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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Here We Go Again!

I suffered an enormous personal loss last Friday 12/13/13, when my Dad passed away after a long, painful battle with lung cancer.  I have been unable to write anything the last few days, but rest assured that work continues here at Muck Creek Kennels.  We have been training every day just as we normally do.

I couldn’t continue to keep the dogs here if I thought for a moment that I was unable to properly care for them.  In reality I have spent more time than usual with the kennel dogs.  Their unrelenting cheerfulness and goofy antics have sustained me and helped give me the strength I needed to keep moving through some difficult times.

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Over the course of the last week we have been working on recall with Diesel.  Our goal is to have excellent response to the HERE command even in the face of major distractions.  We’ve made some excellent progress!

Jessie, who is here for basic obedience, has also made significant progress in his training.  We are seeing good responses to all his basic obedience commands.  Over the next few days we’ll be raising our criteria and motivating Jessie to show us what he is really capable of in terms of cooperation, focus and response.

Jackson is a young fella who has been through some training here earlier.  I was very pleased to see how he has held on to his previous training and how he is eager to work and learn more stuff.  I know that his owner has plans to breed him with another really nice lab that has been trained here at Muck Creek.  I’m particularly excited to find Jackson to be so tractable and eager to learn.  When the time comes, he and Coco will make some really wonderful puppies together.

Over the last few days I have been rebuilding the doors that connect each kennel to its corresponding outdoor run.  Originally I built the door frames out of wood because that’s what I had lying around.  The dogs quickly showed me the error of my ways as they began to chew on the door frames, reducing my handiwork to a pile of slobbery splinters.

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Luckily, my friends David & Cynthia Froembling of Columbia Sheetmetal had a solution in the form of steel door-surrounds.  I finally got those installed over the last couple of days.  Being a professional sheetmetal guy, David would probably have preferred me to use powder coated screws so they weren’t so visible, but I had a box of regular sheetmetal screws that worked just fine.  The dogs don’t seem to mind that it looks a little… well… screwy!

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Slack Leads!

Grandma’s Rule

Jessie’s training is underway.  One of the things I’m doing to address his overabundance of energy is letting him romp with Diesel.  It does them both good to burn off some of their energy and it allows me to work each of them in the presence of a powerful distraction.  Diesel has enough obedience for us to expect good responses even with a moderate level of distraction.  Jessie is just getting started so our expectations are much lower for him.

I let them run around the exercise yard and roughhouse for a about 20 minutes or so, then I put Diesel on lead and walk him through some Heel/Sit exercises while Jessie is still running around in the yard.  After a few minutes of this with Diesel, I turn him loose and put Jessie on lead and do a few simple Sits and try to get him to hold his Sit in spite of the distraction Diesel provides.

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This is just part of their daily training, but it’s a convenient way to get them both some exercise.  The obvious challenge is to keep them both connected to me.  They can get so involved in their chasing and roughhousing that they forget about me, so I call them back every few minutes and put them both in a SIT, then release them for more fun and games.

Another variation of this involves retrieving which Jessie LOVES.  I know I’ll be using his love of retrieving for a motivator as his training progresses.  By building some simple rules around a game he enjoys, we get the added benefit of those rules beginning to have relevance in other activities, whether we’re working or playing.

The principle behind this kind of training is called the Premack Principle.  We could spend a lot of time describing this in behavioral terms, but most of us already have a thorough understanding of Premack as “Grandma’s Rule”.  Simply stated, Grandma’s Rule is this:  “You can have some ice cream as soon as you eat your peas.”  So… for Jessie the “peas” can be a SIT and the “ice cream” is a retrieving bumper being tossed so he can make a retrieve.

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I’ll try to get some video of this so you can see it in action.  Until then…

Slack Leads to you all!

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!

Diesel Makes a New Friend!

Bailey is a really sweet Golden Doodle who is staying at Muck Creek Kennels over Thanksgiving.  Diesel was pretty skeptical about her at first.  He has some fear of other dogs that could stem from being bullied as a puppy.  It’s not really very helpful for us to make assumptions though.  It’s much more important for Diesel that we move on and learn to interact courteously with other dogs.

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Bailey is the perfect pal for our boy, Diesel, because she’s around his age, she’s female and she’s about as sweet and friendly as a dog can be.  Naturally I took all the necessary precautions when I introduced them.  I didn’t expect any trouble, but we can’t be too careful either.

