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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.

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.

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 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 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.

One week ago today Kelso and I got the final double Q for our Master Agility Champion (MACH) title at the Mile High Golden Retriever Club’s agility trial.  Kelso just turned 9 and we started competing in agility when he was about 2, so this title was literally 7 years in the making.  The past 9 years with this dog have been nothing short of a wild ride, and his influence in my life has truly made me who I am today. 

It all started with the tragic and untimely loss of my dog, Duffy.  Duffy was almost ready to compete in Agility and Obedience when I lost him, and there are not words to describe how hopeless I felt at that time.  But a new beginning came to me in the form of a little black and white puppy named Kelso.  

Kelso was ten weeks old when I took him home and he was ten weeks old when he bit his first dog.  The very first time Kelso met another dog, an on-leash encounter at a park with an older labby mutt, who was pretty polite if I recall correctly, he pulled his lips back into a snarl and gripped the other dog straight on the muzzle.   A little surprised, but unwilling to label my new puppy as anything but bouncy and beautiful, I walked on. 

From there I became the official dumping ground for opinions and advice about dog-dog aggression as the dog world caught wind that Sarah’s new puppy has a nasty temperament.  Everyone wanted to help, and everyone thought they could.   I was told to grab him by the neck and shake him when he growled at another puppy in puppy class. I was told to pin him to the ground when he attacked to show my “dominance.”  I was told to pop him under the chin with my fist, so show him exactly which body part had committed the crime–his jaws.  I am sorry to say that I desperately tried it all, and I am now certain it is all of this that made my sweet dog’s problem so much worse.

What resulted from years and years of abusive “solutions” to my dog’s problem was nothing but increased aggression and a broken relationship with a dog I loved.  I would sit in the parking lot of the training center I was using to teach him obedience and agility and cry more often than not.  I would hear suggestions about getting a new dog, of a different breed, to participate in dog sports with because not only was Kelso aggressive, he was very low-drive for a border collie as well.  I now understand that Kelso is NOT a low-drive dog, he is in fact quite easy to motivate and a willing participant in all that we do.  The truth is that Kelso learned to hate training because of the unfair sitations I put him in, and the dispicable corrections I doled out when he tried to tell me he was uncomfortable.   He learned to hate agility. He hated obedience. He didn’t want to get out of the car when we arrived at training class.  My heart ached for him but I didn’t know what else to do.

Years passed and I finally found my way with this dog.  I learned that fighting aggression with aggression is absurd.  I learned that correcting a fear-based behavior only confirms the fear that caused the behavior in the first place.  I learned that first and foremost, my relationship with this dog had to be repaired.  Because dogs are the most forgiving of creatures, he learned to trust me again, and I learned how to show him that I would keep him safe.  Interestingly enough, when I abolished the use of physical corrections in my training my dog soared to become one of the best obedience dogs in the state, earning his Utility Dog title, 4 UDX legs and a handful of OTCH points with an Open B first, and other wins.  He started to be a fantastic agility dog that consistently came in 15-20 seconds under time, as opposed to barely making course time before. 

What this dog has taught me is about more than the sports of dog agility and obedience, though he has taught me more about these than any instructor or seminar. What he has taught me is about more than dog behavior, or aggression in particular, what he has taught me is about life.  He taught me above all to consider the experience of others. To know that no one has all the answers. And to trust myself.  If your gut tells you something is wrong, it probably is.  If you cry after an hour spent with your best friend, there’s a reason.  

The way that I train now, whether it is behavior modification or stupid pet tricks, I feel energized and happy.  I never feel beaten down and exhausted. I am a constant student of excellent dog training, I never settle for an answer that seems wrong.  I never train dogs based on tradition or opinion.  I now look at training or behavior challenges with a scientific mind that can merge easily with my own personal philosophy gained through the spiritual journey Kelso led me through. 

