Be the change you wish to see in the world...

- Gandhi

Monday, June 17, 2013

Meet Dog Trainer Betsy Calkins!

We have had our dog, Jag (named for the first letter in the names of each of my kids), for a little over a year now.  Unfortunately, we never did formal training with him.  Who am I kidding?  We never did any training with him.  He is a sweet dog.  A good dog.  But, he had a few bad habits...like barking and  basic manners.  I was at the point where I was not enjoying my sweet, cute dog, and all the joy and good stuff a pup should bring.  Thank goodness for Betsy Calkins (and my dear friend, Tanya, for the referral).  Betsy has been a ray of light and a beacon of positivity in what was becoming a very stressful part of my life.  I am eternally grateful for her knowledge and expertise, and her gift of teaching what she can to me.  After six weeks, I am happy say that I am having a lot more fun with Jag and seeing dog ownership in a whole new light.  I asked Betsy to share some of her wisdom with us.

VM: You have a unique approach to dog training (as opposed to other trainers I have worked with).  You call it positive reinforcement.  Can you tell us about that?


BC: Positive Reinforcement training is a science-based teaching method that uses management and rewards to teach dogs what TO DO, rather than correcting the dog for making choices that we don't like.  When combined with modern knowledge of instinctual dog behavior and canine cognition, you get a very efficient and humane way of teaching a dog how to cope with living in the human world. And the best part is that it is both easy and fun for humans and their canine companions! 

VM: You have a child development background.  How has that helped you in your business as a dog trainer?

BC: I have a degree in psychology with a specialization in child development and early childhood education.  So, I had already studied Learning Theory (how to use reinforcements to mold behavior) and I knew how to teach both verbal and pre-verbal humans.  I use these specialties every day, with both my dog clients and human clients, too.  I also work with a lot of families, and enjoy teaching their children how to treat dogs with care and kindness.  It worries me that children look up to adult role models who treat the family dog harshly.

VM: What led you to be a dog trainer?


BC: My first dog, a rescue puppy from the pound, was incredibly brilliant, fun and energetic but too smart for me.  Old fashioned training methods that I learned from group classes weren't enough for her and I found them to be harsh and inefficient. When I looked for private trainers, I was appalled at the way they chose to put their hands on my dog and fired them one-by-one.  So, I kept seeking out better ways and realized that I was going to have to teach myself to be a trainer.  Eventually I found an advanced group of trainers and behaviorists who had used knowledge gained from working with Marine Mammals and finally brought common-sense kindness and teaching into the Domestic Dog training world. I happily jumped in with both feet! I went back to school, and continue my education constantly.  I determined that it was important to improve the professionalism of the dog training industry and became a Certified Professional Dog Trainer.  After that, I became inspired to be available to anyone who was open to advanced methods --- so that people would realize that there is an excellent alternative  to old-fashioned force-based training.

VM: I love that you follow the principle that training should be fun!  What are some things owners should keep in mind to ensure that training is fun for themselves and the dog?


BC: Anyone who has had a great parent, teacher, coach or boss knows that important learning takes place when you are relaxed and  trusting and open to fun.  It's a big reason why we encourage our young children to participate in sports and organized music.  Enjoying learning actually enhances the experience and bonds the dog to the teacher, so that there is internal motivation to keep learning.  How to keep it fun? A good example is the Come Game.  All you need is a hungry dog and several people.  One at a time, each person (Who will it be?  It will be a surprise for the dog!) will call the dog happily and excitedly and then ask for a sit and reward the dog with food or a game or a few scratches.  The dog can't wait to see who calls him next and will sprint from person to person.  Every rehearsal builds a strong automatic response.  So that, one day if your dog runs into the street and you call him, he will come automatically and happily.  If you or the dog stop having fun or become frustrated, make sure that you stop the game and try and figure out why.  That's under your control and is not the dog's fault.


VM: How many times a week and for how long do you recommend that owners spend time training their dog?


BC: Ideally, short frequent sessions are the best.  Puppies can only train for a few minutes at a time, so they should be managed and trained frequently throughout the day.  But, you can make good progress with an adult dog with 2 or 3-- 10 minute sessions a day.  It isn't hard if you plan for it.  I recommend to my clients that they train their dogs right before each of two meals for 10 minutes.  You are there, your hungry dog is there and you have the rewards sitting there, right in a bowl.  Don't waste it--use it! 

VM: You use food rewards in your training approach.  Why do recommend that?


