My Most Important Piece of Training Equipment

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We arrived at our Top Secret Training Location just after dawn.  It was pretty foggy this morning!

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We were greeted by a coyote that was barking his fool head off at us.  He was throwing rapid fire challenge barks and moving back and forth about 40 yards in front of us. I made the dogs heel and we walked directly toward him.  He relinquished the territory, but continued to challenge-bark as he backed away.  We pushed him a little farther back away from our position, then changed course and headed across the wind so we would not be so easily detected.  I was never worried about him.  I’m not the least bit afraid of coyotes.  I do have some concern that Peck might get too friendly with them, so I am careful when I know they are stirring in the vicinity.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture of the yodel-dog, but I was too busy keeping my animals under watch to think about pulling the camera out of my pocket.  Oh well, I’m sure you’ve all seen a coyote before.

We spent the rest of the morning exploring a swampy area where I knew Peck would be too busy to think much about the coyote.  The strategy appeared to work.

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Here’s a shot of my most important dog training equipment.  Everyone who has a dog should have at least one pair of these!

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My wife, who is the family’s self-appointed footwear connoisseur, can tell you that these things ROCK.  Warm and dry all the time!

Besides the interaction with the coyote we also found another sure sign that spring is rapidly approaching.

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YIPPEE!!!

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Slack Leads!

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Mollify Your Monsters by Multiplying Your Efforts

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I’m still feeling kinda puny after having surgery 3 weeks ago.  That explains my absence from the blog.  I’m very grateful for my friends and family who have helped exercise my critters while I’ve been laid up.  I’m back to walking with my dogs every morning now, even if the walks are much shorter than they’re used to.  I’ve had to take some of my own advice and multiply my efforts in order to provide Peck & Kaia with enough exercise to keep them from going bonkers.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know how important exercise is for dogs.  Not the “throw ’em in the backyard and let ’em play” kind of exercise either.  Nope,  I’m talking about exercise that involves interaction with you.  Unless you happen to be a young, fit, well trained athlete, you probably don’t have enough energy to go mile for mile with my dogs.  I know I can’t!  So I have to find ways to multiply my effort.  This is especially important right now because I don’t have as much strength or energy as usual but my dogs are just as full of vinegar as they always are.

Since my dogs are labs, multiplying my effort by using retrieving is a complete no-brainer.  I won’t go into any of the finer points of retriever training here because we’re talking about exercise.  Tennis balls can be inappropriate toys for some trained retrievers but for others, they are a great way to burn up excess energy without exhausting the trainer.  The Chuk-It toy works well for this because it enables you to throw the ball farther than you normally could.  Dummy launchers are another method of flinging a retrieving  bumper 50 or 60 yards with minimal effort.  These gizmos use a .22 caliber blank to throw a retrieving bumper.  Once again, not always appropriate for a trained retriever, but a great way to multiply your effort.

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Multiplying your effort doesn’t always mean using a gizmo or piece of equipment.  Just throwing a bumper is a great way to get your dog to burn energy with a minimum of effort on your part.  This works especially well when the retrieve includes swimming.  If you have a smooth flowing, safe creek for the dog to cross it’s even better.  This is what we did this morning.

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This is great exercise because it requires enormous effort for the dogs to cross the current.  They have to use all their senses and drive to mark, track and find the bumper.  I get to keep all the usual retrieving rules in place so we’re not backsliding on our retriever training.  Oh… and did I mention that the dogs absolutely LOVE it?

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Multiplying my effort is a very familiar concept to me.  I use it a lot.  I try to remember little things like taking the path back to the truck that doesn’t include any road or well worn trail.  It doesn’t cost me very many calories, but the dogs are much more excited and cover exponentially more ground than they would if we were just plodding down a trail.  Any time you can introduce your dog to a new patch of habitat to explore, you are multiplying your effort.  The novelty of the situation forces your dog to fully engage his senses.  A fully engaged critter burns more excess energy than one that is simply walking on lead with his human companion.  Some times it’s enough just to walk the same area, but take the route in reverse.

So, those of you who aren’t marathon runners, what do you do to multiply your effort so that your dog gets the interactive exercise he needs?  Please share your tips and ideas.  I can always use more effort multipliers!

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But Baby It’s Cold Outside!

Brrrrrrrrr!  There are times when I wish I had fur all over my body like my four legged friends.  I have a feeling my wife might object, saying we have enough shed hair in the house already!

