My Time at Animal Farm Foundation

Tucked back in the rolling hills of Dutchess County, New York, Animal Farm Foundation is a not-for-profit group who believes in equality for all dogs. They advocate specifically for “pit bull” dogs – the ones most likely to be discriminated against at this time – but their work goes further than that as they share sheltering best practices that help shelter dogs and the people who work with them. They’ve got a team of knowledgeable trainers who work with their adoptable dogs on the farm or where they’re needed elsewhere, as well as dedicated educators who travel around the country to share the idea of equality for “pit bull” dogs and progressive thinking when it comes to getting dogs adopted.

I just spent a week there for the internship program, and it was a week free of judgements – dog or human, free of breed/gender/history labels, and full of open-mindedness. Every day was packed full of learning about dog behavior, basic training, shelter enrichment, advocating for “pit bull” dogs, and so much more.

Each intern was paired with a shelter dog that they worked with for the week, and many also took their training dogs home with them at night as roommates. My situation was unique, as I was staying in a house with two other girls, so we had one house dog named Birdie. Birdie came from the Spindletop case. She was a bucket of energy, and so stinkin’ cute. At first I was taken aback by her affinity for constant movement, but by the end of the week it became quite endearing. Birdie was actually already adopted, but stayed the week with us to learn some manners.

And manners she learned. Each day we spent time discussing the basics of communicating with and teaching dogs in a positive way that sets them up for success and reinforces desired behaviors. These sessions included clicker training drills and shaping techniques. I never realized how fun and silly training can be until I was getting Birdie to voluntarily put her paws up on a box – an example of shaping.  We also practiced having the dogs always sit and give eye contact (offered behavior) before going through a door (reward), and waiting patiently before being allowed to eat from their food bowl. These simple things are expected from the dogs by each staff member, so the dogs learn quickly and soon they don’t even seem like rules – more like no brainer type stuff.

Practicing shaping with Eli.

While Birdie was our house guest, I worked every day with a different dog named Amarillo. Amarillo was also a Spindletop dog, and at about seven years old she decided she wasn’t in to all that much but a good butt scratch. While we (okay, mostly I) struggled with the basics like sit and down, Amarillo quickly excelled at leave it, easy tricks, and loose leash walking. I guess a girl’s gotta have some challenge in her life? She was a bit shy of the camera, so this is all I was able to catch of her bat ears.

In addition to the basic training we worked on, the interns also learned about other ways to improve the lives of shelter dogs using enrichment for the different senses. We spent a whole morning constructing enrichment activities, which I will talk more about tomorrow.

For me, one of my favorite parts of the trip was getting to know not only the Animal Farm staff, but also the other interns who came from all over the country to learn about the same things I did. Everyone’s shelter experiences were different, yet many of us had the same difficulties and issues. By the end of the week we were all encouraging each other as we shared how we will use the information from that week moving forward.

It was a very valuable experience for me; one I would recommend to anyone who wants to advance their efforts in helping shelter dogs, especially “pit bull” dogs. If you are interested, you can see more details, including the application process, on the AFF website.  If you’ve got questions, feel free to email me with any about the program or what I learned!


The Return of Pittie Trails!

You might remember the dog walking group we (three others and I) started last winter, Pittie Trails. We created it to both exercise and train our pups in a controlled environment with other dogs. We have group rules to help keep everyone safe and happy, but most importantly the dogs are not allowed to greet each other. This means that all dogs – reactive, excitable, shy – can have the opportunity to walk with us without feeling any pressures to be social. Plus, then no human parents need to be embarrassed!

After a summer hiatus, we had our first informal walk last weekend. We only had four dogs; three of which were working hard on their manners. We went to trusty old Rachel Carson park, our usual walk location. It was the most gorgeous day of the year and I think a good time was had by all!

If you’re interested in participating in Pittie Trails, the best way to stay informed is to keep up with our Pittie Trails Facebook page. We try to meet for a walk once per month. We’re still trying to find good trails (very few people or other dogs) in the VA and Baltimore areas – so stay tuned. Remember that we allow all dogs, no matter what size, shape, or social ability, so come join us!


Guest Post: Training Horses, Training Dogs

My mom is my role model, and growing up as an equestrian I remember her looking at our relationship with horses differently than I did. To me, my horse was my competition partner. I loved him and we worked hard together, but I didn’t take the time to learn how to communicate the way he did. My mom always had a gentle and understanding approach to figuring out what my horse was trying to say. If he was being fussy one day, my mom would question his comfort whereas I would brush it off as him having attitude. See what I mean? So as I learn about behavior and communicating with animals, I realize my mom’s had it right all along. Here is what she has to say about working with her horse – it’s amazing how much her observations match mine when I work with dogs.

