My Crossover Process

I’ve been asked to write about my training philosophy and how I came to adopt my force-free ways. This wasn’t an easy blog for me to write as, quite frankly, I’m horrified and appalled at some of the “training” I subjected Inara to. Honestly, I really deliberated about whether to even admit to the techniques I used. I spoke with some close friends and told them how nauseous and upset I was getting just thinking about them, and they gave me some great advice and encouragement.

A lot of force-free trainers I know have always been force-free, which is really wonderful and I envy them and thrill for their dogs. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been force-free. Though I’m not proud of that fact, and I marvel that Inara has come so far DESPITE what I did to her in the name of training, I think that my experience with aversives really allows me to see/understand why people use them and provide quality discussion, above and beyond, “it’s mean.”

I got Inara when she was 8 weeks old. Her mom, Sophie, had been confiscated from a fight ring when she was pregnant. So already there’s a good guess that Sophie wasn’t bred to a dog-friendly pit bull in the hopes of good-tempered, friendly puppies. These were puppies who were going to be used for fighting/breeding. Inara showed a propensity towards lack of concern for other dogs’ pain at an early age (9 weeks or so) when she grabbed her brother by the ear and made him scream. She didn’t let go until I wedged my thumb into her mouth and pried her little jaws open. Alright, bit concerning, but I was prepared. I’d read a ton and knew I could “socialize” it out of her. *insert eye rolling here*

I enrolled Inara in Petsmart’s Puppy Class when she was maybe 15 weeks old. It was all positive reinforcement techniques, mainly using luring. Inara did just fine and even found a playmate that we had over a few times – a young yellow Lab named Sadie. The two played together beautifully and appropriately. I was thrilled as I knew I was winning the battle against dog aggression.

After the Petsmart class, I enrolled her in a class at the Animal Protective League. Again, all positive reinforcement training. Inara excelled and we had a great time together. After that was over, I signed her up for a flyball class. She was super fast and I knew she could be an asset to a team. Her training was going so well – she was at the point where she could go over the jumps, hit the box and come back over the jumps to me. Just flying. Until the day she flew past me before I could snag her harness and ran over to the tiny Min Pin who’d been talking smack to her the entire class. Inara grabbed the Min Pin and put her entire head in her mouth. Fortunately she dropped her immediately and shockingly, the Min Pin didn’t even have a scratch. She had a slobbery head but she was uninjured. What a terrifying wakeup call. Inara was about 7 months old and could have just killed another dog with a little pressure of her jaws. We switched to private flyball lessons while I reconsidered my tactics.

The timing over the next few years is hazy, but here’s the general progression as best I remember it.

I thought I needed to up the ante and I obviously had a potential issue on my hands, so I thought I needed to find some training that was a bit firmer. The Dog Whisperer was one of my favorite shows at the time, so I knew I needed somebody to show me how to be a pack leader. Somehow I found a local trainer, M., who had a strong training history and trained with Cesar’s methods. Perfect. I took Inara for an “evaluation” and found out that she thought she was above me in the pack and that’s why she wasn’t perfect. So I signed on for lessons with M. He required a prong collar for Inara, so I dutifully bought one and carefully and properly fitted it. He then showed me the “technique” he wanted me to do. If Inara took one step in front of me at any point, or if she looked at another dog, I was to give her three level 10 corrections, while saying no with each one, as I did a u-turn. So it worked out that because I was turning while correcting and saying no, Inara would catch back up and be in heel position usually in time for the final yank/no. He said that when she yelped, it was because of surprise, not pain, even though I was putting my body weight into these corrections. I didn’t realize at the time just how asinine that was. Then, also during the first lesson, we worked on stays outside a local pet store. A rather busy one. He had me actually leaving Inara in a sit stay outside the door of the store while I went around the corner. With a parking lot right there. He was probably 20 feet away from her watching. Again, looking back, I shudder. But I did one more session with M. We did the same thing as last time, but this time, when Inara saw M., she hit the ground. He said, “good, she respects me!” Even back then in all my stupidity, I knew something was off, so I quit going to M. I didn’t tell him why because I was too chicken – I just didn’t schedule another appointment.

