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It's not just terminology: Using a disability justice lens to understand the difference between correction and punishment in dog training
We take a glorious week annually at one of our favorite places to be in the off-season, Cape Cod. Our dogs enjoy this vacation as much as we do, and we spend our time recharging together on the beach, on trails, adventures, and rental properties. This is a trick with four dogs, and I won’t tell you that it is the most relaxing vacation possible. Four dogs is plenty and we love them all but it’s a large pack of varying needs, and we are two neurodivergent people with various sensory triggers sometimes incompatible with 16 paws, 4 noses, plus 3 tails and a wiggle butt.
All of that aside, we always have a rejuvenating time- one that connects us all together because it allows us to so much get back to what I imagine a rhythm looks like for us as a whole without the pressure or "work". We spent 3-4 hours outside, run/play for 90 or so minutes plus sitting and contemplating the scenery for the remainder. We nap in the afternoon, piled on top of another, inter species legs tangled. We keep warm by a fire in the evening, throw a ball, share a snack or two and then relax after a day well spent. Delightful, and wholly unattainable for more than a brief period unless one is unimaginably wealthy.
This year was Oscar’s first family vacation, and I was really excited and also nervous to see how all of our training would be tested in this environment. He is generally happy to be ANYWHERE that his siblings and we are- so I figured he would love the beach- but it’s a highly stimulating environment and I was worried about his basic command response and coming back when called. I had planned for him to be on a long line for our whole trip, even with our ecollar bc he had limited practice recalling in fenced in areas. He blew us away with just how awesome he did. The months of working with him on his ecollar, setting up clear expectations around opportunities for play and down time, what marker words mean- and having 3 other incredibly well behaved dogs did the trick. His return when called was better than we could have ever expected- with maybe only 2-3 corrections needed the whole week. He definitely had his puppy moments, and was an actual sand monster, but overall he was joyous, ran like the wind and listened beautifully. It was incredible. It really had me thinking about how to explain why it is so important to contextualize the difference between guidance with correction, and punishment.
More recently, I had been thinking about why the term “punishment” in dog training has always felt uncomfortable. There are the obvious carceral connotations - but then there is the strict definition used in psychology and behavioral sciences. But I don’t think that even with the technical definition, we can avoid the lingering hue of crime and this intangible air of “bad dog” that doesn’t sit well with me when it comes to dog training.
I use the term “correction” because I mean a course correction. This isn’t just semantics, it also manifests in how we apply pressure tools or use place/crate. For example- when we start a dog learning on a prong collar, we start by conditioning the dog to the sensation of the prong. When I pop the lead towards me, and the dogs moves in my direction, they receive a reward - either verbal praise or food depending on how far they move towards me. This helps the handler learn that the prong pop is not meant to be with enough force to cause intense discomfort- let alone pain (same as with a slip lead, we always want the softest hands we can use). The reason we do this is really simple: we want the dog to move easily and we are combining tactics to make that as clear as possible. It works great. The pressure applied is clear but gentle and responding to it correctly is rewarded. It also creates a positive association with the tool so the dog isn’t startled or having a strong aversion to its use. Our goal is always that any of the corrections we issue are effective on a finger tip’s worth of pressure- be it a pressure tool or the ecollar, we want it to be clear for the dog and gentle on the human, too.
Moreover, the goal of my training has developed into working towards a model of accessibility for clients. And what that means- is that clients are clear on the concepts and can physically perform the skills without breaking down. That doesn’t mean training is not challenging or I get it right all the time. But I am trying to center my dog training in a position of disability justice- and not overcoming disability, which is different from programs typically run elsewhere. There are plenty of other service dog programs, and dog training companies run by individuals with disabilities- but the world of disability justice needs far more representation and more importantly- buy-in to do the work of centralizing disability advocacy in all contexts but of course, specifically service dog training.
To elaborate further:
There is a distinct difference between overcoming adversity as a symbol of “disability diversity” versus accepting limitations and creating accommodations as part of advocating for enthusiastic inclusion.
This is not limited to a conversation on using tools to train dogs in order to provide physical accessibility for a handler.
It is also in who we accept as apprentices, and how we teach the skills necessary for the trade to continue on, both lessons I wish I had learned sooner. It is in every engagement we have in clients- the way we reach them, it’s in where we teach- the clients we teach. It is in what treats we buy, the costs of our dog training equipment. The scope is enormous and it has to be constantly considered and adapted to be better than it was before. Because accessible IS inherently better. Everyone benefits every time that RT adds an accessible aspect to our dog training, both clients and dogs.
So what does this all have to do, with coming back to course corrections? Everything, when you stop to think about it. Maybe it’s a reflection of my own sensitivity that punishment doesn’t sit well with me- I was punished early and often for things that I realize now, as an adult, were manifestations of my disabilities. In those moments my specific “behaviors'' were no doubt inappropriate- probably loud and disruptive. But no one was helping me emotionally regulate, or easing my discomfort- providing accommodation to prevent any of those escalations.
Dogs are Not humans, and I want to say that first. My own lived experience as an abused kid does not mean that we can’t use pressure tools in dog training in a fair way. What it does mean is that I have a problem with “punishment” and have developed a training model that doesn’t conform to ideas around the ideas of wrongness or crime. It’s about language between handler/dog, and decision making together. We can use pressure tools appropriately to course correct without causing pain. We can be mindful of accessibility and centered in disability justice and still remember dogs are not people.
One of the fundamental misunderstandings between a disability justice centered program and another dog training program is seeing corrections as negative, instead of as progress. I see a dog’s mistakes as important to their process of learning, and capitalizing on that moment as crucial to directing change, and helping the handler to negotiate a better outcome with their teammate. But I also see them as necessary to address, I am not going to ignore the problem, or always remove the trigger stimulus, or whatever the case may be. And I am not going to leave my dog out to dry and expect them to perform stoic neutrality without my feedback- which is a recurring problem in dog training that is just repackaged toxic masculinity from old training methodology.
Need an example?
A handler takes a dog through a battery of “tests" meant to “prove” that the dog can handle a variety of stimuli without being triggered. It’s basically an obedience test- but re framed as emotional regulation when it’s essentially a suppression performance. It reminds me of popular "Alpha" dog techniques popularized in the early 2000's. Essentially, it is dominance, but performed quietly.The dog is meant to remain neutral at each station of surprise things- be it another dog, a human with a toy, a loud noise- whatever. This at face value is a useful exercise for proofing obedience, we use something similar to train service dogs for public access as one of our comprehensive techniques. But often, when I watch these “demonstrations” the handler is basically holding their breath and so is the dog. The feedback between them is just this practiced mask of neutrality to get through the gauntlet. Sure, the dog isn’t reacting to a trigger- but I wouldn’t say that this demonstrates a clear improvement in the long term emotional health or progress- it’s just suppression instead of overt reaction.
What I would want to see differently, truly- is a dog emoting. I want to see a dog express delight, confusion, even some mild fear- and then I want the dog to check in with their handler that all is well. And here lies the crux of the difference between applying correction vs punishment- if my dog reacted poorly to the stimulus- I would correct, but only if the dog had enough context to know how to process that stimulus (as in: we had done plenty of desensitization, counter conditioning and practice with expectations) clearly- on an appropriate tool and then redirect into the desired behavior. We would stay, work on the stimulus- reward, play, party. I would be so thorough in my communication with my dog about my desire for the change in their response. And then we would repeat that process a million times until we got it right. If I just punished the dog- if I didn’t use clarity on my tool- I could easily just use any tool to force a dog into compliance. But that’s not my goal. And I truly don't understand how it’s appealing.
Consider another example:
A handler is opposed to all use of corrections and shows the same type of emotion as the dog at every stimulus in the same scenario- fear at a noise, slow recovery to startling sounds etc. The handler is over-emoting with the dog and the dog is not getting clear direction on how to navigate the distractions. There is no use of tools, so very little direction coming from the leash on how to approach these things, af all. The dog in this case is living hotly in the present- unable to process and the handler thinks they are just validating the dog’s experience. But is that our role as the guardian of this animal?
I don’t think so. I don’t think our role is to let the dog lead when they are in distress. We can validate their fear through providing comfort- but we also need to help them course correct- still. I am not going to correct a dog for being afraid. But I am going to help that dog work through that fear appropriately. Fear is a temporary state, so is reactivity, it’s not an “all the time” state of mind. We have the obligation to provide appropriate guidance to these animals we ask to live in our world. That’s what using a clear “yes” and “try again” mean in the simplest way possible. So when I see one of my service dog handlers, with a dog who has had a breadth of experience, for example- entering a store- have their dog sputter at an automatic door- we have a built in plan. It becomes a conversation. We do not hold our breath and expose the dog until they stop responding. We correct the dog for coming out of heel position, first. Then we go into reinforcing heavily with positive markers and food rewards near the doors to create a better memory about the stimulus. Then, we try the door again- if the heel position is improved- we reward and move on- never let perfect be the enemy of progress in training, more often than not giving it time is your best bet and ending on progress will be enough. If there is still a change in heel position that is notable- we will do it again. But with these dogs- they know the correction was just for heel position, not for emotionally responding to the door, and they know they will get the support they need to get through the surprise of the door stimulus, so they are able to work through it successfully and quickly.
This also centers my client, who does not want to feel that they are dragging their dog into a place they are afraid of. It can be hard as a human being to not personalize the response of your dog. Especially, when you are training a service dog that you need in order to be able to do things like go to the grocery store. Some of my handlers feel guilty when their dog is learning something new or challenging because the dog might be nervous or working through a scary step. And that is another reason why how we apply communication and correction matters. When we are able to be extremely specific about correcting for heel position and also address emotional regulation for an opening door- we are also centralizing the lived experience of that disabled handler as very much needing to be validated in how they work with their dog. And this has been incredibly valuable in developing all of my training, because it has brought it to a level where all of my clients are working on communication in a way that wasn’t fathomable without disabled lived experience. Also, like many of my clients, the grocery store is a BIG hurdle for many folks with sensory issues, so when we work with our dogs we are exceptionally sensitive to their needs as relatable. Which doesn’t mean that we stop if a dog is concerned- it means we create an accessible environment through breaking down the communication for the dog to be successful for the team and take it slow. That’s how we centralize the needs of the team as a whole and become more successful. If my client feels their dog “doesn’t want” to help them, we need to take the time to talk about how the dog “doesn’t want” to go through the door because the door is weird and not about their relationship. But we can use their bond to work through that fear and come out better on the other side. This helps them trust their dog more in situations where they are needed for important disability specific tasks and understand that dogs can have responses not to be taken personally.
Lastly, I think a lot about the concept put forth that if you use a tool for the duration of your relationship with your dog, somehow your dog “isn’t” trained, or if you still need to say “no”, your dog hasn’t learned a concept.
I don’t expect my dog to change out of being an animal, and I don’t expect their desires to completely go away. Generally, when they learn expectations they are remarkably good about consistency because I am still reliable about rewarding and encouraging. That being said, they are still living beings- and training as well as behavior are not linear. Dogs are allowed to have bad moods, and bad days. Human beings are allowed to use the tools that best communicate with their dogs simply, and there is no reason to prove to anyone else that you can “do without” that adaptive equipment any more than you would try to drive without your glasses. Mistakes are going to happen, and saying “no” is not harm-based if it doesn’t come with a break in the bond. Learning to do this opens up a world of possibility, and frankly is a life skill we need as humans as well. I think part of accepting a life with dogs means accepting a mess, ongoing conversations about the differences in desires, and frankly- saying “yes” and “no” for their whole life. I don’t ever want to stop talking to my dog.
What if, instead of trying to define the type of control a handler is allowed to use,or argue about the lack of actual peer reviewed data on dog cognition, or fight about "adopt don't shop'', we centralized the person learning to train the dog? The reason that the RT style of training seems so unique to so many, including those in the dog industry is because disabled people have never been given the agency to participate fully in dog cultures, and shape or change it with their lived experiences at the forefront. Even as a dog professional or Many years, my intersectional identities have denied me a seat at many tables. I have learned to work around that, and accept it as a gift because it forced me to learn what I know now and more importantly, to unlearn the constructs of punishment (one example) that limited my abilities. I hope, after reading this, that maybe you'll consider exploring these concepts too, at the table of disabled led-accessibility first. We are not always successful, but we are always learning. And we never stop communicating with our dogs, even when it's a hard conversation because our relationships are built on mutual need, and to stand the test of exclusion.
