Winter Fun and Games

This morning’s temperature hovered at zero and the wind chill of -7 or colder motivated Sasha to set a new speed record in the yard.  With brutal cold predicted for days to come, I’m going to be smart and substitute indoor work for our daily neighborhood walks. Fortunately, Sasha enjoys any sort of training time. Recently, I’ve challenged her to go beyond obedience drills to working through games, puzzles, and tricks. Teaching tricks is a great way to mentally challenge your dog, help them focus, and have fun with you!

Sasha earned her Novice Trick Dog title in December, and she enjoyed that so much we’re aiming for her Intermediate title. The tricks I’m sharing today include some that we learned at a recent seminar held at the NWA School for Dogs. If you can’t attend a training seminar, you can go the DIY route and watch the video links included in this post. (There are a LOT of videos freely available on YouTube.)

If you and your dog are new to tricks, start with brief sessions when you’re both relaxed and interested. Sasha, for example, tends to be more focused when I break our workout sessions into 10-15 minutes blocks.  Most importantly, have fun with your dog!

One of Sasha’s favorite tricks is the Scent Trick. Place tennis balls in a muffin tin, then hide a savory treat (bits of hot dog, cheese, chicken, or anything special) under one of the balls. Place it on the floor and let your dog use its nose to find the treat. I started with a 6-muffin tin and placed treats under 4 of the 6 balls, and then once she understood the game I gradually reduced the number of treats, and then used a larger muffin tin with just a couple of treats hidden. If your dog gets frustrated when the muffin tin slides around, try placing it on a non-skid mat.

Some dogs like to nudge the ball out with their nose, while others use their paws. (Sasha’s a nose girl with this game.) If your dog flips the tin over to get the treats, try wedging the tin under something sturdy to discourage that quick solution and make him think. Here’s the basic how-to:

If your dog enjoys the challenge of scent training, you can play hide-and-seek using a treat-stuffed sock or a Kong toy. Put your dog in a sit-stay, then give your dog time to catch the scent by sniffing the sock. For the first round, I recommend letting the dog see where you place the sock/toy. Return to your dog and tell them “Find it” or “Fetch” or whatever command you want to use. Remember to be consistent with your commands.

Some prefer to have the dog return to you with the “find” for their reward. When I want Sasha to return to me with the item, I use the command “Bring it.” Adapt to suit your dog’s interest and ability level. Be sure to praise the find and reward with a piece of whatever treat’s in the sock/toy. Once your dog understands the game, increase the challenge by placing the object out of sight, gradually increasing the distance and difficulty.

Another fun trick is the Spin. Lure with a treat at nose level while dog is standing. Encourage your dog to follow the scent as you move your hand in a large circle. Go slow, and be patient!  If they stop before making the entire circle, treat where they stop, then go a bit further next time. If you use a clicker, click and treat; otherwise, use verbal praise. Here’s a “how to” demonstration:

Trick training can be a great way to help your dog learn basic tasks. Here’s how to teach your dog to carry a basket:

Ready for something a bit more physical? Try the Weave. Fair warning: this one takes a bit of balance!

Start with your dog on your left, then spread your legs. Holding a yummy treat in your right hand so it’s visible, coax your dog to move between your legs as you lure the dog through your legs and around to your right. Repeat going the opposite direction. Here’s a visual:

If you’re working with a big dog, you may want to teach them to Crawl first so they can more easily move between your legs. In this demonstration, you’ll see the trainer places her hand on the dog’s back. It’s important to note that she is not pressing down or forcing the dog in any way!

Whatever you choose to do, make it fun for you and your dog!

Safe Travels, Everyone!

Sasha’s longest car trip (that we know of) was our first day together, when we drove hours through the Ozarks and across Oklahoma’s tallgrass prairie to bring her home. For a rescue dog that had been handed off from one place to another, a long car journey with strangers was one stress too many.  Since then, though, we’ve taken short trips about town to gradually acclimate her to car travel. Nowadays, “Car” means another happy adventure is on the horizon. She’s equally comfortable secured with her seat harness or zipped into her travel crate, although she clearly prefers being right next to me. We’ve gone to training, the park, pet store, and her favorite Lowes store. We’ve even visited the vet clinic just to say hello and step on the scale, and those casual visits resulted in a calmer dog come annual check-up time.  In the photo here, she’s at the drive-through, waiting patiently for her post-training reward of cheese while I pick up lunch.

