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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Again I am late with my blog post, and again you have my apologies! I am not intending this to be a trend.

I've been thinking a lot recently about continuing education, possibly because I took my CPDT exam on Saturday and previously was studying to prepare for the test. Again and again in my head I hear the famous quote from Isaac Newton, "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

I too, have stood on the shoulders of giants, and there is no shame in that. It is only by learning from others, their weaknesses, their strengths, that we better ourselves at all. It is only by apply what we learn that we shape a better world. I have learned a lot from the people I've worked with. I learned a ton about behavior and reading body language in both cats and dogs while working at the shelter. I learned a ton about training from Pete Murphy, who is now the lone trainer at the shelter. I have also learned a ton by training on my own with my dogs, shelter dogs, and teaching classes. I have gotten so many ideas from other trainers in books or in podcasts, and sometimes I find those ideas work for me and I incorporate them into my classes and teachings. Sometimes they don't work for me, but either way I learned something.

Sometimes I feel people wonder why they should learn from someone who's still learning. Well, my answer to that is that the best practitioners in any field are still learning- there's a reason doctors call it a "practice". There's a phenomenon that I have been aware of for a long time and am constantly wary of. It's called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Basically, people with a lot of skill in a particular field tend to underestimate their skill and knowledge in that field. However, those without a lot of skill and knowledge tend to overestimate their skill and knowledge because they don't know how much they don't know. It's an interesting phenomenon that those with true skill have a tendency to suffer from doubt and indecision.

This is why I'm constantly studying and reading and trying to learn more and more and more. I want to have the best knowledge at my fingertips to use when I can. There's a saying, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail", that I consider to be true, and I do not want to find myself with only a hammer to hold.

So who are my giants? Patricia McConnell, for a start, and Ian Dunbar, the father of modern dog training. Add in Brenda Aloff and Sarah Kalnajs for their work with body language. And you may as well add in Jan Fannell for her holistic view of dogs (though I don't agree with all of her views, the way she ties everything together is amazing and wonderful). Then there's Malcolm Gladwell for his investigations into how the brain works and the little intricacies in our perceptions of reality- his books Blink and the Tipping Point are each a must read! It's impossible to list all of my giants, because there are so, so many. And I hope I do them justice by climbing on their shoulders and maybe seeing an inch or two farther. This is why I don't mind if you climb on my shoulders- maybe the inch or two farther you might see will change how we view the world.

Outside Dogs

I'm sorry this blog post is a little late, but for me, family trumps blogging any day, and my family was in a bit of turmoil this weekend. While we were all there supporting each other, I asked my brother if there was any topic he thought I should blog on. He wanted to hear about outside dogs, so this blog post is thanks to him!

There are many people in the area with outside dogs, and if this is done correctly, it can be fine. On the other hand, if this living arrangement is incorrectly handled, both dog and owner suffer. The bare minimum standards, according to Iowa law, are that dogs who are confined outside need access to food, clean water, and shelter from the elements.

The first thing to remember is that dogs are pack animals. They like to live together in family groups, where there are a lot of rituals performed to enhance bonding and keep the group cohesive. One of the biggest troubles outdoor dogs face is not getting enough attention. Lots of people I meet who see my dogs (a 70 lb Lab and an 80 lb Rott mutt) are surprised that they are indoor dogs. I think of this as an opportunity to educate them on dog's social needs.

An indoor dog is often impossible to ignore without trying. They are always there, interacting or trying to interact with their owner. They are always watching you, learning from you. An outdoor dog needs his owner to make the effort to ensure he gets adequate social time with the family. If you are outdoorsy folk, this may not be a problem for you- just incorporate your dog into your outdoor activities. However, if you tend to hang out inside rather than outside, this can cause a problem. 

Outdoor dogs who are understimulated and need the attention of their owner often display behavioral symptoms (indoor dogs, by the way, will often show similar symptoms when they are bored and understimulated). They will often begin to engage in problem barking (eliciting barking complaints from the neighbors), chew on their shelter or anything else around, and/or become territorial, perhaps to the point of engaging in aggressive behavior. They are often so excited to finally get the human companionship they crave that they are unruly and truly obnoxious once they get it, often encouraging the owner to quickly return to the house away from their "unmanageable" dog. Thus a cycle can easily develop where the dog becomes more and more isolated from the family and thus engages in more and more troublesome behavior.

