Tuesday, December 18, 2012

CONSIDERING AN INVISIBLE FENCE? CONSIDER THIS!



Invisible fences are becoming more and more popular and in a few cases they are a very successful method for keeping your dog on your property.  In most cases though, this can go badly wrong.


Consider for starters that you are depending upon a boundary that the dog cannot see.  Invisible fences work best when they are the back up to a visible boundary.  This is why you start out with flags.  Most people take the flags away far too soon, and the dog is not exactly clear on where that boundary is or is not, meaning that they will get shocked more often than is strictly necessary for success.  When I recommend an invisible fence, I would put it along natural boundaries that are visible to the dog, such as a flower garden, along a driveway or lane, or along a row of trees.  I would not use a sidewalk or the street as a boundary for reasons I will outline below.


Consider that you often cannot control the degree of shock that the collar delivers.  If you really want to know what your dog is experiencing, put the collar on your upper arm with the electrodes against your skin on the inside of your arm.  Walk towards the fence.  Repeat that five or six times so that you are certain about the outcome.  There is a caveat.  This will hurt and it will hurt a lot.  Electric shock is one of the most intense sorts of pain we are able to deliver, and most collars are factory set to deliver a very intense pain.  


Consider what happens when your dog sees the kids coming home from school.  If he darts out meets the kids right at the boundary line, he may learn that the kids cause pain.  I have seen four cases where this happened and in one case the dog became so aggressive towards people that we could not safely live with him.  When looking for the cause of the shocks, the dog is not going to naturally gravitate towards his behaviour as the underlying cause of the pain.  He will look for clues about when he gets shocked.  He may decide for instance that cars, kids, other dogs, the mail delivery person, or the contractor who comes to install the air conditioner is the source of his pain.  Dogs in pain are much more likely to bite than dogs who are not, and if the dog decides that the contractor is the source of his pain, then the contractor is who he will bite.


Consider that you are depending on a piece of equipment that may not remain charged and may not work all the time.  If your batteries die and you don’t notice, your dog may approach your boundary and not hear the tone he would normally associate with approaching the edge of his yard.  Not hearing the tone, he will eventually test that boundary and then discover that the fence does not currently shock him.  This leads to a gambler’s effect.  When the fence is sometimes live and sometimes not, any time your dog approaches the boundary and he doesn’t receive a shock, he in effect receives a reward.  This means that he will start to gamble to try and figure out when he can win and when he cannot.  This means that in reality you are increasing your dog’s likelihood that he will try and test the fence, even if that means that some of the time he gets shocked.  The rule for using punishment is that it must occur every time that the dog behaves in the targeted manner, and when you use shock as a punisher, this is especially important.


Consider that your dog may learn that the equipment is what causes the pain.  If you do not condition the collar properly, your dog will learn that having equipment put on is going to create pain and they may become difficult to catch and also difficult to put other collars and harnesses on, or even to bandage if they are injured or ill.
Consider that other animals can get into your yard without penalty, and if those animals (foxes, skunks, raccoons, other dogs, children, adults, cats, coyotes, bears, wolves, deer, sheep, goats and pretty much anything else with feet in your neighbourhood) are aggressive or dangerous to your dog, he cannot escape.  This means that if a person comes into your yard with the intent to harm your dog he cannot leave unless he is willing to be shocked.


Consider that most pet dogs are breeds that were intended to stay close to us, and they don’t actually like being outside alone.  They want to do stuff with their people, even if that stuff is just laying close to you while you type on the computer.  Invisible fencing makes it easy to leave the dog out of doors unattended and able to learn nuisance behaviours such as barking at the fence line and ripping the siding off the house.
Mostly...dogs just want to be with their people!
Consider that if your dog sees a squirrel, another dog or a friend across the street and he breaks through the invisible fence, he may learn that the cost of roaming where he wants is a moment of intense unpleasantness.  If he is running towards something fun, he may consider the pain worth the gain.  Coming home is another story though.  Coming home means facing angry and upset people AND experiencing shock.  Thousands of dogs every year die because they broke through an invisible fence.


