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Sunday, November 3, 2019

Foggy Doggy, My Truest Bluest Boy

Photo credit: Bailey & Banjo. 

This blog may end up in the "save it for therapy" category, but my heart is taking a beating today and I am compelled to write about it. You may want to have a tissue handy.

My dog Molly died nine years ago today. My very first dog, my best friend (and often solo companion) for over 13 years and the inspiration for my business and my life as I now know it, filled with dogs. Her death absolutely flattened me. Decimated me. Rendered me dysfunctional for the better part of a year. I lay in my bed and sobbed for at least two hours a day, every day. Sometimes twice a day. I burst into tears when the checker at the grocery store asked, "How are you today?" I stumbled through work, a zombie version of myself. 

I was comforted by so many who knew her and loved her and, as they say, time does (eventually) heal all wounds. After nearly a decade, I've learned to compartmentalize my pain. But even something simple, such as a Facebook memory, can pull me right back under that all-encompassing wave of grief.
Molly, the original sidekick.

When Molly was around nine years old, along came a fellow named Foghorn Leghorn, who came to be known as Foggy to his friends. He was seven weeks old. When I got home that day, I held him in the palm of one hand while I opened the door to the house. He was supposed to be a short-term foster (hence the goofy “temporary” name), but you know how that can go...

From day one, Foggy was meant to be my dog, and I his person. I've often called Molly my "heart dog," but with Foggy I soon learned it was possible to love more than one dog with all of your heart. Hard to believe that fat-bellied little pup just turned 13. He’s now the same age Molly was when she left me.

Today was a perfect fall day: crisp, clear and  my absolute favorite WA weather. I worked the first half of the day (with the dogs' help in most classes and lessons). After work, we romped in an empty field. I then spent one-on-one time with each of them: walking, sniffing, playing, training, more sniffing, sitting in the sun and simply enjoying each other’s unique company. 

When we got home today, Foggy's back legs looked as bad as I've seen them, especially the left rear, despite a relatively easy day for him physically. For months I've suspected that he's got spinal stenosis or a growth in or near his spinal cord.* He's still sharp as a tack mentally, though deaf as a post. It seems he will follow in Molly's footsteps: a keen and intact mind with a body that can no longer keep up. A mile is a long walk for him these days, and I remember those days with Molly as well. It was such a shock when Green Lake (Seattle),  a roughly three mile loop, became too far for her. 

Every moment is a gift. Sometimes the days can feel so damn long, but the years are so damn short. I'm viscerally aware of Foggy's decline. I'm hereby throwing myself headlong into his/our bucket list. For now, we'll snuggle on the couch as we wind down for the night. 

As far as the weeks to come, I absolutely dread the day. I'm not ready. I will never be ready. The thought of losing him...that day simply cannot ever arrive. It's something I've started to be so very conscious of despite my inability to comprehend it at all. 

To all those who have loved and lost a beloved canine, I know you know. I hold you all in my heart, and I know you hold Foggy and me in yours. 

*A request: please no advice re: medical or other treatments for Foggy. This ain't my first rodeo and I've got it handled. I will keep him happy and comfortable for as long as I can in the best ways I know how. 

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Nature, Nurture & the Pursuit of the Perfect Puppy

Four years ago, Mack was perfect. A puppy. A "blank slate." Born to a social mother and socialized with people, other dogs and his littermates for 11+ weeks. Breed mix? Challenging. Adoption age? A little on the older side. Outlook? Incredibly positive. His mama just happens to be a professional dog trainer...
First day home, August 2015.
Raising a dog-social dog was top on my list of priorities. I knew I was on borrowed time with his age (adopted at 12 weeks) and faced a challenging breed mix (all working dog, including 50% livestock guardian), but I was on a mission to avoid reactivity and create the perfect neutral dog for training demos and other situations. 
We sought out other puppies for play dates. We enrolled in multiple puppy classes. Mack participated in play times in the weekly puppy classes I was teaching. This boy went to puppy school every day and his play was carefully monitored. 

Play date with BFF for life, Koda Bear. 
Young "cousin" dogs, Mack & Ollie, just chillin'.

