Archives for category: dog training

When you are in this business for awhile, you see a fair number of dogs cross over the Rainbow Bridge. This is a tribute to two extraordinary dogs with whom I have had the privilege to work. Both have recently passed. I want to share a little of their second-chapter lives with you, and to celebrate them and the humans who never gave up on them.

SNICK

SchnickReitzloff

Snick was an old boy when he came to me. His parent/owner/guardian (POG) Barb had taken him in after her mother died and was struggling to make him into a safe dog. He had bitten her and others, snapped at people who reached to pet him, bark-lunged at other dogs and was pretty much a doggie train wreck. When I suggested trying him in my group class, Barb was unsure, concerned they would be thrown out because of his appalling behavior and non-stop barking. I assured her that wouldn’t happen. I had a nice, big room in the Cleveland APL building that would allow me to separate him from the class while I assessed him.

Snick came rampaging into his first group lesson, in full-throttle defense mode, pulling poor Barb, who had an apologetic smilie frozen in place. We went to work immediately, and, by the end of the hour, Snick was on his back with Barb rubbing his belly. We had cracked the shell and found the real Snick, a funny, silly boy just dying to trust someone. That’s the boy you see in this picture.

I saw Snick on and off over the next few years, as Barb continued to work with him. What a great time he had with her in his second chapter. Yes, there were bumps in the road, but because Barb was determined to do right by this dog her mother adored, she kept going.

I loved Snick. He was the one and only dog I allowed to jump on me. Every time he saw me, he immediately rushed over, put his paws on my leg and licked my fingers till I petted him. I asked Barb to never correct him for that. Because he had been so distrustful of humans, I wanted him to feel completely secure around someone. So I made sure he never attached a negative to me. Interestingly, that allowed me to trust him completely.  Snick had a profound impact on the way I looked at other “doggie train wrecks” that have rumbled my way since we met.

—————

PRETTY GIRL

Pretty Girl and Me

Pretty Girl was actually gorgeous–a striking black/white, 90-pound pit who was taken in by Mary even though she had bitten. She had also passed two separate temperament evaluations. Mary, a huge animal lover, felt PG had been wronged. Instead of allowing her to be put down, Mary took her home to add to her furry family. She called me in for help in making sure Pretty reached her full potential.

That was nearly six years ago. I had been working steadily with them ever since.

When I first met her, Pretty was a tornado encased in dog skin, possibly the most hyper, overstimulated dog I had ever seen. I could see every bone in her body; she seemed to be vibrating away every calorie she took in! Mary and I stood outside her kennel, waiting for her to calm down a bit so I could reward a better behavior. That was a loooong wait. After 15-20 minutes of bouncing on her hind legs and barking, I was finally getting what felt like nanoseconds to stuff treats through the fence.

She had come a tremendously long way since then. The super-hyper girl had calmed a lot and gotten more focused. She still struggled sometimes with self-control (for example, she would sit but tap-dance with her front feet, waiting to be released), but she always worked very hard to do what we wanted. She built a strong bond with a small group of trusted humans who helped her understand and cope better with our world. She became good friends with Mary’s cat Smokey, who liked to follow her around the house and roll on his back in front of her, batting at Pretty’s nose. She was smart, sensitive, goofy, fun. She improved to the point where I felt comfortable bringing my frail 84-year-old mother to meet her. The only challenge we had that day was Pretty showing how eager she was to meet Mom by plowing her head into her chair…and moving Mom and chair a good foot before we restored order. Mom petted her the whole time; she thought that it was all pretty funny.

That was Pretty Girl — she put her whole heart into everything she did. That heart gave out way too soon. There was so much unexplored potential in her. I still can’t believe she’s gone.

——-

I make no secret of the fact that I feel the dogs I work with are part mine. If that’s unprofessional, so be it. This is the only way I can work. I half-jokingly say these are my dogs too.  I’ve been honored with the trust of both human and dog, which has allowed me to do my job to the best of my ability, and to keep improving through all I’ve learned from these marvelous creatures. And occasionally to connect with extra-special dogs like Snick and Pretty Girl.

