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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P is for Park

pups park

Chilling at The Best Dog Park

I’ve written before about the two dog parks in town, but due to my self-inflicted rules for this All-Positive A to Z Challenge, I can repeat the name of only one of them: The Good Dog Park. (You can probably guess the name of the other.)

Now there’s a third, henceforth to be called The Best Dog Park.

“Have you been to the new dog park?” My hairdresser asked me last week.

“There’s a new dog park???”

I consider myself pretty locked in to the dog news around here, so I’m going to assume that I heard this first from my hairdresser because my dog training buddies have better pro-social activities for their dogs than the Wild West of off-leash parks.

We work hard to make our occasional dog park visits positive, even if that means leaving when the party is just getting started. Our visit last week to the Other Dog Park got really exciting when a year-old German shepherd zoomie-galloped into the fray, and Leo chased after him. I thought, Oh, good, Leo can wear himself out with this guy. But when the young dog slowed down, Leo mounted and humped him.

This has become our signal that it’s time to leave. While humping is a perfectly normal thing for a dog to do (Fern Camacho can tell you more), we keep things polite at the park. We used to have a three-strikes policy, but once Leo fixates on a dog, he keeps going back, so now we pack it up after the first mount.

Which is also what we did for our first visit to the Best Dog Park. While it’s farther from our house than the other two dog parks, it’s worth the drive. We’re still in the honeymoon phase, but it’s amazing! The ground is fully covered in bark, and there are some nice logs for people to sit on and dogs to jump over. More importantly, the people there were more attentive to their dogs than the folks tend to be at the Other Dog Park.

Somehow the dogs even seem better. This all might be because it’s new, but we’ll take it!

For the A to Z Challenge, I’m using all positive language in my posts. Find out how positive reinforcement training helped my dog in my book, Bark and Lunge!


C is for Cheesy!

As regular readers know, my leash-reactive German shepherd Leo has made great progress lately as a result of what I call the Cheesy Technique. Based on the CARE for Reactive Dogs program, I’m creating a positive association with the things he enjoys barking at. When he sees those things, I give him a special treat he only gets on his walks: string cheese.

As you can see in the video, Leo has learned to turn his head to me when he feels stressed. This is great success! I have a bit of dialogue in the video that deviates from my commitment to all-positive language, but I kept it in the video, because it is a prime example of What TO Do when a child is running toward your leash-reactive dog. Leo and I both handled it beautifully, if I do say so myself.


For more about my journey to discovering the benefits of positive reinforcement, read my book, Bark and Lunge!

fitDogFridayThe FitDog Friday Blog Hop is brought to you by SlimDoggyTo Dog with Love and My GBGV Life. Join the Hop or just enjoy the links below – lots of fun fitness tips and advice!  

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A is for Accentuate the Positive

Welcome to the 2015 Blogging A to Z Challenge.

My theme this year is All-Positive, which means I will be discussing only positive methods of working with my dogs. I believe very strongly that rewarding dogs (or anyone) for the things they do right leads to a reciprocally respectful relationship.

As an added linguistic challenge, I will use all-positive language in my posts. Better to stick with what works! Look at the good in the world. Celebrate the wonder and the splendor. Accentuate the positive! (See how I’m letting the first line of the song lyric speak for itself?)

This is my family. They make me so happy. Every day.

This is my family. They make me so happy. Every day.

 For more about my journey to discovering the benefits of positive reinforcement, read my book, Bark and Lunge!


BlogPaws Wordless Wednesday Blog Hop

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Training versus management for leash-reactive dogs

leo smile

A few years ago, I decided we were going to cure Leo of his reactivity to bicycles. We planned to walk around the campus of the nearby university where Rob works, with Rob’s bicycle. We started with Rob walking beside the bicycle, and Leo was totally cool with that. Then, another bicycle whizzed past, Leo barked and I crouched to the ground and started to cry.

It all felt so hopeless because there’s no place where I can truly control the environment. We tried a few more times, then switched back into management mode. Since I can’t train Leo not to react to bicycles, I decided, I’m just going to walk him in places where we can more easily avoid bicycles.

However, there’s no place in town we can truly avoid bicycles, so what this really means is that I walk Leo in places where I can see bicycles coming from farther away, and guess what? I’ve been able to do more than manage him.

Fern Camacho of The Great Dog Adventure discusses the difference between management and training in a few of his podcasts. Most recently in this one about leash reactivity. I would add a caveat to his suggestion to stand in front of the dog to break eye contact with the trigger. If you have a redirected biter, like I do, this can lead to a bite on the leg. That’s why I use treats.

