Slice of Life is inspired by the desire and challenge of living our lives in the moment. Days go by, weeks go by, years... but we can still choose over and over again to look at our own lives in small installments. These installments (or slices of life) can be walks taken in the hills, naps or a glass of Rioja. For me, what makes my slices super meaningful is being able to share with others the moments of my day with dogs in play, training or napping where we're all piled up on the bed.

My slices of life are full of events and experiences that are meaningful to me. As a former professional photographer, I still “see” so many pictures (or vignettes) as I interact with my dogs and the world around me on a daily basis. Most of the time I am not capturing these moments with a camera anymore. Instead, I am just showing up... I must say, that I do miss having a register of events outside of my head so that at my leisure I can relish a past moment as I am transported by a visual or written recollection of days gone by.

With the immediacy of all things digital, perhaps I can have my cake and eat it too. I can continue to do my work as a dog trainer and also register here and there moments of living a life in the company of dogs. I hope you will occasionally take a peek, and that my slices of life transport you in a glee of YOUR own!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Why Guidelines In Training Matter?

In the last post I wrote about the importance of having an independent certifying person certifying anyone that gives advice about pet behavior to pet parents or that work hands-on with the dog. At present the only “voluntary” third-party certification is the  Certification Council for Professionals Dog Trainers (CCPDT).  Another important factor that comes with a legitimate third-party certification is the bylaws. When it comes to working with sentient beings these bylaws are a MUST.  Because anyone providing a service should have some sort of code of ethics and professional standard in working with the public.

Here is the code of ethics that anyone choosing to become certified by CCPDT must abide by.

1.    To understand and fully comply with the CCPDT Training and Behavior Practices Policy.
2.    To use training and behavior modification methods based on accurate scientific research, emphasizing positive relationships between people and dogs and using positive reinforcement-based techniques to the maximum extent possible.
3.    To always provide for the safety of clients and animals in training programs and behavior consultations.
4.    To act with honesty and integrity toward clients, respecting their legitimate training and behavior goals and the autonomy of their choices, provided they conform to societal and legal standards of humane treatment for their pet.
5.    To refrain from public defamation of colleagues, respecting their right to establish and follow their own principles of conduct, provided those principles are ethical and humane according to the CCPDT Humane Hierarchy Position Statement.
6.    To provide truthful advertising and representations concerning certificant’s qualifications, experience, performance of services, pricing of services and expected results; to provide full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest to clients and other professionals.
7.    To refrain from providing guarantees regarding the specific outcome of training.
8.    To use properly authorized logos and credentials provided by the CCPDT when marketing in print or electronic media.
9.    To obtain written informed consent from any client prior to photographing, video or audio recording a dog training session.
10.    To work within the professional boundaries of the CCPDT certifications and individual expertise and refrain from providing diagnosis, advice, or recommendations in areas of veterinary medicine or family counseling unless certified to do so. This does not preclude referring the client to a veterinary or behavior consulting professional.
11.    To maintain and respect the confidentiality of all information obtained from clients in the course of business; to refrain from disclosure of information about clients or their pets to others without the client’s explicit consent, except as required by law.
12.    To be aware of and comply with applicable laws, regulations, and ethical standards governing professional practices, treatment of animals (including cases of neglect or abuse), and reporting of dog bites in the state/province/country when interacting with the public and when providing dog training or behavior consulting services.
13.    To keep accurate and complete records of clients, their animals and the training and behavior services provided; to ensure secure storage and, when appropriate, confidential disposal of such records.
14.    To continue professional development as required for maintaining the CCPDT credentials in accordance with the policies of the CCPDT.
15.    To refrain from making material misrepresentations as part of the application for certification or recertification.
16.    To maintain and respect the confidentiality and security of the contents of any and all certification examinations of the CCPDT including, but not limited to, refraining from: stealing portions of, or the entire, examination(s); removing written examination materials from a test or meeting site without authorization; reproducing and/or disseminating examination materials without authorization; using paid test takers for the purpose of reconstructing an examination; using improperly obtained test questions to prepare person(s) for the examination; cheating during an examination; impersonating an examinee or having an impersonator take an examination.

While I find that all the bylaws above are worth pursuing, there is two that I want to expand upon:

1.    To use training and behavior modification methods based on accurate scientific research, emphasizing positive relationships between people and dogs and using positive reinforcement-based techniques to the maximum extent possible.

