Say Goodbye to Old Dog Blues

I have had my dog Ein since he was four months old.  He is nine years and four months old now.  If you are reading this blog you must be no stranger to the ways that dogs lodge themselves into our daily routines, our hearts and souls.  The ways that they grow with us, the ways that they change us and the ways that they support us as we go through life.  Ein is no exception.  Ein was a bundle of anxiety when I got him and I was in college and stressed out about life.  I always loved animals and nature but I was never what you would call an “active person.”  Ein changed all of that.  We started exploring the local county park and the rest is a tale I have told before.  Hiking trails were a place that we could escape life together, and we did.  What started with casual 30 minute strolls led us to the mountains jutting up around the local wild river.  We would stay there for hours swimming, hiking and gazing out over every new place that we explored.  And so it has been for years.  Six feet, two heartbeats.  Paradise.   Peace.

Until the middle of April this year.  Perri and Molly tornado’d into Ein and he started limping on his front leg.  It would not go away.  We went to the vet and tried medication but the limp persisted.  When the vet examined Ein she asked me if he had any problems with his hips.  I was surprised.  Of course not.  We took x-rays.  Ein’s hips took my breath away.  To say they are dysplastic and arthritic is an understatement.  And it did not just happen overnight.  And if that was not enough, the vet showed me the bone spurs growing in his spine.  Rear leg paralysis is a possibility if that condition persists.  I was gutted.  I started Ein on joint supplements, pain medication and some at-home PT exercises to help strengthen his rear legs.  The front leg limp would go away, and come back again.  I could see his right rear leg, his most dysplastic hip, being held stiffly and never with weight on it.  I had to cancel an agility trial and a rally trial that I had been looking forwards to participating in with Ein.  Long hikes were certainly out of the question.  I felt like everything that we loved to do together was over.

A few months later in June, Ein and I attended our annual Corgi Group picnic.   The corgi picnic is one of the highlights of my year, every year.  There is the hot dog bobbing contest, there is the musical hoops contest, there is the silent auction of doggie and corgi items, there are baby pools for wading in, agility equipment to play on and there is lots of food and lots of corgis!  Ein and I never do the hot dog contest, because he has always been afraid to nose into the water for the hot dogs.  And the competition is stiff!  We have never stood a chance.  Musical hoops was always our game.  It is like musical chairs, except that everyone walks around a ring of hula hoops and when the music stops, you get your dog to sit in a hoop.   For Ein, who has always been good at heeling and auto-sitting when I stop walking, this game was a cakewalk!  We have won it probably four times.

This year Ein had a hard time getting his rear end into the baby pool.  He woke up limping on his front leg and stiff in his rear, so I didn’t think musical hoops was something that we should be doing.  All those years of going to our picnic and enjoying those two things above all else, and suddenly his hip dysplasia is sticking its ugly face in there, reminding me that my dog is not who he used to be.

I went back over to Ein’s x-pen by myself and really felt like crying.  It might seem stupid to some.  But nine years of this dog, nine years of my little badass that nothing could stop.  My little scrapper who was picking fights with german shepherds at the dog park “just yesterday.”  And suddenly he is old.  I was still figuring out how to deal with that.  My dog who could hike 12 miles over a boulder field is having trouble stepping into a baby pool.  Through some twist of fate my x-pen was next to a corgi and owner that I have seen coming to the picnic every year that I have been going.  Except this year, her dog’s entire rear end was paralyzed because of degenerative myelopathy, a condition common in corgis.  He was her agility dog.  I have always noticed corgis on wheels, corgis in strollers, or corgis who were half lame at the picnic.  But not until this year, when my own dog was going lame, did I become hyper aware of what causes these wonderful dogs to be confined to a wheel cart or a stroller.

The end result was that while I enjoyed the picnic, it was a bittersweet day for me.  I enjoyed being my normal shutterbug self and taking 84 photos of all the picnic-goers (Click here to see the Flickr Album).  I enjoyed the food.  I enjoyed spending a day out with Ein.  But I allowed his mortality to make me feel sad.  I became worried that he may likely have degenerative myelopathy as well.  A friend of mine who recently lost her beloved doberman at only 7 years old to osteosarcoma told me that she regrets missing out on her dog’s “old dog years.”  That I would regret it if I continue to mourn Ein before he was even gone.  And she was right.

I am a busybody going in a million directions with training, agility trials, therapy visits and hey! also a full time job.  I felt I had no time for Ein.  But a lot of that had been because Ein’s recent grouping of diagnoses made me feel so sad that every time I looked at him, it was all that I could think about.  I allowed myself to shut down on him, because I was so overwhelmed by the shock and pain of my dog growing old.

No more.  It had to stop.

Kelsey sent me an Ein-sized exercise peanut and it had been sitting around for a week or two.  Since I decided to stop moping, I inflated it and we got to work and Ein had so much fun.  It is a new game, and it can be an every day thing.  So what if we are doing it to strengthen his wrecked hips.  He is having fun, and so I am having fun.

I must embrace this time.  I must enjoy it.  The last dog that I had pass away was 9 years old when he died.  He was fine one day and died overnight.  No warning, no old dog years.  He was just gone one morning when I woke up, he died in his sleep.  No exercise peanuts, no supplements, no cozy orthopedic dog beds and shorter walks.  He was just gone.  I haven’t lost Ein to cancer, or a heart failure, or a tragic accident – I still have him.  He is still here and happy and he is still my boy, and just because his body is starting to deteriorate doesn’t mean that we can’t find new ways to enjoy our relationship.

I bought him a lifejacket.  Swimming his fantastic exercise for the hips.  The dog is working his joints in the water, but there isn’t any impact.  Ein has always loved swimming for his ball, but he tires easily and starts sinking into the water and coughing.  I have always chuckled a little over doggie life jackets.  My dogs can swim just fine, they don’t need that stuff.   I used to think the same thing about training classes though, and look at me now.  When I watched my dog be able to swim out after his tennis balls for … I don’t even know how long, I lost track of time, I regretted not doing this sooner!

And if Ein can’t be the musical hoops champion every year at the Corgi Picnic anymore, we are going to have to start training towards being the hot dog bobbing champions!  I think that he will be a fast learner.

It has been since that picnic in June that I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and Ein.  We have worked harder on our PT together, we have been taking short walks together, I have been making time to take him swimming and the supplements and medication are doing their job.  I have committed myself to enjoying this part of our life, whatever that may mean.  We went camping in late July and I did something that I was afraid to do since April.  I took Ein on a swim and a semi-long hike around the lake where we were camping.  Just the two of us.  He stayed sound.  He was amazing.  He was happy.  And so was I.


Stop worrying. Let’s hike!

Behavior 101 #1: The four quadrants of reinforcement and punishment

Behavior controls all that we do, yet I find that most people don’t have a solid understanding of exactly how it governs our lives, or the lives of the animals which share our world. Knowledge of the laws of behavior can help you manipulate the environment in such a way as to elicit the behaviors you want to see and make them maintain. It doesn’t matter if your ‘subject’ is a dog, a person, an elephant, a dolphin, or a pigeon, behavior is behavior, and the laws of behavior apply to all. I trained dogs long before I went to school for behavior, so I always find it easier to think of behavior in terms of dogs first, but that’s more difficult for some people, and they need human examples first. Because of this, I’ve tried to include both dog and human examples, so you can visualize whichever is easier for you to understand.

All behavior is controlled through the environment, even our own. What causes a behavior to maintain, increase, decrease, disappear, or change, all depends on what happens immediately after that behavior occurs. We call this the consequence. I’m sure we’re familiar with this idea from childhood. When Mom would scream at us, “If you continue to do that you will suffer the consequences!!” (Right? It couldn’t have just been my mom.) Behavior occurs for several different reasons as well, but before getting ahead of ourselves, let’s learn, or review, the basic terms used in the science of applied behavior and see how these fit into our life.

