The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently published a revised position statement on animal training. This is a huge step forward to sending the message to caregivers, and to the many dog trainers who continue to use aversive devices and outdated methods, that the use of positive reinforcement is a better way to train dogs.
The BC SPCA does not support the use of devices and techniques that cause anxiety, fear, distress, pain or injury, such as choke chains, prong and shock collars…
Hopefully the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association will follow this example and revise their weak “strongly discouraged” stance. Also, I look forward to the day when big chain pet stores discontinue the sale of aversive devices. Consumers can help to speed up that process — nudge nudge.
“Dominance theory” to explain problem behaviours in dogs has recently regained public popularity. This is an incorrect and harmful concept when applied to human-animal relationships. Traditional dominance theory training uses force and intimidation as a way to assert “pack leader” or “alpha dog” status over dogs to control their behaviour.
I’ll be so glad when the puffy chest dog trainers and all their gullible clients and TV audiences get up to speed with humane dog training methods. Thanks, SPCA, for moving us in that direction.
That’s a wrap! I’m home from my third 6-day TTouch workshop, marking the half way point toward becoming a TTouch Practitioner for Companion Animals. I just might get through this before I turn 60 after all!
This year Maggie and Maxwell stayed at home, which provided an opportunity to work with a variety of dogs, and to take in more of the instruction and conversations. Plus the fabulous lunch breaks were way more relaxing without having my own dog to attend to!
Don’t be creepy
I’ve been around some very fearful dogs, and fortunately have never been bitten. I’ve developed a good understanding of what to look for in a dog’s body language. I also know how to behave…or at least I thought. I was reminded during the TTouch workshop what it looks like to appear natural and nonchalant: breathe, don’t clench your jaw, be loose, move slowly but not like a zombie. Don’t be creepy!
Use the physics side of your brain
I witnessed and experienced several gentle dance moves that help to keep the dog in motion, or to become unstuck. Once I started watching for this, I couldn’t un-see it. How many of you have been taught to play statue and wait it out when you dog is pulling on the leash? And how did that work for ya? 😉 Robyn reminded us frequently that you need to move toward the dog first, before you move away. What a difference this makes! Katey Pierini (aka Sparkey’s mom) demonstrated how gently shifting your weight can be just enough to let your dog know something is about to happen, and that a rocking motion propels the team forward.
Our eyes, body position, and gestures influence the dog’s behaviour
Don’t look at your dog. Instead, look where you want to go. For some reason, this is a hard one! It reminds me of balance beam work in gymnastics when I was a kid — whatever you do, don’t look at your feet! Turn your whole body, not just your head, in the direction you’re moving. Point with your finger. Position yourself to the dog’s side. Stay low. And so on… I think we know these things but often neglect (forget?) to practice them.
Observation as prediction
Most dogs are pretty good at communicating when they have had enough
attention to one area of their body, or need a break, or more space. Usually (hopefully) they tell us in harmless ways — move away, turn around, sit up. But there are more subtle signs from the dog that preclude even those obvious signals. Ideally, with practice, we will know when it is time to do something different before the dog has to tell us. “Make it so the dog doesn’t have to tell you when he wants to stop”
Observation as prevention
We know that change in coat patterns and skin can be an indication that there is an existing injury or disease. However, I had never thought of using observations of coat changes as a way to prevent health issues. This came up briefly in the workshop, and I have to play around with those ideas in my head some more.
Hail the swivel clip!
Robyn is always engineering ways to improve and expand TTouch. This is the year of the swivel clip. Attach one to your Harmony Leash Handle, or to the harness when doing the Bee Line. So much better with a swivel clip!
About working with people
Wrap yourself up, and more!
