Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Law of (Un)Intended Benefits

Everyone has heard of unintended consequences. You perform an action for a particular purpose, but you gain something that you did not expect, and possibly do not want. For example, recently in the news was a story about a Texas woman who put a large sticker on her car disparaging the President. The wording on the sticker was quite profane. A sheriff noticed it, took a photo, and posted it on Facebook, where it went viral. Due to the notoriety of the viral photo, the owner of the car was soon being sought by the police…but not for the sticker. It turns out that she had a standing warrant for her arrest on different (non-violent) charges, and now that she was in the spotlight, she was soon taken into custody for that warrant.

The sticker in question, profanity redacted.
She wanted to draw attention to herself with the sticker, I’m sure. But I doubt she wanted that particular type of attention. That is an example of unintended consequences.

Pet owners experience the Law of Unintended Consequences quite a bit, mostly because pet training is something the average owner only takes partly seriously, but the pets take quite literally. You give your dog a bite of food from your fork when he barks at you during dinner. You think, “Just this once won’t hurt.” But “just this once” is not a concept dogs understand—at all. And unless you never, ever repeat your error, the dog will bark at you and expect the food at every meal for quite a while before he gives up. The chances are pretty good that you, or someone with whom you live, will give the dog a bite from the table (or will reward him in some other way for barking during a meal) at some point before he stops trying. That 2nd time will seal the deal for the dog, and now you have an obnoxious behavior that you created and have to fix (humanely, please—it’s not his fault you made a mistake).

The flip side of the Law of Unintended Consequences is that it works in positive ways, too. The unintended consequence can often be beneficial to the recipient in ways they never expected.

Let’s take the “heel” command, for example. “Heel” is a command that tells the dog where to walk in relation to you, on or off leash. It typically requires the dog to be on  the handler’s left side, with his shoulder even with the handler’s knee, and the leash must be loose. It’s a useful command for a number of reasons, one of which is that it eliminates pulling on leash because a dog cannot be heeling and pulling simultaneously.

NOTE: pulling on a tight leash is natural and normal for most dogs. Additionally, humans often make the problem worse by rewarding it! Heeling is not natural or normal to dogs, so it must be taught. Teaching a solid heel is not the only way to control pulling on leash, but it is an incredibly effective way.

But “heel” has a lot of unintended* benefits. In addition to stopping the pulling, it:

  • Teaches the dog to allow the handler to be in control during the walk; human in control = safety
  • Teaches the dog to withstand frustration (walking in a line at a human’s pace is boring for most dogs)
  • Teaches the human better leash handling skills so as not to confuse the dog
  • Delivers mental stimulation, which many dogs lack, because it takes a lot of mental energy to perform at first, and requires the dog to think
  • Amplifies the bond between dog and handler; and, most importantly,
  • Teaches the dog to pay better attention to the handler during an activity where most dogs want to pay attention to everything BUT the handler

A dog at heel is safer around cars
Think about it: during a typical walk, how much of your dog’s attention is focused on you? Zero? That sounds about right. There’s so much to see and do and explore! The dog has very little need to pay attention to his handler, who is basically a dead weight at the other end of the leash.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if your dog paid more attention to you than anything else when you asked him to? It would solve pretty much every problem that leashes create (pulling, barking, lunging, dragging, tripping you, eating trash on the path, going after other dogs, etc.). The dog would get more walks, which would benefit you both. Both of you would enjoy your walks. Believe it or not, all of this is still true even if, after the dog is trained to heel, you don’t even use the heel command for most of the walk!

In short, teaching a solid heel teaches your dog to pay more attention to you. That’s its actual purpose. The unintended benefits are better leash manners, no more pulling/dragging/tripping/etc, and happier walks. But the fact that the dog now pays more attention to you when on walks supplies even more benefits. It deepens your bond. It improves the recall (“come”) command. It prevents accidents. It improves the dog’s (and your) confidence. Controlled walks are also less annoying to people you might pass on the street, and a dog in a nice heel helps onlookers who might be nervous around dogs to relax. (Yes, there are plenty of people who are afraid of dogs, even your sweet one. They deserve to walk down the street, or work in their yards, and not worry that they'll be molested by dogs walking their people.)

Heel may seem like a lot of work to get your dog to walk nicely on leash, and indeed there are other ways of creating a loose leash without it. But most of those ways will not give you the attention that “heel” does. And when you look at all the (un)intended benefits of this command, it makes it infinitely more appealing and worth your time.

Now, at this point, you may be saying, “but I don’t care if my dog pays attention to me on a walk. I want him to enjoy the walk!”

