So there you are…you are standing in your living room amidst the remains of your couch, now reduced to upholstery fabric and foam (is this really what they make these out of? You expected something a little more substantial, given the sum of money you are still paying to that trendy furniture showplace downtown–no payments for the first six months!) Fergus, your prize Sherpa Double Doodle that cost you more than you paid for that couch, is looking innocently up at you from the scattered tumbleweeds of fiberfill. “That’s it! Fergus, you are going to a dog trainer!”
So what should you know about dog trainers? How do you talk to them? Not all dog trainers are created equal. Some have eons of experience, while others do this as a hobby for the neighbor’s dog. Some have certifications, accreditations, memberships, etc. Some believe in all positive training methods, while others believe that the shock collar is the only way to go. Obviously, as a Karen Pryor Academy graduate (that’s the KPA CTP on my name), I’m going to hope that you go with a good dog-friendly trainer. There are plenty of good articles on how to find a dog trainer, so I’m not going to dwell on that here, except to suggest that you do your research and find a trainer that you are comfortable with.
When you make that first phone call, be reasonable! Dog trainers are, on the whole, very busy people. Most keep odd hours and are not necessarily available to drop everything to answer the phone right away. Usually (hopefully!), this is because they are working with a client, driving to a client, taking careful notes and doing research for or about a client, or, and this happens occasionally, they are outside taking some much needed time off with their own dogs. Do not be afraid to leave a message. Most really will get back to you very quickly!
Be polite! “Hi! I have a dog in need of training! What are your rates? What methods do you use?” works much better than, “I have a dog that needs to be trained. I can’t afford your exorbitant rates, but if you don’t help me, immediately and for free, I will be forced to take him to the nearest shelter and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT!” Let me assure you that, when faced will caller #2, I will hang up the phone. I will not feel even a little guilty about it—life is too short to deal with a stranger’s attempt at emotional blackmail. I don’t make a lot of money doing this. Trust me—if there’s a Lexus parked outside, it’s not mine! My jeans get jumped on and torn, drooled on, probably have remnants of cheese and hotdogs in the pockets despite repeated washings. I do this because I wake up in the morning and love what I do. That said, I have to pay for my house, my car, my horse (yes, I have an expensive non-dog hobby too!), and all of the seminars that I try to attend in my not-so-copious amounts of free time. I simply cannot do this for free. My prices are as reasonable as they can be while still covering (sorta) my expenses. If my prices are out of your range, please tell me. Perhaps we can work something out—a payment plan, or even some bartering. But do not try to engage my services while attempting to devalue them. It will just put us at odds, and you will not get very far with me.
Be realistic! Haggis the Scottish Terrier is probably never going to be the dog you can leave loose in your house with your daughter’s beloved pet guinea pig. Haggis may try to convince you differently, but I believe the guinea pig should have a say in this as well! Likewise, Snapper the Cocker Spaniel may not want to be hugged and grappled by all sixteen of your grandchildren. He’d probably be much happier quietly working on a Kong in his crate until the chaos dies down. Dog trainers can help with specific problems, and we can teach both the dog and the owner a common language so that they can live together happily—but we can’t change your dog’s personality!
Have an open mind! I am a “clicker trainer” and I explain that right up front with my students. It is a method that has worked well for me, and I believe in it. I would love to explain how it works and how we can use it in some completely mind-blowing ways to communicate with your dog. It takes some skill and timing, and it feels clumsy at first. Remember when you first learned how to drive a stick shift? It feels like that! Believe me, I do understand! Like everything, it takes practice. I can’t tell you how many times I have clicked, and then lobbed the clicker at my confused dog. Or dropped the leash, the clicker, the treat, and everything else while fumbling to…oh…what was I doing, ack CLICK! Trust me, it gets easier! And at the end of it all, you have a dog that is very tightly bonded to you (no, not just your treat pouch). You have a partner.
