Social Animals; Bars, Dog Parks and the Correllations Between

The late night bar scene is not for everyone. It can be visually and audibly overstimulating when things are really going full swing.  It can also be overwhelming to be polite to people who can’t take a hint. Sometimes the bouncers are too busy talking to regulars to prevent drunken squabbles from turning into fights. These social pressures that many people find uncomfortable are very similar to social pressures placed on dogs at dog parks.

    Even just entering the dog park can be difficult, thanks to dogs guarding the entrance. Your dog gets through the gate, and before he can even stop to smell the grass, there is a nose up his butt and another dog jumping on his head trying to play. How overwhelmed would you feel walking into a bar to have half the patrons rapidly approach you, one clasping your shoulder, and just inches from your face, ask you what you want to eat and drink, all before you’ve even had a chance to orient yourself?

    After surviving the introductions, now your dog has found a friend to play and run with.  All the fun they are having has gotten attention from other dogs that are now jumping in to join in the fun.  Now we have a group of multiple dogs, whom are unfamiliar with each other’s play preferences, trying to interact as one large group. Two of the dogs figured out they like to play jump, others know they like to herd, and then there’s always the one who thinks all the other dogs are solely there so he can hump them. A squabble among two of the dogs in the group breaks out, but nobody comes running to claim their dogs. It escalates, because one of the dogs likes to referee the others, trying to calm the situation – where are these dogs’ parents?!

Have you ever had a conversation in a really large, excited group of people? The subject changes five times per minute, there are other opinions that you really don’t care about flying your way, and you end up fighting just to get your two cents heard. Plus, so many diverging opinions can steer things the wrong way, fast. It’s often frustrating and emotionally draining trying to participate in such a large group.

Now let’s consider another component – age. I was much more willing to go out partying all night with friends at 21 than I am now. Dogs do “age out” of daycare regularly. They get to an age where there is just no more patience for that young buck who just wants to run around playing and tugging all day – and that’s completely fine! Dog parks prevent the older crowd from being able to separate themselves from the younger, more adventurous players. Even after politely expressing disinterest, there is no guarantee the other dog will understand the communication and actually back off. It doesn’t take many of these interactions before your dog is labeled the aggressor after appropriately asking the other dogs for a break.

Socialization is very important in a dog’s life, especially at certain ages, but caution should be taken before using the dog park. Does your dog actually want to play with other dogs, or do they just meander by themselves keeping distance? What play is your dog’s preferred style? Would he/she enjoy being run at by an unlimited number of dogs? What personalities are currently in the park now? There are many options other than the dog park for tiring out your pup both mentally and physically. If you’re running out of ideas or just don’t know what to do with your dog if you aren’t going to the park, please contact us for ideas. We are happy to help you come up with solutions that fit your and your dog’s lifestyle.

Know Better, Do Better

I was recently listening to a podcast and was reminded of this lovely quote by Maya Angelou;

"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."

As do most things in my brain, I jumped to dog training when I was turning this over in my head.

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I spend most of my time with "positive reinforcement-based" or "clicker trainer" trainers, both in person and when learning from others online. The vast majority of people I have the fortune to spend my time with are dedicated learners. They always want to know, and be able to apply, more, better.

The irony however, is that regardless of what "camp" we live in, "positive-based" especially, is that sometimes it can be challenging to converse with someone--whether that person is another trainer, or a client, or someone on Facebook--whose ethics seem so drastically different (or sometimes even just slightly different!) from our own. It can be tempting to "preach" at someone, or scold someone who is using what could be labeled as "harsh". It's human nature to divide others into groups--"you fit in that box, I fit in that box," "my box is RIGHT, yours is wrong...," etc., etc. 

I think its critical, especially for dog trainers to remember, that if we want to help clients, and even better, change their behavior to apply methods that will be easier and yet still effective on the dog, that we need to be kind. And open, and less judgemental.

