BAD DOG?!!

Originally posted in April 2013

One of the biggest motivators for students to come in for training is a dog who is doing things we don’t like.  There are some basic ways that we can help dogs to learn not to do what we don’t want them to do, and most trainers are really good at these.  Once you understand what a trainer is driving at and why they have chosen the method they have, everything becomes much easier to follow along with.

The first thing I do when a client has a dog whose behaviour is a problem is define what the problem behaviour is.  The solution is going to depend upon what the problem is.  There is no single solution to every single problem, and the solutions I choose will depend upon the problems and the situations they occur within that are presented.

Controlling or managing the environment is often a great solution, and is usually the first thing I do in every case.  If you can control what is happening to cause the problem, then you can avoid the problem at least for a period of time.  If the problem is that the dog barks at the window, then the very first thing I am going to do is to get control over that window.  If the dog is confined to the room with the window and is barking six hours out of every eight, then why would I expect the dog to not bark at the window when I am trying to take a quiet moment?  The very first thing to do when looking at a behaviour we don’t want is to avoid the situation where the behaviour occurs.

In some cases this is a forever solution.  If a client has a dog who jumps into the front seat of the car while she is driving, then my solution is going to be traveling in a crate.  Traveling in a crate is safer for the dog in any event, but beyond that fact is that the dog is safer in a crate when traveling, so that is a permanent solution.

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Our puppy traveled to us in an airline crate and has traveled in a crate in vehicles for his whole life.

Some problems cannot be permanently solved by changing the environment for the dog.  Take jumping on people to greet.  Your dog can be kept separate from people for a period of time, but that is not a forever solution.  In this case I am going to choose to reinforce not jumping.  There is a great game you can play with jumping dogs where you have three people who come in and out of a room.  As they enter the room, as the dog approached but before he jumps, you drop a treat and then leave again.  The next person comes in and does the same thing.  You keep doing this until the dog gets the idea that the reward is going to come from below.  At that point you can switch the game up a bit and ask the dog to sit before you drop the treat.  Once the dog understands that everyone coming through the door is going to do the same thing, you can start working with a wider group of people and finally with strangers at the door.

Reinforcing for alternate behaviours (the learning theorists call this a DRA or DRO which stands for a differential reinforcement of alternate or other behaviour) is helpful if the dog is thinking about what he is doing, but not helpful if the dog is behaving badly because of fear.  Consider a dog who barks when approached by a stranger and tries to hide behind the owner.  This dog is afraid and he is not barking because he wants to greet, but because he is concerned about the stranger.  This is the kind of dog whose behaviour can be successfully changed by pairing one thing with another.  To do this, you get a stranger to appear and you give really good treats to the dog.  Then the stranger disappears and you stop treating.  The stranger reappear and you treat again.  The stranger disappears and you stop again.  You keep repeating this until the dog anticipates the treats when the stranger appears.  From there it is a matter of teaching the dog that the stranger can come closer and closer and treats will keep coming, but don’t let the stranger get so close that the dog is overwhelmed.

Good Dog Class Geoffrey and Laurie 2013-03-27
In our group classical conditioning class, the focus is on pairing the approach of a stranger with food to make a pleasant association while keeping all the dogs in the room below threshold.

This sort of pairing is called Classical Conditioning.  Classical conditioning is an effect originally noticed by Dr. Ivan Pavlov who was studying salivation in dogs.  He would ring a bell and someone would bring in a bowl of meat.  Dr. Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to salivate when the bell rang, before the meat appeared.  They formed an association between the bell and the meat.  Once you understand the effect, you can use classical conditioning in a huge variety of creative ways to teach your dog what is safe and what is dangerous.

Some behaviours are really persistent.  The dog isn’t frightened or concerned, and the dog might not be learning to do a different behaviour instead of the undesired behaviour, and you cannot avoid the problem.  In these cases, we sometimes have to pull out punishment.  Punishment is anything we do to decrease a behaviour.  Previously all the solutions were aimed at either avoiding the situation where the unwanted behaviour happened, changing the unwanted behaviour for a wanted behaviour, or changing the motivation for the unwanted behaviour.  Sometimes none of these alternatives are helpful.  In these cases we may need to consider using a punishment to change the unwanted behaviour.

Punishments come in two flavours.  It is important to understand both of these because one of them can cause more problems than the other.  The first kind of punishment is negative punishment.  That is the kind of punishment where you lose access to something that you want due to your behaviour.  When you use negative punishment the dog may lose the chance to play, or may lose the toy he was involved with or may lose access to the person or other dog he was interacting with.  For the jumping dog, you can sometimes change the situation completely by going into the bathroom every time the dog jumps on you.  You withdraw your presence every time the dog jumps up and pretty soon, if the dog cares about being with you, the jumping stops.  In most cases of negative punishment, the dog is not greatly upset or distressed.

The other form of punishment is positive punishment.  This is when you DO something unpleasant to the dog when he does something you don’t like.  Positive punishment is the one place where we see the most problems in training and the greatest misuse.  You really cannot go wrong with management of the environment, DRO or classical conditioning.  Negative punishment is difficult to create trauma with, but with positive punishment there are huge risks.  If you are too tough, you can create fear.  If you are not tough enough, you can create tolerance of bad things.  If you give it at the wrong time, you can decrease behaviours you like and want.  If you don’t give it every time that the unwanted behaviour happens, you can teach your dog to gamble that he might get to do the unwanted behaviour this time.  If the positive punisher occurs in the absence of the bad behaviour, the dog won’t learn what not to do, but rather will learn not to try new behaviours that might be better.  There is also the risk that some classical conditioning will happen in reverse to what you thought might happen; so your dog might think that the positive punisher might be related to something that is actually safe.

Taking the example of the dog who jumps up; you could use a can of compressed air to stop him from jumping up.  There are big risks with this though, and they aren’t really very obvious.  Let’s say that the dog jumps up on guests at the front door.  You come to the door prepared and the dog predictably jumps up.  You spray him with compressed air and he gets off you right away.  Your dog looks around and notices the spray can in your hand, and figures out that the spray can is the source of the air (this is an example of a classical association).  The dog learns an interesting rule.  “Don’t jump up if the person is holding a can of air.”  This means that the dog may learn to check if the guest has a can of air before he decides to jump up.  The dog hasn’t learned to do anything different, he has just learned that if the guest doesn’t have a can of compressed air, the guest is fair game.

Then there is the situation where the can of air is not at hand, but the owner wants to punish the dog for jumping up, so after the dog has jumped up, she goes to get the can and spray the dog.  In this situation, the dog, not knowing what the owner is up to, follows the owner to where the spray can is kept and then gets punished for following the owner.  If the owner is the person who applies the air, the risk is that the dog learns that the owner isn’t safe.  This kind of damage happens all the time, and again this is classical conditioning at work; the dog has learned to associate the owner with danger.  Not the desired outcome by a long shot!  The dog may also learn that the rule about jumping up is to only jump up in the absence of the owner.  Again, we have an outcome that looks good, but isn’t quite what we had hoped for.

Finally a bad situation can occur when the dog experiences the same or a similar bad thing when he is behaving the way we want him to behave.  Consider the dog who is lying quietly on the grass by the driveway and someone comes out of the garage with an air compressor to fill the tired.  The whooshing noise that the compressor makes sounds like the compressed air can and we have caused the dog to stop lying on the grass and minding his own business.  We have taken the single event and spread it around to the environment and taught the dog a lot of things we wish he had not learned.

