Posts Tagged ‘Sue Sternberg’

2-minute dog trainer, Phoenix at 5 months

May 4, 2012

Phoenix occasionally joins my beginner agility class as a demo dog. His drive is lovely, though his youth is evident in his desire to visit with the other friendly handlers and dogs.

Phoenix has a bro-mance with “Bear,” a 7-month-old Aussie, and an affection for “Lisa,” a sweet little Icelandic Sheepdog.

He’s starting to attend my recall faster and faster, and we continue to work on recall skills for 1-2 meals a week.

In addition to his mealtime training on the contact trainer, and on the 30-foot dead-away send through hoops and jumps, Phoenix has begun three new training protocols.

Start-line stays

First, using the same line of hoops and jumps where we practice our “send,” we’re practicing start-line stays.

I believe I’ve created a unique start-line stay philosophy and training protocol — I’ve seen no one else addressing it in the following manner.

My philosophy is that dogs generally do not “break their start-line stay.” Instead, what they actually do with great frequency, is “anticipate the release to do agility.”

If I examine my dogs’ behaviors at the start line, and compare it with training for an obedience recall, I see two ways a dog may fail the exercise: 1) breaking the stay, leaving the task, putting nose down and sniffing, wandering off, and losing interest, OR 2) anticipating the release to follow me, or simply “jumping the gun.”

As a trainer using positive reinforcement, my responses to these two failures are distinctly different. If I treat anticipation the same as I do lack-of-interest, my training will be the biggest failure.

My training for “jumping the gun,” or anticipating the release to do agility, involves three elements.

I wish to reward the dog for staying, and will reward tiny stay performances at first, building consistently and in tiny increments with each training session.

My negative punishment (removal of reward and attention in order to extinguish behavior) for anticipating involves the absence of the reward, and having to return to the original position.

The third element of the start-line stay, and one I believe is unique to my start-line stay training, is the idea that the dog learning to stay in front of a jump, tunnel, dogwalk, whatever, must NEVER be released to that obstacle during start-line training.

Instead, I cue the “stay,” leave the dog, walk around the jump (or tunnel, or dogwalk, whatever), return to my dog’s side, reward the dog for the stay, and then release him to another, nearby, obstacle.

I want to establish in my dog’s mind the tiniest doubt that the course is going to progress in the direction of the obstacle in front of which they’re staying.

I want my dog to look to me for direction always, not assume and anticipate.

He’s able to stay while I leave his side, circle one jump or hoop, and return to his side to feed him his dinner. At first he was quite distracted and hyperactive but, once he was successful on a couple of short stays, he started catching on.

With stays I try to remind my students constantly that dogs learn through their successes so, the more successful they are, the faster they learn.

Retrieves (formal and play)

I must admit, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE training retrieves, both play retrieves and formal (aka obedience dumbbell) retrieves.

When I started training Banner (my Novice A obed/agil dog)  to retrieve in 1998, I met Sue Sternberg and was introduced to her inducive retrieve methodology. She left me with a charming self-published training brochure, with hand-drawn pictures of the trainer and dog.

Banner picked up on the training so quickly I swore I’d never use another method for training the retrieve.

Last week Phoenix started learning the inducive retrieve. The methodology is to position a treat behind the bar on the dumbbell, and the dog has to “go through” the dumbbell, touching or grasping with teeth, in order to get to the treat.

In his first 5-minute session Phoenix showed me he’s a fun guy willing to offer all sorts of behaviors which make no sense to him. He quickly started putting his teeth on the dumbbell, then grabbing it out of my hand, staying engaged and focused the whole time.

In his second 5-minute session he progressed to picking it off the floor and swinging his head, with the dumbbell still in his mouth, toward me.

In his third 5-minute session he progressed to chasing it when I tossed it 4-6 feet away, picking it off the floor, and returning partway to me with the dumbbell.

Tonight, in his fourth 5-minute session he progressed to sitting while I tossed the dumbbell 10 feet away, going after it when I said “get it!”, picking it up and bringing it all the way back to my hand.

WHEEEEE!!!   Awesome.  Mommy is VERY pleased.

For his play retrieve I began with generally conditioning him to put his mouth on various toys. When he brings the toy back to me I immediately toss it again. When he fails to bring the toy back I follow him, take the toy, put it away, and end the game.

Now, a month since I began this subtle training, I try to not over-do the play retrieve because I want to end the game while he still eager and willing to play.

Now that he’s mostly conditioned to the play retrieve, I can begin using a toss of the toy as his reward for agility performance, knowing he’ll return to me with the toy.

Sequencing (running with me)

I’m incredibly excited about Phoenix’s temperament and biddability. He’s learning everything very quickly.

But the most impressive thing about Phoenix is the calm intensity with which he follows my movement between agility obstacles.

He doesn’t bark or carry on. He leaves the start line focused and in high drive. He turns on a dime whether presented with a front cross, back cross, blind cross, whatever.

My beginner class is made up of three dogs, including Phoenix. We have plenty of time to put together and practice rather long sequences. The equipment is jammed pretty tightly into the 30×60 space.

My students are GOOD students. They try to do their homework, they listen to instructions, they watch me demonstrate, they absorb the philosophical discussion, and we progress quickly.

Four weeks ago, Phoenix was coming out of his crate for a couple of 2-minute demonstrations each class.

Two nights ago he spend nearly 45 minutes out of his crate, engaged in agility play (and flirtation).

His ability, at 5 months, to follow my movement on sequences, is breathtaking for me. Couple that with bold, fearless, obstacle performance, and you can imagine the fun I’m having.

I often think fondly of Tempest, and miss him every day, but Phoenix is providing me with a new agility life.

I would love to get comments from my regular readers! Tell me how your training is going, what suggestions you’ve tried with your own dogs, or how you’ve modified a protocol to suit your needs. Comments please!

2-minute dog trainer – Bud will be so pleased

August 28, 2011

Bud has pointed out a couple of miscellaneous skills Tempest doesn’t have, skills which have been on a back burner.

