Tuesday, 21 November 2017

On Choice, Ethics and Darcy

I recently attended the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) Australia annual conference. One of the messages threaded through many of the speakers' talks, I feel, was about accepting our learners (dogs and other animals) for who they are. Knowing the innate tendencies of species and breeds is part of it. But giving animals choices is another.

I'm lucky to come into animal training at a time where the 'progressive' notions of positive reinforcement and such are becoming mainstream. But I think the idea of 'free choice' -- what I think of as 'autonomy' -- is still pretty novel. I've always believed that training is for a better lifestyle -- as in, if my dog is well-trained she can come to more places with me and have a better quality of life. But people like behaviourist Dr Susan Friedman take it one step further when she says that training isn't manipulation; instead, giving more skills gives more choice. She asks us to explore how we can ask questions in our training -- how can we ask a bird if he really wants to step on our hand to be picked up? Does a dog really want to put her paw out to have her nails clipped? If we teach her to put her paw forward, she can choose at the time whether or not to do so.

It's a couple of weeks later, and I've just started Mechtild Käufer's Canine Play Behaviour: The Science of Dogs at Play. In the introduction she mentions that dog owners often say 'My dog loves me the way I am'. And I, Melon, agree, they do! But Käufer then flips the question -- do we love our dogs just the way they are? Or do we try to "train and mould our dogs into an ideal" (Kaufer p2)? I'd say yes. Many of us trainers judge owners who do no training and just complain about their dogs' behaviour, saying they don't understand how dogs work. Which is probably true. (For more info, read Jean Donaldson's The Culture Clash -- it's amazing.) But we know how dogs work -- and we just train them into what we want. Isn't that kinda unethical?

Which brings me to mister Darcy. I've written before about my struggles walking him because he pulls, chases moving objects and stops to dig holes. (Or rather, he wrote about the troubles walking with us! Telling, isn't it?). I also wrote about the progress we've made through reward-based training -- which has made life a bit easier. But it's still a struggle walking him, and the fact that he probably sees me (holding the lead) as an obstacle to what he wants (to run at the birds/insects/shrubs/leaves/people) probably means that, well, I am an obstacle to what he wants. And that's not very nice, isn't?

So what am I going to do about it? I don't have a concrete plan. But at the conference animal trainer Peta Clarke discussed using reinforcers other than food -- like chasing birds for her bulldog. He knows that the freedom to go chase them comes from her, so he'll wait for her cue to go do so. She gives him the cue to go chase them as much as she can because he enjoys it! She has control but he also feels he has control.

Since I realised a lot of Darcy's pulling on the lead is actually towards moving objects (he'll dart forward and then I see a small moth nearby), I've been thinking about putting it on cue, as she did. I don't want Darcy to see me as the obstacle to his fun, nor do I want to deprive him of what he obviously finds very rewarding! But I have some logistics to work out -- I mean, I can't just cue him to chase birds on a leash walk down the street. He'll just get frustrated as he hits the end of the lead, not to mention a sore neck when he goes boing!

I'll keep you posted -- all comments, ideas and suggestions welcome.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Sunday Funday: Rope Toy Romps

Do you guys remember the rope toy for mice? Okay, it's not really for mice. But it's so small I didn't know what it was for... until Coco showed me!

First, you pounce!

Then, you shake...


Saturday, 23 September 2017

A Visitor: Of the Baby Puppy Variety

It's puppy time!


This is Coco. She's a 15 week old French bulldog staying with me this week.

She's teeny tiny -- or at least she seems that way to me, despite spending most of my days with Cavaliers. I guess it's easy to forget how little and babyish puppies are! 

Human, what is this?

It's early days, but I'm pretty sure we're going to get along. She's confident, which I love, and curious without being a pest. And we've had a couple of good games of tug-of-war. Stay tuned for video!

She wasn't a fan of being put in the laundry for a nap (puppy alone training: starting above threshold -- oops) but has settled into having her pen in our main living area. From there she is now happy for us to leave and return. She had a good sleep in her crate last night, too. 

Coco likes to explore the yard, and frequently engages in what I'm fairly sure is scent marking. Has anyone else seen scent marking from such a young dog?

Otherwise, we are having fun. It can be tiring to keep up with puppy routines, but I'm looking forward to showing Coco the big wide world, which is always my favourite thing to do with puppies.

And, like all puppies, she sleeps like an angel.


Tuesday, 5 September 2017

In Which Being A Dog-less Dog Lover Has Its Perks

I'll be honest. Being a dog-less dog lover -- much less dog trainer -- sucks.

