Monday, November 25, 2013

Why Dogs Are So Good at Training Us

Could you say "no" to this cute face?!
a puppy that I dubbed the chocolate chip puppy- he looks like a cookie!

I hear it all the time from clients, friends and family- "My dog has me trained- it happened so fast!" My favorite is when I'm being told this about a 12 week old puppy- it's not any less true, but it is exponentially more hilarious. Dogs training humans is a phenomenon that has been occurring for thousands of years, way back to the first time a dog used those puppy dog eyes for a scrap of food. Research shows that dogs and humans first started living in close quarters based on a common need- food. Initially, wolves (very likely the ancestors of modern domesticated canines- more on that later) hung around for scraps of large kills after the people took all they could use. Over time, they probably helped with the hunt and then became guardians of the home. My point is this- dogs like food and we like food. We are both a social species. And dogs are generally pretty darn cute. And they use that to their advantage at every opportunity they have. Most dogs are almost as manipulative as my Irish-Catholic grandmother (may she rest in peace).
I'll go into canine domestication in a later post (or series of posts), so save your coffee for a later date.

If you examine canine interaction, especially if you observe wolves, you will see that they give very subtle but very clear signals of communication. It's how they communicate- dogs primarily communicate through body language and use vocalizations as a secondary method. All canines communicate quickly and subtly- a small tail twitch or tongue flick can be the difference in a fight or friendly play, and most dogs are fluent in this language. You know what other language they are fluent in? Humans. That's right. Domesticated dogs have a PhD in human communication. All this time I thought undergrad Organic Chemistry was tough- at least I haven't spent most of my life trying to decode the people I live with. Dogs can see every little twitch that we make, they can tell if we had a bad day at work and need a hug (what, you've never had a dog hug? my condolences.), they know when we are mad about the horrible traffic coming home (Roxie has been know to look at one of us after a long day of work or traffic and tuck tail as she runs to her bed). Dogs can smell when a diabetic's blood sugar is too high, they can alert us before their epileptic owner is about to have a seizure- they know us better than we know ourselves.
In that case, should it be any challenge for your Yorkie to learn that when she barks and jumps long enough, you pick her up or give her a treat? All it takes is once- you give in one time and they are hooked. This is operant conditioning at its best, and a principle I remind clients of frequently-  

any behavior that is rewarded will be repeated. 

 I'm not saying this is always a bad thing, sometimes your dog learns that if she sits nicely, she gets a treat or toy- that's good for both of you! What you don't want is a dog who barks at the door because she wants to go chase a squirrel (though I think my father would pay good money to have someone else chase the squirrels away from the bird feeders...).

So, how do you keep your dog from developing these not so fun for you habits?

It's really easy.

It's something that doesn't require any special tools or fancy tricks.

You're going to be mad at me now.

Don't give in when your dog is doing something annoying. Try it out at Thanksgiving dinner (if you don't celebrate Thanksgiving, we'll just call it Thursday). When your dog sits by the table, whining, jumping up or simply sitting there with sweet puppy dog eyes and Niagara Falls leaking from her mouth (all of those except the drooling are begging by the way), I want you to do nothing. Ok, you can ask her to sit or lay down and to stay. Beyond that, don't say anything. Dogs LOVE attention, and saying "No, no, you're being a bad dog begging at the table like that!" is still attention. Once your dog gives up and breaks eye contact with you and your plate, you reward with praise. If they stay relaxed and not begging through the rest of the meal, they can have a small treat after dinner... not directly from the table! Put it in her dish, or at least make her sit or shake paws with you first, for goodness sake.

I'm not saying your dog can't have table food (please consult your veterinarian about that), I'm saying they probably shouldn't beg for your food, or bark incessantly when there is a leaf blowing around outside. If you want your dog to do these things, feel free to ignore everything I've written here- no hard feelings, I promise.


The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell, PhD. Pages 20-64

Saturday, November 23, 2013

How I Ended Up a Dog Trainer

My name is Amanda, and I am a professional dog trainer. I own my own training business and do private lessons, group classes and behavior modification. I decided to do a blog because, honestly, I think my husband and all of our friends have tired of my dog-related rants. Seriously, it doesn't take much sometimes to get me going on a lecture about behavior or ethology or canine development or canine domestication (don't you worry, curious reader, I'll explain it all in due time). 
I figured I would start with how I ended up a dog trainer and a small business owner. Only one of those has always been a dream of mine. 

