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Category Archives for Dog Training Update

Coping With Changes

It’s a crazy time here at the house. When I leave for meetings or class, I NEVER know what I’ll find when I return. One day, Tom had torn down a wall in the basement (which had been done wrong by previous owners) so that he could use the drywall somewhere he needed it. Another day, he tore out all the carpet upstairs. Despite the chaos on two of our three house levels, Lilly is coping with the changes well. We haven’t had any remodeling-related dog behavior issues.

Shocked, I am. I figured all the change would unhinge her.

We even moved the dog crates into the garage (temporarily) because the concrete sealer we’re using in the unfinished basement reeks. The baby gate upstairs remains vigilant, but the few times Lilly followed me upstairs she managed NOT to hurt and scare herself on the exposed tack strips. (New carpet went in upstairs yesterday.)

Lilly does seem confused, though, especially since her crate is ALWAYS on the right and Tom put her on the left in the garage. When we let them out in the morning, they both run inside the house … rather than to the dog pen door. Just my luck, she’ll adjust in time to move back down into the basement.

It’s been noisy, smelly, and pretty stressful as we race the seasons to finish a few home improvement projects.

In the same vein as my need for a smaller car, I’m also purging “stuff” like mad. Clutter stresses me out. There is something empowering about getting rid of things you don’t need, even if at some point you thought you did. We’re not quite done (still have about 1/3 of the basement to go), so I cannot celebrate yet, but it does feel amazing and lighter around here.

More than likely we’ll just finish our basement tasks as planned, but it is tempting to turn what used to be my yoga room into a dog-proof, industry-grade dog suite.

For a decade now, I’ve written feature articles and facility profiles for the Pet Care Services Association (formerly the American Boarding Kennel Association). Many times each year, I pour through pages and pages of information and do phone interviews with petcare centers around the world about how they designed their spaces and their services to serve pets in their communities with training, boarding, daycare, and other spa services. (Grooming is such an “old” word … as is “kennel” for that matter.)

That said, I could probably design quite the “dog room” in the basement, which could serve as a safe, impervious spot for elderly and/or young pets in our future.

Weekly Training Update (Sept 18)

Last Sunday’s class posed many challenges for Lilly. We worked alongside (at a distance, of course) several big, young dogs Lilly doesn’t know. On this weird, foggy day, Lilly went into a mild-shutdown funk the minute we moved into the shady park. You’ll see in these photos the worry, in contrast to the smiling face you’ve seen lately.

{I’m sorry to say the photos for this post went missing in a major blog photo glitch.}

Compare this from a couple weeks ago …

To this timid body language on Sunday

Notice the ear and tail position

Look at this squinted, worried face

All in all, she coped well with the unpredictable dogs (4 out of 6 in this photo), as long as she had enough distance.

We went through an entire chicken breast, two buffalo hot dogs, and about 10 ounces of cheddar in this one-hour class. Lilly did everything I asked really well, including:

  • Good (only slightly slow) off-leash recalls away from the other dogs
  • Flawless default WATCH ME when I held food out away from me (The goal is to get the dog to look to you automatically, rather than fixate or try to steal the food.)
  • Decent LEAVE IT when I dropped high value food as we walked around

She even handled a few passing skateboard/scooters fine, with enough distance and food. In other words, she was not reactive. Then, again, she is less reactive when she is more scared. It’s frustrating to understand, but reactivity is actually (in a way) a step forward for Lilly (which may or may not be true for other dogs).

A reactive Lilly means she is nervous, but confident enough to say something about it. Now, we just have to build her confidence to where she isn’t nervous AND she doesn’t feel the need to say much about what she sees as an affront to her world — like a kid rolling by or a young dog being a young dog.

I didn’t fully recognize how worried she was until we stepped into the sunlight as we walked out of the heavily treed park. I swear it’s as if stepping into the light released her from fear. It reminded me of that scene from The Blues Brothers, where Jake says “I have seen the light,” then proceeds to do a bunch of dancing and gymnastics (or so it seems).

