Training or “Why, Why, WHY?”
When 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When clients are beginning loose lead walking (LLW), I have guidelines that help to set them and their dogs up for success. It occurred to me that winter, especially one with as variable weather as we have had, offers many opportunities to put these guidelines into practice and get ready for long spring walks.
- Baby, it’s cold outside! When it’s 14 degrees take short walks. I tell clients who are working on leash manners that it is better, if you can, to take three fifteen minute walks rather than 1 forty-five minute walk each day. That way you have a short time to do a concentrated effort and will be much more likely to avoid burn out (not to mention frostbite) from trying to do something difficult for an extended period of time.
- Baby, it’s really cold outside! As the temperature plummets, bundle up and walk fast on your jaunt around the block. It is easier for your dog not to pull if you walk faster! A dog’s natural gate is a trot, equivalent to a fast walk in humans. It is more comfortable for them than walking or running and is easier for them to settle in to. If you speed up, your dog won’t feel the need to surge ahead of you because you’re right there with him.
- Baby, it’s sorta cold outside! If the temperature allows for a bit of a longer venture, incorporate other behaviors into your walk. If Fido is surging ahead and you are getting frustrated with his behavior, stop! Re-collect. Breathe. Get situated and ask your dog to do a short series of behaviors, such as sit and stay, or sit-down-sit, or down and stay, so that both of you have a break from the stress and distraction of loose lead walking. Combined with #1, you may not cover a lot of distance physically, but behaviorally you may make a big impact as neither one of you gets overwhelmed by the task at hand.
- Baby, it’s almost balmy outside! Be aware of distractions that make it difficult for your dog to concentrate on the task at hand. On warmer winter days when you want to be out for a longer stretch, have a strategy for handling those things that make your dog’s behavior falter. For example, in one of my LLW classes an energetic golden retriever would get excited every time a string of cars went by. The owner, Karen, managed this distraction by having Ginger lie down or sit while a string of cars passed, then getting up and walking while there were no cars. Ginger simply had too much to think about when the cars were passing her. She did a fabulous job, however, when we “took out” the distraction of the cars and let her focus on one thing while LLW.
Baby, it’s nearly spring outside! Even the most experienced dogs will have moments of lunacy on walks, especially on those lovely days when everyone is out and taking advantage of the El Nino weather. Accept that your dog is not a robot and will have times when it seems as if his brain has fallen out. Take some tasty treats along for those moments when you really need to get him to refocus and pay attention to you and not the cute poodle at the next tree. If one small bit of liver is not sufficient to turn his attention back to you, try a fistful! Show him what you have and lead him away from temptation (keep your hand with the treats right at his nose), giving him a piece or two when you get sufficient distance from the object of his desire. Then, do a couple of sits, downs, stays, and move along, enjoying the reprieve from arctic blasts. If treats are not in your vocabulary, consider bringing a toy along that grabs your dog’s attention and that he likes to hold. This can be very Zen for some dogs and helps them to relax into walking nicely by your side.
Superstitious behaviors can happen in relationship to you and your dog and the cues you give him for particular behaviors. Dogs may think that a behavior is only “legit” if mom does “that one thing.” This can handicap your training because your dog may learn “oh man, ‘sit’ is only legitimate if I’m right in front of mom and she has her hands next to her stomach. Any other time she says that word, it’s not a real situation to sit.” To avoid this phenomenon, I encourage owners to practice their cues in different places, positions, times, and scenarios. That way your dog won’t begin to look for the “is this a legit request?” sign, and will merely attach the word to the desired behavior. Therefore, when working on sit, down, come, name-your-favorite-behavior-here, do it in a variety of ways, and in a variety of places. For example, to see if your dog really knows sit*, see if you can complete this challenge:
Why is it important that your dog understand that a command means a particular behavior no matter the circumstances? In the case of Bingley’s peanut butter superstition, nothing bad is going to happen to him if he continues to ritually lick his leg until breakfast is served. But it doesn’t take much to imagine a scenario where it would be critical for your dog to respond, immediately, to your command to sit, down, stop, or back up.** What if your dog is chasing a squirrel and is headed towards the street? Or, you are on one side of the street and your dog, on the other side, desperately wants to get to you? Or you are at the dog park and realize one of the fences is down and Fido sees a deer just ahead? This is not the time for your dog to think that your cue is not legitimate because you are not doing that one thing that makes it a real command.
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.
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!
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.
This is the lament I often hear from new clients whose dog “refuses” to sit or lie down in class. I do not think they are lying to me. I’m sure that their dog’s behavior is close to perfection at home. But, we are not at home in their kitchen, we are in a new building, with new scents, sights, sounds, flooring, dogs, treats, etc. It’s novel, it’s different, it might just be wonderful, but it is, without a doubt, stressful. And, behavior deteriorates under stress.
For example, imagine that you love singing and have practiced your favorite song throughout the day as you move through your routine. You might have hummed it in the grocery store, sang it loud during your morning commute, or cooed it while you made dinner. As many times as you have “rehearsed” it, you have not sung it out loud, in a new place in front of several people you do not know.
Now, imagine you walk into the gym for step class and your teacher asks you to sing in front of everyone, right now! She might even give you a free class if you sing immediately. Can you do it? If you can, is it as smooth and flawless as it is in your car? Probably not. You may be able to sing it, but I would bet you feel a certain amount of pressure or stress. So does your dog when you demand he Sit! Down! Come! in class, or anywhere that is foreign to him or he is uncomfortable, uncertain, or even excited.