There is always a reason why a client may walk into a lesson with a dog on a prong collar. A friend or neighbor may have recommended it, or maybe even another trainer whom they paid for their expertise. Maybe they have used that tool in the past, and it worked. People are always just seeking a solution, using the knowledge they have.

Nothing feels worse than being shamed for a "wrong" you didn't know was wrong. So, dog trainers, take a deep breath, and ask the client the question; "how is this tool working for you?" And then LISTEN. Which is easier said than done.

It is our job, as professionals who people are hiring for our advice and our knowledge, to freely and kindly share that knowledge. Leave the blame and judgement at the door, and teach our clients WELL, so we can ALL be better.

 

The "Perfect" Puppy -- Foundations for Life

'Tis "puppy season"! This time of year into early Spring is when we get inundated with new puppies. Owners who know the importance of training and socialization get their puppies out and about from the start, which is fantastic. They are asking about training classes and also, what they should be teaching their puppies at home.

Now, this is where we may diverge a bit from what the "traditional" thoughts on "puppy training" might be. "Skills"--such as sit, down, stay, walking on leash, et cetera, are of course ALL very important skills for your dog to learn. However, those are just that; "skills". They can be easily, and very quickly, taught to dogs who have existing foundation behaviors. As in, we must have an understanding of how water, soil and seeds work together, and how to treat all of these elements, before we can grow a productive garden. And like in a garden, we don't just "grow it" once, and then walk away. It is an ongoing process, that needs to be continually nurtured and balanced in order to produce results again and again.

So, what are the most important elements to consider when initially training your new puppy? Here are the five behaviors we tend to focus on with our very young dogs that will lead to better skills learning and more stable dogs down the road!

1. Learning to eat

Yes, I said it! Learning to eat, when presented with food, as silly as it sounds, is something that frequently gets muddied up early on for many dogs and owners. Puppies should ideally be fed at least half of their meals from you, via training sessions or other enrichment games. When they do need to be fed out of a bowl, it should be a pre-determined amount, on a general schedule (as opposed to free feeding on the dog's timeline). Building the puppy's propensity to look to YOU for reinforcement, as opposed to just having food available whenever, with no connection to you, will devalue food in general for many dogs. With just a little bit of effort on your part form early on, your puppy will learn that you + food = great stuff happens!

2. Play! Play and more play!

Many people play with their puppy initially when the puppy is very young, but then leave the dog to its own devices. One on one play with your puppy is one of the BEST ways to build relationship and engagement with your dog. If again, just like with food, your puppy learns that engaging in appropriate toy-based and physical play with you is enjoyable, it simply gives you that many more "tools" in your reinforcement toolbox for down the road. Play fun games of fetch and tug with your puppy. *If* your puppy can enjoy gentle wrestling games without going into hyper-bitey-overdrive mode, play that way. Some puppies like to chase or be chased. Experiment and find out what your puppy likes. Having interactive play games is also a great way to burn off energy, while simultaneously reinforcing the fact that YOU are the best of all the options.

3. Containment and confinement.

Most people do use crates early on in their puppy's potty training, as they should! But unfortunately, once the puppy is mostly housebroken, the crate gets relegated to the garage where it gathers dust until the next neighborhood yard sale. I say, use that crate! Now, I do not advocate leaving a dog in a crate all day, by any means. BUT, a dog that can relax happily in a crate for a few hours at a stretch is a dog that will; board comfortably, be able to settle a bit better at the vet or the groomer, travel in confinement, and/or be a good house guest in others homes. Dogs that can handle confinement with aplomb are those dogs that can literally travel through life with a lot more ease. Make the crate a GOOD place for your dog!

