Monday, January 30, 2012

The cost of selecting the wrong dog trainer

I see a lot of dogs. People typically want the best for their dogs, but they're not always in a position to know what "best" may be.  They aren't the professionals in the situation and their perspective is very different than that of someone in an 'expert' role.

At the best end of things, the person just adopted the dog or had only done a few basic classes by the time they're directed to a vet behaviorist.  After the appointment, (and often meds), the dog is able to learn better, do better, and actually progress in class and at home. The downside is the time, money, and frustration that the family unnecessarily experienced up to that point.

At the worst end of things, the family only does a consult after a lot of training or trainer shopping and after the dog has experienced some pretty horrible things at the hands of people who are often not all that skilled with various ...interesting....punishment strategies (whether intentional or not).  The human-animal bond is often damaged.  And it takes a lot more time, training, and effort to get everyone to start progressing.
As a puppy, Luna was anxious, lacking confidence,
had housetraining problems, and no trainers addressed
these  concerns.

And sometimes the cost is higher. By the time the family is seeking more help, the family may not have the patience, time, or money to actually work with the right professional and follow through with treatment.  The family might feel like training won't work because the five other trainers resulted in no real success.

The dog may go untreated for months, years, or life.  The dog may be regulated to excessive crating or kenneled in the backyard.  People, animals, or family members may be physically injured. The dog may be adopted out or euthanized. The family isn't going to feel so great about dogs for a really long time.  

This is why problem areas need to be addressed right away. Families need to know how to seek help, and where to seek help.  Beginning and less experienced trainers need to know when to refer.  Beginner/basic classes and puppy classes should be taught by the most experienced people possible, not those just learning (they should assist and learn!).  If problems are noted, the family needs to be pointed to the right help, right away.  Trainers need to attend/participate in continued education events so they're better able to help people. Vets need to ask leading questions to identify problem areas  ("How is he left home? How is house training?  Storms and fireworks? Are you seeing any training problem areas?").

It's not easy.

And some real numbers with Blaze:
Puppy class. And a second, third, fourth class.   Five or six sport classes.  A lot of books.  A few privates. Extra health tests.   And then to the vet behaviorist (4.5 hours away!).  Neurologist appointments.  So, after only about $1800ish of training (not counting the very $$ obstruction surgeries that didn't heal well even though the pica is probably related to his behavior challenges) we had our $300ish appointment. He was diagnosed and we received treatment options.

Blaze was labeled as a "Just needs more training." puppy.

If we had gotten the right help from puppy class, it would have saved a lot of time, money, energy frustration. He would probably  be a different dog than he is now, though not 'normal'.  We would have saved a lot of money, or at least gotten more for our money rather than many classes where he didn't progress and instructors berated us for not practicing.  I have family members, adults, who are afraid of Blaze. He's not an aggressive dog, just bigger and lacking self control.   Their relationship with him and all dogs has been damaged.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Online Class Review

Back in the fall we signed up for the first online dog training class I've ever taken.  The class was taught by Fanny Gott and lasted about four months.

It was the best training class I've ever taken.

Advantages of online classes:  You are able to show the instructor your best work. If your dog is having a bad day? Wait another day before taking your video.   You have plenty of time to ask your questions and process your thoughts.

Things I loved about this class specifically:    The training is just great.  I know I've mentioned before that a lot of the clicker training in Europe is just more proficient than most of what's being done in the US.  And this class is a great example.   The training plans are brilliant. Allowing the dog to be as prepared as possible before doing the competition behaviors.   Less incorrect approximations are reinforced.  And it's all just beautiful.   Not to mention Fanny and Thomas are successful in competition in a way that most clickerly people here are not.  And that really stands out to me.

