Evangelical Training

You couldn’t convince me to remove Risa’s prong collar when I first started working with her.

Many of the top trainers I follow have recently been discussing how they handle spreading the word about positive training. For many of them, their way of disseminating this information has changed greatly. While I am certainly not nearly as accomplished or as amazing as they are, even this training peon has noticed a change in her ways. As of late, it has been directly influenced by these trainers (Denise Fenzi, Julie Daniels, and Sarah Stremming to name a few). I had begun to lean in this way before but I’ve made it a focus and a goal these days.

When I adopted Risa, I knew very little of dog training (despite my belief that I knew a lot). By shear luck, I ended up taking classes with a positive reinforcement-based trainer. When I attended those classes, I was forbidden to use certain types of equipment (mainly choke chains, prong collars, or e-collars). I had been using a prong collar to walk Risa very early on in our time together. Without the collar, she pulled and raced after prey animals. I enjoyed walks with her much more when she wore the collar. While she never had it on in classes, I still used it at home. I wasn’t going to give it up. Cookies weren’t enough to train this dog! I needed the prong.

At one point, I remember trying to walk her without the prong (I was starting to change my views on training) but it was a disaster. She pulled and pulled and it was not an enjoyable walk. I distinctly remember lamenting that she hadn’t learned anything about walking nicely. If only I had realized that no collar (or other device) would train a dog! It was up to me to do so. I’d been using it as a crutch. Still, I slowly began to want to stop using the prong collar to walk my dog. To my recollection, my instructor never specifically told me to stop using it. The stuff I was learning in class made me rethink my training overall. Not just in the classroom. I eventually ditched it for good.

Fast forward several years and I found myself finally teaching dog training classes on my own! I had agreed to teach a class in canine freestyle at the local obedience training club. I was now completely gung-ho about positive reinforcement-based training and thought choke chains and prongs were horrible devices that had no place in training dogs. Unlike my previous trainer’s classes where she had control over the tools her students were permitted to use, I did not. The training club allowed (and sometimes advocated) the use of this aversive equipment. I had absolutely no say in the matter. I wanted to teach this class so I made the decision to simply overlook it. I would teach as I intended despite the training collars dogs may or may not be wearing.

Since I couldn’t specifically address equipment, I didn’t. I demonstrated the techniques with Risa who often made errors. When she did, I made no big deal of it and we just tried again. As I instructed my students, I focused on what they and their dogs did right. By the end of the 8 week course, I noticed that, of the students using corrections, the quantity of leash pops used by my students had dropped significantly. I had never addressed corrections directly. Simply by my instruction and demonstration with my own dog, the students made changes.

Calm and relaxed in a busy environment. Trained only with cookies!

These days, I am working specifically with that aim. I will not address equipment or your training method unless specifically asked. Even then, I don’t tell people I think their collar choice is “evil.” In fact, I had a student arrive in class once wearing a prong collar. Where I currently teach does not advocate such tools and the person seemed a little off put that she couldn’t use it to control her rambunctious young dog in class. I told her that, while I was not a fan, if she needed it to feel more comfortable that she could use it. During class, I did what I could to help her work with her excitable youngster and he made improvement. I remember talking with her at some point about other options for controlling him because she brought it up. I spent some time discussing harnesses and showed her several types. The next classes I had her in, she did not have a prong collar on her dog. Had I inadvertently (or deliberately) vilified her for using a prong collar, perhaps she wouldn’t have returned for more instruction from me. And maybe she wouldn’t have considered other options for controlling her dog during the training process.

I walk my dog at a very busy park pretty much every day. In the warmer months, there are tons of people and their dogs out enjoying the sunshine as well. Kyu is still very much in training but he’s making progress every day. I always have treats with me while we’re out. Sometimes, I pass by other professional dog trainers working with clients and using methods I don’t personally advocate. I don’t say anything but I do reward my dog for the amazing things he does as we walk past them. Loudly. And with obvious cookies.

There was a day earlier this year where I passed a couple with an excited young dog while walking Kyu. Kyu is also very excited about other dogs so I’ve been working on that. As we walked by, Kyu ignored the dog and I praised him and delivered treats. The woman said loudly to her compatriot as we walked on, “Maybe we should have brought treats!” Yes. Maybe you should have. It’s subtle, sure. But I personally like this method better. It’s completely borrowed from Sarah Stremming: “Shut up and show off.” No reason to preach; simply demonstrate how well it works.

Why is this more effective than preaching? Consider how many times your opinion has been changed by someone else who simply pointed out everything you were doing wrong. Someone who listed off a series of reasons why your thinking was illogical. I bet you got defensive. I bet you shut them out. Take a look at the recent political discussions as an example if you must. No one changes their mind in an argument. Even in a discussion, it may not happen. However, if you can demonstrate why things work without judgement, you’ll find far more converts.

