Casey Coughlin is a dog trainer in Central, CT. She has been a full-time trainer running Inspiration Canine for the past 3 years. She was raised showing horses nationally until she hit college age, where she then moved her love for animal/human connection and teamwork to dogs! Casey started out in the world of punishment and dominance-based philosophies but after adopting a 1-year-old female mastiff and having those techniques fail miserably she started to cross over to the world of positive based training. Since then she has rejected all classifications of trainers and has landed in the camp of science-based and innovative dog training, looking at the dog and their family as a whole to use behavioral wellness to help families raise and train happy dogs for life. She has two border collies and participates in agility with both of them and enjoys training and hiking daily.
Inspiration Canine’s Website: http://www.inspirationcanine.com
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Casey Coughlin was raised showing horses nationally until college, where she then moved her love for animal/human connection and teamwork to dogs. Casey started out in the world of punishment and dominance-based philosophies. But after adopting a one-year-old female Mastiff and having those techniques fail miserably, she started to cross over into the world of positive based training. Since then, she has rejected all classifications of trainers and has landed in the camp of science-based and innovative dog training, looking at the dog and their family as a whole to use behavioral wellness to help families raise and train happy dogs for life. She has two Border Collies and participates in agility with both of them and enjoys training and hiking daily.
Hey, Casey, welcome to the show. Hey, thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m really excited to have you. So you are up in Connecticut and you’re with Inspiration Canine. I’m really excited to kind of talk to you today and learn a little bit more about you and your philosophies. So why don’t you kick us off and tell us who you are and your background and how you got started? I grew up in the horse world, so I have been riding since I was five and then was showing at a national level from about the end of 5th grade through college. And then I did what most horse people do when their parents stop paying for their horse show bills, I switched to dogs and they’re easier. You can put a bunch of them in your van and go, and that was true. So actually had a couple of dogs, one that was a little farm dog. And I moved him back to the suburbs. And he is actually what got me into dog sports. So I currently compete with two Border Collies. One is a baby so she hasn’t competed yet. But my other, older dog is competing right now and got a rescue dog around that same time, and she taught me a whole bunch. But that is how I made my transition into the dog world. And then fast forward to 2017, when I got to open Inspiration Canine and do a bunch of work for a bunch of great mentors, both online through, a coaching format for dogs, specifically, with sport dog issues. And also, I’ve got to work with a couple of local trainers here that were really generous in helping me get started, locally.
Very cool. So you mentioned agility. And then I know you also do the traditional training and behavior stuff. Are both of those offered in online classes or sessions or is one in person and one online? Tell me a little bit about that offering. Mostly the online, pre-COVID, I’d say my online clients were sport dog behavior modification cases because I was doing those and am still during those in a more coaching format, which means that I’m looking at your whole life. We’re having a lot more constant communication, and we’re trying to fix a problem so that you can go back to doing sports. So there is a little bit of an understanding that you have a baseline knowledge of dog training because you’re already involved in dog sports, which is just a higher level of training than the average pet dog would have. So that’s what’s going on online, currently. I’m offering everything online and have switched to ZOOM meetings for all of my in-person clients, for safety. But before COVID, I was doing in-home pet dog clients and puppy clients, privately and teaching a couple of group classes for a couple of local centers. So they were mostly separated. And now they are all together. Now everything is online. I feel like everybody everywhere is doing everything online, right? People have to make a pivot. And so I appreciate that you have made that pivot, that you’re still continuing and you’re still supporting your clients. I think that’s really, really important.
And so I’m curious to know a little bit about a couple of things on your website. One of them is you actually do a lot of reactivity work, and so I want to spend a few minutes kind of talking about that. Why is that so important? And what is the focus when you’re talking with clients about the reactivity? Reactivity is something that I was just seeing running rampant with my pets and clients and even with puppies that I had started from the beginning of their time, in their household. So from a baby puppy, nine-week old, I went through with them until they’re six months old or so. And at the end of their program, I just hear little bits and pieces about, Oh, he was barking at someone so and so, down the walk or just little complaints like that, and that is a really big problem for a lot of the dogs doing sport dog work because they’re in such a highly charged environment with a lot of motion. There’s a lot of things to bark and lunge at, in general. So it was kind of the only theme that was pretty much involved in my daily life and in my online life. And I also was really interested in it, because every single dime that I’ve raised, I’ve never gotten a reactive dog. And so I was really kind of wondering, what am I doing? And how can I tell people like, How can I communicate this is what I’m doing? Because when you kind of look at some of these cases it kind of feels like either you get reactive dogs or you don’t. That your household is either super active or not. And unless you’re adding an adult rescue, who already has these behaviors and then you’re trying to fix that as far is just, let’s say, some sport competitors, you know, they’re on their fourth Border Collie, and they’ve all been like this, you know? So it’s a little bit hard to believe to me that this is just a genetic predisposition. Or that you just, you get a reactive dog or not, and it’s just out of your hands whether what’s going to be pretty straightforward. Then I was finding that a lot of the general recommendations in the positive reinforcement world wasn’t actually successfully transitioning a reactive case into a nonreactive land.
