Sei’s First Class

Today was Sei’s first live in-person class! We are taking a conformation handling class (tonight) and will start a basic pet obedience class next week.

Lots of things were learned on my end tonight, although few of them focused on conformation.

Sei did amazing! He struggled with the environment at first (new facility, first class setting, first time being around strange dogs he can’t meet, loud barking from the next room over, funny floors, etc), but he quickly bounced back. He focused on me, took food, played with me and even eventually played with a toy (or a strip of muskrat fur, if you can actually call that a ‘toy’). I thought that it was interesting that he was able to play with me (bouncing around, running, chasing me) before he could play with a toy. I knew that when he started trying to chew on my leg that he was ready for the toy! He walked super well on his harness, peed in a new place, and sniffed a few new dogs.

The facility we are going to is marketed as being +R, and the info session I went to yesterday for the basic obedience class (with a different instructor), supported that claim. The instructor tonight however, could be best described as balanced. Things I was told that made me cringe:

  • I was reluctant to put Sei’s lead on the ‘show collar’ (at this point, a thick rope slip collar), because he is not yet trained to yield to collar pressure. He pulls enough right now that I did not want him pulling on a slip. So any time he went to pull, I just put a finger through his harness. The instructor inquired about this, and I explained. I was confused (and a little horrified) to hear “don’t worry about the pulling, he will stop with the leash chokes him”. She had misunderstood what I meant by ‘he isn’t trained for a collar yet’ to mean ‘I don’t think I can control him on a slip collar’ rather than ‘I don’t want him choking himself because he hasn’t been trained not to pull yet’. This never actually came to a head. I continued to use a combination of luring with food, calling his name and engaging him with motion, and grabbing his harness to have Sei move with me, and not go to the other dogs without him tightening the collar. Next week I will make/buy a small martingale show collar to avoid this issue. [To be clear, I have no issue with slip leads being used for showing in general. Just because a slip collar CAN be used to choke a dog, doesn’t mean that it has to be, and by the time the dogs go in the ring, they can certainly be trained not to pull into the collar. I just feel that it is not a suitable choice of equipment for Sei right now, where he is in his training, nor does it really matter what kind of collar he wears for a recreation ‘information’ type class].
  • When another puppy was stopping and sitting during the trotting, his owner was told to pop him on the slip collar, then follow with a reward once he was moving “so that he associates the collar pop with good things, and it becomes a good thing rather than a bad thing”. I hope she didn’t see my face at that point.
  • At one point she took the leash from my hands, to show me how to lure Sei forward on the leash. She gave me the leash back quickly when she saw the shocked look on my face.
  • The ‘bilingual’ class is not really bilingual. For 55 minutes of French instruction, I got about 5 minutes of English (which ultimately worked in my favour, because me sitting on the floor playing Sei could just be taken as the fact I couldn’t understand what was being said, rather than the instructor being offended at me keeping my dog engaged).
  • Finally, I was told as I left that Sei had such great improvement from the beginning to the end of the class (he did!). And that would continue as long as I “quit babying him”. Ha! Coming from this particular instructor, I am going to take that as a compliment. In my opinion, the ‘babying’ was the REASON he improved so much over the course of the session. I acknowledged when he was struggling and tried my best to make him feel better about things, rather than ignoring him or making him press on with whatever inconsequential task we were doing at the time.

Lest I only be a Negative Nancy, I did appreciate how the instructor handled the ‘inspection’ part of the class with Sei. Sei was clearly not going to be happy having her looming over him and touching him. Before I had to say anything, she suggested having her just stand near him and have me feed him cookies, then decreasing her distance over the next few classes. We were all happy with that solution.

Things I did well tonight:

  • Observing Sei, and doing my best to respond to how he was feeling. I don’t think I made the perfect decision every time, but I tried with the knowledge I have to work with. I am a lot farther ahead of where I was with Perrin on this, simply in interpreting what Sei is telling me, and knowing what to do about in in a positive manner.
  • Keeping engaged with Sei the whole time, rather than disengaging with him when the instructor was talking. The goal of taking this class is to build positive associations with the training building and a working environment. If we learn any conformation stuff, that will be cool too.

Things I need to work on for next time:

  • Being more confident in how I handle Sei. I do know some things, and I do know Sei (at least better than the instructor, when I say he is nervous, I know he is nervous). I think that if I am more confident in a quiet, self assured manner, I will invite fewer comments that people think are helpful. I need to be less stressed and flustered for Sei’s sake too.
  • Learning how to say “Thanks, I will think about it!” in a genuine way to comments that I find contrary to my philosophies or are just unkind or unhelpful. This ends the conversation in a positive manner, and prevents me from trying to be all flustered and explain my reasoning and back story for what I was doing and then having that nit-picked, leading me to getting more flustered. Keeps my stress level down, is non-confrontational, and still invites future help on the actual course subject matter (because I certainly DO need that). Win-win.
  • Keep a better hold on my leash so that it cannot be snagged from me while I am flustered.

In hind sight, I wish I had rented ring space at this facility (if they offer it, I don’t actually know), so that Sei could have been familiar with the space and its noises and sights before adding other dogs and people. I think that would have made things easier for him.

