DUCK BOOT SOCIALS

Okay, I don’t actually mean I’m attending duck boot themed parties. But I realized the other day that I spend a lot of time in my L.L. Bean duck boots. You never realize how similar your outfits become each day until your work uniform is basically “clothing that you don’t mind getting dirty but that also looks half way decent.” There’s only so much wiggle room with that criteria!

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with a client’s black lab puppy named Griffin. Griffin and I bounce around the city once a week in the name of socialization. Yes, that’s right – I get to spend the afternoon with a puppy so I can rapid fire treats at him whenever we see, well, just about anything. New people, places, things – they all mean good treats for Griff so he learns that the world is an awesome place! And, no surprises here: I do it all wearing my duck boots.

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Then, on the other end of the dog-trainer-job spectrum, I spent time with a shelter dog, out of the shelter! Her name is Kyra and she is ah-maz-ing. My behavior team had to run an errand to Home Depot so we figured we’d bring along a dog. Turns out we picked the best dog in the whole place, because Kyra was a rockstar for the outing. I did a lot of rewarding her like I do Griffin (basically showering her with treats throughout the whole experience) but I also paid her for practicing the skill of acknowledging all the crazy sights, sounds and people of Home Depot, and still sticking with me. I’m about to throw you all for a loop right now and tell you I was wearing my duck boots for the occasion.

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But forreal, I have bad knees and I work in potentially very muddy environments, so my Bean boots have been one of my best investments this season, just like my flannels in the fall and my work-appropriate khaki shorts in the summer. Now that I have to skip the heels and dress pants every morning, I’m clinging on to every ounce of “fashion” I can, even if it means lumberjack chic (yes, that is a thing).

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P.S. Adopt Kyra so I don’t.

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DEAR LADY BUG

Dear Buggy,

Today, December 30th, marks the one year anniversary of me and your foster dad Eran adopting you. It also marks the one year anniversary of the day we took away your pain, gave you wings, and set you free.

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All of my foster dogs got letters when they left me. It felt like closure to the journey of loving them and letting them go. Even though you weren’t technically my foster, you still deserve a letter, Bug. But when we said goodbye to you I just didn’t have the words. I’m hoping that now, one year later, I can put words together in a way that will do your little soul justice.

You came into our lives during the snowy month of March. I remember the text your dad sent me. “I think I decided on one.” We’d gone to the shelter the night before to check out foster candidates, but no one really clicked with Eran. The next night, one dog did. That dog was you. He described the way you acted when he met you. Outgoing, wiggly, goofy, lovable. You sounded perfect. You were perfect.

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The first day with you was a whirlwind. Everyone was so excited you were home! You went on a walk, you met your six new human roommates, you enjoyed a stuffed Kong and even did some clicker training. You were fitting right in, and you loved being out of the shelter.

Then it happened. You growled at one of the roommates that first night. I think we were all a little unsettled, but we chalked it up to first night jitters. Transitions are hard, we get it. You’d been through so much, after all! We’d show you really fast that the world isn’t a scary place. We weren’t worried.

You opened up to us so much over the next few months. We learned all about your perfect little quirks. We learned about the rhino run you did when you were excited. We learned how far apart your eyes went whenever you worked on a frozen Kong. We learned how stinkin’ brilliant you were as you showed us how quickly you mastered new behaviors. We learned how food motivated you were when you figured out every single food puzzle your foster family diligently created for you. We learned how hard you snuggled, and how perfect of a couch buddy you were.

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We also learned that you were a sensitive soul. It turns out the world was scarier than we realized, and that you had some fears ingrained in you that we just couldn’t combat. What we wouldn’t have given to just be able to talk to you, Bug. We would have told you there was no need to be worried all the time. We would have begged you to just trust us, to know that we would take care of you.

If there was one person who helped you find some inner peace, it was your dad. The bond between you and Eran was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. He’s fostered other dogs before and after you, but he didn’t love any of them the way he loved you (even if he says differently). Eran spent some time funemployed while he and his housemates fostered you, and during those months it was just you and him a lot of the time, Bug. I watched you two go on daily road trips, sometimes to Campbell as you helped him overcome his own fears, and sometimes to a secluded hike so the two of you could escape the city for a little. Your dad would also bring you by my work for a midday visit almost every week, and those visits would brighten my whole day. He used clicker training to teach you an entire repertoire of behaviors. You turned him into one amazing trainer, you know that? He worked with you, sacrificed for you, and advocated for you.

