Category Archives: Relationships

Last month, we had to make the toughest decision a pet owner makes for our Sammy.  This post is about how we made the decision that it was time.

The last year has consisted of many ups and downs for Sammy. Her sight and hearing had diminished, her anxiety had increased, and she has had a hard time keeping weight on. But, she had still always been up for a walk, a game of ball, or a car ride. She still loved life despite the hardships that old age had caused.

A week or so before we had to say goodbye, she took a turn for the worse. But it wasn’t in any of the ways people said it would happen. I’ve been expecting this for months now, and have been trying to understand what to look for. Every book out there that discusses pet euthanasia focuses on very observable, physical problems. Many stories I have read online describe a horrible last few days of vomiting, diarrhea or a dog who cannot stand up. Or a dog whose mind is so far gone that they are aggressive. Or a dog who no longer wants to play, walk, or eat.

Sammy never experienced any of these things. And so I feel I need to share her story because she cannot be the only dog who left the world the way she did. And I want to let other pet owners know that you might never see these physical outcomes when it is time for you pet to leave this world.

Over the last year, Sammy has had more and more trouble sleeping through the night. This is common for older pets (and people!). She often got thirsty at 3 AM or needed to go potty. These were easy needs to meet and, like a newborn baby, you could tell you found what she needed because she stopped barking and was able to calm down and go back to sleep. Even though I was often getting up several times a night with her and I was often so so tired, I felt happy to have the honor of taking care of my old girl.

In the last few months though, there started to be nights where it seemed impossible to figure out what she needed. She would wake up and bark endlessly despite offers of water, food, potty breaks, petting, playing, night lights, complete darkness, thundershirts, sweaters, heated beds, elevated beds, extra meds, and so on. After several hours of barking she would sometimes calm down and go to sleep. These nights were brutal for me because I often got just a few hours of good sleep and even when Sam slept through the night I was always worried about her and never slept that well. But they were few and far between – maybe this happened twice a month. We would go to the vet for her regular acupuncture appointments and they seemed to help – she would be her normal self again for a few weeks before we started over. And remember, during all of this time she still loved to play, walk, and cuddle. She could get through a whole day with no incontinence most of the time and was mobile enough that she could do almost everything on her own (except our slippery inside steps – we’ve been carrying her for two years now after some scary slipping incidents).

But the night-time barking episodes became more frequent. We reached a point where she couldn’t sleep at all in our bedroom so Justin and I took turns sleeping on the couch with her downstairs. And then we reached a point where she stopped sleeping at night. She would bark almost all night long. She would sleep a few hours in the early morning and then I would try to keep her awake the rest of the day. I took her everywhere with me, I walked her extra, played with her extra trying to be sure she would be tired at night. Sometimes she would sleep for a few hours but she was always awake from about midnight until 4 or 5 AM.

Sammy never seemed relaxed – even though she still got plenty of joy from her daily activities. She was already on several anxiety meds and has been for 2 years or so. I have been reading about doggy dementia as much as possible and she never showed many of the signs – no walking in circles, no getting stuck behind furniture, no confusion about who me or Justin were. She often would get stuck on a rug, barking because she was afraid of the wooden floor. But this is something that has been going on for years and we’ve been able to work through it by purchasing tons of rugs!

One week, we encountered 4 nights in a row of her night-time barking episodes. Justin and I were both zombies from lack of sleep. Our anxiety was extremely high because we felt we couldn’t console or comfort her. The other pets in the house were just trying to stay out of the way, but were clearly stressed by the whole situation. Our cat, Cecil, would spend all night going from the couch with me to the bed with Justin and back – he hated the change in our routine. Dan spent most of his time in the front living room, avoiding Sammy’s space in the den. Our other cat, Ida, became glued to our laps, looking for comfort. We basically stopped eating dinner at home so that Justin and I could have an hour each day to talk with each other without Sammy barking in the background.

We had reached our capacity and came to the very difficult decision that it was time for Sammy. The quality of life for our whole household was not good. The amount of stress and anxiety that all of use were experiencing was not healthy. And despite Sammy’s eagerness to engage in life, she just couldn’t ever relax! Everyone had told me that I would know when it was time. I have to say, I never did know for sure. Sammy never reached the point where she couldn’t stand up. She never had terrible incontinence or endless vomiting. She never stopped getting excited to go for a walk. But Justin and I decided together that we didn’t want to wait for that to happen. If we could prevent Sammy from experiencing any of that, it was a gift we wanted to give her.

