One Step Closer to the Stars

I wasn’t sure what to write about for today’s blog post. I’ve got so many dog-related topics at the forefront of my brain, each one seemingly just as important to write about as the next.  Even though I just about had my mind made up for what today’s post was going to be, I changed my mind last minute to take advantage of the raw emotion I’m feeling right now, and to give you guys a[nother] blog post from the heart.

This afternoon I opened up an email saying that I passed my certification exam for the Karen Pryor Academy (KPA).  Over the weekend, Paco and I were tested on everything we have worked on for the past seven months. I know in the grand scheme of learning about dogs and dog training and dog behavior, seven months is only a blip of time – but the past seven months have been what feels like nothing but intense training and hours of studying. I’ve learned so much about dogs, but also about myself.

I know graduation from KPA did not make me a dog trainer overnight. Dog behavior is complex and takes years of experience, in my opinion, before you can truly get a grasp on what is going on in the brains of our four-legged companions.  But KPA gave me skills and much of the knowledge needed to tackle every day behavioral issues in a way that works with how dogs learn and, better yet, how we can build trust in the human-canine bond.  It fueled the already strong passion I have to go out and show the world that you can train dogs without using an ounce of fear, pain, dominance, force, strength, whatever; and that a relationship built in positive reinforcement and mutual respect is really beautiful.

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I can’t imagine bringing any dog through the course other than Paco.  That pup has such a love for life and any progress I made as a trainer would show through tenfold in his abilities because it meant we were communicating that much better. He was such a star! On the last day of workshops we were goofing off together and I taught him how to bow and then how to target a yogurt lid on the wall from a distance – both using maybe five minutes of shaping. I would squeal because he’d get it right and he’d get all excited and wiggly and I would start laughing at him and soon we’d cause a whole scene of happiness and I’d stop for a second and almost start to cry because once upon a time this was a dog who didn’t even really want to make eye contact with me, let alone work with me. Clicker training goes a long way, folks – even for pit bulls and other “strong” breeds (whatever the heck that means). Towards the end of our time working together all I needed to do was tap into Paco’s love for playing tug and he would perform behavior chains for me for however long I wanted. His tail would wag and his whole butt would shake and he’d keep coming back for more, waiting for his next cue. He loved working. He loved it. I also forget until looking at two photos like this that he has literally grown up with me. From a gangly young puppy to a handsome adult, Paco took every step of this journey right along beside me.

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Graduating from KPA was a huge accomplishment for me. It means I’ve got some fancy letters at the end of my name now: KPA CTP, which stand for Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner. Because dog training is a completely unrelated industry, no two certification programs are the same (unfortunately – hopefully one day that will change). Your average dog owner might not know what exactly KPA CTP means, but if they looked up the school they’d see that KPA’s program is built around the science of learning and force-free training principles, and that they believe strongly in continuing education – a standard that is important in dog training. Moving forward, I will work towards my Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) certification; one that is a bit more broad, but doesn’t necessarily have the same education behind it. The whole industry is very complicated!

This was a huge stepping stone for my ultimate career goals (too many to write) and overall life goals (helping more dogs). While I’m relieved it’s over, I know it also means many more opportunities – and much more work – from here on out, and I can’t wait!

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When Expectations Hurt

I see it more than ever now that I am working with either clients or shelter dogs every day: we as humans often have unrealistic expectations for our dogs, and these standards can lead to a frustrating relationship for both parties.

We’ve all been there. “But I know she knows this cue.” “He shouldn’t be afraid of this, he should just get used to it!” “She should be able to do this by now.” “Why is he acting this way? He is fine at home.” “How come she doesn’t understand that what she did was wrong?” “I want her to change her behavior, but I want the solution to be easy!” “He should do it just because I told him to.”

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These high standards usually stem from the fact that dogs and humans are two entirely different species, and therefore have completely separate ways of communicating, playing, surviving, etc. What is acceptable and desired in the human world is usually quite foreign in the dog world. For example, being calm and quiet for, oh, 23 hours a day. Dogs are generally wired to be active, and yet we prefer them to sit on the couch, stay in their crate, sleep on their beds, whatever, when we are not exercising them. And vice versa. Dogs are supposed to bark and chew and pee wherever they want, and yet we ask them to curb most of those behaviors and to actually act very non-dog like inside our homes. Until an understanding is met between human and dog, the two worlds can collide in a chaotic, frustrating and sometimes dangerous way.

