Monthly Archives: February 2016

What’s “Accountability” and why is it a good thing-for us AND our dogs

Western States K9 College trains, employs and advocates for trainers who focus on understanding and helping dogs and their people, and who believe that teaching accountability (on the part of dogs and people) is central to creating true connection between them. “Accountability” is a word that gets tossed around a LOT in dog training, so we wanted to talk a little about what it means to us.

We believe that accountability centers on the notion that we all have a place and a role at home and in our community. It is as unique as we are, which is part of what makes life interesting. But there are, in any society, rules under which we agree to live. We agree, for example, when we ask to be included in the community of those who drive vehicles, to begin driving only when we are of age, to obtain training and be able to demonstrate our ability to safely operate the vehicle, and to abide by the rules and regulations. It’s a pain sometimes, but we do it. And when we don’t, we know why and are expected to accept the consequences.

We have a role in our relationships as well, even if the responsibilities are different in each. There are always expectations, otherwise the relationships are one-sided and filled with conflict and typically short-lived and not fulfilling.

Accountability exists when the parties involved:
* Understand the rules, having received all the information necessary for success
* Have the opportunity/challenge of demonstrating their aptitude
* Are subject to the consequences outlined for misbehavior.

That process entails several layers: communication, consistency, repetition/practice, reward, and punishment. If any of these factors fails, true accountability can’t exist. We understands these things when it comes to our human interactions, but too often, we miss the mark when it comes to our dogs. Why is this?

We hear a lot about the horribly damaging effect of “punishment” in dog training: that it can lead to fear, aggression, weakened relationships between dogs/humans, and on and on. And while we agree that dog training ought not be abusive, we believe that dogs live in the real world. More than that, we go to tremendous lengths to ensure that dogs live with people. In OUR real world. We breed them, scoop them off the streets, buy or adopt them and put them in human-made homes – and we euthanize the ones who can’t find them. That’s how important we think it is that dogs live with people.

The thing is, dogs aren’t people. They don’t speak human. And while some of their DNA prepares them to survive with us – they can adapt to most forms of shelter, their bodies are adapting (more and less well) to the proliferation of dry dog food, most understand the notion of sharing physical space with other beings. But the nuances – the things we ask them to do to fit in to our lives – need concerted teaching. Which requires communication. But dogs don’t speak human.

We brought these dogs into our lives. We owe it to them to give them every opportunity to understand and achieve. Every opportunity. Saying “yes” is one opportunity to communicate. But it’s only one. Another equally valuable concept is “no.” A third is in the consistency of our actions.

Dogs don’t speak human. On a fundamental level, they speak patterns. When I do this, this happens. When the human does this, this happens. When I do something outside the pattern, there’s a reliable consequence. Those patterns can be simple, and with practice they can be really, marvelously complex. But always there is safety in the reliability of both the pattern and the consequence. Both are guides.

If I’m about to step off the curb into traffic, I want someone to grab my arm and pull me back and let me know about the regulations for crossing the street. I don’t need them to punch me in the face for stepping off the curb, but I need BOTH the grab and the info. And then, if I keep wandering into traffic, possibly I need a mandatory class. If I keep doing it, maybe I need a ticket. But without question, I information about what is expected, and I need to not wander in traffic.

Our society is comprised of expectations, education, rewards/freedoms/privileges, and consequences. It is this way because we are right to expect a minimum standard of behavior, to provide education and training, and then to administer appropriate consequences. This is fair. To deny any part of this to our dogs is not fair. It puts them in a situation in which we expect certain things, but withhold information from our dogs – which prevents them from fully understanding these expectations and the ramifications of their decisions.

Accountability acknowledges our dogs’ amazing desire to live peacefully in the strange world we ask them to live in. It assumes the best about our dogs – that despite our strangeness as humans, they wish to integrate into our homes and lives and are willing to learn how. It also assumes the best about humans – that we are willing to do all the things we do for one another for our dogs. We’re willing to share information, provide opportunities to practice (lots and lots of opportunities!), provide feedback about their performance so they know how to hone and improve. We work with them, test their knowledge and, once proven, we bestow responsibility.

