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Philosophy of training or “Why be positive?”

Trauma, trust, and your dog.

IMG_3118That I love talking about dogs and find them endlessly fascinating, will come as no surprise to anyone of even passing acquaintance. And yet, there are times that I am stumped about what to write about in my blog. After trolling through various things I settled on linking to three short articles that I found on Facebook through Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services and/or behaviorist Traci Shreyer.

On March 30 Traci Shreyer posted an article about the long-lasting effects of punishment on our pets. In the study which the article reviews, researchers “taught mice to associate a tone with a mild shock and found that, once the mice learned the association, the pattern of neurons that activated in response to tone alone resembled the pattern that activated in response to the shock.” In other words, the tone alone elicited the same physiological response in the dog as did the shock. And, significantly, “[t]he findings also reveal that the neurons never returned to their original state, even after the training was undone. Although this was not the main focus of the study, the results could have wide-ranging implications for studying emotional memory disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” [Emphasis mine.]

What does this mean for family dogs? It means that after your dog has experienced the tone followed by the shock (from an electric fence or an electronic training collar), from that point on, even if you use only the tone on your shock collar, he will react in the same way as if he were receiving the shock. Every time he hears the tone, he will re-experience the trauma or fear associated with the shock. Even after several repetitions where the shock does not follow the tone, dogs may not show the outward signs of fear (such as freezing or running away), but their neurons will never return to the original state. How this may manifest in your dog is uncertain, but since the neurons never completely recover from the shock or trauma, it isn’t a stretch to think that your dog won’t either.*

Neurons never quite recover from ‘Pavlov’s bell’

Few things strike dread into owners of shy dogs, parents of small children, or frail individuals more quickly than the cry of “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” as an out of control dog races towards them. In a post shared by Reisner Veterinary, blogger PawsforPraise states:

Interestingly, confrontations such as this often play out in jurisdictions where leashes are mandatory. Yet, owners of off leash dogs still sometimes chastise their law-abiding counterparts as if accepting the unwanted advances of their out of control dogs should be acceptable. (It’s not.) 

img_1751If you have control over your dog (real control, so that he really, truly comes when you call and you are not just saying his name repeatedly in a desperate plea for compliance), then I don’t have a problem with him being off lead in public areas.** But the vast majority of owners do not have this level of obedience, and it is incumbent upon them to keep their dog under reasonable control so that they do not cause injury or trauma to others (this applies to off lead areas such as dog parks as well).

For any dog, especially those who are young, fearful, or reactive, having another dog charge them can be not only scary, but genuinely traumatic, which can result in both short and long term behavior problems. I have helped several dogs recover from being attacked, but as we now know, the neurons involved in trauma never fully recover. And, moreover, most of these pups will need extra support and supervision for the rest of their lives.

The third article, Deadly Trust, by Karen Peak, owner of West Wind Dog Training in Virginia, continues the discussion of off lead dogs and why it might be in the best interest of everyone to keep your dog on lead. After discussing several instances where tragedy could have been prevented by leashing a dog, she says this about what we can really trust regarding our dogs:

I trust my dogs 100% to be dogs. I trust they will do dog things.  They will do things others find gross.  They may steal food if left unattended where they can get it.  They will chase squirrels.  They will growl when something is wrong or when playing.  If pushed too far, they may nip.  They are dogs.  My job is to have them build trust in me so they feel comfortable letting me know what is going on.  My job is not to trust but to work to increase safety for my dogs and the community. This means leashes, observation, recognizing situations that could set them up to fail and not demanding them to tolerate unfair treatment.  My duty to my dogs is to remember they are a different species with different communication and behaviors trying to exist in my life. 

Dogs are wonderful companions and their connection with humans can make it seem as if they are on a higher plane than other animals. Perhaps they are.  But, if we do not provide for them the security and safety that they need, the resulting trauma can last a lifetime. We do them and ourselves no service if we disregard the very essence of their nature and fail to keep them safe and under control.

