The Merlin Chronicles: Clicker Expo 2018 Edition

When I first got Merlin, as a young pup, I took him with me to Clicker Expo 2011, in Chicago.  He was a difficult dog even then.  I tried to take him to a lab, and he barked so much that we were asked to leave. He barked so much, that I ended up crating him in the hotel room with my friend Kama’s dog for most of the conference. Despite being reinforced heavily with attention, food, and being taken out, for all the barking, I think Merlin enjoyed his conference experience at Chicago Expo. He met lots of people and did lots of things.

Fast forward to Clicker Expo 2018, which I have been eagerly anticipating, as it is being held in my hometown, St. Louis.  I thought I might bring my old man dog, Nitro, for his last hurrah.  Then as his health faded, I decided I should try to work with Merlin enough that he’d be able to go with me.  Not long before Expo, I had to let Nitro go. I stepped up my work with Merlin, taking him to classes with my dear, patient, kind, friend, Tina, and working with him at home quite a lot. I kept good records, I felt we were making progress.

Then the French Bulldog puppy, Niko, happened. He was acquired in a rather convoluted way, for my adult son, Orion, who had always wanted a Frenchie.  But getting him to Arizona from St. Louis was a challenge, especially since I was leaving town to go to work for 10 days.  I decided a road trip was in order. So, on February 22nd, I left for work, returning on March 2nd, turning around and leaving again on March 3rd to drive to Arizona with two kids and a French Bulldog. We got to Arizona, did some vacation time and family time with my son/kids’ brother, then spent some time in New Mexico and Oklahoma, arriving home on the evening of the 15th.

Clicker Expo began on the evening of the 15th!  The morning of the 16th, I went to several sessions, then went home at lunch to get Merlin.  After lunch we had one teaching session, Sarah Owings’ On Source, Nosework class,  then the working lab.  Merlin was barking and problematic throughout the session, and toward the end we had to stand in the back, with him outside the door, and me inside, trying to learn the skills!  I was extremely frustrated, and really disliking him. I really do feel like we have tried so many approaches to deal with the barking, but it’s just who he is, and it does slow down considerably once he acclimates to a space, it just takes a visit or two. He was very overstimulated, and trying to hump and nip everyone who tried to pet him or talk to me.  When the lab began he was better.  He worked well, and was very focused, particularly considering the fact that I hadn’t even seen him, let alone worked with him, for 22 days.  Almost a month! He got tired and toward the end of the lab was a little crazy, obviously tired and overstimulated, so we left a few minutes early, to better manage him.  But I really appreciated Sarah Owings, and her patience with his barking, and I really feel like we did learn a lot and get a lot out of the lab.

Today was the second day of sessions and labs.  Jacob was kind enough to bring Merlin to the hotel just for the lab time, so Merlin arrived at 1:45 and stayed until 3:45.  The lab was Hannah Branigan’s Orient Express, which was excellent.  Merlin was more acclimated to the space, and he worked very well, with minimal barking.  He did get tired toward the end and lose focus on what we were doing, but overall, he did really well. I was proud of him today.  He may not be my dream dog, he may not be easy, but he’s the dog I have, and he’s trying hard, so I’m going to continue to try hard, and to not overface him with challenges he isn’t ready for, but to keep high expectations and train to whatever level we are able to achieve together.

Tomorrow morning, we have another learning lab at 9 in the morning, the topic is Animals in Control. We’ll be working on communication and giving the animals choices. I am hoping that Merlin chooses to say yes.



Merlin Chronicles Part 2

Merlin and I went to our second Obedience class on Feb 5th.  He and I both performed much better. I went in with a plan, there were only two of us in class, and Merlin was more comfortable in the space, since he’d been there before.  Our training together has been much better.  Again, this is because I start with a plan, I am keeping a journal, and I’m working hard not to do the thing that humans always do, push past the learner past the point of learning and into tedium and frustration.  This is the most difficult piece, of course, because having successes in training is reinforcing to the trainer.  Like all living creatures, I want more reinforcement!  I have managed to video my last two sessions, but I can’t post the first one, because the Witness Protection Pup makes a guest appearance as the second trainee.

I have learned a number of things about Merlin, now that I’ve taken the time to actually work with him.  He has little rear end awareness, but more importantly, and possibly having more impact on his ability to perform, he has very little core strength. So, even if he wants to perform precision pivots and tight tuck sits, he may well be physically impeded from doing so at this time. To remedy this issue, I’ve implemented an exercise plan from Dr. Chris Zink’s Conditioning for the Canine Athlete. I should have done this much sooner. He can easily walk three miles or more, but walking and playing at the dog park are not working his core. As an athlete myself, I am well aware of the pitfalls of having no core strength, the biggest of which is back injuries. We are going to avoid injury and create strength for performance. (in both of us!)

Today was a day when I was yet again reminded that a good trainer, or at least an adequate one, needs to be able to modify a training plan on the fly, as needed, to suit the abilities of the learner. My basic outline for today was this:  (which is WAY too much, BTW!)


