Donna has had a lifelong love affair with dogs and is fascinated with dog behavior. She has broad practical experience in the dog world: volunteering and working in kennels and shelters, dog sitting and walking, fostering rescue dogs, teaching behavior modification privately, and teaching reactive dog classes. She also has a background in zoology and teaching.
She is active locally as co-founder and professional member of Vancouver Island Animal Training Association (VIATA) and the founder and instructor for the Service Dog Training Institute.
Donna has competed in agility, flyball, and rally O and teaches people to train their own service dogs.
To be released 7/13/2018, featuring Stacy Barnett talking about tailoring your nosework training (or really any training) to your dog's unique strengths.
Today we’ll be talking to Donna Hill.
Donna has had a lifelong love affair with dogs and is fascinated with dog behavior. She has broad practical experience in the dog world: volunteering and working in kennels and shelters, dog sitting and walking, fostering rescue dogs, teaching behavior modification privately, and teaching reactive dog classes. She also has a background in zoology and teaching. She stays current in dog behavior and learning by regularly attending seminars by top trainers and researchers.
However, she is probably best known for her YouTube videos. I’ll make sure to include a link to her YouTube channels in the show notes so listeners can check her out.
She is active locally as co-founder and professional member of Vancouver Island Animal Training Association (VIATA) and the founder and instructor for the Service Dog Training Institute.
With her own dogs and other pets, Donna loves to apply learning theory to teach a wide variety of sports, games, tricks, and other activities, such as cycling and service dog tasks. She loves using shaping to get new behaviors. Her teaching skill is keeping the big picture in mind while using creativity to define the small steps to help the learner succeed. That is to say, she is a splitter!
Donna has competed in agility, flyball, and rally O and teaches people to train their own service dogs.
Hi Donna, welcome to the podcast!
Donna Hill: Hi, how are you doing?
Melissa Breau: Good, good. I’m excited to chat today. To start us out, can you refresh everyone’s memories by sharing a bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?
Donna Hill: OK. Jessie is a little, sensitive, German Shepherd dog, possibly Min Pin mix, that’s 11 years old. She’s getting a little bit of gray on her, we used to call her milk chin, now it’s moving up on her little face. We got her from the city pound at 7 months, so we’ve had her quite a while. Lucy, my other dog, is a really drivey, 9-and-a-half-year-old Border Collie mix that we got at almost 2 years of age off of an unfenced acreage, which totally relates to the topic today.
Right now we’re experimenting with using a combination of shaping and mimicry for training, and one of my longtime behaviors I’ve been working on — and I haven’t had a whole lot of success, but I’m starting to now with that combination — is working on their rear paw nail file. So think about that. You’ve got the back feet of the dogs, and not only do they have to have back-end awareness, they have to have awareness of their nails, not just their pads, scraping the area. So it’s been a tough one. So for the last couple of nights … well, for the last while, we’ve been bringing out the scratchboard and trying something new, and it’s actually been a fun process, and we’re almost there.
Melissa Breau: That’s pretty neat.
Donna Hill: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Lucy’s consistently digging with her one back paw, and Jessie’s about halfway there. She’ll do, like, half a scratch. So she’s starting to get there.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. We didn’t get to chat about it much last time, but you’re very involved in the service dog world. I mentioned in the intro you run the Service Dog Training Institute. Can you share a little about that?
Donna Hill: Oh, absolutely. Service Dog Training Institute is an online community for people who are training their own service dogs. We offer self-paced online classes that of course they can check out 24-7, and we have web-based coaching sessions, so they can get on their webcam and chat face-to-face with me, and a few webinars, we haven’t done a whole lot yet, and we also have a new program called Fast Track Training, where people can get either daily help or twice-daily help for the period of a week.
Melissa Breau: Wow, that’s kind of awesome.
Donna Hill: Yeah. We also offer in-person training, and that’s fairly recent. I’ve actually added another trainer to help with those, and she also helps with the online Fast Track Training too. But the key thing people want to know is there’s tons of free resources on my website. I’ve got over 300 training videos, I’ve got a blog, I’ve got general information like laws and stuff about service dogs, so their best bet is to check out the website and read through, click on every link, and see what’s there, because there’s tons of information there.
Melissa Breau: I know you mentioned owner-trained service dogs. Are there advantages and disadvantages to owner-trained service dogs? Would you be able to share your perspective on that whole thing?
Donna Hill: Absolutely. There’s both advantages and disadvantages. I feel a person needs to carefully consider if training their own service dog is right for them. It’s a huge time and energy investment, and even though you are doing most of the training, it still costs money. You need to do group classes with other dogs, and every trainer, whether they’re a professional trainer or an owner who’s training, they still need to get some help at some point in time, whether it’s a fear period or they’ve run into a situation that sort of went south, those kinds of things. One of the biggest problems for a lot of people, they do it because they want to save money, but lack of funds are a super-common issue for owner-training teams.
