Training & Behavior

This past Sunday, A Rotta Love Plus hosted a Therapy Dogs International (TDI) test, which resulted in six new Rottweilers and pit bulls, plus one Weimaraner, becoming part of the therapy dog community. Congratulations to Albert, Atlas, Blue, Jackie-O, Jameson, Jana, and Palace, who are going to make such wonderful additions to whichever therapy dog program they and their humans decide to participate in (we have a suggestion!)

Blue: Newly-Minted Therapy Dog

Ashley and Ryan from Wag n’ Woofs doggy daycare/training facility in Eden Prairie kindly donated the space to test, and Pat Kinch and her team from TDI came out to administer it. In addition, twenty-three (!) ARLP volunteers came to support, observe, take photos, and work on craft projects that ARLP sells at awareness events. The Wag n’ Woofs blog put it perfectly: “All the owners were so kind and supportive of each other! It made me realize just one more reason why choosing to adopt a dog is so rewarding. Adopting a rescue dog doesn't just bring one new family member into your life, but a whole support group of people.”

Test-Day Volunteers Enjoyed Crafts, Coffee, and Conversation

A number of those who took Sunday’s test were graduates of ARLP’s Rott n’ Pit Ed (RPEd) training class. Veteran ARLP volunteer Brit Horob describes what it was like to witness their journey: As a trainer with RPEd I’ve seen a lot of these dogs go from animal control, to a foster home, and then to their forever home. It’s not lost on me how much work goes into some of these dogs. They come to ARLP under-socialized and without any boundaries; it falls to the foster homes and adopters to attend training class and work on those issues. Sometimes the issues are minor and easily taken care of. Other times, it can mean years of re-socializing and reconditioning on a daily basis. Several of the dogs tested on Sunday came into the program years ago and have been working ever since to become well-socialized members of society.

Some of the handlers whose dogs did not pass the test were very disappointed. I hope that they understand that, although they didn’t pass, the path that they have already traveled with their dogs is something to be very proud of. The amount of work the owners have put in with their dogs humbles me.

One such handler, ARLP volunteer Laura Anderson (who helps promote ARLP’s foster dogs on Facebook and founded the Twin Cities Pack Walk group), wrote the following touching account about her experience on Sunday with her beauty-queen pit bull, Penelope:

Even though it has only been just over a year it feels like a lifetime since Penelope first walked into my life. Penelope's timidness was apparent at the outset and I should have seen the work that was ahead of me when I first met her, but I didn't, all I saw was the love I felt for this shy little dog. Penelope was terrified of unknown dogs and people. She was afraid of thresholds, noises, and even some toys. To deal with these challenges I had to accept a lot of realities about dog ownership that I had previously taken for granted. I remember consciously acknowledging that it wasn't Penelope who was lucky to have me, but that I was lucky to have her. And lucky I have been. Lucky to be able to take this journey with her, to teach her to love and to trust, and to show her the way. Never, not even once, did I question whether it would be worth it; from day one, it was. 

Our first step was to take a class for shy and fearful dogs. We chose to enroll in a highly referred class with Danielle at the Canine Coach. It wasn't until I began this class that I realized just how much more work I needed than Penelope. Prior to adopting her I had been severely bitten trying to intervene in a dog fight. I had a newfound respect for my limitations with dogs, but also a debilitating fear of aggression. I will admit I was not the best leader at first. Nothing is more challenging to a fearful dog than a fearful leader and my first lesson was that if I could not be the leader I needed to be, I had to enlist the support of my partner. My husband took Penelope through her first class with enormous success; I worked with her at home to build her confidence and began to work with other dogs to build my own confidence. We were indeed works-in-progress, but at least progress was somewhere in our equation.

