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.


All the Things We’ve Learned

To say that Johnnie has come a long way from the day she stepped foot paw out of the shelter would be an understatement. Johnnie Cash, once thought to be out of control and insanely energetic, turned out to be very bright, a quick learner and a model student. Together we learned how to communicate with each other. Training is not a one way street – I have to figure out how to tell her what I want just as much as I have to figure out what she is trying to tell me. I have loved every minute of growing and learning with this little girl.

Here are two videos of some of our accomplishments. This first one is a demonstration of how lovely she is to take outside. She learned in probably the first twenty four hours what it took to be allowed to head out the open door, which was sitting quietly. The last thing I want is a dog who drags me around, especially out the door before I’m ready! All we had to do was slowly open the door while she was sitting, and immediately close it (gently, so we didn’t squish her!) if she moved towards it. Heading out without a release = door closing! As she progressed with the polite sitting, we began to ask for eye contact. Now we are – as shown in the video – to the point where we can have the door wide open before she heads out.

You can’t tell in the video because the door frame is in the way, but she is holding perfect eye contact until I release her.  Also, notice that I do not need to use treats for this. The simple release through the door is the reward, but only after the use of negative punishment, meaning we took the open door away (negative) to decrease the behavior (punishment) of moving towards it without release. Dogs learn what works for them, and Johnnie quickly learned that sitting and making eye contact meant she would be able to head out into the world, and jumping towards the door meant it would close and the fun things on the other side would go away.

This next video is a short compilation of some of the tricks that Johnnie has learned. She demonstrates sit pretty, touch, sit, high five, down, paw and say bye.  These tricks are great for so many things, like distracting her if I need to keep her mind busy, helping to win over the public, or teaching new behaviors. Plus, they’re fun and learning them together was a great bonding experience. At one point you’ll notice I ask her to sit from a down, but then I realize she doesn’t know that (yes, “sit” from a down is an entirely different behavior than sitting from a standing position!), so we moved to another cue.

In the video you see how she does most of the tricks without treats. I gave her one at the beginning, but then she performed the rest without a reward. So many people, when they are introduced to reward-based training, get frustrated about how much we use treats or other rewards. “Will I have to be giving my dogs treats and using the clicker for their whole life!” they ask. The answer is: not necessarily. We use a high rate of reinforcement when we are teaching new behaviors, but once the dog has learned and practiced the behavior, we move to rewarding only every once in a while (there are real scientific words for these different techniques but I have not mastered those yet – check out your high school psych textbook for more info, ha!).

This ends up being a fun game for the dog because they know that “one of these times she’s going to give me a treat!” – it’s just a matter of when. Johnnie is a pro at “sit” now, so I don’t have to reward her every time she sits when I give her the cue. But, to make sure she continues to be a pro, I reward her every once in a while. Make sense? Unfortunately it works the other way too: if your dog is able to snatch something off the counter 1 out of the 10 times he tries, he will continue counter surfing because he’s waiting for just that *one time* he hits the jackpot. Also like begging. If you give your dog food from the dinner table every once in a while, they will likely continue to beg all the time in hopes that it’s one of those special occasions where they get a taste. Animals are smart little beings!

So, who made it through all the training talk? If so, congrats – you now have a heads up that Johnnie has a special announcement to make tomorrow. She promises it is one you won’t want to miss :-).


Johnnie & Other Dogs

Ah, the lovely journey of discovering how your dog feels about other dogs once they get comfortable in their environment. Our two months with Johnnie Cash have been interesting and informative, and I think we’re at a place where we pretty much know her feelings about other dogs and how to handle them.

Johnnie was in a playgroup at the shelter and I took her on a playdate with one of her shelter buds the first day I brought her home, so I knew that even if some reactivity began to show, there’d be hope. Lots of dogs are reactive on leash because of the added stress, but can safely participate in playgroups. It’s all about knowing your own dog. So for the first few weeks of having Johnnie, I kept leash greetings to a minimum. I wanted to figure her out before I had to figure her and other dogs out. In the neighborhood we crossed the street when we saw other dogs and I worked on keeping her focus on me, not them.

The first day I had her as a foster, playing with her BFF China.

The first day I had her as a foster, playing with her BFF China.

She did very well at this for a long time. Barking dogs in yards were nothing to her, especially if I had some string cheese, and passing other dogs on the street wasn’t too difficult. After about a month though, she started getting a little barky at adoption events. It wasn’t usually at particular dogs – meaning, she wasn’t being reactive in a way that is often interpreted as scary – it was more just in general, seemingly out of frustration or excitement.  Then on walks it seemed like she was focusing on other dogs more. Operation prevent-the-reactive-foster-dog immediately went into action.

