It’s April, and we’re all sheltering in place and social distancing. Good thing dogs don’t seem to be able to get Coronavirus – we can snuggle with them to our heart’s content.
Ironically, the class I’m teaching at FDSA this term is called “Out and About.” I couldn’t have done a better job, had I actively tried to come up with an inappropriate class title for the times we’re living in! It’s not a new class, of course – the title is a reminder of past and – hopefully – future times where it’s safe and responsible to share public spaces.
The good thing about Out & About – and the reason I didn’t scratch it this term – is that, despite its unfortunate title, there are large parts of it that can be trained at home, right in your own house, in your yard, or during a socially distant walk. Out and About is my choose your own adventure class. Students get to pick one or more topics that are particularly interesting for them, and work on those: advanced recalls away from distractions, leash manners, certain challenges based in overexcitement or fear of particular stimuli, muzzle training, settling anywhere and everywhere … It’s a rich class.
Many of you are probably facing financial hardships right now: job insecurity, unemployment, or simply less work. I myself have stopped working with in-person clients entirely, and am only teaching online. I feel lucky that I still have a job, and that working in distance education isn’t new to me!
Knowing that not everyone is this lucky, I’ve decided to share a short lecture from my current class here with you. It’s a lecture from the first week of class. If you have a decent recall already and are a savvy dog trainer, you’ll be able to take this lecture, come up with your very own training plan, and have something to work on with your dog over the next few weeks – even though you may not be able to afford a class this term. So this is for you, to give you a little something to play with and experiment with! This is my blueprint for analyzing recall challenges, and drafting training plans for recalls away from specific distractions.
Write out the answers to steps 0-4! Writing things down will help you identify details about your challenge that you might otherwise overlook.
How to Analyze Your Recall Challenge and Make a Training Plan
Unlike the foundational steps for a reliable recall, advanced challenges are as individual as the dogs who are facing them. It all comes down to what reinforcers your dog prefers, who she is, and what kind of distraction we are addressing.
With a focus on one specific recall challenge you are facing (e.g. critters, food on the street, other dogs), answer the following questions:
0. What is your baseline behavior?
What happens right now if your dog is faced with the distraction you would like to work on? Take a video if you can, and analyze it! Recording your dog and yourself will allow you to be your own coach!
1. Analyze your problem!
a) Is it really a recall challenge, or does it only look like one? (A lack of response rooted in fear, for example, is not a recall challenge.)
b) Is the distraction something your dog can have some of the time, or is the distraction always off limits? If your dog can have it some of the time – could the distraction itself be used as a recall reward?
c) Do you have a reward that is potentially higher value than the distraction?
d) Can you control the distraction? If not, is there a way to make it controllable, or a controllable stand-in distraction you could use in training set-ups?
2. Define a realistic training goal and/or management solution. Write it down in detail!
3. Draft a training plan!
a) Break your overall training goal down into smaller subgoals (milestones).
b) Make a detailed plan from your baseline to your first milestone.
c) Write down any additional relevant details concerning set-ups, reinforcers, and criteria! When will you raise criteria? When will you lower criteria? What distance will there be between your dog and the distraction? How will you ensure your dog can’t access the distraction when working off leash? Be as specific as you can!
4. Start working towards your first milestone!
Video every session, and analyze it afterwards. It may sound tedious, but trust me: video will help you notice things you missed in real time, and allow you to adjust your training plan based on what you learned. And if you get stuck despite having taken video? Share your video with a dog training friend of yours! A second set of eyes will often be able to recognize issues you overlooked, and a friend’s ideas can get you out of a training rut!
As some of you might know, I’m teaching a class on finding time to train at FDSA. It’s about life getting in the way, and how to fit our training plans into busy days.
More than one student has noted that they feel ashamed or guilty about not doing more with their dogs. This got me thinking. It’s quite common in my circle of friends and colleagues that someone will talk about all the things they did with their dog last weekend, and someone else will respond with guilt. It also happens unprompted: “I really should do more with my dog …” I’m not unfamiliar with this feeling myself. I used to think I needed to do All The Things with All The Dogs All The Time lest I be a bad dog owner, unworthy of having such wonderful companions. I’ve gotten better about it in the last year or two. And let’s be honest for a minute: it’s not just that some days, I don’t do All The Things with All The Dogs. The unspeakable truth is that some days, just for a moment or two, I wish I didn’t even have dogs. And, believe it or not: it doesn’t make me a bad dog owner. It just makes me human.
I think our guilty gut reaction stems from the dog training culture we are a part of: “we,” that is me and probably you, too, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog: it’s people who are committed to providing their dogs with as rich and fulfilling a life as possible. People who go the extra mile for their dogs. Social media makes it easy to connect with and follow others who share the same culture. You can join Facebook groups and watch the youtube videos and pictures of friends and strangers. All of this is great and can be lots of fun – until it isn’t, and we feel guilty when our day was too busy to do All The Things other people seem to be doing for there dogs. When we scroll through our newsfeed, we see pictures of people spending time with their dogs: Susan rocked a nosework trial last weekend, Tom is blogging about his agility training journey, Meg and Thunder just got their CDX. We see pictures of dogs posing with trophies, flying over a jump, or indicating a vehicle hide. We also see pictures of people hiking with dogs, announcing they just entered a trial, and pictures of a delicious-looking home-cooked dog meal someone spent at least 30 minutes preparing.
When we meet up with other dog people, this is what we talk about, too: someone’s getting ready for their BH, someone else didn’t have a good day at a show, but stood up for their dog and made sure they felt safe, someone else took their dogs on a play date, and someone else yet tells us about the goings-on at the local obedience club they volunteer at.
Let me tell you a secret: just because people actively doing stuff with their dogs is all we see and hear about doesn’t mean this is all there is. Just because everyone seems to have all the time in the world to meet all the needs their dog may have or develop doesn’t mean they really do this all day, every day. They probably work, in order to be able to afford meeting all these needs. And occasionally, they sleep. They fight with their significant others, teach their children how to brush their teeth, they are stuck in traffic for an hour, visit their parents, and shop for groceries and Christmas presents.
