Training vs. Beauty

By now you may have heard about the $1M dog. If I remember correctly, it was a dog that won a championship at a major show. I want to say it was a Chow. And I think it was purchased by someone in China. I should get off my duff and look up the exact details, but it isn’t really the point I want to make. I remember the first thing I thought when the story first hit the news and my non-dog fanatic friends exclaimed, “WOW! Did you hear that?” My response was, “It still needs to be trained. Without that, it’s worth about $1.” At least to me.

And what do I mean by trained? First and foremost, I want a temperamentally sound animal. That is, I want one that has been nicely socialized…even if I were in the market for a ‘protection dog.’ Especially if I were in the market for a protection dog. Having a dog that is ‘in their right mind’ is what I would want…more on that in an upcoming article that I am working on that I think a lot of you will be excited to read. I have a surprise guest interview I’ve been working on for a couple of months. Can’t wait to finish this!

Beyond this, it is truly amazing how much cache a dog can have with training. You can have a beauty of a dog who is so untrained as to be a nuisance (or one that is temperamentally very unsound) next to one with a whamo of a hairdo and no impressive pedigree. I’ll take the latter and turn it into the dog that everybody wants in pretty short order. Having grooming skills just allows me to top off the good manners and tricks, etc. with some pizazz. Truly amazing.

Were I simply to groom a dog into a very lovely coiffed showpiece, I AM likely to to get it adopted more quickly than being a matted mess, however, without the training, I am also likely to see the dog returned. Not good. Not good at all.

Here’s a real life example:

I inherited a sweet, fat, untrained Chi/Min Pin mix from my elderly father (the dog was a gift -another blog post for another day). He had no idea how to raise a puppy. She became, as my mother put it, the Helen Keller of dogs. She would run amok, scream at my father until he fed her from his plate. She defecated and urinated all over the 4-level house and furniture, had horrid separation anxiety, and would methodically chew up pieces of the furniture. Dad kept her on a tan harness and a purple leash and took her to the dog park a couple of times a day.

Meanwhile, my brother (also my father’s neighbor at the time) purchased a very expensive pet store Yorkie (yes, the dreaded pet store, sick variety). They paid an ungodly amount for her, spent gobs in grooming so that she would look just so (I lived in another state at the time) and gave her lots of bling, expensive carrying totes, fancy treats, dog condo…the works. She was a fashion item and substitute baby for his wife. (Don’t worry, they don’t know I have a blog. Yet. ha!)

The dog had never been socialized with outside people or dogs other than mine. She was never house trained (and at 10 years old, she still isn’t). She bit people she didn’t know and has recently started biting and drawing blood even from them. We live too far apart for me to work with her personally.

I trained the ‘boring’ tan dog (who they wouldn’t allow in their house due to “allergies”) to do all sorts of things and her status went through the roof. Decided to bling my new dog up a little as a reward for weight loss and doing a million good manners and cool tricks (to include pooping into a bag when I would open it and earning her CGC. Nice trick!) This dog was also exceptional with people and especially with children–a true behavioral find.

I splurged on a pink, italian leather with Swarovsky crystals harness and leash set, pink leather running shoes, and a set of Doggles glasses for the frying pan hot Palm Springs daytime streets. People literally stopped to take photos and video the day I bought her stuff (~$200+ worth).

Next thing you know, I got her involved with therapy dog and service dog work. This dog had adoption offers. You name it. The name Chi Chi became “Can she come over to visit? I love her!” Even my brother and wife forgot about their boycott of this dog and their allergies and would use full animation to exclaim, “Of course Chi Chi can come in!” (I was also became entrusted to care for their Yorkie. Later, I became the convenient daycare provider so they wouldn’t come home to a soiled home while running errands. Uh huh, you know how it goes.)

Unfortunately, Chi Chi is gone now, but I have had many moments filled with sobs after sweet encounters with people who were enchanted by a dog who would give them the attention that society often does not.

One encounter was especially memorable. We were riding the bus (she as my service dog for seizures). A mentally and physically disabled man was riding in his group. He had a crooked smile and shakiness to his body. He very politely leaned forward and asked, “May I pet your dog?” I was more than happy to say, “I think she would really like that. Please do.” He acted as though the Queen of England had invited him to lunch.

He stretched one single, shaky finger toward her. In response, she moved her head toward his hand and let her ears go very wide with gentleness and her big doe eyes. I have never seen someone take so much care in petting. As he pet, his mouth grew into the most incredibly wide smile. I could tell that her response to him made him feel important and loved. I tried not to let anyone see, but tears were squeezing out the sides of my eyes. Only after we de-boarded the bus at our stop did I allow myself to openly cry. I put myself in his position. His day is likely filled with routine. Society may or may not really “see” him (or want to) because of his disabilities, his abnormal appearance and physical limitations. This dog went far out of her way to see and accept him. How would you feel? I know it would make my day, at least! It would be an almost spiritual experience.

So, yes, after years of grooming, I am able to style a dog to make it stand out and get noticed. But, I am more proud of the knowledge, motivation, and ability to create a dog that is safe, fun, and makes others feel good. I am proud that people want the mixed breed that does amazing things. Sure, his coat looks great because he’s cute without my hand in it. The only question I am asked is “Where did you find such a smart dog?” The Humane Society. He was an accidental litter mix of anybody’s guess.

Sure he’s smart. They all are. I went far, far out of my way to teach him as many good social skills as possible. He’s more behaviorally challenged than Chi Chi, but he has home offers. He makes people laugh. He has short hair, so bathing is about the only thing I can do to maintain his pretty looks. But, yes, that training pushes an average dogs’ status far beyond what looks alone can do.

There are a lot of pretty dogs of every single breed sitting (or dying) in shelters. That’s what is wonderful about training–it is a controllable element. Beauty is a gift that is, to some degree, out of our hands.

Training truly levels the playing field.

Will You Still Love Me, Tomorrow?

