Critical Cues

Will I get something good or something yucky!?

After catching up on my dog training podcasts, I was enlightened to the importance of the cue in teaching/maintaining a dog’s behavior. Specifically, a wonderful episode of Hannah Branigan’s “Drinking from the Toilet” with guest stars Eva and Emelie from Carpe Momentum dog training. (Honestly, every episode featuring them always enlightens me to some aspect of my training that I’ve totally been missing. Lots of “AH HA!” moments.) Cues are far more powerful than I’d ever realized and often an overlooked concept when training.

As frequent readers know, I’m an advocate for positive-based training. My focus is on making sure my dog is rewarded for doing something right and setting up a training session so that he’s most likely to be right rather than wrong. I’ve also been recently strongly influenced by Denise Fenzi and her group of instructors in that the dog is never wrong and giving a dog a cookie even when he’s “wrong” is actually a good thing. It creates and maintains the association that training is FUN! And that’s what I’ve always wanted it to be for my dogs.

But what about when your dog “knows” (sorry, but I have to put that in quotes because I think we all sometimes think our dogs know something but, it turns out that we didn’t train it as well as we could have) how to respond to a cued behavior but doesn’t? Shouldn’t we withhold a reward because he was “wrong?” If you’d asked me several years ago, I would have said that you should. However, I’m now changing my thoughts on this. In an ideal situation, the cue is followed by the proper behavior which leads to reinforcement for the dog. The dog looks forward to hearing the cue because it’s an opportunity to earn something he wants. If the dog hears the cue and does not respond as expected, many people will not give him a reward. Now the dog has the potential to become conflicted. Before, hearing the cue meant a good thing was coming. Now, sometimes hearing the cue means a good thing is on its way BUT sometimes it means something unpleasant is coming (whether it’s just no expected cookie or worse: a collar pop or other physical punishment). So, when presented with the cue, the dog is no longer certain of the final result.

It’s like the disgusting jelly beans in the Beanboozled game. You don’t know what flavor you’re going to get. This bean you picked could be amazing and delicious (like toasted marshmallow) or disgusting (like soap). You can’t tell going in whether something good is coming or something bad. This is exactly how your dog may feel if sometimes he gets a cookie following a cue and sometimes gets something negative. He may hesitate to do it the next time or not do it at all depending on how sensitive your dog is or how punishing (the scientific meaning: with the goal to decrease the frequency of that behavior) the consequence is.

It’s my job to make sure I’m using cues properly and setting up my training sessions so that my dog can respond in ways I can reinforce so that he ultimately understands what my expectations are with that cue.

This means that cues are very powerful. They let your dog know he has the chance to earn something pleasant. So what if you find your dog is frequently not responding to a cue even if you’ve always given him a cookie whether he was compliant or not? Since you want the cue to mean something, a particular behavior that will be rewarded following you giving that signal, you’ll need to re-evaluate your session. WHY is the dog not responding to the cue? Has it been trained to fluency? Is the environment too distracting? Are you too far away? Did you change your cue in some way that’s not initially apparent to you? Is your hand headed towards your treat pouch (or parked there) in anticipation of your dog performing as you expect? The onus is on us to determine why our dog is “failing” to respond as we anticipated and set up the training session so that the dog is able to get reinforced. In my own training sessions, if my dog isn’t responding to the cue I’m giving after 3 tries, I make it easier. There is no point in devaluing my cue (every time the cue is not followed by reinforcement, it’s meaning is lessened) by asking my dog again and again to do something he’s clearly not capable of performing at that time.

One of the biggest mind-blowing moments in the podcast for me was that a cue reinforces whatever comes before it. Since the cue itself is a path to reinforcement (I say this word and you will get a cookie after for performing the proper behavior), it also marks whatever precedes it. If your dog is looking at you with focused attention and you cue a “sit,” not only are you more likely to get that behavior response BUT you’re also reinforcing the focus on yourself! *MIND BLOWN*

Because cues are so vital, we really have to be careful when we use them. We don’t want to inadvertently poison them by following them with something unpleasant. We don’t want to use them when we don’t expect the dog to be able to comply because that makes them have less meaning. And we want to use them only when the dog is doing something we already like! That’s a lot to keep in mind while training. Sometimes I’m surprised my dogs have learned anything!

The podcast episode I’m discussing can be enjoyed here: Drinking from the Toilet Episode 49

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Disaster Dog

Good breeding practices are important to produce puppies that will bring joy to their owners for years. . .not heartache.