Things I learned in this class:  The most obvious and most distressing and most important was that Griffin is too aroused while working.  I have got to get him to settle. I don't need to keep building up his enthusiasm, though I should work to maintain what we have and I should expand his abilities to be working well as he will not work in some environments. Our playing has improved 10 times.  This is helping all of our training.  We've learned some new self control games that I'm sometimes teaching in classes too ("Reversed luring" and a send to bowl game that Griffin --loves--).  This class was very, very good for us. It was great to see all the other dogs in the class, giving me more ideas on how to progress or on how it all fits together.

Now what?:  The next group just opened for registration.  I am attempting to use my self control to not sign up this time around.   We're in an online running contact class, but it's just not as fun as obedience!   I'm going to be reviewing our notes from class and continue to perfect our training/obedience exercises.  And then, I'm not sure.  We benefit from the help. I love obedience.  I'd like to finally be ready to start trialing in obedience and agility.

In review.... an online class is different from a real class.  The feedback is not immediate.  But the feedback is great, you have time to think about it. you can watch yourself work while reading and re-reading the feedback.  A good online class can be a fabulous option.  I'm definitely going to be taking more classes!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Looking at Success

There are a lot of books about success (and not) and looking at why certain individuals or groups of people are successful (or not).   I've been reading a lot of these over the last few months.   A few observations: (Other than that reading many books on the same subject means a lot of repetition):

1) A lot of practice is important.
2) Practicing the right things, and being efficient with practice, is important.
3) It's more about the right opportunities and practice than anyone being all that different or inherently exceptional.
4) It's important for challenges to be continually increased. The bar should always be set higher.

As I read, I think about this from different perspectives:  for myself, for my dogs, for my students, for my students who are enthusiasts/in sports classes, for my 4-H kids, and for the many instructors that I know.

Myself:  I know I've had a lot of practice.  The short version is that I had a lot of practice early on, it wasn't great practice but it wasn't bad either. I had opportunities to work with many species and I've been obsessive about animals for my whole life.   But I don't do as much practice as I used to.  I make use of my time at the shelter to maintain and improve training skills.   I continually work with my dogs.  I am now much more efficient with my training sessions.   In some ways I don't think I challenge myself enough (often taking the "easy route" in training), though my interest in various competition-type activities --does-- require me to continually work towards a high standard.

My Dogs: Griffin is 3.5.    When Blaze was 3.5, he probably had 10-25x the training hours Griffin has had.   Griffin is about a hundred times more proficient than Blaze. It's not just about Blaze's brain abnormality.   I've had higher standards with Griffin. My greater experience has allowed us to be more efficient.  We set out every training session with a specific goal (faster, straighter, closer, more still, higher, etc).  With Blaze, it was about getting a lot of sits in a row. I can also see the dangers (and damage) that result from practicing poorly or practicing the wrong things.  

My Human Students:  There are a lot of times when we do exercises specifically to let the people get the practice. We do things again and again and again. In some ways, I don't like "wasting" the time, but they do need to get into the habit and not everyone will work at home.  I am continually working to get the lessons to be more efficient, with more done in less time and to a higher degree of competency. I need to challenge this group more.

My Dog Students:  It's hard having two learners. Sometimes the dog is holding back the learning of the person, and sometimes it's the other way around. Again, it's a balance of challenging the team but also allowing enough repetition and time for them to get comfortable and competent with the skills.

Enthusiast Students:  They really like practicing. They don't always like (or think) to practice the stuff they should spend time on.  Sometimes it's harder to get these teams to practice efficiently or with good technique/skill.  They want to skip steps and shortcut. They can see the final picture but aren't always able to see what's required for each step in between. It's my job to challenge them at the right level and not let them get caught up in the big-picture goals.  Some of these teams have been in dogs for a really long time. I'm often amazed at the poor training many people (students or not) have been able to get away with and still have success...and I don't mean punishment.  Timing, setting criteria, reinforcement, training plans.    