Juliana and I often find ourselves talking about subjects like behavior modification, positive reinforcement, and T-Touch training. Juliana is talking about canines, and I am talking about equines. We find that many of the methods used to train dogs also apply to training horses. “Training is Training,” I tell Juliana.  “You’re right. How about doing a Guest Blog?” she replies. What – me?

Since you are a PL&F follower, you are probably already well educated in training methods, and you know there are no shortcuts or miracle cures. So, what can this Guest Blogger offer? How about a reminder of some principles of training that can be adapted to whatever methods you employ?  Here are four primary principles that Juliana and I both agree on: Knowledge is Power, Establish Leadership, Be Consistent, and End on a Success.

Knowledge is Power. I am not a professional trainer, but I have access to a lot of professional information. There are great resources on the Internet, TV, and in books. Find a trainer or method that you like and learn as much as you can. It took some investigating before I found an Equine trainer I liked; one who is clear, concise, and I can understand.  I first found him in a book, and I have since discovered that he has a TV Program.  I DVR every program, then I watch at my convenience – sometimes over and over.

A tip that my riding instructor tells me is, “write it down.” Keep a journal of goals and training sessions.  It’s easy to get discouraged when I think I haven’t gotten very far or that there is so much more left to do. Having our journey on paper makes a big difference. When I look back, its amazing how much I have actually learned and how far the training has come.

Establish Leadership.  My Vet once told me, “An insecure horse is a dangerous horse.” “Yeah,” I replied, but I wondered whose horse she was talking about? Surely not mine – my guy is sweet, and cuddly, and funny, and he LOVES me! Well, he is also a bit skittish, and sometimes a little pushy, and he doesn’t always listen to me….  An insecure horse may be dangerous because of its size, but an insecure dog can also be aggressive, ill-mannered, and annoying. Establish yourself as the leader, the head of the herd. Leading in a positive and consistent way creates a secure, calm, and happy animal that looks to you for direction, reassurance, and comfort.

Be Consistent. Be black and white, keep is simple, repeat, and follow the same rules. “He’s been so good, I’ll let just this one go,” can set you back sessions. Changing strategies can be confusing, and changing the rules can lead to insecurity. Be consistent – 100 percent of the time. It’s a huge challenge, and it makes all the difference.

I have also heard, “Repetition to Automaticity.”  If you repeat an exercise until it becomes automatic, then you can communicate with a whisper, a gesture, or even body language. When a training session is structured, consistent, and repeated, success will follow.

End on a Positive. End before the session gets frustrating. Don’t be tempted to “do it one more time,” to get it perfect. Or, if the session isn’t going the way you hoped, find one small success, celebrate it, and end on it. Keep the sessions short, positive, and fun. After a great session, have a special play time or rewarding activity. My guy’s favorite activity and reward is grazing in a patch of clover. This time is quiet and relaxing, and it’s a luxury that is part of the schedule.

What has become of my insecure Gelding? People at the barn, and my vet, tell me he’s a “different horse.” When Juliana rode him recently, she noticed the difference. I told her that I had found a training method that is positive and that I agree with, and we work at it regularly and consistently.  My guy is now relaxed and confident. He doesn’t look for his buddies in the field, because I am his herd leader. He stands quietly wherever I drop his lead, he respects my space, and we are developing a wonderful understanding. He whispers to me with his body language, and I understand. Our unspoken communication is amazing and a gift that I treasure. This is the reward.

So, training is training. These principles apply to training a horse or a dog, and you can also apply these principles when modifying the behavior of a child, peer, or co-worker :-). Remember the basics, and you’ll discover success!


That Time I Failed

Like I mentioned yesterday, I’m taking a break from fostering. But just because I know I need a break doesn’t mean that my house doesn’t feel extra empty and the spot at the end of my bed doesn’t long for a furry body to occupy it – so when the opportunity came up to dog sit for another foster, I jumped at the chance.

The writeup of the dog Mylo described a sweet but energetic eight month old Target dog mix puppy. I figured I could handle some leash pulling for a few days, and Mark was thrilled at the thought of a dog who would play ball with him. I was to watch Mylo for only two days while his foster family was away. Easy peesy.

We picked up this goofy, bouncing puppy on Thursday evening. He came with us to Mark’s apartment, and we marveled at his adorable antics. He settled down nicely, which was a relief because I was starting to get the feeling that he would be bouncing off the walls for the next 48 hours. When I took him out to go to the bathroom he barked a few times, but it was dark and I figured he was just doing dog-in-a-new-place things.

