Do You Make These 3 Mistakes that Cost You Success in training your scent detection or medical alert dog?

By Debby Kay ©2014 all rights reserved.

This fall the weather has been so wonderful for training dogs I have had to really get on my own case to sit and write this month’s blog. When I am out with the dogs I tend to lose track of all time and just want to continue doing what both the dogs and I love to do and that is train. What does training mean to you? Is it a chore or is it a joy? Do you and your dog(s) really come away with a satisfying feeling after a good session or are you both happy to see it end? I’d like to talk about 3 common mistakes I see people make that can affect the performance, learning and outcome to your dog’s training.

#1 Attitude. Most people I deal with want to train their dog to help with some special task such as alerting to a blood glucose change, or identifying an allergen for their person. These are important tasks for a dog and it is critical to your success that the dog has the right attitude towards the job. What many don’t realize is they will get that attitude from you, the trainer so it behooves you to come to the job with the right frame of mind. You should always know what you are hoping to accomplish during the particular session. Start with a goal in mind. Make sure that goal is reasonable and can be accomplished in the time you have set aside. Train when you feel you have the energy and the right positive frame of mind. If you are super tired, angry with some other person that just ruined your day, don’t bring that baggage to the dog’s training time with you. No one, including your dog, wants to work with someone with a bad attitude. If you are tense, relax with a cup of herbal tea and a spoonful of honey, both of which are known to help with moods. Just let your dog sniff and play on their own until you feel calm and centered again before you pick up the leash and treat bag and start to work with your dog. If you are tired, take a 15-minute power nap. Be refreshed when you start your work with your dog.

#2 Consistency. I am not talking about routines when I am talking about consistency. Routines are nice and certainly are useful in training, especially early on to help the dog focus on the learning objective. I discuss this in my Super Sniffer™ Handbook and we practice this concept at the workshops I offer. What I see as a common mistake though is lack of consistency in both intent and communication people give to their dogs. The best example of intent I can think of that I see frequently is during one session the person will be very serious and strictly enforce the “rules” of performance for the dog on a particular exercise. Then the next session they allow for slack behavior that previously was corrected or not allowed. If you intend to be serious about the “rules” of performance you are establishing then be consistent about it. You will lose your dog’s respect if you keep this up too long. This is no different for people if you think about it.

Lab jumping into ocean waves

When a dog is living life to the fullest the joy is apparent in everything they do

If my intent was to pay you for a job well done but you only got a paycheck once in a blue moon, I doubt that you would want to work very hard for me.   Communication is key to success in all of dog training and yet people will continually give conflicting commands. I see the major problem here is people are just not thinking about what they are doing or saying. It takes some practice and discipline but if your dog can learn then you can too. So be aware of what words and cues you are giving and be consistent for your dog’s sake.

#3 Time. The final and perhaps the biggest mistake many people make who are tying to train their own alert dogs is they do not allow enough time. I am not necessarily asking for hours a day but EVERY day there should be a minimum of 2-3 training sessions. These can be short and of course should be fun and engaging, with a clear goal in mind. If you are going to train the dog then schedule the time to work with the dog. That dog will not learn by osmosis or by reading the book, they are going to need to work with you so commit the time and stick to that schedule. This might include getting up 15 minutes earlier, so after you walk the dog in the morning you can spend 5-10 minutes doing a quick session before breakfast. The same can be in the evening; allow a bit of special time with your dog just for training.

This might seem too simple but it is amazing how many people will bring problem dogs to me and in reality it boils down that their person has not set aside any time for training the dog.

Yes dogs are a lot of work, but my father always said that all great things in your life would require work on your part. That is what makes those things great and so satisfying too. Happy Training!


Experience is the teacher of all things – Julius Caesar 

August has been one of the busiest months so far this year at our place. There has been so much going on if it were not for my cell phone telling me what day it was I might forget. As I was sitting down to write this blog it struck me that most everything that has been happening this month all relates back to experience at every level of meaning.

