Get Out of my &%*#@ DM's!!! 

Ahhhh, the peculiar world of the internet, and social media, in particular. This artificial alternate universe in which complete strangers have no problem approaching you and say things they absolutely would never say if meeting for the first time face to face. I had such an incident like this occur this morning. Now, if this was the first time something like this has happened, I'd chalk it up to being merely an isolated incident. However, since this is the 4th time something like this has happened, I feel compelled to address it.

On my IG account, I had a follower I do not know personally (who lists herself as a "certified dog walker") pop into my DM's and say,

"Hi Laurie, I got a sponsored post by _______________________,  I checked them out and saw that you follow them. I looked at their posts and saw they use prong collars and ecollars. Didn't know if you were aware, so I thought I'd give you a heads up!"

Why, oh why does that happen so much on the internet? It's as if people nearly burst at the seams to reveal information they are just so sure no one else has discovered besides them!  :rolleyes:

So, while I always find this behavior presumptuous and annoying, I gave her the benefit of the doubt that she was well meaning and simply responded that I follow a lot of trainers, and a lot of trainers follow me, both positive reinforcement based as well as balanced. Also added that I'd been in the industry for 35 years, so have accumulated many trainer friends who use different methods than I do, and hopefully I can be an influence to them.

Well, my answer apparently wasn't good enough. She pushed on. "Don't you care your followers will take this as your endorsement?"

Still trying to maintain my calm, I reiterated, "Again, I follow lots of people on my social media, even celebrities and politicians who I downright disagree with, but for information, not as an "endorsement." I then thanked her for her concern and ended with "Happy Training."

The end of the story? Nope. I guess she didn't like that I didn't respond with something like, "oh thank you so much for enlightening me, I will go and unfollow right away!" Instead, she kicked into passive aggressive mode, accused me of being "defensive" and proceeded to patronize me by explaining how I was wrong about "how the internet works."

So how was your Sunday morning?!" 

As I said, this is the 4th time that I can remember someone private messaging me and asking me "if I knew" about another trainer I happen to follow. So let this be my official announcement for all .,........... STOP, JUST STOP! I certainly can't and don't profess to speak for anyone but myself, but as for me, I am very clear about who I am and how I train. And anyone who takes even 5 minutes to research my social media or my website can learn about me and what I am about. If you have a question about how I train and the methods I use, feel free to ask away. But if you are going to judge me based on other trainers (out of thousands) that I follow, then so be it. Further, if you think you are going to be able to manipulate and control who I follow,, you are very, very mistaken. Let me say here and now, IF someone makes the mistake of approaching me in this manner again, you will be immediately told in no uncertain terms....... MIND YOUR OWN DAMN BUSINESS!!!!!

This brings to mind a blog post I wrote 4 years ago that went viral within the dog training community, "Just Shut up and Train." I don't think it's a coincidence that all 4 times this has happened, the culprit has been a very young and new positive reinforcement trainer. As I said, I've been training dogs 35+ years, so of course I am a cross over trainer. Nearly everybody who has been training 25+ years likely is! So suffice to say, "some of my best and longest standing trainer friends are, you guessed it, balanced trainers! I am not at all afraid to admit that through the years, even recent years, I've learned some cool things from highly skilled balanced trainers that I've been able to fit nicely into my force free, positive training program, and at the risk of tooting my own horn, I'm fairly sure some have learned things from me as well. So I say to you young and newbie positive trainers, the day you think you can only learn things from trainers swimming in your own pond, is the day you limit yourself. 

To ALL my fellow positive reinforcement based training community, we really need to do some self reflection. I have never, nor could I ever imagine a balanced trainer (especially someone I don't know personally) coming on my page and questioning why I follow someone else. Rather than spend so much time policing each other and worrying about what everyone else is doing and how everyone else is training, how about focusing on being the best trainer we can be and serve both the humans and dogs out there who need our help. We have a problem, guys. It was a problem 4 years ago when I wrote that first blog and it's still a problem now. We really need to do better.

What exactly is "socialization?" Should I want it for my dog, and how do I get it? 

If you read any book on dog behavior and training, you're likely to find an emphasis on socialization. The importance of socialization, particularly early socialization in puppies, is given as high a priority as obedience and manners. But what exactly does socialization mean? Do you know? I ask because a good many of my new clients and students are often not really sure, or have misconceptions about what proper socialization really is. Some think it means allowing your dog to meet, greet and play with other dogs. When they see a dog or puppy that yearns for and is eager to romp, tumble and participate in active play sessions with another dog, then they consider that dog to be "well socialized." Is that true? Maybe. But not necessarily. Social learning is one of the primary objectives of our Puppy Kindergarten and Socialization Program. However when new puppy owners join the class, some are expecting this to mean a "puppy play time" segment, in which all the puppies are let off leash and allowed to have a full out puppy free for all. Nope. Time for some enlightenment and education!  

Let's get back to what "socialization" really means. Simply put, it means preparing a dog to feel safe in the world. That entails working diligently to expose your dog to a wide variety of experiences that will help him to feel comfortable, confident and free of fear in a multitude of environments, situations and in the presence of strangers, including all types of people, dogs, and other animals. Dog to dog direct interaction and play can be included in that process, but it doesn't have to be. That really depends on your dog's desire as well as your personal goals for your own dog. Let me explain. Just like humans, dogs are unique creatures. Each dog is an individual, with his/her own personality, desires, likes and dislikes. When it comes to interaction with other dogs, some dogs and puppies seek it and enjoy playing, romping, rolling around, chasing and interacting with other dogs. I call these "dog/dogs." On the other hand, some dogs prefer to sit on the sidelines and watch, perhaps quietly sniff other dogs, while others are just not really interested in other dogs at all. Mind you, they're not fearful, reactive or aggressive either, they're just kind of "meh" when they see another dog and much prefer to interact with people. I refer to dogs like this as "people/dogs." Now, neither of these characteristics should be considered "good" or "bad," or better or worse, however I will say this, when you have a"dog/dog," your job to regain and maintain your dog's attention and focus on you while in the presence of other dogs will be that much more challenging. Your task will be to find ways to make yourself even more desirable than the other dogs, and that's not easy! To the contrary, if your dog is a "people/dog," sure, you might have it a bit easier to maintain attention when other dogs are around, but you will still have to excite and motivate your dog to focus on you in the presence of other distractions as well.  

