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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. 



…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!


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.

Ok, so it’s confession time.  Idgie has some fear-based dog reactivity issues.  So far I had been utilizing the Control Unleashed “Look at that!” game (I say “wheresapuppy?”) with Idgie and it was going pretty well, so that she actually didn’t bark and lunge, but is was still showing fearful body language, and would get defensive if the dog got too close.  Then, a few months ago, I began implementing Grisha Stewart’s BAT protocol for fear/aggression.  I really like it because it utilizes functional as well as “bonus” rewards, and works to both classically counter condition the situation (every time dogs come, the opportunity for reinforcement arrises, therefore making the arrival of dogs into a pleasant occurance) and to operantly condition a replacement behavior (calming signals and neutral/deferring body postures to replace fearful/aggressive behaviors).

Since I believe the root of this issue is my very own backyard setup, I have worked on BAT there with the neighbors’ dogs.  Idgie used to play in daycare once a week and had extensive dog socialization during her critical periods, but her negative experiences regarding my neighbors’ dogs is what I believe created this problem (these are her only bad experiences, and they happened during critical developmental times, and her first fearful reactions to dogs started here as well).  But it doesn’t really matter why the behavior is occuring, it is clearly present and requiring a plan of action.  She is now friendly to one backyard neighbor that she used to consistently bark at, wary of but not having huge reactions toward another neighbor dog (who is often accompanied by a really rambunctious little boy that Idgie is afraid of–good grief!) and I haven’t even worked on the next-door-neighbor’s GSD who is the root of the problem.  I simply can’t get far enough from him in our backyard setup to even try.  So for now I do click for looking from the sliding glass door if he is in his yard.  We are moving at the end of July anyway, and I have informally decided to not work on her specific issue with that dog since he will be out of our lives soon, and her new yard has five foot priavacy fencing with no shared fences.  No neighbor dogs=happy dog trainer.  

BAT has been a sort of miracle for us since  beginning.  When we are out on walks she will notice a dog, I will pause and wait for her to offer a calming signal (right now I am getting mostly head turns, some tongue flicks, and the occasional sit), at which point I mark (usually a verbal yes! but I do use a clicker at times) and we run away from the dog, sometimes then having a bonus reward, sometimes not.  We have been working like this for months with mostly impromptu situations out in the real world.  She can now stay relatively calm while we pass other dogs if I give her plenty of space (which seems to be at least 30 feet at this point), and can get pretty close to them if I work up by volleying the reward distance.  

Our progress has gone up and down due to uncontrolled intances (a dog rushed us from his open garage a few weeks ago which has really set us back–thank you irresponsible dog owners of suburbia!), but over all I really respect the process and she is doing well.  The progress of my clients that are doing BAT is monumental.  People who make time to train their dogs because they don’t train other people’s dogs all day are having enormous success with BAT.  I love that it is a really simple protocol, which is why I believe there is so much success on the clients’ end.

One recent dog I worked with went from whining, barking, and lunging at other dogs as soon as they were in sight to walking straight up to some dogs behind a fence, getting within inches of them, offering a head turn/tongue flick combo, and walking away in one session.  Less than an hour out on the walk with his owner handling him for more than half the time and me only taking him to demonstrate, and this boy was showing clear coping skills and a considerably relaxed demeanor around other dogs.  Impressive, to say the very least.  I think Grisha is really onto something special with functional rewards (which is not a new concept, but I haven’t seen is so eloquently applied to fear/aggression/reacitivity before). 

I’ll post the specifics of a BAT session in another post, and keep the blog updated about Idgie’s journey with BAT.

Caution: this is not a blog specifically about dogs, dog training, or dog behavior. It is a blog I originally posted in my non-dog blog, but I feel that it is so important I must post it here as well.  This is the one time I will ask you to kindly hold your tongue if you disagree, since this is NOT a blog of a usual topic. I will hear you out in full if you watched the film, but do not comment negatively if you have not seen it from start to finish. I do not expect everyone to watch the film–it is the most violent film I believe has ever been made (and it is real). I do, however, wish everyone would, since KNOWLEDGE IS EMPOWERMENT AND THE ONLY PATH TO REAL CHANGE. Thank you. 

