Sunday, April 30, 2006

Positive Reinforcement

Developed by Edward Thorndike at the turn of the 20th Century, positive reinforcement is a gentle, reduced-stress way to train dogs and owners. One of the earlier proponents of positive reinforcement for dogs was Ian Dunbar, whose books are available online through most book retailers (like Amazon and Barnes & Noble).

Reinforcement (as part of operant conditioning) is defined by Wikipedia as:

...any change in an organism's surroundings that:

  • occurs regularly when the organism behaves in a given way (that is, is contingent on a specific response), and
  • is associated with an increase in the probability that the response will be made or in another measure of its strength.

For example: you give your dog food every time it sits when you tell it to. If the dog becomes more likely to sit when told to, sitting is considered to have been reinforced by the administration of food contingent on it.

Note that it is the behavior that is reinforced, not the dog. The food serves as a reinforcer, reinforcing or strengthening that behavior, only to the extent that sitting subsequently occurs more often or more quickly because of it.

I think positive reinforcement is the most gentle way to teach your dog all kinds of behaviors, from basic obedience, to agility, to fun tricks. When looking for a dog trainer or dog training class, be sure to ask what kind of training methods are used, and go with one that uses positive reinforcement.

Keep in mind that techniques for dealing with behavior problems such as aggression are different than those used to teach new behaviors, such as "sit" or "fetch".

Puppy Class 4/29/06

Puppy class was back on this week, after a cancellation last Saturday due to rain. It was great to be back on the field with the doggies! We have a large class this time around: Kuma the tiny puffy black dog; Thor the Dobie pup; Marcus the ginormous Dobie; Zoe the Bavarian Bloodhound (only one in the U.S.); Dixie the adorable & squirmy Chocolate Lab; Dexter the sweet Airedale; Marina the friendly Yellow Lab; there are also 2 Rotties and a big fluffy German Shepherd. I am probably forgetting someone, but hey, we've only had 3 classes!

The busiest part of class is checking everyone's collars before we get started. Dixie was particularly reluctant to have her adjustable slip collar put on...she's pretty shy of me right now. Most of the dogs are very friendly and bouncy.

Lloyd taught "sit with touch", which is an exercise to use when introducing your dog to new people - family, friends, and strangers. It helps the dogs trust new people and it teaches them not to jump up.

We also learned about 2 techniques to stop dogs from pulling while on leash:

  1. Stop dead. This teaches the dog there is no "payoff" for pulling.
  2. Turn around and walk the opposite direction. This teaches the same as above, while also giving a gentle physical signal to the dog via the leash jerking slightly.

At this point, most dog owners are learning the basics of handling their dogs on the leash, giving rewards, using their voice. By the end of 8 weeks, dogs and owners should be working like well-oiled machines.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Great Site

This is non-dog related, but you really should check out Rich (on a daily basis). He writes a letter a day to various politicos, Evangelists, mega corporations, government agencies, and non-profits.

Duties of an Apprentice Part I

Every dog trainer will have different tasks for apprentices, but here are some of the things I do at puppy class:

  • Observe! I'm there to learn, and a big part of that is just observing the class.
  • Set up traffic cones in a circle. The cones give dogs and owners a fixed place to stand and perform their training exercises.
  • Set up chute. The chute is used when the lessons on "come" begin. Owners crouch at one end of the shoot with food lures (i.e. treats) and the dog runs down the chute.
  • Paperwork! See post on Hell Saturday
  • Check to see if dogs' collars are on properly. Most owners use an adjustable collar that "slides", and it needs to be put on the dog in a certain way.
  • Make some noise. When we're practicing the "sit" in our first class, we have a few different noise makers we use to help the owners train their dogs in more busy environments.
  • Be a Supermodel. When certain techniques, such as how a dog should meet new people, need to be demonstrated, I'll serve as a "model".
  • Answer questions from owners.
  • Distribute handouts.
  • Cuddle doggies!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Hell Saturday

The second puppy class is the one where almost everyone pays the fee and buys equipment such as collars, leashes, etc (the first class is a meeting with owners only - no dogs). With 15 people in a class, it is CRAZY getting all the paperwork done, making sure everyone has paid, what they paid for, who they are...on and on.

