When you know better, you do better

I accidentally posted the perfect blog last week for this month’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop theme: Improvements/Successes. If you haven’t read Leo vs. the Track Team, check it out after you read this one, and be sure to hop on down the Linky List of my fellow bloggers.

To continue on the theme of Improving as a Trainer, I’ll share a Maya Angelou quote that resonates with me: “You did then what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.” (I’ve seen several versions of this quote, and I don’t know which is her exact phrasing, but this is the one I use.)

Many of us in the Positive Pet Training world have pretty strong feelings against the use of aversives like prong collars, e-collars*, or throwing cans of pennies at our dogs. As someone who used a prong collar for a couple of years before I knew better, I’m tempted to run up to every dog wearing a prong collar that I see and tell their people what I know.

But to be honest, I’m weary of dog owners telling each other what to do. Does anyone ever change anyone’s mind? Have my fellow positive pet training blog friends ever gotten into it with someone on the other side, an aversive trainer (or as I believe they call themselves: “balanced trainers”) – and actually gotten through to them?

It’s easier to communicate with people who are like I was: uninformed. My strategy is to tell people what worked for me, and why those other methods were counterproductive for me, and hope to plant a seed. That’s why I wrote Bark and Lunge.

I spoke at a couple of Amazing Pet Expos this year, which was awesome because they have an all-positive policy. No shock collars or prong collars or electric fences sold there. Plus, I was pretty excited at the Seattle Expo that a couple of German shepherd rescues were there. And then pretty disappointed to see prong collars on their dogs.

Maybe they just need to read my book, I thought, approaching a pair walking German shepherds past my booth. I handed them a postcard for my book, explaining that it was about all the mistakes I made with my first German shepherd, and how I learned to fix them.

“Did you use a prong collar?”

“Yes, that was one of the mistakes I made. Positive reinforcement is what worked for us.”

“We don’t allow adopters to use positive reinforcement.”


“We don’t want our dogs to come back. We require people to take training classes using prong or e-collars.”

I was thrown, and kind of embarrassed. This was just a few minutes before I was scheduled to give a speech about how a prong collar messed my dog up. Was this rescue group going to think I was specifically going after them? Did they even know that the Expo has an anti-aversive stance?

Kari speaks

It went great. Most of the people pictured bought books. And then the expo rep asked me to speak a second time after the guys from that Animal Planet show Tanked skipped out early.

The rescue woman’s remark really rattled me. It is unfathomable to me that positive reinforcement is being blamed for dogs being surrendered to shelters. I can accept that there are dogs trained using aversives who turned out fine, but I haven’t heard any actual examples of dogs for whom positive training failed utterly.

It’s a scenario that just does not make sense. “Well, I tried rewarding my dog for what I wanted him to do, but I find we have a much better relationship when he does what I want because he’s trying to avoid getting a shock.”

I follow a lot of German shepherds on Instagram. The other day, one posted a video practicing a perfect recall. In the comments, the poster described how she used an e-collar, “just to get the dog’s attention.”

After a big sigh, I wondered if I should unfollow this pretty little German shepherd. Or should I speak up? Am I overreacting? Are e-collars harmless? Are they better than positive methods?

I’m grateful to this blog hop and Lauren at ZoePhee in particular for sharing Kikopup’s video about positive interrupters, reminding me of a way to get your dog’s attention without electrical stimulation.

*E-collar stands for electronic collar, or shock collar. Funny aside: On the board at the shelter where I volunteer, it said “Use e-collar if needed” next to one of the dogs. I almost had a heart attack until I figured out that they meant Elizabethan collar, as in the lampshade dogs wear after a vet visit so they don’t lick their stitches.

Positive Training

This post is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, hosted by Cascadian Nomads, Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. The hop happens on the first Monday of every month, and is open for a full week – please join us in spreading the word about the rewards of positive training!

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Leo vs. the Track Team

Leo vs. Joggers, May 2014

Leo vs. Joggers, May 2014

Leo redirected on me last week during a walk. Things had been going just smashingly and we hadn’t had a reaction worth reporting in a long time. On this walk, he was triggered by a pedestrian and a bike on the other side of the road. He barked, lunged, and redirected twice on my leg. His teeth didn’t break the skin, but the experience is quite like getting bitten. It felt like a setback.

One bike. One (admittedly sketchy) pedestrian. One after another. I thought I could manage the situation by hiding behind a partial wooden fence, forgetting that this technique has backfired in the past. I have turned “Quick, Leo, let’s run and hide!” into a cue something scary is coming.

A couple of preceding events may have helped push him over his threshold:

1) I came home smelling like three strange dogs from the Humane Society.

2) Minutes earlier, Rob and I saw a deer. I do not think the dogs saw the deer, but they definitely smelled it.

Whatcha gonna do? It happened and it was a bummer.