I recently watched the film “Earthlings” ( which is an award-winning documentary about animal suffering. I watched it for two reasons; the first is that I try to watch at least one documentary for every two or three feature films I watch, just to be sure I’m learning something, and the second is that I really feel that anyone who calls themselves an advocate for animals (which I do) should keep their hands in the truth about animal suffering. Though I did not learn much from the film, since I am already well-versed in how much animals are made to suffer for human means, I can’t get it out of my head. I have seen PeTA’s DVD “Meet Your Meat.” I have see horrific things happen to dogs in the name of training (most recently on National Geographic!). I have visted animal shelters and been present for euthanasia. I have seen undercover footage of circuses, not to mention first-hand accounts of animal suffering in that environment. I have even stood within the four walls of a puppy mill, smelled the stench, touched the filthy dogs, looked into their cloudy, hopeless eyes. So none of the footage on the film was brand new for me, but it was expertly filmed (most undercover footage fails to capture the expressions of fear, pain, and utter sorrow in the eyes of the suffering–not so of “Earthlings”), the narration (by Joaquin Phoenix) was superb, and the information was spot-on, not biased and emotional as one might expect. The film begins with the 3 stages of truth; 1. ridicule 2. violent opposition and 3. acceptance. How fitting, since vegetarians and vegans are mocked shamelessly in our society (have you seen the stickers? PeTA: People Eating Tasty Animals, and Vegetarian: Ancient Indian word for ”lousy hunter”) by those who know little of the truth, and if you try to show such people something like “Earthlings,” you will indeed meet a brick wall of violent opposition. Our society has yet to come to the third stage. “Earthlings” then goes on to explore all of the ways in which humankind exploits animals: as pets, as food, as clothing, for entertainment, and for research.


I am a professional dog trainer. I am certainly not opposed to keeping dogs as well-loved, well-cared-for companion animals. It is my work to spread humane and kind training techniques to the general public, teaching people how to live harmoniously with their dogs without the use of coercive, cruel “training” methods. But I recognize what a serious problem we have in the dog world, and that is overpopulation. I know dogs are killed by the millions every year in this country alone, and not just by humane euthanasia, but by horrific gas chambers (there is a scene of this in the film, as well as a scene of dogs being euthanized the more generally accepted way–by lethal injection) and even guns. The film documents superbly the horror that is puppy mills. What people do not understand is that these operations are LEGAL and DISGUSTING at the SAME TIME. They have a fantasty in their head that the footage and stories of puppy mills are about small, illegal, unusual operations. This is not the case. ALL puppies in pet stores come from these facilities, ALL online/newspaper commercial breeders (yep you can get your puppy via Paypal) are puppy mills, and unless the laws change they always will. People need to know what they are contributing to when they swipe their credit card for the squirmy adorable bundle in the mall shop window.


The use of animals for food is in no way a new concept. It has been said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls we’d all be vegetarians, and I believe the saying should change to “if everyone watched ‘Earthlings’ we’d all be vegans.” Like the puppy mill images, the images of slaughter and factory farming are not isolated cases. This is how it is, the majority of the time. People like to believe their meat was humanely raised and slaughtered, but that is simply not the case. The makers of this film managed to capture the slaughter of a cow in a the biggest Kosher slaughterhouse in America–and by doing so illustrated the blatant violation of Kosher laws in meat slaughter that is commonplace. This scene is one in the film that will stay with me, as it is more violent and disturbing than anything I have seen before. The film does what no animal rights film I have ever seen has done, it explains, step-by-step the slaughter process for all major sources of meat–cows, pigs, and chickens. It captures all of the brutal husbandry practices, right up to the animals’ excruciating final minutes. It is purely factual. No emotional rants or raves from the narration occur, and they are not necessary. The cries of pain and obvious suffering are plenty. I wish all people who wish to eat meat were required to watch “Earthlings.”