I don’t believe in religion. But I believe in universal order.  I believe in souls converging for a greater good.  The mistakes Kelso so generously forgave me for do not get filed in the category of regret, they get filed in the category of remember.  I will always remember how I did wrong by him so that I will never forget to do right by the next dog.  I can always draw strength from the fact that he and I finally got it right in the end.  Getting our MACH last weekend was an experience that proved our dedication to each other.  I knew there was a way for this dog to be successful, and I finally found it. 

As for Kelso, it’s on to Big Adventure Time.  That means that though his formal training is through, he will still get to do something fun every day.  While the baby dog gets to learn agility and obedience and how to be a good dog, he gets to walk with me to the mailbox and carry the mail in himself.  He gets to do a grid of 8″ jumps, at the end of which I tell him he is Champion of the World! He gets to go on long walks carrying his Chuck It Squirrel.  He gets to just be, and I get to reflect on the lessons he taught me and continues to teach me.  Thank you, Kelso, my life would be so very different without you.

Totally guilty of not writing in this thing AT ALL.  Oh well, a lot’s been going on so I have good reasons.

First and foremost Kelso and I just celebrated his 9th birthday earlier this month.  He and I went for a long hike with no baby sisters allowed.  It was foggy and chilly and absolute bliss for both of us.  He carried his Chuckit Squirrel the whole way, and we only saw two dogs the whole time, both well-behaved and on-leash, so we were happy.  He is my soul, and I love him.  New additions to his life are Zeel, a homeopathic arthritis medication, and my own Kelso-specific raw diet formula which took me months to figure out, but now that I have, he has had pretty much zero GI troubles (except for when he eats something stupid that is not included in the diet!) which is a huge blessing.  The Zeel is interesting, not sure if it’s working or not.  I gave it to him for an agility trial weekend a few months ago and I, being the very best kind of dog mom, took one too.  We were both groggy all day.  So I won’t be using it for times he has to be sharp, but I have been using it in between with Metacam when he needs it, and of course our trips to see Dr. Long for accupuncture.  I think , with all of this, he feels great most of the time, which is my goal.  In more exciting news (what? more exciting than a birthday?) Kelso and I got our 19th double Q for our AKC Master Agility Champion (MACH) title, which means we only have to double Q one more time for his MACH.  Yikes! We have a trial coming up in a week so I will of course post on how that goes.  I am super excited, he just knows he got to have a cheeseburger (yes, the vegan feeds her dog a cheeseburger when he double Qs–remember those indiscretions that cause his GI upset? yeah…)

On the baby dog front all I have to say is HOLY CRAP, HOLD ONTO YOUR SHORTS.  This bitch is DYNO-MITE.  She isn’t such a baby anymore, she actually just turned 16 months old and I already can’t believe what she can do.  Her running dogwalk is currently timed at a consistent 2 seconds, which I suspect will get faster as her confidence grows.  Her Susan Salo gridwork is looking good, and she is pretty sure tunnels=crack.  Her automatic down on the table is fantastic, too.  We just started training her 2×2 weave poles a few days ago, and I think she really could have 12 poles in 12 days as Susan Garrett suggests is possible.  Her A-frame training is going well, she is consistently running it without fault, and I will let you know how fast it is when it gets up to full height.  Her teeter is proving a minor challenge (fun!) and we have gone back and forth trying some new things.  We spent weeks just playing the bang game and now I am having her run to her 2on2off position with the starting end up on a chair.  She is doing well with that, total confidence, which is how I would like to keep it.  She is also continuing with her strengthening and conditioning via Sasha Foster of Canine Fitness Zone.  She actually loves all of the shaping games for fitness we’ve been doing, and it’s a good brain break for both of us to focus on that stuff a few days each week.