Considering the eight points above, you may wonder if there is ever a place where I would recommend an invisible fence, and how I would suggest using it.  For rural properties of five acres or more where you want to contain the dog in a specific component of the property, and where there are good visual landmarks, I would consider an invisible fence.  Why five acres?  Because I want the fence to be far, far from a road.  Because I want to be able to see when people are approaching so that I can bring the dog indoors when someone comes to the house.  I want permanent visual boundaries that can be seen even after it snows (tree lines, garden beds, decorative fences, laneways or livestock fences are all possible visual barriers).  I don’t recommend only putting the collar on the dog when he goes outside; I recommend keeping it on all the time.  I suggest that your dog should be accompanying you most of the time and should be in the house when you leave the boundary area.  If you need to remove the dog from the boundary area, take the collar off and either go through a physical gate or take your dog in your vehicle to get him out.  Even then, I have to say that I am not a huge fan. 


If you live in a covenant community that does not allow fenced yards, consider treating your dog as though you lived in an apartment.  Take him out on leash to toilet.  Teach a rock solid recall and a rock solid down stay.  Keep him with you more often than not.  When I compare the number of behaviour problems I see in dogs who live with invisible fences to those who live in apartment buildings, I have to say that I see far fewer dogs who live in apartments.  That says something profound about the life style of dogs who live in apartments.  They just don’t have the opportunity to experience the problems and pain that those who live with invisible fences do.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

If Only Cooper Could Talk



Cooper!


          
Cooper, the three-ish year old Welsh Terrier who visited us for two months this fall, is an opinionated, intense and extremely funny little guy.  He grew up in Guelph, attended puppy classes at Dogs in the Park, moved on to our Levels program and spent a good deal of his time training his person to be the best she could be.  He taught her for instance that Welsh Terriers don’t like cuddling.  They like scheduled, short periods of affection, in private, quietly, at a predictable time.  He taught her that Welsh Terriers DO like hunting and ratting, but that toads taste bad and should not be disturbed.  He also began teaching her about ratio strain, schedules of reinforcement and many of the vagaries of operant conditioning, but then she moved him to the United States and they started on her advanced education.

In the US, Cooper could not find a training school that fully met his needs.  He did find an agility class that was kind of fun, where he taught the instructor that luring is lame and shaping rocks and rolls.  He taught another instructor the value of the one hour sit stare.  That is when the dog doesn’t like what is happening in class and sits.  And stares.  For an hour.  He taught his person the value of a scale of reinforcers and that sometimes you need a variety of reinforcers to keep a Welsh Terrier in the game.  Cooper took great pains to teach his person that the more you spend on Rally-O trial fees the more likely it is that you are going to be embarrassed by your dog.  When I visited, Cooper was so pleased he took a hour out of his precious day to demonstrate to me all the Rally moves he had learned successfully, but since I wasn’t at the trial, he took the opportunity to show his person new ways to do the Halt-Stand-Walk Around that included Halt-Stand-Pee on the Rally Sign while your person is on the wrong side of you.

Cooper teaching dog training
Along the way, Cooper’s person had a very good job and settled into her new life until a calamity occurred, and then Cooper needed temporary accommodation for two months.  Here at our farm, life is quite different than it was at home for Cooper.  Here Cooper lives a very structured life in our kennel with regular house time and training time and long country walks, but that doesn’t include things like “watching your person get ready for work” or “tolerate snoogling on the couch”.  At our house, Cooper spent every night in his crate.  He got yard time several times a day in the company of a very wide variety of dogs-sometimes as many as twenty different dogs in a week.  At least five days a week Cooper got to go to class, and some days he got to do class twice and had some private sessions with a variety of trainers in training.  Cooper was fed twice a day in his bowl at predictable times, with the rule of if you don’t eat, you can have dinner in class for training treats, and if you don’t want dinner as treats, then you probably aren’t terribly hungry (and yes, we kept track of how much the little dude got each day, so that he never actually missed a meal-sometimes he just got more training opportunities).  Cooper taught us the true meaning of a schedule nerd; he loves his schedule!

