MICROMANAGEMENT, THE QUEEN AND MY BROTHER IN LAW

Recently a number of Good Dog clients have started my program after having gotten only so far with obedience classes with us or other schools, and there seems to be a trend in why their training is not working for them.  Micromanagement is how we describe what is happening when people tell the dog about every single thing that they are supposed to do.  They often have a spectacular leave it, but only when they tell the dog.  The dog will wait nicely at the door, but bolt on through if you haven’t specified that this is one of the times that the dog must wait.  The dog is more than willing to get off or stay off furniture if he is told, but in the absence of information, he is right up there and on the couch.

Humans are a species that gather information verbally.  We listen to details like “don’t get on the couch” and store that information for later use.  If we are told “don’t get on the couch” every time we go to get on the couch, most of us store that information and don’t do that behaviour.  Dogs are a little different.  Although dogs readily learn “if I get on the couch in the presence of the human I will be told to get off” they don’t seem to generalize that information to “never get on the couch”.  I suspect that this is a reflection of a few things, including how we train them.

The first thing that this reflects is that dogs don’t have language in the same way we do.  Yes, they have communication, where they are able to send units of information to another individual who can receive and interpret them accurately.  Think about the last time you saw two dogs interacting; if one dog wanted to play, how can he convey that information to the other dog?  Dogs have a whole lot of gestural communication including (but not limited to!) play bows, play faces, head tilts, paw lifts and tail wags.  The receiving dog will either accept the invitation, and a play session will start (full of rich gestures that convey all sorts of information between the players) or turn it down and we can tell which choice the recipient made based on the behaviours we see.  None of this information conveys anything like “later on, when you go home, please don’t touch my toys that I left behind the couch”.  Canine communication is immediate.  It happens in the moment and it pertains to the moment.  Even wolf communication involved in hunting runs more along the lines of “let’s go hunting”, “okay”, “I hear caribou over this way”, “I will flank the herd”.  The last guess may in fact be more than they actually convey in their gestures, but it makes for a better story to illustrate the point!

Next we should consider that when we train our dogs we teach them to attend to what happens next.  Sit when I am making you dinner?  Then I put your dinner within your reach to eat.  Jump up on me?  Then you can have a quick trip to your crate.  Harass the other dog while he is trying to rest?  Then you can have a turn out in the yard on your own.  Lie down nicely in front of the cookie cupboard?  Then you can have a cookie.  On and on, both formally and informally we teach our dogs to pay attention to immediate outcomes.  Practically this is the most efficient way to teach dogs what they should and should not do.

Dogs do learn what your habits are of course, but most often those habits come with predictable immediate outcomes.  Dogs learn for instance that every day at 3pm the school bus passes by and the kids arrive home and when the kids arrive home, you almost always get to play ball.  Some dogs will anticipate this sort of activity by bringing the ball to the children as they come in the door.  This most likely evolves when the ball is handy and the kids are available and the dog puts two and two together, not because the dogs are preplanning the equipment needed to make the activity work better.  Over time and with repetition, dogs can develop sophisticated routines that look like preplanning but there is little concrete evidence that dogs are preplanning in the way that we do.

So what does this have to do with the Queen?  Or my brother in law?  Or my students who are struggling with micromanagement?  Simply this.  If you were invited to the UK to visit the Queen, you would have a meeting with a very nice person who would explain what was going to happen, what you were supposed to do and what you were not permitted to do.  When you arrived at the Queen’s “house” (castle, palace or what have you), there would most likely be a nice person to point you in the right direction and prompt your every step.  Stand here.  Turn that way when I signal you that her Majesty is coming.  When you first see Her Majesty do this.  When you are greeted say that.  When she turns away from you, do this.  If she hands you something take it like this.  Don’t touch her.  Don’t initiate conversation.  Answer in this way.  Every little detail is preplanned and organized so that you know exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it.  And if you goof, then it is most likely that someone will help you out and make a suggestion about what you should do instead.

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Meeting Royalty is a very carefully scripted event and for most of us, we need the help of someone like a protocol officer to guide us through the experience without any glitches. This is not real life for the vast majority of the world however, and it is a stressful and difficult way to interact because it necessitates someone else directing your every move.

This is how many of my clients treat their dogs.  The client behaves like the Queen’s protocol officer!  They walk up to a door and say “sit”.  Dutifully, the dog sits.  They open the door and the dog, not getting another immediate prompt drags them through the door and into the training hall.  There is a dropped treat in front of the dog, and the client says “leave it” so the dog quite politely does, but when there is a treat the person doesn’t notice, the dog snarfs it up before the client even has a chance to do anything!  How often I have been greeted by an otherwise normal human being chanting “be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice” as though saying these two words fast enough and for long enough will ensure that the dog will “be nice”.  Invariably the human effort at being the protocol officer fails and the dog greets me by launching himself at me like a canine cannonball.

I would argue that if you were taking your dog to somewhere truly different and out of the ordinary, you might want to be the protocol officer.  So if you have to take your dog to say a ballet recital, you might possibly want to play protocol officer.  But UNLESS you are asking your dog to do something truly difficult, such as meeting a world leader, your dog needs to be able to just fit in.  This is where visiting my brother-in-law comes in.

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This is a difficult situation, made more difficult by the fact that the dog who is on leash is pulling and thus being pulled back by the handler. If instead the dog had been taught that when she wanted to play with a friend, she should sit, and offer eye contact and then look at the other dog and look back at the handler, the situation would look much different.

My brother-in-law is a nice guy.  He likes to sit out on his front porch with a cup of coffee and the newspaper on a Sunday morning.  He likes to go cycling.  He is pretty approachable, and will invite you in for a beer if you walk by on a Saturday afternoon while he is puttering in the garage.  He doesn’t own a crown, or a thrown, and he doesn’t care if you turn your back on him when you are in his presence.  He goes to work Monday to Friday, he enjoys his family, he is the master of the bar-b-que.  In short, he is a pretty laid back typical Canadian guy.  And if you visit him, there is no protocol officer to tell you where to stand, what to do or not do, how to dress and what to say.  No one will micromanage your behaviour when you visit my brother-in-law.

