Category Archives: Seminars

What Kind of Dog do you Drive?

Bringing a new dog into your household is a big deal. It’s a long-term commitment that may last fifteen or more years. The type of dog you choose will influence your life in a big way. So why do so many people put less thought into bringing home a dog than they do into purchasing a car?

Photo by Andrew Morrell

Photo by Andrew Morrell

Recently, I invited Kim Brophey to journey to freezing Minnesota for a seminar on her DRIVE program. What if we put the same thought into bringing a dog into our lives that we do into buying a vehicle?

Obviously, dogs aren’t cars. Dogs are individual, sentient beings with unique personalities. Just as you’re not identical to your siblings, one dog from a given breed or group will not be exactly the same as the last one you knew. Asking which breed is the best for you misses the point. However, asking which type of dog would smooth most easily into your life is a very, very good idea.

So, which type of dog should you drive?

Hybrid: the mixed-breed dog is often one of the best options for those new to dog ownership or those who need an uncomplicated family companion. Dogs who are so mixed that their heritage can’t even be guessed at tend to be fairly balanced and healthy. Nature’s a great fixer, and if we give nature a few generations to smooth away the rough edges caused by the small gene pools often found in purebreds, we often end up with wonderful dogs.

Scooter: the scooters of the dog world are the toy dogs bred for companionship. These dogs smooth easily into many different lifestyles. While they tend to idle high, their upkeep is fairly simple and they can be driven by a wide variety of people. They may not be the most practical choice for country life due to the risk of predation, but are otherwise able to thrive in many different environments. It’s harder to get in serious trouble with a scooter simply because of its size.

ATV: like all-terrain vehicles, partner hunters such as the sporting breed dogs are quite easy to drive, as long as you’re willing to take them off-road regularly. As long as their exercise needs are addressed, these dogs tend to be simple for anyone to own. Bred to work closely with their human companions and to look to people for guidance, these dogs are easily trained and cared for.

Dirt Bike: Quick and flexible, able to get into tight spaces and a bit racy, small terriers are much like dirt bikes. Expect to get a bit dirty if you own one, but if you’re ready for the ride you can have a lot of fun. These dogs may require a few lessons to drive appropriately, and they’re certainly not for everyone. If you’re going to be horrified when your dog revs up and kills a small critter or digs up your yard, you may want to look into tamer scooters, which have a similar look without so much need for speed.

Train: hounds are the trains of the dog world… after all, they run on tracks! In all seriousness though, hounds tend to be simple to operate as long as their driver understands that they may take a while to stop once they get up a full head of steam. Sighthounds are the commuter trains of the dog world, while scenthounds are more like freight trains – just a little less polished and a little rougher around the edges.

Cop car: “Where have you been? Do you know how fast you were going? Show me your license!” Owners of herding-breed dogs will be familiar with these cars. Driving a cop car requires that you be able to give your deputy consistent work and instruction, but if you’re up for the task they can be wonderful partners. These dogs crave direction. They’re constantly aware of their surroundings and able to keep tabs on everything going on at all times, so if you have a laid-back personality that doesn’t enjoy that constant state of readiness, you may want to consider a different vehicle.

SWAT car: like a cop car on steroids, working dogs with a military, war, or police background take hypervigilance to a new extreme. These dogs require very consistent direction from a competent leader. Expect them to be suspicious of new people, animals, and things. These aren’t dogs who will be everyone’s friend, and expecting them to love everybody is simply unrealistic. However, if you want a loyal companion who will always have your back, and if you have the time and effort to put into training and socialization, these dogs can be amazing partners.

Tank: you wouldn’t drive a tank to work every day unless you had a very specialized job that required it, and livestock-guarding or other guard breeds are quite similar. A bit too much for a city environment without special considerations, they can be indispensable for flock or property guardianship. These dogs don’t get fired up about much, but when they do they’re ready to do what it takes to defend against the enemy. Tanks are great for experienced drivers who need that level of firepower, noise, and loyalty, but tend to be a poor choice for inexperienced drivers.