Working with animals is not an easy endeavor for many reasons. First off, animals are dangerous. Yes indeed, they are cute, and furry – in some cases, but any animal with teeth has the potential for creating a lot of damage. Did you know, for example, that a cat’s bite is considered a medical emergency?  When the person working with an animal or giving advice as to how to work with one is not knowledgeable of the species, not only will the training or behavior modification be below average, but someone might get hurt.  Also, important to consider is the distress (or worse!) that this person can create for the animal. And this clearly not caring for the animal.

There is SO much research that has been done when it comes to Animal Learning that frankly there is no excuse for ignorance. Period. It is the responsibility of the trainer  to understand these principles which are in effects LAWS of learning.  Not someone’s opinion, but laws that as such have been verified over and over again. Of course, there is always advances in science so we are always discovering or revising this knowledge. Besides, one of the perks of learning about animals is how fascinating they are.

It never ceases to bring a smile to my face when I see one of my clients ask me how I am able to do what I do upon just meeting their dog.  No. Good trainers do not carry a “magic-wand” in their training gear. Our “magic-wand” is knowledge.

This knowledge permits us to be humane (re-read the bylaw above now) because we know that we do not need to hurt or scare an animal to teach them. This has been confirmed over and over again in multiple studies.  When you are told that they need to scare your dog or hurt your dog to teach them or to assert who is the leader, this is false.  What it does tell me is that the person working with you has failed to understand how positive reinforcerment works. As a form of clarification a few lines about punishment:  (Positive) Punishment  as defined in the Behavioral Sciences is the presentation of an aversive. Also, by definition punishment does SUPRESS behavior.  So yes, by definition if the behavior in question goes down in frequency by the use of aversives (an aversive is anything a dog wants to avoid because it causes fear or pain) then the methodology being employed is punishment.
Important to know: All punishment is an aversive but not all aversives are considered, in the behavioral sciences as punishment.  The reason being, that in order to be considered “punishment” the intervention must bring the frequency of the behavior down.  Well then, you might ask, why not use punishment?  And the answer is that when we introduce punishment into our repertoire of working with animals we must understand that punishment has “fallouts” – or consequences.

These consequences are not something someone can predict as if they will happen and in what form. For example:  A dog is shocked as “avoidance training” for snakes, as a result, the dog now attacks compulsively anything that resembles a snake. Case two: a dog is shocked as part of the “training” for an invisible fence, now this dog will not step into the backyard and has attacked men which he did not do before. The person installing the fencing and who shocked the dog was a male. These two examples are from real cases that have landed at my front door.

2.     The second bylaw (bylaw # 7) that I want to highlight is the one stating that anyone giving behavior advice should not make any guarantees as to the results.  Sure, they are plenty of folks out there looking for guarantees – as if we were selling them a fridge and  clearly behavior is so much more complex than the workings of the most sophisticated fridge in the market. There is, of course, “professionals” that will offer guarantees as if they were repairing a leaky roof. (I am sighing at this point…) So, my advice is:  If you are considering working with someone and they give you any guarantee for results as to the behavior of your dog, walk away. This red flag should tell you the person is a good salesperson, but not keen on the workings of behavior! I once took a marketing & client retention course, and one of the participants in the group kept pressing the person giving the course about guarantees of results.  I remember clearly thinking how obnoxious this person was and very curious as to how the pro would respond. She finally said to him: “If you do EVERY SINGLE exercise in the binder (big binder, folks!), you attend EVERY call, participate in all the group discussions. Yes, I think you will get the results you are looking for.” I thought her answer was brilliant. 

You see, behavior is complicated because we are complicated.  We are unpredictable, and unable to stick at anything for very long.  This is just how we are wired and we must make tremendous efforts (implement every training plan with exquisite precision, train every day and so on) in order to get above the frail.   So then, the better questions potential customers should ask from a trainer they are considering working with are:

Tell me about your qualifications? Any schooling? Degrees? If so, check them out. The “I LOVE DOGS and THEY LOVE me” is nice, but not enough (or even needed!) to train them.

What methodologies will you use? If you don’t understand the lingo, ask for specifics.

