Monday, November 22, 2010

Controlled Chaos

Sooooo, we all know that I've been preparing Kuna for public appearance. I work on him being comfortable in crowds, leaving other dogs alone and keep his wits about him in extremely chaotic situations. I couldn't be more proud - the boy is doing really well!

This weekend, Kuna and I were participants in Kathy Sdao's "So Many Choices" workshop. There were 2 working groups and 2 auditors assigned to each group, with a total of about 15 - 20 groups. We were at the lovely Coventry School for Dogs in Columbia, MD owned and operated by the fantastic Ruth Chase. If you've never seen her facility, you're missing out!

The application portion of the seminar was held in a very warehouse-like room and let me say this: the acoustics were wonderful. Unless you have 20 trainers with 20 clickers, barking dogs, people talking over other people, and an instructor on a PA system yelling over them. My brain short circuited about 5 minutes in.

Why? Oh because I forgot one tiny little trainer's commandment while conditioning Kuna to chaotic situations: Prepare Thyself.

I haven't been on this end of the proverbial leash for a while! People were evaluating my performance, giving me pointers, critiquing my training skills - that's been MY job! I have no problem giving a demo as the trainer, but suddenly I was thrown in to the role of student and boy oh boy, suddenly I was missing the motor skills portion of my brain.

The noise was unbearable. Kuna's performance obviously reflected my training: we fell apart almost instantly. And it just went downhill from there. Saturday was the worst day ever.

On my drive back to the seminar Sunday morning, I reflected on what exactly went wrong the day before and here's what I've compiled:

I simply was not prepared.
You can bring every type of treat imaginable but that only helps your dog. I should have told myself that it was going to be chaotic and that I was going to be anxious because I didn't know anyone (contrary to what many people may think, I'm actually VERY shy in new settings...I forget this because I force myself to be outgoing in order to be an effective teacher...).

I've programmed my brain to only accept constructive criticism, TAG Teach style.
While this may seem like a good thing, it actually makes my skin that much thinner when people do not follow the teachings of TAG. Not everyone understands or applies these techniques. It hurts my feelings when I hear "You shouldn't have done it like that..." or "I think you made a mistake when..." I'm sorry. I might sound like a big baby. But that just takes away any ounce of confidence I had. And confidence is what makes me an effective trainer.

I expected Kuna to carry me.
Since I'm being honest, I also realized that I thought all that hard work I've put in to training Kuna would somehow make my job easier. How? I guess I kind of thought "well, he's such a good boy, this should go smoothly" - as if I expected HIM to do all the work. But he's my job and I'm employed 24/7.

I forgot this was a learning experience.
Even after we faltered, I should have just let it roll of my back. We were there to learn and make mistakes. Kuna didn't care if we looked stupid - all he was concerned with was us as a team: where are we going? what are we doing? can we share that sandwich???

So Sunday, I took off my dog trainer hat. I didn't care how well we did, how much slower we progressed through the exercises than the rest of the group...all I was concerned with was "are me and my boy having a good time learning?"

It was no surprise that Sunday was our most successful day.

So when you're working with your dog, remember: you are an integral portion to the team. It's not just your dog doing the work and going through the motions - it's up to YOU to carry the team home. Keep your wits about you, maintain your game face and celebrate no matter the outcome!

Friday, November 19, 2010

My Boy's Got a Sniffer!

I like that each dog has his or her own "thing" that they do well AND like doing. Sarah is a good supervisor. She doesn't let the puppy get out of line, yet she's patient enough to let him be a puppy. Bizzle is my experimental dog - any new behavior I want to try out, Bizz will pick it up in a heartbeat. She'll also let me know if my training skills need to be sharpened because if I am not clear enough or fast enough, she'll let out a "woo-woo-woooo!" in protest. But she loves learning!

As you may know, Kuna is my very first 100% clicker-trained dog. I already see the difference. He will learn new things without hesitation, he bounces back quickly and he's been socialized (the right way) heavily. I've talked about my big plans for him: he's my public dog. Sarah used to be, but she's getting old and would be happier if I just left her at home. Kuna comes with me to after-school programs, demos with me for clients and goes anywhere dogs are permitted. But I've been anxiously waiting for the moment that HE shows me who he is. Two nights ago, his talent was revealed!

We've got a dog-toy box, which Kuna loves to dig through and find the perfect toy. Because I'm a terrible housekeeper, I tossed one of Bizz's old ladybug Halloween costumes in there. He found it and was tearing through the house like he just discovered a gold mine! I wanted it back because I didn't want him ripping it. So, I offered another one of his toys for an exchange. He obliged.

As I held it in my hand, I was talking to John. I made a gesture like I tossed the costume and it made Kuna drop his other toy and start searching for the costume. He would. not. stop. He just kept sniffing the couch, smelling under the coffee table - it had to be here somewhere, I just saw her throw it!

