When Expectations Hurt

I see it more than ever now that I am working with either clients or shelter dogs every day: we as humans often have unrealistic expectations for our dogs, and these standards can lead to a frustrating relationship for both parties.

We’ve all been there. “But I know she knows this cue.” “He shouldn’t be afraid of this, he should just get used to it!” “She should be able to do this by now.” “Why is he acting this way? He is fine at home.” “How come she doesn’t understand that what she did was wrong?” “I want her to change her behavior, but I want the solution to be easy!” “He should do it just because I told him to.”

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These high standards usually stem from the fact that dogs and humans are two entirely different species, and therefore have completely separate ways of communicating, playing, surviving, etc. What is acceptable and desired in the human world is usually quite foreign in the dog world. For example, being calm and quiet for, oh, 23 hours a day. Dogs are generally wired to be active, and yet we prefer them to sit on the couch, stay in their crate, sleep on their beds, whatever, when we are not exercising them. And vice versa. Dogs are supposed to bark and chew and pee wherever they want, and yet we ask them to curb most of those behaviors and to actually act very non-dog like inside our homes. Until an understanding is met between human and dog, the two worlds can collide in a chaotic, frustrating and sometimes dangerous way.

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That is where understanding of dog behavior comes in. Certified trainers and behaviorists (and a lot of really awesome book authors, seminar-givers and youtube channel makers) are there to unite human and dog – to show the two that they can in fact live harmoniously, once a form of communication is established. What I find most frustrating – and, to be quite honest, heart breaking – is when I watch dog owners toss aside the needs of their dog. Explaining to them that their dog is barking out of fear or destroying their furniture because they are bored out of their minds, and then hearing their owners still demand a “simple fix,” is always hard to swallow. In an era when the solutions are often found at the end of our fingers with our smart phones, folks have a tough time realizing that behavior does not change over night.

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I’m not saying we should be making excuses for our dogs. I hold Paco to very high standards with his behavior – but they are also reasonable. I am not going to expect Paco, an 11-month old puppy, to be able to sit still at my house for three hours. That’s just not fair to him. I’m going to be sensitive to his needs and adjust accordingly.

One of my favorite takeaways from our #367 experience was a phrase we heard often during the week when working with the dogs: meet them where they are. This strongly applies to the victims of trauma we met at that temporary shelter, but is also applies to every dog waiting for a home, transitioning to a new home, or currently living in a home. See the dog you are working with in front of you – make note of their strengths, weaknesses, and needs – and interact with them accordingly. Expect of them accordingly. Set goals that reflect the progress they are capable of making. Celebrate the victories they make without dwelling on their failures or shortcomings. Realize that they are a dog, they do not speak English and they do not read minds. Be understanding. Be compassionate. Communicate to them what you want in a positive and clear way, and if they are not responding then work like heck to figure out how you can improve your message to them. I believe we owe it to our dogs to do so.

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Going With the Snow

All you East Coasters know the snow storm we experienced at the end of last week. We’ve had a lot of snow so far this winter, but all in small doses. On Wednesday night we had 10+ inches dumped on the DC area!

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Knowing I had my Karen Pryor Academy final testing weekend coming up in just two days, I borrowed Paco to get snowed in with. His family knew they’d have a house full of kids since everyone would be off school, so they were happy to let me take him for as long as I wanted. We grabbed some extra training treats and a bottle of wine and we settled right in for however long we would be snowed in for. In between playing, snuggling relaxing on the couch and eating snow day food, Paco and I got in a lot of really great training. I felt ready for our big test!

IMG_4285IMG_4298Friday morning rolled around and I got some great news that the shelter was closed for the second day in a row so I had the whole day to prepare. I planned out my to-do list and got started with organizing all my supplies for the big weekend. I would need high value treats, long lasting chews, all of our studying/exam materials, the props for our ten-part chain and more.  I was excited to get it all out of the way so I could relax with Paco for the evening.

I got news shortly after my day started that because of the snow we’d gotten and the snow we were going to get Friday night, the final testing weekend was being postponed.  When I read the email, my initial reaction was to be upset. I’d prepared so much and felt so ready, and now I would have to wait even longer to get all my hard work wrapped up.

After a quick pity party I realized there was nothing I could do to change the weather, and that I needed to make the best of the situation. For starters, I now had an entire weekend with nothing on my calendar – something that hadn’t happened in what feels like literally years. Also, now I have more time to prepare for our final exam. Since all of our coursework is out of the way, for the next four weeks (the test is rescheduled for mid-March) I can focus solely on my and Paco’s performance.

IMG_4273So while I wish that I could be writing to you all right now about how the course ended and how Paco and I did, that is no longer the plan. I’ve got four more weeks of practicing and (anxiously!) waiting to test my skills. And we’ll embrace that extra time and be thankful for the additional opportunities to improve ourselves so that we have our best shot at passing and getting our KPA CTP certification. We will keep you updated!

