Enriching Your Dog’s Life

April 3, 2012

Enrichment is a popular word in the companion parrot world, and of course, in the zoo world. But most people don’t realize the importance of enrichment for dogs.

Enrichment is defined by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as:

…”a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history. Environmental changes are made with the goal of increasing the animal’s behavioral choices and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors, thus enhancing animal welfare. “

Obviously, this definition is intended to give zookeepers direction when caring for wild and exotic species, but the same definition applies itself well to the dogs in our homes, too. Not only is enrichment a fun concept, it’s an important one, even for our domestic pets.

Dogs – even our modern day couch potato dogs – weren’t designed to do nothing all day and lay politely by our feet at night. Each breed, from the tiny Chihuahua to the enormous Great Dane, was designed with a purpose in mind. When we take away their purpose, we’re asking for all sorts of trouble.

There are several types of enrichment, and the AZA states:

“Several categories of enrichment are then used to enhance that species’ behavioral, physical, social, cognitive, and psychological well being. These categories are not mutually exclusive and often overlap, however each, if relevant to the species, should be incorporated into an animal’s enrichment plan. “

The AZA website explains several types of enrichment, including devices, habitat, sensory, food, social, and behavioral conditioning. So how do these apply to our dogs?

Enrichment devices for dogs are becoming more and more common. Designed to be manipulated by the dog, things that fall into this category include food dispensing toys like the Kong Classic and the Wobbler; Premier’s Kibble Nibble; and Nina Ottoson’s Puzzle Toys. Digging boxes also fall into this category.

Habitat enrichment, for those of us lucky enough to have a yard, encompases using all of the space your dog has, not just the space on the ground. Things like tire swings with food or toys tucked inside, springpoles and flirtpoles (not just for pit bulls!), scents placed (intentionally or not) on trees and shrubs, kiddie pools, wooden platforms, hiding spots like half-burried tractor tires and even dog houses, all fall into this category. Changing substrates – hay, wool, cloth, and so on – either in the general environment or in a hiding spot is also included.

Sensory enrichment is intended to use your dog’s natural senses (sight, scent, taste, hearing, and touch) to elicit natural behaviors. This can include scenting the envionment, items that can be manipulated, food dispensing toys, anything that elicits prey drive, edible bubbles, walks (especially  in new areas), music or animal sounds, and so on.

Food enrichment involves presenting food in ways that elicit hunting and/or foraging behaviors, encourage problem solving, and yes, even as a part of training. Foods may be frozen, hard, warmed, soft, and so on, and may be presented in new ways. Scattering kibble in the yard, buring Kong toys stuffed with wet food in a digging box, and placing treats into cardboard boxes to be shredded are all things that fall into this category.

Social enrichment involves allowing dogs to socialize, either with humans, other dogs, or other animals, and what is appropriate for each individual dog will vary. Some dogs are very social with other dogs, and others are not – know your dog! Play dates, dog parks, walks with a favored human, and living in a multi-dog household are all examples of social enrichment.

Behavioral conditioning is, simply put, training your dog. It isn’t just important for providing your dog with much-needed mental stimulation – it’s also a great way to spend time interacting positively with your dog while at the same time teaching him how to behave in a very human-oriented world. Training shouldn’t just be about sitting and staying. Encorporate behaviors that will make both of your lives easier: teach your dog to sit still for and tolerate veterinary exams, to “station” when guests arrive, and to enjoy nail trims.

Of course, you don’t need to (and shouldn’t) feel obligated to provide enrichment from every category every day. Many enrichment options will overlap categories (stuffed Kong toys, for example) and adding even just one item to your dog’s life each day will make a difference. With a little forethought and effort, both you and your dog will be happier and more relaxed!

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Choosing a Trainer: A How-To Guide

March 28, 2012

It’s no secret that the vast majority of First Class Canines’ clients have seen at least one other trainer – either privately, or in a class – prior to contacting us. Evidence of this can be seen in client reviews all across the web (except on Google Places, which apparently has a major problem with “losing” business reviews as of late), as well as on our Testimonials page.

