Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Training Venom

I haven't blogged for a little while.  After bringing home Venom, our new Dachshund puppy, I have been kind of busy!  However, since part of what I have been busy with is his show ring training, I figured I might as well share it.  Since Venom came home 6 weeks ago, I have bee working on quite a bit with him.  I practice scent work (tracking) with him, I have started him on K9 Nose Work box work, we have started working on sit, down, name recognition and come here and I have been working on stack training and gait training.

The stacking is going really well.  I have been experimenting and using my Staxrite table to work on his stacking.  The Staxrite table is a little table that has sliding wood strips so that you can adjust it to the length of the dog.  It raises the dog off the base but only by a few inches.  This is the first time I have used it from puppyhood to train a dog and so far I am really liking it.  Tools like the Staxrite or the Happy Legs can be really helpful, unfortunately, I have seen so many people abuse them and practically use them as torture devices.  I once saw a miniature wirehair Dachshund at a show who was put on a set of Happy Legs on a grooming table with a leash tightly attached to a grooming arm for over an hour.  This is obviously not humane and not how they should be used.  We don't want to cause fatigue and pain, we just want them to learn to hold the stack for a short time.  I will stack Venom on there, ask him to wait and then feed treats as I praise him.  He is probably on there for 20 seconds at the most, then we take a break.  Of course, I also practice stacking without the Staxrite.

His gaiting practice is going really well.  We usually practice on the driveway in front of our house. On a show lead I begin to walk him slowly and click and treat him for not hopping or skipping.  He gets reinforced every time he makes the right choice.  It is important at this age and in the early stages of training that he gets reinforced often so that he can learn exactly what the behavior is that I want.  At this stage, I am very happy with how he is doing on this.  And, he is just so darn cute...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Being smart about those first dog shows

By now, you have figured out that I am all about making sure that dog shows are fun for dogs.  It's only fair that if we are going to ask our dogs to participate in a sport with us, that we make sure that they enjoy it.  Not only is it the only ethical way to approach it, it's also the only realistic way to approach it.  If a dog is not having fun, he is generally not going to be competitive.  So, whether you are starting out a new puppy or an adult that is new to the show scene, it is critical that you go about it the right way or you risk ruining dog shows for your dog forever, or at least for a long time.

Dogs, like other animals, can experience "single event learning" which means that some experiences, particularly very frightening ones can have a lasting effect.  If your dog goes to a dog show and has a very frightening experience or a very stressful or upsetting one, he may associate dog shows with bad things.  If we want our dogs to win at dog shows we have to make sure that they have fun at them and that they enjoy showing.  We want all their dog show experiences, especially their early ones to be fun and rewarding.  It is really critical that your dog doesn't experience any really scary experiences at his or her first few dog shows.  It is doubly important if you are working with a puppy under a year old or a very sensitive dog.

Since the first and most important thing to do is to make sure that your dog has fun at dog shows it is up to you to set it up to ensure that this happens.  Bring high value treats and toys to dog shows.  Realize that the first few times to a dog show can be very overwhelming so it's important that you are prepared to set your dog up to have fun and enjoy himself.  Bringing toys and treats will help him to associate dog shows with fun things.

Consider going to some shows just to hang out with your dog without entering.  A lot of people have a difficult time with this and figure that it's a waste of time to go without entering.  Not true!  It's actually a really good idea to take your dog to a show or two without entering so that he gets used to the sights and sounds that he will be exposed to at a dog shows.  Unless you have practiced in a LOT of different environments with a variety of different distractions you have no idea how your dog will react and how well he will be able to perform at a dog show, unless you attend a couple first to see how he does.  Dog shows are fun for people but they can be extremely overwhelming to some dogs.  Dogs that are easily aroused or shy or timid really need  to be desensitized to the dog show environment before being expected to perform reliably at one.

This next recommendation is a really important one and one that a lot of people take very lightly, unfortunately.  I recommend that a new show dogs first shows are one day gigs.  I would never ever start a puppy at a two day show and I would certainly never take a new show dog or a young show dog to a three or four day cluster.  Even with a very well trained and experienced show dog, three or four days is a lot.  I have seen many very stable dogs that seem to enjoy dog shows get really burned out on the third or fourth day of a long show weekend.  It takes a lot for a dog to work up to being able to cope with that, and in my opinion it's simply not fair to expect that from young or inexperienced dogs.  So, start them out nice and easy with just one day.  If you do enter a four day cluster I recommend you pull the dog if you start to see signs of stress or fatigue. 

Finally, please make sure that your dog is ready to attend a dog show before entering him.  I can't tell you how many people contact me a week or two before a three or four day dog show because they entered their untrained, unprepared dog and now they are panicked because the show is in a couple of weeks and their dog is not ready.  It is unethical in my opinion to enter a dog in a show when they are not prepared for the show ring.  Even a stable dog will experience some stress at a dog show, especially their first shows, but if you also have a dog is not trained and has no idea what to do or what is expected and it's a recipe for disaster.  It's simply not fair to the dog and a great way to teach your dog to dislike dog shows because they view them as overwhelming events where they are confused and don't know what to expect.

