The Future Is Bright: Level Up’s Newest Addition

I have been keeping a secret.  And like all the best secrets, this one has four legs!

On paper, my limit is three dogs.  I have been planning to add the third dog in 2017 for several years.  I knew what temperament I wanted in the puppy, but I just couldn’t find the right match for what I was looking for. And when I adopted my 8-year-old tervuren Panache in February, I did it with the understanding that all of my dog slots were full until someone passes — likely another 2-4 years based on the life expectancy of my seniors’ breeds.  I reluctantly put my puppy plans back in their box for another few years and settled in to enjoy life with my full household of wonderful adult dogs.

But when my puppy training clients contacted me in October to say they were considering rehoming their 6 month old german shepherd/malinois mix, who I have loved since day one and who is everything I have been dreaming about in NextDog, there was only one answer.

Meet Bright!

Bright the German Shepherd/Belgian Malinois Mix at 6 Months Old

Bright the German Shepherd/Belgian Malinois Mix at 6 Months Old

Bright has been here since October 13th, 2017 — about seven weeks at the time I’m writing this. We’ve spent the majority of that time on the road (which is why it has taken me almost two months to tell you that she exists).  Bright came home just a few days before my autumn dog sports trials began, and we have been traveling the east coast for competitions more often than we’ve been home.

Finny Farm in Greenback TN, our favorite trial venue

Finny Farm in Greenback TN, our favorite trial venue

While the timing was definitely a “trial by fire” (pun completely intended), I am so impressed by how well she handled the novel environments and the totally new situations!

Training isn’t just about teaching dogs how to obey commands — it’s about teaching them how to be comfortable, confident and well-adjusted in all of the environments they will be in.  This trip gave me a chance to assess how well Bright copes with changes of environment and where we still have work to do.  For now, I’m not worried about traditional obedience behaviors — I’m focusing on building and cultivating the autopilot behaviors that I want to be able to take for granted a year from now, like walking politely on a loose leash without being asked, or crating quietly in a new environment without stress.  In the short term, I am investing the majority my training hours into “nothing” behaviors and problem-prevention.

For most of October and parts of November, we were tent camping in the Tennessee mountains for Nosework and Barn Hunt competitions, my two favorite sports.  To the best of my knowledge, Bright hasn’t tent camped before, but you’d never know it from seeing her.  She was as polite and professional as my other dogs, who have been doing this for years.

Panache (left) and Bright (right) in their crates before the first trip to Tennessee

Panache (left) and Bright (right) in their crates before the first trip to Tennessee

The first two days were an adjustment, which is perfectly reasonable given how quickly her life had just changed.  In particular, she was mildly uncomfortable with the large groups of strangers and strange dogs at a distance and she was being more vigilant than I’d like.  I took time out of my work schedule at the trial for some short training sessions to get her more comfortable with the environment and allowing her to approach friendly strangers to learn more about them on her own terms. By the third day, she was comfortable and thrilled to be there.

On the one hand, adding a new dog mere days before a huge change in environment isn’t ideal.  But on the other hand, if I had to start her off in a chaotic environment, this was the best possible group of people to have a young dog around.  We were surrounded by other competent dog trainers and a wide selection of socially-stable adult dogs!  All sorts of experienced people and dogs for my new puppy to learn from.

If you ask any dog trainer about their pet peeves, they are almost guaranteed to mention some variation on the following scenario.  A stranger asks to pet your puppy in training. You agree, but say that the puppy needs to be polite for the petting because they are in training. You ask the person to step away if the puppy jumps so that the puppy learns how to greet strangers calmly. “Oh, I don’t mind!” they assure you, laughing and actively encouraging the dog to jump on them.  “I just LOVE dogs!” And every trainer thinks sourly, “Well, I mind, and now you’ve just paid my puppy to jump on people who might not love dogs as much as you do.”  (Seriously, please don’t be That Guy.)

The best thing about being surrounded by strangers who are dog trainers is that they don’t do that.  None of them! Which means that it is drastically easier to teach a dog to be polite for greetings, because they will be paid for being rude zero percent of the time.

For the first few days of our trip, Bright got so excited by greetings that she tried to greet by leaping up at people frantically as soon as they started to pet her — not uncommon for a high energy six month old puppy, but also not a behavior that I want to see more of. Pretty much everyone at a dog sports trial has treats within easy reach, because we are all dog trainers.  It only took a few very short training sessions to convince Bright that (a) 100% of people she ever meets will have cookies hidden somewhere nearby, (b) they might give them to puppies, and (c) they only pay puppies who sit.

A sitting fiend was born!

By the end of the first week of our trip, she was very pointedly walking up to people, planting her butt on the ground and staring at them like, “I was good, pay the cookie tax.”

And bless them, they did.

I went to Tennessee with a frantic jumper and came home with a dog who begged to be petted by assertively sitting “at” people until they acknowledged how good she was being.

Bright even taught her

Bright even taught her “Grandma” to share the complementary popcorn at our hotel. (Thanks for cooperating, Mom).