Walks around our neighborhood are challenging because it’s tough to escape an oncoming trigger. The secret to a successful Managed Training walk (I just coined that term) is visibility. I need to be able to see the bikes and the sketchy pedestrians coming in time to decide whether to manage the situation by preventing Leo from seeing the trigger at all, or whether this is a training moment when I can counter-condition him to the thing by feeding him cheese as we pass it.

That’s why I like to drive my dogs to their walks. This time of year, we’ve been having a great time parking by a baseball field, walking up a hill toward a sports stadium, and circling the neighborhood. Even though we encounter some bikes, even though there are people playing on the fields, and even though last week a toddler ran straight toward us – I’m able to see the triggers in time to manage or train.

The hill I speak of is just camera-right of the photo below from May 2014.

On our most recent walk, we’d gotten about as far as the grass in the background when I saw a man jogging toward us. I didn’t have time to race ahead and get away, and since I was armed with at least eight sticks of cheese, I veered off the path to counter-condition Leo.

So far, so good.

As soon as the man headed down the hill, I looked ahead and saw a little kid running toward us, with an adult just behind him.

Argh. Oh well, let’s see if we can keep the cheese party going until they pass.

Miraculously, he continued to take the cheese calmly.

Once they passed, I looked ahead again and saw …

TEN more people about to run past us. The whole damn track team!

Feeling doomed, I considered asking the joggers to stop, but instead pulled out more cheese.

It cost me four or five sticks of cheese, but Leo did not bark! Nor did he take the cheese particularly hard.

This might have been my proudest moment.

Leo biggest achievement here is that he counter-conditioned me. Next time the Track Team heads toward us, instead of cringing and bracing for the reaction, I’ll remember how it felt to stand next to a calm Leo as joggers pass.

Heart Like a Dog

This is the Thursday Barks and Bytes Blog Hop hosted by 2 Brown Dawgs and Heart Like a Dog. Grab the badge and the linky code and join us!

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Blog the Change for Everyone

This news story irritated me this morning (emphasis mine).

A dog described as an American Bulldog was visiting a Temecula home Saturday afternoon when the dog mistook kids playing as aggressive action, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. …

The dog, described by animal control officers as an American Bulldog, was with three children when the attack occurred. …

The dog, described by animal control officers as an American Bulldog, will be held in quarantine for 10 days.

Look at the pictures. It’s pretty obviously an American Bulldog. By saying “described as” every time the breed is mentioned, the story conveys, “They say it’s a bulldog, but since it attacked children, it’s probably a pit bull.”

I agree with the animal control officer quoted in the story who said she’d lock her dog up before leaving him alone unsupervised with children. In my life, being good with children is not a requirement for a companion animal.

I’m working on a novel about rescued pit bulls, and I recently received a critique that said:

I know that there are many defenders of pit bulls as wonderful misunderstood gentle creatures but as I write this another little boy locally had his face ripped off yesterday. Literally. And it was the family dog. It would be a hard sell for many of us to believe there is not a structural problem with that breed and frankly we don’t want to hear about how wonderful they are, especially in the face of their sometimes shocking dangerous behavior.

(I’m familiar with that story, and while the owner insists that dog was a pit bull, it looked an awful lot like an American bulldog to me.)

Pretty harsh words, but they came at the end of an otherwise insightful and helpful critique. This isn’t a fringe opinion I can afford to disregard. Maybe I’ll give her words to a character in the book.

I’m just so tired of prejudice.


I didn’t post anything here at the time of the Charleston church shooting, but here’s what I wrote on Instagram:

Not unspeakable. Not unthinkable.

Unconscionable. Not just on the part of the shooter. But that racism and hate exist to this degree in our country. That guns are ubiquitous. That deranged white killers are given flak jackets and arrested peacefully while black teens are beat up, harassed, and shot in the back by police.

Some people respond to the news of another mass murder in America by saying they have “No Words.” I have a lot of fucking words.

#CharlestonShooting #BlackLivesMatter

Something that broke my heart about the Charleston shooter is that he reportedly almost changed his mind about killing those people because they were so nice to him. That there was a moment where he was like, “Waitaminute, all those things I’ve been taught about black people might not be true.”

The bulldog article above is minor compared to the systemic racism in our country, but it struck me as I tried to think of something to write about for the Blog the Change hop. It’s the same discrepancy that we see in news coverage about dog bites. If a Golden retriever attacks someone, there’s something wrong with that dog or that situation. If a bully breed does, there’s something wrong with the entire breed.

People of color who do bad shit are labeled terrorist and criminals, while the actions of white men are attributed to mental illness or some other factor that isn’t the fault of the entire race.

I don’t know how it happens that people can feel hate toward certain other people because of the color of their skin, or their sexual orientation, or gender identity. I don’t know how we begin to fix that.

