Thursday, March 29, 2012

So You Think Your Dog Has Allergies, Part 3: Treatment

So your dog has allergies. Not only does he show the classic signs and symptoms, but you’ve also done some work to determine what he’s allergic to. But what do you do with that information? And how can you give the poor guy some relief? Today’s post will discuss just that.

My go-to treatments.

Don’t Touch!
One of the easiest ways to treat allergies is to avoid the allergens. This is especially easy if your dog has a food allergy- just don’t feed him that food! This will mean that you will read labels like a hawk- on everything. One of Maisy’s allergies is to eggs, and let me tell you, they are everywhere. Nothing goes in her mouth unless I’ve read the label or made it myself. Treats at the pet store or drive through are turned down, much to Maisy’s disappointment.

But other things are harder to avoid. You can’t exactly keep your dog in a bubble, but for a dog allergic to grass and trees, you might be tempted to do just that. However, you can help reduce your dog’s exposure to environmental allergies simply by keeping clean. Dust regularly, wash your pup’s bedding more than usual, and if he’s especially sensitive, invest in some HEPA filters.

Don’t forget to keep your dog clean, either- wiping down his feet and belly after he’s been outside can help cut down on his itchiness. During peak allergy season, Maisy gets a weekly bath to catch the rest. If you do this, be sure to use a gentle shampoo (I like Cloud Star’s Buddy Wash, although I could do without the scent).

Treat the Symptoms
No matter how hard you try, though, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to prevent all exposure. Maisy is allergic to human dander, and I just don’t know a way to protect her from me. As a result, she receives a daily antihistamine. Medications like Benadryl, Claritin, and Zyrtec are generally considered safe for dogs, but you should talk to your vet to get the correct dosage and make sure the medicine is right for your dog. This is especially important if your dog takes another medication (like Maisy does); sometimes there are weird interactions to be aware of.

Corticosteroids can be helpful for dogs with more serious allergies, or during an especially bad allergy season. According to the April 2011 issue of the Whole Dog Journal, corticosteroids tend to be the most effective. That said, there are also some dangers associated with them; in the article, Nancy Kerns points out that they can leave dogs vulnerable to infections and metabolic imbalances, and long-term use can result in more serious problems like liver disease, diabetes, and adrenal suppression. Personally, I prefer to avoid steroid use; I’ve taken them for my asthma, and boy did they make me cranky. Maisy, with her reactivity, does not need that.

Allergy Shots
Allergy shots- also known as immunotherapy- can go a long way to helping reduce your dog’s allergies. Nancy Kerns’ article Itching to Be Well confirmed that most dogs who receive this therapy improve. Some even recover completely. Immunotherapy does need to be customized to your dog’s specific allergies, though, which requires that you do the skin tests instead of the cheaper and easier blood tests. It also requires you to give your dog a small shot once or twice a week for months, and possibly longer. This can be costly, and it’s definitely more invasive than either avoidance or symptomatic treatment.

Holistic Options
The least controversial holistic option is to supplement your dog’s diet with fatty acid supplements, like fish oil. In Itching to be Well, Nancy Kerns quotes a veterinarian who shares that the fatty acids will go into the skin layers, which helps improve the barrier and decrease inflammatory cells. These tend to work best for mildly allergic dogs, or in conjunction with other treatment. Other options include the use of probiotics, acupuncture, homeopathy, and glandular supplements, all of which I know very little about.

Personally, I manage Maisy’s allergies through avoidance to the foods she’s allergic to, regular baths in the summer, wiping off her feet, legs, and belly when some comes inside, and a daily antihistamine (Claritin). Maisy also gets fish oil daily. This has been very successful so far, although this year looks like it will be a doozy of an allergy season, so we may be changing things up soon...

What about you? What do you do to treat your dog’s allergies? I know there are a lot of holistic treatments, although I haven’t used any myself. I’d love to hear from others about their experiences!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

So You Think Your Dog Has Allergies, Part 2: Diagnosis

In my last post, I discussed the types of allergies dogs typically have- flea, environmental, and food- as well as the typical symptoms. These symptoms can range from irritating to painful for your dog, so it’s important that you treat them. That said, it is tricky to treat them if you don’t know what they are, so today’s post will discuss some ways you can determine what your dog’s allergies are.

The first step in diagnosing allergies is to visit your vet to rule out other health problems. There are a number of other issues that can mimic the itching typical of allergies (and the not-so-typical symptoms like GI distress).

Veterinary Tests
Your vet can perform a few tests to determine what your dog is allergic to. There are two basic types that I’m aware of: a blood test that can detect antibody levels, and a skin or intradermal test.

Blood tests are relatively simple; your vet simply draws a vial or two of blood and sends it into a lab to be analyzed. The Whole Dog Journal’s April 2011 article Itching to be Well recommends doing the blood test at the end of peak allergy season- typically the fall in North America- as this is when antibody levels are highest. There will probably be some false positives or negatives, which means that while this test can be helpful, it may get some things wrong.

The skin/intradermal test requires shaving your dog’s belly/side, injecting small amounts of various allergens, and then reading the reaction. It is more time consuming, expensive, and stressful for your dog, but it is also more accurate.

It should be noted that neither test is very reliable for foods- the Whole Dog Journal article cites a 30% accuracy rate- so take those results with a grain of salt. The best way to test your dog for food allergies is through the use of a food elimination trial.

Food Elimination Trials

This is what I feed now, but look at the ingredients below; 
despite the high quality, it's entirely inappropriate for a food elimination trial.

When you do a food elimination trial, you feed your dog a diet with one protein source, and one carbohydrate source, and nothing else. Both the protein and carb should be novel- something you’ve never fed before. With the explosion in the pet food market, it is getting more difficult to do this. Some of the proteins that used to be recommended- like lamb and duck- are pretty standard now days.