Play date with adult Pyrenees mix friend, Teague. 
Mack was a super star, mastering social interactions with other puppies and with people and graduating from all of his puppy classes. He was good with big dogs, small dogs, old dogs, young dogs. You name it, his dog/dog social skills were phenomenal. We were regulars at the neighborhood dog park and it was such a wonderful way to exercise him and keep his socialization going. 

One of many diplomas. 
Dog park awesomeness. 
And then - yup - there's a "but" on the horizon and here it is: ADOLESCENCE!

Not a puppy, not an adult: budding adolescence at its finest. 
I still remember the first time Mack reacted negatively to another dog. It was PAWS Walk 2016 and he was 16 months old.* He touched noses with a large dog and then "snarked." I mindlessly yanked him back and said, "I'm so sorry! He's never done that before!" The second time was another on-leash greeting with a large dog. About the same time, he pinned a submissive adolescent, intact Golden Retriever in puppy class. It was a class I was teaching, so I removed him. Then he did something similar at the dog park. Noisy pinning, but no contact with teeth or injury. But he's huge. And I got yelled at. Shamed, really. (*Fun fact: The vast majority of dogs in my Reactive Rover classes are between 8 months and 2 years of age.)

From that point on, Mack was on leash around other dogs with me doing my whole "Reactive Rover" protocol. 
He luckily had dog friends he could play with, so he still got good social time and exercise. But I was pretty bummed. I spent a lot of time lamenting the loss of my "perfect puppy" and asking what the heck happened. I mean, what's the point of doing everything right if it still turns out wrong?! WHYYYYYYY?!?! did this happen? Why?! 

Besties for resties, Floyd (25 lbs) and Mack (85 lbs)!
Ian Dunbar offers the following explanation, "Dog-dog reactivity appears out of the blue very early in adolescence.  After just a couple of scary scraps in the park, big dogs and little dogs especially are kept on-leash, which severely exacerbates reactivity. Walks decrease in frequency and dog-dog socialization zeroes out. Dogs fight because: 1. They are dogs, 2. Classical conditioning is non-existent after three or four months of age and 3. Socialization stops dead after a couple of scraps." 

When I stepped away from my pity party, I was able to see that Mack has turned out exceptionally well on so many levels. He’s a Canine Good Citizen, a therapy dog and excels at agility and parkour. He loves children and accompanies me to humane education events. He’s a dream for grooming and nail trims. And he does not display many of the breed traits that could have surfaced (and that have surfaced with the littermates I am in touch with). Genetics: it's a thing! Descriptions of the Anatolian Shepherd are sobering at best. 
Another factor? My dog is huge. And he looks like a muppet. Or Alf. And sometimes Tom Selleck. But I digresss... 
Many times in his young age (and still), dogs saw/see him and have a negative response ranging from charging, snarling and barking in his face to screaming and cowering. I took it for granted that he was such a "good dog" and so "tolerant." The "Gentle Giant" narrative was deeply embedded in my psyche. But I should have been counter conditioning. I repeat, I should have been counter conditioning!! 
Again, Dr. Dunbar sums it up well, "Perhaps the surest bet in dog behavior is that adolescent dogs, especially males, will get into scraps. Prediction approximates a 100% certainty and prevention requires non-stop classical conditioning from puppyhood, throughout adolescence until the dog’s sunset years. Of course a three-month-old puppy is a party animal. The goal is for your dog to remain sociable throughout adolescence and well into adulthood. Never take a puppy’s or young adolescent’s friendly greetings for granted. Every time your three-month-old, four-month-old, five-month-old, six-month-old puppy, or adolescent or adult dog greets or acknowledges another dog, say, 'Good Dog', smile and after the other dog passes by, give your dog a friendly pat or a piece of kibble."
Okay, so I gave verbal praise. But I should have jackpotted him with the tastiest of treats anytime he got “yelled at” by a dog. I mean, it was like this:
  • Mack: "Hi, I'm Mack! What's your name?"
Over and over and over again. Who can blame him for becoming a jerk to new dogs?!
And, adolescent male dogs are 100% likely to fight?! Can we normalize this to help clients?! I probably could have convinced people to let me work through it with a Chihuahua, but an Anatolian Shepherd mix? Forget it. 