It’s easy to capture and share perfect moments on social media. Every day has some of them, surrounded by lots of mundane stuff that has little to do with dogs, and isn’t worth posting a picture of.
My days have mundane stuff, too, and the part of my life I spend working with other people’s dogs is often bigger than the part that I spend with my own. And still: I’m a good dog owner, and if you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure so are you. I believe my dogs have well-balanced, rich lives. They get off leash hikes, R+ training, food toys, cuddles on the couch, and they have social relationships with both humans and dogs. I love my dogs. I’m one of these people who post pictures and videos on facebook all the time.
You probably already know that, so let’s talk about the things that usually get swept under the dog bed instead. I love Fanta, Phoebe, Grit, and Game. And yet, there are days when I wish I didn’t have dogs! Yep – I wish I didn’t have even one of them. I’m a freelance writer, editor and translator, and I own a small dog training business. With rare exceptions, I work 7 days a week. That’s fine – I love what I do, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But sometimes, when there’s just too much on my plate, when I’m stressed out and tired and my head hurts, I’m trying to finish a book project, see clients, get groceries, write an article for a dog sports magazine, do the laundry, clear my forums, and listen to a friend who just went through a divorce … Then I wish I didn’t have dogs. I wish I could finish the day’s work, get in my car, and drive to a spa. I’d check into a big, luxurious room with a big double bed and a view over something gorgeous. I’d take a steaming hot shower with several ridiculously tiny bottles of hotel bath products. Smelling like vanilla and almonds, I’d get out of the shower (after at least an hour), and slip into one of these incredibly soft, white bathrobes, and I’d walk barefoot, leaving wet footprints on the floor, back into the bedroom. I’d order room service, and I’d zip through the TV channels on a big flat screen TV while lying on my bed and picking on something delicious. I’d watch some romantic comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet – nothing profound, please, but corny enough to make me cry. I’m on vacation. I’d order a lava cake for dessert, or creme brulee, or something else with a French name that sounds much better than it tastes – in this fantasy, it tastes fantastic, of course. And then I’d fall asleep in the big, white, cozy and dog-hair-free bed. It would be so comfortable that I could immediately fall asleep, without thinking about work or life or anything else, like I usually do. I’d have the best kind of dreamless sleep, and I’d sleep in (something else I rarely do). Then I’d get up and splurge on a fantastic breakfast buffet. Later, I’d go to the pool and hang out and soak in the water, and lie in a deck chair and re-read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or something like that: good, yet easy to read. At some point, I’d get up and have a massage. It would smell good and there would be relaxing music in the background, and the masseuse would help me get rid of all the tension and stress in my shoulders. I’d feel wonderful. I’d have lunch, and then hang out in a whirlpool, and then have a nap, and then order more room service, and take a bubble bath in a triangle-shaped bathtub in my huge bathroom under a palm tree.
On days like this, sometimes, I don’t take my dogs for a walk, and I don’t train them. Instead, they get to spend the day running around the yard together and hanging out next to me while I work, chewing on a bully stick. Did anything exciting happen that day? No, not at all. Was it a bad day for a dog? No, it wasn’t – it was just a day where nothing exciting happened. And you know what? That’s okay. Even for a Malinois. (And, which is more surprising, even for Phoebe.)
I’ve never stayed at a spa hotel overnight, by the way – I don’t have time for stuff like this, and I can think of countless things I’d rather spend my money on than spa vacations. I probably wouldn’t like the real spa experience as much as my imaginary one, anyways – I might get bored doing nothing all day. I’m not used to this. It might be quite scary. My imaginary spa vacation is perfect though. I’ve perfected the art of imagining it to the point where I’ll lie in bed and imagine the massage part in so much detail that my shoulders will actually feel better by the time I get up.
The next day, I’ll be back to being a happy dog owner, and we’ll train again, or go for a long walk, or both. I won’t have loved them any less the day before. I just wished, for a moment or two, that I could press pause and step out of my life for a relaxing spa weekend. And that’s okay. We all get to do that sometimes – whether it’s our dogs, our children, or our significant others we need an imaginary break from. And I honestly believe it’s okay to give ourselves permission to do so.
Are there people who never wish they didn’t have dogs (or children, or significant others)? Probably. If you’re one of them – good for you! I’m not one of them though, and you know what? I’m okay with that. And if you’re like me, you should be okay with it, too.
Grit has been nervous around strangers since she had to stay at a vet clinic at 6 months of age. We’ve been taking it slow and focused on doing the things we enjoy.
For the first time since her surgery, I took her to a workshop last weekend. The presenter was Denise Fenzi, which made it a perfect opportunity to see how Grit would do in a training building. I wouldn’t have taken her to an indoors seminar in a small space if it had been a different trainer, but with Denise, I didn’t need to worry about being pushed to work Grit even if she was overwhelmed. Grit ended up having a really good experience, and so did I. I’m really happy with how she has started to improve! Day 1 of the workshop was about engagement and play … So going from acclimation to engagement to a little personal play worked nice for us, and Denise’s guidance was very helpful. The second day was Handler’s Choice for Obedience. I didn’t know if Grit would be at a good place to do work, and Denise said it was okay if she didn’t – then we’d just stick with acclimation and engagement. Grit did well and got to work and play a little on day 2 – she had really improved! I’m so happy she is regaining confidence around strangers!
I don’t have a video of the first time I took Grit into the training space – the first time was very brief, just a walk-through before everyone had arrived.
2nd time in the training space. I have no food and no toys on my body.
3rd time. I have food in case I need it, but Grit doesn’t know.
4th time. I have food, but Grit doesn’t know.
5th time. I have food and a toy, but Grit doesn’t know.
The only goal here is to give her the opportunity to acclimate and feel comfortable. I don’t care if I will work or even play with her, but I want her to learn that nothing bad happens in this room full of people. Yes, the space was small, and yes, Grit was obviously nervous – but she improved quickly. This is because she is given all the time she needs.