Positive punishment can be a safe and effective tool, but it is tricky.  In order to use it safely, we need to follow some rules.  It must be tough enough to solve the problem quickly and efficiently.  If the positive punisher is not tough enough, you just create a situation where the dog learns to ignore the unpleasant consequence.  If the dog described above didn’t care about the air can, the jumping wouldn’t stop and he would just learn to tolerate the air can.  On the other hand, if it is too tough, that can cause both physical and emotional harm.  If you used a spray can of mace for instance, you might damage your dog’s eyes and it is quite likely he would be very frightened of spray cans, compressed air and possibly you.  There is a huge responsibility on the part of the trainer to chose the right degree of unpleasant consequence to get a good effect quickly and efficiently, but not so much that you harm or frighten the learner.

You also have a responsibility to use a punisher that is unique.  Compressed air canisters are being sold now as behaviour solutions in pet stores, but people forget that we use compressed air in a number of ways.  We use compressed air to clean our computers, we use it to fill our car tires and if you have someone in your home who uses medical oxygen, the hose might detach and hiss the way a can of air does.  Compressed air canisters are very handy for breaking up dog fights, but should not be used to teach dogs to stop doing specific behaviours.

The punishment must happen every time the behaviour happens and never happen if the behaviour is absent.  This means you cannot allow the undesired behaviour to happen unless you have the punisher at the ready and available.  You also cannot allow the punishment to happen when the behaviour hasn’t happened.  If the punishment is happening when it shouldn’t or isn’t happening when it should, the dog learns to gamble on the punishment, and every time he does the unwanted behaviour and doesn’t get punished, the absence of the punishment is in fact a reinforcer, and makes the undesired behaviour stronger.  This gambling is the route to building the strongest behaviours, which makes the mis-use of punishment potentially the best way to strengthen behaviours.

When used carefully and properly positive punishment is a fast and effective and humane way to stop unwanted behaviours.  When used improperly there are huge risks.  Why aren’t there such risks with managing the environment, DRO or classical conditioning?  Let’s look at that.  When you manage the environment you are avoiding the problem.  This means that you don’t see the problem behaviour, which just isn’t a problem!  When you use differential reinforcement of an other behaviour, then if the dog offers the unwanted behaviour, he doesn’t get anything he wants, but he does get what he wants when he does the other behaviour.  There is no risk to your relationship with the dog, to physical or emotional harm, or that he will gamble that the unwanted behaviour might be safe at a given time.  The only risk you have is that the dog may learn when rewards are available and when they are not and may try the unwanted behaviour when rewards are not available.  We can work around that by using a marker such as a click or yes, to tell the dog when he is making the choice we want him to make and then using that marker to bridge the time between the behaviour and going to get the treat.  Finally with classical conditioning, there is no risk that the dog will get injured or frightened at all; we are just treating him in the presence of a particular stimulus.  The worst thing that will happen is that he will learn that a particular stimulus will produce food.

With so many options available for training, it is important that we keep in mind the old medical adage of “first do no harm” and reach for the least harmful option first.  I would never want a doctor to not learn to do surgery, and I would not want a professional trainer who didn’t understand the use of positive punishment and how it works.  Never the less if your doctor only knows surgery, you may not get the best health care.  The same is true of trainers who only use punishment; they can cause more harm than good.  Before you reach for a positive punisher, think carefully.  Is there a better alternative?  There are times when there isn’t a better alternative, but often there is, and it is worth considering what your alternatives are and develop a training plan before you reach for something that may cause harm.

BAD DOG?!!

THE ANATOMY OF A REACTION

Originally posted in April 2013

People often talk about their dogs being reactive, but what does this mean?  What does it look like?  We throw around terms such as reactive, proactive, responsive and so on as though everyone should just “know” what that means, but often we don’t stop to think about what it really means to have a dog who is “reactive” and what we should do about it.

To begin with, let’s understand that every animal will and should startle at some things.  For some animals like my chessie, D’fer, a jet plane taking off is nothing to really bother with, and when he has been close by, this is nothing he is concerned about in the least.  He is the least reactive animal in my life at the moment.

Cute barking dog not aggressive on leash
This dog has noticed something that he is worried about. He is “reacting”, but we would only say he was reactive if his reaction was really out of line with the threat.

My horse Kayak on the other hand startles at many things.  Somethings she startles at are predictable.  She does not like motorcycles zipping by us; and when she startles, she will jump sideways and sidestep and sometimes buck a little bit.  Somethings she startles at are not at all predictable.  Rocks.  Large rocks startle Kayak.  The thing about rocks is that they don’t run around and jump out and say “boo”.  They are rocks.  But if she is walking calmly down a trail and she encounters a rock, she will often stop suddenly and stand still and if it is a particularly large rock she is prone to backing away from it.  The rock is on the horizon, and everything is going well until we reach about ten metres.  Ten metres from a large rock and she will sometimes startle.

Kayak doesn’t startle as much as some of the dogs I work with.  I was working with a dog today who over the course of an hour habituated to the room, the dogs barking in the next room, the toy dog on the floor and then he noticed my hat!  Yikes!  Hats probably eat dogs, or at least that is how he was behaving.  He didn’t just startle either, he shivered and he barked and he stared.  The dogs like this are dogs who baffle their owners because it can feel like he is busy acquiring new fears on the fly.  What I think often happens to these dogs is that they are so overwhelmed that as they become less aroused and overwhelmed, they start to notice more and more things to worry about.  Some of these dogs are highly visually reactive.  Some are highly sensitive to sounds.  I am betting that there are a number of dogs who are sensitive to smells, and I know that a lot of these dogs are also very sensitive to touch.

While I wouldn’t describe D’fer as reactive, he will notice things in his environment.  And although Kayak notices more things in her environment I wouldn’t call her reactive either.  Some of the dogs in my classes though absolutely ARE reactive; I would describe a dog who barks at leaves falling as reactive and when they don’t bounce back readily, I would consider them highly reactive.  All this brings me to “what is the anatomy of reactivity”.

15000085 - pack of stray dogs
All three dogs have noticed something. The dog in the very back is much more concerned than either of the other two. We would say that he is more reactive.

The first part of a reaction is before the reaction occurs, when the dog is calm.  With dogs who are stable and confident, this calm behaviour is when they look at the world and they are able to make accurate predictions about what is coming up.  Are all of the stimuli in the environment predictable?  Can they explore things that might be surprising?  Calm, confident dogs use this time to evaluate what they are seeing and what is happening around them, while reactive dogs might use this time to worry about things they don’t understand.  It is like they are always on a slow boil, anticipating bad things coming up.  Reactive dogs use this space between startling events to worry and think about the dangers inherent in the environment.  Most dogs fall somewhere in the middle; they don’t spend all of their time worrying about things that might go wrong, but they also don’t hang out not worrying at all either.

