How do you choose the “right” trainer?

A tiny black lab puppy learns to sit on cue
Even very young puppies love to learn

So, you’ve got a new puppy, or a newly adopted dog — or you just want to work on some behavior or other things with your dog. How do you find the “right” or “best” trainer?

Get recommendations … but use caution. Ask a lot of questions. Ask both the person recommending the trainer and the trainer:

What approach does the trainer use?

Is it a clicker trainer, a mostly dog sports or competition oriented trainer, an obedience trainer, a trainer who works with all kinds of dog/human teams from pets to service dogs to dog sports nuts?

Trainers who use mostly or entirely positive methods are the best choice for most dogs — certainly for puppies — and for most people. A trainer who is expert in a specific type of training is a good choice for advanced training.

When you are just getting to know your dog, the focus should be on building a connection and communicating. A positive trainer will help you develop skills in communicating to the dog what you want her to do and also in understanding your dog’s communication with you. That is the best foundation for your relationship.

A more “traditional” or obedience focused trainer might introduce punishments for “bad” behavior — things the dog does that you don’t like. At any point in your relationship, but especially at the beginning, this has the effect of cutting off communication with the dog. The dog begins to worry about what might trigger the next punishment. Often, you’ve given the dog little or no (or very unclear) information about what you do want her to do. On the other hand, when she does perfectly normal doggy things, like having accidents, if she’s a young puppy, or eating some interesting smelling thing, unpleasant and scary things happen. This does not build trust.

Red flags to look out for: Trainers who advocate using harsh tools, like prong collars, on puppies or very early in training; trainers who routinely use shock collars or who expect you to use them for an extended period of time (more than 1-2 uses); trainers who emphasize the need to “be the alpha.”

Does the person do classes, private training, or board-and-train? A combination?

You may have preferences for a class vs. private; board-and-train might sound tempting. Think through the options.

For a puppy, a great combination is a puppy play with short training classes. The opportunity to play with other puppies in a supervised, appropriate (size, age, play style) group is essential to developing good doggy social skills.

If you have an older dog, classes and private training are good options. Private training is ideal for focused work on a specific problem. Classes that focus on reactive dogs or trick training or scent training or some other fun or serious topic can also be helpful. It’s good to see how other dogs and their humans do things, it’s fun to meet the other people and make connections. General manners or basic obedience classes, Canine Good Citizen training, or classes geared toward teaching manners for dogs who are out and about with their humans are all fun and helpful. They tend to focus on things that every dog needs to learn: walking nicely on leash, staying calm around other dogs and people, not jumping, settling quietly. Your options may be limited, depending on where you live, but I hope you can find something that works.

Board-and-train might be a good choice for some adult dogs for some types of training. I do not recommend it with puppies because the puppy should be forming her primary bond with you / your family — not with a trainer. Obviously it can work; many service and guide dogs spend their puppyhoods with families and then transfer their bond to their new partner. But given the choice, I think your new puppy belongs with you.

Choosing board-and-train to work on a specific problem or if you need to leave your dog for a time period anyhow (maybe during a 2-week no-dog vacation) could work out well — if you are realistic in your expectations.

The trainer, likely an experienced professional (choose carefully), will probably make a lot of progress with the dog during the training weeks. But when you get back, you and the dog have made no progress at all. That is, the dog has no reason to behave any differently with you in your home environment than she did before you left.

Many dog owners mistakenly assume that the trainer imparts knowledge to the dog and the dog then knows exactly what to do in similar situations from that time forward.

For example, your dog goes nuts when she sees another dog, a squirrel, or a cat when you’re out for walks. The trainer spends 2 weeks working on this, and is able to walk the dog calmly through a park filled with squirrels, cats, and other dogs out for walks or even playing off leash. So you’ll have no more problems, right?

Wrong.

Your dog is going to go just as nuts with you as she did before the training, unless and until you work with her to change that.

The trainer has taught your dog an alternative behavior, but the dog still needs to learn that she has to use that behavior with  you. That requires undoing an established pattern (the dog going nuts, you freaking out …) and learning a new one. This will be much easier since the dog has already learned the new pattern, but…

Board and train is not a replacement for work, lots of hard work, with your dog.

I’ll cover more trainer-selection criteria in another post.

 

Advertisements

Farewell to Chaser, a Dog Who Changed the (Dog) World

Photo of Chaser & Dr. Pilley, from Chaser’s Facebook page

How many dogs get a New York Times obituary?

I have to admit to a stab of apprehension every time I saw a post on Chaser the border collie‘s Facebook page since she turned 15. But in the end, I saw the news in the NYT: Chaser passed away last week peacefully, of natural causes. Her dad and trainer, John Pilley, passed away last year. Together, the two of them changed the way millions of people think about and understand dogs and the dog-human relationship.