Can we start with dogs? Can we convince people who like some dogs but not other dogs, that the dogs they’re afraid of are basically the same as the dogs they love? They have many of the same wonderful qualities. And you know what? Your purebred whatever has a lot of negative qualities too.

I’ve snuggled a lot of pit bulls during the past year. Not one of them acted aggressively toward me. In fact, the worst “bite” I got at the Humane Society came from a black lab who grabbed my wrist with his mouth. It left a bruise, and that dog was adopted within days. At last report, it was a happily ever after situation. I wish my purebred dog would snuggle up against me the way the shelter pit bulls do, instead of hopping off the couch to get away from me when I smother him.

I’ll admit, I love dogs more than I love most people. So for me, it’s a pretty easy leap to love all dogs, no matter what they look like, how they were bred, or whom they bite. While I can’t promise to feel the same way about all people, the best I can do is speak out against racism and injustice when I see it.

Blog the Change

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What your dog needs

The theme for this month’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop is training mistakes. Before I caught on to this whole positive training thing, I made so many mistakes that I wrote a book about them, called Bark and Lunge: Saving My Dog from Training Mistakes.

Everyone makes technical mistakes, like using the wrong gear, or using the right gear in the wrong way. Beyond those, one of the fundamental mistakes I made was trying to get Isis to fit the mold of the dog we wanted her to be, instead of putting her needs first.


Mia on a father-daughter date

As I write this, Rob and Mia have gone out for a beer together. Leo and I are sitting on the back patio, where the air is cool against my arms, in contrast to the gust of hot air that greeted us when we came in the front door.

I would love to take Leo with us to cafes and patio bars, but that would be for our own enjoyment, not his.

Leo doesn’t require a ton of stimulation or exercise, but we take him somewhere every day. We cheat with the dog park during the summer, because there’s too much activity on the streets during these long summer days. It’s tough for a leash-reactive dog.

Tonight, we did half and half. We drove to an off-leash field that Leo walks in and out of on leash.

The flaming orange sun hung behind a thick haze from nearby wildfires. We saw three other dogs one at a time. I made small talk with one woman, who might have found it odd when I told her my boyfriend was having a beer with our other dog.

After she and Checkers left, the crispiness of the field made me think of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Some of my best walks with Leo are like this: solitary. I remember one around our neighborhood in the rain, where I felt like we were on patrol.

Leo would be a really good Apocalypse buddy, especially since he wouldn’t have to be on leash.

Nights like this make me happy, and remind me how low maintenance Leo really is.

I know a lot of people had a hard time over the weekend with fireworks. Our dogs aren’t afraid of them, but Leo barks at the noise. I hate the noise more than he does.

Heat Alert

Handy little item Banfield is giving away. Lets you know when it’s too hot for a dog inside your car. Also raises awareness when others walk past your car.

The other problem we’re having is the heat.

Last year, we took the dogs to Port Townsend for July Fourth weekend. I remember being thrilled that it wasn’t too hot to leave the dogs in the car while we went inside places to eat. We always parked within sight of our table, and left the windows down, but one of the pleasures of the Pacific Northwest is that it is rarely too hot to leave a dog in the car. For a short period.

That has not been the case this year. We’ve had a couple of weeks already of record-breaking temperatures that not only make it unsafe to leave your dog in the car, but also prompt warnings about walking dogs on hot pavement.

I wouldn’t have thought that 80-90 degree temps would make it too hot to walk dogs on pavement… until I stepped onto my own patio barefoot the other day.

A dog trainer friend commented that she saw two people running their dogs in the middle of the day and that the dogs were very clearly stressed. Probably those people thought their dogs needed the exercise; probably they mistook their dog’s panting as a good sign, not of heat exhaustion. Or maybe they’re such obsessive runners that they didn’t give a second thought about whether it was good for the dog or not.

I don’t run, but I had just recently walked Mia at noon. We were on a woodsy path, not pavement, most of it shaded by trees, but I did wonder if it was too hot for her.

That was a reminder to me to put Mia’s needs first. Maybe she doesn’t need a half-hour walk at noon on a record-breakingly hot day. And when we do take the dogs out at the hottest part of the day, we make sure it’s someplace like the Best Dog Park, where they have kiddie pools and a hose.

Positive Training

Positive Reinforcement Pet Training Week is hosted by Cascadian Nomads, Rubicon Days & Tenacious Little Terrier. This month we are sharing stories of our flaws as trainers. Like every month, any and all posts or comments about positive reinforcement pet training are welcome. The blog hop is open all week, so if you are a blogger, add a post and if you are a positive pet training enthusiast, hop around by clicking the thumbnails below, learn and share. Next months Positive Reinforcement Pet Training Week begins August 3rd and the theme is improving our pet training skills.

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