A good "heel" would have prevented this tragedy
Well, of course! Sniffing and exploring and engaging with the environment are all part of the pleasure of walks, and they should be allowed. But they should be allowed on your terms, not the dog’s. When the dog gets to decide where to go and how fast to get there, your arm gets ripped out of the socket and it’s no fun to walk the dog. And if your dog has negative reactions to stimuli such as squirrels, cats, or other dogs on a walk, teaching him to attend to you when he spots a distraction not only solves your problem but lowers his stress faster.

Do you really want to be a human sled? No? Then teach the dog to allow you to control the walk, and his reward will be lots of time to explore and sniff. Arms stay the same length, and everyone wins.

The same is true of the “stay” command.

I read somewhere recently that a training outfit did a survey of dog training clients to ask them what commands they used most often at home. The training outfit was trying to decide what commands were most important to include in their training classes, given the short time frame. They were a bit surprised to learn that “stay,” one of the mainstay commands they’d been teaching forever, didn’t make the top 6. According to those polled, “stay” was not a command many pet owners used at home regularly.

I admit that I was as surprised by this result as they were. I’ve been training people to train their dogs for over 2 decades, and “stay” is part of my top 6. Its usefulness is blindingly apparent to me and many of my seasoned colleagues. Perhaps the dog owners who answered the poll found it difficult to teach. Perhaps they thought it was boring or unnecessarily stressful for the dogs. Maybe they thought it was fine that their dogs were always stuck to them like needy shadows, and constantly underfoot (there are definitely people who inexplicably enjoy this annoying trait in their dogs and would feel hurt if their dogs stopped doing it.) Maybe there was a different command that worked better than “stay.” Or perhaps they simply didn’t understand all the benefits of the “stay” command. I’ll never know, because I was not involved in that poll and I didn’t get to ask any questions about it.

But I remember wondering for a few seconds after reading those results if I was putting too much emphasis on the “stay” command in my own classes and lessons. I teach it in my Basic classes, and we really put it to the test in my Intermediate classes, introducing serious, “real-world distractions” in different environments. Was it a waste of time? Were my students even going to use it?

Luckily, it only took me a few seconds to answer my own questions. Students may wonder why they need to teach "stay," but once you begin to implement the command, its usefulness is obvious.

“Stay” tells the dog to remain in one position until released by his handler. It’s pretty precise. And while there are several ways to teach it, it is designed to be the “parking brake” for a dog.

In their natural state, dogs like to move, to rove, to cover ground, to explore. Sure, they relax, stop moving, and even sleep on their own, but they rarely do so consciously when they would rather be doing something else.

“Stay” requires the dog to stop and hold a position, regardless of time, distractions, or where the handler goes. The point is to park the dog, which is often a necessity. But it has some unintended benefits, as well.

  • It teaches frustration tolerance.
  • It teaches relaxation.
  • It teaches attention to the handler over other stimuli.
  • It teaches that the handler is consistent, and will return, which helps with separation distress.
  • But most importantly, since it is not a natural thing for a human-centric dog to do (dogs are hardwired to follow us around, and they generally get rewarded for this), it requires a decent amount of mental strain to perform. It can even be a bit stressful, depending on the distractions or the distance.
It's a simultaneous stay and heel!
Since some stress is required for a being to learn, the stress of being told to “park it” near distractions and when the handler moves away helps teach the dog to cope in a world full of distraction and potential danger. It teaches discipline to a task that dogs do not purposefully perform in their untrained state.

The benefits of “stay” are numerous. I hope that the training outfit who ran the poll figured out that they just needed to explain these benefits better to their students, rather than move away from teaching “stay” at all.

These are just two of many examples of commands or exercises we teach that have multiple benefits to dogs and owners.

We trainers explain lots of things to our clients. Due to time constraints and other factors, we rarely have time to go as deeply into explanation as I did in this post, so I hope it has helped you to understand why you should listen to your trainer, first off, and how to find the value in training exercises you might be inclined to put aside when training class has ended.

If your dog improved because of the exercises, then he needs you to continue doing them. And here’s some other great news: he wasn’t the only one in your relationship who was improved.

*In reality, dog trainers are completely aware of the benefits I've listed here, and, for us, they are intended. But dog owners may be blind to the added benefits. So the term I really should be using is "unanticipated-by-the-end-user benefits." But that doesn't roll off the tongue, does it?

