The Chicken Experiment

San Marcos La Laguna is teeming with free-roaming chickens. They are in the streets, they are in the yards, they are behind fences and outside of fences. Roosters cockadoodledoo all night, and chickens, big and small, enjoy their life (until they don’t).

Where we used to live for the past 2.5 years, there was one trail that led past chickens and turkeys. My dogs initially craved a bite or two, but soon learned to walk past without giving it much thought. They accepted that killing chickens just wasn’t in the cards for them. 

When we got to San Marcos la Laguna – the first stop of our slow travel road trip – Game showed me she had generalized her walking-past-chickens skills. I walked her off leash, and she was great at strolling past chickens without paying attention to them. Until The Day That Changed Everything.

The Day That Changed Everything

Our morning walk to the lake led us past a metal gate with a gap below, just tall enough for a chicklet to squeeze out into the street. One morning, we were walking past the gate as usual, minding our own business, when a little chicklet ducked under the gate, and tried to cross the f*ing road. By the time I noticed the wee bird, it had strolled right under Game’s muzzle. Smack! Game lowered her muzzled nose, and that chicklet’s road-crossing intentions were cut short. Game was delighted! Who knew that smashing down your muzzle makes the little feather toys stop moving! So much power! So much fun!

(I found the owner, apologized, and paid the equivalent of US$15 dollars for the chicklet. Yes, that’s certainly the price of a whole flock of grown chickens, but I’d have paid twice as much, too. It was my fault; I certainly deserved the financial punishment.)

Game is a smart dog capable of single-event learning. Going forwards, she didn’t look at chickens like she used to (the way she looks at furniture: boring; whatever). She now looked at chickens – big and small, black and white and brown and red and stripey, egg-laying or cockadoodledoing – like this:

A recall challenge

I wanted to continue having Game off leash in this town of free-roaming fowl. I was only going to stay for a few weeks, but I have never met a recall challenge I didn’t like. I could, of course, also have made this a “leave it” challenge – most trainers probably would; “leave it” seems more intuitive in this context. But recalls are my thing, so that’s what I went with.

I remembered an interesting episode from The Canine Paradigm: Episode 22 – Greyhound Versus Cat. In this episode, Pat modifies the prey drive of his sister’s newly adopted Greyhound to keep him from eliminating the family cat. Pat doesn’t approach this as a recall issue – but his training intrigued me, and I decided to use my chicken challenge to try something similar.

If you haven’t listened to the Greyhound Versus Cat episode on the Canine Paradigm – do so before reading on! Pat’s story will help you understand what I am doing in the videos below. It’s also a great podcast episode. I wouldn’t do it justice by trying to summarize it – just check it out yourself. And in the unlikely case that you haven’t heard of The Canine Paradigm before, get ready to add a new podcast to your personal favorites!

So many new things to try!

I had never used existential food to convince a dog not to chase a prey animal. While I train with kibble a lot in everyday life, I’d generally use higher value reinforcers for something as difficult as a recall away from a chicken. I have also never fed an entire meal after a single click.

Would a large amount of food make up for its lower value (kibble is low value, but an entire meal is a big reward)? Would Game be able to eat an entire meal without lifting her head, and thinking chicken thoughts, right away? Or would it take a while for her to learn that interrupting the behavior of eating caused the restaurant to close? I couldn’t wait to find out.

The Game plan, part 1

I came up with the following rules:

  1. Game was going to earn both her daily meals – breakfast and dinner – for chicken recalls.
  2. For a single chicken recall, she would receive an entire meal.
  3. If she stopped eating (i.e. lifted her head), I’d take away the food.
  4. The next opportunity to eat would only come around at the following mealtime, which, again, would happen in a chicken context.

Session #1

Criteria: No recall cue. I’ll click for her choice to reorient to me after figuring out she can’t get to the chicken.

Session #3 or #4:


Criteria: I’m adding a recall cue, but will reward her even if the leash tightens before she comes back. (I will require the leash to stay loose a few sessions further down the line.)

An unexpected injury

While we were training our way through the chicken challenge, Game hurt herself (she’s a head-through-the-wall kind of dog – it happens surprisingly often). I put her on limited activity for a week. No running, no playing, no training – except for her two daily short leash walks culminating in a chicken recall at meal time.

Session #5ish

Criteria: same criteria as the previous session.

You can see greater intensity and arousal in the video below: if Game’s exercise needs aren’t being met, she turns into a little maniac. She REALLY wants to go for that rooster, and she can’t finish her meal (I learn that if she’s on limited activity, this protocol is setting her up to fail):

My stubbornness pays off!

I stuck with the protocol though, and got to a place where the line would stay loose between the recall and Game returning to me for an uninterrupted meal. (There’s some sessions that I didn’t record.)

Upping the ante: off leash; chickens kept safe behind a fence

Once Game could reliably recall away from chickens without tightening a leash or long line, I found a place she could be off leash, with the chickens safe on the other side of a fence.

Session 10ish:

The rep below is not perfect – you can see Game hesitate before responding; then she realizes there’s no way to get across the fence and comes back. If there had been no fence, the session below would have resulted in a fatality.

Session 11ish:

This one is better: there is the tiniest hesitation (I know what her whiplash turn-on-a-dime-s look like, and this isn’t quite it – but she’s almost got it):

… and we did it: by the subsequent session, I got that perfect turn on a dime with the chickens behind a fence!

The Game plan, part 2: off leash Game with unprotected chickens!

It was time to get some chickens of my own, and up the ante: I wanted to try this off leash and without a fence, and I wasn’t going to subject someone else’s chickens to this experiment.

I LOVE environmental rewards, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to integrate them into the second part of my training plan (here’s where my plan wildly diverges from what Pat Stuart did with his sister’s Greyhound: no cats were going to be harmed in Pat’s training! The questionable ethics you are about to read about are entirely my own.)

