SETTLING IN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Holidays!


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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Johnnie & Other Dogs

Ah, the lovely journey of discovering how your dog feels about other dogs once they get comfortable in their environment. Our two months with Johnnie Cash have been interesting and informative, and I think we’re at a place where we pretty much know her feelings about other dogs and how to handle them.

Johnnie was in a playgroup at the shelter and I took her on a playdate with one of her shelter buds the first day I brought her home, so I knew that even if some reactivity began to show, there’d be hope. Lots of dogs are reactive on leash because of the added stress, but can safely participate in playgroups. It’s all about knowing your own dog. So for the first few weeks of having Johnnie, I kept leash greetings to a minimum. I wanted to figure her out before I had to figure her and other dogs out. In the neighborhood we crossed the street when we saw other dogs and I worked on keeping her focus on me, not them.

The first day I had her as a foster, playing with her BFF China.

The first day I had her as a foster, playing with her BFF China.

She did very well at this for a long time. Barking dogs in yards were nothing to her, especially if I had some string cheese, and passing other dogs on the street wasn’t too difficult. After about a month though, she started getting a little barky at adoption events. It wasn’t usually at particular dogs – meaning, she wasn’t being reactive in a way that is often interpreted as scary – it was more just in general, seemingly out of frustration or excitement.  Then on walks it seemed like she was focusing on other dogs more. Operation prevent-the-reactive-foster-dog immediately went into action.

I knew I needed to work on Johnnie’s feelings about other dogs before the frustration turned into reactivity or aggression. It was the incident of getting stuck at the cherry blossoms that helped me realize a few things: I have to be very mindful of Johnnie’s threshold, I can’t get too relaxed with training around other dogs and if I don’t manage situations around other dogs well, Johnnie has the capability to cause quite a scene.

The major thing we work on is focus. Every walk we’ve taken since then, I’ve had treats and a clicker. To help Johnnie stay focused, I always make sure we are below her threshold around other dogs. This means we are at a far enough distance where she doesn’t feel the need to bark or try to get to them (usually it’s a playful trying to get to them – but if they react towards her, sometimes it’s a “get back” bark). We also always have high value treats. For Johnnie, string cheese usually does the trick, or sometimes hot dogs. Food is a primary reinforcer for dogs, so it’s very important and helpful to have that be your strongest tool.

Dogs are often reactive for two reason: fear or excitement. It’s important to realize this when working with a reactive dog and know that they’re acting out because they’re uncomfortable. Also, it’s important to try to keep them out of situations where they feel the need to react. Every time a dog reacts, they reinforce themselves. It feels good – and, most of the time, it works because whatever is making them uncomfortable moves away. If it works so well, wouldn’t you keep doing it?

So when staying below threshold, I click and treat Johnnie for just acknowledging the other dog and then looking away. I start with this and then build up to her acknowledging the other dog and then making eye contact with me. This way, it becomes her decision to look at a dog and then immediately look at me because it means treat time! This redirection helps her from getting too intently focused on the other dog – something that often leads to a reaction. It is actually helping her re-wire her emotional response to other dogs, instead of just nixing the symptoms and having her still feel uncomfortable around them. We usually practice it at a park or somewhere that I know there will be other dogs around but that we’ll also be able to stay a safe and comfortable distance from them.

This method is most helpful when we’re on our Pit Crew walks or at adoption events. She does not need it as much when we’re passing dogs on our walks, as long as I make sure our route keeps her below threshold. At events where we’re in closer proximity to other dogs, it is helpful for us if she is continually doing something, whether it’s walking, watching me (our cue is literally “watch me!”), doing touch, etc. – we have found it important to keep her little brain focused on a task so her thoughts do not wander to the other dogs! We also do lots of practice on parallel walks with low key friends that won’t bother Johnnie while she works on her calm and focus skills.

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Johnnie practices not worrying about the fact that Nicky’s in front of her. She gets rewarded any time she “checks in” with me because it means she’s being super relaxed around Nickster.

 

This past weekend we had a few breakthroughs after many weeks of practicing acknowledging other dogs and staying calm. We attended an adoption event in a busy town center. Johnnie was able to be around many other dogs and she did not have one barking melt down! I was sure to constantly keep her focus on me or redirect her with a cue if her eyes started straying, and I was also sure to keep her below her current threshold (which is actually a closer distance than it was four weeks ago – yay!). She made a puppy friend, which is usually easy because puppies are so easy going, but she also met a couple other dogs on a loose leash and was fine with them. Go Johnnie!

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What I will not do is take this awesome performance and use it as an excuse to say, “Yay! Let’s attend all the doggy social gatherings in the area this summer!” In fact, I’m not sure Johnnie will ever be the type of dog to attend or live somewhere with heavy dog traffic. I think it will always be too much for her, unless her adopter works extremely hard with her to continue improving that emotional response. I’m okay with it because it is who she is, and her adopter will appreciate that just like I do. She might not like every other dog she meets, or she might not like being around a lot of other dogs in a close space – but hey, I’m the same way with humans.

I knew that a lot of Johnnie’s barking was probably frustration, so I kept thinking about trying to find her a play date. I know she is an over-zealous player though, so I wasn’t sure who would be a good match for her. Turns out the perfect playmate was an old friend who was just an email away, and we hadn’t even thought about it! Tune in tomorrow to see who Johnnie played with this weekend (who can guess?), and how it went.

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To adopt your very own work-in-progress, check out Johnnie Cash’s Adopt Me page.


Preparing for a New Dog

Now that thing’s have settled down a bit (famous last words) it’s time to start thinking about a new foster dog. It’s been a while since I’ve had a foster, though the temporary pups have kept us nicely on our toes! I think we’ll be ready when the time is right to bring a new four-legged kiddo home.

I’ve gained so much new knowledge in the past few months that I think will really help me with my next foster, whoever it ends up being. There are others in my house, though, that have not learned quite as much as I have recently. Because shaping a dog into the “perfect” little household family member takes lots of consistency, I want to make it easy for everyone in my house to be on the same page. I wrote up a quick page of *things to remember* about having a dog that I think will help provide more structure for the new pup we bring home.  It’s not necessarily that these things alone will help a new dog learn manners, but following these simple steps as well as additional training will set the pup up to be the best she can be.

Here is our list that I posted on the hub of the household: the fridge! I’ll go through it first with my parents and then just leave it up there as a reminder or point of reference. I am really excited to see if this helps a new pup pick up on the rules any faster!  There’s nothing more confusing to a dog who is living in a house for the first time than mixed signals. . .  “but I was allowed on the couch last time!”

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If you or anyone you know is bringing home a new dog, along with a list of guidelines for everyone in the house to follow, I would recommend the books The Other End of the Leash and Love Has No Age Limits by Patricia McConnell. Both of them touch on the pointers on my own list as well as much, much more. Bringing a new dog home can and probably will be a stressful experience – being prepared can lessen that stress a bit!