Making the Right Decision

10406615_10156003312825162_4983023436368637414_nFour months ago, I brought home a wiggly, goofy, brilliant and sometimes challenging dog and named him Dodger.

We spent almost every waking moment together, training, walking, playing, snuggling. What a delight to work with! I couldn’t believe how quickly he would pick up on things and how easily he would generalize most behaviours. We worked through many challenges together but there were a couple issues that were a little sticky.

One, was his leash-based issues with other dogs and the other was his fear of public transit and large trucks. These may not be major issues for other people, however I live in a condo downtown where the chances of sharing an elevator or narrow sidewalk with a dog is higher than not, off-leash dogs are common, and I’m surrounded by two streetcar routes, one bus route, a Greyhound bus route, and a major construction zone next door.

Week by week, his foundation behaviours strengthened by the mile, our bond did too. He made me laugh until I cried almost daily. We took our own Cranky Canine class and he thrived. People pulled their cars over when they saw us walking because of our games and our gorgeous heelwork. We had an audience on every walk. Unfortunately, when we walked closer to the streetcar routes or a bus passed by, poor Dodger (or “Dodgeball” as I affectionately call him) would pin his ears and drool. While he could still perform basic behaviours like “touch”, “sit”, “down”, I could see that his emotional state was not great.

Our world was not getting any bigger. I couldn’t take him on transit outside of the core to give him relief and I could sense his growing frustration. I knew that he needed to run and I had nowhere to safely do that. My goal was to give this dog an amazing home and in most ways I did. I resolved his health issues in the first month and a half, provided him amazing home-cooked food and supplements, spent much of our time together training and playing brain games, and laying on the love pretty thick.

I couldn’t erase his fears and while I was able to get pretty close to a Conditioned Emotional Response to his triggers, it just wasn’t enough. He would trigger-stack daily; on one walk, the buses would grate on his nerves, on the next walk, an off-leash dog might charge us, on another walk, a close call in an elevator, and by the end of the day, he would step outside and immediately drool from the anticipation of the next stressor or he would bark and lunge at a dog across the street, which would normally not cause any reaction at all.

The realization that I may not be able to control our environment enough for Dodger to live a full and happy life was the most heartbreaking one of all. My love for him (and his for me) would not be enough. I could use medication to lower his anxiety but it would only be a Band-aid solution as the reality is…I live downtown and this Border Collie needs to run.

Making the right decision was not easy at all. I flip-flopped for weeks and tried to convince myself that it could all be done. I struggled with the judgement that would come – a professional dog trainer who can’t fix her own dog. I cried my eyes out at the thought of losing the perfect dog because of an environmental / geographical issue.

The truth is…sometimes loving a dog means doing what is best for him and not necessarily yourself.

In early October, I sent Dodger back to the rescue for five days of boarding while I visited my family for Thanksgiving, and when I saw the videos and pictures of him off-leash, running, and playing with dogs…I knew that I could not justify bringing him back to Toronto. I cannot offer him what he needs in his life and therefore he has a better chance of happiness if he is placed in a home in a rural or suburban area where he can have playmates and off-leash time.

The reality will set in over the coming weeks and I miss him already but knowing he’s happy and not being triggered daily is enough for me to know I’ve made the right decision. He’s going to find a wonderful home and I hope they love him and find as much joy in him as much as I have. The way I have to look at this is that perhaps I have just been a pretty fantastic foster home for him. That gives me a little comfort…

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Keeping our pets safe on Halloween

costumeHalloween is fantastic and fun for kids and adults, however it is not nearly as pleasant for our pets. Costumes and props can be spooky triggers that set our dogs off. They don’t understand that it’s a holiday and all in the name of fun and there’s no way of explaining that to them. We have some great tips to share with you before the big night comes.

MANAGEMENT

Keep your dog indoors or on leash

This is not the time to leave your dog unattended outdoors – keep your dog on a leash or closely monitored in the backyard. Check your fence and gate to make sure your little Houdini can’t get out.