The morality of it all

I have no qualms about eating meat, or feeding my dogs meat, and I also have no issues with (quickly) killing an animal in order to eat it. (I do have issues with livestock or wildlife being killed for reasons other than eating.)

I planned on getting two chickens (that way, I’d be able to have at least two reps, even if the first one didn’t go as planned). I’d use the chickens in my training, and then we would eat them. First, I would recall Game away from a chicken in a crate, and reinforce with her usual meal. Then, I’d recall her away from the same chicken outside of the crate, and reinforce with a release to run back and kill the chicken. (I decided that being quickly killed by a dog is no more inhumane than being killed by me, the human. The chicken was going to die and be eaten either way, so using it as a reinforcer seemed morally acceptable to my pragmatic self.)

I was particularly curious about how this experience would translate to the chickens we met in the street: would Game be more likely to engage with me in order to earn that once-in-a-million jackpot of killing (my theory was that she would), or would she become more likely to try and kill on her own time (my theory was that she wouldn’t)? I was determined to find out!

Time to purchase some chickens

I had to run an errand in Antigua, a city some 150km from San Marcos. It was the perfect place to buy chickens from someone I would never see again. I went to a farming supply store that sells chickens, and doesn’t ask questions. And there they were: a big wire cage with lots of poultry crammed in, clucking and sticking their heads out. They were black-and-white barred chickens. My favorite kind, because from a distance, they look like a mad novelist scribbled all over white birds in black ink. They are pretty. I’m sure they are also tasty – if not to humans, then certainly in a raw meal for my dogs. 

I stood there watching the chickens in the cage, and then, just like that, I didn’t want to buy them anymore. It would be lying if I said I couldn’t buy them anymore – it wasn’t that. I’m not particularly sentimental about death; neither my own nor that of another animal. They were going to die sooner or later, and their current life wasn’t exactly amazing. But I looked at their less than ideal existence, crammed into that cage. I imagined their several hours long, less-than-ideal journey back to San Marcos, in a cardboard box, in my hot car. All just to be killed once we got there. It seemed quite pointless, especially since Game and I were going to leave the town of free-roaming poultry soon anyways.

I told myself to remain standing there for another minute, and remind myself of the facts: this was my one chance of buying two chickens far from the scene of the murder I was plotting, and following through on my training plan.

A minute or two later, I still didn’t want to do it. And so I didn’t, because at some point in the last decade, I’ve learned that it is perfectly okay to walk away from a perfectly good plan.

The anticlimactic ending

Game spent the remaining week and a half in San Marcos on a leash around the chickens roaming the streets. And then, we left for Huehuetenango, a city that doesn’t have free roaming chickens – or at the very least, we didn’t meet a single one. I’d like to say that the chicken store chickens lived happily ever after – but that’s pretty unlikely, so I’ll need to end this story on a different note: the feeling I remember. As I walked away from the chicken store, I felt a moment of humaneness. The kind that makes your heart jump. I thought to myself: “I’m humane sometimes. Sometimes, I am kind.” And for a moment, that thought (however misguided it may seem) made me smile. 

Resources mentioned in this post:

Pat Stuart & Glenn Cooke, The Canine Paradigm: Episode 22 – Greyhound Versus Cat (podcast)

Retirement, Social Comparisons, and Theories of Intelligence

What makes for a life we enjoy? Work we enjoy? What do we need to be content and comfortable in our own skin, and in our place in the world?

I tend to come across this question on a regular basis, and from all kinds of angles. The last time I thought about it – especially the angle of work – was when I talked to a guy on Tinder. He was in his early forties, and about to retire from a finance job in NYC. He had just bought a house at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala – his retirement home. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

This was intriguing – I had never met anyone whose life plan included retiring in their forties. My own life plan entails working until I die: I LOVE what I do; I can’t see myself ever not wanting to do it. I am already living exactly the life I want to live (something he was referring to being able to do after retirement). Retirement isn’t part of my plan.

I thought about this some more, and talked about it with another friend. Interestingly, my friend agreed that having saved up enough money in order to retire would be a huge burden off their shoulders despite the fact that they, too, are passionate about their work!

This disproved my first hypothesis, i.e. that “FIRE“ing was appealing to people who didn’t particularly enjoy the work they did or had to do. My friend (not a FIRE person, btw.) wistfully considered the idea of having enough money to stop needing to work. This friend likes their work. A lot. They said they would probably continue doing the very same work they are doing right now after an imaginary financial independence-based retirement. They believe they would feel better doing the exact same thing if it did not generate an income they were dependent on. Being financially independent, they wouldn’t have to do the work they would still be doing: they wouldn’t have to worry about paying their rent, etc. I find this intriguing, given the fact that this particular friend already has about ten times the savings I do. They have health insurance, a pension plan, and they live twice as frugally as I: from my point of view, they have no reason to worry about being able to pay their rent as is. But apparently, they still worry! So … Why do they? Or maybe I should ask: why don’t I?

Two kinds of freedom

Looking back on both these conversations, I think there are two kinds of freedom that make retirement/financial independence appealing to the two people I sampled:

  1. The freedom to do whatever you want on any given day – the lack of obligation.
  2. The freedom from worrying about your future/financial security/health care etc.

One reason retirement isn’t something I actively pursue is that (1) I am already doing what I want. I experience significant personal freedom, agency, and self-efficacy on a daily basis, and I have changed the course of my life often enough to “know” that I can pretty much do whatever I want whenever I want: I’ve switched majors in college; I’ve dated guys and women; I’ve used different pronouns; I’ve lived in different countries; I’ve learned foreign languages; I’ve started two businesses; I’ve traveled …

In addition, I (2) do not worry about my future, my financial security, and my health care. Yes, I did worry about these things at some point in the past, but I haven’t in a long time. In fact, I believe I haven’t worried about these things since I started (1) doing exactly what I want!

(2) may also have to do with the way I compare myself to others. As a species, we can’t help thinking about ourselves in relation to those around us – it’s just what we do. The secret isn’t to stop comparing yourself to others altogether. The secret is in the directionality of the comparisons we make. Rachel Sherman and Keith Payne point out that there are two ways of comparing ourselves to others, and they result in two vastly different experiences of our own place on the ladder of success.

