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.”
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)


Thank You

Dear clients and colleauges,

‘Tis the season to be grateful. We wanted to send out a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone for the best year yet. Honestly. 2011 has been a dream come true and 2012 is looking even better.

This year was started off by connecting with some pretty incredible positive trainers here in Toronto and forging wonderful friendships. People often think that this industry is highly competitive and while there will always be that edge in any industry, to be honest; the bond that positive trainers have to each other is much stronger than any competition. We support each other, practice on each other, share our successes, our failures, our doubts and fears, our beautiful moments, our pride, our stories and even our clients. The bottom line is that we’re all in it for the same reason; to better the lives of dogs in our city (even around the world as far as we can reach) through education and force-free methods.

In 2011 we welcomed hundreds of new pups into our various programs, one of which has become a fast favourite and the cause of many a wait-list. Cranky Canine. The first and only class of its kind in downtown Toronto; a partnership of Whatta Pup! and Mindful Behaviors. We work with four reactive dogs in an intensive program that prepares each handler for “real life” with their feisty friend. By the end of the series, dogs who were sometimes labeled “aggressive” or “firecracker” or “short fuse”, are walking past each other on sidewalks, gazing lovingly at their handlers. All of this while proudly using force-free, humane techniques.

We spent countless hours/days attending seminars, conferences, workshops and classes in order to ensure we’re bringing the right information to the table when we’re dealing with you and your dogs. We would never want to pass along outdated or inaccurate information, so we’re constantly upgrading our skills for you.

In November 2011, Caryn Charlie Liles was named Executive Director of the IAFPP: International Association of Force-Free Pet Professionals (formerly IPDTA – International Positive Dog Training Assocation). This great undertaking means that we can share knowledge with other trainers and pet professionals around the world and encourage everyone who works with animals to use force-free techniques.

Near the end of 2011, we started making plans to expand and on October 25th, we signed a lease for a space of our own where we can offer classes, a place for private lessons, workshops, courses, playdates, and much more. This new space is in our favourite part of the city – Leslieville. Located just slightly north of Dundas Street East on Carlaw Avenue, our 950 sq.ft. space is soon to be called home.

The holidays will be spent with family and friends, and then we jump straight into minor renovations so that our space is ready for our Grand Opening on January 7th, 2012. (Stay tuned for your invitation!)

What strikes us most about 2011 is the amount of love and support that has come our way. Not just from family, friends and colleagues, but from you. Every day that you welcome us into your home to help you better communicate with your dog, every email that you send with questions and feedback, every card that comes in the mail with a thank you for “helping change a life”, every picture of your dog that is sent and cherished…every day is a good day.

There are few people who can say that they wake up in the morning in anticipation of the day ahead; that they cannot wait to get to work, that they have the most wonderful clients imaginable…but we know how that feels because we live it every day and it’s because of you.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for everything in 2011; for your support and encouragement, for laughing at our corny jokes in class, for liking our posts on Facebook, retweeting us on Twitter, sharing your lives with us and allowing us to become part of your family too. Every day you help make our dreams come true.

Happy Holidays and warmest wishes for 2012. We (as always) can’t wait to see you again.

Caryn Charlie Liles and the incredible team here at Whatta Pup!

TAGteach Day Two

Today was Day Two of our TAGteach certification seminar and it was definitely a bit more hands-on than yesterday. It really felt like we had learned the theory behind TAGteaching on Day One so it made sense that we would jump right in today. We started discussing Doggone Safe and the Be a Tree program, which teaches children to stand perfectly still whenever they feel threatened by a dog. We came up with our own versions of this and presented them through TAGteaching others in the class.

Theresa and Joan had wonderful ways of teaching children how to Be a Tree in a larger classroom setting that I had never thought about after almost two years of doing this. I love when new information is shared and we can all benefit. Joan said something that resonated with me this weekend – something along the lines of “I love positive trainers – nowhere else will you see this gathering and sharing of ideas.” and it is so true. When I was a compulsion trainer, working at All About Pets and all those other shows…you don’t make eye contact with your competition. You work hard to garner more attention to your company and bring in more clients. There is no knowledge sharing.