Most people who have dabbled in any sort of dog training are aware of the basic principles of reinforcement and punishment, although not everyone gets the definitions correct. Positive/Negative Reinforcement and Positive/Negative Punishment are the most commonly tossed around terms I hear in dog training communities, so we’ll start there.

Homer Simpson knows the four quadrants!

Reinforcement is a stimulus change, immediately after the behavior, which causes the future rate of that behavior to increase. Punishment is the opposite- that’s when the stimulus change that happens after the behavior causes the behavior to decrease. The positive and negative on the front of that word just means that you are either adding or removing the stimuli from the situation.

So when you hear ‘positive reinforcement’ that means you added a stimulus (typically referred to as a reinforcer) and the rate of the behavior went up. How do we know that it went up? Well, ALL behavior analysts take data on the rate of behaviors they’re training or trying to change. Without data, it’s not applied behavior analysis. But, of course, not all trainers are behavior analysts, so they usually go with- does the dog sit more frequently when asked? Does it seem to be learning what I’m teaching? Is the dog becoming more reliable or responding quicker or seem to understand what you’re asking? Anecdotal observation probably says yes. When teaching a new puppy to sit, you probably give food or toy rewards immediately following the dog’s completion of the behavior. Through this the dog learns that sitting when they hear the “Sit” means they will be rewarded. The “sit” becomes a discriminative stimulus (an Sd), but we’ll get into that later.

What about negative reinforcement? Almost sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? Well, negative means you’re removing a stimulus (or preventing one), and reinforcement means that behavior is going to increase. Suppose your child doesn’t like broccoli. You set a plate down in front of them and it has broccoli on it. They see the broccoli and scream and cry. The parent removes the broccoli from the plate to stop the crying. The child’s screaming has been negatively reinforced- the screaming caused the removal of the stimulus, and this means that in the future, the odds that the kid will scream when presented with something they don’t like will increase. (Removing the broccoli is also negatively reinforced for the parent. They remove the broccoli and the god-awful wailing from their child stops. In the future, they’ll probably get rid of that broccoli faster, the get their kid to hush, or prevent the behavior altogether, by not placing broccoli on the plate). Preventing a consequence can also be negatively reinforced. If you burn yourself on a hot pan while getting it out of the oven, you’ll probably remember to put on an oven mitt the next time you go to grab a hot pan out. By preventing the burn, the rate of your oven-mitt-wearing behavior will most likely increase. Even though you’re not directly experiencing the painful stimulus every time, you’re still removing (negative) that painful sensation preemptively, by putting on that oven mitt.

Biting dogs are usually inadvertently negatively reinforced. Something might be causing them pain, such as a person roughly handling them. The dog bites, the person will generally stop whatever they were doing, and the pain to the dog stops. This is also negative reinforcement. Don’t be fooled by the reinforcement part of the word. I hear a lot of trainers say they ‘only train with reinforcement.’ Well, shock collars are quite often used as negative reinforcement, and I’m sure most people saying they are reinforcement trainers don’t mean it that way! If the dog if being taught to force-retrieve, often a shock collar is placed on the dog. The shock is triggered, and a dumbbell is forced into the dog’s mouth. As soon as the dumbbell is in the mouth, the shock stops. The dog learns that to remove (negative) the pain, he must pick up the dumbbell, and the rate of picking up the dumbbell goes up (reinforcement).

So if that’s reinforcement, then how does punishment come into play? Positive punishment is the style of punishment and correction that is most hotly debated in dog training forums. Again- positive, we’re adding something to the equation. And punishment means the rate of that behavior is going to go down. Say we’re walking down the street and our dog is pulling. We pop the dog hard with a leash and give what is commonly referred to as a leash and collar correction. This is positive punishment. Adding a chain collar or pinch collar to the mix doesn’t change anything other than the intensity to the dog. We’ll talk about intensity later. Shock collars are, of course, also used as a form of positive punishment. A dog barks and receives a shock, and his rate of barking goes down. This is positive punishment.

By now you may be able to guess what the fourth quadrant, negative punishment, would look like. Once again, it’s negative, so we’re taking (or preventing) something from the organism and the rate of behavior will go down. Say you have a dog with a terrible jumping problem. If you are petting your dog, and he jumps up, and then you withdraw the attention and walk away, and the dog learns that jumping up ceases the flow of attention, you are using negative punishment. You’re removing the attention, and the rate of jumping up goes down. Ever get grounded as a teenager (or ground your own children?). This is also negative punishment. You’re removing privileges and the teenager is question will stop what ever caused them to get grounded, or at least, be less likely to do that in the future. Say an off-color joke at work and get suspended without pay (or even fired)? Negative punishment.

Now some of you parents may have learned the hard way: “But wait! I tried this on my own kids, and it didn’t work!!” If the behaviors do not go up or down depending on what type of reinforcement or punishment that you’re using, then you’re simply not punishing or reinforcing that behavior. And here we reach the crux of a problem that it is difficult for people to understand or sometimes they never think of this to begin with. If the behaviors are not going up or down, then you’re not using a reinforcer or a punisher. In the case of the grounded teenager- if the rate of the behavior doesn’t go down (and I don’t mean cease completely in one application, behavior very often doesn’t work that way, unless the reinforcer or punisher is extremely powerful) then whatever your using is not a reinforcer, or the one maintaining the behavior is stronger.

My primary line of work is with children and adults with autism, downs syndrome, prader-willi, fragile-x, mental retardation, and other severe intellectual disabilities who exhibit some of the most extreme behavior, and many of these individuals exhibit extreme aggression, or self-injurious behavior (SIB). I’ve been bitten more severely by a 7 year old boy than I ever have by a dog. And on more then one occasion. (And that’s saying something because I had my top lip nearly bit off by a dog once. On accident).  In many cases I’ve seen individuals with SIB that bite themselves so hard they draw blood, and they do it repeatedly. Or hit themselves in the chin so hard they fracture their jaw. I worked with one boy who would slam his fingers in the kitchen cabinet drawers and jump up into the air before throwing himself down onto the tile floor on his knees, causing his kneecaps to have hairline fractures in them. Wouldn’t they be positively punishing themselves and then automatically stop the behavior? There’s the infliction of pain, which could be a punisher, but the rate of behavior doesn’t go down? Why not? Well, the answer is actually very simple, and one most people don’t think about. To these individuals, pain is not a punisher. Or whatever they are receiving after engaging in these behaviors is a more powerful reinforcement.

The number one rule of using these four quadrants applied to behavior you are working with is that just because it’s a reinforcer or punisher to you, doesn’t mean it is to the individual you are working with!! In the examples above, just because the behavior elicits pain in you, doesn’t mean it will elicit pain in the individual, or in many cases, your pain tolerance may be vastly different from the pain tolerance of someone with special needs. In many of the cases I mentioned above, the behavior functioned for access to desirable items. We’ll talk about function in a later installment, but for a quick down and dirty lesson in function I’ll say this. All behavior serves a function. Finding out that function is key to altering the behavior. In a majority of the individuals I mentioned, when they would engage in these severe self-injurious behaviors, their caretakers would often run around, even turn their homes upside down, trying to find out what the individual wanted. One older woman with a severe intellectual disability I worked with in a group home, would bite herself until she bled, and would continue until someone brought her McDonald’s French fries. The boy who slammed his fingers in the cabinets? When he did this, his parents would run around the house presenting things to him until they figured out what he wanted. They were inadvertently reinforcing the slamming behavior by giving him reinforcers when he did this behavior.

