Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Training Tuesday: Double Trouble

Meet Stormy:

Stormy is a 12-week-old corgi-aussie mix from Aussie Rescue of Minnesota. No, she's not mine- her foster mom was busy on Sunday, so she ended up spending the day with us. If I were in the market for a puppy, though, I would be very tempted by this one. She’s sweet and affiliative with people and spent an hour napping in my lap. She was soft and appropriate with my existing pets (well, until she got tired). She’s good in a crate, and she didn’t have a single accident in my house. She’s both food and toy motivated, and very, very smart.

Oh, of course I did some training with her. Nothing big, just playing around, really. We lured some sits and downs and even a roll over (she’s so ridiculously clumsy right now it’s sort of amazing she could do this). By the end of the afternoon, she had sit on a hand signal, and was deliberately offering downs once in awhile.

Here is an entirely too long video of the puppy. I meant to edit it down, but, well… how do you cut out the cuteness?? Answer: you don’t. So, sorry. I don’t expect you to watch the whole thing, but here is ten minutes of adorableness:

I didn’t really post this to pick apart my training skills, but goodness do my luring techniques ever need work (and so do my play skills for that matter)! And, in case you’re wondering- I stopped using the clicker on purpose. Her foster mom had noticed that Stormy was scared of the box clicker. Since I use the softer i-click, I was hoping she’d be okay with it. She wasn’t- you can see her ears briefly pin every time it goes off.

But that, too, is not the point of this video. No, I wanted to show off Maisy’s lovely mat work. Maisy is not terribly good at waiting her turn. She’s kind of pushy, and tends to resource guard me/my treats from other dogs. Having a puppy in the house was the perfect opportunity to work on Maisy’s impulse control and patience! I thought Maisy did a very nice job, too.

If you’re in the Minnesota area and are interested in adopting Stormy, please contact the Aussie Rescue of Minnesota.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

How I Taught My Dog to Heel for a Ball Without Having Her Brain Fall Out of Her Head

I am really proud of Maisy’s heeling- although I never thought I’d say that. It used to be that her heeling was sort of dull and lackluster, but these days it's bright and animated. She is focused and excited and definitely having fun; she thinks it’s a huge game. Which it is, actually, because I taught Maisy to heel for a ball reward. This wasn’t easy, because every time I tried to use a ball, her brain fell out of her head. But I wanted the attitude that I was sure would come if she thought heeling was fun, so I needed to figure out how to use her ball as a reward.

Luckily, I was able to get a working spot at a Denise Fenzi seminar, who is a master at using play to get excellent results. Thanks to Denise’s excellent coaching, Maisy now has some awesome heeling skills. She’s still not perfect, but she definitely has a solid foundation. I documented the process last summer/fall here on this blog, but I thought it would be nice to organize all of that information into one post.

Step 1: Get the Dog Thinking
This is the hardest step. No matter how much your dog has heeled in the past, if he loves his ball, there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll forget it all when you bring the ball out. Prevent disappointment and frustration by starting from the beginning. Don’t worry- this doesn’t take that long. I trained for about five minutes a day, four times a week, and spent about two weeks on each step. In the end, I spent less than three months accomplishing more than I had in the three years before.

So, how do you get your dog to start thinking? Teach him that the ball only gets thrown when he exerts some self control. Since most ball-obsessed dogs will run forward looking for his ball (and thus forging at heel!), require him to be in line with your hip. Start the training session by walking. Your dog will no doubt run to your side, and yes, cross that imaginary line. Immediately turn and go in the other direction. You’ll probably do this three or four or more times. That’s okay, just keep changing directions until it’s obvious he’s try to control himself- it will probably only be for a step or two- and throw his ball.

Make no mistake, this is not heel position- Maisy went very wide, especially when I turned around- but don’t worry about that right now. All you want is for him to be thinking and demonstrating that he can control himself when excited. Continue building on that until he can stay in line with you for about 10 to 20 feet.

Step 2: Close the Gap
Now it’s time to get your dog close to you. The easiest way to do this is to temporarily relax the criteria of remaining in line with your hip, which means that you’ll see some forging again. That’s okay for now. Since your dog has learned some self-control, so it’s unlikely that he’ll go shooting off too far ahead (Maisy was about a half to a full body length ahead of me at this stage). It’s also unlikely that he will immediately get right next to your leg, so you’ll need to shape him closer and closer to you during each subsequent session. I generally expected my dog to be about three inches closer to me each time.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to simply capture this. If your dog accidentally moves closer, throw the ball immediately. If you’re not so lucky, you can try patting your leg, talking to your dog, and/or drifting away from him. As soon as he makes a move to get closer, throw the ball. Continue doing this until your dog is tight against your leg, and can maintain that for 10 to 20 feet.

Step 3: Perfect the Position
It is easier to get this than you might expect. Start walking. Your dog will be close to your leg because that’s what you’ve been working on. Now, however, when he forges, slow down. Your dog will probably slow down, too. Reward him as soon as he gets into heel position, both in line with your hip and tight to your leg. If you have to, shape him in stages, just like you did when encouraging him to get close.

When he can stay in place for about five feet, return to a normal pace. If he forges, slow down again. Throw the ball if he maintains the correct position. It didn’t take Maisy very long to figure out that she should both be in line with my hip and close to my leg. Keep working on it until your dog can maintain the correct position for 10 to 20 feet without you needing to slow down.

