Category Archives: Training

Ava, the non-show dog

A couple months ago I used BreedMate Pedigree Explorer to create a database of Border Terrier bloodlines. This would allow me to easily run Coefficient of Inbreeding (COI) calculations and do hypothetical matings, thus improving my breeding decisions. In the process I ended up tracing Wally and Ava’s bloodlines all the way back to the 1890s.

First of all, wow, the development of the breed saw so much inbreeding and Popular Sire Syndrome. I saw many dogs over and over and over again. Back in the day there were only so many BTs and apparently they all knew each other on a conjugal level. This is common during breed development though, so I wasn’t surprised. It was just fascinating to see genetic concepts actually played out in history.

Secondly, did you know that dogs in the UK rarely have CH titles? As I was looking through the UK pedigrees very few of the dogs had a CH title. To earn a UK CH the dog has to earn three Challenge Certificates (CCs), which is difficult to achieve. A CC all by itself is meaningful and many pedigrees will note if a dog has earned one, even if they never finished. I’ve seen something similar with certain breeds in America, like the Doberman, who face enormous entries and as a result getting points at all is a big deal.

Things have changed over 100+ years but this got me thinking about whether or not CH titles should be as meaningful as we’ve been told they are. For years the refrain has been that “a good breeder puts CH titles on their breeding stock” because “a CH title is a sign of quality.” Sure, it’s a sign of quality but you still have to evaluate the actual dog with your eyeballs. So why are there so many CH-titled breeding dogs in the US and so few in the UK? You could argue that US dogs are higher quality but it’s more likely that an American CH is easier to obtain, for whatever reason.


I don’t always chew, but when I do I prefer bully sticks. I’m the most interesting dog in the world.


I probably wouldn’t have questioned this so much if Ava liked showing, but she doesn’t. As a breeder it was important that I finish her, but as an owner it was critical that I respect her needs. I was advised to “make her to do it anyways” and that “she’ll get used to it”. I disagreed. It was more likely she would no longer trust me to protect her, not to mention she would hate it. I’d have created a lifelong rift so I could earn two tiny letters and a piece of paper.

The better, yet far more time consuming, option was to systematically counter condition and desensitize her to the whole experience, then use +R to train the operant behaviors required for showing. I was pursuing this option until one day I found myself watching Ava goof off, and I finally asked myself, is it worth it to train my dog to do something she hates in order to be a “good” breeder?

The obvious answer is no. It is one thing to ask your dog to do an activity she feels “meh” about, yet it’s quite another to pursue a sport that makes her miserable. This is a common topic amongst agility folks and it should be more common in the conformation world. The quality of my dog isn’t determined by the titles she carries. If I don’t respect her needs and quality of life then I’m not a good breeder, period.

Instead of conformation we’ll do agility, which is a sport Ava adores. Maybe we’ll never trial; maybe she’ll never have any titles, who knows? Either way it’ll be fun to play together.

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Posted by on August 11, 2017 in Other Stuff, Shows, Training


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A follow-up on training fearful show dogs

You remember that blog I posted with a review of the Puppy Culture Rockstar Show Puppies DVDs, and I talked about training Ava for the show ring? I mentioned that it was a challenge to find +R handling classes and that many people in the dog show world subscribe to more traditional views of dog training and behavior.

Recently I found this article by Vicki Ronchette from Positive Training for Show Dogs, Helping Fearful Show Dogs, and repeated “YES” to myself as I read it. She accurately captures my experience of trying to train Ava for the show ring. I had even come up with a training plan very similar to the one she laid out but I couldn’t get any buy-in on it from the instructors I tried. Can you blame me for resorting to DVDs rather than real people?!

You are the expert on your dog. Always do what’s right for your dog, regardless of what a trainer, handler, breeder, friend, etc. tells you. And if they can’t respect that then you probably shouldn’t be asking their advice in the first place.


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Posted by on July 28, 2017 in Shows, Training



Puppy Culture’s Rockstar Show Puppies

Wally was easy to train for the show ring, although in hindsight I would have done some things differently. The biggest problem we had was too much enthusiasm; he was totally confident in the ring and didn’t mind being examined. Fiona was a little less enthusiastic but basically the same way. Ava, however, is different. She’s much more sensitive to sensory input so the show ring is overwhelming. She also prefers to initiate interactions and being examined by a stranger is A Big Deal.

That was only half of the problem though. I know how to train a dog; what I really needed was help troubleshooting Ava’s particular challenges using +R methods. Unfortunately the show world is at least a decade behind the rest of the dog training community and true +R training is far from common. Our regular +R trainer offered solutions but she’s never shown conformation so I was still left with some gaps. I looked for local +R handling classes but couldn’t find anything within an hour’s drive. What to do?

