Off Leash Walks

Yesterday was Wilder’s first off-leash walk on our road. I cheated a little bit on my client rules but I’ll explain what they are and why  I cheated.

My rule is that puppies or new dogs stay on a leash or long line until they are at least one year old AND have a rock-solid recall.  I define a rock-solid recall as one in which the puppy/dog is highly fluent.

  • she responds immediately to the cue
  • she comes as fast as she can
  • she comes directly to my feet

Now it’s easy to get a young puppy to do a rock solid recall.  They love their people, and love to get treats when they come to them. But when adolescence hits, just as with human puppies, the bigger world becomes more interesting than their people. They feel the need to explore a little further, investigate what that noise was they just heard, see how fast that cat can really run, etc. That is why my rules include being at least a year old.  A puppy who has a rock-solid recall at 5 months, may not respond the same way at 10 months, and it’s not due to lack of training as much as it is due to maturing. I want puppies kept safe, and keeping them a long line on them until maturity is one way I help them stay safe.

Being in a fenced area may keep them safe from traffic or disappearing into the distance. If there are no other dangers inside the fence, the puppy can be off line to run and play freely. However, if there are other dogs in the fenced area, one might still want to keep the pup close to you on a rope to protect them from bumbling up to unknown, and perhaps unfriendly, other dogs. In addition, humans must know not to call the puppy unless they are absolutely sure that the puppy will respond. Every time a puppy ignores your recall, they get better at ignoring. If the pup is on a leash and distracted, you can simply walk up to them and redirect them.

Once I become confident in my puppy’s response, but he’s still not a year old, I’ll simply drop the line and let him drag it.  That allows him to go further and faster, but I still have a good chance of preventing the loss of his focus to unexpected distractions. I can get close enough to step on the line (I make them 30-50 feet long and an appropriate diameter for the size of the pup) and then I have him.

Back to my own puppy. I was kind of surprised to find out how good his recall is. He goes with me to the barn for chores several times a day and since it is winter, the doors are usually closed up tight so he can play in the barn without risk of disappearing. He was on a line going to and from the barn, as well as on all walks, since his arrival in early October. When I had to put out hay, or dump a wheelbarrow, I’d put Wilder in the barn kennel with Eloise and they’d snuggle down in their bed together (Wilder snuggled, Eloise tolerated).

 

In the last couple weeks we have had some unseasonably warm weather and I had the barn aisle doors open to let some fresh air sweep through.  I didn’t want to keep the dogs locked in the kennel in that wonderful weather so I assessed what Wilder would do.  He was so happy to be outside, sniffing around and exploring around the barnyard. Chores took longer, since I kept checking to make sure he was still close.  In my training process, I teach the dog to be the one to check in with me, but Wilder is still in the training process. I could not rely on him so it was my responsibility to know where was. As it turned out, he was never far…yet I was uneasy if I couldn’t see him around a corner.  When he did check in with me, or come when I called in a panic if I momentarily couldn’t find him, he’d get a treat and/or a play session. Over time, I began to be more and more confident that he really was meeting my requirements for a rock-solid recall, at least in the conditions allowed.  I never let him get very far from me so I still can’t be sure of his response at a long distance or in new environments, but that’s what we’ll work on next.

The other requirement is that the dog be one year old…roughly mature. Some breeds take longer! As Wilder has an unknown background, we don’t know his age. With the clues we have, I am guessing he was a March puppy. As yesterday was February 28, I was technically cheating as I doubt he’s really a full year yet. However, I also know that Spring is a very challenging time for dogs due to the multitude of distractions when critters start waking up and coming out of their holes. (Fall is also tough, when they are doing the opposite. I even had to put Eloise back on a rope last Fall because of the moles and voles scurrying around storing up food and digging new tunnels in the fields.  It was just too much for her terrier brain to ignore.)

I know that in another month, we’ll be dealing with heavy environmental distractions. I don’t want that to be the time that I begin to try Wilder off leash as I’ll be setting us both up for failure. I decided that if I could do it now, then if I have to put him back on a line for a month or so when Spring comes, we’ll have a base to return to afterward, as opposed to postponing the whole thing until May!