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Clarity and Contentment

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were visiting friends who have been married for over 2 decades. While one never really knows all the ins-and-outs of another couple’s relationship, my wife and I consider these two, who we have known for most of their relationship, to be in a solid partnership, and well-matched. As occasionally happens with companions who spend time together, we just happened to be visiting on a night where things seemed a bit “off” between our friends. We had a nice meal and a few drinks, but there was a mild tension in the air that all of us sensed. After dinner, we settled into some conversation, but it wasn’t long before my wife and I found ourselves the unwitting participants in a spat. We weren’t sure whether it would be best to say our goodbyes and leave them to their argument, or stay and make sure things remained civil. Our discomfort went mostly unnoticed by our hosts, who began to argue in earnest. Eventually we did make a retreat, and no blood was shed that night. In fact, the fight was actually over before we left—and we got to witness a main reason why communication is the glue of relationships.

This is true no matter what species we are communicating with.

No worthwhile relationship in which humans engage—friends, lovers, spouses, parent/child, boss/employee, teacher/student—exists without bumps and problems. People who have been together for long periods of time have made their partnerships work not because of an absence of problems, but because of an understanding of how to solve them. They stay together not because everything is hunky-dory all the time, but because when problems arise, they willingly deal with them, and find solutions. Just like dogs who are engaged in problem solving become more adept at it with practice, humans who refuse to shrink from their problems, and instead do the uncomfortable work of fixing (or at least exposing them), tend to have deeper, more lasting relationships.

A dog trainer I highly respect said the following once (I’m paraphrasing): “Look, I get the allure of ‘all positive’ training. I wish I could train a dog without using anything but praise and treats and play. That would be lovely! But I cannot—because the dog isn’t getting all the information he needs to be successful, and I know it. I am not setting him up to succeed if I am purposefully leaving out the uncomfortable bits.”

All relationships have stumbling blocks and problems and stressors, but the way to keep the relationship humming is not to avoid the problems or pretend they do not exist, but to address them, break them down, and scatter them out in finer granules so that they may dissipate more easily. Clarity fixes so many issues. No relationship worthy of having can exist in a communication vacuum. Just as dogs require clarity to succeed, our relationships do, too. 

Humans and dogs want to avoid conflict, but it’s not always possible. So we need to figure out ways to meet it head on and not shrink from it. Good dog trainers study and practice how to provide negative information in ways that will not scare the dog or cause him to give up completely. We can figure out how to accomplish this with the humans we care about, too. 

Every partnership has its stress points. These can vary over time, as we age and grow, or they can burrow in and remain constant, regardless of how the outside world changes around them. Some of us are so attached to our triggers that we just carry them from relationship to relationship like an old piece of luggage we can’t bear to give away.

Dogs engage in natural behaviors that we find unacceptable. In most of these cases, we can train alternative behaviors, or we can stop the dog from engaging in natural behaviors. The main reason to do the latter is for the dog's safety, or the safety of the humans around the dog. For example: resource guarding is a completely natural behavior to most dogs. It is normal for them to be selfish with resources, and sometimes, they feel the need to lash out at humans or other pets if they feel like those resources are being misappropriated. But they don't understand that their "protection" is often misplaced, and that it is rarely needed. They don't understand naturally that those resources aren't really theirs to begin with, either. (A balanced approach to training can alleviate this problem, and it needs to be alleviated because it gets people, especially children, seriously injured. Dogs lose their lives over it, too. It's serious, it rarely gets better without intervention, and it poses a danger. It must be addressed.) Furthermore, resource guarding creates stress for the dog--stress that can be avoided.

Dogs also have milder natural behaviors that "work" fine for them and are not unsafe, but often annoy us: excessive licking (of us or themselves); whining, some types of barking, endless noisemaking with their toys, following us everywhere, digging random holes, and needing to take 20 minutes to find the perfect pooping spot (and then another 5 to find the direction to face while doing their business). Often, these behaviors can be ignored. If these behaviors annoy us sufficiently, we will look for ways to eradicate them safely and humanely. If we are successful, both the human(s) and the dog win.

If we are not successful, we must learn to live with these behaviors.

Similarly, there are always going to be “tics and fidgets” that irk you about your partners and friends. These are actions that your partner does that serve him or her in some way (meaning: they are not a problem to that person), but only serve to annoy you. Some of these are best ignored. If they are not dangerous or damaging to the relationship, you are probably going to be less frustrated by them if you just let them go. If you can’t do this, then the problem must be squarely owned and you must find a way to bring it up and air your frustrations. You may be successful doing so (e.g., your hubby or friend acknowledges that his nail biting habit could be seen as unhygienic, and you’d rather not witness it, so he changes his behavior to not do it in front of you), which will bring you peace, and the relationship thrives.