Posted in Thoughts, Training | Leave a comment

Risa Redux

My fun noodle. Photo courtesy of Jim Petack.

I say it all the time: Kyu is not Risa. I never expected him to be her clone and, in all honesty, I didn’t want that again. I wasn’t looking for another fearful, dog-reactive dog with GI problems (well, two out of three ain’t bad). I didn’t want that challenge again. Kyu, however, presents entirely new challenges which I’m struggling to overcome.

Despite his differences, I’ve found I’ve made the same mistake in his training that I made in Risa’s so long ago. One would think I would have learned better. 😉 Much like his predecessor, Kyu lacks solid foundations in focus and engagement. Again, I have trained tricks and behaviors but not spent enough time on valuing me above distractions. I promised Kyu I’d give him a solid foundation and I failed!

Of course, it’s never too late. I didn’t realize how badly I’d erred in teaching Risa focus until she was mid-way through her career in rally. Granted, with her fears, she was never going to locked-on with laser-focus. But she started to react in ways I hadn’t expected when her focus was lost and I couldn’t tolerate it (for safety reasons). I enrolled in my first Fenzi Dog Sports class on focus and ramped up our training. It made a huge difference.

Since that course proved so successful for my Mutt-Mutt, I’m going through it again with Kyu on my own time. The only thing holding us back now is his lack of desire to train. A problem I never had to this extent with Risa.

There were times Risa would quit on me. When I got frustrated (something I definitely improved upon during our time together) or the environment was too much. Most of these things I wouldn’t have even recognized when I first started dog training. Even with them being on my radar these days, I sometimes still fail to notice them in time. I never realized how forgiving Risa was of my inadequacies until I really got into training Kyu. Risa was sensitive to my moods and feelings but was not as affected by them. She would also repeat exercises over and over without quitting (for the most part). She was able to connect dots much easier than Kyu which allowed me to be a sloppier trainer.

It was easy to see where Risa and I mirrored each other. I generally feel Kyu and I have little in common but he is hyper-sensitive to my moods. Even the smallest amount of frustration from me or overt pressure will cause him to quit. It turns out we are both empaths and are strongly affected by the emotions of those around us. Since I can’t teach him to put up a wall around himself to keep out the feelings of others (something I’ve learned to do to protect myself over the years), I have to be far more cautious of my mood when it comes to training. As you might expect, I am not always good at this. 😉

In addition to overt and inadvertent pressure, I have to contend with the knowledge that training in general was poisoned during his illness. He didn’t feel good and food certainly didn’t help. It’s highly likely he’s connected some training with icky feelings which I also have to overcome.

Playing rally with Mom and looking so happy! Courtesy of Jim Petack.

While I begin to work on ramping up our focus and engagement training, I am struggling to do so. I have the most time to train with him in the evenings but this is the time he is most stressed about training at all. If I get out cookies and look like I’m going to start a session, he gets nervous and will not take food or offer behaviors (cued or not). Location doesn’t seem to matter at all. Whether it’s the kitchen, living room, or training space; I get the same reaction. It’s really disheartening.

He certainly doesn’t hate training, though. He’ll happily do it when I sneak it in at other times or take it on the road. I’ve taken to doing quick sessions after his morning walk or right when I get home from work. I’ve also slipped in some focus work and engagement training on our walks themselves. This will soon become more challenging as the weather gets colder. I will have to make special trips to fun places to work on these skills! I’m happy I haven’t ruined training completely but it is a struggle to work on things sometimes.

I also am trying to make sure I’m careful to not pressure him to work with me because it’s SO FUN. He will back off completely if I come on too strong. I want him to choose to work with me. And it’s really hard some days to respect his “no.” I believe in giving dogs choice when possible and I respect his decision. But it still hurts me sometimes. My dog doesn’t want to do super fun stuff with me. 🙁

Despite our struggles, he is improving. He managed to score a 97 his second time in rally at his breed specialty with a LOVELY connected performance. He also earned his first title in musical freestyle (Entry MF) the following weekend. He’s also becoming better connected with me in agility. In fact, he’s exceeded expectations the last few times we’ve worked on his weave training in the yard. One day, he hit a really hard entry from the opposite side. Just this week, he blew past me to take the weaves while I was trying to set him up because I’ve built desire to go through the poles! It was hard to deliver his reward at that distance but I couldn’t complain. 🙂

I’ve definitely stepped back on much of his training to try and give him a break and repair the damage I’ve done (intentionally or not) to our training relationship. Our day-to-day relationship, thankfully, is very strong. It’s just in training where we struggle. While I’m not training with any specific goals in mind and am doing as little formal training as possible, my goal this winter is to work on his focus and engagement training. As I well know, all the well-trained tricks in the world mean nothing if your dog won’t look to you for direction. I’ve been there before.

