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