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He’s Just Not That Into You!

We’ve all seen the movie or at least heard of someone in this kind of relationship: a girl goes nuts trying to get a guy to pay attention her, only for her efforts to go unnoticed. That’s sort of how I feel about my relationship with Paco right now. Seriously. I just can’t seem to get this boy’s attention! Let me explain.

Paco has proven himself to be a challenge to work with – in a good way! He makes me think outside the box and causes me to work extra hard in perfecting my communication skills. He’s a great dog to become a teacher with. My latest challenge with him is finding a good motivator. This is, yet again, another lesson I am grateful to learn the hard way early on: not all dogs are super motivated by food. While food is a primary reinforcer, meaning animals are hard wired to want it (and therefore work for it), Paco generally doesn’t fall over himself trying to earn a treat. Up the value, you say? I’ve tried: peanut butter, cheddar cheese, chicken jerky, stupid overpriced training treats from the store, hot dogs, canned chicken, Natural Balance log roll, squeeze cheese, and more. It’s all the same to him. So, we have to try something different.

This is where the scene of a girl trying super, super hard to impress a boy comes into play. Paco generally loves attention, praise, petting and encouragement. This is great! Supplementing food rewards with attention for a dog like him should do the trick. I should note here that during shaping sessions, this encouragement comes after the achieved behavior as a reward, versus while Paco is trying to figure out what he is supposed to be doing. Verbal encouragement as a prompt instead of a reward during shaping can actually throw the dog off more and slow learning.

Turns out, I have to really put on a “Paco is the best ever” show for him to keep him engaged in our work. Sometimes when we do training sessions I feel like I am literally jumping up and down and standing on my head squealing, “Look at me, Paco! That right choice was so exciting! You want to keep training with me! It’s so fun, I promise!” Yeah. . . kinda sounds like a girl desperate to get a guy’s attention, right?

I guess you could label me as that desperate girl at this point. We’ve got such a long, tough road of learning ahead of us and Paco and I need to be on the same page. After a discouraging week, I think we finally had a breakthrough. It’s been a lot of trial and error to figure out what motivates him; something I feel like has set us back in our coursework, but will benefit us, our relationship and the quality of our work in the long run.

So, if you’re ever in a DC neighborhood and hear a lot of clicking and cheering, that would be me and Paco working together. Just call me the crazy dog lady.

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Helping Lebron With His Ups

I no longer work at my hometown shelter, but just before I left I spent time with some really awesome dogs. My coworker Kim and I have both been doing lots of training work lately and decided to try and help a few of our shelter dogs. LJ – or Lebron James as we nicknamed him – was one in particular need of our help if he was going to get adoption attention.

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When you would take LJ out of his kennel to go for a walk, he would barely spend time on the ground. He was either jumping on you or jumping to grab the leash or jumping to try to get a ball – all not uncommon, yet scary, behaviors in shelter dogs who have too much pent up energy and not enough ways to expend it. Some volunteers and staff tried their best to curb the behavior, but without knowing any better their pushing and saying, “OFF” in a stern tone was actually just reinforcing LJ’s rude behavior.

Kim and I decided to try our hand at getting through to LJ. We went in armed with lots of hot dogs, a few tennis balls, some peanut butter on a stick, a clicker and our best, most positive attitude. So much of working with shelter dogs is management because even the best shelters are tough on dogs and are not practical places to expect a dog to turn into the perfect pup with just a few training sessions.

We started LJ off on the right paw by leading him out of his kennel with a spoon covered in peanut butter. This way, he focused on licking the peanut butter on the way out instead of talking smack to the other dogs or biting his leash. Success #1. When we got out to the yard where it is a bit calmer, we introduced him to the hot dogs. Thankfully, LJ is very food motivated so this helped us catch his attention from the very beginning. Any trick you can find to capture a shelter dog’s attention in such a crazy environment is something you want to stick to and use to your advantage! Again, management is key.

We took LJ off leash and let him run around a bit, careful to not let him get too hyped up. Yes, he needs to expend energy, but getting the zoomies and amping himself up until he is so “stressed up” that he can’t focus on anything is not healthy for him. We want LJ to practice calm behaviors. We did a lot of sits and touches in the run. These two cues  are pretty easy for dogs to learn and are a great way to practice focus.

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Then we decided to work on his jumping. Even when he is calm, LJ would default to jumping on you. Kim and I decided to make it a game for him. As he would come toward us, ready to jump, at about one foot from us we would click and toss a treat away from us. The first time this happened he skidded on the breaks like he was thinking, “Woah, what was that?!” and went after the treat. We continued this many more times: clicking and treating right when he got to our 12” personal bubble, before he got the opportunity to jump. He thought it was the best thing ever. “I stop in my tracks and I get a treat. Awesome!” Very quickly LJ began to run towards us and stop at our feet, waiting for his reward. We even began to throw in some extra stimuli like us moving more quickly or waving our hands – things that would normally set him off to jump – to slowly raise the criteria. Still no jumping. LJ had gotten it.