Sei rocked all my expectations tonight. He is such a cool guy. I just want to cuddle him now ❤

My Most Embarrassing Dog Incident (AKA The Beginning of the Beginning)

Lots going on at the moment! Perrin continues to enjoy running with his brother on the farm and doing a bit of fitness course work. His inability to wait his turn while I am working with other dogs has become painfully apparent, so that will be a big skill to work now and after the puppy gets here!

In lieu of training notes, I had some more musings to share. In this case, what I feel was the most embarrassing event in my life, and the time I failed Perrin in the biggest way. The therapy test. Before I knew anything at all about dog training, before I even got Perrin, I had decided that I would train my dog to the ‘therapy dog standard’. I really wanted to train and to have a well behaved dog, but didn’t know where to start. The therapy dog standard gave me a direction and a goal. So when a group arrived in Grande Prairie to do testing, and Perrin was old enough to test, I jumped on it! We had been working with a local coercion trainer for about 6 months, and I was pretty happy with Perrin’s skills overall. I almost threw up before the testing started, but that is pretty normal for my performance anxiety nerves.

It was truly the most embarrassing experience of my life. I was sure everyone else was looking at us thinking “Wow, she is a pretty big moron if she thought THAT dog could pass a therapy test!” and/or “What a horrible dog!”. And that mattered to me, what other people thought. Perrin could have passed the test, his skills were great! As long as he had a job to do, he did well, but being able to wait his turn around other dogs? That was another store entirely!

The barking. The lunging on the leash. The frantic games of leash tug. The whining. The rolling around on the ground. The jumping and biting my clothes. The barking.

To make a long story short, although Perrin’s skills were fantastic, we were dismissed before lunch due to the disruption he was causing. I managed to be gracious to the evaluators and hosts, and almost made it to the car before I started crying. Then I quit training for 4 months.

In hindsight, the idea that an adolescent intact male might have difficulty focusing in a room full of other dogs is to be expected under the best of circumstances with a well prepared dog and trainer. And these were not the best of circumstances, nor were either of us well trained. As I learned more after the fact, and looked back at this situation, the more I saw the piling on of factors that made this a recipe for disaster:

  • Perrin was 18 months old at the time, right in the midst of adolescence. Not exactly the best known developmental period for impulse control and attention span, let alone around other dogs! And I had never worked on calmness that close to other dogs. I just expected that because he knew the skills, he should be able to ‘behave himself’.
  • I had no idea about over-arousal or how to deal with it. Everything I did just upped Perrin’s frustration levels and made things worse.
  • There was no treats or toys allowed in the the testing room. That was where we waited, as well as where the examinations were conducted. This worked out to HOURS without classical reinforcement, and I didn’t even know the concept of personal play as a reinforcer at the time, let alone actually having had worked on it. That is a much longer time period without any classical reinforcers than any dog sport venue I am aware of, and there are entire courses devoted to reducing reinforcement schedules for the duration of a ring performance. I was expecting WAY too much here.
  • I was a nervous wreck, which only got worse the more Perrin acted poorly, and I’m sure that directly translated to Perrin’s frustration levels. I was by far the youngest person/trainer in the room and didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with what was happening, or to understand that I did have an option to end things: I could have left! I could have walked out the minute it was clear I was just stressing Perrin out. It never once occurred to me that I could leave the room and quit the test, and I didn’t yet have the knowledge to understand Perrin’s behaviours as an expression of stress. I just thought he was being ‘disobedient’.

I really didn’t understand any of this at the time. I was angry, and upset with Perrin because he had embarrassed me by behaving so badly in such an inappropriate situation. And I was angry and upset at myself for being mad at my dog because I knew the whole thing was my fault and not his, I just didn’t know how. And not knowing how, or how to fix things made me angry and frustrated and sad and feeling like a failure. Failure has never been something that I deal with well. To this day, I have never been back into that training building or its associated pet store. I quit working with Perrin altogether for months before either of us felt like working together again.

BUT over a year and a half later, I can look back and have an infinitely better idea of what went wrong, how it could be fixed if it were something that we wanted to pursue again in the future, and how to better handle a similar situation if it ever happened again. I can see how much personal growth I needed to do before I could get to where I wanted Perrin and I to be. I can also see this disaster of a day was the catalyst for all of the wonderful things that have happened for Perrin and I since. That incident led me to pursue a different way to train. I never wanted to feel so angry with my dog again, like he was a failure who was acting poorly just to make me look bad. I wanted us to be a team, and enjoy working together. I wanted to have fun with my dog, and for training not to be a chore that left me crying after every session.

Less than 4 months after that test, I took my first online course in shaping, and through that I discovered a new way to train and have a relationship with my dog. A way to train that fostered the relationship with my dog that I always wanted to have. Changing the question from “What is my dog doing wrong?” to “What am I doing wrong?”, and having the knowledge to answer that latter question changed everything fundamentally. I wasn’t just picking on behaviour of Perrin’s I didn’t like and putting the entirety of the responsibility on him. I was acknowledging how I may have set him up for failure, or how I could make the path to success more clear to him. We were a team working through puzzles together, and the only thing that mattered is how we both felt about doing so.

