Thursday, March 5, 2015

When can I stop using treats?

We get this question pretty frequently in our classes and it is a really great one to ask. We all want to have our dogs listen to us regardless of the status of the chicken in our pockets!

Before I get to answering the exact question at hand, first I have one of my own to ask. How long would you continue to go to your job if they stopped paying you? A few days? Probably. A week? Less likely. Forever? No way! Even if you’d been reliably working for MANY years.

What if your job was new and you were still sometimes struggling to figure out what they wanted you to do? You’d probably quit even quicker.

We all have things in our lives we’d rather be doing than going to work. Even those of us who love our jobs, won’t do them forever if we aren’t being paid.

Does this mean you are forever destined to having treat crumbs in your pockets? Absolutely not! This is because there are things in your dog’s life that he wants just as much (if not more than) as a food treat. We just happen to use food in our training because it is the easiest to control and deliver quickly.

For example, when teaching wait at the door, we never use treats because we don’t need them. Allowing the dog to walk through the door to the outside is its own, real-life, reinforcer for the behavior of waiting politely at the door.

In psychology, there is something known as the Premack principle which states that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. It’s a fancy way of stating the “dessert rule” where kids only get dessert if they eat their dinner. You reinforce the eating of dinner (less likely) with the eating of dessert (more likely).

In dog training, we use the Premack principle to fade away our treats. We all know things dogs are likely to do: chase squirrels, sniff grass, play ball, etc. and we can use all of these things as non-food reinforcers for behaviors. For example: ask your dog to sit, then tell him to “go sniff” that fire hydrant. Or he can offer nice eye contact for the chance to chase a tennis ball. The opportunities are endless. Now you can keep paying your dog without having to have a pocket full of cookies!

There are many different, more advanced, ways to start fading away your treats, this is simply one of our favorites. If you want to know more, be sure to ask.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Living peacefully with dogs and cats can be hard work! Here are a few tips to help your fuzzy critters to get along.

  1. Management: The more your dog chases your cat, the better he gets at chasing your cat. Avoid giving him this opportunity as much as possible. Use baby gates, doors, leashes, and crates to keep the dog and cat separate when not training.
  2. Train Both Animals: It’s easy to remember to train the dog, but we can, and should, train the cat too. Our first step is simply teaching them that having the other around makes good things happen. Give the cat canned food in a large, open location. While the cat is eating, bring the dog just into visual range of the cat. Feed the dog something he LOVES. I like to use canned food for the dog as well since it’s easy to feed quickly and often very high value. Keep feeding the them both for simply existing in the presence of the other. As they become more comfortable, gradually decrease the distance between the two.
  3. Look At That (adapted from Control Unleashed): Teach this skill with a neutral or mildly exciting object first, such as a familiar person. Any time your dog glances in their direction, mark and reward. Add a cue (“look” or “what is it?”) once they are reliably glancing. Then ask the dog to look at the cat, starting from a distance.
  4. Matwork: Teach your dog to lay down and relax on a mat. When you have a relaxed down on the mat, introduce matwork with the cat around. This is a great way to introduce a moving cat (with a second “cat handler”) by having the cat move between canned food locations. Look at that can also be played on the mat during this time.
  5. Cat Safe Place: Make sure your cat has a safe, dog free place. This should ideally be a completely dog-free area. The kitchen, a basement or a bedroom work great. Make sure your cat has plenty of high places to sleep and eat.
  6. Train With and Without Barriers: Make sure the dog and cat are comfortable not only when they can directly see each other, but also when behind barriers such as baby gates.
  7. Desensitize to Cat Noises: Make sure your dog is comfortable with not only seeing the cat but also hearing him. Use YouTube videos to teach your dog that cat noises mean the arrival of delicious treats.
  8. Teach an Emergency Recall: Management always fails, and when it does you want to be ready. A good recall will allow you to call your dog away from the cat and prevent disaster.
  9. Remove the Leash: You should only consider progressing to off-leash practice when your dog is extremely reliable with everything on-leash. Start with the leash dropped, and then progress to off-leash.
  10. Patience: Getting a cat and dog to get along can take time! Rushing will only make the process take longer. Some dogs and cats will be fine together in hours, others might take months.

Remember, positive reinforcement builds relationships! My older dog, Caleb absolutely hated cats. He couldn’t look at them or even smell them without barking and growling. Then Abigail adopted Mike, a 5 week old hit by car kitten slug who was a dog trainer’s dream. At first, he spent all of his time in a crate or being held. He couldn’t stand, forget walk.  He gradually became more mobile but allowed for lots of time to train Caleb while he did so. Mike LOVED dogs (he grew up with dog trainers, what would you expect?) so he made my job easy.  Caleb eventually got to the point where both he and Mike could peacefully exist loose in the house. Then something happened that could only happen with positive reinforcement training: Caleb and Mike played. Yes, played :)

A New Year’s Resolution You Can’t Afford to Give Up

With the start of the new year, it’s the time for resolutions and we here at Adventure Unleashed have an important one we’d like to recommend.  Given our job you’d expect it’d be something along the lines of “train your dog for 5 minutes every day” or “take your dog for a long walk at least once a week” but while these are important things to work towards, there’s something even MORE important for you and your dog.