I recently returned two bags of hypoallergenic kibble because Risa couldn’t tolerate them. One made her itchy and the other upset her gut. 🙁 So I find myself trying to adjust her homecooked diet again to avoid whatever food(s) might be bothering her this time and try and create a balanced diet around that. It’s not easy. I’m not sure it’s possible.

Feeding a dog, in theory, should be one of the easiest parts of dog ownership. Open a bag and pour. Feed a well-researched homecooked diet or raw food diet. The proof should be in the dog and the poop. Shiny coat, good energy, no foul odors, and well-formed poops. However, there are many dogs with food allergies and sensitivities these days. So many that limited-ingredient diets are plentiful on store shelves and there are a variety of hypoallergenic prescription diets available as well.

There are, of course, probably many reasons why this is the case. Environmental changes, changes to our food supply, etc. A living being should be able to adapt to this and continue to thrive. So why are so many dogs plagued with itchies and gastrointestinal problems? Why are their immune systems so poor?

I don’t have a definitive answer for this. And, being that I’m not a scientist, I can only speculate. Being a dog owner with a dog that has food sensitivities and allergies. . .I can’t help but be frustrated. It shouldn’t be this hard to feed my dog. Why is it that my dog is not capable of surviving and thriving on a regular diet? Why is her immune system so messed up?! Every year it gets worse and worse; I’ve been battling food issues with her since she was 3 years old. 🙁

Risa is probably a prime example of what can go wrong with poor breeding practices. Of the three main things responsible breeders strive for (good health, solid temperament, and durability in structure), Risa got short-changed on all of them. Her immune system is a wreck causing GI distress. She’s fearful and her back is a mess of disc disease and arthritis. As one of my friends put it, a “Disaster Dog.” Everything you hope to never get in a dog (hybrid vigor my ass). The sort of dog that, most people, would probably give up on. Trying to do the best you can for a dog who lost the genetic lottery is challenging and frustrating. It can be both an emotional and financial burden. I’d be afraid to total up the money spent on trying to remedy Risa’s gastrointestinal problems over the past 11 years. And I’d have a hard time recalling all the times I’ve cried over the frustration of not being able to just feed my dog. Or not being able to help her cope with the scary world.

When seeking a responsible breeder, most people look for breed-specific health clearances and they meet the sire and dam to check for any temperament faults. You might even look for performance titles to have further proof of the dog’s potential for a solid temperament and trainability. But how common is it to ask if the dog has a history of allergies? Or if he has any siblings that do. What about thyroid issues? Endocrine issues? While the average Joe might consider “health testing” for a breeding dog as simple as whether or not the dog has been to a vet recently, how often do the educated ask about the general health of the dog and those in the line? More importantly, how honest would most breeders be about this?

Genetic diversity is the key to keeping our dogs healthy and happy over the long term. With less frustration for the owners.

I’ve never, EVER understood why breeders would choose to sweep certain things under the carpet. Most people assume that, if their dog has a health issue, that bringing it to the breeder’s attention is the best course. That way, the breeder can make informed decisions about breeding her dogs going forward. If they don’t know there’s a problem in their line, it’s hard to avoid. However, I know of many people who have informed their breeder about a health concern in their dog only to have the breeder throw it in their face and blame them for the defect. Denial is the worst thing you can do. Firstly, you make your puppy buyer feel badly (and probably worse since they’re already dealing with heartache due to their dog’s medical condition). Secondly, you perpetuate the problem by failing to admit to it and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. If you fail to take into account the information your puppy owners give you about your dogs and continue to breed the affected individuals, then you should not be surprised to see the same problem pop up. Even worse, you’re now subjecting more people to the horrors of long-term medical intervention and, potentially, the loss of their canine companion at a young age. 🙁 You claim to love the breed yet your failure to admit there’s an issue (and make it PUBLIC) only adds to more heartache. It’s not fair to the dogs or the people who love them.

There are also breeds out there with congenital defects that cannot be avoided because every single individual in the breed is affected. Yet, due to human’s insistence upon breeding purebred dogs, we continue to breed them anyway. By doing so, you’re selling disappointment and heartache to everyone who buys your puppy. Because you know that they’re going to have to deal with that health issue. That their dog could need long-term medication to survive to its 10th Birthday. . .or that it might spontaneously drop dead before then. How is that fair to the dog to knowingly breed an animal with a trait that will cause an early death? How is fair to sell a dog to someone knowing this? How do you expect to eliminate a genetic trait like this when every dog in the breed has it? I think we need to stop obsessing over whether or not a dog can be traced back to 1 (or several) individuals “establishing” it as a breed and focus on the health and longevity of the breed. Outcrossing is the only option when a breed is so inbred that everyone carries that negative trait. Sure, you may lose type in the first couple generations but it’s easy enough to get back. More importantly, you’ll be breeding healthier dogs.