  • Find target with Rear feet
  • left pivots
  • figure 8 with stops
  • tuck/kickback on pause table


  • High 5/wave both sides
  • Rocker board-hind legs
  • Snoopys
  • ladder
  • beg

Transitions/Play Breaks:

  • tug and fetch

I started with Find Small Target with Rear Feet (small phone book platform).  Merlin had some frustration with this, as he knows it pays to find it with your front feet, and luring him to try to get the back feet on was frustrating (for him and me), every time he felt the platform with the back foot, he tried to avoid it, not step on it.  I was able to get a few well-timed clicks in as his foot ran over the target, and he is savvy enough to understand, then started putting his foot on the target. Getting both feet on at once was a challenge, so we did one foot at a time, then a few clicks for both feet.

Then a tug/fetch play break

I’d planned to switch to working pivots on the bowl perch.  He has done well with this in the past. Today, he could pivot to the right, but fell off the bowl every time I tried to get him to offer, or tried to lure him left. Clearly the bowl was NOT the way to go today, if we wanted success.

Put away the bowl, tried pivots on the ground, with just doodle steps.  He does beautiful doodles to the right, and decent pivots. He does not do either  very well to the left.

We did a short block of heeling to see if he could do clean left turns while moving. This has been something he could do in the past, but not today. I’m not sure why, but video should help with diagnosis. I have a feeling it’s something in my body language that’s causing the issue.

Tug/Play break.

This is where the plan change came in!  I decided that working exclusively on rear end awareness and strength was more important than trying to work on left turns, and would benefit our left turns in the end. So, we skipped from pivots, dropped figure 8s, and brought out the full sized platform.

Full sized platform (10 x 34 inches).  The first thing Merlin did was offer front feet perching. Then barked in frustration when I didn’t pay for that. I lured one foot onto the platform, and clicked that. He was still frustrated. Then I used my brain for a moment and remembered that he already knows 2on2off with his hind feet from agility. So I stepped back and to the side and turned the front of my body away,  for a 2o2o, and he complied.

I paid for some straight alignment in 2o2o, then walked forward toward him and clicked for backing up and moving his front feet onto the platform as well. Multiple clicks for all four feet on the platform. Tossed treats away and waited for him to find a standing front position on the platform several times.

Moved to some Tuck sits in front position on the platform, then Tuck sit to kickback stand on the platform.

Then held a treat magnet on his nose, moved myself into heel position while he was on the platform, several clicks and treats for that.

Last we practiced a tuck sit on the platform in heel position.

More tug and fetch, to end our session.

You may note that we did not do our core exercises, which I’ll do later this evening, too much at once is too much, even if we were both having fun. Always end on a high note!

Next session, we’ll work on finding heel position on the platform from different positions, as well as sits, and possibly downs on the platform.

What was my big takeaway from today and our recent training sessions?

I haven’t been fair in working with Merlin. I”ve gotten frustrated too quickly with him.  I haven’t given him the chance he deserves. He was always second fiddle to Nitro, and later in Nitro’s life I still felt guilty about giving time to Merlin and not Nitro. I still find it difficult to work with him in situations where he barks a lot and is generally embarrassing, because not only is it embarrassing, I feel like it makes me look like a bad trainer, which just adds to my anxiety, which adds to his anxiety. Finding a safe space to train, where I know people care for me and my dog, and aren’t judging him, me,  or either of our abilities, makes a world of difference. I feel this way about my Tracking group, and my Obedience class, and the classes I took with my friend Kama earlier this year. It’s a component that shouldn’t be overlooked when choosing where and with whom to train. My heart is healing from the loss of Nitro, as much as it ever will, and for the first time in a very long time, I’m really excited to be training my dogs.


Beginning Dog Training: Merlin Chronicles

I’m calling this Beginning Dog Training, because every time we start to train our dogs, we’re beginning dog training. I don’t care how advanced my training skills may or may not be, or how advanced my dog’s skill set may or may not be, every single training session is a new beginning. So get into your beginner’s mind, and start training!

Since the loss of Nitro, almost two weeks ago, now, I have decided that I owe it to Merlin to give him any opportunities for interaction and training with me that I can give him. We have trained for foundation agility, barnhunt, tracking, and nosework, in the past. I’ve also taught him very rudimentary obedience behaviors, and lots of tricks.

Merlin is a special dog. All dogs are special, in their own ways, but in some ways Merlin is, what I might call “Extra Special”. He is easily aroused, easily distracted, intolerant of touch (doesn’t enjoy being petted much, and only for very short intervals), cannot tolerate grooming without being heavily medicated, and even then is nearly impossible to pedicure. He is friendly, but after an initial greeting, he becomes so over-stimulated that he will hump the new friend, and likely grab their clothing with his incisors. He doesn’t bite, but he does grip. With smaller children he is likely to squash them against the wall and hold them there, while barking at me to acknowledge that he has “captured it”. He exhibits some herding-type behaviors in situations where those behaviors are completely unacceptable. He exhibits some generally obnoxious overstimulation behaviors.  Training alternate behaviors has not been effective, for many reasons, including a multi dog and multi human household in which consistency is often nonexistent, nor has using “corrections”, which I won’t go into here, and which I know don’t work, and  I do not recommend for any clients, ever. Management is the only really effective strategy with him thus far, though now that Nitro is gone, more effective training may be possible.