Double check your dog’s ID tags

We recommend double checking your dog’s collar daily to ensure it fits properly, but most of all around special holidays. Also check the ID tags to make sure they are clear, easily read, and most importantly up to date.

Block access to the door

If you have trick or treaters coming to the door, utilize a barrier such as a baby gate or even a tether to block access to the door. No matter how friendly you think your dog is, the doorbell is often a trigger for over arousal and no child deserves to be charged at the door. Some dogs will even take the opportunity to “door-dart” and take off running through the neighbourhood. Better safe than sorry.

Block windows and noise

If Fido loves prime time television and tends to sit at the window barking at passers-by, Halloween night will be no exception. Whether you are home or not, block the windows and play some classical music or white noise to prevent Fido from delivering the running commentary all night long.

Provide a place for your dog to hide

Many dogs feel stressed on Halloween night, understandably. Providing a safe space for Fluffy is only fair. Set up their crate or confinement away from the door and equip them with cozy bedding, and toys/chews.

Utilize calming aids

Plug in an Adaptil diffuser a couple days beforehand, play classical music, utilize a Thundershirt or anxiety wrap – any of these can be helpful to keep stress levels lower.

Give them something else to do

Food dispensing toys such as Buster Cubes, Kong Wobblers, or Nina Ottosson puzzles are fantastic ways to let your dog work for their kibble and stay occupied. Having a few stuffed, frozen Kongs in the freezer will put you ahead of the game. They will appreciate having their own little “Playstation” during the chaos.

pumpkinTRAINING

If you have some extra hands, you can turn this into a fantastic training opportunity – especially if you have a new puppy. While one person is dedicated to answering the door and dishing out candy, another person can be stationed away from the door with the dog on leash. Armed with high value treats, you’ll want to be prepared:

Think “Pavlov”

As soon as the doorbell rings or there’s a knock on the door, immediately feed a couple of small/soft/stinky, high value treats to your dog. Don’t hesitate and don’t make the food contingent on any behaviour; you’re simply creating an association. Doorbell rings = food happens. With repetition, this will create a marvelous emotional response (“hooray!”) to the doorbell AND cause them to come to you next time they hear it (instead of running to the door, barking).

Think “Skinner”

Now, get your clicker out! As soon as your dog looks at the children wearing costumes, click and feed a treat. Lather, rinse, repeat. This quick and dirty game is called “Look At That” and is from our Control Unleashed class. This exercise can really diffuse any arousal or tension before it escalates and is a great way to teach dogs to look at something or someone but to stay connected to you rather than reacting.

Keep it short and sweet, giving your dog plenty of breaks and watching for signs of stress; panting, pacing, whining, vocalizing, dilated pupils, yawning, licking their lips, avoidance, or any over-reaction. These are all signs that your dog is overwhelmed and needs to stop training and find a safe place away from the excitement in order to relax.

candyCAUTION

Halloween candy and chocolate are very unsafe for dogs – most have ingredients that are toxic, but they can also be choking hazards. Remember this in the days following Halloween as you take walks with your dog – Keep one eye on your dog and one eye on the ground ahead and around you.

Teach your dog a rock-solid “drop it” and practice daily, especially leading up to the holiday – it’s such an easy behaviour to practice and dog love it!

Have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone!

Keeping everything in balance

In June, our team of trainers (Caryn, Mirkka, Cara) had the good fortune to be able to join some of our heroes, colleagues, and friends to learn from Alexandra Kurland, possibly the finest horse trainer this world has ever seen.

We traveled out to Sutton, Quebec to the Cavalia Farm where the horses retire from show biz’ and spent three days and four nights learning a great deal from not only horse and dog trainers, but giraffe trainers and other behavioural experts. The question that was constantly floating above our heads every day during this workshop was “How did you arrive at this behaviour, and is it the least intrusive method?” Now doesn’t that say something about the force-free nature of this spectacular woman.

