Today I went back to the canal trail I visited with Luna last week with the “Young Guns”, Stark and Ella. It is definitely a new favorite, and it feels good to have a favorite place again. The day was warmer, but the trail was just as quiet as the last trip. For part of the stretch, I even let the dogs have a bit of off-leash time. It was a narrow, secluded area, one where I could easily see if others were joining us on the trail.
Whenever Stark is off-leash I marvel a little bit. He can be hard to “get rid of”, not underfoot, but never going far. On the rare occasions he gets an uncomfortable distance a quick call of his name calls him to bolt back towards me. Today he created his own game where he would run out a few yards full speed, turn on a dime and charge back to us, continually re-orienting. It’s a beautiful thing for someone that never felt comfortable letting her dogs run, no matter how secluded.
When I was eleven our family dog was hit by a car and killed, in the mountains of all places. It left a lasting impact on me of the importance of always having control of your dog. No matter how safe you thought it was. I never expected to feel safe again, to trust myself and my dogs. Today we played, and I knew I didn’t have to worry.
While Stark played his own game of environmental orientation Ella and I played an actual game of orientation, keeping her close and focused on me. We’ve been working hard on developing a natural proximity with her, similar to Stark’s. For him a leash is an accessory, a social requirement. She can still get a little excited, recalls on a dime, but wants to pull when she gets excited.
So we played somewhere we had never played before, met with several impressive distractions, including splashing ducks that startled Stark (for half a second) and a cat. Both looked at the animals and back at me as we moved on. My dogs are starting to find novelty (intimate or not) optimistic, non-events and it is amazing. They’ve become flexible in new situations and find it easy to go with the flow. Again, all thanks to the games.
Over the last few days we’ve been exploring Absolute Dogs’ Calmness Triad. We covered Rest and Passive Calming Activities, and today we will tackle the last section, the Calmness Protocol. But before we do its important that you’ve read all about Ditching the Bowl, because your dog’s daily food allowance is essential in implementing the Calmness Protocol. Remember, your dog’s food is a pot of value and we’re going to put that value to work.
All you have to do is look for moments when your dog is calm. For most dogs this begins as a moment of stillness, although catching them while they sleep is ideal. You take a piece of food and as calmly and uneventful as possible place it next to them. At first the reward may alert your dog, even before it’s delivered - that’s okay. The more you reward for calmness the less excited they will be when presented with the food and the more they will choose calm.
In time you will become a food delivery ninja and even the most excitable dogs and driven breeds will remain sleeping when it is placed next to them. When they wake up the food arrived as if by magic and becomes more reinforcement towards calm. As you implement the triad as a whole you will notice that your dogs sleep more, are more restful, and make better choices.
Calmness is truly the key to a happy household (especially a multi-dog one!). If you want to learn more about why calmness work or implementing the triad check our events page for our next monthly seminar. It will change the relationship you have with your dog.
Yesterday we chatted about Passive Calming Activities (PCAs) and how they are part of the Calmness Triad by Absolute Dogs. Today we wanted to talk about a specific type, stuffed toys or Kongs. While Kong is a brand name, there are many other toys that can be stuffed with food, one of our personal favorites is the Busy Buddy line.
Kongs may be one of the biggest things that made calmness possible in our home. Its how we transitioned dogs into gated communities, increased duration on bounderies, and allowed non-stressful time away from us. Kongs keep your dog occupied, which reduces stress and anxiety when you leave them. It allows them to self soothe and relax in your absence, but please, make sure you know your dog. Never leave a dog that will chew or destroy alone with any toys.
When I first suggest Kongs I often hear from clients that their dogs are disinterested in them. In reality, this is most often because their dog has a low tolerance of frustration. The food is too difficult for them to get out because it is packed tight or frozen so they give up rather than eating - no matter how delicious or tempting the reward is. In order to reduce frustration your dog's first Kongs should be easy to eat and filled with extra tasty goodies. Just think about how easy (and fast!) they gobble up kibble from a bowl. You'll want to think of the type of dispenser you use just as much as what you want to put inside it.
You don’t need a specific toy, just anything that will hold their food. Even household items such as folded toilet paper tubes or small boxes can be used, as long as you are prepared to clean up the shredded paper. Again, take into account how frustrated your dog gets by problem-solving. One of our favorite toys is the Busy Buddy Twist 'n Treat, easy to fill and you can adjust the opening as needed.