So, take your time, plan well and be smart.  There will always be another dog show, so if your dog is not ready don't enter yet.  If you do enter, take your time to ease your dog in so that they can slowly and honestly get used to the dog show scene so that they learn to love dog shows!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Choosing Venom

This is a post from my blog www.neenasnosers.blogspot.com in which I am documenting my involvement in a litter of Dachshund puppies, one of which will be coming home with me and my husband in a few weeks.

Choosing Venom
We are now just a couple of weeks away from bringing home our new puppy, whose name will be Venom.  As I have mentioned in this blog, this puppy is a great great grandson to my old dog Ivy who will turn 14 years old next month.  We are very excited about this puppy as it is the first standard smooth puppy we have had in about 8 years.

We have a lot in store for Venom.  The plan is that he is going to be Rick's new field trial dog which is why we are doing so much early scentwork with this litter.  But, we have other plans for him as well.  I am going to show him in the breed ring and plan to finish a championship on him.  I will also probably do K9 Nosework (scent detection dog sport) with him.  On top of all that, he will be living in our house with 9 other dogs.  So, there is a lot we need to look at here.

Temperament to me is the number one priority.  I want a pretty dog and I want a dog that can hunt, but most of all I want to live with a nice dog.  To be honest, I will take emotionally stable over "pretty" any day.  I feel strongly about this and frustrated because I feel that a lot of breeders put structural conformation over temperament a lot.  I see it all the time, dogs that are placed or kept as show dogs because they look nice but have unstable temperaments.  I am not saying that these dogs can't become great companions only that they shouldn't be put into the show ring and used in our breeding programs.

So, in a few weeks I will have to decide which puppy will be coming home with us.  I am pretty sure I have made up my mind, but I am staying open.  Generally, I would pick the best structured puppy for the show ring.  This time, I will choose the puppy that will make the best pet and field dog for us.  I am 100% willing to compromise on conformation in order to get the right temperament for what we plan to do with him.  Both of the males are very nice and I am sure both will finish easily, but they are slightly different in type and I may end up taking the one that is less the type I prefer in order to get the right companion for us and to ensure that both puppies end up in the best homes for them.  I think it important to keep in mind that both of these puppies have a right to go into the homes that are best matched for them and who they are and what they will be best at whether that is competing in the field with us or going to soccer games with some great family.  This piece is huge and it matters greatly to us and to Sue.

I am excited for the day to come when we bring Venom home and I can't believe it's only a couple of weeks away.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Does being a positive reinforcement trainer equal closed mindedness?

On a recent discussion of this blog, someone commented that I am "closed minded" because of my posts and commitment to positive reinforcement training.  This took me by surprise as I have always considered myself to be a very open minded person.  And, because going from traditional training methods to positive reinforcement training took such a huge amount of open mindedness, not to mention hard work.  If you talked to my friend Colleen, who was the first person to really start encouraging me to research and explore positive reinforcement methods, after years of successfully training with punishment I am sure she would agree.  I was resistant because it was foreign and different and learning more about it would require a huge amount of change and hard work on my part.  On the other hand, I had not felt good about the methods I was using for a while.  More than anything else, I think that part of what was so difficult was that it forced me to recognize that what I had been doing was not the best thing or the kindest thing for my animals or my client's animals.  I was put in a position of having to take a long, hard look at what I had been doing to them in the name of training.  It was painful and difficult, but I forced myself and I believe that my dogs and I are better off because of it. 

So, the question is, does the fact that I use and recommend positive reinforcement methods mean that I am close minded?  Does the fact that I don't use or recommend compulsion methods mean that I am close minded?  Honestly, I don't think so.  How can I be considered close minded to something I have already done?  I have "been there and done that" as they say.  I cannot, in good conscience, say "just do whatever works" if I believe in my heart of hearts that it is not good for the animal.  I believe with complete conviction that many of the methods that people use on dogs in the name of training are painful, scary and intimidating to the dogs.  I believe that many dogs (and other animals) are treated with a huge amount of disrespect and that animals deserve to be treated and trained with compassion and respect.  I believe that some of the equipment people use on dogs in the name of training are much more aversive and uncomfortable than they realize.  I have seen it, I have caused it, I have watched others cause it and now I try to spread the word that there is another way.  Is this wrong?  Does this mean I am closed minded?  I don't think so, but at least one person believes I am.  I wonder why that is.

