Playtime is fun time!

I often lament about my inability to create solid foundation behaviors for my dogs when it comes to dog sports. I’m constantly regretting the time I didn’t put into focus or engagement. How I jumped from step 1 to step 6 without spending any time in between. How I notice where the holes are in our competitions due to my lack of proper training.

Thing is, though, I do put in some pretty solid foundations. Just not the ones we typically think of. Yes, training heel position is important if you actually want to use it. If you don’t put in the work, it’s going to fall apart in the ring. You can’t just rely on “my dog likes to be near me and follow me around” to get heeling in the ring. So training proper foundations for the required behaviors IS important. But there is a building block that is even more critical: Relationship.

Regardless of whether you’ve actively trained one, you do have a relationship with your dog. It might be good, bad, or neutral but it’s there. Risa and I had a pretty good relationship. It wasn’t perfect and we definitely had some bumps in the road on our journey together. Certainly didn’t help that, in my ignorance, I destroyed her trust in me right off the bat. I spent a long time rebuilding it after that unfortunate error. Competing with her was a challenge but our strong relationship made it possible. Even if she wasn’t quite as well-prepared, I had that trust and connection to fall back on. Even when I messed things up and put her in over her head, she was still able to work because of the bond between us. (I still tried my best to not put her in those types of situations, though!)

My relationship with Kyu is very different than my one with Risa yet no less strong. I’m a very different person (and dog trainer) now than I was when I adopted Risa. And Kyu came with very little baggage since he was only 10 weeks old when he joined my family and had a far better upbringing than Miss Ri did. I knew from the start I wanted to develop a strong, play-based relationship with him. It’s so easy to play with puppies; it was not hard to create. I’ve also been able to maintain it. He absolutely loves to play with me. The strong relationship I have with him has come in handy when, again, I have put my dog in a situation he’s not quite able to handle. (I’m still learning what he needs though, thankfully, my “can’t do this” moments with him have not been as catastrophic as the ones with Risa. It helps to have a stable, confident dog!) Our trialing successes this year were built on the relationship we have together getting us through it. Not proper training!

While I think about what we need to work on once our training hiatus ends, I still have to remember that I’m not starting from scratch. That I have a solid foundation to build those skills upon. I guess I haven’t completely messed up our foundation training after all. 🙂

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Defining Moments

My apt little pupil.

As a child, I always wanted to be a dog trainer. It was a silly dream for someone who had never owned a dog but it did eventually come to fruition. I started off as a hobby trainer and helped out others on occasion. I then taught classes as a volunteer and, finally, I became a professional dog trainer (even if only part time).

If we don’t count professionally, I have been a dog trainer for the better part of 13 years. That’s a long time. Even when I’m not teaching others, I’m training my own dogs (either at home or in classes). Or pursuing continuing education to hone my training skills. Most, if not all, of my social engagements involve dogs in some way. And there is usually training involved even if not directly. Almost all of my friends I have met through my dogs and/or dog training.

For a long time, I have defined myself as a dog trainer and now I find myself not. Due to Kyu’s illness and year-long struggle with training, we’re taking a break from it. He has some baggage about training from inadvertent pressure and generally feeling “icky” while doing anything together. So I’m not training my own dog. I’ve stopped teaching classes at the local obedience training club because I rarely actually get to teach. My classes are consistently canceled due to low enrollment. It hasn’t been worth the effort for me and, to be honest, it’s been depressing more than it’s been invigorating. This Monday will be my last class I’m teaching professionally for the time being. The program through which I teach classes is undergoing some restructuring and rethinking. It’s possible it is not a permanent break. . .but it also could be.

So I find myself no longer a dog trainer.

I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this. Kyu definitely needed the break and I am glad I was finally able to “let it go” for the time being and give him the time he needs to decompress. I’ve really been enjoying teaching my pet dog classes; far more than I ever thought I would coming from a sports background (which is still my preference). It’s been a lot of fun to come up with curricula for various classes focusing on areas where the general dog owning public struggles. I’ve been very fortunate the group I worked with was so willing to give me free reign to design classes. It didn’t hurt that most of my ideas were incredibly well-received. 😉

However, I’ve also felt a little disenchanted with training this year. I don’t know if it was the loss of Risa or Kyu’s illness. Or getting my health issues under control. I went to a lot of great seminars (Fenzi Camp, Julie Flanery, Monique Plinck to name a few) where I learned a TON that I still have yet to implement. I took some really great online classes, too, and have been making progress in our in person agility classes. But I’ve pulled back from it a lot, too. I’ve been less involved with the obedience club in general. My freestyle trial went well this year but I felt like I was going through the motions with it more than actually enjoying the process. This stuff hasn’t been energizing me the way it used to be overall.

