HOLY S*!%… HERE GOES NOTHING

When New Year’s Eve rolled around this past year, I remember thinking, “I accomplished a lot in 2014. I got my KPA certification and I finally got the Manager of Special Events promotion I wanted at the shelter… I guess 2015 will just be a coasting year.”  Boy was I wrong.

As of next Wednesday, I am officially saying goodbye to my full time, 9-5 job as an event planner. Yup, I’m doing it – I’m moving to training and behavior full time!  I’ve accepted a part time position on the behavior team at the Washington Humane Society and then will be expanding my role with Dog Latin Dog Training.

What does that mean? It means that for two and a half days a week I’ll be working with shelter dogs – evaluating them for adoption, running playgroups, doing behavior modification, teaching volunteers and staff about positive training as it relates to shelter animals, working with adopters, and so much more. It also means that when I’m not at the shelter, I’m working with private clients. It means I have more time to devote to them and their dogs. It means I can make my own schedule. It means I have time to actually blog (!!) and to organize more presentation opportunities and to do continuing education. It means I get PAID to put 110% of my effort and my heart and my soul into exactly what I want to do. Every. Freaking. Day.

I feel so thankful for the four years I spent in nonprofit development. Being an event planner for two different animal shelters taught me so much. Event planners have to be organized, detail oriented, good at working under pressure, able to multitask and really good at working with people. Thanks to the years spent mastering these skills, I consider myself relatively business savvy and able to connect with people in a way that will help me accomplish my long term goals in the dog world (and I’ve got some big goals!).

While I enjoyed my time on the admin side of helping animals, there was no denying the nagging feeling that dog training – specifically as it relates to the human-canine bond – was my purpose in life. I recently went to a TEDx talk about “being rebellious.” One of the speakers really stuck out to me. He talked about his experience breaking away from his own set status quo, and how it was scary, risky and against the norm, but so necessary and exciting. What resonated with me most was when he said, “You don’t make a difference by staying comfortable.”

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So I left my comfort zone. It was scary to let go of my 9-5 job. It was even more scary to let go of my consistent paycheck (duh). But as soon as I made the decision, everything felt right. Even when I told my coworkers at my current job, I got the response, “Well that took longer than we expected :-).” This is where I’m supposed to be, and I couldn’t be more ecstatic (I’m literally tearing up as I write this). Welcome to this new ride you’ll be joining me on, you guys. Cheers to growing up, taking risks and following your passion!
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My Journey to Becoming a Dog Trainer: Part 2

As I dove into learning about dogs, I simultaneously learned about the culture of dog training. I learned that there are people out there who know so, so much and are a wealth of great knowledge because they’ve gone to school or they have certifications (yes, in my opinion you need more than just “experience”), and I learned that there are people out there who should not be working with the dogs that they do (nor getting paid the buckets of money that some do!). It’s an unregulated industry. Anyone can give themselves the title of dog trainer, or, even worse, a behaviorist. No one will call you on it, especially if you make it sound like you know what you’re talking about (or, in many cases, you truly think you do know what you’re talking about). I’ve heard so many scary and heartbreaking stories about people who try to work with dogs and behavioral issues that are outside of their knowledge base, and the stories often do not end well.

My point for bringing this up is that I want to be one of the people who knows what they’re talking about, who has education and credentials to back it up, and who knows when they’re at their capacity to help, as well as what to do when they do reach that limit. What this means is that I am going to start small. I am going to start by learning. A lot. As much as I can. Then practice. A lot. As much as I can. Then get a certification. As many as I can.  Then I’m going to learn some more.

Virgil Ocampo Photography

Virgil Ocampo Photography

In terms of learning and practicing, I’ve gotten very lucky. The shelter trainer I told you about on Tuesday, Beth Mullen of Dog Latin Dog Training, has sort of taken me under her wing. She seems just as excited as I am about my career in dog training. The amount that she knows about dog behavior and how to communicate with dogs astounds me every time I watch her work. I began helping her out a few months ago, and have officially signed on as a trainer now. Currently I am teaching puppy classes and helping with basic manners clients – two things I feel very comfortable dealing with.

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Because I’m not okay with just comfort level to back up my abilities, I enrolled in the Karen Pryor Academy Puppy Start Right class. I absolutely loved it! The course went over everything from the way a dog is built to how dogs learn to their developmental stages to how to manage puppy behavior. It was a great course (though I was actually pretty happy with the fact that lots of it was review!), and now I have more to back up my experience when I talk to puppy parents. Also, let’s take a moment to point out the fact that my job is to hang out with puppies. Life is hard.