4-H Kids:  This is a really interesting group.  It's easy to get them to practice some things.  Painfully hard to get them to see the importance of other things. We're on a limited time frame, meaning we shortcut some training steps or aren't competition-ready by competition day. But I do see many of them week after week for six or so months, every year for many years. It really gives me big-picture feedback on how our training plans are working. It also gets easy to fall into the patterns of doing the same activities again and again and not pushing that bar higher on a week to week basis.

Other Trainers:  I know a lot of dog trainers (the internet is amazing).  I have a lot of trainer friends.  I have many in classes or that I see on a regular basis.  I have some students who want to do teach. Without hesitation, I can say that I'm often rather concerned.  There are many professionals who need to spend some time training animals (teaching is a different skill set) as well as expanding their teaching and training skills.  Set the bar higher! Challenge!  I feel a lot of responsibility to help my trainer-friends. It's easier when they ask for help.  When they don't, it's a balance of finding ways that I can support or encourage them to keep working.

At a dog-enthusiast group dinner, some of this came up.  It was interesting to hear what others heard, experienced, or did.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Griffin's Dilemma

Griffin has many really great competition behaviors.  His real-life, daily-use behaviors are getting a little...rusty.    In a training context we can do some very excessive "proofing" exercises and he is almost 100% successful. When he makes errors, it's often to move -away- from the things he really wants.

Yesterday we worked on his directed jumping.  First a few to see how he was doing. Then with someone else telling us which jump to take.   And then with some proofing exercises.  Initially I had a helper hold him (so no stay to break).  He perceived that as a recall exercise and blasted straight to me.  Once I left him on stays, he was great and then only missed about 2 out of 20 repetitions over the day.  We ended up with people running around the ring and taking the jumps, standing in interested positions, and carrying items through his ring.  He barely looked away from me.  

He can do most of his competition exercises with some fairly extreme distractions.  Yet I do not think he's ready to trial.   In the moment of excessive distractions, Griffin very much knows that it's a trick and he only works harder.  

So what do we do?  Next week we'll do more repetitions with more subtle distractions.  We'll do more exercises or pieces before reinforcing.  

Friday, January 13, 2012

Are you making progress?

For those in training classes, there are two people responsible for making sure there's progress.  The instructor and the student.  For those who are working on their own...  there's just one person to monitor progress!  It's important to be objectively monitoring any training process so that we can evaluate improvement. 

If you are seeing progress:
What's the rate of progress?  Can it be improved more? Do we need to set new goals?  What are your plans for maintaining what you've worked towards?

If you are not seeing progress:
  • Talk to your instructor.  I am always sad when I have students who are working with other professionals (trainers or vets) but are not seeing progress and have not discussed the lack of progress or additional concerns with that professional.   Utilize the resources available! Get some help.
  • Do you need to "break it down" into smaller parts?  Is the training plan not detailed enough?
  • Are you focusing on the right challenge?  Example:  When Luna is in class, she will often freeze up and stare at other people or dogs.  If I addressed this as an attention problem...I wouldn't see too much progress.  If I address this as a stressed/afraid dog challenge, we can work to resolve the underlying anxiety and then she will be able to focus on me.  
  • Look at the reinforcers:  What are you using? Is it actually reinforcing for your dog? Is there other reinforcement in the picture?  Example:  Young dog barking and pulling on the leash until he's allowed to meet the other dogs he sees during walks.  Now he does a lot of barking and pulling every single time he sees a dog.   The barking was reinforced with play!
  • How are you practicing?  Are you doing training exercises to address the challenges at hand?
  • How is your management?  Is your training being compromised at other times of day?
Monitoring student progress: 
I make notes about dogs in group classes. The notes include a listing of the goals the family specified and a list of my goals for the dog/family. These are not usually the same!    Each week I can add a few more things to the list or cross of those things we accomplished.  We prioritize based off of the things that impact living with the dog and the human-animal bond.  When students are not seeing progress, we can talk about what's going on. If they aren't working at home....then I'm not too worried. If they are practicing every day, then maybe the dog needs to see a veterinary professional, maybe the team needs a different learning style, or maybe we need to address some of the training skills.   For teams who are complaining yet not practicing, we can talk about why and how we can change things.  Some people learn better through reading. Some are great in class but can't remember a few days later.   

