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Afternoons as the only dog…

October 26, 2009 1 comment
Obedience Training Novice Class.
Image by Sukianto via Flickr

Casey depends on M.

M., for her part, seems to miss the old man sometimes – she’ll check for him outdoors, and look for him in the house. And the colder the night, the more eager she is to cuddle up with Casey.

But there’s no arguing with the way Madison shines and sparkles on those afternoons like Sunday, when she got to be the only dog in the car, at the show-n-go, in the ring. My full attention and a piece of string cheese got me her undivided attention, automatic sits, a flip finish and a rocket-launched recall.

Oh, there were plenty of no-sits, wide about turns, forges, and a lag or two. Ms. breed champion forgot that on a stand-for-exam, the point is to plant her feet and stand still. There was one brief moment when I thought she was going to happy dance herself right out of the ring – but instead, she turned and fronted when I called her back. Score one for judicious use of the appropriate electronic brain cell boosters. 😉

Overall, a Sunday afternoon as the only dog agrees with M.

So as much as I hate leaving the old man behind (he doesn’t care; he slept peacefully all afternoon), I’ll be giving M. more one-dog afternoons. It’s time for the princess to solo. It’s been a long time since I only had one dog to pack for a show. But it’s time.

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Training approaches broader than a catch-phrase

October 22, 2009 1 comment
Operant Conditioning
Image by The Pack via Flickr

Carol Lea Benjamin, trainer and author, once wrote in her AKC Gazette column “Dog Trainer’s Diary” that when she was stuck in a training challenge with her own dog, she’d ask herself how she would solve the problem for a paying client – someone who was expecting effective and lasting results. Benjamin continued that considering her personal dog’s training issue in that light always crystallized a solution and gave her a direction that got the job done.

That advice, a couple thousand class and kennel dogs, and two decades of work with various purebred rescue groups molded me into a solutions-focused trainer almost from the beginning. I provide skills and solutions — I show owners how to resolve/improve behavior issues, develop specific skills to raise a good canine citizen or a reliable competition performer (or both!), and make decisions about what and how to train next. When I’m directly working with a dog, I provide a language bridge through which we can each communicate. It helps to remember that dogs don’t speak human. I am always asking myself whether the information I’m giving the dog is meaningful to him.

So when another blogger asked me whether I would describe myself as more of a hierarchical/dominance trainer, or more of a positive reinforcement trainer, I had to stop and think for a couple of days. Ultimately I replied, ‘Neither.’

I have trained my own dogs to 18 titles in the US and Canada in obedience, agility and rally, pointed dogs in conformation, performed intake skill evaluations for a board-and-train business, managed a boarding kennel where I walked every dog at least three times daily and provided grooming, taught hundreds of group classes and private lessons. Five of my eight personal dogs have been what Benjamin called ‘second-hand dogs’ – two rescue dogs, two young dogs who came to me to be grown up (and never left), and a retired breed dog who’s now working on her performance skills while being my cuddle bug. My private-lesson specialty is ‘difficult’ dogs – creatures whose owners have been told by vets, kennels and groomers that their dog’s behavior is a problem. My own dogs, and many class situations, were and are training for the sheer joy of training. But I’m not afraid to admit that my name is Pat and I train dogs for money. Training for a paycheck means that my training solutons must consistently produce reliable results for which my human students are willing to spend money.

When a trainer’s priorities are effective communication, providing solutions and developing reliable skills, s/he learns to adapt many approaches in order to provide a custom solution appropriate to individual dogs, owners and situations. Characterizing those individualized solutions with a couple of tightly-focused adjectives does the entire teaching process a disservice. I can’t boil my training approach down to one adjective – or even five!

Hierarchical? Since most of my clients come to me because I’m more experienced in the training process than they are, yes – there is a hierarchy to the process of learning. Eventually, the learning process will shift from hierarchical to synergistic, as teacher and student learn from and enrich each other’s pool of experience – but it takes time to develop synergy. In my house, the hierarchy is me, the cat, the young dog, the old dog. The hierarchy shifts a bit from time to time – my young dog and my old dog having recently shifted within the hierarchy. But I’d be oblivious to reality if I didn’t recognize that there’s a pecking order in my house. And I’d be wasting a naturally occurring, elegantly effective training tool by ignoring it. By recognizing that hierarchy exists, I can use it to enhance synergy and make our days together more enjoyable.

