Get to know In Joy and explore miscellaneous topics.

Off leash or not?

Ah, a worthwhile meditation topic. There are additional factors to consider beyond the poignant points that Patricia McConnell just posted (or reposted) on her wonderful blog, “The Other End of the Leash“. Certainly, the average person has little to no actual impulse control training on their dogs. I’ve taught recall classes where people who regularly let their dogs off leash couldn’t even recall their dog successfully in a small, indoor, gated area. Add to that the need to train these skills (impulse control, distance position(s), and recall, to name a few) under arousal, and you’ve lost the majority, by far. They want that degree of, I hesitate to call it “control”, but they won’t bother to put the time in to train even half of it. The real tragedy, IMO, is that these can be some of the most fun exercises to train (when executed well;)! There are obvious requirements, that few could meet (and if you can’t meet those requirements, ask yourself if you have any business letting your dog off leash!). But, beyond that, there are a couple of other factors to consider, right?

I’m a “free bird” sort, and I relish in letting dogs exercise themselves, leaping and bounding through the woods. I grew up escaping with our family dogs, taking them to run off leash in natural areas, and I attempted, in vain, to recall half the time. The science of behavior wasn’t what it is today and so much time working with those dogs bore little fruits. But I did observe and learn about the nature of dogs. Our Jack Russel would run off only to be found miles away attacking someone’s sprinkler heads, waterfalls, all sorts of dangerous, unhealthy, you name it situations, and had been arrested more than once. Maybe Jacks, like cats, have 9 lives. That was over 20 years ago, so, please don’t hold it against me. My dogs were off-leash much like I was a child left to my own devices. (The beauty of this, though, is when I was a teen, I sought sanctuary by running around with the dog gang rather than getting caught up in naughty teen traps).

These days, I still seek refuge in nature and hunt for the right places, and the right times, to let my dogs run. How else are you truly going to condition agility athletes? You can’t just work fast-twitch muscles chasing a ball/disc.  You need to let them build their relaxed trotting muscles, bending and stretching without extreme speed. Dogs need to bounce and play and wrestle and move all the ways that nature intended. It’s imperative you invest inordinate amounts of time developing “control” so you can give your dog more freedom, and, if you don’t, you have a conundrum. Dog parks, where you can find some of the most out of control dogs, and, sometimes aggressive, or sometimes socially retarded dogs who usually value playing with other dogs over their owners is out of the question for my dogs. I don’t believe it to be safe. Once in a while my dogs will go to a select dog park, usually to practice training around the distractions of obnoxious dogs, and even then, only at certain times of day (low-volume).

But here’s my biggest problem. One of my dogs is a hyper prey focused rescue. It took him 2 years before he’d eat food or play with toys when out in nature, because he was so distracted by every movement (literally, a leaf falling would distract him from the simplest request). He is tough because his heart’s desire is tracking (in hopes of a chase). My other dog is glued to my side (or, more specifically, facing me ahead on trail while staring at her toy), and her biggest failure is being highly social with people. The social piece, that’s just who she is, which I support. She’s harmless, albeit usually a bit dirty (or wet), so I manage her and haven’t meticulously worked on her greeting behavior (I’ve got other priorities and interests). The toy and handler focus, I capitalized on that. I brainwashed her, directing all her prey and herding interest into toys, which I control (so much more cooperative than those squirrels!). It is easier with dogs with certain aptitudes. But, you still have to sculpt and direct those behaviors to manifest in a constructive way.

Add to the challenge, I used to take a couple of client dogs with me to the woods in addition to my 2. My favorite protocol is to collect my whole group when anyone approaches, with or without dogs, and sit everybody in a cluster off the side of the trail with me in between my dogs and the passing party. The huge challenge is other people respecting the effort the stay requires (hardest for the client dogs with less training). This is where fights can happen between me and other dog owners. If they allow their dog(s) to “say hello”, and crash into the pile, I will head them off while trying to verbally get the owner to assist, and when that doesn’t happen in time, I will remove the offending party in whatever way possible (not always pretty). All the while, my biggest focus is on my reactive rescue, who, won’t seek out a confrontation, but will hold his ground (he had to fend for himself in the rescue yard with a load of BCs so he’s serious about boundaries, and very fair about them (but people tend not to understand this well)).