So a lot of the things that I had learned from other dog trainers as I was building my own skills, I was seeing some problems in just the learning theory and the science that was being applied. And then I was seeing some fallout from some of those game-based learning systems that are pretty traditionally offered. You take a reactive dog class,at your local dog training positive reinforcement-based facility. You kind of get mostly all the same kind of suggestions, and then the result percentage is not high. So I was wondering really why and starting to get interested in why do none of my dogs’ bark? Why it is some families, all the dogs bark what is happening and why can’t we seem to fix this in a long term way? Also, while looking at, you know, there’s kind of two general camps of dog trainers right now, and they’re mostly positive reinforcement-based or punishment-based. And so the positive reinforcement community, the trickiest part about us, is that we’re overcomplicating things for folks. So they’re not seeing the application and the transfer over of the skills they’re learning in a puppy or family dog manners class, into their actual household. They’re not seeing the benefits of the training, and so they’re getting frustrated. And so then they go to somebody else with a different practice, because why would you keep doing this thing that’s not working? But we’re looking at punishment-based trainers and we’re seeing success stories. We’re seeing an absence of reactivity.
Now, as a scientist, I can understand why that happens because their punishers are kind of always present. So if you’re wearing a tool that creates a particular outcome, if you do the behavior and that consistently is then applied just because that’s already attached to your dog, then we do see a suppression in that behavior. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s fixed. That doesn’t mean that it was the kindest way to go about that training. That doesn’t mean anything. But at the end of the day, when pet clients are coming, they don’t want to know how to fix the car. They want the car fixed. They don’t need to know how you took apart their carb aerator and cleaned it all out and had to replace these little workings in it and put it all back together. And if they want to do it next time, you’re very happy to show them. You want to pay the mechanic and drive the car back home. It’s true that definitely complicates things because it’s not just about training. There are steps that have to happen, meaning that the human has to understand the behavior from the dog, that is the complicated part, so learning that behavior has to be a big part of what you do.
So how much of the work that you do with your clients is about the signals? And what is the dog doing and the environment that you’re working with them, to train their dogs? The hardest part, essentially, is that as humans, we’re just not patient. And we have a particular way that we expect things to go. And if that expectation isn’t met or it’s really different, then we get really frustrated, and that’s just across the board for any industry. But what I need my clients to know is just I don’t even need them to expend exactly know it all. Why I’m doing what I’m doing or not. But I am going to teach you to do things in a particular way. For example, I’m going to teach you that when the dog does what she wants and we’re using a clicker, that you’re gonna click that behavior, and then you’re going to reach into this cookie bowl that’s on the table and feed the dog. And so you don’t need to know why that’s the procedure, but I am going to just make sure that I’m modeling and setting you up to use the best learning theories and application techniques that positive reinforcement has to offer. And so there’s little nuances that I don’t explain. But I set my clients up just from the get-go, about how to do.
And so in the beginning that might make them more frustrated because they have traditionally held a leash like this for the past 10 years of their other dog, and I’m asking them to hold it a different way. Or they walk in with kind of the preconceived soapbox point that they don’t want to use just food because then you’re gonna have to use just food all the time. And then I go in and explain why we use food as a reinforcement, not as bribery and how I’m going to make sure that the dog is not just checking their hands for cookies all the time, to be able to produce the behavior. And I’m gonna explain that all dogs do is watch us 24/7 and they’re very, very bad at verbals. But those are very expensive for them to understand. They need to learn that as a concept because all we do is talk and all they do for their language is watch. They’re based off of body language. So they are just constantly scanning us up and down. And so when I explain that if you only teach, sit with a cookie in your hand and you don’t properly say that out of the equation, then when they scan your body and you say sit and you hold your hand a particular way and you say your voice with a particular tone, the cookie in or not in your hand is part of that checklist for them that goes into the que that means put your butt on the ground. And when one of those things is missing, if it hasn’t been properly faded out or introduced, then they get confused because they’re looking for all of the pieces, right? So my goal is just to simplify the actual techniques so that everyone can learn the quickest that they can, and your dog can learn the quickest that they can, by eliminating confusion and frustration out of your training.