Note: you can also correct the forging by doing an about turn, and if that works for you, go for it. This made Maisy go wide, though, which defeated the point of close and in position.

Step 4: Change the Motivator
At this point, your dog is probably already watching you pretty closely because OMG YOU HAVE MY BALL, but you can’t take a ball in the ring, so you need to motivate him to pay attention for other reasons. To do this, you’re going to change your pace and direction frequently- like every three to five seconds. Go fast, go slow. Turn right, turn left. Do about turns. And most of all, be unpredictable. Not only is this way more fun for most dogs, but it also makes change to be the reason to pay attention, not just the ball.

At the same time, start using the ball way less often as a reward- about half as often, in fact. Again, the reason to pay attention is you, so praise your dog like crazy when he’s doing well, and reserve the ball for particularly brilliant moments, or for longer stretches of time (every thirty seconds or so at first, but stretch that out as he gets better).

Step 5: Start and Stop
So far, we’ve just started walking, not worrying about the sit at heel. Now it’s time to add that in. I found it easiest to work on adding the halt instead of starting from a sit. Again, you’ll need to tackle sitting in line separately from sitting closely from sitting straight. Once your dog is sitting where you want him reliably, stop rewarding it every time and work on starting from heel, too. Soon your dog will be a total pro!

Some Final Notes…
You can speed this process up if you are thoughtful about how and where you present your dog’s ball. Since dogs will often anticipate where the reward will show up, a ball thrown forward will often yield more forging. If you throw the ball out to your left, you’ll encourage him to go wide. The best option is to drop the ball to your dog in the correct position. If your dog is like mine, however, and relishes chasing the ball over catching it or possessing it, experiment with throwing the ball behind you. I found this a bit tricky at first (so did Maisy), but together we figured it out. If your dog starts anticipating the ball going in the new direction, simply change it up between throwing it forward and behind.

Keep in mind this isn’t the only way to train a dog. This is just how I did it. Obviously, it’s geared towards a dog who goes over-the-top in excitement. If your dog is lagging, you’ll handle it very differently (I would try speeding up and rewarding when he tries to match your speed). Know your dog. If this doesn’t sound like it would work with your dog, don’t do it. Well, except the having fun part. You should definitely have fun no matter what.

But if your dog is like mine and his brains just go to goo when he sees the ball, there’s a good chance this might work for you. I know that I am very, very pleased with the results. I’m still blown away by how happy Maisy has been in the ring in the past month, and impressed by her very nice performance.

Finally, let me know if you try this. I’d love to hear how it goes. If you’ve done something else to help teach your ball-obsessed dog to work for one as a reward, please leave a comment about that, too. I’m sure someone could benefit from your experience!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Joy of Making Mistakes

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m something of a perfectionist. You would think this personality type would lend itself to competition obedience- after all, who else other than a perfectionist would be willing to address the millions of little details that it requires? Straight fronts, precise heeling, unwavering eye contact, so many things to pick at and obsess about.

But I found no joy in it. Instead, I got overwhelmed by the prospect of doing it wrong. I worried endlessly about breaking my dog. I was positive I would make a mistake so serious that I’d never be able to fix it, and I’d be doomed to unreliable and sloppy performances forever after.

Between all of the different dog training blogs, forums, and email lists I read, it’s no wonder I freaked out. Should I use pivot boards and platforms, or are these impossible to fade? Should I use a target on the ground or on the wall for go-outs? Tie down scent articles or not? How often should I reward my dog, and with what? Should I talk or remain silent? And how do I tell my dog she was wrong if I won’t use physical corrections?

In the end, I was paralyzed by fear. Faced with so many choices, I made the easiest, and did nothing. By not training, I couldn’t make mistakes… but my dog wasn’t learning anything, either.

So what’s a perfectionist to do?

Well, I started by acknowledging that there are many ways to train a dog, even within my particular training philosophy. Doing this allowed me to accept that even if I made a complete and utter fool of myself with one method, there would be another way of training the skill. I would not have to give up on my goals entirely.

A video still from a heeling session. We are having FUN.
Next, I simply chose the one that seemed the most fun. I figured that making a mistake was inevitable at some point, so I might as well be enjoying it, you know?

I also decided that Maisy should be having fun, too. Unlike me, Maisy does not care one whit about scores and placements and titles. She just wants to go and play with me. As it turns out, I don’t get much joy from watching her plod through an exercise, so this worked well for us both.

And then I started training. These days, I train for speed and enthusiasm. I train for eagerness and intensity. I train for joy. Yes, we make mistakes, and yes, it’s quite possible it will all fall apart some day. But so what? It seems like everyone has to re-train something anyway, so we’ll be in good company. Besides, if we have to start over again, it just gives us that much more to do together.

This has been working quite well for me. Maisy has learned a lot, and we’ve been making great progress. She picks up on things quickly, and she’s developed skills I’d almost written off. As for my desire for scores and placements, well, Maisy’s recent success seems to speak for itself. Oh, and did I mention that we’ve been having tons of fun together?

Perfectionist or not, this is why I train: because I love my dog and want to do things with her. And I’ve been able to enjoy our time together even more by discovering the joy of making mistakes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

URO1 Maisy Jane

After the obedience trial in December, I wasn’t sure what our competition future held. While she did very well, she was also very stressed afterwards- so much so, in fact, that if I hadn’t suspected that the hustle and bustle of Christmas was a contributing factor, I probably would have retired her for good right then and there. Instead, I decided to test this theory by taking her to one or more two trials. I figured that would allow me to make a better decision. So, on Saturday I took Maisy to a UKC rally trial and entered her in a single level 1 run.

