Breaking Tradition: Jackson the Gun Dog

After the last three years of working with dogs in various capacities – from fostering, to sheltering, to training – it sort of surprises me to say that training with my clients have been some of my most rewarding experiences. There is no better feeling than watching an owner’s relationship with their dog improve once they learn how to communicate with them in a positive way. I’ve recently had an exceptionally rewarding ongoing journey with a dog named Jackson.

Jackson6

Jackson the GSP. His smile matches his energy and enthusiasm for life.

A while back, a friend from college mentioned to me that he was getting a German Shorthaired Pointer puppy to hunt with. I wished him luck (because really, a working puppy? No thanks!) and forgot all about it. Once my friend Bryan brought Jackson home, I got a text message here and there asking for basic advice, but not much more than that. Finally when Jackson was about seven months old, Bryan asked if I’d stop by to help with some training.

Jackson5

Bryan and Jackson.

Now I don’t know much about hunting dogs, but I do know they’re trained with aversives. This means the trainers use positive punishment (add something unpleasant to decrease a behavior) and negative reinforcement (remove something unpleasant to increase a behavior). I explained to Bryan that I use entirely force-free methods, and in fact use a lot of treats when I train, and that a lot of that probably wouldn’t fit with what he’d be learning out “in the field” as they call it in the hunting world. To my surprise, Bryan was still open to it. He did tell me though that he didn’t want to use a clicker because he didn’t want to have to carry it with him forever.  I explained that’s actually not how it works but we’d talk more when I stopped by.

The first few times I visited Jackson and Bryan were great. It’s quite evident how brilliant Jackson is, as he mastered sit, down, touch, “go to mat” and a decent recall almost immediately. Bryan and I had a lot of great discussions about training: why we use a marker signal, how to motivate Jackson in a way that will keep up with his natural instincts, why punishment isn’t the way to go for the type of relationship Bryan wants with his dog, why a high rate of reinforcement is important to keep Jackson engaged, how to break down behaviors so that Jackson fully understands them and more. I showed up the second week to Bryan using the clicker. I was thrilled, Bryan seemed pretty happy, and Jackson was enjoying training.

Jackson1

After three of four weeks of visits, it became clear that using entirely positive training at home but still doing “traditional training” in the field would be too confusing for Jackson.  An example of one training exercise gun dogs trainers use is a “force fetch.” This means applying a painful stimulus to the dog – for example, pinching their ear or pressing a dowel between the dog’s toes and using a cord to compress them – and then releasing that stimulus when the dog puts the object in its mouth. The dog learns that it can cause the pain to end by picking up the object. Another common practice for gun dogs are electronic shock collars. A shock is administered to the dog to get a change in behavior and the shock stops when the desired behavior is completed or the undesired behavior ends.  The training we do with Jackson at home using rewards encourages him to be an engaged, participatory learner. We often want him to offer behaviors in an effort to find what gets him a reinforcer (this is called shaping and capturing). Our training teaches Jackson that good things can happen at any time, and that he can trust us to never use pain or fear if he messes up. Aversives teach the opposite. “Don’t mess up, or else.” Aversives are proven to slow learning because the dog is worried to try something new for fear of being punished. Ultimately this means that the trust we build with Jackson at home would be completely broken when he goes out to hunt, hindering his progress across the board.

Jackson8 Jackson7

Upon realizing it couldn’t be done both ways, we started brainstorming on how to teach hunting skills using force-free methods. It uncovered an enormous learning curve for me because there are so many technical skills and technical names for those skills associated with a really great gun dog. Plus, these skills can’t be taught haphazardly – hunting dogs need to be fluent in all their cues under intense distraction and at a variety of different locations and distances. If you’re ever taught your dog literally anything, you know how difficult that can be. Luckily at the Karen Pryor Academy we mastered the skills behind teaching clean, reliable behaviors, so Bryan and I got right to work – he brought the hunting knowledge and I brought the training knowledge. I’ve also immersed myself in books (Positive Gun Dogs is my favorite at the moment), Facebook Pages and Yahoo listservs for positive gun dog training.

