Who’s the Client? Aren’t I a Dog Trainer?

Every week I meet new dogs.  Dogs come to me for the very basic reason that they are adjusting to a new home environment and need to learn some basic “living with humans” manners. Other dogs come to me because they have bitten people or are fighting with other dogs at home or on the street. Many, many dogs come to me because they are reactive on leash.  Each of these dogs is dealing with a stressor in their life and are behaving in the way that they have learned is most effective. Miranda.LeashBlog1

Every week I meet new people. People come to me because they are trying to figure out how to live with the new dog in their household who recently ate their iPhone, the universal remote, and three pairs of shoes before upending the trashcan all over the kitchen.  Or they are living with the stress of not knowing if the next time their dog bites someone they might get sued or (horrifyingly) they will have to make the call to euthanize their family dog.  Many, many people come to me because they are embarrassed and stressed out by their dog’s seemingly aggressive behavior on leash.

Obviously, I am a dog trainer, but let’s look at the breakdown.  If you come to me four times in eight weeks – one initial consult of 90 minutes, plus 3 follow-up one hour sessions – I will spend exactly 4.5 hours in the same room as your dog.  Much of this will be spent talking with you and figuring out an effective behavior plan.  I would guess that maybe 75% – so maybe 3.5 hours – will be spent with me and/or you engaging with your dog. How much time do you spend with your dog each week? Even if you work full-time, I would guess that you spend at least 2 hours around your dog in the morning, 4 hours with them each evening and let’s say 16 waking hours with them on the weekend: 46 hours. In one week.  Over 8 weeks, that’s 368 hours. Literally 100 times the number of hours I will spend with your dog in the same amount of time.

What would be the point of me spending our entire 4.5 hours training your dog? It wouldn’t transfer to the hours you spend with them.  Those 4.5 hours are my very small window, my time to train YOU to be a dog trainer.  You need to understand the principles of behavior that will most directly impact your training of your dog so you can make important decisions in the heat of the moment.  I need you to be coordinated in your dispensing of treats, your timing, and your leash handling.  And I need you to understand when management in terms of crates, muzzles, or leashes is necessary. In the end – I’m training you. I’m teaching you. I love your dog – I do! – but me working with them and leaving you with a vacuum of knowledge won’t serve you at all.  My job as a dog trainer and behavior analyst is to help you help your dog.

Why does this matter? Because at the end of a behavior consultation (or really, any training class) you should feel ready to go home and implement a behavior plan.  You should know why you’re doing what you’re doing; what the intended consequence is of your training; ad also what to look out for in terms of potential side effects. If you leave a session without this information, then your trainer or behavior consultant has not done their job.  So advocate for yourself and your dog- make sure you, as the client, have been served.

Because, in the end, you are the client.

Dog Training Done Right: When Owners Should Be the Ones Getting the Treats

In this post, I just want to share a fabulous story about some clients who showed absolute commitment to helping their dog.  Although I give my clients guidance and suggestions, it is up to them to do the work to help their dogs, day in and day out.  Clients like the ones in this story show just how much that commitment can pay off.  

The Beastie Herself!

Three weeks ago, I walked into a house to find a crated dog in the bedroom, screaming its head off because I dared to pass through the front door. A stranger!  Danger! Danger!  As stressed as the dog was, I was pleased that the client apparently understood that having the dog out of the crate at that moment would be dangerous- both to me and to the dog’s mental health!

After I was seated on the couch, treat pouch at the ready, the client put the dog on leash and brought her into the living room, keeping her at a safe distance.  As the dog barked, lunged, and generally carried on, I started tossing treats in her direction.  As it turned out, the dog was exactly as food-motivated as I had been promised, and her attention was quickly diverted.  Within minutes, I could start tossing the treats to her for looking at me without barking.  Shortly thereafter, I transitioned the treating responsibilities to Mom, to take any pressure off the dog to interact with me.

