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My Blog


On the joy of training your dog

Posted on March 31, 2014 at 5:19 PM Comments comments (342)
As the Behavior Program Coordinator at the Siskiyou Humane Society, it's been my privilege over the years to meet many very fine young people, and be a mentor for some of them.  I remember (would I could forget) myself as a teenager, a troubled bundle of awkwardness, lack of confidence, desire to fit in and passion to become my own person.  I remember those few adults who took the time to give me something of themselves, who listened to me, who I felt "understood" me, and how valuable they were in my life.  I can only be myself--and golly, am I no guru.  Still, I always hope and wish that the young people I interact with can come away with something meaningful and helpful to them.  We never know, of course--all those horses led to water, but the drinking is up to them.

I always think, though, that if there was a magic button I could press that would allow me to give these youngsters a gift, it would be this:

To know that they are powerful.  That their behavior matters and counts profoundly.  That their choices and actions make a difference--to their quality of life, to the people around them and ultimately to the world.   And that taking responsibility for our own actions and results isn't about getting blamed or feeling guilty or accepting some social "trip" laid on us--it's about spreading our own wings into who we are and taking our power into our own hands.  

There's an old truism in the world of dog training:  Every handler gets the dog that they deserve.  Or, every dog is a reflection of the handler.  It's one of those ditties that I've heard many times and I always heard it with a little twinge of discomfort:  true as it may be, it sounds perilously close to wagging a scolding finger and blaming pet owners for not training their dogs "the right way."  But then something happened and it opened my eyes to seeing these truisms in a new, vastly more empowering light.

I videotaped one of my training sessions with Tinker and watched it.   Uh, oh boy, uh-oh.

See, I may be a professional dog trainer with your dog, but I'm really only a pet owner with my dog.  When I come to your house or teach a group class, I'm on the clock, so to speak.  I'm focused on one thing and one thing only--you and your dog and providing the best training services possible.  I'm not multi-tasking on my computer, calling a friend on my cell phone or deciding it's time for a sandwich and I need to put the laundry in the dryer.  I wouldn't dream of stopping in the middle of a group class to smell the roses, repair an agility jump or ponder what I'm having for dinner tonight.   And I'm usually pretty good about not deciding I'd rather rub your dog's tummy and laugh at her goofy antics than train.

With my own dog, though... its all on video.  Tinker is a marvel of flashes of brilliance followed by lack of focus; over-excitement and laziness; little gems of technical perfection mixed with gobs of sloppiness, checking out the flowers and deciding the heck with training, let's go sniff and get a belly rub.  She is in fact exactly a refection of me: trying to do too many things at once, easily distracted by shiny objects and a sudden urge for pizza, too tired at the end of a long day to be sharp and inclined to throw up her hands at the boring or tricky bits that need real work.  Well, they say every dog is a reflection of her handler.  I just had no idea it would be so darned literal.

What's cool about all this is the other old truism: knowledge is power.  And the truth is, I don't need to do a lot to become a better trainer for my own dog--just like you don't have to do as much as you might think to get really useful improvements in your dog's behavior.  We just need to remember:  our behavior matters.  Our actions count.  And sometimes the difference between a truly well-trained dog and a dog driving you nuts isn't hard or complicated:  it's you taking back your own power.  It's taking a deep breath, turning off the cell phone, and giving the dog a few short minutes of our undivided attention when we can be fresh and focused and fully engaged.  It's the joy of communicating and learning and teaching and meeting another mind across the gulf of our differences, human and canine, not all at once but in gems of baby-steps that build, one at a time, to something wonderful and true.

The beauty of group classes is that we get to do these things together, to support and empower each other in the process, and to practice in a setting where dogs can learn lessons they need  most:  how to listen and perform around other people and other dogs.

I hope you'll join us in 2014 for a season of training joy and fun.

On Spring, Love, Dogs and Volcanos

Posted on March 23, 2014 at 10:01 PM Comments comments (431)
Oh, it's so good to be back!  As many of you know, last summer a detached retina put me on somewhat limited training duty.  Four eye surgeries later, my vision is a working sensory array again, and I'm super excited to be getting ready for the new training season.  I'm also stoked to be able to offer a brand-new course that I think everyone will enjoy and benefit from:  You vs. the Volcano: Reaching Behavior Success with Your High Energy Dog (more on that in a moment.)

Most of all, I'm grateful--to my family, my friends, my co-workers at Siskiyou Humane and all my wonderful dog training clients who were so patient and understanding during a difficult time for me.   The support I received--endless rides to doctors when I couldn't drive myself, assistance with chores I couldn't tackle and tolerance for my crankiness--was extraordinary and beyond my words to express the appreciation it's due.  Thank you.