The lectures were loosely structured – quite informal and really more so a discussion among trainers and friends. Input was welcome, questions never discouraged, and oftentimes the discussion between Alexandra and Dr.Susan Friedman was like sitting in on the most intimate private discussion where ideas come alive, where inspiration is born. My hand could not write fast enough to capture everything I wished to, and all I could think was “I need to come back next year to absorb everything I missed. And the year after that.”
Cavalia
The hands-on work was sometimes with horses and sometimes without. As we know in dog training, it’s oftentimes the other end of the leash that needs the most work and where the focus should be before we even include the animal in the process. We paired up for exercises to learn how we physically affect our learner and one of these exercises was a minuet. Partner A would extend a hand, palm to the sky, and Partner B would place their hand, palm down, lightly on top and we would walk together, allowing Partner A to lead while Partner B closed their eyes and followed. It was an awakening of sorts; I learned to listen with my hand, if that makes any sense. It was incredible to affect my partner’s movement, speed, direction without using force – simply by guiding with the lightest touch as her hand lay like a feather atop mine. When I followed, I couldn’t help but imagine how dogs and horses must feel with a lead attached to their collar, harness, or halter. I appreciated the gentleness of my partner and felt sick when I imagined the use of leash corrections in comparison.

“Allow the animal to say “I can’t do this” or “I don’t understand”. Let the animal lead the dance.”

Another demonstration was with a horse lead and two partners; I was quick to volunteer myself to work with Alex. I held the lead in my hands, out in front of my chest as Alex held the very opposite end, about 4-5 feet away from me, facing me. She asked me to close my eyes and grip as tightly as possible, letting her know when I could feel movement in the lead. I closed my eyes and I focused my attention on the lead, waiting to feel movement as I held on with white knuckles. Moments passed and the arena was silent. Finally I felt movement and I opened my eyes to see Alex gripping the lead less than one foot away from my hands. I was shocked! How had I not felt that movement?! I was so focused!

She moved back down the lead and asked me to repeat the exercise but instead to hold the lead comfortably in my hands without gripping so tightly. I closed my eyes and almost immediately I felt movement and opened my eyes. She had barely moved from the other end of the lead. Once again I was shocked. It was again another eye opener for me (excuse the pun) as I have always taught clients the same thing – “tight grip, loose leash”…and here I was learning that a relaxed grip on the leash will allow you to have better communication with the animal. My, how animals must feel all our movements at the other end of the leash! How much information they are deriving from our every movement…and once again the effect of a tight grip or a correction.

As each moment passed, I grew more and more aware of our effect on our animals and how we are always communicating but it may not be what we hope to communicate. The clarity…it was really shaking me up.

Now for the exercise that I initially felt was going to be a little too strange for even me. Tai Chi.

The weekend discussions and demonstrations had left me feeling quite open and vulnerable. We entered the arena and were asked to spread out in a large circle and Alex began to coach us. We focused on our posture, how to plant our feet so that we were perfectly balanced, unable to be knocked over, where to shift our weight (find our “babbling brook”). I almost smirked. Not quite, but almost. Until once again she was right. What a difference can be made if we plant our feet and focus on our weight shifting.  Alex begins coaching us through some movements. Her voice, like butter, the arena silent. The group of us were watching her and mirroring her exact movements.

As we progressed through each movement, we all closed our eyes and feet firmly planted, we swayed and loosened our hips while rolling an imaginary ball in a figure eight motion from side to side. Something clicked. Suddenly I had tears streaming down my face and I felt like my heart had been crushed. I stopped moving and opened my eyes to find that everyone else was still swaying and moving – no one had noticed. I snuck out of the arena to get some air and quite frankly to have a good cry. For some reason, this exercise really affected me and all the guilt I have (I don’t know that it will ever really leave me) from using positive punishment with Parker years ago came bubbling to the surface. I felt as though I had failed him and feared that I never made it up to him even years later. I wondered if, as he took his last breath, he knew how much I loved him and how sorry I will always be.