The other thing that I find is tough for a lot of people is the lack of focus to take the time to do the job right and not rush the dog through the process. Because of course everyone wants their dog trained yesterday, but it can take up to two years or sometimes longer, depending on the dog that they’ve chosen.
The big advantage is that you can train the dog of your choosing, so if there’s a specific breed that you’re interested in that you think would work better for you and your lifestyle, then that’s a choice that you can make. You also get to learn the process of how to train, so when down the road your health changes and you need additional tasks, now you know how to do that, or at least you can figure it out or you know where to get the help to do it. Whereas if you get a program-trained dog, some of the programs actually tell you not to train your dog at all. They just want what the dog is already trained to do. So that can make a big difference. And of course one of the big bonuses of training your own dog is that the bond starts from the day you bring the dog or puppy home, so you don’t have to wait for two or more years for the program-trained dog.
Thinking on the disadvantages side, it takes a lot of time and energy and focus to do it, and not everyone’s got that ability. I always say, just like it takes a community to raise a child, so does it take a community to raise a service dog. And it’s so true because there’s all the pieces that need to come in. Your caregivers need to be on board with helping you in the way that you need help, you need to have trainers lined up for assistance, you need people to act as distractions, and you have to go get resources and all those kinds of things, so you have to know how to go out and get those resources.
Finding the right dog is another huge barrier for many people. They’ll go out, they’ll find a dog that they immediately fall in love with, and it’s not necessarily the best service dog candidate. So they have to be really careful. For that, I recommend bringing in someone who’s less emotionally related, someone like myself, who can help them assess and look at the weaknesses and strengths of that particular dog before they move forward.
The other disadvantage is that, owner-trained or not, sort of an educational component here, is that the handlers in general need to take on an education role at any time, because the public really doesn’t know much about service dogs. Many people want to interact with all dogs they see, including your service dog. Whether it’s in training, whether it’s professional, they don’t care. And of course you’re doing all of this while you’re living with a chronic medical condition that requires the need for the service dog, so that can certainly slow the process. It can throw some glitches into the gears.
So it’s a real balancing act, and you have to seriously look at is it a good thing for you, is it a bad thing for you, would a program-trained dog be better. Maybe there’s even other alternatives. Some people jump immediately to the dog aspect when sometimes there’s assistive technology that might be a better choice for them, and they don’t have the responsibility of maintaining the dog or keeping the dog.
It’s a big-picture thing, and you have to sit back and look at your lifestyle, look at your family, and see if that would all work out, and if you can in fact wait the approximately two years until the dog would be technically ready for public access and be able to go with you into places.
Melissa Breau: Right. You talked a little bit in there about evaluating your dog. What are some of the important traits that people need to objectively evaluate their dog for, if they are considering training it as a service animal?
Donna Hill: This applies to whether you already have a dog in your home or whether you’re going to look for a dog. The first and foremost is a known health history of both the dog and his parents, if you can at all possibly get that, and also looking at getting the pups and the parents and also your dog at 2 years of age medically tested for the common diseases that their breed suffers from. Oftentimes they’ll take it to the vet and the vet goes, “Yeah, looks fine.” Well, there’s a whole lot that the vets can’t see unless they take the proper tests and the proper scans. Yeah, the vet says it’s good, but two years down the road, three years down the road, hip dysplasia “appears” out of nowhere. Well, it was probably there, but they just didn’t look for it.
Hip dysplasia, epilepsy, cancer, heart conditions — those are common health reasons why a dog is pulled from service after it’s been trained. It’s heartbreaking. You spend two years, or whatever it is, to train this dog, and then you get maybe a year and a half, or if you’re lucky, two or three years, and then suddenly, “Oh, sorry, you can’t use that dog anymore because of health conditions.” So that’s one thing.
Another characteristic you look for is a calm temperament. Basically a dog that’s unflappable, meaning nothing fazes them. You really, really want a dog like that, because things like a sheet metal dropped in the next aisle, or a baby screams on the plane in the seat right next to you, your dog should be aware of it but not really worried about it. Both of those things a lot of dogs will react to, and it may take them a while to calm down from. So we want a dog that would notice that, certainly, and be aware that it’s happening, but go, “Oh yeah, no worries. I’ve seen it, done it, been there.”
