Johnnie’s Force-Free Facebook Debut

I recently came across a new Facebook page called Your Pit Bull and You and immediately LOVED their content. YPB&Y is a page that is dedicated to disproving the myth that pit bull dogs and other “strong” breeds or types of dogs need to be taught using force. They share training tips and facts to combat the idea that fear or pain should be a part of training. This fabulous page also highlights dogs labeled “pit bull” who are trained using positive, science-based methods – showing that learning theory is learning theory, no matter what animal you’re dealing with. Just because a dog’s got some muscle on him doesn’t mean you need to muscle him around, ya know?

Johnnie was one of the lucky ones to be featured on the YPB&Y page this week! For each featured dog, the page creators come up with a little caption based on what the owner/foster describes – so here’s little J showing off her belly spots and awesome trick for you again, but with a little flare:

I must say, the attention this little stinker got made me quite proud! I am so happy she is such a stellar representative for force-free training.  Next week I’ll try to show you more examples of how much she is kicking butt in the training category – but for now, have a fantastic weekend full of lots of smooches from your pets.

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To adopt Johnnie Cash, a smarty pants who’s got a knack for learning without force, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.


Johnnie’s Happy Snow Dance

We had a surprise snow day on Monday. Well, snow day in the sense that it snowed, not in the “get off work and snuggle under the covers all day” way.  It turns out that Johnnie Cash absolutely L-O-V-E-S the snow. I’m not sure if it’s the crispness of the air or the way the snow feels between her toes or the fact that there’s something to put in her mouth everywhere she looks, but Johnnie absolutely loses it in joyous bunny hops when it snows.

A few weeks ago I probably would have dreaded snow because it would mean that Johnnie would go into hyper over-stimulated mode and lose her marbles at the first sight of it. Monday, however, she was able to play and enjoy it in an extremely healthy and safe way! Thanks to how much we have worked on teaching her how to moderate her own energy levels, Johnnie’s brain seems to be reprogramming itself. She is much more capable of coming down from a burst of crazies to a normal, focused level. We still make a strong effort to never let her get to the point where she is extremely over-stimulated or “stressed up” – so between that and how versed she is getting at refocusing at a moment’s notice, Johnnie has become quite the pro at appropriate play.  Don’t get me wrong, she still has her moments – but they’re much less frequent.

Check out both her joyful, bouncy mode and her adorable, “pose calmly for the camera” mode. . . all in a snow day’s work!

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To adopt Johnnie Cash the snow bunny, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.


Being Chewtastic: Why It Ain’t So Bad

Over the last five weeks, Johnnie has made it very clear to me that dogs will be dogs. Dogs have natural behaviors that, for their well-being, they need to express, including digging, chewing, chasing, seeking, etc. These behaviors can be found in different dogs at varying levels – even within individual breeds and closed gene pools – but most dogs have a need for a combination of these and other behaviors to be met in their daily life.

Like I wrote about on Tuesday, a fabulous Your Dog’s Friend “Creative Behavior Outlets” seminar reminded me that I need to help Johnnie Cash find productive ways to express her natural behaviors. Lots of dogs need “jobs,” and when they lack a job, they get themselves into trouble. This is where mental puzzles come into play to help fatigue her brain. I also want to go a step further than that and give her outlets for a few other behaviors, including chewing in particular.

When people tell me that their dog chewed up their favorite pair of sunglasses or a couple pairs of shoes, I wonder two things: 1. why did your dog have access to those in the first place and 2. did you give him alternative appealing things to chew? Unfortunately you can’t just wish away your dog’s want and need for chewing because of all the reasons I mentioned above.  Johnnie’s environment at our home is structured in such a way that, when she’s not directly supervised, she doesn’t have much ability to get into things. She has still managed to find a plastic cap here or there, which shows me that I need to give her more options for chewing that are appropriate and appealing to her.

Thanks to the advice on some friends, I found a few great options to satisfy Johnnie’s need for chewing. We have the trusty antler that lasts her many months and will occupy her for 15 – 30 minutes at a time, but only when the mood strikes her. We have the plain sterilized bone that is slightly less appealing to Johnnie than the antler, though does strike her fancy every once in a while. These are the two things we leave out for her at all times.