When his person came to pick Cooper up, he was delighted to see her and showed her a bunch of cool things that he had learned and then asked to go back to the kennel.  Three times that afternoon he came up for short visits and asked to go back to the kennel.  He was happy to see his person, delighted in fact, but he also was very clear that there were aspects of his life here that suited him just fine.  One of those things was a lot more down time than most pets get.  For whatever reason, Cooper likes to spend time in his crate.  By himself.  And he likes to spend time with his dog friends, unencumbered by the responsibility of always training his person.  

On the first evening, his person brought him upstairs to sleep in her room.  After an hour, he asked to go down to the kennel.  First vaguely, by being restless ,and then firmly by sitting and staring at the bedroom door.  We have long known that Cooper is a dog who likes his sleep, and prefers to sleep long and hard each night.  In the morning, Cooper was thrilled to have some training time, some attention and some scritches by his person, but again, he wanted to go back to the kennel.

Cooper’s person has struggled in classes in the states, and not because she doesn’t do her homework or because she has lacked for good coaching.  Part of the problem lies in the philosophy of training that Cooper espouses.  Cooper does not “get” trained.  He participates in it.  Cooper teaches his person as much as his person teaches him.  Cooper will accept nothing short of a 50-50 partnership.  Not only does he want to learn tricks and skills, but he expects his trainer to be actively learning too.  In our classes, with vet students and our staff working with him, with John and me participating in training, Cooper worked willingly for an hour or longer at a time, where at home, he would often quit on his person and give up in disgust after short periods of time.  If the trainer isn’t learning, Cooper isn’t interested in learning either.

I have often thought about what Cooper might say if he could talk.  The first thing that I think Cooper might tell us is that he is an intensely private little guy, and somewhat of an introvert.  Cooper would not tell you about his birthplace or the puppies he met in puppy class, because I think for Cooper, that is private information.  Cooper would also tell us that he likes his sleep.  Lots of it, in private, without disturbances.  On the other hand, Cooper is a responsible little guy, and he will tell you when the new neighbours upstairs get home from work at one in the morning.  Or when the person in the next hotel room gets up and goes down the hall for ice in the middle of the night.  Those are activities Cooper thinks you should know about.

I think Cooper would tell you that if you cannot think up a way to make the game meaningful to both of you, he isn’t interested in playing it.  Cooper is very interested in what makes people tick, and he manages to hit the nail on the head reliably time after time.  Cooper isn’t interested in being pandered to, and if you are not at least equally interested in what he is interested in, then he isn’t interested in playing whatever game you want to play.  
 
When Cooper is working with a vet student who is at Dogs in the Park to learn about training, he decides when they are ready to move to a variable schedule of reinforcement, and stops giving them cued behaviours the first time they ask.  Sound weird?  Yup!  Just when the student begins to grasp a one to one behaviour to reinforcement ratio, Cooper will start embellishing the system, adding bits and pieces, taking bits away and challenging the student to fine tune his or her skills.  He reinforces good timing with desired behaviours, but when the student is sloppy with his timing or cues, Coop throws nonsensical behaviours to make the student back up and start fresh.  He knows exactly when to apply the pressure of a lack of interest and participation to give the student just what is needed in terms of a learning experience.

Cooper has needs...and is most co operative when his needs are met
Cooper would also tell you that a doggy social life is essential to his well being.  Without social time, Cooper is a sad little puppy, and he will impose his view of this matter on you by dragging towards dogs he wants to meet.  Cooper isn’t unreasonable.  He will work off leash, in the presence of food on the floor and other dogs in the room, provided his needs have first been met.  From Cooper’s point of view, fair is fair, and if you aren’t going to be fair in letting him have social time, he will take care of that matter himself.

