Life Lessons Thanks to Dog Training

You had to expect it sooner or later, the deeper-than-dog-training post. I’m sure most people experience this feeling with their passions: the idea that the impact is much more than simply “I get to do something I love.” You learn lessons from your passions and often they translate over to the way you live your life and the person you become.

I’ve never been a super over the top positive person. I’m not a downer by any means, but I’d put myself pretty much in the middle of being a Negative Nancy and being that person you dislike because they’re always chipper. I’m average. Growing up, when it came to animals I found myself in the middle, too. I loved them deeply, but I didn’t exactly have the most patience for their animal-ness sometimes. My horse and I would get into knock-down, drag-out arguments during dressage lessons because I would take personally the fact that she wasn’t doing what I wanted her to. My trainer would actually need to tell me to dismount sometimes. I was emotional and I thought if I just tell her a little bit LOUDER (harsher), maybe she’ll get it!  It makes me cringe now, but the fact of the matter is that is who I was.

How I became so enthralled with positive training after coming from that background still confuses me, but I don’t ask questions. My point in writing about my history of positivity is to show that I was a skeptic at first too. I was not easily won over. What do you mean I cannot correct my animals? After years of wanting to “win,” I finally came to terms with working on the same team as my animals (thanks to many books, seminars, lectures from professionals, etc. – but still). And it has been changing me for the better ever since.

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Aside from just the dogs, positive training continues to impact my every day perspective. The philosophy of “focus on what you like, ignore what you don’t like” has changed my life. It is, after all, basic learning theory – but the transformation you begin to see in your relationships with friends, family, coworkers, etc. is remarkable. All of a sudden you start to notice a shift in their behavior or how you communicate or even the product of your work together.

I appreciate the improvement in my relationships, but it is the growth within myself that I am most thankful for. I think we as humans have a tendency to be so, so hard on ourselves. I didn’t do this right, I forgot to do this, I missed the opportunity for this, my weight changed to this, why didn’t I do this like this, I don’t like this about myself, why couldn’t I have been better at this. Since I’ve learned more about the benefits of focusing on the positive, I have tried my hardest to do away with that kind of talk. I know it sounds hard – impossible, almost – but hear me out.

In the Karen Pryor Academy we do an exercise during the “show and tell” portion of our weekend workshops where everyone writes down three points the student did well, and then we share. They can only be positive – no “you did this well, but….” There are no “buts.” Again, I was skeptical at first – but boy does it begin to change your perspective. Reinforced behaviors get repeated, and by focusing on the behaviors we like from ourselves and others, we are helping them to happen again. Slowly but surely the negative, nasty crap we say to ourselves every day begins to fade away.

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I’m not saying we should eliminate constructive feedback. Obviously, we all need feedback. But delivering it in a way where it won’t negate all the achievements you’ve made is essential. Think about it, that “but” or “however” in the middle of a compliment and feedback can easily eliminate any feeling of accomplishment.

When I find that I’m being too hard on myself, I stop and take the time to give myself some credit. I’m currently doing it every night. What did I do well during the day? What am I happy about? What am I proud of myself for? Not only does it reinforce those behaviors and qualities and therefore make them more likely to happen tomorrow, but it also creates quite the list to look back on when I’m feeling sub-par.

I’ve found that a positive outlook is something I’ve owed myself for a long time, and I’m thankful and lucky that my training career led me this direction. I encourage you to try it sometime today: make a note of an action you took or a trait about yourself that you like.  At the very least you’ll have a moment of pride, or it could turn into a new outlook on the people and situations around you in life.

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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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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.