Commonly I see these applications used incorrectly with training dogs. Many people assume food treats will be a great reinforcer for training dogs. And usually, yes, it is. But you can never assume that because something is a reinforcer for one dog, or even a majority of dogs, that it will be a reinforcer for the dog you are presently working with. My female German Shepherd, Tiki, is a great example of this. She likes food…ish. She’ll eat her dinner, albeit it slowly (compared to the other three who are scarfers at dinner time). She could care less about food treats. She enjoys them, when I hand her a treat, she’ll often take it from me (after first sniffing it suspiciously) then take it somewhere in the house, where she’ll put it down, lick it a few times, and then it’s hit or miss whether she’ll eat it, or leave it for the other 3 to find later. Food is just not a powerful reinforcer for her. Training her with food wouldn’t get me anywhere quickly. What is a reinforcer for her? Praise. She loves to be praised in that roughed up way that involves vigorous rubbing, high-pitched voices, and butt scratches. She’ll do anything for it. I never need to carry food with me when we’re training. But my male German Shepherd? Forget it. He could care less about your silly, puny praise. You’d better have some delicious hot dogs or meatballs, or you’re not getting any decent progress with him. The yellow Labrador in our house would prefer to have a neon sign above her head that states, “Will Work For Fetch.” Our little guide dog puppy? She’ll work for plain old kibble. Doesn’t matter that she had a bowlful that morning, or will get another bowlful that night. If I offered kibble to my male shepherd in exchange for completing a behavior, there’s a very strong chance he wouldn’t do it again the next time. He’s actually taken the kibble and spat it out at my feet before. Definitely not a good reinforcer for him.

Definitely a punisher for me, especially if I found this say… in my bed? I’d have to have a long look at my life choices to ensure this wouldn’t happen again. For your dog though… I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it’s probably a reinforcer for him or her. It’s all a matter of perspective!

In people, and in dogs too, reinforcers can and will change daily or even by the minute. Know what is actually reinforcing to the individual you are working with, not what you think is reinforcing or has been effective as a reinforcer with others. It’s usually most helpful to have access to a variety of high-quality reinforcers. The more you present one reinforcer, the closer you get to satiation. This is where a reinforcer looses its value due to repeated presentation. In essence, the person or dog you’re working with gets tired of it. The best way to combat that is to deny them access to it for a time. This will result in deprivation; the reinforcer is more powerful because they haven’t had access to it in awhile. Many people do this without realizing it. Does your dog have a favorite toy that they only get to play with while you are training? By not allowing them to have constant access to it, you’re creating deprivation between training sessions. Sometimes deprivation can turn mediocre reinforcers into slightly more powerful ones. My male German Shepherd that I said wouldn’t work for kibble? If it’s late in the evening and he hasn’t eaten dinner yet, I can often motivate him to track for a bowl of dinner at the end of the track. He hasn’t had kibble in a while, and his tummy is most likely getting rumbly. An entire bowl of food is also quite a bit more than just a few pieces of kibble, and the quantity of the kibble increases its motivating factor, also known as MO. We’ll talk about that later, too. Seasoned trainers know this is considered a ‘jackpot’ reward, even if it is not a very highly motivating reinforcer. I usually place a few meatballs or a hot dog or two in there as well, just to ensure that the reward has been worth the effort to him.

So where does these styles of behavior control fit in? As a positive trainer, of course, I urge people to use positive techniques and never to resort to positive punishment. When working with people, ethically, you have to start with positive reinforcement techniques. And in most cases, this is more then enough to alter the behaviors. But there are times when it’s not enough, or the behavior is too severe, or too dangerous. There are times when we must resort to positive punishment to alter dangerous behavior in individuals with intellectual disabilities. As a master’s level, board certified behavior analyst, I am one of the few allowed to use positive punishment in practice with people, but only after everything else has been exhaustively tried and met with no success. I definitely do not take that responsibility lightly, and only do so in the most extreme cases. My own plans must go to be reviewed by an ethics committee, be peer-reviewed by other behavior analysts, and then often a Ph.D.-level behavior analyst also looks them over. Positive punishment is a serious thing, with serious implications and side effects that must be weighed and considered. It is generally only used when there is an immediate danger to life and limb, or when nothing else has worked (and we must present data, graphs, plans, and detailed information about what has been tried and what hasn’t worked). I can only wish that as much care would be taken when trainers insist on using positive punishment with dogs, as often a behavioral review would show that positive reinforcement, discrimination training, interval ratios and other correct manipulation of behavior analytic principles either hadn’t even been tried, or were used incorrectly. I feel very strongly that if a master’s level board certified behavior analyst (a board exam which carries a 42% fail rate for first time exam takers, and a 74% fail rate for subsequent attempts) must use caution, be peer reviewed, and be overseen by an ethics committee prior to using a positive punishment intervention in which they’ve been trained and certified to use, why would a layman, no matter how much experience you have, feel that it is something they should use as a first-line style of training.

So go forth with your new knowledge, and try to identify how these four quadrants maintain your own behavior in your daily life. Forget your keys and can’t start your car? Negative reinforcement for remembering your keys. Put a dollar in the vending machine and receive a snack? Positive reinforcement! Having a bad day and snap at your co-workers, resulting them leaving you alone? Positive punishment for them, negative reinforcement for you. Everything we do throughout the day in controlled by the environment around us and the rules of behavior. Next time we’ll talk about extinction, discriminative stimuli, s-deltas, motivating operations, functions, various styles of reinforcement, and more! So be sure to come back!


Interested in becoming a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA)? Check out for more information

Book Review: Little Boy Blue, by Kim Kavin

For pretty much the entire time I’ve been involved with rescue, I’ve focused primarily on dogs that landed in Philadelphia after coming up from a variety of Southern states: Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and so on. I won’t bore you with the reasons that I made that decision (at least not in today’s post; they’re posted over here if you really want to take a peek), but because of this background, I perked up immediately when TU’s Danielle told me about Kim Kavin’s book Little Boy Blue.

There are quite a few books out there covering various rescue-related topics, but as far as I’m aware, this is the first that focuses specifically on the phenomenon of Southern dogs traveling up the East Coast (mainly, but not exclusively, along I-95) to rescue organizations in well-heeled Northern cities and suburbs. So, naturally, I had to grab a copy as soon as I heard about it. What would someone write about this curious little corner of the rescue world, I wondered? How does this scene look to outside eyes?

Blue’s story opens in 2010, when the author decided to adopt a puppy and found, to her surprise, that the puppy listed on Petfinder as local to New Jersey was actually located in North Carolina. She went through with the adoption, picked Blue up from a transporter, and later found herself curious about her puppy’s origins. How such a sweet, friendly, stable puppy could find himself in a kill shelter was a mystery, as were the hairless spots and scars along Blue’s face and body. So, being a journalist, Kavin went investigating — and those investigations turned into this book.

The first couple of chapters, I’ll admit, caused me to wince inwardly a few times. After years of dealing with totally detached-from-reality “darling angel furbaby” types in the rescue world, I’ve developed a severe allergy to even the teeny tiniest little whiff of people sentimentalizing their pets, and I get even twitchier when those sentimental descriptions are paired with a casual admission that one of those pets was habitually fitted with a shock collar for an invisible fence to keep the dog “safe” from chasing deer (oy). Thus, at the outset, I had some reservations about just how clear-eyed and accurate this book was going to be, because those intro chapters didn’t give me tremendously high hopes.

But as the book went on, and Kavin dug deeper into the issues of poverty and comparative wealth across different regions, variations in cultural attitudes toward dog care and the value of mixed-breed dogs, conflicting imperatives in the shelter and rescue world, and the struggles that face everyone who attempts to reconcile those complex and multi-faceted problems, I found my respect for the author steadily increasing. Page by page, my appreciation for her work grew greater.

In particular, I thought her discussion of one particular foster home was illuminating. One of the people in the rescue network that handled Blue was a woman named Annie Turner, and the conditions in which she kept her foster dogs are described as about a cat’s hair shy of hoarding.

Having encountered a couple of similar characters myself, I felt that the book did a great job talking about the practical and ethical difficulties of navigating through such a complicated situation: clearly that foster home is not the greatest, but is leaving dogs to die in a gassing shelter any better? What can an outsider do to fix that situation, when calling in the authorities means returning the dogs to the same high-kill shelter they just escaped from, and calling in big national charities (as the author discovered when she tried to enlist HSUS for help) accomplishes absolutely no good on the ground?

