Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Year in Review

2013 Year in Review:

Sweet Fanny Pants
In January, Aaron and I sadly laid our sweet old Fanny Pants to rest. It was a hard time for all of us and not a single day goes by where I do not miss her and start to tear up when I think about the life we shared together.

February was pretty low-key. I had the opportunity to do a few private coaching calls with Kathy Kawalec, which provided some much needed personal reflection and direction that helped me push through some struggles I was having.

In March, together with Ms. Holly Lewis, I co-founded the Force Free Trainers of Wisconsin; an initiative to help bring together other like-minded, force free animal trainers throughout the state. We started with just over 10 members and tripled in size by the end of 2013.

I passed my birch ORT and behaved like
a gentleman in public!
Right around the corner in April was another significant event for Oscar and I. His first official Nose Work test - an ORT (odor recognition test). The day was awesome - he behaved so well and made me so proud. Oh, and he found the correct box in 18 seconds, which was a land speed record for him :)

Not Photoshopped - that is ME with Kathy Sdao!!

In May I had the pleasure of attending a 2-day Kathy Sdao seminar. It was AMAZING and inspirational. Kathy is such an invigorating presenter and an absolutely fabulous trainer!

June led to some serious fun for Oscar - he got to go lure coursing - which he LOVE, LOVE, LOVES!!

Aaron and I took a much needed vacation in July, which meant Oscar got to spend some 1-on-1 time with his two favorite people, Shana and Julianna! Having not one, but two wonderful ladies be able to care for him while we are away is wonderful!

Don't we make a cute couple?
In August my very dear friend Kristin came back from a year away...which meant one thing for Oscar - he would have a new girlfriend, Laika Bear! He loves Laika and watching the two of them play is oh-so-therapeutic!

September was pretty ho-hum...steady with training and a few more girlfriend visits for Oscar Handsome Pants.
Learning nosey dog skills
from the uber awesome
Jeff McMahon.
October was a very busy month. I embarked on a 13-week long e-course to become a licensed presenter of the Family Paws Parent Education Programs (Dogs & Storks and Dog & Baby Connection). Who knew dog and baby/toddler safety would be so much fun to learn?! Oscar and I had the opportunity to do a private nose work training session with Jeff McMahon - that was WAAAY fun! I also got together with a good friend and colleague, Cheri, and her pup, Bagley, for a much needed doggy walk.  And we had a house guest stay with us for about 2-weeks who, thankfully, loves dogs and enjoyed spending time with Oscar :)

November was another steady month of teaching and training with Oscar. Oh, and Oscar turned 4! Where has the time gone? Seriously, it seems like just yesterday we brought the little stinker home!!

Capping off the year, in December, Oscar and I were able to have another nose work session with Jeff and I graduated from the Family Paws program. The year has been full of excellent learning opportunities and I cannot wait to see what 2014 brings!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Confessions of a Dog Trainer #5: My Dog is Not Perfect and I'm Fine With That

I've struggled to write this post for several weeks. There have been multiple attempts at typing out my thoughts for this entry, just to be deleted one letter at a time, then typed again a few days later...then, again, followed, by holding down the delete button. I don't know why it's been so tough to write this entry (maybe it's the weather, maybe it's the time of year...maybe it was because I needed a break from writing). Ironically, I think I was trying to make it perfect. Which, is much harder than I thought (and contradictory my own post), therefore I will welcome this "better than it was before" entry and let 'er rip...

Summing up this year's series of "Confessions of a Dog Trainer" posts, I must confess...I am a dog trainer and my dog is NOT perfect.

Oscar has some challenging behaviors. My sweet, Oscar Handsome Pants, bless his soul, will always need to be be managed - and I will always need to help guide him when it comes to certain things.
Little stinker around 12 weeks

Talking about my own dog's "naughty" behaviors is always humbling and an opportunity for me to reflect on how far we have come together. It also helps keep me grounded with my students and offer a piece of mind that they often times need.  I'll never get sick of seeing their faces when I tell them that, "I, too, have a sensitive dog."

