What about those Service Dogs?

Over the past couple of months I have traveled from our home location in Florida to NY and to California to deliver Service Dogs.  Soon we will have a dog in Dover, DE and in Washington State.  Since most of our dogs have been local placements or pick ups, the airport has been a new experience for me outside of the training atmosphere. 

We have encountered other ‘service dogs’ barking or growling at us, pulling their owners around, and generally acting in a manner that is not acceptable of a pet, let alone a supposed Service Dog in an airport.  I guess some are Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and others are just I posters wearing vests that say Service Dog.  We even ran into a very large Great Dane that nearly pulled its handler over to us.  I believe he was an “ESA”.  Quotes added for sarcastic emphasis.  The airlines should not have to screen dogs, but I wish they would.  When you go through ticketing you should have to demonstrate at the very least an equivalent test to the CGC and COMMUNITY CANINE (CGC-A) in order to bring your dog on a flight. 

People often ask about the dogs and their training when we go out locally and when we travel.  Our training protocol varies based on each dog, but here is a rundown of what it takes to get a properly trained Service Dog in our facility.  First, start with a good dog.  I would love to use more shelter dogs, and have 3 currently in the program, but they are often too unstable to be used for any type of service work.  Many people, shelters and rescues alike cry foul when they happen upon breeders who do no testing or health clearances for their dogs, yet they expect that it is easy to simply use a shelter dog for service work.  It really isn't that easy. Many people wrongly believe they can make great Service Dogs if just given a job and love. The truth is, the odds are stacked against those dogs.  I turn away most well bred dogs that come in with people who went out on their own and purchased a puppy or dog in hopes of it becoming their SD.  Only about 1% of dogs have what it takes.  I would give the shelter dog about a 1 in 300 chance.  Training for what we do, we must be very selective. 

On to training.  When dogs come in they get into a routine.  They are kenneled and put in a stressful environment to expose them to many things.  You have to keep in mind that these are not pets, but rather highly trained ‘medical devices’ that must operate under any condition in any environment they are put in.  Even with our exposure in a busy facility that has heavy equipment running outside, multiple dogs passing by on the regular, different people training in close proximity to them, they must learn to contain themselves.  It seems harsh to some, but think of them as the Navy SEALS while every other dog is just regular Army soldiers.  There is a world of difference, and it means you must have different training to succeed.  Since we focus on Veterans with PTSD and TBI, as well as children with Autism and Epilepsy, there is no room for failure.

The dogs are handled by multiple people on a daily basis because we don’t always know the final destination of a dog when we first start the training process.  We want them to enjoy people.  What we do know, is they must be walked a lot, and they need to play.  Their life will be given over to work and play will become secondary for them soon enough.  Our facility affords them the opportunity to get out in the yard and just be a dog.

Obedience training and Task Work training comes next.  We work to develop the dogs’ natural abilities to hunt, retrieve.  Our training methods are simple.  We primarily work a dog using positive reinforcement such as praise, a toy, or even a food reward for certain things.  After a certain point, dogs are put under more ‘pressure’ to perform.  We always work our dogs with the philosophy of holding them to a given expectation, but pressure to do it longer and with greater distractions is necessary.  Let’s backtrack just a little.  We start with a good dog, right?  So it should easily be compliant, right?  The answer would be a little yes and a lot no.  We need dogs that are driven, very driven to work.  Crazy dogs, some might say.  We need dogs that are clear-headed, willing to work, wanting to please.  This dog may have to wake up a 200-lb Combat Veteran that is fully entrenched in a night-terror, or active nightmare.  It might have to sidetrack a 10-year old boy with Autism and an anger disorder or dissociative personality disorder.  When that child needs deep pressure or interruptions from harmful behavior, you need a capable dog.  A dog that is easily pushed aside will not fit the bill.  We must push these dogs to performance extremes in order to know they can do their jobs without every losing control.  So, when I hear people complaining about the way we train or board dogs, I get a little defensive.  I am an advocate for the dog and also for the person they will be paired with.  It is critical to train properly to get the dog we want to provide. 