This doesn’t mean that there are not expectations for your behaviour while in my brother-in-law’s home.  He would prefer you didn’t break his stuff, and please don’t eat all his food all at once.  Please don’t take his things away when you leave, and please do take off your shoes when you come in the house.  The thing is that his expectations for your behaviour are common enough that you don’t need someone to explain what to do at every step.

Commonly Micromanaged Behaviours and Their Alternatives
Behaviour Common Micromanagement Strategy Alternate Strategy
Dog snatches any edible item within reach Teach the dog to leave things on cue and tell the dog to leave it Teach the dog that he must automatically leave any edible items he finds UNLESS you tell him to take it
Dog jumps on guests Teach the dog to cease jumping up on cue and tell the dog to stop jumping Teach the dog that a guest approaching means that he should sit or lie down
Dog bolts out the door Teach the dog to sit on cue and tell the dog to sit when you see the door opening Teach the dog that an opening door means that he should sit
Dog is more engaged with other dogs or people when he sees them than he is with the handler Teach the dog to make eye contact on cue and ask for eye contact Teach the dog to make eye contact with you and then look at the dog or person he wants to greet and then re engage with you
Dog barks at passersby Teach the dog to “hush” on cue and then tell the dog to “hush” when he is barking Teach the dog that passersby do not need to be barked at
Dog chases the cat in the house Teach the dog a solid leave it on cue and then tell the dog to leave it when he is chasing the cat Teach the dog that chasing the cat is not permitted at all, ever
Dog grabs the toy before you can throw it Teach the dog to leave it on cue and then tell the dog not to touch the toy until you have thrown it Teach the dog that you will throw the toy when he is calm and not touching you, or even when he is sitting and making eye contact

 

The problem I see with many of the dogs who come through my door at the training hall is that the human partner in the team seems to think that day to day interactions need to be handled like a visit to the Queen.  I see people telling their dogs to sit at the door all the time.  And to leave the treats that are within reach.  And not to jump on people as they approach.  The problem with this strategy is that if you aren’t there to micromanage the dog, the dog will do just as he pleases.  If you don’t tell him to sit at the door, he might barge right on through.  And if you don’t tell him to leave the treats on the floor, he will just dart out to take them.  If you don’t prevent him from jumping on guests, then he will greet impolitely and possibly with disastrous consequences!  None of this is what the human wants, but the only solution they have tried is to remind, remind, remind, remind and then remind again.

What if instead of reminding we took what we know about how dogs use information and taught them an expected behaviour.  What if we taught the dog that the door itself was the prompt to sit and wait?  Or if instead of teaching your dog to leave a treat when told, we just taught him to keep his nose out of treats that you haven’t told him belong to him?  What if we taught him that a person reaching out to say hi means that he should sit or lie down?  What if we looked at training as if we were preparing someone from a different country to visit my brother-in-law?

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This sort of interaction doesn’t happen by accident! Likely these two animals were posed for the picture, however they would not be completely relaxed in the image if the dog had been taught that he could chase the cat unless told otherwise. Dogs need immediate relevant consequences to teach them what they should do. If this were my cat and my dog, the dog would learn very quickly that every time he chased the cat, he would have a turn in his crate for a short period of time. This works especially well with young dogs. Copyright: dikaya37 / 123RF Stock Photo

Turning the training paradigm around so that we are no longer teaching the dog to do as he is told, but instead to know what the conventions are is a very easy way to resolve a lot of problems.  To do this, you must spend some time thinking about how to accomplish making the trigger to the behaviour the cue to the alternate behaviour, and some of the time it means providing a consequence such as going to your crate or losing a turn at play to stop the undesired behaviour.  It usually takes a little longer, but in the end, you have an adult dog who knows what to do, when to do it and doesn’t need a protocol officer to micromanage all of his behaviours!

MICROMANAGEMENT, THE QUEEN AND MY BROTHER IN LAW

LIFE ON THE TREADMILL

We are very fortunate in Guelph to have an excellent resource for physical rehab for dogs!  Very often we hear people asking if they can use their home treadmill to exercise their dogs, and we always tell them that it is a bad idea.  Dr. Liz Pask of Gilmour Road Veterinary Services has kindly shared her thoughts in this guest blog for us, explaining about the risks of using a human treadmill to exercise your dog!  Thanks Dr. Pask!

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Treadmills are common tools to help us to keep fit, especially when the weather is bad and we cannot get outside to walk or run. Have you considered a treadmill for your dog? If you have a home treadmill, it probably is not safe for him!

Dog Treadmills VS. Human Treadmills – What’s the difference?

A common question is “Can I use my human treadmill for my dog?” In the majority of cases the answer is no. Here’s why:

– The human gait is shorter than the canine gait, which means the belt is usually too short for dogs. While your dog may be able to “fit” on the treadmill, they will not be able to use their bodies correctly, which can lead to injury.

– Even if you have a little dog who can fully extend on a human treadmill, human treadmills often don’t go slow enough for their little legs.

– Canine treadmills have many safety features built in with your dog in mind. Human treadmills often have gaps next to the belt, or raised caps at the end where paws and nails can be caught. Canine treadmills will have side rails to keep your pet safely on the treadmill; many human treadmills do not have side rails or they are at an inappropriate height.

– The control panel on a human treadmill is not located in an easily accessible area, making it difficult to adjust speed or stop quickly in case of an emergency.

The two brands that we recommend people explore if they are looking into a treadmill are DogTread or the dogPACER.  We do not recommend the use of carpet treadmills.  

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This underwater treadmill is especially designed to help dogs to recover from injuries, and it has a lot of different safety features so that the dogs don’t get injured when they are using it. Even so, dogs are never left unattended in the treadmill and there is an emergency stop button to use if they get into trouble.

Whether at home or at an outside facility, dry or underwater, always make the treadmill is appropriate and safe for your dog. 

For all your canine and feline conditioning and rehabilitation medicine needs, or if you have questions about the above article, feel free to contact us:

 

Gilmour Road Veterinary Services 

4424 Victoria Rd S

RR#1 Puslinch, ON, N0B 2J0

519-763-7729

gilmour.road.vet@gmail.com

guelphcompanionanimalrehab@gmail.com

 

LIFE ON THE TREADMILL

WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL

 

For anyone who has been in my classroom, you likely have realized that I am not going to ever be a supermodel.  Aside from being 40 years too old, and the wrong body type, I just don’t care about clothing, hair and make up enough to bother.  Incidentally, if you are curious, it is Sue writing, not John, but he probably would not be a super model either.  Aside from being the wrong gender, and the wrong body type, he really just doesn’t care enough about clothing, hair or make up to bother either.  Which brings me to a thought about our dogs.  How many of our dogs are being asked to do jobs they just don’t care about?

