On Getting Better

I’m not spiritual. As much as I explore unusual, impossible, beautiful ideas, and as often as I include the supernatural in my fiction writing, my heart lives in the realm of the banal. Life is just biology and the coping mechanisms we construct to survive and reproduce.

But the wonder of life never escapes me. Especially working with dogs.

There is something transcendental about the human-dog relationship. We co-evolved together; we are symbiotic, parasitic species with histories hopelessly intertwined. There is something special about our relationships with dogs, something we don’t share with any other creature, anywhere.

If any experience in my life has come close to the spiritual, it is the way my life has grown around my dog Vesper’s.

When V came into my life I had dreams. I wanted her to get her Masters Agility Championship before she turned six; we would go to AKC Agility Nationals that same year. We would do flyball and take long off-leash hikes in the mountains. She would come to work with me, get her Canine Good Citizen, run calmly at my side.

Because I didn’t know what I was doing, I brought Vesper along on my pursuit of dog-excellence. I didn’t know, and then couldn’t acknowledge, that she wasn’t the dog I had hoped for. Those goals didn’t fit her.

Things deteriorated until several summers ago, when she attacked a small dog and showed me with complete clarity that she could not and should not do the things I was asking of her. That incident changed my path from “dog agility competitor” to “dog trainer,” and taught me more in one moment than all my previous years of practice.

My dog’s life changed dramatically after that. For almost a year, Vesper’s life was confined to the third of an acre my suburban house was planted on.

This was the exact same dog who I’d unleashed in agility arenas most weekends for years; who I took off-leash on hikes and swimming at dog parks. She had not changed, but my perception of her had. I now knew what I should have known before: she was not safe.

What I’ve had to learn since then is that no dog is truly safe. They’re not automatons. They make choices that we can influence, but not control.

Vesper changed me into a more joyful, determined and hopeful person. But she also opened me up to deep trauma. I have flashbacks to her being hit by that car; when a dog approaches too close I fight panic. I am terrified of repeating the horrible lessons she taught me and won’t ever let them happen again, if I can. But again–our dogs make their own choices. I can’t say never.

I grieved the loss of those dreams. Watching Agility Nationals this year hurt me deeply; dogs who’d been in Novice with V were there, having the success that I fought hard for. This was supposed to be her year. Instead, I’ve been slowly learning how to trust her again.

Of all the ambitions I had with this dog, I’ve pared all of them away. For most of the last year, I had no ambitions for Vesper at all. But that wasn’t working, either–I miss her. I miss the dog she is outside of my home. Out in the world she tends to be much sillier. She’s thrilled to see people, to try new things, to use her body. She needs more freedom.

This year I set a goal for us. We would get better. That’s all–we just need to get better. We don’t have to heal completely. We don’t have to compete. But we need to be a team again.

This is where it feels spiritual, to me: taking the steps to trust her again, within whatever framework I can set to keep her and everyone around her safe. It’s intensely vulnerable. When you love a dog like Vesper, you’re very likely to get hurt. She is hard to trust. But she is also a good dog, and well-trained, and I underestimate her as often as I overestimate her. I don’t want to squash her life with my own fear of what might happen.

Yesterday for the first time I took both of my dogs out into the woods, together. We just wandered a huge and empty field, but my heart pounded for the first thirty minutes. And even though I told myself not to, that it wasn’t safe or smart, that too much could go wrong, I unclipped her leash.

 

There are lots of reasons why I thought this was okay. We were isolated, I had a clear line of sight for at least half a mile in either direction, I knew nobody else was out there. I carry citronella spray–to use on my own dog, if she gets her teeth on anything–and a bear horn. And I can make it even safer: in the future, she will be muzzled, and I just activated her new GPS tracker in case she takes off after a deer.

Still, my hands shook when I reclipped her leash after giving her a few spare moments of freedom.

This is rehabilitation. It hurts. It’s frightening. I’m brave enough to do the work for her, but only because she taught me how to be brave.