As soon as we got away from our classmates and into the sun, she began leaping as high as my head — which is what she does after “surviving” something scary. We call it “jumping her jitters out.” Then, she made a b-line … I mean dragged my sorry behind to the car. That, friends, is a b-i-g sign.

So, there is your tip for the day.
See how your dog responds after the situation has ended for a good indicator on how big a issue it was (despite what you saw in the moment in the dog’s behavior).

For a good example of this, check out Laurie Luck’s Smart Dog University‘s video and blog post called Talos + the Freight Elevator. Talos is a service puppy in training. He will provide physical stability, kind of like a canine cane. He took a ride in a noisy freight elevator as part of his ongoing socialization work. He is nervous to be sure, but watch his exit at the end of the 3-minute video. He is not hot-footing it, which means he was coping pretty well.

I could post the video here, but I find Laurie’s blog so helpful as she chronicles the socialization work I sorely wish Lilly had had as a youngster. Plus, Talos … a great dane … is a total hoot to watch.


Now, you know why I decided Lilly could have her big bison bone on the way home from class. She deserved it. Later, we went for a walk in town before heading back up the mountain, and Lilly walked within mere inches of a college-aged guy on a skateboard without flinching. Honestly, I didn’t see him. He was at the back of a pack of what appeared to be frat guys doing some trash cleanup along the creek. He was rolling very slowly, which helped a lot.

Once we got home, she spent the whole afternoon chewing and hanging out outside with me and Ginko. It was a full-on, top-to-bottom Mommy and Lilly day. We spent from about 7 am to about 10 pm, just being a couple of best, best friends. We were both exhausted.



Happy, Happy Carnivores

After class on Sunday, which was a bit of a rough one, Lilly and I made our first visit to PC’s Pantry in Boulder, which comes highly recommended by several of our training and blogging friends. Lilly stayed in the car since off-leash dogs are welcome in the store, and there are several cats hanging out, etc. I bought some training treats, some organic shampoo and such, but I also went for some EXTRA SPECIAL treats — raw bison bones from Boulder Dog Food. PC’s keeps them in a freezer. (And, P.S. I think that St. Bernard in the dog food logo was sound asleep in the store while I was there. If I’d known, I would have asked for a pawtograph.)

Honestly, I’m somewhat careful when it comes to bones. I allow bones every few months. The reason? I recently interviewed Dr. Kate Knutson from Pet Crossing Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic in Bloomington, Minnesota, for an article in the summer 2009 issue of HealthyPet magazine.When I asked her about it, she basically said that dogs can chew onbones as long as you are willing to get any dental damage fixed, if ithappens. She understands that many of us consider chewing on bones aquality-of-life issue, so we balance the risk against the reward.

She did warn me about some dog chews you’ll find on the market: “Thereare a couple things I say no to,” she told me. “No hooves, no ears, norocks, and no pizzle (bully) sticks. Those are the fourthings that cause the most root canals in our practice.”

So, with those warnings and caveats in mind, I went ahead and got some big, meaty, raw bones for my pups.

Lilly enjoyed hers on the way home.

Then, all afternoon, both dogs chewed and chewed and chewed. They did a good job getting the meat off.

happy ginko 1

happy lil 1

I even managed to give Ginko a bath. He never once stopped playing with the bone. Sorry there isn’t video of that, but I was home alone at the time.

A debate in the following days cropped up about bones coming in the house. The people here at Chez Champion of My Heart vetoed the idea. But, the canine members of the family are ever hopeful.

Again, I wish I had video of it, but Ginko stood outside my office Monday looking forlorn. So, I went to let him in. He got the biggest smile on his face when he saw me. But, before he came inside, he raced around back to get his bone and came running up to the door. When I told him to leave it outside, Ginko gave me the most hurt look.

So, we’ve been working a lot on DROP IT and LEAVE IT as they come inside.