She did great! She completed her URO1 title. I was pretty happy about that since we got the first two legs two years ago, and I’d sort of given up on completing it. I was even more excited to learn that she’d finished her title with a perfect score of 100 (our first perfect score ever!), which was good enough for first place, high scoring mixed breed dog, and high in trial!

I was really, really happy with the more subjective measures of her performance, too. She remained engaged with me for the entire course. She was quick to respond to my cues. Her little tail was wagging and happy, and she just overall looks loose and relaxed.

I think the best part, though, was that she wasn’t overly stressed by the whole thing. We had to wait for over an hour for our turn, and it was too cold to crate in the car, so she was right there ringside with everyone else. She laid in her crate the entire time, rolled over on a hip. She took treats with a soft mouth, and was happy to socialize with people without being frantic and over-the-top about it.

The trial site was crawling with triggers, too: dobies and shepherds and the sound of choke chains/slip collars and stressed people… I was worried. She did stare a bit, and she thought about rushing towards a weim at one point, but she was easily redirected. The only disappointing moment happened when I left her in her crate to go walk the course. A handler with a shepherd was warming up by playing tug only a few feet from Maisy’s crate, and she barked several times. That was unfortunate, but completely understandable… and it clearly didn’t affect her ability to bounce back and compete successfully.

The real test, though, came later. Since she was practically crawling out of her skin after the last trial, I was concerned about how she would be at home. She was definitely tired on Saturday afternoon, and slept like a rock. But after her nap, she bounced up, ready to play ball and go about her normal routine. There was no edginess either that night or the next day. She did bark a bit on Sunday, but nothing outside what a normal dog does.

All in all, I think it is safe to continue trialing with her. We will still take things slowly. Our next scheduled event is in April, when there are CDSP obedience and APDT rally trials being held together. My tentative plan is to enter one run, and then take stock of how her stress-levels are doing. If she’s doing okay I’ll either enter her in a second run that day, or I’ll enter her in one run the second day. I’m not sure which yet- nor am I sure if I’ll do CDSP or APDT.

No matter what I decide to do, our competition future is looking bright, and I am so proud of my Maisy!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Happy Gotcha Day, Maisy

Five years ago today, Maisy came home.

“Home” was actually a group home. My job was to supervise the staff and daily operations of the home, and my company thought the best way to do that was to have the supervisor live there. And so my husband and I lived in the walk-out basement of a two story home; upstairs, there were four adults with pretty profound disabilities.

Since I was working with vulnerable adults, I needed the permission of not only my employers, but also each resident’s guardian. It was a pretty nerve-wracking experience. I had fallen head over heals in love with this little puppy, and as I waited for approval from five different people, I was forced to wonder what I’d do if the answer came back as “no.” I probably would have quit (losing my job and my home at the same time), actually, which just proves how completely irrational Maisy made me.

But I got permission, and I brought her home, completely ignorant about pretty much everything about dogs. I vividly remember her first afternoon at home. All the websites I’d read on housetraining lied: she didn’t sniff or have any obvious signs that she was about to pee. She just went. After the third or fourth time in as many hours, I was pretty sure I’d made a huge mistake. I was stubborn, though, and she was cute, so we soldiered on.

Maisy loved going upstairs to visit the guys, and would often climb up the steps and whine at the door separating my “apartment” from the rest of the house. In the early days, she could go up stairs, but not down, and so I’d often have to go rescue her.

But when I let her go visit? Oh, how she loved it! She would visit with the staff and residents alike, begging for food, and later, showing off what she was learning in puppy class. She would proudly sit when resident N asked her to. She learned her first trick (shake paw) when my awake overnight staff called in sick and I had to fill in (those shifts were terribly boring- the staff was around mostly to respond to emergencies). That same night, I learned the value of a good “leave it” when I dropped a seizure medication on the floor. (She left it.)

In retrospect, this was a fabulous socialization opportunity. In addition to frequent shift changes, erratic movement, and odd noises, IV poles, patient lifting devices, and wheelchairs abounded. Later, when she graduated from puppy class, the guys came to watch, and she was the only dog who didn’t freak out about the wheelchairs. Even today, she’s very excited to see a person in a wheelchair.

Things have changed a lot since those early days. Today, we live in our own house, with our own back yard. She’s housetrained (finally!), and doesn’t need to be crated when I’m gone. She has two kitty brothers, and a human mama who actually knows something about dog behavior.

But one thing hasn’t changed, and that is the fact that I love her. I can’t imagine my life without her, can barely remember what it was like before. She has brought so much joy to my life, and I love her more than I’ll ever be able to say.

So, Happy Gotcha Day, Maisy. I am glad you could come home, and I hope we have many, many more years together.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

My Favorite Dog Training Books

I love to read. I love dogs. So it should come as no surprise that I love reading books about dogs… and especially about dog training. So today, I want to tell you about five of my favorite dog training books.

The Thinking Dog, by Gail Fisher
I did not read this book for quite awhile because the subtitle references crossover trainers (those who move from more traditional, punishment based techniques to positive methods), which I am not. When I finally did get around to reading it, I was very impressed. It is a great introduction to positive methods in general, and clicker training in specific.

