I have a lot of students who struggle with leash manners with their dogs. They expect to be able to walk along and never connect with their dogs in any kind of meaningful way. They seem to think that marching around a city block at what amounts to a slow shuffle will fulfill their dog’s needs for exercise and mental stimulation. Most dogs don’t agree that this is a desirable activity. It beats sitting in the house, but it doesn’t meet the dog’s needs either for mental stimulation or for exercise.
Let’s start out by looking at an on leash dog walk from the dog’s perspective. To begin with, the two leggers go far too slow and far too consistently. They go one methodical step at a time, piece by piece around the neighbourhood. They never break out into a joyous bound, or stop suddenly to sniff the important stuff. I imagine that if the dog were to operate the walk, you would leave your front door like a freight train running free down a mountain and then you would come to a crashing halt about two driveways down. After a brief pause to check the pee mail, the dog would choose to zig and zag through the obstacles of the local yards, vaulting over obstacles and changing directions on a whim. Imagine for a moment the most whimsical tour of your neighbourhood, where you are permitted the joy of looking into your neighbour’s trash bins, of hurdling the decorative fences and of stopping suddenly when the need arises. You would pee at least four times, and you might defecate too. Probably on the least weedy lawn along your route. In short, a dog walk would be a dog “bounce, change direction, explore, go to the toilet, bounce again, run around, see things major event”.
I think most dogs start out every walk in the hope that we, the dog walking people, will someday “get it”. Instead, every day, the people try and fit this free joyous spirit into a slow march of straight lines, scheduled stops and complete lack of interaction with the environment. Walking the dog becomes a chore that we have to convince ourselves to do, for several reasons. Firstly, few dogs naturally match our pace and few people are any good at matching their dog’s pace. Secondly, people rarely do a good job of teaching the dog what we expect. We are still delighted when the dog learns to sit at corners, but forget that corners and street crossing only makes up a very small part of the walk. When the rest of the walk is made up of a constant tug of war between you and the dog, fighting over the pace and direction, this is not a pleasant recreational activity and it is no wonder that few people enjoy walking their dogs even though most folks feel they must for some reason do so.
In order to meet your dog’s needs for exercise and mental stimulation there is nothing that will beat an off leash walk in a country setting. I well recognize that my friends in downtown Toronto and New York City do not have this luxury, but if I were to develop the optimal situation for my canine friends, it would be to give each and every one of them a half an hour to an hour off leash, walking with me, in a safe rural setting. This does not mean that the dog will go out and run sheep or chase horses either; this means that you and your dog will travel for an hour or so, on foot, together or in the company of other people and dogs, and the dogs are permitted to bolt ahead and fall back, to sniff and to leap and return and check in with you. To do this means that you must start early-preferably before sixteen weeks when the dog begins to be more independent and it means that you must teach the dog to check in regularly with you. There are rare exceptions, but the majority of dogs can learn to do this and it is very mentally good for them to do so.
Dogs do need to learn to walk nicely on leash, and I teach that there are three rules for leash walking.
Putting the leash on is a commitment from the human to pay attention to what they are doing. This includes paying attention to the dog, to the environment, to the world around you, to the dogs in your environment and being present at all times. This does not happen if you walk and talk on your cell. Or if you stop and engage with the neighbours.
A tight leash is a brake. If the leash goes tight, then you must stop. The difference between good brakes and bad brakes is how much tension you must feel before you stop. In general, if the leash is not hanging directly below your hand, then it is too tight.
Walk with direction and purpose. There is nothing more annoying than accompanying someone who is wandering around and the dog knows this. If you are walking purposefully, and you have a direction to go and a reason for going there, the dog will go with you quite happily. On the other hand if you wander along, with no particular reason for going where you are going, the dog is going to go somewhere meaningful for him. For most dogs, this means that going around the block is annoying. You start out, you turn right, you turn right, you turn right, you turn right and you are back home again. What fun is that? There is no point for most dogs! If on the other hand, you go out to the potty place, allow your dog to toilet, and then walk purposefully to the corner, stop, check in with your dog and then cross the street to the park where he can go off leash, then your dog is likely going to be willing to do that politely and in a controlled connected manner.
When you walk your dog on leash, you have to have some sort of system to come to an agreement about what that walk will look like. If you follow the rules above, and provide some appropriate off leash walking opportunities, then you can have pleasant outings together. There ARE other systems, but the bottom line remains the same; you must commit to something if you are going to walk on a loose leash with your dog.
If you have been battling a pulling or lunging dog, you should know that it will take time to teach him to walk nicely on leash, and obliterating 100% of errors is unrealistic. Saying that your dog will never ever pull on leash or lunge is like saying that you will never take a wrong turn in traffic or make a spelling mistake. We are not perfect, but if we can be present with our dogs when we walk with them, then we can achieve great things together.
I had a fairly frustrating meeting today. I met with someone who has a 9 month old dog and who kept insisting that her dog was a puppy. This is not an uncommon error, especially after the “puppy food for a full year till he is full grown” dog food ad from the 1980s. In this ad, a cute cartoon puppy came onto the screen and explained why a growing young dog needed puppy food until he was full grown. Many people think that their young dogs are puppies until they are fully grown because you feed puppy food until they are fully grown. A better term for puppy food, and one often used now in marketing is “growth formula”. Dogs need a different ratio of calcium to phosphorus while they are growing in order to lay down solid bone mass than they do as adults, so feeding a growth formula is important until the young dog stops growing. In large breed dogs this may happen at about one year of age, and in giant breed dogs, this may not happen until the dog is almost two. Never the less, these young dogs are NOT puppies.
Puppy is a general term for a young dog, but it is more accurate to use it the way we would use “infant”. If your son or daughter is 15, you would not refer to him or her as an infant! My great grandparents referred to their two children as “the babies” in my hearing when my grandmother and her brother were well into their seventies; this was a cultural thing I am sure, but no one would have mistaken these older adults as actual infants. Likewise, I have a number of students who refer to their dogs generically as “the pups” or “the puppies” even when they are much older dogs.
