Confessions of a Dog Trainer

Confessions of a Dog Trainer

I have found this topic to come up on my personal Facebook feed and in other blogs often in the last few months, and I feel like I have to set the record straight.
I am a positive reinforcement trainer. (Technically I am a crossover trainer, but that’s a blog for another day) I go through training treats like most businesses go through paper clips. I have to keep my finger nails short because I get dog cookie goo stuck underneath them on a regular basis and that’s just gross. More often than not, I am seen at the grocery store with my treat pouch still on my waist. (It’s a good day if there is also a tug in my back pocket) This is just the beginning of the thought process though.

Nerdy Stuff

Time to get science-y! (Don’t worry this is just a very simple overview of what is going on in my brain when i explain what we are doing) The basis of learning is defined through operant and classical conditioning. Every experience you have can be traced back to these two concepts. Through Operant conditioning all stimulus in the environment is paired with either a negative or positive experience. Simple examples: the stove is hot, and you burn your finger when you touch it. Next time you go near the stove you remember that it might be hot. Classical conditioning is where a previously neutral stimulus is paired with a consequence. Pavlov’s dogs and the dinner bell. In your house it’s probably the sound of the food hitting the food bowl. The bowl itself had no meaning to your dog until he learned that it provided his dinner. TA DA! Classical conditioning!

Diving deeper!

Don’t lose me quite yet! Operant conditioning breaks behavior changes into 4 main parts to achieve the results you are looking for. Keeping in mind for this example we want to encourage a behavior. Positive reinforcement adds a pleasant stimulus for a correct behavior, like a cookie. Positive punishment adds a negative stimulus for an incorrect behavior, like a loud noise. Negative Reinforcement takes away a pleasant stimulus, removing access to the cookie. Negative punishment, takes away the negative stimulus, letting up pressure on the collar.

Positive Reinforcement Positive Punishment
Negative Reinforcement Negative Punishment

Now, any good trainer has a very strong grasp of these concepts. (thankfully, I have a degree in Psychology so you don’t have to get one!) A good positive reinforcement trainer knows how to use these concepts in a way that does not cause pain or fear to get the results you are looking for.

It does not mean that we only use Positive Reinforcement!

My dogs have to sit before I open the crate door. If they see coming out of their crate as reinforcement, then not opening the door can be seen as Positive Punishment. I am removing the ability to gain reinforcement by closing the crate door. No fear, no pain. Just consequence.

The Misconception!

There seems to be this misconception that you cannot train difficult behaviors, or aggression from dogs using this method. That my friends, blows my mind! I am racking my brain trying to figure out what I am missing! Clients, do you agree with me that my method is definitely getting you closer to your goals?

It seems that people who do not truly understand what Positive Reinforcement training is, think that we let dogs run amuck until we can find a behavior that we like to reinforce. I know my clients can attest to the fact that no one is running amuck when I am around! The dogs have rules and consequences that are doled out when needed, but the consequences are not based on adding fear or applying pain.

Pixie is scared of new people. She was a scared little puppy in the shelter and that’s the temperament I have to work with. Instead of correcting her every time she barked at something, we took time to understand the why behind the behavior and by using Positive Reinforcement, we are working to make the presence of new people not so scary.
Did I let her sit on the corner and bark at people until she decided it was time to take a cookie? HAHA! Definitely not. If she was over threshold, then I removed her from the aversive stimulus. (Negative punishment, see how that works!) She then began to pair the presence of new people with something good (cookies) in situations where she was able to think and process what was going on. Pixie rarely barks at people these days. (Unless they are super sketchy and I get nervous, then I’m usually okay if she stares or barks a bit) And if you see her at the dock you wonder what the heck I am talking about.

Final Thought

Now, I am not bashing anyone’s preferred method of training. I have many friends who walk their dogs on a prong collar and that is just fine for them and me. I know the proper way to fit and use a prong collar, and a slip lead, from days past, and I have chosen different methods based on the results I see, and  the results my clients see. My clients are enjoying progress and seeing changes in their dogs that they could not imagine when they started training. Happy clients and happy dogs, are enough reason for me to continue using the methods I have chosen.  I don’t think I would have happy clients, if what I was doing wasn’t working!

Let’s Talk About Barking!

Let’s Talk About Barking!

Occasionally I have people ask to me to help them fix their dogs barking problem. The conversation usually goes something like this:
“My dog barks a lot. Can you help me?”
“Sure, what is your dog barking at?”
“Is he barking at you?”
“Is he barking at things going on outside?”
“Only if there are things going on outside”
“What kind of things?”
“So he’s barking at everything, not nothing?”
“No, he will bark when there is nothing going on too”

It’s a “who’s on first” kind of conversation.

