Sunday, July 24, 2011

Anger Management

Here is a scenario that most of you will probably be able to relate to very well:

I was heading home after a busy day; spending some time with family, running errands, taking Matt to work, cleaning the house and dropping the car off for new tires even though we had already dumped a few hundred dollars into it for other reasons within the past week. The sun was shining not cheerfully but violently because the heat index was well over 100 degrees (Fahrenheit). Relaxing would have been amazing but I had to finish cleaning first. Still, I managed to keep in pretty good spirits because it was Saturday and I didn't have to go to the job that has become the bane of my existence.

Finally, I arrived at my front door and the promise of air conditioning. I turned the key, I turned the knob, and I stepped inside. The air was refreshing but the sight before me was... some mixture of shocking and impressive? The eight month old bull terrier puppy had managed to open the kitchen gate, find the new package of toilet paper we'd just bought, and TP the living room confetti-style. Upon this sight, my mind went rushing back to that moment in the store when Matt and I were discussing whether or not we should get the twelve double rolls (they are equal to 24!) or the less cumbersome four-pack. An optimist would agree that even in hindsight we made the best decision as Obi-Wan wouldn't have had nearly as much fun with four measly little rolls.

No Obi-Wan, you will not be replacing those
cute little puppies in the toilet paper commercials
anytime soon...

So, how did I react? After quickly assessing the damage I clipped on Obi's leash and took him outside for a very high-spirited potty break. Despite escaping the kitchen and having a wild TP party, he had not made a single potty mistake on the floor! I already knew why he destroyed the toilet paper, that was a no-brainer. It was fun, it was accessible, and he's an eight-month-old puppy. You'd be surprised how many dog owners obsess over issues such as this and ask how to "fix" it! We are sometimes ridiculous in how we process dog behavior. :)

Of course, later that night when Matt got home from work and Obi-Wan got super excited, he did end up peeing on the floor. However, I was able to catch him in the act immediately because some of that pee happened to splash up right onto my toe. The moment I said Obi's name, he looked more remorseful than I have ever seen him. It was actually pretty tough to keep a stern tone at that point because I knew right away that he had not done this on purpose. In fact, Obi is nearly completely potty trained at this point and in his excitement he had just stopped thinking. We went right outside, and he finished up his business there. No big deal. No need to rant and rave and ask the heavens why, because I already knew the answer and that Obi would improve on this in the future as he clearly understood what he had done wrong.

None of this is to say that I've never gotten incredibly angry about something a pet has done; that would be a lie! Dogs are fantastic at doing things that frustrate us and sometimes downright infuriate us. To deny this would be to avoid a very important lesson in understanding ourselves and our animals. I believe that many of the harsher "training methods" out there were created due to knee-jerk reactions, frustration, and misguided expectations. Maybe deep down, we feel ashamed when we get angry and so it helps to have justification for that anger? It quickly becomes easier to believe that the dog was trying to take over your household, dominate you, or spite you. This is especially true when you're not sure why something really did happen. This is also why we must be dedicated to understanding animal behavior at its core.

Please keep all of this in mind next time your dog frustrates or upsets you. There are many reasons for dogs to do certain things and if you take a moment to use common sense and read your dog's body language, you'll see just how complex this can get. There is no blanket answer to the question "why" and be wary of any trainer or "behaviorist" who seems to think otherwise. A well adjusted dog is the result of an owner who has learned to communicate clearly, carry themselves appropriately, and train with respect and understanding.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Psychology of All Things Smart (We're all stupid...)

Ever wonder why your pet continues to do something that always ends up getting him into trouble? Maybe he counter surfs or tears into the trash or poops on the living room floor? When you walk in the door does your dog have that "guilty" look on his face that lets you know for sure that you're going to find something you don't really want to see? Why would your pet do something that negatively impacts him in the end?

Here's a better question: Why do you do that very same thing?

How many times have you splurged on new shoes or books or video games that you really didn't need knowing very well that it would ultimately come back to bite you in the rear end? Maybe you procrastinate until it results in having to stress yourself out by pulling something together at the very last minute? I know people who have made far more life-altering choices than those even though they knew very well that the consequences would be dire. What's worse is that this can become an endless cycle that leaves you asking, "When will they ever learn?"