Once a stimulus has occurred that might be concerning, then you have one of two situations.  Either the dog is not at all worried about it and remains calm, or you have a reaction of some sort.  In the most extreme situations, you have a dog who barks and carries on and ascribes to the idea of “when in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout”.  The alternate side to this is the dog who experiences fear and shuts down.  The stimulus is frightening but his tactic is to shut down and go into that part of his brain that is related to self protection.  He may become quiet and unresponsive.  The common element to either of these reactions is that the dog is unable to follow a simple cue like sit or lie down.  When a reactive dog is presented with a stimulus and you ask him casually to do a behaviour he knows really, really well, if he is unable to do it the behaviour right away, then regardless of his apparent level of concern, he is over his threshold.

Once a dog has reacted, then the next thing to look at is what he does after the stimulus has been removed.  Does he immediately return to a calm state?  When you startle my mare Kayak, she is pretty quick to settle down; in less than five seconds she is usually back to her calm state.  D’fer is pretty unflappable and rarely startles, but if he is startled, he comes back to a calm state pretty much as soon as he recognizes whatever startled him.  Along the continuum of dogs I see on a daily basis we get everything from dogs who settle back down immediately to dogs who take hours or even days to really recover from even a mild surprise.

When working with dogs with behaviour problems it is essential that we are responsive to situations instead of being reactive.  The first step in success if having a plan.  Being proactive means preplanning everything that you have  control over.  Do you know what is on the other side of the closed door?  If not, can you check before you take your dog through it?  Do you know what the dog you see in the distance is likely to do when he greets your dog?  If not, can you avoid meeting him?  Do you know that the person you are handing your leash to will take as much care as you do in handling your dog?  If you don’t, can you ensure that you are not putting your dog into a situation where he might be at risk?

Being proactive actually means more than just preplanning.  It means always thinking about the possibilities without terrifying yourself.  It means taking reasonable care to avoid situations where your dog might go over the threshold and be triggered into a reactive state, and thinking about what your actions will cause in the environment around you.  It means being observant and figuring out what you can do to keep your dog’s wellbeing in the forefront.  Often it means doing things differently than you might otherwise do.

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Wargas was an Anatolian Shepherd Dog; a flock guardian. Flock guardians are supposed to be non reactive observers who can live within a herd of sheep. He was most happy to lie on the top of a boulder and watch while his buddies played and swam in the quarry. When someone approached he calmly got up to investigate, and decided that he didn’t need to bark because he knew the person. This is what a non reactive dog should do!

I learned about being proactive as most of us do; the hard way.  I had a dog named Crow, a German Shepherd who had never been off the cow farm he had been born onto until he was 7 months of age.  Crow was not extremely timid, but he also wasn’t overtly confident, and he was quite reactive.  He did have some quirks that were very difficult to live with.  He had a total fear of new flooring.  Crow would walk calmly and confidently on cement floors, grass and asphalt.  When I first brought him home, he trotted into my cement floored porch, and over the threshold into the kitchen where the floor was linoleum and promptly back peddled with all his might.  I carried him in and put him onto the hardwood floor and he stood stock still for about ten minutes before he dropped his head and sniffed it.  We had to repeat the ordeal to get him back out again.  It took Crow a solid two weeks to decide that my home with hardwood, linoleum and two different types of carpet would not eat him.  It was really sad and if I knew then what I know now, I would have approached the situation very differently.

Trains didn’t phase Crow, but people in long coats, people on bicycles and people playing musical instruments would send him into fits of barking.  Tractors, heavy machinery, cows, elk and deer were not a problem.  The shiny police motorcycle that was parked at an agricultural fair was terrifying.  The officer in a helmet was not a problem.  Over time, I was able to title Crow in Novice Obedience, but we could only show out of doors.  After the first indoor show I entered required him to walk over a parquet floor to get to the shiny tiled floor of the fair building it was held in, I didn’t feel I could ever do that to him again.  I did show him at the National German Shepherd Specialty mind you; they hold it on a concrete pad in a hockey arena and they bring in sod to cover the ground.

The kind of pre-planning and proactive thinking I had to learn to do with Crow was not just a day to day thing; it was also a minute to minute thing.  When I walked out of my house every day, I had to think about the weather (would there be people in long coats that I would need to be aware of?), and the time of year (would we encounter a parked motorcycle?) and the time of day (would the diverse group of university students who lived in the apartment building across the street be going to the bus, wearing a variety of coats and hats?), but I also had to think about the larger picture too. Did I really want to continue training Crow in Obedience when there were so many variables that I could not control when we showed?

Even though I learned to be very proactive with Crow, I could still from time to time run into huge issues.  Things might be going along just fine and then a sudden environmental change, or “something that Crow considered different and difficult” might appear and startle him.  I realize now that when I am faced with a dog or dogs who are reactive I have a mental check list that I run through that helps me a lot with helping my dog when this sort of a situation arises.

The first thing I ask myself is “Am I safe?”  I learned this in every first aid class I ever took.  If I am not safe, then I cannot help and I am better to get out of the way.  Recently, I was in a situation where my three horses were behaving unpredictably.  The weather was really bad, there was ice falling off the trees and the horses were frightened.  Frightened horses tend to bolt and although none of my horses would intend to hurt me, three horses running in a small paddock are not safe for the people.  I was in the paddock with them when I realized I was not safe.  Recognizing that I was in a dangerous situation, I chose to leave the horses.  Yes, they were at risk, but I couldn’t help them if I got hurt, so I got out.

Once I got to safety, I could think about what to do to help.  The second step I go through when I am working with reactive animals is to ask if they are safe.  In the situation above the horses definitely were not safe, and going back into their paddock was not a good idea.  I thought about things for a moment and decided to get a bucket of grain and the horses’ halters and I leaned over the gate in the shelter they have access to, and I was able to catch two of them and tie them to a wall.  Once I was safe, I could make sure the horses were safe.

Once two of the three horses were confined, the third horse stopped running around in the ice and the rain and the wind.  Then I put a riding helmet on so I wouldn’t get hurt by falling ice (keeping myself safe), and went around the paddock to another gate(avoiding getting the first two horses excited)  and caught the third horse.  I was able to safely catch the third horse.  Once all the horses were safe, I was able to think about the next step.

The third step is to ask myself if there is something in the environment that I can change.  Our shelter is small and the two horses I had tied in there would share it once there was room to do so.  I took the third horse and put her in the barn.  Then I went back around to where the first two horses were and let them loose so that they were safe for the night.

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I have large breed dogs. If I arrived at the dog park to see these three dogs playing, I would be pro-active and choose to not release my dogs to interact. Three small breed dogs, one toy and my German Shepherd would be a recipe for reactive behaviour on the part of one or all of the dogs!

Only once I had determined that I was safe, that the animals were safe, and that I had changed the environment to make it as safe for the horses as possible could I begin to address the behaviour of these frightened animals.  When everyone was safe, I spent some time with the most frightened of the horses (the one I put indoors for the evening), grooming her and soothing her.

For clarity, the steps are as follows:

  1.       Ask myself “Am I safe?”  If I am not, get myself to safety.
  2.       Ask myself if my animal is safe.  If he is not, address that issue next.
  3.       Check to see if there is any way to make a change in the environment to make it safer for the animal.
  4.    Address the behavioural needs of the animal.

So let me run through a possible situation.  You are out in the park with your dog on leash.  Your dog is reactive to other dogs and you see a loose dog on the horizon.  He is still at a distance, but he is running towards you and your dog.  What can you do?