As only real life has a way of doing, it tests you. It humbles you. If you have a soul at all, it sends you home in a reflective funk that only your best friends and family can help you sort out and salvage what’s left of you by holding up a mirror and saying, “Look! You know what I see? Someone who is lovely. Someone I want to know. Someone I trust.”

And here’s how fast something can go from a happy day full of laughter to a pensive mood. It only took 2 hours to sink me to my core.

I knew I was taking a risk by writing “When Leaving Your Dog with a Professional” because it set me up to be held more accountable than if I hadn’t.

So, let’s take a look.

Yesterday, a friend asked for help at her dog wash for just 2 hours. Sure, I could come in. I love to go in.

No sooner did I arrive than the groomer in the back called out for my help. “Sara, do you think you could assist with this dog (Golden Retriever). It’s giving me some real trouble.”

“Sure.” (First thought–how difficult could a golden really be? Just nervous and struggling on the table?) I went back to see the dog professionally and safely tethered on the table. Excellent work, Lindsay! I was delighted and proud to see that. It was also in a muzzle. Knowing L, she wouldn’t put one on unless it was truly necessary.

The dog had deep mats, the owner said the dog didn’t bite, but I completely trusted L when she said that the dog *is* biting and “head butting.” She did a great job shaving the body per owner request, and was at the last frontier: The head and neck. She asked if I could hold.

As you know, I’m not into the fighting thing and I could tell the dog was stressed and acting especially strange.

L warned me to watch my face because of the head butting. I have many, many years of grooming experience and have really never experienced anything quite like it. The dog was erratic. It would stand calm as we gently touched and tried to slowly work our way toward the front.

I even stopped a few times and said, “Wait, I can feel some tension rising in myself. How about if we just stop and relax ourselves for a sec before we start again? It is good to know yourself. L was so great to go along with this. And, by tension, I mean…this is inevitable when there is is a high degree of difficulty or risk.

The dog started screaming and barking erratically while throwing its head about. It sounded kind of hoarse. To the untrained eye, I think all of the wild motion with its head looked, perhaps, like the dog hadn’t been out for a run and was excited to go somewhere or that it is a happy hyper dog. To my eye, it looked like full-out stress and panic.

It managed to rip the muzzle off several times and pinch fingers through the muzzle at us.

Our challenge? To remove two golfball-sized mats behind its ears that were attached extra close to the skin. Ouch. Just then the dog headbutted me in the mouth. My lips are bruised. It think L told me that she had gotten it earlier as well.

And here’s an important point for me: I still did not get angry with the animal. Not a bit. I still saw a very, very troubled animal that was behaving entirely strange, even for a stressed animal. And then I noticed what looked like red marks around the neck. As I mentioned, the dog was properly noosed. Then L mentioned that she thought the owner had mentioned a shock collar. Hmmm…clues.

L and I worked well together on a challenging dog well as a professinal team. We had an ongoing conversation….

“Should we stop?”
“What do you think?”
“Hmm…let’s stop for a sec and think about it. Give the dog a chance to relax for a second. Collect ourselves to release any tension and see if we want to approach it again.”

“It’s on the verge of needing to go to the vet. Think the owner would take him in because of the extra costs?”

“Maybe. They’ll have to go through the same thing there unless he will also pay for sedation. Depends on the vet.”

“Look at these red marks on the neck.”

“Oh yah, I think he might be using a shock collar.”

“Mmmm! That could explain a LOT about the behavior. It’s exactly the kind of general panic I have seen in shocked dogs.”

“This isn’t likely to be someone then who is interested in going about this from a healthy behaviorally modification approach. Won’t want to spend the money. There would be a lot of work that needs to be done.”

“Ok, let’s try one more time and see what we get. Are you ready?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“If I lose a grip. Let’s both let go at the same time.”

And so on…

It was a dramatic scenario with a lot of screaming that, I think, had little to do with actual pain for the dog. And if there had been someone filming, it would have looked incredibly bad. As it was, a brand new groomer (her first day) told the owner of the store that I was hurting the dog. Force holding a screaming dog while trying to shave. You know…one of those videos.

We ultimately were able to get one ear handled and then concluded we would recommend that the owner take the dog to the vet for the rest.

“Am I doing the right thing?” I asked myself.

The dog owner who was fully tatted up came back–I know! I just made a judgment that was meant to describe is not descriptive at all because the super nice and knowledgeable instructor at the Apple store earlier was also visibly tatted with large ear piercings to boot. Just think the ‘other’ kind of tatted up type. I could tell I wouldn’t be having THE talk (about what my opinion is of how his dog is acting and why), but I was calm and honest that his dog was very stressed and biting.

“He would have probably been better then if I had left his shock collar on him.”

Boom. And there it was.

I mentioned that we ‘could’ try to see if we could get the remaining mat behind the ears if the dog was any calmer with him being there. So, the groomer bravely came out and tried. The owner told us, yah, no problem. He’ll behave for me. The dog surprised his owner with a bite, even though the dog was indeed noticeably ‘calmer’ than with us. So, we talked about that and I could only find it in myself to suggest that next time, other than a sedated trip to the vet, the way to go might be to have him present. I didn’t add “minus the shock collar” because sometimes you really know that this will come down to a discussion that is bordering on one about religion. That is, nobody’s mind is changed and you both come away frustrated.

And back to my imaginary video, a possible news crew, and “What do you have to say for yourself?!”

I had to leave for a long run on the beach and was almost weirded out to realize that part of the time I was actually talking out loud. It was traumatizing to me. I don’t take these things lightly.

Mostly I work with owners who bring there dogs to me, sometimes, because multiple grooming salons have turned them away. They are willing to pay for positive reinforcement techniques to try to change themselves, their approach, and to make life better (sometimes simply from a simple Classical Conditioning approach initially) for their dog.