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Despite his best efforts, and the efforts of everyone else in your foster home, we couldn’t make you comfortable. Your rescue group supported you every step of the way, working to find you a foster situation that might better fit your needs. You know, that quiet home out in the country with no other pets – the one everyone looks for that is nearly impossible to find.

You finally landed with a wonderful family. They were so dedicated to you and they loved you like we loved you. We got updates, and I even got to go visit you. I was so proud when I was able to show them all the behaviors you knew, especially since we hadn’t practiced in a while. You flew through them with ease. You never ceased to amaze me, Buggy. Everyone continued working together to try to ease your worries, hoping for a breakthrough.

I remember the phone call to this day. Your fears and anxieties finally got the best of you. I know you didn’t want to hurt that girl. I know you were reacting from a dark place, a place you didn’t know how to control. You finally showed us that you couldn’t take this world anymore, that you were no longer capable of handling the stress that came with simple, every day life. Hearing what happened, and realizing how deeply distressed you were – Buggy, that broke my heart into a million pieces.

Eran and I immediately got in the car and raced to pick you up that night. We were your happy place. The three of us together, in our blissful bubble where the outside world didn’t exist. If I could have realistically given you that bubble for the rest of your life, I would have. I think Eran and I both would have.

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When we came to the devastating decision that we were going to say goodbye to you, Eran and I made it official that you would leave this world with a family of your own. We signed that dotted line, Bug. You were ours. You were our perfect, goofy, block-headed, cross-eyed, black rhino. Gotcha.

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You were in our lives for nine beautiful months. What we learned from you, however, will stay with us for a lifetime. I see you in the animals I help at the shelter. Eran sees you in the dogs he continues to foster and help through his advocacy work. You’re everywhere, Buggy. Your impact will linger much longer than the too-short time you were here on this earth for.

We love you, Bug. Thanks for running full force into our hearts. We miss you every day.

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SETTLING IN

If I had a dollar for every time I tried to sit down and write this post, I’d be able to buy a lot of bully sticks. For some reason I just can’t get the thoughts from my brain on to my screen in a way that I’m happy with. But I just snuggled into a cozy corner of Starbucks with a peppermint mocha and classical Christmas music, and I’m not leaving until I get this done. Nothing like setting myself up for success, right?

The past eight months have felt like my life has been turned upside down and re-centered, all at the same time. To give you a refresher, I left my 9-5 event planning job in May to take two part time jobs: one on the behavior team at my local animal shelter, and one doing dog training with private clients.

I am so happy I made the jump, and there’s nothing I regret about the decision, but I can’t say it’s been completely easy and stress-free. The transition from being development staff for an animal shelter to working hands on with the animals was harder than I expected. I’ve worked in two other shelters prior to this one; I’ve seen and experienced what sheltering is about. Or so I thought. But I spent the first few months in my new role exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Working so closely with the animals has its positives and negatives.

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My favorite part about working on a shelter behavior team is, as you can probably guess, the behavior. Oh my goodness, the stuff we get to see! I think I’ve seen more dog behavior here in eight months than I’d see in years as a private dog trainer. We evaluate every dog that comes in, so I’ve experienced the squishy, adorable emaciated stray dog, and the gives-you-the-heebie-jeebies-better-get-my-defensive-handling-skills-ready owner surrender. We quite literally never know what is going to walk through the door.

I’ve also found that working at an open-admission city shelter has made me fall more in love with my community. I’m proud to work for an organization that values the people we serve and prioritizes keeping our community safe. I get to know the people coming to us for help, whether I’m talking with them about a dog they are surrendering, or helping to match them with their new best friend, or giving them advice about an animal they just adopted. Putting a face with the homes our animals are going to helps me remember how I can best help animals by helping the people who love them. That part is, as a whole, quite rewarding.