Hell Saturday for the current session was two weeks ago. One dog owner arrived early and I began their paperwork while Lloyd checked their collar fittings and leash. I happened to glance up to see if anyone else was arriving, and I see a parade of about 8 dogs and owners marching up the drive...right toward me! We were supposed to have extra admin help, but she didn't show up (probably forgot - class had been delayed by weather a couple of times). It was alllll me, taking checks, taking cash, handing out forms. It's been a while since I've done that kind of admin. It took about 30 minutes before I could come up for air.

I've talked with Lloyd about computerizing his forms. I think I'll pick up my Java Script and Java books and figure out how to do an online registration form, so students can have it filled out prior to class. Online payment would ROCK, but I think that's more pain that it's worth at this point.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Oh well

No puppy class or meeting friend and her Cavalier King Charles. Rain rain go away.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Dog Tails from the Daycare

Some names changed to protect the guilty.

When I would arrive at the daycare in the mornings, the first thing I did was look at the list of attendees for the day. I would be overjoyed to see some dogs, like Sonny and Shelley, who rarely came in for daycare, but were a pleasure to be around.

Then there were the "other" dogs. Let's call them Apple and Seven - two dogs from the same household. Apple was some sort of retriever/herding dog mix and was as hyper as any dog. He liked to tear around the playroom at speeds up to 1,000 mph. This, of course, riled up all the other dogs, and before I knew it I had 10 dogs going non-linear. Apple also liked to play rough, and some dogs just don't appreciate that.

Apple also liked to bully new or shy dogs. He would sneak up behind his target, bite it's tail and skitter away. Little bastard. But Apple didn't have to worry about getting the beat-down from other dogs, because he had Seven to protect him.

Seven was a DOMINANT female Chow mix. This dog was so dominant she would lift her leg to pee. I kid you not. Seven was obedient with humans, but often felt in charge of the other dogs.

After the dogs' morning potty walks, we would load them one-by-one in to the playrooms. We had already let several dogs into a playroom when it was Seven's turn. She immediately went on the offensive with a sweet Collie named Barkley. She was put in time out (i.e. crated) for the next hour, and when she came back into the playroom she was fine, thank heaven.

But from that day on, the human room monitor had to be inside the room while the dogs were let in, which made it difficult, in that we needed an extra person to herd the dogs from the crate room to the playroom andthrough the playroom door.

If it was my business to run, Seven would have been banned from daycare right then and there. There are other peoples' dogs that we were charged with protecting, and ONE aggressive incident should be enough for banishment.

Apple and Seven were such a bad combo that we would take turns with which one of us would have to be in the playroom with them. You could guarantee a harrowing morning with them around.

Yeah Practice!

Going to help a friend this weekend with walking her dog, a teeny little Cavalier King Charles. We'll be using the Holt Halter, and demo-ing with Franklin. The weather looks none too good - hopefully we'll get a window with no rain (we call that the NASCAR Window).

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Help in becoming a dog trainer:

Working at a Doggie Daycare

I think a good way to learn some basics of dog behavior, especially in a pack situation, is to work at a doggie daycare. Dogs are in a room or rooms together for a good part of the day playing and interacting.

Each day I would spend about 3 hours in the playrooms with about 10-15 dogs. Let me tell you, it is a sweaty, dirty, tiring job...I don't know how anyone could do it full-time. I worked about 20 hours a week in the mornings.

The morning shift was the most challenging, because the dogs were energized and ready to PLAY!

As far as the pack behavior, most dogs were well-behaved and played with each other well. When the toys (mostly tennis balls and Kongs) came into play, I got a glimpse of which dogs were more dominant, which were posessive, and which were submissive.