So maybe this unwanted break is exactly what I need. Maybe, like Kyu, I need to step back and take a break from it for a while. It will still be there when I get back. And maybe both of us will find that passion and joy again.

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Trained by You

Way to go, Little Dude! Photo courtesy of Jim Petack.

“Every time you teach your dog what to do, you are teaching your dog how to feel.” – Dr. Amy Cook.

We then often ask the question: How does it feel to be trained by you? Generally, we’re speaking about dogs here. Both in these concepts and here in my blog specifically. However, these things are equally true of your human students. If you’re a dog trainer, you’re not only teaching them tools to use in training their canine partner but you’re also influencing how they feel about dog training itself and you as an instructor! How do your students feel to be trained by you?

I think it’s important to always consider that our students are doing their best. They may have other things going on in their lives affecting how their training is going. It’s possible they simply don’t realize there is a different way. Or they may be trying to break an old habit and struggling to do so. (We can all relate to how hard habits are to break!) Perhaps the student doesn’t recognize what they’re doing is a problem. We, as instructors, need to be cognizant of all of these possibilities when working with our learners. Remember, they love their dogs or they wouldn’t be in your class!

Many times, it’s not what you say but how you say it. Your message is important but it will fail to reach the learner if you aren’t presenting it properly. Your advice could be lost in hurt feelings even if you didn’t mean to upset them. Much like in dog training, you can’t always be certain of how your message will be received! How it’s said is often more important than what is said.

If your student is failing to get the correct message, you need to ask yourself “Why?” Even if you cannot manage to pinpoint the exact reason, there is always a plan you can put in place. Make a training plan for you to train your student if you need to. 🙂 This is far more helpful for you (avoiding frustration with your student) and the student as well because it gives them something that is actionable. We often speak of Susan Garrett’s living in “Do Land.” How much easier it is for your dog to behave when you tell them what TO DO rather than telling them what not to do. Even humans can struggle with the abstract concept of “Don’t.” It is far easier to lay out a plan of what your student should be doing rather than offering vague concepts like “Don’t do this.”

Learning should be fun for everyone.

The process of shaping can also be a crucial tool to use if you have a student struggling to reach a particular goal. Rather than forcing them to stop what they’re doing completely, you can slowly work them towards that goal. Small steps seem much easier to attain and are less of a departure from their usual way of doing things. This can help a student succeed in actually attaining success. I know, whenever I decide I need to cut back on junk food, I always shape my way there. I know I could never give it up completely (especially with the holidays fast approaching!) but I take small steps to cut back on it. My usual step is “only two things with added sugar.” That’s my daily maximum goal but there are definitely days I don’t have any. It’s still much easier for me to have just one or two things after going through a binge than trying to avoid it all together right away.

It’s also important to be constructive in your criticism. Simply picking apart everything they’re doing wrong won’t help and will likely lead to negative associations. You may not agree with what they’re doing but you are there to help. So offer suggestions on how they can improve rather than pointing out where they’re continuing to err. You’ll get a lot more buy-in from your students this way.

We should also remember that, sometimes, students need to come to a specific realization on their own. We can beat them over the head with it all we want but, until they’re ready to receive that information, it won’t happen. Ideally, we’d like to present it in such a way that it is more likely to sink it by being kind and thoughtful in the presentation of the information. Sometimes, though, it just takes time. Much like my prong collar example in my last post. I didn’t stop using it until I was ready to. I had to change my beliefs about what I was doing to reach a point where I felt I was going to have better success with my dog without that tool before I could give it up.

As positive reinforcement-based trainers, we strive to make sure the dogs are getting the best information we can give them. Sometimes, however, we need to be reminded of just how important the other end of the leash is as well. <3

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Evangelical Training

You couldn’t convince me to remove Risa’s prong collar when I first started working with her.

Many of the top trainers I follow have recently been discussing how they handle spreading the word about positive training. For many of them, their way of disseminating this information has changed greatly. While I am certainly not nearly as accomplished or as amazing as they are, even this training peon has noticed a change in her ways. As of late, it has been directly influenced by these trainers (Denise Fenzi, Julie Daniels, and Sarah Stremming to name a few). I had begun to lean in this way before but I’ve made it a focus and a goal these days.