Don’t forget your sense of humor! Be willing to laugh at yourself. Be willing to laugh at your dog. Be willing to laugh at me! One of my favorite training moments was when I was teaching Cherry (my beloved American Staffordshire Terrier) the difference between touching a target with her nose and with her paw. She was getting frustrated, and I wasn’t reading her frustration level very well. Finally, after being asked to touch the target with her paw, enthusiastically bopping it with her nose several times, she got fed up, picked up the target (a tupperware lid) and threw it at me! I still have that lid. I laugh every time I see it. But I also learned a very valuable lesson that day. Cherry now can easily touch a target with the requested body part, and even now knows which paw (right or left) that I want her to touch the target with. Your dogs will teach you as much as you teach them, but you have to be willing to laugh and learn. And if you want a quick smile, go watch Fenton, the deer-chasing Labrador retriever, who clearly had better things to do than return to his owner! Whether the owner realized it or not, he was getting a quick and public lesson from Fenton. Fenton finds chasing deer to be far more rewarding than returning to his owner for what would otherwise have been a quiet walk in the park. All of our dogs have a bit of Fenton in them!
And finally—PRACTICE! I can tell immediately whether or not you have worked with your dog that week. It’s obvious. Even if you tell me you practiced, if your dog is telling me a different story, I am inclined to believe your dog. This does not mean I am going to call you out on it. I am far more tactful than that! But I might suggest far more structured practice times. We all have busy jobs and busy lives. My own dogs don’t get as much attention as I would like (one of the drawbacks of working with everyone else’s dogs!). I’m not going to judge you, just like I hope my dressage coach doesn’t judge me for the occasional weeks that I don’t even climb onto my horse, far less ride him. But understand that training your dog, as with many things, is a progression, and you are not going to move forward unless you put in the time. I can teach you, and I can coach you, but I can’t do it for you.
Part of the requirements to raising a guide dog puppy is regular attendance at two puppy meetings per month. Many times these meetings involve outings- the mall, grocery stores, hardware stores, etc. The puppy clubs go as a group to work on exposures, positive practices, and so the leaders can see how all the puppies react to certain environments. Following Dierdre’s surgery, and subsequent month off of training, exposures, and general guide dog puppy life, she was slowly eased back into the world outside. And something troubling began to emerge. Following her surgery, Dierdre started to develop fear issues. It started out small, Dierdre jumped at a few noises that normally wouldn’t have bothered her. She quickly developed an irrational fear of the fly swatter, and if we got a mosquito in the house, I’d have to crate her in another room before following the insect around the house swatting at it, otherwise Dierdre would be a trembling mess. She started avoiding the stove when I was cooking, and when the oven door shut and made a *thud* she’d pee all over the floor and run out of the kitchen as far as her little labrador legs could carry her.
I kept the guide dog school and our puppy club leader appraised of her new issues, and they began to talk to the roving guide dog trainer who is in charge of all the puppies. She said to keep on eye on it. I got permission to do some LAT and BAT training with her, as well as simple low-impact agility for confidence-building.
Her next meeting was a horse farm, filled with all sorts of smells and distractions. She was nervous at first when we arrived, but buoyed by the happy confidence of her puppy friends, she settled down.
She did well focusing around the horses, even when one stuck his head through the fence to sniff at her. The chickens proved to be a bit more challenging, and Dierdre completely forgot that there was anything at all to be afraid of at the horse farm.
Dierdre calmly walked next to a horse, and by the end of the meeting she appeared to have recovered her confidence and happily sat for a group picture.
Back at home, her fears continued, and she was placed on restricted outings, meaning she wasn’t to go out unless it was to a quiet, familiar area for outings. For nearly 2 weeks she stayed mostly at home, and we worked on her traffic noise sensitivity. Living on a busy road in a semi-rural area meant she had heard traffic from the first day I brought her home, including loud dump trucks and speeding motorcycles. Noises that never bothered her before suddenly made her run behind me in fear.
Two weeks later we all met at the firehouse for our second monthly meeting. The puppies were exposed to sirens, strange noises, firemen in fire suits, and the loud, echoing firehouse bay. Knowing Dierdre’s sensitivities, we went into the building when they turned on the sirens, and she didn’t seem particularly bothered by the noises. But entering the large cavernous garage, Dierdre suddenly tucked her tail and tried to climb into my arms. We sat by the door until she was feeling bit calm, and then she hesitantly walked into the garage. She was unsure of the firefighter dressed in the outfits, but her biggest concern were the echoes inside, and after a bit of time in the garage, I took her outside.
