A lot has been going on over here in dogland.

Idgie is turning 3 years old in just a couple of weeks. Where did the time go? She is amazing and talented and brilliant, and she is just one leg away in both Standard and Jumpers (AKC) from being in Excellent B after just under year of trialing.  She runs off leash at a local off leash dog area we Fort Collins people refer to as “the ponds,” and while she occasionally finds it necessary to puff up and yell at the RUDENESS of other dogs, I feel safe taking her there and she has a great time (especially if her dog besties are there, and I am so happy to finally have a dog that has dog besties!).  Having an intact female is an experience.  She gets along GREAT with dumb boy dogs and most girl dogs too.  The girl dogs she feels threatened by are the ones that are most like her; which is to say BOSSY.  Love that dog, she is just like me.

Kelso is perfect, as usual.  He is turning 11 in 3 months, but most people are surprised when I tell them that, saying he looks more like 7, so my plan to have him stay 7 forever seems to be working out.  Adequan and B12 injections (separately) have made his life nice and easy, along with the healing properties of the raw diet, of which I am finally convinced. 

In bigger, more exciting news, I quit my day job.  My days as a dog daycare supervisor are almost through, and I will be working on my business, The Cognitive Canine full time.  I will still be teaching group classes at South Mesa, but my days will finally be spent doing what I love and do best–helping people with their troubled dogs (or is it helping dogs with their troubled people?).  This is a huge leap, but now is the time.  This year has been the year of self-care, and I feel like this is just another step in that direction.  I am excited and scared. I recently heard of a word I hadn’t heard before, and that word is joyfear.  That’s it! I said.  That’s what I’m feeling, it’s joyfear.  And the great news is that joyfear is what you feel when you are doing something important and necessary. 

On an endnote, check out my friend Jill’s blog.  She is a great writer, and she loves dogs.  What else do you need?  I wept as I read this one, but it was that great kind of weeping that just reminds you how good everything actually is.  Here it is:  What I Learned from Obi.  While you’re looking at adorable Obi I will tell you I met Obi before I met Jill.  He went to the first dog daycare I worked for, while I was in college.  I loved him, he was everything Jill says and then some.  He literally hugged me every time I saw him.  He didn’t jump up rudely and push me around, he gently got up on his rear legs, wrapped his front legs around me and rested his chin on my shoulder.  I have never felt so genuinely hugged by a dog before or since, it was like he understood the very primate custom of hugging.  I feel so very blessed to have known him, and I now feel blessed to know Jill, whose love for Obi lives on in her writing and in her current dogs, Dexter and Sam. 

Cheers!

…and bang your forehead against that square as many times as it takes. 

Ok, for real. Let’s look at the facts.  I started training Idgie her running dogwalk when she was about a year old.  She is now almost 2 and a half.  So, a year and a half into this thing, and we’ve been competing for about 4 months.  Her first two trials she was 100% awesome and never missed a contact.  Then stuff started to slide a little, and as she gained confidence in competition she started to bust out of her lovely rotarty gait and leap off the DW right about where the yellow starts.  She still only got called on about half of her DWs in competition, until we trialed in USDAA where the contact zones are itty bitty and she started getting called more often.  Now we’re still at about a 50% F rate in competitions, but she is almost never meeting my “rotary gait to the ground” criteria in practice.  So, it appears as though her DW is broken.  I continue to not train her A Frame and we continue to rarely get called on it, though video review indicates that she is hitting the yellow VERY high up on the AF when she is hitting it at all.   But, when she is good she is very very good on the AF.  Which is what she does most of the time in practice.  Her 2on2off teeter remains beautiful.

Why is this happening?  Well, as much as I would like to know the answer to that one I know that good dog training dictates that you really shouldn’t dwell on that question.  Instead, just figure out what you’ve got and what you want and devise a plan to move from A to B.  The crappy thing about point A, where I am right now, is that when I “correct” the girlie for jumping (meaning I say whoops! and withold her reward and head back to the start of the dogwalk to try again) she often goes ahead and jumps again.  Which means she doesn’t know what she is supposed to do, because she would fix it on the second try if she did.  Bleh.

