"Practice is the best of all instructors." - Publilius Syrus
View of Mt Minsi and the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware Water Gap from the Red Dot trail. Photo from nps.gov
Our First Road Trip
In a few weeks, Sparkle and I head to Clicker Expo in Stamford, CT. This is one of the premiere animal training conferences in the nation and one of the few that allow you to bring your dogs. Usually the whole family goes, but the stars didn't line up this year for that to happen. Fortunately, the two of us are able to go, though.
The timing is serendipitous as it will be about a month before our Cranberry Lake 50 attempt. There are many elements of that trip and our preparations that I'll be able to test and if necessary, adjust. These include:
CRATE WORK FOR ON THE ROAD
We've spent time working on transferring our crate work to the car. She's now at a point where she is remaining calm when I open the door and stays in the crate until I release her.
Sparkle is now accepting a fully loaded pack.
Take a spring adventure with your pup. Check out this article for some ideas.
Health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong. - Thomas Jefferson
Training the Body
I've been writing a lot about addressing behaviors and associations that will support the success of our trip, but if we're going to hike 15 or so miles a day for a few days and carrying a good percentage of our body weight, we're going to have to work up to it.
I'm no stranger to endurance efforts, having a background in triathlon, marathons, and ultra distance, topping off at 50 miles.
The triple secrets of being able to complete any kind of endurance event are:
1. Taking the time to prepare your body through gradual increases of duration and intensity with periodic breaks in throughout.
2. Proper mental attitude, meaning both the confidence that you will be successful and having a plan of how you will handle things when they go wrong.
3. Proper nutrition and hydration. Too few calories at too much effort and your body makes you stop. And of course, we need water, even more than food.
This post will focus on preparing our bodies for the task at hand. Here's the general training strategy:
1. Weekly mileage increases should, on average, be around 10%, working towards a target of a single hike equal to the anticipated longest day of hiking (about 16 miles) and a longest run of a bit more than half of that (actually, I have a 10 mile run planned for late March near the Delaware Water Gap that should be pretty exciting for the two of us). Our final pre-trip hike is scheduled on a 16+ loop from Hell (well, actually around Hell, MI).
2. Amount of weight carried will be added by about 25% at a time, reaching 100% within 4 weeks of the trip.
3. Physical activities will include hiking with equipment, running, body awareness exercises, and strengthening.
Obviously getting hiking miles in with our actual equipment is the best kind of preparation, so we've been building our miles.
I don't have the time to hike as many miles as I would like, so I'm choosing to up our activity level doing something that is more efficient and that Sparkle and I both enjoy: running! We're starting out with a couple of one hour runs a week, throwing in as many hills as we can, which is a challenge where we live. Delaware Water Gap 10 mile prep run I have planned (because it's on the way to a training conference), the hills will matter because there is a lot more elevation change there as opposed to the CL50, which is good, because it should make the actual CL50 not seem quite so hard.
I'm using the Omnijore by Ruffwear to connect Sparkle to myself. I like it because it keeps her safe, is comfortable for both dog and human, and is designed to distribute weight evenly across her body. The leash stretches, so there is there is no chance of her pulling and then coming to a jarring stop. There is also an emergency release system so that if I need to quickly disconnect her, I can do it almost instantly, and with one hand. It also allows me to carry a phone, keys, poop bags, and water for us.
This is the route we took on a recent training run. Despite the small elevation gain, the hills that we did climb were quite steep and the trail was quite muddy, thus slowing our progress.
Body Awareness and Strenghtening
I've started doing the 7 minute workout 3 times a week and highly recommend it. Do yourself a favor and make time for it! I've also been getting Sparkle both on various natural objects such as downed trees to build body awareness and confidence as well as on exercise balls.
Work on building your dog's own fitness. One easy way to get started is to use the information associated with Dog Scouts of America's K9 Fitness Merit Badge, which was developed by Harmony Dog Training!
If you are going through a time of discouragement, there is a time of great personal growth ahead - Oswald Chambers
We often tell our students that success is not always linear. There can and will be setbacks. We have to plan for these and be patient with ourselves and our dogs.
From the outset of this experience, I have shared that Sparkle has some fears, particularly around sounds as well as some discomforts with body handling. She also does not like when its dark outside because she's often surprised by things and she doesn't like surprises.
