“I Tried Clicker Training and It Didn’t Work”

Those words have been ringing in my ear for the past week. In the same day two friends of mine reached out to me asking for help with their dogs, and both of them told me that they had tried clicker training and it didn’t work.

In a day and age where my colleagues and I are working like crazy to promote dog-friendly training methods, this phrase is hard to swallow. I have seen with my own eyes that marker (clicker) training can work on any animal – from sting rays to elephants to hermit crabs – so for someone to tell me it “didn’t work” on their dog, I am a little skeptical.

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The first and most important question I raise when someone tells me a certain training method didn’t work is: did you work with a professional? I’m not talking about someone who calls themselves a dog trainer because they have x amount of years experience “training” dogs. I’m talking about a person who is certified by a reputable organization and who has had their training skills tested and evaluated to make sure they know what they are talking about. While the basic concept of marker training is easy – mark and reward the behavior you like – the execution can be tricky if you’ve never practiced. Furthermore, timing and mechanics are essential in communicating to your dog what you want them to know. This is why working with a professional is so important; so they can tell you how to improve your communication skills.

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I remember a similar realization from when I rode horses growing up. I would have my weekly lessons, and then in between each lesson I’d ride on my own and practice what I’d learned. At the next lesson my instructor would fix everything I’d been doing incorrectly while I practiced on my own. Usually it was something I didn’t realize I was doing, wouldn’t notice without being able to watch myself ride or didn’t know I should be doing differently. That is what I hired my instructor for, after all! I could read books about the correct dressage seat until I was blue in the face, but nothing could replace what I would learn from working with a professional.

Training your dog is no different than any other skill you are trying to learn. Sure, you can read about it on the internet or in books or watch it on tv (cringe), but without consulting someone with an education and credentials on the subject, it is likely that you won’t get the results you are looking for. I absolutely love that people want to work with their dogs and take a stab at it on their own – I just hope they ask for help before writing off reward-based training.  So many people are blown away by what can happen when we finally find what motivates their dog, they just need a little guidance – and that’s what good dog trainers love to help with!

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To find a certified trainer in your area, check out the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.

Staycation With Paco

My work with Paco might have ended a few weeks ago, but I have been lucky enough to have him back in my life recently. I am dog sitting him while his family is on spring break! Ten whole days of just me and Paco time – I am in heaven! I am grateful that he is super easy to take care of: he is okay home alone and with just about thirty minutes of exercise a day, he loves to lounge around and sleep. It’s been so fun acting like he is “my dog” the past six days. It seems to be good timing that last week I wrote about fostering Lady Bug without worrying about the actual care, and this week I am here caring for Paco without him being a foster. Here are some photos from the time we’ve spent together so far:

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I sure do love having a pup to adventure with again… though I definitely won’t complain when my life goes back to not being planned in eight hour intervals!

Vicarious Fostering With Lady Bug

Back in January I wrote all about Rudy, my friend Eran’s foster dog. Eran even wrote a guest post on what it was like to foster for the first time. Since those posts, Rudy has been adopted and Eran and his roommates have brought another foster dog home. Her name is Lady Bug and she has proven to be quite the awesome little (not actually little) dog.

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Eran fostering Lady Bug has been the closest I’ve come to the fostering experience since I handed Johnnie’s leash over thirteen months ago. Eran pulled me into the process as he and his roommates began to look for a new dog, so I have been working with them from the beginning. Knowing what his house’s needs and wants for fostering were, I hooked them up with Jasmine’s House. Jasmine’s House would allow them to pull a dog from a shelter and bring that dog into the rescue program.  Eran and I went to the Washington Humane Society to look at possible foster dogs – an opportunity I hadn’t really ever been a part of because my foster dogs always had a way of finding me versus me picking them. It was overwhelming to have rows of faces as options, each one wagging and saying, “pick me!” Eran and I would go over each dog and talk about their personality, the pros and cons, the potential that they would fit in with a busy house of six young guys, etc.  It was daunting. How could we predict the way these animals would act in a home environment? I, having worked with shelter and foster dogs for years now, know what could go wrong, and while I tried not to be too pessimistic, I felt like I needed to bring up the “what ifs.” The WHS staff and volunteers were wonderful in helping us sort through the options.

After lots of back and forth about what dog to bring home, Eran and his roommates ended up deciding on a three year old black pittie named Lady Bug. She was actually at a different shelter location than the one I went to so I never even met her, but he and I had had so many discussions about what to look for in a potential foster dog I was sure they made a good decision. It was their dog, not mine, after all! Eran reported that she was very outgoing and friendly, she wasn’t mouthy or too jumpy and that she had a BFF that she played with at the shelter named Oink. That’s about the best we can ask for, right? They were totally in love with her soft fur, stocky body and wonky eyes. I have to admit she is pretty endearing.

