Fat and Happy

We took Silas for his checkup with the veterinary behaviorist two weeks ago. (Yes, I am a bad blogger.)

He was so happy!!! to see her. He was jumping on people for pets and trying to climb the desk to see the receptionist, you name it. This is what happens when you have a dog who is unreliable with strangers–his manners are terrible.

I got a good report on his behavior walking around outside her office. I was hoping he would walk on her sidewalk. That was a big no, but he was at least less panicky to just be outside in the parking lot. Plus we got big bonus points because he didn’t bark back at a little reactive fluffy dog.

The behaviorist was sympathetic to his current road block, which is that he still has a lot of fear-associated habits, even now that the fears are gone. So, for instance, he is perfectly comfortable on our sidewalk, unless we try to walk even one step past a certain point. Then, he’s as bad as ever. Alas, her best advice was to just keep doing what we’re doing.

So, things are good. Lots of room for improvement, but good.

When the behaviorist weighed him for his new short-term medication dosage, we got quite a shock, though. Silas is up to thirty-seven pounds. Oh my goodness.  He’s really best around 32 pounds. We’d been hovering around 35, which is okay but not great. I checked as soon as she said 37, and sure enough I have to dig in to feel his ribs.

It turns out that with a dog shaped like Silas, you just don’t get the other indicators. He still has a waist. He still has a pretty extreme tuck-up. He doesn’t look that much heavier. But he’s busily turning into a little butterball. I think he’s given me so much misery about eating since summer that I haven’t been paying enough attention to what he is eating.

Now, more exercise, fewer cookies.

Has your dog ever snuck on a few pounds while you weren’t watching? What gave it away?

What I’m struggling to say is this:


There have been some very important conversations about punishment this week in my blog reader. I’ve been trying to write an eloquent response, like Pamela and Lara did, but instead I’m flailing, struggling to say something that is further from the science and closer to the heart.

I have a dog who cannot be punished without long-term behavioral repercussions. Silas is a sweet, fragile guy, with an excellent memory. I am extremely careful to avoid even accidental punishments, like praising him too loudly.

That is, I spend considerable time, energy, and sometimes even money, making sure that the world is the least aversive it can possibly be for him. I do this because I want him to improve. I also do it because if his behavior deteriorates his life will be at risk.

Silas is obviously an extreme case, but I wouldn’t change my basic philosophy even for a different, more robust dog.

Because here’s what I’ve learned, from treating my sensitive dog as sympathetically and gently as I possibly can:


By “love,” I don’t mean affection. Lots of dogs adore people who treat them quite badly, and most of those same people feel quite warmly toward their dogs.

I mean the big, challenging, messy stuff. I mean feeling sad and happy, hopeless and excited, exhausted and exhilarated, on behalf of a creature who quite possibly has no idea what most of those feelings even are. I mean putting someone else first, finding that difficult, having to do it anyway, and coming out the other side into a joy like no other, and then doing it again, and again, and again.

It is a tremendous reward, with a tremendous price.

You cannot get to that kind love by a shortcut (like following the advice of well-intentioned bloggers), or by being “the boss,” or by “just doing what needs to be done,” or by “knowing what’s best.”

Not every soul has identical needs, which means that compassion doesn’t always look exactly the same. It is, however, the only path to real love.

What Silas Learned At Thanksgiving

A substantial portion of Silas’s diet is raw turkey. So, obviously, this time of year I stock up. This year I was efficient, determined not to suffer from last year’s problem, where I had whole turkeys taking up my valuable freezer space all year. Plus, the ones I bought on Sunday were alarmingly defrosted already, so refreezing them seemed silly. That means I spent all afternoon yesterday jointing turkeys. Yay.

I turn the turkey bones that Silas can’t eat raw into very basic broth, which I mix with his dried food. In the past I’ve just left the little cooked meat scraps that result from this process in the broth, so he gets a bite or two per rehydrated meal. As far as I can tell, he’s never noticed them one way or the other.

Last night, I taking the broth off the stove when Silas walked by, sniffing the air. I knew he hadn’t eaten a lot yesterday, so I fished him out a little cooked bite of turkey and handed it to him.