Posted in Dog Sports, Fenzi Academy, GI Issues, IBD, Thoughts, Training | Leave a comment

Missing You

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year. A whole year without you. No new memories to share. Just old ones to savor.

I don’t know that I’ve ever known anyone as intimately as I knew you. Some of it was out of necessity, sure. But I think it was more than just that. We grew together. Both of us helping the other to become better. We were rocks for each other. I helped you feel confident in the world. You were my confidant and constant companion through some really challenging times in my life.

As much as I miss our closeness and relationship that I still can’t define, I can’t help but remember the good times we had. You introduced me to so many wonderful people and friends despite not being gregarious yourself. How lonely I would be had I not met them all? How much richer were both our lives because of these friends?

We traveled across the country and lived in multiple states. You walked alongside and/or romped in so many bodies of water. You saw so much of the world beyond the backyard you spent the first 2.5 years of your life in.

You were not the ideal sports dog but we made it work. You were meant to be in the spotlight; you ate it up. It was not easy. It was an incredible challenge for us both but we shone so brightly together. That bond. . .the indescribable bond we shared filled that ring. You always gave me everything you had. As stressful as trials could be, I know you enjoyed showcasing your skills and talents to an audience. Nowhere did you shine brighter than in freestyle. That was your sport. You were always great in practice but it was on the day of competition where you really put it out there. You were a ham and loved the attention. The chance to show off.

You got me into dog training. It eventually lead to me doing it professionally. I helped you. You taught me. I wanted to share what I knew and help others realize how diamond-bright those rough dogs could shine.

I became a better person through you. You changed my worldview and helped me to see things in a different way. A better way. We never quit no matter how hard it was. You overcame fear, cancer, GI troubles, a bad back. . . We persevered. We found a way.

Words fail to describe everything you were to me. Your physical presence is gone but you live on strong in my heart. There, you will never fade. The dog I owe so much to. My friend. My heart. Forever and always mine, Awesome Dog. <3

Posted in Thoughts | Leave a comment

Chronic Conditions or Here We Go Again

Ready to go into any new building because it’s probably for a dog training thing!

I’ve put off writing this blog entry for a long time. Partly because I was hoping to write once I had all the answers; I still don’t. The other reason I’ve delayed is because I haven’t felt like it. Literally. My motivation for many things has been borderline zero. I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism earlier this year which comes with a lack of desire to do things. Even fun things. And it takes a long time to get it regulated (and I’m still in that process). So, while this entry is about Kyu’s chronic condition, my chronic condition is also playing a factor in our lives together.

Kyu started having chronic diarrhea in December of last year (this is when I first noticed I wasn’t feeling all that great as well). I joke that losing Risa sent us both off the deep end and, while it’s not 100% true, there is probably some level of truth to it. It certainly upset our usual lives and caused us both grief. I also started a new job about 2 weeks after losing her which also added additional stress to our lives. For Kyu, he was now left home alone for a longer period of time (I can’t come home to let him out mid-day like I had his entire life). And he’s completely alone because he’s now an only dog. Whereas Risa was fine flying solo, I know Kyu really enjoys the company of other dogs. Stress can certainly make things worse.

Given a lifetime of dealing with chronic diarrhea with Risa (from SIBO to food sensitivities and even HGE), I didn’t worry much at first. I monitored it and made adjustments to try and tackle it on my own. Even though it resembled the type of diarrhea I’d seen in my years with Risa I refused to believe it was the same thing at first. I was worried my bias was influencing what I saw. That I was thinking “zebras” instead of “horses.” Eventually, when things didn’t clear up, we were off to the vet. Fecal test was clear so we did a course of Flagyl and probiotics. He improved but was back to yuck again once the meds were done. Back to the vet for a longer course of Flagyl, continued probiotics, and a test for intestinal parasites (like Giardia). We also started a bland diet to reset his system. Test came back clear; no GI baddies to blame. He did well on the Flagyl and bland diet. Things slid off again after the Flagyl was stopped but I switched one of the foods in his bland diet and things improved. Once he was stable again, I started to transition him back to his regular diet. And it all fell apart again.

