Throw Open the Jailhouse Doors: When and why to choose training over management

Throw Open the Jailhouse Doors: When and why to choose training over management

As dog trainers, we love management—that is, arranging the dog’s environment to prevent mess-ups.  It’s a godsend for a bunch of pesky behaviour issues. We use baby gates, dog-proof rooms, curtains, and crates to provide relief to our clients (and often, their dogs). Management can also protect shy or fearful dogs from experiences that they are not ready for, either as a permanent solution or temporarily during training.
 
But long-term management, no matter how alluring or easy it seems, nor how ‘humane’ it feels, is not always the answer.
 
In cases where a management-only solution impacts a dog’s quality of life, and where well-vetted, humane, and aversives-free behaviour modification options exist, we have a double duty as dog trainers. First, we must disclose to our clients that a training option exists, and that the training option will protect or even increase their dog’s quality of life. Second, if our clients then wish to train, we must be proficient at the techniques needed and offer them, or refer on to practitioners who are. Enrichment—an increasingly hot topic in both dog training circles and animal welfare more broadly—matters to us, our clients, and their dogs.
 

Example: Play issues

Dogs are, in general, social creatures who enjoy the company of other dogs. Play (or simple companionship) with the conspecifics of their own choosing is profoundly enriching and important. Trainers dealt a steady diet of dogs who are fearful and aggressive towards other dogs sometimes forget how deep the pool is of socially normal dogs. But salience, of course, does not mean prevalence.
 
Many dogs who enjoy play also, and separately, have play-related behaviour issues. They might target and bully some dogs, or their play might frequently tip over into squabbles. Dog trainers skilled at using a well-planned combination of positive reinforcement on the one hand, and reducing problem behaviours through removal from play on the other, can generally resolve these cases over a number of weeks. In other words, the dogs stop bullying and scrapping, but get to keep playing. Although using a differential reinforcement protocol (for example, recalls out of play) may work for some of these cases, for many dogs the problem behaviour itself seems to be exceptionally self-reinforcing, and simply re-directing the dog fails to produce the desired outcomes.
 
Removal from play is a time-out—in other words, “negative punishment”. This label sounds distasteful but simply means making a good thing disappear. We have to leave the play session at some point anyways, so having “play ends” contingent on problem behaviour simply harnesses this pain-free, fear-free learning opportunity for the benefit of the dog. The dog learns that bullying results in loss of play opportunities, and they modify their behaviour accordingly. And like all aversives-free training, using removal from play as a consequence can even be considered enriching. We can compare this protocol to the puzzle toys that we are so quick to recommend to our clients. A dog might try pawing, but finds that doesn’t work to open a compartment. They might then try chewing, but that doesn’t work either. Finally, they try moving a lever with their nose, and out comes the food. The dog learns to get more of what they like from doing one behaviour (just as the dog learns that acceptable play gets them more play), and to avoid doing another behaviour because it clearly terminates what they want (similarly, bullying means play will end).
 
The management-only solution for play issues (“no more dog park” or even “no more play”) radically decreases these dogs’ quality of life. These dogs enjoy play, and benefit tremendously from the opportunity to interact with other dogs. The very fact that these dogs will change their behaviour to avoid the consequence of removal from play is proof positive that they like play, and that they aren’t secretly trying to communicate a negative state like “over-stressed”. If they were over-stressed we could expect that bullying would increase with a time-out protocol, because the dog would be in a hurry to get away from the dog park and would learn that bullying brings relief. (And luckily for dogs, savvy trainers can usually pick up when a dog is stressed through their body language.)
 
A management-only solution may also cause new behaviour problems like barrier frustration (“reactivity”) on leash, due to deprivation. So if the play issue is left unaddressed, a social, enriched dog with a fixable problem can easily become a bored, destructive dog without playmates and without leash walks. We have all seen these dogs and felt for both the dogs and their owners too, who are very much at the end of their ropes. This is not an academic or theoretical outcome.
 
And it leads us to another, more serious, point. Dog owners may also find a management-only solution simply doesn’t meet their needs. They may themselves recognize the value of joyful dog play. If we do not offer them humane alternatives, they may (quite reasonably in their eyes) knock on the door of the local force trainer, who will certainly modify the dog’s behaviour. This trainer may do so with painful corrections and ‘negative reinforcement’, though, and will likely not disclose the well-documented side effects of training this way. Negative reinforcement may sound similar to negative punishment, but it is a whole world apart. It refers to making use of the relief an animal feels when something painful or scary ends. In dog training this typically means something truly awful like a long-duration electric shock.
 
There is a suite of behaviour problems that can seemingly be solved through management, but at great cost to the dog’s quality of life: play issues, aggressive guarding of chew items, and jumpy and mouthy dogs, to name a few. These solutions, which needlessly deny dogs things they enjoy due solely to practitioner preference, must eventually be taken off the table as an acceptable practice for dog trainers. We simply care too much about dogs’ quality of life to continue to prescribe needless emotional warehousing.
 

If you are ready to take your training to the next level and offer your clients a full complement of services, please consider applying to the Academy for Dog Trainers.

 

Cover photo iStock.com/mimadeo

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Spite or Confusion?

Conversations between dogs ...

 

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Ouch! Acquired Bite Inhibition and Puppies

Ouch! Acquired Bite Inhibition and Puppies

Dogs have extremely strong jaws and powerful bites. Even the smallest of dogs can deliver an injurious bite as an adult, and big dogs can inflict even greater damage. Despite this physical ability, most dog bites do not result in terrible injury. In fact, many leave only a small scratch or a few bruises.

Like wolves, with whom dogs share a recent ancestor, dogs use their jaws to both hunt for prey and settle social disputes. Because their jaws are dual-purpose, it is vitally important that dogs and wolves do not use the full (prey-killing) force of their bite during social interactions such as play and fighting. Instead, they use what ethologists call “ritualized aggression”. Ritualized aggression includes threats, body postures and inhibited bites.

Large predators... which live permanently in a society as wolves or lions do, must possess reliable and permanently effective inhibition mechanisms. These must be sufficiently self-reliant to be independent of the changing moods of the individual.