We also know that there’s a number of things that affect temperament, so the more you know about the history of a dog, the better. For example, genetics has an important role to play in both fear and aggression, as well as a solid temperament too. You’ve got a solid-tempered mom, more likely you’re going to have a solid-tempered puppy. The mom’s stress level during carrying the puppies, how good a parent the dog mom is, and also the physical and emotional environment the puppy is raised in, as well as the physical and emotional environment the adolescent dog is raised in. So you’re seeing before the puppies are even born, and then you’re seeing while the puppies are with the litter, and then what happens to the puppies after they’ve left the litter. Those are three key components that can really affect the future of this dog.
There’s a couple of other things. People-oriented. We want a dog that has the ability to bond strongly with the handler and yet he’s friendly with strangers, and that can be a tough one if you’re looking at some of the protection breeds. Some of them are very protective by nature and their family is very highly regarded but strangers are not, so that’s a safety issue for emergency personnel and things like that, that are dealing with them in public.
You want an animal that’s good with other animals, so dogs, cats, birds, prey species, ideally ignoring them when in public. It makes your life a whole lot easier if you don’t have a dog with a really high prey drive, like Lucy does. Trust me — been there, done that, for a lot of different things, so I have to be on guard, and as a service dog you don’t want to have to be on guard to protect other people or other animals from your dog, and likewise from your dog doing damage to someone else’s animal. That can be a real stressor in itself, so that’s one of the key things you look for as well.
The sensitivity level’s a real interesting thing. You want a dog that has a sensitivity level appropriate for the person that they’re helping. We want them to be sensitive enough that they notice changes in their handler, but not so sensitive that the dog mirrors the emotions of the handler, like anxiety. This is a common issue that I find with people with PTSD and anxiety is that they tend to pick dogs that are very sensitive, and then they end up with an emotional mess that they can’t use as a service dog, so that’s a toughie.
A dog that’s food-motivated/willing to learn, those come together, it’s much easier to teach complex behaviors, we know, to a dog that’s food-motivated, of course using clicker training, marker-based training, whatever you want to call it.
And medium to low need for exercise. That’s assuming this fits the lifestyle of the handler. The vast majority of people out there really don’t want to take the time and energy, or they don’t have the energy, to take a really high-exercise-need dog out for an hour or two a day for exercise, so you really want to make sure that that’s going to meet your needs. Unless you want a dog for competition, and you want an active dog if you’re out and about and your disability doesn’t stop you from hiking two hours a day or whatever it is, then that would be fine, as long as the dog can learn to calm down in public.
The last one I’m going to leave you with is a quiet dog. If a dog barks or causes a disturbance in public, a team can be asked to leave. So you want to make sure you’re not choosing a breed that tends to be on the barky side, because then you’re fighting a losing battle because the dog is going to really want to bark, and it’s harder to inhibit something that’s a genetic trait, once it’s brought out.
One of the other things that I do want to mention is that the breed of dog can be important because public perception plays a huge role in how some service dogs are accepted. For example, any dog that’s not a typical service dog breed tends to draw more attention to the team. So if you’re out and about in public and somebody keeps approaching you, “Oh, you have such a wonderful,” “Oh, isn’t that unusual,” and you get stopped every five seconds just because you have this stunning Dalmation, or something that causes people to notice more than usual, that can play a role as well.
Tiny breeds is another example. They may be commonly dismissed as fakes. Or if you’ve got a protection-breed dog, people are fearful and they’ll give you wider birth. So those kinds of things are important when you’re choosing the breed of the dog as well, or a breed mix. What the dog looks like has an important impact on the public.
Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. I think a lot of people probably don’t think about that piece of it. They think about suitability, maybe, for the tasks and don’t always think that extra step to do they really want to deal with the public’s reaction to that specific dog or that specific breed. So I think that’s a great thing to bring up.
Donna Hill: And there is a lot of prejudice as well around certain breeds. There’s a lot of grey lines with service dogs on when you need permission to get to bring your dog to work, for example. If an employer decides that they don’t like the look of your dog, or they feel that your dog is an aggressive dog or aggressive breed, they can do a lot of things to make sure that your dog can’t come to work with you. They can put a lot of barriers in place. It just happens, unfortunately.
People are really creative when they don’t want something to happen. I’ve had that happen with kids taking dogs to school, I’ve seen that happen at a government level, where a person was taking a service dog to their government agency and they end up getting isolated just because of the breed of dog, but the minute that they get a more accepted breed, suddenly they’re allowed access everywhere. It can make a huge, huge difference, and so I always recommend to people: think really hard about the breed and the look of your dog. You know your dog is a soft mushy, but people look and they make snap judgments, and those judgments can last for a long time.
Melissa Breau: Moving from traits or temperaments and those kinds of things to the core skills: What core skills do service animals need that owner handlers or anybody training a service dog will need to train, in addition to those special behaviors that are medically necessary for whatever their condition may be?