It’s the “nothing else” that’s even trickier, though, because everything you feed your dog- from food to treats to chewies- needs to be of either that protein or that carb, and you’ll need to be vigilant to make sure he doesn’t sneak any scraps, or mug a friendly pet store clerk for treats.

I personally recommend using a fresh, homemade (raw or cooked) diet during this time. It will not be a balanced diet, but if your dog has previously had good nutrition, it is highly unlikely any nutritional deficiencies will show up during the relatively short period you'll need for testing. The problem with using kibble is that there are just so many ingredients in them, and your dog might be allergic to any of them.

If you really want to use kibble, feeding a prescription diet for allergies is probably your best bet. These diets typically work by using hydrolyzed proteins, which are proteins that have been broken down molecularly so they are so small that the dog’s body shouldn't react to it. As a side note, don't be fooled by packages that claim to be limited ingredient diets or hypoallergenic. You will need to read the labels for yourself to see exactly what's in that food. 

No matter what you choose to feed, you must feed it exclusively for a minimum of 8 to 12 weeks. This allows your dog’s body to rid itself of the histamines from previous foods that might have been causing a problem. If, at the end of this time, your dog is still itchy, you can conclude one of two things: either your dog’s itchiness is not due to food, or you had the spectacularly bad luck to choose a food that your dog was allergic to. I’ve even heard of some rare cases where a dog has reacted to hydrolyzed protein diets. Switch diets and try again, waiting for 8 to 12 weeks before moving to the next step.

Food Challenge
Simply feeding the elimination diet is only half the task, though. Now you must challenge your dog’s diet. It is important that you continue to feed nothing but the novel protein and carb, however, you will add one single food to your dog’s diet for one week. If your dog is allergic to the new item you’ve added, you’ll probably see the recurrence of symptoms within a week, and sometimes sooner.

If your dog is still itch-free at the end of the week, you can safely assume your dog is not allergic to that item. Continue to add a single item at a time weekly, taking note of what causes your dog to react, and what doesn’t. Soon, you should have a list of your dog’s food allergies.

Keep Notes!
Of course, it’s always possible that you’ll introduce a new food item at the same time your dog is exposed to fleas or mold or pollen. That’s why simply keeping a log of your dog’s symptoms, noting if there is any correlation with potential allergens, can be very helpful. has an app you can use to determine different pollen levels in your area each day. Make a note of which ones are displayed on days your dog is itchy. Over time you might start to see some trends.

My Experiences
I spent close to six months trying different foods with Maisy. She remained itchy for most of the trial, although she did react quite strongly when we tried a lamb-based kibble. Ultimately, I got so frustrated that I had the blood test done (it was January in Minnesota, so my vet did not want to have to shave her belly for the intradermal).

The results showed that Maisy is allergic to both lamb (which I’d already figured out) and eggs (which I’ve subsequently tested and confirmed), as well as a variety of grasses, trees, weeds, wool, mold, and the mind-boggling human dander. Although it is quite possible that there were some errors or omissions (remember, the blood test is prone to false positives and negatives), this got us close enough. Despite the poor accuracy rate for food allergies, they proved to be correct for us. Since Maisy’s allergies are fairly mild, our treatment course was the same, regardless of whether or not every single environmental item was accounted for.

But we’ll talk about treatments in the next post. For now, I’d love to hear about your experiences diagnosing your dog’s allergies. How did you do it? Was it frustrating… or easy? Would you do anything differently? And what is your dog allergic to? Comment below!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

So You Think Your Dog Has Allergies, Part 1: Symptoms and Types

When Maisy was just a wee thing, she began chewing on her legs. A quick internet search suggested that it might be food allergies, so I switched her food. And again. And again. What started as just a bit of itchiness evolved into almost a year of frustration.

As it turns out, the subject of canine allergies is complex, and internet advice is often simplistic and lacking vital information. That’s why I decided to tackle a three-part series on the topic. Of course, I am not a vet, so this is not medical advice. Instead, it is a sharing of information from one owner of a dog with allergies to another. If you think your dog might have allergies, I highly recommend you schedule an appointment with your vet because there are a number of other skin problems that can look like allergies but are not.

Signs Your Dog Has Allergies
So, what do allergies look like in dogs? Well, unlike in humans, dogs typically don’t have nasal congestion. Runny noses, sneezing, wheezing, or eye discharge may be a symptom of allergies, but it probably isn’t. See your vet. Instead, dogs with allergies are itchy. What you will see is excessive scratching, licking, and chewing. This typically happens on the feet, face, and groin, but may show up anywhere.

Unfortunately, these behaviors can result in secondary problems, most often skin infections or ear infections. Before we got a handle on Maisy’s allergies, she chewed off most of the fur on her front legs, and had some scabs. It was pretty ugly, actually, and we did need to treat her with antibiotics to help clear it up.

Her left leg is bare and the skin is being damaged because she was chewing it so much.

Allergy Cause #1: Flea Bites
The most common of these causes is flea bites. According to research cited in the April 2011 Whole Dog Journal article Itching to be Well by Nancy Kerns, approximately 40% of dogs have an allergy to fleas. Of course, if a dog is bit by a flea, it’s going to itch either way. However, a dog who is truly allergic will have an overreaction. If you have found only a few fleas, but your dog has widespread redness- or worse, oozing sores- it’s likely he’s allergic. The bad news is that dogs who suffer from a flea allergy tend to get worse throughout their lives.

Allergy Cause #2: Environmental
Environmental allergies happen when a dog has an itchy reaction to something he has either inhaled or been transcutaneously exposed to. Things like mold, dust, and pollen are common, although poor Maisy is also allergic to- are you ready?- human dander. (Yes, that's possible. Yes, I cried when I found out.)