It covers a wide variety of topics, starting with the benefits of positive training. It discusses how to acquire behaviors- both in general, and for specific behaviors- as well as how and when to add the cue. In fact, I think this book has some of the best information on cuing and stimulus control I’ve ever seen. I also appreciated the frank discussion on the use of punishment, because let’s face it, punishment is impossible to avoid in real life. This book helps talk the reader through the options without advocating physical corrections.

Reaching the Animal Mind, by Karen Pryor
This book deftly mixes personal stories, anecdotes, and science to make for a highly enjoyable look at animal training. It isn’t a how-to manual, but rather discusses how and why we train animals- all animals. I especially enjoyed the information about how an animal's brain processes training, but there's also great information about animal creativity and TAGTeach- clicker training for humans. 

This book also has a special place in my heart as the book that turned my husband from mostly bored to fascinated by all that training stuff I kept babbling about. I think that speaks to the inspiring nature of this book. My husband had the same response I did: the only thing that could tear us away from reading it was the desire to go TRY THIS with our dog.

The Other End of the Leash, by Patricia McConnell
Another not-a-training-manual book, and yet so valuable for those of us who train. It’s a fascinating look at our canine friends that is heavy on science, but it is interwoven with case studies and a gentle humor in a way that makes it easy to read.

What I love about this book is that it looks at the behavior and social order of dogs, wolves, and humans, and then compares and contrasts them in a way that helps us understand how our behavior affects that of our dogs. Everything from the way we move to the pitch of our voice makes a difference, and this book helped me learn how to take advantage of that.

The Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson
I hesitate to include this book, because while it is an excellent look at how dogs and people differ, the tone can be blunt. I worry that people who come from more traditional training approaches will feel insulted by some of the phrasing.

That said, this book is absolutely astounding. It covers everything from learning theory to punishment to anthropomorphism to dominance… and really gave me an appreciation of just how amazing dogs are to overcome the incredible difference between their culture and ours. It is primarily an informational tome, but does have some how-tos in the back.

Control Unleashed, by Leslie McDevitt
This is the reactive dog bible, and if you have a dog who has trouble focusing, seems anxious, or is otherwise difficult, you need to read it. The book was written primarily for people competing in agility, but the techniques are useful for any dog in any situation.

The book is based on the classes Leslie was teaching, and as such, is laid out as a curriculum, going week by week. Leslie has also stated that she never uses every exercise in the book in every class or with every dog, so it’s definitely something you need to read critically with your own dog in mind. However, since it is written sequentially, many of the later activities build on the earlier ones, so you can't ignore the boring foundation stuff. As a result, this book can be tricky for a novice to get through. My advice is to read the whole thing all the way through before trying any of the activities.

These are just some of my favorite training-focused books. There are tons of great books out there (and that I had to regretfully leave out)… so you should comment and share what your favorite books are!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Pleasure of Anticipation

Last spring, I wrote about how cues can be reinforcing for dogs. If the cue predicts a good outcome (a click and treat, for example), then the dog will find the cue exciting. More talented trainers than I have taken advantage of that by reinforcing a dog’s response with another cue.

Some readers met this with skepticism. Maybe my explanations made sense, maybe they didn’t, but let’s be honest: logic and anecdotes alone are not always convincing. That’s fine; I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, and in fact, I would find that rather boring. But when one of those skeptics found this hour-long lecture, she remembered my post and emailed me.

The lecture, given by neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, explored what makes humans unique. His entire talk is fabulous, and I urge you to watch the entire thing. Personally, I really enjoyed his discussion of how language affects our perceptions of others because of the insular cortex, but what’s relevant today is what he shares about dopamine (starts about 30 minutes in).

Throw it... throooow iiiiiitttttttt.....
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. For many years, it was believed that when someone (human or animal, it doesn’t matter- dopamine is present in all mammalian brains) received a reward, their brain would release dopamine. In turn, this would result in a pleasurable feeling.

However, when scientists actually studied what was going on, they found something very different. Sapolsky described an experiment in which chimps could receive a food reward if they press a lever when a light turns on. The dopamine levels in the chimps’ brains increased not when they completed the task, but rather when the light went on.

In other words, what the chimps found pleasurable was the opportunity to receive a reward, not the reward itself. After they pressed the level, their brain quit releasing dopamine, even before they received the reward. Anticipating the reward was better than the reward itself.

That light signified an opportunity to receive a reward; press the lever now, it said, and you will be reinforced. This is exactly what we do in dog training. I say “sit,” and if my dog does, she’ll get a treat. So the light was acting as a cue. The study Sapolsky cited says that it was the cue that made dopamine levels rise, which means that my dog will feel good when I say “sit,” not when I give her the treat. The cue is reinforcing.

I suspect that clickers work the same way, although Sapolsky didn’t address that directly. He did, however, say that dopamine is about the anticipation of the reward, not the reward itself. If cues can cause that anticipation, it seems that a sound could, too. Can a click cause dopamine levels to increase because the dog is now expecting to receive his reward? I don’t see why not.

What scientists found even more remarkable, however, was that when the food was given in response to the correct behavior only half the time, the chimps’ dopamine levels went through the roof. This wasn’t exactly surprising to me; dog trainers often talk about how a variable schedule of reinforcement creates stronger, more durable behaviors than when the dog gets a treat for every correct behavior. B.F. Skinner and his students proved that over and over again in the lab, although of course they couldn’t know that it was the result of dopamine. As Sapolsky put it, “maybe is addictive like nothing else.”