Overall, I am so happy with how well Bright is settling in.  Since I am seven weeks behind in posting this, I have more than one blog post’s worth of news to share, so this is just a quick snippet from the begining of our trip.  Stay tuned for more Bright updates soon!  I will be posting lots of videos and blog posts as I raise her so you can follow along with her progress as she grows up.

Why Perfect Service Dog Puppies Are A Red Flag

People who are training their own service dogs are under an extraordinary amount of pressure from day one.

In addition to the baseline difficulties caused by our disabilities, we have also taken responsibility for the two-year process of painstakingly transforming a tiny infant mammal of another species (who doesn’t understand English and thinks cat poop is a delicacy) into a reliable medical device which we will then depend on to literally save our lives for the next decade.

No sweat, right?

So let’s acknowledge the obvious: That is an incredibly high bar.

And sometimes we get a little bit carried away in our enthusiasm.

 

People who are training their own service dogs are under a huge amount of pressure

Listen, kid, I’m going to need you to pick up the pace on that advanced calculus or this just isn’t going to work out.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This Story Before.

It’s almost always a first-time owner-trainer.

They have waited months or years to get their prospect.

They’ve done all their research.  They’ve watched the videos, they’ve talked to other handlers, they’ve found a corner of the service dog community where they feel comfortable.

After all that learning and waiting, they have counted down the minutes until their prospect will come home.  It’s going to be them and their dog against the world, partners for life.

Most of the time, they’re not a professional dog trainer, but they’ve done enough work with the family’s dog that they’re pretty confident in their training skills.  And besides, they have resources to reach out to if they run into trouble.  They can’t wait to start this new adventure.

Enter Puppy, Stage Right.

The puppy comes home and he is perfect.

Not just a little bit perfect either, but transcendent, sublime, world-shatteringly wonderful in every possible way.  He is not a puppy, he is The Puppy, capital letters, the long-awaited partner who will set the world on a better path.  He is overflowing with potential.  His puppy breath smells like hope.

 

A service dog puppy and vest

So many dreams are built on these four paws.

 

And the owner-trainer dives into training with a gusto.  Finally, time to act on those carefully laid plans!  The puppy learns sit, down, stay, shake, roll over, take a bow, spin!  He blazes through his obedience classes.  He is a wonder.  His owner’s confidence blooms with every new success – and at this point, it’s all success.  After all, this is the perfect puppy!

A couple weeks into their intensive training, the owner has a medical crisis, because the owner is disabled and that is a thing that happens to us on the regular.  That’s why the puppy is here.

And the puppy does a puppy thing before or during the crisis.  Was that an alert?  A natural alert? By jove, I believe it was! It must have been!

The owner-trainer is equal parts astounded and relieved.  They are on the right track!  This “training your own service dog” thing might be possible after all with a puppy this perfect.

So they push the puppy a little bit further and a little bit faster – after all, the puppy is succeeding left, right and center. They put him into intensive training.  He can handle it.  He is a miracle on four legs, a furry Einstein.

The team starts public access early — really early.  Puppy knows ten tasks by the time he’s six months old and he naturally alerts to every disability ever.  (Did you see his whisker twitch?  Are you diabetic?  Might want to check your blood sugar, you’re welcome.)  The team is doing eight hours of public access training every day without breaking a sweat.  Other dogs may need to take it slow and work on their foundations at this age, but this puppy is a prodigy.  He can handle anything.

…. Until he can’t.

A Recipe for Perfect Puppy Prodigies

When starting a new service dog prospect, it’s normal to feel a sickening combination of ambitious and terrified.  By this point in the journey, we’ve already had it carved into our brain that there are only two possible outcomes: utter perfection or screaming catastrophe.

We know that it is our solemn duty to protect the honor of other SD teams everywhere by being unimpeachably, unquestionably perfect at all hours of the day.  We know that anything less than that is grievous injury to the reputation of the service dog community as a whole and a shame upon our people.

Dishonor! Dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow.

There is zero room for error. Perfect or go home. (No pressure though!)

 

Now let that anxiety simmer for months or years in the unfortunate toxic soup of subtle one-upmanship and humble-bragging that absolutely permeates the online service dog community.

It’s no surprise that every new prospect leaves us teetering on the fine line between optimism and sheer panic.

 

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you will land among the stars... where you will be forced to drift aimlessly farther into the vast empty abyss of space until a lack of food, water and oxygen causes you to succumb to death's cold embrace. Sweet dreams, kid.

A brief summary of what it feels like to train your own service dog.

The Tragedy Of The Perfect Puppy Prodigy.

The tragedy of the perfect puppy prodigy is that, despite their early promise, they often fail to live up to their own potential in the end.  Many struggle more than they needed to and many others wash out of training entirely.

And they don’t wash out because they have some hidden flaw that doomed them from the start.  They wash out because their handler becomes so fixated on getting to the finish line fast that they rush forward on a shaky foundation.

Service dog training involves a lot of pressure on both the handler and the dog.  That’s why we have such high criteria for our service dog program eligibility.

And under pressure, shaky foundations collapse.

In Defense Of Slow.

There is an adage in the dog training community that “slow is fast and fast is slow,” meaning that it is often faster in the long run to be thorough with your foundations in the beginning.  That holds doubly true for service dog training or any type of intensive working dog training where burnout is a serious risk.

