RUFF TRANSLATING RUFF RANTS
Brought to you by the Ruff Translating team!
Written by Ejay Eisen
I'm sitting on the floor, staring dead into the eyes of a service dog candidate. I take four deep breaths very quickly and outstretch my hand. The dog stares at me, and after a moment of comprehension, he presses his nose softly and repeatedly into my palm. I say, "Yes!" but quickly start breathing in the same rapid succession, this time covering my face. First, the SDIT (service dog in training) taps my hand again. I swallow hard, working to not accidentally trigger my personal service dog, who is curiously looking on from a crate. She is concerned but wise enough at this point to know I'm not actually in panic or medical distress. She has watched me teach behavior interruption countless times. She knows that the first step is a touch, "Hey, you, you ok?" and the second step is a demand, "Hey! You need help, focus on me, the dog!" I continue my out-of-breath actions until the SDIT in front of me begins to bark and paw at me. "Yes!" I call to him and hand him a food reward and a thorough pet.
I then move into laying still on my side and ask the dog to lie down. He complies, but not directly next to me where I patted the floor.
"Uh-uh," I say, tapping closer to my body. The SDIT continues to stare at me. He then gets up, scoots over closer to me and lies down. His fluffy ears land lightly on my hand, and I give him a pat. "Good boy!" I say, rolling over into a position where I would be draped over top of him if I was applying any of my body weight, but we are just practicing, so I am just hovering in that position. I give the verbal cue "stand," and the SDIT pops up into a sit position. "Uh-uh," I say again while giving the hand signal for stand position, all while crouching, trying to both mimic the position of a handler in need without adding my body weight. The pup rises into the stand position, and I reward with kibble from my training vest.
I slowly perch my body into a squat and lay my hands across the dogs shoulders, pushing lightly but firmly. I cautiously watch him adjust his position, and his muscles brace. "Good boy!" I whisper, then I remove the pressure and bring my own body into a standing position while still leaving my hands on the dogs shoulders.
The SDIT being described will do this exact round of drills with me and my training team hundreds of times, and then even more with his handler as part of their team pairing. Team pairing involves teaching the handler with a disability every aspect of working and care of their service dog. Slowly, we will begin adding appropriate weight and pressure to the mobility tasks of helping a handler off the ground as he builds skill and muscle. When this dog has graduated from our program, he will have no less (and likely more) than eight separate tasks for his handler, who has a different scope of needs for her dog's assistance. She needs signals for certain medical onsets, relief for symptoms using deep pressure therapy, and mobility/stability support for bouts of severe dizziness. She needs a dog who can fetch her medication, her phone, her keys, water, pick up his own leash, turn light switches on and off, travel on construction sites for her job and go to concerts (both with appropriate protection), fly on airplanes for travel, be silent in classrooms and her office, and keep her safe, always. We have been training her personal service dog for almost a year, and he is nearing the completion of his training for graduation. But the work of pairing his tasks with his full time handler and ensuring they are a well oiled team will be a lifetime of commitment.
The requirements for an ADA service dog seem fairly straight forward until you get into the work of training a comprehensive service dog for a person with a disability. A service dog is a dog that is comprehensively trained to perform a minimum of three tasks directly related to a defined disability (yes, there is a qualifying list). Most of the service dogs that I am lucky enough to know, and all of the ones that Ruff Translating trains, have a minimum of five tasks. A thorough training program will generally run for 12 to 18 months from basic commands up through task training, but it can be more or less depending on the needs of the person with a disability, as well as the dog's temperament, learning style, the skill of trainer, etc. It is perfectly legal for an individual to train their own service dog, but we do not recommend going it alone. Mostly, this is the case because we want anyone with a disability to have the BEST service dog they can, and we spend our lives studying the science of dog training. We are more than happy to partner with clients who want to do some of their own training and prefer to develop a custom training plan individually for those who want more engagement in their service dog work.
One of the most common things that I hear traveling about the world with a service dog at my side is, "Ugh, I wish I could take my dog everywhere. You are so lucky!" Any time I hear this, my entire body goes rigid, and I swallow the acid retort on the edge of my tongue (admittedly, sometimes I don't). The commitment of a service dog is substantial. Not only because of the time, money, and emotional labor of training, but we have to have the appropriate gear, and I plan my life around making sure both of our needs are always met. If she is sick, I stay home. If she is tired, I stay home. I can not function fully in public without my service dog. I tried unsuccessfully for years to do the tasks she does for me. I am lucky that I am a dog trainer and that I managed to rehabilitate a purebred Australian shepherd that was surrendered over enthusiastic behavior that resembled a shark on a pogo stick when we first met.
To clarify, I own and trained a rescue dog to be my full time medical alert and response service dog. So, should this be the primary model of service dog training? I don't think so.
I am in the unique position as a dog trainer with a disability and a working service dog. Even more so, one of our primary specialties at Ruff Translating is working with recently adopted rescue dogs, in particular, highly anxious and sometimes aggressive rescue dogs. This has given me a lot of time to both research and reflect on the common adage of "adopt, don't shop".
There are a lot reasons that this is a false narrative, and there is a lot of reading you can do about the profitability of rescue culture, the way in which it sometimes can create further income streams for puppy mills, and the lack of behavioral histories that are gathered. What I will say is that when folks come to our doorstep, they are often at their wits' end in a very short amount of time. I love rescue dogs -- I love all dogs -- but I do not support rescue culture that does not inherently work with appropriate behavioral screening processes, have a lifetime return policy, or rescues that do not support and understand behavioral euthanasia. I am not willing to debate these points. I have sat on the floor with too many dog parents, sobbing with them, as we have had to say goodbye to a rescue because they came to them too injured -- either behaviorally or physically. Endless resources and top of the line training or medical care can not rehabilitate every dog. We do not know enough about how dog brains operate to be able to solve every problem, and sometimes the management of a highly aggressive dog leads to a quality of life that is not acceptable for either the dog or the person.
Recently, the lead trainer at Ruff Translating found herself in an online debate with a likely well meaning, but highly uniformed individual arguing the case for all service dogs to come from rescues. We are here as your resource to set the record straight.
This is a terrible idea.
