IT’S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT (LITERALLY)

Last Fall I found myself in the worst fitness shape I’d been in since college. I was busy, I didn’t have room in my budget for a gym membership, and in my little bits of free time I prioritized seeing my friends over exercising. I never thought of myself as someone who would “fall off the wagon” when it came to taking care of myself – but I had, and it was bad.

Then one day I decided to attend a workout put on by a free fitness movement called the November Project. Despite it being 6:30 am on a Friday, I really enjoyed the workout. The group meets three times a week, and I showed up the following Monday, then the following Wednesday, and even the next Friday. Today I am happy to say that I consistently attend those 6:30 workouts three times a week all over the city (which is going to produce a whole post on motivating a learner to increase behavior!). I am in the best shape I’ve been in since college!

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While I have come a very long way since the day I started, I still find myself discounting my progress. I watch the friends I’ve made, many of whom started around the same time I did, getting faster and faster, while I feel like my pace is staying the same. I beat myself up when I struggle during the workouts because these shouldn’t be this hard anymore. I wonder how the heck I am ever going to complete the marathon I’m signed up for in October. I get frustrated and angry when I can’t keep up with my peers. I’m used to being someone who stays positive and motivated by progress, so these doubts can be really discouraging.

Then I think back to something my mama brought up one time I had a conflict that I needed help managing (because moms always know best). She asked, “Well, what would you tell your clients to do in this situation?” This might sound funny, because dog training and someone’s personal life aren’t really the same, right? Actually, you’d be surprised at the overlap (or maybe you’re not surprised because you’ve been reading his blog, ha!).

In this instance, I remembered all those times I told my clients – or maybe adopters, or first time foster parents, or just any dog owner – to manage their expectations as they work towards their goal. “Don’t let one bad experience ruin the loads of progress you’ve made,” I tell them. “You’ve come too far to let this small step back keep you from being proud of your accomplishments.”

My heart breaks when my clients come to a session discouraged because their reactive dog had an outburst yesterday, after so many weeks of doing so well! So we talk about what their dog was like on day one. We reminisce about how every walk was a nightmare, how they were at their wits’ end, how their household was full of stress. Then we look back at the most recent incident – the dog barked, maybe lunged a bit, and the owner stayed calm, got the dog’s attention back, kept moving, and everyone recovered quickly. It’s like night and day from where they started, even though in the moment it didn’t feel like it.

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Progress doesn’t happen overnight. It also doesn’t go away overnight. Journeys like working with a reactive dog, or conquering separation anxiety, or improving your mile time, are all works in progress that have their ups and downs. When I start to doubt myself and my fitness progress, I remind myself of how far I’ve come. Then I give myself some good old positive reinforcement to keep myself motivated, and I head out for my next run – just like the dog owner who grabs the treat pouch and heads out for their next walk.

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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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NEW BLOG, SAME US

Hi! Hi hi hi! Welcome back! I’m saying this to you all, but I’m also saying it to myself. Welcome to the new and improved Peace, Love & Fostering blog! (If you’re reading this in your email, that’s your cue to hop over to your web browser and check out our new layout... except maybe wait until you’re by a computer because mobile is nice but not that nice).

I know you guys watched me let PLF fall by the wayside over the past year and a half. I witnessed it too. I had so much else going on. I was too busy. I wasn’t fostering anymore. This site started as a way to get the word out about my amazing foster dogs – once I no longer needed it for that, what exactly was its purpose? Where was my inspiration? Well, sometimes it takes some time and space apart to realize you really were meant for each other.

So, darling blog, I am back for you. Whole-freaking-heartedly.

It all started a couple weeks ago when I got an email with an amazing new opportunity (which I’ll write about later). This person found me through PLF. After celebrating the offer, I immediately regretted not keeping up with posting here. What if this person had passed me over because I didn’t have recent content? Or they dug back into my early posts when I had no idea what I was doing because I didn’t give them enough good posts to read more recently? What if they took my lack of posts as a lack of commitment!? I could have missed this chance, and the thought of that really scared me.