Training is the way that we acquire skills and it doesn’t matter if you are a human, a dog or a dolphin, skills are important.  In theory I have the skills needed to be a supermodel; I can walk, and wear clothes and if pressed, I can sit around while someone plays with my hair and puts make up on me.  Maybe I don’t have the fine tuned strut that a model needs, but I can wear clothing, and I can walk, so what is preventing me from being a super model?  Opportunity?  Nope.  I just don’t have the patience for the work!  I would need a great deal of training and incentive to do that and you would have a very hard time convincing me that the work is relevant to my wellbeing.

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This is just not me! I would not be happy doing this type of work. Sometimes we ask our dogs to do work that they don’t understand or like. We should ask ourselves if this is actually a good idea. Copyright: fashionstock / 123RF Stock Photo

So what about our dogs?  You will hear me say over and over again that trained dogs get to do more, and that we should be willing to teach our dogs to do different things, so why not take up whatever sport the handler wishes?  Recently, one of our instructors came to me to let me know that she had pulled out of one of our advanced classes, not because she and her dog were not learning things but rather because her dog was not enjoying the work.  “My dog is doing this to please me, but she doesn’t actually like it” was the message I got.  And good for the handler in recognizing that.

There are behaviours that I want every dog of mine to learn, regardless of how they feel about it; coming when called, not dragging me down the street, allowing the vet to examine them and lying down and staying for instance.  These are the skills that allow our dogs to live successfully with us, but they are not their job.  Have you thought about what your dog’s job might be?  Many of us come to obedience classes because that is what we are supposed to do with our dogs, and then slot them into the jobs we want them to do without much more thought than that. 

The problem with this is that many of our dogs are not actually interested in doing the work we wish them to do.  As a behaviour consultant this is a daily frustration, as the Good Dog students probably all know.  Consider what happens when we breed a dog to herd sheep 8 hours a day, and we expect that he is going to enjoy sitting on the couch day in and day out without any exercise.  What might happen?  Might that dog begin to engage in behaviours such as racing around the house and barking at traffic going by? 

Many of my students want their dogs to participate in sports such as rally or agility and for most dogs, they really get into that.  Some dogs don’t though.  Some dogs prefer things like nosework, or tracking.  When we put together our advanced classes, some of our students try and take as many of them as they can, and while we encourage everyone to give each class a try, it is really important to stay tuned in to your dog to discover which of these classes make you both happy. 

All this preamble is probably bringing you to the point of asking yourself what to do if your dog doesn’t want to do the one thing that is really important to you?  What do you do when you love agility and your dog just doesn’t like it?  Or maybe the only thing that matters to you to do with your dog is hiking and your dog just doesn’t like to go out in anything other than the ideal weather?

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Agility is a sport that many different dogs like, but even in such a middle of the road sport, there are dogs who don’t think this is fun. It is important to listen to our dog’s preferences especially as we ask them to perform more and more difficult or advanced work! Copyright: mackland / 123RF Stock Photo

The first thing I like to do is to is to try and figure out why the dog doesn’t want to engage in the behaviour.  I once had a client who purchased a husky to go and run with him.  As it turned out, we happened to have a very hot summer when he was just the right age to start running at about 18 months.  The husky learned very quickly that running gear meant that he was going to become hot and uncomfortable.  The husky was no dummy!  He learned that running was uncomfortable so he didn’t like running..  He LOVED to run, but not with the owner or on leash.  The only thing we had to do to change the activity was to choose running times when the weather was cooler.  By taking the dog’s comfort into account, we were able to teach him to like the activity.  As the old saying goes, if I had a nickel for every dog who was uncomfortable in the desired activity, I would be a whole lot richer! 

Sometimes the dog is behaviourally unsuited to the work that the owner wants to do.  Recently I saw a post on a hunting list I follow.  The person on the list wanted a dog to go duck hunting with, but his wife wanted a German Shepherd.  The person asking the question wanted to know how good German Shepherds might be at duck hunting.  As it happened, I once had a German Shepherd who was pretty decent at fetching ducks.  He enjoyed it and he was technically good at it, but there were a few problems.  Firstly, he got a LOT of water in his ears.  There is a really good reason why retrievers ALL have dropped ears!  Secondly, once he was wet, it took a long time for him to dry off and if I had asked him to retrieve in the late fall when goose hunting usually happens, he would have gotten very wet and cold and likely he would not have thought that retrieving was quite that much fun.  Even though he was good at retrieving, including in water, he much preferred to do tracking.

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This dog is big enough to pick up a goose and carry it and he has enough coat to tolerate the kind of weather in which goose hunting happens. He should also like to swim, and be tolerant of gun shots to be good at this work. In other words, this is a job for a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, but likely not for a Yorkshire Terrier! Copyright: schlag12 / 123RF Stock Photo

Sometimes something happens during training that makes the activity you want to do more difficult for your dog.  If you keep changing your mind about the behaviours you want when preparing do to an activity, the activity itself can become very frustrated.  I did this to one of my dogs early in my obedience career.  I kept changing how I was approaching training with this particular dog, and ended up just confusing the dog.  The dog got to the point where she was confused, annoyed and frustrated and just really didn’t enjoy obedience competitions.  I had a coach who noticed that I was creating frustration and we were able to work through it however, if I had persisted I might have eventually caused much more damage to the relationship I had with that dog.  We went on to have a great relationship once I straightened out my training program.

If an activity with a dog is really important to you, consider that BEFORE you get the dog and choose a dog who is going to start out with an aptitude and an interest in that activity.  There is a reason that we usually choose hounds for trailing, and herding dogs for rounding up sheep.  These dogs have been bred for a long time to do that work, and allowing the dogs to do what they were bred to do helps a lot. 