BC: Dogs can't work for paychecks or grades.  They don't have bank accounts.  So we need to use a reward system that makes sense to them  and works for their brains.  Food is the easiest to repeat and manipulate and is one of the most powerful motivators for a dog.  Don't give it away in a bowl--that's just a waste.  Use each piece of food to encourage the dog to practice sits, downs, comes and stays.  It makes it fun and bonds the dog to you, not their food bowl.  And, just as important, is the fact that dogs will repeat what works for them.  If sitting gets them good things, they will tend to offer you a lot of sits.  And when a dog is sitting, he is not jumping, running out the door or chasing the cat.  We then have taught him what TO DO instead of what not to do. 

However, there are some dogs who would much rather play a game of tug or fetch for a reward, so we will use that too.  The dog gets to determine what it values most.  It's the owner's job to find out what that is.

For those who say, "I don't want to carry food forever"--there is a simple answer.  Practice with your dog enough that they learn the behavior that you want.  Then, slowly start replacing the food rewards with Life Rewards such as play, walks, scratches, praise and freedom.  Eventually, the food is no longer needed and the behavior is maintained by Life Rewards.

VM: What are your top 3 treats to use as rewards?


BC: Actually, it really depends on the individual dog, so I try many things.  If the dog is a "food Hoover", I can get away with just using his regular kibble. (think Labrador Retrievers!)  But, sometimes we need something more exciting than that.  I frequently try Zuke's Mini-Naturals or Natural Balance Meat Roll.  If I have a hard-to-motivate dog or high distractions, I use Stella & Chewy's Canine Crunch.  I try to stick to high quality food with wholesome, natural and limited ingredients.  Try some real cooked chicken or light string cheese if you have a dog that is highly reactive on leash.  It's important to change it up and keep it exciting, too.

Just make sure that you count calories and don't overfeed your dog!

VM: I love your motto: "Say it.  Show it.  Praise it.  Pay it."  Can you explain this to my readers?  


BC: Dogs need to learn a foreign language: English!  If you say a short clear word (Sit) then define it for the dog (hand signal) then mark it (Good!) and reward it (food), you will teach the dog in the most clear and efficient way.  Imagine that you are in a foreign country and someone is yelling at you in a language that you don't understand.  Repeating it louder and louder in your face would just scare you or make you mad!  But if they used hand signals, it would help a lot.

VM: What cue(s) or command(s) do you think is/are most important to train your dog to do? 


BC: I like to teach dogs to turn and pay attention when they hear their name called in a happy tone.  That way you can redirect them before they make a poor choice.  Next are the "safety cues", Come and Stay.  Unfortunately, both of those cues are frequently taught incorrectly and can put the dog in great jeopardy.  

VM: What are your three favorite dog toys for keeping dogs busy and entertained? 


BC: I love to teach puppies to become addicted to stuffed Kongs!  Keeping their minds and mouths busy is very important.  There are many good Kong stuffing recipes on the internet. Food puzzles are next, such as the Kong Wobbler, so that your dog has a long period of fun trying to get his kibble to come out.  A busy dog isn't bored and looking for trouble.  And finally, I really like to teach Tug with Rules with a strong long tugger toy---it's a great energy draining activity and your dog will love you for playing it!  It's important that the dog knows "drop it" and "leave it" before you play tug, though.

VM: I am on a quest to live the "good" life in all aspects of the word.  What does the "good" life mean or represent to you?


BC: That's a great quest!  To me the good life is one where you give what you can to those who need assistance.  The giving comes back to you with extra helpings and creates a cycle of well-being in your community.
VM: Can you share your favorite quote?
BC: "Follow your heart but take your head with you!" (Most often I quote this to someone thinking about bringing a rescue dog or puppy into their lives!)  Getting a dog should not be an impulse decision, but it is definitely one of the heart.


Thank you, Besty!  If you live in the Los Angeles area and are in need of an expert dog trainer, I highly recommend Besty.  Her energy and approach are refreshing and uplifting.  Life has definitely gotten better with Besty in it!  Read below for more info on Betsy.  You can contact her by clicking here or here.  


Betsy Calkins is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. (APDT)
Betsy has worked with dogs for almost 20 years. She has completed university-level courses in Canine Learning Theory and Dog Ethology, and is a strong proponent of humane, science-based training methods. She stays at the forefront of dog training knowledge and technique by regularly attending workshops held by the best instructors and theorists in the field. She has studied under Dr. Ian Dunbar, Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, Pat Miller, Steve White, Sue Sternberg, Pamela Reid, Pia Silvani, Turid Rugaas, and many others.
Betsy is also a Canine Good Citizen evaluator for the American Kennel Club and helps prepare dogs for Therapy Dog evaluations.  She is a 30-year resident of the South Bay beach cities and an active member of the community.