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I immediately sat and thought about why I don’t post anymore (because the dog trainer in me HAD to figure out what was so aversive about it). There are a couple reasons, but one of the blaring ones was the feeling that the blog’s layout and style no longer fit me or my mission. It is very “me three years ago.” Don’t get me wrong – I loved my self-made layout and it served me well for many years, but it was time to grow up. It was time for my blog to reflect the person I am now, mid-twenties.

I contacted my good friend Dani DiPirro, blogger, graphic designer and positive thinker extraordinaire, and asked her for ideas. Turns out that rebranding is, well, what she does (among other things)! I jumped at the chance to use her creativity and expertise. The best part? She’s been reading PLF for years so she knows what’s at the heart and soul of the site. We started brainstorming, and all of a sudden the most amazing, perfect, I-couldn’t-have-dreamed-up-better PLF brand was created.

I’m armed with new graphics (seriously, Dani is a genius), I’ve taken new (real!) photos for my posts and I’ve written new menu pages (if you’re bored, go check them out!). I am absolutely head over heels in love with everything about the crisp new look. It’s so “me right now.”

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But on top of that, I’ve also got an improved outlook, voice and mission. Like I said before, the time I took away from the blog that I spent living and learning has left me with a new sense of self. I’ve got stuff to say! And I think I can say it in a way that will resonate with you! And the fact that I’m confident in that makes me really excited to WRITE! You might have noticed that I changed the tagline from, “The three ingredients to a warm heart and saved lives” to “Lessons learned from fostering, training and loving dogs.” Because that’s really what this space is about: living life, learning from it and sharing it with you – but luckily in a way that involves dogs so it’s not just me talking about myself, ha!

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The cherry on top is that I finally got my .com address. Yup, bookmark it: peacelovefosterDOTCOM. I love you, WordPress, but I just couldn’t live with you in my URL anymore. The site is still a work in progress (hey, life), but making this huge jump has been enormously refreshing and challenging and rewarding and so, so worth it. I feel lucky that I have this space in existence where I can brand myself outside of my training company or my events job – because, at the end of the day, I’ve got my own voice and I’m going to use it to make a difference.

Thank you SO much for sticking with me through all this. See you back here SOON!

MEJC


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.

King


“I Tried Clicker Training and It Didn’t Work”

Those words have been ringing in my ear for the past week. In the same day two friends of mine reached out to me asking for help with their dogs, and both of them told me that they had tried clicker training and it didn’t work.

In a day and age where my colleagues and I are working like crazy to promote dog-friendly training methods, this phrase is hard to swallow. I have seen with my own eyes that marker (clicker) training can work on any animal – from sting rays to elephants to hermit crabs – so for someone to tell me it “didn’t work” on their dog, I am a little skeptical.

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The first and most important question I raise when someone tells me a certain training method didn’t work is: did you work with a professional? I’m not talking about someone who calls themselves a dog trainer because they have x amount of years experience “training” dogs. I’m talking about a person who is certified by a reputable organization and who has had their training skills tested and evaluated to make sure they know what they are talking about. While the basic concept of marker training is easy – mark and reward the behavior you like – the execution can be tricky if you’ve never practiced. Furthermore, timing and mechanics are essential in communicating to your dog what you want them to know. This is why working with a professional is so important; so they can tell you how to improve your communication skills.

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I remember a similar realization from when I rode horses growing up. I would have my weekly lessons, and then in between each lesson I’d ride on my own and practice what I’d learned. At the next lesson my instructor would fix everything I’d been doing incorrectly while I practiced on my own. Usually it was something I didn’t realize I was doing, wouldn’t notice without being able to watch myself ride or didn’t know I should be doing differently. That is what I hired my instructor for, after all! I could read books about the correct dressage seat until I was blue in the face, but nothing could replace what I would learn from working with a professional.

Training your dog is no different than any other skill you are trying to learn. Sure, you can read about it on the internet or in books or watch it on tv (cringe), but without consulting someone with an education and credentials on the subject, it is likely that you won’t get the results you are looking for. I absolutely love that people want to work with their dogs and take a stab at it on their own – I just hope they ask for help before writing off reward-based training.  So many people are blown away by what can happen when we finally find what motivates their dog, they just need a little guidance – and that’s what good dog trainers love to help with!