First off, don’t get your leash twisted up- I’m not saying that there isn't any metric to assess how your dog is progressing in training. But folks, the type of system that the AKC runs with the Canine Good Citizen and related tests is gimmicky, hierarchical, capitalistic, ableist and not actually useful.
While all assessment is highly subjective this test is set up for failure with its lack of standards in dog behavior and human interaction. And I really, really want to talk about why. We can start with “skill” number 1- "accepting a friendly stranger". Now, I don’t disagree that your dog should maintain neutrality when you are appropriately approached. But, as a service dog handler- I literally have never once been “appropriately” approached by a stranger when with my dog.
I’m running on a track record of zero strangers being able to hold back acknowledging the dog after over 5 years of taking my dog everywhere feels like pretty solid data this is a problematic testing device. Most people approach with wild abandon when they see a dog at all, as though it is a mythical beast from the moon whose fur is spun of gold. Occasionally, if you are in a public park you may get a garbled “canipetyourdog” as hands covered in something sticky reach towards your animal before a response can be given. So it seems both a strange standard for the dog and also an even stranger standard for people to assume folks will stop, politely let you settle your dog, and then be allowed to pet, or not. That’s the general testing device for a friendly stranger- and it’s too contrived to be useful.
The Canine Good Citizen Test “CGC” also assumes that the handler is able to accept a friendly stranger. I can’t speak for anyone else, but as an autistic adult who also has pet dogs aside from my service dog- I am not available for a friendly stranger. I’m just not. So I certainly don’t need to place myself in a situation where I am supposed to feign acceptance of a friendly stranger when with my dogs- it would be the first time they see me greet a stranger outside of a work context with any sort of enthusiasm. I wear a leash wrap with guidance for strangers that I need space. We don’t need to test the sociability of a dog using this scenario. We don’t need to create standards for dog engagement that are entirely neurotypical, and not inclusive of many disabled people’s experience. Other friends of mine with conditions that affect their sociability differently- would highly enthusiastically greet a new person in again, a way that may not be received in kind by the formerly known as “friendly” stranger. In fact, I’ve seen many “friendly” strangers turn positively toxic jerks once they realize they have approached any kind of disabled person. There are so many cues that could indicate this- from a stutter, to the volume of a voice, to the way that person moderates (or doesn’t) excitement. There is no accounting for the ways in which any kind of intersectional identity (race, gender identity, weight, age..) would impact the environmental state of the handler, the oncomer, and the dog. It’s pretend. So I can’t fathom why do this test at all if it doesn’t actually indicate how a dog would respond in the exact scenario we are supposed to be testing for. Furthermore, dog behavior is often wildly misinterpreted. The AKC guidelines use “shyness” as a negative in a dog- when I think they probably mean “fearful”. Even when Rio (my service dog) is off-duty, she is both neutral and entirely disinterested in new people. She generally prefers to place herself in the “center” position, standing between my legs, or behind me entirely. That is a trained response, but it is also highly preferred. Does that mean she is shy? It depends on who is observing her behavior, and reading the avoidance not as the “no thank you” it is but as a “I’m shy”. Instead, I recommend observing the handler and dog in dog-friendly public environments and watch the natural engagements that occur. Then we can get an actual fuller picture of how a dog exists in its community, and how that works or doesn't work with their individual handler. Is the handler comfortable? Confident? How about the dog? Are both members of the team in a good state to continue being in this environment? Those are the questions we have to care about. It is inherently exclusive if you are not being intentionally inclusive.
The first portion then takes these concepts to the next level with the”Sitting Politely for Petting” assessment. It’s obviously evident that everything that I wrote above applies to this “test” as well, but even more so. I am vehemently opposed to the idea of dogs as public property. A great deal of this stems from life as a service dog handler and trainer, who should have their experience CENTRALIZED and not ignored when it comes to training pet dogs. What do I mean by that? It is intentionally contrary to service dog training to force your dog to sit for a stranger touching them except in very specific scenarios, for example pats downs for TSA, grooming, and veterinary care. A service dog is the extension of the handler’s body when working- and the same as you shouldn’t grab someone’s cane- you shouldn’t assume you can ever touch a service dog. That dog needs to remain focused on every scent and movement of their handler as part of the human’s medical management. It is literally that serious, no need to be hyperbolic. So what if a service dog in training moves away from a pet from a new person? Are they showing aversion, or are they actually doing their job? And why on earth would we not want the standard for testing to be more in line with the service dogs that work in public every day? It is so counterintuitive. Service dogs obviously need to be trained that if they are touched by anyone- they remain polite, but that doesn’t mean that it should be a cultural expectation that all dogs accept stranger touching.
Additionally, the belief of a dog in public as automatically open to engagement is very much US centric. It is not a given worldwide and many other places ignore each other’s companion dogs unless asked to engage. Aside from perpetuating the idea that all dogs want to be pet by random people- it also creates a pervasive idea that if your dog is more handler focused or is working through a behavioral challenge they are “less than” or “broken”. If we are going to advocate for the adoption of dogs (rescue or not), we have to be honest that many of them have behavioral challenges that mean that they can be entirely comfortable if left to be but struggle when there is pressure to engage. I mean, I get it- I have that problem as a person. While of course I want to see any dog working through behavioral challenges succeed- I don’t think we should be shaming owners that haven’t been able to get to this place by creating a false hierarchy through the CGC. It has become a badge of this style of dog training- while alienating the folks who need the MOST training support- service dogs, and dogs in behavior modification. Once again, for allyship we must centralize disabled experience as part of conceptualizing how we test pet dogs, and forced engagement is not the way to go and can have consequences for both dogs and people.
Following right in line with how this test is applied is a section on “appearance and grooming” which is a judgment of the handler even more so than the dog. It also seems out of pocket to judge “canine citizenship” on this specific factor- given the prevalence of dogs with behavioral issues. That’s more of a baseline health assessment- there are all kinds of factors that play into whether or not a dog is currently (or ever) able to receive good grooming care. Dogs deserve to be well kept and clean. But again to me, it is more important to focus on making dog grooming accessible for the handler, rather than solely a standard for the dog to tolerate from a stranger (though a great goal). Sometimes that means our clients use our grooming table during their free time to practice with their dogs. But not everyone has those resources, and I think that judging this can be really tricky. A handler may not know how to care for their dog, and creating a pass/fail environment on their dog’s tolerance doesn’t actually help the dog get the care that it needs. Let’s centralize care instead of performance, and help people learn to care for their dogs as part of their relationship, in a way that isn’t about passing an arbitrary test- but instead creating resources and support.
If you are playing along- and have realized we are taking a stroll down problematic alley with the next segment of the test “walking on on a loose leash”- pun intended. Here, we are getting to the training grit and some of the biggest red flags for the CGC. This test becomes so much more about the semantics of tools, and training styles than it is actually representative of whether a dog can walk on a leash or not. The tools we use to walk dogs vary wildly, as to the standards of what constitutes safe by trainers. I don’t really see how the AKC can monitor those standards. I’ve seen other trainers do an amazing job of assessing dogs, and I’ve also seen a fair number of trainers skirt their own requirements, or pass dogs to collect the fee. I’ve seen dogs that I know to be reactive on leash earn their CGC because they do phenomenal in controlled environments. It’s just not accurate to create a loose leash scenario as an assessment without actually going for a walk with a dog in multiple scenarios. Dogs often behave differently depending on the environment and are often prone to higher levels of overstimulation close to home, as opposed to at a training facility or testing location. Or vice versa. Again, trainers using this as a metric honestly seems so deeply incomplete- it’s useless. When we combine that with then the disallowment of walking tools for handlers who need adaptive equipment to communicate with their dogs when walking- it’s once again- just a performance. It’s not acceptable to deny a disabled handler the use of an accessibility aid like a head halter for loose leash if that allows them to be safe when walking their dogs. If performance is all we are looking for, perhaps we then shouldn’t also be using “CGC” as anything other than a very low level “trick” certification as opposed to a metric of actual dog obedience and temperament.
It no longer is about “citizenship” when we create scenarios that force disabled handlers out of participation. Using tools creates the possibility of basic dog ownership for many disabled handlers, (including things like e collars- which allow for nonverbal communication and we will circle back to a bit).
I think it’s really interesting that in the first several sections of the test there are expectations of high engagement to outsiders from a dog, and then shifts to scenarios where we expect complete neutrality. In principle, the next test of standards for walking through a crowd makes sense. But again, as someone who has walked through many crowds including at very large theme parks- the reason my dog (and any service dog we train) can do this is because of how I have trained her that would be in contradiction to the initial skills required. There are excellent training methodologies to create the distinction between when it is time to greet new people and when it is not, and many dogs can learn them fully. But that doesn’t seem to be the actual goal with this testing. Instead, it seems like we are creating a performance rather than providing feedback based on actual scenarios. A dog who can walk through a crowd in a training facility is learning the baseline skills to handle a real crowd- but it doesn’t mean that skill has been fully absorbed and ready to be applied to the real world. We see a lot of this in training with tasks and service dogs. It is nice that I can get any dog to perform the task of picking up objects for me at the shop. But it means nothing unless the dog is able to do that in every environment, for their handler. And being able to pick up things for handlers at the shop does not automatically translate- the same way that a loose leash through a crowd wouldn’t remotely cross over. It takes months of proofing that behavior in all of the environments before it generalizes. So we are testing on the baseline understanding, but the implication for many many pet owners who take the test is that now it means their dog is ready for an outdoor festival or other dog friendly crowd. This is not great for the person or the dog, when the animal becomes completely overstimulated. “But they did so well in class?!”- Yes, they did and class and real life are different scenarios that have to be trained through. By claiming the CGC as a hierarchical achievement- we are only creating a false sense of security and not actually training the dog.
This also again, creates dangerous situations for service dog teams who are prepared to be in those environments. There are countless stories from every service dog handler I know about unprepared CGC pet dogs in public reacting to, attacking, and overall distracting service dogs. It endangers the life of the service dog handler to have unprepared pets with low level qualifications in public. And the AKC does not do enough to qualify the limitations of their “certification” process.
I physically can not let a moment pass without talking about tools here, it is again not a more “poorly” trained dog that would need a prong- but rather a handler with poor grip strength who needs to be able to communicate position changes with less force than an abled handler, including navigating crowded environments. But again, that would automatically disqualify this team from passing a CGC- where they could navigate an actual scenario with ease. This discrepancy matters because it is the difference between dog handling and dog tricks.
Naturally, there are going to be components of this test that are just basic obedience requirements- like sit and down. Again, I would say that it is not a skill that if you don’t practice it outside in multiple environments, it will hold outside of the test. The test also gives so much leeway with the expectations depending on the trainer running the show, much like previous examples. We need to now dive deeper into the ongoing tool allusions I have made. I am so tired of arguing for the use of tools as adaptive equipment. Consider the handler who does not use verbal communication dominantly, in a testing environment working hard to make sure their communication is clear. They have an ecollar set to give “yes” cues because they are currently unable to speak. Or a clicker even- tools don’t need to be about the ability to overpower, but they are imperative to disabled handlers to allow communication in many different ways. Maybe the handler can’t remember hand signals so uses a whistle, or uses another method I haven’t mentioned. That is neither negative nor the “fault” of the dog or person. I think it is excessively limiting, and incredibly exclusive to cut out the best method for the individual handler. They would not be allowed to use some of these, which is shameful. Adapting environments isn’t optional, and abled people do not get to choose which tools are right for disabled people.
Recall is probably the thing that becomes least reliable for the majority of dog owners when we introduce distractions and variables. It’s also pretty dangerous, in my opinion- that this exercise is on the test. The false sense of security that many dog owners get when they “pass” this exercise has definitely resulted in one or more lost dogs. When major dog experts bill their assessments as certifications of achievement, they are positioning it as “official” validation that the dog possesses this skill. There are problems with this that we have already discussed, but we haven’t yet talked about how white dog culture has created the idea that dog spaces need to be always off leash and “free”. The use of public land by many includes allowing their dog to run free regardless of the use permitted in that park. But I am not opposed to breaking the rules, we should have better and more public lands available to all members of our communities. The reason that I find this behavior problematic is that it forces everyone else to also engage with you, and your dog. As a purely colloquial example: I live within a short walk to the T station. There are times I cannot walk the public walking path to the T station because there are so many off leash dogs I am physically unable to navigate through with my working dog. Rio is fine, but there are too many variables for it to be safe for either of us. When your dog is off leash and has only practiced recall to pass the Canine Good Citizen test, it likely will fail to come in favor of any number of engagements with the outside world, including other dogs and people. With allergies, fears, phobias, etc- this can create a hostile environment in outside spaces. There is a breadth of reporting on the epidemic of off-leash dogs in cities across the country, and just recently in my local area a child was bit in a non-off leash sanctioned space by a dog in this position. When we layer in traffic, it’s playing with fire for your dog, and your community to have a recall. This is not the sole responsibility of the AKC or the CGC- but it can be a contributing factor to handlers deciding to let their dogs off leash unprepared. The number of times someone has yelled at me “She’s friendly, it’s ok!’ and then “She’s trained she has her canine good citizen” in some variation is not zero, and that is telling.
