How I Failed as a Rescuer: Lessons from a Sanctuary

This is a few years old, but I couldn’t have put it better myself. This is exactly why Allie and I started the Shelter Outreach Program. Let’s work to fix this together.

notes from a dog walker

This has been a heavy, heart breaking week in the world of animal welfare. A few days ago a formerly reputable sanctuary in Texas called Spindletop Refuge was raided by authorities. Close to 300 dogs, mostly pit bulls, were discovered living in terrible conditions. It was just one of many failures this week.

The reason why this particular case is so upsetting is that this was supposed to a “good” sanctuary. Rescue groups and families from around the country have been sending their dogs to live there, paying hefty boarding fees, in the hopes that the dogs would have a chance at another life out in Texas. Some dogs were adopted out, others lived at the sanctuary for life.

Apparently on the surface, this place seemed a like a good one. People have come forward to say that they visited Spindletop as recently as the first week of July and…

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Clearing up confusion about service dogs, therapy animals, and emotional support animals.

This is an excellent article debunking all the myths surrounding animals who help humans. The only thing I would add is in reference to the end of the article, where the author says that laws about service dog fraud are hard to enforce: even so, don’t do it. Don’t be that person. There’s a special place in hell for people who exploit our lax service/therapy/ESA animal laws, thereby making it that much harder for the people who actually need those animals. Don’t go to the special hell. Be a good, honest person and follow animal-related laws like the rest of us humans who have, you know, a heart and a soul. Thanks, folks.

Without further ado, here’s the article:

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Educational Bits on Dogs, Parrots, and Horses

Hello! I’ve been hard at work establishing my business here in Salt Lake City, so I haven’t had time to write an actual blog entry yet (one is on its way, though!). In the meantime, these are some interesting articles, videos, and research I’ve found over the past week:


An oldie but a goodie: when people ask me about dominance theory in dogs, my favorite place to send them is AVSAB‘s Dominance Position Statement:

And to further refine our understanding of dog play behaviors, check out this article:



This is a fabulous video, not only because it shows an elegant solution to aggressive behaviors in parrots, but also because it shows that just because a bird currently dislikes one gender/hair color/skin color/whatever doesn’t mean they always have to. This myth of parrots intrinsically liking or disliking certain types of people or being a one person bird or whatever – with no hope of change or improvement because it’s *who they are* – is so prevalent. But those of us who use science-based training methods disprove it every day. Be sure to look in the top right corner of the video for the captions explaining what’s going on. They’re easy to miss if you don’t know they’re there.


And this is a fabulous video because I’ve heard many people say, “I don’t want to use a clicker (or any marker) and treats because then I have to always use them for the rest of my life.” Not so! And this video perfectly demonstrates that. When a behavior is proofed and fluent, the marker is no longer necessary, the reinforcers can (but don’t need to) wait until the end of the behavior chain, and they don’t always have to be food reinforcers. As with this bird, they can be praise and/or petting most of the time, with the occasional treat to keep the behavior fun and exciting.



And finally, this is a fascinating study discussing the causes of equine stereotypies such as cribbing. There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation about cribbing and how to address it, so I thought it was worth sharing.


In other news, there will be some exciting additions to the FBTB website over the next few weeks. I’ll be adding an events page where I can announce upcoming classes and workshop, and I’m also going to add an FAQ page. Fun stuff!


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What’s Important to You?

This! So true for all species, and couldn’t have said it better myself.

Paws Abilities

For a professional dog trainer, my dogs are not very “well trained.” They wear Freedom harnesses on walks to keep them from pulling. They get excited when visitors come over. They bark when people come to the door.

purplepenRecently, I posted a picture on Facebook of my youngest dog, Mischief, with purple ink on her paws from a pen she had just destroyed. A good friend of mine was very concerned, and contacted me privately. Perhaps I might be hurting my business, she worried. Wouldn’t people be less likely to hire me if they saw that my puppy was destructive? What kind of dog trainer would let her dog do something so blatantly naughty?