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For those times when we want her extremely occupied for a solid 45 – 60 minutes, we pull out the extra-thick bully sticks or marrow bones. My favorite place to get these (when I think ahead, at least) is www.bestbullysticks.com. Your local pet store should have these or similar items as well, but make sure you’re getting brands that aren’t made in China and that you’re steering clear of rawhide, which is more difficult for your dog to digest. I would consult with your vet about how often your dog can handle bully sticks or bones, because they do carry lots of protein and calories that you don’t want to necessarily overfeed.

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Like the food puzzles, the extra chewing devices have really done some good for Johnnie. Not only do they give her a great outlet for a behavior she clearly needs to express daily, they wear her out in the mean time. Working on a bone for 45 minutes nearly knocked her right off her feet the other day – it was great! If you do find that your dog is exhibiting particularly destructive behaviors, one issue you might be having is lack of exercise. It all goes back to the same concept: dogs have an allotted amount of energy to expend per day – and if you don’t expend it for them, they’ll find ways to do it themselves. You should find a combination of physical and mental exercise to keep your dog from deciding the legs on your table are his new favorite chew toy!

To adopt Johnnie Cash and give her plenty of productive chewing options, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.


Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

For a long time, this blog was a way for me to sort of “sell” my foster dogs – meaning I would share all the awesome stuff about them and then creatively touch on the areas they needed to improve upon in, hoping that it didn’t scare off potential adopters.

While of course I focus on Johnnie’s positives (I mean, she’s got so many of them!), I’ve gained enough confidence on this blog to share with you both the good and the slightly-less-than-good about fostering her (and any future dogs).  I’ve come to terms with the fact that any adopters who want to bring Johnnie into their lives will have to deal with these things anyway, so I might as well just put them out there – and I do this with the hope that it will help anyone in my audience having the same “issues” with their dogs.  I don’t want to ever give the impression that Johnnie is perfect or that I’m the perfect foster or that we live this perfect life – because who can relate to that? We’re a real family and Johnnie is a real (teenage!) dog who is learning every minute of the day.

So, with that being said, we had sort of a tough week last week. Around Wednesday, some annoying habits started popping up again from Johnnie’s days in the shelter – specifically leash biting and worse jumping up.  It started on a walk after a particularly rough day – Johnnie was worked up for some reason (if I paid better attention to what she was trying to tell me, I’m sure I’d know what was bugging her), and I had a stressful day at work. I wrote it off as “bad day syndrome.” But it showed up the next day as well, and the day after that.  I used the methods I thought I should to help stop it before it got worse, but nothing was working. Every time we went for a walk she went into “stressing up” mode where she would try to grab at anything in reach, including my clothing and the leash.

A bit of a side note: I used to be an extremely emotional person. Growing up riding horses, I had a tough time not taking it personally when my horse and I couldn’t communicate well. Looking back, it’s clear I just was not conveying to Marley what I really wanted from her – but at the time I would dismount from a ride almost in tears because I was so angry with her and our performance.  I very much matured through college and once I started working with dogs I realized I was able to keep emotions out of it. In fact, I think my ability to keep emotions out of training my dogs helps me be that much better at communicating with them. That is, at least until last Thursday night.

Johnnie was particularly obnoxious, frustrating and embarrassing on our Thursday evening walk, and, after an upsetting conversation with someone about how I wasn’t doing enough to stop the behavior, I totally lost it. I knew Johnnie’s behavior wasn’t acceptable, but I didn’t know what else to do to stop it in the deadline that seemed to be conveyed by some people around me. What was worse was that she had been doing so well for so many weeks. What did I do to make this behavior pop up? After all I’d learned about working with dogs in a positive, force-free way, what was I doing that enabled this behavior to continue? Was I being a bad foster for not “disciplining” her like many people would want me to be if they watched the situation unfold, even though it went against everything I’ve learned about science-based training? I felt like a failure.

