Monday, July 1, 2013

My Journey with Humans

Last month I attended the Instructor Training Course at the Roundout Valley Animals for Adoption shelter in Accord, NY.  The instructors were Pia Silvani, a charter member of APDT, and Sue Sternberg, known for her “Assess a Pet” temperament testing for shelter dogs.  This is my story about the experience.  In typical "Helen" fashion, it's a bit lengthy but I hope it holds your interest to the end because that's my "happy ending."

The Course...
This is a 5-Day course that includes lectures, viewing of videos, working with shelter dogs, demonstrations of some training techniques by the instructors, teaching of group classes by each of the students and attendance in group classes with the shelter dog assigned to you.  The days were long, the breaks were short, the food was not gourmet but generally good, the coffee left something to be desired, the facility was awesome, the shelter dogs were even more awesome and the course was well-packed with info and practice.  It was a well-organized (by Dana Crevling of Dogs of Course) and well-run course focusing on positive reinforcement with much valuable information and hands-on practice for new trainers.  There is something for everyone but more seasoned trainers may find the value derived to be somewhat less than the price of admission… or will they?

My Motivation and Fears...
I had looked at this course every year for many, many years and always wanted to attend.  Timing, logistics and finances stood in my way until this year.  Over the years my needs and reasons for attending had changed and despite being one of the “more seasoned” trainers, I thought perhaps there was something to be gained.  I was right but what I gained was not so obvious to me at first and, lol, well, if you choose to continue reading, you’ll see. 

I wanted to learn how to be a better people-teacher.  I wanted to learn what I was doing wrong and what I needed to change when working with people.  I was hoping to pick up some fun new things I could do in group class to make it a more positive and interesting experience for the humans.  I was not looking for “how to teach [insert behavior here]” and I certainly wasn’t looking to review learning theory and the 4 quadrants of operant conditioning.  Oof!  Been there, done that – ad nauseum.  Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that understanding the 4 quadrants and knowing which quadrant you are in when training is essential for any trainer but this was not something I felt the need to review. 
I arrived at the facility with a mixture of excitement and nervous anticipation.  Was this going to be fun and enlightening or was this going to be a snooze fest?  Were the other course students and I going to be on a par or were we going to be light years apart?  Would I get along with the human with whom I was to be partnered?  Uncertainty makes me very nervous.  One of the reasons why I love living and working with dogs is that I find them so much more predictable and reliable than humans and that gives me a sense of quiet certainty.

The Instructors...
These women have achieved success in their field without compromise – something worthy of admiration.  There is much to be learned in simply socializing with them, not to mention watching them work.

Pia Silvani has a huge presence that belies her diminutive stature.  She has a calm, quiet, confident manner and an approachable openness that made this student feel comfortable. 

Sue Sternberg has a self-deprecating humor that made her so endearing.  She is honest, down-to-earth and strong.  She doesn’t apologize for her beliefs or methods nor does she force them upon you.  She can agree to disagree with a smile.

Dana Crevling had things running like the best Swiss timepiece with her efficiency.  She was always happy to answer questions and give a helping hand.

There was a vastness of knowledge and experience in all three women that was, at times, almost intimidating but never quite.  These ladies share an obvious and enviable camaraderie, fondness and respect for one another. They all enjoyed a good laugh and often showed their humor and quick wit.  Together they were a powerful team and they made the experience not only educational but enjoyable.

Accentuate the Positive!
That’s what we were told to do.  We each had index cards with the name of every other person participating in the course on a card – about 30 cards in all.  During the course of the week we each had to write something positive about every other person and leave the card in an envelope marked with his/her name.  At the end we would all receive our envelopes with all the index cards with positive comments.  In addition, everyone provided positive comments for each of the two lessons we each had to teach as a group class instructor.

Really?  Um, and what does that do for me or everyone else for that matter?  How could I learn what I was doing wrong if no one would tell me?  How can I improve if my flaws and mistakes are not pointed out to me?   I was not happy about this exercise and I grudgingly participated in this throughout the week.