I also got introduced the great wide world of dog sports. I realized that I didn’t even WANT to do therapy work, it was just the only guideline I knew of for training a ‘pet dog’, and what I wanted to do was have a relationship with Perrin. Once I found out about all the other goals we could have, therapy completely dropped off the radar for me. Not because we did badly once and I am afraid to go back. I am confident that I could build a proper training plan, and with the right amount of time, and careful selection of the organization in which we would test (to ensure I agreed with their testing set-up), that Perrin would pass with flying colours. It just doesn’t fall that high on my training priority list anymore (I dont even like people!). That test was leading me to other things: to a better way of life for us. I’m glad to say that I haven’t cried over dog training since!

 

Training Priorities/Honouring the Dogs Aptitudes and Desires

Perrin is enjoying his life as a farm dog at the moment. We have been working on bits and pieces everyday, but I haven’t been documenting lately. I figured I would post some thoughts I wrote a while ago but hadn’t gotten around to posting.

Once I dove into the world of behaviour theory and training, then saw how much Perrin and I love training, my training list suddenly became very long! I want to figure out how to train THAT, and THIS, and ooh, THAT too! I very quickly had a list of behaviours to train that was longer than my arm. And while I could still use some more focus and priorities when it comes to that list (I am very guilty of flitting from one thing to another), there have been many things that have naturally fallen to the bottom of the list.

One of the items that has fallen to the bottom of that list is skijoring. It was something I wanted to try with Perrin since he was little, so when he was the right age I bought the equipment and started desensitizing him to the harness and introducing him to pulling. He took to pulling in no time, loving both his cart in the summer and the toboggan in the winter. Here Perrin is with his home made cart:

image.jpeg

This winter, I felt like he understood pulling well enough to try him out on the trails. And he bombed!

When in the woods, Perrin likes to noodle about and sniff EVERYTHING. This was not terribly conducive to pulling straight ahead of me, and led to many line tangles, me falling down and much cursing. It sucked the joy out of both skiing, and being with my dog so I ultimately just let him run beside me on leash. He happily trotted beside me, but at no time did he want to line out and lead.

Many people at the ski club who skijor were saddened by my news that Perrin didn’t naturally take to skijoring (who has heard of a dog who doesn’t want to pull?!?!). “Can you train it?” They asked. I’m sure that I could! In fact, I have several half baked training plans in my head to do just that.

But you know what?

While I could train him to lead out and run ahead of me, it would take a considerable amount of time for something that is just not important to us. We have found that we both have a much better time when we ski un-attached. He can sniff around and keep up to me, I can ski unhindered and we can both enjoy our time together out in the woods. I have other things to train, and there are lots of things that Perrin actually enjoys. So we move on to other goals, while enjoying skiing together but unattached, and that is just fine with me!

Reflections on Goal Setting and Relationship

My recent brain capacity for dog training has been being channeled into puppy preparations. As part of this, I have been focusing my energy on learning more about play, especially toy play. The new pup will have a drive for toys, provided that I don’t kill that drive, and I want to make the most of that. Toys are not Perrin’s favourite type of play, so I don’t have a lot of exposure in this area. As part of this process, I am making my way through Dog Sports Skills, Book 3: Play! by Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones. In the beginning of the book, there is a section that emphasizes the importance of reducing the pressure in training to ‘succeed’ and enjoying the process of working with your dog. This got me thinking.

In most areas of my life, I am an outcome or product drive person. I didn’t go to university because I love learning in a school setting, I needed my degree. I don’t knit because I love the process, but because I like custom socks. I don’t sew because I love the process, I sew because I need to make something I couldn’t buy.

This is where dog training and the relationship I have with my dog is different than anything else in my life. I just love being with Perrin. I truly enjoy working with him and playing with him because it is a fun thing to do. I am actually having difficulty setting goals and sticking to them, because there are so many fascinating rabbit holes to fall into and explore. Every time I set a training goal (we will finish our Parkour title, finally get our TEAM videos cleaned up and submitted,), there is another cool looking butterfly to chase (a new thing to shape, co-operative care, adding new things for Perrin to retrieve).

My lack of specific goals seems to keep me from getting frustrated, and by extension, keeps Perrin from getting frustrated. If something we are training  starts going sideways, I quit when it is clear Perrin or I are no longer having fun and move onto something else. Not because I thought this was good training (although in hindsight I would like to think that it is), but because it simply wasn’t enjoyable any more. I would work on something different, and maybe come back to the offending activity later (in the day, in the week or in the year) when I had thought more about it, or the environment was more appropriate, or I simply felt like it might be fun to try again.

I was given a great compliment from one of my friends who is a local trainer. We were training our dogs in the training building, and I was working on some skill with Perrin (I don’t remember what it was), but Perrin could just not focus on the task at hand. I switched gears and played with Perrin for a bit then worked on his ‘settling’ behaviour (laying flat out on his side). Perrin did super at his settling, not even looking up when new dogs came into the ring, and I was so so pleased with his ability. I left so proud of Perrin and my friend said “I love how fluid your goals are!”. I thought that was a wonderful compliment, as someone who has issues with relentlessly pursuing goals and quitting if I am not living up to my unrealistic expectations. The more I have thought about this, the more I realize that the reason I am able to be fluid about my ‘skills’ goals in any given instance in time, is because my overriding goal is having fun with my dog. Everything else flows down from there.