As a positive trainer, you have an instant family and they’re good people with good hearts. You’re no longer “competition” – instead you are colleagues who share knowledge, collaborate on projects, refer clients, get to know and care about each other, support each other in times of need and applaud each other in times of success.

This weekend really showed that. Sitting there with Andre, Marlo, Heather, Janis, really drove it home and being a crossover trainer was truly reinforced for me.

I digress…

Midway through the day, we split off into groups and started working on our own projects which were based on whatever we wanted to utilize TAGteach for, once leaving the seminar. I had too many ideas and my head was full (not just because of the head cold either!) but I settled on one – teaching guardians to use proper body language when faced with a reactive dog. It was similar to our “Be a Tree” program but I wanted to gear it more towards adults and take it a step further. It was interesting to work through this with my group and think aloud while I navigated through the road map, or the “funnel” as we call it. Once I got into the groove, it was so much easier to take any behaviour and fit it into this “script” using all the tools that were given to us this weekend.

I was able to explain the lesson (why we’re doing this), give the directions (how we’re doing this) and clarify a TAGpoint (which specific behaviour I want to shape/capture), and then use tools like self-TAGging, TAG the teacher, and focus on the Point of Success.

It all sounds very methodical…and you’re right, if that’s what you’re thinking. with TAGteach the goal is to remove the emotion and “fluff” from teaching a specific behaviour. Sometimes we get so caught up in the “ooooohhhh good job!”, “come on – let’s try again!”, “yes, that’s it!”, and then explaining things over and over to no avail. With TAGteaching, you break down a behaviour, give specific directions, and then TAG the desired behaviour. You acquire the skill, practice it to fluency, generalize it, and maintain it. Sound familiar? Those are the four stages of learning. You can’t argue with science. ; )

When you remove this emotion and “fluff”, you get uninterrupted learning, focus, and faster/more accurate success. It sounds cold, but now that I’ve experienced it, it’s the most respectful way to learn and to teach. It’s clear. I wouldn’t want to learn any other way.

When I was the “learner” in practice exercises this weekend, I have to admit that I felt so much more calm and collected. I felt like I could compartmentalize everything in my brain and simply focus on the one task. Once it was quickly accomplished through practicing the TAGpoint, I got my reinforcement (“good job!”) and we moved on to the next behaviour. The process was so quick that I felt like I could learn to be a golfer or a snowboarder or even a gymnast in one weekend.

What did I learn? So much…but one thing that I took away was ‘structure’. If I structure my teaching, my learners can be more successful. By trying to multitask as I do, I’m polluting the process, causing confusion and asking too much. If I break down the learning and make it simple, the process is much faster and much more successful.

Mirkka once told me that while I’m clicker training, I should shut up. I finally understand. Yes, Mirkka. I will shut up. ; )

This weekend was a dream. Learning so much from such brilliant people. The compassion, passion, knowledge, skills, and humour that Joan and Theresa have are not only admirable but contagious. I am so blessed to have met these women and to be so fortunate to learn from them.

I already feel like a better teacher.


TAGteaching a child to tie shoes

TAGteaching a high jump

TAGteaching hula dancing (it’s not just for kids!)

TAGteach Day One

Bear with me as I write these posts – I have a terrible head cold and I’m sure this needs editing…

Earlier this year, I was reading Karen Pryor’s “Reaching the Animal Mind” and near the end of the book, there is a chapter on TAGteach, which caught my attention and started me thinking more seriously about Certification.

TAGteach is a science-based system that uses an acoustic marker, constructive vocabulary and positive reinforcement to enhance teaching, learning, and communication. ‘TAG’ is an acronym for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance.

I had originally heard of TAGteach in 2009 when I became a member of Doggone Safe, which is co-founded by Joan Orr. At that point in my training, I was not a clicker trainer but was using a shaping and marking method loosely. I found that it was even more effective when I marked the behaviour of the humans who were teaching their dogs. Little did I know that I was already using this incredible technique of “tagging”.

