The dog training world is very campy. That’s bullshit, but it is the way it currently looks to me. This image is what I’m picturing when I say “left of center” or “right of center” in the podcast. It also shows you where I’d put myself, training-wise … and who I’d consider “my people”: anyone who’s not a campy extremist, really.
However, in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a continuum at all. Instead, we’d have a menu of sorts, like a menu at a restaurant. On that menu, you’d find everything from BAT to Nepopo. We’d order the menu alphabetically in order to not play favorites.
Every training technique and system ever invented would be on the menu. And we dog trainers would choose one or two or three of them to study and become experts in by means of learning from the ones who came before us (standing on the shoulders of giants, as we always do).
We’d pick in terms of what we want to learn and teach; in terms of what feels good to US as individuals. Our picking would not be judgmental. It would be like picking the flavors of ice cream to go in your cone – not like picking a political party.
By picking your flavors of ice cream, you are not saying the other flavors are evil – you are just saying, these are my favorite flavors (these are the ones I want to learn more about and become an expert in). You can still be best friends with someone who chooses different flavors of ice cream. You can even talk about ice cream or taste their ice cream out of curiosity, and let them have a taste of yours. It would be encouraged rather than criticized: tasting each other’s ice cream is what friends do, after all.
That’s very different from choosing a political party: if you choose a political party, you are making an idiological (rather than subjective) decision, and you feel strongly about it being the “right” or “better” one – at least that’s how I feel when it comes to politics. I only have voting rights in Austria. Austria is a democracy with a large menu of political options. I oscillate between two of them, and have never voted for any other one: the Green party and the Communist party. I like both of them, and which one I will end up voting for is often a close call, and depends on the issues at hand and how they are handling it. I can’t see myself voting for any of the other parties, and some of the other parties (the ÖVP and the FPÖ, for example), I consider downright harmful to the planet, humanity, society and community.
In an ideal world, dog training would be like eating ice cream, not like voting. Thank you for coming to my TED talk!
Here’s a link to the podcast episode this post is riffing off of:
I wanted to add a little extra information to this week’s podcast – it has a funny background story.
Many years ago, as I was just starting out as a professional dog trainer, I took a year-long course for future trainers. I had selected it based on what I had read about it and the fact that I really wanted something in person (rather than KPA online).
The course turned out to be a disaster:it wasn’t at all what the description had me believe it would be. I knew this after 15 minutes of class, but wasn’t allowed to sell my spot to someone who actually wanted it (instead, that someone else had to purchase their own spot, which put us over the promised max number of students).
The teacher used learning theory terms incorrectly and was just really … insensitive and mean to folks. They were one of those people who love dogs and dislike humans. They were PETA-level-type animal advocates who basically thought dogs should live in large enclosures (like zoo animals), receive enrichment, and not be tortured by hikes, sports or clickers. This was not the trainer I wanted to be, and the course frustrated me over and over again.
The person I was back then was definitely edgier than the person I am today. I was self-righteous, radically queer and angry at the world.
From this class, I have taken no dog training knowledge – but it led me to cross paths with two people I wouldn’t want to miss in my life today. It was over a decade ago, and yet, these two connections persist.
One of them is Kenne who I interview on this podcast. They did not even take the course themselves – their wife did; Kenne and I just connected over random parking lot conversations.
The other one is Chris (who happens to live in Graz as well) and who is to this day one of my closest and most trusted friends. We connected right away over a shared love of Standard Poodles (I had Phoebe, who could be Chris’ vicarious Poodle) and shared queerness, a fondness of biology and intriguing discussions of relationship dynamics. Chris, in case you happen to be reading this – know that love you and that meeting you made up for all the suckiness of this course. I can’t even remember or imagine not having you in my life.
Kenne sometimes showed up during class breaks to visit their wife Sarina, who was taking the course. But there was this one time that, I believe, is what caused me to (quoting Rachel) want to keep an eye on this person and what they were doing in their life. Low-effort to maintain, and yet feeling like it is a meaningful connection with someone I so appreciate having met. The person I am today still appreciates Kenne, even though I have probably chaged a lot (and so have they, I imagine. Change, and be ready to change again!) Even though we don’t talk all the time, I feel like if I needed a place to stay in Graz, I could just ask Kenne and they’d say, “Of course!” And vice versa, of course, wherever I am in the world. Some people are just warm and engaging and wonderful to connect with, and Kenne is certainly one of them.