This week Bud’s been out of town more than he’s been home, so I’m using my free time to focus on these skills. Hopefully we’ll have great news for daddy when he gets back into town.

First, retrieving.  Tempest’s favorite game is chase-the-toy-and-kill-it, then drop-it-and-wait-for-mom-to-come-get-it.  The game the dog likes is the correct reward, right?

However, it means a ton of walking for me, and I’d much prefer a dog who fetches his toy and hands it to me.

So this week we began working on a formal retrieve. Once he is retrieving his dumbell to hand I’ll introduce various toys, and help him start generalizing the “fetch” command.

When he’s retrieving to hand I’ll be able to use the toy for a reward and get more training done. The current game is very time consuming as MY toy-fetching speed is a direct reflection of my age and physical capabilities — I’m no 18-month-old BC.

Second, absolute directionals. Bud often says, “You’ve spent the time on Tempest’s contacts that I spent on Kory’s absolute directionals.”  And the dogs’ skills reflect the time we’ve spent on training them.

So Bud can direct Kory through a complex course, using minimal movement and well-conditioned absolute directionals.

Tempest and I, however, struggle with any sequence where I can’t be in the picture helping direct him.  If I say “left!” he’s more likely to spin right, indicating two things — 1) he has no idea what “left” means, and  2) just shouting “left” confuses him and makes him spin.

“Right” is an easier directional for Tempest. Primarily, I believe, because “right” consists of a hard vowel followed by a hard consonant. While “left” consists of a soft consonant followed by a soft vowel and a hard consonant.

So our mealtime training has been to train left-and-right.  At some point in the afternoon I break away from my TDAA and computer work to do a little retrieval training with him.

Mealtime left-and-right — with Tempest’s food bowl in my hands, I have him face me.  He immediately starts guessing what I want, often getting two 360-degree left turns in while I’m setting up.

After several days of “left” training, nearly all his guesses involve “left,” by the way.

When I’m set up I say, “watch me!” then “left.”  I’m looking for an indication of his head to the left. Sometimes it’s a flicker, sometimes he does a complete turn to the left, depending on how hungry he is.

The “watch me” command settles him down just a little and stops him from countless offerings of “left” head flickers and spins.

Not that I don’t want him to offer behavior, but I’d really like him to watch me and offer the behavior he hears/sees me cue.

He’s improved from 20-25% accuracy to about 65-70% accuracy in 2 weeks. So, as Bud says, “that’s better odds than just guessing, so somehow he’s starting to make the connection,” between the left-or-right commands and the correct direction for his head turn.

With the retrieve he’s progressed really quickly from jumping on the dumbell, putting it in his mouth, dropping it, and eating a treat …. to …. picking up the dumbell and bringing it toward my hand.

I’m helping him a bit at this point, getting my hand in really quickly so he’s delivering it to hand without too much effort.

The training I’m doing is following Sue Sternberg’s “Inducive Retrieve.”  It’s the method I’ve used to train my dogs to retrieve since 1997 and I’ve always be incredibly pleased with the results.

Sternberg’s method emphasizes the retrieve-to-hand, and the dog is constantly rewarded for releasing the dumbell into my hand.

As I learned some time ago, “fetch” has nothing whatsoever to do with chasing a toy or carrying a toy around.  It has nothing to do with holding a dumbell, or trotting across the floor with a dumbell in mouth.

Fetching is the act of putting something in my hand. Period.  Afterall, dogs carry things in their mouths all the time. They chase things all the time. Neither of those activities result in the item in my hand.

Sternberg’s training puts so much emphasis on dumbell into hand, treat into mouth, that the rest of the “fetch” behavior becomes just a means to an end. The toughest part of my dogs’ retrieve training is the stay while the dumbell flies away. They love retrieving, and I’m hoping Tempest is no exception.

Sue Sternberg’s well-written publications, including the inducive retrieve brochure, are available at <> and all proceeds benefit the dogs in her Rondout Valley shelter in upstate NY.


The 2-Minute dog trainer, retrieves

November 8, 2009

Bud and I spent 4 hours yesterday morning in the parking lot of a local Tractor Supply store, talking to people about dog training and handing out our brochures.

Things started out slowly. Then, in an effort to get Hazard into the warm sun, I set her sherpa bag on the table and let Hazard curl up with her face to the crowd.

From that moment on we were mobbed by people and kids. Note to self — if you want to draw attention put a dog in a box where people can see her. <g>

We took 3 dogs and all of them had a great time.  Hazard got all sorts of petting and attention. She came out of her sherpa bag for kids and, as soon as they were done with her, whirled around and darted back into her safe zone.

Dash, my 9-year-old aussie, slept for the first hour on the back seat of the Tahoe. Then, when he heard a pack of kids, he hopped out and made the rounds. His next few hours were filled with schmoozing and butt scratches, occasionally returning to the comfy interior of the truck. Dash had some bad experiences with kids in the past, so I’m pleased to see that he’s finally feeling more confident around them. Perhaps it was the knowledge that he could always retreat to the truck that enabled him to be so brave and outgoing.

Kory, Bud’s BC youngster, spent much of his time lying quietly in a crate in the back of the truck. Bud got him out often for some walks and retrieval work, and Kory got his share of attention from the kids.

When we’re working with a young dog I always keep a mental post-it-note of “what is most important for him to learn today.” This is part of the 2-minute dog trainer philosophy, by the way, that each interaction with a dog is a learning experience for that dog as well as for us.

Kory’s most important lesson yesterday, and his biggest success, was to stay in the crate with us nearby and to refrain from tearing up his bedding.

He also got to work on retrieving with Bud though I must say, proudly, that Dash is the retrieving king in our house.

When my first competition dog, Banner (now nearly 14 years old) was beginning her obedience career I was learning about positive reinforcement training methods. She learned to heel using Dawn Jecs “choose to heel” methods, eating treats and working without a choke or prong collar.

My training path separated from the AKC obedience club with which I was training and Banner earned her CD without much assistance or support from our instructors. I was determined to find another way than the one I’d seen at our weekly training sessions.