Well, I would, for one. I love bragging about the amazing things my dogs can do, but I’m also not afraid to share their less impressive moments with the world. I thought Mischief’s pen murder was…

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More on LIMA

To delve more deeply into why we support LIMA training methods:

Empowerment v. Force

Through the scientific study of behavior, we know that learners of all species are both mentally and behaviorally healthier when they have the ability to make decisions in order to achieve something they want. That ability to choose is called “agency” or “empowerment,” and is the opposite of force or compulsion, which imposes our will on a learner and robs them of the ability to choose.

When an individual is chronically deprived of agency, they can develop a condition called “learned helplessness,” where they believe that nothing they do will change their situation, so there isn’t any point in trying. Learned helpless is why victims of domestic abuse stay in the abusive relationship, and why dogs from puppy mills who spent their whole lives in a 2′ x 2′ cage will still continuously walk in a 2′ x 2′ circle long after they are removed from that cage. It’s also, incidentally, why an animal who is showing clear signs of stress and/or fear towards their handler will still behave “perfectly.” An individual who is trained to do a behavior by force because they have no other choice than to do what they are made to do might appear well-trained on the outside, but their mental state is unwell. It is far better to teach a learner how to think for themselves and make the decision to do what we ask them to do–and, incidentally, it doesn’t take any longer to train in this way than it does to teach by force.

There may be times when using force is unavoidable–for example, if a cat is about to chew on a live wire, or if a dog is about to run out in front of a car. For their own safety, you have to quickly grab them and pull them away from danger. But even in those situations, if we use the least amount of force possible, we can reduce the amount of trauma an animal may incur from such an experience.

The Alluring Myth of Aversive Methods Being Faster

We often hear that using aversives is a faster way to train, and for that reason is more effective or more practical for the average pet owner. In order to understand why this is not true, we have to understand the two different types of learning:

Consequence-Based Learning (called Operant Conditioning) is what most people think of when they think of training. That is, an individual has the opportunity to decide how to behave based on past or presumed consequences. In general, species learn faster when they are working towards something they want (known as positive reinforcement training) than either receiving or avoiding something they don’t want (either positive punishment or negative reinforcement, respectively). Not only do they learn faster, but they retain it longer and are mentally healthier in the process. The reason aversives look faster is because suppressing a behavior makes it temporarily go away very quickly, but when the aversive is removed the behavior will eventually return–or an equally undesirable behavior will take its place. So, on a very short-term scale, aversives work more quickly, but in order to truly, completely eliminate a behavior and replace it with a better behavior, positive reinforcement is ultimately both faster and more effective. Think of it like The Tortoise and The Hare: you have to go slower to go faster.

Emotion-Based Learning (called Classical Conditioning) is when an individual has a reflexive emotional response to something and is acting based on that emotion. Again, suppressing the behavior may look fast, but it does nothing to address the underlying emotional state. Imagine if you were angry or sad and someone said, “If you don’t stop [shouting or crying], I’m going to punch you in the face.” You might suppress your emotional outburst, but it wouldn’t make the anger or grief go away. If anything, it would just add fear, frustration, and resentment to your current emotional state. So externally you might look calm, but internally you would be a hot mess! Those emotions are eventually going to express themselves somehow. On the other hand, if we address the emotional state, and work to change the way that individual feels about the situation, they will truly become calm, confident, and happy rather than just appearing calm. How quickly we can change the emotional state depends on a lot of factors: genetics, age, intensity of the emotions, and how long they’ve felt the way they do about that situation. In some cases, we can successfully change the way an animal feels about something in a matter of minutes. In other cases, it may take weeks, months, or years to undo the damage. So no, that is not fast. But it’s the only way to truly heal that individual. Just like some physical rehab may take months or years, so does some emotional rehab.