Service dog training is a substantial investment, costing their handlers tens of thousands of dollars over the course of the training. Even when you can find that cost covered by non-profits who specialize in assisting those with disabilities, the cost to the training organization or the non-profit remains the same. The "profit" margin on training these dogs is nearly non-existent, but their value is well worth the work. The intensity, the exacting nature of the training needed, and the skill set of the trainer are simultaneously in short supply and high demand.
Dog behavior is not simply a result of training or of genetics but a combination of all of that and then some. Lifestyle, early formative experiences, genetics, training tactics, exercise, diet -- the list of factors that influence behavior goes on and on. When I am looking for a potential next candidate, I need as much information as possible because I am working to train a working medical device and a stable, eager to work, happy critter who is strongly bonded to their handler. Dog behavior is even influenced by the way in which they are weaned as puppies. I have a moral obligation as a service dog trainer to ensure the highest success rate possible, both from a fiscal perspective and as an ally to those with disabilities eligible for a service dog. Sometimes this means I can screen a rescue puppy (in this scenario, a puppy is under 10 months of age) and see all of the temperament requirements, only to see a developmental or physical issue pop up six months into training, and the dog is not longer a candidate for service dog work. Finding a rescue dog that even meets the initial criteria is incredibly challenging, especially when you can't screen the parents for potential temperament or health issues. It's a best guess with very little assurance. Even an educated guess is wrong a significant portion of the time, at the cost of both the dog and the person who they were intended to help.
People with disabilities are not obligated to perform a social good (assuming that rescuing is a social good, which there are many conversations to have) in order to obtain a service dog. In fact, we should be working to make more service dogs easily available to people with disabilities. We do not do this by throwing dogs that are not temperamentally prepared to work in this way into SDIT programs. We do this by making sure that folks with disabilities have living wages and social programs that support their access to appropriate care. We do this by building organizations that pay professional trainers to assist and train service dogs at reduced or no cost to clients. We also do this by realizing that responsible breeders are integral to service dog programs. Responsible breeders have genetic testing, are familiar with behavior screening, and select lines for temperament. The responsible breeders we work with also have a lifetime re-homing policy where they accept all of their dogs back if needed. There are so many fewer surprises with a well bred dog, specifically in regards to service dog training. I can build a relationship with a breeder I trust and work with them to find the right dog for a potential handler with everything from the dog's weight -- it's crucial for mobility tasks because you must have a dog that is appropriately sized for stability support -- to coat length, to a predisposition to fetching or other tasks we can mold into disability support.
Responsible breeders screen homes thoroughly. They also screen dog trainers who run service dog programs thoroughly. I have a relationship with one breeder who gives us a puppy ahead of training, and we do not pay the purchase price until the dog has passed all of its training and found a handler. This allows us to help a client fundraise in a myriad of ways for their service dog as a partnership. As a newer program, this is an invaluable connection. I may be able to build a similar relationship with a rescue, but without all of the knowledge of what that dog has experienced.
Training rescues with wonderful temperaments, as well as behavioral issues, is one of my greatest joys and one of the most worthwhile endeavors of my profession. But that does not mean that a rescue dog is for every owner. It is inherently ableist to assume that a disabled person has to adopt a dog with no knowledge of their history or genetics and force it to become a working service dog. Or that a person with a disability has both the capacity for rehabilitation and for the use of a working service dog. Service dogs are not pets. They are assistants, companions, and colleagues. They are also not indentured servants of any capacity. Dogs have co-evolved with us literally for thousands of years and survived because of our mutually shared benefit of collaboration. There is nothing unethical, shameful, or wrong about obtaining a well bred puppy from a responsible breeder for a service dog program. In fact, it is much more likely to ensure success for both the dog's lifetime of partnership and the handler's. The most important thing we can do as dog advocates and professionals is place dogs in the RIGHT home, not in just ANY home.
And no, I will not dignify "should dogs be service dogs at all" with an answer. If anyone would like to tell my service dog, Rio, she is forced into retirement, they are welcome to try. She's better at handling that argument then I ever will be.
In a time of preparation, action, and holding pattern–a lot of folks are finding that their daily routines have been substantially altered. Losing jobs, working from home, kids not in school, activities changing- etc. So let's discuss how we can help our dogs adjust to the stress, and help ourselves keep some structure at the same time. We know the world is a really challenging place right now and hopefully every lit bit of what we CAN do will help.
Don't get lax with the rules! Just because your office is a couch, doesn't mean that Fido should spend the whole day up in your grill helping send those emails. For those not able to work from home, but still confined due to closures- the same applies. It's 100% fine to do some bonus snuggling when you need it, but remember to still be sure to keep some strong expectations in place so that your training doesn't backslide while we navigate this new territory.
It's okay to crate when you are home! In fact, we'd recommend a few hours of crate decompression time. We all are showing more signs of stress, and giving your dog an "out", particularly with a high value treat is a good work exercise for them, and will help them manage their stress. Let them worry about just "dog time" for a period of time each day, it's good for them. This is especially important for dogs who share homes with kids that are home too. It's a lot of activity if you are used to sleeping all day! Ensuring that your dog gets adequate rest and time to relax will help prevent stress or new unwanted behaviors.
Still walk your dog. Go outside! Don't stop and hug the neighborhood, but get that dog on a leash and go for a neighborhood walk. Practice an automatic heel, work on eye contact- have them do "paws up" on surfaces- it's a killer way to spend a lunch break when you are tired of skyping with your boss or just burn off a little of your own anxiety. We know, it may sound a little trite, and it's not going to fix the stress many of us are coping with, especially those in the service or event industry. But let's all agree to get moving and that practicing eye-contact with your dog will release some oxytocin, which is better than nothing in times like these.
Remember your indoor fitness and training activities! Balance pods, sound sensitization, treadmill running, puppy burpees and sit ups are just a few ways to keep your dog fit and busy in short bursts. We can commit to doing 15-20 minutes a day of focused exercises on most days. It will help both burn that excess excitement and energy, but there are other benefits. The engagement will help them also understand when you set a firmer boundary because you have to focus your attention elsewhere and they are staring at you with their ball in their mouth. I mean, speaking from experience as an owner of a border collie-- 90% of my time is being stared at anyway.
