Book Review: The Evolution of Charlie Darwin by Beth Duman

The Evolution of Charlie Darwin
The Evolution of Charlie Darwin

Published by Earth Voices Publishing, 2011

191 Pages

“Do you want to learn to train your dog using the gentlest dog-friendly methods but you get overwhelmed reading long, complicated training books? If so, this book is for you!”

The Evolution of Charlie Darwin is part dog ownership manual, part chronicle of the the adoption of a rescue dog. The author, Beth Duman is a well known animal trainer – most recently she lectured at the 2011 APDT conference, and is a core dog trainer with Dog Scouts of America, CPDT certified, and is a Victoria Stillwell Positively trainer. Charlie Darwin is her rescue dog and this book chronicles the first year of his life with her, organized around a large collection of training articles.

I’m going to start this review by posing a question to you, assuming you are a fairly knowledgeable dog owner that understands how clicker training works, why we shouldn’t use force and intimidation with our dogs, and have a good general understanding of the science behind how we interact with our dogs.

Have you ever discovered that a friend or family member is getting a new dog, for the first time? What went through your mind when you first found out?

If you’re like me, I hope they ask me for some pointers – perhaps recommendations for good books, finding a great puppy school, develop a love of training their dog, etc.

My worst fear, and what makes my stomach turn, is when I find out later they didn’t take their puppy to puppy socialization classes, or took their dog to a yank and crank or dominance theory trainer, and have been leash popping and tsssting their dog just like “that guy” on TV does. And, it happens. I have friends on Facebook that post videos of going to dog training classes where dogs are tethered to them as they wrap them around poles and trees. It absolutely breaks my heart.

That’s how a book like this can help. It covers a lot of ground – on topics as important and as varied as bringing a new rescue home, how to introduce them to your other pets, crating and confinement, long-lines, socialization, recall, polite greetings, loose leash walking, desensitization to handling, shaping go-to-mat … a LOT of topics. Each topic gets a short two to three page treatment – enough detail for the lesson to be understood, but not so much as to bore anyone. It is really like a collection of useful articles that if you could have eight hours in a quiet room with your friend, you’d go through with them (who does!).

Along the way, Duman includes excerpts from her own training journal with Charlie Darwin, where she writes about her own frustrations with two of his most naughty habits – running off with stolen objects, and fence jumping. We get a glimpse into the thought process of an experienced positive reinforcement trainer about how to address behaviors in her own dog – without using force or intimidation.

While there is content specifically for new puppies, this book shines as a guidebook and reference manual for those with new adolescent or adult rescues – just like Charlie Darwin.

Although primarily written for new dog owners, or those unfamiliar with positive reinforcement training, experienced dog trainers can get a lot out of this book as well. In many ways the book can be looked upon as a checklist of important topics to cover in private consults, group classes, and lectures.

This week, it’s featured on and 30% off, so pick up a copy for yourself, and consider it a book to get for friends and family that are getting a new dog and need that first solid reference manual on their journey.

What I liked:

  • It is a solid collection of training articles covering possibly every topic that a new dog owner should know
  • Each article is detailed enough to make sense and benefit the reader and their dog
  • It can be read in any order, so it is very much a reference manual, which makes it very useful for time-pressed people

Some considerations:

  • It’s best suited for those with a new adolescent or adult rescue. A puppy owner (8 weeks old) would benefit from this book in conjunction with a puppy-specific book as well.

Free Training Plan: Around

Hi Everyone,

After slacking off for two weeks while on holidays (When Hounds Fly was closed, and I also slacked off on Petey’s training) I’m back at it and yesterday I taught Petey a new behavior – “Around” – which is just to go out and go around an object, either left or right, based on how I send him out.  The whole exercise took approximately 20 minutes (of course, broken up into many short, high intensity sessions).

Here are some comments about the training plan:

1) Initially Petey has no idea what to do. We’ve been doing a lot of “go in/on” so he was just jumping on top of the bucket. That’s why I put my leg there – I was hoping he wouldn’t jump up.

2) I moved onto using “Aim for It” (described in Agility Right From the Start) – which is basically just click for action, treat for position.

Click 1 – for heading towards the object

Click 2 – for looking at the intended path

Click 3 – for moving along intended path

Click 4 – for turning head towards intended path, and then cue to mat

Subsequently, less intermediate c/t are required and very quickly, the dog understands the whole path to take as one behavior.

3) Good Agility Practices / Loopy Training

There’s no time for dead time in training! Like I mentioned in my previous post about training with high intensity, the dog is either working, or on their mat.

In clicker training, a loop is:

Cue > Behavior > Click > Consume Reinforcement > Cue > Behavior > Click > Consume Reinforcement

I use the tug toy frequently as a way to deliver the reinforcer, and transport the dog back to their mat – at which point, another loop in the training starts again.

When using food, it’s important to deliver the food in a way that the dog does not have to get frustrated to find it. Usually, my aim is pretty good, but you’ll see on the video there’s a bad bounce (2:11) and Petey has trouble finding it. Having to sniff/scan/search for food breaks the loop. This is inefficient training and can also cause superstitious behaviors to creep into your training.

When it’s time for a break, I send the dog to their mat.

4) The opposite direction: I didn’t include any video, but I started with Aim for It to teach the other direction.

5) Object Generalization: My goal for our first session was for Petey to go around a pylon. So I started with the Pylon on top of the bucket, then moved to a small paint can with the pylon, and then just the pylon. It was nice and easy.

What do you think of the training plan I used? Comment below if you have feedback!