And so, we made the appointment with our beloved vet to let Sammy go.

Again, I want to share this in the hopes that it will provide courage to other pet owners who might be in this situation. For us, we reached a point where we could not provide Sammy with the care or quality of life that we wanted to. We reached a point of emotional fatigue. Caring for an elderly pet is stressful, and it is okay if that is a contributing factor in your decision to put your pet to sleep. For some reason in our society, it is harder to let go due to the mental health decline we experienced than it is when there is physical decline. But for Sammy, her mental health decline was probably just as stressful and unpleasant as a physical limitation.

She was the kind of dog that never stopped doing what she thought she should be doing unless you made her stop. When we lived in Texas and went to the dog park I would throw the Frisbee once or twice and then make her rest because it was HOT! She would take the Frisbee to every other person in the park to keep playing fetch. I would have to go get her and leash her to get her to leave. That was her attitude toward life – keep working until she was made to stop. She never quit doing anything on her own. And I believe that her enthusiasm for fetch and walks and car rides in those last weeks of her life was exactly the same thing. She wanted to keep doing it because she felt that she was supposed to. And she would never have stopped on her own. We had to help her by letting her go.



How long does it take?

I went to have blood drawn the other day, just routine blood work. The phlebotomist asked me what my job was. This is our how the conversation went:

Me: “I’m an animal trainer” – that has become my standard answer
Her: “Wow, cool – what animals? Do you go into their homes?”
Me: “Yes”, I said, “Mostly dogs”.
Her: “Oh wow, neat…I don’t have a dog…how long does it take to train one?”

“How long does it take????”

The burning question everyone wants to know.

Think about it – we plan our days, often down to the minute. That is the first question everyone asks (maybe after cost) to a mechanic, at a restaurant, when travelling somewhere, when going to school, when having carpet installed. For everything you do, time matters.

Our society puts such an emphasis on how much time something consumes. And rightfully so. Along with money, time is one of our most valuable resources because you can’t get it back once you spend it.

But how about these questions:

“How long does it take to learn how to play classical piano?”
“How long does it take to get in shape?”
“How long does it take for a child to learn the alphabet?”
“How long does it take to become a good golfer?”

The answer to all of these questions is – it depends. It depends on a few things:

  1. Your natural ability to do the skill – some people are born to play music!
  2. Your starting place – have you ever even seen golf?
  3. How often you practice – think back to your childhood piano lessons
  4. Who you practice with, who you train with – you can go to the gym everyday and have very little luck getting in shape.
  5. And then it depends on so many more tiny variables that you won’t expect will crop up! – Maybe you were born to play music but your piano is junky and you have only heard country music your whole life. You would likely be at a disadvantage to someone who owns a baby grand and has grown up listening to Mozart.

Much like these scenarios, there is no formula for how long dog training takes. It depends on so many things that most of the time I can’t really give you a good guess. I just met you and your dog. I have no idea how dedicated you will be or how much natural ability you and your dog have.

My dog, Dan just turned 4. We have been working on reducing his reactivity towards other dogs for 3 years. 3 years. He is not yet perfect – far from it! But, he has made HUGE progress. He can practice agility in a barn with dogs he does not know. He can go for a walk in the neighborhood without having a meltdown. We play Frisbee in the park with no issues. We can take a drive and he can look at dogs quietly as we pass by. He basically can live the life of a normal pet dog with only a few minor revisions.

Okay so let’s look at the variables I listed above:

  1. Natural skill: Dan is smart but doesn’t have the natural tendency to relax – which is needed to be good at the behavior we are working towards.
  2. Starting place: In a downtown apartment in a crowded city full of unpredictable dogs! Ahhhhh!!! (Now we are in a house in a relatively quiet neighborhood – oh the difference!)
  3. How often you practice: I go in spurts, I’ll admit. We have at times practiced daily and then go for several months without working very hard on this issue. But I do work with Dan regularly on something, just sometimes other goals. This is important because even though we aren’t working on interaction with other dogs, I am building more consistent behavior in Dan through all training we do.
  4. Who you practice with: I have great friends to practice with at the agility barn and access to a wealth of information on this topic. I would say we are in a pretty good position on this one, but I have worked hard to create these scenarios for us.
  5. Other variables: There have been tons. Too many to list. But some examples include; the highly reactive dog on our street (a setback), moving into a house with a yard (an advantage), unexpected encounters on walks (setback), access to good parks for exercise (advantage)…and so on.