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In just ten minutes, we had taught LJ an incompatible behavior to jumping up on us. If we continued to work with him, we would practice that behavior for one or two short sessions per day, then move on to practicing it in different areas of the shelter and then with different people. We would manage our expectations and understand that the shelter environment means that LJ might deteriorate a bit between sessions, and that it might take extra practice for him to be able to generalize the behavior in other situations. Continuous practice and repetition, though, would have helped turn the behavior into habit for LJ. But, luckily, we were not able to work with him again because he got adopted! That is the kind of outcome I love, of course.

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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.


My Journey to Becoming a Dog Trainer: Part 1

I had a dog growing up. I’ve loved dogs all my life. I worked at the humane society in high school, and then even studied Animal Sciences in college. But I didn’t really have an interest in training dogs until about ten months ago when it felt like a switch flipped. Since then, I can’t seem to learn enough about working with dogs.

With my childhood dog, a Wheaten Terrier named Barley, we used a shake can when he would do the wrong thing like get into the garbage. We walked him on a retractable leash and didn’t pay much attention to how he was invading our surroundings. We wondered why he acted the way he did around other dogs (he could be reactive) and why he wasn’t ‘normal’ like the ones who love every other dog they meet. We would scream at him when he would bark out the front window. But I figured that was Barley and that was the way you interacted and dealt with dogs. Looking back, I can now see why we didn’t have the closest relationship.

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I remember bits and pieces of being exposed to training as I got older. Some of the first, I think, was watching Victoria Stilwell’s It’s Me or the Dog show on Animal Planet. I would catch it whenever it was on and was fascinated with how she could change a dog’s behavior by adjusting schedules, house rules and basic guidelines. Fast forward to college when I took animal behavior courses and companion animal courses (when we weren’t taking companion animal courses we were learning mostly about cows and poultry) and I got another glimpse of how animal’s learn. In our behavior courses we covered learning theory and discussed famous studies like those by Pavlov and others and how they related to why animals learn and act the way they do. We also learned about clicker training, though many of the examples we were shown that demonstrated clicker training used horses, donkeys or pigs!

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People think that Animal Science majors get to hang out with dogs and cats all year. False. This is what I spent most of my time doing.

Despite all this background, I still wasn’t that interested in dog training. I started working at the humane society, and even fostering, and didn’t realize the importance in training past just basic obedience (sit, down, stay). Our shelter trainer, a CPDT and graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy (man were we lucky to have her), would chat with me about my fosters and basic ways to help any problematic behaviors popping up and, while I appreciated it and tried to follow through with her advice, I still just didn’t get the big picture of why dogs do the things they do and how I could change the way they behave.

My outlook changed when I attended the Animal Farm Foundation internship last September. Even though the course focused mainly on learning about how to help pit bull dogs get adopted from shelters, the most valuable lessons I took away from that week were the training ones.

Practicing shaping with Eli.

When we arrived Monday afternoon, I met our house dog Lady Bird (LB). She was an energetic little thing – way more spunky than I had ever really dealt with. Throughout orientation the first night Lady Bird kept trying to jump up on my fellow intern while we were all talking – something that was quite annoying. The intern simply stood up every time LB got on her lap, ignoring her the whole time, causing LB to naturally fall back to the floor. By the end of the time we were all together, Lady Bird had quit jumping up. No shoving, no pushing, no yelling… just a simple change of consequences and reinforcers.

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The week continued with “aha!” moments like that, like when I realized I could pretty quickly teach a dog to sit while I open a door or not bark in the kennel – all using the same basic principles. I couldn’t believe it: the basics that I had learned in school and had watched others do for so long could be applied to behaviors across the board – with great results! I was hooked. By the end of the week, Lady Bird was a delight and I was a training-knowledge fiend.

Upon my return, I quickly realized that I had so many resources at my finger tips: Your Dog’s Friend, Beth the shelter trainer, other blogging friends, books, websites and so much more. I dove right in. While I am learning so much valuable information, I am also realizing that this is how it’s done, this is how people get into training. You’re not born knowing everything about dogs or wanting to train them (okay, maybe some have dreams to be a dog trainer as a kid, but not all of us), and you might not even wake up one day and just decide you want to be a trainer. Sometimes it takes lots of exposure to it or lots of trial and error or lots of exciting successes to get you hooked. Everyone’s story is unique.

Come back on Thursday to see how my dog training journey is unfolding. I am excited to share with you all where things are headed!

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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.