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The Unsexy Hallmarks of Good Training

Posted by Jean McCord on March 6, 2017 at 3:00 PM Comments comments (1)

What makes a good trainer (and a happy dog)? In my opinion, it boils down to two vital things - mastery of the mechanics, and patience.

Fortunately, both can be developed with practice. Unfortunately, neither is ‘sexy’ so some folks who want a quick end product have a hard time accepting clicker training as a viable training option.

Most of us who are instructors are hooked on the process of learning. As trainers, we work step by small step with our charges and with ourselves - laying the vital foundation upon which a lifetime of learning will take place. We understand and accept that learning is not on a linear pathway, but has its peaks and valleys - and plateaus. We thrill at the ‘lightbulb moments.’ We get creative when our dogs get stuck. We cherish the try. We appreciate the unique path that each dog takes during its life of learning with (and from) us.

The first steps we MUST take are to develop the mental and physical skills required to communicate clearly to our dogs. We must learn what a behavior actually is, and develop the observational skills to see minute changes in our dogs. And we must understand the basics of how reinforcement and punishment work, and why one is better than the other for training.

If you’re not a behavior geek, this is just a pure slog to get. It’s complex and can be confusing. But once grasped, it opens up the entire world to us; we can see the dots that connect environment and behavior and - more importantly - the strands that combine to form the deep bonds between us and our dogs.

Then, we must practice the physical, mechanical skills of clicker training. We must develop the timing of the click and the delivery of the prize all while holding on to a leash, watching the dog and trying not to unwittingly add any extraneous cues to the process (for example, moving the hand toward the treat pouch before clicking, or performing any of a multitude of small or large body movements that will influence the dog).

Again - this all takes unsexy practice, and a mind open to critique.

Now every instructor has occasional students who just want results, and the faster the better. I sometimes think that this Occasional Student approaches dog training a little like computer programming - enter the correct data and we will receive the desired results.

But, of course, a dog isn’t a computer. A dog has emotional responses, individual priorities, a history of (often unintentional) reinforcement and genetics all colliding and influencing behavior at any given moment. We are sometimes clueless, since our sensory equipment doesn’t even allow us to perceive some of the influences.

The result? We think we’re very clear and concise in our data entry, but it comes out sideways. Every parent on the planet is aware of this phenomenon - ‘where did THAT come from?’ The trick is, to view our dogs the same way. They are perpetual small children when it comes to learning. What goes in, isn’t necessarily what comes out.

This inescapable fact can result in huge problems for the results-oriented trainer. As human beings, we can have a driving desire to step in and help our dogs DO a behavior, rather than stepping back and allowing our dogs to LEARN. Because the focus is on the end result rather than the process, we see people pushing down on their dogs’ hips to get a sit. Or repeating a cue ad nauseum. Or yelling, popping the leash, bribing...all because their dogs were never given the space to learn how to learn. Instead, they’ve learned how to hold out for help or - in a worse-case scenario - force.

And this brings us to the hallmark of all good trainers - patience. Patience to learn about one’s dog as an individual and understand what motivates and worries him. Patience with the training process - taking the time to closely observe, to learn about how reinforcement works, the best way to hold the leash, when to click, how to deliver the prize.

No living creature ever stops learning. No living creature ever stops trying, making mistakes, redirecting, sometimes losing, sometimes succeeding. As both trainer and instructor, I continue to do all of these things. 

Studies of children indicate that they tend to go for instant gratification even when they know that if they wait, they will get more of what they want. The ability to buck that trend while working with our dogs will result in a happier dog and a better relationship. Isn't that worth a bit of patience?

The Joy of Being Dog

Posted by Jean McCord on June 3, 2011 at 7:49 PM Comments comments (0)

I love it when my dogs wear big happy grins.

During our evening walk, a lone ruddy doe ran across the northwest corner of the meadow, ambivalently flagging the large white tail for which her kind is named. The dogs saw her, of course, but the thigh- and hip-high meadow grasses visually impaired my knee-high sighthounds. So while she ran straight across the field and then over the stone wall into the woods beyond, the dogs took the more scenic route, curving down toward the brook and disappearing along the trail that split the wall and paralleled the water’s edge while cutting through the trees to the north.

