Saturday, January 21, 2012

What's a Real Trainer?

This is going to be one tough topic to cover because obviously, you are going to assume that I prefer myself to all other trainers. Fortunately, that is not the case. Even as a dog trainer myself, I can not only appreciate other trainers who have put in the time and education required to do the job right, but I also have use for them just like you do. In some ways, I have more use for them. First and foremost, it helps immensely to be able to bounce ideas back and forth among people who share similar ideas and experiences. We can always add a perspective that someone else may not have thought of. Not to mention, dog trainers enjoy classes too. For instance, because my focus has primarily been manners and obedience, it would be great to attend a competition agility class if I decide I want to compete at some point (or just for fun!) Obvious examples aside, I am absolutely looking forward to attending some classes as a student with my youngest dog for the simple reason that it will be nice to NOT be the teacher for once! I enjoy instructing but it's been too long since I've been on the other side of the class and I can only see that experience as beneficial to both myself and my dog. This is true of a good class regardless of your level of experience.

So, what class do you join? Which trainer do you trust? I have an advantage over most at this point because I've gone through much of the experience, education, and mistakes myself. I know exactly what I'm looking for and what I won't tolerate. Unfortunately, about 99% of you are going to do what I did many years ago and walk into this blindly. The biggest problem? You have no idea that you can't see.

Other dog lovers are going to offer a variety of helpful tips that will make complete and perfect sense. My favorite one is this:

"Find someone whose methods you agree with!"

I hear that one all the time. I was given that advice too! It made perfect sense to me because I thought I knew exactly which methods I agreed with. In fact, I thought I had a very solid foundation of dog training knowledge to work from as I had grown up with and trained dogs even as a kid. Unfortunately, small training victories aside, I didn't have a clue.

Look at it this way: If you were choosing a new math tutor for your child what would you be looking for? What could you possibly be looking for? Respect would be high on the list. If this person didn't respect both you and your child's desires and needs then what good would they be? How terrible would it be if the tutor bad-mouthed you behind your child's back or didn't follow through on their commitment to help him/her with math?

Second, and just as important, would be whether or not the new tutor actually knew what he/she was talking about. Do they really know math or are they just basing their knowledge off the fact that they've seen every single episode of Sesame Street featuring "The Count?"

These are things that you can usually pick up on pretty easily when it comes to most instructors. What you wouldn't do in this scenario, however, is expect to know exactly how something should be taught. Finding someone whose methods you agree with is only feasible if you're actually very educated on the subject yourself. You might have a general idea but you aren't necessarily going to be qualified to tell someone how to teach a subject that you do not excel in yourself.

On the other hand, what you can do and what I hope you would do is make sure that your instructor is not a person who is going to cause any harm to your child in any way, shape, or form. You wouldn't pay someone to slap, yell at, or otherwise harass your kid every time they got something wrong. No one would benefit.

Dogs don't need that either. I know that the first thing some of you may consider in response to my example is that dogs and people are different. You might also be thinking that we're not teaching dogs math, we're trying to get them to behave. This is true too... but this is also where your understanding of the situation starts to become a bit more murky and where a Real Trainer can be extremely helpful. A human being can completely understand what you're asking for, via the miracle of the spoken word and/or our advanced communication skills. Your dog has no idea how to communicate to you and that breakdown of communication is exactly the reason most dogs exhibit undesirable behaviors. The type of trainer that most people are drawn to will put a band-aid on this problem by using a knee-jerk aversive response to inflict fear and pain but that person does not necessarily succeed in actual communication. I'm not saying that we have to literally talk to the animals (though that would be great) but it is damaging to the relationship when fear and pain are the basis of training rather than calm communication. This would be like taking that unruly human child and never speaking a word of English to him but rather expressing only your most intense feelings by way of physical punishment with a sprinkle of occasional reward. You may think you're very calm when delivering the punishment but you can bet on the fact that your pet is a mess on the inside, flinching every time he thinks a correction might be coming.

It is extremely unfortunate that despite the many, many organizations out there that educate and certify dog trainers, many trainers (assuming they even bothered to further their education beyond TV and old wive's tales) will throw that very knowledge out the window to adopt the "easier" route. It is a sad fact that most people believe some level of force is beneficial in training and that some dogs need to be pushed around to be taught anything. If I wanted to triple my number of followers tomorrow I could write up a post defending outdated "wolf pack" theories and forceful training methods.