Luckily, Mack still has his OG besties to play with -- Koda, Floyd, Penny, Ollie and the three dogs he lives with (except Poe, who hates him). 

Playing with Sister (Wren) at home. 
The magic that is Mack & girlfriend P. 

He can even meet new friends if introduced correctly. A parallel walk on a wide trail usually does the trick. But I had no luck finding play groups for "remedial socialization." IMHO, this is an area that is sadly lacking in the dog training world. It's just too hard to find dogs to use, and to subject those dogs to rude behavior repeatedly.

New Aussie friend, Truth!
New Border Collie friends, Youke and Brady!

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Over the past few weeks, Mack has met new dogs on trails (despite my best efforts to avoid this) and he has been appropriate! No bullying, no snarking, just a friendly "hello" and even a little play. I was shocked in the best way. I jolly-talked the heck out of that sh*t and we had a major treat party after we passed the dogs. I may have even cried some happy tears...

Is my perfect puppy still in there? And/or is all of the training I've done for the past three-and-a-half years starting to pay off? Let's just say I'm cautiously optimistic. (BTW, I'm not crying...YOU'RE crying!)

If you're wondering why I care...I have four dogs who need exercise. My Rat Terrier runs off after bunnies, so he's on leash. The other two have perfect recalls. Mack is only about 80% when called from another dog, so he is also leashed. It's a pain. I want him to be able to go with us on hikes and I need him to either be friendly with other dogs and/or have a reliable recall. Otherwise, it's just not responsible of me to have him off leash. I'd even like him to go to the dog park again because his play skills are lovely and he likes interacting with other dogs once he meets them properly.  

As a professional, I struggle to explain to clients what happens to dogs in adolescence.  How do I convince them that early training and socialization programs are vitally important, despite the fact that the results will likely wane or even disappear for a period of time?!

I'd love feedback from dog guardians and trainers on this topic! 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

DogTraining & "The Vomiting Clause"

This week I used Poe as an "actor" dog for Reactive Rover class. He was supposed to be walking with me at a distance from my student's dog, but he wasn't very responsive and kept pulling toward the door. I didn't think much of it. He's still pretty new to the environment at It's A Dog's World and I figured he was just a bit nervous. 

Then, it happened. He squatted and experienced an epic diarrhea episode. Yup, right there in the middle of class. My reaction? Poor guy! His tummy was so upset. He tried to do his job, but he also tried to tell me he needed OUT. 

I've had this happen in classes so many times. A typically responsive dog is "off" and then within a couple of minutes it's bodily fluid time. I've seen it all: vomit, urine, feces and god knows what else. (Note: Don't sit on the floor of any dog training center, and keep your shoes on. For real.)

But back to my point...what if I looked at Poe's behavior as stubborn? Willful? Dominant? Blowing me off? And god forbid, what if I punished him? Jerked on his leash. Scolded him verbally. Grabbed him roughly to make him follow me away from the door. 

And then guess what?! I find out he had an involuntary and urgent biological need that took precedence over everything else. I am continually humbled by these moments. Dogs are not machines. They are living, sentient beings with their own minds and bodies that don't always cooperate, just like ours don't. 

The perils of punishment are many, but this one hits me hardest. It's important to remember that it's not always about you, and that most dogs most of the time are not trying to be jerks. When in doubt, be kind. 

I first realized this concept when I took classes from two of the greats, Terry Ryan and Kathy Sdao. This handout provides many examples of reasons we humans don't always respond to cues we are given, either. 

So, what does this have to do with my eye-catching, and potentially off-putting, blog title? There's a vomiting clause in dog training! If I'm calling my dog to come and s/he is literally vomiting (or at the mercy of another bodily function), s/he's has an "out" for responding to that cue in that moment. Period.

Here's the newly released trailer: 

If you're interested in learning more, you can enroll in the workshop for $29.95 at Lecture will be released this Sunday July 21st! 