Even with all that luxurious fur, it’s probably not too comfy outside when the mercury drops below freezing.  That’s why I installed a pellet stove in the kennel house when I built it.  At night I close the doors and start the stove if the outside temperature is near freezing or I suspect it will drop below freezing before morning.

The doors are open all day between the individual kennels and runs, so the cold air comes in, but I still leave the stove running if it’s freezing during the day.  I figure it takes the worst of the chill so the dogs have a relatively warm place to curl up and rest.  The heat from the stove also helps dry out the kennel when the dogs bring in snow or rain on their paws and coats.

It’s 5:30 AM as I write this.  In a few minutes I’ll go out to the kennel and start airing and feeding dogs.  I can see a little wisp of smoke coming from the stove-vent.  It’s good to know the dogs are comfortable even when it’s freezing outside.

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Have a Frosty Rainier!

We try to get out every morning for a walk.  It was a little chilly yesterday.  That doesn’t bother us at all.

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Sometimes I hunt with a shotgun and sometimes I hunt with a camera, but we’re always hunting as far as Kaia and Peck are concerned.  I enjoy the scenery and they enjoy the “smellery”.

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When the temperature gets this low there is always ice to contend with.  Ice can be a very dangerous element for retrievers.  There’s really no way to teach them how to handle ice other than to expose them carefully and allow them to figure it out.  There are many different kinds of ice that a retriever needs to be able to navigate.  There’s solid ice, wet slippery ice,  thin cracking ice, cutting ice, slushy ice, ice breaking at the edge, and on and on.  If a dog’s first encounter with ice occurs while he is running a retrieve, the odds of injury increase exponentially.  It’s far better to allow a dog to learn about ice while he can approach it with some caution.

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In the photo above you can see Peck’s trail through the ice near the top of the photo.  He charged through a thin layer and I think he was surprised to find it rather uncomfortable.  After charging through the thin layer he turned around to go back and check it out.  I could almost hear the wheels turning in his doggy brain as he stored the data for future encounters with the cold, hard stuff.

This is how dogs learn to deal with a lot of things they encounter.  All we have to do as trainers is get them out into the wilds where they can gather these experiences.  No amount of classes or training programs, books or DVDs can ever replace the simple act of getting out there and doing it.

The dogs and I were walking through a field of mowed Scotch Broom the other day.  I was thinking about a friend who was deathly afraid of allowing his dog to run through the stubble.  It seems his dog had sustained a foot injury on a previous jaunt through the field of sticks.  He didn’t want to let his dog run there, ever again.  My dogs have been running through stubble since they were puppies.  We’ve never seen a foot injury resulting from this. (Knock on wood!)  I believe they have a way of paying attention to their feet that allows them to trot right through this stuff without a problem.  They only learned it by doing it.

Obviously you have to pick your poison carefully.  I would not have chosen to let the dogs learn about porcupines by attacking one.  Unfortunately they made that decision on their own.  But, other things like ice, streams, stubble fields, and numerous other hazards can be learned by the  dogs through repeated exposure.  You don’t want your dog to learn about moving water by having him swim for a 40 yards retrieve across a raging river.  The hazards need to be introduced gradually, beginning with the easy stuff, so the dog avoids injury and fear.

Labrador Retrievers aren’t the only dogs that conquer hazards in this fashion.  They’re just the first breed that comes to my mind because I work with them every day.  Please help me broaden my horizons by sharing how your dogs learn to navigate hazards through repeated exposure.

Slack Leads to you all!

Sometimes Extinction Is A Good Thing!

Behavioral science is full of screwy, confusing terminology.  “Positive reinforcement” isn’t necessarily good. “Negative reinforcement” gets a bad rap partly because of the word, “negative”.  “Negative” and “extinction” can actually be good things.

In the highly derivative and somewhat esoteric language of behavioral science, “extinction” means the withholding of reinforcement (reward) for a previously learned behavior.  Let’s look at a typical example.

Fido, a little Shih Tsu, has developed a habit of whining and jumping up on your legs when he wants attention.  This is previously learned behavior.  Guess who taught it to him?  Yes, that would be you.  Now your friendly neighborhood behaviorist (dog trainer) tells you to ignore Fido when he jumps on you and that will cause the behavior to stop.  This is what we call behavioral extinction.  The behavior (jumping) will eventually go “extinct” when the reward (your attention) is no longer reinforcing the behavior.