Do you have experience with this issue? Some people can teach your dog a mean “sit” or “down” but have no experience with resource guarding  or separation anxiety.

Ask for references (testimonials- I love- but I want to hear from the person itself) so I suggest reaching out. If possible, I always call instead of email potential references so that I can hear in their voices hesitation or full approval. Ask this person specific questions of any area of concern you might have.

Finally, make absolutely sure you are comfortable with the person. You trust them as individuals and you are comfortable with how they will treat your dog.  Remember, your dog depends on you to keep him/her safe, happy and thriving.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Good News in My Inbox

Recently I received an email with the following information from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). As you will read below, the time has come for organizations such as CCPDT to recognize the urgent need to pass legislation in order to regulate the now unregulated profession of pet dog training.

It is mind-blowing that the pet parents who choose to get help for their dog’s behavior have no way of knowing if the person they have chosen to work with their dog is indeed qualified to do so. The ramifications of working with someone - that while interested in dogs, loves dogs or simply plans to make a living in this field, without truly having the knowledge to do so, are scary and vast.  I don’t know about you, but if I have a problem with my car, I do not attempt to diagnose or fix it.  Instead, I call upon someone with the knowledge and experience. I don’t attempt either to fix my own electrical issues; instead I call upon someone that has the knowledge and credentials to do so.

Why is it then that we do not take the care and training of our pets with the same caution and concern?  Dogs are predators, and while we love to think of them as furry “babies” and lovely companions, they can be very dangerous.  If professionals choose to train with aversives, such as shock collars and other painful practices, they MUST at the very least understand how to use them correctly.  No, I am not advocating at all the use of aversives in training dogs.  Yet, it must be emphasized that aversives have fallouts and one of them is the increase in aggression.

Our responsibility as professionals working in the training industry, to our clients in particular, to their dogs, and to society at large, must be to help with the situation instead of making the situation worse and potentially more dangerous.  

I urge all pet lovers and pet parents to support the need for legislation.  I also urge anyone looking into getting some “professional” help for their dog to do their homework.  Ask for certification, ask for referrals, and call them.  Take to heart that it is your responsibility to keep your pet out of harms way. Think critically and look elsewhere if you are presented with inhumane options in order to resolve a problem.


Mandating Certification for Training and Behavior Professionals

The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) recognizes that the dog training and behavior profession is a largely unregulated industry in the United States and much of the rest of the world. As a result, consumers are at risk of engaging service providers who have little to no legitimate education, training or experience in the field of dog training and behavior modification. We join the international dog training community in calling for regulation of the dog training industry.

CCPDT is concerned that individuals who do not hold an accredited certification and operate in an unregulated industry with claims of being professional dog trainers/behavior consultants put dogs at risk of being incompetently trained by any methods used and/or abused through the utilization of inappropriate methods. This is particularly concerning to CCPDT as dogs trained with inappropriate methods may present a safety risk not only to their owners but to other people and animals they come in contact with within their community.

Additionally, research has shown that dogs who are poorly trained and/or abused can be a burden to their communities. They are more likely to be surrendered to shelters and rescues, or abandoned by their human caretakers.

Therefore, to protect the public and their dogs from the dangers of an unregulated dog training profession, CCPDT supports and will facilitate efforts to introduce and pass legislation intended to implement appropriate regulation that would require legitimate certification in order for a dog trainer to be able to represent him/herself to the public as a Professional Dog Trainer or Dog Behavior Consultant.


Board of Directors, CCPDT

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Teaching Lie Down To Come Inside or Go Outside

How does your dog tell you that he wants to go out or come in when let outside?   Perhaps your dog is like Rico who would scratch at the door in order to signal he wanted to come inside.

Rico had learned all sorts of new stuff.  The previous week I taught him how to lie down.  This next session we were finally putting the behavior on a verbal cue- which I like to introduce only when the dog is lying down without me having to offer him a food lure. As I arrived to the session and to my surprise, Rico greeted me in his typical effusive manner, but shortly thereafter he did lie down! Some dogs really know how to turn the charm on!

Rico’s “mom” mentioned that she did not like Rico scratching at the screen door to let her know he wanted in.  So, I suggested we try having Rico lie down outside as his signal of wanting to come in. We set it up so that Rico was outside and I remained inside ready to pay him when he would lie down.  I was confident he would lie down in order to be let in.