Cooper is a unique, highly communicative dog.  He is a fascinating fellow and I am fortunate to have worked with him for the past two months.  I think if Cooper could talk, he would have a lot to tell us, but the real lesson to learn from Cooper is that training is a partnership.  When you meet all of your partner’s needs, and you are willing to learn from your partner, you can both achieve great things.  I think Coop can teach us a lot about training not being about skill acquisition, but rather about meaningful activities that you do together, or more simply, about your relationship.  A good relationship is a careful weaving of needs of both parties and boundaries you each need to feel fulfilled.  It is a blend of common goals and activities and give and take on both sides, and Cooper is a dog who is unwilling to accept anything less than his fair share of the relationship.  Cooper is perhaps the best trainer, dog, horse or human, that I have ever met.

Thank you Cooper for an instructive two months.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

INTERPRETING THRESHOLDS


NOTE TO MY REGULAR READERS:
Those of you who follow my blogs will have noticed that there has been a long delay since the last blog I posted on March 2nd of this year.  On March 20th, I fell off my horse and sustained a concussion.  One of the things I have not been able to do very well has been to read and write, so I have not been blogging.  Here is my first writing effort since my fall; I hope you enjoy!  I don't promise to be back as often as I have been for a while, but I take it as a good sign that I was able to put this together today.  Thanks for reading.

INTERPRETING THRESHOLDS

A threshold is the limit at which a stimulus causes a response.  When a single mosquito flies past you, most people don’t take note or get concerned; they are below threshold for mosquitoes.  If the mosquito lands upon you and starts to sting you, most people become aware of the mosquito; you could then say that they are at threshold for mosquitoes.  If a swarm of mosquitoes were buzzing towards you, and some were already stinging you, and you were swatting them and trying to get away, then you could say that you were over threshold.  


When working with dogs with behaviour problems, we look at the things that concern the individual dog, and we ask “at what point do these things become a problem for the dog?”  It is tempting to look at the things that dogs are concerned about and classify them according to if you think they should be of concern to the dog or not, but this isn’t helpful.  Looking at each dog and determining what their individual threshold is for a variety of stimuli helps trainers to determine at what point they need to change their training plan.


Thresholds and arousal are closely linked.  Going back to the mosquito example, most people are pretty relaxed about a single mosquito flying around.  When a mosquito lands on us, we become a tiny amount more aware or aroused about that mosquito.  And if we are swarmed by mosquitoes, we become vigilant and aroused, ready to act quickly if needed.  By making the link between arousal and thresholds, we can easily determine at what point we can move the dog’s threshold. 


When a dog is below threshold, they can habituate or just become gradually accustomed to the stimulus.  This is useful information if you want your dog to learn to tolerate a stimulus that you can easily control and present below threshold, but often, we cannot control the target stimulus that readily.


When a dog is at threshold, we can use Classical Conditioning to pair the target stimulus with something that the dog likes a lot.  If for instance, the dog is concerned about men wearing hats and you can present a man with a hat at a distance, so that the dog is aware of the man in the hat but not upset by him, then you could give the dog treats so that he associates men in hats with treats.  You need to repeat this until the dog is well below threshold in order to be successful, and sometimes this takes a great number of sessions.


When a dog is over threshold, he cannot learn at all.  He is aroused and overwhelmed.  Being aroused and overwhelmed can come in two flavours-he may be extremely happy or he may be really frightened.  The dog who is presented with a Frisbee and who barks and lunges and bounces around is as aroused as the dog who is presented with the frightening man in the hat and who stands and shivers.  Either way, his arousal level needs to come down before he can even begin to think, much less learn new things. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

GOODBYE BUNKER


Bunker as I best remember him


Call Corey.  There has been an incident, but no one was hurt.

Words you don’t want to hear, but words you know will someday come.  I would like to share the story behind this case, in the hope that someone will benefit from hearing it.  For the past eight years, I have had the honour and privilege of working with a very special and very well loved English Bulldog, Bunker.  Today I was with him, when he passed on.