I believe that part of it is the definition of positive reinforcement in general.  Some people believe that they are positive reinforcement trainers because they use food some of the time.  It's true, that when they reinforce behaviors with food they are positively reinforcing the dog, but if they are also using aversive equipment and positive punishment, can they really be considered a positive reinforcement trainer?  Not in my mind.  People will sometimes argue that what they are doing isn't "hurting" their animal, but if the animal's body language indicates that they are frightened or in pain or uncomfortable, I am going to believe the animal.  Many of the pieces of equipment that are used were designed to cause discomfort or pain to stop behavior.  This is why they "work" to stop a behavior.  In my eyes, the only way a technique or piece of equipment "works" is if the behavior is changed without pain or intimidation.  I feel that part of being a good teacher is respecting the comfort level of the learner.  I believe if my learner (human and non human animals) cannot understand than it is my responsibility as the teacher to change MY behavior in order to the help the learner understand.  If I can't figure something out, I am not going to turn to punishment or aversives, I am going to go back to the drawing board and figure out how I can change or build this behavior while still respecting the animal.  Why in the heck should the animal pay for my lack of skill as a trainer?

Something that many people don't understand is that positive reinforcement training isn't permissive.  Positive reinforcement training doesn't mean that there are no consequences, it simply means that the consequences I choose to use are not painful, scary or intimidating.  My animals are taught rules, boundaries and are trained to respond to the cues I teach, but I don't turn to methods or equipment that I feel is aversive.  It's really that simple.  Punishment (corrections, aversive collars, force) only suppresses behavior, they never, ever build behavior.  Punishment, by definition causes a behavior to go down in frequency.  Punishment never builds behavior or teaches anyone to do something.  So, if what you want to do is build behavior, why wouldn't you use positive reinforcement?  It is so much easier to simply teach the behaviors you want, rather than punish out everything you don't want.  There will always be more behaviors you don't want, it would take forever to get rid of everything you don't like, so just focus on what you want and train that! It's simple really, but I digress...

Like so many other crossover trainers, I have learned for myself, from using both traditional based methods and positive reinforcement that positive reinforcement training is less risky, more enjoyable and more reliable than traditional methods.  I have been accused of (and have seen other positive reinforcement trainers) accused of being closed minded because they feel strongly that positive reinforcement training is the way to go.  I don't understand why being committed to training dogs using methods that protect them and their relationships with their owners can be considered negative.  When I see an animal being handled in a way that I feel is inhumane, being jerked with a choke collar on for example, it causes my blood to boil.  It is painful and upsetting for me to see.  It does not feel good to be upset, I wish I could change it, but I can't.  It is my emotional response to what I am seeing.  My passion comes from my journey which started there.  My commitment is to the animals, if that aggravates people, well, I guess, so be it.

So, for the record, I am not close minded to new ideas, in fact, I absolutely love learning a new method or technique.  I attend lectures, seminars, workshops and classes from other trainers regularly.  I meet with other trainers in my area monthly to discuss and exchange ideas.  I am completely and wholeheartedly open to other ideas, as long as they are in the best interest of the animals.  I am only closed minded to techniques or ideas that I feel cause distress, pain, fear or intimidation to the animals I am working with.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Uh oh, my dog looks guilty!

The other day my cattle dog Bill ate a cupcake off of the counter.  He licked the icing off another one.  My husband found the crumbs of the first cupcake and the frosting missing off of the other and said, "Oh man, someone ate a cupcake off the counter.  Hey, they licked the frosting off of this one!"  There are only two dogs big enough to do this but I was pretty sure which dog it was.  I didn't say anything but looked for Bill and found him lying down behind the couch looking very "guilty".  He looked the exact same way he looks when my husband raises his voice because his football team is losing, when something he is working on around the house isn't going his way and when he is losing at his video game.  Do you see where this is going?  Bill didn't feel "guilty" because he ate a cupcake, in fact, he didn't realize Rick was vocalizing about cupcakes, he responds that way anytime Rick is upset about anything.  Bill is very close and attached to Rick and freakishly in tune with Rick's emotions.  He is so sensitive to Rick's tone of voice in fact, that every time Rick raises his voice he slinks away regardless of what Rick is talking about or who Rick is talking to.  In fact, Rick has taken to saying, "It's okay Bill, it's not you" nearly every time he raises his voice to stop Bill from worrying. 

People are always saying that their dogs feel "guilty".  They say this because this is how they perceive their dog's body language, usually just after they have found something that the dog has done that they don't like.  What they don't understand is that the dog is not responding this way because he feels "guilt" or "remorse" over something he has done, in fact, the dog usually has not clue that he did something "wrong".  The dog is simply responding to the owner's tone of voice and body language.  If a person comes home from work, finds poop in the house, then has an anger meltdown because they have to clean it up, the dog will begin to look worried and afraid when the owner comes home.  It isn't because of what he did, it is because of his past experiences of his owner coming home and then getting angry.  By the way, a dog can find our reactions punishing regardless of how benign they may seem.  To some very sensitive dogs, something has subtle as a heavy sigh or look of disgust can be punishing to the dog.  It is so interesting to me how people are can be completely resistant to the fact that dogs have emotions (which they do) or they believe that they have emotions and because they do, they must be exactly like human emotions (which they aren't).