As I learned more about clicker training, the more I wanted to become certified in TAGteaching. If you know me, you know that I love teaching. I love working with people, seeing results and being part of the thrill of success in small steps. So I contacted Theresa McKeon and asked her how to make this work. A couple of emails later, I was hosting Toronto’s first TAGteach Certification Seminar and harassing my trainer friends.

Today was Day One and while much of it was lecture and theory, there was quite a lot of hands-on exercises. The first one was an exercise that required a partner and 1-3 dice. Each partner picks ‘odd’ or ‘even’ and rolls the die; if you are ‘even’ and you get an even number, you TAG (using a clicker, which we call a “tagger” in order to avoid calling TAGteaching “clicker training”) and roll again. This goes on and you start adding dice one at a time to the mix so that it’s even more challenging. This is to work on our timing but it was also a great way to find out how each of us thinks and processes information. Do we actually take time to count the dots to find out if the total is odd or even? Or do we focus on patterns such as ‘if there is one dot in the middle, it must be odd’…

Once we got comfortable and even a little cocky, Theresa asked us to switch partners and it took a minute or so to get a new groove. It made me realize how difficult generalizing cues can be for dogs. They learn to sit with one handler and then when a stranger asks for a ‘sit’, they’re slower to respond if at all. Here I was, having trouble generalizing my skills in a classroom. Suddenly I was vowing to have more patience with the dogs and people that I work with. If I (as a professional trainer) was struggling to perform a task like this, how can I expect the humans I train to be dog trainers in a one hour lesson? (Not that I do, but it certainly puts expectations into perspective.)

Next, we worked on a fascinating exercise where we lay “manholes” (small paper targets) on the ground on a fake road (lined by masking tape) and had to guide a blindfolded person down the “road” without allowing them to step on the manholes. The catch? We could only use a guiding sentence using five words or less for each step. “Right foot one step forward”, “left heel to right toe”, “turn right two hours”, these became our new language. I was able to guide another participant down her “road”, avoiding all manholes and finally seating her in a chair. It was so exhilarating and satisfying once it was complete! I hadn’t even noticed that the whole room had stopped their exercises and were all watching.

We worked through a few similar exercises but the feedback went from five words or less to guide, to using only “YES” to guide, to using only “NO”, to finally using both “Yes” and “No” together. My friend Marlo Hiltz was the blindfolded during the “NO only” exercise and I have to say that watching someone go through an exercise where they are given few tools and little communication is difficult, but when that communication is all negative feedback, it’s horrible. My hands started to sweat and I felt quite anxious for her with each step more tentative than the last. Perhaps it is my history in correction-based training that brought back feelings of anxiety during this exercise, but I almost wanted to yell “STOP!!” so that she could feel successful and more confident.

It was so clear right there in that exercise that positive training was the best choice I have ever made in my life. I am so happy to have left outdated methods behind.

Next up was the exercise using only “YES” to guide the participant. It went fairly quickly but not 100% successfully. If she were about to step on a manhole, the “guide” would say nothing and if she were about to step in the clear, the guide would say “YES”. Ideally, upon hearing nothing, the participant would avoid stepping there and try another area. Instead, she continued walking, stepping on manholes the whole way. After two rounds of this, I felt somewhat disappointed. I thought “wow – she clearly doesn’t understand the exercise”…but after some discussion about rate of reinforcement, when Theresa’s wise words came back to me.

The success of the learning environment lies with the teacher.

I have done this in the past, where I have often thought “the dog isn’t focused enough” or “the handler isn’t working hard enough”, but in reality, the dog would focus if I worked harder at keeping his attention, and the handler would work harder if I made success more attainable and rewarding.

Raise the rate of reinforcement. Give clearer directions. Break down the behaviours. Watch body language closely; both canine and human. Don’t make assumptions.

We ended the day by teaching each other how to tie shoelaces. Yes. I know how that sounds, but it’s not as easy as you’d think.

All in all, in one day I learned so much about teaching and about myself…and I can’t wait to go back tomorrow for Day Two.

