Posts Tagged ‘positive reinforcement’

Good Dogs!

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Guess how much we learned about behavior and training in veterinary school?  The best explanation I have heard for what is taught in vet school is this:  “Four years is much too short to learn EVERYTHING.  Vet school is for learning how to THINK like a vet.”  So true.  Still…

The answer is…NOTHING!  Maybe these days, with all of the great behavior medication and knowledge on how mental and emotional health are linked to physical health, behavior is better covered in vet school.  Everything I know is from trial and error, reading and…you guys.  (Thank you so much!  I don’t need to be a genius, I just surround myself with them!)

So we have always had great dogs, but we have never had very well trained dogs.  Here is what I know for sure:

Positive reinforcement

(reinforcing the desired behavior, ignoring the undesired behavior)

is ALWAYS best.

And, um, that was going to be a list, but really, that is all I know.

The Doorbell Song

This week we have buckled down on the barking-at-the-door training.  When my wonderful Aunt asked me for help with her pup’s barking, I realized that I am a lame barking training resource.  Joy and Noodle are the worst door barkers there ever were.  So I told my Aunt what I knew (but have not practiced well!) and set out to train our barkers.

When the doorbell rings or people walk by or New Mailman delivers the mail (their three biggest barking triggers) I thank them for warning me after the first bark, ask them to come to me and sit  then give them a cat treat.  That is all I have done, and it has worked like a charm!

The real test will be SUMMER, when kids are in and out of the front door constantly.  I will let you know how well my novice training holds up!

Trainers, behaviorists, dog owners who are more successful in training than I, what have you done to teach your dogs not to bark incessantly?  And next up on the Finch dog training…teaching Joy and Noodle not to jump on friends when they come over!  I would love your suggestions!

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What I am Reading This Week: How to Win Friends and Influence People

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Next in the leadership series…

How to Win Friends and Influence People


Dale Carnegie

Since I am only reviewing leadership books of the Veterinary Economics suggested reading list to which I can give five stars, I think I will start each review the same way…I loved this book!  Five stars!

And I did.  How to Win Friends and Influence People was published in 1936 and I absolutely LOVE Dale Carnegie’s writing style.  He wrote as if he were wearing a top hat.  Unfortunately, I read a rereleased edition that Mrs. Carnegie published in 1981.  She updated some of the stories and language.  So every time I read a story in the first person that occurred after Mr. Carnegie passed away in 1955, I would do a double take – a sort of “I-just-saw-a-ghost” jump and yell.  The lessons in this book are invaluable and timeless.  I will buy it for sure if I can find an original edition.

Bunny Trails Several times, when Mr. Carnegie needed an especially pure or great example, he would turn to a story of a dog.  What struck me was his emphasis on the effectiveness of positive reinforcement training (which he did not word in that way of course, as it is a relatively new term, though not as new of a concept as I had assumed.)  When he wanted to emphasize how kind words are more effective than harsh words, he would remind the readers how much more quickly our pets learn when we train with kindness and rewards.  I began to think it would be very fun to trace the history of animal training.

Of course, as far back as the Old Testament, Balaam was reprimanded by an angel of God Himself for mistreating his poor donkey.  But I had until now assumed that “Positive Reinforcement Training” as a replacement for “Negative Reinforcement Training” had just tipped into favor in the last few decades.  Apparently wise, successful people knew all along that kindness and compassion are the best way to treat anyone, whether human or animal, and just did not have a nifty name for the concept yet.

Also, of course, I would like to read the other books Dale Carnegie has written.  He had an engaging writing style, and fun stories with solid morals.  And while he was a great man in his own right, he also seems to have been one or two degrees from every famous person of his time, which also makes for a fun read.

The Christmas Puppy

Monday, July 7th, 2008

It has been a very rough summer for me as far as losing pets I love (not my own, but those of friends and dear clients).   And this past week, as those of you in Omaha know, a wind and hail storm blew through and flattened much of Omaha, including trees, power lines, many of our neighbors’ homes and cars, much of my (and everyone else’s) gardens, and my brother’s incredible, professionally-built skateboard ramp.

