Barney Fife Had it Right!!

One of the really tough things about living with special needs and reactive dogs, is that they are very emotional and often lack impulse control.  Rugby seems to latch onto a new reactivity with something at home in a nanosecond.  Coffee maker, washing machine, garbage disposer….just to name a few!  We worked through the coffeemaker reactive barking and jumping at the counter to get that evil appliance, and just as quickly as that was put to bed, he decided that the garbage disposer has to go!


It’s always something with Rugby.

We are always in a state of working through some reactive behavior at my house, and I’ve learned that over the years, Barney Fife really had it right:  “You’ve got to NIP IT IN THE BUD!”

As a dog trainer, in general, I’m all for bud nipping.  Things are much easier to correct when they first start, instead of months or years later when the dog has a firmly established habit with a given naughty behavior.

This is definitely very true for a dog like Rugby James!  All it takes is one time for him to melt down over something, and he’s got it locked away in his tiny little brain that he should over-react every time said noise or stimulus presents itself.

*sigh* but more correctly, *SIGH*  in giant letters too big to fit on my computer screen!

It often takes weeks and even months to work through something if we don’t bud nip with him.  The coffeemaker took three months of clicking and treating every. single. time. he. heard. coffee. brew. the. entire. time. that. it. brewed.

That one was an UGH rather than a *sigh* because we do love some coffee at our house, and so he had multiple barking, reactive explosions on a daily basis!

It’s just hard to imagine that this innocent, adorable face can belong to a leaping barking frenzied dog when the right sight or sound comes along.  Sadly, however, it’s completely true.  I wouldn’t kid you about this.

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I honestly think at moments like that…when he morphs into that crazy reactive dog, this is more like what HE thinks he looks like, because after all, I really think he wants to get the last laugh!

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Just take my word for it:  When your dog is producing any behavior that you don’t like, puhleeze don’t wait to get it fixed!!  Remember the wisdom of Barney Fife, and be a bud nipper!  You’ll be glad you did!!


A New Trick: Climbing a Stepladder

If I know anything about dogs, it’s that they love to learn new things!  All kinds of things!  And my little dog is no exception to that rule!  I absolutely love training tricks with Rugby,  and this is a great way to give him a larger world and life.  It gives him a totally new experience, and makes him think and focus on me, which are the hard skills I want him to learn! He’s so reactive to his environment, and I am always working on skills to help with impulse control and focus on me!  Because he came to me with such strong trust issues, I honestly think that trick training was the very catalyst that forged deep trust between Rugby and I.  And beyond all of that, let’s face it….tricks are just fun, and they’re not just for kids!!

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Sometimes, I train tricks for no reason other than giving Rugby the opportunity to learn something new, and not because I need to have him perform a given task.  This is the case with today’s trick:  climbing a stepladder.  I certainly don’t need to have Rugby climbing stepladders around the house, but I thought the idea of teaching him to carefully place his paws in a given space and order would be fun and challenging for him.

I also happened to have a two step stepladder at home, which was just the perfect training tool to use in teaching Rugby this trick.  I love the design of the stepladder.  The steps themselves are very wide and deep, and they are textured to help him get secure footing.  The bar at the top of the stepladder is high enough that Rugby will easily fit under it once he gets to the top.  It’s not terribly high, so if he should fall during the process, he will still be safe.  I also started the trick on a thick carpet, just in case.

This is going to sound just crazy, but dogs really don’t seem to understand that they have front paws and back paws.  I’ve encountered this time and again when teaching dogs to walk a plank or on bleachers, for example.  They can understand placing their front paws on something, and seem to have no difficulty keeping front paws on a plank.  But with every single dog that I have trained this skill, their back paws fell off the edges as they tried to walk, much to the dog’s surprise.  It takes a bit of practice for them to understand that they have to think about where to place those back paws as they walk!

So this presented a vertical challenge for Rugby, and not a horizontal one, which I thought would be fun for him!  I had no idea how he would respond, and I’ve never asked him to climb something like this before.  My guess was that he would simply try to jump to the top of the stepladder,  and cut right to the chase to get the treat, rather than think through the process of the steps involved.  This is where the bar across the top of the stepladder actually worked in my favor.  It was a bit of a visual barrier that helped keep Rugby from trying to just jump to the top.  It was very important for me to have him actually have to think through the steps of the trick and come up with a process of behavior rather than a quick reward and he was done….which is really what Rugby would sometimes prefer to do!

I started the process with Rugby on one side of the stepladder, and I was behind it, holding some high value treats that I could use to lure him into the behavior that I wanted from him.  Rugby already knows the command “Paws Up” which means that he should put only his front paws on whatever I direct….my legs, a stool, bench, etc.  So I started with “Paws Up” to get the process started.  He easily complied, putting his paws right on the top step.  He got a treat for that!  I simply asked him to climb the ladder, while holding the treat just out of his reach. This created a lure for him to pull forward and upward and he naturally figured out exactly what I was after.