I pulled myself together after a few minutes and snuck back in with the hope that no one noticed my disappearance or reappearance with red-rimmed eyes. At dinner that evening we were asked what we are taking home from this workshop and again, emotion overcame me and I felt that it was only fair to be honest with this group of amazing people, so I shared my feelings of guilt and appreciation towards Alex for facilitating an experience for us to learn how to truly be force-free with our animals. It was an emotional evening to say the least. Listening to everyone as we went around the table sharing our thoughts – it was amazing to hear how we all had been affected by the learning and how we could apply it in our lives “back home” whether with horses, dogs, crocodiles, or parrots. Perhaps even humans.

One of the most important lessons I learned that I still have yet to process due to its depth, is “for every behaviour you teach, there is an opposite behaviour to teach in order to create balance.” Such a profound concept that is also so applicable with humans too – we really must find a way to create balance, to eliminate frustration in the learner. This is certainly something I will be pondering for weeks and months and years to come.

To end our weekend, we were spoiled rotten with an opportunity to watch the great Alexandra Kurland working with a stunning horse named Zacho who was learning piaffe. We were lucky enough to receive a hug from this sweet boy before packing it in for the weekend and heading home. The perfect ending to the perfect long weekend.

A hug from ZatchoA quote that will forever stick in my mind is where I will leave this today.

“What is art, other than seeing what others cannot see.”

(Dr.Susan Friedman)

On adopting a rescue dog

On June 17th, 2015 I brought home a rescue dog that I had my eye on for a little while. His name was “Wolfie” and he’s a Border Collie / Cattledog mix. I had been rolling around names for some time. Suzuki, Dodger, Teacher, Linux, Fischer…

I learned quite a bit about his history – he was raised in an apartment in Scarborough with a number of children and very little socialization with the outside world. His next home would be with a couple who used heavy punishment in the short time they had him. He ended up back in rescue and was introduced to positive reinforcement training before coming home to me.

I was stoked. A one year old, male dog with a few challenges to work through. A dog who is food and toy motivated, who loves to play and snuggle and even, gasp, sleep on the bed! We bonded immediately – there was no doubt.

dodgerThe only real behavioural challenge we had right off the bat would be his fears. Fear of men, fear of dogs, fear of noises, fear of traffic, fear of anything novel.

Walking with him was a challenge – he pulled in every direction, body low to the ground, ears pinned, drooling, eyes wide, trembling. A bus would approach and he would try desperately to dart away, even if it meant into traffic. The panic was real.

When certain men approached, he would freeze, stare, back up, pin his ears and bark while trying to hide behind me. When he saw dogs, he would initially be excited but if they came close, he would stiffen and freeze. If they sniffed his backside, he would immediately whip around and either pin them (if they were small dogs) to the ground, or nip them on the face or neck (if they were larger). Not to mention that he would stiffen and growl if I approached him while he was in possession of a stuffed Kong.

Boy…I had my hands full.

All the while, he was having a rough time health-wise, too. He was desperate to pee every 1.5 – 2 hours all day. He had me up at 5:30am every morning and seemed lethargic compared to my idea of a Border Collie / Cattledog mix. He had diarrhea at least a few times a day which ended up being increasingly concerning (containing mucous and blood) and eventually he would start vomiting blood as well.

We spent some quality time at the vet clinic, running blood work, stool samples, urine samples, and physical exams, but no issues presented. We were all stumped. I started to feel hopeless – what had I done? I just spent the last few years taking care of a dog who needed extensive care and here I was again, except this time the dog was not a geriatric, he was a young pup – one I had not yet bonded with.

The thought of returning him crossed my mind, night after sleepless night. I started leaving my condo in the daytime and sitting at the pub down the street to get some work done and get a break. I felt awful, guilty, resentful, frustrated, tired, sad, and more than anything else, I was missing Parker.