Now read that paragraph again.

And again.

Lock it into your heart as deeply as you’ve internalized all that talk about perfection and upholding the reputation of the service dog community, because it is every bit as important.  Slow is fast and fast is slow.  Digest the idea.  Hold onto it.  Write it on the cover of that notebook where you keep the training plans for your perfect future puppy.

If you want perfection when you are training your own service dog, then the best way to achieve that is to earn it by training slowly and building on a solid foundation.

Let the puppy learn puppy things.  Focus on quality, not quantity, in your socialization plan.  Support your dog’s changing brain through adolescence and expect to hit some temporary setbacks.  Evaluate your progress regularly and shore up your weak points instead of exclusively improving on your strengths.  Remember that you are building a functional partner, not racing toward a finish line.

The best service dog programs in the country very consistently wait to place dogs until they are 18-24 months old.  This is not an accident or a coincidence.  It is hubris, plain and simple, to think that a first-time owner-trainer is going to have a reliable, proofed, stable, public-access-ready dog in half the time it takes someone who literally does this for a living, working with the best resources available, etc.

When clients contact me with stories about their perfect puppy, I am cautious.  When friends assure me that their adolescent dogs have a dozen tasks under their belt already, I don’t get excited — I get worried.

Because perfect puppies tend to burn out.

Training Your Own Service Dog?  Choose Slow, Not Perfect.

We all want to believe we have the perfect prodigy puppy who was literally born for this job.  We need as much help as we can get — if we didn’t need help, we wouldn’t be owner-training a service dog in the first place.  And with the amount of pressure that we’re under to be perfect in every circumstance, it sometimes feels like a magical puppy is what it would take to succeed at all.

The uncomfortable reality is that the perfect puppy does not exist.

There are, however, many adequate puppies who can be shaped into service dogs with effort, skill and patience.

The critical ingredient is time.

 

A tiny service dog puppy in his training vest.

You have big shoes to fill, little one. Fortunately, you also have time to grow into them.

Adolescent Dogs Are Like Teenage Humans

In the dog training community, the common wisdom about adolescent dogs goes something like this:

“Adolescent dogs are like teenagers. You wake up one day and your sweet, obedient puppy is suddenly pulling an attitude with you and ‘giving you the paw’. They’ve shredded half the house, they don’t listen to your commands and they’re lunging on the leash like Cujo. They’re testing your authority to see if you’ll give in. If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. Stay firm so they will know who is boss!”

And this is, by and large, a load of crap.

An adolescent dog jumps on guests

This greeting was cute when I was a puppy. At full size? Not so much.

“One Step Before Total Anarchy” versus “Totally Normal Puberty”

Don’t get me wrong: Adolescent dogs are like teenagers — but it has nothing to do with testing your authority or challenging you for rank.

From the parent’s perspective, things that were never a problem have become massive issues almost overnight.  Their child/dog’s developing self control skills are questionable at best, and that makes for a rocky transition period when combined with a mildly-terrifying new level of independence.  It’s no surprise that it feels like everything is suddenly coming unglued.

But as with human teenagers, those things don’t signal a latent urge to take over the world.

What they signal is, well, a teenager.

A Sudden Reality-Check

The 6-10 month old period is by far the most common age for clients to contact me about dog training.  Roughly half of my overall clients and the vast majority of “out of control dog” phone calls that I get fall into that four month period.

To give you some perspective, those same four months that account for 50% of my new clients are only 3% of the average dog’s lifespan.  That’s a pretty narrow window!

So why is everyone reaching out for help at the same time?

Bigger Bodies, Changing Brains, Less Structure

There are three major types of issues that lead people to contact a trainer with their adolescent dog.  I sort them into the categories Bigger Bodies, Changing Brains and Less Structure.

Bigger Bodies Issues:

  • Frantic greetings/jumping up on guests
  • Pottying in the house
  • Pulling on the leash
  • Over-arousal/too hyper
  • Stealing food from counters
  • Jumping fences that used to contain them easily
  • “Throwing their weight around”
  • Mouthing, excessively physical play

Changing Brains Issues:

  • Dog-reactivity
  • Human-reactivity
  • Resource guarding
  • Inter-household aggression with other family dogs
  • Fights at the dog park
  • Pulling and lunging on leash
  • Not paying attention
  • Urine marking
  • Sudden phobias that didn’t exist two weeks before
  • “Forgetting” known cues and commands

Less Structure Issues:

  • Not coming when called
  • Counter surfing/stealing food
  • Straying from the yard
  • Pottying in the house
  • Not listening outside the house
  • Raiding the trash
  • Jumping on guests
(Note: A few of these things are intentionally on multiple lists, because multiple factors contribute.)

But that doesn’t mean you need to gear up for a show-down.  You can survive your dog’s adolescence with your sanity and your relationship with your dog intact.

Adolescent dogs often struggle with impulse control.

Impulse control? What’s that?

How Adolescent Dogs Are (Actually) Like Teenagers:

To start, it helps to take a step back and think about it from the dog’s point of view.