Lorenz, Konrad. On aggression. Psychology Press, 2002 (1966), p125.

Acquired bite inhibition (ABI) refers to the ability of a dog to bite with inhibited force. Dog trainers care deeply about a dog’s ABI because it has important prognostic implications. A dog who bites a neighborhood kid with an inhibited bite is the subject of a very different conversation than a dog who bites the neighborhood kid with maiming force. In the first case, the dog will likely undergo a standard behavior modification program. In the much rarer second case, the dog may well end up euthanized, depending on the severity of the bite and other factors. Luckily, most dogs have good—or at least good enough—ABI. However, dog trainers and veterinarians do occasionally get a call about a dog with poor ABI, and it is always heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, research on acquired bite inhibition is scant. Like all behavior, it seems reasonable to assume it has genetic and environmental determinants and influences. Many experts and practitioners believe that dogs learn, or refine, their ABI through play biting as puppies.

Puppies play by tumbling around and biting one another. Suddenly one of them gets a grip on another's ear. It bites hard and the poor brother or sister howls in pain. The other puppy succeeds in getting its teeth in the tender skin of its sibling's belly. Much whining and yelling follow. They stand still for a short while, then let go.

Next time they act slightly differently. One will grasp the other's ear only until the puppy begins making noise. It will react to the sibling's vocal distress, which works as a mechanism to inhibit or control aggressive behaviour. Previous experiences showed the puppy it is better to let go at the first signs of vocal distress, or its belly will hurt. This is learning by trial and error.

Abrantes, Roger. Dog Language. Dogwise Publishing, 1997, p23.

Many dog trainers offer puppy classes where puppies are allowed to play freely...with caveats. The most important caveat is that all canine parties consent. Playing puppies are regularly separated to allow them to re-enter play, or not, at their will. Puppies exhibiting inappropriate play are punished by their play-mates if their infractions are minor. If they are more serious, thoughtful practitioners will institute time-outs. Much of the time, trainers see inappropriate, scrappy puppies trend to become socially normal. This allows these reformed scrappers to continue to play as puppies, which in turn allows them to refine their ABI. (And this is completely aside from the potentially enormous benefits of the puppy being able to engage in dog play with the playmates of their own choosing, an activity that is so pleasurable, enriching, and basic to a social species that it is sometimes used as a shorthand welfare indicator.)

Many dog trainers also coach their puppy class students to allow their puppies to mouth them. At first, all mouthing is allowed, except for the very hardest of bites. As the puppy ages, progressively softer bites earn the puppy a time-out. This protocol allows puppies to gradually lessen the force of their bite through information feedback—and indeed, a gradual reduction of bite pressure is what puppy class instructors see, in thousands upon thousands of puppies. This protocol and its heavy helping of information feedback to the puppy is believed to have superior ABI-refining benefits over other protocols: those where every bite is punished from the get-go; those where every bite is redirected without consequence; or those where non-biting behavior is instead constantly reinforced. It does appear that once puppies are past the socialization window, ABI is not modifiable, based on the lack of any known successful attempt to modify ABI in adult dogs.

Although there is not a body of research about how ABI is gained or refined, several case studies of socialization-age puppies with known poor ABI being turned around with a time-out protocol are both compelling and typical.

The first case study is presented by Academy for Dog Trainers graduate Kristy Francis. Francis teaches Early Puppy Socialization classes at VCA Animal Wellness Center of Maple Grove in Minnesota.

“Maui was an 8 week-old female mixed breed (possibly Labrador retriever cross), who was found as a stray and brought to a shelter. Her poor ABI was discovered during her intake at the rescue organization. She bit 3 littermates and 3 volunteers, resulting in a puncture wound to a littermate and bloody scratches on the other 2 puppies and the volunteers. In the first few days of fostering her, she bit the palm of my hand hard enough to leave a 1 inch cut that was as deep as half of her tooth.

I used three training protocols on Maui. Everyone who had contact with her was instructed to follow these protocols. Firstly, I yelped and briefly moved away from her to end play when she delivered a hard play bite. In this case, the yelping and ending of play did not result in softer bites. On day two, I decided to increase the magnitude of the time-outs. The revised protocol was to place Maui in an automatic timeout for any hard bites. When she bit hard, a cue was issued and she was placed in timeout for 30 seconds to 1 minute. This did help improve the hard biting. It reduced the number of incidents and some gentle play biting began. I allowed, and even encouraged, the gentle biting. When she was 10 weeks old, she was still occasionally play biting too hard, and I changed the protocol once again. The magnitude of her timeouts increased, and she was placed in timeout for 30 minutes for any hard bites.

At the age of eight weeks, she was introduced to playful adult dogs that are known to be gentle with puppies. These dogs informed her when the biting was too hard in a gentle, non-scary manner. She was not introduced to other puppies until she was 4 months old, and even then, only to older puppies between the ages of 4 months and 6 months.

When she was 5 months old, she had a normal scuffle with a 6-month-old playmate. The play had become too rough and a fight broke out. I broke up the fight and examined the other dog and found zero injuries—in other words, she had a real-life test of her refined ABI, and it had changed from injurious to non-injurious.

Maui was adopted when she was 13 weeks old and was no longer play biting hard. She is currently one year old. She has since been introduced to puppies as young as 8 weeks. She has a very gentle play bite and has never made a puppy yelp due to her biting.”

 

The second case study is presented by Academy for Dog Trainers graduate Lisa Skavienski. Skavienski co-owns Dog Educated in Rochester, New York.

“A local farmer surrendered a litter of nine 6-week-old mixed breed puppies to a rescue after their mother died. These were timid little pups, exposed to very little prior to surrender, so they went to a seasoned puppy foster. She reached out to me shortly after their arrival, concerned about how hard they were mouthing. All were issuing painful bites, with three of them, in particular, drawing blood in every instance.

Recognizing that the socialization window would be starting to close in the next few weeks, I decided to address both the fearfulness and poor ABI immediately using our trained volunteers. A plea went out to the volunteers that evening, and an interactive schedule was made to ensure a steady flow of visitors on continuous rotation through the foster’s home. That’s the great thing about a rescue full of volunteers—strangers are a precious resource in cases like this, and this is the fun part for volunteers. People arrived in shifts, were greeted at the door with a container of freshly boiled chicken, and the puppies were treated to an abundant helping of gentle body handling paired with generous portions of chicken and ‘happy talk’ for the next four days.