When I took him back to my house, he began to act differently. He had a problem with my dad, and became increasingly reactive each time they saw each other. To Mylo’s credit, my dad is a pretty tall guy with a big beard – probably not a type of person he’s been in contact with much before.  This really frustrated my dad because he didn’t understand why Mylo was acting that way and I think, quite frankly, he took it personally. It was difficult keeping everyone separate in my house, and soon I found myself totally overwhelmed with an on-edge dog and an agitated dad. I was at a total loss of what to do, quickly realizing that I have no idea how to handle a reactive dog.

We hid out in my room that night, and the next day I took Mylo for a run in hopes that the new day would be a fresh start. Mylo is a phenomenal running partner, despite being a puller when you walk. However, it seemed he hadn’t totally forgotten the previous night of stress, and was still acting a bit out of character.

Long story short, Mylo continued to display behaviors I wasn’t comfortable with handling. I was freaked that I didn’t know how to combat it, or even manage it, and I decided to leave Mylo in the caring hands of our shelter workers for the second night instead of bringing him back home. I just kept wondering what if something escalated and he gets himself into trouble on my watch?

Leaving him there was horrible. I felt so, so guilty that I had failed him and couldn’t even get it together enough to stick it out for one more night.  As a dog person, especially someone who is so active in this online community, I felt like a quitter. I continually give advice on here about how to work with dogs – building confidence, socializing, basic training – and yet I didn’t have a clue how to help this one.

Mylo is now back in the comfort of his own foster home, and he’s getting into a training program.  He’s a young dog who needs guidance and structure, and I don’t blame him for that. He is sweet, loving, and has so much potential – he just needs to harness some of his energy and brainpower. I’m not worried about him.

While everything turned out fine in the end, the experience has left a big gaping hole in my confidence. I feel so defeated. What happens next time I bring a dog out of the shelter, whose personality I don’t know, and they end up having some sort of issue that I don’t know how to handle?  I know I quit this time around – but I can’t shake the feeling of what if he was one I signed up to foster long term and I quit on him?

Even Mark thinks that I wouldn’t have been able to keep Mylo long term because of how tough the living situation would have been with my dad. I agree, and now I know how those people who give up their dogs feel when they think there are no options. But the truth is, there are options.

Fostering a dog can be tough work, but you have to remember you are not alone. Often times the rescue or shelter you are working with will have trainers available to help with behavior improvement and social skills. Jasmine’s House has a wonderful trainer Meghan from Canine Lifestyle Academy who will do anything she can to help fosters with their dogs. Our shelter’s trainer recently started a Foster Dog Alliance class for anyone who has a foster dog, no matter what rescue group they are with. There are people out there who want to help you and your dog succeed.

Safety is of course everyone’s top priority, and it’s important to recognize when things need to be changed in a situation. Perhaps in the long term Mylo would have succeeded better with someone other than my family, like he is doing now with his current foster – or perhaps we could have worked through it. We’ll never know because he was with me for such a brief amount of time. At any rate, he certainly was a wake up call that fostering is not always a “walk in the park.” Sometimes you are going to have harder dogs than others, but no matter what dog you have – you are not alone.

I may have failed with Mylo, but he helped me become more prepared for the next dog I foster (including making me realize I’m sticking to ages 3+ from now on!).  This stuff isn’t easy, but it’s so important to pick yourself up and keep going after a fostering set back. If we all quit after one tough go around, there would be no more foster homes left. Yes, that’s how many of us have had, “Holy crap, what am I doing??” moments. I owe it to Mylo to use my experience with him to become a better foster in the future.


Agility on the Playground

The best part about building a dog’s confidence is that it’s usually fun for the dog AND owner! Most recently, Otis and I ventured back to our neighborhood playground for some work on the idea that “new things are fun!” Similar to agility, getting Otis to go up and down and up and down the playground steps helps to teach him that he can in fact try new things and nothing bad comes from it.

Here are some videos of Otis totally rocking the jungle gym! Not only did he quickly get over worrying about the steps, he even warmed up to the slide! This first video is of him making it over the whole thing in one try.

Then, just for kicks, I asked him to go back UP the slide – and he did it! I was surprised about that because it wasn’t something I’d helped him practice before, and it certainly wasn’t easy to do. But he just barreled right up it.

He LOVED playing on the playground! I really think he would rock agility if given the chance – something to put on my to-do list. I guess in the mean time we’ll just go around conquering all the playgrounds in the area. No complaints here!

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.