The reason I thought this was because he had just been reinforced for lying down.  We have ample proof that whatever behavior gets reinforced, will be repeated.  You see, dogs are really smart.  They do what works and they abandon any behavior that is not reinforced in some way. Pretty brilliant, right?

It did not take long before Rico was lying down outside and next to the door. We practiced for a few trials and it took him less and less time with every trial to realize that lying down was the “correct” response to be let in.  I love it when I can find an acceptable behavior for both parties!

Here is how you can teach your dog to stop scratching at the door or even barking, and instead politely lie down to have the door open.

First, you need to make sure your dog has truly learned what lie down (or down) means. You can find out if your dog’s lie down is up to fluency if you ask your dog to lie down and he can comply with at least 85% or more correct answers.  Anything under this requires more practice in order to make the behavior fluent.  If your dog needs a refresher, read below for some tips in teaching him this very handy behavior.

Lure your dog into a down (from a sit) by:
  1. Placing a treat in front of your dog’s front paws.
  2. Treat for lowering the head/neck.
  3. Bending the elbows.
  4. Bending of the knees or at the hip.
  5. Going all the way down.

Use of An Empty Hand Signal:
  1. Remove the treat from your hand and with an EMPTY hand. 
  2. Give your dog the EXACT same hand signal you did while holding food in your hand.  Your dog might hesitate at this point.  Be patient and give your dog time to process.  At this point you can pay your dog for a behavior that he has learned well (like a sit) to keep him interested in continuing working with you.
  3. Reward your dog for lowering the elbows, knees or even the neck at this point. Pay for any of these approximations.
  4. Once your dog is lowering his belly all the way to the ground and has done this consistently for 5 trials, it’s time to introduce the verbal cue lie down or down.

Introducing the Verbal Cue:
When using a verbal cue AND a hand signal it is CRUCIAL that you first give the dog the hand signal and then the verbal cue and not both at the same time.  Dogs will default to minding our body language over verbal cues so if you give both of them at the same time (hand signal and verbal cue) your dog will not learn the verbal cue.

  • Once your dog is fluent in lying down when you ask him to do so, you can ask with abandonment.
  • Practice in different locations inside your home, a café if this is a typical outing for your dog, etc.
  • Occasionally pay your dog for lying down, otherwise the behavior will go into extinction.

Training for Success:
We ALWAYS want our dog to succeed so that we can reward them. Remember that whatever behavior gets rewarded you will see more of.  Please train/practice with the following guidelines below:

Practice each new behavior five times (five trials) in a row.  Depending on the success of your dog for that particular exercise you will…

  • PUSH: If your dog is successful five out of five trials… push to the next step.
  • STICK: If your dog is successful three out of five trials… keep practicing at this level until he/she improves.
  • DROP: If your dog is successful two or one out of five trials…keep practicing at this level until he/she improves.

Now you are ready to generalize the behavior, which means teaching your dog that “lie down” (or down- pick your cue and stick to it) means putting the belly on the ground when you ask in the living room, outside, inside the car.  This is a skill that dogs find challenging so do not skip this step.

Teaching your dog to lie down to be let in:

Make sure you take your dog outside where you want him to eventually lie down and ask for the behavior. Pay handsomely. Repeat a few times.

You can stop here and practice a bit more another day or after a few trials outside, try leaving your dog outside while you go inside and wait for him to lie down on his own.  When he does, open the door immediately and let him in to cash in on the prize.  Repeat a few times making sure your dog gets paid for every correct response besides letting him come inside.  In your next session you can practice with having your dog inside next to you at the door.  It would be easier if you warm him up with a few trials of lying down before requesting the behavior at the door.

In time you can stop paying your dog for lying down when wanting “door services” and use the opening of the door as the reinforcement for him lying down first.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Cavaletti anyone?

The Cavaletti is a series of obstacles, normally identical obstacles, that are arranged in sequential order on after the other, and that permits the dog  (or horse) to move from one obstacle to the next in a walk for beginners, and as the dog progresses to a slight trot.

Using a cavaletti is not only really fun, but it can teach the dog several important elements.

