Sunday, November 22, 2015

Teacher's Pet Training Academy - Pets for Vets

Pets for Vets – Healing Vets and Saving Pets


By Sarah Miller


All across the world, dogs are waiting to find their forever homes and our own nation’s veterans have fought to protect us.  Both the dogs and our active duty just want to go home.


Many veterans come home wounded but not all wounds are visible.  These invisible wounds are no less painful than the visible wounds and can make it difficult for our veterans to transition back into life at home.  Such invisible wounds can include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, hypervigilance, panic disorders, and depression.


Not only do the dogs need the veterans, the veterans need their dogs.  Pets for Vets is a national program whose goal is to give back to those who have served our country, thanking them for their service.  To do so, they aim to lessen the emotional wounds of veterans by matching them with a shelter or rescue dog that has been specifically selected to match their personality.  While not intended to be service dogs, the dogs help provide a sense of comfort for the veterans.


Before the trainers can complete a match, they meet with the veteran multiple times to get a sense of who they are, what they’re looking for, and if a dog would be a good fit for them.  Then, they evaluate dogs from rescues or shelters to find the best match.  These dogs are evaluated for their sociability, energy level, patience, and tolerance.  Once the trainer has selected the dog, they train the dog for 6-8 weeks for rehabilitation and good manners in order to fit their veteran’s lifestyle.  After the training is complete, the dogs are placed with their veterans.  The specific dogs have been kept a secret from the veteran and, on this day, both the veteran and the dog are introduced to their new best friends.


Pets for Vets has many chapters throughout the country.  Madison, WI has a local chapter that works to serve the veterans of Wisconsin.  I volunteer my time as a trainer for Pets for Vets – Madison, WI.  The local chapter is looking to place two dogs with two veterans before the holiday season in the Madison area.  Keep an eye out for their story this coming December.


Both the animals and the veterans have been through traumatic events in their lives, and together they can help each other heal. For more on how to get involved, please navigate to the Pets for Vets website:

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Teacher's Pet Training Academy: Creating a Visual or Tactile Marker

Creating a Visual  or Tactile Marker

By Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA

If you’ve been in our classes, you probably know that the first thing we talk about is teaching your dog a marker word.  “Good”, “Good dog”, “Yes” – you pick a word and then repeat the sequence of word followed by treat. In your dog’s brain, this creates a connection between the word and excited feelings of eating yummy treats. Then, we use that marker word to communicate to our dog when his behavior is going to result in a yummy treat, making those good behaviors go up in frequency – yay!

But, let’s say your dog can’t hear you. Sometimes, dogs lose their hearing as they age, or sometimes, your dog is at a distance or there is lots of other noise to interfere. If your dog makes a really excellent behavior choice in this situation, you still want to be able to provide feedback. Here’s an example: Aussie Payton is looking out the picture window while I’m outside mowing the front lawn.  His neighborhood nemesis Chocolate lab goes bounding by on a leash. Payton watches calmly without barking. Hooray! But how do I communicate how much I loved his behavior when he can’t hear me? A visual marker. 

Teaching a visual marker is the same process as teaching a marker word. Pick a visual marker. A thumbs up, a peace sign, an OK sign – it can be whatever you want as long as it doesn’t look like a signal your dog already knows (e.g. don’t use a flat palm if that’s what your stay signal looks like).  Show your dog the marker, then feed a treat.  Repeat until, eventually, you show your dog the marker and he starts to look excited. In trainer speak, we call that a CER – conditioned emotional response.  Basically your dog knows something good is on the way when he sees that signal. 

You might also want to consider teaching a tactile marker. Dogs can lose vision with age, or some dogs are born with both visual and auditory impairments (“double merle” dogs often have these issues). These dogs might benefit from learning a specific touch as a marker.  Choose a touch that your dog doesn’t find aversive (for example, many dogs dislike being patted on top of the head), and follow it with a treat. For example, touch the dog on the shoulder, then treat. Repeat until you get that CER (the “where’s my treat?” response), and you’ve taught a tactile marker.
Now you can communicate that you liked your dog’s behavior in any situation! Happy training!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Teacher's Pet Training Academy - What's The Word?

by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA

When I start teaching a new skill in class, a question I often hear from clients is “What word do I say?”  My answer is pretty much always “Whatever word you want!”  Dogs do not come preloaded with a dictionary, so we can teach them to associate whatever word we choose with any particular behavior.  Of course, there are some general guidelines that might be helpful when building your dog’s vocabulary.