To be in the trenches with the general public is akin to watching warfare to some extent. The ignorant behavior is akin to seeing how some people treat their children in public. If you’re as sensitive as I, you practically have to leave a store…and you’re on the verge of shaking. I now pity what a pediatrician in a low-cost clinic might experience on a daily basis. They probably only have enough time to address illness, and maybe a suspicious physical injury, but how much time do they have to address psychological pain? The conversation could skid out of hand with a parent…”Don’t tell me I don’t know how to raise children! Spare the rod, spoil the child!!”

I decided I would explain to all of the microphones shoved into my face, following me to my car that, yes, I will answer all of their questions in a sit-down interview as we watch the tape. There is not anything on the tape that I’m ashamed of.

In the interview, I would point out the things I already have, and I would also ask them to simultaneously roll footage that HAS made the news of “Groomers Gone Bad.” MY body language.

While you see a firm hold on some very loose skin that the breed is known for having, I’m not grabbing the neck itself. I am not shaking the dog and yelling at it. I am not hitting the dog or slamming it into a wall. I am attempting to get a firm hold that will, hopefully, temporarily suspend the dogs thrashing just long enough to get a small amount of work done.

I take breaks to ease the tension that is building. Tension only from an adrenaline producing situation. I am not mad at the dog. I will also show that we are petting the dog and trying to patiently work the clippers up the back of the dog where he is not reacting so that we can kind of sneak one tiny shave into the ‘red zone’ area.

I will show that even after being headbutted in the mouth, you do not see me seeking revenge. Contrast that scenario with the other videos. It is a different type of video. I would then probably ask to show video of how I normally approach training for dogs to cope with vet and grooming handling. I would show the process and the results.

I would conclude that, indeed, this is a worst case scenario–one that I don’t normally like to be involved in, which is why I have a different business. Grooming for the general public in which ground rules and philosophies are not shared is a risky proposition. It’s truly sad when a breed that is normally a fairly compliant, coaxable breed has gone nearly mad. I would have been less surprised by that particular type of behavior from a more traditionally feared-by-groomers breed such as a Chow. With Chows, groomers are usually more surprised when they meet a very sociable cooperative one that is not easily offended.

After thinking this through, I came away with a clear conscience. Not a happy one.

Additionally, I hope what I’m about to say next says it all for those who know how protective I am of my own dog and the extents to which I go for mine and any of those entrusted in my care. This is not exactly comparing apples to apples because my dog is unlikely to behave the same way, but let’s just suspend reality for a moment.

I would trust any of the people in my circle of associations of people who are as close to nearly completely positive reinforcement trainers as is humanly possible to handle my own dog in the exact, same manner in an emergency–screaming, biting, flailing, and all.

I would fully trust that they are only doing what is necessary and probably apologizing to him (Ranger) all the way. It would be upsetting to them. It should be upsetting. They would not gain pleasure from this or seek to teach him a lesson. They are only in survival mode and do not take the behavior personally.

They are not mad at the dog. Next, my dog would be in recovery mode and it would be a high priority for them to discuss and prepare a well-thought-out behavior modification plan that is based on building his confidence, lowering his fears, and wrapped up in a bow of cheers for his successes. These are the type of people and groups that I associate with.

I called on a few of them last night to help me through the night from a heavy heart. As is so true to the nature of this philosophy and the type of people that it tends to attract, they assured me that the context was a very tough one and that the dog was fortunate to have me as the one who must restrain it knowing that I don’t take the behavior personally.

With that, I look forward to more time spent in the helping realm than the survival realm for which I think I have sufficiently paid my dues over the past 30+ years. In my ideal world, we have a very, very low need for survival mode and that those who are involved in it are highly educated in stress awareness and the solid principles of Classical and Operant Conditioning and who are also actively engaged in continuing education as behavioral science evolves. They are people who are able to engage in discussions of the staple books in these realms (as well as having read outdated books that do not follow these principles).

Sara

Are You Willing To Be Wrong About That?

“Are you wiling to be wrong about that?” Leonard C. Hawes, Professor at University of Utah (favorite professor, I might add) This entry is dedicated to Dr. Hawes.

We think we know everything, don’t we? Doesn’t matter the subject, but because it’s in our head we know what we know what we know what we know. And we are usually pretty confident about that, right?

And where did we learn what we know? You’ll have to answer it for yourself. We all do.

I have been quite open about the fact that I was not raised by any stretch to use positive reinforcement with people or animals. I probably did some of it naturally, but the people, the times, and the context for ‘training’ and handling dogs were very influential to my learning the principles of “Do what I said, or else.”

It was common for people to “rub a dog’s nose in it” as a house training  method. We used choke chains to teach our dog’s how to walk nicely on a leash. We gave “commands.”And here were other concepts considered to be “common knowledge” that everybody seemed to ‘know.’

  • Using treats to train was considered cheating.
  • Luring a dog to do something also did not count.
  • The most important ‘commands’ you could teach were: Heel, Sit, COME, Down, Stay.
  • If you were serious, you spent an hour a day training your dog.
  • Dog food is for dogs. People food is for people.
  • Only feed your dog kibble to keep his teeth from rotting.
  • Dogs live outside.
  • Spanking, hitting, and yelling are part of training and showing the world that you have control over your dog.
  • Don’t treat your dogs like children.
  • Only tough ‘dog’ people can handle big, tough breeds.

Those are just a few.  Where did I learn these? A list of sources include:

  • Family
  • Neighbors
  • Dog Owners
  • Dog Enthusiasts
  • Dog Training Classes I attended
  • TV
  • Pet Stores and Groomeries where I worked.

Something I wondered about, but wasn’t sure, and then finally concluded that I tend to over think things and, surely, if there was anything to it, someone would have told me by now was…”Do dogs feel pain the way we do?’ During my early years as a groomer, I concluded that they must not. They probably have a much higher tolerance for pain which is why they don’t seem to learn or listen when we hit them, yell at them, or push them around when we are trying to groom them. It helped me to justify a lot of treatment toward the animals left in my care that I wouldn’t even consider doing now.

Three or four major things contributed to my change in perspective.