Upward versus downward comparisons

Upwards comparing means we compare ourselves to those who have more than we do. Downwards comparing means we compare ourselves to those who have less than us. People tend to have a default direction their comparisons take. I’m not sure what determines which tendency an individual ends up with – but according to Payne, it is possible to change what we default to. If you currently compare yourself to those who have more than you do, you might want to rethink your directionality: downward comparers tend to be more content and worry less than upward comparers.

My default mode of comparing is downward: several times a week – sometimes several times a day! – I realize how lucky I am. I have a big and central apartment, I have a car (which I am trying to get rid of, because who needs cars), I have a dog who I just took for fancy dental surgery to Mexico City without having to think twice, and I’m toying with the idea of hopping on a plane, and fly to the US and back for no other reason than to get a COVID vaccine. As opposed to most people in Latin America, my European Union passport grants me visa-free access to most countries in the world. A couple months ago, I applied to a postgraduate program I’d be able to pay for out of pocket if I got in and decided to accept the offer. This is not the norm. I am aware of my privilege, and I often marvel at it.

I have more than enough: if I found myself out of work tomorrow (highly unlikely), I’d have plenty of time to find something new before making rent would become an issue. I see myself as capable, versatile, adaptive, and likeable. I’m trilingual, and in my adult life, I’ve always found a way to fit in. I have no doubt that I’d find something new to do that I enjoy, even if it was something completely different from anything I have ever done. And if for some post-apocalyptic reason, all possible ways for me to make a living disappeared, I believe I’d still get by somehow. I always do. If I couldn’t sleep on someone’s couch, I’d sleep in the street. Things would be different, but I’d make do with less, and I’d be just fine.

This is the story I tell myself, anyways. It’s the story I believe, and it’s a story that has served me well. My friend might say I’m unreasonably optimistic – that I don’t see society for what it truly is: injust. Corrupt. Untrustworthy. (It’s not that I don’t see it – I do. I know the playing field isn’t level, and that the game is rigged. I just don’t dwell on it, and I still enjoy playing. Setbacks motivate me to try again, or try something else, or turn a negative experience into a great story. I have a tagulator, and a dog, and there is cheesecake in the world. What could possibly stop me?)

An incremental theory of intelligence: hard work pays off

Growing up, the messaging from my parents wasn’t that I was exceptionally intelligent. It was that I had to work exceptionally hard in order to stay at the top of my class. If I didn’t do well, obviously, it wasn’t because I was dumb but because I hadn’t worked hard enough. There was performance pressure (which did occasionally cause me anxiety) – but my ability to do well if I worked hard was never questioned. Consciously or not, my parents taught me an incremental theory of intelligence: the belief that intelligence is malleable rather than fixed, and that performance is a function of effort.

I worked hard, and stayed fairly consistently in the top third of my class. Hadn’t I worked hard, I’d probably still have made it through somehow – but I’d have dropped to the bottom third in terms of performance. I knew that then, and I know it now. My performance potential is perfectly average. So what?

Maybe that is why the person I am today believes that I am capable of understanding and learning pretty much anything if I put in the work. University felt easy because my grades were directly related to my effort. Earning a scholarship to study abroad felt well deserved because I put in a ton of effort. Writing my MA thesis was a challenge I thrived on: I wanted to do well, so I worked hard, and did well.

I’ve got an above-average education level, but I don’t believe that my genetically determined frame of potential capability is any greater than that of the average person. It’s just that due to the combination of the random privileges I was born with (my white skin, my EU citizenship), my upbringing by parents that fostered an incremental theory of intelligence, and a bit of luck every now and then, I will be able to achieve most goals I want by working hard.

Most people do not share my random privileges, which may make them equally or less successful than I am even if they, too, hold an incremental theory of intelligence. Even if their genetically determined frame of potential capability is greater than mine.

people running on a race track

From where I’m standing, being successful means that you’re probably a privileged person who worked reasonably hard, and had a bit of luck along the way. It doesn’t mean your potential is greater than average. It doesn’t mean you are the one who deserves success more than your less privileged peers. It means that you had an advantageous starting position: you started out further ahead on the race track due to your skin color, gender, citizenship, economic background etc. And when the start pistol went off, you started running, just like the people next to and behind you. Being among the first to cross the finish line makes you no better than those who started behind you on the track (if you are like me – white, and European – that would be most people.)

It’s also nothing to be ashamed of: you did work hard, after all. We can be proud of ourselves and confident in our ability to learn new things while still recognizing that being born privileged is a huge part of our success. Both these things can be true at the same time – there’s no contradiction there.

An entity theory of intelligence: intelligence is fixed

The puzzling thing is that both FIRE dude and the friend I talked to have at least some of the same privileges, and an additional one that I do not have: maleness.

Looking around at my friends – most of whom have at least a BA, and many of whom have PhDs – I find it fascinating that they do not necessarily share my optimism (realism?): they are more pessimistic about their own financial and physical safety, and they feel less in control of their own outcomes than I do. The difference in our experience doesn’t seem to be related to objective, external factors (such as income levels).

I’ve noticed that I have friends who appear to consider themselves more intelligent than the average person. I’m basing this assumption on their stories of getting top grades up until the start of college “without doing any work.” I suppose these brag stories are indicative of an entity theory of intelligence: the belief that intelligence is fixed rather than malleable; that you have a certain amount of it, and are stuck with that amount.

Some of these friends feel like imposters – as if their above-average, but finite amount of intelligence could only have taken them so far, and they’ve stumbled into a space their intelligence isn’t sufficient for dominating. Since their fixed amount of intelligence is their main asset, they are constantly in danger of being found out and exposed as a fraud who hasn’t earned their seat at the table of accomplishment.