Donna Hill: The two most common I tell everybody is loose-leash walking and settle. That’s because service dogs spend most of their time in “hurry up and wait” mode. It is, seriously. So loose-leash walking gets them from Point A to Point B, and it’s a critical skill so the handler doesn’t have to focus on them all the time as they’re loose-leash walking from Point A to Point B. It’s not a formal competition heel, it’s a loose-leash walking. They can walk within 18 inches to 2 feet of the handler, the leash is at a loopy, U-shaped kind of thing, and the dog can be ahead or behind or beside, it doesn’t really matter.
A lot of people mistake that and think, Oh, the dog has to have this formal competition heel. Well, we at FDSA know that dogs can only maintain that focused heel for a very short period of time. It takes a lot of concentration to keep that desired precision. So a loose-leash walk is acceptable. We don’t have to ask for 95 percent of precision all the time. It can be 80 percent, which is more reasonable to expect a dog to stay within a zone within the handler. It’s really the distractions that are the tough thing, you know, the dog’s not going to the end of the leash to pull to go see another dog, for example. It’s ignoring that dog and moving on. With loose-leash walking that’s kind of the focus. It’s learning to ignore distractions.
Now, the settle or relax, which is the other main skill, it’s not the same as the sphinx-down that’s also used in competition. It is a settle, it’s a relax, let the dog chill out. As long as they’re staying on a single spot, maybe it’s a mat or maybe a defined space under your table, the dog needs to be able to get up and move and turn around, if you’re going to be sitting there for an hour and a half to two hours. It’s not fair to have the dog hold that sphinx-down. We want to give them a bit of latitude that, yeah, it’s OK for you to get up and move around. As long as you’re right here close to me and you’re not getting up and walking away, that’s close enough.
The other key thing is that a service dog needs to learn to assess the situation, because we don’t want, as handlers, you don’t want to have to give your dog a cue for every single behavior. The dog starts to learn to recognize, Oh, in this situation I know we’re going to go sit, I’m going to go lay under the table, OK, no biggie. They start using the environment as the cue for what behavior’s expected, so we end up getting a lot of default behaviors. Sits and downs, leave its, and eye contact are the important ones in general. If the dog’s uncertain what to do, what does he do? Look back up at his handler and say, “Hey, what do you want me to do?” They look back and they just might point to the ground. Guess what. That means settle. So it keeps it simple, and the communication’s really clear, and the dog’s always looking to the person for guidance.
Melissa Breau: Those are all also skills that even if we only have a pet dog, they would be fantastic skills to have well taught for a good pet dog. They’re not necessarily unusual skills to try and teach, but it’s really important, if you’re training a service dog, that they’re taught to a high fluency.
Donna Hill: Absolutely. And it is a fluency difference between a well-trained pet dog and a service dog.
Melissa Breau: So the other topic I was hoping to chat about today for a bit is recalls, since you have a class on it coming up. I think recalls are often touted as perhaps the most important behavior we can teach our dogs. First, do you agree? And second, why are they an important skill?
Donna Hill: That’s a great question. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree. I think it depends on the living situation the dog is in, and how often she or he finds herself off leash. For example, a recall for a service dog is actually pretty low on the importance scale, since in public the dog is rarely if ever off leash, so why would you need a recall if the dog is not off leash. If they are off leash, usually it’s only to perform a trained task, and when dogs get to that level, they’re so focused on the task that a recall is not important, or the recall may be part of the whole behavior, like in a retrieve. You’ve sent your dog off to get something, he’s got to come back to bring it to you, right? So if it’s trained really well, there’s your recall right there. Or if they’re trained to go get somebody, they go get the person and they bring the person back, so there’s sort of a recall in there as well.
For pet or sport dogs, absolutely a recall can be critical, especially if the dog is given a lot of freedom on a regular basis. So you want to know that your dog is going to reliably respond when you call. If she does respond, there’s a potential for so much more freedom for the dog, for one thing, and also if the dog is going to be in environments like agility trials, you don’t want the dog taking off after distractions, or if he happens to, then you know that he’s going to come running back to you when once you realize that he’s taken off, you give the cue and he comes bolting back to you. So you really need that. But the more freedom you give them, the more freedom that they can have as well, so it’s a hand-in-hand kind of thing.
There’s also alternative behaviors that can be taught that might be more appropriate in some situations as well than a recall, so something like a sit or a down at a distance. Your dog’s taken off across the street after a rabbit, and when he finally comes back, you want him to sit on the other side of the street because there’s a car coming. You don’t want him to come dashing across in front of the car. So if you can sit or down your dog at a distance, in that situation that would actually be better than a recall. So I guess my answer is, it depends. Which is kind of funny coming from someone who’s training a recall class.