That would be the easy way. That is how I started too. The truth, whether you believe it today or not, is that weeding out the good trainers from the bad is extremely easy. But you first have to let go of what you think you know. I grew up with dogs all of my life and thought I had things figured out. I'm not proud to say that while I've never purposely hurt an animal, I have used leash jerks, choke chains, and prong collars in an attempt to get a point across. Fortunately, I went on to become a real trainer and embraced every new bit of information I could find. I didn't choose my current methods because I like rainbows, butterflies, and hugging trees. I know very well that a few leash jerks probably won't physically damage my dog for life. This isn't about me thinking that dogs are fragile or incapable of bouncing back. It's not about me trying to say I've never been absolutely infuriated with something one of my dogs did (I have many times). This is about what happened to me once I began to dig deeper and learn how dogs really work. If it were as easy as a prong collar, choke chain, or showing your dog "who's boss" we would ALL be professional dog trainers. You wouldn't be reading this blog, that's for sure. Believe me, if all behavior problems could be solved by showing your dog that you were stronger and in control we could fix everything in one quick session. Actually, most dogs would be perfect canine citizens from day one in your household. It's just not that easy, but we so badly want to believe that it is.

My advice is this: Choose a trainer whose methods show respect for you, respect for your dog, and respect for the relationship that you want to have with your dog. Choose a trainer who has not only been educated but actually uses that education during his/her classes. A fancy certificate means nothing if your trainer abandons everything he/she formally learned and slaps on a choke chain or prong collar instead of implementing a true understanding of the situation. It would be like your math teacher skipping straight to passing out calculators, only the calculators don't add up and randomly shoot sparks at you.

Don't fall victim to the idea that positive reinforcement doesn't help with the more difficult dogs. That argument has been debunked a million times over. The only disadvantage that trainers like myself have when it comes to working with more difficult dogs is that our methods aren't nearly as exciting as the trainers on TV who are so out of control of the situation that they look like they're man-handling Cujo himself.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of trainers out there who appreciate and put to use the methods and science that has proven true and humane over and over again. Look for someone who has expanded their education beyond those generic alpha rolling, leash popping, and other TV-glorified ideas and you'll be off to a great start. I'd love to be able to simply say that you should look for a "positive reinforcement trainer" but it has become all too popular for people to use this title yet still practice against it. I'd also love to recommend one particular certification over another but the same problem is cropping up in that regard. Trainers are attaining certifications from fairly respectable institutions but abandoning their formal training to mimic what they see on television and what sells more classes instead. Some never really had a real grasp on their coursework to begin with, if they even bothered to go that far. Many of their clients end up suffering for it in the long run.

I can only hope that this message is shared and spread despite its unpopularity. Feedback and comments are always welcome as this topic could easily benefit from much more discussion, assuming the discussion remains respectful. :)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Meet Mr. Chewy!

It may come as no surprise to most people that I'm pretty picky about what I feed our dogs. In the beginning of our relationship this probably threw Matt for quite a loop! Most of what our dogs eat is prepared at home but I have recently taken a huge liking to The Honest Kitchen line of foods. Unfortunately, they can't be purchased in my town.

On the bright side, I do love shopping online. I also love reading reviews of products and merchants and always take them into heavy consideration. Product and service descriptions are one thing, but the experiences of people like myself are what tend to stand out to me. I take each with a grain of salt but collectively, they usually provide a good picture of what you might end up getting.
Price is also a big deal to me. I'm not made of money and my dogs don't have jobs so yes, when shopping for their food a big part of my online hunt was to find the best price.  Furthermore, being able to find a good selection of products for a fair price is always nice.

Also in my list of "needs" is reasonable rate for shipping. A low price for the product really doesn't help me at all if the shipping is going to make up for what I would have saved versus going to another store!

Speed of shipping and good customer service are, of course, very high on the list as well. If something goes wrong with my order will I be contacted to sort things out or is someone going to treat me with a "Too bad, so sad" attitude?

I'm happy to say (especially for those of you who like to shop online like me) that after ordering my dogs' food from a couple of different places now, I've found one I am confident with:

A Facebook friend of mine posted her referral code and I happily used it to save some money on my order. Shipping was free because my order was over $49 and it arrived in just a couple of days via FedEx. Most impressive, was that we did have an issue with the billing address on the card that we used and a representative from Mr. Chewy was right on the ball, emailing me right away so that we could sort out the problem and eliminate my order from being delayed. The service was extremely personal and she was so polite and helpful. (Thank you, Karly!)

