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.

Barley

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!

college

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.

Enrichment_05

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!

08


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).

Mylo2

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.

01


What You Don’t Know

Last weekend I attended a free seminar about dog body language by Your Dog’s Friend, a non-profit committed to decreasing the amount of dogs who end up in shelters by educating owners. If you’re in the MD/DC/VA area I would absolutely recommend checking this organization out. Some upcoming free workshops they’re giving include how to address annoying behavior problems (digging, barking, jumping, etc.), dealing with an aging dog, and what is/is not aggression – all beneficial topics for any dog owner.

In just a two hour session, I learned more about dog body language than I had in a whole year. It was fascinating. That is where I’ll stop though, because I did not learn nearly enough to start regurgitating it back to you.

My reason for bringing up this seminar is because of another idea they covered during the lecture: the concept of learning. The speaker, Jules Nye from Sit, Stay, and Play, outlined four stages of learning:

1.  You don’t know what you don’t know

2.  You do know what you don’t know

3.  You do know what you do know

4.  You don’t know what you do know

I’ve found that as animal advocates, we usually find the most frustration with people in category #1 – those who don’t realize what they’re being clueless about. The person who lets their dog run up to your reactive dog, not realizing that not all dogs are social butterflies. The person whose pet’s nails grow super long because they don’t realize they need to cut them. The person who uses retractable leashes in busy places because they don’t see the problem with the lack of control. While many of us see these things as common sense, there is a true learning curve for those who don’t realize the consequences of their actions.

This is why the part of advocacy that is so important is education. We cannot expect everyone to just know all the ins and outs of being a sensible dog owner.  Were you born knowing the importance of spay/neuter? When you got your first dog, were you sensitive to every single other dog owner you came in contact with? What about when you first started training your dog, did you automatically know how to do it? We have to remember that those in category #1 that drive us so crazy (“I can’t believe they would let their dog do that!”) often just haven’t been informed of alternatives to what they are doing. Most times all it takes is one easy conversation to move someone from a category #1 to category #2 – and what a difference that makes! Then, even if they still don’t know it all, at least they are aware of what they don’t know.

So just remember: if you don’t know what you don’t know, you can never learn more. Help others help their animals by opening their eyes to what they need to learn. So many people are willing to improve themselves, they just don’t know how they should! It’s tough for us in category #4 (on some topics, not all) to realize that we know what we know because we’ve learned it and that it hasn’t just always been common knowledge to us, so we should be more understanding of those who are not yet where we are.

Just one year ago Little Zee was adopted, and I thought I knew so much. But the truth was that I knew only a small fraction of what I know now, and a miniscule amount compared to what I plan on learning over my life time. Every time I get preachy or self-righteous, I have to remind myself of that. I am always learning!

“The learning and knowledge that we have, is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant.”  -Plato

Photo cred to Love & a Six-Foot Leash


On Being 22 and a Foster Mom

My decision to foster came in steps. It wasn’t a black and white “okay, let me go pick out my first foster now” thought. It started slowly with a shared foster, and has turned into two full time fosters since then. Those of you who have dogs, foster or forever, certainly know what I mean by full time. I am a parent to these dogs, as crazy of a concept as that is. Sure, it’s temporary, but that doesn’t mean the daily commitment to them during their time with me is anything less than if they were mine forever.

I am the only one of my friends who has a dog. I am the only one who has to factor a dog into my social schedule, who has to accommodate plans for a dog on weekend trips, who has to account for foster expenses in my “fun” budget. It’s a commitment that I feel like I’m constantly trying to balance with living my life as a twenty-something. Sometimes it feels like a double life – with one half being a life my friends can hardly comprehend. I don’t blame them, seeing as it’s a far cry from the life of an “average” (whatever that means) 22 year old. Rescuing and fostering dogs can be difficult, and sometimes I do wonder what the heck am I doing… am I giving up too much of the only time in my life I have to be young and care free and responsible for no one but myself?

This is where a few saving graces come in the picture, the first being my parents. While many college graduates move out of their parents’ house faster than you can say, “Congratulations,” I am beyond thankful that I am in a position to be staying with mine. I can very honestly say I don’t think I could handle – let alone particularly want to try – fostering a dog if living by myself at this age. My parents help me immeasurable amounts when it comes to balancing my dogs and my friends.  They will watch my foster dogs pretty much whenever I ask them to – regardless of whether it’s because I need to stay late for work or if I want to grab drinks with a friend. They are so much like grandparents in the giving-mommy-a-break category, and now I know why mothers to human babies relish that free time so much!

Dogs like Otis (so, relatively easy and low maintenance) help a lot too. This is where the importance of being picky about who you foster comes into play. As much as I would love to help the ones that need it most, I realize I am not in a position to give them as much training and special attention (beyond cuddling) as they might need. The best advice I’ve ever heard about fostering was something along the lines of, “Choose dogs that fit your lifestyle – take the easy ones if you want to; don’t take the problem cases if you can’t. This is your time that you’re volunteering and you are already saving a life no matter what dog you decide to take in, so make it easy on yourself if you want to.”

Choosing more “ready to go” dogs makes fostering better for everyone around me. Otis is nearly perfect at home when I’m not there, which makes it easy for my parents to watch him and puts my mind at ease.  On the other hand, if you like a challenge – good for you! I commend those that take in the pups who need a little something extra, and hope to some day be able to provide the stability and training a dog like that may need.

While fostering dogs at my age can often be exhausting and confusing and scary and overwhelming, it’s also instilling a deep, deep passion in me that I will carry for the rest of my life. I’m learning that helping dogs is what I was put here to do, and starting it this early is teaching me discipline, responsibility, critical thinking, compassion, practicality, rationality, communication and maturity – not to mention creativity, writing and photography thanks to this blog.

Fostering is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, and I wish everyone had the opportunity and the means to do it at least once in their lifetime.  What I’m getting back from it through my dogs is worth one hundred times what I am putting into it, even if it seems like I’m making big sacrifices to some people. Hopefully if I’m starting now I’ll have it figured out by the time I’m all grown up, right? :)


You’re Invited!

I have some exciting news! So exciting, in fact, that Otis wants to shout it out and make sure everyone hears about it.

Animal Farm Foundation, one of my favorite organizations dedicated to equality for pit bull type dogs, is going to be in Maryland this week giving free seminars to anyone who wants to listen! Sounds too good to be true, right?  See for yourself:

I don’t know about you, but I am really interested to see what these folks have to say.  In light of the recent court ruling that’s got everyone wondering “W-T-F do we do now?”, I invite you to come to this seminar to learn about the great topics AFF has planned regarding “pit bull” dogs (see flyer). If you are able to attend the Gaithersburg edition where I’ll be, make sure you say hi!

Otis thinks that you should go and hopes that you have a great time.

He also wants to remind you that if you know anyone interested in his devastatingly handsome smile, to let me know.

For more information on adopting Honey Bunches of Otis, go to his Adopt Me page to learn more about him and how to get in touch.