Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Connection in the Classroom

Together with paw and hand...not paw in hand.
I love teaching...helping people do whatever it is that they seek to get better at.  And for as long as I can remember I have gravitated towards leadership roles.  The roles have not historically been academic, although I did receive high honors in high school and college, but I was never the class president or part of the debate club or anything like that.  I found (and still find) my leadership more natural on the athletic field/court, within a group of friends, at work...even when I worked at McDonald's, in real life situations and when helping people with their dogs.  These environments allow me to feel natural...helping people see what they cannot; and thus helping me see how I can become better at who I am, what I am and what I can offer.  I love that part of being a leader...I'm very unselfish and am not afraid to make a wrong decision if my heart is behind it.  I've fallen on my ass many times, literally and figuratively, and have taken each with a sense of humility that helps me grow into a better learner and teacher.

Last night at the Control Unleashed class I teach, I saw some magical moments between the humans and their canine partners.  True time lapses of connection that left me beaming with a grin ear-to-ear.  I cannot explain the feeling of happiness I felt as I watched each partnership - truly, ultimately, deeply - connected for sequences of training.  It was nothing short of fulfilling for me to watch and I wanted to keep them going...watching them in that beautiful space, dancing with each other.  These were moments that I have longed for with my students and their dogs and to see it actually happen was awesome!  Even if the humans didn't know what was happening (I'm sure some of them were just happy their dogs were "listening" to them when asked to do something), it was clear to me that there was a mutual dance of communication happening that lifted the enjoyment for both ends of the leash.

I look forward to many more moments like this in my years ahead...not only in my students and myself, but for those people who I don't even know.  Having watched these partners succeed in their dance - as a spectator...as a coach...as a humble human - reminds me that life is all about those special moments where two beings become more than separate entities...these two come together and create something magical...a true relationship.

Friday, January 6, 2012


I've read a lot of articles about how EVERY dog is food motivated.  The claims that dogs wouldn't be around if they were not motivated by food is obvious (they would starve if they did not have a desire to eat).   Often times I hear people in my training classes make claims when their dog is not focused..."He's full.  I gave him dinner before class," "He's bored,"  "He's just ignoring me," etc...and a simple change of food often times helps (the dogs always go ga-ga over my *new-to-them* kibble in my pouch).  The majority of dogs will work for food in a heartbeat.

However, for those of us who have a dog with a sensitive GI tract unfortunately the use of food has to be carefully conducted and limited.  That makes training in a class room environment very hard if you have a dog that is not crazy about food in the first place.  Once again, I will use Oscar as an example.  After more than a year and a half of his life, I finally got his tummy under control with the informed and gentle guidance of Monica Segal.  He was on a very strict diet and for the first time ever we were consistently getting solid stools out of him.  Woot-woot!  The diet was formulated with sweet potato, chicken, beef, turnip, carrot and pumpkin...plus the required supplements.  All of the ingredients were cooked...the chicken and beef were rinsed with hot water too.   As you can imagine it isn't easy using this "mush" to train a dog.  Still, I tried.

Around the house I would do small training sessions before his breakfast and supper (mostly nose work games where Oscar would seek out small plates of food).  He liked this, but it was sloppy. I'm OK with sloppy, but when it came time to go to doggy class, I knew there was no way I would be able to use this "mush" to deliver rapid reinforcement.  Ugh.  So, I resorted to cut up cooked chicken.  Now, most dogs go absolutely bananas for cooked meat.  Oscar...well, not so much...because he gets it every single day as part of his two meals.  I'm not making excuses by any means, but it was challenging.

So, what was I to do...I made a laundry list of things that REALLY motivate Oscar:
#1 - The garden hose (that's out...can't take that to class)
#2 - Fetch with his frisbee or a ball (that's out too b/c the actual fetch game in class is next to impossible)

I am Oscar.  And I will do anything for the Frisbee to fly.

Shit!  That's only two things.  I didn't forget to put food on the list because there was (and still is) a huge gap between #2 and food that it's not even worth it.  If he didn't have a sensitive tummy could I get him more motivated by food?  Absolutely!  But I didn't want to go there...especially after all the hard work we had done getting him to where he currently was.