People are more concerned with methods than the results, it seems.  I posted an article on our blog the other day that gets into some methods we use.  I also posted a few weeks ago about communication.  I would suggest reading those to gain more insight into methods we use and what I prefer along with what I dislike.  Above all else, dogs are treated with respect, and never stripped of their dignity of being a dog.  I know that this level of dog training isn’t for everyone.  In our years in business we’ve had employees and volunteers alike who just weren’t cut out for it.  Some are better suited to do other things, perhaps training pets for tricks or simple Obedience.  Working dogs are different in the drives the possess.  More of some, less of others that a good pet quality dog might have. 

Another question I get while out is, “How did you become a Service Dog Trainer?”. The answer is simple.  I expanded on my previous formal schooling in training professional and pet dogs, found I was really good at it, and started studying the disabilities that I wanted to help with.  Children with Autism were similar in some ways to a Veteran with PTSD.  I learned more about PTSD and TBI while serving on the Advisory Board for 3 years as the Dog Training Advisor for Healing Paws for Warriors, a local Service Dog facilitator for Veterans.  We did the dog training, they did people training; we learned from each other.  I continued to get better at what I did.  I hired more staff, one with a major in criminology and a minor in psychology.  I hired a former sea life trainer, and learned how sea life and dogs are not at all alike, but I did learn more about capturing natural behaviors.  She is now the primary dog trainer for Healing Paws for Warriors.  I have mentors, and I mentor.  The learning can never stop.  I learn from my 2-year apprentice, and plan to learn from our newest trainer that will be here from CT in October.  Since there is no professional certification process that regulates dog training, your knowledge and abilities can be measured a couple of ways.  You can take tests, mostly online, and gain knowledge based credentials, or you can do the work and prove your abilities. I have chosen to do the latter.  I am a registered AKC Evaluator, and have belonged to several groups with lots of letters, but the best proof is in the pudding.  Our facility has produced numerous dogs, trained to standards that exceed federal ADA guidelines.  I am currently working on legislation to create national training standards, not just a pay to participate program which is responsible for the current standards. 

If you are interested in our program, you should stop by and get to know us, I think you will like us.  We are an all-inclusive type of place, that participates heavily in our community through giving back.  You may have heard that we are breeders of some extraordinary pups, too.  Yes, we do sell our puppies when we have them, because not all of them can be Service Dogs.  We also purchased some puppies recently.  We groom puppies to be strong using a series of challenges in our facility.  We then send them off to grow up from around 6-months until around 12-months when they come back to finish training.  If you would like to join our mission and be a puppy raiser, or become involved as a Service Dog Mentor (we let you walk and care for the dogs we have in Service Dog Training – at our facility) then reach out to us.  Some people assume the worst when they see things from the outside because they are viewing things through a lens of ignorance.  Get involved, be part of something that is truly life changing. 

May your light shine brightly today.

The "EQUIPMENT" misconception

So many days I wish there was time to just sit and write.  I hope that day comes soon because there is a lot that needs to be said about training.  If you are ready, hold on tight, here we go...

 - I added this just before posting to help people understand the word HUMANE since it is thrown around quite a bit when talking with certain circles.  The word is based on two words - Human + Emotion.  It is based on what is perceived as right, just, fitting.  I highlighted some of the synonyms below.  I believe you will find this article and its author to be an advocate for the dogs, and to believe in the humane treatment of animals, by definition.



having or showing compassion or benevolence.
"regulations ensuring the humane treatment of animals"

compassionate, kind, considerate, understanding, sympathetic, tolerant; lenient, forbearing, forgiving, merciful, mild, gentle, tender, clement, benign, humanitarian, benevolentcharitable;
caringsolicitous; warmhearted, tenderhearted, softhearted  - 