There aren’t any easy answers to that question, or to many of the others that the author and the people she interviews grapple with in this book. While there’s no question that the South-to-North “underground railroad” of dogs has saved thousands of canine (and feline!) lives, and made thousands of adoptive homes very happy, it’s not without its drawbacks.

There is little to no oversight of those small, fragmented rescue networks, and few people to turn to when things go wrong. At several points, Kavin underscores just how much the entire system runs on trusting every person to make every correct choice along the way. When they get things wrong, the mass movement of adoptable pets does contribute to the spread of disease. It arguably does take homes from locally adoptable pets (although my view is that it doesn’t take nearly as many homes as opponents seem to think, since there is limited overlap in the types of dogs available through each source). I am glad that Kavin touched on those issues, and discussed some of them at length, in her book.

Also, on a personal note, it was nifty to see a few people that I know through the rescue world making cameos as characters in the book. The majority of my foster dogs have come up from North Carolina, especially Robeson, Sampson, and Person Counties, and lots of the rescue volunteers and shelter employees from those areas make appearances in these pages. They deserve some recognition for their tireless work, and I was glad to see Kavin shining a spotlight on their efforts.

By the time I got to the end of the book, my initial doubts had been laid to rest, and I’d switched to being a fan. Sure, there are a couple of teeny little things I might be inclined to nitpick… but for that to be the worst criticism I can level against a book that confronts so many hot-button issues is a pretty good recommendation, I think.

Overall, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants a fuller understanding of the South-to-North transport and rescue scene — anyone who has adopted or considered adopting one of these dogs, anyone who’s thought about fostering for one of those rescues, and anyone who’s just curious about why this network developed and how it works (and occasionally malfunctions). It’s not uncommon for me to run across people who indignantly demand to know why we’re “importing more dogs” when there are still dogs dying by the hundreds in ACCT annually, and I can think of few better arguments than pointing them to Little Boy Blue.

This book might not convince you that transport-based rescues are a good thing. But it will surely do a good job of laying out why they exist, what their goals are, and why a whole lot of people support them. It’s also honest about some of the pitfalls and drawbacks of the system. And for that reason, I think it is a really valuable addition to the literature on shelter dogs and rescues in the United States.

K9 DIY: Make some quick & dirty 2×2 weave poles

Project difficulty level: Really easy, especially if you have the hardware store cut your PVC for you. If you can snap some Tinkertoys together, you can do this

Widget and I have been playing around with some backyard agility recently, and she’s been steadily working her way through my motley collection of (mostly homemade) equipment. We’ve been having fun jumping and tunneling and playing with our DIY’ed contact trainer, so recently I started thinking about starting to teach her the weaves. My favorite method of teaching weaves is the 2×2 method that Susan Garrett developed (here’s the link to the video explaining the method, which you can buy or rent on bowwowflix; there are also several good explanatory videos on YouTube). However, doing 2x2s requires a slightly wonky equipment setup that’s a little different than your standard channel or competition weave setup. The only place where I have access to ‘real’ equipment has channel weaves, so if I wanted to teach Widget weaves using 2×2, my choices were a) drop $250 + shipping on a nice 6-pole set of Versaweaves, b) make or buy some stick-in-the-ground weave poles or c) attempt to put something together using PVC in my back yard. Now, if money were no object, I would get the Versaweaves and never look back (those things are awesome!); however, you’ll be shocked to hear that I didn’t have $250 just burning a hole in my back pocket, so I relegated that idea to the ‘someday!’ list. Lots of people love option b, the stick-in-the-ground method; however, I live in the desert where the ground is hard as a rock and not amenable to having pointy things stuck in it. Also, one of the things that’s always annoyed me about the stick-in-the-ground method is that it’s hard to keep the spacing between the individual poles consistent, and the idea of having to bust out my hammer and my measuring tape every time I wanted to move a pole seemed a little unfun to me. So that left me with option c!

Before I begin, here are some obligatory caveats:

1) The drawback of using PVC for weave poles is that there’s a piece of PVC running under the dog’s path as they run, which can have a small impact on their gait going through the poles. The weave poles at lot of training clubs are made of a long flat piece of metal that connects the individual poles together; this flat piece of metal sticks up about a 1/4″ off the ground. If you build your poles the way I’ve outlined here, with 1/2″ PVC, the connecting bar will stick up twice as high as the flat metal bar variety. My dogs have not had a problem adjusting to this, but it annoys me. If you’re working outside, one way to get around it is to scoop a little bit of dirt over the center bar to level things out (or alternately, to dig a very shallow channel to set your poles in). But just so you know, it’s a compromise that you make if you’re doing it this way.

2) The weaves aren’t precisely to competition standards, largely because of the center bar thing. This doesn’t really bother me: I know some people like to have precise replicas of competition equipment in their backyard so their dogs never have to adjust to anything different in trial settings, but for me, the most important thing is to have something that I can afford that works pretty well and allows me to train at home. Plus, I figure that equipment varies between clubs anyway and it’s not a bad idea to teach my dogs that the game is the same even if the gear looks a little different.

3) I used 1/2″ PVC here, in part because it was cheaper and in part because I like my poles to be a little springy: however, if you want something a little sturdier and closer to competition size, you should use 3/4″ PVC. Just make sure to get 3/4″ fittings to go along with the larger pipe

4) The directions here are for weaves with 24″ spacing. If you are a hardcore USDAA person, you can adjust this down to 18″ pretty easily. That said, if you’re a hardcore USDAA person, you probably bought Versaweaves as soon as you got your import border collie puppy, and you’re probably sitting there in your Vibrams and Clean Run pants giving me an icy Teutonic glare through the computer screen RIGHT NOW.

So, for the rest of us, here’s how to build some cheapy 2x2s. The materials cost me $22.79 at my little local kind-of-expensive hardware store, and the poles took me 20 minutes to build (and that was including picture-taking time), so even if you are broke and scared of DIY projects, you can do this one, I promise. I recommend having the hardware store cut your PVC for you: unless you have a chop saw, it’s a little annoying, and they can usually knock it out for you in about three seconds at the hardware store (often for free!)

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Why I Choose Purebred Dogs (Or: So You Want A Purebred Dog)

My first dog, Howie, was a rescue. He was, and probably always will be, my Heart Dog. I believe that anyone involved in purebred dogs should also be involved with rescue, somehow. Since I am unable to foster (at this time), I do my best to advocate, transport, and volunteer in my local area.

However, I am a purebred fancier. I have three dogs, all from breeders – one from Georgia, one from Minnesota, and one from Wyoming.

Howie taught me a lot. He was my first obedience dog, my first agility dog; he was the the dog that taught me how to fight BSL in my area. But, there was a lot I didn’t know about him: I didn’t know about his parents – there’s a lot you can learn from the parents of your dogs: health history, predict future health problems, temperament issues, drive vs. no drive.

And there was one thing I couldn’t do with Howie that I wanted to do: I wanted to be in the conformation ring. Wanting to be in that show ring only helped me to narrow down my search for a purebred dog. Even if you want a purebred dog as a pet, getting a dog from a breeder has many perks.

First things first, though: not all breeders are created equal. Just because someone has a boy dog and a girl dog and they make puppies doesn’t make them qualified as a breeder. These are the people we all despise, and this article isn’t about them. A good breeder will be health testing their dogs before breeding them, and making those tests results public – the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), Canine Health Information Center (CHIC), and PennHIP all have online databases and you should be able to search for your Future Puppy’s parents on one or all of these sites.