A lot of people who wear leather are opposed to fur, and a lot of people who eat meat are opposed to fur, etc. etc. Fur farms are shown in the film, as is the slaughter and skinning of these helpless animals, produced only for fashion’s sake. Leather is the industry fewer people are opposed to, and even I was shocked to learn that most leather comes from cows purchased in India (where cow slaughter is illegal, and the people who purchase the cows ensure the cow’s former owners of their intentions of giving the cow a long and fruitful life). The treatment of these animals is, of course, brutal and violent, up till the bitter end. And for what? For clothing? Clothing can be equally functional when made of synthetic materials, and let’s face it, fur’s been out of fashion for anyone with a soul for a long time.


I have long been opposed to circuses and rodeos, and only stand stronger in my convictions after watching “Earthlings.” Humankind is a special kind, since they are the only ones who cause pain for sport, knowing it is pain. Rodeos are the prime example of this, and are nothing but savage displays of man’s egotistical need to cause suffering to other animals for “fun.” Other bloodsports like bull fighting are documented in the film, with narration that goes deeper into the facts behind this sport (like how the bulls are given severe doses of laxitives prior to fighting to weaken them). The lies circus animal trainers feed the public are almost humorously displayed, as everyone knows if elephant handlers were using positive reinforcement they’d have clickers and bags of treats, not long metal hooks and prods. A disturbing scene in which a new elephant handler is being trained (and the more experienced handler tells him “if you’re afraid to hurt them, get the hell out of this room”) will stay with me for a long time, as a positive animal trainer myself.


One of the most brutal ways in which humankind exploits animals is through research, be it medical, cosmetic, or for other scientific ventures (even NASA does brutal things to apes in the name of space travel–like sending them to space and seeing how long they live). “Earthlings” does an exquisite job of documenting the savage nature of the scientist who chooses to experiment on animals. A scene in which a baboon’s head is cemented into a steel helmet that is then violently snapped at an unnatural and severe angle (all in the name of head injury research) is one of the most troubling in the film. The narration goes into the reasons this research is unnecessary and can even retard helpful research, making it tough to argue that such cruelty is for a greater cause.

I urge anyone, whether determined animal rights activist, animal welfare lobbyist, blissfully unaware, on the fence, or skeptic, to watch “Earthlings.” I guarantee no one will walk away from this film unchanged. As Woody Harrelson said, “A must see for anyone who cares enough to know.”

Last weekend I showed Squidge for the second time.  Saturday we didn’t do anything, but the judge was provisional and I actually liked most of what she put up.  Sunday we showed under Carlolyn Herbel, a judge who is known for putting up correct dogs in border collies (as opposed to popular, big-headed, heavy-coated, thick-boned dogs) and she really liked my baby dog.  There were 5 bitches entered and Squidge went reserve to a decent bitch of what I would call “moderate” type.  So overall I was happy, Idgie did a nice job and we will show to Herbel again as soon as we can. I was very impressed with Idgie’s ability to overcome stress, walk into the ring, and perform! She did two great exams, including the one Sunday that was very in-depth.  Good Whirlie!

I am usually appalled at the lack of advocacy dog owners provide for their canine companions, and the situations I find most appalling usually pertain to the dog show world.  These are “dog people.”  They should know better, and I am (understandably, I think) considerably more disgusted at their lack of canine advocacy skills than I am when “pet people” fail to stand up for their pooches.  The overall substandard understanding of canine body language and stress signals is one of this country’s greatest shortcomings since we have quite a few dogs coexisting with people in the U.S.A.  It is not that the information isn’t available, it’s that the information is not made relevant to professionals, let alone consumers of these professional pet services.  Veterinarians, dog trainers, groomers, kennel workers, daycare staff, and the like are all severly lacking in a basic understanding of what dogs are trying to communicate when they are uncomfortable, and if these folks don’t know, then why on earth should Joe Dogowner?  Fortunatly more and more people in dog professions are seeking and therefore gaining a deeper understanding of what dogs need and how to recognize those needs, but the show folks are still dangerously in the dark.


