It has been almost a year since I’ve last updated my site, and I am so ready to get back to it. This past year has been a year of change for me; Athena and I, back in April, up and moved out to the Okanagan (in BC) with no plans, and nothing but ourselves and two suitcases.
We had a lovely summer settling in, meeting people, getting to know the area, and just generally finding out footing. Now that it’s fall, I’m ready to start getting back to my passion; working with animals.
So, without rambling on and on, here’s the skinny:
We have grown our little family, adding one new boyfriend and his dog, Moshi – a Boston/Frenchie mix. We are living in tiny, beautiful Osoyoos, which is in the southern Okanagan. Wine country! I am ready to start taking clients again and will travel within the Okanagan.
Long term goals are to have my own space to perhaps run group classes or do boarding, but… one thing at a time :)
Hold on to your hats, folks, because I just got back from my very first ClickerExpo in Portland, Oregon, and it was amazing.
In brief, here was my schedule for the four days:
Chicken Camp with Terry Ryan [one day]
ClickerExpo 2017 [3 days]
Dr No: How Teaching an Animal to Say “No” Can be the Right Prescription – Ken Ramirez
Retrieve Reboot – Hannah Branigan
If You Build It, They Will Come: Training a Reliable Recall – Kathy Sdao
The Fab Five: Concepts That Will Make Your Training Rock! – Emilie Johnson Vegh & Eva Bertilsson
The Rat is Never Wrong: Training With an Errorless Learning Mindset – Susan G. Friedman, PhD
Control is an Illusion: Stimulus Control without Frustration – Sarah Owings
We Just Have to Dish: Training, Science, and Nerdy Stuff – Kathy Sdao & Susan G. Friedman, PhD
Wanted Training Consultant (Those Good with Animals Need Not Apply) – Ken Ramirez
Thinking Fast & Flow – Emilie Johnson Vegh & Eva Bertilsson
Turn Me On…(or Not): Inspiring Other to Choose Positive Reinforcement Training – Michele Pouliot
Keep Your Candle Burning: Avoiding Professional Burnout – Kathy Sdao
I have been wanting to do a chicken camp for a long time, in general, but specifically with Terry Ryan. Clicker training a chicken is known to be a good way for dog trainers to hone some timing and training skills, as chickens are very fast and far less forgiving than dogs.
Training a chicken is a stretch and a boost to your mechanical skills. The average chicken is faster than the average dog, giving you a chance to improve your coordination and timing. Chickens will freeze or fly away if they don’t like the way you are training them. Unlike dogs, you will know immediately if you are taking advantage of a chicken or pushing too hard, too fast. Chickens don’t give their trainers a second chances as often as our dogs do. – Legacy Canine
Despite the (very high) pedestal I had the idea of chicken camp on in my mind, it did not disappoint. The chickens were so sweet and fast as anything. We did some targeting work – teaching the chicken to peck a yellow target – and a little bit of discrimination work – I started teaching my chicken to peck the yellow target instead of a green one when they were both presented. We also did some movement and shaping work; specifically we trained our chickens to walk through a tunnel, which I did using shaping and no luring (ie. I didn’t bribe my chicken through the tunnel with food). My favourite part was using the yellow target to teach my chicken to play tambourine. Such a smart girl!
Honestly though, the highlight of the day was just working with Terry. She is such an excellent instructor; educational but funny, and never boring. I swear, I could listen to her talk about paint dry and be fascinated.
I’m not going to ramble on and on about ClickerExpo, but I do have a few thoughts to share.
First and foremost, there is something inspiring about being in a hotel surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of positive reinforcement based, force free, clicker trainers. The dog training world can be a controversial clash of ideologies, and, frankly, it gets exhausting. At ClickerExpo, there is none of that. Everyone starts from the point of science based clicker training, and goes from there.
Throughout my seminars and labs, I learned so much, and am definitely a better trainer and teacher because of it. Some shoutouts:
Ken Ramirez is brilliant, but more importantly, he is just a fantastic speaker. I aspire to speak that well to an audience one day.