I think breeders, as a whole, need to step up. They need to be more transparent about their dogs and disclose any health issues they’ve noticed to prospective buyers. Genetics is, of course, a crap shoot and weird things can happen despite the best efforts of any breeder. However, a good breeder should not make you feel badly for bringing it to their attention. They should also reconsider whether to continue breeding those dogs. No one should have to live with a Disaster Dog. No one should have to face that financial and emotional burden if it can be avoided.

Puppy buyers also need to step up and be better informed consumers. You need to start asking the right questions and really probe to find the answers. Especially if the breeder isn’t forthcoming with information. Talk not just to that breeder but other breeders about that breeder. Find owners of pups from their previous litters and discuss their dogs. Research into how long their dogs have lived and, if possible, the cause of death. Buying a dog from a Wal-Mart parking lot or a pet store should be your last option since you’re never going to get that sort of information. And those types of “breeders” aren’t the ones you should be seeking a dog from in the first place.

But what if you want a mixed breed instead? Why should what the purebred dog breeders do matter? If the diseases run in the purebred dogs, they’ll run in the mutts as well. And it can be harder to avoid in a mix if the genetic defect is uncommon in both breeds. If it’s recessive in one purebred and recessive in another, the chances of a dog inheriting both copies within that breed is lower. However, if you combine two breeds that both carry the recessive trait, you’ve just increased the puppies chances of inheriting it. The genetic health of purebreds directly affects the health of mixes, too. The traits in your mixed breed dog have to come from somewhere. 😉

We know so much about breeding and genetics now. So much more than when many of these breeds were established. We owe it to all dogs (and all dog owners and lovers) to be more cognizant of what we breed. To truly seek to breed healthy individuals. It is incredibly challenging to live with a dog with severe health issues and no one should have to go through it if it can be avoided. Just because medical technology has advanced to the point that a dog can live with a condition doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to breed dogs without it. And we definitely shouldn’t be breeding dogs we know are affected by it (or carrying it).

Posted in Back Problems, Dog Food, IVDD, Thoughts | Leave a comment

Set Up

Two awesome dogs.

I was talking with one of my students the other night after class about Risa. His 7 month old puppy is dog reactive and he’d asked for input on training and on my journey with Risa. I told him that dogs like this will teach you more than any other. I told him I wouldn’t be anywhere near the dog trainer I am today had I started off with a dog like Kyu instead of Risa.

And that got me thinking. I often thank Risa for forcing me to accumulate this knowledge and to make me constantly rethink what I’m doing, change, and grow. What I didn’t really think about until that moment, however, was how my journey with her set me up perfectly to continue my journey with Kyu.

Kyu is not Risa. For better or worse. 😉 He’s silly, fun, playful, intelligent, sensitive, and a joy to work with just like Risa. But he is “differently motivated” than she is (plus he’s confident and loves everyone). He doesn’t like a lot of repetition, finds stationary behaviors less fun, loves movement-based tricks, and thrives on play and interaction. Training him is much different than training Risa who is quite content to work long sessions. . .even on the same thing. Whereas Risa presented a great challenge in behavioral modification, Kyu is challenging me more in teaching the actual behaviors.

Had I gotten Kyu first, I would have probably failed with him. Even though he’s a comparatively easy dog, I didn’t have the skills I needed yet to train a dog like him. Firstly, before I got Risa, I would never have imagined me owning a sighthound since they’re typically believed to be too independent or unmotivated to train. (FWIW, Risa is far more independent than Kyu.) I also didn’t think of dog training the same way I do now. I would have been frustrated by a dog like Kyu who doesn’t fit into the typical training mold. And I certainly didn’t incorporate a lot of play in training when I first got Risa! That’s something I had added in more recently in her training.

While I still sometimes get annoyed that training him isn’t quite like what I’m used to with Risa, I also relish figuring out how to train what I want with similar methods but in different ways to get it to work better for him and get the results I want. This helps me but it also helps my students who may also have dogs who don’t perform as well with the more standard methods I’ve used to train some of these behaviors.