The funny thing about progress is that it can suddenly move so quickly that you get caught up in the momentum and find yourself back where you began. Penelope's next step was to enroll in Rott n’ Pit Ed classes with A Rotta Love Plus. The structure of the classes and wisdom of the instructors provided both Penelope and myself with a level of comfort and security that can not be understated. We were in the company of skilled and understanding dog advocates who knew that perfection did not make a great dog. We found a community of support and education and learned through collective ups and downs. In just two months with Rott n’ Pit Ed we were able to obtain our Canine Good Citizen title, a monumental symbol and acknowledgment of just how far we had come. Words can not explain how proud I was of myself, my community, and most importantly my little girl. We had become a team and we had built the foundation of our success on mutual trust and understanding. I had made a promise to Penelope that I would protect her and I intended to keep it.

Like any good mother I decided to push for the next step, the big prize, Penelope's therapy title. Though I had my hesitations I figured there wouldn't be any harm in trying - what was the worst that could happen? So we prepared and we practiced. We explored new places and people. We worked with increasing levels of distraction and we made impressive strides. Somewhere along the way I went from “well it's worth a shot” to “we could actually do this thing.” Somewhere along the way I convinced Penelope she was ready and she followed me into the fray on testing day.

And so I had let forward progress propel me into a new an exciting place, except I forgot one very important thing:

I forgot to ask Penelope if she wanted to be a therapy dog.

People often say that therapy dogs are born and not made, that a therapy dog has a certain bomb-proof temperament and an innate desire to please any human in their path. None of these things describe Penelope at this point in her life and yet here we were entering the testing circle ready for the “ultimate challenge.” I was so distracted by my nerves that I forgot to be a leader and Penelope was so confused by my energy she forgot to be herself. We both regressed to that shy little pair entering the Canine Coach and I don't think I was prepared for how it would make me feel.

I couldn't get out of the ring before the tears started to flow. I was upset with myself for doing poorly, for leading my best friend astray, but I didn't really know why. I couldn't put my finger on what had brought the tears. I was prepared to fail and knew I would be proud of my girl regardless. What I didn't prepare myself for was that I would so profoundly disappoint myself. I swallowed my pride and came to a very difficult realization.

Penelope didn't trust me, not in that ring. And why should she have trusted me? For the past year I had built our relationship on the foundation of trust. A foundation that rested on the simple idea that I would protect her. I promised that I would look out for her best interests and help her develop to her full potential. That I would do everything in my power to make her happy. I didn't just push her, I pushed her too far. I violated every single one of these fundamental principles to do something that would make me happy.

I drove home sorting through the day and turned to my girl and asked what I had forgotten to ask in the first place.

And she said: “not yet.”

And so what if she isn't ready to be a therapy dog?

So what if she'll never be?

All I ever wanted was for her to be happy.

And she is.


Leadership Basics

A simple guide to regaining your dog's respect in pleasant, non-confrontational ways

by Suzanne Clothier

There are three basic aspects to leadership:

- Control of or undisputed access to resources

- Proactive intervention

- Ability to control, direct or inhibit the behavior of others

Behaving like a leader means that you must demonstrate – to the dog’s satisfaction! – that your behavior is that of a higher status animal. Each dog will have different criteria for what constitutes adequate leadership skills on your part. And his expectations may change considerably as he grows & matures, requiring that you also make shifts in your approach.

Directing, Controlling & Inhibiting Behavior

From the dog’s perspective, only someone they respect has the right to control, direct or inhibit another dog’s behavior. Turned around the other way, this means that if you can’t control, direct or inhibit your dog’s behavior (especially at critical or highly exciting times), your dog is making it quite clear that he does not consider you higher status – in other words, he doesn’t respect you, a clear sign that your leadership is inadequate for that dog (though it may be quite adequate for another dog with a different personality.)

Your dog will grant you precisely the respect you have earned. No more, no less. And he will adjust that constantly. If you begin to act in sloppy ways, he’ll downgrade the respect. Clean up your act, and he’ll respond accordingly. You are not voted leader for life in the world of dogs – you earn the dog's respect daily.

The more intelligent, confident and ambitious the dog, the more likely he is to quickly notice tiny shifts in your behavior on any given day, and to test you and the rules regularly. This is why when changes occur in our lives, which result in changes in our behavior (as simple as being rushed for time to moving, changing jobs, or other bigger life shifts) prompt new behavior from the dog - he's testing to see what the changes mean for him.