Kathy Sdao is just hilarious and, just like Terry Ryan, can make any topic seem interesting. Her last seminar on avoiding professional burnout was just so relatable and just made me want to go give her a hug.
Susan G. Friedman, PhD has got to be the smartest person I’ve ever seen speak. I specifically appreciated her ability to take her brilliance and scientific understanding, and explain it in a way that made sense to those of us without a PhD.
Emilie Johnson Vegh & Eva Bertilsson are goddamn ninja clicker trainers. Watching them work has changed how I will structure my own training with Athena immediately. I finally understand the awe that surrounds Scandinavian clicker training.
Sometimes – more often than you’d think – when I meet with clients, it feels more like a confessional than like a lesson. They know I train using primarily positive reinforcement, and they will look totally abashed and confess, “I just lost patience” and admit that they used to use a shock collar, or that they yelled at their dog. Even the ones who don’t lose patience and punish their dogs will admit to things like that they wonder if they made a mistake getting a dog, that they’re in over their heads, that they just need a break and some peace and quiet. They always look so ashamed.
Here’s the truth: it’s normal.
Here’s another truth: I do it too.
The first year with my dog, I was sure I’d made a huge mistake. I loved her, but god she was a hard puppy. She used to teethe on me so much that I’d bleed, and cry. And she has barrier frustration that I’m sure I could have worked through, but at the time I didn’t know how, so I couldn’t crate her. So she’d bite me and I’d bleed and cry and put her in her crate and she’d howl and cry and bark while I would bleed and cry and wonder why everyone else in the world seems to love puppies so much.
When she was older, probably around two, we were at the dog park and she was way too excited and over aroused, so I grabbed her for a time out to calm down, which was normal for us. For the first time ever, in her non-thinking state of arousal, she redirected her excited play and whipped around and bit me, hard. It didn’t break skin but it bruised, and I was shocked – I love this dog so much and I do everything for her and she bites me? I took her home, handed her leash to my partner, and – through tears – told him, “I love this dog but I am going into the bedroom to read and I cannot even look at her for a few hours.”
Even now – she’s almost four, and I am now a professional trainer – she’ll be whining at me or being pushy, and without thinking I’ll snap “Enough, Athena.” and it’s out of my mouth only seconds before my brain goes, “Oh shit, that’s not how we handle this.” and then I feel that guilty pit of my stomach feeling like I’m the worst dog owner in the world.
Here’s the bottom line:
We all do the best we can. Sometimes, we lose patience. Sometimes, we just need a bubble bath and a glass of wine with the dog locked out of the bathroom. Sometimes, we just really want to go pee alone for once (I know I’m not the only one…). Sometimes, we just need a break.
It’s okay. It’s normal. And you don’t need to feel guilty about it.
The vast majority of our dogs have very happy fulfilled lives, with minimal coercion and compulsion (I’m guessing on my readership here, but I’d imagine most of you are not correcting and punishing your dogs). Our dogs love us, and we love them. If you make a mistake, if you lose patience, it’s okay; dogs are so forgiving. It’s part of their charm.
So whether you have a puppy and you just can’t handle their sharky little teeth right now, or you have an older dog who is testing your patience, don’t worry. Take a deep breath. You didn’t make a mistake getting a dog. We all have bad days – people and dogs – but I can’t imagine my life without them.
Here is a thing that’s important to me: living a lifestyle of positive reinforcement. I think I stole that phrasing from Kathy Sdao, but it really resonates with me; a lifestyle of positive reinforcement. It’s not just that I am a positive reinforcement trainer, it’s not that I’m exclusively positive, it’s that I am trying to live a lifestyle of positive reinforcement.
“Pure positive” or “exclusively positive reinforcement” doesn’t exist. With dogs and in life. Here is my commitment though: as much as possible, I live a lifestyle of positive reinforcement.
That means I try to view the glass as half full. That means that I am as ethical and humane as possible. That means that I follow LIMA and the Humane Hierarchy in my work. That means that I try to treat the people in my life well, and let them know when I appreciate them.
In dog training, the most modern, proven science has proven that force free, positive reinforcement based training is the most effective.
As an animal lover and activist, it is also the most ethical. I don’t want to hit dogs or choke them or intimidate them. Even if it was effective, it isn’t how I choose to interact with other creatures.