My incremental theory of intelligence allows me to feel accomplished and capable when I succeed – it allows me to take credit for my success. It also allows me to accept failures, and approach them with a new strategy or greater effort on my next attempt. I do not attribute failure to a fundamental lack in ability, but to insufficient practice or effort. Just like the students in Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck’s study, it seems that the adults around me who hold an entity theory of mind are more likely to experience helplessness upon failing rather than adopting a positive strategy of trying again, or trying something different.

Conclusion

It seems to be easier to be content – and worry less – when you default to downwards comparisons, and hold an incremental theory of intelligence. Payne says it is entirely possible for an adult to change their direction of comparison. Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck ran successful interventions among junior high school students, causing them to adopt an incremental theory of intelligence. I certainly hope that what they have found among junior high students still holds true for adults: it’s possible to change our world view, and become more optimistic and happier as a result. Is it likely to happen? Probably not, unless you make an effort. As adults, we are pretty committed to our philosophies of life, which continue being reinforced by our confirmation bias. But as a species, we’re also incredibly adaptable – maybe change is always at our fingertips. It’s certainly worth a try!

Something to think about

+ Do you default to upwards or downwards social comparisons? Does it differ depending on context? How does your default direction of comparison make you feel?

+ Do you hold an incremental theory of intelligence or an entity theory of intelligence? Where do you think you have learned to think of yourself/the nature of intelligence in this way? How has your theory of intelligence helped or hurt you in your adult life?

+ Are you financially independent/retired? If you are – what do you like and dislike about it? If you aren’t – would you like to be financially independent/retired? Why or why not? What would you do differently if you were?

Resources mentioned in this post

(a) Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck: “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition,” Child Development (Jan-Feb, 2007).

Sherman, Rachel – Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence

Payne, Keith – The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects The Way We Think, Live, and Die

Stress cycles

I love discovering parallels in dog and human behavior.

A few weeks ago, Game cracked a tooth. After an epic Mexican veterinary adventure involving a road trip to Mexico City, a beautiful sunset, a couple dead Moray eels, and two dental surgeries, Game is back home, and on the road to recovery.

Not feeling well – the dog angle

When Game is well, she has the sociability of a Golden Retriever. When she’s not okay, she has the sociability of a Malinois. Post surgery, she was clearly in the latter state. I can tell whether she is or isn’t well by looking at her face. There is a subtle difference in the way the muscles in her forehead are either tense or soft, and in the amount of sleep she needs. Sleep all day? Something isn’t going great, and I need to be careful when I’m out and about with her. Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and different mental states track certain behavioral clusters. In Game’s case, not feeling well means that large groups of people (something she generally tolerates extremely well) can cause frustration. This manifests itself, among other things, in a heightened likelihood of barking, lunging, and the temptation to nip at fast-moving strangers. Her threshold for responding to stimuli in the environment plunges.

The human parallel

I sympathize: there’s a parallel in my own behavior. When I am stressed, my threshold for social reactivity (read: lashing out) is lower, too. I have the urge to bite my roommates’ heads off for something minor, feel like yelling at a stranger in the street for looking at my dog too long, want to honk at other drivers, or delete Facebook comments I don’t like, simply because I have the power to, and that’ll show ’em. I explode easily, and knowing that I explode easily stresses me more because I am, at the same time, aware that my stress response is out of proportion to the issue at hand. It’s not about whatever is right in front of me – it’s about trigger stacking on top of a heightened baseline pain level. My self-image is that of someone who is mostly easy to get along with, and always fair. In order to preserve this self-image, I’ll use most of my already depleted energy to focus on self-regulation when I’m around other people whose heads I’d like to bite off. The problem: I can’t focus on self-regulation and recover at the same time – so chances are I’ll be in an equally bad mood the next day, and the day after, and so on.

Back to the canine side of things

At the time of writing, it is 8 days post-surgery, and Game is starting to get back to normal. She’s more active, more likely to pull towards abandoned tortillas (rather than just trotting along with me miserably), and joggers and little children with the audacity to move through public spaces have regained their right to coexist with her.

Today, we went to a store to buy a shower curtain, and on the way back home, we ran into a free-roaming dog. Game was interested in greeting them, and since we were on a big open plaza, I let her off leash. For a few minutes, they ran and chased each other with abandon. I could see Game let loose, her body soften, her goofy self coming out, moving in wide circles, enjoying her laymate’s advances. After a few minutes – shorter than in her perfectly-fine Golden Retriever days – she came back; she was done. I clipped the leash back on, and we continued on home. Already, I could see a change in how she carried herself: loose muscles; a bit of a swagger, less stiffness in her walk.

Now, she’s zonked out, sleeping on the cool tiles in the kitchen – not the sleep of resignation, but the sleep of healthy exhaustion; the sleep of having exercised and having had fun, and having made friends. The sleep that comes with little leg twitches as she’s playing chase in her dream.

Stress-ors and Stre-ss

The fact that she got to play today made a difference for her: today, Game completed the stress cycle started by her toothache and temporarily exacerbated by the surgeries. Amelia and Emily Nagoski explain that we need to not only get over a stress-or (in Game’s case, the cracked tooth, the surgery, and the accompanying pain), but also through the stre-ss (our physiological response) in order to truly leave a stressful event behind us.

There are different ways of completing the stress cycle – one of them is exercise. While I don’t remember this being mentioned in Nagoski’s book, I’d venture another one is play. This would make the combination of the two – play and exercise – a powerful way of completing the stress cycle.

Completing the stress cycle isn’t about the stressor itself (the dental surgery; the pain). Rather, it refers to the physiological release of accumulated stress. (I’m assuming that in this context, “stress” means certain hormones and neurotransmitters and other stuff I wish I knew more about.) My mental image is that of a bucket that has been filled with all kinds of stress-related chemicals over the course of days, weeks, or months – and in order to complete the stress cycle, we need to do more than just turn off the dripping faucets feeding the bucket: we need to dump out the bucket!