Online Training: Fenzi Academy

We’ve dabbled in several formats of online training classes, and I just realized that my thoughts on those might be helpful to some of you.

Today, registration opens for the December term of the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

The Fenzi Academy is a fascinating concept. Denise Fenzi gathered (and continues to gather) a wide variety of experts in various fields who don’t have the fame/resources/ability to reach a large training audience on their own. Under the umbrella of her academy, they can offer their fascinating niche training classes to students outside of their local classes. Every instructor at the Fenzi academy teaches via force-free methods, without the use of verbal or physical corrections, including in some fields where force-free training is difficult to find.

These classes can also be had relatively inexpensively–far cheaper than my very mediocre local training options, although classes here are apparently unusually pricey. The academy operates on a tiered pricing schedule, with price dependent on how much individual interaction you receive from the instructor. Gold spots are the most expensive, and limited to relatively few places per class. In a gold spot, you submit weekly (or more frequent) videos to be critiqued by the instructor. Silver-level students can ask questions in an online forum that is monitored by both the instructor and your classmates. Bronze access is read only, including the ability to see the gold and silver-level forums and videos. After the classes end, you retain access to your online material for a certain amount of time, which renews if you are a recurring student in any Fenzi class. The text portion of the classes is also easy to download or print for future reference. As of this writing, gold access is $260, Silver is $130 (comparable to an in-person class here), and Bronze is $65.

Structurally, the Fenzi Academy classes that I have taken are much like in-person obedience classes. Classes run six weeks, with new classes always starting on the first of the month. The instructor posts a “lecture,” which is usually followed by one or more assignments that you are intended to practice before the next “lecture.” Some instructors use a weekly format, but some post more frequently, or will post several lectures at once. The assignments are almost always accompanied by a video of the instructor demonstrating the exercise with her own dog. I have never felt that the instruction I received was unclear or lacking in any way.

My only dislike with the Fenzi classes is that I don’t find the online format they use to be intrinsically motivating. I came to online training via Susan Garrett, who is a poster child for ADHD. Susan’s Recallers classes move fast, with short activities posted almost every day. I got used to that. (Alternatively, many people, especially those with busy lives, hate the breakneck pace of Recallers, get frustrated, and give up.) It’s easy for me with the Fenzi Academy classes to think “Oh, I’ll read that lecture tomorrow.” Or “well, this class will be in my library if I don’t finish it.” Many students take Gold or Silver level specifically to “make” themselves keep up with the work.

There are many great things about these classes, though. First and foremost, they cover an astonishing array of topics that very, very few of us could find in local classes. Shock-free snake avoidance, agility, heeling, high-level formal obedience, IPO, tricks, conditioning, nose work, you name it. The December-January term has over twenty classes. The instructors are top-notch experts in their fields. Grisha Stewart teaches BAT there now, for instance. The price is unbeatable if you are good at reading and applying on your own.

In general, I’m not sure that online classes can 100% substitute for in-person training. Live classes have the added component of your dog learning to work around other dogs, which is extremely important but difficult for most of us to replicate at home. There are also some mechanical skills for reinforcement-based training that are really best-learned in person. If your dog is a bad fit for in-person classes, though, or it you’re just interested in a kind of class that you can’t find locally, there are some real gems here.

As I mentioned above, December-January enrollment is opening right now. By the time you read this most of the Gold spots will probably be taken, but Bronze-level spots are unlimited and will be accepting students until two weeks after classes start.

Puttering Along

I didn’t mean to go so long without posts–and many thanks to those of you who sent me concerned e-mails. It warms my heart.

I haven’t been posting because life is very slow and boring here. Which is not complaining, by the way. Boring is one of my favorite things in the universe. It just doesn’t inspire a lot of exciting blog posts.

So, here are some musings of a not-earth-shattering variety.

