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, January 20, 2019

In dog training is it best to “add” or to “subtract”

This is indeed an interesting question.  By adding I mean presenting a reinforcer as a consequence for behavior. By subtracting I mean removing a reinforcer as a consequence for behavior.  In my view, the answer is that both modalities are of use when teaching our dogs. But today, I want to concentrate on adding a reinforcer instead of removing it.

Take the example and often the case of dogs jumping up on people when they greet.

Dog trainers have been teaching their  clients to ignore the dog until the dog offers or responds to a cue for an alternative behavior- such as a sit. However, I will argue that this particular method of ignoring the dog is not very practical.  Yes, it does work with some individuals, but I have also seen that it is too nerve wracking for dogs and people to implement. Folks get frustrated and now they are yelling at the dog and the dog is wondering why we are so nasty and refuse to say hello!

These days, I’d much rather teach people to give the dog what the dog wants, so that it can then stop jumping in an effort to reach our faces.  Let’s look at the function of this behavior.  Why do dogs jump to greet?  We believe that it has to do with part of their genetic make-up. Other canids like wolves, greet and request food in this manner.  The young pups lick the adult’s mouth to instigate regurgitation from the feeding parent.  This need apparently came along with domestication. While the actual desire to reach our faces (hence the jumping!)  has remained intact, our dogs are not requesting or even expecting to be fed but, to be greeted – in essence social interaction. The social component of this behavior  is relevant to this post. So, what if we acknowledge this need in our dogs  and we respond in kind instead of ignoring them?


Experiment a little with your own pup and your greeting routine and see what you think works best.  I do not have  only one way of teaching my clients  on how to  interact with their dog while greeting; instead I want to find out first what the dog finds reinforcing and that could double up as a greeting routine.  Here are a few of my favorite ways of giving the dog what it wants and needs, while keeping the humans happy.

If your dog loves to retrieve you can keep balls by your front door. The minute you walk in, you will throw the ball for your dog to fetch. That will be your greeting.  Your dog will be delighted not only because he is happy you are finally home, but also because you interacted with him.  In no time your dog will expect to have you (or your guest) throw the ball for him.  I have noticed that after the initial throw or perhaps after a couple of throws, the dog decides he has said hello plenty; that you are both okay and will decide to go lie down or engage in any other behavior besides a greeting behavior since that need has been met.

In my household, our dogs do come to the door to greet (okay, they might pass on greeting when is nap time) but they have been taught not to jump by requesting that they “go get their toy” – or a ball in the case of Deuce, from their toy basket.  They rush to get the item and come back to us to have us throw the ball or play with the toy.

Alternatively, one can interact by throwing a piece of kibble or non-perishable treat that is kept out of reach from the dog and near the point of entry, so that the dog has to find it.

Most of the training scenarios that I teach my clients take less than a minute to perform and are highly effective.  The trick, of course, is to be consistent so that we teach our dogs what to expect as we walk through the front door.

Ideally your guests will be clued in to the simple routine prior to entering the home or at least prior to engaging with the dog. Dogs do not generalize well so we must make sure they learn that the greeting procedure includes everyone (guests, cleaning crew).  When folks take shortcuts, things get confusing and training plans fall apart. If instead of short cuts, we have a plan and we work the plan when greeting our dogs, we will find that they begin to relax around this social interaction. I am all for adding to what the dog wants and needs instead of always thinking of subtracting.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Do professional trainers get fed up with their dogs?

I was thinking about this topic on a snowy morning when I announced to John that we should go snow shooing with the dogs! We got ready and headed out the door.  We were in awe of the amount of snow just outside our front door.  I love outings like this, but today it was a different story.

We normally walk the dogs on leashes if next to a road. This morning however, we decided that they could be off-leash as it was a holiday and the snow filled roads most likely would prevent any cars from speeding. The dogs were happy to explore familiar, yet quite different surroundings because of the snow.  As always, I practiced calling them back just to release them after coming to me.  I also practice stopping on cue and waits (dog not moving forward, but staying in place or coming back to me).

I began my snow shooing adventure with gusto only to discover that I was getting really warm and thirsty as I failed to bring water with me. Now, I am not that comfortable and I am getting irritable at the dogs when they don’t respond as I want them to.

I realize that part of my frustration and my insistence that they came to me had to do with feeling somewhat vulnerable.  I am athletic, but not super experienced in winter forms of exercise. I realized I was not very fast in my snow shoes should I have needed to intervene if we came across the pack of coyotes that live in our neighborhood or should Deuce have decided to chase a car; an unlikely scenario, I realized- but the mind plays tricks on us when we are not feeling on top of our game.