That turned me off to prong collars for quite a while. I briefly picked up a clicker but Inara ran the first time I clicked it, so I gave up on it. So no clickers, no prong collars. What next? How about an e-collar? Sure! I knew lots of people who used them and they had great dogs. So I needed one. While waiting on it to arrive, I started hunting for a good trainer to show me how to use it. First I contacted S.M.S., a national franchise who trains only with e-collars. The “trainer” knew he was coming out to help me with dog aggression, so what happens? He pulls up, opens his car door, and out bounds two off-leash dogs that come running right up to me and Inara. Oddly, I didn’t send him away. I invited him inside and he started doing his spiel. He strapped one of the special S.M.S. e-collars on Inara and promptly showed me how to make her cower do a recall. Once again, he was thrilled that my dog was hitting the floor – “look how quickly she’s getting it!” Instead of booting him out for being an idiot, I let him finish his spiel and then choked when he mentioned pricing. Negative, ghostrider.

I got a recommendation for a trainer in Michigan who did a lot with e-collars so I made a weekend trip. We had a really great trip and Inara was very responsive to the collar, which was on level 8 out of 120. I was thrilled. I’d found my “cure”! I left that weekend feeling confident, but got home and lost my confidence. I worked with it for a few weeks, but I realized that I was uncomfortable doing so without guidance. And then I thought, “if I’m not comfortable using this without ‘adult supervision,’ why am I using it on my dog?” So I dumped the e-collar.

I still was leery of the prong from my experience with M., so I thought I’d try a slip collar. I tried both nylon and choke, in case it made a difference. I not only used it to pop her when she forged, but if she started reacting to another dog, I lifted her up off her front feet until she stopped barking. That’s right, I hung my dog. It worked momentarily, but then she’d be worse next time. I couldn’t keep doing it, so I lost the slip collar.

So I went back to the prong. This time it seemed to be helping. And by “helping,” I mean that Inara would have a hellacious reaction (snarling and lunging at other dogs) for about 30 seconds and then I’d punish her into quiet. Her pulling on walks was minimal because she’d get a swift, heavy correction if she pulled. I had what looked like a fairly obedient dog.

While all of this was going on, I also tried alpha rolling Inara and pinning her down until she stopped reacting to dogs. I tried swinging my leash in a pinwheel in front of me so that if she forged while heeling she’d get smacked in the nose. I was very well-rounded in my techniques. *insert rolling eyes*

I honestly don’t know at one point I said, “I can no longer do this to my dog.” When she was good, she was very good, but when she was bad, she was VERY bad. Something had to give. I went to a seminar with Brenda Aloff (who is pretty darned fabulous) and she helped me see that positive reinforcement COULD actually work with Inara. She wasn’t a special snowflake, not an exception to the rule. Just like every other animal on the planet, she responded to all four quadrants of learning, not just positive punishment. After I got home from working Inara with Brenda, I searched for positive reinforcement trainers in my area. I came across Ginger Alpine of Fortunate Fido.

Ginger, without any exaggeration, is the absolute best thing to ever happen to Inara and I and our relationship. She is my goddess of a dog trainer. She showed me how quickly the clicker can be used to teach behaviors. Inara was a genius! And best of all – she was finally enjoying training, as was I. We’ve been taking classes and private lessons with Ginger for about three years now. Through those lessons, I’ve learned how powerful positive reinforcement can be. I learned it’s not all touchy-feely – there are still rules. There are still expectations. There are still “punishments.” But they are more creative and effective now that I don’t resort to pain and fear. Inara has truly blossomed in the three years that I’ve been working with Ginger. My dog who used to not be able to be within probably 500 feet of another dog without lashing out can now compete in close quarters with other dogs. She is now sometimes (sometimes! She’s not perfect yet!) able to be the calm dog for reactive dogs to be around, which completely warms my heart. We are truly a team now and I get told that we just look happy together and work well together. She happily works on a flat collar during competitions, and a harness for basic walks. Though she passed her therapy dog test once before, we’re going to take it again so she can start working with people in an official manner.

I am astounded that I have such a solid dog after everything I put Inara through. She should have bitten me so many times throughout our past for the things I was doing to her. But never once did she redirect, or even look at me in anything less than a sad way. I truly get nauseous and horrified when I think about what I subjected her to. My heart breaks when I realize, “she’s come so far in three years – imagine how far she could have come since I got her at 8 weeks old???” There truly aren’t words to convey my regret. I still apologize to her, even though I know she’s moved on and forgiven me. But I haven’t forgiven myself. Three years, and I still can’t forgive myself. I mean seriously – who can hang their dog and sleep peacefully at night? I was able to, and that sickens me.

Do I think this blog is going to change anybody’s mind about using force/pain/fear in training? No. People will come to force-free training when they are ready for it. But maybe it’ll put a doubt in somebody’s mind. Do I judge those who use aversives? 99% of the time, no. The only ones I judge are those who are incapable of even putting a basic foundation on a dog without pain and fear, or who slap training collars (prongs or e-collars) on puppies less than 6 months old who don’t even know better.

