Hierarchy of Awesome!

Let me tell a quick story that will tie in nicely. When I was 16, all I wanted for Christmas was a Discman. (It was the 90s). 
90s vhs GIF

All my friends had one and as cassettes were going out of style I thought I'd finally be cool. I'd be able to buy CDs instead of sitting with blank cassettes with my finger on the record button waiting for the DJ to play my favorite song, and for the DJ to STOP TALKING SO I COULD GET THE INTRO. 

It was a different time. 

So, Christmas morning, I came downstairs, and my dad handed me a box. He was giddy. Now, my dad doesn't do giddy, so obviously my anticipation started to build. 

He then said, "This is what you wanted. I hope you like it!"

excited happy birthday GIF

I ripped the paper and saw a box. I didn't even look at what the box said - I just kept on ripping. I was finally going to get the thing I really wanted ---- Dad was on the edge of his seat, trying not to smile (which was more common than giddy), and I got inside only to discover that dad and I had a clear misunderstanding. 

You see, I wanted a portable CD player., so I could plug it into my car radio and play CDs.

My dad thought he understood what I wanted. He was excited. 

He gave me a CB Radio.

Very different.
radio GIF
My handle was "Little Cricket." 

I wish I could say I handled it well. But, I was 16, my hopes were pretty high, and so I ran to my room and cried for an hour. Not my proudest moment. 

Now let's go back to this idea of the hierarchy of awesome. 

If we are giving our dogs what we THINK they want, assuming that it's rewarding to them because we tell them it's rewarding, because it's a present from us, then we might be missing the mark. We aren't reinforcing anything at all.

So, how do we find out what is really rewarding to a dog? 

We sit down with members of the household and figure out their top 5 favorite things. Is it rolling in goose poop? Is it playing chase? Is it chicken?  Is it chasing chickens? How about cheese sticks? Sniffing things? Digging? How can we use what dogs find rewarding to our benefit? Nothing is too gross or weird. Really take some time to think about what your dog truly loves. 

Above is a video of me creating a hierarchy of awesome with my 7-year-old daughter, Acey. In it, we discuss how certain things we can use in specific situations, and how things (like marrow bones, which are highly reinforcing to Captain, might work well for duration behaviors, but not so convenient for taking out on walks). I then use an example from this morning as to how I used the game, "Find It", Captain's favorite thing, to get him distracted when "Leave It" wasn't working.

When I think back on that CB Radio, I learned a LOT about the idea of rewards. They are always in the eye of the recipient. I also learned to be gracious, but dogs don't need to be gracious. They'll tell you they don't like it (or don't want it right now) by walking away, ignoring you, all those things humans just are taught not to do. So we have to start thinking of what they like, what will they really work for, what is really rewarding to THEM, not to us. 

Think back to Harry Potter books: When Ron was given yet another homemade sweater his mother made him, he was bored, or just embarrassed. Yet when Harry got one, he was elated! That sweater meant he had a family. Identical gifts, one recipient rolled his eyes - the other was over the moon. 

Weasley jumper | Harry Potter Wiki | Fandom

Funny epilogue: When I moved to Ohio to go to college, I owned a Ford Festiva. It was the size of a toaster and about as safe to drive as one. I did ultimately put the CB radio in the car for those long drives across the country to and from school. My college roommates superglued a whirliegig to the antenna in college, which at first really made me upset as I was trying to fit in, but ultimately I learned to love that little car and the stuck and also functional as I could find my shoebox car in a parking lot. Plus, it was fun to yell "Wheeeeee!" as I rode down the road knowing the whirliegig was spinning away. Not unlike the piglet from the Geico commercials. 

piglet GIF

So, take some time today and figure out the hierarchy of aweome for your dog. Every dog's list will be different. Captain's is in the video, but Sadie's would have been: 

The other ball
Chase a cat
Squeak toy 

(Which is why when we did nosework, we used a tennis ball for a reinforcer, not food). 

For Zeppelin, our greyhound: 

His bed 
Access to couches
Your bed
Hot dogs (which we used for nosework) 

So, make your list. I'm curious to see what your lists look like! 


The Nose Knows (Modified Museum of Science Presentation)

This is an updated and modified version of a live presentation given at the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts in February, 2020. I had never been more excited to be invited live to give a talk as this time, I had friends! Some training friends came, Captain got to show off his scentwork skills, and we got to talk with kids. It was so exciting to be backstage at the Museum of Science, my daughter's favorite place to go in the city, my sister came down from Maine with her family, students came to see us talk,  I'm not going to lie. It was amazing. I felt like "we made it!"

This presentation was given once, then we were invited to come back for two more weekends leading up to the COVID19 crisis. We finished up, gave the stage to other performers who would come and engage with the museum patrons until the end of May when the exhibit was to move on to a new city....

