Category Archives: TRAINING TIDBITS

Thinking about dogs…

ZEN, PRESENCE, & LEARNING

In the process of getting older I strive to let go of the things that don’t “work” for me. You know, those things that don’t feel good, that you feel like you should do but don’t want to, those things and thoughts that bog down your consciousness and creativity. Ironically, though, I find myself consumed with circles of thoughts spiraling around these undesirable things when I so wish I could let go of them and embrace any of the many things I’m passionate about. Such is life as a human, I guess.

Actually, I love getting older. I learn things that are so helpful. Without boring you with my lessons, let’s instead talk about some things that I’m really passionate about!

I LOVE being present. Being totally and completely there with my dog as she feels the joy of her first time pulling. Or drinking in the energy as I observe my dog basking in the sun as she lies on the grass. And what’s better than watching a dog roll? Raising my child I am so lucky to actually be with him throughout the day. I can watch how he is in all sorts of scenarios and in different phases of growth. Everyone says how kids grow so fast that you miss it. I appreciate the warning and have not missed much! Sure, my business may suffer as I don’t keep a pulse on Facebook. My attention is elsewhere.

I don’t think I could live any other way because I count on being present to inform me about what actions to take. I don’t know how I could be prepared otherwise. My training and teaching takes on an organic development. It’s greater than just what I could plan for. I hope to be able to connect with clients who want a wholistic approach to their life with their dog. I don’t want to help you teach your dog to jump an agility jump or weave, etc, when your dog won’t give you the quality of engagement that tells everyone watching that that dog is “into it”. Sure, you could get a dog around a full agility course, even be competing, but, I still won’t buy into any of the end results until your dog wants to work and values the job (whatever that may be, agility or otherwise). I’m happy to help people fix glaring omissions in training, but it takes a very special person to put this work in. The beauty of it, though, is that this learning will change your life with this and every dog following. I don’t mean to make this sound too inflated, but, this knowledge, along with the skill to apply it, can transform life with your dog (and possibly also with your kids and other relationships, too).

Now, I’m not saying that I’m ultra enlightened or anything so grandiose (or even anywhere close to that). I’ve been (still can be) quick to fly off the handle, burned many bridges with my tactlessness and lack of respect for formalities, and have plenty of communication skills to work on! But, since we have an active role in co-creating our world, I want to add a chapter to this blog where I can share some Zen moments with you. I’d love to hear if something resonates with you!

BEGINNING MUSHING

After about 3 months of slowly bringing my dog into condition with a bike (I call it bikework rather than roadwork, as I prefer not to let my dog run on pavement!), yesterday we had our first successful bout of pulling. Although I’ve attempted to begin having my dog contribute by pulling ever so gently at a slow trot before now, the pulling was incidental rather than intentional (and I built this up over short periods/distances at a SLOW pace in the middle of a workout over many sessions). And, I intend to build up her understanding of pulling on the ground, at a walk, and with weight for a different exercise focusing on strength and walking muscles.

Even though those in the mushing community seek to build and breed “forward focus” (aka the desire to pull and not look back), I still want a dog that, other than when mushing, doesn’t pull. I believe that unwanted pulling is not good for my dogs, me, or our relationship. So, I’m mindful about how I introduce mushing to my dogs in order to preserve our “courteous walking” training and not confuse them at any point. Confusion can insidiously harm even the most well-intentioned and poison your relationship. Plus, there are times when I want to bike with my dog on a leash when I don’t need her pulling. It’s a delicate matter because unwanted pulling on 2 wheels can be dangerous.

My plan is to use a different harness for pulling to help the dogs know when and when not to pull. However, I’m not yet certain what harness I’m going to buy and the harness that my dog walks in is the same design, for the most part, as a short pulling harnesses. So, while experimenting with how to teach a dog to pull using exclusively positive reinforcement training, we’ve been using our walking harness for now. But, we just had our most glorious breakthrough moment where we both got a feel for what mushing is like, so I’ve a renewed determination to figure out which harness to buy.

What happened that was so glorious? After about 3 mi in to our regular run (she’s regularly running 6mi/cardio day (usually off-leash)), I softly encouraged her to lean into the harness and pull. And, for the first time, she got the feel of it. She felt how she could move the bike and had the freedom to carry forward. I should mention that the previous times out doing bikework, she’s been showing me that she’s feeling strong and ready for more. For those that might run out and try to mush, I did assist with a pedal stroke here and there and it was level ground without much rolling resistance…a level of difficulty appropriate to our introductory stage.  