On a personal note, given the particular goals I set for myself and my dog, I do prefer a "people/dog," but when choosing a dog or puppy, there are no guarantees that's what you'll get! I've had many dogs that naturally gravitate toward other dogs, but put in the work to cultivate a stronger connection with him, so that interactions with me will eventually hold greater value than everything else present. Case in point, I was on a competition reality show some years back called "Greatest American Dog" in which a group of people and their dogs were thrust together to compete in a series of mental and physical challenges. Think, "Survivor," but with your dog! Anyway, I took my then 6 year old Maltese Andrew with me on the show, with whom I had developed an amazingly close bond and relationship with. Prior to the show, we had been participating in multiple competitive dog obedience, agility and rally obedience trials for several years. Additionally, Andrew was a working, certified therapy dog who regularly visited a variety of places such as nursing homes, hospitals, schools, shopping malls, etc. and was comfortable and accustomed to meeting all kinds of different people. Well, one of the challenges during the show was to test each dog's sociability. Each dog was taken from its owner and placed in a room with another dog to see how "social" they were. Andrew briefly sniffed the other dog, then immediately went about his business ..... to find me! He had absolutely zero interest in playing with the other dog, but was not fearful or anxious or frantic. He merely calmly started searching for me. Well, much to my surprise, especially since one of the judges was touted as a well regarded "celebrity dog trainer," Andrew received a low score and was deemed by this judge as "lacking social skills!" What??? Despite me explaining that Andrew shared our home with 7 other dogs, therefore seeing another dog was no big deal to him, and that he'd been specifically trained to value and focus on me when in the presence of other dogs, it was all for naught. These particular judges were holding onto the archaic misconception that the desire to meet and play with other dogs was a necessary component of dog socialization. Despite that, Andrew and I went on to win runners-up on the show (we should have won, but I digress!!_ ;)  

So, now that we know what socialization is, how do you go about getting it: 

1. Expose, expose, expose! Introduce and acclimate your dog/puppy to a variety of different environments. After the puppy has received all the initial immunizations (for us that includes two of the puppy distemper/parvo boosters, the bordetella/kennel cough shot, and if over 6 months of age, the rabies vaccination), take him/her literally everywhere you can! While there, let your puppy take everything in, then gradually ask him for behaviors he knows well and reward him for complying and focusing on you. Take him back to these places repeatedly, allowing him time to become fully comfortable in each place. How much exposure does your puppy/dog need? LOTS! A good place to start is to do a Google search for "Puppy's Rule of 12's," or "Puppy's Rule of 7's." These are comprehensive lists of every possible thing to consider introducing your puppy to as early as possible. You will be hard pressed to be able to complete everything on those lists, but at least give it the good old college try! 

2. Introduce your dog to a variety of different people: tall people, short people, men, women, children of all ages, sizes, ethnicities, and when I say introduce, let me be clear. I mean exactly that, i-n-t-r-o-d-u-c-e! Allow each person to slowly approach your puppy, and/or allow your puppy to approach them, and IF your puppy seems receptive and expresses an interest in the person, allow the new "friend" to offer your puppy a treat. IF the puppy seeks out further interaction, allow the person to get even closer, and then progress to gently petting your puppy. IF the puppy is comfortable and accepting of that, then you can advance and prolong the interaction. Now that's a lot of "IFS!" Point is, let the puppy make the choice whether to visit and be petted or not. If the puppy seems to avoid or not like it, don't be disappointed. That's okay, for now. Just have the stranger drop the treat and then give the puppy space, allowing the puppy to eat it if she so chooses. The puppy might just need more time to get used to strangers being around, and learn to associate them with good things. Never force interaction! There's this thing some trainers still do in puppy classes called "pass the puppy," in which all the puppy owners sit in a circle and proceed to pass their puppy to the person sitting next to them, allowing them to hold, fondle, and basically force themselves on the puppy whether the puppy likes it or not. I hate this. Now, granted, many puppies are not bothered and absolutely love this opportunity to get loved on and plant puppy licks and kisses all over strangers! But what about the puppy that doesn't? Remember when you were a child and you had one relative who, for whatever reason, you avoided contact with? You probably dreaded going over to their house because when it was time to leave, your parents always made you "give Auntie such and such a big hug!" Ugh! The last thing you want to teach a shy or reluctant puppy is to dread being out and around strangers, and that she cannot trust you to keep her safe. Instead, just continue to provide opportunities for puppies to be in the presence of strangers and let them be the ones to initiate and advance the contact and interaction. 

3. And this goes for interactions with other dogs as well. If your puppy expresses an interest in interacting/playing with other puppies his own age, size and play style, then sure you can proceed to proper puppy to puppy introductions. I have my own, detailed step by step process for these introductions that we present in our Puppy Kindergarten & Socialization class. First and foremost, great care and caution is taken to match puppies up with appropriate playmates with similar play style, activity level, age, and size. If this isn't available, then interactions are not going to happen. But when they do, and the puppies involved both seem to desire the interaction, then it' okay to proceed provided interactions are only in small groups, are kept short, and include frequent interruptions requiring puppies to periodically check back in with the owners. We teach our puppy owners to watch closely and learn to read their puppy's body language. Interactions are thought out, planned and heavily managed, and all precautions are taken to ensure the experience is overwhelmingly positive for all parties involved. And this is precisely why, sorry to say, taking your puppy to a puppy playtime at one of the big box pet stores or even worse, to a dog park and plopping him in with a bunch of other dogs and owners you've never met before is a risky idea. Sure, things could go great, but they could also go downhill real quick. Remember, one really negative socialization experience can follow your puppy throughout adulthood and derail all your previous socialization efforts. 

It is our hope that participation in and completion of our Puppy Kindergarten and Socialization Program, participating puppies will be much more comfortable and have much more confidence and impulse control in the presence of other dogs and people outside their family unit. We strive to help build an even stronger connection between dog and owner, and start him on his way to becoming a well socialized dog!