Lilly remains optimistic that her powers of persuasion will prevail. “Pleease, Mom? Please?”

happy lil 2

Weekly Training Update (Sept 11)

Two summers ago, I wrote full-on rant about loose, poorly fenced dogs who were ruining my ability to take Lilly on a decent walk in our rural neighborhood. Today, I can report: 1) I was right about the danger. 2) Things have improved.

One of the dogs at issue eventually bit off part of his owner’s thumb. Seriously. Chomp. We know this because an EMT friend went on the 911 call. So, I count us lucky to have gotten past this big dog who kept squaring off without injury.

There’s a whole comedy of errors that goes along with the severed thumb, but I’ll spare any of you who may be squeamish.

Of the four houses with dogs of concern, only one remains an issue. The others have either moved away or are finally restrained away from the road. Once in a while those two spaniels come after us, but lately, they keep their distance. Oh, they still race toward us, barking and growling … but they stop about 20 feet from us. Their owner now calls them as soon as he sees us coming, or he recalls them even after the chase is on. It took Lilly a while to adjust to the guy’s hollering required, but she no longer thinks she is the one in trouble.

I learned recently at an engagement party in the valley that this is NOT the case for others who walk their dogs the same direction. They still refuse to walk that direction after numerous, ugly encounters with these dogs. I’m not sure if the spaniel’s owner takes pity on us or what. He is known around here as “Mean Mr. [Last Name]” or “The Dog Kicker,” so I’m pretty sure we’re not his kind of peeps, but whatever it is that has spurred the improvement … I’ll take it.

The set-up remains a training challenge, though. The spaniel house is across the street from another house with two dogs who like to bark at us too. They are well fenced, so it’s not a danger, but it freaks Lilly out.

This gauntlet, unfortunately, sits where three rural roads intersect … at the bottom of a hill, on a bit of a blind curve.

Each time, Lilly and I end up playing poor-folks’ game of Frogger, as we move one way or another so that she has enough distance from either set of dogs to keep her from freaking out with fear.

I succeed many times of late at finding just the right balance of space to keep Lilly walking, looking at me, and taking treats. We don’t look at either set of dogs. We don’t talk to them. We focus on each other and keep moving.

Once in a while, my timing is off, and Lilly shoots to the end of her leash to bark, growl, and lunge back at them, but I just keep walking until she relents and refocuses.

We could speculate that this non-confrontational strategy works better. You know the mantra as well as I do: Ignore the behaviors you do not want.

Granted, I’m sure these other dogs were trained using something other than the clicker and positive reinforcement (and the withdrawal of attention that comes with it), but I figure if I ignore them, if I tip my head and shoulders away, while keeping Lilly focused on me the best that I can, then I may just succeed at making a safety bubble for both of us to pass.

Since it’s an out-and-back route we take, that means we face this situation twice on every walk, but once we get up over the hill, we have miles of road clear from fear triggers. We walk. We relax. We smile a lot.

Last week, we met some neighbors with their leashed dog on the road near the point where we turn around. So, we walked together back to their house before heading home. Their dog, also a spaniel of some sort, isn’t great with other dogs, so we put ourselves between them and walked with the dogs to the outside. Lilly did amazingly well — relaxed, loose body, focused on me. The only time she spun and snarked at him was when he shot behind his dad and got right behind Lilly. And, let’s face it … he deserved it.

As we chatted, the dog’s mom told me that it makes her smile whenever she sees me and Lilly on the road because “You both always look so happy.”

Now that, kids, is a compliment.

Say it with me: “Thank you. It’s true.”

The Scary Kitchen Window

When we last spoke about The Scary Kitchen Window over the sink, the one that has the nerve to slide side to side when the others go up and down, I had resigned myself to never opening this window again in Lilly’s lifetime — another 10 years, give or take. Even as our customized Relaxation Protocol work continued for weeks in 2008, I’d given up on using the window as trigger/stimuli examples because it broke my heart to see Lilly flip out. Essentially, I stopped paying attention to the window at all, and so did she for going on nearly a year.

