Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Two Nerds Walk into a Petstore

So as you've probably noticed (or maybe not), I haven't been posting lately. Between the new job and grad school, I don't have much free time anymore. And when I do, well, spending more time in front of a computer doesn't seem to be a high priority for me. I'm going to try to write at least once a month from here until the end of grad school, but the content is probably going to shift a bit from information promotion to what's on my mind at any given moment. You've been warned.

Hopefully you'll still love me anyway.

So here's what on my mind: I bought a parrotlet from a breeder a couple of weeks ago. Her name is Auri (and yes, I did name her after the Patrick Rothfuss character - naming birds after crazy people is always appropriate), and she's just about the coolest critter ever.

When I was in college, a little art shop in Canal Park had a parrotlet named Kirby. I fell in love with Kirby, and every time I went down to Canal Park, I would spend what was probably a creepy amount of time just watching Kirby do his thing. The shop closed a few years ago, but I've thought of Kirby often, and wanted a parrotlet for about a decade now.

And now I have Auri, and I couldn't be more smitten.

I've had parakeets and cockatiels for most of my life, but it's been a while since I was actively involved in the parrot world. So when I found myself with a few hours to kill on the other side of the cities, I stopped in at a local parrot-oriented pet store to catch up on what I'd missed.

It turns out that the owner of the store is an IAABC parrot behaviorist. We spent the next two hours chatting about parrot behavior, dog behavior, and the training of both species because sometimes when two behavior nerds meet, they can't shut up to save their lives.

One of the things that has changed since I last looked at the world of birds is an increase in positive reinforcement training. I've always been a little confused by the amount of positive punishment historically involved in bird training. I mean, they're not killer whales or komodo dragons, but I still feel like it's a bad idea to piss off an animal that can literally bite your finger off when it's feeling cranky.

Not only have bird training techniques changed, there's also more of a focus on understanding and working with bird behavior rather than working against it. This is really important because parrots are not a domesticated pet. Parrots are not dogs - they're not even cats. For the most part, their base behavior has not changed with their closer association with people. This means that unlike dogs, there is no innate desire to "be good," act in accordance to our wishes, or mold their lifestyles to fit with ours. So it is people who should change if they wish to share their lives with parrots.

What does this mean for me and Auri? It means that there are more resources for us going forward. I'll be able to understand my parrotlet better and therefore be better able to meet her needs. I won't be the only person I know who has clicker trainer their parrot, so if we run into trouble, chances are here will be someone to help us out of trouble. If possible, I'm even more excited to have added a parrotlet to the horde.

And as I've said before - this is a great time to be a trainer. For any animals.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Training Philosophy

I've been thinking about training philosophies a great deal lately, and I've decided that - contrary to the current political correctness trends - training philosophy is really, really important. But I'm not talking about whether you're R+ or P+ or balanced or whatever kids are calling the different techniques these days. I'm talking about your personal philosophy of training.

If you chose to pursue dog training as a hobby, you're going to want to have a personal philosophy because it's going to help you make choices that you can live with. Eventually, you're going to have a trainer tell you to do something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Or you'll watch someone do something to their dog that makes you uncomfortable, but hey - they're a good trainer and their dog is well-behaved so maybe it's not so bad. And then you try the technique and maybe it works or maybe it doesn't, but on you're way home you have the sneaking suspicion that you've done a Bad Thing and are maybe a Bad Person. Knowing your own priorities and how a skill or training technique fits into those priorities can give you guidance when you find yourself presented with a difficult training decision - and trust me, you'll run into those. Having a personal training philosophy will help you sleep at night.

I'm sure it's no shock to anyone who has met me or followed the blog that my highest priority is that my dogs are I are having fun together. When it comes to showing, I also want the high scores. Having these two philosophies means that I'm not going to take a dog into the ring who doesn't know the exercises. And because I have placed my dog's happiness above high scores, I'm also not going to employ a training technique that might improve our scores at the cost of my dog's enjoyment. Or take my dog into the ring if he doesn't want to be there.

Take Jai, for example. He and I have a lot of fun working and playing together. He knows all the exercises for level one rally in WCRL - and level two, for that matter. If I took him to a show, he's probably wouldn't have a complete meltdown; we've done a bunch of work on not being crazy in public. And because I've over-trained everything, it's likely that we'd manage to pull off some decent score. But I am 100% absolutely certain that Jai would hate the trail atmosphere. It would be too much stimulation, and he would get overwhelmed. So because I've made my dog's attitude a priority, he won't be showing anytime soon. Also because I've made his attitude a priority, we're going to work on making that environment less scary for him. I think there's a good chance that Jai could learn to have fun at dog shows, and I'd like to have him there if I can. So that's where our training is headed next.