Finally, the scientists also found that if they blocked dopamine production in the chimps’ brains, when the light came on, the chimps didn’t care. Instead of eagerly pressing the lever, they sort of shrugged it off. The chimps knew they’d get a reward if they did, but they just didn’t seem to care. Could this be a possible explanation for why a dog doesn’t respond to a cue? Maybe. But I'd point out that there are many, many other reasons dogs don’t perform a behavior, and most of them are probably more logical. Still, it is fun to think about.

I found all of this really interesting. Not only did it support the concept of cues being reinforcing- something I find pretty fascinating in and of itself- but it also suggests that there is more at play in clicker training than just the food. In fact, it would seem that anticipation is what's truly powerful, an idea I find amusing since trainers often get upset when their dogs anticipate what's coming next.

To be fair, having the dog act before we ask them to can be a problem. Still, is that indicative of a corresponding spike in dopamine? And if so... how can we use this to our advantage? What can we do to harness our dog's natural brain chemistry to create a more favorable training outcome? I'll admit, I don't have an answer here, so I turn it over to you: have you ever used the power of anticipation to your advantage? And if so, how?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Day at the Vet's

Last week, Maisy's feline brothers both had appointments scheduled with the vet for wellness exams. For a variety of reasons completely unimportant to today's story, those appointments happened during the middle of a work day. When I arrived home to pick up the kitties, Maisy danced around my feet, clearly excited by the prospect of an unexpected outing. I told her sorry, it wasn't her turn, and she looked so crushed that I simply couldn't leave her behind. I figured I could run her in the office, grab a weight, and then put her back in the car.

When we got there, the receptionist told me it was fine, Maisy was welcome to hang out in the exam room while the boys had their appointment. I took her up on this offer, figuring that if Maisy was a pain, I could run her out to the car.

But she wasn't. In fact, she was amazing. Not only did she settle down and lie there calmly while we were waiting for the vet to come in (as evidenced by this incredibly poor photo), but she also was calm and quiet during both exams.

Okay, yes, she got seriously excited when the vet first came in the room, but I just kept her on a short leash and ignored her. So did the vet, for that matter- her patients were the cats, after all. Maisy quickly realized that this was actually a rather boring trip, and laid down quietly at my feet.

I know this probably doesn't sound like much, but this is Maisy we're talking about. Although our the vets at this practice are incredibly gentle and good with fearful animals, they still do things that are uncomfortable. I'm sure Maisy remembered that. There was also barking going on outside our exam room, and I'm sure she could smell unsettling odors.

On top of that, Maisy's never been a dog to hold still. Or at least, she wasn't. Anxious dogs often seem restless; they pace or at least move around a lot. Maisy was no exception, and even at home, she used to have trouble settling down.

So the fact that she was able to just chill out in a stressful environment, with lots of chaos just on the other side of a door? Amazing. She never once barked or growled or even seemed tense about what was going on. She just... waited. Patiently. For an hour.

I think my favorite part came at the end of the visit, though. Each cat was in his own carrier, and I had one in each hand. I also had Maisy's leash in one. The receptionist asked if we needed help to the car, but I said we were fine. And we were- I walked for half a block like that, Maisy on a perfectly loose leash the entire time.

What a good girl.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why People are Resistant to Behavioral Meds for their Dogs... And Why You Shouldn't Be

As a dog trainer, it is rare that I recommend people consult with their vets about the use of anxiety medications. Most dogs simply don’t need them. When I worked at a big box store, I never once ran across a dog who I thought needed meds. However, now that I work exclusively with people who have dogs with behavior issues, I naturally see more dogs that might benefit from a little chemical help.

Thankfully, many of these dogs improve over the course of a six-week class. So much so, in fact, that by the end I do not feel the need to refer them for a medication consultation. For some, I mention that if their progress stalls out or if their dog regresses, they might want to consider using meds, but it’s more to educate them about their options than a serious recommendation.

But then there are the dogs that do not improve, or who get worse. The dogs who are so hypervigilant that they cannot learn anything in class. The dogs who cannot eat or otherwise be distracted from the mere sound of another dog. The dogs, in other words, who probably could benefit from the use of medication.

It’s a fine line I walk. I am not a vet, and as a result, I cannot tell someone that their dog needs medication. I cannot diagnose their dog with a clinical disorder. I cannot tell them which medication is right for their dog, nor the dosage. But I can urge them to consult with someone who can.

Some people- bless them- follow up on my recommendation. But others steadfastly refuse. Why? There are a number of reasons- probably as many as there are owners- but here are what I think are the top five… and my response to them.

1. Treating animals with human medication is silly and anthropomorphic.
I’ve heard this one a lot, and on the surface, it makes sense. They are dogs, not people. Why would we use human treatments? The funny thing is, though, that this objection is only raised in relation to behavior meds. The truth is, there are lots of medicines that have both veterinary and human applications. Antibiotics are an obvious example, but plenty of dogs take thyroid medications, insulin, pain meds, or allergy pills. In fact, this is so common that several major (human) pharmacies even have a pet prescription savings plan!

What’s more, I do not think it is anthropomorphic in the least to think an animal can suffer from anxiety. They have nearly identical brain structures to ours, so it seems not only possible, but also quite likely, that they might suffer from some of the same mental disorders that we humans do.

2. All vets want to do is prescribe medication. Everyone knows that meds are overprescribed in this country!
I’m sure this objection is a carryover from human medicine- it’s trendy to say that doctors overdiagnose and overprescribe ADHD meds, for example- but as a social worker who works with children, I have to say I see far more kids who could benefit from medications, but aren’t on them, than kids who are on them and shouldn’t be.