Overall, I have found Merlin to be a difficult dog to work, or to find any type of partnership with in a working context. he frustrates me with his hyperarousal, and his inability to retain information he has seemed to master to the point of fluency in the past. His very different work ethic from Nitro has also been a contributing factor to my frustration. Nitro was a “what are we going to do next!” dog. Merlin is a, “I’m frustrated, I don’t want to play anymore, this is too hard, I’m going to stand at bark at you, or grab you” kind of dog.

Given this information, I have again begun to attempt to work with Merlin, because I know, as a trainer, the faults lie with me, not him. I need to work hard enough to find the best way to communicate information to him, without becoming frustrated myself. I know that the more exposure he has, with appropriate management and training at the same time, the better his behavior will become. I have been like Merlin, “this is too hard, takes too much effort, too frustrating”, and the time has come to move forward past that.

Monday we went to obedience class. I was overall pleased with his work there. He was able to focus on me, do some heeling, and generally do the work. However, he barked almost non-stop, which is his default behavior when stressed. He barks in a high pitched, same key, monotone, and doesn’t appear to realize that  he’s vocalizing, which is how I know he is feeling very anxious. Fortunately, I chose a class with an instructor whom I know very well, who understands anxious dogs, and classmates who are also very understanding. I know that next week he will be less barky and yappy, the overarousal and anxiety will slow down with each consecutive visit to the new place and new people and dogs. Not to say that it doesn’t cause me great anxiety and stress, it definitely does. But I will work through that. It’s only behavior.

Tuesday we had a great session of working on tuck sits, play, heeling, and a few other things. I was jazzed, and he was also relaxed and happy.

Wednesday I came into our training session “pre-angry”, because I can’t find my platforms, the house is too messy to have enough space to set up cones for figure 8’s, and life in general was difficult. I was also fatigued. Needless to say, our session did not go well.

After the session, Jacob stopped me to remind me that it’s not that I haven’t worked with Merlin, and tried to train him, it’s just that he’s extremely difficult and frustrating, and that I’ve quit multiple times because he’s so frustrating. I thought about this quite a bit. This is a serious thing, not in the way that Jacob meant it, but because as a trainer, I KNOW that it’s NOT the dog’s fault. It’s may fault, even if my sweet husband wants to give me an out by reminding me of what a pain in the ass the dog is, in general.

So, this morning, I baked bread and thought about training generally, and Merlin specifically. What he knows, what he doesn’t know. He knows so many things, I can’t even remember them all to list them (which I was doing Monday evening as I was formulating a training plan). What he doesn’t know, is what I haven’t taught him. One of those things is to find heel position after I turn left and only take one step. This came as a surprise to me, since he can find heel position from anywhere if I am moving, in a circle, serpentine, or straight line. He can find heel in one step/pivot to the right. But I apparently have neglected to teach him to find heel moving/pivoting left. Well. This is a thing we need to work on.

After the bread was in the oven, we went outside to play in the 23 degree weather. We played fetch with his holy roller ball, (I think it’s his favorite, and I’ll be taking it to class with me on Monday) then went to the pause table. He loves the table, so we worked on teaching the tuck sit, by having him reach forward to touch, without falling off the table. This worked very well, we’ll be working on changing the cue from “touch” to “Tuck” and rename his sit from there. No more rocking back 10 feet!

We played more fetch/tug, then did some heeling. Every left doodle step, he stayed sitting and barked at me. But if I move at least 5 steps to the left, he can find heel easily. Tomorrow, platform/bowl with left pivots.

What is the take-away here? For me, the lessons I am re-introducing to myself are:

  • Start where you/your dog are. You cannot build a wall (or a behavior) without a solid foundation.
  • Don’t go to a training session angry. Better to skip it altogether and just play with the dog.
  • The trainer has to work as hard, or harder, than the dog.
  • Don’t just have a training plan, use it! Use it to do the teaching piece, and to analyze your success/failure rates, and to plan the next steps.
  • Choose what you want to work on. Don’t try to fix everything in one training session. Pick a behavior or two to build on in each session.
  • Keep a journal. Not only will it enhance your training plan, give you data points to analyze, but it will also help on days when you feel all is lost, all is failure, to look back and see progress.
  • Remember that you love your dog, and why you love your dog. Remind yourself.
  • It’s just behavior. It’s not personal.

These are all things I tell my beginning students and private clients. All my trainer friends know these things. This is basic information for training any animal. Some animals just require better application, more effort, more time, and more finesse. If I want to be successful with Merlin’s training, I need to apply all these basic principles, and consistently. As a trainer, and a pet owner, I owe it to the dog and to myself to do the work.  Back to the basics we go!  Happy Training, all!

To the Guy at the Park Who Kicked His Dog (trigger warning-language!)