Dominance-based? Absolutely. Whether in private or class lessons, my primary student is the human being, and his/her dog is my secondary student – who will learn based on how effectively I teach my primary student. To both humans and dogs, I first focus on teaching them how to learn, and then offer training in specific skills. The human student gives me money and I give him learning tools and training skills. The canine student gives me attention and I give him learning tools, some (new) reliable behaviors and a human-dog interaction from which we’ll both benefit. However, I determine the depth and scope of the relationship, whether the student is human or canine.

From the beginning, I tell students that I won’t waste their money or attention if they won’t waste learning time by ignoring what I’m teaching. I tell them that I’ll work just as hard to help them succeed as they do. I also tell my human students that I can’t work harder at training their dogs than they do because I’m not their dogs’ primary trainer. As long as the (humna) student keeps coming back, he or she has accepted that agreement.

Canine students don’t have the same choices their humans have about participating in my training. They are brought to training and they can’t leave unless their human drives them away. Dogs learn whether we’re teaching them directly or not – in my presence, my priority is to ensure that they learn what I’m teaching. Every skill we humans directly teach our canine companions involves things they wouldn’t do if they weren’t domesticated – display self-control in the face of exciting stimuli (like cats, squirrels, tennis balls, bikes, kids); control their bodily functions to times and places we direct; stay when they’d prefer to move; move (in specific directions and patterns) when they’d prefer to stay put. That our dogs continue to perform the skills we teach them means they accept that agreement.

Sure – we provide food, water, regular vet care, mental and physical stimulation. But we also use leashes, collars, crates, and regulate when things like food and water appear. Dogs aren’t in total control of the array of choices they can make – and their lack of control implies that they are submissive to the choices we make about their lives with us. If dogs are submitting to their humans’ choices for their lives, then who is dominant in the human-dog relationship?

Am I focused on positive reinforcement? Not to the exclusion of other techniques which may be more effective for that particular dog or human or training situation. Positive and negative carry the emotional baggage of “good” and “bad” (respectively) among non-trainers. But in training language, positive doesn’t mean “good” – it means doing or adding something to a situation. Negative doesn’t mean “bad” – it means not doing, or subtracting something from the situation. Taking the (human) emotional baggage out of training language frees that language to help the trainer elevate the human-to-human communication between teacher and student. It allows both trainer and student to create solutions without getting hung up on the method(s) that creates those solutions.

In the end, I’m none of hierarchical or dominant or focused on positive reinforcement. And I’m all that – and more. It’s my job as a trainer to elevate my human students’ understanding of training language and training skills by using them all correctly. By paying attention to solutions, I can most effectively help them develop better relationships with their dogs…using the method(s) that work best for each owner and dog and training situation.

Can you describe your style of dog training in one or two words? Do you focus on making your preferred method(s) produce results, or do you adjust method(s) to suit the human, the dog and/or the training situation?

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The 3 things that help me take training from backyard to competition

October 11, 2009 9 comments
7 may
Image by shutterflood via Flickr

My name is Pat, and I train dogs for competition performance events.

No, I’m not on the Agility World Team. I don’t make the list for the annual AKC Obedience invitational. I haven’t made the Front & Finish top dog in breed rankings since Casey was in Novice obedience and agility (1999.) The last time dogs I trained made first-in-breed listings in any venue was January 1, 2005 when Casey and Reu became the first English Cocker Spaniel and Gordon Setter in the US to earn AKC Rally Novice titles.