Now I was concerned. I didn’t know what was going on and it appeared to be similar to what I’d been through with Risa. I dreaded this. I asked the Universe why it felt I was fit to take care of another GI dog. It clearly hadn’t been watching me cry over shit-soaked carpets or the fact that I can’t even manage something as simple as feeding a dog. I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere with my vet so I took matters into my own hands and ordered the Nutriscan test. I knew people who had good results with it and, in all honesty, I just needed a starting point with his diet. So I sent his spit away for testing and got the results. Yes! He did have food sensitivities! I eliminated everything on the list and he improved. For a while. But things went downhill again. He started having loose stools again. One Friday night, he had urgent diarrhea and then threw up bile in the yard. He then tried to lie down but couldn’t get comfortable. I was very worried so I took him to the vet that night for evaluation. We put him on Flagyl and probiotics again and took blood for a GI panel. Results: chronic pancreatitis. 🙁

Working with Sarah Stremming at Fenzi Camp.

The vet sent him home with some EN prescription food to try but he turned his nose up at it. So I put him on a bland diet again this time with a conscious effort to keep things low fat. He still didn’t stay stable. He would do okay for a while and then, seemingly out of nowhere, do poorly again. Nothing was consistent and he had lost almost 2 lbs (which is a lot for a little guy!). I couldn’t get weight back on him or keep him stable. Even with avoiding the no no foods from the Nutriscan test. I had a consult with a nutritionist which didn’t go very well. It felt more confrontational than conversational (and I can’t say whether it was just me or us both) and didn’t jive with my ideals. I’d also now had two vets tell me the Nutriscan test was bogus and useless. It wasn’t until I tried to adjust Kyu’s diet to include more chicken (buffalo is low fat but expensive!) that I noticed things started to get bad quickly. Chicken was part of the problem (which makes me sad looking back because I was using almost exclusively chicken as a training treat!). And the Nutriscan test said chicken was fine! Now I couldn’t believe anything it said. 🙁 I eliminated chicken from his diet but, still, he hasn’t been stable.

I took him to the TCVM vet that Risa had seen for her GI issues because I wanted both sides of the coin for my options. I also know she will use food therapy to help dogs recover and, most importantly, she’s willing to have a conversation with me about my thoughts and the options I need to consider. Plus she agrees with me that we need to treat the cause not the symptom. Much like Risa whose bouts of SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) were caused by food sensitivities, I feared Kyu’s pancreatitis was also the result of the same. However, it’s also possible he has IBD in addition to the chronic pancreatitis. 🙁 An endoscopy is the only way to know for sure. 🙁 Despite being on Cerenia for a week, supplementing with folate, putting him on probiotics again, and restricting his diet even more; he’s still not stable. Looks like I may be opening up my wallet again for even more GI testing. 🙁

Unsurprisingly, his training has taken a serious downturn. While I’m sure my overlong training sessions definitely played a factor in his previous refusals to work with me, I’m fairly certain he has been sick for a while and that’s why he hasn’t wanted to work. He was such an engaged partner as a baby. Even bouncing off me when we entered the training room demanding to get to work. That’s not who he is now. He leaves sessions. Or isn’t as enthused as I want him to be. It’s because he doesn’t feel good and, unlike Risa, won’t still play when he feels icky. I don’t blame him. My chronic problem hasn’t exactly made me the best training partner as of late either.

I’ve been fortunate he’s felt good enough to be an active partner in several recent events. I had a working spot with him at Fenzi Camp and he was AMAZING all three days. He worked with me and he was even better just being in that environment. Waited patiently outside the ring mostly focused on me. Walked around lots of dogs and people without obnoxiously pulling me towards them. He was a STAR. Even though I know he wasn’t really feeling all that great. The following weekend was his breed specialty where he took 1st in conformation in a large Grand Champion class. He showed well despite not feeling it at all (I wasn’t feeling it either, tbh). I scratched him from racing because I didn’t think it was fair to ask him to do it after being ill so long and he told me he couldn’t do rally so I excused us from that. This weekend, he attended a seminar with Julie Flanery and worked well there too!

But I know we’re both struggling to connect on a training level because we’re both still not 100%. I can’t speak for him; only try and extrapolate from his actions. I imagine he’s feeling a lot like I am right now. I know training my dog should be fun. I know I do enjoy events like this. Hanging out with “my people” and learning how to be a better trainer. And working with my wonderful little partner. But lately I’m just not “there.” Physically I’m there and I’m capable of doing just enough to get something out of it. But I’m not me. I’m going through the motions more than anything. And I feel like that’s where he is too. I can recognize it for what it likely is but that still doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt a little to watch your dog find more joy in sniffing the room than engaging with you. (It’s like having Risa all over again in that respect!) I know it’s possibly temporary. That, once he feels better, he’ll reconnect with me again. And same for me. Once I feel better, I’ll reconnect again and our training will improve. Not just because I’ve learned more and come away with better training skills and options from Camp and our seminar but because I will have the mental and physical stamina to enjoy it again. I’m sure the same will happen for him once we get his disease figured out and stable.

