Better Ways: In memory of Dr. Sophia Yin

~ Dr. Sophia Yin 1966 – 2014 ~

“Because I had messed him up earlier, and because we were still using corrections when we thought the dog should know what he was supposed to do, he was never the dog I could have had.”

In the first segment of this documentary, Dr. Sophia Yin articulates so clearly what it’s like to learn better ways. It brings tears to my eyes every time I watch that interview — tears for her, for her boxer, and for the many dogs waiting for those better ways. Dr. Yin devoted her life, literally, to helping those dogs.

Watch this full documentary featuring Dr. Yin and other professionals (35 minutes). It’s outstanding.

In 2012, I participated in Dr. Yin’s 2-day seminar in Kamloops, The Art and Science of Animal Behaviour, organized by Five Star Dog Training and Animal Health Technologists Association of British Columbia. Although I’m not what’s called a crossover trainer, I can say the seminar was transformational. Things clicked for me- about what I was doing, what I wasn’t doing, and what I should be doing. I will always value that experience, and the many books, articles, videos, and other resources Dr. Sophia Yin shared with us before taking her own life two years ago.

In memory of Dr. Sophia Yin, my big wish is that more caregivers (and dog trainers) will stand back and really think through their relationship with dogs, and the implications of their actions.

Know when to be impressed

Bella & Dottie Ann
Know when to be impressed

Recently a friend described the most amazing dog trainer who brought his 18 month old lab to a public event for socialization and to practice being in new places. My friend marvelled at how this trainer could tell his dog to stay beside the chair, walk away to pour some coffee and chat with friends — in fact, be gone a long time — and the dog wouldn’t budge.

Having a dog around the same age herself, my friend wondered how this was possible. I suggested that sometimes a dog will “obey” because he’s terrified of the consequences. She assured me that the dog was very happy. In fact, when the trainer returned, the dog turned on his back and was all wiggly, asking for a belly scratch.

My friend’s takeaway was that she would love for this trainer to work with her dog.

My takeaway was that I’d definitely need to know A LOT more about this trainer before I let him anywhere near my dog.

It’s not unusual for caregivers to be impressed with a dog trainer’s abilities and claims. Just last week in a local Facebook group I read a reply to an individual seeking help with leash skills claiming it would only take one session to get that puppy heeling.

The pup’s mom probably contacted that trainer.

Meanwhile, I’m left imagining the harsh corrections, and a dog with a very sad existence.

I’m super observant when it comes to a dog’s body language, and I’m becoming a whiz at spotting trainers who rely on aversive techniques to train dogs. There are telltale signs when observing them in action, and the language and claims these trainers make can be a warning to look elsewhere.

It doesn’t take much skill to spot them. The original title of the video below was: “Is This How You Wish Your Dog Would Be When Going Into A Store? Amazing!

They’re hoping you will say YES! This is amazing! And unfortunately, you won’t be alone.

My answer is no, absolutely not. I want my dog to wag his tail, be happy to see me when I return, and look excited about what’s coming next.

As this video demonstrates, the “amazing” technique for getting your dog to wait outside a store is to slap on a shock collar and carry a remote. With this type of training the dog is staying put to avoid unpleasant consequences. This is in contrast to positive reinforcement training which would ensure pleasant consequences for staying as asked. These are very different approaches, with very different emotional implications for the dog.

The trainer also uses the shock collar/remote instead of a leash on a busy street. Ugh. Isn’t it a red flag to the average caregiver that you would be advised to carry a remote to shock your dog while walking right beside him? Apparently not. Consumers pay for this type of dog training.

Video – Creative Commons Attribution license (reuse allowed)

Please, if you see a behaviour that impresses you, ask yourself first how it was trained. If you see a content dog, eager to be engaging with his caregiver and enthusiastic about getting things right, then be impressed. If you see an anxious dog that is concerned about what will happen if he gets things wrong, then don’t be impressed.

Learning about sled dogs

Kingmik signThis summer I’ve been visiting Kingmik Dog Sledding Tours‘ summer home in Logan Lake. It’s been such a neat experience, and I’m learning a lot about caring for sled dogs.

The big eye opener for me is how peaceful this environment is. With I-dont-know-how-many dogs (90?) I sure expected more noise! And if they do start up, as you would expect they would with new cars driving in, or in anticipation they might be a chosen one for a group ATV exercise run, Megan Routley, Kingmik owner, says in a sing-song voice “quiet”, and guess what? They stop.

The property is pristine clean, and all the water buckets, secured so they won’t tip, are filled to the brim with fresh, clean water. I can’t say the same for my own yard with only two dogs!

There’s a steady welcoming of workaway travellers caring for the dogs — brushing, scratching, feeding, cleaning up… Humans giving them attention, all day long.

There are many things I admire about the way Megan is with the her dogs. She clearly loves just being with them — ALL of them. Her pockets are always full of treats ready for the right moment to reinforce good behaviour, like returning to their houses without the need for leashes, or even fences on the property. These dogs obviously benefit from her positive and gentle handling; they’re ready and willing to work, but also well mannered and relaxed between times. Typical for a sled dog environment? Sadly, we rarely hear about the kinder side of the industry.

I’m not sure I’ll come up with a list of secret dog handling tips. This is simply a story about a special person who understands and enjoys her dogs. I wish more people could be like that.

BC SPCA Position Statement on Dog Training

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 document is available on the SPCA website (PDF). These two paragrahs make me cheer:

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.


TTouch Workshop 2016

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!

Keenen with half wrap
Kennan with a half wrap

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!

As with last year’s workshop in Vernon, British Columbia, Robyn Hood and Kathy Cascade facilitated a fascinating 6 days, taught us more than we will remember, and left us with some darn good memories.

Kathy and Robyn laughing
Belly laughs!

Here are some of my highlights and takeaways.

About working with dogs

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Observation as prediction
    Most dogs are pretty good at communicating when they have had enough

    Katey and Sparkey
    14-yr old Sparkey clearly benefitting from a zebra ttouch

    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”

  5. 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.
  6. 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

  1. 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?
  2. 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]
  3. 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]

  4. 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.

What’s next?

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!

Homework on the porch
Homework on the porch

Oh deer

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…

peanut butter

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.

What qualifies someone as a dog training professional?

Fake Diploma
Fake Diploma by gadgetdude

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).

Professional is

  1. used to describe someone who does a job that people usually do as a hobby
  2. 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
  3. having the type of job that is respected because it involves a high level of education and training
  4. relating to work that needs special training or education
  5. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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?

  1. Transparency in their practice — they share their experiences through open discussions, videos, blogs, etc. The public can see how competent they are.
  2. 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.

Educational philosophy statement

To avoid making a path, please vary your route
Photo by Alan Levine

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.

Should be

This simply implies that it isn’t always! Right?

Continuous process

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.

Multiple perspectives

This suggests we should always ask questions, and seek information about different views. Learning is not about acceptance and agreement.

Reflective practice

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.

New experiences

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.

Unplanned experiences

My favourite part! Embrace the unexpected, bust out of the curriculum, venture into unknown territory, learn from mistakes, avoid making a path…