First picture at home!

First picture at home!

Just like when I brought Zabora, Baxter, Otis and Johnnie home, I held my breath with Eran the first few days and nights after they brought Bug home. What would she be like once she got into a home? What part of her behavior was her true personality and what was still hidden from the stress of the move? What challenges would arise as she settled in and decompressed? She’d been at the shelter since December, so it was anyone’s best guess how the stay affected her.

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As expected, it felt like something changed every day that passed with her. The first weekend she was had some episodes of fear-based reactivity. We immediately started counter conditioning. Luckily Eran and his roommates are fabulous at taking advice and they care deeply about Bug’s well being, so improvements happened quickly. Then Lady Bug started having episodes of hyperactivity where she would become barky and mouthy. We brainstormed endless ways to manage her and be proactive about curbing the episodes. Lady Bug got food puzzles and Kongs and long walks. When that didn’t really help, we decided to take her to the vet. After putting her on a careful chicken and rice only diet, her inappropriate behavior has practically disappeared. Maybe it was a food allergy or maybe she just settled down, but either way she has become quite lovely – and her skin and coat have improved tremendously! Amid all of these changes, she also started to dislike her crate. Like many foster dogs, the challenges felt like they might never end. We had to keep in mind that this transition is difficult and stressful for her, and that we needed to be understanding of her needs.  Talk about a refresher on being patient!

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I am happy to report that after being in their home for about five weeks, Bug seems have worked through most of her issues, and she is turning into one of the friendliest, snuggliest, happy-go-lucky dogs I’ve ever met. It has been so rewarding to watch her settle in and become more comfortable with her surroundings. Now she seems happy to just snooze the day away with her (six!) boys. She has learned sit, down, touch and mat through clicker training. Her fosters are so awesome and have taught her that she can feel safe where she is. No matter if they are hanging out around the house, having strangers visit, doing training, etc. – Bug knows that her boys won’t hurt or scare her, and they will keep her safe. There is so much trust among them, and I’m very proud of all the roommates for facilitating that!

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I didn’t realize how much I missed fostering until I became so attached to Bug throughout this whole process. It reminded me how invested you become when you worry so much about another creature, and they are not even yours!  I’ve enjoyed working with Bug’s fosters along the way and getting to use my new knowledge to help them help her. Though I’m not sure I’m looking forward to the familiar heartache of letting her go once she finally gets scooped up!

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Girl’s Day Out

The temperature is slowly creeping up above freezing. The first day of Spring has officially come and gone. Teensy flowers are beginning to poke out from the thawing ground. The sunshine is lasting longer and longer. You can feel it… spring is in the air.

I’ll hike any time of year, but warmer weather makes enjoying time in the outdoors that much more appealing. I took full advantage of the slightly more bearable temps this past weekend by taking two of the my favorite pups on a hike at a local park called Scott’s Run. One of the girls, Lena, is a client’s dog. Her family was having a party so I offered to take her off their hands for the afternoon (twist my arm!). The other dog is Lady Bug, my friend Eran’s newest foster dog! Lena is on the left and Lady Bug is on the right.

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Are they not the prettiest pair? I’ve got so much to tell you guys about Lady Bug, but that’s going to be for another post. For now, enjoy some photos of these two on our adventure! Coincidentally, Lena was adopted from the Washington Humane Society (WHS) last spring and Lady Bug was just sprung from WHS last month!

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A great time was had by all, as you can see with Lena on the drive home:

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Who else is ready for the nicer weather with their pets!?

One Step Closer to the Stars

I wasn’t sure what to write about for today’s blog post. I’ve got so many dog-related topics at the forefront of my brain, each one seemingly just as important to write about as the next.  Even though I just about had my mind made up for what today’s post was going to be, I changed my mind last minute to take advantage of the raw emotion I’m feeling right now, and to give you guys a[nother] blog post from the heart.

This afternoon I opened up an email saying that I passed my certification exam for the Karen Pryor Academy (KPA).  Over the weekend, Paco and I were tested on everything we have worked on for the past seven months. I know in the grand scheme of learning about dogs and dog training and dog behavior, seven months is only a blip of time – but the past seven months have been what feels like nothing but intense training and hours of studying. I’ve learned so much about dogs, but also about myself.