I feel pretty strongly that my dogs' lives are too short for them to spend any more time unhappy than they have to. Certainly other people have different personal philosophies, though, and I don't consider myself so perfect that I believe their philosophies are wrong. (Well, mostly anyway. Obviously some people are wrong.) Most of the time, they're just different. Some people want good behavior, some people want perfect behavior, some want to pack as much adventure into their dogs' lives as possible, and some just want a dog to come home to and maybe walk around the block with them. As long as your philosophy doesn't interfere with mine and doesn't involve abusing your dogs, you can go ahead and do whatever you like. However, I think it's important to have a personal philosophy when it comes to dog training because knowing your own values will help ensure that you act according to them and still manage to achieve your goals.

So, what does your personal dog training philosophy look like?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Littlest Bulldog's Big Adventure

My dad, my brother, and I had planned a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in September. Since we would be paddling instead of hiking, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a dog that can't walk long distances. There's only one of those in my house, so the Littlest Bulldog got a Big Adventure of his very own.

I like to have a good idea that I'm not making a huge mistake when I take a dog on a trip where we can't easily turn around and go home, so I recruited my friends Vera and Earl to help teach me to teach Cannon to ride in a canoe. I shouldn't have worried though. I tossed Cannon's mat into the canoe, he jumped in and said, "Oh, hey, here's my mat, I'll just hang out here." It was the easiest bit of "hard" training I've done in a long time. It sure is nice when the dogs decide to make me look smart.

Little bulldog, big canoe, no worries.
When it can time to actually go on our trip however, one adverse coincidence after another lined up and got in our way. At the last minute, my dad and I decide to cancel the BWCA trip and stay at Flour Lake campground instead. Flour Lake Campground is literally less than a mile south of the BWCA, but I haven't been campground camping in about a decade and a half, so it was almost entirely new territory for me.

There was a picnic table.

There were stores.

There were s'mores.

It was amazing.

Knowing that I wasn't going to have to carry my stuff everywhere, I brought a few extra books.
Knowing he wasn't going to have to carry his stuff everywhere, my dad brought the Taj Mahal.

One of the fun parts about suddenly being stranded on a desert island - or in the middle of the woods - with someone is that you get a new perspective on them. I learned a lot about the Littlest Bulldog on this trip. For example, when I adopted Cannon, he couldn't even walk a mile due to breathing trouble and general out-of-shaped-ness. On this trip, I learned that he can now walk six and a half miles! After which point he will not walk a step further and needs to be carried, thankyouverymuch.

One of those moments when I'm really glad I don't know what my dog is thinking.
Guessing is bad enough.

I learned that when confronted with an over abundance of food, Cannon will bury his goodies and then run back for more. I also learned why I should not let him bury things in the fire pit.

And I learned that while feeding Cannon marshmallows is entertaining, feeding Cannon toasted marshmallows means that I will be picking marshmallow twig dirt out of my sleeping bag later.

"My face is stuck to itself! Oh, noes! How will I eat more things if my face is stuck to itself?!?"

All in all, though, I think Cannon enjoyed himself. We hiked, and we canoed, and he got to have three people (and their food) all to himself. It was a Most Excellent Adventure for a Very Little Bulldog.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What Unemployment Taught Me About Forgiveness

In spring of this year, funding was cut to the Brain Sciences Center, and on June 15, 2014, I got cut along with it.

And we're okay. We've had to tighten our belts a bit, and the savings account has taken a hit, but the mortgage and the bills are still getting paid, the dogs and the people aren't missing any meals, and nothing horrifying has happened. Truth be told, leaving the BSC was probably for the best: I went to nursing school to take care of people, not stare at spreadsheets, and the lack of human interaction was starting to wear on me. I have a new job lined up to begin in November working in hospice care - something I've wanted to return to ever since I got my first taste of the field in college. It even pays better. We're okay. We're going to be okay. I know this.

But knowing and feeling are not always the same thing.

The loss of a job is considered a major life event, and now I know first hand why that is so. In spite of the relatively trauma-less nature of my unemployment, I still sometimes feel that I have failed. I thought I would retire at the VA, and I've lost that. Am I still a nurse if I'm not working as one? Am I a bad nurse (just as I've always thought in those secret, dark moments), and everyone can see that, and that's why it took me so long to find a job? The are people and animals who rely on me, how could I have allowed this to happen? (Even though I know there is nothing I could have done to stop it! I know this.)

And so I have gotten in the habit of waking each morning with forgiveness. I was raised to believe that forgiveness was something you had or did not have. You asked people or God for forgiveness, and they gave it or they did not, and the matter was closed. I have come to find, though, that forgiveness is an active noun, like "struggle" or "love." It bears constant repetition. It is not something I have or do not have; it is something I practice. So I wake in the morning and acknowledge my guilt and pain, no matter that I know it is wrong to feel guilty about something I was powerless to change, and then I give myself absolution.

And then I get out of bed.

It's not perfect. Sometimes I have to remind myself throughout the day that it is okay to have flaws. As I have practiced forgiveness, I have gotten better at it, and it becomes easier to let go of what I feel and embrace what I know: that I am good, and strong, and brave, and that this, too, shall pass. And there will be wonderful moments in the future that would not have been possible if I had not become unemployed.