Keeping that in mind, we have to admit that there were far fewer dog training options in southern New Hampshire when we started offering our services to the public nearly seven years ago. These days, however, dog trainers – especially private, in-home trainers – are cropping up on every corner, advertising lower-cost services as an incentive to draw in clients. What we’ve heard, time and time again, is that many of these trainers are taking dog owners’ hard earned money without providing any real information or assistance in the long term. Though we’d like to thank a lot of those trainers who have inadvertantly sent clients our way, we’d prefer not to have to repair the damage they sometimes cause.

Choosing a Trainer

In this world of online learning, there are several online “dog training schools” – institutions that, for a fee, will “teach” you how to be a professional dog trainer, and provide you with a certification upon your completion in their course. There’s two problems with this. First, no one can learn how to work with animals without actually working with animals (and we don’t just mean the lone dog in your livingroom or a few dozen dogs at the shelter.) Second, reading books and learning from experts is an important part of any education, but it is not the whole part (or even the majority). Books can give you the basics of applying science to training dogs, but remember: dogs don’t read the books, and don’t always respond the way that books say they should.

So what should you know about choosing a trainer, and why do we think you should choose us?

There aren’t any regulatory laws for dog training or dog trainers. There just isn’t any governing body that regulates dog training yet (but most of us are working on it.) The truth is that most of us learned how to train dogs by actually training dogs, and reading books about behavior and taking courses and sitting in on lectures, and so on. There are many roads to becoming a professional dog trainer – mentoring with a professional, taking an in-depth course, acquiring a higher degree, and yes, being “self-taught.”

Not all certifications are created equal. Would you let someone who read a plumbing book or two, watched a TV show about plumbing, and fiddled with some copper pipe on the weekends replace the pipes in your bathroom? Probably not without some serious hesitation. That person may know something that you do not, but it’s highly unlikely that he’s qualified to re-pipe your house. In short, a “certified trainer” may be someone who took a one week course on training, or someone who has studied extensively, worked with hundreds of dogs, and had their knowledge assessed by an independent body. Both have certifications, but they do not have the same knowledge or abilities.

Know their methods. Dog training methods vary widely, largely due to the lack of legal regulation in the profession. A quick search will give you trainers that use “only” or “primarily” positive reinforcement; trainers who are “balanced”; trainers who reject any form of positive reinforcement at all. You’ll find trainers who promise to enhance the relationship you have with your dog through the use of bribes, rewards, touch, prong collars, and collars that emit electronic “static shock.” Every trainer falls somewhere on this spectrum, but there are some things you need to know.

  • First, there is no such thing as a “purely positive” trainer. In order for positive reinforcement to exist, negative punishment must also be used. Dogs will make mistakes, and it’s how we handle those mistakes that matters.
  • “Balanced” trainers are, more often than not, simply using a buzzword to appeal both to dog owners who want a positive reinforcement based approach, and to dog owners who feel that they need to use training collars or heavy-handed methods. To learn more, please read this entertaining and informative article by trainer Eric Brad.
  • “Traditional” trainers often reject the use of food in training completely, and either misunderstand or intentionally ignore the difference between a bribe (which is presented before a requested behavior is performed) and a reward (which is presented after a requested behavior is performed.) These trainers use “tools” – including but not limited to choke, pinch/prong, and remote/electronic shock collars.

You need to know the difference, and what is best for your dog: using the wrong methods can cause serious and potentially permanent behavioral damage. (PDF)

A good reputation, a broad experience, extensive behavioral knowledge, and affilliations with reputable organizations. Trainers who are recommended by several sources – including veterinarians, humane societies, shelters and rescue groups, and other trainers – are generally well regarded in their community and within their profession. Experience with a wide array of dogs of differing ages, breeds, and backgrounds is important; ask about background experience, areas of expertise, and proof of behavioral knowledge. (Any trainer you consider should be able to point you to credible resources such as scientific, veterinary, or behavioral science journals.) Look for affiliations with trusted professional organizations such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. (I will likely get flack for this, but beware of the International Association of Canine Professionals, who made Cesar Millan an “Honorary Member” and whose members often claim that dominance is the cause for behavior problems. Please visit this website to read what well respected, educated professionals think of Mr. Millan’s training practices, and please read the American Society of Veterinary Behavior’s position statement on dominance. (PDF)

Ethics before profit. Financial success is important, particularly for those of us who train full time, and well educated dog trainers and behavior consultants deserve to compensated for their time and expertise in relation to that knowledge. But financial gain should never take precedence over ethics. Any trainer you consider should have fair and consistent rules regarding payment, prices, methods, and training tools. You should never be made to feel incompetent, irresponsible, or otherwise “bad” about your dog’s behavior, and you should have some say about what is done (and how it is done) to your dog – if you don’t like something a trainer is doing, you should feel comfortable enough to ask the trainer to stop doing it. Likewise, any trainer should explain what they are going to do to your dog before they do it and give you the option of saying no. (Please understand that most trainers won’t give you any information from the “how to” department unless you’ve scheduled an appointment – remember that trainers deserve to be compensated for their knowledge.)