And that same future agility rockstar has a few behavioral issues that I am of course constantly working on, learning from her all along.  Her leash reactivity to dogs has made steady progress, and I am currently implementing Grisha Stewart’s BAT program as an experiment.  It is working great for her, and we actually had a really peaceful walk along the Poudre River this weekend.  She is getting used to her new face jewelry (aka her Comfort Trainer head collar) to help us along the way.  So far, though, I am actually really thrilled with the progress we’ve made on all of her issues which include but are not limited to: fence fighting, dog reactivity, fear of children, and general weirdness.  LOVE her. I have a theory that the universe sends dog trainers screwed up dogs to make them better, and that is certainly what has happened to me thus far!

Work life has also been good, and very busy.  Hence the lack of writing.  I’ve been working on new curricula for the classes I teach, writing up behavior protocols to help with my private clients, and have been seeing an average of about 4-5 clients privately on weekends.  WAHOO! That is truly awesome.  So I don’t have a social life, so who needs one? 😉

Haven’t posted in a while, been super busy trying to be a professional dog trainer. Anyway, a few updates are in order, if you care about that sort of thing.

The first is that after going back and forth about it for years I finally switched my dogs over to a raw diet.  It has been about two months now and up until the past week I was thrilled with it.  Idgie’s coat looks incredible, they both love their food, and I just feel good about their new diet because I know exactly what’s going into their mouths, where it came from, and how balanced it is.  But I am learning still, since Kelso had a bout of bloody diarrhea (scared me, for all of his lifelong stress colitis he has never once passed straight blood) yesterday, and last night Idgie gobbled a chicken back and promptly threw it up.  Kelso is on some meds for the multitudes of spirochetes and Clostridium (which is his usual stress explosion, and he has had increased stress this week so I expected it) and the potential giardia and the potential campylobacter.  The potential part is frustrating.  We have had another rush of the big G go through work, so that part doesn’t surprise me (though the doctor couldn’t really tell if it was in fact a giardia cyst or if it was an epithelial cell, go figure), but campylobacter? Ok that freaks me out.  I kind of need to know if he has that or not.  I kind of need to know if his stress colitis makes him overly susceptible to things like campylobacter (which is commonly contracted from ingesting raw meat…hmmm) and if I should therefore be cooking this dog’s meat.  For now, I will treat him and see.  I am also switching probiotics soon to see if the new kind helps his gut out more than his current kind.  And might be giving him some digestive enzymes to help him digest bone, since he has been passing some chunks.  The thing about Kelso is he gets stress diarrhea. He just does.  And he has actually had a lot less of it since switching to raw.  Since the switch he had two diarrhea-free visits to my parents’ house, which is basically a miracle.  I am a firm believer in hearing what your dog is telling you, in all aspects of life, so I will change if necessary, though I can’t see myself ever going back to kibble. 

In more fun, less messy news, I have decided to train Idgie a running dogwalk. I decided a few weeks ago to ditch the 2on2off (mostly because I just hate it) and figure out some running contacts for this kid.  I started using Siliva Trkman’s method, and I am really excited about it.  Even more exciting is that my friend Sasha Foster of Canine Fitness Zone has added her imput with regard to motor learning theory, and we are trying something brand-spanking new to the dog world.  Hold on to your pants, this could be huge.  As of last night Squidge is doing the down plank at about three feet high, running all the way through at about 85% accuracy.  Pretty sweet.

In other news I revamped our training classes at Come-Play-Stay! and as soon as we get them underway and Ashley and I work out all the kinks, I will be writing an article for the APDT’s Chronicle all about it.  As far as I know there isn’t much like it out there, so once again, get excited, this could be big!

A labrador-poodle mix puppy recently went through our puppy program, and is now a regular daycare client.  I will call her Lucy for the sake of this blog.  As a young pup Lucy was reserved with her humans, nonchalantly moving just out of reach whenever they reached to pet her, and never asking for their attention.  During puppy play time she engaged and mostly participated in chase and be-chased games.  She never displayed blatant fear or stress while being handled or petted by people, but always wore  look on her face that seemed to say, “must you? Must you always do that?”  Her humans of course adored their “easy” puppy.  She never cried or barked in the kennel, entertained herself just fine, and best of all, never mouthed on their children, seemingly skipping right over that puppy biting period.  Medically, she was a perfectly healthy pup, so what could possibly be wrong about a dog that is never a bother, and never mouthed on human skin? A whole hell of a lot, as it turns out.