To the guy at the park who kicked his dog, I want to apologize. I was totally in bounds and okay to scream “Don’t kick your dog!” at you, the part I’m apologizing for is the part where I followed it with, “What the FUCK is WRONG with you??”.  I apologize both because this was unkind, reactive, and unhelpful behavior on my part, and because I already know what the fuck is wrong with you. It’s the same thing that is wrong with me sometimes, and with a zillion other dog owners at the park, and at home, and for crying out loud, at the Farmer’s Market. You are frustrated. You are angry. You are embarrassed by your dog’s behavior. You are tired of your dog acting like a jerk when you know he’s really a sweet dog and you love him. You’re saying to yourself, “What the fuck is wrong with me?  How can I love this dog who is such a jerk?  Why haven’t the things I’ve tried fixed this?”  I’m sorry that you’re in this position. I’m sorry that your dog is in this position. You have a “reactive” dog. I don’t know if he’s aggressive, or just fearful on his leash because he feels trapped and forced to confront other dogs. It doesn’t matter. He’s sending some message to other dogs he sees, and that message is, “Steer clear of me!  See me lunge, growl, snap, bark? Run away!”

You may have tried training. You may have come to a positive reinforcement based, behavior based, science-junkie trainer like me. Who may have told you things you didn’t want to hear. That it may take a long time. That you have to stop dragging him through the farmer’s market every Saturday, and in fact, may not be able to take him anyplace for a while. That he may need supplemental medication to settle down that brain chemistry so you can build new neural paths through physical repetition, for reinforcement, without bad consequences. New paths to feeling safe. This may have all been too much, or you may be trying to work through it, unsuccessfully, due to too much environmental stimulation, trying to go too fast, skipping steps, refusing medication, or whatever. Maybe you’re doing awesome and today was a one-off. If so, I hope you both recover quickly from the frustration. Maybe, like some clients I’ve had, the idea that your dog has feelings, opinions, fears, anxieties, is too much for you, and you cannot accept that, and “would prefer that the dog just lie on the climb…” Or it’s just “easier” to yank the dog around on the prong than to spend the time teaching him loose leash walking/jogging, and that it’s reinforcing to be in position next to you.

You may have gone to some of those other guys in town. The prong collar person who yanks, until the dog falls over, blue tongue hanging out. The shock collar guy who tells people, “It’s just like having a remote control dog!” Or you checked out one of the multitude of Cesar Millan, or Monks of New Skete books from the library. You’re working your dominance mojo.  If so, apparently, that’s not working for you. I’m sorry that you haven’t gotten quality training and advice that’s in keeping with current research in learning and behavior. That may be because it’s not well advertised. That may be because it’s more expensive.

Why does this bother me so much?  Why do I make it my business?  Why am I so upset that I can’t even go to the park without seeing someone kicking his dog, or like yesterday, throwing his dog to the ground, lying on the dog, holding it’s muzzle closed and yelling, “NO, NO, NO!” in the dog’s face while jerking it’s head around?

There are several reasons this bothers me. The first is purely selfish and about me. Every time I see someone handling a dog that way, I feel it as a personal failure. A failure as a trainer. I have somehow failed, despite my education, dedication to dogs and humans, my attempts to be sensitive to this type of frustration and be caring to both the dogs and owners with whom I work.  I have failed to adequately communicate the science, the emotional realities, why we should care if our dogs feel pain, either emotional or physical, why our relationships with our pets matter. Why the fastest way maybe isn’t the best way, even if it feels great to us to punish the hell out of the dog, and see him stop the behavior we don’t want, in that moment. I don’t enjoy seeing your dog go through this, I don’t enjoy your violence, or the dog’s suffering, and I really don’t like arriving home from walking my dogs rushing with adrenaline and shaking all over. I walk my dogs to relax and enjoy time with them, not to witness violence.

I feel guilt that I haven’t reached more people with positive training. That it costs a lot to see me. That most people don’t find quality training until they’ve already spent a lot of time doing terrible things to their dogs. Why am I not a famous celebrity trainer with a TV show?  Because frankly, competent training is boring for those with untrained observation skills to watch. Incremental learning is not the stuff of which reality TV is made. Panic, biting, lunging, and the behavior we don’t want to cause, or ever see while training, is the plot point of reality TV.

The second reason is that, though I understand your frustration and have felt the same way myself, on occasion, I am an advocate for humane treatment of animals, and it is never, ever, ever, okay to kick your dog. It just isn’t. It’s also going to adversely affect your relationship with your dog, and in the long run, if your dog is the one who turns out to bite someone “With no warning!” it will be partially your fault, for this type of mistreatment of the animal. I know this, but I can’t communicate it to you in your moment of anger and frustration, and I will probably never see you again, until the veterinary behaviorist refers you to me after your dog has done something awful, which could have been avoided. I have a lot of guilt personally about this, as well. Why can’t I reach everyone, and help them see the issues with their dogs, whether genetic and requiring lifelong management, or trained, or trauma-induced, earlier on? Why can’t I get earlier intervention,  help people work around the genetics safely, avoid the trauma, and train better from the start.

The third reason is  I strive to practice ending violence and decreasing suffering in the world in general. By engaging in this behavior, you are spreading the practice of violence. Against your dog, against me as a bystander, against my dogs, who had to witness your dog’s suffering, against yourself. You can make the world a better place, for yourself, your dog, me, my dogs, everyone at the park. By witnessing and not intervening in this behavior, I am allowing the practice of violence to spread. I feel torn between minding my own business, not adding to your shame and pain, and intervening on your dog’s behalf, and on my own behalf.