Until Covid19 hit in mid-March, shutting down the museum and the "Dogs, A Science Tail" exhibit, which was the right call....

But, several of my daughter's classmates and schoolmates were planning on going to see the #DogsAScienceTail exhibit and missed it as it's a rotating exhibit.

I wanted to make sure that everyone who missed the exhibit was able to see something that could hopefully foster curiosity about dogs, remind them of the amazing gift dogs have (their sense of smell is not unlike Superman's X-ray vision - both can "see" through walls!) and I never turn down an opportunity to talk about aquaphobic black labradors who help researchers find whale poop. 

(Yes. Whale poop. This was targeted to a younger audience and my daughter said kids like poop. So, I found the biggest poop story related to dogs I could find. It was a big hit!)

So, if you're a kid watching this, see if you can answer how far below your feet can a dog smell? One standard 10'  basketball hoop? Two? (Keep guessing!) 

How can you teach your dog, right now, how to find food hides using the basic skills that cadaver dogs, cancer detection dogs, and police dogs use for detection?

What are the differences between passive alerts and active/aggressive alerts? (And why is it important explosive detection dogs do not give an active alert?)

So let's learn all about the dog's nose and how much we humans depend on it! And if you like this video, feel free to share with the kids (and curious adults!) in your life who are excited about dogs. Especially those who like museum experiences and would really enjoy learning about our best friends. 



Beating The Heat!

It's hot out! There is a predicted high of 90 (f). Captain doesn't do well with heat, so instead of taking 3 walkies today, we are planning ahead. We got up a little early, went in a longer route so he could get the same amount of outside time despite missing a midday walk for to heat, and we stumbled across this! Now, you might see flats.

Not me. I see a nosework game, a mentally stimulative activity, exercise, focus and a way to tire out Captain!

I've started a YouTube channel in the hopes of helping my students find new ways to keep working with their dogs during the pandemic. I'll put some of those here and share in this way. I hope this (and some other videos!) will give you some inspiration during these trying times (and beyond!) If you try this with your pet, let me know! I'd love to see you (and your dogs!) working hard!



Pivoting in the Pandemic Talk

Raising Canine has given me an opportunity to speak about how dog trainers are pivoting during the pandemic. Yes, I've had a bit of time to work on this talk, but man - I haven't had a ton of time to practice because every time I sit down to do something, the news changes, the technology changes, my inbox has a list of dog-related issues that change each week.

I could talk about city dog issues all day - and each of the talks I give on the topic has updated information, but the bulk of the substance is the same.

Talking about how Petfinder is Craigslist for puppy sellers? That's a talk I can give in my sleep. I just did a version of it this week and the only thing that has changed was that Petfinder had changed the way the website looked and the navigation was clunky - but websites are living things if you create them correctly, and those changes are minor compared to the changes that could help the placement of millions of dogs every year ---- and on that front, nothing has changed.

But this one - this talk on pivoting during a crisis, a pandemic that is constantly changing, getting worse, affecting everyone in new ways, the news dump feels like a tidal wave pulling me under every morning...the constancy of the inconsistent pivots is what's making this one so hard.

If it's clunky, it's ok. It's ok if it's clunky because the information will undoubtedly change by tomorrow when Sue needs the presentation and will most certainly be totally out of date by Wednesday, the day of the talk.

I'm not worried at all because we are all going through rapid fire adjustments and that, I suppose, is the takeaway. Maybe I'll focus on that?

I hope you are all doing well in your homes if you are home, and you are safe if you are an essential worker. I have had a few clients get sick and luckily, to the best of my knowledge, they are all recovered and doing well. This is impossibly hard for everyone, and I hope you are finding little ways to be ok with everything changing all the time. It will get better, soon.



Red flags in Petfinder

We're on day 50 of quarantine in our city and I'm not going to lie. It's hard. Impossibly hard. But, I have had a bit of time to do some things I was hoping to do long ago that I never got around to.

One of those things was recording something relevant to my book, Considerations for the City Dog, how to find a pet ethically using the Internet. Which, it turns out, is harder than one would think. I've always wanted to show people how to navigate Petfinder and similar sites because there are some concerning trends that have been going on for years. And I'm saying this as a rescue advocate, someone who rescues and works for a rescue organization. Click-and-ship culture's effect on the acquisition of pets has pros and cons.

In watching the video above, start at around the 9-minute mark where we take a look at the first page of Petfinder. I have a search on for within 100 miles so I could see the dogs before making a decision - seems reasonable. The first page has 48 dogs, all are promoted on being within 2 miles of my zip code.

Only two, the first two dogs featured on the site, are actually here.

Where are the local dogs? They start showing up with a higher frequency after page four, which seems really unfair to the dogs who are here, who you can meet. But where are all these other dogs from? They say they are here...