As a lot of other "things" have developed in my relationship with Oscar, I decided that after his Focus & Control class I would take a break with him and just work him at and around the house.  This is still challenging, so I am trying to do a better job of identifying environmental rewards...since they are everywhere...and using those to my advantage.  Example:  Oscar really wants to go and sniff that fire hydrant.  Awesome.  I ask him for a touch, sit and watch me...if he complies, his is rewarded with a release to "Go sniff!"  If not, I give him a NRM (no reward marker) and we continue walking or walk the other direction.  Sometimes I'll give him a second chance...sometimes not, but I'm using the environment instead of competing with it and that is powerful stuff.

So, look around you...what is your dog really motivated by?   The garden hose?  Butt scratches?  Interactions with people/dogs?  Food?  Toys?  Identify the motivators and exploit them. :)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Annual Review

2011 was quite a year.
Not only for myself, but my family and several of my friends.   Lots of ups and downs.  Happiness and sorrow.  Joy and frustration.  Wins and losses.  While a lot of people are glad to see it gone, I am not.  It was one year in the journey of making all of us who we are and I am thankful for each day that I was able to participate.  There are many things I am thankful for and, for those interested and care to read, below is a brief review of the year 2011...

Aaron and I on his 30th birthday...in HOT South Carolina

To my dearest  husband...
I am in debt to my very loving, incredible husband, Aaron.  This year he saw his wife take her doggy nerdiness to a whole new level and he always went along for the ride and was supportive with what I was doing.  If you're reading this, my love, know that I couldn't ask for a better companion and I know you were rolling your eyes at times, but your unconditional love in me has inspired me in more ways than you know.

To say that I grew and learned a lot in 2011 would be a vast understatement.  I look back and can barely remember January 3rd of 2011.  At times I thought my brain simply could not take any more crazy dog behavior, but it could and I plowed ahead...at times with you taking a sideline.  Yet you were always there for me being the much needed constant in my life.

Ms. Fanny lounging in the hallway
To the dogs...
I am thankful that, relatively speaking, both Fanny and Oscar were healthy in 2011.  Besides the digestive rollercoaster Fanny has been on the past couple of months, there were no major injuries or illnesses.  I am grateful that the two of them continue to get along fabulously and stay out of each other's hair.  No fights, no scuffles what-so-ever.  Oscar still gives Ms. Fanny nose kisses and ear licks each day...it warms my heart every time.

Mr. Oscar being a bed hog...with a toy, of course

To my growing dog community...
I am incredibly lucky and gracious to have talked to two of the most admirable women I have known, to date, in the dog training/behavior world - Trish King and Suzanne Clothier.  Both of them were wonderful to speak with...actually, that's an understatement...it was amazing.  I saved up some money and was blessed to work with another amazing woman, Monica Segal, who is nothing short of miraculous in turning around my boy, Oscar's, on-going digestive problems.  I am thankful for having a great 2nd boss, Eric, who has been one of the most supportive, kind-hearted men and helped me start my own dog training class, Control Unleashed.  Sprinkled in there are a few others, Lisa, Jan, Claudeen, Cheri and Linda.  Each and every one of you made an impact in the journey of 2011 that I am grateful for.  For one of the people I hope to get connected with more in 2012, Dee, you have been an inspiration for me and a great sounding board when I need a little reality check and pick-me-up.

...My wishes for 2012...
I don't know what the year has in store for me - or the dogs - but I have a few wishes that I hope the greater powers can help me with.

I wish that I keep learning and growing...as a human, as a wife, as a daughter, as a sister, as an aunt and as a doggy momma.  Let my brain take in as much information as it can handle.  I'll never be able to retain information about history or politics and that's OK...it just means it's open for other information.

I wish for my lovely husband that we continue to grow together and persevere though all the tough challenges that are thrown our way.  I hope that we can get away this year...just you and me...and enjoy what we do most...some wine, a good meal and each other's laughter. 

I wish for my dear Ms. Fanny that her body, mind and soul will last another year.  I hope to keep her as comfortable as possible and am currently formulating a balanced home-cooked diet to help her tummy out in her remaining time with us.  Many warm beds and short walks for you, my sweet girl.

I wish for my special Oscar boy that I can help bring clarity and a sense of security to his life and help him relieve the anxiety he has.  I promised to him last week that I was done bringing trainers over to try and figure out what was "wrong" with him...because, really, there is nothing wrong with him.  I vow to take the time and get to know him better and to actually listen...not just hear...him when he's telling me something.  Lots of tennis ball and frisbee chasing for you, my silly boy.

For all of you out there, I wish for you all to have a wonderful year and take the low times with the high times and realize that it all is part of our journey on this earth.  Time passes all too fast when we are watching rather than living.  Live it up as if it were your last and don't forget to laugh along the way.