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Ambassador Spotlight: Meet Kristen and Kona!

For this week's blog I was so excited to chat with High Tail Hikes Ambassadors Kristen and her pup Kona @positivelykona. Kristen and Kona live in Massachusetts, and we chatted about their journey into the positive reinforcement training world, helping Kona with her anxiety, and more. Enjoy!

Hi Kristen! Thanks so much for chatting with us for the blog. First off, can you tell us a bit about Kona - how and when she came into your life, what kind of dog she is, and a bit about her personality? 

We took Kona home in September 2019. The day I’m writing this (September 22, 2021) is actually her Gotcha Day! She is a German Shorthaired Pointer from a breeder in New Hampshire. Dog dad wanted a high energy breed, and I wanted a cuddly dog - so that’s how we landed on a GSP. She is an anxious girl, but when she is at her most comfortable at home, she is a goofy troublemaker. Melissa from A Canine Affinity once said that the world is Kona’s playground, and it is so very true. She doesn’t do bored - no matter what, she will find something to do!

Beautiful Kona

Did you have dogs growing up and/or previously as an adult, or is Kona your first? What made you decide that you wanted to get a dog? 

Both dog dad and I had a family dog growing up. He had a Belgian Sheepdog named Pixie, who they got when he was a teenager. I had a shelter pup from a pregnant dog that was ditched. Her name was Sadie and she was some kind of lab/shepherd mix. We always knew we wanted a dog, but we didn’t know about timing. Kona ended up being our “infertility dog.” We have been trying to have a baby for a few years, and we came to a point where we basically said “Well, we might not be able to have a baby, but my broken uterus can’t deny us of having the dog we want.” She’s definitely the rainbow of that ongoing storm.

Kona and Kristen

You’re not a professional dog trainer, but you have a LOT of knowledge and education around R+ principles. Can you tell us about your journey in the positive training world? 

We live in an apartment, so training was really important to me before we even took her home. I didn’t want to be that neighbor with the dog everyone hates. We signed up for Puppy Kindergarten at our local rescue (Animal Rescue League of Boston) and had an absolutely lovely R+ trainer guide us through Puppy Kindergarten and Advanced Puppy Kindergarten. Within the first few months of having Kona, I started making some friends in the dog world on Instagram, including local dog parents. I became good friends with many of them, who introduced me to a local balanced trainer. I still did not entirely understand the differences between R+, balanced, etc. All I knew was that I never wanted to use a prong collar or shock collar. We ended up using a form of a head halter with this trainer, which Kona hated. The trainer advised us to use a prong, which we declined, and eventually we parted ways because they felt Kona could not progress without the use of a prong collar. I knew more at this point, burned my bridges with them all, and dived DEEP into the R+ world.

What kinds of changes did you notice in your relationship with Kona after discovering positive reinforcement training? 

While we never used a prong or a shock collar, we did use a head halter aversively. We were taught to use it as both negative reinforcement - pulling up until she sat; and positive punishment - pulling up if she walked ahead. Since she wasn’t “progressing” with her leash skills, these methods were not even helping to achieve training goals - we were just being mean for no purpose. When we stopped using the head halter and went fully to R+, I noticed a change in our relationship pretty quickly. She was more eager to walk with me keeping the leash loose, check in with me on walks, and showed fewer displacement behaviors on our walks.

It can be really confusing as a dog owner to know how to hire a dog trainer. Since dog training is an unregulated industry, anyone can claim to be a trainer regardless, of whether they have any professional training or certification. To make matters worse, a lot of the language used by dog trainers can be confusing, especially around training tools/methods and why they work. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to hire a dog trainer? 

The best advice I got was from Jenny from Dogminded, which I wish I had listened to when she tried to guide me away from the balanced trainer. She told me that the easiest way to figure out someone’s training methods and see through their fancy language is to simply ask - what happens when the dog does what you ask, and what happens when the dog does not do what you ask? Trainers who employ aversive tools can be REALLY good at sugar coating their methods. To a new dog parent, a trainer can make using an ecollar sound like it’s the only thing that is going to help their dog live their best life. 

The best piece of advice I would personally give is, don’t let social pressure make you give in to training methods that you don’t agree with. It is so hard to say “no” to a friend who recommends a trainer to you, but even harder to say no to that trainer, who supposedly knows what they’re doing. There are even trainers who advertise themselves as R+ who use outdated methods. If you decide to use a trainer, understand what you are comfortable with, and what your boundaries are before the session starts. 

Finally, I can't remember where I saw this, but another great piece of advice is..."Good training feels good." Good training will feel good to you and your dog. It will make you feel like a team, not like you're at war with each other. A good trainer will never make you feel guilty about your dog's behavior. A good trainer will make all three of you feel like a team. A good trainer will make you feel supported and confident, not ashamed and apologetic. Good training feels good, period.

So true! Kona struggles with fear and anxiety. When did you first notice these issues, and what are some strategies you have used to help support her? 

Kona has been fearful from day one. Knowing what I know now, I realize that she was not well socialized by the breeder. And by that I mean, not socialized much at all. She went from the middle of nowhere to the outskirts of a bustling city - everything scared her. She’s gotten much better with everything except loud sounds (fireworks, cars backfiring, motorcycles revving, loud trucks, etc.), which terrify her. I’ve taken a couple noise sensitivity courses, which I’ve gotten some good advice from. One of the things I started doing that has helped a lot for noises that aren’t “end of the world scary,” is to immediately mark and toss treats when these sounds happen, before she has a chance to react. 

Kona has had increased anxiety stemming from Fourth of July fireworks, and you also moved recently. Tell us about how you’ve worked to support Kona through these challenges. 

Fourth of July… scratch that…all of July was SO hard. We had fireworks going off at random for weeks. We adjusted our routine to make her more comfortable. Instead of going for walks in our neighborhood, we would drive to nearby neighborhoods for our nightly walks. We also did a lot more indoor enrichment and exercise that month - lots and lots of snuffling and searching for treats. The biggest thing that helped for the actual holiday was medication. She is on a daily anxiety med, but we added in Sileo for the Fourth at the recommendation of our vet behaviorist. The Sileo made such a big difference. 

With moving, we ended up not really having to do much to make her comfortable with the new apartment, thankfully. People told me that having our stuff there would make it a quick adjustment, and they were right. She settled into the new place pretty quickly. She has a lot more space to move here, and we are on a quieter street, so I’ve noticed a lot less general anxiety in her since we moved.

Tell us about a few of Kona’s best qualities, funny quirks, or favorite things. 

Oh gosh, I don’t know where to begin - every quality is her best! She is a major cuddle bug, which is my favorite. She’s so silly and goofy. I love that she’s not afraid to try things out. She’s absolutely that dog that would sniff out her treats in a cabinet, open the cabinet, pull the treat container out, and figure out how to open it. When we went to our first vet behaviorist appointment, I had a bag with me that had her water, some treats and chews, etc. She kept going into the bag and getting stuff out on her own as we talked, and the vet behaviorist commented about how she really just figures things out to get what she wants. The quirkiest thing is probably her “party leg,” which our friends on Instagram have seen. When she sits on the couch, it’s soft so she falls back into it and her leg pops up. She loves sitting like that and it’s so goofy. Her favorite things are things she can chew and things she can dig - her two favorite activities. Her best day is a day at the beach digging away followed by a new chew.

Kona rockin' her "Party Leg"

You are quite active on social media, where you share a lot of pictures and videos of Kona as well as insights about training and working through Kona's anxiety. What have you found to be some of the benefits, and some of the challenges, of being part of the social media "dog world?" 

The biggest benefit by far to the dog world of social media is community. It took me a while but I've found "my people" on there. I've made so many wonderful friends, and even met up with some in real life, who have the same ideas about what humane and ethical training means. It is truly a lifesaver to have so many people in your corner. At this point, I know that I've made my page enough of a safe space that I can share something challenging that happened, and I will receive an outpouring of support and love.

The biggest challenge is, of course, that you can't please everyone. I don't try to, but it can be disheartening to receive negative comments and messages. By far, the best thing I've done about that is to not be afraid to block people, and also limited my comments and message requests to people who follow me. People are a lot less likely to send you a mean comment if they have to follow you first! There will still be friends who disagree with you, of course. I've tried to accept that even when I do the best I can for my dog and she is living her best life, there will still be someone who thinks she'd be better off with a prong collar. It's not worth fighting with people like that.

What made you decide to become a High Tail Hikes Ambassador? 

The quality of the products! I’ve had long lines, leashes, and BioThane collars from other companies, and these are the best. Even before I was an ambassador, I was constantly recommending them to friends!

What are some of your favorite High Tail Hikes products and why?

We have brass collars, regular leashes, long lines, safety straps, and long line keepers! My favorite products are absolutely the long lines and safety straps. As we do not personally do off leash time in areas that aren’t secure (since anxious baby is prone to trying to bolt when scared), long lines are crucial for Kona to have some freedom outdoors. Safety straps are also critical to ensure the safety of my baby girl.

Kona safely exploring on her 50 foot High Tail Hikes Long Line

Thank you so much Kristen!

Save 10% on your next High Tail Hikes order with the code KONA10.