4. Name and foundations for recall.

If I could choose one and only one behavior for every dog on earth to have 100% reliable, it would be a "recall" or a "come when called". A recall isn't just useful, but a rock solid recall can even save your dog's life. Building value for your puppy responding to it's name from the early stages, and generously and diligently reinforcing their response, is a great way to build your dog's propensity to respond to your call. For every time you say "Max!" in a burst of annoyance, there should be five more "Max!"s, that are reinforced by a cookie, a ball throw, or something the dog *really* wants. Be VERY aware of how and when you use your puppy's name. Calling them to you, then putting them in the bath tub, or clipping on the leash and then leaving the park, degrades their response to their name. So, be hyper aware of this VERY critical "bank account," and deposit LOTS and LOTS of "cookie money" to ensure the pay out will be there when you most need it.

5. Handling and husbandry behaviors. 

I'll be 110% honest with you all (if you're still with me!). Husbandry and handling is one of my "weaker" spots. I am a "doer" in life, and my dogs and I like to go, go, GO! BUT, solid husbandry behaviors--such as holding still for examinations at the vet's, the groomer, etc., take time and patience! And they are SO important. Gentle handling with tons and tons of reinforcement for cooperation *should* be a critical component of every puppy's early upbringing. Here's a video of us working with a client puppy on accepting ear cleaning and teeth brushing. Having a dog that is comfortable with these routine procedures, and who can actually *relax* at the groomer's or the vet is a dog that makes everyone who comes in contact with him/her happy and so very grateful that you took the time to do that extra bit of training.

So, that may seem like a lot, BUT, guess what, you have time! Take the time to carve out just five minutes a day to spend on one or two of these items, and you will be handsomely rewarded down the line. Plus, if you do, you will get the amazing BONUS side effect; an engaged dog! Puppies whose parents spend the time teaching them critical life skills mature into happy, eager learners who are a joy to live with. Don't be intimidated, just get out there for a few minutes a day and do it! You, and your puppy, will be glad you did.

Happy training!

 

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Reinforcement Rules

Most people who will bother to read this already know about the "magic" of reinforcement in dog training. It's a big deal, a hot topic, a buzzword. For good reason, it should be.

I try to instill in my clients, whether they are visiting me for basic manners, behavioral challenges, or sport work, that nothing trumps high value, well-timed reinforcement. Nothing.

 Pretty sure he finds that Chuckit ball rewarding...

Pretty sure he finds that Chuckit ball rewarding...

But, of course, there are rules. Many, honestly, but here are some of the more imperative rules that will immediately impact your training.

  • behavior that is being repeated is being reinforced. Either you or the environment are rewarding the dog for the behavior, or on occasion, the behavior itself can be self-reinforcing
  • you should reward your dog MORE OFTEN. Period. More frequently, more times per correct behavior. People are always amazed how quickly I can get a dog to engage with me, or do X behavior. I am not sure I am all that "talented" frankly, its more that I know how to be generous at the right time.
  • that said, reinforcement is NOT just throwing food mindlessly, or offering treats incessantly, or letting the dog grab the toy and take off while you chase them around the yard. All of that DEVALUES the reinforcement process. I have met many a R+ trainer who is madly clicking and throwing food, to a completely unengaged, uninterested dog. When asked what they just clicked and rewarded, usually the answer is not concise, and the dog's behavior is evidence of that. Know exactly WHAT you are marking and rewarding and focus on a SPECIFIC behavior, or set of behaviors. Make the rewards retain their value by making it clear to the dog what the Cue-Behavior-Reward sequence is.
  • the dog defines what is reinforcing. Not you. I see this ALL the time, in both pet AND sport teams. Dog doesn't want to tug with you or chase a ball? Stop beating your (and their) head against the wall and get out the cookies. Dog not performing enthusiastically for those Zukes or Dry Crunchy Things(TM) you bought at Petco? For the love, stop being stingy and get out some freaking hotdogs or chicken. Figure out what your dog REALLY wants. Really, its worth it.
  • you need to build up reward SYSTEMS. For most pet owners, just teaching the dog that "mark/click-cookie is coming" is good. For those that want to train more advanced concepts like tricks or sport work, there need to be a LOT more tools in your reward tool box than "food always comes from the hand or out of a bowl". Building up those reward systems in the dog's foundation will go a LONG way in speeding along actual skills-learning down the road. The more methods you have in "treating" your dog--food, toys, personal play, other--the more motivated and willing a work partner you will have, and you will be able to train a VAST variety of behaviors. One dimensional reward systems are limiting to what teams can learn.
  • reward in position! WHERE you deliver the food makes all the difference in the world. When training stays, we should get the food quickly into the dogs mouth or between their front paws so they do not have any reason to move. Conversely, use your food to get the dog up and released! Hannah Brannigan talks about "behavior loops," and those "release cookies" are just as important to get right as the "in position" cookies as a means of resetting the dog and getting them to start the loop again on their own. Its a fascinating concept, I encourage you to check out her podcast if you want to geek out further about any of these ideas.  