Rest easy, pups. You’ve earned it.

———

Some people talk to animals. Not many listen, though. That’s the problem. 

– A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

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At a client’s house recently, working with her adorable nine-month-old, 95-pound puppy.

She mentioned that, after early success following my instructions, her dog was once again bothering/chasing their cat. “What’s going on?” she asked with exasperation.

Diagnosing time! Here’s roughly how it went (my questions, her answers):

Happening in specific places/situations? No, random.
Cat starting any of it? Possibly, somewhat.
Pup runs up and what happens? Bugs, starts pawing, cat doesn’t leave but starts hissing.
What do you do? Yell and charge over there.
Is that effective? No.
How much are you telling pup she’s wonderful when she exists peacefully with/doesn’t bother the cat? Not at all. I thought that was fixed.

Ah. There it is.

I titled my book Reverse Dog Training for a very good reason: because I believe most people, when faced with a behavior problem, don’t just do the wrong thing, they do the exact opposite of what they should to solve the problem.

This client is further proof of my point. The kickers here are:

– She had already been given the right thing to do, had used it, and it had worked beautifully. The cat was left completely alone.
– After a brief period of success, she stopped using the mark/reward system completely. Dog was “fixed” in her view. (Wished she had told me this!)
– The dog, no longer getting the attention reward she was getting used to for ignoring the cat, slides back into the old habit of going after the cat, which she knows will get the desired results (yelling is attention).
– Everyone is back doing the same thing, and getting the same bad result. And she is wondering what went wrong?

Good/bad of marking
What is wonderful about a mark/reward system is it can work really fast. This can also be a bad thing if you don’t realize that to keep it working, you have to keep doing it (albeit slowly scale back on how often, aka progressing) and permanently change YOUR habits.

When something works immediately, it is thrilling to the owner/POG and makes us trainers/DLSIs look like geniuses. But we — or at least I — always caution that the problem is not gone. We have started the process of eliminating it. It is “fixed for now.”

How to ‘fix forever’
To get “fixed forever,” you have to continue to follow the instructions you were given, slowly varying the exercises and making your dog aware that s/he should do this same thing no matter the circumstances (“proofing” and “generalizing” are the words trainers use).

Put simply, a new habit usually will not erase and replace an old habit in a matter of days or even weeks. And I would contend the longer the old habit (problem behavior) has been in place, the longer it will take to get a reliable new-habit response.

Instant success may be fun — heck, it IS fun! — but long-term success is sooooo satisfying. Well worth the extra work.

If you need help expanding your exercises to get your dog “forever fixed,” see my e-booklet Next Steps! How to Progress Beyond Treats.

One of my favorite lines about getting older is that we are like fine wine, getting better with age. I also like to think with age comes wisdom, and that thought is leading me to believe I need to be a little more specific in my statements.

As I and my beloved friends and family grow longer in the tooth, I notice while the mind might be expanding, the body is wilting in some highly unpleasant ways. The aches, the pains, the injuries, the “conditions,” the loss of control in certain embarrassing areas.

Fair warning, one thing I am going to talk about is incontinence. In hopes you will stick with me, I will tell you the topic is dog incontinence, and there is a happy ending to this story.

Still there? Okay, thank you.

This tale is about my darling girl Tawny. She’s around 11 now, and doing quite well (you may have seen my recent YouTube/Facebook video post of her racing around my back yard; crazy puppy still there!). She is still developing and growing behaviorally; I am sometimes awestruck at the decisions she makes these days (another post for another day, for sure).

But she is burdened with two problems. One has been a lifelong struggle getting worse: skin allergies that cause her to scratch and scratch, especially during the winter, sometimes bloodying herself, in particular her ears and tail. The other is more recent, and it is nighttime incontinence.

