I was trolling for ideas for a blog and I came across this video, which I find absolutely delightful. It shows the ability of a variety of animals to show affection/love to people. There is an indelible connection between these creatures and their special people that is difficult to define in a clinical, dispassionate manner. These animals and people have clear emotional connections to one another and I would venture to guess that it makes both of them better individuals. I have long thought that, if you let it, having animals in your life makes you a better person. The joy that comes from being connected to, and caring for, another living creature is not a substitute for genuine human connection, but rather enhances and deepens your ability to care for all who share your life…including, apparently, fish, goats, lions, and turkeys.
Positive reinforcement training for animals usually entails a marker (think clicker) for the desired behavior followed by a reward (read food treat). I have written (and podcasted) a lot about positive reinforcement training in general and clicker training in particular, but it has been in the context of teaching a dog to sit, lie down, or recite the preamble to the Constitution. But, positive reinforcement works for people too, and you don’t have to have a clicker to get your boss to be nicer to you!
Ken Ramirez, the head trainer at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, has an interesting article on clickertraining.com, titled “Positive Reinforcement with People-It’s not Hierarchical!” in which he discusses how positive reinforcement is not just for those in charge, but how we can use it to make a difference in our relationships with those who are “up the ladder” from us. At an early age he began to see how he could improve a tough situation and developed a straight forward formula for dealing with difficult authority figures:
- Find the things your boss finds reinforcing; this may take time and observation. Reinforcers might be: coming in under budget, timeliness, impressing his or her boss, publications, awards, public recognition, discussing the local sports team, his or her kids, etc.
- Look for the things your boss finds aversive or punishing; again, this may take some time and observation. Examine all of your interactions and the interactions your boss has with other staff members. Punishers might include: someone interrupting his or her lunch, silly or irrelevant questions, rambling e-mails, his or her authority being questioned, unreliability, etc.
- Identify instances in which you can alleviate an aversive or deliver a reinforcer
- Identify instances in which you can alleviate an aversive or deliver a reinforcer throughout the day.
- Ask yourself, “What do I have the power or ability to do, and what am I less likely to be able to do, considering my position?”
- Make a plan, wait for the right opportunities, and execute the plan. Don’t force it; wait to let it happen naturally.
- Mean it. Set out to have a genuinely open attitude, and trust that things will fall into place. If you are not sincere, your efforts to reinforce will backfire.
He goes on to address the delicate situation wherein you might be the adversive! This is a good time to look closely at how you might be adding to the tension or difficulty. He gives the example of a woman who felt her boss was a bully and she had obvious contempt for him. He asked if she showed as much contempt for him when she talked to him as she did describing the situation, and goes on to suggest:
When a relationship is broken, both sides have the power to start over and demonstrate good will. Sadly, people’s egos get them stuck at an impasse because they can’t bring themselves to be nice to someone they dislike. It becomes a vicious cycle. If we want to see change, we have to take on the responsibility to make the first move.
The key here is to be honest about your role in the difficulties and have an open mind as to what you can do to improve the situation. Being willing to see the other person’s point of view and to have empathy for them is not always easy and requires patience as well as honesty. But, that willingness will allow you to find those moments where you can sincerely reinforce others, and as a result, feel more positive and empowered yourself.
New clients will often ask me if I offer agility classes, or other specialty training classes. I don’t offer them for a variety of reasons, including that I don’t have the staff or facility for it. But the primary reason is because the vast majority of dogs will never pursue canine activities such as agility or search and rescue work, but will spend their lives as family dogs. Moreover, if you can’t succeed at being the family dog, you will not be pursuing any extra curricular activities.
So what does it mean to be a family dog? I define it using this example:
I live in a small village in central Ohio. We have a local ice cream parlor called Whit’s and everyone in our village of ~2700 likes to walk to Whit’s on a summer evening to get ice cream and hang out on the wide sidewalk visiting with friends and neighbors. Kids play, bikes glide by, and dogs wait patiently for their puppy sundaes. Norman Rockwell would be proud!
In the midst of this idyllic scenario, owners are asking their dogs to walk to town (nicely, without pulling), and negotiate adults, kids, bikes, other dogs, fallen ice cream, trash cans, trees, tables and chairs on the sidewalk, aromas from the restaurants, outdoor seating for several restaurants, strollers, scooters, runners, etc., without misbehaving, and often without rewards for this amazing skill set.