It would be easy to ask Grit to do things for me, or to play with her right away. I’ve tested this – she is able to respond to cues even when she is quite uncomfortable and stressed, and she will play even when she is desperate and scared. She is drivey, and it is easy to overwhelm her fear with toy play or work. But she’d be tense and on edge, and she’d have moments of checking out and then back in again. I don’t want to build these negative emotions into training or play, so I choose to not go down this road. In scary environments, I want to give her the opportunity to look around, explore, and see that the world is a safe place. I want her to learn that I won’t let bad things come near her, and that I won’t let her go near bad things. In environments that aren’t scary, on the other hand, I work with her, play with her, train her, and have fun. And as time goes by, there will be more and more overlap between these two kinds of environments.
Dogs – and insecure dogs in particular – need leadership in order to feel safe. It’s easy to confuse this with not giving a dog the choice to keep her distance from the things that scare her, or forcing engagement and not allowing her to look around at all. Appropriate leadership depends on the situation as well as on the dog in question. In the situation you see in my videos, leadership means mainly that I prevent Grit from making bad decisions and getting closer to a stranger than she can handle. I don’t need to jerk on her leash to do this, and I don’t need verbal commands to control her – I just use the leash to stop her when she gets too close to someone she shouldn’t get close to. I should probably have kept the leash even shorter and prevented her from jumping up on her friends, too. But she did okay.
You can see that I’m not leading Grit by intimidation or force … Quite the opposite, actually. I’m not big or scary; I’m just myself. I try to forget about the other people in the room … It’s just me and my dog, and Denise’s guidance. We’re in a new space, but unlike Grit, I know it is a safe space. So I act like I do in safe spaces: I’m relaxed (once I have managed to forget about the audience), I talk to her about the people in the room, the smells on the floor and the objects she investigates, and I tell her she is a good girl. (You can’t hear me because the camera is so far away that it only picks up on Denise’s microphone, and I’m not talking loudly.) I let her investigate the room whichever way she wants, as long as she doesn’t put herself in a situation she can’t handle. I sit down and scratch her ears and her chest, like I know she enjoys. I am gentle and playful, like we are in our own living room.
You can see how my relaxation eases her worries, and that she comes to me for comfort. She has learned that she is safe with me, and when she gets stressed, she asks for emotional support.
All dogs are different. Some don’t like to be touched when they feel insecure. Grit likes it – emotional support and our invisible connection are huge for her. This is what gets her through the situation and helps her relax more and more. It’s not something we just did for the first time in this space. We have built this connection since her puppyhood – not because I expected to use it in this way, but because it is one of the ways I like to relate to my dogs. I make sure to maintain this kind of relationship throughout a dog’s life, and not stop interacting this way as soon as she is grown up. It gets woven into everyday life, into cuddles on the couch and morning rituals. It’s strong enough that we can take it with us to a new space like this. I’m happy with what Grit gives me here!
(If you want to improve your play and handling skills, check out Denise Fenzi’s Relationship Building through Play and Amy Cook’s Bogeyman class at FDSA!)
Living dogs can be fun, and it can be incredibly frustrating – particularly if you have a dog who is almost as smart as you are! A client of mine had to face this fact the other day: she had trained her lab mix to come when called, making sure to always have treats that were higher value than the environment she practiced in. She had purchased a long line to practice recalls in the real world – and Nikki was a star! She called, and he turned on a dime and came flying back to her, ready to receive his reward: a game of tug, string cheese, and lots of praise. Maria was good at rewarding her dog, too: she knew what he liked in what situations, and she paid him well. She had built a great relationship, which meant that both of them enjoyed training and living together.
Finally, the big day had come: lots of times, Maria had hiked with Nikki on a long line, and she had practiced recalling him off the occasional cat, squirrel, or doggie playmate. He hadn’t hesitated to come in months; he deserved to be trusted off leash!
Maria unhooked the leash, and the hike continued as usual. Nikki kept his usual radius, sniffed rocks and trees, looked back at his owner every once in a while and gently wagged his tail. Maria called, and Nikki came running back to her.
Everything went well – until they saw a dog in the distance. Lisa decided to put Nikki on leash. She called … But Nikki didn’t flinch an ear. He took off at full speed, and by the time the surprised Linda had called a second time, her dog was already dancing and play-bowing around the strange dog. He had left his usual radius and ignored his recall cue in a situation he had reliably responded to in the past. Why?
There are dogs, there are smart dogs, and there are dogs like Nikki: not only smart, but also very good with contextual cues. Dogs like Nikki know exactly whether they are on leash or not. They also know that as long as they are attached to their owner, there is no point in ignoring her. But off-leash, you get to do whatever you want! If playing with another dog is more tempting than the reward you might get when coming when called, dogs like Nikki choose to go play. And why shouldn’t they? Carpe diem!
There are several possible solutions to this. Today, I’ll show you what Nikki and Maria will be working on in the next weeks: a force-free way of getting the same reliability off-lesh as on leash. Please note that the following steps are for dogs like Nikki: dogs who know what is expected of them, and who reliably respond well – as long as they are on a long line. It’s not for dogs who haven’t yet learned to come when called.
In the following 7 steps, you are going to create the illusion that you are still in control: you are going to fade the long line in a way that your dog doesn’t notice the difference!
1) Retrain your recall with your dog in a harness (important!) and on a long line. If you use a harness in everyday life, get a new one specifically for this exercise. Choose one that touches different parts of your dog’s body than her usual harness (back attachment instead of front attachment, Y-shaped brest strips rather than Norwegian-style harness …).
2) Practice until your dog reliably comes when in his new recall harness with you holding his long line.
3) Let your dog drag the line rather than holding on to its end. Practice your recall. If your dog tries to ignore it, step on the line and prevent him from reinforcing himself. Stay at this stage until your dog has a reliable recall with the line dragging behind him – that is, until the point where you don’t ever have to step on the line anymore, because your dog always cooperates (knowing that there is no point in not cooperating, since obviously, you’re still in control)!
4) Cut 1.5 feet off your long line, and do your usual training session. Ideally, your dog should not notice the difference.