 

*Experience has shown me that it is very difficult to gauge what is traumatic to another person or animal. Something that does not bother you, may be quite scary to someone (think of spiders and how some people are terrified, while others have them as pets). Moreover, you might not be teaching your dog what you think you are when you use punishment. A dog may learn that the lawn is a scary place to be, not that he shouldn’t go to the edge. Or, if he is shocked while barking at a dog, he might learn that dogs cause him pain and he becomes leery, frightened, or even more reactive at the sight of a dog. 

** The intent of this blog is not to argue for or against leash laws. My view is that if there is an ordinance requiring your dog to be leashed, then leash your dog even if he is the world’s reigning obedience champion. Dogs are not robots and can be unpredictable or reactive at times, especially when startled.  So do everyone a favor and increase your level of control by leashing your dog.

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Expanding your horizons

You want me to what?

You want me to what? Sit? Here? Why?

When I teach a behavior to a client I recommend that they practice this new skill in every room in the house where their dog is allowed, so that the dog learns to generalize the behavior. Dogs, by and large, are not particularly good at generalizing. As a result, we have to help them learn that “Sit!” does not simply mean “put my bottom on the ground facing Mom in the kitchen,” but rather, “put my bottom on the ground no matter where I am or what is going on around me.” 

When you move to another location, it is important to understand that your dog sees this as something new and may not respond as quickly to your request as he does in a more familiar locale. Therefore, I tell clients to lower their expectations and ask for something easier or give their dog more time to respond. For example, last night I took Zuzu to her first agility class. At one point, we were told to get our dogs to lie down. This is not Zuzu’s strongest trick (she tends to pop right back up) but she will generally follow my hand and lie on the floor, especially if I have a small treat in my hand. So, in this exciting environment I made sure we had at least 15 feet between her and another dog, and I used a fistful of chicken to lure her into a down. It took her a moment to understand what I wanted, but when her belly hit the ground, a lot of chicken happened. Subsequent downs went more quickly and smoothly, and I was able to reduce the amount of poultry needed to produce the desired results.

I recently received an email from the Whole Dog Journal about training your dog in a new location. Here is a part of what they recommended:

In each new training space, first test that your dog can perform with a cookie in your hand. This is important because the total number of additional distractions (beyond what you are deliberately introducing) is going to increase simply by changing locations. You will continue to create controlled distractions for your dog, and you want them to hold his attention more than the stuff in the environment. This might sound counter intuitive, but the truth is, if the dog is paying more attention to the smells in the neighborhood than to the training exercises, you have a problem! You need to start with a distraction (and a reward) that is MORE interesting than the rest of the world.  (From Beyond the Backyard by Denise Fenzi)

Zuzu’s bumper

The point that you need to be more interesting than the rest of the world is the key to teaching your dog to be responsive to you in any environment, especially in the beginning. Having a good assortment of rewards* is also useful to keep your dog’s focus in new surroundings. To keep Zuzu’s attention last evening I varied the rewards I used: chicken, string cheese, and her favorite toy. While she has unlimited access to most of her toys, her bumper is one I keep special by limiting it’s availability. She zoomed through the tunnel to me and a chance to chase the bumper. Looking at me in line (right behind a really cute lab she wanted desperately to play with) earned her the right to hold the bumper as we waited our turn. Chicken enticed her into a down on the table, but her bumper was her reward for staying. 

Zuzu had moments when she couldn’t focus due to the excitement of a new environment. But they were moments, not eons, and it was reinforcement, not detention, that got her to reengage with me. Be patient with your dog as you teach her to behave under exciting or distracting circumstances. Reward her well for a doing what you ask, even if it’s only for an instant. The instants will begin to add up and sooner than you think, you will have a truly engaged dog, eager to work with you, no matter where you are. 

Zuzu and her beloved bumper.

Zuzu and her beloved bumper.