My biggest concern on the road is, of course, traffic.  We do not live on a heavily trafficked road, but the traffic that passes is too fast as our farm is along a straight flat stretch.  But right now, it’s very muddy.  VERY muddy. That slows drivers down or has them avoid the road entirely. That was a plus for me. Also, Wilder hasn’t learned to embrace mud yet. At least not the cold icy mud we have now. Which means he is careful about where he walks, rather than running pell mell up the road. If he climbs up off the road, into the snow, he can’t go far very fast either. There is still about a foot of slushy snow in the fields. With his short little legs, he has to wade through that to go anywhere which means I could still catch up to him with my longer legs that reach further down into the snow.

Finally, we’ve been practicing the “car” protocol since Wilder’s arrival.  Whenever I hear a car approaching, I call the dogs (in this case, Wilder has been on his long rope and Eloise has been loose), and they come to me and sit on the side of the road until the car passes. Then they get a treat and a release cue to go explore again (although Wilder is limited to the length of his rope).  Some days we see half a dozen cars, some days only one. But five months of that is a lot of practice and Wilder now turns to me automatically when he sees or hears a car. So we had that necessary behavioral component before heading out.

 

 

As one final tool, I took a hot dog out of the fridge, cut it into 100 pieces and put those into a small plastic container in my pocket.  Wilder will work for kibble in training sessions and I use store bought dog treats for around the farm.  He’d never had hot dog before and I anticipated they’d be over the top in value. Exactly what I wanted.

My hope was that as we went down the road, Wilder would offer to check in with me. I really did not want to have to call him if he got too far. This was continuing the training of giving him a treat when he checked in with me around the farm. If he’d offer to look at me as we walked along, he’d get hot dog pieces.  I’m sure I underestimate what dogs remember. He was quite aware of the wonderful smell of hot dog as I cut it up in the kitchen.  I know he watched me put the pieces in the container and put that in my pocket.  Did he remember that? It wasn’t until we got to the end of the driveway that he got his first piece. Stopping at the end of the driveway is another component behavior that I work on with all dogs.  I don’t ever want anyone dashing out into the road when we get there. Standard procedure is that puppies get clicked as they get to the end of the driveway and pretty soon they anticipate that and stop to look back at me when we get there. As grown dogs, they continue to get treats for this on a regular basis. I’m happy to pay for that to remain a solid behavior.

Wilder was as enthusiastic about the hot dog I handed him there as I anticipated.  Then I listened for cars, took a deep breath, and released him into the road.

Success! He was further ahead than I wanted him but I held out with fingers crossed and he did give me that offered check-in.  That was the furthest he got from me in the next mile long walk- even when we passed the sheep barn where he’s loved to go in and investigate on recent walks.  He got a hot dog piece each time he checked in for the first quarter mile, and then I started swapping out praise, body rubs, and play once in a while. But I kept the hot dogs at least a 3:1 ratio to the other reinforcers. On the return walk, he was practically doing a heel next to me.  That’s not what I really want as the purpose of these walks is for the dogs to explore and play and sniff around. But we can loosen that up over time. Having him nice and close, on his choice, is just fine for now!

The dog training gods were looking down on us because we did not encounter a single vehicle on our walk.  I was prepared to pick him up if a car went by just to ensure he didn’t pop out into the road unexpectedly (I did have the harness and rope tucked under my arm if things had not gone as I’d hoped). It was only when we were a good 25 feet back into the driveway that I heard a car come sloshing along.  I took the hot dog container out of my pocket and just sprinkled pieces in the driveway as I walked along, keeping his focus on me, the ground, and movement toward the house.

It was a very successful outing. I don’t know whether our next walk will be leash free or not. If I could control the traffic, I’d be more confident. But I will assess the weather conditions, the time of day, and all the other things which affect his behavior before deciding on any given day what I’ll do.

I am glad we have this maiden voyage successfully under our belt.

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Release Cues, Choice, and Environmental Indicators

Release cues can be different things to different people. I’m not aware of any official definition or description, but I do know what they mean to me and to Eloise. I share my explanation and approach with clients, and we discuss whether it works for them or if it needs adjustment.

An important part of the description for me is that it gives the dog choice. I describe it to clients as meaning “go be a dog”. In other words, do whatever you would like to do: sniff in the bushes, roll in the grass, pee, chase a butterfly, run around like a crazy thing or anything else you’d like. There are implied limits which have been developed separately. I work hard to remove all reinforcement from these behaviors and offer strong reinforcement for incompatible behaviors. Digging in the vegetable garden is an example. When I release Eloise, running over to dig in the garden is something I hope she chooses to avoid because we’ve worked hard on passing the garden without digging, and allowing digging as much as she wants in other places.