So, what is frustrating about having a young adult dog referred to as a puppy? As with so many things, it depends! If you are referring to your “pups” as in “the pups are with us today” I don’t have a problem. When you are excusing misbehaviour in an adult dog because he is “just a puppy” things unravel fairly quickly. Language forms expectation. When you have a 9 month old sub adult oradolescent, you start to run into difficulty, so I thought that perhaps it is time for me to create a resource that outlines a little more accurately the ages your dog goes through and what to expect.
Puppies! Puppies come in younger and older versions, but when they have all their adult teeth, they are absolutely no longer puppies. In fact, once they have lost all their puppy teeth, even when not all of their adult teeth have come in, they are no longer puppies or infants. Generally, puppies should come home between 7 and 9 weeks, with 8 weeks being optimal for most breeds. Between 8 and 12 weeks they should meet and learn about their families and by 16 weeks they should have been well exposed to most of the people and things they will meet by the time they are adults. They should not be over exposed during this time however as they can develop significant fears if you don’t expose them carefully. By 20 weeks, your young dog should be completely house trained unless he or she has a medical problem. Teething should be coming an end by the end of puppyhood too, but that doesn’t mean that your older dog won’t enjoy chewing; it just means that he or she will no longer need to chew in order to cut help the growing teeth to cut through the gums. Usually it does not take that long to exercise a puppy because they are too young to tolerate more than about a half an hour of activity at a time.
We all have great memories of our silly, floppy, little baby dogs! One of my favourite memories was of getting D’fer, our Chesapeake Bay Retriever. He came to us on the airplane at 9 weeks of age and on the way home we stopped for gas. I took him on leash to toilet while John filled the tank, and he found a paper cup. He was a creative little soul even then, and he picked it up and delivered it to hand. Good puppy! He was a fun baby dog even when he scared us by jumping up on an agility table and then walking off the edge of it and falling flat on his face!
Adolescents. Adolescent dogs are slightly older than puppies. Adolescence starts when the adult teeth are mostly in and can last almost forever! Generally, though adolescence can start as early as 12 weeks and can last until your young dog is between one and two. It is hard to determine exactly when it starts and stops just as it is difficult to tell in humans, so we usually use behaviour to tell when this is going on. Like human adolescents, you will notice irritability, impulsivity, frustration, extreme confidence, extreme fear and lots of learning! Often the learning we see in adolescent dogs includes learning things like how to avoid being caught, how to get into the fridge to steal the cheese and how to avoid bath time. It is important at this age to carefully teach our dogs that they should come when called, stay when told and walk nicely on a leash. If you are seeing fear behaviours, you cannot socialize your way through these any longer because your dog is now past the age where socialization can occur. During adolescence you may need to engage in some remedial socialization through desensitization and counter conditioning. Exercise is something that adolescent dogs need but you have to watch for fatigue because they are still growing.
I well remember Eco, my black German Shepherd when he just started to hit adolescence. He was about thirteen weeks old when we saw the first signs of independence coming along and he decided that anything the big kids could do he could do too. One morning as all the dogs were jumping into the truck, he charged up, and paused. The truck was too high for him to jump but he was determined, so he reared himself up and tried and slammed against the running board. He was REALLY sure he could do it and about two weeks later he was right. As an adolescent, he had many great adventures that reflected his determination, his drive and his certainty that he was right and could do anything that any of the older dogs could do, only better, faster and stronger! This can do attitude stood us in good stead as we started protection work, tracking and obedience work and at the end of adolescence, he titled in obedience because we were able to channel his exuberance into focus and work.
Young adulthood. Dogs are young adults between the ages of about 7 months (more or less, depending on breed!) and 4 years. Once again, the age at which a dog becomes a young adult is a little spongy, just as it is for humans. Four is about the time that most dogs hit social maturity, which in humans is equivalent to between 25 and 30. This is the age when most adult humans realize the importance of things like voting and participating in community development. We are mostly past the early setting up of our lives, and we have the mental resources for this. So until that happens, we are capable, fit and useful young adults who can do amazing physical things and learn the basics of our careers. Until social maturity, dogs are much the same. Most young adult dogs are extremely trainable, especially if they have had a good foundation in puppyhood and adolescence. They are mostly very willing participants in the training process. For working dogs, they are in the early stages of their careers; they still have some polish to gain, but they can perform the work they will be doing and usually they can perform it really well. Generally young adult dogs need a fair amount of exercise and depending on your dog’s breed you should plan on spending 45 minutes to an hour providing that.
As a young adult, D’fer began working as my service dog. He wasn’t perfect and I remember being interviewed once by a newspaper when he was having a young dog moment. He needed a little extra work and reminder that when he was in harness he should not bolt forward and bounce up or down the stairs. I remember the reporter being quite surprised that I was stopping every three stairs to remind him to stay right beside me and to treat him when he got the right answer. Deef was truly a young dog at the time and although he knew his job, he lacked finesse and polish.
Adulthood. Dogs are adults from about 1 until between 5 and 8 when they hit middle age. This time frame corresponds to the human ages of 18 to about 45. There are still a lot of developmental stages that occur during this time frame, but in general you can see the dog’s personality stabilize and you can expect that he will be fairly consistent in his behaviour though out this time frame. They should not be having accidents in the house, they should not be chewing items up, they should know the rules and for the most part they should follow those rules. They DO need exercise, but now if you skip a day it should not be a tragedy.
As an adult, Friday began to accompany John on his remote backpacking trips into Algonquin park. She was fit, healthy and able to keep up to John as well as to carry her own pack. She never chewed things up such as tents, packs, sleeping bags or gear. She is a good companion for John and she has joined him on every remote backpacking adventure for the past five years or so. She is also versatile and has earned titles in obedience with John. She has taken countless workshops trying out a variety of sports such as frisbee, musical freestyle, tricks and tracking. Adult dogs are go there and do that creatures who make our lives much more interesting just by doing things with us.