 

*Knowing what is reinforcing to your dog helps you choose the right reward for the level of distraction. I have written a lot about rewards or reinforcers but two blogs in particular are relevant: What if my dog isn’t food motivated? and What does your dog love?

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Management, Relationship, and Training: the keys to better living with dogs.

Shake aloneI am in a networking group that meets weekly. Attendance is as close to mandatory as one can get without a court order. Since we serve as each other’s sales force, it is important that we take the time to really understand each other’s businesses. By seeing each other every week and having coffee or lunch with another member once a month we get to “know, like, and trust” one another. It is this combination of factors that makes it possible to comfortably recommend someone’s services. It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that my 3 part philosophy of training is very similar to this.

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“I would like to go out now.”

When talking to new owners, I tell them that my training method is based on three things: management, relationship, and training. Management means setting your dog up for success by arranging him and his environment in such a manner that he is more likely to make the right choice. For example, if you are house training your pup, I recommend that you do not give him full reign of the house, but use crates, gates, and/or tethers to keep him from making mistakes in the wrong places and to help you to recognize when he needs to do his duty. By effectively managing your dog, you get to know him better and to understand his signals, temperament, and rhythms.

Ball anyone?

Ball anyone?

Your relationship with your dog should be based on co-operation and trust. Dr. Sophia Yin described it like partners in a dance where you are the leader in the dance and your job is to clearly indicate to your dog what is happening next. You can build your relationship with your dog by hand feeding him, playing with him, and just spending time in each other’s company. As you learn more about who your dog is, your relationship will blossom. In other words, you come to like him more!

Positive reinforcement training is the natural extension of good management and a solid relationship. It is the instrument by which you develop trust that your dog will behave in a predictable way. Rewarding desirable behavior and re-directing or ignoring undesirable behavior is the way you help your dog understand that he can trust you to be consistent, reliable, and fair.

Management, Relationship, and Training, or Know, Like, and Trust represent the means by which we can best enhance the connection with our beloved dogs, and thereby obtain a lifetime of love, learning, and laughter canine style. In another blog I wrote:

A client recently told me that she has a hard time calling what she learned from me training, rather it is about relationship and has allowed her dogs to more clearly communicate to her what they need (such as having the water bowl filled, thank you), and her ability to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of each of her dogs. And that, in essence, is the purpose of family dog training: learning to love and work successfully with the unique canine who shares your hearth and home.

IMG_3118

 

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What does your dog love?

Dream of biscuitsKnowing what motivates your dog will make your training easier and more effective. In my beginning class, I ask the owners to make a list of 5 things their dogs love.* I encourage them to be both broad and specific. Broad in the sense of looking at what your dog loves to do, places he likes to go, things he likes to eat. Specific within those categories: if she is play motivated, what games does she like, and is there a hierarchy of games? For example, your dog might see play this way: “Tug trumps chase; hide and seek with a toy is better than Tug; hide and seek with my person is better yet; and Fetch! is the gold standard for all things diverting me from chewing shoes.”
 
While I am a proud cookie pusher and advocate the use of food rewards when training your dog, especially in the beginning, I also encourage owners to look at other things that could be used as rewards for desired behavior. If your dog, for instance, loves to go outside and races out the door, nearly knocking you over, use the act of opening the door (which she loves) as a reward for the calmer behavior of sitting before the door is opened. In this way, you are using something she loves (access to the great outdoors) as a reward for something you love (calm behavior at the door). Likewise, use play as a reward for other behaviors. If you want to teach a quick sit, have your dog sit before you toss the ball. If the launching of the ball depends on sitting, then sit will happen pretty quickly!
 
 
Another thing to look at is how motivated is your dog by physical contact, your voice, and food.** When helping clients learn what motivates their dogs to stay with them, I will have them do the following:
 
Start with your dog next to you. If your dog is on a leash, then either drop the leash, or keep it very loose. You want to see if your dog will stay with you by choice, not by tether.
 