I’ve been studying different resistance training (from weight pull to carting to more typical mushing) and I do see a lot of dogs that are worked for too long, that aren’t in shape, that fall into bad form and improper gaiting. I think it’s really easy to overdo the intensity/distance/duration when working a dog because dogs are such natural athletes that are so keen to run and move. There’s such a difference in the quality of a dog’s movement when she is fit and ready. Did I mention that it was glorious?

It’s easy to go too long/far because it felt so good to her which was so much fun for me to watch. I probably went a bit long, but I think she was good for a small overload. We ran for 1mi at a light gallop. After which, we followed with a big recovery period before continuing with our regular bikework (the toddler in the trailer wanted to get out and interview the puddles;). Even with a dog in “good condition”,  she was really heated from the short, casual (not top speed) run. Being in shape is really relative to the goal exercise. So, one could argue that she isn’t in good condition for this sport. Anyway, recovery periods certainly factor into the amount of difficulty. And, during that recovery I was able to clearly determine how much she had expended herself. A dog’s temperature keeps rising even after stopping exercise, so beware, especially in hot weather (though heat stroke can happen even in cold weather).

If you were to talk to the mushers, they’d probably laugh at how careful I approach this. I’ve been interviewing mushers to find out more, including a couple of the top competitors in the U.S., to learn what the standard procedures are. It’s largely theory backed with anecdotal evidence as there’s not a lot of research about how to build training up for dogs. We have to extrapolate from human studies, and, of course, apply Wisdom. I think that it’s important to be present and aware and take your time building your dog up. As I learn more lessons (i.e. get older;), I can’t be lazy and just let my dog run without thought. I believe that the quality of her movement was so good because she had the proper level of fitness. Her desire to participate was rewarded by how good it felt to move out. These are probably details that nobody but a geek like me could identify and appreciate. But, let me tell you, I think it’s important. Maybe it’s just a Zen thing and the secret to keeping it in joy.

MYSTERY INJURY

My Border Collie Irie had the most subtle indication of lameness before she even finished growing. She would limp for the blink of an eye and then walk and move perfectly normal. There were times that I wondered if I imagined it.

This was my 2nd dog with a mysterious ailment. Another BC had some sort of shoulder thing that his adrenaline would mask so well that I was convinced he was sound after studying him like a hawk before deciding to let him exercise. Neither dog had been properly diagnosed (not for lack of trying) and I would give up and just try and rest Irie, put her agility training on hold, and whenever she looked sound for a while, I’d try again. This went on for 5 years of her life until she got up with a more pronounced lameness (walking on 3 legs upon waking (which she walked off!)). It was then that I renewed my efforts to figure out what was going on.

In an attempt to locate exactly where she was hurting, I thought, maybe if I practice lots of different conditioning exercises I can pinpoint where the weakness is. I scoured the internet, so hungry for information. I took different courses, including a detailed certification program, and still couldn’t find all the answers I wanted. There isn’t a lot of good research on dogs (with most of it geared towards sleddogs or racing hounds). But, I did learn a lot. While this didn’t solve my dog’s mystery injury, it did giving me a deep comprehension of physical fitness…a real asset to myself and my students!

Meanwhile, thanks to the gifted Dr Patti Schaeffer, I heard of a very experienced vet, who, and it kills me to say this, told me that it was so clearly a CCL insufficiency that even his intern could have diagnosed it. What the hell?! Anyway, without going into why did the other professionals fail to help, I was relieved to finally know what was wrong, though bummed to find out that my best friend needed SERIOUS knee surgery.

For those of you who are in such a position, let me say that I had gone back and forth on getting imaging done (with varying opinions and being discouraged by some) and was about to spend a fortune on the wrong kind of imaging when Scott Gustafson informed me that the most certain way to look at those ligaments is arthroscopically. So, Irie went in to get scoped and, if it proved to be a CCL problem, she’d get the surgery then and there.

I’ve done so much homework on this injury and know that a lot of dogs blow out their other side, and wondered if it made sense to scope the opposite side while she was under…unless it was too invasive. He said he’d only scope it if I would proceed with surgery for that knee, as well. My mind was blown. I stood in the locker room of the community pool with my toddler laying on the changing table, holding the phone and trying to ask all the right questions before deciding to go ahead with TPLO surgery on both knees at the same time!! I had tried to take my kid swimming to take my mind off of my best friend going under the knife. I was such a wreck, forgetting my zip code while trying to fill gas the morning and totally stressed out.

