Thursday, October 4, 2007

Cue Discrimination

One of the things I love about clicker training is that it encourages the student to try different behaviors without fear of being corrected for the wrong response. If I am teaching my dog to sit and she lies down instead, I don't do anything. I don't scold, place her in a sit or pop her collar. Nor do I praise, click, or reward her. I do absolutely nothing, which tells her she didn't get the behavior right. So she keeps trying other things in order to figure out what will make me click and give her a reward. Some animals will go through an amazing array of behaviors. This frustrates some people, but I always explain to my human students that it really means the dog is happy and comfortable in training and with continued work the dog will learn to associate "sit" with putting her bottom on the ground and nothing else.

Sometimes instead of trying a bunch of new behaviors, a dog will incorrectly link a couple of behaviors. I had an adorable Cardigan Welsh Corgi in my puppy class. We were working on "puppy push ups" - an exercise where the dog is cued to sit and lie down in rapid succession. The corgi knew "down" and he knew "sit", but he also knew that they'd been working on "roll over". So whenever he was asked to lie down from a seated position, he'd roll over before settling into the down. It was adorable, but his owners were embarrassed. After all, he was supposed to just do sits and downs! I explained that this is pretty normal behavior for a clicker trained dog and not to worry. If they worked on the sit and down separately and then only rewarded when he went from one to another without the roll over, he would learn the difference.

In our efforts to teach BabyBug to be polite, we've taught her to link a few responses that shouldn't be linked. It started off with saying "bless you" after people sneezed...or coughed...or cleared their throats. Then she started saying "thank-you-you're-welcome" whenever someone did something for her. Most people find this charming, but it embarrasses my husband a bit. I keep explaining to him 1) it's good that she does it at all, even if she sometimes gets it wrong and 2) she will learn to discriminate between the situations so she uses the proper phrase at the proper time.

Sure enough, on Saturday morning we were having a cuddle fest on the big bed and Bug gave me a kiss. I said "thank you" and she appropriately responded with "you're welcome" for the first time. Later on she thanked me for something without tacking "you're welcome" on to the end. She still forgets sometimes and combines the two, but she's started to understand the difference. And really, it makes me kind of sad. It was an adorable misunderstanding and she's just growing up so darned fast!

Self Control

Having a collie means that I have to deal with a fair amount of chasing, circling, and barking. Well, more than a fair amount of barking, really. Collies are freakin' loud when they want to be! Havana seems to have a hard time thinking when she's barking, so I've been trying to teach her some self control, but let her have fun, too. I don't want to completely suppress a natural instinct that she clearly enjoys.

I wish I could remember where I first heard of this particular self control exercise. It might have been Suzanne Clothier, although it pairs well with what Patricia McConnell, among other trainers, suggest in teaching paired commands. Havana and I go out to a large area and I get her all riled up - it doesn't take much! We play together while she leaps, lunges, barks, and whips around in circles and I egg her on. Then all of a sudden I stop dead and tell her "enough". Nothing she can do will entice me to play after I've told her "enough" and if she gets bratty, I will tell her to down. As soon as she quiets, I tell her to "get wild" again and we go back to our loud, rambunctious play. Then I tell her "enough" and she has to quiet and again, her reward for quiet is to get crazy. We repeat this several times and she never knows when it will end, but when it does it ends on a good note.

The change in Havana has been nice. She's catching on to the idea that there is a time and a place for barking and a time and a place for being quiet. The contrasts help her to accept quiet time a lot better, especially since she doesn't know if she'll be able to go crazy again or if the game is over. The not knowing seems to make her want to comply more quickly, which is exactly what I want.

After a few disastrous shopping outings with BabyBug, I decided to try something similar with her. As we walked between stores at an outdoor mall I told her that we could get our screamies out when we're outside, but inside the store we had to be quiet and polite. Then I asked "Do you have any screamies inside?" She nodded, so I said "You'd better let them out!" and we both released some screamies as we walked. Then I stood outside the store and asked if she had any more inside. She said she did, so I told her to let them out. We did repeat this about 3 times, but then she was ready to go into the store. And lo and behold, she was actually quiet! We went on to the next store and repeated our activity. Again, a relatively quiet toddler in a women's shoe store! Every once in awhile she'd start to get loud and I'd remind her that being loud is for outside. Then I had to remember to remind her to be loud when we got outside the store. It doesn't work as well if you set up guidelines for when to be loud and crazy and then never work within those guidelines.

This plan can backfire. I didn't bother to do a screamie check last week before going into a craft store, one of the places she's been obnoxious in the past. Sure enough, we get to the middle of the store and she starts shrieking just for the fun of it. I was mortified. So now I need to remember to go through our little routine before entering key stores. I really don't mind, though. If standing outside of a store doing some little shrieks and the occasional meltdown in the store are the price I pay for more frequent good shopping trips, I'm happy to do it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

If you love it, let it free...

When I teach puppy socialization classes I tell my students to try to ignore the puppies during off-leash play time. Yes, get involved if the puppies need them, but otherwise let them be dogs for 15 minutes a week. This is hard for some people. It's hard for some dogs, too. In every class there is one dog who will stick to their person and not move. They may be interested in the other puppies, but for whatever reason they want to stay near their human. Sometimes the student is flattered and doesn't try very hard to encourage the dog to play. Other students will try to get the puppy engaged in the group, but in either case the student usually feels at least a bit flattered that the puppy choses them over canine playmates.

All flattery aside, a puppy does need to learn to deal with other dogs in a positive way. Not every dog has to play with every dog it meets, but an "emotionally healthy" dog should appropriately deal with the presence of another dog. The best way to foster this is to allow puppies to play with other puppies in a safe, controlled environment - i.e. a well-run puppy play session. By this I mean puppies are divided according to play style and sometimes by size or age and the instructor is actively involved in preventing bullying, redirecting potentially aggressive play, and praising positive play behavior. Just throwing a bunch of puppies together and letting them go wild for minutes on end is not helpful to any puppy.