When I first started rolling this blog post around in my head a few months ago, this was as far as I had planned to take it (well, okay, I was going to relate it back to dogs because that's what I do). But with the recent suicides of Robin Williams and Sophia Yin, and as a survivor of depression* myself, I feel that I need to touch on that topic as well. I started graduate school in June (June was a rather intense month), and I'm currently working on a paper about Major Depressive Disorder. At the heart of the paper is the question, "What do we do?" It's fine to be aware of depression and pass around emergency numbers and all that, but what do we do? when confronted with the suffering of others? How do we help when we suspect someone is depressed?


Ask them how they are doing. Let them know you care. Don't ask once - ask a million times, and a million times that, until you are certain they are okay. Depression is a disease of mountains and gorges, and what may be truly well one day may start sliding down the mountain the next. And when the person with depression cries, "I don't know how you can help!" be ready with your awareness and phone numbers - but more likely, be ready to simply sit and be present. We who are depressed are terribly afraid that we will scare people away if they are allowed to see who we feel we are. I believe that many people shy away from those with depression because they do not understand how to help, and they do not see how much just being present, leaning into our pain instead of away, is a great and incredible gift. I don't need anyone to fight my battles or tell me it will be alright - I just need someone to hand me a goddamn stick, and make sure I don't fall off a cliff.

I think that one of the reasons pets are of such comfort to people who are grieving or depressed is that leaning into the pain of others comes naturally to them. At any given moment, I have a six-heartbeat care team literally within arms' reach ready to be with me. Ready to get out of the house with me or make me laugh or simply be still with me. Present. I don't have to worry about them leaving me because I am too imperfect or stupid or hurt or simply too much. They don't need to do anything but be themselves.

Be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle that you know nothing about. That you will know nothing about, unless you are willing to ask and be present for the answer.

Photo by Sarah T.

*I realize that this post is a little more painful than my usual content, and I just want to mention because I don't want you to worry: I really am okay. What I'm currently feeling isn't anything beyond the normal grief that comes with losing a job. I keep pretty close tabs on myself, and I'm not afraid to use my crisis plan and support network if I need to. I have depression. It does not have me. I'm gonna be alright. But I'm grateful to you for asking. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I Took My Porsche Off-Roading

I've spent a big chuck of my life hearing my dad talk about how much he wishes he could do a solo wilderness camping trip - no one but him and the woods. So when I wound up with a few spare days this summer, I decided to take a solo hiking trip of my own. And since dogs don't count as people, I decided to take Allister along. I was pretty sure he'd enjoy it, and if he got loud, well, the only person he'd be annoying would be me.

For our trip, I picked a twenty-three miles section of the Superior Hiking Trail just north of Grand Mirais, Minnesota. The first day was spent driving and arriving at our drop-off point, which was an adventure in and of itself. We parked our van at the end of our trail and took a shuttle to the start. The shuttle driver took one look at Allister's stumpy little legs and started telling me horror stories about people who's dog's weren't able to keep up with them on the trails. And I laughed and laughed.

This dog could run circles around me any day of the week,
and I'm not exactly a wimp.
Knowing that we wouldn't get to our drop off point until mid-afternoon, I picked a campsite that was close. We hiked around a little to stretch our legs after six hours in the car, and then we settled into camp. And I discovered that while Allister enjoys hiking - yes, hiking is fine - camping is apparently something I failed to address before. It wasn't anything major; Allister was just confused about why, having hiked and played ball and picnicked, oh why were we not going back inside the house for a nap?

"Where are the beds, woman?"

Luckily, over the next several days, Allister seemed to settle into this whole "camping" idea, and it turned into an awfully good adventure.

Allister: I dropped my ball gag. Oops?
Me: *facepalm*

I won't go into the spiritual side of wilderness hiking. I'm pretty sure I've beaten that one to death over the past few years (plus I have two more camping trips that I did this year, and I need to have something to write about if I'm going to make you look at my vacation pictures).

Because seriously, how can you not believe you're part of something bigger out here?
But the trip was a good one for us. I don't often take the time to just hang out with Allister because, let's face it, Allister is really hard to just "hang out" with. He - and I - both want to be doing something, and it turns out that this hiking trip was a nice blend between doing and nothing. We had fun together. And when it comes down to it, that's all I really want from my relationship with my dogs anyway.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Late Bloomers

This is Allister. He doesn't get much blog time by virtue of being almost perfect. What I mean is that he's not quite as awesome as Cannon and Piper, but not nearly as crazy as the pit bulls. He's just kind of . . . stuck in the middle. I've had Allister since he was nine weeks old, and I did a bitchin' job of socializing and training him, if I do say so myself. He's not afraid of anything, behaves at the vet, is polite to strangers, and has an amazing drop on recall. Allister has just one itty-bitty, tiny, little, GINORMOUS flaw.

Allister barks.

He also screams, yodels, whines, howls, and meows (I'm not even kidding). Basically, Allister has Opinions, and like most people with strong opinions, he thinks everyone should hear about them. I've spend most of the last five years trying to get Allister to shut the heck up already. I tried everything: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, clickers, bark collars, peanut butter, EVERYTHING. And mostly what I accomplished was to make Allister and I incredibly frustrated - to the point where we wanted nothing to do with each other. Then I had a bit of an epiphany at the beginning of this year:

Allister barks.