The struggles, the discoveries, the victories
I need to say here I am no vet, and I am not recommending anything. Tawny goes regularly to the vet, and they are well-versed in her life and health. But in my quest to help my girl (and before her, my darling boy Jaspar who was with me 17 years), I will look everywhere for potential solutions, especially those that avoid strong medicines/chemicals. I do this for myself, so of course I will do it for Tawny.

Over the years, in my quest to quell her infernal itching (I have eczema, so I relate), I have run through: topicals ranging from vitamin E to various things in squeeze bottles and moistened towelettes, to salves and cortizone creams, to plain water; not bathing and bathing frequently; brushing little and brushing a lot; every shampoo and conditioner on the planet; making my own dry shampoo; many, many commercial dog foods, vitamins and supplements, and a lot of money with no good results.

What I have finally found that put the brakes on it:
1) A round of antibiotics in case there was an infection.
2) Making her food myself (see my “Goofy dog love” posts for that story)
3) Baking soda, water and a washrag.

That last one, believe it or not, has become my miracle, and it was a total desperation move on my part. Tawny was worse than ever this ling, cold winter, her black skin testifying to total loss of her golden coat on the back of her ears and the tip of her tail. As I was researching my latest thought, dry shampoos, I keyed in on the baking soda part. The dry shampoo itself was a bust, but the baking soda intrigued me because it has a cleansing effect AND a soothing effect.

So the next time I saw Tawny scratching something, I dumped some baking soda in some cool water and simply blotted the area with the mixture, making sure I thoroughly soaked the skin, towelled off the excess moisture and let her dry.

After about three days, the miracle: I didn’t see her scratch all day. I checked with my mom and sister, who also spend a fair amount of time telling her to stop scratching, and they reported the same thing: virtually scratch-free. Soothing the skin kept her from bothering it, allowing it to heal. The hair is growing back on her ears and even the end of her tail!

I need to treat every other day at least. If I go more than that, the scratching starts. But I will happily blot her for the rest of her life if I get this result.

Pee problems peter out, too
Now a recent problem: Nighttime accidents. For the entire time she’s been with me, Tawny has not drunk much water, and just plain didn’t ask to go out much. Most mornings she wouldn’t go out first; she wanted her breakfast instead. I called her the Exxon Valdez — a super tanker who could hold it forever.

So I literally got a rude awakening when she started having deep-sleep whoopsies. I wasn’t thrilled when she let go on one of her dog beds. But I was supremely miffed when she released on my side of my bed (this is NOT the way I want my spot warmed!).

Because she had already had the antibiotics to address any skin infection, I knew she didn’t have a UTI. Something else was going on. But could I do anything about it beyond cutting up shower curtains for bed liners? (What? They work great and it’s cheaper than pee pads.)

Back to the Internet I went. I knew this was a common problem in older females (dogs and humans!), but didn’t know how many different factors could be involved. After doing my usual obsessive analysis (mild OCD is helpful sometimes), I decided to try a couple of natural remedies that were given credence by some vets. And also vowed to let her out as late as possilble for that one last pee.

First up was apple cider vinegar. I added some to her dinner and crossed my fingers that 1) she would still eat it and 2) it would do some good.

No worries for the first part; she snarfed it just as fast as always. And I am relieved to report she hasn’t had an accident since I started adding the vinegar. However, after two weeks of treatment, though she was dry through the night, she was still doing a lot of “tidying up her downstairs,” as my British friend puts it.

So I went after the second remedy: powdered cornsilk. Apparently, it’s been used for a long time by different peoples for urinary stuff. And interesting to note, though corn is a common allergen for dogs, they haven’t shown a similar reaction to cornsilk.

I kept the vinegar going and added the cornsilk to her dinner, and crossed my fingers again.

Long story short, she still ate it and — drum roll — stopped over-attending to her personal area. She is not only dry overnight, but she is not dribbling.

