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!