Anyways, back in the day, Kenne happened to be sitting in on the class I was giving my end-of-class presentation in. The edgy, feisty Jack-Russel-Terrier Chrissi of days gone by used this presentation to drive home two points: one, I wanted to show that teacher how to teach an engaging class. How it was done! How engagingly, interactively and fun one could teach! I made people laugh, moved while I was talking and threw high-value chocolates to (at) everyone asking or answering a question. I believe I had even brought a pineapple (thanks for that one, Kathy Sdao!) to add some extra flavor to my presentation. I used big words I had heard used incorrectly over the course of that class, speaking fast-paced and keeping people on their toes. Nobody was going to fall asleep this time!
It felt satisfying. And yet, afterwards, on the parking lot, I realized that the message I had tried to get across had probably gone over most people’s heads. After all, no one teaching or taking this class was a native English speaker, but since the person teaching it didn’t speak German either, it was conducted in English. It did not go over Kenne’s head though. They approached me in the parking lot and told me I was a sexist genius. To the Chrissi from back in the day (flaming red hair and all), this was a big compliment and I loved it. It let me know that Kenne had both read the organizers and teachers as snake oil salespeople, and had been amused by my retort. And as long as one person got it, I was happy. I felt like I had reached my goal.
To me, that was the beginning of our friendship. From my point of view, had Kenne not made this comment that day, we might have drifted apart.
Before recording this podcast, I asked them why they thought we had stayed in touch. Apart from their wife and me, they aren’t in touch with anyone from back then either. And what Kenne said made me smile. It’s something that still resonates with the Chrissi I am today: Kenne said I was an authentic person and they played with my Poodle, so of course we stayed in touch. (Or that’s what I heard or wanted to hear anyways.) So you, Kenne, are also worth having gone through that ridiculous course for. I feel SO grateful to have met you and get to have conversations like this one! Thank you!
A friend (who already knows quite a bit!) recently asked me where to learn more about dog training – and I started putting this list together. It’s not complete (there are so many great resources out there!), and the order is random: I just went in the order I thought of things. There is no deeper meaning or ranking to it. I have not read every single post, listened to every single podcast episode, or seen every single video on the Youtube channels recommended (except for my own content). However, if a resource is mentioned in this post, it is because it has caught my attention, and I have seen/read/listened to and enjoyed at least some of its content. My list is not restricted to any particular training philosophy.
If you have your own recommendations for FREE resources, leave them in the comments! I’ll remove advertising and recommendations for paid content. Apart from that – go ahead and share away! Add a link, what type of resource it is, and why you are recommending it!
… 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:
Most people find it easier to circle on a collar or front-attachment harness than on a back-attachment harness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Acknowledge your dog’s checking in with you! You can mark and feed, or simply praise your dog.
I’ve been too busy to blog, but I recently finished translating a second sample chapter for Nur Mut! (click here for the first English sample chapter). Here’s a sneak peak at one of the protocols from chapter 8.3 Early interventions for fearful puppies. Part 1 is my protocol for proximity. Part 2 will be the protocol for touch.
While these are sample chapters from a geeky book about working with fearful puppies, the protocols are relevant for fearful or insecure adult dogs as well.
Protocol for Proximity and Touch
Part 1: Protocol for Proximity
Before diving into the protocol itself, you need to establish how close you can get to your puppy without causing a stress reaction. No matter whether her threshold is 3 feet or 15 feet – add 2 steps to this distance. This is your starting point – a point where your puppy is perfectly relaxed.
Click – Treat – Retreat
Choose a time your puppy is resting calmly on her bed or another comfortable spot, but not asleep. Walk up to your starting point. Mark her relaxed body position with a click. Throw a treat to her. Turn around and retreat.
Retreating is an important part of this protocol. Not only do you pair your approach with food (classical counterconditioning), but you also negatively reinforce your puppy’s relaxed position by means of removing yourself – a potentially stressful stimulus – from her space. Wait 15 seconds, and repeat the exercise. Again, you will walk up to the starting point defined above, click, treat, and retreat. Keep your session to 5 minutes or less, and give your dog a break. Then, start the game again by means of walking up to your original starting point, treating, and retreating. You are explaining to your dog that you are playing the game she already knows. All she has to do is keep relaxing and wait for you to throw her a treat. What a great deal!