Much of our training has focused on helping reduce or eliminate these fears. The primary process that I'm using is called counter conditioning and desensitization. The basic concept is that when your dog is relaxed, you pair increasing levels of something that the dog finds unpleasant with something that they like. The most common way this process fails to work is when we work with our dogs when they are not feeling ok or when we push too far too soon.
As you should know by now, I'm not going to intentionally force Sparkle into situations she's not comfortable with in hopes that she'll "get over it." That being said, in the past few weeks, I have been challenged to create an environment for her in which she's able to feel safe outside. You see, the neighborhood we live in is near two active train lines, a major hospital, and a highway. I have always thought that it was a quiet neighborhood because none of the sounds associated with those things happens all of the time or are generally very loud right by our house. Sparkle's reactions to them have caused me to reconsider.
A combination of factors such as bad weather leading to more accidents (and more sirens), increased train traffic (more train horns), and dogs and people suddenly appearing in the dark have led to increasingly stressful outings for her, and by extension me.
We've been working on her issues inside, as you're about to see, but I have been challenged to do the same outside as effectively as I would like. The kicker is that the effects of stress are cumulative, so even if only one of the things she's worried about happens on a given day, they all add up if they happen in successive days. This is known as trigger stacking.
Think about how it feels if you're running late to work and you miss every light and at the last light, the person in front of you doesn't start to move when the light turns green. How much self control will it take to not lean on your horn in that situation vs if you weren't in a rush and you had made all of the previous lights. It's the same sort of situation where Sparkle has been frequently on edge even before we leave the house.
Unable to provide Sparkle with a several day break (which is how long stress hormones can take to leave the body), she has actually regressed in her behavior. What I will be focusing on now will be trying to do more fun high intensity things outside, and doing a better job of limiting exposure to things that worry her by taking shorter walks and having a higher percentage of the time be about ball play, which is her top reinforcer. I will also be taking higher value treats. Her favorite treat is string cheese, so I'll be packing that more. I may even switch to using our treadmill to get her more exercise inside while she de-stresses.
The good news is that our work inside has been going well. Here's what we've been working on:
Making Scary Sounds Less Scary
Sparkle has a number of sound triggers such as train horns and gunfire and also has difficulty with sudden sounds in general. In this video I'm using an app to help her get more comfortable with a few of these sounds. Prior to starting to record, I had relaxing background music and a white noise generator playing. I then played the sounds at a volume where she just barely registered but still remained relaxed, so I was looking for just an ear turn in the direction of the sound. I paired the sound with string cheese and over time increased the volume.
Feeling Better about Lifting
I've been working on helping Sparkle feel more comfortable with body handling. One of the things I may need to do on the trip is pick her up if she gets tangled in something or bogged down in mud or is injured. It's also a good thing to be able to do if we're at the vet and she needs to be lifted on a table. I used the same principle as with sounds where I started off with her relaxed and then paired the start of the lift with string cheese and worked up to lifting her a small height.
Being able to choose what to do, freely and without compulsion, is an incredibly important aspect of life. - Irith Bloom
People are often surprised that NO is not part of our training. In our experience, which is backed up by science, we don't need it.
On our trip from Michigan to New York, I will be relying heavily on gps. I will pass many exits and many roads that are not the right choice to getting me to Cranberry Lake. Think about what it would be like if every time I passed an exit the gps said, "In 500 feet, don't turn there...". What if took a wrong turn and all the information I got was "No!" What if I wanted to made a side trip and I heard "Wrong"?
That's not what happens, is it? Your gps tells you what to do instead of what not to do. If you deviate from the route, it simply tells you what to do to get back on track towards your destination, and without judgement. Well, that's how we train dogs (and people, for that matter).
What is also true about using the gps is that if I rely solely on it's prompts, I may get to where I want to go, but I will not learn how I got there or know how to get back on my own. Similarly, we need our dogs to choose the behaviors they perform so they know what "pays" and what doesn't.
If we are simply lure them or physically move them into the positions we want them to be in we may get the end result, but at two costs; First, they didn't learn the actual behavior and so it's unlikely that they will offer it on their own or when cued; Second, and most important, they didn't get to choose the behavior.
Choice and predictability are vital to all animals. They are actually foundations of good mental health. If you remove choice and predictability, effects can include anxiety, stress, depression, and decreased immune function as well as other problems. When your choices matter, you become more confident. You become more engaged. You become more peaceful and feel better.