My Fellow Students...
Almost everyone in the course with only a couple of exceptions was nice.  So nice.  I mean, really, really, REALLY nice.  Sickeningly sweet nice.  Yikes!  My caustic, sardonic, critical self was not comfortable in this environment!  I was the proverbial fish out of water and I was drowning in niceness.  I raced back to my motel room the first night, called my hubby and bitched at him for about 30 minutes straight.  Ahhhh!  Having got all that bitchiness out of my system (my poor, poor hubby), I felt much better and was off to sleep early so I could be well-rested for my next long day.

The next day I felt I was beginning to adjust to all the pleasantness around me.  These ladies were even pleasant early in the morning before coffee!  Go figure.  Whatever.  I was starting to get into a groove of smiling and finding something nice to say.  That evening I fully intended to race back to my motel room and watch TV all night but I was handed a casual invitation to dinner by someone.  I had met this woman at the IAABC conference back in April and had chatted with her a bit over dinner back then.  I found her interesting and extremely intelligent and well, of course, nice.  Lol.  I didn’t know anyone else at the course and she was the closest thing to a familiar face so I decided to join her and whoever else for dinner.

The Amazing Women - You Know Who You Are...
THAT was the beginning of the game-changer for me.  I met some amazing women and had an awesome evening sharing stories and ideas.  I was in the company of some very well-educated women and I felt a little humbled and even intimidated by them.  These women were an assortment of PhDs and Masters Degrees with a background in everything from advertising to zoology.  They were fun, they were interesting, they had struggled and persevered, they were brutally honest and totally sincere.  We dined together each evening after that and one evening we hung out like teenagers drinking wine and laughing until the wee hours of the morning.

I also chatted and shared with other fellow students during the day.  So many great people… the self-proclaimed “inexperienced” trainer who is taking her dog through competition obedience, the young girl attending veterinary school, a motorcycle “mama”, the horse-lovers, shelter workers, nurses, tennis enthusiasts, a history buff, social workers, a groomer, the one male student amongst a sea of estrogen, my partner who was sweet and kind and underestimated her own abilities, even a pole dancer and, of course, dog trainers.  We were diverse but we shared some common bonds – our love of dogs and our desire to improve.

The last day we all shared our thoughts about the facility, the course, our shelter dogs and each other.  We laughed, we cried, we hugged, received our envelopes and certificate and said our goodbyes.  I felt a sense of loss upon leaving.  I felt I had made some new wonderful friends but I knew that the inevitable effects of time, distance and life in general would quickly unravel those new and fragile bonds of friendship and I was greatly saddened by that thought.

All in all it was a great experience and I would highly recommend this course to “wanna be”, new and inexperienced trainers.  Seasoned trainers who are stuck in a rut or looking to change things up will probably find it worthwhile as well.  In other words, something for everyone.

What Was In It For ME?
When I got back home and got back to my routine, I realized that I still had some feedback that I hadn’t checked - my “accentuate the positive” envelope.  I opened the envelope and began to read my index cards.  Funny was the most common comment (I liked that) followed by outspoken (I just KNOW some of those people wanted to say “loudmouth”).  That’s ok; I know I’m a big mouth.  I spent my formative years being chastised and criticized for it and nothing has changed (further evidence that punishment does NOT work).  It’s taken me literally decades to accept that part of me, own it and stop apologizing for it.  I’m here, I’m loud, deal with it or move on!  Some other comments were honest, willing to share and good teacher.  I got to thinking, if I am funny, then maybe I should go for more fun and humor.  If I am honest, then maybe I should be more honest.  And then it hit me.

I had completely missed the point of the Accentuate the Positive exercise that I had SOOO resented the whole week!  I was being given the gift of training my brain to look for the good, the right, the accurate, instead of focusing on and correcting the mistakes.  DIRECTIONS instead of CORRECTIONS! 

