Friday, May 31, 2013

First Six Weeks of Petco Obedience Classes: A Review

Today is going to be Margot’s six-week graduation from her obedience training classes at Petco, and I’m perhaps a bit too excited about the fact that Claire, the trainer, is going to have graduation caps for all the dogs.  Hehe!  Can you say, “photo op?”  Margot’s not actually finished with her obedience training, though.  She still has another six weeks to go.  They just “graduate” every six weeks because that’s how the course is broken up, and not everyone pays for the full 12 weeks. 

Anyway, since we have hit the midway point, I thought I’d give a review of what I think of Petco’s obedience training classes so far because, as I’m sure you could probably guess, there are some definite pros and cons.  One of the biggest cons is the fact that there is not a separate training area in the store for classes.  The classes at the Barboursville Petco are taught in a small area right as soon as you walk into the store, and the area is sectioned off by a 3-foot tall divider.  The space is sufficient enough for practicing basic commands, but whenever it comes to practicing “come” or anything that has to do with walking on a leash, each owner has to take turns walking their dog up and down the aisles of Petco around shopping customers, who sometimes have their own dogs in the store.  It’s not a bad thing to train our dogs around so many distractions, but I just don’t feel like it’s a realistic situation for training certain things, especially leash walking, which is our main issue with Margot right now.  When she’s inside the store, she is much more obedient to mine and Justin’s commands because she’s nervous about being in an unfamiliar place.  However, if we take her outside for a walk in our neighborhood, Margot immediately goes into “leader and protector” mode and doesn’t listen to a word Justin or I say.  In other words, she is a completely different dog outside of Petco when it comes to walking on a leash.  So, I asked Claire last week if we would be doing any training exercises outdoors at some point, and she regretfully said that Petco will not allow her to train outdoors for “insurance purposes.”

The upside to all of this, for anyone who may be considering signing up for obedience classes at this particular Petco in the future, is that they are building a much bigger store, complete with a designated training area, which is supposed to be open around Thanksgiving of this year.  I have already suggested to some friends of ours that it might be worth it to wait until the new store is opened in November before signing their dog up for classes.

As for the classes themselves, it is very important to understand that they are not intended for training the dogs.  The purpose is actually to train the dog owners so that you can go home and practice the exercises with your dog until he/she performs them perfectly.  We usually learn two to three commands per class, but we never actually practice them very much there at the store.  We also only go over those commands briefly during the following week’s class before moving on to learning something new.  So, again, you’re not actually paying $200 to have your dog professionally trained.  You’re paying $200 to learn how to train your dog yourself, which I think is smart.  It’s like that old saying, “…Teach a man how to fish, and he eats for life.”  If you don’t take what you learn in class and practice at home with your dog regularly, then you really can’t complain about the classes being a waste of money if your dog still isn’t trained after he/she graduates.

With that said, I do feel like a little more time could be spent practicing each new training exercise with our dogs while we are at Petco because it feels like a lot of our time gets wasted during each class.  For example, it feels like Claire spends anywhere from 10-20 minutes at the end of every class just trying to kill time before her next class shows up.  She does this by handing out worksheets that summarize what we learned in class that day and asking us if we have any questions, but if no one speaks up, she tends to just ramble on about various things until the hour is up.  She also gives the dogs a “play break” and a “pee break” during class, both of which I think are important, but I also think that those time periods could be a little shorter. 

The reason why I personally wish that we could spend more time actually practicing the training exercises with our dogs while in class is because it is next to impossible for Justin and I to practice some of the exercises at home with Margot.  The best example I have is with the loose leash walking.  Claire told us to practice the techniques and exercises that we had just learned in the store that day with our dogs at home, but she told us to walk them around inside our homes several times before attempting to walk them outside.  This is a problem for us because of Sam and Luke.  For one, as soon as Luke and Sam get a whiff of the treats I’m using to train Margot, they swarm me, and then it becomes a competition between the three of them to get a treat.  However, if we try to separate the dogs by putting Luke and Sam upstairs or outside, Margot spends the whole time wondering where her siblings are instead of focusing on the exercise.  So, unfortunately, I really don’t feel like we’ve made much progress, if any, with the leash walking because we never get to practice it with Margot at home, which is why I feel that the more time we can spend practicing with her at Petco, the better. 

