Guest Post: The Journey, Struggles & Impact of a #367 Dog

I’ve written a few times about my experience with the rescued #367 fighting bust dogs. I volunteered at the HSUS facility with a good friend of mine named Amy, and I was so grateful to have someone to share the intense emotions you experience on these deployments with. We actually just returned from our second trip to the temporary shelter and it was an even more inspiring visit than the first. Since our first deployment we have also helped in the transport and settling in of a dog that Jasmine’s House took in, Campbell. Amy is here to write more about her #367 experience and Campbell. 

When Juliana asked me to be a guest writer on her blog, I was mildly panicked. What the heck would I write about? How could I put the experience of helping the HSUS and #367 dogs into words? I’m still struggling to put form and shape to the feelings I have from my deployment. The feelings form invisible strings that attach to the people and dogs who I met while there, and now expand cross-country. Invisible as they may be, I feel their tug each time I see a Facebook post, blog, or email referencing the #367 dogs.

That’s it, that’s the best way that I can describe it. I feel like I’m forever linked to the fates of these dogs and the people who have any part in helping them. We are all bonded together, sharing a common experience, and are now tied together regardless of our differences.

People have asked me, “wasn’t it sad?” Was it? If you want to know if I cried, then yes – I did. Tears were shed, and they are still shed. But they are not shed out of something so simple as just sadness. It is sad what these dogs went through. Maddening, tragic, hateful, and baffling. These negative feelings are present, but I have little room for them. They are pushed aside by much bigger emotions: gratitude, triumph, joy. These dogs are rescued.

Rescued, so they can begin the next part of their journeys. I have been lucky enough to have a bigger role in one of these dogs’ lives. Campbell, Supercam, Camalamadingdong are all affectionate nicknames that have been given to a small tan pitbull, with scarred up back legs and ribs you can still see. He lived his life on a heavy chain, probably forgotten. He lived this life for 3 or 4 years, from our best guess. Jasmine’s House has taken him in and he is being fostered by a good friend of mine, close enough for me to be able to help in his progress.

Amy and Campbell.

Amy and Campbell. Photo by Heidi Moore Trasatti Photography.

Campbell inexplicably captured my heart. He is as difficult to explain as the experience of working with the #367 dogs. He has moments of unbridled joy and affection, followed by crippling fear. Every day is an emotional roller coaster. He makes us want to cry and laugh – it feels a bit manic to be a part of Campbell’s journey. Triumph and tragedy are tied together as he muddles through and tries to figure out what is happening in his life, and as we try to help him.

There are so many stories of these dogs as they come out of the HSUS facility and go into foster homes around the country. Comments abound of “Welcome home!” but I want to draw attention to the fact that each and every one of these dogs is at the beginning of the road home. Some will have swift adjustments and take to sleeping on beds, walking on busy streets, and snuggling with humans easily. Others, like Campbell, will take hard work and dedication to support them to learn to feel safe.

Cambell

Campbell is a victim of trauma. He has never lived in a home. Never been given the chance to show his affectionate side and get a snuggle. The prospect of a whole house to explore, walks outside, toys, petting, and treats that we all find wonderful and exciting can be frightening and overwhelming to a dog like Campbell. The UPS truck makes him hit the ground, and his foster mom gently picks him up and whispers soothing words as she carries him home. A few moments of butt scratches amps him up into a frenzy, causing him to bounce around the house, grabbing his foster mom, the couch cushions, anything he can get his mouth onto as he skitters across the floor. He simply doesn’t know how to handle any stimulation.

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Last Friday, we taught Campbell to sit. It was an excruciating process. Using a lure caused him to mouth our hands and arms in excitement as he tried to get the treat. He wouldn’t just offer a sit so we couldn’t try to capture it that way. We tried putting some tasty peanut butter on a wooden spoon to use as a lure to train it – he simply broke the spoon in half when he grabbed it in his mouth. Finally we taught him to target plastic kitchen spoon. And he sat. Again and again, we lured him into a sit. We had to keep training short so he didn’t get overstimulated. 10 clicks, 5 seconds of attention, lots of time in between to decompress. Campbell’s life is broken into small slices of experiences so he can swallow them, digest, and manage. By Sunday, he was offering sits consistently. He has figured out a way to communicate, a way to get rewards, a way to make sense of his new crazy world and he has grabbed onto it.