  • In the early ’90s I worked with an older woman at her grooming salon. (Ha! I’m probably older than now than she was then!) We used to enjoy condescending to the idea that PetSmart was adding grooming to their list of services. It wasn’t uncommon for us to receive a phone call that we created an acronym for – CYFI? “Can you fix it?” For us, it was about the haircut. One day she commented, “You know? When people tell me they have 20 years of experience in grooming, the only thing I can think is…”well, it depends on what you’ve been doing for 20 years.” It was a comment that stuck with me. I was just young enough to wonder what she was talking about. I wasn’t a fabulous stylist at that point, and I didn’t want to become that person that someone would say, “Well, she’s been doing the same stupid thing for 20 years! Her experience is hardly something to be proud of.”
  • During roughly the same time period, I was in college. I was incredibly fortunate to have a Professor at the University of Utah who forever shaped my thinking skills. Dr. Len Hawes was/is a professor of Communication who can never be duplicated. I don’t recall the topic being discussed at the time, but (as he always does), he challenged us with some of the most difficult and profound questions, of which “Are you willing to be wrong about that?” is one that I keep in my back pocket to this day. It is so very relevant to changing outdated and sometimes abusive treatment toward animals.

   This most simple question can, if willing, lead a person toward quality answers and solutions. Was I willing to be wrong about how I was treating dogs when I was grooming? Unfortunately, that wasn’t the question I was asking myself at the time. I was asking “How can I stop grooming dogs and never have to see them again?” (If that isn’t career burnout, I don’t know what is.) My answer was, “Quit that hellacious job, try to get a steady (clean) job working at the post office so that you can finish your college degree.” It’s amazing what happens when you are very specific about your goals. I earned the degree and thought I would never look back. I concluded that I was not an animal person. I felt they were poor substitutes for human company, too basic and not capable of much more than eating, playing with toys, and going to the bathroom.  Which leads to conversion influence #3, Chi Chi.

  • Fast forward 20 years. My widower father lived with his untrained dog in a large  home. The dog was noisy and untrained to the fullest extent of the meaning. She was sweet enough, but at 83 years old and a 4-level home, he could not get this little Chihuahua mix housetrained nor was he able to keep the messes properly cleaned. *sigh  When I came to visit, this exuberant little dog would bark and often urinate in front of me, on my pillows, and sometimes defecate in my room. To say I wasn’t charmed is very accurate. I was very vocal to my father about not riding in his car in my good clothes.

   And then there was ‘the fall’. In short, I found my father’s health failing so quickly that I needed to move in to care for him…and her (the dog). Fast forward again and I needed to have my father moved to an assisted living facility. Even after moving in, I had no specific investment in (or attachment to) Chi Chi. However, I did have an interest in making life sane for me as I had to provide constant physical care of my father. An unhousetrained dog was simply untenable.

   To my credit, somewhere in my knowledge bank, I had learned that to properly house train a dog, you had to get it out every two hours and celebrate the success–ignore the mistakes. Such is my nature to really make a project out of something if I care. I had the dog on a leash…even as I slept. I forced myself and this dog to go to the bathroom at all hours of the night and day. She would not have a chance to sneak off and get it wrong. I would know where she was at ALL times. Little did I know I was heading into the “set them up for success” philosophy.

Success! She was housetrained. At 8 years old, Chi Chi had accomplished what had never happened in all of those years.  And then I needed to break the reality news to my father…”We need to find another home for Chi Chi.” My father protested some. I was practical and assertive. “Dad, It’s just a dog! It’s not even healthy to have such an unnatural attachment to an animal. She’s not a human.” Yes, these words came out of my mouth. In what must have been a Sophie’s Choice for my father, he finally relented, “But please make sure she doesn’t wind up as bait in a pitbull ring. There was a news story on TV about that in this area.” It was the first of many tears to come for me. My father had accepted that this could be the fate of his beloved dog.

For the sake of my father, I could not let this happen. I didn’t realize what I was committing to, but I was now accepting the permanent care of his dog. Note that I still did not hold any particular affection for this dog or any other. They were still unnecessary, expensive hassles as far as I was concerned. But, if I must have a dog, one thing was certain. She must be obedience trained. No exceptions. And, if there was one thing I knew, it was how to get a ‘stubborn,’ ‘spoiled,’ ‘lazy,’ dog to “heel.”

And so I went to a small pet supply store. “Do you carry choke chains?” I asked a young man. His response, I thought, was not appropriately respectful. “Yes, we carry them, but there are better ways to teach a dog how to heel now.”

A kid approximately 3/4 my age. What would he know? I was the one with years of experience. In fact, kid, you are insinuating that I don’t know what I’m doing and I really, REALLY do NOT appreciate that. Where is your boss? She is closer to my age and would understand. The ‘boy’ politely sold me the choke chain. I was not in the mood to hear of some mamsy pansy method or new, expensive gadget when I know perfectly well how to teach a dog to heel.

“Are you willing to be wrong about that?”

No, I wasn’t.

Why? I think there were several reasons:

  • I was in the role of being a caretaker for my father and, as such, many decisions had to be made in a no-nonsense, decisive sort of way.
  • I didn’t think dogs felt pain in the way that we do, remember?
  • When it came to animals, I didn’t want to be second guessed.
  • I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time discussing a subject that ranked lower on my scale of importance than other, more competing things.
  • I just didn’t care.
  • There was no effective, convincing, attractive ‘thing’ that reached out and influenced me. Did I need a celebrity on TV to influence me? A romantic influence? What could have reached me at that time? I can only guess.
  • I didn’t feel like learning anything new. I had too much else going on.
  • Who do you trust? There are literally hundreds of dog training books on the market? Go with the classics or go with some airy fairy, ineffective book. My father and brother had purchased some and even attended lessons at PetSmart, but boiled them all down to “You need to be smarter than the dog.” (WHAT did that MEAN???! Are we not calling ourselves stupid at this point since this dog is not trained??)