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Resource: My Favorite Training Tools

Like all dog trainers, I have my favorite treats, gadgets and toys. I’m lucky enough that people ask for my opinion on these things, so I’ve put together a working document for clients (and interested parties!).

Temerity Dogs’ Favorite Training Tools & Resources

This is on Amazon, but may of these items I’ve purchased in local pet stores. Check Mud Bay, All the Best, and your local corner shop–I’m not the only person who loves these resources!

Seattle Kennel Club: Demos & More

I’m excited that I was asked to present three demos at the Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show at Centurylink Field this year. This has been in the works for a few months and it’s almost time!

In support of the show, Reckless, Vesper and I filmed a segment with Evening Magazine’s Michael King last week. It airs tomorrow, Thursday the 8th, at 7:30pm. For those of you not in Seattle, I will have a digital version to share as well. I’m stoked that my dogs are going to be on TV! And a little nervous that I am going to be on TV.

On Saturday at 1pm I will be doing a demo of Dog Parkour.

On Sunday, I’ll do another Dog Parkour demo at 10am.

Then at 12pm I will be joined by an awesome group of volunteers to present Stunt Dog! You’ll be hearing a lot more from me about this fun new trick dog performance sport as I turn my group Northwest Stunt Dogs into a club and put on our first trials.

The Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show is a lot of fun, even if you’re just a casual fan of dogs. In addition to seeing dozens of dog breeds you never knew existed, you’ll get to watch agility, rally obedience, and pet some pups. I loved dog shows like this when I was a kid, so I’m glad to get to contribute!

Find out more about the show at Seattledogshow.org

Lured into Trouble

I have seen a handful of “positive reinforcement” trainers lure dogs into big trouble.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with food lures. They aren’t harmful to the dog, most dogs find them pleasant (ooh a cookie!) and they provide us opportunities to reward our dogs for a behavior that we want. I use food lures in training, for client dogs and my own.

There are a few problems with food lures:

  • A dog that’s being lured isn’t thinking very much about what he’s doing. He’s following a cookie, which is not a thoughtful behavior–it’s an automatic one.
  • Lots of people forget to graduate beyond the food lure. If the trainer doesn’t have a cookie in their hand, the dog doesn’t perform–they still need to be shown, because they’ve never really thought about the lured behavior. They just follow the cookie.

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Those are easy problems to solve, with the right application of markers and rewards. (Meaning “yes!” or *click* and a cookie.) They aren’t the problem I have with food lures, and that’s not where the trouble comes.

Let’s say we have a young German shepherd in his first class with agility equipment. He’s a confident dog in general but he’s nervous about heights and things moving underneath his feet. Some of the agility equipment is kind of creepy to him because he’s not used to it. He’s a little uncertain.

A well-meaning trainer says, okay, let’s use food to get him used to the equipment. You, the owner, are instructed to hold onto the dog’s collar to keep them steady while the trainer shows the dog a piece of chicken.

Chicken! That’s an exciting treat. Even though the dog is a little uncertain, he follows the chicken. They go up the a-frame. For part of the distance–about two and a half feet–the chicken is more exciting than the height is scary. At four feet the chicken starts to lose its shine. At the top of the a-frame, the dog finally really notices where he is. Holy hell, how did he get up here? Oh my god, how does he get DOWN? He no longer wants the chicken much, if at all. He wants to get the heck away from this scary nonsense!

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This dog’s body language indicates he might not be super comfortable up there.

At this point, the dog is stuck and has to make a really unpleasant choice. He’s not allowed to go back down the a-frame, because his owner is holding onto his collar. He doesn’t want to go down the other side of the a-frame, because it’s steep and he doesn’t like heights. Everyone is trying to coax him to do something, there’s chicken in his face, and he doesn’t want anything except to escape.

I’ve seen this dog jump from the top of the a-frame more than once.

Now: what is that dog’s experience of the a-frame? Was that food lure a positive thing?