1) I have decided that I’m going about Silas’s nail trimming all wrong. Silas is a dog who adores–and NEEDS–process and routine. I keep trying to do wait until he’s calm and happy, then whip out my nail clippers for a little counter conditioning. He is never going to be okay with that. Surprises are his least favorite thing in the universe. Instead, I’ve decided to make the whole process as he already knows it less scary for him. We trim his nails with him standing on the kitchen table, where I can see what I’m doing and he doesn’t squirm. Instead of conditioning the clippers, which is getting me no place meaningful, I’ve started working on the other part–picking him up and putting him on the table, then letting him get back down. Or, even just picking him up and putting him right back down, then giving him a big treat. I wish I could train him to put himself on the table, but I’ve never been able to manage it. I can’t even say how much better it made bath time when he learned to get in the tub on his own. Standing him on the table is hardly the most sensitive and humane way to do this, but it’s what he knows. That goes a long way with Silas. Basically, I think the best I’ll ever be able to do with him is to make him as happy as he is at the vet, where he loves everything except the actual exam.

2) I have realized with kind of a dull sense of dread that we’re due back at the behaviorist in January, and she’s going to ask lots of questions like “did you finish the relaxation protocol?” and “how many times a week is he getting out?” Gulp. I guess I need to start doing “real” training again.

3) I put a new thermometer on the end table on Wednesday. Silas sniffed of it and walked on by. This counts as progress.

4) Our winter weather is a fickle, fickle beast. It’s never colder than about 30 degrees here, which probably seems warm to a lot of you, but our house is exactly the opposite of everything warm and snug. Poor nearly-naked Silas was miserable last week when the temperature inside the house dropped from 75 (our summer air conditioning setting) to 65 in the span of one day. This week should be warm again; maybe Silas’s winter coat (to the extent that he gets one) will come on in. He has a sweater that he hates. If any of you have great ideas for keeping a short-haired dog warm, please let me know. He’s all warm and happy in this picture, which is how he stayed until he stood up and realized that his sweater was attached to his body OMG I HAVE TO SCRAPE IT OFF NOW BEFORE IT KILLS ME.

Warm and sleepy

You’re Going to Make Mistakes

While I let Silas off the hook of being “perfect” years ago, I have a little harder time with myself.

Which is why I’m here to remind you that you are going to make mistakes with your dog. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when” and “what do I do now?”

Every dog trainer makes mistakes. For those of us with less well-balanced dogs, it’s painfully obvious when we screw something up. Anxious dogs have long memories, and they seldom “get over it” no matter how much time you let pass. Overestimate their abilities to handle a situation, and you can undo a lot of hard work.

It’s easy to say “be more careful,” and then beat yourself up when something goes wrong, but that doesn’t help you or your dog.


Here’s my example from today:

Silas and I were playing a retrieving game. It was going great.

Then it went off the rails. First, I got greedy. He was having so much fun! It was our best retrieving in months! So I thought “Let’s do just one more!” (Pro tip: train yourself to say, in response to that little voice, “Nah, we’re good.”) Except the one more was really slow and kind of bad. “I don’t want to end on that! I’ll do one more, so we can stop on one of the great ones.” DANGER. ABORT MISSION. The last retrieve was perfect! I was so excited! I threw a big excited party, like all those trainers tell you to!

Except noise-sensitive Silas, focused on the second ball I was holding, wasn’t expecting a big party. He dropped his poor ball like it was a hot coal and cowered in terror.

Now, despite my best efforts at damage control in the moment, he is apparently terrified both of his ball and of bringing me things. (Yeah, this is really going to be a big setback on the retrieve front.)

And here’s where letting go of perfection is useful.

Instead of wallowing in self pity (although I might have, for just a minute, and that’s okay too), I am making a plan. When Silas wakes up from his nap, we’re going to do some hand-touches with high-value rewards. The absolutely most important thing is to make sure that he doesn’t get skittish about running up to me, so I’m going to go back and re-invest heavily in that step.

I’m also going to do some free-shaping games with the offending ball. (Depending on how this goes, I may change over to a different ball, but I don’t think he’s quite that frightened.) We’ll progress from there back to the retrieve game only once he’s comfortable with the toy again.

In a completely different context (probably with his favorite tug) I am going to work on his tolerance for sudden noise while he plays, just in case I forget myself in the moment again.

You’re going to make mistakes. Accept it, let it go, get on with a plan.

October Goals? Big fail.

Back at the beginning of October I wrote that my goal this month was to successfully trim Silas’s nails.