These are all of the things that have contributed to the length of time our progress has taken.

But, if I were to go back and do it over, I would want it to happen the exact same way. Because with every setback, I have learned something about Dan (and dog training in general).

By taking our time we have been able to build a wonderful relationship rather than being frustrated with each other. When we haven’t worked directly on interactions with other dogs it is because we’ve been doing other stuff that is less stressful and more fun for both Dan and me. When I have the emotional strength to practice Dan-dog interactions and he is in a good place to do so, we do it. I let him tell me how fast he wants to go.

Besides, even after we master Dan-dog interactions, we will find another training project to do! That is where we get our fuel for our relationship. To Dan, it is all a game and he hopes I will never stop playing.

So, my new answer to “How long does it take to train your dog?” is “His whole life”.

Herding with Dan

This past weekend, Justin and I took Dan to his very first herding lesson. We all had a blast!

Dan saw some sheep in a pasture before we even started slowing down to turn into the drive and you could just see his face light up.

We arrived early and while we waited our turn, we practiced relaxed downs in the backseat of the car. He did great. In this type of situation, a new place that seems exciting, many times Dan will react to other dogs even from the car. The German shepherd who went before us walked by our car and although Dan was very aroused, he didn’t bark and was able to “check” (look at that) and remain focused on us.

The lesson began with our instructor working Dan. This was great fun for Justin and I to watch. There was a minute or two where Dan was barking, anxious, and just running in big, uncontrolled circles. His hackles were up; he was clearly on edge. However, he soon relaxed a little, his hair went down, his face relaxed, he stopped barking, and started to move in a more controlled way. It seemed as though he finally started to think about what was going on instead of just exploding! Our instructor started teaching him to turn away so that he would begin to move back and forth, bringing the sheep toward the handler, rather than just circling. Soon he had Dan taking the sheep exactly where he wanted. It was beautiful to watch.

Then it was my turn. Yikes! Poor Dan!! I have a LOT to learn.

The idea is that you turn your dog away from you by moving into his space, putting pressure on him, and when he turns you relax that pressure and let him do a quarter circle or so away from you around the sheep. Doing this back and forth teaches him to bring the sheep toward you. When you go the wrong way, the pressure is not let up as a reward, so basically your dog isn’t getting his reinforcer! I did this to poor Dan several times before the instructor provided more help and you could really see his behavior change. He became more frustrated, driving at the sheep harder and more aggressively. When the instructor stepped back in, Dan immediately relaxed again, doing his job as asked. When it was my turn again, I finally was able to move the right way. Although it wasn’t very smooth looking, it felt better and I was glad to be able to give Dan some resemblance of a reward. Good thing dogs are so forgiving!

I have to say, this was one of the best experiences I have had in dog training in a very long time. Dan and I have practiced so much impulse control, relaxation exercises, and loose leash walking – while these are necessary skills, they are all about fighting Dan’s instinctual and natural behaviors to run, chase, pull and bark. It was such a treat to get to embrace his natural abilities and see him just thrive in that environment.

Not only was it fun to watch Dan doing what he is meant to do, it was eye-opening to be the “student” again. I really know very little about herding. I just know the general goals and rules of herding trials. I have watched herding trials and been around sheep in several different environments, but watching and doing are two very different things!

I will be honest, it was very frustrating to do the wrong thing and feel like I couldn’t figure out how to do it correctly. This only lasted a few seconds before our instructor saved us, but that feeling is a really good one for any teacher or coach to experience regularly because, chances are, your students are feeling that way too!

Kay Laurence, a well-known dog trainer and speaker at the annual conference that my graduate school hosted, always talks about how important it is to her to always be learning something new. The last time I saw her, she was taking a glass-blowing class. I didn’t really understand that at the time, other than just for the sake of learning, but I was still in school. The experience of trying something that I had no idea how to do reminded me that learning is HARD! Getting to that successful moment was so important for me and extremely reinforcing.

We can’t wait for our next lesson!