This was long, and painful for me to relive and write. I ask that you not judge me for my actions towards my dog in the past, but look at how we work now, how we’ve grown and become partners in training, not adversaries.

If you have a story you’d like to share, please do so in the comments. If you’re not comfortable sharing it in the comments, then just post a comment asking me to contact you – your email address is visible to me and I will email you. If you have questions, please ask.

Love and respect your dogs, my friends. They tolerate so much from us and ask for so little in return.

Inara, the poster dog for force-free training.
Inara, the poster dog for force-free training.
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The Calling

Inara has finally received The Call.  After all the sports/games/STUFF we’ve tried, we have found THE ONE.  The One that she has a natural talent for.  Nay, not just a talent, but a PRONOUNCED talent.  What is her calling?

NOSEWORK. 

The girl is apparently part Bloodhound.  When I give her the command to “search” she glues her nose to the floor and works it, occasionally lifting up for an air sniff, but mostly going for the ground sniff method.  We started a 4 week Nosework class last week, so we’ve had two classes so far.  And due to a wedding this past weekend we didn’t practice at all in between our classes, yet she still rocked it.  Right now she’s still sniffing for hidden treats, but next week we’re introducing a new scent for the dogs to find.  I hope she can transition her searching behavior to a non-food item.

This past week our instructor, Katie, lined up six boxes and put a container with treats in one.  The dog had to sniff down the line and find the one with treats.  Inara was crated so she didn’t see which box the treats in.  When I told her to “search” she went to the first box and sniffed each box until she found the one with treats and pawed at it, got her treats, and then continued sniffing down the rest of the boxes to make sure they were empty.  And just as cool?  She’s totally ignoring the other dogs when she’s working the line of boxes.

I’ve got a couple vids from our informal practice at home this evening.  This was our first time trying nosework at home.  These two vids our Inara’s last two searches, so she had done maybe 6 or 7 before these.  I was having her sit in the dining room while I hid the container with treats, and then I would call her to heel and give the cue to search.  This first one was apparently way too easy for her:

For her last search, I hid the container up off the ground so she had to work a bit harder.  You can see her look to me for guidance at one point, so I didn’t point or anything, I just encouraged her again to search, and she did!

Between a rock and a dog…

Inara and I seem to have hit an impasse with our training.  Not due to lack of skill, but because I can’t trust her off-leash.  She’s totally ready for advanced rally signs, but even the 2nd level of rally and obedience stuff is off leash.  Ginger and I were talking this evening and we feel she’s kind of hit the max benefit from our Rally classes we’ve been taking.  Ginger thinks I need to expand outwards, into new training places.  That frightens me.  It’s very difficult finding good, positive trainers.  And quite frankly, other places are really expensive ($140 for 6 weeks?  Really?).  And I like Ginger and her style of teaching.

I suggested to Ginger that maybe she can offer “semi-private sessions.”  Her normal rally classes have 6 dogs and are $85 for 6 weeks, so I said that maybe she can offer 3 week sessions, with only 3 dogs, for $85.  It’d be a lot more individualized attention, and if we chose the dogs well we could do off-leash stuff w/o worrying.  Once Inara got used to being off-leash around those 2 dogs, another dog could be added in.  I’m not looking to get her playing with other dogs – I want her to IGNORE them entirely.

I may also just do some private sessions with Ginger out and about in the community, just for the change of scenery.  We all know that dogs don’t generalize, so I do maintain Inara’s training elsewhere.  It would be nice sometimes to have Ginger on walks in the park with me when other dogs are passing in close proximity.  Not because I don’t know what to do, but because my confidence increases with her around *blush*.

Any other ideas for me as to break through this impasse?  I’m going to start working hard with Inara on training/walking w/o relying on the leash to keep her by me, even outside.  It will be on, of course, but only as an emergency measure.  But while we’re doing that, I want to DO something – classes, seminars, something.

Inara with Joe, Big Mike and Johnny O of Rescue Ink.

Hineys, workshops and carnage

Inara has hiney issues.  There.  I said it.  Hopefully she won’t read this or she’ll be embarrassed.  But she does.  A few weeks ago I took her to the vet because she had some weird, hard growth coming out of her hiney.  The vet determined that it was an abscess that had burst, and the growth was actually a scab protruding.  She pinched it off and called it a day.  I took her in again on Monday evening because she had another growth, again coming from her hiney, but this one was fleshy.  The Doc said it was actually a wart and needed to be removed since it was right on her anus and probably making it uncomfortable to go to the bathroom.

