BREAKING NEWS: YOUR DOG’S FOOD IS NOT MADE WITH A SUBSTANCE FROM MARS

First of all, I’d like to give a huge THANK YOU for the overwhelming support you all gave me after last week’s relaunch of the site. I’m so excited that you’re excited! Your encouragement and enthusiasm made all the work I put into it way worth while.

Now, let’s talk about food.

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Hi, I am a dog trainer who uses food in training – and I absolutely love it. I train using primarily positive reinforcement. What this means is that I add something good to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. If I add something and it does not increase the behavior, it’s not doing the job. More importantly, it’s the learner who decides what is reinforcing and what isn’t. Just because you want Fluffy to enjoy pets does not mean Fluffy will enjoy pets.

The thing about food is that it is a primary reinforcer, meaning animals are hard wired to like it and want it. Most of the time, food is good enough to make a behavior happen again (depending on the difficulty of the behavior and the value of the food, but that’s for an entirely different post). Toys, praise, etc. are not always a good enough reinforcer, at least in the beginning, to increase a behavior. It’s like the equivalent of giving you a glass of lemonade to mow the lawn, versus giving you $20 to mow the lawn. Which is more motivating? (Trick question: it’s actually your spouse’s nagging.)

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As much as we would love our dogs to work with us “just because they want to,” that is not the case. They don’t want the glass of lemonade. Well, some do. But most don’t. We need to pay them and make it worth it for them. There are times when toys or praise just won’t cut it with our dogs, especially for tough behaviors like not going bat s*%t crazy when the doorbell rings. Using food in training allows us to mark and reward behaviors we like so that our dogs begin to do them more often. Stay calm to earn a “good boy!” from my human? No thanks. Stay calm for some juicy hot dogs? Now you’re talking!

I totally understand the concerns people have about using food to train their dog. The three gripes I hear most often are 1) I don’t want a dog who will only work if I have food 2) I don’t want my dog to get fat and 3) I don’t want my dog to think he now deserves my people food. Here’s the shocking part to a lot of people: trainers who use food don’t want any of those things either!

If you use food correctly, you can avoid all of those issues. Seriously! 1) Don’t go to your treat stash until after your dog has completed the behavior. As in, don’t stick the treat in front of Fluffy’s face and then give the cue. Give the cue, then treat. This makes it a reward, not a bribe. 2) I’m a big fan of shifting calories away from the food bowl. This is a win-win because your dog is working for his meals and therefore not taking in a ton of extra calories, and he’s getting extra mental stimulation! Which we know is super important. Lastly, 3) People food is only “people food” if it comes from the dinner table. Have you checked out the ingredients labels on your dog food bag? It (hopefully, ha) consists of what we consider “people food” – not a foreign substance from a faraway planet. Your dog will not translate getting cheese as treats to automatically deserving a bite of your grilled cheese sandwich. (But then again if he does think that, just teach him an awesome “place” behavior while you eat dinner and maybe he can get a bite or two!?)

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Do I fade the food eventually? For many behaviors, yes. Or I at least move to a more variable rate of reinforcement with treats while transitioning to functional rewards like getting the leash put on before a walk or tossing the toy. But for some behaviors, like a potentially life-saving recall or serious behavior modification, I usually don’t. The strategies and theories behind how long and how often we use food are a bit more complex and for another post.

Now, of course, like with everything else in the dog world, there are exceptions. There are dogs who will bend over backwards for their human’s giggle or for the toss of a ball. For those dogs, those functional rewards are more motivating and reinforcing. But most dogs need that food when you’re teaching them. I’m writing this because I had a really funny/borderline mortifying experience when I did a taping for a local news show the other day (which deserves its own post) and I wanted to address the whole “treats in training” debacle before I write about that experience. Because I don’t know about you, but I’m not working for just hugs, kisses or lemonade, no siree, Bob – and I wouldn’t expect my dogs to either.

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HOW DOG TRAINING HELPED ME THROUGH A CAR ACCIDENT

Just five short months ago on my birthday, October 1st, I drove home my first big girl purchase – a brand new 2015 Mazda CX-5. It’s my dream car: manual transmission, black, equipped with Bluetooth and a back up camera and perfect for driving around both two-legged and four-legged passengers. I love love love my new car.