My frustration continued over to our walk Friday morning.  She displayed the leash-biting again, but only a little bit. As she settled down and we walked through the woods behind my house early that morning, I got lost in my thoughts. How was I going to solve this? Am I being stupid for trying to think I can do this on my own? If even I’m worried about it, what will I tell potential adopters? I began making a mental list of who I would reach out to for help. I become so absorbed in my thoughts, I didn’t even notice that we came across an off-leash dog until they were right in front of us. Luckily Johnnie was amazing and just wanted to play, but it caught me so off guard that after we passed them I broke down again. For the second time in only twelve hours, I’d failed Johnnie – it turned out okay even though I wasn’t paying attention, but what the heck was I doing?!

That morning was sort of the turning point. It was like I got out all of my frustrations and fears and emotions about working with Johnnie, and was finally able to look at it with a clear mind again. She was great for my parents while I was at work all day, which always makes me happy, and I arrived home that Friday afternoon promising her a clean slate.
I set us up for success for our walk that evening. I packed high value treats, a clicker and strapped two leashes on J. As we started walking, she began to get excited. As soon as she looked like she was about to jump up on me in excitement, I asked her to sit. I’d done this before, but not until after she was jumping – it was preventing the behavior that was helping this time. Also, when she sat and I clicked her behavior, I rolled the treat on the ground in front of us so she got herself going again. Previously, she would use my moving forward as a trigger to jump again and we’d spend time sitting and dancing around trying to avoid jumping. This way, she got herself started and was distracted from jumping by looking for the treat. The combination of preventing the behavior and setting her up for success helped her get past the excitable jumping phase much quicker. Also, when she wanted to playfully bite the leash, I just dropped it – which is why I had her wearing two. This way it never turned into a game for her and she decided it wasn’t worth it very quickly. The entire process only took us about three minutes and we were able to continue our walk normally again, versus the frustrating 10 – 15 it had taken on the handful of previous walks. Once she gets out of that mental state she is fine, it had just been difficult getting her to a better place – until that breakthrough.

As we trotted along together for the rest of that walk, I finally felt accomplished in what I wanted from my relationship with Johnnie.  I had thought harder about what I needed to do to help her understand what I wanted, and I was able to stay patient while we both worked it out.  I felt a sense of relief that I wasn’t a total failure and that I didn’t need to believe anyone who told me my methods wouldn’t work.  She still hasn’t completely gotten over the habit, but I trust that I’ll be able to stay consistent in my message to her that there are better decisions to make instead of getting too excited. I also trust that we will be able to work through other little speed bumps like this again in the future, using ways that will strengthen our relationship, not break it, as we both continue learning.

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To adopt Johnnie Cash and build your own positive training bond, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.


Why We LOVE Tug

Contrary to what you might have heard, the game tug-of-war, when played correctly, can be a really great interaction for you and your dog. Tug builds important self control skills, it teaches your dog how to transition from being energized to calm, it gives them an appropriate outlet for some of their natural behaviors and, of course, it can be really fun!

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Johnnie Cash absolutely loves to play tug. Before we ever started playing with her though, we set up some rules for the game:

1. Johnnie must be sitting nicely before we start anything. She’s gotten REALLY good at this. When we’re playing and she’s all excited and bouncing around, she’ll still put on the brakes about two feet in front of me and sit right down, knowing the only way she’ll have a chance of getting what I have is by sitting politely.  This is a rule for no matter what we’re doing – playing fetching, doing training, giving treats, etc.

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2.  The game only starts when I (the human) say it does. For Johnnie, we use an “Okay!” or “Get it!” command to let her know she is released. Sitting nicely and then flinging herself at the toy whenever it’s within reach is not acceptable. We are at the point now where I can even dangle it in front of her and she maintains eye contact with me waiting for her release cue.

3.  The game stops when I (the human) say it does. In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of a safe game of tug is making sure your dog knows when the game is over and, more importantly, is okay with you ending up with the toy. We have taught Johnnie a pretty solid “Drop it” cue, and this has been immensely helpful when playing with any toys (or stolen non-toys, for that matter!). We taught Johnnie “drop it” without treats, using the toy itself as the reward. If you want to know how to do this with your own dog, I recommend you head over to the experts at Canine Lifestyle Academy who have written a similar blog post on tug that explains how to teach “Drop it.” 