Those impulsive habits are reinforcing us as we do them. Even though humans do easily have the capacity to actually sit back and weigh the pros and cons of a situation, we will often disregard the cons until the impending consequences can no longer be ignored. That moment when you are spending money on something frivolous or the moment when your dog (well, hopefully it's the dog) is pooping on the floor feels very rewarding. This type of thing happens all of the time.

With any intelligent being, the rules of "fixing" this problem are pretty much the same. If your dog is digging in the trash, don't expect him to stop just because he should know better. Make it impossible for him to do it to begin with by removing the temptation (think of a dieter who knows that eating cake is a bad idea and decides that it would be much easier to just keep cake out of the house completely...trash can be considered dog cake for sure). And let's just be honest, it's pretty cruel to put cake in front of someone's face when they can't have any! Put the trash in a place where the dog cannot get to it and the problem is solved with very little stress.

Did someone say CAKE??

In my last blog post, I touched on the subject of potty training and pointed out that the biggest reward in that scenario is often the dog getting the opportunity to relieve itself. If your dog is not fully potty trained (or has regressed) and you are not limiting his freedom until he's back on track, then he's being reinforced for pottying in the house simply by doing just that (unless you are there to catch him in the act and verbally correct him).  As dog parents, cat parents, or even human parents, we are often in a position of having to "save them from themselves." Make sure that they have every opportunity to get it right and eliminate the chances of them practicing the bad behavior.

Thankfully, this same idea works the other way around. If you see your dog doing something you like, make it a positive experience for him! Immediately and enthusiastically say "Yes!" and offer a treat or a quick play session. Make sure he has plenty of chances to relieve himself outside or let him sniff interesting patches of grass if he's walking on the leash particularly well. Rewards and reinforcement are everywhere, it's just a matter of spotting them and creating an environment and training regimen that encourage desireable behaviors.

Many other factors come into play when modifying bad habits but I just wanted to take a moment to share this point of view. Humans are pretty good at comparing their pets to themselves but it's rare that I see that happen where it really counts. We are quick to believe that they've done something out of spite or because they're holding a grudge but usually stop short of the concepts that can actually help us shape behavior. Keep an open mind, strive to communicate to your pet clearly, and continue to learn all that you can so that you understand why animals do the things that they do.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Potty Time! (Less mess, less stress...)

Potty training is a very popular and widely-covered subject when it comes to dog care, so there isn't much that I can add that you probably haven't heard before. Most trainers and dog owners are beginning to understand that the emphasis should not be on punishing the dog but on rewarding him/her for getting it right. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that the process of getting your dog to go in the appropriate place can be long, difficult, and stressful. When looking for a rescue dog, many people add "potty trained" to the top of their list. But what if it wasn't so stressful? How many more dogs would be adopted or not ever abandoned if their owners knew how to handle this subject?

Part of the frustration can be eliminated by being prepared and having realistic expectations. Some dogs learn very quickly while others can take a very long time to master the concept. Then again, most of the slow learners I've met were also getting very mixed signals from their handlers. Many owners think that they are sending clear signals when they actually aren't, and that is the first thing that has to be addressed. Limit how many signals you're trying to send. We tend to talk to our dogs way too much when it comes to training, especially this type of training. (Ever lean over a fresh spot on the carpet, cleaning it vigorously and finding seven ways to ask your dog why she had to do such a thing?) Your dog doesn't know English (or at least, not much of it). While she knows she's in major trouble when you eventually find the spot, she doesn't know that she was in trouble from the moment she made that spot unless you were there to catch her in the act. Calmly and firmly tell your dog "No" and take her outside if you catch her making a mistake, but don't dwell on just this. The real training happens when she's getting it right.

Cricket asks, "Cricky do good??"

And, here's the twist to my tale... you don't have to have treats ready or throw a verbal party so big that your dog stops mid-pee to join in the fun. You heard me correctly....and I am almost contradicting what I myself have taught in the past. I am NOT saying that this is the wrong thing to do by any stretch of the imagination. If your dog responds to a big party then by all means throw it! If a treat is working for you then keep up the fabulous work! It's never a bad thing to use positive reinforcement and clear communication to teach your dog what you want him/her to do. However, there are more powerful, yet subtle influences at work in the potty training game that we seldom take the time to think about or teach.