These past few weeks I have been working with many new service dog owners, trainers learning the methodology for medical detection work, and several new young dogs; all these groups had issues and challenges to overcome and all related to experience. It seems impatient and demanding people often overlook experience as a possible cause of the problem they are working on. This is true when talking about the experience of either the people or the dogs.

For example, the other day while training dogs, one of the trainers commented on the behavior of a dog, suggesting the behavior was related to not having enough of this or that drive or was not motivated or was lazy or just pick any of a dozen common “reasons” a dog is not doing what is asked. When I was asked my opinion I simply replied, the dog just doesn’t have enough experience to know what to do. What I have observed often is a lack of understanding on the trainer’s part (both amateur and professional alike) that experience plays in how a dog reacts and works. Let me give some examples to make this statement more clear.

Very young puppies are sponges when it comes to soaking up experiences. As a breeder, I spend a huge amount of time and effort to expose them to as much as possible when they are puppies for two reasons. One, I want to build confidence but I also want to build their “Experience Library”. If the pups have already walked on twenty different surfaces and that information is stored in the surface portion of their experience library, there will be twenty less things the pup will have as a distractions when they move on to new and different lessons in their future training as service dogs. This is true for noises and smells and many other things. At some point the dog just won’t pay attention to those things and will focus on the handler instead. My goal is to keep that dog’s focus so they can learn their lessons and preform their job well.

Think about the difference between the seasoned traveling adult dog verses the puppy going for the first few car rides. I have well worn earplugs that prove experience is what makes for a quiet stress free ride. The young dogs must learn from the repetition of an exercise, in many different places, to understand that when something is asked from them it doesn’t matter where, they need to do as asked. This is a major point that many people training their own service dogs fail to fully implement. What I hear from the owner trainers (of a diabetes alert dog for example) is, “my dog will alert at home really well but when we were out on a picnic last weekend the dog missed a low”.

My first question to them is, “Have you ever practiced your scent work outside in a park?” The answer is usually no. In most cases there is little practice outside the house in different places. I don’t mean to imply that you have to try and train in every location that you think you will ever visit, the point here is to give the dog some experience in new locations with different sights, sounds and smells. Maybe you can’t get to a picnic area to practice but you can perhaps, practice at the dog park.

Another commonly overlooked aspect of experience I see a lot, is when people are training a puppy under 6 months and enjoy a tiny bit of success on teaching a new behavior, then suddenly expect the puppy to continue to perform perfectly; with no further training. Often, too much pressure is put on a puppy with little or no experience to perform, which can lead to confusion on the part of the dog causing him to shut down. Worse yet, a confused dog can start to offer other behaviors that are not desirable. The end result is a dog whose behavior is worse than in the beginning. In this situation, an experienced trainer should know when to move on to higher levels of performance from a dog, avoiding boredom while progressing with the training objectives.

Another experience question came up last week, this one concerning the experience of the trainer. It really does make a difference how much experience you have, how many dogs you have trained and how much training you have had yourself. However, there are many talented and dedicated people just starting in dog training or in the case of question asked me, just starting in medical alert training. These are knowledgeable dog people who may not have the experience with the medical alert dogs but if they have a good work ethic, keen eye, and are mentoring under someone more experienced and willing to help them, I can see no reason why those people should not be considered also. I remember the first diabetes alert dog conference I went to at Wildrose Kennels; I learned that was indeed the case with Rachael Thorton.

two children with adult teaching them how to walk their pups

Experience needs to be shared. Who knows maybe one of these young ladies will one day be a dog trainer too!

Rachael was not a dog trainer when she undertook training her first dog for her Type 1 daughter. She did have the good fortune to be able to work with the experience trainers at Wildrose however and the rest is history. I have lost track of the number of DADs she has trained since her first dog, but she continues to be one of the most ethical people in the DAD training arena I know. My point is that everyone has their first dog, so in this case judging a person by their experience should not be the only thing you look at when considering someone to help train your dog. The network of trainers in this field is growing, and there is no reason anyone just starting out training alert dogs cannot find someone to help them. I have found everyone for the most part, to be very open, honest, and helpful, as it should be. 