Idgie has a great rotary gait across the dogwalk.  She breaks out of it and jumps right at the top of the yellow, almost every time.  I want her to maintain that rotary gait all the way to the ground.  Here are things I have come up with:

  • Just teach her a f*cking 2on2off.  There. I said it.
  • Teach her a f*cking 2on2off and use it in trials while I take the time necessary to retrain her running DW from the ground up, using the Trkman method again.
  • Continue trialing her with her fake running DW while I retrain her DW using Trkman from the ground up.  I will not give her verbal cue “run” in competition.
  • Train her a 2on2off to use in competition while I fix her broken running DW using one of the following “new” things I have thought up:
  • Reinforce her early. Click her while she is in the rotary gait and then move in to reinforce, regardless of what happens after that.  Slowly change my click timing until I am clicking her right before the jump.  I would probably do some sort of physical thing (like a stupid hoop…barf) at the bottom just to prevent jumping while I reinforced the rotary gait.  Not nuts about this idea…but it is a thought.  I am just not sure I will be able to reinforce properly.
  • Change her criteria.  The whole reason I liked Trkman in the first place is because it doesn’t involve any regulating of the dog’s strides, changing how they choose to run the thing.  I have a hit-it board, and I am considering teaching her to punch the hit-it (that will be easy, she will love it).  Then I will add the hit-it to the bottom of the board (on the ground) and then move it up onto the board.  She will then make an effort to hit a certain spot in the yellow every time, which I think will encourage her to maintain her rotary gait…??? 

Bottom line: I am not actually ready to ditch this thing yet.  But, I am not averse to the idea of teaching her BOTH a 2on2off and a running DW. 

Some stuff I did today:

Put out the little post that I used to teach her to turn off the dogwalk, and put it on the side I was running on, each time.  The first time, she JUMPED OVER it.  But I stopped her and made her try again, and her contact improved (still not criteria, but she was much much closer), which I take to mean that she understands how to turn around the post–at least that’s something.  Then, I set a jump out.  Just about 8 feet away from the end of the dogwalk.  I intentionally put it that close because I know she can bounce a jump that distance easily, and I wanted to see where her priorities were.  She BOUNCED straight off the DW to take the jump.  It was actually hilarious :)  When I NRMd her she ran the contact the second time. Still not quite rotary to the ground, but she jumped off from the middle of the yellow (which I have to admit I accept a lot of the time–it’s so hard to see!).  She failed to take the jump but I didn’t care.  Then, and THEN….I asked her to stop.  My 2on2off cue is a hissing sound, just a sssssssss as the dog decends the plank (there are a LOT of reasons for that, but that’s another blog), and I through it out there to see what happened.  She stopped four off (poor girlie didn’t know how to slow down on the DW!) and looked at me like “what the f–” so I praised her and we tried again.  That time she nailed it.  Ran all the way across and then PLANTED in her 2on2off and weight-shifted back.  It was a thing of beauty.  Then this really cool thing happened.  I asked her to run.  And she ran the best she had the whole session.  Could it be that asking her to stop actually clarified how to run?  I don’t know.  But I’m going to keep playing with this.  We’ll see!

Cheers.

Not very many people choose to train alone, usually when people train alone it is because they simply live too far from any instruction.  But, since I like to make things difficult, I choose to train alone for Agility and Obedience, even though there is ample instruction in my area.  Why the hell do I do that?  For me, the pros outweigh the cons, here they are.

Pros of Being a Loner-Trainer

Training happens when you make the time for it.  My schedule is out of control.  Seriously, I often work for 12 hours and then train my dogs into the late hours of the night.  No, I don’t have a social life, in case you were wondering.  So training alone really works for me here–I commit to training my own dogs a few nights a week.  If I need to skip it I can, if I need to do more, I do.  If I want to train at midnight since I am a night person, that’s up to me. 

All of the training falls within my personal ethics.  I have chosen to commit myself to reward-based training (as you know if you read this blog at all or know me).  I don’t like to give my money to people who have what I consider questionable dog training ethics.  A lot of people are OK with just letting an instructor know that they are not allowed to use harsh corrections on their dogs.  I, on the other hand, refuse to support your business if you would strap electricity to anyone’s dog; regardless of whether or not you would go there with my dog (you’d die trying, just so we’re clear).  In my area there are a lot of trainers who fully believe in using any and all tools to “get the job done.”  That doesn’t sit so well with me, so I know that if I train alone my dog is always safe and I am safe from witnessing what I consider abuse. 

If you want to train something a certain way, you are free to do so; likewise you are also free to not do things that you don’t find helpful or sensical.  If I want to me a total masochist and train running contacts (yeah, I did choose masochism this time around, we’ll see how it goes) I am free to do so training on my own.  If I want to train weave poles 2×2 instead of with channles, I am free to do so.  I have also chosen to adhere to a handling system in my agility work; specifically the Derrett System.  No one else in my area is doing this.  None of them–to my knowledge–are adhering to a system at all, but most of them tend to be “Mecklinburgy” (yes I just invented that word) in their style.  I have no problem with other people choosing to run without a system, and I certainly have no problem with people choosing to run with APHS (Mecklinburg).  I just want to run Derrett, so if an instructor suggests that I blind cross my dog, or use a flickaway cue, that is not only not helpful to me, it is counter-productive.  So, I chose with Idgie to train her agility foundation on my own, based on what I have learned from the Derretts and their Number One Fan, the one and only Susan Garrett.  I think she has a great foundation.  But we will get to the cons in a minute…   