If you are following all of the necessary steps of keeping your dog from having accidents to begin with (using a crate when you can't actively supervise, putting a routine in place, and making sure your dog is getting enough potty breaks) then your pet's reward is going to be the opportunity to relieve herself all on its own. In training, this is one of those "life rewards" that will reinforce a behavior naturally. The dog needs to potty and wants to potty so you take it outside and let it do just that. Voila! Reinforcement of the behavior. And you know what reinforcement means? You've made this a behavior that your dog is far more likely to repeat. With time, she will repeat it without all the other rules of confinement and supervision attached. Outside will become the place of great relief and happiness and so she will seek it out for that purpose when the need arises.

This obviously still takes time and patience on your part (dogs do learn from repetition), but the more we understand a behavior the less we stress over when it's going to start "working" or why it's not. The patience that I have in my classes is something that comes from knowing that the dog is going to figure out what we want. I can see the tiny little signs that a dog is catching onto something even if he/she doesn't completely get it right there on the spot. There is a sort of song and dance we play with timing and repetition and I know that if we (myself and/or the dog's owner) find that particular rhythm then we'll see that little sparkle that comes to a dog's eyes the moment it finally "gets it." That is by far my favorite moment during training. There's nothing more exciting! Especially when the lesson learned is to not use the house as a toilet. :)

So, if you're one of the many people struggling to potty train your dog just take a deep breath and let go of the frustration. Accidents will happen along the way but you can (and should!) eliminate most of them with supervision and crate time. If you're hesitant about using a crate because it seems cruel, imagine the cruelty six months from now when your dog is still making mistakes and you've gotten so frustrated that you decide it has to be confined anyway. Crate training now means a LOT more freedom later. For those of you going "Omg I've been trying forever now and accidents are still happening" then I'm going to ask you the same thing I once asked a class out of frustration (because with some people, I admit that I don't always see the signs that they are ever going to "get it"): Is it a supervision issue? one likes to hear that. But the truth shall set you free and if you were too busy cooking to watch the dog (or puppy) then someone else should have been doing just that. Or, the dog should have been crated. We don't want your pet perpetually confined, but that is another tangent for another day that pretty much boils down to finding ways to more actively involve your dog in your every day life.

If crate training isn't possible for some reason, look into alternatives. For smaller dogs (if you're ok with this potentially being a very long term scenario) litter training can be a fabulous option. Larger dogs can often make use of a dog-proofed smaller room (such as a kitchen or bathroom) as "their space" when you're not able to supervise.

Set your routine, reinforce by getting your dog out as soon as it needs to go, and relax. It does happen as long as your are consistent.

For more information on alternative methods, feel free to leave me a comment or send an email to

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Difference Between Boarding and *Boring*

If there really is such a thing as "quaint" in the financial district of Manhattan, I have certainly found it in this little hotel room. Thankfully, Obi doesn't have to feel quite as confined as I do at the moment. While I am here in New York for The Job That Pays the Bills (including dog boarding), he is living it up at Quick's Pooch Plaza in Evansville, IN.

My first trip for this job was very last minute and so Obi was boarded at his vet's clinic. While I'm sure the staff there took very good care of him, I was not completely satisfied with the Obi that they returned to me. He acted as if he had not had human interaction in three days (which was not ideal as he had stayed there for...three days). This was especially disconcerting considering we paid extra for outside/play time each day. Of course, this was a vet's office and they have a lot of things to do aside from play with the boarding dogs, I'm sure. I did not expect the same level of service that could be offered by Amy Quick's Pooch Plaza but I also did not expect to be quite as disappointed when all was said and done. On top of this, after the price of extra play time it was significantly more expensive to board Obi with the vet than with Amy.

