Advocacy. That is all.

If you never listen to another thing I have to say, listen to this.  It applies to you directly.  Yes, every single person who reads this, this applies to.  Don’t let things happen to your dog that you KNOW are  bad for them.  Just don’t do it.  Just stand up and say “No.”

Here’s a story for you.  The other day, I took Maggie, the baby, out to the barn to feed the horses.  She was in a super mega fussy mood, and she was crying her little heart out.  There were a few people there who were also taking care of their horses, and one man, Dan, had brought his dog Rascal with him.  Rascal is a little Rat Terrier, about 10 years old.  Great little dog.

So we’re standing around, talking, remarking upon the sadness of Maggie’s life, and Rascal is sitting by my feet, giving me that semi-accusatory stare that I often get from dogs while the baby is crying.  As if they are saying, “If you were any sort of mother, you would be able to HELP that child.”  Dan sees his dog looking at me and the baby, and he scoops Rascal up.

“What’s that baby doing?” he coos to his dog, and proceeds to try to hold Rascal up so that he can sniff and lick my screaming infant’s face.

Advocacy in action.  Listen and learn.

“Nope,” I say, and immediately, before the dog is within a foot of Maggie, turn my back to them.

Rascal’s wide eyes and leaning away from the baby told me that I made the right choice.  Dan huffed quite a bit about how mean Sarah wouldn’t let Rascal see the baby, but I could see the dog visibly relax when I moved her away.  By doing that and putting up with a little huffing, I saved us all from a potentially dangerous and tragic situation.  Things could have been fine.  Or, Rascal could have bitten my child in the face, causing a hospital trip for us and potentially death for him through no fault of his own.

Advocacy is important.  I advocated for Maggie here, as well as a dog who was not mine to advocate for, really.  Your dog is your responsibility, and you know him better than anyone else, even your friendly neighborhood dog trainer.  If someone is trying to do something to or with your dog that you know, or even just feel queasily, that will not go well, tell the person, “No.”

You can make up a story.  Tell the small child trying to pet your dog that he is sick and needs some rest.  Tell the people trying to let their dog sniff yours that he has mange.  Tell the trainer attempting to examine your dog, ignoring all of your dog’s body language, that you’re using an alternative method and you’d prefer not to work on this exercise yet.  It’s okay to tell people NO.

Please tell people NO.

If you never do anything else for your dog, please tell people NO.  Your dog can’t tell them No.  The only thing your dog can do is run away, growl, or bite.  Let’s make it easier on everyone involved.


Sassy: Beginning with Nothing In Life is Free

Sassy showing off prior to a training session.
Sassy showing off prior to a training session.

In my last post, I mentioned that the idea behind Nothing In Life is Free doesn’t just apply to dogs.  It applies to all sorts of animals.  In my home, we have a Greater Sulfur Crested Cockatoo named Sassy.  I got her when she was 12 years old, and she is an awesome bird.  Funny, talkative, cuddly, you name it.  However, in the three years since we have gotten her, she has begun to scream.  I noticed that it’s gotten progressively worse, from only screaming when we arrive home and leave again (which is normal flock behavior, not something I worry about), to every time we leave her sight, and even sometimes when we are sitting right beside her.

For awhile, I thought that maybe she was understimulated.  I bought her new toys, a new perch so she could sit with us in the family room, made sure to let her out of her cage every day to play with her boxes on top.  We bought her whole almonds and pecans to crack open and eat, and gave her several every day for activity to keep her busy.  I gave her long strings of leather with knots in them that she could untie.  And what I saw was the behavior continue to escalate and become more and more and MORE demanding.

I finally had one of those epiphany moments.  What if she wasn’t screaming because she needed more toys and attention?  What if she was screaming because she had, in fact, become a spoiled little brat bird?  To test my theory, I set forth the expectation that in order to get new toys, nuts to crack, grapes to peel, knots to untie, or come out of her cage, Sassy would need to comply with a behavioral directive from a human.  Who are we kidding, mostly me.

We are now about two weeks into the project.  This is what I saw.

I started out simple, by charging the clicker (we had been using a verbal bridge before, without a great deal of success.  I decided to switch to a clicker and see how she likes it).  Once we had the sound and reinforcers paired, I began to ask for simple targeting behaviors that she had already mastered.  She knows already “Touch head,” “Touch foot,” and “Touch wing.”  She also knows left and right.