A true love of dogs. Dogs should be more than your trainer’s profession. You should be able to tell that your chosen trainer really loves dogs. He or she should have a genuine concern for your dog, and be honest with you about your dog’s progress and, depending on the behavior at hand, about your dog’s prognosis. In short, your trainer should be concerned with your dog’s behavioral outcome, and should be concerned for the welfare of your dog as it relates to them.

Good communication and teaching skills. Dog trainers are the only teachers who work with two different species of learners, so it’s important that they not only be able to effectively work with your dog, but that they also be able to clearly communicate with and teach you to work with your dog. (If a trainer can’t (or won’t) explain how and why something does or doesn’t work, that should be a red flag.) Your trainer should check in with you during your training sessions to make sure that the humans are understanding the training.

A sense of humor! It’s impossible to have a genuine love dogs – and to live and work with them every single day – and not have a good sense of humor. Training should be fun for both the humans and the dogs! Eventually, the dogs will do something silly; if your trainer reacts to silly but inappropriate behavior by making light of the situation and using it as a learning experience for everyone, chances are pretty good that you’ve chosen a good trainer.

And there you have it: how to choose a dog trainer. We encourage you to compare First Class Canines to other dog trainers in New Hampshire, and make an educated decision, even if that decision is to give your business to another trainer. We think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


We’re letting you know…

March 20, 2012

From April 19th – 23rd, we’ll be away. The First Class Canines crew will be attending the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultant‘s 2012 conference!

We’re looking forward to bringing back lots of new ideas and helpful information for you, but we’ll be unavailable for appointments for these five days. We’ll resume our normal shcedule on April 24th.


FDA Warns Against Chicken Jerky Treats

March 16, 2012

We all remember the big Pet Food Recall of 2007. It spurred owners to pay more attention to the foods they feed their dog, and created a whole new niche in the pet food market. But few folks realize just how widespread the problem still is, or that it isn’t limited just to kibbles and cans.

The FDA recently issues a warning against chicken jerky treats, like Waggin Train, Canyon Creek Ranch and Milo’s Kitchen brands – all of which are made with chicken imported from China – may be linked to illness is dogs. MSNBC obtained information about this through an FDA report obtained through public record request. You can read the full story from MSNBC here.


Train Your Dog Month was a HUGE Success!

March 16, 2012

Here at First Class Canines, we’ve been incredibly busy. So busy that we’ve neglected this blog for over a month.

Beginning on January 1st, 2012, we started a campaign to successfully train as many dogs as we could in 31 days using “Single Session Model” training, and we hit a First Class Canines record:

In 31 days, we logged about 250 hours of hands-on, one-on-one dog training. We were able to help nearly 90 different families and their dogs in January!

That makes us feel pretty good, since helping families and dogs is what we’re all about. But you know what makes us feel even better? Helping dogs who don’t yet have a family to call their own. And between January 1st and February 29th, we helped get 37 homeless dogs trained and adopted. That’s pretty darn good, if you ask us! Lola Lu, below, is just one of those dogs, and she’s well on her way to becoming a Canine Good Citizen. Will and Lisa, her new people, have set a goal of teaching her 50 tricks in the coming year and would like for her to eventually become a therapy dog!

1 year old Lola Lu, rescued by Will & Lisa K. of Londonderry.

We had so much success with “Single Session Model” training, that we decided to offer it at a reduced price for February. And now, we’re half way through March, and we’ve helped an additional 40 families (and 56 dogs!) We’ve had such a huge positive response to training using “Single Session Model” training that we’ve decided to stop offering one-hour sessions except in cases where a single behavior problem (like jumping on guests), where longer sessions are usually unnecessary.