Let's start with a product that many see as a non-abusive piece of equipment - the food bowl.  I am here to tell you that you can overfeed your dog very easily, and this is abusive.  Your dog should have a body type matching its breed standard - not what you assume it should look like.  You can find breed standards for your dog on many different sites including breed registries.  Besides overfeeding, you can also miss a serious opportunity to teach leadership if the bowl is used inappropriately.  Never free feed your dog, this teaches the dog that the food comes from a magic bowl, not its human leader.  Did you know you can overcome many issues with your dog by simply asking them to work for their food?  A simple SIT is enough, no need for tricks or multiple behaviors.  Now, set the bowl down and do not let your dog have it until it looks at you - makes deep eye contact - asks you permission for the opportunity to eat.  This simple tool can change your relationship forever for good or for bad.  You can walk with your dog's food bowl while getting your dog to walk next to you - you are shaping behavior of walking with you and not pulling you.  You can do this in a 30 second routine before asking your dog to SIT for the food.  How about using a PLACE by the front door?  Use your dog's food to create a positive reinforcement for going to PLACE each day.  I prefer to feed half of one meal portion on a PLACE.  How about teaching your dog to use its nose?  By using half of another meal portion to play a hunting game you can open your dog's brain up because you are using its most primal gift, its nose.  Toss the food a bit at a time, telling your dog to FIND it.  The number one tool is your dog's own food bowl.  USE IT CORRECTLY.

Many people like different types of harnesses.  A harness makes a fairly good way to secure a dog into a vehicle.  A harness rarely helps a dog walk better, it simply manages the bad behavior.  Some dogs will only be managed with leash walking because their people don't want to take the time to teach proper walking.  I've seen harnesses with d-rings on the top, the front, the side - what is the deal?  It is like the harness makers know that a harness is actually used for pulling, but still want to sell their wares as a great idea to fit a collar free narrative.  Collars are not the enemy of your dog, the person controlling the collar or the person who doesn't train their dog is.  Keep in mind that very rarely does a dog have trauma from a collar, when used correctly.  I actually like a harness for bully breeds.  I say this only because it is easier to pick them up and move them when they become fixated on something they want.  I would still have a collar on the dog.  I would never connect a leash to a harness unless I wanted to teach the dog to pull away from me.  There is some science to support this notion.  A little pressure on the leash, the dog moves away or firms up its position - this is called opposition reflex.  It is not a true reflex, but it is regarded as such by virtue of the action/reaction that takes place.  Also, a quick study in physics tells us "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." - Sir Isaac Newton.  This is not going to change, no matter where you place the d-ring to hook the leash to.  A harness is a great feel good item, and is used as a management tool at best; it is not for the dog owner looking to modify behavior.

Briefly, your leash is very important.  Dogs should walk beside you or behind you.  Far too often people allow their dog to lead the way as if they have some great ability to do so.  When your dog is out tracking in the woods it gets to lead the way - it has a more powerful nose.   But since your dog has the brain of a 2-year old, you shouldn't be taking directions from it as to where and when to go somewhere except outside to the bathroom!  Leashes that allow your dog to roam at will are detrimental to your leadership.  If your dog doesn't need permission to roam, it is making its own decisions.  This is not OK.  My dogs are off-leash when appropriate and understand boundaries.  They also recall instantly.  I have great relationships with all of my dogs and they work and play very hard as a result.  I recommend either a 4-ft or 6-ft leash, depending on the dog and handler combination.

Next, the nose halters - these are my least favorite tool for many reasons.  The number one reason is they keep the dog in a state of 'correction' most of the time.  Many owners who use these do not understand the pressure this tool puts on the dog's neck.  This might be due to the marketing of being 'gentle'.  Truthfully, the correction the dog receives keeps the dog more confused than anything because of user error.  A soft touch on the leash pulls the dogs head sideways or backwards, and any opposition is met with more pressure on the spine.  I suppose that since the pressure is not seen by the human eye, it is deemed as being a good tool to many who advocate for the 'less harmful' approach.  It is neither positive nor less harmful than other tools that trainers might use.