It is part of who he is. If it were possible to train him to be quiet, I would have been able to do it because I don't suck that badly at the mechanics of training. It's not in Allister to be silent much in the way it's not in me to be short or stop reading or sit still. This is a behavior I will not be able to stop. Ever. Time to pull myself out of this "make-Allister-stop-barking" rut.

With this new perspective, I went back to my toolbox with the idea of compromise. I could not stop Allister's barking, but neither could I tolerate not being able to hear myself think. I came away with two tools.

The first one was easy: differential reinforcement of a incompatible behavior, a.k.a. The Ball Gag Strategy. You see, Allister loves to fetch and carry and bring me things. So we worked on teaching Allister to carry a ball in his mouth whenever we left the house. It was a little tricky, and it's not perfect yet. Sometimes when he barks, the ball falls out, and I have to remind him to put it back in. The ball definitely doesn't stop him from barking, but it does muffle him enough that I can carry a conversation with someone else. As it turns out, that's mostly what I wanted anyway.

The second step was harder: Allister and I grew up. Allister is a brilliant, driven, wicked sharp dog, and like most geniuses, he can be hard to live with. But over the last year or so, some of Allister's cutting edges have softened. He's more patient, and less likely to fly off the handle and start yelling at me when he doesn't understand what I want. And for my part, I've learned to focus less on the shiney ideals of want and more on what we - this marvelous Allister-Laura dynamic - need. I made the grievous mistake of trying to force my dog to be who I wished instead of focusing on who he is, and we're both ready to forgive and move on.

It's as if I'd spent my life only dealing with SUVs. I love SUVs, their versatility and power, their strength and durability, and I like to think that I'm a pretty decent SUV mechanic. But a few years ago, someone handed me the keys to a sleek Porsche 911, and I started fantasizing about fast curves and races and all the pretty ribbons. But the handling was too sensitive, and the clutch was just plain weird, and I hit the brakes and almost spun out. So I freaked out and threw the car in the garage and hid the keys under the couch and tried to pretend that I'd never had a Porche 911 in the first place. It wasn't my proudest moment. But here's the things about Porsche 911s and little weasel dogs:

They want to be driven.

So I started sneaking my baby out of the garage. Just short trips around the block. Then little jaunts to the park. An easy little dog show, just building up our confidence in each other a scrap at a time. And I'm starting to think that I might actually be able to pull this off. But even if we never make it to the Big Times, I'll tell you what -

It's still a hell of a ride.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Year in the Life of Short Snort

Cannon has the exact same Gotcha Day story as Piper Ann. It went like this:




Cannon and I leaving the shelter: Day One.

It's been just a touch over a year since I brought him home, and just like Piper Ann, I have yet to regret the decision. It's been quite a year! We started off with a bang: Cannon passed his CGC just sixty-eight days from adoption, a new personal record for me. And him, I suppose.

After that, we took a break from training in November to get Cannon his nose job so he could breathe easier. Littlest Bulldog ripped the stitches out of his nose on day eight (to which the vet said, "wow, I've never seen that before!" Ain't that special?). To this day, his left nostril is just a bit crooked. I'm sure it adds character, though. Or something.

"Hi! Isn't my slightly crooked but super expensive nose adorable?
Doesn't it make you want to stuff my face full of cookies?
Because I would be okay with that!"

We'd didn't let surgery slow us down for long: in March, Cannon passed his therapy dog test. This came as a surprise to no one who knows him - I've met very few dogs who were "made" for therapy work, but Cannon is certainly one of them. The part that made me happiest about the therapy dog test was when the evaluator pulled us aside afterward and complimented us several times on what a great team we were and how well we worked together. I work hard to make sure a good relationship is the foundation for everything my dogs and I do together, and it was nice to hear someone who didn't know me or my dogs was able to see and appreciate that.

All of the happy. I haz it.
As an encore, Cannon had his WCRL rally debut last month. We worked hard on the exercises, but knowing my own ring nerves and the fact that Cannon is still a rather green dog, my goal for the weekend was to get our feet wet. I half expected him to realize that the people outside the ring had food, and bolt out after their luscious goodies in the middle of our course. "If nothing else," I said, "we should be entertaining."

Apparently, we disappointed a few people - more than one of my friends came up after our runs and told me, "That wasn't funny at all."

Less funny. More super-awesome-amazeballs.
Definitely entertaining.

Needless to say, Cannon and I blew my expectations out of the water. We got all three qualifying runs for his RL1 title with scores of 209, 209, and 206 for an Award of Excellence. This translated into a first place, second place, and fourth place ribbons in a pretty competitive level one A class. I'm not sure where Cannon's competitive career is heading next, but I'm super excited to find out. 