I knew I needed to work on Johnnie’s feelings about other dogs before the frustration turned into reactivity or aggression. It was the incident of getting stuck at the cherry blossoms that helped me realize a few things: I have to be very mindful of Johnnie’s threshold, I can’t get too relaxed with training around other dogs and if I don’t manage situations around other dogs well, Johnnie has the capability to cause quite a scene.

The major thing we work on is focus. Every walk we’ve taken since then, I’ve had treats and a clicker. To help Johnnie stay focused, I always make sure we are below her threshold around other dogs. This means we are at a far enough distance where she doesn’t feel the need to bark or try to get to them (usually it’s a playful trying to get to them – but if they react towards her, sometimes it’s a “get back” bark). We also always have high value treats. For Johnnie, string cheese usually does the trick, or sometimes hot dogs. Food is a primary reinforcer for dogs, so it’s very important and helpful to have that be your strongest tool.

Dogs are often reactive for two reason: fear or excitement. It’s important to realize this when working with a reactive dog and know that they’re acting out because they’re uncomfortable. Also, it’s important to try to keep them out of situations where they feel the need to react. Every time a dog reacts, they reinforce themselves. It feels good – and, most of the time, it works because whatever is making them uncomfortable moves away. If it works so well, wouldn’t you keep doing it?

So when staying below threshold, I click and treat Johnnie for just acknowledging the other dog and then looking away. I start with this and then build up to her acknowledging the other dog and then making eye contact with me. This way, it becomes her decision to look at a dog and then immediately look at me because it means treat time! This redirection helps her from getting too intently focused on the other dog – something that often leads to a reaction. It is actually helping her re-wire her emotional response to other dogs, instead of just nixing the symptoms and having her still feel uncomfortable around them. We usually practice it at a park or somewhere that I know there will be other dogs around but that we’ll also be able to stay a safe and comfortable distance from them.

This method is most helpful when we’re on our Pit Crew walks or at adoption events. She does not need it as much when we’re passing dogs on our walks, as long as I make sure our route keeps her below threshold. At events where we’re in closer proximity to other dogs, it is helpful for us if she is continually doing something, whether it’s walking, watching me (our cue is literally “watch me!”), doing touch, etc. – we have found it important to keep her little brain focused on a task so her thoughts do not wander to the other dogs! We also do lots of practice on parallel walks with low key friends that won’t bother Johnnie while she works on her calm and focus skills.

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Johnnie practices not worrying about the fact that Nicky’s in front of her. She gets rewarded any time she “checks in” with me because it means she’s being super relaxed around Nickster.

 

This past weekend we had a few breakthroughs after many weeks of practicing acknowledging other dogs and staying calm. We attended an adoption event in a busy town center. Johnnie was able to be around many other dogs and she did not have one barking melt down! I was sure to constantly keep her focus on me or redirect her with a cue if her eyes started straying, and I was also sure to keep her below her current threshold (which is actually a closer distance than it was four weeks ago – yay!). She made a puppy friend, which is usually easy because puppies are so easy going, but she also met a couple other dogs on a loose leash and was fine with them. Go Johnnie!

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What I will not do is take this awesome performance and use it as an excuse to say, “Yay! Let’s attend all the doggy social gatherings in the area this summer!” In fact, I’m not sure Johnnie will ever be the type of dog to attend or live somewhere with heavy dog traffic. I think it will always be too much for her, unless her adopter works extremely hard with her to continue improving that emotional response. I’m okay with it because it is who she is, and her adopter will appreciate that just like I do. She might not like every other dog she meets, or she might not like being around a lot of other dogs in a close space – but hey, I’m the same way with humans.

I knew that a lot of Johnnie’s barking was probably frustration, so I kept thinking about trying to find her a play date. I know she is an over-zealous player though, so I wasn’t sure who would be a good match for her. Turns out the perfect playmate was an old friend who was just an email away, and we hadn’t even thought about it! Tune in tomorrow to see who Johnnie played with this weekend (who can guess?), and how it went.

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To adopt your very own work-in-progress, check out Johnnie Cash’s Adopt Me page.


Our BFF Management

When I attended a seminar last year about working with your dog’s problematic behaviors, the first thing the CPDT-KA trainer told us was, “From now on, don’t let your dog perform the behavior you want to solve.” Of course everyone in the room looked at each other like “hey lady, if that worked then we wouldn’t be here!” – but she was right; when you are dealing with a problematic behavior, you should do everything in your power to keep your dog out of situations where they can practice the behavior.  This is because of one key point: practiced behaviors get rewarded, and rewarded behaviors get repeated.