Then there are the students who call their puppies out of appropriate puppy-play for whatever reason - usually because they just can't help themselves. Often it's because the puppy is so cute they want to be a part of what's going on. Other times, though, I think if I picked the brain of the student I would find that they can't imagine the thought of their puppy having fun without them - their human - being involved. In other words, the human is jealous. After all, the puppy usually looks to them to have all needs met, especially entertainment. And now that puppy is having fun while excluding the human. That's a tricky adjustment for the human. (And one not every human tries to get over, but that's a different issue...)

Imagine my surprise last night when I found myself experiencing that jealousy. Only instead of calling my dog away from fun and appropriate play so I could be included, it was my 2 year old daughter I was calling away! We attended an indoor-water park birthday party and Bug was having the time of her life. The birthday girl is a 3 year old who is Bug's first good friend and Bug loves to follow her around and copy her. I've been so pleased that Bug has someone her own age to play with since her life is very full of a variety of adults but no one her age.

So why did I keep calling Bug's attention away from her friend and toward whatever I wanted to show her? The best I could figure out is that I was jealous! Yes, part of it was because I am very used to being Bug's Number One playmate, but there was an underlying jealousy factor as well. If Bug has other friends, friends her own age, will she still find me as fun and exciting as she has for the past 2 years? Because it's a big ego boost to be considered as hilarious and entertaining as my daughter considers me.

Once I realized what I was doing to Bug I was able to take a step back and let her interact freely with her friend, as long as what they were doing was safe. Unfortunately the damage was done. Yes, Bug would play with her friend, but she wanted me along as well and would look to me before looking to her friend for the next activity.

Like puppies, children need to interact with others their own age, as well as adults, in order to have the social skills necessary to function in the world. Actually, I'd argue it's more important for children to have playmates and unstructured playtime since they pretty much have to interact with other people as they get older. At least an anti-social dog can be kept away from all other dogs, although that's not much of a life for the dog which is why I advocate puppy socialization as much as I do.

Now I know the error of my ways and will hopefully improve the next time Bug has a play date. It's not easy, but if I love my child, and I truly do, I need to give her some freedom to explore and learn from others her own age. I hope that in the long run it will foster a friendship between us as she becomes an adult. Or at least not send her to the therapist's couch for decades of therapy...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mama said there'd be days like this...

Last Wednesday didn't start out as a bad day. Sure, BabyBug woke up earlier than usual which put my schedule off a bit, but no big deal. Unfortunately that just got the ball rolling.

Bug was clingy at home, so we got to my Mom's late. Then Bug decided to throw an enormous crying fit as I started to leave, something she's never done before at Mom's. Between that and the slow construction vehicle I got stuck behind, I was late to my tracking lesson. Not an unusual occurrence, to my chagrin, but still annoying.

Ran the dogs home and DH was gone, so I put Havana in her crate since she still chews on things from time to time. Walked 2 client dogs, "treated" myself to a 20 minute lunch break at home since I'd forgotten the grocery list, walked my last dog, did the shopping and ran to the eye doctor. And sat. And sat. And sat. They dilated my eyes and I still managed to read 50 pages of my novel before the doctor came. 90 minutes later I was running to get BabyBug and wishing that I had time to make meatloaf since I desperately wanted comfort food.

I walked into the house and was hit with a horrible smell. Ran to check all of the corners Cousteau had access to and didn't find anything. Then it hit me and I ran to Havana's crate. It was covered in poop and so was she. By the time I'd realized she was filthy she'd already run through 1/2 the house, so I let her go the rest of the way outside. Bug wanted to "help" clean up and DH couldn't understand why I was less than pleased.

After cleaning the floors and the crate I'm really, really running late and I had to pick up a rain barrel. The original plan was to get that then come home for the dogs, but since Havana needed a bath, that wasn't going to happen. Cousteau had to stay home from my Bringing Home Baby class and Havana and the rain barrel got squeezed into the car.

Needless to say, class started late and Havana kept whining through the whole thing which was mortifying. We got through class - at least she was a good demo dog - and I let her have run of the room after everyone had left, went to the hallway for less than a minute, and came back to an enormous pile and puddle in the classroom. Hence the reason she was crying...

I finally got home and dragged my tired, coming-down-with-a-cold self to bed. DH still was giving me a wide berth and couldn't understand my vile mood. I turned out the light and thought to myself "at least today is over!"

Why bother writing about a crappy day? It wasn't the worst day I've had and it wasn't the best, it was just one of those days. But in retrospect, I realize that my crappiest day is still better than a lot of people's good days. As I told my husband when he asked me to say something good about today (I hate it when people use your words against you!), I love my husband and I love my baby. And they love me. And as icky as the day was, if I was told I could give up my baby and my dogs and never have to have a bad day again, I'd still keep it all - the baby, the dogs, and the headaches.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Patience is a virtue, Mama.

I remember feeling so frustrated when I couldn't get Havana to lie down on command in Puppy class. Or in Puppy 2 for that matter. For crying out loud, I'm an instructor and I can't get my dog to lie down without a lure?! However, with life being as busy as it is, I didn't devote a lot of time to downs when I wasn't in class. One day I made the concerted effort to teach Havana down without the lure and boom! She understood! What on Earth happened?

I suspect it was a combination of Havana maturing and something called "latent learning". Basically, Havana learned down but not exactly how to use it in every day life. Then one day the connections were made and she understood. And a bonus for me, not only did she understand down, but she will do it from a nice distance.

What I think helped is that I started requiring a down in more high value situations. If she wanted to get out of her crate she had to down, if she wanted a treat or to come in from outside or before I'd throw a ball for her she had to lie down. The reward was great and this helped her to process the idea from a latent state to a relevant and current state.