I know graduation from KPA did not make me a dog trainer overnight. Dog behavior is complex and takes years of experience, in my opinion, before you can truly get a grasp on what is going on in the brains of our four-legged companions.  But KPA gave me skills and much of the knowledge needed to tackle every day behavioral issues in a way that works with how dogs learn and, better yet, how we can build trust in the human-canine bond.  It fueled the already strong passion I have to go out and show the world that you can train dogs without using an ounce of fear, pain, dominance, force, strength, whatever; and that a relationship built in positive reinforcement and mutual respect is really beautiful.

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I can’t imagine bringing any dog through the course other than Paco.  That pup has such a love for life and any progress I made as a trainer would show through tenfold in his abilities because it meant we were communicating that much better. He was such a star! On the last day of workshops we were goofing off together and I taught him how to bow and then how to target a yogurt lid on the wall from a distance – both using maybe five minutes of shaping. I would squeal because he’d get it right and he’d get all excited and wiggly and I would start laughing at him and soon we’d cause a whole scene of happiness and I’d stop for a second and almost start to cry because once upon a time this was a dog who didn’t even really want to make eye contact with me, let alone work with me. Clicker training goes a long way, folks – even for pit bulls and other “strong” breeds (whatever the heck that means). Towards the end of our time working together all I needed to do was tap into Paco’s love for playing tug and he would perform behavior chains for me for however long I wanted. His tail would wag and his whole butt would shake and he’d keep coming back for more, waiting for his next cue. He loved working. He loved it. I also forget until looking at two photos like this that he has literally grown up with me. From a gangly young puppy to a handsome adult, Paco took every step of this journey right along beside me.

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Graduating from KPA was a huge accomplishment for me. It means I’ve got some fancy letters at the end of my name now: KPA CTP, which stand for Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner. Because dog training is a completely unrelated industry, no two certification programs are the same (unfortunately – hopefully one day that will change). Your average dog owner might not know what exactly KPA CTP means, but if they looked up the school they’d see that KPA’s program is built around the science of learning and force-free training principles, and that they believe strongly in continuing education – a standard that is important in dog training. Moving forward, I will work towards my Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) certification; one that is a bit more broad, but doesn’t necessarily have the same education behind it. The whole industry is very complicated!

This was a huge stepping stone for my ultimate career goals (too many to write) and overall life goals (helping more dogs). While I’m relieved it’s over, I know it also means many more opportunities – and much more work – from here on out, and I can’t wait!

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Guest Post: Campbell’s Fostermom Gets Her Wings

This post was originally published by Kate, co-founder of Jasmine’s House Inc., on the 367survivors.org website. It is a wonderful write up of how our team has come together to help Campbell (the #367 dog you first read about two weeks ago), and how the foundation of that team effort comes from Campbell’s unbelievable Fostermom.  It’s been an intense and difficult journey, but Campbell is in the best place he can be. Read more from Kate:

I have put a lot of challenging dogs in foster care and championed their success – successfully.  I have also fostered a good amount of challenging dogs myself.  But when my darling (and I mean that) friend Heather at Handsome Dan’s said, “this is different; this population of dogs is different,” while I said I believed her – I’m not really sure that I did.

I know Jasmine’s story well, and I know what Catalina went through with her to get her to a place of peace. I know Dan’s story, and Cherry’s to some extent. I know Halle’s story and little bits about Oscar and Little Red, too (note: for those of you who don’t know, these are all dogs from the Michael Vick case in 2007). And I know a number of “non-famous” dogs who came off chains and struggled just the same. But I only know what chained dogs go through when they finally go home based on second hand accounts. I really only “know” what chained dogs go through from the vantage point of someone who has met them after they’ve settled and healed to the extent possible. What I’ve learned, of late, is this: To know their true process for recovery, the ones that struggle the most, is to know them very differently.

The people – the humans with wings (I think, literally) who are willing to share their homes and lives with these survivors while they heal – they are truly my personal heroes. Campbell’s Fostermom is at the top of the list.

Since the incident two weeks ago when the neighbors unexpectedly beat a piñata right on the other side of the fence while he was outside, Cam has had a slow road uphill. He was really leery of outside before the incident – afterwards, forget it. The following days were full of stress colitis (bloody diarrhea), utter refusal to go outside (lots of patient, patient floor cleaning), refusal to eat, and generally panicked behavior. Fostermom and his training team, Amy and Juliana, had been making amazing progress with his stress-mouthing, but it reared its head again in full force after that incident – to the point that Fostermom would have to go in the other room at times and just let him be until he calmed down enough that she could interact again without him completely losing his mind.

He stopped eating and drinking for days. We considered fluids a few times but weighed the stress of administering them against the urgency – fortunately he managed to get enough chicken broth in that he stayed out of real danger. He also lost interest in training and toys because he was so stressed – both things that help to appropriately direct his energy and build his confidence. He was really in distress.