My example may seem extreme, but it’s not. It’s an otherwise-confident, healthy dog in a circumstance I’ve seen more than once. But it can be a lot more subtle, with no obvious traumatic experiences. Instead, it’s just a low level of discomfort that’s never really trained out. Think of this–how many agility dogs don’t like the teeter? How many slow down and cross the a-frame and dogwalk cautiously? They may have not shown such obvious signs of anxiety in training, because the value of the chicken may have been worth more than the strength of their fear. But the fear is still there–and unless that fear is conditioned out, it sticks to the obstacles forever.

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This dog is totally comfortable and confident on this equipment. He’s also willing to go a lot faster!

Most people come to my Parkour classes without many expectations. Parkour is kind of new, and it’s accessible to pet people and dog sports people both. There’s no competition or courses. It’s easy to focus on making sure we don’t lure our dogs into trouble.

(PS–new session starts 1/19/17. Sign up here.)

For one thing, I keep an eye out for the Cookie Hounds. You know if you have one, because if there’s a cookie in your hand, they’re trying to get it out! They stare, their noses are stuck to the cookie–and they aren’t thinking about what they’re doing. They’re just thinking about the cookie!

Even if a Cookie Hound seems pretty confident, I want their handlers to get the food out of their hands as soon as possible. Why, if the dog isn’t scared? Because we don’t always know when our dogs will suddenly discover something that creeps them out. In Parkour, we’re always playing with new surfaces and new uses for items. Even highly confident dogs–even my own adrenaline junkies!–occasionally discover a texture, movement or shape that makes them pause. In those moments, what’s better: a dog that stops and thinks about whether they are comfortable doing something, or a dog that follows its nose until, oops, something freaky happens?

The awesome thing is, if you give even a very timid dog a chance to think about what they’re doing, and you reward them for small attempts, they’ll usually decide they CAN do the scary thing.

That German shepherd from my example? I wouldn’t ask him to do a full-height a-frame. All a-frames lower, and some can even be flattened onto the ground. I would lower the height and get him very, very happy about running over the frame on the ground, and then at a low height, and gradually lift the frame up to full height over several weeks or months. Does this take longer? At first, yes. But how much longer does it take to explain to a dog that, okay, even though the a-frame scared the crap out of them and maybe even hurt them the first time (if they jumped), it probably, maybe, won’t be as bad this time?

Why involve fear in our games with our dogs in the first place?

So that’s why luring isn’t always a positive experience for the dog. It’s easy for a dog to get tricked into scary situations if they’re staring at something delicious. Heck, I would follow carrot cake with cream cheese frosting into a shed full of spiders… for a few steps, at least. But would I like it? Heck no. It’s our job to make sure we’re training our dogs in happy confidence.

Life Happens

Driving home from our hike yesterday, I let my puppy sit in the front with me. He always seems to want this, but it’s a rare treat.

Even though he was buckled into a harness and spent most of the ride curled up politely with his snoot propped against the glass, I felt his vulnerability like a new parent must feel their infant’s, imperfectly protected. I was relieved when we pulled into the driveway without incident.

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Tell me there’s no room for that little dog in the cab of that big truck.

In my first couple years with dogs, I dealt with a series of traumas. My puppy spent a week in the hospital after getting into a Costco-sized bottle of Ibuprofen, went through the long and terrible slog of rehab after a crippling injury, and was hit by a car because of a stupid choice I made. All of this sensitized me to dog-related trauma, potential and real. I try not to be a helicopter parent; I try to give my dogs opportunities to be dogs, run loose, act wild, roll in stuff and get in moderate amounts of trouble like dogs should, while still guarding them from unnecessary risk.

But I am always on guard. And when terrible things happen, I empathize in a very deep way.

I was driving my puppy, my sweet precious little man who I let ride in the front seat on the way back from his birthday hike, to one of his first agility trials a few weeks ago. We were on a major interstate, my dogs in their crates.

Ahead of me in traffic, I saw a big yellow Lab loose in the bed of a pick-up. This always makes me uncomfortable, but this was worse: the dog was VERY excited, darting from side to side, putting his paws up on the side of the bed, leaning over the edge and barking.