Keep mealtimes and potty breaks consistent! One of the major struggles we see with work from home humans originate because the routine is flexible- dog care can accidentally become inconsistent. Try to stick with the usual mealtime routines (don't forget it's great practice to at least train through 2-3 meals per week), and keep potty breaks in line with what you usually do- even if Covid19 has you doing them yourself instead of hiring a service. This will help your dog feel physically more regulated, and prevent any new unwanted potty behaviors during this time.
Work that "place" duration!! Send your pup to place, and make them practice just being present and still. Set up your "place" with either your place board, bed, etc in proximity to where you are at home, and use intermittent food rewards to reinforce holding position. You can do the same with the command "tuck"! This is a nice passive way to work your dog while you are going about your day.
In times of uncertainty, it is so hard to feel like we have little control, because we have literally, little control. I'm glad that I have dogs to help me practice social distancing, and it's not a bad time to work on their trick titles, either!
It is not easy to learn to read another species' body language. Heck, it's not even easy to learn another person's body language or facial expression. How many times have you thought that a new person you've met was expressing an emotion that they weren't aware what they were conveying. I mean, we've all heard of Resting Bitch Face. Still, though it's not perfect, we use each others body language and facial expression to convey and receive all kinds of important information. There are a lot of great resources online to get you started on reading dog body language, but truly spending time with you pup will help you notice patterns best.
So many people misread their dog's reactivity as aggression. Just because a dog is making a lot of excited noises (even growls to a degree) does not mean that an attack is imminent, although it also doesn't mean that your dog is just "really happy" to see their friends. But how we respond to that excitement as handlers and trainers should be consistent. We should be asking for an alternative, redirecting that energy into focusing on what we ask via commands, and waiting until the dog is not so excited to move onto any next step- especially entering a dog park. Dogs have evolved to communicate with us as part of their species survival strategy, but it feels like with more anthropomorphizing, we have lost the ability to really pick up on their cues.
Each dog that I have met has shown me slightly different combinations to communicate anxiety, feeling unsure, excitement, interest, etc. It takes time with a dog to watch what happens when I introduce stimulus that is unexpected, and find any patterns that present throughout different distractions. Once I have a decent read on a dog, I can better see if their behavior starts to change. For example, right now I'm working with a gorgeous brindle pup, whose name is Stiles. Stiles is a dog who is coping with some fairly deep anxiety, which has recently started developing into near fear-aggressive reactivity. Loud, sharp barking, growling, and teeth snapping when he is stressed has given his family really strong concerns. So I'm working with him to build up his confidence, and defer to his handlers when faced with something new or potentially scary, instead of escalating his behavior. Stiles has a really sweet smile- but it becomes really "stretched" at the corners of his mouth when he is nervous. A quick glance and someone may think that he was either flashing his teeth, or just super happy. But what's actually happening is he is clearly telling me, before he starts barking, that something is upsetting him. He also tenses his back and pushes his ears high and forward. Now that I know this, as a trainer I can take him just to that line, and then reduce the stimulus and offer counter conditioning so that we can increase his tolerance positively, and at a safe speed. But it is only because I observed Stiles and have practiced learning to read dog language that I will be able to help him with problematic behaviors. Rio doesn't display this same anxiety sign, rather she hunches low, or bounces up and down like Tigger when she is nervous. Badger pants and licks his lips, Swanson whines and hides.
Your dog absolutely has cues for when they are bored, when they are hungry, sick, stressed, cuddly, relaxed etc. The best thing to do when learning to read your dog is to think about whether their needs have been met, and correspond it to the behavior you are observing. So for an easy example, every night at about five pm, our dogs know that dinner is coming. They may get up, walk over to the food and water dish, stare at me, stand near the door for potty break (always before dinner), or some combination there of. They know that food is coming, and they are reminding me of the time. Swanson, if he hasn't had enough activity for the day, will come and stare directly at me, wagging at a very slow speed, and stomp his front two feet until I get the leash or redirect his behavior elsewhere by asking for a lay down or sending him to his crate. I try to project what I think the dog is communicating by remembering that dogs love patterns- so if an action corresponds to a daily routine- they may be linked. It's not enough to just notice those patterns though- we then have to figure out what to do if the escalation from the warning sign is a problematic behavior (like leash reactivity). Often a dog may also develop a behavior that's serving as an inappropriate coping skill for boredom or stress. Dogs that obsessively lick, pace, circle, etc- are all usually missing enough mental and physical stimulation throughout their day, and find that this behavior either gives them something to do or causes a human to interact with them (good or bad). Occasionally behavior patterns can cue a family into a health concern as well. Our lab mix guards food much more actively when he is sore in his hip.
One of the best things one can do as a handler or owner of a pup is to read and study the most current information about body language, and then see what you can look at in your own pups and use it as a jumping off point for correcting behaviors. Aside from practice, one of the most important aspects of dog training is prevention! If I can head off a behavior before it hits peak severity- then I can reward the dog sooner for an alternative. A good jumping off point to learn more about canine body language is to check out this webinar from the ASPCA and this post from Barkpost!
Today I was working with a family who live in a development with fairly strict HOA regulations. As part of those regulations, certain breeds of dogs are not permitted on the property. German Shepherds, pit bulls, shar-peis and a few other breeds (I didn't see the complete list) are not allowed to be kept in any of the homes within this community. Breed bans have largely been proved to be both ineffective and inhumane. They make absolutely no sense, and aren't based on factual research of dog aggression. But I'm not writing about that today.
I'm writing because the family who I was working with in the previously mentioned community had someone move in who has a service dog, who also happens to be able to be categorized as a pit bull. But it seems that this is an instance of a fake service dog. I've met service dogs from many bully breeds- they are loyal, smart and focused which makes them excellent candidates for that line of work. Service dogs are protected by federal law, and landlords nor businesses can disallow access of a service dog, which is considered a necessary medical device. It is a protected class of dog, and for excellent reason. Dogs can be trained to provide valuable and life changing methods for a variety of health concerns. They can alert seizures, blood sugar changes, anxiety attacks, PTSD episodes. They can retrieve medications, provide aid in helping someone off the ground, go look for help if someone needs urgent care, even call for help. These examples just scratch the surface of the value of a highly trained canine. I recently have started using a service dog myself, after several long and grueling months of training with Rio. It has allowed me a great deal of empowerment to have a service dog that allows me to better cope with a health concern that was limiting my life otherwise. But it wasn't easy to train, and it's constant effort for us as a team to maintain a standard of good behavior. Even as a dog professional for a number of years, training service dogs has begun a whole new lifetime of learning. So when someone claims to have a service dog, that isn't a highly trained and maintained partner- it impacts me deeply, not just as a trainer- but as someone who needs their canine to have safe access for their health.