Bigger Bodies:

Like human teenagers, adolescent dogs suddenly have more agency, physical capability and responsibility for their own actions than they ever did as puppies.  Their world is bigger.  Their bodies can do more things.  They have more options to choose between and more physical capacity to act on those choices.  And with an expanded range of choices and capabilities, it’s natural that some of those new choices would be undesirable to us.

Changing Brains:

At the same time, their framework for navigating those choices correctly is still under construction.  In most cases, adolescent dogs (like adolescent humans) don’t have good behavior on autopilot yet. They may be able to succeed consistently with structure and guidance, but that’s not the same thing as being able to independently make the right choice outside of a training context. Their capacity for impulse control is a work in progress.

In addition to that, the adolescent dog’s brain is starting to mature and adult drives are starting to come online.  They are less likely to default to comfortable acceptance with strange people and dogs, especially if they didn’t have the benefit of an extensive socialization period during puppyhood. Other dogs are suddenly more likely to take offense at rude behavior that they were willing to tolerate from a puppy, but not a maturing dog, which can lead to increased tension between dogs.

Adolescent dogs may be at an increased risk for scuffles and fights

WHAT did you say about my mother?

There is evidence of an additional fear period that occurs around adolescence.  This is a short period of time, typically a couple days to 1-2 weeks, when the dog is easily spooked and likely to exhibit fear response to things which would not otherwise startle them.  During a fear period, there is also an increased risk that any fear responses triggered during that period will “stick” more easily and become a longer term source of anxiety.  (For example, a dog who is exposed to a loud thunderstorm during a fear period may become sensitive to percussive noises afterward, even if they were not afraid of them before the fear period).

Less Structure:

Their humans are treating them more like adults.  The buffers that were put into place when they were puppies are being lifted.  Less supervision, less management, less patience, less willingness to help the dog get it right. And inevitably, some of those buffers are lifted before the dog is ready.  Because the dog can succeed easily with management procedures in place, it is easy to believe that they “know better” if they struggle with the same skills once those management boundaries are lifted.

How The Adolescent Dog Navigates Their Changing World

So in light of all of those changes, the adolescent dog experiments with new behavior to see what works and what doesn’t in these new situations. Which is something that every living creature does and the foundation for all learning processes, by the way — teenagers absolutely do not have a monopoly on experimentation.

It’s important to remember that they’re not testing you. They are trying to figure out how to function in their expanding world. It’s not about you as a parent or leader or trainer. This is not a battle for supremacy. This isn’t about being the boss or putting them in their place. It’s not about putting your foot down.

Instead, it’s still (as it has always been, as it will always be) about showing your dog what works in a given situation and making desirable behavior pay off better than the alternatives.

That’s it.  That’s the whole secret.

And if that means going back to management while you solidify the good habits, then that’s a perfectly acceptable way to navigate your dog’s adolescence. The more often they get it right, the more likely they are to do the right thing in the future.  If that means you need to help them with continued training or management, that’s a small price to pay for a well-behaved dog in the long run.  Accusing your dog of “throwing a tantrum” and “pushing the limits” and “testing your authority” does nothing to show your dog what the desirable behavior is, and it unnecessarily sets up an antagonistic relationship between you and your dog.

Your dog isn’t the enemy.

Antoinette, my bully breed mix foster dog

Foster Dog Marketing, Part 1: Adoption Events

I took a one-year sabbatical from dog training in 2014 to volunteer with a rescue group.

I spent a lot of time at adoption events that year.  In addition to the one or two events a week hosted by the rescue group, I was also taking my foster dog du jour out on the town for daily training sessions to try to find their future adopters.

This is what I learned.

What makes a highly adoptable foster dog?

I’m an observer by nature.  I like to spot patterns and analyze things.  And as I spent time around large groups of adoptable dogs, I started to notice some interesting trends.

The first thing that I noticed was that it was the same dogs over and over who were getting immediate attention from everyone who walked up.  Even if there were thirty dogs at the event, the same five were constantly the center of the show.

Okay, sure.  That could be luck or just a particularly adoptable foster dog.  But interestingly, it also seemed like it was the same handlers over and over whose fosters would get adopted very quickly.

And that intrigued me.

Like all foster parents, I semi-selfishly wanted my foster dogs to be seen by as many potential adopters as possible. I know, I know. Rescue isn’t a competition and what matters is the match between the home and the dog.  But let’s be honest here.  When you have a foster dog, you love them and you want everyone to see the best in them.  You want to give them their best chance.

So I started paying attention to what worked.

I watched what those life-of-the-party dogs were doing.  I wanted to find out what was really drawing in the potential adopters and why the same handlers seemed to be consistently more successful than average.

How much does training count?

Since I am a dog trainer, the first thing that I paid attention to was the dogs temperament and training, which seemed to me like the obvious choice.  Rationally, that should make a huge difference between getting adopted quickly and not.  In an ideal world, temperament and training would be the most important criteria.

But surprisingly, that wasn’t the case most of the time. In fact, many of the dogs who were getting attention were, to my eyes, some of the worst behaved dogs in the group in terms of manners. Not exclusively, but it was definitely not their stellar manners that made them stand out.  There is some recent science to support this in a shelter environment as well.