As we get into the final sections of the Canine “good citizen” it seems we are finally into some territory where there is good sense, and great practice. The next section is a greeting with someone who has a neutral dog, without engagement. It would be excellent if all handlers with dogs were able to shake hands several feet away with their dogs on loose leash without reactions. I still think this creates unnecessary hierarchy for reactive dog owners who may need additional accommodations to keep their dogs below stress threshold in this type of scenario. That doesn’t make their dog training “less than”. But I also think that practicing this skill is very valuable and incredibly uncommon. More often, what I see is that neighbors allow their dogs to greet first, mixing on leash with high tension and alert tails. As dog professionals, we should be teaching people to learn to read their dogs behavior when engaging with other dogs and teaching them that they need permission from us prior to engaging. We may not have time to say hello on a walk, may not enjoy the neighbor they want to say hi to, or may not trust the dog they show interest in. We need to emphasize neutrality in order to prevent over excitement and accidents and we aren’t doing that at all as a dog culture. We promote hyper-sociability, off-leash play, and over stimulation and as the gold standard for dog behavior and the dogs suffer because of it.
The last two sections are really about assessing a dog’s emotional regulation- though I would argue at this point, you can’t get a fair shake at knowing what that dog is capable of. During the course of the assessment we have sent so many mixed messages about what the expectations are- and now we are headed into “unknowns” which feels really unfair to the dog. Many times when I have seen this test administered (not all), the dogs practice with specific types of distractions (dropped food, a specific loud noise), and so they have an ideal response. This behavior isn’t proofed to completion, so it once again leaves them unprepared when an actual bagpipe band enters a nursing home (yea, this happened to us!), but it’s a start. I think about all the ways that we work with our service dogs, and all of the different stimuli that we expose them to- and how very well they regulate based on these experiences. I want that for all dogs and I don’t think that, honestly- it’s too high of a hill for many training programs to do better for pet dogs. We don’t need to have so many thunder phobias, firework nightmares, skateboard chasers etc. But it takes a lot more than one afternoon of dropping a metal bowl on the floor for a loud crash, I’ll say that. The final test is handing off your dog for a short period of time and examining for anxiety. Sigh. I just think that this is a weird attachment assessment with little value. Put them in a crate and see if they can settle. I mean it! Who honestly cares if you can hand off your leash to someone unless you are a service dog handler or take a lot of training classes?? No one. Test crate training for stability. Can the handler safely crate their dog and their dog will settle within the same time frame without showing urgent distress? This is a better test for emergency situations, including rescue workers getting your dog out of a fire- or staying in an emergency shelter. This is also a better assessment for staying at a veterinarian or groomer!
When we think about “canine citizenship”, what are we thinking of? I am thinking of the ways in which we, as humans, can live more full lives with our dog partners. I’m not thinking of more certificates I can hang in my house, adding more letters after my highly pedigreed dogs (sorry breeders, I’m just not). I care about my dog’s pedigree because I care about their health testing, behavioral markers, confirmation, bitch stress, and raising style. I don’t use AKC testing because it intentionally alienates my entire community, service dog handlers- while reducing their incredible skills down to sound bites for pet dogs. It endangers handlers, dogs, and communities under the guise of training. And until the AKC starts actively working to actually include the rest of us (including tools, wearing masks, creating disability friendly spaces, acknowledging reactive dogs) and creating appropriate standards I’m out. I’ve got so many better things to do.
I do my best to copy edit but you will absolutely find mistakes. It's a blog, friends.
One of the things I have thought most intensely about for the Ruff Translating service dog program is the way in which we approach “pairing” as a multi-year process, and not just a few week transfer of skills from the program trainer to the new handler. In many “program” style service dog training organizations, the trainers will complete the baseline training with a dog- and then there will be an abbreviated, but intense period of time that the trainer teaches the new handler how to “operate” the dog. The process is often referred to as “pairing” and can include everything from making sure the dog is a good personality fit for the handler, to public access practice, to teaching a new handler the basic care of a dog. This concept as a few week (max) crash course with no follow up support is incredibly common and exhausts me on multiple different levels.
I don’t think that just practicing the commands and learning basic dog cognition is enough for service dog teams to be successful. Obviously, a service dog needs to be highly obedient and the handler needs to be familiar with the ways in which dogs learn to troubleshoot as well as keep training in tip top shape. What this “program” process neglects and what irks my spirit (and frankly common dog sense) to core- is building communication between handler and dog and then following through to actively shifting from performance to partnership. What do I mean? An excellent example came to me in a recent lesson with an about-to-graduate team. We were working out in public, specifically around focus with one of the dog’s favorite distractions- children. I am exacting about the dogs I work with in how they behave with any level of distraction- and so certainly I was expecting to walk into this lesson to troubleshoot obedience. What I saw though, (thank you, dear autism for your incredible pattern recognition gift)- was more about the way that the tenor of the relationship changed with the introduction of this specific stimulus.
I like to imagine the connection between service dog and handler as a living link, as sturdy and alive as a vine. For a moment, let’s picture what this connection looks like as a physical manifestation. Picture a shimmering strand running from the heart and mind of a human, with a million different tiny threads across the person’s body woven into a cord that stretches across the open space to the body and mind of the service dog- a different shade of thin cord so multiple in it’s connections it looks like a spiderweb emerging from the dog. The point in between contains both sets of thousands of threads- and is woven together so seamlessly you don’t notice the different shades coming from each organism at first. The link bends, it tightens together, it stretches apart- sometimes it frays, and you can see a few knots tied for extra strength.The knots look like they are breathing in and out as they adjust to the pressure of the outside environment- they don’t look at weak points but rather like they are built for reinforcement and lasting success. It seems to have no limits with how far it can stretch, but the link is also bouncy in movement- when it stretches apart the bond applies light pressure and the two organisms snap back together easily.
I see tending this link is my most important job as a service dog trainer- until the handler is ready to take care of the link independently. What I am looking for in “tending” this link- is not just command response, or tasking skill- but that when there is pressure on the link from outside sources (distractions, home life, disability progression)- the link takes those distractions in stride and can handle the pressure without snapping. The link between the handler and dog is woven together through experiences, practice, learning with each other, and fostering understanding for each other across species lines. I tend the link through recommending boundaries around socializing with dogs/other people during training and working, training exercises intended to create focus and communication, teaching dog cognition, being dogmatic in intentions for a radically disability positive experience and changing aspects of our trajectory in training based on accessibility, and many other ways over the course of the work with each handler. Many, many of my handlers have heard me exclaim, often too loudly, “we have to prioritize the bond!” which is the language I’ve used before to talk about the aforementioned link. I think “link” is a much more useful semantic here, most dogs are very bonded to their people regardless of training- but the service dog and handler link is an intentional connection that requires fostering beyond proximity, snuggles, and snacks. There are some really involved dog training techniques I could devolve into here on how to do this successfully. But we will save that for another day.
So now we are back, in this lesson with a team whose link is well tended from the last 2+ years of our collective journey and frankly no longer needs my interrupting hands in the way. My goal right now is just to prove that to them. Two kids walk past in a grocery store- and the dog shows alert and attention towards the distraction. His heel position is fine, his attention isn’t phenomenal but not completely overwhelmed. Recently he did get overwhelmed, and his obedience faltered which severely taxed his handler’s stress level. That was layered over of some life's happenings and then some of my least favorite words in dog training were sent my handler’s way, “if you are anxious your dog will be anxious”. Y’all, this is ableism plain and simple. Your dog does not have to be anxious automatically if you are. If they were- why the hell would we use them to manage mental health? To be an impeccable dog handler does not mean you are always “in control” of your emotions.I watched my handler go through this idea someone threw at her- physically. Her tension escalated the second she saw kids- before even the dog, her shoulders got crunchy. I could feel her anxiety from across the store. But that doesn’t have to be a failure for her and the dog at that moment. She doesn’t need to “get it together”. She doesn’t need to over-control her dog. I am a frequently dysregulated person, from a lifetime of cPTSD layered with nuerodivergency. I am not always in a good state of mind for any dog, nevermind my own service dog. But I am exceptionally dependable in how I communicate with my dogs, and my behaviors towards them are incredibly consistent. That, and building my link to each dog on a galaxy of experiences and not just my bad moments, is the framework for the present. So we co-regulate. I don’t need to be the false idea of a leader. I just need to be honest, with myself and the dog. If the link were again made visual- it would look bunched up, tight, and the threads coming from the brains of both organisms would be frantically gasping for tension to control the link. This, this is the moment where there is a difference between tending that link instead of “dog training” as we think of it in terms of command and response.
The human of the team starts looking to me for solutions, when to correct for obedience, she is rapidly looking for a food lure. But that is not at all the root of what needs to happen. Yes, of course- we use our tools to regain control of an actual animal in a public store. Everything isn’t this beautiful concept of a team moving in tandem- there are practical things that must happen so that the dog behaves to our high collective standard near children, food, carts– the works. We have to address the behavior of very light leash leaning (and we do). Then I switch gears to actually addressing why this is a point of conflict for them. I tell the handler to just move, just continue with her own presence. This was interpreted initially as “running away” by the handler, but that’s not what I mean at all.
When the handler starts to disengage from the small distraction picture and trusts that she is not “in training” with her dog (ie: working on his focus only, getting him comfortable with gear, checking his tasking etc) that precious link, that is all of the experiences up to that moment, then responds to the tension in her movements. Tension is just tension- not good or bad. She puts pressure on the link to stay with her, in the moment of “grocery shopping” simply by continuing to exist outside of the “training” moment. The dog relaxes, resumes offering heart rate alerts, and with a few more gentle reminders goes into a state of excellent interest in the outside environment without being over excited. As the handler starts moving, and stops “training” her dog- but utilizing the link and instead reinforcing the training, the dog is a different animal. Truly, he relaxes into their link as much as she does. This does not mean there will never be any obedience blunders, or moments where a dog is distracted. We are all in variable states of success at any given thing- and dogs are no different. That cheesy line of “your best looks different everyday” is the truth. There is no such thing as a perfect service dog. There is a well trained service dog and well tended link. In social media we so often see these posts of a service dog constantly staring deep into the eyes of their handler while moving, maintaining a full focused heel. As a professional dog trainer, and as a service dog handler, I call bullshit and also ask, why? A focused heel is a useful obedience skill. Offered eye contact from a service dog, with no reward exchange consistently required- is vastly different from maintaining a focused heel for some unknown reason while walking through a grocery store. I want to see a dog who is checking in on AND with their handler frequently, and a handler who is relaxed enough in regards to their link to be present with their dog without being constantly “in training” mode.
I absolutely expect my service dog to follow my obedience cues, give me eye contact when asked, etc- but I also live within the link we have worked so hard to form. Most of the time, I don’t need a ton of verbal commands while we are out because I trust she knows the expectations, knows she will be rewarded when she offers those behaviors, and I feel confident enough in our communication to navigate tricky decisions. I am happy to give her a subtle reward or correction when she makes choices. Rarely do I ever give her a right or left heel position cue unless I see an obstacle that I want her in a specific position for even then she is usually there before I ask. She holds her own preference of a right or left side in any environment, moves when asked, and is absolutely allowed to perk up her ears and notice something. I lean on our link, not away or towards anything but into each other. She chooses the link too, and we move through the world. She has no reason not to- the link is as comfortable and safe as it is for me. She isn’t hyper focused on food, she doesn’t beg or attention seek, she just moves. The explanation for her consistency is that she knows she will get a reward if/when she goes above and beyond our link or just for a job well done. But the relationship is no longer strictly transactional. She is allowed to be both interested in the world around her, and expected to still choose her service dog work when needed. Achieving this still requires us to tend our link, together- do those tune up training exercises, practice things, continue to learn. Tasking for a service dog is a set of skills, and I strongly recommend brushing those up to any team, from time to time. However, outside of that, committing to a pairing process that takes the appropriate amount of time with the amount of dedication is the difference between the optics of an “obedient” dog – and the decision making of a unified service dog team.