The rest of the dogs on the site claim to be within two miles of your zip code, but in the demonstration, these dogs are all in the American South. After someone commits to a dog because the description sounds perfect and the face is so photogenic, the rescue group will then ask you to drive to Connecticut or other neighboring states to get your new pet. 

Have you ever thought about why that is? They are trying to duck a legal loophole, which leaves you unprotected if this dog isn't a good fit, isn't healthy, or isn't as promoted.

This video takes some clips from a longer presentation I've given a few times, most easily accessed through the Pet Professional Guild.  (Though, if you are a dog training professional or work with animals in a professional capacity, you can find a professionally targeted version here through Raising Canine). 

Responsible breeders or shelters will not lie to you, nor would they ask you to drive across state lines to a parking lot to pick up a pet just to get around Massachusetts State Law. Good breeders and rescues will ask you to meet the dog on site - and if they aren't asking you to do that, I'd say walk away. The rules are still the same.

If a rescue (or breeder!) feels they need to misrepresent where the dog lives to get clicks, that's really unfortunate and I question their ability to be ethical in the sale, the transport, and to take any financial responsibility if something isn't going right. For example, if someone were to get a dog shipped directly from Texas, a dog who is described to "love kids," but this dog doesn't like your kids, or the dog isn't handling the new environment well, what are you supposed to do? The dog who was supposed to "get along with cats" kills your cat? What if the dog is really lovely, but hates the city and can't go outside - she's shivering in a corner for days? 

The rescue will not come to pick the dog back up from Texas.

What if the dog arrives with a highly contagious disease that could do harm to existing animals in your home? What if the "house-trained dog who wants to be your best friend" is actually a former puppy mill stud dog who has never left a crate and he pees everywhere - including on the other dog in your home, and he barks non-stop? 

As imaginative as all of these possibilities are, they are all taken straight from my case files in the last few years. They all have one thing in common: They were all picked up over state lines, and there was no recourse for the family. They were on the hook for thousands of dollars in behavior work, medical work (one had to go straight to the ER from the transport for a lung infection - $2,000 later, the family could bring him home, and the rescue wouldn't help. "He was healthy when he got on the truck. Not our responsibility.")

No. Not all dogs who come up via transport like this end up as a tragic tale. Truthfully, most do not. My current dog, Captain, came from North Carolina, but, we met him locally and were able to make a decision if he was the dog for us (he absolutely was). This was after meeting other dogs, some even made it into our home for a short period of time, before realizing we were not a good match for those dogs. One was so sound phobic - and we live near two highways - it would have been torture for that dog to live her life here. One loved our daughter at the shelter but after we got home the dog developed severe separation distress, and that wasn't something we could handle with a 3-year-old in the home with an active schedule. That wonderful little dog went on to live with a woman in a wheelchair who never left home. They were a perfect match!  

Many of my students acquired dogs by driving out of state and it was fine. Many of these dogs are great learners, fantastic friends, and perfect companions. 

But when it DOES go wrong, it tends to be because dog and family weren't appropriately matched and there is no support after the dog is homed.
So please, exercise some caution. Do your homework and reach out if you have questions. 

For the record: I will always rescue my pets, but there is a way to do it responsibly. Going through groups like the MSPCA, Animal Rescue League, New England Brittany Rescue, Northeast Animal Shelter and others who have dogs locally who you can visit, whether through an established foster network or a brick-and-mortar facility is the way to go for rescue. Many even import dogs from other states get a reliable profile and ensure their health before sending them into a home. Just like I would always advise clients who want a purebred dog to do their homework and always meet the puppy at the breeder's home first, I always advise meeting a rescue or shelter dog first from a place who has a reputation of helping people after the dog goes home. 

Saved shouldn't be defined as "No longer in a shelter". I can't tell you the number of dogs who are not saved because they went to a home - they are more stressed because they weren't put in the right home or environment despite everyone in the home doing everything they can for the dog.

Saved should be qualified as thriving behaviorally and physically.

If you're going to do this, I beg you to do it right because when this is all over, my colleagues and I would love nothing more than to come to your home and work with you on sit, down, stay, and stop jumping - all the things many of our clients expect to work on when they bring a new canine companion into their home. The risk of going in without support or bringing a dog in sight unseen might mean we'll have to have bigger, harder, more challenging conversations at the end of this quarantine, which is more stress on you, and ultimately more stress on your new dog. 


"In this isolation, we are not alone"

Test, test...*blows dust*...is this thing on?

Hi blog followers, if you still follow :) It's me. Melissa. I know it's been a while, but with Covid19, I felt it important to reach out.

Some dogs don't understand social distancing. For that, I'm thankful this one holds us up when we are sick, sad, or too tired to get up.