Another tool that is misused too often is a pinch or prong collar.  It looks rather ominous, and for that reason it gets a lot of bad publicity.  When used correctly, it can often help offer a simple correction that the dog understands more clearly than we as humans give credit.  Dogs are animals that nip at each other for correction.  This tool creates pressure high on the neck, when worn properly, to create the sensation of a nip from another dog.  Some dogs present issues with inappropriate behaviors like strong jumping on people or lunging at other dogs.  These dogs may not have been corrected properly in their litter, or may have even been bullied.  One thing is for certain, they do not understand your correction, or they would not continue to do the bad behaviors.  Some dogs pull away from humans, because they also have 'pack drive' issues.  Along with proper reward, a timely correction using a prong collar can interrupt this terrible cycle of behavior AND change the dog's perspective of his/her human caretakers.  As I stated, many people use this tool incorrectly - and for too many dogs that do not need it.  Again, it helps with very specific issues in a training routine, and should be used infrequently.  Back to the pack drive issue.  Positive reward by itself rarely helps the dog with low pack drive.  Remember what the nose collar does and what dogs it is supposed to help?  Reward for good pack behavior, correct for bad pack behavior - think about this for a moment because it is very natural for dogs to understand this.  Just keep in mind, this is a tool for TRAINING not a life companion for your dog.  If you cannot handle your dog without a training collar on all of the time, perhaps it is the wrong dog for you.  I like to see dogs on a simple flat collar or a fur-saver above any other type of collar.

How about a slip collar or "dominant dog" collar?  They are used to pinch in one location when the collar is cinched up.  It should be done with precision and released immediately.  If not, you merely choke your dog.  In fact, some are called choker collars - probably not just because of the way they are worn, but the way humans allow their dogs to be choked.  Used incorrectly, this collar has the ability to produce significant damage.  It is my least favorite collar that is out today.  I prefer the Herm Sprenger Fur Saver collar over the traditional choker.  It has wide links which protect longer coated dogs' fur and they do not cinch up quite the same.  When used properly, they make a clicking noise of sorts and prevent you from cinching tightly unless you are well seasoned in its use.  This noise helps interrupt fixation behavior.  It can be used to correct the dog, as well, if pulled tightly like a choker collar.  In training, it has proven itself as a good option for many dogs.  It fits loosely, yet does not allow a dog to back out, like a martingale collar.  The novice handler has control along with the ability to offer a soft correction.  Just like any other tool, it can be abused.  Be careful with its use.  A gentler version of this would be a check collar that is most commonly made with nylon joined by a small metal portion that allows you to cinch and release quite easily.

Now we have to discuss the dreaded 'shock' collar.  This is the most hotly contested tool ever devised.  In the old days of training this tool was used as strictly a device of aversion.  It was used to create a big NO!  Training has evolved, and so has the use of this collar, for many users.  I would openly agree that there are still plenty of people using this collar incorrectly and creating unnecessary dominant positioning over their dogs.  With that said, there are some skilled professionals that use the strong aversive abilities of this collar to save the lives of dogs that have shown they will not listen otherwise.  I know trainers who specialize in fixing dog aggression towards other dogs and people.  These dogs have been deemed ready to be euthanized by other trainers and shelter workers, yet they were saved.  The only thing that saved them was the ability to get them to understand that their severe aggression will not be tolerated, that biting a human is not acceptable, that trying to kill other dogs is not acceptable. Cookies don't save those dogs, contrary to what some people want to believe.  Putting those dogs into the "right" home is often a recipe for disaster.  An untrained shelter worker has decided the home that is sought out should be a calm environment with no children, no other pets, not many visitors - in other words, a home without stimulus, leadership, or social skills.  These dogs end up taking charge and creating more issues than can be imagined.  I see this at least once a week from dogs coming from our local shelters.  People actually have come in fearing for their safety, yet are afraid to take the dog back to the shelter for fear of being told they will never adopt again, or that they are a failure.  My staff has predicted bites from dogs that unfortunately have happened because the owners have fear of backlash from returning the dog to the shelter or rescue.