I’m sure you can also guess what the toughest part is. It’s both a blessing and a curse to get to be involved in decisions about euthanasia. So far, there hasn’t been a decision made that I don’t agree with, but that doesn’t necessarily make any of them easier. I’ve been there as we said goodbye to animals who are no longer healthy, happy or comfortable. I’ve fed them hot dogs as they took their last breaths, knowing that someone failed them long before they came to us, and that they spent their final days knowing what a consistent meal, warm bed, and fierce love felt like. The emotional weight the job of a shelter worker brings is something I actually welcome, as I know it takes a certain kind of person to be able to do our jobs with responsibility, compassion and empathy. If that person is me, then so be it.

The following are all pictures from work over the past few months. We really do have a great time working with the animals. I love love love my team. While we do have to deal with the tough stuff, admittedly there is a decent amount of “playing with puppies” (aka what my friends think I do all day) as well.

At my other job, I find that my work with private clients helps to balance out the emotional fatigue I sometimes carry from the shelter. The shelter is full of animals who are not yet committed to by anyone (loved by the staff, of course, but you know what I mean). With my private clients, I see the dedicated families putting work in with their pet dogs. It’s refreshing, and it’s usually just what I need in the middle of my work week (I’m at the shelter Sunday – Tuesday and see clients the rest of the week). Having the time to really dedicate to my clients makes working with them that much more rewarding. I’ve gotten so close with so many of my regulars. From rushing one client’s dog to the emergency vet because he got bloat when I was walking him (he survived!), to mourning the passing of another’s pup as the dog declined during the months we spent training her younger sister, my clients truly feel like family to me sometimes!

Through all the ups and downs, when I take a step back and look at where I am now, I can’t help but realize how different this life feels than my “past life” (which is how I refer to my role as an event planner). There’s never a day I wake up and dread going to work — in fact, quite the opposite. Even though I work pretty much six full days a week, I’m not feeling any kind of burnout yet. I think that’s because I am so fulfilled by what I’m doing for “work.” My friends are hitting the age where you start to realize working your butt off in a window-less cubicle for a nice paycheck kind of sucks. I can’t say I relate to that. I almost feel, I don’t know, selfish? self conscious? in a way, because I’ve been able to find a career that makes me so incredibly happy, while many of my peers are miserable at their desk jobs.

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Life outside of work is great as well. I’ve found a mental escape in the workout group I joined a little over a year ago. Three times a week I go run a bunch of miles with them before I start my day with the dogs. They helped me run the Marine Corps Marathon in October! These workouts and these people help so much with my work-life balance.

I’m spending time with my friends. I continue to fall in love with DC every day. My friend Eran fostered another dog that every once in a while I pretended was my own. I’m giving seminars on behalf of Dog Latin. Life is good, guys. I’m really lucky.

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A big shout of to my friends who kept calling me out for not keeping up with this space the past six months. Hopefully I’ll be back soon.

Happy Holidays!


IT’S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT (LITERALLY)

Last Fall I found myself in the worst fitness shape I’d been in since college. I was busy, I didn’t have room in my budget for a gym membership, and in my little bits of free time I prioritized seeing my friends over exercising. I never thought of myself as someone who would “fall off the wagon” when it came to taking care of myself – but I had, and it was bad.

Then one day I decided to attend a workout put on by a free fitness movement called the November Project. Despite it being 6:30 am on a Friday, I really enjoyed the workout. The group meets three times a week, and I showed up the following Monday, then the following Wednesday, and even the next Friday. Today I am happy to say that I consistently attend those 6:30 workouts three times a week all over the city (which is going to produce a whole post on motivating a learner to increase behavior!). I am in the best shape I’ve been in since college!

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While I have come a very long way since the day I started, I still find myself discounting my progress. I watch the friends I’ve made, many of whom started around the same time I did, getting faster and faster, while I feel like my pace is staying the same. I beat myself up when I struggle during the workouts because these shouldn’t be this hard anymore. I wonder how the heck I am ever going to complete the marathon I’m signed up for in October. I get frustrated and angry when I can’t keep up with my peers. I’m used to being someone who stays positive and motivated by progress, so these doubts can be really discouraging.

Then I think back to something my mama brought up one time I had a conflict that I needed help managing (because moms always know best). She asked, “Well, what would you tell your clients to do in this situation?” This might sound funny, because dog training and someone’s personal life aren’t really the same, right? Actually, you’d be surprised at the overlap (or maybe you’re not surprised because you’ve been reading his blog, ha!).