Dogs truly need human companionship to lead full and happy lives- it's not an option for them, it's a necessity. With a regimen of exercise and training to give the dog enough physical and mental stimulation, adding in enough quality human companionship to fulfill the dog's needs, many of these problem behaviors will go away with little trouble. Companionship is key for dogs, and anyway, isn't that why we got the dogs in the first place?


Kitties and the Box

We have several adorable foster kittens in my house right now (6 who should be ready in about a week, assuming they've gained enough weight for surgery) and my little boy has been "helping" me take care of them. He loves to carry them around and snuggle them and pet them, and the kittens, for their part, have come to accept him and even enjoy his attentions. Of course, as he's helping me take care of them, the inevitable question comes out.

"What's that?" he asks, taking a finger out of his mouth and pointing at the litterbox.

"It's the kitties' bathroom," I respond, moving him a little further back from the box.

"The bathroom?" he asks.

"Yes, that's where their pee and poop goes," I tell him.

He nods. "Kitty go potty in bathroom!" he proclaims proudly.

The thing is, a lot of people seem to forget that the litterbox, for all intents and purposes, is their cat's bathroom. Have you ever gone into a bathroom that is so disgusting you decide to wait for a cleaner place to relieve yourself? What would happen if that 'cleaner place' never arrived? Would you suck it up and use the disgusting bathroom, or would you 'eliminate inappropriately'?

The fact is, not using the litterbox (or if you want to be fancy, "inappropriate elimination") is one of the top reasons cats are surrendered to shelters across the nation. It's frustrating, it's time-consuming, and it's humiliating to have this problem. However, a few small changes often fix the problem (for the vast majority of people). For the really hard-to-solve ones, you can visit for more tips (or call me for a consultation!).

1) First things first: Rule out a medical problem. This means taking your cat to the vet and explaining the problem there. They can do some tests to see if the cat has a urinary tract infection (a common cause for cats to stop using the box) or other medical issue. If it is medical in nature, once the problem is fixed, oftentimes the litterbox will sort itself out. If the medical problem does not get fixed, it is unlikely that any other form of intervention will help.

2) Check the cleanliness of your cat's bathroom. Just as above, if you don't like to use a disgusting bathroom, don't expect your cat to. Cats are generally very clean creatures, and many have fastidious litterbox habits. Cats run the gamut from those that refuse to use a box that's already been used (meaning, scoop the litter multiple times a day or get an extra box) to those that will accept (but not enjoy) a filthy box. In general, litter should be scooped at least once a day and the box should be completely cleaned out at least once a week or so.

3) Fix the problem! If your cat is not spayed or neutered, the likelihood of them marking their territory (thereby peeing outside the box) drastically increases. Fixing your cat will decrease (but not eliminate) the likelihood that they are marking their territory. Marking involves small amounts of urine usually on a vertical surface and usually near a window or door. 

4) Create a stress-free zone. Many people know that cats a extremely prone to stress. This stress can cause the cats to stop using their litterbox. Give your kitty plenty of opportunity to play their stress away with interactive toys like wands, string toys, and laser pointers. Give your cat a kitty-massage with long deep strokes, especially rubbing the top of their head where the scent glands are. If your kitty is still stressed out (maybe something changed recently in the house, or a new cat moved into the neighborhood, etc) you may want to think about using some Feliway, a pheromone-releasing product that often helps calm cats who are stressed. 

5) Check for litter-aversion. There are so many litter types and box types out there, it's easy for things to get over-complicated fast. However, it's important to rule out the possibility that your cat doesn't like the box or the litter. There are three main types of litterboxes: open, hooded, and automatic. Open litterboxes are the most widely accepted by cats because they provide multiple avenues of escape. Hooded litterboxes are often favored by owners because they keep the stink in, but to a cat's super-sensitive nose, that stink may be the reason they aren't using the box. Automatic litter boxes will automatically scoop the litter for you, but if your cat was scared by the box turning on, they may decide not to use it. To check and see if the problem is that your cat doesn't like their box, get an open litterbox in addition to your hooded or automatic box, and see if that helps. Another thing to check is the litter itself. There are a lot of scented litters out there that are marketed to people, but a lot of cats won't use them, so stay away from scented litters. If your cat had a cut on their paw and that wound hurts stepping into the litter (especially if it's clay litter), they are likely not to use the box. If they attribute the pain to the box, you may have to move the box to a new area of the house to see if that helps! Try clay litter in both clumping and non-clumping varieties. Also try shredded paper litter (like Yesterday's News) to see if your cat likes that better. Another option is to get some Cat Attract litter or litter-additive, as that sometimes solves the problem. You also need to check the area that your box is located- if your cat feels trapped or unsafe there, they are likely not to use the box. Try a nice low-sided, large box for the bigger cats, as that often makes them feel more comfortable.