I wrote a post on Instagram today for people who are struggling. Initially, I had been making Dog Training Challenges in this Covid 19 pandemic to keep my students upbeat, busy, working. I recorded versions of lessons for three classes at Everydog Training Center for my personal students, dozens of videos with the team at New England Dog Training Club so they could continue with classes, and started daily challenges for my followers. I did it for them.

...or so I thought. 

Here is what I wrote. I think a lot of people might feel the same way, and I want you to know you aren't alone. Here are the words, and here is the OG post. If need to reach out at all or vent to the universe, I'm here. I will read every comment (even the spammy ones from places afar, because that's a thing!) but if you need anything, I'm here.


Real talk. 

I keep saying these #dailychallenge #dogtraining videos are for my students.
I'm slowly realizing they are for me, too.
In these videos are mistakes, mistakes I won't edit out because we all make mistakes. (Like in this one, forgetting to check the stability of a table before sending #CaptainLove up onto it for a proofing exercise.) I finished uploading all the training exercises for #NEDTC for classes to resume online for the foreseeable future, and some of the lessons for my #Everydog classes are also uploaded on my personal YouTube account, but as soon as the last video cleared the "processing" phase, I fell apart.

Socially isolated

There are jobs and there are JOBS. My job is my life, my passion. Communicating with students, working with animals, all of it is what makes life living for so many of us in the pet industry. The human connections I make through dog training isn't just a perk, it's necessary for my soul.

I am a teacher in my soul. Dogs give me a connection to people. A connection I love, crave and need as much as air or food.

So when the last video processed and I had nothing to complain about ("Why it's this taking so long?") or tinker with ("What's this button do?"), I had nothing left but to think about the new reality of being inside, like most of you.
I had time to think about my dear friend who is an ER doctor at the biggest hospital Boston, friends who are sick, my sister who works in a nursing home with the patients at the highest risk. My brother in the restaurant industry. I had time to think about my Dad sitting at home, him slowly realizing this isn't something bless out of proportion, but this is real life and death. Thinking about the kids in college who can't go home, or worse, have to go home even if they don't feel safe or can't get back into the US after because I suspect this is the next nail for xenophobia. And the people who will be forever touched by this novel virus.

So yes, these dog training videos are for you, my students and people who want to play along with me.

But I'm not going to lie. They are my anchor right now because without this connection, I feel like I'll become unmoored.

Helping students navigate the tunnel in last month's Tricks and Games class

Be safe out there. Check-in on your extrovert friends. Check on your hairdressers, dog walkers, dog trainers, veterinarians, doctors, parents, colleagues. Check on in your child's teachers, coaches, and Capoeira instructors. They are fueled by the same passion, and might appreciate a quick check in or virtual hug. 

In this isolation, we are not alone, and that's an important distinction.


Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/citydogbook/
Facebook communal group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/123850104320567/
Twitter: @Muttstuff
Instagram: MelissaMcCueMcGrath
Youtube: Melissa McCue McGrath, CPDT-KA


Environmental Considerations In Urban Dog Training

Have you ever wondered what it's like to see the city experience from your dog's perspective? 

Let's take hallways for example. Hallways are great for people. They are often the quickest way from point A to point B. If we're talking about a multiunit apartment building, then straight lines are the best way to put several units on a floor, then stack those floors above each other for maximum space usage, or maximizing the monthly income for the building owner.

When I see a hallway like the one below, I just think about how much fun it would be to rollerblade or skateboard down it.

These 400 square foot units would be approximately 7 billion dollars a month in my home city of Boston. 

However, this is perhaps more symbolic of the feeling dogs get walking down the hallway:

Consider what it would be like if there are doors that open (seemingly) randomly on both sides of a dog. That can be scary, especially if a kid jumps out screaming because she's hopped up on sugar. To a dog, it might look like people are popping out of the walls like the worst magic trick imaginable. There is nowhere to run, and assuming the dog is leashed, this can certainly add to the frustration. If there are two dogs walking towards each other, then you can imagine how things could escalate quickly for everyone.

Dogs can hear everything on the other side of each door with their sensitive hearing.

They can smell all the food created on the other side of each of these doors in addition to your neighbor's nail polish remover, or the cat box down the hall. All of this is undeniably overwhelming to a dog. 

Straight lines are essentially the third circle of hell for dogs, so hallways and sidewalks are just harder for dogs in many cases. 

Dogs do circles really well. Circles are just simply more polite. Exhibit A: 

dogs game show funny wheel of fortune butt sniff - 8140613632
But circles are not great for people as we think in lines when designing urban spaces. Back to hallways. If there is an elevator at the end of a hall, it might look like this to us: 

Pretty inviting for an elevator. 