Our behaviorist increased Lilly’s twice daily dose of alprazolam from .5 mg to .75 mg when she learned at our last meeting that Lilly continued to have several noise-related fear issues. Of Lilly’s two behavior medications, this one specifically targets noise reactivity and sudden fear episodes.

Rather than return to the Relaxation Protocol set-up, however, I simply started opening the window over the sink while Lilly was eating her dinner in the kitchen. It seemed to me that using the window as a trigger had somehow poisoned the more formal training situation, which I began to believe meant we’d never overcome the window that way.

Remember, for Lilly, evening is often much scarier than daytime. I wish we knew why, but we don’t. So, after early success opening the window during meals in the morning, I switched to dinnertime with some success.

We’re not quite ready to declare victory, but the worst fear behavior I’m seeing is this: Lilly stops eating. She looks at me and the window, then resumes eating.

I’ve tried opening the window during non-meal times, and in those cases, the worst that happens is that Lilly retreats a few steps before responding to my offer of a snack with caution. Typically, I ask her to take at least a few steps toward me and the open window to earn her food.


Summer Winds
The benefits of having access to this window include a nice evening breeze. I doubt I’ll do justice to my nature descriptions the way KB does, but here is my best attempt at explaining the winds around here.

Most of the time during the day, during the summer, any winds we get come from the West (downslope). BUT, in the evening, when the hot air down in the city gets enough height and oomph, it spills over the mountains from East to West (upslope). The result? We have nice breezes coming from the East at night.

The fastest way to cool off our house in the summer is to open a couple windows on the East side of the house as well as a couple others elsewhere, and voila! we have a comfy house with a pleasant breeze.

Weather geeks can read more here from a local meteorologist about what different winds mean around here for moisture, etc. Since we’re on the East side of the Continental Divide, what he says about Denver-area weather applies somewhat to our situation.

These breezy summer days are quickly coming to an end, though. And, come winter, the winds most often howl from the North and West. When we get big storms, they do indeed come from the East (as an upslope storm).

Weekly Training Update (Sept 4)

I took Lilly to her usual drop-in training classes with our Rock Star of a dog trainer Gigi Moss a couple times recently. Overall, they’ve gone well. Our separate work at retraining arrivals may be paying off at class in the form of a shortened warm-up time before Lilly seems relaxed. Still, we continue to practice going places, getting out of the car, and getting into Relaxation Protocol mode right away. Here is a bit more info on all accounts.

We arrived at that week’s location, and immediately went into SIT-STAY-EAT … be calm mode.

{I’m sorry. The photos for this post got lost in the great blog photo glitch.}

Lilly is most familiar with this location because it used to be the only one when we first started taking these classes. Back in the day, before things took a turn, Lilly used to howl with joy when we turned off a major road and began weaving our way back to this spot.

Since we were the first to arrive, we walked along a path next to these soccer fields. It’s nice for Lilly because we’re moving away from the dog park area, and she can walk at ease on her long training line without having to be on duty.

{I’m sorry. The photos for this post got lost in the great blog photo glitch.}

Thankfully, I spotted the MOTHER of all triggers early: A boy riding a skateboard, being pulled by two dogs straining at their leashes.

We bailed off the path and went well into the grassy area, where Lilly could sit and eat as they passed. I’m happy to say that she only fired off ONE holy crap! bark and otherwise was fine thanks to the extra distance (100+ feet) I could give her.

This week, class was at another location that Lilly tends to enjoy thanks to squirrels. (See KB’s blog post from that day for a funny photo of Lilly being obsessive about squirrels. In the comments, I argue that Lilly may have followed the letter of the DOWN-STAY law, but not its spirit.) :o)

Lilly handled the walk from the car to the working area back by the unfenced dog park well. We used our walk two steps, sit, eat pattern, and she had no trouble making her way across the park. Lilly was doing GREAT until two young dogs broke off from the play group that was winding down so that class could start. Both of them flew at us at top speed, so we reversed course while others tried to Whoo Whoo them away from us.