The Myth and Allure of "Off Leash" 

If you talk to many dog owners, at the top of their "wish list" is to have "off leash" compliance and reliabilty in their dogs.  Simply put, they want their dogs to follow their "commands," come when called, and despite the fact that most places have leash laws requiring dogs to be tethered to an actual "leash, cord or chain" of some sort, they don't want to have to worry about their dog not listening to them or running off when they happen to be off leash. Can't really blame people for wanting that, heck, as a dog trainer who competes in multiple dog sports with my dogs, it's what I want and train for too!  The difference is, I (and frankly any dog trainer or person who truly knows and understands how dog's learn) am fully willing to allow the time necessary to achieve this reliability, which in reality can take quite a while.  Even the most trainable and biddable dog, especially if young, might struggle with impulse control, immaturity and/or other inherent drives and impulses that can impede reliability.  For example, dogs with strong prey drives might be challenged when they see a small critter scurrying by, and just can't resist the urge to chase.  This wouldn't mean the dog is being "disobedient," but rather would mean the impulse to hunt was just too strong at that moment.  It takes time and patience to proof the behaviors we've taught our dogs, but in the end, with effective training, consistency and adherence, most dogs will become reliable at some point.  But what if someone told you that you could have "off leash" reliability in your dog within a matter of weeks, and they had the videos to prove it?  Wouldn't that be appealing?  Of course it would, and recently, that's exactly what has been a growing trend in dog training.  More and more trainers and dog training franchises seem to be making these exact claims.  Some promising to be able to accomplish this in as quickly as 2-3 weeks.  Could this be true?  Well, let's take a closer look.

And before we go any further, let me say, this blog isn't going to be a debate or discussion about training philosphies and methods.  For now, this isn't about which are better, worse, more or less effective, humane, inhumane etc.  No value judgement here.  That's another blog for another day.  What I'd like to do right now is just focus strictly on the marketing claims of  achieving "off leash" reliability.  And to do that, we must first define what off leash" really means. I think to most, off leash means, well, exactly that - no leash.  The dog is not attached to, controlled or restrained by a physical, tangible leash, chain, cord, or any other material that tethers the dog to you.  Okay, that makes sense.  So, further, one could say off leash reliability would mean the dog is complying completely on his own, with no influence, manipulation or force by the handler.  The dog is doing so of his own free will. That's a pretty tall order, and this level of reliability usually comes after many months (or years) of training and a working partnership has been established between that dog and handler. Like I said, it is something that those of us who compete in dog sports train for.  In many of the advanced levels, we walk into the ring, and the leash immediately comes off.  From that point on, we have no means to manipulate the dog other than to give the cue or command and hope for the best (or in some instances, pray).  But no, seriously, we train for hours and hours to achieve this.  So how is it possible to develop this within a few short weeks, and with a dog that is brand new to training?  Is that what is being promised?  Not really.  Firstly, tethering a dog to a physical leash is not the only tool that can control, manipulate, influence and force compliance.  One such tool is the e-collar (otherwise known as electronic collar, shock collar, remote training collar, etc).  Originally used in the field to communicate to hunting and working dogs that were working at a distance, these collars have been around for several decades and through the years have made their way into basic obedience training for the general public.  Some trainers and training companies  promise "off leash" reliability but by way of implementing these collars.  So yes, the leash comes off, but the e-collar goes on.  While you have no leash to control, correct or influence the dog, you can deliver corrections, messages and warnings of varying degrees and strengths in the form of tones, vibrations and yes, even electrical stimulation and shocks that will stack the deck in your favor that your dog will choose to comply.  It's kind of like "making him an offer that is really hard to refuse."  Discomfort or the threat of discomfort is a very powerful motivator.  True, there is no leash, but should this be considered "off leash reliability" and equivalent to the dog choosing to comply of his own free will?  What would happen if you took the collar off, or the batteries died or you had an equipment malfunction?  Would "off leash" reliability still be there?  Incidentally, no dog sport allows the use of e-collars during their off leash competitions because it would give that team an unfair advantage.  That, should give you the answer.


Above is my Dalmatian William completely off leash (and no e-collar) running alongside a horse drawn carriage.  Not only is he staying with me, but he is also not bothering the other horses (and other farm animals - chickens, donkeys, goats, etc) that we passed along the way.  But William is 9 and we've been training and working together building a partnership since he was 10 weeks old!  So, again, this isn't about what method of training is right or wrong, or better or worse, but rather this is about dog owners being informed, aware and educated about realistic training goals, what they are paying for, and what they are actually getting.  Achieving true off leash reliability and establishing a mutually respectful working partnership with your dog takes time.  It just does.  There are no short cuts, even if you are told otherwise.  On the surface it might look impressive in videos to see a dog working without a leash, but look a little closer.  It may appear that you can skip some steps and fast forward way ahead, but beware of a false sense of security.  If it is really off leash reliability that you want, it may take some time to achieve it, but when you do, it's a beautiful thing, and it won't be powered by batteries and dependent on a remote control.


Why Being A Dog Trainer is the Best Job In the World 

Consider this a rebuttal to a blog I've seen floating around the past few days touting all the reasons why being a dog trainer sucks.  No, actually it lists all the reasons being a dog trainer F&*$ING sucks!  Now, to be fair, I suspect I'm coming from a completely different perspective than the writers of this particular blog, and I also realize much of it was written to shock and/or be funny.  And it is, sort of, but then it gets sad.  And that's why I was inspired to write another view.  As evident in previous blogs they've penned, that's their writing style.  However, though I could very well be way off base, to me the authors come across as being fairly young (under 30), relatively new to training (less than 10 years), and definitey with no prior teaching experience, specifically experience educating adult learners. In contrast, I'm in my 50's, have been a dog trainer for 30+ years, and most significantly, have worked in a variety of other fields besides dog training, including teaching both children and adults. I point this out because I've worked enough jobs and in enough fileds to know that no job is always sunshine and daffodils.  Every ocupation has its good and its bad points.  Most of the reasons cited as why dog training sucks could be said for most other occupations dealing with the general public, especially in a service capacity.  Being a dog trainer really isn't that unique, and success and longevity in this field is dependent upon several key factors: 1) the ability to compartmentalize, 2) actually liking and having the desire to help people, and 3) not allowing yourself to become complacent.