According to the Whole Dog Journal article, approximately 10% to 15% of dogs have an environmental allergy. 80% of these dogs will also have a flea bite allergy (for once, Maisy has beaten the odds!). If your dog has an environmental allergy, it’s highly likely you’ll know it while he’s still young- 75% of dogs will show symptoms before three years of age, although the first year tends to be fairly mild.

Allergy Cause #3: Food
Food allergies are actually quite rare, although the exact prevalence is contested. A conservative estimate is that 1% to 5% of dogs have food allergies, possibly up to 10%, but the Whole Dog Journal reviewed research that suggests up to 43% of dogs are sensitive to some food item. 43% of these dogs will also have another type of allergy.

Food allergies are unique in that they typically affect more than just the skin. 10 to 15% of dogs will also have gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, excessive gas, and cramping, and a dog with food allergies might also be affected in the respiratory tract or central nervous system. This means that diagnosis can be tricky; you definitely want to visit your vet.

Although food allergies can begin at any time in life, generalized itchiness that begins before six months of age is very probably caused by food. This is absolutely true for Maisy- she was right around five or six months when we first noticed the excessive itching. Of course, this was complicated by the fact that her birthday was in the fall, meaning that Maisy hit her six month birthday at the height of allergy season- the spring.

So, how did I determine what her allergies were? Well, it was an incredibly frustrating process. I learned a lot during it, though, and in my next post, I’ll share some information that will helpfully make the process easier for you. Part three will discuss some of the treatment options available.

Until then, I’d love to hear from my readers. Do your dogs have allergies? Do you know what they’re allergic to? What symptoms did they have?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

I think I have a normal dog...

Look close, she's in there!

I teach a training class on Sunday nights, and sometimes I bring Maisy with me. Today, I wanted to celebrate two huge successes that have come of that practice.

A couple weeks ago, I brought Maisy and put her in a crate in a corner of the training room. Historically, Maisy has had trouble being crated at busy/stressful events. I've had to sit next to her and drop treats in every few minutes in order to keep her quiet. This kind of babysitting was doable, but also a little frustrating; it's hard to walk a course or go to the bathroom at a trial if your dog can't be alone for even a few minutes.

When I'm teaching, that's obviously not going to work. I have to, you know, teach. So I put Maisy in her crate with a trachea chew and left. I did come back when I could to drop a treat in, but it was probably only 3 or 4 times over the course of a 90 minute class.

And she was awesome. She did growl once (quietly) when one of the student dogs had a reactive outburst, but I was still pretty happy with how well she did. She came out of her crate happy and eager to socialize with my co-teacher, and was completely mellow at home- no residual stress followed.

Last Sunday I brought Maisy with me again, but since I was running a bit late, I didn't have time to bring her in the building. Instead, I left her in the car crate with the windows down. Maisy is used to hanging out in her car crate. Not only does she have to ride in it any time we go somewhere, but I also have made a habit of having her hang out in it when the weather permits. I was confident that she'd be comfortable.

What I wasn't expecting was how comfortable she'd be. I went out to collect her after class was over, expecting that she'd be awake and maybe even a little stressed. After all, the students (and their dogs) had all just been in the parking lot to load up and go home for the night. Instead, Maisy was asleep. More than that, she was sound asleep.

I expected that when I walked up to the car, she'd wake up, but she didn't. I said her name softly (remember, the window was down). Nothing. I said her name again, louder. Still nothing. I started to panic a little bit, because sleep can look a lot like dead when you're a world-class worrier like me. Maisy did not lift her head until I was opening her crate door. Even then, she gave me a look like, "Why are you interrupting my nap?"

Silly girl. Amazing girl! Normal girl? I don't know, but let me tell you: I am so proud of my girl. I can't believe how far she's come.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Bark Magazine Interview

If you read The Bark magazine, you might notice a familiar name. Back in January, I was contacted by Julie Hecht, a columnist for The Bark and the manager of the dog cognition lab at Barnard College in New York. She'd found my blog posts summarizing the Patricia McConnell seminar I attended last fall, and wanted to know: What's the practical application of all this research?

Good question. We've learned a lot about dog's cognitive abilities in the past few years. While I find it interesting simply for curiosity's sake (I'm a shameless dog geek), we really ought to be doing something will all this knowledge. So Julie and I spoke on the phone for about half an hour. I was incredibly nervous and probably talked way too fast and jumped from topic to topic, but she still found something useful in my ramblings.

The article came out in the March-May 2012 issue, which I just picked up this morning. I admit, it's a little surreal to see myself quoted alongside researchers, behaviorists, and big name trainers like Ian Dunbar. The article, titled Dog Smarts, summarizes some of the recent research and theorizes on the implications.

For me, the take-away message of all this research is that dogs are complex creatures capable of some pretty impressive cognitive tasks. It seems that they are much smarter than we realize; we've only just scratched the surface, after all. I can't help but wonder if we aren't wasting their brains. While trainers and television personalities often emphasize the importance of physical exercise, they tend to neglect discussing mental exercise. I really think we could all do a better job of enriching our dogs' lives.

What about you guys? What do you think all this excellent research tells us? How does it change your view of your dogs? What practical applications do you think it should have in our lives, and those of our dogs? I'd love to hear from other dog geeks!

In case you're curious, I've included my 15 minutes of fame below, but I definitely encourage you to read the entire article if you can get your hands on it.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


I have been doing yoga for about a year now. I started it as part of my rehab from a car accident, but I quickly discovered that I have a number of other injuries and oddities that ail my body. As a result, doing the yoga poses as presented is often painful. Thankfully, I have a wonderful instructor who consistently adapts the poses to my abilities. Like she says- it's not about doing the pose right, it's about find the right pose for your body.

