I have been seeing a lot of people lately engaging in what I would refer to as stunts. One of these stunts is sometimes marketed as “reality” training, where dogs are left on a down stay outside of a store while the owner goes in. The dogs are unattended and un-tethered. These dogs are really clear that a down stay is a down stay is a down stay, but let’s think about this. Is this really a good idea? I have dogs who could do this if I asked them to do so, and in fact, I have done this in times past. Learn and grow I always say. I learned and I grew, and now, I don’t do it unless there is an emergency. I cannot think what that emergency might be, but I will never say never. I will just say that I would have to be pretty convinced that an out of sight, public down stay might be necessary.
Is the dog under control? Yes. The dog understands that he must not move. In the world of protection work for instance, the goal is to train to this level and the dog understands that if he moves, bad things will happen. This looks like a great idea and it is a wonderful piece of theater. I remember revelling in my earlier days as a trainer, doing stunts like this. Then I grew a little bit and I started to realize that doing this is pretty darned disrespectful of my dog. The dog may be under control, but there is no plan “B” for what will happen if the dog is startled or spooked out of his stay. What will happen to the dog if he is stung by a bee, spooks and runs into the street? What might happen is that the dog could be hit by a car. Worse, someone might swerve to miss the dog, and hit a child. Control is not the only element that should be taken into consideration.
I am seeing other stunts around town too. Today I saw a small dog being led around the downtown core by a toddler who was maybe three or four years old. Cute? Yes. Safe? No. The child doesn’t understand the risks of leading the dog and the dog doesn’t understand traffic and if the dog spooks and runs into traffic, then not only is the dog dead, but so is the kid. This is a stunt, and mom may have thought that she was amusing both the kid and the dog, but it just wasn’t a good idea.
And then there are the dogs I am seeing off leash, with joggers and cyclists in the city. These dogs are really the victims of stunts, because they are often being run through traffic. As a runner in traffic, you are at risk but at least your body is usually taller than the hoods of most cars. Your dog is not, and if the driver doesn’t realize that there is a dog loose in traffic, then he is are real risk for being hit by a vehicle.
Not all stunts are set up on purpose. A colleague of mine lives on a corner lot in a beautiful neighbourhood. She has a service dog who is completely reliable. One day, the dog was let out to toilet and the family went back in the house for a few moments. A couple of minutes later, they looked out and the dog was out of sight. They called and she reappeared and came in the house. Not a big deal, until you find out that a neighbour observed a car slow down and someone get out and try and coax the dog out of her own yard and into a car. When you cannot observe your dog directly, you are depending that everyone around you is kind and honest and not intending to do harm to your dog, and sadly, that just isn’t the case some of the time.
Another stunt I regularly see happens in barns with horses. I am a recreational rider, and I often see dogs in barns, off leash, just doing their thing. On the surface, this doesn’t look like a stunt, but in a dog who doesn’t live with horses, and horses who don’t live with the dog, this sort of stunt can result in danger to both the horse and the dog. Worse, if you are mounted and coming back into the barn yard and your horse is faced with a loose dog she doesn’t know, you risk that the horse will spook, the rider may fall and the dog may get injured by the horse, or the horse by the dog. No one wins in this sort of a situation.
If this was my pony and your dog, I would be really annoyed. Even when the horses and the dogs know one another, supervision makes for safer interactions. Image credit: virgonira / 123RF Stock Photo
Every day I see stunts around me in the name of training. Doing an off leash heeling routine in a public square away from traffic is one thing, but doing the same thing through traffic is another. Doing a sit stay by a statue (something I have been doing with D’fer for many years) when I am right there is relatively safe; leaving that dog at the statue while I go out of sight is grand standing and doesn’t respect my dog.
When you have a dog in modern society, you have to take into account a number of really important things. The dog is incapable of understanding the risks of the environment he lives in. A hundred and fifty years ago, putting your dog out to toilet was not a big deal. Horses could hurt a dog, but there were many more horses and the dogs learned early how to behave around them. Dogs who didn’t learn, learned the ultimate lesson and were killed. It was a slower time and there were fewer people interested in stealing or harming a dog. You knew more of your neighbours and people didn’t show up randomly in your neighbourhood as often as we see now.
So what can you do in public with your dog? In traffic, please keep your dog on a leash. Walking your dog off leash just isn’t safe and it is a stunt that could cost your dog his life. If you need to go into a store, tie your dog and ask him to stay. Yes, my dog CAN stay out of sight for a very long time (I once left a dog on a down stay in the training room to answer a phone call and came back forty minutes later to find him snoozing on the floor where I left him!), but I have no need to risk my dog’s life to prove that fact. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. If you want to take a picture of your dog in public, by all means use your stay to the level you have trained it, but don’t leave the vicinity and hope for the best.
In an urban environment where traffic and dogs and people share space, a leash is a must no matter how well your dog is trained. Image credit: vvoennyy / 123RF Stock Photo
If you want to introduce your dog to horses, make sure that one person is controlling the horse and one person is controlling the dog while you train your dog to do things that are safe around your horse. If your dog is frightened of your horse, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you want to spend time with your dog and your horse together, orchestrate what you want them both to be doing. When I am grooming my horse if my dogs are around, I will put out a mat or send the dog to a bale of hay to lie down while I am grooming. If I am riding, I will have a spot for my dog to do a down stay in the event that I am in an arena or riding ring where it is safe for my dog to be. If I want my dog to heel with me, I will teach both my horse and my dog to work together instead of hoping that they will both figure it out.
The bottom line is that we are responsible for both what happens because of our dogs and what happens to our dogs and it doesn’t matter if we are there to observe the activity or not. If you leave your dog on a down stay out of sight and a child comes up and teases your dog and your dog bites the child, you are responsible. If you are crossing the street and your dog is off leash and he darts between the cars and is hit, that is also your responsibility. An important lesson to consider is that it need not be your fault in order to be your responsibility.
I feel like “Fair is not Equal” has begin to replace “It depends” as my motto at work these days. I have a number of cases these days where people want to give perfectly equal treatment to two dogs in the house. On the surface of it, the idea of treating everyone the same way seems like a good idea; after all you would not want to be excluded from a party because you are the only woman, or the only tall person, or the only dog trainer in a group! That would not be fair at all. The problem is that when you try and give equal treatment to two people with very different needs.
When we have a baby and an older child, we often see people around us try and give equal treatment to both children. If grandma comes to visit and she brings a toy for the baby, then she will most likely bring a toy for the older child too. This sounds fair, right? If you have two dogs and you bring home one special chew bone, and give it to your favourite dog, the other dog is likely going to be pretty upset about missing out. This in fact is likely a quick way to a dog fight! When we try and make fair equal, we can actually get into trouble though.
Consider for instance what the older child might think if grandma arrived with two rattles both designed for a child of about 6 months of age. If the older child is two, he may or may not care, but if he is 5, he is going to care a lot. The same is very true of our dogs. If you have a puppy and a middle aged dog, the pup is going to be interested in very different things than is the middle aged dog. This is the situation that prompted my blog today.