All of that being said, I hope to give you some food for thought if you're looking for a place for your dog to stay short-term. It's too easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of travel plans and lose sight of what we want for our pets. There are often many choices for dog boarding, but what are you looking for when it comes to just that?
  • Ask to see the facility: A reputable establishment has nothing to hide.  Even though my vet didn't turn out to be what I wanted they were still happy to let Matt and I have a look around the entire kennel area. It was clean and their outside area was safe and adequate for play time (just not utilized quite the way Obi needed it to be, apparently). 
  • Ask about a routine day: How often do the dogs get meals, go out to play, etc.? How much time do they get to spend with an actual human being? 
  • Ask about health concerns: What rules are in place to ensure that none of the dogs pass illness or disease to the others? 
  • Ask about social time: Some places (such as Quick's) are able to offer social time with other friendly dogs. If your dog enjoys the company of others and knows how to play nicely, this is an excellent chance to get some extra socialization in. Socializing your dog should be a life-long project if you want to keep him/her well-rounded.
A tired dog is a happy dog. And an even happier human!
    There are many, many more questions that I could add to this list but those should be enough to get your wheels turning. Your wants or needs when it comes to boarding your pet may easily be different than mine. I know of some places that offer such luxuries as television and/or music in the room. Maybe you have an older and/or more lethargic dog who just needs a comfy place to chill out while you're away? I would suggest taking a look at what your dog loves to do and making a list around that. Boarding doesn't have to mean a sad goodbye and a hard cold kennel. It can mean play time, socialization, or a quiet and comfortable retreat. You can take the boredom out of boarding by carefully looking into your options! Your dog will thank you. :)

    Saturday, July 9, 2011

    About this blog

    First and foremost, this blog is about pet care (primarily dogs) and training. I will explain the title in just a moment but let us first get introductions out of the way.

    My name is Terri Kaplan and I am an animal trainer living in a fairly small Western Kentucky town where it's not always easy to reach out to like-minded people. I am writing this blog as a means of sharing my thoughts, ideas, and philosophies on animal behavior and training with others who care to listen and contribute. I believe that this is critical to becoming a better trainer myself, and I try to take bits and pieces from my own experiences as well as those of others.

    I currently volunteer at my local humane society as the dog training instructor and, as time allows, I try to squeeze in some private classes for those who ask. The latter has been a bit of a challenge considering I also work at "The Job That Pays The Bills" 40 hours a week but I do really enjoy one-on-one training sessions .

    My household consists of myself, my boyfriend Matt, two dogs, and three pet birds. Cricket is our border collie/beagle mix, originally found as a stray and ultimately adopted from the local kill shelter. Obi-Wan is our newest addition, a nearly eight-month-old English bull terrier puppy. We have had him for five months now and despite experience with a wide variety of dogs in the past, he has already proven to be truly unique. He was saved from a breeder who considered euthanasia due to his blindness in one eye. Thankfully, his foster mom drove several hours to get him out of there.Several weeks later, Matt and I adopted both Obi and a whole new way to look at life (which at times, does involve a few more curse words than it used to).

    Our birds are two cockatiels (Pika and Jezebel) and a little budgie (parakeet) named Pixel. Parrots, even the small ones, are another major love of mine and I will likely spend some time mentioning their care and training in this blog as well.  

    Now, to clear up what may have been the first question you had when stumbling upon this blog (unless you live with a bull terrier or other dog of similar attitude personality in which case you've probably already made the connection): Why the title "A Lesson in Physics?"

    Please refer to Newton's Laws of Motion and the following video examples...

    "An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force."

    "The acceleration of an object as produced by a net force is directly proportional to the magnitude of the net force, in the same direction as the net force, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object."

    "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

    My own bull terrier, Obi-Wan, tends to exemplify that first law. His goal in life seems to be to keep moving forward. Whether he's walking, running, or flat out hucklebutting (such as the dog in that first video) he just keeps going. Sure, people and/or objects tend to get violently displaced along the way but I can't say it's an ineffective strategy. He seems pretty content by the time he does decide to rest.Who can't make a life lesson out of that? 

    Of course, Obi also believes that he can fly even though Gravity has tried to tell him otherwise on several different occasions. Still, I have to admit that he's a pretty steady source of inspiration for me, my training, my writing, and my life.