Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Is Your Dog Learning?

What are you teaching your dog?  

Whether you wish to do so or not, you are teaching your dog  every minute of every day. Below are two examples of how easily this can occur without our even being aware of it, followed by an example of how to reinforce a desired behavior.

Breakfast Time!

Pup is in his crate. He hears you stir and begins to whine and paw at his crate door. You walk straight over to the crate and open the door. The pup comes blasting out, dancing and leaping in the air. You let him outside while you prepare his breakfast. He does his business, and then he hears the sound of kibble falling into his bowl. He runs to the back door and begins to bark excitedly and scratch at the door to be let in.

You have not had your coffee and really want some QUIET so you open the door to stop the scratching and barking. The pup blasts in and begins to leap about with excitement. Jump, jump, jump! You tell him “Down, down, down”.

He pauses for a nanosecond, then resumes jumping, this time managing to rake your bare leg in the process. OUCH! Here, eat! You begin to lower the bowl. Simultaneously, the pup jumps up,  catching the rim of the bowl with his paws, flipping the bowl and its contents to the floor. He then races around the kitchen snarfing and chasing the food. Fun, fun, fun.

Okay-let's review. What did I teach my dog?

(Yes, this was me, I am sad to confess)

Dog hears me stir---he whines/paws at crate door---whining =  CRATE DOOR OPENS!!! Happy Happy!!! Run! Running feels GOOD!!

Dog hears sound of food being poured into bowl--- begins to scratch/bark/paw at door---scratching/barking/pawing = DOOR OPENS!!! Happy!!!Food!! Jumping is FUN!!

Dog sees/smells food---Jump/jump/jump/paw at legs of human---Jumping/pawing legs = FOOD EVERYWHERE!!!!! Oh, man, this is the best EVER!!! I love to eat!!!

How many behaviors did I reinforce without meaning to? I am not the only one to become blinded by the moment. Here is a scenario that is likely happening right now, in homes all across the country.

The Family Pet

You have just brought your sweet, chunky, squishy lab puppy home. Look at him-he is so cute! Look at him run! Oh…he wants to be picked up! Come here you sweet boy! Kiss kiss kiss. Who’s my little boy!? Kids, don't fight over who gets to hold the puppy! Take turns!

Six months later:

Get DOWN! I don’t know why he jumps on people-I have tried everything (which really means strongly protesting each time he jumps up, sometimes in combination with pushing him off).  I have got to get this dog into a training class. I just don't have the time or money right now. Maybe he will calm down as he gets older...

The dog's perspective:
For the past four months whenever he ran on his cute, clumsy, chubby little legs to a human, that person immediately bent down and picked this sweet, kissy puppy up, laughing as he licked and squirmed, all while speaking baby talk to him.

Now the rules have changed. But having no other tools in his greeting toolbox, he will likely try even harder to get the only results he knows and has been so richly rewarded with.

Pushing him and shouting "down" have no meaning in his world-"My human is making weird noises again! Oh, she wants to play! Fun times! But it makes me a little anxious, too, this new game. I may just mouth a little bit, while I am jumping. Let's REALLY play".

The children soon tire of being nipped and mouthed and jumped upon. Mom is busy and so outside the pup goes, to the "perfect for a dog!" back yard that has not been puppy-proofed in the slightest.

Now he is all alone in the back yard, a very unnatural state for a pup. In fact, a potentially dangerous state for a young dog to be in, if he were in the wild. Evolution has very nicely provided a solution for a dog who finds himself alone; he begins to bark and howl for his siblings and parents to come and find him. Eventually he tires of barking and finds something to chew on...ahhhh...that feels better. Maybe a nice dig in the dirt while I am at it, too.

At some point in the day, mom thinks to check on the pup-but what's this? He has chewed my flowers! Oh NO! He has dug up every one of my spring bulbs. That DOG. Why is he so BAD?

She lets him back inside-he is so ramped up and excited to be back with his family that he rockets around the room, crashing into tables and knocking the lamps over with his wildly swinging tail. The children had been quietly playing, wrapping doll's limbs in toilet-paper bandages and placing them carefully in the 'hospital' located under an end table. The dog, in his excitement, grabs a doll which was recuperating with two broken legs. The children howl in protest and begin to chase the young dog (FUN!!! A game of CHASE!!!) Mommmm!!! He has my DOLL! Her legs are broken!! Does he have to be in here?!  

Are you starting to see how behavior problems are born, and then maintained? Much easier to see when you are not a participant, aren't they? We must teach ourselves to be aware of what we are reinforcing, every minute of every day. It's not easy!

But it does get easier.

What TO do, then?

Let me say first that it is much, much easier to prevent unwanted behavior by setting clear rules and being consistent. Does this mean that you can't go back and fix a behavior problem? Not at all! But first we must talk about extinction bursts.

Extinction bursts

The usual example of an extinction burst is the soda machine analogy. You walk over to the machine, feed your dollar bills into the slot, then push the button for your selection...and...nothing. You check the button for an "empty" light, but all looks good. So you push the button again. And again. then hit "refund" and...nothing! Frustrating!!! You push "refund" a bit harder. Then you use the side of your fist.

That is an example of an extinction burst-that little anxious cloud of..."hey...what's going ON here...HEY...?!".  Keep this in mind as you are changing behavior. For a time, you may see an increase in the behavior you are hoping to change-that's an extinction burst and it's really important to understand that it will pass.

If you have a new pup and the luxury of starting with a clean slate, then simply decide what behavior you like and reinforce it. Notice I said simple-not easy! It takes practice. But don't worry-one slip will not spoil your efforts.

Reward what you like
For a feeding, I like my pups to sit and wait before I place the bowl on the ground. This means that the first few times I feed (believe me, dogs catch on quickly when food is involved), I stand and WAIT. When the dog gets tired of jumping around, eventually, he sits. THAT is when I begin to place the bowl on the ground. If he gets up from his "sit" the bowl goes back up, too.  Soon you have a dog sitting nicely before the bowl is on the floor.
I cannot possibly cover all aspects of changing a behavior in this one article. Fortunately, there are many wonderful resources already written. One of the best is "Don't Shoot The Dog" by Karen Pryor.