One can also use management strategies to put limits on what the dog is released to do. If you have a fenced yard, and you release the dog into that yard, behaviors are constrained by the physical limitations of the fence. That’s ok. Hopefully the yard is big enough for fun and contains opportunities for enriching activities such as rolling in the grass. I want the release to allow the dog to find something enjoyable. That’s where the choice comes in. If I release into a small, concrete kennel with nothing to do, that isn’t a lot of fun, and so the release word will not be reinforced.

I train the release cue as the opposite of a wait cue. Using a door as a management aid, I open it only a crack and click/treat if the dog stays seated. We then progress, millimeter by millimeter, with the dog learning that if she just sits there as the door open and closes, she gets handed treats (be sure the dog has had opportunity to relieve herself beforehand so you aren’t fighting that urge to go out). Once the dog is secure in her waiting behavior, I open the door fully and this time I give the release cue and use my own enthusiastic body language to encourage the dog to go outside with me.  At that point I walk off, allowing the dog to do what she likes.

For my dogs, doors opening becomes a cue to wait until released and that includes barn doors, car doors, garage doors, etc. I consider it a necessary safety feature for a dog to always wait for permission before blasting through a door into an unknown environment (such as cars or other dogs). This also includes going IN. This becomes valuable in what we Vermonters call mud season, when the walking surface of our world becomes liquid and that liquid gets transferred onto dog paws. Nothing ruins a day like opening your car door to get something and having your dog enthusiastically leap in leaving paw prints and belly smears all over the seat of your car. Here is a video of Eloise waiting to be released into the carHere is Eloise waiting to be released from the car.

At times I have found myself caught off guard when Eloise chooses to do something other than what I expected. Probably 350 days of the year, when I say “break!” (her release word) and I open a door, she responds by going through the door. But there are days, especially this time of year when an open door lets a frigid blast of air in, that Eloise chooses to do something other than go through that door. At the very least she backs up a step and looks at me as if to say, “thank you but I think I’ll wait a while”. I have to remind myself that her release cue means she can do what she wants! Knowing that she has a bladder of steel and we have a dog door into a safe kennel for her to use when she decides she really has to go, I have to respect her decision not to go out with me.

More recently, Eloise’s choice showed how strong environmental indicators are. She has learned that the last thing I do before I leave the barn in the morning is close the stall doors on the south side of the barn. Because one of my horses is very adept at opening the exterior stall doors, I close the interior stall doors for added security. That has become her indicator that I am finally ready to leave the barn and either go for a walk or go in  the house for breakfast. If the barn kennel door is open, I find her dancing behind me as I close the doors. She is ready! If the kennel door is closed, I find her dancing behind it, waiting for her release cue when I open the door. I go in and out of the kennel a lot during chores because it also houses feed and tools. She stays in on her warm bed until she hears those doors close.

I have been introducing Wilder puppy to the release cue. He is more curious and is out in the barn a lot if I leave the door open. That is fine because if the dogs need to be safe, I close the door. Door open means they are free to come and go. The other day I was practicing with him and when I said “break!”, Eloise did not budge off her bed. She knew chores were not over and given the choice, she was going to stay right on that warm bed! But once the stall doors had been closed, then she chose to leave the kennel. Even when it meant being swarmed by the little monster.

Always a good reminder that the animals tell us what cues mean. If it’s not what we think, then we have to adjust our training or our expectations.

Collar or Harness?

Eloise and Wilder on rope and off
Eloise, on the right, has earned the right to be collar and leash free. Wilder, on the left, is still learning and so wears a safety net of equipment.

 

 

And which one? Or neither?

There are many types of equipment that people use on their dogs. Harnesses seem to be popular these days and many people think they should use a harness instead of a collar because of the risk to a dog’s trachea from the pressure which may be applied when there is tension on the collar. This is certainly a concern worth taking into consideration but it isn’t the only concern, and harnesses come with their own issues. One which I see more often than not is that people try to leave a harness on an unsupervised dog who promptly chews it off.

As someone who also trains horses, I am all too familiar with the promises that this equipment will solve all your problems. The implication is that you don’t need to spend time on training, you just buy this thing.  No one wants to admit that they aren’t training and it seems that someone who knows all the available options for equipment is now considered a trainer when, in fact, they aren’t training anything, they are simply tying the animal down so they have no choice.

