Category Archives: Human Behavior

Hair of the Dog: NYC Dog Training, Safety, and Beer

In lieu of this week’s blog post, I bring you a podcast. Why? Because I’m the guest this week!

If you’ve ever seen Drunk History on Comedy Central, this podcast is just like that except we’re talking about all things dog. The podcast is Hair of the Dog, and the guest gets to pick the alcohol of choice. Since the hosts are huge fans of beer, I chose my favorite beer. Sarah picked up that beer and two related beers (all excellent), I made dinner and we did a tasting.

If you like to listen to podcasts while you walk the dog, you can listen to me on this week’s episode of Hair Of The Dog here.

Hair Of The Dog

Want more podcasts? Here are my favorite podcasts to listen to while out strolling with Grayson:

Invisibilia – About the Invisible Forces that Control Human Behavior

Radiolab –  Science meets human interest meets great storytelling

Science Vs – Science takes on hot topics. So far they’ve covered attachment parenting, fracking, and gun control. What they find might surprise you!

The Longest Shortest Time – A parenting podcast for everyone

The Modern Dog Trainer Podcast – Tips for dog trainers

ABA Inside Track – A podcast about Applied Behavior Analysis and recent research in the field.

TED Radio Hour – Ted Talks in Podcast form

Cheers!

Can Your Dog Trainer Solve Your Problems?

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At my very first clicker expo, one of the talks I attended was “Common Trainer Mistakes” by Ken Ramirez. The mistake Ken closed his talk with was “Assuming All Training Can Be Done By Anyone”. I thought of this talk again while reading this blog post recently. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a worthwhile read. In it, my friend and colleague Andre Yeu argues that good trainers are turning down hard cases for fear of not knowing enough. He makes some great points and his post resonated with me. I am The Dog Trainer Colleague Who Undersells Herself, and I might suffer slightly from both Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect he references. Andre warns that when well informed trainers pass on difficult cases, clients are more likely to fall into the hands of aversive “shock and pop” trainers. My differing perspective is that taking a case you might not be ready for is unethical and just as likely to lead clients into the hands of trainers who offer sub par, harmful solutions. Accepting a client without certainty of your ability to solve their problem is a common trainer mistake Ken warned us of.

A quick glance at my books reveals that I’ve spent over $20,000.00 on continuing education over the past five years. Last year I had four times the continuing education credits required to maintain my certification. While I am not a seasoned veteran, I’m good at what I do and I take the responsibility I have to my clients seriously. There are many specialties in training and many paths I could follow to broaden my abilities. I could focus on puppies, manners, tricks, various sport training, working dog training , body conditioning for canine athletes, or behavior modification. Within these specialties are further subspecialties. Some trainers only teach agility. Others only work separation anxiety cases. While I am focusing on behavior modification, many of my clients are interested in more than just manners work. While I would never purport to be an expert in a specialty I have only a basic knowledge of (when was the last time you saw a gun dog working in Manhattan?) I feel that it’s important to have a foundation in all of the above disciplines to best serve my clients needs. The trainers I most respect are humble education junkies, continuing to expand both their intellectual knowledge and their skills. As Aristotle said, the more you know the more you know you don’t know.

Aristotle

Shouldn’t we know what problems we’re qualified to help our clients solve? This is the crux of the issue. There are great schools and organizations, but there is no one school, program, or organization that teaches it all. I  must put my own curriculum together and connect the dots by myself. While I have fabulous mentors guiding me, it’s not the same as attending a well designed comprehensive program where material  builds on itself. Unlike therapy for humans, there are no supervision requirements. When you are continually learning, it’s hard not to feel like you know nothing when there’s nobody there to tell you that you’re doing a great job. We rely on our clients satisfaction to keep tabs on our capabilities, but there can still be a seed of doubt. Could I be doing this better? Quicker? Is there a different approach?

It’s up to each individual trainer to listen to their inner voice and make responsible decisions about accepting a case or referring out. I would rather decline a case than provide a partial solution to a client’s problem, leaving them questioning the efficacy of humane training methods. If we are thoughtful with our self assessments and honest about our current level of knowledge and skill sets, we can make very good decisions for ourselves – and for our clients – about what cases we shouldn’t take on. In this profession, clients come to us with high stakes problems. If a case is handled incorrectly, the safety of a client or the public at large may be compromised. Rehoming or euthanasia may be on the table. If a professional has 90% of the knowledge they need to help these clients, 90% of the knowledge they need is not good enough. The sliver of information missing could result in prolonging the suffering of an animal in severe physical or emotional distress or suggesting euthanasia to an animal that might otherwise be helped.