Traveling with a service dog, even aside from the skills practice that needs to be done daily, is a great deal more difficult then people realize. You have to attend to a living being's needs- make sure you have water, food, poop bags, etc at all times. You have to recite the law as you go about your day, and listen to every 3rd person that crosses your path coo at your dog, trying to break their concentration or convince you let you touch them. So while I am grateful for the freedom and benefits that Rio offers me, it is not easier to have a service dog than to have a pet dog, in fact there is a great deal even more responsibility. And it takes a whole heck of a lot more than an online registration, which isn't required at all for service dogs. A service dog's true certification is their behaviors. Service dogs are not toy size dogs. Service dogs are always in perfect heel position unless preforming a task. Service dogs are not overly excited to see you when they are in harness working. They do not pee or poop indoors. Having a service dog is not the same as wanting more public spaces for you to go with your pet.
When someone goes online, and pays whatever fee, to register their dog as a service dog without it being highly trained- I understand the challenge you are trying to address. You would like more spaces to have canine access, your dog is really well behaved, etc etc. I would love to see more public spaces for dogs. But this isn't how we get there. Every time a fake service dogs misbehaves in a restaurant or airplane- or wherever- it makes everyone around that dog leave with an impression. An impression that ALL service dogs are fake, not needed, a luxury. It ignores the hard work that goes into training a service dog, the effort on the part of the handler, the years of dedication for even that dog themselves. It creates a more hostile environment for the next service dog that enters the facility and it creates a false narrative of what the expectations are to present as a service dog. Those little ID badges, certificates, even a vest- none of those are required by law. The only requirement is that the dog is trained to perform tasks, concrete actions, (at least 3 separate skills), for a person with a disability. And that they are in control of the handler to basically be as invisible, and not disruptive as a dog can be. It is perfectly legal for a service dog not to have any identifying features other than their behavior. It is also perfectly legal for an individual to train their own service dog, though of course I would recommend a good training program, and expect at least an 8-12 month commitment to that specialized training, for a dog with basic manners already.
So what happens more often than not, is that a fake service dog has a very legitimate looking, laminated identification form, as well as a fancy vest or other identifying costume, goes in to a public space and causes a mess, scene or even picks a fight with another dog. The owner may be embarrassed, or angry, or both. Service dogs do occasionally make a mistake, but a service dog handler will have also been taught to address mistakes and take care of them quickly and effectively. But because of the number of fake service dogs that now exist in the world, there is also an expectation that a service dog who makes a small error is likely "fake" because there has been so much visibility of the fake dogs acting out. It creates a really hostile environment for even training a service dog. I've been asked a few times to provide Rio's "service dog paperwork", not based on her behavior- but just because I identified her as a service dog, because people are so used to seeing the fake registry information and assuming it's legitimate. I've been half tempted to register online just to avoid the conversation but I don't want to feed into a system that's creating the problem.
I would love to see more canines out in the world, but in order to do that, we have to take responsibility for training our dogs, and not just take liberties where accommodation exists. If you have a well behaved dog, frequent pet friendly businesses, and lead by example. Do not register your dog online for an education it has never received. Do not make it harder for someone trying to use a tool to help a medical condition. It feels really selfish and short sighted to those of us who need to use a dog, and are so grateful that the option exists. Please don't take that option lightly, because it will be us who suffer because of your misuse.
Let's be real, I love dogs in costumes. I actually am not sure there is anything I find more delightful then a dog dressed up. I'm a sucker, what can I say?
But Halloween can be a minefield for our canine friends, and there are a few things we can do to help them get ready, and enjoy the holiday aside from winning Insta. So what should we be doing to help our dogs enjoy the season as much as we do?
Well firstly, if your dog(s) goes bananas every time the doorbell rings, or a door knocks, you may be dreading trick or treaters. Conditioning to stimulus takes time, but here are some tips to get started. You may not be fully prepared for this upcoming Halloween, but these exercises will help your pup all around.
1. Ask a friend or a member of your household to help you. Put your pup on a leash. Practice getting "look" a few times with a high value treat. Then have your assistant go outside. Ask them to knock lightly on the door. When your dog gets over excited or stimulated use the leash to guide them away, and then do not answer the door until they have calmed down and are are giving you "look". Reward the calm and alternative behavior. Repeat the exercise for either 15 minutes or until a light knock no longer provokes an extreme reaction, but the alternative behavior- which ever comes first. If within the first 15 minutes you can not get an alternative reaction, just practice look until you get that. The goal is always for the dog to be successful, and that is where you end your training session. As your dog becomes more successful, increase the stimulus level. Keep your training sessions short, and again, end on a high note. If your dog is crate trained, you can do the same exercise, but with them in the crate, they can still give you their attention from inside their little den. It can take up to a month or so of practice to really get the results you want, but the impact is life long. Once your dog is successful with increasingly loud stimulus, you can even add in Halloween masks, treat bags, etc. All of those things are foreign to your dog and can be really intimidating!
2. Create a "safe space" for your dog the night of Halloween. Ideally, Fido would be crate trained, but even reducing their space down to a room they hang out in can be helpful. Set up some soothing background noise. Dogs like the radio, or a low level television. Our dogs genuinely like Animal Planet, not kidding- because it's not a super loud channel with people yelling or anything. Consider investing in high quality calming treats- we swear by the brand Treatibles- they are by far the highest quality and most consistent calming treat on the market. Get a plug-in Adaptil(TM), and set it up a few days ahead of time. Make sure that the day of Halloween your dog has had a good amount of exercise, more than usual, so that they are tired and ready to relax. Make a Kong with frozen peanut butter or wet food, or get a bully stick/marrow bone for the occasion. Essentially the goal is to prepare your dog physically and mentally to relax. It will save you a headache later and make your dog look forward to exciting nights as opposed to anxious. If your dog isn't crate or space trained, consider having a member of the household serve as the dog guardian for the night, keeping pup on a leash and safely away from doors and the loud noises. Even if your dog LOVES company, trick or treating can be overstimulating. Especially if there are some sparklers or other small fireworks happening, too!