In response to all of these discouraging things (during what is normally such a fun time of year), I have decided to retreat to my other favorite season, Christmas time, and post a Christmas Puppy newsletter to cheer us all up.  If furniture stores can celebrate Christmas in July, we should be able to also!  And puppies are much more exciting than couches!   So thank you for humoring me.   Now when I see my leafless tomato sticks in the backyard, I can look right past them and say, “Wow!  Green grass and sunny weather at Christmas time!  This is as fun as a new puppy!”

I used to say that no one should give pets as gifts.   My reasoning was kids (and adults) should not be surprised with the long-term responsibility of another living creature during a birthday or other holiday already filled with mayhem and celebration.   (Remember last year’s pony commercial?   The girl got a pony when she really wanted a phone like all of her friends!   Haha.   That was funny.)

My new saying is “If there is room at the Nativity for a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and a Golden Retriever, there is room under the Christmas tree for hamsters from Aunt Jodi.”   I now believe that if a family is ready for a new pet, how fun to get one during a time of celebration.

And the two weeks after this past Christmas were some of my very favorite “work” days ever.   I met the baby Golden Retriever (the new puppy of the family who inspired the newsletter, “My Dog, Ebony”), four baby guinea pigs, one baby chinchilla, and a baby gerbil.   You brought me two new kittens, two baby Yorkies, one baby Beagle, ten baby rats, and two baby hamsters from Aunt Jodi.

And I came home after that whirlwind of adorable babies to our own new gerbil baby, Princess, a Christmas gift to our oldest daughter.   As cute as our now one-year-old gerbil is, today I thought it would be fun to talk about puppies, and probably more helpful to you.   If you do need gerbil information, the main thing you need to know is if she escapes, grab quick.   Princess is an expert at escaping, but is so inquisitive that she comes right back to see what we are doing, and then we can grab her.   If you have a normal pet, a Christmas puppy, or any puppy for that matter, you are going to need an encouraging word, actually about a year’s worth of encouraging words.

Here is a start:   It gets steadily easier as they grow up.   I believe God starts puppies off as cute as He does to keep them alive.   If my theory is true, then it is probably also true that Golden Retrievers do not outgrow their puppy cuteness because they take so long to outgrow all of their puppy antics.   It is a survival tactic.   But don’t worry!   Even if your puppy is a Golden!   I will walk you through finding a pet, puppy-proofing, buying supplies, feeding, and training.   Then come see me with your new family member, and I will set you up for a very successful relationship.   Pets, as you know, are challenging, but well worth the investment.

Obtaining Your New Friend

If you are reading this, you probably have a cute fuzzy face already staring up at you and are wondering what to do next.   If, by chance, you have not yet adopted your puppy, I will give you my input.   Remember what Larry Burkett used to say when people would ask him for money advice on his radio show, “Opinions are usually worth what you pay for them.”   But he DID know finances, and I am no Larry Burkett, but I DO know puppies.

My favorite puppy sources are rescue groups and the Nebraska Humane Society, or your local humane society, if you do not live in Nebraska.   Honestly, The Nebraska Humane Society is worth the drive if you are having trouble finding the right pet to adopt in your hometown.   And yes, they do have puppies, purebreds even, if you are into that sort of thing.   I will just mention, mutts and older dogs are worth considering too, so unless you have your heart set on a particular breed and age, consider the rest of the dogs who also need loving homes.   Whether you get a pup or an adult, a purebred or a mixed breed, make sure you learn all you can about your breed or combination of breeds (as best you can guess), especially potential health issues, personality tendencies, and grown size.

My next favorite puppy sources after humane societies and rescue groups are high-quality, home-based, small-scale breeders.   Never, under any circumstances, buy a puppy from an organization that works with puppy mills, or that you suspect might work with puppy mills.   This includes many pet stores and all high-volume puppy sellers.   For the record, neither PETsMART nor Petco works with puppy mills–both organizations are among the Pet Savers, like you and me.   Breeding puppies and raising them and socializing them and looking after all of their medical needs and all of their parents’ medical needs is just not possible on a large scale.   If you are currently looking into the adorable face of a pet with such a background and thinking, “Oh no!  What have I done?  I may have inadvertently supported an evil puppy mill!”  do not return them there!  I know…you would never do that (that is why they gave you a “money-back guarantee”–no risk for them!), but don’t feel bad either.   Consider your pet rescued from such an awful place, and yourself all the wiser.