The session was not easy and not quiet.  The dog did settle down and work for Mom and dealt with me being there, but it was an uneasy truce. As long as I stayed still, all was well.  As soon as I moved, the dog got very concerned and we returned to working with her on tolerating my movements.  Every time I moved, she got a click for noticing me, and a treat tossed in the opposite direction.  Every time.  For the whole two hours.  And she was still annoyed with me at the end!  However, we did manage her reactions well enough that we had enough time to clarify the owners’ goals and set up a plan to get visitors safely into their house. Today, I got to go back for my second visit.  And holy cow! What a change!! The owners had clearly worked extensively with the door.  When I arrived, the dog was able to meet me at the door, as treats fell around her and were tossed away from the door, and only one muffled bark made it through her lips the whole time.  At the previous visit, every piece of the “door opening” scenario was a trigger- the door knob turning, the door opening a crack, a person being on the other side, a foot coming through the entryway- you name it and it was a trigger.  This time, everyone involved was cool as a cucumber.

As I entered the house and moved around, treats rained down out of Mom’s hands.  The dog checked in on me a couple of times, but always with polite interest, and each time turned back to Mom to look for treats.  We got right to work.

At the previous visit, I had suggested a Treat and Train (an automatic, remote-controlled treat dispenser) for this dog. They had purchased one, found batteries, and had it ready to go.  We could move right into working with it and focusing on how it could be used to help the dog settle when people were in the house.

We had started “go to your bed” training, and the dog could already target the spread-out towel we were using and lie right down, so we were able to move on to the next step of building a duration of staying on the bed and then combine this with the Treat and Train.

Due to a mild (but persistent) bite history, we had discussed muzzle training.  The owners had purchased a correctly-sized muzzle and had worked on presenting it to the dog along with food, so the dog had a positive association with it.  We could move onto having her put her nose inside for a click/treat.

Every little thing we had covered three weeks earlier, the owners had trained reliably.  Every tool I had suggested to make this progress faster, to approach their goal of having visitors for the holidays, they had purchased.  Consequently, during this second lesson, I could work with their dog, move freely around the room, help them extend their training to the next level, and truly help them meet the goals that were important to them.

The biggest change of all was in the dog.  In the first session, she was extremely stressed and on high alert the entire time I was there.  This time, she was relaxed- loose body, offering downs, mouth open in a happy grin- the whole package.  She was a happy, happy dog.

It was an amazing session, and I feel lucky to work with clients like this.  These clients understand what it really takes to make behavior change happen.  Can I help you with your “crazy” dog? The answer is always, “It depends.”  Do you have the time, energy, and commitment to make that change happen?  It isn’t always easy, but if you really want to make that change, the science of behavior will be there for you.


I love my job and it is the many, many people I work with who are so committed to their dogs that make it worthwhile. Many, many click/treats to these owners for doing what needed to be done to make an important change in one dog’s life!

Tortoises, Polar Bears, Seals, and Gorillas!

This weekend I am at the Applied Behavior Analysis International conference in Minneapolis.  It's an enormous gathering of about 5,000 behavior analysts from all over the country and the world.  Besides allowing us to all geek out over behavior analysis, it also is a great opportunity to expand our knowledge and remember principles and concepts we haven't thought about since grad school.  The highlight of this conference for me (so far, and I don't really see how it could be trumped) was a visit to Como Zoo in St. Paul.  Our group of ten or so was lead by Christy Alligood from Animal Kingdom at Disney and Allison Jungheim the Senior Keeper/Training Coordinator at Como Zoo.  It was fabulous!! We had a private harbor seal show, got to see them training the polar bears (wow they are ENORMOUS up close!), tortoises targeting a ball and being weighed, and the gorillas' new enclosure and training session. Some things I learned:

  • Polar Bears love eating seal meat but will train for lard sticks as a substitute.  They also apparently go bananas for twinkies so these are used very rarely as jackpots for recalls.  They can also fake being knocked out by a tranquilizer dart- so be very, very careful.  Smart bears.
  • Tortoises can learn to target a stick and follow it around their enclosure.  At least some of them really enjoy rub downs.  Seriously.  Their shells have nerve endings and when the zoo keeper rubbed the shell of one of them, she stopped eating, and raised up as high as she could to get pets under her belly and neck as well. To me, it looked just like a cat arching it's back when being scratched.
  • That gorillas will knock on the glass of their enclosure for the reaction and that the males can get pretty beat up by the dominant male gorillas even when they're still young. :/. On the other hand he was totally digging checking us out as much as we were enjoying seeing him. Very cool stuff.
  • That seals and sea lions are called pinnipeds - so I don't have to keep on remembering if they are harbor seals on sea lions and embarrassing myself by getting it wrong... Also, they are one of the few animals at the zoo that the zoo keepers can train without a barrier.

All-in-all, it was a truly fabulous day.  When I get hoe I will post some videos and photos of the animals- I hope you enjoy them! I certainly did.


TagTeaching: Yes, I Do Train My Son. And, ClickerExpo.

BlogPost23.TagTeaching.RollerBoard.KayleeSettled Last week I went to ClickerExpo in Stamford, Connecticut.  It was amazing- 450 dog trainers, horse trainers, exotic animal trainers, teachers, and pet owners- all so invested in positive training techniques that they wanted to spend three days locked up in a Connecticut hotel together.  Kaylee came with me and far surpassed my expectations in terms of behavior.  She settled beautifully during the lectures, enjoyed the labs (until she was too tired on day three and decided to nap instead), and played with her friend Esme in our hotel room.  She walked past full tables loaded with the lunch buffet, and on the last day even joined our table at lunch and stayed wonderfully settled on her mat.  She was friendly, but didn’t jump on people walking past, and was really just perfectly awesome.  Having a fully grown trained dog is such a treat!


I took many, many ideas from ClickerExpo and I’m am excited to spend the next couple of months exploring them on this blog; but for today I’m going to deviate from my typical “dog training” topic into the realm of “child training” or “teaching” as it is typically referred to!  In my previous life (really, up until December) I taught children with dyslexia how to read and write using the Orton-Gillingham method.  As I moved through my Masters program in Applied Behavior Analysis I came to realize that the reason that method is so successful is that it really is based on sound behavioral methodology.  During that time I also learned about TagTeaching- essentially, using applied behavior analysis in the form of clicker training to teach people.  I applied some TagTeaching to my work with students but never really had an opportunity to explore where it could go in optimizing my tutoring sessions.  However, now I also have my own children and am constantly considering the principles and methods of behaviorism when raising them. ClickerExpo reinvigorated my interest in TagTeaching and then today I had the perfect opportunity to apply it.

My 2-year-old son, Oliver, is a very cautious toddler.  He explores new experiences but doesn’t like to take risks.  Recently I’ve been trying to get him to use the “roller board” on the back of the stroller so that he can mostly walk, but hop on and take a ride if he gets tired.  He wasn’t having any of it. So, today, after a whole weekend of thinking like a trainer, I decided that it made the most sense to “shape” the behavior of riding on the roller board.  Shaping is a way of teaching where you reinforce closer and closer approximations to the sought-after behavior.


In this case, the terminal behavior was stepping onto the roller board, holding onto the stroller, and staying on for a reasonable duration of time.  (Reasonable is a bit undefined, but it changes depending on where we are going.) I used freeze-dried blueberries as the reinforcer as they are currently a hot favorite in our house.  I didn't use a clicker in this instance, but he received a verbal marker (good job! or other variations) and a blueberry while still in position immediately after performing to criteria.  This is what I reinforced:

  1. Putting one foot on the stationary board. (His dad modeled this twice and was given a blueberry each time, that was the last piece that was modeled.)
  2. Putting two feet on the stationary board.
  3. Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the stationary board for 5 seconds.
  4. Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for 5 seconds.
  5. Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for 10 seconds.
  6. Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for 15 seconds.
  7. Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for one entire city block.