Sidekick. Train happy! 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Thoughts on Circles & Loose Leash Walking

Have you heard? The circling method of loose leash walking is taking the dog training world by storm! I want everyone to get and stay excited about circling and I want to learn more about it myself and find ways to incorporate it into my classes. I also want to offer an "add-on" for people who want to keep moving but may find themselves unable to circle. (Narrow sidewalks, sticker bushes and busy roads come to mind.)

When I heard about circling several weeks ago, it immediately brought a few things to mind: 1) a back-and-forth method I've often used with students' dogs and my own, 2) the effectiveness of a quick turn away (U-turn or "spin" trick) from triggers in my Reactive Rover classes, 3) the natural communication system of dogs, where turning or bending is a sign of polite manners and 4) the observed effect of a tight leash on reactivity

It's now time for me to admit that loose leash walking has consistently been one of my least favorite things to teach.

 Positive trainers have long relied upon a couple of methods for teaching loose leash walking. The first approach is to remove all rewards when the dog pulls. For example, if your dog wants to move forward by pulling, you remove his ability to continue forward by stopping in place ("being a tree"). When the dog creates slack in the leash again, you reward him by moving forward, praising, clicking/treating, etc.

Does this method work? In theory, it should. Is it enough on its own? Not from where I'm sitting. Many students find it tedious (as do I) and simply don't follow the "be a tree" rules outside of class. Furthermore, even diligent students don't always get great results. Many accidentally teach their dogs an unwanted chain of behavior: pull to the end of the leash, stop, move slightly back toward owner, receive click and treat, continue moving forward. It becomes a vicious cycle.

The second approach is to reward the dog for what he's doing right: walking on a loose leash. We encourage handlers to use forward movement, happy praise, increased speed, and clicks and treats to emphasize our desire for the dog to walk within the length of the leash (approximately 3 to 5 feet) without making it tight.

A young Foggy in his head halter and the coveted loose, "J-shaped" leash. 
But even as I explain these popular training exercises to my students, I know very few of them are going to follow through at home. (Heck, most don't even follow through from the classroom to the car after class!) I've started relying more on the use of no-pull devices (like front-hook harnesses or head halters) to address the pulling problem with students. Circling is a welcome addition to the training toolbox, but...what if you can't circle?

Rather than stop and wait for your dog to turn back to you from the end of his leash ("be a tree"), feed him constantly or circle (if space doesn't allow), you can do a 180 turn and move back over the same ground you have just covered.  

Poe and I demonstrating the "back-and-forth" approach to loose leash walking. Each time, we are able to continue farther down the sidewalk and his attention to me increases.

Walking back-and-forth over the same stretch of sidewalk or path is much more likely to create a polite walker than continuing forward toward ever changing scents, sights and sounds. No clicker, no treats no stopping. No harsh equipment or words. Just steady movement and quiet praise.

But alas, I can't conclude without dropping some hard truth. A few minutes per week of practice here and there will not override a reinforcement history of pulling --> moving forward the rest of the time your dog is walked. Get consistent about methodology and equipment and commit to trying these methods to see what sticks each and every time you walk your dog on leash.

Pro tip: Think of walks as training exercises and focus on the journey, not the destination. Walks can be quantified in terms of time spent and number of steps taken, rather than reaching a particular destination. 
Pro tip: If your leash becomes tight during a meet-and-greet with another dog, try these options: turn and walk away (U-turn or circle) as quickly as possible with as little leash tension as possible, walk quickly forward while lowering your leash hand to create slack or drop the leash (if safe to do so).

Happy walking!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Variety is the Spice of Life: Dog Treats are No Exception!

I hold this truth to be self-evident: not all treats are created equal!

Confession time: I've been getting some pretty mediocre off-leash recalls from my dogs the past couple of weeks. Yeah, they'll (usually) come when I call. At a saunter. Sniffing a few things on the way. If there's nothing else catching their eye. You catch my drift...

But how is this so? As an experienced dog handler and trainer, I know that high value treats are important in high distraction environments like outdoor adventure spots. But these were no linty Milk Bones in a forgotten pocket. No, I was rewarding them every time they came to me with at least one - if not more - of these beauties: Turkey Flavored Freeze-Dried Vital Essentials Mini Nibs! I have a one pound bag. It cost over $30. And they were loving them...