1) Using only your voice (no touching your dog, no using your hands in any way, and no dispensing treats), try to keep your dog with you and focused on you for 10 seconds.
 
2) Using only your hands (no vocalizations of any kind, no holding your dog in place by his collar or any other part of him, and no food), try to keep your dog with your for 10 seconds.
 
Zen Dog 2
 
3) Using only food (no touching, no talking or cooing), try to keep your dog with you for 10 seconds.
 
Now, rate them from most to least effective. Which one made it really easy for your dog to stay with you? Which was the least effective? There is no right or wrong answer here, just valuable information on what your dog likes.
 
Repeat the 10 second experiment using various combinations of these three things to see if there is any  increase in the value of your reward. For example, If you don’t have any treats, use your happy voice and rub her ears, or talk to her while you give her a series of 3-5 treats, especially if she has done something wonderful. Adding rewards together, should increase their value to your dog and you should find that it is easier for her to ignore distractions and stay focused on you.
 
So, the bottom line is: Look at your rewards. If she is not paying attention to you, then what you are using to reward her is simply not valuable enough. Moreover, if your dog seems to take forever to learn something new, then you need to step up to the challenge of finding the reward that is equal to (or exceeds) the value of the distractions that make this new behavior so hard to learn. When you know what she truly loves (ear scratches, playing ball, banana bread, and string cheese, for example), it will be much easier to ignore or prevent any unwanted behavior, and efficiently and effectively reward the desired behavior.
 Shake alone
 
 
*In a recent Your Family Dog podcast, my podcast partner, Colleen Pelar, and I discuss how words matter when you describe your dog’s behavior. Colleen talks specifically about listing your dog’s favorite things and prioritizing their value. You can catch (and subscribe to) our podcasts, by the way, on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, on Podbean, or on our podcast website, Your Family Dog Podcast
 
** You can also do this experiment with toys to see if you can keep your dog focused on you for 10 seconds with only a toy.

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How to choose a dog trainer.

This week Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services had a Facebook post about choosing a dog trainer, which links to an article in Companion Animal Psychology titled, How to Choose a Dog Trainer. It is a great article, clearly written, with good advice as to what to look for in a trainer, and what questions you should ask the trainer. Remember, this is your dog and you get to decide how it will be treated and to require that your trainer be committed to humane, dog-friendly training techniques.

When choosing a dog trainer, the most important thing is to find a trainer who uses reward-based dog training methods, which they might call positive reinforcement, force-free, or humane training methods.

You want to look for someone who uses a reward based method of training, meaning that the trainer uses rewards (primarily food) to make a behavior more likely to reoccur, and withholding a reward to lessen a behavior. For example, when your dog’s bottom hits the ground after you say “Sit,” reward with a tasty treat. If your dog jumps, turn your back on him (withholding the attention he seeks) and wait for his bottom to touch the ground. When it does, reward with affection and food!

In practice, the reward that works best is food. It is possible to use other types of reward, such as play, but food is more efficient because it’s faster to deliver; it’s better for most dog training scenarios (for example, if you’re teaching a dog to sit-stay, play will encourage your dog to jump out of the sit); and all dogs love food.

So in other words, you want a dog trainer who will use food to train your dog.

Many people fear that if they use food to train their dog, the dog will only listen when the food is present. A good trainer will also teach you how to: 1) use your dog’s food (so you are not always dependent on treats); 2) reduce the amount of food as training progresses and; 3) add in other rewards for desired behaviors.

The article goes on to talk about certification for trainers, professional memberships, and continuing education. Most professional organizations require continuing education, so check and see if the trainer you are considering pursues further education, and with whom!

There are certain names that are a very good sign. For example, if someone has attended training with the likes of Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, Kathy Sdao, Chirag Patel, Ken Ramirez, Ian Dunbar, or Bob Bailey, that’s very promising, because these are all important names in science-based dog training.