  1. Are you safe? At the moment you notice the dog, yes.  This means without doing anything else you can go to the next step.
  2. Is your dog safe? At the moment, yes.  If he knows how to lie down between your feet, now is a time when you might ask him to do this so that he will stay safe.
  3. What can you change in the environment? If your dog will do a reliable down stay, you can put yourself between him and the dog.  You could throw hands full of treats at the approaching dog.  You could call out and see if an owner will appear.  You can even yell at the dog “You come here you bad, bad, bad dog!”  Many dogs will run away if they have heard that line in the context of being punished!  Once the dog has either left or been caught or been scared off our an owner has appeared, you can go to the final step.
  4. Address your dog’s behaviour. If he is lying down calmly because you have drilled him on this sort of situation, you can probably give him a pile of treats and then continue on your way.  If he is upset, you may need to stop and do some massage, or it could be that the best thing you can do for your reactive dog is get him home to a safe, quiet crate.

Living with dogs and other animals who are reactive can be really, really challenging.  It can be extremely difficult to predict where the next motorcycle is going to come from, or where the next giant dog is going to come from, or where the next falling leaf will occur.  With good proactive handling and a plan, you can often decrease or minimize the unpleasant consequences that occur when frightening things happen.  The more you can decrease the impact of the unpredictable situations, the easier it is to implement a successful classical conditioning program.

THE ANATOMY OF A REACTION

HE HAS A MIND OF HIS OWN!

I hear this statement all the time when people are talking about dogs who are doing things that the people don’t like. I have begun to ask “whose mind did you think he would have?” “You have a mind of our own” has become a statement that people use as a way of putting someone down for holding an opinion different from our own, or for doing things that are important to you but not to the person making the statement. Here is the thing. We each have a mind of our own! And that is a pretty good thing too. Imagine if we all had to operate from one point of view. Nothing would ever change, collaboration would not occur, and we would miss all sorts of amazing activities just because we all had exactly the same idea at the same moment.

61549135 - puppy eating food. dog eats food from bowl
This dog has an agenda. He is aware of the bowl and of the photographer, and he knows what those two things together mean; that it is time to eat. Asking him to do something that YOU want instead of what he wants in this moment is likely going to result in a contest of wills.

Part of the problem I think exists because we want our dogs to follow along and figure out exactly what it is that we have in mind like little furry mentalists. We behave as though dogs come preprogrammed with all of our quirks and preferences already installed. If I am going to get in the car, I shouldn’t have to put Fido on a leash and guide him there; he should just know that is where we are going and he should just do what we expect him to do. The problem is that Fido may not have read the memo! And Fido may have other things on his mind. Fido may be more concerned with emptying his bladder, or reading the pee mail, or he may perceive things we are unaware of that are tugging for his attention.

To start to address this issue of Fido having a mind of his own, you have to begin from the point of asking what is in it for Fido. Does Fido know what you expect and is it something that is of interest to him? I often see my clients making the mind of his own statement about things that they haven’t taken the time to properly teach, train and proof. Take leash walking for instance. Leash walking is actually a fairly difficult skill for dogs to master. We don’t walk at the right speed for most dogs, and we often don’t take into account that we may not indicate clearly when we are going to turn or stop, so if the dog gets distracted at all, he is going to goof and likely make the leash tight. Add in that unless the dog is elderly, his agenda is likely going to include things like pulling you to make you get to where he wants to go faster. If he wants to get to the park to get off leash, and he drags you down the road and gets to the park, then dragging you down the road is the most sensible way for him to get to his goal and his priority. Instead of fighting with dogs about leash manners, I suggest driving them to the place you are going to let them off leash and then work on leash manners separately. You will get a dog with better leash manners in the end with a lot less frustration along the way.

And what is in it for the dog? Walking on a loose leash may lead to the park in the end, but if it takes twenty minutes of fighting about keeping the leash loose to get you to the park, then is there actually any point? The problem with goals like getting to the park as a reward for loose leash walking is that the behaviour is too complex and of too long a duration to allow the dog to understand that it isn’t just the final forty steps of walking on a loose leash that count; it is all the steps. If you were going to be successful at making loose leash walking work for your dog, you would have to reward much shorter increments of the behaviour, which means either working on it for shorter periods of time, or perhaps not putting it into the most exciting part of the dog’s life. I think teaching loose leash walking on the way to the park is a little like trying to learn statistics at your wedding. You have bigger priorities to think about than the mean, median and mode! For you dog, trying to learn a complex behaviour such as leash walking while on the way to the park is probably more difficult than trying to learn stats at your wedding.

Happy dog walking on leash with woman at evening park during sun
Walking on a loose leash like this out in public is a complex task requiring the dog to keep pace with you and carefully attend to when you are going to stop or turn. Trying to teach it to your dog when his priority is to get to the dog park is often an exercise in frustration.

We also have to be aware of our dog’s priorities when we expect them to fall into line. If your dog is too cold, or too hot, or hungry or thirsty, or tired, or feeling sick, or if he has a full bowel or bladder, he is going to be on his own agenda to fill his own needs. It is unfair to ask our dogs to follow along with our plans when we haven’t met their basic needs for food, water, shelter and health. It is worse, when our dogs are in pain! All too often I see people asking very painful dogs to do things that are just plain difficult for them because it hurts. Some of the time the people are asking their dogs to do things that are not out of the ordinary, and the pain has crept up on them. Getting up off the floor, getting in and out of a car and walking on ice or hard surfaces are all things that get dogs into trouble if they are struggling with pain. If the dog has been doing these things and now he cannot, or seems reluctant, it can seem like he or she may have suddenly have had an attack of being on their own agenda, when in fact they simply can’t do what you want them to do.

Having a mind of his own is precisely what we want from dogs and yet, we also don’t want them to be that way either. We choose highly active dogs, and then we lament that they need exercise every day, not just when it suits us. We choose dogs with thick coats and then deplore that they are slugs in the heat or that they prefer to spend all day out in the yard when the temperatures drop. Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all though is that we want to share our lives with dogs who can hear and smell things we cannot perceive. This is really convenient when we want a tracking dog to follow a scent, or a guard dog to alert us to an intruder coming towards the house, but that works out less well when the dog is aware of things he wants and we cannot perceive. I see this all the time when I see dogs coming into the training hall. Before the dog even enters the room he knows if I am onsite, and if I am, often he is very excited to see me. Before the person knows what to expect, he is pulling to greet me and he has been building up a head of steam since they turned into the parking lot. I have also seen this in my own dogs who know exactly what I have brought for them before I pull it out of my pocket! This trait of living with a being who knows more about the world than we do can be endlessly exciting or frustrating depending upon what the situation might be.

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If we add a dog who is bred to keep up with sheep all day to our lives we have to expect that it is most likely that such a dog would need a lot of exercise! We are going to be much happier if we meet the dog’s needs for exercise before we try and ask him to do things that we want to do. Relationships are largely a matter of negotiation to make sure that we each get what we need.

When we say “he has a mind of his own” we really have said that we are not thinking in true partnership. We are thinking about how we want something that we are not getting ,or that we have a priority that we haven’t communicated well to our dog. In order to get the most out of our relationships with our dogs, we need to start thinking about how we move through the world with our dogs instead of against them. When we are in a deep and abiding partnership with a dog, we rarely run into situations where we are not at least more or less on the same page. As often as we ask our dogs to do things that they may not really want to do, we offer them opportunities to do things that are less than important to us. Like our human partnerships, the best partnerships with our dogs are a constant game of give and take.