While not every trainer has the luxury of being surrounded by a community of other excellent professionals to refer to, we are lucky to have that here in NYC. There is an excellent network of trainers, behavior consultants, and veterinary behaviorists in the NYC area that are happy to work together. On the occasion I feel a case might be beyond my experience level, I provide the client with immediate management suggestions while sending the client to both a veterinarian (medical issues can cause behavior change) and a colleague better equipped to handle the case. If you are a fellow trainer, for the good of our profession and our clients, I urge you to to do the same.

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Tips For Dog Owners
  • Read your trainer’s biography and philosophy. If they don’t have one listed, keep looking.
  • Make sure your trainer has obtained a certification. This is not necessarily proof of competence, but it’s a good start.
  • Ask for your trainers official resume listing the courses they have taken and continuing education they have done and/or the seminars and workshops they have taught to other professionals.
  • Ask if your trainer has solved your problem before.
  • Ask who your trainer turns to when they’re stuck. Look up that person’s biography.
  • Ask your trainer in what scenarios they refer out to other professionals. If they don’t list any scenarios at all, keep looking. Even the most experienced behavior modification professionals need to refer to veterinary behaviorists on some cases.

NYC Dogs Are Not Traveling Petting Zoos

NYC Dogs Are Not Traveling Petting Zoos

My pup Grayson is pretty cute, if I do say so myself. Even though he’s four, many people still think he’s a puppy and many people want to touch him. Some people ask permission, but most do not. The first time I took him to a public dog park, within 5 seconds a total stranger picked him up. I am often the person saying “Please stop touching my dog!”. This happened most recently at Deux Amis, where my husband, my dog, and I go for dinner most Friday nights in the summer. Grayson settles on the mat I bring for him, and he earns his bread and butter (and filet mignon) by staying relaxed on it — see video below. I don’t want him to learn that leaving his mat gets him attention and free food from other patrons. I’m glad we’re surrounded by fellow dog lovers who think he’s cute, but he’s not a traveling petting zoo. These table neighbors are ruining our training and his future behavior, making it harder for me to take him into public. Touching an animal that doesn’t belong to you is inappropriate.

 

 

I fully believe in training our dogs to behave appropriately in public and to help them feel safe and comfortable in all of the human centric environments they will encounter. Strangers approaching without asking makes it much harder for me to accomplish this task.

Even if I’m with a dog who behaves politely in public, dogs don’t speak English so he can’t advocate for himself. We expect our dogs to not only tolerate but to love every interaction that is forced up on them. Yes – forced – they are on the end of a leash and can’t get away. Many dogs tolerate interactions but give off stress signals that are unread and ignored. I don’t think this is reasonable or fair. There are plenty of reasons our dogs shouldn’t have to endure certain situations. It’s up to us to speak up for them.

Here’s why you shouldn’t touch a dog you don’t know without asking permission:
  1. He could be training (learning to settle, learning to ignore people or dogs, learning to sit for pets, learning how to walk, insert behavior here: X)
  2. He could not be in training but need to be in training (just because he’s in public doesn’t mean his owners are responsible)
  3. It might be a puppy going through proactive socialization
  4. He could be stressed out, fearful, or aggressive (see #1 and #2)
    • He could not like strangers, the bag you’re carrying, the skateboard you rode in on, the suitcase you’re dragging, the smell of your cat on your clothing, the fact that you’re loud and wobbling around tipsy, etc. etc. etc.
    • He could not like being touched
    • You have a dog with you he might not like, might be scared of, or might behave inappropriately with (barking/lunging/over aroused greetings, etc.)
  5. He could be sick, in pain, or recovering from surgery
  6. You’re modeling dangerous behavior for your kids (who are more likely to get a bite to the face if they run up to and grab/pet a dog without asking)
  7. Your toddler is running around and/or screaming and it’s freaking the dog out (just because your kid is in public doesn’t mean they’re behaving appropriately)
  8. He’s about to go potty and his owner doesn’t want you to interrupt him
  9. His owner doesn’t feel like interacting with strangers right now
  10. He could have limited sight or hearing
  11. He’s not your dog

 

Before I was a dog trainer, I was that obnoxious stranger on the street stopping to pet your dog and hold you hostage while I went at it with your furry friend on the leash, so… I GET IT. Dogs are CUTE and interacting with them makes everything better.  At the time, I was a professional dancer whose constant anxiety about life and making a decent living in my chosen profession was ruining my mental health. I didn’t have a dog, and I really really needed one. When I quit dancing, it was my then-boyfriend/now-husband who suggested I walk dogs while I figured out my next moves. Since then, I built and ran a dog walking company while simultaneously getting an education in training and behavior and have taken on progressively more challenging cases as my education and experience allows. Here in NYC I have worked with puppies, with dogs who are reactive to other dogs, and dogs who bite strangers. “Don’t Touch” vests, “In Training” vets, DINOS (dogs in need of space) gear, yellow dog project ribbons – all of these visual cues meant to instruct strangers to leave these dogs alone are often ignored. Telling people to please stop approaching or stop petting earns eye rolls and shouted profanities. I have had to walk a mile out of my way to avoid other dog owners who insist their illegally off leash dogs need to greet my legally on leash ones to keep the dog I’m working under threshold.