During that period, I tried to make the best use of my down-time by--well, golly, big surprise--studying everything I could about dogs.  And training, and neuroscience, and behavior.  I read books, watched endless DVD's and enrolled in online classes.  Since I was restricted in where I could go and what I could do, I didn't get to do everything I wanted to do with my own dog (though really, do we ever?)  Tinker, bless her heart, spent most of the winter training in the living room, getting limited walks out in the rest of the world, and unfortunately learning to be a bit reactive to all the things that made ME reactive with my poor eyesight.  She also kept me company without complaint, and made me laugh endlessly with both her genius and her clownishness.  Most of all, she made me think.

Not everyone has a relationship with their dog that reaches into a heart of intimacy that transcends words.  Not everyone would choose to, and that's okay.  For those of us who do find ourselves in That Place with the dog or dogs in our lives, finding ways to communicate and train that are respectful, ethical and loving goes beyond a gooey heart-warming idea and becomes an imperative.  We're aware, or should always be aware, that there is another being on the end of our leash whose entire quality of life is dependent on us.  Tinker had no choice about all those missed walks and hikes.  I couldn't see well, so she got to train in the living room and the few safe places we could access.

I am deeply and profoundly and stupidly in love with my Catahoula mix girl.  And yet, I never want to forget that, no matter how strongly I feel about her, she is her own animal:  a creature that has her own feelings, her own agenda, her own desires, and in Tinker's case, her own strong opinions about what she likes, doesn't like and wants to do or not do.  Yes, she's "just a dog."  But in my own experience of the heart, my spiritual world view,  all beings count.  They are beautiful.  They are individuals.  They are their own animals, not an extension of human needs and desires.  And they have needs.

All dogs don't all need the same things.  There are many, many lovely and gracious pet dogs that don't seem to need very much:  physical comfort, a walk around the block and kindness from a person who cares from them satisfies them entirely.  Then there are the other dogs.  Dogs like Tinker, that come into our lives not as easily-satisfied blank slates prepared to adapt to our old routines, but bursting with ideas of their own.  Tinker, my Queen of the Fixed Motor Pattern--call them instincts or drives or whatever used-to-be-scientific term that is currently out of favor--who ate the bark off a tree in my backyard trying to reach a raccoon, climbs like a cat, sniffs like a bloodhound and jumps like a deer--or a bull exiting a china shop.  Her curiosity about the world around her is insatiable.  Her need to know, to explore, to solve problems and "kill" all squeaky toys is as important to her as the air that she breathes.   

Every week at the shelter we receive dogs of all kinds with the same fundamental problem:  they were their own animals, and it somehow went unrecognized.  They weren't like the "last dog," the old and perfect dog.  They had too much energy.  They didn't listen or stay in the yard.  They needed things and wanted things of their own--things as important to them as the air that they breathed.  And they were never given, for whatever reasons, the skills needed to cope with the inevitable disappointments of life:  how to wait, to control their impulses, to listen in the face of distracting temptations and earn what they wanted by being calm and keeping their heads in the game.  Also every week it seems that I speak to wonderful, lovely and committed pet parents who are at their wits' end trying to get their high energy, high drive, highly "opinionated" dog to be--some other kind of dog.  It isn't that they didn't train or try to train the dog--they did exactly what worked perfectly well with their last dog.  It's just not working.  And it's not going to, for a few simple reasons.

As a dog trainer, of course I'm big on training--we all like to think we can teach a new behavior and presto! the dog will be a marvel of Lassiehood.  But if there's one thing I've learned from working with hundreds of shelter dogs, it's this:  training on top of unmet needs is like trying to put a cork in a volcano. 

If the dog isn't healthy, if the dog is an emotional wreck of fear and anxiety, if the dog hasn't had any exercise for weeks or has been exhausted by a few frightening nights lost in the woods, they can't focus, or think, or learn.  Like a child sent to school on an empty belly, they have other more immediate concerns that need to be addressed.  Just trying to jam "better behavior" on top of existing problems is a lot of work, not much return--and likely to blow up in our faces.  To be successful with these dogs, we have to address their underlying needs first.

Please be clear that "addressing needs" doesn't mean "catering to every whim."
We can't always have what we want when we want it, not us, not our dogs--of course, we can't.   Life isn't perfect.  It does, though, have to be good enough.  If it's not good enough, behavior will inevitable suffer.  And no amount of training will help if it's not aimed at the Real Problem.

You vs. the Volcano: Reaching Behavior Success with Your High Energy Dog is a course for anyone or everyone who has a dog like my Tinker.  A dog with a lot of energy and a lot of behavior that's important to them--but that may not be working for you.  It's a course about problem solving, about finding compromises, about draining the "juice" out of the Volcano so that you have a dog you can work with and live with.  It's about getting those underlying needs--which often aren't what we expect them to be--met, or even using them as motivators in a kind of training judo to get exactly the behavior you want.

It's about seeing your dog clearly, appreciating him for the amazing individual animal thathe is--and making it work for both of youby taking actions that are truly effective.

Whether you are considering the course as a Working Team with your dog, attend as an auditor or just come to the opening lecture session, I hope you will join us!