The skills necessary for a family dog to succeed in public with his owners are amazing, but remarkably achievable, with positive reinforcement family dog training. In my classes and private lessons, I focus on a couple of objectives that are likely to give you the well mannered dog you desire. First and foremost, I focus on teaching your dog to check in with you. A dog who looks at you is more likely to follow instructions than a dog who is watching a squirrel, or focused on a child eating an ice cream cone. Think of it this way, if you have a teenager who is busy texting, how likely is she to hear what you are saying? I estimate you have a 2-3% chance of her hearing and responding correctly to your request while she is focused on the phone. If, however, she looks up from the phone, your chances for comprehension increase to 30-40%, if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, compliance hovers at a shaky 5 % at best.**
Therefore, I work with owners to develop several ways in which they can get their dogs to turn from distractions and check in. One thing I have written about is the class rule: If another dog barks, your dog gets a treat. This is an excellent way to teach your dog that checking in with you is a great idea. If the sound of another dog barking becomes a cue for your dog to look at you, then you will have a much better chance of preventing him from joining in the bark fest, and of keeping his attention when other distractions arise.
The other major objective is impulse control, which is, in essence, the heart of all training. Impulse control starts with sit. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of sit! This is why I use Dr. Sopia Yin’s Learn to Earn Program, wherein sit is equal to please. Anything your pup wants must be preceded by a sit. For example, in order for the dinner bowl to be put on the floor, your dog must be sitting. If he breaks the sit before the bowl is placed, then the bowl does get put down. It took my gluttonous Bernese Mountain dog about 3 attempts to put the bowl down for him to learn to hold his sit. Teaching your dog that sit is the key to all things wonderful, will also help him to learn that sit should be his default behavior. Then, when he is unsure of what is expected of him, he will likely sit and wait for further instructions.
Family dogs are not just the bread and butter of my business, they are the canines I love best. To see a family dog walking happily alongside his people, waiting patiently for his puppy sundae, or leaning contentedly against the leg of the person he adores, is pure joy for me, and the reason I have geared my training, blogging, and podcasting to helping families love living with dogs.
*See also: Love the dog you’re with
**I have no idea if these numbers concerning texting teenagers are accurate. They are my estimations and are used simply to illustrate the point that attention is essential to effective communication between individuals, whether you are the same or different species. I will leave it to the reader to define species in this context…
As regular readers will attest, I love clicker training and have written about it on numerous occasions. Recently the Whole Dog Journal had a wonderful article by Pat Miller, called Clicker Training 101. She mentions that the origin of clicker training in dog training was due to the publication of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. With the introduction of positive reinforcement training to the dog world,
“clicker training” became a popular slang term for positive reinforcement training that uses a “reward marker” of some sort, and the clicker became the method’s emblem.
As much as I love clickers, I do recognize that clickers are not necessary for positive reinforcement training. What is necessary is clearly marking the desired behavior and following it with a reward.*
The secret to the clicker (or any other marker) is this: When beginning training, the marker is paired with a high-value reinforcer (most frequently a food treat) until the dog has made a classically conditioned association between the sound and the treat.
The marker is important not only because it clearly tells the dog the exact behavior that you are rewarding, but it serves as a bridge between the behavior and the reward. It’s not a remote control that elicits a behavior, it is a communicator that tells the dog, “You done good kiddo, and I will reward you for that!”
I have found that not only do clickers turbo charge your training by helping you clearly and quickly mark desired behavior, they also make training more fun for you and your dog.** A few years back we had three dogs, Hudson the Golden Retriever, Bingley the Flat-coated Retriever, and Buckley the Bernese Mountain dog, all of whom had experience with clicker training to one degree or another. Whenever I would reach for the clicker hanging by the back door, all three would get up and start throwing behaviors at me to see what would produce the magic sound and treats, knowing we were about to have some real fun. Buckley would instantly sit, and follow me around sitting whenever I paused. Hudson would play bow, spin, pet Bingley, and Bingley would spin, sit, grab a toy. Indeed, Bingley loved clicker training so much, that if he found one, he would put it between his front teeth, run to my office, stick his head in, and click the clicker at me. Thereby training me to play a great game of chase.
