Category Archives: Training

What are we up to these days?

We’ve actually been doing stuff, but I’ve been too busy/tired to write about it!

Ava’s last class at Ahimsa came to a close in April, which is sad since we all love Ahimsa and the trainers there. Ava melts for any one of them, even if she hasn’t met them. Somehow she knows which people there are the trainers. Wally still has a class starting this weekend but it’s offsite so we may not see our usual trainers. After that we’ll have to see what new classes they come up with! Admittedly, I’m looking forward to not going to Ballard (Seattle) every weekend. It gets exhausting after 9 months.

Wally was going to start agility this month but he unexpectedly injured his back on April 1 (too bad it wasn’t actually a practical joke!). We came home from dog training to find him hunched over, trembling, and desperate for relief; he was fine when we left so we have no idea what happened. We visited our local emergency clinic twice and they claimed he just had bad gas. I, of course, was unsatisfied with this explanation. Admittedly Wally was being pretty stoic about it whenever he was in the clinic, but still. Farts are causing this?!

At the suggestion of our vet (who unfortunately wasn’t available due to travel) we went to Summit Referral in Tacoma and within 30min they had diagnosed a back injury. We don’t know specifically what was injured since that requires an $1800 MRI, but it was likely either a disc or a muscle. He was on meds for a few weeks and now (med-free) is getting some bodywork done once a month by our local alternative vet (he gazes at her adoringly and then he’s relaxed the entire evening). Since he recovered quickly and completely it’s most likely a muscle, but to be on the safe side Wally is now barred from all impact sports.

This was disappointing but not world-ending; Wally will love doing Nosework and Ava can do agility. Which, it turns out, she LOVES. She has so much fun on the equipment and isn’t afraid of anything. The first time she met a real teeter (on the lowest height setting) within minutes she was standing up to put her paws on the elevated end to pull it down. We make an amazing team; I get to finally see all of our work pay off. We’ve started lessons with Susan Perry and we love this game. It’s such an amazing feeling to truly play with your dog and experience the depth of your relationship; all of that happens for us with agility.

Other than that, Ava’s (and her siblings’) first birthday is coming up on June 3 — time really does fly! I can’t believe they’ll be one, they’re all still little puppies to me.

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Posted by on May 12, 2017 in Other Stuff, Training



Notes from ClickerExpo Portland: Sunday

In case you missed them here are the notes from Friday sessions and Saturday sessions.


Costume contest at the 70’s themed dinner on Friday


Words Matter: The Impact of Language Choice, Lindsay Wood

This session was geared towards people who work in animal shelters, but applies to everyone who owns dogs. I think it’s critical for owners, trainers, and breeders to be selective about word choice when describing individual dogs or their breed. When we label our dogs we change how people (even us) think about them and respond to them. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy or perpetuate outdated thoughts/treatments. If we describe the observable behaviors rather than a generic label we allow people to “see” the dog for what it is and take a proactive role. For example, if we say a dog is undersocialized that sounds pretty final. Instead we can say “their history/behavior demonstrates socialization deficits” and describe their behavior and the context it occurs in. The why can be included but it isn’t really important. From there the trainer can identify triggers and develop a behavior modification plan.

Fear Factors: Understanding and Reducing Fear Across Species, Jen Digate

It’s not that unique that self-regulation is desired, but I was intrigued by the idea that the learner cab choose a previously learned behavior to self-soothe.  The other, and complimentary option, is a signal for “keep going”. This is becoming more common as we give the animals the option to say no. Another takeaway was to use a verbal cue so the learner knows what you’re about to do and can choose to leave. This dovetails nicely with Sarah Owings method of ritualizing training so the dog knows what to expect and can say “meh, not right now.”

Another big thing was that incompatible behaviors can’t be cued if the learner is already full of fear. One of the most popular training protocols is to train a behavior that is incompatible with the undesirable behavior. The problem with this is when you’re trying to change a fearful conditioned emotional response. If the learned is fearful they’re worried about survival; they’re not going to prioritize the cued behavior.

