Thursday, April 28, 2011

"Change the Picture" with TRAINING VARIETY

     Now that spring is here it's time to dust off your winter cobwebs as well as your dog's and get your 'mojo' on again!  We all feel better and have more spark when spring rolls around and that includes our dogs.  The newness of spring can lure any dog to explore the fresh and heightened scents in the air and the milder temperatures can encourage wandering just a bit farther off the path to investigate the sights and sounds of the environment.  The bad news is these intense environmental distractions can make it appear that your dog has noooooo! idea how to walk politely on lead, sit when asked, or come when called.  The good news is that by incorporating some training variety or as I like to call it - "changing the picture" - you can help your dog learn to respond quickly and eagerly wherever you are.

     It's a frequent concern from my clients that Fido is so distracted by his environment away from home that he acts like he hasn't had a day of training.  After all, you taught your dog to sit in the kitchen, lie down in the family room, and come when called in the backyard so he "knows" these behaviors and should respond wherever you are, right?  Wrong!  The truth of the matter is that just because he learned how to sit in the kitchen doesn't necessarily mean that he will respond to your cue to sit at the park with kids playing and food on the grill.  Whenever you are in a new environment there are novel sights, smells, and sounds that will distract him from responding to you and you are less likely to get compliance from your dog.  It doesn't mean he's being stubborn or inattentive, he just hasn't yet learned to respond in this new situation.  Think of it this way: you are learning to play the piano and your first lesson is in the comfort and quiet of your living room with only your instructor.  The next lesson is on stage with an audience.  You can bet that you'd have a very difficult time being able to concentrate and respond to your teacher's instructions!

     To create a dog who is ready, willing, and able to respond to your cues whenever and wherever you are you must train in as many novel environments as possible.  It will be essential that you start small and manage the situation as best as you can in order to create success for your dog and you.   Here are some tips to change Distracted Daisy into Responsive Roxie.

1.  Go back to Kindergarten.
      Make it as easy as possible for your dog to be successful.  Don't be afraid to use a food lure to get the behavior at first - a little help is perfectly okay.  Reinforce easier steps such as looking at you or taking a step toward you.  Make sure the distractions aren't too big and/or too numerous at first.  For example, practice in your front yard before trying it in the park.

2.   Use higher value reinforcement. 
      Pick an extra scrumptious treat or other activity that your dog will do back flips to earn.  He'll be more likely to respond in a novel environment when the reward is worth the effort of ignoring the distraction.  The interest will often change from situation to situation so have a variety to pick from. 

3.   Set realistic expectations.
      Your dogs age and breed will play a part in your success rate.  One year old Pearl the Poodle may shine when a ball rolls by but 6 month old Barney the Beagle will likely have big trouble when a squirrel crosses his path.

4.   Give Bonus Bones.
      Learning is hard work so offer extra treats or a special play session for a job well done!

5.   Use what the dog wants to get what you want.
      This can be very effective in getting your dog to respond in the face of a distraction.  This is used frequently with children  - you clean up your room first and you can go play with your friends.  It can work equally well with your dog - if your dog lies down for you first, he gets to play with his doggy friends; if he comes to you away from a jogger, he gets to play a game of fetch. 

6.   Provide lots of training opportunities.
      The more you practice, the better your dog and you become.  When you allow a variety of training situations with a variety of distractions you will begin to see your dog responding more quickly each time.   The more opportunities you provide, the more quickly your dog will begin to "generalize" his behaviors.

7.  Make it fun!
     Remember to smile, laugh, and enjoy this time with your dog.  If training isn't fun for you, it won't be fun for your dog.  He'll be more likely to find the environment interesting and be less responsive to you.

     The key is to practice as often as possible in the big, wide, wonderful world.  The more training variety you provide, the better your dog will get at responding to you and the better you will get at knowing how to get your dog to respond to you rather than the environment. Soon you'll develop an awareness and connection between you and your dog that will amaze you and make you proud of your dog and proud of your hard work.

    So, don't delay - get up, get out and about, get training! 

Monday, January 3, 2011


Mystic Whirlwind of Dunewood
12/16/98 - 9/01/10

     As 2010 is now behind us and we all prepare for a new year with new hopes and dreams, I want to start 2011 by writing a tribute to a very special dog, my dear Bentley.  While he crossed the Rainbow Bridge back in September it is only now that I find the strength to put into written words the depth of my loss and to openly celebrate his life and honor his memory. 

      The words from the song "My Heart Will Go On" often come to mind these days.  Although Bentley has certainly taken a piece of my heart with him he has also left amazing memories that I can draw on and know that he is here in my heart and "my heart will go on and on" even when his absence seems unbearable.   Bentley is number eight of the dogs we've had over the years that have since crossed the Bridge and he is survived by a half-nephew, Griffin.  

