On Paranoia, Relationships and Attainable Goals

What a whirlwind of a week it’s been. Like I mentioned in my last post, we had our second workshop weekend for the Karen Pryor Academy this past weekend and, to my surprise, it went well. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Leading up to this workshop my nerves were sky high. I am a bit of a worrier, and that carries over to many aspects of my dog training. With Paco, I jump to the worst possible outcome with every situation, mostly because I have worked with dogs for a while now and I know what could go wrong! For example: he’s not staying in the crate at night anymore – oh no, he’s not going to be used to it for our workshops and he’ll bark the whole time! (Even though the majority of the last workshop he didn’t make a peep in his crate.)  He’s had two negative on-leash encounters with dogs in the past six weeks – he’s going to be reactive to the dogs in class now! (Even though he was perfect with them last time.) His cues aren’t under complete stimulus control – he’s going to be too distracted to focus during class! (Even though we’d practiced many of his cues ad nauseam and I’d prepared lots of high value reinforcers).

My fears of what could go wrong began to get in the way of my progress. It’s funny that even though in class we learn to focus on the positive because reinforcing the behaviors you like – even those from yourself – will mean they become stronger, and yet I could not help but be so negative about how Paco and I were progressing as we headed to the Unit 2 Workshop. Luckily, when we arrived there early Saturday morning, my mindset quickly began to change. As we walked around before class, Paco didn’t try to eat any other dogs, and in fact was fabulous at staying calm in their presence. He settled right down into his crate without a single sound. We began going over course materials, and I felt completely up to speed. Whew. This was, surprise surprise, not going to be as bad as I had convinced myself it would be.


The weekend continued to improve. Paco and I really hit our stride together. I cannot truly put into words the way I feel about Paco and our connection. When we met three months ago, we were brand new to each other and brand new to training. Our relationship was sticky and weird – it even initially felt a bit forced (which, actually, I suppose it was). We have since taken every step of this journey together. It is not even in a teacher-student or parent-child sort of way. It is a partner-partner bond. We are in this as a team and we share every up and down. He helps me improve and I help him improve. I marvel at his successes and he shows me when I have done well. We work hard and then wiggle and coo and celebrate like the best of them. It is an interesting feeling, knowing that he is not my dog – but I think that actually brings us even closer because we have formed this relationship under unique circumstances. I love him so much and I am so proud of him and how far he has come.


I left the workshop Sunday evening feeling great. Not because I do not have challenges and many difficult weeks ahead of me – but because I now feel like we can actually do it. Paco and I do have what it takes to kick butt these last two units and accomplish what we need to for our final exam. It might take some blood, sweat and tears, but we will take this new found confidence and run with it. Our eye is on the prize – certification – and we will be putting 110% effort into it until February 16. Wish us luck and stay tuned!


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:


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!


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

KPA: Let the Games Begin!

We are now about one third of the way through the Karen Pryor Academy, and Paco and I have learned so much about how to teach (and learn) new behaviors. While I am mastering my shaping and capturing skills, I still haven’t been thrilled with Paco’s progress. I had dreams of us being like those freestyle teams where the dogs respond instantly to anything the handler cues. Paco and I often found ourselves frustrated because either he didn’t understand what I was asking, or I wanted a better, more polished response from him. How was I going to teach him to be an allstar?

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It was right about then that we began learning about precision, latency and speed (P-L-S) in our coursework. The more I read about these three behavior characteristics, the more excited I got – this is what would help Paco and I become an impressive pair! Precision refers to the accuracy and polished look of a behavior. Latency is the time it takes for an animal to respond once it perceives the cue, and speed is how long it takes for the animal to complete the behavior.

In our lessons, we learned different techniques to sharpen our precision, latency and speed. One piece of advice that stuck with me as I was going through the unit was that latency and speed are contagious, meaning if I am quick in my movements and timing, Paco will likely be more eager and quick with his. I was excited to practice this with him during our next training session.

I first tried with our most basic cue: sit. You might think that for someone like me taking a course like this, I would never have a problem getting my dog to sit. Wrong. I took for granted that Paco knew the cue sit before I met him so I never officially taught him, and then he often had trouble responding correctly (my fault, of course).  I turned teaching a quick and correct sit into a game, sort of like the “suddenly settle” game some of you trainers out there might know. I ran around my house, got Paco excited and then would suddenly stop, and as soon as he sat, I clicked and treated and off we went again.

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He loved this game. Paco is a people dog and, like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, gets real jazzed up when he gets to interact with you. At first, I wouldn’t cue him and would just wait for the sit. Once he seemed to have it down, I added the cue. His response times got quicker and quicker. If he was sluggish in responding, I turned around and walked away without him in sort of a “nope, try again” fashion. He quickly caught on to the game.

Our success with this game has now translated to other instances. Previously, if there was even the slightest distraction, Paco would have trouble responding to any cues, even sit. Now his sit is down pat! I know it was just about re-teaching the sit cue, generalizing and then perfecting our P-L-S, but this game really seemed to help it click with Paco (no pun intended!).

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I have been playing this game with most of the new cues he is learning, which now includes down, spin, touch, contact, up, jump and more. We have a long way to go, but I feel like we are really starting to hit our stride – which is good because we are less than two weeks away from our next testing weekend!

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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!