Melissa Breau: Hey, it’s honest! I think that obviously at FDSA we see lots of sports dog handlers specifically, so in competition obedience they have a formal recall with a front and all that. For those who compete, how would you handle that in training that recall?
Donna Hill: Distance is a real distinction between a competition recall and a real-life recall. For most competitions there is a limited, finite distance within the ring that the dog will be doing the recall, and there is relatively few distractions in that ring. I know some would beg to differ because there’s some nightmaresituations been seen, and I’ve been in the ring and seen that as well.
But in real life, when your dog is at even a greater distance that you can … you may or may not be able to control, depending on the dog. Lucy is another classic example. She will happily run 500 yards away and not think twice about it, whereas Jessie stays much closer, so Lucy’s the one that I have to keep an eye on, and I have to make sure I interrupt her running that far away, because at that distance I don’t have as much control as I do if she’s, say, 100 yards away.
The distance can make or break a dog’s recall success. If a cyclist rides between you and your dog at a junction, or a rabbit pops up and runs across the trail, that definitely can make a difference. In real life, distractions happen between you and the dog, not necessarily around the outside of between you and the dog, so while a recall is a recall, the dogs do distinguish between different working environments.
Because the competition ring tends to be pretty consistent-looking, there’s rings around, or there’s fences around the outside, and there’s certain equipment that are in, the dogs get to know, Oh, OK, I know which kind of recall you want, so they quickly start learning, OK, it’s that form of recall that you want me to run to you, and stop, sit in front of you, and wait for a release to go back to heel, and then the final release at the end of the exercise. So they definitely know the difference between an informal recall that you would do out in the field versus a formal recall that you do in the ring, for sure.
And honestly, most people are happy enough, in a real-life recall, just to be able to have their dog close enough to grab the harness and then otherwise tell the dog what to do. So you don’t have that whole longer chain.
Melissa Breau: For somebody that is working on their recall, and they work on that real-life situation, would you expect to see some carryover that might strengthen their more formal performance?
Donna Hill: For sure. The distraction levels are key in any environment that you’re training. Doesn’t matter what it is that you’re doing, whether it’s a recall, teaching your dog to ignore distractions is the absolutely important thing.
Because any chain of behaviors — and of course a recall is a chain of behaviors — can be broken into smaller bits, each part of the chain can be isolated, so that’s the approach that I take in my recall class. If your dog returns to you slowly, you can work on speeding up just that part of the chain. Or maybe the missing piece is the dog doesn’t reorient to you in the face of distraction, You can work on just that too with little games and using controlled distractions. Once you have those improved, then you can add the pieces back together for either the competition recall or the real-life one. But it definitely would benefit both types of recall.
Melissa Breau: I know you get pretty into the science of training, and I’ve heard a lot of talk about what they’re calling a “classically conditioned” recall. That’s the phrase that’s recurring all over. Can you explain it for us?
Donna Hill: I’ll try. A classically conditioned recall is when the dog reacts to a cue without thinking. Classical conditioning: Think of a cat that comes to the kitchen when he hears the can opener. That’s a classically conditioned behavior. The cat’s not thinking about hearing the can opener. He just hears it and he runs for it because he knows it means food. Or maybe the dog that hears the scrape of the spoon on the bottom of the bowl and he just suddenly appears at your feet, even though he’s not supposed to be begging. That’s a classically conditioned reaction. He hears the sound and it triggers a behavior. He’s not even thinking about it.
I remember years ago with a previous dog, and this was long before I knew much about training dogs, certainly not as much as I know today, he was walking ahead of me on the trail, and out of the blue, for some reason, I don’t even remember why, I decided to call out to him and say “sit.” He was probably about 50 feet in front of me, if that. He didn’t go very far and I told him to sit. As soon as I did, his bum plunked down and he looked around like he was startled, going, Hey, who did that? Just bizarre. He had this startled look on his face. That would be an example of a classically conditioned sit. I must have been practicing in that time period so much that it was “sit,” bum go down, “sit,” bum go down. He wasn’t even thinking about it. Just “sit,” bum go down. So even he was surprised.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.
Donna Hill: I was pretty thrilled. And of course when I got these two dogs, I thought, OK, that’s my goal. I have to be able to teach these two dogs. Of course, now I know how to do it much, much better, and much more effectively, and it comes much faster, but I’m still thrilled when it happens, anyway.
We want the recall to happen that way ultimately. We want the dog not to think. We just want him to automatically, when he hears the cue or sees the hand signal, because it could be both, it could be a hand signal, it could be a verbal sound that the dog hears.