Ian Dunbar’s bite inhibition model teaches us the importance of allowing puppies to mouth on human skin, breaking them of this habit slowly, giving them feedback the entire way.  The pups learn good bite inhibition (or a soft mouth) through this feedback, and it is extremely important to allow them to go through this process.  At first pups are allowed all sorts of bites as long as the bites are not painful, then all bites with any sort of pressure are weeded out, and finally play-mouthing is put on cue, paired with a cue to cease play mouthing–or all mouthing on humans is erradicated.  A far-cry from the old days of “never let a puppy’s teeth touch human skin!” this method works. It doesn’t only work to curb puppy biting, it actually teaches dogs to inhibit their bites, if they are ever forced to bite–making injurious bites less so, and infrequent.  There is one draw-back, however, and that is what on earth do you do with that rare, seemingly angelic pup, who has no interest in chewing on human skin?

You must get that puppy to bite.  It seems silly and counter-intuitive to encourage a behavior you eventually wish to erase, but the feedback puppies receive about their mouths through early play-mouthing is absolutely priceless.  Bite inhibition can not be relearned later in life, and a well-socialized dog without proper bite inhibition is an even bigger danger to the general public than a dog who has never had proper socialization.  Owners of puppies that would rather not engage in play biting have a duty to encourage play biting while their pups are young.  I recommend doing so by playing with the pup with small toys (increasing the odds that the pup might “slip” and hit skin), run your fingers on the ground in a teasing manner (call this game “spiders”), and touching the pup’s mouth and face affectionately.  The point is to bring these kiddos out of their puppy shells, getting them to bite at us in play. 

Returning to Lucy, the mixed-breed puppy I mentioned earlier, she inspired this blog because her parents failed to engage her in such play (they didn’t want to, found it tough to see the point, and well, it was tough).  In their defense they tried, and they have done a good job with her otherwise.  For the most part she is a well-adjusted, well-socialized, well-trained dog.  She gets to go to daycare, does not pull excessively on leash, sits and waits and doorways and for her food bowl, and at face value is a “good” dog.  Unfortunately, even good dogs get put in tough situations sometimes, and that is precisely what happened to Lucy.  She was involved in a tangle where another puppy got his mouth caught on her collar (hence all daycare participants are required to wear quick-release collars).  The daycare staff member who stepped up to intervene was bitten by Lucy, since Lucy felt she was choking, and most dogs will bite when they are in such a state of panic.  And herein lies the difference between a dog with an inhibited mouth and a dog who does not.  A dog with proper bite inhibition would have bruised, or at worst scratched, the employee’s hand.  Lucy, a sweet-tempered, generally easy-going dog, bit her daycare supervisor’s hand so deeply, she exposed bone.  Had this been a different situation, one in which there were less dog-savvy people involved, or worse, had it been the children Lucy lives with, Lucy might not even be alive now, having placed such a serious laceration on a human being. 

So my point here is this: allowing puppies to receive feedback about their mouths is often a matter of life and death.  I can think of not one more important thing to teach a puppy, and yet it is misunderstood or even overlooked by the vast majority of puppy classes being offered to the public.  The first puppy classes I ever attended made no mention of teaching bite inhibition, and instead focused on stopping the annoying habit of puppy biting now, not later.  Some methods to stop puppy biting that I encountered were aversive, and others downright cruel.  It is absolutely unacceptable for dog “professionals” to take puppy owners’ money and not teach them about bite inhibition. 

You will not teach a dog not to use her only defense mechanism in times of panic, so the best you can do is to teach her to use it correctly.  The best lesson a dog can learn is that humans are delicate flowers, and we need not bite them too hard.