Birthday Party for a 4 year old: A comparison to Dog Training

I was lucky enough to attend my favorite four year old’s birthday party last weekend. This post is not about dog safety tips or parenting with dogs. These two are the best parents I have ever seen. (No unwanted parenting advice. I’ll call you out.) This friend and I have many conversations about behavior and it’s antecedents, its consequences and manipulating all of the above. She is not a dog trainer, she’s a teacher and a parent. I know that dogs are not children and should not be treated as such, but the similarities are there.

As a dog trainer, it is my job to observe and note all the things. This is how I avoid getting bit by my clients, and design training plans that work for the individual in front of me. Just because I have an idea of what should happen in a situation, does not mean that it is going to happen if my contingencies are not there. As a parent, it is also your job to know your child. What motivates them, what drives behavior, and how to manipulate the antecedents to get the behavior you want or avoid behavior you don’t want. The other, most important aspect is to look at what is actually happening in front of you.

Back to my birthday party.

Now, it’s difficult not to trigger stack a 4 year old. 4 year olds also think they want to do things that maybe they aren’t quite ready for. (sounding familiar?) There was an inflatable water slide at this birthday party, complete with a hose at the bottom. (where was this stuff when we were kids?) Now, this 4 year old was really excited to play on this slide. I watched her run outside with her friends, and climb the ladder to the top. Once at the top, I could see the mood change. Suddenly, the slide was a long way down, and that pool didn’t look quite so inviting. Her friends were there cheering her on and after some hesitation down she went, straight into the hose spraying water in her face. And we were done.

Now the fabulous parents that my friends are, unemotionally, swooped in and asked her what was wrong, settled her into a towel, and she sat and watched the slide happen for a good 20 minutes. Once she was in a better state of mind, playing inside with her new toys was a much better way to spend her party.  Everyone is happy again.

Now let’s look at how this could have gone differently.

These parents could have forced her down the slide again to “get her over her fear.”

They could have done nothing and let her continue her meltdown in the pool.

Instead, they chose to treat her fear as something legitimate at the moment, but address it in a way that she could learn from. Meltdowns don’t happen for no reason.

What does this look like in our dogs? (This is a dog training blog after all)

Let’s operationalize what a meltdown for our dogs looks like. This would be the barking, lunging, spinning, and otherwise embarrassing behaviors that we as owners work very hard to avoid.

Face your fears: This is the “lets get closer” approach.  Your barking, lunging, dog is now forced to approach the scary thing to see that it is in fact, not scary. Think about something that you are afraid of. For me it’s snakes. If you dragged me over to see a snake to prove that it was not scary, I would punch you in the face. This also would do absolutely nothing for my fear of snakes.

Do nothing: This is what most people opt for because they have no idea what to do in this moment. (Keep reading! I’ll be giving you some tips!) Just like the birthday girl, ignoring the meltdown is going to break the trust that she has in the people who are supposed to protect her. Her fear is real to her in the moment. So is the fear your dog is feeling. It’s real in the moment, and he needs you to tell him that you are going to protect him.

So what do we do?

First, we pay attention! Get really good at reading stress signals. Walking your dog is your time to bond, it’s not the time you catch up on phone calls, and emails. If we wait for the embarrassing behaviors, we are too far gone. When your dog is worried about something, he’s going to look at it for a bit longer than normal. That is when the reassurance kicks in. Talk to your dog and when they turn to look at you, there you are with a snack. Can your dog take the food? Yes? We are okay, can we look at it again and move on? Yes. Great!

Can’t take the food? Uh-oh, we are drowning a bit and need to get away. Happily move your dog farther away from the thing. Here he can process from a distance that is comfortable for him. Once we can take the food and dismiss the thing, then we can move on.

Now, this is a very simplified way of looking at fear and counter conditioning. This seems simple, but I work with people for months to get their dogs to a point where they feel confident walking down the street.

Every dog is going to meltdown at something at some point in their life. Have a plan in place to deal with it. Always have your food on you, always be paying attention. These two quick tips will help you avoid a much more embarrassing moment later on.

Fear and Fireworks

Fourth of July. Cookouts, campfires, family and friends.

Panic inducing lights and sounds. All. Night. Long.

For many of us, Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, random tuesday nights with inconsiderate neighbors, mean long hours of watching your furry friend pace and pant and pace some more.

Clearly we need to help them out, because no one wants to be up all night with a pacing panting dog.

Here are a few tips to get you through the weekend!

Don’t Ace the Fear!

Happy Independence Day!