 On Dominance

Pop culture training focuses a lot on being the “alpha” or the “pack leader,” but the idea that dogs form and work to maintain a hierarchical social structure is based on very old, very bad science, which has been debunked many times over by multiple studies performed on both wolves and companion dogs over the past few decades. The myriad behaviors which are commonly attributed to “dominance” or “submission” have other, more scientifically sound explanations, so training methods promoting force and punishment under the guise of establishing your alpha status are unnecessary and often counterproductive. When we can instead accurately identify the source of those behaviors and then work to change the underlying emotional state and/or teach them more desirable behaviors instead, we can be effective without causing any damage to either the learner’s behavioral health or our relationship with them.

About “All Available Tools”

“Whatever works” is not an acceptable philosophy because many animals are emotionally and/or physically damaged by aversive training methods. As Dr. Friedman explains, efficacy is only one criterion for appropriate and successful training methods. There is no need to use all available tools when we can instead just learn how to proficiently use the right ones. A doctor could indeed use a hacksaw to cut open a patient, but why create so much collateral damage and incur so much risk to the patient’s health when he could instead just learn how to successfully perform laparoscopic surgery? LIMA means using the methods which yield maximum efficacy with minimum risk of collateral damage. Some tools are frequently misused or overused; some tools are just plain old unnecessary.

The Trust Bank

Dr. Friedman uses this wonderful analogy to best explain LIMA:

Think of training like a bank account. Every time you train an individual using something that they want to work for, it’s like making a deposit in that account. On the other hand, every time you train using force, pain, or fear, it’s like making a withdrawal.

Life happens. Sometimes you may find yourself in a position where force, pain, or fear are unavoidable [e.g. the cat biting the live wire example from above] or accidental [e.g. tripping over your dog, or accidentally dropping your parrot]. If you have built up a huge savings account, you can make those occasional withdrawals without adversely affecting your balance–you still have plenty of money in the bank! If, however, you have a low account balance, and then you have to make that withdrawal, you’ll end up in the red; you will have lost that individual’s trust. And just like a real bank account, the trust bank account charges overdraft fees. Once trust is lost, it takes much more work to get it back. LIMA training ensures that you make so many deposits into your trust account that if/when that rainy day comes where you have to make that withdrawal, your trust balance will still be so huge that it won’t make a dent.

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The New Dog Adventures, Part 1

It’s been just over 5 months since we moved here from Austin, and of course much has happened in that time.  The most salient event to this entry is that Copper got lonely.

In Austin, we lived in a duplex with a shared backyard, and Copper became best buds with the neighbor dogs.  They’d come to our house to play; he’d go over to theirs to play.  They were the Three Musketeers.

Fast forward to last month, and we both noticed that Copper was showing signs of loneliness: he was restless, needier than usual, wanting to play but getting bored quickly when we tried to play with him, etc.  He’d also get really interested in the TV whenever we watched anything with dogs in it.  And he was very attached to his toys:

Sleepy Copper

So one day I got a Facebook message from The Boyfriend.  The entire contents of the message were a series of links to petfinder profiles for four dogs from Best Friends.  “So, I take it this is your way of telling me you’d like to adopt a friend for Copper?” I asked.  Chuck shrugged, “We might as well do it now.  Why wait?”

Because we don’t have any of the same days off, we went up to meet the dogs separately.  Chuck went first, met the four of them, then brought Copper up to meet the four candidates to see how he got along with them.  Although he got along with all of them, he bonded hardcore with a Catahoula mix named Brie.  They were instantly inseparable BFFs.

Although we liked Brie and two of the other candidates and thought they were all cute as heck, we both were strongly leaning towards a little Shar Pug named Miss Missouri.  She came from a puppy mill situation and had a lot of fear issues.  Chuck and I both have a soft spot for dogs with fear issues, and since Copper also had several of his own to overcome when we first met him, we thought that he could be a good role model for her.  Because dogs like her frequently get passed over in shelters, we also figured that we could give her a chance that most people wouldn’t give her, whereas the other three candidates were all highly adoptable.

When I went up to meet the dogs, our adoption coordinator and all the caregivers were enthusiastically praising Copper, telling me what a perfect dog he was, and how well he behaved during his visit.  They told me how well he bonded with Brie, but that they were all hoping we’d pick Miss MO, since her issues had historically scared potential adopters away.  When I met her, she was pacing nervously, not letting us touch her, and only approaching the caregiver.  I wanted her. SO. BADLY.  All I could see were all the things I could train her, the lovely little personality inside just begging to come out, all of her potential.