Leo has a very short scale of reactivity. He goes from mildly concerned about a stimulus to full-blown reaction very quickly. Rewarding him with food when he’s just past the concerned phase has led to actual progress in counter-conditioning him to the trigger. I carry string cheese in my hand on our walks, and when I can use a stimulus as a teaching moment, I let him see the thing, then say “Cheesy” to get him to look away from it to take a bite of cheese. I let him look, I give him cheese, until we’re past the thing.

As the stimulus (bike, jogger, dog) gets closer, he takes the treat harder and harder, which hurts my fingers, but lets me know how far past his comfort zone we are. That’s training, because he’s gotten more comfortable with triggers at shorter distances. Now, when he sees a scary thing, sometimes he looks to me for the cheese instead of barking and lunging at the thing.

Management is when I try to “distract” him by stuffing the cheese in his face and getting him out of there. It doesn’t always work.

But I’ve gotten so good at it that sometimes what I think will be management turns into a training moment.

The other day, while walking the pups around Rob’s parents’ neighborhood, an old man on a bicycle headed straight for us. “I don’t know what do to,” I said, as I turned and walked in the other direction. Leo looked over his shoulder, but didn’t bark at the guy, and somehow I timed it perfectly to lead Leo into a driveway and behind a shrub that didn’t block his view of the bike, but prevented him from lunging at it as it passed by. I was running low on cheese by this point on the walk, but still I cheesy-cheesed him until the bike was gone.

Unfortunately, my skills are no match for bizarre uncontrollable moments like the following.

While walking the dogs at night, adorned in their flashy Dog-E-Glow collars, Rob carrying a flashlight and me wearing a headlamp, we darted across the street to avoid a jogger. We darted back, and then saw what looked like a single light moving slower than a car. A bicycle. We darted back across the street into a driveway and hid behind some bushes.

The cyclist pulled over at the mailbox directly across the street and turned off his light. What the hell? What’s he doing? “I don’t understand what’s happening,” I said, not caring that the dude could hear me.

Since he wasn’t moving, we tried to continue on our way. Rob asked, “Are you just pausing?” as I stumbled over an uneven patch of grass and fell to one knee.

“I kind of live here,” the guy said, turning on his bright light, shining it in our faces.

Rob said, “Our dog barks at bicycles,” while I said, “Cheesy cheesy,” trying to keep Leo’s focus on me, but come on, how much can we expect a German shepherd to take? He started barking.

Since there was no sidewalk on our side of the street, and the guy said he lived there, and Leo was already barking, we crossed back over on the other side of the guy, and kept walking. Turned out, the guy didn’t live there, but next door to the house in whose driveway we had hidden. So the genius turned around and rode beside us (Leo still barking) back to his driveway, saying, “I saw two people lurking in the bushes, what was I supposed to think?”

Oh, I don’t know, we had two dogs and were wearing various accessories designed to make ourselves visible, what kind of malicious mischief could we possibly be up to? He was supposed to think, Those are two people walking two dogs, minded his own business, and ridden into his own damn driveway.

Okay, yes, I do see how we looked strange, and we do have some weird crime on our block. If Rob saw people hiding in our own driveway, he would have confronted them too, but not in our neighbors’ yards. We expect weird behavior in those driveways.

Lesson learned. The whole thing was very embarrassing, and sadly, makes me reconsider our fairly successful strategy of hiding in people’s bushes.

This post is part of the Positive Pet Training blog hop, hosted by Cascadian NomadsTenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. Shout out to Rubicon Days for putting Bark and Lunge in her positive training toolkit. Also for the reminder that positive dog trainers should never feel like dorks for wearing treat pouches (or fanny packs) and doing weird things like chanting “Cheesy cheesy,” every time another person passes by, or you know, hiding in people’s driveways.

Positive Training 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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Conversation with a cat lady

An elderly lady walked out of my office building as I crossed the parking lot. She stared at me as I neared her, and I realized that she was trying to read my shirt.

Me: It says Never Walk Alone.

Her: Oh, that’s a very good idea.

I turned around to show her the back.


Me: It’s a dog-walking shirt. It’s not where you walk, it’s who walks with you.

Her: I walked with my husband for fifty years.

Me: Do you have a dog?

Her: No, I have a cat.

Me: You should get a dog.

Her: We had three cats. The neighbor’s dog ate two of them. He said, “Maybe a coyote got them.” I said, “No, a black dog got them.” My neighbor had a black dog.

Me: So I guess you’re not a dog person…

never walk