When I adopted Risa, I knew very little of dog training (despite my belief that I knew a lot). By shear luck, I ended up taking classes with a positive reinforcement-based trainer. When I attended those classes, I was forbidden to use certain types of equipment (mainly choke chains, prong collars, or e-collars). I had been using a prong collar to walk Risa very early on in our time together. Without the collar, she pulled and raced after prey animals. I enjoyed walks with her much more when she wore the collar. While she never had it on in classes, I still used it at home. I wasn’t going to give it up. Cookies weren’t enough to train this dog! I needed the prong.

At one point, I remember trying to walk her without the prong (I was starting to change my views on training) but it was a disaster. She pulled and pulled and it was not an enjoyable walk. I distinctly remember lamenting that she hadn’t learned anything about walking nicely. If only I had realized that no collar (or other device) would train a dog! It was up to me to do so. I’d been using it as a crutch. Still, I slowly began to want to stop using the prong collar to walk my dog. To my recollection, my instructor never specifically told me to stop using it. The stuff I was learning in class made me rethink my training overall. Not just in the classroom. I eventually ditched it for good.

Fast forward several years and I found myself finally teaching dog training classes on my own! I had agreed to teach a class in canine freestyle at the local obedience training club. I was now completely gung-ho about positive reinforcement-based training and thought choke chains and prongs were horrible devices that had no place in training dogs. Unlike my previous trainer’s classes where she had control over the tools her students were permitted to use, I did not. The training club allowed (and sometimes advocated) the use of this aversive equipment. I had absolutely no say in the matter. I wanted to teach this class so I made the decision to simply overlook it. I would teach as I intended despite the training collars dogs may or may not be wearing.

Since I couldn’t specifically address equipment, I didn’t. I demonstrated the techniques with Risa who often made errors. When she did, I made no big deal of it and we just tried again. As I instructed my students, I focused on what they and their dogs did right. By the end of the 8 week course, I noticed that, of the students using corrections, the quantity of leash pops used by my students had dropped significantly. I had never addressed corrections directly. Simply by my instruction and demonstration with my own dog, the students made changes.

Calm and relaxed in a busy environment. Trained only with cookies!

These days, I am working specifically with that aim. I will not address equipment or your training method unless specifically asked. Even then, I don’t tell people I think their collar choice is “evil.” In fact, I had a student arrive in class once wearing a prong collar. Where I currently teach does not advocate such tools and the person seemed a little off put that she couldn’t use it to control her rambunctious young dog in class. I told her that, while I was not a fan, if she needed it to feel more comfortable that she could use it. During class, I did what I could to help her work with her excitable youngster and he made improvement. I remember talking with her at some point about other options for controlling him because she brought it up. I spent some time discussing harnesses and showed her several types. The next classes I had her in, she did not have a prong collar on her dog. Had I inadvertently (or deliberately) vilified her for using a prong collar, perhaps she wouldn’t have returned for more instruction from me. And maybe she wouldn’t have considered other options for controlling her dog during the training process.

I walk my dog at a very busy park pretty much every day. In the warmer months, there are tons of people and their dogs out enjoying the sunshine as well. Kyu is still very much in training but he’s making progress every day. I always have treats with me while we’re out. Sometimes, I pass by other professional dog trainers working with clients and using methods I don’t personally advocate. I don’t say anything but I do reward my dog for the amazing things he does as we walk past them. Loudly. And with obvious cookies.

There was a day earlier this year where I passed a couple with an excited young dog while walking Kyu. Kyu is also very excited about other dogs so I’ve been working on that. As we walked by, Kyu ignored the dog and I praised him and delivered treats. The woman said loudly to her compatriot as we walked on, “Maybe we should have brought treats!” Yes. Maybe you should have. It’s subtle, sure. But I personally like this method better. It’s completely borrowed from Sarah Stremming: “Shut up and show off.” No reason to preach; simply demonstrate how well it works.

Why is this more effective than preaching? Consider how many times your opinion has been changed by someone else who simply pointed out everything you were doing wrong. Someone who listed off a series of reasons why your thinking was illogical. I bet you got defensive. I bet you shut them out. Take a look at the recent political discussions as an example if you must. No one changes their mind in an argument. Even in a discussion, it may not happen. However, if you can demonstrate why things work without judgement, you’ll find far more converts.

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Risa Redux

My fun noodle. Photo courtesy of Jim Petack.

I say it all the time: Kyu is not Risa. I never expected him to be her clone and, in all honesty, I didn’t want that again. I wasn’t looking for another fearful, dog-reactive dog with GI problems (well, two out of three ain’t bad). I didn’t want that challenge again. Kyu, however, presents entirely new challenges which I’m struggling to overcome.

