My boy Odie was born to a dog we were fostering for a rescue in November 2011. My heart was in the right place, but I knew nothing about socialisation, training and behaviour back then. As Odie got older, he showed “fear” related behaviours to so many things, for example, loud noises, fireworks, dogs, small children, the grooming comb or brush, the nail clippers etc etc.
I did a tiny amount of clicker training with him and saw a definite growth in his confidence. He showed increased eye contact with me, asked for cuddles and wanted to spend a lot more time around me. I then joined the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional programme in 2016 in the hope that I could really learn how I could help him with his fears. He wasn’t my “KPA dog”, because he couldn’t go to the face to face part of the course due to his dislike of other dogs, so I did minimal training with him over that 9 months. This was mainly because me and my KPA dog Sweep (Odie’s brother) were beginners so the course work was time consuming for us, but also because, man, Odie was challenging! Shaping with him was so slowwwww. I would get literally 2 or 3 clicks in teaching any behaviour before he would just lie down or walk off. I’m ashamed to say I pretty much gave up with him. I just didn’t have the experience to get the most out of our training sessions.
I changed veterinary practice a couple of years ago from one the dogs had been to their whole lives. The first visit at the new vets was awful. Both dogs were shrinking away from the vets, Odie even growled, something we’d never seen from him during a vet visit before. It took 15 minutes of constant feeding to get each of them through their annual vaccination and even then, I shudder at what they went through. Our vets are amazing and so patient, they even provided more food when I ran out. I was mortified. I realised that I really needed to use my new skills to make my dogs more comfortable in the surgery environment.
I started to investigate husbandry training online and listen to animal training podcasts and then I discovered Animal Training Academy. I joined ATA not long after that horrific vet experience. I really wanted more help with husbandry training and in my opinion, you don’t get much more impressive than exotic animal trainers for that! Once I got access to all the amazing ATA resources, especially the forums, our husbandry training really got a kick start.
I think the game changer for Odie was combining clicker training with giving him the ability to say no. I used a chin target to a towel for much of the husbandry training I did with him at the start. If he lifted his head then I stopped what I was doing. It appeared to me that as soon as he realised he could say “no” by just lifting his head he then said “yes” pretty much all of the time! That’s when we started to really fill our trust account.
I managed to capture the first moment of real achievement in our husbandry training. It is the first time I got real duration with the grooming comb, the thing he used to run away from and no amount of counter-conditioning seemed to help. I’m crying at the end of this video and watching it still brings me to tears. It’s one of my proudest moments.
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The video below shows how he likes to have a good look at the equipment before I work with it but once he’s seen it, he’s happy for me to go ahead with the exercise but at his pace. His chin target is so deliberate, I love it. It’s mostly unedited and just shows how long he will happily sit for training sessions now!
I’m not going to lie, the process of building our trust account has taken about 18 months of regular practice with lots of different things, for example, body tactile, stethoscopes, eye drop bottles, grooming equipment, foot baths, nail clippers, nail boards, toothbrushes, scruff grabs. During that time we managed to train for a hip x-ray that on the day seemed to me to be totally stress free for Odie (not so much for me!). It’s been hard but immensely rewarding work and it has changed our lives.
Now I use a variety of methods as well as the chin rest to achieve results and Odie just goes with it. I always make sure now that I show him whatever equipment I’m working with before approaching him. I notice that this has stopped any flinching when I touch him with the equipment. I always keep a close eye on his body language. If he shrinks away from the equipment I lower my criteria and click and reinforce for that a few times before pushing on.
The biggest compliment I’ve had was from Ryan Cartlidge. After watching my ear cleaning video with Odie he said that I inspired him “with a new benchmark of how pet dog relationships ‘should’ look!” I cried! I can’t tell you much that means to me.
The ear care clip below is our most recent video and I think it’s where I finally realised that Odie is comfortable with just about anything and he trusts me. Our trust account is pretty full!
Clicker training really has been a game changer with Odie. It has given him confidence to try things, made him a problem solver and helped him communicate. For example, he stares at you when he wants something and if you ask him “what do you want?” he will go to the water bowl to tell you he wants water (he will only drink from the bowl if no-one else has drunk from it!), or the door if he wants to go out. If you’re playing with a ball in the garden he will choose which of the several balls he wants you to throw/kick and bring it to you! We love our confident, “chatty” boy!
Since I joined ATA, I’ve had so much help and feedback on my training, plus access to all the resources, that I now have two pretty husbandry savvy dogs. As well as Ryan and the amazing Animal Training Academy tribe, I need to also thank Hannah Branigan, Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson-Vegh for a spectacular workshop on Start Buttons in June 2018 which changed a lot of my thinking on husbandry, and also Laura Monaco-Torelli and Linda Ryan (the husbandry queens) for the workshop that I attended in April 2019 which BLEW.MY.MIND! My dogs (and cats) and I thank you all from the bottom of our hearts 💚
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR – ATA member Carol Milner
Carol Milner (KPA CTP) is a marine biologist and part-time dog trainer (with a passion for cooperative care) living in Weymouth, UK. After a life with ‘perfect’ dog Jack she spent two years fostering dogs for a local charity and as a result became guardian to Odie and Sweep. They had various behavioural issues and after a consultation with a veterinary behaviourist Carol realised that positive reinforcement based training was the way to help them. With a little bit of experience, she signed up for the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional Programme in 2015, completed it in 2016 and hasn’t looked back since! She is the owner of Just Click Pet Training and although she doesn’t currently take paying clients, she shares training videos regularly on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Her three cats Martin, Rhum and Harris also occasionally feature!