If you already have a dog and he doesn’t like doing the activity, you may want to either do less of the activity, or stop doing it altogether.  If you have a dog who does a lot of things they really like, and you only ask the dog to do something you like that the dog doesn’t some dogs might be willing to “play the game” to humour you if you don’t ask him to do the activity too often.  The key is take your canine partner into consideration, and like the trainer at our facility, choose activities that both you and your dog will enjoy.

WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL

FOOD

Dogs love food.  Well, mostly dogs love food.  Food is such a contentious issue.  People don’t always like to use food in training, and often even when people do use food, they either don’t use it effectively or they struggle with a dog who doesn’t want to take treats.  In the training hall we often see people making all sorts of food errors, so it is time to write a blog about how to use food.

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Most dogs really love food and spend a lot of time thinking about it. When food isn’t working in training, there are often things we can do to help!

The first issue we see is the “switcheroo”.  The switcheroo happens when a dog hits early adolescence and growth slows down.  Most families get a young puppy and are astounded at how many calories that little perpetual motion machine can suck back.  Let’s say that a pup is 3kg when he comes home, and he is eating one scoop of dog food in total each day.  Within 6 weeks that puppy is now 10kg, and eating three scoops of dog food each day!  Skip forward another two months and the puppy is 20kg and eating five scoops a day, and then 8 weeks more and he is 30kg and eating 7 scoops a day.  This brings our pupster to about 7 and a half months of age and all of a sudden Fido stops eating.  In a panic, the average family goes out and spends a pile of money on a different bag of dog food and Fido resumes eating.  A week or so later, Fido goes on strike again, and the family spends more money on a third brand of food.  Fido resumes eating and two weeks later goes on strike.  At about this point, Fido who should be 35kg is a solid 40kg, and has become a picky eater, and the client tells me in class that Fido won’t work for food.

So what is really happening in the “switcheroo”?  Often what is happening is that Fido has stopped growing and doesn’t need 7 scoops of dog food!  When you change dog foods, novelty will get Fido to eat again, but he doesn’t really need all the extra calories, so a week or two later, he self limits his food and you worry that he isn’t eating enough.  You switch again and the novelty entices him to eat for a bit and then he hits another point where the calories are just too much and he stops eating again. 

So what happens to food training when the old “switcheroo” is at play?  Often the dog stops wanting to work for food because he is already getting far too many calories in his bowl.  The first thing that I do is check with the family to make sure that there is nothing going on that would indicate the need for a vet visit.  I do a quick visual inspection of the dog and feel his ribs to see what his body score is.  The easy way to tell what your dog’s body score is would be to first feel your dog’s ribs and then find the part of your hand that is most similar to your dog’s ribs.  Use the pictures below to determine if your dog is overweight.  If your dog is overweight, but everything else is normal; he is drinking and exercising and toileting normally, then the first thing I would do would be to feed a bit less food in his bowl.  Dogs love to eat, but they are also usually really good at self regulating when they get overweight and then they get fussy about the treats they want for training.

Usually with an adolescent dog who has had several different foods because he has become picky, we see his appetite normalize and his willingness to work for regular food return when we remove some of the calories from the bowl.  This is the easiest situation to resolve when it comes to food and training.  Once you figure out how much your dog should be eating, take the total amount for the day and divide it by three.  Feed 1/3 at breakfast, 1/3 at dinner and save 1/3 for training class.  Let’s look at my German Shepherd Eco as an example. 

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There are so many options when it comes to feeding your dog and it can be tempting to just change foods if your dog is not eating reliably. If your dog is already eating a quality diet, consider trying decreasing the quantity of food that you are putting in the bowl before changing the diet. If your dog is not on a good diet or if they have a medical issue, you should talk to your vet before changing your dog’s diet.

When I got Eco at 7 and a half weeks of age he ate a whopping 2/3 cup of kibble each day.  Total.  By the time he was 12 weeks he was eating 1 ½ cups, and at 16 weeks he was eating 2 ½ cups.  His intake steadily increased over the weeks and months until at 7 months he was about 40kg and was eating a total of 12 cups a day divided into four meals, and he was a lean, mean fast moving doggy machine.  I remember thinking at this age that I sure hoped he would slow down soon as I was going to go broke feeding this dog!  Predictably at about 8 months he started to skip a meal.  That meant that all of a sudden, he went from eating 12 cups a day reliably to eating 9.  Whew!  That was cheaper!  I started to feed three meals a day, but instead of feeding three cups per meal, I fed 2 cups per day and kept 3 cups aside for training.  At about ten months of age, Eco started to pretty reliably skip one of his three meals each day, so I took another three cups of food out of his daily ration, which brought us down to a much more reasonable 6 cups per day, and divided that into three, making 2 cups per serving, Eco went to two regular meals and two cups set aside for school.  By the time Eco was four he was normally eating about 4 cups of food a day, and just got a few treats in class.  Mostly in class at four, he would work for play.

The next thing I have seen in class is the dog who will only work for ultra high value treats.  A number of things can be at play there.  The first of them is that when the dog is very stressed or overwhelmed, he cannot eat.  This should not be a surprise; the same happens to people too.  Consider what it might be like to be in a car accident and then have someone offer you a nice dinner.  Most of us would find that situation too stressful to allow us to enjoy eating.  The same thing can happen when the dog is extremely excited, and that is also true for us.  Most of us don’t feel like eating when we are engaged in something like riding a rollercoaster.

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Both of these ladies are really excited. One of them is happy about her excitement and the other lady is a little more concerned. Neither of these ladies would probably want to eat a sandwich if I were to offer them one, because when you are really excited, you are not really interested in food!

Other things can contribute to dogs only wanting to take high value treats too.  When your dog comes to class overweight, they are going to be really picky about what they will take as treats.  Similarly, if he comes to class right after eating a large meal, he will be willing to take dessert class treats, but not lower value treats.  One thing that people often try is to completely deprive their dogs before class.  This can backfire too; often dogs who have been deprived enough can be so deeply focused on any food at all that they cannot even think.  It is far better to feed more sensibly, and come to class with a dog who is neither overweight nor completely deprived. 