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On Monday night I was driving through a really terrible three-lane traffic circle during rush hour. I was cautiously navigating my way through the circle in the middle lane when BAM! another vehicle smashed into my car, gashing up the entire driver’s side and ripping off the plastic molding. In that moment my heart shattered into a million pieces. I was fine, luckily, but my car! My brand new baby car! I kept it together, thought to myself that it was going to be okay because it wasn’t my fault, and got out of my car to get the process started.

As the other driver started telling the cop what happened, I waited for the explanation of why he merged into my lane. Accidents happen. It’s a chaotic traffic pattern with a lot of angry drivers, I get it. Insurance would cover the damages and I wouldn’t be penalized. Then all of a sudden he says, “so then she cut me off and hit me.” Wait. WHAT. My mouth dropped open. My heart started racing. I could feel my eyes starting to sting with tears of frustration. How could he try to blame this on me? I didn’t do anything wrong!? A million thoughts started rushing through my mind. I wanted to scream.

I’m sure you all can relate to this feeling. We’re all human. It’s that gut-wrenching, emotional reaction inducing feeling. It’s when a lot of people make decisions they wouldn’t normally make. As a positive dog trainer, I’ve taught myself to strive to not be reactive. These are the same emotions that owners and trainers feel when they are frustrated enough to do a leash pop or perhaps a harsh verbal correction. It’s these moments, after our dogs have messed up and maybe angered, scared or embarrassed us, where we as humans make emotional training decisions in reaction to what our dogs have done. What I work towards as a trainer is keeping these emotional reactions in check and, better yet, being proactive about the behavior that sparks them. Adding aversives to an already emotional situation often makes it worse. It takes practice and patience and a totally new frame of mind, but now when my dogs mess up I take a deep breath, address the issue and figure out how to change it for next time.

In this moment Monday night, standing in the freezing cold next to my horribly damaged brand new car as rush hour traffic whizzed past us, staring at this person who was trying to accuse me of an accident I didn’t cause, all I wanted to do was react. I wanted to yell and argue and ask him why he was being so mean. But I didn’t. What would that help? I took a deep breath, and I put my energy towards finding a solution. Instead of losing it on him, I let him say his peace (the cop wouldn’t take a report anyway so it was up to insurance to work it out later) and I formulated the next steps in my head: gather as much evidence as possible, call insurance ASAP with my full story, stay calm, etc. Reacting would have added fuel to the fire – just like with so many situations involving our dogs.

I’m thankful that I’ve learned this skill, and that I’m in the position to help other dog owners learn it as well. The type of reward based training we do is not just skipping aversives or ignoring unwanted behaviors, it’s about having the mindset that we can prevent these behaviors from happening by thinking critically, teaching appropriate alternatives and setting our dogs up for success – not by reacting after they’ve already failed. I unfortunately found out the tough way that it helps in all areas outside of working with dogs, but you don’t have to! I encourage you to see if there are pieces of your life where you can switch from being reactive to proactive – the peace of mind is totally worth it.

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BREAKING TRADITION: JACKSON THE GUN DOG

After the last three years of working with dogs in various capacities – from fostering, to sheltering, to training – it sort of surprises me to say that training with my clients have been some of my most rewarding experiences. There is no better feeling than watching an owner’s relationship with their dog improve once they learn how to communicate with them in a positive way. I’ve recently had an exceptionally rewarding ongoing journey with a dog named Jackson.

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Jackson the GSP. His smile matches his energy and enthusiasm for life.

A while back, a friend from college mentioned to me that he was getting a German Shorthaired Pointer puppy to hunt with. I wished him luck (because really, a working puppy? No thanks!) and forgot all about it. Once my friend Bryan brought Jackson home, I got a text message here and there asking for basic advice, but not much more than that. Finally when Jackson was about seven months old, Bryan asked if I’d stop by to help with some training.

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Bryan and Jackson.

Now I don’t know much about hunting dogs, but I do know they’re trained with aversives. This means the trainers use positive punishment (add something unpleasant to decrease a behavior) and negative reinforcement (remove something unpleasant to increase a behavior). I explained to Bryan that I use entirely force-free methods, and in fact use a lot of treats when I train, and that a lot of that probably wouldn’t fit with what he’d be learning out “in the field” as they call it in the hunting world. To my surprise, Bryan was still open to it. He did tell me though that he didn’t want to use a clicker because he didn’t want to have to carry it with him forever.  I explained that’s actually not how it works but we’d talk more when I stopped by.