Hot rod: sexy and responsive, bully breeds are the hot rods of the dog world. They can function much like a normal car most of the time, but in the right conditions they’ll go 0-60 in mere seconds. Arousal can be a problem for these dogs, and in inexperienced hands that don’t know how to handle such a big engine they could cause accidents. Drivers should understand how to keep their dog away from the starting line and consider lessons in driving such a powerful car.

Dragon: it’s impossible to drive a dragon, and owners of primitive, Nordic, and Asian breeds understand this well. However, if you can form a bond with your dragon, you’re in for the ride of your life. These dogs are smart and capable. In fact, if people all disappeared tomorrow, these are the dogs who would not only survive, but thrive. That said, they’re not a good choice for most people. Dragons are never going to be perfectly obedient, and they don’t tolerate manhandling. They’re likely to use their amazing problem-solving abilities for their own benefit, which may often run counter to your own wishes. If you have a specific destination in mind, there are much easier vehicles available to get you there, but if you’re okay taking the scenic route you and your dragon can go on great journeys together.

So, what kind of dog do you currently drive? What kind of vehicle would be best for you in the future? Do you feel like these descriptions are accurate? Please share in the comments below!

Raising the BaR photos

Thanks to everyone who came out to our Raising the BaR seminar with Steve White last weekend. I hope you had a wonderful time and learned a lot! The photos below are courtesy of Michelle Daiss and Sara Reusche.

steve white seminar1 steve and peggy steve white seminar 2 061 058 057 054 053


[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Mark Robinson

Photo by Mark Robinson

It’s always ok to ignore your trainer; it’s never ok to ignore your dog.

Denise Fenzi

A Better World… Which Training Method Works Best?

Last month, I attended the Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference in Cincinnati, OH. This five-day conference had over 700 attendees and 23 amazing speakers. Learning from the best (not to mention meeting so many old and new friends from all over the world) is always energizing and exciting.


Dog trainers and dog lovers are at a unique tipping point right now. In spite of setbacks caused by some pervasive myths and less-than-accurate reality shows on television, gentle, reward-based training continues to gain in popularity. Many people have discovered its power to change their dogs’ behavior for the better, and are eager to share this information with others. This movement encompasses many facets of the animal world beyond pet dog training, including exotic animal husbandry and training, service dog work, dog sports of all types, and police or military dog training.

As exciting as this movement is, it has not yet become completely embedded in our culture. Sadly, tribalism is still an issue in dog training as in so very many other facets of human culture, and different dog training “camps” continue to snap at one another’s heels.

New trainers with little experience are often quick to judge others who do things differently from them, and even experienced trainers may find themselves falling victim to this trap. I know that I’m certainly not immune to this issue. It’s very difficult for me to watch dogs being corrected on metal or electronic collars, and I frequently find myself making hasty and incorrect character judgments about people who are training using such methods. When I actually get to know these same trainers, I often find that they are pleasant, caring individuals who want the same things that most reward-based trainers do: well behaved dogs who share wonderful relationships with them.

It’s important for us to remember that all training methods work. If they did not work, they would not still be around. No one is going to write books or teach classes about methods that aren’t effective or that harm dogs, and we need to acknowledge that there are many ways to teach every behavior. Just because a method is different from what you currently use or what you would choose does not mean that the method (or the person using it) is evil. I’ve seen very happy, relaxed dogs wearing corrective collars and very stressed dogs being trained off-leash using a clicker and treats. These dogs’ emotions had much more to do with the skill and abilities of their trainers than the methods being used. Every dog and every trainer is an individual, and when we begin to make all or nothing statements we do damage.

This doesn’t mean that we cannot have strong opinions about the best way to train a dog. I strongly believe that dogs can be trained more quickly and effectively without the use of force. I believe that it’s important to engage dogs in training and to give them choices. I want my dogs to be active rather than passive partners in the training process. I also believe that as a professional, it’s my responsibility to use the same techniques with my clients’ dogs that I do with my own, and to avoid techniques that I believe have the possibility of causing harm.