My final thought on experience is that it should be shared. When I watch my dogs interact I am always struck by the fact that the older dogs will share from their experience with the young pups the best way to do something, to negotiate an obstacle, to open a gate, or get my attention. Dogs don’t keep their experience to themselves and I don’t think people should either. If you have had an eye opening experience, or found out a better way to do something you should share it too. Even old dog trainers like me learn new things every day.



Managing the Holidays with Dogs

The holidays for me are a time to fight off the darkness of longer nights and colder temperatures with every available means.  I love to start with decorations and I don’t mean just hanging a wreath on the front door. Oh no, not me, I go totally overboard and decorate everything.  Every archway has it’s own special garland for the theme of the room, each room has a fully decorated tree with its own theme, the stairs have baskets of poinsettias, there are elves and snowmen, trains, villages and all sorts of scenes of every type and description. Santa can be found with his trusty Labrador by his side, bird watching or hunting or getting a bath. Hardly a space in the house is left without something to brighten it up.  When all is said and done, it is quite something to see. Many friends bring their children over to see it all, which makes all the effort more worthwhile.  While all this decorating really does help to boost my spirits, there is always this horrendous task of managing the dogs during this “delicate” time.  Anyone who has lived with a Labrador’s Otter tail can appreciate what I am saying; especially if you multiply the effect by 8 adult dogs and the 20 puppies we currently have running around this December.

Let’s make one thing clear; dogs do not care about your holiday decorations. That really cute stuffed Lab puppy under the tree in my office that has a little stocking in its mouth and moves back and forth like it is shaking it is just a chew toy as far as any of my pooches are concerned.  This sounds like an obvious statement but I still get calls from people asking what they should do to keep the dogs out of the decorations.  So here are my suggestions to help you get through your holidays and still keep a loving relationship with your dog.

  1. Buy lots of bones. Nothing beats boredom for a dog then a good fresh marrow bone from the butcher shop.  They will work on that bone for hours to get all the marrow out and be just as happy as can be. Not to mention they will stay occupied while you continue to decorate. Did I mention we have 7 full sized trees we put up every year?  I buy lots of bones.
  2. Get out and exercise your dogs more. I know it is cold outside, it might even being snowing, but if you want your dogs to sleep more you need to exercise them more, so get out there and work off a few extra calories from those delicious holiday cookies while you tire the pups out.
  3. Did I mention cookies? Try Baking your dogs their own Christmas cookies. Yes, you can do this. And guess what? If they turn out bad because you are not that great a cook I assure you your dogs will scarf up every crumb, tail wagging and will beg for more.

Here is a simple recipe for Pumpkin Peanut Butter Treats all dogs love:

Ingredients   2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour; 2 eggs; 1/2 cup canned pumpkin; 2 tablespoons peanut butter; 1/2 teaspoon salt; 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Directions   Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Whisk together the flour, eggs, pumpkin, peanut butter, salt, and cinnamon in a bowl. Add water as needed to help make the dough workable, but the dough should be dry and stiff. Roll the dough into a 1/2-inch-thick roll. Cut into 1/2-inch pieces.  Bake in preheated oven until hard, about 40 minutes.

While the cookies are baking play a puzzle game with your dogs to keep them occupied and make them feel like part of the holiday scene too.  Too often we get so caught up in doing everything for us we forget to include them or at least give them some special one on one time.  Let the cookies cool before offering to your dogs. Be sure to count your fingers, these are a favorite.

4. Use zone control. This is critical in certain areas of the house. We use gates to keep dogs in those areas they are allowed and out of those areas where the really delicate decorations are. The key here is to make sure the dog understands not to cross the gate and that everyone in the family knows you are going to tar and feather them if they forget and leave the gate open.

