DUCK BOOT ADDICT

Okay, I don’t actually mean my closet is full of these brown and black boots. 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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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.


GROWING UP

It’s been a busy summer around here, especially with my two best friends from high school. You’ve met one of them briefly on here when I wrote about her gorgeous dog Kenji. Well, she’s getting married! We got to spend some quality time with Kenji yesterday after wedding dress shopping with his mama. It’s been so great to watch him grow up into a lovely gentlemen.

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More exciting news – my other best friend just adopted her foster dog from BARCS, Baltimore’s animal shelter! Ilana has never had a dog before and this new addition to her family has got me doing all sorts of happy dances. Dominic is the perfect dog for her, and I am so proud of her for adopting a pup in need of a home. She will be here with a guest post soon about what it is like to have a dog for the first time ever. Stay tuned!

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So we’re busy busy, and so grateful for this time spent with close friends – especially since catching up is usually extra dog related these days!

Are you all doing anything special this summer?


Taking Action for Animals – What “Action” Means For Us

When I was invited to attend the Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) annual Taking Action for Animals (TAFA) conference here in DC this past weekend, I eagerly looked up what lectures were being offered.  One session called “Saving Pets” stood out to me (and luckily was on the only day I was able to attend). This workshop featured four speakers: one about increasing adoptions in shelters, one about decreasing the number of puppies from puppy mills sold in pet stores, one from HSUS’s Pets for Life program about helping under served pet owners, and one from Coalition to Unchain Dogs, a group that builds fences for dogs who previously lived on a chain.

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I was impressed with how much of this conference truly revolved around the word “action.” In the “Saving Pets” workshop we were not only told about current welfare issues, but we were also given ways we can take action ourselves. What can I, as your average animal lover, do to help those dogs being bred purely for money? What can I do to increase the quality of life for dogs who need to live outside? What can I do to help people who might not be able to provide for their pets? Of course we can write checks (which is also needed!), but TAFA gave us some tools to go a step further.

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While the presentation about sheltering and puppy mills were full of great (and heartbreaking) information, it was the Pets for Life and Coalition to Unchain Dogs speakers that really stood out to me. Like I wrote about a few posts back, one issue in animal welfare that is currently at the forefront of my interests is helping under-resourced pet owners keep their pets instead of having them end up in shelters. Pets for Life and Coalition to Unchain Dogs both do just that. For more information about the two groups, I encourage you to follow the links to their websites in the previous sentence. I’d like to focus on some common themes behind the action that these groups are taking that translate to just about any work done when helping animals:

Leave your judgements at the door. I’m serious. All of them. Every single assumption you want to make about someone, all those stereotypes you believe in even if you swear up and down that you don’t – get rid of them. You will help more animals. I’m not saying it’s easy, in fact many times it can be quite the opposite – but when you go into a situation with your guard down and with no judgements, enormous changes can be made. That person might not take care of their pet the way that you do, but you sure as heck better realize that they love them just the same. Us having the mentality, “If they can’t afford to take it to the vet, they shouldn’t have it,” isn’t going to change anything about the situation at hand. So move on and start figuring out how you can help.

Relationship building is the most important task on your to-do list. Helping animals usually starts with helping their owners, and a lot of times the best way to get through to someone is to have a relationship with them. Relationships build trust and break down walls. Dolly’s Foundation is an amazing organization that offers owner support in Florida, and they report that it can sometimes take months before someone agrees to get their pet spayed. Dolly’s goes in judgement-free (ding ding ding!) and takes what little victories they can get, all the while building the relationship.

It is important to have the core belief that people love their pets. As Neya Warren of Coalition to Unchain Dogs said in her presentation, “A lack of resources does not equate to a lack of love.” Believing that people want the best for their pets – whether they can provide that or not – makes it that much easier to shed judgements and start helping.

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Ask open-ended questions. This is a tool I recently learned that I now use in all aspects of my life, but especially when doing application reviews with potential adopters. If you ask someone a yes or no question, it almost immediately removes an opportunity for discussion. Plus, you sort of make it seem like there is a right or wrong answer. Open-ended questions are amazing at getting people to open up and feel comfortable – plus it makes for a much more productive, two-sided conversation. We’ve all been there where we feel like we’re talking at someone. Open-ended questions put it on the other person to do some talking which, when working to help them or their pets, can be very important!

Nothing beats face-to-face interactions. I suppose I already covered this in the previous points, but the folks who make a huge difference are the ones who have their feet on the ground and who are out there meeting with the people who need their help. Facebook, tabling events, flyers, etc. are great, but they’re not going to get the job done. Laurie Maxwell from Pets for Life made the point that we have to get rid of the, “If you build it, they will come,” mentality. Most of the time it is knocking on doors that is needed most. It’s volunteers in the neighborhoods. It’s that face-to-face conversation and relationship building. It’s meeting them where they are.

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Those points are just a few snippets of the expertise from this workshop. I jotted down some phrases that came to mind as I listened to the presentations – concepts that came up over and over again – and the list included: feet on the ground, face-to-face, benefits everyone, non-judgmental, inspiring, conversation, dignity, listening, respect, open mind – and more. Do you see a common theme here? It’s time to start realizing that action for animals – especially those in shelters or who might end up in shelters – means action for people as well.

For more information about how you can help the people, and therefore the pets, in your community, check out HSUS’s Pets for Life program, including their extensive toolkit. I recommend you see if there are existing organizations in your community, like Ruff Riders in New York City, who are already working to keep pets with their families. If you prefer a different route for helping animals, I still encourage you to keep these “action” points in mind when you are working with pet owners, potential adopters, whoever. A little open mind goes a long way.