In this instance, I remembered all those times I told my clients – or maybe adopters, or first time foster parents, or just any dog owner – to manage their expectations as they work towards their goal. “Don’t let one bad experience ruin the loads of progress you’ve made,” I tell them. “You’ve come too far to let this small step back keep you from being proud of your accomplishments.”

My heart breaks when my clients come to a session discouraged because their reactive dog had an outburst yesterday, after so many weeks of doing so well! So we talk about what their dog was like on day one. We reminisce about how every walk was a nightmare, how they were at their wits’ end, how their household was full of stress. Then we look back at the most recent incident – the dog barked, maybe lunged a bit, and the owner stayed calm, got the dog’s attention back, kept moving, and everyone recovered quickly. It’s like night and day from where they started, even though in the moment it didn’t feel like it.

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Progress doesn’t happen overnight. It also doesn’t go away overnight. Journeys like working with a reactive dog, or conquering separation anxiety, or improving your mile time, are all works in progress that have their ups and downs. When I start to doubt myself and my fitness progress, I remind myself of how far I’ve come. Then I give myself some good old positive reinforcement to keep myself motivated, and I head out for my next run – just like the dog owner who grabs the treat pouch and heads out for their next walk.

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HOLY S*!%… HERE GOES NOTHING

When New Year’s Eve rolled around this past year, I remember thinking, “I accomplished a lot in 2014. I got my KPA certification and I finally got the Manager of Special Events promotion I wanted at the shelter… I guess 2015 will just be a coasting year.”  Boy was I wrong.

As of next Wednesday, I am officially saying goodbye to my full time, 9-5 job as an event planner. Yup, I’m doing it – I’m moving to training and behavior full time!  I’ve accepted a part time position on the behavior team at the Washington Humane Society and then will be expanding my role with Dog Latin Dog Training.

What does that mean? It means that for two and a half days a week I’ll be working with shelter dogs – evaluating them for adoption, running playgroups, doing behavior modification, teaching volunteers and staff about positive training as it relates to shelter animals, working with adopters, and so much more. It also means that when I’m not at the shelter, I’m working with private clients. It means I have more time to devote to them and their dogs. It means I can make my own schedule. It means I have time to actually blog (!!) and to organize more presentation opportunities and to do continuing education. It means I get PAID to put 110% of my effort and my heart and my soul into exactly what I want to do. Every. Freaking. Day.

I feel so thankful for the four years I spent in nonprofit development. Being an event planner for two different animal shelters taught me so much. Event planners have to be organized, detail oriented, good at working under pressure, able to multitask and really good at working with people. Thanks to the years spent mastering these skills, I consider myself relatively business savvy and able to connect with people in a way that will help me accomplish my long term goals in the dog world (and I’ve got some big goals!).

While I enjoyed my time on the admin side of helping animals, there was no denying the nagging feeling that dog training – specifically as it relates to the human-canine bond – was my purpose in life. I recently went to a TEDx talk about “being rebellious.” One of the speakers really stuck out to me. He talked about his experience breaking away from his own set status quo, and how it was scary, risky and against the norm, but so necessary and exciting. What resonated with me most was when he said, “You don’t make a difference by staying comfortable.”

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So I left my comfort zone. It was scary to let go of my 9-5 job. It was even more scary to let go of my consistent paycheck (duh). But as soon as I made the decision, everything felt right. Even when I told my coworkers at my current job, I got the response, “Well that took longer than we expected :-).” This is where I’m supposed to be, and I couldn’t be more ecstatic (I’m literally tearing up as I write this). Welcome to this new ride you’ll be joining me on, you guys. Cheers to growing up, taking risks and following your passion!
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16 HOUR FOSTER DOG

Holy moly do I miss fostering. I knew I missed it, but I didn’t realize quite how badly until I was walking through the kennels at work and saw this adorable little face staring at me through the wires of her kennel door.

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The funny thing is that I was actually heading back to the dogs to check out this adorable pit puppy we’d just gotten in, but this girl with no name caught my eye. She was just so mini and waggy! I cooed at her through the gate, which just made her melt into me more, which then made me melt… I was done.

I went to inquire about her. She was a stray, which explained why she didn’t have a name. I had had had to take her out. I had to spend more time with her! She was just so cute. I hadn’t felt this way about a dog in a long time.

