KIDS TRAINING DOGS

Originally posted June 2013

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.

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We LOVE to include children in our classes, and it works best when the adults help to tailor the activities so that the children and the dogs are successful, such as at this socialization party.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

KIDS TRAINING DOGS

OFF LEASH WITH REACTIVE DOGS

 

Originally posted in June 2013

In my last blog about walking puppies off leash (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/off-leash/ )I had a few comments on the Dogs in the Park Facebook page about how this made owners of reactive dogs cringe.  One respondent said that my last blog was too nuanced for beginner trainers, and could lead to people letting their dogs off leash in places where they might encounter her large strong dog reactive dog.  Let me just excerpt a couple of sentences from that blog to make certain that if you are reading about going off leash with your puppy you are clear about my intent

First:

“The pinnacle of my relationship with my dogs is being able to take them off leash and walk with them anytime, anywhere.  Being ABLE to do so is different from choosing to do so when it would not be in their best interest, but being able to do so is magic.”

In case people are not clear, being able to take my dogs off leash implies that I will take more into account than just removing the leash.  Choosing to do so when it is dangerous is not my intent.  There are a number of issues related to taking a puppy off leash, and the first of those issues is choosing to do so only when it is in your pup’s best interest.

Second:

“The more new places I can go, the better in my opinion, but I have to keep a bunch of things in mind.  I don’t want to run into other dogs, especially dogs I don’t know.  That could expose my puppy to diseases I don’t want him to catch, or to behaviours I don’t want him to experience.  I also don’t want to run into the stools of unknown dogs because I want to protect my young pup from worms.”

Again, if you are unclear, I want you to steer clear of the dogs who might be reactive or who might carry diseases or who might be upset by your off leash puppy.  If I don’t know your dog, I don’t let my youngster off leash.  I am not as worried about what my pup might do to your dog in this case, but I am worried about what your dog might teach my puppy.  If you have a reactive dog, I don’t want my puppy to learn anything from him, and so it is the responsibility of the dog owner to act in their dog’s best interest, which means not bringing my pup into a place where your dog might get upset and my pup might be frightened.

Third:

“I don’t want to run into predators either.  Hawks and owls can easily take a young small puppy.  Coyotes, wolves and bears are also a concern in some parts of Canada.  Even foxes can be a problem and will take a small dog if they stumble across it.  Water can be another natural hazard to be aware of.  About four years ago in Guelph, a young pup was playing on the ice and fell in and drowned.  Fast water, deep water, ice and hidden water are all things I keep in mind when I am taking my puppies out for their first excursions into the natural world.”

This advice could also include roads, cars, bikes, and anything else in the environment that could cause harm to my puppy.  In the last blog I was very specific about the owner’s responsibility to keep their dog safe.  Now I want to address that same issue with reactive dogs in mind.

When you live with a reactive dog, you have a huge responsibility to keep your dog below threshold.  By keeping your dog below threshold, you are taking active steps to avoid situations where your dog is not going to go off and become reactive.  If your dog is reactive to children, then please, don’t go to the local school yard or playground in the name of training your dog.  This is neither fair to your dog or to the children you are exposing him to.

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Allowing your dog to get triggered is not only unfair and unsafe to the public at large it is very unfair to your dog.  As the owner of a reactive dog it is your job to prevent this from happening by choosing your walk locations both on and off leash carefully.  The more often that your dog is triggered, the more he is going to behave this way.  Image credit: fouroaks / 123RF Stock Photo

If your dog is reactive to other dogs, then taking him through a park where other dogs run is irresponsible, even if it is against the law for those dogs to be running there.  If this sounds like I am condoning dog owners breaking the law let me assure you I am not.  I would really like everyone to follow their local leash laws, but the fact is that people ARE letting their dogs run illegally and if you walk your reactive dog into that situation, then he is going to react.  You are your dog’s advocate and he doesn’t know what the risks are when choosing your walking route.

In my opinion, off leash activities in natural areas are important not only for dogs but also for children.  The child who has never set foot in a natural area is much poorer for the lack.  As a former outdoor educator, I am keenly tuned in to what happens when we isolate ourselves from nature, and the results of children being isolated from nature are huge.  This is also true for dogs.  So what do you do when you have a reactive dog who is unable to get out to walk off leash in the natural world?

The first thing is to get out a map, or open up Google Earth and take a close look at your neighbourhood.  What is the closest green area on the map?  In many suburban environments, you will now find causeways between housing developments that allow water to run off naturally.  These green spaces are often un-used and available to bring your reactive dog to for exercise and stimulation.  The areas under hydro allowances are also often available.  Then there areas of crown or state land that are open to the public but little used.  When you look at Google Earth, you will find green in very unexpected places.  One of the most common places that I find green in urban areas is abutting industrial basins.

