The Amazing Starmark Training Collar

If you’ve ever met with me to address your dog’s tendency to forge while on walks, you probably already know about the amazing Starmark Pro-Training Collar. Developed by Starmark several years ago, this collar has been a true life saver for many dogs and has been my go-to training collar for dogs of all sizes.

Starmark Pro-Training Collars

For those not familiar, let me tell you a little about this remarkable training tool. The Starmark collar is constructed of durable plastic that is comfortable for your dog to wear all day. The material makes it light weight yet quick to respond to leash pressure allowing a quick and painless correction to be given to your dog if needed. Starmark combined the martingale and prong collar to create this gentle tool allowing sensitive owners to communicate with their dogs should they be pulling.

Notice the proper snug fit of the collar around the dog's neck.
Notice the proper snug fit of the collar around the dog’s neck.

This collar works best when fit high on your dog’s neck and snug enough to not allow any rotation or slippage. The collar is made to be opened, then placed around your dog’s neck, then securely closed. It is NOT to be slipped over your dog’s head. Doing this can possibly cause harm to your dog’s eyes should they be scratched accidentally in the process as well as it leaves the collar sitting too loosely around the neck. The added benefit of this collar is the ability to add or remove links to make the collar fit your dog’s specific neck size. You don’t have that option with a lot of other training collars which makes this quite ideal in the dog training world. You can start using this collar on your young dog and simply add links as he grows and matures.

Transitioning your dog to a Starmark Martingale collar will allow you to give less corrections and protect your dog’s neck from constant pressure and/or stricture from other collars they pull in to like buckle or chain collars. Typically my clients see results within minutes of transitioning to this wonderful collar and are so pleased they are truly smiling by the end of the first lesson.

A snap is added to this Starmark to allow quick operation by the owner.
A snap is added to this Starmark to allow quick operation by the owner.

As I mention in the video (see link at bottom of page), this collar can be quite difficult for elderly or those with weak hands to open and close. Luckily there are a couple of companies, Pawmark being one, that have attached quick releases to the strap. I highly recommend you look for these specific collars to make your life easier should you fall into either of these categories. I also suggest you keep the collar one link too large while practicing putting the collar on your dog, especially if they have a longer coat, until you get the hang of it. Don’t worry, this usually takes only a few attempts! Once you’re comfortable with the process, remove that extra link and you are all set.

If you think your dog would benefit from this training collar, I strongly urge you to consult a knowledgeable dog trainer in your area to help you fit the collar and train your dog to walk on a loose leash with you. You can also “heel” on over to my YouTube channel to view my recent tutorial video on the Starmark collar including how to open and close the collar while on or off of your dog.

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Mental Stimulation for Dogs: Food Puzzles

Give your puppy (and dog) plenty of mental stimulation to decrease destruction.
Give your puppy (and dog) plenty of mental stimulation to decrease destruction.

I don’t know about you, but if I sit around and watch t.v. all day I start to feel agitated and anxious. I feel pent-up and start pacing the house saying I need to get out and do something. I have to believe dogs experience similar feelings when they are stuck in the house all day while their owners are at work. The working dogs, or any dog that has a lot of energy and drive, must go absolutely insane. And I know this to be true as my business has had many calls for “destructive” and “out of control” dogs that just needed a little more engagement in their lives.

It is important to think of mental stimulation as an act that is taxing on the brain. You can play fetch with your dog for a half hour to tire him out but within a short period of time he is ready to go again. This is because although the game of fetch was physically tiring, it wasn’t challenging to your dog. On the flip side, if you work with your dog on a new trick, practice their obedience or play a game of hide and seek with their food, their brain is fully engaged during the session causing them to be more relaxed after.

One of the easiest things to give your dog that provides mental stimulation are food puzzles or interactive toys. You can find a large variety of food puzzles ranging in difficulty levels, sizes, shapes and colors. There’s something out there for every dog, you just need to try a few to find the right fit for your dog specifically.

There are hundreds of food puzzle toys, here are just a few of the interactive toys you can find for dogs.
There are hundreds of food puzzle toys, here are just a few of the interactive toys you can find for dogs. 

One of the added benefits of food puzzles is the length of time it takes your dog to retrieve all food. How long does it take your dog to eat out of a normal bowl? One minute? 30 seconds? Well, when a dog has to work for his food by interacting with a puzzle toy it takes a lot longer, sometimes up to 15 minutes. This is perfect for dogs that are left alone first thing in the morning while the humans go off to work. The owner can give the toy just as they are leaving the house for the day which actually teaches the dog they like when their mom and/or dad heads off to work because they get a fun toy to play with that has food in it. Puzzle toys also help time to go by faster since the dog is preoccupied with getting their food instead of sitting and waiting impatiently by the door or causing destruction due to boredom.

Food puzzles also teach your dog to use all of their senses versus just shoveling food into their mouth when fed out of a bowl. Think about it a moment. Your dog has to figure out how to get the food out of the specified holes which means they are using their eyes, nose, mouth, paws and most importantly, their brains. All of this taxing work helps to tire your dog and encourages them to think and solve problems.

I’ll share a secret I learned over the years to make the process easier on deciding which puzzle toy is best for your dog. I strongly suggest you demonstrate several times how your dog should work with the puzzle toy to get the food. For instance, if it’s a toy that is to be rolled around, roll it around with your hand several times showing your dog what happens. If it is better to toss the toy, or drop it, to get the food out then perform the same function. Dogs mimic so they will catch on quite quickly if they watch you do the same task several times first.

Caleb is ready for his breakfast toy!!
Caleb is ready for his breakfast toy!!

Approximately, only 10 percent of Caleb’s meals are fed in a bowl, the remainder are fed through training lessons or food puzzle toys. I started this when he was just a couple of months old and have kept up the routine to this day. It is a lucky day when Caleb gets what I consider to be a “free” meal, one out of a bowl. But I can tell you that after Caleb finishes these “free” meals, he is looking at me with a look that says, “What’s next?!”  You can see several videos of Caleb and Lasher figuring out some food puzzles on my YouTube channel. Just visit the Caleb’s Food Puzzle Review playlist where we rate different food toys and give them a “paws up” rating with a description of the pros and cons of each toy.

As I mentioned earlier, there are several companies out there offering interactive food toys with prices ranging from $10.00 to $50.00. I suggest you start with easy ones and work up as you see your dog’s skill improve with time. The easiest food toy to use with your dog is the Kong toys. These can be stuffed with their kibble then close the opening with a little canned dog food and stick in the freezer over night. This will make the process a little more difficult since your dog will have to thaw the frozen canned food first to get to the kibble. Please visit the below links to see some of the food puzzle companies and enjoy watching your dog learn.

Fill the Kong toy(s) to the top with your dog's kibble or favorite treats.
Fill the Kong toy(s) to the top with your dog’s kibble or favorite treats.
These Kongs hold Caleb's breakfast and are ready to go in the freezer over night. Each is filled with his kibble (pictured left) then the holes are closed with canned puppy food.
These Kongs hold Caleb’s breakfast and are ready to go in the freezer over night. Each is filled with his kibble (pictured left) then the holes are closed with canned puppy food.

Petsafe interactive toys

Kyjen games for dogs

Kong interactive food toys

Nina Ottosson’s Interactive toys

The Importance of Puppy Holds

Some of you may be asking yourself what in the world is a puppy hold?

Snapshot from Caleb's first puppy with me when he was 9 weeks old.
Snapshot from Caleb’s first puppy hold with me when he was 9 weeks old.

And no, I’m not talking about the fun cuddle sessions we have holding little puppies while we smash our faces into their soft fur to get a big dose of puppy cuteness. Puppy holds are a fundamental necessity in the relationship building of an owner and their dog. Of course we all love to hold puppies, but I bet you never imagined it was serving a real purpose deep down inside for your beloved new family member did you?

One of the hardest things for puppies to learn is the acceptance of being restrained, whether in a person’s arms, on a leash or in a crate. They will fight you and demand their liberty from this “imprisonment” with squeals, whimpers, yelps and sometimes even thrashing. And who can blame them?! They are bundles of energy squeezed into a roly-poly body that can’t sit still for more than 3 minutes unless they are sleeping. However torturous it may seem to a puppy, all of the above are extremely important, especially the puppy hold.

Here are a few highlights explaining their importance:

  1. They instill in your dog, from a very young age, that restraint is not as awful as they think it is. With this training they are much better for veterinary exams,
    Dog being restrained by an x-ray technician. Example of why puppy holds are important - to ease the experience dogs go through at veterinary hospitals.
    Dog being restrained by an x-ray technician. Example of why puppy holds are important – to ease the experience dogs go through at veterinary hospitals.

    grooming sessions, and even canine massage and acupuncture. If you have never been behind the scenes at your veterinarian’s office it is difficult to understand the importance of a dog sitting still, for almost everything that happens there. Whether they be receiving vaccines, having x-rays taken, their ear being scoped for possible ear infections, their toes being searched for possible foreign bodies or even their eyes being looked at to detect cataracts or glaucoma, your dog is being restrained by a veterinary technician. But, if dogs are taught from a young age to accept the restraint, these exams go much smoother and quicker for your dog allowing them to leave the visit with a positive experience.

  2. They teach your puppy that self-control and patience will get them a lot farther in life if they relax and settle down quickly. In essence, the more you fight the restraint, the longer I’m going to hold on to you. However, the moment you relax I will reward you by releasing you and giving you something you want (food, play, etc.).

    The minute he is released I turn it into a game so that he moves onto something fun and rewarding and learns to trust.
    The minute he is released I turn it into a game so that he moves onto something fun and rewarding and learns to trust.
  3. For strong willed dogs, it teaches a level of respect shown upon the owner. If your dog fights you the moment you try to restrain them, and you give in to the pressure of your dog, you have just taught him “throwing a fit” works. That is the very last thing you want to do. You need to teach your dog that things happen because you say they are going to happen, but not to fret because there is a reward in the end.

I think it important to note that I do NOT like to label puppy holds as a form of dominance. Or, the owner “dominating the puppy”. I feel the proper label is that we are establishing respect between one another. You respect my judgement that this is not going to harm you, to trust in me, and in return I will do everything I can to make the episode gentle and rewarding.

These 3 fosters are demonstrating how comfortable they were with me performing puppy holds.  Parker (left) - American Bulldog mix, Lily Rose (upper right) - Ridgeback/Pointer mix, and Joplin (lower right) - American Pit Bull Terrier mix.
These 3 fosters are demonstrating how comfortable they were with me performing puppy holds.
Parker (left) – American Bulldog mix, Lily Rose (upper right) – Ridgeback/Pointer mix, and Joplin (lower right) – American Pit Bull Terrier mix.

By now you may be wondering what makes me such an expert on these puppy holds. Well, over the past 13 years I have raised and fostered over 20 puppies. Each and every one of these puppies had to “suffer” through the puppy hold lesson as part of their daily training sessions. Some of them were a lot quicker to relax in my arms while others fought tooth-and-paw (no joke!) to be released immediately. All of them however learned to accept and even learned to like the puppy holds. And when every foster found their furever home, they settled in without a single problem and continued to be well-mannered because of all the training they received with me from the beginning.

Most recently I have had to work with my personal puppy, Caleb.

A lot of love, praise and petting is given to Caleb just before I put him on the ground and play with him. All this is done in my arms so that he is still being held by me.
A lot of love, praise and petting is given to Caleb just before I put him on the ground and play with him. All this is done in my arms so that he is still being held by me.

And let me tell you, it was not easy! From the very first time I did a puppy hold on him (at about 9 weeks of age), until about 3 months of age, he would scream and bark for no less than 20 minutes, sometimes complaining for up to 45 minutes straight, demanding his freedom. I waited him out every time by keeping a calm presence about me, talking to him soothingly and keeping him in the puppy hold until he was quiet. I would reward him during his quiet moments by feeding him a couple of kibble at a time and also taught him the “look” command to give him something to do instead of protesting. This in turn would give him a food reward and help keep him quieter during the holds. You can watch a very short, approximately 2 minute, video (Puppy Hold Video) on his first puppy hold to see how difficult some puppies can be.

In the beginning Caleb would be released within seconds of him relaxing and becoming quiet. But as he matured and understood what I was asking, I would require him to be quiet for at least 1 minute, then 2 minutes on up to 5 minutes before being released. He is now 9 months old and I can still pick him up and hold him on my lap (although he doesn’t quite fit any more) without him fighting me one single bit.

At 9 months old Caleb still doesn't like puppy holds that much but he now trusts me and no longer fights during the hold. I don't know how much longer we will be doing these as he barely fits in my lap. ;)
At 9 months old Caleb still doesn’t like puppy holds but he now trusts me and no longer fights during the hold. I don’t know how much longer we will be doing these as he barely fits in my lap. 😉

The Difference Between Service & Therapy Dogs

A therapy dog, pictured on left, visiting a hospitalized patient while a service dog, pictured on right, helping his handler.
A therapy dog, pictured on left, visiting a hospitalized patient while a service dog, pictured on right, helping his handler.

Which is which? What makes a Service Dog different than a Therapy Dog? Well, I thought I’d discuss this question in a little bit of detail in this week’s blog because I know it can be quite confusing looking at all the dogs out there with capes and tags, vests with patches, dogs riding on public transportation or visiting people in hospitals. Don’t worry! I am here to help decode all of this for you!
A Service Dog is a dog that is specifically trained to help an individual with tasks they are not able to perform on their own without great difficulty. To name just a few, Service Dogs can be trained to help hearing impaired individuals, assist an individual with limited mobility issues, help guide the visually impaired, alert an individual with a medical condition such as seizures or diabetes to an oncoming episode, help those suffering from Traumatic Brain Injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and children with Autism. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), only dogs are recognized as service animals and there unfortunately isn’t any required testing for said title. However, the best organization that is trying to oversee the training and qualifications of service dogs is Assistance Dogs International (ADI). They have created guidelines and assessment tests for all service dogs being trained and placed by accredited organizations.  The ADA states that service dogs must be allowed in most places the handler goes with very few exceptions (i.e. surgery rooms). There is a great page on Facebook, The ProBoneO,  that allows anyone to post a question regarding service dog laws and requirements that I encourage you to check out should you have access issues with rental agencies, business establishments, etc. Also, if you are paired with  a service dog, I recommend checking out International Association of Assistance Dog Partners.

For those of you who knew Lasher, you know he was a Service Dog and provided mobility support for me for several years. He past the ADI Access Test and was trained to perform a few cues that enabled me to stand when my leg became unsteady, to get up off the floor if there wasn’t a person or chair around, and to help me walk when the pain in my leg was unbearable. Lasher would either wear a vest that clearly labeled him as a service dog or a leather brace (mobility support) with an identifying I.D. tag. I also carried these cards (pictured below) on me to explain how Lasher assisted me and the laws of the ADA should I be stopped by a business owner or curious citizen. I rarely had any difficulties taking him anywhere even though he was a 90 lb, pure white, German Shepherd because he was very obedient, quiet, calm and acted as a service dog should – never known they’re there until they are seen.

Cards I carried to describe what Lasher was and my rights to have him accompany me.
Cards I carried to describe what Lasher was and my rights to have him accompany me.

Therapy dogs are NOT service dogs and do not have the same rights. Therapy dogs provide a service to many people by visiting hospitals, convalescent homes, children’s libraries, assisting in children’s court cases and more. I think the most important fact to share is therapy dogs do not have the same public access right as service dogs. They are not allowed in stores, restaurants, doctor’s offices, etc. If you are interested in having your dog evaluated for this great program, I recommend contacting a local Love on a Leash chapter. It is so rewarding to see your dog bring a smile to a stranger’s face and brighten their day just by walking in to the room or being able to run their hands over your dog’s fur. I participated in this program with Lasher for a little bit and I can’t tell you how great I felt after visiting the convalescent home down the street from my house. Especially after we would perform our weekly “tricks” for the Alzheimer ward.

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