Adding to that, when I first explored the concept of medication for my own anxious dog, my general practice vet said she didn’t need them. Anecdotal evidence to be sure, but I’ve heard the same story from plenty of other people.

This objection is also why I have a personal preference for referring people to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. My experience has been that they do not prescribe meds to every dog that walks through their doors. In fact, the last person I referred was told that their dog would not benefit from medication.

3. I’m worried about the side effects. I’ve heard these meds can hurt my dog, or cause his personality to change.
This is a very valid concern. You should not walk into medication use blindly. When you consult with a veterinarian about medication use, you should ask what the side effects might be, as well as potential drug interactions. Your vet should also give you information on when and how to follow-up, and advise you regarding blood work to monitor your dog’s systemic function.

That said, these drugs have been well-studied and considered generally safe. Every dog will react differently of course, but I personally believe it is worth the risk, especially when you consider that the effects of long-term anxiety on the body may be even more detrimental than the side-effects of medication. A quick google search will reveal that the effects of untreated stress include a compromised immune system, gastrointestinal distress, heart problems, and musculoskeletal pain.

So far as personality change, this should not happen. If your dog seems drugged, zombie-like, or somehow different, he may be on the wrong medication or the wrong dose. Talk to your vet. My dog is different on medication, it’s true, but it’s like a radio: the volume has not been turned down at all. Rather, the static of anxiety has been filtered out so that her personality can come through more clearly.

4. It’s too expensive. Times are tough, and I just can’t afford it.
It’s true, the initial appointment, follow-ups, blood work, and even the cost of the medication itself all add up. But so is the cost of ongoing training. My dog and I spent two years in weekly training classes before trying medication. After starting meds, she was able to graduate within six months.

Also, keep in mind that the ongoing cost of medication does not need to be high. Many of the meds prescribed for anxiety have a generic equivalent; my dog’s medication costs less than $10 a month. Shop around for the best price- some drugs can be as low as $4 a month at the right pharmacy.

5. But what will people think? I don’t want people to think my dog is crazy. For that matter, I don’t want people to think I’m crazy for doing this!
I think this is the hardest objection to overcome. The social stigma surrounding mental health concerns and treatment is strong for humans and animals alike. Although we don’t think people (or animals) are “less than” if they have diabetes, cancer, or thyroid problems, we look down on them if they have depression, anxiety, or another mental illness.

Look, either way, it’s a physical problem. Sometimes it’s in the heart, and sometimes it’s in the brain. Illness can be treated no matter what part of the body is causing it, and I don’t think we should avoid treating our sick dogs just because it’s in the brain.

This is also why I am so honest and transparent in this blog. I want people to know there is no shame in using medication if that’s what’s right for your dog (or yourself!). I don’t think it should be the first thing you try, but I don’t think it should be your last resort, either. Medication can be a very helpful addition to any well thought out behavior modification plan.

People often email me, telling me that my blog inspired them to seek medication for their own dogs. Almost every one of them tell me that the only regret they have is waiting so long to do it. I share the same sentiment. I can’t believe I wasted so much time, and let my dog suffer with so much anxiety, because of my own pre-conceived notions of what it would mean to give my dog medication.

So, consider your options carefully. Ask questions. You’re right to be hesitant- you care about your dog, after all, and just want what’s best for him- but be open to the idea that medication might be just what he needs.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Training Tuesday: Trick 1

Trick 1 of 12 is complete!

Okay, so maybe I cheated a little on this one, as I didn't start it from scratch. We actually started working on this trick years ago- 2009, maybe even 2008- but I never got around to putting it on cue (story of my life). As a result, it's a trick that she offers up on a regular basis, so it was pretty easy capture it. Once she knew that's what I wanted, she kept offering it, and offering it, and offering it, so it was pretty easy to give the cue just before she did it.

We did this for several nights, probably burning through 200 or more pairings, and still she didn't seem to understand. Looking at the video, I would guess that part of the problem is that I have two things going on at once- the hand signal and the verbal. I'll need to make sure to sort those out separately.

She seems to have it now. I've tested the cue "cold" (that is, giving it outside of a training session) in every room of the house, on a walk, and in the parking lot of a pet store today. She nailed it on the first try every time. However, in the manner of herding breeds everywhere, if I give the cue more than 2 or 3 times, she starts... well, let's say improvising. That sounds so much nicer than "doing it wrong."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Family that Clicks Together, Stays Together

I can’t remember who started it, exactly, but some time in the past year or so, my husband and I began to use the word “click” with one another. I’m pretty sure it was a joke at first- a humorous extension of what we were reading in books and hearing at seminars. We laughed at our own silliness.

Slowly, the word became our preferred way of thanking the other for a favor or for doing a particularly distasteful chore. “I went grocery shopping on the way home from work.” “Oh, click!” It was still amusing, but the silliness gave way to genuine gratitude.

But this little relationship quirk has gone even further lately. Apparently, I have a tendency to leave the light on in the front room, a habit which causes glare on the television screen, and thus greatly annoys my husband.

For awhile, he simply grumbled about it. “Ugh, I hate when you leave that light on,” he’d say, stomping over to turn it off. Or: “Can’t you ever remember to turn that off?” I’d apologize and promise to do it tomorrow. But after several weeks of grumbling and nagging, my behavior hadn’t changed at all, so my husband decided to try a different approach.

