Tag Archives: River


The world fundamentally changes the first time you hear a pack of hunting coyotes in full voice. At least that was River’s experience last night.

I took River (and Pflouff) out to pee at 1:45 this morning. The coyotes were across the street at our neighbors’ place, raising holy hell. Our neighbors raise alpacas, and although an adult alpaca (especially one in a paddock with her buddies) isn’t likely to be on the menu for coyotes, a baby cria could be. Our neighbors are intelligent people, though, and their entire property is surrounded by 5-wire New Zealand fence — very hot electric wire nicknamed “coyote fence” for a reason. So the coyotes surrounded the pastures they couldn’t reach and made a nuisance of themselves.

No lights at the neighbors’ house, so they might have slept through the whole thing. Not River. When he went outside, his whole body went on hyper-alert. Pflouff ran to the front, ready to confront the intruders if they dared to come near her fence. River ran back inside. I had to carry him back out and shut the door to get him to pee. When we went back to bed, he couldn’t settle. He sat up, alert and listening, for an hour and a half until the coyotes left.

I don’t blame him. The first time I heard them, I thought we were being attacked by banshees. The sound a pack of coyotes makes is eerie, otherworldly. When dogs bark, they bark at the same time, but they bark their own individual pattern:

Dog #1: Bark bark growl snarl bark!
Dog #2: Growl bark whine bark bark!
Dog #3: Woof growl bark woof growl!

Coyotes are different. It’s as though each one barks the same pattern, but each starts the pattern a fraction of a second later than another:

Coyote #1: Yip yip bark growl yip bark
Coyote #2:     Yip yip bark growl yip bark
Coyote #3:        Yip yip bark growl yip bark
Coyote #4:            Yip yip bark growl yip bark

It gives a terrifying, echo-like quality to the singing that adds to the impression they’re all around you.

I’m not worried about River. He was fine this morning, and he’ll learn through experience that the coyotes won’t come near our dog fence. He is small enough right now that he *could* be a coyote dinner, but that won’t be true for long, and it’s not likely he’ll be harassed with me, Pax, and Pflouff around. The coyotes are annoying, but they’re not stupid!

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Puppy class #1… redux

A few weeks ago, I started a puppy class with River in a town north of here. The class met on Friday night… and that just didn’t work. That first class was the ONLY class we made it to.

There’s another school west of us. This class is taught by the owner, Joan Fetty, who also teaches an Intro to Field class. I signed River up for this round of classes before I started the other class. My original intention was to attend both. I’ve obviously dropped out of the first class, so this is River’s only option for group learning right now.

The first week met without dogs. Joan introduces behaviors with treats, and then adds corrections. A lot of the advice she gave is what I call old school. There’s a lot of molding dogs into position and using the leash to ensure compliance. She doesn’t teach the way I do, but THAT’S OKAY. She’s not cruel by any stretch, and it’s easy to see that she’s really fond of dogs. I like her personally too.

I try to work ahead of the class — at least a little — so I won’t feel pressured to use the compulsive techniques. Last night was the first class with dogs. I’ve worked on eye contact, go to your mat, sits, and downs over the past few weeks, so I figured we’d be prepared.

It was a good strategy. This is a fairly large class — 16 dogs. It’s a nice training facility, but 16 dogs is a lot. That means he had to work fairly close to his neighbors. He was distracted initially and wanted to meet the dogs close to him (which is not allowed in this class). I put his mat out and reinforced sits, down, and eye contact. For most of the class, when we weren’t actively working on a behavior, he was lying on the class facing away from me, watching the action. By the end of the class, though, he was completely focused on me, despite the distractions. That was neat!

In addition to discussing issues like puppy mouthing (not a problem here) and teaching the dog to take treats gently (which River already does), the first week we worked on sits in heel position and downs in heel position. She taught each two ways — with a lure and with molding (physically placing the dogs into position).

I prefer to capture these behaviors, but I’m not horribly opposed to luring. I had done sits in heel position before, so it was easy to be successful with that one just by cueing the known behavior. I hadn’t done downs in heel position though, so I mixed the cue (still new to him) and a lure. He did fine! When she had people practice the compulsion method, I stayed in my seat and captured/cued downs.

I’m overweight enough that I’m not comfortable crawling around on the floor, and I’m afraid some of the ways they use the leash could put me off balance. I’m not afraid to use my weight as an excuse if I need to in order to do things differently. I don’t want to draw attention to myself, and I don’t want to insult her! Fortunately, people tend to be focused on their dogs, so they don’t really notice that I’m doing my own thing.