Inside Out: How Understanding Emotions Makes for Complete Training, Sarah Owings

There were so many good things in this session! This was something I’d been thinking about but couldn’t really formulate into anything coherent. Basically, training the emotional state that accompanies the behavior is as critical (or more critical) than the behavior itself. The goal is to plan your training around both the respondent goal (emotion) and the operant goal (behavior) so that the end result is an operant behavior that has an appropriate (and positive) conditioned emotional response.

How to do this? Some of her thoughts were: embed reinforcers into the environment, calibrate yourself to your learner, begin training the emotional state in a conducive environment (if your dog barks like crazy in the car don’t try to train calm behavior in the car; start in your house), behave/mark/reward in ways that encourage the emotional state you want, and start with clean loops. There’s a lot more to it, but then I’d be repeating everything she said!

When Good Training Goes Badly: Troubleshooting Your Training Sessions, Lori Chamberland

The session had tons of info on what can go wrong and how to fix it. For me the biggest reminder was rate of reinforcement (RoR). I’ve become much more aware of my RoR and it’s the first thing I check if training isn’t progressing. If my RoR is too low it likely means I’ve lumped behaviors. By splitting them into smaller pieces, or going back a step, I can crank up the RoR and regain my dog’s interest.

Into the Wild: Mustang Taming Clicker Style, Jen Digate

I’ll be honest, I went to this session just to fill a time slot. As it turned out I’m lucky I did! While she spoke about mustangs, many of Jen’s insights and techniques are applicable to fearful or reactive dogs.

To begin with, I loved her definition of “over threshold”: the demands of the situation have exceeded their education or available emotional resilience, and their survival mechanism has been engaged. This typically leads to loss of proprioception, gross motor behaviors, reduced sensitivity to pain, and inhibited learning.

Something else I loved, and heard in her previous session, was to teach a barometer behavior. This is a behavior that the animal knows well, so if they’re unable to perform it this is an indication that they’re over threshold. Take a step back literally and/or figuratively until they’re ready to continue. One of her horses will self-soothe by lowering his head, then when he’s ready to move on he’ll very intentionally turn his head towards her. I’ve been mulling over how to teach the dogs to do this.

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Posted by on March 3, 2017 in Training



Notes from ClickerExpo Portland: Saturday

In case you missed them, here are my notes from the Friday sessions.

Look Away From the Dog, Theresa McKeon

This session was intended for professional trainers who wanted to learn more about human body language and how to be a better instructor. Even though I don’t fall into that category I’m glad I went! Apparently dogs and humans have very similar body language signals for stress. Who knew?! We both yawn, make ourselves smaller (crossed arms), appear menacing (crossed arms), humans tuck their thumbs while dogs tuck their ears, flick tongues, smile, cough/sneeze, face smash, blink excessively, and shake off the body.

What a Cue Can Do, Kathy Sdao; lab with Sarah Owings

Pretend your learner is a walrus; you can’t compel a walrus!

A really common practice is to use the cue during praise, such as “good Sit!” A cue signals that “reinforcement is available if you perform this behavior right now.” When we use the cue in praise we think the cue is a label, but dogs don’t use labels. For them it signals movement, and they can’t move into the required position if they’re already in it. If you use the cue during praise it reduces the effectiveness of the cue and confuses the dog.

Something I hadn’t even thought about is that learning a cue is a behavior! It requires practice for understanding. This goes for both the teacher and the learner; with enough time both will understand the process with fluency. I needed to hear this since I’ve been bad about putting behaviors on cue and now I’ll have more patience with myself and the dogs.

In the lab Sarah emphasized several things that will clean up our training and encourage clean loops. First, reward in the same location to reduce the search for food. This way the dog returns more quickly to the game instead of snuffling about. Second, reward away from you, you’re hard to leave! This way the dog will naturally return to the object (we were shaping) as they turn back toward you. Third, ritualize your training so your dog can predict what’s going to happen. Fourth, after you have a clean loop work on stimulus control with this strategy: feed the dog’s face for a few seconds, cue the behavior just before they do it, click/treat when they do it correctly, then feed their face again. This encourages the dog to pause in between behaviors so you don’t create a behavior chain.

