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!