If you have ever baby-proofed, skip this part–that is essentially what we are talking about now.   If this is a new experience, or if it has been a while since you have puppy- or baby-proofed, I hope this will help.   To start, go through your house on your hands and knees.   No, really!   You need to have a puppy’s-eye-view.   Do you see any small toys?   Any electrical cords?   Get them up out of reach!   Lock up any medicine, cleaners, trash bins, and anything else that you do not want scattered or ingested.

Next, check all of your houseplants.   If you are a plant genius, bring me the scientific names of each plant, and I will help you determine if they are toxic.   If you are, like me, the opposite of a plant genius, pick up your mystery plants, congratulate yourself on keeping them alive for all this time, and put them all up on a high shelf, just in case they are poisonous.   Now you are ready to set up the house for a puppy.

Puppy Paraphernalia

Write out a list of everything your new puppy needs.   If you just walk into PetSmart without a plan, you will go broke and then have no financial resources to support your puppy long-term, because everything that store has is cute and looks to me like A Thing My Pet Needs.   So even today, with a houseful of pets whose novelty should have worn off long ago, I never go shopping at PETsMART without a list.   If I go without a well thought out plan, I come home with too much stuff…or a cat.

Here are some considerations for your list…a collar and leash, puppy food, two puppy bowls, and a kennel.   Get an enclosed kennel that is large enough to turn around in and stand up in, but not large enough to urinate in and then move to a dry area.   You will also need a tag with his or her name and address (if it is a puppy with a name already, not just a concept), training treats, and a few toys.   Too many toys at first will overwhelm your puppy, so take most of them out of your cart.   Put back the pig ears and real bones too.   They are not safe.

Puppy Feeding

Set out your new bowls, and fill one with water.   The other will be trickier, but not much.   What food is your puppy on now?   That is perfect for the first week!   Give him or her about one cup of food per ten pounds per day, in three feedings.   For example, if you have a ten-pound puppy, feed a level 1/3 cup scoop three times a day.   Weigh your puppy weekly or so, and adjust feedings as he or she grows.   At every stage of growth, you should be able to feel your pet’s ribs, but not see them, and if you look from above, you should see a well-defined waist.

If you would like to switch foods, wait one week while your puppy gets used to his or her new home.   After that first week, mix the old and new diets half and half for one week.   After this, it is safe to switch completely to the new diet.

Even though puppies will lose their baby teeth between four and six months of age, I prefer getting a puppy used to dry food, for dental health later in life–and dry food is easier for you.   However, canned or dry food can both be nutritionally sound.   Large breed dogs  (retriever and bigger) need large breed puppy food to aid them in slow, steady growth, which minimizes the risk of joint issues later in life.   All puppies need puppy food for the first year of life and dog food after that.   My favorite brand is Science Diet.   There are numerous good brands available though, so read the labels, talk with friends, and if all else fails, ask me, and I will help you.

My least favorite diet is the BARF (bones and raw food) diet, but even that I would be willing to walk you through, and we can come up with a safe and healthy dietary plan for your little wolf pup.

Potty Training

There are several ways to potty-train a dog, and as an owner of a leaky Poodle, take my advice with a grain of salt.  However, I believe the most humane, reliable way to train a dog is with a kennel and ALL positive reinforcement.   Never, never, never (never) hit your pet.   Do not tap his nose.   Do not spank his butt.   Do not swing a newspaper at him or put his nose in anything gross.   Please do not yell at or otherwise scare him either.   All of these things are mean and will not work.   And they are so 1970’s.

Back to your pup, who is lovingly and properly cared for from the beginning.   Your kennel will be your greatest training aid.   Dogs will try not to soil their sleeping area.   Remember though that puppies do not yet have perfect bladder control.   In fact, some toy breeds, most notably Yorkshire Terriers, start out with anatomy similar to the dolls you can feed a bottle and they instantly pee.   But don’t worry!   Unlike the dolls, Yorkies, and all puppies, grow up and are able to pee within socially acceptable boundaries!   We just need to help them get there.   Besides having poor bladder control, puppies also do not automatically know that if they potty, their beds underneath them will be wet.   So a small kennel is the beginning, not the entirety, of potty training.