3. Costumes. Costumes. Costumes. Familiarize your dog with your costume if you are wearing one, especially if it has a mask. It can be confusing for dogs to smell their human but see something on their face- leave the mask out for a few days where pup can see it casually. The same goes for those perfect and adorable costume you plan on dressing Spot up in. Leave it out- let them eat treats off of it- and practice. Seriously. Dogs do not automatically tolerate wearing clothing, as much as we would like them to. When I'm familiarizing dogs at first with wearing things, even a back pack- I use a Kong with a frozen treat inside. I hold it out for them to work on while I pick up their paws, handle their ears, and rest my arms over their backs. Once they are comfortable with that, I lay a towel over their backs while they still work on the kong to get used to weight and draping. Then we work up to different pieces of the costume, letting them smell and then conditioning them to put it on. The benefit of this is that most of the time, they are so used to me putting crazy things on them, I'm able to get AMAZING photos because they aren't trying to pull it off. Costumes have been associated with fun and treats, and they aren't spending their whole time trying to escape or looking depressed. It's ok for your dog to be a little anxious when you first start introducing any upper level stimulus- but it's important that you give them the chance to associate it positively, rather than forcing the issue. Practice handling your dog slowly, and soon you will have a pup that gladly wears whatever ridiculous thing we come up with next.
In celebration of Labor Day Weekend, it seems the opportune moment to discuss the work ethic of our canine companions. Yes, even your couch potato, needs to have a purpose in life.
In defining the "work" of dogs, we can discuss those specialized breeds who have specific skill sets that professionals and hobby-dog workers alike capitalize on. There are the obvious jobs- seeing eye dogs, bomb/drug sniffing canines, hunting/retrievers, the farm dogs. But every single dog will create a job for itself even if you do not train it do so.
For example, let's talk about the alarm-bell dog. Dogs who are hyper vocally reactive to outside stimulus like the mail carriers, delivery trucks, or become the unofficial neighborhood watch are often times totally bored and creating work for themselves to pass the time. Once this becomes a pattern, you can end up with a dog who basically has decided that it's primary purpose in life it so to push away intruders. That behavior is reinforced when routine postal workers/delivery drivers/kids walking home from school leave (in dog's mind, from their barking), creating a cause/response pattern that can be really challenging to change.
There are some great ways to integrate more work opportunities for the unemployed house dog. This is by no means a complete list, but let's just call it some of the available "entry level" positions for your pooch.
It has been been quite a bit of time since we announced our relocation to beautiful, sunny, warm, Tampa, Florida! We had quite the task to close down both our our businesses (the farm and the boarding component of Ruff Translating) and get our family settled, stable and ready for this next chapter in our lives. But we did it! And we are loving life here, and so are our pups, who have taken to beach life like mermaids! One of the great things about forming a strong bond with your pack and establishing consistent rules is that it can make adjusting to an entirely different world both possible AND fun. Our two working dogs require the same amount of exercise no matter where we live, so we had to adjust their routines to allow them still to get the running and structured exercise time that they needed. So far we have discovered SO many fun alternatives to our farm work, and they have so enjoyed our new times together skating on the trails, going for walks with back packs, swimming and learning new fun public socializing tasks like going to breweries consistently. Warms a trainer heart, that is for sure!
Of course, it hasn't all been beach trips and sunshine, like many pet families, we have had to work really hard to get our crew on board with life out of a 7 bedroom farmhouse and 50 acres, and into a lovely 500 square foot bungalow Florida home. But we are certainly enjoying the challenge, which leads us to our next announcement!
I have formally accepted a position working with K-9 Perceptions in Tampa! I'm still working with Lap of Love, which is an amazing organization, but am now ready to start accepting a full docket of training clients in Florida. I've joined a team so that I can update this blog with more fun dog tips/tricks and thoughts regularly, and focus on training, rather than running a full time business. This means you can expect to see many more blog posts! I will be updating the Ruff Translating site to reflect that all of my training clients will now be scheduled through K-9 Perceptions, and this will become a place fully for rants, videos, pictures, and all things dog training related outside of scheduling with me! I'm so excited for this shift on the site, and more so to meet all of the Tampa Pups!! Please feel free to share and help me spread the word that we are here, we are ready/able to help dogs and families- we are still getting to know Tampa so your votes of confidence will definitely help me reach more pups and their people.
We have big news! After years of working in the Capital District, we are taking our training program on the road! Ejay has been offered an amazing opportunity to work with Lap of Love, a veterinary hospice and in home euthanasia program that has doctors nationwide serving pets and their families. As you know, all of Ruff Translating's work has always been focused on building the familial relationships with your pets, either in our boarding program or our any of our training programs. This opportunity will offer us the training and experience to expand our skill sets and truly help families processing and planning for one of the most challenging moments in our journey together.
But wait! There's more! Ruff Translating isn't going away, rather we are headed for the Lap of Love home in Tampa, Florida! Once we are established in Tampa, we will be offering ALL of our regular training services. We are so looking forward to meeting all of the Florida pups, and continuing the good work of building relationship and offering solid solutions to training challenges. If you have a friend or family who could use our help in the Tampa Bay region- don't hesitate to send them our way! We are already getting ready to start booking training clients and we can't wait to meet you!
Love is in the air, and with that, we should discuss the type of matchmaking that ends in hair all over your clothes, suddenly talking in a cutesie voice, and midnight Amazon shopping for a car vacuum. Well, maybe that's just me- but you get the point. For many, choosing a dog is about choosing the most visually adorable features. Now, the aesthetic of a dog can tell us a lot about whether a dog would be a right match- size, strength, fur length, health needs- all of those things should impact your dog choice. But there is so much more to finding the right match. When I'm working with a client through my Adoption Counseling, I start by sending them these questions, so that I know baseline what they are looking for. These questions aren't the totality of our conversation- nor do I always rely on the initial answers. Really, the goal is for us to begin thinking about what the most important topics may be for the Adopter, so that as we meet dogs those things are in the forefront. Below I've provided a little bit more context to help understand the question and what to consider a little bit more fully so that you can use it on your own as a resource!