Despite my best efforts to get distance FAST, Lilly lunged and growled and flopped around like a large, ocean game fish. Hate that, but what can you do when the chase is on? I just kept walking until she stopped growling and could sit and eat calmly.

Once the pups were leashed up, Lilly recovered quickly.  Still … I used the fence corners that mark the off-leash area as a barrier. (That’s KB and K on the far side of the fence. It was the boxer and the doodle who gave us chase. Lilly actually loves the greyhound who is closest to us, but Lilly was licking her lips a lot when she first saw the big dog, so we kept a moderate distance at first.)

{I’m sorry. The photos for this post got lost in the great blog photo glitch.}

This is just minutes after the growling. Lilly is completely fine. (How many photos of a smiling Lilly, wearing her red warning bandanna, do you think I can take over the years?)

{I’m sorry. The photos for this post got lost in the great blog photo glitch.}

In fact, later we used those same two pups as blockers when a couple other off-leash dogs showed interest in Lilly. One time, it worked great, and we slipped away while these two social dogs intercepted the interlopers for us. Another time, it didn’t work, so Lilly turned and snapped at the approaching dog who really gave her a vigorous butt inspection.

I’m happy to report that Lilly worked well through a Rally Obedience-like exercise where we went from paper plate to paper plate. Each one had instructions for something to do, including tricks. The shocking part was that a mature Italian Greyhound that Gigi knows was poking around off leash as we were doing this exercise, but as Gigi promised this dog had strong dog-dog skills and correctly read that Lilly was NOT interesting in saying hello … thank you very much.

YET, the fact that she would not only work (DOWNS, STAYS, etc), but that she would do tricks (ROLL OVER, SHAKE) while this tiny dog bopped around was a lovely little breakthrough.

Trust me, it would have been a totally different situation with a bigger dog or with one who had poor body language skills.

After class, I had a couple of errands to run, so we practiced our arrivals at each location. Both of these spots were new to Lilly, and it shows on her face.

Post Office

{I’m sorry. The photos for this post got lost in the great blog photo glitch.}

Grocery Store/Strip Mall Parking Lot
(with cart boy rumbling by with carts)

{I’m sorry. The photos for this post got lost in the great blog photo glitch.}

You’ll notice too that I have her off leash in these public areas, which is a brave thing for me to do, but I felt like Lilly was in good shape emotionally, and I only had her hop out of the car and sit for a minute tops while I fed her treat after treat before asking her to hop back into her car crate.

Each week as weather/temps allow, I take Lilly with me as I run errands to practice this very thing (get out of the car, sit, eat, be calm). So far she has been to:

  • Post office
  • Pharmacy
  • Grocery store
  • Office supply store
  • Home depot
  • Petco (We park closer to the doors each time.)
  • Library
  • Various pull outs in the canyon
  • Various class locations
  • A couple of parks in town

It’s probably a bit artificial since I then put her back in the car and run my errand really quick, but several times now people who saw us in the parking lot commented in the store at how well trained Lilly seems to be. I should get a stack of Gigi’s business cards to hand out when this happens.

OR, I think I may start using a line from one of my pal Karen Quinn’s novels. There is a character who replies to any compliment: “Thank you. It’s true.”

Lilly Meets LuLu, Part 3

You know I had to dissect the one instance from our time with LuLu where Lilly gave the youngster a correction. I’m glad I got it on video so that I could really look at the sequence. I’m calling it Anatomy of a Puppy Correction. While I’ve broken out clips and added transitions, which make the video around 2:30 minutes, the actual encounter was just over 1 minute in real time. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of too many running bumps in quick succession or if there may have been razor-like puppy teeth used. I tend to think so since Lilly really whips around suddenly. So, this is either a lesson in Enough is Enough OR a lesson in Bite Inhibition (since pups need to learn just how hard they can and cannot chomp on their playmates).