I have knee problems, but during the workshop they were worse than ever. Kneeling down to dog height and back up over and over again didn’t help. Then one morning I woke up with a crick in my neck and a very stiff shoulder. Robyn took care very good care of me! I lay on a Bemer (bio electro magnetic energy regulation) pad for 8 minutes each day (almost). Robyn applied LifeWave patches to one knee, then to the other the next day. She also put 2″ wraps on my knees. When the neck issue emerged she put on a “crossing guard” wrap, which goes over the shoulder and down the torso. I’m sure I looked very fashion forward 😉 All of these things helped. In fact I woke up one night because my knee was throbbing, only to notice that the other knee was not — the one that had the LifeWave ‘icewave’ patches for pain. If you need convincing that these practices will work for your dog, why not try it on yourself?
We’re always working toward approximations
This was a simple, and maybe obvious, statement by Kathy Cascade. It left me wondering how often dog trainers really do this with clients — especially in group class situations. When you put a lot of effort into planning, you may find yourself rushing toward an outcome, or following a lesson, just because you feel the need to get through it. We need to remember, if we’re hoping for a behaviour change in clients, just having them think about new possibilities, or question their current practices, is an approximation. Focus on the progress, however small, and not on what you didn’t “cover” in your plan. [This is being discussed in the Teaching Dog Trainers How to Teach People Facebook Group]
The power of a good question
We had several opportunities to work with clients and their dogs, and also to discuss strategies for a good client meeting. Something that stood out for me during these conversations was the power of a good question.
There are many taxonomies of question types to use in instruction. Mostly these are aimed at checking for understanding of new concepts, or the learner’s ability to apply new skills. Another category that is crucial to working with clients is ‘probing’ type questions. Clients often use one word or quick phrases to describe their dogs: stubborn, protective, anxious, over-the-top… the list goes on. This doesn’t give us much information to work with. There is also the pitfall of accumulating heaps of information about the dog’s life, then finding that not much of it is useful for addressing the specific issues the client came to you for. And of course there’s also the issue of time — how long should you spend listening to stories while the dog is waiting? During a client interview at the TTouch workshop Kathy asked:
What does this look like for you?
Isn’t that the perfect question? The client then shifts to descriptive, useful information. It might turn out the issue isn’t quite as serious, or even what the client perceives it to be. How many clients state “My dog is dominant”. Shift quickly to “What does that look like for you?” and you can quickly find out what the actual issue is. [This is being discussed in the Teaching Dog Trainers How to Teach People Facebook Group]
The power of visualization
We have an incredible tool at our disposal that we often forget to use. Holding that picture in our mind of a successful outcome prepares the brain for what is coming next, which ultimately affects motor movements, emotions, and confidence.
I have 3 case studies to finish writing up, but I’m already thinking about my next ones. In fact, I might renumber them because I can use my own dogs for the first round. They’re interesting cases for sure!
I’m already making plans for future TTouch workshops. I would love to participate in the Calgary workshop, but the timing rarely works out for me. One thing is for certain: I’ll be booking into the same B&B next year in Vernon. It was the best!
As spectacular as deer are, when I’m out walking with Maggie and Maxwell, they can be a dreaded site. Maxwell has a very strong prey drive and can run FAST and far. Maggie has an injury, and the last thing I want is for her to go tearing through fields and jumping over deadfall. When the two of them get going together, they’re double trouble.
Today I had Maxwell on leash when we spotted deer. Whew. But Maggie wasn’t. She was on full alert, frozen, watching attentively. So were the deer.
Then, the deer started to move. Oh no! Maggie started off, and I called her back, trying not to sound too frantic. “Maggie! Come!” To my surprise, she turned back to me. The best part? I was prepared…
I always carry surprises in my pocket for recall practice on off leash walks. Clearly, it’s paying off!
These individual peanut butter packs are really handy (check ingredients for deadly xylitol though!). I have a collection of tasty items sealed in containers with a rip-away lids. Cat food is always a hit.
While the dog is busy licking, snap on the leash. Easier said than done, especially with a second dog flipping around with excitement, but you get the idea.