Sometimes, though, you will not be successful in changing the other person’s behavior. Then what? Can you ignore it? What will the end result be if you cannot? Will things eventually come to a head and boil over? This might actually be a good thing that will help you in the end. Airing grievances and exposing them to light does a couple of things. It communicates to the other person that someone is unhappy with his behavior, which allows him or her to make changes (“when we know better, we can do better”). It also can serve to put things in a different perspective for both parties, and this can help diminish some hurt feelings because when we fixate on problems, they grow in importance in our minds. Once we voice them, and especially if the other person acknowledges that we are frustrated, the problems lose some heft. This is what happened with our friends after dinner.

In my relationship with my dog, I cannot expect that it will be “all positive.” I need to be able to give my dog feedback, and some of that will be about things he does that I do not like. There is nothing wrong with doing this, even if the dog experiences some temporary discomfort, even stress, while receiving the information—especially if it is a dangerous or potentially dangerous behavior, and he is given instructions on how to make it disappear and not return in the future. The dog cannot understand how to behave unless he has experienced some negative consequences to his actions and been given appropriate ways to deal with those bumps.

It doesn’t seem rational, then, when we are talking about people, to avoid having uncomfortable conversations, to kick the problematic can down the road forever, if we can solve them by rolling up our sleeves, bracing for discomfort, and pushing through it--kindly and fairly.

(Now, sometimes the relationship is just not worth it, and you may make the decision to cut and run instead of buckling down. I’m not talking about those types of relationships, or toxic ones. For those, you must take care of yourself first.)

If you feel unequipped for how to do this uncomfortable work in a valuable relationship, or know that the other party may be unable to do the work (or even hear about it), I recommend professional help. Often, we are so close to our problems that we cannot see them clearly, and a professional is not as emotionally attached as we are. (You should feel no more ashamed of seeking professional help in dealing with relationship problems than you would seeking professional help in dealing with an appliance that ceased to run correctly, or seeking a pro to teach you how to play better tennis, ballroom dance, or help you train your dog. Having an unbiased observer can, in and of itself, help immensely in many ways--and a therapist or counselor is more than just an unbiased observer.)

Before my wife and I were about to leave, our friends had a breakthrough. They were able to have it because they didn’t shy away from the discomfort. They both listened. They acknowledged fault. And they acknowledged gratitude, too, which is a very necessary part of ending an argument. As it turns out, there were misunderstandings on both ends. Clarity prevailed, though. The specks of what remained of their argument, exposed to the air, simply blew away.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Small Wins Create Big Change

Would you say your dog is smart, or dumb?

Most of you will likely answer that he is smart, and you will beam with pride when doing so. You may be correct—he may be smart, or at least smart enough. On the other hand, he may be as dumb as a box of rocks, and you might not have any trouble admitting this truth. You love him either way, right? I mean, it’s not like he needs to graduate from college or anything. Does it really matter?

Well, as far as this blog post is concerned, only in the sense of how much patience you have to train him. Training doesnt have to be difficult or time-consuming, but it can definitely be frustrating sometimes to try and communicate with an entirely different species who has zero problems cleaning the most taboo parts of his anatomy with the same tongue with which he licks your face each morning. Its our job to communicate with them, not their job to figure us out.

So when we get to the work of training, we are likely to get a bit frustrated and impatient at times, even with a normally smart dog. Sometimes, things will go smoothly, and they will be fun. Other times, it will seem like your dog is Dory from the movie “Finding Nemo”: a flighty fish with zero short-term memory skills. So, what do you focus on? Class is in 2 days! The teacher and the other students will judge you, and assume you havent even tried to do your homework (probably all in your head, but its a story that works for you right now).

You can't expect a dog to be able to "stay" while you walk
away (and there are distractions) if he can't even do it with
you standing in front of him. 
Start with small
steps and get big success.
You feel as if you need to hurry, to do more in less time, so that you can catch up to where you need to be. But the opposite may actually be true.

In their most excellent book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath suggest breaking tasks down, especially tasks that involve helping people change their minds (though it works with dogs), into doable chunks. They call it “shrinking the change.” Author Charles DuHigg also touts the importance of small wins in his book The Power of Habit. “Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are possible.”

What does this mean for you, in this moment, as you struggle with your hapless hound?

Incorporate small wins into your training. Slow down, and do less. Stop sooner. End with success. Are you training your dog in 30-minute sessions? Why? Dogs can have short attention spans, too. Do several 3-5 minute sessions per day. This way, the dog gets to win at the game a lot!