Choice in training is what positive reinforcement trainers strive for.

This similarity in the dog world has translated into a booming market for “no-pull” harnesses. These are advertised as tools which will stop your dog from pulling on you when you take her for a walk. Various brands function in different ways. Front-clip styles  are designed to redirect your dog from being able to drag you forward. Others have pieces which tighten on various parts of the dogs body causing discomfort if they pull.

Some designers of these harnesses make an effort to educate the purchaser about how to use the harness as a training tool, rather than simply a controlling piece of equipment for the lifetime of the dog. But not everyone reads the package or insert, or follows it or stays with it long enough to be effective.

I do believe those no-pull harnesses have a purpose, but I tell everyone that it should be a temporary solution and not every dog needs one. Because of the way these harnesses work, they can cause slow but long term damage to a dog’s body, as they pull her out of her natural position. Even harnesses which don’t claim to be no-pull can be irritating to a dog.  I have met a couple dogs this year whose people said they just calmed down when the harness was put on.  This could be the thunder shirt effect but seeing the body language of these dogs, I think it is more likely that they are just uncomfortable in them, even though they’d each worn the harness for years.

It is far preferable for dog handlers to prioritize training the dog to walk happily with them, using positive reinforcement methods. A handler who provides sufficient exercise (not necessary to take them on long hikes or chase balls for hours, even though they may like to do both of those), and other enrichment activities such as sniffing and learning, creates a bond with a dog. That bond is what keeps the dog with you, so that you don’t need the physical restraint. Leashes and harnesses or collars become a backup safety net, not the primary connection.

The times I find myself recommending a no-pull harness are when someone has gotten a full grown dog from a rescue, shelter or elsewhere and the dog has no leash training. If the dog is large and has the physical capability to risk the handler’s safety or to pull themselves free and be on the run, that requires equipment as a temporary management tool to keep everyone safe. When these dogs have just entered a new home, there is no bond to function as backup.  Equipment is the only option here but the handlers should immediately begin working with positive reinforcement to build that bond and training history. If people have the experience, they can do it on their own. If not, they should consult a positive reinforcement trainer (preferably before the dog arrives!) for assistance. [Dogs who come from unknown backgrounds do not exhibit their normal personalities in the stressful environments of a shelter and a dog who appears calm may be very different when moved again to a new home. Have your support system ready!]

This fall we had a new dog join our household. At approximately seven months old, he was close to full grown and had no leash training. But as a Jack Russell Terrier, he was small enough that he could not pull me over! I chose to use the same approach with him that I used with our other Jack, who arrived at over a year with no leash training. It was an experiment with Eloise seven years ago but I was really happy with the way it worked and have recommended it to anyone with a dog who does not have the risk of an untrained large size dog.

The backbone of the plan is that dogs learn environmental cues really quickly. Visual or contact cues from us or from equipment we use is an easy way to begin communicating expectations to a dog. I use both a collar and harness for different purposes.

The harnesses I use are not no-pull harnesses, but rather harnesses with wide fabric

IMG_0698
Wilder, temporarily tied to a barn door, shows off the wide fabric of the underside of this harness.

specifically so that the dog IS comfortable pulling on it. Why in the world would I want a dog to be comfortable pulling? Because I want them comfortable in exploring their world. The harness goes on when we are going out to play, sniff, climb, dig, hunt and have dog fun. I attach a long rope to the harness so the dog or puppy has a large radius around me to play in. They can run or chase a ball; climb a snowbank or wade in water, all while I still have a physical connection. Inevitably they go around a tree or get the rope stuck in a bush or tall grass. I want the dog to learn persistence and learn that if they get a little stuck, they can just pull or push a little harder to get free. That way, heaven forbid, if the dog does get away and stuck somewhere, they don’t just sit down and give up.

At the same time, we begin working on loose leash walking on a collar. This begins in the house and with my pockets full of awesome treats. The dog has absolutely no desire to leave me in this situation so there is no pulling on the collar/trachea. Instead, the dog learns that when the collar and leash go on, those are CUES that we are going to walk politely right next to each other for treats. Over time, I can graduate to other rooms, the garage, the barn, the driveway, all for short distances and time periods. I make sure that the puppy/dog has had opportunities to eliminate before these outdoor collar-training sessions so that full focus is on me (I might do a long harness-excursion and then pop the collar on for a couple minutes just before going back inside).