(Almost) all attention is good attention

At a crowded adoption event with so many dogs to choose from, it pays to be worth a second look.  The dogs who made somebody laugh would get adopted quickly because laughter drew other people’s attention to that dog.  The handlers who dressed up their foster dogs were usually very successful.  A public spectacle sells.

In contrast, the dogs who sat down calmly at their handlers’s feet were often overlooked.  They only interacted with people who were intending to interact with them. They didn’t draw people in. Drawing even mildly negative attention to the dogs was still attention and did seem to increase their overall adoptability.

But draw positive attention when possible.

This doesn’t mean that your foster dog shouldn’t be well-behaved.  It means that good behavior alone isn’t enough.

If your foster dog has some amount of basic obedience training, show it off strategically!  A long down-stay in a chaotic environment may be more impressive, but doesn’t draw the eye.  If a potential adopter didn’t see you give the cue, it just looks like laying there.

Instead, practice a series of short behaviors to showcase how obedient and attentive your foster dog can be. Hand-touches and position changes are great for this because movement draws the eye.  They also keep the dog engaged with you, which is always a good idea in a crowded environment.

Counter-intuitively, simple tricks like sit, down, shake and roll over often get more attention than more complex tricks.  Staying busy with repeated simple tricks invites comments and questions from potential adopters.

Defy negative stereotypes.

My long-term foster dog Antoinette was a bully breed mix.  She adored people.  But in a city with a large apartment-dwelling population, finding a home for a large bully breed mix isn’t easy.  As far as the apartments were concerned, she was a pit bull.

To compensate for that, I started dressing her up. I used a temporary dye to give her a rainbow mohawk.  (The dye was pet-safe and washed off after the event.)  She had a bright colorful tutu that she wore to all of her events. Antoinette was a charmer on her own, but the $5 tutu and rainbows almost forced people to talk to her.

To stay with the theme, all of her tricks had cute, feminine cues, too.  Instead of “spin left” and “spin right,” she had “ballet” and “twirl.”  Instead of “shake,” she knew “manicure.”  And so on.

Once we started doing that, we stopped hearing an immediate defensive, “Oh, my apartment doesn’t allow pit bulls.” Even the apartment residents would come over and chat with us for a few minutes. People took photos and sent them to their friends.

Was it a gimmick?  Sure!  But it was a gimmick that worked.

An adoptable pit bull mix wearing a tutu

Seriously, who wouldn’t want to pet this dog? Antoinette was the life of the party at adoption events.

What about people skills?

On the handler end, by far the most important factor was the willingness to approach and make eye contact with strangers.  Bad news for introverts like me!  I had to consciously help myself take the initiative in social settings.  I was willing to be the extraverted dog marketing person to get my foster dog adopted, but it took real effort.

Overall, being passive didn’t work well.  Some people would just kind of stand around with their foster dog and hope someone was automatically drawn to their foster dog.  That didn’t work very often. The passive handlers’ foster dogs usually got equally passive responses from the adopters.

A person-to-person interaction with a foster dog present seemed to work best.  The dog was rarely the first one to break the ice, even if all the handler did was make brief eye contact and smile.  The potential adopters were most likely to be drawn toward approachable handlers who looked happy to be there.

Set your foster dog up to succeed.

I think this should go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t. Don’t put your foster dog in a position where they’re likely to show off their bad side.  Don’t allow your foster dog to rehearse bad habits in any scenario, ideally, but especially in front of a potential adopter.  This comes down to basic proactive management.

If your dog growls at other dogs, it’s okay to stay further away from other dogs.

If your dog doesn’t like to be crowded by children, stop children before they reach out.  Better yet, take several steps away from them to give your foster dog space.

Or best of all, work with a skilled dog trainer and have a training plan in place for your foster dog before your first adoption event.

Take space when necessary.

These crowded, noisy events can stress out even the most happy-go-lucky dogs. Don’t be afraid to walk away from the crowd if your dog would show better in a calmer environment.  (And that list would include virtually all dogs.)

If you need a script, you can say, “Hold on, he needs a break from the noise” or “This environment is difficult for her; do you mind if we step aside?”  Nine times out of ten, the potential adopters will be happy to walk with you to a calmer area so they can meet your foster dog in peace.

Network with other handlers.

It also pays to befriend other foster parents.  Get to know what type of home their dog is looking for and be on the lookout for adopters who would be a good match for their foster dog, even if they wouldn’t be a good match for yours.  Don’t be shy about directing positive attention toward other dogs and handlers at the event.  They’re likely to remember details about your foster dog and return the favor over time.

Are you marketing a foster dog?  What tips and tricks have you found the most helpful for standing out from the crowd at an adoption event?

The Dunning-Kruger Valley: Why Inexperienced Trainers Escalate

Jacksonville Dog Training

The Trajectory of Dog Training

Over the past hundred years, dog training has experienced a renaissance.   As we have learned more about dog behavior and tested applications of learning theory, the needle has slowly swung away from dominance-minded, correction-focused dog training methods and toward well-planned positive training.