Loopy Training, Alexandra Kurland

People at Expo threw around the word “loopy” like it was common knowledge. I have to admit I’d never heard of the concept until Expo. Loopy training basically means that you have a very consistent and fluent “loop” of behavior-click-reward-behavior-click-reward. You can see this in the Kay Laurence video below; this is what loopy looks like.

Related to shaping, I really was struck by this: don’t wait for a behavior that doesn’t exist. Wait until the behavior you want is already occurring due to variation before making it a clickable criterion. Shape the criterion when the behavior you want is already happening.

Game On! Train or Be Trained – Part 1, Jesus Rosales-Ruiz & Mary Hunter

This was a lab in which we played PORTL, a shaping game. We paired up and one person was learned and one was trainer; the trainer had to shape the learner to do a behavior. I chose to be the learner; I wanted to experience what my dog’s experience!

The original behavior was for me to push the bell. This led to a really critical question: is the behavior truly learned? Did the learner learn the behavior that you think you trained? I thought the behavior was moving the bell. I pushed the bell a few times so my trainer thought I had learned the behavior. This would lead to intense frustration if a cue was added!

Since it took less than 10 reps for me to push the bell, and we thought I had learned the behavior, we decided to try something more complicated. This highlighted how critical the order of operations is when creating a shaping plan. Granted, my trainer didn’t have much time to think through the plan since we did this spontaneously!

The criteria must be in a sequence that is logical to the learner based on their learning experience and motor patterns. I was supposed to flip over a hollow seahorse toy and place the bell in side of it. Our shaping plan went like this: touch bell, move bell, pick up bell, place bell on seahorse, touch seahorse, pick up seahorse with bell on it….confusion. I had no idea I was supposed to flip over the seahorse. We decided that an ideal plan would have been for me to flip over the seahorse first, and then reinforce me for touching the bell. This relates to a conversation I had with Jesus where he said, “train action before discrimination.” So “pick it up” before “the red giraffe”.

The ultimate goal is errorless teaching, which you can see in the video below.

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Posted by on February 24, 2017 in Training



Notes from ClickerExpo Portland: Friday

I finally got to go to ClickerExpo and it was an incredible learning experience! You should go if you can, or buy the VODs.

A Moment of Science: Clicker Training 101, with Kathy Sdao

Intermittent schedules of reinforcement reinforce a subset of behavior. Outside of a lab their only use is to make a behavior resistant to extinction; for example increase the frequency of the behavior in your absence (SAR dog alerting). Use continuous R+ to make a behavior resistant to change.

Uh, what? You mean all this time I’ve been worried about putting behaviors on a VSR and I DIDN’T NEED TO??? My mind was blown by this. I went back to our hotel room to walk Ava with Josh and spend the whole time enthusiastically gesticulating while exclaiming how relieved I was by this discovery. Continuous reinforcement is easy. VSR are irritating and use too much of my brain.

Building Behaviors: Shape the Future, Laura VonArendonk Baugh

I tend to lump behaviors and forget that my dog isn’t a mind reader. They have no idea that my goal is for them to, say, put their front feet on that pot and pivot their rear in a circle. They’re just sitting there like, “uh, is this thing over here important?”

One of the key reminders I got from this session is that the key to amazing shaping is being a good observer. The video below shows the puppet made for the Warhorse theatrical performance, and it moves so realistically because the puppeteers spent so much time observing horses moving that they can replicate it exactly. This is the kind of observation required for effective shaping. If I’m shaping Touch I need to look for movement in the neck and shoulders, not the nose.

The other thing is that I never knew what to do if my dog skipped a step. What I learned is that it depends. If he skips a step due to luck and doesn’t make progress from there, go back to what he knows. If he skips a step and keeps progressing, keep going! He didn’t need those steps in between.