The Cons of Being  Loner-Trainer

The comfort zone gets really comfortable.  Often, on your own with no one to critique your work, you stay inside your box.  I am guilty of this.  I do proof my dog and am not afraid of causing her to fail in order to teach her; that is not what I’m talking about.  I mean the box inside which you are not being watched, so you run freely and without any kind of stress.  I mean the box inside which the distractions present for your dog are mainly manufactured for proofing; and those are just not as good as working with the organic distractions of real life.  This can cause a really ugly wake-up call to occur when you finally do get out there.

There may be critical training mistakes happening without your knowledge.  Luckily, I have some really great dog trainer friends that I bounce ideas off of frequently, so this doesn’t happen too often.  But there are some minor mistakes I made that I am recently kicking my own ass for that a quality instructor probably would have noticed (I would notice these in my own students, but clearly not in myself!). 

Training happens when you make time for it.  Wait, wasn’t that a pro? Sure was.  And it’s a con, too.  This means you have to hold yourself really accountable, because no one else will.  Because I have no class to go to that I have paid for, there are more weeks than I’d like to admit where I just go home and throw the dogs some rawhides after that 12 hour day at work.  And no one blames me for this; and that is precisely the problem!  My friends say I work too much, my trainer friends tell me my dogs are brilliant and I need to take some time for me, and my mother tells me I look so very tired. So sometimes I just skip it.  And I shouldn’t.  So this is a con about as often as it is a pro. 

So let’s talk about what spurred this blog, shall we?  Today I took Idgie to a local group drop in where the instructor gives video analysis feedback.  Over all there are plenty of good things that happened that I need to hold onto,  because I am also kicking my own ass over how it went.  My dog got pretty stressed, which caused her to get really amped.  I got really stressed, which caused me to totally, epically, FAIL as a handler.  Idgie got stressed because there was a very exciting BC there that she NEEDED to chase down, and there was a competition obedience class happening concurrently, so she also got stressed about some of the dogs in that class.  I was very stressed about the poor dogs in that class (stupid ethics).  I was also frustrated at some of the well-meaning instructor’s Mecklinburgy advice that I wasn’t sure how to decipher into Derrettese (there I go making up words again).  I was also frustrated because I knew I was late on several cues; frustrating my already amped dog. 

What did I learn from this experience?  There are no Derrett trainers in my area.  So I will just have to know the system well enough on my own that I can translate Mecklinburgish into Derrettese.  I also know that I need to step outside of my comfort zone and get my ass to more classes off of my own turf.  And, to end on a positive, since this is my Sunday morning Church of Agility ass-kicking, not Catholicism ass-kicking, here’s all the stuff The Squidge did really well:  she didn’t pop out of the weaves when I moved out laterally;  she weaved harder and faster as I moved away, she did try really hard to hold her startline stays, even though there were dogs tugging and lots of things going on, for a home-schooled dog she dealt well with the plethora of distractions (let me paint the scene; indoor soccer arena with concurrent corrective obedience class, LOUD volley ball game, and lots of spectators), and she did do what I asked her to do most of the time (though most of the time I asked her to do the wrong thing…). 

So, to conclude, time to step outside of what’s comfortable.  But, I will continue to train alone most of the time.  I will use these away from home training lessons as information for what I need to work on at home.

Idgie went to her first AKC trial about a month ago.  I always tell my students to set goals for a trial weekend, and the first time I ask what a student’s goal is, I usually hear something like “complete my jumpers title,” or “do the weaves correctly in every class,” or “hit every contact.”  I used to set goals like that too, until I realized something important; those things are outside of my control.

A goal for you and your dog should be something obtainable!  It should be something that you can achieve because it is within your realm of control.  For Idgie’s first trial I had one goal in mind; stay present for my dog.  That seems vague but I know it means specifically to not get caught up in the trial scene, and just be the kind of trainer my dog needs.  I met my goal in a few big areas; I maintained connection with Idgie on course at all times, I maintained connection with her outside of the ring, and I made sure she was happy and relatively stress-free the whole weekend.  We walked away with some great performances and a leg in both Standard and Jumpers, but more importantly I walked away knowing I was there for her at every step and didn’t allow her to be put in difficult situations.  I am really excited with how well that went.