Anyone who has spent significant time with a dog and really paid attention to that dog knows that dogs can pick up some human language. After all, the entire notion of dog training is based on teaching them to associate our words and gestures with specific actions. But Chaser took understanding of language far, far beyond simple cues and responses.

Chaser understood grammar. In fact, Chaser’s knowledge of grammar often surpassed that of my students. I had to teach them about subjects, objects, and indirect objects before they could understand exactly what she had learned to do …

Chaser hit the TV talk show circuit when she had learned to identify more than 1,000 items by name and category. She knew the unique names of 1,022 toys. More than that, though she could put each of her dozens of balls into the “ball” category while also recognizing each by its own name. Same with Frisbee-type disc toys.

OK, I’m pretty average as a dog trainer, and even I have taught dogs the names of toys and categories. Not as many as Chaser, but I knew it was possible.

But the grammar bit: She learned to understand requests that entailed taking toy1 to toy 2, which required her to distinguish both toys by name and understand which was the direct object (toy1) and which the indirect object (toy2).

It’s so much more than the grammar though. It’s the idea of that complex level of thought, understanding — and communication — occurring between a dog and a human. Chaser made it clear to anyone willing to see that dogs really can learn so much and that their limitations are more in humans’ inability to conceive of how to teach them than in their capacity to learn.

Which brings us to Dr. Pilley. Chaser was a brilliant dog. But many other brilliant and capable dogs have lived and died with no fame or recognition; without learning or reaching their potential. Dr. John Pilley showed the world what was possible. He pushed back against the doubt, the disdain, the dismissive derision of his colleagues and of the journals that demanded extraordinary testing and re-testing before publishing his research.

He was one of a very few dedicated individuals who believed in dogs’ abilities and who put in the hours and years of effort to make the world see what’s possible. Thanks to him and a few others, centers to study dog cognition are popping up at universities around the world and we’re learning more and more about how dogs think and learn and understand.

Very few animals are memorialized in the New York Times. But if ever a dog deserved such an honor, it was Chaser.

A Perfect Day (for Cali)

Cali, a golden retriever, swims in a riverI’d like to get out and hike more. It’s summer in Missoula. I’m an outdoor novice; I don’t go camping (which means I have Missoula all to myself on summer weekends) and I can really only do easy hikes. Even so, I like to get outside in our short, but stunning, summers.

But Cali’s not great off leash. She gets engrossed in something and next thing she knows, she’s miles away and 20 minutes have passed.

There are many wonderful trails where I can’t or wouldn’t let her off leash even if she were more reliable. They’re at the edge of vast wilderness, have too many tempting smells and critters to follow, and I’m not willing to risk losing her. Every weekend in the summer, the Missoula NPR station reads our lost dog reports, and sometimes there are pictures at the trail heads … it’s sad and scary.

So, when I have a little time and it’s a nice day, I face a dilemma. Do I pack Cali into the car and go off somewhere to satisfy my desire to hike? Or do I choose an option that will be more fun for her?

Hiking is fun for her, but still, it’s usually a long walk on a short leash in a pretty place that she’d love to explore, if only her mean mom would let her.

Compared with one of our standbys, a large open area inside Missoula where she can run off leash, and where I usually throw a ball for her to chase … well, no contest. Especially in the summer when there’s water to play in!

I feel a little bad each time I decide to head there rather than gear up for a more adventurous outing, but then, as I make the turn off of Reserve St., and Cali knows for sure where we’re going, her excitement reassures me. This is what she’d choose. This or a trip to Big Dipper ice cream (or both).

She dances with excitement as we get out of the car and I dig out her ball; she squeals with joy as I release the leash. Then she’s off, running, the instant I throw the ball. She doesn’t bring it back, of course, so I walk to her, she lets me take it, and I throw it again. And again.

We walk along the irrigation ditch, currently full of cool water. We walk through a wooded area. When we get to each of the two little pools, I throw the ball into the water for her to swim after. Now she does bring it back, over and over, so I will keep throwing it upstream. Her favorite thing is to get out of the water and drop the ball at my feet. Then, just as I bend to pick it up, she shakes off, sharing the cool water. We both get back to the car dirty, tired, and happy.

I think that she has more fun doing this, even if it’s the same outing two or three times a week (or daily) than she would if we went to new and interesting places … where she had to stay on leash. It’s not that dire; there are a few other places where she can be off leash. But in the summer, this spot, with the trees, water, and open space, is pretty hard to beat. Instead of worrying about taking her more places, maybe I need to focus on taking her more often for perfect Cali days … a swim, some mud, maybe a little ice cream!

Freedom!

Cali, a golden retriever, jumps out of a freezing cold stream
Photo by Christina Phelps

An out-of-town friend came to visit Cali this weekend, and we all went to our favorite place, Packer Meadow. We were a little early for the gorgeous wildflowers, but Cali enjoyed being out in nature and off her leash.