Middle age. Middle age could also be considered the golden age for most dogs. In dogs this can begin as early as 5 or 6 and last until as late as 13 or 14 or even older for a small breed dog. Usually, dogs don’t need regular training but they still enjoy it. Usually they don’t need quite as much exercise, but they can still tolerate it. Usually they know the rules and they haven’t yet forgotten them, however they may have become savvy about which rules have exceptions. I think I may love middle age more than any other age, except for those moments when the wind starts to blow at the door, and I start to realize that we may be coming to the end of an era. Just like with people, middle aged dogs often get the “creaks and aches”. You may see arthritis start to appear. Vision may not be as good as it used to be. Your dog may be a little less eager and a little less willing to do the things you used to do together. And you may realize that you know and love one another in a way that you have never known or loved another being before. Middle age truly is the golden age for me when it comes to my dogs.
John’s dog Friday is now in middle age. She is still able to go on remote backcountry trips but she is not as active as she used to be. She has survived cancer so we keep an eye on her health a little more closely than we did when she was a younger adult. We know that she is more susceptible to injuries too so John is careful to do lots of warm up with her before asking her to do really active things. On the plus side, she is really willing to meditate with him every day and as an adolescent or young adult she probably would not have thought that was a good idea!
Old age. In giant breeds of dog such as the Great Dane, old age could begin as early as 7, and in tiny breeds such as miniature poodles, it may not arrive until the dog is into his teens. Old age for dogs is an individual thing. Some old dogs are active right up to the end. Some dogs start to slow down sooner rather than later. Every dog is different! In old age, you may see a few behaviours that are reminiscent of puppyhood. Your older dog may start waking up at night. He may break housetraining. He may also forget his skills training. Dogs get a form of dementia called Cognitive Dysfunction, or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. There are medications that can help, but just like with humans, dogs who are affected are often confused and don’t remember breakfast even though they may remember that one special place every time you drive past it. I think with our senior dogs it is really important to take every day as it comes and do what our old friends feel up to doing. I have had some incredible adventures with my very elderly dogs, but I have also had some serious frustrations!
One of my favourite memories of Buddy, my second German Shepherd happened about three months before he died. His bed had been under a picture window in our bedroom for many years, because it was cooler there in the summer and he had a thick coat so he didn’t mind in the winter either. As he aged, he started to feel the cold though, so one morning I tore apart the bedroom so that I could move his bed. He lay outside in the sunshine snoozing while I did this, and when I was done, I called him in. He walked into the bedroom and ambled over to where his bed used to be and stopped dead. If a dog could look appalled, Buddy did! And then he looked sad and confused. I gently showed him where I had moved the bed to, and he brightened right up and then he looked confused again. He looked at the bed. He looked at where the bed had been. Then he looked at his bed again. Then he looked back and he started to pant in a very stressy manner. He started to pace. And I decided that some of the time, old dogs know best, so I put him back outside and put his bed back where it belonged.
Enjoy every age with your dog, but understand that how you talk about your dog’s age does inform your expectations. When you label your adolescent or young adult dog as a puppy be careful that you are not setting up an expectation that he is not capable of doing things that he is able to do.
I love to travel, and usually I travel alone. This means that I have spent a fair amount of time in airports all by myself. Now I am a normally social, friendly type of person, and I am never lonely in the airport. If I lack for conversation, I might chat up the clerk in the book store, or say hello to the security guard, or talk to the gate person. If I am sitting in a waiting area and someone sits down next to me, I will say hello and we may strike up a conversation. What I don’t do is rush up to every person I pass by, give them a big hug and a kiss and expect that they will enjoy the interaction! Imagine what travelling might be like for YOU if I behaved this way. I imagine that I might get arrested if I persisted in this sort of behaviour. It certainly would not be a pleasant way for everyone else if I interacted this way.
So, what does airport behaviour have to do with moving through life with your dog? I was talking to a client today who was lamenting that her dog used to really enjoy interacting with random dogs in the local park, but who now doesn’t like it much at all. I suspect that there are a number of reasons why she may no longer enjoy interacting with new dogs in public any longer and many of those reasons have to do with what she has experienced with the other dogs she has met, and also with the expectations that have been shown to her over the years.
The dog park is a lot like an airport in many ways. There are a lot of other travellers that your dog has not yet met. There is a lot of chaos and busyness that your dog has to cope with. And there are a whole lot of social conventions your dog has to cope with, both from the other dogs and from the people. There has been a fair amount of discussion in my Facebook feed lately from other professional trainers about what people expect when we teach them in puppy class all about puppy play. One of the things that people seem to be taking away from puppy class is that all dogs must interact with all other dogs every single time that they meet one another! Nothing in fact should be further from the truth.
In puppy class my preference is to have a good amount of free play. This means that the puppies need to be well matched with one another, that the people need to be aware of the signs of distress during play and that play is not required to go on and on and on and on forever. A good puppy play session teaches puppies that dogs who look different from them are safe, and that there is more than just one play style. In good puppy play, we look for evidence of puppies who are confident, and for evidence of those who are not. We look for evidence of pups who are overly forward in their interactions with people and for those who are overwhelmed and shy. Puppy play gives us lots of information about what to do to help these pups develop into the most confident adults they can grow up to be. Puppy play is just that though; play for young dogs. Puppy play is not intended to happen for the rest of the dog’s life!
Puppy class is a lot like nursery school. For most children nursery school is a lot of fun. You get to play with new toys, and try new experiences, and meet other children. In a good nursery school, you are going to learn things like saying please and thank you, waiting your turn and that kicking your friends is frowned upon. There is a lot of play and some quiet time and some learning time. In a good puppy class, pups should be learning similar lessons.
What you don’t want children to learn in nursery school is that every single person they meet needs a hug and a kiss or that every other child is going to want to play with you all the time. Again, these are lessons we hope puppies will learn in puppy class, but sometimes that message seems to get missed. Here are some things that I have been hearing from clients lately that tell me that we as an industry may not be doing the best job ever at conveying this information.