BabyBug has done the same thing to me numerous times. In particular I remember saying to my Mom after Bug's 18 month check up that I didn't think Bug's speech was progressing as quickly as it should. The doctor wasn't concerned and I wasn't extremely worried, but it was a thought in the back of my head. Mom recently reminded me of that conversation after Bug had finally taken a breath after talking for about two minutes straight.

Like Havana, I used Bug's interests to help develop her skills. Bug is fascinated by butterflies, dogs, and vehicles so when she would see those things I would say things like "The butterfly is flying" or "Did you see the truck? Can you say 'truck'?" Many times she would just look at me and then go back to watching whatever without acknowledging what I said. Then a few days or weeks later she would belt out "Tluck! Biiiiiiiig tluck!" as soon as she saw a truck without any coaching from us.

As Havana has gotten better with downs I've been able to use them in more and more challenging situations. She was a brat at the dog park one day and I called to her to lie down and she dropped. She would down and stay for longer and longer during meal times. Havana has now progressed to the point where I can usually get a down out of her in high arousal situations like working sheep or in flyball.

Bug has been able to use her words in more challenging situations, too. Now instead of just a "big tluck" it's a "Big white tluck drive by Nana's house" or most recently "I do not watch to watch this TV". She won't be going on the public speaking circuit anytime soon, but she definitely is not speech delayed, either.

Patience may not be one of my strong points, but I'm learning to wait it out and find ways to support emerging skills without worrying that they'll never happen. Of course I'm aware of approximate milestones and know to consult a professional if there seems to be a problem, but if the professionals aren't worried, I'll try not to worry as well.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Nothing to fear but fear itself...

Cousteau is largely a fearless dog. I can really only remember one time that he was frozen in fear and that's when he saw a mylar balloon as a puppy. He froze in the middle of a busy intersection while commuters, ummm, encouraged us out of the road. I was so amused that my big, tough dog was scared of something as simple as a balloon that I burst out laughing. Cousteau had long since figured out that laughter was a good thing so as I chuckled my way over to the balloon he was willing to brave a sniff. Then he tried to eat the balloon...

Havana is a more aware dog. She's supposed to be, she's a herding dog. Still, I'm not a fan of her spooking at things she's been fine with before, nor do I want to encourage wariness around new things. I learned my lesson from Cousteau - when Havana shies away from something I look at her and say "It's nothing to be afraid of, silly girl" in a matter of fact tone of voice. I can usually get a laugh out, too, which further reassures her that the scary thing probably won't kill her. She'll never be as blase about things as Cousteau is, but she's learned to take her cues from me and react less to things she might otherwise be afraid of.

There have been a few times when something or someone has startled me and I jumped or otherwise reacted before I thought. I'm normally a pretty jumpy person, too. When my first reaction is one of caution or a startle response, I have a much harder time convincing Havana that whatever is present is no threat to her. With practice I've gotten much better at taking a breath before reacting so I can re-evaluate how I want to respond.

Now my BabyBug is like Cousteau in her fearlessness, but I know there are a few things that upset her. One of these things is loud, unexpected noises. The first time my Dad drove his Harley up the driveway near her she just about lost it. It took a lot of fast talking from my mom and I to convince her that the Harley is fun, not scary. She's still not crazy about that classic Harley sound close to her, but she enjoys picking motorcycle sounds out whenever we're outside.

Remembering Bug's reaction to the unexpected Harley noise, I was prepared when we were running errands and a thunderstorm came up. The first crash of thunder sounded and as Bug whipped her head around to see my reaction, I started quoting from Dr. Seuss' book Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? "BoomBoomBoom! Mr. Brown is a wonder. BoomBoomBoom, Mr. Brown makes thunder!" Between my silliness and the memory of a favorite book, she relaxed. By the end of the storm she would hear the thunder and gasp in delight shouting "BoomBoomBoom!" waiting for me to finish the quote.

Fortunately Bug isn't quite as in tune to me as Havana is. I did startle her earlier this week while we were weeding. I pulled a weed and a clump of dirt jumped. Being jumpy by nature, I squealed and hopped back. Bug looked at me with concern and I figured out it was a toad and not mutant mud on the attack. I explained to Bug "I wasn't expecting that silly toad to jump. He surprised me!" After showing her the toad, who then got the heck out of there (smart toad - Bug likes to hug and kiss everything that catches her attention), she was completely over her concern about my reaction.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Food Fights?

Now, I'll admit I have a Lab who eats everything, so I've never really had to experience the frustation of a dog who tries to starve himself. However, the cairn terrier I had growing up would just randomly decide she wasn't hungry. One day she'd eat all of her kibble, the next she'd take a bite or two and that was that, then maybe she'd eat only half of her food for the next week. My parents never let us get upset about it. She ate what she ate and it was offered between 5 and 5:30 pm - whatever she didn't eat was just put away and fed the next day. She lived to be 16 years old and weighed exactly 12 lbs her entire adult life. She was still up to doing 5 mile hikes at the age of 12, so apparently she knew what she was doing when it came to eating.

Havana is slightly more discriminating than Cousteau. My dogs eat a raw diet and the first time I introduced lamb it sat in her dish for awhile. I gave her 15 minutes and whatever was still there was placed back in the fridge until the next meal. That evening she ate it all just fine. We went through the same thing with pork and again, one after one missed meal she decided the new food wasn't so evil. Organ meat is a different story. If organs aren't mixed in with her food, she won't eat them plain.

I repeated the "take up the dish until the next meal" routine with organ meat on top of her other food. Nope, she ate around the organs again. I've offered them to her on several different occasions and each time she looks into the bowl, looks at me, then eats everything she can without touching the organ blend. She just doesn't like them!