I am fortunate to own my own dog training facility in which we offer a variety of classes from beginning basic manners and obedience through competition level dog sports (obedience, rally and agility), as well as therapy dog training.  What this means is, if I am successful, it is very possible (and highly desirable) that I cultivate a long lasting relationship with as many students and clients as I can.  This is not to say that there aren't the occasional people who do "6 weeks and done" and I'm perfectly fine never seeing again, but those are definitely the exception and not the rule.  Currently, I have a good number of students who have been training with me for 3, 4, 5+ years!  There would be no way I could keep these relationships going if I didn't like people, or specifically, if I didn't like them.  And honestly, at this point, even though they are still paying for services, I consider these folks much more than just clients.  They are my friends.  We are each others' support systems.  We cheer each other on, we celebrate each others' successes, and we commiserate and comfort each other through failure, illness and heartache.  And not only do I take pleasure in the genuine friendships and relationships I've formed with them, I'm even happier about my hand in helping cultivate relationships they've formed with each other.  In fact, one day I'm going to create a "Six Degrees of Pup 'N Iron" game which challenges the player to connect two random people together via my trainng facility!  These relationships have grown out of my genuine and very strong desire to help people achieve success with their dogs and create bonds with them that will last a lifetime.  If I am successful at this, I know these dogs will have forever homes with these people.  I can think of no better way to "give back" and really help dogs.  And hold on, before you dub me "the Mother Theresa of dogs," let me admit to this being in part a little self serving.  Firstly, being able to influence and guide others is a very powerful and intoxicating position.  Why do you think so many control freaks end up being dog trainers?  We are not referred to as "alpha bitches" by accident!  But more importantly for me, the validation and gratification I receive when my clients and students are successful is nothing short of a high.  There's nothing quite like a former student or client running into you, often years later, declaring how much you helped her with her dog, or thanking you for making her (often deceased) dog become the best dog she's ever had.  She cries, you cry, you hug each other.  It can turn into a downright embarrassing, blubbery sloppy love fest, and I just can't get enough of it.  It's like crack, which I've never had, but you get the picture.

And after all these years, call me crazy, but I still love dogs.  My mother tells me that when I was just a toddler, if I spotted a dog walking by or in the park or wherever, my gaze would remain transfixed on that dog until it faded far into the distance.  Well, I'm still that person. Just a few weeks ago I was in an Amtrak station and had an hour wait before my train was to leave.  Thankfully a scent detection dog was brought into the waiting area, just hanging out with his handler while he chatted with coworkers. While everyone else had their eyes plastered to their cell phones and tablets, guess how I entertained myself?  I watched the dog, just standing there, really doing nothing, observing his interactions with his handler, the co-workers, his body language, etc, etc.  Next thing I knew, the announcer was calling us to board!  I also still love the science of dog training, and yes, that's what dog training is to me, a science.  I attend conferences, seminars and workshops regularly and often, and make sure to keep an ever growing collection of new books covering a variety of dog training topics in my personal library.  Just like any profession, you can't become complacent and have to stay on top of your game so you don't get burned out and start questioning why you are still in it.  Just like an athlete, you have to keep working to build that teaching/training muscle and keep it in tip top shape.  This isn't going to "just happen," you have to work at it, you have to seek out opportunities to continue learning and growing.  If you don't, that training muscle will atrophy.

I hope up until now I haven't come across as arrogant, because from this point on, that's about to go out the window.  I'm friends with quite a lot of other trainers.  Granted, most are not super close friends, more like cordial acquaintances and colleagues with mutual respect, and most also don't live close enough to be considered my competition.  However if they did, I honestly wouldn't let that preclude us from being closer friends if we genuinely liked each other.  Why?  Because quite frankly, I think I'm the best and am not really worried about anyone "stealing" my clients.  For one, just like a man, if a client can be stolen, they weren't really mine to begin with.  And two, there is no other me, and no one is going to be able to duplicate who I am and exactly what I do.  One of the other jobs I previously held was as a group exercise instructor.  During the 90's and early 2000's I taught step aerobics, spinning/cycling and yoga classes, yep, leg warmers, thong leotards and all!  My classes were always packed.  In fact, because of the limited number of bikes, there were waiting lists to get into my spinning classes.  What did I have that the other instructors didn't?  Me.  Those people flocked to my classes because it was me teaching, and not just because they were going to get a great workout, or that I had great music and the best choreography, all of which was true, but mainly it was because of how I made them "feel."  There's no name for that, and that's not something you can learn.  It's a passion and love for what you do and it's contagious.  Everyone wants it or to be near it.  So no matter what I've taught through the years I've always brought that along with me.  You think you can do that better than me?  Bring it.  I love a challenge.

I'm not trapped in this profession, quite the contrary.  I'm actually trained and prepared to work in several different professions and in several other fields and would have no problem getting another job.  But leaving dog training and doing something else is the farthest thing from my mind, and when I do stop it will be because I am no longer physically able to. This is my life's work and I can think of nothing else I'd rather do.  So I really do hope those who giggled along and maybe even identified with some of the points made in that "being a dog trainer F*&^ING sucks" blog don't really feel that way deep down inside, but for those who do, for the love of God, do yourself, your clients and the dogs you come in contact with a huge favor and get out now before you become even more bitter and resentful.  This profession is certainly not for everyone, life is too short to feel this way, and it might actually do you some good to try some other fields so you'd at least have some means of comparison.  I can tell you this, there aren't many jobs for which without a college degree, if you are really great at it, you can basically set your own hours and prices, pick and choose your clients and never have to answer to any one else again.  Sorry, but that doesn't suck at all.

Just Shut Up and Train! 

