When Expectations Hurt

I see it more than ever now that I am working with either clients or shelter dogs every day: we as humans often have unrealistic expectations for our dogs, and these standards can lead to a frustrating relationship for both parties.

We’ve all been there. “But I know she knows this cue.” “He shouldn’t be afraid of this, he should just get used to it!” “She should be able to do this by now.” “Why is he acting this way? He is fine at home.” “How come she doesn’t understand that what she did was wrong?” “I want her to change her behavior, but I want the solution to be easy!” “He should do it just because I told him to.”

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These high standards usually stem from the fact that dogs and humans are two entirely different species, and therefore have completely separate ways of communicating, playing, surviving, etc. What is acceptable and desired in the human world is usually quite foreign in the dog world. For example, being calm and quiet for, oh, 23 hours a day. Dogs are generally wired to be active, and yet we prefer them to sit on the couch, stay in their crate, sleep on their beds, whatever, when we are not exercising them. And vice versa. Dogs are supposed to bark and chew and pee wherever they want, and yet we ask them to curb most of those behaviors and to actually act very non-dog like inside our homes. Until an understanding is met between human and dog, the two worlds can collide in a chaotic, frustrating and sometimes dangerous way.

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That is where understanding of dog behavior comes in. Certified trainers and behaviorists (and a lot of really awesome book authors, seminar-givers and youtube channel makers) are there to unite human and dog – to show the two that they can in fact live harmoniously, once a form of communication is established. What I find most frustrating – and, to be quite honest, heart breaking – is when I watch dog owners toss aside the needs of their dog. Explaining to them that their dog is barking out of fear or destroying their furniture because they are bored out of their minds, and then hearing their owners still demand a “simple fix,” is always hard to swallow. In an era when the solutions are often found at the end of our fingers with our smart phones, folks have a tough time realizing that behavior does not change over night.

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I’m not saying we should be making excuses for our dogs. I hold Paco to very high standards with his behavior – but they are also reasonable. I am not going to expect Paco, an 11-month old puppy, to be able to sit still at my house for three hours. That’s just not fair to him. I’m going to be sensitive to his needs and adjust accordingly.

One of my favorite takeaways from our #367 experience was a phrase we heard often during the week when working with the dogs: meet them where they are. This strongly applies to the victims of trauma we met at that temporary shelter, but is also applies to every dog waiting for a home, transitioning to a new home, or currently living in a home. See the dog you are working with in front of you – make note of their strengths, weaknesses, and needs – and interact with them accordingly. Expect of them accordingly. Set goals that reflect the progress they are capable of making. Celebrate the victories they make without dwelling on their failures or shortcomings. Realize that they are a dog, they do not speak English and they do not read minds. Be understanding. Be compassionate. Communicate to them what you want in a positive and clear way, and if they are not responding then work like heck to figure out how you can improve your message to them. I believe we owe it to our dogs to do so.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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 :-).