Once you have looked at the map, go visit without your dog.  Really.  This is the important preplanning that you must do to avoid the puppies I am sending out to do normal off leash walking.  When you go, spend time looking for evidence of other humans in the area.  Yes, there are stray dogs and that is a risk, but you can often find areas in very urban settings where there is green space available to walk along, where few people go.  You are looking for things like fresh litter (the semi decayed and crushed water bottle that is half covered in mud is not recent; the whole shiny chip bag that has been stepped upon is), footprints, bike tire prints, pawprints, and crushed vegetation.  If you are finding a lot of fresh evidence mark that location as a possible, but not likely place.  If you actually meet people there, then cross that location off the map.  Visit several places, and if you find one where there is no evidence of people, you have scored a walking area.  If you have found some places with some evidence of people walking there, visit a few times and see if you can determine when you can avoid people.

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This is an excellent site for working with a reactive dog.  I can see if there are other people or dogs in the distance and take steps to avoid problems while allowing my dog the opportunity to walk in a very normal way.  If I am concerned about my dog biting, I will muzzle him even if I don’t expect to meet anyone.  Muzzling is more preplanning you can do to help your dog have a successful off leash experience.  Preplanning is all about making sure that if it could go wrong, it doesn’t.  I teach all dogs including non reactive dogs to wear a muzzle.  In this case, Eco was wearing a muzzle because he was on our reactive dog walk where all the dogs wear muzzles as a safety precaution.  I also teach a rock solid down at a distance so that I can put the brakes on if I need to do so.    Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

This link leads to the map of where I hold my reactive dog walks.  http://tinyurl.com/jvpuy8e . Over the four years I have been walking there with dogs with behaviour problems I have never met a person or dog there, and yet it is right in a neighbourhood full of hundreds of people who could walk there if they wanted to do so.  If you look at the “A” marked on the map, that is where Dogs in the Park is, so this is a short three minute walk from the training hall.  I visited this location every Sunday for three weeks before moving my walk there; I wanted to be certain that I would not run into people with my crew of reactive dogs.  Preplanning pays off.

Not only must you preplan where you are going to take your dog, but you must preplan what you are going to do.  If you are the owner of a reactive dog, you have a responsibility to always attend to that dogs’ behaviour.  If you are not able to attend to him at all times, then you may not be able to work with your dog off leash.  While walking your reactive dog off leash, you need to be aware that on public property, anyone could show up at any time and you need to be aware of what is happening around you and be ready to call your dog back to you and leave if it is no longer in your dog’s best interest to have him off leash.  Keep in mind this isn’t about your right to do this activity; this is all about your responsibility to YOUR dog.  Being responsible to YOUR dog keeps my dog safe.  This is not an activity to do with your kids, or when you have a head ache; this is an activity to do when you can give your whole attention to what you are doing.

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This is our off leash reactive dog walk called the Good Dog Walk.  All of the dogs have behaviour problems of one sort or another.  Everyone is paying attention to the dogs in order to assure that we can prevent any problems from happening.  If you are unable to attend to your dog, then don’t take him out!  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

If the area is not fenced and you think your dog might bolt, then dragging a long line is a great idea.  30 metres of long line dragging will allow you to catch your dog at any time, but allow the line to drag.  Don’t try and hold onto it.  Use a piece of bright tape to make off 10, 20 and 25 metres, so that you can see when your dog is getting far enough away that you should take action.  Call first and if he does not come, step on the line.  I like to call dogs when they are at about twenty metres and stop them by stepping on the line at 25 metres if they haven’t come.  This teaches the dog not to stray, but doesn’t interfere with his normal and natural behaviour.

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Long lines are great tools to help your dog to stay close to you while he is learning to work off leash.  Notice that this dog is calm and under control?  This is the behaviour you want before letting your dog go and explore.  If your dog is straining at the leash and staring at things, then wait till he is calm and relaxed before starting out.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Just what do I want the dog to do?  Pretty much whatever he wants.  If he wants to sniff around, let him.  If he wants to lie in a puddle, allow that too.  This may be the first time that your reactive dog can just choose to do what makes him happy.  Most of the time when we are working with reactive dogs we are micromanaging what they are doing to avoid them going over threshold.  You see another dog in the distance?  You ask the reactive dog to look at you and not engage in the other dog, and then ask him to sit or lie down.  Every action that your dog does may have been micromanaged, possibly for years.  This level of micromanagement may keep your dog from going over threshold, but it sure doesn’t help him to be relaxed and confident and that is part of what being off leash gives us.