I wasn't always this comfortable talking about my naughty dog. The first two (plus) years of raising Oscar were very trying on me - both personally and professionally. I spent countless hours feeling frustrated, confused, disappointed, upset (to the point of crying bawling) and unable to move past the fact that I had a "bad dog." I was failing as a pet owner and I was failing as a trainer. It was embarrassing and I felt defeated on several occasions. I didn't understand how the same suggestions and advice I was suggesting to my clients were not working in my own life. Or they would work one day, but not the next with my own dog.

I didn't know what was going on, I was trying everything that I knew how to do (without resorting to aversives like prong collars, shock collars, alpha rolls and the like). I tried classical counter conditioning, desensitization, BAT, CAT, clicking to calm and so on.  You name it and I swear I tried it. My dog book/DVD library was growing by the week as I looked for solutions to Oscar's "problems." I felt emotionally and physically drained...why wasn't this "stuff" working with my own dog?!

I was convinced that part of the "problem" was Oscar's age (anyone who has owned a dog between 6 months and 2-1/2 years knows what I am talking about). Adolescence is typically a VERY difficult time for the majority of pet owners - especially if they have a more sensitive dog like Oscar. Adolescence is also very hard on many dogs - something I have a much greater appreciation for now that I've lived through it and see many clients experiencing the same struggles.
Who's happy? Oscar is!

I also thought that part of the "problem" was Oscar's breed. Shepherds are highly intelligent and most are quite sensitive. That's not an excuse, but it is a reality and I knew that when I brought him into my family, so that didn't bother me so much.

I knew part of the "problem" was me (in fact, it still is - I'm working on it, I promise!). I'll spare you the pity party on that one, but I know I am definitely not perfect (see Aaron - I do admit it!).

I also believe that part of the "problem" stemmed from the months upon months of GI issues Oscar had experienced. His growing body and mind were being deprived of valuable nutrients he needed.

What I truly feel to be the root of this "imperfection," though, points directly at me and the unrealistic expectations I had for Oscar. That combined with my own selfish needs and wants....well, no wonder things were so crappy.  What was even more humbling is that when I sat down and audited my commitment and involvement, I didn't give Oscar a fair chance with some of the previously mentioned training techniques.

So, there you have it. I wanted Oscar to be perfect, but I since have found that perfect doesn't exist. That doesn't mean that I've given up on improving his undesirable behaviors...that's not the case (I've actually gone back to focusing on classical counter conditioning and desensitization with him). What I am saying though, is that being in tune with your dog and being honest with yourself enough to put your ego aside and acknowledge their unique ability to change needs to be respected. Having this sense of honesty builds an amazing relationship with your that is based on trust and free of ego. And, for me us, what could be more perfect than that?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Confessions of a Dog Trainer #4: My Dog Gets Fed First

Here's another one piece of advice that come from folks who are advising others that they need to be "the top dog in your home," the "leader of the pack," or the "alpha dog."

YOU NEED TO EAT BEFORE YOUR DOG...or even more awkward, SPIT in your dog's food before you feed show 'em who's boss. If you don't, OH NO, they are going to become dominant and think they rule the house.  That's a lot of pressure on the person (OMG - that means that every time I want to give my dog a food treat, I need to eat before them?! Ack!)!

WHAT?! Really?

Don't believe the hype. You DO NOT need to eat before your dog because of the potential fallout it might cause.
Oscar waiting patiently for his release word.
He looks worried, but he's not (the camera was
being held by my belt), my eyes were up higher,
which is where he's looking :)

As some of you know, my amazing husband, Aaron, is a very good cook. OK, that's an understatement. He's an artist in the kitchen and routinely turns out delicious meals with lots of thought and love and, oh lucky me, I'm there to eat it.  And for those of you who know Aaron, you know that he is very thorough in whatever he does. He enjoys the process of making things...and while some of us take shortcuts, he doesn't even consider it. What this also means is that, more often than not, Aaron and I are not eating supper before 8:30pm on any given day. And what that means is that Oscar gets fed before us almost every night. That said, in the morning, Oscar typically does get fed before the humans. Just because our schedule makes it so (and the fact that he gets digestive enzymes so his food percolates while I eat).

Has this made him a conniving, dominance-seeking dog? Heck no. I would argue the exact opposite happens because our feeding is on a schedule. And, boy-oh-boy, Oscar thrives when our schedule is predictable.