Building My Confidence

So FosterMama says I need this thing called CONFIDENCE. I’m not sure what she’s talking about, but I do have an inkling that it has to do with all of the very scary stuff that I encounter on a daily basis. When I run and hide from these scary people, places, and things, Mama usually refers to me as “Silly” and laughs it off. I try to tell her that these things are really, really going to get me and that we need to get away fast!!

Sometimes I even tell her that by barking at them, especially if they’re big scary monsters coming into my house. I tell them, “GO AWAY! Go away! Look how big and scary I am! Go away!” I try to do my best at showing them it’s not a good idea to come in here, but then they do anyway! Once they’re in and FosterMama makes sure they’re not yielding any weapons says hi to them, then I decide they’re okay in my book. But until then it’s all a big show.

FosterMama says that I like to put on big shows for the scary monsters because I’m not confident. She says I need to learn to be comfortable in my own skin. According to her, there are a lot of ways to help me do this. Well, I’m waiting lady! Where is my strong Bravery Armor?? Then, to my dismay, she tells me I’m not going to get brave overnight. Shoot. I have to do a lot of exercises like nose work, clicker training, agility, playing with Mama – stuff like that. All of these are supposed to help my confidence.

Well, remember how I told you FosterAunt is around? FosterMama took that, plus a perfect weekend evening, as an excuse to go on a confidence building adventure. We walked and walked and ended up at this place that looked weird and different, called a “playground.” FosterMama told me that if I learned to climb all over it, I would slowly catch on that new things can be fun! I was weary at first, but pretty quickly I got the hang of it. We went up and down and up and down. I even started wagging my tail!

Did I mention that FosterUncle came too? I was comfortable enough up there to hang out with them while FosterMama did her usual click click click away behind the big black box in front of her face.  I really didn’t even mind it. I think I could feel my confidence Bravery Armor showing up already! Or, at the very least, I felt my sorta-comfortable-in-new-situations Armor building up.

I certainly felt good enough to give FosterAunt & Uncle some loving.

FosterMama says that one day someone will adopt me who is willing to put in all the time and effort I need to grow into a more confident dog and come out of my shell (didn’t realize I was a turtle?). She says it is going to take a lot of love, understanding and patience, but that the perfect person is out there somewhere. After all, I have shown her in just two months what an amazing dog I can be, so I will surely win the heart of whoever takes a chance on my shy little self.

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.


Clicker Training: “Kong”

Otis – like many other dogs that had limited exposure to the world as a puppy – is rather clueless about a lot of concepts. We take so many behaviors our dogs do for granted as “natural activities” that they’re just born knowing – like playing, sniffing out treats, working for food, etc. In reality though, dogs often need help learning these skills. Additionally, even though these behaviors might not come naturally to some pups, they can be so beneficial (see: Chick’s love of play on Love & a Six-Foot Leash).

I’ve written before about Otis’ mental block when it comes to retrieving food out of a Kong. If it didn’t just naturally come out, he’d stare at it then promptly give up. He got better when it came time to slurp up yummy, frozen peanut butter – but he just couldn’t figure out how to make solid kibble (or other treats, for that matter) fall out of the Kong.

This is where FosterGrandma and I stepped in. After my last post about Otie’s difficulties with food puzzles, you all gave me a ton of great suggestions about how to help him figure it out. I have yet to try, well, (oops – confession time) most of them, but what my mom and I did do with him was some clicker training. When in doubt with an insecure, unsure dog – clicker train!

Our intent was to teach Otis to use his paw to move the Kong and make the kibble fall out. He’s already been exposed to the clicker, so he knows to expect a treat upon it’s use. We started by clicking and treating any time he moved his paw towards the Kong. Then we clicked and treated any time he touched the Kong. Slowly he got the hang of it, and we were able to pair the verbal “Kong” cue with him touching the toy.

It got to the point that whenever he was stuck, we just said, “Kong” and it would help him get the kibble out. Then he started using it all on his own!

He hasn’t caught on to using it all of the time yet, but he’s better than he was before we practiced this command. Plus, now whenever he is stuck we can just remind him that “Kong!” helps to get the kibble out. Chances he realizes the connection? Not sure. But, for now, it is support to his pretty wimpy valiant Kong-tackling efforts.

Next up is to try the recommendation of sticking his absolute favorite treat down at the bottom so that he doesn’t want to give up on fishing it out, and we’ll see how he does. That and then only feeding him from the Kong so he’ll have to figure out how to get his whole dinner out or go hungry – though I’m a little nervous he would let himself starve, the silly pup! But that’s a project for another day. In the mean time, I’ll just be proud of his most recent accomplishment.

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.