In 2000 I actively taught and trained two dogs in three to four obedience and agility classes each week, a schedule I’d maintained since I’d started training Taryn in 1981. I showed my dogs every other weekend in some combination of breed, obedience and agility. In 2009, after an intracerebral hemorrhage (stroke) and five years of cancer diagnosis, surgeries and treatments, it’s a good day if I have enough energy left after work to take a long walk with the dogs, let alone get my dog-in-training to one regular class each week. The day after a class (when I can take a class) feels like the day after I’ve been hit by a truck. I pick one cluster to show at each month, try not to combine too many venues in the same weekend, and generally need a day off after a circuit to ‘recover’ from my dog show vacation.

It may seem odd that a person who now trains mainly for her personal satisfaction actually considers herself competitive. Then again, you’ve probably never seen me cook – put me in the kitchen and I’ll trash-talk you all the way to the first-place ribbon. Yes, when it comes to certain things I’ve got a serious competitive streak. Where that shows up in my dog training is that I want my dogs to do their best, to improve every time we go in the ring. Our ‘bests’ may not lead to first place ribbons every time, but I don’t need more flat sateen ribbons. What I’m looking for are titles, letters after their names which tell the whole world that they are trained companions who work for a living.

How do I get my dog to a title when I can’t manage a class? Maybe even more important, how did I manage to teach skills to my dog when I spent the better part of 2008 on the couch recovering from either a surgery, a chemo infusion, or both?

The answer lies in keeping my training organized, but simple. During my recuperation, I made use of the three things that have always helped me understand where each of my dogs is along his individual training continuum:

1) A training log: This blog is an extension of the pen-and-spiral-notebook that I keep in the basket on my coffee table (you know the place–mine is where I corral the remote controls, pens, back issues of Clean Run and the spill-free zone where I set my coffee mug.) In a simple Dollar-Store notebook I jot down in my personal shorthand the results of each day’s training session, no matter how short or small. Even if all we did was practice a down-stay while I made my breakfast protein shake, I write it down. Which dog(s). Where. How long. What position. In or out of sight. If outdoors, what weather. Whenever an exercise doesn’t seem to be making progress or seems to break down for no reason, a quick check of my log lets me know whether I’ve been devoting enough attention to that skill.

2) An exercise binder: The hardest thing to do when energy is at a premium is create a practice on the fly. I save every course map (agility and rally.) I save copies of exercises from the ‘net and from issues of performance magazines like Clean Run and Front & Finish. I have every curriculum I’ve every written, every instructing and seminar handout I’ve ever received. They’re filed in the binder by venue and class. When I don’t have the energy to practice, I read through my saved courses and plans, and flag the ones I want to try next (Post-it notes are my friends.) Later, when I do have the energy to practice, I can quickly find something to work on in my files.

3) A calendar: The toughest thing about being out of dog-showing in any venue is getting back onto the superintendent’s mailing lists and into the swing of which show(s) are on which weekends when you decide to come back. My calendar is pretty low-tech — a two-year paper monthly vest pocket calendar with a separate notes section. It’s in the same plastic cover with a telephone/address section saved from an earlier organizer. I keep closing and circuit dates in the calendar, and update it regularly from the AKC website and various online agility calendars. I make notes about each run in the calendar’s notes section. I keep notes about judges in the telephone/address section (that section stays with the planner; the two-year calendar and notes sections come out and are stored in my office file cabinet.) By knowing when the shows are, I can plan my entries, evaluate where my dog is in ring-readiness, and get a reality check by looking at my notes about individual show/run results. My notes in the show calendar help drive my practices.

A really organized person would probably keep all three of these elements in a single binder — but I like them to be more flexible. I also like them to be closest to the spot where they’ll be needed, or where I’ll be likely to fill them in with notes. For now, the training log lives on the coffee table, where it’s most likely to be completed after a training session or class. The calendar lives in my purse, so that it follows me to work (where I make entries) and to shows (where I make notes about judges and runs.) The binder of courses lives on the lower shelf of my coffee table, with the current issues of magazines — ready to review and flag new courses and exercises to practice.

Sure, there are a bunch of other things I do to keep my dogs working when I’m laid up, but these three items — training log, reference binder and calendar — are the three things without which I would never get my backyard-trained dog into the ring.