I have a client who has a 7 year old retriever with degenerative disc disease. Her 7 year old has been her constant companion for his whole life and they have done all sorts of cool things together; from hiking in Northern Ontario to sports classes locally, and road trips across Canada, to quiet family dinners with her aging parents, my client has taken this dog on every possible dog adventure his heart could wish for. Now that he is suffering from back pain though, he isn’t allowed to do as many things as he used to do. The one thing that they still do together is sit on the floor with her head on her lap while she grades her high school student’s homework. Every night after dinner, she sits down with a pile of paper on one side, and her special buddy on the other. They have done this ritual for the past seven years, from September till June, at least five nights a week. Recently though, this client has been missing some of the training activities she did with her 7 year old, so she brought a new puppy into the family.
This particular lady wants to be fair to both dogs, but sometimes she gets fair confused with equal. The first way she got confused was when she signed her puppy up for puppy class. She felt guilty that her older dog wasn’t going to training too, so she signed him up for a class as well. The problem was that she didn’t have time to devote to two sets of classes, so some of the time she missed class with her older dog and then she felt bad about spending money on a class she didn’t attend. Not only that but her older dog was often stiff and painful after his class, which really wasn’t fair to him at all.
The next place she got confused was leash walking her puppy. Young pups don’t actually know how to walk on leash. When she brought her youngster out for a leash walk with her older dog, he just got all tangled up and annoying! No one was happy; not the lady, not the puppy and definitely not the older dog.
My client knew that puppies need to eat more often than do adult dogs, and she wanted to be fair, so when she fed the puppy, her adult dog always got a meal too. He got his normal two meals a day, plus a little extra at lunch time. Her adult dog gained a few pounds, and that was hard on his joints, which meant an extra trip for him to the vet, and extra medication for pain.
Perhaps the least fair thing that this nice lady did for her two dogs was let the puppy have free run of the house with her older dog. She just didn’t feel good about her puppy being in his crate much of the time. The puppy took to harassing the older dog, which resulted in a grouchy adult dog, and an overtired, overstimulated puppy. The last straw came when school started in September though; on her first day sitting on the floor grading papers with her nice sedate adult dog, her cup of tea and her whirling dervish of a puppy. Within minutes her neatly organized evening came apart at the seams with papers strewn all over the room, her adult dog snarling at the puppy, and a hot cup of tea all over the floor.
When we met, my client said to me “I don’t remember puppyhood being so much work with my older dog!” The thing to reflect on with a case such as this is that at the time she didn’t have another dog to compare to, so instead of trying to give her first dog exactly everything that she gave to another dog, she just gave him what he needed. Fair, is rarely if ever equal.
So how did we resolve this? We acknowledged that fair is not equal and she stopped trying to give everything to the puppy that she gave to her adult and vice versa. Her adult dog does not need an extra class or a daily extra meal. Her puppy does not need a leash walk, or freedom of the house just yet. Once we stopped doing things that weren’t good for each of the dogs, we could really look at what each dog needed.
In the first few months, puppies need a lot of extra attention, training and structure. It isn’t forever, but it is important. We stopped all leash walking and added in two ten minute training sessions each day. Instead of wrestling a young strong dog on leash around the block with one hand, while trying to encourage her older, sedate and slightly painful older dog to keep up, all the while trying to avoid the inevitable tangling of the leash, she returned to her fifteen minute strolls around the block with her old friend. Her young dog benefited from the extra training sessions and her older dog got the time and attention that he needed from his normal routine. Not equal, but fair.
To address the lunchtime habit, we moved the older dog’s walk from first thing in the morning to lunch time, so that the puppy could have quiet alone time in the house with her lunch, while the older dog got what he needed. This helped to take weight off sensibly, and avoided the issue of the older dog mooching around the pup’s food bowl. Fair is not equal but each dog can get what they need when their needs are properly addressed.
Finally, we addressed the issue of the pup having free run of the house with an ex-pen in the living room. This allowed my client to have time with both dogs in the room, but without trashing her student’s assignments, spilling tea or harassing the older dog. Over time she will be able to give the younger dog more and more freedom as long as she is minding her manners. These few changes took the household from equal but completely unfair to not equal, but much more fair.
I think it is easier to identify when fair is not equal when we are talking about medical issues. My client was really trying hard to make things both equal and fair, but each dog had different needs. When her older dog was sore from gaining weight and being too physical, she didn’t feel the need to bring the younger dog to the vet for medication; that obviously would be neither fair nor equal. Likewise, she did not feel that she needed to revaccinate her older dog; her older dog was not due for vaccines for another 18 months, so just her puppy got vaccinated. When it comes to medical issues, we are much more clear about fair and equal and we do what is fair. When it comes to the rest of our dog’s lives, we are much more muddled. We try and do the things that we do with one dog with both, even if it would not be fair. To be fair, we have to take in the needs of the individual instead of the activities that we do with one or the other dog.
Just today, someone sent me the link to Blackfish, the documentary film that re-examines the deaths of three whale trainers attributed to Tillikum, the killer whale. This documentary led me to do some reading again about the work that is done with killer whales, and what the industry thinks about punishment and aggression and how these things are linked. I have also been getting a lot of posts on my Facebook page about how we don’t use punishment with zoo animals and thus we ought not use punishment with our dogs. Most of the time, I agree that punishment is not the right tool for the job. Some of the time though, it may be the best alternative. To be clear, punishment is anything that decreases behaviour. I don’t touch the hot kettle on the stove because it will hurt. My touching of hot kettles is a very low frequency behaviour because I understand intimately and deeply that it will hurt if I do so and I really don’t want that outcome to occur.
I would not reach out and touch this hot kettle; I know that I would hurt my hand if I did. I also don’t worry about it if I am sitting next to it. I understand that I can control if I will get hurt or not. When I touch such an item by accident, I am not traumatized, in part because I am flexible and can cope with a certain amount of unpleasant experience. Image credit: comzeal / 123RF Stock Photo
If you read through my blogs you will see that I DO use positive punishment and sometimes intentionally and sometimes fairly heavy positive punishment. If you are on my farm, regardless of who you are; a dog, a squirrel, a bird, a raccoon or a coyote, or a person, and you touch the hot wire on my fence, you will get hurt. The hot wire is an electric fence wire that runs on the top of my fence to keep dogs in and critters out. It is a simple rule that no one on the farm gets particularly stressed about. It is very much like the rule about hot kettles. If you touch the kettle when it is hot, it will hurt. It is a simple rule that everyone in the house understands and to my knowledge no one in the house is stressed about.
When I am training, I always ask the animal about how he experiences the process, and there are tons of questions to ask. Did you understand me? I have seen many, many trainers who don’t understand that confusion is incredibly aversive, and they are busy feeling great about the fact that they are only using R+ but the dog is more and more stressed because he is confused. At a seminar John went to once he came home and told me about a clicker trainer on stage trying to get a dog to do something; the dog was confused and stressed and the trainer kept talking about breaking the behaviour down into smaller increments; the problem wasn’t the method of the training; the problem was that no one had asked the dog if he was comfortable or happy. Heck no one had asked the dog if he wanted to be on stage!