Initially, he didn’t know what to do with his back feet at all.  He tried reaching as far as he could, but wasn’t able to reach the next treat.  He started to scramble with his back paws, trying to put them right behind his front paws, but it was too high for him, so he stumbled a bit which made him a bit uncertain.  Rugby has trained with me long enough that he knows if one thing doesn’t work, he needs to problem solve and try something else.

Dogs are just wonderful problem solvers!!  When I’m doing any type of dog training, I typically entice a dog to produce a specific, given behavior, and let them try and fail….helping them along the way so that they don’t become frustrated or discouraged….until they figure out what I want from them.  I coach them into what I’m looking for, letting them think, process and burn some mental energy as they figure out how to solve the problem:  getting to the tasty treat!  Rugby understands this routine, so he tries something and then quickly figures out to try something different, if the first thing didn’t work to get him the reward.  He frustrates easily, so I try to make the steps small, and keep the rewards coming so that he can figure things out without giving up completely.

He had some fails with his back paws missing the stepladder altogether….going to the outside of the stepladder instead of placing them on the step.  I quickly realized that I needed to make sure he was climbing in the center of the stepladder to give him the best shot at putting his back feet exactly where they needed to be.

Believe it or not, Rugby figured this out so quickly, it made my head spin just a bit.  The longer we worked on this, the more he seemed to understand putting one paw up and then bringing the next paw up, taking each step individually, just as I wanted.  Once he reached the top, he wanted to jump down right away, so I needed to work with him a bit to relax at the top and just hang out and get some extra treats.

I want to invest in a taller stepladder, and keep this trick going!  There’s no end in sight for this little dog!

The video was from Rugby’s third attempt.  He wasn’t perfect or fluid, but he certainly was getting the idea of what I was looking for!




What Do You And Your Dog Enjoy Doing?

When it comes to having fun with a dog, I think the best fun always happens when owners and dogs are doing the sorts of things that they personally enjoy.  I hear dog owners tell me that they are doing things with their dog because they think that’s what a dog owner is “supposed” to do for and with a dog!  As a result, I see owners sometimes doing things that they really hate, all because they think that’s what is expected of them as dog owners!

Let me fill you in on a secret!  There is NO rule book for having fun with your dog!!  ALL dogs and owners are different!  What works for one dog, may not for the next.  There are no set rules for engagement between a dog and his owner!!  I remember so well, a Labrador Retriever that I trained who hated to be in water!  Her owner called her his “Land Lab” because she just enjoyed land activities rather than water activities!

Rugby is the dog who helped me to really understand this whole idea more fully, because initially, I really tried to give him experiences that I don’t think he ever wanted.  I kept feeling like he wouldn’t enjoy life if he couldn’t really experience a full world with lots of adventures. Maybe if I had been Rugby’s initial owner instead of his fifth….he might very well have enjoyed having a big world with lots of adventures.   However, that simply stresses Rugby too much, and he’s much happier staying home and enjoying simple activities!

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As a result, I’ve learned to re-think life with my special needs dog.  Rugby’s ideas of fun have changed over the years as he’s aged, but so have mine!  As a younger dog, all he wanted to do was RUN!!  I wish that I enjoyed running, but sadly, I don’t!  My left knee has taken a beating from big, rowdy dogs slamming into it over and over, and so it needs a lot of TLC!  Fortunately, Rugby can run alone, so he has a grand time in the yard, and that works well for me, so it’s a win-win.  And what I absolutely love, is that Rugby really seems to be happiest when I’m out in the yard watching him!  He’s like that small child who says, “Mom!  Watch me!  I can run really fast!”  It never fails to make me smile from ear to ear!

My job involves a whole lot of problem solving, so I love anything that involves puzzling or thinking games for dogs.  Rugby loves those types of activities too, so we do a fair amount of those things together.  He’s a thinker and problem solver, so he’s always all in when I pull out puzzles or teach him a new trick.

I’ve tried giving Rugby a puppy pool for some summer splashing fun, but he really doesn’t enjoy water sports at all, so I gave that up after the first summer he lived with me!  No sprinklers, no hose play….nope.  Not for Rugby.  He doesn’t enjoy those things.

He enjoys being anywhere that I am, so when I’m puttering around the house cleaning, organizing, etc., Rugby is often nearby….snoopervising whatever I’m doing.  He enjoys doing this….although at times….he’s underfoot and not helpful, I have to admit!  But he means well, so it’s hard to be cross with him for tripping me left and right!

We both really enjoy car rides together….just taking in the sights, sounds and smells of someplace new!  When he has the car surrounding him, he’s much more calm, and has a fun outing when we get out and about.