So I dropped Inara off Wednesday morning at the vet.  Even for a minor procedure, it was tough leaving her there.  The staff was excited to see her though, so that helped.  They also said I could call at noon and probably pick her up then.  So I called at noon, but young miss gets hit hard by anesthesia so she wasn’t awake enough yet.  I could go pick her up at 3.  I showed up at 3 and walked into the nearly silent vet’s office.  The vet techs were sitting behind the desk and quietly gestured for me to peek over.  I did, and there was a very groggy Inara, barely standing, but still giving kisses and soliciting lovin’s from the techs.  Totally melted my heart.  Especially when she finally noticed me and looked at me with her sleepy little eyes and wagged her tail (nearly falling in the process).  The vet had removed the wart, as well as the big skin tag that had been on her elbow, trimmed her nails and gave her a shot of amoxicillin.  Grand total?  $48.  Love my vet.  And the best part was that because the vet had cauterized them, there was absolutely zero aftercare needed.

So I took the little girl home and had to help her out of the car and up the steps.  Before I could even get her harness and collar off, she staggered straight to the bedroom and just looked at the bed, looked at me, and back at the bed.  I lifted her up and she immediately fell asleep.  I curled up next to her and she napped on me for a couple hours.  She was still kind of unsteady on her feet the rest of the evening, but did eat, drink, pee and poop, so I knew all was good.

I had to work today so she just snoozed in her crate, and when I came home she was rarin’ to go.  She wanted to play fetch and tug with her Alien carcass, so we did that a bit.  Then we had a Tug O’ War workshop at Fortunate Fido.  I hemmed and hawed about going since I was afraid it might make her surgery sites sore, but decided to go.  I figured I’d let her set the pace.

There were 5 other dogs in the workshop, so of course Inara had to announce herself upon entering.  I got her settled and then she only had a few other outbursts.  Pretty impressive since there was a lot of activity going on with 5 other dogs tugging.  It was odd though – if Inara was the only dog tugging, she was a BEAST.  Totally focused on tugging and giving it her all.  However, if the other dogs were tugging, she wouldn’t.  Or couldn’t.  Not sure which.  She could do beautiful obedience with me, but if I asked her to tug she just flat out refused.  I don’t know if she was uncomfortable letting loose enough to play?  She was very relaxed during the down time, either lounging on a hip or totally sprawled on her side.  But she couldn’t relax to play tug if the other dogs were.  Very strange and definitely something I’ll work on.

She is beat.  I think all the tugging was a bit much for her, so I gave her a couple baby aspirin with her dinner and she’s now curled up on my bed snoozing while I’m lying beside her typing.

I shall leave you with two things:

  1. A video of her doing one of her favorite things ever – turning a stuffie into a carcass.
  2. A picture of her amongst her carnage afterwards.

Enjoy!

Oh the humanity! Think of the children!

 

 

Exciting weekend!!!

I know I’m a bit late in posting, but Inara and I had a super exciting day this past weekend!    We were entered in beginner obedience and beginner zoom rally at a C-WAGS trial on Sunday.  I was pretty nervous because I had never been to the facility before, but Ginger told me to bring Inara early so she could sniff around before other dogs got there.  Great idea.

So we get Inara’s sniffing done and do a little training to get her into working mode, and then other dogs started arriving.  I decided that Inara would probably be more relaxed staying crated in my car than crated in the building with all the other dogs.  However, it was rapidly getting very hot so I ended up having to bring her inside anyway.  And miracle of all miracles – she didn’t bark as I brought her in.  NOT ONCE.  There were dogs out on leash, and dogs crated, and dogs barking, and she went by them all to the corner I’d chosen for her.  Whoa.

Our turn to do our first run-through came up and in she went.  She kept pulling towards the judge in between exercises because it was a new person and darnit she wanted to say hi!  Fortunately that didn’t count against us, LOL.  She had a couple bobbles in her routine – she popped up from her down during our position change exercise, and scooted closer to the judge during the greeting portion.  But other than that, she was outstanding!  Her heeling was gorgeous (she did bump me a bit on our left turn) and during her down/walk-around, apparently a dog in the other ring was doing an off-leash recall (possibly over a jump?) and according to Ginger, Inara thought about getting up – BUT DIDN’T.  My goodness, my girl is learning self-control!