Wilder stuck on rope
with the rope stuck on a piece of frozen ground, I encourage Wilder to drive toward me to release himself.

From here, a lot depends on your future needs for your lifestyle. Do you want to take your dog into town on a leash? Do you want to take your dog hiking with you? Do you take your dog to walking trails where there are people, children, bicycles and other dogs? Whatever your plans are for your dog, you will need to slowly introduce those distractions into your dog’s leash manners. If the leash is on, and you have trained your dog to focus on you in those situations, then a collar, in my opinion, is fine to use (please be sure there is a clip you can quickly undo to release a dog who may have gotten it caught on something which is a strangulation risk). You can train your dog a cue that allows them to stop to pee on a bush or sniff in the grass, but they should be ready to come right back to you, ignoring all other dogs, people and other distractions as long as he is on that leash.

Wilder on rope down roadIf your life is more like mine: a rural existence with large spaces away from busy roads and no other people or dogs, maybe you can do off-leash walks. I know off-leash is verboten with some trainers, and I can understand that in some environments. But in our area, most people have their dogs off leash far more than on leash. Taught a rock solid recall while still living on the long rope, the training must include lots of practice being called away from distractions unique to each dog. Hounds need lots of practice being called off scents.  Terriers need practice being called off small critters. Herding breeds need lots of practice being called away from livestock or anything which moves (like vehicles!) With solid training for these situations (which should only occur infrequently), I think off leash walks with dogs are idyllic for all.

I even take it one step further and my terriers do not wear collars if there is not a leash or rope attached to it. This is because they love to go down holes after small animals and it is too easy for a collar to get caught on a root when they try to come back out. Stuck there, where no one can see them, it’s a horrible end. Microchips allow us a way to identify a dog even if they don’t have a collar on. Certainly the intention is to have your dog in sight at all times, but for those just-in-case scenarios, I feel it is safer to be without a collar than with.

Whatever you choose, the important thing is to educate yourself about the pros and cons of your choices, and that you leave choice in the life of your dog.

 

No Bowl November: Feeding Your Dog in Toys

On Instagram, someone posted that it is “No Bowl November”. I was not aware of this particular celebration but I have been feeding most dog meals in toys ever since we welcomed a new puppy a month ago.

Food toys are a great way for any dog to get their meals. A meal in a dish is polished off in seconds. Dogs are designed to work hard for their meals: hunting, killing and then more work to consume it as they have to separate the edible food from the less appetizing. All this work takes time and energy, after which the dog can settle down for a nice nap in the sun. We take all this away from the dog when we plunk food in a bowl.

There are many different options for putting the fun back in meal acquisition. Kongs are probably the most familiar food dispensing toy. The original Kong comes in a variety of sizes as well as level of durability. I always go for the black ones as they are the toughest. Here are some that I have stuffed with a mixture of canned pumpkin, yogurt, dog kibble and a little peanut butter. While you can offer them just like this, I also freeze them and then they are available in the freezer when I need one in a hurry. In addition to the Kongs,

there are many other options. Here are two. The one on the top is one made by West Paw. It’s got a bigger opening for dogs to get at the contents and can be easier if you have a dog who doesn’t want to work too hard. Usually once they understand how to work for their food, you can graduate to more challenging toys.

The toy on the bottom is a Busy Buddy brand. Here’s a 10 second video of our puppy the first time I put his kibble in one of these.

 

 

I had put some canned food smeared inside the toy for the kibble to stick to. You can see it will take him longer than a few seconds to clean that up. If I am going to use kibble (dry dog food) in a toy, I can just add a little hot water and wait for it to soften a bit. Then it will stick into toys rather than just spilling out. There are other toys which are designed specifically for dry food.

Sometimes I raid the recycling bins and make my own toys. Last Christmas was a great time to do this as we had boxes and wrapping paper galore. I put kibble in plastic bottles and stuffed wrapping paper in the top. I put kibble in wrapping paper, crumpled it up and put it in a cereal box. After I had a bunch of these, I put them all in a cardboard box and gave it to Eloise. She had played this game before so knew to work at the corrugated box and then the smaller ones to get the kibble. Her nose kept her going until she had every last piece.