The bickering and bantering back and forth between the so-called "balanced trainers" community and so-called "positive trainers" community has gotten worse than the Miley Cyrus vs. Nicki Minaj Twitter wars.  And if you have never heard of Miley Cyrus or Nicki Minaj, that's probably part of the problem.  I purposely waited to add my 10 cents to this conversation because I needed to let myself calm down a bit until the F-bombs I would have dropped a few weeks ago disintegrated into mid air.  Plus that's already been done in another blog.  So I promise to keep this one PG-13.  Firstly let me just say this is directly to the Competitive Dog Obedience community.  Agility people, you're great and completely off the hook here.  It's no wonder people continue to flock to that sport because it is user friendly, forgiving and welcoming to all.  You see people and dogs of all shapes and sizes and abilities enjoying the sport without all the bickering over training methods.  They let their performances do the talking.  So yes, those of you who continue to participate in competitive obedience, this is for you.  And this isn't going to be about who's right or who's wrong because frankly, I think anyone even engaging in this bickering is wrong.  Why?  Because it is based on a plethora of misconceptions and assumptions.  It is based on semantics and what is coming out of people's mouths.  And guess what, you can't go by videos either because people get to pick and choose which videos they want.  In a nutshell, this is all based on "he said/she said," jumping to conclusions, assumptions, jealousy and ego.  Oh, and way too much time on your hands.

1.  Nobody really knows how anyone else really trains.  People can say how they train, teach certain techniques and methods, but in the midnight hour, it's all honor system.  So when you criticize, praise or attempt to emulate anyone else for his/her achievements based on the supposed "methods," he or she claims to use, I hope you realize that unless you live with that person 24/7, you are doing so purely under the assumption that he/she is completely transparent and telling you everything.  But honestly, all that doesn't really matter anyway because the first thing one must be to achieve consistent high scores and stellar performances is a damn good trainer, regardless of what methods he/she has used.  You can argue and speculate all you want but the fact remains that whatever he/she is doing WORKED and that's really all there is to it, but that still doesn't mean it will work for you.  Remember that training thing?  Yeah, you really should be focusing your attention and effort into becoming the caliber of trainer he/she is before you praise or criticize.  In other words, just shut up and train!

2.  What is it with all this picking sides and "all or nothing" mentality these days?  For one, how juvenile, but most importantly, newsflash,  EVERYONE is a "balanced trainer" to varying degrees.  If anyone truly believes that a dog can be reliably trained using ONLY positive reinforcement then I would say you have a lot to learn about training or are just not being honest.  I've seen the term "purely positive" thrown around quite a bit lately and as someone who considers myself a trainer who uses primarily positive training methods, I don't really even know what that is or who that would apply to.  In my mind, that person doesn't exist, at least not in dog sports training.  I've personally never seen or heard a dog trainer not communicate to his/her dog that they've made the wrong choice in some way, whether intentional or inadvertently.  If your dog is running toward oncoming traffic and isn't responding to your recall, I am quite sure most reasonable people will (if he's on lead) jerk their dog back before being killed, or at least scream "NO" or whatever you have to in order to stop the dog.  I've also never seen a dog trainer not use some form of punishment in training.  If you use NRM's (no reward markers), leave or put away your dog when he/she doesn't feel like working, and/or end a play session when your dog starts playing too roughly, guess what?  You're  not "purely positive," and so what.  It's a ridiculous term anyway.  Just as ridiculous as the term "balanced training" becoming synonymous with the use of compulsion, force and physically aversive corrections.  Even 30 years ago back in the dark ages when I first started training, though we rarely if ever used food, we always used praise and petting as a reward.  If we can at least agree that learning involves implementing fair and predictable consequences that the dog will perceive as desirable or undesirable, then the only thing up for debate is what those consequences are, and what an individual trainer deems as "fair."  Yes, that certainly can vary greatly from trainer to trainer, but the training by all would still be considered "balanced" regardless of which way a trainer leans. So what's next?  Are we going to start assigning ourselves percentage numbers?  "I'm a 50/50 trainer," "I'm "80/20," "I'm 95/5."  Seriously?  Just shut up and train.

3. Stop questioning others' motives or reasons for competing.  It's none of your business.  I can't believe how ridiculous it is to read long time obedience exhibitors actually complaining about new people coming into the sport who may or may not have different objectives than their own  Are you kidding me?  Who the %$^& cares? (Oops, caught that renegade F-bomb just in time).  Despite the implementation of Rally and other new classes and rule changes, obedience trial entries continue to pale in comparison to agility and other dog sports such as nose work and now barn hunt.  You know, those fun sports that welcomes all and the competitors are a lot less judge-y of each other.  And for you newbies, I also think you should show a little respect for a sport that, even if it might be behind, is steeped in tradition and really started it all.  If not for those old timers who you show so much disdain for and snub up your noses to, the sport would have died a long time ago. So what if someone is ultra competitive and competes for placements and high titles. Um, hello, it is a c-o-m-p-e-t-i-t-i-o-n after all.  Has it ever occurred to you that maybe, just maybe since they've been doing this for a long time they might be able to teach you something or give you some helpful hints?  There are a lot of insider tricks of the trade that can help enhance your obedience trial experience.  Who better to learn from than someone who's been around the block a time or two?  And for the highly competitive who snub your noses up at those lowly people who enter "just to have fun with their dogs," what's it to you?  Actually, that's a good thing too.  They are also helping preserve the sport, are paying the same entry fee you are, and deserve their time in the ring with their dog as much as you do.  And believe it or not they might be able to teach you something too, at the very least how to update your trial attire or where to get some of those new fangled training gadgets.  As a woman of a particular age myself, I don't mind taking a cue from some of my younger friends on where to find comfortable shoes appropriate for the ring and breathable clothes that still look good.  Trust me, these young whippersnappers really know how to navigate the internets!  I kid, but the bottom line is, anyone who wants to still participate in the sport of competitive dog obedience is on the same team.   In the words of Rodney King (again totally outing myself as one of those old timers), "can't we all just get along?"  But in the meantime, just shut up and train.

4.  Stop questioning anyone else's relationship with their dog.  I'm going to take a stab here and say I'd be willing to bet that anyone who is competing at a high level and turning in consistently stellar performances with their dog(s), regardless of what training methods he/she uses, has a pretty damn good relationship with that dog.  Again you can't accomplish this without being first and foremost a top notch dog trainer.  And it is my belief that you can't be a top notch dog trainer without a strong relationship with that dog.  Now it may or may not be "your" idea of the relationship that you cultivate or would want with your dog, but that's not your choice to make any more than it would be your choice to tell any human parent how to raise their human child.  Let the dog's attitude in the ring reflect the relationship.  You will be hard pressed to find consistently top achieving dogs slinking around the ring in fear.  And let's take a minute for some honesty here.  You know good and well that just as many dogs that are trained with primarily positive methods are stressy and walk around the ring as if it's a death march as any other dogs.  Is there anything you've done to your dog to make him/her behave that way?  Why is your dog like that?  You must have done something to that dog.  Poor pup, I feel so bad for him.  Are you a horrible person or something?  Why are you continuing to compete with a dog who is clearly showing you that he/she doesn't want to be there?  Wow, that was awful judge-y of me to ask all those questions and make all those assumptions when I don't know you or you and your dog's relationship, wasn't it?  Hopefully, point taken.  Just shut up and train.