So we finished and I was pleased.  My goal for each run-through of the day was just to qualify.  I didn’t care if I didn’t place high, I just wanted to qualify and have fun.  So the judge gathered us to hand out ribbons and says, “1st place goes to team #52, the pit bull.”  I was looking around trying to figure out how another pit bull competed without me noticing when Ginger said, “Liz, that’s YOU.”  Holy cripes we got 1st place.  *insert shocked face here!*

So then we did our 2nd obedience run-through.  Again, a couple bobbles, but over all very nice and I was pretty confident I was going to at least get another qualifying ribbon.  The judge is handing out ribbons, and I hear “2nd place, Inara!”  WHAT???  Whose dog have I stolen and been competing with???  I was totally grinning from ear to ear.

Then we did our Zoom Rally run-through.  That one was tougher because Inara was getting tired and over-threshold.  The first few exercises I just kind of dragged her through, but then she engaged with me and we finished pretty well.  However, I was still going to be shocked if we weren’t NQ’ed.  But oh no!  We got 4th place!!!

We were scheduled to do one more Rally run-through but Inara had had enough.  She lost it at another dog and I couldn’t get her back, so I withdrew her even though we were already in the ring.  It wasn’t going to be productive for either of us to try to force her through.

So now Inara has 3/4 legs for an obedience title, and 1/4 legs for a rally title.  And I’m floating on air.  🙂

This is our 1st run-through, with 1st place:

This is our 2nd run-through, with 2nd place:

This is our Rally run-through, with 4th place:

Silly pet tricks, Part 1

For some reason, I got it into my head that I want Inara to stick her tongue out on cue.  Why?  Why not?  Unfortunately it’s slow going.  For some reason I’m finding this a hard behavior to catch with the clicker.  I’ve had three little sessions and I think we’re seeing a bit more tongue action, but I don’t think she’s realizing that’s what I’m clicking.  You can see that she’s up and down and throwing behaviors at me.  Which also doesn’t make it easier to see when her tongue flicks out.  But we’re trying and we’ll get there!  Anyway, here are the first three training sessions we’ve done.  They’re not exciting, but I thought it would be fun to be able to see any progression.

On a random note, we have our first C-WAGS Rally competition this Sunday, so wish us luck!!!

Perfect trifecta for brilliant behavior?

Could it be?  Have I found the penultimate trifecta that inspires genius in Inara?  That keeps her from over-reacting but keeps her drive up enough to provide a brilliant rally performance?  I’m not sure I should share this secret!  But I will, because I know others may benefit from it.  It has three main ingredients (hence the word “trifecta”).

1.  New treats:  Nothing extraordinary, just a generic lamb-based food roll cut into training treat sizes.  Inexpensive, easy to carry, not messy.  Stinky but not in an offensive way.  However, they must taste divine.

2.  New diet:  Inara used to be on high-protein grain-free kibble.  Last week I switched her to raw, which has about 18-20% protein, about half of the kibble she was eating.  Pertinent?  Perhaps…

3.  Calming collar:  I bought this from Ginger 3 or 4 weeks ago.  I hadn’t noticed anything at first, but last night Inara was such a different dog that I’m wondering if this is one of the key aspects of the trifecta.  Anyway, it’s a possibility.

So what happened last night that made me discover this miraculous trifecta?  We had Rally class.  It’s a new session (last night was week 2) and there are three pit bulls (two of which are reactive), a 10 year old Border Terrier (completely inoffensive but apparently has a target painted on him) and a reactive Lab.  The first week Inara had snarked at the Border Terrier, just to let him know that she was a bitch.  Not that that’s difficult for other dogs to notice.  😉  But last night the Lab broke free from his owner, just one of those horrible accidents that happen, and went after the Border Terrier in a very intent way.  Fortunately everybody was on their toes so the kerfluffle was short and no harm was caused.  However, the noises during the incident!  Holy cripes.  Barking and snarling and more barking from the reactive dogs.

All but one.  Inara whipped around to see the fiasco but as soon as I called her name, she whipped right back and focused on me.  Not a peep out of her.  *insert SHOCKED face here*  That’s right, my dog who still barks upon entering the building just to announce her presence did not bark.  My dog that holds a grudge against any dog that snarks at her did not bark.  My dog who occasionally barks obnoxiously at dogs completely ignoring her did not bark.  Not only did she not bark, she stayed focused on me, eating treats and looking relaxed.  *insert shocked face again*

Short of magic, the only thing that changed last night was that perfect trifecta.  Same seat.  Same dogs.  Hell, I probably had the same outfit on.  Same everything, except the trifecta.

So, gentle readers, there you have it.  Treats cut out of a lamb food roll, new lower protein diet and a calming collar gives you a perfect dog.  Who knew?

She of the trifecta