On the positive side, there are some areas in which I have seen some very good results.  For example, Margot used to ignore me and Justin completely whenever we’d call her name at the dog park, but now she actually turns her head to look at us and even comes to us (sometimes) whenever we call her, which is a huge improvement.  She has also gotten very good at performing “sit,” “down,” and “stand,” both with verbal commands and with silent hand gestures, which I think is pretty awesome.  In fact, she performs these commands regularly for us at the dog park, and we throw her a tennis ball as her reward for performing them correctly.

So, would I recommend Petco’s first six-week beginner’s dog training course to others?  That’s actually kind of difficult for me to answer because everyone’s situation and reason for wanting to enroll their dog in obedience training is different.  If you are an extremely busy person and you don’t have time to work with your dog at home, then no, you should not waste your time or money (you also probably shouldn’t own a dog if you don’t even have time to train the poor thing, but I digress.).  I do think that I would recommend this first six-week training course to new puppy owners, especially if they’ve never raised a puppy before, because it’s a good bonding experience and it also helps set the foundation for good behavior from your dog as they get older. 

I guess the better question is whether or not I personally feel like these first six weeks of classes have benefited us and Margot, and the answer to that is yes, but not as much as I had hoped.  While I have seen some improvements in behavior and she has learned how to perform some basic commands very well, our main issue continues to be with walking Margot on a leash, and, so far, I do not feel like that problem is being solved by going to these classes.  With that said, I’m not really sure what’s in store for us for the next six weeks of classes, so I am going to stay hopeful. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Time to Catch Up!

I’ve never been good at giving a Cliff’s Notes version of anything, but since so much has happened since the last time I blogged, I’m going to try my best to summarize:

·         Margot and Luke continued to have random incidents of aggression at the dog park, so a couple of months ago I put my foot down and decided that I wasn’t taking them back until I had taken at least a couple of obedience classes with Margot.
·         Zach and Kristy’s downstairs neighbor, who is quite old and who is also the only tenant in their apartment building who doesn’t own a dog, complained to their landlord about Frank barking “non-stop.”  Zach and Kristy were afraid that they were going to be asked to get rid of their puppy, so I volunteered to crate-train him at my house.  I slept on a futon mattress beside his crate for a couple of nights, just like I did when Margot was a baby, and then Kristy started sleeping over at my house so that she could correct him during the night instead of me.  After a week of this, Frank was much, MUCH better in his crate at night, and he started sleeping back over at his own house again.   Despite the fact that Frank’s toleration of his crate at night had improved by about 95%, he did develop a potty schedule where he’d wake up at 4:00 am, bark, and then Kristy would immediately let him out to take him outside to pee.  Then, to keep Frank quiet, she’d put him in the bed for the rest of the night/morning.   Unfortunately, the downstairs neighbor wasn’t very tolerant of Frank’s one time per night, 4:00 am barking, and she decided to complain to the landlord again.  As a result, after all of mine and Kristy’s sleepless nights trying to get Frank used to his crate over at my house, Zach and Kristy have decided that they have no other choice than to allow Frank to sleep in their bed at night.   We have also become Frank’s doggy daycare, as they crate him over at our house during the day.  It’s the only way to keep their crotchety, old neighbor (and the landlord) off their backs.   Subsequently, they have amped up their search for a house.
·         Luke has been a terror over the last month.  It’s funny, because whenever you look at him, your heart just melts because he looks like such a sweet, innocent dog.  You can’t imagine that this dog would ever misbehave, but, oh, does he ever!  In the past month, Luke has chewed and destroyed not one, not two, but three TV remote controls!  I just keep the replacement remote on my Amazon wish list now so that I can pull it up quickly and order a new one whenever we find one destroyed.  Justin and I are trying to remember to put the remote up on the mantle whenever Luke is in the living room by himself, but the other day I went upstairs to take a shower and forgot.  I was seriously only upstairs for about ten minutes, but when I came back down, I found another destroyed remote. 