When I first began exploring dog training as a profession I was surprised to learn that anyone can hang out a shingle and get to work. In Canada there are no formal dog training programs in the public post secondary system that I know of. There are some private academies, and the requirements range from extensive theory and practice over an 18 month period to a 3-week “intensive”. Also, several online options exist, as well as blended models (online with residency workshops). These online programs are primarily from the US, and obviously some are more comprehensive and carry a better reputation than others.
How individuals learn to become dog trainers varies. Some take the self-study route. Others complete programs offered through private academies. Those who are fortunate enough to be mentored by an experienced and knowledgeable dog training professional have a distinct advantage. They actually have a means of gaining solid practical experience, and they may even be paid for their work. Others are faced with acquiring that experience by, well, convincing clients that they are competent. That’s how I learned how to cut hair, and ask my sister the day before her wedding, it didn’t always go well.
While there are few formal programs and scant career advice for those interested in entering the profession, there is no shortage of excellent resources, conferences, workshops, clinics, seminars, etc. Just as potential clients need guidance in terms of credentials, experience, philosophies, beliefs, and ethics held by their trainers, the trainers in training are challenged by the plethora of learning opportunities. We are all consumers, and we need to first understand what we are looking for. This comes with varying degrees of complexity, especially in a dog training field that continues to bridge schools of thought. I think of it this way:
traditional (some might say this is an axiom for outdated)
enlightened (advocates of positive reinforcement methods)
somewhere in between (aka balanced)
Whether you choose a formal program or self-directed study, those initials after your name come from a certifying organization. The requirements for certification are, at minimum, a written exam and an experience log. You must also acquire continuing education credit hours (CEUs). There are two accreditation services in North American:
Pet Professional Accreditation Board
Emphasis is on high level of competency in trainers as well as consumer protection ensuring force-free training professionals. Personally, I favour this “force-free” filter but I also notice that the label is often misinterpreted.
Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers This organization has a longer history, and for the past couple years appears to be organizing more learning opportunities to satisfy CEU requirements. However, recently they placed restrictions on what educational events are considered CEU-worthy and are basing these decisions on the credentials of the presenter/facilitator.
Individual learning pathways, self-organized practicums, and optional certificate and certification programs aside, it’s a field where ongoing education combined with practice is essential. This is the case with any profession; you don’t improve unless you apply what you learn.
But wait, what exactly does it mean to be a professional?
I had to pause here to consult the dictionaries (Cambridge and Merriam-Webster).
used to describe someone who does a job that people usually do as a hobby
someone who has worked hard in the same type of job for a long time and has become skilled at dealing with any problem that might happen
having the type of job that is respected because it involves a high level of education and training
relating to work that needs special training or education
a person engaged or qualified in a profession.
Currently, professional dog training mostly falls into #1 and #2. It really needs be represented more as #3, #4 and #5.
What is wrong with the current system?
When I review the available education programs and the credentialing processes, there are gaps and issues. The obvious gap is that no nationally recognized program exists. The obvious issue is the requirement to obtain training hours in order to apply to become a trainer. Sequence is important!
I’ve worked in the post-secondary sector (college, university, and institute) for over 30 years in various positions that involved curriculum development, instructional design, university admissions, professional program admissions, prior learning assessment, teaching, and faculty support. So combining this experience with my observations with the dog training industry, I came up with this outline of what the dog training industry might look like if it were part of the higher education, or any more formal, system.
A regulatory body to identify minimum requirements (number of credit hours, specific mandatory courses, experience expectations), requirements for maintaining certification, a process for complaints. This regulatory body would also be concerned that curriculum adheres to humane and ethical standards for treatment of animals.
A vocational program (diploma) offered through accredited colleges and institutes, with standardized curriculum. Ideally the program would comprise of a foundational piece, adequate breadth, room for electives, and specialty courses. This program would adopt an apprenticeship (paid) or practicum (unpaid) model, satisfying the requirement to attain practical experience alongside scheduled courses.