For dogs who are in a really, really high state of arousal and who haven’t had a chance to practice chasing or catching prey, that can be a really hard level of training to get to. The level of adrenalin overrides everything else and they go into that tunnel-vision mode where they literally go deaf and they can’t see anything other than a really narrow vision right in front of them.
But if we stick to the training, and we keep doing it and doing it, and vary how we are doing it, and add different distractions, and work the dog around higher and higher-level distractions, we can actually increase the threshold so that while they still are under the effects of adrenalin, they can still function at higher arousal levels, so that tunnel vision will be further open, perhaps like the tunnel that they see will be a bigger tunnel. Maybe they can actually still hear you, rather than not being able to hear you. So that’s a big part of it is just learning to increase that arousal level, but lowering or, I guess, increasing the threshold so that the dog can still function at that higher arousal level, I guess would be a better way of putting it.
I’ve got a funny little story about Jessie, my current little dog here. She has a funny combination of an operant and a classical conditioned recall. She actually does both, and one of them is very conscious. She actually sets me up for operant recalls.
She’s a dog that will stay quite close. She’s in general … until we got Lucy, she was quite fearful of being out in the bush or out in the woods by herself with us. She’s very much a city dog and very comfortable in the city. She actually learned … I taught her by starting the capturing the eye contact, which is one of the things we do in class. She would run ahead, and she stops and she’s facing away, and you know she’s waiting for something just by her body position and posture. She’s waiting for something. Sure enough, I give the cue, so that’s what she’s waiting for, and as soon as she hears it, she takes off like a rocket towards me. She does this turn on a dime and bolts right back to me. So she’s set me up for a recall.
She does this a lot, and I thought, You know, this is good. For a dog that’s so fearful and she couldn’t respond because her level of fear was so high, I’m just thrilled that she would do that and she’s actually setting me up. Finally, in the last I would say year or so, we’ve finally done enough of the operant recalls that it has become classically conditioned. I’ve actually been able to call her off chasing a deer in a classical conditioned response. So I’m pretty happy with that.
Melissa Breau: That’s excellent. That’s everybody’s goal, to be able to have their dog in the middle of a chase, and call and have the dog say, “OK, I’d prefer to come back to you.”
Donna Hill: It wasn’t even a preference. It was just a reaction. It was just a response. She heard that and she just turned on that dime, and it’s because we’ve practiced and practiced. I kind of stacked my helping, because she likes high-pitched sounds, she’s very much into squeaky toys, she likes movement, so I stack my success by throwing all of those things together, and I guess it was enough that she was not thinking anymore. It was like, “Yay, Mom’s calling me. Woo hoo!” It becomes a classically conditioned response rather than a thinking or operant response.
The tough thing, though, is, is it a reliable … could I repeat that? I honestly can’t say, because we don’t have enough situations where we encounter deer on a regular basis to purposely test that out. I do know that I can now call her off mice, I can call her off squirrels, and I can call her off grouse. Those are much more controllable situations, and we do run into those a lot more often on our walks on the logging routes. So far, both dogs have stopped when any of those situations arrive, and, lucky for me, they’ve also stopped when we see bears, and I can cue the recall after they stop. So, so far, cross our fingers, no bear chasing. I don’t know whether they stop and they go, “Oh, that’s a big black animal that I’m not sure whether I want to interact with or not, oh, Mom’s calling, OK, the good distraction.”
Melissa Breau: Right, right, definitely don’t want the dogs taking off after the bear.
Donna Hill: So I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily classical. I would say it’s probably more operant, and they’re actually thinking about it and going, “OK, this is the better choice.” But I’m still happy with that too. I don’t want them bringing a bear back to us.
Melissa Breau: Right, right. Often, people start working a recall, they do it at home, they do it in class, and then they just expect it to work everywhere. Most of our listeners probably get that that’s unrealistic, especially if you’re a sports trainer, you know that there’s a little bit more involved to making any cue become that reliable. I think even pretty sophisticated handlers may struggle to build up distractions in a systematic way when it comes to recalls. How DO you simulate things like motion from prey animals, or those reallllllly good smells that a dog just can’t seem to come away from, when you’re training?
Donna Hill: You have to get really creative and you use what you have in your environment. You have to think about what triggers your dog. Is it the scent? Is it the sound? Is it motion? How can you replicate those? Maybe even not to the degree that happens in real life, but certainly at a lower level that you can start building up to that in real life. I start thinking along things like, OK, for scents, I think about how can I get a sample of something similar that my dog might be really interested in, or can I recreate it in a controlled setting with a helper or a decoy animal or a toy that moves.