It was a short but exciting chase - if one can describe as a “chase” different trajectories travelled by chaser and chasee. But after a few seconds and a dip in the brook, the dogs emerged from the woods and proceeded to chase one another through the tall grass and around the brush.

A short but satisfying chase, after all.

Here's some video of the whippets enjoying some particularly good rolling. Chipmunk starts it off, then Tess comes in and has a real rollfest. Revel isn't at all sure what all the excitement is about, but gives it a try. He's not sold on the experience...


Posted by Jean McCord on June 3, 2011 at 9:22 AM Comments comments (0)

Once again, I have proven the (perhaps general) suspicion that I’m certifiable by, well, being certified.

On Memorial Day I fulfilled the final requirements to become a Certified Nose Work Instructor (CNWI) through the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW). I actually started on this path in March 2010 when I attended an Introduction to Nose Work seminar given by two of the K9 Nose Work founders, Jill Marie O’Brien and Amy Herot.

I was hooked before the first break. This amuses me, because several months earlier when I’d first seen a brochure about the activity I thought - well, I have no interest in THAT! I was attending a Dogs of Course workshop during which host Dana Crevling announced that she was bringing the K9 Nose Work founders out to introduce this new dog sport to the east coast. Something about Dana’s description and some subsequent comments piqued my curiosity so I signed up.

And almost immediately became certifiable.

I jumped in with both feet, starting as both co-instructor and student (with my shy Tess) before the month was over. When Jill Marie and Amy came back in May to offer the Intro to Odor workshop, I was there with bells on to learn about this next step - even though it would be weeks before we first students introduced our own dogs to birch scent (the essential oil we use in level one NW).

Dana was a whirlwind of activity that spring, hosting K9 Nose Work workshops up and down the east coast. While they were at it, she and the founders put together the very first Nose Work Camp - to be held in Pennsylvania over the Labor Day Weekend with an optional 4th day for those who wanted to become instructors.

Needless to say, Tess and I were there, where we met third founder Ron Gaunt and many other generous and knowledgable CNWIs: Barbara Schwerdt from California, Jacy Kelley from Virginia, Gail McCarthy from the Massachusetts town that abuts my own.

And then there were the other campers - like-minded folks who loved their dogs as much as I love mine, and who had similarly developed a passion for the sport of nose work. I’ve been fortunate enough to see all these wonderful people on several occasions since, as we’ve journeyed together through the certification process. There was a NW workshop weekend held during a chilly December weekend in Maryland, and then days two through four of the required instructor’s workshops in New Jersey in March.

We all returned to NJ again over Memorial Day for days five through seven, again expertly guided by Amy and Ron with Jill Marie back in California keeping track of all of our fulfilled and still-needed requirements. We sat for our two hour certification exam on Monday morning as the Madison NJ Memorial Day parade marched to bagpipes and drums past the front window of the St. Hubert’s training center. When everyone was done, we exchanged exams and went through each question with Ron and Amy explaining the correct answers and listening with interest to our explanations of answers that deviated from the expected.

By the lunch break we knew - all had passed with the required 85% or better and about a dozen of us would be CNWIs by June 1st. I’m happy and proud to report that I, Carolyn Barney and Dana Crevling were all within that first group.

This has been an amazing journey for me, moving swiftly from disinterest to passion. It has changed me, and greatly improved life for Tess, who over the last year has made enormous improvement in confidence level and sense of personal security. I owe so much to so many for guiding me to and through this journey - Dana for hosting K9 Nose Work events in New England; Amy, Ron and Jill Marie for their patient coaching and incredible knowledge base; Carolyn for taking me on as both co-instructor and student and being (once again) friend and mentor throughout; Jacy, Barbara and Gail for continued help and support; students and fellow instructors-in-training for sharing their experiences and their dogs with the rest of us.