Long story short (I may post some writing about how the the surgery and post-op went down), the vet was very skilled at what he did. Irie has excellent ROM and tucks her rear very neatly under. We also injected PRP to assist with the repair. I think doing both knees at the same time was definitely the way to go for me and this dog. Although, it made me a total mess as I fretted over every little thing because, by gosh, she had her leg bones sawed and bolted back together!!!

I’m normally not a fan of surgery. But, the mechanics of a dog’s knee are such that this surgery makes sense. Also, ligaments cannot heal properly but bone can.

I was totally freaked out about doing this surgery, because it sounds like a cruel and crazy thing to do. But, Irie is definitely better than she was or would have ever been. Part of my resistance to the surgery was due to the fact that if you saw my dog move prior to the surgery, you would NOT be able to tell that she had any problem. She moved better than a lot of dogs do on their best day. But, a few months after the surgery and studying how she moves I can see a difference and going back in time I could have recognized that she wasn’t doing as well as it seemed. Because I have an eye for quadruped movement (over 10,000 hours) and knowing this dog so well, I can see a pronounced difference in how well she moves in her low back now. She’s very lithe and that area has so much more movement while before she held that area tight to compensate for the insufficient support through the knees.

I have to end with a little public service announcement about NOT letting your dog blow out her knees. No more chuck it! Stop letting your dog slip (on stairs, where you could have runners, etc). You can’t prevent all slips, but you definitely can stop a lot of them). Teach your dog to run around something so you can send your dog to run out and circle back and run TO you to get the reward. Not only can you present the toy at a safe location (up rather than on the ground, etc), you are building value for running back to you. It takes some training but you’ll be able to get your dog excited about running out to go around a tree (or whatever) with a whole cascade of endorphins without risking the crazy pursuit of the ball (which is so tantalizing when it bounces off erratically that it absolutely causes a lot of dogs to strain, tear and/ rupture the fibers of their body). If you have a high energy dog that wants to chase, you are almost guaranteed that dog will injure himself chasing things. Learn how to play smart and take care with your best friend. I used to think, “They’re dogs…they’ll be fine.” But, they are only human (or whatever the dog equivalent to that saying is;). They are not invincible and despite the fact that these athletes rip around like nuts and seem OK, the truth is that dogs have lots of undiagnosed and underdiagnosed injuries. Scar tissue builds up with repeated injuries and the area gets more and more compromised. The more you know, the more you need to make the appropriate adjustments…and get your dog in top condition!

TIPS ON SHAPING

Offering Behavior

Offering is when the dog comes up with options rather than you directing the dog what to do. I use this method for training most things because when the dog comes up with ideas, the dog is more aware of what she’s doing. When a dog follows a treat or a prompt, they are not as focused on the behavior you’re creating, but rather they’re focused on the treat or your gestures. It is helpful to have the dog actively playing a role because then it’s not all up to you, the dog is a participant and, as he learns a behavior, the dog is responsible for his part of the work.

 

If your dog is demonstrating any concern, the last thing you want to do is try to lure or pressure them into/onto something. We want your dog to trust you and gain confidence. Pressuring your dog to do something can be damaging to your relationship. Instead, be patient and get your dog interested in trying stuff to win the treat from you.

 

You and your dog will need to practice learning this way. It is a skill in and of itself. It’s such a useful skill, that, I find, once a dog knows how to offer behavior (also called shaping or operant conditioning), it gets easier and easier to teach your dog tricks. It’s almost like your dog gets easier to train with every trick. Once you’re fluent in this skill, you’ll teach your dog something new in unbelievably short amounts of time.

 

So, please get some experience with this learning/teaching style. Some things to remember when shaping:

  • It’s a set up. You want the dog to figuratively “walk right into it”. So, if you’re trying to train to interact with a box, you’ll get the dog ready for training (grab your treats, alert your dog that the game is on), and then set the box down in the middle of the room. Since the box is novel, you’re guaranteed some interaction as soon as the box hits the floor.
  • Be ready the second the dog jumps in. If you are still messing around with your treat pouch or whatever, dogs often offer behavior as soon as they enter the area (or the item is set down). If you miss that chance because you were looking at, say, your treat bag, your dog will leave the novel item and come look at you and your treat pouch and the training will stall out.
  • Avoid stalling out. If a dog gets stuck in a sit or a down (obviously, when training something other than sit/down), develop a soft dialogue to communicate, “That’s not it…try something else.” The other thing you can do is take a step to your left or right (most green dogs will get up and follow).
  • You don’t want too much time to go by without the dog succeeding. Shaping can be VERY frustrating and you want to make things easier or break off the training.
  • Some thinking (on the dog’s part) is beneficial stress. Too much thinking is usually not productive. Find that point where the dog is making an effort, but stay away from a demotivating level of concentration.
  • Don’t talk too much. Depending on the dog, talking can encourage, but, at the wrong time, can totally distract the dog from the task. For the most part, try to be quiet except for when the dog is getting close to the right answer or has earned a click/mark. It’s like that game “hot/cold” we played as kids. Make it so that when the dog is correct, you come alive, and when the dog is getting “cold/colder”, you are neutral.
  • CONNECTION, connection, connection. If you don’t have “engagement” and your dog isn’t with you, forget about the task at hand and prioritize building up that connection.
  • Keep it short!! I bet everything I own that your training sessions last too long. Especially when dogs are new to this, you should keep it like 2 minutes long (2 minutes flies by, by the way). It’s better to train for a couple minutes, break it off (either with a toy/play reward and enjoying the play for a time or take a break where you dismiss the dog for a couple minutes), and then start back up for another 2 minutes, for 3 reps a session. If you have more than one dog, you can alternate, giving the dogs a break while the other is working. You’ll make more progress in little bite-sized chunks and the dog will have a better attitude.
  • Leftovers in your pocket and a dog that needs to be taken by the collar away from the task is ideal. You want your dog straining to get back to work.
  • “Relief” is a reward in and of itself. If your dog is concentrating hard, ending the task is a reward.
  • You will want to keep going because it’s rewarding to you to see the dog improving. You will be able to extend the session and keep advancing the behavior you’re training. Beware, though, it starts to get sloppy and the dog starts to think too hard. And, in my experience, a dog thinking too hard is not a good thing (for you or the dog).
  • Don’t be greedy (see above).
  • Slice the behavior down finer if the dog isn’t successful (for example, a glance to start rather than actually touching a paw to a prop).
  • Incrementally make it harder when the dog is ready. Don’t stay at a super easy level (like a glance) once the dog clearly knows that the prop is “hot” (that you want the dog to do something with the prop).
  • Consider placement of reward. Can you reward the dog somewhere that will set the dog up for the next attempt? For example, if you are training to hop onto a board, reward the dog away instead of on the board.
  • Don’t be so focused on your goals that you neglect to realize the dog has come up with a better way/idea/trick. Be flexible. That said, stop and consider deviations from your plan. You do have to be consistent or the dog will get confused, stressed, and nobody will be happy.
  • Enjoy your dog’s creativity. Laugh! Have fun with this! The coolest thing about this style of training is it brings out the dog’s personality.

GOLDEN (1ST IN SYNC ATTEMPT)

Here we are beginning in a new category called InSync. It’s like Dressage and the dog and handler are supposed to be overlapped throughout the routine with no distance moves and only a single pass through the legs to transition from one side to the other. InSync differs from WCFO’s Heelwork to Music in that the dog can never pass through the legs.

Worldwide Rally-FrEe 2016

Here’s our entry for the worldwide competition in 2016. We just started competing at the top level of Grand Champion. Even though we totally flubbed one of the signs by doing the wrong variation of leg weaves, we still pulled in a reputable 2nd place! Irie’s enthusiasm in her dragging the cart and her spin while holding the purse in her mouth, complete with a retrieve to hand on her hind legs was wonderful. Not too bad after taking some time off to have a baby!

RETRIEVE

This cooperative behavior is forever useful, so, it is worthwhile to invest training time building this skill. For a dog that likes toys, always encourage the retrieve after sending the dog to the toy. Tugging is the perfect reward for retrieve…for dogs that enjoy tugging. 

But what about the dog that doesn’t like to tug, or doesn’t care for toys at all?

I fully realize that not all dogs are excited about toys. Obviously, such a dog will not be rewarded by a game of tug. Dogs can be taught to retrieve for a food reward, but, the caveat is that the dog needs to spit out the item to eat. That’s a conflict that will cause the dog to prematurely drop the item to collect the reward. To get around this conflict, dispense the treats in a way where it seems like the treats are coming from the retrieve item itself, not your hands. Ideally, you can find a container that the dog can pick up and carry but that he cannot extract the treats from without your help. This may need to be a velcro or zippered pouch, or you might find things in your recycling bin that will work (like a hard plastic vitamin jar) (more ideas below). Choose items that are easy for your dog to carry (so a small pill bottle for a tiny dog, for example). Use appropriately sized items for larger dogs so that it is comfortable in a relaxed mouth. Of course, practice at your own risk. You must be fully in control of the situation so your dog doesn’t swallow and choke on the item. If your dog will abscond with the item and you do not understand how to get the item from the dog, find a trainer to work with (and be sure they know how to help, many won’t) and do not try this alone.