An example: “Fluffy, sit while the door opens.” Fluffy is first taught about “sit.” Then “sit” under increasing levels of distraction, leading up to the HUGE excitement of the door opening. Then, “sit” while the door opens and closes, opens and closes. If Fluffy breaks sit, we may apply some leash pressure until Fluffy sits. The pressure goes away when she sits. Repeat repeat repeat until the door routine is solid. Then we can successfully integrate this into our daily routine. Fluffy will be expected to sit before exiting. If she doesn’t, she doesn’t exit.

We’ve found the vast majority of dogs are willing to learn and practice, and even adjust when they know how and what to do. It’s wonderful to see them become more confident as they understand the expectations and find their “flow” within them, and grow as they take on more and more responsibility in the home. It’s thrilling to see people blossom as teachers, to see the pride grow within them for their dog, and the comfort and security they find in building strong, trusting relationships with them. We love seeing both dog and human demonstrate accountability to one another, and the way accountability strengthens connection.That’s why we train.

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Foster a Dog. Save a Life. Do it Right!

Every year, millions of adoptable dogs are euthanized in American shelters. While this number is appalling, it would be much higher absent the work of reputable rescue groups. Most of these groups, in turn, rely on the generosity of caring fosters who open their homes and hearts, who volunteer to be a temporary caregiver while these dogs await their “forever home.”

Foster homes are sometimes the first contact these dogs have with anything resembling a home, their introduction to what it means to be a companion/pet. As such, fosters are absolutely critical – they can teach wonderful foundation and relationship skills that shape the dog’s perspective for life.

Unfortunately, some well-intentioned fosters inadvertently do their fosters a disservice by focusing on the dog’s past perceived hardship, and letting troublesome behaviors slide. While we can accept quirks and ticks in our own dogs – we presumably have either accepted them, or are working on them with the expectation that the dog will be with us for the long haul and so no one else will be asked to address their behavior. But foster dogs are on a journey toward their family, so it is incumbent upon fosters to do whatever is possible to improve their chances of a successful adoption.

Here are some basic guidelines we’d recommend to fosters, offered in a spirit of gratitude, in the hopes they will help focus the experience and deepen its fulfillment – for humans and dogs.

* Prioritize the dog, with the understanding that yours is not their final home. While the temptation is to shower them with affection and make them a part of your own “pack,” dogs who are coming out of the shelter system crave stability, need consistency, and will continue in “survival mode” until they recognize some structure in their life. Consider this consistency – in your actions and your expectations – the highest form of affection you can give your foster dog.

* Teach the basic skills you wish your dog had come with:
(1) Housetraining
(2) Crate training
(3) Even if you don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to your foster dog’s training, most every dog can learn a “sit”, and can reasonably asked to sit for meals, before leashes go on, before doors open, etc. A solid, practiced sit can address a number of pesky problems (door dashing, guest greeting, counter surfing) that lead to an alarming number of dogs being surrendered to shelters.
(4) Recall
(5) Leash manners

* Refrain from allowing behaviors that others may not accept: furniture privileges, begging for table scraps, and rough play with resident animals come to mind. While these behaviors may be accepted in your home, they’re not automatically green-lit in every home.

* As much as you can, introduce the dog to the world in safe, controlled ways. Introduce them to different flooring surfaces, to the sight of men/women/children/elderly/disabled people, to bicycles, skateboards, balloons, umbrellas, and canes. Start slowly, and at a distance, pairing these things with positivity (yummy treats, a favorite toy, etc.), and take note of any unusual responses. The more you know about your foster dog, the more information potential adopters will have to make their decision about whether the dog is a good fit for their home. And, you can be working on any issues you see, to build confidence and broaden the dog’s understanding of life.
Reputable rescues have a ton of collective dog knowledge, and most have relationships with area trainers, so keep them abreast of any issues you see. The sooner you report any concerning behavior, the sooner they can give you options/resources to help. And, the sooner you get help, the less practice your foster dog has in this behavior.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide, but we hope it helps fosters who may be looking for some direction, or people who are contemplating whether to become fosters. It’s a lot of work, and it should be, but good fosters can mean the difference between a successful transition, or a returned adoption.