In order to promote change, we must first create a dialogue. By belittling or criticizing other trainers, we build walls and prevent conversation. There is a lot that reward-based trainers can learn from traditional or remote collar trainers, and vice versa. I encourage any other trainer to audit my classes at no cost, and would urge my colleagues to do likewise. Furthermore, I regularly invite other local trainers (of all methodologies) to join myself and my fellow instructors for continuing education get-togethers. We can learn so much from one another when we are respectful and open-minded.

Find joy with your dog! Photo by SC Studios.

I’m often asked how to encourage change in training clubs and organizations, and my best advice is to stop preaching. In order to promote positive changes in the way our friends, relatives, and training buddies treat their dogs, we must first show what is possible. Nobody wants to shock, pinch, hit, kick, or jerk their best friend. Prove that your methods are better by doing what you as a trainer or dog lover do best. Find joy with your dog. Train your dog well. Show that special bond you have built up with your dog as an engaged partner. Answer questions openly and without judgment. And above all, be kind. We all want the best for the animals we love.

Let’s all work together to create a better world for our dogs.

Lessons from Shedd: Why You Don’t Really Want a Smart Dog

“What a smart dog!”

As I worked with Mischief, an adolescent mixed breed, the onlookers watched in awe. Mischief was engaged and happy. Her stubby tail wagged and she responded quickly and precisely to every cue she was given. She watched me intently, ignoring the small crowd of Beginning Obedience students gathered around us. Several people remarked positively on her apparent intelligence.

I’ll let you in on a secret: Mischief isn’t that bright. She just enjoys training, and understands the clicker game.

This is ideal, because she’s a wonderful pet. She’s also a great performance dog: at 10 months of age, she’s earned her first rally obedience excellent title with all first-place wins.

Mischief (Photo by Sara Brueske)

This common misperception about intelligence happens with any well-trained animal. People are amazed at how “smart” the beluga whales, dolphins, sea lions, and otters are at the Shedd Aquarium. However, IQ has little to do with it.

We can train sharks, goldfish, rodents, lizards, and hermit crabs. The laws of learning apply to all species, and Ken Ramirez is fond of saying that you can train an earthworm and a graduate student the same way.

Many dog owners are quick to tell me how smart their dogs are. I always respond with my condolences. Here’s the thing: smart dogs are much harder to live with.

Smart dogs get bored quickly. They’re creative, and quick to figure out their own entertainment. They’re more likely to test the limits, push at boundaries, and question rules. They require more from their owners: more training, more attention, more play and exercise, and above all, more skill. My smart dog, Layla, figured out how to open up the fridge door and back gate on her own – something Mischief would never dream of trying to puzzle out. Which dog would you prefer to live with?

Intelligence has nothing at all to do with trainability. Sure, a smart dog may learn a skill more quickly. However, that same dog is also more likely to test your criteria for that skill. Once she knows what you want, she’s going to start trying variations on that behavior to see just how hard she really has to work.

A less intelligent dog may take longer to learn the skill initially, but once she knows what you want, she’s going to be happy continuing to comply without continually offering improvements or modifications on the behavior.

So, how do you find an easy dog if intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with it? Most people actually want a biddable animal, one who is bred to work and cooperate with people. Breeds who are bred for cooperativeness, such as sporting, toy, and herding breeds, tend to be easier to train than those breeds who have been bred to work independently, such as terriers and hounds. This trait, called biddability, is what you’re probably looking for if you think you want a “smart” dog.

Is your dog smart? Biddable? Please share your stories and comments in the section below!

Lessons from Shedd: Whistle While You Work

At Paws Abilities, we use clickers in our training program. Whether working with a new puppy, an experienced competitive obedience dog, or a dog-aggressive and anxious pooch, we find that the clicker serves to clarify and speed up our training program. The trainers at Shedd and other zoos and aquariums worldwide agree.