By Monday he wasn’t just offering sits, he was offering downs which his foster mom had only lured him into 3 or 4 times before he started to give them up all on his own. In 4 days he went from jumping and grabbing at whatever he wanted, to asking for things politely with a sit or a down. Campbell is starting to learn that he has some control in his world. The little light bulb above his head, dark for so long, has begun to flicker.

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Campbell demonstrating how he settles on his mat.

Still, we suffer setbacks each day. He hated an exercise pen we tried using to block him into a smaller area so he wouldn’t chew up the couch, so I came over to install a tie down. The sound of the drill terrified Campbell and he spent over an hour cowering by the front door, even after all the scary things were over. Walks outside are still a struggle, as Campbell is easily overwhelmed. He can only handle very short bouts of being outside. The noise of the television or radio is too much for him to handle and again he will retreat to the front door, curl into a ball, even when it’s at a volume his foster mom can’t hear.

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To be able to have such a big part in the life of one of these dogs is truly humbling to me. I struggle to live up to being enough for Cam. He makes me strive to learn more and to be better. Just as my #367 experience has done. The ups and downs we experience together so exactly mirror my feelings about the whole #367 experience that it is as if Campbell is the living version of my emotions. He is made up of sorrow, tragedy, hope, gratitude, joy, and determination.

Campbell’s progress will continue in fits and starts. Every small step forward will be a miraculous triumph for us. Every setback feels like a failure but in the end only increases our resolve to make Cam’s life better – and teaches us something new. Cam is a great teacher. He is teaching me to be a better dog trainer. He is teaching me to cherish light bulb moments. Most of all, he is teaching me to grab onto successes with my teeth and not let go.

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Down to the Wire

Of course Paco would decide to do this to himself the week before we have our second assessment workshop for the Karen Pryor Academy:

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He is fine. He stepped on a rake and put a hole in his paw, go figure. Kids these days! But it’s got him all gimpy and sad and it’s been tough for us to practice to our fullest potential. I am, to be honest, a little nervous about this upcoming weekend! Unit 2 (out of 4) had sooo much information packed into it. Are we ready to show off what we learned? Will we be the flunkies of the class? Will everyone wonder what the heck we have been doing for the past six weeks? Because I feel like it will be all of the above. Hopefully I am just underestimating our team and Paco will prove to me that I need to think more positively! Wish us luck!

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This is what happens when Paco and I spend too much time training in one day. Snoozefest!


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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KPA: Preparing Makes Perfect

Well, it happened. The first testing weekend. It felt like it came so much faster than I was expecting. That’s life for you, right? I was so worried about this workshop weekend, constantly anxious about how it was going to go. Luckily – spoiler alert – it went really well. Here’s a bit about how Paco and I prepared ourselves!
The Karen Pryor Academy assessment weekends are designed to be mostly practice, discussion and instruction on what we the students worked on in our first web unit. While inevitably there is an assessment to demonstrate how well we’ve mastered the covered topics, I discovered that the weekends are, as a whole, relaxed and laid back. This was a great discovery once the workshop started – but I hadn’t always known that it would be okay. In fact, like I mentioned, I was quite sure it would not be okay!
Our dogs are required to be crated during the weekend workshops. This means they are crated while they see us – their owners/handlers – walking around interacting with other people and dogs. We give them plenty of bathroom/stretching breaks, but it’s a long day for the dogs. Not many dogs are used to this kind of set up. I certainly had no idea how Paco would react. His owners crate him at night and when they’re not home, and I’d seen him interact nicely with other dogs briefly, but didn’t exactly have a way to replicate this exact environment to see how he’d handle it.

Like all my dog training situations, I tried to go into the weekend as prepared as possible with management tools ready. I made sure to be completely packed and organized the night before so I wouldn’t feel rushed at any point. This helped immensely. I am the type of person who needs to feel prepared, and I only feel prepared if my ducks are all in a row! Part of packing meant taking a trip to the Petco in my neighborhood to stock up on long-lasting chews and high value treats. The last thing I needed was for Paco to be uninterested in my treats when I needed him to focus, and I knew the chewables would help keep him occupied if he was upset about being in the crate.  $60 later, we were more than ready:

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We arrived early Saturday morning so I could give Paco time to take in his surroundings. He did wonderfully with the other dogs that morning, and cautiously went into his crate as I tucked him in to begin listening to instruction. I was so nervous. Every little whine he made would cause my stomach to flop because I anxiously anticipated it being followed by a howl or other disruptive vocalizations. Everyone else’s dogs were being perfect. Would Paco be the problem child of the class? It still was unclear.