Have the door of the kennel open when you are home and chewies and toys in it so he will know it is a den and not a jail.   When you cannot be with your puppy, and during the night, have him in the kennel with no blankets or treats and with the door closed.   Many people balk at having their puppy locked up, but most dogs like having a safe place they can think of as their own.   When they are trained, you can choose not to use a kennel anymore, and have them sleep on a dog bed or with you.

An eight-week-old puppy needs to go outside to urinate an average of every two hours, including overnight.   He or she will need to defecate about one half hour after each meal.   (Food does not go through their system that quickly, but having food in their stomach stimulates a defecation reflex.)   The time between bathroom breaks will steadily increase as they get older, gain more bladder control and a larger bladder capacity, and mentally connect the need to go potty with the actual act.   Puppies are usually fully potty trained between six and twelve months of age.   What all of that means is that you are in for a LOT of work!

When he or she is out of the kennel, have him or her on a slack leash or within sight all of the time at the beginning.   Take your puppy out every few hours, after meals, and when he or she seems to need to go.   Even if you are perfectly vigilant and take your puppy outside like clockwork, I guarantee that there will still be accidents.

Like most things I tell you (as you know if I have ever said to you “Give your cat this medicine twice a day for a week”), this is very simple for me to say and very difficult for you to do in Real Life:   Ignore EVERY potty mistake your puppy makes.   Act like you could not care less if he ruins your carpet (again).   If he is caught in the act, pick him up (watch your shoes), and take him outside.   If he finishes outside, praise him.   If not, do NOTHING until the next potty event.   If you find a puddle inside (or worse), clean it up without discussing it with your pet.   When he does potty outside, cheer like he just won an Olympic swim event.   EVERY TIME.   You will feel silly and your neighbors will roll their eyes, but next year at this time, THEY will be cleaning up their carpet, and you and your dog will be outside laughing at them.

Those are the essentials of training:   Reward the good behavior, and ignore the unwanted behavior.   I guarantee that with an impressionable baby dog, whose goal in life is to please you, this will ALWAYS work.   This will even work with an older dog, or a dog who is not as eager to please, and (I mean it) with cats and pocket pets.   Positive reinforcement is always the shortest distance between untrained and trained.   I keep saying it, because on your twentieth “Super Dog” trip outside while he is peeing (watch your shoes), it will not feel like a short distance between untrained and trained.   But I promise you your hard work and patience will pay off.

More on Positive Reinforcement

You know from previous newsletters how twitchy I am about negative reinforcement.   In Real Life, most dogs and cats can handle a bit of negative reinforcement every once in a while.   Some, including my own Noodle the Poodle, cannot.   I have yelled before when I have found pee in the house, and Noodle cowers like he is about to be smacked.   So then I cry, and sit down with him (next to, not in, the puddle of Poodle piddle), and try to undo what I have just done.   But it is best not done in the first place.

So I am not saying that you need to raise your pet perfectly.   I am saying, lean toward positive reinforcement as much as possible.   Use treats and praise to reinforce good behavior.   Ignore unwanted behavior.   It is kinder, will strengthen your bond, and has been proven time and time again to produce stronger, longer lasting results.   You will see the most dramatic example of this with potty training, but it also works with learning manners, learning tricks, and even overcoming destructive behaviors and phobias.

What’s Next

After your puppy is home and settled, bring him or her in for a new pet check-up.   You will learn if your new pet has any abnormalities that need to be dealt with, or more likely, gain the peace of mind that your pet is perfectly healthy.   And once again, bring a list!   Not of dog supplies this time, but of puppy questions for the veterinary team.   We will get you started on preventative care (wellness exams, vaccines, deworming, and all of that), help you learn about your breed, coach you on puppy training, help you find a puppy class trainer, help you find a great groomer if need be, put together a diet plan, outline a life-long health plan, and if you want us to (this is probably our favorite), help you brainstorm a fitting name for your new pet.