When I was training my dog Crow, as I write about in my blog (http://tinyurl.com/blc89ce) we had one big stumbling block. Leash manners. He was terrible on leash. After two years of trying to use only R+ and P-, I “resorted” to a prong collar. We were both so much happier after that, that I learned that I will never ever “resort” to pain as a training tool again. Now if I choose to use pain, I CHOOSE. I choose to use pain, and yes, sometimes making the lesson clear is much more important than avoiding all pain. Pain can be less aversive than confusion to many learners.
What most folks, (including the author of Coercion and its Fallout) miss is that pain in isolation is stressful. Pain that happens repeatedly without warning and that you cannot control is very stressful, but pain that you understand and can avoid is not. If you are not walking around in fear of your electrical sockets, your tea kettle or your woodstove then you understand this on a much deeper level than you realize. I am well educated about contingent control over behaviour. Non contingent punishment is extremely stressful. We have a special name for this; we call it torture. I do not torture my learners. But I do sometimes use P+. When I give D’fer the hairy eyeball when we are in an airport and he is in a goofy mood and is thinking about doing something funny in security, I am using P+. He understands this, and it is not a conditioned P+; he understands that my dirty look is disapproval of his behaviour, and he tones down. He is not stressed because he can control that disapproval. When I am in a bad temper though and I am stomping around a hotel room in a funk, packing and worrying about being late, he IS stressed because there is nothing he can do. He is helpless.
Coming back to the killer whales, and the other marine mammals in captivity that are being so successfully trained using only positive reinforcement, we need to understand something about the difference between a captive zoo animal and a household pet. This is that most people cannot provide that much structure to their dogs. If you are a complete control nerd, and you really like ensuring that your dog never ever encounters any stimulus that you don’t have control over, then yes, you can likely train absolutely 100% without any unpleasant consequences. The problem is, who lives like this? My life with dogs is fairly structured, but my clients certainly don’t keep their dogs in the sort of controlled environment that zoos and aquaria keep their animals within. This means that some of the time, we are faced with situations where the dog is going to have opportunities to behave in ways that aren’t what we want.
What is interesting to me is that I started out as a jerk and treat trainer and I changed as I learned more. I started out using pain to gain control over behaviours. I then switched over to being a completely R+ trainer. I was as R+ as I could be. The more I learned and listened and thought and researched and studied, the more that I learned that P+ can sometimes have a place. It is as important as any of the other quadrants, as important as classical conditioning and as important as extinction (if you want to see a stressed animal have a watch at an animal going through extinction-they are often very distressed and it is highly unpleasant for the learner and for the trainer), and yet it is trampled down and labeled as inhumane. There are a lot worse things in my life than remembering not to touch the hot wire or using a tool that will cause pain to resolve a behaviour quickly and efficiently. When I had a dog who was predatory to my chickens, yes, I used a shock collar. I guarantee that my dog was less stressed than the two chickens he disemboweled and killed. I used a shock collar on a dog who had been through several surgeries to remove rocks from his gut. That was far less stressful than the surgeries were.
I think that in the world of training we can easily become academically lazy. If you can train a killer whale without shock, why not the dog who is eating rocks? Let’s look at that. We are comparing apples and oranges. If I had a killer whale who was eating non food items, it would be easy enough to put the whale in a tank without anything non edible in it. If I wanted to teach a wild killer whale not to eat non food items using positive reinforcement only, I would be entirely unsuccessful. The world itself would put an end to this behaviour the day that the learner ate the first deadly thing. Shooting the dog is indeed, as Karen Pryor so strongly pointed out, the ultimate in end games for behaviours. Dead whales don’t eat non food things ever.
It is an exciting time to be involved with dog behaviour consulting, practice and research. So much is available to us in terms of information, research and data. The last thing we can afford to do is to be academically lazy. We must question what we know, and examine what we do each and every day. Image credit: lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo
I cannot put the dog in a position where he is never exposed to rocks; he lives in a house with kids who bring things inside of the house. He goes on walks outside of the house with rocks in the environment. There are rocks everywhere and I have few choices in how to stop him from eating them. A muzzle is a good first step and in the short term, this will work, but in high heat, this will kill my learner and that is not the outcome I am looking for. In that case, I will choose to use punishment, and likely a pretty significant one. What I want to do though is to set up a contingency that the dog can learn as clearly as I understand that touching my electric hot wire is going to hurt. I make mistakes from time to time, but I don’t repeatedly touch the hot wire. The frequency of my touching the fence is about once a month or less. I never intentionally touch the wire when it is on, and I am not afraid of the fence because I understand the outcome of doing so.
And let’s look at the zoo animals. In case anyone is interested, I am as strongly opposed to keeping wild animals in captivity as most of the R+ trainers are against the use of P+. I think it is morally reprehensible and I will not be a party to it, but it does provide an interesting contrast to what we do with dogs. Let’s consider the life of your average killer whale in a tank. Do you know that they cannot properly ecolocate within the echoing concrete of the tanks they live within? Do you realize that these animals typically travel several hundred miles a day, and we keep them in tanks of less than ten acres in size? Do you realize that they are environmentally enriched less than 50% of their days? Do you know that they are likely on par with us in terms of our intellectual capacity? Can you imagine what it would be like to live in your kitchen for the rest of your life with exciting trips to the living room once a day to “interact” with a trainer? I think that what we do to zoo animals is far more inhumane and horrendous than what I do with positive punishment. Yes, we can get spectacular responses from all kinds of animals when the only game in town is what we offer them for the few hours a day that they are able to come out and train with us.
This sterile environment is where captive whales spend most of their time, with little to do and a tank that is so small that they cannot echolocate and communicate normally. We never use pain to train these incredible creatures, but we keep them in such appalling conditions, that using no pain to train seems like a small nod indeed to humane treatment of the learner. Image credit: ozbandit / 123RF Stock Photo
I want people to think about never ever again being able to say “thank you, no, I don’t want that” to your child, your spouse, your parent or your sibling. In training, punishment is the tool we use in place of “no. don’t do that”. If you want an interesting week, frame every conversation you have for the week in terms of thank you for trying, I would like something else. Never ever say no, just reframe your request in terms of “thank you, please do something different.” It doesn’t work any better if you frame everything you do in terms of only attending to the things you like without any other information. Sometimes that will work, and more often than not, it will not. What often happens in the classroom when teachers try this is that the willing students will be successful and willing, the students who don’t care will not advance at all and the students who are not compliant will become more and more and more creative in ways to try and get the information about what is not allowed. Often this tactic results in a very frustrated trainer and an even more frustrated learner.