I took my choke chain and vowed not to return to this know-it-all store who can’t respect a simple request for a choke chain without me having to justify and explain myself. I was annoyed.

Can you now appreciate the barriers, obstacles, and context that worked to prevent me from changing my mind about a long-held belief and why I might defend them? I can.

So what changed my mind? I would normally fight and resist giving credit to a large corporation. Credit is due. PetSmart. That’s right. I’ll admit a sellout right here and now. My father and I went to PetSmart for some supplies. Life was getting heavy and lacking levity when caring for a father alone. I needed something amusing to read. I dodged the boring “Breed” books, but found myself attracted to the brightly colored magazines at the checkout stand. A single issue magazine called “Clicker Training” featuring “Tricks” jumped out at me.

Tricks? I had been playing with tricks throughout my entire childhood. I managed a couple of basic tricks with our 3+ dogs. It was fun but exhausting. Could I learn something new? I was tired of obedience. What did this relatively inexpensive magazine have to say about tricks? I tossed it onto the checkout stand and went home to read.

I read even though, here came another convincing belief that I had somewhat overcome as a child, “Chi Chi is old. And everybody knows that an old dog cannot learn new tricks.” But, I had taught our 10-year-old Beagle at 11 years old how to shake hands, play dead, sit up pretty, and a silly game I invented. Did I still have the knack? And, the Beagle was different…I ‘cheated’ and used treats. As a child, I had always pictured myself being the grand trainer in a circus ring with poodles (and a Beagle) on a stand ready to shoot through a ring of fire upon the tap of my wand and command. There was one motivation toward learning something new anyhow. My family was convinced I had missed my calling in life…they had the confidence in me even when I thought I no longer cared.

And so I read. And I purchased a ‘clicker.’ Experiments designed to amuse both my father and I were now underway. “Load the Clicker.” Simply click the device and then treat. Hmm….really?

One thing that would be the ultimate test for me with regard to training was something that I could never figure out how to train. I could understand (even if I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to get good results) how to teach a dog to come to me, but as I had tried to train my Golden Retriever for competitive obedience, how would I train the dog to go away from me? It was one of the most exciting things to watch in a scenting competition. The handler/owner would point to a field and send the dog out. Send the dog out? How do  you convince your dog to go running away from you? What trick did I need to know to teach that? Maybe I could learn(?)

“Touch” was the first experiment I tried with the clicker. This ‘trick’ basically involves presenting your hand near your dog’s face, then coordinating a click just as her nose touched my hand, followed by the delivery of a treat.

Note: I was only willing to give these experiments a try for the purpose of potentially teaching a dog a trick. Obedience was a word that became loaded with dread and, remember, I knew what I was doing in that realm, right?

Hmm…what do you know? She learned how to touch my hand. It worked. Wow. Interesting. I showed my father who was not so impressed. And then I wondered…instead of my hand. Could she touch a tea can? I was hooked. I started sitting in the kitchen experimenting with various ‘treats’ (vegetables, beef jerky…whatever the dog would eat.) I had little time in the day to play with this, but was happy the dog would cooperate. And then to my utter surprise, and I do mean surprise as in…”I JUST SAW JESUS!” that dog reached her tiny little face toward the tea can when I held it out. I clicked as she touched. Are you kidding me? Because now the wheels were turning.

What if I place the can on the floor next to me? Would she still touch it? The article said this was possible. But, weren’t they talking about a ‘smart’ breed like a German Shepherd or a Border Collie? This was a pound puppy. She can’t…unless I’m wrong about that. I didn’t suppose it could hurt to give it a try.

I am writing this story in slow motion so that you will, hopefully, appreciate blow-by-blow how I changed my mind in the most dramatic way and the effects it had on everything in my life.

So, there I sat in the kitchen. Can touch started to happen. How about…if I move this can 1″ away from me? I might have screamed or squealed for my father to get down to the kitchen right then. She MOVED. AWAY. FROM. ME.  AREYOUKIDDINGME????! It was the ultimate of tricks that I could imagine at the time. The absolute ultimate! And she was happy.

Morning after morning, I met my father downstairs for breakfast but not before I insisted on…”Let’s try it!” I would see just how far I could place the can away from me and still ask her to touch it. I was beyond amazed. This was the equivalent of a child learning how to sound out letters in a word. “I figured it out!! I did it. I did it!!!”

Within 2 weeks this nuisance of a dog has transformed into some kind of idiot savant. She was precious cargo. I progressed to teaching her a few other small tricks. I was in love with the dog, a method, the idea that I had a new hobby. And then I sold the house. My father ended up in assistive care; I headed back to my condo in San Diego. The condo that absolutely and in no uncertain terms allowed pets. This had never been a problem for me before. The fewer the animals in the world, the better I thought. Not anymore.

My mind worked overtime. Ever tried to hide a dog? Let me inform you that it is not easy. I had heard the terms Service and Therapy dogs. What did this mean? What would it require? I had heard that these dogs had rights. I needed to know. And, as is typical for me, I bear down when I’m determined and dig as deep as I can possibly go. I joined online groups. I started ordering books. I searched for groups national and local.

This dog was magic and I was in love. I felt I had been left in charge of a dog that had come directly from Jesus (or something like it). Skip forward–I trained this dog and helped her to earn her Canine Good Citizen badge. Then I started experiencing adult-onset seizures. Now I am eligible for a service dog, right? What do I need to know?? Whatever it is, I need to know it FAST. The condo association was hot on my heels to force me to get rid of what I considered to be the Einstein of dogs. And I found it. I found a phone that dogs could dial for help.  Immediately I ordered this expensive electronic wonder and laid out a training plan. We needed to train this and FAST.

I’ll give you an enormous tip on this–it would take a LOT longer to train this sort of task were I to rely on force, intimidation, or any amount of pain. Luring would not have been as effective either. I had to not only teach a dog to walk away from me, on cue, but I also had to teach her to now touch something very specific with her paw. Additionally? She had to apply pressure to the button. Yes, this was an eyebrow raiser for me as well. How on earth to do this?