Even worse, the driver was changing lanes frequently, and every movement of the car threw the dog off balance.

And to add one final layer of absurdity to this horrible picture, we were moving through an area that was going through regrading, so changing lanes involved a big bump that jolted the thrilled Labrador up almost into the air.

The dog was having the time of his life. I felt like I’d swallowed a rock. I could see exactly what was going to happen.

My mind raced.  What should I do? My first instinct was to try to catch up to the truck and honk at them until they noticed me and I could get them to pull over and tell them how much danger their dog was in.

But would someone doing 80 on the interstate, changing lanes without signaling, with their dog hanging out of the bed of the truck pay attention to an angry girl in a tiny car honking at them? Or would it just make them drive more recklessly? And, more importantly, would my honking agitate the dog even further? I couldn’t take that risk–I couldn’t chance making this situation worse that it already was.

I dropped back in traffic. I couldn’t watch what I felt like was inevitably going to happen. I still have nightmares from a brief moment seeing a little boy’s escaped puppy run toward a busy street as I was swept away in traffic, and knowing that that poor little boy could not have caught that puppy in time. My own dog-related trauma means I have some emotional triggers around this; I couldn’t look.

I started making calls. Animal control. Seattle humane. Nobody was open yet. Finally I called my friend and mentor Andrea, who looked up the law. She confirmed my suspicion that yes, this was illegal. You can have a dog in the bed of your truck, but they must be secured to something. This unsecured Lab, even though he seemed to be having a blast, was not only extremely unsafe, but was an enormous potential traffic hazard. If he went over the side of that pickup bed and YOU were behind the truck, how fast would you slam on the brakes? Pretty damn fast, I bet!

I could make a police report and the cops would actually follow up with the driver at home and let them know they couldn’t jeopardize their dog and the safety of others in this way. That was a huge relief–I could do something to make sure this dog was never put in a position like this one again.

All I needed was the license plate number.

At this point I had intentionally dropped back far enough to lose the truck in traffic. Now I went looking for it, still finishing up on my call with Andrea. As I thanked her for helping me, I spotted the truck–on the side of the road, with another car behind it.

The dog wasn’t in the truck bed anymore. Both cars had their hazards on. Some people stood in the grass at the shoulder of the interstate.

“Oh, god,” I said. “He’s dead. It’s too late.”

The truly horrible thing about this disgusting situation? There was a large dog crate strapped down in the back of the pickup. The driver of that truck chose this, when there was a simple, safe alternative right there.

A moment’s thought, ten second’s effort, and that dog would be alive.

I didn’t talk about this after it happened. Andrea and I hung up and didn’t speak about it again. I didn’t tell anyone at the trial, which I arrived at five minutes later. I played with my dogs, I went home.

I’m sure very few of us would make that same choice. I’m not sure what I learned, except that sometimes even when you try to change things, life happens.

But I do know that the choices we make, even small ones, impact the animals we are responsible for in big ways. 2ci4cmz801dx

 

 

Using Your Dog’s Powers for Good (and maybe even something useful!)

One of my dogs, Vesper, is half German shepherd. One of the prominent breed characteristics of the German shepherd dog is “loyalty,” which most people assume means they’re obedient and trustworthy. My read of “loyalty” means German shepherd dogs always want their long snouts all up in your business, and they watch you like a hawk in case you’re about to do anything that might involve them–which is pretty much everything. This makes them pretty darn good candidates for service dogs of many types, and you’ll see quite a few GSD guide dogs, mobility dogs, and psych service dogs.

My German shepherd cross isn’t a service dog, but she really, really wants to help. Her other cross-breed is Australian kelpie, another working breed, and as a result she’s very smart, driven, and willing. The flip side of that? If I don’t give her something to do, she’ll figure something out on her own. When dogs get creative, people are very rarely pleased with the solutions!