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Speaking of puppies – did you know a dog’s brain at 8 weeks old has the same learning capacity as that of an adult dog? Just a shorter attention span. You can teach puppies SO MUCH!

So that’s basically where things are right now. I have been blessed with the opportunity to join Dog Latin Dog Training to learn more and practice my skills, and will hopefully one day get my Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed title (REMEMBER: being a member of an association is not the same as having a certification!). I’m not sure how far I’ll go into the “difficult cases” category during my long term career – or if I’ll ever even go there at all. I just know that right now I love teaching people how to better understand their dogs, and I can’t wait to improve my ability to do that!

Newly permanent additions to my "can't go anywhere without it" collection: treat pouch, hot dogs & string cheese, clicker, six-foot leash with knots in it, and front-clip harness.

Newly permanent additions to my “can’t go anywhere without it” collection: treat pouch, delicious treats, clicker, six-foot leash with knots in it, and front-clip harness.


Walking Frankie’s Walk

We headed out to the AWLA Pit Crew training walk Sunday morning and had a blast! Frankie, like most of the dogs in the group, is working on his excitability around other dogs. He is not reactive, but if you get too close to another dog he will enthusiastically try to go say hi. . . yeah, not the politest. Honestly though I was expecting a little bit more of a show from him. He was a dream! You can tell that the shelter staff and volunteers have done a lot of work with him because he is attentive and will refocus his attention easily.

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Frankie is a big dog, so it’s pretty imperative that he has at least decent leash manners. While a group walk isn’t the place to exactly teach new skills, I used it as an opportunity to reinforce Frankie for walking nicely. Any time he would orient himself towards me and therefore have a very loose leash, I marked the behavior and rewarded him. I wanted to make myself more fun than the distractions around him that cause him to pull. Between the helpful gear (front clip harness) and the rewards, he did great! You know you had a successful walk when your arms are NOT tired after walking a 75 pound dog for an hour.

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Frankie and I enjoyed walking with the group and catching up with our good friends Kim (human) & Nicky (dog). Frankie and Nicky took an extra lap together after the group dispersed. Nicky liked Frankie initially until he used his all time worst pick up line on her (straight paw to the head) and she decided she’d rather play hard to get. Since he’s a gentleman he let her have her space and the two of them enjoyed getting to know each other from a distance. What a fun morning to wrap up our time together!

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If you’re in the DC area and you’re interested in adopting Frankie, email me at peacelovefoster@gmail.com.


The Tough Truth About Frankie

When I shared Frankie’s handsome face on Friday, I described him as the dog he is at heart: goofy, adorable and loving. Sadly, there is a bit more to the story. Frankie has been in the shelter for six months. That is almost 20% of his entire life. Shelter life is obviously not the ideal situation for any animal, and it takes its toll on each pet in a different way.  For Frankie, it is not going well.

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The staff at his shelter are doing everything they can to keep him happy, including play groups, enrichment activities, extra human time and more exercise. Something is just not clicking with him though. Here is a note written by his biggest fan on the behavior team at the shelter after some friends met him for the first time:

“When you saw Frankie, you probably couldn’t tell too much. Fridays are good for him, he gets a lot of walks and attention. But then the weekend comes and his routine is thrown off. By Monday morning, he is a wreck. It takes a staff member or volunteer at least 30 minutes of snuggle time just to get him to WANT to go on a walk. We take him outside, where he rolls in the grass, and zones out as we give him belly rubs and talk to him softly.

When Frankie is with people, his comfort and joy is palpable. As you saw, he will literally fall asleep in your lap. But without consistent human touch and affection over long periods of time, the stress of the kennels is slowly wearing him down. This is a dog who grew up in a neglect situation. He grew up without any human affection at all. Despite that, he has managed to remain at heart a social dog who enjoys the company of people. However, long periods without human contact cause him great emotional suffering and stress. Instead of shutting down, Frankie is beginning to show other concerning behaviors that show us his emotional breakdown. He will repeatedly jump at the door to his kennel, and has a difficult time settling on his own, even after the longest of walks. This may not seem concerning, but we have learned that these behaviors are the beginnings of stereotypy – repetitive behaviors caused by stress. If this level of stress goes on too long for a kenneled dog, long term effects occur as their brain chemistry will actually change.