Even though she’s a much better traveler now, we’re staying close to home. According to the American Auto Association a record-breaking 107 million people will be on the road and in the air in the coming days, and many will be traveling with pets. If you plan to be among those traveling, here are some tips from AKC GoodDog! Helpline Trainer Breanne Long to help ease the stress of travel for our four-legged family members.

The best way for any pet to travel is in a crate or seat belt harness. This is safest for you. You won’t have a pet bouncing around the car distracting you (or worse, in your lap!), and safest for your pet since he could get banged up or even ejected from the car in the case of an accident. If your dog is uncomfortable in the car, try feeding him his meals in the vehicle, first with the car off, then gradually work up to the car running, and then driving slowly. Make sure to have a second person driving the car, so you can keep an eye on your dog without driving while distracted. Throughout this process, as your dog eats his meals, drop treats into the crate or into his bowl.

Breanne has excellent tips for air travel with dogs, too. Check out those tips and the rest of the article here.

Some good reminders:

  • Be prepared. Take food, water, and bowls, any medications, and a first-aid kit. Remember extra collars, leashes, and tags. Toss in some cleaning supplies, too; I keep wet wipes, white vinegar, baking soda, and old towels in the car in case of accidents. And remember to take along vet clinic and current microchip info. If your dog is lost while you’re traveling, a microchip may be his best chance to getting home to you.
  • Keep photos handy. I keep Sasha’s AKC registration photos on my phone; they show her standing in profile and face-on. I also have photos of her in sit-stay and down-stay positions to make it easy for someone to recognize her if she’s ever lost.
  • Schedule breaks along the way. Choose a safe place and always keep your dog leashed while out of the vehicle. Avoid high traffic areas whenever possible, and give your dog time to explore. The few extra minutes you spend at a rest stop can help your dog enjoy the journey.

© Creative Commons public domain

For more tips on traveling with your dog, visit http://dogsaholic.com and learn how to manage hyperactive dogs, backseat barkers, and more. You might also enjoy reading TripAdvisor’s tips from experts for safe travel with your pets. For more, be sure to check out the AKC’s complete guide to traveling with your dog.

And whether you’re planning a cross-country trek or a jaunt across town, remember that a little planning can lead to better travel experience for all involved. If you’re venturing out to someplace new, check out the pet-friendly hotels, restaurants, events, and more along your route at https://www.bringfido.com/.

Whatever, wherever, and however you celebrate, Sasha and Buddy The Wonder Cat join me in wishing you the merriest of holidays!

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A Day To Remember

Monday morning walks can be a challenge, and today was no exception. Sasha was on high alert right from the start, with barks aplenty at anything and everything that moved. The incessant wind gusts didn’t help, either; this is one dog who does not appreciate leaves and dust swirling around her face.  She was already worked up and fussy when we turned a corner and saw a group of young boys playing ball far down the street and several men visiting on the opposite sidewalk.  Males of all ages, unfortunately, seem to be a trigger for Sasha, and she’s quick to voice her disapproval.  The usual “leave it” and “let’s go” and “walk on” didn’t work at all, and she looked set to bark her way down the block–and it’s a long block. That’s when inspiration struck.

Training Time! I’ve no idea why it never occurred to me to run a mini-training session in the neighborhood, but today was the day. It was wonderful to see her snap to attention when she realized what we were doing. We worked through the different positions to include both the right-side sit from front center and the left heel from front center and the “circle round me” heel to end in a sit on my left. There’s a limit to what I can do without dropping the leash, but I got creative with a few rounds of sit-stay, down-stay, and having her in a down while I walked around her and stepped over her to re-position myself.  Sasha loved it. The generous dispensing of treats helped, of course, but this girl loves to be mentally challenged.

After that little session, Sasha walked on, clearly pleased with her performance. She didn’t bark or even alert on the people as we went by, which is something of a minor miracle. (Hey, she’s a Sheltie. She talks. To everybody.)  The people, however, certainly noticed her! One of the adults gave us a thumbs-up and a big grin as we went by.