And it worked!  With no more than 1 or maybe 2 blueberries at each stage and with never having to “put” Oliver on the board (he kept asking to get back up when he finished his blueberries), we successfully shaped the behavior.  We finished steps 1-7 by the time we got to Starbucks (10 minutes away), and he rode all the way home on the board afterwards.  In the interest of full disclosure, he did get a lollipop from the barber that he sucked on all the way home, which may have also helped keep him there. But, isn’t shaping fabulous?


Many people are uncomfortable with reinforcing their children with food, but really- what were my alternatives here? As I see it, I could have done these:

  1. Held him on the board until he “got used to it”
  2. Waited six months until he understood the “rule” about standing on the board.
  3. Given up.

Wasn’t shaping it using a handful of dried fruit a better option?  My relationship with my son is healthy and happy; Oliver played a fun game and got to eat something he loves (and is even healthy!); and rather than six months of pushing around an extra stroller seat, we now have a functional option to walking.  Hurray!

So no, this is not a parenting blog or a teaching blog- but it is a blog about behavior and that extends well beyond dogs.  It impacts every relationship in our lives and everything we want to teach to any organism- be it child, dog, or goldfish.  As such, I just wanted to share how I use applied behavior analysis in my day-to-day life to make it easier, less confrontational, and more positive.


How Do You Knock Your Dog's Socks Off?

IMG_2778 What does your dog want to do?  What makes him or her happy? What makes them dangle their tongue out in joyful, doggy bliss?

Not every dog is born to enjoy the same textbook puppy pleasures. For some dogs, a romp at the dog park is the best thing ever; for others, a stroll around the block really does knock their socks off; and for many, many puppies out there, destroying all the material goods their owner values most is what they love best.  However, for other dogs, a romp at the dog park is terrifying and unsettling, a stroll around the block wouldn’t do a thing for them, and they think that anything without food inside isn’t worth the time it would take to gnaw on. It sometimes takes time to get to know your dog and what they really enjoy.  When you do figure it out, it might not be your first choice, but occasionally going the extra mile for them can be very fulfilling.

This could be a blog about how to reinforce your dog based on what you know about his or her favorite activities.  That’s a tremendously important topic, but not exactly what I want to talk about.  It could also be about how to reduce puppy chewing behaviors, but that’s also not what I wanted to write about.  What I really wanted to blog about was- what do you do, that may not be your first choice, just because it makes your dog so insanely happy?

Here are four activities I find myself engaged in, that so frequently make me ask why, why am I doing this for that lazy, drool-y bag of bones that sleeps in the middle of my bed and leaves dog hair all over the couch?


  1. Going out to the woods at 6am on Saturdays in either cold or rainy weather.  Yup.  My dogs LOVE the woods, but one of them cannot be trusted off leash around other dogs.  So we go at exactly the time no one else will be there, which just happens to be a time I would much rather be in my nice, warm bed.
  2. Stuffing Kongs.  Cramming little rubber toys full of slimy, greasy, stinky mess is just not my cup of tea.  Once they are frozen though, they buy me such calm and happy dogs that it is totally worth it. A little slice of doggy heaven.
  3. Touching the weirdest, freeze-dried parts of animals.  Bully sticks, cow trachea, turkey hearts, you name it.  If you wouldn’t touch it un-freeze-dried, and would probably never eat it- I get to handle it and give it to my dogs.  Marrow bones would also fall into this category.  Chicken breast is good, but it is just way to normal to really wow my four-legged friends.
  4. Buying squeaky toys for the sole purpose of allowing my dog to pop the squeaker and remove the fluff within five minutes of walking in the door. Seriously.  This is what she loves most about toys. So rather than get upset at the destruction of expensive toys, I buy her the squeaky toys that are on sale after the holidays.  At $1 a pop, it’s easy to stock up on them and be able to offer my pup many moments of blissful destruction.