All volunteers were given the ABI protocol ahead of time, and the foster coached them to use time-outs for all hard bites to humans (puppy bites hard—“too bad!”—placed in pen for 1 minute—let out of pen to try again). This protocol successfully modified all the puppies’ ABI, although it did take a few days and a large number of volunteers. We had roughly a dozen new people a day pitching in. By the third day, all puppies were mouthing softly and all were decidedly pro-social to strangers, wiggling and snuggling up to every new person who entered. Their ABI progress allowed us to bring in kids of different ages to extend their socialization even more. Once we had reached this point, we scaled it back a bit to a couple of people once a day with bigger socials on weekends; however, that intensive effort over those first few days was considered imperative.

The puppies progressed normally, and all were adopted into wonderful homes, some of them multi-dog homes. All exhibit normal, non-injurious play with their new siblings. One is a therapy dog who visits patients at a nursing home every week.”

Adult dogs who bite with maiming force are a danger to the public, their owners, and themselves, as society has very low tolerance of such dogs. For this reason, the Academy for Dog Trainers endorses puppy programs which include exercises to carefully train puppies to have good ABI when they are adult dogs even in the absence of good research. There are two reasons for this.

  1. Can’t hurt.

It may be that our ABI protocols are simply for naught. However, the two types of exercises in use to refine ABI—allowing a social species to have normal, appropriate play access to conspecifics as young animals, and using well-established, aversives-free, and humane protocols to gradually, rather than suddenly, decrease mouthing—are not problematic, so the drawbacks are minor: time wasted, and arms mouthed.

  1. Might help.

Some trainers recommend avoiding attempts to refine ABI or even avoiding structured puppy interactions altogether. However, it is a fallacy to claim that there are no risks to these approaches. Anything we can do to improve ABI may, without exaggeration, save life and limb. The likely case is that these exercises do function as we intend, as is suggested by the case studies above and many others. Practitioners who choose to prevent puppies from having an opportunity to improve ABI are proselytizing from a dangerous soapbox indeed.

 

Photos: Cover photo iStock.com/blanscape. Top three credit K. Francis. Lower two credit L. Skavienski.

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"Action!"

The Academy for Dog Trainers' video coaching process

Recently, a prospective Academy for Dog Trainers applicant asked “aren’t there in-person workshops? How will we learn to train dogs?” This was an excellent question about our online-only program, of course: dog training is a physical skill, like throwing a three-point basket, completing a tricky figure skating move, or baking a soufflé. Competent dog trainers must learn a suite of important skills, from luring to fading; paying to prompting; adding cues to adding distractions.

So it was a good question. But the answer might come as a bit of a surprise: the Academy has found that in-person sessions are simply not the best way to teach trainers to train.

With an eye to efficiency, the Academy has created, and refined, a video-coaching process that has consistently turned out graduates with excellent technique (“mechanics”, in trainer lingo). Students submit videos of themselves training a series of behaviours as assignments. For example, the program includes training some basic obedience behaviours to verbal stimulus control and a free-shaped retrieve, among others. Each time a student submits video, the Academy’s coaches review it and provide feedback. We look for and reinforce the proper execution of key mechanical skills (or approximations of key skills, in early assignments). Feedback is provided quickly and on a standardized form, which is a springboard for the student’s next submission. Each assignment was carefully selected to hone certain training skills and styles, and it generally takes a few repeat submissions of video to bring a student’s performance to Academy standards for any one assignment.

Video coaching allows the Academy’s coaches to assess a student’s mechanics thoroughly. Videos can be viewed by the coaches at slower speeds or multiple times, and can be compared against earlier submissions to gauge progress. Videos can be submitted for coaching without the expense of travel, and with dogs that are not otherwise suitable for workshops–a student’s own dog, dogs in the shelters they work for, or fosters. When our students graduate, their clients’ dogs will not always be social and low-key like those dogs most suitable for in-person workshops, so this trial-by-fire approach actually ends up being a boon.

I found the video coaching process tremendously beneficial, and you are not expected to submit video of professional quality:  no one minded my sending in tape wearing full early morning PJ and slippers attire. (Me, not my dog.)  The instructional feedback from instructors is very specific and targets exactly the areas requiring improvement, but always in a positively constructive and helpful tone.  And what you are doing well is always emphasized and highlighted, so even if there is an area in which you are struggling, you feel good about the feedback.
- Thea R., Academy student

Students are offered the golden opportunity to submit video as often as they need to become proficient trainers–coaching is included in the price of admission to the program. Our students are encouraged to use video to assess their own skills in a structured way as well, which helps to build the coaching skills they’ll need later with clients and in classes. And the Academy’s coaches model the teaching style we hope our graduates emulate: warm, thoughtful, generous, specific, and purposeful encouragement. In Academy lingo, we “scan and reinforce”. To the surprise of nary a dog trainer, reinforcement works to change behaviour.

I was nervous about submitting my first video–everyone seems to be. But it got much easier after that one and the feedback I received was invaluable. Getting clear, specific, kind, constructive reviews of videos I submitted was incredibly helpful, and knowing I can send in as many versions as necessary to get it right takes off some of the pressure.
-Tim S., Academy student

In fact, the Academy would encourage all trainers to do regular self-assessments by video. Take a keen eye to your performance: do you have a “quiet body”? Are you keeping track of your dog’s performance? Are your luring motions, and later hand signals, consistent between reps and sets? Is your rate of reinforcement between 8-12/minute for untrained dogs? If you’re using secondary reinforcement, is the reinforcement overshadowed or blocked by moving or another ‘tell’? To make the most of your practice time, take a page from the Academy’s playbook: record your performance, track your improvements, and of course, reinforce!

When the Academy first moved to being offered solely online, video coaching was seen as a necessary evil. After more than half a decade of producing consistently proficient trainers, though, the writing's on the wall: well-designed video coaching works, and it works really, really well.  