Dogs definitely have preferences, and there is a lot of value to knowing what your dogs prefers.  I have worked with dogs who do not like liver and making a dog take a treat he doesn’t want works against you as a trainer, even if it is a treat you want your dog to like or if it is a treat you think your dog will like.  I have also worked with dogs who like really unusual things like cooked squash, raw celery or blueberries.  When I have a dog with strong preferences, I often rank the treats.  When I know for instance that a dog likes liver best, and then rollover and then cheese and then bread and finally kibble.  I will sometimes take some time to teach the dog to take lower value treats.  Working in a low distraction environment I will offer the dog his lowest value item.  If he takes the treat, I reward him with the next value treat.  In this case, I will offer kibble.  If the dog takes a piece of kibble, then he gets a piece of bread.  I then offer the dog another piece of kibble.  Most dogs will look longingly at the bread.  Hold out.  If the dog takes the kibble, he gets another treat but THIS time, he gets the next level up; so I would feed him some cheese.  Next I will offer him another piece of kibble.  He will likely look out for another piece of cheese.  Hold out.  When he takes his kibble, he will get the next thing on his list; in this case the rollover.  Then offer more kibble again.  When the dog takes the kibble he gets his top value treat; in this case the liver.  I keep working with the dog offer kibble to get a better reward.  I keep working on this until the dog will willingly take a low value treat regardless of the situation, in the hopes of getting a better treat.

Perhaps the most common error I see in the training hall is reinforcing every single behaviour without any differential between good iterations and not so good iterations.  If you ask your dog to sit and he lies down, and you give him a treat because he did SOMETHING, anything, you are in fact teaching him that trying random behaviours is really valuable, but it doesn’t teach your dog that when you say sit, you mean sit, or when you say down, you mean down.  You can actually use treats very constructively to teach your dog the difference between a really, really valuable behaviour such as a fast, accurate sit, when you ask the first time, and a slow reluctant sloppy sit.  To teach the difference between a fast snappy sit and a slow casual sit, you can simply choose to reward the best sits to reward with the favourite treat, and then reward the sloppy undesired sits with a low value treat.  Dogs can learn really quickly that a good sit gets a good treat, and a poor sit gets a less preferred treat.

 

Dogs also need to learn about self control around food before you start training.  If your dog thinks that if he can see the treat, he can have the treat, then he is going to have a harder time learning to get the treats by doing something to earn them.  I like to start all training by teaching the dog to control himself around food (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ ).  Once your dog has learned not to snatch treats as soon as he sees them, you can start to use your treats much more effectively.

As with many tools, treats are a good servant but a poor master.  When used well, food is perhaps the best way that you can teach a dog.  When used poorly you can teach your dog all sorts of bad habits. 

FOOD

HOW IS YOUR TURKISH COMING?

 

I think that starting with full disclosure is a really important thing for this blog.  Let me be clear; I don’t speak Turkish.  I have never taken a class in the Turkish language, and I have very few friends who come from Turkey.  Actually, I currently have no friends who come from Turkey.  If you were to ask me to pass the salt in Turkish, I would not have a clue.  If you are really curious about how to say “Please pass the salt” in Turkish, you can listen to that here https://tinyurl.com/yd8wn9nb .  Let’s be honest though, no matter how loud, or how slowly, or how clearly you say “Lütfen tuzu geç” to me, I am not likely to know that salt is what you want.

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I would love to have a meal in Turkey, with figs and dates and served on a lovely silver tea set, but I could not ask for the salt, because I don’t speak Turkish! Copyright: tashka2000 / 123RF Stock Photo

If we were in Turkey, and at dinner, and someone at the table said to me “Lütfen tuzu geç” and pointed at the salt, I would likely guess correctly that salt was what the other person wanted, but I still would not speak Turkish, and if the Turkish speaker asked me the same thing out of context, I would have no idea what they were talking about.  I think this is often what dogs go through when we talk to them.

Dogs are amazing at their ability to pick up information.  My dogs all know what I mean when I say “Dog in a box” (our cue for getting into their crates), or “hup” (our cue for getting in the car) or “two paws” (our cue for dogs coming onto our laps to cuddle), and I never really trained those things; they learned the cues in context and then over time generalized the behaviours to a bunch of new scenarios.  They picked up the lingo so to speak, just as I might if I spent enough time at Turkish dinner tables to hear “Lütfen tuzu geç” often enough that I could pick it out of conversation.

My dogs also know all the regular obedience cues such as sit, down, stay, here, heel, let’s go, over, tunnel and piddle; I taught my dogs those cues very carefully and they have long histories of being rewarded for the correct behaviour when they do as they are asked, and I have carefully taught them what the sound “sit” means so they know what I am talking about.

I see the Turkish language problem occurring when people have incompletely taught a behaviour and they assume that because their dogs understand what to do in one context that the dog will know what to do in every context.  Similar to my example of learning to pass the salt when asked at the table and then not recognizing the words when taken out of context, many dogs are simply confused when they are asked to do something that doesn’t fit with their experience.

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This young dog has no clue about what the owner wants him to do, even though the context should be apparent to him; he has probably been on a leash before and he is wearing a front attachment harness, so likely some training has already happened. Simply yelling heel or saying heeeeeel in a slow drawn out manner is not going to make matters clear to him. Slowing down and reviewing what the dog does know, and what he needs to learn helps a lot more! Copyright: loganban / 123RF Stock Photo

Perhaps the most common behaviour I see this with is the recall, or come when called behaviour.  When you call a dog to come, you likely have an internal picture of what you want.  You call out “Fido come” and you want Fido to drop whatever he is doing and come racing towards you.  Often when clients ask for help with the recall, they cannot tell me how they taught the dog to come when called in the first place.  If the training session was too dim for you to remember how you taught that behaviour, likely it was not a very meaningful experience for your dog either.  Think back to teaching your dog to come when called.  What steps did you take?  Where were you when to taught your dog to do this behaviour?  How rewarding was it for your dog to do the behaviour?  If you cannot remember, then maybe, you are speaking Turkish to your non Turkish speaking dog!