Good Training Decisions Are Obvious With Experience

I’m now a month into the Silvia Trkman course and beginning to crack open the 3rd set of bi-weekly lesson plans.

One of the new exercises I’ve been working on is the 2-on 2-off, which is where a dog learns to go onto a platform, and only have the front two paws come off. This is, as I understand it, used for coming off of obstacles like the A-Frame or Teeter so that the dog doesn’t jump off prematurely, but completely walks off the obstacle.

I started working on the 2-on 2-off, and my first session looked like this (go to the 1:08 mark)

Silvia said it was going fine but I should vary my position, so I kept on working on it, and started working on building distance and some duration. By the third session a few days later I had something like this (starts at the 1:08 mark):

Class was on hiatus for about a week so no comments or questions. So I did a couple more sessions like that. Something dawned on me after the fact though. I was creating a superstitious behavior chain of overshoot the platform and then back up on it! Woops, duh, that should be obvious right? The dog would come off the A-Frame and then back up onto it again.

So today, humbly, I went back and started working on it again. The next clip is a bit on the long side (6 minutes) so you can jump around, but now I’m only c/t if Petey finds the 2on2off position on the first attempt (jump ahead to the 2:35 minute mark):

Fortunately I didn’t get too far along the path before getting back on track.

The other thing I have been working on in this program is perchwork and hind end rotation. If you’ve seen my YouTube channel, you might know that I first taught Petey to perch and rotate for Finish a year ago. But, there’s a problem! I only taught counter clockwise, so he could not go clockwise! This course is forcing me to deal with that, so I am working on a clockwise rotation.

His clockwise rotation is still weaker than counter clockwise, but, it’s coming along nicely. I don’t have much footage of when I first started working on clockwise, but let me tell you, it was like trying to get the toilet bowl to flush the opposite direction. Counter clockwise was so heavily reinforced it was incredibly difficult to get the first movement towards the other way.

Last year I was just greedy and wanted the perfect finish fast, and I got it. But, I should have been thinking about developing Petey symmetrically, because equal awareness for left and right would be important for exercises like cik and cap for faster jumps in agility.


Cik and Cap
Cik and Cap

All these considerations – should be obvious with experience. Having no experience in serious competitive agility, they weren’t obvious to me!

I’ve always felt this way, but these little roadbumps in my training really confirmed that what I already knew. There is a reason why Mirkka teaches our Rally-O class – she has trained dogs to Competition Obedience standards (which are much higher), and why Julie teaches our Tricks class – she has choreographed, trained, and performed full Canine Freestyle routines, and why Emily teaches our Canine Good Neighbour class – two of her dogs are CGN titled dogs.

There’s no such thing as overqualified when it comes to selecting your instructors because only with experience do good training decisions become obvious.


Good Shaping is Stress*-Free

Today during new student orientations, When Hounds Fly welcomed a new student with a 16 month old English Bulldog. Their owner had completed three levels of classes at another dog training school (a typical Toronto dog training school – mostly positive, old-fashioned lure-reward type school). She had watched a lot of our videos and was excited to come to our school and do our Foundations Skills program, even though her dog probably knows many of the behaviors taught. I was really happy to hear that, as it was clear she knew that she was coming to learn how to be a clicker trainer!

“We’re really anal here about good training. You came to the right place.” I said.

“Great, because I don’t want my dog to be confused, wondering what he’s supposed to do, yawning and stressing out anymore.” she replied.

What a brilliant observation. Being a sloppy trainer is not just detrimental to you, in terms of lack of progress. It is highly unfair to the dog. They feel stress and anxiety with poorly timed clicks, low rates of reinforcement, or confusing criteria. Being a great clicker trainer means the dog should seldom, if ever, feel stressed during training.

When you train your dog, what kinds of signs of stress do you observe? For Petey, the first sign is stress lines around his eyes and mouth. If it continues to worsen, he whines quietly while moving frantically. At its worst, he stops moving and lays down, panting and whining. Other dogs bark at their handler in frustration. Some lay down and look depressed. I knew of one that would start growling. None of these feelings are helpful as we are trying to condition good feelings about training.

In my previous post I mentioned I had just enrolled in an online distance course. The first exercise I’ve been working on is to train Petey to put four paws inside a food bowl. The instructor does not give very explicit training plans – figuring it out yourself is part of the learning process. In the below video, I have taken snapshots of the four sessions I did over three days:

In the series of four training sessions on video, I started with a US postal service box, then a black ikea box, then a cardboard box that housed my kettle, and finally the water bowl dish. In each session, Petey never showed signs of anxiety or stress. While he sometimes struggled to get his paws in the container, he knew what he was doing.

Good training means the dog is never stressed or confused. A good training plan is needed first. This four paws in a food dish exercise is a great exercise in thinking about how to shape properly by splitting criteria. It’s so easy! Start with a giant box and work your way down to progressively smaller boxes until you get to the final size you wish. Move down a size/raise criteria whenever the dog hits a certain success rate (80% typically). Box dimensions (length/width/height) are easily quantifiable, so criteria is black and white. Instead of starting with a tiny box, or a food bowl, and getting frustrated, I just spent a lot of time finding perfect size boxes. Then the training went quick!

Unfortunately, not all behaviors have criteria so easy to split and identify as the dimensions of a box. That’s the skill of a great clicker trainer – determining how to split criteria to the smallest increment, devising ingenious ways to setup the training environment so criteria is easy to identify, and ensuring the rate of reinforcement is high enough that the exercises are easy for the dog.

In my earlier videos and training sessions a year or more ago, Petey often got confused and would lay down and get stressed out. I kept on training and pushed through. From now on, if any dog I train shuts down that way, it’s time to stop training and go back to the drawing board.