Your vets office will be closed on the fourth. Get your meds today if you know your dog needs them! If your vet is prescribing Acepromazine then please ask for something else! Acepromazine is a paralytic, so while Fluffy might not be pacing and panting, his brain is still freaking out! Medications like Trazodone, and Sileo help to target the fear pathways in the brain and rewire the experience.

Keep Everyone Safe!

Make sure you have your dogs identification tags on their collars, and their microchip information is up to date! This is especially important if you are having friends and family over. Our Animal Control officers are always busiest this holiday weekend because dogs get spooked and run, or someone leaves the gate open. Even though Fido never leaves the yard, the impending doom of the sky exploding is enough to send them running. If you are having friends and family over, consider leaving Fido at a friends house where it is quiet and there is no chance of escape.

Supplements to help soothe!

Keep pups at home this holiday where they are safe and secured!

We will be running Lavender in the diffuser next week. Other options are Adaptil collars and plug ins, L-theanine supplements and my favorite, CBD oil. Not all CBD is created equal since it is not yet FDA regulated. We use Treatibles. It is a bit pricey, but I like this brand over the others that I have tried, both in consistency and effectiveness. (Use The Freckled Paw as a coupon code for a discount.) Some people have success with the Thunder shirt as well. Start putting that on now to make sure Fido is not only associating it with bad experiences. Put it on for 30 minutes after dinner every night this week just to make sure!

A word on Counter Conditioning

If you are really committed to helping your pup through this scary day, start some counter conditioning. Get a big bucket of food and a video of thunder or the New Years firework display. Turn the volume on your cell phone ALL THE WAY DOWN! Start where the noise is barely audible to you. When you get a slight reaction from your dog, like an ear flick or looking around, throw your food on the floor. We want Spot to hardly recognize the sound and get snacks. Once you get no reaction or your pup looking at the floor for food, then you can turn up the volume, one notch! It’s a slow but worthwhile process to have a functioning pup during storms!

The Conflict of Expectation

Opal in 2009

In my last post, I wrote about my hobby: Dog Sports.

In this post, I want to let you in on a bit of my human journey.

When I was in my 20’s I was very active in rescue and dog events. I could be found promoting rescues and the idea that pitbulls in shelters were not inherently evil, and could in fact, make a very nice pet. (I still work with pitbulls in rescue quite a bit, just in a different capacity)

I adopted Opal in 2009.

I’ve mentioned her quite a bit in blog posts. Since she had some pretty debilitating separation anxiety, she went everywhere with me. (this was a time before medication, you lucky, lucky people!) This means she spent her weekends at things like Woofstock or Bark in the Park. She was great at showing people that bully breed type dogs were actually nice pets and could live peacefully in normal society. One day in 2012, I was packing the car for a weekend event, and instead of getting in the car, Opal walked down to the neighbors house. We had a heart to heart conversation, and I told her I needed her today, but she didn’t have to go with me anymore, unless she wanted to. She chose home more and more often.

Pixie and I at Dock Dog Nationals in Iowa

Pixie

A few months later, I brought Pixie home from the shelter. She was a lovely puppy, quiet in her kennel, good with other puppy playmates, still very young. I figured I would foster her for a few months and off she would go to a new home. Well, y’all know, she never left. When she had been with me about a year, I decided she was staying and she would be my sport dog.

About a year later, Pixie became incredibly reactive to other dogs and people while on a walk. In some places, she was great with the chaos, but one on one it was too much for her to handle. At the time, I didn’t realize the two were related, and being a brand new dog trainer, I couldn’t understand why some places were so difficult, and others she looked like she loved.

Pixie is not the dog I envisioned when I brought her home from the shelter six years ago. I’ve mourned the idea of  the dog I thought I was getting. My husband and I have had more conversations about euthanasia and dog management than any normal couple should ever have. (Bless him for taking on my crazy dog with open arms!)

Stages of Grief

It took me about 3 years to really go through the 7 stages of grief with her. When my baby dog started acting aggressively, I was in denial and kept asking her to do more sports trying to find something we could do safely together. Because everything can be fixed with more training, I tried everything, I am a dog trainer after all! I was angry that I had the dog that I couldn’t leave the house with. The dog I always had to be 100% on top of to make sure she was safe. I wanted to show the world that she was so wonderful, what did I do wrong?!

Pixie is retired now.

Pixie in 2014 ordering ice cream

I have finally accepted that she is a dog who stays at home with 100% management. Her fear of the world is too great for her to be safe and comfortable. She was supposed to be my first real dog sport teammate. She gave me the best she could, but the more we tried, the more I could tell she was only there because I asked her to be. Genetics are a crazy thing and sometimes you get the short end of the stick.

