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/.

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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!

Play Nice: Good Manners, Canine Style

With warm weather on the horizon and a holiday weekend ahead, chances are you’ll see a lot more people out and about enjoying the outdoors with their dogs. Some dogs, like people, are super-social and love spending time with others. If you have a dog like this, a dog park might be a fun destination.  The website K9 of Mine has an excellent overview of the advantages and disadvantages of dog parks, do’s and don’ts, and dog-friendly alternatives if a dog park isn’t a good choice for you. It’s definitely worth reading the entire article. Find that here.

Before you turn your own Fido loose into a crowd of canine revelers, let’s review  what the AKC calls the common-sense rules of dog parks:

  • Should your pet show signs of illness or a contagious disease, don’t bring him/her to the park.

  • Don’t bring a puppy less than four months old or a female dog in heat.

  • Keep an eye on your dog! Don’t let your dog be aggressive with another dog.

  • Obviously, you should pick up after your dog.

  • Don’t bring food for yourself or your dog.

  • Bring a portable water bowl for your dog – water bowls at dog parks carry the risk of communicable illnesses.

  • Keep your small dog in the designated small-dog section of the park – even if he/she enjoys hanging out with the big dogs.

  • Bring a ball, but be prepared to lose it.

  • Don’t let your dog run in a pack. Intervene when play starts to get too rough

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For more helpful suggestions about dog parks, check out this handy poster from Tail Wags Playground (click to enlarge):

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Interested in establishing a dog park in your own community? Check out this infographic from the AKC or their handy guide, complete with success stories!

At the Crossroads of Fact and Fiction

In Dangerous Deeds (#2 in the series), Waterside Kennels owner and amateur sleuth Maggie Porter finds herself caught in the crossfire when community members take sides over a proposed “dangerous dog” ordinance to ban specific breeds. For the record, Maggie agrees with the AKC that breed-specific legislation (BLS) is not the way to go. Her refusal to support the ban leads to a smear campaign and a boycott organized by a few who want to seize Maggie’s property for their own. When one of those nefarious characters turns up dead on Maggie’s property, everyone at Waterside comes under suspicion.  Sheriff Lucas Johnson is forced to step aside because of his close ties to Maggie and her employees, and the lead investigator doesn’t seem inclined to look beyond the kennel to find the killer.

As you might expect, it’s a struggle to keep the kennel running amid a boycott and murder investigation. Fortunately, there’s a loyal group of customers who want to see Waterside Kennels stay in business. They ask Maggie to lead training classes as part of a “Good Dog!” campaign intended to promote responsible dog ownership. Maggie agrees, and preparation for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test is soon underway.

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At this point in the publishing timeline, I’m feeling a bit disjointed. While all ten items in the CGC test are in the book, Sasha and I are still working to master several of the items. (You and your dog must pass all ten to earn the title.) If you have a reactive dog, #8 might be the most challenging:

Test Item #8: Reaction to Another Dog. This test demonstrates that the dog can behave politely around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 20 feet, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries.

Sasha generally ignores other dogs when we’re at Lowes, PetSmart, or other dog-friendly businesses. Outside? That’s a different story. Sasha’s been charged by off-leash dogs on three different occasions, and it’s been a struggle to regain her confidence when another dog comes into view. If you have a reactive dog, here are a few ideas that may help reduce anxiety and boost confidence. “May” is the key word here, because what works for one dog might not work for another. And sometimes what works one day won’t work the next! When that happens, remind yourself that Every Day is Training Day #1, and go from there.

“Are you sure those dogs are friendly?”

Socialize. Since those encounters with unleashed aggressive dogs, Sasha tends to freeze and bark. LOUDLY.  To help rebuild her confidence, I joined a Pack Walk group to give her time around other leashed dogs. True to recent form, Sasha reacted to all the dogs who came anywhere close but no major panic outbursts, thankfully. She barked off and on (more on than off) as we followed the pack, with treats dispensed during every quiet lull. It occurred to me that she didn’t like to bring up the rear; when we reached a spot with a wide grassy verge we moved off and up so we were parallel. More quiet than bark, so of course TREATS!

After a few pack walks in April we took the plunge and went to the Dogwood WalkWith 450+ in the crowd, I admit to being nervous but Sasha clearly enjoyed the day. We started by taking some time to stroll across the open meadow so she could get a good look around.  She had quite a bit to say to a few of the smaller dogs who ventured too close, but otherwise seemed content to wander quietly along the booths. We stood in the shade next to a BIG retriever and she ignored her. Ditto the handsome Sheltie and adorable Pomeranian when their mom stopped to visit. And she was gracious in allowing some folks to offer her treats (provided by me) and to pet her. I adored the children who asked to pet her–and kudos to the parents who taught their children how to approach strange dogs and ask politely for permission to visit!