While Vesper isn’t a service dog, I’ve accidentally taught her some tricks that are either extremely useful, or look like service dog tasks. Because she loves helping out, these tasks are highly rewarding to her. I rarely reward her for doing them with anything but praise and scratches on her chest, but she does the jobs with enthusiasm and speed. I didn’t expect any of these behaviors to come in handy, but taught them all as tricks; Vesper’s love of being useful simply shined through. They became some of her favorite things to do, and as a result I can ask for them pretty much any time I need them.

Go Find Your Kong: Vesper loves interactive food toys. When she was young she got all her kibble out of this or this. She figured out that if she picked up the food toy and threw it, the kibble came out faster. This was fine for the most part, but if there was one final piece of kibble in the toy that she couldn’t get she would throw that food toy for hours, determined to solve the puzzle. Eventually I taught her that if the food was hopelessly stuck or if her toy was empty, she could trade the empty toy for a treat, I would even open the toy up and give her what was stuck in there, too. Because Vesper is smart, she figured, hey, if this food toy is worth a cookie, then I bet all of them are, right? She began bringing me any food toy she could find, and after a while it became a ritual. I put a verbal cue on finding and bringing me her food toys, and she would search the house for them and bring what she found to me in the kitchen so I could clean it and put it away.

I don’t feed kibble anymore, but that just means we use Kongs and Toppls regularly. They get chased under furniture, left in crates or out on the deck… and since I fill them with fresh-made dog food or raw meat, they need to be cleaned after every use. But all I have to do is stand in the kitchen and ask Vesper to “find your Kong” and she’ll hunt until she’s positive they’re all picked up. Meanwhile I’m doing the dishes or making coffee.

How useful is that? I love how this came out of a negotiation between me and my overenthusiastic dog. Instead of taking away a toy that she was banging into furniture and walls, I asked her to trade with me. Because she’s smart and willing, it turned into an extremely useful behavior that I ask for at least once every day.

Can You Get That For Me?: Vesper was a little nuts when she was a puppy. Busy is a good word for it–she never stopped moving and never stopped thinking. I did a ton of tricks with her to keep her mind busy so that she wouldn’t eat my house or burst out of a plate-glass window. One of the things we worked on was learning how to pick up all sorts of different objects. Again, I shaped this just for fun, as something to keep my puppy’s brain busy. Dogs don’t naturally like to pick up just anything; they have preferences, and some objects are hard to pick up. We worked on all sorts of stuff, including delicate things that she needed not to damage and slippery things that she would have to try pretty hard not to drop. She liked this game a LOT and got quite good at it. As a result, Vesper is happy to pick up pretty much anything I ask.

And sometimes even if I don’t ask.

The first time I dropped my keys as we were getting ready to go to agility class and she picked them up and handed them to me, I was stunned. We had been working a lot on picking up small objects that week, so she just saw it as part of the game we had been playing anyway. But my hands were full and we were in a hurry and it was actually helpful to have my dog pick up my keys from the floor and hand them to me. Woah! And she was so pleased with herself!

Now she does it all the time. If I drop the cap to my water bottle, I don’t stop to bend over. “Vesper, can you get that?” She’s usually following me around the house anyway, so she’s happy to comply. She picks up dropped shopping lists and jumps into the bushes by the front door when I lose my clicker over the deck railing.

Put That Away, Please?: Vesper was obsessed with socks as a puppy. They smelled like feet! They were soft and chewy! You could shake them until they were dead! It was cute at first, but I knew that some sock-loving dogs ended up in surgery to remove socks that were blocking their intestines. I didn’t want to end up there.

So I taught V that socks paid good money. If she picked one up, I praised her and we ran to the cookie jar. She started hunting for socks to bring them to me so she could get paid. If I folded a basket of laundry and didn’t put it away, I would slowly stack each folded pair of socks next to the cookie jar as Vesper stole them from the basket to trade them in.

Eventually I got tired of moving socks from the kitchen to the hamper. If Vesper liked this game so much, let her do the work.

So when she brought me dirty socks, I would praise her, get out a cookie, and lead her to the hamper. At first she dropped the socks next to the hamper–hey, her aim was as good as my ex-husband’s! But after a while she figured out how to flip them up and into the hamper, and then she didn’t need me to lead her there anymore. She could bank socks in the laundry hamper and come to me for a biscuit.