Now, I could get worried about this - after all, dogs are supposed to like organ meat. In fact, in a home prepared raw diet, organs are essential. I could spoon feed the organs to her, force feed them, saute them in olive oil and garlic, beg and cry, or find a way to hide the organs so she will eat them. I've elected to hide her organ meat. And if she doesn't eat it a time or two, she's not going to keel over and die. My meals aren't all perfectly balanced, but I do achieve a balanced diet over time. My feeding methods seem really harsh to some people, but it works for me and my dogs are all very healthy.

I employ the same basic philosophy for feeding BabyBug. Granted, her meat is cooked instead of raw, but overall, I'm not going to cater to her every dietary whim. For the most part, Bug's attitude toward food is the same as Cousteau's (the hazards of a baby's first solid "food" being Lab fur, I guess). Sometimes she just isn't hungry, or she is feeling picky. Thankfully a friend told me that toddlers can be like that sometimes so I knew not to worry too much the first time it happened.

What we do with Bug is pretty simple. Whatever is on her plate is what she's offered that meal. If she doesn't want it, she doesn't have to eat it, but I'm not going to keep offering her foods at that meal until she does eat. She can sit at the table with us and we'll offer her bites from time to time, but if she refuses, it's not a big deal. And when she says she's done, we let her be done regardless of how much she's eaten.

Generally speaking, Bug likes to try new foods, especially if Momma and Daddy are clearly enjoying it. (This is another way Bug and Cousteau are so much alike!) I always encourage her to eat one bite of everything on her plate and if she doesn't want it after that, then she doesn't have to eat it. This is different from my house growing up where the rule was "clean your plate or you don't get dessert", even if the meal was pot roast, mashed potatoes, and lima bean succotash - yech!!! But I was going to choke that down for the promise of a cookie afterwards. It's not my parents' fault - that's what children were expected to do back then - but I have just recently taken off 30 lbs and had to re-evaluate how I eat. I figured out a big part of my problem was the eating habits I learned as a child. So we never force Bug to clean her plate. And as a result, at her 18 month check up, the nurse looked over Bug's records and double checked her weight and said it was unusual for an 18 month old to gain weight from the 12 month check up. Bug's weight is perfect for her height, but even though she's *extremely* active, she eats enough to make up for the expended calories. The nurse was impressed. :)

I will add that I always have something I know she will eat on her plate. If we're trying something new with her - like pork chops - and I don't know how she'll feel about them, I will put a few pieces of pork on her plate, but be sure to have something like corn or cheese on her plate, too. That way if she truly doesn't like the pork but is hungry, she still has something she enjoys eating to fill her up. I also introduce a food several times. For months Bug would have nothing to do with chicken, but every time I made chicken I would place a bite on her plate and encourage her to eat it. She would refuse. Last month, after at least 10 refused chicken offerings, she ate the meat off of an entire chicken leg! She still isn't a big chicken eater, but whenever she takes a bite we let her know we're happy she's trying something new and leave it at that.

By taking a "she'll eat when she's hungry" approach for my dog and my baby, both of whom I know have no medical problems, meal times are a lot less stressful than they would be if I obsessed over what was and was not going into her mouth. It makes meal times much more fun for everyone.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Extinction Burst

When Cousteau was about 18 months old he developed a terribly annoying habit of barking wildly and jumping at me whenever he wanted something, like the tennis ball or a treat. I read up and realized that Cousteau was doing something called a "demand bark" - essentially demanding whatever it was he wanted by being obnoxious. The best way to deal with this is to ignore the dog during that bad behavior, then redirect or do what the dog wanted when he calms down.

The problem with ignoring the dog is if he doesn't get what he wanted by barking, he's going to continue barking harder and harder and being more and more obnoxious, because barking and being a brat is what worked in the past. Sort of like when my husband tried to control the TiVo when the remote had dead batteries. Pushing the buttons always got what he wanted in the past, so he kept trying it, with slight variations before finally trying something different. The key is to *not* give into the bad behavior while it escalates, since it will eventually stop and the dog will try something new. This is called an extinction burst in the psychology world. If you do give in at the height of the extinction burst, you've made your job that much harder, since you just taught that job that if at first he doesn't succeed, try, try, try again.

Within about 3 weeks, Cousteau stopped demand barking, since every time he barked, I turned my back and walked away from him. He very rarely barks now since sitting politely and looking tends to get him what he wants much more quickly. Don't get me wrong, it was a long 3 weeks. I got several bruises and scratches from his annoying display and the neighbors thought we'd really lost it, but in the end it was so worth it.

Tonight we experienced a case of demand "barking" and an extinction burst with BabyBug. The child is addicted to Elmo, much like I'm addicted to chocolate chip cookies. In both cases, they're wonderful and we'd both indulge all day, but neither addiction is good for us. Bug walked into the living room, sat down, and requested Elmo. I told her "No. No Elmo today." Her Daddy walked into the room and she again requested Elmo. He told her "No. Momma says no Elmo today." From that point on, Bug pleaded, demanded, screamed, and shrieked about Elmo. Over and over ElmoElmoElmoElmoElmoElmoElmo. Then she got crafty and started getting into trouble in the hopes we'd put on Elmo to distract her. That didn't work, so she went back to shrieking Elmo.

This wasn't fun by any means, but there was no reason to turn the TV on in the middle of such a nice day. DH and I kept looking at each other and trying not to grimace or laugh, depending on what method Bug was using to cajole us, but other than repeating "No. No Elmo today." we ignored her.

Finally our persistance paid off and Bug found something else to do. She sorted a toy set for awhile and then brewed some tea for her Daddy and I. Then we read a couple of Elmo books. :) It was a sweet day and we wouldn't have had that if we'd given in let her watch TV. And with any luck, she's starting to learn that when Momma and Daddy say "no", we do mean it. A mom can hope, right?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Be Careful What You Wish For...