Like it or not, we are always teaching. When faced with a behavior you strongly dislike, before getting angry and frustrated, try taking a step back and asking yourself,  is this is something I actually taught my dog to do?*

(* it something my dog has taught me to do?!)

Happy Training!

Monday, December 20, 2010

A New Year

I resolve to keep my resolutions simple this year!

 More naps

I will accept the aging process and maybe even learn to love it (maybe?)
More play, less worry


I will remember that each of us is fighting our own private battle. I will be kinder. 

More listening

 Less Talking

I will learn to shake it off and move on
 More dancing
"I think dogs are the most amazing
creatures; they give unconditional love.
For me they are the role
model for being alive"~Gilda Radner

"Why, who makes much of a miracle? As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles" ~Walt Whitman

Just look around you-joy is everywhere. Dogs are the very embodiment of joy! Take time to breathe, laugh, and run.

Happy NewYear, and as always...Happy Training!
Chris Waggoner

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Shoemaker's Children Go Without Shoes...

I have a confession to make. Here goes...(deep breath)

Dexter, the love of my life, the dog who can retrieve a bottle of water from the refrigerator on cue, find my car keys when asked, and perform a bazillion behaviors smartly and fluently...cannot walk on a loose leash.

Not such a big deal, except I am a DOG TRAINER and get paid actual MONEY to teach other people how to walk their dog on a loose leash!!!

But...I gotta "get real" and admit that my loose leash training with Dexter has been a huge failure.

I have  been inconsistent. In so many ways. It really boils down to being lazy, if I am going to be completely honest. Having the luxury of almost seven acres at your disposal makes for rarely pulling out a leash. Except, sometimes I would like to take Dexter with me, out in public. But when I do, he becomes overly excited and I end up spending the entire time either in the parking lot or in the car, hoping none of my students happen to walk by.

Alright, so it's a problem. But I am a dog trainer-I can solve this!

Step one: determine what I would like him to do while leashed...this will require some thought. Simply stating "I do not want him to pull" leaves too much ambiguity. Of course I do not wish him to pull, but that is not stating what I want him to do, is it?

So, what DO I want him to do?

Got it! (snapping fingers) I would like Dexter to move into the slightest amount of pressure felt from the collar and leash. And I want him to do this while we are in any location-at home or in public.

Now I have a clear goal. The next step is to figure out how to get there! How can I communicate to Dexter that I want him to move with the leash and not against it? After all, I have taught him that to get to point B from point A, just pull your human along! To be fair, from his perspective, I am incredibly s-l-o-w with my two legs as compared to his four. Have you ever watched a dog move while off  leash? They don't walk stiffly one step at a time. They trot, usually with nose to the ground. Their natural stride is way faster than ours-even small dogs!

Walking on a loose leash, matching our human stride, is a very unnatural behavior for a dog. If we expect them to do this, we have got to find a clear way to do it and also a method that is enjoyable for the dog as well. 

Why must it be enjoyable, you may ask? Because what is life without joy?! Think about it-if you force your dog to walk at your side, which you can, then what are you  saying? "You are mine and will do as I say when I say it. Oh, but you are also my best friend and I love you!" Because I chose to bring another species into my home (no one forced me!) I feel obligated to treat him in the fairest way possible-this means finding a way to teach him that is pleasant, effective and fun (for both of us!)

Back to Dexter...

Thankfully, I do not have to reinvent the wheel here. I am going to try a method originally meant to teach horses how to have a "soft mouth" by using the slightest pressure on the reins. I don't know who thought to use this with dogs, but it is generally accepted that Shirley Chong was the first. I will not go into as much detail as she has beautifully laid out, but if you would like to try this method yourself, her instructions are available if you click on the link provided (her name).   Grisha Stewart also has a description of this method including videos on her wonderful website, Ahimsa Dog Training and there are probably more of you search around online.

Essentially, the way it works is this:

Start with the dog on a flat collar with a leash attached (the collar must be a flat, buckle type) and fitted to the dog's neck as you normally would.

Make sure you are in a small, boring room (there will be plenty of time to add challenges-right now you are in Kindergarten) to start.

Take the leash in your hand and apply the tiniest, tiniest amount of pressure. The moment the dog moves in towards the pressure-click/treat!

The end result: A dog that responds to the leash as a cue-not as an anchor. The leash becomes a living, interactive opportunity for reinforcement.

Real Life

Dexter is a hound. As such he is very tuned in to the environment. Excitement is his middle name and relaxation is not in his vocabulary. For him, I am using a combination of the above described leash method along with Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed "Look At That!" 

So, without further ado, here is video  taken after only a couple of training sessions. We will have many, many more to go until this behavior is automatic for Dexter, but I can finally see a light at the end of this tunnel!

Happy Training!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Doctor, Doctor Give Me The News...

When I was a little girl I went into a small panic upon hearing the word "doctor". I could be playing happily with my dolls on the other side of the house far from the sounds of conversation when my ears would catch upon the feared word and my heart would begin to pound. As the daughter of a US Air Force captain, we travelled internationally. A doctor's visit was likely to mean a painful vaccination into an arm or leg muscle. The soreness and resulting fever the next day made the experience even more long lasting and miserable. These vaccinations were meant to save my life and were obviously necessary. Sadly, as a toddler, I could not understand this concept and so my fear was big and hairy with yellow jagged teeth.

Eli in the exam room, calm behavior reinforced with cooked chicken
Imagine, then, what it must be like for our dogs to pay a routine visit to the veterinarian. Dogs have no understanding of what the place is.  Their amazing noses certainly pick up the lingering scent of fear which saturates even the kindest of veterinary practices. But we march them into the waiting room, oblivious in our confidence and awareness of what is to come during the visit-an awareness our dog is not privy to.  Unless...he is one of the lucky ones. More on that, later.