Why it took so long to seep into my brain, I can’t say.  I guess I just couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  Or maybe that was just the way my journey had to go.  But there it was in my cards and the cards I had written for others.  Motivate by focusing on the good and build on that success.  Gosh, I do this every day, day in and day out with the dogs I teach – it’s simple, it’s easy and IT WORKS!  Yet, somehow, I left my human students behind on that trip.  I was caught up in “don’t”, “stop”, “no”, “not like that”… in other words, “error marking”.  It was an awful habit that I had trouble changing.  Why?  Because I was focusing on my own errors instead of what I did well!  Once I started looking at what I did well and looked to increase it, then there was less room for what I did wrong.  And, of course, practice makes perfect, so I began to get better at finding the positive in my human students.

It’s still a work in progress but I am finally moving in the right direction and as I make these changes in my teaching style, I find it, thankfully, becomes easier to do.  AND, my human students noticed and appreciated the changes.  Despite having always received exceptionally good feedback on my group classes (via anonymous feedback surveys), most people never continued past the Basic Manners.  This last group that graduated all gave me stellar feedback – so much so that I was almost in tears from how moved I felt.  Better yet, many of them are now continuing on with Better Basics.

The Forest and the Trees:
Was the ITC worth the price of admission?  You bet!  For me it wasn’t so much in the actual materials and specific lessons, good as they were. That was just the trees.  For me the value was in the experience as a whole – the forest.  My deepest and most sincere thanx to all the wonderful women and that one brave man in the course.  You were all my instructors and I am better for having met you all.   And to those very special women with whom I felt a particular bond… I hope we can share a meal (vegan because, yes, Mary, I’ve made the change), some stories and laugh thru the night once again.

Happy Tails!

Friday, March 15, 2013

All Choked Up for Attention

A few weeks ago I was getting my next set of group classes organized – fielding calls, answering questions, emailing info… you get the idea.  One potential class participant still sticks in my head causing me to wonder where it went off track.  I know exactly when it went off the rails and I think I know why… I just hope I’m wrong. 

The call came in from a woman who adopted an approximately 1 year old Shih Tzu.  She and her hubby already had another Shih Tzu that they purchased and trained as a puppy and now they wanted their newest family member to have his education as well – great!  I described my group class and curriculum and informed them that I did still have room in the weekend class they wanted to join.  Knowing that some folks have concerns, however unfounded, about Pitbulls, I “cautioned” them that the class already had a couple of larger dogs in it, specifically a couple of bully mixes. Fortunately, they were not at all bothered by this, in fact, they felt it was good to have a mix of breeds/sizes in a class.  It came out that they had attended a group class with their puppy that included large and small dogs and they had a wonderful experience.  I, of course, asked them why they didn’t return to where they had such a great experience and was informed that the training center had moved farther East, making the trip to and from much too long.   Well, that worked out nicely for me - yay!  The woman thanked me for my time and said she needed to speak with her hubby and would get back to me.

A few days later the woman called back to tell me they were very interested in the class (awesome) and she asked how large my group classes were.  I informed her that I keep my classes small – no more than 6 and 8, only if I have an assistant.  I explained that in a larger class it would be impossible to give everyone some personalized attention and larger classes can easily become out-of-hand with barking and other issues.  (lol, another blog for another day – some of my group classes “gone wild”)  She promptly disagreed with me, saying in the classes she attended, there were 10 and 12 dogs and it was fabulous experience.  I asked how many trainers ran the class or if the trainer had any assistants and she told me no, just him.  Rather than argue with her that a 10 to 1 ratio is not the best idea and that she may have gotten “lucky” with the class she was in, I simply said, “He must have been a wonderful trainer” and let it go at that.  At this point I informed her that the class was filling quickly and that if she wanted to take the class, she needed to send in the registration and deposit.  She said she would.

Another few days passed and the woman calls me yet again.  She apologized for not sending in the registration right away but was putting it in the mail today with a deposit check.  (Yes, I still have old-fashioned mail-in registration forms.  I know, I know, I need to update my website for online registrations.  Hey, don’t bug me, I’ve been busy!)  She just wanted to double-check the address and she wanted to know what she would need for class.  I informed her that as soon as I received the registration, I would email her a confirmation along with the class info email -  “Group Class, What to Expect & What to Bring.”  To which she replied, “Great, I’ll be looking forward to it.  But, I guess I’ll need a training collar, right?”