I hate puppies. Really. They're great when they belong to someone else and I can pet them and watch them play and then they go somewhere else, but I'd rather not have a puppy in my home. Ironically, last summer I brought a puppy into my home. While I prefer a completely untrained, full grown adolescent dog any day of the week, I knew I wanted a performance pet and I stood a better chance of getting that with a puppy than a rescue dog. Don't get me wrong, rescued dogs can be awesome performers, but for a variety of reasons, I got a collie puppy. I don't regret getting her, I just wish she'd been born an adolescent and skip the whole puppy thing.

Puppies are some of the most adorable things on this planet, for the first 5 months or so. Then they start to look like adults and act like teenagers with sharp teeth. They still tend to pee on everything, may not be sleeping through the night yet, and have the attention span of a gnat with ADHD.

While my Havana was adorable, she was also all of the above. She'd pee on the floor and I'd say "I can't wait until you're 7 or 8 months and have a big enough bladder to hold it better." She'd go into the show ring and wiggle around and I'd say "I wish you were older already so you'd be less wiggly for the judge." The little beastie still chews on inappropriate things and I say "I can't wait for you to be two when you're more likely to stop that sort of thing." The list goes on and on.

Havana is a year now and much of her annoying puppiness is gone. She still has some problems - like the chewing - that are on going, but at least she's got a bigger bladder and a longer attention span. I don't miss her puppy days at all. If I do, I look at her pictures, remember how cute she was, but also how sharp her teeth were and how much she barked and my puppy pangs are gone. She is a wonderful dog because of her puppyhood and I'm grateful for it, but I'm also grateful those days are a minority compared to the long life I hope we'll have together.

In contrast, I have loved just about every minute of BabyBug's life so far. Even when she gets into tantrums or is sick, I keep telling myself that this won't last forever. And when she is older and gets angry or frustrated, those tantrums are probably going to look pretty good. And she may not want to cuddle with me on the couch when she's sick, so I try to look for the good in the bad times.

I recently caught myself saying "I can't wait for you to be able to really talk." I instantly took it back. I can wait. It's just so much fun hearing her pick the words to formulate her thoughts. Yesterday she realized my husband wasn't in his office and she thought about it for a little bit and said "Bye bye...Daddy. Bye bye." It was neat, much neater than if she was able to say right off the bat "Daddy's not in his office right now. Where did he go?" Those days will come soon enough. These days of exploring language are just so short.

Thinking back, I had to make myself slow down and enjoy her current moments several times. Yes, I couldn't wait for her to roll over, but then she didn't want to nap curled up in my arms on the couch. I wished that she could walk so I didn't have to break my back carrying her all of the time - but then she wouldn't do her funky little Frankenbaby crawl, so I stopped wishing. I knew enough not to wish her into walking too fast after that - after all, then nothing in the house would be sacred! (And it's not...) I was excited for her to eat solid food, but I didn't push it too fast because I was finally enjoying nursing her.

It's ironic that someone who is trying desperately to hold onto every moment of my child's babyhood would wish my dog's puppyhood away so quickly. I'm not sure why it is, but there you go. Whether it's a puppy or a baby, be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it! And if you do, who knows what you'll be giving up in return for the new horizons.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

I recently did a behavior consult with someone who just adopted a puppy from the rescue I work with. The dog has some issues with being left alone. One of the points I really stressed is to make leaving and coming back very low key, even to the point of ignoring the dog apart from a "see ya later". The farewell should be very basic and dull, but the dog should be left with some kind of special treat to enjoy while alone.

The day after the consult I needed to leave BabyBug with my mom. Whenever I leave Bug with a sitter I make goofy faces, dance around waving bye-bye, blow kisses, generally make a fool out of myself. I started doing this the first time I left Bug with my aunt and Bug was a bit alarmed to be left. My aunt was about ready to slug me when I started playing and hiding and popping out again to say "bye bye!", but pretty soon Bug was lauging. Once she was happy I left and she was fine for the evening.

Now, I do know that dogs and children are different creatures, but why does the "bye-bye" game work for Bug and not for my dogs? Why do my dogs prefer that I leave with a "see ya" and a treat while Bug gets upset if that's all I do? After much thought, it became clear - in both cases I've made my leaving a ritual to look forward to. If the dogs only get stuffed Kongs when I leave, then hey, don't let the door hit me on the way out! And Bug gets to play a bit of peek-a-boo, hang out outside for a bit, and show off her waving and kiss-blowing skills when I leave. What constitutes "fun" is different for different creatures, but it's important that being left by the primary caregiver is a fun event and not something to dread.

One other thing that seems to be the same for both dogs and children is to make it known that you're leaving, rather than sneaking off. If you make a habit of sneaking off and then disappearing, you will never be able to go anywhere alone again. Neither dogs nor babies will want to risk you leaving the room for fear that you'll go "poof" - and if you try you'll probably wind up with some screaming.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Work! Work! Work!

My friend's border collie is a workaholic. If he doesn't get to train in obedience or agility every day he literally shakes and whimpers like a scared bird. Sprocket is an extreme example of a dog who needs a job. But really, most dogs need some sort of job to give them something to focus on and use up their energy. When we think of dogs with jobs we tend to think of herding dogs on a ranch, police dogs, service dogs, that sort of thing. But so many things can fulfill a dog's need to do something, but sometimes that job needs to be trained or redirected. Giving a dog a backpack to wear or toy to carry on a walk can help him to walk more nicely on a leash.

Cousteau doesn't have much work. He's basically pretty lazy. His jobs are mainly to clean our peanut butter and yogurt containers for the recycling bin, accepting what the baby does to him (always under supervision), and monitoring doors and window for intruders. When he's on the job you can see it in his eyes that he knows he's helping out. And being told he's a good boy for his work seems to mean more to him than a "good boy" when he brings back a ball during fetch or for sitting. He wants to work with me - he just doesn't want to work to hard to do it!

