Angelica Steinker loved dogs early on.
“When I was little, I begged my parents for a brother or sister, and they said no and they got me a dog. And it all spiraled out of control from there,’’ she says.
Steinker is founder of Courteous Canine, Inc. in Lutz. The 20-year-old company offers basic manners training -- no longer called obedience -- as well as training for dog sport competitions, such as moving through obstacle courses. Steinker has three dogs, border collies Power and Particle and a Papillon named Moment. She takes them all to scent competitions, where dogs have to find scents hidden around a course.
Steinker, 55, talked about dogs and dog training with the Tampa Bay Times.
How smart are dogs?
I personally think dogs are extremely smart. Dog cognition research is exploding and there’s so much interesting stuff going on. We know that dogs can roughly count to 15 or so. What I mean by that is they are not numerically tracking, or using numbers, but they can mentally track up to 15 objects, which kind of makes sense in terms of dogs having puppies that they would be able to track how many they have.
We know that dogs can learn more than 2,000 words. Chaser, a very famous border collie, learned more than 2,000 words, and there’s researchers all over the world studying word learning in dogs.
We now have something called button communication, where dogs are learning to communicate with their (human) parents with buttons. Dogs are (pushing) 30, 40 buttons and saying all kinds of interesting things.
What do dogs do for us?
I think that we have an extremely unique relationship with dogs. I think that it is an intense friendship and very deep love that is mutually shared. (Neuroscientist Gregory) Berns has done MRI research that showed that dogs’ brains light up in the same area as human brains that is considered to be love. So the part of our brain that lights up when we love somebody, when we see that being, the same part of the dog’s brain lights up when they see their… (human) parent. ...
It’s really a unique relationship, and I personally believe that there’s a real genetic component. Dogs are kind of domesticated to a whole other level of many other domesticated animals and that’s why they share this deep connection with us.
What is the key to getting the dog to do what you want it to do? And do you also have to train the owners?
Yes. In dog-training circles, we often see a pattern that the owner is more learning-requiring than the dog, because dogs really only require motivation to learn. And motivation can be determined by something we call a positive reinforcement assessment. You look at what kinds of positive reinforcement does this dog enjoy and you create a list, and you figure out ones that are of the highest value and you use those, you pair that with learning, and that makes it pretty simple. But when somebody hires you and they pay you money, they kind of in a way think, like, “You can do it.” As dog trainers, we’re not moving in with our clients, so we do need to coach them to coach their dogs. And that’s also fun and joyful.
How do you train dogs not to be aggressive?
My personal passion is to work with reactive dogs. In the professional circle of certified dog behavior consultants, we refer to that as reactivity rather than aggression because aggression kind of gives the stigma of the dog maybe having some ill intent. … The reality is that most dogs that bark or lunge at dogs or people or both are simply afraid of those things.
…. In professional circles, the way we address these kinds of issues is with something called counterconditioning with systematic desensitization. It’s really just a series of fun games that are customized to your dog to teach them that what they have feared can actually be a source of joy.
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What would be an example?
Well let’s pretend the dog’s afraid of other dogs. What we use in that case, we use a stuffed animal that’s life size and looks like a real dog, and we set the dog up. This has to be customized, so this is not a simple formula that you can just use with any dog. It has to be perfectly, 100 percent customized to each dog, so I don’t want to mislead readers, that, ta-da!, this is the formula of how to fix this. It’s much more complicated than that when you’re working in real life. It’s not something you can do yourself. You really need to hire a professional that’s competent and certified.
But, anyway, you use the stuffed dog and you teach the dog to look at the stuffed dog, and most dogs will understand that the stuffed dog is not really a threat because they are stationary…. And we teach the dog to look at that stuffed dog on cue. So what happens is they look, and they get a treat, they look, and they get a treat. ... This is the counterconditioning. So they’re learning to look at this future other dog and something good happens. And then you just gradually build up to… working with a real dog.
What’s the best way to house train a puppy?
House training is all about setting up for success. You want to avoid that the puppy urinates or goes number-two in your home. So the best way to do that is put them on a schedule, just the way you do with small children. You feed them at the same time and then you follow certain rules. One of the rules of thumb is, for every month of age, you take them out (every) hour. So if the puppy’s eight weeks old, you need to take them out every two hours, which does mean you need to set an alarm during the night. …
Puppies should have access to water at all times. You never want to restrict the water. But you do want to put the food on a schedule. The idea is to get to know your puppy, get to know what time they urinate, what time do they defecate. Common patterns are they will urinate after sleeping, after playing, after learning something. So whenever they’re kind of distracted, then they need to go outside again. The smaller the dog, the more frequently they have to urinate.
For more information, go to https://www.courteouscanine.com