What I saw for the first several days was a marked reluctance to comply with any of my commands, even if it meant she missed out on her treats or toys.  Instead, she would walk to the opposite side of her cage and present the body part that I had asked for.  She would stick out her foot, her head, or her wing, but far away from the target that I had presented.  I think, perhaps, she was trying to turn the tables and become the trainer herself!  It wouldn’t surprise me.  She is like that.

In response, I would simply put her treats and clicker away and walk off without a word.  If she made the choice to ignore me, or to try to control the situation herself, she did not gain my attention or the treats I have.

After about three days of this power play, Sassy finally began to come to the finger I presented and shake hands, earning her click and her treat!  Definite progress.  The amount of time that she spends screaming has reduced dramatically, thanks to the structured attention that she is receiving on a regular basis in our training sessions.

Now that she has mastered the “Shake hands” behavior, it’s time to think of a new trick for her.  Maybe we will do “Take a bow.”  Any thoughts?

Happy Training!


Tristan: A Special Story


Every dog that we meet, work with, or live with is special.  Some are funny, some quiet, some wild and some gentle. Some, though, are a little more special than others. It is these dogs, who defy every training technique and style that we have practiced before, that make us better trainers, better thinkers, and better people.  For Susan, Tristan was such a dog.

Tristan and Susan working on their RN.
Tristan and Susan working on their RN.

Tristan is a Pyrenean Shepherd, a rare breed in the United States, and an ancient breed in France.  These dogs were bred for extreme intelligence and problem solving abilities, and fierce loyalty to their handlers.  They are what is referred to as a “foot dog,” meaning that the dog is always at your feet, unless he is working his flock.  While the Great Pyrenees was bred to guard the flocks of sheep in the Pyrenees mountains, the Pyr Shep was bred to manage and move those flocks in concert with his handler’s instructions.  These dogs are intelligent, even wise, and extremely loyal.  They are also very reserved with strangers and in new situations.

When Susan met Tristan, she had no intention of bringing a dog home with her.  However, as she sat in his breeder’s kitchen, helping a friend pick out a puppy, there were his wide eyes in his wild fur, peering at her from across the room.  Susan could not touch him, but as she played with the puppies and the other dogs loose in the kitchen, Tristan watched her.  Each time she told another dog to sit, or to lie down, Tristan would watch carefully, and then demonstrate that behavior

When it came time to leave, Susan was asked if she was SURE she didn’t want a puppy.  She said no, but then mentioned that she would bring home Tristan if his breeder would part with him.  Tristan was quickly loaded up into a crate and put into her car.

Upon arriving home, it became quickly apparent that Tristan was not an average dog in any sense.  He was hyper alert, extremely reactive to change, and in a nearly constant state of melt-down level stress.  He compulsively spun in his crate, and outside of it would dash madly through the house.  Other dog trainers called him shy, timid, and scared because no one but Susan could touch him (and she could barely!).  Tristan quickly learned basic commands such as Sit and Down, but beyond that, Susan could not find a way to communicate with him.

When Susan tried to use Clicker training, which she had been practicing for close to ten years at that point, it proved ineffective.  Not only did Tristan refuse to take food when stressed (which, when outside his home environment, was most of the time), but the click also confused him.  Each marker provided two instances of marking (click-er), and so Tristan could not pinpoint which instance had been marked.  Because of his constant and frenetic movement, Tristan could complete about seven behaviors between the time of the first and second clicks.

Using negative reinforcement based techniques also proved ineffective with Tristan, because he did not merely become shut down by aversive pressure.  Rather, he became frantic and completely inconsolable.  There was not enough trust and relationship built between he and Susan to support those techniques.

In her desperation, Susan turned to the internet, where she learned about Kayce Cover and SATS.  When she sent Kayce an email, she received a return phone call and spoke with Ms. Cover for close to three hours.  Susan was convinced that SATS could work for her strange dog, and she embarked on a training journey that completely changed both of their lives.

Using the tools of SATS, Susan was able to mark for Tristan both the time of correct behavior, and to use targets to help him be precise.  She was able to name stressful events for him, and to explain his part in them.  Most importantly, Susan was able to teach Tristan how to calm himself on command, and to manage his own emotions in the face of stressors.  Tristan went from spinning madly in his crate and losing his mind over the smallest details to participating in dog shows and other training pursuits.

Tristan went on to earn his Championship, his Beginner Novice title, his Rally Novice title, and his Canine Good Citizen title.  While he will never be a calm and simple dog, he is a wonderful, intelligent, and wise companion for Susan, and he has shown us all what a difference that putting in the effort can truly make in a life.


Well done, Susan! Train on!