Science, Critical Thinking & Transparency. How our dog training education has helped us deal with COVID-19.


We are science-based trainers.  That means that rather than believing in folklore and following our gut, we rely on what research has to say about how dogs behave and learn.  We reject unfounded myths like dominance theory and pack leadership because research has shown these as inaccurate portrayals of domestic dogs.  We avoid training methods based on punishment, intimidation or suppression because science has shown they significantly increase stress and aggression in dogs.


Thanks in large part to The Academy for Dog Trainers, we've also been trained in critical thinking.  Critical thinking involves "the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment."*  This means we don't take information at face value but instead compare and contrast different views and assess the validity of them before making a judgement.  We understand how our own biases can help us form opinions that aren't always based in reality or fact.  We're constantly checking these biases to ensure they aren't clouding our judgement.


Little did we know the skills and training we have in science and critical thinking would become incredibly important in 2020 beyond our skills as dog trainers.  We've been bombarded with challenges, information and decisions to be made where returning to our roots of science and critical thinking have served us well.  It's easy to get caught up in the drama, the politics and the confusion surrounding COVID-19.


Our training also helps us to know that science is only as good as the research that has been done.  Not only in excluding the things we *don't* know because the research hasn't been done but also to recognize when the science isn't solid, contains bias or is incomplete.  Anything that's as new as COVID-19 has a very big learning curve which takes time to develop a solid knowledge base on which to draw.  Frankly, the number of things we *don't* know far outweigh what we *do* know.


That's why Practical Obedience is continuing to take a cautious approach.  We're as eager as the next person to get back to working with dogs and clients in the format that has served us so well for the past 6-1/2 years.  We want to be able to help everyone who comes to us in a way that makes them feel like they're getting the best possible value, service and experience.  We understand that not everyone realizes or believes how much we can accomplish when we're not in-person with you to guide you through your training program.


Another value we believe in is transparency.  We're sorely lacking transparency in the dog training industry, particularly regarding methods used and honesty surrounding what's actually going on when you use a beep, shock or correction collar to change your dog's behavior.  Transparency is "characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices"* which is why we're updating you today.  We know (and respect) that many trainers and other businesses have made the choice to return to normal services (with varied levels of precautions) and we want you to know why we continue to restrict our services.  


We're aware there's a lot we don't know about COVID-19.  We're aware we live and work in a community that continues to be in a higher risk category in our state.  We're aware that one of our staff or clients being infected will result in a dramatic decrease in our ability to do our jobs and keep our small business running.  We're also aware we can provide an effective, high quality service while still maintaining extra levels of precaution and safety.  Lastly, we're aware that not everyone shares or understands our position.

We feel it is in everyone's best interest to continue to restrict our contact and exposure and offer services that best serve a cautious approach.  We're riding out this storm in the best way we know how, with the best information available.  We've gradually expanded our services based on the best data available and the guidelines laid out by those who know far more about this new disease (and disease in general) than we ever will.

That's why we still won't be entering client homes.  The potential risks of being in close contact in multiple families' homes day after day far outweigh the benefits of starting to enter homes.  Our research has indicated that we're much safer and at lower risk remaining outdoors, where space and airflow work to our benefit.  This knowledge does give us the confidence to move just one step closer to our normal services as we have begun to relaunch in-person services for outdoor training.  


We've begun to offer coaching sessions outdoors on a limited basis.  We will continue to require virtual consultations and orientations to start all training programs to minimize the number of in-person appointments.  Across the board, we've found virtual consultations and orientations to be equally as effective & efficient as the in-person version.  Dogs aren't generally a critical part to these steps as we gather information and share initial feedback with owners, so we lose nothing by meeting virtually.  We'll also be making case-by-case decisions regarding whether a virtual session or two may be the best way to start (or continue) your training program.  This allows us to maximize the benefits of in-person training while reducing the number of in-person appointments per day and per week to manage the number of people we're in close contact with.

Outdoor training comes with it's own set of challenges, namely being weather dependent.  (I'm sitting and writing this on a day I've been "stormed out" of a few appointments which were planned to be held outdoors.)  We will require extra flexibility and patience from our clients as we juggle schedules that can change instantly based on the weather forecast, which has its own level of finickiness.  However, we're determined to do everything we can to serve our clients in the best way possible to meet their needs while keeping everyone safe & healthy.  We're determined to use our background in science, critical thinking and transparency to make decisions and communicate them to our clients and supporters.