We continue down the wash with me gravitating between being frustrated at the dogs and having to manage them and enjoying the activity.  At some point, I scolded myself for having such lofty expectations of our exploration and being a control freak.  Can I just relax and let the dogs be?

At times, I am looking at the really beautiful landscape all covered in white with icicles here and there clinging to tree branches. My frustration grows because I want to stop to enjoy my surroundings and even take a few pictures, but I am still managing the dogs.

So to answer the question:  Yes, even professional dog trainers (or at least this professional dog trainer) get frustrated with their dogs. The difference might be that once we get our “cool” back we know how to troubleshoot and we are very keen at management.

The same holds true not only in snowy outings with the gang, but when one does not plan a training session ahead of time and now things are not panning out.  This frankly is a rookie mistake resulting in everyone paying the price.

When we get frustrated, our dogs often don’t understand why we are treating them differently. Differently not in a good way, but perhaps our voices are harsh and we even might glance at them with a hard stare, which they can only interpret as a threat.

We all can respond to stress and frustration in ways that we wish were few and far in between. However, we can still take stock of what leads to a frustrating situation or a frustrating disposition be it as we get ready to go out and have fun with the dogs or before a training session.

One piece of advice I give my clients who love to go exploring with their dogs, and especially to those that love to work out hard, is to find time for these activities away from their dogs. My example of our snow shooing adventure and my wanting to take photographs are a perfect example of a conflict of interest that might produce bad results.

Yes indeed, I can snap a picture with my iPhone while minding my dogs, but I cannot really take the time to pull out my other camera, wait for excellent lighting and decide on what makes for a great composition while minding the dogs. The solution then is to be clear about the expectations that each adventure offers and to stick to them as best one can. Taking the time to be with my dogs is of paramount importance to me, but so is enjoying a fun activity without adding more stress and becoming a nag. I learned a valuable lesson this morning: Adjust your expectations and plan for what is important so that my frustration at a less than an ideal outcome does not spill onto my dogs.  

Saturday, December 8, 2018

How to teach your dog to eliminate on verbal cue?

Have you ever traveled with your dog and really needed her to eliminate, and have found yourself doing laps around and around the hotel grounds because your dog is having such a fun time and she not ready to eliminate?  Or, how about when it is raining or snowing, and your pup decides this is her favorite weather and would like to stay outside just a wee bit longer?  The same holds true for young puppies that are just learning where to eliminate. The training plan below, while not technically a house-training plan, can help you teach your already house-trained dog how to eliminate on cue.

No magic potion here, just enough pairings via classical conditioning (all about associations, remember?) between a verbal cue and the act of eliminating.  In addition, and in order to make the behavior “stick” and not go into extinction, you will need to present a reinforcer as your dog is learning to associate your verbal cue with the act of eliminating.  Once this association is achieved - meaning your dog eliminates whenever you give the cue, you will have to reinforce (unless your dog really needed to eliminate and this serves as the reinforcer). So, continue to pay on occasion with a treat, a short game session or anything else your dog finds reinforcing. Here is how to train:

  1. Think of the verbal cue you want to use. For example: Go potty, Do your business, etc.
  2. Arm yourself with some tasty treats.
  3. Take your dog out to eliminate when you think she has to do so.
  4. Observer your dog closely; when she is ready to eliminate say the verbal cue.
  5. Pay your dog as she is eliminating.

  • Continue to follow the steps above until your dog begins to eliminate just after you have given the verbal cue.
  • Pay for eliminating.
  • You can use the same verbal cue for peeing and pooping or use different cues.

Voila!  No more standing in the rain or doing laps at the hotel grounds, your dog will be able and willing to eliminate because you have paired it with good stuff for her, and because after all mother nature is also calling.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Would you say your dog is “confident”? If so, what does this really mean?

Even in the world of training, it is easy to throw around concepts with the implication that everyone else knows and agrees with the definition of said concept. But do we? When it comes to training and setting behavior goals, it is so much easier to be as specific as one can be.

It really helps when we can define concrete goals and behaviors instead. In one of my professional development outlets, the question was raised as to what is a confident dog. They proposed certain typical usages and interpretations of “confidence” in dogs. Most of the definitions proposed would fall within the lines of what most people would consider confident, but there were also as well, obtuse and frankly not very helpful examples of the usage of “confident”.