Dogs repeat behaviors that are reinforcing.  They also live in the moment.  I had a very hard time resisting those cupcakes, even though I had already eaten one!  Bill saw them on the counter and wanted one, so he took one.  I believe he saw it, wanted it, took it, ate it and then it was over.  He probably forgot about the cupcake the moment he was finished eating it (even though there was still frosting on his lip when I found him behind the couch!).  When Rick started to complain that a cupcake was eaten, Bill heard his tone and got worried like he always does.  There was no cupcake-guilt about it.  By the way, we didn't care too much that he ate a cupcake and Bill didn't get in "trouble" for it, we just felt stupid for leaving the cupcake container open on the edge of the counter.  STUPID!

There has been a video circulating on the internet of a "guilty dog".  The owner comes to the dog with a ripped bag of cat treats and says to the dog "Did you do this?  Did you rip open these cat treats?".  The dogs starts to do a series of appeasement behaviors including pinning his ears back, yawning, lip licking, squinting his eyes, and finally offering a full, submissive grin with all of his teeth showing.  People watch it and laugh and say that the dog is guilty, but the dog is not feeling "guilty" the dog is simply responding to the owner's tone of voice.  It's sad to watch actually if you know what is going on.  If you tested it (which I don't recommend you do since it's stressful to your dog) you would see that your dog will respond the same way if your tone and body language worries him.

The take away message here is "please don't assume your dog is feeling guilty", he is likely just responding to you.  Oh, and remember to put the lid back on the cupcake container before leaving it on the counter!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

If your dog isn't ready, then don't enter him!

I am going to try and write this post in a way that is helpful and educational and not at all frustrated and judgmental.  However, if I am being honest, I am a bit frustrated.  I cannot tell you how many calls and emails I receive from people who are desperate to get a private with me right away because they have entered a dog show knowing full well that their dog is not properly trained, not even close to prepared or ready for the show ring!  I do not understand why people insist on torturing themselves, not to mention their poor dogs by entering them in shows before they are ready.

I have said this many times before.  The behaviors that a show dog needs to learn are not very difficult to train.  The dog needs to be taught to stack, gait and accept gentle handling, BUT he needs to be trained to a level of reliability that makes it possible for him to perform those behaviors in a novel, highly distracting and stressful environment which a nervous, stressed out, emotional owner at the end of the lead.  It is not reasonable or fair to enter your dog in a show and give him (or yourself) a week or two or three to prepare for it.  People mistakenly believe that handling a show dog and presenting a dog well is easy and takes no work at all, but if that were true professional handlers would be out of a job.  It isn't easy, unless of course you know what you are doing and feel comfortable doing it and have trained your dog to a high level of reliability in highly distracting and stressful environments.

So please, don't enter your dog if he isn't ready to be shown.  If he isn't ready because he doesn't know what to do, if he is fearful or reactive, if he is worried about being touched by a stranger or if he simply needs more training, then don't enter him.  Best case scenario is that neither of you look ready and leave the ring disappointed and frustrated.  Worst case scenario is that you poison the whole dog show scene for your dog by asking for too much of a dog that is simply not ready.  Trust me, there will always be another dog show.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

We've tried that and it didn't work

This is an article that I wrote for one of my bird forums.  Not about show dogs particularly, but about changing behavior in animals in general.

I am writing this post because I come across this statement both on internet forums and in real life as a behavior consultant.

Many times when people complain about problem behaviors in their animals (regardless of species) and are given advice they respond that "they have tried that and it didn't work". It is important to keep in mind that in order for our animals behavior to change we have to change our own behavior. As a species, we tend to blame the issues on someone else. The bird is being (insert any label here) hormonal, dominant, mean, jealous, stubborn, etc. when the fact is that the behavior has simply been reinforced (consequences) and the stage has been set for the bird to do it (antecedents). As owners we can control and change antecedents and consequences. In other words, the behavior is sandwiched between two things that change behavior, both of which we can control.

When people tell me that they tried something already and it "didn't work", I don't usually have to look far to see why it didn't work. While not every solution will work for every animal, learning theory doesn't change from individual to individual or even from species to species. Learning theory remains the same across the board. Functional analysis (antecedent-behavior-consequence) remains the same across the board. So, it isn't that it simply doesn't work for that animal, it usually means that there is a problem with how it's being executed.