I have a client who has an older dog who is out of his mind every time he gets to the dog park and is completely out of control. This client didn’t go to puppy school with us, but went to a school where the puppies were placed in an enclosure and the only person in the enclosure was the instructor. The puppies were carried in, and then put on the floor inside the enclosure off leash. This strategy (I had never heard of this before, but apparently it was a thing where they went to puppy class!) virtually guaranteed that every puppy would expect to play as soon as they saw the other dogs. When the dog got old enough to go to the dog park, he was very difficult to handle and would not wait to be let off leash, so my client took to driving to the dog park, and then opening the door and letting the dog out of the car to play. Skip forward four years and this dog screams in anticipation every time they drive towards the dog park. So lesson number one I want my students to know about dog-dog interactions. Don’t let your dogs off leash to play until they are showing some level of self control!
The drill I have for letting a dog off leash to play with his buddies is to stand far enough away from the crowd that my dog is not losing his mind, and then wait for him to look back at me. Looking back at me tells me that there is a connection. When I have this, then I reach down, hold my dog’s collar and unclip the leash. THEN I let my dog off leash to play. In our puppy classes we talk about this a lot because it gives the handler a much better level of control and then you don’t have a dog waiting to hear the snap of the leash clip and bolting. As my dogs learn the game I add in bits of obedience skills before releasing them to play and the really advanced dogs do that part off leash.
The next thing that clients have been telling me about is when their dogs have played for a bit, and they don’t want to continue playing. People spend a lot of time and energy in the dog park telling their dogs to play almost like they are encouraging a child to finish their school work. Dogs and puppies play for between 5 and 10 minutes at a time and then they go do something else. They may come back to play again shortly, but it is not normal in my experience for dogs to play incessantly, UNLESS they have been encouraged to do so. In a large group, dogs will sometimes play sequentially with one partner for a while and then with another partner and then another and so on, but two dogs don’t normally just go on and on and on. Let your dog play. Then let him rest. If he wants to play again, that is fine but he shouldn’t have to. When we encourage our dogs to get back to play as though play is work, we are in fact interrupting their normal social behaviour. If your dog is done after a few minutes, that is perfectly okay.
Somethings are appropriate for children and not adults and of course vice versa. In our puppy classes, we usually have toys out for the pups to play with. If you look at most puppy classes, you will see that there are far more toys than puppies. I had a client come in for help recently because her dog was being snarly at the dog park. I asked if they brought toys to the park, and she replied yes, that she always had a ball. One. She was very put out because the other dogs in the dog park would sometimes steal the ball and her dog was often targeted while they were playing. The problem is that ownership and dogs is fairly clear cut, the fastest, strongest and nastiest dog is often the one with the ball. In fact, I wrote a whole blog just about that; you can find it at https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/fast-strong-or-nasty/ . My general rule about toys in the dog park is that if an item happens to be available and a dog chooses to engage with it, I will keep an eye on things to make sure that they don’t get out of hand and allow the dogs to play with it. If a person throws an item, or makes a fuss to get their dog to engage with the item, I take my dog out of the equation. In general, toys are appropriate in quantity for puppies, but not for adult dogs.
Another idea that we share in puppy class that seems to cause problems is that your puppy needs to meet as many people as you can find, and as many different people as possible. This is another rule that applies to puppies, but not to adult dogs. When I teach puppy classes my priority is to make sure that your puppy is confident about all the people she will meet as an adult, so until she is about 16 weeks of age, I want her to meet lots of people. That does not mean that I want her to jump on every person that she meets or that I want her to expect treats from everyone either. I want her to see lots of people, doing lots of things and learn that they are safe. When I am socializing a puppy, for the most part, I do the feeding. I will recruit a few people to feed my puppy, but in general, I feed my puppy treats for politely looking and not pulling towards the new person.
The same thing is true for meeting other dogs. I want young puppies to learn that other dogs are out there, and if I think it is a good idea, they can go say hi. If I don’t think it is a good idea, then taking a pass on meeting a dog should be cool too. I don’t want my dog to be the Walmart greeter of dogs! I want him to be able to walk through a group of dogs as an adult and choose to not pull towards every dog he meets. I think about D’fer, my last chessie as the best example of what that might look like. Deef was my service dog and I remember travelling with him in New York City a few years after 9-11. We were going through Central Station and a whole group of military working dogs came through. These were large, high strung dogs and they were straining on the ends of their leashes ready to go! They caught sight of D’fer and immediately began to bark at him. D’fer was so cool! He just calmly looked up at me. The handlers were brilliant too. They each cued their dogs to stop and come back to heel. Leashes went loose, dogs came back under control, and they passed by. Then the dogs were cued again and they went back to straining on their leashes. It was an elegant example of dogs doing their own work and minding their own business and not engaging in anything they ought not to have been.
On that same trip, D’fer exhibited another behaviour that was spectacular. We went to visit a friend he knew well but he had not seen in several months. This friend, a canine friend, was his very favourite dog ever. When we arrived at our destination, he recognized where we were and he started to pull on his leash. D’fer was very highly trained and rarely pulled on leash, but he was excited to see his friend. This is a time when I did not expect him to mind his manners, because for him, this was much like meeting your Grandmother at the airport. You know who she is, you have been waiting to see her and now that she is here, you are going to jump up and down and hug her. D’fer knew the difference between saying hi to unknown military working dogs, and greeting his very best friend. This is what we need our dogs to learn to do when they are out and about. They need to learn to discriminate between the two situations and behave appropriately in each of them.
Something that is amazing to me is that many of my students seem to miss this distinction. They often get upset when their dogs are happy to see people they know well and worried when their dogs are not happier than they are about strangers. What a mixed up way to be for the dog! In puppy class I want pups to learn to meet people, but not be silly about that, while understanding that when they haven’t seen someone familiar for quite some time, they may be a little silly even though they have been taught how to greet appropriately.