Our next trial is coming up in a week and it is a big, busy 3 ring, 4 day trial (we are only entered 3 days).  I have no doubts that my Squidge will be a rockstar, so I have a new goal.  I like to maintain what I acheived with my last goal, though, so I will again stay present for her at this trial and protect her and make sure she feels safe in what is guaranteed to be a much busier arena than we usually experience.  But my new goal is to run her all-out.  I was a little conservative in my handling at our first trial, and that is not how I usually run at home.  I will run her this weekend the way I know I can.  It will be one fast ride!

In other training news, I have been working on some Obedience.  I am on a clicker obedience Yahoo! group that is inspiring me to get back into that sport.  We have worked heeling since she was a puppy; I love it and she likes it too.  We’ve had some sub-zero temperatures around here so I have been working her dumbbell training in the house.  She loves playing fetch so this was an easy transition.  I am very into making ring objects into toys, I feel that Kelso’s performances got much better when I realized that.  Most obedience people are pretty opposed to allowing dogs to “play” with the ring objects, but if it’s what you have in the ring to reinforce with, why the heck not?  So we tug on the DB, do restrained retrieves, and it is generally a ton of fun.  I have also trained her to do a “swimmer’s turn” on the wall for go-outs and she thinks it’s a blast.  I added one jump to this behavior this week, and she thinks it’s even better now!  I also  had her fetch a toy she is comfortable with over the high jump, which was a learning curve but she got it.  I will do that more before I have her do it with the DB.  Signals are a favorite of mine, so we work those all the time.  I haven’t added a heel pattern to them, or much distance, but she is getting good at random signals.  Another favorite exercise of mine is the drop on recall.  I like to set it up this way; I put Idgie on a sit-stay with a high-value toy right behind her.  I call her and when I feel like it I ask her to lie down.  As soon as she’s down I say “yes! GET IT!” and she leaps up, spins around, and grabs her toy.  I feel like this accomplishes a lot, but mainly I think it puts the idea in the dog’s head that the reinforcement is not on the human, so there is no need to creep on the down or down late.  The faster you do it the faster you get to turn back and grab the toy.  Of course sometimes I make her come all the way in, give her a cookie for a good front, then send her racing back to the toy. 

As for Kelso, he is perfect, as usual.

This is a question I hear at least once a week from clients new to clicker training, and the answer is absolutely not.

In fact, green clicker trainers often accidentally get clicker addiction and they don’t seem to mind, since their dogs are having a great time and being more responsive than ever, but it’s still not good dog training.  What I mean by this is that people start clicking their dogs to teach a behavior and continue to reward the behavior with a click and a treat long after the behavior is learned.   Clicking and treating every single time for the same exact behavior not only dulls your dog’s responsiveness for future cueing, but also dulls the meaning of the clicker.  Think about it: when you use a clicker to shape or capture behaviors, you are using it to identify specific moments in time, and you want your dog to think about what got clicked and build on or repeat it.  If you are clicking a learned behavior it should only be to point out something specific about that behavior that you like–such as your dog performed a tight, tuck-sit, instead of a lazy rock back sit.

In fact, you should get rid of the use of the clicker once your dog is performing the end behavior.  In my pet training classes, where we teach dogs to “sit”and “down” using shaping* or capturing* we focus first on sit, and then the next week move right to down, and in just two weeks’ time the dogs have a reliable sit and down verbal cue.  This is not because my students work harder than other people, it’s because they are taught how to use clicker training effectively.  The process should look like this:

First, get the behavior.  Shape or capture the behavior you are looking for, when the behavior is what you want it to look be (dog goes directly into a down, or dog sits immediately without backing up, etc.) and it is happening predictabley with 80% accuracy, move on.

Second, when you can predict when the behavior will occur and that it will occur with 80% reliability, add a cue.  The cue should happen right before the behavior happens.  For instance, you throw a cookie and your dog gets up and eats it.  You know that your dog will return to you and offer a down for a click, so say the cue “lie down” as your dog is returning to you.  Click when he lies down, and toss the cookie again to “reset” for another repetition.  When you have done this is a variety of locations (living room, front yard, training class, kitchen, garage, back yard, with human sitting, standing, kneeling, etc.) and your dog is still having an 80% accuracy rate, move on.

Lastly, stop using the clicker and move to a random reinforcement schedule (meaning you don’t give your dog a cookie every time).  It is important to get to this stage as quickly as possible to avoid clicker or food dependency.  Since this is the final stage of training, start to use your cue in a lot of situations, and be sure to back it up with reinforcement randomly, but frequently.  It is also vital to vary what the reward is, meaning sometimes your dog gets a cookie, sometimes praise, sometimes a toy, sometimes a chase game, etc. 

Happy training!