5. Buy lots of dog toys.  Dogs get excited to see all the things laid out around the house as you are decorating and have a hard time resisting the urge to explore all the goodies. Unless you give them something more fun to explore,  like a bunch of new toys of their own, they will give in to temptation and it won’t be pretty.

6. Get out and exercise your dog(s) more. That’s right once a week is not enough; try at least twice a day.

7. Fake it.  I use very well made silk poinsettias for example so none of the dogs are exposed to potentially poisonous plants.  In areas where the dogs are still traveling from the zone control I keep decorations higher. In the zone control areas they are lower and on the ground.  You really have to get creative when you have dogs with how you place things but think about where you put it from the dog’s eye view beforehand. One example of this is don’t hang bright red balls on the lowest branches of the tree if the dogs are allowed in that room. That looks too much like something to play with for most dogs and it is just not fair to tempt them like that.

person reading to puppies

What happened next?

In spite of all the hassles of the extra management precautions of keeping the dogs and the decorations away from each other I really do enjoy the holidays.  I thought it was a bit sad when Sam and I were in Florida recently when all the people we spoke to that live down there now, said they really missed the change of seasons we get up here in the Appalachian Mountains.  They went on to explain how it really does not seem like a holiday for them in Florida, no matter how much they decorate.  I kept telling people who told us that, come and visit us if you want to experience holiday joy and the meaning of the season. There can’t be anything better than lying under the Christmas tree with 20 puppies snuggled on your chest and in every available space near you while you read them a Christmas story.

Peace and Happiness to everyone, everywhere this holiday season


After a recent workshop I gave, some of us were sitting around and telling dog stories. One sad story was of a beloved companion who had many medical issues before he had passed. I commented, “thanks heavens for pet insurance.” To my surprise the owner said they did not have insurance on the dog.

It doesn’t take long for the vet bills to get over a thousand dollars or more these days at the vet’s office for seemingly small emergencies or even routine visits. Have you noticed?  So I was very surprised when I heard this dog did not have insurance.

As a breeder I worry about all the pups that leave our kennel and urge everyone to continue the 60 day free coverage we provide when the pups leave. I have heard far too many stories from other breeders who sold pups only to learn later that the pup was either not receiving medical treatment they need or being put down because the owners could not afford the surgery or treatment.  The high cost of keeping dogs these days sometimes forces even the best intended families to make some tough decisions.  Do we take a loan for the $3,000+ hip or knee surgery the dog needs or do we get the new car to commute to work? Do we spend hundreds of dollars monthly on special meds and follow up treatments for Fido or not buy the groceries we need?  It might seem I am exaggerating here but I have heard these types of discussions and in almost every case the dog loses.  These dogs either do not get the treatment they need, are given up to Lab Rescue or simply put down.

To insure you are never put in this situation or one of your sold puppies is placed in this situation you should consider getting pet insurance.  Most reputable breeders will offer some type of health guarantee and some states even require a minimum guarantee often referred to as the puppy lemon law. The AKC has made it even easier for breeders to go one step beyond this basic buyer protection plan with a free 60 accident and illness coverage for each registered puppy in your litter.  To encourage my buyers to enroll I will preregister the pups and enroll them prior to the transfer to the new owners. If anything happens to that pup in those first two months they are covered. It encourages the new owners to continue the policy which is very affordable when you show people some of your vet bills for simple things.

One of my girls, found dead fish parts left by some fisherman at the river and ate some before I could stop her. 24 hours later she was one sick dog and spent 3 days at the vets for treatment. The bill was over $1600. Fortunately her insurance covered the entire bill. Accidents and incidents like this happen with our active labs and there is no way to prevent these things many times. A client that I had provided the 60 day trial insurance too had decided not to renew this and only a week after the expiration of the policy had their pup each a poisonous mushroom while out hiking on fine Sunday afternoon.  They were away from home, all clinics were closed so they ended up at an emergency room with a very sick dog.  3 days and $4000.00 later they were happy to have their dog returned well again but were deeply regretting not having kept that insurance, which would have covered this incidence.  Tendon cuts or pad cuts on glass or obstacles while doing field work, joint injuries while doing agility, a stray dog attack, or worse still cancer are all things that can and do happen to active dogs and all the more reason to have some type of coverage to offset the major cost of treating these things..  It is comforting to me, with insurance coverage on all my dogs, to know I do not have to take a loan out, run up a credit card bill or try and cut corners on treatments to save money.  My dogs will get quality care for their entire life at a fraction of the cost of a yearly exam with blood work and vaccines.

