Training Your Dog to use a Ramp

As our dogs get older, they can begin to lose some of their mobility and have trouble with stairs or jumping up into cars.  In my own case, my nearly twelve-year-old collie has developed severe arthritis in her lower back and hips and is no longer able to hop into my SUV and climb up on the back seat.  We’re addressing her age-related health issues with medication and physical therapy, but we still need a pain-free way to transport her to the places that she needs to go.

The solution for short trips around town was to place her in the SUV’s rear cargo area rather than the rear seat.   For her comfort, and to spare us the need to vacuum her fur out of the car every week, I put down a canvas sheet with an old wool blanket on top of it.  With the back seat folded down, this gives her a comfortable place to lie down with familiar scents and protects our vehicle.  Which left the issue of how to get her into the vehicle.  I’m a large individual myself and have no difficulty in lifting and carrying a 65-pound dog, but the same isn’t true for my spouse.   Therefore, we decided that it was time for our old girl to start using a ramp.

Some dogs are very accepting of new experiences and will take to using a ramp very easily.  They’ll see the ramp, say “Challenge accepted!” and will scamper right up it.  However, there are a lot of others who will be apprehensive about using it.  So, when planning to implement the use of a ramp for a geriatric dog, keep in mind that she is already uncomfortable and is losing strength and mobility; she is becoming unsure of her footing and will be nervous about walking up a narrow surface that is suspended in the air.  There are things you can do to make it easier for your dog.

Selecting the right ramp is very important.  They come in different sizes and lengths and a made of a variety of materials.  I have some suggestions for picking the right one:  First, it must be of a size and weight that can be managed by anyone who handles the dog and drives the vehicle that will be used to transport her.  Second, the walking surface should be composed of a non-slip surface that won’t be torn by a dog’s claws.  Avoid any fabric coverings that can become loosened or ripped.  Third, the ramp should be wide enough for your dog to walk on it with a fairly normal gait and posture.  Lastly, when fully extended, it must be long enough that it securely overlaps the bed of your vehicle and has a gentle slope to the ground – I recommend that it be less than the 35-degree angle commonly used for residential stairs.

The next issue is helping your dog to use the ramp.  As I indicated earlier, older dogs are likely to be reluctant to start using one.  They can experience a certain amount of discomfort when they’re walking or using stares and are losing some of the mobility they had in their younger days.  They’re also likely to be apprehensive about walking up a ramp with empty air on either side of them.  So, start slowly and let your dog become accustomed to using a ramp.

Begin with laying the ramp flat on level ground, folded or collapsed to its smallest dimensions, with the walking surface on top.  In the illustrations, I used a telescoping ramp that I had slid closed.  Put your dog on leash and walk him on it, with encouragement and treats, so that he becomes used to walking on the ramp’s surface.  Do this several times a day with only a few repetitions in each session.  Once he’s comfortable walking on it, repeat this process with the ramp opened to its full extension but still lying flat in the same location.  Again, take it slow.  Have several sessions each day with only a few repetitions each time.  Keep in mind that your goal is to have your dog comfortable with walking on the ramp, there’s no reason to rush him.

Once he is comfortable walking on the ramp when it is laid on a flat surface, you begin to get him familiar with walking on the ramp when it is suspended in the air on a small incline.  The objective is to help him learn to trust the ramp when he is walking above ground level.  Find an outdoor location where you can put the ramp on a small incline, such as the front stoop of a house or a small set of steps.  Just make sure that this spot is stable and the ramp won’t shift under the dog while he’s using it.  Then put on his leash and walk him to the bottom of the ramp.  Shorten your grip on the leash so that he can walk easily but you can prevent him from falling off either side.  Give him a verbal cue, such as “Up!” and walk him up the ramp, staying close to him and using treats and praise as incentives.  Once he’s at the top, turn him around and give him another verbal cue, and repeat the process as he goes down.  Repeat this only a couple of times.  You want the duration of these sessions short in case he has any anxiety about using the ramp, so that his nervousness doesn’t build while you’re training him.  Repeat these short sessions a couple of times a day until he willingly goes up and down the ramp.

At this point, you’re ready to use the ramp to get him in the car.  Repeat the same familiar process of using the ramp when you take him into the car:  Shorten your hold on the leash, stay beside him and use the same incentives and verbal cues.  And continue with short sessions several times a day.  He may balk at first, and you may find that he is nervous or hurries up and down the ramp.  But with repetition and positive reinforcement, he’ll get accustomed to using it.

Choosing the Right Dog Trainer

In previous articles, I discussed the differences between dog trainers and behaviorists, and provided some insight into the various qualifications and professional organizations that are part of those professions.  Today, we’ll talk about how to pick the right person.

To keep it simple, I’ll limit this post to picking the right trainer:  What to look for and how to find one who meets your needs.  Picking a behaviorist will have somewhat different criteria and I’ll discuss that in my next post.  Note:  This assumes that we get back to a more normal society in the coming months and can have in-person interactions more freely than we can at present.  In the interim, there are a number of trainers who are providing very effective remote consulting, or one-on-one social-distanced training, during the pandemic.  But, for our purposes today, lets hope for the future.

So.  The first thing to do is ask around.  In this business there is nothing as beneficial as word-of-mouth advertising.  If one of your friends has a well-behaved and socialized dog, and had a good experience with a trainer, that’s definitely a plus.  Not only do you get to see the dog’s interactions and behavior, but you and your friend will probably have some shared values about training methods and similar lifestyles.

Next, look at the trainers’ advertisements and see what qualifications they have.  For example, if they have a CPDT-KA or CPDT-KSA certification, that means they have documented experience, have demonstrated skills and knowledge and –  very importantly – are engaged in continuous education1.    That said, when you see some letters after a trainer’s name, take the time to look that up and see what that certification actually means, what that certifying agency is.  They’re not all the same.  By the same token, when you see “member of ________” , take some time to look that up.  Some professional organizations have stringent membership requirements in terms of qualifications and experience.  Others, not so much.

After that, look at what they offer in terms of training styles.  A trainer who is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, or holds most certifications, will adhere to the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) philosophy of training and behavior work.  I’ll get into the details of this in a later post, but for our purposes today it means that the trainer adheres to professional standards that avoid any punishment-based training measures.  If you see an advertisement of a trainer who promotes the use of punishment methods, such as e-collars2, I would consider that to be a red flag.  Not only are aversive training methods contrary to ethical standards, but they have also been found to be damaging to dogs’ welfare and are less effective than positive training methods3.  Similarly, I would advise looking carefully at a trainer who describes his program as “balanced”.  This can often mean that this person is more prone to implement punishment as a training measure, instead of as a last resort.

If your trainer uses phrases such as “pack”, “authority”,  “Alpha” or other terms related to a dominance hierarchy, this can mean that he is using outdated and discredited training methods4.  This points out the advantage of hiring trainers who are maintaining a certification and are required to keep current on developments in the field.

Trainers will offer a variety of environments for you and your dog.  They may offer anything from group classes, structured playtime for socialization, individual one-on-one training, or board-and-train programs.  They may have a facility for conducting classes, or they may come to your house to offer individualized programs.  Each of these approaches have advantages for dog owners.

If your dog is new in your house, regardless of his/her age, I recommend taking part in a group training session.  This is a good social and bonding event for you and your dog, and also gives you a chance to learn about how well he is socialized with other dogs in a controlled and safe environment.   Again, read reviews and get recommendations before picking a program.

One-on-one programs are particularly useful for specific training in your home environment, such as loose-leash walking, greeting strangers, or other activities that don’t require a social setting but are centered on you interacting directly with your dog.

Board and train facilities, or doggy-daycare facilities that provide training can be very favorable for working people who don’t have a lot of spare time.  However, these programs must include the dogs’ owners in the training.  Your dog isn’t a car that can be dropped off at a mechanic.  A good facility such as this will involve the owner in training and provide work to do at home.

Lastly, interview the trainers that you are considering and tour their facilities.   They should provide their rates up front, along with details of their training program; and information about their business license, insurance and bonding.  Find out if they are affiliated with any shelters or rescues and ask for references.

Every person and every pet have individual needs and personalities.  One size does not fit all. But this will hopefully help in identifying the kind of trainer you need.

Next up:  What to look for in a canine behaviorist.

1  How to become a certified dog trainer – CCPDT

China, Mills & Cooper (2020), Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. a Focus on Positive Reinforcement.  Frontiers in Veterinary Science 7 (2020).  doi:  10.3389/fvets.2020.00508

3  Fernandes, Olssen & Vierira de Castro (2017), Do Aversive-based Training Methods Actually Compromise Dog Welfare?:  A Literature Review.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 196 (2017).  1 – 12, doi: 10.1016/j.applanim 2017.07.001

4  The Dominance Controversy – Dr. Sophia Yin

Trainer or Behaviorist?

In an earlier post, I talked at length about the certifications to look for in a dog trainer or behaviorist.  If you took the time to read it, you might be wondering what’s the difference between them.  After all, they do the same thing, right?  Well, not really.  They represent two different disciplines that you might need in living with your dog.

So, you are sharing your home with a pretty intelligent non-human who has social and emotional needs, and communicates non-verbally.  And he is turning into a terrible roommate.  One of you needs help, but what kind of help?  As in all things, that depends.

First, keep in mind that anyone can put up a website, print some business cards and call himself a dog trainer or behaviorist – or dog whisperer, dog guru, dog spiritual healer, dog communicator, or any other title.  This is an unregulated industry, with its share of quacks and frauds.  In the first article in this series, What Do All Those Letters and Certifications Mean? I discussed the various organizations that certify and vet members of these professions.  In the next article, I’ll address what to look for in picking the right person to help you with your dog, but at this point, we’ll discuss what these professionals do.

What is a dog trainer?

Putting it simply, a trainer is someone who teaches you and your pet the skills needed to function well in your home and in society.  This includes manners, pet etiquette and behaviors that are needed to safety and a happy life.  These can range from basic skills such as sitting and lying down on command, coming when called, walking nicely on a leash, traffic safety, etc., to advanced skill levels such as protection training, sports and other activities.

Types of dog training.

The training can take many forms, ranging from multi-dog classes for teaching basic skills to owners and their pets, moderated play sessions for socialization (generally for puppies), advanced group classes, private sessions at owners’ homes, or board-and-train sessions in which the dog lives at the trainers’ location for a time.  In my next article I’ll go into these approaches in depth and discuss how to pick a trainer, but for the time being, it suffices to say that trainers have a number of tools at their disposal, and a number of different business philosophies and approaches.  One size does not fit all.

What is a canine behaviorist?

A behaviorist is someone who can address a problem behavior that your dog has developed.  A “problem behavior” being defined that something that the dog does too often, or not often enough.1   For example, if your dog has anxieties about certain situations – such as being left alone in the house, or your dog barks excessively at the neighbors, or is overly protective of his food bowl, these are problems that the behaviorist can help with reducing.

Behaviorist Methodology

Where a dog trainer uses repetition and encouragement to educate dogs and owners in how to perform certain actions; a behaviorist will work with the owners to observe what the dog does, determine what events or triggers cause it to happen, and develop an intervention to reduce or modify the problem behavior.  The key elements of this are to closely observe what happens before, during and after the behavior occurs; and develop an intervention based on behavioral science and professional ethics.

I hope this helped to clarify when you should seek a trainer or behaviorist.  We’ll get into the mechanics of training and behavior modification in a later article, along with what you should look for when searching for a reputable and effective professional to help you with your dog.

What to Look for in a Dog Trainer. What do all those letters and certifications mean?

You’ve taken your puppy home and are looking for a trainer. Or your adorable puppy has grown up and turned into a teenager.  Or the dog you’ve taken home from a shelter or rescue has developed anxieties and behavior problems.  So, you’ve begun a search for someone who can help you.  And you’ve found and entire internet full of trainers, and are overwhelmed with options.  What now?   What’s right for you and your dog?  This is a series of articles to help you pick the right trainer and training program.

First off:  Every article has an alphabet soup of certifications and qualifications.  What do they all mean, and how do you wade through all that?

Things to keep in mind:  In the United States, this is an unregulated field.  Every single person who advertises himself as a dog trainer can also certify other people as trainers, without any qualifications or standards and print out a fancy certificate.  This isn’t to say that the person who has gone through a course of training or internship under that program doesn’t know what he or she is doing and isn’t an excellent trainer.  But often it means exactly that.   As Victoria Stillwell says:

“Just as almost anyone can refer to themselves as a professional dog trainer, almost any entity can currently state that it ‘certifies’ its members or graduates to be a certain level of dog training  professional. While this classification can sometimes be as valuable as the paper used to designate the certification, the dog-owning public continues to place varying degrees of importance on the label of being ‘certified.’

 The truth is that the value of any dog trainer certification depends upon the criteria and assessment processes in place by the entity granting the certification to the trainer as well as the guiding principles and reputation of the certifying entity.1″

This is a list of the more commonly found reputable professional dog training and behavior consulting certifications.  Each of these certifications requires documented experience (ranging from hundreds of hours to years) in canine training and behavior, education and/or rigorous testing, and attestation of that person’s qualifications by professional peers.  Each of these organizations require their certificants to abide by a code of ethics, best practices and professional standards.  The individuals holding these certifications are also required to maintain their expertise through continual education in the field.  I encourage you to look at the links provided below to determine the best fit for you and your pet.

DACVB – Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.2

CAAB:  Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (granted by the Animal Behavior Society).3

ACAAB:  Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (Animal Behavior Society).

CPDT-KA:  Certified Pet Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.4

CPDT-KSA:  Certified Pet Dog Trainer – Knowledge and Skills Assessed (Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.

CBCC-KA:  Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed (Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.

CDBC:  Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants).5

IAABC-ADT:  Accredited Dog Trainer (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants).

KPA-CTP:  Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Program6

A more complete list of animal-related certifications, and the criteria for those certifications, can be found here:  https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/lifestyle/human-focus/professional-dog-training-titles/

When looking at advertisements for trainers or behaviorists, pay attention to the fine print.  Does the trainer provide a set of credentials?  If so, you can search that certifying organization’s web site to determine whether that trainer is in fact certified and in good standing.  Also, does the trainer say that he’s a member of an organization, such as the IAABC or APDT without providing further information?  If so, look further.  Membership in these organizations is a great thing:  It provides access to training, current research and other benefits.  But there are also various levels of membership, including the general public.

If a trainer lists course that he or she has taken, take a look that the courses and see if they are listed as providing Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for maintaining certification.  This will provide you with a basis of determining the value of that course of training.  Also,  if a trainer describes himself as having attended a formal training program such as those conducted by Victoria Stillwell7, Pat Miller8, Karen Pryor6 or the Animal Behavior College9, look to see if he has successfully completed that training and has been credentialed by it.

Next in this series:  Do I need a trainer or a behaviorist?

Upcoming:  What is an ethical dog trainer?  What to look for in a trainer/behaviorist, and what to avoid.

 

References

  1. What Is Certification? | Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior (vsdogtrainingacademy.com)
  2. American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (dacvb.org)
  3. Animal Behavior Society
  4. Certification for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants (ccpdt.org)
  5. International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (iaabc.org)
  6. Become A Professional Dog Trainer Courses – Certification Program (karenpryoracademy.com)
  7. HOME | Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior (vsdogtrainingacademy.com)
  8. Peaceable Paws Intern Academies – Peaceable Paws

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