Those are actually the kinds of secrets we’ll be exploring in Part 2 of The Recall, but I’ll give you an example just to get your juices going. Start where your dog is at. If your dog can’t turn away from rabbit poop, for example, and I know both of my dogs, when we started, rabbit poop was pretty high on their interest list because it smells like rabbits, it’s something that they can eat, so it’s self-reinforcing, So what I did was I went and I found some fresh stuff somewhere in the city. I literally went hunting, we collected some, I wore rubber gloves, I scooped it up, I put it in a container, and I used that sample to train a “leave it” at home to the point of a default “leave it.” They smelled the rabbit poop, Oh, look at Mom, what’s going on here.
So I had a nice little default behavior, and that’s the starting point to get your dogs. If they learn that they can call off of it, that’s where you need to start from. And of course this is not asking for any distance. This is literally the treat … the treat! … OK, rabbit raisins were in a container on the ground right in front of me and right in front of the dogs, so all the dogs literally had to do was look at it and look back at me. I’m not asking for any distance. It’s just “Look at me after you sniff the rabbit poop.”
That’s the kind of small detail where we start, and then we can add motion, maybe we get the dog to have to make the choice to have to turn around back to us, then the dog has to turn around and take two steps to us, and we slowly build it back up until we actually have a recall where the dog might be walking around the yard, and unbeknownst to him, I’ve planted my sample in the yard earlier, and he comes across it, and as soon as he smells it, he does a quick head check-in, and the check-ins as well are another piece, and then I happen to see that and I give my recall and the dog comes flying out. It’s about focusing again on the one piece of the chain at a time and build them up.
Yeah, and I have to admit some of us are that dedicated to our dogs to go and search out things like rabbit poop and bring it home.
Melissa Breau: That’s funny. I like that you called it rabbit raisins.
Donna Hill: That’s more “call-it-able.” So don’t worry, but for those of you listeners, the other ideas in class are not as gross as that.
Melissa Breau: It’s just a good example! I was looking over your syllabus for the class for August, and I noticed you had acclimating on your list of skills for a recall, and I guess it caught me by surprise. Can you explain how that fits into the picture of a recall?
Donna Hill: Yeah, absolutely. Acclimation is the process a dog goes through to become comfortable with the environment. You give them a chance to go into the environment, and you anchor yourself and they have 6 feet of leash, so technically they can probably move about a 14-foot circle diameter and check out that environment.
Sometimes we might want to acclimate them by letting them lead us around a certain space, we usually define that space. But what we find is once they’ve acclimated to that space, then they can focus on what we’re asking them to do. By giving them time to acclimate when they first arrive at a location, we’re giving them a chance to satisfy their natural curiosity that might otherwise distract them from being able to pay attention to us. That’s pretty standard what we do for sport dogs and for service dogs and all that kind of thing.
What I find is that the more we allow them to acclimate in each new location, the more they come to realize that the environment is actually less interesting than interactions with us. So by giving them the chance to go check it out, they go, “OK, I checked everything out,” they look back at us and go, “What now, Mom?” They learn that it always pays for them to orient to us, whether or not we ask for it, or whether they just give it as a default behavior. That’s one piece of it. So that orientation is something we work on. We can’t get the orientation until the dog is acclimated. That’s the first step again.
As well, giving them time to acclimate allows us to identify what they find interesting, and we can use those interesting things to our collection of reinforcers. So by watching our dog sniff a rabbit trail or look up a tree at a squirrel — those are obvious ones — we can actually go, “Ah, that’s something that I can use as a reinforcer because that’s something that I can control.” So we might send them over to sniff a very interesting mole hole that they saw earlier as part of the recall, or maybe they can go greet the person that’s standing over there, if they’re a really people-oriented dog. We can give them more meaningful reinforcers that they really want, rather than what we think they want, and they start to see us as a gateway to the reinforcers. That’s part of the process of building the bond that’s strong enough to be able to call them away from things like deer.
Melissa Breau: You have the class broken into two parts right now, Part 1 and Part 2. You mentioned earlier that some things are in Part 2 that aren’t in Part 1. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve broken that down?
Donna Hill: Part 1 focuses on the basic recall with low to medium distractions in the form of games. So here’s the basic structure of the recall, let’s add some distractions in, and that is a really important piece, because if your dog doesn’t have that fundamental foundation, it certainly isn’t going to be able to do a recall off of higher-level distractions. Part 2 ups the ante to adding a higher-level distraction in controlled settings so that the dog learns, Yes, in fact I can call away from those exciting things.
I previously offered it as a single class, but it was too overwhelming for me, and I think for some of the students, because there’s just so much involved in those two levels. So I split them into the two parts to make it easier to really focus on the pieces that are needed.
Melissa Breau: I know some of the classes have a lot of material and there’s no way you’re going to get through this in six weeks. It makes it a little bit more real time, for lack of a better phrase, so people can work through the class as you’re releasing stuff. Is that the idea?