A Typical Routine Visit

"Let's get a weight on him, shall we?" the vet tech says, holding her clipboard and walking us briskly to the floor scale.

Most pet dogs have had little experience standing on wobbly surfaces-instinct triggers the urge to GET AWAY from this unsafe thing. We understand that this is only a harmless scale, and because we know there are potentially more serious things in store, we tend to be a bit impatient with our dog's seemingly dramatic overreaction. We pull and push and tell our dog "sit...sit...sit...stay..sit" as the silent audience filling the plastic chairs of the lobby watches our complete ineptitude.  Pressure, anyone?  Finally the dog sits still long enough (although leaning as far from the scale as he can) for the #$%!* numbers to stop blinking. We have a weight! Perspiring slightly from the exertion, we follow the tech to the exam room.

The exam room

Another strange person enters (a different vet tech) and without so much as a howdy-do proceeds to insert a foreign object into our dog's rectum (can science not come up with a less intrusive way to take a dog's temperature?) She asks a few questions, jots down the answers, then she is gone and we wait... some...more...waiting. Our dog is likely leashed all this time as he vainly tries to get a smell on the room. We hold him back, not knowing when the door will be flung open, as he winds the leash
around the chair legs and our legs. Our dog by now is likely in a state of arousal, probably panting, perhaps pacing, and maybe even drooling.

The vet enters and we sit up, alert.

Our dog notices this change in our behavior-oh, yes, you can be sure of that. The stranger carries the scent of anesthetic, bleach, medicines, and all of the scents of all of the animals (sick ones, scared ones, ones who may be dying) she has come in contact with up to this moment. She not only comes close to our dog (into his personal space) but then she begins to poke strange objects into our dog's ears, hold his mouth open, and place strange metal objects to his chest-none of which our dog understands.

The grand finale

Likely, a vaccination (or two), or perhaps even fluid squirted up his nose (and this is just a routine visit-think of the dog who must have his ears flushed, or a wound stapled!) end the visit.  Then it's back to the waiting room as we wait to pay...and finally, sweet freedom! Our dog may roll in the grass outside given the opportunity, as if he is attempting to wash the experience away.

There is another way

For a service dog (and any dog) making the visit to the vet as pleasant as possible should be taught as commonly as we teach basic "obedience" behaviors like "sit" and "stay".  If your dog is one of the lucky ones I mentioned at the beginning of this article, you have asked your vet for permission to bring your dog and a bag of treats in for a visit (every veterinarian I have ever asked in this non-scientific survey said "Yes! I would love it if you did this!") and have actually practiced good manners while driving to the vet, getting out of the car, entering the lobby, and sitting in the lobby.

Do not be fooled by my forthrightness or confuse it with smugness, by the way. I have been humbled many times by a dog whirling at my feet as I tried to navigate from the car to the clinic doors to the scale to the exam room, then out again. Learn from my mistakes, people! Otherwise I have suffered for naught!

Eli's First Vet Visit

First step-keeping Eli relaxed while waiting. We have been practicing "sit" on so many surfaces in so many locations under so many circumstances that having him sit on the scale was a piece of cake (he was 25 lbs in case you were wondering). He climbed up on the scale and sat quietly as I fed him roasted chicken. Scale + chicken= Sweeeeeeeeet!

Next, the exam room. I allowed Eli to walk the entire room, sniffing. When he came back to me he received a click/treat. He began to relax.

Click/Treat for returning to me
When the vet entered (she, rather than a vet tech takes the rectal temperature of her patients), I grabbed the can of canned cheese she considerately placed within easy reach and began to slowly squirt cheese in Eli's mouth as she inserted the thermometer (which he gave no indication of noticing!) Click/treats were given for standing still as he was examined-all at his pace and with his comfort foremost (thank you, by the way to Dr. Ladyga of Deschutes Veterinary Clinic in Bend for being so considerate and forward-thinking!)

Dr. Lorrie Boldrick (lead veterinarian for Freedom Dogs and author of Essential  First Aid For Dog Owners ) later joked that I probably took Dr. Ladyca's lunch and squirted it in my dog's mouth.  But I knew the cheese was for her patients-I am very, very lucky to have such a good veterinarian (she must own stock in canned cheese - or should!)

Eli sits nicely as his heartbeat is listened to
During the entire visit, Eli was kept well under threshold by giving him things to do while we were waiting. I also took advantage of the opportunity to teach him that 'sit' and other behaviors we are learning is the same behavior, even when we are not at home. Of course, I did not expect perfection and if he was unable to perform a requested behavior, I knew it was because he did not understand or was too distracted.

One of the benefits to training a dog that you know is not really yours is that you become very clear-headed about his behavior. When the dog is our own, it adds a layer of fuzz to our perspective, perhaps because in our mind, our dog's behavior is a reflection of us, so we take it very personally when our dog, say, "misbehaves" at the dog park. I know I am as guilty of this as the next person. But really, if we stop and consider objectively why our dog is so "out of control" at the vet clinic or in other stressful places, we are one step closer to preventing it's recurrence by actually changing our dog's behavior, not merely trying to suppress it or ignore it. Try it sometime- look at your dog's behavior as behavior-nothing more. Hard to do but well worth the try. After all, you cannot change what you do not acknowledge (I think I just channeled Dr. Phil! Wow..)

Happy Training!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Week 1- Eli the Service Dog

(Note-for those new to my blog- Eli is a black English lab puppy I am training for Freedom Dogs  . Eli is 11 weeks old and has been in my home for 10 days as of this post. I will be writing of his progress, along with my usual ramblings ;)

I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive about introducing Eli to Dexter. Don't get me wrong; Dexter is very sweet natured, as hounds usually are.

But...Dexter is so BIG. Lean and pure muscle, Dexter can leap straight up off all four legs to a height of six feet. How do I know this? I have seen him do it. With my own eyes. I am convinced the dog was part of a genetic experiment in which grasshopper genes were involved. Or perhaps, like Spiderman, he was exposed to a radioactive insect at some point in his development.