I like to use the cavaletti with my own dogs or client’s dogs to teach them how to move with ease. In order for the dog to move without hitting the (pvc) pipe that is lying horizontally, they must pick their leg and paw high enough to clear it. Of course, at the very beginning of the training, the pipe can be very low; this measurement depending on the height of the dog or on the ground for puppies or dogs with mobility issues.  As the dog improves and has gotten some stamina, yes my dogs are panting some after a few of these reps, we can raise the poles slightly so that now the dog has to lift even higher as well as extend in order to clear the pole.

Not only is the dog learning to walk with ease in mobility, it is also learning to walk - or in more advance cases - trot with correct extension. As you can appreciate, this will not only prove to be a more efficient way of walking or running, but it can provide a gentle stretch to the dog’s limb and shoulder.

A second application of the Cavaletti is the focus that it requires from the dog to perform. We want the dog to start at the first obstacle and move with intention through all of them, turn when directed and start again.

There are, of course, many ways to teach a novice dog how to do this.

One of the things that I do whenever I teach dogs to work on a piece of equipment is to pair the equipment itself and the activity with really tasty stuff.  I want to make sure the dog looks forward to working with the equipment, instead of fearing the experience.  In fact, this is the way I want to teach pretty much anything!

I begin by tossing tasty morsels between the obstacle and just having the dog step over the pipe in order to retrieve the goody.  If the dog appears comfortable doing this and without hesitation, I will not stay at this level for too long for several reasons:

  1. I do not want the dog looking at the ground searching for food as this will put its body in a compromised position for the exercise.  
  2. Remember I mentioned the importance of “intentionality”? What I want is a dog that is moving on both a vertical plane (to and extend) as well as a horizontal one.  If the dog is looking down, the dog compromises the horizontal/ extension related movement.
  3. If you are wanting to work on focus now the focus of the dog is on the ground and not very helpful if I need the dog to watch a hand cue to go into another piece of equipment.

The next progression is one where I can begin to walk with the dog on the side from one end of the cavaletti to the next, making sure that I do not lure the dog by fussing with the treats, put a treat in front of its nose in order to get him to move forward because he wants the food.  This is how much of agility is taught by the way. I personally do not like to teach it this way as it can very easily put the dog in conflict: I want the food but I am afraid of “x”.

The next step I move towards once the dog is getting the treat at the end of one side is to stop moving with the dog and just stand in the middle of the cavaletti and to the side.  At this point I can ask the dog to continue to move forward with a verbal cue and pay by throwing one treat at the end of the last obstacle.

In no time and if this was trained properly, we can dispense from using food as a reinforcer as the exercise itself is reinforcing for the dog.  Dogs in general really like movement, so it is rare that a dog will not enjoy the cavalleti.

While it does sound simple and fun to work with the cavaletti, there are certain requirements that we need to keep in mind:

  1. The distance between the poles has to be the same between the obstacles.  In other words, the gap from one pole to the next must be the same.  In order to determine what is the appropriate distance between the poles we need to consider the natural gait of the dog.
  2. In order to determine the natural gait of the dog, take a measurement of your dog from the dog’s front toes to back toes.  
  3. Make sure your dog’s topline remains parallel to the ground.  Some dogs of equal height and weight might have a different gait so do not assume just based on this if you are working with more than one dog at a time. 
  4. Find a way to secure the cones that support the pipe so that they remain in place otherwise you will be re-adjusting all the time.
  5. Do keep in mind that there is a cardiovascular component to doing this which means that your dog must work up its level of fitness. 
  6. Go slow to make it safe and fun for your dog and make sure that your dog is getting some rest periods while moving in between reps.  By reps I mean going all the way through in one direction.  I like to set up at least 5 obstacles in a row and for dogs that are more advanced, I would set 10.
  7. Be super mindful in doing this exercise with young puppies and young dogs. 
  8. For young puppies keep the duration to a maximum of 4 reps (4 obstacles) at once with breaks in between sets and having the puppy engaged in another different activity in between sets.  This activity should include movement as it is not advisable to go from mobility to immobility back to back.  A good option is a leash walk to return for the next rep in the cavaletti.
  9. For dogs under two years of age, and even three years of age for the giant breeds, we must also ensure the dog is moving on the horizontal plane and with just the correct elevation.  I ask you to check with your vet,  so that you can verify what is the optimal height for your dog.  Do not skip this step!  In order for your dog to develop appropriately, we must take into consideration the stage of their growth plates as to not compromise the future structure of your dog’s skeletal and musculature systems.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Conversation with Katie

This post is the second installment on the work I have been doing with Katie. Katie is an under-socialized and very fearful Chihuahua. She especially fears meeting people at her home.  As I mentioned on the previous post, the ultimate goal is for Katie to be so comfortable with my presence first, followed by being comfortable engaging with me, so that I can teach her how to interact with other people in a manner that makes her feel safe and in control of the interaction.