Canine Nutrition

On Sunday I attended a Canine Nutrition seminar by Erica Garven, hosted by All About Dogs. I have been looking forward to this seminar for weeks. As soon as I saw Renee post it, I jumped on it and registered. I was admittedly the first to arrive, sitting on the curb outside, anxious for ten o’clock.

When the seminar began, I could almost feel my skull crack and open up in order to allow the knowledge to pour in. If I could have opened my eyes or ears wider, I would have. I didn’t want to miss a single word or or slide.

Here’s a little background information for you, before you assume that I’ve lost my marbles. My mother is a nurse and I can remember when I was wee and she was in nursing college, I would sneak her textbooks into my room or onto the bay window in order to sift through the information and try to learn some “big girl words”. I had trouble saying stethoscope but that didn’t stop me from trying to spell Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. Since those early days, I have always been interested in medicine and the sight of blood has never bothered me. I collect medical textbooks, I watch medical docu-shows and download surgeries to watch during dinner. (Double-lung transplants are by far the most fascinating.) Anything medical or health-related fascinates me, so of course nutrition would be of interest to me – it’s the foundation of good health, after all.

So in comes Erica and I open my notes. She starts off by talking about the simpler ways to eliminate (potential) allergens and what is on the top of the list? Stainless steel bowls. Are you serious? Apparently dogs can have a pretty serious allergy to stainless steel and eating out of the bowls can cause symptoms similar to food allergies, as well as discolouration of the area around the mouth and nose. Instead of switching over to a plastic bowl (which can contain toxins that discolour the nose, turning it pink), she recommends using ceramic bowls.

She told us about her dog, Toby…who is a “lemon dog” (you know exactly what I mean.) and of his serious allergies that she has been able to eliminate or at least manage thus far, giving him back a wonderful quality of life that most of us would likely not have known how to do.

We talked a lot about allergies and what the signs are. Some of the symptoms that I see frequently are:

  • inconsistent or poor stool quality
  • itchy skin
  • chronic infections (ears, eyes, etc…)
  • dull, flaky coat
  • inconsistent behaviour

When I’m working with dogs, one of the first questions I ask is about diet and I include questions about the amount fed and the timing of the meals – oftentimes people are confused about how this is related to training and behaviour, but many times I have seen a complete 180º turnaround simply because of a change in the diet.

Those of you who know me, know that I am a serious kibble investigator and that I’m a big believer in scheduled feedings that take place at least twice per day. I never suggest one meal per day (imagine how that affects our blood-sugar levels!) or free-feeding (leaving food down all the time). I have a list of kibble that I do recommend, but even then, I always suggest keeping up to date with the company’s recall information, product changes, ownership, etc…

Since attending Erica’s seminar and soaking up all the knowledge possible in three hours, I came home and implemented a few changes to Parker’s diet. If you’ve been following lately, I’ve put Parker back on home-cooked food and have seen some incredible changes. His breath no longer smells, his energy levels have evened out, his coat is super-shiny, he is excited about his food (that’s not normal for him), and he’s sleeping better at night. He has also been showing some interesting puppy-like behaviour lately – he’s become more playful with his friends but also his humans. It’s really quite nice.

His regular meals consist of (in no particular order):

  • brown rice
  • two vegetables
  • one fruit & one berry
  • yogurt
  • vitamins & minerals
  • one protein
  • safflower oil

I’ve used cooked rice (of course), raw veggies and fruits, and a cooked protein (or canned if fish). So far it’s been a lot of trial and error – most days have been great, but other days have been not-so-great. I’ve found that sweet potato, carrots and kidney beans go right through him and come out looking just like they did when they went in. I tried cooking them a little longer, but that caused them to come out looking pale and whole. No big change except that I was sure the nutrient value was lessened.