I wanted so badly to love a dog again and I felt like perhaps I made a mistake. I wondered if this is how everyone feels when they adopt a dog. Are these typical emotions? Or a sign that I wasn’t ready? Why couldn’t I as the professional figure this out? I doubted my abilities as a trainer and coach as each day passed. My confidence shaken. I felt sick. How would I explain this failure?

dodgersnuggleWorse yet, how would I explain to this newly adopted dog that I made an impulsive and incorrect choice and he was to go back to the rescue and not likely to be placed in a loving home due to his issues and bite history?

Needless to say, they were dark days.

Stay tuned for the Dodger update…

Using food in training

Why use food in training?

Positive reinforcement means to add something the dog loves to encourage them to repeat the behaviour. Animals are programmed to work for their food by hunting so we’ve taken away their natural problem-solving abilities serving food “on a silver platter”. Wasn’t it Kathy Sdao who said that you have to feed your dog anyway, so why not reallocate those calories to training?

You can certainly use other rewards such as toys/play, physical affection, verbal praise, access to resources (dog park, swimming hole, doggie-friends, Nana and Poppa, whatever the dog LOVES). However oftentimes in training  you need to be able to repeat the behaviour 5-10 times in a session, relatively quickly and food is the fastest way of doing just that.

I don’t want to bribe my dog through treat-training or create a food dependency.

Good – we’re on the same page. Nothing irks me more than bribing a dog. It’s not teaching!

Here’s how to avoid bribing and food dependencies: The food should NEVER be visible before the cue is given. If it is, you’re bribing. The food should arrive AFTER the behaviour is offered. That way, it’s a reward, not a bribe.

Food dependency occurs when WE create it – not the dog. In the beginning we reward every time we get the behaviour. When the behaviour is fluent and generalized to various environments and distraction levels, then we can change our reinforcement schedule by feeding every OTHER time we get the behaviour, every THIRD time, every FOURTH time, and then randomly so that the dog never knows when the reward is coming. Like a slot machine! That’s what will make the behaviour the strongest…and neither you nor the dog will be dependent on the treat.

What kind of food does my dog like?

You’ll have to ask your dog! Dogs have preferences just like we do. Test out a few different types of treats and see which one really gets their attention. Take a few options on a walk with you and see which one keeps their attention while they’re outside in a higher distraction area. The winner is the one you should use in training.

Can my dog have “people food”?

Absolutely! What do you think kibble is made of? Kibble is just processed “people food” that is baked down into a tiny little hard kibble, filled with preservatives to ensure it has a long shelf life and then sprayed with flavouring to make it taste better. Does that sound like it’s better than “people food”? In fact, my dog ONLY eats “people-food” – I won’t give him processed food or kibble and he’s the healthiest dog I know!

Your dog can eat a variety of foods, save for a handful of toxic ones (chocolate, grapes, raisins, onion, macadamia nuts, pits/seeds, to name just a few). We generally suggest a pure protein, boiled or baked, and then chopped up. At least then you know exactly what’s going into your dog’s body and you have limited the preservatives and chemicals they’re ingesting.

Why can’t I just use kibble?

You can certainly try, however if your dog eats kibble for every meal, you’re not really giving them any incentive to work hard. Most dogs don’t find kibble very high value (have you tasted it??) so using a higher value food reward will bring you faster and stronger behaviours in training.

Will feeding “people-food” teach my dog to beg?

If you feed “people-food” directly from your plate or the table when your dog is begging for it, then yes. Absolutely. You’ve just reinforced a behaviour therefore it is likely to be repeated.

If you use people-food in training then no, your dog is not likely to beg. If they start begging, you can use positive reinforcement training to teach them a solid “go to mat” and “stay” so that they’re not in your face when you’re eating!

Are crunchy biscuits or chopped vegetables okay?

I personally wouldn’t use them as dogs tend to have to chew them and then they get tired/bored with them. They’re not very tasty and they certainly don’t have a great smell. They’re fine if you’re rewarding your dog as a one-off but if you’re hoping for an excellent training session, you’ll find your dog is tired of chewing about 10 minutes in and has lost interest in you and the game.

How big should the treats be?