"Fritz" (TFT) on OFA

Fritz’s (Taco’s sire) listing on the OFA website

Why is health testing important? Because different breeds have different genetic diseases and conditions that are easily passed on. Hip dysplasia being the most widely known, but eye, heart, and thyroid conditions are all genetic. Some breeds have certain conditions that you should be aware of, and breeders should be familiar with these conditions and whether their dogs are carriers or are affected by these conditions – for example: Toy Fox Terriers can be affected by von Willebrands Disease (as well as Bernese Mountain Dogs, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Dobermans, and Poodles), and American Staffordshire Terriers – and possibly American Pit Bull Terriers closely related to the AmStaff – can be affected by Cerebellar Ataxia.

It is important to remember that even your rescues can be affected by many of these conditions, but the myth of “hybrid vigor” is a topic for another day.

A good breeder will make the health testing public (see: Taco’s sire, scroll down slightly for his CHIC# and the results from his health testing), and should be willing, and happy, to show you the certificates from each health testing body.

Temperament: It’s genetic, too. Meeting both parents can help you decide if your puppy is going to be a good fit with your family/lifestyle. It is also a good indicator of personality and tolerance. Two high-drive (high energy) dogs are generally going to produce high-drive puppies, which won’t be well-suited to a couch potato lifestyle.

Temperament is also a term that encompasses dog aggression and human aggression, and these traits can be passed on.

Baby Jax & Momma Kona

Baby Jax loving on his Momma Kona

In addition, an experienced breeder will be able to pair you with the best puppy to fit your lifestyle. If you tell them what you want, they’ll be the ones who can tell you to pick Puppy A over Puppy B because they have spent the last 8-10 weeks with the puppy. I ended up with Taco because he was calmer and cuddlier than his littermates, and that was what I wanted.

Try to put aside your want for the “cutest” or “most colorful” puppy from the litter, and get the one with the best temperament.

A good breeder will let you visit and will answer all of your questions. Many breeders I know will invite you to shows, they’ll invite you to their home/kennel to meet the puppy’s parents and their other dogs, and they’ll also want you to come meet the entire litter of puppies. If you cannot meet the puppies or the parents, a good breeder will send you photos – lots and lots of photos.

Beware of breeders who will not do any of this.

All three breeders that I got my dogs from were more than open about not only the parents of my dogs, but also the other dogs in their home. I was, and still am, able to to call, email, or text with any question or concern and I know I am going to get an honest answer, and someone who is going to support me with whatever problem I might have.

A good breed will prove their dogs. We talked about this in our post “So You’re Thinking About Breeding Your Dog!” While not all breeders will prove their dogs in the working venue, they should be proving their dogs somewhere. A conformation title from a reputable registration organization means a judge has put their hands on the dog and has judged the dog against others of its breed.

Beware of words like “Champion bloodlines!” with dogs who don’t have titles. Even beautiful show dogs can produce dogs that have no business being bred. A good breeder works to improve their breed, not just breed to make puppies. Doing this means that a breeder is putting much more money into their dogs than they are getting back from the sale of their puppies. In fact, said Good Breeder probably isn’t making a profit at all.

On the other end, not every dog needs a conformation title to be bred, either. Make sure you know what you’re looking for. Get a dog from a breeder experienced with what you want, from dogs experienced with what you want to do.

If something happens to me, I know where my dog will go. Assuming my family does not want to or can not care for my dogs if I happen to perish in a firey car accident, every single breeder I know will happily take my dog back. It is a huge red flag for me if a breeder does not make this statement, even without me asking. Usually it is a stipulation on the breeder’s side that if you can no longer care for the dog for whatever reason, then the dog goes back to them. Unexpected things in life happen, and while it is never planned, I need this extra assurance to know that my dogs always have a place to go.

If a breeder is unwilling to take back a puppy, it is usually a pretty good indicator that they are turning over a large amount of puppies/dogs. Which brings up another point:

A good breeder will focus on the quality of their puppies, not the quantity. As mentioned before, a good breeder focuses on bettering the breed. Beware of breeders who breed several litters a year. This is a pretty good indication that they are not focused on quality. This isn’t a blanket statement, but you should be cautious.

This isn’t a definitive list of what makes a good breeder a good breeder, but it’s a start. Depending on what you are looking for, you might be more picky about the breeder you are looking for. You may require that your breeder works and titles their dogs on their own, or you may not mind if they send their dogs off with a handler to earn their titles, and you may not care if feed their dogs a raw diet or not. Before choosing a breeder, make sure you make a list of qualities you want in both your new dog and your breeder, because your breeder should want to become your friend and ally, not just the broker of your puppy.

Group Post: Lessons From Difficult Dogs

One of the things you’ll hear a lot if you participate in dog sports with a non-traditional dog (read: anything other than a perfectly healthy and sane specimen of whatever three or four breeds dominate your sport) is “oh, you’ll learn so much from working with that dog!”

This refrain is not always as helpful as the people handing it out seem to think. Sometimes, at least for me, it’s a downright bummer. Like an apprentice who’s been knocked too many times upside the head by a particularly hard sensei, there definitely comes a time when I feel like, you know what, I would be totally okay with having less wisdom if that also means fewer bruises.

But as dispiriting as those struggles can be in the moment (and, oh, they are, they are!), there’s a good bit of truth to the sentiment. We at Team Unruly know difficult dogs — and we’re not talking about doing agility with an Aussie instead of a Border Collie. We have actually difficult dogs. Reactive dogs. Fearful dogs. Dogs with three legs. Dogs with low drive. Dogs of non-traditional breeds. Dogs of non-identifiable breeds.

And we have learned lessons from these dogs that no other dog in the world could have taught us.

Of course, occasionally you DO win, even with a difficult dog.

Rebecca, Cerberus and Fly

(1) We were never alone.

When I first got Cerberus, I jumped head-first into the world of dog shows and competitions. In that environment, you (usually) see dogs at their best. You don’t see all of the hours of training the owners put in, and you generally don’t see really reactive dogs because, well, they don’t often get to compete. It’s easy to look around and think that you’re the only one with a “problem child” and that you don’t belong there. At first, Cerb’s fear issues made me feel alone. There we were, struggling just to keep his reactivity in check in the group ring, while his littermate brothers and sisters racked up titles. I blamed myself for our problems and felt sure that nobody else could be struggling like we were.

Luckily — amazingly — acknowledging Cerb’s reactivity and seeking help put me in touch with people who have become some of my best friends. I met Karen, my saintly trainer who changed my entire perspective on dog training and taught me pretty much everything I know about positive reinforcement training. I also became closer to all of the friends who eventually formed Team Unruly. I realized that there are no perfect dogs and that everyone is struggling with something, so I was never really alone.

(2) Just when you think you have it all figured out…

Along comes a game-changer. I learned so much from working through Cerb’s reactivity and training with him for weight pull and rally. I learned even more by working with my trainer, Karen, as her assistant for her Control Unleashed and BAT classes. I wouldn’t say that I was over-confident or cocky, but I definitely felt like I had a pretty good grip on “dog training,” in a general sense. I had worked it out with Cerb, right? I could totally do that again. So I adopted a second dog, Fly.

Game changer! Fly is so much like Cerb and yet so very different. She has fear issues, too (d’oh!), but expresses them in different ways. When it comes to things that make her nervous or afraid, I feel like I have the tools to work through that – the same practices that helped Cerb will help Fly. When it comes to teaching her tricks, though? Very, very different dog. See, Cerb now has this four-year background of positive reinforcement and shaping games. He has always been an enthusiastic (ballistic, really) participant in training. Once he realized I would reward him for trying, he couldn’t be stopped. He offers behavior after behavior until he gets the answer, and I… totally, totally took that for granted. When I adopted Fly and started working with her, I quickly learned what it’s like to have a dog with no reinforcement history. Where Cerb responds to the “pressure” of me asking for a behavior by throwing out his entire repertoire, Fly quails. If she doesn’t get the answer right on her first attempt, she just curls up and looks worried.