J and I looked at each other - he's a sniffer! Now, this shouldn't be such a surprise. We're pretty sure he's got beagle in him (based on the braying he does!) and we're guessing the other breeds mixed in are houndish and terrier-like.

I wanted to test this out! So, I had Kuna sit and stay in the other room but where he could still see me. I "hid" the costume/toy in plain sight and said "Go find it!" and encouraged him to come look for it. 5 minutes of this game and I was able to hide it under a blanket, where he didn't see me put it, and he was able to find it! Everytime he found it, I gave him lots of praise and let him tug and play with it. Then, I would cue "Out" and he'd run to the mat where I had him sitting and staying just so he could "Find it" again.

I hid it once behind the curtains - he was so close to it and would not give up on that area. He was sniffing the air, turning in fast circles until his nose landed on the curtains. All of a sudden, he froze with his nose on the curtain. Then, many fast sniffs through the fabric before his nose found it's way under the curtain and he got completely silly and came out from behind the curtain with his prize!

I'm super excited to see that this is what he loves. I think dogs need jobs, but they've got to have a job that they LOVE. With Kuna being my public dog, I had to make sure I made public appearance something he's comfortable with. But I'm happy to say that Kuna has revealed to me his passion: Finding Bizz's ladybug costume!

I can't wait to see what else we can work with! Nosework, here we come!!!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Getting Bored Training Your Dogs? Give your kids a try!

It's kind of funny - as patient as I am when it comes to training dogs, it takes a lot more for me to be patient with the kids. I don't know why, but I expect more from them. Which isn't fair - I get that - they're learning too. So this weekend was not only about teaching the kids, but also about teaching me that I can apply the same teaching principles I use with canines: positive reinforcement yields results.

Find what's reinforcing
Months ago, we developed the point system. If the kids did something good, they got a point. Those points could then be turned in at the end of the day or in the middle of the all depended on how desperate we were for them to behave. They got to have a popsicle or something of value.
Advantages: they were really excited about doing things right
Disadvantages: life got too busy and before we knew it, days had gone by and the kids were racking up the points. The reinforcement rate wasn't high enough for them to care after a while.

We decided to go with something more tactile...something they can physically hold on to. Enter: Pennies!

Gather training tools
The kids love when we're training the dogs with the clicker, so we decided to incorporate the clicker in their training too.

J and I carried around a handful of pennies and a clicker so we could quickly reward the kids.

Clearly state the criteria
The rules are: state EXACTLY what we WANT them to do. Words like don't and stop are omitted. If we tell exactly what we want them to do, we make the goal very clear. If we were to tell them to stop jumping on the couch, for example, then that's technically saying that running on the couch might be acceptable.

Good example: When you are done brushing your teeth, wipe all the water off the counter with the towel next to the sink. Clearly states: wipe the water, use the towel to do this and wait until you are done brusing your teeth to do it.

Bad example: Don't leave water on the sink. How? When you're talking to 3 and 5 year old kids, this could mean use your sleeve to wipe the water. Where? They could just wipe the water right in front of them, ignoring the water by the faucet. When? Again, they could wipe the counter before they start brushing their teeth! Definitely not what we're looking for...

Continue to reward the behavior
When the trainee is in the acquisition phase of learning, it's important to remember to continue to reward that behavior every time it happens. This is how good habits are formed.

Use negative punishment, when necessary
Our biggest challenge is the television. So, if we tell them to do something and they don't, we remove the television. No, not the whole thing! That's too impractical! But we definitely walk right over to the remote and turn off the T.V. End of discussion.

Example: "L, it's time to go wash your hands. When you're done washing your hands, go sit at the dinner table." No reply. So, I simply walk over to the T.V. and turn it off. That's when he says, "HEY! why'd you do that!?" I state very calmly, "I asked you to go wash your hands and then sit at the dinner table. The T.V. will remain off until you can do what I tell you."

What we learned this weekend
L learned to maintain eye contact when someone is speaking to him.
D learned to put her fork down once she's taken a bite.
Both kids learned to eat over their plates and keep their bodies facing forward while they eat.

What we found interesting about the training
The kids were VERY quick to point out when we didn't click and reward. At one point, J and I were talking and D put her fork down and wiped her face with her napkin after she had eaten. "HEY! you didn't click me!" LOL...

If one child got rewarded for a specific behavior, the other was quick to correct themselves. I clicked L for eating his green beans with his fork, instead of his fingers and caught D out of the corner of my eye stop using her fingers and grab her fork. Then, before I could even say anything she said "Look! I'm using my fork!"

It's not easy to stay on top of their behavior constantly. We were really tired by the end of the day. But we gave ourselves credit: we're using a very powerful tool and if we stick to it, we'll be rewarded handsomely with well-behaved, engaged-in-learning kids!