In any case, Eli and Dexter have turned out to be very compatible playmates. Dexter is gentle and Eli respectful-a perfect combination. Take a look at this lovely play session. Notice the following:

Dexter self handicaps by:
  • coming down to Eli's level (at the 29 second mark)
  • adjusting his strength (many times in the video)
  • stops immediately when Eli signals distress (1.34 minute mark)

Eli communicates his intentions by:
  • pawing
  • rolling onto his back

Notice also that this play is mutual. They  take turns being the "victim" and the "aggressor". When one breaks away the other pauses before resuming their play. This is a very nice example of good play.

Other news:

Eli, this week, developed some selective hearing. Apparently, the great outdoors is way more fun than going back inside the boring old house.

So, I chopped some turkey breast into chunks and we began to practice recalls. I filled my pockets with the high value treats and randomly would say (in a conversational tone) "Eli, come". As he turned and /or took a step toward me (because that is the behavior I WANT) I then *click* and treat in front of me (the position I wish him to be in).

I then turn around and continue what I was doing, as Eli is free to do as well. In other words, "La-la-la-no-pressure-here-come to me if you wish and good things happen and your fun will not stop because you did" is our mantra, and it works.

We have been doing this for 48 hours now and I am very pleased with his response. He comes to me, indoors or out-at least until adolescence hits!

Proofing "sits" is the other behavior we are working on. I will ask for a sit under all sorts of circumstances:

Facing me
Behind me
Away from me
Close to me
When we are alone
When we are with others

We are also working on beginner zen, downs, touch (nose target), and foot targeting. 

Happy Training!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nice to meet you!

By now, most of us have heard "A puppy should be introduced to x number of people/sounds/animals/surfaces each day and by the age of x months should have had x number of these introductions.
True, being introduced to a variety of people and things is very important. More importantly, though, is how those new things are introduced.  Take a bit of time to set your learner up for success-I promise, you won't regret it.

We all, human or beast, come equipped with a unique personality that predisposes us to either react to novel stimuli fearfully or take them in stride. The age old question of "nature or nurture" is not an either/or-we are far too complex for such a black and white answer. As teachers, it is up to us to help the learner be successful by respecting his threshold. This means tossing out the cookie cutter approach to socialization and giving some careful consideration to individual learning style.


"Hello, goat"

Valentino wonders: "What kind of goat was THAT?"

 Teach your pup about new dogs, humans, animals, surfaces by all means-but do it based on a solid foundation of trust.
It is not important whether or not you think something is scary or not scary-if your learner thinks something is frightening, then it is frightening. In the photo above, Eli needs about 3 feet of distance to remain calm while being in the presence of a live chicken (the chicken was okay with that distance as well).

The best kind of teaching is the kind that happens without the learner even knowing they are being taught-it just flows naturally like water downhill.

I will leave you with this example of an excellent teacher:

There once was an all girl school that had a problem with lipstick. It became a faddish thing, at this school, for the girls to kiss the mirrors after applying fresh lipstick. No one knows why they did this-it was just a 'thing' that everyone started to do. The administration tried everything to stop this habit- from threats of detention to notes sent home to parents. Nothing worked.

One teacher was smarter than the rest. She gathered the girls together and brought them into the bathroom. Lipstick kisses covered the mirrors. Already present was Mr. Drummond, the school janitor, leaning against a doorjamb, casually holding a mop.

"Girls, I thought you would like to see how Mr. Drummond cleans the mirrors each day after school. Mr. Drummond, go ahead, please".

The janitor shrugged, then walked into one of the empty bathroom stalls, dipped his mop in the toilet, then walked to a mirror where he proceeded to swab it clean of lipstick. 

From that day on-the lipstick kisses stopped.

Work smarter-not harder!

Happy Training!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eli's coming-better hide your heart!

Eli-10 weeks

Gunner -10 weeks
Meet Eli 

Okay, you must have either been born before 1970 or you are a huge fan of 70's music if you caught the reference  in the title of this blog. But really, who could resist twenty-plus pounds of squishy black lab?

Eli (along with his sister Haven, being trained by the very talented fellow Karen Pryor Academy grad, Sheila Allen) is the newest member of the Freedom Dogs team. Eli will be the second puppy I train for Freedom Dogs, Gunner (photo above) being the first.

Eli arrived in Oregon via Alaska Airlines on November 9th. He will live with me during the next six months as he learns foundation behaviors. After all, without a solid foundation, anything you build will, at best, be shaky (let us not forget the fatal lesson learned by the Three Little Pigs!)

"Go now" is our cue to go potty

Eli will learn many specific behaviors while living in my home. He will learn to go potty on cue, walk on a loose leash, target, and many more skills.

The most essential skill to becoming a service dog, however, is that of self control. A service dog has all the same reactions that pet dogs have-he sees a chicken and his first reaction is "Oh yeah, it's ON, brother!" as he vanishes into the horizon, fully engaged in CHASE mode. There is no magic that turns this reaction off-it is a learned skill that takes practice on the part of the dog and great care and patience on the part of the trainer.

Eli on a walk-click/treat for being by my side

Dogs must learn that being by our side is the most rewarding place to be of all. This means lots of reinforcement and marking until the  behavior becomes a default.

It would make a far more exciting story if I made up some juju to account for successful training (perhaps something about "positive energy"?...hmmmm) but the truth of the matter is boring old common sense-"what is reinforced is likely to be repeated."

I hope you can follow along with us on this journey.

Happy Training!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Got leftovers?

Make your own broth!
Leftover lean chicken = awesome training treats!
Having five dogs, nothing goes to waste in my home. What is not eaten by either human or beast is composted.

Meat or bone that cannot be safely consumed (of course, everyone knows to not give cooked bones to dogs!) is saved to make broth. Commercially prepared broth is usually too salty for dogs. Making your own gives you control over the ingredients.