One of the most important principles that I keep in mind during any work that I do with fearful dogs is to make sure they have choices as to how and if they want to interact with me.  At this point in the behavior modification plan with Katie, I am reinforcing her for any attempt at interaction with me, such as moving in my direction, standing still, instead of creating more distance when I toss cheese to her, giving me eye contact, orienting towards me, and overall feeling less afraid and a bit more confident. I can get some idea of how stressed she is as well as when she begins to feel more comfortable by carefully watching her body language. There are specific things that I am looking for.

How do I know that she is stressed? Or not ready to interact with me?  I look for what is called displacement behaviors.  These are natural dog behaviors that are taking out of context.  Some of the most salient in Katie are lip licking, yawing and turning away.  It is also very apparent that she is nervous when she scans the environment in a frantic manner versus soft eye movements in looking around.  Her body posture can also tell me that she is feeling more confident and relaxed or that she is once again not feeling comfortable interacting with me. 

Finally, I am using a clicker (a small toy that makes a noise) to communicate with Katie just prior her getting the cheese. I can be quite precise as to what sort of behaviors I want to see more often in Katie and I click for those followed always by the delivery of the cheese.

The reason I am looking into shaping some new behaviors for Katie is because as she learns new alternatives for interacting with a scary person; the chemistry in her brain is also being affected.  In doing this kind of work, we must always consider the physiological aspect of behavior.  It is as if we have a feedback loop. As the dog learns new responses to a given stimulus new neuropaths begin to strengthen. The more the dog practices these same behaviors, the stronger the connection of the neuropaths in the brain will be.

Think about it.  It does not “feel good” to be afraid or anxious but it does feel “good” when we can be relaxed and in control of the environment.  The same is true for any living organism.  And while one can never be in control 100% of the time, having any measure of agency over one’s interactions and the environment produces feelings of well-being and safety. 

In my interactions with Katie, I am hoping to establish a methodology that does exactly that: give Katie (most) control and choice regarding her interactions with me.  If Katie chooses to remain in her crate, I close the door to the crate and exit the room.  I repeat this over and over again so that it is very consistent, thus Katie can begin to notice a pattern that has been created by her own “behaving”.  If she comes out of her crate and chooses to interact with me in any way, she gets a click and some cheese for that.

She is in control as to when the interactions happen and when she needs a break by just stepping inside her crate. When she does I respond by closing the crate and exiting the room. 

Behavior is never a straight line but more a series of steps forward with some hiccups along the way. To expect a constant moving forward is really setting us up for failure and disappointment.  It is much better to instead realize that they will be set backs and that when they happen, we must learn to be creative and flexible while keeping our focus on the training plan so that we can allow the dog (learner) the space to integrate new experiences.  It goes without saying that when we “push” too hard because we are in a hurry or because we grow impatient, not only are we being really unfair to our learner, but the confidence that we are trying to build between us is begins to crumble. 

As you can see in the video here:

Katie appears stressed. Notice how she lip licks, trembles and her eyes and expression are not relaxed. (0:01-0:14). You can even see that she stoops down as I am approaching the crate to let her come out if she chooses to do so. Of course, I wish I had another mechanism to open the crate without getting so close to her.  However, this unfortunate forced interaction will too create a baseline for me to assess in how comfortable Katie is with my proximity.

I open the crate and Katie is conflicted about coming out (0:21). Her tail is wagging she is at the front of her crate in anticipation of having the crate open.  She vacillates and you can clearly see she is scanning the environment (0:36-0:46).

 As I exit the room and she is in her crate, (1:11-1:21) her conflict turns into curiosity and even expectation of the cheese coming her way. This is exactly what I am looking for:  Katie associating my presence with cheese which is something she loves.  Being able to “observe” her via the video confirms this expectation in her.