Take the tiny advantages the dog is giving you and build patterns with them. Shrink the change, as it were. Cut bigger steps into smaller pieces to make it easier for you and the dog to get where you want to go. In training, we call it “successive approximation.Want an example? 

Does your dog rush past you to get out the door first when you are headed out for a walk? You probably have no idea how to stop this besides holding him back with the leash. Certainly, doing this is better than yelling at him, or allowing him to bowl you over, but its not teaching him to wait.

Your dog may not be able to not rush out the door right now, but can he sit for 5 seconds? Yes? Then you can fix this problem. Put him on leash. Tell him to sit, and stand between him and the door. Open the door a crack. Does he rise? Shut the door and make him sit again. Repeat this a few times until he figures out that the door ain’t opening wide enough for him to get through unless his bottom is on the ground. The next time you open the door a crack and he doesn’t break the sit, reward heavily, and go out the door. Start asking him to hold it longer and longer over time, and eventually to look at you when it opens, and eventually to remain inside until you walk out and call him. Voila! You have taken something the dog knows (a 5-second sit) and used it to teach him to wait at thresholds until invited out.
Want to teach your dog how to fetch? Great idea!
But if he isn't really interested in balls or toys,
you will need to create value in some items (or at
least one) before he will bring them to you happily.
Marry your long-term goal with short-term critical moves. Building trust now by giving the dog easy wins will help you in the long run. Capturing the bits that work will give you something to build on. Think of it as building the foundation of the house, one board at a time.

Tweak the environment. When a situation changes, behavior changes. So change the situation. If you don’t seem to be making any progress, changing the environment can make all the difference. Switch from indoors to out, from a large room to a small one, from your regular training ground to someplace novel.
You can apply this to other areas of life, too. Any task that seems formidable can be made easier if broken into chunks. Changing the environment can change your perspective.

What if you are not trying to change your dogs behavior, but peoples behavior? Does your work involve motivating other people to do their jobs better? Well, take Heaths and Duhiggs words to heart. Of course the same rules apply. And here’s one more that can help you to know:

People find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than at the starting gate of a shorter one. If your colleagues, or children, are having problems getting from point A to point B, showing them how far they’ve come already can help them feel better about the ultimate goal.

Training is a process that requires measured steps. Rushing will not yield the results you seek. Shoot for small wins, and enjoy the journey.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Value of Preparation, Second Iteration

This post delves more pointedly into other aspects of preparation when living with a dog than my previous post. It is not a prerequisite to this one, but a companion piece.

When I was 15 years old, my best friend’s father taught us how to change a car tire. He wouldn’t allow my friend to get her learner’s permit until she had mastered that skill, even in the rain. On a warm summer afternoon, after both of us did it individually on his 1981 Corolla, he told us he was taking us to Sizzler for a steak dinner in a little bit, but first we were to put on our bathing suits and meet him back at the car. Then he turned the hose on, held it over our heads, and we had to change a different tire—from the beginning.

He wasn’t holding me against my will. It wasn’t torture. I could have left and walked home at any time, but he asked me the same question he asked her: “Do you expect that you will ever drive by yourself in your lifetime? And do you ever think you will drive in the rain?” I probably shrugged and nodded. He handed me the tire iron and smiled. “Wouldn’t you prefer to practice?”

I suppose I should have been thankful that the car was parked in a driveway, on level ground, and not on a busy highway. At the time, though, I probably rolled my eyes. The prospect of a steak dinner and not wanting to abandon my best friend kept me there, and of course I have used that skill several times, even in the rain, in the ensuing decades.

I am reminded of this frequently in my work with dogs and people. People tend to do the least amount of work needed, as a general rule, in any given situation. We like shortcuts, and we tend to avoid performing tasks that have no real or perceived advantage to us—short- or long-term. This conserves energy and often resources, and frees us up to participate in more things that we enjoy, so it’s not necessarily a negative. But when it comes to certain jobs, such as training one’s dog, there are no shortcuts. You will spend more time looking for them than the work would have actually taken. Not only that, but the work itself has great merit, both for the human and the dog.

“If you take the time it takes, it takes less time.” ~Pat Parelli

One of the problems I often hear about are situations that could have been prepared for, should have been prepared for, but weren’t. In the owner’s eyes, their dog didn’t need that skill or that confinement or that preparation, because their immediate situation didn’t warrant it.