Out in the wide, wide world is a bit like travelling through the airport. There are people I need to speak to, and I need to do that politely. There are people I am thrilled to see, especially if they are picking me up after a long journey. There are people I need to not interact with. There are also people I need to interact with casually. I need to learn the differences between all of these people and act accordingly. That is what I wish people knew about helping their puppies to learn about the world, about other dogs, dog play, and the many people they will encounter.
Have you ever paused to consider what criteria you have for a “well-trained” dog? I have. As a dog trainer, I have had thousands of appointments with clients who tell me about how well-trained their dogs are, only to turn around and nag, beg, or cajole their dogs into obedience. I have had people insist that their dogs come when called 80% of the time or more, only to have the dog refuse to come when called even in the most distraction free zone we can find. Sit, sit, sit, no, Fluffy, SIT! is the litany for these people, only to have Fluffy sit and stare up at them in disbelief as though they are asking for the moon. Sitting is not difficult for most dogs to perform, but it sure seems difficult for many dogs to perform when asked in my presence.
So what do I mean when I say “I have a well-trained dog”? I mean that I have a deep connection with the dog and we work together. Often the dog will perform for long duration in the absence of either treats or a threat. This means that in general, if I am out and about with my well-trained dog, and I need him to sit, he will sit on the first calm quiet and gentle request, and I don’t have to wave a treat in front of him, nor do I have to physically force him into position nor yank on a collar. I don’t have to loom, lean in or raise my voice. Furthermore, in the event that it is not a good idea from my dog’s perspective and he refuses, his refusal is understood to be reasonable from his point of view. Let’s parse all my conditions one at a time.
When I say that my dog will perform a behaviour on the first ask, and that I need only ask in a calm, quiet and gentle way I am thinking here about what it might look like when I ask someone to pass the salt. If we are sitting at dinner and I would like some salt, I might look at you, make eye contact, say your name and then calmly say “please pass the salt”. Pass the salt is generally a reasonable request at the dinner table, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort for you to respond and my expectation is that you will hear, attend to my request and just pass me the salt. In other words, not a big deal. So if I ask my dog to sit, and he is well-trained, I can just ask, and he will just sit.
Let’s consider my “no treat” criteria. It is well understood that behaviours need to be reinforced in order to be built and maintained. The thing is that once a behaviour is very strong with a reinforcer of some sort, you need to randomize the reinforcement in order to maintain the behaviour. It is a bit like a slot machine compared to a pop machine. When you put a coin into a pop machine, you expect that a pop will be produced. You expect that this will happen every single time. This is different than a slot machine, where you are expected to put the coin in and pull the lever in order to get nothing! You might someday get something, if you are exceptionally lucky, but the chance of getting something big is really low. Sit as a behaviour works a little like this. Initially, when I am teaching a dog to sit, I am a pop machine. Every single time that the dog sits, I give him something he wants. At first this will be something like the pop machine. I am careful about two things at that stage. First is that I don’t show the dog what the reinforcer will be. Sometimes I use steak, or a special dog training sausage, or some cheese, or the chance to chase a ball or go through a door or get in a car, but I am not going to hang a piece of bacon off my hat in the hopes that the dog will perform based on a bribe. Bribes are technically reinforcers that are presented ahead of the behaviour and eventually, they will backfire on you. The dog will look for the reinforcer and measure if the offered item is worth what you are asking for.
Once I am sure that the dog knows that the behaviour of sit will be rewarded, I pull a little switch on the dog. I ask for the sit and I “goof”. Before I do this, I have to be really, really sure that my dog both understands what I mean when I quietly and calmly and gently ask for the behaviour. I need to have practiced this behaviour with a guarantee of a reward in a wide variety of places. Once I am really sure, I pretend that I forgot the reward. I might move away, and then ask the dog to perform the behaviour again. If the dog is convinced that I am reliable and that I just goofed, he will offer the behaviour a second time and usually, he will offer it with more intensity and vigour. The second time I ask, I throw a party and give the dog something EXTRA special. I might even goof again and give him his reward twice. The key here is to make that second sit, more rewarding than he thought the first one would be. Then I go back to rewarding every sit for a bit and then I “goof” again. I keep doing this until the times I goof are no big deal. Then I start goofing a little more often. I keep doing this until I have built a truly random level of goofs, but where the dog is still keen to do the behaviour. I am still randomizing what the reward is for the dog though. It is important that the dog is keen on the game. Eventually I have thinned things out so much that the dog is sitting for free more often than he is being paid but when he is paid he gets something really special.
A well-trained dog does not need a threat in order to work. One of the saddest trends I see from time to time in the training world is the idea that you have to deepen your voice and increase the volume in order to get the dog to do as he is asked. If you need to do this in order to get your dog to behave as you wish, you are not on the same team as your dog. Does this mean I have never raised my voice to my dog? Of course not; if the stakes are high, and his life is at risk, then yes, I would raise my voice and insist, but if I think I have to do this all the time, what does that say about my relationship with my dog? Not anything terribly pleasant! If you find yourself doing this, you should probably go back to reinforcing absolutely every sit.
Along with a threatening voice comes this issue of physically pushing the dog into a behaviour, or yanking on the leash to make the behaviour happen. When I am training a dog there are a few limited instances of when I might choose to use a physical penalty with a dog but in each case that is to stop a behaviour altogether, not when I need to make him start to do something. If a dog were eating something that could cause him harm such as a rock, I might grab him by the collar for instance, and try to startle the dog out of the behaviour, but I don’t use it to try and initiate a behaviour. Most of the time, when a dog is asked to do a behaviour, such as sit, and he refuses, if you jerk on his neck with the leash, you are just going to teach him to guess what you want. He isn’t going to know what you want. The most common effect of that sort of training is a dog who is slow because they are concerned that they are going to get hurt, even just a little bit, and they are afraid to act.