By our next interaction (1:23) she is more at ease and ready to interact with me.  Notice that she is in front of her crate (she has the choice of moving all the way back).  Which is a “green light” for continuing to interact with her.

Even though she is a bit more relaxed, she is still conflicted as if she is thinking: I really want the cheese, but I am still not sure about this person.  Conflict in animals is a very healthy response.  It is best to be hesitant yet safe than to prompt to interact and dead!  My goal, of course, is to set things up as best as possible so that she feels less and less conflicted about interacting.  One of the difficulties here is that I must remain as immobile as possible as any kind of movement coming from me still scares her. Katie’s startled response is very high and this might never change.  Perhaps as she becomes more confident she will startle less, but since startling is an autonomic response this might not be the case.

She chooses to interact (2:13-2:15) and by (2:26) she has had enough interaction and signals it so by going into her crate.  I “tell her” that I got her and remove myself after closing her crate.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Katie, the Journey of a Fearful Dog

Katie was adopted as a puppy by one of my clients.  When I met her, she was already a fearful dog. She did not like to be held by anyone other than her “mom” and struggled to be in attendance in one of my small classes.  Fast forward to today, even though she has accepted some people and feels safe and comfortable in their presence, she struggles with most newcomers, especially at her home.

Most of the work I am doing with Katie is a continuation of past work with her.  My client’s goals for her are to make her overall less fearful and more comfortable with people that come to visit at the home.

Working with dogs like Katie is a lot of what I do professionally. It requires copious amounts of patience, very keen observation skills, paired with clear goals for her improvement.

I decided to engage with her while she is in her crate with no one else around. The sessions are 30 minutes long twice a week.  Katie is a very tiny dog; so it is not really feasible to work with such a tiny dog for long without having her completely full before the hour has ended.

For the first few sessions, I showed up to greet Katie as she remained shaking in her crate – pretending that I was not there. Hoping perhaps that I would go away.

The procedure that I use for cases like this begins with classical conditioning where my only goal is to pare the delicious cheese that she loves with my presence and my absence - as I exit the room many times during our session with the flow of cheese coming to a halt. It is important to realize that no matter what the dog is doing, she gets the cheese. During this stage of the work, I am not looking for specific behaviors that I want later on, I am only (sigh!) looking for Katie to associate my presence and approach with the delicious snack.

The progress was slow at best. But Katie does not know how much patience I have.  She also doesn't know that I have worked with many dogs, just like her, and that they did get better.  For now, Katie just shakes- barely taking the treat I toss for her inside the crate.

If Katie was out of her crate, I would not be able to work with her at all as she would happily run to safety behind a sofa without me being able to see her or pay her with cheese.  Besides, she bit someone when in her crate at the Veterinarian’s clinic, so I am hoping to kill two birds with one stone.  I am aware that with this set up, Katie does not have tons of options and options my friends, are crucial for any animal that is fearful.
Mindful of this, I only approach the crate from one direction- giving her an opportunity to remain in the back of the crate.  She does have the choice to remain there or come to the front of her crate.  That was step number one.

The session that you will see on this video
 is a refection of many encounters as I describe above.   However, one day I got really lucky or really smart and I noticed that when I reached for the fastener of the crate, Katie to my surprise, rushed to the front of the crate.  “Wow” I thought, why is she so eager to come out and be in my proximity?  I decided to run with my instinct and be willing to explore other ways.
I opened the crate and Katie did not bolt out.  Instead she calmly came out of the crate, as I remained immobile. Seconds later Katie was about 15 ft. away from me and outside the crate altogether.  I continue with the same process of tossing cheese to her and leaving the room. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.

As Katie learned the routine and she could relax a bit, I began to reinforce for very specific behaviors such as Katie remaining in place versus creating more distance between us, giving eye contact either on her own or when I pronounced her name.  Her eyes blinking softly instead of darting rapidly scanning the room.

I personally love this part of the process when the dog begins to learn that she still has choices AND that she will get paid when she takes a tiny brave step.

One of the most fundamental things about behavior is that there are many possibilities of responses to the same stimulus and this is exactly what I wan to teach her.

As part of this process the dog begins to feel more comfortable now that she begins to learn that humans are actually not that scary because they can deliver cheese or other things the dog really likes.