I also needed to videotape the results and get it to the attorneys very quickly. I was racing the clock–my specialty. I work best under pressure.

And just for the sake of memories, here is Chi Chi circa 2005 dialing her phone. The result is  sweetly crude looking back. There were no smart phones with video (at least not mine). I used a digital camera that had the ability to store very short films. And, nowadays, I would not rely upon using the cue over and over. I would only say the cue once. In fact, I would probably now also use a body cue (such as a fall) to prompt her to complete the task (in addition to the verbal cue).

In order to accomplish all of this, I had to be willing to be wrong about every single concept I thought I knew about animals.

And, let me repeat, videotape and get the results to the attorneys very quickly. At the time, I knew almost nothing about how to get any type of video online. Eventually, I published this video on YouTube, but in the beginning, I think I first made a webpage through my Cox Communications provider and somehow managed to create and upload video. That is exactly how crude the entire endeavor was.

Success! It worked. The attorneys were sending me threats. I had no attorney. I relied on my writing and negotiation skills to see if I could fend them off as convincingly as possible. The video was convincing. My medical reports were convincing. The law was convincing. And, so the legal team changed strategies. “Ok, you can have a dog if…” At first they sent me a contract limiting my dog’s travels to/from the car only. The more I read about rights, I rejected it. Who was I to reject an official document from a scary legal team? Indeed. I became more determined. I would send the contract back and ask, “Why would I agree to sign away rights I’m already permitted to have by law?” And then another contract would arrive with adjusted limitations. Nope.

However, finally, I decided to draft one of my own after being threatened with fines if I did not appear before our condo’s HOA meeting to justify to the members why I needed to have a service dog. Discuss my private medical information publicly or get fined? This inspired me to create a contract of my own essentially stating, “We (the Board, the attorneys, and the management company) agree never to disclose the confidentiality of Sara’s private medical matters. This topic is now closed and there will be a dog here. Period.”

I won. They signed.

But, by far, the most impactful results of willing to be wrong about something came about as my father lay in the hospital barely able to speak. He reached for my hand one day with tears that I had never seen before and he said, “I wish I had known. I would have done things differently with you. I’m so sorry.”

Well. I could have never predicted that. It made time irrelevant. He was in his 80s, but it rewound time in a way that made everything seem ageless. He managed to learn something profound in his lifetime. And so did I.

Another unexpected outcome was how much I truly came to love and appreciate this dog. She was the inspiration for my business. I never knew that so much love and intelligence was in my midst. Being willing to be wrong about what I thought I knew allowed me to be open to learning the closest thing we have to being able to actually speak to animals. We create a shared language and have actual dialogue. It is fascinating.

And what were the costs of being willing to be wrong about something? We both felt guilt of the type that makes you cry and apologize to people and animals who have crossed your path of whom you have perhaps mistreated terribly. We had to cry. And it is something I take into consideration when I seek to influence people to treat their animals better. I know I am perhaps talking to a person like myself, who, the meaner they are, they harder they will cry. Sometimes it’s easier to hold onto a notion and defend it to avoid this type of kick to the knees of your soul.

But, if you’re willing to be strong enough to be vulnerable, to be strong enough to lose face, to be wrong, to not be so sure of yourself, you’ll pass through to the other side and…wow.  The view is incredible. If it helps, you can assure yourself that you can always go back. Ask anyone you know who has been on the other side if they want to go back–not even kicking or screaming. They just won’t go.

The benefits are priceless. It’s a brilliant question…is there anything that you are willing to be wrong about? Something that could potentially restore a relationship, create new ones, or even better the world somehow? All I ask is that you just keep it in mind and consider the potentials.

Daring to Be Unpopular (Part II)

Part II is coming after a long walk with my own dog. I want to take a turn in the discussion for a moment while the material is still fresh in my mind.

How is is that in my late 40s that this topic is still a familiar problem for me…especially as it relates to dog grooming? I think I have some answers, and I hope to wind this post up with solutions as well as tell you “the rest of the story” (ala the late, great Paul Harvey).

Some of the ways that I get into these difficult grooming situations again and again probably arise from several factors that other animal workers can relate to; some may only be particular to me:

Flattery

“I heard that you are a good (groomer, trainer, dogsitter…).”

“You were referred to me by (someone I like or admire and don’t want to let down)…”

Compassion and Marketing

“I just rescued this dog from (somewhere) and they recommended that I bring him/her to you.” (Word of mouth advertising…isn’t that what everyone seeks?)

Pressure

  • Financial — dependent on income from grooming, walking, sitting, training, etc.
  • Employer–expected to get the job done
  • Precedence–This is a biggie that can really make me sweat with anxiety. I have done the job before.
  • Time–it takes time to explain policy and philosophies. Easier to just take a dog in and get the job done.
  • Shock–“How much do you charge for training?!”
  • Unrealistic Expectations–“My dog is really good.” (The dog isn’t–the person is in denial or ignorant.) I have to be the one to tell them the truth…I am the bad guy. I long for the days when I was rewarded for lying (“Here you go! She’s such a sweetie, petey pie! See you next month!” “How was she? Well, she’s not super crazy about getting her toenails done, you know, but she’s such a cutie petutey. Who loves you?” after a crazy battle where you wish you never had to see the dog again. The cute bow makes it look as though the whole thing never happened.)

Familiarity/Relationships

Neighbor, co-worker, acquaintance, etc., “I just got a dog! I want you to work with him.”

I am sure there are many more, but those are just off the top of my head.

Here are very typical scenarios:

A groomer works for an employer (small or large). The employer wants revenue; the employee needs a job. The customer is someone they do not want to offend. This is a setup for not-very-good things to happen.

What happens when you get a dog in that does not want to hold still? They are not biting, but they are making your job as a groomer beyond physically exhausting? Tell the boss you can’t do the dog? Tell the owner you can’t do the dog? Or simply grin and bear it? The latter is usually the route groomers are very often forced to take. They don’t want to become “the problem.”