I have had to learn the most effective ways to get strangers to leave me and my dogs alone. Here they are:
  1. Telling a stranger “he’s sick and contagious” usually works even for the rudest of rude people, because it gives them a reason to stay away that they care about. Strangers don’t care if they ruin your training but they do care about getting sick.
  2. If the dog I’m working has a solid leave it behavior, I will tell the dog to “leave it” – the stranger is the “it” they leave while we walk on by. If they don’t have a leave it and we are outside, they likely have a hand target or eye contact behavior. I will ask the dog to hand target, to look at me, to go find a treat I’ve tossed in the opposite direction, or to do anything incompatible to interacting with the stranger.
  3. If I am in the middle of a training exercise and clearly and obviously actively training a dog, sometimes I have no choice but to pretend like the person does not exist. So often I am working a client dog outside when a stranger approaches and starts talking to me or the dog. The rate at which this happens while I am obviously training (treat bag out, clicking and treating rapidly, dog doing behaviors) is actually quite astounding. In this situation, I drop my criteria for the behavior and increase my rate of reinforcement since the stranger is now a huge distraction. My focus is on my dog, the criteria we’re working at, my timing, and my treat delivery. It’s not on the stranger.
  4. If I am working with a dog for whom getting close to a stranger is not an option (due to fear, aggression, or for whom getting close to a stranger will elicit or reinforce pulling or jumping up) I simply turn around and walk the other way without comment. I might feed the dog while doing so – not as a training strategy but as a distraction or to prevent unwanted behavior in a pinch.
  5. I am not going to abandon a dog mid-session to meet a stranger’s needs. My responsibility is to the dog I am with. I have worked with dogs who are triggered by their handler talking to a stranger. In this situation, I literally can’t stop and talk to the stranger while I am with the dog. If I do, the dog will bark and lunge, and that causes a huge training setback for us. It’s not worth it. I have gotten on an elevator at floor 25 and rode all the way down to floor 1, facing the wall and pretending like the stranger does not exist for the entire ride.
  6. If I am in the middle of a training session and the dog has the skill, I sometimes put the dog in a down or sit stay so that I can turn to the stranger and point out to them that we are in the middle of training and it’s not a good time.
  7. Body blocking can help prevent strangers from physically touching the dog I’m with. If the stranger is very pushy, this doesn’t always work so I prefer to just get away from the person. I have had strangers reach around my body to touch a dog I have in a sit stay behind me in the corner of the elevator after I have asked them not to approach. (Elevators are so hard!)
  8. Putting out your hand in a “STOP” sign and stating firmly “please do not approach” or “please call your dog” while body blocking or just before turning to walk away sometimes gets the message across. If I can, I will sometimes hold a hand out while I am training to try to silently convey this message.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it. Aggressive dogs shouldn’t be going out to restaurants with their owners. Any dog with a bite history should be muzzled if they are in public. Owners should be responsible. But sometimes they’re not, and sometimes they’re not in the mood to talk to you, and sometimes they’re proactively training or retroactively working on a behavior modification protocol. Please, read the situation and if you’re asked to leave the dog alone – do so without an attitude. You expect dogs to behave politely and appropriately in public, and you should too.

A Shaping Plan That Sparks Joy

The decluttering technique known as the “Konmari Method” outlined in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo makes very good sense when viewed through the lense of behavior analysis. Kondo sets her followers up for success. Her process looks an awful lot like a well thought out shaping plan, and boy do I love finding good examples of effective human behavior modification in real life.

No matter where on the neat freak to slob spectrum you land, I’m willing to bet two things:

1. You wish your home was beautifully organized and would stay that way forever.

2. You know the current location of your kitchen plates.

Dishes have an easily defined place and after mealtime they get washed, dried, and go back in the cupboard where they belong. Why isn’t everything we own that easy to clean and put back? My husband and I are not slobs, but we’re busy and during the workweek items tend to land… anywhere. We pick up on the weekend, and we LOVE when everything is tidy and in it’s place. It would be lovely if our apartment looked more put together on a daily basis, but our focus is elsewhere.

As busy as I am, my dresser drawers are living proof that Marie Kondo’s method works. I dumped and organized my tops in October.

Here are those drawers now (8 months later), still perfectly organized. And no, I did not clean up before taking this photo. I just opened my drawer.