Nevertheless, we decided to start with Brie for our first sleepover, since she and Copper were so clearly connected, and also because that way we could keep MO for longer afterward.  The other two dogs were also adorable as sin and super sweet, but already had lots of adoption interest, so we decided to let other people go for them.

So we brought Brie home for a sleepover.  This was her on her car ride home:


She had the most perfect car manners: she jumped right in the back seat and stayed back there, quiet and calm, the entire trip home.  When Chuck came to pick me up from work and the two of them were waiting for a few minutes, she just curled up and took a nap.  Great start!

At home, she continued to impress.  She settled right in as if she’d always been here, was interested in the birds but not TOO interested, showed more nervousness than aggression around the cats, followed us from room to room and came when called, and of course, got along famously with Copper.  She still needs some work on her sit, and will only do so when prompted with a treat.  And she doesn’t really understand boundaries: she jumps over the back of the sofa right on top of us, she tries to take food straight out of our hands, etc.  But overall, she really fit in with our family.

So happy together...

So happy together…



We live on 2.5 acres, 1.5 of which are a fenced in “pasture” (I use that word facetiously, because as you can see we have no grass, only the red dusty soil of the high desert), which we jokingly refer to as “The Back Nine”.  From the moment we brought Brie home, this became their playground.  They chase each other around, play catch, tug o’ war, and even hide and seek.  While Copper always wanted to play with us back there, we weren’t nearly as fun because we couldn’t even remotely keep up with him.  But Brie is perfectly, evenly matched.  They are the same size, same build, have the same energy level and speed.  They can race each other to exhaustion.

By the next morning, Brie was snuggling with my cat Lola.  So not only did she fit in well here, she also learned quickly.  After reinforcing her for calm behavior around Lola just a few times, she went from raised hackles and lowered tail, backing away slowly while growling whenever she would see Lola, to curling up butt to butt with her as if they’d always been buddies.

We dropped Brie back off at Dogtown and picked up Mo.  Due to her fear issues, they let us do a longer sleepover to give her time to settle in.  They also put a GPS tracker on her collar and told us not to let her out of the house without her harness and leash – not even the backyard – because she was a flight risk.  So we brought her home and gave her some time to get used to us.

She was very nervous at first, constantly pacing around like a shark, flinching at every noise and sudden movement.  She wanted attention, but when we’d reach down to pet her, she’d run away.  She would walk up to us and stare intently, but if we looked back at her, she’d turn her head and walk away.  Finally, after a few hours, she came up and let me pet her head and neck.  I got a picture:

Miss MissouriThe cuteness!  Oh, the cuteness.

She was great with the birds and the cats, and got along well with Copper, but it became immediately apparent exactly how much work she needed.  As with most puppy mill dogs, she had no concept of housetraining.  She’d just pop a squat wherever she happened to be, whenever the mood struck.  We should buy stock in paper towels and Nature’s Miracle, with the amount we’ve gone through.  She also had difficulty relaxing.  When she would eventually lie down, she’d spring back up again as soon as either of us would get up or walk around.  And she is a super destructive chew monster, getting her cute little flappy lips around whatever she could reach.  If it was on the floor, it was fair game.  She chewed my phone while I was charging it, my shoes because they (used to) live on the floor by the front door, untold numbers of items that were on the coffee table, in the doggie toy box, or on the book shelves.  After coming home one day after running errands for just a couple of hours, we found her lounging on the Ultimate Sack looking innocent:

"It was like this when I got here!  I swear!"

“It was like this when I got here! I swear!”

Rather than put us off her, though, those behaviors just made us more determined to help her.  She is so wonderful, and her behaviors are so “fix-able”.