Perhaps even worse than the destroyed remotes, however, is the fact that we came home last week to find that Luke had peed on our BRAND NEW sofa!  I mean, what dog just pees on a sofa?!?!?  Um, that would be our sweet, innocent-looking, little Luke.   Needless to say, Luke is now being crated just about every time we leave the room for more than a few minutes.  He hasn’t had any problems with staying in the crate, though, which is a relief.  He and Frank even share the crate during the day when we all go to work. 

Okay, that just about brings us up to date.  The main thing I wanted to talk about is the fact that Margot has now enrolled in obedience training at Petco!  FINALLY!  It turns out that the dog trainer, Claire, had fallen ill suddenly with some gallbladder issues, which is why it took her so long to get the classes started.   After she told me that, I felt bad for being so frustrated about her not calling me, but Claire is doing fine now, and classes started three weeks ago.

There are two other dogs in Margot’s class, Sully and Zoe, who are both around Margot’s age.  Sully is a beautiful, white, rambunctious, male Pit mix who is FULL of energy!  Zoe is a cute Boxer female, who is probably one of the more mellow Boxers I’ve ever met.  Margot was a bit anxious during her first class, as was I, because Sully kept trying to initiate playtime with Margot, and Margot would have been happy to oblige, but of course we wouldn’t allow that to happen during class.  So, as a result, Margot would let out these loud barks and moans/growls, which Justin and I recognized as just sounds of frustration for her, but to everyone else, I was afraid that everyone else was mistaking Margot’s behavior as being a form of aggression towards Sully.  We kept explaining to Sully’s parents and to Claire that Margot isn’t used to meeting new dogs while on her leash.  She’s used to being set free at the dog park and being allowed to do the usual doggy greeting ritual of sniff-sniff-PLAY!  They all seemed pretty understanding, and Claire even gave Margot, Sully, and Zoe an opportunity to interact a little more towards the end of class that day.   At the following week’s class, Claire even allowed the pups to have a play break and made all of the owners leave the training area to give them room to romp and wrestle.  Ironically, as soon as all of the owners left, our puppies became so concerned that they no longer wanted to play together.  They just wanted us to come back! 

As for the classes themselves and what we have been learning, so far I am pleased.  The first class was very basic.  Claire just wanted to get the dogs used to the fact that we will reward them with treats whenever they do something that pleases us.  She also wanted to get started on teaching them one of the most important commands, “Come.”   She introduced us to The Name Game, which is when one person has the dog’s attention, and the other person then says the dog’s name.  If the dog turns his/her head towards the person who said his/her name, then that behavior is rewarded with a treat and praise.  If the dog doesn’t look right away when his/her name is called, the other person is NOT allowed to repeat the dog’s name, which actually takes some practice because you naturally want to call the dog’s name again if he/she doesn’t respond the first time.  However, instead of repeating the dog’s name, the other person is supposed to just make noise until the dog finally looks at them, and then that gets rewarded with another treat and praise.   Justin and I will practice this exercise at night while we’re watching TV, especially if Justin is sharing his apple or some popcorn with the dogs.  While Margot is staring at Justin’s snack, I will say her name, and then we reward her with a bite of Justin’s snack whenever she looks at me. 

As for teaching Margot the “come” command, all Claire has us do is show Margot that we have a treat in our hand, then say, “Margot, come!” before running down the aisle at Petco.  If Margot runs after us, we “jackpot” her, which is when you reward her with five treats, but given to her one at a time.  We’ve practiced this command at all three classes, and during our last class Claire extended the distance in which we ran from Margot to see if Margot would follow us the whole way.  When Margot did, indeed, follow us the entire length of the aisle, Claire seemed very impressed and kept praising Margot for being so smart.  However, all this time, Justin and I have thought this exercise was kind of silly.  I mean, after showing Margot a handful of treats and then running away from her, of course she is going to chase after us!  We couldn’t believe it when Claire said that a lot of puppies in her classes haven’t been following their owners all the way to the end of the aisle the same way Margot did.  However, when I went over to Zach and Kristy’s that evening to practice with Frank what we learned in class that day, Frank did not chase after me when I practiced the “come” command with him.  So, I guess Claire was right.  Not all dogs are as eager to chase their owners for a handful of treats as Margot is.  That being said, I’m still not convinced that Margot is actually learning the “come” command.  I still think that she’s just chasing us for treats.  Unfortunately, this is the one command that Justin and I haven’t been able to practice with Margot much at home.  It’s just too difficult with Sam and Luke in the house because all they do is interrupt our training exercise by trying to get a treat for themselves. 