What delighted me the most about clicker training these dogs was their full commitment to it and the fact that it encouraged them to be curious, inventive individuals. Since there was no punishment for mistakes, only rewards for success, they would try all sorts of things. As a result, this is how Hudson learned to “pet the puppy.” My daughter Emma reached for a clicker when Hudson and Bingley were sitting next to one another. Hudson took his front paw and put it on Bingley’s neck. Emma clicked and treated, gave both a treat, and “pet the puppy” was born. Here is a video (no sound) of the part of the process where Hudson is learning the cue to pet Bingley. Though you can’t hear it, Emma tells Hudson to “pet the puppy.” She waits for his response, then marks it, and delivers a treat. Notice the rapt attention of the dogs on Emma, including our Spaniel mix Rebel, who isn’t part of the training, yet knows a good thing when he sees it! And, just an FYI, no puppies were harmed in the making of this video.
At the end of the training, Hudson was so skilled at gently placing his paw on Bingley’s back, that we started using this behavior in classrooms when we did bite prevention workshops. Hudson would sit next to a child and when we asked him, “Who’s your buddy?” he would put his leg over the shoulders of the child. It was enchanting, and never failed to delight the child.
So, if you are interested in trying something new, rewarding, and fun with your dog, get yourself a clicker, a bag of yummy treats and see what happens! You might be surprised at how quickly you both become hooked on training.
*Clickers are just one way to communicate with your dog. As mentioned, a verbal marker such as “Yes!” or “Good Dog!” in a happy, crisp tone will also work. If you have a deaf dog, try a flash of a pen light (which, by the way, is a great way to “clicker” train your goldfish to do play football!
**Clicker training can also be very effective when working with dogs with behavior issues. I use it with dogs who have very short attention spans, mouthy puppies, timid individuals, and even dogs with aggression issues. In fact, the only truly humane and effective way to help dogs with behavior issues is with positive reinforcement and the guidance of a good trainer or behaviorist skilled in behavior as well as reward based training.
For more information on the deleterious effects of punishment see:
And to find a behaviorist in your area to help with behaviors issues:
ASVAB: Find a Behavior Consultant
To find a trainer in your area:
Association of Professional Dog Trainers: Trainer Search (Your best bet on getting a positive reinforcement trainer is to limit your search to certified trainers)
Professional Pet Guild: Trainer Search
As a trainer, I get a fair number of calls from people who want to turn their pets into “therapy or service dogs,” or they want me to train their dog to be “certified as an emotional support dog.” While these are admirable goals, they are at times unrealistic and the problem starts with not understanding the terms and how they are recognized in the law. So let’s start with definitions:
1. Service dogs. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network Publication Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals:
A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button.
Examples of animals that fit the ADA’s definition of “service animal” because they have been specifically trained to perform a task for the person with a disability are: Guide Dogs for the blind, Hearing or Signal Dogs for deaf individuals, Psychiatric Service Dogs*, and SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog) dogs who are trained to assist a person with autism, and Seizure Response Dogs. These dogs are carefully selected and recieve years of training before they are paired with a particular individual.
The ADA guarantees people with disabilities who use service dogs equal access to public places such as restaurants, hospitals, hotels, theaters, shops, and government buildings. This means that these places must allow service dogs, and the ADA requires them to modify their practices to accommodate the dogs, if necessary. (www.nolo.com)
2. Therapy dogs.** Whereas Service dogs provide a particular service to a particular individual, therapy animals “provide people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.” (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals). These are dogs that visit at nursing homes, hospitals, libraries, etc. Since they are not limited to working specifically with persons with disabilities, they are not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals, and therefore:
are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals either. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals)
3. Emotional Support Animals. Also known as Comfort Animals, Emotional Support Animals may be part of a medical plan to help a person manage depression, anxiety, phobias, loneliness, or to provide companionship. The owner must have a verifiable disability and a letter from a qualified medical professional stating the need for an ESA. To qualify as an ESA, dogs do not need specific working skills, and, like therapy dogs, they are not considered Service Dogs under the ADA:
It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal. (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals)
The most frequent questions I get about Emotional Support Dogs concern housing and travel. According to the Michigan State University Animal Legal & Historical Center landlords need to make “reasonable accommodations” for Emotional Support Animals if the following conditions are met (emphasis mine):
An emotional support animal is a type of assistance animal that is recognized as a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHAct, 42 U.S.C.A. 3601 et seq.). The assistance animal is not a pet according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD is the agency that oversees the FHAct and investigates claims of housing discrimination.
There are only two questions that HUD says a housing provider should consider with a request for an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation:
(1) Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability — i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
(2) Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal…provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?