But sometimes, it provides unique opportunities.

Last night, I went to obedience club, even though I wasn't rostered to teach. The other instructors often bring their own dogs to train when they aren't teaching. But, of course, I don't have a dog of my own. No matter. I could just watch a class -- there's always something to learn about teaching [humans], and training [dogs], by watching others.

But then my colleague Ryan, who was teaching last night, offered to lend me his dog, Barney, so I could participate in a class.

I felt a bit of a thrill as I took Barney and joined the line of students waiting for our instructor. (Not Ryan -- we run many different classes.) Now, I have taken Miss Ava in class before. But this felt different -- probably because I've never worked with Barney before! So I imagine the feeling was one part 'I hope I don't embarrass myself' and two parts 'hey, this is cool'.

What are we waiting for?

It turned out to be a bunch of fun! Barney is a wonderful dog. Very, very laid-back for a young labrador, and he was very responsive to me, despite the fact that, well, he doesn't know me! Even more impressive was the fact that Ryan was about 10m away, walking around and calling instructions to his class. I've seen dogs in class ignore the 50-60 other strange dogs and their handlers working around them, but lose all focus because their other human, fur-sibling or doggy friend are elsewhere on the field.

But Barney, absolutely cool dog that he is, was content just to glance over at Ryan when we took breaks. Loyal, but composed.

I may be lanky, but I'm cooler than James Dean.

It was a great night. I'm grateful to Ryan for lending him to me, to the instructors at club who trust us with crazy shenanigans, and to my classmate who always gives me great training (and teaching) advice every time we see each other.

And of course this dude, who made my night! I'm still grinning.

That's cool, you can pay me in treats.

Being dog-less in the dog industry is a weird place to be. But sometimes, cool things happen.

Monday, 4 September 2017

A Feature: In Which We Discover The Truth of Being a Café Dog

Keisha here to tell you about the life of a café dog.

Sometimes the scratches need some work...

A little to the right.

There we go.

Sometimes people want to give you hugs.

I'm so cute you can't stand it?

There, there, human.

It's a hard life, but someone's gotta do it.

Guess I can make the sacrifice.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

A Report: In Which Keisha Writes Home

You know how when you go on holiday and you arrive at your destination, you send your family a message to let them know that you've arrived safely? (One of the many wonders of technology.)

Well, our latest houseguest would like to check in with her humans from her current vacation spot at Chez Melon.

Hi guys!

It's me, Keisha.

Melon says I should tell you what I did today.

Well, I went for a walk.

Then, I had dinner.

What did I do next?

Better get comfy while I try to remember.

Then... then...


Hey, Keisha? Keisha, it's Melon. Did you have anything more to add? You awake? Keisha? Helllooo?

... hmm. Guess that's all for now, folks!

Sunday, 20 August 2017

A Visit: In Which A Rather Pleasant Houseguest Comes to Stay

Remember Apollo, the Golden Retriever who really knows how to relax?

The lifesaver float is not for him... BOL!

Well, he stayed with us again for about a week and it was great. He's an easy dog.

For one, he really knows how to relax.

No, really -- despite his size he is relaxed in the house, never counter-surfs or paws the humans.

And he's an easy walker, which is great because at ~45kgs (at a guess), he needs all the walks he can get!

Lastly, he carries his bunny everywhere, which is, quite frankly, adorable.

Come back anytime, Apollo. You're always welcome.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Flashback Friday: It's Gatsby Time!

Things are still happening around here, but we've had some technical difficulties and the human has a bit of a cold. So while those updates are still coming, I think it's time for a flashback!

Miss Gatsby is the first dog who ever boarded at my house. She's a beautiful Japanese Spitz and was just a year old when she stayed with me.

She loves the outdoors and I loved to watch her explore the yard.

She's regal

And elegant

But silly

And fun.

Happy Gech!

Most of all, she's sweet and her trust in me when she visited reminded me of what I have to contribute as a trainer and as a companion to the canines.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Mischief Monday: Shhhh...

If I stay vewwy vewwy quiet... no one will notice me under here.


Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Story Progresses: Melon Has A Graduation

A week ago, something cool happened. I became an official instructor at the Hills dog obedience club!

Yes, I've been teaching there for a few months. But I'm a full obedience class instructor now, because I finished the training course. I had a graduation and everything!

Honestly, it felt a little weird because for the other graduates, graduation night was the culmination of a year of study and teaching experience. (Also, most grads being significantly older than me, it was a brave step back into the world of study for them.)