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That is where understanding of dog behavior comes in. Certified trainers and behaviorists (and a lot of really awesome book authors, seminar-givers and youtube channel makers) are there to unite human and dog – to show the two that they can in fact live harmoniously, once a form of communication is established. What I find most frustrating – and, to be quite honest, heart breaking – is when I watch dog owners toss aside the needs of their dog. Explaining to them that their dog is barking out of fear or destroying their furniture because they are bored out of their minds, and then hearing their owners still demand a “simple fix,” is always hard to swallow. In an era when the solutions are often found at the end of our fingers with our smart phones, folks have a tough time realizing that behavior does not change over night.

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I’m not saying we should be making excuses for our dogs. I hold Paco to very high standards with his behavior – but they are also reasonable. I am not going to expect Paco, an 11-month old puppy, to be able to sit still at my house for three hours. That’s just not fair to him. I’m going to be sensitive to his needs and adjust accordingly.

One of my favorite takeaways from our #367 experience was a phrase we heard often during the week when working with the dogs: meet them where they are. This strongly applies to the victims of trauma we met at that temporary shelter, but is also applies to every dog waiting for a home, transitioning to a new home, or currently living in a home. See the dog you are working with in front of you – make note of their strengths, weaknesses, and needs – and interact with them accordingly. Expect of them accordingly. Set goals that reflect the progress they are capable of making. Celebrate the victories they make without dwelling on their failures or shortcomings. Realize that they are a dog, they do not speak English and they do not read minds. Be understanding. Be compassionate. Communicate to them what you want in a positive and clear way, and if they are not responding then work like heck to figure out how you can improve your message to them. I believe we owe it to our dogs to do so.

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Going With the Snow

All you East Coasters know the snow storm we experienced at the end of last week. We’ve had a lot of snow so far this winter, but all in small doses. On Wednesday night we had 10+ inches dumped on the DC area!

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Knowing I had my Karen Pryor Academy final testing weekend coming up in just two days, I borrowed Paco to get snowed in with. His family knew they’d have a house full of kids since everyone would be off school, so they were happy to let me take him for as long as I wanted. We grabbed some extra training treats and a bottle of wine and we settled right in for however long we would be snowed in for. In between playing, snuggling relaxing on the couch and eating snow day food, Paco and I got in a lot of really great training. I felt ready for our big test!

IMG_4285IMG_4298Friday morning rolled around and I got some great news that the shelter was closed for the second day in a row so I had the whole day to prepare. I planned out my to-do list and got started with organizing all my supplies for the big weekend. I would need high value treats, long lasting chews, all of our studying/exam materials, the props for our ten-part chain and more.  I was excited to get it all out of the way so I could relax with Paco for the evening.

I got news shortly after my day started that because of the snow we’d gotten and the snow we were going to get Friday night, the final testing weekend was being postponed.  When I read the email, my initial reaction was to be upset. I’d prepared so much and felt so ready, and now I would have to wait even longer to get all my hard work wrapped up.

After a quick pity party I realized there was nothing I could do to change the weather, and that I needed to make the best of the situation. For starters, I now had an entire weekend with nothing on my calendar – something that hadn’t happened in what feels like literally years. Also, now I have more time to prepare for our final exam. Since all of our coursework is out of the way, for the next four weeks (the test is rescheduled for mid-March) I can focus solely on my and Paco’s performance.

IMG_4273So while I wish that I could be writing to you all right now about how the course ended and how Paco and I did, that is no longer the plan. I’ve got four more weeks of practicing and (anxiously!) waiting to test my skills. And we’ll embrace that extra time and be thankful for the additional opportunities to improve ourselves so that we have our best shot at passing and getting our KPA CTP certification. We will keep you updated!

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Cheers to You, New Year

Did anyone else catch where January ran off to? It’s like she came and went without even saying hello… rude! But I guess it’s not all January’s fault – we were also too busy to notice how quickly the days were passing.