Cannon is more to me than his accomplishments, though. First and foremost, he is my friend and companion, and friendship is made in the little moments. He makes me laugh every day, whether it's finding new ways to be gross, or creative counter surfing, or rabidly trying to hump dogs three times his size. Cannon is always ready to try a new adventure. And he is of great comfort to me as I watch Piper age, knowing that when she leaves me, I will not be left alone in this house full of crazy.

Um, "sanity" being a relative term here. 
This blog post has taken me forever to write because I kept getting distracted facebook stalking my own dog. In such a short year, we have made so many fantastic memories. I started out ridiculously in love with Cannon, and it's only gotten worse. I love how fun he is to train. I love that he is always surprising me with his clever little bulldog brain. I love that I am his happy place. 

I love

I love

I love

Photo by Paige.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


"Oh my god, Laura!" my best friend wailed, "We're going to be thirty this year! WE'RE OLD!!!"

"First," I replied dryly, being rather closer to the Big Day than she was, "I'm pretty sure thirty is not old. And second, would you really want to be sixteen again?"

The truth of the matter is that, in spite of all my cultural conditioning, I've been looking forward to thirty. I've come to the realization that being an Adult is mostly whatever I decide it is. For example, I've decided that Adults get to wear whatever they want. So if I want to wear running shorts and dog tee shirts, or a bikini top with capris, or a pencil skirt and high heels - then I will, and I can. Because Adult. I can buy that fancy collar if I damn well please, or take a day just to go hiking in the woods with my dog(s), or impulse adopt that bulldog if I want to. Age appears to have its privileges, and I've found the balance of freedom, ability, lack of interest in pleasing the majority that comes along with being thirty to be quite enjoyable.

I've heard that in some homes, little dogs enjoy special privileges. But with both Rubi and Piper edging up to ten years old, here at the Horde House, we have ElderBitch Rules. For example, ElderBitches can have cake for breakfast if they want to. They can also sleep however they want, because dignity is something that happens to teen-agers and people who never really grow-up and therefore care about what others think.

In fact, if Elderbitches want to sit on the table, well, who are they hurting, really?

ElderBitches get to play outside with their big orange ball as long as they want.

Because if she hasn't killed herself yet, she probably isn't going.
Also: Fuck bushes. Those assholes.

If fact, if they don't want to give the ball back at all . . .

I think there comes a point for every good dog owner when they realize that their friend has more years behind than ahead. If you're lucky (and we are), you've already put in the years of training that a little relaxing of the rules now won't make much of a difference (well, unless you're the table, I suppose).

A friend of mine once posted that she loves the stage she and her reactive dog are at: they're not doing any official "training" anymore - not BAT, LAT, CAT, DS/CC, or R+/P-. They're just having a conversation. I love that stage, too, when you and your dog are finally communicating on the same level. It's where Jai and I are right now, and after struggling so long to figure out what we needed from each other, it's a relief to be able to respond to one another so naturally.

It's not where the ElderBitches and I are.

The girls and I have reached the Old Married Couple stage. We've had so many conversations that we've run out of things to say and now go straight to reading each others' minds. We might not always like what the other is thinking, mind you, but more often than not all we need to do is look at the other before we start grinning at the amazing ridiculousness that is our lives. We have grown into each other, like trees planted too close together.

I know that there is a day coming when I will no longer have Piper and Rubi to read my mind for me: when their tree-like strength will no longer be here to support me. And I know that day is coming much sooner than I would like. But that day - it is not today.

And that is reason enough to celebrate.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy . . .

Thursday, May 15, 2014


I had blog posts I wanted to write this week. A whole fist full of them.

But it's been an . . . intense month. And one by one I've forgotten everything until I can barely tell up from down.

So I think it's about time I spent a week out in the woods.

See you all after the holiday.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Polka Will Never Die

What are we up to now? Seven? Eight? It's probably a bad sign that I've lost count.

Well, how's this - if we're counting my dogs, he doesn't even exist.

Last fall, my best friend since forever broke up with her boyfriend and needed a place in the cities to crash while she finished school. Since she's the only one who has ever slept in our guest room anyway, it made sense for us to offer the spare room to her, and Friend Roommate been with us ever since (Laura Logic need not resemble the logic of the standard population).

Friend Roommate is a Horse Person. She was riding horses before she was born (literally), but she had to leave them behind to come get educated in the big city. I think I kind of know what she's going through - I had to leave my dog behind for a few year to go get educated in the little city, and without getting into too much detail about my broken-brain conditions, it wasn't pretty. So when Friend Roommate asked if she could get a dog of her very own, well, FFS look at my house. What's one more?

I mean, it's not like I can fit a horse in the backyard.

So this is Butters. Butters is . . . well, he's Butters. He's kind of lumpy and slimy and not my type, but that's okay because he's not mine, and I'm pretty sure my type is "crazy" anyway. Butters came from St Paul Animal Control, so we don't really know much about his past. His hobbies include aggressive snuggling, drooling, and running through doors. I'm hoping he comes out of his shell a bit more as he gets used to living with the horde. But in the meantime, he sure is easy to live with.