Whereas I joined the course half-way and made up the homework in a short amount of time. Yes, I did the reading and written work. But since that was done alone at the comfort of my desk, it doesn't quite feel the same as a shared adventure with my peers.

But I'm very glad to be part of the team, excited for the opportunity to contribute and very appreciative of the warm welcome. The club has a really dedicated group of volunteers who teach and organise and do everything else that needs to run an organisation -- and all to benefit the community. So I'm proud to be part of the team, and will have lots of teaching adventures to share!

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

A Shout-Out: To The Best Clients Ever

You all know how much I love my cavvies, Ava and Darcy. But it's time I told you why.

I had a difficult week last week. My anxiety triggered a depressive episode so I was missing in action for a few days. Then a client's dog dropped off for boarding turned out to be dangerous, so that had to be (carefully) managed.

Today, I pulled up outside Ava and Darcy's house. I heard barking and shook my head, thinking they had heard me. But it wasn't them, just a neighbour's dog. Sorry, Darcy.

Why do they always suspect me?

I went in, and their wagging and jumping began, but I wasn't jumped on. Ava waited quietly and Darcy wriggled and leaned on the fence, but he did very well for a 9-month old.

The pups toileted where they should and amused themselves while I cleaned, ate and took a breather. I was super impressed that they waited for an invitation before availing of my very-accessible lap when I sat in the lawn chair. That is an impressive feat for my sweet-as-pie lapdog friends!

All dogs are bred for a purpose. Ours is to sit in laps.

To further sweeten the deal, it was a good day for Ava's famous #FOMO (fear of missing out). A handful of kibble in her slow-feeder bowl kept her occupied while I took her brother out for a walk. And 'disaster Darcy' truly is a disaster no more as he walked along, politely greeted a lady who wanted to pat him and waited patiently when I 'parked' his lead under my shoe to chat to a neighbour.

It was the best tonic after a difficult week.

Yes, I'm proud of 'my' pups. But the real credit goes to the humans. Christina and Tim have done a marvellous job at raising these two dogs. They are happy, healthy, friendly and fun to be around. This is thanks to the time they've have put into them. Both working full-time with long hours, you wouldn't think they'd be able to put that work into their dogs.

But Ava and Darcy wouldn't be so good just from my training. Tim's driving the dogs to puppy school and the park, Chris getting up early to take the pups out, diligently bathing, brushing and grooming the dogs so they're used to it. Playing training games and buying endless toys. Their super-sensible attitude, trust in my dog training skills, and willingness to try my suggestions (even the weird ones!) are all what made Ava and Darcy who they are.

Don't listen to her, Darcy. We're naturally this cute.

I have the best job because of your two munchkins, guys. They do you great credit.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Selfie Sunday

Hi guys!

Today's Selfie Sunday is brought to you by Dodge the part-time Boston terrier, part-time Batman and full-time cutie.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

A Happy Update: In Which Melon and Darcy Work Together

So you guys know that 8-month-old Darcy has a problem with walking on the lead*. Meaning, all he wants to do is rush over to anything and everything, be it animal (human, canine or avian), plant, rock or... plain air, as far as I can tell!

Your point?

And all I, Melon, want to do, is walk down the street without the pup running onto the road, leaping after birds or scrambling into the bush... is that too much to ask?

Hey, what's over there?

I was really beginning to think it was. So much that I suggested his humans buy some equipment to reduce his pulling (like a head halter -- not that I've ever seen a cavalier in one!).

But I also didn't want to let this defeat me. Call myself a dog trainer, and can't even teach a ~5kg puppy to walk on a lead? (Size doesn't directly affect trainability, but it does affect ability to hold onto a pulling dog!) So for the past fortnight or so I've tried to take Darcy for at least a ten to fifteen minute walk every time I visited. Why such a short walk? Because my patience for stopping and starting wears off after about ten minutes!

Seriously. Why are we stopping again?

But it turns out that patience in the form of a little each day has made a difference -- I think. I don't want to speak too soon, but I feel Darcy is finally showing some improvement in the skill of what we trainers call 'loose lead walking'. As in, he can sometimes walk down the road like a 'normal' dog...

Here's a tiny snippet of our walk today.

In the middle you see a glimpse of what our 'walks' have looked like for the past 6 months, but you can see that he can also walk much, much better too!

Walking near people, dogs or his sister are still out of the question, but hey, I'm just thrilled to see progress!

I'm proud of myself as well as this kid and can't wait to see where else we can go -- figuratively and literally!

* lead = Australian for leash, guys. Or "the string", as Darcy called it.