The first time she ever visited Packer Meadow, Cali was with Jana and Alberta, and they all went crazy, running in circles and splashing in the creek.

Cali did a similar run-and-splash today, but she had barely dipped her paws into the icy snowmelt water before bounding back onto land and running some more.

She did not want to go home and ran off when called back to the car. She made sure to stay close enough that she could see us but stubbornly refused to come to the car. We’ve got to work on that if Cali wants to enjoy any more Montana hiking!

I corralled her and we got into the car … where Cali was soon sound asleep.

Ice Cream Season

Cali loves her ice cream.

By the time I realized our new home was a few blocks from the Big Dipper ice cream stand, it was too late. We were committed. Cali cannot believe that they are not open at 7 am. She wants ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Year-round. It never occurred to her that people might not want ice cream when it’s 10 degrees below zero outside. What’s the connection?

It warmed up, briefly, here and we celebrated by going to the Big Dipper. Of course!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The (free!) dog cone was so tiny and perfect, we just had to take a picture. Well, as the pictures show, we took a little too long — and someone couldn’t wait for her treat.

If the spring ever shows up for real, I am sure that Cali will get many more tiny dog cones.

 

Can my dog be vegan?

Cali turns away from her food bowl and faces a fence
Cali doesn’t want to be vegan!

I’ve been asked several times whether I think it’s OK to feed a dog a vegan diet. The short answer is that dogs can survive and even thrive on a vegan diet, but it’s not easy and it’s not the optimal diet. Cats cannot be vegan, by the way.

A recent article in Wired addressed this question from the perspective of dog owners’ conflicting beliefs: They are vegan because they oppose using animals for human benefit but they also want to provide the best lives for their dogs (which means letting the dogs eat meat …). I understand the dilemma.

Premium pet food companies understand the dilemma, too. More and more, they are advertising the humane and sustainable nature of the ingredients they use. Is the advertising accurate? I don’t know; my hunch is that some companies are better than others, as with human food producers. Maybe the Whole Dog Journal will add sustainability to its list of criteria in future dog food evaluations (wouldn’t that be great?).

From a nutritional standpoint, I’d advise choosing this path very carefully. Consult with a canine nutritionist or a vet who has studied pet nutrition extensively. That is not a given; many vets take one or no courses on nutrition in vet school and many vet schools receive a lot of funding from large pet-food companies. That is to say, what many vets “know” about nutrition is heavily influenced by the makers of often not very good kibbles. I’ve gotten truly terrible nutritional advice from many otherwise excellent veterinarians.

If your vet is on board and knows a lot about canine nutrition, you can probably work out a vegan or mostly vegan diet that will work for your dog. But it’s not something to do casually; don’t just switch to a vegan food and forget about it. For example, your dog might need more frequent blood work done to test for key nutritional elements, as the recent scares over taurine levels illustrates.

One hypothesis with the many dogs showing low taurine levels is that foods with high levels of vegetable-based proteins and low or no carbohydrates made it harder for the dogs to get full nutritional benefit from the meat-based proteins in those foods. While I haven’t yet seen a definitive answer to that question, it suggests that boosting the amount of plant-based proteins in a dog’s diet has implications beyond whether she’s getting enough protein … which means going vegan or mostly vegan could have health effects that you’re not anticipating, and that even if the dog is a healthy weight and seems to be fine, serious problems could be developing.

So. The long and short answers get us to the same place, which is this: If you’re serious about moving your dog to a more vegan diet, proceed carefully and make sure you’ve got a knowledgeable vet’s supervision and guidance.

 

 

 

A Great Idea!

A screen shows the Tesla Dog MOde message, My owner will be back soon.

If only Cali could afford a Tesla …

Several weeks ago, Tesla rolled out a software update that introduces “Dog Mode.”

This is a feature that allows car-and-dog owners to set a cabin temperature for their dogs’ comfort while they go off and … do whatever it is people do while leaving their dogs in the car. The car’s heating or cooling system will maintain the appropriate temperature automatically. Here’s the cool part: The Tesla’s screen shows a message meant to reassure worried passers-by that the dogs are OK. It reads “My owner will be back soon” and displays the interior temperature in large numerals.

The main hitch I see is that the screen, which is usually used for the car to communicate with the driver, is positioned between the front seats. People passing by and noticing dogs in a closed car in extreme heat (or cold) may not peek in at the right angle to see the screen. They might still panic, break a window, call the cops, leave a nasty note for the owners, alert the security at the nearest store, etc.

However, this does raise a great possibility: An add-on product that could maintain a reasonable temperature in the car while displaying a prominent notice easily visible from the car’s driver and passenger windows. A solar-powered cooler that hangs inside the window perhaps? Any inventors out there? That’s a Kickstarter I could get on board with.

Seriously. Summer is coming. Don’t overheat your pups. Trade in for a Tesla today! (I wish …)