Jackson9

It has been hugely encouraging to see Jackson’s progress over the last six weeks, especially given that he spent seven months doing pretty much whatever he wanted. Bryan and Jackson are up against a lot in their sport, but Bryan has stepped up as Jackson’s advocate and overall the tides do seem to be chaining, albeit slowly. Bryan said last time he showed up to hunting training with his clicker some of the other guys said they knew people who trained their dogs that way.  It might be a while before traditional training is eliminated from dog sports all together, but I am hopeful that Jackson will soon be a shining example of what a gun dog can be when trained positively.  Regardless, he will have helped me gain another skill set as a trainer that I can use in my career, enabling me to help more dog and owner teams in a new way.

Growing Up

It’s been a busy summer around here, especially with my two best friends from high school. You’ve met one of them briefly on here when I wrote about her gorgeous dog Kenji. Well, she’s getting married! We got to spend some quality time with Kenji yesterday after wedding dress shopping with his mama. It’s been so great to watch him grow up into a lovely gentlemen.

Sleepy

More exciting news – my other best friend just adopted her foster dog from BARCS, Baltimore’s animal shelter! Ilana has never had a dog before and this new addition to her family has got me doing all sorts of happy dances. Dominic is the perfect dog for her, and I am so proud of her for adopting a pup in need of a home. She will be here with a guest post soon about what it is like to have a dog for the first time ever. Stay tuned!

02

So we’re busy busy, and so grateful for this time spent with close friends – especially since catching up is usually extra dog related these days!

Are you all doing anything special this summer?

Paco Update

Thank you for your well wishes for Paco last week. I am happy to report that he is feeling much better! When I dropped him off with his family he was still limping, but he was definitely back to his old self, wagging non stop! It became quite the challenge to keep him calm as prescribed, but it was much better than seeing him the way he was just a few days earlier. Here are some photos of our time together from before and after his injury – mostly recovering, with lots of snuggling, just like the doctor ordered.

photo 1photo 2photo 3photo 4photo 5photo 6photo 7photo 9photo 11photo 12photo 13It was so great to have another week with him, even though our partying walking was cut short. Hopefully he’ll be back sometime soon, injury free!

Falling in Love at the Emergency Vet

I told myself I would be better about posting every Wednesday like I promised. You probably (hopefully?) noticed there wasn’t a post yesterday morning. Well, here’s why.

I’m watching Paco again for a week while his family is on vacation, which I am absolutely thrilled about. Like I wrote about last time I got him for ten glorious days, he’s super easy and we have a great time together. Tuesday morning started out like every other day. I was going to attempt to bring Paco to work with me for the first time because my shelter’s kids camp had a “Meet My Pet” session that Paco and I signed up for (he loves kids, after all), so I got him up early to wear him out for the day. We were playing with the flirt pole. Paco loooves the flirt pole, and his manners when playing with it are impeccable – he always sits before chasing, he drops as soon as I ask and his arousal levels stay low. He just runs like a crazy dog and exercises himself quickly! I’m always careful to keep our flirt poles games horizontal (unlike how I used with JC last year, which I have since learned to be more responsible and safe with). Chase-catch, not jump-spin-catch, for the exact reason of what happened next.

photo 1

Paco was chasing and chasing and grabbing and shaking and having a grand old time. Like I mentioned, he was being polite and following all of our game rules. Then, all of a sudden, he was all four paws off the ground. My wrist must have flicked too much and the toy went flying a bit too high, and Paco followed. To say he crash landed would be putting it lightly. This poor pup splatted on the ground. I held my breath as he got up. Please don’t be hurt, please don’t be hurt. Sure enough, he was limping and visibly in pain.

I rushed him inside and quickly got ready for work. Working at an animal shelter meant I’d have more resources for me there than anywhere else, so I scooped him up and off we went. I had some coworkers check him out and he seemed to be improving throughout the day. We were able to squeeze in a quick vet exam and get pain meds, so I thought he’d be okay until the following morning at 7 am when we had x-rays scheduled.  The vet exam determined it was probably a shoulder injury, but we couldn’t know for sure what was wrong until further investigation.