How a behavior modification or training plan is executed is important. The skill of the trainer comes into play here. For some things, the timing is critical and if it's not right the bird will be confused and may be reinforced or punished for the wrong thing. For instance, let's say that a person asks their bird to step up and the bird bites the owner's hand, which causes the owner to pull their hand away. The bird was probably reinforced for biting. The owner is upset so then asks the bird to step up onto a stick which the bird does and then puts the bird in a time out to negatively punish the behavior. What message could the bird be getting? Probably that biting makes hands go away when he doesn't want to step up and that he got timed out in his cage for stepping up on the stick. It is important and critical even to look at what happens just before (antecedent) and just after (consequence) a behavior to determine if and how it can be modified.

Another problem with owner's execution is with extinction. We know that any behavior that is not reinforced will go away or go extinct. There are some exceptions like if the behavior is a response to stress. If a bird is screaming because he is not getting enough attention, exercise or enrichment then that screaming will not likely go away from ignoring the bird. In this case, the screaming is a symptom of being ignored and is a sign of stress. But, in cases where the bird's needs are met and the bird is screaming for attention ignoring the bird will cause the screaming to go extinct or go away. This is one where people constantly say "we tried ignoring him and it didn't work". The fact is, while they may have tried ignoring the bird, they simply didn't do it long enough. If the bird has learned that screaming brings the outcome of attention, any attention, the bird will keep screaming. Once the owner starts to ignore the screaming to extinguish the behavior, the bird will have an extinction burst which is when the behavior gets worse before it gets better. Many times it is during the extinction burst that the owner caves because the screaming gets worse and they can't cope with it which only cements the behavior even further. The bird has now been taught that if they just keep pushing and persisting, the desired outcome will eventually happen.

When a behavior has a strong reinforcement history meaning that the animal has practiced doing something and then getting the desired outcome for a long time, the behavior will be more resistant to extinction.

In the case of screaming, another thing that happens is that the owner "thinks" they are ignoring the behavior, but they aren't. Birds (and dogs) are very good at reading our body language and some of our body language can unintentionally reinforce behavior. I once had clients who had an American Bulldog who would bark at their back door and they said they couldn't get her to stop. She was a big, goofy funny dog and just looking at her made you smile. I asked them if they ever laughed while she did it, they said "yes, all the time". Bingo! When a bird is screaming for attention and the owner is attempting to ignore it, there are a million things the owner could do to reinforce it including, but certainly not limited to flinching, covering their ears, looking in the direction of the cage, turning up the TV, etc, etc. So, keep in mind that the animal, not us, get to decide what is reinforcing and you may have to look at other things going on.

The fact is, extinction can take some time. A bird who has been screaming for attention for 2 years is not going to miraculously stop after 10 minutes of being ignored because there is too much reinforcement history that has supported the behavior. The bottom line is, it takes time. I am not saying it's not frustrating, I wouldn't want to try and ignore a screaming bird for 2 hours, but I didn't make the rules, science did. It isn't always fun, but it IS the way it is.

So, keep in mind that if a behavior modification plan feels like it isn't working, you may need to adjust how you are doing things. You may need to wait longer. You may need to adjust how you are putting the plan into action. You may need modify the consequences or adjust the antecedent, but you will get there.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

How much does your trainer's breed matter?

Sometimes I get calls from potential clients who are either not in my working area or who have a dog with issues that I am not currently taking on that I need to refer to another behavior consultant.  When I offer a referral I am told that they only want to work with me because I have Dachshunds.  They are worried about working with a trainer who doesn't have Dachshunds and feel that I will be a better match for them because of my expertise with the breed.  So, the question is, is it better to work with a trainer that lives with your particular breed?  My answer is, not necessarily.

I have lived with and competed with a wide variety of breeds.  I have consulted and trained many more than that.  I don't believe that simply because a trainer lives with a certain breed that they are necessarily the best match as a consultant.  First of all, dogs are dogs before they are Border Collies or Rottweilers or Yorkies or any other breed and all of their behavior is canine behavior.  If a trainer understands canine behavior and is skilled in modifying behavior and the are a good match for you personality wise, then why does it matter if they live with the same breed as you?  There are always exceptions and all dogs are individuals, but as a trainer I know the common breed characteristics of most breeds.  I also know that the similarities in the breeds within a specific group.  In other words, herding breeds are more likely to be like other herding breeds, than say toy breeds.  And, toy breeds are more likely to be like other toy breeds, than say, working breeds.  I do believe it is important that a trainer have a general understanding of the different groups and of their general traits, but I don't think that they have to have lived with that breed to be qualified to successfully work with that breed.  This doesn't mean that it isn't fun to work with someone who has your breed.  It can be fun to exchange stories and know that you share a love for a particular breed in common, but that might be as beneficial as it is.  The most important thing is whether or not the trainer is skilled at training dogs and modifying behavior.

When I make the decision to refer a client to another consultant what I am going to look at in deciding who to refer to is that particular consultants expertise in the specific behavior problem that client is having with their dog.  In other words, someone could have owned, bred and lived with German Shepherds for 30 years, but if they are not experienced in dealing with separation anxiety cases, I am not going to refer clients with dogs who have separation anxiety to them even if they have a German Shepherd.  The trainer or consultant needs to be experienced, knowledgeable and skilled at working on that particular behavior problem in order to be able to help the client. Having extensive knowledge of a breed will not help you work through a behavior issue that you are not equipped to handle.