Does this mean that you can never ask (and therefore expect) your dog to sit/down/stay etc., anywhere but in front of you by the refrigerator? No, it does not. But it does mean that you need to:
Recognize when it might be stressful or difficult for Rex to perform. New places, new dogs, new people, a walk, a new or crowded sidewalk, a fire truck, rain, high winds, spilled ice cream, all kinds of things can be exciting, distracting, or stressful for your dog. If you ask him to sit and he doesn’t, it might not be “stubbornness.” It could be that he really, truly can’t do it because it is just too hard right now. You can get him to be more responsive under a wider variety of circumstances by doing the following:
Practice desired behaviors in a variety of places, with various distractions so that, for instance, Rex learns that “Sit!” means he puts his bottom on the ground. I encourage my students to practice new behaviors (such as sit or down) in places with few distractions (such as the kitchen) and then practice in all the rooms in the house where your dog is allowed. When Rex is reliably sitting in low distraction areas, add some challenges. Go outside to the least distracting place near your house (e.g. the driveway, back patio, front porch) and practice sitting there. Don’t expect Rex to plunk down his bottom as quickly as he does inside. Ask him to sit and then wait (count to 5) and let him process the request. Do not repeat the command! Give him a chance to figure out what is expected of him. When he does sit, say “Good dog!” and give him a treat. Repeat this 5-10 times (moving a bit if needed to get his bottom back off the ground).
Lower your expectations of Rex in new environments. If he doesn’t sit the first time you ask him to do so in a new environment, even after a count of 5, then make it easier for him. Put a treat right at his nose and slowly move your hand over his head to lure him into a sit. When his bottom hits the ground, give him the treat. Do this 1-3 more times, then try asking him to sit without putting the treat at his nose. Have him sit 5-10 more times in this spot before moving to a more distracting place such as the yard or sidewalk. Ask him to sit in this new spot, and once again, wait for him to respond. Do not expect him to sit as quickly as he just did on the driveway. This is a new spot and that makes it harder to perform on cue. Be patient and reward him when he does respond correctly. Once again, if he cannot comply with your request, then make it easier for him to respond, so that he builds confidence in difficult situations.
Understanding that behavior deteriorates under stress, lowering your expectations in a new or distracting situation, and being patient as he tries to comply, will help your dog succeed, boost his confidence and, perform this behavior in the future. It’s also what friends do for each other.
People often ask me, “How old does your dog have to be to start training?” Sometimes it is phrased as, “How soon can I start training my dog?” The answer, no matter how it is parsed, is: Every time you interact with your dog someone is getting trained, it might as well be the dog! Since learning is something that goes on all the time, use that knowledge to build your relationship with your dog and teach him to pay attention to what you want him to do.
In our house, training begins the day we bring home the new dog. We work on house-training, sit, down, come, etc. Rewarding for the desired canine response increases the chance that particular behavior will be repeated. Moreover, asking him to do something for me in order to get what he wants teaches the new pup self control and to focus on me for instruction.
For example, house training, is most effective when you reward the dog well for being successful. I take the pup outside on a leash to the part of the yard where I want him to do his duty and wait for him to perform the requisite function. Then, he gets a tasty treat and a chance to explore the yard off lead. Nothing fun happens until he goes potty, then all the fun starts. Thus, I have used the things he loves (treats, playing, sniffing) to reward what I want (appropriate elimination).
I will also use Sit! as a way for him to say please. The theory here is that your dog, like your children, grandchildren, spouse, or any other member of society, needs to be polite to get what he wants. Therefore, have him sit as a way of asking politely for whatever he desires. My dogs must sit before dinner is served, the door is opened to the back yard, or treats are dispensed. In this way, we gain a bit of self-control. As Nancy Kerns, the editor of The Whole Dog Journal, recently wrote:
My training goal for my dogs and my foster dogs is to teach them to control themselves. There is a lot that goes into it, but it starts with teaching them basic behaviors (such as come, sit, and off), and rewarding them for doing these behaviors in the face of greater and greater distractions. It also helps immensely to use a bevy of dog-management tools – around the house, baby gates and tethers are my favorites – to help them from being rewarded for the wrong behaviors while teaching them the new ones. (Emphasis mine.)
So, for example, for the dogs who rush the door and try to run out or jump on someone who is entering the house, I have a baby gate set up in the hall doorway, about 12 feet from the front door. I can rely on the gate to keep a dog from either practicing the rude behavior or forcing me to grab him and pull him back. The gate also sets him up for success; he clearly can’t reach the door, so he has, in essence, “stayed back” and I can reward him for this as a tiny first step toward a self-controlled greeting. I can ask him for a sit on the far side of the gate, and if he complies, several rewards. If he can hold the sit while a person enters and is greeting with some enthusiasm, jackpot! Eventually, he should have the idea and the gate can be taken down intermittently and ultimately for good.
If you are having a hard time getting Fido to sit for everything, start with asking for a quick sit before you open the door to let him into the back yard, or ask for a sit before you put on his leash.* Reward him the instant his bottom hits the ground and you will see sit happen a lot more often!
Classes and private lessons are also available for additional help with self-control. Give me a call 740-587-0429 and let’s get started!
*For more training tips see: Training or “Why,Why, WHY?”
1) I want my dog to stop jumping.
2) I want my dog to stop pulling on walks, and
3) I want my dog to come to me.