There were times throughout the day where nothing beat a good timeout. Crying for no reason? That gets you excused to the room for a timeout, just like a dog that's barking gets removed from the room.

Just like when training your dog, what you think is reinforcing or what was reinforcing to them ten minutes ago may no longer have as much importance now. With the kids, the pennies were not always want they wanted. Sometimes they wanted to watch a movie, sometimes they wanted to play a video game...we used these to our advantage.

Teaching people with clickers is not a new thing! To learn more about Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAG), go to!


Friday, November 5, 2010

Trying Something New

I know nothing about agility. Let me repeat that: N-o-t-h-i-n-g! But Bizz is such a high-energy dog, I've always had this dream of us running a course together.

This isn't a case of a mother wanting her child to grow up to be president - I think Bizz is actually really well-suited to agility! Well, there is the tiny little detail that she's reactive. And she hates wet grass. But we're gonna give it a try anyway. Not to mention, I think learning agility will challenge me as a trainer. After all, I've never tried it!

We're not just going to show up to a trial and hope for the best! Oh, no sir/ma'am! We've got months of practice before that!

1) J's gotta build us some agility equipment! I was looking online and found this cool site, which provides detailed instructions on how to build your own...everything! We're gonna start with the awesome adjustable channel weave poles. Not because that's the way you're supposed to do it but because I have this terrible habit of getting really excited about something new and starting things not in the beginning, not at the end, but kinda in the middle. I'm sure I'll be blogging in a couple weeks about how I made a huge mistake and should have started with something more simple. Until then...

2) B's skills assessment. She's my fast-as-a-whip, will-work-until-I-pass-out dog. She LOVES to work! Bizzle's skillset is as follows:
  • Targeting - objects, but more importantly, she'll target my hand which is what I'm going to use to get her to move on, over, under and through objects.
  • Sit
  • Wait
  • Recall & Drop - I recall her, issue the cue "Drop" and she lies down until I release her to come back to me, continuing her recall.
  • Over
  • Under
  • Up - land on top of an object
  • Tunnel - go through the tunnel
  • Go-Go-Go - this REALLY pumps her up. I yell this and she kicks it in to 6th gear! It wasn't anything she and I worked on. I would just yell it when she was running really fast and I'd even make her chase me during one of her need-for-speed outbursts, yelling Go-Go-Go! Pretty soon, it just started to mean "go faster!"
 3) While J is hard at work on the weave poles, B and I will refresh her "tunnel" (which we found at a toy store for 20 bucks!), her balance board (it's just going to be a large piece of plywood balancing on top of different unstable objects).

I'll be documenting our progress with video and posting them on the blog. I've been really wanting to do this with her for some time and I'm excited to start - even though winter's right around the corner! Doh! (pssst - we might have found a new training space...stay tuned!)

If anyone has any pointers for a beginner's agility team, please share!


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Click or Treat!

Ahhh...Halloween. For a dog owner like me, it's the second worst holiday when it comes to the stress my dogs go through, the Fourth of July topping the list as the ultimate! We try to keep the dogs busy as much as we can and train them to focus on us and not the squealing kids outside, but the outside festivities could literally go on all night!

We have a ritual that may seem a bit bah-humbug: we go in to Halloween lockdown mode. Shut off the porch light, lock the front gate and arm ourselves with treats. Answering the door every 15 minutes would be complete chaos. Okay, so it's not like the apocalypse or anything...but we just want to relax and enjoy the night as if it were any other.

The dilemma we were faced with was that this was a primo socialization opportunity for Kuna. Halloween is a time he gets to see scary masks and screaming kids. Now it's time for this dog trainer to be honest: I opted out on seizing that opportunity. :(

I know, call me what you will but I just wasn't feeling it. So what do I tell people who just DO NOT feel like training at that moment? At the very least, manage the environment that affects the dog's behavior.

Like I said, we locked down the house so no trick-or-treaters came to the porch. We also played the television louder to mask the outside noise and made sure the dogs were good and tired PRIOR to sunset so they would be nice and sleepy when it came time to shutdown for the night.

I was rather pleased - there were no outbursts from our special girl B and Kuna could not have cared less. Sarah's a pretty laid-back girl who was the chosen one getting to snuggle with me on the couch. :)

I spoke to a woman I know who has a somewhat-reactive Boxer - she tried to take him out trick-or-treating with the kids armed with the clicker and treats, but when they actually found themselves in the middle of all the chaos, he couldn't handle it. That's when she made a smart, smart, smart decision: this is too much for him...take him home where he isn't stressed. I wanted to hug her for understanding her dog's limits and for being the protector of her family: she didn't push him. Good job, D! ;)

Hope everyone had a safe Halloween! If anyone has any cute pics of your dog's costume, I'd LOVE to see them!