I like to have plenty of Kongs on hand. You can stuff with kibble, soak in broth, then pop in the freezer. Great for rainy days or just as a fun meal. Who says meals must be given in a bowl?

For our fifteen year wedding anniversary, my husband surprised me with a dozen red Kongs, arranged atop various cans of squeezable foods and placed in a large vase.

Can you see why I married the guy?
1. Ready several clean Kongs for stuffing
2. Fill with kibble, soak with broth (skimmed of excess fat)
3. Place in freezer

Broth, broth, broth- I LOVE broth for its many uses:

Add  to water to hydrate your dog before a run
Soak toys in broth, then freeze for teething puppies 
Mix with white rice for an easy to digest meal
Add to kibble-nice on cold mornings

Rope toy soaking in broth

Can my dog eat anything I eat, too?

NO. Let me say that again, and louder- NO!

If your dog is accustomed to eating nothing but kibble, you must introduce other foods slowly. Don't take a 12 year old dog who has had 12 years of the same food (not that anyone reading this would do so) and plop a plate of rich fatty food in front of him. That is a sure way to a fast trip to the emergency clinic-or worse. Dogs die every year around Thanksgiving time from eating too much fat. Take this seriously-your dog will likely eat whatever is in front of him-good or bad.

In addition, some foods we humans eat are fatal to dogs-most dog households today are aware of what dogs can and cannot safely consume, but this still must be said-always err on the side of caution!-if you are unsure if something is safe to feed your dog- don't.

Dangerous foods for dogs-click here 

Some people believe that giving their dog "people food" is unhealthy or will spoil the dog. My question to them is-what did dogs eat before the invention of kibble?!

Want to learn more? There are many good articles on alternate feeding methods for dogs, including home cooked or raw food diets. Click here for a guide to creating home cooked food for your dog

Happy Training!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sascha's Story

In June of 2008 I took a young partially paralysed Siberian husky pup named Sascha into my home. Living with Sascha was such an incredible experience that one day I sat down and I wrote her story. The story was then published in the Mother's Day edition of Karen Pryor's newsletter. 

To this day I receive requests for updates on Sascha's life. Her journey continues to be nothing short of amazing. Meeting Sascha in "person" is an experience that will leave you forever changed-she is a living example of "it is not what happens to you in life, but what you tell yourself about what happens to you that matters."

For those who have not read it, here is her story, and at the end, an amazing update.
Sascha's Story 
(Originally published 5/1/09;

There can be many reasons people find themselves in an animal shelter, prepared to surrender a dog. Life-changing events occur, homes or jobs are lost, unrealistic expectations come home to roost (yes, dogs do poop in real life!), and on it goes. Animal control officers and animal rescues have heard all the stories. This story begins at a busy county animal shelter in southern California.

A man carried in a cardboard box, which he placed on the desk of the animal control officer on duty that day in early March. He said flatly, "I found this dog in my yard—it wouldn't leave." The animal control officer peered into the box. Peering back at her was a pair of startlingly blue eyes. The officer reached into the box and lifted out a very young, very fluffy, red and white Siberian husky puppy. The reason the red and white pup "wouldn't leave" was sadly apparent. She couldn't leave—her back legs were paralyzed. The cause of her injury remains a mystery. Blunt force trauma to the base of her spine was the end result of some unknown traumatic event.

A decision had to be made that day about what to do with the dog. This puppy was lucky. Despite her injury, she good-naturedly squirmed to lick the face of anyone who held her—and the shelter staff united to help her in any way they could.

Sascha, as she was named later, was x-rayed, prodded, and probed by the veterinary staff. They discovered that her rear legs sometimes "bicycled" of their own accord when she was placed in certain positions. Was this retained nerve response? Maybe with therapy she could recover some use of those legs and one day walk again. (This was not to be, however.)
She couldn't leave—her back legs were paralyzed.

First home

After being featured on a local television show for adoptable pets, Sascha found a loving home, complete with promises from the public to help pay for therapy. Unfortunately those promises were not kept, and pledged donations failed to arrive. A wheelchair was obtained on loan from the shelter, but wheelchairs are not one-size-fits-all. Sascha was unable to use the donated wheels and, in fact, grew fearful of them.

When Sascha's family fell on hard financial times and could not afford the time or expense of therapy, existing troubles were magnified. Eventually, the family made the very difficult decision to give up Sascha, hoping she could get the care she needed some other way.!

I came to know about Sascha and her history through a circulated e-mail. Reading her history and looking at the photo of this puppy, so young and with so much life in her, made me consider responding. At this point Sascha was nine months old.

But, I already had a house full of Siberian huskies. Not to mention a very patient husband who loves me dearly and shares my love of the breed, but had told me in no uncertain terms, "No more dogs in this house!"

I thought about how much care Sascha would require (oh boy, did I have a lot to learn—see "Could you care for a paralyzed pet?" at the end of this article). I also wondered if it was fair to devote so much time to one dog while there were so many healthy dogs in shelters on any given day.

In the end, I was left with two thoughts:

    * As humans, in general we are often too quick to label something as impossible.
    * But, as clicker trainers, we focus on the possible every time we take a clicker in hand.

With those thoughts in mind, I decided to meet Sascha and try to see her strengths, not her weaknesses.

What's one more?

I like to think of myself as pragmatic, ruled by logic rather than by my emotions (all evidence is to the contrary, I'm afraid). Knowing the truth about myself, I brought my husband with me, whose firm belief is that "logic really does prevail."

My husband drove us both to meet Sascha, far away from the beach city we call home and into the desert. The grey marine layer and cool fog gave way to cloudless blue skies and desert heat. We pulled into the driveway of the well-cared-for, modest home. The couple that had adopted Sascha was waiting outside to greet us as we got out of the car. The California sun felt hot on the back of my neck as the couple led us into the small backyard where a gnarled old apple tree spread its branches and provided some welcome shade. This is where I saw Sascha for the first time.