Basic training is important to help the dog understand that you can control and direct his behavior, something you will also be teaching him through your resource control actions. But you must earn the respect and the right to control the dog’s behavior. If you do not have control of the dog in non-stressful times – like meals or playing ball or even walking (pulling?) down the street – I guarantee you he’s not going to listen to you when something he thinks important happens (like a cat dashing across your path or a jogger going by or another dog appearing on the street, the person at the door, etc.)

Practice self-control with your dog frequently, as well as basic obedience in every place you can think of, and with you in every possible position. Act like a leader, earn the respect!

Proactive Intervention

Good leaders are watchful, protective and quick to act to defend. When you are with your dog, really be with him, and watching his responses to the world around him. Plan ahead how you will handle situations you know may be troublesome. Be someone he can rely on no matter what. If it helps, think of him as a guest at a party or family gathering who is unsure of what may be the polite or appropriate thing to say or do. If you were helping such a guest, how would you do this? By paying close attention, anticipating situations where help may be needed, and avoiding those situations that he couldn’t handle.

How do you know if your leadership is adequate for any given dog?

If you can control or have access to ANY resource without the dog challenging your right to it AND the dog allows you to control, direct or inhibit his behavior in highly exciting or critical moments (quiet times with just you & the dog do NOT count; controlling the dog when a cat dashes past or someone knocks on the door or when guests comes DO count) AND Your dog trusts that you will step in if necessary to protect him from other dogs or people, and is willing to defer to you on these occasions.

If there are weak points in any of these areas, you may need to make some changes in your leadership style.

One easy, non-confrontational way to gain your dog’s respect is through resource control.

Regaining Resource Control

What Matters To Your Dog? Make a written list of the top 5-10 resources for your dog. This may be food, treats, toys, attention, play, special resting places, walks, car rides, etc. Hopefully you are on the list! Don’t waste your time or the dog’s by trying to control resources that don’t mean much to the dog.

What Can You Ask From Your Dog? Make a list of EVERY behavior your dog knows – whether formal commands or tricks. From this list, you will draw your “request” of one or more behaviors which must be completed promptly, on one quiet command and executed exactly before you will provide the resource. For access to any resource, insist that your dog “give” you something before you provide the resource.

A sit or down is a basic starting point; however, as the dog’s skills allow, make the dog work harder. Put 2 or 3 behaviors together; do not be predictable! Too many folks stay with a simple sit or down, never progressing to much more demanding requests as the dog’s skills allow. Remember how your mom got all excited when you were finally able to write your name? Well, it’s good to remember that these days folks take that for granted and expect much more from you. Asking a truly intelligent dog to merely sit is like asking Bill Gates for $100 – it’s not exactly requiring him to give something meaningful.

Making the request meaningful relative to the dog’s skills will sharpen him up - he must really concentrate and pay attention to you. Ask for any and all skills the dog has, and all the tricks he knows, and mix them up in an unexpected order.

The goal is the dog’s complete attentive cooperation, not a habituated response that requires no thought from the dog.

No Grading on the Curve. Set your baseline for acceptable responses and hold tight. If you want the dog to sit within 2 seconds, then accept NO responses that are slower. Being consistent is an important part of leadership. Smart dogs will push you hard to see if you’ll accept less or slower responses – that’s what got you both into this situation in the first place!

Consistency Counts! Be relentless. Your dog views you as his leader 24 hours a day. He cannot and will not understand your annoying boss, your in-law problems or your IRS woes as the reasons for your inconsistency.

He believes what you say – every time!

Too Bad If the dog offers a wrong or slow response, you can repeat the command, try again, or even gently remind/help him, you can offer verbal praise & encouragement BUT do not provide the desired resource till he gets it absolutely right. If the dog blows you off, quietly turn away and make the resource unavailable.

This may mean putting the food bowl in the refrigerator and walking away for a few minutes before nicely asking again. It may mean walking away from the door you would have opened if the dog had played by the rules. It may mean ending the game of fetch. Try again in a few minutes to see if the dog is more willing to cooperate, but be sure YOU are the one who chooses to start again, not the dog pushing you to it.