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We were hearing a lot of frustration-barking from the kennel because they were both curious about each other and they couldn’t wait to get a good game of “chase-me-chase-you” going.  I let them run around in the exercise yard together for about a half hour under my close supervision.  The pictures speak for themselves.  They had a blast!

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I just put them back in the kennel a little while ago and the kennel is finally quiet for the first time today.  I think they wore each other out!

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Enjoy this sunshine and Slack Leads to you all!

Nutrition War Rages On!

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This article by Dr Doug Knueven in Dogs Naturally Magazine explains recent research on lupine/canine adaptation to a human diet.  The research shows evidence that part of the genetic adaptation which occurred as wolves became dogs was an ability to process carbohydrates found in some of the dogs that were studied. 

The title of Dr. Knueven’s article is rather provocative and is meant to be so.  As you read further in the article you find the good Dr. has a balanced approach toward the research.  After careful consideration, he concludes that, while some dogs carry genes that may enable them to thrive on a starchy diet; the vast majority of dogs will continue to get the most benefit from a grain-free ancestral diet.

My conclusion:  Dogs eat meat.  If they eat kibble, they will benefit most from kibble that contains the most meat.

Just as Dr. Knueven predicts, I believe this study will be used by the big dog food manufacturers to defend their extensive use of grain fillers. 

On a related note:  I had the opportunity last September to watch two wolves devour a good sized mule deer doe.  They did not eat the stomach contents.  They tore into the animal through the rectal area and proceeded to rip off and consume large hunks of tissue from the haunches and back area.  The next day the stomach and contents were still largely intact.  Corvids (ravens & crows) were working the carcass over by this time.

So much for the old saw about wolves always eating the stomach contents first.  Yes, I know, one incident is an anecdote, not research.  However one incident is enough to remove some of the certainty of previous assumptions.

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Slack Leads Please!

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I’ve never worked with a real sled dog before.  Oh sure, I’ve taught a Husky to sit and helped a lady teach her Malamute to stop counter surfing.  But I’ve never worked with a genuine, authentic, mushing dog, you know, the Iditarod running, sled hauling, snow tracking, monsters that can pull 3 times their own weight across the frozen white wastelands of the North.

Sometimes I imagine that a lot of my clients are trying to get their dogs involved in sledding, at least it appears that way when they first start training.  As soon as they clip the lead on their dog the animal starts pulling, the handlers arm is fully extended and they are running after their dog just to keep themselves upright.  Off to the sled races with Fido!

The first step in fixing this annoying and dangerous behavior is realizing that our goal is a Slack Lead.  Always.  Period.  We need to understand that every time we let our dogs pull us, even if it’s just one measly little step, we are rewarding the very behavior that we find so troublesome.

When we first start teaching a dog HEEL, we need to understand that HEEL means no pulling.  We certainly can’t expect the dog to understand this if we don’t get it ourselves.  So often I hear people say, “Oh yeah, he knows what HEEL means but he pulls anyway.”  Nope.  Sorry.  Neither you nor your dog understand what HEEL means if the dog is pulling and you allow the behavior to continue.

There are several methods I use to teach HEEL.  I vary the method according to the intelligence and  personality of the dog I’m working with.  But one thing is the same, regardless of which method I use:  Slack Lead.  You can’t teach a dog to HEEL by letting him drag you through your neighborhood while he barks at cats and kids on bicycles. 

It’s always easier to teach HEEL in a distraction free environment.  Ok… let’s call it a “low distraction” environment because I’ve seen some dogs that can be distracted by the nothingness of nothing.  Anyway, whether you’re using DRO in a positive reinforcement regimen or you’re using a more traditional approach with collar corrections, you STILL need a low distraction environment and a slack lead to teach the dog anything.

I tell my students that there is no way to teach a dog anything useful with a tight lead.  When I see a handler trying to correct a dog with a tight lead I call it “Nag & Drag”.  I hope that my carefully crafted voice correction will help them to remember that they need a Slack Lead to train.

So, what tricks, tips and strategies do you use to get a slack lead?  I can share my own thoughts some other time.  Right now I’d really like to hear what works for you and your dog.  Maybe I can use your ideas on my next Iditarod contender!

Until then, Slack Leads to you all!

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Diesel Dawg Update!

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I’ve had Diesel here at the kennel since Nov.1 and we have been actively training for about 2 weeks.  In our last update I mentioned that we were working on extending Diesel’s  SIT.  You’ll recall that I don’t usually teach STAY.  So SIT is a big deal because it replaces STAY. 