(FHEO Notice: FHEO-2013-01 at page 2). A “no” answer to either of the questions means that a housing provider is not obligated to make a reasonable accommodation according to HUD… If the answer is “yes” to both, then HUD states the FHA requires an exception to a “no pets” rule. The emotional support animal must alleviate, or help, some symptom(s) of the disability.
The second question: “Where can I take my Emotional Support Animal?” is a bit trickier. Are they allowed admittance to stores, restaurants, airlines, etc? Since these dogs are not recognized by the ADA as service dogs, they may not be allowed to accompany their owner in public places. Since public access laws can vary according to state it is best to check with your local government about the pertinent regulations.
For airline travel the ADA’s rules for accommodating service dogs does not apply on airlines. But, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) “prohibits airlines from discriminating against travelers with physical or mental impairments.” However, with Emotional Support animals, airlines may require “a recent, signed certification from a licensed mental health professional that the passenger:
- 1) has a recognized mental or emotional disability
- 2) needs the animal’s help in order to travel, and
- 3) is a patient under the professional’s care.” (www.nolo.com
given the relatively lax standards for emotional support animals, travelers are increasingly using this designation to skirt the cost and restrictions on flying with pets. This has led to more conflicts on flights, from attacks on other passengers or trained service animals to excessive barking. When Delta Air Lines announced in 2018 that it was tightening requirements for emotional support and psychiatric service animals onboard, the company said that “incidents” with these animals (like biting or defecating on the planes) had nearly doubled in the previous two years. (www.nolo.com)
Dogs are wonderful companions and their ability to provide services, support, and comfort seems limitless. The access that Service Dogs must have to public buildings and services is essential to providing an independent life for people with disabilities. Therapy Dogs brighten the lives of many, and Emotional Support Dogs help to ease anxiety or depression. Knowing how your dog fits into the scheme of service, therapy, or emotional support dogs, and what that means as far as public access goes, will help to keep all of these dogs doing what they need to do.
* A “Psychiatric Service Dog is a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.” Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals
**Your Family Dog podcast did an interview with therapy dog handler Mary Graham. If you are interested in therapy dog work, check it out: Therapy Dogs’ Work Brings Joy
2018 is the Chinese Year of the Dog. According to history.com,* Chinese New Year (also called the Spring Festival) is the most important holiday in China, and “[o]racle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that the calendar existed as early as 14th century B.C.” Unlike the western or Gregorian calendar with a fixed New Year’s Day, the Chinese calendar’s start date fluctuates, and is dependent on lunar phases as well as solar solstices and equinoxes. Typically, the New Year celebration starts “with the new moon that occurs between the end of January and the end of February, and it lasts about 15 days, until the full moon arrives with the Festival of Lanterns.”
Traditionally, families would thoroughly clean their houses in preparation for the festival, and “[r]itual sacrifices of food and paper icons were offered to gods and ancestors. People posted scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates and set off firecrackers to frighten evil spirits. Elders gave out money to children.” Feasting was very important and in the first five days of the festival people ate long noodles to symbolize long life. (history.com).
The Chinese calendar also includes the Chinese Zodiac, “the cycle of twelve stations or “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos.” (history.com) The twelve animals representing these stations are: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Each year is marked by characteristics of its animal and each sign repeats every 12 years.
But, according to Chinese element theory, each zodiac sign is also “associated with one of the five elements: Gold (Metal), Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. For example, a Wood Dog comes once in a 60-year cycle. It is theorized that a person’s characteristics are decided by their birth year’s zodiac animal sign and element.” (china highlights.com).
1958 and 2018** are Earth Dog years, and people born in these years are likely to be, “communicative, serious, and responsible in work.” They are not, however, likely to be lucky this year, because “[a]ccording to Chinese astrology, people in the year of their birth sign…will offend Tai Sui, the God of Age in Chinese mythology. They are believed to have bad luck in this year.” (chinahighlights.com).
Reading through the predictions for Fortune, Career, Love, and Health, the best way for dogs to get rid of bad luck (or to bring good luck) is to take walks in parks or lakeside areas. So, a great New Year’s resolution would be to increase your fitness (both physically and luck-wise) by power walking near ponds and gardens.
Since every year is a Year of the Dog for canine owners, why not take your dog with you? Walking near water and wilderness will increase not only your health and happiness, but that of your dog. Dr. Zazi Todd, in our podcast, Making Happy Dogs Happier states that one of the easiest ways to make your dog happy to take him on a “sniff-fari.”