5) Cut 1.5 feet off the remaining long line, and do your usual training session. Ideally, your dog should not notice a difference.
See where I’m going with this?
We’re going to shorten the line in 1.5-foot increments – so small, in fact, that your dog doesn’t notice the waight of the line he is dragging changes.
6) Repeat step 5 until you are almost out of line.
7) At some point, there will only be an inch of line or so left attached to your dog’s harness. Take off the line, but leave the harness on, and train this way. Your dog should feel like she is still under your control because she feels the harness on her body, even though she’s actually off leash!
The secret: only EVER raise criteria after you have what feels like a 100% success rate at the previous level – otherwise, your dog might learn again that you can’t stop him anymore! If he ever does take off and ignores you, you may have to go back to your long line and work your way through the steps again. But trust me – it’s worth it! Off-leash hiking is fun!
I picked up my 8-week old puppy! She already makes me so happy! The drive home, stuck in the car crate, she took turns sounding like a crying child and an angry little raptor – for 1.5 hours. The moment I took her out, she was all bouncy, happy puppy love. She curiously explored the house and yard with me, sniffed and climed on everythign she could reach, tail wagging confidently. She met all three dogs, one after the other, and curiously approached each one of them without fear or hesitation. I introduced them outside, the adult dogs on a leash. Fanta and Phoebe were good. Hadley lunged at her with a bark. She jumped back and fled a few steps, then stopped and watched him hesitantly for a brief moment before she approached again. I put Hadley away and tried again later, separated from her by a baby gate. He gave her a cold, hard stare and a growl. Again, she jumped back and fled for a few steps, then was ready to approach again, all curious and waggy. I decided to keep them separate for now and treat and praise Hadley for hanging out in the same room (but out of reach) from her in order to change his emotional response.
Later on the first day, Grit was in her ex-pen and Hadley was lying in his favorite spot under the couch. After snoozing for a bit, he opened his eyes, stared hard and growl-barked while hardly lifting his head. This time, she did not jump back, but stiffened and growled right back without so much as a flinch. I was impressed by this 8-week old puppy’s confidence. She had been happy and curious about meeting him twice. He had told her he didn’t like her, and by the third time, she seemed to have decided that in this case, she wouldn’t like him either.
Luckily, there was only one other incident so far where he growled at her (and again, she stiffened and growled right back). Otherwise, I’ve fed him lots of treats and praised him for hanging out in the same room, at a safe distance, and I’ve given him time being out in the yard without her (he wouldn’t mind staying out all day anyways). Whenever given a chance and not growled at, luckily, Grit still wants to approach happily. He has started turning his head sideways and licking his licks when she walks past him, and has also chosen to simply walk away on several occasions. Of course, I’m making sure to praise and give him attention in order to honor his good decisions. This might take some management and work, but I’ll get them to get along just fine. I’m seeing little improvements in him already.
I wonder whether the audacity to growl back at a larger and older dog is what the breeder meant when he called Grit “a dominant female”. From what I could tell, Grit and one of her brothers were his favorites in the litter. In the right hands, he said, these two would make excellent working dogs – and they were, he said, the “dominant” ones in this litter. I never really know what people mean when they say that a dog is “dominant”. Depending on who you ask, the definition of the term will be quite different. Some people will even tell you that dominance does not exist at all. After buying in the alpha theories myself when I had Snoopy, my first dog, I read Barry Eaton’s Dominance in Dogs – Fact or Fiction? and took a dog trainer course run by Anne-Lill Kvam. Both of them convinced me that dominance and social hierarchies among dogs were, in fact, pure fiction – I became one of the people who denied its existence. But in the years that followed, I learned more, read more, worked with more dogs, fostered and owned new dogs – and changed my belief again. The attitude that dominance does not exist is a reaction to the fact that the term has been misused as a justification for highly aversive training methods – it has been suggested that owners need to “dominate” their dogs in order not to be dominated by them. If you ask me today, I will tell you that yes, I believe dominance does exist, and so does social structure in communities and families – both canine and human ones. However, the fact that there is a hierarchy does not justify aggression – in fact, the entire reason for hierarchies within groups of mammals is to avoid aggression and always know where one stands rather than having to “fight it out” time and again. In The Other End of the Leash (149f), Patricia McConnell defines dominance as “a relationship among individuals, with one having more status than others in a particular context”. It is “priority access (I get it first) to preferred (I really want it), limited (there’s not enough to share) resources (the best food, the best sleeping place, the best office […])”. If we go with this definition, being a dominant dog would mean that Grit is likely to rise in the social hierarchy above other dogs once she’s older – it means she’ll be the one who gets to sleep on the couch and greet me first when I come home. Is this what my breeder meant? I don’t know – probably not. Maybe he meant that Grit doesn’t tend to back down easily? That she doesn’t give up when she wants something? That she isn’t soft and sensitive? People mean so many things when they call a dog dominant, and depending who says it, it can be a compliment or an insult. In any case, the name Grit seems to fit my puppy, because she’s quite the gritty little person already. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what she is: a gritty little person. That’s a good thing, and all I need to know for now.
A technician came to fix something at our new house on her first day. Grit greeted him happily and confidently. She has, so far, not shown real fear of anything, and bounced back quickly from any little startle. She has played with me – she takes everything she can carry into her mouth and proudly runs around with it! -, she enjoys games of tug already, and she tries to engage Phoebe in play. Phoebe is not quite sure about how to play with her yet because she’s so small, but she’s starting to respond, inhibiting her exuberant nature in order not to hurt her little sister.
We’re letting Grit sleep in our bed at night. I believe this helps build a strong relationship and makes a puppy feel safe in her new home. Plus, when she wakes up, I wake up and can take her right outside to potty. And it spares any neighbors you may have the pain of listening to your puppy cry through her first night in a crate. I crate-train puppies as well, but during the day.