Addendum: This way of conceptualizing training is imperative to service dog work, but it is also incredibly useful for training non-working dogs. You can have a "link" with ANY dog, not just those skilled in disability assistance.As per usual, prioritizing accessibility and non-conformity offers unique insights into success for everyone.
Everyday we are faced with a new horror in the US. There are mass shootings and judges making life more unbearable for huge swatches of the public. There are incidents of queer pride events being attacked and white supremacist marches are a reality in Boston and other cities. Failure to protect against COVID has killed over a million people and counting. When Trump was elected, many of us who have experienced oppression knew that this was where this would lead, which is why we struggled with those who dismissed our concerns. One might think that my industry (dog training/dog service providers) wouldn’t be necessarily impacted by the attempted facist takeover of the United States. But the thing about oppression is- it’s a mist or a dense fog that obscures truth and justice across all things within the environment and not just direct personal relationships.
It’s easy for some to see how white supremacy reproduces in environments of big banking, police forces, sports teams… but dog training? I have heard Black and Indigenous people discuss their cultural relationship to dogs, and the myriad of ways they experience supremacy within the dog culture. However, when I start those conversations with fellow white dog professionals- their eyes often go dead and so does the conversation. That isn’t a reason to stop, of course, but it is interesting how very protective white dog service providers are of the “de-political illusion of dog training”. Everything is political and impacted by systemic white supremacy, whether we acknowledge it or deny it. Dog training is a reproduction of larger societal oppression.
Historically speaking, the colonizing Europeans were not as integrated with dogs.They didn't use them in the same ways until they stole the concepts from Indigenous and African cultures. Across the globe, dogs have co-evolved with people in unique and powerful ways. They have developed features that we find non-threatening. They have developed traits of friendliness as part of their survival technique. Humans have long used their powerful noses to track game and tell us environmental information. Many, many cultures have lived harmoniously with dogs as protectors, providers, comfort, for hunting assistance and pack animals. When I say “pack animals'' I am referring to using dogs to haul essentials over distances. Examples of how cultures have capitalized on our relationship with dogs includes sled dogs, or Indigenous cultures who hooked dogs to land (instead of snow) sleds or in other regions packed their dog’s backs during seasonal moves. With the onset of the capture and hostage of Africans forced into slavery- another thing that was stolen were breeds of dogs- trained in various skills including as an aid when hunting intimidating tresspassor animals, or larger prey. The slavers then used those same dogs to enforce their will on people, starting intentional collective trauma around dogs for members of Black communities throughout the U.S.
It doesn’t just “stop there”, when colonizers invaded the now-United States- many Indigenous cultures lived with dogs as part of their spiritual and cultural practice. Institutionalized violence and erasure has left many of the crucial Indigenous understandings of dogs only preserved through oral tradition- and we should be elevating those voices now so that we can honor those cultures and promote the messages from teachings through the next generations. One of the most advantageous aspects of Tik Tok for me as a dog professional is access to Indigenous leaders who are generous with their oral histories. But as a white dog professional, it is not my job to take those cultures and package them for whiteness- but rather work to abolish the dog culture that does not allow Indigenous dog understanding to flourish and be documented for the next generation of Indigenous youth. My job as a white dog professional is to disrupt the whiteness of dog culture and use my race privilege to create space for something inclusive, where BIPOC leaders can emerge.
Moving forward in history- slave-catchers came onto the scene of early emancipation and the creation of and facilitation of the Underground Railroad. Dogs were once again used to track, abuse, and torture those humans escaping slavery. Whiteness as a concept has always been appropriative- and slavers used powerful dogs against the people to control them and force submission. We still see this tactic used today with police k-9s. The continuation of violence has very little disruption, and our society uplifts police dogs, military dogs, etc. as the pinnacle of obedience training. There is ample cultural ridicule for those who use dogs for other purpose bred activities (for example outdoor housed livestock guardian dogs), or those who use balanced tools (like e collars and prongs). As slave-catchers have grown into foot patrolmen and ultimately into police departments they have held true and perfected using dogs as weapons against communities of color. This abuse of power further ruined (and continues to ruin through to today) the bond between BIPOC and dogs through violence and barely controlled aggression.
We see an extension of this thinking and control later in Europe, with the formation of the RSPCA. Rescues and animal rights organizations are often ridiculed for extreme positions in food production, but we are less likely to challenge anthropomorphic beliefs when it comes to dogs. I am a believer that one of the reasons for this is our inherent biological connection to dogs (we actually release familial bonding hormones on eye contact)- but it is also a continuation of seeing any living being as more valuable than Black, Indigenous, and POC bodies, and centering whiteness. One of the original founding principles of the RSPCA was to eliminate working dogs among the working class- under the guise of dog abuse. I am certain that there were very good reasons to improve the conditions of some dogs in working environments. I have met many well intentioned people who were actively causing harm to dogs throughout my career as a trainer. But that does not excuse the class warfare waged by the elite in removing working dogs from homes that depended on them. During this period of time (17-1800s), dogs and horses were crucial partners in agriculture and industry for many small tradespeople. The SPCA as it was first known (the R added in 1840) was founded on the principle of removing ponies from the coal mines, but not on improving working conditions for the human lives also in the “pits”.
The history of using dogs to abuse communities of color can not be contained by one white, non-historian, foray into the history of dogs within human cultures globally. That being said, what I can say is that I see these problematic tactics and views impacting dog culture today.
As an example, let’s just take the category of “service dogs”. We can see how the experience of whiteness is privileged and training is inaccessible to most. The passing of the American with Disabilities Act was revolutionary, and disabled community members fought with valor to have these very basic provisions protected by law. In our current judicial system, combined with a global pandemic- it is likely a target we all should be watching as we march down the road of rights revision. That being said, it was very limited in the ways in which it described access needs- centering on those needs of white veterans. Those needs were very real but they also did not go nearly far enough in protecting those with intersectional identities and differing access needs. The concept of service dogs, specifically for the use of psychiatric disabilities- has only more recently than the ADA signing in 1990 been more thoroughly advocated for. Even “just” trauma of lived oppression without additional diagnosis or comorbidities is very real, documented, and, in my professional and lived experience- can be assisted in management with a highly trained service dog.
One of the advantages of the regulations of the ADA, is that owners are allowed to self-train their dogs. Why is this advantageous? The vast majority of service dog organizations have a several year wait, and most are trained as “program” dogs. Some cost tens of thousands of dollars outright. The impact of this is that they are either fiscally inaccessible by many disabled people, or- and here is the most important part- the dogs are donated but not tailored and paired to their individual handler fully. The dogs are seen as a product for sale or donation- and those trainers are not focusing on creating a stable TEAM of individual and dog.
When a dog is trained to do a specific task, they are more responsive to the individual who trained them on that task, unless time and patience are dedicated to transferring that skill over the handler. At RT, the pairing portion of our service dog program often lasts 3-6 months. Compare that with a program dog, a dog that is “fully trained”, and the organization does a rudimentary 1-2 week “training” to teach the new disabled handler how to use their medical device. This creates this weird barrier between dog and person- and again, in my experience does not empower a disabled handler to actually be able to fully use the incredible skills of a service dog. When you layer this model into the existing systems of oppression- where most of the programs are geared towards white veterans- and there is a consistent shaming of disabled people for “not knowing” how to work their dogs… it’s a nightmare and of course many disabled people who live at points of intersectionality are not going to be able to access this process at all. It is a system fully built on police-style training (which comes back to slave catchers), military privilege for access, and relies heavily on donations to groups dedicated to supporting veterans. Now listen, I am fully in support of veterans having fully trained service dogs. But I am not in support of ONLY white men veterans having access to program dogs- with a few “diversity” spots thrown in for optics. When individuals opt out of this model, they resort to online training tips, youtube videos, and books. It is often not nearly enough, and frequently those individuals end up with dogs who are not fully prepared for the work they need to do. The public image of a well trained service dog becomes softer, less helpful, more companion based in most cases. I even know of multiple dog-training facilities that offer “service dog training classes”, that barely have a concept of the disabling conditions they are helping to manage with dogs- never mind adapting their classes to actually be accessible and effective training tailored to an individual disability need. I meet multiple service dog “trainers” who confuse the roles of therapy and service dogs readily. I recently even had a conversation with a former service dog trainer where they admitted they stopped training because they “don't know how to deal with disabilities''. Which they said to me, a service dog handler with multiple disabilities. Ableism within dog training is the nasty decedent of everything we have covered here and deserves its own rant entirely. I believe disabled people deserve better, and we absolutely have to stop operating with the paradigm of white supremacy within dog culture.
So what do we do, as white professionals who recognize that competitions, breeding, access, training, rescues all of it- have been constructed within the tenancy of slavery and genocide?
I do not have all of the answers, but I do have some ideas. We need to promote those BIPOC dog professionals who are also seeking to train with cultural competence. We must create spaces for classes, lessons and programs where it’s not just “welcoming” or friendly, but intentionally inclusive. Our shops should demonstrate that we are safe for those with intersectional identities through messaging, staff education, staff diversity, including diverse leadership and diverse mentorship. We must divest from military and police trainers entirely- including those white trainers who tangentially promote those military/police trainers.We have to stop creating meaningless certifications that don’t tell us anything about what the dog and person do outside of the training ring. We must hire new tradespeople who are BIPOC and promote them, sharing generously the knowledge of training that we do have. We must learn how to train high performing service dogs while teaching the handlers accessibility in caring for, and independently working with their own dogs. It can not just be optics- it has to be in every way we talk about dog culture. Whiteness as a construct stole dogs from many people, and if we are to be stewards of change- we absolutely have to create space for BIPOC folks to reshape current dog culture. This doesn’t mean we white people can’t own or train dogs. What it does mean is that we need to rethink what we qualify as good training- and center that perspective not on “achievement” within competitions or certifications- but on how very connected the person and dog are in front of us. That is training success. And that is also how we evolved alongside dogs. We need to relearn dog training through mutual aid, living in the present, and constantly checking in our communication, not through demonstrations of power over an animal- or incredible anthropomorphizing dogs over the needs of humans.
There is a viral tiktok that has several variations of a Black dog trainer talking about what “white women” will do for a dog in a comedic way. It’s hilarious because it is absolutely true. I have known many, many feminists, radicals, leftists, extremeists, right wing enforcers- but most of them pale in comparison with the absolute dedication of white women to the concept of dog rescue and dog welfare. The passion, I understand. I am pathologically obsessed with all things dog. I have a personal goal (and years of running success) of reading a minimum of 10 dog behavior/cognition/biology/psych books annually. I wear stupid dog themed teeshirts and even oven a pair of sneakers with dogs printed on them. But over the years I have steadily moved away from white dog rescue culture. I have seen how the requirements for adoption are classist and often racist, the over-humanization of the needs of dogs, and the money trail involved has corrupted the idea of “rescuing” dogs. “Rescue” remember- was founded by eliminating dogs as our working partners. As we have discussed removing dogs as working partners has its root in colonization- and in the abuse of Black and Indigenous communities.This doesn't mean I don’t love rescue dogs- in fact I have only met maybe a few dogs over the course of my life that I didn’t adore. What it does mean is that I can’t turn off the knowledge of how rescue culture reproduces oppression in the very nature of its operation. Divesting from white dog culture means looking at ways that we can actually teach people to better care for their dogs- rather than ship them to a more privileged area for adoption. There is an organization, ChainFree Knoxville, that aids their communities in fencing in their yards and providing necessities to get dogs off of chain-tie outs. They provide safe, weather appropriate housing, chain link, food, dishes, toys, secure doors, etc- so that the dogs who are loved have a higher standard of care than is currently accessible to their owners. THIS is the model of change I can get down with. This allows us space to teach people how to live with dogs, rather than pulling them from situations. Of course- I’m not talking about hoarding situations, or extreme abuse. I am talking about poverty and lack of access/knowledge- neither of which are shameful or a crime.
If we really want to rescue dogs, we have to start first with helping people, and seeing ourselves not just as experts in what dogs need- but more so as facilitators in helping keep dogs and people together and getting dog needs met. And as white dog professionals, we have to realize that just because we don’t know the history of dogs in other cultures doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, and more so- that there isn’t something necessary to understand even if unfamiliar. What are we waiting for? Isn’t this the whole point? To live harmoniously with dogs as stewards and partners?
I firmly believe so and I hope you do too.