During our second training class, Claire taught us how to train our puppies to “sit” and “lie down” by luring their noses with treats.  Margot, Sully, and Zoe all knew the “sit” command already, but none of them had learned it the way Claire taught us that day, which is to hold the treat in front of their noses, and then slowly raise your hand up and over the top of the dog’s head.  As the dog raises their head to follow the treat, they will naturally sit.  She told us that the reason it is important to train them with this method is because, eventually, they learn to respond to the non-verbal command of simply raising your hand, even if you don’t have a treat.  The same thing is true for “lie down.”  To get them to perform this command, Claire had us hold the treat in front of their noses, and then we slowly lowered our hands to the ground until the dogs finally laid down to receive their treats. 

At last week’s class, Claire proved to us that our dogs were already learning non-verbal commands when she held up her hand to Zoe, and Zoe immediately sat.  Justin then held his hand up to Margot, and she immediately sat, too.  Then, Justin made the “down” gesture, and Margot laid down!  We also learned the “stand” command that day, and by the end of class, Margot was even standing with a non-verbal hand gesture!  I was so proud, I could’ve burst!  Margot also did really well with the other exercise we did last week, which was sitting by our side on command while walking.  We would walk a few steps, then stop, and tell Margot to sit.  If she sat by our side facing the same direction in which we were walking, she received a reward.  However, she did not receive a reward if she circled around to face us first before sitting, but Margot only did that a couple of times. 

At last week’s class, before class got started, I also mentioned to Claire that Margot’s behavior at the dog park lately has been really disappointing me because she’s been showing some aggression towards other dogs and I can’t figure out why.  In fact, I had to leave the dog park early two days in a row last week because Margot and Luke were picking on this one certain beagle, who didn’t seem to be provoking either of them.   Claire asked if Margot was very socialized as a young puppy, and I told her that she was, very much in fact.  I then mentioned that this behavior seemed to start around the same time we got Luke, and I asked if that could have anything to do with it.  After all, Luke wasn’t raised by us as a young pup, he’s a male, and he definitely seems to have more of a desire to assert dominance than Margot does.  Claire said that it is possible that Margot could be picking up some of Luke’s behaviors, and she suggested that we try taking them to the dog park separately to see if they still behave this way. 

Later during class, Claire had given Zoe and Margot a bunch of toys to play with while she spoke to us about what we were going to learn that day (Sully was absent last week).   Suddenly, while Margot and Zoe were kind of milling around the toys together, Margot kind of growled at Zoe.  We immediately pulled her away from Zoe, but then I looked at Claire and said, “See?  What was that?”  Claire replied, “That was aggression.  It was probably due to these toys, and you had told me that Margot had some incidents with toy aggression, so I shouldn’t have even given them toys.  That was my fault.”  Then, as Claire was gathering all the toys and putting them away, I asked her what I should do whenever Margot behaves that way towards another dog.  I asked if I should just write that off as one single incident, or does this mean that Margot and Zoe simply do not get along?   Claire told me that, first of all, it was an isolated incident, and just because Margot showed some aggression towards Zoe over a toy doesn’t meant that Margot and Zoe are never going to get along.  After all, Claire pointed out that they had never had any trouble interacting at any of the previous classes.  Secondly, Claire told me that it is very important that I remain calm whenever an incident like that occurs and simply remove Margot from the situation.  She said that if I freak out and start yelling, Margot will feed off my energy and intensify her own behavior.   Thankfully, after the toys were put away, Margot did not show anymore aggression towards Zoe.