Frankie used to relax quite well in his room after walks. Over time though, he is now just as antsy afterward as he is at the start. To help him, we begin and end walking sessions with relaxation time – body massages and belly rubs and snuggles. However, it is clear that Frankie is suffering. You can’t see it on the outside. Every Friday I go home and he is happy and relaxed. Come Monday morning he is transformed into a stressed out and anxious boy. Given some time, he comes around and bit by bit, he comes back to us. But he is in emotional pain here, and soon I fear it will be too late for him to turn back into the fun-loving, happy-go-lucky dog that he is.

I really am worried for him. The best life he has ever had is in the shelter. The people who love him most are here. And that’s okay, some dogs don’t even get that, many dogs really. But he deserves a home.”

Falling in love with Frankie is contagious. I realized that quickly and, just like the rest of the staff, became attached to him almost immediately. It probably has to do with the way he gravitates towards your lap as soon as you get on the floor, or maybe it’s the way his front paws awkwardly face away from each other beneath his big smile, only adding to his goofy demeanor, or maybe it’s his laid-back personality that is a breath of fresh air from the exuberant adolescent dogs you’re used to. Who knows. But Frankie is Frankie and he will make you fall in love with him.

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It breaks my heart that I can’t long term foster him thanks to my upcoming move, because a house with no other dogs, a big yard and someone who wants to take him on hiking adventures is just what he needs (not saying anything about myself, just that my situation was ideal for dogs like him!).

The least I could do was give him a break from the shelter, so that is what I did. Saturday afternoon Frankie came home with me so I could take him to the pit crew group walk on Sunday morning. We jammed as much fun into our 16 hours together as possible, which I will tell you all about tomorrow!

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If you or someone you know is interested in fostering or adopting Frankie, a big dog located in VA who would excel in an active, only-dog household, please email me at peacelovefoster@gmail.com! Spread the word about handsome Frankie!


Putting Our Trust Back in Dog

This post is about dog-dog intros, and it is geared more towards non-reactive dogs. There might be some takeaway tips for owners with reactive dogs, but when it comes to reactivity there are many other factors to work on for dealing with on-leash greetings.

I am the first to call myself a micromanager when it comes to my foster dogs. In so many situations I am quick to make the decision that involves more management rather than the one that involves less. This includes controlling my dog’s behavior around other people, making every decision about the way my dog is handled at home, making sure those who interact with my dog on a daily basis know how she is being trained, etc. So when it came to dog-dog intros, I found it tough to put some slack in the leash – literally.

On-leash introductions with two dogs can be very tricky, often because they’re a high stress situation for the handlers. I know those of you with dogs are probably very familiar with on-leash greetings (and, in turn, if your dog is okay or not okay with them). It might be a dog on the street you don’t know, or maybe it’s a dog you’re introducing to yours for the purpose of perhaps bringing them into your home, or sometimes it’s with a friend of your dog and they’re about to have a play date. Often times there’s a lot of nervousness, anxiety or anticipation around an on-leash greeting – because who knows what could happen, of course!

Because of this stress, it is human nature to want to micromanage the greeting. I know I used to be the one to hold my dog on that extra tight leash – you know, “just in case.”  However, I quickly learned that being over-bearing during an intro is not the best approach.

There are a lot of ways you should manage an introduction between dogs. The location should be somewhere neutral and very open. Both dogs should be as calm as possible, or at least not extremely over-stressed. Dogs should, if possible, be wearing gear that helps keep stress levels low, like a harness or martingale collar. The introduction should happen in a parallel or nose-to-butt fashion – absolutely not head on (two dogs meeting face to face is not friendly in the dog world, despite how normal it is for us humans!). These are all factors that should be thought about and controlled during a greeting.

The most important thing, in my opinion, is what the handler is doing – or, depending on how you look at it, not doing – during the introduction. So many of us, like I mentioned above, want to keep our dogs on an ultra-tight leash as they walk up to the other dog (remember, not head on!). This, however, adds oodles of unnecessary stress to the situation. The tension travels straight down the leash into our dogs and makes them wonder what the heck there is to be worried about, and when they see the other dog they often find their answer. We want to do as much as we can to help our dogs think that meeting another dog is no big deal.