Monitoring our progress: Luna in agility class
About three years ago, I noted that Luna really wasn't making progress in agility class. We were still facing the same challenges we had been working on for over six months (focus, nervous with the teeter, speed).  I decided that we would take some time off to do some training on our own and then we would return to class. It ended up that while we both missed class, it wasn't reinforcing enough for me to head back soon with the hour drive each way and then bathing my dog most weeks (dirt arena.... great to run on. Not great with a longhaired dog!) We've worked on our own and have made improvements with her challenge areas and directly addressed her anxiety with veterinary help.  

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Two myths about crating/housetraining

I hear these a lot, especially from experienced dog owners and it's common internet-advice.  There's some truth to the statements, but there is enough danger that it is important to be cautious.  There are exceptions to every rule.

Never let a barking puppy out of his crate!
The piece of truth:  If the puppy/dog is barking to get out of the crate or to get attention, the approach and release from the crate will reinforce the barking.  The dog will learn to bark to get let out.  If you wait a while and then decide to let him out, you teach the puppy/dog to bark longer or with greater intensity.
The big picture truth:     It's not appropriate to let a dog/puppy bark for a long period of time, especially if it is a very distressed barking or if there is anxiety.  It's inhumane to let a dog be screaming and vocalizing out of distress.   Many new dog or puppy owners are not able to tell the difference between "I want out!" and "I think the world is ending" barks.    If you let an attention-seeking puppy out for barking.... he will bark more.   If you continue to ignore a seriously distressed puppy, you could be creating bigger problems.  
What to do:  Be preventative.  Don't let the dog or puppy get to the point where he is barking and/or distressed.  Gradually work up to teaching him to be contained. If you have to be gone, -beforehand- test out other containment strategies. This could be an exercise pen or a small room with gates/doors.   If you -know- your dog is bad in the crate....we need to gradually work up to him being contained.  Consult an appropriate professional.

My puppy is peeing in his crate. I need a smaller crate!
The piece of truth: Most puppies to not like to sit in their pee. Many do not eliminate in their bed area.
The big picture piece of truth:  Take your puppy out more often. If you have a puppy who doesn't mind sitting in his pee (...seems more common with some shelters and pet store puppies)...use the biggest crate you can. He has the -option- of sitting somewhere else.  With a small crate, he has no choice.  With these puppies you have to be extra diligent about the trips outside and reinforcement.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Management is under appreciated.

And it's a hard concept.  For all problem-solving situations we discuss management, whether it's something more serious like separation anxiety/distress or reactive/aggressive behaviors or less-serious-but-still-annoying things like jumping on visitors and pulling on leash.

Management is not the same as training. Training will resolve or minimize the challenges.  But training doesn't (usually) happen overnight.  In the meantime, we need ways to prevent the dog from practicing the behavior. Every time he practices the behavior, it may grow stronger and the training may be set back.

Here are a few of the management techniques we use.  Note...these are not complete training plans!
Food toy management!

Racing out the door:

  • Create an "airlock" so the dog can't escape.  
  • Put a note on the door to remind family to crate the dog before opening the door.
  • Leash at the door to put on before opening the door.
  • Treat scatter in the house before walking out (with or without the dog following)
  • Tether or crate nearby.
  • Note on the door to have visitors/family to call before opening the door. The dog can be closed elsewhere before the door is opened.
  • Harness or head halter so the handler doesn't "give" as much if the dog pulls.
  • On leash walks in the yard or near the house rather than the usual route.
  • Walk at less distraction times.
  • Exercise the dog differently until the walking training is further along.
  • Treat transport (from Agility Right From the Start)
  • Distance from the distractions
Jumping up on people and counters during meal preparations
  • Crate, doors, tether elsewhere
  • Family member teaching the dog to stay (the human works as a MannersMinder)
  • Food toys during meal preparation.