A committee of institutional representatives mandated with keeping the curriculum current and consistent, and liaising with the regulatory body to assure all requirements for certification are met.
An articulation process of courses and block credit that would transfer to the program (e.g. Psychology, Interpersonal Communication, Teaching Methods, Technical Writing, Business Administration, etc).
Prior learning assessment / course challenge options for individuals seeking credit for knowledge acquired through experience or non-transferable coursework.
Does the dog training professional need an academic program and governance like this? Some of the best dog training professionals I’ve come across haven’t gone the certification route. What makes them stand out?
Transparency in their practice — they share their experiences through open discussions, videos, blogs, etc. The public can see how competent they are.
Curiosity, eagerness to learn and advance their careers, active in the profession — continuing education, openness to new ideas, willingness to give back.
What is the ideal pathway to becoming a dog training professional? What does it mean to be qualified? A clear, organized, formal, path is perfect for young adults entering the profession. A flexible approach works for those who have carved out a successful career in a more self-directed manner. Some sort of portfolio system would help everyone, but how does a consumer navigate and make sense of something like that?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and will continue to try to wrap my head around how all these pieces could come together. Something needs to happen, but more dialogue (please!) is needed to figure out what and how.
Here’s a challenge. Try to come up with a twitter style (140 characters or less) educational philosophy statement. Here’s mine:
Learning should be a continuous process that invites multiple perspectives, reflective practice, and new, sometimes unplanned, experiences.
Now to tease it apart:
Many educational philosophy statements start out with the individual’s beliefs about ‘teaching’. But learning doesn’t happen because you were taught. Good teaching helps, but it’s just one type of experience that helps you to gain knowledge. The learning part is the whole shebang.
This simply implies that it isn’t always! Right?
We are never finished learning. I notice that dog trainers who refer to their learning as a credential are usually completely missing the point. 😉
This is the opposite of being required to do something. An invitation is attractive, evokes curiosity, and is optional.
This suggests we should always ask questions, and seek information about different views. Learning is not about acceptance and agreement.
This seems self explanatory, but what is key here is that reflective practice becomes a habit. Your goal should always be to improve your work, and therefore your profession. It’s not something you check off a list; it’s a proactive way of working and learning.
Reading and observing are essential, but there’s no replacement for the doing. The ability to transfer knowledge and skills to new contexts is essential, and allows us to advance and refine our learning.
My favourite part! Embrace the unexpected, bust out of the curriculum, venture into unknown territory, learn from mistakes, avoid making a path…
Analogies can be a powerful way to introduce new and complex topics, or to build a case for thinking differently about a phenomenon or problem. Building connections to familiar information enables the learner to instantly relate, or to apply an existing schema in a new context.
But there is a risk. Sometimes analogies can cause confusion, or result in the opposite outcome to what was intended. For example, it’s common to hear references to children when talking about dogs. Usually it’s to express horror in an event: “I mean, would you let your children bla bla bla?” This works for some, but for others this does nothing more than conjure up images of those spoiled dogs that live in handbags.
An analogy I hear all the time as a way to explain the use of classical conditioning in behaviour modification is to connect the common human fear of spiders to day-to-day fears a dog might experience. This doesn’t work at all for me. I can’t imagine that continuously feeding me chocolate in the presence of a spider will change my reaction to that spider or any future spider. I just can’t.
I’ve been thinking a lot about analogies lately, so I notice when people use them in conversation. In a recent discussion about how a professional photographer feels when asked if they feel threatened by public access to ubiquitous, inexpensive, high quality cameras, my friend Tanya Vivian said:
When you are presented a wonderful meal from a chef, no one asks what kind of stove he/she uses because it isn’t the stove that makes the magic.
Wow. Now this is a powerful analogy. If I ever thought about photography as equipment first, artist second, then I certainly won’t now.