I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen stressed, often downright terrified dogs in the breed ring.  Dogs are bound to become stressed while in the breed ring, if for no other reason than their handler’s nerves, and the unease of the dogs around them, but it is the way their stress is handled (or not handled) that upsets me.  Judges of AKC conformation events are required to go through judge’s education, why isn’t part of this education an overview of calming signals (the intentional signals dogs give off when stressed or surrounded by stressed individuals)?  Why doesn’t the AKC teach judges when they should absolutely not touch a dog, regardless of what the handler is saying?  I can’t answer these questions, but if the judges are not going to recognize a stressed dog in their ring, the handlers need to be able to.  I have seen a judge put up a Tervuren that was so afraid it dodged the judge’s exam quite skillfully, and a border collie’s handler insist her dog was “fine” only to get excused when her dog snapped at the judge.  Both of these dogs should have been excused, or their handlers should have asked to be excused.  The border collie was exhibiting whale eye, tongue flicking, and a rigid stance in response to her fear of the approaching judge.  She even curled her lip (not a calming signal, a WARNING signal) before snapping.  She not only warned, she screamed out for help, and no one did.  The handler either knew her dog was afraid and chose the prospective points were worth the risk, or just plain didn’t recognize any of these quite obvious body cues.  The scay part is that the judge actually reached for the dog to examine her teeth after she curled her lip.  This is when the snap occurred.  Shock of shocks.  Professional handlers, amateur handlers, breeder handlers, they’re all alike in one big scay way–most of them have no idea when a dog is cueing appropriately that he is stressed or afraid.  Even if they do know, they don’t know how to speak for the dog and help him out so that he is not forced to resort to lip curling, growling, or even biting.  They could train the dog to like a stranger approach instead of collar correcting her for moving.  They could show the judge their dog’s teeth themselves if the dog is particularly nervous that day.  They could ask to be excused if their dog has really decided she is too scared or stressed to show that day.  These things rarely happen, instead the dog is corrected and blamed.  If she finishes despite all of this, she is retired from the ring and becomes a brood bitch (great behavioral genes to pass on!), if the dog has particular boldness in the face of these corrections, he might be specialed, since “that is what it takes.”  The truth is more training and socialization needs to go into conformation so dogs are less stressed in the ring, and more education needs to be provided to judges and exhibitors alike.


This arena is considered by many to be one of the more dog-friendly dog sports, and you won’t see me disagreeing.  Still, I would be willing to bet that more dog-dog altercations occur at agility trials than any other type of AKC-sanctioned event.  I would also be willing to bet that if you measured the stress hormones in the dogs at agility trials, they would be just as sky-high as those at conformation shows.  I have witnessed many an agility dog (usually of the herding variety) barking, whining, and salivating at the end of his lead with pupils dilated and commisure (corners of the lips) pulled back while his owner at the other end of that lead boasts at the “drive” her dog is exhibiting.  Call it drive all you want (which I actually define as motivation for a certain thing i.e. toy drive, food drive, stock drive, etc.) but I call it stress, and there isn’t a person well-versed in canine stress that would disagree.  Then a friendly, if socially unskilled retriever type  saunters up and sticks her head up the rear of that dog that is supposedly “in drive.”  The retriever type’s handler (who is equally as oblivious as her dog, clearly) gasps in horror as the “high drive” (stressed) herding dog nails her retriever’s face.  Both handlers are upset and appalled, both offer up apologies (“I wasn’t paying attention!” says the retriever type’s mom, while “he just never does that!” is exclaimed by the handler with the “drivey” herding dog).  Neither can quite explain what just happened.  But anyone who understands canine body language and stress signals understands exactly what just played out.  Allowing our agility dogs to reach an unhealthy level of stress will encourage great speed from some dogs (these are the supposed excellent agility dogs, the ones that “stress up”) but we will pay with aggression and social unease as a side-effect.  I have seen a ridiculous increase in aggressive agility dogs in recent years, as well as impressively low course times and speedy performances becoming more and more commonplace.  I am not saying all fast agility dogs are aggressive, but I do think the encouragement of one trait often correlates with an increase in another, in our case the positive stress that creates fast agility dogs with the negative side effects of any kind of stress (i.e. aggression or overall edginess).  If agility handlers worked to teach their dogs basic impulse control as well as social skills we’d be in a much better position than we are.  Even better, if agility trainers and handlers knew how to recognize stress in their dogs we’d be helping everyone to enjoy this sport in a safer manner.  It is a common belief that if you do much obedience training with your agility dog (we’re talking loose lead walking, and basic manners like food politeness and not jumping up, not competition-style obedience) you will “kill the drive.”  It is also “understood” that allowing your dog to socialize with dogs through off-lead play and get fed cookies by new people will lessen her drive for working with you, her handler.  These beliefs only make dogs that don’t know how to act socially and are therefore stressed, and don’t know how to control themselves and therefore might act on that stress in unpleasant ways.  Agility trainers need a more solid foundation in basic dog training and communication so that they might pass that knowledge on to their students, creating a more dog-savvy agility community.