The hardest part is convincing people that this management is just as crucial as the training.   I'm always sad when I hear dog people or professionals talking about how management is just a stepping stone and not appropriate forever and how horrible pet owners are for using management forever. I'm typically okay with management forever. I sometimes encourage it.  The family is the one to decide their priorities.  It's better to practice management than to let the dog practice the undesired behavior. There are only so many hours in the day and only so much someone can work on.  

MannersMinder management!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

January Thoughts

1) We've had a lot of really, really warm days.  40-60* out.  This is kind of unusual for this time of year.  I'm still counting down the days until spring -really- starts in March.

2) Normally this is a slow time of year for animal-service related businesses.  With people making big holiday purchases, typically there is less spent on the "extra" things of pet services. Less travel after the holidays, until spring break, makes it a slow time for boarding kennels.   Surprisingly, we've had a -lot- of class sign ups this week.  I had to get out of bed and make a few additional plans before I could sleep last night.  The Tuesday class is looking to be giant.

3) Efficiency is important to me.  Working on a few behaviors with Griffin, I'm struggling to find the "in between" steps for where we are and where we need to be. This isn't usually a problem, but for once it is a huge issue. It will be interesting to see what solutions we come up with.

4) Dog resources:  There are a million books, DVD's, websites, and everything available. It's overwhelming for me.  And probably worse for people who are new to dogs.

5) Lack of resources:  Yet, I haven't found a basic training book that I love.  Things are too long or too opinionated or too weird or too punishment focused despite a positive label and description.

Puppy Griffin!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Record Keeping :: Current system for my dogs.

Because I'm working with multiple dogs for multiple activities and I have to keep tracking of training for students, 4-H'ers, and shelter dogs.... I can't "just remember" everything.  Every few months I change my record keeping system to make it more efficient and more useful.  

For about 24 months I've been fairly diligent and at various points tracked different things as well (time exercising, grooming, crating, etc).  

Right now I have my very favorite system that I've been using for three months now.   Every month I create a sheet for each dog with an outline of the behaviors/aspects we will be working on and a blank column where I will note the date and a tally of the number of sessions on that behavior. There are a few blank spots so I can add in a few more things and for classes where we will be assigned activities. Here's a sample:

(It wants to be can see it here)
These are taped up to the wall. On the dry erase board I make notes about additional skills that I may add to next month's list.

On a daily basis, I update the charts and I make a super-short journal type entry about sessions. I keep these online so that they are easily searchable (unlike written records).  

At the end of the month, the charts allow me to have a great overview of what we've done, what we didn't do, and how to change things for the next month.  If we completely did not work on something I either remove it the following month or break it down into more achievable/specific pieces.    I also do an end of the month short summary write-up for the dogs and this allows me to spend a little longer thinking about what we did and did not do and how on-track we may be for our goals.  

Improvements over the previous system:  Before I was just doing the journal entry and had a running list of things to work on.  Sometimes we would go weeks without working on "important" skills or we would spend hours on behaviors that we don't really need.   The charts are really nice because I can easily have an overview and I can prioritize and see our progress towards goals.   Now I can see it all, first thing every day.

Future changes?:   I feel like I'm always adding more to my "to do" list rather than crossing things off.  I'll want to make a few modifications to be sure we're getting to those things.    I want to simplify the form for my 4-H'ers (who often are doing multiple activities, obedience, showmanship, rally, and agility).  But at the moment, I'm quite happy with how the system is working and how it's focusing us.

Winter Classes

Many pet-related services see a drop off in clients/customers during January/February.  Everyone is getting back to school and work after the holidays and they're a little more hesitant to spend money when they've just been through the holidays.  As it starts getting warmer in March, services often pick up (boarding kennels with spring break travels, groomers with "spring haircuts").