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Although you want to have control over the situation, off leash walks should be an opportunity for your reactive dog to do things he wants to do; picking things up, sniffing and looking where he wants to look are all things that he cannot do when you are micromanaging a walk on a leash.  Micromanagement makes reactivity worse, not better.  If your reactive dog has dog friends, taking them for walks together is even better because your dog will learn through social facilitation what is safe and what is dangerous.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

The other thing that you must do is move.  Your dog should get ahead of you, engage in the environment and then lag behind.  You should encourage checking in, but you should also be checking what interests your dog.  There is a huge difference between the conversation that you have when you have a reactive dog and you are orchestrating every little motion, and the conversation you have when you go over to look at the raccoon fur that is snagged on a branch that your dog has found.  Developing a two way conversation with your reactive dog can go a long way to helping him to relax and enjoy himself.  In my opinion, this is an essential step in success with a reactive dog.

In truly urban environments it can be very difficult to find a truly natural safe environment to explore with your dog.  I have had good success with these dogs in taking them to places like blind alleys and allowing them to explore the local dumpster on a long line.  The opportunity to be in a place where they are not going to be startled and be able to just smell things and explore things and toilet when they want to do so is essential to good mental health for all of us, and when we cannot get to a rural place, sometimes we have to compromise.  Always we have to keep in mind our responsibility to keep our reactive dogs below threshold, not only because of the risk to others, but because every time that a reactive dog goes off, it is a penny in the bank account of anxiety and frustration, which only leads to more reactivity.

As a final word, I would like to mention that walking your reactive dog down the street on leash, through the triggers that will set him off is at best a fool’s errand that will never result in the relaxed companion you are aiming for.  So where do you walk?  If you have a vehicle, my best place for leash walking is a grocery store parking lot.  You will see few other dogs, it is a large area where you can see people approaching and there are loads of places you can duck into in order to avoid triggers.  Walking your reactive dog should be an exercise in developing confidence and relaxation for both you and your dog, and if you are constantly hyper vigilant to the things that might set your dog off, you are never going to teach him to accept his triggers; at best you are going to teach him to trust that you are his best early warning system.  At worst you are going to teach him that hyper vigilance is the normal state of being.

OFF LEASH WITH REACTIVE DOGS

STUNTS

Originally posted May 2013

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.

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Fun?  You bet!  Safe?  No!  This is a recipe for disaster.  Image credit: sonyae / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

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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.

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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.

STUNTS

THE KILLER WHALE AND THE KETTLE

Originally posted July 2013

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

THE KILLER WHALE AND THE KETTLE

HOT, HOT, HOT! (THE BOYS)

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Handsome is as handsome does, and if you are going to keep your dogs intact, you have a responsibility to train and contain them so that they cannot breed indiscriminately.

Intact dogs and bitches have become a hot topic around Dogs in the Park lately.  An awful lot of the young ladies seem to have come into season all at once this past summer, and we are getting a whole lot of questions!  A few weeks ago, one of our regulars came into class and I could see that she was most likely in heat.  I pointed this out to the human learner, and she looked disappointed, and said “we are so close to Level 3.  I guess we will have to pass it when we get back.”  “Back from where?” I asked.  The human thought that we would not want her young bitch in class because she was in heat!  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As most of our “new to living with an intact dog” students do, this family had a lot of questions, and this has prompted me to write about living with, training and coping with an intact animal.

Let’s start with the boys, because in many ways, the boys are a more straightforward situation.  The correct term for a male dog is a dog, just like the correct term for an intact female dog is bitch.  If you read dog in this blog you know we are talking about a male dog and if you read bitch, we are talking about a female dog.  If a dog is neutered, altered or “fixed”, that means that a veterinarian has surgically removed the testicles.  Even in a late neuter, they don’t remove the scrotum; they just remove the testicles.  If he is intact, that means that the dog still has his testicles. 

A very few male dogs have had vasectomies.  Usually there is a reason for the owner of the dog to choose to have a vasectomy.  I had a dog that we chose to have this done for.  He was a huge military lines German Shepherd dog named Eco, and he had one testicle retained inside his body.  This happens from time to time, but due to the work we wanted him to do, we wanted to make sure that he would be as physically strong as possible, and to develop as normal a skeleton as he could, so we didn’t want to neuter him.  Also, we had read that intact male dogs have a better sense of smell (the jury is out on this fact; we are not sure if this is true or not, but there is enough evidence pointing to this that we decided we wanted to keep the remaining testicle).  Due to the fact that Eco had retained one testicle and we knew that is a strongly heritable trait, we didn’t want him to be bred, so we opted to ask our veterinarian to do a vasectomy.  For us this was a very good choice, but it did mean that although he could not sire puppies, he behaved in every other way as an intact male would.