Just a heads up, if you tell me your dog is barking, that gives me absolutely no information on what is going on with your dog. If you tell me your dog barks at other dogs while on a walk, or at you while you are trying to read your favorite blog (it’s this one, I know!) then that gives me an idea of what’s going on. To me, barking is a symptom. It’s telling me that your dog is lacking in one of the areas that are important for behavioral wellness, and it’s up to us to figure out why.

In my sleuthing, I will ask you questions like “how much playtime does your pup get every day?” “How much time do you spend with your pup?” and “what does his typical day look like?”

Usually these questions will lead me to a behavior plan of more enrichment, exercise, or better communication with your pup. The end idea being, spend 15 minutes doing something with your pup every day! Together we can come up with a plan to implement this strategy, and get you back on a path to a calm and quiet house hold.

Now, with that being said, don’t ignore your dogs barking. If your pup is particularly chatty then he might be telling you that he is feeling insecure in a certain situation, or that you have been ignoring those basic exercise or enrichment tasks that he is craving. We went to the park for our hike yesterday. It was a particularly nice day, and we arrived a bit later than usual so there was quite a bit more stimulation than they are used to. We also had to run a few errands on our way home, so again, more than they are used to on a given day. I have been on my computer, working for the last 6 hours, and I have not heard a peep out of either one of them. (other than Pixie snoring)

Now, it has not been a particularly quiet day, its trash day, the guy next door has landscapers out, car doors slam and kids got off the bus just like normal. The difference is my dogs are mentally exhausted from their outing yesterday, so no barking at the things that normally would set them off. (Yes, my dogs bark at things. No, they are not perfect.)
Pixie is reactive. (Yes, Crystal, we know!!) When she barks at things, she is telling me that she is scared, and in the past the barking has gotten the scary things to go away. It does not matter if you have a mastiff, a pit bull, or a Chihuahua, that barking out of fear needs to be addressed. It’s not fair to your dog to have them in situations where they are that terrified, without trying to give them the emotional support they need to get through it.
Dragging them away is not what I mean. I am afraid of snakes. If there was a snake every time I stepped foot out the back door, I would stop going out the back door. Unfortunately our dogs can’t tell us what they are afraid of, but we can be better at reading their body language and supporting them.
If you have a barking issue, please contact me so we can get to the root of the behavior and begin working to change it. Commit to making life more enjoyable for the companion you love. You are the only advocate your dog has in this life! Make sure you are on the same page!

How to give your dog a job!

How to give your dog a job!

‘Your dog needs a job’

How many times have you told a puppy owner this one? What does that even mean?!

Does every border collie owner also own sheep? Does every lab owner go duck hunting every weekend? Heck no!

Can these dogs be successful in a pet home? Heck yes!

So what does “give your dog a job” even mean? It means finding ways to teach your dog what is expected of them while living in your world, and how to be successful in your environment.

It means giving them fair and consistent guidelines on how they should behave in certain circumstances. In my house, my dog’s jobs are to sit quietly while I work with the other dog, wait for a release before running out of their kennels, stay on the rug while I am cooking dinner, and not mug me if I drop food. (I am a mess in the kitchen so this was a hard one for my dogs)

I also give them fun jobs, like our conditioning work or finding their kibble in a puzzle toy. We play with the flirt pole a few times a week and go to sport class sometimes.

In public, my dog’s jobs are not to pull me around, and not rush or scare the other people in the park. (This one is easier for Opie than Pixie. See “I hate walking my dog” from April 2016. She’s a work in progress) Sit quietly in their kennels until I am ready to get them out of the car. (This one is difficult for Opie)

Now, all this sounds like I spend an extraordinary amount of time with my dogs. Each of these things we work on for about 2 minutes at a time.  A conditioning session might be 10 to 15 minutes because it’s mostly repetitive, and usually I can do that while waiting for dinner to come out of the oven. The key is to get a bit creative and to DO SOMETHING. It doesn’t matter what it is, just do something. This will morph into a plan, which becomes routine, and the next thing you know you aren’t even thinking about the responsibilities you have given to your pup, and the things they have learned!

The Secret to Loose Leash Walking!

The Secret to Loose Leash Walking!

My secret to Loose Leash Walking!

The ultimate goal!! To have a dog who doesn’t drag you down the street! Who listens when you are tethered together. The one skill that every 6 to 8 month old puppy owner is wishing they had the magical answer for!