Now at night I hand Vesper my socks and tell her to put them away for me. She takes them one at a time to the hamper, doing a slow wag the whole way there, and comes back to get her eyes and ears rubbed in thanks.

What I find interesting about all these behaviors is that they weren’t intentionally trained. They mostly started as ways to accommodate troublesome behaviors that Vesper already offered. She found the behaviors rewarding (or else she wouldn’t have done them!) so asking her to simply not do them would be hard for a young dog with impulse control issues. Instead we turned the impulse into something else, and the results were pretty excellent.

As caretakers of animals we tend to think about our dogs’ behaviors on our terms. Do I like this behavior? Is this annoying? Is this dangerous? I found success with Vesper because instead of shutting down the behavior, I found a way to negotiate with her.

It’s hard to train “no.” When you say “don’t do that,” the dog’s path is blocked. They look for another way forward–and often, their solutions aren’t what we expect or desire.

When we instead say, “hey, try this instead,” the dog is immediately offered a path forward that we’ve already planned and approved. And if the “instead” still includes some aspect of the behavior they enjoy, even better! They get to use their preferences for good instead of evil, and everyone wins.

Since Vesper loves helping out so much, I’ve started teaching her a few other useful tasks. She’s working on bringing me my slippers, opening and closing drawers, and putting recycling in the bin (it’s even got a foot-pedal she has to work). She treats these tricks like jobs, and seems so much more satisfied by them. Like I said, everyone wins!

He’s Not Stubborn, You’re Just Worthless

In a dog daycare setting, you see other people’s pets at their naughtiest. Mom and dad aren’t there to enforce the rules, and “everyone else is doing it” tends to apply; once one dog starts digging a hole, suddenly everyone is digging. One barking dog gets everyone barking. (Not that there’s much wrong with digging or barking–these are normal dog behaviors that I would redirect instead of outright squash.)

stubborn-beagle-stubborn-dog-featureBut a lot of these urban pets lack manners on top of that.

These dogs’ people have a lot of reasons for this. “She’s bossy,” or “he’s too excited all the time.” Or, the most common one: “He’s just really stubborn!”

Here’s a super amazing secret: this has nothing to do with the dog. Any one of those dogs could have excellent manners very easily, and it has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with them, at all.

You, their person, just aren’t worth very much.

Dogs are highly sensitive. They are bombarded by a million stimuli  that we do not notice. They can hear things and smell things from, literally in some cases, a mile away. They can hear what is happening underground and smell the frustration on your breath. There is so. Much. Happening. in their world.

So you bring your dog outside and she starts sniffing, because that’s how dogs do, and also down the street someone’s barking inside the house, and also on the next block someone is using a leaf blower, and there’s a soccer game at the school a half mile away. But you need to get your keys out, so you tell her to sit.

Does she ignore you?

Have you practiced sit inside with lots of rewards? With fewer rewards? With no rewards? Did you go back to using lots of rewards while you introduced mild distractions, like the presence of cookies loose on the countertop nearby? Did you fade out using lots of rewards in that circumstance? Did you work up to working with cookies on the floor? Tossing a ball while she’s in a sit? While your cat eats on the floor next to her? Did you then take that whole game outside and start from the beginning? Because that’s how you make that “sit” valuable and easily doable for your dog in lots of different environments.

Have you done that work?

No?

Then whose fault is it that she doesn’t immediately sit? I don’t think it’s because she’s stubborn.

I think it’s because listening to you is a job that’s too hard on a way-too-low pay grade. You haven’t made that sit–and working with you–valuable enough to your dog.

This sounds like a lot of work, but it isn’t. All of those steps above, in bold? You can go through those in a few weeks to a few months, in five-minute increments, depending on you and your dog.

Beyond the Backyard by Denise Fenzi is a great place to start. I’m going to be teaching a class on this curriculum at Four Paw Sports this summer, so stay tuned.