Stay Cool No need to be harsh, angry or confrontational. Simply draw a direct line from the dog’s behavior to the consequence – “if you do this, this happens.” For example, you ask the dog to lie down before throwing his ball, and he refuses. Oh well – game is over; you pocket the ball and walk away for a bit (maybe just 5-15 seconds; maybe much longer; all depends on the situation and the dog's behavior.) Take home message for the dog: “If you do not cooperate, I don’t play.”

Earn Your Oscar! When necessary, be dramatic in your responses – acting shocked or deeply disappointed with the wrong response from the dog, sweetly encouraging if he’s almost right, and dramatic in your withdrawal should he really blow it. Often, handlers offer such "mushy" information that the dog has a hard time telling the difference between what's right and what's wrong. Harsh or angry is not necessary; but clearly delighted or disappointed can help the dog figure things out.

Educate The Dog The more your dog knows, the more ways he has to cooperate with you. Polish up his current skills, and keep adding new ones; more & more tricks, for example, gives your dog more ways to be right and earn what he wants. Training is communication, and communication is critical to healthy relationships. Besides, it’s just plain fun!



Blog post by Josie's mamma Sara N.

Josie will be tested for her Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification tonight.  For those of you unfamiliar with the CGC certification, it is basically designed to tell the world that your dog will consistently display basic good-doggy manners while faced with various distractions.

For Jo, the CGC is a stepping stone to achieving the Therapy Dogs International (TDI) certification, which will allow her to participate in various aspects of the thriving ARLP Education Program.  It is also just one more stop on her journey from former Iowa bust dog to Therapy Dog and Pit Bull Ambassadog Extraordinaire.  This is what I believe she was born for; as ARLP president Rachel once said, Josie is “love, tenderness, and compassion personified in the fur.”

However, before she can fulfill this destiny, she – along with her dedicated but novice and slightly neurotic owner, yours truly – will have to pass the test.  And I am nervous.

Conversing with a close friend about the upcoming assessment, I rambled on anxiously about the steps of the test, explaining that while most aspects would be a piece of cake for her, others might pose a challenge (e.g., her tendency to express heartfelt enthusiasm toward approaching strangers, or as Josie calls them, “new BFFs,” in lieu of following my instructions).  As any good friend would, she listened patiently as my imagination ran wild about my potential to be an utter failure as the guardian of this very special dog.  And, as any good friend would, she reassured me.  “Don’t be nervous,” she said, kindly.  “If she doesn’t pass this time, there will be other chances.  It’s just a test!”

Despite her gentle (not to mention admittedly accurate) reassurances, in that moment, “just a test” sounded a bit like the famous poem, “Just a Dog:” “If you, too, think it's ‘just a dog,’ then you probably understand phrases like ‘just a friend,’ ‘just a sunrise,’ or ‘just a promise.’”

Similarly, to me, tonight’s “just a test” is “just a responsibility” that I have to the lovely Josie, who underwent so much suffering at the hands of her previous owners before being handed the lucky ticket out of that world by her Iowa and Minnesota rescuers.

It is “just evidence” to the world that a dog born with the literally deadly combination of bad breed reputation and bust-dog upbringing can be an extraordinary gift to, rather than a burden on, the community.

It is “just gratitude” to everyone who had a hand in Josie’s bright future before I even met her – the Iowa shelter workers and ARLP volunteers and donors whose countless hours, dollars, compassion, and patience brought this amazing companion into my home.  And it is “just respect” for the tears they shed over the many other dogs that they tried to, but ultimately could not, save in the same way.

Finally, it is “just an indication” that I am doing my part, however small, to make sure their efforts will not go to waste.

Josie, of course, has no idea what the meaning of tonight’s test is, aside from another opportunity to prance around in front of a throng of people, ears stacked proudly on top of her head like a crown.  As for me?  I can’t help but feel that it means something more.

Update: Josie did not pass this round but she'll be re-testing on the 19th and trying her hand at the TDI test at the end of the month.

She wants to know when the official "look cute and investigate all interesting surroundings" test is. She says she totally would have passed that one.