“Honey, would you like to earn a click?” I looked at him, confused. Apparently, his annoyed grumbling hadn’t been strong enough to make a lasting impression on me. He nodded towards the front room.

“Oh,” I said, realizing that he wanted to me to turn off the light. And then, “Oh!” as it dawned on me that this had really been bugging him. And finally, “OH!” as I realized I had an opportunity to make him happy. I quickly jumped up and scrambled over to the light switch.

I cannot tell you how exciting that moment was for me. I love my husband, so while I might have some annoying habits, I don’t mean to upset him on purpose. On the contrary, if I can do something to make his life better, I want to do it. Here he presented me with a very small, easy thing I could do for him to show that I cared.

As I did, he simply said, “click.” It may sound silly, but I beamed in response. I loved knowing that he appreciated my action, no matter how small and inconsequential it might be. I found his simple response incredibly rewarding.

This scenario repeated itself for a few days, and within a week I was actively turning off the light without being prompted. At first, I did it ostentatiously so he’d notice, but soon, it became a habit.

To be honest, I’m not sure why his nagging failed to motivate me, but a single, simple word did. I mean, it’s not like I wanted him to grumble at me, nor did I want him upset with me. But it didn’t change my behavior the way that “click” did- no, the way even the mere possibility of a click did.

I have no idea what our dogs think about training. I can’t tell you exactly how they feel when we grumble or nag them, nor when we offer them a chance to earn a click. It would probably be anthropomorphic to say they must have the same reaction I did... but I’m going to risk it.

Maisy, sensitive soul that she is, hates being told she was wrong, no matter how gently I do it, and it rarely causes lasting behavior change. Perhaps if my punishments were harsher, the lesson would stick, but just as my husband doesn’t really want to pick a fight with me, I don’t really want to yell at her.

What’s more, Maisy loves to get things right. I know people often say dogs have no innate desire to please us, and that may be true. Maisy wants tangible rewards, no doubt about it, but she’ll also work for my praise and affection. We’ve developed a relationship that has made my opinion valuable to her, which is why I can’t help but think that a smile and a kind word is just as exciting to her as it is to me. Just as I was glad I could make my husband happy, Maisy seems overjoyed to do the same for me.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s simply a function of a strong reinforcement history. Maybe my praise has been conditioned to be rewarding because it's been followed by food in the past. I don’t know, and really, I don't think it matters. Because when I see her eyes light up and her tail wag wildly in circles, I can’t help but think being clicked makes her feel as good as I did when turned off that light.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Our Competition Future

You may have noticed that there was a distinct lack of performance-related items in my 2012 goals, especially in terms of titles and trials. This was no accident. Despite the fact that Maisy was a total rockstar at her first obedience trial last month, I'm still not sure what her competition future holds. Most notably, I'm not convinced that trialling is in her best interests.

The truth is, Maisy was stressed at the trial last month. She was less stressed than I've seen her in the past, which is great, but she was still stressed. She scratched herself in the ring. She mildly snarked at another dog in the crating area. She could not relax in her car crate, despite the many, many hours of practice we've put in over the past year. Once we got home, she jumped at every little sound, which broke my heart. I haven't seen her like that in a long time.

I love looking at this face in the ring.
Her score and performance were admirable in and of themselves, but once you know the back story? They become amazing! In fact, one of Maisy's greatest skills is her ability to work through stress. She might be freaking out, but she will still do her best for me. Although it would be easy to ignore her distress and put her through her paces, I just don't feel that's fair. I know there are people who disagree with me, or who think I'm worrying needlessly, or accuse me of being overprotective, but I am not willing to put my dog's comfort and happiness on the line simply for the glory of a ribbon or a title.

With all that said, I'm also not willing to give up on a promising performance career just yet. In retrospect, the trial was poorly timed. It came the day after Christmas, a holiday which is tense and stressful around my house, and Maisy is exquisitely sensitive to the moods of her people. Since my husband and I had a hard time keeping our own stress from boiling over, I am quite sure that at least some of her behavior at the trial was a result of what had happened in the days leading up to it.

More than that, even though she was stressed, she truly seemed to enjoy some aspects of the trial. The video is proof that she was pretty happy to be playing the obedience game, and she liked visiting with all the people that were there. Most importantly, we were together. Maisy is my dog, through and through, and she wants to be where I am.

So we will try again. We will enter another trial, and I will keep a close eye on her stress levels, both during and after the trial. We will do one day only, and only one run. If she's feeling okay, we'll do another trial, and another. But if she's not? Well, I will have to think long and hard about whether or not we should keep competing.

Because here's the thing: I believe that Maisy can work through her stress because of the relationship we have. Maybe it's purely reinforcement history, or maybe it's because she trusts me. I don't know. Whatever the reason, it's clear that Maisy is willing to face her fears and keep working simply because I ask her to.

And if she's willing to do that- if she's willing to look a panic attack in the face and say, “Excuse me, but my mom wants me to heel right now,”- well, I had better live up to my end of the bargain. Hopefully I can find a way to do that while still competing with her. But if I can't? I'll give it all up in a heartbeat, because I want to be someone worthy of her trust.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2012 Goals

What does 2012 hold in store for Maisy and I? Greatness, I’m sure of it! I have no idea what form that greatness will take, but I'm hoping it will look something like this...

1. Teach Maisy 12 tricks.
This was one of my goals last year, and I failed miserably at it. But Maisy loves to train, and anyway, we need to have something to show to friends and family members who just don’t appreciate a flashy heeling pattern.