When I first met Bunker, he was anxious and jumped on people, and had some pretty significant oddities, but he was still able to come to classes and participate in activities.  Over time, his behaviour problems became more entrenched and more dangerous.  Luckily, Bunker lived with some very special people, Corey and her family.  Corey recognized that her special friend needed extra protection from the ghosts that haunted his world.

Bunker had a great deal of difficulty with impulse control, and self modulation.  He would fixate on the other dogs in class or on a particular person.  He would bark and lunge at people and dogs he didn't know.  And over time, his world became smaller and smaller and smaller.  Corey worked hard with Bunker, setting up situations where she could work on classical conditioning with him in order to slowly expose him to triggering stimulus.  She and her husband taught him to relax on cue, but his arousal levels were so intense that he would assume a relaxed pose while staying completely tense.  As Bunker’s world became smaller, Corey sought help from a local veterinarian who has a strong background in behaviour.  For awhile, Bunker came to class as the Clomicalm Kid.  Although Clomicalm helped, it didn’t make the difference he needed to live calmly. 


Bunker’s veterinarian arranged for him to be seen by a Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist at a conference, and she had some thoughts, but they weren’t able to tease apart the issues.  Bunker was also seen by several big name well known behaviour specialists of various flavours.  Seizures were ruled out.  His thyroid was normal.  He had a few issues with his liver function, but generally apart from some skin issues, he was pretty healthy.   


As a young bulldog, he had been through a number of surgeries to correct a congenital eye issue, to be neutered and to decreased the amount of wrinkling in his skin.  We speculated that perhaps the number of times that he had been anesthetized might have contributed to his issues, but we really didn’t know what caused Bunker’s issues.  Maybe he just got the short end of the genetic stick.  If anything Bunker was a tutorial in learning that the cause of the behaviour just doesn’t matter.  Sometimes you just can’t and just won’t know why, and in the long run, with a case like this, it just doesn’t matter.  You still have to deal with the dog in front of you.

After several prescription attempts, Bunker was prescribed fluoxitine, and he became known as the Prozac Pup.  As the Prozac Pup, he settled into an existence that if not ideal, met his needs, both behaviourally and physically.  He had dog friends he lived with and a limited number of people friends.  He had a loving family and walks in the neighbourhood.  When guests came over, precautions were taken to ensure that he didn’t get over stimulated and aroused.  At about this time, I started referring to him as a “bowling ball on legs” in reference to the way he would throw himself at me when he saw me.  I think he liked me, but after a moment of greeting he would become so excited he would launch himself at my lower legs.  30 odd kilos of dog launching themselves at you is a bit daunting and certainly not the way most dogs will express their love of people, but that was Bunker’s special way to greeting me.  It was about this time that Bunker stopped coming to class.  He was no longer making progress behaviourally and Corey had built a universe for Bunker that worked for him and their family.

And then Corey got pregnant.  Almost every dog finds the addition of a baby to the home stressful, and we were certainly aware of the needs of the other two dogs in the home, but Bunker really caused us some serious concerns.  We really worried that he would not accept the baby, and that he might get excited and launch himself at either Corey or the baby.  There are a lot of things that we can do to help families to get ready for babies, and we pulled out all the stops on our pre-baby planning.  We got all the baby equipment, and Corey and her husband got a doll that they could carry around to prepare Bunker for the upcoming addition.  To say that Bunker objected to carrying babies would be an understatement.  Bunker really struggled.  We had many very long and very serious and very difficult conversations around the subject of Bunker and babies, and in the end, the solution we chose for Bunker was management.

It is here that Bunker and Corey’s story begins to get much more interesting.  The watchword in behaviour is that eventually, management fails.  Corey’s home became a series of gates and half doors and full doors and containment areas.  Bunker had a safe zone, a comfortable place where he could retreat within, where no one but Corey and her husband went.  The other dogs adjusted to the family addition and Bunker was never ever in the same room as the baby.  Not on a leash, not by accident and not with the baby in someone’s arms.  Being a bulldog, this worked.  Bunker was thankfully a very low energy dog.  And he was happiest when he had very little stimulation.  Bunker liked his adult family members, and after the baby was put to bed would join them in the living room to relax.  Bunker and his family made management work for six years. 