While these toys are good at keeping dogs busy, I can never do other things while they work at them because it’s too much fun watching them!

A snuffle mat is another popular kibble toy, but it’s at the other end of the spectrum from free. Different companies sell them and some are more reasonably priced so you’ll have to shop around. When you first use a snuffle mat, you just sprinkle the kibble on top, but after the dogs know to snuffle around for the kibble, you can bury it deeper. Here is Eloise with a snuffle mat.

A good friend gave us this Buster Activity mat and it challenges dogs  in even newer ways. Each attachment is a different puzzle.

I love the way Eloise pulls the dowel out to open the envelope!  Admittedly, after a few times, I neglected to watch her and she started chewing on the dowel when the kibble was gone. I now replace the dowel with a bully stick. As much as she loves bully sticks, she usually keeps working at the puzzle until she gets all the kibble, then takes the bully stick to her bed to chew on.

Finally, here is Eloise, sacked out after finishing the Buster Activity mat…but she lay down right on it in case I wanted to put some more in it.  She wanted to be ready.

Before Wilder, our new puppy, arrived, I usually fed Eloise her breakfast in a dish and her dinner in a challenge. But these days, all meals are interactive.  The better to keep that puppy occupied!

Fearful Dogs

IMG_9542

 

Yesterday I attended a “Living and Working With Fearful Dogs” seminar given by Debbie Jacobs, of fearfuldogs.com, and hosted by the Vermont Dog Club in Essex Jct, VT.

Something which was fairly astonishing to me was when she began by asking who was in attendance. In the room full of people, there was one vet, a few vet techs, a few people who worked in rescue, a few people who foster dogs, a few trainers….and then she asked who lived with a fearful dog and a slew of people raised their hands. I found that very sad.

Now I don’t know how each of those people defined “fearful” in their own dog’s case. The examples which Debbie used in her talk were not simply dogs who were, shall we say, sensitive, but rather dogs whose lives were seriously debilitated by fear. They came, I think in all her examples, from hoarding situations and pretty horrific environments (full confession: I look away at slides of those situations and plug my ears if it’s video… I just can’t).

An example of the severity of the cases she works with became apparent when she spoke of keeping the dogs under threshold. She said that everyone has a different definition of threshold and so we should be careful when speaking to others that we are talking about the same thing. For me, “under threshold” is when the dog (or horse) can still focus on me and take food. They may glance away toward a perceived threat (ideally they don’t even do that). But if the individual animal feels they have to keep looking at the threat, then I need to increase distance between the animal and the threat so that they can relax and learn that it’s ok if that thing is in the distance. And then, to desensitize, we would move a tiny bit closer, with the goal being that the animal continued to be comfortable.

Debbie’s examples, however, were so traumatized that there was no way they were going to look at a human or take food from it. All they wanted to do was get away, hide, and keep as much distance as possible from people. Her Sunny dog, many years later, still does not want to be touched by people other than Debbie. He might play or go for walks when others are around, but even after her extensive work with him, he still shrinks back from other people.

For this reason, I really appreciated that Debbie expressed full acceptance for anyone who did not want to begin or continue to work with/live with a dog like this. She stressed that it was not fun.  After all, usually what we want from dogs is companionship. If what you have is a dog who really doesn’t want to be around people, you really have to have a different idea in your mind of what your relationship will be. She also stressed how difficult it can be on additional people in the household when a dog doesn’t like them (for instance a family member of the person working with the dog). There is so much focus on rescuing dogs these days, far too many people get into these situations with no idea of what they are in for and no skills/education to deal with it once they come to that realization.

Debbie repeated a couple themes throughout the day. One was patience. A slide with that one word popped up repeatedly.  Behavior challenges are not a quick and easy fix. These very fearful dogs are an extreme example…years and years of work in some cases. The other topic she returned to on several occasions was the most important place to start: keep them feeling safe. As I already said, these were dogs who did not feel safe in life so she did some pretty creative and extreme management toward that end: giving them places to hide, allowing them to stay indoors for months and eliminate indoors if they were afraid of going outside.

Her overall training approach is one of positive reinforcement and using food, food, food, although so much in life is punishing for these individuals that she did not pretend life was all positive reinforcement (and none of us should). She supported her talk and approach with evidence based science and references. Many of her references were familiar to me but I came away with some new authors to research and studies to look up: always good takeaways.