With all this said, we’d like to say a big, giant Thank You to our loyal, dedicated clients. It’s you – the ones with the wildly reactive dogs, the hyperactive dogs, the anxious dogs – with your Can-Do attitudes and an intense dedication to doing right by your dogs; that’s why we do what we do, and we love it!


Iams Recalls ProActive Dog Food

December 6, 2011

Proctor & Gamble, manufacturers of Iams pet foods, has voluntarily recalled certain bags of Iams ProActive Health Smart Puppy Food due to unacceptably high aflatoxin levels.

Aflatoxin is a group of compounds produced by Aspergillus fungus growing on improperly stored grains and nuts. Aspergillis is a known carcinogen and can cause liver damage. The FDA allows aflatoxins at “low levels” because they are considered “unavoidable,” and when exposure occurs occasionally and in minute amounts, the risk is “minimized.”

Please note that Aspergillus is found in nearly all commercial peanut butter, among other common foods, and although no species is immune to aflatoxins, humans have an incredibly high tolerance level to them, and levels in foods intended for human consumption are far lower than is accepted for pet foods.

The recalled bags include 5, 7, and 17.5 pounds bags of Iams ProActive Health Smart Puppy foods with expiration or use by dates of February 5 or February 6 of 2013. Bags were distributed in the North East, including Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, and New Hampshire, and all recalled bags should have been pulled off the shelves of retailers by the end of today.

Proctor & Gamble state that there have been no reported illnesses in relation to the food and that this is a precautionary measure, however, if pets who have eaten the food exhibit any of the following symptoms, they should see a veterinarian immediately.

  • Lethargy or sluggishness
  • Disinterest in eating
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Yellow tint to the eyes or gums

Proctor & Gamble recommend that, if you have a recalled bag of food, you stop feeding it immediately, throw it out, and contact Iams for a replacement voucher.


Five Ways to Stop Your Dog From JUMPING on People Fast!

November 28, 2011

Jumping on guests is one of the most common complaints I hear from dog owners (second only to pulling on the leash.) Jumping up on people, whether the door, the dinner table, or just about anywhere else, is a very common (and very frustrating) problem.

First, it needs to be stressed that dogs jump on people as a means of greeting them – they jump to get to our face, because face or mouth licking is an “appeasement gesture” made by one dog to another – and because it gets them attention. It has absolutely nothing to do with “dominance”, regardless of what some might say, and harsh corrections can easily change what is intended to be a friendly greeting (by the dog) into fearful or aggressive behavior.

That being said, here are five easy ways to stop your dog from jumping on people:

  1. Don’t react! Pushing the dog away and raising our voice is a natural response to having a dog jump on us, but it only makes matters worse by giving the dog attention for his behavior and adding anxiety and excitement to the situation. Your best bet is to just calm down – take a deep breath, turn your back, and wait for the dog to relax a bit, too.
  2. Ignore your dog’s jumping. I recommend this frequently, and so do most other trainers, but clients typically report that it “doesn’t work.” There’s a very good reason for it “not” working: most people don’t really ignore the behavior completely; instead, they make “exceptions” for certain people or specific situations, but all this does is make the behavior more persistent and difficult to get rid of.
  3. Teach a Rock Solid Sit! When trying to get rid of an annoying behavior, it’s extremely helpful to teach your dog something incompatible with that behavior. Your dog cannot jump while sitting, so make sure that sitting is your dog’s go-to behavior.
  4. Teach polite greeting behavior. For most dogs, staying seated while greeting someone is difficult, so if your dog has a hard time mastering that, try this one instead: teach your dog to touch the person’s hand. This gives your dog an opportunity to investigate and also gives your dog a “job” to do – something to focus on doing other than jumping!
  5. Manage, manage, manage. In the early stages of training, it is essential that you manage your dog’s behavior. Inform guests that they should ignore your dog’s jumping completely. Remember that every single time your dog jumps, she’s practicing bad behavior. If you think your dog or your guests may have difficulties, manage the situation by keeping her on a leash or (better yet) crating or otherwise confining her. You can either wait until your guests (and your dog) are settled to let her out (on a leash to prevent jumping), or you can keep her confined to prevent her from practicing all together!

Please keep in mind that you’ll probably need to use more than one of these techniques at a time, for example, you’ll probably need to manage your dog’s behavior and ignore jumping, or both ignore jumping and teaching your dog polite greetings.

Keep an eye out for more tips! Click here if you’re interested in personalized training!