My Journey to Becoming a Dog Trainer: Part 1

I had a dog growing up. I’ve loved dogs all my life. I worked at the humane society in high school, and then even studied Animal Sciences in college. But I didn’t really have an interest in training dogs until about ten months ago when it felt like a switch flipped. Since then, I can’t seem to learn enough about working with dogs.

With my childhood dog, a Wheaten Terrier named Barley, we used a shake can when he would do the wrong thing like get into the garbage. We walked him on a retractable leash and didn’t pay much attention to how he was invading our surroundings. We wondered why he acted the way he did around other dogs (he could be reactive) and why he wasn’t ‘normal’ like the ones who love every other dog they meet. We would scream at him when he would bark out the front window. But I figured that was Barley and that was the way you interacted and dealt with dogs. Looking back, I can now see why we didn’t have the closest relationship.


I remember bits and pieces of being exposed to training as I got older. Some of the first, I think, was watching Victoria Stilwell’s It’s Me or the Dog show on Animal Planet. I would catch it whenever it was on and was fascinated with how she could change a dog’s behavior by adjusting schedules, house rules and basic guidelines. Fast forward to college when I took animal behavior courses and companion animal courses (when we weren’t taking companion animal courses we were learning mostly about cows and poultry) and I got another glimpse of how animal’s learn. In our behavior courses we covered learning theory and discussed famous studies like those by Pavlov and others and how they related to why animals learn and act the way they do. We also learned about clicker training, though many of the examples we were shown that demonstrated clicker training used horses, donkeys or pigs!


People think that Animal Science majors get to hang out with dogs and cats all year. False. This is what I spent most of my time doing.

Despite all this background, I still wasn’t that interested in dog training. I started working at the humane society, and even fostering, and didn’t realize the importance in training past just basic obedience (sit, down, stay). Our shelter trainer, a CPDT and graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy (man were we lucky to have her), would chat with me about my fosters and basic ways to help any problematic behaviors popping up and, while I appreciated it and tried to follow through with her advice, I still just didn’t get the big picture of why dogs do the things they do and how I could change the way they behave.

My outlook changed when I attended the Animal Farm Foundation internship last September. Even though the course focused mainly on learning about how to help pit bull dogs get adopted from shelters, the most valuable lessons I took away from that week were the training ones.

Practicing shaping with Eli.

When we arrived Monday afternoon, I met our house dog Lady Bird (LB). She was an energetic little thing – way more spunky than I had ever really dealt with. Throughout orientation the first night Lady Bird kept trying to jump up on my fellow intern while we were all talking – something that was quite annoying. The intern simply stood up every time LB got on her lap, ignoring her the whole time, causing LB to naturally fall back to the floor. By the end of the time we were all together, Lady Bird had quit jumping up. No shoving, no pushing, no yelling… just a simple change of consequences and reinforcers.


The week continued with “aha!” moments like that, like when I realized I could pretty quickly teach a dog to sit while I open a door or not bark in the kennel – all using the same basic principles. I couldn’t believe it: the basics that I had learned in school and had watched others do for so long could be applied to behaviors across the board – with great results! I was hooked. By the end of the week, Lady Bird was a delight and I was a training-knowledge fiend.

Upon my return, I quickly realized that I had so many resources at my finger tips: Your Dog’s Friend, Beth the shelter trainer, other blogging friends, books, websites and so much more. I dove right in. While I am learning so much valuable information, I am also realizing that this is how it’s done, this is how people get into training. You’re not born knowing everything about dogs or wanting to train them (okay, maybe some have dreams to be a dog trainer as a kid, but not all of us), and you might not even wake up one day and just decide you want to be a trainer. Sometimes it takes lots of exposure to it or lots of trial and error or lots of exciting successes to get you hooked. Everyone’s story is unique.

Come back on Thursday to see how my dog training journey is unfolding. I am excited to share with you all where things are headed!


Elderbulls: I’m Sexy & I Know It

From the tips of their dry, cracking noses to their extra wrinkly skin to their soulful eyes that tell years of stories – Elderbulls are the hidden gem of the dog world.  My love for them began in the form of a petite dog with a permanent inquisitive look on her face. Her name was Zabora and she was gentle, sweet, and as uncoordinated as the best of them. Elderbulls have a very cozy piece of my heart because of just how loving yet stubborn they can be.  It’s like they’ve been through it, they’ve paid their dues, and now they are going to have it their way or the highway!