Train. There’s just no substitute for regular training.  I like to mix it up with quiet indoor training time (handy in April when the rain fell in torrents and flooding kept us home) and varied outdoor activities. There are a few places–and dogs–that seem to trigger Sasha’s nervous reaction, so I work hard to capture her attention and keep her focused on me when we hit those trigger spots. If I see neighbors approaching with leashed dogs, I’ll move to the other side of the street whenever possible, or at least get to the side and 10 feet away. I first tried following a trainers advice to put Sasha in a sit-stay with her back to the dog and to keep her focused on me, but quickly found greater success if she can see the other dog while in a safe position. What’s working for us: I put Sasha in a down-stay and we wait while the others pass us by. She rarely barks from that position (unless she’s very excited or stressed) and is more likely to carry on what I think of Sheltie-speak while she watches the dogs pass by.  I keep the ZiwiPeak air-dried venison treats  (expensive but worth it, and recommended by top trainer Dr. Ian Dunbar) as her special reward for being good around other dogs. The rest of the time I train using Pet Botanics Mini Training Rewards; they’re a soft low-calorie treat that’s easy to split into two.

Dr. Dunbar, by the way, has some wonderful material online. Check out http://www.dunbaracademy.com/ or this TED Talk, or connect with like-minded folks via his Facebook page.

Be happy. Dogs are downright brilliant when it comes to sensing emotions. Emotions travel up and down the leash! Let your dog know you’re happy to spend time together, and celebrate all the good things that happen. When I’m praising Sasha–particularly when she’s managed something difficult and done it well–I’ll laugh and dance and praise lavishly. She knows when she’s done A Good Thing, and she’s clearly pleased with herself and my reaction.

We’re starting agility training this month. That’s just one more opportunity to socialize, to train, and to be happy. If she enjoys herself there as much as she did in obedience class, we’ll continue. Stay tuned for news!

News from the training trenches

Karen Pryor I-Click dog training clickers

It’s taken more than a year, but we are now officially a clicker-happy household!

If you’ve been following the blog you may remember that Sasha panicked at the sound of just about any loud or unusual noise. Clickers, in particular, left her cowering in fear, which presented more than a few challenges during obedience class..

When even the quietest clickers (like Karen Pryor’s I-Click clickers pictured here) set her off, I stashed the clicker deep in a drawer and worked on reconditioning her reaction to noise. It took a while, but we’ve made good progress. During obedience class we worked with verbal clicks and she learned to ignore the repetitive clicking by other people. She’s much calmer at home, too; these days she hears the coffee grinder and she jumps into training mode, anxious to earn her special TREAT.  (That success is recounted here.)

In the past few months I’ve been coaxing Sasha though a variety of challenges, and one of them is reacting calmly to the clicker while we’re out walking. I sweetened the deal, of course, with tasty soft treats (the tiny one-calorie kind I can break in half). I use the clicker when cars approach; as soon as she focuses on me instead of the car, I click, praise, and deliver a tasty treat. While she still occasionally barks at a passing vehicle, she no longer lunges toward the street.

Every now and then, she outsmarts me. This morning she sat quietly as a car passed by, accepted her treat, and then she barked! We’ll definitely be working on that behavior.

Our most significant challenge is still very much a work in progress, and that’s walking calmly past another dog. It hasn’t helped that we’ve been rushed a few times by unleashed dogs, which has resulted in renewed hyper-vigilance when another dog–even when leashed and seemingly oblivious to us–enters her line of vision. Once she sees another dog, it’s a struggle to get her moving again and focusing on me. We’ve had sporadic success, but we’re a long way from a reliable reaction.

On the good-news side, her bark tone and body language–head up, ears forward, tail wagging furiously, and no hackles in sight–tells me her reaction excited rather than fearful. Once she’s quiet again and moving where I lead, I click, praise, and treat. Clearly, though, I need a tastier motivator. I’ve ordered ZiwiPeak Good-Dog Venison Jerky dog treats, which come highly recommended for training. Stay tuned for a progress report once those arrive!

Helping Sasha feel comfortable, confident, and safe in any environment is an ongoing effort, and some days we seem to lose more ground than we gain. Still, I’ll celebrate every success along the way, no matter how small or trivial it might be. And we’ll keep our eyes on the goal!