This is an interesting new perspective for me. It makes everything so much more enjoyable, and I hope I will be able to carry this over to some of my other hobbies, and into other areas of my life in general.

I would like to compete with Perrin one day, but I am scared of my hyper goal oriented, type A, ‘must be good at everything’ side coming in, taking over, and sucking the fun out of working with Perrin. I am terrified of going into the ring and failing (which is ridiculous, most people are not getting Q’s every run, and first runs are often a bit of a mess). I still have some personal work to do on not caring what other people think and not worrying about feeling judged for not being good enough at something. I have historical issues with only participating in things that I am good at, and only having fun if I am winning.

It seems that I have not brought this attitude over into day-to-day training with Perrin, as I was quick to recognize that it was entirely unfair and unrealistic to apply my own insanity to my non-human team mate. Perrin’s success at what we are doing was a direct result of my ability (or lack thereof) to clearly communicate,  and motivate him as well as making the right judgements for the environment/situation we are in, rather than a comment on Perrin’s innate abilities (and often his innate abilities shawn through where my abilities failed. There have definitely been ‘learning in spite of me’). I have done well understanding and internalizing that our normal work together is all about us having fun and having a relationship, and I need to transfer that same attitude over to competing before I go into the ring or it will be miserable for both Perrin and I.  For now, we will do fun things, keep working on skills, and continue developing our relationship while I work on gaining that outlook.

 

 

 

Backpacking With My Dog II: Considerations and Downsides

So here is ‘Hiking With My Dog: Part II’ (part one, all about my gear, can be found here).

I love to hike and I especially love to hike with Perrin, however there are lots of things I need to take into consideration before we go hiking.

The first decision is whether to hit the trail at all. For some dogs, due to age, conditioning or injury may not be ready for hiking at all. Or it may be a matter of choosing an appropriate level of difficulty. The last thing I want is Perrin exhausting or injuring himself, or for him to harm his joints when he was a puppy. One thing I regret doing with Perrin was starting him with a backpack too young (about a year old). I never put much weight in it, and even as an adult I restrict his pack to about 10 lbs, but I still should have waited longer. If I did it again, I would wait until he was 2 and more fully developed.

image

Perrin trying on his backpack for the first time.

Before heading out, I always take stock of Perrin to make sure he is feeling okay. During this pre-trip check, immediately prior to a 5 day trip, I found the beginnings of a hot spot, and was able to get it shaved down and pick up some hot spot cream from the vet. That could have been a mess if I hadn’t noticed it until we were on the trail and 30km from the car!

There are other things that make hiking with a dog riskier than hiking alone. Before I go out, I have to decide if I can accept these risks.

Risks Exacerbated by Dogs

  • Wildlife Encounters: A dog who is off leash could very well bring a bear back to you, or make an encounter with one much worse. An off leash dog may also take after wildlife and be very difficult to find (not to mention they would be harassing wildlife, and this type of behaviour is often what leads to dogs being banned from parks and trails).
  • Injury to the Dog: This is a big consideration for me as we usually hike solo, and Perrin weighs over 100lbs. An injured dog is going to have a very hard time making it out, even with first aid care. And if you are unable to carry your dog out, you are in quite the pickle. This is one reason I have Perrin pull a toboggan when we hike in the winter; I could always load him up on it and pull him out. If something acute happened, like bloat, you would also be in a very bad place. I do carry an InReach incase of injury, and I have always wondered if I would be fined for ‘an improper use of rescue services’ if I were to call for rescue because my dog was hurt. Luckily I have never had to find out, but I know what I would choose to do if I were in that situation.
  • Injury to Yourself: Because I hike solo most of the time, my risk tolerance when on the trail is very very low. If in doubt, I hike out. However, I know that I would put myself in situations that are far past my normal threshold for risk of injury in order to rescue Perrin from a bad situation.

Downsides

Beside the increased risks mentioned above, there are other downsides and limitations to hiking with a dog.

  • Gear Limitations: You have to be much more conscious of your gear selection, and this can be very limiting if you are of the ultralight persuasion. I have one ultralight tent I have all but stopped using because Perrin is so hard on it. I have moved to using my tarp if I am
    image

    Perrin in front of my tarp set up. If you look really closely on the left side of the tarp, you can see paw prints from Perrin trying to ‘help’ during set up.

    hiking solo, or my heavy, but more durable tent if I am hiking with someone else. I also stopped using my hammock set up because there is nowhere for Perrin to sleep. You will also end up carrying more gear, between dog food, extra water, first aid supplies and bedding (for winter camping). Inclement weather gets just that much worse. Imagine sharing a small ultralight tent with a very hairy, very cuddly, soaking wet dog. In a down sleeping bag. Not the highlight of my hiking trip!