The first few times I visited Jackson and Bryan were great. It’s quite evident how brilliant Jackson is, as he mastered sit, down, touch, “go to mat” and a decent recall almost immediately. Bryan and I had a lot of great discussions about training: why we use a marker signal, how to motivate Jackson in a way that will keep up with his natural instincts, why punishment isn’t the way to go for the type of relationship Bryan wants with his dog, why a high rate of reinforcement is important to keep Jackson engaged, how to break down behaviors so that Jackson fully understands them and more. I showed up the second week to Bryan using the clicker. I was thrilled, Bryan seemed pretty happy, and Jackson was enjoying training.

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After three of four weeks of visits, it became clear that using entirely positive training at home but still doing “traditional training” in the field would be too confusing for Jackson.  An example of one training exercise gun dogs trainers use is a “force fetch.” This means applying a painful stimulus to the dog – for example, pinching their ear or pressing a dowel between the dog’s toes and using a cord to compress them – and then releasing that stimulus when the dog puts the object in its mouth. The dog learns that it can cause the pain to end by picking up the object. Another common practice for gun dogs are electronic shock collars. A shock is administered to the dog to get a change in behavior and the shock stops when the desired behavior is completed or the undesired behavior ends.  The training we do with Jackson at home using rewards encourages him to be an engaged, participatory learner. We often want him to offer behaviors in an effort to find what gets him a reinforcer (this is called shaping and capturing). Our training teaches Jackson that good things can happen at any time, and that he can trust us to never use pain or fear if he messes up. Aversives teach the opposite. “Don’t mess up, or else.” Aversives are proven to slow learning because the dog is worried to try something new for fear of being punished. Ultimately this means that the trust we build with Jackson at home would be completely broken when he goes out to hunt, hindering his progress across the board.

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Upon realizing it couldn’t be done both ways, we started brainstorming on how to teach hunting skills using force-free methods. It uncovered an enormous learning curve for me because there are so many technical skills and technical names for those skills associated with a really great gun dog. Plus, these skills can’t be taught haphazardly – hunting dogs need to be fluent in all their cues under intense distraction and at a variety of different locations and distances. If you’re ever taught your dog literally anything, you know how difficult that can be. Luckily at the Karen Pryor Academy we mastered the skills behind teaching clean, reliable behaviors, so Bryan and I got right to work – he brought the hunting knowledge and I brought the training knowledge. I’ve also immersed myself in books (Positive Gun Dogs is my favorite at the moment), Facebook Pages and Yahoo listservs for positive gun dog training.

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It has been hugely encouraging to see Jackson’s progress over the last six weeks, especially given that he spent seven months doing pretty much whatever he wanted. Bryan and Jackson are up against a lot in their sport, but Bryan has stepped up as Jackson’s advocate and overall the tides do seem to be chaining, albeit slowly. Bryan said last time he showed up to hunting training with his clicker some of the other guys said they knew people who trained their dogs that way.  It might be a while before traditional training is eliminated from dog sports all together, but I am hopeful that Jackson will soon be a shining example of what a gun dog can be when trained positively.  Regardless, he will have helped me gain another skill set as a trainer that I can use in my career, enabling me to help more dog and owner teams in a new way.


Falling in Love at the Emergency Vet

I told myself I would be better about posting every Wednesday like I promised. You probably (hopefully?) noticed there wasn’t a post yesterday morning. Well, here’s why.

I’m watching Paco again for a week while his family is on vacation, which I am absolutely thrilled about. Like I wrote about last time I got him for ten glorious days, he’s super easy and we have a great time together. Tuesday morning started out like every other day. I was going to attempt to bring Paco to work with me for the first time because my shelter’s kids camp had a “Meet My Pet” session that Paco and I signed up for (he loves kids, after all), so I got him up early to wear him out for the day. We were playing with the flirt pole. Paco loooves the flirt pole, and his manners when playing with it are impeccable – he always sits before chasing, he drops as soon as I ask and his arousal levels stay low. He just runs like a crazy dog and exercises himself quickly! I’m always careful to keep our flirt poles games horizontal (unlike how I used with JC last year, which I have since learned to be more responsible and safe with). Chase-catch, not jump-spin-catch, for the exact reason of what happened next.

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Paco was chasing and chasing and grabbing and shaking and having a grand old time. Like I mentioned, he was being polite and following all of our game rules. Then, all of a sudden, he was all four paws off the ground. My wrist must have flicked too much and the toy went flying a bit too high, and Paco followed. To say he crash landed would be putting it lightly. This poor pup splatted on the ground. I held my breath as he got up. Please don’t be hurt, please don’t be hurt. Sure enough, he was limping and visibly in pain.