She was very small. As I walked toward her, her ears went up in interest, then went flat as she tipped her head back to give us a proper husky "woo" in welcome. I knelt down and Sascha joyfully bounced forward to lick my outstretched fingers. She could not stand and bow in invitation to play, but she managed to communicate her intentions very clearly by bouncing and wooing.

That was it for me; I could not leave her behind. I looked up and met my husband's eyes. The next words he spoke summed up exactly why I married him and continue to adore him after seventeen years of marriage. He sighed and said simply, "I'll go get the crate."

Let's go already!

My kind husband is the son of an engineer. As such, he cannot perform even the simplest of tasks without two things: a plan and as many tools as possible. He carefully measured Sascha and ordered her custom-fitted wheelchair using a very detailed online form. Equally as important as precise measurements in ordering a wheelchair is the dog's lifestyle.

    * What type of surfaces would Sascha encounter most often: pavement? dirt? snow?
    * Had Sascha reached her full growth? Not every part of the wheelchair is adjustable, so this was critical information. X-rays can determine if the growth plates have closed, indicating full skeletal growth, but they cannot predict future weight gain.
    * Did Sascha have any use of her rear legs at all? If so, we wanted to allow her to use them while being supported by the wheelchair. If not, we would choose stirrups to protect those legs.

All of these issues had to be taken into consideration. The company we chose to make Sascha's wheelchair went over each of these questions with us. By the time we had answered all of their questions, I was confident that the wheelchair would be a perfect fit for Sascha.

It takes about ten days for the wheelchair to be built and then shipped. Almost exactly that number of days later, I heard the unmistakable rumble of the UPS truck. My doorbell rang and when I opened the door, Sascha's wheelchair was finally a reality.

I placed the chair near Sascha so she could examine it with her nose. Sascha sniffed every inch of the wheelchair, and then turned away. Good! I wanted her to start with a clean slate so that I could begin conditioning her response to the chair by treating her anytime we were near it. Chair = Good Times!

After Sascha was used to seeing and being near the wheelchair, we practiced going into the wheelchair. We did this slowly and over several days until Sascha was fully seated in the chair. At first, Sascha's front legs slowly slid down to the floor, unable to bear her own weight for more than a second or two.

Clicker time

Sascha's food intake must be carefully considered for its potential effect on her digestive system. This is true for many paralyzed dogs. Each morning I placed her daily kibble into a treat pouch. Sascha earned kibble just for standing in the chair. That's all—she'd just stand and I'd click/treat. Within a week, Sascha was able to stand for up to five minutes at a stretch.
Sascha earned kibble just for standing in the chair.

Patiently, so patiently, I waited for Sascha to take her first step, so that I could click and treat that progress. She quickly realized that taking a step toward me resulted in a click and a payment of kibble. I added a cue ("come") and, just like that, Sascha had learned her very first cued behavior! Over time, Sascha's legs grew stronger and she increased the number of steps she could take from one, to two, to twenty, and then, suddenly, we completed our first trip around the block!


I wanted so badly to take Sascha to the park to experience the joy of a simple walk. Our local park is a dog lover's dream come to life. A 1.2 mile paved walking trail encircles a library, playground, several duck ponds, and an outdoor restaurant where dogs have their own menu. The restaurant tables are all outdoors, and a bowl of fresh water is brought out with the drink orders. A mat is provided for canines that prefer a cushion to lying on the ground. For pet owners, the house specialty (warm homemade cinnamon rolls, along with a cup of freshly roasted coffee) is a nice accompaniment to watching the world stroll by. Bird-watchers and photographers frequent the park and more than one television commercial has been filmed there. On any given day, you are sure to see knots of people gathered under one of the many large trees, heads tilted upward as they try to spot one of the giant owls that have made this park their home.

When Sascha could walk for more than fifteen minutes without stopping, I decided the time was right to head to the park. I carefully placed her in her crate, loaded up her chair and treats, and off we went.

We pulled into a parking space under a leafy tree near the duck pond. Sascha squirmed impatiently as I buckled her into her wheelchair, excited by the many new sounds and smells. The ducks made alarmed quacks as they glared at Sascha and flapped into the water.

I bent down to tie my shoelace, one hand casually resting on Sascha's chair. "Wow, those ducks are loud," was the last thing I remember thinking as the chair jolted out from under my hand. I lost my balance, falling to one knee. I recovered only to see Sascha race for the duck pond! I took off after her, one half of my brain in panic mode and the other half admiring her speed! I managed to catch Sascha just before she plunged into the duck pond (saving us both an impromptu algae treatment with a side of duck poop).
I took off after her, one half of my brain in panic mode and the other half admiring her speed!

Since then, visiting the duck pond has provided lots of opportunity for us to use the Premack principle (the use of a high value behavior to achieve a lower value behavior, as in: "Eat your spinach and you can have a slice of apple pie afterward"). I encourage walking just a little bit further, or Sascha's favorite, "Let's run to the duck pond!"

Click here to see video of Sascha learning to use her wheelchair in the park (opens in new window)


Sascha can now do so many of the things that we (and our dogs!) take for granted. She can go outside for a drink of water when she is thirsty, sniff a bush for the latest pee-mail, or engage in a round of husky play. My other huskies accepted Sascha exactly as she was from the very beginning, getting down on the floor to play with her. With her wheelchair, they continue to treat her as any other dog—no better, no worse. I like that attitude.

My home was never meant to be Sascha's permanent home, but a place where she could grow and develop until her perfect family finds her (and I know they are out there). Until then, she will have a home with me. Some people ask, "Who would adopt a paralyzed dog?" and that is an understandable question. Not many people would. But I believe in possibilities—I am a clicker trainer, after all! That is what we do and that is who we are.