There are two interesting and competing theories in Applied Behaviour Analysis that do not get discussed nearly often enough. They are called two factor and one factory theory. Two factor theory says that when negative reinforcement is used, both operant learning and classical learning happen at the same time. This means that not only will the learner increase his behaviour, but he will develop a classical association with the signals that the aversive stimulus may occur, and will suffer distress when the signal is present. This is the most common argument that I have heard for why people eschew the use of both negative reinforcement and positive punishment. By extension, when this concept is applied to positive reinforcement, not only will the behaviour increase, but the signal that a appetitive or pleasant outcome is available will produce good feelings in the learner. The problem is that there is some good research out there indicating that this may not in fact be happening. Pavlov may NOT be part of every single interaction you have with your learner. One factor theory says that only one thing is occurring at a time; that if you increase a behaviour through negative reinforcement or decrease a behaviour through positive punishment, the only thing that is happening is an increase or decrease in behaviour; the procedure is entirely operant. People who believe strictly in one factor theory would argue that you are simply increasing or decreasing the frequency of a behaviour when you train. Two factor theorists would argue that the learner’s well being is attached to the choice of method of behavioural change.
I would like to propose a third option; that is that some of the time, two factor theory is relevant and some of the time, one factor theory prevails. From my observations of over thirty years of training, when the animal has work that is meaningful to him, and an environment that he can predict and control through his behaviour, then one factor theory is going to control. When the animal is uncertain, his welfare is dicey and his work is not meaningful, then two factor theory will be the more important scenario. In my opinion the difference between the whale in the tank and the dog in my home is that with the domestic dog who evolved to fill the niche that was created by the detritus of the human environment is that the dog is usually a stable individual in his native environment. Of course two factor theory will prevail when you are talking about training animals who live in horrendously suboptimal environments.
Punishment isn’t something I use often, but I do use it and I support the use of it in some situations. Understanding about two factor and one factor theory has helped me to see that learners experience both or either operant and classical conditioning some of the time depending a lot on their state of mind and welfare. Most of the time, punishment is misused because it is very poorly understood. Most of the time it is not the right tool for the job. Some of the time though, I believe it is. When the conditions are right, and the one factor theory is in effect, it can be very helpful. Punishment doesn’t have to have baggage with it; sometimes it is just a kettle we should not touch. Done properly, that is exactly the effect.
About a month ago, I had an accident where I nearly amputated my thumb. I was trying to medicate my horse’s eye and she was tethered to a wall, and she panicked. In the melee that ensued, the clip on the end of the tether ricocheted off my thumb, split it wide open almost to the bone and tore 2/3rds of my thumbnail right off. Needless to say this has been an incredibly painful injury and has negatively impacted my ability to do a number of things. The problem is that post injury, in spite of all the pain, there really isn’t much that the doctor can or should do. After getting it stitched up and getting a prescription for antibiotics, we just have to wait and see what will happen. Once in a while though, something funky happens that is a bit worrisome, which leads to the title of today’s blog. I was sitting in a meeting the other day looking worriedly at my thumb when one of my colleagues said to me “what’s wrong?” “My thumb is changing” I replied. And it had; it was painful and the scar had begun to swell. It wasn’t significantly different, but it hurt more than it has and it was different enough that I was concerned. “I am not sure if I should bother the doctor with this though” I said, still looking intently at the very slight swelling. “Well” replied my colleague, “if your arm turns black and falls off, you should definitely call the doctor”. What can you say to that? It really reflects how people treat problems though!
We see this all the time when it comes to behaviour problems. I have worked with families who have lived with a behaviour problem for many years, allowing and sometimes supporting the problem to continue, because the problem doesn’t feel serious enough to address. Usually in such cases there is some single event that makes the behaviour problem relevant enough to get help, but by the time that happens, often the problem is so deeply entrenched that it is a lot of work to resolve. Often, if the family had come for help early on, there would have been some simple solutions to carry out. When behaviour problems are allowed to persist, they don’t usually get better all on their own. Most of the time, behaviour problems just get worse and worse as the dog practices the undesired behaviour successfully.
So when is a problem bad enough to seek help for? This is the conundrum I face with my thumb. It is always somewhat painful, so I am aware of the problem most of the time. Never the less, as my vet would tell me “it is a long way from the heart”, meaning that the discomfort caused by the healing injury just isn’t something that the doctor can do much about. In fact, this time, I did go see the doctor and she looked at it and said that she was glad that I had come in, but that it was healing nicely and that there was nothing that we could do; the swelling was likely due to scar tissue forming. Just like my doctor, I am always glad to speak to people about behaviour problems; they may not be serious, however, they could be, and I can usually tell after speaking with my clients if there is a simple fix, or if we need to engage in a full blown behaviour modification program.
Some of the time, what appears to be a small problem to my clients appears to be a great big problem to me. This means that I may be delivering bad news to my clients, and that can be tough for everyone. If you have a problem, ask someone who knows. A Certified Professional Dog Trainer will know, and so will a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant. The lady in the park who has always had dogs may have an idea, but like my colleague who suggested that if my arm turned black and fell off, I should go to the doctor, the lady in the park really isn’t qualified to give you an opinion on how serious a behaviour problem might be.
All of this begs the question of when is a behaviour problem a problem, and that really isn’t an easy question to answer. I have sat through numerous professional conferences where researchers have told us that people don’t try and resolve their dog’s behaviour problems until the behaviour directly impacts the people! I also know from personal experience that many people don’t address their dog’s behaviour problems when they don’t know that the problem exists. What do I mean by that? If you think that a behaviour is normal for a dog, but it isn’t, then it is a problem, but you won’t seek help. I have for instance had clients whose dogs have still been having regular toileting accidents indoors at the age of four years. This is definitely not normal, but the clients I am thinking of didn’t realize that dogs should be house trained by about 17 weeks of age; they had been waiting for some magic to kick in that would somehow or another resolve the problem!
From my point of view, if any behaviour is not normal for a dog, then it is definitely a problem. By normal I mean behaviours that are outside of what dogs in general do. Behaviours in this category include things like spinning, chasing lights or shadows, licking the wrists, barbering the fur, licking walls, getting “stuck” and staring at things. Dangerous behaviours are similar; if the dog is chasing cars or jumping out of windows, then the behaviour is a problem for the dog even if it isn’t for the humans who live with the dog. Some problem behaviours may pose health risks to the dog, such as eating feces or non food items such as rocks. It is not fair to the dog to not address these problems, but when the humans who live with the dog don’t consider them problems it can be a hard sell to convince them to work to resolve the issue. In the video below, the Australian Shepherd is showing a behaviour that some people consider funny. I would consider this behaviour to be a problem, and if the family waits to get help, it will become so entrenched that it may not be possible to resolve.
Any behaviour that negatively impacts the life of the family should also be considered a problem behaviour. Even when the behaviour is a fairly normal behaviour for the dog, if it interferes with the family’s enjoyment of life, then that would count as a problem behaviour. This category of behaviours includes things such as jumping up on guests, and getting into the garbage. Unruly behaviour can create so much chaos for families that living with the dog becomes very frustrating for everyone concerned. Although it may take work to overcome these behaviours, usually it is less effort to work on the behaviours than it is to live with the problem.