After work I realized he wasn’t fine. His breathing was a bit labored and he started to not want to walk at all, even with the pain meds. He started whimpering when he moved too much. I panicked, cancelled my training client for that evening (who is actually a vet herself and was the most wonderfully supportive human I could have asked for in that moment), and rushed Paco to the emergency vet. Watching him be in pain like that was the absolute worse feeling in the whole world – I just wanted him to feel better!

photo 2

Arriving at the vet put him in better spirits. He loves people so, so much that greeting all the people in the lobby and the techs and doctors made his happy little tail go crazy. Just like with my foster dogs, it makes my heart swell when people compliment Paco. Whether they comment on his handsome good looks, his polite greetings or his general happy-go-lucky attitude, I cannot help but beam when people fuss over him (yes, I know he isn’t mine – but more on that later).  With another initial exam the doctor confirmed it was the shoulder, but radiographs were the only way to determine if there was something broken, so I handed him over to the techs.

So I’m going to take a minute here to ask how those of you who have gone through any sort of trauma with a pet (or human, for that matter) came out the other end in one piece. I was a mess! Luckily there weren’t any real tears, but I sure came close a few times. I was just so worried about my little guy. And yes, I know he isn’t actually my dog, but after all those hours we spent together for KPA and how many times he’s stayed with me I just feel so close to him. We’re buddies, ya know? I’m his safe place and he’s a pair of big brown eyes that will do anything for me. We’re a team. I don’t want anything bad to happen to him. I want to keep him safe, happy and healthy forever and ever.  What if it had been a worse situation!? I have a whole new perspective on pet owners who have to go through medical emergencies with their pets.

Two and a half hours after I handed him off, I finally got a groggy, wiggly Paco back. The radiographs showed no fractures – hooray! The verdict was just very sore, probably strained or a little torn soft tissue. Treatment? Lots of pain meds and two weeks rest. The rest part will be difficult for Mr. Bouncy, but thanks to the pain medication I have already seen an improvement in his spirits.

photo 4

It was a late night, but I was thrilled to have his sleepy head rest on me for the remainder of the evening. I set up a comfy bed on the floor next to me and he immediately curled up and went to sleep. Seeing him peacefully sleeping was such a relief just knowing he was more comfortable and that nothing serious was wrong.

photo 5

Throughout this whole ordeal I had some friends tell me I was being too worried and that he was just milking it and that he was being a big baby. Sure, a strained shoulder might not be too serious but my goodness there was nothing worse than seeing him in that pain! I would have done anything for him in those moments, even for a stubbed toe. Luckily I was able to get a hold of his family who are vacationing out of the country and they were 100% supportive of anything he needed and they thanked me for taking care of him (never mind the fact that I broke him in the first place, but hey).

Even though it was a stressful twelve hours and it puts a damper on our hiking/adventure plans for the rest of the week, this little ordeal made me fall even harder in love with my Paco Taco. I think I am going to be seriously bummed when my forever dog, whenever I end up getting him or her, is not exactly like him. He’s everything what I want in a dog, which is probably why the stars aligned to bring us together like they did – so I can have him in my life at a time when I cannot actually have a dog of my own. For that, I am so grateful! Love you Taco Man.

Vet1

Big shout out to my mama for being on call for hysterical-daughter duty, to my friends who gave in-person moral support or sent messages with well wishes and to Friendship Animal Hospital for treating him like one of your own!  I am one lucky stand-in dog mom.

Taking Action for Animals – What “Action” Means For Us

When I was invited to attend the Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) annual Taking Action for Animals (TAFA) conference here in DC this past weekend, I eagerly looked up what lectures were being offered.  One session called “Saving Pets” stood out to me (and luckily was on the only day I was able to attend). This workshop featured four speakers: one about increasing adoptions in shelters, one about decreasing the number of puppies from puppy mills sold in pet stores, one from HSUS’s Pets for Life program about helping under served pet owners, and one from Coalition to Unchain Dogs, a group that builds fences for dogs who previously lived on a chain.

tafa_2014_masthead-H

I was impressed with how much of this conference truly revolved around the word “action.” In the “Saving Pets” workshop we were not only told about current welfare issues, but we were also given ways we can take action ourselves. What can I, as your average animal lover, do to help those dogs being bred purely for money? What can I do to increase the quality of life for dogs who need to live outside? What can I do to help people who might not be able to provide for their pets? Of course we can write checks (which is also needed!), but TAFA gave us some tools to go a step further.