Another problem that can occur with misunderstood cues is simply that you over structured the learning so that the dog learned the words, but only in the context of what you were doing.  So many of my students taught their dogs to stay and then to come out of the stay when called.  This is perhaps the most confusing way for a dog to learn the recall, and has nothing to do with leaving the rotting dead fish your dog wants to roll in in order to come racing towards you when you call; this is akin to teaching me to pass the salt by describing the chemical formula by which you would concoct salt in a laboratory.  Sodium Cloride is the chemical name for table salt and you can make it very simply by taking Sodium hydroxide and Hydrochloric acid and mixing them together as they do in this video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erWTsWut7Vc .  Knowing how to make table salt in the lab just isn’t useful when you are sitting at dinner and it really doesn’t help you to learn Turkish any faster!  Staying is a behaviour that requires the dog to inhibit his desire to move, and the recall is a behaviour that requires the dog activate his body and move towards you; these diametrically opposed behaviours can be very confusing when initially paired together, and just don’t have anything to do with leaving something the dog wants (an activation type activity) and coming towards you (another activation type activity that is the opposite of heading towards what the dog wants!).

When you are teaching your dog behaviours like the recall, it is important to help him out by making it as simple and clear as possible.  When teaching my dogs to come when called, I have someone hold my dog and I run away so that the dog wants to come towards me; I reward him for doing the right thing that he would likely have done anyhow.  This is much like holding up a shaker of salt and shaking some salt into my hand and offering that to you while saying “Tuz” two or three times.  I am making it really easy for you to understand that the word for salt in Turkish is Tuz.  Then when you encounter salt elsewhere, you have a chance of recognizing that object as “Tuz”.

When your dog is having trouble understanding what you are asking of him, ask yourself if you have made the meaning clear for your dog, or if you have assumed that he has just picked up the information from conversation.  If you are not sure, then go back and explain it again, simply, with rewards for the behaviour you are hoping for.  Don’t get louder, or repeat yourself, speak slowly, because it doesn’t matter how slowly or loudly you speak in Turkish, I still won’t understand what you are saying.

HOW IS YOUR TURKISH COMING?

CRYING AT A FUNERAL

FIRST published April 2013

Imagine for a moment that a good friend has died.  Someone you love dearly and you are close to, someone you could call at two in the morning and they would come give you gas money to get home if your wallet was stolen.  Someone who has shared moments and hours and even days with you.  Someone you love.  In the days following your friend’s passing, you pull up pictures on your phone, and you fill the vase she gave you with flowers from your garden, and you grieve.  Sometimes, you cry.

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How do you feel when you go to a funeral?  Do your emotions influence your behaviour?  Don’t you think that your dog’s emotions might influence his?  Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_kzenon’>kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

A few days later, you go to the funeral home to say your public goodbyes.  There is a casket and dozens of baskets of flowers, and a picture of you and your friend, nestled in amongst so many other good warm memories shared by the community who shared your friend’s life.  You are sad and there is an empty part inside of you where you used to hold your friend, and it feels like the memories aren’t enough to fill that hole.  When your friend’s sister gets up to share the eulogy, she mentions you, and you start to cry.

Imagine now, that the person who is sitting beside you in the funeral home looks at you and says “Just stop it.  I HATE crying.  Don’t.”  How does that make you feel?  Sit on this reflection for a moment.  How does that make you feel?  Do you feel good about the person sitting beside you?  Do you want to share tea and sandwiches after the service with this person?  Do you want to trust your memories of your friend with this person?

Let’s rewind one paragraph now and imagine that the person beside you quietly and calmly reaches into their bag and pulls out a hankie and gently gives it to you.  You reach for the hankie, and he offers you his hand to hold.  With one hand, you wipe your eyes and with the other you hold hands with your friend.  Deeply sad, you lean in and your seat mate puts his arm around you and holds you close.  Assuming this is someone who knows you well enough for physical contact to be appropriate, how do you feel now?

I have seen hundreds of dogs in our training hall.  Many of these dogs are happy, but there are a ton of dogs who come through our doors who are traumatized and fearful, and who are expressing their feelings with growls, snaps, snarls, whining and recently one poor dog who shivered and shook for an entire hour while I took a history.  The thing that amazes me, day in and day out, is that these dogs keep hoping that the people they live with will see that they need help, and offer them the equivalent of a hankie and a hug.

It is well known in behaviour consulting circles that owners take a long time to seek help for their dogs.  One of the biggest reasons for this is that if the behaviour problem isn’t a problem for the owner, there isn’t a lot of impetus to get help.  The dog cannot dial the phone and call for help, and neither can he send me an email to describe his problems.  Often the dog has been doing everything short of biting in order to get attention, but they aren’t being heard.

When people come into my training hall, they often tell me how difficult it is to live with a dog who is barking, lunging, growling, snarling, pulling, and chasing.  I am often told about methods that have been tried to stop the undesired behaviour.  These people really care about their dogs, but they often don’t understand that the behaviour the dogs are exhibiting means.  The fact is that dogs don’t act randomly.  Behaviour is always functional on some level.  Consider what it might be like to behave truly randomly.  If you were to randomly stop reading this paragraph, and get up out of your chair and twirl around the room and go outside and come back in and jump as high in the air as you are able and roll on the ground and pick up a pen and turn on and off your computer, how would that feel?

Random behaviour is rare.  When people behave truly randomly, it is usually an indication of something being wrong with them.  When I took animal behaviour in university, the professor talked about an animated Bugs Bunny toy he did an experiment with.  He set the toy off a thousand times, and recorded the “behaviour” of the toy.  He found that 30% of the time, the toy gave a predictable “What’s up Doc”, and then there were nine other phrases that he uttered on a variable schedule.  It turned out that the chip that ran this toy was set on pretty tight parameters, which gave a specific number of repetitions within a thousand repetitions.  Ironically, we know that there are two things about this toy that keep kids playing with it and drive parents nuts.  From the kid’s perspective, they keep triggering the toy to get the rare and uncommon response.  From the parent’s perspective they have to put up with ‘What’s up Doc” 300 out of every thousand repetitions.  This random behaviour is annoying and frustrating beyond the interest of animal behaviour professors who want to figure out how often a behaviour happens, and the kid who really wants to hear Bugs say something truly novel.