I'm often embarrassed and frustrated that I cannot do the same things the other students do. Even downward dog- that classic inverted V shaped pose- is too difficult for me. I have to do it with my hands on the wall instead of the floor. Despite the fact that no one else cares how I'm doing it, I have pushed myself beyond my physical limits because of imaginary peer pressure. Unfortunately, the last time I ignored what my body was telling me, I ended up in tears in the middle of class due to the pain.

 Maisy does a great downward dog pose.

If you have a reactive dog, I'm sure you can relate to this feeling. It is embarrassing and frustrating to be in a class where you cannot do the same things as your classmates because your dog requires adaptations in order to be successful. It is easy to want to push our dogs just a little bit further. Sometimes they're doing so well we think, “just one more time.” Sometimes we see other dogs doing something and think, “that looks so fun.” Sometimes the instructor calls on us to take our turn and despite our better judgment we think, “I'm sure my dog will be fine.”

And yet it is vital that we listen to our dogs. Just as in yoga, failing to recognize and respect our dogs' limits is likely to end in pain and tears. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying “I need to adapt this training exercise so my dog can be successful.” In fact, that is why you are paying to take a class, isn't it? To have a professional guide you through the often-difficult process of adjusting criteria? Any good trainer should be not only happy to hear you say this, but also be able to give you some suggestions on how to set your dog up for success.

Likewise, you have every right to say, “This exercise is too hard for my dog. We're going to sit this one out.” When I have reached my limits in yoga, I take a child's pose, which is a simple resting pose. When our dogs have reached their limits, we can choose to have them relax on their mat, play Look at That, or even take a crate break. Like my yoga teacher, your instructor should respect this decision.

Of course, none of us sets out to push our dogs too hard. When I started doing yoga, I did not realize how extensive my injuries were, nor did I understand the impact my particular body structure would have on my yoga practice. It has been a difficult process, but over time, I have learned to listen to my body, to recognize its limits, and to respond to those needs. It has been just as hard for me to learn how to listen to my dog, to accept her limits, and to respond appropriately to her needs. Still, in both dog training and in yoga, learning to do so has been essential to my success.

After all, it's not about doing things right, it's about doing the right thing for your dog.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Choosing the Best Treat for Behavior Modification (Brought to you by!)

A few weeks ago, I was approached by, who asked me to review their site in exchange for some free products. The timing couldn’t have been better because I’d been thinking about writing a post on the best treats for behavior modification work. I used their easy-to-navigate website to order some of my favorites so that I could show you guys what I look for when I’m buying treats for behavior modification.

Why Does the Treat Matter?
Whether or dog is fearful, reactive, or even aggressive, most behavior modification plans rely heavily on a concept known as counter-conditioning, which is the process of changing a dog’s association with a trigger. In order to get the most out of this sometimes tedious process, most experts advise using a special, high-value treat.

You will also be using a lot of treats, which can lead to weight gain. When I was actively doing behavior modification with Maisy, I would often reduce her regular meals in order to compensate for the amount of food she was getting in training. But I also wanted the treats to be at least somewhat healthy. While I have no problem feeding occasional junk foods, I didn’t want to replace several meals a week with the equivalent of a bag of candy. As a result, I’m pretty picky about what I will use during behavior modification.

What Should I Look For?
When I’m considering a treat, I’m evaluating it in three categories: the treat needs to be high-value, relatively healthy, and practical.

High-value treats are anything your dog loves. That makes this a pretty subjective thing. Maisy will do backflips for potato chips, and even prefers them to hot dogs. (Click here to see how I determined this- and how you can, too.) In general, most dogs find novel treats reinforcing, so anything new-to-them is a good bet. They also tend to like smelly, meaty treats.

Original size on left, cut into fours on right.
Although Maisy loves chips, they are not healthy, so I use them sparingly, especially when doing behavior modification. In general, I’m using the same criteria I use when buying food, although I will relax my standards a little. Ideally, the treat will list meat as the first ingredient, have no by-products, and few (if any) grains. I also prefer an ingredient list with natural items; I try to avoid lots of chemicals and preservatives. I like to avoid sugar when I can (it just doesn’t seem like a dog with impulse control problems needs to be on a sugar-high). And I refuse to buy treats from China; there are just too many horror stories out there!

Finally, there are a few practical matters you should consider when buying treats. A good training treat will be small so you can get lots of reps in before your dog gets full. As a side note, I have never found a commercial treat that comes small enough to satisfy me. Zukes come the closest, and would probably be fine as-is for a larger dog, but I prefer to cut those in fours for fifteen-pound Maisy. This means that I also prefer soft treats because they are easier to cut up. Soft treats often tend to be smellier, which dogs prefer anyway. The treat should definitely be easy to handle so I’m not fumbling around with them. Finally, since you’ll be buying so many treats, they need to be economical.

Mr. Chewy makes it pretty easy to choose treats. The majority of what they carry are premium, high-quality treats. While there are a few less-healthy items, they list the ingredients for all their treats, making it easy to evaluate something before you buy. Their prices are also pretty amazing; I did a quick price-check in my local specialty store, and found that Mr. Chewy usually had better prices, sometimes by more than a dollar! They also offer free shipping on orders over $49 (and their free shipping is pretty quick, too). The downside to shopping online is that you can’t read the entire package, including where the treats were made. It’s also not always immediately obvious if a treat is soft.