Once in a while the family may feel that a behaviour is a problem when it isn’t. Inguinal checking, self grooming and humping inanimate objects are behaviours that people often ask us about, and unless the behaviour is happening to excess, I am likely to just tell you that the behaviour is normal and something that dogs just do. I don’t mind being asked, however, unless these behaviours happen all the time, there is really no reason to interrupt the dog; in fact with inguinal checking and self grooming, stopping the behaviour interferes with the dog staying clean and healthy.
Finally, we come to the group of behaviours that everyone can recognize as problematic; things like aggression, and separation anxiety. These behaviours are more than a nuisance, and most folks recognize that and seek help. In some respects, these are the easiest of situations to deal with because the problems are obvious and the people recognize that the problems exist.
The take away here is that if you have any doubt about your dog’s behaviour, ask us or ask another credentialed trainer! We are trained to recognize when the problem is a problem, and when the problem is not, and we have the skills to help you when the problem really is a problem. Usually, the sooner you start to address a behaviour problem, the easier it is to resolve. You don’t have to wait till your arm turns black and falls off to call the doctor!
One of the most popular games that people play with their dogs is the blame game. As a society, we love this game. If the dog is rude and overbearing with guests, then it is Dad’s fault because he plays roughly with the dog. Or if the dog attacks other dogs it is because the older dog taught the younger dog in the house to growl at strange dogs. Blame is lots of fun.
I think this is often how my clients feel when they have a dog with a problem behaviour. Blaming people for the problem just isn’t helpful. Blame doesn’t change the behaviour. Blame is what we do when we want people to take responsibility for things that we want changed. Image credit: bowie15 / 123RF Stock Photo
As a behaviour consultant, I don’t get to play the blame game. It can be interesting to know where the problem originated, and sometimes it is helpful to know when a trauma occurred or if the dog suffered an illness that prevented him from going to puppy class, but the fact is that the blame game just doesn’t work with dogs with behaviour problems. It is often said that dogs live in the now, and when it comes to specific behaviours this is really important information. The dog doesn’t pee on the bed while you are away because he is angry; he pees on the bed because his bladder is full and he doesn’t have to stand in a puddle of pee if he pees on the bed. As a behaviour consultant, I have to look at the behaviours that are problematic and instead of blaming someone for the problem, look at the variables to determine what can be changed to change the behaviour.
It can be helpful to look at a case in order to get the idea of how to look at behaviour problems without blame. If we have an adolescent Labrador named Lulu, and she is jumping up on people and knocking them over, we have a problem. If her people, Larry and Lucy come to me for help, I will ask a bunch of questions about Lulu. How many pups were in her litter? At what age did she come home from the breeder’s? Did she go to puppy class? What have Larry and Lucy tried already? When did she last go to the vet, and is she healthy? In gathering this information, I want to know things that will help me to rule out some strategies that might not work. If there were very few puppies in the litter or if she was a singleton, she is more likely to have impulse control issues. That tells me that we may be looking at teaching her impulse control exercises. If she came home before six weeks of age, this may also contribute to a lack of good impulse control. If she didn’t go to a puppy class then the chances are that Lucy and Larry may not have the skills to address the problem, and Lulu may not have had enough of the appropriate people to help her to meet people appropriately. Puppy class can help you to find the right people to meet and greet with a solid structure on how to do that. If Lucy and Larry have already tried penny shake cans, kneeing Lulu in the chest, stepping on her hind feet, and grabbing her roughly around the neck, then I know that Lulu may be conflicted about wanting to greet but not knowing how to do that properly. If Lulu went to the vet and she has an eye infection, and the jumping up got worse since the eye became infected, she may be quite agitated and uncomfortable and may not be making great decisions.
Dogs who are ill often don’t make great behavioural decisions. Getting sick is no one’s fault, and laying blame in one place or another doesn’t help. Realizing that the dog is sick and getting him help is a much better solution when changing behaviours. Image credit: edu1971 / 123RF Stock Photo
The next thing I am going to look at is what is maintaining the behaviour. Why does this behaviour keep happening? Lulu doesn’t jump up against cement walls, or the fridge door. She doesn’t jump up against the hood of the car, or her crate; she only jumps up on people. Likely, even if people do their very best not to interact with Lulu she gets something out of the behaviour. She gets attention if you make eye contact, she gets touch if you hold your arms up against your body to protect yourself and if she is confused, she resolves her confusion by jumping up and eliciting the known response when she does this; see my blog “THEY DO IT TO GET ATTENTION” at http://dogsinthepark-suenestnature.blogspot.ca/2013/06/they-do-it-to-get-attention.html.
Notice that so far, there is no blame; just facts. The first thing I am going to do from here is to define my target behaviour. With Lulu, I want her to learn to greet with all four feet on the floor. I don’t care how happy she is or how excited she is, I just want to her to keep her feet to herself when she is greeting. We can do this lots and lots of ways, but before I decide what technique or method I will choose with Lulu, I will decide what I want her to do. Given that Lulu appears to have a likelihood of impulse control issues, and Larry and Lucy have already tried to stop the unwanted behaviour by doing things that are unpleasant to the dog, I am going to start with some tactics that may not seem to have anything to do with the problem at hand. I would start by taking a week’s vacation from greeting anyone other than family members, so that Lulu stops practicing the unwanted behaviour. When the family greats Lulu, I will have them drop treats on the floor so that Lulu is doing something that she cannot do while she is jumping up. I will also have the family crouch to greet Lulu for this week so that once she has cleaned up her treats, then they aren’t setting her up to greet inappropriately. Still…no blame.
Once Lulu has had a whole week of not practicing the undesired behaviour, then I can start to teach her the skills of keeping four feet on the floor when greeting. If we are approaching her and she has her feet on the floor we can mark that behaviour and drop a treat on the floor and move away while she is eating for instance. Or we can use a delta signal to tell her to change her behaviour and then mark the undesired response and she can lose a turn. There are dozens of very elegant solutions to teaching a dog not to jump up when greeting, but the important part is to keep in mind that Larry and Lucy have already tried using an unpleasant outcome without success, so we want to avoid doing that again. I don’t blame my clients for trying tactics that I might not try, but I can avoid repeating things that didn’t work.
Ideally, Lulu would have come from a larger litter, come home at about 8 weeks, gone to a great puppy socialization class, and learned early how to greet appropriately before she was 16 weeks of age. Ideally, Larry and Lucy would have tried more effective interventions than they chose, and ideally, Lulu wouldn’t have an eye infection. None of the things that happened to Lulu are anyone’s fault but they do contribute to how we approach the behaviour now, and blaming Lucy for insisting on getting a very young puppy or blaming Larry for giving Lulu a bath and getting dirt in her eye isn’t going to change what we are dealing with in the here and now.