The other thing about random behaviour is that it is out of context; like the Bugs toy, the last response doesn’t predict the next response.  Living with someone who is truly random would be really annoying.  Living with a dog who is truly random would also be really annoying.  Most of the dogs we meet and live with are actually very predictable.  There is an easy little experiment that helps us to understand this.  Spend a half an hour watching your dog.  Watching Eco right now now, sleeping on the floor beside me, I can sample every minute and say what he is doing and what he is going to do.  When I get up out of my chair, he will lift his head and if I leave the room he will wake up completely and follow me.  When I sit back down at my computer, he will wander around the room and check out the water bowl, the toy box and the window in the door and then he will lie down again and go back to sleep.  He is very predictable and that is part of what allows me to change his behaviour.  His behaviour is not random and it never happens in isolation from his environment.

Knowing this, and understanding that dogs are deeply emotional animals, allows us to modify problem behaviours quite easily, but there is one more piece to the puzzle.  Skills are under the direct control of the outcomes.  Eco standing up and following me happens because he likes the outcome of being with me.  Eco barking at the door happens when he is startled and alarmed.  The barking doesn’t happen because of the outcome but rather because of the input, and the input is emotional.  Could I change the barking behaviour through the application of pain?  Sure.  But it wouldn’t change how Eco felt about people coming to the door, so treating this as a skill might be more like being at a funeral and being told sternly to stop crying.  I could also change the behaviour by getting him below threshold and pairing the situation with something pleasant.  The difference being how well I understand what is going into the behaviour to begin with.

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Giving treats to your dog can sometimes serve to increase behaviours, but often it can serve a different purpose. When your dog is concerned about something, you can give him a bunch of freebies, and he will relax and feel good about the thing he was worried about. This dog may be learning that having his picture taken is a safe and fun activity to do. The sit may be happening incidentally; the important part to know is that he will be relaxed and happy about having his picture taken. Copyright: limonzest / 123RF Stock Photo

A question that is often asked is if feeding the bark will make more barking.  Let’s go back to the funeral example.  Which would make you cry more; someone who was supportive and brought you a cup of tea and sandwiches, or someone who told you to quit it?  When barking is emotionally based (which is more often than not), then removing and feeding is going to help the dog to regain his composure and improve his behaviour.  When you do this often enough, you develop in the dog a pattern of barking and then seeking you out.  When this happens, the dog is moving out of the emotional state and into the operant state, or the state where he can control his behaviour.  Much like at a funeral, if I can get the person who is crying to have a cup of tea, they are often able to calm down and reflect more effectively, and then they can chat comfortably, often about the very thing they may be upset about.

A common tactic when dealing with dogs who are emotional is to give them something else to do.  If a dog reacts to something in his environment, then in theory, if he is busy, he won’t be worried about that thing.  There are two problems with this tactic.  The first of them is that if the dog is upset enough, then he is not going to be terribly compliant.  In these situations people start to get pushy and demanding about their dog’s behaviour and it is for exactly this reason that many people turn to aversives in their training; they are asking more than the dog is ready to give them in a given circumstance.  For instance, making a dog look you in the eyes so that he stops looking for the frightening things that can creep up on him will only make things worse; he may stop looking but he won’t stop worrying.  In this particular case, you rob the dog of the ability to try behaviours other than the undesired one because he is glued on the new behaviour of looking at you, and while he is looking at you, there is always the risk that his trigger will surprise him out of the corner of his eye.  This is the second issue with this tactic; you may have compliance, but the dog is still worrying about what might come out and surprise him.

When I was out and about this weekend, I met a woman who told me that her friend had been to every other trainer in town.  She told me that this woman was ruining her dog by feeding it when the dog is clearly misbehaving.  The popular thought is that if we use food, we can only use it as a reinforcer to get more of a particular behaviour.  When you put this into the context of a funeral, and what you would do if someone was upset, it becomes really clear that much behaviour is motivated by emotion and that being clear with your learner does not only mean reinforcing, or punishing behaviours or putting them on extinction.  Sometimes, perhaps even often, it means addressing the underlying emotions before even thinking about the behaviours at all.

CRYING AT A FUNERAL

CAT-COT-COG-DOG

One of the many things I love to spend time on is a good puzzle.  Word puzzles are a ton of fun!  In particular, word morphs can keep my attention for hours.  A word morph is a puzzle game where you are given a starting word, and an ending word, and you change one letter of the word at a time to come up with the end word.  The challenge is to get from one word to another in the fewest number of steps.  Often the words are somehow linked, such as cat to dog, or help to safe.  Maybe it is these puzzles that really draw me to training using shaping.

Shaping is the process in training where we start with the dog doing something and change that something into something else through successive approximations.  What that means is each training step brings the dog closer and closer to the end behaviour.  As an example, let me describe teaching a dog to approach without jumping up, as I did with a client’s dog last night.  This dog, a young exuberant labrador loves to rush up to people, and throw herself at people.  At about 30 kg, this dog is big enough to really hurt someone if she chooses the wrong person to jump upon.  This is like the starting word.

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Training is a process of steps towards a goal. If you try and take too many steps at once, you will stumble and fall back down to the beginning. When you take the process of learning step by step by step, you go from can’t to can and success with your dog. Copyright: cristianbr / 123RF Stock Photo

The desired behaviour is to have her come up to me, and keep her feet on the floor while I touch her.  In behaviour parlance, we would call this the target behaviour and I always like to break that behaviour down into the simplest terms possible.  I don’t like to use more than 7 words to describe that behaviour because the more simply that I can describe it, the easier it is to find the steps to achieve my goal.  Let’s call this behaviour “approach with 4 feet on the floor.”  That is 6 words, so it fits my desire to have no more than 7 words to describe what I am training, but you will notice that it cuts out the touching part.  By limiting myself to 7 words at most, I prevent myself from lumping too many things into one training session.

Now that I have the starting behaviour and the ending behaviour, the rest of the training session is a matter of inserting the intermediate steps.  This part of shaping requires that I let go of the idea that I am going to run the entire training show without input from my training partner.  It requires that I allow my learner to do what she wants without interference.  During the training session she may do exactly what I don’t want, and for the purposes of this example I am just going to let her do that.  I think that for some of my human students this is perhaps the hardest part of shaping.  Most of my students whose dogs jump up are so deeply appalled by the undesired behaviour that when it happens they give the dog feedback that may or may not be helpful.  Usually, the feedback they give the dog is just exactly something that will maintain or even strengthen the behaviour.  Pushing the dog down may feel like a solution but in fact, teaches the dog that you are more than happy to play a vigorous wrestling game for instance and from the dog’s perspective, yelling is just noisy barking that humans do sometimes.