Tess searches the exterior area at a recent mock nose work trial

And, of course - the dogs. The dogs are always the best teachers of all. The dogs are why I began, why I got sucked in, why I love it, why I can’t wait for this year’s camp to begin so I can once again immerse myself in all they have to show me. When it comes to scent work, they will always be the experts and I will be the eager student.

Rites of Spring

Posted by Jean McCord on May 24, 2011 at 3:15 PM Comments comments (0)

Early one morning last week, my dreams were filled with the darting, shimmering, bright forms of hummingbirds.

About 24 hours later, I saw this year’s first hummingbird visitor at my feeder. It was the last piece of the spring puzzle I’ve been assembling in my mind.

When I go out for the dogs’ runs, I love taking note of whatever the new day brings. This time of year, each day offers much for my eager eyes to notice. We live in the woods, and our property is surrounded by swamp and bordered on the west by the Heath Hen Meadow Brook.  Signs of spring come early, here.

On a walk at the end of February, I heard the unmistakable calls of the year’s first red wing blackbirds. Sure enough, there were a few hardy souls perched in trees at the brooks edge, despite the fact that winter ice still held the brook in its firm grip. My heart fluttered at the knowledge that the blackbirds had returned; spring would be around the bend (still a good long bend, though).

A month later, I was out with the dogs when I heard the first peepers of the season. These small frogs fill our woods with their tenor peeps throughout the warmer months.  What a welcome sound!

Other spring markers have appeared, both easy and not so easy to detect. It was a bad year for deer ticks - before the frost had left the ground, these sesame-seed sized arachnids had begun to emerge from the leaf litter and speckle the dogs’ coats and my pants legs (despite my rigorous practice of tucking my pants into my muck boots any time I head out on a walk). In late April, the dogs and I started being accompanied by squadrons of black flies, New England’s certain harbinger of Spring. As the black flies began to diminish in mid-May, they were replaced with clouds of mosquitoes.

The goldfinches at my thistle feeder have changed out of their dull olive winter garb and now sport bright yellow jackets. The juncos have departed for their northern nesting grounds; rather than seeing their plump black and gray bodies searching the ground under the feeders for cast off seed, I now see the chestnut-colored chipmunks and red squirrels, hungry after their winter slumber. They are so plentiful this year that the dogs are regularly blasting through their dog door to bark and chase the marauding rodents under cover.

A couple of weeks ago my husband went into the barn only to be dive bombed by the small bird homesteading therein. The grass in the meadow is up to my knees, and the year’s crop of poison ivy has appeared in all its shiny three-leafed glory. (I’ve heard that the colonists planted poison ivy around their homes because of the brilliant autumn foliage. I think I’ll stick with asters and mums.)

Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of spring is the lengthened day. I love taking the dogs out about an hour or so prior to sunset - now, around 6:30ish - when the early evening sunlight is rich as syrup. Now, we’ve had about 10 consecutive days of rain and the wet, misty woods and meadow are magical at that time of day. Each footfall in the tall grass causes an upward eruption of thousand of mosquitoes; they are a good incentive for us to keep moving. Lingering is not to be considered.

The dogs are also appreciating the arrival of spring as evidenced by their intensified attention to their surroundings. Mysterious sounds off the trail send them bounding through the underbrush. The chipmunks make good hunting and the skilled and resourceful Tess has already plucked a couple of the hapless creatures from the safety of their stone wall dwellings. I do feel badly for the little guys, but the dogs are so joyful in their hunt that I can’t help but cheer them on. And the chipmunks have the home advantage, after all.

Then, there’s nothing like a dash through the swamp and - if I’m lucky - a swim in the brook or one of the ponds. It’s definitely dirty dog season!

So we enjoy our time together in the woods and I continue to marvel at the season’s offerings. Soon enough, the deliciously fragrant milkweed will be in bloom, the air will be filled with the drone of cicadas and the deer flies will be upon us. I will take all the pleasure I can from this unseasonably cool spring; summer’s gifts are just around the corner.



Posted by Jean McCord on March 19, 2011 at 11:37 AM Comments comments (2)

I've been contemplating life.

Actually, I've been contemplating a life - Griffin's. And his death.

 For over 15 years I've done my best to give him a good life. Now, I owe it to him to ensure a good death.