After Erica’s seminar, the changes I made were:

  • use more protein
  • use less carbs (rice)
  • boil all veggies to release the nutrients (but don’t over cook)
  • add water (or broth) that the veggies are boiled in
  • use a food processor to puree everything
  • freeze in weekly portions
  • add this to a high quality kibble
  • use vitamins & minerals

Last night I got to work and I made the first batch. It included:

  • veggie puree (spinach, parsley, zucchini, carrots, sweet potato)
  • strawberries & blueberries
  • vitamin & mineral powder
  • Nature’s Balance kibble

The kibble covers the protein and I’ve added all the extra nutrients that make it even healthier (and tasty). Oftentimes companies try hard to add in all the right ingredients, but if you think about the process kibble has to go through, how many nutrients really make it to the end product? Adding veggies, fruits and berries will only serve your dog well in the end.

Here are a couple of pictures:

For Parker, I add a couple of tablespoons to his kibble at each meal and every now and again he’ll get a full home-cooked meal with a little carb and home cooked protein. Pureeing the veggies and fruits will make it easier for him to digest and metabolize, whereas, as Erica says: “in a carrot, out a carrot”, which is exactly what was happening.

Confession: I tasted it. I swear I did. My brother was witnessing the cooking process and suggested that we try it. It’s just fruit and veggies, so why not? We grabbed a tablespoon of each batch and gave it a shot. The greenish one was very veggie-heavy and a little tart. The lighter coloured one had more strawberries in it and it was a little sweeter. Both tasted good. It made me reconsider how I eat. If I did this for myself every day, I’d be a healthier person…but that’s a whole other post.

I’m looking into booking Erica for a seminar soon and would love for you folks to hear what she has to say. If you’re interested, email me to be notified of the event, or stay tuned on the website.

Woofstock: a review

“Woofstock is the largest outdoor festival for dogs in all of North America.”

In case you haven’t been watching, Woofstock is on this weekend…and where am I? Comfortably seated at home, waiting to take Parker on a nice hike…maybe even a swim. I’m not in Toronto and I’m most certainly not on Front Street in the middle of the chaos. You might wonder why a Pet Professional isn’t participating in North America’s largest pet festival – I’ll let you in on the secrets in this post.

I went to Woofstock yesterday to support Big on Beagles – a wonderful Toronto-based assistance agency for Beagles experiencing troubled times. I spent about two hours before I felt like I was about to explode. My patience ran thin and Parker was sensing it too. I had an inkling this would happen and it even started to show during my first session of the day with my little Boston Terrier, Steve. His pup-parent turned to me and said, “We were going to go to Woofstock today – any words of advice?” I paused and tried to be positive. “Don’t go?” I replied. It was the best I could do.

The truth is, this festival has great intentions and the idea is wonderful. I’ll give it that…but that’s about all I can give it. Our city is crazy enough as it is with all the pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, etc…but now gather over 300,000 dogs and their humans (combined) together in the span of five city blocks, along with loud music, people yelling into microphones, food and drink everywhere, garbage strewn about and piles of ‘caca de chien’ that people have completely missed picking up, overflowing garbage bins covered in urine, and tell me that your dog is not going to become completely over-stimulated.

Yesterday, I ran into some very interesting people and wanted to give you a glimpse:

The Scam Artist

I walked into the Dean & Tyler booth to look at their custom harnesses that are really quite stunning. I was admiring the ones that allow you to add and remove patches that say things like “In Training”, “SECURITY”, “Search & Rescue” and “Service Dog”.

While looking around, Parker made friendly with a retriever mix whose human was paying for the vest he was wearing. It said “Service Dog”. She looked at me while her credit card was being processed and she beamed “You should get one too! Now I can take him everywhere!” I looked at her for a moment and didn’t say a word. “No one’s allowed to ask you for proof, so anyone can wear these now and get access to everywhere!” I let her dig her own hole. I took a deep breath and said “I won’t buy him one because I have integrity and I think it’s awful that you’re using the system for your own benefit when there are people who actually need their Service Dog to accompany them. That’s very dishonest.” And then I walked away. I’ll admit that there’s a part of me that wants to smack people like that right in the mouth.