  • Trail limitations: Unfortunately there are more and more places where you are not allowed to hike with dogs, so this limits the places you can go. There are some incredible, world class hikes in the Canadian Rockies that I would love to hike, but will never be able to because dogs are banned from the trails. Even in dog friendly places there are often
    image

    Perrin hiking on leash on the way to Mt Assiniboine

    restrictions in place that make hike planning harder. For instance, on the Assiniboine hike my partner and I did in 2016, having Perrin with us added 5 km and 500 m of elevation gain to our first day. Normally hikers get a shuttle from the parking lot of Sunshine Village up to the trailhead at the main lodge, however we were not able to do that so we had to walk up the access road. The pup also limited our options for alternate hike-out routes once we were in. We had originally planned to hike in and out the same way (over Citadel Pass), as we only had one car and could not run a shuttle to use one of the alternate routes. However once we got in to Mount Assiniboine we realized this was a poor plan. Due to the wonderful dog loving helicopter loader who worked for Assiniboine Lodge, we were able to hike out to the Mount Shark trail head, and he drove us to Canmore where we were able to get a cab back to the car. We got very lucky, and if we didn’t have the dog, we could have just flown out.

  • Increased Anxiety: Maybe this is just me, but my concern level goes way up when hiking with Perrin. I am always evaluating if he is okay. Has he drank enough water? Is it too hot out for him? Do we need to take a break? Dogs can be very stoic, and some will work until they drop, so it is important to keep an eye on the furry ones and be proactive about their health.
  • Dealing with poop: Yes, this is a real consideration. As a responsible hiker, you want to deal with your dog’s excrement the same way you would deal with your own. This means making sure your dog goes the prescribed distance away from trails and waterways, and burying it at the specified depth afterwards. Or picking it up and carrying to the nearest campsite with facilities (then carrying the bag out, as backcountry facilities are not designed for plastic garbage).

I beg all dog owners who are taking their pets out into the backcountry to be responsible and follow the rules. Most areas around me require dogs to be on leash, and off leash dogs can be dangerous to wildlife, other hikers, their owners, and themselves. Dog poop on the trail is unpleasant for everyone. Don’t let your dog be noisy at the campsite, keep them out of communal shelters (where they are typically not allowed anyway) and do not let them visit other hikers without express permission. I have found that nothing breeds bad feelings between hikers like a noisy dog, or one walking on top of or getting into other people’s things. If we want to be able to keep hiking the dog friendly trails that are left, we need to prove that dog owners will follow the rules, not be a nuisance to other hikers or wildlife, and that our pets will leave minimal traces on the environment.

I don’t mean to dissuade people from hiking with their dogs. I love it, and wouldn’t have it any other way! There are simply many things to be considered before you go out to ensure that everyone stays happy, healthy, and safe.

image

Backpacking with My Dog I: Perrin’s Gear

Spring has finally arrived! The alpine will still be snowbound for at least another month and by the time it frees up I won’t be near the mountains anymore. So naturally I am obsessed with the hiking and backcountry camping that I won’t be able to do. I figured I would use that angst productively to write something up about hiking with Perrin. When people find out that I do fairly long backpacking trips with my dog, I usually get a lot of questions!

I love backcountry camping, especially solo where it is just me and Perrin. Over the past few years we have done hundreds of kilometres of trail through all kinds of different conditions, and have loved every single one (okay, maybe not EVERY single one…). Perrin is an amazing trail dog, and through our hiking trips we have seen some incredible landscapes and made unforgettable memories.

This is Perrin at Mount Robson:

 

Mount Assiniboine:

And various peaks in Willmore Wilderness Area:

 

There tends to be a large proportion of gear heads in the hiking world (especially in ultralight hiking), and much thought goes into every piece of equipment that is brought into the backcountry. Hiking with Perrin has dramatically changed the hiking equipment I choose for myself, but much thought also had to go into his gear as well. Here is a quick rundown of the dog-specific gear that I take when hiking with Perrin:

  • Backpack: This is optional gear, but Perrin does carry one. It is important to make sure that the pack fits him and does not chafe. I check it periodically as he grows and changes shape to make sure it is still comfortable for him. A backpack also needs to be balanced properly (which can be a pain on the trail) and it must not be too heavy. I have seen different guidelines out there for maximum weights for adult dogs, but I choose to be conservative and keep under around 10% of body weight. Even less if it is very hot out, if we are moving very quickly, or if the hike is very difficult. There have been very hot days where I have chosen to take Perrin’s pack off him and carry it myself. I have seen guidelines that suggest 25% as a maximum, but I am personally not comfortable with that. I just couldn’t fathom Perrin carrying 25lbs all day; I seldom ever carry that much!
  • Water and Food Containers: On the trail, Perrin mostly he drinks out of my camel back, or his collapsable bottles (so if that grosses you out, don’t ask me to share my water with you!). This does waste a lot of water and would probably not be the best choice in areas where water is scarce. Perrin does so poorly in the heat, I would likely avoid hikes in those conditions anyway. I avoid putting food directly on the ground because we hike in bear country and I do not want to attract critters big or small, so I use a ‘portable sink’ that came with my pot set as his food and water dish when we are in camp. It collapses down to nothing and has held up really well for something I was just going to throw out.
  • Bug Spray: I normally wouldn’t carry it for myself in the places that I hike, as I tend to wear long pants, shirts and a buff. But Perrin needs it for his groin, armpits and nose. He would need even more if he weren’t so hairy. I carry a natural based bug spray, because DEET is not good for dogs.
  • A Collar Light: This is indispensable! I originally bought it just incase Perrin got loose at night, but it has been a life saver! On one hike, I had planned to hike halfway up a mountain, camp overnight (in February), then summit the next day. However around 5:00pm I was getting a bad vibe, so decided to hike the 5 km back to the car. This was fine, except that it was almost dark. The trail was steep, rocky and icy and my headlamp wasn’t strong enough to see the trail well. It didn’t take long for me to be  going off course repeatedly and having to back track, with Perrin following along behind me on a leash. By this time I had gone less than a kilometer, it was very windy, and about -15C. I was considering just setting up camp and sticking it out, when I decided to see if Perrin could follow the trail. I freed him of the leash, and off he trotted, collar light leading the way down the trail. At every place I had to scramble down and at every icy patch, he stopped and waited for me to catch back up before continuing on. He never once turned wrong and I followed him the way out to the car. I couldn’t have done it without his light to follow. What a dog!
  • Break Away Collar: For hiking (and going to the kennel) Perrin wears a break away collar. If he were to ever get caught on anything by his collar, it will just pull off instead of strangling him. I keep it on as somewhere for his ID, and occasional leash use (although I use the ring on his backpack more often).
  • Food: When you are carrying all of your food, the weight of it becomes much more important. Perrin is raw fed, which makes this much more challenging. A kibble fed dog could just carry their regular food, but raw meat in the wilderness was just not going to work for us. I ended up settling on a dehydrated raw food, which has ingredients that I like and is even lighter than kibble. The downside? It is very expensive and Perrin eats ALOT. Because I dehydrate my own meals for camping, Perrin’s hiking food costs much more than my own.
  • Winter: In the winter I have several pieces of gear that we add. If the terrain permits, Perrin pulls a toboggan instead of carrying a pack, and I bring a sleeping bag and a foam mat for him. Not that he likes the sleeping bag, he won’t get in it until it is below -17C.
  • First aid Supplies: I do carry a certain number of extra things for the pup incase of accident. These include Benadryl (for me as well), vet wrap (again, a multi-species item), Metacam (or other vet approved pain killer), and hot-spot cream (Perrin often develops hot spots from hot damp weather and from licking bug bites).
  • Strong Basic Obedience Commands: Okay, so this isn’t technically gear, but I wouldn’t hit the trail without them! If Perrin couldn’t walk nicely on a leash, we wouldn’t be able to leave the house. Many of the places that we hike require dogs to be on leash. I usually hike with him on a 4-6 foot nylon leash looped to the hip belt of my pack, and clipped to the attachment point on his harness. This system works for us to keep him close and keep the leash out of our way. A bombproof recall is imperative for when Perrin is going to be off leash, and is highly recommended incase he end up free anyway. Other skills I have found useful are well proofed stays (standing/down/sitting), a ‘wait for me’ command in off leash areas, leave it (for icky things on the trail or passing other hikers), a distance stop (or sit or down stay). I do wish that we had a ‘quiet’ cue and a ‘defecate on command’ cue, as they would be useful too, but I have never taught them. Crate training is a surprisingly useful skill, as in my limited experience it seems to transfer well to a tent. Basic training sets dogs free. Without these skills, Perrin could not come out into the woods with me, among many other things we have enjoyed over the years.

Thats it for equipment! I will do another post later on about other considerations that I take into account when hiking with my dog.

Experimentation in Training: Differential Reinforcement, Shaping and Errorless Protocols

Heads up: This is a long one, but there is a cute video at the end if you just want to skip to there!

I am at the stage where I’ve read a lot of dog training theory, and understand most of what I’ve read in an isolated, academic way. In the real world though, where everything is interconnected and every dog is different, I have been having issues connecting that sanitized academic understanding to reality. How do I apply this new knowledge?

How do I choose a method for this behaviour for this dog at this time in this place? How does a particular approach work with the temperament of dog I have? How does that change with different types of dogs? What approaches can I combine, and which are not really compatible?

Yup, I have reached analysis paralysis.

I spend so much time agonizing over what the ‘BEST’ approach is that I never get started. I quickly came to the conclusion that the solution to this is experimentation. I just have to get out and start trying things with my dog and see what happens. Right now I’m in a training phase where I am getting great enjoyment out of experimentation.

I am incredibly lucky that Perrin is also happy with this plan, as my changing approaches would unsettle many dogs. It also helps that we don’t have any super important competition goals in the near future, so I am not too worried about breaking behaviours without having the time to fix them. This is training for the fun of training and for learning more about how this works; there are no behaviour goals attached to this right now.