Often, as in my case, I was young and didn’t have other skills to fall back on. I needed the money. It is desirable for employment purposes to be the one who can be relied upon to “get the job done.”

By the end of a day, it is too tiring to even have a conversation with an owner because a groomer may be in the middle of trying to get five other dogs finished. A lengthy conversation about behavior is just not practical. Calling an owner mid grooming to inform them that their dog cannot be groomed is just as painful of a conversation. Owners get mad, wouldn’t you?

Grooming salon owners aren’t always groomers. They often have no idea just how difficult and demanding the job is until they get their hands into the project themselves. I’ve seen more than one would-be owner/groomer decide to learn how to groom and find that they will charge double the rate they were expecting the employee to normally be paid because it was “extra hard and time consuming” if not “dangerous.”

The employer would like all of the business in the area; they have rent to pay and profit (and sometimes shareholders) to make. The concept is inherently flawed for one reason: Dogs are on their own time schedules. They do not appreciate the bigger picture as to why they should cooperate.

So, where does that leave the profession?

Currently, there is legislation to require that groomers become licensed.

In my opinion (of which I haven’t had until today), this addresses part of the problem. It possibly addresses the most basic issue of how to handle a dog safely. That is, it addresses how to handle a “good” dog safely.

If a person sends their poodle to a groomer to have a haircut and the dog really is a good dog who will just stand there for handling, it is reasonable to expect that the dog will not get cut, burned, or a really bum haircut.

However, what is not taught in grooming school (or much in apprenticing) is what to do when a dog frustrates a groomer. This is where most ‘intentional’ injuries probably occur.

The dog is fidgety and dancey on the table.

It may be cute and seemingly harmless until you are spending 1/2 – an hour of unpaid time to have the patience to trim the face of a dog who is whirling its head around every time you approach it with scissors. The face is important. It is the first thing a customer will notice when they see their dog. If the face isn’t right, the customer will likely accuse you of being a terrible stylist.

If you show them in person what the problem is and the owner steps inside your salon to help hold their dog still, usually they will hold the dog absolutely still and be covering the dog with their arms so that you cannot even access the part you need to scissor. You are now forced to try to scissor the dog with shears right next to the owner’s face.

Predictably, the dog will jerk wildly and surprise the owner who will nearly move right into your scissors. It is very dangerous. Again, they will conclude that you are a terrible groomer. They will not conclude that they need to pay you more.

At this point, a discussion about training just seems impractical to an owner. After all…they are just here for a haircut. Their dog is an otherwise “good dog,” right? And there begins the slippery slope for a groomer of just sucking it up, smiling, taking payment, and starting to mutter at dogs “Hold still. Stop. Stop. STOP IT!!!” and jerking on the dog.

Okay, so you probably get the picture. And, outsiders might be likely to say, “Well, you’re the one who chose your profession!”

My answer: Unfortunately (and, sometimes fortunately)…yes. You are right.

My other answer is: And you chose to have a dog. It’s time for your education and involvement as well. I cannot/will not lie to you anymore. I will assume the financial losses (or gains) from this decision. I might lose you as a client. I won’t, however, let the dog down.

Solutions:

I seek a win/win for all.

What I want: Every dog to behave well on the table. I want each dog to be “teachers pet;” to set them up for a lifetime of good handling by anyone who handles them. Isn’t that really the kindest thing we can do as pet owners? I want my dog to be the first one to be adopted if something were to happen to me.

    What I am willing to do:

  • Notify current and/or potential clients about the way that I work. I will groom good dogs…only.
  • If there dog is not a good dog and they are open to suggestions, I will direct them to the best resources. I hope to be considered to be one of those good sources.
  • I will find other means of income and let grooming become a hobby; no more struggling with dogs because I need to meet my financial needs.
  • I welcome any tests or certifications. I will be proud to pass them.
  • I will overcome my shyness and dare to teach.

Daring to Be Unpopular (Part I)

I have a confession. Well, I have many, but I’ll just focus on one for this entry. Here it is in all of its nakedness. (Deep breath)

I would rather do something unethical than to not be liked.

Wait, no…I don’t think that’s it. Let me try again and really nail it down.

I hate conflict. And sometimes I would rather let myself get walked on than tell someone something that I know they are not going to like to hear.

That’s pretty close, I think. Here is another truism about me:

I am HORRIBLE at delivering bad news.

And so this morning’s topic is about a very, very difficult conversation I just had at 8 a.m. I said what had to be said and it turned out to be one of the best experiences ever. And, no, I did not cave to the person, and no, they probably won’t come back. No, we did not get into an argument. I just stood firm.

So, I had a grooming appointment today with a dog that is a violent biter. I have worked with the client in the past and have been willing to try to help his dog that has a long coat that must be groomed.

The dog is a rescue with an unknown history. His biting is unpredictable and even getting a muzzle on the dog has proven to be dangerous and unreliable. Out of compassion, I had originally agreed to try to help the dog. But, the pattern was soon set. The owner has not invested the time nor the effort to seek out training for the dog.

And before I berate the owner, let me say that I understand. Our pets are a very personal topic to most of us. We are attached and we have our reasons why we do or do not do something.

I chose training and I see that it works. It has taken a lot of time, effort, reading, workshops, etc. to understand more complicated topics associated with training. This dog happens to fall into the “advanced” category, just as handling a wild animal would.

The word “dog” by itself connotes “easy” because we are familiar with the domesticated animal. However, when a dog has serious behavioral issues, it is difficult for most of us to accept that our named and loved pet now needs to be re-categorized as “liability” and “not for the novice.” After all, this dog is still good ‘ole “Spot” to us.

It has taken me several years to be clear about this.

I transitioned from grooming to training a number of years back. I then began to specialize in both grooming and training. So many behavioral issues arise when a dog is being groomed. You see the best and worst because the dog is being subjected to some often, stressful things that will put the dog to the test.