Last, but most importantly, if you use my referral code to order from Mr. Chewy they will donate $10 to a  respected and reputable animal rescue (such as Best Friends Animal Society). In addition to this, you'll save 10% on your order. :)

Referral Code: TERR2671

So, there is my plug for the week. Rest assured, I wouldn't speak so highly of this place if I didn't plan to do a lot of business with them in the future. I reserve my support for those organizations and companies that deserve it and I'd love to see Mr. Chewy continue to do well!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Socially Challenged Dog

One of the best things about having a dog is having someone to share long walks in the park or fun trips to the nearest pet store with. It's nice to be able to get out of the house and take your pet with you. For many people, this is as simple as getting up, clipping on a leash, and going. For others, it's a little (or even a lot) more difficult. A lot of dog parents are in the unfortunate position of worrying about how their pet is going to react in the event that another dog shows up.

The fact is that every dog has its own personality. While your pet's ability to "play nice" can be heavily influenced by outside factors (such as proper training and socialization) it's not too uncommon for a dog to be born a little antisocial. There are even dogs that are selectively social and tend to bond more quickly with other canines of a certain breed, size, activity level, or play style. These dogs tend to prefer friends who have a lot in common with themselves.

A good example of this is my border collie mix, Cricket. Cricket is a great dog who really enjoys playtime with other canines. Unfortunately, she doesn't understand that not every dog comprehends or appreciates her weird and overly intense version of "herding dog" play. I can't be certain if her problem is purely lack of socialization during her first several months of life (I adopted her at the awkward age of around nine months old) or if it's just bad luck with genetics. Being part border collie, she has a drive and intensity that comes out 100% during play time, and few dogs have what it takes to match (or understand) this. Her favorite pal to this day is a friend and fellow trainer's border collie mix, Bosco. Add one part huge field, one part Bosco, a sprinkle of Cricket, and you have a tranquil and happy scene of synchronized dog-running that could bring a tear to any animal lover's eye.

On the other hand, you could get the very opposite of that scene by adding a smaller dog (or larger dog that is not of a herding variety), a Cricket, and about ten seconds. While her goal is not to harm the other animal, she really does not know how to handle herself in a way that would convince another dog of the same. Cricket definitely falls into the category of  "socially challenged."

Your dog may or may not sound similar. Adverse reactions to other dogs can manifest in a lot of different ways. Some dogs appear to be very aggressive (or actually are aggressive) while others only show fear. Owners of the obviously fearful dogs aren't usually the ones who complain unless said fear is nearly paralyzing. In a lot of cases, I've seen this type of fear present in a way that portrays the dog as extremely obedient despite the pet never being specifically trained. These dogs not only stay by their owner's side no matter what, but would be a mental and emotional mess if their person left their sight for even a few seconds. While this is often easier to manage than a fearful dog who becomes defensive, it does indicate an extremely high level of insecurity and anxiety. If handled incorrectly (by repeatedly forcing the dog into uncomfortable situations) it could even lead to more aggressive displays.