I much prefer Elderbulls over pushy, bouncy teenagers. I’d love if there was a better market for them in the adoptionsphere so I could take them all home and give them warm, squishy beds to sleep on while they await their perfect family.  It seems to me that why would you ever get anything else when you can save an older dog who might be overlooked but will have much better manners than the cute puppy in the next kennel!? A dog who wants to sleep, snuggle, and lounge all day? Sign me up!

I met three wonderful Elderbulls at Animal Farm Foundation last week, all with big personalities to match their age. Maverick is a seasoned veteran who seems to know the ropes better than most humans. He is a perfect gentleman on the leash and has a been there, done that sort of attitude. His gorgeous orange eyes complement his brindle coat, so much so that you barely even noticed the mangled nubs that are his ears’ crop job.

Julep was the only female of this Elderbull group, automatically putting her at diva status. I had her for one day of training techniques and she simply said, “Ehh. Your treats aren’t good enough for me,” and put her focus elsewhere. It was okay though because you knew that she was secretly happy to be hanging out with you, even if she didn’t really show it. She’s a shy girl to most, but I can definitely imagine her sassy side when she gets comfortable! I mean that in the sweetest way, of course. She’s the type of girl that deserves to be the only dog allowed on the furniture, you know what I mean?  If you’re looking for your very own love seat occupier, Julep is for you.

Last but certainly not least: Sir Pugsley Hill.  This one was almost a stick-in-the-trunk-to-bring-home-when-no-one-is-looking dog. First of all, he is named after a part of AFF’s property, so if that doesn’t give you a sense of the sort of entitlement he feels, I don’t know what will. To his credit, poor Pugsley was adopted out when he was young, he lived a happy life, and then his owner died so he returned to AFF at eleven years old. Pugsley Hill lives in the AFF office, so he was set up to be spoiled from the get-go. Then he looks at you with these eyes:

This dog, I swear, can smell food from a mile away – and he is pushy about it! I loved it though. There is nothing like having a little Pugsley piggy snout attempting to root through your pockets and then giving you a big “Hmpf!” look when you produce nothing for him. He hung out with us during many of our presentations and, after making the rounds to see who would be sucker enough to sneak him treats, he would snooze away at our feet. He is just so comical and endearing with that ear + eye combo.  If anyone is looking for a silly Elderbull who likes to sleep, eat, and look overly adorable at all times, Pugsley is your guy!

If you’re still not convinced how awesome Elderbulls are, check out the ELDERBULLS Facebook page inspired by Sarge, a dog who was rescued from a bad situation at age fourteen and went on to become a therapy dog and a legend.

Happy Friday to all the Elderbulls out there, and the wonderful humans who care for them!

Lessons from AFF: The Joys of Enrichment

I’ve always been a fan of kongs and toy puzzles and nose work, but I never truly realized how they fit into the bigger picture of enrichment. Enrichment is so essential to a dog’s happiness and mental well being because it allows them outlets to use their doggy senses. I learned that it doesn’t only encompass the taste and smell senses in the form of food games, but also visual, hearing, and touching exercises. Enrichment can be fun, easy, and cheap – and for what a dog gets out of it, the extra effort is one hundred percent worth it.

In shelters, dogs are often so bored, overwhelmed, and stressed that they can quickly start displaying negative behaviors that are unfortunately sometimes a poor representation to the dog’s true personality. Enrichment activities help to postpone or prevent the onset of these behaviors by stimulating the dog’s senses and wearing them out mentally.  The dogs then in turn show better to adopters because they are either preoccupied working on their puzzles and therefore not barking, or they’re just so tired from all their work to get the treats or whatever that they’re mellow in their kennels.

At Animal Farm we learned about all kinds of different enrichment activities.  The most well known ones are the kinds involving food that are supposed to be tricky and keep the dog busy for a while, including frozen stuffed kongs, busy buckets, and ice treats. Frozen stuffed kongs are self explanatory, but remember that you can stuff them with all sorts of different foods and treats (just make sure you’re not feeding your dog three meals in the process). Busy buckets are small pails that you fill with different things to do, smell, and taste. The point is to stuff them very tightly so that it’s a challenge for the dog to get each fun object out – try to flip your busy bucket upside down without anything falling out! Ice treats are also pretty self explanatory. Fill a bucket with different bones, balls, treat toys, etc. then add a little bit of kibble – fill with water, freeze, and you’re done. All of these toys can include your dog’s normal meal contents to make dinner a fun and difficult exercise! Busy buckets were a total blessing with our energetic housemate Birdie; they would keep her quiet and still for more than thirty seconds!