Intact males are able to breed, and they will be much more interested in the girls when they are in heat than are neutered males, but in general, living with a well trained intact male is no different than living with a well trained neutered male.  Notice that I have qualified this with well trained.  D’fer was my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and he was trained to do work as my service dog.  He was also intact.  As is true with almost all Chessies, he was an intense, passionate guy, with an opinion on nearly everything.  We were well matched in that regard!  I have about 5 foundation behaviours that I feel are essential to success for dogs who live with me.  The first of these is the cued take it.  As I like to say, the dog controls the dog!  You can read more about my thoughts on this at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ .  Other behaviours include the one hour down stay and automatically sitting at the door.  The cued take it is important for intact dogs because that is what they must do when they meet a reproductively available member of the opposite sex, and that was the behaviour that mattered the most the very first time that D’fer met a female dog in heat. 

I remember that we were at a tracking seminar, and another participant had brought a dog with her that she intended to have bred by a dog she was going to meet on her way home.  This is not an unusual situation in the professional dog world; when we have a promising bitch, we may take her to meet a complimentary dog when she is in heat.  She was behind a gate in the owner’s trailer, and as we walked by, D’fer suddenly stopped as though he had walked into a brick wall.  He could obviously smell that she was in heat, and he was VERY interested!  Because we had done the foundation work necessary to create the level of cued take it that I want, he did not pull or strain towards her; he stepped back and waited politely, until I told him not this time and we moved on.  The owner of the bitch in heat was much relieved, as she really did not need a litter of Basset Hound Chesapeake Bay Retriever puppies!

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When D’fer, my service dog met a basset hound in heat, he asked very nicely if I would let him meet her. This is an essential skill if you are going to keep your dogs intact.

There is a myth out there that if you have an intact male, he is going to be absolutely uncontrollable when he meets a female dog in heat.  While this may be true in the case of an untrained dog who has been encouraged to misbehave and grab whatever he wants, this is completely untrue for a well trained dog.  I feel that if you have an intact male, you have a responsibility to your dog and to the rest of society to make sure that your boy is well mannered and well trained so that he does not wander or impregnate dogs he should not.  This means investing time in the first 8 to 10 months teaching your dog that grabbing whatever he wants is not acceptable, and that he must come when called regardless of what is going on around him.

Another common myth about intact males is that they are all aggressive, and that they will fight any other male dog that they meet.  This just isn’t true!  Intermale aggression may happen, but it is far from the universal phenomenon that people often assume that it is.  I remember more than once having people explain to me that of course service dogs could not be intact because they would get into fights.  I was always amused when I asked them to look more closely at my dog and have them discover that they had been sitting right beside an intact male!  If you have ever seen a group of beach dogs in the Caribbean, or on a dump in a third world country, then you observed first hand that intact males can and DO co-exist peacefully.  The deal is pretty simple.  In the wild, males are not crowded into situations where they are going to argue a whole lot; and when conflict does arise, aggression is not usually the first choice in resolution.  Aggression is only the best choice for an individual when that individual is fairly sure that he will win.  This means that the male who is weaker, slower or less certain is most likely going to choose to retreat or otherwise acquiesce.  The stronger, faster or more confident dog doesn’t feel the need to assert himself, and thus, he doesn’t pick unnecessary fights.  Fights are really only a good idea when the outcome is uncertain; when both members of the conflict are pretty equally matched.  This is not to say that aggression between males in the wild never happens;  it means that aggression is relatively rare.  So why is it that people think that intermale aggression is so common?

There are likely a number of answers to this.  In the wild, we don’t prevent the little squabbles from happening and those little squabbles help the individuals to understand which dog is stronger and which dog doesn’t have a chance of winning a fight.  Wild dogs have more choices to retreat too.  And in the wild the intact males usually live in groups where the social structure is relatively stable with few individuals moving in or out at once.  Compare this to the situation of your average pet dog!  If he protests to another dog that he doesn’t like being that close, he will likely be chastised by a well meaning person.  This means that the dog never gets to explain to the other dog what he does or does not like.  I am not suggesting that permitting your dogs to squabble incessantly is a good idea, but they do need to be able to communicate their preferences!  Next, our homes are set up to store our books, computers and clothing; they are not set up to allow dogs to retreat from one another easily.  When I did home visits, one of the things I always looked at was if the dogs had a reasonable second way to retreat from conflict.  Rarely did I find this already in existence!  Next we often ask our dogs to accept a huge number of new dogs into their environment; we ask them to get along with every dog at the dog park, and then tolerate guest dogs to the home, not to mention all sorts of new people who have differing ideas about what acceptable behaviour might be.  If you add into the mix the sexual tension of two males who are of similar strength, speed and agility and breeding females, fights will happen.  Nevertheless, many intact dogs can and do learn to live peacefully together.  I just would not suggest taking them out to the dog park and hoping for the best.

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Squabbles can actually decrease the chance of aggression. This doesn’t mean we should encourage dogs to squabble, however, interrupting every single disagreement can actually lead to the less confident, weaker or slower dog to try taking on a dog who would win a fight.