Even the “easy dog” isn’t easy. Every dog presents his or her own challenge!

Posted in Puppy, Reactivity, Thoughts, Training | Leave a comment

Changing Relationship

Sleepy Old Lady Dog.

Relationships aren’t static. They’re always changing. Risa is now 14 years old and our relationship is definitely different these days. I’m not sure I like the change.

She’s still active and enjoys training. I don’t do a lot with her in that regard since she’s retired and I feel she deserves to do what she wants. Also, she sharks treats out of my hands and it HURTS so there’s not a lot of incentive there. 😉 I still keep up with her physical therapy exercises almost every day and do some fun Nosework with her to keep her mind bright. She’s losing her hearing, though. Between that and an increasing desire to just do whatever she wants. . .it’s hard to have the same training relationship we once did.

It also doesn’t help that she’s sore and getting over another bout of GI troubles. Besides her back (which will always be an issue), she’s developing some arthritis in her right elbow. As her vet so eloquently stated it, “It’s no good to have a flat tire in the front when you’ve already got too soft ones in the back.” 😉 I tried Adequan injections to marginal effect. I could see some improvement but nothing dramatic. I got some CBD oil to try but, due to her recent GI distress (yay for cleaning up poop in my house almost every day! 🙁 ), I haven’t had a chance to introduce it.

I’ve finally gotten her gut to relax but I fear it’s only temporary. I’ve got her diet pretty restricted at this point in time. Beef, lentils, and green beans. I recently added back in beef heart and started liver two days ago (after about a week to a week and a half of a bland diet and her new diet). While her poops are better and there have been no accidents, she’s still itchy. She seems even itchier today after adding in the liver which makes me think that I’m never going to be able to feed her a balanced diet with so many restrictions. It makes me sad. I’ve enjoyed feeding her fresh foods for her entire life with me (five years on raw food and then seven on homecooked) but, if I have to switch to a veterinary-formulated kibble to make her belly happy, it’s what I’ll do.

With her medical issues making her feel yucky, she’s been more reserved. She’s less interested in doing stuff which makes me sad. I sometimes forget to take the time to do things with her, too, because she doesn’t require as much of my time in that regard as Kyu does. He’s becoming a wonderful training partner and I’m really enjoying discovering how to motivate him and train him the skills he needs for dog sports. But it also makes me miss the relationship I had with Risa in the ring and training. The way she’d light up a room. Her helicopter tail broadcasting her happiness to the world. It’s just not the same anymore but I respect that she doesn’t always want to play. She’s made it clear that she doesn’t want to assist my classes anymore so I stopped taking her with me months ago. It still stresses her out to see me leave for a trial and not take her with me. Even though she gets super grumpy after spending a day locked in a crate.

I also feel like sometimes all I do is get annoyed with her. She frequently yells at Kyu (whether he deserves it or not), has gotten very barky and demanding (especially about food), and is hard to effectively communicate with since she either ignores me or doesn’t hear me. I love her so deeply and I can’t imagine life without her. It’s hard to see her not feeling her best and acting more withdrawn at times.

I’m hoping that I can get her gut under control again (soon!) and that a healthy gut and some additional pain management might help perk her up a bit. Spring’s also on the way which I think will help since the cold weather is rough on arthritic bones. She’s still doing amazingly well for her age and I’m very thankful for that. I just hope I can continue to be the person she needs me to be as she continues through this stage in her life. <3

Posted in Aging, Back Problems, Dog Food, GI Issues, Homecooked, IVDD, Nosework, Thoughts | Leave a comment

We’ve Come a Long Way

Anytime she can play in the water is a good time for Risa.

Anytime she can play in the water is a good time for Risa.

It’s been a while since I last sat down to write anything here and a lot has happened. My Windsprite puppy, Kyu, turned a year old in June. His Birthday gift was a road trip for freestyle private lessons (Risa came too). In July, Risa and I celebrated 11 years together. She got McDonalds fries (naturally) and we took a trip to her favorite river. While there, we met up with friends for a walk and ended our fun with dog time! All the dogs got to run free and investigate and do dog things off leash. Risa refused to act her age and, despite having been on a long walk beforehand, raced around with everyone like she wasn’t old OR broken.