It’s appropriate financial management and having a savings account for pet emergencies.

That’s not what you were expecting was it? Let me tell you a true story to explain why we think this is so important. Roughly three months ago I (a veterinarian) saved a 4.5 week old kitten who had been hit by a car and had a skull fracture. He was in really rough shape and I didn’t expect him to live through the night though given the nature of his injuries I told him I felt obligated to make an attempt. But I wasn’t going to put much money into a stray feral kitten. Somehow, after getting roughly no sleep for days, he managed to pull through and was adopted into the family with the name Mike “Dinner” Wazowski. He lived with me for 8 weeks, quickly becoming a fixture in both the house, and as a helper in dog classes.

Unfortunately, one day I came home to find Mike lethargic, painful, and having vomited. Being a vet, I quickly thought of all the terrible things that could be wrong, and made the decision to take him to the emergency vet. It was unclear exactly what was wrong, and his history of brain trauma made it even more difficult to diagnose. I was left with the tough decision to either hospitalize him for further testing and potential surgery or euthanize him. The first option was likely to be very expensive and being a dog trainer doesn’t make you a lot of money. He wasn’t in bad shape and I wanted to be sure that I had given him the best chance of survival. If we could find out what was wrong, and fix it then I’d have 15-20 good years with the best cat ever. But the question “can we actually afford this” came up. Which is the worst reality of being both a vet and a pet owner. Sometimes you can’t afford to give your pet the care he needs without sacrificing your family’s life. That’s just reality.

Luckily for Mike, I have a savings account that is just for emergencies. I worked four different jobs after graduating and was very careful with my spending to make this the case. On a day to day basis, I try to forget about this money. This is what allowed me to make the decision to hospitalize Mike. They ran a lot of tests, came up with a potential answer that could be cured with surgery, we did that, but he never recovered the way he should have. There was something bigger going on that we couldn’t figure out. Five days after I hospitalized him, Mike began to have trouble breathing and it was the end of the road for him. Yeah, the story doesn’t have a happy ending.

So, do I regret having that savings account, and spending all that money on him? Not. At. All.

Having the ability to treat Mike (without risking my own financial stability) until it was clear he was suffering and we still didn’t know what was going on allowed me to know for sure that we had done everything medically possible for him. It’s what ensures I can sleep at night without worrying “what if.” It’s how every pet and owner should part; with the peace of knowing they made the right choice.

So, over the next year, make it your goal to have an emergency fund. You’ll be working alongside me as I rebuild mine. By making this a priority, you can ensure that you are prepared for whatever life throws at you. Your pets (and your vet) will thank you for it. How much should be in it? For a personal savings account, the general recommendation is ~6 months of expenses, but what about for pet expenses? That’s up to you. Talk to your veterinarian about how much she recommends you have based on your pet and your lifestyle, she’ll be happy to know you are attempting to be a more responsible pet owner!

Friday, January 9, 2015

5 Great Reasons to Crate Train

1. To housetrain. The easiest, surest way to housetrain your pup is with a well-sized crate. A crate with a divider for large dogs is perfect for puppy's space to grow with him.

2. To give your dog a safe space. Sometimes our household gets stressful for even the most stable dog, and a crate is something that's just his and stays the same no matter what! If you're moving homes, hosting houseguests, going to a dog sports trial, or even just going to a hotel, your dog has his own "room" that he feels safe and relaxed inside.

3. To protect your dog from himself. Even good dogs have bad days. My personal favorite example is my old doberman, Dazz. The best dog ever, loose in the house since she was 2 years old and housebroken, at 13 started needed prednisone. Pred is a steroid and stimulates appetite. You can imagine the destruction a dog can wreak on an apartment in 6 hours when they're absolutely convinced they are starving. She found things even I didn't expect were edible (or even palatable!) Always remember, your dog might be an angel, but even good dogs may have to go on appetite-stimulating drugs!

4. To make the vet less stressful. If this is the only reason you decide to maintain a crate behavior, this will be worth it. In case your dog has to stay overnight at the vet for some reason, being used to a crate will make it way less stressful. There are many other reasons that would require your dog being crated besides the vet, as well - flights and quarantine if you're traveling internationally, evacuations in the event of an emergency, boarding in a kennel etc. Some of these may be worst-case scenarios, but a well-trained crate behavior will make the ordeal much easier on your dog.

5. To train other things. A crate can be a fun exercise to teach behaviors! A few examples: sending your dog into his crate at speed from anywhere in the house, waiting with the door open until you give him the release word, even a good retrieve his toys into his crate. Have fun with crate training!