·          Don’t use the same word for more than one behavior.  For example, if you want to say “down” when your dog is jumping up on someone, use a different word such as “lay” when you want your dog to go into a belly on the ground position.

·         Your word should come out of your mouth easily.  If “gentle” doesn’t roll off your tongue, use “easy” or “nicely” to ask your dog to take treats politely from fingers.

·         Have a clear picture of what exactly your dog should be doing when you say the word.  For example, for my dogs, “leave it” means move your head away from that interesting thing, and “drop it” means open your jaws.  These are two separate muscle movements, so they have different verbal cues.  If you ask your dog to “leave it” when he already has it in his mouth, it may be confusing. 

·         Have everyone in your family use the same words.  While dogs can learn multiple words for the same behavior, it’s better to stick to one word during the early stages of learning a new behavior.

The other thing to keep in mind is that a verbal cue is not always the best way to get your dog to do what you want.  Dogs tend to learn visual cues more quickly (and often more reliably) than verbal cues.  So if your dog is struggling to respond to you saying “Sit!  Sit!  Sit!” help him out by following the word cue with a hand signal.   We also often give our dog visual signals without realizing it.  When we say “sit”, we might lean forward slightly, or move our hands up slightly, and while we think the dog is responding to the word, it’s actually the slight body movement.  If you want to give your dog’s verbal cues a test, check out this video:

Another wonderful way to get good behavior from your dog is to not use any word cue at all.  Letting the environment or situation be the cue is a great way to train!  For example, standing near the door to go outside and just waiting for your dog to offer a sit (without saying the word or giving the hand signal) will teach your dog to offer a sit to go outside.  Or say your dog wants to pull to greet another dog when on a walk.  You can certainly use a “leave it” cue, or a “watch me” cue, but wouldn’t it be nice if your dog saw the other dog and looked back to you without even being asked?  When your dog first sees another dog, offer your dog a treat by your side.  Over time, when your dog sees another dog, he will immediately come to your side, expecting a treat, instead of pulling forward.  The other dog becomes the cue to go to your side, and you don’t have to say a word!
Happy Training!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Teacher's Pet Training: Building a Solid Recall

by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA
Ever heard someone say that the key to getting your dog to come when called is to be more exciting than the rest of the environment?  Um, that’s all well and good in theory, but I am sadly lacking the squirrel skills of running vertically up trees and then back and forth across the telephone lines.  Pretty sure I cannot match that level of excitement.  The good news is that you can still teach your dog to come reliably when called without being a ninja squirrel.

The real way to get a solid recall is to build a strong “reinforcement history” for responding to the recall cue.  I like to think of it as a bank account.  Calling my dog away from something really exciting is like making a big withdrawal from the account.  In order to do that, I have to have made enough small deposits (rewarded easier recalls) along the way.  A great way to make those small deposits is to incorporate them into your daily routine.  Think about your day from your dog’s perspective.  What are the things that your dog gets most excited about?  Here are some examples from my household:

  • Payton:  Breakfast, go outside to chase those squirrels, a new bully stick, a yogurt container to lick, a visit from Grandma, dinner
  • Pepper:  Breakfast, go outside to chase Payton, a squeaky toy, tug of war, dinner
  • Finley:  Breakfast, go for a walk, special snack closet opening, dinner

So even if I’m feeling particularly lazy about training, I can still build up my reinforcement history for the recall by simply inserting it in front of these exciting things that are going to happen anyways.  Right before I open the snack closet, I can call “Here!”  Guess what?  Finley was going to come anyways as soon as she heard that door, but by calling her first, I make good use of classical conditioning (learning through association) and make a small deposit in my recall bank.  If I want to start a play session with Pepper, I can call her first, then start squeaking the toy.  Again, I’m conditioning her that “Here!” means something really fun is about to happen.  I want “Here!” to mean start running to me right now.  If I call “Here!” right before I set down food bowls, I am pretty much guaranteed some very motivated (and fast!) dogs, and it was not a lengthy training session – it actually required very little effort from me.  Think about what gets your dog excited, and then just find a way to stick your recall practice in front of it.

Once you have made lots of small deposits, try out your recall in a more distracting setting.  If your dog doesn’t come, you need to build up your account more.  In the meantime, try not to use your special recall word in situations your dog will fail in.  Either go get your dog, or keep your dog on a leash or long line until he is ready for that big withdrawal.  And one last hint – sometimes the best reward is to send your dog back to the fun thing you called him away from.  Check out this VIDEO of Payton and Finley practicing being called away from foraging for kibble in the yard.

Happy Training!