Dog training is an unregulated industry. Anyone can say they are a dog trainer, so they are.
Thanks to popular media and scientific misconceptions, physical and emotional intimidation of dogs is viewed as a valid form of training, without concern for the behavioural fallout or ethics.
Due to the massive amount of information on the internet, it is impossible for the average pet owner to pick and choose which sources are correct and which aren’t.
Most pet owners don’t want to hurt their pets. They want to do what is best for them. As far as I know, people get animals because they love them, not because they are evil. People do the best they know, when they know. When they know better, they do better.
Well meaning, loving, responsible dog owners get help when they need it.
It isn’t the dog owners using prong collars, or ecollars, or choke chains. It isn’t the dog owners yelling at their dogs or pinning them or alpha rolling them. It isn’t my clients who tell me that their dog is a good dog, just “dominant”.
It’s the “dog trainers” who teach them these things. It’s the “dog trainers” whose only qualifications are that they are good with dogs. It’s the “dog trainers” who talk about “balance” and “real world training” instead of science. It’s the “dog trainers” who get away with convincing loving, responsible, well meaning dog owners to hurt, intimidate, or abuse their pets. It’s the “dog trainers” who are so busy feeling arrogant or being right that they can’t get an education.
This industry is buyer beware. It’s too bad, but it’s true.
I’m a sucker for strong looking dogs; Dobermans, Dogos, Danes… just beautiful. Back when I got Athena, my Doberman, I knew next to nothing about dogs and I’m totally embarrassed to admit that I thought their pointy ears were natural; I thought they were born that way.
Doing my research before getting her, I quickly learned that wasn’t the case, and for me it was a no brainer; of course we’d leave the ears natural. Cropping them just seemed like a lot of work and a lot of hassle, when there was no downside to leaving them natural. That’s about as far as I thought into it. It just wasn’t a big deal to me.
Then, talking to the breeder, she asked us to put an extra deposit down if we weren’t going to let her do the ears, because if she didn’t do the ears and we backed out, “no one else would want her”. While that struck me as odd, I still shrugged it off. I just wanted my puppy. I also asked about leaving her tail natural, but they’d already been docked and – excited to get my puppy – I didn’t want to wait for the next litter to get one with a natural tail. So, I ended up with my Athena; natural, floppy ears, docked tail.
And then began what is, to this day, a near-daily questioning from random strangers:
“What’s her mix?”
“Why didn’t you do the ears?”
“She’s not pure dobe, right?”
And so on, and so forth. I still get it multiple times a week. And I very quickly learned, everyone has an opinion when it comes to ear cropping and tail docking. EVERYONE.
So, let’s talk about it.
The history of ear cropping and tail docking seems to go back to, at least, ancient Roman times. The ancient Romans believed that ear cropping, tail docking, and tongue clipping (?!) worked as a preventative for rabies. While that is obviously not true, the tiny grain of truth in the thought probably had to do with the fact that working dogs who had tails and ears were more likely to get them hurt (whether in battle, or catching on something), and thus were more likely to get infections and get ill; this would have predated antibiotics.
Interestingly, in the 1700s in the UK, there was a tax on pet dogs but not on working dogs, and the way they’d distinguish between the two was that working dogs had to have their tails docked. Thusly, having a dog with a natural tail was a sign of wealth (you could afford to keep a pet), and people could dock their dog’s tail to avoid paying the tax.
Why is it still done?
If originally docking and cropping was done a) for working dogs, and b) to prevent rabies or infections, why is it still done? In general, but especially for pet dogs? We now have rabies vaccines and antibiotics, and most dogs – at least in this part of the world – are pets, not working dogs.
Well, it isn’t still done everywhere. Here in Canada, cosmetic surgery (ear cropping and tail docking) isn’t federally mandated, but provincially; it is banned outright in PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador. While not provincially banned, the veterinary associations in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Quebec have banned vets from performing cosmetic surgery on dogs, and in BC, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan they have banned ear cropping but not tail docking.
Many countries, including a huge portion of Europe, Australia, and Brazil have banned cosmetic surgery on dogs.