I rushed him inside and quickly got ready for work. Working at an animal shelter meant I’d have more resources for me there than anywhere else, so I scooped him up and off we went. I had some coworkers check him out and he seemed to be improving throughout the day. We were able to squeeze in a quick vet exam and get pain meds, so I thought he’d be okay until the following morning at 7 am when we had x-rays scheduled.  The vet exam determined it was probably a shoulder injury, but we couldn’t know for sure what was wrong until further investigation.

After work I realized he wasn’t fine. His breathing was a bit labored and he started to not want to walk at all, even with the pain meds. He started whimpering when he moved too much. I panicked, cancelled my training client for that evening (who is actually a vet herself and was the most wonderfully supportive human I could have asked for in that moment), and rushed Paco to the emergency vet. Watching him be in pain like that was the absolute worse feeling in the whole world – I just wanted him to feel better!

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Arriving at the vet put him in better spirits. He loves people so, so much that greeting all the people in the lobby and the techs and doctors made his happy little tail go crazy. Just like with my foster dogs, it makes my heart swell when people compliment Paco. Whether they comment on his handsome good looks, his polite greetings or his general happy-go-lucky attitude, I cannot help but beam when people fuss over him (yes, I know he isn’t mine – but more on that later).  With another initial exam the doctor confirmed it was the shoulder, but radiographs were the only way to determine if there was something broken, so I handed him over to the techs.

So I’m going to take a minute here to ask how those of you who have gone through any sort of trauma with a pet (or human, for that matter) came out the other end in one piece. I was a mess! Luckily there weren’t any real tears, but I sure came close a few times. I was just so worried about my little guy. And yes, I know he isn’t actually my dog, but after all those hours we spent together for KPA and how many times he’s stayed with me I just feel so close to him. We’re buddies, ya know? I’m his safe place and he’s a pair of big brown eyes that will do anything for me. We’re a team. I don’t want anything bad to happen to him. I want to keep him safe, happy and healthy forever and ever.  What if it had been a worse situation!? I have a whole new perspective on pet owners who have to go through medical emergencies with their pets.

Two and a half hours after I handed him off, I finally got a groggy, wiggly Paco back. The radiographs showed no fractures – hooray! The verdict was just very sore, probably strained or a little torn soft tissue. Treatment? Lots of pain meds and two weeks rest. The rest part will be difficult for Mr. Bouncy, but thanks to the pain medication I have already seen an improvement in his spirits.

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It was a late night, but I was thrilled to have his sleepy head rest on me for the remainder of the evening. I set up a comfy bed on the floor next to me and he immediately curled up and went to sleep. Seeing him peacefully sleeping was such a relief just knowing he was more comfortable and that nothing serious was wrong.

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Throughout this whole ordeal I had some friends tell me I was being too worried and that he was just milking it and that he was being a big baby. Sure, a strained shoulder might not be too serious but my goodness there was nothing worse than seeing him in that pain! I would have done anything for him in those moments, even for a stubbed toe. Luckily I was able to get a hold of his family who are vacationing out of the country and they were 100% supportive of anything he needed and they thanked me for taking care of him (never mind the fact that I broke him in the first place, but hey).

Even though it was a stressful twelve hours and it puts a damper on our hiking/adventure plans for the rest of the week, this little ordeal made me fall even harder in love with my Paco Taco. I think I am going to be seriously bummed when my forever dog, whenever I end up getting him or her, is not exactly like him. He’s everything what I want in a dog, which is probably why the stars aligned to bring us together like they did – so I can have him in my life at a time when I cannot actually have a dog of my own. For that, I am so grateful! Love you Taco Man.

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Big shout out to my mama for being on call for hysterical-daughter duty, to my friends who gave in-person moral support or sent messages with well wishes and to Friendship Animal Hospital for treating him like one of your own!  I am one lucky stand-in dog mom.


Where Has PLF Been!?

Honestly, that’s a really great question. We barely even know! Judging by how many of you nice people liked our Facebook status announcing this post, it seems like you’ve missed us? Have you noticed we’ve been gone?

I guess I sort of felt like I didn’t have enough topics of substance to write about that weren’t just me spewing my opinion at you. And for the instances I did decide I wanted to share my opinion, I wasn’t giving myself enough time to come up with a well constructed post.  My efforts felt incomplete, which I hate! I decided I’d rather give you guys well thought out, interesting posts instead of ones thrown together at the last minute (this is where I don’t tell you that it’s 10:13 pm on Tuesday night so clearly I still haven’t addressed that last point).