Speaking of crate training: this is going to be my first challenge. Grit does not appreciate being restricted in her freedom of movement. Whenever that happens, her inner baby raptor comes out in protest. She is fine going into her open crate to eat, but if I close the door – even if I remain sitting right outside, next to the crate door – she protests and complains in her angry baby raptor voice, interspersed with fits of crying child. I’d prefer closing the crate door, waiting a few seconds, and opening it again (with the puppy remaining quiet all the time), then slowly increasing the time the door stays closed. But Grit starts complaining the instant the door is being closed – so I’m waiting her out, even if it takes half an hour or more. As soon as I can count to ten without her whining, barking or growling, I let her out. We’ll see how this goes.
I’m less worried about frustrating her a bit, for example by keeping her in the crate, than I am with most dogs or puppies. She is the most confident puppy I have had, and she is not as soft and sensitive as Phoebe and Hadley were when they were little. So I doubt that a bit of frustration will dampen her spirit – in fact, I think it may even be good for her to figure out herself that her raptor impression does not open doors – but quietly waiting will. And better teach that now than when her voice is even stronger and her stamina bigger!
I’m more than happy with my choice of breeder. Grit has no problem stepping onto new surfaces, and figuring out how to get around or over obstacles. She’s not noise sensitive – Hadley found a balloon, bit it and popped it right next to Grit. There was a loud noise – Hadley fled. Grit didn’t even flinch. She’s also not overly sensitive to touch. When she is calm and quiet, I can play with her paws and toes, touch the toe nails, look into her ears and into her mouth, and she stays relaxed throughout the process. On day one, she figured out to sit politely to ask for something. She may have learned that at the breeder’s – in any case, she already knows sitting opens doors, gets attention, rubs, and treats, and restarts a game. She’s a smart and cooperative little girl. Getting to know her makes me think there must be an even bigger genetic component than I thought to many things we value in our dogs, such as confidence, sensitivity to touch and sound, play “drive” etc. Phoebe and Hadley both may come across as rather confident dogs these days, but neither of them was born this way. Phoebe was nervous, and her confidence and ability to optimistically approach new people was something I carefully built. Hadley was afraid of everything when Tom got him: dogs, loudish noises, skateboards, children … The first few months of his life, Tom wasn’t home much, so I took over working through his issues. I set up lots and lots of situations where he could meet friendly dogs and children in a way that made him feel safe and raised his confidence. I worked on desensitizing him to noises, sudden movements, and weird objects … You wouldn’t be able to tell today, but he was a very fearful puppy. If clients approach me with puppy problems, it’s usually also because they have fear-related issues: hiding, running away, freezing, or fear-aggression. Grit is nothing like that. She’s definitely one of the most confident puppies I’ve ever worked with, and I’m really excited about this!
So far, I’ve given her time to explore the house and yard, worked with the crate a bit, and played the name game Judy Keller and Deb Jones suggest in the Focused Puppy book so both her name and the clicker get associated with good things. Apart from that, I’ve reinforced asking for attention by means of sitting, and I’ve played, played, played with her – personal play and toy play. I believe the most important foundation you can build with a dog is a good relationship. If you have that, everything else will fall into place. And playing with puppies is the most fun way to a great relationship, if you ask me! Of course, I’ve also let her fall asleep on my lap, stroked and cuddled her, which she seems to enjoy, and informally practiced handling various body parts in between these relaxing massage sessions. I’ve let Tom play with her and feed her treats for sitting politely as well, and explained to him that lifting your feet when a puppy is attached to your shoelaces communicates to her that you’re playing tug of war. And while Grit was sleeping, I’ve not only found time to get some work done, but also spent a little quality time with Tom, who just got back from a conference in Baltimore. It has been a good first few days!
I’m just starting to get to know Grit, but I’m already in love with the little one. We’ll have lots of fun, and she’ll be a most wonderful, challenging companion and training partner.
I’ve been learning a lot about breeding, puppy evaluations, and making the right match between puppies and owners. Why? Well, this is a facinating topic, and I’m getting closer to adding a new puppy to my four-legged family – a puppy who I don’t only want to be a performance prospect for herding and obedience, but also a potential future breeding bitch. This decision warrants lots of research!
I’m currently taking Avidog‘s Introduction to Transformational Dog Breeding course. It’s a fascinating, in-depth class about everything from setting breeding goals to selecting breeding stock, best feeding options, raising puppies, evaluating potential homes, evaluating puppies, and matching puppies to available homes. I’m particularly intrigued by Gayle Watkins’ differentiation between (1) skills that can be seen in puppies vs. skills that can’t be seen in puppies, and (2) stable vs. tweakable traits. It makes a lot of sense to look at dogs from this perspective, yet I’ve never consciously done it this way and also don’t think it’s a very common approach. So I thought I’d share parts of it with you – maybe it’ll blow your minds like it is blowing mine!
(1) Skills that can be seen in puppies vs. skills that can’t be seen in puppies
Gayle gives two examples: selecting a future hunting dog, and selecting an agility prospect. As for crucial hunting dog skills that can be seen in puppies, she mentiones a good nose, birdiness, ground speed, and a love for water. Hunting dog skills that cannot be seen in puppies include marking, the ability to handle pressure, persistance, and the dog’s passion for his sport/job. In agility, Gayle names ground speed and athleticism as skills that can be seen in puppyhood, and again the ability to handle pressure and the dog’s passion for the sport as skills that cannot be seen in puppyhood.
The skills that can be seen in puppyhood can be tested through a variety of systematic puppy evaluations including temperament testing, health tests, and structural evaluations (for example, is the puppy built correctly in order to be able to excel in a particular job or sport?). There are a number of tests available that allow the evaluator to score the puppies on various dimensions in order to place them with their ideal homes. Learning about these tests is another particularly intriguing element of the class – I’ll definitely do these kinds of tests with my own litters one day (yep, one day …!). Just reading about them has made me realize how many subtle and not-so-subtle differences there can be between the puppies in one and the same litter, and how evaluating a litter systematically (rather than just going with the breeder’s gut feeling) leads to the best possible matching results for puppies and owners. And well-matched puppies make for happy dogs, happy owners, and a happy breeder!