It was arranged that the guide dog trainer would drive over from Tampa for the next meeting, to further evaluate Dierdre. The group leader talked about transferring her to another puppy raiser, in the hopes of changing up her routine and environment, but that idea was nixed by the trainer for fear it would make things worse.
We worked on Dierdre’s fear issues for the next two weeks, but the morning of the meeting, which was held at the local mall, Dierdre refused to get out of my truck. The wind in the tall palm trees was making the palm fronds rustle, and Dierdre flat out refused to get out of the truck as long as the wind was blowing. After a few minutes of coaxing her out with food, we made our way to the front of the mall, where Dierdre was busy looking every which way. Upon entering the building her tail clamped down between her legs and she started shaking, licking her lips and trying to hide between my legs. The guide dog trainer didn’t bother to torture her anymore; she said she was recommending a career-change for Dierdre due to fear, and she excused us from the meeting early. By the end of the week the official notice came that Dierdre was career changed, and I made arrangements to bring her back to the Tampa campus and pick up a new puppy. I asked about keeping her, but our leader said if I chose to keep her, because of her fear issues, I wouldn’t be allowed to raise another puppy. I made the decision not to keep her, and the night before I turned her in, I printed an envelope full of puppy pictures and a letter to her new family.
I cried most of the 4 hour drive to turn her in, and even more when we got to the campus. Luckily, the kennel workers are used to sobbing puppy raisers turning in puppies, so I didn’t get any strange looks. I took one last picture of Dierdre before handing her over. They assured me they would find the perfect home for her from their long list of waiting families looking to adopt.
We headed over to the puppy kennel to pick up our next charge, a 12-week old female black lab named Francie. I hoped that puppy breath and snuggles would be a band-aid to the hurt of losing Dierdre. The puppy kennel staff took one look at my red puffy eyes and knew we had just turned in a dog. They’re used to it, too. The quickly got us a bag of goodies and plucked little Francie out of her kennel. She was a porker, nothing like petite, fine-boned Dierdre. Francie quickly earned the nickname ‘chubs’ and I learned that her father was from a different guide dog school, and she was a collaborative breeding. Two of her brothers, Patriot and Flounder, had been delivered to other raisers in our club when the trainer had come for Dierdre’s evaluation.
Francie was adorable, and I hugged her tight the entire way home. It quickly became apparent that Francie was completely uninterested in toys of any kind. They sat on the floor, unplayed with. France wanted nothing more than to cuddle beside you and be snuggled. Baby “chubsy-wubsy” as we came to call her, was an ace student. Her first week home, she had already mastered sit, down and stay. I felt pretty confident that this puppy would become a guide, but I couldn’t stop mourning Dierdre.
There was something different about Dierdre, and despite raising 5 other puppies, I had not wanted to keep any of them even a fraction of how much I wanted to keep Dierdre. After a week and a half of moping about, we put a call in to the guide dog school. I wanted Dierdre back, and if it meant giving up raising and having to turn Francie in, so be it. It was a nerve-wracking two days while they contacted the career change department and made sure Dierdre hadn’t been offered to an adoptive family yet. The director of puppy raising asked the same trainer that came to do her evaluation to take Dierdre and a puppy home for the night and decide if I could continue to raise. The news came back positive: Dierdre wasn’t a puddle of jello, she wouldn’t teach Francie to be fearful. That very next weekend, just 2 weeks after I had given her back, she was back in my arms. As it was an “In For Training” weekend, when puppy raisers bring their puppies to the campus to be formally turned in for guide dog training, another raiser in our club brought Dierdre back for me. I happily signed her adoption papers and took her to the pet store to buy all manner of ‘contraband’ toys she wasn’t allowed to have before. Stuffed things, things with squeakies, things that bounced and rolled. We got her a new collar and harness, took her to play off-leash at the dog beach for the first time, and that night she slept plastered to my side on the bed.