Which Treats Should I Buy?
This will depend on your dog, of course, because what my dog thinks is high-value and what your dog thinks is high-value will be different. But generally speaking, some of my favorite treats for behavior modification include:

Small and healthy!
Soft treats like Zukes, Wellness, Solid Gold, Platos, and Buddy Biscuits. Some of these are easier to cut into small pieces than others, but all have pretty good ingredients.

Freeze-dried treats like Pure Bites, Smiling Dog, and Bravo Treats! These are single-ingredient treats, usually meat, but sometimes things like cheese, making them ideal for dogs with allergies. They are much harder to break up into small pieces.

Non-kibble based food is also a great choice. While kibble tends to be boring for most dogs, you can get the benefit of an AAFCO balanced food by using dehydrated, freeze-dried, canned, or roll-type foods. Some of my favorites include Natural Balance rolls, Stella and Chewy’s, and Honest Kitchen products. Note that only the rolls are easy to cut into small pieces; the rest need to be put in a food tube for delivery. (Incidentally, food tubes are a great way to protect your fingers from a dog who is “sharky” when he takes treats.)

Finally, remember that you don’t have to use commercial products. Boiled chicken breast, chopped beef or pork roasts, and many other “human” foods are a healthy, high-value option for your dog.

 What are your favorite treats for training or behavior modification?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday

I've been slacking on writing lately. Between being sick last week, crazy busy at work, and the unseasonably warm weather we've been having here in Minnesota, well...

I've spent my time doing stuff like this:
Yes, those ARE cockleburs in her beard.

 And this:

And this:

And then when I get home, she does stuff like this:

And really, can you blame me for wanting to spend time with her instead of on my blog?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jane Killion Seminar: Random Thoughts on Reactivity

Reactivity was not one of the topics of the seminar. There was no power-point presentation, nor was there an official outline on the matter. Despite that, I'm still going to write about Jane's comments on reactivity. The reader should understand that this is not a comprehensive training plan. Although I have some ideas of how Jane approaches reactive dogs based on what she said, this cannot be taken as her entire method. This post is being put together based on off-hand comments and responses to audience questions, so please, take it as such.

With all that said, my impression was that Jane does not alter her approach to reactive dogs that much. It appeared that her work with all dogs- reactive or not- is based on getting the dog operant, teaching stellar attention skills, and then expanding the dog's “envelope.” Again, maybe this was because of the constraints of the seminar, but I was disappointed and uncomfortable with her approach. Let me explain why:

Get the Dog Operant
According to Jane, reactive dogs (and their aggressive counterparts) need to be operant, maybe even more so than “normal” dogs. She said this is true because reactivity and aggression come from the same area of the brain as frustration, and frustration results from not knowing how to solve problems. By creating an operant dog, you get a dog who understands how to solve problems, which will reduce his frustration levels. In turn, Jane told us, you will reduce reactivity. At the same time, getting an operant dog is vital because it helps the dog and human learn how to communicate with one another. Of course, you'll still need to work on what, exactly, you communicate, but having an operant dog who understands how to communicate with you will go a long way towards reducing reactivity.

I can certainly see the value in this. Having a dog who understands he can control his environment with his behavior is a beautiful thing, and is at the heart of many of the training protocols available- like CAT, BAT, Control Unleashed, etc. Of course, the great challenge is harnessing that ability in a way you like. Early on in my work with Maisy, I inadvertently taught her that she could offer the behavior of barking and lunging at other dogs. This was the exact opposite of what I wanted her to learn, and indeed, was the fault of my own poor training. Getting an operant dog will not solve a behavior problem; it only gives you a chance to solve it.

But this emphasis on operancy also overlooks a huge area of training: classical counter-conditioning. I firmly believe that counter-conditioning is very important when working with reactive or aggressive dogs because it gives us a solid foundation upon which to build. Classical conditioning cannot be the sole answer- there will come a point where it's impossible to maintain, requiring you to switch to an operant technique- but I think it is often overlooked all the same. Now, Jane did recognize that “Pavlov is always on your shoulder” (that is, that classical conditioning always takes place alongside operant conditioning), but I felt she gave short shrift to the power in classical conditioning. Again, this was probably because it was outside the scope of the seminar, but if she uses it in her work with reactive dogs, I wish she would have at least mentioned it.

Teach Stellar Attention Skills
I've already alluded to the fact that Jane believes strong attention skills are vital for dogs. She stated that pretty much every problem you have with your dog is because he doesn't understand the concept of attention, and what's more, that reactive/aggressive dogs “need to have unbroken attention on me.”

To this end, she showed us a video of her then-18-week-old cattle dog, who was very sensitive to the environment. In the case of this video, the environment in question was a dog show; Jane was there to film a specialty, and during one of the down-times, she let her puppy come out to explore. The video showed the dog entering an area, straining at the end of the leash and scanning. The dog's tail was straight, vertical, and stiff as it stared. At one point, the dog erupted into barking. Throughout this, Jane's only response was to capture and click/treat eye contact. In the next segment, taken after some time had elapsed (but no further training had occurred), Jane and the dog entered the area. The dog immediately reoriented to her, and gave her some excellent eye contact, virtually ignoring what was going on around them.

The video was impressive. The change in the dog was dramatic. And yet... I didn't buy it. Not that I don't believe the events occurred as she said they did- I'm sure they did- but I don't believe this would work with every reactive dog. At any rate, I know this would not have worked for Maisy, because I have tried similar things. I figured this must be because Jane's dog was simply environmentally sensitive, while Maisy has a diagnosed anxiety disorder that required medication to resolve. Convinced this was the case, I approached her after the seminar to inquire if she would do things differently with a dog like mine. No. She would not. The technique probably didn't work for me because my skills are not as good as hers.