A trainer at Shedd holds his whistle in his mouth, ready to mark this Beluga whale for performing the “elevator” behavior on cue. Photo by John Kroll.

Clickers and other marker signals are referred to as bridges in the animal training community. This is because the click sound “bridges” the time between when the animal performs a correct behavior and when the trainer is able to deliver the reward.

Any signal can be used as a bridge. We use clickers in dog training because they are cheap, easy to use, and distinct. Many marine mammal and pinniped trainers use whistles, as the sound carries through the water and leaves their hands free to handle training tools or deliver fish. Advanced animals can be transitioned to a verbal bridge such as “yes” or “good” for known behaviors. Verbal markers aren’t recommended for novice trainers or animals as they are less distinct and precise than a mechanical signal, but can be helpful for more advanced teams in certain situations.

Bridges do not have to be auditory. I use a “thumbs up” signal for my dogs, and we oftentimes use this same signal for deaf dogs in our program. A flash of light or the vibration of a collar could also serve the same purpose. Many of the animals at Shedd were conditioned to a tactile bridge, where the trainer would pat the sea lion or dolphin on their side in a specific way to mark the behavior they liked.

Whatever bridging stimulus you decide to use, Ken emphasized that it’s important for it to be distinct and easy to replicate. It should serve no other purpose in the animal’s environment.

So, why use a marker signal at all? What makes the clicker or whistle so powerful?

Marker signals allow trainers to be accurate and precise. By clicking or whistling at the exact moment your animal performs the correct behavior, you can help him to learn more quickly exactly what it is you like. It’s often difficult or even impossible to deliver a food reward or secondary reinforcer to the animal at the precise instant he does what you want, but by using a marker we can still communicate to him exactly what earned that reward.

Furthermore, the bridge can be transferred from trainer to trainer easily, allowing a wider variety of trainers to work with one animal. When an animal understands to listen, watch, or feel for the bridging stimulus, he concentrates more fully on the task at hand instead of focusing on the food or other reward.

Novice trainers often worry that they will need to carry a clicker with them for the rest of their dog’s life. Nonsense! The clicker allows us to teach your dog more quickly and easily. It’s simply another teaching tool. Once your dog understands the behavior, it’s easy to fade the clicker.

What bridging signals do you use to train your dog? Do you use different signals in different environments? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

Lessons From Shedd: “When can I get rid of the treats?”

“When can I get rid of the treats?”  This is one of the most common questions we receive in our Beginning and Puppy training classes. If ever anyone was focused on the wrong question in training, this may be it. Let’s explore this common training issue.

The sea lions at Shedd are rewarded for a job well done with fish or squid. Photo by Sage Ross.

People can’t wait to stop using food in training. Some people feel that their dog should listen to them because of their natural authority or “alpha-ness.” Some want their dog to just do it because he loves them. Some feel that using food somehow cheapens their relationship. I disagree.

Food enhances relationships. How many family counselors suggest eating at least one meal together a day? Why do couples go out to eat at nice restaurants on dates? Why do we bake cake or other goodies for those we love on special occasions? Eating together enhances your bond. Taking the time to provide another with food shows that you care about them.

Here’s the deal: your dog has to eat. In fact, he has to eat every day. Most dogs eat multiple times a day. Regardless of your view on using food in training, you still have to feed your dog. His food can be used to train him. Why waste this opportunity?

One of the ways in which exotic animal trainers are able to achieve such complex and reliable behaviors is through their use of the animal’s daily food ration in training. Let me be clear here: the animals eat regardless of what happens in the training session. If an animal doesn’t want to train, he or she is still fed. Withholding food is cruel and unnecessary. If your animal isn’t interested in training, this is probably due to operator error. Are you putting too much pressure on him? Being too stingy? Too unclear? Asking for too much? Training in too distracting of an environment? Regardless, your dog is giving you great information. Take a good, hard look at your training program, and start over.