If there were a gold medal awarded for the dog people most lacking in basic canine body language skills, it would go to the obedience crowd, hands down.  It is they that inspired me to write about advocay in the first place.  I could write a fat manual on the lack of education in the obedience crowd, but I will suffice it to say that they lose the advocacy race, every single time.  While conformation and agility handlers are mostly not sticking up for their dogs in the competitive environment, obedience handlers fail their dogs first in training, and then in the ring.  Not all obedience handlers are as appalling as most of them are–but it is my job to discuss and address the majority here.  The world of competitive obedience is mostly comprised of people who have been in dogs a very long time, and who have learned how to “train” from other trainers who have been in it even longer than they.  A competition-style obedience instructor is selected by the list of titles they have achieved, the scores they earn, and the number of years they’ve been in the sport.  They are not questioned in methodology, they are not expected to be versed in learning theory, and their experience is considered the final word.  Most of them will tell you to jerk your dog up into a “proper” sit if she slouches and sniffs during stays (calming signal!), and that the only way to train a reliable retrieve is to dig your thumb down into your dog’s ear and pinch (sound barbaric? that’s because it is).  The abuse that passes for competitive obedience training prevails as commonplace and even expected.  If this is how people treat their dogs when there is no judge watching, or pressure for perfection, then of course they really blow it when it comes to advocacy at the trial grounds.  I could do an entire photo essay on stress at one obedience trial. A common practice is for handlers take their dogs out into the parking lot or hotel grounds after a non-qualifying performance and “train” the exercise the dog flunked so aggressively and abusively that the stress that likely caused the dog to flunk in the first place is only intensified.   The dog-blame that abounds is absurd.  “He knows better than to break a stay!” or “She completely blew me off out there!” are exclaimed by exasperated handlers while their dogs pout at the end of the lead, not quite sure why mom is so very scary today.  Like I said, I could go on for pages and pages about this one sport, but I won’t, it will only depress me.  But again if AKC educated obedience judges a little better, and if the consumerism of dog training were greatly improved through education, all this junk would fade away. 

This weekend Idgie and I are going to her first conformation show (and mine!).  I will have clicker and treats in the ring with me, and will absolutely bend over backwards for her to have a positive ring experience.  If she is frightened, I will shape her not to be.  If she is afraid of the judge I will not force her to accept the exam.  Most of all, I will let her know that she is already the most gorgeous, brilliant, dog at the show before I even put on her lead.    

Two things that just might not go together, eh?  Actually, when it comes to our furchildren they really do.  You see, it has long been thought that dogs evolved from wolves, and this happened due to the intentional efforts of Mesolithic humans.  You’ve heard it, the cavefolks started keeping wolf pups, especially the friendlier (or just less fearful) ones, one thing led to another, and suddenly there are dogs helping humans hunt, protecting humans’ land and livestock, and even babysitting small humans.  There are about a jillion things wrong with that hypothesis (that Ethologist and Anthrozoologist Raymond Coppinger calls “The Pinnochio Theory” because turning a wolf pup into a dog is akin to turning a wooden doll into a real boy) but I will only illustrate a couple to make my point about ethics.