Always be asking yourself – how can I make this easier for the dog?

Nesting Dolls
Answer: Split Criteria Like Nesting Dolls

*Update: A mere hour after I posted this on our Facebook Page, Casey Lomonaco posted a really great comment: “I partially agree. Learning is stressful, but there is a big difference between eustress and distress.” Thank you – yes – learning is stressful, and I think during a great training session, especially when you are raising criteria, our dogs are buzzing and feeling eustress. And that is a good thing. Thank you Casey!

Online Distance Courses – Silvia Trkman’s LoLaBuLand

Exciting news! I just enrolled in a three month distance education course run by Silvia Trkman. Petey and I are in “Puppy/Tricks Class” and every two weeks we will be given assignments of tasks/tricks to complete. I’m excited to have access to the tutelage of such a world famous trick and agility instructor, and also as it’s been a while since I graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy, I kind of miss the pressure of deadlines and tasks to train. Instead of having to drive 7 hours to a workshop though, participants post videos to document their progress.

I decided to give it a try since a month ago, Julie enrolled in a class with Kay Laurence of Learning About Dogs – another world famous dog trainer. She said she was enjoying it so here goes nothing I thought!

I signed up last night at 1AM in the morning, and the class started ten days ago so I’m already late. The next set of homework comes out in four days and I’m hastily working through the first set. My first challenge is to get Petey to place all four paws inside progressively smaller containers – the final goal would be something as small as a bowl or food dish. We can do it in three days! Wish us luck!

Petey wiped out after box work!
Petey wiped out after box work!

KPA Reunion Weekend at Clicking With Canines

On Friday, July 29th, 43 clicker trainers (Karen Pryor Academy Faculty, Graduates, and some of their friends) from the Northeast travelled to Endicott, NY for the first ever Karen Pryor Academy graduate reunion at Clicking With Canines. Mirkka and I made our way from Toronto (it’s about a 7.5 hour drive) to attend. I left the Beagles at home so it was just her Aussie, Forbes in the back.

Although very casual in feel, the weekend was extremely well put together. It’s thanks to Steve Benjamin (Faculty, and my instructor), Casey Lomonaco, Donna Devoist, and Abbie Tamber for putting in a ton of hard work to make it an amazing weekend! Obviously much of the weekend was educational in nature, so here’s a little bit about what I learned:

Saturday – Morning Presentations

Jules Nye of Sit Stay Play – Separation Anxiety

Jules Nye on Separation Anxiety
Jules Nye on Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety is a big topic and rather than cover the basics (that many readers of this blog will already know – if you want a primer, check out this article I wrote a while ago.

Jules asked a number of rather socratic questions and also made many interesting assertions – here they are:

A common cause of separation anxiety is bad experiences during the departure. That could include a cat that beats the dog up, a thunderstorm that occurs while left alone, or, even the return of an abusive owner (i.e. a previously happy dog is sitting on the couch chewing a shoe – owner returns home and proceeds to beat the snot out of the dog – now the dog is anxious when he’s alone because the return of the owner could happen any time).

Jules is not a fan of plain old desensitization (planned departures without the use of any food or reinforcement). Rather she suggests counter conditioning (which means use food in the planned departure).

Give your anxious dog avenues to calm themselves down. Destruction is self-calming behavior, which is why dogs with separation anxiety destroy things. Redirect their self-calming behavior to appropriate objects (buster cubes, food dispensers, etc.) She also asserts that if a dog has a dog door to the yard, and can actually verify the owner is gone, they tend to calm quicker. Chewing, digging, running around, etc.

Poisoned cues – I wrote about this here when I attended Kathy Sdao’s lecture last fall – you can make a dog afraid of food, food toys, or certain behaviors if you cue them prior to leaving. A great way to kill a dog’s stay is to cue a down-stay and then leave.

Confidence training – teach separation anxiety dogs out of sight stays, or send-outs, so they develop a strong reinforcement history for leaving the owner.

To walk or not to walk – in my own article I suggest exercising a dog prior to leaving them home alone. She posed the question “to walk or not to walk” and it is dependent on whether being outside creates more anxiety in the dog. For example, if a dog is generally anxious and could spook by being out there (reactive to dogs, cars, people?) then walking first prior to departing would only make their anxiety greater at home.

Lastly, Jules stated she is supportive of the use of medication for cases that call for it. Fluoxetine, Clomipramine, Benzodiazepines – drugs can lower threshold so the behavior mod works. In some cases, dogs are just genetically predisposed to being highly anxious and medication can help them relax in other situations where they are under a lot of stress.

Andre Yeu of When Hounds Fly – Business Startup

I did a brief presentation on how I started and grew When Hounds Fly to where it is today. Sorry, you just had to be there for it!

Leanne Falkingham – Shelter Training

Leanne Falkingham - Shelter Training
Leanne Falkingham - Shelter Training

Leanne gave us a glimpse of her world – her dog shelter – where she has implemented extremely progressive training, management, and enrichment programs.

A stark fact she shared is that the majority of dogs surrendered to shelter were only with their owners for 3 months. The majority are between 6 months to 2 years and are showing early signs of aggressive behavior. In New York State, Jack Russell Terriers, German Shepherds, Huskies, and Pit Bulls make up the majority of breeds surrendered or picked up as stray.

Training implemented: Dogs are clicked and treated for being quiet, and sitting when greeted. Unlike most shelters, her shelter is quiet, and dogs know to sit for attention. This increases the likelihood of their adoption (no one wants a barky dog that will knock over grandma). Dogs are required to sit for everything (sit for harness, sit for kennel door opening, etc.) and dogs are taught impulse control/zen around toys.