In the eight years that I worked with Bunker, there were several oops moments.  Bunker developed some issues with the other dogs in the house.  More management.  Bunker had an unfortunate incident while boarding at a kennel where someone didn’t follow the agreed upon protocols and he was placed in a run where he was over stimulated.  Never more did he board at that facility.  There was an incident with a vet who was not aware of his issues and who pushed him over his threshold for coping.  In all those years, there was only one bite, to a professional who was handling him without taking care to follow the “Bunker Rules”.   



In eight years, Corey and her husband kept Bunker and the people who lived around him and loved him safe.  Bunker was a Bulldog I deeply loved but only rarely could touch, when he was relaxed and coping well.  I saw Bunker and Corey about once every six months and each time, we discussed euthanasia.  We discussed quality of life.  We discussed the merits of baby socks in preventing paw licking, and the hobbies of bulldogs who mostly liked to be quiet and alone.  We laughed and we shared and we sometimes got frustrated.  We kept the welfare of Bunker in front of us all the time.

This morning management failed.  Bunker has been more agitated than usual lately; and sometimes seemed a bit confused.  Not entirely unknown in a nine year old bulldog.  Maybe cognitive dysfunction was starting to kick in.  Maybe the environment with a six year old child in it was becoming overwhelming.  Maybe he had some metabolic issue that manifested as anxiety.  We cannot ask him.  This morning, when someone arrived at home unexpectedly, Bunker broke through his gate, and when that person escaped behind the next level of security, he threw himself on the door, attempting to get in.

Call me.  There has been an incident.  No one was hurt. 

Corey emailed me this today, and when I called, we agreed, that it was time to let Bunker go.  The three sentences that a behaviour consultant really would rather not hear.  I went to Corey’s and we sat and waited together until the appointment time came.  We drove to the vet and we sat together, and together, with as much love as we can find for a very special needs dog, we helped him to die, before he progressed to a point where he did hurt someone.  Today we shared a lot of tears over the bulldog that Corey has always referred to as “my special friend”.  I will miss him a lot.  He has taught me more about behaviour consulting and what is possible with impossible dogs than I could ever have imagined.  And in the end, Corey’s strongest hope was that we could learn something from his life and his death, which is why I am sharing this story.  There is more possible in families with dogs than I can write in a blog or a book or teach in a seminar, and I have learned so much of it at the feet of a giant dog in a white body, who canoodled around the neighbourhood, in spite of the great odds against him. 

Thank you Bunker.  It has been an honour to be a part of your life.  I am sad that we have come to the end.  Rest in Peace, my special Bulldog Friend.

YOU, ME AND US



Riding Kayak has brought me a number of important lessons about being a novice working with a species I am not intimately familiar with.  I am not saying that I am not familiar with horses; I am!  I am just not as familiar with horses as I am with dogs.  Lately I have been thinking about my role as trainer, and my horse’s role as learner, combined with our joint role of being partner’s to one another. 

Some of the time, when I ride it is all about Kayak.  It is all about what she needs and when she needs it, and the skills I am trying to develop in her.  It is about meeting strange things successfully and facing fears and overcoming them.  Our most recent challenge has been puddles.  As far as Kayak is concerned, putting a hoof in a puddle is really, really dangerous and she might be sucked deep into a vortex from which horses never return.  When we walk up to standing water, she snorts and huffs and puffs and if I am too insistent, she may side step and crow hop.  As someone with a strong back ground in behaviour, I know how to get through this using classical conditioning, and approach and retreat and clicking for moves towards that puddle.  It took me about ten minutes yesterday to convince Kayak to put both of her front feet in a puddle, which is a big step towards success and the culmination of several lessons of approaching, clicking and retreating.  So there she is, both front feet in the puddle.  This challenge has been all about Kayak and her needs. 