HE HAS A MIND OF HIS OWN!

ONE LAST TRIP?

Originally posted May 2013

I am on a train to Montreal, with D’fer my service dog.  At ten, Deef is getting to be an old man.  Late last night when I was preparing to leave, John asked if I had D’fer’s rabies certificate.  I checked his pack and we were three days overdue.  Immunologically not a problem, but Via Rail specifically requested that he have his rabies certificate available.  Not an unreasonable request, although it did throw a bit of a glitch into our morning plans.  This morning we stopped into the Woodlawn Vet Clinic and they thankfully were able to squeeze him in right away.  Thanks!

Unfortunately when the vet was listening to his heart she noticed that he has a fairly significant heart murmur.  Blarg.  At ten we have noticed him slowing down, and now we have a better clue as to why.  The murmur is a big whistle between beats.  Very worrisome.  We booked another appointment for mid month to check into this, but this probably means that this is D’fer’s last big trip.

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One of D’fer’s firsts; the first time I incorporated him into a statue.  Not the last mind you.  D’fer has posed with statues in Ottawa, New York City, a park in New Jersey.  I think he likes it.  I have quite a collection of pictures of D’fer with statues.  Great early socialization allowed him to join in with my fun and pose for pictures with everyone from Frank Morris and Buddy, the first Seeing Eye Dog team, to Laura Secord and Sir Isaac Brock.  This was a fun first.

When you have a service dog you often confront a series of firsts and a series of lasts.  I still remember our first train trip; to New York City, travelling west out of Guelph and crossing the border where the Via Staff sat down and the Amtrack stepped up.  We had several opportunities to stop and let Deef out to pee.  What a great trip.  Going through customs on the train can be a long and sometimes arduous process as the customs officers board the train and you have to fill out paperwork.  Going into the states Deef didn’t get a second look.  Coming back, the Canadian customs agents had a million questions.  Everyone was really helpful and D’fer was just about perfect.  In my memory, he was completely perfect, but I am betting that the first train trip was pretty stressful for both of us.  The hands of time really do ease off the pressure I felt at the time.

Travelling with D’fer is successful for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, he has the genetics to support the acceptance of the unusual.  He is not reactive at all and although he is interested in things, he doesn’t startle easily.  We chose a great kennel to get him from, and he is the result of a breeding program that produces stable, well tempered dogs with excellent resilience.  The few times I have seen Deef startled, he has come back down very easily.  He is relaxed and calm in most situations, and new things don’t phase him.

The second thing that makes D’fer a joy to travel with is puppy class.  At the time that D’fer was a puppy we didn’t offer puppy classes at Dogs in the Park; I was primarily offering behaviour consulting with one obedience class to meet the needs of the students whose dogs had completed our behaviour program.  We took D’fer to Montessaurus Puppy School and he was one of the last puppies who was in the founder, Jenn Messer’s classes.  What a great experience that was.  I credit what we learned in Jenn’s class with two things; it helped us to create the perfect candidate to be my service dog, and it gave John the bug for teaching puppy classes.  John is an awesome puppy class teacher and it is in part because of the passion he developed in that class.

With genetics and a great socialization program on our side, we prepared D’fer for almost anything by providing the right training to prepare him for the situations we would face.  D’fer will toilet on grass, gravel, asphalt, and most especially sewer grates.  Once, I flew into Fredericton New Brunswick to speak for the Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers.  We got off the plane and I didn’t know when I would be able to get D’fer to a toilet, so I asked him to toilet on a sewer crate on the tarmac.  I turned towards the terminal to see all the ground crew, the other passengers and the terminal staff staring at my dog-peeing on a grate has been the source of many accolades as a trainer; people seem to be extremely impressed by that.  We also taught him things like leash walking skills, a super duper automatic leave it, how to get under tables and chairs and how to pick things up for me.  About two years went into getting D’fer ready for our first train trip, our first plane ride and our first grocery store, pharmacy and doctor visits.

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D’fer where he has been for almost eight years.  This is his final trip.  I just wish it was his first, even though first are not my favourite either.

 

Most of D’fer’s firsts are long gone in our past, and now we are facing a lot of lasts.  This is likely his last big trip with me.  It is also likely his last train trip.  I am pretty sure we have already had his last airplane ride.  Likely we have also taken the bus for the last time.  We have a few more grocery stores in us, and doctor’s appointments, and I am sure he has some more picnics and trips for ice cream, but yes, I think this is his last big trip.

I have trained over twenty service dogs now.  I hate the firsts.  The first time the dog sees construction, or hears the air conditioning start and stop on trains and planes can be very tough for young service dogs.  Here we sit on the Via Train, and the lights and fans have all turned off.  I can hear the diesel engines revving up.  How will my next dog deal with this?  Friday, the dog who was destined to be my service dog is rock solid in her ability to cope, but she doesn’t love working with me.  She much prefers working with John and where possible, we allow our dogs to choose the work that suits them best.  Likely I will make several trips with Friday before all is said and done and she and I will have these firsts and lasts too.

My computer died on the train today; my fan failed, and this interrupted my writing.  Deef slept most of the day on the train.  That heart murmur sits on my shoulder now.  Is it fair to have asked D’fer to come to Montreal this time?  He looks pretty comfortable.  We met our host in Dorval, and went to dinner and did a few errands.  All day, this heart murmur has been coming back to ask me questions.  Is this my last night in a hotel together?  Probably.

After a nap in the hotel room, Deef asked to go out and I followed his lead; something that I often do when we travel.  Where ever he wants to go I follow.  But now I know he has a heart murmur.  Should I do this with him?  We tracked someone through the field adjacent to the hotel.  We walked around a big industrial complex.  D’fer found a set of open steel stairs and asked to go up.  Socialization again; he loved the challenge of new surfaces as a puppy and as an old man, he still loves the physical challenge of new footings.  We had a great walk; over gravel and turf and overgrown grass, across asphalt, and to a loading dock, his stairs and as we walked, I noticed glimmers of young D’fer; he pranced and he bounced and he explored and he showed me all the funny things to see in the land around our hotel.  I remember the firsts, and recognize that these may be the last, but the in between is what is what matters the most to me right now.  I think I made the right choice to bring him this time, and I know that even if I didn’t that walk around the industrial area that surrounds the hotel was important for him, and for us.  I am worried about this, but I also appreciate that he is doing work he has loved for his whole life, and the gifts that we give one another in our rituals when we travel.

Good genes provided a solid foundation.  Great socialization provided a great framework.  Everything else from our firsts to now, our lasts and our close to last is the magic that makes D’fer and me something special.  That foundation and framework allowed us to get on a train when he had never done that before and be successful our very first time out.  The foundation and framework allowed us to board a huge variety of airplanes and travel as far north as Edmonton, as far west as California, as far east as Fredericton, and as far south as Raleigh, North Carolina and be able to depend on one another every step of the way.  This heart murmur in a way is a first.  It is the first concrete indication that 10 is getting old for a Chesapeake.  This is a first I really don’t like.

