanding, are all equally important when teaching people.

I first worked with the woman and her dog two years ago. I did not forbid her from taking her dog to classes or trials, although I gently recommended against it and commended her when she chose not to put her dog into these stressful situations. I did not yell at her when she jerked on the leash or forgot to treat her dog, but instead gave her easy suggestions to follow that were incompatible with these training mistakes. I was empathetic when she admitted that she found training frustrating and disheartening, and adjusted the exercises in the class she was in so that she would leave each class feeling joyful at the success her dog had made.  And she still failed, but less often, and her dog still blew up sometimes, but less than he used to, and he recovered from these situations much more quickly. And they both learned to relax just a little bit more, and to trust one another just a little bit more.

This woman has floated in and out of our classes several times in the last couple years. She’s done some private training with me too. Recently she contacted me with a success story, and we celebrated her achievements. She still pushes her dog too far sometimes, and sometimes she forgets how to give him the information he needs. But she tries, and her dog tries, and they love each other. They’re much further along than they were two years ago, and they’ll be further still next year.

Training a dog is easy for those of us who have done it for any length of time. Professional dog training is difficult. Finding the compassion and patience to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space in which novice handlers can learn takes real skill, empathy, and ongoing education.