*Shaping:  Or shaping by successive approximation, is teaching by marking and rewarding small increments (approximations) of a behavior until the final behavior is achieved.  It’s brilliant, and where the real fun is at in dog training.  Shaping is what makes clicker training so fantastic.

*Capturing:  This is a method of teaching a behavior where the trainer marks and rewards the final behavior as it happens.  It is only practical to use if the desired behavior is already happening to some degree.  Most dogs that enroll in training classes have already learned that sitting earns them things in their life, so capturing can be used quite easily to teach a more reliable sit cue.  Other behaviors capturing can be used for include barking on cue and lying on a bed.

In light of recent stuff, I am feeling a little gushy when it comes to my dogs. We’ll start with the dog that I can’t really even talk about without getting teary or goosebumpy, and you all know that dog is Kelso.

Kelso is 9 and a half years old.  He is healthy, I think, and he has more letters on his name than anybody (including me, at one point) thought he would.  But I don’t have to tell you how insignificant those letters are.  The dog IS my life story so far.  Sure other stuff has happened to me, other stuff that people might think would be more life-altering than one little dog could be, but those people would be wrong.  Somewhere up in the sky a long time ago some sort of catalyst occurred and Kelso was sent to me.  The vessel he came through was tragedy, and–no matter how it happens– through tragedy he will leave (but not for a very very long time).  For a couple of months now he has been having what I can only describe as night terrors.  He’s been examined up and down, and he’s seen a doggie PT for pain assessment, and we can’t figure it out.  He keeps having them, and he has them wherever we are.  He had them camping a few weeks ago, and he had them at a friend’s house, and last night he had a particularly rough time.  So, needless to say, I’m sort of a wreck about it.  I keep my cool most of the time but I have no idea what’s going on with my doggie soul mate, so that’s been pretty rough.  Next step is to take a walk on the eastern side of medicine, since the western side has tossed up its hands.  If anybody has any insight on this, please comment, please oh please. 

Now onto the dog I’m almost never sappy about.  That’s right, I’m about to get all warm and gooey over the beast.  She really is amazing.  She is brilliant and sweet.  In performance dogs people talk about evaluating litters and picking puppies first on breeding, second on temperament, third on structure, and fourth on heart.  Some people mix these criteria up a little, for me it went like this: find a breeder I can buy from and still sleep at night, I found that in Joan Fouty of Quail Creek Ranch. Then, I immediately ruled out any and all puppies that appeared at all shy or fearful of me or my dad when we showed up (this actually ruled out the two I had picked based on looks before meeting them, funny how the world works).  Then I had about 5 puppies to look at structurally and I stacked them all and felt them all over and did my very very best as a relative amateur at structural evaluation.  I then narrowed my selection down to two gorgeous black tri girls, and went out to play with them to pick.  The dog that would become Idgie raced through the snow banks on the ranch, leapt over the lowest rung on a log fence, grabbed a pine cone, spit it at my feet, and all but demanded to come with me and learn agility.  She and I frolicked off into the sunrise, playing get-dat-pine cone! and all was decided.  That’s what these people were talking about when they talked about “heart.”  Which dog has that go-get-em attitude, which dog is game?  Idgie is game, and she always was.  She is turning two next month, and she and I are a total team these days.  She is my running partner, my agility teammate, and is teaching me all kinds of things.  I don’t think I often express it enough; I frickin’ love this dog.  

That’s all the sap for now. I think it’s really important, especially for people involved in any kind of competitive training with their dogs, for people to stop and remember how amazing these creatures are.  So don’t forget it! 

This is one of those self-serving baby dog update types of blogs, so if you want to get into the knitty-gritty of behavioral science, check out some of my other posts.

Idgie has done some awesome things lately, and I have to write about it because I am absolutely coocoonutso in love with the dog. 

First, UKI trial.  United Kingdom Agility International is a new venue here in Colorado, and it’s great.  I decided to enter the Squidge in their Speedstakes class (jumps and pipe tunnels only) because they allow a “training round” where competitors can run their dogs and use a toy for reinforcement of great stuff, and just have that run not count toward titles.  The trial was held at our local fairgrounds and happened to be when county fair was happening.  Yikes.  Had I known that in advance I may not have entered, both for the fact that this makes the environment highly distracting for the dog (Squidge) and highly distressing for the vegan (me).   But ignorance is bliss, because Idgie proved a rockstar on all counts.  The ring was bordered by the carnival, vendors, and a livestock barn full of screaming hogs and sheep sheep sheep!  It was super super hot.  We waited FOREVER (7 hours or so) to run.  Still, my baby dog came out of her crate, knew her job, didn’t think about doing anything but playing with the mama, and we had a blast.  I am so so very proud of her.