Donna Hill: Absolutely. The first time I ran it, it just felt too rushed, and while it was fine in that it offered some support for people who were not as far along in the recall, those who already had it were able to zoom ahead. But then it became really confusing to try and watch both ends of the scale, so this just simplifies it that we’ve got to focus, it’s on the basic recall, and then we’re going to add the higher-level distractions in Part 2.
Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask if you’d be willing to share a game that listeners might be able to play to work on their recall, to give them a taste of the things you’ll be doing in the class.
Donna Hill: OK. One of my favorite ones that has come over time is I have a game that’s a building speed game, because of course we want the dog not only to come to us, we want the dog to come to us really fast.
I’ve seen this develop with my girl Lucy, the Border Collie mix, and it’s so awesome to be able to see her just run as hard as she possibly can to come back to me. It’s awesome to see that eagerness and that enthusiasm. There’s literally dust flying up behind her when she comes back to me. I tried to get it on videotape last night, and I’m going to try and get it before the class so I can show a clip of it. I might even use it as part of the promo for the class. It’s just hilarious, because it’s been so dry, and the road, we’re on one of these logging roads, and it’s a really new, dusty road, so she’s running. literally there’s these plumes of dust every time she hits the ground that pop up. It’s heart-rendering, I guess, to see your dog do that.
Anyway, so this game we play between two people and we start close up, and once we start adding distance, we can actually start capturing speed because we can select only the fastest responses we’re getting from the dogs. If the dog sort of meanders towards us, OK, not a big deal. We’re not actually recalling, so we don’t have to click and treat, but as we’re playing this back and forth game it sort of turns into intermittent reinforcement so that we can choose the faster responses get the click and the treat, and so what the dog quickly does is starts to offer us faster and faster recalls, so it’s really cool.
In combination with where we happen to live, there’s a lot of hiking trails/biking trails. What I like is finding a narrow trail that looks like a roller coaster. They go up and down, they go side to side, and sometimes you can even find ones that zigzag back and forth down the side of a hill. Once the dog’s built up some good speed for recalls, you can have a person at the top and a person at the bottom, and even going up the hill, which by the way is a really good cardio for your dogs, they build up some pretty good speed. You watch them and they do look like a cart from a roller coaster going back and forth, going up and down, and you can just watch their bodies as they’re flying towards you. It’s really cool to watch. That’s my favorite thing. And they’re learning foot placement and they’re weight-shifting to allow them to careen off the trail banks. You can see they’re having fun with it. I’m having fun with it. I’m not sure if it would be considered agility or parkour, but you’re using the skills of both.
Melissa Breau: Right, right, and everybody’s having a good time and you’re working on those skills. That’s the important part.
Donna Hill: That’s what it’s all about.
Melissa Breau: So one last question and it’s on a different topic because I’ve taken to asking it at the end of all my interviews for guests that have already been on once and done the traditional three questions already and that way I don’t have to repeat them. So the new question is, what is a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Donna Hill: OK. But it’s not about the dogs. It’s about the people. I’ll give you an example. I recently had a client make the realization that her service dog is not a robot. She had come to work with us because her dog was fearful working in public. She had told us, “My dog is fearful about working with the public. She’s scared of people. She’s even scared of strangers coming in our own home.”
What we had seen was a dog that had been shut down and was robotically walking through life when working, and this lady didn’t see that. That’s what she had been told that the dog should be working like. She sort of felt something was off, but she wasn’t sure, and she’d never had a service dog before, so she just trusted what she had been told.
After working with her for about four weeks, we were so thrilled when she came to us and she said, “Oh my god, she doesn’t have to be a robot.” That’s literally the words that she used. That’s why I used those words. She has changed what she does significantly. We’ve helped her learn to reinforce the dog when the dog is doing what she wants her to do, help build confidence in the dog, and it’s going to be a long haul because this dog has a long history of being like this, but the handler now has joy in interacting with her dog, and the dog now has joy at interacting with her human, and that’s not what we were seeing when we first had her come to the classes. So we were both giving them their life back, basically.
Melissa Breau: How awesome is that. That’s got to feel so good.
Donna Hill: Yeah. So if we can teach the people that dogs have needs and emotions just like we do, and those needs have to be met for the dog to be comfortable, I think that we go a long way to strengthening the bond and improving the life of both the people and the dogs.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Donna! This has been great.
Donna Hill: You’re very welcome. You really got me thinking.
Melissa Breau: That’s a good thing, I think.
Donna Hill: Absolutely. Don’t forget to check out the Build A Bond recall class that’s coming up.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week with Stacy Barnett to talk about tailoring your nosework training to your specific dog’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t miss it.
Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!