Looking back, I’m realizing that January was a month of re-centering. Even though it felt like a total whirlwind with all four weeks blending together, I feel like I am starting the second month of 2014 more focused than ever on what I love doing: helping dogs. Working with the HSUS #367 dogs sparked the rejuvenation of my passion, and since then I have been reminded again and again of where I am right now and where I am capable of going this month, this year and, most importantly, this lifetime.

I’ve never really been one for New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t have anything against them or the people who make them, I’ve just typically been the type of person who might set one here or there and then doesn’t exactly follow through. But 2014 has already proven to be influential despite the fact that I did not make any conscious resolutions. In the next handful of posts I’m going to be discussing in more detail the January (and beyond) happenings that have helped me realize 2014 is going to be quite an exceptional year:

1.  Working with the #367 dogs and helping with their transport to freedom. Here is Rudy, one of the three survivors that Jasmine’s House is taking in. This photo is from when we met him off the van after his trip from the HSUS temporary shelter. My friend Amy, who volunteered with me, and I will tell you guys what it’s been like to follow these dogs through their journey (spoiler alert: it’s been pretty spectacular!!!!).

Photo credit: Heidi Moore Trasatti Photography

Photo credit: Heidi Moore Trasatti Photography

2.  Hanging out with WHS Rudy (popular name, right?). I never realized how much I missed fostering until I spent more time with Rudy and his fosters. Stay tuned for a guest post from Eran about what fostering Rudy has been like!

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3.  Getting down to the wire with Paco and KPA. We’re less than two weeks out from the big weekend that will determine if we get our KPA-CTP certification or not. After all the work we’ve done, I’m getting pretty nervous that we are so close. It doesn’t help that Paco’s been a little under the weather lately (luckily nothing a little pumpkin can’t fix) and doesn’t want to do much more than what he’s pictured doing below. Will we be ready? We’ll talk about how the weekend goes as well as what finishing the course will mean for my career as a trainer. Please send all of your lucks to us February 15 & 16!

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We hope your 2014 has started off with as much fun and happiness as ours has! Thanks for being here with us as we head into year #3 for Peace, Love & Fostering :-).


Playing Catch Up

Whew… the Holidays are over! Life is back to normal, right? Sort of? I feel like I haven’t written a real blog post in FOREVER and that I need to just give you a long catch up entry about everything that’s been happening over here at PLF. However since I don’t want to bore you with those details, I’ll stick to one of the most major commitments in my life right now: the Karen Pryor Academy. I know you’ve read a lot about it over the past few months, but it’s still new and exciting and sort of scary so I want to continue to share my experiences with you all.

It feels like just last week that we had our second testing weekend. Well, it was much earlier than that because this past weekend was workshop #3! That means our next workshop in mid-February is the big exam weekend… YIKES.

This third weekend went much better than I thought it would. Unit three covered a lot of intense material, and I felt a little behind heading into the workshop. Turns out I understood the content better than I thought and had so many *a-ha!* moments that the entire weekend was extremely reinforcing for me. Just like weekend two, I left thinking you can do this, J.  I also left thinking wow, you really, really love this behavior stuff! Talking nerdy dog speak officially gets me going (speaking of: see you in March, Clicker Expo!).

This latest workshop left us both exhausted.

This latest workshop left us both exhausted.

We’ve covered so much in KPA up to this point. We’ve learned everything from proper clicker mechanics so that you’re not bribing your dog to how to build behaviors using shaping and capturing to how to teach cues to fluency (meaning they have precision, low latency, high speed and can be performed around distractions, from a distance and for whatever duration you choose) and put them under stimulus control to why building a relationship entirely around trust is so important for your dog’s ability to learn and be happy. I seriously CANNOT GET ENOUGH of all this knowledge. The fact that it is coming together so perfectly – all the long lessons and assignments and readings are finally all making sense in the big picture – is just so thrilling to me.

It hasn’t been easy though, and it won’t be easy moving forward. Not living with Paco has presented the challenge of scheduling and time. It’s funny to look back at our previous challenges though to the ones we are experiencing now. Before I couldn’t get him to focus on me, I couldn’t for the life of me find a reward that was exciting enough to keep him engaged and he would shut down after two minutes of attempted shaping.