However, to some dogs, this just looks like a trap. The doors open, people go in, then disappear. The dog might as well be walking right into this: 

Post image
Spoiler alert for Stranger Things, Season 3 

I have many clients who just can't get their puppy house-trained on the fifth floor because the puppy is too scared of the elevator. In addition to just getting into the doors, add the dropping sensation of what amounts to a moving box (flying coffin) the puppy is now trapped in. Each passing floor the puppy feels that sickening stomach drop story, by story, by story. Don't get me started on the kid who gets on the elevator with Axe Body Spray. 

How to teach your teen to use AXE body spray + a locker room printable

It's no wonder so many dogs struggle.

And this is just the living space! They all eventually have to venture outside where there are more straight lines, more noises, more traffic, and the worst of the worst to dogs everywhere: Skateboards by the dozens.

Because of these considerations and unique issues we are finding in urban dog training, Susan Smith of Raising Canine has invited me back to speak! This time, I've been invited to present on specific issues relating to training dogs in more populated environments. If you are working as a dog training professional in the city, everything you know as a dog trainer might go out of the 7th story window.

If you are a dog trainer interested on taking clients in the city, or if you are looking for some creative workarounds for common urban dog training issues, please feel free to join the webinar! It'll be October 2nd, 2019, at 10:30 Central (11:30 Eastern). I like to have fun with my presentations, as you can see.

Susan also has other webinars, many are free, some with CEUs, from top professionals like Jennifer Shryock (Family Paws, a resource I recommend to every new parent with dogs); Ian Dunbar; Teoti Anderson; Jolanta Benal; Jean Donaldson, and Nicole Wilde to name a few.

So, grab your autumnal beverage of choice, click on the link, and let's talk all things #citydog from the comfort of wherever you prefer to watch the internet. 


It Started As A Joke...

During the #Train4Rewards blog party, there was a quick aside on a Twitter thread.

But then, I walked Captain and all I could think about was what WOULD this listicle look like if he wrote that piece for Huffpo? I mean, for something like this, there would need to be a strong perspective, a youthful voice and gifs. SO MANY GIFS.

Huffington Post - ENTERTAINMENT

15 Reasons You Should Let Me Roll In Goose Shit

By: Captain Love McGrath, Urban Dog Beat Reporter

You know the drill. Your owner gives you a bath and then cuts up the equivalent of 17 hot dogs as some sort of forgiveness tax, but it doesn't work. Dogs have RIGHTS, and I'm here to lay it out, right here, right now why we should - nay - have the RIGHT to roll in goose shit. Humans, listen up, because it's about to get reeeeeaaaaally real all up in here.
  1.  My nose is better than yours: Sure, it smells bad to you, but it doesn't to us. We have a more powerful nose, so we know what a good smell is vs. a bad one. I'll leave you to opening peanut butter jars, you leave the odors to me.

  2.  I'm not doing meth: Seriously. I could be doing doggy meth instead and end up in one of those Florida Dog memes (it's like Florida Man, but with dogs. Look it up).

  3. Urban dogs need to feel connected to nature: You humans do this by deep meditative breathing and focusing on a photo of a cabin in New Hampshire. I live in the same 600 square foot apartment you do, and I can't see colors (at least, not meaningful ones to you - photos don't do it for me, hunny). I can, however, connect with nature in a different way. By rolling in goose shit.

  4. Hypocrite: You have goose feathers in your jacket. Why can't I have a little goose in MY coat?

  5. I Don't Tell You How To Have Fun: I have seen what you call fun. You either stare at a screen, or drink that weird stuff and sing tragically off key to old Cher albums when you think no one is listening. I'm listening. It's offensive to my ears. I can't open the door and leave - because, no thumbs. This is ALL I HAVE.

  6. Instinct: Sometimes I just see it and I have to have it. I can't explain it. I have no idea what I'm doing, but it's great.

  7. Geese are tough. I mean, look at how mean these guys are. They take NO guff, not even from cows. COWS. Cows are bigger by like, a million per cent. Furrrrreal.

    If I can smell like a goose, maybe they'll be nicer to us when we walk by on our nightly walk. Just sayin'. I'm just trying to save your life by rolling in pieces of feces.
  8. I have no idea what I'm doing: Are you still reading this? Seriously? I mean, I thought you'd quit at Hypocrite...

  9. Parasites never hurt anyone:
    Wait, actually, they do. Have a gif of BoJack Horseman.

  10. You have your preferred Goose:  I have mine. And it's shit.

  11. This Simpsons gif: I'm a dog, and typing is hard. Have a Simpsons gif.

  12. All those times YOU came home smelling of goose: After Merideth's bacherlorette party, after your 30th birthday, after the break up from whats-his-butt-I-think-it-was-Josh? And you came to bed, stinking of it, and I STILL curled up next to you.

    I NEVER JUDGED YOU. I roll in one little goose poo, and it's bath time. Sheesh!
  13. I could resort to other tactics, but choose not to: Like, I was born with a particular set of skills, MAD SKILLZ, and I don't go around using those skills on things you love. But, I could, if I were that kind of dog, use these skills if I didn't get my way. ImmaJustSayin'.