The “Trainer”

As I walked over to the Big on Beagles booth to meet up with the lovely Marna, I passed by two Rottweiler puppies and their human. I’m a big Rotti fan, so I looked up at her to give her a smile and say “those are cute pups!” when I noticed two things: they were both wearing choke chains. My heart dropped a bit as I thought “poor, unsuspecting owner – she probably has no idea there are better tools out there.” But when I looked up at the owner, I noticed her t-shirt. She was wearing a company t-shirt with a logo for a dog training school, and on the back, it said “Trainer”. My heart dropped into my feet. Clearly, a “trainer” who has zero education in the field.

I couldn’t say anything – I’m not about to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong as I know I have a hard time holding my tongue in situations like this. I’ll leave it to her vet to explain tracheal, esophageal and cervical spinal damage caused by choke chains. They’ll certainly do that, won’t they? [insert head shaking here]

The Purse-Pup Parent

Ah, my favourite. The parent whose dogs are so tiny they are dressed up and carried in a purse instead of actually socializing on the ground with their own species. This one nearly gave me an aneurism yesterday. She finds out that I’m a trainer and she says to me “Oh, I love training. My dogs love learning. Watch this.” And she plops one pup on the ground, she stands tall, sticks out her chest, deepens her voice and stiffens every muscle in her body before bellowing “SIT. SIT. SIT.” and the poor dog sits with his ears pinned back, his eyes averted and his head as low as it can go as he cowers. She continues. “DOWN. LIE DOWN. DOWWWWWWN.” as she uses one hand for the hand signal that looks more like “I’m going to smack the daylights out of you”. The poor dog, still cowering and shaking, lays down and starts to quiver. She turns to face me proudly and says “I’m really good at training. We do this all the time.” I look at her and say “Yeah.” and I walk away. I can’t talk. Nothing I say to that woman is going to change anything and I have the feeling my tongue will split and curl as fire shoots out of my mouth. The best thing I can do is walk away without more than a word.

The Yanker

Parker and I stood by The Hydrant‘s booth, admiring the collars as a woman and her two Great Dane / Mastiff-type dogs strolled by, both on head halters. Parker leaned over to have a quick sniff and one of them turned and gave him a “hey – you’re too close” warning growl (something I find perfectly acceptable) and the woman yanked so hard on the leash that his head snapped right back into place.

Another woman, with her beautiful Doberman (on a prong collar, of course) was walking along, giving the poor dog constant corrections as she walked. The Doberman wasn’t even walking out of line – he was right beside her, but she was so used to “correcting” that she was doing it without even knowing it.

I can’t even count on two hands how many people were walking their puppies and yanking on their poor necks as they walked.

I wish hands-free leashes were mandatory in life.

Woofstock breaks my heart. It’s hard enough walking around on a daily basis seeing prong collars, choke chains, people dragging puppies, fearful dogs and people who don’t even understand the basics of “doglish” but to see them gather in masses to celebrate this amazing species in this way, that’s too much for me.

The last straw was watching dogs strolling around with Kijiji bandanas around their necks. How is it that Woofstock allows a booth to be rented by the number one supporter of puppy mills? How is that acceptable? Where are the standards? I can get past the fact that we now have booths for places like Canadian Tire, Pledge, Rogers, Sony and Winners. These are clearly a money-making scheme that have very little to do with dogs (yes, I know that Canadian Tire and Winners sell a *few* dog-related products – they’re not exactly “pet stores” though). Why don’t we start having booths for anti-freeze and rat poison? As long as the money’s coming in, right?

I had a booth last year. It was $1000 I will never get back and hours and hours of my time that I will never get back either. I barely spoke to a single person who was truly interested in training – the most frequently asked question was “what are you giving away?” to which I started responding “my patience”.

One amazing quote of the day was “this is such a great socialization opportunity for our dogs!”

Yeah, if you want a dog that is completely overwhelmed, overstimulated, emotionally shutdown and perhaps even take on a behavioural issue like leash-based reactivity. It’s fantastic. Really.

I think I will stick with my own ideas of healthy socialization and look to Woofstock as simply a wonderful avenue for rescue agencies and other not-for-profits to get exposure. And if I do go next year, I’m going without my dogs and I’m going to try harder to wear rose-coloured glasses.