So congratulations.   And good luck.   Call me if you need help, or just an encouraging word.   If you are still deciding on adopting a pet, I have two thoughts.   The first is, in an ideal world, probably the best time to get a new puppy is during the summer, when it is as far as possible from the craziness of the holidays, and when the whole family probably has more time to invest in training and socializing.   And the second thought, and this is huge, as you know if you have ever stood in a snowstorm while your adorable puppy stands knee-deep in snow, wondering why in the world you wanted to stand outside with him, potty training a new puppy when you are pretending it is Christmas in July is MUCH easier than potty training a puppy when normal people celebrate Christmas.

The Pet Savers

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

The Pet Savers

“The only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”-Edmund Burke

Did you know that you have a secret identity that is so secret, even you may not know about it??  You are the Pet Savers. I am officially commissioning you to go out into Omaha and beyond, to do what you are most likely already doing:  keeping an eye out for pets who are being neglected or abused.   If this newsletter ignites or renews your outrage, my goal will be reached.  This is a horrible topic, but I do not have many horrible stories for you.  There are a few, but they are meant only to motivate you and equip you for what needs to be done.

My first horrible story is one you may remember.  It is the March 1997 account of the Iowa feline rescue group, Noah’s Ark.  Two drunken guys with baseball bats broke into their shelter.   Seventeen of the cats were beaten to death.   I was attending Iowa State University as a veterinary student at the time.   The cats who were beaten but survived were brought to us for emergency treatment.   Every cat who made it to ISU lived and did well, and we, as a group of students and teachers, adopted all of them.   I knew then that I would never be passive about animal mistreatment, nor fail to tell others how they could help.

Included in your mission as Animal Savers, I believe, is taking down puppy mills and dog fighting rings and punk kids who beat cats to death and get misdemeanors because no one can figure out the monetary value of a stray cat.  (Can you find the five things wrong with that sentence??)  But that aspect of your mission is a newsletter for another day.   Just as important as defeating the headline-making villains, is quietly protecting pets one at a time in your everyday life.   I want to help you speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.

Fortunately, you, the Pet Savers, have some other pretty powerful super heroes on your side.   Right here in Omaha, we have the best animal shelter in the country, the Nebraska Humane Society.  We also have a very impressive population of animal rescue groups, veterinary hospitals, pet-related businesses and individual animal lovers, all of whom are working together to look out for pets.   While such groups exist throughout the country, we have no shortage of such wonderful groups right here in Omaha… I will be telling you more about these in future newsletters.

Fortunately, as a veterinarian, I have seen very few active abuse and neglect cases.  The reason I have not is that you are my clients.   You are the owners who bring your pets to me for treatment and preventative care.  Abusers and neglecters do not.   They do not tend to seek veterinary medical care at all, which is part of the reason you are so desperately needed.  You will see these pets in the “real world.”

Though I have seen few abuse and neglect cases in my practice, I do know they are out there.   One of our best clients owns an adorable little three-legged dog.   She was abandoned after being beaten so badly that our medical team was unable to save one of her back legs.   Her leg was amputated, and she was adopted by the most loving family we knew.   Now she is in a multi-dog household, always has her (12) nails painted, shows up at every dog event in Omaha, and is living the life she should have had from puppyhood.

Amy Schultz, spoiled rotten, as she should be!  Summer 2006

As a puppy, our own family pet, Noodle the Poodle, was abused. He was let out only once a day to potty and was dropkicked if he had an accident indoors.   We learned his history in bits and pieces after we adopted him when he was five years old.   We changed his name to Noodle, partially so he could make a clean break from his past, and partially because I love words that rhyme with “Poodle.”

It took about two years to help Noodle work through his fear of men.   Most dogs with his history would not recover to the point of being able to be near men, much less trust them.   He loves my Dad, my Father-in-Law and my brothers, and has bonded closely with my husband Russ.  He is calm and friendly with children, also unusual for canine abuse survivors.  He still flinches when I forget and try to pat his head from above.   Remember that dogs who have been beaten over the head prefer to be approached slowly and to have their chin or side of their face scratched first.  With all the great dog stuff I have learned over the years, that is one tidbit I really wish that I had never needed to learn.   We still get frustrated at the occasional puddles of Poodle piddle (fun to say for the first one hundred times, then the novelty wears off), but Noodle has come a remarkably long way for having had such a difficult past.