Understand, I’m not saying that food has to be the only training tool you use. This would be stupid and short-sighted. Use a variety of secondary and tertiary reinforcers. A smart trainer keeps things interesting for the animal. Neither am I saying that you should reward your dog for every single behavior. Once an animal understands a behavior, you can switch to rewarding him intermittently.

Also understand, I am not recommending using food as a bribe. If your dog will only listen when you have a cookie in your hand, you’re probably using that food incorrectly as a bribe rather than a reward. Rewards come after a job well done.

All this said, it makes me incredibly sad when someone can think of nothing other than how soon he or she can stop rewarding their dog with food. Why would you want to? You’re going to give that food to your dog anyway at some point. Make it count. Enhance that bond. Reward your dog for a job well done. Share food with your best friend. Eat together, grow together, build that relationship.

Lessons From Shedd: Environmental Manipulation

Setting your animal up for success is one of the key qualities of a successful trainer. This concept can take many forms, but one of the most important is your ability to manage your animal’s environment. Environmental management minimizes distractions, prevents your animal from making mistakes, and allows you to focus on shaping and rewarding those behaviors that you like.

This black and white Tegu is provided with a comfortable square of astroturf, which serves to keep him in one spot during his training session in front of our class.

One frequent argument that opponents of positive reinforcement training make is that reward-based training is ineffective in an emergency or uncontrolled situation. “Clicker training may be great,” they say, “but what good is it going to do when my dog is chasing a squirrel towards the highway?” “How is it going to stop my dog from barking at the fence in the middle of the night?” “Are you telling me that I can’t tell my dog ‘no’ when he’s biting the delivery man in the face?”

All of these arguments ignore one of the most important facets of reinforcement-based training, which is setting the animal up for success. My response to questions such as these is always the same, “Why would you allow your dog to be in that situation in the first place?” If your dog does not have a good recall, why is he off leash in an unfenced area? If he tends to bark at noises, why is he outside unsupervised in the middle of the night? If you haven’t socialized him to delivery people, why would you allow him to interact with one? A smart trainer knows what their dog can handle, and doesn’t put the dog in situations that will overface him.

In order to manage your dog’s environment, you must be honest with yourself about your dog’s strengths and weaknesses. Using gates, crates, tethers, leashes, visual barriers, and the like will allow you to set your dog up to be successful. Smart trainers set the environment up for optimal learning.

When my shy adolescent dog, Dobby, began growling and barking at people as they walked past the house, I covered the front window so that he could no longer look out. Preventing him from practicing this behavior was a form of environmental management. I was then able to teach him to accept people walking past by sitting on my front steps with him on leash and rewarding him for calm behavior when people walked by.

Trainers at Shedd aquarium reduce the risk of aggressive behavior from the sea lions by always leaving a clear path to the water for the animals. If an animal becomes frightened, he can go back to the pool where he’s comfortable, and is therefore more likely to choose flight than to aggress at the trainer. The beluga whales are taught new behaviors in quiet areas away from the public before those behaviors are proofed in the noisier and more chaotic locations. Animals of many species are taught to go to specific targets so that they can easily be separated out from the group and so that large groups of animals can be worked together.

How do you manage your dog’s environment to set him up for success? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

How Learning About Dolphin Training Can Make You a Better Dog Trainer

Last week, I spent 9-12 hours a day at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois. Over the course of 5 days, the class I was in covered the contents of a 500-page animal training textbook and observed training sessions with many different species of animals, including penguins, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, hawks, owls, a black and white tegu, an aracari, and beluga whales.

Dolphin trainers at Shedd interact with the mother and baby in a husbandry training session.

About half of my class of 25 students was comprised of professional dog trainers, with the other half being exotic animal trainers from various zoos across the country. We also had some international students from Germany, Australia, and Canada. The classmate on my left, Tracy, worked right at Shedd and the classmate on my right, Allison, worked with large carnivores (tigers, African painted dogs, lions, etc), gibbons, and baboons.

It makes sense that zoo trainers would attend this course. However, why were so many dog trainers present? The fact is, learning how to train dolphins, sharks, komodo dragons, and monkeys can make you a better dog trainer.