What are your strategies for training when you can’t take a dog to classes? How do you keep your dog(s) in training when their training is limited by your own physical condition? Please share your ideas!

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Dog Owner’s Survey

October 1, 2009 1 comment
Slip collar, showing how the chain pulls throu...

Image via Wikipedia

On Twitter, @wholedogcamp has been asking people to complete this 10-question Dog Owners survey: http://bit.ly/yyEko

One note: if you’ve owned multiple dogs, you should complete a new survey for each individual dog. For me, that meant 8 surveys (Taryn, Jazz, Nola, Muni, Bard, Casey, Reuben and Madison) which took me about 15 minutes, total (~2 minutes/dog.) I didn’t fill out surveys for the temporary foster dogs who’ve lived here over the years. My surveys were only for personal dogs who have spent more than a year in my house (15, 14, 10, 10, 14, 14+, 4 and 3 years for the dogs recorded, respectively.)

I do wonder how my eight surveys’ answers – that I regularly use slip, prong and e-collars and a halti if needed – will jive in the survey tabulations with my affirmation in each survey that, in my estimation, my training methods are ‘firmly based in behavior science.’ Using aversives judiciously is firmly based in behavioral science – it’s just not the part of behavioral science that makes people feel warm and fuzzy, and therefore it doesn’t meet with approval in many current (vocal) dog training circles… 😉

@wholedogcamp promises results will be shared, so I’ll post them here when they’re available.

Meanwhile, if you’ve owned and trained a dog, consider completing this free survey. If you use slip, prong, and e-collars and use reinforcement methods based in behavioral science, speak up!

edit: 6 oct 2009 12:55 pm EST – issues with the survey link have been resolved and it’s still available — have you filled out surveys for your dogs yet?

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Never say ‘never…’

September 6, 2009 Comments off
toolbox
Image by smussyolay via Flickr

I will NEVER use (fill in the blank.)

I will NEVER do (fill in the blank.)

I will NEVER say (fill in the blank.)

Go ahead, admit it. If you’re like most dog trainers, you’ve probably thought to yourself or said out loud at least one of those ‘I will NEVER’ statements. Maybe all of them.

But here’s the thing — every dog, every owner, every training issue or course question is unique. Train enough dogs, run enough courses, handle enough challenges and sooner or later, ‘never’ will start to seem a little unreasonable. ‘Never’ will turn into ‘well, maybe just this once.’ Something that always responds to X will simply not work in that situation or will stop working, and you’ll have to re-group. This is what dog training is — it’s a growth and evaluative process. You have to keep challenging yourself, or you won’t bring your dog to his full potential as your companion. You have to keep challenging your dog, or eventually he’ll decide no mas. Dog training in many ways is just like Covey’s 7 Habits of Successful People: you have to continually sharpen the saw to stay at your best and to keep your dog there, too.

So, if you think they’re some aspect of dog training that you’ll never do, say or use, think again. Take the time to learn about them, practice them hands-on before you toss them out of your toolbox. You’ll never know until you try them whether you might need them someday.

Every dog is unique; the things he shares with other dogs you’ve trained before will strike you but the things that make that dog unique will be what you remember more quickly.

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Casey goes walkabout!

August 23, 2009 2 comments

Getting the old man outdoors first thing in the morning is a challenge. Often it’s a mad rush, hoping I’ll beat his full bladder to emptying without riling it up too much in the race to the grass just outside the back door.

Casey on the hill, 2006

Casey on the hill, 2006

I gear up, and stuff my pockets with poop baggies and treats. Then I collar Casey while he’s still crated, hold his crate door closed as I open M’s crate, and with the spotted princess on my hip I encourage the old man to race me to the back door. Nature and habit and my whistle can usually keep his eyes on the prize–as long as no detours captivate him in the 25 feet between his crate and the yard.