Our feeding routine is consistent and they work for everyone; the humans and Oscar. And in all honesty, Oscar could care less if he eats before, during or after us, he just wants to get fed!  The only caveat to feeding time is that we do use it as an opportunity to reinforce him for good manners (hello life reward - cha-ching). Oscar has developed a beautiful behavior chain; dinner bowl comes out, run to crate, offer an auto sit, food bowl gets placed down, offer auto eye contact, wait for release word, and viola! FOOD TIME!

The main thing I want readers to consider is that you should do whatever works for your family. To me, it's more important to focus on teaching your dog dinnertime manners (a sit until released is a great place to start) than to waste your energy thinking about trying to find a cracker to eat before you feed your dog. Feed your dog when it's convenient for you, ask your pup for a sit and then let them eat in peace while you go on worrying about more important things, like what's going to happen in the next season of The Walking Dead.

Stay tuned for my last post in this series...
Confessions of a Dog Trainer #5: My Dog is Not Perfect and I'm Fine With That

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Confessions of a Dog Trainer #3: My Dog Goes Through Doors Before Me

Today's topic is another hot topic that countless people think is "bad" or "unacceptable": Letting your dog go through a doorway before you.

Dear Lord, If I had a nickel for every time that I heard that if you allow this behavior, your dog is trying to dominate you, I would be that much closer to buying the Lamborghini I've always wanted.

So, here I am again with another confession to make...

Oscar goes through doorways before me.

Gasp! Oh wait a minute....the lights are still on!  The sun is still shining and I'm still on my two feet. What?!  How did that happen?!

Because my dog is doing what works for him.

You see, dogs are innocently selfish...oh, how I love that about them...and they are always doing what works for them. Dogs are not born with an understanding that they should let humans go through doorways first - that idea was created by us and taken way out of proportion when people started saying that your dog is trying to dominate you because they want to get outside. Wrong. All they are doing is trying to get from point A to point B as fast as possible because arriving at point B is highly reinforcing. It's plain and simple. That's it.

As an example, let's focus on an entry door to your home. Usually the doorway leads to "good stuff" for the dog. If you are in your house, going out the exterior door leads to The Almighty Outdoors. There are things to sniff, stuff to explore and items to be peed and pooped on.  There are games to play, walks to be had and a potential car ride to go on. Going outside is typically VERY reinforcing for dogs.

That said, I think everyone should teach their dog to wait at physical thresholds until they are cued to go through. It's one of my top 5 life skills for all dogs and it is one of the first behaviors I teach a dog that becomes a part of my family.

~ Mr. Handsome Pants showing off his door manners ~
Oscar is allowed out of our entry door multiple times per day and he almost always goes out first. Sometimes my husband or I go out before him to scan the yard for squirrels or make sure his toy box didn't tip over and spill all over the driveway. Most times, however, we open the door and while we are still standing inside give him his release cue to go outside.

Since waiting at the door has been heavily reinforced (at least 5x/day for 4 years), it has become one of Oscar's strongest behaviors. So much so that he sat waiting at the door while the wind blew it open a few days ago as I was standing about 20 feet away (and up a few steps) in the nearby kitchen. He just sat there, looked at me and I thanked him profusely as I walked down the steps, closed the door (and locked it), then called him upstairs and gave him a bone.

Oscar could really care less if one of his humans goes out the door before him. All he wants is to come outside and we have made it contingent upon him offering an auto wait at the door. He doesn't get to go outside every time we go outside, however when he does, we don't worry about whether or not he goes out first. What's important for us is that he exhibits some self control and can wait until he is cued to pass through. Plain and simple.

Stay tuned for more confessions from my daily life with my special boy...

Coming Up Next: 
Confessions of a Dog Trainer #4: My Dog Eats Before Me

Monday, November 11, 2013

Confessions of a Dog Trainer #2: My Dog Pulls On Leash

In this edition of "Confessions of a Dog Trainer," I am going to talk about another behavior that is at the top of a lot of dog owner's "Must Fix" list; pulling on leash. In my previous post I talked about the first of my dirty little secrets and today's post is aimed at another common "problem" behavior that I hear complaints about...a lot.

So as I stretch out my legs and begin my ascent onto my soap box...let me start by asking a few warm-up questions to those of you out there reading...and be honest with your answers.