 

yourfamilydog_2Check out the trainer’s website and Facebook page to get an idea of what they do when they train and the methods they employ. Do they blog or podcast? Looking at their writings or listening to them talk about dogs will give you a clearer idea of how they approach training. Also, look for customer reviews (not only on their websites, but other forums such as Angie’s list or Thumbtack), and ask for references. And, to really get a good idea of what training will look like with a particular trainer, ask the following three questions:

          What, exactly, will happen to my dog if she gets it right?

          What, exactly, will happen to her if she gets it wrong?

          Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

If you are uncomfortable with the answers to any of these questions, keep looking.

The article also discusses the advantage of group versus private lessons, what to do if there isn’t a trainer in your area, and who to call if your dog has a behavior problem. This comprehensive article is well worth reading and will help you to make the right decision concerning the training and well being of your dog. Remember, you are your dog’s best and only advocate, do not settle for less than the best for your best friend.

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Canine brainiacs

Bingley, Buckley, and Tex all crossed the Rainbow bridge this year.

Bingley, Buckley, and Tex all crossed the Rainbow bridge this year.

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.

img_3432So 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 Dogby 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.

Sit happens.

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?

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Crime and Punishment, part 2: Clicker training

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“Click and give her a treat,” our trainer, Robin Bennett, said.
 
 
“That’s it?” I queried.
 
 
“Yes,” Robin replied, “to start with. Next you are going to ask her to do something, such as sit. Then when her bottom touches the ground, click and treat. She’ll learn that doing certain things brings rewards. Then, she’ll start doing those things more and more.”
 
 
 
     Thus started our introduction to clicker training* 16 years ago when we sought help for Molly, our Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, and her aggressiveness with other dogs. We saw first hand the power of the clicker and how quickly it can improve a dog’s behavior. Though were never able to completely cure Molly of her aggression, we were able to help her adjust as best she could and give her three years she would not have had otherwise.
 
 
 
You want us to sit? Show us the clicker...

You want us to sit? Show us the clicker…

From that first introduction to the clicker, we have used it with all of our dogs. Though each dog is unique in his personality, interests and skill level, each one has responded with gusto to the clicker and to positive reinforcement training. When we had Buckley, Bingley, and Hudson, and I would pull out the clicker, all of them would get excited and start throwing behaviors at me to see what would elicit a click. Buckley would immediately sit, Hudson would start “petting” Bingley, who would back up, spin, bow, whatever! They knew that something would bring a click and a treat and they were eager to figure out what it was. Bingley was so enthusiastic about training when he was younger that he would find a clicker and come to my office holding it between his front teeth. When I turned and looked, he would click it and run down the hall, instigating a grand game of chase. Apparently clicker training works on people too!

 
Bait bag, clicker, ready to roll!

Bait bag, clicker, ready to roll!

For me, the value of the clicker for training (or in the absence of a clicker, accurately marking the behavior with a distinctive word or phrase such as “Yessss!” or “Good Dog!!”) cannot be overstated. Clickers allow you to be very precise in marking desired behaviors. For example, If your dog is easily excited, use your clicker to click for a calm moment (even if it is only for an instant) and immediately give him a tasty morsel. The dog will soon figure out that calm gets him everything, noisy gets him nothing. The more you consistently reward good behavior (even if it is a flash in the pan!) the more you will see it. Likewise, if your dog regularly behaves well (sitting quietly or lying down peacefully, for example), mark the behavior (Click! or “Good dog!”) and reward, reward, reward, so that you are sure to see more of it!

 
Clicker training is very helpful if your pup is dog reactive. For example, if he looks at another dog and doesn’t react, click and treat! If he looks at another dog and then looks back at you, click and treat! Or he looks at a dog and sits, click and treat. Marking and rewarding these desirable responses will teach your dog that this exact response is how you ought to behave! Use food as a reward when first teaching a new behavior or trying to reward a calm moment to turbo charge your training and your dog’s interest in learning and behaving. Eventually, your dog will become more consistent in his response and you will not have to reward with food every time your dog behaves. But, in the beginning stages, clicks and tasty snacks really help him learn to be the best dog he can be.
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For more information on the origin of clicker training see: http://www.clickertraining.com. And, check out my resource page,  as well as these books, Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor, and Click to Calm by Emma Parsons.
 