We have moved from ear-pinching to clicker trained retrieves.  Most people can’t even imagine outdated methods like holding dogs’ heads underwater to stop digging or tying dead chickens to dogs’ necks to teach them to leave birds alone (yes, really).  One of the biggest guide dog schools in the world is currently crossing over to clicker training.

In other words, the more we’ve learned, the better we’ve done, broadly speaking.

By and large, the trajectory is usually similar for individual dog trainers.

Most trainers start off with a whatever-works training philosophy. They don’t know a lot about the different dog training methodologies and the deeply entrenched “trainer wars” between them.  They’re just looking for something, anything, that works.

Education opens the door to nuance and alternatives.  As they learn more of the theory instead of relying on recipes, the range of methods a trainer uses typically shifts toward the positive and away from the punitive.  This trend holds true even for trainers who are still willing to use punitive methods to varying degrees.

They learn less invasive interventions and they try those first.  A stronger grasp of theory allows them to work with more precision.  They learn how to be proactive instead of reactive.  The more they learn, the less often they need to escalate to more invasive methods to get results.

And surprisingly few highly skilled positive reinforcement trainers later “cross back” and advocate for more punitive methods. If a trainer has stocked it with the right theory, their training toolbox is already plenty big.

But.

(You knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?)

Are the kids alright?

I’ve noticed a trend in the training community and it has been on my mind recently.  There is one demographic that intermittently flows in the opposite direction.

The one place I do see a significant amount of full-scale back-crossing is with novice dog trainers.   Trainers who learned a lot of theory very quickly but had relatively little hands-on experience with a variety of dogs seem to be at the most risk.

There are some few trainers who reject the Humane Hierarchy model altogether and that’s a whole different kettle of fish.  But lately, I’m concerned with the number of younger trainers who agree with the Humane Hierarchy as a model but consistently find themselves at the last-tier interventions, to the point that they have gradually switched methodologies altogether.

Why?

We have a hundred years of behavioral science to draw on. Excellent training books are available to anyone for mere pocket change. YouTube has myriad dog training tutorials posted for free.  We have professional organizations actively promoting dog-friendly training methods.

So why are these novice positive trainers jumping ship?

That wasn’t a rhetorical question. We need to understand.  If we know why people take those risks, we can be better prepared to help them make less damaging choices.

Something this complex doesn’t have a single answer, but a good starting point is a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Crossover

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the difference between someone’s self-perceived skill level and their objective skill level.

In a nutshell, researchers Dunning and Kruger found that the people who are less skilled are likely to over-estimate their own skill level, often drastically.

In other words, a less-skilled dog trainer is not only objectively a novice at training dogs, they are also likely to be unaware of their own incompetence. They are likely to rate themself as highly skilled.  They don’t know how much they don’t know.

The more you know, the more you realize how little you know

(The corollary is that the people with the highest objective skill tend to undervalue their own expertise.  Andre Yeu wrote beautifully here about how the corollary applies to dog training and I recommend the read.)

This gap between real and self-perceived skill level sets novice trainers up for a rude awakening.

The Valley Of Errors

To illustrate, we’re going to pretend that training skill can be simplified down to one skill measured on a scale from 1-10.  A level 1 trainer can train only the easiest 10% of dogs. A level 10 trainer is the best of the best.

Let’s say that a particular trainer objectively has 5 units of trainer-skill. But because he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, he mistakenly believes that he has 8 units of trainer-skill.

The Dunning-Kruger Valley of Errors

 

So any training goal that costs between 1-5 units of trainer-skill, he can competently address and he knows he can competently address it. And he correctly recognizes that level 9 and 10 cases are above his skill level, so he refers those cases to other trainers.

But the 5-8 unit range is the valley between his perceived skill and his actual skill level.

This is what I call the Dunning-Kruger Valley of Errors.  And that’s a really crummy place to be for everyone involved. The trainer tackles a problem because he “knows” that he can handle it.  At the same time, he can see that his skill isn’t accomplishing the thing.

At which point he has three options:

  1. Acknowledge that he misjudged his own skill level.  Drop his perceived skill level back down to match his actual skill level, which feels humiliating.
  2. Acknowledge that he misjudged his own skill level.  Put in the work to raise his actual skill level to where his perception originally was.  This is satisfying in the end but is expensive in effort and time.
  3. Decide that he misjudged the difficulty level of the challenge rather than his own competency.  “This dog isn’t a 6.  He must be a 9 or a 10.”  At that point, he realizes that he’s unexpectedly in over his head (but not why).  He feels like his only option is to escalate to more risky methods because he’s reached the limit of his current skills.

Stubborn? You mean smarter than your training skills.

The take-away message here is that you don’t know what you don’t know, and that can be dangerous.

The damaging part of the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t that the trainers are low-skill.  All trainers start off unskilled; that comes with the territory.

The danger is that they aren’t aware of their actual skill level.  When they bite off more than they can chew, they have no option but to escalate to riskier methods because they are operating outside of their known skill level.

This is part of why I advocate for joining professional organizations, attending conferences with leaders in the field, staying up to date on continuing education and pursuing reputable certifications.  Having objective external benchmarks for competency helps to calibrate your self-perceived skill level.