To those of you mourning the loss of the dog you envisioned, I see you.

Going through the stages of grief for an idea seems like a crazy thing, but it is real. Loss is real, and you have lost the idea of what your life with this dog should be. It does take some time to accept that things will be different. Different is not necessarily worse, but just different.

I have been there, and I will help you as much as I can to get you close to the goals you have set. The grief is real, and I helps to talk to someone. Send me an email if you need someone to empathize. I will hear you!

Dog Training as a lifestyle

I became a dog trainer because I want to help people with their dog’s behavior problems.

Originally, I was seeing so many doggo’s being surrendered to shelters or rescue groups because of frustrating behaviors that can easily be fixed. I started trying to help these people and well, the rest his history.

Today, I love training. I love all things behavior, all things dog. Where the two meet, I am in heaven! (Note: I try very hard to not get really nerdy with my clients. Most of them do not care at all about Pavlov, operant conditioning or contrafreeloading. They just want me to fix their dog.)

Summertime for me means dog sports. I spend my weekends off getting up at 5:30am and driving sometimes a few hours, to a large fairground or other training facility where I hang out in my car until I get to throw a toy in a pool or have a dog hunt some rats for about 5 minutes at a time.

I train dogs all day long, why do I want to train more dogs?

First, training is important for your dog’s overall mental health.

I want my dogs to be as healthy as they can be for as long as they can be and training is a huge part of that. (read again, training is a necessity not a luxury) Does Cargo need to know how to run around a cone or follow a toy into a pool? No. Does it make me unnaturally happy to be doing these things with my dog? Yes. The small amount of time that I spend with my dogs, teaching them to do these silly things, improves their relationship with me. I become their safe space and when things go wrong, they look to me for information on how to make it right. Training is how we communicate with each other.

Second, I enjoy watching my dogs figure things out.

They like being successful. I get to watch your dogs figure things out every day, why wouldn’t I want my own dogs experiencing that joy? My dogs love working with me, and we have a good enough relationship that they agree to do these silly things that make me happy. In turn I agree to only do the things that make them happy. This is why Pixie stays at home. She is not happy in the show environment and I owe it to her to listen to that request. The other two love their jobs and they are happy to comply when I ask Opie to find the rats, or Cargo to do anything at all.

Lastly, the mental challenge helps me help you.

As I grow as a dog trainer for my own dogs, I develop better ways to relate to your dog, which helps you reach your goals faster. If my dog’s didn’t challenge me as a dog owner, I would not know half the stuff I do now! (I’m looking at you, Pixie!) I used to think that dog sports had nothing to do with being a good dog trainer, but over the years I have seen that the trainers who can relate to their clients the best, are always pushing themselves to learn new techniques and try new things with their dog. Dog sports give that parameter for the pushing to do new things.

When the day comes and I am all that is left of our team, each of those ribbons that we win together will bring with it a memory. A memory that I will forever cherish.

Practically Perfect “Pixie” RN CGC Dock Diving Big Air PB 19’6″  SR 4.998

Stephen’s “Opie” RATI RATS

Whiplash’s All The Places You’ll Go “Cargo” RATI RATO

Communication is key!

We hear that communication is important in every aspect of our lives. With our spouse, our co-workers, our family, communicating effectively is the topic of a very large self-help section of the internet.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s the same with our dogs.

Teaching people to communicate with their dogs is the #1 thing that I do. Those of you who have met with me, know that I am constantly reading your dog’s body language, and interpreting what I see, so we can help them (and you) the most effective way possible. By teaching you how to read these signals, you can adjust your approach to help your dog cope with the situation and get through it successfully.

A lesson in Dog

Dogs are incredibly visual animals. They see details fairly well, and use those visual signals to communicate with each other. Kinda like sign language for deaf people. Here is a handout by Lili Chin (look up her illustrations, they are amazing!) These are the signals that dogs give to each other when they are feeling uncomfortable in a situation. Watch your dog on their next walk. Are they displaying any of these signals? What has happened right before the signal? As you walk, do you notice more of these signals? What happens if you give them a cookie during this event?

These are your dog’s whispers that they are not okay. If you listen to these whispers, then you don’t have to worry about yelling when something big happens.  Do you have a dog who suddenly starts to bark at seemingly nothing? What about a dog who barks at other dogs? Start paying attention to the signals above while you are out.

It’s listening to those whispers that are going to make you a great dog owner. It teaches your dog to trust that you are not going to put them in a situation they can’t handle, and if they are struggling you are going to help them through it like a friend.

They are our best friends, are we taking time to listen?