If making your dog happier isn’t enough of an incentive to get out and about consider this quote from my blog, What’s good for the goose… :
The Journal of Physical Activity & Health found that dog owners are more likely to reach their fitness goals than those without canine companions. Researchers at Michigan State University found that…owning a dog promotes health and fitness even after you take your pup for a stroll, increasing leisure-time physical activity by 69 percent.
Being close with a dog helps improve human relationships. Studies find that owning and walking a dog increases social interaction. Dogs help ease people out of social isolation or shyness, says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta…Children who experience caring for a dog have higher levels of empathy and self-esteem than children without pet dogs, shows child psychologist Robert Bierer.
So, even if you weren’t born in a year of the dog, increase your health and happiness by enjoying a stroll with your pup. If that isn’t good luck, then I don’t know what is!
*Click here for a quick video on History.com about the Chinese New Year.
** Other dog years include: 1934, 1946, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006.
A friend suggested that I write some tweets from a dog’s perspective. I thought that was an intriguing idea and found myself wondering what my dog would say to me in 120 characters or less.
The first one that came to mind was “In my defense, I was left unsupervised” which I originally saw on a T-shirt. I could see my dog sending this as an after thought to such puppy inpulses as: shredding my current book, chewing the thumbs off my favorite gloves, or ingesting an entire loaf of bread I irresponsibly left on the counter. Careful and consistent management (of dog and environment) is an important part of training and may help to prevent humans tweeting: “In his defense, he was left unsupervised.”
On a post on Care.com titled 26 Hilarious Hypothetical Dog Tweets I found this one: “Just got back from taking my person for a drag around the neighborhood. Remember: keep your human on a leash. It’s the law.” Dogs are not naturally inclined to walk sweetly at their humans’ sides, so teaching leash manners can be challenging to say the least, and may lead to the unfortunate use of prong or choke collars. I have many posts on loose leash walking, but if you are having difficulties getting Rover to resist the lure of squirrels and the base of every tree, contact a positive reinforcement trainer to help.* It just might help to prevent you tweeting: “Just got back from being dragged around the neighborhood. Keeping him on a leash may be the law, but I’m headed to the doctor. #shouldersurgeryhereIcome”
“Dogs, just warning you, do not read “Old Yeller.” #prayforoldyeller.” (Care.com) I clearly remember reading Old Yeller in 4th grade and exactly where I was sitting when I read the end of the book. I was heartbroken, but also amazed at the power of good literature to move you to the core of your being. I think that was the moment I became a bibliophile. For a guide to some great books on dogs, where at least some dogs do not die, listen to our podcast: Literary Dogs. If there is a child in your life who loves to read and would like to read a story to your dog, check out Three Stories You Can Read to Your Dog.
“Where are you? When will you be home? You coming home soon? #10minutesisforever.” Dogs are social creatures and do not revel in your absence. I don’t believe that Zuzu is hoping I will go away for several hours so that she can work on the great American canine novel. If you do need to leave your dog alone for several hours, be sure they are not going to get into mischief (#carpetsarenotjustforpee) while you are out. Making sure your dog has had some exercise, some mental stimulation, and something appropriate to do while you are gone** will help to make sure his next tweet isn’t, “Who doesn’t like Italian leather chew toys? #gottachewshoes.”
And of course who wouldn’t want their dog to tweet, “(insert your name) is the bestest friend ever. #lovemyhuman”
“Love you too buddy. #bestdogever”
*The Association of Professional Dog TrainersIf you need a trainer in your area, you can do a search by zip code at . Requiring that the trainer be certified helps (but does not guarantee) to locate a positive reinforcement trainer. If you are uncertain about how to choose a trainer, see: How to Choose a Dog Trainer (blog) and Choosing a Dog Trainer (podcast).
Blog Posts by Category
- Training or “Why, Why, WHY?”
- Behavior or “What the heck?”
- Informational or Doggie Demographics
- Care and management or living together in harmony
- Philosophy of training or “Why be positive?”
- Toy Box or stuff that doesn’t fit neatly elsewhere
- Some new favorites, canine-wise. December 11, 2018
- Not every person wants to meet your dog! November 28, 2018
- Take your medicine…all of it! November 14, 2018
- Is all stress bad? October 31, 2018
- Supervising your child and dog requires more than being in the same room! October 17, 2018