The thing is, sometimes your goal works too well, the vision of success comes to the forefront and you are struck with “well now what?”.
When I founded Ruff Translating, it was really just about making sure I had a safe and reliable place to work in the dog industry, after years of working in challenging environments or as an independent contractor. RT has been my business in two other states before we landed (and settled) here. I extended my goals in Boston to help further my trade, and support other young professionals in their career development. Over the last two years, RT has graduated 2 apprentices (Sam and Michelle) and moved the very first apprentice I worked with in Boston (Cara) into a leadership position. Now, two of these professionals, Cara and Sam, have decided to take their show on the road and though we are deeply sad to see them go, we are so impressed by who they are and what they will bring to the world within our trade or not.
It’s hard to say now, wow, this really worked well, and at the same time realize that there are drastic changes to your own day to day operation as a result of being successful. This separation is absolutely what happens when mentoring goes right- but that doesn’t mean it’s not also a challenge to envision what RT looks like without these crucial people.
As many of our clients know, RT has had several big changes this year, in part because I have gone through several health changes that have impacted how I work. I also have turned my personal focus to specifically growing our service dog program as part of my professional development. It has long been a dream of mine to refocus my career to partner specifically with folks with disabilities in their journey to become service dog handlers. This year, I can proudly say that I achieved the goal, and nearly all of my appointments are with service dog clients mixed with a smaller few of my beloved behavior client babes. As this year has progressed, I also now have to face heavy decisions on how my health impacts how many hours I can work, how many staff we can take on, train, and provide support , to name a few considerations. This also means that as trainers with other specialties move on, we have to decide how that impacts our own shop and the services we provide. All of this is to say: it is a bit unexpected, but RT is changing.
We will be slowly winding down our more intensive behavior modification work and focusing our business on recently adopted dogs with behavior shaping (growth and development of puppies, building confidence, resolving lower level anxiety) rather than modification (aggression, severe anxiety, long term management needs), general training, and primarily: service dog training. This is not at all what we saw happening in two years of opening, in fact my business plan draft didn't even include SDITs as a primary program- but as with most things in our pandemic era, we absolutely have to be flexible and change based on the realities of each current situation. We anticipated behavior modification at the highest level would be a program we continued with, but life has handed us other plans and we have to be realistic about what that means for our small business when our two incredible behavior modification specialized trainers are moving on.
So let’s get to the questions you undoubtedly have.
If you are a current client of RT, including those dogs who are currently using more intensive behavior modification services, we are more than thrilled to continue offering Private Lessons and Muttessori Academy to your pups. We will still have open lesson spots for existing clients but are also happy to provide you with Cara or Sam’s contact information should you wish to continue private lessons with them. Muttessori spots are not contingent on training with RT specifically if you are an existing client. We see Cara and Sam each as individual preferred referral providers moving forward with new inquries with those specific more hands-on intensive, aggression potential, behavioral health needs, and appropriate trainers to still have their clients in our day train program.
As Michelle has now graduated from her apprenticeship, we will be opening up her schedule with additional time slots. Michelle is seeking to have her speciality also grow into the service dog program, so as RT continues that will remain a thriving part of our work. Her experience also makes her a great trainer for our existing behavior modification dogs who wish to stay within RT. We also will continue to be so appreciative of referrals to RT with new adoptions, shy dogs, fearful dogs, puppies, and fundamental training.
Please join us in wishing Cara and Sam all of the best in their careers, Cara’s final day with RT will be June 10th, and Sam’s final day will be July 8th. They are working on their individual next steps, and in the meantime you can contact them with the information we provided below. We are currently in the process of interviewing additional trainers to join the team with Ejay, Michelle and Kim to continue to provide as many Muttessori spots as we can!
If you have questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Ejay, Cara, Sam and Kim are all happy to answer any questions and truly reiterate that this is a collaborative separation, and are all in support of each other’s success moving forward.
Cara's email address post 6/10:
Sam's email address post 7/8:
The alarm went off ten minutes ago and I’m still pinching my eyes closed b/c maybe, just the extra five minutes will be the difference in the headache I already have lessening, or not. That’s fantasy of course, but the chronically ill can dream. I hear my service dog groaning, literally groaning, from the other room. She is fine, just impatient for her morning out and her breakfast. I can’t blame her, and drag myself upright. Once I’m up, I confirm that yea, today is a headache day that will likely mutate to a nasty migraine before I’m through. I take the dogs all out to potty, prep their breakfast and get down my first round of meds for the day, adding in some tylenol for the headache with the usuals. One of my meds, a 4X a day liquid has to be consumed 30 minutes before I eat and taken in a full glass of water. I let the tap run for a few moments so the water is ice cold and I can avoid the bitter aftertaste.
The dogs are ready to be let out from breakfast in their crates, and I put coffee on. I have 110 text messages of varying degrees of actually needing to be read, 15 messages in FB, and a bunch of more social notifications. Over coffee I fire off answers to dog questions, mostly about poop, if I am honest. Usually those texts include photos which are both gross and useful. I am not a vet, but I am a person who reads dog biology books for fun. The thing about being a walking text book is that… you are a resource. My wife prods me to eat something. I continue to work on emails and messages until about 30 minutes before we are due in the shop. My stomach graciously allows me to eat one frozen waffle without flipping out or my esophagus swelling shut, so big win there. I live with mast cell activation syndrome, as well as eosinophilic esophagitis, which means that my body responds to food (at this point, all food) as though it is a foriegn body and has an allergic response. It’s a challenge and requires a pretty intensive management. I also take 4 other prescriptions on a daily basis to manage symptoms, and we are still working out how to help my body deal with this condition best.
We get into the shop, where the team of trainers is already hard at work running Muttessori Academy. I check the white board where we keep track of the day for who is at school, and who has not had their trainer session yet. Cara has been in since 7:30 a.m. so there is a plan laid out for a morning theme, and a rough plan for group activity in the afternoon. Michelle and George start group walks, so there are pups in varying states of their day, all working on handler engagement and dog neutrality as well as whatever the focus is on in their sessions. It’s a bustle, really noisy, and most of us on the team identify as nuerodivergent, and are pretty sound sensitive. We have coping strategies but it’s also not usual to see me with my ears plugged for just a minute, or for someone else to lose it and yell in no general direction. All is understood to be the best anyone has to give at the very moment, which in itself is something to be grateful for. I move right into service dog training, there are plenty of service dog candidates in the shop today along with our general training and behavior modification programs.
It’s about noon when I finish up my morning training sessions, and about twelve thirty when the walks are all done. It’s lunch break for the entire team. Next door in our expansion space where we have our staff break room, some of the trainers are gearing up their own dogs for a mid day walk, and some are making lunch and sitting down for a very well deserved rest. I have to wait for my next round of medication to kick in before I eat, which I just chugged down quickly before gearing up my own dogs for a quick walk. While out, Kim mentions to me that we need to get on a call right when we get back to talk with a client about their upcoming service puppy adoption. We hurry back, and chat with the new client for thirty or so minutes. Questions answered, I glance at my emails again and flag messages that still need replies from from the morning or since I’ve arrived at work. There are 8 messages in paragraph form that I copy/paste into my to-do list so I don’t forget that those probably need a longer email or a voice message.
Sitting down at the lunch table, I’m still too nauseous to eat, and I think I forgot to pee at all today, which happens. I get back up, take care of that misstep and step outside to light a small amount of my medical marijuana to deal with the waves of nausea rolling from my collar bone to my hips.
There’s about 20 minutes left before we need to kick it back into high gear for the afternoon training sessions. While finally getting some food in, I answer few more messages and we watch some stupid tiktoks for a brain break at the lunch table. Lunch is one of my favorite moments with my team. We all enjoy each other’s company, and it is equally likely to find us lively chatting as it is to see a table full of silence. Not the awkward kind, the kind that nuerospicy people live in between engagements to recoup their strength.
At 1:25, Sam puts the kettle on for her afternoon cup of tea. I get up, stretch and sigh dramatically. The afternoon plan is to work on agility stations with all of the dogs. Michelle had a lesson last night, so she is taking some office time to work on her lesson report card while we start afternoon training.
My headache is starting to make a resounding return, so I grab some excedrin and head downstairs to the training floor. Cara is already setting up 3 agility obstacles for the dogs, and setting out 3 place boards. One of the ways that we work with groups is to have a period where the dogs are working on an active activity, and then have them hold “place” while other dog’s take their turn. This balance between passive and active training isn’t just about time management- one of the best tenets of dog training is to teach your dog to settle, and this gives an opportunity to work around upper level distractions.
Each trainer will run the dog student through the agility obstacle for a timed amount of time, and then switch to the next station when the timer goes off. After all 3 stations, the dog will hold place while the next dog rotates through the 3 stations, and then return to their crate. I don’t know of any other training company that runs this way, but it really works for us and allows us to both give individualized attention to each dog, while balancing the entire shop. There is some really great research into the benefits of intensive, short sessions for dog training, and we certainly have found that this method works really well.
I’m looking at one of our regular Muttessori attendees, a young bernedoodle pup with plenty of spice and gangly limbs. We are working on him backing up onto a placeboard, and his legs are confused about how this math works. I bring the food lure into a different position, and he awkwardly lifts his back paw nearly onto the place board. We go through a strange dance of me helping him work through what the goal is, using food as an incentive as well as verbal praise. He gets distracted mid-way through by another young dog who is flouncing through the weave poles with exceptional enthusiasm. Towards the end of the station his focus has returned, and we get at least one decent repetition of the goal of the station. I pat his curly head and move on to teaching him about the very exciting weave poles, most of which end up on the ground because of the flourish with which he uses his tail. We will live to learn about body awareness another day, and as I set him in place after his session, he lays out fully stretched on his side- a clear indication he has hit his limit of physical activity.
The afternoon is a steady rhythm of marker words, a demonstration of patience peppered with the occasional exasperated (reasonable) sigh of a trainer combating teaching across language barriers and specie’s motivations. My phone alarm goes off at 3:15- I have a private lesson at 3:30, and luckily Michelle came down the stairs about 20 minutes earlier having finished her lesson report card. We switch out spots, and I get ready to launch into private lesson mode. I pass George in our tight stairwell, he is leading a dog who got an afternoon bath back down stairs for their training session, smelling fresh as a rose bush. His headphones and both of our masks are on so I squint my eyes in a smile and keep it moving.
The lesson of the afternoon is going to be with a service dog candidate who is struggling with prey drive, and tends to lose focus outside in situations where there are a lot of squirrels, bunnies, small dogs etc. Thankfully, we have just the thing to help work on this. I walk into our in-remodeling-process utility room, where the company guinea pigs are currently playing in their exercise pen. Several months ago, Kim and I adopted a pair of rescue guinea pigs and started working on conditioning them to dog stimulus. They have done absolutely phenomenally well, and help us in lessons on a weekly basis. They are very confident, and generally go about their guinea pig business regardless of what the dog’s response is. Of course, plenty of lettuce helps them stay calm and collected, but they really are an excellent conduit to these crucial skills. Kim has just freshened their home cages as well as their playpen, so they are ready to work. In the front lesson room she has lit a candle so it smells fabulous and tidied up the room in general so it feels welcoming and homey.
I go wash my hands from the afternoon training session, change my mask b/c I have sweat through the old one (a symptom and a side effect for me is that I can’t regulate temperature, and often sweat profusely). Gross, but like- bodies are wild and gross and you just have to deal with it on some level. I wash my face with cool water, pat it dry, and get that fresh mask in place. Then I hit my office because my left knee is absolutely throbbing and throw some THC gel on it to numb it up for the second half of the day. I have a genetic condition called Ehler-Danlos in which my body does not create collagen properly in my connective tissue. Your connective tissue is through your entire body (wild fact- your blood IS connective tissue) so this gene typo means I deal with system wide, full body health issues, including hyper flexible joints that slide out of place with regularity. My left knee is a particular culprit, and while it is still where it should be in terms of basic joint alignment, the grind of the day has it pretty agitated. I chug a glass of water with electrolytes to try and keep the headache and my hydration at bay.
My wonderful SD client is already waiting for me at the Muttessori entrance when I return. We launch right into the lesson and before I know it my phone is buzzing with my alert that I need to wrap up within 10 minutes because my next lesson is arriving. We finish up the last round of an exercise working on impulse control around the guinea pigs, who have been impossibly patient thanks to lettuce and lots of practice. We touch base about homework, and I jot down a few notes in my phone for writing the lesson report card. As we say goodbye, I can see my next client parking their car across the street. I jog to the restroom, Kim has already fed our dogs in their crates and Rio is begging me to take her out quick, the boys will get their own walk. I bring her out to potty and apologize for the long day before taking my next dose of meds and jumping into my next lesson.