Again, I muted the sound on everything except the real time clip of the correction because the constant praise of both dogs gets annoying. BUT, I wanted you to be able to hear that specific encounter. Then, you can watch it again in super-slow-motion and see just what Lilly did in response.

Ultimately, there was no harm, no foul. Just an adult dog teaching a pup a thing or two. At least, that’s how it seemed to me and Betsy (the two dog moms present).

(Side Note: I spent a lot of time as a kid with my mom’s mom who watched a lot of The Lawrence Welk Show, hence the ah one, ah two.)

Without further ado, I present Anatomy of a Puppy Correction:

Lilly Meets LuLu, Part 2

As promised, here is a video showing how Lilly coped with meeting a very young puppy (just over 8 weeks). You can see in her body language that Lilly is a bit nervous. Watch her offer various calming signals. Notice (IMHO) how tolerant she is of puppy antics. FYI – I muted the audio because it is incessant praise of both dogs and gets TEDIOUS. :o) So, instead watch this silent movie that offers another study in canine body language.

Just so you know … tomorrow is another video I’m calling Anatomy of a Puppy Correction. It shows in detail the one encounter, where Lilly put her foot down, so stay tuned.

BUT, today … enjoy Lilly & LuLu

Lilly Meets LuLu, Part 1

It’s late, so this is just a quick note. Stay tuned this week for more info and even videos chronicling Lilly’s first extended encounter with a very young puppy. Our agility friend Betsy recently welcomed home LuLu, a performance-bred Australian Shepherd (aka agility dog). She is a total doll — as you will see.

best dog blog, champion of my heart, Australian shepherd puppy

Lilly did well overall. She was cautious. She would circle away, if necessary. There was a fair bit of lip licking, but for the most part, her tail wagged. Many times, she seemed perfectly content to have LuLu around. And, only ONCE did she correct her enough to make LuLu cry. I have it on video, and my best guess is that it was a lesson in bite inhibition. I can’t see for sure, but Lilly whips around suddenly, so I suspect maybe some puppy teeth clamped on accidentally.

First of all, there was a LOT of sniffing. LuLu has not seen many dogs with tails, so she found Lilly’s behind very interesting.

lulu and tails

I’ll try to edit a video clip later this week of Lilly using a calming signal (sitting down) when LuLu pays a bit too much attention in her tail.

You can see here that Lilly’s body language is a bit tense, but clearly LuLu is looking for approval. And, Lilly’s tail is swinging.

lulu and Lilly

I had forgotten how hard it is to photograph a puppy who has no concept of STAY or that cameras inherently mean hold still. So, she’s a little blur here, but I love the smile on Lilly’s face.

lulu and lilly 2

The only way I got this shot was by waiting until LuLu tired out, then I had Lilly slip in a DOWN-STAY next to her.

lulu and lilly 4

That’s all for now. I’m exhausted. More info and even video (I hope) later this week.

Real Life Recalls

Yesterday, I sat in my office poking at a few things on my desk, when I heard the distinct sounds of Lilly trying to sass the mules next door. While the mules actually handle her barking and bossing quite well, I’d rather she not get kicked. So, I went to the front door and said in a mostly normal tone of voice — “Lilly, COME.” And, she did. I’m not saying it was perfect, but here is what made it better than your average recall.

I was out of sight. She could not see me. I could not see her.

She was a good half-acre away from the house, so we had distance as a challenge.

She gave up what she was doing and came inside.

I did not holler. I did not repeat the cue, but I did offer other encouragement.

It wasn’t the fastest recall in the world. It took a good 60 seconds for her to make it up to the house.


I first read about the recall as a many part response in Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt. Her point, as I remember it, is that getting a dog to COME actually requires several things to happen, including stopping whatever the dog is currently doing, turning toward you, and then coming to you.

While I won’t put any trophies on the shelf or even dare compare this little real-life success to the kinds of off-leash, high-distraction recalls KB has on her Labs, I offer this as an example of how little work around the house (in addition to regular formal training scenarios) pays off.