Unfortunately, in many of our relationships with our dogs, choice is in short supply. Choices we commonly limit include where they sleep, when they eat, what they eat, if/when they get to go outside and for how long, if and when they get to have social interactions, either with humans or other dogs, where they get to walk, how far they get to go from you, whether or not they get to reproduce and so on. How would you like these choices made for you?
Perhaps the most important choices that we limit involve our dog's emotional state. It's ironic in a way, because so many people limit their own actions due to daily fears and yet we expect our dogs, living in the same chaotic world as we do to somehow not have fears of their own.
If our dogs show fear or reactivity towards people or other dogs, or discomfort with sounds or body handling sometimes we expect them to "just get over it" or "work things out." And often we can power through, dragging the dog a bit on the walk until they start walking on their own, forcing an unpleasant initial greeting with ends up being ok, putting the pack and the booties on so they walk around like a zombie at first before getting used to it, but this comes at a cost. Our dogs may become more fearful or they may shut down or act out more. It does nothing for our relationship and for most people, that's why we got a dog in the first place, isn't it?
Dogs get put into all sorts of stressful situations that started out with best of intentions, like going for a walk or out to the dog park and yet how many dogs are not enjoying the interactions they're having with other people, dogs, or their environment in these situations. The stressful situations that I'm personally working on with Sparkle include travel, body handling, wearing backpacking gear, and being more comfortable with other people and other dogs. They're not stopping me from planning this trip, but are instead inspiring me to help her work through this so that she can enjoy this trip.
It should be clear by now that I'm not saying we keep our dogs in bubble and never expose them to anything stressful, because that's also removing choice. What I am saying, is be aware of what your dog likes and doesn't like and for the things s(he) doesn't like, work to change those associations and in a way that your dog is in control. And if you're not sure how to read your dog's body language, check this out.
The training that we've been working on as of late has focused on first, teaching Sparkle that her choices matter, and that the things that she has traditionally thought as scary might actually be not so bad or even good! We're also continuing to work on our recall. Here are some highlights:
It's Your Choice
This is our single favorite exercise. We teach all of our own dogs and all of our students this game which was popularized by Susan Garrett. This game is great for many reasons: it teaches your dog that his or her choices matter; it builds confidence; it increases self control; it provides the foundation for a default leave-it; it makes it easy to do cool tricks with your dog that will impress your friends and family. Can you see how these things will also make it easier for Sparkle to have a good trip? Here's what it looks like:
I'm continuing to help Sparkle feel more comfortable with a pack on her back. Here I've worked up to having a fully weighted pack resting on her back without being clipped in.
I'm continuing to build Sparkle's recall through an exercise that teaches her to whip around and check in with me when I call her name. The exercise is called Whiplash Turns and are inspired by the work of Leslie McDevitt.
We've been doing more local hiking, including a nice loop around Losee Lake.
The journey of 1000 miles begins with one step. - Lao Tzu
Happy New Year! Sparkle and I have started training in earnest. Here are some highlights:
We’ve had the opportunity to go on almost daily hikes with friends. In the process, we’ve been training opportunistically with issues around car travel, sounds, and dogs/strangers on the trail.
As we take frequent car trips of varying lengths, Sparkle is becoming more accustomed to car travel in a crate. Initially we were frequently throwing treats in the crate while we were driving and rewarding calm. Now she can settle for essentially an entire trip. There is still work to do with going into the crate enthusiastically and rushing out.
On a recent 8 mile hike, we happened to be near a firing range, so I had the opportunity to give a high value treat every time there was a gun shot. We wouldn’t have purposely chosen such an intense situation to work on this, but sometimes you work with what the environment throws at you. Over the course of the walk, she did become more comfortable, but there is still lots of work to do here. She did great with dogs and people for most of the hike. The only glitch was in the last half mile we ran into the dog that put her over the edge. It was probably a case of trigger stacking; she dealt with a number of stressors over the course of the hike and this was the last straw. She recovered nicely, though.
On our daily walks, we work on anti-reactivity exercises that focus on making good things happen in the presence of new people and dogs and on rewarding for looking away from things that worry her.