I am sure we all know about Kongs, and love them. Wonderful little hollow rubber toys that you can fill with goodies for your dog to enjoy. Most of the time I see peanut butter and liquid cheese touted as the filling of choice, since these are easy to spoon into a Kong and delicious. And calorie laden.
That brings me to the point of this post. My dog Molly, my high flying, hard hitting agility crazy-girl was showing some energy loss and had an ear infection and wound that needed some veterinary care. To my dismay, my girl was up seven pounds since our last visit. And that was in addition to the two pound gain seen at that prior visit. I was horrified! Molly was not worried about it, she just asked the tech for a biscuit. And then it crossed my mind. Kongs. My husband is in charge of the Kongs. Now to sum up a very complicated situation, my husband loves to cook and grill and make as much food as possible. He loves to feed people, he loves to hear his handiwork praised. I myself suffer from some extra pounds as a result of his love of freely serving all things edible to anybody willing to eat. And our three dogs are no exception. We had A Talk. Apparently, the Kongs had evolved into a high calorie art form. Any leftover food imaginable was stuffed into them and sealed shut with a generous glob of peanut butter and put into the deep freeze. His pride and joy was calling to the dogs to “Line Up!” and having the three of them in an angelic row of down-stays awaiting their delicious snack. I must have been blind!
The easy solution would be to eliminate Kong Time entirely. But relationships are give and take, and while my husband may or may not love his life being overrun by agility jumps in every corner of the yard and house, and corgi-hair tumbleweeds blowing through the living room, Kong Time is one part of dog ownership that he truly enjoys. Maybe I am a softie, but shouldn’t he be able to hold onto one of the (admittedly few) things that makes him happy about sharing his life with dogs?
But Kongs are not always about compromise in a relationship with someone who enjoys feeding people and dogs (a little too much). Kongs are a great occasional treat. They can occupy your dog if he is on crate rest. While she is learning how to be quiet in her crate at a dog training class or agility trial. If he is working through separation anxiety and needs a little something to keep him busy and occupied. If you have company over and want to give your dogs a little something to do and enjoy while you entertain your guests. Kongs are wonderful things, but in our little family we were experiencing too much of a good thing.
So what to put inside of the Kong?
Peanut butter and squirt cheese are easy and a crowd pleaser, but not really the best thing to be given regularly in large amounts, right? When I make Kong filling, I like to make a puree the consistency of pudding out of reasonably low calorie and healthful ingredients.
The base of whatever puree I am making will be a safe-for-dogs low calorie vegetable. My favorites are
Green Beans (Frozen or Fresh.)
Carrots (Frozen or Fresh)
Pumpkin (Fresh or Canned. Be sure to not use canned pumpkin pie filling!)
Other choices are shredded or finely chopped cucumber, cooked: zucchini, yellow squash, peas, sweet potatoes, broccoli or cauliflower.
I usually use one or two of these vegetables/fruits in combination to make up the lion’s share of my puree. I will cook enough for about 2-3 cups
You expect my dog to eat that?
Low calorie, low fat and full of healthful vitamins. But what about taste? I like to add some more yummy ingredients within moderation to my puree, about 1-2 Tbsp worth. My favorites
Yogurt (Plain, Nonfat, No Sugar Added.)
With yogurt I am more generous, and add two or three heaping spoonfuls to my puree. It tastes delicious to dogs and can help with digestion and reduction of yeast infections. YUM!
Applesauce (No Sugar Added, “Natural”)
Other fruits that I like to add are blueberries, peaches, pears or cantaloupe. With fruit and its higher sugar content, it is important to remember to moderate the amount added to the puree to only a little bit, or a piece or two.
Peanut Butter does still sneak its way into my Kongs these days, but it is now in small quantity!
Everything added to the Kong gets mashed, smashed, ground up or grated into the puree the consistency of pudding. This has two benefits: you can easily spoon it into the Kong and pack it full, and you can then freeze the Kong for several hours before serving it to your dog. Freezing the Kong of course makes the treat last longer, and makes your dog work harder!