Bentley and Caitlin
Caity's look says it all - what a muddy imp!
      From the day he picked us to be his dog parents there was an immediate bond that grew stronger and stronger over the years.    His antics with his littermates showed that he was likely to be quite a character and would provide many years of fun and laughter and indeed, that was the case.  Upon returning a week later to bring him home we entered the breeder's home to find him repeatedly running a circle through the house, making a grab for a kitchen towel and continuing on his merry way.  From that day on he enjoyed life to the fullest.

     We offered him an active lifestyle which included lots of romps in the woods and the beach, walks around town, travels, and doggie play dates and he was always an English gentleman with everyone (well, almost everyone :-) he encountered.  That included our other dog at the time, Caitlin, who wanted NOTHING to do with the little pest.  She snarled and postured and intimidated until he yielded and quietly went off on his own.  Caity did eventually tolerate his presence and he eventually learned that she just wasn't going to play with him. 

Yes, he's actually painting.
       A quick learner, he was my first dog to be clicker trained as a young puppy.  Bentley, aka Mr. B, excelled in training so there was no doubt that he would be helping me teach training classes.  Another of my dogs, Duncan, held that job previously for many years and Bentley had big paws to fill.  He did not let me down and was a wonderful ambassador for me and for clicker training.  Training looked easy to my students when they watched Bentley work which made them want to get started clicker training right away.   He learned many behaviors in addition to the basics because I had so much fun teaching and he had so much fun learning new things: back up, spin, circle, stretch (bow), say hi, speak, drop, table (get onto something), clean up (pick up toys), paint, and a few we were working on but never finished.  The training process helped create a bond and a perceptiveness between us that can't be put into words. 

    Mr. B had many doggie playmates over the years and they were all important to him.  One in particular, Cassidy, was his very special friend as a youngster.  They spent many happy times together playing and exploring the woods and streams but even just "hanging out" was special for them both. 

Cassidy was kind enough to invite Mr. B for an overnight visit while we picked up his new brother - Griffin.  After Caitlin crossed the bridge Bentley was an "only child" for about 7 months.  Well, he was quite content with that arrangement and was not quite sure he wanted to share mom and dad with the new kid.  To be sure, Griffin was quite the little pest with an attitude to match.

Griffin pestered, pounced, and offered play bows making every effort to elicit play from Bentley, to no avail.  Apparently, Mr. B learned well from Caitlin and wanted NOTHING to do with the bothersome little rescal!  However, in typical Bentley fashion, he handled Griffin in a much more gentlemanly way.  He tolerated his antics until he could tolerate him no more and just got up and walked away.  As you can see from the photo Griffin adored Bentley and would often seek him out for some cuddle time.  Griffin was successful in cajoling Bentley into play from time to time and wherever Bentley was, Griffin was not far behind as he followed B everywhere.  As I started Griffin with training it was an interesting process.  Since Bentley loved training, he wanted to be present during Griffin's sessions.  That was fine with Griffin because, as it turned out, Bentley was quite the teacher without even realizing it.  If Griffin was puzzled as to what I expected, I quickly noticed that he would look at Mr. B and whatever behavior he was offering Griffin followed suit.  This certainly worked to my advantage as it helped speed the process along.  From then on whenever Griffin was in doubt as to what to do he would often look to Bentley for direction.  The closeness Griffin felt for Bentley made it very difficult for him when B crossed the Bridge.  He experienced an obvious sense of loss and it's certainly a time like this when you wish you really could talk to the animals.

    I won't go into the last months of his life as there were many highs and lows as we tried to diagnose his illness.  We celebrated successes and agonized over uncertainties and in the end were unable to help him.

   In tribute to Bentley and to help me through the grieving process, I held a memorial walk in late September to honor him and all those who have crossed the Rainbow Bridge before him and to celebrate all of their lives.   The walk was very meaningful, very peaceful, and very emotional.  There were lots of hugs and of course lots of tears shed.  We ended up at an ice cream shop since it was one of Bentley's favorite passions.  Friends and former students attended and they've encouraged me to make this an annual event.  The evening was warm but overcast.  As the walk finished and we were saying our goodbyes, the clouds parted slightly and the full moon appeared.  Prior to the walk I had read a poem called "I'm Still Here" and the last part said: " I'm the first ray of light when the sun starts to shine, and you'll see that the face in the moon is mine."  So it was a timely appearance when Bentley showed his face that night.
     The holidays this year were of course quite different and not so much fun.  You see, Bentley loved Christmas, loved opening presents, loved the special cookies that I made and as you can see from the video, always made us laugh.  This year Griffin was not quite sure what to do with the presents without Mr. B to quide him.  Thankfully I have these videos and photos to remind me how much he enjoyed life.

  All of my previous dogs were special and I've had a wonderful experience and connection with and love for all of them but Mr. B has left the biggest pawprints on my heart.  I am blessed to have had him in my life and he has forever changed me in many ways.  I'm thankful that he was able to touch the lives of so many people and dogs and be such a wonderful canine ambassador.  Near, far, wherever you are, I believe that the heart does go on and on.   God speed Bentley!
Please go hug your fur kids!!