Our formal training has begun in earnest. We’ve worked on a number of skills that we’ll need for our trip. This week’s focus was on crate work, pack prep, drop it, and recalls. In the videos below, you’ll notice a big bulky thing on her collar. That’s her Whistle GPS. It’s not a shock collar. I use the Whistle to track her activity level and if she was to get loose, I’d be also to track her if she was in a place with cell coverage. Anyhow, here’s what we did (and why):
Barging out of her crate and running into a crowded parking lot at a rest area. Rushing through the tent door before it's fully unzipped, taking the door with her. Breaking position when I have per posed for the perfect picture. These are just a few of the things I would prefer not to happen on our trip. I'm going to make those things a lot less likely while also making her comfortable in confined areas by teaching her that good things happen in the crate and that the easiest way to get the crate door (and later tent door) to open is to sit (or lie down) patiently and to stay in that positon until she is relased. In the video below you'll see the start of our work, which is very roughly based on Susan Garrett's Crate Games, which in turn appears to be influenced by the chicken crating procedures in chicken camps first run by Bob Bailey and now offered by Terry Ryan.
Sparkle's going to have to carry her own weight on this trip. Not literally her entire weight, but some percentage of it in the form of wearing a pack. Most dogs don't like wearing a pack at first. Sparkle's didn't come to us enjoying body handling in general, so this could pose a particular challenge. Luckily we've been working on helping her be more comfortable with this. In the video below, we begin the process.
For safety's sake, Sparkle will, for the most part be either on a regular leash, waist leash, or long line. Still, there are chances that she'll end up off leash and I want to make sure that she'll come back, not just to me, but a stranger and that whoever she is being recalled to will be able to get ahold of her collar and put her on leash and/or read her tag. I've witnessed first hand some scary experiences where a loose dog would run away from a well meaning stranger at the last minute. This video shows you how we start to teach our dogs a recall, starting with a collar handling exercise that increases the chances that she'll accept collar handling.
We've been hiking the local trails as well as around Kensington Lake, Proud Lake and on the trails of Hudson Mills Metropark. Right now max mileage is about 8 miles, no packs. We also went on our first run of the year together earlier in the week, very short mileage (under 3 miles). Looking forward to better weather and greater distances.
I'll show you how I'm building out these skills plus adding new skills and new exercises to help Sparkle feel more comfortable with some of the things she'll face.
We'll continue to build our fitness while having fun out on the trails. See you then!
"Never mistake comfort for happiness" - (paraphrased from a Frazz comic strip)
The trails along the Cranberry Lake 50 are in Adirondack Park in Upstate New York, which is 632 miles away from our home. This means I will have to drive longer by myself than I ever have. Sparkle will have to ride in a car longer than she ever has. We will spend more continuous time camping than either of us has done in the past, testing the durability of our equipment and temperament.
We will be exposed to hazards such as bears, porcupines, moose, beaver dam crossings, hyperthermia friendly weather conditions, widowmakers (google it, it’s a forestry term), and contaminated water.
We will most likely hike for days without cell phone coverage or seeing another person and will be several hours from the nearest vet. Sparkle hates car rides. I’m not terribly comfortable with the unscripted social interactions you tend to have when you’re traveling alone. It seems like when I’m solo, which is not that often, people feel it’s their duty to try to talk to me. I like people, but am not always in my element among the non-dog folk. Having a striking dog who has similar feelings towards these kinds of interactions (both of the human and canine kind) does not make this easier. I actually feel more comfortable with the natural hazards we may face. I have a hunch she does too. Sparkle’s kind of scared of the dark, doesn’t love the tent, and hates loud noises like thunder. She doesn’t really like her body being touched, but will be wearing a pack. We’re both active, but neither of us, not even she, moves continuously for the 6-7 hour days that I expect we’ll have and for days on end. Sparkle doesn’t like to be left alone and I’m terrified of losing her.
At this point, you may ask yourself why we should even attempt this. You’ll remind me that my first principle of this trip was safety and the second, respect. What I have written may sound unsafe to you and unfair to Sparkle, who will have to deal with some fears and discomforts that she has if I go through with this. These things are actually exactly the reason why I’m going as they are the very types of reasons people don’t get out of their routines and live their lives. They are so afraid of taking a risk; of things going wrong.
Let me assure you that I have spent a great deal of time thinking of the risks and the fears and how to mitigate them. While you can’t plan for every contingency, you can be prepared. While you may not be able to conquer all fears, you can quell many. While most people cannot get up off of the couch and crank out a feat of endurance on demand, they can do so with time.