5.  Stop blaming "an increase" in dog attacks during group exercises on "positive training."  Firstly, until anyone can definitively prove to me that there has, in fact, been an increase in dog attacks over the past 10 - 15 years, I will continue to consider this claim to be pure and utter hogwash.  Like I said, I've been in this game for over 30 years now and there have always been dog attacks.  Again, back in the dark ages you would only know about it if you happened to be at that particular trial or by word of mouth from someone who had been.  However,  in today's world of social media and the ability to spread information (whether factual or otherwise) instantaneously to the rest of the world with the click of a mouse, word travels fast.  So just because we hear about it more often doesn't necessarily mean there's been an actual increase.  Secondly, as I've already pointed out above, EVERYONE is a balanced trainer anyway, so this mythical "purely positive" obedience competitor you speak of is non-existent.  I have yet to see a trial entry form requesting exhibitors to describe how they've trained their dog, so this claim would never be able to be substantiated anyway.  Now one thing I will say is a dog being out of control in the ring, breaking a stay and/or initiating an attack can definitely be chalked up to ineffective training and obviously a handler entering a dog too soon, regardless of training methods.  In that case, everyone needs to just shut up and train, and that too, would be taken care of.

6.  If you have time to argue over training methods, I envy you.  I have had so many significant challenges in my life the past 15 years or so, I'm just happy to have the time and energy to make it into an obedience ring these days.  It is all I can do to focus my attention and energies on my own dog and my own training, let alone concern myself about anyone else's.  I am just happy and grateful to wake up in morning, be able to get myself out of bed and be able to squeeze in training my own dog.  If I am able to make it to the occasional obedience trial, I really don't care who else is there.  All I want is our performance to reflect the training WE'VE put in.  I am a firm believer you get back what you put in.  If I've put in consistent and effective training that should land us in the ribbons, and yes, then that is what I will hope for.   if I know I haven't quite put in the time to expect that type of performance, then I'm not going to have sour grapes and start complaining about the training methods used by those who beat me.  Talk about poor sportsmanship.  If you have all this time on your hands and you aren't getting the performances that put you in the ribbons, you know what I'm going to say.  For the love of Pete, please, first get down on your knees and thank your lucky stars, then shut up and train.

Those who know me know that I use use and teach positive training methods , but I am also an equal opportunity "getcha" and have tried my best to keep this blog as "balanced" (there goes that word again) as possible.  So if you happen to see me competing at an obedience trial and my dog and my performance is less than stellar, please don't blame my training methods.  Feel free to blame my overall training skills, lack of preparedness and readiness for the ring on that given day.  Whew, this is hard to admit, especially publicly, but who am I kidding.  I know full well I'm not the trainer I once was.  Having been ravaged by chronic illness and surgeries, I sometimes feel like a stranger in my own body.  Some days my timing is way off, my body just won't move as quickly as I would like and I'm unsteady on my feet.  There are many days I am just too exhausted to train.  Fortunately, my wonderful, accommodating and forgiving dogs do their best to take up my slack, but my decline is piercingly and painfully apparent.  But this is also why I am so grateful to just be able to be out there enjoying the sport that got me interested in dogs in the first place all those years ago when I was a young woman and my body was whole.  And that's why, rather than get caught up in all this bickering, I plan to just shut up and train for as long as I'm still able to.  I suggest you do so as well.

Do Dogs Really Love Us "Unconditionally?" 

I know we certainly like to say they do, but do they really? First, let’s examine “unconditional love.” It’s defined as the act of loving fully, unabashedly and beyond any limitations. It is a love that knows no bounds, is constant and remains unchanged regardless of the actions or behavior of the recipient. I definitely would say that when dogs love, they do so fully and unabashedly, with all of their being. I think it’s the only way they know how. But will they really give all their love without any conditions? Having witnessed hundreds and hundreds of relationships between people and their dogs, sorry, but my answer would have to be “no.” But I don’t see that as a bad thing at all.

Just like every other living, breathing being, dogs have needs and they will give their loyalty and affection to whomever fulfills those needs. In basic terms, our dogs do love us because we provide for them. This is the same reason that in the wild, dogs will remain with their pack. Instinctively they know their chances of survival are increased if they remain with a group that can provide them with food and protection than going it alone.  What if we stopped feeding our dogs? If dogs really loved us unconditionally, wouldn’t that mean they would continue to give us their undying attention and devotion indefinitely? Only if they were trapped and couldn’t get away. Believe me, if they had an exit, they would leave. Now, I will say this. Dogs would try their hardest to remain with us for as long as they could before leaving and would give us every opportunity to resume our role as provider. However their animalistic will for survival would (or at least should) eventually kick in and they would have to leave to either start fending for themselves or, more likely, find another provider. That doesn’t make them disloyal. That makes them, well, smart. And what about dogs that are abused and mistreated? Will they still give affection to their abusers? Sadly, yes, they will. But again, that is because they usually have no other options. A better experiment would be to provide those dogs with options. Allow them to move freely between two different homes, both which set out food for him, but in one, the humans shout at him, throw things at him, and show him no affection whatsoever, and the other the humans are gentle, provide loving touch and play with him. Where do you think that dog would spend the most time? In fact, I’d put money on that eventually that dog would stop going over to the abusive home entirely, even if they put Filet Mignon in the bowl! So, dogs do have conditions.

The relationships between dogs and humans that I’ve witnessed through the years have not been equal. Some relationships and bonds are much richer, deeper and stronger than others. The closer bonds have been between the people who’ve worked hard to create those connections by spending more quality time with their dogs and being fair, benevolent leaders. Mutual trust is the basis for any quality relationship, and that includes those between dogs and humans. A dog that knows what is expected of him and feels safe will be much more relaxed and willing to give freely. If you have that with your dog, don’t take it for granted. He is choosing to give that to you because you’ve earned it.