She came and hung out at my desk and did wonderfully. Bringing a dog to my cubicle is a good test, and can actually give me a lot of information about the dog. Does she settle well? Is she super extra curious? Does she get freaked at the office noises she hears? Can I occupy her with a chew? This pretty girl, of course, passed her test with flying colors. So obviously I had to take her home for the night.

Yes, I would say this is one of the perks of working at a shelter: being able to have a foster dog slumber party whenever you want. I geared the little one up, and off we went for our 16 hour adventure together.

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At this point she still didn’t have a name, so I called her Penny. Because she can fit right in my pocket.

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I brought her home and obviously my roommates fell in love with her. I also obviously broke my very own #1 rule of keeping a foster dog’s world small during the transition, and out we went with Penny to Meridian Hill Park. I made sure to bring lots of treats with us so I could show her the behaviors I did want from her while we were out (attention to me, loose-leash walking, etc.). Turns out, Penny rocks. Here are some pictures from our adventure:

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So then of course she was so tired that she was extra snuggly in bed with me that night, which is my absolute favorite part of fostering. It might have only been 5 pm to 9 am, but the time spent with Penny was a nice glimpse of what fostering was for me at one time and what it will be for me again one day. For now I will just continue to enjoy the times I do get to steal shelter dogs and call them my own… for 16 hours.

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PS – Penny was of course scooped up right away. Watching her walk out of the shelter with her new mama brought back some crazy bittersweet feelings!


WINGING IT: OUR SMALL SCREEN DEBUT

Never a dull moment over here. A few weeks ago I had the exciting opportunity to take positive training on TV!

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Being that my full time job is in marketing, I’ve been on TV plugging fundraising events a handful of times (the first time I hung out with Johnnie Cash was when I took her on the news to promote our annual gala!). This time was different though – I secured the gig myself on behalf of Dog Latin and decided the content for the five minute segment. I pitched a “Clicker Training 101” angle and I was so excited to use this opportunity to spread positive training to the masses.

After I got confirmation that we had the segment, I realized I didn’t have a dog to come with me… oops. Minor detail, right? Luckily Dog Latin had just started working with this a-maz-ing client, a six-month old golden retriever named Scarlett. Despite being a young puppy, Scarlett was the absolutely perfect dog to bring with me to show off what clicker training can do. Her owner has been teaching her different manners, behaviors and tricks using the clicker since she was just eight weeks old! Not only does Scarlett have a large repertoire of behaviors, but her focus is unbeatable – especially for her age.

To prepare for our taping, I took Scarlett out on the town to work around distractions. As I’m sure you know, your dog’s ability to respond to cues out in the “real world” is a whole different ballgame than in your living room! The last thing I wanted was for her to see the studio, the cameras and all the people and freak out or be unable to work. So we went to PetSmart and to outdoor town squares and I did my best to create challenging environments for focusing – and Scarlett rocked it each time. We went into our TV debut with a bangin’ reinforcement history.

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We were appearing on The Pet Show with Dr. Katy. I admire Dr. Katy because she’s so successful in what she does – helping the public with their pets – and she has a blast doing it. She also doesn’t compromise who she is just because she’s in the public eye. Her twitter handle reads, “Veterinarian, Mom, Writer, Rabid LSU Fan. Snarky stiletto loving country girl rockin’ the big city.” Love it, girl – you do you!

Scarlett and I showed up to the studio armed with roughly one zillion hot dogs and pieces of cheddar cheese. I knew my reinforcer had to be a goooood one if I was going to keep her attention over the crazy sights and sounds of the news station. I was so relieved when she still had her sparkly, perfectly attentive face on at the studio.

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I was a little nervous, but once the cameras started rolling all of a sudden it became easy. As I settled in and started talking about training, I immediately relaxed. I had plenty to talk about – from switching to functional rewards, to how to get behaviors we like, to showing off Scarlett’s tricks – the five minute segment flew by. Scarlett did unbelievably well, and Dr. Katy was a gracious host.

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So, like I said, never a dull moment! I am so beyond thankful for this opportunity and the many lessons learned from the experience. I look forward to making next time (because there will be a next time!) even better.

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Technology wins again and I can’t figure out how to embed the video, so to watch the clip you have to head to the website. We start at about 8:10!