Expand the Dog's Envelope
Environmentally sensitive dogs, Jane told us, must be trained to work despite the spider (or whatever) in the room. They need to learn to ignore those distractions. Basically, reactivity is one big “proofing” exercise (except Jane doesn't call it that because she thinks proofing implies correction). As a result, she works with a reactive dog the same way she works with any other dog in this regard: she finds the envelope and gradually increases it.

The only difference is that she said with a reactive dog, you much work much slower, and push on the envelope much more gently. If you allow your dog to go over threshold (a word she does not use, because she said everyone understands it differently), you have made a mechanical error. Dogs who go “outside the envelope” end up with a cascade of chemicals releasing in the brain, which sidelines your training as the dog recovers from the stress.

I agree that you should not let a dog go over threshold; the resultant cortisol release means that you're stuck with an edgier dog for the next 72 hours (or longer- pre-medication, Maisy often needed up to a week to recover). But I am confused by Jane's idea of what going over threshold looks like; in the video of her cattle dog, the tight, tense body language and eruption of barking seemed like a reactive response to me. When I asked her about it, though, she said the barking was an alert barking, not reactive barking. Certainly, she knows her dog better than I, but I was uncomfortable with this response.

What about Stress?
Many seminar participants noted that some of the dogs looked stressed while working. Jane's response to this was that you don't know what your dog is thinking or feeling, so it doesn't really matter. She encouraged people to let dogs think through their stress (probably okay with a “normal” dog, but a bit worrisome for me with a reactive dog). For the more stressed dogs, she encouraged the handlers to select and reinforce relaxed body language (looking at ears, mouths, etc.).

Again, I was uncomfortable with this. Although she did adjust criteria/the environment for some of the dogs, for the most part, she pushed them far beyond their comfort zone- as demonstrated by body language- than I would do with my own dog. She believes this is where learning occurs. I agree that stress is inevitable in life, and that we need to help our dogs learn how to think through stress. At the same time, if a dog is too stressed, he cannot learn. Jane did emphasize that you need to skim the edges of stress for reactive dogs, but it seemed we had different ideas of where that edge is.

So is Jane wrong? No. Her techniques are clearly successful; she has a dog-aggressive dog of her own, and that dog was nationally ranked in APDT rally. But I don't think that means I am wrong, either. I, too, have a dog who was nationally ranked in APDT rally. And while my skills aren't even close to Jane's, I am proud of my accomplishments with Maisy, and I believe that in time, I will develop better training abilities.

In the end, I think there is enough room in the world for people to train in different ways, and to have different beliefs about how to approach the same problem. Jane has chosen a strict behavioral view. She trains the dog and the behavior she sees in front of her. I have chosen to follow a more emotional, relationship-focused method. Neither of us are wrong, even if we are uncomfortable with the other's views. Indeed, it is in these areas of discomfort that the most learning takes place.

Jane's seminar forced me to confront my own views and to examine them. Although this post concludes the official seminar recap, you can be assured that there will be many posts to come exploring my own thoughts and ideas on reactivity, training, and dogs in general. And perhaps that is the most important thing I took away from this seminar. Even if I didn't agree with everything I saw, I sure did learn a lot.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jane Killion Seminar: Overcoming Training Challenges

Everyone who trains dogs has training challenges. Whether it is something as minor as a puppy who doesn't want to lie down when asked or something as serious as aggression, we all face difficulty with our dogs. Jane has created a four-step protocol for overcoming these challenges. Today, I'm going to share it with you.

Step 1: Define the Behavior You Want
This might seem easy, but it's actually the hardest part. When faced with a challenge, we humans tend to describe it in negative terms. We talk about the horrible thing our dog is doing, about what we wish he would stop doing. But what we really need to do is start thinking about what we want to see instead.

Not only do we need to shift our thinking, but we also need to be specific. What exactly would that behavior look like? How would it play out? Jane cautioned us not to fool ourselves by simply following the rules; we need to branch out and figure out what the spirit of the rule is.

So let's say you're having trouble training your dog to stay. Maybe it's in competition obedience, maybe it's at the agility start line, maybe it's in your kitchen. What does it mean to stay? Well, it's when the dog sits and doesn't get up until you tell him, right? Oops- that was describing it as a negative.

Okay, how about this: a stay is where the dog sits and holds that position. Well, that's not bad, but Jane challenged to think more deeply about the behavior. How should he be sitting- straight and square, or kind of flopped over on one hip? Does it matter where he's looking? Should his head be held level or is it okay if he tries to sniff the floor while sitting there? Think about the purpose behind the behavior. If you just want him to stay put, these variables probably don't matter as much. However, if you want him to go from sitting to full speed and over a jump or through a tunnel when told, they matter a great deal. Decide what you need the behavior to accomplish.

Step 2: Train the Behavior You Want
This is actually the easiest part; the average seminar attendee (and I'd guess the vast majority of my readers) can figure out how to teach her dog to perform any given behavior. If you're not sure how to get the behavior you want, consult with a professional trainer.

Step 3: Find the Envelope
If you've ever been to a dog training class, you've probably heard someone lament, “But he can do it perfectly at home!” It's true, too; we all know that her dog can do it at home because of the lack of distractions. Once other dogs or tennis balls or interesting scents are added into the picture, the dog's behavior breaks down. “The envelope” is the specific context in which your dog can perceive, understand, and respond to the cue.

When you first teach a behavior, the behavior envelope is quite small. The dog can only respond when everything is just perfect. In this step, you only need to figure out where that envelope is. What needs to happen for the dog to be successful? What causes the dog to “forget” the behavior? Find out where your dog's training is.

Step 4: Work the Envelope
Now that you've found the envelope, it's time to start making it bigger. Doing this creates more contexts in which the dog can perform, and helps him understand that the cue word means the same thing, no matter where he is or what's going on.

