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.

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

I dropped the ball! and not while playing fetch…

Life snuck away from me and I forgot my blog posting schedule. Sorry about that. We all drop the ball sometimes, I will do my best to be a better blogger for you guys!

You know what else snuck away from me?

My own dog training schedule. 

“you gonna get up anytime soon?”

That one I can’t let slide because my dogs depend on me for their training schedule, just like they depend on me for their food, hikes, snacks, potty breaks, and peanut butter bones. (that list could go on forever but you get the idea)

I realized I had been slipping on my own dog’s training when their behavior started to deteriorate. Opie and Pixie started barking at nothing, Cargo started getting bitey with me when I told her the couch blanket was not for biting. In my house these are very minor things in the grand scheme but still gives me valuable information to how they are feeling.

Here in Hampton Roads it rained pretty much the whole month of February. I don’t let Cargo play fetch or agility in the mud because she slips and slides all over the backyard and it’s not good for her joints and muscles. That paired with her general lack of self preservation would send us to the vets office pretty quick! I have big plans for her this year, so I’d rather not break her.  That being said, I only have so much brain bandwidth to dedicate to coming up with things for my dogs to learn, and a whole month of rain had me pretty bored with the stuff we were doing. The reinforcement wasn’t there for me, so we stopped.

..and the barking started… 

It took me a little bit to figure out what was happening. The dogs who walk still got their walks, they were getting their enrichment toys, and our schedules didn’t change all that much. The only thing that changed was the training time.  So I made a point to add it back in to our schedule.

I am happy to report the barking at nothing has stopped, and right now I have a malinois asleep on the couch. (that is a huge accomplishment right there!) 

So what did we do? Cargo started a sports foundations class at a local dog club. Opie started doing some conditioning exercises, and working on his position changes. Pixie has been reviewing some of the stuff she used to be really good at. She’s had quite a bit of time off so we are brushing off the dust. It takes me 15 minutes to work all 3 dogs, and we are now on a pretty good 3 times a week schedule.

What can you do?

The easy answer is figure out what your dog does that annoys you and work on that for your 5 minutes a day. If you are like most of the people who read this and your dog “is really good” then teach them something fun to show your friends. Spinning in a circle, nose touches, jumping over your leg, putting their feet on a book are all great examples of silly things that help your dog use their brain and keep the annoying behaviors at bay.

Need some help coming up with something to train? Drop me a message here on facebook or Insta! Make me do another facebook live to help you out! ha!

Practice Patience and Consistency

Today it’s really cold outside.

I am supposed to be working on my IAABC application, but instead I am doing some displacement sniffing. (Comment if you know what displacement sniffing is!)

Practice Patience and Consistency!

I have been recording my training sessions with Cargo since she was a tiny baby. Most of our training up to this point has been online or by myself. We have taken a handful of classes, she has a few barn hunt titles and done some private sessions. But a majority of training is at home and alone.

The perk of this is that I have hundreds of hours of video on my computer that I can go back and look at when I need to. The downside is that none of these videos are labeled, categorized or have any distinguishing features besides the tiny thumbnail they give me.

Enter displacement sniffing. I am going through all the videos to identify which of my dogs are actually in the video and what in the heck we are working on! I have a solid year of video to go through. Lord help me!

(Again, I should be working on an application)

My plan is to go through the videos and find all the places where I have been practicing with Cargo and show you the progression of some of our exercises.

I may just have to talk about them instead. (hundreds of hours of video y’all)

I will say my favorite part of recording my training sessions is that when I think I am not progressing I can (occasionally) go back a few videos and see where we came from and what the behavior looks like at this point.  Last week it was our “back ups.” Took a look at last weeks video and well that doesn’t look so bad. We carry on.

That’s the point I am trying to make here. WE carry on! We keep working toward that final goal.

What is your final goal for your dog?

What are you doing to get there? Are you on the right track?

Does it look better than it did last month? Last week?

Keep practicing and keep pushing along. With dogs, it’s the journey, not necessarily the destination.