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Now, I’ve got a bouncy, happy puppy on my hands who will work with me whenever I request it. It’s no longer a matter of what to use to keep him engaged. He’s happy to train, sometimes I just need that little bit of extra yummy to really keep his focus. I especially noticed our progress at the workshop this weekend when we were doing a shaping exercise. Shaping was one of the first topics we learned about in KPA, so Paco and I were still new to each other and never very good at it. He generally bowed out of the exercises pretty early and I would get frustrated – not a good combo. During this workshop exercise I successfully shaped a new behavior in a brief five minute session almost without even realizing. Working together has become so natural to us it’s hard to realize how in sync we are now! I touched briefly on our budding relationship after weekend #2, but holy moly do I love that little dog.

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Yes I am aware that he does not look thrilled in this photo. He loves me back, just not when I squeeze him like a teddy bear.

 

For the next six weeks, Paco and I will be tirelessly working on our ten-part chain, the ultimate test of our knowledge and skills from this course. You can see an example of a 10-part chain here on YouTube. Basically I have to teach Paco at least ten cues to fluency and then chain them together (a concept we learned about in our course). While the video you watch might not look *that* impressive, there are lots of technical details that make it the perfect way to showcase all that we have learned and taught our dogs. It is an impressive feat in the end!

While it’s a lot of work and stressful to fit in between my 9 to 5 and training clients, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered something that came so naturally to me (except maybe loving my foster dogs, but I think this is all related). The science behind animal training and behavior just makes sense to me, and I am realizing more and more that it will be yet another opportunity where I can help dogs – and people – in this world. How lucky I am to have discovered this passion (along with so many more) and been given this opportunity so quickly in life!

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Distraction, Duration & Distance: The Key to Improving Your Photographs

In the second unit of the Karen Pryor Academy, we learned about behavior fluency. Fluency means that when an animal perceives a cue, they start the behavior right away (low latency) and they perform it precisely (precision) and quickly (high speed). Fluent behaviors are pretty impressive to watch. I wrote a bit about how I was working on fluency with Paco in my post about playing training games.

In this third unit, we are covering three more aspects of fluency: distraction, duration and distance. Those characteristics are all for the most part self explanatory. Distraction refers to being able to perform the behavior in distracting environments, duration means holding/continuing the behavior until released and distance means being able to respond to the cue even when the handler is not directly next to the animal.

These three aspects of fluency – I’ll call them D/D/D – are also impressive to watch. A dog who can respond to a “down” or “wave” cue from across the room is likely to be quite the crowd pleaser. As you can guess, mastering D/D/D takes a decent amount of time and practice. You have to work on each aspect individually while temporarily relaxing your criteria for the others.  They all sort of build on each other, so once you have one mastered, you can begin working on the next and then inevitably adding them all together down the road.

Like pretty much any dog who is just starting to learn, Paco needs work in all three categories. He started out by being easily distracted, jumping up as soon as he performed behaviors and only really responding when he was right next to you. I am happy to say he has improved a bit since we have been practicing. By slowly adding distractions to our sessions – never adding too many at one time – he has become less sensitive to them. By shaping duration (basically rewarding him for holding behaviors for different amounts of time) I am now able to give him certain cues and know he will hold them until I release him. He is even getting better at “sit” and “down” from a few feet away from me. Slowly but sure, he is shaping up to be quite the great little performer.

I didn’t realize it until I took him out on the town the other night, but these skills are really going to help me improve my photographs of him. Before, I would give him the sit cue and as soon as I would back up to take the photograph, he would follow me (which you might have noticed because of the amount of close ups I have of him – ha!). I am looking forward to the day where I can plant him somewhere and get whatever shots I want! And have him be happy about it, of course. The whole point of teaching him D/D/D with clicker training is for him to hold these behaviors and respond to cues from far away and not worry about distractions because he wants to, not because he is worried about what will happen if he doesn’t.

Here is a photo from week one of working on D/D/D. I plan to have many more for you moving forward, thanks to Paco’s new found modeling skills!

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