Shit, you guys - how is this something I agreed to?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

So, I'm Kind of a Big Deal

It took me a long time to admit that I am a dog trainer - long past the time when I started teaching classes. When I was a youngin', I practically deified dog trainers. What they did seemed like magic, and it took quite the mental overhaul to realize that I might be allowed to join their completely, imperfectly human ranks. Part of the difficulty was that there was no right of passage to becoming a dog trainer. To become considered an adult, I had to live to be eighteen. To be a nurse, I had to go to school and then pass the boards. But all I had to do to become a dog trainer was say "I AM A DOG TRAINER" loudly and frequently.

It didn't quite sit right.

This March, I took and passed the CCPDT's certification test to become a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Now I get to put the letters CPDT-KA after my name (someday, I'll have almost as many letters as Piper Ann). Of course, I am pretty sure that I was a dog trainer before I took the test. But I also feel pretty strongly that professional certification is important for dog trainers.

Photo by Paige.
Currently, there is no standard of behavior or training for dog trainers. Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer and as a result, there is a huge variety in the skills and ethical practices of dog trainers. If you're searching for a dog trainer, it's truly a case of caveat emptor. However, by searching for a trainer with a certain certification, dog owners can be more certain of what their money is buying.

For example, by finding a trainer with CPDT certification, a dog owner can be fairly certain that their dog trainer has met certain standards. To apply for the CPDT test, I had to show that I had at least three hundred hours of experience in the past three years and provide references from people who had worked with me. I had to pass a knowledge test covering multiple topics including instruction skills, ethology, and learning theory. And then I had to agree to a code of ethics. I felt the code of ethics was a particularly important part of the certification process - there can be a lot of cruelty done toward both dogs and people in the name of dog training and following a code of ethics based on humane treatment of canines and humans alike can help guide a trainer through difficult decisions.

To maintain my CPDT certification, I will also need to maintain a certain amount of continuing education. You guys, continuing education is so important in dog training these days. This is a really exciting and fun time to be a dog trainer: scientists and dog owners alike are looking at dogs in a new light, trainers are sharing information more consistently than ever, and new, more effective, and more humane training methods are popping up just about every day. If your dog trainer isn't keeping up with all the current information, you really aren't getting your money's worth.

Dog training, ninja style.
Photo by Paige.
By becoming certified, I wanted to support professional standards for dog trainers. After all, you wouldn't trust a doctor without a medical license or a lawyer who hadn't passed the bar exam. Do you really want to trust something as important as the relationship between you and your dog to someone who hasn't proven themselves able to do the job?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Trainer, Heal Thyself

Well, it's definitely spring - Jai and I were assaulted yesterday by the first off leash dog of the season.

The medium-sized dog came flying across a busy street, snarling and snapping and got all up in Jai's face. Jai, bless him, may be a touch reactive but is also exceptionally dog tolerant. The second time the dog snapped at his face, Jai stood up on his toes, and raised his head and tail as if to say, "Really? Are you sure you want to do this?" The other dog realized that, no, he didn't actually want to throw down with a sixty-five pound pit bull, tucked tail, and ran back to his owner. (Who was too busy yelling at his dog and yanking him around to apologize for being an enormous butt-munch. I really loathe people some days).

Jai and I were both really upset by the incident. He was yanking on the end of his leash, his brain trying to fling itself around corners to see where the next zombie attack was going to come from. And I was just plain shaken up. If that had happened to Marnie or Rubi, there would have been blood. And either Cannon or Allister could have been seriously injured. Jai and I were not okay.

So I stopped us on the next block, and fed Jai peanut butter while he watched the world. Jai fell into the familiar routine of eating and watching, and I let myself be distracted by the pattern of watching my dog for rewardable moments. After just a few minutes, we were both much calmer: Jai was watching me more than the world, and I had stopped shaking. We finished our walk on a good note in spite of our incident with the other dog.

I often forget how good can be for us just to stop for a few minutes and get our bearings. I spend a great deal of time running around from one project to the next, and for the most part, I enjoy it. Much like my dogs, I like having things to do. But I think I sometime get so caught up in the rush that I forget how beneficial it is just to stop and watch the world for a few minutes.

Thanks for the reminder, Jai.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

She Gather Me

A month or two ago, I decided to take the Therapy Dogs International test with Piper. She's passed therapy dog tests before - once with TDI and later with Pet Partners. It wasn't really that I had a driving desire to get her recertified. TDI had recently changed their test, and I wanted to see what it was like before I sent my more novice dogs, Jai and Cannon, through it. I don't think it even occurred to me until about halfway through the test that we might not pass. Piper Ann has been my bombproof, rock solid saint for so long that I hadn't even entertained the idea that she wouldn't fly through it.

Piper passed the TDI test, of course.

Piper says hi.
I decided this year, after a three year break from competition, that I wanted to work on my ring nerves. At first, I thought I would work through my issues with Maus. After all, he's used to working with my when I'm anxious - when you have an aggressive dog, you tend to be a little worried every time you leave the house. But when it came time to actually fill out the premiums, I found that it was Piper I wanted to bring back into the ring with me. She and I started playing this game together, and it felt wrong not to have her by my side when I set to start again.