Friday is supposed to step into D’fer’s shoes.  I could have brought her this time.  I thought about it.  I wonder if I should have.  These lasts are hard, but the firsts are harder in a way.  I chickened out, and now that I am in a hotel with a podcast playing and Deef asleep on the floor beside me, I can reflect that no matter how selfish it is, I appreciate this opportunity to have another trip together.  This is not a physically difficult trip, and as a last trip, it is pretty good.  I just wish we had a few more trips in us, and I hope that we will have good news when we next see the vet.

ONE LAST TRIP?

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT DOG TRAINING BY TAKING PIANO LESSONS

Several years ago, John’s mother bought him a good quality electric keyboard.  It is a really good keyboard and it has all kinds of odds n ends to make it flashy.  John liked the keyboard.  I LOVED the keyboard.  I loved the keyboard so much, that I went out and started piano lessons so that I could learn to play it.  I learned a lot of things in my music lessons that are really relevant to dog training, and I thought I would share.

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I learned a lot about dog training from playing the piano!

PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT

If I heard it once, I must have heard it a thousand times; if you practice the wrong thing you will get really good at doing it wrong.  I head this when my husband was taking voice lessons and I heard it again when I started taking piano lessons.  Yes, practice is important but if you make the same mistake over and over again, you just make your mistake permanent.

This is true for dog training too.  Eco and I are cleaning up our heeling right now with the intent of going into the ring in the winter to do obedience and rally-O.  We have practiced really sloppy heeling for about three years, so we have a lot of tidying to do.  It is very hard to remember that we are going back to basics because we have perfected sloppy heeling.  Now I am only asking for one good step together, but some of the time I get excited and forget and if we get one good step, I throw caution to the wind and take ten steps and by about the fifth step we are back to making the errors we are really good at making.

IF SOME IS GOOD, MORE IS NOT NECESSARILY BETTER

When we got the keyboard, I learned a very important lesson the very first day we had it.  Four hours is too long to practice the piano.  By about three hours and forty five minutes.  In fact if you practice playing the piano for four hours, you can expect your elbows to swell up, your fingers to go stiff and numb and forget fine motor activity for the next three days.  When I started piano lessons, I asked my teacher how long and how often I ought to practice.  Ten minutes twice a day she replied.  Ten minutes?  Heck I could do that between brushing my hair in the morning and eating breakfast and not even have to get up any earlier!  And I could absolutely fit it in while dinner was cooking after work.

Dogs are a little bit like this too.  If you feel a crushing need to train for four hours a day (and who doesn’t if they are dog trainers?  Likely this isn’t true of non dog trainers!), you need more dogs.  Lots more dogs.  For most skill based behaviours, dogs work best for short periods of time.  I realized this recently when I was coaching a novice handler in a class recently.  She was trying to get one to two hours a day of practice in.  I only work my dogs for twenty to thirty minutes at a go, and they are experienced dogs.  My puppy only works for ten to fifteen minutes at a time.  Ten minutes, twice a day, until you get the hang of things is likely more than enough.  If you are working on behaviour modification for a behaviour problem, this may not hold true, but in general, keep it short and sweet.

CHOOSE A ROLE MODEL

I started piano lessons when Jean Crétien was prime minister of Canada.  His wife, Aline, began taking piano lessons in her fifties when M. Crétien was first elected as prime minister.  In fact, she began taking Royal Conservatory lessons and by the time he left office she had completed the bulk of their classes and courses.  I figured that if the wife of the prime minister could play the piano starting in her fifties, why shouldn’t I be able to start the same thing as an adult?  And maybe, if I studied long enough I could play some of the works of Mozart or Liszt, or some other classical composer I had heard of.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 4, 2017: Monument to Ivan Pavlov
Ivan Pavlov is one of my role models. He was a scientist and he made some incredible extrapolations that lead us to a better understanding of learning and behaviour. He came from Russia and studied behaviour in the early part of the 20th century. I would love to see the world in such a way that the mysteries of behaviour were revealed through my work, just like Dr. Pavlov did!

As a dog trainer, we should try and be aware of the movers and shakers in our field.  We should know who is suggesting new ideas and who is writing and blogging and videoing about dog training.  We should know both who is proposing innovative ideas and who is sticking with the old ways.  It is also helpful to find someone local who can mentor you and who can be a good role model for you.  Pat Miller, Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell, Cesar Milan, Brad Pattison, Victoria Stillwell, Suzanne Clothier, Nicholas Dodman and Susan Garrett should all be familiar names to you if you are serious about getting into the training game.

FOUNDATIONS ARE IMPORTANT

When I first took piano lessons, my teacher gave me a children’s book to learn.  The first week that I took lessons, I learned to work my fingers independently and play a simple scale.  The second week, I learned to move my fingers over one another and reach the more distant keys.  Each week I learned to play different elements of more complex pieces.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning the foundations of more complex work.  One day, my teacher gave me a completely new piece of music and asked me to play what I read.  To my surprise, I was able to play a fairly complex piece of music.

This holds true in dog training.  The recall is a fine example of a complex behaviour that is made up of a series of simpler behaviours.  Your dog has to orient on his name and find you.  Then he has to disengage from whatever he is doing and come towards you.  If you want your dog to sit in front of you when he gets to you that is another simple behaviour to add to the chain.

BACKCHAINING, BACKCHAINING, BACKCHAINING

Backchaining is the process of learning all the elements of a series of behaviours, and then rewarding the last of the behaviours and practicing the last behaviour over and over again, until you feel really confident about that.  Then you practice the second to last behaviour and the last behaviour and get your reward.  Then you practice the third to last, the second to last and the last behaviour and get your reward.  When I was learning pieces of music to play on the piano, I would backchain them all.  One day my teacher asked me to play a new piece of music that I had never seen or heard before.  I looked at the sheet music for a minute and then asked her how she wanted me to start.  From the beginning she said.  I asked if she minded if I did it a little differently the first few times through, and she asked what I wanted to do.  I explained backchaining to her and she began to laugh.  She had been in a graduate program in music before anyone had taught her that little trick, and she learned how it was that I was learning so many pieces so quickly; I just played the final bar until I was smooth and then the final two bars and so on.  My reward was hearing the music come out the way that it ought to sound.

Backchaining is a useful but seldom used method in dog training.  Especially when a dog is being asked to learn a complex sequence for competition or for service work, backchaining is highly useful.  If you want your dog to learn to fetch the paper for you, you would simply teach him all the elements of the behaviour; go to the door, wait till you open it, wait till you tell him it is safe to go and find the paper, find the paper, pick up the paper, carry the paper back to the door and then hold the paper until you tell him to give it to you.  Then when the dog knows all the elements individually, you would practice only the part where he holds the paper until you ask him for it.  Then you might leave him on a sit stay where the paper is normally delivered, walk back to the house and call him to come and then give you the paper when you ask, and then give him his reward.  After practicing this stage for a period of time, you would ask him to sit and stay at the location that the paper was delivered, and go back to the house.  Once you were in place you would cue him to pick up the paper, and wait for the rest of the sequence to occur, and reward him for giving you the paper when you asked.  You would keep adding to the chain of behaviours until your dog was doing the whole thing in one smooth sequence without prompting from you.