 

Training Time is typically on the 30-foot long line at the park, when we work on the long down-stay, recall, and down on command. Smart Sheltie that she is, she knows the long line means play time and training, and she’s always ready for fun! And then there’s indoor Training Time, which goes back to our first days together when we realized that loud noises scared her and the sound of the coffee bean grinder sent her scrambling to hide. It took a long time, but now the sound of the coffee supplies coming out has her quivering with joyous anticipation, because she knows that it’s time to go through the paces and earn a treat. We’ve progressed to practice off-leash heeling in the house as part of Coffee Time Treats, with Buddy The Wonder Cat perched on a tall stool watching the action. Today’s session, though, is the first outside in the neighborhood while walking with the standard 6-foot leather leash.  Now that I’ve seen how excited she became at the idea of a walk-time work session, we’ll be doing this again, and often.

 

The BEST news, though, came thirty minutes later. We’d walked around the neighborhood and were approaching the local park when I saw an (always) off-leash dog and owner headed our way. I told Sasha “Cross” (I’ve taught her to pause on the sidewalk until she hears that command) and off we went, angling away from the unleashed dog.  Sasha stayed focused on me and (of course) the treat in my hand. We actually passed within 20 feet of the dog without so much as a mumble, grumble, or growl. Now, it’s possible Sasha never saw the dog, although that’s highly unlikely, as she’s prone to alert on movement two blocks away. Whatever the reason, she stayed focused on me and walked calmly forward until I gave her a well-deserved reward in the form of a bigger-than-usual treat.

We may never reach the point when Sasha is able to calmly walk past any dog without reacting, but today was a shining example of what’s possible. For that, I’m grateful.

The Collar Challenge

From flat-buckle to martingale collars and beyond to harnesses of all sorts–choosing the right equipment for your dog can be a real challenge! Before you go shopping, it’s a good idea to know that the dog’s breed, temperament, and strength (think “pull power”) should influence your decision.

You’ll find an ongoing debate in the dog world over the effectiveness of training tools, to include collars. My own fictional dog trainer and kennel owner Maggie Porter has firm opinions about training tools and styles. Here’s Maggie in Deadly Ties (#1 in the Waterside Kennels mystery series) addressing newcomers in a basic obedience class:

“…. Our goal is to develop good citizenship skills. That means teaching your dog to be well-mannered in all situations, and not to be intimidated by strangers, other dogs, or unfamiliar noises. A well-trained dog is a happy dog. And that takes dedication, patience, and discipline.

“But don’t confuse discipline with punishment,” Maggie warned. “Correction is limited to what’s necessary to get the job done, and it doesn’t mean endangering your animal. I will not tolerate verbal or physical abuse of any animal, and that includes using dangerous or excessive equipment. You should use the lightest possible collar and leash. Nylon or leather leashes work best, and we’ll only use nylon slip collars during class. You’ll find all the equipment you need right here. You won’t find any prong or spike collars—I don’t allow them in my kennel.”

“My breeder told me that’s the only kind worth using,” a woman objected. At her side, a Rottweiler pup strained against his heavy choke collar and chain leash. “He says one correction with a spike collar works better than a dozen pulls on those soft collars. And besides, Adolph will grow out of a nylon collar.”

“If you correct properly, you won’t need frequent pulls on the collar. Besides a risk of damaging vocal cords, spike collars motivate through fear. That’s not the way I train.”

So…how to choose the best collar for your dog? Read on for suggestions from experts!

In this video clip, British dog trainer Victoria Stilwell discusses collar options from “great choices” to “really bad ones” (see the accompanying article for more info):

If you prefer text over video, check out this excerpt of the article “Choosing the Right Collar or Harness for Your Dog” written by Breanne Long for the American Kennel Club:

These days, there is a very wide array of dog collars, harnesses, and other contraptions made to help you walk your dog more easily. Store shelves are full of training and walking implements, and it can be confusing for owners trying to select the best one for their canine buddy.

This guide will help you decide what type is right for you and your dog!