I don’t know if Fly’s behavior was caused by history of corrective training methods or if it’s just her personality, and I guess it doesn’t really matter: the point is that Fly requires a very different approach than Cerb, and she is challenging me to be a better trainer and dig deep for solutions. I have to take it very, very slowly with her and train in very short sessions, then give her time to recover, something I never had to do with Cerb because he will work until he drops. I often find that I will work for several days on something with Fly and feel like we’re making no progress, and then we’ll come back to it a week later and she’ll have figured it out on her own time. This is frustrating for me, but also an extremely valuable lesson that I needed to learn.

Batty-eared crazy creature learns to concentrate in a busy environment - note our distance from all the action!

Batty-eared crazy creature learns to concentrate in a busy environment – note our distance from all the action!

Jennifer and Pongu

As I’ve talked about at length elsewhere, Pongu wasn’t a dog that I got with competition in mind (I didn’t even know dog sports were a Thing back then, much less a Thing that would end up consuming major chunks of my life), and our journey has been a long series of struggles and setbacks punctuated with occasional brilliant flashes of joy.

I have learned many things along this road, but if I had to distill them down to three main points, they’d probably be:

(1) Patience makes possibility. Working with a fearful dog is not a quick process, and it isn’t one that lends itself to major forward leaps. Progress, for us, is always tiny and incremental; whenever I get tempted to push too far too fast, I end up setting us back (and yet I still keep doing it, because I’m an idiot). But when I can force myself to rein in my impatience and work in teeny tiny bits, we move forward. It happens in slow (often frustratingly slow!) steps, but it happens. Patience and practice have enabled my fearful dog to do things that I once believed would be totally impossible for him.

(2) Failures only affect you. Victories can affect the world. No one really cares when we NQ a Rally run (least of all me; at this point I’m only tracking to see if we NQ in some new and interesting way that we haven’t previously accomplished). But when we succeed, we can be a little spark of light out there showing that yes, you can participate in dog sports with a scaredy dog; yes, you can do it with a pound mutt; yes, you can do it force-free. All of those messages are worth creating and sending out to the world, because all of them have the potential to give people hope and improve their relationships with their dogs. That belief helps keep me going on days when I don’t necessarily feel all that excited about stepping back into training.

(3) My greatest victory is a joyful dog. I’ve had Pongu’s ARCHMX certificate sitting in an envelope on my counter, unopened and collecting dust, for about a month now. At some point I’ll take it out and put it in a frame and hang it on his Wall o’ Trophies. But it’s really not a priority anymore.

These days, I don’t generally keep ribbons or placement rosettes in WCRL; one per competition, just to hold the memory that we were there, is enough for me. I don’t worry about the points or scores except as a measure of whether we’re making progress overall. Triple Qs are nice, but I don’t especially care about those either.

At this point in the game, the only victory I really care about is having a happy dog who wants to be there with me. I want to look down and see Pongu’s face smiling back up at me as we heel off the start line together. I want to see him grinning confidently as he snaps through a left finish, or bounding along with his tail in the air on a recall. Everything I do is aimed at building a happy, confident dog who can work in the ring with joy.

I got into dog sports because I hoped they would build Pongu’s confidence. It would be a lie to say that’s the only thing I care about, of course; I do want precise heeling and high scores and a clean performance in the ring. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned from Pongu is that those aren’t and can’t be inconsistent goals — the only way I get those things is if I have a happy and confident dog at my side.

I started doing this for my dog. He started doing it for me. The point of all these games, as far as I’m concerned, is for us to find joy in this partnership and in working together to bring happiness to each other. That’s what we’re out there to win.

Kelsey and Nellie

When I was initially trying to figure out who to write about here, my first idea was to write about Lucy, my hyper-reactive dog who has taught me like 90% of what I know about training.  After thinking about it a second, though, I realized that the dog I’ve had the saddest and most frustrating experiences with is Nellie, my cute little tripod pit bull.  In a certain way, Nellie is probably the easiest of my three dogs: she’s a total people-pleaser, friendly with everyone, reasonable with (most) dogs, loves to train, is very easy to motivate, etc. etc. etc.,.  She is also a BLAST to play with and when we’re working, everything else melts away and the rest of the world outside of me and my dog ceases to exist.  Nellie and I have competed in rally and trained in flyball, and she’s always up for learning tricks and dancing around the house with me. She’s also super athletic and pretty well-structured, so doing sports should have been no issue for her.  And frankly, the issue has generally not been Nellie: it has been, not to put too fine a point on it, everybody else.  Which leads me to the things I’ve learned playing sports with a tripod pit bull.

(1) Try very very very very hard to think about what you CAN do, not what you can’t.

and the corollary to that:

(2) Ignore anybody who tells you what you can’t do.

nellie runs b/w/color

Poor sad, disabled dog. What a shame that her life is going to be so limited.

I got a lot of pushback when I started thinking about doing sports with Nellie.  I cannot tell you how many classes we signed up for but ultimately were not allowed to participate in: because she’s three-legged, Nellie is not allowed to compete in most rally venues (though she’s allowed to compete in APDT/Cynosport) and before the AKC’s recent rule change, she was not even allowed to test for her CGC.  As a consequence, we weren’t allowed to participate in any AKC-endorsed CGC classes (because what would be the point, right? she wasn’t allowed to test!) and the first three rally classes I tried to sign up for wouldn’t let us in when they found out that Nellie was a tripod (because those classes all taught the AKC version of rally, and Nellie was not permitted to compete in AKC rally, so what would be the point, right? she wasn’t allowed to play!)  I only tried to sign up for one agility class before I got discouraged: the person on the phone told me flat out that pit bulls were not appropriate for any group classes, and that ‘disabled dogs’ were not appropriate for agility, and that “maybe you should just try to appreciate the dog you have instead of trying to turn her into something else”. Oof. That one did a number on me, I admit.

On the other hand, even though I was feeling shaken and sad, I DID know the dog I had: I had an athletic, happy little dog who was in great shape, loved classes and was dying to work in some structured way.  Bless the good people at the K-9 Kamikazes Flyball Team in Richmond, VA who were nice to me when I first got in touch with them, didn’t think the idea of running a tripod pittie sounded crazy, and were totally happy to help me figure out the best way to teach Nellie flyball (and were also happy to help me work out nice practical ways to accommodate her missing leg: for example, we spent one interesting night trying to figure out whether a left or a right box turn would best help her activate her core muscles which would in turn support her through the motion of coming off the box).  They never once told me that this was something we wouldn’t be able to do, they never suggested just going home and wrapping my dog in cotton wool, and they absolutely rebuilt my confidence in both myself and my terrific dog.  And so gradually I stopped thinking about Nellie as this problem waiting to happen and started seeing all of the things that made her an awesome sport dog.  So she’s missing a leg: the important part is that my little dog is fast as heck, works incredibly hard, is beautifully handler-focused (most of the time!) and gets a tremendous amount of joy from playing with me.  She also has a gorgeous box turn that would, frankly, be screwed up by the addition of another leg, and in rally, she has a lovely pivot honed from years of swinging around on her front leg when she’s trying to chase down a ball.  So there!

Dealing with the nonsense of people’s low expectations has thickened my skin, and it has also given me a little chip on my shoulder.  I admit to feeling a little bit of snarky pleasure when my dog runs a heat faster than a purpose-bred sporter collie or when we outscore somebody’s oh-he-comes-from-a-long-line-of-obedience-champions Golden in rally.  I love, love, love blowing people’s minds when they come in expecting nothing from us and then see something great.  I love telling people that Nellie isn’t some dog I bought and raised from a puppy who lost a leg to cancer: she was a chained pit bull with neglectful owners who dumped her on the street with a badly-healed leg break, and look, here she is making friends with your Aussie and then outscoring him.  Now, we don’t always turn in rock-solid performances, but oh, those days we do: those are amazing days.

(3) When you do it, celebrate mightily.

For the longest time, when I showed up at a trial, I heard a lot of “Oh, you’re the one with the three-legged pit bull! Well… nice that you’re giving her this experience!”  I knew that I was doing something right the first time I heard, “Oh, you’re the one who always picks up your dog and dances around with her when you Q!”