Another type of threat I see is looming over or leaning over the dog, and repeating the request in a louder or more demanding voice. Again, if you have to do this, you really need to go back to the beginning and start over. A well-trained dog doesn’t need you to loom over him or raise your voice. When this happens I often think of a scene from The Addams Family movie where the little girl, Wednesday, asks her uncle to pass that salt. Her mother, Morticia, sweetly prompts her, saying “Wednesday, what do we say?” and of course most of us think “please?” but Wednesday turns to her uncle, raises her voice and demands “NOW!” If you need to demand compliance from your dog, he doesn’t know the behaviour sufficiently well in order to be successful often enough to actually be well-trained.
To me the final stage of having a well-trained dog is to have a dog who has the possibility of refusing a behaviour when it is not a good idea for him to do that. This implies that if I ask for something reasonable, such as sit, if the dog refuses there is likely a pretty good reason for that. When I have a young puppy who seems to know sit refuse to sit, I find that the pup often needs to toilet. Sitting with a full bladder or bowel is uncomfortable. Forcing the puppy to sit under these circumstances is unkind and can interrupt house training. If I have a middle-aged dog who is very reliable on sit, and I ask for it and he doesn’t comply, I watch him move, because often the root cause is pain. Sometimes though, when an adult dog won’t sit, he may have another reason not to do as I ask. He may be afraid and feel vulnerable, or he may not want to sit down on something that is uncomfortable. I had one dog refuse to do a down stay, his strongest behaviour of all, because I left him on a bee’s nest. He stood up, moved three feet, and lay back down. I was really upset until I realized where I had left him. Sadly, this was during an obedience competition and he lost our class! I cannot get upset at a dog who had the sense to move himself before he got stung by bees. Luckily I had enough trust in him to trust that he would not behave randomly, and he had enough trust in me to change his position and keep himself from harm. I know of dogs who would have taken the stings of a nest of bees instead of moving because they had been punished severely enough for moving that bees were not a bad enough pain! I have also met trainers who were really proud of the fact that their dogs had been willing to take that pain instead of moving. That does not speak well to the depth of the relationship that the person has with the dog, and that is unfortunate. At the end of the day, I value my relationship with my dog more than I value instant and perfect obedience.
As a final point, not included above, I feel that a well-trained dog should know more than just one behaviour and he should be able to perform those behaviours in a wide variety of situations and circumstances. Being able to perform them in only one place or under only one circumstance does not reflect good training. It should not matter to the dog if you ask him for a behaviour while you are standing in front of him, or beside him, or on the landing of your deck, or if you are sitting in a chair. He should understand the behaviours in a wide variety of situations, and of course that means practicing, from the beginning, everything your dog is being trained to do.
So when I think about a well-trained dog, I am not thinking about a little canine robot, but I am also not thinking of a dog who is completely on his own agenda either. I am looking for evidence that the dog and handler are working together, in partnership, as a team. I am looking for evidence that the human is helping the dog without luring or bribing the dog. I am looking for evidence that the dog is thinking things through and not performing the behaviour solely to get the reward or to avoid some harsh penalty. That is what I mean by a well-trained dog.
Recently we had the family of one of our Good Dogs give a lecture to us about how they collected data while they trained their dog. In their presentation they brought up the issue of what they thought they “should” do with their dog, and it reminded us of all the things that our clients do that they are told they “should” do, but for which there may be no real need. How many of us hear a little voice in the back of our head telling us what we “should” do? Should you really do those things?
Many people think that they “should” walk their dogs around their neighbourhoods every day. Should you? Does your dog actually like walking around the block? Most dogs find leash walking very frustrating. We don’t walk at the right speed for dogs, and most dogs don’t want to walk past everything they see. It is very difficult to get enough exercise for your average dog just by leash walking, so that means that you aren’t doing much more than providing a place for your dog to toilet by taking him for a leash walk through the neighbourhood.
If you are actually committed to taking your dog for a neighbourhood walk, you may want to take him for a sniff instead of a walk. To teach him the activity, grab a handful of treats and go out and hide them along your route. You are only going to have to do that once or twice, so don’t worry, this isn’t going to mean a second walk for you. Get your dog on leash, take him outside and point out all the treats you have stashed. The key to this activity is that it is something you do with your dog jointly. It is not you mindlessly walking down the street with your dog sniffing to his heart’s content. A good sniff walk involves you pointing out the things that are important to both of you. When you are pointing out the treats, he is rewarded for following your directions and gets the hang of the activity. Once your dog understands that you are pointing out interesting things, you can start pointing out things other than treats. Try and look for things that would be interesting for a dog to sniff, like the vertical surfaces where another dog may have left some “pee mail”. When you tune into what your dog is interested in, walks become a whole different experience for both of you.
How about the idea that dogs “should” stop and sit at every corner? This is one I see people struggle with all the time. I suspect this tradition came from the early days of guide dog work, back in the 1920s when some guide dogs were taught to stop and sit so that the blind person knew where the corner was. There are many different ways that guide dogs signal their person now, but should your pet dog stop and sit? Is it useful? Often it isn’t. I don’t teach this to my own dogs. Most people do this in the hope that if their dog is ever loose, he won’t run across a street, but most dogs don’t make the connection between coming up to the corner on leash and off leash as being the same thing. There are other ways that we can teach the dog to stop at the edge of a street, but those are complex beyond the scope of this blog.
Should your dog sleep in bed with you? Studies show that 60% or more of dogs in North America do! Dogs have likely been sleeping with us for millennia. We have used them as living hot water bottles, for company and to warn us of danger. If you like to sleep with your dog, go ahead. Unless your dog is dangerous to you in bed (I did have one client whose dog attacked them while they were sleeping!), then if you like it, go ahead. There is no reason not to do that.
How about “should you eat before your dog?” In my life that would often be very inconvenient! Often Friday will eat at 5 in the afternoon at work between classes but John and I don’t eat until 9:30 or 10 when we get home from work. I think some folks think that the dog eating after they do means that they should only feed the dog after they eat, but in our home, that is often inconvenient. Usually one of us will feed the dog or dogs, and the other of us will prepare the meal. When it doesn’t work out that way, our dogs will lie down while we are eating and patiently wait their turn. This takes training but it is reflective of how we live with one another. We value being polite to one another in our home, and that includes the dogs, so when it is not your turn to do something, then you wait politely until it is.