The next session’s focus was on mobility tasks, and I am running on steam. I throw on my knee pads to cut down the pressure, and find some inner zen to crush the underlying discomfort. I really am ok, I am pretty self aware about pushing to the limit- this is increasing my pain but there is little way for me to exist that doesn’t increase my pain. Towards the end of my session my migraine is finally giving up the ghost of passing as a headache, and back to a louder growl, threatening to take over coherent thought though, so I end my session on time for once, exactly at an hour and fifteen minutes with a ten minute wrap up for questions. I wave goodbye and all semblance of my client care mask falls down with the shade as I shut it.
Kim is waiting in our office, she finished up check outs, clean up and set up for the following day and is watching some netflix from the recliner I use as my work “desk”. I can tell she only sat down a few minutes before I walked in, assuming I would run later than I said I would. We pack up our dogs, lock all the doors and pile into the car home.
Finally home, it is right about 7:30 pm, though you could tell me it was midnight and I probably would believe you. Our dogs need another potty break, we need shower and dinner. We are both thirsty. I still haven’t finished answering messages from today. After the dogs are tended I drag myself into the bathroom to a nightly shower.
I am on the autism spectrum, and my greatest battle of the wills daily is the shower. I like being clean of course, but the temperature changes are a sensory issue for me, and when I’m already in a higher state of pain, it’s really hard to want any additional unpleasant sensations. I have a very hard time with hot water, and generally only take luke warm showers. I use modified equipment like a shower bench to help ease into the temperature and help with the fatigue at the end of a very physical job. Along with our regular shower head I have a hand sprayer if I am too sick to stand at all in the shower. My second hardest task is eating, which I used to absolutely love but in recent years with the progression of EDS and related complications, I struggle. I drink my next dose of the meds I need to eat still in the shower so I can start the 30 minute wait time. After a pep talk I get through my shower and head to sit down. I play the last round of message catch up for the day, and Kim showers while dinner finishes. At 8:15 we sit down to eat.
My bed time is 9:00pm. I get for a lot of people that seems super early. But in general, I need at least ten hours of sleep to make it through my days, and I often will (even in the middle of a show) just decide I’m done and get ready for bed. I struggle with some insomnia related to my pain issues, and one of the only places I feel relaxed is in my adjustable bed. We saved for months to get a bed that adjusts on top and bottom with a remote, so that combined with a memory foam mattress I can get into a position that is actually able to allow me to sleep. It takes me about 30 minutes to eat, and of course I don’t love going to bed right after eating, but it is what it is today. Kim is in charge of the last dog potty break for the night, and I go brush my teeth, take my last round of meds for the day and get settled in the bed.
The lights are out, and my eyes are covered by the top of a hoodie I’m wearing (I love sleeping with my eyes covered, but not too tightly). My phone is plugged in on silent, though before setting that I hear a few more messages come in. Tonight my head is so painful it’s hard to actually fall asleep but I feel better in the quiet, not moving, and know it will come once my last round of medication eases my muscles into relaxing. I drift off.
Suddenly, I wake up in a fit of pain, disoriented. I’m having a MCAS or EOE flare and my chest and abdomen are extremely uncomfortable. I shuffle out of the bed and into the kitchen, blinking hard as I turn on the light. I try to stretch a little to ease the pain, which doesn’t help. I’m maxed out on those specific medications for the day. I’m so tired, and feeling sick without a way to stop it sends me into a panic attack. My hands are shaking and I can feel my rate starting to race. I go get my service dog who joins me in a huddle on the couch. Between her pressure on my lap and a heating blanket, I start to work through the panic and regain my senses. It’s 2:23 AM. I don’t want to take my emergency panic attack medication because it may make me sleep through my alarm for work the next day, and it’s my turn for the early (7:30 AM) shift. Instead, I again turn to cannabis. I’m not here to debate with anyone whether or not medical marijuana is actually medicinal. It is one of the only tools I have that allows me to continue to work and support my family, and get through the regular amount of pain I cope with. It’s best not to judge others when you can avoid it in my experience. Finally soothed and more comfortable around 3:30 AM, I spend the rest of the night on the couch with Rio.
A typical day for me, when I read it back sounds busy and hard. It is. It is also incredibly rewarding, and there are so many moments I wouldn’t trade for anything. I am extremely fortunate that my work is also a true passion, and I know how rare that is in our current climate. I don’t just love my work, I need it. Though I live with disabilities that daily impact my life, I am more than just cycles of pain and illness. I have dreams, I want to alter the way we think about service dogs, and build an incomparable training program. I want to be a model employer, the kind that folks spend their careers working for because it is a fulfilling choice and a safe place to work. I want to continue to foster the behavior modification program, and see the trainers who now run it primarily continue to develop it into something notable, effective, and accessible for clients. I’m not ready to give any of that up. But I also have real needs, and some days, it just isn’t possible for me to do the work I had planned. Today, it was possible and that's enough.
At 6:00 AM the alarm rings, and I start assessing the day, all over again. It won’t be like yesterday, but it is certain to bring new challenges. I cross my paws I can handle whatever comes next and open my eyes to start the day. Let's go.
Imagine you are treading water. Think of how the water feels underneath you, as you move it around to keep your head above the line.
If this scenario is me, with a high buoyancy body and a background in competitive swimming, I am comfortable for a seemingly endless time. Even now, years later with a physical disability, the water is the place I am most capable. My asthma chills out, my muscles ache less, my joints are less rusty, and I can hold entire conversations upright while treading. I don’t say this to brag, but as a reminder that this is not a talent that comes pre-installed on all people, never mind all swimmers.
My wife is an athlete, like, a real one. The wild kind of athlete that you have to hold back because she will literally throw her body into any activity and master it with little care for her own safety. But you add water, and she sinks like a rock. Truly. We have long joked that my literal only athletic advantage is in water. She can not float on her back, and treading water is a very temporary state.
Now, imagine you are treading water and the waves are rolling into you, slowly slapping against your body. Then the waves get higher, hitting your face. You kick harder, trying to keep your head above the waves. It’s suddenly windy, and you are having trouble keeping your eyes open. You push your legs even harder, trying to reach the shore, and are fighting with every ounce as you hit the beach. You catch your breath, lucky to have made it. Your heart is pounding, and you are exhausted. Gasping, frightened, and safe, you try to catch your breath as adrenaline rushes through every fiber of your being.
What does this have to do with dogs? Everything, if you are talking about muzzles. All of us, dogs included, have a limited available capacity for socialization. In this case, we are comparing social capacity and emotional regulation with swimming, specifically treading water. Swimming is a learned skill, and everyone has a slightly different tolerance for how long they can keep afloat that includes skill-based AND environmental factors. Your muzzle is the life vest you put on your toddler, the one you wear in the deep ocean, the one that any number of folks use to keep afloat.
A muzzle, when trained correctly, keeps a dog both under control, and provides a sense of security for the dog and handler. When you train fully with a muzzle, you can physically see the relief it offers a dog in a higher stress state. Positive association with the muzzle is key in this process -- turning wearing a muzzle into a fun game, rather than a punishment or end of participation. At Ruff Translating, we slowly re-socialize dogs who have reactivity, aggression, or profound anxiety. We regularly use muzzles to indicate to a dog that there are clear boundaries of engagement that, along with spatial work (teaching place, durations, etc.), sets the tone that the only expectation we have of our dogs in small working groups is that they remain neutral. Removing the pressure of engagement helps many dogs, but it is not enough to give “life vest relief” for many dog personality types. As we slowly build up a dog’s tolerance through desensitization and counter conditioning, the muzzle keeps our dogs afloat, ensuring that they don’t make a mistake we can’t correct while they are learning under an elevated but appropriate stress level. Our dogs trust us more in exercise because those dogs that are giving mixed signals about their participation are in the muzzle, which dogs can fathom reduces the ability to bite. We can’t underestimate the perception of the “stable” dogs when working in a group of the dogs who are exhibiting some level of stressed behavior. Muzzle training is an exercise of self control, just as much as it is a safety device. Learning that using one’s teeth/mouth is a generally inappropriate response takes time, and prevention is an important part of making sure dog behavior doesn’t escalate. If you are curious about the number of dog bites in our country, there is a solid amount of data available to sort through.
Muzzles aren’t just a life-saving and injury-prevention measure for dogs in any kind of behavioral development program, though. They are also imperative for emergencies.
Emergencies are the storm in which most dogs cannot swim. The water is too high, too choppy, and often they are suffering some kind of pain at the same time. Even the strongest swimmers will regress to their most reptilian brain: fight, flight or freeze in a state of trauma. We cannot predict how people are going to respond to trauma, and we have no business assuming we can predict it for dogs. If the only reason that you practice with a muzzle is in case you need it for veterinary care, then, great! You have packed the life vest for the waters ahead. I have had to muzzle enough dogs suddenly, without conditioning, because it is an emergency situation. Those situations have been wide and varied, from porcupine quills to car accidents to dog fights. I would absolutely not recommend having to muzzle an in-distress dog without proper training for anyone, let alone non-trainers.
Valuing muzzle training also shows that you are respectful of those who work in animal care. The relief that paints our vet’s face when we show up with muzzle trained dogs is palpable. Regardless of how seasoned you are in dog work, there is always a chance of injury. I have occasionally been bit through muzzles, and muzzles have saved me from injury multiple times. Yes, you can get bit through a muzzle, as your fingers are small enough to fit through nose holes, and dogs can be exceptionally strong. As a lifelong dog professional, when someone is so aversive to muzzle training, it sometimes can make me feel nervous. Not necessarily because I am nervous to work with their dog, but because muzzles don’t automatically mean aversive, and it shows they are not automatically thinking about the care workers exposed to their animal. I say animal intentionally here, because as advanced as the communication is between us and dogs, it is still interspecies and, therefore, fallible. All dogs will bite in the right circumstances. Yes, all of them. Even mine, even yours, and especially if they are remarkably frightened. Using a muzzle shows that you respect both the opinions, and the safety of your service providers, from walkers to trainers to veterinary professionals.
Many folks adopt pups that have trouble learning impulse control, specifically around eating or mouthing. This is a pretty universal experience if you own multiple dogs over your lifetime, and a major health hazard in many cases. Dogs may steal inanimate objects or toys and eat pieces of it, resulting in emergency veterinary care. Oftentimes this is just a developmental period for a young dog or can be resolved to a degree where constant supervision is not necessary. During those training periods, though, a muzzle can be irreplaceable and the absolute best safety device available.
We work as professionals with our clients to teach safe play in muzzles for those dogs who are looking for play social engagement as part of their enrichment. This is not a skill that we take lightly, and is something we would never recommend without trainer assistance. But it is certainly possible, and in so many ways beneficial to dogs learning appropriate social boundaries. It is also a great example of how, when you teach a dog that their muzzle is a positive tool, they are able to fully relax, and even engage in physical play while wearing it. The benefit of this is that it prevents some aspects of escalation, while also helping handlers remain confident and in control.
So why the hesitation? Americans have been conditioned to fear the muzzle, that it indicates “bad” dogs. But all of that is completely cultural and not based in fact. Many European countries actually enforce muzzles on dogs in public transportation and other public spaces. Of course, a muzzle could be used abusively, but so can a leash, food, or any of the other tools we use to train our dogs. A muzzle does not have meaning, to us or to our dogs, until we create an association.
We can decide that we don’t believe the Ameri-centric, hyperbolic, breed-phobic, anthropomorphizing myth of muzzle training. In our shop, we already do. We see our dogs thrive with this support, and watch their confidence improve within groups. The dogs we train at Ruff Translating wag when they see their muzzle because it means fun training games, adventures, and not just hard stuff like veterinary trips. Our staff are more confident working on upper level exercises with dogs who need extra support without having as much risk to themselves or to the other dogs in our care. A calm handler is a better handler, truly. And ultimately, we owe it to each other to muzzle train our dogs. Owning a dog is a responsibility just as much as it is a joy, and we are absolutely the last line of defense for the safety of others (human and animal) and our dogs. Muzzle train, and if you need help, we have an affordable course on our website that gives you everything you need to do it easily at home.
When I first started my dog industry career, intentionally, not as a side gig but as a primary focus, I used to think that dog parks and some random socialization were ok for most dogs. Chances are, unless you have a reactive dog who has had some issues, you may still believe that. Then, I moved to thinking that “all things in moderation” including the dog park was the most logical way to approach training.