With as much experience and knowledge as I have in both realms, I STILL have a tendency to get into the zone as a groomer. I become task oriented and obsessed with achieving a great-looking haircut. This goal is often at odds with a dog that is behaviorally challenged. By ignoring the behavioral needs of the dog, I am not doing the dog a favor by insisting that I get its haircut just so.

I’ve had to make a decision. Which is more important? The haircut or the experience for the dog.

When I’m away from the grooming table, I would answer “the dog’s experience” of course. When I’m in the middle of a haircut, it’s very difficult to “let it go” and send the dog home half shaved if need be. I hope and think there will be groomers who follow me in the future who will not struggle with this as much as I do; that they will be able to put the scissors down and have the difficult conversations with dog owners with more confidence and finesse than I am able. That is what I hope to teach and inspire in any of my students. For whatever reasons, I am a wimp inside and very much a people pleaser. I admire people who don’t struggle the way I do. Personally, I get a stomachache when interpersonal conflicts are concerned. It’s probably why I do gravitate toward working with animals. It is cliche.

Where was I? Yes, today’s appointment that I cancelled.

Thanks to a late-night call from someone I work with (I’ll not name him/her in case they don’t care to be identified), I was told that the dog/owner and my working with them the way I have in the past presents a legal liability and that they would prefer that I cancel the appointment. We talked about alternative options for the owner–all of which are expensive and time consuming.

In my mind, I was hearing “BUT HE GAVE ME A $45 CHRISTMAS CHECK THAT HE HAND DELIVERED!!”

Sure I always cringe and dread our upcoming appointments. Sure, I wonder if this will be the day that one of us finally gets bitten (hard). But, how do I fire a ‘nice’ client? How do I? How do I?! I’m supposed to offer attractive alternatives. I DO NOT WANT TO HAVE THIS CONVERSATION! Especially on the morning of his appointment. I AM GOING TO LET SOMEONE DOWN. I AM GOING TO RUIN THEIR DAY. THEY WILL NOT LIKE ME.

Ranger explains “Intermittent Reinforcement”

I usually struggle with to how to explain the concept of “Intermittent Reinforcement” in a way that is simple to understand. Ranger said he could do it. What the…? <shrug> I have no idea, but I’m too tired to question it. With that, I give you Ranger…the dog.

Hi, Ranger here. In yo face! Hee Hee

<“Ranger, you’d better be writing.”>

Intermittent Reinforcement should be called “Playing Wolf.” RrRrraR! I like it for obvious reasons, but also I don’t know what those other big words mean. This is how I use it with Mommmeeee.

<“Use my real name, please.”>

I love Mommy  Sara, but at night she does something that I don’t really like, so I decided to train her to do what I like her to do instead.

I like to sleep right next to her under the covers and in the middle of the bed. But when she sleeps she moves around a lot: Sometimes she moves so much that she kicks me and I fall out of bed. And then she doesn’t wake up or move over so that I can get back in. So, this is how I trained her.

If Sara knows that I need to go outside to use the potty, she will get out of bed to open the door. This has always been a big deal to her.  She might even still be asleep when she gets up, but she always gets up. It’s perfect for me because when I come back inside, I can zoom in and get back my spot in the bed.

I let her know I need to go outside by scratching on our front door. And, even though I’m not a puppy who doesn’t know better than to potty inside the house anymore, she still always says “Good Boy, Ranger” and then lets me get right back into bed where I like to be.

But, when I get pushed out of bed, Mommy doesn’t wake up or move out of the way so that I can get back in. So, I tried pretending that I have to go potty. I walked to the door and scratched. She got out of bed and opened it. It worked!!! Instead of going outside, I zoomed back to the bed and got back into my spot. tricked her and it worked! She laughed too ( “Very clever, Ranger”). I like making her laugh.

So, I started tricking her a lot. One time I tricked her 4 times in a night. HeeHee! Then Mommy seemed kind of mad. Instead of laughing, she said “Hey, what are you doing? I’m asleep. Stop playing games.” I didn’t want to play games either.  I was super tired too, but I wanted her to move over so that I don’t end up on the cold floor!

I thought she would understand, but then Mommy started doing something new that I didn’t like. I would scratch at the door like I always do and then…she stopped getting out of bed at all! She said, “Go to bed.” and “Stop it!” I couldn’t believe it. It made me sad.

Then one time I really DID have to go to the bathroom. But, when I scratched, she didn’t get up. That’s our signal, and it didn’t work. But, I REALLY HAD TO GO! I didn’t know what else to do, so I scratched nicely again. But, she just kept sleeping–she didn’t even yell anymore. I almost went potty in my pants, so I decided to show her how badly I needed to go. I scratched really loud and hard on the door and I didn’t stop. And you know what? Mommy got up to see what was going on.

“What’s going on?!”, she hollered.

She walked over to the door and opened it. I ran outside as fast as I could and Mommy(oops, Sara) said, “Oh, you really did have to go out! I thought you were just crying wolf again.” When I came in, she said, “Goodness. I’m sorry. I love you so much. Thank you for letting me know that you needed to go out. Ok, get into bed. Nighty Night.” She hugged me.

So, crying wolf by pretending that I needed to go outside backfired on me. She ignored me. But, when I sometimes go out, she is happy. So, I decided that sometimes I’d better go outside and at least try to go potty so that she continues to make an effort to go to the door and then even hug me. Sometimes when I fake and run back to the bed she sounds sort of mad, but I need to get back in too! So, the secret is that I keep her guessing.  And it works every, single time!

She calls it “)*#!!! Intermittant Reinforcement.” I call it “Teaching.”

Post Script by Sara: Thank you, Ranger. It really does make the concept of Intermittent Reinforcement crystal clear for me now. And you are now giving me new ideas about how to motivate you to do a few things I’ve been meaning to work on with you as well. But first, I’m ordering a new, bigger bed.