On days when I’ve slept in, I’ll skip his e-collar and let the dogs out of crates armed with my home-rigged Flexi(TM), the one with the climbing carabiner and slip lead attached to the handle. The rig lets me walk two dogs on one leash ‘handle.’ I scoop M. out of her upper crate, open Casey’s crate door and incite the mad dash. Outside, Casey immediately finds a spot to pee, and M. sits while I drop the slip lead over her head. Then I snap the Flexi to Casey’s collar as he’s irrigating the first post of the patio fence. Have you ever watched an old dog pee first thing in the morning? I’ve usually got plenty of time to catch up.

This morning, as I slipped the lead over M’s head (no challenge to get the princess to wait patiently when the grass is wet!), Casey followed his nose past his usual stopping point and decided to go walkabout, relieving himself along the way. He’s 14+, but he can stil move faster than I move first thing in the morning. Before I could get to him, he’d made it down the grass to the last townhouse in our row and was busy play-bowing with Wils, my neighbor’s 3 y.o. golden retriever. Dementia in dogs — every day is full of brand new friends. Casey was playing with Wils as if he’d just met his new BFF.

At 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, loudly calling “CASEY!” to get his attention wasn’t an option — all of my neighbors’ windows were wide open. Besides, I have to be pretty loud and practically on top of him to make any kind of vocal impression on my hard-of-hearing viejo. At least Wils has always been a quiet dog, and he was happily occupying the old man without making a sound. With Wils to distract him and keep him close by, I was able to get close enough to Casey to remind him that we were walking TOGETHER, thank you. I clipped him to the Flexi(TM) and we continued our walk as if I was actually organizing the course.

Casey wouldn’t have gone walkabout if he’d been wearing his e-collar. Unfortunately, it was still in the car from our trip to the park the day before Even though he’s grown up on an e-collar, I can’t rely on his training to keep him under walking control now that dementia plays into our days. Our Sunday morning walk snafu reminded me how versatile a properly used e-collar can be in a dog trainer’s toolbox, and how many options it opens to a dog throughout his life.

Now and then on Twitter I have a repeat of a discussion I’ve had a thousand times since the mid-80s — the discussion I call ‘The Collar Chronicles.’ Pinch or prong collars and e-collars have always been the evil-doers in these conversations; lately, even the poor slip collar (aka, the dreaded ‘choke’ collar) is also in the evil-doer equipment classification. When I’m asked why I choose to use all three of these tools, I’m often tempted to repeat what professional trainer and kennel owner Joel Prouty once said to me about using an e-collar: I use [it] because dog training shouldn’t be so hard that no one does it.

Maybe I should just take Joel’s direct approach, because I’ll be the first to admit that I’m all about saving time in dog training. Note: ‘saving time’ doesn’t and shouldn’t equal ‘cutting corners.’ You still have to cover all of the bases, and solid training over a lifetime relies on strong foundations. But the right equipment can save time by making or helping your communication with the dog more direct.

Many people still call them ‘shock collars.’ My pet peeve? It’s a remote training collar, people! Remote training collars can and do encompass several kinds of feedback, including vibration, tones, odor/sprays – and yes, an electric shock. I use Innotek FS-25A e-collars, which provide 7 stimulation levels (yes, those are the shocks) and a tone-only option.

This collar won’t deliver continuous stimulation; it has an automatic cut-out after ten seconds, so if pressed and held, stimulation (or tone) will stop after 10 seconds. The collar is waterproof, rechargeable, and has an approximate range of 250 yards. It’s my workhorse e-collar; I’ve owned five of them since 1994. Casey has one which he’s had for 10 years. M. has one, which I purchased two years ago. Each collar has its own transmitter.

In practice, the stimulation level on an FS-25A set to 1 or 2 is the equivalent of flicking your fingernail against your palm. Yes, I’ve tried it on myself – I test every collar on every setting before I put it into service, and test it daily prior to use, on my palm, and yes, I know exactly how it feels. The collar can also be set on tone + stimulation where the tone sounds, with a few seconds delay before the stimulation. Tone, delay, vibration and stimulation options make an e-collar as versatile as my voice, allowing me to communicate with my dog at a distance, in situations where I can’t make any noise, or with a dog who, like Casey, is being slowly compromised by the issues that afflict senior dogs.