Next time your dog starts to get tall, in anticipation of lunging and barking, try this, take a deep breath, turn yourself and your dog the other direction. Walk away, tell your dog he’s a good dog for coming with you. Go home. Pet your dog. Take a deep breath. Assess your relationship with your dog, your dog’s relationship with the world. Think about your dog’s feelings and your own feelings. Ask for help if you need it. I will try to be a better bystander and behavior teacher next time. I will still ask you not to kick your dog. But I will take a deep breath.  I won’t ask what is wrong with you. I already know. I’ll try to help.

Take a deep breath. I will, too.


Why Your Dog Trainer Doesn’t Answer the Phone

Why don’t I answer the phone? Everyone wants to have a phone consultation before they set an appointment. I can understand this, I also like to know what I’m getting into before I commit to something that will cost money and involve interaction with my family. I’ve seen the pamphlets on “How to Choose a Dog Trainer”, and “Questions to Ask”.  I understand your trepidation, I really do. Choosing a trainer is an important decision.  However, there are several reasons I don’t answer my phone, and prefer that clients and potential clients e-mail or text me.

One, in my professional capacity, I can’t afford to spend an hour of my time talking to you on the phone without compensation, gathering information that is in the intake form I will send you to complete, to save us both time and money. Two, I need to have clear notes available to me of what advice I’ve given you, at this time, and previously. Three, I need to prepare for our discussion, so that I can give you my full attention and make our time together worthwhile to both of us. Four, I do have a life outside of dog training and behavior consulting, and I would like to maintain that life.
When you call me, chances are, I am working with my children on some homeschool activity, working with another client and their dog, working on my house or a project, or spending time with my family and friends. What I’m not doing is sitting idly, waiting to talk on the phone about dog training. I have a very busy life, and it is almost never conducive to a phone conversation, especially one which requires me to stay on task and impart useful information.
Like your doctor, I am a professional. I have worked hard for my credentials, pay a lot of money for my insurance and professional memberships, and work constantly on continuing education, to stay up to speed with the latest training strategies and updates in learning theory, veterinary medical breakthroughs and the science of teaching and training humans, as well as animals. Like your doctor, my professional time is where I make my living. The hours I spend discussing your pet’s behavioral health are work time for me, and I need to be paid for it, if I expect to pay my bills. Unlike your doctor, I don’t have a receptionist, desk nurse, and assistant to take your calls for general information, and field your worries and concerns on a daily basis, and ask me questions to call you back with answers. So sending me an email or text, which I can return at my convenience, is a much better use of my time, and yours, and will likely yield a better, and more complete, answer than I could give you on the phone.
My children are home schooled, and they deserve the very best of me, and my full, undistracted attention when they are learning new concepts or practicing known concepts. We may be at a camp, coop, meeting, or lesson, and they need and deserve my attention and input. They will only be at home with me for six or seven more years, and I want to enjoy my time with them, as well as help teach them everything they can possibly learn, and facilitate their other learning opportunities.
My other clients pay me the same amount you pay, and deserve my undivided attention during their sessions, so that they and their dogs can progress through training, and so that I don’t miss something when we are practicing together, or discussing behavioral issues and how to solve them. I need to be able to focus on their dogs, watch the dogs’ behavior, and watch the client work with the dog. Coaching is important to me, and I don’t want to be distracted while I’m doing it, it’s not fair to the dog, the client, or to me.
I need a paper trail of what we have gone over, what I have told you, and how I’ve told you to execute your role in training. I had a perfect example just yesterday, someone called me, I was eating lunch with my kids and dogs, and I misread the number and thought it was a friend calling. I answered the phone. It was a potential client, with a dog with separation issues. She had been referred to me by a friend and fellow trainer. I talked with her for probably 45 minutes, telling her that separation distress is a very workable issue, and that unfortunately, I don’t service her area, and referring her to another trainer. I also told her that if the trainer I referred to couldn’t take her case, to call me back and we would figure something out. She called back my trainer friend who referred her. Somehow, out of our discussion, she had gotten that I told her to send the dog to daycare or euthanize it. Never once did I mention euthanasia, though she continuously brought it up. I assured her, or thought I did, that this was a situation that could be worked through, especially with an owner as dedicated as she sounded. So, now I have spent 45 minutes of my time, unpaid, with a potential client who will spread the word that I recommend daycare and euthanasia for separation distress cases. Sigh. If this had been an email conversation, I could have referred back to previous emails and said, “no, I don’t see anywhere that euthanasia was recommended”. I want to be able to give you accurate information, and I want you to be able to refer to it later, when you likely can’t remember the information I gave you in the moment. Science tells us that people only retain a small amount of information given to them in any particular class or discussion. I want you to have access to the information I give you, so that you can come back and re-read it, to get what you need from it.
I need to prepare for our discussion. If I am going to be making recommendations that will affect your dog’s life, and your quality of life, I want to have all the information in front of me, and I want it to be correct. I want to know what the dog’s history is, how many people has he bitten, how badly. Is there a pending lawsuit? How much work have you already done? What is the baseline behavior issue? Is your dog on medication? Have you been working with the vet behaviorist? Do we have management in place? I also want to have my notes available to add to, when I talk with you. I don’t want to miss any nuances of what you may have told me, or drop the ball on something big, like your family is adopting another dog, or a human baby!
I cannot give you quality time if my head is literally in a hole in my ceiling. I have an old house, I do a lot of home repair, if you call while I’m cutting the ceiling out of my bathroom, painting my ceiling, or sanding a floor, the likelihood of me remembering exactly what I told you about leash handling, management, or greeting other dogs being at the forefront of my mind is quite low. Me leaving the task that I am working on is also not likely.
If I am having movie night with my husband and kids, tracking class with my dogs, a walk in the park with the family, or a family meal, my focus is going to be on them. If I’m having a book club or a coffee date with a friend, my focus is on them. I am not willing to change that. I choose to live my life fully in the moment that I am in. This benefits me, and this also benefits you. When I am with you and your dog, I will be fully there with you both. When I am with other clients, or my family, I will be fully there with them.
I hope that this helps people to understand a bit more about why it’s important to me for clients to email me, rather than call my cell phone. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you, it’s that I want to talk to you in a quality way, which will benefit all of us, me, you, and most of all, your dog.