TAFA3

While the presentation about sheltering and puppy mills were full of great (and heartbreaking) information, it was the Pets for Life and Coalition to Unchain Dogs speakers that really stood out to me. Like I wrote about a few posts back, one issue in animal welfare that is currently at the forefront of my interests is helping under-resourced pet owners keep their pets instead of having them end up in shelters. Pets for Life and Coalition to Unchain Dogs both do just that. For more information about the two groups, I encourage you to follow the links to their websites in the previous sentence. I’d like to focus on some common themes behind the action that these groups are taking that translate to just about any work done when helping animals:

Leave your judgements at the door. I’m serious. All of them. Every single assumption you want to make about someone, all those stereotypes you believe in even if you swear up and down that you don’t – get rid of them. You will help more animals. I’m not saying it’s easy, in fact many times it can be quite the opposite – but when you go into a situation with your guard down and with no judgements, enormous changes can be made. That person might not take care of their pet the way that you do, but you sure as heck better realize that they love them just the same. Us having the mentality, “If they can’t afford to take it to the vet, they shouldn’t have it,” isn’t going to change anything about the situation at hand. So move on and start figuring out how you can help.

Relationship building is the most important task on your to-do list. Helping animals usually starts with helping their owners, and a lot of times the best way to get through to someone is to have a relationship with them. Relationships build trust and break down walls. Dolly’s Foundation is an amazing organization that offers owner support in Florida, and they report that it can sometimes take months before someone agrees to get their pet spayed. Dolly’s goes in judgement-free (ding ding ding!) and takes what little victories they can get, all the while building the relationship.

It is important to have the core belief that people love their pets. As Neya Warren of Coalition to Unchain Dogs said in her presentation, “A lack of resources does not equate to a lack of love.” Believing that people want the best for their pets – whether they can provide that or not – makes it that much easier to shed judgements and start helping.

01

Ask open-ended questions. This is a tool I recently learned that I now use in all aspects of my life, but especially when doing application reviews with potential adopters. If you ask someone a yes or no question, it almost immediately removes an opportunity for discussion. Plus, you sort of make it seem like there is a right or wrong answer. Open-ended questions are amazing at getting people to open up and feel comfortable – plus it makes for a much more productive, two-sided conversation. We’ve all been there where we feel like we’re talking at someone. Open-ended questions put it on the other person to do some talking which, when working to help them or their pets, can be very important!

Nothing beats face-to-face interactions. I suppose I already covered this in the previous points, but the folks who make a huge difference are the ones who have their feet on the ground and who are out there meeting with the people who need their help. Facebook, tabling events, flyers, etc. are great, but they’re not going to get the job done. Laurie Maxwell from Pets for Life made the point that we have to get rid of the, “If you build it, they will come,” mentality. Most of the time it is knocking on doors that is needed most. It’s volunteers in the neighborhoods. It’s that face-to-face conversation and relationship building. It’s meeting them where they are.

02

Those points are just a few snippets of the expertise from this workshop. I jotted down some phrases that came to mind as I listened to the presentations – concepts that came up over and over again – and the list included: feet on the ground, face-to-face, benefits everyone, non-judgmental, inspiring, conversation, dignity, listening, respect, open mind – and more. Do you see a common theme here? It’s time to start realizing that action for animals – especially those in shelters or who might end up in shelters – means action for people as well.

For more information about how you can help the people, and therefore the pets, in your community, check out HSUS’s Pets for Life program, including their extensive toolkit. I recommend you see if there are existing organizations in your community, like Ruff Riders in New York City, who are already working to keep pets with their families. If you prefer a different route for helping animals, I still encourage you to keep these “action” points in mind when you are working with pet owners, potential adopters, whoever. A little open mind goes a long way.

TAFA1

P.S. – Check out who made it into HSUS’s All Animals Magazine!

TAFA2

Where Has PLF Been!?