I taught my old girl, Banner, to retrieve 13 years ago using Sue Sternberg’s Inducive Retrieve method. A friend gave me a little brochure containing Sue’s typed instructions and her hand-drawn illustrations. Sue has since created a new brochure which is much fancier than the original photocopied version, with pictures instead of drawings, available at

During the time I was training Banner to retrieve my club’s training followed one of two paths — the ear pinch or the collar twist. In our open class our instructor began dumbell work with “hold, hold, hold,” fingers clamped over the dog’s mouth.

Having taken ownership of my dog’s training in novice class I felt comfortable taking a separate path in open as well. I read Sue’s brochure and began training in little 5-minute increments at home.

In class, while everyone else was learning how to force the dumbell into their dog’s mouth, Banner and I went into a corner where we worked on the inducive retrieve.

At the end of 8 weeks my classmates were able to have their dog sitting in heel position holding the dumbell, mostly. Banner, on the other hand, could fetch the dumbell and return to front, holding the dumbell, giving it to me.

It was shocking to my instructors. Their response was the same tired response we hear today when we train with rewards instead of punishment, “what do you do if she refuses to pick up the dumbell?”

My response was, “she’s never refused to pick it up!   Why would she?  She is constantly rewarded for returning the dumbell to me, so the toughest part of the exercise is staying by me while the dumbell is tossed.”

At a monthly meeting the club asked for a demonstration of the method and I decided to make it a real test of inducive over forced retrieve. If their real question had to do with my response to a refusal, I needed to demonstrate that a refusal wasn’t likely, and that a refusal was a result of confusion, not willful disobedience, and should be met with encouragement, not force.

At the outdoor picnic meeting I turned a very excited Banner (I was, afterall, holding her dumbell!) away from the group and had a friend hide her dumbell near a member’s feet, under a table. I turned Banner back toward the crowd and told her “take it!”

Banner ran away from me and searched for the dumbell. She didn’t stop for petting, attention, or food. She searched and searched, occasionally looking back to make sure I was still waiting for her. I kept smiling and encouraging her.

After about 90 seconds of searching she dived onto her dumbell and ran as fast as she could back to me. It was the first time I got that thrill of having a demo dog do exactly what was expected. <g>  My first “I told you so” moment.

Jaws dropped. I hadn’t repeated the command, hadn’t restarted my dog, had just given her encouragement and continued smiling at her. Her drive to find the dumbell was created by the rewards I’d been giving her for bringing it back to me.

Bud and Kory have been working on a play retrieve so yesterday, in the tractor supply parking lot, I encouraged Bud to go to the inducive foundation work.

Within 30 minutes Kory was not only chasing the dumbell, but picking it up and returning to Bud with it. I doubt if Bud will ever want an obedience retrieve, he just wants a fetch for agility training, so there was no real need for the front-and-give dumbell work.

But I’m thinking that, with the foundation training being put in place, an obedience retrieve isn’t far off for this youngster, if either of us are so inclined.

2 Minute Training sets

September 16, 2009

In a brief training session yesterday afternoon I walked a course Bud had set up for Vicki and Jackie, our regular Tuesday and Thursday night students, and my partners in the Strategic Teams game in Wisconsin in a couple of weeks.

The lesson for Tuesday night had to do with straight lines created by judges who run with dogs uninterested in moving ahead of the handler. These straight lines are killers to those of us who have encouraged our dogs to run ahead and faster than us.

I walked the course, noticed several options, and ran Hazard on all three of my options. She was keen to work, speedy, barking, and having a great time. And she nailed the course all three times, with all different options.

At the end of Jackie and Vicki’s lesson we broke one of the awkward sequences into a strategic-team lesson. With other dogs on the course, running around her, and handlers shouting at their dogs, Hazard completely shut down.

Handling her over 3 jumps in a little sequence became nearly impossible as she tried to get away by taking jumps without being cued or released to do so.

We switched strategies, putting Hazard’s bit of the course out of the way of our teammates, and she was able to function much better. We’ll need to remember this when it comes time to chop up the strategic-team course in Wisconsin — “Hazard needs to work along edges and in corners of the course.”

In other news … One of my blog readers sent me a link to video of Jon Gosselin (why on earth does he talk to papparazzi as if they are friends?) as the German Shepherd pups got loaded into crates and returned to the breeder. It would have been an indication that someone in this group was thinking clearly if the BREEDER had come to get the dogs.

Instead, Jon got to use the return of the dogs to the breeder as an opportunity to jab and poke at Kate, who was using the dogs as a tool to irritate Jon. Dogs caught in the middle of divorce are often used to create pain for the other spouse.

Fortunately dogs aren’t probably as cognizant of being used this way as children are. My heart goes out to the adults these Gosselin children will become. They will probably all require therapy and I can only hope that one or both parents are tending to that.

In the meantime, Jon and Kate are an embarrassment. I’m ashamed to say I used to enjoy their show.

Having been divorced I absolutely understand the desire to hurt the “ex” and the desire to gather supporters by stating one’s side over and over. But I did this in private, one-on-one, with my friends.

Jon has developed a relationship with the photographers who exist outside his fence. Kate has developed relationships with interviewers who will pay for her opinion. It’s gross. They both look foolish.

In other news …. Bud heads out to Springfield, IL, tomorrow for a day of teacup seminar, followed by 2 days of showing Hazard, followed by 3 days of standard agility training. This event was set up with us by Deb (Richey) Auel. Deb has been a friend and supporter for as long as I can remember. She was our teacup judge at the trial where Bogie earned his TACh.

I’m going to be interested to hear how Hazard does, running for Bud, in a strange place with a new judge. I’d love to see this Sheltie-Ranch girl come out of her weird phase.

Sport foundation, 2-minute routine (part 1)

July 16, 2009

In an effort to prepare for the TDAA Petit Prix in Wisconsin this October, I’ve implemented a few changes in lifestyle.

I’ve been swimming 3-4 times a week for 90 minutes (about 2 miles of swimming each time). My knee is feeling really strong and I’ve lost some weight.