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At one point, he became so disconnected that Fostermom was feeling incredibly sad and scared for his wellbeing. Amy and Juliana made it a goal for Fostermom to focus on his wins to keep above water. When they were there Cam-sitting last week they snapped this photo of his progress board because it’s just so freaking awesome. Maybe it gives some perspective? Things like “drank chicken broth”  and “walked out of crate for chicken” can be so monumental for this dog that they are the progress-board-worthy high points. Put that into perspective for a minute.

One of the things that helped him through his low was his series of play dates/training sessions with Meghan and her magical dog, Kyra. It took a few days, but Kyra managed to pull Cam back out of the lurch just enough that Fostermom was able to connect with him again and start making new progress. He’s since had play dates with Amy’s dog Meera, and has a walking date with JH Foster Lady Bug this weekend, too (this happened and went super well – more details on that later!). In moderation, Cam’s dog interaction really helps to build him up!

memeThe last few days have been the best, and every day this week there have been more positive updates than negative. He snuggled a bit yesterday and today! He met the cat through the crate and did really well! He’s eating and drinking chicken broth more regularly! He’s going outside more than he was before! He’s able to listen to soft music in the car again! He’s barely been mouthy in the last few days and his stomach has settled enough that it’s no longer bloody diarrhea! Just regular runs when he’s upset.

Everything about Campbell is finding the fine balance between too much and too little, and it’s a dance that Fostermom is learning to master more and more with each passing moment. His daily routine and all the tailored things that fill it are his lifeline. Those of us close to his journey live for his little progress updates throughout the day. He’s an amazing, resilient, brave little man.

And really, Super Cam, in case you missed the memo: Your Fostermom definitely has wings.

If you can donate to Cam’s medical and behavioral fund, here’s the link. Campbell say THANK YOU!

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When Expectations Hurt

I see it more than ever now that I am working with either clients or shelter dogs every day: we as humans often have unrealistic expectations for our dogs, and these standards can lead to a frustrating relationship for both parties.

We’ve all been there. “But I know she knows this cue.” “He shouldn’t be afraid of this, he should just get used to it!” “She should be able to do this by now.” “Why is he acting this way? He is fine at home.” “How come she doesn’t understand that what she did was wrong?” “I want her to change her behavior, but I want the solution to be easy!” “He should do it just because I told him to.”

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These high standards usually stem from the fact that dogs and humans are two entirely different species, and therefore have completely separate ways of communicating, playing, surviving, etc. What is acceptable and desired in the human world is usually quite foreign in the dog world. For example, being calm and quiet for, oh, 23 hours a day. Dogs are generally wired to be active, and yet we prefer them to sit on the couch, stay in their crate, sleep on their beds, whatever, when we are not exercising them. And vice versa. Dogs are supposed to bark and chew and pee wherever they want, and yet we ask them to curb most of those behaviors and to actually act very non-dog like inside our homes. Until an understanding is met between human and dog, the two worlds can collide in a chaotic, frustrating and sometimes dangerous way.

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That is where understanding of dog behavior comes in. Certified trainers and behaviorists (and a lot of really awesome book authors, seminar-givers and youtube channel makers) are there to unite human and dog – to show the two that they can in fact live harmoniously, once a form of communication is established. What I find most frustrating – and, to be quite honest, heart breaking – is when I watch dog owners toss aside the needs of their dog. Explaining to them that their dog is barking out of fear or destroying their furniture because they are bored out of their minds, and then hearing their owners still demand a “simple fix,” is always hard to swallow. In an era when the solutions are often found at the end of our fingers with our smart phones, folks have a tough time realizing that behavior does not change over night.

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I’m not saying we should be making excuses for our dogs. I hold Paco to very high standards with his behavior – but they are also reasonable. I am not going to expect Paco, an 11-month old puppy, to be able to sit still at my house for three hours. That’s just not fair to him. I’m going to be sensitive to his needs and adjust accordingly.

One of my favorite takeaways from our #367 experience was a phrase we heard often during the week when working with the dogs: meet them where they are. This strongly applies to the victims of trauma we met at that temporary shelter, but is also applies to every dog waiting for a home, transitioning to a new home, or currently living in a home. See the dog you are working with in front of you – make note of their strengths, weaknesses, and needs – and interact with them accordingly. Expect of them accordingly. Set goals that reflect the progress they are capable of making. Celebrate the victories they make without dwelling on their failures or shortcomings. Realize that they are a dog, they do not speak English and they do not read minds. Be understanding. Be compassionate. Communicate to them what you want in a positive and clear way, and if they are not responding then work like heck to figure out how you can improve your message to them. I believe we owe it to our dogs to do so.

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