See this blog and more on reward based training at the Companion Animal Psychology Blog Party!

 
 

 

 

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Crime and punishment, Part 1: When does a reward become a punishment?

_CSG3316-EditWhen introducing my clients to positive reinforcement training in general, and clicker training in particular, I tell them that it’s important to reward the behavior you want in your dog and ignore or re-direct undesirable behavior. After all, behavior that is rewarded will increase in frequency, while behavior that is ignored will decrease.

He's turned his head away from me, indicating he's not interested in interacting with me right now.

He’s turned his head away from me, indicating he’s not interested in whatever I’m offering.

I also explain that rewards (or punishments) are always defined by the recipient, not the one doling them out. What may seem a reward to you, may not be all that reinforcing to your dog. One good way to tell if your dog really isn’t interested in your idea of a reinforcement is if he turns his head, walks away, or otherwise disengages from you. He is clearly telling you that this is not his cup of tea. For example, many people will greet or reward their dogs by patting them on the head, thinking that their dog loves petting. And, they are surprised when their dog moves away from them as they approach head on. The dog may well love being petted, but this is not petting, this is thunking your dog on the skull, and most dogs do not care for it.* Therefore, it is not a reward, but a punishment for Fido, and will not encourage him to come to you.

Rewards, by their very nature, should make your training easier. Ken Ramirez, the Head Trainer at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago states that if training a new behavior is taking longer than you think it should, is harder for the animal than it ought to be, or otherwise is not progressing as well as you think appropriate: Look at your reinforcers (rewards). They probably are not rewarding enough to motivate the animal to work for it. Make sure you are using things your dog actually loves, not what you think he loves!

Moreover, keep in mind that what you are offering may not be reinforcing enough for the particular circumstances. Using your dog’s food at home (where it isn’t so distracting) and giving several pieces in a row as reward when they do something wonderful, may be a perfect acceptable reinforcement for their behavior. But, if your dog is consistently distracted in new situations, ask yourself, “What’s in the bait bag?” Is this really rewarding to him, or do I just think it is? When you are outside and have to compete with pee-mail and other canine delights, bring a good assortment of small, soft, and stinky treats so he has a good reason to stay checked in with you. Quantity, quality, and variety is the spice of life for dogs, just as it is for people, and is the key to keeping Fido focused and eager to learn.

Ball anyone?

Ball anyone?

Determining what is motivating to your dog may also take some experimentation and creative thinking, and may include activities and toys as well as food. For example, I know that Bingley will do anything for access to a game of fetch**, and he adores banana bread (He even knocked Buckley, 50 pounds larger than him, out of the way to get a piece). My grand-dog Tex, adores roasted asparagus, carrots, and car rides. Make a list of five things your dog loves and post it on the refrigerator as a reminder of what is rewarding to your pup. Add things to it as you discover what makes your dog’s tail wave like a flag on the 4th of July.

food pig's ears car rides

food, pig’s ears, car rides…

You may find, as I do, that using a lot of food when beginning to train your dog (or when teaching a new behavior to your dog), is the easiest and most effective method of rewarding the right response.*** The time does come (sooner than you might think!) when you can reduce the amount of food and add in other reinforcers, such as toys, access to other dogs, car rides, etc., so that food becomes only one of many ways to reward your dog. This is one reason why I encourage you to keep a list of what your dog loves, so you can be creative in your rewards and more interesting to your pup.

Rewards and clicker training go hand in hand, so next time we explore how to use these rewards to get your dog to be the best behaved pup he can be.