Chocolate Lab puppy

They deserve to be protected

If you haven’t considered pet insurance before, I urge you to look into it. There are many plans and options available now to offer peace of mind that your dogs will always get the quality of care and treatment they deserve.

Bloodsuckers Beware!

yellow lab dog face

Bailey is sure I meant he should roll in the mud

Everyone at our house really looks forward to the first warm days of summer so we can go swimming in the river. It seems we are not the only ones anxious to get out and about as the thermometer rises, so do the insects, especially the bloodsuckers as I call them; fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes.
I have already found fleas on Bailey while giving him one of his many baths. You can tell if your dog has been into the flea infested areas even if you don’t see the fleas on their body. Fleas will leave black grit the size of pepper granules on the dog’s skin. Bailey seems to feel that rolling in mud is the best way to rid oneself of fleas and other critters.
He just looks at me with a cocked head, “But you said if I stink enough the fleas will go away, I don’t understand?”
I try to explain that was not what I had in mind and wonder with his hankering to roll in dirt and mud if he hasn’t been reading my farmers magazine on “How to Keep Hogs Happy”. At least Bailey has one part of my attack plan on bloodsuckers right, hit them in the nose. Bloodsuckers and many other insects do not like things that smell a certain way or taste bad, so I make this part of my natural treatment around the farm to guard against them.
Fleas may not be a problem in your yard or house but if you are out and about with your dog as we are with ours you are bound to pick them up at some point. When I see the first signs of fleas I get out the Diatomaceous Earth, a natural dust from microscopic sea critters that literally dehydrates the fleas. No chemicals, nothing toxic, no residues and no side effects on your dog or yard. Works great. Next I make sure there are plenty of plants with smells that the bugs don’t like, such as marigolds, chrysanthemums, and lemon grass. Herbs like Catnip and basil are also natural repellents. For the coat, I use a spray made up of oils from Lemon Grass, Cinnamon, Sesame, and Castor. You can buy many products now that are labeled EcoSafe using various combinations of herbal oils. They work too, but remember they may need to be applied more often.
Ticks that carry Lyme disease, are bit more difficult to control especially since we live in heavy oak woods and have many deer, two things ticks love. For this job I call out the soldiers, I’m not kidding here either. A grouping of Guinea birds are known as soldiers. They and the turkeys do an excellent job of keeping ticks out of the places we frequent with the dogs. Ticks don’t attached themselves too quickly either, so we use that to our advantage and do a visual check for them after any activity. Wiping down with the oils mentioned earlier prior to your walk will help to discourage them from staying on your dog too.
Mosquitoes are my least favorite insect; they can kill a dog with the deadly things they carry particularly the dreaded heartworm larvae To make matters worse in some parts of the country, particularly the southern states, they are now immune to many of the heartworm preventatives. I don’t worry too much when the dogs are swimming about things biting them; it is afterwards that you need to be on top of things to keep the mosquitoes from landing. Citronella strips in your vehicle will deter bugs from coming in and feasting on your resting dogs or if you are still outside with your dog use the oil spray to put a fine coat of oil and fragrance on your dog.
All this is great but don’t forget to get your dog into the vets for an annual blood workup to be sure those pesky bloodsuckers have not left behind anything detrimental to your dog. If you notice a change in energy, stamina or breathing these are some of the early warning signs of possible disease from fleas, ticks or mosquitoes.