Neutering will not usually resolve aggressive behaviours in dogs, however there are exceptions to this.  If you have two intact males, and they are starting to get scrappy, neutering ONE of them may help.  The key is which one?  This is an it depends sort of question and you should work with a behaviour professional to decide which dog should be neutered.  Neutering both dogs likely won’t solve your problem.  If you have a particularly social and studly adolescent dog, he may be the target of aggression from other dogs who are intolerant of his shenanigans, and some of the time, neutering may resolve this.  The only two behavioural benefits that have been concretely demonstrated have been marking and neutering, and in both cases, the studies did not control for the effect of training.  In my experience of living with a handful of intact males, and having trained several dozen more, I would suggest that training can overcome many of the issues that are often attributed to being intact.

So how do you live successfully with an intact male?  Here are my top six suggestions.

1.        START TRAINING EARLY

I want my intact males in training to learn to toilet on cue (avoiding the marking issue entirely if you make sure they understand how to completely empty their bladders and make all walks contingent on producing urine quickly and completely), to ask politely for every thing they want (cued take its), to come when called (even in the face of heavy distractions) and to lie down and stay for up to an hour at a time when asked.

 

2.       GET SERIOUS ABOUT SOCIALIZATION

We talk about S.E.E.ing your puppy at Dogs in the Park.  This acronym stands for systematic environmental enrichment and what it means is making sure your intact male dog has seen literally hundreds of other people, dogs, animals, floors, vehicles, and experiences, and furthermore that these exposures have all been done sub threshold.  This means having your dog relaxed at all times when exposing him to all these things.  I find that it is easiest to do this with the help of an organized puppy class, however, this is not always possible.  When it isn’t, make sure that you have a plan for how you are going to expose your pup to everything.

 

3.       TEACH YOUR MALE DOG THAT LEARNING AND WORK HAPPENS EVEN IN THE PRESENCE OF A BITCH IN HEAT

This is where group classes that include intact bitches are invaluable.  If you cannot find a class that includes bitches and even bitches in heat, get yourself into the confirmation world; half the dogs at every dog show are female and many of them will be in heat.  Teach your boys that they still have to perform even if there is a particularly attractive girl around.

 

4.       KEEP YOUR DOG WELL EXERCISED

If your male dog is under exercised he is going to have ants in his pants and be unable to exercise his best self control.  Properly exercised means opportunities to run and run hard, on a daily basis for a young dog (use your judgement; pups under six months should not be forced to exercise the way that an adult dog will), as well as opportunities to engage with you in directed aerobic activities.  Fetch is good, however, it can become an activity that will excite your dog and create stress.  Better are activities such as agility, treibball, herding, or tracking.  All these activities teach your dog to engage with you while he is excited.

 

5.       INCORPORATE SELF CONTROL AS A DAILY ROUTINE INSTEAD OF AS A CUED BEHAVIOUR

Too often I see male dogs who think that they can have anything they want if they are just fast enough about taking it.  I want my boys to think that they can have anything they want if only they ask.  I have written about this extensively all through this blog; if the door opens, I want my dogs to go about their day without rushing the doors.  This often surprises guests because they have to invite my dogs to go outside.  My dogs also have to be invited to start dinner, to get on furniture and to get in the car.  Self control is just part of polite manners in our house.  On the other hand, our dogs have a huge toy basket of freebies; things they can take any time they want.

 

6.       BE SENSIBLE ABOUT WHAT YOU ASK OF YOUR MALE DOGS

The last time I shared a hotel room with someone for a dogshow, she had an intact bitch.  Her bitch was not in season, so I was not worried about my intact male.  Nevertheless, he slept in a crate that night.  If she had wanted to share a room and bring her intact male, I would have declined to share a room.  I don’t ask my boys to accept every dog I know in our home, I don’t take my intact males to the dog park and when I have a bitch in heat in class with my intact males, I don’t ask them to work at distance off leash unless I am really certain that both I and the handler of the bitch have perfect control over our dogs.  When I have intact males in my classroom, I am careful about when I ask them to work beside a bitch in heat; I certainly don’t ask them to do this when they are relatively new to training.  Setting my boys up for success is a huge responsibility, and it is what I spend most of my time doing.

 

As a final word about keeping an intact male, if your dog impregnates an intact bitch, keep in mind that you are responsible for half the costs and work of the litter.  If you are going to keep an intact male, it is your job to make sure he is well enough trained and contained to ensure that an unplanned pregnancy is unlikely. 

Coming up next…the girls!  Please be patient; this blog was delayed by an injury to my thumb which meant that all my typing has been of the hunt and peck variety for the past three weeks!  I am still pretty slow on the keyboard, but I am doing my best!