LEARNING A KINAESTHETIC SKILL IS DIFFICULT

When I first started playing the piano, I felt like an octopus.  88 keys, ten fingers, two hands, three pedals, two feet, and sheet music felt awkward and uncomfortable.  I felt like I was in some sort of a battle with the keyboard.  Gradually over time, I learned to master about 64 of the keys (nothing I ever played required the very high or very low notes), both of my hands, all my fingers and the sheet music.  Then we moved, and the keyboard didn’t get unpacked, so my musical career came to a rather abrupt end.

During my short time in music class I learned something really important that I try and remember every time I get a new student in my training hall.  Kinaesthetic skills take time to learn well, and I must break elements of  the skill out so that my students can be successful.  If the student is feeling overwhelmed by a clicker, a leash, the treats, the dog and all the other dogs and trainers in the room, I ask myself which elements can I isolate so that the task is easier for the student.  We use tethers so that the students can learn clicker skills without having to juggle the leash.  We use treat bowls because they are easier for the student to reach into than a bait bag or a baggy.  Sometimes I let a student practice with one of my own dogs so that they can experience first-hand what it feels like when all the elements are in place.

Reshetiha, Nizhniy Novgorod Oblast, Russia - 02.25.2017 - Siberian Husky sled dog race skijoring competition. Skier man skiing with Husky dog in harness.
Skijoring, the sport of cross country skiing while your dog pulls you looks like a tonne of fun, but you will have to relearn to ski, and handle your dog at the same time. Dog training is at its core a kinesthetic skill, and it requires that you are patient with yourself as well as with your dog while you sort out all the techniques!

One of my mentors advised me many years ago to try a new skill each year; martial arts, horse back riding, playing the piano or tennis.  It doesn’t matter what discipline I try, each time I try something new, I learn again that my muscles don’t do what my instructor’s muscles do, and what comes naturally to my instructor won’t come naturally to me, just as what I do with a dog won’t necessarily come naturally to my students.  This year, I returned to riding after fifteen or twenty years away from the saddle.  I learned again that I have a lot to learn, and what comes naturally to my instructors and mentors doesn’t come naturally to me.  As the fall gets colder, I think about what I might try next year.  Sailing?  Maybe.  Or oil painting?  How about calligraphy?  There is something for me to learn about dog training in all of them; it remains to be seen what that might be.

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT DOG TRAINING BY TAKING PIANO LESSONS

A ROSE MIGHT SMELL AS SWEET BUT A DOG MIGHT NOT

Originally published April 2013

Naming trends in pets are fascinating.  I remember the year my friend got a puppy and spent four days trying to decide on a special and unique name for her dog.  After choosing Bailey she was shocked to go to puppy class with two other Baileys and was further surprised when her daughter went to kindergarten later that year with two little girls named Bailey.  Her efforts at a name that was really different were not successful, but offered an interesting opportunity to think about names and naming and what happens when we choose a particular name.

One of the local vets and I got to chatting one day and we both observed the same thing.  When Sam or Ranger or Rosie comes in, we don’t worry a whole lot right off the bat about the dog’s behaviour.  But when Satan, Danger, Mr. Ferocious, Ugly or Butts comes in we do.  We also worry when Muffin, Sweetie, Cuddles, and Mrs. Love Bug is on the roster.  The question is why do we worry about Dr. Evil and Fluffy?

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This dog looks pretty unhappy! If his name is Satan or Fluffy, then I am going to be more concerned than if his name is something neutral such as Frank.

When we name an animal, some of the names that we choose are associated with emotions.  When you call your dog a name that is disrespectful, you give those who interact with your dog permission to be disrespectful of him.  Imagine for a moment what it might be like to live your life with a name like “Ugly” or “Butthead”.  Even if you didn’t know what Butthead meant, the way that people behaved towards you would tell you that you were not respected.

When an animal carries the name of a political figure who is associated with a time that was painful to many (I have met several dogs named Hitler or Stalin), we tell people something profound about how we feel about our pet and what our expectation might be of that animal’s life.  What we name our pet is sometimes a reflection of our own intolerance, hatred, fear, bigotry or trauma.  Naming a dog after someone who has done something evil, is not a sign of respect for your dog, and it isn’t cool either.  If someone has named their dog after a political historical figure who is an enemy I believe it is not as difficult for them to then choose harsher methods of training and to treat their dogs in ways that are unkind.

At the other end of the spectrum, naming your dog something that downplays who he is or might be can backfire too.  I was once pinned against someone’s refrigerator a hundred pounds of dog named Muffin had a long list of people he had bitten and he was employed as the resident guard dog in a junkyard.  His owners only sought help for him after he bit one of their adult children.  It was chilling how they introduced this dog.  They wanted people to think he was harmless so that when burglars tried to break into the junkyard, they would not expect to be attacked by Muffin.  They had taught this dog to be perfectly still when approached but to never tolerate anyone touching him and to chase anyone running away from him.  This was a very frightening dog, and the owners thought it was funny to tell visitors to their business that they need not fear Muffin…unless they misbehaved.  This twisted name and expectation lead to a number of really difficult issues, and amongst them was the owner’s perception of the dog as essentially harmless.

We have three dogs.  D’fer is a silly name, and it is a play on Dee For Dog.  D’fer Dawg.  It is silly but not disrespectful.  A bit like my husband’s nickname for me; Boo.  It is silly and reflects a playful part of our relationship.  When we first started to work together, he stopped calling me Boo for a while because he didn’t want our students to think less of me; he was sensitive to the issues that surround how people are perceived.  D’fer’s registered name is Deifenbaker’s Pride of Oakhill, so his nick name fits too; we often call him Deef.  Prime Minister Deifenbaker was a pretty serious dude, but no one would consider him to have been the center of a genocide, so even if we called him by his full name, we would be respectful of him.

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D’fer was a silly name, but it didn’t make anyone worry about how he might behave. Usually he was a pretty silly dog too! This is one of my favourite pictures of my silly dog when he was very elderly.

Our second dog is named Eco.  His registered name is Amicus Eco Von Narnia.  Narnia is the name of the kennel he was born at and we used the latin Amicus because we wanted him to be friendly and Eco is the Greek for home.  Eco is his call name, and again, it is a strong name that is not frightening or belittling.

Our third dog, Friday is named for a fictional character from a book by the same name.  The character is a strong, sensitive and caring woman who can take care of herself.  We were careful to choose a name that would be respectful of who we hoped she would turn out to be.

Dr. Marty Becker, the vet who is on Good Morning America for many years, says that asking the client why they chose the name for their pet is one of the first questions he asks in his initial consults.  He feels it gives really good information about what expectations people have for their pets.  I have found this to be very true.  When I have a client who comes in with a dog named Doug, and ask, and they tell me that their kids have not turned the movie “UP” off in the past six months and they wanted a dog who was going to be a good friend, maybe a little scattered, who would do things with the family, then I know I am working with people who are on the right track with their goals and aspirations for their family pets.  When I meet a family with a dog name Alpha from the same movie, I worry a little and ask more questions to find out if they have expectations that are in line with the dog they have and the life they want to live.

There are a few names that are neither belittling or disrespectful that I suggest people would avoid.  Long ago I knew a family who had a beautiful Golden Retriever named Fire.  Fire was well trained, and moved as fast as a lick of flame out in the field.  Fire’s name wasn’t a problem until he got lost one night while the family was staying in at a relatives.  It just isn’t a great idea to go running through a strange neighbourhood calling “Fire! Fire!”