Honestly, that’s a really great question. We barely even know! Judging by how many of you nice people liked our Facebook status announcing this post, it seems like you’ve missed us? Have you noticed we’ve been gone?

I guess I sort of felt like I didn’t have enough topics of substance to write about that weren’t just me spewing my opinion at you. And for the instances I did decide I wanted to share my opinion, I wasn’t giving myself enough time to come up with a well constructed post.  My efforts felt incomplete, which I hate! I decided I’d rather give you guys well thought out, interesting posts instead of ones thrown together at the last minute (this is where I don’t tell you that it’s 10:13 pm on Tuesday night so clearly I still haven’t addressed that last point).

In addition to feeling torn about post topics, I have been extra busy – in the best kind of way! I’m falling so in love with life every day here in the city. I’m soaking up the sunshine and warm temps. I’m spending extra time with friends. I’m working late nights at the shelter. I’m filling my weekends up to the brim with new, fun activities. I’m bonding with shelter dogs. I traveled to Mexico for a girl’s weekend. I’m spending afternoons with Paco just because. I’m constantly looking around this beautiful city with stars in my eyes. I’m gaining hours and hours of training experience working with clients, celebrating behavior-related victories every time. I’m taking weekend trips to Deep Creek Lake with my best friends. I’m dogsitting Lady Bug (adopt her!) and enjoying tons of snuggles.  I’m journeying out to the barn to spend time in wide open spaces. I’m finding corners of crowded DC bars to watch the World Cup games in with fellow Americans. I’m stealing gorgeous neighborhood husky puppies and helping their owners get through terrible puppyhood.  I’m learning more about dog behavior every single day. I’m embracing chaotic, fulfilling happiness every single day.

Summer1Summer9Summer11

Summer6Summer7Summer13Summer4Summer12Summer5

Summer14

So, I apologize about being absent from this space. I think about PLF often, and it’s not something I’m ready to move away from yet. I’ll be here for years to come, it just might not be every single Wednesday forever and ever because I want to give you posts worth reading. I am still as thankful as ever to have this blog and to have your attention, especially as I commit my career to helping dogs more and more every day.  Thanks for being the best, ever. See you back here soon? :-)

Summer8

The Human-Canine Bond Comes in All Shapes and Sizes

If there is anything I’ve learned about dogs from both living in DC and being a dog trainer, it’s that the combos of dogs and humans that love each other unconditionally are never two in the same. Now that the weather is nice, the dogs are out in full force around the city. I see dozens of dogs every single day.

Many people who love animals have a preconceived idea of what a dog owner should look like. I love the variety of dog owners I see here in the city. I have a friend who runs the Facebook Page Dogs of New York, a page that celebrates New York’s dogs and the people who love them. It was inspired by the blog Humans of New York and I highly recommend you check it out. The photos highlight everyday dog owners and help to open your mind about the people out there who truly love their dogs as family.

When I saw a gorgeous pup the other day at my favorite DC park, Meridian Hill, I decided to go up and talk to the owner. He told me her name was Storm and that she was the best thing to ever happen to him. Storm sleeps in his bed and goes everywhere with him. When I asked if I could snap a picture, he said, “absolutely!” and immediately grabbed Storm to pose. How stinkin’ cute are they!?

Storm

I was so energized by my short conversation with Storm’s dad that I am thinking I might start talking to more DC dog owners I find, just to learn more about who is out there loving their dogs. The folks of Dogs of New York have gone even a step further and created the “Brooklyn Ruff Riders” to support local pet owners. To learn more about the Brooklyn Ruff Riders and support their initiative, head to their website! I so wish I had the time to start a program like this in DC. Supporting pet owners is the first step to keeping animals out of shelters, and I know that’s where the need is greatest. Maybe one day!

Yesterday evening I headed back to Meridian and didn’t talk to anyone, but captured this pair doing some fabulous training in the park. I’ll be honest in saying when you work at a shelter and see so many animals without homes, you forget that the overwhelming majority of owners are out there loving and caring for their pets. I love being re-reminded of this on a daily basis. It helps me keep the open mind that I need in order to continue making a difference.

Meridian