Griffin was born June 29, 1995. He was pick puppy and his generous breeder let me have him in hopes that I could achieve some of my competition dreams. He was the first dog I titled in conformation (he finished with three majors, one at a regional specialty, and he earned a Select award at one of the whippet national specialties). He was the first dog I titled in obedience (despite the fact that we earned his last leg during one of my bitches' heat cycles. His brain was NOT in his head that day!). He was my first dog to earn his Lure Courser of Merit title (requiring 300 points and four first placements). He raced in three different venues and earned points there as well.

All of these accomplishments earned Griffin an Award of Versatility from the American Whippet Club. They also represent a lot of time spent together, a lot of training, and a lot of patience from both of us.

Griffin was a strong young dog. He wasn't the speediest dog on the field or track, goodness knows; but he had heart. Lots and lots of heart. He would barrell in to the finish at full speed, either catching the moving bag and sliding in on his chest or grabbing the bag at rest and taking a tumble. More than once,  he pulled me over at the start line when he launched himself forward at "tally ho!".  He also took me out a time or two at the finish when I neglected to pay enough attention. And he ALWAYS left the field backwards. He kept those bags in view and didn't turn around until they were out of sight.

He was very independent - too independent, I thought. When we went out on our runs, his attentiveness to me was questionable at best. My wishes just didn't make it onto his radar. I decided we needed to enroll in an obedience class. He was good at it. My handling was OK, as I remember it. I enjoyed the positive methods being used (my previous experience with obedience classes had involved a lot of metal collars and a lot of firm jerks to the leash - ugh). So when the session was over, we enrolled in another. And another. And on until we found ourselves in the competition classes that led to his CD (AKC’s Companion Dog title).

One of our high points was the year we competed in the triathlon - conformation, obedience and lure coursing - at a national specialty. Griffin took second place in the obedience trial - and one of his legs for the CD - and third place overall. It was a wonderful tribute to our partnership; despite the excitement of earning a placement, it was the relationship it represented that mattered most to me.

Our foray into obedience training changed the course of my life. After two or three years of training, I began assisting the beginner classes. Assisting allowed me to learn so much about training and canine behavior; it also allowed me to take other classes, expanding my horizons to include such venues as Rally O and agility. In 2002 I was asked to become an instructor. Over the intervening years I have continued to pursue knowledge about behavior and training methodology and to broaden my horizons.  And each time I look back over my life in dog training, I see Griffin - companion, partner, teacher.

His competitive life was shortened by bone spurs in both shoulders. All those slides in to the finish took their toll. First, he stopped lure coursing and racing. And we stopped training for the open class in obedience; his front end couldn’t handle the repeated concussion  of landing the required jumps. He was not yet six years old. As he aged he developed some other issues. When he was about 10 years old, he was diagnosed with a heart murmer that slowly progressed to advanced  heart disease.

About a year or so ago, he started having some bowel incontinence. At first, it was just a matter of urgency - he’d wake up and realize he needed to go out - NOW - but couldn’t make it. Over time, he stopped waking up and just pooped in his sleep, whereever he happened to be.  Our current home decor consists of blankets on all dog beds and bed sheets on the sofas. As his vision started to decline, he also began having difficulty finding his way out through the dog door at night when he needed to pee. So we have a clean up station, with towels and cleaner. And I do a lot of laundry.

For over two months I’ve slept on the sofa in the living room so that I can take care of him overnight when he needs it. I help him outside when he can make it that far, clean up after him when he can’t, bathe him, help him find his feet when he slips and falls, lie next to him on his bed and listen to his grunts and moans of pleasure as he rubs his face in my upturned hand. I support him as I spoon feed him his meals, and feed him whenever he seems hungry. I maintain that all important connection that we formed those many years ago when he was young and strong and “too independent.”

These are the kinds of things one does for a beloved geriatric dog. It’s never a question of convenience or work load. It just is. And in this case, the care I provide is done to honor the dog he is and was. I feel I owe it to that heart, that independent spirit that is now so very dependent on me.

