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.

Does Your Dog Guard Resources?

It occurred to me today while working with a client’s dog that many dog owners really don’t know if their dog guards resources or not. So many people never give their dog anything that is truly considered high value by the dog, that sometimes we find out the hard way that the dog will guard something he or she considers valuable. Many dogs who live in single dog households also have never really had an opportunity to guard something from another animal, so it may not be recognized until later in the dog’s life, when he or she happens to have something valuable in the presence of another animal. I once had a client dog with no history of guarding begin guarding me and my treat pouch from the other household dog, she had never had a high value treat and wanted to keep them all for herself! We worked through it quickly and easily, because I recognized it immediately, she was not given the opportunity to practice it successfully over time, and, because training and behavior is what I do for a living, I already had a plan in mind to change that behavior quickly. But if the dog had been left to continue and become successful in the guarding behavior, it could have escalated quickly into a dog fight, and both the dogs, myself, and the owner could have been injured. Resource guarding is a normal, adaptive behavior in dogs. If a dog in a group of dogs with no human intervention didn’t protect what he had, he is likely to miss a lot of meals! Normal resource guarding looks like a slight hunch over the item, or lying on the item, a low growl in the direction of the other animal, a hard eye toward the other animal, and possibly a lifted lip.  In an appropriate interaction, the other dog will read the signals clearly and move away.  In normal dogs, I expect some low level of intra-species guarding (dogs guarding from other dogs), and some inter-species guarding (from the family cat,possibly), of things the dog considers super-high value. For instance, a raw, meaty marrow bone. The best policy for giving your dog a super high value food/chew object is to manage carefully, keeping the dog either in his or her crate, or in a space where no other animals or people will disturb him/her while chewing, until the dog has finished with it, or you are prepared to take the object away, by trading for a consumable of equally high value (slice of bacon, perhaps?). Resource guarding becomes maladaptive and unacceptable in household dogs when it is directed toward people, or is focused on various, random objects, like tissues, Legos, bits of paper, or specific spaces, like the couch, the landing on the stairs, or the space near a known food source like the pantry. The good news is, with professional help and good management, resource guarding is definitely modifiable, and most dogs who guard objects or space can be worked through the issue to the point of being safe for other people in the home. If you should happen to find out that your dog has started to guard something from you, don’t panic, don’t chase the dog, or threaten, it may cause your dog to swallow the object, or to bite you. Move away to a non-threatening distance, throw a high value consumable item, bacon, braunschweiger, cheese, etc., into an area with a door or barrier you can use to separate the dog from the guarded object, remove the object, then release the dog, and find a professional to work with you on this issue, before it becomes a bigger problem. If your dog begins to guard an object from another animal, move the other animal away, then trade your dog a consumable item for the object, and move it to a place out of reach of both animals. If the object was extremely high value, plan to manage your dog carefully next time he or she is given that sort of object, and don’t allow those items when both animals are present in unconfined space. If you feel that the guarding is escalating, consult a professional for tips on management and training plans to minimize risk for both people and animals. Things to remember about resource guarding:

  1. it is a normal behavior, but can escalate into behavior that can create a dangerous living situation
  2. guarding can crop up unexpectedly, the dog decides what is valuable, so watch carefully when giving new toys/treats/beds/etc.
  3. proactive management to prevent the guarding from happening is the best course of action
  4. If you have issues with resource guarding, working with an experienced professional who understands positive reinforcement and behavior modification, like a CBCC-KA, CAAB, or Veterinary Behaviorist, is going to be the most productive use of your training time and dollars

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!

Treibball is a fun sport for ALL dogs!

I am currently teaching a Treibball class for two dogs, owned by two delightful trainers. One dog is a Border Collie, no surprises there, right? Herding dog doing a ball herding game. The other dog is, wait for it…a Chihuahua. Yes, a tiny, wee, Chihuahua. He is enjoying himself as much as the Border Collie, and learning the skills needed to play the game just as well as the BC. He may actually be more fun to watch!

My main goals as a trainer in Treibball classes are teaching my students to have fun with their dogs, what it means to work in tandem with their dogs, and the basic, foundation skills required to play the game. There are a surprising number of things a dog and handler need to know, before they ever even get to moving a ball!

If you are interested in playing a fun and challenging sport with your dog, which doesn’t require the handler to run much, and is still busy and exciting for both members of the team, come out and give Treibball a try! We have balls for all sizes, and rules of the game for dogs from teacup size to giant breeds! Kids and adults can play, pups and seniors, too!

My hope for the future is to be able to train enough Treibball students to form a team, or a league, and play together frequently! Come on out and join the fun!

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.

Canine Life And Social Skills BA Level Evaluations!

Last night, 5 of my student teams from the last 3 sessions of C.L.A.S.S. did their formal skills evaluation for the BA Level. They were a self-selected group, and of the 5, one team, Deb and Zorg Frank, passed the evaluation, with Honors. At that moment in time, I was feeling terrible, and thinking I was not a good instructor and had somehow failed my students. In retrospect, after some time to process, and some input from students, and a half a night’s sleep, I have a better outlook!
After my initial distress about several students not passing the Canine Life And Social Skills BA Level Assessment, I have had some time to reflect. I think that it’s a great curriculum and a great assessment tool. I think it actually does require mastery of true public access skills, unlike any of the other assessments available for pet/family dogs. I really appreciate that it requires independent assessment from a qualified Evaluator (thanks again, Susan!) And I think my students did a great job. After all, this is what assessment is about, finding the points where you need work. If everyone passed, every time, the assessment would hold no value. Like any formalized competition (even ones in which you must meet criteria, not compete against other teams), if the criteria are so low that all teams meet them, it’s not much of a challenge, and doesn’t show much about the work you’ve put in, or your skills mastery.

I also am proud to have been among the early adopters of the program, and I think I’ve learned some valuable information about things to tweak in class, and ways to adjust class practice to prepare human students better for testing situations, and have their dogs rock solid for the little details that make all the difference.

Teaching classes is alway a learning experience for me, possibly even more than for my students.  I thank them for the opportunity to learn from them and their dogs, and I hope I get the opportunity to work with all of them again.  I hope that my skills continue to improve, as theirs have done.

I am excited to continue offering the C.L.A.S.S. series, and look forward to great success for all of my student teams in the future!