He really loves some piggie play with me…jamming his piggies into my ankles and legs…over and over…play growling all the while!

And he likes to binge-watch TV with me….movies with popcorn…sit in front of the fire on a cold or rainy night…that sort of thing.  He almost always enjoys a snuggle when he can get one, and I love a good puppy snuggle myself!


So let Rugby and I encourage you to march to the beat of your own drummer!  Find your own unique fun with your dog, and throw yourselves into it!  Don’t let anyone else tell you what you are “supposed” to do with your dog!  Listen to your dog…try some different things, and learn what works for you and your best friend!


Throwback Thursday: Starting Tricks

I’ve been training tricks with Rugby for several years now.  He knows several very well, and we always have new ones that we’re working on from time to time, to give him some new challenges.

I’ve owned and lived with dogs my entire life, give or take a few years when I was in-between dogs, but the vast majority of my life has been shared with a dog or dogs.  Rugby is unlike any other dog I’ve owned, and I’ve done things with him that I never did with other dogs.  One of those things is tricks.

Truth be told, I think I was a bit of a “trick snob.”  I always did a big eye roll when dogs performed tricks.  I never could see a value for having a dog do silly things like Shake Hands, Roll Over, Bow, Sit Pretty, or Spin in a Circle.  Why care?  Why waste my time teaching those things, when “real” things can be taught like Sit/Stay, Down/Stay, Heel, Place, Come, Stand/Stay, etc.  Commands are life saving, important things every dog should learn and know well.  Tricks are just silly nonsense, aren’t they?

Well, as I’ve learned in the eight years I’ve shared with Rugby, he’s had a different way of looking at things, and he’s opened my eyes to new things more than once.  I’ve been able to enjoy many happy accidents along the way, all because of a fur covered hot mess of speckles and spots named Rugby James!

One of those happy accidents has been tricks!  Oh my do I love to train tricks to dogs!!  I can’t believe I waited so long to give them a try!  If it hadn’t been for Rugby, I think I never would have ever tried them!  He’s the sole reason that I started training them, and it’s because he was naughty all evening long.

When Rugby was newer in our home, we hadn’t quite figured out how much exercise he needed to wear him out.  The honest truth is that in the early days, we simply couldn’t wear him out.  End of story.  That puppy had more energy than three dogs put together.  And we just didn’t quite know what to do with all of his energy, and because of that, he caused some naughty behavior at home…just as we were trying to relax.

He often did something I call “shopping.”  He would wander around the house, looking high and looking low…for something to get into!  He would be like a Ninja….swooping and stealing….with stealth!  And then he paraded in front of us with his stolen goods, just tempting us to come get it!  Someone was always saying, “Who left their shoes out?”  or “Who didn’t put the remote control away?”  Rugby turned the hours of seven to nine pm into his naughty playground virtually every single night.

Well I didn’t spend my days training other naughty dogs to come home and scold my own every night!  So I knew I had to get that dog busy doing something.  He already knew his basic commands, and performed them with ease day in and day out!  He was bored working the same old commands all the time, and his behavior while we worked was quick evidence of that.

So I finally decided that I was going to have to break down and try some tricks.  Anything to keep Rugby busy for a couple of hours to wear him out so that I didn’t just allow him to form habits of behavior that I knew I didn’t want.  He already had plenty enough of those!

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So I really just started out messing around with him.  I didn’t have any books about trick training, and I didn’t have a clue really how to do it.  So I just started out messing around with him.  Rugby loved to jump, so I tried to do things that tied in with his love of jumping.  However, he was still a young dog, so I was very, very careful not to stress his hips or shoulders by jumping anything high, although I did teach him to jump into my arms and let me catch him, and also up on my shoulders to go for a shoulder ride.

I started out sitting on the floor, my back to the sofa.  I lured Rugby to jump over my legs with a treat and he jumped right over and gobbled up the treat.  Then I bent up my knees a bit and taught him to crawl under them, again, just luring him along with a treat.  I kneeled down on one knee and Rugby would jump over the bent knee, turn around and crawl right back under that bent knee.  He loved doing this stuff, and stayed focused for as long as I was working with him!

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Over time, I added other simple tricks, Spin in a Circle, Twirl meant spin in the opposite direction.  I added jump over a stick and jump through a hula hoop, held low to the ground.  He quickly learned shake paws, high five, and touch with his nose.

And the rest, I suppose is just history.  Rugby loves tricks.  He loves work of any kind.  He enjoys the challenges of problem solving, which is why I love tricks and puzzles so very much.  They have been wonderful tools in our home, and the memories of time I’ve spent with Rugby learning things is priceless to me.  I really think much of the trust Rugby learned with me, he learned from doing tricks and puzzles.

I’m so glad I had a naughty dogger who just wanted me to expand my horizons and be open minded enough to learn some new skills and give him the fun and work that he wanted all along!

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