My most recent case studies on experimentation has been with shaping, differential reinforcement, and errorless learning. How to design training plans to use them, when to use them, how to execute them and how my dog reacts to them. It has brought up a great many questions, few of which I know the answer to at the moment. I wanted to record those questions and musings for the future, as it will be interesting to come back and see them a year or two down the road. I am excited to keep working at it and see what I come up with, but for now, here are my musings on the matter as of April 17, 2017:

I will start with some definitions. These summaries are my understanding of each method in my own words (which may or may not be actually technically correct, and will likely change over time as I learn more), and are as follows:

Differential Reinforcement: The use of two different value rewards in a training session to mark more or less desirable behaviours. In the definition I have been working with lately, this includes jackpots, but whether that truly fits here is debatable. I still don’t have really good definitions for things, hence the experimentation.

Errorless Protocols: A training plan design where I have not used error as a learning tool for the dog, and I have thoughtfully set up the environment or progressions to maximize success.

Shaping:  A dog-led activity where he offers behaviours and I reward successive approximations of the target behaviour until the final result is acheived. Sort of like a game of hot-and-cold. Except there is no ‘cooler’ or ‘hotter’; only yes or no. The only information is ‘I liked that one’. This inherently splits behaviours into what is ‘right’ (dog receives reinforcement) and what is ‘wrong’ (no reinforcement).

When I execute shaping poorly and wait for too large of a next step, Perrin gets frustrated when the expected reinforcement is withheld. I have been getting better at avoiding this frustration by getting better at splitting behaviours, keeping sessions short, avoiding the ‘just one more’ syndrome, and particularly by being generous with my criteria. Whether this last item affects the quality of the training I do not know, but I have observed that it GREATLY reduces frustration behaviours, with the pace of learning remaining the same, so I am sticking with it for now. I have been criticized for this approach in the past, but I guess I would rather have Perrin get some extra cookies and training take longer than have him just get frustrated and quit. If he quits and doesn’t want to play the game with me, then training would take much longer in the long run. I was vindicated on this subject recently when I listened to a conversation about it in Hannah Branigan’s podcast Episode 9, during a conversation with Amy Cook. They discuss simply slowly dropping the least close approximation (behaviours fall on a continuum, where some are closer to the target behaviour than others) rather than having one very stringent, ‘right’ answer. They explain it much better than I could around the halfway mark!

While that was a bit of a tangent, the element of frustration in shaping is what started me on this. Much of it is caused by poor training procedures on my part (and that is getting much better with thought and time), but I always love an excuse to try something new and see how it works.

I have been mixing shaping and differential reinforcement for a while now, in the form of jackpots. For his ‘closest’ attempt to the target behaviour, or breakthroughs, Perrin would receive a hand full of cookies. For  approximations that are still right, but farther from the target behaviour than his ‘best attempt’, he gets one cookie. This has been in an effort to establish a way to communicate “hotter” and “cooler” in the shaping process; to add more resolution to my communications in order to make it easier for Perrin to understand. I have read a bit about how the jury is still out on the science of the effectiveness of jackpots, but it seems to work pretty well for Perrin and I. Maybe the ‘low value’ cookies were just keeping him engaged and in the game rather than actually giving him more information to process and use to make better decisions. If that is the case, I think it still worked well enough for me to keep playing with, even if it didn’t work the way that I thought. I can always stop using it if I find out differently later on.

I read about errorless protocols a few months ago, and have been playing with them ever since (although I unknowingly used one to house train Perrin). I thought that adding this approach to my toolbox would be a nice change of pace for both Perrin and I at a time when I was frequently frustrating him during shaping. I was still working on fixing that problem, but in the mean time I wanted to give Perrin a frustration free option (and I am always trying to learn new things, so that ever present motivation was in play too). The first training plan I built this way was for adding distance to position changes. I started with a foot target as I added distance in tiny amounts, then starting the distance over again without the target. I have also been working on recalls with an errorless mindset and have been progressing really well. The rate of reinforcement for both parties (cookies for Perrin, and success for me) was quite high and it kept both of us engaged and eager to work. I have found that being in the mindset of using errorless protocols makes it extremely clear to me that it is MY responsibility to set Perrin up for success (as it always is). I am much more careful to set up good antecedents, to be mindful of Perrin’s frame of mind and his ability to work at that moment, and to not over-face him with environmental stimuli. That is something that I really need to take away and do better at that in all of our training.

The differential reinforcement came in to the picture with errorless learning when I was screwing up on designing errorless protocols. I would be in the middle of a training session where I was trying new errorless protocols, and things would not go as expected. In an effort to avoid frustration, I started using some lower value rewards to fill the holes in my errorless plan to stave off the frustration I was attempting to avoid. Good training? Nope. But it got me thinking…

I have a cursory understanding of all three methods, but even basic experimentation has given me so many more questions!