Ever since Puppy Culture came out I’ve kept it on a wish list, waiting until I could justify the $70 price tag. Then I found out that there’s a bundle that includes the PC DVD along with a handful of DVDs on training show behaviors using +R methods. Hello justification! I ordered up the Rockstar Show Puppies Bundle and watched the four DVDs related to showing: Attention is the Mother of All Behaviors, Killer Free Stacks, Stack & Deliver, and Winning in Motion.


Jane Killion uses shaping and luring to train these behaviors, and breaks everything down into incremental steps. Each behavior is demonstrated with multiple puppies and dogs to show how the behavior develops from the first lesson with a 6 week old puppy to a seasoned special with a GCH. She goes over the entire process, some parts in more detail than others, and in the end you get a complete picture of how to take a tiny puppy from a being a Mexican jumping bean to a competitive show dog. And while it’s not a big focus she does cover training for the table, which is critical for table breeds like the Border Terrier.

The target audience for the series appears to be show exhibitors who a) have never used clicker training and/or b) have never trained a show dog. If you’ve trained a lot of show dogs with positive reinforcement methods this series may not help you much. Still you might get something out of it; I did!

Attention is a super simple behavior yet Killion’s approach is pretty novel. Usually the goal is to train the dog to look at the handler but her goal is for the dog to ignore distractions. That seems like it’s just semantics but it makes a big difference! As soon as I saw this DVD I realized I had a solution for Ava’s discomfort with being approached and handled. In the future I’ll be using this method for all of my dogs whether they show or not.


The last two DVDs (Stack & Deliver and Winning in Motion) were the most helpful for me. These two went over more of the “tips and tricks” of handling skills such as how to best display the strengths of your dog while minimizing weak areas. She also discusses things like lead placement, gaiting speed, a few breed specific tips, and multiple small details that really set the pros apart from the novices.

These are all webinars that were recorded for later distribution so there are times when the camera handling or audio is a bit sloppy. On the other hand because they were webinars there are frequent Q&A sessions that provided a lot of the info I found most helpful for my own situation. Killion also discusses and demonstrates a variety of solutions for troubleshooting different issues.

Ultimately I think they were totally worth it. Despite the fact that I already knew most of the material it was incredibly helpful to see someone demo the skills with an actual dog. Plus I picked up a lot of great new info!

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Posted by on July 24, 2017 in Product Review, Shows, Training


Oops, I accidentally sensitized my dog

Terriers are zesty little predators who closely attend to their environment. Is it a critter? Can I chase it? SOMETHING MOVED!

This can easily turn into reactivity if the dog develops a pattern of over-responding to minor stimuli. Ava was doing just that: barking from our deck at people walking by, barking in the backyard when the neighbor dog barked from his deck, etc. This is pretty normal for adolescent dogs but it’s not a good habit. To change it I decided to try strict classical counterconditioning.

How does CC work?

  • Here comes a [thing you don’t like that elicits a negative emotional response].
  • The instant you see that thing I’ll give you this [thing you love that elicits a positive emotional response].
  • Do this a gazillion times until the dog goes, “ooh, thing! I love thing!”

In counterconditioning it doesn’t matter what your dog is actually doing; the only thing that matters is associating the negative conditioned stimulus to something she loves. I see [thing] and I feel happy because [thing] means COOKIES!

So I tried it! After a few weeks we noticed that Ava barks and then immediately turns to us for a cookie. She also goes bonkers in the backyard even when that dog isn’t on his deck. Hmmmmm. I think something went wrong.

I found this video from Dr. Patricia McConnell where she speaks about treating dog-dog reactivity. She mentions that nearly all counterconditioning methods have these things in common: increase distance between dogs, decrease direct approaches, eliminate eye contact, and reinforce appropriate behavior. I would add that management (e.g. barriers) is also important so the dog can’t practice the undesired behavior in your absence.

I wasn’t consistently doing any of those things, which is especially embarrassing since I’m pretty proficient at BAT and have owned a reactive dog. *shaking my head* I also had poor timing and ended up positively reinforcing the undesired behavior. Oops.

I wanted to beat myself up about this but then I thought, what makes people good trainers? They recognize their mistakes and fix them. That’s what I’m doing right now. We’re going to intensely work on the issue using BAT until it’s no longer an issue, and I’ll keep learning.

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Posted by on June 30, 2017 in Training


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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



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