Great question! We don’t want to fill our dogs up halfway through a training session, so it’s paramount that we use a tiny treat. For puppies and extra small dogs I use a treat the size of half a green pea. For small to medium size dogs I use a treat the size of a green pea. For large to extra large breed dogs, I use a treat the size of two green peas.

If you feed them too much of anything, they will likely have gastro-upset such as gas or diarrhea. No fun for anyone involved!

How many should I bring?

I always suggest bringing more than you think you’ll need for the session. 3/4 of a sandwich baggie is likely a good estimate. If you have leftovers, great! Pop them back in the fridge or freezer for the next session. It’s best to have too many than too little!

My dog is not food motivated. What should I do?

As a famous trainer once said, “All dogs are motivated at some point by food, because if they weren’t they’d be dead.”

We need to close the economy on food. This does not mean that you must starve your dog. Don’t get me wrong! It simply means that you have to adjust the WAY your dog accesses their food. If your dog has constant access to a full food bowl 24/7, then food is not of high value – it is merely a piece of furniture. They will simply eat to sustain life. (Also keep in mind that it only takes a couple of hours of being exposed to the air for kibble to go rancid, so they’re not even going to enjoy it when they DO eat it!)

Stop free-feeding your dog. They don’t enjoy it. I promise. Start hand feeding your dog at meal times to really increase the bond between you both. Try taking their food on walks instead of feeding out of a bowl – a few kibble every time they make eye contact or respond to a cue. Feed them out of food dispensing toys rather than a boring bowl. All of these things increase the VALUE of the food in the dog’s perspective.

Also, never feed your dog before a training session. For one, you’re doubling their calories which will lead to unnecessary weight gain. Two, you’re filling them up and then asking them to work hard for something they won’t want to eat!

What if most food makes my dog sick? / My dog has severe allergies

I would certainly speak with your veterinarian and a qualified nutrition consultant if that is the case. We strongly recommend Sabine Contreras (www.betterdogcare.com) and Monica Segal (www.monicasegal.com) as they have studied with vets and beyond.

Use very small amounts of the food you know your dog can tolerate and bring a variety so that it’s spread out. You can bring their regular food and try to “spice it up” a little by using another ingredient that they can tolerate.

When all else fails, try putting two portions of their kibble into a baggie, sprinkle with parmesan cheese (if that is tolerated), seal it and leave it in the fridge overnight. You can do the same with a hot dog. Grill a hot dog and toss it in a baggie with two portions of their kibble and then seal it and leave it in the fridge overnight. Take the hot dog out the next day and just use their kibble, which now smells and tastes like hot dog! The liquid from canned tuna is also a great option!

Please do not wait to deal with this – Sabine and Monica have saved many dogs’ lives through nutrition and are an amazing resource not to be missed. Your dog can have a better quality of life and a better relationship with food. There is no such thing as “hypoallergenic” food; every dog has a different allergen and a different reaction so no one food fits all. Many foods claim to be, but they simply mask the problem. Find out what the trigger is and avoid it. Your dog’s health is worth it! Plus, food intolerances and allergies can lead to serious behavioural issues even if they’re being “managed” with special diets.

What are some ideas for treats?

Ah, the million dollar question! Here you go!

Boiled / baked protein

  • Take a cheap cut of beef, pork, turkey, chicken (including ground)
  • Bake it or boil it
  • Strain off any fat
  • Let cool
  • Chop into bite-size pieces and portion into baggies
  • Refrigerate for up to 3-4 days
  • Freeze for up to 2-3 months (freezer-safe container)

Cheese (always opt for low-fat)

  • Shred or chop into bite-size pieces
  • Refrigerate for up to 5-7 days
  • Freeze for up to 3 months (freezer-safe container)

Wet dog food (canned)

  • Add a little water to dilute it
  • Portion into a squeeze tube (like this one: http://goo.gl/aZpIVW)
  • Refrigerate for up to 5-7 days
  • Freeze for up to 2-3 months (freezer-safe container – NOT the squeeze tube)

Commercial Rollover Dog Food rolls

This kind: http://goo.gl/zs25mQ (they have a few flavours)

  • Slice into 1/4” slices
  • Pile 3-4 slices at a time and dice in one direction, keeping the form
  • Turn the pile 90 degrees and dice in the next direction, making tiny cubes.
  • Refrigerate for up to 5-7 days
  • Freeze for up to 3 months (freezer-safe container)

How to slice and dice Rollover Dog Food rolls:

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Doesn’t this look like more fun than a bowl??