Prevention is always the best cure. We can make ourselves feel really great if we think we always know the right answer, but we don’t always know, and neither do my clients. As we learn more, we do better. We know now that the best way to prevent jumping up is to teach the dog to greet politely when they are young and reward for the right answer, but when we are looking at behaviour, playing the blame game just doesn’t change the behaviour of the dog we are working with in front of us. When clients come and ask for help, it is important that I recognize that they are not looking for blame; they are looking for help. They have taken responsibility for the problem and they are addressing that by coming to me for help. As long as they are coming to classes and working on their problems, then blaming from me or from the family members shouldn’t be a part of the program; it just isn’t going to help. Lucy and Larry and Lulu are tangled up in a problem and they are looking for solutions not blame. I need information, but not so that I can assign blame. I need to know things in order to formulate a solution. People tend to use blame when they think that someone isn’t taking responsibility when they ought to. If clients are in my training hall they have already taken responsiblity, and so blame just doesn’t belong there as a part of the process.
Whenever someone asks me about female dogs, I feel like I am jumping down a rabbit’s hole because often the answer is “it depends”. Picking up from the last installment on intact dogs, let’s review that male dogs are known as “dogs” and female dogs are known as “bitches” and we will use those terms in this blog to indicate which gender we are talking about. As a side note, I should mention that when I talk about a puppy, I am talking about a dog under the age of about twenty weeks. I have had clients who talk about their “puppies” who are now 12 years old!
So what exactly is going on with bitches? Let’s start with how reproduction works in dogs. Humans, all primates, bats and one shrew all have a menstrual cycle. All other mammals have an oestrus or estrus cycle; the word is spelled differently depending on where in the world you live. We are going to spell it “estrus” because that is how we commonly see it here in Canada. In a menstrual cycle, you can ONLY get pregnant on a few days that happen between your periods. In an estrous cycle, dogs can ONLY get pregnant for a few days during their heat cycle. In the simplest of explanations, in humans, be cannot get pregnant during a period, when we are producing menstrual blood, and in dogs, they can only get pregnant when they are expressing blood. This little fact has been the result of several unplanned litters in families who are new to living with an intact bitch. Because this is a dog blog, I am not going to go any further into the details around human reproduction than I have right here.
The dog heat cycle can be divided into four sections, and dogs can come into heat every 4 to 8 months, with a very few bitches only coming into heat once a year. The first phase is proestrus. Proestrus is the part of the heat cycle that starts when the bitch first exhibits a bloody discharge from her vagina, and continues until she is reproductively receptive. Often male dogs will be very interested in the bitch, but she will not be interested in their attentions, and she may even be aggressive towards them. The problem that novice owners have is that there is no visible difference between proestrus when the bitch cannot get pregnant and the next phase where she CAN get pregnant. Add to this that in a bitch’s first heat, she may not actually discharge enough blood for you to notice that she has come into heat. This is where you have to really know your dog’s body well, because a few other signs can be observed. The first of these signs is a swollen vulva.
So how do you get a good look at your bitch’s vulva? Quite simply, you make examining her down there a regular part of your health check. Check regularly from the time she comes home at 8 weeks, and from time to time, dab it with a paper towel. When she is in heat, you will usually get some clear to red discharge on the paper towel. At that point, the only responsible thing to do is to keep her on leash and away from the boys. Proestrus lasts an average of 9 days but can be over in as little as 3 days or last as long as 17 days.
Proestrus is perhaps the most difficult time for dog trainers because their bitch may be super cuddly one moment and then grumpy the next, especially towards male dogs. Sometimes, bitches in proestrus may be intolerant of other dogs altogether. And occasionally bitches will experience some cramping. Throughout this phase, continuing training is important. Putting a dog up and not training her during proestrus is not going to help her to mind her manners! Instead, it is important to patiently teach her that even though she may be extra friendly to the people or less than friendly to other dogs, or whatever variation of hormonal changes she may go through, it is important to keep learning and practicing all that she has already mastered.
When you come to class, please dress your girls in panties with a panty liner, but do come to class. For the gentlemen in the audience, you should know that pantyliners have an adhesive strip on the backside to stick to the panty. You remove the backing off the pantyliner and stick it to the panty, put the panties on your bitch, and you are good to go. Change the panty liner at least once a day or when it looks full if she has a heavy discharge. Dogs don’t usually have as significant a discharge as humans do though so you don’t usually have to change the pantyliners multiple times per day. When she is outside, or in her crate she doesn’t need to wear her panties, but when she is loose in the house or at class, she does. Make sure you take her panties off so that she can urinate and defecate. We suggest crating bitches in heat overnight so that they can groom themselves, but other than wearing panties there is nothing you really need to do to keep your house from getting covered in drips of blood. It helps to teach your young dogs to wear panties early, when they are quite young. You can buy dog panties at most pet stores, but many people just use a pair of boy’s underwear and pull the tail through the pocket. You will need to use her panties through proestrus and estrus.
Next up is estrus, which is commonly known as standing heat. Estrus is the phase of the cycle where your bitch can get pregnant and can last between 3 and 21 days, although again, the average is about 9 days. During this phase, you may notice less discharge, and many bitches appear to have no discharge at all, or it may be clear; just because you don’t see discharge, don’t assume she is no longer in heat. This is exactly when she is most likely to be fertile if she is bred. Other signs include losing hair on her belly, and her nipples may get enlarged, but just like in humans, everyone is an individual and each dog’s hormones are going to impact her a little differently than every other bitch. The biggest tell that you will have that your bitch is in the estrus phase is that she will start to flirt with the boys; turning her back on them and flagging her tail. She may mark even though she doesn’t normally. And she will be receptive to male dogs who want to breed her. When she is super receptive like this, it is essential that you keep her away from any males who could breed her, and continue to train and set good boundaries. Be aware that a fence is not a good enough boundary between a bitch in heat and an intact male; more than one litter has been conceived through a chain link fence!
During estrus we particularly want the girls in class. We don’t recommend that you do off leash recalls through milling dogs; that is a recipe for either an unplanned litter or a dog fight between two interested males, however, we do want your girls in heat in class. Use your leash, make sure that the instructor knows that your bitch is in season, put pants on your girl, and come train. It is best to ask to not be placed right beside an intact male, but other than these simple guidelines, training really isn’t any different when your bitch is in heat and when she is not. If you are careful and keep track of your bitch, and she is not covered (one of the technical terms for being bred) by an intact male, she should not get pregnant. If however you suspect she may have been impregnated by an intact male, call your vet right away for advice. They may advise you to have her spayed to ensure that there are no unwanted puppies. Keep in mind that you have to actually accompany your bitch outside when she goes to the toilet EVEN if you have a fenced yard. Many intact bitches have jumped the fence, or had an intact male come over the fence to breed. If you don’t have a fenced yard, take your girl out to toilet on leash, 100% of the time. Together proestrus and estrus lasts about 21 days from the first day of discharge, so this is a three week commitment, however, it is worth it if it prevents your dog from getting pregnant.