Here’s a short clip of Dan doing his job, just a few minutes into our lesson:

Dan Turns 2!

Most of my clients have heard me say that every dog is different and even though there are many tried and true techniques for training a dog or changing a behavior, we have to adapt them to the individual.  This can be a challenge when working with certain dogs, but it also means that we learn something new from every dog we work with.  And we learn even more from each dog we have the privilege of owning.

Today is Dan’s 2nd birthday and in light of the occasion, I wanted to share some of the challenges we have worked through together and some of the things Dan has taught me as a trainer and as a pet owner.

Dan in the Deschutes River as a Puppy

Dan in the Deschutes River as a Puppy

The first few months of owning Dan were pretty rough.  Don’t get me wrong – he was a super cute, hilarious little puppy and we had lots of fun too.  He is so smart and watching him work through problems is probably one of my favorite things to do.  But he was a difficult puppy to raise and we were in a difficult environment.

Dan has always been very reactive to new things and living in a downtown apartment as a puppy and adolescent did not help this behavior.  When he was just 5 months old, he would bark at everything – people, squirrels, dogs, motorcycles; anything new or different looking.  We work hard with him every day, with every experience he has, and it is slowly paying off. (I won’t lie, moving into a house with his own yard has helped tremendously!)

Here are some of the major things Dan has accomplished over the last year:

  • When someone comes to the door, he now goes to his bed and lies down.  We allow him to bark until we tell him to stop.  He can stay while people walk in the door and he is a little calmer when he greets them.
  • He can quietly watch people walk past our house, as long as they do not have a dog with them.
  • He can walk nicely on a loose leash with no distractions.
  • He can walk nicely on a loose leash when going out the front door and hanging out in our front yard.  He can even walk a few houses down the sidewalk without pulling or sniffing.
  • He is happy to lounge with us when we are relaxing; he can recognize playtime vs. lounge time.
  • He will not bark at the neighbor dog through the fence when reminded to “leave it”, even if the other dog is barking at him.
  • We got through an entire vet visit without any barking or growling at noise of other dogs.
  • He has made four new doggie friends – two of which came to his house!
  • He has learned lots of tricks and is much more focused on me in general – training time or otherwise.
Dan and Sam made friends with Bandit and Mojo

Dan and Sam made friends with Bandit and Mojo


Another New Friend - Lobita

Another New Friend – Lobita

All of these things are fairly common expectations for a pet dog, but they have been very challenging to teach Dan to do.  He would much rather be impulsive, yank on a leash, bark at everything, and run around like a crazy man.

I feel very lucky to have Dan as our dog, and he amazes us every day.  He has taught me so much about changing your expectations and goals to fit the dog you have.  Here are some of the things I have gotten better at through working with Dan:

  • Timing of my reward delivery – he has no patience for late treats!
  • Choosing a reward to promote the type of behavior you are working towards.  For example, using tug as a reward when you are working on calm behavior is not ideal for Dan.
  • Being attentive of the environment to predict problematic stimuli and train appropriately.
  • Observing and recognizing precursor behaviors to aggression, reactivity, and fear.
  • Being patient in training.
  • Understanding reactivity and aggression, having an arsenal of techniques for dealing with these problems, and choosing the right one for the dog, owner, and environment.
  • Celebrating small victories like they are world championships.

Dan might not ever be my agility champion or competitive obedience rock star that I was looking for when we brought him home – although he loves practicing these activities at home and is quite good.  What he is teaching me is much more valuable than that and will not only benefit the dogs we own in the future but is already benefiting the dogs my clients own.

Happy Birthday Dan! – I can’t wait to see what else you have to teach me in the years to come.

Cat Watching - Dan's self imposed job

Cat Watching – Dan’s self imposed job


Dan’s Birthday Bone


Training Sessions Part 1: Always Training, All the Time

Here’s a little secret about dog training – your dog doesn’t know the difference between training and the rest of life.

Okay, he probably understands when you are intentionally training.  You have treats, maybe a clicker, you are directly interacting with him in a certain way, specific to training sessions.

But he doesn’t stop learning when you stop your intentional training session.  Every interaction with your dog teaches him something about the way the world works. 

If he jumps and “just this once” you pet him while he does, he learns from that.
If he barks out of fear and the scary thing goes away, he learns from that.
If he pulls toward something on a walk and succeeds in getting to it, he learns from that.
If he snatches a treat from your hand and gets to inhale it, he learns from that.