I remember another analogy that really hit home for me (even though I now can’t recall the context!). It was about yoga practice — a reminder that NOW, this moment, is not a measure of what can be accomplished. I often think of that analogy in the context of dog training.
What makes the yoga analogy useful? Is it only powerful for me because I understand what it’s like to progress (struggle) through yoga poses?
In a local dog Facebook group I once used this analogy to illustrate why bark (shock and spray) collars should not be used.
In my mind the question we should be asking is how is the dog feeling? Sure a shock or blast of just about anything will stop the barking. If someone sat at the dinner table with a loaded slingshot aimed and ready for the moment I opened my mouth I’d probably choose to keep my mouth shut. I might even appear calm, but more likely I would be feeling helpless and miserable. You probably only have to use that slingshot once to get that behaviour.
There were many active participants in that discussion, and many more just reading along. My analogy didn’t appear to have any impact. My guess is the dog owner went out and bought a bark collar.
I wonder why. Was it too drastic? Was it taken too literally — like, were people wondering why I would have a slingshot at the dinner table? I’m not sure. Perhaps a large public Facebook group is the wrong venue to use analogies in an effort to get a point across.
I’ve been re-reading a book about engaging audiences called Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences, by Nancy Duarte. The full book is available to read online, but I also bought the print copy because I like to support people who provide free materials (that’s another topic!)
The book is full of gems about connecting with people, presenting new ideas, and compelling others to question their own ideas and beliefs. As I leaf through the book, this time using a dog training lens, so many things are popping out at me! If you get a chance to browse through, do you see what could help you with your own practice? Here are questions I’ve jotted down so far:
What are some ways to make information meaningful?
How much of what you say to clients is about YOU? Your knowledge and experience? Your reasons for doing x? Your beliefs?
How much “noise” do you contribute to your classes?
It used to be that I would open the crate door, and scramble to catch Maggie as she hurled herself into my trusting arms. In her mind, this was the fastest and most efficient way of getting to the marmot holes, or whatever our adventure happened to be that day. She was right, of course.
I was also anxious to get on with our morning walk. I needed the exercise and fresh air. I needed get it done so I could get back to the million things waiting for me in the office. I realized that I was just as “bad” as she was. We both needed training.
Maggie already knew wait; it was a highly and frequently reinforced behaviour. In fact, we play crate games all the time just for fun, so transferring those skills to the car would be easy. However, I discovered this was more than a training issue.
We started to practice wait in the crate before heading out on our morning adventures. This wasn’t about wait-click-reinforce. That was already well practiced. We simply slowed down the process.
I would open the door and quietly ask Maggie to wait. Then I would sit with her, notice what she was noticing, maybe try a few TTouches on her ears and shoulders. I would watch her nose twitch as she sniffed the air. Lots of deep breaths. Occasional eye contact. Smiles.
It has become our morning ritual. Now we’re both in the habit of waiting. It occurred to me that her mad rush was not all about enthusiasm. It was about stress. She’s probably having similar thoughts about me.
This weekend I was looking for my copy of Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz. I pulled dog books off the shelf (leaving a zillion donkey and other books about caring for and training animals), I browsed through my Kindle, Kobo, and iBook libraries, I searched my online purchase histories — Amazon, Chapters, Audible… Where is it? It’s possible I bought it at a bookstore, or conference (APDT? Clicker Expo?) Or wait, do I own this book? Did I lend it to someone?
This prompted me to take inventory of dog-related books. I love having a big book collection, and have learned that print copy gets more attention. I have John Bradshaw’s Dog Sense in audio format, and like it so much I have listened to it more than once, but a print copy would allow me to flip through the chapters, or find information quickly using the index. I love the immediacy of online purchases, but after reading books on my iPad I tend to forget about them. I’ve even bought the same book more than once, on more than one occasion!
The mystery of the lost book and multiple purchases of the same book prompted me to put together an Excel spreadsheet: author, title, format, my “margin” notes, what I “underlined”, and, importantly, where is it. This will take awhile…