What Is a "Dog Person" 

~As published in the Stafford County Sun, May 8, 2015

According to the 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook, over 36% of households in the United States own dogs. Because many are multi-dog households, that translates into over 43 million dogs living among us. That’s a lot of dogs! So it might seem logical to say we are a nation full of “dog people.” Not necessarily. It depends on how you define a “dog person.”

You see, to me, a “dog person” is so much more than just a person who has a dog. A dog person not only has or “owns” a dog, but becomes so connected to the dog in his/her life that he or she wouldn’t be who they are without a dog in their life. We lost such a person last week. Linda Wandrick of Widewater Linda walked through the doors at my dog training facility over eight years ago with her very active, rambunctious yellow Labrador Retriever puppy named Muffin, who I later affectionately dubbed “my Muffskins.” Throughout that time, I watched her take that puppy from your typical high strung, pulling on the leash, scooting around with the zoomies young Lab to an exceptional therapy dog that people marveled at. I do not think her journey was any kind of preconceived notion. To the contrary, she started taking dog training classes for the same reason most others do. She wanted a dog she could walk without pulling her arm out of her socket and would come back when called. No, this all happened because it was more so a natural progression that resulted from the strong bond and mutual love, respect and devotion the two built through the years. Mind you, I am definitely not saying this happened by accident. Absolutely not. Linda put major effort into building this partnership and relationship with Muffin. It was come by from her seizing every opportunity to train, socialize and yes, just have fun with her dog. She participated in everything she could. In fact, I can't even remember a single Christmas party, Halloween costume party or major event held at our training facility or in the Stafford community that Linda had not been present. Muffin had more costumes, more decorative dog collars and leashes, fit for any occasion, than any dog I have ever known. She was Linda’s best friend. That’s a dog person.

There are many things I can't tell you about Linda Wandrick. I don't know her favorite color. I don't know her favorite movie, TV show, or even where she was born. But here is what I do know. She was kind. I never heard her utter a harsh word or even insinuate anything negative about any other person. Ever. She was giving. She logged hundreds of hours in therapy dog work with Muffin and the two became a fixture at Stafford Hospital, spreading smiles to help others feel better. She loved her human family too, always speaking highly of them and often brought them with her to dog events. She even got her adult daughter Sharon to start attending training classes with her own dogs as well. She had a great laugh. It was one of those deep, down in the belly gurgling laughs that you never forget. And lastly, she was the quintessential dog person. The connection she had with Muffin, who also passed away less than 2 years ago, was as strong a bond between a human and dog as I have ever seen and that wasn’t a fluke because she was well on her way to cultivating a similar bond with her newest Labrador Retriever, Willow. Heaven not only gained an angel. It gained a dog person to help out with all the dogs at the Rainbow Bridge.


Things I Learned at the 2015 Dalmatian National Specialty 

Now that I'm home from a really fun and great week at the Dalmatian Club of America National Specialty, here are some of the things I learned, (and things that I already knew but have been confirmed):

1. Dalmatians are stunningly beautiful dogs. I know, you're probably thinking "duh," what else would you expect me to say. Yes, I'm biased, but seriously, the next time you are at a dog show, take a step back, throw away all your preconceived notions about them and take a look with an open mind. Check out their structure, movement, distinct, striking and unique markings and color patterns. If you throw away your biases, I'm sure you'll agree with me. smile emoticon They are really magnificent dogs.

2. Dalmatian people are crazy. But wait. So are Maltese people (been to the national specialty and have the T-shirt), and Aussie people (know a bunch), and Border Collie people (know a bunch), and Chihuahua people (know a bunch), so forth and so on, you get the picture. ALL dog people are crazy to varying degrees, but each group thinks they are a "special kind of crazy." Nope. The dogs may be different, but we're all the same. That's why national specialties are so awesome. All that craziness gathered in one place!

3. National specialties are an altered universe. You are in a place where everyone else there loves your breed, loves your dog, understands their quirks and you no longer have to apologize or make excuses for the little white hairs on your clothes or that your dog just got all over them. They get it.

4. Anything else going on in the world doesn't matter. Heck, I didn't even know what day it was. And dear hotel manager, don't waste your time putting the daily newspaper in front of my door. I'm not going to read it. I don't care to know about all the horrible things that are happening "out there." I'm happy to be blissfully ignorant to all the goings on until I'm forced kicking and screaming back into reality again.

5. Mulch is just like kitty litter and makes picking up poop much easier.

6. Dog performance sports are indeed on the rise. This year's Dal specialty had the most agility, obedience and rally entries than ever before! The Triathlete Award that William and I (and 10 others) achieved could have been one of the reasons. There were a lot of teams striving for that so please pass on to your national specialty committees. An award like that is a huge draw!

7. Ellis and I survived his conformation debut. How did he do? He didn't jump on the judge, he didn't poop in the ring, and he didn't make me fall. No ribbon but I am counting all of the above as a major WIN. Now, back to training!

8. God bless pet friendly hotels. Despite the fact that there are always going to be people who don't clean up their dog's poop and will leave their barking and/or howling dogs in the room unattended, somehow there are still a lot of hotels/motels willing to accept pets. I will do my best to continue to give these establishments my business, be the best guest I can be and thank them for making pet owners a priority.

9. When you travel with your dog(s) you never feel alone.

10. Those who are convinced that breeding purebred dogs is wrong or evil really need to go to a national specialty (of any breed) so you can meet the people who have dedicated their lives to improve and preserve their breed. These are not rich people - or at least if they are rich, they did not come by those riches from breeding dogs. In fact, it is much more likely most have lost incredible amounts of money through the years. In addition to breeding, most if not all devote equal time to rescuing, fostering and placing dogs in forever homes. Dog breeding has certainly not been perfect and is not without its problems, but if you go to a specialty there are no backyard breeders here. Instead, you will meet people who have devoted 30, 40 and 50+ years to their breed and they do so for the love of the breed.