So how do we prevent it?

When you find yourself faced with a problem that pushes your limits, don’t be afraid to refer to another skilled trainer.  Sometimes a fresh set of eyes can make all the difference.  And that’s not just for novices; that’s for anyone working with dogs.

I practice what I preach.  I’ve been training dogs for most of a decade and will freely acknowledge that I don’t know everything.  I’m happy to consult with my mentors and peers when something has me stumped or refer complex cases to a specialist.  That’s part of being a professional.  After all, would you trust a doctor who told you that they specialize in every health problem known to man and never referred their patients out to specialists?  Exactly.

To the novice trainers in particular:

Dogs are your best teacher.  Work with as many different dogs as you can when you’re starting out, preferably under the guidance of a skilled mentor.

If you’re like most novices, you have access to a lot more theory resources than new dogs at first.  It’s completely normal for your knowledge of the theory and your practical skills to grow at different rates as a result.  (Frustrating, but normal.) If you’ve spent a lot of time learning the theory but have only worked with a handful of dogs, it’s normal to feel adrift when you work with a very different dog who “hasn’t read the manual.”

As mentioned in a previous blog post, the ability to troubleshoot is one of the most valuable skills a trainer can have, and one that gets much less attention than it should.  Consciously develop it.  Focus on the theory instead of the recipe.  Challenge yourself to improve your mechanics and your theory.

And expect that you’ll bite off more than you can chew at some point, because you will, because everyone does.

Show me a skilled trainer who has never been stumped by a dog and I will show you a liar.  Have a safety net in place so you don’t feel backed into a corner when something goes pear-shaped.  You always, always have options.

Have you ever been in a situation where you over-estimated your own training abilities?  Let me know about your experience in the comments below.

A deaf dog lays on a treadmill

5 New Years Resolution Tips From A Dog Trainer

Want your 2017 resolutions to stick? Just think like a dog trainer!

1. Start small.

Most people set very ambitious New Years resolutions — run a marathon, learn a new language, start a business or live debt-free. While these are great goals, they’re also overwhelming! Instead of looking at the whole end goal, try breaking it down into tiny mini-milestones that will still move you in the right direction.

2. Set a specific goal.

“Get healthy” is a hard goal to achieve because it’s hard to picture clearly. In concrete terms, what does your version of healthy look like on a day-to-day basis? The more specific and personalized your goals are, the easier they are to track and accomplish.

3. Treat yo’self.

Don’t forget to celebrate your accomplishments along the way. Keeping morale high makes it easier to stick with the program in the long term. For best results, pick a reward that also motivates you toward the long-term goal, such as new running shoes if you have completed the first 5k leading up to your marathon.

Remember to reward yourself when you meet your goal

Did I hear someone say “Treat”?

4. Focus on the want-to.

Reward-based motivation is as potent for people as it is for dogs. Reminding yourself that you “have to” do something makes it even harder to start and can build resentment. Instead, focus on why this goal matters to you and how much your life will improve when you accomplish it.

5. Manage your environment.

“Out of sight, out of mind” makes it easier to succeed. If you know that specific things tempt you to make the wrong choices, make a plan for how to avoid those temptations temporarily while you establish your new habits. Once you’re on the right track, you can gradually add those distractions back in.

Make 2017 your year!

Those five training tips are sure to have you and your dog moving in the right direction!  As a treat, enjoy a cute video:

What are you hoping to accomplish this year? Haven the deaf aussie’s goal for 2017 is to conquer her new treadmill so she can stay in shape for dog sports during the off-season!

Improvisation in Dog Training: Lucas’s Service Dog Tuck

One of the most undervalued must-haves in a dog trainer is the ability to improvise effectively.

Almost anyone can follow a recipe to get a basic behavior.  If it’s a good recipe, even a novice dog trainer will be successful a reasonable amount of the time.

But what really separates the wheat from the chaff is what a trainer does when the standard recipe isn’t getting the job done.

Do they escalate to more risky methods?

Do they keep pushing something that obviously isn’t working?

Or do they find a way to improvise on the recipe so it makes sense to this particular dog?

Full disclosure: My training mechanics could be cleaner.  I’m slower to dispense treats than I’d like.  My patience with proofing is frustratingly low, especially with my own dogs.  But the place where I shine as a trainer is coming up with creative work-arounds when something doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to.  I have learned to love the opportunity to troubleshoot a recipe gone wrong because it always, always teaches me something valuable.

Most handsome service dog ever, am I right?

Most handsome service dog ever, am I right?

Teaching a service dog tuck: Lucas style

Two years ago, I borrowed my friend’s collie Lucas for a weekend.  Lucas is now a working service dog, but at the time, he was still in training.  His tasks were well under way and his public manners were already excellent, but there were a few specific behaviors that his handler was struggling with.

One of the goals was to teach him a service dog tuck.  This is when a service dog squeezes behind a person’s legs when they’re sitting at a chair to take up less space.

At 25.5″ tall and ballpark 75 pounds of rough collie, Lucas is not a small dog.  In crowded spaces like restaurants and public transportation, handlers often have their service dog tuck behind or between their legs to keep them out of the way of other patrons as a courtesy.  That’s even more important with a large dog like Lucas.