But the most important routine is yet to be established. I need to start setting aside time each day to prepare Blue for the national event, and renew our partnership which was begun 2 years ago.

I plan to begin with the sport foundation 2-Minute trainers again. Blue has most of the skills but I figure it won’t hurt to begin with foundation work again.

Additionally we’ve begun working the girls through Susan Garrett’s 2×2 weave training. for the Petit Prix we want to add some area rugs to duplicate the footing dogs will experience at the nationals.

Additionally (!) I need to take Blue’s pause table “on the road” so she can work through her fear issues with men. These issues manifest on the pause table at trials, mostly.

Additionally (!!) I need to begin adding weight-bearing exercises for my knees. I want to work Blue dog jump chutes, pairing her jump conditioning with little wind-sprints for me.  I’ll begin with a straight line of jumps and progress to a large figure 8 so I can add distance jumping for Blue and front crosses for me.

Sound like over-kill?  Here’s some background information which will explain my mild obsession with Blue’s performance at this year’s Petit Prix.

When Bud created TDAA I was running Australian Shepherd’s exclusively. When I first heard the plan for TDAA I must admit I was a little offended. When Bud asked if I’d be interested in participating my response was, “help out an organization that excludes my dogs?”  Later I got excited about the games approach, the titling paths, and the whole concept of a little-dog venue.

At the time we had a trial group (at Dogwood Training Center) and we were holding meetings to prepare for upcoming trials. For our first TDAA trial we had ZERO entries.  I was shocked!  I said, “I can’t believe all of you with little dogs haven’t entered our trial!  If I had a dog eligible I’d have entered already!!”

Bud immediately said, “You can run Bogie.”  From that point on, whenever we had a TDAA trial I entered Bogie, Bud’s clever and biddable sheltie. We had a blast in TDAA, winning the first Petit Prix in the 16″ division by .29 seconds over Kathy Duffy’s Bobbie.

When it came time for Bogie to retire I figured I’d better keep my eyes pealed for MY teacup dog. Since I work with rescue and was considering volunteering at the local shelters, I figured a dog would fall into my lap some day. I wasn’t interested in seeking out puppies, but just had a mission in the back of my mind.

We moved to Country Dream (March 1) and engaged in a frenzied preparation for our first camp (April 31). We had the meadow bulldozed, the building put up, the cottages gutted and rehabbed, the guestrooms set-up, and I was able to find everything in the kitchen. <g>

On the last day of camp Sue Sternberg and I decided to visit the local shelters so she could arrange to become a transfer site for dogs from our area.

At the Parkersburg shelter she was greeted like a rock star. The staff knew of Sue, supported her efforts, and were excited about working with her. At the Marietta shelter the manager hid in her office, refusing to meet with Sue, until she got on her cell phone and called the staff of the Parkersburg shelter.

She had just received an e-hate-mail suggesting that Sue Sternberg is a dog-hater, a dog-killer, a dog-stealer, etc.  “Don’t let this woman into your shelter!” the e-mail warned. Of course, the folks in Parkersburg told the Marietta manager to ignore that e-mail and talk with Sue.

In the meantime, Sue and I had gotten out of my truck and both locked in on a dog in an outside kennel. She was the strangest looking dog either of us had ever seen. “Spook” had been turned in at the shelter just that day (I found out later) and clearly was expecting her family to come get her.  She was about 12″ tall (and about 30″ long, but that didn’t matter to me <g>).

Sue and I met with the shelter manager.  We returned to camp. For 2 days I thought about that little dog.

And, on that Saturday, I drove to the shelter and adopted Spook.  I decided her new name would be Blue, and that I’d see if she liked to train. If she did that would be great. If she didn’t that would be okay, too.

Thus began my journey with Blue.

In a recent e-mail to a teacup list (unfortunately folks rarely edit themselves on e-mail lists and often don’t understand why anyone would be offended by their words or tone — it’s something I try to remember when I write) several people indicated that it might be “unfair” for some of us to practice the ’09 Petit Prix games ahead of time, or work through strategies at the warm-up workshops in Wisconsin.

I thought about how agility organizations work diligently to “level the playing field” and how there is absolutely no way to make the playing field level or to make it fair, unless each and every exhibitor has their own category and only plays against their own performance, and in an environment devoid of people and distractions.

When one handler is judged against another there are always injustices. Add to that equation the wide variety of dogs and doggie histories, and the injustices mount up pretty quickly.

Unless and until there is a separate class at dog agility trials for middle-aged, overweight handlers with dogs rescued from the shelter after 9 months of being terrorized by a teenage boy — it will be unfair to compare our performance to that of other teams.

Fortunately for all of us, this un-leveled playing field allows us to make countless excuses for our shortcomings or failures. “My dog is afraid of men.”  “My knees are killing me.”  “The photographer scared my dog.”  “For some reason my dog doesn’t like the timing system.”  And on and on and on ….

My intention is to arrive at the ’09 Petit Prix as prepared as I can be, as fit as I can be, and to apply my skills and knowledge as completely as possible to each run.

In the back of my mind, however, is the desire for Blue to place in her division this year. More on that later …

treatise to HSOV board of directors

March 23, 2009

At the April 7 meeting of the board of directors meeting for HSOV (Humane Society of the Ohio Valley) I’m going to present a treatise. During this morning’s swim I began working through my proposed speech, trying to focus myself.

I’m going to begin this writing-compressing process here on my blog. (Sidebar — an interesting exercise for the creation of a powerful personal statement is to write all your thoughts, in no specific order, then combine similar thoughts into single sentences, eliminate fluff and repetition, and boil the entire thing down to 25-50 words.)

The primary goal of my treatise is to convince the HSOV board that their mission should be to spearhead the spay/neuter drive in our area, without regard for whether or not this activity meshes with the opinions and goals of our local veterinarians and potential adopters.