Second, recalls recalls recalls.  Idgie and I are enrolled in Susan Garrett’s e-course for recall training right now and are having an absolute blast with all the fun recall games SG is churning out.  If you want to check this out, just go to her blog page.  Since we’ve been playing so many recall games, Idgie has impressed me with some great recalls. Yesterday I dropped her leash on a hike (national forest, must be on leash at all times!) and she went trotting down the trail.  I simply stopped, said her name once, and she turned on a dime and came racing back (at which time an epic game of tug commenced as a reward).  She had the whole mountain ahead of her with a river and squirrels and smells oh my and she still came flying back to the mama without a moment’s hesitation, now that says this stuff is working.   She was also extra-aware of my body positioning on our run last night (she was wearing a flexi, running out ahead of me).  She checked in frequently, slowed down when I slowed down, and turned when I turned, without needing any leash-cues.  If you’re an agility-nerd like me, you’re seeing how awesome this is.

Third, fun match/contacts/awesomeness.  We went to a fun match this past weekend at a place the beast has never been to (except once as a puppy when I was running Kelso there).  We didn’t do whole courses, she isn’t ready for 12 weave poles (though she just started doing 6! Hooray!) and I’m not ready to test her running dogwalk full heigh in new places yet.  But, she ran her A-frame with two hits on the down side and total confidence, and she nailed her teeter.  She also did her auto-down on the table (which was a very slick table, and she slid off once).  She also held her startline like a pro, jumped super well, read my handling cues like a champ, and LOVED every second of it.  She is almost ready to run in a real trial, yippeee!! Also, some R+ for the handler, I rewarded her awesomeness with games of tug on the course.     

Oh, and just so he doesn’t feel left out, Kelso is perfect in every way and continues to be perfect in every way, and is the most handsome and sweet and brilliant of all dogs, everywhere.

Before you navigate away from here (“I thought this was a dog training blog, why are we talking about abstract complicated concepts like empowerment?”) know that this blog is indeed about dog training, it just happens that dog training is indeed about abstract concepts like empowerment.  I got to thinking about this concept while wondering why it is that Grisha Stewart’s BAT protocol for fear and aggression actually creates social and friendly responses in dogs while using social distance as a reinforcer.   

First, let’s define empowerment.   Empowerment (as defined by dictionary.com) is the noun of the verb, to empower.  To empower is to enable, permit, equip, or supply with ability.  There seems to be some debate over the use of the verb, but in general, it is used mostly in legal terms, as well as in pop psychology.  The noun “empowerment” was first popularized by the civil rights and women’s movements, speaking of empowering suppressed parties for the greater good.

While we’re talking about definitions, let’s define “power,” shall we?  Now that’s a big word, it turns up 16 dictionary definitions from dictionary.com and I’d be willing to bet that if you asked 20 different people to define it for you, you’d get 20 different answers.  Most of the official definitions refer to ability; if you can say that one has the ability to do something, you can also say that one has the power to do so.  The definitions also refer frequently to authority, and occasionally to force.  So for the sake of this blog, let’s say that power, like empowerment, is pretty abstract and not easily defined, but it generally refers to ability and authority.   

So what the heck does this have to do with dog training?  A lot of dog trainers (especially in this country, which is interesting but not surprising) are currently referring abstractly to power in their discussions with dog owners.  Dominance theory is all about power, so for trainers (like that guy on National Geographic, you know his name) that utilize this theory it would seem that if your dog has a behavioral issue like aggression, house soiling, or excessive barking, the dog’s got the power and not the human.  According to these trainers, the balance of power must be restored, the human must once again become the “alpha” in the relationship, and once this is achieved all will be right again.  Seems credible, especially to the harried dog owner who really just wants their sweet dog to behave again.  Empower the human, weaken the dog’s ability to carry out X, Y, or Z behavior problem, and balance is returned to the universe. 

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  If you’ve read my stuff before you know that I am not a member of the camp I refer to as “dominance mumbojumbo,” so what could I possibly be getting at?  Well folks, it’s like I said to my friend Sasha a few weeks ago, “power is not a pie.”  Power is not a pie?  Sasha laughed wildly at this statement, as you may also be doing right now, but read on, I have my reasons.  A pie is finite, and if you have 7 people and 6 slices someone is missing out.  If I get a big piece, you get a smaller piece.  If I want to eat the whole thing, you don’t get any.  If power is a pie then dominance theory works; the human gets the whole pie and the dog gets the crumbs (for which he better be grateful) and everything is in its rightful place.  But power is an infinite abyss, if anything.