Dumping out the bucket

Only when we dump out the bucket does our body realize that the danger has passed; we don’t have to watch our back anymore. Today’s play session emptied out the bucket of accumulated stress for Game, and took her all the way to the other side of the stress tunnel. Earlier the same day, she was already out of physical pain, but she was still in a Malinois state of sociability and tension. Without an opportunity to release the stress, she might have been stuck in the stress tunnel for a long time, her inner Golden Retriever a dog of the past.

How Game’s bucket got filled

Stress has been building up for Game for a while: we’ve been on a road trip, sleeping in different places most days, waiting for me outside new stores, spending long hours in a hot car, and taking leash walks through cities rather than off-leash nature romps. Cracking a tooth, and going to the vet not once, but twice … Lots of changes. Lots of little things that wouldn’t faze a dog like Game as long as they were encountered individually, but which, in combination, build up stress that has no outlet.

Now that the stress is gone, I bet I am going to see other changes in her behavior: I’ll see her return to her usual activity levels, want to meet new people, and cruise through crowded spaces with the swagger of a Golden.

Humans complete stress cycles, too

Grit and I playing our favorite game (pic by Isabelle Grubert).

One of my favorite ways of completing my own stress cycles is playful exercise as well: it’s roughhousing with my dogs. Watching 20-something canine kilos barrell towards you, bracing for the impact, and catching them on a bite sleeve is exhilarating. It requires coordination and concentration. It makes me feel strong. I trust, and I am being trusted. Play-fighting within the rules of the game we established is my perfect stress release: I am completely immersed in this activity. I exist in the current moment in a way I rarely do otherwise. I am moving my body and engaging my muscles in a controlled manner. And I am playing with my dog. Give me a 5-10 minutes of this, and life will be better – at least for the next couple hours. The good thing is that I can go right back for another round if needed!

Roughhousing and rolling on the floor with puppy Game (picture by Isabelle Grubert).

The good news, and the bad news

The bad news: life is stressful. Empty out your bucket, and it’s starting to fill again right away: navigating maskless crowds in supermarkets in a COVID world, being late, the Internet is down, and you’re out of coffee … It’s the little things as well as the big ones, and they just keep coming. All of these are stressors. They are conspiring to turn on the faucets that will continue spitting stress-related neurochemicals into our buckets (the stre-ss).

But there’s good news, too: once we know how to, we can empty out our buckets anytime – even when the stress-ors are still ongoing. I can pick up a bite sleeve and play with my dog until I’m out of breath, and have forgotten everything about the things that aren’t going my way. I’ll feel better, and will be able to not worry about it – until the chemicals in my stress bucket reach a certain level again, and it’s time to empty out the bucket again.

Be your dog’s advocate

Unlike us, our dog’s can’t always choose when to empty their buckets. More often than not, the activities they get to engage in are up to us rather than up to them.

Being aware of Game’s stress response is important because it helps me support her: I can set her up for success. For example, the other day, I met a friend in the crowded center, and we were going to walk up a hill. This is the kind of activity I’d usually bring Game on. Not last week: I knew that the stress of being around strangers would outweigh the benefits of moving her body on a leashed walk. I’ve also told a number of people who wanted to be introduced to her “No” over the last couple of days. Game is a dog who generally enjoys meeting new people – but not when she’s already running low on energy. She can’t speak for herself, so it’s up to me to be her advocate.

How about *your* dog?

What clusters of behavior does distress track for your dog? How do you support them when external stressors lower their threshold, and how do you help them complete the stress cycle? Also: how about yourself?

Below: an excerpt of Game’s stress-release fun, and one of our favorite road trip songs: “Lift your / head up …”

PS: Today, as I hit “publish” on this post, it’s more than 5 weeks post surgery. Game is doing great – especially since she’s finally allowed to play tug, and fetch hard balls again!


Resources mentioned in this post

Nagoski, Amelia & Emily – Burnout

A Perfect Circle

… is not only a band worth checking out, but may also be your ticket to a relaxing walk with your dog. A few months ago, Denise Fenzi started experimenting with walking the dog in a circle around the handler in order to reduce leash pulling. Her method has since grown into a pragmatic approach that doesn’t only address excitement-based pulling, but also reduces reactivity and anxiety in some dogs.

I experimented with my own as well as my clients’ dogs, and found Denise’s circle method to make an excellent addition to my leash walking toolbox. It’s both simple and powerful, and it lends itself to being combined with and used in addition to other leash training strategies I was already using. Clearly, it needed to be part of the new FDSA class I was working on as well: Out and About already included several leash walking approaches for my students to choose from.

Three of my Gold students chose to use circles on their urban walks and nature hikes. Their dogs were very different, and all three of them uploaded multiple videos of their leash walking assignments. The circle method turned out to be helpful to every one of them. Here’s what I learned from further exploring it with my Out and About students and their dogs while also continuing to play with it in real life:

  1. Most people find it easier to circle on a collar or front-attachment harness than on a back-attachment harness.
  2. If your dog has a hard time allowing you to lead him into the circle, practice giving in to leash pressure at home. This seems to do wonders for the dog’s understanding – especially if you use the leash pressure game to walk your dog in a circle around your own body.
  3. Going back and forth over familiar terrain – for example, walking the same short loop two or three times rather than walking one longer loop – helps highly excited dogs calm down.
  4. If your dog speeds up, trying to get out of the circle and pull as soon as he gets close to his starting point, add another circle immediately. This tends to slow the dog down, and decrease his speed even on the first circle.
  5. If you’re on a trail that’s too narrow for you to get a radius of more than a few inches, walk ellipses rather than circles.
  6. Walk at your normal speed – don’t run just because your dog would like to go faster. Channel his energy into the circles until he has learned to adjust to your walking speed.
  7. If it makes sense for your dog, combine the circle method with food (food scatters; treat magnets; mark/treat for auto check-ins; the LAT game; counterconditioning; eating as an alternative behavior etc.). While the circle method doesn’t require food, treats can make a big difference if your dog doesn’t “just” pull, but is also reactive, fearful or anxious.
  8. Unless your dog is circling, always encourage and allow sniffing. Most dogs find sniffing to be relaxing, and I’ve seen it reduce both pulling and anxiety.
  9. Acknowledge your dog’s checking in with you! You can mark and feed, or simply praise your dog.