I had taught a service dog tuck behavior several times, most recently a week before my session with Lucas, and was pretty confident that it was going to be a quick fix.  For the dogs I’d taught before, it was a very straightforward two step process: (1) lure the behavior, and (2) fade the lure.  As easy as sit.

Except it wasn’t easy for Lucas.

Lucas wasn’t at all confident that his body could fit through the small tunnel between my legs and the chair.  And he was even less sure he was comfortable with the feeling of his body being lightly squeezed between my leg and the chair.  He felt pretty squicky with the whole situation — not frightened, just a practical “Nope, I’m going to get stuck if I try that, better not,” type of response.

Well, crap.

At the time, that was the only recipe I knew to teach that behavior with luring.  I could have shaped it from scratch, but Lucas was relatively new to learning with pure shaping.  Shaping the service dog tuck would have been frustrating and stressful for him.  I needed a way to teach it to him using luring or capturing, at least for the first step.

Gypsy demonstrates a service dog tuck under her handler's chair in a waiting room.

Gypsy demonstrates a service dog tuck under her handler’s chair in a waiting room.

Step one: Find a starting place that is “stupid easy” for the dog.

I decided that his biggest problem was the amount of spatial pressure. So I went back a step. Could Lucas go between my legs and a chair if I was standing up, so that I was crowding him less?  Grudgingly, yes, but he was still obviously skeptical about the contact along his sides, and it was going to be very difficult for me to gradually change my position from standing to sitting over the course of the repeated trials (think slow motion squats).

So I went back several more steps to find a stupid-easy entry point. Could Lucas go between two pieces of furniture with plenty of room to maneuver if I was completely out of the picture?  Yes, with enthusiasm.  Perfect!  That’s our starting point.

Step Two: Show them that “stupid easy” pays.

So for several minutes, Lucas got treats for going through a wide channel between a chair and an ottoman, going clockwise around the ottoman.  It looks absolutely nothing like a finished service dog tuck behavior, but at this point, we’re just looking for an entry point.  Clockwise circles between furniture: Accomplished.  Lure: Faded.  Confidence level: High.

Now the dog has a baseline incentive to stay in the game and work with you as you approach the levels where the dog is actually struggling.

Step Three: Change tiny variables in the direction of the full behavior, one variable at a time.

Think of this like a game of degrees-of-separation.  Your goal is to change one small detail at a time until you have connected the starting place with the end goal.

Once Lucas was offering this with confidence, I moved to sitting in the chair, but let him pass in front of my legs between the two pieces of furniture on the same path he’d been on before and still probably twice as wide as his body so there was very little spatial pressure.

Slowly, I moved the ottoman closer so that he had to lightly press against either my legs or the ottoman, and later both.  Clockwise circles with light body pressure: Accomplished.

But for the final service dog tuck, I wanted him behind my legs, not in front.  Once he was getting more comfortable with circling in narrower spaces very close to me, I put my legs up as a bridge, laying between an ottoman and a chair with my knees high enough that a full-grown 25.5″ tall collie was passing under my legs without touching them.  (And yes, this position was exactly as uncomfortable as that description makes it sound.)  Gradually, inch by inch, I lowered my legs until I was sitting normally with my feet on the floor and he was belly-crawling to continue to successfully go under my legs in increasingly small spaces.  Clockwise circles with light body pressure while belly-crawling under my legs: Accomplished.

Step Four: Fade out any props

I faded the ottoman further away so that it was just me, the chair and Lucas.  And suddenly he was happily crawling through the gap between the backs of my legs and the front of the chair, totally confident, completely okay with his sides/back being touched and quite pleased with himself to boot.

The only thing left to do was to teach him to pause for increasing amounts of time when he was under my legs, and finally to hold a stay in tuck position. And then alakazam! a large dog who can’t do spatial pressure suddenly has a totally functional service dog tuck for public access.

Lucas has since graduated and is now a working service dog. Photo courtesy of Stefanie Haviv.

Lucas has since graduated and is now a working service dog. Photo courtesy of Stefanie Haviv.

In dog training, slow is fast and fast is slow.

My usual training plan for that behavior has two steps.

The version I wrote up for this session with Lucas had seventeen.

But, the whole process still only took about 30 minutes from start to finish to teach the finished behavior.  That’s almost exactly how long it took to completely fade out the lure and add cues for my own dog when he learned the same behavior — the time was just allocated very differently.

People usually expect the micro-management version to take substantially longer than the broad-strokes way, and it didn’t.  And it almost never does, if you’re careful with your criteria-setting.  By the end of half an hour, both dogs were consistently and comfortably performing the same finished behavior, and I don’t think an onlooker would have been able to tell which dog learned with two big steps and which dog learned with seventeen tiny ones.

Learning how to create a new training plan or troubleshoot a recipe is one of the most useful skills a dog trainer can have.  Because I was able to adjust criteria to meet the needs of the dog I was working with, Lucas quickly learned the service dog tuck that he was struggling to master — without having to escalate to more risky training methods or wasting time trying to force a square peg into a round hole.