One can think, for example, of a dog that is so confident that would without hesitation approach someone and aggress. Is this a trait that we want in our confident dog? Or how about the dog that is so freakin’ confident that takes it upon itself to harass younger dogs or those that appear “soft”?
But what is a “soft” dog? I regress.

The best approach when using a concept is to carefully enlist the behaviors a confident dog normally a engages in. And furthermore, to decide as stated above if all these behaviors fall as desirable behaviors for us or for society at large.

Here is the thing: If we keep to observational traits, it will be so much easier to describe the behavior (s) of confidence. One could then follow up with specific goals and training plans for our confident dog or one that could use more of it.

I would like to propose then that we think of confidence in dogs as a continuum versus a trait a dog possess because of its rearing and perhaps even its breeding. Let me explain: Deuce, my Border collie, is one of the “chilliest” dogs you could meet. So far he has never moved away from a new person or if I recall a dog that he just met. Now, my very confident Deuce struggled for a long while for no apparent reason- as he is physically capable of jumping, with jumping into my car. Perhaps this is why I have a blown disc! Months of picking him up at a weight of 50lbs of moving flesh every time he needed to get in the car!

I would argue that this is the perfect picture of a dog that lacks confidence in his ability to jump high enough and effortlessly enough, to land safely inside my car. So is he confident or not? Well, it depends. Yes, I would argue that overall he is very confident, but not so much when he needs to jump and propel himself. Another example: we were walking in town with Rio and Deuce as we approached a bridge-like-structure that had some spacing in between. Deuce buckled. After some encouragement in the form of happy talk and some treats, he was able to walk back and froth with less hesitation. Rio on the other hand, walked back and forth and would have been able to do so with her eyes closed and on her tippy-toes. Then again, I would say that Rio is in general much less confident than Deuce when it comes to meeting people and even dogs.

I teach a class that I purposely named Developing the Confident Dog. With the idea in mind that confidence is more of a continuum than a fix trait.

What I like about this approach in defining “confidence/confident” is that it not only rings more factual to me but it presents us with the notion that our dogs can learn to be more capable and willing to investigate and engage with what is novel and even scary, with more conviction and less hesitation.
Thinking of confidence as a developing characteristic also allows for keen observation of areas where our dogs could behave more confidently. Once we have identified these, we can help them out by a carefully planned behavior modification program. One that will build resilience and conviction.

Now back to my initial question: Is your dog confident? I am really hoping that you’ll take a moment before responding because you can now consider that being confident is not a “thing” or a “trait” but a way of behaving in very specific circumstances and perhaps a qualifying set of behaviors that we consider desirable.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

A useful behavior to teach your dog

Most dogs have a fascination with food and any object that smells like food.  They also have predilection for items by which they can exercise their powerful jaws by chewing on them.  And then we have our very naughty pups that love to steal an item and show their owners how smart and cute they are as they run away from them hoping for a fun game of chase.

There are other circumstances in which me must remove an item that can potentially harm the dog, if swallowed.  Either scenario, the best way to deal with all these situations is to teach the dog how to surrender an item voluntarily.  The idea is to teach the dog that when he surrenders something that the dog is now holding in its mouth and under his possession, he will be reinforced for it. In other words, he will get something of HIGHER value for his efforts and compliance.

Time and time again, I meet with owners who have taken by force an item from the dog, only to make the dog now more resistant to giving up what he has and to mistrust that the next item will not be removed by force as well. This can turn into a slippery slope!

The best analogy I can give you is someone telling us that we must surrender our warm ready-to-consume meal because they want it.  Or analogous, having someone constantly reaching into our meal without even asking if they can sample before they are diving in with their fork!  I don’t know about you, but when this happens I make sure the person digging in knows that I do not like people messing with my food!

The motivation for dogs holding on to stuff is the same. They found the item valuable in some way.  Now, if I have someone ask me first if they can sample my food, I would be much more inclined to agree.  The same again is  true for our dogs.

Dogs are genetically wired for survival (like the rest of us) and as such, they are inclined to hold on to any consumable item.  For some dogs this extends to items they are not going to consume, but they like because they can play with them, engage with others (as in the case of the testy dog hoping for a hot pursuit) or even holding on to an item because it gives them a sense of safety.  One of my Springer Spaniels - Chaco, loved to walk  in town holding in its mouth a small carton of cream.  Whenever he found one, he would pick it up and proceed to strut in delight as a passerby would asked me how I taught him that.  I never did, he just decided that walking and holding such an item in his mouth felt good.