Environmental Enrichment: Their outdoor area has been setup like an agility playground and staff and volunteers take the dogs out when it’s there turn for outside play. Inexpensive food/puzzle toys are used, such as a muffin tray with tennis balls (treats are hidden under the tennis balls). Dogs also take turns actually spending time with staff in the office side of the shelter, sitting in office chairs or curled up on the floor, meeting and greeting employees and visitors.

She also plays music like Through a Dog’s Ear, but also recommended Canine Lullabies (I had never heard of it before). Check it out.


Casey Lomonaco of Rewarding Behaviors – Treiball

Casey Lomonaco - Treiball
Casey Lomonaco - Treiball

Casey is very active in the (new) Treiball community and she gave us an intro to Treiball lecture. Treiball is a very new dog sport, imported from Germany, where dogs are directed by their handlers to push balls into a goal. Can’t visualize it? Just watch this video.

Perhaps the most interesting fact about this sport that I learned is that an untrained dog can easily puncture a Treiball inflatable. One hard paw or one nip and the ball is destroyed. So the crazier a dog is for a ball, the more time must be spent on impulse control. The first skill Casey focuses on teaching is a good strong hard push, without any pawing or biting.

The types of push training she’ll run dogs through include:

  • Turn on a tap-light (those lights that look like the Staples Easy button)
  • Push doors closed
  • Push drawers closed
  • Unroll a rolled up carpet
  • Push a giant popcorn tin
  • Roll a coffee can
  • Push a child’s wagon
Then the inflatables are introduced – initially the balls are held stationary and nose touches on a target (masking tape) are shaped for precision and also push strength.
The other foundation behavior that must be taught is a solid send out. The dog leaves the handler, goes past the inflatables, and is expected to reorient to the handler and lie down until released to push balls.
As the sport is new, rules and regulations are just evolving in the US, but she also gave us a glimpse into the future, in where more advanced Treiball will include inflatable discrimination (the order in which the dog pushes each ball into the goal) obstacles (hilly areas) and possibly even relay teams (like Flyball). Very cool!
Laurie Luck Smart Dog University Nose Work
Laurie Luck discussing Nosework
Laurie Luck is a KPA Faculty Member from Maryland. She gave us a great introduction to the relatively new dog sport of Nose Work.
Nosework is great for all dogs, but especially those that can’t compete in traditional dog sports. Reactive dogs, handicapped dogs, old dogs can do nosework as dogs work one dog at a time while other dogs are crated in other rooms.
The foundation work for Nosework is to build a “search ethic” in a dog. How you start is simply getting a bunch of old shoe boxes and putting treats inside one – release your dog to sniff and find the box with treats. Once the dog has found the box with treats, go in and add more treats to further reinforce the dog’s search ethic.
The next step is to utilize classical conditioning to pair specific scents with treats. Anise, birch, and clover are the three scents used in nosework. By pairing the scent of clover with treats, the dog will eventually learn to seek out the box with the scent of clover alone. Dogs are also taught an indication behavior so that they can communicate to the handler when they have found the scent (i.e. sit next to the box with the scent)
The types of environments that nosework is done in consist of interior rooms, exterior spaces, a series of containers, and a vehicle.
Nosework is inexpensive, easy to get into, and doesn’t require a lot of space. Hopefully we can offer a nosework class in the future at When Hounds Fly!
Mo Carter – Bird Training
Mo Carter Bird Training
Mo Carter - Bird Training
Mo shared a photo album of a trip she took to a bird training camp where they worked with various exotic birds.
Two things that I took from the presentation were: 1) These birds were free to fly away and escape any time they wanted, but they always returned to their handlers when released. 2) The bigger birds of prey are rewarded with mice!!!  Yuck!
Emma Parsons - Click to Calm
Emma Parsons - Click to Calm Classes
If you have a reactive dog, you know who Emma Parsons is, because you’ve hopefully read her classic “Click to Calm”. In her presentation she shared course descriptions, physical setups, curriculum, and video clips of her famous Click to Calm classes she teaches in Boston.
There were three points that stood out and I made sure to remember from the presentation:
Staffing – The class nearly has a 1-to-1 assistant to student ratio. These classes are extremely labor intensive.
Cacophony of clicks – They are splitting like crazy. Click, feed, click, feed, click, feed. No lumping. The video clips made me like a bad lumper when it comes to my old boy Duke when I work on his reactivity.
Regression is part of the process – Relief for me… my own reactive dog, Duke, constantly goes through ups and downs. A few months ago we were passing dogs on the same side of the sidewalk with ease, and then for a number of reasons, became sensitized again – he’s on his way back to being able to pass dogs on the street again. It makes me feel better knowing that from Emma’s own experience, regression is not a failure or even necessarily a function of bad training.
The rest of the weekend was mostly spent outdoors – including an amazing twilight dinner and social at Steve Benjamin’s place (including a dip in his pond – where Deb Ross gave me some pointers on improving my front crawl) and the following day, Mirkka and I were at an agility workshop put on by Abbie Tamber, another KPA CTP who teaches agility in the area. (Other activities included Lure Coursing, Treiball, and a trail hike). I had so much fun just watching, when I returned home, I ordered a set of agility equipment for When Hounds Fly (weave poles, tunnel, four jumps, teeter) and am fired up about training Petey for agility. Pictures tell a thousand words so here are some pictures of Steve’s beautiful property:
Steve's Pond
Steve's Pond
Abbie's Wobble Board
Abbie's Wobble Board
Steve's Place
Steve's Place


Abbie's JRT handled by Lori Gwyr
Abbie's JRT handled by Lori Gwyr


Forbes and Mirkka running through channels
Forbes and Mirkka running through channels
Abbie's JRT
Abbie's JRT

Video: Abbie’s JRT handled by Lori Gwyr


And lastly a group shot! There’s a number of famous dog trainers there (and a dolphin trainer!)