Crate training is one of the most common areas of this. I meet someone with a puppy or dog who is not using a crate (there are several reasons people may have for this, but I want to focus on just the one right now). They are not using it because their dog “doesn’t need it.” He is not destructive. He is fully housebroken. He just hangs out while they are gone, and someone’s usually home, anyway. Ergo, they think he doesn’t need to learn how to tolerate confinement, because they cannot envision a situation where it would be needed.  But this is a common misconception, and it can make life quite frustrating for the dog and his humans later in life:

My dog Yukon Cornelius injured his leg and
needed crate rest for several weeks. 
  • They take a road trip—a long one—and the dog is nauseated, or otherwise stressed, the entire time
  • They stay in a hotel, and cannot leave the dog in the room because he barks at every sound, or suddenly learns how fun chewing pillows can be. The hotel stay triples in price.
  • They arrive at their destination, a friend’s house, and assume the dog will be fine to just roam the house like he does at home—but the dog, in a new environment, becomes destructive (or forgets his housetraining). 
  • They leave the dog at home and hire a petsitter. When she arrives, the dog is hiding and will not let her put a leash on him to take him for a walk
  • They must move to an apartment and the dog will not allow the maintenance people to enter. He bites one of them and his owners are threatened with eviction. They then start using a crate, but since he is unfamiliar with it, he cries all day and wakes the neighbors, who complain to management.
  • The dog ruptures his ACL, or suffers any malady that calls for him to be kept very quiet and still for days or weeks. Imagine trying to keep an active dog calm in a crate for that long when he has never been required to be crated at all.
  • There is an evacuation order due to an upcoming weather event, and they must leave their home and find shelter. The dogs are allowed, but only if they are crated (if you live near the ocean, this will probably happen to you at some point).

Crate training is valuable for many reasons, but one of the most valuable is that it helps prepare the dog for confinement both now and later. It can, done properly, have a great calming effect on the dog whenever he is placed in an unfamiliar situation, where misbehaviors are most common due to the stress of change. If you don’t prepare your dog for dealing with stress when you have the time to do so, you may not have the time later—and the older he gets, the longer it will take. A dog who is taught how to deal with frustration and confinement is a dog who is always easier to live with. Why wait?

Having a dog who walks nicely on leash is another task people with yards often neglect. Since they have a yard, they never teach the dog how to walk nicely, because they don’t see the need for it. But walks are beneficial for most dogs, even those with yards. And no one wants to walk a dog who drags them down the street, or lunges at people, or gets underfoot, or sits down and refuses to walk. Why not fix this common problem when the dog is young, or right when you acquire him? It is a win-win for both the dog and the human. Even if you have a yard, you will need to take your dog to the vet, at the very least. And since walks are a big part of mental stimulation and socialization for your dog, by not walking him, you are denying him something he needs to thrive.

I had an email a few days ago from a man who got two dogs fairly young, and never leash-trained them. Now they are 4 and 5, and pull terribly. This wasn’t a problem when he had a yard, but guess what? He had to move to an apartment, and now they must be walked multiple times a day on leash. He cannot control them together, so he spends twice as long on walks as he needs to, and is now suddenly quite motivated to get them trained. I told him I can absolutely help him fix that, but done correctly, it won’t be a “snap your fingers” fix. It will take some time and patience to do it right so that it sticks, because pulling on leash is rewarding to dogs until they learn otherwise.

How about some other examples?

Teaching the young pup or dog that absences are a part of life will help to inoculate him against future separation distress. This means, in part, using confinement and “forcing” some independence when you are home. It also means you need to stop fondling your dog so much.

Teaching the young dog to allow himself to be physically handled by humans is a huge benefit when he goes to the vet or groomer. Lots of owners hate vet visits as much as the dogs do because they have very little control over their pets and it’s embarrassing or frustrating to go to the vet. But if the dog tolerates being handled for exams, having its teeth looked at, having its nails trimmed, being brushed, and being picked up or carried (for smaller dogs) by others, the visits to the vet or groomer’s become much less stressful. Having a dog that has no problem being pilled or medicated ensures that treatment will go more smoothly, and may be cheaper. The dog that tolerates grooming will save you money, and will be healthier and happier because he won’t be matted or suffering from too-long toenails (which can hamper movement and cause gait problems).

It is unlikely that you will live in the same place, in the same house, forever. It is likely that you will change jobs, change partners, or add children to your life at some point. Your schedule may change. You may fall ill and experience having to cohabitate with family or friends because of financial difficulties. Your home could be made uninhabitable due to a natural disaster and you may need to seek temporary shelter. Life happens to all of us, and the more resilient our dogs are, the more likely they can stay with us and help us through the tough times—as best friends do.