But the question that invariably arises is, when have we had enough? Sometime in late January I called my vet and put him on notice that Griffin was in decline. A couple of Saturdays later I called back and said it was time to schedule an appointment. By the time he returned my call on Monday, I’d changed my mind. Griffin had rallied. His appetite was good. He wasn’t ready.

Last weekend I had to go away for four days for a nose work instructor training workshop. I knew my absence would have a negative effect on Griffin because during each of the two or three times I’ve been away over the last six months he’s lost a little more ground. But this time he had already used up all of his reserves.

Sure enough, he didn’t eat well while I was away. And despite my best efforts I was unable to kick start his appetite after my return. He had diarrhea. It was time.

On St. Patrick's Day, a lovely early spring day, our wonderful vet made a housecall. I had the other dogs in another room; Griffin was lying on the dog bed by the kitchen table. I knelt at his head and stroked his face, my tears falling freely and soaking into his fur, as we sent him to his final rest.

We gave the other dogs an opportunity to bid farewell to the dog who’s always been present in all of their lives. They accompanied us as I  carried him down the hill to his waiting grave. A couple of them even climbed down in the hole, tails wagging, to give him the final sniffs that would speed him on his way.


He had a lot of heart; he was strong, right up to the very end. The house isn’t the same without him. His presence in my life changed its course. I’ve done my very best to give him a good life and to honor him by giving him a good death. Isn’t that what it’s all about?


One last word of farewell, Dear Master and Mistress. Whenever you visit my grave, say to yourselves with regret but also with happiness in your hearts at the remembrance of my long happy life with you: "Here lies one who loved us and whom we loved". No matter how deep my sleep I shall hear you, and not all the power of death can keep my spirit from wagging a grateful tail.


--Eugene O’Neill


What's befallen

Posted by Jean McCord on November 19, 2010 at 1:26 PM Comments comments (0)

Seasons have changed, from mild early summer through July's hot draught and August's perfect summer weather. A beautiful long autumn has now faded to an often grey, but mild, November. The wild turkeys are not in evidence; I wonder why? Deer and coywolves, however, are very much so. (More on coywolves later.)

The months have been full; lots of K9 guests (mercy, August was a tad chaotic!) and many wonderful long - albeit buggy - walks through the woods with the whippets. Mid summer saw me geared up in a wide brimmed hat with netting that covered my face and neck. People may have laughed at my appearance (also in muck boots, and wielding walking poles) but I was protected from the deer flies. Those of us who have lived in New England for decades are familiar with the warmer seasons: deer tick, black fly, followed by mosquito, then dog tick, deer fly, (continuing mosquito) and back to deer tick. I'm so thankful for the whippet's short coats; those deer ticks I don't see, I can comb away with a flea comb. I wish my self-search was as easy...

Over Labor Day, Tess and I traveled to Pennsylvania with Carolyn and Stieff for 5 days of K9 Nose Work Camp. Beautifully organized by Dana Crevling of Dogs Of Course, instructors included K9NW founders Jill-Marie O'Brien, Amy Herot and Ron Gaunt. It was so much fun, and we learned so much, that we plan to go back next year. In the mean time, Tess and I will leave for Columbia, MD on Dec. 2 for a weekend of nose work at the Coventry School for Dogs. I can't wait!!

Our nose work classes have been wonderful; my first (and continuing) Sunday evening class started out with four fabulous dogs and we are waiting to launch the second class as soon as it fills. Come on, folks - we're looking down the barrel of at least four months of cold, wet, short days - get out there with your dogs and have more fun than you could ever anticipate!!

Now, what was that earlier reference about coywolves?? Did you know that our "eastern coyote" is actually a hybrid of the western coyote and the eastern wolf? After the native red wolves were hunted to extinction in the wild (they have since been successfully reintroduced in the wilds of eastern North Carolina, in the 1980s) these eastern coyotes, or 'coywolves,' are our largest canid predators. They are fascinating creatures, whose ethereal nighttime howls and yips can now be heard in our woods with the coming cold weather. As happened last year, I am monitoring a deer kill along our walking trail; the whippets aren't sure weather to mark the carcass or snack on it ~ If you're interested in learning more about coywolves, and supporting the only research project that's studying them, please visit the website of Massachusetts native Jon Way, PhD: www.easterncoyoteresearch.com.