What I will be doing is something anyone can do and I am doing it in hopes that you will not merely resign yourself to that which is holding you back. So, let’s begin…
My first step has been to break down the trip into three focus areas, built of a foundation of being prepared for emergencies and having the right gear to support the trip:
In future posts, I’ll be breaking down what I’m doing in each area, but I will share with you here, the foundation associations and behaviors, and activities that will be a common thread throughout. Many may sound familiar to those who have taken a basic obedience class from us. What will be different is the context in which these activities will take place.
Teaching a handful of behaviors and changing a handful associations means that I won’t have constantly be thinking of all of the situations I don’t want to have happen. Consistent with our training philosophy, I will do my best to reward what I like, prevent what I don’t, and create positive associations where neutral or negative ones exist.
We have already begun work on a number of fronts including working with people, dogs, body handling, hiking, recalls, and stays. I’ll show off some of this when I cover our preparations for travel in my next post.
Life Begins Outside of Your Comfort Zone – Neale Donald Walshe
About every 2 months Harmony Dog Training graduates a new class of dogs in our Reactive Rover, Puppy Preschool, and Basic Manners classes. During graduation we tell people that this is just the beginning. While I hope that our students take this to heart, I imagine that for some, the training ends the moment they hang their dog’s “diploma” on their refrigerator. I do not think that this is because they are not interested in doing more with their dog, it’s just that for many people, it’s not obvious what training is outside of the context of a class, and how this “real life” training can help them have more fun with their canine companion. To help anyone who wonders how training achieve this, I want to share with you the training that I am going to be doing as I prepare one of our dogs for an adventure this spring.
This Sparkle. She is a 1.5-year-old Australian Shepherd that we adopted over the summer. Sparkle comes to us with unlimited enthusiasm and limited training. She loves the outdoors and is extremely difficult to tire out.
This is Lowell. He is a 41-year-old dog trainer, the co-owner of Harmony Dog Training in Ann Arbor with his wife, Angela and our family of dogs, cats, and birds. He has been looking for a way to spend more time training his own dog. He loves the outdoors and is extremely difficult to tire out. He's the one writing this blog.
Source: Clifton-Fine Economic Development Corporation
This is Cranberry Lake, the third largest lake in the Adirondacks. In 6 months we plan to complete a 4 day, 50 mile circumnavigation of the lake (known as the Cranberry Lake 50.) We’re doing it for the challenge and for another very important reason. If you complete it, you get a patch to add to your backpack (or in our case, backpacks).
To make the process enjoyable to both of us, I’m going to make my best efforts to follow these three principles:
The family was rightfully concerned. Their normally gentle, tolerant, loving dog had suddenly snapped at their toddler, and they weren’t sure what to do. We began the consult suggesting a veterinary exam to rule out physical issues, and then continued to discuss good supervision, management, and training protocols for helping ensure that the dog/baby household remained safe for everyone. As we were leaving, the owner reached to point to the area on the dog’s shoulder that the toddler had touched before the snap. The dog winced and moved away in pain. The owner was stunned, having never seen that behavior before, and it was clear that the veterinary exam was definitely in order.
A wide variety of medical issues can masquerade as behavioral problems, and dogs often do a great job of stoically not revealing signs of their discomfort. But injuries, pain, illness, sensory loss, urinary tract infections, ear infections, thyroid imbalances, neurological problems – all these and more might first manifest as behavior problems. If we aren’t looking for them, we might mistakenly be solely focusing on a training plan while our dog’s medical needs, which are underlying the behavior, go undetected.
Recently we’ve experienced this in our own household, as we’ve tried to put together the puzzle of our most recent adoption, Tempo, and his sometimes concerning behavior. Over the past year since we have owned him, Tempo would occasionally exhibit behaviors that we didn’t fully understand. Sometimes they looked like extreme fear – shaking, hiding, cowering, lowered body posture, refusal to eat. We joked that he saw dead people, because we couldn’t find any other trigger whatsoever, and he normally is quite confident and adventurous. Other times he exhibited seemingly random aggression towards us, which was quite a contrast to the usually affectionate, social guy that he is. The more we trained and worked with him, and tried to identify patterns and triggers, the more we were convinced there was a medical issue underlying all of this, but were stumped as to what it was.