The one small hitch in our plan to adopt her, though, was that she and Copper just really weren’t bonding.  They like each other.  But they mostly ignore each other.  They’d play sometimes.  But Mo, being a Shar Pug, would tap out after 5 minutes, and Copper would look at her like, “What?  But we’re just getting started!”  If the whole point of this adventure was to get a friend for Copper, we had to be honest with ourselves and admit that Mo just wasn’t a good match.

But by that point we realized that Mo needed a home environment, and we were invested in her.  She had us wrapped around her little velvety paw.  The life skills that Mo needed to learn, she could never learn in a shelter environment–even in a really, really ridiculously good one like Dogtown.  To learn home skills, Mo needs to be in an actual home.

What to do?  Neither of us really wanted three dogs.  We already have 6 parrots, 2 cats, and a Copper.  Adding one dog to our menagerie would be chaotic enough.  But after sitting on it for a few days and discussing it at length, we came up with a solution:  we would bring Mo and Copper back up to Dogtown and let them meet up with Brie to see how the three of them got along.  If they had a good group dynamic, we’d adopt Brie and apply to long-term foster Mo.  That way, Copper could have his best friend, but we wouldn’t feel like we were abandoning this sweet little girl who needed us.  We can work on Mo’s issues, get her more adoptable, and hopefully find the perfect family to take her straight from our home to theirs.

Dogtown approved our plan, and a couple of weeks ago, Chuck took them both up to meet Brie.  When Copper and Brie were still several yards away from each other, they both started pulling on their leashes, reaching towards each other.  The reunion, I was told later by everyone who witnessed it, was epic.  They were clearly ecstatic to be together again.  And the two of them got along with Mo just fine.  So Chuck signed the papers and brought the three of them home.

We couldn’t be happier with our decision.  Brie and Copper are inseparable, and they both also really get along with Mo and play with her, too, when she’s in the mood.  Brie is also incredibly loving and affectionate towards us, and she and I have bonded much harder and more quickly than I anticipated.  She follows me around everywhere and loves to cuddle between Copper and me on the sofa.  She also loves to sit on my lap like a 40 lb puppy, and sleeps pressed up against my side every night.  I tease Chuck that he really got her for me as an early Valentine’s Day present.  He feigns jealousy when she curls up next to me.  It’s fun.  And Mo?  She is blossoming and coming out of her shell more and more every day.  Every day we see progress.  Every day she becomes more confident and trusting and calm.  And she is happy.

Of course, as we all know, happily ever afters don’t come so easily in real life.  We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.  As it turns out, Brie isn’t perfectly housetrained, either, and has her own destructive streak.  We dared to go out to dinner one night and came home to this:

And this is just a fraction of it.

And this is just a fraction of it.

And she also has demonstrated some mild resource guarding issues that need some work.  And we need to wean her off prompts so that she’ll follow cues any time we ask, not just when we’re waving treats in front of her face.  But!  It just so happens that I love training animals!  So these aren’t terrible problems; they’re fun projects!

Over the next few… I don’t know… weeks? Months? Years?  I’ll be updating this blog on our progress.  The next entry will be training plans and goals.  It will be fun to look back and see what we’ve accomplished as time goes on.

But for now, I’m off to feed these beasts dinner, run some errands, and find out what new and creative ways they’ve found to destroy things in the home during our absence.  😉

More later!

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Parrot MythBusters #1: The Inevitable Bite

I’ve decided to start a series called “Parrot MythBusters”, wherein common and pervasive myths about parrots will be addressed and discussed.  While the idea has been percolating for several months now, the impetus to actually start with this first one today came from one version of a meme that gets circulated every few weeks or so.


Anyone with a parrot and internet access has probably seen this meme, or one of the many like it:

Reasons a Parrot Will Bite


Memes like this one exist for a reason.  Many people get bitten by their bird and take it as a personal attack.  They label their bird as “mean” or “unhandleable” or “wild” or “dominant”.  They assume their bird does not like them.  None of these things are true.   Birds bite because in the past they have learned that biting works.  Or, in some cases, they accidentally bite because they don’t understand that the mole is attached to your skin, or they have lost their balance and are merely trying to find some stabilization.  These memes attempt to let people know that bird ownership opens you up to the possibility of getting bitten—-even accidentally, just as you might accidentally get scratched or bitten by any other companion animal.