At this point, I go thru a series of ritualized aggression moves. (yes, I definitely empathize with dogs a bit too much.  I am the very opposite of anthropomorphizing) I freeze up, I begin to speak very softly and slowly and (thank dog she couldn’t see me!) my lip began to curl into a snarl.  I very quietly asked, “What do you mean by a training collar?”  As many of us trainers know, “training collar” is a euphemism for “choke chain” but I couldn’t be sure what she meant, hence the question.  She hesitated and said, “You know, a training collar.”  So now I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m an idiot of a trainer to not know what a training collar is so I said, “Well there are various types of ‘training collars’, do you mean a choke chain, a prong collar or an electronic collar?”  She said, “Oh no, not a prong or shock collar, I would never do that to my dog. But I was told that calling it a choke chain is inaccurate because that is not the purpose of the collar, it just gets the dog’s attention.” (Really?  Well, I guess it is at least in part true.  Put a choke chain on me… you’ll have my undivided attention, that’s for sure.  Ahhh, but take it off and I will not only ignore you, I’ll run like the wind away from you.) I said, “I don’t use those collars at all.  My method is to get the dog’s attention through motivation.  I prefer class participants to use a regular flat-buckle collar or, even better, a harness.”  To which she replied, “Alrighty then.  Thank you, goodbye.”  There was a definite tone to that ‘alrighty then’, a mix of condescending sarcasm blended with ‘I’m humoring you.’

Another few days elapsed and no registration showed up so I called her to check in to see if she had sent it.  She informed me that they had changed their minds. Since they had such a good experience the first time, they decided to make the trip to the other training center.  I wished her luck and success and hung up feeling so depressed.

I couldn’t figure what went wrong.  It certainly seemed to coincide with the “training collar” discussion.  I was very careful to not say anything negative about her having used one before. I just told her that I don’t use them and that I have a different method.  We had talked about positive reinforcement and rewards-based training in a previous conversation and she seemed to be on board with it.  So what the $@%& happened?!  My brain can’t wrap itself around the possibility that someone would object to NOT using a choke chain.  I certainly can’t get my head or heart around putting any dog on a choke chain but I do ‘get’ how folks with large or strong dogs THINK they need one.  But, seriously, a choke chain on a Shih Tzu? 

Is that why she didn’t join my class?  Because I wouldn’t let her put a choke chain on her 12-pound Shih Tzu?  It certainly seemed that way to me but I’ll never know for sure. It still bugs the you-know-what out of me.  I sincerely hope that Shih Tzu is none the worse for wear.  As for my class – it was a great group and they all graduated with flying colors last month.  And the strong Pitbull with the petite human, he wears a harness, he doesn’t pull and he can’t take his eyes off his human.  I’d say she earned his attention, not to mention his willingness to comply, because he thinks the sun rises and sets on her and that’s a beautiful thing to see.    

Chuck the Choke
Pass up the Prong
Skip the Shock
MOTIVATE instead of Dictate!

Happy Tails J

Monday, March 4, 2013

All Aboard for (a good) PK!

I only just finished up my PK classes a few weeks ago and the new ones are supposed to start in a week or so but no registrations!  I still hear from folks that they are told by their vets that they should keep their puppy away from other dogs until after they’ve had all their shots.  Some people are even told to keep the puppy indoors until that rabies shot.  This saddens me because I know that those puppies are not getting off to the best start in their lives with their humans.  They are very possibly a bundle of fears and behavior problems in the making.  Let’s add insult to injury… I know one vet that told my client she still had to wait a week after the last shot before taking her pup outside.  That pup, and a large-breed at that, spent 9 full weeks inside a small 3-room apartment before her first venture outside at the age of 17 weeks!  and to this day, 4 years later, she jumps at every sound and cringes when cars pass.


So what happens after that “magical” last set of shots?  People run their pups outdoors, to various houses, down busy streets, to the dog park and (finally) into group classes.  Not only is the puppy often overwhelmed and unable to cope, the human has no idea what s/he is doing and usually makes matters worse by forcing the puppy into situations s/he is simply not ready to handle and with absolutely no coping skills!