So, what can you do about this?  You can be Always Training, All the Time.  Be thoughtful in every interaction with your dog.  Think about what he might learn from each action and result.  Is it something you want him to learn to do?  If not, change the result or prevent the action from happening in the first place.

This is where the management of your dog’s time can really come in handy.  Here are some things you can do to make it easier to be Always Training, All the Time:

Use a crate:

Teach your dog to be happy and comfortable in a crate.  A crate (or x-pen) is an excellent tool for managing your dog.  It allows him to be near you, but prevents him from making mistakes (like getting into the garbage) or from frustrating you when you cannot give him your attention (for example, if you have company over and Fido wants to visit by licking everyone, it can be easy to stray from your usual training techniques).

Note – a crate should never be used for punishment.  It should be a resting place for your dog.  I recommend giving him a special toy or chew when he is in his crate so he can be engaged in something if he wants to.  Also, too much crate time can lead to a restless, hyper puppy!  Use the crate as a tool, but balance it with attention, training time, and exercise.

Get your dog the right amount of exercise:

Speaking of exercise, it is important!  Amount of exercise can contribute to your dog’s behavior just as much as amount of training.  It is important for dogs in the same way it is important for us.  It keeps them healthy, fit, and clear-minded.  For most dogs, a walk or two daily is not enough.  Find a way to let your dog really run whenever possible. Play fetch, go running on trails, let him play with other dogs, go swimming, or get involved in a dog sport like agility.  Every dog is different; figure out what your dog needs and then incorporate it into your daily routine.  Try to find activities that you both enjoy.  For example, I love to go for long walks so I located a park where I can walk while my dogs can run off-leash through the fields, exploring and chasing each other.  Usually I walk about 3 miles and I estimate they run 7 or 8!

Teach your dog to lay on his bed and rest/chew when asked:

When you are watching TV, eating dinner, or doing other quiet family activities ask your dog to lie on a bed or blanket in the same room.  Encourage him to be calm by giving him a toy or bone that involves chewing rather than tug/fetch activities.  This will take a lot of practice, but it pays off in the end!

Dan, chewing his ball on his bed in my office.

Dan, chewing his ball on his bed in my office.

Okay, so now you have some tools for managing your dog when your life is hectic, but how do you incorporate Always Training, All the Time Here are some examples of how we incorporate training into our dog’s daily lives in order to teach them house manners and to strengthen good behaviors:

Use play:

All play at our house involves training.  In fact, the training is the play at our house!  When we are playing tug or fetch with the dogs, we are also asking them to do some of the behaviors they know.  A play session might look like this:

  1. Dog brings toy
  2. We tug, tug, tug, then say “drop it”
  3. Dog drops toy.  “Gooooood dooogggg!” (lots of petting and scratching)
  4. “Dog sit”, dog sits, “goood!!!”, “okay, dog down”, dog downs, “good! Backup!”, dog leaps backward, “what a gooood doggg!!!” (toss toy, dog leaps after it, shakes it around, then eventually comes back)

This teaches your dog several things.  First, that rules are still involved during play.  If I ask for the toy, he needs to give it to me.  If he brings it to me, I need to tug or throw it.  Second, it teaches your dog that training is super fun! Third, it practices impulse control and teaches your dog to have an “on/off switch”.  The play starts and stops all the time but that’s okay, it will start again soon if he is patient!

Create rules based on the room you are in:

Dogs are very dependent on context and will quickly learn whether or not a behavior is acceptable in a certain situation.  At our house, we have general rules based on the environment and our dogs have learned where we play, where we rest, where we cuddle, and where we give a bath (lol!).  Here’s what we do, although you should definitely do what fits for your household:

  1. My Office – No play.  I always give the dogs a treat when they come in and lay on their bed and then they are expected to chill out.  Occasionally they come over for a pet or cuddle but when I say “okay all done” they go back to their bed.
  2. Kitchen – Unfortunately, this is the “play room”.  It can be chaotic.  But what usually happens is one of us is cooking and the other is playing with the dogs while we talk about our day.  It works out well most of the time.
  3. Living room – The dogs are expected to lay down when asked, but we of course play here too sometimes.  I encourage them to play on their own more here, but sometimes we play fetch.  Not much tug, it gets to be too exciting.
  4. Outside – All play goes!  This is the dog’s space to “be a dog”, we discourage barking and digging but otherwise they get to run and play.  (When I say discourage, I mean interrupt the behavior by calling them over to me or bringing them inside – calmly).
  5. Dining Room – When we are eating they are supposed to lay down, but sometimes this isn’t perfect.  Dan loves to herd the cat in this room for some reason.  If they are really good and lay down through a whole meal, they get treats at the end.
  6. Bathroom – This is where we give baths.  The dogs avoid it at all costs, unless no one is home, then Dan helps himself to the garbage!  We usually fix this by simply closing the door.  Easy as pie.

Going on Walks:

Enforce the rules of walking at all times.  This means if the dog pulls, you stop until he focuses on you, then you can continue on your way.  Everyone has different criteria for leash manners.  Decide what yours are and stick to it.  Reward the good all the time and try to prevent rewards for the not-so-good.  Walks should always be happy, fun, upbeat, and focused on the dog.  If you cannot focus on the dog, leave him home and take him for his own walk later.  He will prefer this, I promise.  When a dog is new to walking on a leash, or is learning new rules, your walks may need to be shorter.  Don’t view it as exercise unless your dog is already good at walking on a leash.  Give him another chance to get his exercise in.

These are just examples, some of the most common times that we might not give our dogs the attention they need to learn the right behavior.

Cecil, resting on his blanket in my office

Cecil, resting on his blanket in my office

One more note – these concepts work for all species, not just dogs.  Our cat has learned to sleep in his box on my desk when he is in my office.  And he has learned to cuddle in the living room and meow for food in the kitchen.  He also drives us crazy if he hasn’t had enough attention or activity in a day and loves to do training time, although we don’t do it as often as we should!

Remember, your pet is always learning, and you are always training.  Whether you mean to be or not.

*Stay tuned for the next piece on Training Sessions Part 2 – Types of Training Sessions*

Old in Body, Young in Mind

This is my first time to participate in the Dog Agility Bloggers Event.  The topic today is “aging”.  My blog is young, but I thought this was the perfect chance to get involved as I have been thinking a lot about what is best for my aging dog lately.  Check out the other awesome posts at:

I am currently enjoying the companionship of my second “senior citizen” agility dog.  My sweet Sam is now 13 ½ and still loving life!  She was my first puppy and unlike my first dog, Libby, she was fast in the agility ring.  We had a wonderful time together in our competition days as I learned how manage her drive and speed, without slowing her down.  This is the dog I learned to do technical agility with – wraps and threadles and serpentines.  And she lives for it.

She still does.  Of course “agility” looks quite a bit different now.  At about 9 or 10, I realized that she needed to work on lower jumps and really could only practice for 15 minutes or so in a day. Now, we don’t even use a bar.  In fact she really never does more than one “jump” exercises and we don’t do any turning.  Just sending through the jump standard or calling her to me from a stay on the other side.  And after 5 minutes, she is exhausted!  But she loves to be included in the training and to practice “agility” and I love to work with her.  There is just something special about working with a dog you have been with for 13 years, a connection you can never have with a younger dog.

In fact, Libby followed the same pattern.  As she got older, I made obstacles easier and took away the complex handling, but I could never deny her a chance to practice agility.  Even when she was deaf, could hardly see, and had trouble standing for long periods of time; we practiced targeting.  Her expression lit up when we would do this.  Here is a video, just a few months before she passed at the age of 17.

As Sam has gotten older, she is slowing down.  She cannot jump well, she has trouble on the stairs, and she is terrified of hard wood floors.  So, we carry her up the stairs when needed, put rugs on the floor, and cuddle on the floor instead of the couch.  But she seems to have no idea that she is changing and I have made it a point to continue doing the activities she has always done; agility, other training, Frisbee, tug of war, walks, chasing her plastic bottles all across the room, and chewing or pouncing on her favorite bones.  All of these activities have changed to accommodate her physical needs.

I believe that this is one of the most important things you can do for an aging dog.  The mental exercise that our dogs get from their jobs is something that they can always enjoy and benefit from, even if we have to change the physical requirements or criteria to keep them safe and healthy.


Sam After Digging

Sam with a mouth full of dirt after digging in the countryside this summer.