That’s fine.  That’s important.  However, in some ways I feel it’s counterproductive.  Why?  Because, it sends the message that your bird is going to bite you, and that’s ok.  So what’s wrong with that?  Well, simply because most people don’t realize – but desperately need to realize – that it is not only possible, but preferable, to create a relationship with your bird where s/he doesn’t feel the need to bite you.


When people find out that I am a behavior consultant, one of the most frequent comments that I hear is, “Oh, I bet you get bitten a lot!”  They are always surprised to learn that, actually, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been bitten.


The reason that most trainers and behavior consultants don’t get bitten very often is because the basis, the very foundation, of effective, humane animal training is the ability to listen to and respect what an animal is saying.  Training – which includes “passive” training that happens every time you interact with your bird – requires that you first of all understand your bird’s body language, and secondly that you listen to it.  To educate yourself about bird language, I highly recommend Barbara Heidenreich’s DVD “Understanding Parrot Body Language”, which can be found here.   Avoiding a bite can be as simple as observing their body language and removing your hand or arm *before* the bite–when they are still as the stage of displaying warning body language.


Of course, it gets a lot more complicated than that in real life.  Sometimes the bird is already on us when they bite.  Sometimes the bird flies across the room and attacks when we aren’t looking at them.  Sometimes the “bite” isn’t aggression at all, but as mentioned above, it’s merely stabilization or exploration.  Sometimes, a bird’s warning body language has been punished, suppressed, or ignored for so long that they learn to just skip with the formalities of warning signs and go straight to the bite.  In these birds, people say their birds just “‘bite out of nowhere, without warning.”  Whatever the situation, there is always a way to train that bird to not perform those highly undesirable behaviors.


It starts, however, with paying attention to their body language, knowing their habits, and figuring out how to avoid putting them in a situation where they have the opportunity to bite in the first place.  If they’re obsessing over something on your body, remove it or cover it up before you handle them.  If they bite you every time you put your hand in their cage, train them to voluntarily come out of their cage before asking them to step up.  If they start to display aggressive body language when you offer your hand or arm, remove your hand/arm, wait for them to display calmer body language, then reinforce them for the calm body language.  If they are like my high energy Red Bellied Parrot and will cathartically nibble just to get rid of excess energy, have them fly a few laps around the room before asking them to step up, or otherwise provide exercise before expecting them to behave calmly.  A tired bird is a good bird.  🙂  These are all just very basic examples of the ways to avoid and prevent biting, but the goal here is not to solve everyone’s individual biting bird problems in one fell swoop, but rather to raise awareness to the fact that it IS possible to teach a bird that biting is really ineffective and there are so many other options that produce more desirable results.  The one thing to remember, though, is that the less frequently a bird bites, the less it will choose biting as its first option in the future.  So, the best way to teach your bird not to bite is to avoid situations where the bird has the opportunity to bite.   You know the old adage: if you don’t use it, you lose it.


This is food for thought, but to some extent it requires training, skill, and experience to troubleshoot some individual issues.  For this reason, I highly recommend that if you have a biting issue that you can’t figure out how to solve on your own, seek professional help from an avian behavior consultant.  You can find a list of consultants at and   You can also get good, free, but somewhat limited advice from professionals at the Facebook group “Training birds” here.  You can also get free one-on-one help as well as mini lessons about behavior at Dr. Susan Friedman’s yahoo group here.   And I do offer behavior consults as well, although if at all possible it’s best to get help in person from someone who come meet you in your home and work with you and your bird in the flesh.


In summary: yes, it’s highly likely that you will get bitten by your bird at some point in your relationship with them.  But your (very attainable) goal should be to get to a point with your bird where they never want or need to bite you at all.  It CAN be done.  It is done every day, with every species of animal in captivity, from every background—even with animals who have a history of severe aggression.  Your bird is not beyond help or hope or rehabilitation.  You *can* live a life with your bird where you are rarely, or even never, bitten again.

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