4.  The game is over absolutely any time teeth touch skin. No matter if it’s an accident or playful or whatever, teeth touching skin means GAME OVER. Drop the toy and walk away (or, better yet, take the toy with you). Mouthiness usually happens as a result of over excitement, so try to make sure your dog doesn’t get to that point in the first place. Also, like I mentioned, it is often an accident during the game, but your dog should know that’s still not acceptable.

So as you can see, dogs learn extremely valuable skills during tug. Not only does it give Johnnie multiple opportunities to practice these skills, but it also helps her fulfill her need to tug and shake toys.  These are natural behaviors for her and if I don’t give her an appropriate outlet for them, she will likely find a not-so-appropriate one herself :-)

tug03To adopt Johnnie Cash and play lots of fun & educational games together like tug, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com!


It’s NOT a Pit Bull Problem

This blog has played many roles over the last year and a half I’ve been writing for it. It started as a way to share my fosters with the world, and now, during my fostering break, it includes stories about my own experiences in sheltering, my progress as an amateur photographer, stuff I learn about dog behavior and much more.  It’s pretty well-rounded in terms of what kind of information I like to cover (in my opinion, at least?).

Someone once said to me, “When I listen to you and your pit bull friends talk about dog stuff I feel like I can’t relate to anything you’re saying,” implying that for some reason we talk about special issues relating to just pit bulls and that they, even as a dog owner, couldn’t relate. At first I stopped dead in my tracks and I thought to myself, “Crap, do I do that? Do I alienate myself from the rest of dog owners because of my love for pit bulls?”

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized very little on this blog or what I focus on in my dog work and volunteering relates specifically just to pit bulls.  The more I considered what issues really matter to me, the more I realized they really don’t have anything to do with pit bulls at all.

When deciding what topics I’ve become hypersensitive about, I came up with the following: dog behavior, being able to communicate effectively with your dog, canine body language, enrichment, dog parks and play groups, keeping a dog happy and comfortable in a shelter, positive training methods, breed discrimination, keeping animals out of shelters, helping pet owners be the best they can be, preventing animal abuse and marketing adoptable animals  – among other things.

All of those items I listed can be applied to any and all dogs. They’re dog issues, not pit bull issues. In the same way that you can apply them to any other dog, I sometimes speak about them in the context of my “pit bull” fosters or pit bulls I know at the shelter – but I would do the same if I happened to spend a lot of time with spaniels or huskies or MUTTS.

On that note, yes – I do have a very soft spot for dogs labeled as “pit bulls.”  Therefore, I do surround myself with them and groups of people who also like them. When we’re together we talk about many of the topics I listed above. Sometimes specifically having to do with our dogs, and sometimes just in the context of all dogs.

I do hope this blog shows “pit bull” dogs in a positive light and maybe even changes some minds about them. But I think (hope) that almost happens naturally as people read my posts and realize that while yes, the dog I’m writing about happens to be labeled a pit bull, it is also just a dog living with a family doing family dog sort of things.  I don’t want to be on here pointing out every negative stereotype about pit bulls and then trying to disprove them because I feel like my dogs speak for themselves through their photos and their stories and their personalities. No two of them have been the same, despite their matching “breed” label – probably because they’re all just DOGS.

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Looking Back On: That Time I Failed

I’ve often heard that when you’re working on or with something that it’s good to keep a journal. Keeping a written record of your journey helps to show yourself how much progress you’ve made.  Especially when working with animals, it is essential to have the ability to look back after a training session that didn’t go so well and see all the victories you’ve made thus far. That way you aren’t too hard on yourself or your animal when things don’t go perfectly one time.

I am extremely lucky to have this blog to track my journey. With the click of a mouse I can access any date in the last 14+ months and see what I was up to on that exact day. Pretty cool, huh? What’s better is when I look back and see just how much I’ve learned.  It’s astonishing at times – I can’t believe where I was and where I went and where I am now.  And, just like I mentioned above, I sometimes find myself needing a little pick-me-up to remember just how far I’ve come (or, on same days, even just that I’ve come anywhere!).