Interestingly....we've seen an increase in class sign-ups in the last week.   Most of the classes I teach are on-going enrollment, meaning that students can start that week.   We had two "fixed start date" classes start last night, a class for shy dogs and a class focusing on walking and settling with distractions.

This time around, the dogs in ShyDog class are more outgoing than the first group.  We have one dog repeating the class and three new dogs.   I've already adapted the class quite a bit from the first time we offered it last fall.  We're focusing more on handler skills than dog skills now, and hopefully this leads to better application at home and then more improvement.  We're still keeping a lot of the same activities, but we're adding in more intermediate steps, specific homework, and group participation.
Luna looking like a shy dog in 2008  We were at a state park in... PA?
The trails were very rocky and steep. I was scared of the slippery steep path....
she was worried about the people we passed.

Luna and I get to be in the Focus/Distraction class, she was incredibly happy and loved the young border collie were paired with.  Sometimes I feel like she's ready to go back to agility class. And at other times, it seems like I just barely have control.   She was getting tired so I switched out partway through.  I intended to let Blaze have a turn but he's not feeling good after crashing into walls during a fetch game on Tuesday....     Griffin got to work and I'm always surprised at how well he does in a group environment for the -very- small amount of group class time he has worked.   The other dogs and people weren't a challenge at all and he's really quite reliable in a class setting.  It's almost like the presence of the other dogs and people are a cue for him to have more self control and to be working harder with me.
In other news.... early last year I was really excited about the great seminars for the year.  Somehow, this year is even better!  Everything seems really far away, but in reality it's going to go by incredibly fast.  I can't wait until there are details to share!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Luna will never be a herding dog...

Sometimes I feel bad that Luna doesn't get a chance to do breed-specific activities like Blaze and Griffin do.  She's not interested in retrieving or swimming.  

And she's also not interested in herding.

Luna's been getting more freedom over the last few months. But sometimes I misjudge her current abilities.  Yesterday she took a little adventure into one of the occupied cow pastures.  She enjoyed the great smells (and snacks....).  

Cows are very curious.  Angus cattle are notorious for being "protective" and many people consider them to be more "aggressive" than some other cow breeds.   

A few cows watched while eating hay.   The calves cautiously approached Luna.  Then Luna looked up and noticed.   She did a play bow. Spinning in a circle.  Then another bow before happily prancing away.  I've also seen her playbow and offer play solicitation behaviors to 2,000lb bulls....   Maybe she would be different with sheep or ducks....but knowing her, I highly doubt it.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Working Towards Succcess

Last night some of us had another sad "Why can't our dogs do more," moment.  

It's fun (well, maybe not "fun", but enjoyable? Reinforcing?) to complain.  In this circumstance, it's also helpful to think about -why- we're at this point.

A few variables:

  • Some, out of habit and/or necessity are spending more time on behavior challenges than training towards competition behaviors.  This is understandable, but obviously can impact what's being trained.
  • Many in the sports are highly attracted to the people who are currently successful, seemingly regardless of methods.  It's great to learn from everyone and take what you can.   But it doesn't always fit together well.
  • Lack of motivation to work towards a goal.  Have big goals, work with urgency!  Use time wisely.  Improve training skills.
  • Lack of local mentors.  So....let's not stay local.  Find the best people you can get to help you. Learn from them as much as you can.   
  • Working together:  Be around others with similar goals.  This helps with ideas, motivation, and getting things done.
  • It's easy to fall into what has always been done. Watch so we don't fall into  that pattern.

We're still using last year's wintery pictures. Today we have a tiny bit snow which is hopefully enough to decrease the amount of mud!    I love all the Griffin-running pictures.   He loves to run.  We're now also taking an online class for Running Contacts.  (Note the above...   "Find the best people you can get to help you. Learn from them as much as you can.")     Hopefully this resolves the dogwalk and improves the aframe so we can soon start to trial.