For instances when a dog might not heed the recall, consideration of temperament comes into play. The goofy flat-coat that doesn’t listen well when she sees other dogs is bombproof, sweet, passive. So, not too big of a worry. But, my reactive rescue is always being trained and can down at a distance while chasing squirrels, and is at the top of my priorities. I can manage it, but, honestly, few have the dexterity to juggle and manage such a feat. I’ve encountered dog walkers who had too many dogs to handle, each of which would probably be difficult to control verbally alone, and they have a gang of them off leash. This becomes an altercation where I start demanding that they “call their dogs” as I attempt to back away while organizing my group. They usually can’t catch their bunch, but I can usually manage their dog and send them back to them. Because my group is already anchored in a tight cluster in a sit-stay, I have the freedom to body block and handle the incoming dog that isn’t responding to her walker.

But, it could all go wrong. Nothing is certain with animals. For that reason, I wouldn’t bring multiple difficult dogs on the same outing. I rely on the rest of the group being under good to excellent verbal control so I can focus on my one loose cannon (who will spend much more time on leash, possibly entirely). I don’t recommend other people attempt this sort of thing. I have over 20 years of professional animal handling experience. And still, there’s risk. But, the benefits are too great to play it perfectly safe. I’m sure to discuss with clients (and have them sign off on paper) about what can go wrong. A dog could get lost chasing a deer or a bear. Or attacked, by a wild animal or by a rude dog that shouldn’t be off leash! There are poisons and dirty water, holes to break legs in, etc. It is a gamble.

So, what are your options?  What everybody really needs is good instruction. Not the kind you get from a pet dog class. The kind where you take private lessons with someone well-versed in working with dogs WHEN THEY ARE EXCITED. Most “professional dog trainers” try to manage a dog’s arousal level so that they don’t get into the zone where they are aroused and find it difficult to listen. That is a big mistake, in my opinion. It’s a much better idea to train for the most challenging situations, the real life situations, and progressively build to the point where your dog can function (i.e. listen and respond) to you while exciting stuff is happening. This is a skill set that pays of handsomely in quality of life and has benefits beyond just the recall. I believe it’s THE most important thing and if you only work on 1 thing with your dog, this should be it.

I’ve taught group recall classes, and may not offer this material beyond a one-on-one setting again because the class attracted people with lively and excitable (some may call them naughty) dogs. Of course, these are the dogs and people that need the most help. But, to really trigger the arousal that makes it so hard for a distracted dog to come when called is extremely difficult in a room full of high-wired dogs. It certainly is a goal to get each dog to the place where they can see this kind of excitement and not lose their head, but that takes months and months (maybe years) of training, and is not the ideal starting point to build these skills. And, working privately, you can always find real life situations or strategically arrange some to trigger and challenge your team when you’re ready for that.

And your battle may be easier or very, very difficult. It depends on your dog. It depends on what your dog has learned, how he was raised to understand the world, what genetic predisposition is ruling his brain, how you respond, what you address, etc. But, it is your responsibility to prepare your dog with good training if you plan on ever letting your dog off leash. Some dogs may not be candidates to enjoy such freedom. And, for those that are, there’s a time and place to take the associated risks. Realize that you are an ambassador for us all, and if somebody deathly afraid of dogs gets greeted with a happy nuzzle from your off-leash dog, you are not serving our community. Don’t assume anybody wants to greet your dog. Try to collect your dog whenever you encounter others. Once you have your dog under control, you can ask if they’d like to say “Hi”. As a dog-lover-for-life, I am not interested in your unruly dog jumping all over me when we meet on trail. I once had a new pair of shoes ruined when I “wasn’t asking for it”. Someone’s bouncy, happy, clueless and untrained puppy slid down my pant legs and stepped all over me on the way out. I wouldn’t have minded a wet “nose stamp” while the owner was trying to recall, but they just watched and laughed, thinking their puppy was cute. All of these little trespasses are what takes our right to let our dogs off leash away. But, nobody minds my off leash dogs when I call them and they circle tight around my body and all lay down and stay while I greet a passer-by. So, please think about everything involved with letting your dog off leash before deciding to do so.


Resurfacing the A-frame

Refinishing my A-frame was more of a project than it needed to be. Thanks to a couple of friends who helped me lock down a date to take that first step: pulling it apart to see how it had to be put back together, it finally got started. I didn’t find help when searching around the web, so I thought maybe I should put a little post about it. Both of my friends are very patient and observant, so we disassembled it quite gracefully and could see how it was built. One of them recommended using the old board as a guide for drilling the holes. So I marked the frames and the boards. A great idea, but…the wood of the larger pieces (8’x3′) is too large and untrue, with the warp and whatnot, so almost none of the guide holes lined up. And I took measures with a great number of clamps to make sure that those 2 boards lined up as precisely as possible. Well, lining up the holes ended up being one of the things that drained an inordinate amount of time (and finger skin). Judith mentioned that maybe I could slip a nail through just to get it all lined up before beginning to screw everything together. Another great idea…that didn’t work. At least it saved me from drilling in error over multiple attempts. In the end, I had to drill new holes through the new board into the frame with everything clamped snug. The other well-intentioned error was following a suggestion to use stainless steel screws. It was only after:

  • stripping lots of threads
  • snapping a lot of screws in half!
  • breaking them into fragments that sometimes partially protruded, that didn’t always come out and sometimes needed filing
  • while the hot broken bits melted their way into the wood

that I found out that Stainless screws are actually softer metal. For my upcoming job on the teeter, I’ll be using brass. Still going for a screw that ought not rust out so bad. Ric Travis of AgilityAgogo sold me the rubber almost a year before, so I called him up with a question. I found out that he’s been successful with boards that are 3/8″…which was valuable to know since adding that extra 1/8″ does increase the weight a bit. I wrestled with whether or not to go with Marine Plywood. It’s much heavier (not to mention pricey), and that combined with the fact that the rubber and the adhesive (which actually swells and dries as it’s own rubber-like layer) would make the top of the board pretty impervious to moisture made my decision for me. I did at least get a nicer plywood (not the green exterior stuff) that had the voids filled and sanded.

One of my biggest concerns was making sure the primer and then paint cured completely before moving on to the adhesive. Supposedly the adhesive does a great job of binding to the primer otherwise and then they peel right off the wood. And one thing for sure, I’m not trying to repeat my labors here! It ended up looking great, with a little bit of mixing of the rubber colors at one contact line. It was just debris that fell on top of the barrier (a board) between the 2 colors that sprinkled off when I lifted the board. The adhesive was so slippery at that stage I thought I’d clump and slide all the rubber out of place if I tried to rescue the little bit of wrong colored rubber. It’s good enough. What was really nice, though, is the adhesive swelled a lot, and filled a crack between the top and bottom boards on a side that wouldn’t sit flush, ending up in a small protrusion rather than void. And, as you can guess, filled all the screw hole mistakes like a charm.

I used paint as it shows through with loose rubber, and I made the underside the lighter color…and it really brightens things up 🙂 Use latex because oil takes forever to completely cure. I used really good paint and primer, probably too good. But, my rationale is not having to refinish it again for a long, long time.

The dogs LOVED it. I didn’t bother introducing it to anyone outside of a course sequence, and they all flew up and over it, fast, if not faster, than ever. One student, who is a small dog that doesn’t get a ton of exercise in his daily, absolutely hated the old slatted A-frame. Here’s a clip that demonstrates him descending the down ramp in more time than doing 2 complete A-frames on his first day on the new surface. That’s the kind of thing that makes all the effort even more worthwhile.

Does your dog truly understand? —An examination of fluency

“But he does it perfectly at home!”

We instructors hear this all the time. We know a lot of the obvious problems that the dog needs to work through. You have to teach a dog to generalize, work in distracting environments, etc. But there’s a lot more to training than that.

What I am just coming to appreciate is how imperative it is to develop behaviors to fluency before asking a dog to learn or do more: like perform chains of behavior, especially if the performance is at an event with environmental challenges.

What is fluency? Well, fluency is when your dog totally and completely knows the behavior. For example, I’m just polishing up the behavior of backing around me in a circle counterclockwise with my younger dog. This may be the fastest I’ve taught a new behavior yet. In a period of 3 short sessions one evening, I had Irie backing around me, weaned off of the dependency of the encircling gate I used to get the behavior started (with shaping), and was attaching the cue (saying the cue before she’d follow up with the behavior). In under 48 hours she had performed the behavior in no less than 5 different locations, was beginning to understand the verbal cue, and I was actually rewarding staying in heel more than circling back in an attempt to negate a tricky stimulus control problem of her sucking backwards in anticipation of backing around (which is inherently more fun because there’s a lot of movement to it).

By the next week, we worked hard on stimulus control. In a class we tested her. In a sort of ritualized way us humans tend to approach training, I took her out of a crate, walked up to the place on the floor we were going to work, and cued the behavior. She did it so I rewarded her and exited. Returning with the exact same set up, I tried to trick her by verbally cuing alternate behaviors, like spin, forward circle around, standing still in heel, sit, etc. No problem. It looks like she’s starting to get it.

“Starting to get it?” you may ask. Most people would say their dogs “knew” a behavior before even developing this level of proficiency. I, myself, have often moved on to the next new and exciting trick without completing training of the 1st behavior…with most of the things I taught!