Dogs as a Subset of Wolves

It is very popular, especially in (bad) dog training, to talk about dogs as an inferior, domesticated (weak), juvenile (stupid), subset of the wolf.  What is pointed out is the genetic similarities of the two species, with complete and utter disregard to the genetic differences between the two.  All one has to do is look at a maltese and a timber wolf to see that they are not the same thing.  In fact, you can even look at wolfish kinds of dogs and see huge differences (the boxy skull and dark eyes of the malamute, compared with the sleek head of the wolf encasing yellow eyes, for instance).  But that’s not all!  Dogs have smaller teeth, smaller skulls, and smaller brains than wolves do.  But these are all just physical differences, what about genetic behavioral differences?  Interesting thing is that if you hand-rear a wolf pup, have it around humans from day one, not other canines, and totally isolate a dog pup, having it never see a person during critical developmental times, the dog puppy is still less afraid of humans than the wolf pup is.  Every time.  The “domesticated” wolf is still not a dog, nor is the “wild” dog a wolf.  They are different, and not just physically but mentally.  It is now thought that dogs developed first by natural selection, due to the changing environment around them (just as how any other thing evolves) and the changing environment happened to include humans living in villages.  Villages are a fabulous source of food for wolves (with garbage galore!) if they are not too afraid to go into the village to get it.  And thus the more naturally tame wolves who were less afraid of the humans in the villages ventured into this abundant food source and learned to co-habitate with the people.  They evolved to fit the garbage-eater bill (a much much less expensive and therefore hugely more successful lifestyle for the canine).  It is these village dogs–still seen in and around villages all over the world, by the way–that are the ancestors of our maltese, cocker spaniels, damatians and the like, not wolves.  They are THEIR OWN unique species that is wildly more successful than wolves (who are in serious danger of extinction, while dogs are slaughtered in thousands by the minute, still leaving about 4 million of them on earth) and they should be respected as such.

Why Dog People Should Care

Every single time you see a person “alpha roll” (flip, shake, and yell at a dog), or hear a person talk about “dominance” and gaining “dominance” over dogs through violent means, you are witnessing the sick false knowledge of the masses that has derived from this idea of dogs as a subspecies of wolves.  Wolves do have strict social hierarchy (they still don’t rule through violence, another topic) but dogs really don’t.  The evolved garbage dump canine is semisolitary, explaining why dogs have a longer reproductive receptivity period and also go through estrus twice a year starting when they are under a year of age, whereas wolves are not receptive (able to conceive) for long and don’t “come into heat” until they are two, and then only again once every year after.  That is less than half as reproductively receptive as dogs.  Solitary animals need to be able to conceive more frequently, since the availability of mates is lower.  They also need to have a longer period of reproductive attractiveness (that smell that draws all the neighborhood dogs to one yard with a bitch just coming into season) prior to becoming receptive to draw in these potential mates–hence the longer heat cycle of the domestic dog versus the wolf.  WOWZA.  Huge genetic differences that were not selected for by these villagers who don’t even care if the dogs live or die, let alone reproduce.  These are characteristics that would develop as the social needs of the dog died off.  Since the dog is now a scavenger and not a hunter it benefits the dog more to be alone than in a group.  And so it evolves.  This is why it is so ridiculous to try and treat dogs as wolves, and to try and consider social hierarchy when training them.  

Why Positive Training Methods Kick the Crap out of Traditional Methods, Every Single Time