If you’re as fascinated by puppy temperament and working ability evaluations as I am, check out the following tests:
As for skills that can’t be seen in puppies – how can breeders find out about them in order to make good mating choices and match puppies and owners well? For these skills, Gaile recommends a thorough pedigree analysis of the litter, selecting the breeding stock with a focus on the attributes desired in the puppies, and guiding future owners when it comes to training methods that may help build the skills important to them.
(2) Stable vs. tweakable traits
Gayle defines stable temperament traits as traits that “vary little over a dog’s lifetime,” and are difficult to to change by means of training, socialization, and development experiences. Stable traits are “best accomodated or managed”.
The stable traits Gayle lists are energy level, environmental focus, forgiveness, handshyness, pain threshold, people focus, stress type and 3-dimensionality.
Wow – first of all, yes, indeed, all of these are very important traits for working dogs – and, depending on what kind of handler you are, you want stronger or weaker scores in certain ones! Second, I had not bee aware that forgiveness and handshyness were stable traits! Pretty cool stuff – I need to learn more, and I want to know how to evaluate and score these traits in puppies as well as adult dogs!
It’s interesting for me to look at my own dogs by means of these categories. Phoebe is definitely a high energy dog with a strong people focus. I am not sure how Gayle defines handshyness, but if she means dogs that don’t like to be touched a lot, Phoebe scores moderately high on that level. Forgiveness would be moderate as well. As for 3-dimensionality, I’m not sure what this means in dogs, so can’t comment on it. I’m also not sure what exactly she means by stress type – is it whether a particular dog tends to stress up or down? In that case, Phoebe would definitely someone who stresses up – in contrast to Fanta, who stresses down.
I made a table and quickly and very unscientifically scored Phoebe, Fanta, Snoopy, Hadley and my hypothetical ideal future puppy on these traits. Wherever I didn’t write anything, I don’t know Gayle’s definition of the trait in question.
In contrast, tweakable temperament traits are defined as traits that can be influenced by training, socialization, and development experiences. Gayle says they are best dealt with by the owner’s actions during the first 16 weeks and the following 8 months of life. Tweakable traits according to Gayle include assertiveness, biddability, drives, focus, learning speed, problem-solving style, resilience, self-confidence & courage, sight & sound sensitivity, and stability. Again, I am not sure how some of these are defined (problem-solving style? staibility?), and I’m not sure which drives Gayle distinguishes. However, I was surprised to learn that biddability was a tweakable trait – I’ve thought of it as a more permanent one! Wow – so many possibilities, assuming these traits really are tweakable! Since it’s fun, I made another quick and unscientific table with scores from Low to High. As for drives, I randomly chose to use food drive, toy drive, working drive, and hunting drive, and to define “drive” as “love for …”. This might not have been what Gayle had in mind, but it was fun to think about the dogs in my life along these lines all the same! As for Hadley, things like biddability have a question mark because I don’t work with him – Tom does. I sometimes wonder if some of his traits would be different if I trained him. Now that I’m looking at a table of “tweakable” traits, I’m assuming that this is entirely possible. Fascinating stuff!
… and now it gets even more interesting! Gayle points out that there are no perfect puppies, no perfect owners, and no perfect matches. However, the goal of the responsible breeder should be to make the best match possible – even if this means that a potential puppy buyer will have to wait for the next litter or find a different breeder, or has to keep one of the puppies yourself because there is no good match for them available. In order to do this, she thoroughly interviews puppy buyers in order to really learn about their expecations, experience, and preferred training style.
Top working and sports homes need a structurally healthy puppy that can thrive in its sport or job. These evaluations seem comparatively easy to make – vet exams, and structural evaluations by an experienced, objective person. However, what kind of energy level does a potential owner prefer in her dog? High energy dogs may look beautiful when working, but can be hard to live with in everyday life. What is the puppy buyer’s preferred training style, and how experienced is she? A puppy who isn’t very forgiving and resilient could still thrive with an experienced, motivational trainer, but might shut down with an inexperienced trainer who relies on force. If there are mismatches between dogs and owners on stable traits, Gayle honestly points them out to her buyers, and together, they decide whether to still make the match – or not. According to her, the most common mismatches on stable traits are energy level, enviromental focus, and forgiveness. Are the puppy buyers willing to adapt to their dog or manage these traits, or do they want to wait for a better match?
Tweakable mismatches pose less of a challenge. As far as these are concerned, everyone who buys a puppy from Gayle gets a training plan that is tailored to their wishes and the puppy’s temperament, with the goal of smoothing out the mismatch as much as possible. The training plan details how to socialize and train the puppy, what developmental opportunities to present him with, and what to watch out for. Tweakable, Gayle adds, always only means tweakable to a degree – a puppy who showed hardly any biddability in his first 8 weeks of life may be trained to become a bit more biddable, but he will never be a highly biddable dog.
Okay, so now I really want a puppy from a breeder who will not only raise the litter according to Puppy Culture principles, but do temperament evaluations and match the puppy’s personality to mine! Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. For the kinds of dogs I’m interested in, it’s hard to find breeders who do at least basic socialization and don’t exclusively raise their puppies outside, in a barn or kennel – at least in Europe. North America seems to have a slightly bigger choice of top-notch breeders, mainly because the puppy programs I’m into originated here. Well, I’m not getting a puppy in North America, but in Europe. Anywhere in Europe is fine, really, but driving distance from Vienna would be preferred. I do have my eyes set on a litter already. No, these are not Puppy Culture puppies, but they do get basic socialization and are not exclusively raised outside. I’ll be able to visit the litter regularly as the puppies grow up, watch the dam work, and talk extensively to the breeder about the kind of puppy I’m looking for. I’m prepared to rely on my gut feeling when it comes to the breeder: I want to get to know him and his dogs. If I feel like we understand each other and he “gets” me, I’ll trust his recommendation on a puppy for me. If I feel like our personalities clash and he doesn’t get what I’m looking for (something slightly unusual for the breed I’m thinking about), I’ll be ready to walk away. But I’m hoping for the former scenario … And I’m cautiously optimistic. Luckily, I’ll also have an expierienced friend by my side who shares my philosophy and will help me decide … And, if the breeder allows us to test his puppies, we might even do Deb Jones’ and Judy Keller’s performance puppy evaluation test with the litter (the test is explained in the Focused Puppy book). And nope, I’m not telling you more about the four-legged little landshark I’m thinking about – not yet, that is. 🙂
My new doggy primary school class started last night. It’s a beginners class for dogs and owners who are new to training: an intro to come when called, loose leash walking, hand touch, sit, down and stay are on the syllabus.