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To find a certified trainer in your area, check out the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.


Staycation With Paco

My work with Paco might have ended a few weeks ago, but I have been lucky enough to have him back in my life recently. I am dog sitting him while his family is on spring break! Ten whole days of just me and Paco time – I am in heaven! I am grateful that he is super easy to take care of: he is okay home alone and with just about thirty minutes of exercise a day, he loves to lounge around and sleep. It’s been so fun acting like he is “my dog” the past six days. It seems to be good timing that last week I wrote about fostering Lady Bug without worrying about the actual care, and this week I am here caring for Paco without him being a foster. Here are some photos from the time we’ve spent together so far:

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I sure do love having a pup to adventure with again… though I definitely won’t complain when my life goes back to not being planned in eight hour intervals!


One Step Closer to the Stars

I wasn’t sure what to write about for today’s blog post. I’ve got so many dog-related topics at the forefront of my brain, each one seemingly just as important to write about as the next.  Even though I just about had my mind made up for what today’s post was going to be, I changed my mind last minute to take advantage of the raw emotion I’m feeling right now, and to give you guys a[nother] blog post from the heart.

This afternoon I opened up an email saying that I passed my certification exam for the Karen Pryor Academy (KPA).  Over the weekend, Paco and I were tested on everything we have worked on for the past seven months. I know in the grand scheme of learning about dogs and dog training and dog behavior, seven months is only a blip of time – but the past seven months have been what feels like nothing but intense training and hours of studying. I’ve learned so much about dogs, but also about myself.

I know graduation from KPA did not make me a dog trainer overnight. Dog behavior is complex and takes years of experience, in my opinion, before you can truly get a grasp on what is going on in the brains of our four-legged companions.  But KPA gave me skills and much of the knowledge needed to tackle every day behavioral issues in a way that works with how dogs learn and, better yet, how we can build trust in the human-canine bond.  It fueled the already strong passion I have to go out and show the world that you can train dogs without using an ounce of fear, pain, dominance, force, strength, whatever; and that a relationship built in positive reinforcement and mutual respect is really beautiful.

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I can’t imagine bringing any dog through the course other than Paco.  That pup has such a love for life and any progress I made as a trainer would show through tenfold in his abilities because it meant we were communicating that much better. He was such a star! On the last day of workshops we were goofing off together and I taught him how to bow and then how to target a yogurt lid on the wall from a distance – both using maybe five minutes of shaping. I would squeal because he’d get it right and he’d get all excited and wiggly and I would start laughing at him and soon we’d cause a whole scene of happiness and I’d stop for a second and almost start to cry because once upon a time this was a dog who didn’t even really want to make eye contact with me, let alone work with me. Clicker training goes a long way, folks – even for pit bulls and other “strong” breeds (whatever the heck that means). Towards the end of our time working together all I needed to do was tap into Paco’s love for playing tug and he would perform behavior chains for me for however long I wanted. His tail would wag and his whole butt would shake and he’d keep coming back for more, waiting for his next cue. He loved working. He loved it. I also forget until looking at two photos like this that he has literally grown up with me. From a gangly young puppy to a handsome adult, Paco took every step of this journey right along beside me.

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Graduating from KPA was a huge accomplishment for me. It means I’ve got some fancy letters at the end of my name now: KPA CTP, which stand for Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner. Because dog training is a completely unrelated industry, no two certification programs are the same (unfortunately – hopefully one day that will change). Your average dog owner might not know what exactly KPA CTP means, but if they looked up the school they’d see that KPA’s program is built around the science of learning and force-free training principles, and that they believe strongly in continuing education – a standard that is important in dog training. Moving forward, I will work towards my Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) certification; one that is a bit more broad, but doesn’t necessarily have the same education behind it. The whole industry is very complicated!

This was a huge stepping stone for my ultimate career goals (too many to write) and overall life goals (helping more dogs). While I’m relieved it’s over, I know it also means many more opportunities – and much more work – from here on out, and I can’t wait!

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