Somewhere I read that teaching your pup to walk on a loose leash was just the same as teaching any other trick. That clicked for me, the dog trainer, but my clients look at me like I have 3 heads. (There is that glassy look that I was talking about in my Trigger Stacking article) Follow me here!

Remember when you were teaching your pup to sit? He learned first in front of the cookie jar because jumping up at you was not a good idea. Brilliant pup! Then you moved into the living room and asked for a “sit” and got the blank stare?

Yeah that blank stare!

Dogs have a hard time generalizing what you are asking of them, unless you ask them for things in lots of different places.  Add in all the new exciting smells of the world and your puppy has no brains left to give you!

Take a look outside to the sidewalk. See all those individual squares? Those are all different places for your pup, with new smells and different experiences. That means you have to tackle a loose leash on every single one of those squares until your pup gets the idea. Don’t worry, with some consistency on your part, this will go quicker than you imagine.


Start inside the house. Yep! Leash puppy up and walk around the kitchen then the living room and down the hallway. If there is any pulling on the leash just stop and wait for puppy to look back at you with that blank stare. Reward puppy right at your side where you would have a nice loose leash. I aim for the seam of your pants. If cookie shows up at your side, then puppy is going to want to stay at your side to get those cookies.

The other secret is to set a timer for your session. 5 mins for baby puppies, maybe 15 mins for older puppies. Heck, maybe you only have 5 mins of patience, it’s better than nothing!

Once your inside walking is great, start moving toward the door you would like to begin to go out for a walk. Same rules apply! If you feel any pulling, you stop and wait for puppy to look at you. The first time you venture out the door, you might be walking one very long step at a time, but the more consistent you are, the faster your puppy will pick up on the concept that pulling means you stop.

Set the timer! If you only make it to the mailbox in 20 mins, well, that is your pups walk for the day. Having them think about what they are doing is so much better than letting them drag you around for 20 mins. You are also one day closer to meeting your goals!

The Secret!

Practice! Sorry, I wish my magic wand worked for this one. If your pup is struggling to get down the driveway, go back to something easier like the front door. Once you turn around and go back to a place that your dog has already had the chance to investigate, then they have more brain to give you. When they walk with a nice loose leash back to the door, then tell them what a brilliant puppy they are! Feedback is so important!!

At the end of the day there are 100 different ways to reach the end result. Hopefully, this gives you some idea on how to get started!

Being sent to the principals office

Being sent to the principals office

Why is “going to the trainer” a bad thing? When did I become a high school principal?
I am currently working with a dog at a local daycare. I pull him out of his play group for an hour in the morning, and put him back when we are done. It’s a good set up for the things we are working on. Recently, one of the daycare staff was struggling with one of the dogs in the group, and quipped “knock it off or I’ll send you to the trainer” I chuckled because it sounded very similar to “Daniel, I am sending you to the principal’s office,”  but it milled around in my head for the rest of the morning.
I thought about the things I worked on in my day training session. We played with a new squeaky toy, got a massage, polished up some cues, and chased some cookies around the floor.
Well, now that sounds like fun! I think the dog had fun. He certainly worked hard for me, and played even harder.
I thought about my dogs training sessions at home. They are always willing to join me, and give me everything they can at that particular minute. I am respectful of how they are feeling and make sure to break any session up with a game of tug or chasing some cookies.
I know I don’t like to do things that aren’t enjoyable. If training wasn’t fun for my dog, would I have to leash them up to get them off the couch? Beg them to come out of their crate? I don’t have either of these struggles so I am thinking that what I am asking them is pretty fun.
Then I wonder why do people think that training is not fun? I know training for competition or sport is not everyone’s cup of tea but enjoying your dog should be. (Isn’t that why people get dogs?) Is it the notion that the trainer is going to make you or your dog do something they don’t think is right? Is it the idea that you or your dog will fail?
I’m not sure any of my clients have failed in their journey with their dog. They may not have reached their goals, or the dog may not have been the right fit for them, but I definitely don’t see that as a failure. I also don’t think I have ever asked them to do anything that they were not comfortable doing.

Biting on dad? How about a time out in the kennel.

Don’t want to recall from the back yard? Don’t wait for them to decide they want to come in, go get them and practice more.

Not into a tug session at 7:30am?  Me either kid!

Why do you think that “going to the trainer” is seen as a punishment?