After this weekend, I feel pretty comfortable saying that even after a three year break, Piper and I have still got It. Much to my chagrin, at the tender age of nine, Piper now qualifies for the veterans' ring in World Cynosport Rally. Piper was the highest scoring veteran dog of the weekend, bringing home three blue ribbons - one for each of our three runs. Of course, it's easy to win first place when there's only one other dog in the class (or, ahem, none) - but with scores of 204, 208, and 207 out of 200, I feel like maybe we earned those blues anyway. These successful runs mean that Piper has earned her Rally Veteran title (RLV), and that we both earned an Award of Excellence (AOE) for completing her qualifying runs with scores of over 190.

Piper Ann, CGC, TDI, TT, RA, CD, MA with Honors, RLV AOE
(I'm not actually sure the AOE is part of the title, but I'm going to pretend it is because we are
Full. Of. Awesome.)

It seems that somewhere between when I picked her up at the shelter on February 24th, 2006, and today, Piper Ann and I have become a veteran team. We have each learned how to set the other up for success. I know when to reward Piper, when to ask her to work a little harder, and when to say, "We have had enough for today and will try again tomorrow." And when I fall apart, Piper has learned how to gather up the pieces and return them to me in the right order. I must have been very good indeed to have been given a friend like her.

Photo by Crystal.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Last month, I helped someone return his dog to the rescue. He'd adopted Porter, one of the Nottweilers, and they'd lived happily every after - until life happened. He fell in love, moved, took the job he could get, and ended up working twelve to fourteen hour days. We worked together to try to find a way to keep Porter happy and healthy with his daddy away from home so much, but in the end, it was in Porter's best interests to return to the rescue.

Porter's person was in tears when I went to pick up our Nottweiler. "After what I've done to Porter," he said, "I just can't imagine having another dog."

I was a little crushed. After fifteen years in rescue, I tend to take a bit of pride in  my ability to spot a good dog owner and to be able to match that owner to the right dog. At no point during our relationship, from adoption to surrender, did I feel that Porter's person was a bad dog owner. He was doing his best with a difficult situation, and in the end he made the decision he felt was in his dog's best interest. I hope that I never become the person who humiliates someone who has only tried to do what was best for their dog.

In rescue, we often see people who surrender dogs as "The Enemy." But I don't feel that giving up your dog necessarily means that you're a Bad Dog Owner. Life happens. Poor matches get made, even by experienced rescue people. Many people, myself included, are only a handful of paychecks away from making such hard decisions. Would you really be homeless - and make your dogs be homeless - instead of parting from them? Personally, winters in Minnesota are cold and summers are so hot, and if someone could give my dogs what I could not, I hope that I would be brave enough to put their needs first.

And I hope that doesn't make me The Enemy.

More than just treating others the way I wish to be treated, providing Porter's human with compassion instead of criticism speaks to the type of person I want to be when I grow up. Porter's owner already knew that returning his dog to the rescue was not the ideal situation; he knew it with every fiber of his being. If I'd made him feel worse, it would not have changed the situation. And just like the kindness I put into the world becomes a part of me, so does the cruelty. So when given the option, I will error on the side of kindness, because I would rather be a kind person than a cruel person.

And I hope someday, when he is in a better place, Porter's person will welcome another dog into his life.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Well, That Didn't Work

So, trazodone was a rather spectacular fail for the treatment of Jai's new car phobia. On the other hand, if I ever start feeling like Jai and I haven't made any progress in the entire two years we've been together, I now have a bottle full of time warp pills!

A few times a week, Jai and I have been practicing car skills. We hop in the car, he gets some cookies, I turn the car off and on a few times, he gets some super yummy cheeses, and maybe I drive up and down the driveway depending on how he's doing. And then we go for a short walk. With out meds, he might be a little hypervigilant, he might pant a little, but mostly he's pretty comfortable. We tried the trazodone several times so that I could be sure it was the medication's influence and not an off day or the phase of the moon or something, but I now feel pretty confident saying that trazodone turns Jai into a panting, shaking, drooling puddle of pit bull go. None of the times we tried the trazodone did I ever feel that Jai was relaxed enough that I should turn on the car.

Now I have pictures of Jai in the car for you. You're welcome.
(Also, why does my dog have tear stains all of a sudden? 

And more importantly, how do I make them go away?)

The trazodone also changed the way Jai behaved on his walks, and it was seriously like taking a TARDIS back to when I first got him. He was hypervigilant, cringe-y, and OMG - the freezing. Freezing used to be a huge problem for Jai, but it's been at least a year since we've had a problem with in. On the trazodone walks, though, Jai froze at least two dozen times, and it was often more than ten seconds before we could get him unstuck. Boy, do I not miss that. On the other hand, Jai did seem less reactive while he was on trazodone. Of course, Jai wasn't reactive when I got him, either. I suspect then, as now on the medication, he was too shut down to be reactive. So in this case "less reactive" is not the same as "better."