Some dogs need a job, no matter how simple, just to be able to settle, whether with you or on their own. It's as if they can't quite figure out on their own what needs to be done. Being told that their job is to chew on a toy or lay on their bed is enough to help them understand what is expected of them.

BabyBug is a bit like my friend's border collie. She needs a job. It gives her mind something to do, keeps her out of trouble, and lets her know what we expect of her. One of her first jobs was "close the door". She figured out as soon as she could pull up on things around 9 months that it was fun to open doors. We just didn't want most of those doors opened! So we made it fun to close the door and praised her when she did it. Now she runs around banging the kitchen door closed, closing the fridge door, slamming my head into the dryer, and closing the kitchen cabinets before I'm finished putting things in them. But I'd rather she close all doors than open them with abandon. And in order to close doors she has to key into what Mama and Daddy are doing, so she is engaged with whatever we are doing.

Sometimes giving a dog or a child a job takes longer. Bug likes to help me "fold" laundry. The last batch wound up in the dog's bed. But she is so proud of herself for doing what Mama is doing and she loves it when I praise her for giving me all of the socks or pants. Eventually she'll be old enough to learn to fold and it will only be natural that she help me then since she's helped me all along. I hope she'll come to see little chores like that as just something we all do and as a chance to be together as a family.

It is amazing how settled both Bug and the dogs are when they have their jobs. They have a sense of pride, I have a helper in the making, and the jobs more fun, even if they don't get done faster. I don't mind the extra mess if it means my family is having fun.

Fair Warnings

I am one of the worst canine agility handlers on the face of the planet. Agility is basically an obstacle course for dogs. The human handler gets to walk the course, which is different every time, and plan how to get the dog through in the shortest amount of time possible. I trip over obstacles, forget what they're called, wind up on the wrong side of things, run into my dog, wind up off course, you name it, I've probably done it! I'm working on my skills, especially since my collie puppy Havana has the potential to be a great little agility dog, but it is slow going.

One of the things I've been told - over and over and over again - is to call out the next obstacle as early as possible. Then the dog doesn't have to switch gears from "run full out mode" to "what's the handler want? mode" or worse "well, I'll just figure it out for myself mode". When I manage to give my dog fair warning, we run our course very well. At least until I run into something. When I don't get obstacle names out, I wind up with a dog who either decides to do his own thing (Cousteau) or I get a thorough barking at (Havana).

This has made me think of BabyBug. When she plays, she plays very intensely. Many times she moves from one thing to another so quickly that it's fairly easy to catch her and direct her to what needs to be done without a problem, but not always. I find that if I pick her up without warning when she is absorbed in something - like watching the dog eat or scribbling on the grocery list - there will be a tantrum and I usually end up getting kicked or almost dropping Bug as she does her "I've got no bones" protest.

I read in some child rearing book or another about giving the child a warning that play is going to be ending so they can start to shift gears. It is different from agility in that you are giving a cue ahead of time to shift gears rather than to continue on in the activity, but the end result is the same - a smoother transition. I've been making a point of telling Bug as soon as possible "we need to see Daddy soon" or "in a minute we need to get your coat". She has no concept of time, but she hears "Daddy" or "coat" and she starts to think about what that entails. Even something as simple as saying to her "Can Mama have that?" if I need to take something away from her, rather than just taking it, seems to be enough transition to keep from a tantrum. Usually.Undecided

Slowly making the move...

The posts that are currently showing are posts from my old blog - I've decided to move my blog here for a variety of reasons, but if you just can't get enough of The Dog Trainer's Baby, you'll be able to find new content there, at least for a little while. :)

Thursday, March 1, 2007


When I got Cousteau I read every book I could find in the library on training. It wasn't much and most of the literature was written in the 1970s - what I now know was NOT a good era for dog training. recommended the Monks of New Skete book - what I now know was NOT a good training book! Cousteau spent the first month of his life with us being smacked with a rolled up newspaper, whapped under the chin with my fist, getting forcibly rolled onto his back, being yanked off his feet by his leash, and otherwise generally abused in the manner of "traditional" dog training. Oddly enough, he never seemed to learn anything. In fact, whatever I did to him, he gave me back double. Since I wasn't willing to cut off my puppy's air supply - the next suggestion on the list of ways to get my dog to see me as alpha - it was fortunate that I found a puppy kindergarten class using positive training methods endorsed by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (

It was amazing what I was able to do with positive reinforcement training. Instead of punishing Cousteau for all of the bad things he did - and there were a lot! - I focused on the good things. Or at least the things that weren't bad. If he did something I could live with, I clicked my little clicker box and gave him a treat. Since Cousteau lives to eat, he likes to do what he can to make me click my clicker. When he was bad, which was happening less and less, I ignored the behavior I didn't like unless it was putting one of us in danger. If I had to pay attention to bad behavior, it was with as little emotion as possible. Anger has no place in reprimands or punishment.

Linda Holway was our instructor and she literally saved Cousteau's life. Without her guidance we would probably have given up on him or been bitten thanks to harsh training methods. One of the things she said is that telling a dog "no" is pretty useless in most situations. It's far better to tell the dog what you want him to do because that's specific. "No" covers a pretty broad base. "NO!" = "Don't chew on the chair leg!" Well, what is ok to chew? The couch cushion? The molding around the door? This textbook? "Get your bone" is very specific. It means, get your bone and focus on that.

We started teaching Cousteau what we wanted him to do so there was less room for him to find his own activities. We also spent a lot of time managing his space so he couldn't get into trouble. We puppy proofed the rooms he was allowed to be in, put up gates, taught him to like his crate so he could be safe if we couldn't watch him, and made sure that there was always something appropriate for him to do when he was with us since there was no way he was going to lay quietly at our feet - unless he was systematically destroying something!