I suppose the only real advantage to living with a breed and having a huge amount of interaction with that breed is that, in a way, you become very skilled at reading their body language easily.  Some dogs are easier to read than others and living with a breed can make you very sensitive to how they communicate.  Once I had another trainer ask me about Pekingese as she was about to work with one and knows that I live with one and have fostered many others.  Since it was an aggression issue I let her know that because the way a Peke is constructed it can be challenging to read some of their more subtle body language signals.  She hadn't thought of that and so it was helpful to her to have that insight.  She then went on to work with the dog with no problems.  Other trainers and owners of specific breeds have been able to offer that type of insight to me as well.  It isn't that the information was necessary to help the client, just helpful to file in the back of your mind.

So, when is a trainer or consultant not a good match when it comes to the breed you have?  My main answer would be if the trainer has any negative biases about that particular breed.  If a trainer absolutely cannot stand a particular breed and finds nothing redeemable about them, that is probably not someone I want to work with my dog.  Another issue that I have is with trainers who make say things like, "all Labs love to eat", or "Greyhounds can never be allowed off leash", or "Beagles can never learn a good recall".  Even though a generalized comment may be accurate much of the time, they are dangerous blanket statements because there are always exceptions to the "rules".  There ARE Labs that aren't foody.  There ARE Greyhounds that do fine off leash.  There ARE Beagles who come when called.  There are no absolutes.  I want to know that a trainer is aware and knowledgeable but I don't want a trainer to go in there with a bunch of preconceived notions about a dog that they have never even met.  There are many true generalizations but a good trainer or behavior consultant looks at the dog as an individual.  As Dr. Susan Friedman would say, "They are all a study of one". 

The bottom line is, a good dog trainer or behavior consultant is knowledgeable about different breeds but is highly skilled in reading body language, building or modifying behavior, communicating with the client and producing results.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Puppies in Conformation Class

Yes!  It's true!  I do allow young puppies in my conformation classes, in fact, I encourage it.  Because the methods that I use for training show dogs (and all dogs actually) are positive reinforcement methods young puppies do great and are welcome to attend.  Young puppies (2 to 5 months) are like little sponges, open and ready for new information and learning opportunities.  This is, in my opinion, the best time to get your puppies started on their conformation ring training.  One of the most difficult times to start training a dog is during adolescence, so waiting until a dog is old enough to show (6 month) is not the best time to start your training.  It makes much more sense to start young so that when they enter adolescence they are already well on their way and have several behaviors under their belt.  It just makes sense to start early!

I realize that some people have concerns about exposing their puppies to diseases but most classes require vaccination records making a dog training class in a reputable facility a fairly low risk environment.  For me, personally, I have no problem taking my puppies to low risk areas once they have been started on their vaccinations.  If I am being honest, I am much more concerned with my puppy having many positive, early learning and socialization opportunities than I am with them contracting a disease.  The behavioral risk of keeping them inside and not socializing them well is too high and I am not willing to take that risk.  Waiting until a dog is 4 months old to start the socialization and training process simply does not give you enough time to properly socialize and expose them.  So, be safe and be smart, but socialize them well!

Whenever I have young puppies in my conformation classes I am always careful to make a few things clear to my clients.  First, the goal is not that the puppy do everything perfectly like a well trained adult show dog.  The goal is that the puppy have fun and enjoy himself.  I recently watched a very disturbing You Tube video where someone demonstrated how to train a puppy to be a show dog in under a minute.  It was really awful to watch this cheerful puppy be strong armed into position, and forced to stand completely still while he panicked and struggled to escape.  Eventually, he stopped struggling and stood there... with his ears and tail down and the spark gone from his eyes.  Poor guy.  This is, in my opinion, the absolute worst way to train a puppy.  This puppies first conformation experience was scary, uncomfortable, aversive and something he wanted to escape.  Always remember that however an animal learns something lives with that behavior forever.  In other words, if show ring training is trained using positive reinforcement and keeping it light and fun for the puppy, then those behaviors will always have that emotional state attached to them.  On the flip side, if the show ring behaviors are trained with force, corrections and punishment, that emotional state, dread, discomfort or fear will be associated with those behaviors.  The fact is, if you want your puppy to grow up to be a dog that enjoys showing, he needs to be taught to enjoy shows as a puppy.

I always want to make it clear with my clients is that they have a right at any time to give the puppy a break or end the training once they feel the puppy has had enough.  We never want to overdo  it.  When it's done well, the training should leave the puppy wanting more.  So, it's important that we stop if the puppy starts to show signs of tiring out, getting stressed or looking bored.  Show training should be fun, fun, fun!