So, be creative and enjoy! Feel free to share some of your favorite Kong recipes in the comments!
The classical definition of a “tragedy” is a dramatic or literary work in which the main character is brought to great suffering or ruin as a result of a tragic flaw — a grievous misjudgment, moral failing, or inability to cope with difficult circumstances.
This book is, in every sense, a tragedy. It is beautifully written, unsparing in its honesty, and very, very sad. It is absolutely not a book that everyone will enjoy. But it’s also brilliant and important and cathartic.
Part Wild is the story of a troubled, naive young woman who purchases a wolfdog puppy after fleeing an abusive relationship. The puppy, Inyo, grows up to be what her nature dictates she must: a creature that fits uncomfortably in the space between wildness and domesticity, unable to belong fully to either world.
Inyo, like her parents, proves impossible for her people to contain safely or humanely. She is a natural predator, with lethal consequences for endangered wildlife and unlucky pets that cross her path. She is relentlessly active and relentlessly destructive, ruining her owner’s house and possessions; her constant howling and wild behavior cause her owners to lose home after home. But she is also dog enough to feel some desire to bond with people, and to be completely unable to survive without human support. Much of the story chronicles Terrill’s desperate efforts to find a place in the world where she and Inyo can live. Unsurprisingly, however, no such place seems to exist. Only while hiking in the rugged outdoors — another environment in limbo between wilderness and civilization — do either Inyo or Terrill seem to approach anything resembling happiness.
Inyo isn’t the only troubled creature in the equation. Terrill is also very candid about her own struggles with mental health and emotional stability throughout this period. She suffers from OCD, depression, and awful relationship choices. During the part of her life chronicled in this memoir, she isn’t even in a good position to own a normal dog (as is made too tragically clear).
What follows is a story that is as predictable as it is heartbreaking. All the classical elements of tragedy are there: the warnings that are not heeded until it’s too late, the misjudgments and mistakes that mire the central characters deeper in their doom, the slow inexorable inevitability of the ending, from which there is and can be no escape.
If you’re looking for an uplifting story of triumph over adversity, this ain’t it: the author’s struggles pretty much all end badly, and then she goes out and grabs some more adversity, because apparently the previous go-around wasn’t enough. If you’re prone to getting frustrated when you have to sit back and watch somebody follow bad decisions with worse ones, then Part Wild might just make your head explode. And if you’re the sort of dog lover who already has a bleak view on how animals suffer when the people who are supposed to be responsible for their lives make choices that hurt them, well, you might want to give this book a pass. (Spoiler: neither the people who breed wolfdogs nor the people who buy them are models of dog savvy or great ethics.)
Reading Part Wild felt a little like renting my soul out as a punching bag for Mike Tyson on PCP. It hurt. I had to put my Kindle down several times and walk away before I threw it out the window.
And yet, for all that, I think it’s a tremendous book.
The great virtue of Part Wild, to me, is that it is so clear that breeding and keeping wolfdogs is a tragedy. Yes, the author is painfully ignorant when she buys puppy Inyo from an equally ignorant, profoundly unethical BYB… but afterward, she does the research, she seeks out the answers, and she learns through both education and experience that it is not possible to give these creatures a safe, happy, fulfilling life. She can’t do it, and no one else who offers to take Inyo can do it, either.
While some rare few wolfdogs do live comfortably in domestic surroundings, they’re one in a hundred — and the other ninety-nine of their siblings, parents, and cousins ended badly. Terrill interviews several breeders who did their level best to develop lines that would be able to live happily among people, and found that they had gotten out of breeding wolfdogs, because there was no way to do it ethically.
The mythology that surrounds these animals leads to a lot of very real suffering, and the value of Terrill’s work is that it so compellingly documents her own journey from being lured by that mythology to being disillusioned by the reality. The very existence of wolfdogs is the source of their tragedy. These unfortunate animals exist only because of human hubris and human egocentrism: the desire to imagine that a powerful, noble, wild creature will magically be a spiritual companion to an equally powerful, noble, and wild soul.
But, of course, the truth doesn’t bear much resemblance to that.