  14. Whenever I see goose shit, I have feelings. Real feelings. Like, whenever I see goose shit, smell goose shit, it makes my heart go aflutter and I want to scream from the rooftops, "I Love You, Goose Shit! I LOOOOOOOVE YOOOOOOU!"

  15. But more than anything, I just really want to feel loved in return.


Before you go, check out more Huffpo pieces, like: 
What Type of Carrot Best Describes Your Sex Life


Rage Rage Rage IT'S ALL BURNING Rage Rage Rage


Meet Denver Zoo's Same Sex Flamingo Couple, Lance Bass and Freddie Mercury*

(*actually, the last one is totally real and is super sweet.

What They Don't Tell You About Professional Positive Reinforcement Training

This post is part of the #Train4Rewards Blog Party  Follow Companion Animal Psychology on Twitter/FB/Web - it's one of my favorite go-to places on the internet, and I think you'll love it, too! 

The 2019 Train for Rewards Blog Party

*When I wrote this, I wrote it from a dog training perspective, but this abSOLUTEly can be true for horses, cats, bonobos, first graders, etc.  

I haven't written here since January. I've been busily writing an educational memoir that focuses primarily on what it's like to really be a dog trainer, one who came from a background where we alpha rolled dogs, bit their ears (I cringe at thinking that) all under the guise of "love," keeping them "safe" and most of all, obedient.

And how as a young girl, I knew it was wrong, but it took a long time to unlearn.

I'm not alone.

I was mentoring a Victoria Stilwell Academy student, Zoe, in 2016. As Zoe was finishing her program she asked me, "What do I need to know going in?" I reminded her of all the technical stuff she'd need to know for any tests she'd have to take for certification, but that's when she stopped me.

"No, not that," she said. "What do I need to know. The stuff they didn't tell me in class." 

There is MORE to being a dog trainer than sit, down and stay, and Zoe knew it from the jump.

So I wrote her a book, the same one I'm working on now. 

Here's the thing: If someone jumps into this industry because they love dogs, or they want to advocate for dogs*, the thing they don't tell you is that every facet of our lives as professional dog trainers has the potential to become a magnifying glass for stress signals, learning theory, communication, boundaries, all of it, in every single area of a professional and a personal life experience. And for some of us, that's amazing.

For others (read: spouses!), maybe not so much.

Being immersed in the world of positive reinforcement can create a perfect mirror: A mirror that when held up forces you to look back at every mistake made prior to making the commitment to using science, data, and learning theory. These last three years have been a meditation on forgiving myself for trespasses made in the name of "alpha", "training" and "respect," and I know I'm not alone. Sometimes this is a hard pill to swallow, and it's so easy to get stuck back in that place, especially if your personal journey as someone working with animals in a positive reinforcement circle did not start out with clickers, treat bags and learning theory. Most surprisingly, just like with our relationships and glaring mistakes we might have made with the dogs in our past, we have to look at other relationships, too, those with people. And that, for me, is sometimes painful, difficult and embarrassing. And again, I know I'm not alone. 

Positive reinforcement training for domestic animals is a balancing act, one the best trainers and consultants are truly bilingual. First, we take what a dog is saying with her furry body. We can't just read the dogs and report back - we have to be able to read the dog: How much pressure can we, or should we, use? How nervous is this dog, how confident, how trainable, how excitable, how everything is this dog?

And then we have to take that information, put it through the Translatomatic 3000, and assess the owner. 

How nervous is this owner? How much does he resist positive reinforcement? How on-board is he with data, science, and yes - cookies? How do we talk to him about the dog he loves in a way he can understand and execute the right plan? How do I translate this just so?  Is humor right for this guy? Is blunt force the way to go? Is talking to his wife better? 

Then, and only then can we feed this information back through the Translatomatic 3000, take out sciencey-lingo, add pizzaz, jazz hands, and relay the info back to the client.

All in 15 seconds.

(Sometimes I feel exactly like these robots: Failing with my translations.)

There is sexism - in a field dominated by women, we still deal with sexism on the daily either online, in a client's home, or on stage. I've watched men talk over women on stage, women with doctorates in animal sciences, steamrolled by men who turn and wink to the audience as if their bullying was a joke.  I've had grown men tell me my job is cute, minutes after I was crying with a client when she made the decision to euthanize her beloved pet. We haven't solved sexism, even in a field that is nearly 90% women. They don't tell you that, either. But we're working on it. 

There are healthcare considerations if one is to be a self-employed dog trainer or a contractor. In many cases if we don't work, we don't get paid, which makes things like the flu, broken bones and pregnancy much, much, much harder. Again, working on it - but this is absolutely something that should be considered.