You need to work right at the edges. If you push gently, the envelope will expand. If you start pushing and shoving, though, it's likely that you'll tear the envelope. You might be able to tape it shut and repair the behavior, but you might also need to start all over again with a new envelope.

When Jane was working with dogs in the seminar, she would work at those edges a lot. Her goal was to be at a level of distraction where she was on the verge of losing the dog to the more interesting thing, but where she was also reasonably confident she'd get him back. Because she doesn't like to nag or beg a dog to work, sometimes the dog did leave. Although her goal was to set up the situation so this didn't happen, sometimes she misjudged how much distraction the dog could endure and the dog (and let's face it- a seminar setting is a difficult place to work with a dog). This was okay; she'd simply wait the dog out and let him make the choice to come back to work because she believes that's where real learning occurs.

By following these four steps, the dogs all made a lot of progress. Most of the working dogs did agility, so the demonstrations were largely focused on solving challenges specific to the sport. While much of it went beyond my understanding, even I could see that the dogs improved a great deal. It was very fun to watch.

What do you think? Would following this protocol help you solve the challenges you're currently facing? Why or why not?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mostly Wordless Wednesday

The non-Maisy dog is Trout, a 3 month old puppy who was found on a fish farm in Missouri. We don't really know what she is, other than pretty much perfect. She is available for adoption in the Minnesota area. Please let me know if you'd like to be put in contact with her foster mom!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Jane Killion Seminar: Attention is a Behavior, and You Can Teach It!

Does your dog blow you off, ignore you, or run away? Do you feel frustrated by his lack of focus? Do you want him to pay more attention to you? Well, you’re in luck, because Jane told us at the seminar that attention is a behavior, and you can teach it. Today I’m going to share Jane’s two-step method for creating an attentive dog.

Step 1: Teach the Concept
You might think you’ve done this. After all, you’re a caring dog owner interested in training, so you’ve probably taught your dog to make eye contact when cued. But this, Jane argued, is missing the point. As she put it, attention is like respect. If you have to ask for it, you’ll never get it. If you’re calling your dog, nagging him, or begging for attention, then he’s learned nothing… except maybe that he can disengage from you to do whatever he’d like because you’ll let him know when it’s time to pay attention.

What Jane wants is a dog who chooses to be attentive. To that end, the concept Jane encouraged us to teach is not cued eye contact, nor is it for the dog to ignore distractions when told. Instead, she said that true attention is achieved when the dog learns that distractions themselves are cues to focus on the handler. In other words, when the dog realizes there is something interesting out there, he should not only ignore it, but also make eye contact with his handler without being told to do so.

Jane starts teaching this by letting the dog know that eye contact is a behavior he can offer in order to receive a click and treat. She showed us how to do that by putting a dog on leash and simply waiting. When the dog would make eye contact, no matter how briefly, she would click and treat. She had each dog/handler team repeat this until it was clear the dog understood that he can make the click happen by offering eye contact.

With this foundation in place, Jane began to raise the criteria using the classic technique of introducing distractions. Jane had the handlers hold a fistful of treats out to the side. Most dogs will stare at the food when this happens, and our working dogs were no exception. Again, Jane just had the handlers wait. She cautioned that they should not call the dogs, make noises, or otherwise prompt them to make eye contact. Simply wait. When the dog looked, he would get a click and treat. Again, she had the teams repeat the exercise until it was clear the dog was offering attention as a behavior to earn the treats.

But remember, the concept is not simple eye contact; Jane’s goal was for the dogs to learn that those distractions are a cue for the dog to pay attention to the handler. Because of this, Jane does not want a dog to look away from the handler, check out the distraction, and then look back. Instead, she wants the dog to understand that as soon as he’s aware of the distraction, he should put his complete focus on his handler. So instead of making the distraction bigger or harder, Jane actually had the working teams raise the criteria by only clicking when the dog refused to look at the distraction.

Here’s how the exercise was set up: the handler would present a distraction (usually by holding a handful of treats out to the side), and the dog would be allowed to look at it, then look at his handler and earn a click/treat. The handler would then remove the distraction (by putting her behind her back, for example), and then present it again, which started the exercise over. After a few reps, the criteria would be raised. Now the dog would only get clicked if he maintained eye contact and ignored the distraction. The first few times, the dog would look at the distraction before looking back at his handler. However, now that the criteria had been raised, he would not get clicked for this. Every single dog soon realized that he shouldn’t look at the distraction at all, and thus would choose to keep looking at his handler, which earned him a click and treat. It was pretty awesome to watch.

Step Two: Work the Envelope
Once the dog learned the concept, Jane began to do what she calls “working the envelope.” This is the phrase Jane uses to describe the process of gradually making the training task more difficult. She would change one thing at a time, with the goal being that the change was large enough that the dog would notice, but not so large that he couldn’t quickly return his attention to his handler.

Tibby has figured out that when Jane moves towards her, she should look at her mom.

Again, she would allow a few reps of look-at-the-distraction-then-back-at-the-handler before requiring the dog to ignore the distraction entirely in order to get clicked. Each team worked with different levels of distraction. For more novice dogs, the handful of treats might simply be moved closer to his face, while more advanced dogs were required to ignore Jane while she stepped towards them or crinkled a treat bag.

Although she couldn’t demonstrate the entire evolution of the process due to time constraints, Jane did share that pretty much all training is just an expansion of the attention concept. What’s more, she stated that pretty much every problem you have with your dog’s performance is because he doesn’t understand the concept of attention. She even argued that teaching solid attention skills is at the core of working with reactivity or aggression. While I think attention skills are helpful, I know from my own experiences with Maisy that it's not a one-size-fits-all solution, and I have my doubts that what I saw would have worked.