Smell is also, as expected, a very good way to engage dogs. In shelters, simple PVC pipes with holes drilled in them can be a world of smells for a dog. Fill it with something smelly, like dirty hamster shavings (gross for humans but jackpot for dogs), and close the endings to create an interesting activity for the dogs. You can hang them around their kennel or you can put them in the exercise yard where the dogs are walked to give them something to investigate while they get their potty break. Even short, simple activities like this can make a big difference in a dog’s mental well being.

I could write forever about other ways to help make a dog’s living environment – home or shelter – more positively stimulating, but all of this and more is on AFF’s website. There you can find a plethora of information about enrichment, including step-by-step instructions and explanations about the benefits. Remember that these are not just beneficial for shelter dogs, but for your own pets as well! All dogs can use an excuse to work their sniffer, tongue or noggin. A tired dog, whether mentally or physically, is a happier dog!

My Time at Animal Farm Foundation

Tucked back in the rolling hills of Dutchess County, New York, Animal Farm Foundation is a not-for-profit group who believes in equality for all dogs. They advocate specifically for “pit bull” dogs – the ones most likely to be discriminated against at this time – but their work goes further than that as they share sheltering best practices that help shelter dogs and the people who work with them. They’ve got a team of knowledgeable trainers who work with their adoptable dogs on the farm or where they’re needed elsewhere, as well as dedicated educators who travel around the country to share the idea of equality for “pit bull” dogs and progressive thinking when it comes to getting dogs adopted.

I just spent a week there for the internship program, and it was a week free of judgements – dog or human, free of breed/gender/history labels, and full of open-mindedness. Every day was packed full of learning about dog behavior, basic training, shelter enrichment, advocating for “pit bull” dogs, and so much more.

Each intern was paired with a shelter dog that they worked with for the week, and many also took their training dogs home with them at night as roommates. My situation was unique, as I was staying in a house with two other girls, so we had one house dog named Birdie. Birdie came from the Spindletop case. She was a bucket of energy, and so stinkin’ cute. At first I was taken aback by her affinity for constant movement, but by the end of the week it became quite endearing. Birdie was actually already adopted, but stayed the week with us to learn some manners.

And manners she learned. Each day we spent time discussing the basics of communicating with and teaching dogs in a positive way that sets them up for success and reinforces desired behaviors. These sessions included clicker training drills and shaping techniques. I never realized how fun and silly training can be until I was getting Birdie to voluntarily put her paws up on a box – an example of shaping.  We also practiced having the dogs always sit and give eye contact (offered behavior) before going through a door (reward), and waiting patiently before being allowed to eat from their food bowl. These simple things are expected from the dogs by each staff member, so the dogs learn quickly and soon they don’t even seem like rules – more like no brainer type stuff.

Practicing shaping with Eli.

While Birdie was our house guest, I worked every day with a different dog named Amarillo. Amarillo was also a Spindletop dog, and at about seven years old she decided she wasn’t in to all that much but a good butt scratch. While we (okay, mostly I) struggled with the basics like sit and down, Amarillo quickly excelled at leave it, easy tricks, and loose leash walking. I guess a girl’s gotta have some challenge in her life? She was a bit shy of the camera, so this is all I was able to catch of her bat ears.

In addition to the basic training we worked on, the interns also learned about other ways to improve the lives of shelter dogs using enrichment for the different senses. We spent a whole morning constructing enrichment activities, which I will talk more about tomorrow.

For me, one of my favorite parts of the trip was getting to know not only the Animal Farm staff, but also the other interns who came from all over the country to learn about the same things I did. Everyone’s shelter experiences were different, yet many of us had the same difficulties and issues. By the end of the week we were all encouraging each other as we shared how we will use the information from that week moving forward.

It was a very valuable experience for me; one I would recommend to anyone who wants to advance their efforts in helping shelter dogs, especially “pit bull” dogs. If you are interested, you can see more details, including the application process, on the AFF website.  If you’ve got questions, feel free to email me with any about the program or what I learned!

When the Stars Align for Another Chance

Gaston has hit the jackpot.