Question 1: Are dogs born knowing how to walk on a leash?
Question 2: What is your dog's natural walking pace compared to yours?
Question 3: How many dogs pull when they are NOT on a leash?
Question 4: Who's idea is it to walk on leash? Your's? Or your dog's?

Now, think about your answers. Like, really think about them.

If you're like me, your answers were:

Answer 1: No.
Answer 2: Faster. In my case, a lot faster.
Answer 3: Zero.
Answer 4: Mine. 

Walking on leash is NOT a natural behavior for dogs. 

Yet for many dogs, being on a leash is an everyday occurrence and it is a necessary safety precaution to keep themselves and others safe. Have you ever seen an off-leash dog hauling ass down a busy road in the city as cars swerve and slam on their brakes? I have. And It's scary. Really scary. It is a hazard to more than the dog at large...I have seen cars swerving in rush hour traffic to avoid hitting a dog who was on the loose.

I do think leash laws are important for safety reasons and I wholeheartedly believe that all dogs should be taught how to walk politely on leash. Do I think every dog needs to walk in a perfect heel position? No. Do I think that they should be taught to walk on a loose leash - even if they are in front of their owner from time to time? Yes.  Do I think that owners should allow their dog to pull them down the street the entire walk. No.

But, I do have a confession... 
My dog is NOT perfect and pulls on leash, on occasion.
Oscar pulling on leash. GASP!
Oh wait, the world kept turning!

The leash pulling is usually in one of the following contexts:
  • At the initial sight of a squirrel or bunny rabbit.
  • If we are on our walk and get home to see Aaron has arrived home while we've been gone.
  • When he gets dropped off at doggy day care.
  • When I have released him to "go sniff" in nature's shopping mall.
Is Oscar being a "bad" dog when he pulls on leash? No. He simply wants to get from point A to point B as fast as possible...which happens to be faster than I can move...and wouldn't you know, there's a piece of leather that doesn't let that happen and tension is created on the leash.

Have I taught him how to walk politely so I can cue that behavior when I think it's important? Yes I can.

Do I stop moving if he is pulling on leash when I don't want him to be? Yes I do.

Do I "allow" Oscar to sniff on walks? Um, yeah. And a lot. 

Do I use access to what he wants (squirrel chase, Aaron, day care gate, pee tree) to reward a few steps with me on a loose leash? YOU BET.  

Do I want him to be a robot dog that walks perfectly at my left knee at all times? Nope. How boring for both him and I.

Do I think a walk should be a mutually enjoyable time for us to be together? Absolutely

Do we negotiate during our walks and listen to each other's requests to stop and sniff or keep walking? Yes.

Do I sometimes adjust my pace to keep up with Oscar? Yeup. 

Does Oscar sometimes adjust his pace to keep up - or slow down - with me? Yes.

To me - in my life and in my situation with my dog - an occasional pulling on the leash is completely acceptable. I don't lose sleep over it and I certainly do not think Oscar is trying to take over the world by pulling.  I actually like having a dog that acts like a dog from time to time...a dog that is excited about the environment around him.

And here's my challenge to you, on the loop end of the leash:
Have the same respect for your dog as you would like. If you don't want your dog pulling on leash, then you should mirror the same behavior...don't pull them all over the place. Instead focus your efforts on reconnecting with your dog with your voice, body and mind and invite them to come along with you. Unless if it is a life-threatening situation - or you NEED to get your dog out of somewhere (say, there are 20 toddlers running toward you and your not-so-kid-friendly dog), NEVER initiate a leash pull. 

Stay tuned for more confessions from my daily life with my special boy...

Coming Up Next: 
Confessions of a Dog Trainer #3: My Dog Goes Through Doors Before Me

Monday, November 4, 2013

Confessions of a Dog Trainer #1: My Dog Sleeps On My Bed

Those who know me know that I talk about dogs a lot. No matter how a conversation with my co-workers or friends begins, it’s not uncommon for it to turn into questions about dogs. A few of my friends - and countless dog training clients - often confess to me that they know it's wrong that they let their dogs up on their furniture and allow them to sleep in bed with them. They are often very apologetic and often times humiliated by the "awful" truth that they allow their dog "human" privileges.

Well, I've got news for you, my dog is allowed on furniture and he makes himself quite comfortable each evening at the foot of my side of the bed.