Dehydrated goodness in a perfect size for training.
...but let's face it: the bag has been parked in my car since purchasing it a couple of weeks ago. And although carefully sealed, its contents have lost some of their appeal via lack of freshness and too much of the same old, same old.

Enter Red Barn Chicken Recipe Premium Dog Food Roll and Tucker's Chicken & Pumpkin Carnibar, freshly purchased and reporting for duty!


Vital Essentials already come in the perfect size for reward-based treat training, but it only took a few minutes on the cutting board to transfer the above raw materials into manageable little bites. 

...& After.
 When my dogs realized I had a novel treat in tow (especially the Carnibar), recalls became an entirely different story. They were turning on a dime, kicking up dirt and barreling toward me in a blaze of glory at the mere mention of anything resembling the words "come"  or "here" or "hey you."

"Yes I know my shadow is fascinating, but the sun's in my eyes and I've come to collect payment for (recall) services (W)rendered. And no, I won't pardon the pun." ~Wren
The take away? Even high value goodies get old at times and it's important to change it up frequently.

 Pro Tips:
  • Chop your soft treats into smaller pieces before your training session our leisure outing. You'll get more treats for less money and you won't be as tempted to overfeed your dog. 
  • Tip your hand (again with the puns!) by giving your dog a good smell of the treats you're carrying before you let them off leash. That way, they know what's at stake ahead of time. 
  • Even though your dog(s) may be capable of recalls in difficult environments, it doesn't hurt to go back and practice in no to low distraction places on the regular...which I plan to do!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Rainbows & Butterflies & Puppies, Oh My!

Fragile! Handle with (Extreme?!) Care!

Having been a professional in the field of dog training since 2006 (and with shelter dogs since 2000), I have seen my fair share of trends come and go. It's really great when fun new stuff comes out, like shaping by successive approximation, Control Unleashed, Nosework and Barn Hunt to name a few. 

One recent and very popular trend is the idea of "consent" with dogs and other animals tended to by humans. The example that stands out in my mind from Clicker Expo 2016 in Portland is that of a horse voluntarily submitting his hoof to be picked. When he wanted (an understandable) break from standing on three legs, he signaled his groomer and was allowed to place his foot down and rest. Then he would reengage with the process by performing a "start button" behavior, such as nudging the handler, to indicate he was ready for his foot to be picked up again. 

As a former equestrian and lover of all animals, I thought it was fantastic! Horses might fight hoof cleaning not because they are inherently ornery or intolerant, but perhaps because it was uncomfortable to be a tripod for as long as picking four hooves takes. The creation of a communication system between groomer and horse on this matter blew my mind! There were other great examples at different seminars and workshops I attended at that conference and I came home inspired. 

This type of training is now being promoted in the pet dog field through "cooperative care" type classes for dogs and their owners. Basic medical procedures are covered and dogs learn to "opt in" to the procedures they are given.

This attitude is also spreading to the field of dog training as a whole. In some cases, it is being argued that all dogs should have choices in all areas of their lives and that "opting in" and/or "start button" behaviors must be used for all interactions, including training sessions. In addition, there seems to be a growing movement for dogs to feel absolutely no stress, frustration or other negative emotions whatsoever in their interactions with humans and other dogs, especially as part of the learning process. 

As a self-proclaimed "positive trainer," I am 100% committed to using effective force-free, fear -free behavior modification methods with dogs whenever possible (which is pretty much all the time). However, to adhere to a standard of no stress PERIOD is something that I struggle with. As we humans know all too well, stress is an often unpleasant yet necessary part of life. We simply can't avoid all of it, all of the time. And if we do somehow grow up and live in a stress-free environment, what coping mechanisms have we learned if that environment were to change? 

I worry that positive dog training is becoming so hands off and careful that we are creating fragile dogs ("dogs in a bubble," if you will) who have not learned to be resilient if and when something moderately stressful occurs in their lives.

I am all for consent. I am all for human/animal harmony and two-way communication. Heck, I don't even eat animals! But I am wary of this new trend toward all things rainbows and butterflies in regard to training dogs, especially young puppies. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!