I have a few ideas for tricks- like a bow, chin down, play dead, take it/hold it/give it with a variety of objects, spinning, leg weaves, crawling- but I would love to hear your ideas, too! Does your dog have a cool trick? Please, tell me about it in the comments.

2. Improve my heeling handling skills.
Although I took a class on heeling handling skills, I have yet to really use what I learned. Some of the moves are still difficult for me to do. It’s not that they’re awkward, exactly, it’s more that I just need to practice them so they’re second nature.

As I learn the skills, I also need to take time to integrate them with my work with Maisy. Some things don’t need to be explicitly taught to her, but others do, especially things like slow pace vs. halts. We're both going to be better at heeling this year.

3. Complete the Relaxation Protocol.
If there is anything I’m likely to fail at doing, it’s this one. I worked on the Relaxation Protocol once before, and oh my gosh, but it was mind-numbingly boring. Maisy probably doesn’t need to do the protocol, but I want to work on it for two reasons.

First, we haven’t worked on it since she started taking medication, and I want to see how that changes things. I imagine we’ll have a very different experience this time around. And second, I frequently advise students to do the protocol with their dogs, so I feel like I need to follow my own advice, you know?

4. Work on some Open and/or Utility Skills.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, since we haven’t even completed our novice-level obedience title, but I’d like to start working on open and/or utility exercises this year. Well, we’ve already started working on some- like retrieves, the drop on recall, and directed jumping- but we haven’t worked on others at all.

I feel like we have a pretty good handle on how to start working on most of the open/utility skills… except go outs and scent articles. I know there are a ton of different ways to train both, and I’d love to hear how you taught your dog’s go out and/or scent articles. Which method did you use? Did you like it? Would you use it again? What were the benefits and drawbacks?

5. Take (and hopefully pass!) the CPDT exam.
I’m a little nervous to post this one publicly, but here it is. I’m hoping to take the CPDT-KA exam in the fall testing period. I don’t need it, strictly speaking, but I like the idea and the added credibility it lends me. And besides, this gives me a very good excuse for going to seminars!

If you are a CPDT (or if you’re in the process of studying for it), I’d love some book recommendations. I have a pretty good handle on learning theory, but am mildly concerned about some of the other sections. Let me know which books you’ve found helpful!

Anyway… this is what I’m hoping 2012 will bring. It might not, of course. So much can change over the course of a year that it’s hard to know what to expect. Still, this is the direction I'm hoping it will go. And if it doesn't? No big deal. As long as Maisy and I have had fun together, that's all that matters.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What it Means to be a Positive Trainer

On a cool, autumn evening, my dog and I were walking out of a local obedience training club. This particular club is based on positive reinforcement principles, and the sound of clickers echo throughout the building. We met a teenager in the foyer area and exchanged pleasantries. She then looked at me  and said, “You know, I don’t understand that clicker training thing they do here.”

“I clicker train my dog,” I told her. “Basically, the clicker tells the dog when he’s done something right so he’ll do it again.”

“Hmm. Well, my mom didn’t use one with our dog, and he’s very obedient!”

“Oh,” I replied, shrugging, “that’s because there are lots of ways to train a dog. Clicker training is just one of them.”

We parted ways at that point, but I’ve thought about that brief encounter a lot since then, mostly because it was so different from many of the conversations I've been part of in the past. Like so many other dog-lovers, I have strong feelings about training methods, and I have engaged in my own fair share of online debates. I've publicly asserted that pain and fear are not needed in training, and I stand by that. Still... I have to think that my conversation with that teenager was more productive than most of my online preaching.

Preaching. Now there's a fitting word. I've noticed that humans, as a whole, tend to gravitate towards those who think like they do. The end result is that we dog trainers typically interact only with those who use similar methods. We even act a little cultish at times; we have our own language and customs. We're all convinced that ours is the one true way, and we try to convert others to our cause.

Like I told that girl, there are lots of different ways to train a dog, and those different ways work. It seems silly to have to point that out- no one would do something if it didn't work- but the internet has taught me that there are people out there who believe the other side's methods are ineffective. That isn't true, of course; there are many methods that will work on any given problem, and each has their pros and cons. We have to choose methods that we have the knowledge and skill to carry out, and ultimately, we must be comfortable with our choices.

You may have made a different decision than I have, and that's okay. While I will admit to having an obvious bias, as time has passed, my goal has become less about “winning” and convincing others to do things the way I do, and more about calmly explaining dog-friendly methods. I've come to realize that holier-than-thou attitudes, arguments, and name-calling almost always fail to change others. Worse, they usually cause people to quit listening and close their minds to different ideas entirely.

Of all my beliefs about dog training, this is the strongest: A positive trainer is as kind to other people as she is to her dog. I believe in clicker training, yes, but more than that, I believe in education. I enjoy scientific studies. I like reading books and going to seminars. I love learning, and that is why I blog: because I want others to come away with a new idea to think about. Ultimately, I don't expect you to do things exactly the same way I do. I hope that you'll find a kinder way to train your dog, of course, but mostly I want you to keep learning, to keep growing, and to become a better trainer... whatever that might look like.

That is why this- above all else- is my goal for the new year. I work hard to avoid hurting my dog, and I think that I should work just as hard to avoid shaming and ridiculing people just because they do things differently than I do. I will be positive with canine and human alike.

And I ask: will you join me?