Oscar, on "my" side of the bed

While allowing pets on furniture is a personal choice, let me lay a few guidelines as to when I feel it is and is not appropriate to allow pets this comfort.
  • If my dog growled at me while he was on any piece of furniture, I would not allow him to be up there. I would use varying levels of management to prevent his access to it and actively modify this behavior if my end goal was to share the space with him.
  • If I would like to gain access to a certain piece of furniture, at my request, I expect my dog to relinquish his spot and take up camp somewhere else. Of course, I don't expect him to be born knowing this behavior...I train it and make it worth his while for moving (treats, access to a different squishy, warm spot, or an invitation to jump back up after he has jumped off).
  • If I am already up on a piece of furniture and my dog wants to join me, I expect him to wait for an invitation. The majority of the time I will offer an invitation, but other times I do not because I am eating or simply want to relish in the full surface area of the couch and stretch out my tired legs.
Oscar sleeps on our bed and he is allowed on both of our couches. Of course he has other options too...and most of the time when we are hanging out during waking hours, he finds comfort in strategically placing himself on a nearby rug or dog bed where he can keep tabs on every single entry door to our house while simultaneously keeping track of all of his humans. 

This simple matter of comfort and choice has not made Oscar a "dominant" dog in any way, shape or form. He is a healthy dog who enjoys being comfortable and I am confident in the relationship we have that I do not need to worry about his furniture privileges. 

If your situation is similar to that of mine, don't apologize or feel guilty that your dog sleeps in bed with you or hops up on the couch with you. I guarantee you he is not trying to take over the world...he's just more comfortable being on a soft piece of furniture.

Stay tuned for more confessions from my daily life with my special boy...

Coming Up Next: 
Confessions of a Dog Trainer #2: My Dog Pulls on Leash

Monday, October 7, 2013

Kick in the Pants

Oscar "Handsome Pants" with his not-so-used-anymore harness

Besides being a self-proclaimed dog behavior nerd, I am also a self-proclaimed "to-do" list writer, calendar keeper, email checker and (insert other OCD-like thing here).

I'm very passionate about "stuff" I like and, on average, spend 10+ hours each week prepping and teaching several group dog classes and carrying out private in-home training for my clients. This is on top of the 50+ hours I am away from home working at my day job and the varying amount of time I put in for a few freelance clients. And of course the daily training and weekly class I take with Oscar (I know, oh everyone...let's feel sorry for Laura. This entry is not a pity party on me, I promise!).

My amazing husband and my own dog, Oscar, often times take a back seat to the moving maelstrom that is Laura Holder, so it was with great surprise that I actually paused to read a short post a fellow dog trainer left on her Facebook page recently. The topic was around training equipment and how relying on a certain piece of equipment (in this case a front-clip harness) is often used to masque a training problem (that your dog doesn't know how to walk nicely on a leash). 

I quickly and fervently self-evaluated myself as a trainer and guardian who is a self-proclaimed dog behavior nerd. Around the same time -- in fact I think it was within 24 hours -- I had just began reading a fabulous book by Kay Laurence, Every Dog, Every Day. If you don't know her, please do yourself a favor and get to know here. In her book, Kay discusses the dance and connection that should happen as you walk with your dog while on leash. She challenges us as guardians to rethink the walk and to allow our dogs to get out there an sniff and in the event that they do pull on leash (GASP!)...simply stop and wait. Let them take the environment is important to them (and as you'll learn, if you read her book, it's important to you too). It was a somewhat different dog training book in that it didn't offer a quick if you do this, you will get that solutions. It was much more contemplative and definitely not for a person who is unwilling to sit down, sit back and really think about the relationship with their dog without ego. If this sounds like something you could do, then you and your dog will benefit from reading Kay's book. It is simply beautiful.  

Back to the story...

The combination of the FB post and finishing Kay's book challenged me to rethink how I go about walking with Oscar, who I've had on a front-clip harness for almost 3.5 years. The afternoon after finishing Kay's book, I clipped the leash on Oscar's collar, put my agenda and OCD tendencies on the kitchen counter and headed out to experience a "walk" with him.  It was beautiful and each day it gets even more so.

What have you done to kick yourself in the pants lately?