This week I need to work on downs in heel position, and I need to introduce stay. Jay and I also need to do more work on the recall — just need to keep it sharp! — and I have to work on loose leash walking. I have done any true LLW work. Up until now, I’ve had to coax River to walk on a leash. Now he’s getting confident enough to move out in front, so we need to teach him not to put tension in the leash. I *have* been teaching him to walk beside me off leash as I work on sits at heel. Now I need to redouble my effort to teach him that walking next to me is fun!

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Julie & Julia

Friends have raved about this movie since it came out, but Jay and I didn’t get around to seeing it until last night. As probably every other person in the US knows, it’s wonderful. I expected to enjoy it; I didn’t expect to so thoroughly relate to Julie.

Julie is a person who, as she approaches 30, feels unaccomplished. She had planned to be a writer… but instead she works in a government job that emotionally abuses her. When she decides to write a blog about the things she is most passionate about — cooking and Julia Child — she gives herself a deadline because she never finishes the projects she starts.

It’s the lack of follow-through I most relate to. Feelings of guilt and failure made my stomach sink every time someone told her she never finished anything. The point was reiterated over and over by her husband… her friends… her mother. It was like they were saying it right to me: You’re a failure. You waste your time on projects that will never go anywhere.

“I know!” I wanted to scream. “You don’t have to tell me! I’m a loser! I suck.”

In bed that night, Jay said, “I thought of you during the movie. When she never finished anything.”

I sighed and nodded.

“I thought about your dog training book.”

When I wrote Click for Joy, I was so incredibly proud because I had finally finished something. I felt, truly, like I could accomplish anything! I had the same feeling when I finished the two screenplays I’ve written.

“I had forgotten about that,” I admitted.

During the movie, I couldn’t think of anything I’d finished, probably because the thing I most want to finish right now — my novel — seems hopelessly out of reach. After the overwhelmingly positive response at the conference this summer, I was motivated to get the novel finished and out. Unfortunately, my big summer project necessitated putting it on hold — just for a few weeks, I thought.

A few weeks stretched into two and a half months. My exhaustion was compounded by River. I thought the project was wrapping up the week I brought him home. Instead I spent the last five weeks a slave to two masters. In Julie & Julia, she suffered meltdowns when the pressure and problems and doubt got to be too much. I’ve suffered a few of those this month. More than once I wanted to give everything up — River, my job… and my novel. If I can’t get River to pee outside, how on earth can I finish a whole novel? It’s a stupid dream. I’m going to fail at that like I fail at everything.

Except I don’t fail at everything. When Jay sees someone who has trouble finishing things, he thinks of me. And he remembers how I succeeded.

I can do it. I can do anything.

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Recall fun

I love practicing recalls with River. It’s just so much fun to watch him come galloping to me.

Jay helps me with this behavior. Prior to today, we’d worked up to being about 100 feet apart outside. Today we did a few different things:

  • Jay sat on the ground (change in position).
  • Jay called him while I walked away — with River walking with me.
  • We petted and talked to him and had the other person call him away.
  • We did easy out-of-sight recalls.
  • We made the out of sight recalls a little harder by hiding.

When we got to the last one — hiding — we sometimes had to call more than once, because he just didn’t know where to go. Now that he has the idea, we can make it harder by hiding and calling just once. All of the above, by the way, were done at roughly 100 feet distance. If he’d had trouble, we’d have dropped the distance. We may need to drop distance when we require him to search for the caller.

The boys across the street are back in school, which makes it harder to get their time. When I can get them to come over, we can add more challenging distractions.

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Making a training plan

Before you start training a specific behavior, you need to know, in detail, what the finished behavior will look like. The more detail you put into that description, the easier it is to plan the road map for getting there. Some questions to ask include:

  • What will the finished behavior look like?

You must be able to picture the behavior in perfect, precise detail. Don’t just focus on the obvious. Think about each part of the dog’s body — what must it be doing during each part of the behavior? Want a dog to win the heart of the judge? Include a wagging tail and pricked ears as requirements of the behavior. In clicker training, it’s all possible! By the way, don’t forget the dog’s mouth. So often people ask me how to stop a dog from whining or barking during the behavior. If silence is part of the behavior, plan it, and train it from the start!

  • How will this behavior be cued?

Verbally? Physically? Environmentally? A combination? Remember that part of teaching a cue is making sure that only the cues you want become lasting cues — and that dogs are master discriminators. Include plenty of time for generalizing the behavior.