Is she fixed forever? Of course not. But we have beat back the beast for now, and both of us are happy about that!

Told you it was a happy ending. 🙂

The review is in: My Tawny girl loooooves her home-cooked meals. I keep researching and experimenting with different foods to give her the best nutrition while making sure I minimize her exposure to allergens, especially the one that made her so sick: mold.

Imagine my horror when I opened up a new bag of her favorite chicken jerky (made in the USA) and found the entire contents covered in mold. I mean this stuff, normally an orange collar, was green. I looked at the second bag I bought; same deal, but not as obvious.

I returned them, and when asked if I wanted replacements, without even thinking I said no. I wondered how many more might have mold, how many I may have brought home with some amount of mold on them I didn’t notice. I couldn’t risk it. I walked out without anything for my dog to chew on. Again. I’d already been through this process several times eliminating just about every chewing option for one reason or another: too hard (antlers, bully sticks, regular Nyla bones); contains corn, wheat and/or soy (many composite/shaped things), too-big last pieces getting swallowed and thrown back up with blood on them (rawhide!).

The only option I had for Tawny were the sticks in the yard! She liked them and didn’t eat any of the pieces she broke off. Little hard to find one in the snow, though, and a little more mess than I’m willing to deal with in the house….

Aarrgh! Now what?

To the Internet, of course.

I found a recipe for making sweet potato chews. It went like this: slice and bake in low oven for several hours. Okay, so more like a procedure. Really easy, I thought. I’ll give it a whirl.

I should mention here that I know absolutely nothing about sweet potatoes, except that they’re not the same as yams. I don’t know the difference is. I’ve never cooked or eaten one. That orange stuff in the bowl with the marshmallow stuff on top? I don’t know which one that is; regardless, no way am I eating that.

I was stumped in the store because one sign said yams and another for the same bin said sweet potatoes. A kind fellow shopper informed me that the things in the bin were what I wanted, no matter the name, because we only have one kind on the U.S. I don’t remember which one. But I’m awfully grateful to the shopper; if not for her, I might still be standing there.

I also have learned that sweet potatoes are really hard to slice for three reasons: they are shaped funny, they are dense, and my knives stink. I ended up raiding my mom’s knives and finally found a serrated one that worked.

The “easy” cooking part was anything but because of the above slicing challenges and one additional one: I can’t cut straight. It’s a hand-eye coordination thing; it looked straight until I start slicing. My knife got stuck and I realized I was seriously off track. When I finally get a piece hacked off I tried to even it out by planing it like a door, which worked not at all. So uniformity did not happen. That meant a lot of different cooking times for one trayful. Since the goal here is to dry them out, I really had to keep an eye on them. Other parts of the learning curve caused me to toss a bunch that I burnt because I set the wrong temperature, and another batch was 86ed because I forgot to turn them halfway though.

Sooooo, not as easy as it seemed.

However, I am nothing if not determined — some might say stubborn, perhaps even pigheaded — and I have pretty well straightened out my system. I use parchment paper instead of foil so they don’t stick. If all the shininess is gone from the inside they are close to done. I have even gotten a little better at slicing. A little.

There are several upsides to doing this. It’s cheaper — much — to make my own. It makes my house smell nice.

The best thing, the most surprising thing, and the only thing that will ensure I will keep making them, is that Tawny loves them. I mean loves them. She takes them and runs off in absolute delight. How could I not keep cooking them up? I believe I have already established that I will do practically anything for my dogs to make their lives better. Goofy dog love!

Sweet potatoes. Who knew? What next?

POG: parent/owner/guardian

Anyone have a dog that is sound-sensitive? Bad with, say, smoke alarms? Fearful, even? You will relate to this story.