Of course, waiting until after the pup is 16 weeks (about the time the last shots are administered) does not guarantee a poorly adjusted dog but in my long experience that is very often the result.  On the other hand, a Puppy Kindergarten does not guarantee a balanced, well-adjusted dog.  Some PKs are, in my opinion, very poorly run and can actually do more harm than good.  I’ve seen some PKs and puppy playtimes in some of the big box stores and I know I am seeing future behavior modification clients.


There is a common misconception that socialization means throwing everything and anything at the puppy to get him “used to it” – yikes!  Well, I’m not a fan of snakes (sorry, I know, they are just another animal but they give me the creeps) and throwing me into a room full of them is NOT going to get me used to snakes.  Au contraire!  More likely, my fear and aversion will be increased.  Yet I see this done to puppies all the time and, sadly, by the very folks that doggie parents trust to guide and teach them how to raise their puppies – their “trainer.”  That’s right – “trainer”, not trainer.  Anyone can call herself a trainer, there is no regulation in the industry – ah but once again, I digress.  Let’s stick a pin in that bugaboo for another day J


On to the PK/PP (no, not pee pee, Puppy Playtime).  So what have I seen/heard?  I am so very glad you asked.  (Yes, I sometimes hear you in my head)  Puppies are left to fend for themselves in a play situation they are not prepared to handle in the name of socialization.  A fearful or shy puppy will not learn socialization when thrown in with a school-yard bully.  And, yes, there are pups that behave much like that school-yard bully you remember from the old days.  Those pups may not steal the shy pup’s milk money but they can, however unintentionally and unwittingly, steal a shy/fearful pup’s ability to gain confidence and to learn to interact with other pups.  Don’t believe the “trainer” that tells you to leave your pup to fend for himself or that providing comfort and reassurance and SAFETY will feed or reinforce the fear.  OMD how that expression annoys me!  Sorry, these folks don't understand learning and behavior and have no business training you or your pup.


A good PK will gently and gradually introduce your pup to sights, sounds, people and other pups in a manner that is not threatening or intimidating.  A good PK will let your pup move at his/her own pace and provide safety and security.  The shy or fearful pup is NEVER forced into any interaction.  That pup is permitted to find a safe corner or behind a gate from which to watch the other, more outgoing puppies play.  Perhaps that puppy’s human will be feeding treats or gently petting as the puppy watches.  The other puppies will be prevented from overwhelming that pup.  In my experience, in time that puppy’s natural curiosity and desire for social contact will emerge and s/he will make attempts to interact.  This is a crucial time for the pup and a good PK trainer will seek to make the interaction safe and gentle, perhaps with one other pup of similar disposition or with an older pup or dog that is gentle with shy puppies.


Another aspect of a good PK is introduction of many different people, again, never forcing a puppy to interact.  The people may wear hats, wigs, glasses, uniforms and carry strange objects.  Sound and object habituation is another important part of a PK.  But, where’s the training?  Shouldn’t a puppy be trained in a PK class?  Yes… and no.  Much of that depends on the age of the puppies in a PK class.  If the PK class is a socialization class designed for puppies as young as 8 weeks, then socialization and play should be the focus with only what I call “foundation” training as part of the curriculum.  Foundation behaviors that can pave the way for better, easier and faster basic training when the time is right.  Name response, choose me, hand-targeting, sit, call out of play, red light/green light (lol – no, not quite the game you remember but my own version of a foundation game with your pup.)  If the PK class is for older pups – over 14 weeks, then that is really more of a basic class since the window for the critical socialization period has already ended.  We have so little time to do what we can in that critical window.  A good PK can give your pup a huge advantage in life.  Don’t hesitate to find one and enroll your pup as early as possible.   As per the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior - “Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” 


So, all aboard for a good PK and, please, let’s get our vets on board too!  Education is key and, for more information, check out the AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization.  If you are interested in seeing a good PK curriculum (WARNING, shameless self-promotion coming,) check out the Smarty Paws course outline for PK class for a program that starts your pup off on the right paw!  J


Now you KNOW!


Happy Tails J