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P.S. – Check out who made it into HSUS’s All Animals Magazine!

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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!


Vicarious Fostering With Lady Bug

Back in January I wrote all about Rudy, my friend Eran’s foster dog. Eran even wrote a guest post on what it was like to foster for the first time. Since those posts, Rudy has been adopted and Eran and his roommates have brought another foster dog home. Her name is Lady Bug and she has proven to be quite the awesome little (not actually little) dog.

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Eran fostering Lady Bug has been the closest I’ve come to the fostering experience since I handed Johnnie’s leash over thirteen months ago. Eran pulled me into the process as he and his roommates began to look for a new dog, so I have been working with them from the beginning. Knowing what his house’s needs and wants for fostering were, I hooked them up with Jasmine’s House. Jasmine’s House would allow them to pull a dog from a shelter and bring that dog into the rescue program.  Eran and I went to the Washington Humane Society to look at possible foster dogs – an opportunity I hadn’t really ever been a part of because my foster dogs always had a way of finding me versus me picking them. It was overwhelming to have rows of faces as options, each one wagging and saying, “pick me!” Eran and I would go over each dog and talk about their personality, the pros and cons, the potential that they would fit in with a busy house of six young guys, etc.  It was daunting. How could we predict the way these animals would act in a home environment? I, having worked with shelter and foster dogs for years now, know what could go wrong, and while I tried not to be too pessimistic, I felt like I needed to bring up the “what ifs.” The WHS staff and volunteers were wonderful in helping us sort through the options.

After lots of back and forth about what dog to bring home, Eran and his roommates ended up deciding on a three year old black pittie named Lady Bug. She was actually at a different shelter location than the one I went to so I never even met her, but he and I had had so many discussions about what to look for in a potential foster dog I was sure they made a good decision. It was their dog, not mine, after all! Eran reported that she was very outgoing and friendly, she wasn’t mouthy or too jumpy and that she had a BFF that she played with at the shelter named Oink. That’s about the best we can ask for, right? They were totally in love with her soft fur, stocky body and wonky eyes. I have to admit she is pretty endearing.

First picture at home!

First picture at home!

Just like when I brought Zabora, Baxter, Otis and Johnnie home, I held my breath with Eran the first few days and nights after they brought Bug home. What would she be like once she got into a home? What part of her behavior was her true personality and what was still hidden from the stress of the move? What challenges would arise as she settled in and decompressed? She’d been at the shelter since December, so it was anyone’s best guess how the stay affected her.

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As expected, it felt like something changed every day that passed with her. The first weekend she was had some episodes of fear-based reactivity. We immediately started counter conditioning. Luckily Eran and his roommates are fabulous at taking advice and they care deeply about Bug’s well being, so improvements happened quickly. Then Lady Bug started having episodes of hyperactivity where she would become barky and mouthy. We brainstormed endless ways to manage her and be proactive about curbing the episodes. Lady Bug got food puzzles and Kongs and long walks. When that didn’t really help, we decided to take her to the vet. After putting her on a careful chicken and rice only diet, her inappropriate behavior has practically disappeared. Maybe it was a food allergy or maybe she just settled down, but either way she has become quite lovely – and her skin and coat have improved tremendously! Amid all of these changes, she also started to dislike her crate. Like many foster dogs, the challenges felt like they might never end. We had to keep in mind that this transition is difficult and stressful for her, and that we needed to be understanding of her needs.  Talk about a refresher on being patient!

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I am happy to report that after being in their home for about five weeks, Bug seems have worked through most of her issues, and she is turning into one of the friendliest, snuggliest, happy-go-lucky dogs I’ve ever met. It has been so rewarding to watch her settle in and become more comfortable with her surroundings. Now she seems happy to just snooze the day away with her (six!) boys. She has learned sit, down, touch and mat through clicker training. Her fosters are so awesome and have taught her that she can feel safe where she is. No matter if they are hanging out around the house, having strangers visit, doing training, etc. – Bug knows that her boys won’t hurt or scare her, and they will keep her safe. There is so much trust among them, and I’m very proud of all the roommates for facilitating that!

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I didn’t realize how much I missed fostering until I became so attached to Bug throughout this whole process. It reminded me how invested you become when you worry so much about another creature, and they are not even yours!  I’ve enjoyed working with Bug’s fosters along the way and getting to use my new knowledge to help them help her. Though I’m not sure I’m looking forward to the familiar heartache of letting her go once she finally gets scooped up!

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Girl’s Day Out

The temperature is slowly creeping up above freezing. The first day of Spring has officially come and gone. Teensy flowers are beginning to poke out from the thawing ground. The sunshine is lasting longer and longer. You can feel it… spring is in the air.

I’ll hike any time of year, but warmer weather makes enjoying time in the outdoors that much more appealing. I took full advantage of the slightly more bearable temps this past weekend by taking two of the my favorite pups on a hike at a local park called Scott’s Run. One of the girls, Lena, is a client’s dog. Her family was having a party so I offered to take her off their hands for the afternoon (twist my arm!). The other dog is Lady Bug, my friend Eran’s newest foster dog! Lena is on the left and Lady Bug is on the right.

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Are they not the prettiest pair? I’ve got so much to tell you guys about Lady Bug, but that’s going to be for another post. For now, enjoy some photos of these two on our adventure! Coincidentally, Lena was adopted from the Washington Humane Society (WHS) last spring and Lady Bug was just sprung from WHS last month!

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A great time was had by all, as you can see with Lena on the drive home:

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Who else is ready for the nicer weather with their pets!?