This concept of management has helped immensely with Johnnie while teaching her to be a well-behaved house dog.  Whenever we are presented with an “issue,” we first see how we can manage it. Sometimes you can simply better manage behaviors and not necessarily change your whole life or spend buckets of money on training to solve the problems. Note: this is obviously for minor stuff, NOT aggression or safety issues, which should be dealt with by a professional trainer (although if you have a reactive dog, definitely keep them out of situations where they feel the need to react for the same reason of preventing practice!).

Some examples of easy-to-manage behaviors: putting lids on your trash cans to keep your dog from stealing nasty stuff, making sure you pick up and put away all your socks and shoes and valuables so your dogs can’t chew them when you’re not watching (seriously? he ate your Ray-Bans? why were they within doggy reach to begin with?), closing your blinds so your dog can’t be reactive out the window, keeping your dog away from the door when strangers come over so he cannot jump on them, etc. These small adjustments can make a world of difference in your dog’s behavior. Furthermore, if you do end up investing in training, a lack of management can totally throw off your progress. Because, like we said above, practiced behaviors get rewarded, and rewarded behaviors get repeated.

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Anyway, back to how this has helped with Johnnie. There have really been very few problematic behaviors with Johnnie that we haven’t been able to modify with management. When she kept getting into our living room – a space we wanted her to stay out of because it wasn’t dog-proof – we bought a higher baby gate that she couldn’t jump over. Problem solved. When she started doing her leash biting, I walked her on two leashes so I could simply drop one if she started tugging. This specific behavior also took some other training steps, but the basic concept was still management to avoid reinforcing the behaviors (turning it into a game of tug) – and she got over the bad habit.  When she wanted to chew things that weren’t appropriate, we gave her plenty of appealing, appropriate outlets and the “bad” chewing pretty much stopped. As we are working with her excitability around other dogs, we avoid situations where she has the opportunity to practice barking, which prevents the behavior from becoming too engrained. Do you see what I’m getting at? These management techniques vary between solving the problem entirely or just being a stepping stone in improving a behavior, but they are all extremely important.

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If your dog has a behavior that’s really bugging you (again, other than aggressive or unsafe behaviors) think of ways that you can prevent the behavior before it arises again. What simple steps can you take to set your dog up for success and avoid situations where they’d practice the unwanted behaviors? Depending on how serious the behavior is, you might want to then consult a professional trainer on what to do next – but you’ll already be off on the right foot.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to close all the bedroom doors before I leave the house to manage Johnnie’s ability to get into things she shouldn’t!

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To adopt Johnnie Cash and see how management will help you two adjust through the transition, check out her Adopt Me page.


Johnnie’s Force-Free Facebook Debut

I recently came across a new Facebook page called Your Pit Bull and You and immediately LOVED their content. YPB&Y is a page that is dedicated to disproving the myth that pit bull dogs and other “strong” breeds or types of dogs need to be taught using force. They share training tips and facts to combat the idea that fear or pain should be a part of training. This fabulous page also highlights dogs labeled “pit bull” who are trained using positive, science-based methods – showing that learning theory is learning theory, no matter what animal you’re dealing with. Just because a dog’s got some muscle on him doesn’t mean you need to muscle him around, ya know?

Johnnie was one of the lucky ones to be featured on the YPB&Y page this week! For each featured dog, the page creators come up with a little caption based on what the owner/foster describes – so here’s little J showing off her belly spots and awesome trick for you again, but with a little flare:

I must say, the attention this little stinker got made me quite proud! I am so happy she is such a stellar representative for force-free training.  Next week I’ll try to show you more examples of how much she is kicking butt in the training category – but for now, have a fantastic weekend full of lots of smooches from your pets.

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To adopt Johnnie Cash, a smarty pants who’s got a knack for learning without force, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.


Sittin’ Pretty

Johnnie and I love to learn tricks together. Yes, we learn them together because she learns the behavior and I learn the best way to convey to her what I want! We often spend ten minutes here and there practicing behaviors and tricks we already know, or learning new ones. My favorite trick I’ve taught Johnnie is “sit pretty!” I just love the way she sits up and stares at me and then bounces her paws around like she’s saying, “Look! I’m doing it!” It might actually be the cutest thing ever.

Thank you to my good friend Virgil Ocampo for capturing this moment when we were at an adoption event last week. I absolutely love this image because it shows how much fun Johnnie and I have learning together.  She trusts me and when we go out in public to events like this, and I set her up for success so she is comfortable and focused enough to show off her tricks. I love this little girl!  Happy Friday, everyone.

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To adopt an awesome training partner Johnnie Cash, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.