One critical thing is that the human in the room has to be in control at all times. I witnessed the dogs going nuts, barking & jumping, when a new employee would come in (new employees were always paired with experienced employees the first week or so). Until I gained the control and appearance of dominance in the group, it was very very tough.

I also got to see how crtitical training is. The dogs that had never had obedience training or were allowed to rule the roost at home were often difficult to control - they needed extra attention and effort from the human monitor to keep the rest of the playroom calm.

When a dog starts misbehaving in the pack, it ripples and causes the rest of the dogs in the pack to start acting up, either trying to "discipline" the offender or emulating the offender's behavior.

More one specific doggies and doggie stories from the daycare to come....

Monday, April 17, 2006

No Off Leash Class this time

Lloyd teaches a next-level class after Puppy Class, called Off Leash Readiness, where dogs and owners learn about "come", "wait", "stay", etc. We were supposed to start the new session this past Saturday, but since it had been a while since the last class (due to weather, etc.), no one showed. In about 8 weeks Franklin and I will hopefully get to participate in Off Leash Readiness.

Working & Learning

Is it possibly to maintain your regular full time job while learning to be a dog trainer?

Most definitely. Usually an apprenticeship will involve attending dog training classes and observing the instructor's methods and teaching techniques. Many classes are on weekends or in the evening, to accommodate the dog owners' schedules. Additional training is possible through night or online classes at your local college. Seminars and conferences on dog training and behavior abound, but may require vacation time from your job to attend. If you love dogs, attending doggie conferences is a vacation!

I decided to pursue my apprenticeship without working a full time job initially because I wanted to work at the doggie daycare I mentioned below. I was able to do this through the support of my fiance and my small salary from the daycare. If doing this kind of job sounds like it would be something you would like to try, ask your local daycare if they have any weekend shifts available.

I am back working full time in a office now, with plenty of time to pursue dog training on weekends and evenings. Working a "regular" job makes me even more excited for the day when I can call myself a Professional dog obdience instructor!


There's a mouse in my cubicle. I do NOT love all creatures great and small - especially small.

Let me bring you up to speed

About two years ago, I decided that it would be a dream to make a career out of hanging around dogs. I started researching how one becomes a dog trainer. There's lots of useful information out there, at sites like APDT, NADOI and others. I found out that I needed to become an apprentice to an experienced professional trainer or behaviorist as a first step, filed the information away, and waited for the right time to begin.

A year ago, the company I worked for as an internet marketing specialist asked me to become a telemarketer or take a severance. Since I don't like talking to people all that much, and I tend to take rejection personally, it's not hard to guess which option I took.

Once I left my job, with financial support from a wonderful fiance, I sent an email to every trainer I could find in my area. I also stopped by a doggie daycare near my home to ask about employment - I felt that working with a bunch of dogs all playing in a room together would tell me a lot about doggie behavior (I was right!) More on that in other blog entries.

In my email I offered a web site, designed and marketed by yours truly, in exchange for an apprenticeship.

I "interviewed" with two trainers, and got the job at the daycare. The first trainer I hooked up with as a woman in my age group who had apprenticed with a well-known trainer in the DC area and had a successful dogsitting service. I worked with her for a couple of months, but never really got into any training, since she was still transitioning from dogsitting.

The second trainer invited me to his house for an interview. He was very experienced and had been a full-time professional dog behavior consultant and obedience instructor for about 20 years. He invited me to his puppy class the following Saturday. At the time I debated whether I was going to go to the class, since I was still hoping to get something out of working with the first trainer.

Boy, am I glad I decided to get out of bed early on that Saturday and drive to Great Falls for puppy class. The trainer is well-organized, and has a well-thought-out plan for apprentices. He has become a great mentor and friend. I have been working with him now for almost a year, and I love the experience more and more every day. This is truly a pursuit of dreams. Check out my end of the bargain at
Great Falls/Reston Companion Dog Training.

This blog will memorialize my experience as an apprentice, and hopefully eventually as a professional dog obedience instructor.