The video coaching has improved my technique a thousand fold!
-Sarah M., Academy student

I love being able to train at my own pace instead of needing to be at a specific time and place with a dog who might or might not be ready to work. I can work with any dog in any location and at any time while recording the session for feedback about what's working and where I should practice a bit more. 
-Tim S., Academy student

 

Header image: iStock by Getty Images Credit: walik

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The Importance of Enrichment

The Importance of Enrichment

As dog trainers, clients call us in to solve problems both big and small. Often, we need to triage, managing some behavior problems until we work through others of greater importance. We often suggest adding enrichment to a dog’s routine right off the bat, for good reason.

While enrichment can definitely help manage behavior problems, that’s not always the primary reason I suggest it. Enrichment is my favorite go-to because it allows dogs to be dogs and can help people see their dogs engaging in species-appropriate behaviors in a more positive light. (“Oh! She really does love to chew! She carries her new Nylabone everywhere with her! I thought she just really loved my shoes!”).

Let’s visualize dog trainers’ three main strategies as buckets:

Training—skilled trainers do everything from building basic behaviors to modifying behavior problems to changing emotional responses in fear and aggression cases.

Management—sometimes management allows us to prioritize (see triage, above), sometimes it's a behavior modification adjunct to protect progress, and sometimes it’s the whole solution.

Enrichment—providing legal and fun outlets for normal dog behaviors is crucial to the dog’s welfare.

For me, enrichment not only has its own bucket but it also helps fill the other two with good stuff.

Enrichment is an item in the training bucket because it provides mental and physical stimulation to dogs. Force-free training, in which behaviors are taught according to what the dog can do now, in incremental steps, can be especially enriching for dogs because the lack of coercion makes the dog a happy, willing participant.

Enrichment goes into the management bucket because through the use of puzzle toys, flirt poles, fetch games, etc., we can offset the boredom that leads to behavior problems. Which dog is more likely to bark at people and dogs walking past the window, the one who looks outside all day while lying on the couch or the one who is too busy kicking around a Snoop to care?

And enrichment has its own bucket because all dogs need something to do. When I worked at Women’s Humane Society, one of my favorite things was hanging out with an adoptable dog in my office. Because we couldn’t have dogs jumping on staff members, barking out windows or stealing papers from desks, I provided a wide variety of enrichment items. These included Nylabone-type chews, plush toys and work-to-eat toys.

                                    

It was always interesting to see what dogs chose, because dogs do have preferences. Knowing those preferences made it easier to keep dogs engaged and out of trouble. Some dogs seemed to enjoy dissecting stuffies more than they enjoyed bones or food toys. Some dogs got bored easily, so variety proved to be the spice of life. Enrichment also saved a great number of dogs from being banned from the office area, which allowed for some true rest.  Once a dog spends all of his energy playing, they're  not a nuisance in the office.  Rest is as important to shelter dogs as anything else.

I am often struck by how amazed people are at the effects of enrichment on a dog’s behavior. A demand-barking Aussie once spent an entire consult kicking around a Buster Cube instead of barking at us, which her owner was certain she would do. I showed up with a few work-to-eat toys, we auditioned them, and the Buster Cube was the big winner. We gave a pushy, fight-instigator French Bulldog a puzzle toy for meals (in a separate room), to pre-empt scuffles during mealtime. This gave her housemates a chance to eat in peace, and gave her the chance to get some mental stimulation and be less worried about what everyone else was doing and how much of their meals she could steal. A scent-obsessed Beagle (shocking, I know) with a tendency to wander was taught an out-of-sight sit-stay while her owner hid kibble throughout the house, so meals now give her the opportunity to use her high-powered nose. A seemingly spring-loaded hound mix was taught to enjoy a flirt pole, with rules for taking and dropping the toy on cue, to build impulse control, and now he can jump legally. A bright and busy pit bull went through all levels of manners training, earned his CGC, and delights his owner and her friends with what he learned in tricks class. The list goes on and on.

Enrichment changes lives for the better and that applies to humans as well as dogs. Many dog owners don’t realize that many of the things they see as behavior problems are actually normal behaviors which can be given permissible outlets. Part of our jobs as dog trainers is to normalize behavior. Enrichment gives us the perfect opportunity to do this and improve a dog’s quality of life. As far as I am concerned, that is no small accomplishment.

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iSpeak Dog Week

Dog body language is important.  Dog body language illiteracy is partly why his well-meaning fans haven't driven Cesar Millan off television.  It's why countless dogs' suffering is ignored or re-branded as power plays or manipulation.  It's why good people laugh at "guilty dog" memes rather than expressing outrage that a terrified animal is passing for entertainment.  It's why people aren't sure whether their dogs' play is safe or not.  It's why people miss warning signs and are bitten.  And on.  And on.  

iSpeakDog is the brainchild of Academy student and writer Tracy Krulik.  Its aim is to up our body language literacy.  This week is iSpeakDog Week and The Academy is thrilled to be partnering with Tracy to help to spread the word about accurately interpreting dog body language.    

There's a ton of content in the site, including this nifty image generator.    

 

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Dog training and decision fatigue

Dog training and decision fatigue

We train dogs for a variety of reasons: to reduce unwanted behaviour, increase desired behaviour, for their welfare, to improve public safety and of course for pure, unadulterated fun. Owners who are training for fun without clear goals might be slow to reach them (or even -gasp- never reach them!), but this is no big deal if aversive stimuli are not in play.

Professional dog trainers, however, have a greater responsibility to train in ways that are both non-damaging to the dog and also efficient. Clients pay us to achieve outcomes. Gross inefficiencies in training can drive clients to punitive trainers who will get some kind of a job done. It is therefore wise, humane, and business-savvy to focus on efficiency. This blog, the first in a series on efficiency, deals with the important topic of decision-making.

Dog training is a profession which draws rather intensely on the brain’s resources - the trainer’s brain, that is! Trainers must navigate awkward social situations while side-stepping their client’s mythologies and bizarre internet-borne training advice. We must prioritize behavioural issues in a way that answers to the client’s needs, maintains or increases the dog’s welfare, and protects the public. We must categorize problems into a few columns on the page: train? manage? ignore? We must figure out how much of the training should be delegated to the client.