PABA Seminar 2011 – Day Three

I woke up on Day Three feeling a bit depressed. I know that three straight days from 8am to 5pm is a lot; it’s tiring and it’s a lot of information to retain…but I was depressed knowing that it would be over soon nonetheless. I wanted a few more days. I would have plugged a 2TB external hard drive into my brain just to retain it all if I could have. I was in heaven and I didn’t want to leave. Here I was in a room full of people who have dedicated their lives to the betterment of animals and have made the commitment to come learn even more. The sharing of knowledge and experience was heartwarming and inspiring.

In the past I have heard a few people say “the dog training industry is competitive and cut-throat” and each time I have stood up and vehemently denied it. I have more allies in this industry than I ever did in HR or any other career path I started on. The colleagues I have now are quickly becoming my closest friends and mentors; we learn from each other and we teach each other without fear of “stealing clients” or “stealing ideas” or anything else. We support each other and even refer clients back and forth when we’re not planning projects where we can actually work together. That, my friends, is not cut-throat. It’s professional.

But then again, I was in a room that was mostly positive-reinforcement based trainers as opposed to ones that rely lazily on shock collars, punishment, corrections, etc… so perhaps in that industry there’s a cut-throat aspect. Who knows. I’m happy where I am. I treat dogs and their humans with the same theory – positive-based teaching.

I digress. Back to PABA. Day Three:

Jaak Panksepp opened the day but due to a slight mild case of sleepinginitis, Mirkka and I missed most of the first talk and decided to spend the remaining hour speaking with the folks from Gentle Leader about their past seminars and their publications. We ended up networking with a few other positive trainers – one of whom even invited us up to her cottage for a break! Moments later, we were approached by Pat Miller who was stretching her legs before her own talk. We were so lucky to have had a few minutes to chat with her and pick her brain a little bit. She is just as delightful in person as she seems when you are reading her books. It’s no wonder she does what she does as I felt this incredible sense of calm when speaking to her and can only imagine the effect she has on dogs that are struggling with stress/anxiety in the shelter environment!

We were ushered back into the auditorium to hear her talk on modifying dog-dog reactivity and other unwanted behaviours. This was the part I had really been looking forward to. She runs a great Reactive Rover class in the USA and is a big inspiration to me when dealing with reactive dogs. Her talk really put me at ease with dealing with this type of dog (which sadly I do on a regular basis as it has become the #1 reason I get called in Toronto, due to our unnaturally high dog population) and even gave me some great pointers by breaking down the behaviours into tiny little pieces.

Let’s first note the signs of reactivity (oh there are so many!) while keeping in mind that reactivity is responding to normal stimuli with an abnormal level of intensity. (I like this definition very much.) Next, we figure out what is causing the reactivity. Is it stress? Lack of socialization? Bad experience? High arousal activities? Barrier frustration? An underlying medical issue? Then we identify the triggers and assign strategies (get rid of the trigger, change the association, teach a new behaviour, manage the behaviour or leave it as is).

Does that sound easy? If only it were that easy. There’s a lot that goes into treating reactivity but P.Miller really breaks it down so that it feels manageable from our standpoint and that’s half the battle.

A few of my favourite quotes from her talk:

“Behaviour is always a combination of genetics and environment.”

“Do not define the dog by the behaviour; ‘this is a reactive dog’ or ‘this is an aggressive dog’.

“Do not let the dog practice the reactive behaviour.”

P.Miller gave us the tools to work through reactivity in a realistic way that causes the least amount of stress for everyone by either managing the behaviour or modifying it. She even offered to send me information on treating dog-dog resource guarding since there is almost no literature on it and has been in touch via email ever since.

Lunch break! I needed to digest all of this and my mind was simply spinning. I was furiously taking notes and wishing my eyes and mind would double as a video camera during these talks so that I could just play it back later. Now, the trouble with lunch breaks is that a) the food never comes fast enough and you end up rushing your meal to get back on time, and b) when you’re done, you need kindergarten nap-time during the digestion process. Luckily for us on Day Two, we had K.Sdao right after lunch – you cannot fall asleep if she’s in the room. Unfortunately, Alexandra Horowitz has the most soothing voice on the planet and was up next.