I’ve considered opening with, “The Humane Society of the Ohio Valley has a mission statement published on the website which includes the statements: to work toward the solution of overpopulation of animals; to promote and share responsibility for the proper care and placement of animals; and to oppose the release of any animal from public and private animal shelters for the purpose of biomedical research or any other purpose inhumane to animals.”

Nowhere in that mission statement is mention made of supporting local veterinarians and ensuring they have sufficient business, or making sure the shelter is the cheapest local source of pets,or enabling the adoption of pets without ascertaining the quality of the home provided by the adopter, or providing brood bitches for puppy mills.

At some point in time the board decided that the shelter needed local vets’ approval more than local vets need HSOV as a good customer. At some point in time the board decided to accommodate the needs of adopters, regarding price and availability, rather than focusing on the needs of shelter dogs and cats. At some point in time the board decided to focus more on fund-raising and adopting out a few animals than on the numbers of dogs and cats being bred by citizens and euthanized in our shelter every week.

I have established as one of my life goals to raise local awareness of the needs of homeless dogs — finding the right dog for interested adopters, assisting with training that dog, ensuring the dog’s health, and keeping that dog happily in the home. I will continue working toward those goals for the dogs living at HSOV, but I need your help.

I need you, as influential members of the board of directors of a humane society, to stand between the animals at the shelter and those who breed them indiscriminately. I need you to stand up to veterinarians who expect personal gain without supporting HSOV’s mission. I need you to listen to HSOV statistics and know the agony felt by members of the shelter staff — animals lovers every one — who must perform euthanasias regularly because of the lack of education about spay/neuter in our community, and the lack of funds to assist adopters with veterinary care. I need you to educate yourselves and your neighbors about the many causes of pet over-population and the benefits of early spay/neuter.

Those of us fighting the spay/neuter battle are engaged in a war. We’re drowning in a tsunami of lovely, yet unwanted, dogs and cats. Our allies are humane societies everywhere, whether they’re rescuing dogs or working on legislation, and veterinarians willing to fit shelter dogs into their schedule, willing to provide prepubescent spay/neuters, willing to make good customers of shelter adopters, and willing to participate in our mission to combat pet over-population.

We want to make allies of the unknowledgeable breeders of dogs and cats in our community, and encourage them to become part of the solution to the pet over-population problem rather than part of the problem.  Lack of knowledge is a pardonable sin.

On the other hand, we have enemies. Our enemies are puppymills, retail and wholesale pet operations, irresponsible breeders of dogs and cats, and veterinarians who refuse to support our mission and provide medical services without extraordinary fees.

When a puppy or kitten is born, our goal is to ensure that puppy or kitten never produces more unwanted pets and that it finds a forever home. This goal diverges from the goal of a veterinarian, whose mission is to make money and pay expenses and employees, and who actually benefits from litters of puppies and kittens.

I’m going to let the above ferment in my brain. If you have comments, suggestions, or impassioned speeches, please forward all to me at

my impassioned spay/neuter speech

March 21, 2009

Information on dog training, spay/neuter possibilities, animal care, etc., is being acquired by dog people at an incredible rate now, with everyone having access to the most up-to-date information on the internet.

Keeping current on your field, a difficult proposition for dog trainers, must be a monstrous task for veterinarians and scientists who are bombarded with study results and new research constantly.

Whereas it might be inconvenient for my students if I’m not versed on the latest information on teaching fronts, it’s devastating for a veterinarian’s patients if they don’t keep up with the latest technology and information.

Yesterday a shelter trainer list I’m on had a link to an interesting article on the results of a 10-year study of pediatric spay/neuter, done at Cornell nearly 10 years ago. I checked out this article from HSUS information (link)

I intend to write a treatise to be presented at the next meeting of my shelter’s board of directors. I’ll not make it part of my “report from the volunteer coordinator” but, instead, will present it when they ask for questions from the community.

Here’s my primary question — “why is the shelter releasing intact animals back into the community via adoptions-without-neutering when our statistics show we euthanize 10 animals for every 1 we adopt out?”

As my hero, Sue Sternberg, puts it, “Spay/neuter before adoption is CRITICAL, or a shelter, especially one like Marietta, which still has pet overpopulation and litters of puppies coming to the shelter, should not even bother to adopt out dogs. Putting more fertile dogs and cats into the community is not helpful.”

My friend and mentor, Carrie Roe (from HSOP), adds, “using vets that are willing to do prepubicent spays/neuters is also critical.” Carrie notes, “You can’t hold the animals for 6 months for them to be old enough to meet the standards of some vets that don’t believe in the early surgeries.”

Early spay/neuter is controversial, I know. There are seminarists traveling the country preaching late or no neutering for performance dogs. My own brother has a little puppy-mill aussie and he’s been convinced that neutering him will bring on prostate cancer.

However, it is my opinion that local shelters, who absorb 90% of the unwanted pet population, and whose staffs must face the horrible task of “eliminating” the nation’s overage, must be the constant preachers of the spay/neuter sermon.

I believe it is not nearly enough to have adopters purchase a $20 certificate which is refunded upon neutering, especially considering that veterinarians are not on board with us and are unwilling to do the neutering on the pet’s first visit.

Here’s a specific account of this practice by our shelter. Yesterday a woman walks in wanting to look at very young kittens she heard were at the shelter. She’d been there 2 weeks ago but the kittens were too young to go home.

On Friday, 3/20, this lady visited the Parkersburg shelter and was shown their kittens. She didn’t take one, however, because “they wanted all my information, and there’s a waiting period!” So, instead of filling out an application in Parkersburg and being approved for a kitten that is already spayed, she drove to Marietta’s shelter.

Here she found 2 kittens, both female and intact, of course. They were “too small for shots” according to staff, and too small for spaying. “How much would it cost to get both of them?” our guest asked.

The first answer was, “$15 for the kitten, $5 for shots, and $20 for the spay certificate which you’ll get off the vet bill when you have her spayed.”  “Oh, I didn’t bring that much money with me!” she responded, and I’d really like both of them.”

Weeeelllll …. “we could probably just charge you for the 2 spay certificates and, since the kittens haven’t had their shots yet, not charge you anything for the kittens themselves.”