Enough of that, let's talk about the use of an electric collar in the modern training world, or at least as I see it.  This device can be quite effective as a tool of interrupting the fixation process.  A good example would be a dog that doesn't respect its owner, but likes to show aggression to other dogs.  Some dogs 'redirect' when corrected by their owner - meaning they turn their heads back sometimes resulting in a bite or just a muzzle punch by the dog.  A study has been shown that multiple 'corrections' that are too weak simply diminish the relationship with its handler.  This may sound familiar if you have ever been around small children and their parents who say they will correct them if they don't stop, then they offer such mild correction the child goes back to the same poor behavior over and over.  You might have even thought, "Why don't they just make him stop that?"  Well, we like to think that since a dog is such a simple creature we can do this one step better through controlled redirection.  This is a popular method for many trainers, and rings true with positive reinforcement values that we believe in.  But, this dog that doesn't respect its owner isn't going to leave the other dog alone - no matter how many hot dogs you offer it.  Plus, your TIMING would have to be absolutely perfect for this to work.  Most people, many so-called trainers included, would not have the ability to time this right, and would be rewarding for engaging in aggressive behavior - because the stimulus remains and the aggression remains.  Now, what if an invisible third party tapped your dog on the shoulder to get its attention as it started to show a change in behavior (before the aggression) and you were then able to reward your dog?  Would you agree that this would allow you to teach the dog the proper behavior?  You have to, because it makes sense.  Now, who is brave enough to tap that dog on the shoulder, without tying it to a person or another dog?  Did you say use a shaker can?  Yep, that can make the dog aggressive or even fearful depending on why it is showing aggression each time it hears that noise, or it can teach the dog to instantly redirect on the can - which I have seen. Two different types of aggression were just described.  Are you capable of identifying them?  How many breeds attack based on noise alone?  Two specific breeds are actually known for it - Pit Bulls and Rottweilers.  Oh, use a spray bottle?  Sure, then when you decide to clean your windows the dog freaks out and runs away or, as I have personally witnessed, attacks the house keeper and her spray bottle.  The spray bottle is cruel and creates a wealth of issues because it is a true aversive and all spray bottles and their holder can become the enemy.  I have even heard of a local trainer who puts vinegar in the spray bottle as a deterrent.  Have you smelled vinegar up close?  Think about the dog who has 200+ million more receptors in its nose than you do.

Let's go back to invisible... the simple touch is tied to nobody and nothing.  It isn't usually tied to a collar because it is such a low stim that the dog doesn't even know where it comes from.  It is literally just a tap on the shoulder.  You see, we aren't talking about shocking a dog, we are talking about a simple muscle contraction.  There is no pain involved in this.  Used the way we do, you will sometimes see a dog look at their anus as if they just farted - you cannot get further from the collar than that.  Did you know that many of those collars also vibrate?  Vibration can be too much stimulus for the dog in some cases, so don't simply rely on the vibration as if it is always a better option.  You really have to be well versed in reading the dog and the use of the remote collar to be effective.  There are very few instances that I would use an e-collar, but I find it very helpful for the distracted dog; the dog that needs a simple third party touch to regain focus; the dog that comes to us for training that has failed every other attempt at training; the dog that is now a candidate for going to the shelter or worse, returning to the shelter.  My team would never use this method until the dog is taught the basic concept of LEAVE IT.  We teach this as an absolute - leave people, places, and things.  In fact, turn your head away from it and give me eye contact.  Our goal is to get the dog to a position of PRAISE quickly with less stress on them, less stress on the owner, less opportunity for an altercation.  The less stress on a dog, the healthier the dog will be.  The immune system is broken down with stress, the heart and other vital organs suffer with stress.  I've heard cases of supposed positive trainers stressing dogs to the point of exhaustion trying to get them to work for a hot dog.  A simple interruption would seem to be more appropriate and certainly healthier in the big picture.