Following estrus, the bitch will go through diestrus. This starts the first day that a bitch would refuse a male because she is not longer fertile, and continues for 58 to 63 days if your bitch gets pregnant, and ends when the bitch welps, or 60 to 90 days if she is not pregnant.
Some bitches will go through a pseudopregnancy (the veterinary term for a false pregnancy) even if they have not been bred. If this happens, your bitch will look and behave like she is pregnant. She may begin lactating, nesting and she can even become aggressive as though she is guarding a litter. Pseudopregnancy is caused by a hormonal imbalance, however it is a relatively normal situation and will usually clear up without any medical help at all. If you think your bitch is experiencing a pseudopregnancy, but you are not sure, call your vet! Once you know, you can usually carry on with her as normal, unless she is really unsettled in which case keeping her home for a week or so should give her body a chance to settle down. If you are in doubt, call your vet for their medical opinion.
Diestrus is also the time when pyometra is most likely to occur. Pyometra is an infection of the uterus, and it can be fatal. If you have an intact bitch, it is your responsibility to keep an eye on her health on a daily basis, and this is yet another instance where being familiar with your bitch’s vulva can stand you in good stead. If your bitch is lethargic, stressed and panting, or if there is an abnormal discharge of her vulva, or if she is drinking or peeing excessively, call your vet. In fact when it comes to your dog’s health, any time you notice something out of the ordinary, call your vet! This is so important that we wrote a blog about it called “Who’re ya gonna call?” and you can read that at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/whore-ya-gonna-call/ . Calling when nothing is wrong is not a big deal, but not calling if your bitch has pyometra could cost her her life. If you have an intact bitch, it is very worthwhile to have a careful discussion with your vet about what the signs and symptoms of pyometra are so that you can be prepared in case of emergency.
The final phase of a bitch’s cycle is anestrus and this is the period between the end of diestrus and the beginning of proestrus. During this time, your intact bitch will behave pretty much the same way that a spayed bitch would. She cannot get pregnant and she should be fairly even keeled in terms of her behaviour. This is the time when you would normally spay a bitch if you are going to do that. With the whole production of proestrus, estrus and diestrus and all the things that happen during those times, you might be asking yourself why anyone would want to live with an intact bitch at all, so here you go; I will attempt to answer that question!
To begin with, if you have a bitch who is a spectacular example of her breed, or if she is particularly talented at a sport or some specific work, then you may wish to breed her with a specific goal of producing another dog as good as or better than she is. This is by far the most common reason to keep a bitch intact. Be aware though that doing a great job as a breeder is a huge responsibility, and it may cost more than you will make off a litter. If you are very lucky, you will only lose the cost of two or three pups in your first litter (there are a lot of costs associated with breeding a litter of puppies; consider that a good friend of mine just took a week off work to drive her bitch to the stud every day for a week, and in the end the bitch did not get pregnant; can you afford to lose a week’s wages and pay gas to drive your dog out to a date every day for a week?). More likely you will be many thousands of dollars in the hole at the end of the day and you may not produce the puppy you were looking for.
More and more research is showing that bitches may benefit from going through one or more heat cycles before they are spayed. There are indications that bitches who are left intact are less likely to suffer from aggression and anxiety, and they may have fewer orthopedic issues. Notice though that I am using a lot of “may” and “less likely” and “could” statements. We don’t have all the answers to these questions yet, so each case should be carefully considered with your veterinarian, taking into account your dog’s close relatives, disease risk in your breed, confidence in your breed, aggression in your breed along with as much current research as you can find. See the resources section below for links to studies and research. Be aware too that a blog like this is based on my opinion and experience; it is no substitute for the years your vet spent in school, or the newest research that is out there, so when you are choosing when to spay your bitch, you are going to have to do some digging to decide what is best for your dog.
I would be greatly remiss if I did not share the cons to having an intact bitch. We know for certain that every heat cycle that your bitch goes through increases her chances for mammary cancer. If this is not a huge concern for the close relatives in your bitch’s pedigree, then you may not need to worry about it. But if your bitch has a close relative who had breast cancer, you may want to spay sooner rather than later. If you live in a household full of young people who are going to forget to put your dog on a leash to go out when she is in heat, or if you have intact males in the house, you may want to spay before you have to deal with an “oopps litter”. Each situation has to be considered on its own merit.
Of course, you cannot let your bitch in heat interact with any intact males. If you regularly walk in an area where she might encounter an intact male, including in your neighbourhood or at the dog park, you are going to have to keep her away from there. You absolutely cannot run her off leash! Be aware too that if you run her in wilderness areas off leash, coyotes and wolves absolutely CAN impregnate a domestic dog, so that must not happen. Don’t assume that you can stop an intact male from breeding your bitch just because you have her on leash; many males will become very aggressive if you try and stop them from breeding, and if the male is not being handled on leash, you really don’t have much of a chance of stopping him. Finally, if you have an intact male in your home, don’t be surprised if he goes off his food while she is in heat, or begins howling, or even tries to dig through a door to get to her. It is often easier to board your intact males with a friend while your bitch is in heat. It is not entirely uncommon for small time breeders to board one another’s boys while the girls are receptive.
The bottom line is that if you have a young bitch and she is in classes with us at Dogs in the Park, you don’t have to stop coming to class just because your young girl has gone into heat. Small breed bitches can come into heat as early as 20 weeks (but just to be safe, consider that this could happen even earlier!), and giant breed bitches may not come into heat until they are 18 to 24 months of age or older. You may be thinking “but that is right in the middle of when we recommend that dogs are actively in training” and you would be right. We know that bitches will come into heat unexpectedly the first time and we don’t want you to stop training just because this normal event has occurred. Note when the first day of bloody discharge has occurred, and count 21 days past that and you can keep your girl in training classes by being sensible and take care not to let her get pregnant!
When I was about twelve, I wanted to teach the family dog some tricks. The process of connecting with an animal and imparting information fascinated me as much then as it does now. We had a dog in our family named Thurber, and she was my constant companion, and I wanted to do more. My aunt had a titled Golden Retriever, and I was mesmerized by the work they did together. I asked my aunt how she trained her dog and she suggested that I use a chain collar to tell the dog when not to do something and a piece of food to tell the dog when she had done something right. That was all the coaching I ever remember getting, but it made a big impact on me. I taught that dog many tricks; most of them involving jumping over or climbing onto things.
As an obedience instructor today, I have a lot of parents asking him about getting their children involved with dog training. Indeed, dog training and children can go hand in hand, but it is the unusual and rare child who is as interested in it as I was. Most kids are looking for some early successes and don’t persevere through the early stages where the dog doesn’t know what is happening and neither does the child. This can be even more difficult when the child and the dog are in a classroom full of adults and other dogs. The pressure to succeed can often result in frustration for the parents, the kids and the dog.