Foundations in Behavior & Training starts March 21

Posted on February 19, 2013 at 11:13 AM Comments comments (0)
It's official--Foundation in Behavior & Training will begin on Thursday, March 21, 2013 from 6-9 pm.  The course will be held in Mt. Shasta, exact location TBA.

One of the neat things about putting a new course together is that I get to research, refresh and renew my knowledge and understanding in the field of dog training.  A lot of the science has been around for a very long time, but areas like genetics and neuroscience in particular are wide and woolly frontiers.  Exploring the cutting edge of these disciplines as they relate to applied animal behavior leads to some exciting gems of discovery, ways of looking at our beloved companions from a fresh--and potentially revealing--perspective.  Most exciting, some of these gems help us look at our dogs and cats from the perspective that really matters--their perspective.  From the top of that mountain, how we communicate and how we train looks very, very different.

I'm looking forward to seeing everyone in March!

Behavior "Chopped"

Posted on February 10, 2013 at 12:32 AM Comments comments (160)
As many of you know, in addition to working at the Siskiyou Humane Society and my own private practice, I have over the years had the privilege of mentoring budding and beginning dog trainers.  And I've had the honor of getting to work with many long-term clients who have been bitten by the "training bug" and want to go beyond just teaching Sit or Down.  I have often wished--with them and with the Staff at the shelter--that I could distill into a magic pill all the knowledge and whatever wisdom I've gained in my twelve year adventure as a dog trainer and behavior geek.

Well, I haven't come up with anything as easy as a magic pill.  But I have, after a few months of hard work, come up with a new program that I'm really excited about:  Foundations in Behavior & Training should be ready to launch in March. ( Please visit the Foundations Course page for more details; as soon as I get the location and dates nailed down, the course will be open for registration.)

Which brings me to cooking :)  Have any of you ever watched the cooking show Chopped?  That's the one wherefour competing chefs get a mystery basket of weird ingredients like squid, cheese puffs, maple syrup and cauliflower and have to turn it into a delectable gourmet dish for a panel of celebrity chef/judges.  Amazingly, unlike moi, a lot of these chefs can turn those weird ingredients into something delicious.  Me, I can make an awesome grilled cheese sandwich, and I'm okay with ingredients and dishes I know.  Present me with a basket of mystery ingredients, though, and I'm not coming up with anything delectable or gourmet.

The difference between me and the chefs is that the chefs understand the underlying principles of cooking.  They know about savory and sweet, how to use spices, which flavors combine well, how one cooking method enhances some flavors and textures while another method brings out others.  What they know goes beyond recipes and to the core of how flavor works in food.  So you can hand them a basket of weird mystery ingredients, and they can apply those underlying core principles to make something delicious.  No recipe.  Just an intimate understanding and relationship with flavors and food.

Behavior is like that.  Most of us have figured out how to make a pretty good grilled cheese sandwich with our pets, and it usually goes okay.  But sometimes our dogs hand us a basket of weird mystery ingredients, behaviors that we aren't used to dealing with.  Or we decide we'd like to expand our cuisine to include Agility, or a better Recall than our last dog had, and we don't have a good recipe for the new dish we'd like to try.  Or maybe we just want to spice up our relationship with our furry best friend, achieve something larger in relationship or intimacy.  

Now, please don't get me wrong--I'm a big fan of dog training recipes.  Lots of very bright trainers have used them to great success:  they really do work and I encourage their use.  It's just, there's a particular joy and freedom in being able to put the cook book aside and just rock with the flavors a dog has to offer. 

Foundation in Behavior & Training is my offering to anyone who wants to get to an intimacy and relationship with their pets that goes beyond recipes and "methods."  It's my take on the core principles that underlie the behavior of our companion animals.  Mostly, it's about using the Science of animal behavior--what we know and don't know--to ask deeper questions, observe more closely, probe more deeply.

In our culture, we don't always equate Science with things like empathy, passion and joy.  For me, though, that's the heart and soul of it:  getting to a place outside my own head, beyond my little box of opinions, and really looking at the animal.  Really listening to what the dog or cat is saying with his or her behavior.  Asking questions not to get my answer, but to learn their answer.

As I put Foundations in Behavior & Training together, my goal was to take the core principles of animal behaviorand make the science as accessible, clear and downright exciting as I can.  To take us beyond recipes and methods to a deeper understanding of how sweet and savory go together, how spices change flavors, how different approaches enhance or change the texture of our understanding of our dogs.  To give us a broader perspective that moves us from just trying to get our dogs to behave to understand how and why they behave.

I won't lie:  this is a "serious" course, a course for people who have a real, sincere interest in learning more about animal behavior.  As we'll see, animal behavior is a complex system, and my goal was to make the science accessible, not dumb it down or over-simplify it.  We're going to talk about ethology and genetics, learning theory and evolutionary biology, neuroscience and, yes indeedy, even Niko Tinbergen's Four Questions about animal behavior.  Awesome!

I'm also committed to having the course be as entertaining, relaxed and fun as I can make it--a journey of inquiry that we take together as a group.

We'll be starting some time in March.  I hope you'll join us.