1. What is your time frame for adopting a dog?
A lot of folks get REALLY excited at the thought of adopting a dog, and want it to happen very quickly. I totally understand this enthusiasm- but in reality it will likely take months before you have Fido home. Yes, months. Sometimes a love at first sight connection works great, but my experience as a trainer has taught me that this is rarity. Selecting a rescue or a breeder alone may take time, plus it's important to meet a few dogs before you make a decision. And I mean, who can say no to petting more dogs?
2. Do you want a puppy, or an adult dog?
Adult dogs are not necessarily easier than puppies. Most people are very worried about potty training a puppy, but honestly in terms of training tasks- that is not the hardest challenge. Puppies are often times a better option for families with babies up to roughly age ten, depending on the family's ability to be available during the day or hire a dog walker. Being comfortable with children is a learned skill for all dogs, some take to it naturally and some don't. This isn't a flaw in the dogs themselves, just a personality trait we have to consider. The puppy trouble spots are not for everyone though. Teething, developmental process, and energy levels mean that puppies aren't for everyone. I find that families who have really hectic schedules, including older kids with activities may actually be more comfortable integrating an adult dog into the family. Every situation is different, be honest with yourself about what you can realistically handle.
3. Why do you want whichever you chose above?
This question is here because I often need to know what the rationalization is for a client to want a specific age dog. Sometimes their concerns make sense to me- for example, someone who has sleep issues may not want a toy breed puppy who needs several breaks at night. Other times those things are based on a misconception about dog behavior. For example, many rescue dogs do not come with "abuse issues". Sometimes it's just a simple re-home situation, because things change in folks livest that create a hardship resulting in surrendering their pet. Understanding what motivates a client helps me pick out matches, and address any underlying concerns- justified or not!
4. Is this your first dog as an "adult"?
Many folks of all ages grew up with dogs in their home. But that is a very, very different scenario than being responsible for your first dog as an adult in the world. This question helps a lot with breed recommendations. Some breeds, even crosses, are not what is sometimes called "starter dogs". Many dogs breeds become popular through the Westminster dog show or popular culture. Notably- think of Dalmations and German Shepherds. Both of these breeds are remarkable- but both present training challenges that can be overwhelming for first time dog owners. After meeting Swanson, I have some clients begging me to match them with a border collie, or border collie cross. There are exceptions, and Swanson is undeniably charming, but overall, border collies are not great house pets unless they are kept very, very busy. For active athletes who can bring their dogs to work, they may be a great match. But they have zero chill unless they are bone tired, both physically and mentally. Our lovely Australian Shepherd Rio came to us as a re-home after her previous owner realized that she had gotten in over her head. Rio was anxious, difficult, unresponsive, and prone to actual tantrums when she came to us. She is still a highly energetic dog who requires a ton of structure. For us, this is easily managed as my job and lifestyle are conducive to her needs. But otherwise she is easily a dog that could have redirected her energy into accidentally nipping a child or getting hit by a car.
5. Do you have friends or family nearby to let your dog out during the day, or a work schedule that allows you to come home? Can your dog go to work with you?
It's a big ask for dogs to be home alone, crated or loose, for 8-10 hours per day. There are dogs who can handle the responsibility and solitude of a busy work schedule. They are not in the majority however. There are many professional services which can get your dog a walk, or offer day care during the day- even a few times a week can make a huge difference in the health and behavior of your pet. Puppies will absolutely need a break every few hours, the standard rule is that they can be expected to hold their bladders for one hour for every month that they are old. So a three month old pup (12 weeks) should get a break at least every three hours. Feeding a puppy a mid-day meal really helps with potty training also, which is another incentive to hire or bribe a friend to help. Consider finding an apartment or house that is close enough to your job so that if you have an hour lunch break, so you can at least get home to give relief yourself. I know that many folks work long hours, or can't afford to hire someone. If you can't get a friend to help you out in exchange for the love of your pup- maybe consider trying to start a savings account to save up for the care you will need. Everyone deserves to have a dog in their life, but we also have the obligation to make sure that we can provide the appropriate care.
6. What breed(s) most interest you? Why?
Some folks grew up with a certain breed, or have a friend who has a dog that really appeals to them. What I'm looking for here, is to see if there are themes to the types of dogs that a client likes. Sticky-up ears? Floppy? Smooth coat? Long hair? Active? More of a couch potato? Rough size? Whether or not we go with the breed they request, or I make an alternative recommendation- start to think of breeds that you like in terms of traits, rather than just breeds.
7. Are you more interested in pure bred dogs, mixed breed pups, or open to either?
I'm not a trainer who has any qualms about responsible breeding. Some dogs are bred to do specific tasks, jobs, or give great behaviors that will end up in a dog love match. That is my ultimate goal. I want to have the conversation with my clients about breed reliability, and really talk to to them about working with a breed-specific rescue if there is a breed that's a great fit for them. For some people, they worry about health issues that are predominant in pure breed dogs, and there is some merit to that if their preferences line up with breeds that have a history of health concerns. In those cases it may be the best fit to go with a mixed breed pup. If the client is considering health insurance for their pet, this is an important consideration here too.
8. Are you 100% set on getting a rescue, and why?
Rescues are a wonderful option and a good many rescue dogs do not have trauma related behavior responses. Rescuing a dog is a wonderful thing to do- but the best goal is ALWAYS finding the right dog match. For some people, a rescue does not give the best chances of a dog match. For clients that I'm working with to train an ESA (emotional support animal), a therapy dog, or even a service dog- there are many reasons to go with a pup from a breeder- including reliability in performance or temperament. Also, some rescues do not have the resources to provide a complete behavior screening or even basic history. So if a client really wants to go the rescue route, it will be even more important for me as a trainer to be there during their meet and greets to help screen for behaviors and compatibility. I do not believe in the "Adopt Don't Shop" myth, at all. Rescues are run by humans, who are not perfect. There are missteps, confusion, and a lack of resources that can really affect an adoption experience. There is also a real value in having a pure breed dog if you need your dog to do a specific task (like move your pigs around). It is valid to find a dog that you will cherish as a member of your family no matter what.