It happened to me and Tawny the Wonder Dog, my at-least-10-year-old mix who over the years has been my baby, frustration, teacher, lab rat, best friend, partner. As a trainer, I couldn’t have asked for a bigger challenge or a better dog. As a POG, I am hopelessly in goofy dog love with her. As a person, I am a crazy Gemini, and I often feel the twins fighting over who I should be when dealing with her. Since she came to me in 2004, we have worked through many of her issues, including lots and lots of fear problems. These days, she is not easily rattled, even by the big semis thundering past us on our walks and the earth movers tearing up the concrete at the end of my street.

With that background in mind, here’s the story: Recently, I was in my bedroom folding laundry, Tawny snoozing on the bed. I had just turned the TV on (ancient TV that had been giving off a slight burny smell for a few days. No biggie, I thought, still works! [Yes, I am a cheapskate.]).

Apparently, this was now more than a slight smell, because the smoke alarm went off. Tawny flew off the bed; I said something unrepeatable in polite company, turned the TV off and turned the bathroom fan on. The alarm stopped but then started again, and the other two alarms that are waaaay too close to the first one (thanks, design geniuses) went off too.

As I was standing there contemplating my next move, I noticed Tawny cringing in the hallway, shaking hard enough to rattle the teeth out of her head. I had never seen her like that before, scared yes but not terrified. She was terrified.

When I saw that, I reacted as any loving dog POG would. I wanted to wrap my arms around her and tell her everything would be all right. I wanted to comfort her and make her feel better.

It took every bit of inner strength I had not to do it.

It killed me, but as a trainer I know that comforting a dog when s/he is frightened is the worst thing you can do because it reinforces the fear reaction. I had to help her, but I couldn’t do it that way.

Instead, I led her into the garage, where there are no smoke alarms, while I turned off the circuit breaker that powered them. I left her in there while I pulled all the back-up batteries so they weren’t chirping. I then called my mom, even though it was very late, and asked her to if I could bring Tawny over while I sorted this out.

After I was reasonably certain I had the alarms reset/back to normal, I retrieved my girl. Clearly, she was still freaked out–following me everywhere, crouched low, tail down, eyes bugging, heavy panting. Did not want to go in the bedroom. And omigod that bone-shattering shaking. I was afraid she was going to have a heart attack.

Still, I resisted the urge to hold her and calm her down. It was agonizing, but I had to. Instead, I did what I tell all my students, clients, friends and family to do. I completely ignored her fear and went about acting as if nothing had happened. I returned to folding my laundry. I plunked down on the couch and turned on the non-burny-smell family room TV. I yawned. I sighed. I talked to her when she looked like she was less tense.

After what seemed like forever, she lay down and rested her chin on her paws. Later she followed me back into the bedroom, clearly stressed, and eventually went up on the bed and fell into an exhausted, snore-filled sleep. I stayed awake for a long time after, watching her sleep, hoping the alarms would stay quiet, and worrying how she would be tomorrow. I was fearful this had traumatized her, and that I would have to work hard to recover her.

But here is the best part of this story. This is why I love being a trainer, and why I’m glad my trainer twin won over my POG twin.

It worked.

Tawny woke up the next day just fine. I noticed a slight hesitance on her part to go into the bedroom, but it quickly went away. And I have seen no lasting effects whatsoever.

I know my methods are sound, and I had every confidence what I did was right and would work. But like every other person on the planet who suffers when their dog suffers, my first helping instinct was the wrong one. Had I not fought that urge and followed my trainer instincts, I would have had a very different outcome. And a lot more work to do. Instead, after one long night, I had my dog back 100 percent.

Still, it was really, really painful. I love T to pieces and never want her to struggle. I’m glad I managed to do what was best for her. I hope it never happens to you, but if it does, maybe this will give you the strength to do the best thing for your dog as well.

One of the more interesting things I get to do as a trainer is play around with trigger sequences.

A trigger sequence is the series of things that leads to a particular behavior. So for example when you want your dog to sit, the sequence that you would use to trigger that behavior might be saying the word “Sit” and holding one hand palm up in front of her. If you change the word or the hand signal, you may not get the behavior you want because you have altered the sequence.