In July, I took Kyu to his breed specialty where he surprised the heck out of me by taking Winners Dog AND Best of Winners in the conformation ring. This was only my third time showing in conformation and, in all honesty, I didn’t expect him to do well. I knew he wasn’t quite built to standard and I didn’t get him as a conformation dog. I was very happy to see him doing so well, though. Maybe we’ll do more conformation in the future. 🙂

In August, I held my second ever freestyle event. It was a labor of love and a lot of work. It was hard to take the time to get everything ready for the competition AND prepare my dogs for their performances. (Needless to say, housework was definitely on the back burner during this time.)

On top of that, I had made the decision to retire Risa from competition. It was not a decision I made lightly. I had always said I would let her tell me when she was done but I decided that I’d rather she stop while she’s still enjoying it instead. Besides, I could already tell that certain aspects of competing were no longer fun for her. She started becoming reluctant to go back in her crate. After long days at a trial, she was really tired and would get crabby with Kyu (which he doesn’t deserve). As much as she still was enjoying going into the ring and playing with me, the other parts of trialing were starting to become too much.

Still has game at 13.5!

Still has game at 13.5!

I’d also started to notice some frustration from her in training sessions. Sometimes things seemed less clear to her (possibly due to hearing loss?). She was more willing to disengage which has always been an issue anyway. There were also times I saw some physical issues that made me think it was time. Some minor stumbling in her rear or hind end weakness. And her ability to work for long periods was definitely waning.

I knew her remaining time in competition was short. To be honest, we were on bonus time as it was since I wasn’t even sure she’d return to the ring after her back injury. After earning her Veteran Championship, I toyed with the idea of going for the Veteran Grand Championship. Her scores had been high enough at the Championship level; all I had to do was add a bit more time to the routine. I decided to give it a shot. She earned her first leg towards the title via video competition with me not even preparing for the additional time added. I had hoped she could earn those final two legs at our home competition. Since long days in a crate were tough on her, I decided to run her home at lunch so she could have time to nap without distraction.

I didn’t feel like I’d adequately prepared her for the event. I wasn’t sure she could pull it off. But this was going to be her last live competition regardless. It’s simply become too much to ask of her at her age. If we couldn’t finish the title, we’d try in video. But I really wanted to do it live.

Her performance Saturday was great. The changes I’d made in the routine to clarify what she needed to do helped immensely. The addition to the routine at the suggestion of friends at our private lesson with Diane Balkavich was also a win. Taking her home at lunch proved to be a very wise move as she was well-rested for the competition on Sunday.

RFE Musical Freestyle Veteran Grand Champion Risa with her awesome huge rosette.

RFE Musical Freestyle Veteran Grand Champion Risa with her awesome huge rosette.

As I stepped into the ring with her for the last time, I started to let my emotions take hold. I managed to force them back, however. Risa didn’t need that extra pressure. She didn’t know it was the end. And I wanted it to be about us. Together. Everything we’ve been. I didn’t want to focus on it ending but celebrate that it happened. As we danced, the crowd applauded and Risa’s spirits lifted. She’s always done better with applause and she absolutely rocked it. It wasn’t a perfect performance but her heart was in it. What a great way to end a spectacular career. She earned her Veteran Grand Championship. Even if she hadn’t, I couldn’t have asked for a much better last competition with my girl.

I still managed to hold it together through the rest of the event (probably because I was in charge of it and had so much on my mind). I finally broke down a bit when my friends handed me a retirement gift for Risa during lunch. What a touching gesture and one I won’t soon forget. It was worse once I got home and read the enclosed cards. I was a sobbing mess.

It’s hard to end this chapter in Risa’s life. Training and trialing has been so much of our past 7 years together. It’s been a challenging and exciting ride. I never wanted it to end. She’s been such a spectacular partner. I certainly won’t stop training her; she enjoys it way too much to take it away completely. I’m also hoping to complete the AKC Tricks titles with her but those are low-pressure and don’t require long stays in a crate. The pressure is off now. She can take it easy. If she’s still around for our freestyle competition next year, I’ll put her in the non-titling class if she’s still in the mood to dance. She’s welcome to do it if she still wants to but I’m not going to force her into it.

We’ve had a hell of a ride together. Thank you for everything, Risa. I couldn’t have asked for a better dance partner.

Veteran MF-GrCH Dancing Cavy’s Pain in the Butte W-FDM/MF MF-M Vet InS/E R-FE/N PCD BN RAE RL1 (AoE) RNX CA CGC WCX3

Saturday’s Dance:

Sunday’s Dance:

Posted in Back Problems, Canine Freestyle, Conformation, Diane Balkavich, Dog Sports, Dog Training Seminars, IVDD, RFE, Thoughts, Training | Leave a comment