One of the concerns that people often have about trying behavior medications with their dog is that it will change their personality; people fear that they will lose what makes their dog their dog. Friend Crystal once used the analogy of behavioral medications as the dial on a radio. If the song is your dog's personality, we know that we can turn the dial on the radio and get more static. But when you turn the dial just right, everything becomes clearer. Using medications won't spontaneously turn your pit bull into a sheltie. Finding the right medication will often make your dog's personality shine through more cleanly without the "static" of excess stress and anxiety getting in the way.

So trazodone didn't work for Jai. When I turn the dial on my radio and get more static, I don't give up and turn the radio off. I turn the dial the other way. So Jai and I will try another medication, and probably another one after that if that on doesn't work. And if medications don't pan out for us, then we will keep on keepin' on, knowing that the music is out there even if it's sometimes hard to hear.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jai and the Cool Dog Club

All the cool dogs are on drugs.

One of the reasons I decided to pull Jai from the therapy dog test last week is his new riding-in-cars phobia. It started quite suddenly over Christmas. We were in the middle of a five hour long drive home from gramma's, and in the space of about ten minutes, he went from napping to crying, shaking, drooling, panting, and trying to dig through the bottom of his crate. I still have no idea what triggered this phobia.

We've been working pretty hard on this issue for the last three months. Jai is still eager to jump into the cars, so we've been working on maintain that enthusiasm, getting cookies for being in the car while it's moving, and counter-conditioning bumps in the road with extra yummy peanut butter. And we've made steady progress. Jai gone from total melt down to some shaking and light panting. But couple the stress-inducing car ride with a new building and new dogs, and I didn't feel doing the TDI test would be setting my dog up for success. And while I wish we had been able to take the test, I still think that pulling him was in his best interests.

So if we're creating improvement and making good decisions, why did I decide to put Jai on meds?

First, I felt that our counter-conditioning and desensitization training would be more effective if Jai's brain was in a better state for learning. When we are stressed, frightened, or depressed, our brains secrete a the hormone glucocorticoid. Glucocorticoid, among other things, actually kills cells in the hippocampus. One of the important roles of the hippocampus is to turn short term memories into long term memories. Basically, glucocorticoid makes it harder for our brain to turn lessons into learning. When Jai is terrified, it's hard for him to remember good things that are happening; all he remembers is being afraid. Luckily, we know that antidepressant medications can increase the number of stem cells that become nerve cells in the hippocampus, thereby improving memory. Putting Jai on medications will help promote better learning.

Second, we've come to the point where our environment is working against us: welcome to pothole season in Minnesota. If we go over enough bumps right in a row, Jai becomes so frightened that he can't eat. When this happens, I'm pretty much just holding my dog prisoner in a giant torture box. It's not always feasible to stop the car and wait until he calms down again, or to turn around and go home. By putting Jai on medications, I'm hoping to increase his thresholds so that the same amount of bouncing will have a smaller impact on him. We've done a ton of really hard work in the last three months, and I don't want to lose it because Minnesota can't keep its stupid roads in one piece. This time of year, they're only going to get worse, and I don't want Jai to regress.

Third, I want to improve his recovery time. Stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine can stay in the body for up to seventy-two hours after a stressful event, lowering thresholds, decreasing learning capacity, and just making a body miserable. While recovery can certainly occur in a shorter period of time, Jai has never been one of those dogs. He and I have both been struggling with the impact of his car anxiety on his other behavioral issues of neophobia and reactivity. By reducing the stress he experiences in the car and by balancing some of the chemicals in his brain, we'll make it harder for his car anxiety to influence his quality of life outside the car.

I don't have pictures of Jai in the car, but I do have pictures of Jai at the vet.
So Jai and I went to the vet last week, and Dr. Nicole agreed that he would be a good candidate for a short term medication. She gave us 200mg of trazodone to try before car ride. Thus far, Jai's behavior hasn't really been influenced by his medication. It hasn't made him drowsy or stoned, but neither does it seem to improve his car phobia, either - which impresses the heck out of me. I took 25mg of trazodone once and was snowed for the next twenty-four hours, and I'm a lot bigger than Jai. So while I'm not yet done testing the effectiveness of the trazodone, I suspect I'll soon be calling Dr. Nicole to ask for a new medication.

I'm not too concerned, though. There are many behavior medications out there, and it took Maus a few tries to find the right one, too. Behavioral meds can be a great asset to a behavioral rehabilitation program, but it's not our only tool, either - we'll be using them to augment our training program, not replace it, and eventually I'm confident that we'll find the right combination of tools to conquer Jai's fear. And in the meantime, we'll just keep traveling the road in front of us.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Good Choices

Jai has made a lot of progress in the past two years - so much so that I thought we might try to pass the therapy dog test tonight. But Jai has been a bit off this week. Much in the way it wouldn't be fair to ask someone to run on a broken leg or do advanced calculus with a migraine, it wouldn't be right of me to ask Jai to work hard when he's not at the top of his mental game. So I switched Jai out for Cannon at the test - and Cannon passed with flying colors!

So here's to good choices: may we make them. May we live them .