Oftentimes, living with a different species can be frustrating. Even more frequently, it can be very, very rewarding.  But I think people often expect their dog to be a “typical dog” that most wants to play fetch, go to the dog park, and sit on the couch watching TV while politely chewing on a Nylabone.  And while those may be things your dog does enjoy- they are also things that we want them to enjoy.

What do you do that is just for your dog?  Just to make their particular little heads explode a bit in joy? And how good do you feel after you have made them so happy?


Running with Dogs

Last year, after my first son was born, I was looking for some way to get back in shape and picked up running for the first time in my life.  I had recently found barefoot shoes and they made it possible for me to jog without shin pain.  This was the best thing ever.  Not only did it get me back in shape, it also gave me half an hour three mornings per week exercising with my dogs. I was doing the Couch to 5K, and only made it to week 7 before giving up because I was pregnant with my second son, born this April.  But, when he was 3 months old, I picked it up again and have managed to keep going!

So now, I’ve done it- I’ve completed my first 5K and am signed up for my second one (the Yulefest 5K in Cambridge) and couldn’t be happier about feeling so fit.  But really, what has kept me going is how good I feel when my dogs have been exercised properly! Living in a small apartment in the city with two kids under two years old and two dogs leaves us with a huge need to exercise them or face the consequences.  There’s no yard and Beskow can’t go to the dog park or be off leash when there may be other dogs around and just walks weren’t cutting it for her exercise needs.  Now she runs about 20-30 kilometers per week between me, my husband, and my sister running with her.  This has been a huge benefit to her mental well-being.

My other dog, Kaylee, tends to pudge up a bit when I’m pregnant.  I don’t know whether it’s the beagle part of her, but even on a relatively small amount of food, if she doesn’t get enough exercise, she manages to pack on the pounds.  Since we started running, she has dropped 5 lbs – going from 32 to 27--- that’s 15% of her body weight.  Not too shabby!  This has been such a huge health benefit for her and her speed on the agility course has improved, too.

Besides the mental and physical benefits, I think there’s just something to be said for spending time with my dogs- enjoying their physical prowess, their ability to run next to me, and the pride I feel when I’m running through busy Cambridge with my two dogs ignoring pedestrians, traffic, bikes, and waiting patiently at traffic lights.  It really is quite the experience, and is now, quite definitely, my favorite form of exercise!

When it comes to fitting dog training into your life, this may not be the easy way to go- your dog already needs to know how to heel if they are going to run with you safely- however, in terms of fitting your dog's physical needs into the day, it does seem to be a really good use of time.  It means that your work out and your dog's exercise all take up the same time block.  Especially as a mom to small kids, I love that- I can get it all done before my husband leaves for work so no babysitting necessary. I would recommend:

1. Starting slowly.  Your dog needs to learn how to jog, too! Starting a dog that has never run on leash at your pace before requires some thoughtfulness; probably don't run 5K the very first time you go out.

2. Bring treats. Even with my dogs, I'll give them a treat every so often for maintaining a heel at jogging pace.  My beagle-mix, Kaylee, did not generalize her heeling skills to jogging very well and took a little extra training.

3. Plan on a variable pace.  Your dog may still have to pee or poop.  They may still need a sniff break at a really good tree.  Remember that you can pause Endomondo (or not), and that your record times probably won't happen when you have your dogs with you.  That's okay! It's not about just you, it's about them, too.

4. Teach your dog "right" and "left".  This is a very handy skill to have when running so that you can turn more easily at street corners without losing your pace by tripping over your dog...

I'm sure there are lots of people out there with many more tips, but I think that's probably what I have to share at the moment.  Have fun, keep fit, and enjoy your time with your pooches!