How about “You should always go through the door first?” This one is a particular pet peeve of mine. Often, I want the dogs to go out the door first so that I can see what they are up to, and so that they don’t trip me by rushing up behind me and knocking into me. When I am getting ready to leave, I will often ask the dogs to go out first, but if there is a reason for me to go first, then I just ask them to wait. I do the same thing when I go up or down the stairs, especially if I am carrying something; I decide who goes first and who waits till I am at the top or bottom as may be the case, in the interest of safety.
I love the “shoulds”. Should you? Should you never? Always good questions. How about if instead of thinking in terms of “should, you think in terms of “what do you need?” or “how will this work for me?” Should you exercise your dog every day? Does he need it? If he is a healthy, adolescent dog, I would argue that yes, he needs to be exercised every single day. But if he is an adolescent dog who is recovering from hip or knee surgery he may not need to be exercised at all! If he is an elderly dog exercise may cause him harm. If he is an adult dog and has had heartworm disease, exercise may kill him. When your friends and neighbours start saying “you should exercise that dog” and exercising him is not in his best interest, “should” gets bolstered by guilt. And then guilt pushes you into second guessing, and then you get stuck between what you “should” do and what everyone else wants you to do. Many years ago, I had a client who had a 7 month old husky. The dog was in desperate need of exercise, but the man had been in a car accident when the dog was only 5 months old. My client had a trach tube, and thus could not go out in our cold winter weather. The vet told him that he “should” exercise the dog. I went in and helped this nice man meet his dog’s need for exercise by doing stretches, slow stair walking, searches in the house, and puppy push ups. Was it ideal? No, but it was what was the most appropriate for my client. Never the less, the neighbours left him a nasty note in his mailbox one day when the dog howled while he was out, accusing him of not exercising his dog. Should gets in the way of a lot of things, including being aware of what you actually need, or what you can actually do.
There are a few things that I think every dog family “should” do. You should get good preventive veterinary care for your dogs. You should see who your dog actually is and what he actually needs so that you can actually meet his needs. You should make sure that he is properly socialized as a puppy so that he can have the best life possible. You should keep your dog up to date on his shots. You should give your dog an education so that he can cope with the world he lives within. My list of shoulds are things that lead to better overall health and welfare for your dog and your life instead of a list of rules to follow in the hopes that your dog will fit into someone else’s mould of what living with a dog is intended to look like. Many of the “shoulds” come to us from police, military and service dog training where the dogs have very specific roles and what is interesting is that these rules may have been accurate for a period of time long ago, but are no longer useful for our current lives.
When you are living with a dog, look at what works for you and your dog. Look at what fills your needs. And leave should for another dog family; “should” does not need to govern your or your dog’s life.
Everyone wants their dogs to take treats gently and a lot of work in the early stages of dog training goes into making dogs take food gently and carefully, but what does a gentle mouth really tell us about the dog? How a dog takes treats tells us a lot about the arousal state of the dog. If he is calm, taking treats gently is easy for the dog. If he is highly aroused, taking treats carefully is difficult for him. The more highly aroused your dog is, the less able he is to exhibit self control and take treats without taking your fingers with them.
When we have dogs in our Good Dog class the staff use the rate and force with which a dog is taking treats to determine a number of things. Is it safe to come closer? Is the dog ready to do something operantly? Does the dog need to leave now? Should we give the dog more time or space to be successful? All of these questions are answered by how the dogs take their treats.
Good Dog class is the group classical conditioning class that we offer at Dogs in the Park. Yes, we run a class where we manipulate the variables to allow dogs to learn that they are safe in the presence of people and other dogs. We increase the intensity of the stimuli that we offer the dogs as they are able to cope and we decrease the value of the treats as the dogs progress from reactivity or fear to calm and confident. For those in the know, Classical Conditioning is form of learning that is usually about as exciting as watching paint dry. What you do is to present one stimulus as the predictor of another stimulus until an association is formed. Everyone experiences classical conditioning on a day to day basis, but most of us aren’t familiar with either the process or of how to manipulate it. If you smell food cooking and start to salivate, then you are experiencing the outcome of classical conditioning. You have experienced the food, and your body salivates when it smells the food in preparation for eating.
Have you wondered what a classical conditioning class looks like? Kind of like this! We are pairing food with the approach of a man walking towards a dog. By the way, this worked so well for this dog that he went on to become one of the top dogs in our school and his handler now teaches for us!
In the Good Dog classroom, we teach dogs that we can approach and good stuff will happen. It is important that the good stuff happens regardless of what the dog is doing. So if a dog is concerned about men with beards approaching, then John might approach and the owner will feed the dog his favourite food, one tiny piece at a time. It doesn’t take long for most dogs to learn that John approaching predicts food and if they were afraid of him before, they learn to be confident about him approaching over time. We can tell when the effect is beginning to take hold because the dogs stop taking treats with a hard frenzied mouth, and begin to take the treats softly and carefully. One of our best measures of how aroused the dog is at any given moment is when the human bringing the dog is prompting “gentle, gentle, gentle!” The more that the human is prompting, the less likely it is that the dog is really ready to move on to the next level.
Often, the dog will begin taking the treats more gently when the human is prompting, but rarely is it because of the cue. More often, when the student is saying “gently” the dog is habituating to the presence of the other dogs and people in the room, and begins taking the treats gently not because of what the human is saying or doing but rather because his arousal is dropping.
So here is the key. When the dog is taking treats gently, he is calm and relaxed. Try this out with whatever firecracker of a dog you might know. If you approach quietly and gently while the dog is resting, sit yourself down and calmly offer a treat under his nose, he will most likely take the treat gently. This is a dog who is relaxed and calm.