Nosey business

Posted by Jean McCord on June 27, 2010 at 10:19 PM Comments comments (0)

Does your dog have a nose for Nose Work?

The simple answer is YES!

Dogs' keenest sense is that of smell. They live in a world of scent that is beyond our imagination.  From birth, dogs use the sense of smell to explore and process the environment.  Nose Work classes offer dogs the opportunity to use this most natural means of exploration to find bits of food or very special toys hidden amongst a collection of boxes. The process is similar to that used with detection dogs; but while detection work demands just the right kind of dog and handler, ANY DOG can participate in Nose Work. Because dogs work singly and are crated when not working, this activity is perfect for dogs who are reactive or shy when in a group setting. Classes are managed in such a way that participants' focus can be fully on the work at hand...or should I say, the work at nose?

Classes are held Sundays at 6:30 and 7:45 p.m. Registration is through Dogs! Learning Center; links are on the home page.

Dog Days

Posted by Jean McCord on June 25, 2010 at 12:07 PM Comments comments (0)

Well, summer is here. When the dogs and I set out for our walks, we are accompanied by the doppler drone of deerflies.  Water in the ponds, pools and brook has receded to the degree that the dogs are  more likely to get mud treatments than dips. Each time the abutting field is mowed, the resident garter snake population takes a hit; Tess is especially skilled at finding snake bits and rolling on them with great glee and abandon. On Thursday, she came home particularly disgusting and ended up on the receiving end of her first full bath (at 3+ years of age....). Each day we go out, the floral landscape seems to have changed - some of the little wildflowers that dot our woodland have disappeared and others have taken their place. The grasses and ferns in the swamp are enormous - as are the mosquitos that hail from it. No more coyote sightings (thankfully!) but it seems that every few steps trigger chipmunk trills; the whippets are constantly leaping and dashing into the woods hoping to catch them.

There's a bumper crop of chipmunks up by the house. They stuff themselves on bird seed and chase each other around and about. They're often seen either disappearing into crevices between the rocks, or peering out of them. Above their scamperings, hummingbirds are busy at the feeder and the newly blooming bee balm.  I spend hours in my garden, weeding, mulching, planting, and pausing to watch the furred and feathered wild things that share our space.

Summer is here. LIfe is sweet! Get out with your dogs and enjoy it, and them. Life is short, and theirs is shorter still; time for walks, play and training is the best way to share the love.

DogFest a hit!

Posted by Jean McCord on May 24, 2010 at 2:10 PM Comments comments (0)

DogFest was fun for all, held on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Dogs and their people came out to socialize and play; once again, the big draw was the lure coursing. We had many dogs running, and several ran more than once! Visitors also enjoyed using the agility equipment, running the Rally O course and schmoozing with all of us about the important things - belly rubs, good treats, and maintaining good health and behavioral soundness. A big thank you to Dr. Randy Caviness of Integrative Animal Health Center in Bolton, and to Paul Emerson, Mary Durham, Bridget DesRoches and Lisa Bert of Family Dog Training in Hudson. And, of course, to all of you who brought your wonderful dogs for us to meet, see again, and interact with.

Join us at Stow SpringFest's DogFest

Posted by Jean McCord on May 10, 2010 at 11:44 PM Comments comments (0)

FairPlay Dog Services, Family Dog Training and Dr. Randy Caviness of Integrative Animal Health Center in Bolton will present DogFest in Stow on Sunday, May 16. Events will include lure coursing (dogs chase a "bunny" aka plastic bags through a series of pullies), Rally O try-its, nose work, agility try-its, carting demos and more! Certified professional dog trainers will answer training and behavior questions; Dr. Caviness will explain the benefits of acupuncture and chiropractic for pets.

DogFest will take place from 12-3 p.m. at Center School, on route 117 just west of the traffic lights in Stow's center. In the event of rain, all events will be cancelled. Please check back for weather updates!