During this time I read Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog for the first time. I also read Jean Donaldson's The Culture Clash and Paul Owen's The Dog Whisperer. (Owens is in no way, shape, or form associated with cesar millan the man who harshly trains dogs on the National Geographic Channel.) These books, among others that I've read, have really emphasized to me how well positive reinforcement works on dogs. I was able to take these lessons and use them in my classroom where I was really struggling with a few students. By focusing on finding what was reinforcing for these children and givng them specific behavior that I was looking for in set situations, rather than telling them what was reinforcing and giving them a generic "no" when they screwed up, I was able to end the school year on a really good note.

For the first three months of BabyBug's life discipline was the furthest thing from my mind. Why worry about disciplining someone who eats, sleeps, poops, cries, and if you're lucky, smiles? Then those little fingers started working with a purpose and her brain started figuring out cause and effect. Babies don't come hardwired knowing "no" and my baby is totally unphased by a stern voice and I do not feel that smacking hands or bottoms is the way to go for my child. So, what could I do?!

Well, I looked back to my trial and error with Cousteau. Smacking him did nothing and he couldn't care less about a stern voice, either. What did work was to show him the right thing to do, ignore the bad behavior, and manage what I couldn't ignore. That's what we did with BabyBug. It worked.

When Bug started grabbing Cousteau's whiskers or the cat's tail, we told her "gentle" and demonstrated how to be gentle by petting the animal gently or gently stroking her arm. And we praised her like mad when she did it right. If we'd just told her "no" she wouldn't have known what was not appropriate. Was it the petting? Where she was petting? Which animal she petted? How she was petting? Soon she learned that it was ok to touch the animals if she was "gentle". If she wasn't gentle we managed the situation by sending the animal away or removing Bug from the object of her over-enthusiastic affection. We did the same thing with hair pulling and glasses tugging on her human admirers.

About this same time, Bug started emitting a screech that rivaled Mariah Carey in pitch and volume. It was horrible! The pediatrician told us Bug was experimenting with sound and with cause and effect. "What happens when I screech like this?" In a perfect world we would have completely ignored her and she would have stopped doing it because nothing happened when she did it. Unfortunately the world, my husband, nor I are perfect. We jumped when she startled us, which was pretty funny - for her. We scolded, which she must have thought was either funny or that screeching is how you start a conversation. Finally we made a point of ignoring her, which largely worked. We did resort to a bit of blowing into her face to startle her into being quiet, but we made sure to praise her for being quiet as soon as she was. Thankfully that phase is over. Unfortunately it's been replaced by the Howard Dean holler, but knowing how well ignoring her worked before, we are doing it again and she's getting better.

Managing the environment is one thing that most parents do. We baby-proof our houses, make sure not to take our child to a dangerous playground, try to ensure that only responsible, safe people are around our babies, etc. I do remember at one point, though, asking the pediatrician how to make a 12 month old understand "no", particulary in regards to the light she wanted to pull down on her head. The doctor gave us a sympathetic look and said "maybe that lamp just needs to go away for awhile". Soooooo, in other words manage the environment? Yeah, I can be a little slow sometimes!

One thing I will say about discipline and punishment in dogs and children is to be aware of how you say things. BabyBug has reminded me to say something only once and mean it or else don't say it at all. Saying "No baby. Baby no. Uh-uh baby. Stop." just teaches the child (or the dog) that it is acceptable to ignore you since you are just going to say the same thing over again. Saying "Baby, fingers off the TV" one time and then removing the child from the situation is much more effective. The child learns that you mean what you say as well as exactly what "fingers off the TV" means. It is more work for the parent, but then again, what isn't?! When I do catch myself repeating something over and over I have to poke fun at my mistake. I'll tell either baby or dog "Stop it right now or I'll tell you to stop it again!" Usually I end up giggling which stops the behavior. If it doesn't, then I have marked in my mind what I was doing wrong and I am able to make a change.

Another thing to be aware of is to word things as a statement rather than a question. If I ask my puppy, "Havana, sit?" she knows that my tone of voice isn't authoritative and most likely will not respond. Asking a child "Would you like to put your coat on?" when you mean "Put your coat on" is also not authoritative, even though the child needs to wear a jacket when it is 20 degrees below zero. If there is no choice in the matter, do not give a choice. I catch myself doing this a lot, too. Then I'll say "Wait! Let me rephrase that. Sit." It's far more effective.

Finally (for now - I have lots of thoughts on discipline...) if you have to issue the same punishment more than 3 times for the same behavior in dogs or children, the punishment is not punishing or stopping the behavior, which is the purpose of punishment. The behavior is more rewarding than what you are doing. And to be honest, if you are issuing physical punishment and have had to more then 3 times, it is borderline abuse. The fourth time an infraction occurs you either need to up the level or punishment, or more likely, try a different approach to modify the behavior.

Dogs will be dogs, babies will be babies...

It's taken me awhile to shake that darn Disney image of dogs. Poor Cousteau has had to be uber-dog for most of his life. I expected him to be perfectly behaved, to obey immediately, and never do anything I'd consider gross. Then I happened to go to a Suzanne Clothier seminar. I had heard her speak before and I really enjoy her. We have slightly different views on a dog's role in our lives - i.e. she doesn't believe in making a dog do competition stuff, particularly obedience, whereas I figure if the dog doesn't mind it and I like it, why not do it - but in general she has some great things to say.