The skills we teach are basic, and the class size is small – so I decided to give you a chance to be my demo dog for the first time. You’ve assisted me in private classes before, but never in a group setting. Usually, Fanta is my go-to assistant. He’s more mature and doesn’t need quite as much attention as you do! Well, at almost 3 years, you have earned the right to start working as my group assistant, too! And yesterday was your first day. I don’t know if I was more excited about a new group of students, or about your first day of work! I knew the hard part for you, my little workoholic, wouldn’t be the demo-ing as such, but the down-time when I’d expect you to just hang out in your crate in the corner or hold a down-stay in the middle of the room while I’d work with my students.
I can’t begin to describe how happy and proud I am! Phoebe, you did so well. You got a big bone to chew in your crate, and while there were times when you just stood there and longingly observed the others work, and a few instances when you responded to the excitement barking of the young Pomeranian with one isolated bark, for the most part, you kept incredibly quiet. You worked on your bone, and when I took you out to demonstrate an exercise, you were happy to show off your skills. You’ve come such a long way! You’re so full of energy and bouncy happiness and desire to work. I’m very proud that you’ve been able to be patient when I wasn’t paying attention to you during yesterday’s class, and keep all your bubbling energy inside until it was time to show it off. I know what a hard job that must have been for you.
Thank you for sharing your life with me, my curly white girl, for always making me laugh, for being forgiving with my training mistakes, for making me a better trainer, and for working by my side to show my clients that motivational, R+ focused methods make for well-mannered and happy dogs!
Last term, I took Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones’ “Train the Dog in Front of You” class at the FDSA (Bronze). Denise’ part made me investigate the fact that Phoebe tends to mouth me a lot during agility, in between the obstacles. Together with my fellow lurkers, I arrived at the conclusion that Phoebe and I most likely have a frustration problem:
I’m a novice handler, and she’s a fast and impatient dog. When my cues are not clear or I forget what obstacle I’m supposed to tackle next, her frustration shows by means of biting my arm.
My colleagues suggested I make a point of really practicing my own handling technique over a short sequence without Phoebe, and then see if the biting problem still shows up. I’ve done that twice, using very simple courses – much simpler than the ones our trainer tends to spring on us. And what a difference it made! Phoebe was focused, fast, and concentrated on the next obstacle rather than on me as long as I only used jumps.
During another short session, I tried including a tunnel. Turns out the biting occured again – whenever I cued the tunnel. Thinking about it, I realized that Phoebe hasn’t generalized the “tunnel” cue yet: she knows it upstairs, but she doesn’t know it outside or in the garage, where I haven’t trained it that often. Phoebe is notoriously bad at generalizing. How could I expect her to generalize the tunnel to a fast-paced outdoors activity like agility?
So today, I went back to practicing the tunnel and building distance. You’re probably going to notice my handling is crappy as you watch the video. What I’m working towards here is a reliable verbal cue, cue discrimination, and some distance. However, once I’ve found a new trainer, I’ll hopefully have an opportunity to work on my handling skills.
Here’s our dabbling in tunnel skills, interspersed with different behaviors and the attempt to build flow by asking for fluent behaviors.
I think I’m also going to treat myself to Sylvia Trkman’s Foundations DVD – I’m sure there’s lots on it for me to learn!
Phoebe and I started doing a bit of agility in February. This is us last weekend, March 12 (embarassing parts edited out), about 1.5 months into training. We’ve still got lots to learn, but are already having lots of fun 🙂
The other day, I read a great article by Susan Garrett, and it inspired me to comment on something I’ve been mulling over in my head for a while. I occasionally meet pet dog owners who scuff at people who want to succeed in dog sports. They themselves do it “just for fun,” and they strongly believe that this is the way to go. Tom is one of them – he compares serious competitors in sports like agility or obedience to parents who push their kids, and assumes that dog sports people tend to see their dogs as performance machines rather than family members. A happy dog would rather get to do dog sports “for fun,” but not with the goal of achieving greatness.
I disagree. As Susan Garrett aptly puts it:
Champions in any field [take] what other people find boring or uncomfortable and turn that into a game that they will love to play every day.
And that holds true for people and dogs. If your dog is not having the best time of his life in the ring, he’ll check out. He won’t work. Or if he does, well, you certainly won’t win. When it comes to the teams who win world championships, both human and dog love what they’re doing, and they’re having a blast every time they enter the ring. If either dog or human don’t embrace every second of the time they’re working together, things will fall apart in a competition environment (where you can’t have tangible reinforcers on you to bribe an unwilling dog), and even if they teach their dog that “disobedience is not an option,” their performance will be mediorcre at best.
Truly successful dog sports competitors know how to have fun with their dog. They turn training and competing into a game and into their dog’s favorite activity. And they are much better at reading their dogs than the average pet dog owner: doing things with their dogs is their passion and their calling, not “just a hobby”. And they spend time, money and effort on getting to know their dogs as well as possible, on educating themselves on scientifically and ethically sound training methods. They bond extremely closely.
I’m not one of these people. I like dog sports, but I’ve never competed. I would like to, at some point – but only after finding a venue I’m comfortable with, and once I feel that Phoebe and I are ready for it.