Once you have a dispenser you can decide what to fill it with. Something like the Twist 'n Treat pair great with some peanut butter (no xylitol!) or plain greek yogurt smeared on the inside. You can then add kibble, fruit, or meat for an instant reward while the peanut butter or yogurt will make the treat last longer which will build your dog's frustration tolerance.
Be creative! Switch up food and dispensers as your dog becomes more used to them. Once they are no longer frustrated, but excited by Kongs you can begin to freeze them for longer lasting treats. Blended fruit or broths can be a great choice. This will help with separation anxiety, increasing duration on boundaries, and foster rest. Often, once a dog has finished their Kong they are more than ready to take a nap. And that is a truly tired, happy dog.
Yesterday we chatted about the Rest part of the Calmness Triad by Absolute Dogs. Today I want to tackle the Passive Calming Activities (PCAs). I like to think of this section as a pacifier. Basically, a way to soothe our dogs just like you would human babies. Unlike humans though, it’s best if you can provide PCAs before your dog requires soothing. PCAs allow our dogs to decompress, relax, and destress. They are activities that use their natural senses, such as chewing, licking, or sniffing. PCAs provide endless enrichment for our dogs, working their brains and creating a truly tired and content dog.
Remember how we said a tired dog is a happy dog? Tired dogs should be tired because they were provided enriching activities not because they were exercised to exhaustion. When we over-exercise our dogs in an effort to tire them out we aren’t allowing them the opportunity to unwind. Instead we are adding more stress to a dog that can't relax. Another common side effect is creating a dog with greater stamina that needs to go farther and faster to meet the same requirements as before. In general, these dogs aren’t any happier than a dog that was given the chance to “scavenge” for a meal.
So what are PCAs? I tend to group them into two categories: Chewing and Licking or Sniffing and Hunting. The list below is by no means exhaustive, in fact PCA can be just about as creative as you want. There is an excellent group on Facebook called Beyond the Bowl that can help you get started with enrichment activities, even on a low budget.
Some of our personal favorite activities are Stuffed Kongs (and other non-Kong branded similar toys). As well as puzzle feeders, scatter feeding, and scent games. In general, my dogs have 2-3 PCA per day, which helps foster calmness, time alone, ditching the bowl, and ditching the routine. If you have a dog that is struggling with rest PCA can be the key to achieving it! They allow a dog to be occupied when you leave and often help them sleep after they are finished.
Having struggles introducing PCA? Tomorrow we'll tackle how to get started and choosing the right activity for your dog.
Today was a lazy day, a calm day some might say. Which is good, because we could all use a bit more calmness and relaxing in our lives. In fact, I manage my multi-dog household with calmness as a strong foundation. My goal is for my dogs to choose calm as a default behavior. If we aren’t playing or training, they should be resting. At its most basic concept, there are no bad choices when calm, only good ones. In the wild dogs spend most of their days resting to conserve energy and when our dogs do the same it means they can make better choices and perform better when working. Our days are based on Absolute Dog’s Calmness Triad: Passive Calming Activities, Calmness Protocol, and Rest. Each has its own importance, but today I want to talk about rest.
I’m seeing a lot of posts regarding two concerns for our dogs while we are all spending more time at home. The first is that they will suffer from separation related behaviors once the world returns back to work The second that they are struggling to cope with spending their entire day with the family, particularly when young children are in the home. In reality, both of these scenarios are based on the same issue, a lack of rest, true rest, where the dog spends time alone.
Dogs that can spend time apart from their families/owner have a chance to recharge and unwind, just like we do when we read a book or take a bath after a long day. By not giving our dogs a chance to relax we do them a true disservice. Dogs that can’t spend time alone don’t learn how to self soothe and can end up with separation related behaviors that can be mild (whining when their owner first leaves) or severe (tearing the entire house apart). While dogs that are not given space to rest can often seem to be unable to relax or even exhibit behaviors that seem aggressive, such as barking, nipping or lunging. When bites do occur they often seem to be “out of nowhere” when in reality that dog reached a breaking point from not being allowed time to rest.
The good news is, for most dogs, its fairly easy to allow them the opportunity to rest. However if your dog is already exhibiting seperation related behaviors it can be a bit more tricky. Another bonus, it’s easier to implement these changes while we are spending more time at home. Start by deciding where they can rest (ideally this is not in a single location - remember about Ditching the Routine!!), If they are crate trained it is an obvious choice, but you can also use a room, gated off area, exercise pen, or boundaries/place/bed if your dog has a strong foundation for staying comfortably in one place.