A couple weeks ago, Tempo was tentatively diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD). I hadn’t identified his issues as necessarily being gastrointestinal because he rarely has diarrhea. After consulting with our vet though, we realized he did show many of the other symptoms – anorexia, depression, times of increased stomach noises, body postures indicating abdominal discomfort, signs of nausea, etc. Since that diagnosis, it has become overwhelmingly clear that his behavior problems are directly linked to his IBD flare-ups.
So, how do we know when to pursue a medical explanation? Of course, this should always be the first question you ask with any behavior or training issue – is my dog physically healthy and comfortable? Sometimes the connection is clear and the answer is easily sought – for example, with a housetrained dog who suddenly starts urinating in the house, checking for a UTI would be a reasonable first step and could be easily determined by a urinalysis. But in cases such as Tempo’s, where it isn’t as obvious, what clues tipped us off that something more was going on?:
1) The behavior problems were a drastic change in his usual pattern. Not that Tempo is an easy dog by any means, but he is a happy, sweet, playful, cuddly guy who loves us and normally enjoys being held and snuggling. And then sometimes we would sit down with him, just like every other time, and he’d turn into a snarling little beast.
2) The behavior problems were not linked to any identifiable environmental trigger that we could see. (And we tried – I was even trying to figure out if there was an odor that precipitated them.) Every morning for two weeks he could wake up and happily and eagerly wait for breakfast, and then one morning he would be sitting wide-eyed and shaking and unwilling to eat anything that was offered him and would go hide under the couch.
3) The behavior problems were not changing as expected to scientifically-sound behavior modification protocols. In his other training areas, Tempo was doing well – his on-leash reactivity was lessening, his basic obedience was improving, but nothing seemed to be able to influence, prevent, or predict, his worst meltdowns.
4) (Sometimes): Presence of physical symptoms – limping, ear infections, urinary tract infections – some of these can be clear. However, Tempo’s symptoms were more subtle, and it wasn’t until a particularly bad flare-up of GI problems got us talking with our vet about his broader history of weird issues that we fully realized the connection.
So, if the connection isn’t entirely clear, how can you piece it together?
Keep a log!! It doesn’t have to be overly elaborate, but find a way to document when behavior incidents are happening, and anything else that you suspect might be relevant (if they did strenuous exercise that day, what they ate, how well they ate, stomach upset, etc.). We hung a regular wall calendar up with some colored markers below it, and just implemented a colored “exclamation point” system. Different colors corresponded with different behavioral or physical symptoms (for example, red meant a barking/growling episode). On days that he exhibited any of these things, we would mark the day with an exclamation point of the appropriate color. In doing this, the pattern became clear that snarling and ugliness were directly corresponding to not eating and stomach upset.
Talk to your vet. Maybe it seems weird to you, and maybe you think it doesn’t make sense, but let them know what is going on. I felt like Tempo’s symptoms were all a very strange assortment that didn’t fit any pattern, but my vet was able to identify it all as sounding like IBD, and as she told me about other patients’ experiences, the similarities were striking.
And remember you know your dog best, and if your gut is telling you something is wrong, trust it. It took me a while wondering if Tempo’s issues were GI or pain related, or neurologic, or something else entirely, but I always just felt that something deeper was going on with him physically and that he needed more than just training.
So, is behavior modification still necessary? Yes, quite likely, some management and training can still help you through this as the medical problem is also addressed. We are still trying to figure out what combination of diet and meds will keep Tempo’s tummy stable, so he has good days and bad days right now. If he seems to be having a bad day and turns his nose up at breakfast, then I know to respect his space because I know he probably doesn’t feel like cuddling when he has a stomach ache either. If he wants to hide under the couch for a while, we don’t disturb him. And when he is out and about, I am reinforcing him for remaining pleasant, while also demonstrating that no one is going to do anything he doesn’t like when his belly hurts.
And, because medical issues can masquerade as behavior problems, even more reason to be using positive, force-free training methods. Tempo’s behaviors, while undesirable, were just communication, letting us know he was feeling sick and didn’t particularly want a lot of handling and petting at those times (when he feels good, by contrast, he is a permanent lap fixture). How unfair would it have been to get mad at him, to punish him, and to make him feel worse when he was already in a vulnerable state? We often wonder how long he was misunderstood, and if his undetected medical issue and the related behavior wasn’t what landed him in the shelter in the first place.
How about you – have you ever discovered a behavior was related to a medical issue with your dog? What did you do?