Do not walk closer to your dog until you are convinced she understands that your approach predicts a treat. Watch her body language: does she lift her head and start wagging her tail when you walk towards her? She is beginning to understand that something good is about to happen!
Once your dog is clearly happy about your approach, you are ready to walk one step closer your next rep. Click, throw a treat to your dog, and retreat. Stay at your new click point for at least 5 reps. Does your dog look equally relaxed and happy about your approach as before? Good! Walk another step closer in rep number 6. Click, treat, and retreat! Stick to your new click point until your dog looks forward to your approach. Then, walk one step closer again.
Depending on your starting distance, you may already be standing directly in front of your dog at this point. Avoid leaning over her and looking into her eyes. Dogs can find this typical primate posture threatening. Instead, look at the floor between you and your dog – right at the spot you are going to drop the treat. Make sure to not let your session run over five minutes before giving your puppy a break.
If everything went well, start your next session one step behind the final starting point of your last session. The first rep of this new session is just a little bit easier than the last rep of your last session. Gradually work your way closer again, just like you did before, until you are standing right in front of you puppy. Is your puppy perfectly comfortable or happy and curious? Excellent! Bend your knees just a little before you click and drop the treat. Straighten up, turn around slowly, and retreat. Again, wait 15 seconds in between the individual reps.
Can you do five reps of walking up to your puppy, bending your knees, and dropping a treat between her paws with her looking perfectly relaxed or happy to see you? (Review the body language chapter if you need help reading your dog!) You are ready to raise criteria! In your next rep, you will squat down completely, click, and reach towards your puppy’s front paws with your treat hand. Do not touch her paws, but drop the treat in between or right in front of them. Get up slowly, turn around, and retreat. Repeat this step several times, waiting 15 seconds in between each rep. Your puppy should look perfectly relaxed or happy to see you – anytime she appears concerned, move your click point back one step!
Before we raise the level of difficulty again, it is time for a cold trial. You are going to test whether your puppy has really learned that you squatting down in front of her and reaching out with your food hand is not a threat – even if you do not gradually work your way closer. Choose a time when your puppy is relaxed, but awake. Walk right up to her and squat down. Does your puppy appear just as comfortable with you being close as before? Great! You are ready for the next step.
Does she cower, retreat, bark, growl, snarl or snap? Freeze your movement the moment you notice her insecurity, and wait for your puppy to calm down. Count to five in your head: “One good puppy, two good puppies, three good puppies, four good puppies, five good puppies.” Then retreat and give your puppy a break. The reason I am asking you to freeze and count to five before retreating is that we do not want to negatively reinforce the potentially operant behavior of barking, growling, snarling or snapping by means of rewarding it with an increase in distance. Instead, we give the puppy five seconds to calm down or stop barking, and then reinforce her calm behavior with an increase in distance. Anything that doesn’t resemble offensive behavior does get reinforced by your retreat. In either case, try to avoid the need to use this kind of extinction of unwanted behavior in the first place. Ideally, all your training sessions will take place well under threshold. If your puppy hasn’t calmed down after 5 seconds, retreat either way.
Take a deep breath. Have a cup of tea and think about something else before you go back to training. Frustration and disappointment don’t make good teachers. Remember that all behavior is information. Now you know that your puppy isn’t yet ready to stay calm when you walk right up to her without gradually decreasing the distance. That’s okay. Go back to your last successful click point, and explain the game to your puppy again. Gradually work your way closer, just like you did before. End the session squatting down and dropping the treat between her paws.
Take a longer break, and then do another cold trial. Does your puppy stay confident and relaxed this time? Excellent! If your puppy struggles, be patient and explain the game from the beginning. If your puppy still struggles the third time you do a cold trial, find a competent trainer or behaviorist to help you develop a plan for your puppy to learn to tolerate and even enjoy your approach and touch (See chapter 10.6 Finding the right trainer or behaviorist).
Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Guatemala, and teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. In April, she will be teaching Out and About at FDSA – a class that is about a passion of her own: taking your dog on urban walks, nature hikes, and other adventures while having fun and staying safe. Registration opens today – come join me!
The pictures featured in Nur Mut! and in this post were taken by Olga Maderych of Gadabout Photography.
A while ago, I read an article by Veronica Boutelle (1) that really resonated with me. As pet dog trainers, what keeps our clients coming back is not the amount of fun they have in class, it’s not the heeling skills they master in the training space, and it’s not the praise you give them for their pretty dogs. Rather it’s the real-life relevancy of what they learn. As Veronica puts it, the most important skill we can teach in a pet dog class is how to adequately judge situations.
This seems obvious, and yet it’s rarely common in basic manners classes. I have to admit, with the exception of one-on-one classes and specialized workshops (reliable real-world recall workshop, beyond the backyard class), I myself haven’t focused on relevancy in the real world, either. Rather, I focused on giving everyone a good time. And while having a good time is great, applicability in everyday life might be even more important.
So I taught the the last two classes of my beginners’ group with the idea of real-life applicability in mind. Real life is messy, and unexpected things happen all the time! Real life is nothing like the training room we work in.
We had already worked on how to get basic behaviors like sit and down, come and loose leash walking, and how and when to put them on cue. So in the last two classes, I created a number of stations inside my training room. People got to draw a piece of paper out of a hat that told them what station they got to work on. The stations were:
Walk a cone slalom on a loose leash. (You’re taking your dog for a walk, and there are obstacles in your path. You want your dog to learn to pay attention to you and keep the leash loose even as you curve.)
Karl is leading Charly through the cone slalom, helping Charly to keep the leash loose!
Put your dog on a sit/stay next to you and make coffee! (At home, you might want to cook without your dog begging or bothering you.)
Andreas learns how high his rate of reinforcement needs to be if he wants Lagotto Kira to stay sitting in the hoop while he makes coffee!
Get your dog to walk around a table, using only hand-touches. (Real-world application: your dog’s trigger is close by, and you want to lead them past it without them getting distracted or reacting to it – focus on you!)
Guide your dog around the table using only hand touches!
The students sit together around a table at a coffee house, and while a waiter (me) serves them drinks and asks for their wishes, they have to keep their dogs in a sit or down. The challenge is not to reduce reinforcers as much as possible, but to learn how often and in what situation each dog needs to be reinforced in order to hold his position.
The students are practicing visiting a coffee house – and keeping their dogs well-mannered!
To wrap up the class, we took a brief walk around the neighborhood where I gave tips on loose leash walking and reading the dogs’ body language as we met a person and walked past a dog behind a fence. Karl learned that his little dog’s lifting of one front paw showed his insecurity: it meant that he wasn’t sure how to deal with a situation; he felt overwhelmed. I showed Karl how to make Charly feel safer, and how to see when Charly was ready to receive a cue – and when he wasn’t. Andreas learned what to do when Kira wanted to visit with another dog, and how real-life rewards (walking forward, sniffing) could be used to reward loose-leash walking when she was relaxed. He also saw in what situations he still needed a stronger reinforcer than the real-world rewards, and when Kira should get tasty treats for keeping the leash loose. We took a brief break at a grassy area, and I showed them how to let their dogs sniff out the world and only give a cue when they offered voluntary focus – a good opportunity to explain the benefits of sniffing (relaxes the dog, resembles reading the newspaper), and how we want to create a training relationship where our dogs ask us for work rather than us having to beg them to comply. The best moment to give a cue is when the dog is ready to receive it!
Walking around the block – beginners out and about in the real world, and doing great!
From my doggy preschool sessions, these were the ones that received the best feedback so far. It wasn’t about building behaviors step by step in a systematic fashion, it was about how to deal with real life. Real life doesn’t wait until your dog is ready to throws passers-by and dogs behind fences at you. You want to take your dog places like shopping of coffee shops even before he has a solid down/stay on cue. You want to know how to deal in the real world if behaviors are in danger of falling apart.
That’s exactly what we did the last two times – and it was a lot of fun!
(1) Boutelle, Veronica: The Business of Curriculum. The Dog Trainer’s Resource 3: The APDT Chronicle of the Dog Collection. Dogwise 2014.