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Posted by on February 17, 2017 in Training



Teaching self-control

Two months ago we realized that Ava had gotten a little spoiled: she got everything she wanted with very little work on her part. Partly she charmed us and partly we just let it slide (it happens to the best of us when life gets hectic). Fortunately we caught on to the error of our ways before it became a problem and I came up with this list of games, behaviors, and practices to help Ava develop self-control and frustration tolerance.


Look at that face… Can you blame us?


I work to cultivate a culture of politeness with my dogs and these behaviors encourage that. These are not intended to inhibit the expression of behavior or stop the dog from being a dog; think of these behaviors as “please”, “thank you”, and “may I?” I firmly believe in letting dogs be dogs as long as they follow the household rules!

  • Default Sit/Wait to get resources: meals, outside, out of a crate/car, petted, treats, toys, play, cuddles, etc.
  • It’s Yer Choice: beginning with food and working up to toys, people, environmental reinforcers, etc; this is similar to Doggie Zen or Leave It but with It’s Yer Choice there’s no cue and instead it becomes a default behavior. Get the free ebook at the link above, you can always unsubscribe from her emails later.
  • Dog being annoying? Teach Enough! I’ve found this to be incredibly effective even for demand barking
  • Crate Games DVD or see it in action on YouTube; you can build It’s Yer Choice into this
  • Dr. Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation
  • Put relaxation on cue: watch this video from KikoPup, or read Control Unleashed or the Ahimsa Dog Training Manual
  • Look at That! from Control Unleashed (Leslie McDevitt) teaches dogs to calmly notice things in their environment
  • Mark & Move from BAT (Grisha Stewart) is similar to Look at That but builds on it with the second step of disengagement from the trigger; also differs in that the dog gets two reinforcers: increased distance from the trigger plus food
  • Go to Mat: give you dog a job and a safe place all at the same time, plus you can use stationing later in conjunction with other behaviors (i.e. polite greeting, dinnertime manners, etc)
  • Give: give me the thing in your mouth
  • Drop It: drop whatever is in your mouth
  • Leave It: don’t interact with that
  • Off: get off of that/them
  • Wait: stay there for a few seconds
  • Basic obedience (sit, down, stand, stay, loose leash walking)
  • Polite greetings for people and for dogs
  • Play the games they want to play (tug, fetch, etc) but play by your rules. Ava loves to play fetch and will run up to me with her latex dragon toy. I take hold of it and say “Give”; she has 5sec to give it to me, otherwise I ignore her. When she does give I praise and sometimes immediately toss the toy for her to chase. Usually I’ll hold the toy away from me and wait for her to make eye contact with me before I toss it.If she ever puts teeth on me, even by accident, I instantly end the game and withhold the toy until she’s calm for 5sec.
  • Enforce timeouts and have a timeout area prepared. We use an x-pen that has a bed and a couple toys in it. I put Ava in timeout when play is ramping up too much or when she ignores Wally’s cutoff signals. Timeouts should only last as long as it takes for the dog to settle into a calm state.
  • Exercise! A daily walk plus a daily training session goes a long way towards making a puppy/dog easy to live with. Do note that I don’t mean exhaustion — too much exercise can do more harm than good, especially for puppies.
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Posted by on January 24, 2017 in Training


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New clickers are rocking my world!

Recently I picked up some new clickers, for no particular reason. Actually, I think I noticed that my dog trainer friend Sandi uses them, and then I was spending a lot of time on Karen Pryor’s website, which has sidebar advertisements for them. When I looked on Amazon I saw that I could get five of them for about $8, and since I have Prime it was free shipping. Why not?!

I’m so glad I tried these out because they. are. awesome. It seems like such a minor and silly thing to be in love with a clicker, but really this little doodad is fundamental to the success of our training. How well my clicker works and how well I use it will make or break my training success. Until now I had been using box style clickers, you know the ones with the thumb tab that you press down. I didn’t know what I was missing out on until I switched!

The i-Click is awesome for two main reasons.