You do your beloved dog zero favors when you don’t prepare for the potential future. In the same way you’d gas up your car before a road trip, you can “gas up” your dog to help him adjust to the bumps and falls in life. Make hay while the sun shines. Better to have the knowledge and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Value of Preparation

When we decide to acquire a dog, we know that we will need to have certain tools and supplies in place before the dog arrives. Those who have owned dogs previously wouldn’t even think of bringing a puppy or dog home without the essentials of crate, gates, a knowledge of where the pup will be confined, and a plan for housebreaking and obedience training. Even newbie dog owners know that bowls, food, bed, collar and leash are going to be needed. We may elect to procure these items at the same time as we get the dog, if not before, but we certainly don’t (or shouldn’t) think we can bring a dog or puppy home and go for days or weeks without the proper equipment.

Preparation saves a lot of headaches later on. It tends to make things like having a picnic, buying a car, going on a vacation, and bringing home a new baby much easier, doesn’t it?
Well, the same is true for dogs, but not just for the first night home.

Preparation regarding training is also quite helpful.

I’m not talking about knowing the best method for training, per se. There are many paths to a well-trained dog, including hiring a professional, or reading books and articles and watching videos in a “DIY” manner. Some people try it on their own first, then hire a pro. Most dog owners do not hire professional trainers, though. They either make it work with DIY, or they just live with the dog’s behavior. Or, they get rid of the dog.

What method you use isn’t really the point here. It can matter, for sure, but you probably already knew that.

What I’m talking about is preparing the dog for his life ahead, or the training itself as a preparation.

Pretrain your dog to lie in her bed while you answer
 the door, instead of mauling your visitors.
If your dog jumps up on people when they enter your house, waiting until people come over and yelling “DOWN!” at the dog (or yanking him down, or something worse) when he jumps is not training.

If your dog chases the cat, waiting for him to start chasing and then yelling at him or throwing things at him is not going to fix that problem.

If he jumps up on counters, pulls on the leash incessantly, barks obnoxiously at passerby, chews your belongings, or tries to bite you when you walk past him while he is eating, your responses during those situations do not constitute meaningful training.

Oh, learning is occurring, but it isn’t the type of learning that is going to help you.

So, you say, “When IS the time for meaningful training to begin for the dog who jumps on guests, chases the cat, jumps up on counters, pulls on the leash incessantly, barks obnoxiously at passerby, chews my belongings, or tries to bite me when you walk past him while he is eating?”

The answer, of course, is “before he started to exhibit those behaviors.”

And you are saying, “But I didn’t know I needed help with those things until he started doing them!”

That’s where you should have prepared a bit better.

See, you don’t try to train a dog not to do something when he is in the middle of doing it. And you don’t try to train him to do something when he is in the middle of doing something else. You train him to do the behaviors you want before you need him to do those behaviors, so that when the time comes and the need arises, he already knows what you require and either 1.Waits for you to remind him what to do, and then remembers and does it, or 2. Does it automatically.

(2. comes after a certain amount of teaching. 1. constitutes a trained dog, but 2. is even better.)

Dogs jump, pull on leash, eat what smells good, chase moving objects, make noise, and chew things naturally. These are default behaviors to most dogs, and one can pretty well assume most dogs will do them if not taught not to. In fact, you should absolutely assume they will.

Pretrain your dog to sit quietly when
you want to stop and chat with a neighbor.
So, you pretrain the dog to sit for greetings, keep four feet on the floor in the kitchen, walk nicely next to you on leash, chew their own toys and bones exclusively, refrain from chasing the cat, and allow you to control their resources without complaining. You train in advance of these things so that the dog can fully concentrate on what needs to be done when the behavior is needed. You pretrain because while he is learning the new behaviors, you need to be able to control the dog’s attention and give him lots of small successes, and this is unlikely to be successful when things are already hectic.

In short, you don’t train when you need the behavior—you train before you need it. That way, it’s already instilled in the dog, and all he needs to do when told to sit, or stop, or get off, or move away, or be quiet is remember what he already knows.

Because if you haven't taught him these things, he doesn't know them.

Think of it like taking a test. You don’t try to take a test without having studied. You learn when the test will happen, and you prepare for it by learning the material. Then, on test day, you walk in, sit down, and wrack your brain to remember what you just stuffed into it. There is no learning happening at that moment—it’s all recall.

Good dog training imparts the lessons before they are needed, so that when they are needed, all the dog need do is remember.

Prepare your dog to exhibit good behaviors in stressful or hectic situations by pretraining him. It’s much more kind and effective, and a lot less frustrating, than reacting in the moment.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

It Works When You Work It

Do you ever wonder why your dog trainer tells you to do certain things?