While dogs are solitary in the wild when it comes to other canines, they still stick to humans.  Their natural attraction to our species is what makes them so very unique.  We have taken these village garbage dogs and made them into anything we desire.  We have dogs that gather livestock and still others that guard livestock.  We have dogs that hunt down and kill small animals for us, and we have yet more dogs that bring us animals we have slein virutally unscathed.  Try teaching a wolf to run and fetch the bird you just killed without having it devour the thing instantly.  You won’t succeed.  I promise.  We can’t even teach wolves to pull sleds (yes, people have tried), though the dogs that perform this task are arguably as physically close to wolves as dogs come.  Dogs and humans go together, and it is a remarkable interspecial relationship like no other in history, as far as we know.  Still, people excuse rolling dogs on their backs, shaking them by the scruff, hitting, kicking, yelling, blahdeblahdeblah, by saying “it’s what wolves do.”  The truth is, none of that is what wolves do, and dogs are not wolves anyway.  This is why when you hear popular dog trainers like Cesar Millan or The Monks of New Skete talking about “the pack” or gaining “dominance” or creating “submission” you should be furious.  It’s like saying that chimpanzees (almost as genetically similar to humans as wolves are to dogs) smack and bite  and sometimes even shake their babies (and each other, they are a far more violent species than wolves) and therefore this will work on your human infant.  It would be something to laugh histerically about if it weren’t causing so much harm to dogdom.  The truth is, anything you would like your dog to do or not do can be taught through positive reinforcement (giving a reward when the desired behavior occurs) and negative punishment (removing potential reinforcers from the environment until an undesired behavior ceases) and these are the only kinds of training that should be allowed today.  Traditional training that would tell you your dog is trying to dominate you when he commits normal dog behaviors like mouthing, counter-surfing, jumping up, and dog-dog aggression is absolutely unfounded, and lacks any kind of scientific reasoning or logic.  Your puppy mouthing on your hands is just trying to interact with you the only way she knows how.  Your dog that jumps up on the counter to eat food is only taking advantage of an available resource.  Your dog that knocks you over as you come in the door is attempting to greet you in the canine way (face to face).  Your dog that jumps other dogs at the dog park is uncomfortable socially, is socially unskilled, and only knows how to deal with his social unease through aggression (not unlike a few humans I know…).  It is your job as the highly-evolved, non-chimp, homosapien to whom the species canis domesticus has glommed itself for better or worse to teach your dog to behave appropriately, and remove him from situations in which he cannot.

So, Is There EVER a Place for “Dominance” in Dog Training?

The short answer is a resounding NO.  Do I believe in leadership and respect in our relationships with dogs?  Absolutely.  I believe that dogs (like all creatures living in social contexts) need leadership.  But they deserve the kind of leadership I think humans deserve as well.  We all deserve to be lead in life by confident individuals who show us with kindness and respect how to live in ways that are the most beneficial for everyone involved, created a win-win symbiosis.  That is what dogs deserve, and it is our job, as the species they look to for leadership, to give it to them.  Good leaders do not rule with force, fear, or violence.  They do so with respect, kindness, and knowledge.  Do trainers touting dominance/pack theory, tromping around with dogs on chains achieve obedience dogs who are lovely companions?  Yes.  But Hitler was good at what he did too.        

I have been taking Idgie to agility trials with Kelso and me since she was about 3 months old.  Her first trial was the CKC trial attached to the Rocky Mountain Cluster in Denver, so she not only got to experience hanging out in the dirt at a trial with agility going on, but I carried her through the busy show grounds as well where she saw all sorts of dogs and humans, and got a puppy massage from Terry, while Kelso got his from Debbie.  She did fabulous.  She then accompanied me to a couple of trials at Douglas County Fairgrounds (where most of our trials are) and was an angel in the crate the whole time.  She is proving to be a great trial-going dog, hanging out in her crate (thank you Crate Games!) and coming out to visit.  I try to keep a few things in mind, however, and they have proven extremely important as she matures into a more “normal” (not quite bomb-proof) border collie.


Give 100%

I always tell my students that if they expect 100% from their dogs, they’ve got to give 100% too.  I often see my fellow exhibitors walking their pups all around the trial grounds while chatting with friends, watching runs, and even while walking their other dogs.  I only even take Idgie out of her crate at a trial when I can totally focus on her.  This way I can read her early signs of stress, help shape her interaction with things causing her stress, and be certain that she learns when we are at a trial, we are in working mode.  I don’t want my dogs to learn that dog shows are social hour, though I do want them to be social.  I have her say hello to people, get fed treats by strangers, etc.  but she is to come back to me for the final reward, and receives most treats and play from me, not others.  She can visit other dogs if she chooses (though she usually chooses not to, they don’t ever give her treats!) but always comes back to me before long.  I want her to come out of her box ready to work and play with the mama when we are at a trial, and so far so good.