In order to keep an introduction as stress-free as possible, keep the leash LOOSE! When I finally started doing this with Johnnie, I saw a dramatic decrease in her tension and an increase in successful greetings. Of course you want to still be 100% ready to pull the two dogs apart should things go south, but trusting the dogs to do their own thing during the intro is much safer than trying to hold both back by keeping the leash extra tight and pulling at their necks.

I recently mentioned this tip to one of my volunteers. When she relaxed the leash, her dog relaxed as well. She saw the visible response and said, “It’s like putting the trust in back with the dogs.” And it really is. There are lots of things you want to control and even *micromanage* (hooray!) about the situation, but the leash is not one of them.

Here I am keeping a loose leash by Johnnie’s shoulder during an intro with an unfamiliar dog. There is a chance that the dog she is greeting would have relaxed a little more without the tension of the leash – though her handler is doing a great job at staying vigilant throughout the greeting. I know it is very difficult to let that security of a taut leash go, even though it is actually generally safer without!

The bottom line is that our dogs can either think meeting other dogs is a big ordeal and something they should be worried about, or they can think that it’s nothing to bat an eye over. There were two situations in particular with Johnnie where leaving it up to her meant a much better outcome than if I had tried to control the whole situation, and those were encounters with off-leash dogs. When the off-leash dog came flying up to Johnnie, I immediately loosened the leash and let her work it out. If I had immediately tightened my grip, Johnnie would have picked up on the new tension and figured, “This dog must be something to be worried about!”

Another quick tip I have found helpful is to try to stay by your dog’s shoulder during the greeting, not behind them like you would if you were walking. Staying by your dog’s shoulder is another way to help keep the leash loose, and it makes it more difficult for the two leashes to get caught up should the dogs start playing (or spatting).

If you want to read more about on-leash intros, check out this article by Pat Miller in the Whole Dog Journal. As usual, I also always think it is important to read up on canine body language so you know what your dogs are saying to each other when they meet. There is nothing more beneficial than setting your dog up for success and knowing when to get the heck out of Dodge!

DesBaylor     This was shortly after these two dogs met, and we are still keeping a close eye while holding them both on slack leashes. This means they are able to loosen up and have some supervised fun! I could be closer to Baylor's (the one with the bandana) shoulder, but I am making a point of not being all the way behind him.

This was shortly after these two dogs met, and we are still keeping a close eye while holding them both on slack leashes. This means they are able to loosen up and have some supervised fun! I could be closer to Baylor’s (the one with the bandana) shoulder, but I am making a point of not being all the way behind him.


All the Things We’ve Learned

To say that Johnnie has come a long way from the day she stepped foot paw out of the shelter would be an understatement. Johnnie Cash, once thought to be out of control and insanely energetic, turned out to be very bright, a quick learner and a model student. Together we learned how to communicate with each other. Training is not a one way street – I have to figure out how to tell her what I want just as much as I have to figure out what she is trying to tell me. I have loved every minute of growing and learning with this little girl.

Here are two videos of some of our accomplishments. This first one is a demonstration of how lovely she is to take outside. She learned in probably the first twenty four hours what it took to be allowed to head out the open door, which was sitting quietly. The last thing I want is a dog who drags me around, especially out the door before I’m ready! All we had to do was slowly open the door while she was sitting, and immediately close it (gently, so we didn’t squish her!) if she moved towards it. Heading out without a release = door closing! As she progressed with the polite sitting, we began to ask for eye contact. Now we are – as shown in the video – to the point where we can have the door wide open before she heads out.

You can’t tell in the video because the door frame is in the way, but she is holding perfect eye contact until I release her.  Also, notice that I do not need to use treats for this. The simple release through the door is the reward, but only after the use of negative punishment, meaning we took the open door away (negative) to decrease the behavior (punishment) of moving towards it without release. Dogs learn what works for them, and Johnnie quickly learned that sitting and making eye contact meant she would be able to head out into the world, and jumping towards the door meant it would close and the fun things on the other side would go away.

This next video is a short compilation of some of the tricks that Johnnie has learned. She demonstrates sit pretty, touch, sit, high five, down, paw and say bye.  These tricks are great for so many things, like distracting her if I need to keep her mind busy, helping to win over the public, or teaching new behaviors. Plus, they’re fun and learning them together was a great bonding experience. At one point you’ll notice I ask her to sit from a down, but then I realize she doesn’t know that (yes, “sit” from a down is an entirely different behavior than sitting from a standing position!), so we moved to another cue.