Noodle the Poodle, Cool, Calm and Collected, Summer 2009

Before I moved from Littleton, Colorado to Omaha, my boss in Littleton treated a twelve-week-old Golden Retriever puppy for diarrhea (stress colitis, it turns out).  He received a fax a few days later sent out from an emergency clinic to every veterinary hospital in town, trying to find any other vet who had seen that puppy.  My boss called the doctor at the emergency hospital.   It turns out this family had had two Golden Retriever puppies die of injuries recently, and this one had just been treated at the emergency hospital for broken ribs.   The emergency doctor was trying to keep tabs on this pup so that she could be saved.   The family came in twice more for stress colitis medication, but denied anything was going on at home.  I called the police. (Remember with abuse cases, be careful and be safe, but do not be polite, and do not mind your own business!)   The police told me that they could not arrest the owners without more than circumstantial evidence.   So I called all three local news stations.   And they called the owners.   They denied hurting any of the three pups, so there was not a news story to tell.   So Russ and I drove to their house.   (Do not do this. We shouldn’t have.)  And we sat outside their fancy iron-gated backyard in our car for hours on end, waiting for the puppy to come out.   But while we were there, she never came outside.  Shortly thereafter, we moved home to Nebraska.

I was an emotional wreck.   At a meeting in Omaha just after we moved here, one of my favorite speakers made a joke about kicking a dog (which, in context, was funny only because he is the last person in the world who ever would).   I started sobbing in the middle of this group of strangers, and, because I couldn’t pull myself together, Russ and I had to leave.   The speaker called the next day and said, “Was that you?! They said someone left crying.  You know I wouldn’t hurt a dog!   I am so sorry I even said that!”

I failed to save that baby Golden, but I know at least four very, very good veterinarians and three news stations were watching that family very closely.   So I hope she has been moved into a loving home and that she is chasing balls and starting to go gray around her muzzle like middle-aged Golden Retrievers do.  I hope at the very least that she is free from her original owners.

One last story… one of my nurses in Littleton had this unfathomable affinity for Chow-Chows.   Her Chows were all friendly, but I couldn’t figure out how she fell in love with the breed in the first place.   Then she told me about Homer.  Homer is her gorgeous 80-pound golden-blond Chow.   Years earlier, her husband noticed that a tiny yellow warm fuzzy was chained in a backyard with no food or water.  He drove his motorcycle past the yard for several days, but never saw the puppy off his chain or with something to eat.   Finally, afraid he would die, he unhooked the chain, put him under his motorcycle jacket and drove home.  This neglected puppy grew to twenty times his original size and is now a huge, beautiful, well-loved family pet.

That was a crime of passion.  You do not need to go to such extremes. You can call the Nebraska Humane Society if you see a pet in need.   They work with the Omaha police, and they will finish saving the pets you started saving with your original phone call.

And they will respond to your phone calls.   This past summer, Russ had to call the Nebraska Humane Society on two separate occasions to rescue hot dogs.   (No, not hotdogs…pets…you know…in cars with the windows rolled up in the summertime.)   The police were there both times almost before Russ was off the phone.

So please, please keep doing what you are probably already doing.   Stay alert to conditions you know are not healthy for pets.   We will continue this theme in future newsletters, because there is much to be done and much to learn.  As I mentioned, we have wonderful resources in our community.   But the Humane Society, the Omaha Police, the rescue programs and the veterinary teams cannot do it all.   We need you to remain vigilant… to talk to your friends about pet abuse and neglect…to care enough to not let abusers prosper.

If we all keep looking out for pets who need us, we can get them help while they still have four legs, and their God-given sweet temperaments, and before they start with the puddles of Poodle piddle.   (OK, I admit, it is still fun to say.)   I am, thankfully, out of stories, and, thankfully, have a very cute Poodle jumping at the back door waiting to be let back inside.  He is having a good day.