HOT, HOT, HOT! (THE BOYS)

THE SALVADORE DALI CAFE

Originally Published August 2013

Imagine what it might be like to live in a completely behaviourally random world.  You go to the cafe and order a latte, and the cashier asks for your hat and coat.  As a cooperative citizen, you give it to the lady who throws it in the trash, as she calls out “NEXT” and turns her attention to the person behind you in line.  You move down the counter to pick up your latte, and the barrista, comes out from behind the counter and grabs you and begins to waltz you around the Salvador Dali cafe and throws open the door and turfs you out onto the sidewalk.  On the sidewalk, a bear in a business suit offers you a Rolex, cheap from inside his waistcoat and when you say no, he pulls out some flowers and hands them to you and approaches someone else on the street.  Still wanting a latte you go back into the store, only to find that it is now filled with pink balloons and you cannot make your way to the counter.  After much struggling, you catch the eye of the cashier and mention your latte and she says “no latte today, m’dear, only champers and cheese” and hands you a plate of candied almonds.  Nothing you do can change the maelstrom of activity you have found yourself within.  How would you feel?

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Living in our world as it is depends on understanding things like the rules of the game, that gravity controls what floats and what doesn’t and who people are.  When things stop being predictable, then it becomes very difficult to learn what to do.  Salvador Dali had a talent for showing this concept visually in a playful and interesting way, never the less, few people would want to play checkers on a board where the pieces persist in falling through the board and where time expands and contracts independently of what the players do.   Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

When we work with dogs, they are forever looking for the way through the maze; the way to control their environment, the rules of the game.  There are lots of games you can play and learn the rules through experience, and training is one of them.  Yesterday, I worked with a lovely young terrier who is trying to figure out the rules.  When she barks, she wants attention, and as a youngster, it worked well.  She can make her person do all sorts of things by barking.  Not wanting to disturb people, her person will come in to her and pick her up, or give her treats or tell her to be quiet or point a finger at her or tell her to lie down.  Like trying to order a latte in the Salvadore Dali cafe, everything changes at every step of the game.  So how can we make training an experiential fun game for the dog?

Think about games and activities that you have learned through experience.  If someone invites you to play Scrabble and you have never played before, it might run like this.  Your opponent will give you a hint or a clue or a starting point.  Perhaps they will start by giving you a tile tray and some tiles and ask you to make some words in your tile tray without showing the words that you have found.  Then your opponent will put down some tiles and the board and explain how the scoring works.  Then it is your turn and you can take your letters and place them on the board to make a word that intersects the first word.  You do this and your opponent scores your word for you and then it is his turn again.  He makes a word that intersects a word on the board and you work out the scoring together.  Turn by turn you learn the rules of the game, what strategies work and which strategies are ineffective.  This is exactly how dogs learn when we train using operant conditioning.

Coming back to my terrier friend (she really is a friendly dog who is just trying to make sense of her world), what we set up for training was a contingency that allowed her to learn some rules through experience.  The first thing we did was use a tether to limit where she could go; we set up a playing area so to speak.  Then we clicked and treated to remind her that the game was starting and give her some information about the game and how it would work.  Then we used four basic rules; if she was quiet, her person would stand close to her and wait.  If she was barking, her person would take one step back for each bark, until he got to the far end of the room.  After barking started, if she were quiet, her person would come back one step at a time.  If she lay down, her person would click and treat.  At first, she didn’t know the rules so she did a lot of different things to see what would happen.

When she barked, her person would step back.  This frustrated her and so she barked louder.  When her person was about twenty steps back, she stopped barking and he stepped forward.  Then she barked again and he stepped back.  For about five minutes, she learned how her behaviour affected the behaviour of her partner.  Then abruptly, she lay down.  Her partner came in and fed her a treat.  And she barked.  He backed up.  She stopped barking and stood up.  He stepped closer.  She lay down, he gave her a treat.  A very simple, but very predictable game, in which she controlled the behaviour of her partner.

This is how I think the best training works.  The trainer decides on the game for the day.  The trainer decides on what the contingencies are.  Then the trainer allows the dog to work out the contingencies.  The dog gets to decide if he wants to play or not and if the trainer has done his job well he has set up rules that make sense to the dog and the dog wants to play.  In order to do this we have to understand some things about the game and about the dog we are working with.

If I have a dog who LOVES liver, but doesn’t love cheese, then it doesn’t matter what I want the dog to do, cheese is not going to help him to learn the rules of the game.  Likewise if the penalty is something the dog doesn’t care about, then using that as a penalty isn’t going to work.  If in the scenario that I presented above the dog was afraid of the handler and barking made him go away, the dog would learn that barking resulted in something he wanted and he would do more barking.  I see this all the time in training.  The person thinks that their dog should like something, and they offer it as a reward, and the dog when working out the rules figures out that he will get something he doesn’t want to have if he does a particular behaviour.  This isn’t about the dog not wanting to play your game; this is about the dog not wanting what you have to offer.