And, as the book shows (without ever explicitly underlining the conclusion), the people who buy into the myth are frequently people who lack self-awareness or agency in other aspects of their lives, and who are looking to create a better reality by wishful thinking. They’re often in shaky life circumstances even before taking on the tremendous burden that living with a half-wild creature entails. This, too, contributes to the inevitability of the outcomes (and, on a personal note, my frustration with a lot of the people breeding these creatures. Watching the animals suffer because of the callous irresponsibility of their people hits aaaallll my Rageful Rescue Person buttons, and there’s a lot of that in this book).
Through Terrill’s candor, however, it might be possible for others to learn from her mistakes and avoid making their own. That’s why I think this book is so valuable: it shatters all those myths and magical ideas about what it means to live with a wolfdog, and it mounts an irrefutable case for why the breeding and keeping of these creatures is morally indefensible.
If that stops one person from breeding a litter of wolfdogs, or from buying a puppy that’s doomed before birth, or even from repeating and perpetuating the myths that contribute to this suffering, then that might be a silver lining to the story of Inyo’s life and her owner’s grief.
Regardless, though, this is a brilliant and wrenching memoir. It is good. It is not happy, but it’s good. It’s the kind of book that lodges splinters in your soul.
Way back when I first got Widget, I took her to a great puppy playgroup once a week. This particular group happened to be frequented by a lot of Seriously Serious agility folks and their new “he’s gonna be my MACH dog!” puppies, so along with the standard playgroupy socialization things, we also did a little bit of stuff designed to expose our dogs to some stuff they might encounter in agility.
Even as a baby, Widget was an alarmingly fearless little animal who was willing to try everything. Would she run through the baby play tunnel we put out? Obviously! Would she walk across the elevated board (just a piece of wood held up by a couple stacks of books)? Of course, and then for good measure, she would tug while standing on it. Stack of blocks to knock over (to simulate the sounds the equipment makes)? Fun! Running through a jump standard? Sure, why not?
And then one day, the lady who ran our class was like, “Hey, let’s try out some baby teeter stuff!” and pulled out her wobble board (a piece of wood with a halved tennis ball glued to the bottom: it tips, but only slightly, and is just designed to expose a dog to the feeling of the ground moving a little). All the other puppies happily pounced on the board, rolled around, played tug while standing on it and otherwise behaved like model pre-agility pups. Widget walked over, put a paw on it, and when it wiggled, she gave me huge whale eyes, ran over to the corner of the room and refused to engage for the rest of the class. “Is she….sick?”, my instructor asked. “Um, maybe?”, I responded. It was so out of character for her to be scared of anything that ‘sick’ seemed like the most logical reason. But a couple of weeks later, we tried again: same thing. And then a couple of weeks after that, we tried getting the puppies up on the fancy moving exam table (the class was held at a vet’s office, and they had a cool exam table on an elevator platform so it could be raised and lowered at will). Again, Widget was not having it. She was very adamant that a) the ground is not supposed to move, WTF! and b) Widgets do not like to feel like they are out of control. “You better watch out–you’re going to have a teeterphobe on your hands!” said one of my classmates, who was no doubt envisioning Widget running against her pup three years down the line and feeling a little gleeful about it. At that point, I did what was, in retrospect, probably the smartest thing I could have done: I backed off doing teeter stuff completely. For the next eight or so months, Widget and I worked on a bunch of other pre-agility skills, but the closest we came to doing teeter stuff was doing some basic contact training. This was not easy: I am a problem-solver type, and what I really, really wanted to do was to build all kinds of different wobble boards and do some crazy thing where Widget ate all her meals off the boards and had to stand on the board before we went outside and and and…..Luckily, for once in my life, I did not succumb to my crazy, and so for several months, I just pretended that the teeter did not exist and would never be a factor in our lives.