I was wrong, and it is ok that I used to think that maybe dog parks could be useful. We are allowed, as human beings with wonderful thinking machines, to change our opinions. In my recent years, however, my opinion has remained really consistent. Dog parks, and random off-leash socializing in general, are bad for American dogs. I am going to be really specific in this, because this is where my career is based, and my understanding of how we treat dogs culturally is appropriate and relevant.
Your dog, even if they are the most extroverted of characters, a gentile, amicable fellow who has never met a foe- is not benefited by running around with the neighborhood random associates in a fenced in area. All it does is create unwanted behaviors, generate exhaustion rather than fulfillment or even enrichment, and perpetuate the notion that all dogs are public property, and should universally be friendlier than the greeter at a local superstore.
I know, it is hard, at first, to imagine that your dog’s social needs are different than our own. And by no means, am I saying that your dog does not have social needs. But what I am saying, is that from a purely training perspective it is my utmost professional opinion that there is no behavioral benefit to a dog park style of socialization- with no breaks in between wrestling sessions, no handler refocus. I can easily think of many reasons that the dog park is harmful. From pathogens causing illness, to overstimulation- most dogs that come to us with “sudden reactivity” have been socialized in dog parks or traditional (open mix) daycares. This has taught many of the pups to be fearful in any dog interaction, because there are no controls to take a minute and calm down in an intense environment. Most handlers do not not know how to advocate for their dogs either, to create that space even with other dogs around for their dog to take a minute, if they are overwhelmed. Play styles among dogs vary widely, and while many dogs are great at negotiating and changing their play to match a mate, there is a greater number who are... not. I count my own pack among the “are not” when they are all together and off leash. They act as a herding pack, moving and separating dogs with the greatest joy- but also a lot of noise and potentially some nipping, which are all recipes for a fight. And where goes one of my dogs, there goes all, and so they stay by me. If we are off leash, it is because we are still under control, and if there is a question about whether or not I am in control, we are on leash.
But this is not just a personal preference of management. Chances are, if you are socializing your dog in a fenced in dog park or are sending to a daycare- your dog also does not recall 100% of the time. Even more so if you use random open air park spaces as a non-designated dog park. We live near to a city park, and regularly go for walks in our neighborhood. In the month since moving to our new place, I don’t think a day has gone by that we haven’t been approached by an off-leash dog with poor recall. I am incredibly fortunate that my pack, after years of hard work, can handle this type of engagement. But only if I remain a strong advocate, and make sure their safety is always my top priority, and never the comfort of the neighbor refusing to follow the leash laws. The legality is not really relevant, but the respect for other’s personal space and safety really is. The majority of dog owners are not going to train a consistent recall. They just aren’t. Why? Well, a lot of reasons, but honestly a lot of it comes down to time and resources. All training is hard, recall being challenging for many to achieve with reliable results. This means that if we do not have consistent recall, and we are using off-leash spaces, designated as such or not, we are forcing other members of the public to engage with our dogs. Between allergies, fears, nusince, safety- this is not just a cute “he’s so friendly!” Or “He just doesn’t want to share his stick/ball/toy!”- this is downright irresponsible and dangerous.
We are ultimately not just the guardians of our dogs, but also stewards of claw and teeth. Accidents happen, and legitimate mistakes occur. That is not what I am talking about. Rather, it is the expectation that your dog should be able to approach any dog it deems interesting, any person that may provide a snack or engagement, and that is the desired standard of behavior. The desired standard of behavior should be that if you are out and about with your dog, your dog is engaging with you, not just the ambient noise. You are your dog’s companion, their bff, and their guide, if they are not looking to you- look to the relationship you have built (or not) with that pup.
There is a social aspect to owning a dog that can’t be neglected when we are discussing the social habits of the American house pup. Many folks find chatting with new friends or neighbors at the dog park fulfilling, especially if their dogs ends up being good play partners. But whose needs are actually being prioritized there? If the humans are receiving the primary benefit, it is not really a dog park. There have to better ways (and we try to lead by example here) to connect folks who are passionate about spending their time together, with their dogs, without penning them in and hoping for the best. It is awesome to have friends who have the same dog interest as you do, speaking from personal experience. It is perfectly acceptable to sometimes hit a friend’s yard and let the dogs run it out together. But it is even better when you have someone who you can count on to help further your relationship with your dog because they are prioritizing the same engagement, and you are enjoying time together working on your handling skills, rather than letting the dogs go completely bananas because it will “wear them out.” Repeat after me: There is no emotional benefit for your dog to be in continued state of exhaustion. Read it again.
I love to work my dogs “off leash”. I believe firmly in ensuring there are less opportunities for failure, and run all of my dogs using an ecollar as a back up to be sure that I am always in complete control of the 12 paws, 3 sets of jaws, and countless stupid animal decisions I have actively chosen to take responsibility for. All of my dogs are capable of being relatively neutral when approached by a strange dog in a non threatening way. But they are the exception, and it takes hours a week to keep them that way. It is an unrealistic expectation for many dogs, through genetics, training or experience.
But what about the dogs with friendships, with relationships? There exists space for that type of work. You can use appropriate off leash spaces, fenced or not, depending on your level of training and public or private areas available. The other hard truth of dogs, is that they are not all universally social. Social behavior exists on a spectrum, with some dogs (Rio Marie Eisen) being HIGHLY social creatures, with much of our training work centering on being focused on a handler, and not always assuming play. Then there are the Swanson types, who, given the opportunity would frankly prefer to throw a lip and herd down a dog then decide whether or not they are a friend. There are dogs that generally do not enjoy the company of other dogs except in very low pressure situations. None of these are behavioral conditions, but all require attention in training.
Over the weekend, I met up with some of our SDIT (service dog in training) handlers for some practice roller skating. We met up in a small skating rink at the end of my road in a public park. This wasn’t a class,or lesson, just a few of them are learning to roller skate, and they all are practicing keeping their dogs focused and settled with upper level distractions as they enter a more intense period in their training. I offered to run everyone’s dogs on my skates, after skating for 10 years I’m pretty comfortable with most dogs on skates at the same time. In the beginning of our meet up, one of the folks had her dog in a tuck in the bench just outside the rink. A local woman approached, with 3 dogs wells over 60 lbs each at the end of their leashes. Let’s keep it short and say that this woman truly believed that the fact that there were multiple service dogs in the same space, and that none of us wanted her pack near us at all, was a crime against humanity. Later in the day, I saw her socializing her dogs in the rink (it has a fence) with other local dogs, using this space as an off leash play area. This right here, is the problem.
As we enter a summer of one of the biggest dog-ownership booms in American history, we are about to have a LOT of public negotiations about engagements between dogs, and handlers. Here are my genuine suggestions to keep you, and your dog safe. It is absolutely going to be a long season of folks coming out of quarantine, and realizing they have very little understanding of how/what their dog needs, for exercise or socialization.
If you need help assessing your dog’s social needs, please reach out! We are here to help you teach, and keep, your dog appropriately socially fulfilled and learning.
Ruff Translating’s Service Dog program has grown substantially, and we are so excited to help more teams reach their training goals and empower folks with disabilities to have further support and independence. To keep this program growing, we thought we would take a minute to go over our Frequently Asked Questions about service dogs! These are helpful for those folks considering a service dog program, as well as those within our community who are in other training programs.
Q. What is a service dog?
A. A service dog is a dog that has been trained specifically to address a minimum of three (3) tasks for a handler with a disability in order to allow them to have more independence. For example, a psychiatric service dog may offer medication reminders or even bring pill bottles. A mobility service dog may help a handler down the stairs or up from a chair. For the full definition of an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) service dog, check out this link. It will answer most common questions about public access, as well!
Q. How much does it cost to train a service dog?
A. This one is tricky to answer. At Ruff Translating, we customize every single service dog’s training to the handler’s individual needs. We find that this not only produces the best results, but allows our handlers to be as involved in the training process as much as they want or are able to. We offer everything from puppy raising, day programs, respite boarding, and private lessons. While we do have a baseline outline of costs we can provide you, it is always just an estimate. What we can promise is that we do not recommend more services than are necessary to achieve your goals and that as a company owned by a transgender person with disabilities and a working service dog, we are very aware of cost limitations. In general, a handler should expect to spend upwards of $20,000 over a two year period to train a service dog. Many handlers choose to do fundraising to help defer those costs. We operate on a pay-per-service system, so payments for your dog’s training are incremental and allow for budgeting.
Q. Do you train rescue or mixed breed dogs for service work?
A. Yes! We do train rescue dogs and mixed breed dogs for service work. All of our service dog candidates are very rigorously screened. We require a two-hour temperament test for any dog that is to be considered for service dog work. If you are thinking of looking for a prospect, we strongly recommend speaking with us first. We will behavior test any dog we can for qualifications. That being said, it is our utmost professional opinion that getting a dog from a breeder produces candidates that are most likely to graduate as service dogs. There are SO many factors that influence dog behavior, and part of that is genetics and even the process of a puppy being weaned! With all of the factors that contribute to training, we really want to have as much information about our puppy service dog in training (SDIT) as we possibly can so that we can ensure a successful team. A dog must be under 18 months old to be eligible for service dog in training screening at RT and preferably under 1 year.
Q. Can you train a service dog for multiple people?
A. No. A service dog is a unique living medical device that is individually tailored to one handler. “Tasks” are behaviors taught to a service dog based on a person’s need for assistance. We have found that households who have multiple members with disabilities, however, often benefit from having a service dog in their home. Ejay’s service dog Rio is known to scent alert other people to panic attacks (when at their home) and offer deep pressure therapy to those same folks. Even with that however, service dogs are deeply bonded to their handlers and should always prioritize that person’s health over every other option to engage.
Q. I would like to get an “Emotional Support Animal.” Do you offer training for that?
A. An “Emotional Support Animal” is not a trained dog by definition. It is more about the individual who owns the dog. “Emotional Support Animal” is a designation a mental healthcare provider can make to establish that a person’s health would benefit substantially by caring for a pet of some kind. We support the use of Emotional Support Animal documentation from healthcare professionals to ensure housing security for an established patient. Otherwise, there is no actual specialized training required for an ESA, and we welcome your dog into our general training services, which can be personalized specifically for your training needs for your ESA. We resist the idea of ESA training as a specific form of dog training, as it is not specialized to have a base universal meaning and often deeply harms service dog handlers with legal access rights to public spaces. As professional service dog trainers, our focus is on making service dogs more accessible to those who would benefit from one as part of their symptom management and ensuring that every dog we work with is working towards being a great neighborhood resident in general in all of our training programs.
Q. What types of service dog training do you offer?
A. We focus on service dogs for mobility and psychiatric assistance. We also offer cardiac alert and support (POTS), seizure alerts and recovery, and blood sugar detection. None of our service dogs are eligible to graduate our program until they demonstrate exceptional public access behavior and obedience and can successfully and reliably demonstrate six (6) -- but preferably eight (8) -- tasks in a distracting environment. If you are looking for a service dog outside of those listed, please reach out, as this is not an exhaustive definition and we may be able to help.
Q. What is the difference between a psychiatric service dog and an “Emotional Support Animal”?
A. An emotional support animal is any animal that has been designated by a mental health professional to provide a benefit to their owner’s health by being a part of their home and life. A psychiatric service dog is a dog who is trained to assist with psychiatric disabilities through concrete tasks and is highly trained to perform their work in any environment.
Q. How long does it take to train a service dog?
A. It varies, but generally, it takes 18 to 24 months to fully train a service dog. Many of our dogs that we begin work with at 8 to 12 weeks are able to graduate just before the two year mark, but it truly depends on each handler and dog. For our dogs that are primarily mobility support, graduation times are delayed so that we can confirm growth plate closure, do necessary physical conditioning, and ensure that conformation and body condition are ready for physical tasks.
Q. Do you have service dog classes?
A. No, we do not. We do group training on occasion with multiple handlers and have frequent gatherings that are social and training practice combined. We firmly believe that service dog training should be focused on the individual and candidate dog as a partnership -- kind of like coaching a competitive dance team. You *could* learn through a ballroom class, but if you are shooting for that big trophy, you and your partner definitely are doing a lot more work together without other teams distracting your trainer. We really want to give you our full attention, and adjust our lesson plans based on your learning style and disabilities so that you have the most success and support.