Nellie sometimes does a little dancing herself.

(4) When you don’t, try not to internalize it.

I think that frequently, people with, let us say, non-traditional sport dogs are cowed out of the ring, and that is both a crying shame and frankly antithetical to the whole premise of dog sports.  It is true that too many sports and too many classes contain people who have purebred dogs from ‘traditional’ sport breeds and who give you a condescending smile when you walk in, then go back to talking to the people who they consider to be real competitors.  In my experience, you can do one of two things when confronted with that: you can feel awkward and out of place and then quit the class and go back to training tricks in your living room, or alternately, you can feel awkward, push through it and then work hard with your dog to make sure that he has the prettiest heel/smoothest A-frame/best retrieve of anybody in class.  I try hard to always choose the latter of those two options; being kind of a stubborn jerk helps with this.

Of course, Having Something To Prove means that it becomes even harder when you have bad days.  And you will have bad days: let me just refer you to my post Sometimes Everything Just Sucks because, well, sometimes it does.  The really important thing to remember when these kinds of days happen is that these kinds of days happen to everyone. It’s not just you and your imperfect dog.  It is tempting to think about quitting your sport or discipline altogether.  It is tempting to fantasize about how in the future, you’re going to just get a purpose bred dog that you raise from a puppy and that dog is not going to have ANY PROBLEMS EVER, unlike your current/imperfect dog.  It is tempting to go hide under the covers with your dog and watch old episodes of 30 Rock while contemplating never training anything again ever.  It is doubly tempting to do all these things if you’ve been hearing a constant refrain of “you can’t, you can’t, not with that dog” for a lot of your training career.  But it’s also doubly important not to let those voices win. Because you can succeed and you know it: if you’ve learned Lesson One, you have a whole set of great experiences with your dog to draw on, and remembering those experiences will help you get through the bad times. You know that your dog is awesome; you have seen it. Don’t let negativity win. Seek out people who will not shut you down, learn as much as you can, and above all, just keep going.

me & nell 2

Bad photobooth picture/good pit bull.

Michelle and Dahlia

dahliaDahlia is not difficult as in reactive, dog aggressive, fearful, hard to manage or any of the things most people associate with difficult dogs. Dahlia is, in fact, the perfect pet. But the perfect pet does not make the perfect agility dog. Ultimately, I started agility class with Dahlia because she was smart, I thought it would be fun, and she liked to leap over snowbanks. That’s it. The whole reason I started it with the most mellow dog on earth. At the first class, when they released dogs from a stay and other dogs had to remain sitting (hello impulse control!), it was mass chaos. The dogs who were supposed to stay didn’t. They took off running and it was crazy time for the dogs.

Except Dahlia, of course. Who sat in the middle of it all looking rather befuddled.

Couple a mellow personality with a complete lack of confidence and you have the recipe for agility “disaster.” I’ve walked out of classes and trials in tears as my dog simply did not do anything. So what have I learned from working with Miss Dahlia in agility for over 4 years now?

(1) Enjoy the dog you have. She’s quirky, she’s goofy. Recently she hesitated at a jump because she wasn’t sure if she should take it and once she decided that yes, she really should take it, she was too close to make a proper leap over. And so she put her foot on the jump bar and launched herself over it. And did not displace the bar. It was hilarious. It was adorable. This is the dog I have. She has rolled over at a trial when she decided it was too hot to work. She has left me in class to go to the trainer who was a 100 feet away with treats. She’s an absolutely ridiculous dog and I walk out of more classes than not thinking that at least everyone got a laugh out of her.

(2) Don’t let other people steal your joy in your dog. I know I’ve talked about this before in an older post. But I cannot reiterate this enough. If you were happy that your dog finally did an automatic sit or took the A-Frame or actually came back to you when called, don’t let someone else tell you that it wasn’t up to their standards. She’s your dog. And only you know how far she’s come.

(3) Make it fun. Dahlia was a dog who had almost no confidence and we struggled terribly in agility through our first years (I won’t lie – we still do on occasion). Making it fun for her, rewarding a lot, making it a game we play and nothing overly serious has helped her to see the joy in doing it. It’s not just a job. It’s a game she plays with her Mama.

(4) Reward…a lot. Even when you don’t think the dog deserves a reward. Even when you go out there in the trial and she misses half the jumps or blows past the dog walk or decides that the weave poles just aren’t her thing that day, thank you very much. Walk out of there and throw a party. She went in there for you. And she deserves to have the best experience of her life no matter what. She doesn’t know she didn’t Q. She had an awesome time and doesn’t realize that dropping that one lousy bar cost you the Q. So reward her, even if you don’t feel like she “deserves” it. She does. Because she went out there with you and gave it her all. Even if her “all” means weaving in between the last jump and the timer stantion over and over again until the course time buzzer goes off.

Dom and Julio

In the year that we’ve had Julio, we’ve gained an insight to some of the reasons why he was probably dumped by his previous owner. Unlike Dahlia, Julio is not the perfect pet! We’re not even trying to do anything along the lines of competing (or even going out in public!) but Julio provides a challenge at every turn. From eating underwear to peeing in the house to barking at the same two horses who have lived in our backyard for the last six months, Julio knows how to stomp on my very last nerve. But despite his reactivity, poor recall, and inability to learn anything beyond sit, down, and ‘go to your crate’, I love him to pieces. While having Herbie has been an education in bringing up a dog, Julio has provided lesson after lesson about dealing with what you’ve been given. In the last year, he has taught me countless lessons. Here are just a few things I’ve learned…

(1)  It’s not the dog’s fault. This one should probably go without saying, but it’s so easy to forget when your dog has just done something really, really bad. The truth is that dogs don’t premeditate and they don’t maliciously try to ruin our lives. In Julio’s case, his past life is responsible for his issues. A lack of socialization, attention, and training really left him with a slew of problems that are very tough to resolve.

(2) Treat the problem, not the symptoms. Along those same lines, it’s important to remember that if your dog is acting out, there’s probably an underlying reason for it. For example, Julio’s destructive nature stems from his severe separation anxiety. As he has accepted that we will come back, he has gotten more trustworthy. Working with him on his anxiety helped eliminate some of his destructive behaviors much more effectively than trying to tackle all those individual problems directly.

He’s so good at humoring me.

(3) Appreciate your problem child’s strong points. Julio is an escape artist who can’t be trusted to ‘leave it’ (whatever ‘it’ may be). He’s reactive with other dogs and skittish around certain new people. Sometimes, I’m not sure he’s actually housebroken. BUT, he’s also the sweetest dog I’ve ever met. He’s a cuddle bug. He is easy to exercise, and isn’t demanding more activity all the time like Herbie does.  He’s loyal and tolerant and hilarious. He brings so much joy into my life and I can’t imagine not having him. When those chocolatey eyes stare into my soul, it’s worth losing all that underwear (and that one t-shirt).

(4) Grade on a curve. Herbie was always a good learner. As a result, I got into the habit of looking for perfection. To get the treat, you have to do what I say (the first time). With Julio, I’ve had to let the standards slide a little bit. For example, ‘high five’ for Herbie means put your paw squarely and enthusiastically on my hand. For Julio, ‘high five’ just means ‘something about my foot’. At first, that was good enough. I had to learn to reward the little steps that form the bridge between ‘I’ve never heard that command before’ and ‘I know what that means!’

(5) No two dogs are the same and you have to be flexible in your methods to match the dog you’re working with. I think that’s pretty self explanatory.