Most of the world’s problems exist (in my humble-I’m-just-a-dog-trainer-what-do-I-know opinion) because most of the world’s people think power is a pie.  We wage war on other countries in order to keep our bigger slice.  We deny the rights of suppressed people (Jews, blacks, women, immigrants, the GLBT community, need I go on?) because we fear that if we empower these groups our slice will get smaller.  But the lesson that history needs to continue teaching the world for some reason is that actually, the more power a person grants, the more powerful a person is.  The greatest leaders in history knew this rule, and the greatest dog trainers are well aware of it also. 

Ah, yes, finally, back to dog training.  The greatest methods for behavior modification empower the dog to make a better choice than the one she previously chose.  In separation anxiety, we empower the dog to feel less anxious about being alone, teaching her that she will not necessarily have a panic attack when you leave, thereby teaching her to keep her cool.  Now the dog has the power to enjoy her life, and you have the power to enjoy your dog.  In aggression we empower the dog to act in a non-threatening way. We allow him to experience the feeling of controlling his environment in less stressful, less violent ways. We empower him to become a safe member of society; therby empowering his owner to keep his dog and not feel afraid. 

This is where this long, boderline rant of a blog comes full circle.  When a dog owner empowers the dog on the end of her leash to make his own choice, and rewards that choice with the exact reinforcement he was seeking in the first place (as in BAT), both experience empowerment.  The dog now has the power to control what happens to him in a social situation, helping him to feel more comfortable in that situation, eventually leading to his actually seeking these situations in the future.  The human has the power to take her dog for a walk in peace, knowing that he is no longer afraid.

Picture this: you’re out with a friend and the two of you decide to check out an art gallery.  You become fully engaged by a painting at the center of the room so you head straight for it. As you’re closely examining the canvas, soaking up the vibrant colors and technique, your friend calls to you from across the gallery.  You gesture to him that you will be with him in just a moment, but he keeps calling to you.  You successfully tune him out, and actually can’t believe how rude he is being.  His voice is getting louder, and he even starts to make some strange noises to try and get you to look.  Now you’re just irritated, and purposefully move onto another painting, even farther from your friend.  As you begin to check out the new painting, your friend races over to you, grabs you by the arm and jerks you repeatedly until you finally rip your arm away and storm out of the gallery.

Now, imagine a different scenario.  You and your friend go into a gallery together. You notice an interesting painting and start to head that way, but as you start to veer off your friend gently touches your arm and says in quiet voice, “wait, let’s start over here, at the beginning, that way we’ll get to see it all and we won’t have to jump around, what do you say?” You agree, his idea makes sense, and the two of you get to enjoy the whole exhibit together. 

Tell me, who would you rather hang out with?  The loud nagger that demands your attention in the rudest of ways, or the quiet insister whose ideas typically work out for both of you?  I think I know the answer, so let’s get to what all of this means when it comes to dogs.

Shaping attention is the first thing covered in my pet dog training classes, whatever the level.  What this means is that attention is not lured, as it is in most reward-based classes in my area.  There is no ‘show a dog a cookie and bring it up to your face’ nonsense (that I used to teach).  Instead, I ask dog handlers to be patient and wait for their dogs to orient toward them.  In the case of one client, this meant she parked herself in a chair for the good part of an hour, waiting for her puppy to look at her.  The reason it took so very long is a lack of clicker skills on her part, since she is very new to the method.  She missed several clickable moments in the beginning, but once she got the hang of it, she wound up with a puppy that wouldn’t look away from her, as all of my clients do.  

Shaping attention goes like this:  park yourself somewhere, put your dog on a leash if there are other dogs or people around, or if you’re in a new place.  Have your clicker and some yummy treats ready.  As soon as your dog glances in your direction click and treat.  If he looks away click and treat him when he looks back, if he keeps looking, click and treat him at varying intervals.  Boom! You have a pooch that won’t look away.  Start out any training session in a new place like this, and revert back to it whenever your dog is ignoring you.  Do not speak to him, do not touch him, do not (under any circumstances!) pop his collar, and please don’t say his name or any other cue (like come or sit).  The nature of the human is to call to the dog relentlessly, and when the dog finally turns toward you (as if to say WHAT?!), you immediately ask him for something else, like a sit, or a nose-touch.  BAD HUMAN! Reward attention and attention will happen.  Nag for attention and your dog will most certainly ignore you whenever possible. 

The best times to hang out and shape attention are usually in dog classes, out on walks (my training buddy and colleague hung out in the middle of trail for 30 minutes or so one day, waiting for her young dog to remember she existed, but once he did they had a great walk together!), at dog shows or events, and other “training” times.  There are times when this is not appropriate.  Times that your dog’s inattentiveness can be chalked up to a strong emotional state, like fear or anxiety, are terrible times to shape attention.  For instance, if your dog is dog-reactive on leash, and she is barking and snarling and lunging at Fluffy from down the street as you two pass each other on a walk, do not wait for attention, it won’t happen until after Fluffy is gone.  If your dog is afraid of going to the vet, don’t try to shape attention in the lobby.  There are different, more appropriate things to do in each of these situations, and a qualified reward-based trainer or behaviorist can help. 