Sometimes the task we are asking the dog to do is of no interest to him.  If we ask a herding dog to go sit in a boat and retrieve ducks, no amount of liver is going to make that as fun for him as taking him out to herd sheep.  In the best training the activities we do with our dogs are of interest to the dog.  That said, there are always parts of the game that we might not enjoy; I hate setting up the board in Scrabble, but if I don’t do that part, I cannot do the part that I like doing.  Manners are an example of activities that your dog must do in order to get to do things he likes better.  Behaviours like greeting with four on the floor, taking treats gently, and keeping quiet are all behaviours that the dog must learn in order to be able to do things like playing agility, herding sheep or retrieving ducks.  Teaching good manners allows us to do more fun things with our dogs later and also allows us to establish that the dog doesn’t live in a random world where nothing he does affects the world he lives within.

Luring is a tool that I often see in the training game that can be quickly and dangerously misused.  Imagine if in my Salvador Dali coffee shop, the cashier kept holding out that latte that I wanted, but I could only get it by following her around.  I might tolerate a lot of Rolex selling bears and pink balloons to get my lattte, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy the experience a whole lot more.  Luring should be only used with caution and with respect for the dog.  When a novice trainer discovers that he can make the dog sit by holding the lure over the dog’s head, it is a short and dangerous step to using the lure to get the dog to do things he might consider otherwise risky.  Consider the dog who is not confident about getting onto a piece of agility equipment.  The trainer puts the lure on the equipment, and the dog is then in a conundrum; he can get the treat, but he isn’t learning to control his environment any longer.  He is conflicted because he wants the treat, but he has to do something that he considers dangerous to get that treat.  He doesn’t learn to play the game as much as he learns to balance the conflict between what he wants and what he doesn’t want to do.  Luring is even more dangerous when it is used to get the dog to interact with people or dogs he isn’t sure of, because he may at that point become aggressive.  Luring, properly used tells the dog how to position his body, but that is all it should be used for.  If the dog is concerned in any way about what you want him to do, pairing the thing he is concerned about to the thing he wants is a much safer bet than making his interaction the contingency that results in a treat.

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Luring is a tool that can lead the dog into the Salvador Dali Cafe.  It is best used to help the dog understand how his body ought to be positioned, but if it is abused and used to coerce the dog to do things that are uncomfortable or risky, then the dog loses control over how he interacts with the world and then he can end up in situations that don’t make sense to him or that actually put him at risk.  In general, targeting can achieve the same results, with fewer risks.  Image credit: simsonne100 / 123RF Stock Photo

As soon as worry comes into the game, then it is not fun anymore.  Then it is time to play a different game; a game that will allow the learner to figure out that he is safe and that the world is a good place to interact with.  When the dog is worried the game should simply be “see that scary thing?  It produces treats”  This game is great when it is played with the frightening thing far enough away that the dog can cope with his fear.  Only when fear dissolves can you switch back to a game of “if you interact with the thing you are worried about, you will get a treat”.

When we think about training as a game, we can set up a series of rules and outcomes that the dog can be successful at.  Teaching dogs to be confident is contingent on the dog being repeatedly successful.  If the dog is successful over and over again, the dog starts to think that he can do many more things than he used to be able to do.  Perhaps the worst thing we can do to our dogs is create a random world where they cannot control what they live with.  Overwhelming dogs with repeated conflicts or failures results in a dog who lacks confidence and who doesn’t want to participate in training games.  If your dog feels like he is living in the Salvador Dali coffee shop, don’t be surprised if he stops participating in the training game, or if he becomes tense or fearful or anxious.  Just writing about the Salvador Dali cafe is difficult because none of it makes sense and there is no control over the outcomes.  When there is no control over your world, learning is inefficient and upsetting and pretty soon you have a dog who just doesn’t want to participate any more.

THE SALVADORE DALI CAFE

TRAVEL AT THE SPEED OF DOG

Many years ago, I had two clients in class.  One very energetic bouncy happy lady had a very energetic bouncy happy border collie.  The other very quiet laidback low key lady had a very quiet laid back low key Malamute.  When it came time to teach the dogs to come when called, the very energetic bouncy happy lady handed me her dog’s leash, I held the dog by the collar and she jumped up and down and up and down and made squeaky enticing noises and ran away and called her dog.  Her very energetic very bouncy happy dog raced joyously to her and promptly bounced her to the ground where the two of them had a very energetic, very bouncy happy love fest.  Next, the very quiet laidback low key lady handed me her dog’s leash and I held her dog by the collar as she ambled slowly away and stopped half way to the end of our training field to tie her shoe lace.  She got up and slowly continued to the end of the field where she turned and calmly asked the dog to come.  I released the dog’s collar and he very slowly, very quietly and calmly ambled towards her, stopping once to sit down and scratch, and then to sniff and go pee, and then he wandered off towards the other dogs in the class waiting for their turn at the exercise.