  1. Flat-buckle collar. This is the most basic piece of dog-related equipment — a plain collar that snaps or buckles closed. Many people use this type of collar to keep identification and rabies tags on their dogs. This is a great option for dogs that aren’t prone to slipping out of the collar and that walk nicely on a leash.

    buckle_collar

  2. Martingale collar. This type of collar is a limited slip-type collar. It does tighten around your dog’s neck when there is tension on the leash, but it can only tighten as much as the adjustment allows. This helps protect against throat damage that can occur with traditional choke chains. This type of collar is perfect for dogs that tend to back out of their collars. You can see in the photo that the leash attaches to the control loop, which can tighten or loosen with tension on the leash.

    martingale_collar

To read the entire article–which includes great info about harness options–visit http://www.akc.org/content/dog-training/articles/choosing-collar-or-harness-for-dog/.

***

In Dangerous Deeds (#2 in my Waterside Kennels series; now in the publication pipeline), Maggie and her entire staff find themselves embroiled in a community fight over a proposed breed ban. As you might expect, Maggie doesn’t believe specific breed legislation is effective, and she’s definitely no fan of “aversive” equipment and training techniques. When the topic of “shock” and the so-called “no bark” collars comes up, you can expect Maggie to get vocal (no pun intended) about these choices.

For the record, I personally believe in positive reinforcement and force-free training techniques. In the past 18 months, I’ve found that a martingale collar (with tags included) combined with daily training time and lots of loving attention works best  for my own Sasha. In the house she wears a quick-release flat buckle collar with tags since we routinely train with leash in the house and backyard.

If you are unfamiliar with force-free training and associated equipment, I hope you’ll explore the many resources online and consider how this might improve the quality of life for you and your dog.

 

Outsmarted by a Sheltie

We’ve been working on our own version of the  ‘engage-disengage’ game.  (If you want the longer explanation with examples of the engage-disengage game, read my post titled Look at her now! ) Today, Sasha added her own twist.

“I’m cute & clever, too!”

Once Sasha disengages from barking at an approaching dog, I verbally “click” and treat. Ironically, we haven’t encountered many dogs while walking in the past few weeks, so Sasha apparently decided a creative adaptation was needed. On today’s walk she paused, barked briefly–at nothing I could see–and then looked at me for her treat.

She then proceeded to test her “bark followed by no-bark gets me treats” strategy by responding to dogs barking behind fences, dogs in houses, and (being an equal opportunity barker) at two kittens dozing in the sunshine across the street.

One thing’s for sure: training is never boring where Shelties are concerned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Look at her now!

When Sasha first came to us last year, she was terrified of loud noises (clickers at obedience class frightened her senseless), anxious around strangers (men in particular), had no leash skills to speak of, and tended to be very vocal around other dogs. And judging from the condition of her coat and skin, grooming was an unknown experience. To appreciate how much has changed, here are “then” and “now” photos:

Surrendered to sheriff February 2016

Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to “now” took a lot of patience and training supplemented by good food, grooming, and veterinary care. Our biggest challenge has been managing her reactivity to cyclists, vehicles, and DOGS. Sasha’s never been the kind of dog who appreciates the up-close-and-too-personal sniff and greet, but after she was jumped by off-leash dogs, her fear level went sky-high. I’ve dedicated hours to what I think of as targeted training and positive reinforcement.

We started with “Look at that!” (LAT training) to help her react calmly to cyclists and vehicles, and Sasha has reached the point where she rarely reacts to bikes, cars, and trucks. And while I was pleased with our progress using LAT training, I needed expert help to keep her moving when other dogs came into view. I turned to certified trainer Shanthi Steddum KPA-CTP who runs the Northwest Arkansas School for Dogs. With Shanthi’s help, we’re making good progress using the Engage-Disengage game. After just a few sessions (supplemented by daily at-home training time), Sasha is noticeably calmer and confident in the presence of other dogs. If you’re inclined to watch, fast-forward to the 5:23 point to see the first dog come close, and then 13:50 for the second dog’s approach. They make me laugh about the 14:25 mark when they’re clearly having a 10-second silent conversation, and again at 14:36 when the “neutral” dog breaks first!

And notice I’m using a clicker here–that’s another step forward for us. There’s a limit, though, to Sasha’s tolerance for the clicker, so I use verbal clicks and say yes or good instead. Her tolerance level varies from day to day (true for all of us, I think), so I adjust as needed.

And isn’t she gorgeous???

If you have a reactive dog, working on engage-disengage may help you!