Could you care for a paralyzed pet? Our pets are living longer thanks to new advances in veterinary medicine. One day you may be faced with this question.
Caring for a paralyzed animal requires strong commitment. It can be very time-consuming and expensive. Some disabled pets have limited bladder and bowel control, and others are completely incontinent. You may have to either stimulate or manually express bladder and bowel movements and/or your pet may need to wear diapers.
Food intake must be carefully considered to compensate for a slower digestive process and so that bowel movements can be somewhat predictable. Pressure sores must be prevented at all costs, requiring therapeutic beds and padding. Keeping your pet clean is a priority. Be preparedbathing presents its own challenges. Finally, it is sometimes difficult to find someone to care for your disabled pet should you travel. The commitment is great, but so are the rewards. It has been a learning experience I do not regret.
The following sites proved invaluable to me during this ongoing learning process:
Eddie's Wheels For Pets
Gimpydogs Blog
Handicapped Pets
Pet Peepers! Pet Diapers
Walkabout Harnesses


Many people continue to ask about Sascha, the wheelchair Siberian husky, so here is a happy update!
Sascha lives with Tara, a veterinarian who owns and operates All Paws Dog Daycare in Fountain Valley, CA. Tara specializes in boarding medically fragile dogs and also provides a drop-in daycare service.

In addition to her daycare friends, Sascha now has two companions that also have hind limbs that are not functional in varying degrees, Jack and Oliver (also up for adoption and CUTE-Jack is a five month old BMD and Oliver is a Chi mix).

Tara has agreed to take on Sascha for life (or until that special person appears who is willing to care for her) as the rocky terrain of central Oregon would not allow her to use her wheelchair.

I visited Sascha this week-I think we were both happy to see each other!

Click here to see video of my reunion with Sascha (opens in new window)

Latest Update-Exciting News!

Chris -
Wanted to give you the latest...Sascha got a space suit!!
These wonderful people finally made my vision for Sascha a reality!!!
Gary Bolin a certified Orthotist, Lori Galvin a certified Animal Acupressure Practitioner and Carlos Silva all came to the day care to see Sascha. After describing where she needs support we positioned her and made a cast of her little crooked body. They basically made her the same type of brace that scoliosis patients wear. She has had the "space suit" now for about 3 weeks. When we strap her in it and put the rear walkabout on she can almost support her weight. Her rear legs are still not strong enough to support her body -but that's what we are working on now. I bought her a swimming pool that she absolutely LOVES. I will have to send you some video : )
I will try sending a picture with my phone so you can see her all dressed up. if you can receive pictures on your cell phone, that's easier for me.
Hope all is well with you.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Meet The Honkers

Bianca, 15, and daughter Fiona, 12

In late September of 1997, Bianca was a two year old pregnant wild donkey rounded up by the US Department of the Interior as part of their "Adopt A Living Legend" program.  A home was quickly found for the young burros and for the next decade mother and daughter lived happily in their small donkey world. 

Sadly, two years ago the poor economy forced a major change upon their lives. I met the girls at Bend Equine Outreach and on September 15 of this year life changed for the pink honker's yet again. They now live on a fenced acre with my three Nubian goats, Donatello, Lucciano, and Peppino.

It became abundantly clear after a veterinarian visit to my home that both donkey's must accept a halter (and handling).  While Bianca moves well on lead and is very calm and gentle, daughter  Fiona on the other hand is...well... a bit skittish. She has never worn halter that I know of and rarely leaves her mother's side. Perhaps it was more convenient to simply halter Bianca and have Fiona follow, all their lives.

This week, Bianca had a nice tooth treatment while Fiona lurked just out of reach. Not wanting to sour Fiona to future veterinarian care, we chose to wait until she was more easily handled before attempting an examination.

I quickly ordered "The Click That Teaches" by Alexandra Kurland to help this equine newbie out and kicked our training into high gear! I had taught both burro's to target my hand and had just begun to shape Fiona to touch the halter. Today: success as Fiona stepped into the halter and stood still as I lifted it over her nose and behind her ears.

Training Goal: Fiona to accept a halter

Fiona's third training session with halter:

Step 1: Touch halter

Step 2: Place nose in halter

Step 3: Stand still as halter goes over nose
Step 4: Yay! Allow halter to slip over ears

The power of a tiny carrot and a well timed click!

The ladies watch the proceedings closely
We have a long way to go, but I am so looking forward to the journey!

Happy Training!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

If only it were this easy!

If you are like me, you are very skeptical when it comes to advertisements.  “Secret” methods to train your dog, and “magic” tools that will solve your particular dog's behavior problem overnight make me very skeptical. Why?

Because I know from experience that dog training (and dieting, sadly) requires consistency and work. Rare is the behavior problem that can be permanently solved in just minutes.

Now, I don't know if the dog training claims below are true or not; I have not tried any of the products they were selling (and selling hard), but most of us know the following diet claims are just too good to be true. I thought it would be interesting to place the 10 most common diet advertisement claims side by side with dog training ads-they are remarkably similar.

The dog training advertisements are all real, I did not make them up or change the wording:

Lose all the weight you want without dieting or exercise!
Secret dog training method makes YOU the master of your dog and not the other way around!

 Eat whatever you want and still lose weight!
A "dream come true" revolutionary leash stops pulling for good!

Lose 10 pounds in a day
You Can Cure 19 of Your Dog's Worst Behavior Problems in Just 6 Days!

A weight loss formula for everyone
Use Dog Whispering For Amazingly Fast Results - Any Aggressive Dog!

Lose weight with the miracle patch/pill/cream
Revolutionary leash/collar/stops pulling instantly!

Money Back guarantee
 Eliminate Frustrating Walks Forever in Only 15 Min/Day- 100% Guaranteed

100% safe
Train any dog using this method!

Patented method
 Do You Make These Mistakes When Training
 Your Dog? Find Out Today!
(Hint: it’s a “secret” method)

Never diet again-lose the weight forever
Train Your Dog In Three Days! Easy, Fast & Effective Dog Training System Trains Any Dog Permanently!

A miraculous breakthrough!
Your Dog Will Never Pee or Poop Inside. Works in 6 Days!