Speaking of supporters, we'd like to thank everyone who has helped keep this small business running amidst the difficult times we're all experiencing.  From the bottom of our hearts, we appreciate you.


*Definitions from Oxford Languages

Updated: Jan 20

We take a lot of handling and interactions with our dogs for granted. Since we can rationalize that it’s necessary and won’t really hurt them – it’s OK to just do it. Their pulling away or avoidance is seen as dramatic, their aggression or attempt to get you to stop is stubbornness or dominance.


Vet Visits. Grooming. Nail Trims. Eye Drops. Toweling Off.


It’s easy to write these things off. We HAVE to do them, don’t we? Even if they hate it or they tremble in fear or we have to corner and restrain them to get it done, it’s for their own good right? There’s nothing we can do, right?



Wrong. There’s a lot we can do. We can prepare dogs. We can train them to tolerate or even enjoy these necessary procedures. At a minimum, we can easily take measures to keep them from hating them more, from going further and further down the rabbit hole of fear, anxiety and aggression with each experience.


The easiest time to prepare your dog is when they’re a puppy. If you bring home a new puppy during their critical socialization period, this is the easiest time to prepare them for all the things they’ll experience in life. Make a list or start with the one above. Handle your puppy and pair it with treats. Build a foundation of handling is awesome, rather than handling is uncomfortable. It’s a common misunderstanding that if we just DO IT (touch their feet, look in their mouth, pick them up) they’ll learn it’s OK and we’re preparing them for these procedures. Your dog experiencing it is not enough – it’s shaky ground. They may learn to tolerate it or they may learn that wiggling, mouthing, biting or running away is a great strategy to avoid that annoying or unpleasant sensation. With a little careful practice and a few handfuls of treats we can actually teach puppies that handling is awesome. That good things happen when you restrain them, they love nail trimming time and that vet offices produce their favorite foods. Colleague and fellow Academy grad Kristi Benson has a great video on helping her puppy Soleil learn handling is safe and predicts good things.


If you’re past that critical time when your dog is naive and primed to learn about these experiences, it’s still not too late. Even if your dog is already frankly fearful, becomes aggressive when you try to handle them or requires a muzzle during visits to the vet or groomer, there’s still a lot that can be done. We can teach them a variety of skills to cope with these situations and we can break down invasive procedures into tiny bits they can handle and help them to enjoy them. I’ve been working with my own handling-sensitive boy, Little Jack to improve his comfort. By teaching a chin rest and practicing basic procedures at home, he’s building up good feelings about equipment touching him. We also schedule regular “Happy Visits” to the vet clinic where no handling happens (but lots of treats do!) so the clinic doesn’t always predict unpleasant experiences. With two Fear Free Certified Professionals on staff, we’d be happy to help you create a plan to help your dog too!



At a bare minimum, we can not take restraint and handling for granted. We can have some compassion and understanding. We can help protect them from these necessary procedures getting more unpleasant, more scary and more stressful.


I’ve also made a commitment to Little Jack that if I am going to do anything invasive, it will be followed by an amazing treat party for him. If I need to inspect and dig into his ear to rule out a problem causing him to shake his head, I’m going to follow that with a trip to the fridge for 6 or 10 little bits of deli meat. Eye drops, ear cleaner or removal of a foreign object that requires restraint? Off to the closet for a dozen little pieces of freeze-dried liver paired with happy, upbeat praise. Even nail trimming sessions, which we’ve done a lot of training to help him enjoy are heavy on treats. Clip a nail, get a treat – that’s the rule we’ve made to maintain his enjoyment and cooperation during the necessary process. Little Jack has learned the rule that invasive interactions always predict an extra special treat party, which has over time and repetition made these processes easier for him. He still may not love being restrained, picked up or every “must do” procedure that comes up in life, but I know I’m doing what I can to maintain his tolerance and comfort.


We often take restraint and handling of our dogs for granted. We “just do it” regardless of how our dogs feel about it. Learning to read your dog’s signs of discomfort and fear is the first step. Respecting those signals and helping them feel better about the things they dislike is the next. I’ve made a commitment to my dog to minimize the things I “have to do” and help him feel good about the ones that I do. There's a lot you can do too. With a little guidance you can make the things you have to do to your dog just a little better each time.

Resources:


LoriNanan.com has a variety of self-paced courses to help teach your dog to enjoy things like nail trims, tooth brushing and wearing a muzzle.


Fear Free Pets has resources on reducing fear and anxiety at vet clinics which can be applied to grooming as well.