I managed to stay awake throughout the whole talk on ‘what it’s like to be a dog’ which turned out to be not only fascinating but funny. The quote that really stuck with me is:

“Don’t assume that what you see is what everyone sees. His world is not our world. His experience is not our experience.”

How very true. Perspective is not something to be ignored. We all see things differently and it’s based on our own needs and interests. We look at a room and see everything in it. A house fly will see the food sources and the light sources. A dog will see the comfortable areas to lay down and the food sources. We all have different perspectives and we cannot force a fly or a dog to see what we see so we must be open-minded. (Perhaps this can be applied to all humans in our relationships, too.)

We need to think deeply about dogs to find out what exactly it is that motivates them and how they see the world. The truth is, they smell the world, first and foremost. Dogs have 300 million olifactory receptor cells in comparison to our measly 5 million. Of course they love to sniff – can you imagine being able to smell every tiny little whiff of everything?? Knowing that, how can we deny them of this unbelievable experience everywhere we go?!

A.Horowitz then talked about the vomeronasal organ that is located under the nose and above the roof of the mouth in a dog. It has the ability to detect hormones (pheromones) and…wait for it….CORTISOL!! Hooray! She answered my question once and for all. Remember in my Day Two post I had mentioned:

“M.Herron also explained the effects of stress on dogs and addressed the question that I have had for years – can a change in cortisol levels in a person be detected by a dog? We’ll get to that later though…on Day Three.

Well, you can imagine my squeals of delight when A.Horowitz confirmed a dog’s ability to detect a change in cortisol levels. Now we can really begin to understand when people say that energy travels down the leash from human to dog. Not only does it apply to physical tension on the leash, but the change in our cortisol levels when we see the trigger for our dog’s reactivity coming around the corner up ahead. Our dog senses that and starts to react before even they see the trigger themselves. Keep your cortisol in check, people. 😉

The rest of the talk was just as enlightening, especially if you have a desire to work in tracking or search and rescue (which I do!) as it really helped to explain the entire process. (I won’t even try to attempt that here…)

Lastly, Andrew Luescher on companion animal welfare. He opened by saying that the bond between human and animal is a mutual meeting of needs – A meets the needs of B and B meets the needs of A. How true is that?! If you do not feel that way about your dog then your bond needs some work. It’s a two-way street.

He talked about the reasons dogs are relinquished by their owners and the top few reasons were quite heartbreaking:

Lifestyle changes
Behaviour problems
Owner illness
Lack of time
Too many animals
Pet being sick or old
Can’t afford expense
Pet is too large

How many of these are avoidable? Do you give up your children when your lifestyle changes? If they are struggling with a behavioural challenge? Do you run out of time because you work too much and decide the child would be better of with a parent that works from home? Do you not realize how many animals you are bringing into the home or what a dog actually costs per year? Did you do your research on the breed before you realized that your Chocolate Lab is really going to be 90 lbs instead of 20 lbs like the “breeder” promised you?

The most shocking statistic was that the dogs that were at the highest risk for relinquishment came from homes with men under the age of 35, who showed weak owner-attachment and were kept confined in crates, basements, or garages. Ladies, we don’t get off easy here. We’re the ones who have the higher risk of becoming animal hoarders as older, single women. Set a limit and keep it legal...or get married. Fast.  😉

He finished by talking about breeding and the separation of show lines and working lines – something that has always interested me since my career began in Schutzhund and working line German Shepherds. But that is a whole other post.

All in all, the weekend was completely mind-blowing. I came away feeling like my head was 30 lbs heavier with knowledge and almost needed a vacation in order to digest all the new information I had filed away in my brain. It has given me much to think about, much to research and of course a list of new books that I will be ordering. I can’t help but wonder who is on the roster for next year’s PABA seminar and how soon I can register.