This handsome guy was my passenger on our road trip up to Animal Farm Foundation (AFF) last Monday. Gaston busted out of the shelter after thirteen long months and made his way into the AFF adoption program!

Gaston was a long time resident of the Animal Welfare League of Arlington.  As you can imagine, he became part of the family there. They outfitted him with special harnesses and collars that wouldn’t irritate his skin, they made sure he had plenty of great toys to chew on, and they gave him special food to help manage his allergies. He loved all the staff, and they loved him. Everyone wondered why he wasn’t getting scooped up. He’s a bit dog reactive, but they’d seen worse – so after over a year, where was his perfect family?

That is when things came together and Gaston found himself eligible to transfer into the AFF program. Even though the AWLA staff all loved him very much and were sad to see him go, they knew new things were awaiting him. At AFF he will get specialized attention to help with his reactivity and inevitably find him the perfect home. In the mean time, he will be able to enjoy the acres of open land AFF has to offer (more about that later).

Having a traveling buddy for the six hour journey was great. He was a very similar traveler to the way I act on long car rides: he cat napped, he gnawed on his antler, he snoozed hard, he looked out the window. We had a good time.

I was lucky to then be able to see him all week while I worked at AFF. He settled in pretty well, even though it was a very new environment for him. I’d bet money that he’s never smelled all those farm sniffs before, and check him out as we pulled up: “Cows!”

Hopefully now Gaston is quick on his way to meeting the perfect forever home. Any dog that finds themselves in the hands of the folks at AFF is a lucky dog. Check back tomorrow to learn more about my week there!

Words Matter

At the beach this weekend I found a cute sign that really hit home for me and for probably many others of you who have overzealous “pit bull” dogs (or any kind of dog – they had them for all breeds).

Something that sums up the way I feel about the overly friendly, in-your-face “pit bull” dogs in my life? A warning that they’ll attack you with kisses? Awesome! It’s funny, it’s adorable, and it’s true. So of course I’ll spend the absurd $2.99 on it.

While I love this sign and the silly joke it sends across, I probably won’t put it anywhere that the general public can see. Why? Because in a quick glance, it gives off the totally wrong message.

Look at the two most prominent words:


Imagine that you’re quickly walking by it and see it in maybe a car window, or hanging up in a store. You don’t have time to process the whole thing, but what you do see is a big red sign that says “WARNING” and “PIT BULL.” What are you going to immediately process from that sign? Not good things, right? Sure, you might have an extra two seconds to read the rest of it – but what about all the people out there, the non-“pit bull” dog people, that won’t have time to read the whole thing? They’re left with another reminder to “beware of pit bulls” like the media tells them to be – even though that’s not what the sign says at all.

It’s scary, but language can have a dangerous effect on public perception. Take a look at these two sentences: “Pit bulls are not fighting dogs and do not have locking jaws,” versus, “My pit bulls are loving, affectionate, and love to wag their tails.” Both work to change others’ views on “pit bull” dogs, but one leaves a much more negative impression. Think about all the positive pit bull articles you’ve read that start off their first paragraph with, “People think pit bulls are aggressive dogs who are prone to biting.” Again, what happens with all the people who don’t continue reading the article?

As pit bull advocates, we have to be careful with the way we speak. Animal Farm Foundation uses this table to demonstrate how our language can come across to those unfamiliar with “pit bull” dogs. In the right column are popular phrases used by people trying to help these dogs.

Our intentions are so well meaning, but are we doing more harm than good? Now don’t feel bad if you’re a frequent user of this kind of language. I’m pretty sure we all are/were at some point. Do you see what it’s achieving, though? We are accidentally framing these dogs in a way that makes them scary and different to the public.

When I talk about dogs – any dogs – I always try to be careful about my phrasing, my word choice, and my delivery. The practice I generally like to follow is, as always, to stay positive. As long as you’re not lying, then sticking to the good stuff – the warm and fuzzies – is usually your safest bet. What is a stranger going to take away from listening to you gush about the lap snuggles you got from your favorite shelter pittie last week? Happy vibes, not weary ones (ideally, of course!).

If you’ve got any questions about this concept, including the above images, I encourage you to comment and ask! It’s a tough pill to swallow when you see your favorite pro-pittie arguments up there, but most of them aren’t doing dogs any favors. We have to remember that our subconscious does a lot we don’t know about – for better or for worse – so what we say, and especially how we say it, will always matter.