Here are those drawers now (8 months later), still perfectly organized. And no, I did not clean up before taking this photo. I just opened my drawer.

Kondo approaches decluttering in a way that makes SENSE. She’s serious when she says you only have to do this process once. Here is a brief outline of the process and why it works:

  1. The first step is to gather each and every item you own from one category (example: shirts)

    You’ll be surprised at how much you have once it’s all in one place – reality check! You pick up each item and ask “Does this spark joy?” and then keep only the things you love. You also thank the items you’re not keeping, before sending them on their way (hopefully donated to goodwill). Instead of feeling guilty, you feel grateful. When you’ve gone through the process, the items you still have are ones you really care about. This motivating operation makes you much more inclined to take care of the clothes you have, because you love them. Taking care of your stuff is no longer a chore.

  2. The second step is to learn a new skill – folding is your alternate behavior.

    I used to hate folding and thought this would be the part of this method that didn’t work for me, but there is something magical about the way clothes are folded in the Konmari method. Each item is inspected, so you notice stains or rips that need mending, and can see at a glance if it’s time to “thank the item for it’s service” and let it go. Once folded, each item stands on it’s own, placed next to other items of the same kind. It’s reinforcing to see how all of my clothes sit beautifully next to each other in the drawer. I’m motivated to keep it up because it’s useful to see all my options at a glance. The clothes I’ve folded properly are never wrinkled when I put them on again.

  3. The last step is to designate a place for each item.

    It’s easy to put something away when you’ve designated a spot for it so you know where it goes without thinking. Instead of organizing based on how easy it is to get to an item when you need it, you organize based on how easy it is to put an item away. This smart motivating operation will make us much more likely to put our things where they belong! Maintaining organization is about modifying your environment so that you know where each item belongs and it’s easy to put things back in their place.

  4. The process teaches you to listen to your gut when answering the question “Does this Spark Joy?”

    Kondo insists the process starts with items that we are least emotional about (tops) and work up to items that have the most sentimental value (letters, photos). This is an excellent shaping plan. It takes effort and practice to connect with our true selves and decide what is of value to us. So many of us don’t know what we want or love and don’t give ourselves permission to honor our true desires. What we love is buried under social pressure, the taste of our family, friends, and peers, trends in advertisements, and other psychological muck. But that doesn’t matter. You don’t need to go to therapy to go through this process. Marie Kondo’s simple question: “Does this Spark Joy?” is one that each person can answer for themselves if they are willing to take a moment and listen. Looking at and being surrounded by the items you have chosen to keep is reinforcing, so it’s easy to continue the process. As you move along you get better at listening when your gut answers “yes!” or “nope” and the process of letting go of material objects that DO NOT “Spark Joy” switches from daunting to liberating. The physical objects that remain inspire happiness and gratitude. The Konmari Method of Tidying Up becomes more than a way to keep your house clutter free. It’s also a practical practice of saying yes to joy and letting go of everything that does not serve us. With practice and an incremental shaping plan, it becomes easy to face – and answer – the big questions. Does my marriage spark joy? My job? The city I’ve chosen to live in?

  5. A practice of Gratitude.

    A helpful recommendation therapists often make to their dissatisfied or depressed clients is to end the day by writing down 5 things they are thankful for. This is a great first step, but Konmari takes it further and helps us generalize the practice of gratitude so it becomes a regular part of our everyday lives. Going through the process of “Konmari-ing” your home helps awaken gratitude for the things you have. Replacing unwanted thoughts and behaviors (complacency, lack of appreciation, feelings of sadness, failure, or of not keeping up with the Jones’s, of not getting what we thought we wanted or deserved out of life, of keeping things or doing things out of obligation) with thoughts and actions of gratitude has shown time and time again to be a large factor in countering depression. Each time you touch an item, examine it, fold it, and put it away you are practicing gratitude. The process of “Konmari-ing” our homes leads us through small actionable steps we can take to reawaken our own small joys, which lead to discovering big joys and passions.  Through this process, Konmari is helping us shape ourselves, in tiny micro criteria, towards being happier and more fulfilled.

So, what does decluttering your home have to do with dog training? So many of my day training clients see their dogs performing new behaviors for the first time and look at me like I’ve performed magic, so it’s apt that the title of Marie Kondos’ book is “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. But it isn’t magic – it’s science. The laws of learning apply to all living beings on earth, not only to our canine companions. Shaping molds our behavior whether a plan was carefully developed by a behavior analyst, dog trainer or merely by life. We learn through shaping in small steps of criteria, repeat what has been previously reinforced and cease to do that which has been punished. Want a cleaner home? Use this to your advantage. You don’t even have to write a training plan. Konmari has done that work for you.