KPA Reunion Photo 07-31-2011
KPA Reunion Photo


Again thanks to all the Southern Tier NY State KPA folks for putting on such a big undertaking. Other faculty members are planning reunions in other parts of the country so hopefully KPA CTPs everywhere can have a blast like we did. Mirkka and I are working on something for Ontario-area KPA CTPs for 2012 already…


The Four Phases of a Positive Reinforcement Trainer

A few weeks ago, I was invited by Katie Hood (Karen Pryor wrote about Katie in her recent letter about her trip to When Hounds Fly) to come watch a rehearsal of The Animal Show.

The Animal Show is a one-person play written and performed by Katie.  In her own words (from her web site) it’s:

“A tale of caring for unwanted animals in Animal Rescue and the responsibility/hilarity that goes with it.  Follow this fresh-faced (mostly klutzy) newcomer as she rescues bald eagles from the ocean, pulls 41 cats from one house, and falls in love with the man who saves a three-legged kitten.”

Katie draws from her own experiences in working in animal rescue – being on-call 24/7, enduring the hardships of helping mortally wounded animals, and perhaps most importantly, learning to cope with the public (that often don’t care one bit about the welfare of animals) and the bureaucracy (that often puts profit ahead of care). Katie structured her play around Doug Fakkema’s “Four Phases of Animal Rescue”, which describes the phases that someone working in animal rescue goes through (as follows):

Phase One:  ZEALOTRY: Red hot and raring to go, we are out to change the world. We are high on life. We know that we can make a difference, that our efforts on behalf of animals will ease their plight.

Phase Two:  ZOMEBIEHOOD: Our Phase One enthusiasm has turned sour; the bubble bursts and we crash and burn. We see the same people coming into the shelter with yet another litter—they haven’t heard our message. We continue to euthanize; there seems no end to it.

Phase Three:  MISANTHROPY: Our Phase Two depression has turned outward and we’re mad as hell. Hopelessness turns to rage. We begin to hate people, any people and all people unless, like our coworkers, they dedicate their lives to animals the way we do.

Phase Four:  “Big Picture Time”: Over time, though, the depression of Phase Two and the anger of Phase Three can become replaced with a new determination and understanding of what our mission really is. This is Phase Four—big picture time. We realize that we have been effective locally—and in some cases, regionally and even nationally. So we haven’t solved the problem (who could?), but we have made a difference for dozens, even hundreds and sometimes thousands of animals. We have changed the way others around us view animals. We begin to see our proper place in our own community, and we begin to see that we are most effective when we balance our work and out-of-work lives.

Katie’s performance is deeply personal – she travels through all of the four phases and her story reminds me of my own experiences in animal rescue.

I’ve volunteered and fostered at a handful of rescues – for sure, the rescue organizations led by those that are in Phase Four of their development of animal rescuers are by far the most efficient. They are realistic in their objectives. They respect and balance their need for personal time as well as their volunteers’ time. They never get angry at people and recognize that people make mistakes. Rescue organizations that have frustrated me are led by people that bounce around from Phase 1 to 3 depending on the time of day. They constantly lose volunteers, foster homes, and applicants. It’s hard to work with people that can go from boundless energy, to clinically depressed, to combative all in one day.

The Animal Show prompted me to reflect on a lot of things.  I realized that although I have never been heavily involved in animal rescue, I’ve also gone through a similar process of transformation as a positive reinforcement dog trainer. It’s a journey that’s also deeply personal and at times I’ve done things that I’m embarrassed of.  Here’s my journey, categorized into “The Four Phases of a Positive Reinforcement Trainer”.

Phase One:  SMUG:  You finally understand what a clicker is. Your dog is able to learn behaviors quickly and you think your dog is just the smartest thing ever and that you’re the most amazing trainer. Your dog walks beautifully on leash, comes when called, and knows a bunch of impressive tricks. You can’t help but feel like your dog is better than all the other dogs at the park, and you can’t help but feel schadenfreude when you see another owner struggling with their dog’s pulling, or their inability to collect their dog when it’s time to go home.

A personal story:  Long before I even thought of becoming a professional dog trainer, someone at a Beagle rescue meetup saw me working with Duke with a clicker. He came to ask me about it. Rather than be a gracious representative of clicker training, I said something curt along the lines of “Well a clicker is something you need to get trained on how to use.” If by any chance you are reading this, man, I am sorry. I hope you went to Google that night and searched for “Clicker Training”. I could have just sent you to if I wasn’t so self-absorbed at the time.

Phase Two:  DISCOURAGED:  Time goes by and you’re no longer as caught up in your dog and your own training exploits. You start looking outward.  What do you see?  Dog after dog on the street in a prong collar.  Another owner alpha-rolling and scruff shaking their puppy.  A dog walker getting cross with one of their dogs and hanging it by the leash to “show him who’s boss”.  You ask yourself, how could there be so many of them and so few of us?  You can’t remember the last time you saw anyone teach their dog using food or toys at the park. And, oh great, everyone is taking their dog to that evil dog training school that advocates forced pinnings and leash corrections strong enough to send a dog off all four of their paws in the air. Everyone’s just beating on their dogs.