 As a trainer, this is a very familiar scenario to me.  It’s also one of my biggest challenges because people find that when they stop rewarding a behavior, the behavior actually INCREASES!!!  In our example, you have stopped rewarding Fido’s jumping.  Each time he jumps, you turn away from him and completely ignore him as long as he has his little paws on your legs.  The problem is that you find he is now getting really frantic and jumping and whining and pawing even more.  You then decide that “extinction” is just a crock of behaviorist crapola and you surrender to your dog’s frantic attention-getting strategy.

What actually happened in the preceding paragraph is called an “extinction burst”.  It is extremely common and quite predictable in most cases.  Fido’s attention getting strategy is suddenly not working, so he tries even harder to get your attention, leaping, whining, barking, etc. until you finally give in and pick him up just to get the noise to stop.

Too bad.  By picking him up you just made the problem even worse.  And you were so close to the goal line too!  You see, typically an extinction burst marks the beginning of behavioral change within the brain.  If you can get through 3 or 4 of these kinds of burst-episodes, that’s all it normally takes for Fido to give up the jumping behavior because he understands that it just doesn’t work anymore.

Once you have successfully modified this undesired behavior, you can give Fido a new behavior by rewarding a SIT with your attention and affection.

Still think “extinction” is behaviorist crapola?  How long would you continue to go to work if they stopped paying you?  How frantic would you be to get the pay that you had already earned?  When it was obvious that your place of work was not going to pay, would you keep getting up at 6:00 AM every morning and going to the same office demanding your paycheck?  Probably not.  At some point even the most dogged (pun intended) of us would give up and try something else.

So… what undesirable behaviors are you currently reinforcing and how would you go about bringing them to extinction?

Diesel Dawg!

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We adopted a new dog last night.  Just like that. We really couldn’t say “no” to a handsome fella like “Diesel”.  As you can see from the photo, Diesel is a German Shepherd.  He’s 9 months old and ready to learn.  To keep a long story short, I’m just going to tell you that he wasn’t working out in his previous home.  It wasn’t Diesel’s fault and it doesn’t help to blame the owner either.  Things just weren’t working for him. 

It was sad to see his guardian tell him goodbye, but enough of this sad stuff!  It’s time to start looking forward to a better, brighter future for this young guy.  He’s a bit aloof right now, as GSDs are prone to be.  He’s afraid of his own shadow at the moment, but I believe that will change as his training progresses and his confidence builds.

My plan at the moment is to keep him for about a month so we can work on basic obedience and social skills.  When I’m confident that he’s ready, we’ll start looking for a new home for Diesel.

I wasn’t crazy about the name, “Diesel”, but he does seem to recognize it.  Perhaps it’s more important to work on substantive issues rather than get hung up on a name.  After all, he’s got a lot of new stuff to work out, so I think I should let him keep the name.  What do you think?

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That was FUN, but it’s time to get back to work.

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The kennel re-opens today after being closed for 2 months.  The first dogs show up this evening and more are coming throughout the week. 

It’s been a glorious sabbatical! I’ve had plenty of time to work with my own dogs.  We’ve been hunting in Eastern Washington, the Olympic National Forest and some local areas that must remain secret!  Kaia is hunting better than ever and Peck, who was just a bumbling puppy last season, has become a hard charging little bird maniac. 

The re-opening of the kennel doesn’t end our hunting season, but it reduces it to a series of short, local hunts rather than the 3 week epic bird-a-thons we’ve been enjoying on the other side of the Cascades.

 

I’m glad to be getting back to work.  All this time off is great, but I miss having all the dogs around.  I’ve had a chance to recharge and I’m ready to take on the wild beasts again! 

I have a class starting at Sprinker Center called “Click It, Don’t Kick It!”  This is a positive reinforcement training class that runs for 6 weeks.  We start up on Tuesday 11/5.  You can get details and sign up info HERE.  

Or just call Sprinker Recreation Center at 253 798 4000

Next, on Saturday Nov. 9 we begin our next series of Beginning Obedience for Sporting Dogs.  This is a traditional training class primarily for young sporting breeds, Labs, Pointers, Setters, Goldens, Chessies, etc.  This class runs every Saturday for 6 weeks, from 10 to 11:30 AM here at Muck Creek Kennels.  To sign up for this class, just call Muck Creek Kennels at 253 442 9625

See you in class! 

Oh…. I almost forgot…  Don’t forget to bring your human!