Dogs that receive generous amounts of concise reinforcement are eager and willing learners, and build great relationships with their people. By bucking the notion that "he's only doing it because I have food" and learning how reinforcement actually WORKS, you can create amazing behavior change, and teach complex skills, QUICKLY. It's so freaking cool!

Happy to answer any questions or discuss anything on this front you might have.

 

Starting Over, a Re-introduction

Here we are, three-and-a-half years into the "project" known as Dogs Abound. I have had some stops and starts with blogging along the way, but honestly I've been horrible about committing to it. I *should* be blogging, for a variety of reasons, increased web traffic and all that jazz, building our brand, etc., etc,. And also because my web guru Reg says so (are you reading this Reg???).

I figured it was time to hold myself accountable, and put down the constantly swirling dust devils of ideas I have about training dogs down on the 'ol interwebs for posterity. Now that I have been doing this "dog thing" for a while, and am often teaching others, there is a lot I do know. And a lot more I still don't know, or at least am constantly turning over and over in my mind about what is "best" or "right," or at least, what is the most fair and effective way to get from point A to point B.

So, the re-intro.

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My name is Elizabeth Randall, or Liz. I have been professionally training dogs for seven years as of this writing. I focus on positive-reinforcement-based training solutions, though I shy away from labels such as "clicker trainer" (though I love clickers and markers and use them daily), or "force free" (that's a whole 'nother can of worms that maybe I'll get into further down the line), or any of the other terms that people tend to use to compartmentalize what others do. I personally am obsessed with observing what smart reinforcement systems can do with dogs. The results are frankly astonishing once these methods are applied in a consistent and adept manner.

I teach pet dog skills, work with owners on behavioral solutions, and teach agility. Anyone who knows me knows agility is my life and my love, and its influence is seen frequently in my pet dog training. In order to competently "play" in the sport of agility, one's understanding of how to create, manipulate, motivate and maintain behavior has to be quite vast. So many moving parts all corresponding at high speeds...!!! Its a science and an art that one will never quite master, no matter how long we play at it. Which to me, is part of the allure. I'm a little masochistic that way apparently.

Currently I have three dogs. Forest, a 10 year old(??) Italian Greyhound - Miniature Pinscher mix (and the reason for all this training insanity!), Phineas, a seven year old pittie mix, and Beatrix, a three year old Border Collie. All three have competed and titled in a variety of dog things, but Forest is basically retired. The other two are currently actively competing in agility at the highest levels, and, Phin also has recently embarked on a competitive career in Nose Work. I am VERY excited where we will go together down that avenue as well. These three dogs have brought so much to my life, I am so very fortunate for each of them. They constantly push me to be a better trainer and a better person, and I am so lucky to have them here navigating through daily life with me.

I will be *trying* to keep up with this blog, ideally on a weekly basis, to discuss different training topics--sometimes it may be agility-related, often it will be generally just training-related, and I am sure some daily life and business stuff will just creep in, but the goal is to help people look at training from a new perspective, and to hopefully help people tackle and work through challenges they are facing with their own dogs.

Here's to getting a jump on the new year.