“The power to control one’s own outcomes is essential to behavioral health, and the degree to which a behavior reduction procedure preserves learner control is essential to developing a standard of humane, effective practice.” - Susan Friedman
About a year ago, we adopted a plucky six-year-old Jack Russell Terrier from the shelter. Tempo had been surrendered to the shelter by his previous family. In their notes, they stated he was crate-trained. It also appeared that they used crating as punishment, and that he spent the majority of his time either outside in the yard or, when inside, crated.
Not surprisingly, when Tempo came to us he would indeed tolerate going to his crate, but he didn’t love it. We camp, travel, and go to dog events frequently with our dogs, so accepting a crate as a comfortable place to chill out is fairly important. Plus, as much as I love snuggling in bed with a dog, I am too light of a sleeper to realistically have dogs loose in the bedroom at night and expect to get a restful night’s sleep, as I would be awake every time they stirred. So, our dogs spend their nights either crated in our bedroom, or loose in the living room, as our eldest dog Jade prefers.
For the first several months, Tempo had a nice JRT-sized crate, and we worked diligently to get him to like it more than he did. We played crate games, worked on counter-conditioning protocols, gave him his meals and high value treats and chews in it, but he was still resistant to going in and would cry at night.
In the fall, we tried him out in a “big dog” crate, and for several months he was much happier. He would run into the crate at night, settle down immediately, and patiently wait in the morning for us to get up and moving before letting him out. All was well until one day it wasn’t. Around mid-January, Tempo decided that he didn’t like his fancy big crate anymore either.
OK, we’re dog trainers and crate training isn’t a big deal, right? Right?
A couple months of more games, more shaping, more counter-conditioning, more high value rewards, DAP diffusers, new beds, new blankets, new relaxation essential oils, new sweaters to keep him even warmer at night, curling up next to his crate in an attempt to comfort him, and eventually shameless pleading and luring – and at the end of it we had a sad little JRT who at night would slowly, pathetically plod to his crate, hesitate at the door, then slink his way in and sit there looking pathetic. He stopped even eating his special rewards that he would find in there.
We have absolutely no idea what caused this complete change of heart regarding his crate, by the way. There was no event we could identify, and nothing we could imagine was causing him discomfort. All I can say is he is a weird dog, who forms strong opinions, and I’m pretty sure he sees dead people sometimes. (In all seriousness, we do wonder if he has some medical issue underlying some of his peculiarities, but so far no tests or examinations have found anything. So all we can do is work with the behavior – which is what we are supposed to be the professionals at anyway!)
Finally in mid-March, coincidentally the day before ClickerExpo Detroit started, none of us got any sleep. Tempo slunk to his crate as usual that night, but as we tried to drift off to sleep, we noticed that he was not settling down, but was sitting upright, pressed against the door of his crate, looking completely miserable and dejected. He whimpered occasionally, but mostly suffered in silence. We in turn were broken-hearted seeing him so unhappy for reasons we could not figure out or understand. This was not working. He sat there staring – we tossed and turned feeling awful that our dog was so inexplicably uncomfortable.
In the morning, he was at least happy to jump into the van and ride in his travel kennel to ClickerExpo – so at least he had not generalized this stress to all crates. Loaded up on caffeine, we enjoyed day one of the amazing talks, all the time considering how to apply them to our current biggest training challenge at home. Inspiration came in Irith Bloom’s “Power of Choice” seminar, which reminded us how important learner control is to the outcome of a behavioral intervention. Tempo had no control in his sleeping arrangements. While we did not physically force him into his crate at night, he still clearly felt coerced by the routine, and it was becoming a nightly source of stress and anxiety for all of us. Were we really “force-free” trainers, if he really had no option? Physical force is not the only form of coercion, and although our intentions were good and intended to be positive, they were clearly not reinforcing. After all, only the learner can decide what is truly a reinforcer and what is a punisher, no matter what our intents or hopes are.
Tempo is reliable in the house. We knew he wouldn’t eat the sofa cushions or raid the refrigerator. So that night we gave Tempo a choice. After coming in from his final run of the night, he had the option to go to his crate as usual, or to the living room to spend the night on the couch with Jade. Not surprisingly, he chose the couch.