If your dog is really tough to convince, you might need to use things that your dog can start to tear open: like several sheets of newspaper with a delicious morsel wrapped inside, twisted up like a Christmas cracker. You can try this with a dog that is difficult to convince to retrieve:

  1. Work in a very small space: a closet or a bathroom devoid of other distractions.
  2. Find a tantalizing morsel, attractive enough that you have your dog’s attention and let your dog know that you have it by waving it just out of reach under his nose.
  3. Take your wrapper (5 sheets of newspaper), and, while your dog is watching, wrap that food up, twisting both ends so the dog can’t easily get the food out.
  4. Get down on the ground and toss the item just a few feet away towards the wall.
  5. Encourage your dog emotionally with your dialogue. Remember, dog’s prefer playful, not pushy. Try taking a deep breath of awe rather than shouting. Tap a corner of the item or start to tear at the paper to get the dog interested if you need to.
  6. Once your dog is investigating, move back a little. Do not move towards your dog. Sit still and encourage your dog to come back to you (patting your legs, drumming on the floor in front of you, clapping your hands, etc).
  7. If your dog doesn’t even pick it up, but puts his paws on it to try and begin tearing it open, help him by tearing into it, too, getting to the reward in the middle. Make it appear as if the paper is delivering the treat.
  8. Repeat. As your dog’s interest in the game grows, see if he’ll pick up the bundle. Encourage the dog to come back to you as soon as he gets his mouth on it. Resist the temptation to meet the dog and instead ask the dog to come to you. If you are already very close to the dog and in a confined area, the dog is more likely to make it back to you.

Start with very little distance and throw the item next to a wall so your dog can’t move farther away. You may have to start by clicking your dog just for picking it up with his mouth, at which point you’ll move in and deliver the reward from the item, NEVER FROM YOUR HANDS DIRECTLY. The idea is to convince the dog that there’s a prize inside and if he hurries up and brings it to you, you will use your hands to help him get it out faster.

As this dog progresses, stick the paper bundle inside of a sock so the dog can’t tear it open as easily. Transition to using just the sock with a meatball inside. When your dog brings the sock to you, flip open the cuff while still holding part of the meatball. As the dog is grabbing for the meatball, present it directly from the sock while backing slowly away from the dog. As it starts slipping out of reach the dog might start biting for it. You want to hold the meatball inside the sock so part of it is accessible and the other part is covered. This can make the dog try to bite down to grab a hold of the retreating item. You may even be able to turn on your dog’s interest to tug if you practice this enough. 

Other containers you might try are: a cardboard tube (like toothpaste comes in), a travel container for a toothbrush, and there are lots of toys that you can stuff with food (the lotus ball, pouches, discs, covered or lined with fur and squeakers, with bungee cord handles). Sometimes you can find household items that are perfect. In the picture you see a lunch bag that folds up and has a strong Velcro closure. Whatever you use, find something that the dog can’t open without thumbs.

A lot of dogs are much further along in the process. Adjust accordingly but be aware of the distance and distractions.  You will definitely have an easier time with this exercise if you use items that are long enough for you and your dog to both have your “hands” on. Pouches should have straps. Most toys become more attractive with a strap because you can activate the prey drive by dragging it (like you would for a cat to pounce on). If it’s too small (like a ball), it is hard to snake and tease along the ground. It’s also easier for your dog to run off with the toy if it doesn’t have a handle. Always encourage your dog to return to you. If you cannot get the retrieve, put a long line on the toy! That way if your dog picks up the item and runs it becomes a tug game rather than something destructive, like keep away.  

If your dog likes to tug, play a little and then let go and dance away playfully from your dog.  Ideally, when you let go the dog will run after you and pounce on you, begging for you to tug (or to open up the pouch) to immediately restart the game. If it’s OK with you, let your dog jump on you (dogs are context oriented and you can easily teach them it’s allowed in play and not during daily life). My dogs try to shove the toy into my hands, usually with their paws on my belly.

Finally, before the dog spits out the item, say your “Give/Drop it” cue. Getting a dog to hold onto a retrieve item until you say let go is another entire undertaking. Often, dogs will eject the toy at your feet or prematurely when you reach for it. It’s a worthwhile training task to teach your dog to deliver it to your hand. If you are interested in competitive sports, service dog tricks, or you just want your dog to do the bending down and picking up for you, you should already be aware of the challenges the complete delivery to hand presents and be mindful of that component throughout your training. I’ll write another post on that topic soon.