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If I want to teach THIS dog to come to me without bouncing me to the ground, I will need to ask him to come in such a way that I don’t cause him to come so quickly that he cannot stop without hitting me. This is just one aspect of what I need to do in order to be successful when I am training a dog. Copyright: bigandt / 123RF Stock Photo

Week after week, I coached these two trainers on how to get better recalls.  Relax a bit I told the very energetic bouncy happy lady, and he won’t knock you over when he gets to you.  Get a little more excited and interesting for your dog I coached the quiet laidback low key lady, so that your dog is a little more excited to get to you.  The more I coached them, the more extreme each of these ladies seemed to get.  The very bouncy lady got bouncier, and the quiet lady got calmer and even more reserved.  One day in exacerbation, I had them trade dogs and each dog had a much better recall.  Of course over time, each of the handlers DID improve however the bouncy lady was still bouncy and the quiet lady was still quiet.  Luckily they each had dogs to suit their own temperaments!

This scenario really highlights something I see in my classes though.  We have to give the dogs what they need in order to learn.  We can only teach the dogs what they have the foundations to understand and we must present the material we want them to learn in such a way that they will be successful in their activities.  If we don’t we won’t be successful in our training.  In short, we have to travel at the speed of dog.

When I see dogs struggling in class I start out by asking myself if the dog has all the information he needs in order to learn the task.  If we are teaching a dog to go away from us for instance, and we start by asking the dog to move out 20 metres, and the dog doesn’t know how to go two metres away from us on cue, then we are very unlikely to be able to build a solid, happy and energetic go out.  We need to understand the mechanics of what we are working on (coming when called usually works better when the person is a longer not shorter distance from the dog for instance), what motivates the dog, and what the dog already knows in order to be successful.  I have taught the long distance go out a number of different ways, all depending on which dog I am working with.  The point is that I have to travel at the speed of dog in each and every instance. 

Another thing I need to consider when I am teaching dogs is what their own way is of moving through the world.  I tend to be a fairly intense, high energy handler.  I do best with confident, pushy dogs who enjoy my big personality, but as a professional dog trainer, I have to train calm quiet dogs, timid dogs, energetic silly dogs and dogs who just defy classification.  In other words I have to be flexible in the way that I interact with dogs. 

I also have to be flexible in my behaviour when I am teaching different exercises.  When I am teaching a dog to perform a self control exercise such as the down stay, it is better to start out by being low key and neutral.  When I want to teach a dog to come to me from a distance, it generally pays better to be a little bit exciting, unless of course you are working with a dog like my student had who was charging her and knocking her over. 

Another aspect to travelling at the speed of dog is the rate at which we give the dog information.  Ideally we want the dog to offer enough iterations of the behaviour that he can get sufficient rewards to tell him what it is that we want.  We have to set up the dog so that he gets the right answer quickly and efficiently and if he has not received a reward recently we cannot be surprised when he disengages from the activity and does his own thing. 

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This dog is engaged in his own activity, so you would need to be very aware of how much information you need to give him, how fast that information came, and not overusing his name to nag him. Copyright: chalabala / 123RF Stock Photo

Not only do we have to give the dog enough information to know when he is right, but we also have to give him cues in a timely manner.  I have watched many students say the dog’s name and then wait and wait and wait before giving the dog the cue to the behaviour that will earn a reward.  The only thing this achieves is a dog learning that in the training context, he should disregard his name!  If your dog is engaged, you likely don’t need to use his name at all.  You can learn more about how to effectively use your dog’s name at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/13/your-dogs-name-an-operating-manual/ .  Similar to this issue is when you have a dog who has performed a behaviour, and the handler delays the next cue for a very long time.  This leaves the dog hanging so that he doesn’t quite know what is coming up next, and if he is not eagerly engaged in the activity to begin with, he will just wander off to do his own thing.

Travelling at the speed of dog requires us as trainers to be aware of a number of variables and factor them all in when we are working with our dogs.  If the dog we are working with tends to be excitable, we need to tone down.  If that same dog needs to perform that behaviour with exuberance, then we can bring our own enthusiasm up a bit and help them to express the appropriate amount of energy for the given activity.  We need to avoid overwhelming the dog with too much or too little information.  Developing the ability to juggle all these factors can feel very overwhelming for many of us, however then they are all in balance, the dog travels along through the training game along side of us and learns effectively and efficiently. 

TRAVEL AT THE SPEED OF DOG