It Always Works, Except When It Doesn’t

I think that there is a danger in any profession of moving to a point where you know so much, that you have a hard time believing that you may be wrong.  There, I said it, wrong.  It’s a hard thing to be, and a harder thing to admit to being.  We work so hard to stay on the cutting edge, to be “positive” to be “force-free”, to find out all the latest learning theory and have every training tool and trick in the book at our disposal.  But how well do we utilize our knowledge?  Are we continually challenging ourselves, or are we using said knowledge to discount the very real issues and feelings that other people and animals are having?  This is an area, like the edge of the map, “here there be dragons”.  Because we “know” from the research, from the statistics, from the science, that what we are doing and recommending works.  The kind of training we do does work.  It can change lives, when applied well.  It can save lives, when applied well.  It always works, with every type of animal, any species, except when it doesn’t.  Then the inclination is to take the easy route, and say, “Well, the client didn’t follow through” or “the client didn’t do it right”.  We have moved from our force training mantra of “the dog is just bad”, to our positive training mantra of “the client is just bad”.  These are the dragons, and they serve no one.  The dog doesn’t get trained, the client doesn’t enjoy their relationship with their dog, the trainer gets a reputation for being “soft” or a “cookie pusher who can’t work with THESE kinds of dogs”.   No one wants that.

If our clients are failing, our coaching is failing.  Our clients call us because they aren’t professional dog trainers, and they can admit they have a problem and ask for help, let’s not turn on them for being exactly what they have presented themselves to be!    Let’s take a long look at our skill set, and determine where we are failing our clients.

Because we know it works.  Except when it doesn’t.  When is that?  When a dog is so over threshold that he is unable to take treats, whether from fear or arousal, this is an untrainable situation.  When a dog has so much other, more salient,  environmental input that he can’t or won’t focus on the marker, or the reinforcer, or the handler.  When the handler is consistently unable to mark or reinforce in a meaningful window of time, for whatever reason.  When the dog has such a strong reinforcement history for the behavior with specific people (usually the handler!) or at specific times, that there is little to do in that training situation unless you change and control the environmental options significantly before trying to elicit, let alone teach, an alternate behavior.

We are very experienced, we select environments to work in, reinforcers to use, and set ourselves and our dogs up for success.  Yes, it ALWAYS works, in the right situation, with the right reinforcers, and the right environment.  It typically works with client dogs for us, because we are novel, skilled, and have no previous reinforcement history with the animal, givnig us the opportunity to be very selective about what we reinforce from the very beginning.  We as trainers take this for granted, because much of our observational process and planning is spent on adjusting the environment, stimuli, reinforcers, limiting access to those things, or using them to our advantage. We know how to find the foundation skill, and fix it first, before layering new things on top of it.  We can see what the animals are finding reinforcing, and how they are choosing to get to the reinforcers.

Our clients are inexperienced, they don’t see body language, they don’t have the environmental observation ninja skills of trainers who do this every day!  Their timing isn’t always great, their dogs know they get attention for jumping, mouthing, whatever we’re trying to help them “fix”.  They don’t understand that really excellent training is proactive, and it’s too late to explain, in many cases!

My vow is to honor and respect my clients, as much as I do their animal friends.  To respond with empathy and active listening when they tell me “it doesn’t work” and to try to discern what’s happening and WHY it doesn’t work, not blame them for not working hard enough, or not knowing enough.  It’s not my place to judge, I am here to observe, assist, teach, coach, and set both the dog and the handler up for success.  If it isn’t working, I’m not teaching it well.  I choose to admit when I’m wrong, take responsibility for that, and work to make it right, for the good of the human animal bond, and the quality of life of all my clients and students. Let’s work to slay the dragons.


Your Dog May Be An Introvert If…

I’ve seen a lot of “personality tests” and articles titled “You May Be An Introvert If…” on the web recently. Sometimes they’re just silly, sometimes they’re based on actual tools used to define personality types, like the Myers Briggs inventory. No matter what the origin, people have been taking them, and talking about them, and interested in identifying themselves and their friends’ and co-workers’ “types”. Sometimes it’s just a fun exercise, sometimes it’s a real gateway to better communication and understanding. Since I am a dog trainer, my work world revolves around better communication and understanding, both between people and people, and between people and dogs, also frequently between dogs and dogs. So, in the interest of better communication and understanding between humans and dogs, as well as dogs and dogs, I invite you to ponder some ideas.