And I always had to start with all of my clients, regardless of if they are puppies or if their behavior modification cases or their sport dog cases, with the same principles of wellness. So can we set this dog up to be able to receive the training that we’re asking them to do because no species can learn if the other factors in their life are not going well. So if they don’t feel safe, they can’t learn. If they have an excess amount of energy, they can’t learn as well, and they have less tolerance when I need them to do is have a lot of tolerance for us because you’re also learning how to do the things right. You are learning how to hold a clicker and click it and then reach over here and then feed your dog in a particular way. And so if I overwhelmed the human or the dog, then the outcomes are not good.
So I focused first on, like, what is our lifestyle like if you’re a puppy, avoid the behavior problems just right out of the gate, essentially. And it’s really in my personal belief system that if our culture was more based on dog ownership, looks like my picture of ownership, versus our current cultural idea of it, then dog trainers would really be out of business. Because dogs don’t need to know a bunch of complex skills to live really successful happy lives with us. We need dogs to be calm. We need them to be responsive. We need them to be neutral. We need them to do happy greetings that are not over the top and then disengage and go sniff around the yard. We need them to be responsive to leash pressure. We need them to value staying on the floor instead of our counters. So we just need some basic concepts to live really successfully with them. The problem is that our current lives don’t set any of that up for free, for us. Current day situation, we have to be mindful and produce that for our dogs.
So if you just think about your dog actually living in a zoo situation, in a captive situation, instead of this is their home, this is their natural habitat. If you think about them in a zoo, you know there’s nothing about putting a bunch of kibble in a bowl, twice a day, that looks anything like how a dog would feed themselves in a natural setting. So if they were loose, in the neighborhood and they just were a neighborhood dog, they would feed themselves by finding things and manipulating people. So they would learn, they would eat, they’re opportunistic scavengers. So that’s why they’re ripping open your garbage cans. You know, to eat trash out of your kitchen instead of the premium dog food that is in their bowl. It’s the act of feeding themselves that’s the same thing for them. And so they would, in a natural setting for them, go eat out of dumpsters and they would learn that the nice old lady down the street has her lunch on our porch every day at 12 o’clock. And if you go and sit there and give her puppy eyes, she’ll give you the crust. And then you make your way around because you know this deli is gonna put their garbage out at a certain time. And oh, you just found some roadkill. How lucky for you. And they just would keep doing that. But all day long, they are focused on food and water, food and water, food, and water. When they would be using all of these behaviors to find that. They would be sniffing. They’d be moving their bodies. They’d be shredding things open. They’d be hard chewing. They would be really using these four basic techniques to do that.
So when I consult with people and introduce them to their program, even for puppies, we start right with that. How do we get them doing these behaviors that are natural for them? And how do we get him, shredding a box that you don’t care about, to feed himself his puppy lunch, instead of ultimately learning that there are throw pillows on your couch, that he needs to deconstruct, later on down the road? And so, at the same time, the puppies need to learn all those problem-solving skills and how to feed themselves out of enrichment type activities. The dog that needs behavior mod, those harder cases that are struggling with the activity or anxiety or aggression, they need them because participating in those activities actually just gives them a shot of serotonin, and we need them to have feel-good drugs in their system. We need them to be at their best selves if we’re then going to ask them to go face the thing that’s hard for them. Essentially, when you go to like in-person treatment for some sort of addiction, and so you look at people that are going through some sort of intense treatment. They’re doing a lot of things all at once. But it is the same as dogs doing sitting walks and moving their bodies freely, instead of being on a six-foot leash attached to your hip on a sidewalk. It is not a natural exercise. It is doing enrichment, that replicates what they would be choosing to do outside of your home, with their time.
And then it works. It tires them out. They want to be tired. They want to be satisfied. And then when you plop them at the cookout on Sunday afternoon, they are a lot more reasonable. Right. Because that’s not what their life is revolving around, that one opportunity. They have other needs met all day long, for the past three months, so it’s really no big deal. I feel like a lot of trainers in the past have these traditional classes. They’re in it, this big space. It’s very different from being in your home or doing training in a park per se.
So the first question is, how important is that environment in the training? And then the second question is, what are some of the signs, as a human, that you should be looking for to ensure that your dog is in the right frame of mind to receive what you’re about to teach them? So talk to me for just a few minutes about those two things. So environmental factors are huge, mostly because as mammals, any mammal, cannot be in a flow state of mind. So a thinking state of mind, which would include learning right, being curious, being open to receiving input or communication. If there’s feeling like their safety is at risk and the thing is that we cannot, and we know this from our own personal lives as humans, if you feel unsafe, you feel unsafe. No one can reason with you. No one can talk you through it. You just feel unsafe.
Right before the state implementation of the nonessential business shut down, for the week before that, I was doing social distancing lessons. So this is sometime in March when just the media is just starting to hit and we’re all going what is happening? And everyone is still confused, but scared, right? Because why are we shutting down schools next week. This has never happened before. Wait, we don’t even know about this. Look at Italy. Like all of these new sources were saying, be scared and we don’t know how to handle this. And so I was doing social distancing lessons with clients that I have known. I can just tell you that I felt unsafe. Period. End of story. And so the same thing is true in say a giant puppy class. Some puppies go there and they’re totally overstimulated. And they are like, this is the best thing that ever existed. Yeah. Some puppies are there hiding under their chairs and some puppies are there, right in the middle, and are totally cool. But it impacts so many factors. Mostly what impacts is the human’s ability to take in information. Because all you want to do is you’re, like, sit here and be quiet because I need to listen. You know, you’re annoyed because there’s always that one person that’s taking up all the time and has all the questions, and it’s just a constant bombardment on your brain. Yeah. And so then you are not at your best. So, of course, your puppy is not going to actually learn, but what puppy class is for exposure and then for you to learn the skills so that you could hypothetically go practice them at home. But if you’re confused, if you miss something, if you didn’t hear something because you’re in your bubble training your puppy, then that is really where it is problematic. And that then transferring at home is sometimes hard to illustrate how you would do that.
But your second question, how do we essentially read opt-ins and opt-outs like, what is a good framework for that? Essentially, you can tell so much about your dog by how they’re eating, right? And so this is where our observational skills, as humans, need to be focused on our dogs. What does normal look like? And then what does abnormal look like? And taking abnormal as kind of an opt-out. We need to take a step back and not continue to push forward until we get them back into a normal state. So the first way to do that is with mouth pressure. About how they’re eating food and taking food out of your hands. If you feed your dog 10 cookies at home, you can expect how their mouth pressure is going to be. Some dogs normally take cookies really harsh, out of your hands, and some take them soft, and most of them are somewhere in the middle of that. But now I know that if I am training at Petco, for example, and I hand my dog a piece of food and they spit it on the floor, but at home, I know they would take that food right on my hand in a second and eat it. Then I know they can’t do what I’m asking them to do.
So that’s a really good, easy way to measure how they’re feeling or not. Start to climb up, and some dogs will get a harder mouth. Some dogs will get softer mouth and then stop eating. It happens so much, I can just see it in my clients all the time. We go for our last field trip lesson and buy like the 10th cookie, I’ll see them and they just, you know, I really like, shocked it out of there now is like Okay, well, let’s go back to showing them the environment, right? My protocol is like, first we go out somewhere and we just let them look around, let them figure out that they’re safe, assess the situation, Then we start offering them food. Are they responding normally to that? And then we start going through behaviors. And are they doing those normally as well? The things we know, they know. They know sit and they offer sit all the time. And we’ve paid sit a million times. As you say, sit and their eyes glaze over, you know, in the aisle, then, OK, go back to letting them look around.
Casey, I want for my time with you. The correlations that you make the way that you share the knowledge that you have is intriguing. It’s fascinating. Like I know you’ve been working with animals for your entire life, right, but really Inspiration Canine for the last three years. And so it sounds like your mentors have really played a huge part in where you are today. And it sounds like you’re really supported by your community. You have a thirst for knowledge is what I would say as well. It seems like you just always want to know more and understand what you’re doing to better help your clients and the dogs and the community that you live in. That is something that, as being introduced in the dog training community, a lot of us just know what feels right. But they don’t actually know why is or isn’t working. And when you understand why something would work, the science behind what is happening, that you can just make more educated decisions in any situation, which only gets you results faster.
Yeah, I really just want to say thank you for spending the last 45 minutes with me, and is there anything else you want to share before we start to wrap this up? If you are struggling with your dog and you’re not seeing the results that you are looking for, just take a moment to consider what their lifestyle is setting them up to do and to produce. And make sure that first you get that general wellness. Think about if they were a lion. Are they happy lions in a zoo or are they a sad lion in the concrete enclosure at the roadside zoo? You got your dog to be the happy lion. No, I definitely agree. I think the observation is a key part of what we talked about today, and it’s so important. Just thank you again for joining me today. Thank you.
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