We’ve said it before: the laws of learning are just that, laws. They apply to every species, dogs and humans included. The proper application of positive reinforcement is just as likely not to work as gravity.

Zoo animals are trained nearly exclusively with positive reinforcement. It would be stupid and dangerous (not to mention potentially life-threatening) to attempt to train a sea lion with collar corrections. Zoo trainers don’t even say no to their animals, as doing so may lead to frustration and frustration could be deadly if taken out on the trainer. These are large, powerful wild animals, and the trainers who work with them respect that.

In spite of keeping their training usage confined nearly entirely to one quadrant of the operant conditioning grid, zoo trainers are able to shape remarkable behaviors in their animals. Animals are trained for such behaviors as voluntary blood sampling, where the animal offers a leg, neck, or flipper on cue, then holds still while the veterinarian inserts a needle to draw blood. This behavior is done with no restraint, and the animal is free to leave at any time. We saw hawks hold still for talon trims and sea lions open their mouths to get their teeth brushed.

In addition to useful husbandry behaviors, these animals learn many other things. Fun and crowd-pleasing tricks such as porpoising (jumping in and out of the water while swimming), waving hello, and dance moves are taught to the animals for mental enrichment. They also learn to target, so that trainers can move them from one area to another without the use of force or baiting. Large groups of animals can be worked together by having each animal go to his or her own individual target, preventing aggression in a highly-charged feeding situation.

The relationship the trainers build with the animals is every bit as important to their success as their skilled use of training principles. Our instructor, Director of Training and Behavior Ken Ramirez, emphasized time and again that good animal training is a combination of relationship and technical skill. Both are important, and while training is still possible without a relationship, it may take longer and be less effective than if the trainer has taken the time to get to know his or her subject.

The trainers at Shedd spend time playing with and just observing the animals, getting to know their likes and dislikes. A new baby dolphin was present for several of our training sessions. At only 90 days old, this baby was still nursing and not yet ready to eat fish, meaning that he was still too little to formally train. However, he was still assigned a trainer at every training session, who played with and observed him, getting to know him and letting him begin to build a bond with his trainers right from the start. He will already have a great foundation of trust when he is ready to begin formal training.

All of these principles apply to our pet dogs just as much as they apply to elephants and wallabies. There is no need to ever frighten or hurt your dog in the name of training. Complex, reliable behaviors can be trained quickly and easily using positive reinforcement and environmental manipulation. The more you can get to know and respect your dog as an individual, the more he will learn to trust you and look to you for guidance. Just because we can get away with harsh techniques with our domestic dogs doesn’t make this okay. The proof that your dog can be trained for any behavior using just a clicker and treats is out there.

In the following weeks, we’ll discuss more of the basic and advanced training principles covered during this course, as well as the practical applications of these techniques.

Decoding Dogs

Paws Abilities Dog Training and
Minnesota School of Business present:

Decoding Dogs
Canine Body Language, Fear, and Aggression

Learn canine body language, and how to talk to dogs so that they can understand you!

presented by Sara Reusche, CVT, CPDT-KA
Friday, July 13th (today!) from 3-5pm
at the Minnesota School of Business

Photo by Sini Merikallio

Trainers, groomers, rescue personnel, doggy daycare attendants, and veterinary technicians are often called upon to handle difficult dogs in high-stress environments. This can not only create lifelong behavioral/handling issues in dogs, but can also put you at risk for bites.

This interesting interactive presentation will include lots of photo and video examples of canine body language, and plenty of opportunities to practice the art of “reading” dogs. You will learn:

* Common stress signals that every dog uses.
* How to calm a nervous dog using his own language.
* Why not all wagging tails are friendly.
* When is growling a good thing?
* Working with difficult dogs in a clinical setting.
* Defensive handling for safety and stress reduction.

2 CEUs approved for CVTs and CCPDTs.
Cost: $15 ($10 discount for current MSB students and faculty)

Want to attend? RSVP on the Facebook event page!