Idea Number One: Your Dog May Not Want Any New Friends

I know that this is hard for many humans, particularly extroverted, friendly ones, to understand. Stick with me here. As a person who doesn’t yearn for more friends myself, I can understand this. Human pet owners have been led down a path of believing that their dog is not experiencing a good quality of life unless he is going to daycare, to the dog park, to dog parties, and greeting every dog he meets on the street. This is simply not true.  Your dog can have a fun and enriching life without ever meeting another dog or person! From a purely anthropomorphic perspective, I can tell you, I don’t like the mall, I don’t enjoy parties, I would rather spend one on one time with a few good friends. If I am forced into situations where I am at frequent parties or social gatherings, I may get grumpy and lash out, or withdrawn, or overwhelmed. I may be social and friendly, but need a lot of down time to recharge afterward.  From a canine behavior perspective, if your dog is reacting to dogs at daycare or the dogpark with snarling, snapping, bullying behavior, or by separating him or herself from the other dogs, it may be a good choice to remove your dog from that situation and assume that he or she is not enjoying it.  There are other options available, I promise!  We will get to them a bit later.

Idea Number Two: Your Dog May Prefer to Stay Home

I know, again, this is a hard one to swallow for a lot of people. If your dog is excessively active, barking and snarling at others, or continuously leaping out from under a cafe table and roaring at every person, dog, bike, skateboard, or motorcycle that passes, she may be happier and less stressed staying home and chewing a Kong while you have coffee and read the paper at your favorite cafe.  The same is true for the dog who hides behind you, shrinks away from people approaching, barks and snaps in fear, or whines continuously.

Idea Number Three: Your Dog Does Not Need To Meet EVERY Dog on the Planet

I understand, you were told to “socialize your dog”. You let your puppy leap into the face of every dog and person you passed during that critical socialization period. If an adult dog snapped or growled, you assumed the dog was mean, and the owner “corrected” that behavior. Now, your dog is really great at pulling and lunging toward people and dogs. Or, you’ve tried to fix that problem, and now your dog lunges, growls, barks and snaps every time he sees another person or dog. Guess what, not every adult dog likes every other dog or puppy, just as most adult humans don’t like every other human. Nor do we cross the street to hug every other human we see. It is not required that your dog like other dogs, only that he can pass on the street with an appropriate level of civility.  he can learn to be polite, and it will be better if he doesn’t have to consider the possibly having to meet the dog or person.

Idea Number Four: Exercise Can Take Many Forms

You feel your dog needs exercise, and he can only get that by playing with another dog. The news is, there are lots of ways for dogs to get exercise, and while physical stimulation is important, mental stimulation can be even more effective in promoting acceptable indoor house behavior.

As a dog trainer, I focus on reinforcing behavior that I want, and communicating what that behavior looks like, so that it is available to practice and reinforce. So far, I’ve covered what your dog probably does not want, which isn’t very helpful the owner of an introvert! So, let’s cover some activities and ideas to make life with an introvert-type dog more fun for everyone.

Fun Idea Number One: One Good Friend Is Better Than a Dozen Acquaintances

Your dog may not enjoy going to daycare, or the dogpark, but your dog may have one or two dog friends with whom he or she plays well. These dogs are the ones to invite for one on one playdates. Maybe they’re willing to sneak to the dog park at 5 am, when no one else is there, or meet for a walk in a less traveled part of the park. Maybe this is a dog who can come to the house for a visit, to play in the yard.

Fun Idea Number Two: Staying Home Can Be Fun!

Making stay at home time fun and stimulating for your dog is as easy as frozen Kongs! A host of recipes for stuffing Kongs is as close as the Kong website. Other fun toys and chews for your dog can include Bully sticks, Himalayan chews, and puzzle toys, like Kong Wobbler, Kong Genius, Buster Cube, Goody Ship, Tug a Jug, or a Holey Roller ball stuffed with strips of fleece and squeakers from the fabric store. Even a cracker or cereal box stuffed with newspaper and some dog treats or kibble is a fun morning of enrichment. If you want to go all out, buy some scents at the sporting goods store (Fox urine, coyote urine, raccoon musk, deer musk) spritz a bit on some paper, crumble into a box, and let your dog have a smelling, shredding, adventure! If you really want to go somewhere with your dog, take him to an out of the way park with few dogs and people for a hike, or walk. Daily walks in the neighborhood are not mandatory! Only outdoor potty time is necessary. You can play many fun games in the house.

Fun Idea Number Three: Being a Ninja Can Be Fun!