So the moral of the story is, quit nagging! Don’t nag your friends, significant others, family members, or your dogs! It will get you nowhere fast, I promise.

I hear it at least once a week, “well, you see, he has separation anxiety.”  While in fact, if all of these dogs truly had this disorder, they’d either be homeless, or I could quit my three other jobs and just treat separation anxiety (SepAnx).  The fact of the matter is SepAnx is a very serious (though treatable) disorder  that often results in death for the afflicted dogs.  Dogs with this disorder have been known to leap through glass windows, dislodge their own teeth and nails in efforts of escape, and, if escape is not an option, they often turn on themselves, inflicting horrendous self mutilation.  Yes, it is that serious.

Saying your dog who barks in the crate or chews on your couch when alone has Separation Anxiety is like saying your moody teenager has schizophrenia.

I am no expert in treating SepAnx, but I do consider myself knowledgeable about the subject–and in fact more knowledgeable about dogs whose owners think they have SepAnx, who in reality just don’t like to be alone.  I have news. Dogs don’t like to be alone. It’s part of being a social creature. It is our job to teach them to accept being alone from day one, so that they do not develop this devastating disorder.  Most of these fake Separation Anxiety cases are in fact just cases of boredom and its counterpart; destruction.  If you think your dog has SepAnx, do consult a qualified professional, and do buy the book, I’ll Be Home Soon by Dr. Patricia McConnell.  The book will help you decide if your dog does have this disorder, and if so (or if not) how to fix what is happening.

Understand that the treatment for Separation Anxiety is intense.  It is time-consuming and difficult.  This is not a simple problem behavior that can be managed, suppressed (never recommended anyway!), or replaced.  It requires behavior modification, and absolutely can be treated, with a good protocol and lots of help.  

An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure.  And since SepAnx requires approximately ten pounds of “cure” for each pound of hound involved, let’s all just prevent it, ok?  First, teach your pups, when they are pups, to be cool with the alone factor of life.  Give them a super tasty frozen kong or raw marrow bone and leave.  Then come back.  Take your pup’s prize away and hang out a while.  Then give it back and leave.  Now your dog is learning to associate your absence with the best treats in the world, which isn’t so bad!  Second, crate train.  Spend some serious time teaching your dog to enjoy being in a crate.  Don’t shove him in, teach him to go in willingly.  Check out Susan Garrett’s Crate Games DVD for help with that.  Don’t only put him in there when you’re leaving, either, let him hang out in there while you are home and unable to supervise him.  Take your puppy to a ton of different places for socialization purposes, but be sure to go on plenty of outings and leave the kiddo at home, too.  If you are fortunate enough to work from home or have the luxury of bringing your dogs to work, be sure the pup stays home alone for at least part of each day.

Medication is available for help in treating this disorder, but is often used too liberally (IMHO) by well-meaning veterinarians who believe the pill will solve the problem.  In reality behavioral drugs should only be used in conjunction with a solid behavior modification plan (for people too, if you ask me, but that’s another blog entirely) that involves a “whole picture approach” including home life, nutrition, long-term goals, and day-to-day realities.  If you would like to look into using behavioral drugs for your dog try to find a veterinarian who works closely with an excellent dog behavior consultant or trainer to make these recommendations (or better yet, a veterinary behaviorist, which is basically a unicorn and if you found one, congratulations). 

Lastly, if you believe your dog actually does have Separation Anxiety, please please please find a behavior consultant to help you.  Seek out a professional with experience and knowledge in this area who is dedicated to dog training that is free of aversives and all about setting dogs up for success.  Do not buy a crate designed to transport wildlife, shove your dog in it, and hope for the best.  Do not listen to anyone who suggests the use of electricity in your dog’s behavior modification (ever!). And, sadly, if you find that your dog’s problems are too much for you to bear, do not drop her in a shelter.  Dogs with this heartbreaking disorder are almost always euthanized in shelters because of their inability to function in the shelter environment, and if they are of the select few that are actually adopted, they are most often returned (almost all high volume shelters have a 3 strikes policy in which they will euthanize a dog on the third return, others euthanize all that are returned, and still more euthanize based on the reason for return–SepAnx being one of those big reasons).  It is up to you to either place the dog in a competent home (few homes are available for dogs with SepAnx), treat the behavior problem with the help of a professional, or choose to euthanize your pet.

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