For the text lovers among us, check out Alice Tong’s article Reducing Leash Reactivity: The Engage-Disengage Game I found on Karen Pryor’s clicker training site. Here’s an infographic from that article illustrating the basic steps (click to enlarge):

 

If you prefer video over text, these may be useful to you:

Both Sasha and I are learning as we go. For my part, I’m getting better at interpreting her body language and vocal signals. If we pass a house with dogs in the back yard, for example, Sasha will bark (hey, she’s a Sheltie!); sometimes it’s a quick bark or two, and other times it’s a clear “conversation” between the two! If she freezes in place at the sight of another dog, I stand still and secure the leash without pulling on her martingale collar.  I don’t say anything but ever since I started counting silently, I’ve realized she’ll bark up to a count of 11 (sometimes less) and then disengage by looking away and/or back at me. Then it’s treat time and we move on. Progress indeed!

My next goal is helping Sasha develop confidence in calmly walking with other dogs and walking past other dogs without comment. (I still have the Canine Good Citizen “Reaction to Another Dog” test item in mind.) Stay tuned!

“Staycation” Canine Style

“Is your dog stressed?” © paddingtonpups.com.au

Does your own sweet dog turn into a Dogzilla when suffering from excess stimulation? Is the heat turning your routine activities into a stress test and making both of you miserable? Maybe it’s time to give yourselves a break and relax. I’m talking about a staycation for you and your pooch.

When the outside world gets too much, maybe it’s time to make the most of “at home” training and play time. You’ll hear lots of experts (and others who like to think they’re experts) insist you must walk your dog daily or you are a Bad Person. While I absolutely agree that dogs need regular activity, I’m not convinced that translates to activities in sensory-saturated environments, or forcing your dog to endure hot sidewalks that can blister their paws.

Instead, indulge yourselves in short sessions at varied intervals. Schedule outdoor activities for cooler parts of the day. And when the heat’s too much, there are plenty of activities to help your dog chill out while keeping physically and mentally exercised. Here are a few of my personal favorites to keep Sasha mentally alert and happy, and reduce stress all round.

Work For It! Give your dog a chore in exchange for treats, meals, and (most important) time with you!  My own Sasha shows off her sit and wait skills before breakfast and dinner, and works through down-stay, come, stop (a hard one!) followed by another down then come and heel to finish around to my left where she sits for her well-deserved reward of a special yummy treat.  Treats are also on the menu when she jogs down the drive with me to the mailbox and we go through basic drills, mixed up to reduce her habit of anticipating what I want next. We practice fast and slow heeling and turnabouts while patrolling the back yard for dog waste, as well.

Find it! Treat balls which require dexterity and persistence to release tasty tidbits are a big hit, too. I’d thought that would be a great activity to keep Sasha mentally engaged and moving about while I worked, but she added a layer of fun all her own by rolling the ball under furniture or behind doors, and then asking me to retrieve it. And being a Sheltie, her “ask” tends to be loud so I stay close to cut off the bark fest before it gets out of hand. Since that means I play most of the treat game with her, we get plenty of bonding time and everyone’s happy.

We also play the “Find it!” game with Buddy the Wonder Cat as our target. This tends to be the most fun when we’re in the yard and Buddy can run behind shrubs and crouch beneath the branches of the old forsythia. Inside, I rely on hiding Sock Monkey or her stuffed duck and sending her in search of her toys.

Hide-and-Seek. This works best with at least two humans participating. One of us puts Sasha is a sit-stay while the other hides out of sight and then the one hiding calls her by name or the person next to Sasha tells her to go search and “Find it!” This is a great backyard activity too! If you’d like to try this one at home, check out this link for a quick and easy how-to. Great game for kids, too!

Rally-O, Home Edition. Take communication between handler and dog to a higher level with Rally Obedience, commonly known as Rally-O. If you’re interested in getting involved with AKC events, go to http://www.akc.org/events/rally/resources/ for more information. And if competition doesn’t interest you, everyone can enjoy what I call the “home edition.” You can create your own “course” by choosing from a collection of skills, from basic to more advanced.  (See a list of the rally skills with images and descriptions here.) So far, Sasha and I have mastered the basics and are moving on to spirals, drop on recall, and the 270° right turn and the 270° left turn–which sounds easier than it is, at least for my uncoordinated feet!

Whether you want to compete or just enjoy some exercise and time with your dog, a “staycation” can be a great way to keep your dog mentally stimulated and physically well exercised without ever leaving home!