Finally, and in no small feat, we must identify a “terminal behaviour” for all training. To change a dog’s behaviour, a trainer writes a plan, which is a series of criteria steps that lead to a final, or “terminal”, behaviour. (If classical counterconditioning or operant counterconditioning/DRI is the appropriate technique, the “terminal” will be or include a positive emotional state.) Every trainer needs to move from early, achievable-right-now criteria steps to the more difficult - and often real-life - steps. Moving between steps takes decisions on the part of the trainer: when to make it harder, when to stay at the current level, and when a backwards step is needed.

Decision fatigue refers to “the notion that making choices can be effortful and can therefore deplete [mental] resources.”1 Some interesting research has found that our ability to make good decisions (or even just any decision) declines if we have to make a lot of choices in a short time. A rest and a snack allow for our decision-making prowess to rebound, indicating a physiological basis.

With the prioritizing, categorizing, figuring, and identifying that are standard parts of our work, our brains are already shouldering a heavy load: choices, choices, choices. By the time we start to actually work on a dog, we are at elevated risk of decision fatigue. We might push a few steps ahead when the dog isn’t ready, and feel flustered when we have to drop back multiple times. We assume our instincts serve us well, when they likely don’t - how many of our clients have motivated, drivey, herding breeds, after all? We might stay on a step for an inordinate amount of time when the dog is ready for something harder. These training errors have a cost: they’re inefficient. The job just ain’t getting done.

All is not lost, however. The best training methods have a fantastic over-ride: they simply punt decision-making to empirical rules. They automate. It’s a sub-routine, not a conscious consideration of alternatives. They make moving through a training plan a habit, freeing mental resources for other things... like chatting with your client about enrichment. Gabbing about anti-pull gear. Driving home safely.

At the Academy, our practitioners are trained to count correct and incorrect responses in a set. If the dog gets enough right - usually at least four correct responses out of a set of five - the trainer moves smoothly on to the next step. If the dog misses enough, the trainer simply drops back. And if the dog is in-between, there’s an answer for that too: another set, counted out of habit, of the same step.

Our human and canine clients deserve the speediest resolution we can offer. Automation of criteria change decisions is a boon to efficiency and can help a trainer meet, and exceed, their client’s expectations. It reduces human fatigue and by basing the choice of when to change criteria on an objective sampling of the responses in a set, it helps a training session stay fun, challenging, and engaging for the dogs, too.

Take your training to the next level. Avoid taxing decisions like “is my client’s dog proficient enough to move to the next step?” Let the dog’s performance tell you - it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.

 


 

1. Vos et al. 2005. Decision Fatigue Exhausts Self-Regulatory Resources - But So Does Accommodating to Unchosen Alternatives. Unpublished manuscript.

Cover photo: © Monkey Business 2/Shotshop.com

Second photo: © DGLimages/istockphoto.com

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Dog Trainer Life

 

 

Appeal to Nature

Red Herring Fallacy

 

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Talk Softly and Carry a Carrot, Not a Stick

This piece was originally published in a local newspaper in 2006.  I updated it and think it's relevant to re-run given that the state of New York is currently considering licensing dog trainers.  They'd be the first state to do so.


Dog training is a divided profession. We are not like plumbers, orthodontists or termite exterminators who, if you put six in a room, will pretty much agree on how to do their jobs. Dog training camps are more like Republicans and Democrats, all agreeing that the job needs to be done but wildly differing on how to do it.

The big watershed in dog training is whether or not to include pain and fear as means of motivation. In the last twenty years the pendulum swing has been toward methods that use minimal pain, fear or intimidation – or none at all.

The force-free movement has been partly driven by improved communication from the top. Applied behaviorists, those with advanced degrees in behavior, and veterinary behaviorists, veterinarians who have completed residencies specializing in behavior problems are in greater abundance than in previous decades, and there is much more collaboration between these fields and trainers on the front lines. These two professions are quite unified on the point that the use of physical punishment or confrontation is unnecessary, often detrimental and, importantly, unsafe.  And in 2015 the American Animal Hospital Association came out with detailed behavior management guidelines that unequivocally caution owners to employ only trainers that use force-free methods. 

On a more grassroots level, trainers have found more benign and sophisticated tools by boning up on applied behavior science themselves. But dog training is currently an unregulated profession in the US: there are no laws governing practices. Prosecutions under general anti-cruelty statutes are occasionally successful but greatly hampered by the absence of legal standards pertaining specifically to training practices. Provided it’s in the name of training, someone with no formal education or certification can strangle your dog quite literally to death and conceivably get off scot-free.  

It’s not a complete wilderness: There is now the Pet Professional Guild, which specifies its member trainers must employ modern, force-free methods.  The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) Mission Statement, Delta Society and American Humane Association (AHA) trainer guidelines all state that less invasive (i.e. without pain or force) techniques must be competently tried and exhausted before more invasive techniques attempted. Such guidelines are not law, but they’re a start. 

The current professional climate is one laden with some remaining fierce debate. There’s an ever-expanding group of trainers that train force-free (ad literature will be some variation on the theme of “dog-friendly” or “pain-free”), trainers that still train primarily with force (ad literature: “no-nonsense” or “common sense”) and trainers that employ liberal use of both force and rewards (ad literature: “balanced” or “eclectic”). From a consumer’s standpoint, the choice in methods is wide. You can hire a professional to train your dog pretty much any way that suits your fancy and it’s all legal in the US.  (More and more European countries are cracking down on the most harmful force tools and methods.)

The force-free movement gains momentum every year and a sure sign of this is that many trainers in the other camps resort to murkier and murkier euphemisms to disguise their more violent practices and retain their market share. Stressed dogs aren’t “shut down,” they’re “calm.” It’s not strangling, it’s “leading.” As a committed devotee of the dog-friendly camp, I am therefore agog at the continued presence in pop culture of “The Dog Whisperer”. This is pretty ferocious stuff by anybody’s standards. The National Geographic Channel even runs a disclaimer banner at the bottom of the screen admonishing people to “not try this at home,” a warning notably absent on home improvement shows or “Nanny 911″. I like to think people don't get dogs so that they can hurt and scare them, so I'm left wondering whether the cloaking of corporal punishment and hazing in mystical language, promise of instant results, high octane telegenicity of Cesar Millan and lucky connections with Los Angeles celebrity clients are sufficient explanation for the Dog Whisperer phenomenon. I don't know.  We need psychologists deconstructing what drives people to elect scary, painful practices.