If you find yourself with a fearful dog, of any extreme, her talk is supportive and informative. She has two books available as well as a Facebook group of support. And please get a well-educated and experienced trainer to help you.

Debbie Jacobs

What If I Can’t Go to an Animal Behavior Conference?

I am cross-posting this to both of my blogs because all species are supported in these learning situations!

This weekend is Clicker Expo. That means the social media of clicker trainers is full of pictures and posts: meeting the giants of the industry, listening to inspiring talks, and watching training in action. It can be hard to watch from afar if you wish you were there. As consolation, I have compiled a list of learning opportunities that you can take advantage of from home.

Katie Bartlett and Rosie

First of all, many of us who do go to various conferences often write about them afterward. I’ve written in this blog about previous Clicker Expos, ASAT conference (Art and Science of Animal Training, formerly known as ORCA), NEI (Natural Encounters Inc), and Alexandra Kurland clinics at Cavalia’s home farm. But the master of taking notes and sharing information is Katie Bartlett. I do not know how she both gleans so much from the talks and then manages to put it all into understandable blog posts. If you can’t get to a conference, follow her Equine Clicker Training blog. She also blogs about her own training experiences and every word is worth your time to read.

Several conferences also video some or all of the talks and make them available afterward. Clicker Expo offers many of the talks this way. Word of mouth has it that ASAT will also be offering videos in the future. The Karen Pryor Clicker Training Store also sells videos from many well known trainers that you can watch from home.

This winter I have participated in several learning opportunities from home. Last year I splurged on both Expo and NEI so this is the year to pay the piper and not spend money on hotels and flights. It does not mean I had to forego continuing my education.

Last fall I enrolled in the Fear Free Pets program. Their program has been so successful that they are updating their site. When I went there just now, the site is “under construction” but the email I received from them states they’ll be back up next week. The course “aims to take the ‘pet’ out of ‘petrified’ and get pets back for veterinary visits by promoting considerate approach and gentle control techniques used in calming environments.” It is aimed at veterinary clinic employees as well as trainers who would like to help their clients with fearful pets. I found the information very helpful and wrote about it in “Fear Free Kitty” on my own blog.

Karen Pryor Academy offers ten different courses in training, dog sports, shelter training and also veterinary visits.  Access to these courses is for 12 weeks to a year, allowing you time to learn at your own pace and giving you the flexibility to fit it in around other responsibilities. I took the Smart Reinforcement course with Ken Ramirez last winter and have been thrilled with the use I have been able to get out of what I learned.

IAABC offers a rotating list of courses that vary from genetics and DNA; to shelter dog behavior; to writing. Some include the option of mentorships with leaders in their fields. I have just completed Eileen Anderson’s Writing course which I audited, although the option to submit writing to her for comment was also available. I haven’t taken a writing course in 30 years and it was quite a thrill to be focusing on my own writing again. With luck, readers of this blog will benefit from my renewed attention.

The Pet Professional Guild offers monthly webinars. Last week I attended one titled “Scent and the Assistance Dog” which was fabulous. I’ll confess I haven’t been equally impressed with some of the other presenters but the webinars are reasonably priced, especially if you are a member.

For anyone who teaches other people (this includes all of us who help people train their animals), TAGteach is invaluable. I received an email recently that they have a new (free!) course that offers an introduction (or a refresher) to TAGteach principles.

Percy and I with Alex

I have to include Alexandra Kurland’s online course in this list. Alex is the one responsible for the clicker in my hand and the treats in my pocket. Reading an article she wrote in 1999 started me on this journey and she has kept me going in the right direction. Her course is a comprehensive presentation of her training principles.

Finally, I have just begun “Horse Biz Boot Camp” with Cadence Coaching. This is my first experience with this type of coaching, but I was invited to join by Marla Foreman who had a two-for-one offer. Since my goal this year was to find ways to increase my income (to be able to afford more conferences next year!), certainly some help in the business side of things will be beneficial.

The ones I have listed here are all opportunities I have taken advantage of myself. There are many others. These and others range in price from free to hundreds or thousands of dollars. If you have any you would like to recommend, to me or to other readers, please give a link in the comments below.

It always seems like winter is a good opportunity for spending time on education and yet I never fit it all in. So many good books to read, webinars to watch, courses to take. And here it is March and the days are already lengthening to the point where it’s light after dinner.  But it’s snowing again…