Sometimes, it is all about me.  I am competent rider, but not a confident rider.  This means that some of the time, I need to work on MY skills and confidence.  I am an intermediate level rider, and progressing well along the journey towards solid horsemanship, but I am not yet there.  This is a journey of a lifetime, and I will never stop learning about riding.  I work on things like posture and position, of clear communication, of good position through both upwards and downwards transitions (going from the walk to the trot and back again for instance).  I work on staying calm in the saddle in the face of things that might be difficult for my horse.  On those rides, it is all about me.

I see this split between the trainer and the learner with my students all the time.  Some of the time, the learner is the dog and some of the time the learner is the person.  Sometimes the dog needs to have their learning needs met, right now, without regard for what the human learner needs.  When the information is not clear to the dog, he cannot be successful, and the more I train, the more convinced I am that repeated success if the single most important part of the training process.  If the dog isn’t clear about the work he is doing, he is not going to be successful and he is not going to be able to make this work.  The more often that your dog is successful, the faster and more effectively he will learn, and some of the time, it is all about what the dog needs when training.

Periodically though, coaching my students to meet the needs of their dogs doesn’t meet the needs of the student.  This happens when the student isn’t clear and cannot convey clear information to the dog.  When this happens, I need to address the needs of the student, and that may mean in the moment, not addressing the needs of the dog at all.  In order to make things clear to the human end of the partnership, I may choose to have them work with their dog on an already trained behaviour, or I may choose to have them work with a different dog who knows more, or I may do a walk through where the human and I take the roles of the trainer and the dog and switch around until the human understands what they need to know about the exercise.

It is important to note though that the goal is not developing the dog or developing the trainer.  It is about developing the team to work as one.  When I ride Kayak, I am strongly reminded of something one of my early mentors said about dogs; “If we had to get up on their backs and depend on their soundness and understanding of the work, we would breed and train differently”.  I wish I could remember the name of this man who seemed to be at every dog show I went to (he was on  crutches all one year, but that is probably too little information!), because he is absolutely right.  If I set things up the wrong way with Kayak, she could kill me.  If I asked her for instance to canter down the hill on my farm towards our farm pond, I don’t doubt I could get her to do it, but it would not be safe.  She would be frightened and I would be frightened and most likely something would go badly wrong, especially at this icy time of year.  At best, I would fall off and she would stand there looking down at me, asking me what sort of a fool I was to ask her to do that sort of a stunt.  At worst, she would break a leg and roll on me and hurt me so badly I could die.  So even on the days when I am working more on me than on her, there is an imperative that I only ask her to do things we are both ready to do.  If I ask her for things we have not prepared for, I could die.

In dog training the imperative is still there, but the consequences aren’t.  Rarely would a dog cause you serious harm in your day to day training.  Yes, there are dogs who would bite me and who might cause me great harm, but for the most part, that won’t happen.  The worst case scenario if the trainer asks the dog for things the dog is not prepared for, is that the dog fails.  The problem here is that the dog’s failure is not something that deeply impacts the trainer in the moment.  Yes, the trainer may be frustrated, but that is nowhere near as important to the trainer as being rolled on by their horse.  The dog’s failure just doesn’t impact the trainer nearly as much as it might impact the dog.  This means that as an instructor, and as a trainer, there is a higher level of responsibility to set training sessions up so that the learner is successful.  The consequences are not there, so awareness must be greater. 

When the trainer sets things up so that the learner is successful, then something incredible happens.  When Kayak and I are on the same page, and I have set up the training session so that she can be successful more often than not, I don’t have to ask her to do things-I think them and we do them together.  It is a special kind of teamwork that just happens.  It isn’t that I don’t move my leg or use my hands on her reins, I do, but those movements are whispers not screams.  When I work with Eco and D’fer, my adult dogs, this happens in every training session because we have a deep and well developed connection; I think it and it happens, smoothly and gently.  I ask quietly with my voice and the way my body moves, and they respond.  They move in specific ways and I respond to their motions.  It is a dance of the animal giving me feedback and me responding and returning and changing as the dance continues.  When that connection develops, we are tied together in a special way, and that special goal is what I would like my students to experience.