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It’s not the dog, it’s the people!

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How often do we hear those words?

“It’s not the dog, it’s the people!”

I have to admit I really take offence when I hear it and I’m not shy about speaking up when I’m faced with someone who says it so off-the-cuff.

When we bring a dog into our lives, we do so with the best of intentions. We do so because we love dogs, we want companionship, we crave unconditional love, we want to excel at a sport or activity, because we long to care for something or someone. We visualize our lives with said dog – family barbeques with our lovely dog running with the kids, playing fetch or running through a sprinkler, hiking with our dog, dog parks, play groups, daycare, training classes, sports like agility or flyball, long road trips with Fido’s head out the window, tongue flapping in the wind, lazy days at the beach, tossing a stick into the water only to have it retrieved and barked at for more.

Most people don’t adopt a dog with the hopes of having a dog who barks and lunges at other dogs, people, children, cars, small animals, cyclists and joggers. We don’t dream of adopting a dog whose separation anxiety is so bad that they claw through our walls, barking all day, causing us to get eviction notices. It’s not often we check off the “most desired behaviour challenges” on that checklist at the breeder or shelter. Most of these behaviours are founded in fear and anxiety and not always because the dog had a traumatic event relating to one of these triggers.

We often hear clients tell us that their new rescue is afraid of men with beards and it’s likely that the dog was abused by a man with a beard. We trainers beg to differ. I would say that more often than not, it’s because the dog had little to no opportunity to build a positive association with men and beards; it’s likely that they were simply not socialized together and now this trigger is ‘new and scary’.

Fear doesn’t need a reason. Sometimes it just is.

Whether we adopt an eight week old puppy from the most spectacular breeder or a four year old rescue dog from the streets of Mexico or a nine year old dog from a hoarding situation, the bottom line is that it’s not always the people who have caused the issues. Genetics and environment always play a part in behaviour so let’s not be so quick to judge the person holding the leash. They’re doing the best they can with the knowledge they have.

I remember the looks I used to get walking Parker down the street two weeks after I adopted him from the SPCA where he had his hind leg amputated. He had been starved and was a wobbly bone-rack, hauling it down the street, barking and lunging at dogs.

People assumed it was me who was so cruel, when I was the one who pulled him from that shelter and gave him soft beds, home cooked food, four walks a day, so much love. If someone had ever said to me “it’s not the dog, it’s the YOU”, I would have crumpled into a ball on the floor.

So before you speak those words, please rethink it and give the person a compassionate word of support and remember that even if they’re making mistakes in training, creating negative associations, even using outdated methods and tools; they’re doing the best they can with the knowledge they have and they truly have the dog’s best interest at heart. 

The world doesn’t need more judgment; that’s for sure.

11 ways to get the most out of your efforts

Participation in a training program has the greatest value when the impact is felt in the human-animal relationship. There are strategies you can employ to maximize the likelihood of long term benefit for you and your dog. We know from experience that if you employ new concepts the day after the session, you are more than twice as likely to remember what you have learned – and continue to use this learning.

1 – Be prepared

Bring your clicker, treat pouch, ~250 soft, small, stinky treats, proper equipment, a mat for your dog to lay on, a stuffed Kong that lasts longer than 5-10 minutes, a favourite tug toy, wear comfortable clothes, and be prepared to learn. 

Also aim to be prepared in other environments – one common concern from clients is that when they’re in certain environments their dog knows they’re in training and they behave perfectly. How do they know? Is it because you only wear your treat pouch when training in the school? Try not using it at all for a week. Only wear it half the time in all environments. Watch for training cues and change them when you notice them so that your dog learns that it’s always training time! 