Unfortunately, here in North America it is still quite prevalent. Which brings us back to the question of why.
Some people argue that cropping ears is a health measure. Most often you’ll hear people say that it prevents ear infections or can help dogs to hear better.
As for docking tails, they argue it prevents injury; your dog’s tail could hit something and break, or get caught in something.
Is there any truth to it? Looks like no. All sources on this seem to be anecdotal, and when we look at the science, it just doesn’t back it up.
The essential question is not “How harmful is the procedure?”, but rather “Is there sufficient justification for performing it?” Performing a surgical procedure for cosmetic purposes (i.e., for the sake of appearance) implies the procedure is not medically indicated. Because dogs have not been shown to derive self-esteem or pride in appearance from having their tails docked (common reasons for performing cosmetic procedures on people), there is no obvious benefit to our patients in performing this procedure.
Research shows that at least 80 percent of dogs won’t get ear infections, “and the breeds that are most likely to get them, such as cocker spaniels and poodles, don’t get their ears docked,” Patterson-Kane says.
Anyone who is being honest with themselves, given all of the above and the abundance of research on it, has to admit that this is what it boils down to: people like the look of a cropped ear and a docked tail. What we need to consider is, is that enough? Is the fact that people like how it looks, that it is “breed standard” enough?
Considering how reliant dogs are on body language, in taking away their ears and tails, we are taking away a big chunk of their ability to communicate with one another. This can have a real impact on their ability to socialize with each other. Their tails can also help with balance, and with spinal alignment.
It is also a concern that the procedures are painful; docking is done without anesthesia. Cropping has a lot of aftercare, and can have side effects – including serious infection, or just plain bad results.
Lastly, and perhaps most simply, as Dr. Julie Schell puts it, “dogs just love getting their ears rubbed and petted– don’t take that away from your dog.”
The bottom line
I really think it boils down to cognitive dissonance. People love their dogs. No matter if their ears are cropped, tails are docked, their dogs are on prong collars, whatever – all these things I don’t agree with – people love their dogs. I never question that. But they like how it looks, and so people need to find a way to justify it; to manage to come to terms with the fact that they want that look and they love their dogs.
Times are changing though, slowly but surely. I’m seeing fewer and fewer dogs with cropped ears; tails are a ways behind that, but I have confidence that that is changing too.
I try not to make this blog all about MY DOG and MY LIFE because that gets boring really quickly if you aren’t… me.
But just this once, indulge me. Because I spent today in Trinity Bellwoods Park with Athena and my friend, the ever talented Niki Kennedy, and she spent some time tinkering with her new camera for fun.
She got some really freaking adorable shots, and I just can’t handle it. So, just this once, indulge me: let’s all coo at how cute my dog is, okay?
Athena’s “jump” is getting so good! Fist in air is her cue.
It should come as no surprise as anyone that I’m a dog training and behaviour nerd. How do their brains work? How do they process the world? What do they want? I’m obsessed.
I’ve mentioned before that I took Brian Hare’s Dog Emotion and Cognition course through Coursera, as well as buying his book, The Genius of Dogs. I was torn about it; his studies about how dogs learn and their domestication are fascinating, but his knowledge of training is woefully lacking and, rather than acknowledging that, he states things that are incorrect as fact; he is equal parts interesting and cringe-worthy. I’m sure he’s a very smart man, but damn do I wish he’d stick to talking about things he’s actually educated in. I was obviously interested in trying out his Dognition work but, frankly, given how much time I dedicate to training and dog related work, and given how torn I was about him, I was hesitant to spend the money.
Then, by chance, Emma Tecwyn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, got in touch with us at When Hounds Fly, about her research in canine cognition. She wanted to use our space to run some labs, and obviously I jumped at the chance to participate with Athena.
Here’s the study in brief:
During this session, your dog will participate in a study exploring dogs’ learning and reasoning abilities. We investigate a dog’s learning in a variety of contexts including dogs’ physical problem solving abilities (eg. how to get a treat out of a puzzle) and their understanding of social information (eh. following a pointing gesture or learning from a demonstration). Our research takes the form of short, interactive games that are designed to be fun and engaging to dogs. We record dogs’ actions when interacting with people, toys and puzzles, and the choices they make, to learn more about their understanding of the world.