'Twas The Night Before The Rally Trial 

'Twas the Night Before The Rally Trial (mega condensed version)

'Twas the night before the rally trial and all through the facility, all students had left the building, even those crazy for agility. 

The course maps were placed neatly on the tables with care, because soon anxious handlers would be grabbing them from the air. 

The dogs laid quietly sensing they'd been here before, watching their handlers cut hotdogs and cheese sticks galore.

The judges hoped their courses would be both challenging and fun, and there'd be plenty of Q's and placements to be won.

Remember to breathe, smile and look down to the end of your lead, and thank your canine partner no matter the breed.

He (or she) is there for you, when he'd certainly rather be playing ball. But he knows this makes you happy, so he is there at your beck and call.

And soon all the hours and hours of practice will be put to the test. Remember scores do not matter as long as you've done your best.

Rally should be quality time with your friend. As far as relationship building goes, I highly recommend.

So, hug your dog, kick up your feet, relax and turn out the light. Happy Rally-ing to All and to All a Good Night!

There's No Crying In Dog Sports 

By Laurie C. Williams CPDT-KA
Or getting angry (especially at your dog), or throwing a tantrum and storming off, or blaming everyone and everything other than your lack of practice, training, and/or ring readiness. And yet it seems I am seeing these things happen more and more these days, especially from those who are relatively new to dog sport competition. Full disclosure, I have cried myself after a very poor performance. I've been at this game for more than 30 years now so I'm not going to even try to portray that I haven't had my own moments of weakness. But that's exactly what it was, weakness, and the cloud of shame that came over me afterwards in turn forced me to reflect on what exactly was going on in my head and causing the momentary breakdown. I don't have a problem with anyone being competitive and wanting your performance to reflect the time you've put into the training for that particular sport.  Healthy competition is fine, but the operative word is "healthy." When your participation in a sport leads you to sadness, disappointment and/or very unsportsmanlike behavior, it's the opposite of healthy. And then there's our teammates, our dogs.  What happens to them amongst all the anger, crying, disappointment and blaming? Don't think for a moment that they don't feel it all. We all know every emotion we feel travels right down the leash and is absorbed by our dogs. What message are we sending them about what just happened? What associations are we making for them? Is this the mental picture we want etched into their brains about being our teammate? And then we wonder why so many dogs become "ringwise."

So, how can we avoid these emotions taking over after a less than stellar performance?

1. By remembering any extracurricular activity we do with our dogs is supposed to be FUN, first and foremost. If you can't ensure that both you and your dog will go into and come out of the ring or competition feeling like you've had fun, don't do it.

2. Your dog did not ask to be there, and yet your dog is participating FOR you and trying to do the best he/she can. Trust me when I say, your dog would just assume be playing a game of fetch with you in the back yard or laying with you on the sofa. He is doing this because you want him to and therefore you owe him a debt of gratitude and part of that debt is paying him well, with love and lots of rewards regardless of what happens in the ring.

3. Realize it's quite possible, actually quite probable that you just weren't ready. You may be logging a lot of hours training and practicing, but maybe it's time to analyze your practice. Although I don't necessarily like the emphasis being on "perfection" as the goal, I do like what the late coach Vince Lombardi says about practice. "Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect." So, is your practice perfect? I see this a lot with people when they are transitioning from on to off leash work, for example. The first thing I ask my students is, "is your performance ON leash perfect?" If not, why would you expect your off leash performance to be even close?

4. Your partner is a dog, not a computer. No matter what you've trained there will be times your dog will remind you of this. Learn to deal with it, even better, laugh about it, or get out of the game.

5.  Reflect on why this is all so important to you to begin with. What is it about your life as a whole, your self worth and esteem that makes what happens in a competitive dog sport hold so much importance? And then ask yourself if it is fair to put all this pressure on your dog? I think you know the answer. It might be time for you to take up competitive chess, Scrabble or something that will not put pressure on anyone other than yourself.

6.  Training is a journey and a continual learning experience and each dog you train and each ring experience will in turn help you become a better trainer. Or at least it should if you let it.

7.  And this one is for those specifically working with their "Novice A" dogs, or their "practice dogs," as I like to call them. Hey, learn to take your lumps!  I guess it's all part of this fast food mentality that has permeated our society that has made us all very impatient. We want instant gratification, and when we don't get it, by way of a Q or a placement, then something has to be wrong and/or someone or something is to blame such as the judge, the weather, your trainer, the leaf that fell off a previous competitor's shoe and was left in the ring right at the starting line, your husband forgetting to buy the hotdogs, Obama.  Whatever.   I also think social media has a lot to do with this as well. We all now have a forum to post our "wins" instantly as they happen and receive accolades and "likes" galore as further validation. Naturally, that can make it doubly disappointing when we have nothing to report. If this is impacting you, keep your trialing schedule to yourself and stay off Facebook.  One of my favorite things to do is sneak off to trials, telling no one other than my husband and maybe a close friend or two. I am able to trial in peace, with no pressure to report or expectations from others. I've had some of my best ring performances this way.

8. Read some books on sports psychology.  There are some great ones out there. Part of being a great competitor is learning how not only to win with dignity, but also to lose with grace and learn from those losses.  To get you started, peruse through these:

9. WWTD (What Would Timmy Do?).  If I had to name the quintessential "perfect" dog owner in history it's gotta be Timmy Martin, of "Timmy and Lassie" fame. I remember his relationship with Lassie was nothing short of magical and the bond the two of them shared, though fictional, was based on love, trust and exceptional teamwork and communication, one we all should strive for. They went through a lot together, some very traumatic experiences, but they always emerged even closer than before, and with a nice moral to the story to go with it. Could you imagine if Timmy and Lassie had ever run agility? If Timmy could send Lassie back to the farm to inform his parents that he had fallen in a well, surely sending her to a tunnel and A-Frame would have been a piece of cake!   She'd have surely been MACH100 Lassie!

10.  In the end, it's just a game. I think we have it all backwards. We train and train with going to trial and earning Q's and titles being our objective, the end all, be all.  However in the grande scheme of things what happens in the ring during those few short minutes is insignificant. Relationships with our dogs are not made in the ring or on the field.  Those are made in all those thousands of hours leading up to and following.  Keep that your focus and don't damage it because things didn't go as you would have liked for those few short minutes.