2 – Set goals

Before the session begins, set out goals for yourself – 

What do you want to get out of this session?

Which behaviours do you want to change? 

Communicate these goals to your instructor in advance so that we can work with you realistically. Ideally we have all the details about your challenges with your dog in your initial assessment form. Be detailed when filling this out – the more we know, the better we can help you. 

3 – Listen to your dog

You cannot focus on the session if you’re not feeling well, feeling stressed, too hot, too cold, nervous, distracted, hungry, thirsty, and neither can your dog! If you notice signs of stress, anxiety, fear, frustration in your dog, feel free to interrupt the session and together with your instructor you can find ways to alleviate this discomfort in your dog and help them learn comfortably. You know your dog best!

4 – Be patient

When was the last time you learned a new language or skill? Was it easy? Did you pick it up immediately and were you able to execute it perfectly and confidently? Remember that your dog is not only learning a new skill, but they’re learning a new language AND they’re most likely also unlearning an old skill that is well-practiced in their repertoire. Be patient with them and help them through the learning curve without attaching labels such as “stupid”, “bad”, “stubborn” – these are not only inaccurate but they hinder the process and damage the relationship. 

5 – Ask questions

Do yourself and your instructor a favour – if there is any question or doubt in your mind, speak up! Not only does this lead to better understanding for you but it also enables your instructor to be a better trainer. We thrive on people who ask questions! 

6 – Be creative

There is no cookie-cutter approach when it comes to dog training because all dogs are individuals just like we are. Every dog has a motivation; we just have to figure out what it is. Be open to creative solutions – when we shoot down every idea because it’s too hard or it’s too much work, we’re closing doors to success. Be willing to try something outside of your comfort zone and you might find that it’s not so bad! Surprise yourself. 

7 – Be your dog’s advocate

If at any point someone does something to make you or your dog uncomfortable, speak up in that exact moment. It does not matter who this is, whether it is your family, friends, trainer, veterinarian, or a stranger on the street. It’s your job to speak up for your pet and protect them. Be sure that they see you as an ally; someone they can trust to get them out of a scary situation. 

Practice saying “I’m not (or “my dog is not”) comfortable with that. Please stop and let’s give Fido some space and we can find a better solution / take a break / try something different.” – when it is scripted and practiced, you will not hesitate or stumble over your words awkwardly. No feelings need to be hurt but boundaries must be set and respected. 

8 – Turn ideas into action plans 

Go beyond the in-person sessions and the handouts that can get buried in your inbox – write down what you are going to do with the information! By thinking in terms of the application of these new skills into the reality of your life, the ideas will have greater meaning and you will be more likely to follow through with action and be successful. 

9  – Have fun 

 Dogs learn more effectively when they are having fun and it’s no different for people. Be more exciting to your dog than all the other distractions you are competing with! Make yourself high value by ensuring youLoosen up and enjoy the process! This session is quality time dedicated to the bond you and your dog share. If you start feeling frustrated, that’s a sure sign to take a break! 

10 – Track your progress

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for all the trees. Keep a log of your progress so that when you check in, you can see how far you’ve come. While it feels like baby steps (and it might actually be), any progress is still a step in the right direction. 

If you feel like you are not progressing as quickly or as well as you had hoped, speak with your instructor sooner than later. There may be other ways of helping you accelerate the progress or you might just need a different perspective. That’s why we’re here. 

11 – Reward yourself

Dogs respond well to reward-based training as do all animals; humans included, so promise yourself a reward for everything you’re putting into this training with your dog. Tell yourself at the end of a great day where you have dedicated practice time, mastered management, or effectively changed an association or behaviour (in yourself OR your dog), that you are going to treat yourself to a fitting reward. Go out for dinner with your partner, meet a friend for a coffee, see a movie, buy yourself flowers, whatever it is that you find rewarding, do it! You deserve it.