This nice lady took home 2 very young female kittens for $40, the cost of 2 spay certificates. If she ever takes them to a veterinary there will have to be a wellness check and shots prior to spaying. The wellness check will be about $75-100. The spaying will be $50-75 apiece, at the very least. Those two $20 certificates aren’t going to cover much and I don’t imagine they’ll ever be used.

And 2 fertile kitten-making machines are released into the community.

What would have been the scenario if, instead, both kittens had pediatric or prepubicent spay surgery before going up for adoption? The cost of the kittens would have been $50-60 each, the woman may have only gotten one, but we’d be certain her one kitten wasn’t going to produce dozens of kittens for the euthanasia needle.

The above is going to be the primary thrust of my treatise, but examples of “old timey” thinking abound at the shelter.

I’m attempting to train dogs and train dog-walkers, while the staff of the shelter remain stuck in 1960s thinking about dog training and behavior. Examples, just from yesterday (hey, Bud had to listen to my venting so you have to as well <g>), include:

FIRST, a 45-50-pound Shar Pei mix bitch is with me, on lead, in the hallway leading to the big dog room. She’s shown an inordinate amount of attention to the cats in the cat room and in the tower cages. Several members of the staff share with me that “when she was turned in her owners said she’d killed cats, but you can’t believe everything people say. They’ll tell you that as an excuse for bringing a dog in to the shelter.”

My response was, “well, I’d more likely say you can’t believe when people say their dog is happy, friendly, loves cats and kids and other dogs. There’s a reason they’re getting rid of the animal and killing another person’s pet should be something you could verify before putting the dog up for adoption.”

They explained to me, stupid as I am, “we’ve not had any problem with her since she’s been here.” All this conversation as the dog stares intently through the plexiglass at a cat sitting on a window sill. I put “kills cats” on her temperament sheet, noted that she required an experienced owner, and returned this dog to her kennel. I have no words for the previous owner who, instead of taking responsibility and euthanizing their cat-killing dog, brought her to a shelter so someone else could have the pleasure of that moment.

SECOND, I have a little black lab mix in the back yard. She’s trying to drag me, has no connection to people, doesn’t demonstrate any desire to engage me. “That dog’s completely trained!” the dog warden tells me. “She came to us from the cell dog program where she was playing with another dog, it turned into a fight, the inmate tried to break it up and got bitten, which led to her getting thrown out of the program.”  He went on to explain that it was certainly a missreading of what was going on, and an unfortunate accident, because, as he repeated again and again, “she’s completely trained!”

My response was, “how was she trained? With treats and reward, or with corrections?” He didn’t know. Didn’t really even understand the question, probably. I worked with this dog for 45 minutes and she glanced at me one time. She didn’t walk well on leash, wouldn’t sit or lie down, had no connection to anyone in the shelter, including staff.

While I’m sitting, waiting for her to lie down so I could praise her, staff walked by saying, “that dog’s completely trained!” as if she was a gold nugget they’d found in the parking lot. I wrote on her sheet that she’s a work in progress and, fortunately for her, seemed to have no interest in the other dogs or cats at the shelter. But she didn’t have any interest in anything, really, so she’s probably showing signs of being shut down by the environment. If she gets adopted her real stripes will develop.

THIRD, I work with Daisy, a chow mix turned in as the perfect pet. “Great with kids, cats and other dogs!” Yeah, right. Again with the staring at cats. And, when approached by the dog warden and his loud, deep voice and clapping hands, she assumed a stance clearly communicating “approach me with caution.” Which, of course, he ignored. She cowered while he woozled and grabbed her.

I spent 40 minutes with her and discovered that she did know how to lie down, but that she used down to earn freedom. She’d lie down, be petted and praised, and then rush toward the cats. I started asking her to lie down longer before getting her praise. When I’d wait to praise her, she’d look boldly at me and freeze. In my opinion, this is a dog destined to injure or kill something. I wrote nothing in her “skills” list and noted she needed an experienced owner.

FOURTH, I bring out Mya, a sweet little black lab who has drawn no attention from adopters and who will be accompanying me to We Luv Pets today. Mya walks beautifully on a leash, pees in the exercise yard willingly, returns to me when I welcome her, and is, in general, a sweet girl.

I spend 45 minutes with her in the hallway of the shelter. Two staff members have to stop and pet her, though we’re working on self-calming as described on the literature and signs all over the volunteer station for the past 4 months. They have not, of course, taken advantage of their long breaks to read any of the dog-training literature. Why would they? They’ve worked at the shelter a couple of years and that’s given them all the information they need. Besides, they love dogs so they know about dogs, you know?

So a nice young man crouches next to Mya and points at the floor. “Down! Down! Down!” — to which she responds, “huh?”  He goes and gets an old dry biscuit out of a 5-gallon drum and returns to crouch and say “down!”  I watch with some amusement, I must admit, as Mya looks at him like he’s from Pluto (which, by the way, is not a planet LOL).

“I guess she doesn’t know how to lie down,” he concluded. “Well, first, she doesn’t know how to work for a treat or follow a treat lure, even if you were luring correctly,” I state. “Second, you might want to look at some of the training literature here sometime, but third, I can pretty much guarantee she’s not going to do anything extraordinary for that dry biscuit.” In fact, Mya walked outside with me and, presented with the broken biscuit just for walking around in the grass, spit it out and walked away from it.

She’s a perfectly sweet girl who can certainly sit and lie down but does both on her own terms because she’s never been given the slightest reason to work for food or to see people and food as valuable resources.

I came home completely frustrated at the lack of information, the old-timey approach to spay/neuter and training, and the view of this monstrous mountain from my position at the bottom. Where to start?

So I’m going to write a treatise to be presented at the next board of directors meeting. This will probably be the deal-breaker for being nominated to the board. Better to know that now, however, than to get nominated and find I have no voice in policy.

In the meantime, I’m off to pick up Mya and head to the pet-food store. If we can’t educate shelter staff at least we can educate and entertain a few citizens.

Foundation Sport package is up!