Lastly, let's talk about loving your dog inappropriately.  One of the top trainers in the world shared with me this simple message, "Love your dog, love your dog, love your dog, and when the time is right you will get what you want out of your dog."  In context we were discussing not being able to 'work' a dog for competition because of being too busy.  The beauty of this wasn't in what he said, but rather what one of the members of the United States WUSV Competition team that he led added to it.  He said, "Love your dog, love your dog, and when the time is right you will get what you want out of your dog - if you haven't loved the confidence out of your dog!"  No words could be more true.  Often times people actually love the confidence out of their dogs because they give them a huge platform to act out in fear, disobedience and unknowingly reward this fear derived behavior and disobedience.  Love is a great tool.  Use it wisely.  Love can look like verbal praise, a food reward, a pat on the head or chest.  All carry different value, so use it appropriately.  Bring your dog to a praiseworthy act quickly and PRAISE them!  All things should end in praise.  Every correction ends in praise - because once they are not doing wrong, they are doing right and should be told so.  Praise varies according to the situation and how long it takes to get them to a praiseworthy position.  Does it take 1 second or 10?  Praise based on how quickly they comply with your request (we don't use commands - read the previous blog entry to see why).  Love your dog in a healthy way; don't let your love be used to increase your dog's bad behavior.

The bottom line is this, when your goal is building a healthy relationship based on respect and proper communication, you might need to use different tools to open channels of communication.  Used properly, these tools can be a wonderful addition to a training routine.  Unfortunately, many use them improperly and make it difficult for people to understand how they could be good at all.

The comment section is open for those wishing to have a civil discussion.
For those that do not wish to be civil, don't waste your time.

The "ALPHA" misconception

Far too many trainers focus on the ALPHA concept, as if they were hoping for you, a human with superior intellect, to assume the lower position of a dog.  Even an alpha dog's intellect and reasoning skill pales in comparison to a human adult's.  In fact, scientists say a dog can count to 5, on average - and has the mental capacity of a 2-year old human.  How does that compare to you?  One of my favorite comparisons to show the difference in the often confused roles in the human/dog relationship is the way I sleep - in an adjustable bed with super cool lights and massage built in, while my dog sleeps on the floor and licks himself.

Humans are 'alpha' naturally, but only recognized as such when they provide proper leadership and meet to their dog's innate needs.  But, rather than act like a dog you should act like a zookeeper, if you will.  You must provide proper husbandry to the animals in your care, from mental stimulus to feeding to teaching boundaries, and meeting expectations.  For multiple dog homes, allowing your dog pack to discover their own hierarchy is very important.  You should then learn to address their leader properly to maintain order in their pack.  It is about respect.  If you only have one dog, the same applies.  Do not attempt to anthropomorphize your dog; dogs cannot handle being treated like furry people.  They simply are not wired for it.

Dogs communicate in simple ways that include body language and a series of noises.  When dogs wish to play, they often make a higher pitched happy bark.  Conversely, when they are warding off danger or even correcting another dog they use a deeper toned bark, growl, or even a snarl with a quick nip.  This begs the question:  Why do we give our dog(s) COMMANDS when harsh tones are reserved for correction in their vernacular?  Your dog deserves the respect of being spoken to properly.  This builds a better relationship; one that is based on respect, not fear.

This doesn't mean that you do not correct the dog, you simply reserve correction for when it is needed.  You teach the dog the difference between right and wrong.  Many trainers abuse their ability to correct a lesser being like a dog.  They use harsh methods which include strong e-collar correction, yelling at dogs, or even improperly using more simple tools like a slip collar or a prong collar.  Sure, you can teach a dog not to do something with strong aversive techniques, but what does that relationship look like between you and your so-called best friend?  I bet the dog has a different idea of what he would call you after being 'shocked' to learn not to do something.  Your dog might have yet another name for you if you are not correcting strong enough, too.  If you haven't figured out what that sweet spot is, our team would be happy to help you.

Keep communication clear between you and your dog.  We would love to share some of our techniques with you and help you have a better relationship built on trust, proper leadership, and clear understanding of what your expectations are for your dog.  Let us help you Unleash Your Inner Dog!