Speaking of circles: Denise’s Cutting Corners webinar will be offered for the third time on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Check it out!

Crate expectations part 4: Building Relaxation

This is part 4 of a 4-part crate training tutorial. Click here to read part 1, here for part 2, and here for part 3!

What happens after the 1-minute mark?

Once my dog can stay in her crate for a minute without getting up, I introduce a different kind of reinforcer: a long-lasting chew such as a frozen Kong or a bone. At the 1-minute mark, my crate (or mat) training starts to look very different from building a duration stay for obedience. Now my dog has understood the concept of staying put, I am introducing the element of relaxation.

Introducing a Kong or bone in the crate

  • Get a good book or your laptop – you’ll need it to entertain yourself! You’ll also need the timer app on your phone.
  • Send your dog in her crate. Mark and feed in position.
  • Give her a long-lasting chew such as a frozen Kong or a bone.
  • Set your timer to intervals between 1 and 3 minutes – you can randomize these or take turns feeding after 1, 2 and 3 minutes respectively.
  • Hang out near your dog, who should be enjoying her Kong or bone. Read your book or play on your laptop. Feel free to talk to your dog anytime you feel like it.
  • Every time your timer rings, feed a treat.
  • End the session after 15 minutes by trading the Kong/bone for food, and releasing your dog.

Phoebe demonstrates this step on a mat. For crate training, just imagine the mat were a crate – I do it exactly the same way, with the door open. You don’t have to watch the entire video – it’s long and boring, just like relaxing in a crate or on a mat should be for the observer! However, check out the last 30 seconds of this video: Phoebe doesn’t want to leave her mat! That’s the kind of association we want to build to mats and crates!

Transitioning to using your crate in real life

Congratulations! Once you get to this point, you’ve already conquered the most difficult part of crate training! There’s a few tricks that will help you transition from these structured training session to relaxation for longer periods of time, when you’re not sitting next to your dog, and with the door closed.

Removing yourself from the picture

Do exactly what you did in the previous step: offer a Kong or bone to your dog, and set the timer of your phone to random intervals. The door to the crate should still be open at this stage.

  • With your dog relaxing and chewing in the crate, move around the room, doing random things such as cleaning, doing the dishes, or organizing your bookshelf.
  • Every time your timer rings, return to your dog and feed her a treat.
  • End the session after 15 minutes by trading the Kong/bone for food, and releasing your dog.

What if your dog gets up and comes out?

No big deal. Trade her Kong or bone for food if she brought it with her, send her back into the crate, and return the treat or Kong. If she keeps leaving, go back to the previous step (sitting near the crate rather than moving through the room) for another session. You can also ziptie the bone or Kong to the back of the crate so your dog can’t carry it outside!

Closing the door

  • Set up just like you did in the previous step.
  • At this point, your dog should be so comfortable staying in her crate that you can close the door after handing her the Kong without making a big deal out of it. Close it!
  • Set your timer to intervals between 1 and 3 minutes.
  • Move around the room, doing chores.
  • Every time your timer rings, return to your dog and feed her a treat.
  • End the session after 15 minutes by trading the Kong/bone for food, and release your dog.

Removing yourself from the room

  • Set up just like you did in the previous step.
  • Give your dog a Kong.
  • Close the crate door.
  • Set your timer to intervals between 1 and 3 minutes.
  • Go about your business in your house – both in the room with your dog, and outside the room.
  • Every time your timer rings, return to your dog and feed her a treat.
  • End the session after 15 minutes by trading the Kong/bone for food, and release your dog.

Extending the time between bonus treats

  • Set up like before: Kong, closed door.
  • Set your timer to intervals between 5 and 7 minutes.
  • Go about your business in your house – both in the room with your dog, and outside the room.
  • Every time your timer rings, return to your dog and feed her a treat.
  • End the session after 15 minutes by trading the Kong/bone for food, and release your dog.

Staying relaxed – even after finishing the Kong or bone

  • Set up like before: Kong, closed door.
  • Set your timer to intervals between 5 and 7 minutes.
  • Go about your business in your house – both in the room with your dog, and outside the room.
  • Every time your timer rings, return to your dog and feed her a treat.
  • With every session that you do from now on, keep going for 5 more minutes – even if this means your dog finishes her Kong or bone, and has nothing left to do! Build up to the crate duration you are aiming for.
  • Keep feeding the interval treats even after your dog has finished eating her Kong.

Fading the interval treats

  • Once your dog can relax in her crate even after finishing her Kong or bone, you should be able to stop feeding interval treats. Personally, I like keeping a treat bowl on top of the crate and just dropping one in every once in a while for the rest of her life.

Fading the bone/Kong

  • From session to session, choose smaller and smaller bones, or Kongs with less filling – until all you you need to do is feed your dog one treat when she goes into the crate.
  • Keep feeding Kongs or other chew delicacies in the crate every once in a while to keep up her positive association to the crate! Anytime I leave my own dogs in their crates for a longer time, they something delicious to chew on.

Start using the crate in real life!

If you’ve been following this tutorial with your own dog, leave me a comment – I’d love to hear how it’s going!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi  for more information, or join her December class at FDSA: Finding Five – Training for a Busy World. I’ve got an amazing group of students working on a variety of skills and games. Registration is open until tomorrow – come join us!

Crate Expectations Part 3: Adding a Cue and Extending Duration

This is part 3 of a 4-part crate training series. Click here for part 1, and here for part 2.

We’re picking up right where we left off last time!

Test your dog’s understanding!