As I mentioned above, variability is one of the hallmarks of behavior so within the same exposure to the trigger, the dog can regress (from my perspective) and shortly after offer behaviors that are new to her.  Behaviors that I hope will become the norm as she learns to relate to other people with confidence that she is safe.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Retire the food bowl

It is very wind outside, and there is dust and pollen everywhere.  I decide to pass on kicking the ball for the dogs outside and instead we play one of our favorite indoor games come dinnertime.

The dogs and I love this game. It is fun, quick and it sure beats eating out of a food bowl with the whole eating experience being over in 15-30 seconds!

Dogs are predators and even though they do not hunt for their meals these days, still are wired to engage in food acquisition behaviors such as orienting, stalking and “chasing” their food.  In this case, they are chasing after kibble  (dry food).

Dry food constitutes just a small amount of my dog’s food.  I like to feed it for occasion such as when playing games in lieu of eating out of a food bowl.  I regress- but I do want to mentioned that even though there are many brands of dry dog food, for the most part, this choice is really not the best for our dogs.  Sure, we love it because it is so convenient and it does provide with some “crunch” which might be good for the dog’s teeth, but nutritionally speaking there are much better food choices.  If you are considering making change to your dog’s chow, I recommend you subscribe to the Whole Dog Journal as they have tons of really good information pertaining many food brands and modalities. The list is revised often and it sure helps consumers make better nutritional choices for their dogs.

I engage my dogs in all sorts of different games when it comes mealtime. I strongly suggest you move away from just filling a bowl for your dog and instead make of meal times (or at least one of the daily meals) an opportunity for some mental stimulation, training and fun.

This particular food game goes like this:

I pour the kibble into a measuring cup and walk to our long hallway.  My dogs know by now what this entails and now they are both in their  “positions”. Deuce is in the hallway and Rio is in the living room. I am standing between them.  I begin to deliver one kibble at a time to each dog.  I do my best to throw the kibble in a way that the food will bounce from the carpet or the floor. Kibble is really good for this.  I watch with delight as Deuce and Rio chase after their kibble in all directions. I can, of course, by the placement of the food have them run fast or make it a bit easier by throwing the kibble in the direction where they are standing.  The game lasts for about 5 minutes. After this portion is all gone, they both get their remainder of their meal (very nutritious dehydrated dog food from The Honest Kitchen) in their bowls.

There is another variation to this game that I like to do as well.  I set a few pieces of kibble in strategic places for my dogs to find.  I will again segregate both dogs so that each one of them can search in an area without conflicting with where the other is searching.  My dogs have never fought for any resources and I must definitively want to keep it that way. Besides, I want to make sure they both get their share.

I cannot say enough about the importance and the difference it makes in our dog’s lives when we make daily events, such as feedings, something more interesting and in accordance to their natural inclinations than serving their meals from a bowl.   For many dogs the highlight of their day is their meal so why not make them really fun and engaging?

You could also do a little training at meal times by requesting some downs, down & stays “leave it” should your dog have already learned these behaviors.  If mornings are busy times for you, at least try to add more challenge and fun to your dog’s meal in the evening and if not daily then a few meals a week.

Many of our guests comment on how “well behaved” (not obnoxious or demanding) our dogs are. It is true that while both my dogs are active and expect their daily motivation, it is hardly a demanding chore.

The secret folks to having dogs that are mellow and happy is to make sure that we provide daily opportunities for engaging in natural dog behaviors.  Most of my training and fun revolves around feeding times since I have to feed my dogs why not take advantage of meal times? Fulfilling your dog’s daily requirement for mental and physical stimulation can be made much easier if we submit to putting it in our calendars..  If you make a point of spending some time investigating activities that fit the bill AND you put them in your calendar, in no time you will reap the benefits of providing your dog with appropriate opportunities for physical and mental stimulation.  I suggest newbies begin by establishing these enrichment routines around meal times.  Once the routine is set as to when and how you will be providing your dogs you can at your own pace incorporate new games and activities.

The bonus for you is that your dog will learn to relax and be a pleasure to live with.

At the end of the day, I get so much pleasure in seeing my dogs relaxing as we move into our evening routine. They both lie in contentment because their day was met with engagement and fun.