And then, about a month ago, I decided to start reintroducing The Dreaded Teeter. Widget has gotten a lot more physically confident since our puppy class; we’ve also done a ton of shaping, and a TON of 101 Things To Do With A Box and its variants. One of the things I do with her all the time is set a novel object out and reward her for interacting with it in different ways: basically, anytime I bring anything even vaguely durable in the house (cans of tomatoes, new brooms, boxes of mail), I put it down on the ground and click/treat Widget for figuring out new ways to interact with it. I warn you that this kind of creates a monster: these days, any time I have anything new within Widget’s sight line, she is like, “WHAT IS THAT CAN I STAND ON IT CAN I BITE IT CAN I GO IN A CIRCLE AROUND IT, YAY FUN GIVE ME TREATS!” However, it also creates a puppy who is brave around new objects and whose first instinct is to try to engage with new things rather than shying away from them. This is a very useful thing for a jack-of-all-trades sport puppy: if they’re presented with a treiball ball or a lure-coursing lure or an unfamiliar agility obstacle, they’re pretty likely to go over and see what’s cookin’, rather than shying away from it. Just as a backup, I put the “go over and look at that new thing; you will probably get some treats out of it” behavior on cue (Widge’s is ‘go check it out!’) So between all those things, I felt hopeful that we could get some teeter back in our lives without it becoming Big Scary again. However, I still went (and am still going!) very very very slowly. Here are a few things that we did/are still doing; hopefully, the combination of these things will result in a dog who, in a few months, thinks the teeter is the best thing since sliced bread.
In June I wrote about how to make your own training platform for your dog. So now, what can you do with it?! This post is information cobbled together from various classes I have taken, both online and with my local dog training club. Platforms are small, and playing around with them is a great rainy day activity – and also an excellent training tool. Whether you are headed towards freestyle, obedience, rally, or just want to have fun and build confidence - there is a way to enjoy platform training with your dog. I promise, she will enjoy it just as much as you do!
Platform training did wonders for my low confidence girl, Perri. Perri deep thinks everything that we work on together and used to shut down if she felt even the slightest bit overwhelmed. Perri is a dog who taught me that short and positive training sessions are best. Especially with something completely new to a dog, it is best to limit your sessions to only a few minutes at a time. You (and your dog!) may want to keep going – but it is best to let it all sink in. This holds true with platform training. Train for a minute or two at a time and then take a break. There is no rush, this is all fun!
[Note - I use a clicker to train my dogs. For convenience, I will be using the world "click" throughout this post to indicate when I would mark and reward a behavior, but of course a marker word or alternate noise can be substituted. You will see that I use a marker word with my corgi Ein, since he is afraid of the clicker noise.]
1. Feet On…
You gotta start somewhere! The first step is getting your dog onto the platform – and I suggest using a platform long enough for your dog to comfortably stand on to start with. Begin by clicking any interaction with the platform – even if it is just a slight head turn towards it. It won’t be long before your dog figures out that the platform is where the food is. Progress from a head turn to looking at the platform, paw on the platform, two paws on the platform (your dog will more than likely start with the front paws!) and finally, rear paws on the platform (that can be the hardest part!) Don’t help him with pointing or verbal commands or luring, let the dog figure it out. He will, I promise! Depending on how experienced your dog is with shaping, things may progress more quickly. But not to worry! Teaching a dog to put all four feet onto a platform is a great way to help him learn about shaping and using his body.
[Video Example: See Ein learning about putting four feet on the platform]
2. … And Lovin’ It!
Once you have your dog reliably stepping on the platform with all four feet, it’s time to make things even more fun! I click as soon as all four feet are on the platform and then throw another treat so that the dog has to run off of the platform to get it. If your dog knows that she gets a treat for putting all four feet on her platform, she will more than likely be racing back to you to get all four feet back onto it! This builds value into the platform and makes it a place that your dog really wants to be! My own dogs find their platforms so valuable and rewarding that they even try to step on the platform as I pick it up off the ground!
3. Desired Position
Since platforms can be used as a foundation for freestyle or obedience positions, you can start to think of how you might like to use your platform to work towards any goals that you may have. I want my dog to come to the platform and sit. After treat throws, and when my dog would return to the platform, I would only click my dog for sitting. (this is after a very solid foundation of rewards and commitment to the platform!) The treat throwing game continues, only now I expect that when my dog comes to the platform, she will automatically sit!