I am willing to bet that, in what’s been termed the “post-factual universe," we’ll be battling a while longer.

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The Post-Factual World

Dog Trainer Life November 2016 Edition

 

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It's All Chew Toys

Conversations between dogs...

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Harness The Love Wrap-Up

Harness The Love Wrap-Up

From September 19th to 25th, 2016, The Academy for Dog Trainers hosted "Harness The Love" week. This all-out social media blitz was a way for us to highlight and promote the use of no-pull harnesses. Participation was through the roof and we are so very grateful to everyone who contributed. 

We were delighted to see so much participation in the form of blogs, posts and videos. Though Facebook is our primary platform, we saw over 160 posts on Instagram that week using the hashtags #HarnessTheLove #HTL and #academyfordogtrainers. We were thrilled to see posts and photos using our logo generator by so many trainers—both in and outside of The Academy—but perhaps even more thrilled to see posts by dog-loving, harness-using members of the public, not to mention rescues and shelters like Weimaraner Rescue of The South, Pitty Love Rescue, Inc.West Coast Cocker Rescue, and Women's Humane Society.

                         

For us, the most exciting part of all of this was seeing actual behavior change. People were asking questions, conversation was happening and dogs were being walked on harnesses. We saw conversations like these all over the interwebz:

"Do you sell the harness there ?"
A Place for Paws "Yes, we do. Would it be for your new guy? Not really a surprise that a husky would pull!"
 
"I just got back from the best walk with Sophie and Murphy I've had in 3 years. Why? I bought the no pull harness last night for Soph and it was AMAZING! Pure pleasure, thank you Tracy Krulik!"
"Cathy can you get me one for Betsy!! Thanks in advance!"
Wonder Paws Puppy School & Family Dog Training "Yes no probs! Which color?"
"Blue please to match the wonder paws lead."
 
"... I will be shopping for one for Oliver who thinks he is a sled dog and it is his job to pull his people when we are quite capable."
West Coast Cocker Rescue "They have them at Tisol. 'Easy Walk' is the best one we found ...around $35/$40 but they really do help. Sarah used to use them on the real PULLERS back in the early days!!"
"Thanks we have a Tisol in Langley. I will go get one this weekend."
 
And our favorite kind of comment:
 
"We got ours today!"
 
We were also thrilled to see super sticky and simple posters, like the one below created by Academy staffer, Sarah Pennington of Yaletown Dog Training. 
 
                       
 
Blogs are such a great way to reach people and we had no shortage to share! Below is a list of blogs written for HTL week. Bookmark these and keep them handy so that you can share them again. So much great information on the benefits of no-pull harnesses and the brands available. Thank you to everyone who took the time to write a blog for this specific purpose! You helped open people's minds and change dogs lives!
 

Tips on Loose-Leash Walking -I Love Your Dog

Harnesses are a Great Choice to Walk Your Dog -Companion Animal Psychology

The Little Beagle Who Pulled -Dogz and their Peoplez

Do no-pull harnesses work? Ask a sled dog or two. -Kristi Benson 

Get Your Dog Into A Front-Clip Harness (The Easy Way) -Tails in the Valley

Quick & Dirty No-Pull Walkies -BravoDog

Harness the Love, for Dogs Everywhere -The Inquisitive Canine

Stop the Pop. Harness the Love. -Crosspaws

Harness The Love and Walk The Dog -Your Pit Bull and You

Pulling on Leash (8 Common Dog Training Mistakes) -Michael's Dogs

Happy first day of fall! -Vairily

#HarnessTheLove -Two Blockheads

Harness The Love -Playface

Thank you again to everyone who participated in Harness The Love week! Stay tuned for more campaigns designed to help make life more enjoyable for dogs!

                            

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A Tired False Dichotomy

Dog trainer life.

#HarnessTheLove

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An Interview with Joan Mayer

An Interview with Joan Mayer

Academy Grad Joan Mayer of The Inquisitive Canine has been hard at work for over a year designing and refining a new no-pull harness which is scheduled to hit the market soon. Seeing the development of a production through to fruition is a huge process, one with many hitches to be expected along the way, and Joan has made it through the development process with a harness that looks as comfortable as it does functional. We're very proud of Joan and really excited for the launch of the Transpaw Gear Harness

LN: You’ve got a new harness coming out soon called the Transpaw Gear Harness. Tell us a little bit about this.

JM: Lori, thanks for asking! I’m thrilled to tell everyone about it - it’s been a long time coming. The TransPaw Gear™ dog harness is a multi-functional, dog-friendly and user-friendly product for dogs-on-the-go! (TransPaw is a play on “Transpawtation”). The emphasis is on functional and comfortable.

LN: What makes this harness different?

JM: There are so many harnesses being offered nowadays! And, there are some great companies. My goal was to combine the better attributes of harnesses I liked, while minimizing those I found to be challenging. There are leash attachments in both the top back area, along with front of the chest. There are both shoulder and girth straps that are easily adjustable, with easy-release buckles. The fabric used for the body is soft, with a thin breathable padding. The outer material has enough structure to keep the girth straps back behind the front legs, to minimize irritation to sensitive areas. I also added a nifty lightweight utility handle between the shoulders to aid in sports -- you can also use it to help dogs get in and out of cars. (It’s not designed to withstand intense pulling like you’d need for lifting the dog in his or her entirety.)

LN: What inspired you to design your own harness?

JM: Funny you should ask that. I’m pretty sure most dog trainers have come up with harness ideas, and I’m no different. When we adopted our dog Poncho back in 2003, I never felt comfortable attaching the leash to his collar - so I wanted to look for an alternative. I found some great harnesses out there, but it seemed I needed to have three for the same outing: one for walking, one for driving, and one for sports. I’m all for having choices, but it got to be tiresome. I kept asking, “Why isn’t there one that has ___, ____, and ____?” The more dogs and pet parents I worked with over the years, and reading various discussion threads among trainers about still looking for good products, the more I came to realize there was still a need. So I said to myself, “Why don’t I design one!”