Most sequences are more complicated than that, even if they don’t appear so. That sit sequence, for example, might also involve only the right hand, a certain tone, a tilt of the head, a lean forward. Not knowing that could cause one to fail in getting a sit and to frustrate thinking the dog is being “stubborn” because she is not following orders.

Proofing commands involves pulling apart that sequence, presenting one piece at a time, making sure that the dog will perform the desired behavior when only one trigger is available, say just the word “Sit” or just the hand signal. Though somewhat laborious, it is the way to best get a reliable response from your dog.

Trigger sequences are involved in all sorts of behaviors, from sits and downs to separation anxiety to barking at the door or pulling on the leash or snapping, etc.

What’s really cool and fun about them is discovering them (say when I test a rescue to see what commands he knows) and also experimenting with altering them. Sometimes you can stop a “bad” behavior immediately by disrupting the sequence, say removing or altering even one piece.

I have found this can happen a lot with barking. Which is good, because barking drives people crazy, so it’s nice to be able to sometimes get a quick change on something like that. I like to play with my tone. People love to yell at their dogs to knock it off, which typically only serves to escalate the barking. So I will try a “What’s that?” inquiry-type tone, or “Good job!” praise to see if the dog will be confused enough to look at me like “Huh?” or at least hesitate for a moment, long enough for me to get in there and redirect.

One example that’s fun to relate involves a Westie I worked with recently. Her barking at the front window was driving her owners nuts (and they had tried “everything”). While they were standing there, I prevented a barking frenzy as two people passed the house by simply saying “Who’s that? Good girl!” over and over while the people went by. The owners were literally gobsmacked, but all I did was change the trigger sequence. With a piece missing, it didn’t prompt her usual reaction. Was she “fixed?” Heavens, no. But it was a start.

So the next time your dog starts to do something you don’t like, see of you can figure out the trigger sequence, or at least one part of it, and try to mess up the sequence. Try to laugh instead of yelling! If it stops the behavior, remember to jump in with a boatload of rewards so you can cement that “good” behavior sequence in your dog’s brain. Easier said than done, I know…

One thing I never thought I would be doing for my dog Tawny is cooking her food for her. After all, there are nine gazillion bazillion dog foods out there, and many are good to great quality. No reason to ever waste my time doing such a thing, right? I’m a trainer, for Pete’s sake, not a cook.

And then, she got sick. Terribly, horribly sick. To the point where I was scared I would lose her. She literally took herself off her food. Neither I nor the vet could figure out what was wrong, except that her liver numbers were off the charts and she was suddenly incontinent. And she couldn’t keep anything down.

I was terrified and desperate. When I bring a dog into my life, I inject her directly into my soul. My previous soul-pup, Jaspar, was 17 when he passed. Tawny is at least nine…a baby to me. Losing her now was not an option.

I am a problem-solver, so I went to work. I managed to get water and some boiled chicken to stay down. Then I headed out onto the Internet to find out what else I could give her that would give her liver support and nutrition. I found some information and a recipe from a reliable source and started cooking.

My results were:
– From the get-go, Tawny kept everything down (small portions, 4x/day at first!) and immediately started improving
– Her energy came back
– The incontinence went away
– Her shedding decreased substantially
– Her poop is better quality (firmer) than it’s ever been
– She has never been more excited about her food

And her follow-up bloodwork? Perfect.

The vet shook his head. “It usually doesn’t turn out this way,” he said.

I know. Boy, do I know. What a gift I have been given.

Was it just because of the food? I doubt it, but I have nothing else that I can point to that could explain it. And when I see how excited Tawny is, and how bright-eyed and energetic she is — back to doing her figure-eight laps in the yard! — how can I do anything else?

It’s actually kind of fun. I’m doing more research to make sure I give her variety as well as balanced nutrition.

It’s just another way I show my goofy dog love for my girl.

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