Another personal story: I stopped going to the more popular dog parks because it was just too much for me to watch.  It bothered me whenever I saw dogs getting beat up. I only recently started going back.

Phase Three:  ANGRY:  You just can’t take it anymore. Anyone doing or teaching these methods that you find so repulsive must be stopped. Everywhere, anywhere! You spend countless hours on Facebook or other message boards arguing with Cesar Milan devotees about why “dominance” isn’t the reason why that dog is misbehaving.  You give people walking their dogs on prong collars dirty looks. When someone asks you at a dinner party “Oh, you like dogs?  Do you watch the Dog Whisperer?”, you read them the riot act, including the full AVSAB Position Statement on Dominance Theory.

Another personal story: While I didn’t spend a lot of time in this phase, I sometimes even now take a peep at different Facebook groups dedicated to hating on certain TV dog trainers.

Phase Four:  “Big Picture Time”: After spending time being arrogant, depressed, and militant – sometimes all three in one day, you come to realize that the reason why you love positive reinforcement training is because you love dogs. If you love dogs, then your goal should be to help people love positive reinforcement training as well. You can’t accomplish that by being smug, depressed, or combative. When I understood this, I enrolled in the Karen Pryor Academy, with the intent of opening When Hounds Fly.

Thoughts about Phase Four:

  • I catch more flies with honey than vinegar – there’s no point in vilifying the alpha roller, scruff shaker, or leash popper. They are just doing what they think is right. They do it because someone told them that it would help their dog, and in the end, they care enough about their dog to try. I’m ready for them when they want my help.
  • Reinforce what you like, ignore what you don’t.  There are many dog owners out there that carry a clicker in one hand and a prong collar in the other.  Don’t vilify them either.  Reinforce them for using a clicker. As they get better, the prong collar will collect dust. Attack them for having the prong collar and they’ll never want to get rid of it. Today, a new client came with their leash reactive dog on a prong collar.  I made no mention of it, until forty minutes into our appointment, it came time to start training, at which point I let them try a Sense-ation harness, which they loved, and purchased on the spot.
  • “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”
  • An hour spent blogging about clicker training will help hundreds, possibly thousands of people.  An hour spent ranting about how evil (insert TV dog trainer’s name here) is doesn’t help anyone.
  • I see so many Easywalk and Sense-ation harnesses nowadays. I also hear the sounds of faint clicks in the distance and delight to see my students training their dogs outside. Change starts one dog and owner at a time!
  • I aspire to be here in Phase Four more often than not.  Sometimes I bounce back to other phases, but I really try to think about the big picture and pull myself back… quickly!
Whether you like it or not, by clicker training your dog, you are an ambassador for modern, science-based training. How you interact with other dog owners will have a profound influence on that dog owner’s opinion of not just you, and not just clicker trainers, but the whole world of clicker training, period! So let’s make a great impression the first time and every time.
Duke and Petey Beagles
Duke and Petey
And… if you live in Edmonton, Victoria, or Vancouver, make sure to check out The Animal Show in August, at each city’s respective Fringe Festival – check out for show information and dates!

Don’t Phone It In – Make Class Count

In the previous post in my series on being a dog training school student, I covered everything I do leading up to actually attending class.  So now this post will cover how I make the most out of an hour long dog training class.

The biggest change and improvement in how I train has to do with how I view the structure of a class.

An hour long class = Thirty 1-minute training sessions with thirty 1-minute breaks

An hour long class is a VERY long time – not only for the dog, but for the handler as well.  It’s impossible for both you and your dog to maintain maximum focus and intensity for 60 minutes non-stop.  If you try, your dog will slow down, and you’ll slow down – you’ll get winded, your mind will wander, you’ll get sloppy with your criteria and mechanical skills, and your dog will get frustrated and confused.  As your dog gets confused, he’ll start checking out and you’ll lose his focus.

A dog training class is very much like a workout routine.  Some of you might know that I am a huge fan of interval training and also a huge Jillian Michaels fan.  Her 20 minute workouts are intense, well structured, and never let you zone out.  You do a set of cardio moves, then a set of strength moves, then core, then repeat, until after 20 minutes you are done.  Each set is only 1-2 minutes in duration so that during each set you maintain focus, intensity, and good form.



While it’s possible for you to do 7 minutes of skip rope, 7 minutes of weights, then 7 minutes of crunches, your skipping would end up being sloppy, you’d end up with poor form on the w?eights, ?and you would probably start trying to get away with sloppy crunches.  Short duration bursts allow you to perform with intensity and also recover for another set.  One of my favorite quotes from her 30 Day Shred DVD is:

“If you want results from a 20 minute workout, you can’t rest.  This will save you hours of phoning it in at the gym.”

So that’s what a 30 Day Shred workout looks like.  Here’s what the equivalent can look like in dog training.



Your Dog’s Station – Off Duty and On Break

As soon as you arrive in class, prior to actually beginning work, put your dog at their station.  This can be their crate, or their mat (hence the need for a fluent Go to Mat behavior with a stay).  When the dog is stationed, this is when you can think, plan, refill on treats, take notes, or listen to or talk to the instructor.  You can borrow a mat from the school, or bring your own (this is best, since it’ll be a constant no matter what training environment you go to).  Reinforce your dog randomly for holding a down-stay at their station.

Ready to Train?  Wait Just a Minute!