                                 

LN: How has the process been for you?

JM: Having developed other pet-related products, I’ve gained a lot of valuable experience over the years. So this time around, I’ve been using that knowledge, creating a process that has so far been smooth. As Jim Collins talks about in his book Good to Great, I’ve made sure the right people are on my bus (Collins, 2001) http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html.

It is taking longer than I had hoped, but I believe the “slow and steady” approach creates for a better chance of success - not just for me or the company, but for all stakeholders, especially the dogs.

LN: What went into the development process?

JM: Wow, so much! Where do I begin? The road from concept to creation has been quite an adventure. A methodical one though, planning all along the way. Having been a trainer for years, and dog mom, I’ve been able to gather a lot of data. So, going into the process I had a more definitive product goal. The beginning designs included using my own dog Poncho, a local seamstress, and materials gathered from a local used sporting goods store.

After a couple of sample prototypes, I decided to take it further, consulting first with a local soft goods designer, followed by a larger development company, clear across the country. I made this choice because I wanted to consult with experts who were more familiar with the engineering aspect of design, as the movements of a dog are unique in their own way. A pretty harness is one thing, but I wanted to ensure that the design met the goals of fit and functionality. Additionally, this particular company was dog-friendly, which meant easy access to fit models throughout the three phases of designing and testing.

Once the final prototype was established, it was time to move forward with production. I reached out to a friend of mine who works with a wonderful local company that has the capability to create a small run of the harness in a few sizes. We worked together, refining the design, while having me test it on multiple dogs. This was a great opportunity, as I was able to really hone in on the details, creating a product I am really proud of. While waiting for quotes from the manufacturers, I’m working on sizing, as it will be offered in a range of sizes to cover the wide variety of dog breeds, both pure and mixed.

 LN: How much refining did you have to do along the way?

JM: There were revisions with each group I worked with. From the beginning, working with the local seamstress, to the final product development company. I could continue to make changes, but I’ve learned you also need to stop at some point, otherwise you’ll never get anything to your customer. I’ll hold onto these other ideas for different products. In all honesty, I would say I have done my due diligence.

 LN: What types of dogs did you test it on?

JMBecause I had the one prototype, I was limited to the size of dog. However, it did fit a range, from 40 - 80 pounds! The fabulous test-dogs I worked with ranged from smaller long-haired Aussie mixes to mid-sized pittie mixes, and larger Labs. I also had poodles, retrievers, and a few other mixes between.

                                             

LN: What are the key components of this harness?

JM: The real benefits of the TransPaw Gear™ dog harness is that it’s made of sturdy fabric that is soft, flexible with movement, and comfortable for dogs. This is evidenced by the way the dogs responded while wearing it. It’s easy for handlers to fit to their dog, put on and take off, and provides options for training, sports, and play. As I like to say, at TransPaw Gear™, we put the FUN in FUNctional!

LN: What are the next steps for you?

JM: While waiting to hear quotes for the initial run from various manufactures, I’m working with the local team creating prototypes in a wider range of sizes. Additionally, a provisional patent has been filed. Depending on what we hear from the PTO, we will file the permanent one within the allotted time frame. I’m also working on PR and marketing campaigns, including having a booth at a local annual fundraising pet adoption event this October.

                               

LN: When should we expect to see it available on the market?

JM: The final prototype is in the hands of two different manufacturers, awaiting bids for production. Once an agreement is reached, I hope to get it to market within a couple of months. So, my goal is Fall of 2016.

LN: Where will we be able to purchase it?

JM: Initial sales will be offered  through my website, and locally in Santa Barbara and surrounding areas. I’ll offer both business to business wholesale and retail direct to consumer. I will have a booth at the upcoming fundraising pet adoption event Wags ‘n’ Whiskers here in Santa Barbara, October 1, 2016.

For more information on the Transpaw Gear Harness, email Joan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit the Transpaw Gear page on Facebook.

 

 

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Harness The Love

Harness The Love

The Academy for Dog Trainers is excited to announce the launch of Harness The Love, an initiative that highlights the benefits of no-pull harnesses.

Starting today, Monday September 19, 2016, use the hashtags #HarnessTheLove, #HTL and #academyfordogtrainers to help us flood the interwebz with images of happy dogs and people enjoying walks without the use of precise heels or painful collars. (See below to find the logo and how-to for adding it to pictures). If you are a blogger, find a post about no-pull harnesses and share it, or write up a new one.  We will be monitoring the social channels that are using those hashtags and sharing content.

       

There are many benefits to using no-pull harnesses, not the least of which is that many dogs need little to no training for the harnesses to work: pulling decreases as soon as they realize that it gets them turned around and facing their owner instead of closer to the hydrant they were heading for!  No-pull harnesses do not put pressure on dogs' necks and throats, which is safer for your pet (read more here and here). For the human end of the leash, no-pull harnesses can be a gift as soon as you step out the door: decreased pulling means less chance of injury to you.

Loose Leash Walking is a skill that dogs learn, and no-pull harnesses are a great tool to help move the process along. As dog trainers, one of the complaints we hear most often is "how do I get him to stop pulling?" Here's a couple of neat videos if you need some guidance on how to get started!

                         

                         

 

There's quite a few options to choose from and we're big fans of the Freedom Harness, the Easy Walk Harness and the Sense-ation Harness.  See a full list of front-clip harnesses on the Harness The Love page on our website.

           

You can find the logo to download, our easy-to-use picture Harness the Love picture generator, and other instructions for adding the logo to your picture here, on our the Harness the Love page.

                 

We'd love to see your dog or your client's dog stylin' in some no-pull gear! Use the generator and the hashtags #HarnessTheLove, #HTL and #academyfordogtrainers and you and your dog may be featured on The Academy's Facebook page.  Our goal is to reach as many people as possible to help them understand why the switch to a no-pull harness is the way to go.

Check out this great video by our friends at the San Francisco SPCA about the use of harnesses, other training tools and the effectiveness of rewards-based training in general. Join us this week and Harness The Love!