I decided to take Claire’s advice, and we took Margot to the dog park without Luke this past Sunday.  Upon entering the dog park, Margot seemed a little more anxious than usual.  She was growling at the other dogs who had come to greet her at the gate, and her fur was standing up on her back and neck.  I didn’t yell at her, though, and I simply let her enter the dog park off her leash.   I kept a close eye on her, and after a few minutes of non-aggressive butt-sniffing, her fur settled down on her back and she seemed to relax.  Everything was going pretty well, until a Luke look-alike entered the dog park.  For whatever reason, shortly after greeting each other, Margot started growling and wrestling a little too aggressively with the Golden Retriever, named Scout.  I remembered to stay calm, and I simply pulled Margot away from Scout by her collar.  Then, Scout’s owner ran over to Scout all worried and was saying things like, “Awww!  Scout, are you okay, baby?”  As much as I understand why Scout’s owner might have been a little concerned, I also knew that the incident was NOT that bad, and there was no reason to be THAT concerned.    Furthermore, I am a firm believer that you should never baby your dog like that unless something MAJOR happens, like if blood is drawn.  Babying your dog is like rewarding your dog for being weak, which is especially not a good thing if you are bringing your dog to a dog park. 

Anyway, I took Margot towards the bottom of the hill to find a ball as a way to distract her from Scout.  As we were looking for a ball, though, Scout came down the hill, and the same behavior started up again between the two.  It was like Scout was curious  and kind of wanted to play with Margot, but Margot was obviously playing much rougher than Scout had anticipated, which then frightened Scout and made Margot even more aggressive. 

After pulling Margot away from Scout the second time, and especially after the way Scout’s owner had reacted the first time, I then became a little worried that Scout’s owner might become angry at Margot and, subsequently, me and Justin.   In fact, that’s my biggest fear whenever these incidents occur at the dog park.  I’m actually more worried about what the other dog owners think of me than I am about Margot.  Anyway, I decided the best thing I could do was try to keep Margot as far away from Scout as possible.  So, I started throwing tennis balls for Margot at the bottom of the hill while Scout, thankfully, stayed at the top of the hill.  While Margot and I were playing ball, I started practicing her “sit-down-stand” hand signals, and I rewarded her by throwing the ball.  For the first time ever at the dog park, Margot seemed completely focused on me the whole time we were playing.  Even when other dogs would approach and/or run around us, she never took her attention off of me.  Justin and I also noted that Margot had responded much better to both of us whenever we called her name. 

After a while, Scout’s owner actually approached me and commented about how well Margot was doing with performing those commands.  I was beyond relieved that she didn’t seem upset at all about Margot behaving aggressively towards Scout earlier, and I was very flattered by her compliment on Margot’s training.  As we talked, I told her how glad I was that she seemed so understanding about those two prior incidents between Margot and Scout, and she assured me that those types of incidents happen at the dog park all the time.  Not only that, but she said that Margot’s not the only dog who has ever gotten aggressive towards Scout.  She even kind of blamed Scout for “egging dogs on sometimes, “ like when she followed me and Margot down the hill earlier.  Again, words cannot even express how relieved I was to hear these words coming from this woman that day.

I went home that night feeling very positive, not only about our visit to the dog park, but about Margot’s training in general.   Seeing Margot respond better when we called her name, and especially seeing how attentive she was to me while we were playing ball, despite all of the distractions at the dog park, proved to me that these obedience classes are going to be worth the time and money when it’s all said and done.  Also, thanks in large part to my conversation with Scout’s owner, I learned that day that I can stay calm, diffuse an incident of aggression with Margot, and I shouldn’t waste any time worrying about what the other dog owner’s think about me or my dog.  After all, by removing Margot and distracting her in order to prevent any further incidents, I am being a good, pro-active dog owner, and hopefully the other dog owners will recognize that.  In the meantime, I’m feeling pretty confident that Margot will continue to do well in her obedience classes, and these types of incidents will occur much less frequently in the future.