Q. Are you committed to Ruff Translating continuing to grow less ableist and more accessible?
A. YES. We fully understand that we only have our own lived experiences and commitment to learning to base our program on. We are constantly looking at ways that we can grow our inclusivity and are open to feedback when we’re not mindful of our own privilege. Our deep commitment to highly trained psychiatric service dogs -- including scent marking for panic attacks -- comes from Ejay’s personal disabilities and the desire to remain consistently accountable to disability inclusivity and health management options for mental health.
Q. What are your COVID-19 protocols?
A. We take COVID-19 safety extremely seriously. Our protocols change depending on the risk level of our location during a specific time, and we update through emails and social media when we make a change. We seek the advice of public health experts within our community to ensure that we are always doing “best practices” as much as possible. Regardless of our current protocols, the entire facility is sanitized daily, masks are always required for staff and clients, we use a professional laundry service for towels, blankets, etc, and have a professional cleaning company come in three times a week to clean on top of our general routines. We understand that part of being an ally to our community, and particularly to those with disabilities, is holding ourselves to keeping our personal risk low and following the best practices available to reduce risk of transmission.
Q. Do you train service dogs for youth?
A. We train service dogs for youth on a case-by-case basis. Training a service dog for someone under the age of 19 requires a substantial amount of support. If you are a caregiver interested in discussing whether a service dog would be a good fit for a young person, we recommend setting up a call with Ejay to discuss. It is a more delicate process to find a good fit for a youth placement, and we want to ensure the most success possible, so it is best to discuss this option in person. If you are a young person who is considering a service dog and are under the age of 19, please know that the commitment, financial and otherwise, to raising a service dog is substantial, and we may not be able to assist if other treatment and management options have not been fully explored.
Q. Do you have preferred breeds for service work?
A. Yes. We gladly consider the needs and preferences of each handler, but based on our experience, there are certain breeds that perform exceptionally well as service dogs. We have good relationships with vetted breeders who assist us in selection of pups based on what we are looking for. The two primary breeds of our program are standard poodles (for mobility, POTS, PTSD, psychiatric SDs, and much more) and border collies (psychiatric service dogs). Herding breeds are a particular specialty of RT, and border collies have several characteristics that make them excellent candidates for psych work in appropriate programs. We offer meet and greets with some of our in-program and graduated dogs to demonstrate why these breeds are our top candidates and are happy to discuss all options. We will not train toy breeds to do service dog work.
Q. Do you train “program completed” dogs and pair them fully-trained with handlers?
A. This is something we can discuss based on an individual handler’s needs. We prefer in most circumstances for service dog prospects to spend some time at home with their future handlers whenever possible. However, sometimes that isn’t feasible, and we will work with you to find a plan that works. We often offer a hybrid program where puppy boards with the trainers during the week and spends weekends at home for bonding with their handler. Many handlers choose to do this for at least a few weeks during potty training!
Q. How do I know if a service dog is right for me as part of my health management?
A. Service dogs are incredible tools and support. They can provide so much independence and confidence for folks living with disabilities. But they are also a substantial investment of time and emotional labor, aside from cost. Most handlers we know, no matter which program they come from, are surprised at how hard it is to learn to work with your service dog, even when they are impeccably trained. Partnering with an animal means that we also have to consider that animal’s needs and plan accordingly. Most handlers have a bag full of their dog’s items and “just in case” things that they also have to bring with them. It takes time to fully pair with your service dog, understand when they are offering help, and learn to take that help! When it is meant to be, it can be incredibly powerful, but it is not a management option for everyone. We have found that service dog handlers who have other modes of support as well (medication, community, whatever that looks like for them) do best as handlers. Those folks who are hoping that a service dog will be the primary “treatment” for their health needs will be very disappointed. As powerful as dogs are, they are not a cure for any symptoms or disability. Ejay is always available to schedule a time to talk about what life is like as a service dog handler. It’s one of the benefits of working with someone from a lived experience!
Q. How do I get started with a Ruff Translating Service Dog?
A. If you have read through this and feel ready to move on, let’s chat! Please set up a call with Ejay using his online call calendar, and we can answer further questions and talk more in depth about your needs. Please note that we are incredibly committed to finding the ideal candidate for each handler's needs, and finding that candidate can take up to one full year when working with responsible breeders before even beginning the training process.
Electronic collars (or e-collars) are one of the most maligned tools in dog training, and one of the tools most likely to be referred to as “abusive” by single-quadrant (often referred to as pro-positive) trainers and their advocates. Typically, we see e-collars referred to universally as “shock collars”, for example in the recent banning of specific tools by a major retailer.
When we talk about e-collars we are referring pretty exclusively to the ecollar technologies brand of tools, which are based in a TENS system and have a simple vibrate setting. For clarity, we do not use non-TENS (shock) units, and recommend against bark collars.
If I (Ejay) had to give up all of my other training tools, from collars to cookies to leashes to even my beloved crates- I would go to the ends of the earth for my damn e-collar.
Let’s talk about it. First and foremost, RT does not train on a constant pressure pattern. What the hell does that mean? Many trainers use a method popularized by Larry Krohn, in which you hold a low level stimulus down on an e collar until the desired behavior is performed. So for example, I may give my pup a command, and then hold the e-collar on a stim setting until I get that command. I personally am not the biggest fan of this, as someone who works with two primary groups of people- pet owners with several behavioral modification needs, and service dog clients. I understand the methodology and even to a degree why it works so well. However, I don’t think that it is accessible to many owners not incredibly savvy in the nuances of dog training, and honestly what we see often is an increase in obedience compulsion rather than a development of a dog to think and choose the wanted behaviors.
Instead, we use a technique that I began developing ten years ago, and have continued to expand upon as our clients and colleagues have grown with us. In short, we pair the sensation of pressure (first and often exclusively on vibrate or stimulation levels under 20) with a verbal correction marker, and command repetition. The process of conditioning a dog on this tool will often time take us weeks, and we refuse to rush. The goal is for the dog to have a fair sensation attached to our verbal correction which increases reliability with the initial request and provides a reasonable interruption. But that is only one aspect of utilizing this valuable communication tool. For example recently Cara began adding a positive reward marker on her e-collar for Jonas, which is a technique that I have also used for deaf and blind dogs who need an additional communication marker. She learned about this not from me, but from her own work with another trainer. In our discussions, she snapped a puzzle piece into place for me around advancing many of our clients use of the tools, and even the way I use the tool for my own dogs versus how I am teaching, specifically our more advanced students. This is to say, nothing is fixed in time or space when it comes to teaching dog training and we are allowed to evolve our methodologies even if the techniques we have developed already seem “sufficient”. The use of e-collars should change substantially as the technology changes. It hasn’t changed as much as it should based on our understanding of dog cognitive processes.
When the e collar is maligned by other dog professionals, or even pet owners, it is most often done so in a way that assumes that all usage of the collar is punitive, and pain based. I take no joy in harming dogs and have the constitution of a bowl full of jello if my personal dogs experience so much as too short of a nail. I also have this deep, abiding respect for the emotional and intellectual intelligence of dogs, and understand that a more simplistic method of training that offers only food or the absence of food is undermining the engagement relationship necessary for many dogs to be successful in learning. I do not think that applying low levels of stress to a dog, including physical stress, such as a simple vibrate sensation is abusive by any stretch of the imagination.
Why the ecollar is maligned is pretty simple to follow- the technology has changed over time, consumers have had access to cheaply made, more painful tools, with no real instruction. Dog training is often considered a luxury service full of charlatans. It seems so simple- the assumption that people use these tools to cause pain because they are frustrated with dogs and so called “certified” trainers would never do such a thing.
The truth is that nothing is ever that simple.
Ruff Translating proudly identifies itself as committed too allyship to owners of reactive dogs and to owners self-identifying with a disability. These two (sometimes overlapping) groups represent a very large consumer population for dog training companies. Service dogs, while representing a very thin profit line also cost upwards of twenty thousand dollars for initial training, and likely additional expenses for mantainence training. Reactive dogs, particularly those with bite risk potential may honestly spend close to the same over the lifetime of a dog seeking to work on behavioral modification. The focus of our topic today is a tool, but the economics can’t not be overlooked. It is extremely expensive to train either a reactive dog or a service dog.
Even with substantial investment, many of those same owners still find themselves on our doorstep. There are a lot of tools and tech that we offer, but the least of which is not the ecollar that makes our program different. Ultimately, if folks are going to invest in us and our methods, we really want them to be able to execute the same level of response as we do with their dogs.
E-collars are adaptive. We can personalize the settings to each individual handler, and dog based on their timing capabilities, the behavior we are seeking to resolve or train and the individual learning style of both parties. Moreover, e-collars are an equalizer, allowing clients with physical limitations the ability to still continuously communicate with their dogs.
Here is an example: We are training a service dog in training who has recently discovered that his handler can not chase him. This is very exciting to the eager pup, and has resulted in him basically baiting his handler with some spicy behavior and then avoiding her completely because... he can. This is not malicious on the dog’s part, just part of the training process even though he is overall a very engaged student. Dogs are dogs though, and he is also in a developmental milestone stage that is notoriously sassy (basically a dog teenager). What is the solution here? If my client were fully a member of the Abled community, I would suggest a house leash, guiding the pup away from the unwanted behavior and redirecting to another activity. My suggestion remains the same here- only in this case my client will hit a small button on a transmitter, sending a vibrate sensation to her dog. The e-collar is non-directional, so the sensation is just step one, her pup has been taught that the feeling of vibrate is a pause- and we need to stop and pay attention to our handler. It is not an immediate solution, but it does allow a handler to have her service dog in her home, and reinforce the training we are working on without undue physical burden. Dog training has become ableist in nature. We expect that if someone is to own a dog, they must be able to physically overpower, lure, exercise, understand etc etc. This is not reasonable, I may argue to anyone, but particularly to those of us with some types of disabilities. Folks with disabilities deserve the companionship of a pet dog too, and also deserve service dogs if they need them as part of their treatment plan. If this means that they have access to tools that allow them agency in communication, we as trainers have the responsibility to modify our training programs to teach those tools. Read that again.
The above scenario is just one example of a client needing a way to tell her dog “no” with the additional layer of mobility challenges. We could also be talking about clients who have language differences (as in, some folks have periods of being non-verbal due to a variety of health conditions), clients who can’t visually see what/where their dog is up to, clients with sensory processing issues, etc etc etc. There are countless variations of the human condition where getting a hold of your dog (for attention, behavior interruption, etc) would be made much easier by using a push button than basically any other tool in training.
Consider reactive dog clients, also. Rescue dogs are incredibly popular options for bringing a pup into your household. Unfortunately, behavior screening, rehabilitation and support are less available then they should be for those who rescue dogs. ALL dogs need training, and we see plenty of non-rescue dogs come to us for behavior modification. But there is a persistent myth of “if you just love them enough” a reactive rescue dog will be cured of their unwanted, sometimes dangerous behaviors. Love and patience only go so far for a dog who is so shut down they can’t walk down a street because of extreme fear, or a dog so reactive they are actively asphyxiating at the end of a leash. You still need both, but also professional help. I firmly believe it is an unrealistic situation for many handlers to learn timing, luring, marking etc while their dog is mid-reaction at peak level. We are still teaching all of those things, we are also just teaching them through a very clear and concise method that allows space in the reactions for the owner to regroup when it is done properly and giving a tool that allows physical control without physical overpowering. This is is about safety, and for many handlers- the ability to take their dogs, whom they love, outside at all- not just about interrupting the unwanted behavior.
An e-collar is not going to be our first or primary recommendation in any training case, from reactive to service dog. There are many prerequisites and assessments that my team makes before we move into teaching an e-collar, partly because the method that I have developed requires a certain amount of baseline command response and comprehension. But once we do- I can tell you without hesitation- that it makes an incredible amount of difference. Dogs that we have worked with for over year, who have been unable to function around other dogs or even strangers are able to have play groups, attend social events, and have a 100% reliability with recall. The ability of an owner to be in constant communication and reinforcement with their dog is life changing in terms of consistency.
I am tired of arguing about e-collars, about defending their usage, explaining how we do what we do, and why. Mostly because the opposition is inherently rooted in ableism and the tool itself has been unceremoniously laid claim to by trainers from a police background. You do not have to be a hard line, law and order trainer to appreciate the value of an e-collar. But you do have to be ableist to believe that there is never a use for one. Adaptive equipment, such as paging your dog using a safe and effective technology should not be controversial. But it is. And it is high time we start talking really about why rather than hiding behind animal welfare straw houses.