Puppies need to be trained on comfortable, non-aversive, dog friendly equipment.  I am not a fan of metal choke collars in general, but they are never a good choice for a young puppy just learning the ropes. 

It is important to make sure that puppies in conformation class feel safe and secure.  If the class is very loud or full of many rowdy dogs, it may be better for the puppy to be off to the side, simply watching and chewing on a bully stick.  People may think that this is a waste of time but it's not because as the puppy is sitting on the owner's lap, munching on a tasty chewer he is actually being conditioned that being around a bunch of dogs in a strange environment is a good, safe and relaxing thing.  This is invaluable conditioning to a show dog and a great way to ease a puppy into training.

If you haven't already done so, consider finding a positive reinforcement conformation class to take your puppy to.  When it's done well and the puppy is kept safe and having a good time, it can be a wonderful thing to do for your puppy.

Note:  Before taking your puppy to a conformation class be sure to observe a class and make sure that the instructor is a positive reinforcement trainer.  Please never allow anyone to jerk, drag, force or intimidate your puppy in any way.  You are responsible for keeping your puppy safe and you have a right to say "no".

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Choke Chains - Are They Really Necessary?

Frequently, I meet novice show people who seem to be under the impression that using a choke chain is mandatory in the show ring.  This is probably because when they have showed up at a dog show with their dog on dog-friendly equipment such as a Resco lead or martingale they are told that they have the "wrong" equipment.  The truth is, that it is NOT mandatory to use a choke chain, in fact, there are many alternatives and I encourage people to take a look at some of them before jumping onto the choke chain bandwagon.

I get frustrated sometimes talking to people about the equipment that they are going to be using on their dog in the show ring.  As a positive reinforcement trainer, a metal choke chain is not a piece of equipment I would use or recommend.  These collars were specifically designed to be uncomfortable and aversive to a dog and to help humans get "control".  In my opinion, there are simply much more dog-friendly choices out there, however, they continue to be used in the show ring for a few reasons.  First, because many show dogs are not well trained and the owner or handler simply cannot control the dog without having a thin, tight, metal choke collar up high around their neck.  And second, because it is what has always been used.

If a dog is so untrained that he cannot be controlled without the use of a choke chain, perhaps that dog is not ready to be competing in dog shows.  The behaviors necessary for the show ring are fairly straightforward and pretty easy to train with positive reinforcement training.  There is no reason for a dog to be shown and expected to perform without being taught what is expected of him or her.  So, one solution is to simply train the dog.  If the dog is well trained, one will not have to rely on equipment to keep the dog responsive and focused.  In agility competitions, dogs are trained to navigate through tunnels, over jumps, through weave poles and a variety of other obstacles with NOTHING on at all.  Surely, we can train our show dogs to trot around the ring, stand in a show stack and be examined by a judge with non-aversive equipment and positive reinforcement training.  The truth is that while the behaviors do need to be trained, they are not that difficult to teach if people simply put the time in. 

The other reason that choke chains continue to be used is because it is simply "what has always been used" and people are resistant to use something else.  I can't tell you how many times I have heard "I have a (fill in the breed here) and they are ALWAYS shown on a choke chain", or worse, "I have a (fill in the breed here) they can ONLY be shown on a choke chain".  This is incredibly frustrating to me because the truth is that they do NOT have to be shown on a choke chain.  The fact that your breeder, your friend, or some know it all sitting at ringside says you have to use a choke chain does not mean you have to use one.  There are many completely acceptable alternatives to a choke chain including a Resco, a martingale or a nylon slip.  A nylon slip is still technically a choke collar, but they are thicker and softer and  in my opinion they are a much more humane option for a dog that has been taught not to pull on the lead.  The point is, there are kinder alternatives to using a metal choke chain on a show dog.

I have clients and know people who continue using a choke chain just because of tradition and because they seem to like how they look.  All I can say is that if you are going to use one at least give your dog the courtesy of being taught not to pull on the lead first, so that they don't have to suffer being choked by a tight, thin, metal choke chain.  I know people may think that I am being melodramatic but the truth is, they are called choke chains for a reason.  I should add here that I do know people who do show their well trained dogs on a loose choke chain and don't use corrections at all.  I am not saying that everyone who is uses  a choke collar is correcting their dog or trying to be unkind, I am simply saying that there are other options that may be even better.