In the video you see how she does most of the tricks without treats. I gave her one at the beginning, but then she performed the rest without a reward. So many people, when they are introduced to reward-based training, get frustrated about how much we use treats or other rewards. “Will I have to be giving my dogs treats and using the clicker for their whole life!” they ask. The answer is: not necessarily. We use a high rate of reinforcement when we are teaching new behaviors, but once the dog has learned and practiced the behavior, we move to rewarding only every once in a while (there are real scientific words for these different techniques but I have not mastered those yet – check out your high school psych textbook for more info, ha!).

This ends up being a fun game for the dog because they know that “one of these times she’s going to give me a treat!” – it’s just a matter of when. Johnnie is a pro at “sit” now, so I don’t have to reward her every time she sits when I give her the cue. But, to make sure she continues to be a pro, I reward her every once in a while. Make sense? Unfortunately it works the other way too: if your dog is able to snatch something off the counter 1 out of the 10 times he tries, he will continue counter surfing because he’s waiting for just that *one time* he hits the jackpot. Also like begging. If you give your dog food from the dinner table every once in a while, they will likely continue to beg all the time in hopes that it’s one of those special occasions where they get a taste. Animals are smart little beings!

So, who made it through all the training talk? If so, congrats – you now have a heads up that Johnnie has a special announcement to make tomorrow. She promises it is one you won’t want to miss :-).


Our BFF Management

When I attended a seminar last year about working with your dog’s problematic behaviors, the first thing the CPDT-KA trainer told us was, “From now on, don’t let your dog perform the behavior you want to solve.” Of course everyone in the room looked at each other like “hey lady, if that worked then we wouldn’t be here!” – but she was right; when you are dealing with a problematic behavior, you should do everything in your power to keep your dog out of situations where they can practice the behavior.  This is because of one key point: practiced behaviors get rewarded, and rewarded behaviors get repeated.

This concept of management has helped immensely with Johnnie while teaching her to be a well-behaved house dog.  Whenever we are presented with an “issue,” we first see how we can manage it. Sometimes you can simply better manage behaviors and not necessarily change your whole life or spend buckets of money on training to solve the problems. Note: this is obviously for minor stuff, NOT aggression or safety issues, which should be dealt with by a professional trainer (although if you have a reactive dog, definitely keep them out of situations where they feel the need to react for the same reason of preventing practice!).

Some examples of easy-to-manage behaviors: putting lids on your trash cans to keep your dog from stealing nasty stuff, making sure you pick up and put away all your socks and shoes and valuables so your dogs can’t chew them when you’re not watching (seriously? he ate your Ray-Bans? why were they within doggy reach to begin with?), closing your blinds so your dog can’t be reactive out the window, keeping your dog away from the door when strangers come over so he cannot jump on them, etc. These small adjustments can make a world of difference in your dog’s behavior. Furthermore, if you do end up investing in training, a lack of management can totally throw off your progress. Because, like we said above, practiced behaviors get rewarded, and rewarded behaviors get repeated.

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Anyway, back to how this has helped with Johnnie. There have really been very few problematic behaviors with Johnnie that we haven’t been able to modify with management. When she kept getting into our living room – a space we wanted her to stay out of because it wasn’t dog-proof – we bought a higher baby gate that she couldn’t jump over. Problem solved. When she started doing her leash biting, I walked her on two leashes so I could simply drop one if she started tugging. This specific behavior also took some other training steps, but the basic concept was still management to avoid reinforcing the behaviors (turning it into a game of tug) – and she got over the bad habit.  When she wanted to chew things that weren’t appropriate, we gave her plenty of appealing, appropriate outlets and the “bad” chewing pretty much stopped. As we are working with her excitability around other dogs, we avoid situations where she has the opportunity to practice barking, which prevents the behavior from becoming too engrained. Do you see what I’m getting at? These management techniques vary between solving the problem entirely or just being a stepping stone in improving a behavior, but they are all extremely important.

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If your dog has a behavior that’s really bugging you (again, other than aggressive or unsafe behaviors) think of ways that you can prevent the behavior before it arises again. What simple steps can you take to set your dog up for success and avoid situations where they’d practice the unwanted behaviors? Depending on how serious the behavior is, you might want to then consult a professional trainer on what to do next – but you’ll already be off on the right foot.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to close all the bedroom doors before I leave the house to manage Johnnie’s ability to get into things she shouldn’t!

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To adopt Johnnie Cash and see how management will help you two adjust through the transition, check out her Adopt Me page.