In addition to feeling torn about post topics, I have been extra busy – in the best kind of way! I’m falling so in love with life every day here in the city. I’m soaking up the sunshine and warm temps. I’m spending extra time with friends. I’m working late nights at the shelter. I’m filling my weekends up to the brim with new, fun activities. I’m bonding with shelter dogs. I traveled to Mexico for a girl’s weekend. I’m spending afternoons with Paco just because. I’m constantly looking around this beautiful city with stars in my eyes. I’m gaining hours and hours of training experience working with clients, celebrating behavior-related victories every time. I’m taking weekend trips to Deep Creek Lake with my best friends. I’m dogsitting Lady Bug (adopt her!) and enjoying tons of snuggles.  I’m journeying out to the barn to spend time in wide open spaces. I’m finding corners of crowded DC bars to watch the World Cup games in with fellow Americans. I’m stealing gorgeous neighborhood husky puppies and helping their owners get through terrible puppyhood.  I’m learning more about dog behavior every single day. I’m embracing chaotic, fulfilling happiness every single day.

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So, I apologize about being absent from this space. I think about PLF often, and it’s not something I’m ready to move away from yet. I’ll be here for years to come, it just might not be every single Wednesday forever and ever because I want to give you posts worth reading. I am still as thankful as ever to have this blog and to have your attention, especially as I commit my career to helping dogs more and more every day.  Thanks for being the best, ever. See you back here soon? :-)

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“I Tried Clicker Training and It Didn’t Work”

Those words have been ringing in my ear for the past week. In the same day two friends of mine reached out to me asking for help with their dogs, and both of them told me that they had tried clicker training and it didn’t work.

In a day and age where my colleagues and I are working like crazy to promote dog-friendly training methods, this phrase is hard to swallow. I have seen with my own eyes that marker (clicker) training can work on any animal – from sting rays to elephants to hermit crabs – so for someone to tell me it “didn’t work” on their dog, I am a little skeptical.

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The first and most important question I raise when someone tells me a certain training method didn’t work is: did you work with a professional? I’m not talking about someone who calls themselves a dog trainer because they have x amount of years experience “training” dogs. I’m talking about a person who is certified by a reputable organization and who has had their training skills tested and evaluated to make sure they know what they are talking about. While the basic concept of marker training is easy – mark and reward the behavior you like – the execution can be tricky if you’ve never practiced. Furthermore, timing and mechanics are essential in communicating to your dog what you want them to know. This is why working with a professional is so important; so they can tell you how to improve your communication skills.

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I remember a similar realization from when I rode horses growing up. I would have my weekly lessons, and then in between each lesson I’d ride on my own and practice what I’d learned. At the next lesson my instructor would fix everything I’d been doing incorrectly while I practiced on my own. Usually it was something I didn’t realize I was doing, wouldn’t notice without being able to watch myself ride or didn’t know I should be doing differently. That is what I hired my instructor for, after all! I could read books about the correct dressage seat until I was blue in the face, but nothing could replace what I would learn from working with a professional.

Training your dog is no different than any other skill you are trying to learn. Sure, you can read about it on the internet or in books or watch it on tv (cringe), but without consulting someone with an education and credentials on the subject, it is likely that you won’t get the results you are looking for. I absolutely love that people want to work with their dogs and take a stab at it on their own – I just hope they ask for help before writing off reward-based training.  So many people are blown away by what can happen when we finally find what motivates their dog, they just need a little guidance – and that’s what good dog trainers love to help with!

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To find a certified trainer in your area, check out the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.


Staycation With Paco

My work with Paco might have ended a few weeks ago, but I have been lucky enough to have him back in my life recently. I am dog sitting him while his family is on spring break! Ten whole days of just me and Paco time – I am in heaven! I am grateful that he is super easy to take care of: he is okay home alone and with just about thirty minutes of exercise a day, he loves to lounge around and sleep. It’s been so fun acting like he is “my dog” the past six days. It seems to be good timing that last week I wrote about fostering Lady Bug without worrying about the actual care, and this week I am here caring for Paco without him being a foster. Here are some photos from the time we’ve spent together so far:

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I sure do love having a pup to adventure with again… though I definitely won’t complain when my life goes back to not being planned in eight hour intervals!