6) Get rid of the evidence. You'll need to scrub everywhere that your cat peed or pooped with cleaner and then finish it up with an enzymatic cleaner like Nature's Miracle. If your cat can still smell that they peed there, they are more likely to do it again.

7) Multiple cat homes. Keep in mind that if the bathroom is busy, your cat may use somewhere else. The general rule of thumb (especially if you're having litterbox issues) is to have one more litter box than you have cats, and to have one on each level of the house. So if you have a two story house with a basement and you have two cats, you should have three litterboxes: one box upstairs, one box on the main level, and one box in the basement. Some cats will get by fine with less than this, but other perfectly normal cats (especially kittens or cats with mobility issues) need multiple options. Also, keep in mind that some cats will guard the litterbox. So if you have multiple cats and one box and if one of your cats is guarding the box, the other cats may have no choice bu to potty elsewhere. By spreading the litterboxes out throughout the house, you make this problem much less likely. 


If you are having trouble with litterbox issues, don't despair! You can always call me for a consultation and I will look at your setup and make recommendations based on your particular needs. After all, even kitties with finicky litterbox habits are perfectly loveable pets.


Alphabet Soup

I was having a conversation yesterday with a lady about different sorts of certifications that trainers have. For some owners, especially those who've been burned in the past by trainers they feel are sub-par, trainer certifications, titles, schooling, and accreditations are very important, and this is understandable. However, delving into that world of titles, schooling, accreditations, and certifications, is far from simple and easy to understand. Today's topic will attempt to break this information down for you so that you can be an educated consumer of training services.

Trainer Schooling 

There are many options for a trainer when looking to go to school. Some schools are online, and other schools require the student to travel there for instruction. Each school will teach in a slightly different manner with slightly different emphases, and produce a wide range of trainers. It's important to know that just because someone has gone to school doesn't mean that they are a good trainer, and just because someone hasn't been formally educated doesn't mean they aren't a good trainer. (On the flip side, trainers who have been schooled aren't neccesarily bad trainers, and trainers that haven't been schooled aren't neccesarily good, either.) Many trainers are still self-educated or apprenticed under another trainer with more experience, rather than attending formal schooling. What's important is that the trainer has a basic knowledge of learning theory including classical and operant conditioning and that they understand motivation and its uses in dog training. Ask your trainer questions beyond "Where did you go to school" or "Who did you study under". Also inquire about their knowledge of basic psychology and see if they seem to understand these basic concepts.

Trainer Titles

Just as with schools, a title by itself does not mean a whole lot. Lots of schools will give their students titles ("Master Dog Trainer", etc), but that doesn't mean that the trainer is good or bad at what he does. Besides that, any trainer could just make up a title for themselves. The world of dog training is not a protected field- anyone can call themselves a dog trainer or behavior expert.

Certifications and Accredidations

CDT, CPDT, CPDT-KA, CDBC, PDT, KPA-CTP, etc- before long, it all jumbles together and looks like alphabet soup! A dog trainer (good or bad) does not need to have any sort of certification or accreditations, but many opt to get one. Sometimes it seems like it gets addictive and you end up with a person who has more letters after their name than they have in their name! This is neither good nor bad- just as with schooling and titles, most certifications don't mean a thing. They merely mean that the individual met the requirements needed to gain that string of letters. Sometimes it's attending a one hour seminar. Other times it's simply paying a sum of money. The trainer's actual skills and knowledge may or may not have been tested at all. 

The only standardized, independent, nationwide testing of a trainer's knowledge and skills is done by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). They administer a test for Certified Behavior Consultant Canine- Knoweldge Assessed (or CBCC-KA), for Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assesed (or CPDT-KA), and for Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge and Skills Assessed (CPDT-KSA). The first two require the trainer to meet certain requirements in order to apply to take the test, including having a set number of hours of experience and paying a fee. Then they must be accepted to take the test, and then pass that test before being able to use this certification (and the letters behind their name). The last one assesses the trainer's skill as well, so the trainer must submit video of their handling skills and be approved. In order to keep their certification, the trainer must accrue a set number of continuing education credits from authorized sources.

