YOU’RE RIGHT, YOU’RE RIGHT, YOU’RE RIGHT!

It was a chilly spring day, and Griffin and I had just started our afternoon training session together. I picked him up out of the backseat of my car because he still doesn’t think he can jump down, and off we went on that Wednesday adventure. I’d chosen the National Cathedral because its grounds are dog friendly and have a zillion distractions, plus it’s very pretty this time of year, despite the colder temps we were experiencing.

My job with Griffin is to spend a couple hours a week socializing and training him. He is about four and a half months of squishy Labrador puppy, and I’ve known him since he was just shy of eight weeks old. He’s a happy, friendly, exuberant and outgoing pup.

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We trotted across the street to a patch of daffodils. Photo opp! I thought. The picture opportunities were half the reason we went to the Cathedral that day – the gardens are remarkable this time of year. I asked Griffin for a down, which he did enthusiastically because it’s one of his strongest behaviors (default downs, people: they’re a lifesaver with an excitable dog!). I then asked him for a wait and knelt down, rapid fire rewarding him for staying still while I got down on his level – a human action that I knew is just so hard to resist as a puppy! I held my phone up like I was taking a picture, but clicked my clicker and treated him again for staying still, as I’d now increased the amount of time he’s staying down and I’d put an object in front of his face. I still hadn’t taken the photo. I finally snapped, oh, probably a dozen photos in that exact spot and still managed to click and treat Griff before he started the protest barking he does when he’s bored. First victory of the day.

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We walked up the sprawling lawn of the Cathedral. Griffin was walking calmly next to me. Click, treat at nearly every step of loose-leash walking. Good boy. Wow, he’s being really good today. Click and treat for eye contact, because he was offering a bunch of that, too. More pictures on the lawn. This time I walked away from him to capture the breathtaking Cathedral in the background of the photo. Take two steps back, click and treat. Take three steps back, click and treat. Take three steps back and kneel down, click and treat treat treat, good boy. I finally got a dozen or so more photos there, too.

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Griffin was happy to lounge on the lawn for a bit as we both soaked up the sun. Thank goodness we started building that default down at eight weeks old, because now he’s happy as a clam to stay in a relaxed down position. For a dog who is so inclined to be bouncy and exuberant, I welcome the opportunity to just chiiiiill.

I decided we were ready to tackle the gauntlet of distractions by the front of the Cathedral. School groups, business folks on their lunch breaks, tourists, other dogs – you name it, the distraction was there.

We came across a friendly security guard who started coo-ing and smiling at Griffin. I turn into a really rude dog handler during these situations because I keep my eyes glued to Griffin watching for opportunities to reward his desirable behavior, not worried about social interactions with people. I watched as Griff acknowledged the smiling woman and then LOOKED BACK AT ME. I could have exploded I was so happy. Click, treat, GoodboyGoodboyGoodboy!

You see, what I have spent nearly every week teaching Griffin is that he can see exciting people or dogs on a walk and not move towards them. I love friendly dogs – love them! But what I don’t love is a dog who pulls me all over the place deciding on his own where we are going or who we are approaching. Since he was just about two months old I have been marking and rewarding Griffin nearly every time he acknowledges an exciting trigger and *stays by my side!* That afternoon, it seemed to click for him (pun intended!).

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The rest of our time at the Cathedral continued to be just as wonderful. I sat on a bench and Griffin settled by my side. Click, treat for deciding to go into a down on his own. Click, treat for watching all the people walking by and staying in his down. Click, treat for hopping up and walking with me as we moved on. Click, treat for sitting still for one million more photographs.

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When you work with a dog this closely, you get pretty attached. My heart was bursting with pride as Griffin had success after success that afternoon. I thought about why we were possibly having such a good day, and some words from Dr. Susan Friedman kept coming to mind:

“If your learner isn’t doing what you expect, the problem is in the program.”

What I took away when I first heard this quote by Dr. Friedman is that we can’t blame our learners for messing up. If my learner is being unsuccessful, I need to be clearer with my criteria, and clearer with my reinforcement. I attended a lecture of hers at ClickerExpo, a behavior and training conference, about errorless learning, which is where I heard that quote. She discussed how it is better to move away from the idea that your learner has to be wrong to be right (meaning they have to learn by making mistakes), and instead have a mindset that is focused on making your learner successful. It is the teacher’s responsibility to, in her words, “redesign the environment so that we get the learner to reinforcement more quickly, without frustration.”

This was spot on with my work with Griffin. I had been raising my criteria too quickly, therefore causing him to mess up more and more frequently. We were both frustrated. It was time to go back to my process. How could I get the behavior I wanted, and then make it clear to him he was being successful?

That trip to the Cathedral was a turning point. I shifted my focus back to Griffin – helping him make the right choices, giving him the feedback he needed, preventing him from getting frustrated – and successful he was!

Dogs are always learning, and Griffin is no exception, so I know we have a long road ahead of us to help him be the well-behaved pup his parents are hoping he will be, but he’s certainly helping me become one heck of a better trainer to get him there!

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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.”

PURPOSE
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!
TACO

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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