No, your dog doesn’t need to meet every dog or person you see. In fact, it’s fun to pretend to be invisible and pass by without any notice at all! If your dog is very fearful and really wants to create distance between himself and people or dogs, practice your quick U-turn and RUN AWAY! Make it a fun game! “Look! Run AWAY! Hooray!” If you must pass by, open the bar! Use super high value treats, something your dog only gets on walks, when things are scary. Hot dogs, cheese, Easy Cheeze, salmon, peanut butter in a tube. As the dog begins to get worried, start treating, keep it coming until you’ve passed the “scary thing”, then bar closes, no more treats. You can work on watching people and dogs from a distance that your dog considers “safe” (no need to bark, lunge, growl), and eat lots of treats. Remember, your dog doesn’t have to meet or greet, you can use your ninja skills to pass without incident!

Fun Idea Number Four: Brain and Nose Workouts!

Play with a friend is a great way to run off steam, but if the weather’s dreary, or you just don’t have one of your dog’s special friends available, there are lots of thinking and sniffing games that can tire him out nearly as well as a run-and-wrestle session with a friend. Quick and easy games like hide and seek. Hide yourself or a family member, call from another room, pet and treat lavishly when you’re found! Muffin tins with tennis balls on top make a fun puzzle toy. Put a treat in one tin, cover all with tennis balls, and let the dog find the treat. Put a toy in a shoebox, cover it, let the dog figure out how to get the lid off, or tear through the box! Lots of great puzzle toys are on the market for dogs, Nina Ottenson makes some very nice ones, Kyjen ones are available at most of the big box pet supply stores. Nosework is another great concept for keeping dogs engaged and tiring them out! There are many classes and tutorials available on line, and classroom classes as well. One advantage of nosework is that even in classes the dogs are working one at a time and don’t have to interact with other dogs or strangers. And of course, if you have a safe, off lead area, frisbee, treibball, retrieving, chasing a flirt pole (lunge whip with a fuzzy toy tied to the end, or purchase a commercial one), are all great ways to do a doggie workout without exhausting the human end of the leash!

Often, the hardest part of having an introvert-style dog is accepting that your dog may never be a dog-park dog, but a playdate dog, may not go to the cafe for dinner with you, but will welcome you home when you return, may not enjoy daycare, no matter how many cool toys they have or how much it’s costing you, but will be glad to see you and get back to the safety of home. Some dogs, like some people, may be happier as homebodies, comfy on their couch with a chewie, the doggie equivalent of a good book. With some work, training, and careful management, like me at a party, your dog may come to tolerate stressful situations better, and be civil and polite while out and about, which is a great outcome. Even if this is not the dog you signed up for, please try to honor your dog’s social style, appreciate him for what he is, snuggly, cuddly, your very best friend!

As always, if you feel your dog’s behavior is more than you know how to work with, please seek the help of a professional trainer!

What People Don’t Know About What They Do

I had an interesting experience last Friday evening. My family and I attended a presentation by a scientist who works with big cats in South America. She is working to learn the travel patterns of several species, in order to create contiguous greenspace for the cats, so that they aren’t killed on highways, roads, and in settled areas. I think this is great work, and admirable. She works with a Conservation Dog, who is trained to find the scat of specific cats, which helps to map their travel, for the purposes stated above. She also trains Conservation Dogs and their handlers. This event was hosted by our obedience club, which is a clicker training club, working to use positive reinforcement based methods for dog (and people!) training, and as little punishment as possible. When the presenter first began her talk, she went out of her way to mention that, “We use positive reinforcement to train our dogs, just like you!”

Well, not exactly. She went on to explain how the dogs are trained to alert on specific scents/scat by reinforcing them with a tennis ball and play time. Someone asked how the dogs know the difference between the scat they’re looking for, and the scat to ignore. She explained that they have samples of various scats, and when the dog alerts to the wrong one, they yell “NO!” and no tennis ball. Okay, so positive reinforcement and positive punishment together. Not exactly how I train, or the club trains, but clearly not something that the presenter understood. My husband asked, “How much positive punishment do you normally use?” Several people in the crowd laughed, and I heard mutters of “I’ve never heard punishment called positive before..*snicker*” These were not members of our club, or trainers, just members of the general public, who had been invited by club members. The presenter looked puzzled, and said, “I’m not familiar with that term…? We use positive reinforcement training”. Then she was asked about safety in the field. She explained the electronic collar snake aversion training. Then she explained that the dogs all wear electronic collars in the field, “just in case you need to break them off of a scent, or a trail”. Definitely not the type of training that we use. She also explained that “These dogs aren’t like family pets, they can’t sleep in beds, or on the couch, they have to sleep in kennels, and they can’t have any toys or play unless they’re working”.

I found the whole event a good reminder that not everyone knows what he or she is doing, from a scientific/behavioral science perspective, when training dogs or other animals. I am not judging the trainer, or her training, it’s just an interesting reminder to me that people who work with dogs pretty much all have good intentions, most think they are using “Positive Training” and many do not understand the science behind what they are teaching or the methods they are using, even if they are scientists with a strong science background in other areas. This just brings home to me again how vital it really is to have a clear, well defined, vocabulary when discussing training and behavior modification with other trainers and the public. I will continue in my quest to be clear, explain well, and help my students know exactly what they are doing, and as much as possible, the hows and whys of the techniques they’re employing. I want an open dialogue, with clear definitions, to help build understanding of what we do as trainers and teachers, what our intentions are, and how our outcomes are achieved. I hope my fellow trainers will join me.