Somehow at this seminar we got on the topic of dogs socializing. Suzanne pointed out that even if a dog doesn't like to play with other dogs it must be such a relief to see other dogs just for the comfort of not having to translate "human" all the time. Sort of like when I went to Prague by myself and was so thrilled to encounter a couple of people who spoke English. I didn't even talk to them, it was just nice to not have to think about what I was hearing. I realized that while Cousteau gets to see other dogs all of the time, I wasn't really letting him be a dog around them. That was in part because he was humping every dog he could, but mostly because I didn't think he was acting as I believed a dog should. Hmmmm, a human correcting a dog for not acting in her image of a dog? Wow. How egotistcal!

So I eased up on Cousteau when he was around other dogs while at the same time managing his environment and companions so he could be a dog in a controlled environment. We do not visit dog parks very much anymore because I never know who is going to be there and what kind of dogs will be around and let's face it, people can be pretty ignorant about what they all their dogs to do. I make a point of arranging for Cousteau to play at the training school with dogs I know in a place I know with people I know. It helps me to relax, which helps Cousteau to relax and interestingly enough, his humping has diminished.

I had reason to remember my change of thought with my BabyBug. I was reading that time honored classic What to Expect - The First Year and it was making me very anxious. Bug wasn't hitting milestones - she didn't like playing with toys, wasn't making an effort to make sounds, not responding to music. She was days if not WEEKS off of the "expert" schedule. What could I do to help her catch up on these vital skills that every other child her age had? On the other hand, her balance and motor skills were phenomenal, she was very personable and enjoyed making eye contact and smiles with everyone. How could I make the most of her superior skills? Should we be going to Gymboree or the Little Gym? Should I start contacting modeling and ad agencies? How could I help her live up to her fullest potential?

Thankfully, when you get down to it, I'm basically a pretty lazy person and I like my "me" time. BabyBug and I attended a Kindermusik class when she was 6 months old and we really enjoyed it, but there was no way I was going to fill every day with those kinds of activities! Bug's nap schedule has never been set, she doesn't really enjoy the car, and an hour is a pretty long time for a little girl.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Bug would have strengths and she would have weaknesses. For crying out loud - I'm a huge advocate of Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence theory! ( I can encourage her strengths and help to boost her weaknesses, but it doesn't need to be structured every moment of every day.

This made me think of Cousteau and how happy he was after I let him just be a dog and have some unstructured time. I'd have to say the times when he is the most happy isn't in agility or flyball, which he does seem to enjoy, but when we're in a safe off leash area and the only rule he has is to come into my line of sight when I call him. He can eat dead stuff, chase things he finds, dig, mark, and basically do what dogs do best.

I've stopped worrying about BabyBug's milestones. She's behind on some, ahead on others but as long as she progresses I'm not going to worry. I traded What to Expect to the used bookstore for a Janet Evanovich book (I got the better bargain by far!). And I let BabyBug do what she does best - be a baby. She's only going to be an infant, then a toddler, then a pre-schooler, then a little girl for so long and it's not long enough. And if sitting at the window watching leaves fall or putting Mardi Gras beads in and taking them out of a plastic cup is what makes her happiest at that moment, I'm not going to push her into watching a educational video or playing with a developmentally appropriate toy. She's still learning about her world, but it's at her own pace and it's a lot of fun to watch her take the lead. Her life will be overscheduled soon enough!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Why "The Dog Trainer's Baby"?

I never set out to be the crazy dog lady. I just wanted a dog and my husband wanted a yellow Labrador Retriever like the ones he'd grown up with. So when we got married 7.5 years ago, I bought him a yellow Lab as a wedding gift. At that time I had no idea how much that darn puppy would change my life. I expected a Disney-like Eddie Bauer catalog model. What I got was Satan on four paws with floppy ears.

We took Cousteau to training class out of self defense. It was that or dump him at the shelter door and run. He was still a beast after the first class. And the second. I kept taking classes and soon realized that I enjoyed it. Plus, the things I was learning from my positive reinforcement dog classes worked really well in my 4th grade classroom! I eventually decided that teaching children wasn't for me, but that I really liked teaching people how to train their dogs. I was offered an assistant position at Mad City Dog Training in Madison, WI and I've been an instructor there for almost 5 years now.

Fast forward to 2005. That's when I gave birth to my beautiful baby girl, whom I refer to as BabyBug. Motherhood is the one thing that I've always wanted, ever since I was about 2 and started playing with dolls. Well, motherhood and a cat. Now I have a baby, two cats, and two dogs and I've discovered that they all learn in basically the same way - trial and error. They do what works and stop doing what doesn't work. Behaviors that they've found to be safe they continue, behaviors they perceive as dangerous they discontinue.

Thanks to my great family I had a pretty good sense of what a mother is and what a mother does. I'm the middle of 18 cousins ranging in age from 40 to 5, so there were always babies around for me to smother with affection and my aunts let me. On top of their examples of mothering, I now have several years of experience raising or helping to raise dogs. Dog raising has become as ingrained in me as mothering.

I know some people are terribly offended by my comparing raising my daughter to raising dogs. I see it like this - my daughter and my dogs are all living, breathing, feeling creatures who didn't ask to be a part of my life. I chose them and they didn't get any say in the matter. Sort of a variation on the old "I didn't ask to be born!" As such, I owe it to them to make sure that their lives are as fulfilling as possible. I do different things for each because my dogs are not human and my baby is not a dog. But my dog experience has definitely made me a better person and I'd be a fool not to let whatever can be crossed over benefit my daughter. Hence - The Dog Trainer's Baby: How I Raised My Daughter Like I Train My Dogs.

I've recently begun re-reading Karen Pryor's book Don't Shoot the Dog. I personally feel that everyone should read this book, whether you have any interest in training animals or not. Pryor does a great job of explaining how positive reinforcement works for every sentient creature on the planet - including how she uses it on herself. As I got sucked back into the excitement of basic learning theory (yes, I'm a nerd. Learning theory is exciting to me!), I decided it was time to start putting my thoughts together on how my dogs started making my baby's life better before she was even conceived.