Cool side note: she’s done these same tests with toddlers and monkeys, on top of dogs!
Athena participated for two tests. It was adorable; the whole thing lasted roughly 40 minutes and, if you haven’t heard, dobermans are basically velcro dogs, incredibly attached to their humans. So between each repetition of the puzzle games, she’d swing around to me, head butt me, then go back to work; very obvious she’s used to working with me and only me. Half endearing, half embarrassing.
The first test was a box that she had to turn a wheel to dispense a treat.
The second test was a set up with two cups, and a tube that would dispense a treat into one of them.
To be honest, I was shocked by how hard a time she had with this. MY DOG IS PERFECT OBVIOUSLY but I legitimately thought she’d figure this out quickly. She quickly got five straight wrong, then figured it out and got five straight right.
Here’s why this surprised me: in Brian’s course, we learned that dogs are socially intelligent, meaning they figure out things like pointing and eye contact even when “smarter” creatures (like chimps) don’t. I assumed she’d view the tube as a “point” to the correct cup, but she just didn’t. This concept was beyond her.
Here’s a cool thing though! At the end of her turn, I had them drop a cup in the other cup – the one on the right – after she’d guessed left five times in a row from figuring it out. And she immediately went right. So whether she can figure it out without the tube or whether she had figured the game out, the interesting thing, to me at least, is that she definitely wasn’t guessing. Smart girl.
This is all amazing to me, as a behaviour nerd. But I get it – some of you aren’t. You just want to take care of your dogs. But let me tell you: dogs love puzzles. A lot.
So whether your dog is a working-dog-doberman, a super-smart-poodle, or an adorably-squishy-pug, here are some of my favourite puzzle toys for dogs, for day-to-day fun or for rainy days:
The KONG Wobbler. I don’t feed Athena from a bowl. This keeps her busy for more time, so I can get stuff done, and keeps her and her brain moving.
The Buster Activity Mat. I just got this for Athena – and several of the “extra” puzzles last week. It is my new favourite puzzle toy, and she goes crazy for it. I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Dog Puzzle Toy I like this one in that it is wood, so very natural and more durable than plastic toys; however, Athena figured it out in about five minutes flat and has been bored by it ever since.
West Paw Design Toppl Toy is basically my favourite toy ever. Not that complicated but SUPER durable. I will stuff this with anything freezable (read: peanut butter, ground beef, cottage cheese, wet dog food) and it takes Athena a good half hour to get through.
Basically anything by Outward Hound is great; the only downside being they are all plastic. If you have a dog who is a chewer, like mine, she’ll destroy them in ten seconds flat, versus any of the above.
Today, Facebook reminded me that it was a year ago today that I officially launched this site. Looking back on it, I can hardly believe it. All at once, it both feels like I’ve been doing this forever, and at the same time like I can’t believe a whole year has passed already.
If I don’t think about it too hard, it just feels like normal life. When I stop to consider though, man, has it ever been a crazy year.
Here are a few of my favourite moments from the past year:
My life changing trip to the Middle East. I had been before, but it was prior to my working with dogs. Being there, and seeing the conditions in rescues, gave me a real appreciation for how lucky our pets are in North America. It gave me real motivation to create change. It helped me find a sense of purpose.
My awesome interview with the CBSA. Meeting Paul and his drug-detecting dog Sawyer was one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do. It was my first experience with a dog trained in scent detection, and with a true working dog. Hiding hash in my car and watching her sniff it out was amazing in the truest sense of the word.
All my hard work finally paying off, and becoming a dog trainer, full time. The past few years are the first time in my life that I really knew what I wanted, knew what direction I was headed, and worked my ass off and did it.
I don’t want to ramble on and on, but it hit me today, seeing that reminder on Facebook, how lucky I have been to have so many people supporting me and cheering me on, and reading my work that I pour my heart into. I am so thankful. It’s been a hell of a year.