4. Value Building for Front and Heel Positions
For you Obedience/Rally/Freestyle people, the platform can be used to build value and understanding into proper Heel (right or left) and Front positions. If you want to work on Front position, stand at the front of the platform with your toes about 4-6 inches away from the end.* If you have built a strong foundation of commitment to the platform (and a default sit), your dog will run to the platform and sit in front of you! For Heel position, arrange yourself to the right or left of the platform’s end depending on which side you want your dog to be on. For Left Heel you will stand to the right of the platform so that your dog’s front legs will be in line with yours. The dog knows and loves the platform and you can use that to your advantage to teach a dog to come and find Front or Heel position in relation to your body!
*I suggest 4-6 inches away from the platform for Front position because dogs don’t care for being crowded. If you stand directly in front of the platform, you will likely have a dog who wants to sit back further on the platform away from that spatial pressure. You can build up their commitment and comfort level and then move closer in time.
5. Calm Focus
This is a good one for fidgety dogs. When my Molly gets on the platform it is hard for her to hold still! She is excited, her tail is wagging and she likes to do everything under the sun to get the “click” as soon as possible. I will use heel position to explain this. The dog is sitting on the end of their platform, in heel position in relation to your body. Click when the dog looks at you. Build on that and start trying for some duration. The end goal is to have your dog be still and calmly looking at you for a length of time that you will build upon. With busybody dogs, don’t push your luck! You want to click your dog for looking at you and holding focus. It is fun to see just how long you can get, and it also continues to build value into heel and front position!
6. Switching it Around
This is one of Perri’s favorite games and it is a good one for building body awareness, confidence or just having fun. I start by standing at the end of the platform. Click the dog for all four feet on and facing you. Now…step to the other end of the platform and wait and see what happens! The end goal is for your dog to turn around and reorient herself to face you at the other end. Be patient, let her figure it out. When your dog is a master at this, the challenge can be increased by using a shorter platform, or by being strict that the dog needs to not move any feet off of the platform on her turnaround. Go at your dog’s pace and have fun!
[Video Example: Ein (has never done this before!) shows us how to have fun with this game!]
7. Platform Hopping
The only thing more fun than a platform is two (or three!) platforms! To start, lay two platforms side by side with some space in between them and stand in front of one. Click your dog for all four feet on and then move to the opposite platform! As with the game above, wait and see what happens and give your dog time to think! Depending on your dog, first click for any interest in the opposite platform (head turns, looking, just one foot on.) and build on that. As soon as your dog gets to the one you are at, c/t and move to another! This is a great game to play to work towards some rally signs such as the “Side Step Right” , freestyle moves or body awareness. The better your dog gets, you can add more and more platforms on the floor.
[Video Example: Perri demonstrates moving from platform to platform!]
Moving from a sitting position into a standing position with some repetition is a good strengthening exercise for dogs. When they kick their rear legs out into the stand rather than stepping forward into the position, it is even more beneficial. (not to mention the body awareness benefits.) A platform can be a great aid to the dog when they are learning this type of stand, because it gives their body one specific place to be and eliminates the option of stepping forward into the stand.
Stand in front of the platform with your dog sitting in front of you. A food lure can be used, but I have not had a lot of luck with that when teaching my own dogs. They either pop off the platform and walk into the stand or they lay down. But with some dogs it can have exact desired effect: their front feet stay on the platform, and as they reach for the food, they kick their rear legs out. With my dogs I waited for any sort of hind end lifting or weight shift forward into the front end (with front paws still staying still as possible!) and clicked that. From there you can build on the dog keeping her front feet still, but lifting her rear end with her actual rear feet (as opposed to stepping forward and just pulling the rear end along with her, she has to think about moving her entire body!)
[Video Example: Perri demonstrates Sit-to-Stand work, with a little silliness mixed in!]
So I hope that is enough to keep you busy with your platform for a while! Platform training is fun and addictive as well as confidence building. If you are interested in learning even more, check out Michele Pouliot’s DVD “Stepping Up to Platform Training.” (you can rent this from Bow Wow Flix.)