When we tell you to crate train your dog, to practice leash work, to teach your dog how to be physically handled, to socialize your dog properly, to leave him alone sometimes, to forge a good relationship with a vet you can trust, and to obedience train to a “holy-cow-the-leash-just-broke” standard, why do we bother?

Are we motivated by money to tell you these things?

Believe it or not, we actually make more money off untrained dogs. Trainers who do board-and-train programs can charge more for dogs who have never been crate trained or socialized. Trainers who give private lessons can make more money off of dogs who don’t have any type of head start because it will take more lessons to get them to a trained state. Trainers who work with aggressive dogs can definitely charge more for their services because they are taking on higher risk (vets can charge more for aggressive dogs for this reason, too).

In short, untrained dogs will cost you more to own, and your trainer could benefit financially from your unpreparedness. (So can your vet, your insurance company, and your landlord, but that’s another post.)

But putting some simple rules in place when you first acquire your dog can save you money and time and frustration later. So why would a dog trainer tout these things if they might “cheat” us out of cash? If the trainer has no connection to your vet, why would we care if you have a good relationship with one?

Most of us have sources we like to share, such as books or articles or videos about dog training, which we will happily point you towards. Why would trainers recommend books and videos that can teach you how to train your dog yourself? Some of us spend hours (typically without pay) on emails or phone calls with our clients to keep them going, to keep them practicing. But we make more money when you don’t practice, actually.

Maybe it’s not about the money? Well, we need to pay our bills, too. We’ve spent years and our own cash, often earned at mindless jobs to get us through, learning how to be best at our craft, and we deserve remuneration for that. You are paying for expertise and we are no different from other service providers in that regard.

But that’s not the sole reason, or even necessarily a reason that is more important than others.

If it’s not about money, is it about exerting authority, or making you feel dumb? No. We don’t get into dog training because we hate people, or want to feel superior. We don’t study long hours, get our hands on thousands of dogs (sometimes at risk to our body parts and often at risk to our emotions), and attend seminars all across the country because we want to lord something over you. We really don’t have much control over you, anyway. You are free do as you please when it comes to your dog; we just hope you take the advice you are paying us for. (Good trainers know that the dog doesn’t have any money to pay us, but his owners might.) Many of us like people just fine, believe it or not. And the ones who don’t care for people much (but are often excellent at their craft) get good at hiding it. Treat your dog well and commit to the training, and even those trainers will sing your praises.

If it’s not money, or making people feel dumb, then what? You are probably saying, “Well, it’s a love of dogs.”

Sure, 99% of trainers love dogs. It’s pretty much a given. But loving dogs doesn’t a career make. Anyone can love dogs, and millions of people do. It’s not difficult, for goodness’ sake. Dogs are ridiculously easy to love, even when they are misbehaving. People put up with a lot of crap from their dogs in spite of misbehavior because they love them. Loving dogs is as easy as falling off a log.

So, it’s not about money, really, and it’s not because we want to feel superior, or that we “just love dogs.”

Your trainer suggests crate training, physical handling practice, leash training (and other obedience) practice, socialization, passive bonding, and having a good veterinary partnership because we want what is best for dogs.

The fact that crate training, physical handling practice, leash training (and other obedience) practice, socialization, passive bonding, and having a good veterinary partnership saves you time and money and frustration isn’t what drives us. It’s a lovely benefit, and that’s always a positive.

But we suggest these things because dogs need them. We recommend them because dogs thrive with them. We beg, plead, cajole and encourage you to provide these things because they are important to the well-being of the dogs. We want you to meet your dog’s needs, because when you do, everyone wins.

Your dog wins because he is safer, less stressed, more comfortable, and calmer. He knows what is expected. Therefore, he gets more freedom, more walks, more things he enjoys. He lives longer, and in better health. He gets to go places with you, explore, and be a dog. He thrives.

You win because when your dog’s needs are met, and he is safer, less stressed, more comfortable, and calmer, you get to enjoy him more instead of being frustrated. He lives longer, and in better health. He gets to go places with you, explore, and be a dog. He thrives. Is that not what you wanted in the first place?

And when your dog wins and you win, we win. The fewer dogs who live lives of frustration, pain, and suffering because their needs aren’t being met, the happier we are, and the more we feel as if what we do matters. The better dogs are cared for, and the more their needs are met, the fewer end up deprived, or homeless. This is what drives most of us. More than anything, we want what’s best for the dogs, and by extension, their people will benefit.

There are no magic wands in dog training. It's work, but it's gratifying work because it forges a communion that cannot exist without it. You may love your dog, and he may love you, but without clear expectations and practice, you will never have true, honest relationship.

Help us help you, and your dog. He’s so worth it.