If there were fewer humans in the world, there would consequently be fewer opportunities for vicious attacks by humans; terrorism, murder, whatever. Right? So the solution is that we should castrate people we deem will be bad parents; or, perhaps, the mentally ill. Good thing I don’t want children to begin with.
I mean, you can’t fault the logic. It’s definitely true. But does that make it reasonable?
In Canadian legislation, apparently the answer is yes.
Wait, let’s back up and swap some words.
“[T]here are now fewer pit bulls in Ontario and, consequently, fewer opportunities for a vicious attack by a pit bull.”
Anecdotally, in my work with dogs, I have only been seriously bitten once. It was my own fault, and also, not a pit bull. The most recent dog bite to someone I know personally was a pug, not a pit bull.
(e) a dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar to those of dogs referred to in any of clauses (a) to (d); (“pit-bull”)
– from the Dog Owners’ Liability Act (DOLA), Ontario
Let’s play a game, called “guess who is a pit bull?” — I’m going to post a few photos, you tell me if you think pit bull or not pit bull:
Onus of proof, pit bulls
(10) If it is alleged in any proceeding under this section that a dog is a pit bull, the onus of proving that the dog is not a pit bull lies on the owner of the dog. 2005, c. 2, s. 1 (13). – DOLA, Ontario
“I can’t think of a single law that is based on DNA testing and there are some very interesting reason for that. One of those reasons is cost. At about $80 a pop, it would cost Prince George’s County, Maryland, about $75,000 ANNUALLY just to do the genetic testing. I think the second reason is more interesting—it’s specifically noted in the terms and conditions of the DNA testing company that it’s NOT to be used for that exact purpose.”, says Adrianne Lefkowitz, of the Maryland Dog Federation
I reached out to Bruce Rooney, Executive Director of the Ottawa Humane Society, to ask him what he thought about the subject. “The OHS does not support BSL. We think it is ineffective and unfair – as it targets breeds rather than individual dogs which may be problematic.”
But hang on; Kathleen Wynne told me that “Ontario sets high standards for responsible dog ownership to keep families safe and secure.”
And yet, Bruce Rooney claims, “It was mainly a Toronto problem that this government imposed on the whole province. They made no provision for enforcement. The City of Ottawa has indicated that they are not enforcing it, unless the dog poses a risk to the community.” [emphasis is my own]
Let me tell you this – again, this one is anecdotal: I know multiple “pit bulls”, be it American Pit Bull Terriers, English Bull Terriers (who seem like a legal gray area), and Staffordshire Terriers. They are definitely pit bulls, born and bred. Their vet paperwork? It does not say pit bull on it. Because vets know that BSL is bullshit, so they lie. I have met so many “wink wink boxer lab” mixes.
BSL is an ethical failure. BSL is a public safety failure. – http://stopbsl.org/
American Pit Bull Terrier: out of 870 tested, 86.8% passed the test
Staffordshire Bull Terrier: out of 129 tested, 90.7% passed the test
But, ruh roh –
Shetland Sheepdog: out of 502 tested, 68.3% passed the test
Pembrooke Welsh Corgi: out of 207 tested, 78.7% passed the test
Where is the Corgi ban?!
Failure on any part of the test is recognized when a dog shows:
Panic without recovery
It is shockingly apparent, a decade into BSL in Ontario, that it isn’t working. And everyone knows it isn’t working. In fact, regardless of BSL (as it wasn’t a banned breed), I reported my dog bite to Toronto Animal Services, and nothing happened.
If BSL isn’t the solution, what is?
“The solution – if a “solution” is required – is to focus on individual dogs that are a risk – stiff fines, temperament testing, muzzle-orders, and to educate children about being around dogs, and what to do if they feel threatened.”, says Bruce Rooney, of the OHS.
Given all of this, why has BSL not been repealed?
“Politicians do not want to look like they are soft on crime or public safety. When it comes to BSL that is already in place, it is much easier for a politician to do nothing than to repeal.”, states Adrianne Lefkowitz.
And, you can spread the word. Let people know that BSL doesn’t work, isn’t fair, and that pit bulls are adorable and lovable. (Okay, okay. That last is just my opinion. But that doesn’t make it wrong!)