OMG - SO MUCH PEE. And humping. To be honest, humping and pee are the dynmaic duo of awkward laughter in professional training, and if you can't handle being peed on, cleaning pee, eating a sandwich while talking about pee, poop, or worse, then at least consider a different path. I had no idea how much of my professional conversation load would be on the subject of urine and penises. Penisi? Peni? Moving on. 

There is misinformation galore regarding breed types...and if someone loves dogs as much as dog trainers love dogs, we can be pretty, pretty, pretty nasty to people who disagree with us. Be wary of comment sections, particularly in hot button topics (like anything with Pit Bull in the title). 

...and there is the Internet, which is the very embodiment of a high-wire act. Some info is great (she says, writing a blog post on THE INTERNET), and some is so very damaging to dogs and people it makes me want to cry. And, here's the thing - I've said some of those wrong things fully believing they were correct, learned differently, and that stuff despite taking it down, still gets shared on THE INTERNET. The internet is truly a double-edged sword that plays such a role in culture, society, and yes, positive reinforcement animal training.

Image of Google
Google with Caution.

And once you see stress in a dog, it's hard to NOT see stress in a dog. Dogs at the dog park, dogs on walks, dogs being dragged by their owners on the sidewalk when the dog is just trying to sniff a flower. It makes my heart break in two when the connection is lost when the dog is just another thing to do - "Make coffee, drop kids at school, walk dog." And if you know what you're looking for, the dog park will be a difficult place to go after learning what stress signals are. I've had to pay my friend to take my dog to the dog park because my dog loves it, his buddies are there, and we live in a city. Yet, I can't go without taking behavior modification medication because there are so many dogs there who do not want to be there. It's tempting to run up to the dog's care taker, grab them by the shoulders, and present a 15 slide presentation on stress signals - but that's not how this job works. You have to know when to open your mouth, and when to zip it. Yes, there will be things that are really, really hard to watch. And there is very little you can do.

And I was so ill-prepared for that realization, too.

But why do we still do this if it's so hard, a job where it might sometimes feel like we are fighting dragons all day? 

That's personal. For me, there are the connections, the good stories that warm the heart, the dogs that make you bust out laughing so hard your stomach hurts, the people who hold your hand and say, "Thank you," the people who send holiday cards and become true friends. The people who come to classes and work hard, the dogs who come to classes and work hard, the community, the tribe, and yes, the smell of dusty dog fur. There are even owners who you might think are going to give up, but they go the distance for their dogs.

Moments like this, pure joy, contentedness, and magic. 

My daughter and her BFF, Captain Love

All of it.

There are moments that will stick with a trainer in positive reinforcement. For me, one moment is observing a young autistic boy who was unable to communicate with anyone, except he would consistently light up and talk every time his dog came into the room. He'd pick up her favorite thing - discs - and play with her. The dog would bounce and demonstrate happiness, as did the young boy. Then the dog would disappear, and he'd shut down again, become so insular he couldn't communicate. She'd come back in and his internal light-switch would come back on. It's the relationship and the understanding in moments like that will never leave you, and acts like armor the next time someone is too busy staring at their phone while you are talking to them about training their dog, or acts as a shield when the dog in front of you has been mistreated by a family who thought they were doing all the right things.

But that moment is frozen in time, a resource, a spark of joy, a little piece of magic here, truly here, really here. I can recall that magic anytime I feel the world is burning and things are out of my control. I can conjure magic, a magic that can only occur when a relationship is built on trust - them trusting me, and the dog trusting them.

And that's pretty damn cool.


TSA: It's Not Just The Dogs

Last summer, the family traveled to the West coast for a two week, multi-state excursion. There were several flights and they each tossed challenges at us. Most memorable was the old tale of the violently ill 5-year-old vomiting on the seat, but instead of some poor person on our flight dealing with it, it was us. And instead of getting a cleaning bucket from the flight attendants, we instead got three useless, unabsorbing napkins and two literal nips of Smirnoff --- not for me and Brian to use as "coping juice" but to clean the seat and my kindergartner off with. When the attendant went to dose my child with bottom shelf vodka, I had to stop him by suggesting maybe, just maybe, it's a bad idea to have a sick kid reeking of vodka as we traverse through the airport to our next destination. I think he figured out eventually what I meant to say was, "I'd rather not my already ill kid wafting up the halls with liquor and puke because people will look, PLUS the smell of alcohol when sick likely produces...a sicker human."

But second to that less-than-pleasant connecting flight was the family behind us in the security line on our flight home from Seattle to Boston days later. They had several kids with them, all under the age of eight, including one who I gathered to be around two. As they approached the gated line, they noticed the working dog sniffing back and forth. As they stared terrified, eyes wide, the mom did her best to say, "Just keep going guys- you're doing a good job - the dog won't hurt you."