  • Why and where would I use one versus the other? With this dog? With others?
  • Where to use errorless protocols over shaping or vice versa, and what affect does each have on my learner?
  • How do the three interplay?
  • How can I combine them to maximize the benifits and minimize the downsides?
  • On what points (theoretical or mechanical) are they not compatible?
  • How do I define for myself how errorless protocols are different from differential reinforcement protocols where the dog always receives some sort of reinforcement, but they are of different value?
    • The differences there can be nuanced. The differences in value of your chosen reinforcers would dictate how different from one another they are. A very low value treat versus a very high value one might be more akin to shaping? Two closely valued reinforcers would be closer to ‘errorless’? Personal play vs a cookie for Perrin would yield vastly different results than a cookie vs cooked chicken, and still different results from a tug versus chicken. Depending on the environment we are in and the training item we are working on those results would all change yet again. As always, choosing an appropriate reinforcer for the activity matters.
  • Is ‘errorless’ defined by the intention to design a training plan that does not use errors as a learning tool, or is it defined by a situation in which the learner is not aware of ‘errors’ because they still receive reinforcement, and therefore avoids frustration? To some dogs is a vast disparity in reinforcer value (or type) going to cause the same kind of frustration if the plan is applied poorly, as a poorly executed shaping session?
    • For Perrin it seems not to matter as long as both reinforcers I have chosen are things that he ACTUALLY finds reinforcing. I lose frustration, gain enthusiasm and resiliency to my mistakes, and I don’t sacrifice much learning speed by using kibble and chicken. However if I try to use a tug (low value) and food (high value), he just gets frustrated, as he never wants a toy when there is food available as an option.

I am starting to see this as a sort of continuum with errorless protocols on one end and shaping on another; differential reinforcement could be anywhere between those points depending on how you design your training plan and choose your reinforcers and how those variables affect your dog and their learning. Naturally, as soon as I start thinking that way, I come across interesting things about micro shaping and it being damn near errorless. I need more info, but I know that I definitely do not have the skills to pull that off. I will do more research on that subject and come back to the drawing board on this one. And I love the fact that I have to go back and re-think everything.

I am usually an outcome driven person. I knit because I like mittens. I cook because I want the food. As such, I am continually surprised by how much I love the process of dog training in a way that I have never enjoyed any process before. I love learning about all of these different methods and approaches, thinking through how they work, how they may interact with other methods, how my dog may react to them, how dogs with different temperaments may react to them, how the gel with my abilities and strengths. It is all a big, open ended problem to solve; I love complex problems and dreaming up out-of-the-box solutions. This love may have led me to study engineering, but I am finding that I am more able to apply this love and the skills I learned in school to dog training better than than I can in an industrial setting.

Fittingly enough, I listened to a podcast today while out on a walk in the woods with Perrin that I identified greatly with. It is about passion and success and how most successful passions are not a lightning bolt moment. It really struck me, and think that others may find it very much worth the time to listen to. It can be found here if you want to hear it!

That was a rambling monster of a post! So here is a video of Perrin having the zoomies in the snow:

April 12th Musings and Thoughts: Distance Downs and Horses

Wednesdays typically don’t see a lot of training happen, as I do riding lessons on Wednesday nights, and today at lunch got eaten up by other necessary errands. So Perrin got a happy off leash romp in the forest today, but no formal training sessions. I did think about some training related items today that I wanted to record so I can come back to them later.

I have been thinking about Perrin’s downs done at a distance. I  have been working on building distance into his position changes for a while now and had hit a snag. If I set Perrin up in a sit or a stand, then walk up to 150 ft away, he downs nicely on command. If we are on an off leash walk and I ask him to down even 5 feet away one of two things happens: 1. Nothing or 2. He returns to me and downs when he arrives. The first is a focus and engagement issue that needs to be addressed separately. The second response shows me that he doesn’t understand what I am asking of him in this context, while he does understand the concept of distance in another context. I think I have finally put my finger on what part of the picture is the problem: motion.

Perrin understands that down means “when standing still, lie down on the ground from whatever position you are currently in “. He does not understand the concept of having to come to a stop where he is, and then downing. Now to build a training plan to help him understand the concept of downing from movement!

My other thoughts were about the approach I choose to take in dog training. During my lesson tonight, the horse was scared of some equipment in the corner of the ring, spooking and shying away from that corner. We worked on the standard approach to this issue in the horse world: just make him do it. “He is just avoiding work”, “He doesn’t get to choose what we do”, “He just needs to listen to you and ignore it” are all well worn refrains in this area. While this was going on, all I could think was “How would I approach this differently if this were a dog who was scared of something in the training area?”. I can assure you my approach would be drastically different. The idea that we were going to solve the issue of the horse spooking at the equipment by forcing him over to ‘prove’ it wasn’t scary didn’t seem like an approach that was going to work. I know that in dogs, this sort of approach (flooding) is not effective, and can have some serious side effects, sensitizing the dog to that stimulus and having the opposite of the intended outcome. I think it is interesting that an approach and philosophy on animal learning that is common in other species is not yet the norm in horses.

The concept that the animal is manipulative and scheming to avoid work is common in certain groups of dog trainers as well, and the more I have gotten into dogs, and seen some other perspectives, the more that I find it illogical and as anthropomorphism. Quite honestly, dogs don’t have the brain power to ‘scheme’. They don’t do things just to piss their humans off (although some days it really feels like it), they are doing what works for them (seeking reinforcement or avoiding punishment). If I believed my dog was truly that manipulative, it would suck all the fun of being around him out of training and sharing time together. And it has in the past before I found a way of training that makes us both happy and has more reinforcement for me in it (ie success).