9. What role will your dog have in your daily life? For example- do you want a cuddle bug who doesn't need a ton of exercise? Do you want an athlete? A working breed?
What always surprises me when I ask this question in person is how many people struggle to find an answer. I love to talk about what their dog ownership goals look like. Exploring the role that your new dog will have in your life really helps figure out which profiles or breeds might be a match. It's a good place to get really honest with yourself about what you need from your pet- and how much change you may be interested in pursuing. Owning herding dogs has made me a better trainer and farmer- but even I've been surprised at times with how much I need to do to challenge them and keep their behavior reliable. Sometimes even after a few hours of farm work we need several trick training sessions to keep them focused and chill. Our lives revolve around dogs, but we also need them to be really, really cuddly, which they are great at. Not all dogs are, and again- that's not a flaw. It's just a personality trait.
10. How much exercise can you say with confidence that your dog will get daily? (30 min, 15 min, 45min, 60+min)
Similarly to the last question, different dogs have different exercise requirements. A good deal of training nightmares can be totally avoided by selecting a dog that is well within your abilities to provide exercise for. And this doesn't include routine potty walks- we're talking about above and beyond, hopefully to a full pant. Often times a client may say, "Well when I get my dog, I'm going to take up running". This very well may be true, but it probably has a worse average than a New Year's Resolution. Life happens, and both owner and dog will be happier if they are an energy match from the start.
11. Are you planning to get pet insurance?
Thinking about medical care for your future dog can be kind of a bummer. But there is little more heartbreaking than when you do enter the end of life stage for your pet, and we need to plan for it now. Unfortunately, just like people, things happen unexpectedly. If you can set aside some money, or get insurance, you can focus on the care of your pet rather than feeling terrified that you can't help them. For some people, insurance isn't a cost they can afford, and that's okay too. Using great dog food, providing routine care, and saving where you can will help. It may be in your best interest to get a mixed breed dog, who have less genetic predispositions to certain conditions. Pet insurance is also it's own minefield, and finding the right company is crucial. Examine any policy thoroughly as the terms and conditions vary widely.
12. Do you need your dog to like other dogs?
Not all dogs have to be social- but some folks are social with their dogs, and their friend's dogs. This means you need your dog to be reliably not reactive, at the very least. Swanson is a non-reactive but selectively social dog. It takes constant work for me to make sure that he maintains his comfort in highly social situations. Sometimes that means setting up his travel crate, sometimes that means focusing on fetch. Swanson has never escalated beyond a growl towards another dog, but I know his body language enough to stop any escalating situation. He loves his siblings, and has many dog friends who he plays with joyfully. But he doesn't form that bond with every dog. Rio, is always, always down for a new dog. Figuring out what you need from your dog will really help you plan your adoption and training. If you plan on using the dog park as part of your main exercise or socialization, you need a dog who shows no signs of escalation, basically at all. This is not the standard for typical dog behavior. There is a misconception that all dogs should like all other dogs. This is categorically untrue, and unrealistic. All dogs should be taught self control, and to not engage to the fullest possible point. But I don't expect that I will like every person I meet, though I will be polite and respectful. I'm not going to expect more than that of any dog, and it's my job as an owner to help them get there.
13. Do you need your dog to enjoy the company of children?
When kids come to our house, Rio and Badger get crated until Rio can calm down her excitement (which can be overwhelming to any size human), and Badger stays there indefinitely. Badger is actually pretty good with kids. But he does best with kids who take verbal instructions really well, and can get anxious if toddlers grab him suddenly. He wouldn't bit necessarily, but I'm not going to put him, or a kid at risk. Not that he would ever be up for grabs- but he would be a poor placement for a house with small children. Swanson adores kids of any size, forever. He loves people, period. And he is excellent at showing exceptional control even with kids who can't walk yet. If you have children, or children in your life on a daily basis- get a dog that is Swanson level excited to hang with them. Managing a dog like Badger could get exhausting, and a mistake could end in tragedy.
14. Have you ever trained a dog before?
Dog training continues to evolve as we do further research and studies to the effectiveness of a variety of tools, as well as in dog cognition. Additionally, training one dog does not qualify us to train the next. Dog training is more of a scientifically informed art than anything else. We need a wide tool kit as a dog learns, adapts, or when a new dog comes into our life. Additionally, pure breeds show strengths is some areas more than others, and breed types will help inform a mixed breed pup too. There are dogs that require really strong leadership, both because of personality, and because of breed type. Knowing what you know, and what you really don't- should be a huge factor in deciding which dog is for you. If this is your first adult dog, definitely do not get a dog that has words like "shy with new people but warms up" in a profile (code for separation anxiety), or a dog that has a feral past. These dogs can be GREAT pets, but could easily be overwhelming for a first time trainer.
15. Do you have 30-40 min per day to work with a new dog teaching it manners and commands? If not, are you able to consider a board and train program?
Listen, we're all busy. Board and Train programs can be an excellent way to start from a secure place and get a jump on training. Finding a solid and respectable program may take some time- but ultimately it may take less time than months of putting off training that results in problem behaviors. Whenever you bring a new dog into your house, there is no grace period for rules. The work starts on that first day!
16.What activity are you most looking forward to doing with your dog?
Get Excited! Life with a dog is better. My favorite things to do with my dogs vary with the seasons, but by far one of my favorite things is an off leash beach walk. I need my dogs to keep up with my busy lifestyle, and I love showing them off in public spaces with their excellent manners and ability to focus on me in any situation. Are you a winter sport fiend? Do you visit a grandma in a nursing home? There's definitely a dog for that, and knowing what you most want will help you get there.
17. Are you planning to crate train?
Crate training is mandatory, for so many reasons. If someone is reluctant to crate train despite ALL of the benefits it offers, I may send a few profiles of already crate trained dogs, so that the work is done and they can see the benefits first hand! Any dog, or puppy, adjusting to a new space will absolutely be more successful with correct crate training. Not to mention that your vet and your boarding facility will thank you!