March 3, 2009

We finally got the 2-Minute Dog Training Foundation Sport package up on the webstore (here’s the link for anyone wishing to order:

The format I decided upon was to set out each training protocol as a separate brochure. Now instructors may use the training themselves, teach from the brochures, copy the brochures to distribute to everyone in their class, OR copy the brochures and have them available to selectively provide homework assignments for students needing work on a specific foundation issue. I only ask that they not be copied and sold.

I am aware that the most popular brochures are going to be the weavepoles and contacts trainers, but it is my opinion that you can develop a stronger, more flexible relationship with your dog if you combine foundation training in housepet manners, obedience, and agility.

Every time I hear “my dog doesn’t like obedience so we just do agility” I’m tempted to say (heck, not just tempted, I usually DO say) “my dogs don’t know the difference between obedience and agility … it’s all about a conditioned behavior, put on cue, and rewarded consistently.”

I did a pet fair demo with Dash once and (though no one at the fair knew what they were seeing, they thought it was just a stupid pet trick) had him doing sets of 6 weaves, fetching his dumbell, and weaving back for me.

His rewards for dumbell work had been so high that he loved his dumbell and considered it a reward for the first set of weaves, then he got his treat for weaving back with the dumbell. I trained all my dogs to retrieve using Sue Sternberg’s Inducive Retrieval method, and it has served me very well.

Another stupid pet trick Dash does, and one with almost mind-blowing implications, is one in which I lay out all his retrieval items. The stack contains his dumbell, a squashed plastic bottle, a glove, a wallet, a bumper, a wooden spoon, and a fly swatter (I added this because he was afraid of fly swatters as a puppy, so I taught him to retrieve one).

I have Dash sit in heel, then send him for the dumbell. When he retreives that I tell him to fetch the bottle, then the glove, then the wallet, then the bumper, then the spoon, and finally the fly swatter.

Observers are impressed that Dash knows the names of these items. Then I explain what is actually more impressive — that Dash DOES NOT know the names of these items but that, instead, he has established a preference list which he adheres to nearly 100% of the time. So long as I call items out in order of his preference, he always chooses in the same order.

In my mind, “shopping” using a priority list is a MUCH neater trick than knowing the names of stuff. It shows me that the dog is thinking, choosing, considering options, and operating on a higher level than a standard conditioned response.

Still, it makes for a great “stupid pet trick” and always manages to amaze his audience. Dash is nine this year and remains the most biddable dog I’ve ever had. He’s afraid of nearly everything (the by-product of 3 months of idiotic, ham-handed, bumbling tuff-love from 8 weeks to 5 months, at the hands of a clod who used to do dog agility in northeastern Ohio) yet, with the proper rewards in place, tries to overcome his fears and be correct every time.

Bud and I were discussing our dogs, comparing their distance working capabilities, and came up with an interesting bit of doggie information on our pack. The best distance dogs we have are the two least confident dogs who, having constantly been encouraged and rewarded for obstacle focus and distance work, will perform obstacles perfectly and consistently when cued. Bogie and Dash both started as slow, cautious workers. Both were encouraged to perform individual obstacles for food.  Both dogs worry about being wrong and, in the wrong home, could have easily been shut down completely.

I’m starting the 2-Minute Dog Training Advanced Rally package next week. Hope all of you enjoy the Foundation Sport package !!

A great shelter day

February 7, 2009

For 8-10 weeks I’ve been plugging along at the shelter, creating training materials, educating the dog walkers one at a time, answering training questions for staff, talking-talking-talking-talking, and (MY FAVORITE!) training dogs.

Every trip to the shelter follows a purposeful pattern:  1) check written training brochure supplies, replenish paperwork,  2) check leashes and collars available to dog-walkers,  3) take a brief walk through the shelter to see which of my previously-trained dogs remain up for adoption,  4) sanitize my hands and my leash, go get a dog,  5) return to volunteer station to sit with dog for 20-30 minutes to encourage self-calming or check to see if dog has improved or not,  6) luring dog into sit or down, practicing “come and sit,”  7) walk the dog for a potty break and return to their kennel run,  8) repeat with 2-3 more dogs.

Every time I return to the shelter I’m struck by how much more receptive the “trained” dogs are, with great improvement in their calm behavior seen each visit. They’re sitting in their kennels, wagging their tails, staring at my face as if to say, “Hey Marsha, I’ve been waiting for you.”

So today was a banner day at the shelter. I arrived about 10:30 or 11:00 a.m. and noticed a little brown, tailess dog running loose around the shelter, followed by a couple of kids. Seems they’d tried to make a slip lead and the dog had slipped out of it.  Like Carrie Roe said, “don’t chase shelter dogs when they get loose — for many of them this is the best home they’ve ever had and they might actually just come back if you don’t chase them.” The little brown dog saw the staff guys in the garage and tucked in to say “Hi!” and was immediately caught.

I did my typical routine with the paperwork. As I got a little airedale mix out of her kennel, she wagged her tail and greeted me happily. I took her out to potty first thing as she’s a clean, little bitch and I want to keep it that way. When I say, “go potty!” she immediately finds a spot and pees.

Walking back to the volunteer station I run into one of my SMART team members. She’s got a student with her and she has her student sit with me to train the little dog. I talked Amanda through the process with the airedale who, as we were sitting there, got her picture taken for  AND  got herself a new name — “Ariel.”  Ariel took about 20 minutes to lie down, earned huge praise, and really got excited about working for treats. Before returning to her crate, Amanda had Ariel sitting, lying down, and coming for treats.

I next got “Valentine” – a wild little Sheltie mix – out and pottied her. I was really excited to see another bitch who, when I said, “Go Potty!” frantically looked for a place and peed.  What a cool skill to have, in my opinion.

Another half hour was spent training Valentine, who sat down calmly within a few minutes and was lying down in 15 minutes. She was easily lured into a sit and down. Two weeks ago she was brought in and would barely walk on a leash. She’d probably never interacted with people before, but was amazing today.