Diesel has made excellent progress since our last update!  I can now put him in a SIT and turn my back and walk away, at least 30 paces, then walk in a circle around him.  He remains seated more than 9 out of 10 times. 

When a behavior is learned to this extent we can begin replacing our fixed ratio of one click/treat (c/t) per each successful behavior with a more variable schedule that focuses the c/t on the best examples of the behavior.  Our target is to progress to an average of 3:1.  That means that on average Diesel will get a click and treat for about every third successful Sit.  If we’re having a good session I try to extend distance and time.  If the session is less focused and his mind is wandering, I try not to push the boundaries.  This way we set him up for success.

All the while we have been working parallel on his Recall.  About half the time when I put him in a SIT, instead of me returning to click and treat, I call him to me for his c/t.  We’re getting good results with this approach. 

Now we’re trying to get him to return to the HEEL position.  We’re making progress with this, but there is plenty of room for improvement.  We’ve started working on HEEL using a technique called Differential Reinforcement of Other behavior or DRO for short.  This technique is also called “Shaping the Absence”.  I’ll try to explain this in another post.

Until then, best wishes and Slack Leads to all of you!

Constantly Learning

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Just inside the door of my kennel building is a whiteboard where I write down important stuff that I need to remember about my clients, the dogs, that is.  Sometimes it’s a reminder to administer meds or supplements.  Other times I might have a reminder that Fido, in kennel 6, needs extra attention for some reason.  One thing I wrote on the board has stayed there for months now.  I read it every day and think about it.

Dogs are constantly learning.  What are you constantly teaching?

One of the big advantages of placing a dog at a kennel for training is that the trainer gets significant control over the dog’s environment.  Many of the canine behaviors that humans find most troublesome are actually behaviors they have inadvertently taught them.  Sometimes half of the battle of training a wild young dog is just getting him out of his current environment and into the kennel where his life becomes very structured and chaos is kept to a minimum.

A typical scenario is the young dog that gets out of control simply because he was too cute for his own good as a puppy.  His guardians have allowed him to pretty much run the house until they got tired of the jumping/chewing/counter-surfing.  Then they threw him in the back yard and he started working his magic on the landscaping.  This might be a good time for them to consider having their dog boarded and trained (unless they want to wait while he finishes eating the siding off the garage).

In the kennel, we can provide structure in the form of well-defined spaces, consistent schedules, outdoor exercise and training.  While Fido is at boot camp you can do damage control at home and adjust your habits to help keep him successful when he returns.

Thank you for reading this shameless plug for boarded training in general and boarded training at Muck Creek Kennels in particular. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming which includes an update on wonder dog, DIESEL!  Stay Tuned!

Diesel Is Too Skinny!

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Diesel is too skinny!  We need to put a few pounds on him.  I still believe that feeding a measured amount of a quality food on a consistent schedule solves 90 percent of eating problems, but this wasn’t working for Diesel.  He just wasn’t eating enough to gain any weight.

Diesel is currently feeding on Orijen Red Meat dog food.  For those of you who are dog food snobs like me, you’ll recall that this stuff is about 90 bucks a bag.  So I was a little miffed with Diesel when he turned his nose up at it.  He eats the stuff, but he’s not crazy about it. 

Orijen is the same food I give to my labs and they wolf it down like… well… labs!  My point is that I have a pretty good idea how much of this stuff to feed a 70 lb dog.  Diesel was only eating about half as much as I would expect.

Lyn, my wife and resident dog food expert/fanatic, suggested that I put probiotics in his food to help get his gut working right.  Her thinking was that once his digestive system was properly populated with all the necessary flora and enzymes that his appetite would improve.  I agreed, of course, and started putting the probiotic powder on his food.  I have seen this particular brand of probiotic work extremely well on other dogs but it takes time to work.  I was getting impatient.

On a whim, I decided to crack a raw egg over the food just to see if the old trick might work to get my skinny foster-dog to eat a little more.  It worked.  He started eating kinda tentatively, but soon began slurping and gobbling his food like a proper beast.  I was happy!

Behold, my shame-faced admission of a dirty little secret: I have snickered quietly at the last hundred people who told me the old wives tale about the raw egg on the food making the dog’s coat shiny.  Nope.  Not really.  It doesn’t do much for the dog’s coat that we’ve seen in the last five years of owning a groom shop.              But raw egg does seem to boost appetite!

At least it’s working for Diesel and that’s all that really matters to him.  I’m still gonna do the probiotics like Lyn said, but now at least I’m feeding the stuff to the dog instead of the garbage can! 

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