For me, I will never be able to consider choke chains a good thing.  Maybe it is because I know why they were designed and what the purpose was.  Maybe it is because I have witnessed a dog pass out at a dog show because he was pulling on a thin metal choke chain for too long.  Maybe it is because I have seen one too many dogs yanked and jerked by someone who felt that "choke chains are a humane choice for an experienced trainer".  So, while I accept that choke chains are still being used and will continue to be used, I will continue to push for kinder, non-aversive, dog-friendly equipment.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Getting Reinforced for Reinforcing Others

I went to the Golden Gate Kennel Club dog show on Sunday.  It was the first the show where I brought my Dog Shows are Fun! cards and charms.  I gave out three of them and it felt great!  The first one was to a woman who I saw being so thoughtful and careful with a young sporting dog.  She seemed excited about it and was reading the card as I walked off.  The second one went to a friend of mine, who is the only other positive reinforcement conformation trainer (that I know of) in my area.  She was so touched that she cried and was very grateful.  The third person was playing in the hallway with her terrier with a toy.  The dog was having a great time.  She just kind of stuffed the card and charm into her pocket which was actually fine because she was busy playing with and interacting with her dog which is exactly what she should have been doing!  I felt good about it.  I hope that I made their day and they thought about the good they are doing for their dogs!

Friday, January 28, 2011

But my breeder says....

But my breeder says…  If I had a dollar for every time I have heard these words followed by an inaccurate statement about canine behavior I would be a millionaire.  Before breeders everywhere start raising their hackles, let me just start out by saying that I am a breeder myself and I know that there are many caring, informed and compassionate breeders out there.  Those are not the breeders I am referring to here.  My concern is with breeders who are using outdated or simply inaccurate information when discussing behavioral problems in dogs with the people they sell their puppies too. 

The majority of breeders out there are not trained in canine behavior or learning theory.  Many are experienced and knowledgeable about the characteristics and structure of their breed, but most know little about how to treat behavioral issues in dogs, particularly serious issues such as fear or aggression.  Many still believe that the only way to train a show dog is to put a choke collar on him and jerk him until he does it right.  This is training from the dark ages and unnecessary when training simple show ring behaviors.  Using these methods with fearful dogs is not only unnecessary it is inhumane and unethical. 

Many of my clients are show dog owners who are living with dogs with fairly serious behavioral issues associated with showing such as fear.  The owner is seeking professional help from a qualified trainer and specialist in order to help the dog overcome the fears and learn to be happy and comfortable in the show ring.  Meanwhile, they are dealing with a breeder who says the dog needs to “deal with it”, “get over it” and are recommending that the owner force the dog to show despite their fears and before they are ready for it.  Many will try and encourage the owners to “pop” or physically correct the dogs for “misbehavior” when the dog is truly fearful and simply unable to perform in the show ring.  This is, in my opinion, extremely unfair to the owner of the dog and even more unkind to the dog at the end of the leash being forced to deal with his fears in a very inhumane way.  Many times the breeder wants the dog finished despite what the dog might be put through to obtain that title.  Other times the breeder may truly not understand that the dog is experiencing fear and that it needs a lot more work than just “making him do it”.  Fear is a complex and delicate issue.  Owners of fearful dogs must follow a sound humane training plan if the dog is ever to improve.

So, what do these owner handlers do when they are trying to keep their breeders happy but still want to protect their dogs?  The best thing I can recommend is that they stick to their guns.  If the end goal is for the dog to truly be comfortable then you must take your time and move slowly when you are dealing with fearful dogs.  It can be helpful when the owner finds ways of helping the breeder to understand why you are doing what you are doing and that it is to protect the dog and your relationship with the dog.  These are more than valid reasons for insisting on a science based, humane, dog friendly training protocol.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dog Shows are Fun!

I spent last weekend at Clicker Expo in Long Beach.  It was the first Clicker Expo I have attended and I had a great time.  There was a lot of great things about it, like seeing great speakers and meeting people that I have only corresponded with on Facebook or via email.  The other thing that I really liked was the general promotion of positive reinforcement, not only to animals in training but to people as well.  For instance, in your registration packet you were given a bunch of raffle tickets then you were asked to distribute those to people when you saw someone do something, anything you liked.  It could be giving their dog water, helping someone with something, or just anything in general.  Both your name and the recipients name were put on the ticket and they were turned in and people were given prizes. 

I thought it was such a great idea and it made me feel good to be able to reward people for nice things.  As I sat around a table with a couple of friends (Stacy Braslau Schneck and Daphne Robert Hamilton) and a bunch of strangers, we started brainstorming ideas.  I decided to create Dog Shows are Fun (www.dogshowsarefun.com).  The idea is that I will bring a collar charm which is an inexpensive but cute trinket to give to people along with a card explaining why when I see people at dog shows doing something I like.  I really just wanted to promote the use of positive reinforcement to dogs at shows and in training but Stacy pointed out that she likes that it will encourage me to look for good things at dog shows rather than focusing on the nice so nice things I observe.

Feel free to check out the website and join in the fun! 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My new blog!

It seems that I always have so much to say on the subject of dog training, behavior and of course, using positive reinforcement methods to train show dogs.  I have already published a book and have a DVD out on the subject, but there is always new stuff to say and things to add!  This is my way of getting information (and my opinions, of course) out there without having to write another book!  So, here it is!  Welcome to my blog!