 

 

*Ask yourself, how would you feel if someone charged up to you and thunk, thunk, thunked you on the top of the head? At best, dogs tolerate this behavior, and many dogs really loathe it. If you want to pet your dog, scratch him behind the ears, rub his shoulders or withers, approaching from the side, and I bet he will move into you rather than away from you.

** One winter we were walking the dogs at a local park and Bingley ran up to me holding something that looked, at a distance, like a frisbee. I’d brought tennis balls, not frisbees this day, so as he approached I looked closely at what he was holding and realized he had a half a frozen groundhog in his mouth. I had no intention of getting into a tug of war with him over the front end of a rodent, but I knew he loved his tennis balls and would likely relinquish the frozen furball for a game of fetch. I took out a ball, held it up and said, “Look at what I have Bingy! Do you want this? Huh? Do you?” That got his attention and as soon as he dropped the groundhog I threw his ball as hard as I could. He zoomed off, I picked up the rodent, tossed it to my husband (who threw it into the woods) and we ran off to meet him before he came back and looked for his frigid friend. Knowing what he loved, helped me to easily resolve a situation that had the potential to be very unpleasant.

***Food is easy, precise and it will build your relationship with your dog. (And, if you think about it, don’t we build relationships that way as well? “Let’s go out for coffee?” “Lunch anyone?”). I do add other rewards, but to learn to reinforce correctly, food is the easiest tool. And, by heavily reinforcing the dog in the beginning I am front end loading the training so that the dog will be more engaged in the process and understand quickly what is desirable behavior.

 

 

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The Importance of Being Predictable

Positive reinforcement trainers often tell owners that the way in which they interact with their dogs is the key to successful training and, that being consistent with their training and predictable with rules for good behavior, will get the quickest, most reliable response from their dogs. After all, if everyone works with Fido in the same way, he will quickly learn what the rules are and what is expected of him.

Consistency, however, does not mean that you have to adhere to an inflexible routine. It has more to do with how you interact with your dog, than with imposing strict order. For instance, I feed the dogs twice daily, but I don’t want them to harass me about it. So, meals are served sometime between 6 and 10 AM, and 6 and 10 PM. This way they know they will be fed, but they don’t know precisely when, so they don’t bother me endlessly about it. In other words, the dogs have learned that just because they anticipate something happening doesn’t mean it has to happen at that moment. This consistent, yet flexible, routine helps reduce household stress by allowing for the ebb and flow of life.

Predictability is another important part of establishing consistency with your pup, but once again, this does not imply that you have to be rigid or inflexible in dealing with your miscreant. For example, if your dog tends to jump up on people I recommend the following approach:

a) First, when he jumps on you, turn your back on him and walk away thereby denying him what he seeks: your attention.

35_dog_adoringpublicb) Then, peek over your shoulder as you exit and when he has all four paws on the floor, reward well for the good behavior.

c) When guests come over, or when you are out on a walk and someone approaches, step on his leash so that he can stand or sit, but not jump.

d) Then, once again, when he has 4 on the floor, or is sitting nicely to greet the visitor, reward, reward, reward!

Holding something makes me happy.

Holding something makes me happy.

This approach works best when you consistently apply the rules, but it doesn’t mean that you have to do exactly the same thing every time he jumps. You might find that turning your back is enough to prevent jumping and only occasionally have to step on the leash when you are on a walk. Perhaps putting a leash on him at home when someone comes to the door is enough to prevent jumping, or maybe all your silly retriever needs to not jump is to hold his favorite toy. Being flexible with your response allows you to adapt to the situation at hand, while also being consistent and predictable. Your consistency/predictability in this situation lies in:

1) keeping your expectations the same (i.e.: 4 on the floor);

2) behaving in a predictable way (jumping is never acceptable and will be addressed) and;

3) providing him with what he needs to be successful in any given situation by rewarding desirable behavior and ignoring/preventing undesirable behavior.