It has not happened.

This is not entirely from lack of effort, although I did flag a little mid-month. (We ran out of our A++ value cookies, and I was thwarted in replacing them.)

You know what the problem is? Silas is too smart for this game.

He’s perfectly happy to do anything involving the nail clippers, short of actual clipping. We worked through all of the following:

  • Approaching me while the clippers are nearby
  • Approaching me while I hold the clippers
  • Him touching the clippers with his foot while the clippers are on the ground (foot targeting is one of the first behaviors he offers in a shaping session.)
  • Offering me his paw while the clippers are nearby
  • Offering me his paw while I hold the clippers
  • Letting me hold his foot for moderate duration while I hold the clippers.
  • Letting me touch his nail with the clippers

But the little rat is quite capable of believing both that “this is some bizarre but okay shaping exercise that involves the clippers as a prop” and “Hell, no, you are not actually clipping my nails.”

We’re in a vicious cycle now, where his nails are long and very sturdy, but probably also sensitive because they are too long and clack on the floor constantly. I broke down last week and trimmed a few of the worst ones on the front. At that point I realized that my clippers have gotten really dull and are squeezing his nails too much. (It also hurts my cause that I went ahead with the clipping, but I am only human and couldn’t take it anymore.)

So, the next part of our action plan, in a roughly chronological order:

  1. Acquire new clippers. (Check.) Repeat as necessary until I get a pair that’s sharp.
  2. Persevere with the non-clipping parts of the counterconditioning, even though they don’t seem to be adding up to real change.
  3. Make him a scratch board and see if I can train him to “file” his own nails.
  4. Think about my actual clipping mechanics and match them better with the counterconditioning sessions.
  5. Focus on clipping the tiniest possible amount, rather than actually getting them to a tolerable level.

In the dog food debate, I’m a hopeless moderate

Can I confess something?

I don’t like reading internet discussions about dog food.

I feed Silas mostly raw. I’m not the most diehard advocate for the cause, but I see the benefits. I agree that it can be a miracle for dogs with food allergies, which is why we do it. I enjoy being (mostly) in control of my dog’s diet. But I think raw feeding attracts a lot of very intense, very controlling people. And those people tend to butt in everywhere, even when they aren’t wanted. “What kind of kibble should I feed?” “Kibble is poison! Why did you even get a dog?!” I don’t like to watch it.

When we first switched to raw, I spent a lot of time looking for the “perfect” nutritional supplement and mix of foods to make his diet (you guessed it) “perfect.” I worried about the fact that one expert wanted X amount of vitamin E and another felt that Y was better.  I doodled little lists. I was in charge, dammit, and I was going to be great at this.

When our food allergy diet was finally far enough along for me to start adding in supplements, I tried a few. This is when I got hit by the ugly fact:

Silas is not going to eat that stuff.

There was a brief, shining moment where it looked like he might (finally) be okay with one multivitamin, and then that, too, fell flat. Salmon oil is the only thing he will take consistently.

At the same time, I’ve had to accept that we have a moderate but very real food availability problem. I am blessed with a year-round source of at least some turkey parts, including heart and liver. I can get pork, if I’m willing to pay for it (nobody in my house is eating factory-farmed pork unless it’s a serious emergency), but not organs. Venison is similar–for a price I can get plain ground, with or without bone, but no organs unless I wheedle them out of hunting family members.

Because we rotate proteins, this lack of liver is worrisome. I add slightly more during the times Silas is eating turkey, but too much liver at once is hard to digest. I couldn’t quite balance it out. This combination of fewer nutrient-rich organs and an inability to give supplements drove me back to (gasp! shock! horror!) feeding Silas some commercial dog food including (gasp! shock! horror!) one with grains. I don’t know that my mixed bag of foods will really save me from long-term nutritional issues, but it’s the best I can do.*

The long and the short of it is, though, that Silas’s allergies are inconvenient but apparently limited to proteins. I can’t see any clear reason why I shouldn’t let some commercial food into his diet.