For now, I’ve put a lot of my goals for him on hold. There is no point in trying to train him to a high level when we’re both barely functioning. And I don’t want to poison training by having him feel icky while doing it. We will still train. . .but only if we feel like it. I’m definitely itching to get back into competition. . .but not at the expense of my long term goals. He needs to feel better. WE need to feel better. Then we can truly give our all.

Posted in Chronic pancreatitis, Dog Food, Dog Training Seminars, FSDA Camp, GI Issues, Homecooked, Julie Flanery, Nutriscan, Raw Feeding, Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, Training, Veterinarian | Leave a comment

Average Joe

Natural, hunting instincts: intact. Leisurely walks with squirrels around: impossible!

(Before I delve into the meat of this post, I want to preface it with this: I am all for the preservation of natural abilities in dogs. I love nothing more than watching a dog “do it’s thing.” Whether it’s a German shepherd herding a flock or a team of huskies pulling a sled. It makes my heart sing to see dogs doing their job. And I know it makes the dog’s heart sing too. I also still feel there is definitely a need for dogs who can do jobs. From police K-9s to service dogs, etc. There is definitely still a place for dogs with jobs in our society.)

I teach dog training classes to the general public. Your average dog owners. Their needs are simple. They want a dog who can behave nicely in human society and, often, with little effort to obtain said results. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. After all, who doesn’t want results with minimal effort? They also aren’t looking for a hiking buddy; they want a dog who’ll be content with short walks or just being let out into the back yard for bit. Time is at a premium and, in their hectic lives, the dog takes a back seat.

Many like the idea of a dog but not the reality. They get a border collie because they want a smart dog and then they’re annoyed when it moves non-stop or herds the kids. They forget this is a dog bred to herd sheep over great distances all day long. They bring home a Jack Russell terrier and are annoyed when it digs up the yard or tries to chase squirrels on a walk. They forget this breed is an excellent ratter and digging is completely natural. We get a purebred dog because we expect it look and behave a particular way. . .but we forget the reality of this nature. That it needs to be expressed. That, if we won’t give the dog an outlet, he’ll find one on his own. Because that’s who he is even if that’s not what we want.

I had a dog I fostered named Augie who was, what I would consider, the best dog for the average person/family. He didn’t want to do anything. The first time I let him loose in the house to explore, he sniffed around a little bit and then just plopped down into the middle of the living room to take a nap. He was the epitome of a bump on a log. I swear he got annoyed with me when I made him exercise and move around (and I don’t think it was just because he was overweight). Having owned active, do something dogs and previously fostered dogs of the same type. . .I didn’t know what to do with him. Honestly, he didn’t WANT me to do anything with him and that was a first for me. But that is what the average person wants in a canine companion. A very easy, laid back dog. Maybe just a step up from a stuffed animal.

So why aren’t we breeding more companion dogs? That’s really what most people want. Yet they’ll still go out and buy a dog who could “do the work” when they don’t need a working dog! What’s the point in getting a herding dog when you don’t own stock? Why get a terrier when you don’t have a vermin problem? If you don’t take a sled to work, why get a dog bred to pull?

I’m all for purpose-bred dogs. . .and companionship is a purpose. And it’s a far more necessary one in our current lives than that of the working dog. I know many of us with purpose-bred dogs (be it a sportmix or a breed historically bred for a certain task) look down on people breeding dogs “just for companionship.” Granted, our dogs serve that purpose as well but we want the dogs to maintain their ability to do that task rather than just look the part (I am personally a HUGE proponent of this). But should we really turn up our noses at people looking to purposefully breed better companion dogs? Especially knowing that these dogs are going to be less likely to end up in shelters because they’re too much for the average family? Knowing that they’re going to be better suited to contemporary lifestyle than the breeds whose instincts we’re bent on preserving? While it is true that breeding for high-level dogs will often result in pets better suited for average people, wouldn’t it be almost better for the goal to be simply pets for the average person? Regardless of your breeding decisions, there will always be outliers. Dogs bred for work who can’t do the work. Or dogs bred for pets that have to do the work.

Society has changed and I know dogs will too. They’ve adapted to our changing lifestyles over their history with us. From hunting companions to farm guards and now snuggled up on the sofa. I think we’d find far fewer dogs in shelters or with people who are “at the end of the leash” with their dog’s intolerable behaviors if we focused more on making dogs what the average person wants.

Posted in Thoughts | Leave a comment