Keep Stress at a Minimum

I also make sure to put Idgie back in her crate if I notice her stressing much at all.  I don’t want her to decide trial grounds are a place to have your fuzzy little head spin with stimulation.  I don’t keep her out of the crate at an indoor trial for more than 15 minutes, and that is the absoulte max (usually she comes out for 5 or so).  I see people carrying their puppies around and shoving them into people’s arms, meanwhile the little pup is exhausted, stress signaling, and just about toasted.  This is what creates dogs that can’t work at a trial because they find it too stressful.  Kelso, at 8 years old, spends a good amount of time outside of his crate walking outside of the show site, not inside.  He is only out of his crate inside just before and after he runs.  It is too stressful for him otherwise.  The difference is that I recognize stress signals in my dogs and respond accordingly.  I can’t stand it when people say their dogs need to “learn to get over it.”  Get over what?  Stress? Have you ever experienced a stressful car ride on the interstate?  The knots in your neck when you finally got to your destination, the pit in your stomach?  Wouldn’t it have been nice if someone had noticed your stress and taken the wheel for a while, allowing you to rest?  That is what we can and should do for our dogs, especially puppies.  Let them nap, relax, and come out of their crate only for short focused fun. 


Recent Trials and Behavior Issues

More recently Idgie’s behavior issues (visual reactivity and resource guarding) have sprung up minorly at trials, and I am doing my best to not allow her to practice these behaviors on the grounds.  Trials are not the place to work through these issues, so I tend to avoid them, and am sure to stick to my guns about how I will be handling them.  When she traveled to Casper, WY with Kelso, my parents and their dogs, and I for a trial last month I opted not to take her to the show grounds at all–much to the dismay of my friends who love her.  The camper was parked clear across the parking lot from the site, at least a quarter mile away.  Walking her that distance is plenty of stimulation and work in a new environment, so I opted to walk her around outside, clicking and treating glances at other dogs.  The second she started to react to something visual in the environment (one biggie was a couple of Bouviers racing across the snow across the lot) I picked her up and took her straight to her crate in the RV.  Though everyone wanted to see her, I knew she was entering an intense fear period and I chose not to allow her to decide the trial site was scary.  Most recently I took her with me to Jeffco for a trial with Kelso.  It was a one ring indoor trial with plenty of crate space so I was able to crate her right next to Kelso.  We were camped right by my friend from the Obedience world too, so I knew I could trust her and her dogs to respect our space.  Wonderful when you can pick your neighbors!  She didn’t have any guarding and we had plenty of space to do some shaping with the dumbbell at our crate.  She came out and met my friend Lori, ate some treats from people, and got clicked and treated for glancing at a scary GSD (her most scary breed).  The only reaction she had was to a horse outside (who was being “trained”/abused) and frankly I had a reaction to the sight of it myself.

Yet another blog about a stellar training session the Squidge and I had.  I set out about a month ago to teach her to back up (not hop back, but walk backwards) because this is an excellent body-awareness trick for agility, and the first training session went awry.  I wound up shaping her to scooch back in a down position, which I thought was too cute NOT to click.  That trick is now under decent stimulus control as “beeeep beeeep beeep” (like the reverse signal on a truck).  So last night I decided to teach her the original trick; walking backwards.  She, of course, learned it in no time, and is walking backwards like a pro.  Now all I need to do is put it under stimulus control, but I can’t think of a cue!  Ashley said it should  be “get outta here” and the trouble with that is that I will be using “get out” to mean something else in agility.  I am thinking either the ever-simple “back it up” or “reverse” or something cute like “scram.”  We’ll see. 

Then we worked on heeling.  Yes!  Heeling at last!  Heeling is one of my all-time favorite things, and I have decided to teach it the way they teach it over in the ever-more-progressive-than-the-US-countries of Sweden, Norway, and Slovakia.  What this means is that I will be doing it the way Fanny Gott does it:)  Basically, I will start by teaching her the body position I want while walking backward, so that any mistakes made will not be attached to MY heel position.  This way I am also not luring at all, it is a total shaping exercise.  Idgie will heel with me half a room length, with me walking backwards–much faster than my other method of heeling.  This is a link to a full description of this method   and this is a link to some videos of what it looks like  I am really excited about this!  She also worked on stimulus control for Spin, BeepBeepBeep and some signals for down, stand, and sit.  Rock on little puppit!