A ROSE MIGHT SMELL AS SWEET BUT A DOG MIGHT NOT

THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF DOG TRAINING

I happen to own two Swiss Army knives; both from Switzerland, although I have never been there.  One is mine and the other belonged to my late father.  For a long time I kept them carefully separate so I knew which one was which.  They are both special to me; mine was brought to me by my parents after they visited Switzerland and my father’s was given to me by my mother at his funeral.  They both have toothpicks and I haven’t lost either toothpick.  They both have two blades, a big one and a little one.  They both have a couple of screwdrivers (a Robertson and a regular flat blade one) and they both have the inevitable corkscrew which I have never ever used since I don’t drink.  They are very handy items even though they don’t come with every tool in the book.

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I LOVE my Swiss Army Knife! I almost always have it in my pocket because I use it all the time. It does have its limitations, however, it is handy for almost every job. Sadly, it doesn’t come with a clicker!

Positive reinforcement is a bit like my Swiss Army knife.  I can use my knife both for cutting string and for opening a paint can.  I can use positive reinforcement to teach a dog to stay or to come.  I can use the Swiss Army knife to pick my teeth or to clean out the groove that the little tab belongs in on the lawn mower.  I can use positive reinforcement to help a dog with thunderstorm anxiety or to jump over a jump.  Both of these tools are widely useful.  The key to being successful is having a solid understanding of how the tool works, what it does and what it doesn’t do.

The easiest way I know of understanding what positive reinforcement is would be to divide the term into its component two terms.  Positive refers to everything that the trainer adds.  So, if I were to GIVE the dog a treat, I am positive.  If I YELL at the dog, I am also being positive.  Sadly, positive has a second and not useful meaning related to behaviour.  When we say we are being positive, we might be indicating something pleasant or desirable.  In training we simply mean adding something to the interaction.  Reinforcement is anything that increases the behaviour; so when the trainer adds something, and the dog does more of whatever we are training, we see positive reinforcement in effect.  This means that if the trainer YELLS at the dog and the dog BITES more often, we are positively reinforcing biting!  That sure doesn’t sound like the positivity of feeling good or better.

In its simplest form, positive reinforcement increases desired behaviours.  If we want the dog to sit more often, we wait for the dog to sit and add something he wants.  If the dog sits, randomly, we could get right up and feed him a treat.  If this happens 3 times in an hour in the first hour, and 7 times in the second hour, and 22 times in the third hour, and 21 times in the fourth hour, and 34 times in the fifth hour, we can see a trend where over time, the dog is increasing the frequency that sitting happens because the trainer added a treat each time.  Easy peasy, right?  This works for simple skills where the dog offers the behaviour in its entirety without having to learn something unusual or unnatural and we wall it capturing because we are capturing the behaviour as is.  What about more complicated things?

Complex behaviours can be developed through a process known as shaping.  You can think of shaping as a series of steps towards an end goal.  Heeling off leash is a behaviour that is very easily shaped.  Simply stand still and when your dog comes towards you, mark the behaviour (we use clickers, so I will just say click when I mean mark), and toss a treat away from you.  We are adding the click, and the dog keeps coming back to us after each tossed treat, which means that the behaviour of being with us is increasing, so this is still positive reinforcement.  Next, you could stand so that your right side is against a wall, and click when the dog comes into heel position, and toss the treat over your shoulder so that the dog goes behind you to get the treat.  In this way, he will begin to get closer and closer to a nice stationary heel position.  After a few reps of this, you might try taking a half step away from the wall, and continuing to click for being on your left side in heel position.  You would of course continue to toss the treat behind you to get the dog out of position, and then back in again.  When your dog is good at that, you might continue the progression by stepping further away from the wall.  Eventually your dog would be choosing to come to your left side even if you were in the middle of the room.  You could make a nice little game of this and begin walking forward one step and clicking when your dog keeps up with you, and then walking forward 2 steps and clicking for keeping up with that.  Progressively, you add more steps and then changes of directions and halts and eventually, you have very nice off leash heeling.

young hunting dog and hand with clicker
Positive reinforcement is the Swiss Army Knife of dog training. When you use a marker like a clicker to help the dog understand EXACTLY what you are teaching him, it can be a very powerful tool. Understand different aspects of positive reinforcement helps you to optimize your training.

Shaping can be applied to all sorts of tasks, from heeling to coming when called, all the way through complex things like backing away from you and spinning!  Shaping is a skill though and both you and your dog need to learn the process.  With one of my own dogs, D’fer, I had to stop using him as a demo for shaping after he learned to “shovel snow” by lining up to the handle of a snow shovel, pick up the handle and walk the shovel forward in under ten clicks!  He was really good at shaping but he gave my audiences an unrealistic expectation for how long shaping would take.

All this is very good information for building behaviours, but how about dealing with behaviours you don’t like?  Positive reinforcement can be really good for that too!  There is a procedure called Differential Reinforcement of Alternate behaviour, shortened to DRA.  It is also sometimes called DRO, with the O standing for Other behaviour.  What this means is simply that you mark or click for anything other than the behaviour you want to get rid of.  Let’s say you have a puppy who jumps up.  When he is doing ANYTHING other than jumping up, you can mark that and treat.  The fact is that most of the time the puppy is NOT jumping up, so you have lots of behaviours you can reinforce.  You can reinforce for four on the floor, running around, barking at the window, lying down, sitting, grabbing a toy, looking at the other dog, following the cat or getting on furniture.  Some of those behaviours might also be on your list of things you don’t want your pup to do, but none of them are compatible with jumping up.  This is a very flexible procedure, so you can either choose one of those things, or all of them, and either way you will decrease the jumping up behaviour.  In practice it is best to choose one behaviour and click that and only that, but at the beginning it may be best to just click for everything that isn’t jumping up to make the point that there are lots of things other than jumping up that you can click.

Another way to decrease behaviours is to reinforce the least iteration of the behaviour.  This works well for behaviours that go on and on, such as barking.  Barking can be looked at as one behaviour, or it can be looked at as a long series of behaviours.  When we look at it as a long series, it is easy to get control over it by clicking for the first few barks.  If you were to count how many barks happen before your dog just naturally stops barking, you might find for instance that he barks an average of 78 times.  I would want to get my click in before the fifth bark if possible, and initially, I would be following the click up with super duper good treats and lots of them.  I would want to make a big impression because barking is such an exciting behaviour.  I would keep doing this until I had an INCREASE in short bursts of barking.  It is much easier to get rid of barking altogether when it occurs in short bursts instead of over long duration!  Once I was in control of the barking to the extent that it only happens in short bursts, I could start clicking for single barks. 

All of these procedures have pitfalls, which is why I have a job!  I have had many students say to me “that worked for a bit, but it isn’t working any more”.  When you are using a Swiss Army Knife as your main tool, you may have to sometimes stop and change tactics in order to be successful.  Knowing that there are other blades to use when your first choice fails you is a valuable skill to develop as a trainer.  Positive reinforcement is my favourite training tool by far, and it is really useful to play with various ways to implementing it.

THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF DOG TRAINING