Practical Obedience - Custom Dog Training - Since we offer customized on-location training programs, we can include any specific handling or restraint training goals along with anything else on your "must do to your dog" list that you'd like to become a less stressful, more collaborative process.

Successful training doesn't come from the big questions but from breaking down the BIG THINGS we want into many little questions.


The BIG question: Can Oakley (right) stay on his mat while I sit across the room with his canine brother Gravy in the room + baby distractions? Oakley's answer: You Bet!

I recently posted on Facebook that a "placement" behavior is a favorite among dog trainers. Asking a dog to go lie down on a designated spot (bed, rug, etc.) solves so many problems. If a dog is lying down on his place he's not jumping on guests, harassing you at the table or chasing the cat. It's a perfect replacement behavior that's incompatible with lots of problem behaviors, so it's often a "go-to" for solving dilemmas that owners bring to us. You may be thinking - there's NO WAY my dog could lie down on a spot while *all these things* (insert your unique household chaos here) are happening. And you may be right - if you asked your dog the question "Can you stay on your spot while this is happening?" today, he might answer "Heck no!" In dog training, to get the answer we want we usually have to change the question. A good trainer knows how to take that BIG question and break it down into many little questions the dog can answer "Yes" to.


I received a call to come help Oakley (above, far right) who recently welcomed a human-brother into his family. In addition to addressing a little concern Oakley was feeling with the new sights & sounds of being a big brother, we decided that adding a base skill to manage his behavior would be useful for the family. Being able to ask Oakley to hang out on his spot would allow him to slowly be incorporated into family activities in a safe and structured way. Once a decision was made regarding the behavior we wanted to build, two additional questions needed to be asked: What does the final behavior look like (what's the BIG question?) and what can Oakley do right now now? Although there are many distractions in the final question, we always need to start our questions with something we think the dog can do today.


Oakley's family opted for day-training which made it my role to do the foundation training. I visited Oakley to practice for a few sessions before asking his family to work with him. I broke the big behavior down into many little questions all of which could be incorporated into our final goal:

  • Can Oakley stay while I place a tempting treat on the ground?

  • Can Oakley stay while I carry the baby's car seat through the room?

  • Can Oakley stay while his canine brother Gravy moves through the room?

  • Can Oakley stay while I sit on the couch across the room?

  • Can Oakley stay while I step out of sight?

  • Can Oakley stay while the baby's swing moves?

At each step of training, I made a deal with Oakley: if you answer "yes" (and stay in your spot) you earn yourself a food reward. If you answer "no" (and move from your spot), no food reward - we'll reset and try again. Each question was repeated multiple times to ensure his "yes" wasn't a fluke. If Oakley said "Nope, can't do it" more than once or twice, I rephrased my question to something smaller. For example, when I asked Oakley "Can you stay while I sit on the couch across the room?" and he repeatedly got up when I sat down, I changed my question. I asked "Can you stay while I walk across the room & pause?" then "Can you stay while I walk across the room and bend as if I'm going to sit?" and in a few repetitions and successful repetitions, I was back to asking my original question. Oakley quickly learned that regardless of what I did, his job was to stay put and wait for me to bring him his next food reward. (Not a bad deal for Oakley, eh?)

Through stages of his training plan I ask Oakley all the little questions: Can you stay on your mat while I'm across the room? While I carry the car seat through the room? While Gravy lies on the couch? (P.S. Doesn't he look like he's having a great time - that's positive reinforcement training for you folks!)

Finally, after 3 sessions on our own it was time to meet for a coaching session and add the final piece to the puzzle: it was time to incorporate his human-brother into the questions we were asking. At a comfortable distance and a leash attached for safety, we asked Oakley the question: "Can you stay while a little fussing baby comes into the room?" And Oakley's answer: "No problem!" All our practice breaking down all the little parts prepared him for the next step. I'm happy to report that Oakley nailed his practice with 3 adults, 1 baby and his canine brother all moving around the room while Oakley earned his treats for hanging out, relaxed on his mat.


The ability to look at any training question or behavior and break it down is the hallmark of a good trainer. We want to make training questions easy enough for our dogs to win more than they lose - it makes training fun and ultimately leads to our dogs learning what we WANT instead of what we don't want.


Practical Obedience LLC - Custom Dog Training

Certified Professional Dog Training in Green Bay, WI

Email: maggie@practicaldogobedience.com or Call: 920-471-4145

© 2020 Practical Obedience LLC.  All rights reserved.  All prices & services are subject to change without notice.