Lindsey and Raiden

Raiden is the dog that every trainer never wants. He’s stunning, with a command presence in the show ring that judges comment on after awarding him Best in Show. A champion at 8 months, Best in Specialty Show and Best in Show winner at 9 months and with a German Excellent Select rating the day he was old enough to step into a Sieger ring. “I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” I’ve heard on countless occasions while taking group win pictures. Raiden wins by sheer presence- he commands the attention of the judges so they can’t look away at any other dog. He may not be the best (he’s enormously oversized) but he’s got the attitude. And in case you think he’s just beauty, Raiden has brains too. A spectacular working dog, he had the most impressive drive to work that made him a coveted asset of my search and rescue team. The head K9 trainer on the team, an ex-police K9 handler, was the head of the Raiden fanclub. My schutzhund trainer tried to bribe me weekly to sell Raiden to him, offering me two and three German Shepherd puppies in exchange for Raiden. He is a dream to see in action, clearing schutzhund blinds, completing variable surface tracks at a dead run, and with a precision to his obedience that led us to a high-in-trial obedience score one schutzhund trial.

Raiden and his BIS rosette

Of course, all that only happens on days that I can convince him to behave enough to not try and eat every other dog around. And, to be perfectly honest, that’s not very often. For every group win we have, Raiden has at least 4 ring excusals.  He’s the kind of dog reactive that results in instant euthanasia if he were to land in some sort of animal control facility. The sort they don’t even attempt to place in a home. To have a dog with the most amazing skill set, the kind of dog that could easily compete at the WUSV World Schutzhund Championships the day after completing a 40 mile track for a missing child in the most remote backcountry, but not be able to take him out of the house because he’s so extremely reactive?  It’s a trainer’s worst nightmare. But he has taught me a number of valuable lessons.

(1) You know your dog best. If I had a dollar for everyone that’s given me advice or opinions on Raiden- I’d be a millionaire. From all outward appearances, Raiden looks like The Hulk. Either that or an 8 foot tall Olympic triathlete. He’s massive for a German shepherd- a lean 110 pounds, tall, thin, with hulking shoulder and thigh muscles. When he reacts he does it in style. Hackles up all down his back, barking, lunging, snarling, foam flying from his mouth. I’ve been told I need to ‘show him who’s boss’ and ‘dominate him’ countless times *eyeroll.* I’ve been told that I need to not tolerate his ‘bad’ behavior, and give him a firm correction. I’ve had people tell me I just need to enforce a solid sit/stay and he’ll give up trying to gobble up every other dog. Not once have I ever had anyone hit the nail on the head on the first try. My dog is *fearful.* Inside his mind he’s a timid, quivering, nervous, anxious ball of nerves. At home, he’s a giant marshmallow. He’s soft, he doesn’t like yelling, he wants to be softly stroked, have his head massaged, and have his belly rubbed. He’s the complete opposite of what you’d expect from just looking at him. And not one of those above recommendations would do anything but make his problems even worse. How do I know this? Because I followed all the other trainer’s advice in the beginning. I would try to argue that he was just a soft, sensitive, fearful guy, and people would look at me like I’d grown 6 heads. 110+ pound dogs aren’t fearful! What do they have to be fearful of? Show that dog who’s in charge! His problems got worse, and it’s taken years to undo what careless advice I should have ignored because- I know my dog best.

My dog is a marshmallow

My dog is a marshmallow

(2) It’s ok to be fearful, nervous, or anxious. It’s ok to not be social. It’s ok for your dog to not be a cookie cutter dog. This was a big one for me. At first I saw this as a problem that needed to be fixed. Let’s work on this until you’re dead tired! We’re going to tackle this every day until we get this right! In all reality- it’s perfectly ok for a dog to be a bit leery of things. Forcing the issue can make it worse. Not every person likes everything, and we can’t expect the same of dogs. We can pair good things with scary things, do LAT and BAT and behavioral interventions, but at the end of the day, if Raiden just doesn’t want to be happy around other dogs, but is perfectly content to ignore them if they ignore him- that’s good enough for me. He doesn’t need to be social. It’s not a prerequisite to life. With years and years of hard work, we’ve gotten to this point in Raiden’s life. He’ll ignore other dogs if they’ll ignore him. And that’s fine with me. I don’t have a lunging, snarling wild animal anymore, and as long as other people respect personal space and listen to my directives to keep their personal dogs in their own personal space, we can lead perfectly productive lives.

(3) Know your dog’s limits. This goes along with knowing your dog best. I’ve had Raiden for nearly 9 years- I’ve worked him in all sorts of various sports, dog rings and situations. I know his limits, and I know how to keep him from hitting that threshold. And as such, I have to be his advocate. Raiden gets nervous when lots of people come over unless he can be calmly introduced to each individual person. Not always possible, so he stays put away during family get-togethers. I have a walk-in closet in my office with (strangely enough) a window in it. We’ve outfitted this closet with vinyl flooring, frosted film on the window to let in light but not let Raiden see out, and an extra-tall iron pet gate across the door. This is Raiden’s ‘safe room.’ When people come over, Raiden gets put in here. (Also- when we leave the house, as Raiden suffers from pica and will swallow anything he takes a fancy to). When people come over and want me to let him out, or want to see him/play with him/irritate/antagonize him, I have to have to wherewithal to stand my ground. No, Raiden doesn’t need to come out and come play. No, you don’t need to meet him, or show him off to your friend you brought along. No, I most definitely am NOT taking out the bite sleeve for a ‘demonstration.’ Know your dogs limits, and keep them from reaching it.

Raiden's closet

Raiden’s safety closet

What to do when your pet is lost.

It’s a terrible feeling– you look out into the backyard where you left your dog just a few minutes ago, and he is not there. Or your kitty escapes while you’re bringing in the groceries and completely disappears. You’ve walked around your neighborhood multiple times calling and calling and still your pet does not appear. What next?

A bunch of clearly tagged dogs

A bunch of clearly tagged dogs

Ideally, before your pet ever goes missing, you’ll have taken some steps to help him get home. A microchip is a great start, but even better is a collar with tags that include your phone number. A rabies tag or a license can get your pet home as well, but there is an extra step involved (contacting the veterinarian or the treasurer’s office which is in charge of dog licensing). If your pet is clearly tagged with your phone number, the people who find him only need to make one call.

The most important thing you can do is get the word out that your pet is missing. Talk to your neighbors. Take a photo with you! Ask them if they’ve seen your pet.

Contact the police, especially if it is a dog who is lost. The first point of contact in many places for a found or loose dog report is the local police department. Let them know when and where your pet went missing, so that if a call comes in, they’ll know someone is looking.

Tags can be stylish and life-saving!

Tags can be stylish and life-saving!

Call the local veterinary hospitals. Many times a person who finds a pet will call their veterinarian to ask what to do next, or if anybody has reported a pet missing. They might also take that pet in to be scanned for a microchip. If we know your pet is missing, we can help connect you up with the people who have found him!

Call the animal shelters in your area, and go there to look in person. Animal shelters can be busy places, and the people who answer the phone might not have accurate information. Many a dog has been found at the shelter when the receptionist told the owner there was no dog there matching that description.

If your pet is microchipped, notify the microchip company (and there are many– Home Again, Avid, AKC ReUnite to name a few) and confirm that your contact information with them is correct. There is nothing more frustrating than finding a pet with a microchip that leads to a disconnected phone number.

Social media has become a tremendously useful tool in reuniting lost pets with their owners. If you have a Facebook account, post a picture and your contact information (make sure it is a public post, not friends only!) and ask your friends to share it. The reach that Facebook can have in just a short time is astonishing. There are also Facebook communities such as Find Toby in PA that are specifically geared toward connecting lost pets and their owners. Let us know and we will post it on our Facebook. Get your pet’s photo and information out there to as wide an audience as possible!

Hang fliers around your neighborhood. Keep in mind that most people will see these posters as they are driving by, so you want to include only the most important information and make it is big as possible. A large LOST DOG/CAT heading, a photo of your pet, and your contact information are the most important things. Offering a reward may entice people to be more attentive to their environment, or might encourage a person who found your pet and is considering keeping him to return him instead.

And last but not least, don’t give up hope. There are many stories of pets being reunited with their families after weeks or even years! It is possible.