The other string of letters that generally means something is AAB, which stands for Applied Animal Behaviorist. These people have gone to school and graduated with advanced degrees in the study of animal behavior. They have a Master's Degree (an Assosiate Applied Animal Behaviorist will have this), a PhD, a DVM, or VMD degree (these last three would be a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist). They write journal articles and professionally study animal behavior utilizing research and hands on experience. They must maintain liability insurance as well, and in order to be accepted as a AAAB or CAAB, they must pay a fee and submit three letters of recommendation to the Animal Behavior Society from members of that organization. These letters of recommendation are then reviewed, and if the trainer is accepted, they then are able to add that string of letters after their name, although they will have to apply for re-certification again in 5 years. Note: Many people calling themselves "behaviorists" or "behavior experts" are not a member of this organization. The nearest applied animal behaviorist to here is Patricia McConnel from Black Earth, WI.


So, what does all this mean for an inquiring owner?

Choose your trainer with care. Don't get dazzled by a string of letters after a person's name or by a long list of certifications and accreditations. Look into the professional organizations (if any) that the trainer belongs to and investigate the requirements to join and the philosophy of that organization. Talk to the trainer you're thinking about using and inquire into their knowledge and past experiences. Why are they a trainer? How long have they been at it? How many hours have they put into this profession? How did they learn what they know?

Some of the most important questions to ask your trainer are about their philosophy and their methods. How do they go about training the pet? Do they train you as well? What is their philosophy and goal behind the training (not all are as obvious as you'd think!)? If their methods don't suit you (and especially if they are not humane) do not go to that trainer. If you are at odds with your trainer about methodology, the training will not stick and you will have wasted your money. Find someone to educate you as well as to train your dog, and find someone who cares that you and your pet will have success in the training. 


Have fun training your dog!


Potty Training

My house is a little like a house with a new puppy in it right now. There's a lot of whisking of a little one away from an activity, lots of partying while a little one goes potty, and some self-beration as I clean up pee from my floors (thankfully, they are wood, not carpet). I'm even using the Nature's Miracle I keep on hand in my house. However, there is no puppy in my house. What there is, is a toddler learning potty-training.

I've come to realize more and more as I go through this process with my family, that there are loads of similarities between potty-training a puppy and potty-training a child. There's lots of constant supervision. There's bound to be messes, and those messes are cleaned up immediately and appropriately. There's lots of thinking about motivation. After all, if my son pees his pants, that means he doesn't have to stop playing with play-doh until we find out about it. So there's lots of thinking of how to motivate him to leave what he's doing, go potty, and then come back to it when it's so much easier to just stay and continue playing while the bodily function occurs.

One of the major differences is that humans can be lazy. We slap diapers on our kids and for the first couple years of their lives, they are basically taught to soil themselves (even if you change the diaper right away, they still soiled themselves). It doesn't matter as much when your child needs to go potty, because they can just go in their diaper, unless the diaper leaks. There is little motivation for the child to 'hold it', especially if they've become used to soiling themselves (after two years, it's not a stretch). It's not until they are in underwear and you know immediately when they go and messes begin to become an issue that the parent in mainstream culture really begins to have to pay attention to their child's cues, whisk them to the potty regularly, and motivate, motivate, motivate.

The timetable (for my toddler, anyway) is very much like a puppy's. Every thirty minutes we are running to the potty area (for Amos, this is a toilet of course, but for puppies it's the potty area outside). We help Amos get on the pot, we praise him as he goes, and we help him clean up. We give him a huge party and my goal is always to pump him up so he runs around with a big grin on his face screaming at the top of his lungs, "I go potty!". When I'm potty training a puppy, it's much the same. Lead them to where you want them to go, praise gently as they go, and then party like there's no tomorrow and until your neighbors decide 'yep, that's it- she's officially crazy'. Pumping up the pottier (in either species) and letting them know they did what you're expecting is huge (stickers and M&Ms work well too for toddlers, and treats for puppies). Helping them to not make mistakes is also huge- you don't want to confuse your puppy (or your toddler) by dilly dallying and not paying attention. The more successes they have, the quicker they learn what to do and the cleaner they (and your house) stay!

Now, I'm certainly not going to say that potty-training is the same for both species. I'm just struck by the similarities. I still find myself scratching my head with my toddler and admitting I haven't a clue what I'm doing- I'm just guessing based on what I know about what motivates him, how organisms in general learn, and slightly more specifically, what I know about housetraining a puppy. We have good days and bad days, but as always, it's progress that counts- with either species.