  1. The button. I’m no longer limited to clicking with only my thumb in a very specific position; now I can use any finger, my palm, or whatever I happen to slap the button with from any angle. This has worked wonders for my timing! As it turns out my thumb isn’t my most reflexive finger, which has caused delays in my click or made me miss a click altogether. Apparently my brain and my thumb aren’t connected by a neurological super highway, but my ring and middle fingers are. Even if they weren’t, the button allows me to simply squeeze my hand and get a click, no need for precision finger work. Plus it allows me to click ambidextrously since I’m no longer limited to the thumb (I’m right handed, and my left thumb is definitely no more accurate than my right one).
  2. The curved body. This shape and size fit perfectly in my hand, which makes it much easier to handle a clicker, leash, treats, and whatever else all at once. Plus it just feels nicer. Now I can easily hold a target and the clicker in one hand while treating with the other.

It boils down to better clicking = better timing = faster behavior acquisition = YAY!

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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Training


We’re training again!

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I did any serious training with the dogs. Like 2 years for Wally, and never for Fiona. Sure, we have worked on little things here and there but it was spotty. Before I moved to CA in 2012 Wally and I were doing weekly competition obedience lessons with Cathy Soule and loving it. Somehow, between then and now, I lost the spark for serious training and just wanted to be with my dogs. But that got annoying because, while adorable, they had both developed (or came with) bad habits.


Now we’re back to planned weekend training jaunts, which leave the dogs happily exhausted

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time at reading the library articles and getting inspired. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the huge number of behaviors I want to train each dog, so it’s nice to read stories about how easy it is to do if you just invest the little bit of time. For me the hardest part is balancing everything else in my life since I tend to be an all or nothing kind of gal. When I do Crossfit (oh yeah, have I mentioned I have a home Crossfit gym?) I am all in and doing almost daily hour-long workouts that leave me feeling so good. But then I don’t train the dogs. When I’m training dogs I spend all my time that I’m not actually training reading about training or adding new books and toys to my Amazon wishlist. But then I don’t workout. Balance is hard.

So what are we doing? I have many great aspirations, but truth be told I just want well-behaved dogs. The catalyst for this resurgence is that I had become totally irritated with the poor manners of my own dogs and I realized that if they were Cane Corsi (a breed I had previously) this would have never been allowed to happen because it couldn’t happen. Bad behavior in small dogs is easier to make excuses for because it’s easy to physically remove them from a situation or just get used to it. If Wally weighed 150lb and was dragging me down the sidewalk, it would be a way different story. At one point I was gunning for Rally but I realized this was a leap too far. Instead we’re going to shoot for CGC titles!

Lately we’ve been working on…

  • Loose leash walking with the Gentle Leader: this thing has saved my life and I chalk up a lot of my renewed interest to this device. I can enjoy walks again and we’re able to make faster progress in LLW. When I was showing Wally I didn’t want to use it because it wears on his facial hair (which is ever so important on a show dog) but now I don’t care. I’d rather have a dog I can happily walk than a dog with profuse facial hair.
  • Automatic eye contact: I found this at and can’t wait until we have achieved it!
  • Disc game: This is with Fiona only, and is a lot like the 100 Things to Do with a Box game, which I did with Wally. That game is actually how I shaped Wally to Sit! She’s doing it with one of those inflatable balance discs since I didn’t have any boxes handy. You can even do it with a Solo cup!
  • Lollipop Stick: this is a targeting exercise that I learned from Cathy, utilizing a racquetball that’s been impaled on the end of a dowel rod.
  • Pop Sit: This is with Wally only and is something we were working on with Cathy. Basically I’m trying to retrain his sit into a forward-tuck instead of a rock-back. Look, I finally found an article that explains this!

Of course there are many, many other behaviors I want to train but you have to start somewhere. It’s so hard to focus on just a handful at a time when there’s an endless list, but the reality is that until we have these on cue and consistent, they aren’t really in our arsenal.

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Posted by on October 13, 2014 in Training

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