Interview By: Marie Collett
As professionals we are always striving to learn more and increase our skill level, however this passion is not limited to training professionals. There are also amazing owners who see their furry family members as both student and teacher, and through their commitment to developing that special bond acquire a level of knowledge that could rival that of many full-time trainers. Eileen Anderson, of eileenanddogs.com, is one of these owners and we were privileged enough to correspond with her about her personal quest for knowledge.
Through reading her award-winning blogs we are able to witness those precious moments between Eileen and her dogs when a mutual understanding emerges and see how it strengthens their bond. There are aspects of behavioral science that are admittedly difficult to navigate or comprehend, but she has a gift for being able to cut through the jargon and make the material more accessible, allowing readers of varying skill levels to understand and apply the lessons to their own lives with their beloved pets. You may remember some of Eileen‘s posts as ones we’ve shared on the Helping Hounds social media pages. Here’s a little bit of background in case you’re unfamiliar with her work.
Eileen Anderson, BM, MM, MS
Eileen is a passionate amateur dog trainer who writes about learning theory, her life with three dogs, and force free training in her blog and other publications. She brings a science background, critical thinking skills, and teaching experience to her writing, with a focus on making training accessible and learning theory comprehensible to pet owners.
Eileen has worked professionally as a writer and academic editor, a network administrator, taught remedial college math, and trained all levels of computer skills in academic and workplace settings. She has a lifelong passion for making technology accessible to women, people with low literacy skills, and other underserved populations. She is now channeling that same urge to translate, explain, and make concepts comprehensible into the subjects of humane treatment of dogs and joyful companionship between dogs and people.
She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music performance, and a master’s degree in engineering science. She received the Certificate of Excellence for completion of Susan Friedman’s professional course, Living and Learning with Animals, in 2012. She lives in the mid-Southern U.S. and works at a non-profit that helps impoverished women access medical care.
When we contacted Eileen to request this interview, she was gracious enough to not only answer our questions but to include some wonderful links and videos as well, which help to illustrate some of the discussion points.
How did you become interested in dog training and behavior?
Like many people, I got a “problem” dog, although I hate calling her that now. The only problem was my ignorance! I got Summer in 2006, and at the time I had one other dog, my rat terrier Cricket. Before that, all my dogs had gotten along with each other OK and fit into my human life without a lot of trouble. I was not prepared for it when Summer, who was more than twice Cricket’s size, was aggressive towards her. (Actually, I’m not sure Summer “started” it, but the size differential made it a serious problem.) She could also jump my back yard fence, chewed everything, and drooled and ignored food toys when I tried to crate her. Before Summer, all my dogs had spent their daytimes in my yard all day when the weather was good, and just the fact of her fence jumping changed my life completely. I could never again “send” my dogs into the yard to potty or to spend a couple of hours unsupervised; I would have to go with them every single time. This seems like a trivial and natural thing now, and I no longer even want to leave my dogs in my yard unattended for any length of time. But at the time it was devastating to me, as were some of the other changes I had to make. I hadn’t known I was taking on a “project” instead of just getting a dog.
In any case, I ended up at the local dog obedience club, hoping that “obedience” would help Summer’s aggression and other issues. It didn’t help in a big way, but it started me down a road to find positive reinforcement training, classical conditioning, and learning theory. Summer is a much happier and confident dog now, and I have trained every other dog who has come into my life as well. Getting Summer changed the direction of my whole life, and I will always be grateful to her for that, besides appreciating her for the cool dog she is.
Do you have a favorite breed? We won’t judge!
I must say I do. I love rat terriers. Even to look at one makes me feel warm and happy. The sharp lines, their short coats and bouncy movements, their musculature—they just look “right” to me. I’m sure anyone who loves a particular breed knows that feeling. I am partial to terriers in general, but rat terriers are the ones for me. I love that combination of tough and sweet. When they are patrolling for varmints they are singleminded and all business. When they are in the house with their people you couldn’t imagine a sweeter companion.
I don’t currently have a rat terrier at my home and I may never again, but I am “godmother” to one dear rat terrier whom I see frequently. All my own dogs right now are mixed breeds. I have to put in a word for Zani though, my little hound and terrier mix. I think she **should** be a breed. Don’t worry; I’m not intending to add more puppies to the world! She is spayed. It’s just that she is perfect! Such a great looking, clever, and good-natured little dog. (She may be part rat terrier; that would explain why she too looks so “right” to me!)
What is your favorite type of behavior modification or training issue to tackle and why?
I love doing classical conditioning and counterconditioning. I love the idea—and the reality—that you can help an animal become more comfortable in the world simply by creating predictable good associations. It can be a long-term project, such as the work I do with my formerly feral dog Clara, under the supervision of a skilled trainer. Or it can be as easy as my five-day project that helped Zani overcome her discomfort with the movement of the elliptical exercise machine in my back room. When you free an animal of fears and phobias, they are free to make more choices in the world and have much more enriched lives. It is thrilling to me that I can help a dog do that.
It actually relates to the classical conditioning I mentioned above. As a non-professional, I sometimes get training ideas that are not all that well thought through. They may have unintended consequences even if they succeed with the thing I intend. But this one was my own idea and it turned out great. When I got my feral puppy Clara, I was concerned that she would pick up Summer’s reactivity. Summer had at that time several triggers that happened frequently at home, including that the sound of delivery trucks would send her around the bend. Clara already had enough challenges from growing up in the woods; I didn’t want to add to her plate. So very early on I started giving her a great treat (canned cheese, her favorite) whenever Summer would bark. I did it so consistently that I got the full Pavlovian response; Clara would actually smack her lips and salivate when Summer would bark. Besides running to me wagging her tail. All the side effects of this training were good. It caused Clara to come looking for me whenever Summer barked, which then morphed into a strong recall. Little Zani learned the association and started showing up too, which inoculated her nicely from catching Summer’s habit. And finally—over the course of a couple of years—it took some of the potency out of Summer’s own reaction. She is learning to interrupt herself and come look for me instead of going nuts over trucks.
What is the one thing you would most like all dog guardians to know?
That you don’t have to have an adversarial relationship with your dog. Positive reinforcement based training is effective, and not just for easy dogs or tricks. When I first read about it, I couldn’t find any force free training local to me. I figured that positive reinforcement based training must be an exaggeration, some kind of wishful thinking. I was wrong. As I have learned more and more about it, every example I have ever seen of it “not working” is because of the limitations of the trainer, never some inherent quality of the dog. Training is a skill, and there is a learning curve. The people reading this are fortunate to have the wonderful trainers at Helping Hounds Training to help them learn those skills and enjoy their lives with their dogs…
In addition to the established eileenanddogs.com, Eileen also has a new website and an upcoming e-book that focus on sharing life with a dog who has dementia. With her characteristic accessibility and empathy, both promise to be valuable resources for anyone looking for information or support in regard to this condition. The website is http://dogdementia.com and the working title of the book is Loving and Caring for a Dog with Dementia.