However, I’d say that when working with my dogs, I definitely feel like I’m doing it not “just for fun”. For me, focus, engagement and fun come first. Once I have these factors, I go for precision and excellence. I don’t necessarily need to be at a dog sports club to work on these things – I like persuing these goals in front of busy supermarkets, at the dog park, at IKEA and at the hardware store. These challenges might be different than the ones that you face when working up to perfect ring performances, but to me, they’re equally intriguing. Can I get Phoebe to be in the game near a playground? Surrounded by people pushing shopping carts and honking cars? Can I get her to focus on me, be in the zone with me, to a degree that neither of us hears or sees what’s going on around us? Can you spend time at a busy place, look into your dog’s eyes, and enter a space where only the two of you exist, and you communicate as well as if you were reading each other’s minds? Can you whisper your cues rather than shout them, and then explode forward into an energetic game of tug? Well – can you? That’s what I’m going for, no matter where I am. There are places where Phoebe and I are pretty good at this, and others where we struggle. There are days when Phoebe tells me she can’t concentrate – and that’s okay. She gets to say “No” whenever she doesn’t feel well, just like me. Training together will always be a privilege for both of us – never an obligation.
And then there are the people who do dog sports “just for fun”. I’ve been going to a “just for fun” agility group twice a week. Why? Because Phoebe likes agility, and the trainer at this club mostly lets me do my own thing, which I appreciate.
As I’ve been watching the other people in class, I often wonder what they’re hoping to achieve. Many of them are clearly frustrated with their dogs half the class time. And so are the dogs with their owners. Neither of the other dogs in class are in tune with their owners. There is a Bearded Collie struggling at the end of his leash, barking his head off for minutes on end. There is a scruffy terrier mix who, as soon as her owner lets her off leash for their next run, takes off to look for and inhale rabbit poop on the agility field. She’ll run after him, calling, he’ll ignore her, she’ll eventually catch him and drag him behind her on his leash, scolding him while he ducks away from her, lifting a front leg, licking his lips, tail between his legs. There’s a Rottweiler who’ll often just get the zoomies and rush around the agility field, making it hard for his owner to get him back. There’s the sensitive Golden who’s reluctant to go through the tunnel sometimes. The trainer will hold him on one end, the owner will call him from the other end, and if he doesn’t want to go through by himself, they’ll try to push him into the tunnel. As for learning the weave poles, dogs are dragged around them on their leashes.
Are we having fun yet?
I’m not so sure. Owners are frustrated. Dogs are confused and, well, yes, they’ll have a fun run or two every once in a while, but at least half the class time, they would rather be doing something else. The owners are not reading their dogs’ body language, but standing around the field, complaining about their stubbornness.
Phoebe, on the other hand? Well, she’s there with me. She wants to be there. She can’t wait for me to give her the next cue. Her eyes are locked into mine. When we don’t run, we do other things. We practice fronts and finishes, proof tricks, and work on longer and longer down stays. Yes, I’m not teaching her to be ignored and be okay with it in this class environment. That’s okay: two hours a week, we get to train at a club. Around other, mainly crazy and unfocused dogs, some of them will uncontrollably rush up to her. It’s a perfect challenge, and we savor every minute of it. I’m not there to chat with the other owners. I’m there with my dog. She’s not there to look for rabbit poop. She’s there to work with me. We are not great at agility (and we’ll probably never be, because I don’t have my own agility playground, so I don’t get to shape and practice stuff as often as I would like), but we’re the only true team in this group of people who are there “just for fun”. And I think we’re pretty much the only ones who are having a good time every time, and from start to finish.
It hasn’t always been like this. Phoebe is almost 3 years old now. I’ve repeatedly taken her to various group classes. In the beginning, my RoR had to be extremely high in order not to loose her, and I usually left after 20 to 30 minutes of class-time. Sometimes, I’d just spend the time outside the training field, playing look at that or settle on a mat/in your crate games, then go home again. Phoebe, who’s focus is brilliant in most places today, was a crazy and all-over-the-place adolescent from 6 months to 2.5 years. It got better and better (and sometimes worse again), but we were never in a hurry. The dog sets the pace, and the dog determines what games we play, and what she’s ready for. I love a good challenge, and Phoebe has certainly been one.
From day one, she has been the perfect puppy for me, and she kept being the perfect puppy for me all through her phases of fear, of child/dog reactivity, of wanting to chase joggers, of having zero concentration, of being hyper-vigilant and overstimulated in public … I’ve always loved the dog in front of me; the individual I woke up to on any given day, and I’ve enjoyed figuring out the best way of getting through to her today.
I think one of the most important things I did, though, was that I always stuck up for her. If I didn’t feel comfortable working somewhere or doing something, I politely thanked the person, took my dog and left. I made sure she could always feel safe. She wouldn’t have to stay at an environment she wasn’t ready for, she wouldn’t have to be forcefully held by a groomer when she was scared of the clippers, she wouldn’t be lifted up on the vet table by a scary-smelling vet if I could do it myself, I did not let other dogs bully her, and whenever I joined a class or trainer who turned out to not be a good match for Phoebe and me, we left.
And however crazy she was in her adolescence, there are two things – just two things, the two most important things for me – I always insisted on: she had to have a bomb-proof recall in order to be off leash. And she had to walk nicely on a loose leash when on leash. Not doing the former meant being confined to the leash, going back to kindergarten in that respect and re-explaining what a recall meant, or staying home. Forgetting about the latter meant staying home, going back to kindergarten in terms of re-explaining LLW, or wearing the one harness I let her pull on. (Sometimes, you need to get from A to B. It’s useful to have a piece of equipment where you don’t care about pulling in order not to ruin your training by means of intermittent reinforcement.)
Today, I have a dog who’d work for cardboard. A little workoholic. She’s still an impatient dog, but that’s alright. She’s the perfect dog for me. And while we’re having fun together when we train, we don’t train “just for fun.” We train because we both love it. It’s our game, and we take it seriously: It’s what we do, the way we bond. Every shaping game is an conversation with the complex little person in front of me. And she’s challenging me to keep learning and growing with every look from her dark-brown eyes. There are no perfect dogs. But there is the perfect dog for me – and I’ve got her; she’s spending her life with me.
Do you ever wake up to a wet nose in your face and marvel at how lucky you are?