The kids stood frozen in terror, deciding how to navigate this now uncomfortable position of having to walk this one-way path past the dog and then past the dog on the loopback as the line continued in its all too familiar zig-zag pattern towards the "take off your shoes, belts, and dignity" line.

The thing that wasn't helpful? As the kids stood in frozen terror, the TSA agent started BOOMING "MOVE along, DO NOT STOP, keep GOING"

As this poor woman, holding a baby, was trying to tell her kids as calmly (through an audibly shakey voice) to keep moving, the dog won't hurt them - Captain Testosterone unhelpfully belted out, "MA'AM, if you STOP you will be pulled from the line and NOT ALLOWED TO CONTINUE TO YOUR DESTINATION. Move YOUR KIDS. Do NOT stop."

I mention this story because this week, the big story going around the Internetz in the canine world is that the TSA is looking to phase out pointy-eared dogs with their floppier eared cousins. Sure. Perhaps a beagle would have made the kids feel a bit more at ease but I'm here to say if you are a person, particularly a child who is terrified of dogs, the ear set and size will not make that fear go away, and screaming at a mom to move her kids only makes everyone more stressed out, more frozen more scared, and is decidedly not helpful to the situation at all.


Very little of this had anything to do with the floppy-eared or pricked-eared nature of this particularly well-behaved working German Shepherd. These kids were scared of dogs, period, and they were trapped. They had to walk by something terrifying and there was an unknown man in uniform yelling at them like they were in prison to just do as he said....er, yelled.

My daughter has an 8-year-old classmate who loves dogs, loves specifically how cute they are. But, whenever one passes us on the street, she stands in abject terror. She freezes. She stops breathing. Her eyes go wide. Another classmate brought their 8-week-old puppy to school pick up and while my daughter's friend really wanted to say hi to this 7-pound fluff-nugget, she was stopped by fear. She couldn't even bring herself to touch the sleeping puppy cradled in the owner's arms. She was legitimately struck by fear.

But here's the thing: She loves the idea of dogs. She adores puppies. Pictures of puppies are SOOOOOOOO CUUUUUUTE (in only the way an 8-year-old can say it, six octaves above what a normal human can vocally produce). When faced with one in her immediate presence? She's terrified.

So while the news is jumping on this story about "floppy eared dogs being less scary, pricked eared dogs being phased out", perhaps the thing to address in tandem with this phase-out could also be how to instruct TSA and police how to work with nervous kids or people who are legitimately terrified of dogs for any number of reasons (perhaps they were attacked; perhaps they have had no exposure to dogs; perhaps for some people - particularly in international airports, considering that culturally dogs are not valued as working animals or pets all over the world and are instead considered "dirty vermin" or "dangerous").

The other thing to perhaps help is to take the machismo out of the TSA line. I've seen several handlers who are praising their dogs and working with a nice loose leash, playing tug with the dog, and other great bonding experiences while the dog is working - and others - like this particular handler, leash jerking this working dog, which made the dog stand up more, posture more, widen his eyes more, turn in a more unnatural way - a jerkier way. This dog was working beautifully. There was no reason for him to be tugging on the choke chain (which you all know I have problems with anyway). He was adding fuel to the fire his partner who was yelling at everyone had set. Who knows? Maybe he was also more stressed by his partner at the head of the line yelling at people and he was unknowingly taking it out on his working dog.

So yes, while I can totally understand using flopped eared dogs as a tool, it's not the only one to focus on. And besides, I bet if there were dogs working in a more open environment instead of in a pen that looks like what we funnel cattle through before they go to slaughter, many people might feel a bit more at ease.

I've also seen some cases where enthusiasts of "pricked eared dogs" are getting upset. Just like with helping some dogs gain confidence around scary things we must find a foundational block as a stepping stone, this act of changing the overall look might be one we can consider for a short time. That doesn't indicate that pricked eared dogs are bad dogs while I can see the knee-jerk reactions happening within my very own circle of professional friends. "Get over it - teach your kids to be OK with all dogs" (I don't think that's helpful. There's more here than just teaching kids to be ok with giant dogs). My favorite argument is,  "It's breedist!" There are many dogs with pricked ears and while they might be thinking specifically of German Shepherds and Malinois, there are others, too. I saw a Schipperke at Logan a few years ago on my way to Wisconsin and while I laughed, he had pricked ears.

I think in general this could be a good step for a time while we sort out other, very real, very palpable, very alpha-male, very patriarchal problems in the way we are using dogs, and if there are ways to make more people more comfortable in a stressful situation, great.

But like most things canis familiaris we cannot just blame the dogs. While it's an easier fix to change the look of the dogs, the real fix, the harder fix, the one that is being overlooked in all the reporting is looking at how the humans are behaving.

As usual.