My recommendations is to practice exchanges with your dog so that when the need arises your dog will know what to do. Here is how:

  1. Begin by giving your dog an item that he likes but not his super favorite toy, ball etc.
  2. After a couple of seconds of your dog holding the item…
  3. Say “drop it” or whatever verbal cue you want to use.
  4. Wait for 3 seconds and then present your dog with something so delicious that he cannot resist having it.  In order for your dog to eat this, he will have to open its mouth and by defacto drop the item.
  5. Give the dog the treat.

You have, in essence, set things up so that your dog learned that dropping when asked produces something he also wants.  After a few successful trials like this with a so-so object, begin to introduce in this same session or at another time, a more coveted item and repeat as above.

If you teach this to your young puppy, you will be so glad you did!  However, this is one behavior that all dogs can learn at any point. The idea is to practice with enough items of different value for the dog so that the behavior generalizes.

Do know that the longer a dog is holding on to a precious item, the harder it is for him to surrender. Also, if your dog is in any way showing signs of aggression such as growling (when not part of play in chasing, for example) sneering, or stiffness as you try to “negotiate” a surrender it is best to diffuse the situation and not force the dog in anyway to give up the possession. This is most likely resource guarding and it can turn dangerous very quickly.

Resource guarding is normal dog behavior, but one that we must manage like ç or engage in behavior modification where we teach the dog in a more orchestrated manner with some safety mechanisms in place that surrendering is actually a good idea and that it will not be taken for granted.

Last, if you enjoy playing chase with your dog - which I do,  I suggest you put it under stimulus control.  Which means, that you will *ONLY * chase when you say the verbal cue for this game prior to the chasing.  Your dog will learn very rapidly that his efforts in acting super cute with an item will not necessarily give way to chase.

Working with valuable exchanges is a good way to accommodate our dog’s needs and desire for keeping what they like and surrendering when the item it is not safe for them to have  or  when they should not have a particular item.  As always, remember that our dogs must be reinforced for behavior. When reinforcement is not part of the equation, the behavior will go into extinction. That simple.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hi-Tech in dog training

John, my husband, is looking for a “new” truck. He is looking in lots of different places just for the “right” truck at the “right” price.  He actually goes and drives a couple that appear to be promising. After one of those drives, he pronounces — in between giggles, that the one he just drove had a cassette player!!  What? No CD player? No bluetooth?  Airbags?  Clearly, he chose to pass on this beauty and continue looking.

As he dove daily into Consumer Reports, car dealership websites, and the like, we discussed perhaps prompted by the cassette player, which “bells and whistles” were  non-negotiable in the purchase of his truck.  It took us but just a few minutes for both to agree on the high-tech modern technologies that the truck needed to have.

I get that not everyone is interested in high-tech. Yet, high-tech is nearly but present in most people’s lives. We are past the point of expecting technologies of all sorts to go away.  As a matter of fact, most of these technologies have brought ample benefits.  Especially so, I would argue, when they are used appropriately. As I like to remind myself: the phone and computer are there for me; versus me for them.  This little reminder most often puts  me on track on how I choose to spend my time. Especially salient, I find unplugged and get uninterrupted time.

Technologies are everywhere.  Even in dog training.  A practice that has very much embraced them. Most trainers that are worth a client entrusting their precious pup to,  are using advance methods that are backed by hard science versus simplistic theories in explaining behavior and most importantly in shaping and modifying behavior.

So why is it then that there are still some folks out there — that almost religiously, continue to expect help from pros that subscribe to obsolete, simplistic models of “alpha” or “leader”?  Can you hear me yawning?

I guess we can blame our big mammalian brain! Our brain loves patterns.  We create patterns perhaps to better understand our environment(s) and keeping ourselves safe. We love to put stuff in categories -  such as the Border Collie, keeping everything neatly in place!  In effect, we must really make an effort to look beyond what appears to be “the facts” to dig deeper and to question claims.

Not only are scientific findings interesting, but I would argue they are also fair (to the species being studied) and very, very helpful to the ones doing the training.  There has been (and we can continue to add to these numbers) over 200 animals species studied. These studies are the foundations of much of what we know about animals and how they learn, relate, feel, etc.  But we still doubt the findings?

Besides the scientific findings, that are the tenets of the science of animal learning and cognition, there are also technologies that have made a big impact in the world of dogs and training.