Two hours, a half-a-dozen harsh barks and lots of “please let this work” attention-withholding moments later, Paco was happily gnawing on his bully stick.  He seemed to have given up on throwing a fit to get out of his crate. We both breathed a sigh of relief, him seemingly thinking, “Oh, okay – you’re not going far. I can chill here and chew on this delicious bully stick without my world ending,” and me thinking, “You’re not going to lose your mind and disrupt class if I move two feet away from your crate. Whew.” He continued for the entire two days like that: a perfect angel.

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I am lucky that he adjusted so well to the novel environment, but I know he wouldn’t have had as easy of a time if I hadn’t made sure to prepare myself so well. Folks forget how vital some simple management can be. For Paco and I, it ended up being the difference between a successful weekend and a disaster weekend. Thank goodness for bully sticks and hoof chews!

Next week I’ll tell you more about the content we’re learning about and spending lots of time practicing. Let’s just say Paco’s new nickname is “Mr. Shaper.” Stay tuned!


KPA Back Story: A Bit More About How I Got Here

I have begun blogging for Dog Latin Dog Training’s website about my KPA experience. My Wednesday blogs here on PLF will be a sort of re-blog from those posts. For some posts it means I’ll touch on things you all probably already know, but for the most part it will probably be new content. Today I am taking a look back on the road to KPA. You’ve heard some of this before, but here it is again, all in one place. Thanks for sticking with me through this journey! 

I guess I’ll rewind for this entry, and talk about how and why I ended up in the Karen Pryor Academy. Both of those – the how and the why – have a bit to do with a wonderful woman named Beth Mullen, the mastermind behind Dog Latin Dog Training.

Beth and I worked together at the shelter for about two years – she with the animals, me in the development department. As I started fostering shelter dogs, our paths began to cross more often. I needed help here and there on behavior issues, and Beth was always so gracious with giving advice. I subsequently started to really see the positive work she was doing with our shelter dogs, all through creative clicker training – never using force or fear that folks sometimes think you need to turn to in a large kennel setting like a shelter.

While Beth certainly had a positive influence on my journey into force-free training, many other factors went into me choosing it as a new career path. When my interest in training picked up, I began attending workshops at Your Dog’s Friend (they are an insanely good resource for learning to live harmoniously with your dog!). It was a seminar about managing your dog’s behavior where I had a “light bulb moment” about management and reinforcing desired behaviors. From there, I went to an internship at Animal Farm Foundation (AFF) and had my first real “hands on” experience with reward-based training, shaping, behavior modification, etc. (I was in between fosters at this point so real life subjects to “practice” on were tough to find – AFF really opened my eyes to the possibilities). I saw first-hand how much you could achieve with this training and officially became hooked.

Photo credit to AFF.

Photo credit to AFF.

(This is one of those instances where you guys already know what I’m talking about – bear with me!) Johnnie Cash was the four-legged furball that sealed the deal for me – the dog trainer deal, that is. That foster pup taught me SO much about communicating with dogs. Johnnie had a lot of energy (she sat in the shelter for five months with no interest), and I promise you that if I hadn’t taught her in a way that her good behavior was a product of her own decisions, she would not have become such a great, well-mannered dog… and I would not have become such a believer in clicker training!

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Fast forward a few months, and Beth has officially taken me under her wing. I am soaking up every bit of knowledge I can from her – and it is a lot! I learn something new every time I watch her work. She really inspires me to work at becoming the best dog trainer I can be. We both believe strongly in continuing education and not becoming stagnant in what you know. Beth has also taught me enormous amounts about mutual respect when it comes to working with animals, and that’s exactly what clicker training is all about.

SimonMurphyBeth

KPA will be a difficult course for me, but it will likely be one of my greatest achievements – not only as a trainer, but as a person. I am just trying to come out the other side as a better trainer with the ability to help dogs and their owners live happier lives together. I am so lucky to get this opportunity!

Stay tuned to next week when I talk about how Paco and I are doing together and how we prepared for our first testing weekend.


KPA. . . Here We Go!

Meet Paco.