My dogs spend time alone at least twice per day. I like to give them a Kong or other stuffed toy when I leave them (know YOUR dog and if it is safe to leave them with a Kong unattended). This helps soothe them in my absence and often allows them to fall asleep after they have finished. For dogs that aren’t used to being alone, you can begin by just using a gate to separate you. Boundaries can be an excellent choice here, as you can teach them to lay on their bed while you are in the room before you leave it.
Aside from planned rest you can do little things throughout the day, such as not allowing them to follow you into the bathroom or leaving them outside the kitchen (behind a gate) while you prep meals or eat dinner. Take short walks, such as to the mailbox on your own, scatter feed in your backyard, leave them upstairs when you go downstairs to do laundry. Be creative, there are lots of opportunities to “leave” them throughout the day.
If your dog is distressed by your absence, you will need to reevaluate how you are introducing time apart. We’ll be exploring Passive Calming Activities tomorrow, which will help you be more creative in helping them adjust. Crying, whining, barking, and other behaviors are generally based on fear and allowing them to continue will not help your dog adjust to your leaving.
These days my dogs generally rest wherever they are on their own. However, when major life changes happen (guest spending the night or dad is suddenly home all day) they sometimes need me to step in and make sure they get that time. After all, they say a tired dog is a happy dog...and we’ll explore that tomorrow.
If there is one thing the pandemic has allowed us to do, it’s have more time with our dogs. At our house that has meant more time for tricks! We’ve spent more time trick training in the last week than probably the last few months combined. Its been nice, and a good reminder that I need to make more time for it.
Trick training is special, it takes a certain bond, finesse, and desire from both parties to succeed, especially when you get to the higher levels. It takes practice, persistence, and precision. It works your brain, and your dog’s. I’ve noticed the last few days my dogs have all been tuckered out a bit more than usual, whether they went on our little daily adventures or not. I can only assume its all that brain work.
It’s working my brain as well. For a long time, I’ve wanted to offer some unique courses online, tricks mixed with concept training games. I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to manage it. It’s difficult since I want something for all skill levels, but I think I’ve got a good outline and I’m hoping to launch something new in the next week. I can’t wait to offer this new level of bonding to both my existing and future clients
So why should you trick train? Hands down, it makes you a better trainer. You have to look at timing, adding cues, and chaining behaviors together in ways you never did before. It provides endless enrichment for you, your dogs, and anyone you share your trick performances with. It even enhances your dog’s flexibility and fitness. And I truly believe they love it. Any piece of equipment or prop I pull out they are all itching to get their paws on it! It’s a good thing we’ve been practicing a LOT of turn-taking!
As I’m writing this I am regretting that I don’t have a post on what concept training is, because it would make a lot more sense to anyone reading this if I did. But I’m going to write it anyway because its where my mind is and anyone who has spent any time writing knows you can’t always choose the subject that takes over the keyboard.
A short answer, concept training is about reshaping a dog’s brain. Helping them make better choices by strengthening good concepts like Engagement (with you), Disengagement (with distractions), Confidence, and Self Control. As I’ve said over the last few days, concept training is fairly new to us, we’ve only been a part of this world for the last year or so. Every day I see more and more how my dogs have changed in a positive way, and when I’m beginning to notice the way I’ve changed too.
You see, while I was reshaping my dogs’ brains I was also reshaping my own in not so subtle ways. I’ve become more optimistic, believing that every situation can have an upside, even in the middle of a pandemic. There are days I struggle (don’t we all?) but all in all I’ve been able to hold my optimism, to guard it against pessimistic thoughts and actions.
I’m certainly more flexible, I can adjust a training session as needed. Move tasks around on my calendar either by days or just hours and still accomplish them, something I’ve always struggled with in the past. I can “wing it” when I need to, and right now I’m finding it not so difficult to transfer all my training classes online.
Self-control, this is a hard one, especially lately. I want to carbo-load on everything these days. But I can say no to desserts and chocolate more often than before. I make healthier choices, food, exercise, and self-care. I can win internal arguments when I just don’t want to do something. I can even, on most days, avoid getting sucked into the news or getting lost on social media.
There are other things like focusing on my goals and tasks that need to be accomplished, and the grit to get them done. But what I’m most proud of is personal and it’s hard to put it out there in the great big internet world.
It’s confidence. The confidence that I’ve got this, whatever this is. That I’ve become resourceful and flexible enough to roll with the punches. And the toughest one, the one that brings us to today, that I’m comfortable with me. In my own body, in my own skin. The concepts that I was building gave me the self-esteem I would never have without it. It’s a little crazy that dog training can build confidence with you both as a handler and as a person, but it does.