  • What kind of latency is required?

Latency is speed of response — the time that elapses between the cue and the behavior. Zero latency is an immediate response. Fast latency is habitual, meaning if you train it for some behaviors, the dog will likely adopt it for all behaviors.

  • Does this behavior have duration? Distance?

How long should the behavior last? If there’s a specific time requirement, plan to train fifty percent beyond that. For example, if you need a two minute sit-stay for competition obedience, plan to train at least a three minute sit-stay.

Distance should be trained similarly. Distance includes behaviors where the dog is sent to work at a distance, behaviors where the dog must respond to a cue when he is at a distance from the owner, and behaviors where the dog must maintain a behavior even when the owner moves away from him. Distance is challenging because the further the handler is from the dog, the stronger environmental stimuli become.

  • Does your dog have to be in a particular place relative to you to perform this behavior?

Should the dog always be in front of you or perhaps always within a certain radius of you? If not — and especially if you specifically don’t want the dog to restrict his position relative to you — you should plan on spending time generalizing this element.

  • Are you always going to be sitting, standing, or lying down when you give the cue?

Again, this is a generalization issue. Your body position can easily become a secondary cue for the behavior. This may work for you in competition heeling, but it can sabotage you for a household sit.

  • In what locations will the behavior be cued?

Steve White trains every behavior in twenty different locations to ensure that his police dogs truly generalize their behaviors. You may not need quite that much generalization. For some behaviors, you don’t need any!

  • What distractions might the dog face in those locations when performing the behavior?

List them, rank them, train them.

  • How reliable does this behavior have to be?

Reliability is a number. You may need only 9 out of 10, or you may need 99 out 100 — or 999 out of 1000.

The definition of the behavior is a detailed description of where you want to go. The second step is to evaluate where you currently are. If this is a brand new behavior, that’s easy! You’re starting from scratch. If this is an in-progress behavior, evaluate the behavior for all of the above criteria. Keep records and let the data tell you exactly what your dog is capable of doing reliably.

The final step is to make a plan to get from where you are to where you want to be. Start with the behavior. Break it into responses, and shape it to perfection. When it’s exactly right, add the cue. Then one by one add elements like duration, distance, and distractions.

As you train, keep your training plans firmly in mind. Track your progress. Periodically review your training plan, and revise the definition of the final behavior, if necessary. Don’t stop working on the behavior until the behavior your dog performs is a reliable mirror image of the behavior you described.

Here is the initial training plan I put together for “Sit.” It isn’t complete – the steps here don’t give exactly the behavior described – but it’s well on its way. Note that the steps in the training plan are mid-level goals. It may require many, many micro-level steps to get from one mid-level goal to the next.

Cue: Verbal “sit”, hand signal, single blast on whistle

Description: On cue, dog will immediately drop into a competition-quality sit, no matter where he is in relation to me, and remain in the sit until released.


  • Behavior specifics: Tucked, square.
  • Duration: Up to five minutes.
  • Distance: Respond to cue up to 400 yards away.
  • Latency: Immediate.
  • Position: Assume position from stand or while moving. Dog should turn to face me, except in specific situations where an alternative is specifically trained. I should be able to be in any physical position.
  • Locations: Everywhere.
  • Distractions: Anything and everything. Especially distractions common in a dog show or performance environment. Must maintain the sit when being touched by strangers or sniffed by strange dogs. Must hold the sit even if another dog is sent for a retrieve right next to him.

Other: Must maintain even when I’m out of sight.

Training Plan:

  1. Capture the behavior
  2. Shape for tucked and square
  3. Add the verbal cue
  4. Add duration (up to 30 seconds)
  5. Generalize my position
  6. Add hand signal
  7. Add distance (up to 20 ft, 1 minute away)
  8. Handler goes out of sight for up to 15 seconds
  9. Distractions: dropped toy, tossed toy, rolling toy, jumping, running, door/gate, dropped food, dogs passing
  10. Take into field – all prior criteria
  11. Sit at distance (up to 20 ft)
  12. Add whistle cue
  13. Sit while moving
  14. Combine whistle-sit at distance with go out
  15. Increase duration (3 minutes)
  16. Handler goes out of sight for up to 3 minutes
  17. Handler goes up to 50 yards away
  18. Dog responds to cue from up to 50 yards away

Now to do this for every behavior I want to teach…. (See why I’m tired?)

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