  • Once you can count to 10 without your dog getting up, it’s time to test her understanding! In your next session, click and treat her for lying down in her crate.
  • Then, count to 10 in your head without intermediary steps.
  • Click, and feed in position.
  • Use your release word and throw a reset treat out of the crate.

Phoebe demonstrates the test. Her marker word is “Good!”.

Successful? Excellent! You’re ready for the next step!

Did your dog get up before you had counted to 10? That’s okay – you’ll explain the exercise again:

  • Go back to slowly building duration: count to 1 in your head – mark and feed. Count to 2 in your head – mark and feed, etc.
  • After counting to 10 without your dog getting up, give her a break.
  •  In your next session, test her understanding again.

Adding the Cue

  • Say the cue of your choice (for example “Go in your crate!”) right before your dog is about to do the behavior. To an observer, it should look as if she was going in the crate because you told her to.
  • Mark as she lies down in the crate, and feed in position.
  • Count to ten in your head. Mark and feed in position.
  • Say your release cue and throw a reset cookie out of the crate.
  • As soon as she is done eating it, say your crate cue again.
  • Mark and feed her for lying down in her crate.
  • Count to 10 in your head. Mark and feed in position.
  • Say your release cue and throw another reset treat out of the crate.

Feel free to talk to and praise your dog when increasing the duration of a behavior! The next video shows how chatty I am when building duration on real-life behaviors.

Phoebe’s crate cue is, “In die Box!” (German for “In your crate!”). I use two different marker words in this video (“Good!” when feeding her in position, and “Okay, get it!” when throwing a cookie for her to chase). Don’t worry about this if you only have one marker cue for your dog – just use your usual click or marker word!

So far, I’ve asked you to count in your head. This allowed you to increase duration in steps smaller than a second if necessary. From now on, you’ll work with real seconds to keep track of your further progress. Use the timer on your phone for help!

Extending the Duration

10-20 Seconds

Now that your dog knows her crate cue and can lie in her crate for 10 seconds, it’s time to extend the duration even more.

  • Say your crate cue, and click and feed in position as your dog lies down in her crate.
  • Wait for 10 seconds. Mark and feed in position.
  • Wait for 12 seconds. Mark and feed in position.
  • Wait for 14 seconds. Mark and feed in position.
  • Wait for 16 seconds etc.
  • If your dog ever sits up, stands up or leaves the crate, wait for her to go back in and start with 10 seconds again. (Back to 10 – 12 – 14 etc.)

Work your way up to 20 seconds in 2-second steps.

20-60 Seconds

From 20 to 60 seconds, you’ll increase the time between treats in 5-second steps: 20 seconds – 25 – 30 – 35 – 40 – 45 – 50 – 55 – 60 seconds. The time between treats is getting longer!

Even though you marked and treated in between, your dog has now spent quite a long time lying in her crate without getting up – substantially longer than the 60 seconds of your very last rep! And you didn’t even need to close the crate door in order to convince her to stay in!

Stay at this stage until your dog can work all the way up to 60 seconds!

You don’t need to watch all of this video … take a look at the beginning and the end to get an idea of the progress. Feel free to talk to your dog throughout your session.

Test your dog’s understanding!

  • Send your dog in her crate, mark, and feed in position.
  • Then wait for 60 seconds right away. Mark, and feed the 60-second treat in position.
  • Say your release cue and throw a reset treat for her to chase out of the crate.
  • If your dog struggles with this step, explain the game again: start over with 10 seconds – 12 – 14 – etc. between treats before testing her understanding again.

Phoebe demonstrates the test for building duration on a mat. Just imagine the mat were a crate – my training process for both these skills is exactly the same.

Up until now, what we’ve been working on could just as well have been an obedience stay. In the video you just watched, Phoebe holds a sphinx down and concentrates on me – this is not the relaxed crate (or mat) behavior we eventually want! Check back for part 4 to see how I transition to relaxation and extend the duration further next week!

If you’ve been following this tutorial with your own dog, leave me a comment – I’d love to hear how it’s going!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information, or join her December class at FDSA: Finding Five – Training for a Busy World.

Crate Expectations Part 2: Lying down in the crate and starting to build duration

crate training, dog training, dog crate

This is part 2 of a 4-part crate training tutorial. Click here for Part 1: Shaping Interactions with a New Crate.  

We’re picking up right where we left off – with Hadley’s third crate training session. Hadley is a fast and active little Border Collie. Staying still doesn’t come naturally to him! I need to build duration in tiny increments. The most important part throughout the teaching process? We’re both having a good time!

Hadley – Session 3

00:04 Since Hadley offered a down outside the crate just before, I click for one paw in, “Yes, we’re still talking about the crate.”
00:20 I was going to click for 2 paws in, but he went all the way in – so I jackpot with a hand full of treats.
00:45 Since he did so well with all 4 paws, I wait for him to go all the way in again.
00:54 “Will you choose to stay inside if I delay the click?” Yes! Good boy!
01:00 Building duration for standing in the crate.
01:07 Hadley leaves the crate …
01:10 … so I start building duration from scratch once he is in the crate again.
01:33 He offers to sit! Jackpot!

  • Start each session just a little easier than you ended the previous one in order to set your dog up for success. Then raise criteria again. Once your dog has offered a sit, gradually expand the duration. Sooner or later, she should offer a down: sitting gets boring!
  • Jackpot the down, then gradually build duration again – this time with the dog lying down in the crate.
  • Just like you did with the standing and sitting dog, go back to an easier version of the exercise any time your dog gets up and/or leaves the crate. If you made it up to counting to 6 in your head with your dog lying down, but then she gets up and leaves the crate, start with immediately clicking for walking in and lying down, then clicking for lying down while you count to 1 in your head, lying down while you count to 2 in your head, lying down while you count to 3 in your head, etc. The reason we click a lot is that we want our dogs to be successful and have fun rather than be frustrated and give up. This is especially important for dogs who are new to clicker training and shaping.
  • If your dog gets up after the click, feed him in the position you just clicked – just use the cookie to lure him back into a sit or down.