Like most little girls who grow up on a farm surrounded by chickens, dogs, horses, pigs, and cats; I had decided by the age of 4 that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I spent countless hours caring for my stuffed animals, doing exams, giving vaccines (empty syringes without needles of course) and applying bandages to wounds only I could see. Fast forward to sometime in high school when I finally got a job working for a local veterinarian, I was so excited that I didn't care that my first week of work consisted of cleaning cages and wiping down tables. I worked for Dr. McAllister for about 4 years, through the rest of high school and then during winter and summer breaks from college. Four years of classes including animal science, diseases, anatomy and physiology, livestock management, nutrition, animal husbandry, genetics plus all those core classes like physics and organic chemistry and I had made it to graduation. I had worked diligently for 4 years taking all the required classes plus any extras I could squeeze in, all while balancing extra-curricular activities, clubs and two jobs. See, for vet school they won't even look at your application unless you are heavily involved in activities outside of class and getting great grades the whole time. There I was, senior year and I was applying for vet school- I can't begin to describe the stress of that time- all I will say is that it is a wonder I am still friends with anyone I encountered that year. Here's a fun fact: when I was applying there were about 22 vet schools in the entire US and my B+ average was only good enough for about 5 of them. I did it anyway, I knew my grades weren't good enough. Did you know there are vet schools in the Caribbean? Dude, THAT was my backup plan. One of these days I'll go into more detail about it all and why undergrad and the application process alone is why I respect veterinarians, but until then I'll quote a friend "Do whatever you have to so you get in, straight A's and president of every club on campus, no sleeping- once you get in you can have a C average and coast." So I applied to the schools I had the best shot at getting into, and I got wait-listed. You know what that means? It means that I was almost good enough for this school, and if that school isn't quite good enough for another student that they accepted, I may be next in line for their spot. Oh, when you get wait-listed and then accepted they can accept you as late as a week into classes. But it's living the dream, man. That's what I was going for.

Then, the unthinkable happened. 

I got accepted...

Holy Shit. Me. Accepted to vet school in sunny California.  

You know what I did?

I told them "no, thanks"

Funny story- I was on lunch break at work (a vet clinic of course) and I had to let them know right there on the spot or at the latest by the end of the day. I had to decide if I was going to find a $500 deposit to hold my spot and move across the country for the first day of classes next week.. meanwhile I was eating leftover pizza from the staff meeting 4 days ago for my lunch. Oh, and I was working a late shift so there was no way I'd get back to them by the end of the day even with the time difference. 

So I said "No, give my spot to someone else." 

See, I had already kind of decided this months ago after not getting accepted during the first round of acceptance letters. I didn't want to be in debt until I was 80 years old. I didn't want to spend 4 more years of my life in school only to have people not think I was an actual doctor. One of the vets at the clinic where I was working at the time said goodnight to her kids over the phone 4 nights a week.. jeez. Now that I was actually thinking about someday having a family, it was a little depressing to see. 
Meanwhile, my boyfriend (now husband) was in the Navy and was getting assigned to a submarine in Hawaii. I liked the idea of fleeting off to an island for a few years with my sailor.. maybe finding a different career option that would still allow me to work with animals. 
That's the one thing I knew- I had to work with animals. 

I've always believed that everything happens for a reason. Maybe it's the optimist in me, but I really feel like I ended up in Hawaii right when I was supposed to. A few weeks after we moved, a sweet pit bull was brought into the clinic where I was working. She was malnourished and had a pretty bad case of mastitis. One of the other techs found her a foster home and within a month we ended up adopting her. Roxie, and a lingering interest in behavior from a few courses in college was what got me into dog behavior and training. The story of Roxie will have to wait until another day, but I will sum up with stating that her behavior was what got me where I am today. She was my first dog-dog aggression case. 

I completed a dog training program with Animal Behavior College, including an 8 month externship with a fantastic trainer (whom I still talk to when I'm stumped) and graduated with honors. I joined the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and opened my own business in upstate New York (my husband's new duty station for a few years). I took continuing education classes, went to conferences and seminars, and gained the experience and knowledge necessary to sit for the CPDT-KA test (more on that later too). Then, we moved back to our hometown in Maryland and I got to start my business up all over again. In my downtime, I thought I would start this blog to help educate people and try to explain some of the misinformation out there.

Oh, and I always wanted to own my own business, I just thought it would be a vet clinic... turns out being a trainer has much lower overhead cost and I get to make my own hours. That rocks hard.