Before you release your dog… make sure you can answer these questions:

  1. What is the behavior I am training?
  2. What is the criteria for which the dog will earn a click/treat?
  3. What is the shaping plan? (What are the additional steps of criteria beyond the first level of criteria?)
  4. Where will I keep the reinforcers (treats, toys, etc.)?
  5. Where will I place the reinforcement?
  6. What could do wrong?
  7. What will I do if everything goes horribly wrong?
  8. What will I do if the dog advances their behavior to higher levels of criteria quickly?
  9. What will I do if I forget what I am doing?

There are a lot of different answers to all these questions (and there are probably more questions!).  The point of this exercise is to at least have a training plan ready in your head, even if the whole exercise goes horribly wrong (#6).  The possible answers to #7 and #9 are a) Keep working anyways or b) Send the dog back to their station.

Hit It!

Pre-count the # of treats you will use in a session so that you don’t run the risk of training for too long.  In general, I try to make each session last about one minute in length.  This is because a training session should be short enough that the handler can remember the entire training session.

Three more, two more, last one… When you’re down to your last treat, send the dog back to their station.  You can use the last treat as a reinforcer for going to station.

Dog at Station – Time to Think and Plan

Now that your dog is back at station, you can take a moment to review the training session you just completed.  What went well?  Was the rate of reinforcement high enough?  Is it time to increase criteria for the next training session? Or, if it went poorly, what went wrong, and how can you lower criteria to increase the rate of reinforcement?

This is a great time to take notes, record data in a notebook, get more treats ready, and reset the training environment if required (obstacles, props, etc.)

Some Other Notes:

  • Putting the dog at a station builds anticipation, which can increase the motivation and enthusiasm of the dog once they are released. This can build some speed in your behaviors.
  • Staying at station is training in itself.  If the dog breaks station, send them back and make them hold it until released.  This is a stay exercise and letting the dog break station and then proceeding to train them will cause your stay behavior to deteriorate.
  • If the instructor comes to talk to you and you are in the middle of a training session, send the dog to their station before engaging with them.  It’s OK to be rude to the instructor and ignore them for a few seconds while you wrap up.
  • If the instructor starts lecturing, also send the dog to their station so you can give your undivided attention to the instructor while giving your dog a break.
  • You can also station your dog while waiting for class to begin – if you’re early for class, put down your mat and have them stay on it while waiting for class to begin.

Hope you enjoyed the post!  On a side note, making this video was helpful for me as well.  I spotted a bunch of sloppy training errors I made and I’ve broken them down and will be working on improving my own training skills as a result.  If you watch my video and can see errors I’ve made, comment below!

Karen Pryor’s Visit

I met Karen for the first time at ClickerExpo, and it was there she asked whether I would be attending the Professional Animal Behavior Associates (PABA) symposium in Guelph in May.  Unfortunately, I explained that I couldn’t as there would be too many students/too many classes to run, and with the May 24 weekend the following week, I couldn’t cancel classes for the symposium.

After ClickerExpo, via email, Karen suggested that she would like to extend her trip to Canada and after her engagement in Guelph, come visit us in Toronto.  So, after a little bit of planning leading up to it, on May 16, I had the unique privilege to host her for the day in the city!

A world famous author and the pioneer of clicker training is coming to visit and I had a space of approximately 8 hours to make the experience memorable.  If you’re not from Toronto and have 8 hours to spend here, feel free to follow this itinerary – you’ll enjoy it, I am certain!

So, this is what we did:

4pm:  Picked up Karen at her hotel.  I had arranged for her to stay at the Westin Harbour Castle on Queens Quay and Yonge.  Heavenly bed, lakeview room overlooking the Toronto Islands; back in the day when I worked at, a lot of the folks from San Francisco would stay there and remark that the rooms were great and the lakeview at sunrise was stunning.  You can’t go wrong having visiting dignitaries stay there.

430pm:  Karen loves tea.  So our first stop was Nadege Patisserie on Queen Street West, east of the south-east corner of Trinity Bellwoods Park.  We had two pots of tea and an assortment of their perfect macarons.

Nadege Patisserie
Nadege Patisserie,
Perfect Macarons
Perfect Macarons,

530pm: Enroute to When Hounds Fly, we walked through Trinity Bellwoods Park.  Had the weather been nicer, it would have been an opportunity to observe a lot of owners with their dogs, but unfortunately, with the drizzle, the park was a bit quiet.  Still, with the ample rain we’ve had, the park was lush, and the few dogs were saw were well behaved.

630pm:  Puppy class at When Hounds Fly!  I had invited all the nearby KPACTPs, all the teachers at our school, and other friends of the school like Krista from UWO and Katie from Queen West Vets to join us.  Karen had expressed interest in watching a class or two at school.  When Hounds Fly opened its doors with puppy class and foundation skills class taught using a modular, non-linear syllabus, which is strongly encouraged in the Karen Pryor Academy curriculum and program. The class that evening consisted of just four puppies; two of which were first timers, and two of which had attended a few classes already.

Tena Kristjanson and Karen Pryor
Tena Kristjanson and Karen Pryor
Ten dog trainers watching one
A bit strange to have ten very skilled animal trainers watching you teach puppy class.

So who came to the event?

KPACTPs Stacey Shaw, Tena Kristjanson, Katherine Ferger with Karen
Julie Posluns, Mirkka Koivusalo, Me, Emily Fisher
Julie Posluns, Mirkka Koivusalo, Andre Yeu, Emily Fisher with Karen

Tena and Katherine own All About Behavior, which runs clicker training chicken camps in Newmarket.  Also in attendance (but I don’t have photos of them yet) – Debra Ross (KPACTP), Krista Macpherson from UWO, and Katie Hood from Queen West Vets.