Hadley – Session 4

In this session, I try to build duration for the down. Hadley is having a hard time staying down. That’s okay. When he gets up, I just lower criteria and go back to clicking as soon as he downs, and counting to 1 or 2 in my head. We’re not in a rush. Note that when he gets up after the click, I feed him in a down position. I just use the cookie to lure him back down. Feeding in position speeds up the learning process!

01:47 You can see me click and then say “Get it!” in the end of this session. You’ll observe the same thing in some of my other videos in this series. The trainer I am today would not click before saying “Get it!” “Get it!” itself serves as a marker cue.

  • Build duration in a down position until you can count to 10 in your head without your dog getting up!

Hadley – Session 5

Building duration of lying in the crate. Hadley is still tempted to get up a lot. I’ll patiently explain what I want him to do until he understands – and he will understand. It’s just a matter of time and patience. Always work at your dog’s pace!

Hadley – Session 6

Hadley is getting better at staying down! At 02:17, I count to 9 in my head before he gets up. (I’m counting fast with Hadley, who needs the duration to increase in steps smaller than one-second increments. In his case, counting to 9 is not the same as 9 seconds.)

Check back next week for part 3 of the crate training series! If you’ve been following this tutorial with your own dog, leave me a comment – I’d love to hear how it’s going!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information, or join her December class at FDSA: Finding Five – Training for a Busy World.

Crate Expectations Part 1: Shaping interactions with a new crate

I have been helping a student get her dog used to a crate, which reminded me of the crate training tutorial I wrote a year ago, and never ended up sharing anywhere! I’m going to split it into 4 blog posts. If you try this protocol with your own dog and run into problems, feel free to ask your questions in the comments, and I’ll try to help you out!

Traditionally, dogs used to be “trained” to spend time in their crates by means of just putting them in the crate, closing the door, and not letting them out until they stopped whining or barking. Not only is this stressful for your dog, it’s also hard on your neighbors, who might not approve of your dog barking in her crate all night. The good news is that there are other, less stressful ways of getting a dog used to a crate. It might take a little longer to get duration than if you just locked your dog in, but it will be much less stressful for both you and your dog.

dog training, life skills, crate training, dog crate, dog kennel

If your dog already has negative associations with her crate, I recommend getting a different model (plastic instead of wire or wire instead of plastic) and starting from scratch with a new crate in a different location. It’s easier to build positive associations to an entirely new object than to change your dog’s feelings about a crate she already dislikes.

I usually use a combination of shaping and luring to get started. If you are an experienced shaper, feel free to free shape the behavior instead. Also, please note there is more than just one way to train your dog to enjoy spending time in her crate. The steps I’m sharing here with you have worked well for me – that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t get equally good results with a different and equally stress-free training technique.

Crate Training Setup

  • Remove all other objects around your crate to make it obvious to your dog that your training session is about the crate.
  • If your dog has a tendency to wander off or is a young puppy with a short attention span, put an x-pen around yourself and the crate, or keep her on a leash.
  • Keep each session to 1 minute – set a timer to remind you to stop training and give your dog a break.

Click any Interaction and Feed in the Crate

  • Click any and all interactions with the crate. Throw a treat into the crate so the dog eats inside the crate! If your dog hesitates to step in the crate, put the treat near the door so all she has to do is stick in her head to get it. With every click, put the treat a little further inside the crate until your dog has to step in to get it – first one paw, then two, three, and finally four.
  • Can you get in three to five more clicks and treats while your dog is still in the crate, has just finished eating her previous treat, but hasn’t had time yet to come out again? Great!
  • After three to five rapid-fire clicks and treats, wait a little. If your dog comes out of the crate, wait to click until she shows interest again. If she stays in and waits, add another click and treat inside the crate, then click and throw a treat out to set her up for another rep.

Hadley – Session 1

At the time I worked on this tutorial, Hadley was the least crate-trained dog in our house, so I’m using him to demo the first steps. I chose a crate he has never been in, and a location I have never worked on crate training before: out on the patio. In order to keep him from running off, I put an x-pen around Hadley, myself and the crate. He’s making it easy and has no trouble going all the way in when I feed in the crate after the first click. Note that I don’t wait for him to go all the way in before each click – I really do click any interaction with the crate. Looking at it is enough at first! That’s the shaping part of this exercise. However, I feed in the crate so he has to go all the way in for his treat. That’s the luring part of it!

00:54 Now I want more than just looking at it – walk towards it to get a click!
01:23 For the first time, I wait a little bit to see if he’ll stay in on his own, or come out again. Just a fraction of a second … He stops and looks at me, and I immediately reinforce this choice with a click and treat.

Hadley – Session 2

00:13 I delay the click a tiny little bit to see if Hadley chooses to stay in the crate rather than come out … And he does, and looks at me expectantly! Yey!
00:23 Click for sticking the head in the crate.
00:51 Click for one paw in.
01:08 Click for two paws.
01:16 Again, I delay the click, and Hadley chooses to stay in the crate rather than come out.

  • Delay the click just a little longer once your dog is successful: you started with clicking for looking at the crate and proceeded to clicking for sticking the head in, putting one paw in, then two paws, three paws, and finally all four paws.
  • Once you get four paws in, start adding duration: with your dog standing in the crate, delay the click longer and longer: dog in the crate – click immediately. Dog in the crate – count to 1 in your head, click, and treat. Dog in the crate – count to 2 in your head, click, and treat. Dog in the crate – count to 3 in your head, click, and treat.
  • When your dog leaves the crate before the click, wait for her to go back in, and start building duration from scratch: dog in the crate – click immediately. Dog in the crate – count to 1 in your head, click, and treat. Dog in the crate, count to 2 in your head, click, and treat. Etc.
  • Eventually, most dogs will offer a sit or a down in the crate – just standing there gets boring. Jackpot the sit or down with praise and a hand full of treats!

Check back next week for the following steps!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information, or join her December class at FDSA: Finding Five – Training for a Busy World.