Here is how the session played out.  We let the dog off leash in the training hall and she began to run around away from me.  This is not an uncommon reaction when the dog is off leash, so the very first thing I did was to set the dog up so that she was unlikely to do the undesired behaviour.  Setting up so that you get what you want is the hallmark of great training.  After about three minutes, she approached me and her person, and I clicked my clicker and threw a treat behind her.  I should mention that this dog understood what a clicker was and what it meant, so if you want to try this out, you should teach the dog that click means treat before you start.

When I clicked the clicker, the dog stopped dead in her tracks and stared at me.  For her, this was probably the first time that she had received any feedback about approaching other than yelling or pushing!  She was genuinely surprised at the outcome.  I made sure she could see me throw the treat and she took off like a shot to chase the treat.  Once she took the treat, she started to explore the training room again, sniffing the toys and finding dropped treats that had been left by previous trainers.  It took her another two or three minutes to approach us and again she approached us at a run. I clicked again and threw another treat behind the dog.  This time there was a short light bulb moment for the dog; approaching me was a safe, interesting thing to do, and it resulted in treats!  From there the dog began to approach me right away after getting her treat.  7 clicks and treats later she was coming in towards us eagerly but under her own control.  Throughout this time, I simply chatted with the client, never giving the dog directions, never micromanaging the dog, just clicking the dog for approaching, and throwing the treat away to get the dog to leave in order for me to set up a chance for the dog to return.

From that point forward, I wanted the dog to start to approach more closely while maintaining her self control.  To get her to do this, I just delayed clicking until she approached more closely.  About 10 more clicks and she was walking right up to me.  I had a little bit of history with this dog, working with her on the down stay, so she made a quick leap of logic and without any prompting or cuing or other information from me, she approached me and lay down.  I really liked that, so I clicked and threw several treats; I made approaching and lying down really, really valuable!

As I said at the beginning, shaping is a lot like a word morph game.  In this case the steps were approach, approach and stop, approach under self control, approach more closely under self control, approach and lie down at my feet.  You will notice that the learner added in something I had not planned for; lying down.  If she had added in sit, or stand and make eye contact, that would have been fine with me too; in this case, it doesn’t matter to me what she did when she arrived as long as it wasn’t putting her feet on me.  In five steps, I achieved my goal of “approach with four feet on the floor”.

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This is what my goal behaviour looks like for the labrador retriever I was working with. Knowing what I want is an important part of shaping. If I don’t know where I am going, it is going to be much harder to take steps towards that goal. It is important to be able to form the goal behaviour in terms of what I do want, not just what I don’t want. Copyright: lightpoet / 123RF Stock Photo

In order to get my goal of being able to touch this dog, I would have continued to train, clicking and treating for approaching and lying down while I first stepped towards the dog, and then stepping in and reaching but not touching, then stepping in and touching her and finally stepping in, reaching, touching and stroking her.  The important thing to notice in this case is that once the dog is doing what I want her to do, I am shaping the activity that happens around her while she is doing the behaviour that I want.  This is an important next step in most training; trainers might call this proofing.  What we mean is for the dog to continue to do the target behaviour no matter what else happens around them.

It is popular to only define shaping in terms of reinforcement training but in fact, shaping can happen in any of the four training quadrants; you can certainly use punishment to shape behaviour too.  With this very same dog we did this to keep her safe after she jumped up on a treat station and broke it.  We have small flower pots on the wall to hold treats, and like many dogs before her, she tried to jump up and use her claws to pull the pots off the wall.  She broke a pot and it would be dangerous to her to continue to do this, so we didn’t want her to do that.  When she jumped up on the wall near the pots, we called out “that’s enough”.  If she stopped right away, we would toss treats for her to clean up.  If she continued to the pot, we would call out “too bad” and then quietly and calmly catch her and put her in the classroom crate for a few minutes.  Then we would let her out to try again.  In this way, the dog learned that jumping up on the wall near the pots was a behaviour that would predict an outcome that she didn’t like very much.  It wasn’t stressful for her, it was just something she didn’t like.

It took about five repetitions to teach the dog not to jump on the walls, but that was really only the first step; we really wanted this dog to stop fixating on the pots altogether, so the next step on this shaping protocol was to call out the warning as she approached the wall.  This time she learned the game even more quickly; it took her three repetitions to decide that approaching the wall near the pot was not a desired behaviour.  From there, almost half an hour passed before she tried the behaviour again.  In this way, we had shaped the behaviour we wanted using a negative punishment protocol.

Shaping can work with extinction too.  We use extinction to teach dogs not to snatch treats until they are told.  Extinction is the process of doing nothing at all until the behaviour changes and then reinforce the lack of the behaviour.  At first, we ask only that they not touch our hand when a treat is extended towards the dog.  Then we require that they stay off the treat for a second.  Then two seconds.  Then three, five, seven, ten and so on until the dog learns that trying to get at the treat just won’t work.  We essentially teach the dog to stop trying to get the treat for longer and longer periods of time.

The important thing to understand about morphing behaviours like changing words is to make changes slowly.  If you want your dog to pay attention to you when there are other dogs in the vicinity, then don’t start in the middle of the dog park; start far away, and pay your dog for giving you his attention at whatever distance he is already successful.  Some dogs struggle so much with attending to me out of doors that I start out with just hand feeding outside my front door.  Then I take them to places in the car and just feed them in new places.  In general, if I have a really distracted dog, I want them to take treats nicely in ten places before I start asking them to do anything at all in a new place.  Then I start asking for things they will do at home on my front step or in the driveway.  From there, I take them in the car and ask them to get out of the car and do something really easy.  Each time, I pay really well for whatever the dog does what I ask.  Just as teaching the dog a new skill requires that I increase the difficulty of the skill in a step wise manner, so does working in a new environment.

Just like changing words one letter at a time, shaping or morphing behaviours is a lot of fun.  One of the biggest reasons it is a lot of fun is that if you are only changing a little bit at a time, you are going to be fairly successful in very short order.  It is a lot less fun when you try and change more than one thing at a time.  When you are training, if you are not succeeding, ask yourself if you are changing too much too fast and if you are, slow down and enjoy the success.

CAT-COT-COG-DOG