But why does teaching a dog to truly understand matter? It is detrimental to your dog’s joy and confidence to suffer too much frustration and confusion. Even more so if you’re working with a dog that has any issues. What often happens is you put your dog in a position where she has to guess. This gets worse when you’ve trained more behaviors, because there are even more answers to chose between. I tormented one of my dogs by teaching him a whole slew of new tricks in a few months. It wasn’t so bad with the behaviors that looked really different, but, with the ones that I cued with a similar set up or body position, my poor dog got so confused he would just melt down. I thought it was just him. He was already a very aloof dog outside, a rescue that is hyper-prey focused. But the real problem was that he was being asked to discriminate between multiple behaviors that he hadn’t been given a chance to learn completely, one at a time.

Now, back to this idea of Irie just starting to get the back around. Yes, starting. She still needs to keep progressing to different set ups to proof her skill: to teach her to really know this behavior. Try cuing it without a ritual-like set up…like while walking along (in motion). Try changing your body position. Don’t be surprised if your dog has a complete melt down when you try to move into sitting on the floor and asking for the behavior. And the hardest, in my opinion, is counter motion from the handler. With this behavior, the hardest set up might be her circling backwards while I spin the opposite direction. I could also really challenge her by putting her favorite toys on the ground. Her herding qualities make staring at the toy so mesmerizing that she can barely process a command, especially if she’s off ahead of me lying down “eyeing” the toy.

I am so grateful to have known to work through these various contexts before moving on. Spend a number of training sessions teaching that it’s the same behavior when you start to change your body slowly from standing, to bending, to a crouch or sitting on the ground. You can incrementally go back to that upright position to help if your dog fails too much. Teach your dog to work around available reinforcement (zen bowls). Introduce distracting movements and actions (like clapping) from you. And only work on one direction at a time, treating the opposite direction as another behavior.

It isn’t until now that the truth of dogs knowing a behavior is coming to light. I realize that while Border Collies may have intensity, drive, and a great interest in training, many of them don’t suffer frustration well. While moving into a lower body position, poor little Irie got pretty frustrated. I’m sure glad that I was only working on that step, and not asking for her to do a bunch of other things she didn’t know well at the same time!

What a humbling experience to realize that most things we train have never been completely trained!

Courteous City Dogs

City dwellers, I feel your pain. So many dog owners are blissfully ignorant of the efforts you go through in your daily dog life. In particular, those who live in multi-story buildings are committed to slogging down the stairs/elevator, around the block, through traffic, for a minimum of an hour a day, just to get your dog relieved. Those of us with a yard who merely open the door (or let the dog nose a flap open) have no idea about what sort of time allotment you’ve dedicated to your best friend. Before getting a taste of your experience, I’d often just heel with my dogs each on one side of me, since I only have 2 at the moment. While it looks cool to have 2 dogs escorting you along, it is not functional when you encounter others in small hallways or staircases. So, I decided to train both of my beasts to walk side by side, tucked tidily close in on my right side (since those of us who drive on the right side of the road tend to like to organize our walking paths by passing that way, too) to keep my body between my dogs and those we pass (left to left). Surely everyone would prefer polite passing.



Well, wouldn’t you know it, training this sort of bundled heeling was harder than I expected. Both of my dogs know how to heel on the right side, but when asked to do so simultaneously, who gets the choice spot next to me? Knowing that the more specific you are with training criteria is actually kinder to dogs than just letting them choose their variation, should I ordain one for the immediate right and the other for 2nd position? That’s sound training logic. My dogs will find it easier to meet the criteria of walking close to my side if there is only one position for them to assume, not 2 to choose from. And the people pleasantly surprised to be able to pass, say “Hello”, and not have to deal with a wet nose or worse on their clothes.


Aloha from the “human Border Collie”.

Yes, I am an overly enthusiastic character with an unforgivable intensity, just praying that you will find that to also be my charm;). Today I’m seeking to let you know that here thrives a unique dog training instructor that would love nothing more than for you to have an even cooler relationship with your dog. I have so many ideas that might just spark off a departure from your daily and launch you into a new hobby that is sure to turn you into a smile spreader.

Keep an eye on this blog and wander the wacky world of a fun-loving, smart, efficient, talented dog trainer and instructor as I encounter a variety of challenges and accomplishments in my professional and personal pursuits of a life full of dogs. We’ll talk about trick training, clickers, clicker training, dog behavior, agility, rally-O, competitive obedience, on-going obedience training, puppy training, shortcuts, eliminating unnecessary aids…I could just go on and on. So, I will, here, with random thoughts to get you thinking. Please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts whenever something resonates with you. It’s nice to know your out there with us!

But for now, I gotta go and find the ball 😉