Behaving in a consistent way with your dog will lower stress for you and your dog, help Fido to understand what is expected of him, and teach him that certain behaviors bring particular consequences (I jump, Mom ignores me. If I keep all 4 paws on the ground, Mom pays attention to me.). Allowing for some flexibility in your reaction to any given situation, provides you with a variety of ways to address the issue while maintaining order and predictability for your dog. 

Waiting patiently for breakfast to be served.

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You are your dog’s best (and only) advocate!

Apology card image hi resI have a huge soft spot in my heart for shy dogs or ones who have had a less than ideal start on life. Often times these dogs find even the simplest things in life to be overwhelming. Life is hard, often scary, and it might be asking way too much of a shy dog to greet a visitor to the house or to be petted by a stranger on a walk. Your job, therefore, is to be his advance man, running interference and protecting him from the maddening crowds.

The first rule of thumb for a shy dog* is: No one touches Fido unless Fido seeks it out or permits it, and this includes his owners as well! Dogs view the world in terms of safe and unsafe. We all feel safer when we feel as if we are in control of a situation. Allow your dog to decide who he does and does not meet, and you will help him to be more comfortable and secure in his world.

Brad and Friend

This fellow ran up to my husband at a cafe in France, asking to be petted.

This dog doesn't know me well, so leans away to create more space.

This dog doesn’t know me well, so leans away to create more space.

So, how do you tell when she wants physical contact with you or anyone else? If he leans away, looks away or otherwise moves away from you or others, he is saying you are too close at that moment, so give him some more space and allow him to make the move towards you if he so chooses. If he moves towards you, leans on you, gets up on the couch and snuggles, or puts his head on you, this is him making the choice to interact and should be rewarded (with praise, food, gentle petting, but not on the top of his head!).

2) When you are walking him and you meet someone who may want to pet your shy guy, I suggest you say: “It’s fine with me, but you’ll have to ask Fido.” This will generally make the person pause long enough so that you can tell her to put her hand down by her side. Then, Fido can make the decision whether or not to approach her. You can also add: “If he comes over to you, you can pet him.” If Fido doesn’t move towards her, say something like: “I guess he isn’t feeling very social today, perhaps another time.” Then, prevent the overly eager dog lover from moving towards him by stepping in-between her and Fido, or moving away.  This will help Fido to feel as safe and in control as possible.
HenryandGolden

This dog is comfortable with my grandson partly because he can move his head easily.

3) Pay close attention to the space around his head. Most dogs are very sensitive to the area around their face and head and if you crowd them they get stressed. Let him make the decision to bring his face or head close to you.

4) When strangers come to the house, be sure that they do not try to pet him, but instead, keep far enough away from him that he will take treats in their presence. We want to pair the presence of a stranger with the presence of wonderful treats so that we begin to change his emotional response to strangers from one of fear/discomfort to one of “hey, this is pretty cool! New person, great treats!” Another thing to keep in mind: It is critical that the treats are only available when strangers are visible. If the person leaves the area, so does the treat. If the person is far away, the treats are fewer and farther apart. As Fido’s nemesis gets closer, the treats start coming in great quantity and frequency. If the person should get really close, Fido should be getting fistfuls of treats (think in terms of trucks backing up and unloading sides of beef for him) until the person moves away. As the “threat” recedes, so do the treats.
 

5) Once again, distance is critical. Work below the threshold point where Fido loses it, (freezes, hides,

 Run away! Run away!

Run away! Run away!

growls, or bolts, for example) and will not take treats. If you get too close to a person while walking, then do your best to remove him from the “threat” (and reinforce him when you get to a distance he can take treats again). This is the time to keep escape routes in mind! Some ideas for adding distance: back up, turn around and go in the opposite direction, cross the street, move into a yard, go behind a bush or tree. 

Shy dogs rely on us to be their first line of defense in a scary world. Being your dog’s best advocate will help him to learn that life need not be so hard, it might just be okay. Possibly even good.

People are good things for me!

 
 
 *Blogs on shy dogs:

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