8pm:  School’s out!  Time for dinner… at one of Dundas Street West’s gems, Enoteca Sociale, just a short stroll from When Hounds Fly.  I had booked their private dining room located in what feels and looks like a wine cellar (I guess it is one) and is also adjacent to their climate controlled Cheese Cave (with a see-through glass window partition).

Enoteca Sociale, Private Dining Room
Enoteca Sociale, Private Dining Room
Cheese Cave
Cheese Cave at Enoteca Sociale

Fiddlestick bruschetta was a featured antipasti, and for dolci, the table was split between their profiterole and a chocolate budino topped with sea salt.

We talked about a lot of things that night, ranging from the likes and dislikes of the recent PABA symposium, animal cognition, horses (I know nothing about horses), animal rescue, e-collars – you name it.  I have to say that it was really amazing to be able to enjoy the company of so many lovely people who are passionate about animals!  But perhaps what was most special is that for the first time, possibly ever, we put a bunch of animal trainers together in a small room that could agree with each other!

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare, to Train with Maximum Intensity

This post is all about preparing for class to maximize the efficiency, effectiveness, and intensity of your training.  As an instructor, it is clear to see which students come fully prepared for class, and in general, those that are well prepared do better both in class, and overall.

Since I am a dog trainer by profession, I may take preparation to a level that is beyond that of an average family dog owner, and I know there are people who are more disciplined than I am, but certainly everyone could make minor improvements in their preparation.

Prepare The Day Before Class

  • Exercise, exercise, exercise the dog – not to the point of exhaustion, but so they can sleep well that night.
  • Ensure the dog has a lot of uninterrupted sleep – having a house party that goes on till late at night will keep your dog from resting well.
  • Avoid stressful events (i.e. grooming, vet exam, being taken to somewhere new).
  • Avoid excessive feeding the day before so they are hungry on the day of training class.
  • Make sure you have high value treats ready for class.  I keep ample tubes of Rollover and Natural Balance around the house.

Prepare The Day of Class

  • Prepare multiple types of treats, freshly cut, and separated into zip loc bags.  All of them should be of fairly high value, but of course, some more than others.  Currently I am bringing one bag of Turkey Rollover, and one bag of Salmon Rollover.
  • Prepare all equipment needed for class.  Clicker, target stick, mat, tug toy, treat pouch loaded with some treats, extra treats in ziploc bags, etc.  The mat is very important (to be covered in the next blog post in this series)
  • Avoid excessive exercise for the dog that day.  Too much, and the dog will be too tired to work.
  • I do not feed my dogs any food until class starts.  That may mean the first food of the day is in the evening. They’ll live.
  • I block off the two hours preceding a class, so that I can relax and not feel rushed.
300 Reinforcers
300 Reinforcers
Bagged and Ready
Bagged and Ready

If we are to demand 100% of our dog’s attention during class, they deserve 100% of ours.

Prepare for Leaving Home for Class:

  • At home – walk the dog to allow them to fully eliminate and burn off a little energy before leaving.  My dogs are older, so they don’t need to burn off steam prior to class.
  • Arrival time:  I aim to arrive at the front door of the school 10 minutes before class.  Too early, and the dog can get impatient waiting for class to start.  Too late, and you won’t have enough time to walk the grounds to let the dog eliminate one more time.  I would err on the side of arriving early vs. late.
  • Training starts as soon as I get to the car.  Going into the car is a HUGE reinforcer, so the dog must hold a sit before being cued to hop in the car.  My clicker is on me, my pouch is on me, and I am ready to click/treat from this point moving forward.
  • During the drive there, I reinforce calm behaviors.  Every time the dog lays down and relaxes, I click, then treat.
  • When we arrive at the school, training continues.  The dog must offer a sit and hold sit as I open the door – and release the dog.  At this point, the dog gets 100% of my focus.  Phone is off, no idle conversations with anyone – I am here to pay attention to my dog.

This is what I do to prepare so that both Petey and I arrive to school focused, energized, and ready to work.  The opposite looks like:

  • Coming to school late – the dog is anxious because the handler is anxious about being late, and often is rushed from the car to the school without having a chance to eliminate.  Dogs have had accidents minutes after arriving to school because of this, which further stresses both the dog and handler.  The handler also misses out on instruction so the next 10 minutes of class is also a writeoff.
  • Not having treats cut and prepared – the dog is left in limbo while the handler has to spend 5 minutes cutting treats – that is 10% of the class wasted, and the dog’s mind is allowed to wander.
  • Not having enough treats – the dog is left in limbo as the handler has to somehow get some treats (take from the school, or buy from the retail store in front).  The dog gets to practice disconnecting from the handler, again.
  • Equipment buried deep in a bag, not readily available.  The dog’s good behavior during the leadup to class (sitting, eye contact, waiting at a boundary, etc.) go unreinforced, so the dog just pulls around and sniffs aimlessly entering class.  Training MUST begin the minute the dog is released from the car and the dog should not be allowed to do his own thing until after class ends.
  • Not exercising the dog enough (in particular, the day before) – the dog is hyperactive and can’t focus in class.

What’s the Point of All This?

The point of all this is to make all the details and particulars around getting to and functioning in class easy, so that 100% of your attention is available for the dog.  Clicker training is hard enough as it is!  I often tell students in my classes – If we are to demand 100% of our dog’s attention during class, they deserve 100% of ours.  With that foundation in place, we can eliminate opportunities for a dog to be left in limbo, drift off, get distracted, and lose focus.  In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about how I work inside the classroom to maintain a very high level of intensity and focus from the dog.