Finding the right dog for you takes time and effort, but that day that you come home to a wagging tail and grab a leash for an adventure- is worth all of that process. And please, don't be afraid to ask for help, you don't have to be a dog behavior expert, there are good trainers everywhere desperate to play matchmaker for you. As a matter of fact, I would love to- and you can check that out here!
For those adding a second or third pack member, we will talk about that in a future post!
As a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, I've set a personal goal for myself this year to participate in at least 8 continuing education webinars or courses on various dog training topics. There is always more to learn about dog cognition, behavior and developments of studies that can help me be a better trainer, or at least explain things more clearly to clients I'm working with.
Today's focus was a webinar on dog/dog reactivity and something that struck a cord with me was the role that we, all dog owners, create a hostile culture for those handlers working with a reactive dog, through our own actions.
This is something that I often try to impart to students, that even if your dog is well socialized, and enjoys the company of other dogs- you do not have a right to create an environment where dog/dog greetings are mandatory or expected. In fact, we may be harming even our friendly dogs by not allowing for a more constructive, organized, and reserved greeting.
My pup Rio, has yet to meet a dog that she doesn't immediately think is wonderful. This makes her very social- but sometimes that sociability looks to me, like an over confidence and even an unwanted behavior. She doesn't always know (or perhaps, as a herding dog she thinks she can convince otherwise) when a dog is stressed, or thinks she is coming on too strong. I've had to work hard to control her interactions, and train a very strong recall to help manage her interactions and greetings. This way, I'm keeping both dogs safe. I've also found that greeting in a dog park is way too stimulating for her, even though she seems to enjoy making so many friends. I prefer her to have a large indoor space for a greeting, as her interactions are more reliable. We're working towards expanding her best dog/dog greeting options- not because she is aggressive, or shy- but because she is very excitable and can be vocal. I see it as my obligation to help build her impulse control and create space between her interactions with other dogs by acting as an intermediary.
Swanson and Badger are both dogs who love the company of other dogs, but Badger shows some reactivity when not introduced slowly, with controls. Reactivity in a dog doesn't automatically mean aggression, though for some dogs it can lead there. Rather, it means that the dog is over stimulated and prone to making decisions that are embarrassing, dangerous, or just out of control. When any of my dogs show reactivity, for a variety of reasons, slightly different from each other- my main focus is getting their attention, and redirecting them to something as an alternative, usually a sit and eyes on me. I often use the "touch" command to get them more interested in engaging with me. I also use my body language to set a more physical barrier and presence in between myself and whatever the current distraction is. But what should our jobs be when it is not our own dog showing reactivity?
The same thing as the handler who is working the reactive dog, of course! 99% of the time, Rio and Swanson are non reactive. Badger probably averages about 85% percent, depending on what the distraction is. But that isn't something that happens automatically, no matter how much time we have spent working together. Rather, every day is still a training session, and I try to keep a dog's focus on me no matter what is happening around us. I want to be the most exciting, fun, and safe option in the room at any given time.
Recently, this was put to the test when we took a trip to the nursing home. While we were hanging out with family who were visiting our relative who lives there, and making some friends in the lobby, a full bag pipe band and group of carolers walked in. That's right, a full bag pipe band. And yes, we have done parades, loud tractors, and lots of other big prep work to lead up to situations just like this one. But I still switched into a high active mode, making both dogs face me, in a sit, and look directly at me on command while the band played on. I wanted to communicate that I wasn't at all concerned about the loud music, a particularly less familiar strain of sounds then what they are used to at home. I reinforced their attention with verbal praise and even a few treats.And they reacted beautifully, with no stumbles! My process would be same if we saw a dog who looked reactive. I don't want my dogs to escalate a problem because they feel threatened, or challenged. Rather, I want them to act as though it's not of their business, and trust I will shepherd them safely through every scenario.
I want handlers who are teaching their reactive dogs new patterns and coping strategies, the space and lessened stressful environment. So I use these guidelines for dog/dog interactions when in public, leashed spaces. This is incomplete, but it gives a baseline for rethinking how we allow for dogs to greet new dogs, or not at all.
1. First, I try not to be totally distracted when walking with my leashed dogs. Even when my head phones are on, I'm scanning the perimeter and noting my surroundings. I look for turning vehicles, on coming dogs, children, bikes etc. Along with this, like many trainers will tell you, correctly, I try to keep my dogs leashed loosely on the opposite side of whatever distraction I pass, so that I'm the first interaction between whatever the challenge is, and my dogs.
2. As we are walking, I periodically practice eye contact ("look"), and work to maintain a close position with my dog, on a loose leash no longer than 6 feet. It's much easier to keep control and good communication on a short leash.
3. If I'm in a space where we may be asked if the dogs are "friendly", I first gauge how comfortable and confident I am with the handler requesting a greeting. If they are handling a dog that is very excited, lunging, pulling, even with a wagging tail, I automatically pass. Usually I can diffuse disappointment with something neutral like "I'm sorry, we are running late!" or "not today!".I won't compromise on this even if it feels uncomfortable, because that level of excitement is reactivity, and I don't want it to escalate at all. Also automatic turn downs are those dogs with intense glares, even non vocal.
4. Most often, it's the handlers who don't ask about greetings who we end up interacting with, and only if both dogs seem interested, completely loose leashed, and not hyper focused. It's very rare that I'm totally comfortable and interested with my leashed dogs greeting another leashed dog. I'm happier to pass by or even travel together briefly with dogs who aren't interested in my pack!
5. If I see a handler struggling to work towards resolving or preventing reactivity of any kind, I give a ton of space, including crossing a street. I don't want to make their job any harder. Furthermore, though my own pack probably doesn't need it, once I have enough space, I will use food as a reinforcement to their complete attention and move quickly away from the other handler. Once we are in the clear, I will use positive verbal reinforcement and that food reward to reinforce that I'm very pleased with their powers of impulse control, and focus!
Working together to agree that dog greetings should be the exception, not the rule can aid with dog safety, and provides a great option to help your dog build their focus and impulse control.