Cricket, Sugar (foster dog), and Obi
Whether your dog is randomly lashing out at other dogs, shaking in obvious fear, or attaching itself to your hip at every moment, the steps you take to fix the problem are pretty much the same. The points below won't change your dog's genetic makeup and can't necessarily change his preference for certain types of other dogs (after all, even I prefer people who have at least a little something in common with me) but they will help you attain control over the situation. Without these practices, Cricket would be our only dog and fostering dogs would have been out of the question.
  • Teach your dog that eye contact is very rewarding. Spend time throughout the day clicking (or saying Yes!) and then treating for eye contact. Once your dog is offering eye contact frequently you can add a cue such as "Look at me!" Don't skimp on the rewards for this one, it will be a lifesaver. If your dog is paying attention to you, he's far less likely to get into trouble.
  • Once your dog is great at giving eye contact on cue, start planning practice sessions with other dogs. Don't go into this blindly! A dog training class is a good example of a nice controlled environment for practice. Just be sure the trainer doesn't try to convince you to simply suppress the symptoms by using leash jerks or other physical corrections (think prong collars, choke chains, squirt bottles or shock collars). We want your dog to actually enjoy being around other dogs. At the very least, we want your pet to be calm and in control, never going into a frenzy. Dogs should be on leash during all practices, but try to avoid a lot of tension in the leash. If your dog is heavily pulling, you'll need to also incorporate teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash into your sessions. Tension in the leash is a very common trigger for reactive dogs.
  • If possible, have someone with a calm, well-socialized dog help you out with practice times outside of class. Don't start off by practicing with dogs that are so hyper that your dog doesn't stand a chance at remaining calm around them. Their excitement and energy will only serve to get (and keep) your own dog worked up. He will never have the opportunity to "get it right." 
  • Keep your distance!! This one is tough and requires a keen eye for your dog's body language and cues. This is even more difficult if your dog is one who is fearful and hides behind you as opposed to offering more obvious "I've had enough" signals. Your goal here is to find a comfortable distance to work from and stay there for now. Don't rush into another dog's space if that is going to trigger a bad reaction from your own pet. Find a good distance where your dog doesn't get too heavily distracted by the other pup and start by working in that zone only.
  • Immediately reward for eye contact and any other calm behaviors. If he is looking at or otherwise interacting with you instead of getting wrapped up in the presence of other animals, then he deserves a reward. Even if he's just standing beside you as if he couldn't care less about any other creature he's doing a fantastic job. This is also a great time to practice other behaviors such as sit, down, or loose leash walking so that both of you are paying less attention to the other dogs in the area. Just be mindful of the distance that needs to be kept between you and everyone else.
  • It may take a while for you to start catching on to the more subtle signals that your dog is starting to get too worked up, but watch him carefully and you'll learn. The sooner you learn to remove him before the reactivity starts, the sooner he'll learn self control. Some of the signs that I see people miss most often are lip licking and stiffness or tension. If your dog starts licking his lips he could be getting overly nervous or excited and you need to immediately attain eye contact then start increasing distance from the other dog. If your dog goes still/stiff/tense the same rule applies. A very tense body is often the precursor to full-on barking and lunging so the best course of action is to get your dog's attention in an upbeat and happy (but quiet and controlled!) manner. If you do this correctly, your dog won't even care if the dog across the room said something bad about his mom... all he knows is that you've become more interesting and are giving clear, comfortable signals. If asking for eye contact doesn't work right away, move right on to walking your dog away from the situation, then try for eye contact again once you've reached a comfortable distance. Don't waste your time yelling and scolding or you'll quickly teach your dog to simply ignore all of your confusing nagging.
  • As with any other training, you'll want to increase difficulty as your dog improves. Over time you can close in on the distance from the other dog and even add dogs that are less mellow. Just remember to always go back to making things easy from time to time. Continuously upping the bar tends to lead most dogs into regression. If the effort is always on the brink of "too much" they will give up. This should be a positive experience and that means that it shouldn't always be extremely difficult. Set your dog up for success, not failure. As mentioned earlier, repetition of any behavior is the key to seeing that behavior happen more consistently. If your dog is repeatedly "getting it wrong" then you need to look at ways to make practice sessions easier so that getting it right becomes a habit that he eventually won't even have to think about. 
  • When increasing difficulty by walking closer to another dog, make sure to keep it very brief. Don't get into another dog's space (even within several feet) and linger there. Practice casually walking by and rewarding your dog for eye contact and calm behavior as you move along. Always return to a comfortable distance from other animals. 
  •  In the beginning stages, avoid allowing your dog to play with new dogs. The goal is for him to learn and practice self control. If he has a habit of becoming overly excited and going into barking or lunging fits, then allowing play too early could overstimulate him into losing the self control he's gained so far. 
  • Did I mention that you should reward for eye contact and any other calm behaviors? Use high-value treats to ensure that your dog has more reason to pay attention to you than the dogs insulting him from across the room.  

Something else to keep in mind is that this particular issue often involves a lot of variables from one dog to the next. Certain dogs can be much harder for yours to "read" due to docked tails or cropped ears (the ears and tail are vital in dog-to-dog communication). Some dogs have play styles that really just don't mesh and come off as far too intense and scary. Herding dogs may want to chase while other types prefer tackling each other like football players. Insecurities or possessiveness can also turn what seems like a fun play session into a furry ball of teeth and tension. It is very possible that even once you gain control over your dog around others, you'll still have to be very picky about who he actually has play dates with. This is okay! Not everyone is going to love everyone and your dog is no exception to this rule. It might also help to note that most dog fights, despite how loud and scary they appear, do not result in serious injury to either party. If you do find yourself in the middle of what seems like a brawl, don't dive in to pull the dog apart. Try loud, startling noises instead. Keeping an air horn handy isn't a bad idea if you want to play it extra safe.

It is very important to both you and your pet that you feel confident in your understanding and handling of these types of situations. If you are unsure or your dog is aggressive in a way that you feel might lead to harm of yourself, another person or another animal, make sure to enlist the help of a professional trainer. I do have to reiterate how important it is to find someone who won't resort to harsh physical corrections as this will only lead to making the problem worse in the long run. We want our dogs to learn how to properly behave in these situations, not how to reluctantly suppress the anxiety/aggression just enough to avoid a painful correction. Being on the brink of an emotional meltdown is not exactly exhibiting the self control and calmness that we are aiming for. Make sure your trainer understands this and doesn't simply opt for the "easy" way out. The cue for your dog to behave should never be a jerk from a leash or an angry flurry of curse words. It should be the situation itself.

If you have any questions on this subject feel free to leave me a comment or send me an email: