Behavior or “What the heck?”
So this week I decided that I’d seen some great animal videos lately and wanted to share them. Since it’s October, I’m starting with the cats in the pumpkin hats:
Let me say that not only do these cats and their earnestness delight me, but the training here is all positive reinforcement. There is no way you could shock or choke an animal into this, nor would the animal be willing to try another bell or ring it multiple times if the consequence for trying something would hurt.
I love this next one because it is just a dog being a dog, and how wonderful is that?
And for the winner in Dogs Just Wanna Have Fun category:
This Bernese Mountain Dog is so wonderfully patient and really shows off the gentle nature of this breed:
I love invertebrates, and I am a sucker (pun intended) for Octupuses. Here’s a lovely summary of how amazing they are (tool using, planning, walking wonders):
And last, here is one of my favorite videos of Homo sapiens doing one of the things they do best, dance!
I hope you enjoy these, let me know some of your favorites!
Pinch or prong collars, choke chains, and shock collars are not tools that I use or advocate to train your dog.* But, what about electronic fences to keep your dog in the yard? Aren’t those humane, easy to use, and give your dog the freedom he desires to romp and play safely in the yard? Maybe, maybe not…
Let me say at the onset that I do understand why owners put in electronic containment systems. They are less expensive than regular fencing, promise to keep your dog in the yard and safe, and some neighborhoods will not allow regular fencing. If you live on a busy road, you may feel an even stronger need to keep your dog in the yard. I get it. But, the problem with electric fences is that there are unintended consequences that can affect the health and well being of your best friend.
Eileen Anderson is a dog trainer and author. She has a blog called eileenanddogs, where she has written extensively about electronic collars and fences, including this one: Electronic Pet Fences: What you need to know. In this particular blog, she details some of the risks and consequences owners should be aware of when considering this form of containment.**
The first thing she discusses is the “warm and fuzzy language” that manufacturers tend to use to describe the system and how it works. She quotes this from one of the manuals:
[The] wireless fence pet containment system is a revolutionary concept that provides the safest, simplest form of pet containment ever. Plug in the transmitter somewhere inconspicuous in your home. The transmitter emits a 17.5 kHz radio signal around your home. Your pet wears a lightweight receiver collar that “listens” for the signal. While the collar is receiving the signal your dog is free to run and play in your yard. When he approaches the boundary of the signal area he receives a warning beep. If your dog does not return he receives a static correction which is startling but not harmful. With a little simple training your dog will quickly learn his boundaries.
Hey, you might say, this sounds great and how harmful can a small “static” correction be? Well, here is the same passage without the euphemisms and “using complete descriptions of the processes involved” :
[The] electronic fence system uses a shock collar connected to a radio transmitter with the goal of keeping your dog inside a chosen area. Electric shock has been used in laboratory experiments for decades for behavioral studies to put animals in a state of stress or fear and is also linked to increased aggression. Plug in the transmitter in your house. The transmitter emits a 17.5 kHz radio signal. Your pet wears a shock collar that will be triggered by a change in the signal. The collar must be fastened tightly on the dog’s neck so that the probes will poke through the dog’s fur and press firmly into his skin. Even when not generating a shock, the collar is likely to be quite uncomfortable. While the collar is receiving the standard signal your dog is safe from shock. When he approaches the boundary of the signal area he receives a warning beep. If your dog does not return, or goes through the boundary, he receives a shock to his neck that can range from a tingle to very painful, depending on the setting you choose.
That is not quite as innocuous as the manufacturer wants you to believe. Moreover, it is important to understand exactly what a shock is and how it is likely perceived by your dog. Shocks are sudden, painful, likely scary, and probably unlike anything your dog has ever experienced. They have been the industry standard in psychology studies as the means to produce fear and pain in an animal and put it under stress. The shocks received from an electronic fence collar may also be a factor in increasing aggression in dogs. (See: Can Aggression in Dogs Be Elicited Through the Use of Electronic Pet Containment Systems? by Richard Polsky.) In the conclusion to this article in which he looks closely at 5 individual cases of aggression towards humans from dogs being contained by electronic systems, Mr. Polsky states:
…manufacturers need to acknowledge the ricks involved and make consumers aware that the systems are not foolproof and that some dogs could attack a person as a result of receiving electric shock.
Even if your dog does not become aggressive towards people, there is no guarantee that your dog is learning what you think he is! He may be learning that the shock is associated, not with the boundary of the yard, but with whatever was holding his attention when he was shocked. For example, if your dog was trying to greet another dog when he received a shock, he might well associate the presence of dogs with shocks. As a result Fido is now leary of dogs, barks more when they approach, and/or becomes fearful or aggressive towards them as they now signify pain and discomfort. Or alternatively, if you have multiple dogs on the system, they might associate their yard mate with the shock and become aggressive towards one another. Or your children, the mailman, UPS person, meter reader, etc., may be the object of your dog’s aversion if he has paired their presence with pain and distress.
Another concern is that the system may keep your dog on your property, but it does nothing to protect your dog from anything coming into the yard, including other dogs, kids, balls, or coyotes. As Ms. Anderson states, “The electronic fence offers your dog zero protection over being teased, harassed, or stolen by humans, attacked by other animals, or ingesting or interacting with anything inappropriate that someone tosses into your yard.”
Once more, what happens if a distraction (think squirrel) is so great that your dog blasts through the electronic fence? It is unlikely that he will go back through the fence, or that he will sit quietly by the side of it, waiting patiently for your return. What if he panics and keeps running? What if someone wants to help and tries to drag your dog back through the shock? Your dog has no way to come home and may well protest being exposed to another shock. What if your dog is hit by a car when he bolts or panics?
Ms. Anderson describes other equally disquieting, but not uncommon, scenarios associated with electronic fences, such as malfunctioning collars, your liability, and will your dog really have the freedom of movement as promised, or will he be too afraid of being shocked to even move around the yard? Her article is well worth a read, especially if you are considering this sort of containment system. Be aware not only of the promises, but the risks and unintended consequences of using force and pain to keep your dog “safely” at home.
*See: Choke, Prong, and Shock Collars Can Irreversibly Damage Your Dog, by Dr. Peter Tobias, DVM
**Other articles detailing the problems with shock collars and electronic containment systems:
The Problem with Shock, by Angelica Skeinker, Dog Sport Magazine
The Unintended Consequences of Shock Collars, Green Acres Kennel
Electronic training collars present welfare risk to pet dogs, University of Lincoln, Science Daily
Here is my blog on the effects of trauma and punishment on your dog: Trauma, trust, and your dog.
And on a more positive note: Here is an article about boundary training that may be of interest to those who do not want to use an electronic system but need to keep the dog in the yard: How to Clicker Train Your Dog to Stay in the Yard.
Reisner Veterinary Services posted this article from Silent Conversations, a website dedicated to “Insights into Canine Communication,” about sniffing the ground and what it might indicate about doggie discourse.
Although I have paid attention to sniffing in dogs, I have been watching it more closely lately as I recently read The Education of Will, by Dr Patricia McConnell. At one point she talks about noticing the constancy and intensity of Will’s sniffing and how it concerned her in such a young dog. So, I was delighted to see the article from Silent Conversations which explained and reinforced my own observations about something that all dogs do, but may do differently at different times. Knowing when your dog is just checking the pee-mail and when he is sniffing as a way to diffuse a potentially tense situation can help you keep Fido relaxed and manageable.
Martha Knowes, the author of the blog says this by way of introduction:
Sniffing can be used as a calming signal when an interaction is too intense. One dog may start to walk away, slowly sniffing the ground; the other dog may mirror him by also sniffing the ground. This is a good way to defuse an interaction.
Sniffing can be used as negotiation as two dogs approach each other; a deliberate slower approach is polite when greeting. Sniffing the ground is commonly used as part of the body language signals offered at the beginning stages of an approach.
In other contexts, sniffing could also be interpreted as displacement behaviour or a stress response. A dog may feel conflicted about something he sees ahead of him; he may slow down and stop to sniff the environment. Sniffing may help displace the anxiety, and it gives the opportunity to assess things further from a safe distance by stalling the approach.
She continues by giving several examples of where you might see unusual sniffing and clearly describes not only the situation, but the body language that might accompany the sniffing. I really appreciated the use of common scenarios as well as the straight-forward, precise language used to describe canine body language. Even without accompanying pictures, I could clearly envision the dog she was describing.**
Ms. Knowles also adds a good section on what she means by stress. The paragraph is worth repeating in its entirety:
When I mention stress, this does not necessarily imply negative emotion. I mean stress in the physiological sense. So certain body language signals can mean the dog is feeling some sort of emotional discourse. This discourse could range from positive to negative emotion. Both excitement and fear could have similar effects on the body, with various hormones being released and activating the sympathetic nervous system. The dog may be feeling uncomfortable/fearful or it could also be excited about something. When analyzing stress in body language, it is worth noting the frequency and intensity of the various body language signals.
The last part of the article is a good reminder that when you are looking at body language it is important to describe what you see the animal doing, the immediate surroundings, and if there is anything that has changed in the environment (did something make a noise, is there a stranger dog approaching, or a person jogging?), rather than immediately interpreting the meaning of the behavior. For example, if you see a dog stop, close his mouth, look away, lower his tail, and squint his eyes, it could be that he saw a dog that he didn’t know, or a car backfired, or there was a strange smell. He might be slowing his approach to a strange dog, startled by a sound, or repelled by the smell. These are descriptions of the behavior and not emotional interpretations of the dog’s inner workings.
In Ms Knowles words:
To offer an unbiased interpretation of the body language, observe and take note of the situation, taking into account the dog’s whole body, the body language signals, and environment first before offering an interpretation. List all the body language you see in the order that it occurs; try to be as descriptive as possible without adding any emotional language. For instance, saying a dog looks happy is not descriptive and would be seen as an interpretation rather than an observation.
The more you know about your dog and her individual signals, including the more subtle ones such as sniffing, the better you will be able to protect and serve your best dog friend.
**Note: she does include links to other articles which describe the dog’s perspective on things, or elucidate a particular aspect of canine body language, such as the head turn. All of her links are worth reading.
This year has been a challenge for me and my family as we lost 2 dogs to cancer and one dog to a seizure disorder. I wasn’t sure my heart could take any more sorrow and I was a bit hesitant to risk it on another dog, as Bingley was my canine soulmate. But, if I have learned anything, it’s that loving a dog with everything you have makes it nearly impossible to live without one, and it is that love of a great dog which propels you forward into another canine experiment.
So meet Zuzu, my newest pooch. She, like Bingley, is a flat-coated retriever, and true to her breed, is one of the happiest dogs on the planet. At 16 months she is a teenager who is unlikely to grow out of her teenage enthusiasm anytime soon. Channeling her inexhaustible energy into constructive activities and teaching her to focus on the task at hand are my immediate goals for her. To do this, I have decided to enlist the aid of a book I recently discovered: Fun & Games for a Smarter Dog, 50 Great Brain Games to Engage your Dog, by Sophie Collins.
This book is great on so many levels beginning with the introduction and a part on playing safely with your dog which includes a very important section on playing with children.* Take the time to read the section on play and training before you plunge into the individual games, as it will set you up to better use the games to your particular dog’s advantage and is a wonderful reminder that training and play can happily overlap. After all, “there’s no reason you can’t teach your dog by playing with him.” She also has sections on dog personalities, toys, and clicker training.** And, be sure to read the “About You, What You Need To Do” as it reminds us that we can be part of the problem when our dogs are not “getting it.” Subsequent chapters divide the games into categories: Basic Games, Bonding Games, Brain Games, Fitness Games, Figuring it out, and Getting Along.
She starts with the basics of Sit, Down, Wait, and Let’s Go (which you have likely taught your dog already, but perhaps used different names for these behaviors). She makes the point that, “It is better to make sure that your pet stays responsible and reacts promptly to key commands instead of moving on to other exercises at the expense of the basics.” So, she goes over these core behaviors in detail so that you can be sure that you are clearly communicating to your dog, and he clearly understands what is expected of him. This section is a good place to begin as it really does help you to pay attention to your words and your body language so you can more effectively communicate with your dog. Moreover, the rest of the games will be easier for you and your dog if you have figured out how to work with one another.
As you work through the various exercises in the book (and you can easily pick and choose those that are most appealing to you and your dog) she continues to provide clear instructions as well as explaining what he is learning and why this behavior is useful. Almost every game has a note that will enhance the learning experience or give you an extra challenge. When playing Hide-and-Seek with your dog she suggests that you, “Try hiding at different levels: going up a level, for example, perching on a bunk bed because dogs don’t automatically look above eye level when they’re searching for something but instead rely on their noses.”
In addition to Clicker Training, she also has sections explaining positive reinforcement training and the Dominance myth. Her easy to read and understand instructions, coupled with her explanations of the science of learning and play, will broaden and enhance your understanding of how dogs think and learn. But mostly, this wonderfully accessible book will convince you that playing with your dog is a great way to live, learn, and love together for a lifetime.
Above: Zuzu and I practice some fetch, sit, and give, 3 days after picking her up. Playing games is a great way to establish a strong bond with your new dog.
*Having kids play with dogs is great, but should never be done without the direct supervision of an adult. Colleen Pelar and I talk about Simple Games for Kids and Dogs in our podcast airing 12/20/16, and see my other blogs on kids and dogs: Forced Friendship and And Baby Makes Four.
** See also our podcast, Why Be Positive?
Reisner Veterinary Services posted a link on their Facebook page on November 19, showing a video of three different dogs, two of which are being hugged by small children. For those of us who work with dogs this is a very scary video as the first two dogs are clearly stressed by what is happening and the third dog is being put into a situation that can quickly escalate into a bite to the child’s face. Here is a link to the page they reference (the post is dated 11/10/16 and titled, “Do you have a child who likes to hug the dog”):
And here are Reisner’s thoughts on the videos:
1. Hugging is NOT a positive interaction for many, many dogs. If an individual dog does seem to enjoy it, it is usually a learned behavior, and may be tolerated from only certain people. Generally speaking, children are less tolerated than adults. If you look closely at a dog’s face while being hugged, you’re more likely to see stress than pleasure.
2. It’s clear from videos like this that knowledge about dog safety is lacking. It’s doubtful that this is a deliberate attempt to put toddlers at risk. We need to press on and educate the public. I also need to remind myself that the great majority of parents are not connected to progressive dog groups and pages on Facebook, and have absolutely no idea of the risk.
3. Most dog bite injuries that end up in emergency rooms are to young children, in the head, face and neck. It’s very easy to see why.
Just because a dog IS tolerant and patient doesn’t mean the dog needs to be confronted with such aversive interactions (including the infant tapping a toy on the dog’s head). The dogs here are just being set up to fail. Why tempt fate?
I couldn’t agree more with Reisner’s comments. I would add that there are plenty of good sites online that educate parents about appropriate interactions between kids and dogs. Here are some of my blogs as well as my favorite online sites:
And here are some great websites with terrific advice and resources for parents:
Kids and dogs can live harmoniously, but it requires supervision of small people, an understanding of stress signals in dogs, and respect for the needs of both children and canines.
On October 15th Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services addressed an issue that has been of concern to me for a long time: dogs who really shouldn’t be therapy dogs. Not every dog can be molded into a dog who relishes visits with children, Alzheimer’s patients, or nursing home residents. As much as I admire someone’s desire to give light and joy to those individuals, very few dogs really have the right temperament to do this work, and those that do may well have institutions they do not like, types of people who make them uncomfortable, or days they just don’t feel like doing the job.
Or, it could be that your therapy dog is ready to retire. Our Golden Retriever, Hudson, was the dog I used for Bite Prevention workshops in schools. When he was about 7, I was invited to a first grade class to talk about dog safety. One of the things I did in these visits, was have the kids hide a stuffed Kong in the classroom and then let Huddy find it. He never failed to retrieve it and then settle down amongst the children to clean out the Kong. On this day, the kids hid the Kong, Hudson got it, and promptly walked away from the kids to settle under a desk to eat his treat. I knew right then that it was Hudson’s last day as a classroom dog because he was telling me quite clearly that he no longer enjoyed the situation, but was only tolerating it. Therapy dogs need to love their work, not just put up with it.
As Reisner puts it so very well:
Many of us see therapy work as a desirable goal, where we and our dogs can work as partners to help others less fortunate than we are. But it’s not typically our dogs’ choice to do this work; some of them just aren’t meant to do so.
Socialization, training and even ‘testing’ don’t guarantee that a particular dog will do well in an institutional or hospital setting, and with children or elderly people. Very elderly people may be stiff and fragile, or may not be able to follow instructions. Children can be impulsive, loud, and can crowd dogs. Any institution is crowded with equipment, noises, staff and smells that can intimidate dogs.
My beloved red Aussie, Zev, was Therapy Dog International certified, well socialized to a variety of human sizes, shapes and abilities and very easy-going. Neither of us was prepared when, in a nursing home, a woman with Alzheimer’s approached him very slowly, and with a direct stare, while he was in a small room visiting with someone else. Understandably, he growled; I almost growled myself. That was the day he retired from therapy work, much to his relief. And there have been dogs presented for behavior consultations because of fearful behavior in such environments.
Every therapy setting is unique, as are the temperaments of individual dogs. It pays to think twice before putting a dog in a setting that neither you nor the dog can control. Consider your dog’s temperament and, most important, his attitude and posturing in the therapy setting. Protect him from situations that might trigger fear and, if needed, be willing to walk out for his sake.
If your dog is sketchy or the setting is challenging, remember that you can choose to spend weekend afternoons visiting a nursing home and enriching the lives of its residents without your dog, while he stays home working on a frozen food-filled Kong.
Finding the right dog to do therapy work is a major challenge, especially with rescue dogs whose backgrounds and socialization maybe murky at best. That might lead you to think that purebred dogs are the answer. Not necessarily. Even well-socialized pure bred dogs, raised from puppyhood to be comfortable with a variety of people, may not have the temperament for this line of work. Challenging situations might trigger discomfort and reactivity that would put him and others at risk. This is why it is imperative to pay close attention to the signals your dog is giving you that may indicate that he is unhappy and would prefer to be doing something else. If your dog does rise to the challenge of being a therapy dog, congratulations! But, don’t feel bad if he doesn’t, just allow him to spread joy in his particular fashion.
It’s time, once again, for a hodgepodge of items that I have recently encountered. These tidbits are related by four components: 1) I like them, 2) they are all about positive approaches to training and interacting with your dog, 3) Reisner Vet likes them and, 4) I was not smart enough to write them first.
The first is the Freedom Harness Exchange Program.
The Harness Exchange Program is an advocacy program of Biggies Bullies that promotes the use of force-free pet equipment. We are asking pet guardians o swap out their choke, prong, and shock collars for a free harness! We want all pets and their parents to experience the huge advantages and long-lasting effectiveness of force-free training and pet care. When you mail us your choke, prong, or shock collar we will send you a free Freedom No Pull Harness. -Biggies Bullies Website.
The page is filled with pictures of adorable “bully” breed dogs happily ensconced in their bright colored freedom harnesses. The beauty of any no-pull harness is that it works with your dog to stop pulling, rather than punish or hurt your dog for pulling. Choke chain collars can damage your dog’s thyroid, increase the pressure in his eyes (putting him at greater risk for glaucoma), and can cause damage to the trachea or esophagus. “Dogs walked on prongs are also constantly subjected to pain and discomfort, which creates fear, anxiety and aggression on walks.” (Biggies Bullies Website). Dogs corrected with shock collars may associate the pain and fear they experience with their owners and may respond by avoiding their owners, shutting down, or acting out aggressively.*
I have used the Freedom harness as well as other front buckling no pull harnesses and I highly recommend them. They are the most effective, however, when used in conjunction with positive reinforcement training to teach a dog loose leash walking. I think this is a great program and if you want to support it, click here to donate.
Another article that I came across came from my old standard Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services is dated June 6th and has a wonderful graphic by Lili Chin, titled Calm and Relaxed? or Shut Down? What I love about this is that it points out how important it is to understand dog body language so you know what your dog is actually telling you! Dogs who are subdued when meeting new people, places, things, or other dogs, may not be calm and relaxed, but rather shut down and scared. Understanding how your dog is interpreting the situation will give you the information you need to best help him.**
While scrolling through Lili Chin’s website I found some graphics that she produced for the Vet Behavior Team about stress signals in dogs. Going to their website, I found several handouts that clearly and precisely illustrate the signals that dogs use to communicate to us that they are upset, stressed, hyper-vigilante, or just plain scared. Even if you know your dog’s stress signals, I recommend that you take a look at these handouts as they will help you recognize stress signals in other dogs. Knowing what other dogs are “feeling” will help you to keep your dog safe. I plan on using these handouts with all my clients!
I have written about dogs and kids before, but recently I came across this website: Family Paws Family Education which I really like. It has a lot of useful information for parents, parents-to-be, trainers, and veterinarians to help kids and dogs live together in harmony. The resource page has plenty of links to other valuable resources (such as Living with Kids and Dogs , Colleen Pelar’s website) as well as some terrific handouts with nice graphics about Dog and Baby safety, Dog and Toddler safety, what is supervision (and isn’t! This is a particularly eye-opening handout). I recommend to parents that they post the relevant ones on the frig so they are a ready reminder of how to have your expanding household live together positively and safely.
**The article to which this graphic is attached is a detailed look at Cesar Milan and his television program concerning a Boston Terrier who attacked and killed pigs, and Mr. Milan’s approach to changing this behavior. I am no fan of Mr. Milan and the methods he employed here just about made me pass out and/or vomit. His outdated approach caused egregious harm to the health and mental well being of the dog as well as the pigs he employed. I cannot emphasize loud or long enough that bullying, hurting, or punishing your dog is not the humane, responsible way to change behavior, no matter how abhorrant that behavior may be. Every animal deserves to be cared for and handled with compassion and dignity. Period.
I have written about socialization and the need for your puppy to experience a wide range of people, places and things before the age of 16 weeks. While you need to be careful about exposing your young dog to the larger dog population (in order to prevent unnecessary exposure to disease), a good puppy class is a terrific place to start your pup on the road to being a well adjusted adult dog for the following reasons:
2) Puppy class gives owners the support and instruction they need for successful house training, supervision, and management of a young dog.
In my puppy classes we start with teaching the puppy to look to the owner for instructions. If your dog doesn’t look at you, it is pretty darn hard to get it to do anything else you want it to. So, focused attention is a biggie. We also learn: sit, down, touch (teaching the dog to touch her nose to your hand), exchanges, name game, and we begin building the foundations for come, loose lead walking, impulse control, and stay.
A few days ago, fellow trainer Mary Graham, posted an article by trainer Chad Culp on her Facebook page. I promptly shared a link to it on my business Facebook page. The article is titled Letting Dogs Meet: The Three Second Rule, and I think it is a terrific guideline for how to do an appropriate meet and greet for dogs who don’t know one another.*
The basic concept here is to have a short introduction that allows dogs to meet, without escalating into an unpleasant foray. Even a dog who is very easy going and “loves other dogs” will encounter canines that he is uncomfortable with, is not interested in meeting, or who are socially inept. This is where a 3 second meet and greet will allow you to decide if this is a dog with whom you and your pooch are comfortable.
He mentions that if you meet “a dog out in the world and you don’t feel comfortable with having your dog meet him, that’s ok.” I couldn’t agree more. Trust your gut, and politely excuse yourself from the situation before the rendezvous becomes a skirmish. (Tell the other person that you are in training mode and need to keep focused.)
He lists 10 bulleted points for the 3 Second rule and one that immediately caught my eye was:
Keep your eyes peeled and be fully present. (Don’t be texting while a dog meeting is taking place.) (Emphasis mine.)
If you want to keep you and your dog safe and happy, you have to pay attention to what is happening right then and know what your dog’s body language is telling you about his current comfort level. If your dog starts to stiffen, press his ears back, tuck his tail, or try to move away from the new dog, do not proceed with the meet and greet as he is telling you, in no uncertain terms, that this is not a good idea.**
He further adds:
Know your dog. If your dog has a history of biting or aggression, your situation is beyond the scope of this blog. Consult a dog training professional to help your dog with his particular needs.
Absolutely. Whether this has been a long standing problem or a recent development, if your dog is irritable with other canines, then don’t force an interaction when he is clearly not in the mood, frightened, or testy. This will exaccerbate, not solve the problem. Find a positive reinforcement trainer, behaviorist, or vet who can help you develop or enhance your dog’s social skills.
*Mr. Culp also points out that this is good standard procedure even for dogs who do know one another. Why? Because it gives owners a chance to evaluate how their dogs are feeling at that particular moment and whether or not this is a good day for a play date.
**I have written a lot about stress signals and dog body language. For a refresher on what your dog is telling you see: Stress Signals
Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services, has once again provided the basis for a blog post. Their Facebook post from January 11, 2016 is a terrific summary of why dogs have bad training days and what you can do about it. Here it is, with my notes or comments in italics or with asterisks:
Tuesday’s Pearl: Dogs can be overwhelmed by training.
Training your dog to perform a new task can be gratifying, especially when your dog really seems to ‘get it’. Doing it well requires knowledge of operant conditioning*, finding the right positive reinforcer** for the individual dog in front of you, and keeping expectations in check as you approximate the task being trained. But dogs are only human; like us, they can have bad training days for a number of reasons.
Overwhelmed or confused dogs may begin to exhibit conflict signals such as yawning, turning away or lowering their bodies.*** Others may show displacement behaviors such as barking, jumping up or mouthing, mounting, stretching or simply walking away. To the untrained trainer’s eye, this might look like “stubborn” or even “dominant” behavior, but it is more simple than that (and it is never an issue of dominance). She doesn’t know what you want, and is frustrated or no longer willing to cooperate in this futile activity. (Emphasis mine.).
In most cases, the dog is being asked to perform/offer a behavior beyond his understanding. This is often the case in training, of course, but if you’re working on a complex behavior and skipping the smaller steps, the dog may simply stop working. A few tips to help him get back on track:
• Go back a few steps in training and move forward more slowly. (Also consider training in smaller increments of time, say 5-10 minutes at a time. This will help both of you to avoid frustration).
• Break the training down into smaller steps. (Think in terms of parts of a behavior. For example, if you want your dog to sit when greeting guests, start with teaching your dog to sit, then sit at your side. Then teach him to stay while at your side. Then stay while you move away, stay while you move to the door, stay while the door opens, etc., until you have built a complete behavior).
• Take a day or two to review and reinforce what the dog already knows well.
• Give your dog time to think – your own impatience may be undermining his ability to learn. A little breather between steps can give your dog the chance to offer something he’s figured out for himself. (I remind my students that after you ask your dog to do something, count to 5 while you wait for his response. This allows the dog to process what you have asked him to do and respond. Also, when your dog does something exactly as requested, reward him well and end your training session on that perfect note. Practice this behavior for a few sessions before you move onto the next step).
• Swallow your human pride and consider abandoning an exercise that repeatedly frustrates your dog (and you). Try something else.
Like us, dogs are better at learning when they enjoy the process, and they’ll enjoy it much more if they have the opportunity to succeed (i.e.: are positively reinforced).** If our dogs seem overwhelmed or apathetic, the responsibility is entirely ours to find a solution – and there almost always is one.”
If you find yourself uncertain as to how to proceed with your training, give me a call! I offer group and private lessons which can help you and your pooch get back into your training groove.
*Operant conditioning:operant conditioning is a fancy way of saying learning things through consequences, both good and bad. (Think Skinner). For example, a dog sits and gets a treat, he learns to sit more. If he is punished for leaving the yard by an electric shock, he learns to stay away from the edge of the yard.
**Positive reinforcer: Treats. The biscuit you give to Fido for sitting is a positive reinforcer. (See Set you and your dog up for success for ideas of how to use rewards and NILIF for more information on reinforcers). Also, know what your dog loves and use it as reward. This may include food, play, petting, access to other dogs, a car ride, etc. Make a list of 5 things your dog loves and post it on your refrigerator as a reminder of what you can use to creatively reinforce desired behaviors.
*** I have written a lot about body language and stress signals. See Stress: signals, management & warning signs for more information.