Happy Training!
Chris Waggoner

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

It's pretty simple, really


Dogs go over fences. You must choose a bigger, better fence.
Dogs dig up gardens. You must enclose your beautiful plants so your dog cannot get to them.
Dogs bark if they are alone all day. You must hire a dog walker or change your schedule.
Dogs chew items you would prefer they not. You must place such items out of reach.
Dogs pull while on leash. You must teach them that being beside you is a very good thing.


Remember that you chose to bring another species into your home.
Remember that you have the bigger brain.
Remember that you are obligated to treat this creature with kindness and respect.
Remember that you are your dog's protector and advocate.
Remember that your dog feels pain and fear, just like you do.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I'm Taking The Plunge

Yup-I'm going to do it.

For the past year I have been feeding my dogs a very high quality kibble mixed with other foods. This includes meat, vegetables, and broths. I have found that despite being quite lazy, I rather enjoy making food for my (deep breath) I am taking it to the next level and transitioning to feeding an exclusively homemade diet.

The dog refrigerator stocked with ground meat
I should say right off the bat that I believe dogs in this country are very, very lucky. Even the poorest dog in the United States being fed the poorest kibble is at least being fed, while village dogs in other countries must survive on garbage and the occasional unlucky mouse or frog.

But...I have been reading about kibble and manufactured dog food in general and I have become more and more uneasy. My trepidation increased considerably after seeing this short video of an AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) official admitting that pet food can contain rendered remains of deceased cats or dogs. Worse yet, there is no way to tell from the label if your pet's food contains these. Now, granted the video was posted to YouTube in 2006 and I have no idea how old it was at that time, but seeing it was enough to turn interest in preparing my own food for my dogs into action.

Today I completed the following steps:

Step One

I bought a spare refrigerator. Pet food takes up a lot of room when you have five dogs. I paid $100 for a used refrigerator in excellent condition. Another $10 delivered it, including dollying the bulky appliance into my dog room.

Step Two

I purchased a guide to homemade diets. For this, I turned to The Whole Dog Journal. The Whole Dog Journal and their unbiased reviews of pet food have been my guide to feeding for years. Dogs do have specific nutritional needs and I want to make sure I will meet these. I have a lot to learn but this short series of guides will give me a good start. I still have two large bags of kibble to go through-this will buy me some time to learn how to prepare my dog's meals while allowing them to transition to a home prepared diet.

Dexter has volunteered his services as a taste tester.
Step Three

I stocked up on containers. I have decided to portion out meals into two servings per day so I bought several reusable containers in various sizes.

Step Four

I paid a visit to my local pet supply store ( I like Bend Pet Express) where I found a variety of frozen organ meats, nicely packaged. This will be my starting point until I feel confident enough to buy my own meat and process it into meals.

Happy Training!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I Shouldn't HAVE To!

*Joy recently called on me to solve a problem she was having with her adolescent Labrador pup, *Bear. The problem arose when she left Bear home alone for just an hour while she ran some errands, something she had only just begun to do. Joy had always returned home to find things just as she left them.

Except...this time. This time, it seems Bear had discovered the counter top, where he found (insert sound of angel trumpets):

"Bird food...all for me?! And hel-lo what is this? A fresh bag of cookies! Why, I don't mind if I do!"

Munch, munch, rip, gulp.

"And what is this?..a soft, cushy paper-like substance all collected on a roll...what fun!!!"

Joy described the shock of returning home to find Bear happily snoring on the sofa, surrounded by the evidence of his debauchery. Her disbelieving eyes went from the spilled boxes of bird seed scattered all over the floor to the empty bag of bakery cookies (devoured along with most of the bag itself) next to what may possibly have once been a jumbo roll of paper towels-now a mass of soggy clumps, slowly drying on the carpet and the sofa.

So, what have you tried? I asked, bringing us both back to the present.

"Well, scolding him, of course. He puts his head down and looks very guilty so I always think he has learned his lesson, but no sooner do I turn my back and leave something on the counter than he is at it again!" 

This led Joy to (naturally) assume that the dog was sneaky and defiant.

"He knows not to eat off the counter. That's why he only does it when no one is in the room! He is a bad dog, but I love him" she admitted as she glared briefly at the pup then absentmindedly stroked his big thick head, smiling despite herself.

"Anyway, my last dog, AngelBabyPerfectDog never stole food from the counters! I didn't have to pick anything up. In fact, I firmly believe that I shouldn't have to."

Lately, I hear the "I shouldn't have to's" a lot.

Why? I can only imagine the answer lies somewhere between:

1. The new way we keep dogs (in our homes, not working outside as they once did)

2. An unrealistic notion of what dogs are as presented by a once popular television show. One that would surely deem this pup's behavior as "dominant" and would perhaps advise Joy to "claim the counter using her energy."

Well, I don't know about that (sounds pretty far fetched to me), but what I do know is this; there is some powerful reinforcement at work here!

Lets break this down using a simple formula (ABC):

Antecedent: Dog discovers food and novel items on the counter
Behavior: Dog eats food and plays with novel items 
Consequence: Counter tops are fun! I love them!

So...what to do?

The fastest, most effective solution is to manage the environment - in other words don't leave anything out that you don't want eaten or destroyed and when you cannot supervise, make sure your pup has a safe place to be in. Yes, much like a toddler.

I no longer have toddlers in my home but the thought of placing cleaning products under my sink was unthinkable when I did. I would never have taken the stance that "I TOLD that baby to stay out of those cleaning products! I shouldn't have to put them out of his reach.  No means no, after all! Who is in charge here, me or that baby?!"

So, yes, you do "have to."


Because you chose to bring this big lug of a dog into your home.

In return, he gives you joy and happiness and is unquestioning in his innocence that everything good comes from you.

He trusts that you will keep him safe, even from things he loves.

And having to change some house keeping habits is a very, very small price to pay for that.

Happy Training!

Chris Waggoner

*Names and certain details were changed  for privacy