Honestly, at first this felt a lot like giving up. It felt like we were giving a fancy justification to our decision to cave in to our tenacious terrier. But the reality was that the crate had become a huge source of stress. Lowell and I were stressed, Tempo was stressed, no one was sleeping well, and no one was happy with one another. We could either focus on a single behavior issue, or try to find a mutually agreeable alternative – one that would lower everyone’s stress and anxiety. It was clear that as long as Tempo HAD to go to his crate, his overall opinion of it was not going to change. What was important to us was that we could still crate him for car rides and travel, and he still loved his travel crate and had always settled fine in it while camping, so that was promising. We decided we would empower him to make a different decision at night – albeit one that was still acceptable to us – and to see how it went. We figured if nothing else, at least we might get a decent night’s sleep again. If there was fallout from our new strategy, at least maybe I could face it well-rested.
The first few nights, Tempo glared at us a bit from the couch as he settled in, still not entirely trusting that we weren’t going to send him to his apparently haunted crate. But then some interesting things happened. Other behavior problems started to decrease. He became more compliant when asked to do other things that weren’t exactly his favorite – like getting off a warm couch to go outside in the rain for a final evening bathroom break. He started play-bowing at us several times a day, then tearing around, grabbing a toy, and running to us so we could help him “kill” it. His focus and attention on walks improved. He seemed to be wagging his nubbin more. He just seemed happier. And so were we.
And if you can believe it, allowing a dog to have a choice over something (even a Jack Russell terrier) somehow did NOT result in him overthrowing the entire household, stealing our credit cards, locking us out of the house, and kicking us off the furniture. All it did was help him regain his trust in us, knowing we weren’t going to impose something on him that he hated anymore.
What was important here wasn’t really that he be crated at night. What mattered was that everyone could be comfortable, happy, cooperative, and safe in the house. If Tempo wasn’t reliable to be left in the living room unattended, then I would have looked for other options – a baby gate in the hallway, an exercise pen in kitchen, etc. We’d search for something that met our needs, while respecting his needs and preferences as well. We control so much of what happens in our dogs’ lives – what and when they eat, where they live, when they go to the bathroom, how they get to play and exercise, who they get to socialize with – why wouldn’t they want some matter of choice in some aspects of life? Especially, as seemed to be the case with Tempo and his crate, there was also a fundamental issue of not feeling safe or comfortable in there, as clearly it is inhabited by the bogeyman (or so he would claim).
And then there was more. He began pausing at the door to the bedroom hallway in the evening and looking toward his crate. Then this week as the rest of the dogs were rushing to their crates in preparation for their evening meals, Tempo ran into his crate as well, and waited patiently there for dinner to be served. Last night as I was crating the other dogs for the night, he stood in front of the door to his crate waiting for it to open before we invited him into the living room instead. Seeing that the stress associated with the crate was already decreased, we began some brief sessions of crate games and counter conditioning again. He’s charging happily into it. If we asked him now to go to his crate for the night, I believe he would do so willingly, not begrudgingly. And if/when circumstances require him to spend the evening there again, we’ll ask him to do so then. But not before, unless he decides otherwise. It’s his choice.
It's official. Angela has just earned Certification as Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed! Here are highlights from the press release :
Ann Arbor, MI, September 20, 2014- Local dog trainer, Angela S. Schmorrow-Zuckerman, CPDT-
KA of Ann Arbor, MI has earned certification through the Certification Council for Professional Dog
Trainers® (CCPDT®). Angela now joins over 2000 Certificants worldwide.
Until the creation of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers in 2001, there was no true
certification process for canine professionals. Many schools teach dog trainers and offer certifications
for their specific programs. These certificates, therefore, reflect the teachings and quality of a specific
school. Other organizations offer take-home tests for "certification". These canine professionals are not
monitored to ensure they are completing the test without any assistance or collaboration nor is the
testing process standardized.
This unprecedented process was originally implemented by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers
(APDT), the largest association of dog trainers in the world, founded by noted veterinarian, behaviorist
and author Dr. Ian Dunbar. A task force of approximately 20 internationally known dog training
professionals and behaviorists worked for three years to research and develop the first comprehensive
examination. Professional Testing Corporation (PTC) was hired to ensure the process met professional
testing standards. APDT then created a separate, independent council - The Certification Council for
Professional Dog Trainers - to manage the accreditation and pursue future development.
Candidates who pass the exam earn the title Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed
and may use the designation "CPDT-KA" after their names. All certified trainers must earn continuing
education credits to maintain their designations or take the examination again in three years.
Angela and Lowell, your friendly Harmony Dog Trainers!