Today I proudly asked my husband to take a picture of me with Stark and Ella. I’m the one that takes photos, that stays safe behind the camera. All I see in that picture is me, my dogs, and my smile. There are no insecurities or fears, just me and them. They bring out the best in me, each and every day.
I struggled to find a topic for today’s blog. In some ways, it felt like nothing happened. Another day spent social distancing, hiding away from the world. I kept myself busy with work, filming and corresponding virtually. It's just not the same as seeing clients and can leave you melancholy.
At the same time, I managed another small adventure, this one in the heart of our city. I've been selective in the hiking spots I’ve visited near my home in the last few days. Searching for those that have little traffic. I grew up in the same zip code and had no idea the places I visited yesterday and today even existed. Both days I passed two other hikers, keeping more than the recommended six-foot distances, but it felt so good to get out. To get back with nature in a way I haven't in a long time.
When I lived in southern Utah I knew all sorts of secluded, tucked away spots to hike, but have always complained that I lived too far for anything similar in the busy salt lake valley. Today I found a quiet spot, not ten minutes from the building I rent. It was odd to drive by and not stop, Luna even whined as we neared the street. But I have to say, I enjoyed today just as much, if not more than a training session.
It wasn't a lot to look at, not compared to the red rocks and sands where Luna and I would have been this weekend if not for Corona. But the small, worm trail next to a canal running so close to state street had its own charm. You could forget you were in the city as we walked, forget about the virus, and just enjoy being with your dog.
We did little training, but I marveled once again at the difference between THIS Luna and the Luna from before. I'm realizing that I'm always so busy running here or there I often don't see the transformations in my own dogs. The way she confidently explored terrain she was not used to, in a place where she had not been. Sounds in the distance did not phase her and the few strangers we saw she ignored as they passed. Even a dog yapping at their fence caused her little concern. She crossed an old, narrow bridge without hesitation and although interested in birds and ducks she paid them little attention in the grand scheme of things. She sniffed, explored, and checked in. All while I observed, truly observed, the dog she has become.
Training isn't new to us, not by a long shot, but concept training still is. It's been a little more than a year since I was "converted". I could never go back. The results we've had in just a single year are tenfold what we had in the five before that. Every season, no week, brings a positive change to my dogs through the games. I just have to learn to see it.
There was once a time when I never took my dogs anywhere unless they could all go. After all, it just didn’t seem fair to take one or two while the others were at home. As a result we reached a point where no one seemed to go anywhere. We might go for short walks around the neighborhood but even those trips seemed to be limited. With three dogs I felt more comfortable with at least two handlers - and four? No way was I tackling all of them on my own. Not to mention Stark was his own special handful when he first came to live with us, there were little manners, let alone loose leash walking with that dog. So we went out less and less, I poured more time into trick training and things we could do at home. No one seemed to suffer for it, but still, I longed for the days when a dog could accompany me quietly on a walk.
Then one night I was listening to one (of many) Absolute Dogs videos and Lauren Langman said, “Fair does not always mean equal”. That phrase stuck with me, like a mantra. What was fair for one dog may not be fair for another. And it certainly wasn’t fair for one to go without a privilege simply because another was not ready for it. How had I not seen this before? With children it had been obvious, so why hadn’t it transferred to the dogs?
We woke up early this morning to a sprinkling of snow, hopefully, the last of the season! I had a lazy start, caught up on some Absolute Dogs training videos and we ate breakfast late. One of the things I love about ditching the routine is the dogs relaxed with me. There was no nagging or begging for a meal, no whining or barking for attention. Even on the days I work I try to make “breakfast” unpredictable. The amount of food varies, as does how they earn it, and when they eat. One day it might be a frozen Kong as soon as I wake up, the next we might play games instead. Today we broke the mold by having a little bit of plain kibble in a bowl with their probiotic.
After breakfast I did some chores before breaking out the Dremel for nail trims. This is something I normally do in the late afternoons or evenings but I wanted to get it done early. Nails may be one of the most underrated things we can do for our dogs. When they are overgrown they can cause pain just walking. Most dogs are never conditioned to having them trimmed or filed which means it can be a fearful experience when they are done. My dogs have been conditioned to the Dremel (much easier than the nail clippers I used to use!) and we practice calmness while they are each taking their own turn. It also helps that we have yummy treats that only come out during nails. If you are interested in conditioning your own dogs I recommend joining the Nail Maintenance group on Facebook. And if you are not, consider it, you’ll save a lot of money during the life of your dog and they will be happier for it.
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