While I was putting Valentine away I was pulled aside by the ladies taking Petfinder pics. The litter of feral puppies brought in yesterday were showing signs of illness — pale gums, possible seizures, in general sickly. We got the worst of them into a separate crate in the “sick dog” room.

When I had finished settling the puppy, I was told a lady was here to see me. It was a board member from the Morgan County (McConnellsville, OH) humane society. They’re really struggling, and she’s meeting with me occasionally for a pep talk, to vent, and to be reminded of Sue Sternberg’s training presentation. She and I talked for about an hour before we noticed this nice couple and their teenage daughter looking at the puppies in the puppy room.

We started “matchmaking” with the family and found they wanted a small to medium-sized female.  They’d been looking on but every time they drove to a shelter the dog they liked was gone. Rather than having them experience the din of the dog room, I brought them Ariel.

This sweet dog came to this family, sucked up to all of them, sat and laid down for treats, got petted by everyone, went for a little walk with the teenage girl, and generally worked the crowd.

Then I brought out Valentine who did the same. I was amazed how these (formerly) wild girls, having been worked with twice in 2 days, were calm, attentive, interested, and VERY attractive.

We put Valentine back in her kennel and walked around the big dog room. No other dogs caught their eye so we brought Ariel back out, then switched to Valentine, then back to Ariel, then finally Valentine.

This great family from 90 minutes away (in West Virginia) adopted Valentine, who had shown great affection for all 3 members of the family, would roll on her back to get belly rubs, and would lie down anytime she was slightly bored. At one point, Mom was talking to the lady at the desk, Dad was talking on his cell phone, daughter was standing in the lobby with Valentine on lead, and 5-6 people were milling around, looking at cats. In the middle of all this hullabaloo lay Valentine, looking up at the little girl.  It was the closest thing to a miracle I’ve experienced at the shelter.

30 years ago I was on the church choir and an active member of the church. Later – when I got animals – I used to say the barn and the animals were my church and congregation, the center of my spiritual life (there was one morning when it was cold and snowing and white outside, then I opened the barn door and experienced the smell of hay, the golden glow of the lights, and the nickering of the animals — it truly was a spiritual experience).

The shelter, today, became the center of my spiritual life. My calling is to preach, teach, and train animals. It really was a banner day at the shelter.

By this time next week they should have their new shelter manager. I’m excited to be part of the revitalization of this formerly terrific facility.

The Puppy Puzzle

January 24, 2009

Sorry breeders — this isn’t a blog on how to test puppies for their agility or obedience or conformation potential. THis is about the issue of litters of puppies arriving at the shelter, and what we should do with them.

Our shelter has, in the last week, received a dozen-or-so litters of puppies from folks who don’t understand that a bitch in heat needs to be kept indoors or confined. With almost all of them the litter came as a complete surprise. Their failure to spay their dog was a result of lack-of-funds or laziness.  All were mixed breeds, with both the father and mother being of unknown heritage.

A week ago some folks were observing a litter of puppies and their young son was showing interest in a little brown-and-white pup. A shelter employee popped up and said, “those pups are going to rescue so they’re not available.” It was a little irritating to me that our local citizens were being kept away from puppies, that their only choices were a unch of 9-month-old (or older) dogs, and that all the puppies coming into our place got shipped off to shelters and rescue groups operating in parts of the country where mandatory spay/neuter laws meant they had a limited number of puppies available to adopters.

My first reaction, spoken only to myself, was “the citizens of Marietta and Washington County, who are supplying the funds for this shelter, should have an opportunity to adopt these puppies.”

Today we received 3 more litters of puppies. I watched folks picking them up, watched the pups peeing and pooping all over the shelter floor (viewing this, by the way, goes a long way to fortify my immunity to puppies — they’re just not as fascinating to me as they should be), and observed one elderly fellow observing the youngest litter of sheltie mixes.

He started telling me about his puppies … “their eyes aren’t even open yet” … “I have miniature rat terrier mixes” … “if I have left over puppies I get rid of them in Newark” and – after advising him to clean his clothes and shoes before getting in with his little puppies – decided to dig for a little more information.

Turns out this fellow has a smallish bitch he breeds at every possible opportunity to whatever dog shows up when she comes in heat. “She needs to make back the cost of her dog food!” he admonished. When he has puppies it’s not a problem because he takes them to the Petland in Newark. In our neck of the woods Petland is about the only pet store still offering dogs and cats for sale — most are working with their local shelters to adopt out pets.

I counted to 10 — twice — and then couldn’t stop myself. I first told him that 3-4 million dogs are euthanized each year because there aren’t enough homes for them. And that up to 50% of the dogs purchased at pet stores end up in shelters because they’re rejected impulse purchases. I shared with him that none of the dogs at our shelter would be adopted without being spayed or neutered.

One has to ask oneself why this fellow was standing, looking at the litter of little puppies. I figure he was looking for his next brood bitch in that bunch of 8-week-old sheltie mixes. So I said to myself, “I sure hope these litters of puppies go to parts of the country with mandatory spay/neuter laws and don’t get adopted by some guy who runs a 1-dog puppymill.

So there you go — maybe our local adopters need education more than they need puppies.

The good news is that I welcomed a new SMART team member today — Angie — and we worked with a few dogs. We got out a few of the dogs I trained yesterday and they all showed improved people skills.

Then we got Callie out of her kennel and had time to really work with her, getting her to relax and re-connect with people. She really liked Angie and ended up lying down on the floor next to her. Some potential adopters were stepping around her to get into the dog room and saw how connected Callie was to Angie.

Within 30 minutes Callie was going to her forever home. We’ll never know if it was this little bit of training that made her more attractive, or if she was just the type dog this woman was wanting, but Angie and I had a great cheer and hug when we heard of Callie’s good fortune.

There’s no surprise that shelter staff get burned out, and that folks argue endlessly over mandatory spay/neuter laws. If conflict can exist in me, imagine how much conflict can exist in the population. Bud remains too soft-hearted for shelter work. I’m learning a lot and am more and more convinced this is a great place for my talents.