Despite his differences, I’ve found I’ve made the same mistake in his training that I made in Risa’s so long ago. One would think I would have learned better. 😉 Much like his predecessor, Kyu lacks solid foundations in focus and engagement. Again, I have trained tricks and behaviors but not spent enough time on valuing me above distractions. I promised Kyu I’d give him a solid foundation and I failed!

Of course, it’s never too late. I didn’t realize how badly I’d erred in teaching Risa focus until she was mid-way through her career in rally. Granted, with her fears, she was never going to locked-on with laser-focus. But she started to react in ways I hadn’t expected when her focus was lost and I couldn’t tolerate it (for safety reasons). I enrolled in my first Fenzi Dog Sports class on focus and ramped up our training. It made a huge difference.

Since that course proved so successful for my Mutt-Mutt, I’m going through it again with Kyu on my own time. The only thing holding us back now is his lack of desire to train. A problem I never had to this extent with Risa.

There were times Risa would quit on me. When I got frustrated (something I definitely improved upon during our time together) or the environment was too much. Most of these things I wouldn’t have even recognized when I first started dog training. Even with them being on my radar these days, I sometimes still fail to notice them in time. I never realized how forgiving Risa was of my inadequacies until I really got into training Kyu. Risa was sensitive to my moods and feelings but was not as affected by them. She would also repeat exercises over and over without quitting (for the most part). She was able to connect dots much easier than Kyu which allowed me to be a sloppier trainer.

It was easy to see where Risa and I mirrored each other. I generally feel Kyu and I have little in common but he is hyper-sensitive to my moods. Even the smallest amount of frustration from me or overt pressure will cause him to quit. It turns out we are both empaths and are strongly affected by the emotions of those around us. Since I can’t teach him to put up a wall around himself to keep out the feelings of others (something I’ve learned to do to protect myself over the years), I have to be far more cautious of my mood when it comes to training. As you might expect, I am not always good at this. 😉

In addition to overt and inadvertent pressure, I have to contend with the knowledge that training in general was poisoned during his illness. He didn’t feel good and food certainly didn’t help. It’s highly likely he’s connected some training with icky feelings which I also have to overcome.

Playing rally with Mom and looking so happy! Courtesy of Jim Petack.

While I begin to work on ramping up our focus and engagement training, I am struggling to do so. I have the most time to train with him in the evenings but this is the time he is most stressed about training at all. If I get out cookies and look like I’m going to start a session, he gets nervous and will not take food or offer behaviors (cued or not). Location doesn’t seem to matter at all. Whether it’s the kitchen, living room, or training space; I get the same reaction. It’s really disheartening.

He certainly doesn’t hate training, though. He’ll happily do it when I sneak it in at other times or take it on the road. I’ve taken to doing quick sessions after his morning walk or right when I get home from work. I’ve also slipped in some focus work and engagement training on our walks themselves. This will soon become more challenging as the weather gets colder. I will have to make special trips to fun places to work on these skills! I’m happy I haven’t ruined training completely but it is a struggle to work on things sometimes.

I also am trying to make sure I’m careful to not pressure him to work with me because it’s SO FUN. He will back off completely if I come on too strong. I want him to choose to work with me. And it’s really hard some days to respect his “no.” I believe in giving dogs choice when possible and I respect his decision. But it still hurts me sometimes. My dog doesn’t want to do super fun stuff with me. 🙁

Despite our struggles, he is improving. He managed to score a 97 his second time in rally at his breed specialty with a LOVELY connected performance. He also earned his first title in musical freestyle (Entry MF) the following weekend. He’s also becoming better connected with me in agility. In fact, he’s exceeded expectations the last few times we’ve worked on his weave training in the yard. One day, he hit a really hard entry from the opposite side. Just this week, he blew past me to take the weaves while I was trying to set him up because I’ve built desire to go through the poles! It was hard to deliver his reward at that distance but I couldn’t complain. 🙂

I’ve definitely stepped back on much of his training to try and give him a break and repair the damage I’ve done (intentionally or not) to our training relationship. Our day-to-day relationship, thankfully, is very strong. It’s just in training where we struggle. While I’m not training with any specific goals in mind and am doing as little formal training as possible, my goal this winter is to work on his focus and engagement training. As I well know, all the well-trained tricks in the world mean nothing if your dog won’t look to you for direction. I’ve been there before.

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