Yesterday started my first week coaching a reactive dog class with Your Dog’s Friend.  As I listened to the instructor give a review to the students last week, I kept nodding in agreement to what she was teaching and thinking in my head, “Yes! Totally! Yes that’s the perfect thing to do!” for all these dog owners who have never learned a successful way to deal with their reactive dogs.  It really got me thinking: holy cow, I have learned so much in just the past few months. Since when did all of this become just engrained in my brain as common sense knowledge?

Just a few months ago I had a pretty rough run in with a reactive dog. Many of you might remember the post That Time I Failed (in fact, lots of you might remember it considering it’s gotten the most views of any of my entries – oy!) about a dog I was supposed to temporarily foster and had to bail on because he was reactive towards my dad and others. I talked about the reality that I didn’t know much about managing a reactive dog. Fast forward five months, and here I am helping to teach a class about it. So what changed?

What changed is that I learned about the way dogs think and why they act the way they do. I learned that reactivity is usually based in fear or frustration. I learned that most of the time when a dog is reacting, you cannot teach it anything because everything in that moment its brain has shut off except for what it’s focused on, and that you must remove the dog from the situation immediately. I learned that it makes total sense for a dog to be reactive towards something it doesn’t like, because when it barks and lunges the bad thing moves away. I learned that practiced behaviors get repeated. I learned SO MUCH and it all just seemed to click (no pun intended, hehe).

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Because of all this, I feel the need to point out to myself (and whoever else cares to listen) what I did wrong with Mylo on the night that he lost it in front of my dad. So much of the way our dogs react is caused by the environment and circumstances around them, including their handler (and then of course their previous emotional opinions about things).  I’m glad I can now look back and see how badly I did not set Mylo up for success, and hopefully address these mess ups with any dogs I have in the future.

1.  I forgot to remember that change is scary for dogs.  I should have remembered how much transitions with a new dog can suck. Imagine being moved to a new place with new people you didn’t know – would you act like yourself?  We took Mylo away from his fosters, to Mark’s apartment and then to my home. Sounds like a plenty stressful situation to me, and certainly a good reason to act a bit unlike himself.

2.  I had him in a choke collar. I cringe even typing that. I had gotten instructions from his fosters to put him in a choke collar and, because I hadn’t learned much in the way of how to teach dogs to walk nicely using positive methods at this point, I went with it. Mylo had ZERO interest in letting this thing slow him down, so he was nearly choking himself the entire time. Discomfort adds to stress and can heighten a dog’s reactivity levels because they are redirecting their feelings about the pain.  If I had him today, I would have immediately put Mylo in a sense-ible harness to remove that element of stress.

3.  I introduced him to my dad in the dark and without any preparation. I will always and forever be more careful about introducing my pops to dogs because I have finally realized that when they don’t like him it’s not them, it’s him. He’s tall, he’s got a big beard, and he wears dark clothes. Recipe for disaster for a dog who is weary of large humans!  My poor dad – I didn’t give him any heads up about how to approach Mylo, so he went right up saying, “Hi doggy, hi doggy!” like he always does. Mylo didn’t like that.

Today, I would keep Mylo far enough away that my dad didn’t bother him (known as ‘below his threshold’), and then have my dad throw treats to him to show Mylo that father = yummy things (without putting the pressure on Mylo to approach my dad to take a treat from his hand!).  I would have told my dad to avoid eye contact or hovering over Mylo, and if he got to the point where Mylo wanted to say hi, to crouch down to his level without directly facing his body at Mylo – a much more inviting greeting for a dog!

4. I didn’t bring treats anywhere with me. Treats don’t solve everything, but they sure can get you out of a pinch when you need it.  A dog that’s focused on a high value treat isn’t as quick to focus on something else it might react to.  If I had treats from the get go, Mylo might have been more inclined to pay attention to me instead of his surroundings.

So I know that dwelling on the past isn’t always the best idea, but I think reflecting on it and reminding yourself of lessons learned can sometimes be very beneficial.  I would encourage you to start keeping a written log if you are on any sort of journeys of your own. I know there are plenty of times – even for non-animal related things like training for races – where I wished I could have written evidence of my accomplishments. Everyone deserves to give themselves a pat on the back every once in a while (or maybe get a high-five from your dog), and reflection can help to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to do so.

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