But that is for another post. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from others. How have you taught attention skills? What do you think of Jane's method? Do you cue attention, or have you taught your dog to view the distraction itself as the cue?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Jane Killion Seminar: Shaping

I don’t think I have ever met a trainer with better shaping skills than Jane Killion. At times, it seemed like it’s the only tool she uses (and I’ll talk more about that in my posts on her approach to reactivity, aggression, and attention), but I’ve got to admit that if I was even half as good at shaping as she is, I might not feel the need to use other approaches. Honestly, her skills are just phenomenal.

So, what is shaping? Shaping is the process of teaching a dog a new behavior in small, incremental steps. Instead of trying to teach the entire behavior all at once, shaping builds it up, one piece at a time. Jane used the analogy of a movie: if the behavior is what you would see in the final video clip, then shaping is the process of teaching that behavior one frame at a time.

More specifically, Jane does something called free shaping, which is where the dog offers each successive behavior as opposed to the trainer prompting, luring, compelling, or showing the dog what to do. Jane makes this distinction because she wants the dog to be the active participant. Since a “Pigs Fly” dog tends to be an independent thinker, free shaping harnesses the dog’s natural ability.

It also creates a dog who is “obsessed” with solving problems. Jane believes that free shaping taps into the SEEKING circuit in the brain, and since we know that anticipation is reinforcing, this means that the dog who has learned via shaping will find solving training challenges to be inherently reinforcing. This makes shaping a valuable tool for the “Pigs Fly” dog who isn’t all that interested in pleasing his person.

If this sounds wonderful, it’s because it is. But there is a catch! For free shaping to work, the dog has to be operant. This means that the dog understands that his behavior will earn a click and treat, and even more importantly, that he actively offers behaviors in order to earn the reward.

Jane teaches a dog how to be operant by playing The Box Game. To play, set a box on the floor and click/treat any interaction with the box that your dog offers. Any interaction. You aren’t teaching a behavior, so you should click anything and everything your dog does with, near, or to the box. Dog looks at the box? Click Dog sniffs at it? Click. Dog paws it? Click. Dog steps in it? Click. Dog jumps over it? Click. And if your dog will have nothing to do with the box? Click him for looking away from it, or even for getting up and walking away. That may sound weird, but remember, the goal is not teaching a behavior, it’s to teach the dog the concept of offering behaviors.

Once your dog is eagerly offering behaviors, it’s time to start shaping a behavior. Jane had working participants shape a behavior related to the box. This allowed the handlers (and the dogs!) to practice their new-found skills with something that doesn’t really matter. Choosing a "silly" behavior is important, because when people start with behaviors they care about, they tend to get tense and worried, which interferes with their ability to train.

To shape a behavior, start by thinking about what you want to teach. Jane said that the key to training lies in setting up your sessions well. You should spend more time planning than training. Have a very clear picture of what you want, and be sure to state it in terms of what the dog will do, not what he won’t do. For example, a sit-stay is defined as “sitting and holding that position” as opposed to “sitting and not changing position.”

Next, figure out what each step will be. Again, think of the final behavior as a movie, and visualize each frame. The change between each step should be very small. For example, if the behavior is teaching your dog to go lie on his bed, you might say that the first step is for the dog to turn his head towards the bed. Jane, however, would say the first step is for the neck muscles to move, or for the dog's eyes to flick in the direction of the bed. Like I said: tiny steps.

Click/treat that first step repeatedly until it is clear that the dog is deliberately offering the behavior. The amount of time you spend on this step will depend on the dog; if he’s done a lot of shaping, you might only need to click each step two or three times, but if this is his first time out, you might need to click it a hundred times.

Now, stop clicking. If your dog understood that his behavior was resulting in reinforcement, he will probably be a little confused. He will likely try the behavior again a few times. When that doesn't produce a click, he will start to offer variations on the behavior, trying to figure out what it is you want. Pick one that takes you closer to your end goal and click/treat that. Technically, your dog is going through an extinction burst, so be quick, before the dog gives up entirely. While much of training is a science, there is definitely an art to determining when to stop clicking, and what to click after that.

A lot of the working dogs were already operant, having had experience with shaping. In fact, some of them were almost frantic in their efforts to offer clickable behaviors. Jane acknowledged that shaping can be messy and chaotic at times. This is often hard for people to accept, especially if they are used to dogs who wait to be told what to do, or who really want to control their dogs.

That said, there are problems unique to shaping, although they are almost always due to timing. (Of course, poor timing is a problem no matter how you train, it’s just that poor clicker timing results in a different set of problems than in a poorly timed collar correction.) Almost every clicker problem can be solved simply by clicking earlier. Barking out of frustration during training is usually a very smart, fast dog saying “I did it! Click me already!” Dogs who throw lots of behaviors usually are not sure what the trainer wants because of her poor timing. And superstitious behaviors- those things that the dog thinks is part of the behavior but really isn’t- usually creep in due to late timing.

Timing and splitting behaviors down into tiny pieces seem to go hand in hand. For example, when Jane was working on teaching a dog to jump, she started with clicking the dog for seeing/committing to the jump versus going over it. Not only does slicing the criteria like this make it easier to shape the dog, but it also means that if your click is even a half-second late, you’re probably still clicking the goal behavior- in this case, jumping- instead of the behavior after it, like landing.

It was pretty amazing to watch Jane work with the dogs because her timing was just so good, and the lesson of clicking early was definitely something I needed. My timing is pretty good, but it is nowhere near Jane’s level of pure awesomeness. I am going to work hard to click sooner and to break down behaviors into smaller pieces. I think both things will really benefit my ability to teach the behaviors I want.

Coming up soon: using shaping to create an attentive dog and solve behavior challenges.