And that’s why I don’t like listening to people go on and on about their elaborate supplement regimens and the twelve hours a month they spend pre-packaging ideally blended meals to put in the deep freezer. I just don’t see the benefit, except for the extreme minority of dogs who have more extensive allergies than Silas does. Neither the science nor my own experiences with a delicate flower of a dog support the hysteria.

*This is not to say that Silas’s diet is anything wild. I find it vaguely hilarious that I am half-expecting to get scolded for what is, in fact, still a very solid raw diet. On a typical day, he has Honest Kitchen (either Keen or Preference)+ground meat for breakfast, with some kind of plain bone-in meat at dinner. (Venison is ground+mix for both meals.) Once or twice a week he gets canned or freeze-dried food. There are actually a few kibbles out there now that Silas isn’t allergic to, but after all this time away he doesn’t seem to digest them very well in large amounts.

Be The Change for Animals: Heal Yourself


I didn’t have a Blog the Change/Be the Change post lined up for today. Then the Universe kicked me in a not-subtle way, when a friend of a friend shared something on Facebook. That blog post, from a blog I don’t read and know nothing about, seemed so stunningly appropriate that I couldn’t keep it to myself.

Go read it. It’s short.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.–Thomas Merton

Compassion fatigue is a real thing. It’s especially pernicious in people who work with animals.

We can wear ourselves so thin trying to save the world that, ironically, we are unable to act. We perpetuate the violence of the world on our own selves, in ways both small and tragically, devastatingly large.

If all you can do today is to take care of your own animals, do that. Do it without punishing yourself. Do it with love. Let yourself find joy in it.

The bigger fight will still be there when you come back.


You Can’t Reinforce Fear, Continued

Last Spring I wrote this post about how you can’t reinforce fear.

I wanted to revisit the topic today, though, because I still see this idea everywhere. Also, a conversation I had yesterday on Twitter with a blog-less reader made me want to add a few thoughts to my original post.

“Don’t give the dog a cookie while she’s scared! You’ll make her worse!”


Reinforcement increases behavior. Fear is not a behavior; it is an emotion. We don’t choose to have or not have our emotions, and dogs don’t have our ability to talk themselves out of their feelings. Technically, you could reinforce a fear-based behavior, like cowering, but that assumes a level of active awareness on the dog’s part that I personally haven’t seen. Could you exactly replicate the way you jump when someone slams a door behind you?

One of the reasons that the “reinforcing fear” myth is so pervasive is that there is a distantly related scientific truth. You will, absolutely and without a doubt, have the best results from counterconditioning/desensitization if the dog is what behavioral scientists call “under threshold.” That is, the ideal time to deliver your reward is to do it before the dog starts reacting to something. So, yes, once your dog is already cowering or barking, you’re behind the curve. In a perfect world, you would deliver every reward while the dog is calm or happy.

Let’s get this clear, though:

The absolutely worst thing you can do for a fearful dog is to do nothing. 

So, you make a timing mistake. Your dog sees or hears something that you weren’t prepared for. Maybe you have a situation like thunder phobia where there is no “milder version” or “greater distance” to work with. If you believe that you will reinforce fear by delivering a cookie, petting, praise, or even by getting the dog out of the situation, your dog’s behavior will deteriorate. This is science.

Once your dog is reacting fearfully, he is over threshold. Not only is being over threshold bad for your dog physiologically, it will sensitize your dog to future encounters. His threshold for future fear reactions will lower. Sensitization and the lowering of thresholds is bad enough for problems like leash reactivity, but for conditions like separation anxiety or thunder phobia it can be disastrous. For any fear, once that threshold gets low enough, your only choice will be to medicate, because it is no longer possible for your dog to be safely counter-conditioned otherwise.

Now that your dog is over threshold, you have two choices: you can either do nothing, because it “reinforces fear” (bad idea), or you can deliver an admittedly sub-optimal reward. What your poorly-timed cookie/praise/petting/escape will get you is the chance that your dog will go back under that threshold. You may or may not get long-term learning out of it (whatever the books say, counter conditioning in the real world is hard, imprecise work), but at the very least you are stopping the damage.

Your frightened dog is not making a choice that you can validate or (heaven help me) punish. You are helping your dog–a creature who completely depends on you–handle a bad situation, whether he’s coping in an ideal way or not.