One that comes to mind is, of course, the clicker. This is one of my ultimate favorite tools AND technologies.  It is a technology because there is much more in the background than the just “click” and “pay” modicum. There is quite a bit that one must understand regarding the science of animal learning if one wants to not only use the clicker (called an event marker) well: click first, pay second, etc.  But we must apply  what we know about how dogs learn  (or your species of choice) and then use the clicker anchored in this learning.

Another great technology is the head-halter.  Think of a head-halter as driving with power steering versus without. You still need to know how to drive the car, but the steering will be much easier.   The same is true for the head-halter.  It can surely aid folks whose dogs are powerful, rowdy on the leash or exhibit big displays of fear/aggression such as lunging at a passerby. However, due diligence must be in place to assure that the owner knows exactly how to use this piece of equipment for effectiveness and kindness to the dog, while the dog must be taught to enjoy wearing the halter because the owner or the trainer have taken the time in paring the halter with fun and positive stuff for the dog.  Enjoy is much better than “tolerate”… I have never liked “tolerating” itchy clothing. Yuck!

I would argue the same about crates.  They can be fabulous in providing dogs with the safety when riding in the car, the flexibility of leaving your dog in a hotel safely in their comfy crates and a personal place for your dog to hang out.  However, the notion that all dogs love crates because they are “den” animals is more fiction than fact. I would argue that all dogs must be taught that the crate is the place to be.  Some will take to it a lot easier for a myriad of reasons while others will never want to be near a crate.

These are but three examples that, in my opinion, have bridge living life with a dog with technologies that make existing with a dog  more pleasurable for the person, and when used appropriately, they can also be a bonus for the dog.

When it comes to training high-tech, we must also pay attention to the thinking behind the practice.  No, not all training is the same.  Yes, dogs are individuals and as such they do have preferences and dislikes but to claim that any dog choose to be pushed around, scared of hurt is plain stupid!

We owe it to our dogs — the ones we claim to be wo[men]’s best friend, to really understand them as a species first and as an individual second.  Not only is this crucial for anyone giving advise about dog behavior, ethology and training but even for dog owners.

Truly, it is time for all of us involved to get our heads out of the sand and educate ourselves in reputable, science-based methods of animal learning as well as  the understanding of canine ethology, instead of simplifying the  factual known nature of our dogs just because we are too lazy to dive deeper.  I guess our brain make us do this!

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Let’s put this issue to rest, shall we?

I often get asked if it is “okay” to sleep with a dog in bed. This is one of the issues that is actually quite personal. Some people - I would say most people,  love sleeping with their dogs but other folks would rather not. And sometimes the “rather nots” do not know how to get their dogs off their beds!

The hesitation of having dogs in bed stems  - in my view, from the incorrect idea that dogs are statue thinking creatures and if we allow them on a higher ground (such as bed)  they will take the position of the “alpha”.  My answer to this line of thinking is to look for real evidence to this effect.  We could begin by investigating for potential problems while allowing the dog to sleep on the bed:  Is the person able to move the dog out of the way without having the dog respond by sneering, growling or worse, attempting to bite or bitting while on the bed?  Is the dog preventing another pet from also sleeping on the bed?

I would instead argue for the Parsimony Principle, which states -  that the most acceptable explanation of an occurrence, phenomenon, or event is the simplest, involving the fewest entities, assumptions, or changes should be applied here.

If folks then want to share their bed with their dog, they should go right ahead without any concern for their dog becoming the “dominant” or “alpha”.  There is, however, a consideration when the dog resource guards the bed as his own possession. This, of course, is natural dog behavior, but it could also be very dangerous.

Dogs are wired to “protect” what they consider a resource- something that they find valuable or want. A cozy place to lie can fall under this category.

When a dog resource guards a person’s bed, it is possible for the dog, in its effort to hold on to the possession, to sneer, growl or even bite.  If this was the situation, I would argue that having a dog on the bed at anytime is not a good idea.

I have worked with a couple of clients whose dogs would jump up on the bed and prevent one of the owners to get into the bed!

So what is the solution here?  If people are good about following with a management protocol, and closing the door to the bedroom is, of course, the easiest thing to do.

Alternatively, one can teach a dog an “off” cue that the dog learns as if it was learning a fun game. In essence, the dog gets paid for jumping of the bed (and staying off).  If the dog  jumps on the bed he is asked again to get off and then he is rewarded for doing so! Viola! Problem solved.

Another sticky issue arises when one person wants the dog in bed and the sleeping partner does not. This is a typical example of how folks have different expectations and relationships with their dogs, and frankly I think it has very little to do with one person  loving the dog more, and the other one loving the dog less.