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Like I mentioned last week, Paco is the dog I am bringing through the Karen Pryor Academy with me. We will be learning together — he the cues, and I how to teach him the cues. He’s about seven months old and cute beyond words.  I actually just met Paco recently. His family graciously agreed to let me use him as my KPA dog (seeing as I don’t have one and it is a requirement of the course, I needed to borrow one), and our training together kicked off.

The first day I met him we went for a walk and I tried to do some basic work with him. He did well on the walk, so I was excited for how much training we could do together — plus he was so cute!

The next couple times I went to work with him, I started doing more training. Unfortunately, I really put the pressure on. “You must learn sit RIGHT NOW, dog!”  Of course I didn’t mean to be aversive about it (clicker training is supposed to be fun, after all), but I felt pressured to make sure we were ready for our first testing week, and it became clear pretty quickly that poor Paco was not enjoying himself. He would get frustrated and start to shut down during our sessions.

Thankfully, I recognized this during our second time training together and decided to take a step back. Paco and I barely have a relationship after all, let alone a reinforcement history. The next time, I went in with the intention of spending an hour making sure both of us were enjoying our time together. Working was not a priority; simple relationship building was.
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Paco loves interacting with people, so we spend a lot of time just playing. One day we also went on a nice long walk to Soapstone, a little gem of a trail tucked into the middle of Washington, D.C. Paco enjoyed playing in the water and taking in all the new sniffs.  After that adventure, I brought him back to my house to meet my roommates.  He loved meeting my roommates (and of course they loved meeting him), and soon he was fast asleep in my lap. I think that counted as some good bonding time. Overall it was relaxing and laid back – criteria I need to be sure to incorporate into our time together!

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Now that he knows me a little better, our training sessions are improving.  Just one week of working with Paco made me realize the importance of evaluating your own teaching. I was making learning aversive for Paco, and I needed to adjust the way I was communicating with him. If I hadn’t stopped and noticed what I was accidentally doing, we could have been headed for disaster.

I am thankful that I made this realization so early in the KPA course (and my career, too), because the next six months are likely to be very challenging for both Paco and me. We need to be able to find fun and enjoyment in every place we can, while we work hard. I have a feeling Paco and I will quickly adopt the “work hard, play hard” mentality. We all know how much a good game of tug can relieve stress.

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Stay tuned to see how things with this course – and with Paco – are progressing!


I’ve Got Good News, and I’ve Got Bad News. . .

The good news: you know that post where I wrote about my goals and dreams as a dog trainer, and how one of those goals was to go through the Karen Pryor Academy someday? Well, “someday” became this day. Right now. Last month, to be exact. That’s right: I am officially a student of the Karen Pryor Academy.

Many trainers that I look up to have taken the KPA course and become a Certified Training Partner. It’s something that, like I said, I have always put on the agenda for someday down the road. Through an awesome twist of fate, though, the stars aligned and I enrolled this Fall. Come February I will, fingers crossed, have the initials KPA-CTP after my name – but I have a lot of work, learning and practicing between now and then to make that happen!

That brings me to the bad news. . . I have to cut back the blog again. I know, I know. I just went down to Tuesday/Thursday! But KPA is a big commitment, and a heavy course load. That is why it will be such an accomplishment, after all. Between my 9 – 5 job, my clients for Dog Latin Dog Training and making an effort to still maintain a bit of a relationship with my friends and boyfriend (I am still 23 after all!), I will need to devote pretty much all my free time to KPA. So, I will promise you this: Wednesdays. I will still be here every Wednesday. I might even be here a bit more than that! I’m kind of just going to promise Wednesdays and then post additionally as the mood strikes me.

I’ll leave you with a bit more good news. KPA requires me to have a dog to take through the course who I practice new skills with and use during our two-day long testing weekends. Well, since I don’t have a dog of my own I was in a bit of a pickle. Yet again the stars aligned and a handsome little pup named Paco crossed my path. His family lives about seven minutes from me in DC, and, after recently adopting him, they were looking to get him some training.  Hooking the two of us up was the perfect solution: I get my training partner, and he learns lots of awesome new skills. Win-win! Best part (in my opinion)? Paco is a pittie mix! Who knows what the heck he actually is – but he’s got short brown fur and a big blocky head so you know I love him.

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I will be writing more about Paco, my experience with KPA and of course other dog topics as I go – so stay tuned. I might be here less, but in my opinion the blog just got very interesting! I hope you agree.

See ya Wednesday.