2017 and the holes in 2016

2017 and the holes in 2016

It’s 2017. Is anyone else wondering how that happened? I will tell you that I am definitely that person who still thinks 10 years ago was 1996. A client’s 7 year old son was singing “baby got back” at an appointment today, and I realized how long that song has stood the test of time. (Go ahead and google when that was released…1992… yeah… think about that for a second)

That being said, I realized I’ve had Pixie for 4 years and Opie for 2 years come March (time flies when you are having fun). Pixie was never meant to be a sporting dog and I raised her with the intention that she would be adopted out into a pet home where she would live out her days sleeping on the sofa. She knew she was never leaving.

2015 was the year I decided to keep her and try out some dog sports. It’s also the year I broke her. She has a natural drive, and the pit bull willingness to do anything I asked her. She learned what I wanted from her quickly, and my inexperience in sports caused me to push her into more than she really was capable of handling. I have kept or fostered numerous dogs and trained them to be appropriate pets, but the stress and chaos of competition is still relatively new to me. Her drive and willingness to please masked her fear of new situations, and new people, both of which she had to deal with when competing.

Raising a sport dog is very different than raising a pet, and Pixie started off with quite a deficit. She is so stoic and willing that I didn’t realize what was going on until her extreme reactivity began to surface in the winter of 2015. (More on that here: I hate walking my dog)

2016 was then dedicated her reactivity and making her feel more secure with her environment. I also discovered her food sensitivity and how that was contributing to her crappy attitude. We competed very little, but competed in new venues where I could control the chaos in her experience. The more I worked with her the more I realized that the fundamentals in our relationship were what was broken. She loved dock jumping but was so overwhelmed by the chaos in the atmosphere that she could not think through what I was asking her. My frustration with her was not helping either.

Training sessions have moved from strict conditioning and management of her reactivity to just hanging out and trying to get some focus to work in a new place. The bar has been lowered tremendously and I am beginning to enjoy the dog things that I love with her. Going to the park to walk is not a detailed plan to rival that of a Navy SEAL mission, it’s actually a walk, and some play and some focus. I enjoy it. Pixie enjoys it. It’s far from perfect but definitely not a panic situation that it used to be.

We will continue with this new training path to see where it brings us. I have a good feeling 2017 will be about filling the holes and enjoying the time with my dog. I have learned to adjust my expectations and give Pixie clear indications of what I am asking. Work is work, she has to work when I ask, but I will make sure she is ready and feeling secure in her surroundings. I am her person and I want to know that I will keep her safe.

If you see us in a field or in a parking lot just hanging out, know that we are training, maybe subtle skills, but we are training. I am dedicating this year to as much foundation training as we can. Maybe by 2018 we will be back on track, or we will have a new goal, either way, I will be enjoying the dog I am with.


Crate Training… Do it Now!

Got a new puppy? Crate Train them!

Got a newly rescued dog? Crate Train them too!

Got an older dog who is trusted inside the house? Make sure they are still comfortable inside their crate!

Think crates are “mean” and “jail” for your dog? Get over it!

I have to say that 60% of the issues that I see with my clients can be greatly improved by their dog being crate trained at a young age. Crates don’t have to be jail like, and your pup will actually appreciate a place to go when they are feeling overwhelmed or need some space. Don’t you like to have a few minutes to yourself?

Puppies should be taught at a young age, that their crate is a place to go to relax. Just like a toddler at a birthday party, sometimes the young ones don’t know when to cool it. Anyone who has raised a puppy knows that sometimes they get so overstimulated that they lose their brains, and need a quick time out to find them again.

Housebreaking? That’s a job in itself! No one can have their eyes on a 9 week old puppy 24 hours a day, I mean sometimes you have to blink! The solution: crate time with a chew or stuffed Kong so puppy does not make any mistakes in training.

Overly friendly adolescent? Practice meeting people on leash when they come in the door. If they fail at keeping all 4 feet on the floor 3 times, then crate until they calm down.

Bringing a new dog in the house? Allowing some crate time for the new dog to get acclimated with their new surroundings or new family members is a great way to make the transition go smoothly!

Need to run out of town on emergency? Your friends will be much more willing to watch your dogs if they can be safely crated while they stay!

Did your dogs get into an ugly fight? Crate and rotate until wounds are healed and the cause can be addressed by a professional!

I could seriously go on for days about the benefits of crating your pup! My dogs love their crates, and we make going in and coming out a game to give them positive associations with it.

Look at all the crating happening here! Crating at a trial, crating with a friend, crating when a friend is too crazy and needs a nap, crating to recover from an injury. All things that may not be a normal part of life for you, but definitely will make your life easier!

If you have a dog that does not love his crate, or a new puppy that you would like to get started with crate training, contact me today! The Freckled Paw