How can we make this more successful for the kids? For a while we ran a family class which was a levels class just for families and their kids. Sadly, not enough families could come out to make this worth carrying on with. We would go along nicely with four or five families in class for eight or twelve weeks and then it would dwindle and get taken over by families who wanted their dogs to meet and like children but who weren’t bringing children to class. Certainly there are schools who run classes specifically for children but there aren’t too many of them.
As an animal trainer who also works with horses, I think we can learn something from what we do in the horse world. It is accepted that it is not a good idea for an untrained, inexperienced young rider to be mounted on an untrained, inexperienced young horse. Instead, we prize those rare ponies who are well suited to teaching youngsters to be confident around and on horses. We start the kids in lessons where the pony knows what to do and the kids can learn from a horse who already knows the work. When the kids are proficient on a well schooled calm and older pony, we give them a more challenging mount or more difficult work on the same horse. When they master that, we give them a bigger horse, and bigger challenges. By the time a child is about twelve, he can if he has been taught carefully and properly begin schooling younger horses and by the time a child is about fourteen he can begin to teach young horses to be ridden.
This child is being set up for a successful riding experience by pairing her with a safe pony and supervision (she is on a long line to help her to successfully control the pony). She is wearing the appropriate safety equipment. The pony is the right size for her and he is calm and well behaved. We aren’t asking her to control a large unruly and untrained horse. Ideally, this is what we would do when we pair a child with a dog in an obedience class! Image credit: davetroesh / 123RF Stock Photo
This is how I recommend that we help youngsters to work with our family dogs. When mom or dad starts the training, and teaches the dog the skills and then helps the child to master the skill with the dog who already knows what to do, then the dog and the child can develop skills together. When the child has mastered the basics, then moving forward to more complex and interesting work makes for a more successful experience for both the dog and the child.
In practice what that means in our classes is coming to class and learning to click and treat effectively. Then take the skill of clicking and treating home to your kids and help them to master that part. Even very young children can be successful with you clicking and they treating. By working WITH your kids where you click and they treat does a lot of things. It teaches the dog that the click predicts the treat. It helps with your timing. It involves the children with you and the dog in an activity. Later you can change roles and let your kids click while you treat.
When you have mastered clicking to mark the behaviour you want, you can teach your dog to do a lot of different things; sit, down and come when called are really easy and useful behaviours to teach your dog so that your kids can participate in training. When your dog will sit when you say “sit” and you can click when sit happens, you can integrate into your training. You can start out by demonstrating the behaviour with your dog to your children. Once your child understands the activities that you want your dog to do, then you can play a variety of games with the behaviours your dog knows. Get your child to say “sit” when your dog sits, you click and your child can give the treat. This teaches your dog to follow directions from your child (very important!) and you mark when both the kid and the dog get the right answer. When your dog is following the direction from your child, you can start giving your child the clicker and you cue the behaviour for the dog. This gives you a chance to coach the timing of the click so that your child clicks at the right moment. When your child has had a chance at the cueing, the clicking and the treating separately, then they can start working on all three at once. I like getting kids to do five of the same behaviour in a row, before we start working on second and third behaviours.
Once the kids get the hang of the process with behaviours that the dog knows, then I like playing a game of call and response; I tell the kid what behaviours to use, and they ask for the behaviour from the dog and click and treat. When the dog and child are successful with five or six different behaviours in a row, then the kids are ready to start teaching new behaviours. The dog should by this time understand ten or twelve behaviours, so the dog understands the process of learning. It is really important that the kids understand that they are marking the right answer for the dog before they start trying to shape new behaviours with the dog.
I have a dozen or so throw away behaviours that I use to help people to learn to shape. Throw away behaviours are behaviours that don’t really matter a lot to me; tricks are throw aways, and if the dog doesn’t learn them exactly right it is not a big deal. Throw away behaviours are not the sorts of behaviours that the dog’s life depends upon, like come when called or lie down and stay. Lying down with your head on your paws is a great throw away behaviour for kids to play with. The child cues the dog to lie down, and then instead of clicking we just give the dog a treat; the click ends the behaviour, and we want the dog to stay lying down. Then your child can wait till your dog drops his head towards his paws, and click at that moment and then treat. If your child is sitting in front of your dog while he is lying down, then your dog will likely keep lying down. Help your child to offer the treat low between the dog’s feet to help your dog to continue lying down, and if he gets up, then help your child to recue your dog to lie down and then help your kid to continue to click only when your dog drops his head down to his paws.
Notice here that the parent needs to spend a lot of time training, supporting and coaching in order to make this successful for both the dog and the child. Training, supporting, and coaching set up your dog and your child to be successful and start to work independently. You cannot do this for either your dog or your child, but without input they are likely going to flounder especially in a busy classroom. Once your child has trained a few throw away behaviours or tricks with coaching, then it is time for the parent to step back, and supervise but not do it for the team. These first steps of training independently need to be successful to keep both your child and your dog engaged. It is also important to recognize that there is no imperative to work for a whole hour in a class-if your child and your dog are comfortable working for ten minutes and then they need a break, then let them take a break; it is not worthwhile to keep them working when they are no longer interested.
This is the sort of trick that little girls teach their dogs to do. The dog has to learn somethings first; lie down and stay for instance. If we help the dog to learn the behaviour and then teach the kids how to get the dogs to do what they know then the dog and the kids can both have a great experience!
Small successful steps lead to a long lasting bond between your dog and your child, but you also have to put the training in context. This is true for adults in training classes too; “what is the point?” is always an important question to answer. If you have been working on sit with your dog and your child, then make sure that you use that behaviour with your dog and your child in the context of their day to day activities. You could for instance start getting your dog to sit before your child puts the dog’s breakfast down. Or you could get your dog to sit before your child throws a ball or a Frisbee for your dog. It is really important to make training relevant to both your dog and your child.
Often when parents ask if we include kids in class, they forget that we are dealing with three learners in class; the adult, the dog and the child. Few training classes are really geared to meet the needs of a child learner, and dropping a child into an adult class is not fun for the child, the instructor or the dog. We cannot expect the child to learn in the way that adults do, and when we pair the child up with a dog who doesn’t understand the work either, then the adult, the child and the dog go away frustrated. It is better to teach your dog the behaviours you want him to learn and then repeat those behaviours in class with your kids. You can step in if you need, but generally, if the dog knows the behaviour the kid can retrain that easily and successfully.
When parents work with the school and take the dog through the work before they take the child through the work with the dog who already knows what to do, this makes it much easier for everyone. Communication between you and the instructor about your goals in bringing your dog and your child to class can really go a long way to being successful too. As an instructor, I want to know about your training goals and be a part of your successes. From time to time a child appears in my classes with their parents and the parent steps back too early, and the whole experiment falls apart. Not only is the child turned off one of the most magical activities that I was blessed to experience in my childhood, but the adult and the dog are frustrated too!
And what about the child who takes a class and is successful? When the child and the dog move through the world together and they come up with an idea together, they can explore that with a common understanding of how to communicate about what they each need. Then the child gets what I got as a child. A magic relationship with another being. That is what I wish every child could get when they come through my classroom.