 

 

 

 

 

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Naked Emperor

Naked Emperor

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The Seductiveness of Why

The Seductiveness of Why

 

My training as an archaeologist prepared me well for my work with dogs.  Archaeologists tend to be consummate generalists. We learn some biology (How do bones grow?), some physics  (How do percussion waves through volcanic glass make razor-sharp flakes?), and some chemistry (How does radioactive decay tell us how old stuff is?).  Of course, we also learn a lot about humans, our culture, our society, and our fascinating history as primates.  

Dog trainers have to be generalists, too.  We need to know how to teach, how to counsel, and how to use modern applied behavior analysis techniques to change a dog’s behavior and emotions.  We must have a solid understanding of evolution, genetic and environmental effects on behavior, and of ethology.  

I once worked in a bone lab as an archaeologist, reducing animal carcasses to skeletal material for a comparative bone collection.  This cemented my ability to handle really gross stuff, a skill I’ve found useful with dogs who aren’t motivated by the usual fare.   

But I think the best gift I received from my archaeologist past is a tolerance of uncertainty.  (Did modern humans float from one continent to the next during the last ice age, exploiting the rich marine environment at the ice’s edge?  Who knows!  Who do we share our branch of the hominid tree with, really? Who knows!)  Some questions do get answered as time and science marches on.  Some questions, though, seem unanswerable, at least without time travel.  But here’s the thing: not knowing the answers to these questions has not stopped the archaeological juggernaut.  Sites are excavated, artifact collections are assessed and re-assessed, and archaeological papers are published.  

This comfort with uncertainty has been a great boon to my ability to help my dog training clients.  Beyond the broad strokes of motivation (Is the dog scared or upset?  Or is he feeling fine and just being a dog?), it often really doesn’t matter why.  In fact, getting stuck in a loop of asking why, why, why, is a common reason that owners and new trainers falter.  Yesterday, an owner asked me why her dog buries pieces of chewed-up hose in her rose garden, only to immediately excavate them, then re-bury.  (Is he angry at me for putting him outside? Is he communicating something?) An answer starting with “Because...” would likely delve into dogs’ fascinating position as a domesticated canid with remnant food caching software, made ‘buggy’ through generations without selection pressure.  Despite my own love of evolution, and her use of the seductive why, I knew that a long-winded explanation was not what this client was asking for.  My suspicion – soon confirmed – was that what she really wanted was simply to get the dog to stop digging in her rose garden.  We decided on a digging pit, I pointed out how cool it was to watch her dog showing off some of his wolf ancestry, and I was able to quickly move on to another issue she was having with her dog.  

A comfort with uncertainty allowed me to make the best use of my client’s time and money, which is no small deal.  But much more importantly, it opened up time in my consult to create a more enriching environment for this dog, and allowed us to tackle other behaviors which were interrupting the peace in their home.  Time spent on a discussion of what, if anything, the behavior communicated (or how the hose may have mimicked ligaments from a caribou’s leg) would have detracted from our session.  In other words, there would have been a real time and money cost to the client, and a welfare cost to her dog.   

Why is a seductive question.  Uncertainty is a frustrating state.  So I tip my hat to my archaeological studies for the comfort I now have side-stepping the why why why, accepting the uncertainty inherent in dog training (we really do not know what dogs are thinking! Really!), and allowing me to spend the most time doing what I really want to do: helping people, and helping dogs. 

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Staff Profile: Kristi Benson

Kristi Benson is a dog trainer living on a small farm in central Manitoba, Canada. An honors graduate of the program, she now works for the Academy for Dog Trainers as a student mentor and coach, directing special research projects and organizing the Academy’s Wednesday Webinar series.

Kristi’s dog addiction is firmly rooted in racing sled dogs. She has her own crew of sled dogs and for the last decade she has directed a micro-rescue, placing racing dogs in homes as pets. Through her dog-training business Kristi teaches adult dog and puppy classes in several nearby communities, works one-on-one with owners whose dogs are having behavioral issues, and consults for many local foster-based rescues. 

Her love of dogs (and her love of using humorous narrative as a pedagogical tool) was cemented during her time living and working in Canada's far north. Today, she continues to work as a research anthropologist, archaeologist, author, and cartographer with First Nations communities in Canada’s subarctic. 

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Staff Profile:Erik Tamm

Staff Profile:Erik Tamm

Erik Tamm graduated with honors from the Academy for Dog Trainers in early 2016 and joined the Academy staff a few weeks later. Erik's main responsibility in the Academy is caring for the technological infrastructure of our online community and coursework. 

Erik has a background as a software developer and became interested in dog training after moving to Hong Kong and volunteering to help the island's feral dogs.

Today, he divides his time between programming and dog training. Erik works with all kinds of cases but has taken a special liking to dogs with body handling issues.

Erik lives on a small island outside Hong Kong, Cheung Chau, with his wife and his two dogs, Charlie and James. During his time off he enjoys windsurfing and volunteer work to improve the lives of the feral dogs on the island.

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Staff Profile: Casey McGee

Staff Profile: Casey McGee

Casey McGee graduated from the Academy just this year, in February 2016. She still feels like a giddy newcomer on the dog training scene: blessed to have had the chance to learn from the best, filled with hope and passion for the future of a force-free dog training industry, and now thrilled to be a part of the amazing staff team at the Academy. 

Casey also studied with Malena DeMartini and is a proud 2015 graduate of her intensive training program—the only one of its kind to certify dog trainers to work with separation anxiety and isolation distress.

She and her partner lost an aggressive dog to euthanasia several years ago when, like so many of us, she followed the most readily-available advice for dealing with aggression and, in desperation, used coercive and intimidating training methods. At the time she didn't have access to a trainer who could help her first do no harm to her beloved pup. Today she wants to be that trainer for families struggling with the confusion and heartbreak of a serious behavior problem.  

Casey found her calling in force-free dog training after years of animal rescue volunteering and a career working with advocates, law enforcement and prosecution to reform the way that public institutions respond to domestic violence and sexual assault. She now owns and operates Upward Hound and lives on a retired dairy farm in western Wisconsin with her partner, three dogs and a flock of geriatric chickens.

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