Casey’s can still reliably hear certain whistle tones, although sound at a distance is lost to him. In bright or dim light, his eyes sometimes don’t tell him everything he needs to know. Mix in the complications of dementia: disorientation and confusion. All combine to make it harder for me to keep him safe when he’s further than a couple feet from me. Still, keeping a leash on a 14+ y.0. dog who is partially sense- and sensibility-impaired but otherwise active doesn’t give him all of the physical stimulation he’s used to taking on his own. His legs and nose still work just fine – and the more regular exercise he can get, the healthier I can keep him. So as often as I can, I give him the opportunity to free-exercise off-leash in a safe environment.

I live on eight acres I share with 100 neighbors. Across a low-traffic road that borders the property is another six acres of softball fields and playground. For 11 years, Casey’s had the run of this place. I don’t want to steal that activity from him as long as he still has the physical capacity to enjoy it–but none of the property around me is fenced – so my job is to keep it safe for him to enjoy.

When Casey’s senses and sensibility first began failing, I switched him to a 10′ slip lead attached to the handle of my 16′ Flexi(TM), the same lead set-up I use to exercise a crate-rest dog. I reinforced with treats every time he responded to a whistle, or checked in with me during a walk. It was a stop-gap solution, and in regular everyday use it’s a miserable failure–on bad days Casey can’t seem to remember how to de-tangle his old legs. We both end up frustrated – him at being tangled, me at trying to keep him tangle-free. He does better on the Flexi-portion of my homemade two-dog leash, but it’s still not enough exercise on the days he’s feeling up to a run.

Enter his e-collar, set to tone. At first I was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to hear the tone or that it would startle his slightly addled old-dog brains. I really didn’t need to worry; the foundation of e-collar training from the time he was an adolescent dog kicked in as soon as he understood the tone. I collared him before putting him on the 16-ft. Flexi, and again treated him every time he responded to my whistle, or checked back in with me spontaneously, or when ‘reminded’ to find me by the tone of the e-collar. I’ve set it to tone + delay on a very low stimulation level (1), so that he will feel a vibration after the tone if he doesn’t look for me right away. And at least once every week, I take him ‘back to kindergarten’ — collared and on the Flexi — so that I can ‘remind’ him how important it is for him to stay in touch and stay tuned in to me when we’re walking. Since he’s been e-collar and whistle-trained from puppyhood, I’m relying on behaviors which have been back-chained for years. Reinforcing those foundation behaviors now allows me to continue give the old man some freedom in safe situations.

It’s so much more than a ‘shock collar.’ But as a trainer, you do have to accept your own limitations before you can admit an e-collar’s possibilities for communication.

Or, you can ignore an e-collar’s communication possibilities, and find yourself trying to out-run an old dog at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, slipping in wet Crocs on wetter grass, and trying to manage a reluctant princess on the other lead as she whines about getting her feet wet. Like Joel said so long ago, dog training shouldn’t be that hard — and if the way that is also easier preserves for mi viejo some of the freedom he’s enjoyed his whole life, I’ll take that ‘easy’ route. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get Casey’s e-collar out of the car and onto the charger…

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Categories: Old dogs, Training

Weaves — On. Her. Own.

August 21, 2009 Comments off

When I remember to let my little spotted princess process and think… I get spontaneous weaves. 😉

This morning, on the damp grass that gives her the wet toes she hates so much, Miss M. did four poles from a right side send. On one signal. At the end of the poles, after a click and a treat and while waiting for some more input from me, she decided to re-weave her four poles.

On. Her. Own.

Back at the entrance where she’d have to weave on the right, she wrote her own story again, offering a set of clean and continuous weaves, and then turned expectantly to me for the click and treat she assumed was coming.

On. Her. Own.

M’s capacity to process a skill when she’s given a couple days off from practicing that skill continues to amaze me. Now if I could just remember to keep tapping into that ‘quiet’ processing time so that we get back to 12 weaves, from the left or right, on one signal!

Categories: Agility, Training