When a dog takes a treat with care but is clearly aware of the fact that this is food, and that he wants it, then he is a smidgeon more aroused but still able to cope with his environment and follow directions. This is where we want our dogs to be when we ask him to do work. He is awake, alert and engaged and able to follow directions well, and nothing in the environment is a problem for him.
Dogs who take treats in a rush with a moderately hard mouth are more aroused and less able to focus on work. They may merely be excited, but more often, they are approaching the threshold of their ability to engage in the environment is interfering with the ability to follow directions. These dogs may be willing to do as you ask, but may appear scattered and may be unable to follow known cues and have difficulty learning new behaviours.
The truly grabby frantic hard mouth is indicative of a dog who is at or over threshold and unable to follow directions and integrate new information. This dog is not coping with his environment well and we can use how he is taking treats as information that he should not be pressured. This same dog is the dog you will see at the park with the owner who is trying to force his dog into a sit or a down to get his leash off.
The final dog is the dog who won’t take treats at all. A friend describes the natural state of the normal weight dog as perpetually hungry. If you have a normal weight dog, why might he not take treats? This dog is far over threshold. He is not coping with his environment. Perhaps he has learned somewhere that taking treats is dangerous or that the things in his environment contribute to risks to him. This dog needs some time to learn that he is safe in his environment and that taking treats is a safe thing to do.
There are a few dogs who find treats themselves very exciting. These dogs are the exception, not the rule, but we do see them. When I want to evaluate how aroused those dogs are, I usually use something sticky for them to lick. Licking slows them down and allows us to use their lick rate to evaluate how aroused they are.
The take away lesson here is that prompting a dog to take treats gently may save your fingers, but it can interfere with a valuable piece of information about your dog. Subtle cues are what help us to evaluate what the dog is able to cope with on a moment to moment basis. When you are working with a reactive or fearful dog, this information is essential to success.
By far the most commonly misused cue that I see in pet dogs is the cue “off”. I teach my dogs the cue “off” but I use it very differently than most folks do. I teach it as the opposite of “on” as in “get on the chair”. Or the couch. Or the bed. Or the hay bale. Or the groomer’s table. Then I use “off” to tell the dog to get off of whatever I have asked him to get on. When I have a dog who is struggling with guarding spaces, this is probably the first behaviour I teach; get on the couch, click/treat, get off the couch, click/treat. That is how I use “on” and “off”.
The problem that I observe is that most people use “off” to do something called “counter cuing”. Counter cuing is when the dog chooses to do a behaviour and you cue him to do a different behaviour. The idea is that the dog goofed, and made the wrong choice and you are helping him out. This works well in the human world after all. If you are in the airport and you choose the line that will lead you to priority boarding someone will come along and help you out. If you are supposed to be in business class, you erred in your choice, and they will tell you. If you are in the priority boarding line because you should be there, then they will tell you that too. So when a dog jumps up to greet a guest, most pet owners cue the dog “off”, treating the behaviour the same way an airline employee would treat a traveller in the wrong line.
There is an important difference between the dog who jumps up and the traveller in the wrong line. Usually, the dog who is jumping up is expected to never jump up. The traveller could conceivably be in the priority access line some time. This difference may not seem terrible, but when you put it in the context of learning it can make life really difficult for the dog. Many dogs learn very quickly that “off” doesn’t mean “never”. “Off” means “not this time”. Here is how that works.
When you are teaching dogs a cue, the cue says “do this behaviour and you will earn a reward”. Most people when they are teaching a dog to not jump up, teach the dog that when they stop jumping up, they will get attention, and most dogs who are greeting by jumping up enjoy attention. So what happens is that the dog jumps up, the owner says “off” and the dog gets off and the owner pays attention to him. This creates a sequence that we refer to in dog training as a behaviour chain. I like to think of it as a game where we each take a turn, and at the end there is a reward for the dog. This behaviour chain looks like this:
It doesn’t take long for a smart dog to figure out that jumping up starts the game of you telling him what to do so that he can do it and you can give him attention. The problem is that MOST of the time we don’t want the dog to jump up at all! Because the chain is heavily reinforced each and every time it occurs, the dog thinks that jumping up is the desired behaviour.
So what to do? To begin with, understand that you can spend your dog’s whole life explaining to him that the priority seating line is not for him, and he is never ever going to get the memo. As long as he eventually gets attention for jumping up to begin with, he is going to think that when flying “air trainer” you line up in the priority access line, then you wait till you are told to move to business class and then you get boarded! Starting out by understanding that the dog thinks that jumping up is a required step. Once you understand that, you can start to make changes to change the outcome. Training is a series of steps that starts with our understanding of what is going on and progresses to us changing our behaviour in order to change our dog’s behaviour.
Before I progress on to outlining a few of the ways that I use to teach keeping four paws on the floor, let me add that there is an element that contributes to the problem. Excitement. When a dog is excited he may not remember what the process is. He may forget temporarily what the protocol is, so even when he knows what you want him to do, he has to over ride the temptation to get his face closer to our face when he is greeting. This is really important to understand along the way to success because he may not initially be successful when he is highly aroused.
My first go to change in my behaviour to change jumping up is to just stand there. I am not ignoring the dog however; I am attending closely to what is happening. The dog approaches and jumps up and I turn into a statue. When the dog jumps off me (which he eventually has to do because dogs don’t have terrific balance when on their hind legs), then I pay a LOT of attention to him. It takes very little time with a young puppy to learn that jumping up just doesn’t pay well, and the time spent standing up against me decreases very quickly. Eventually, especially with a young dog, they just don’t bother jumping up; having four on the floor just pays better.
With older, committed jumping greeters, I will usually start by standing quietly until the dog gets off on his own, however in the event that the dog has had a very long history of jumping up, I may need a plan B. In this case I get out my clicker, and as he approaches me, I click and toss the treat BEHIND the dog. This teaches the dog that there is very little to gain from charging at me and knocking me over. It is usually a quick study in the dog approaching at a more sensible speed. At that point I can start offering the treat low and then greeting the dog with all four feet on the floor.
If neither of those tactics work, I have a third strategy I use. The technical description for that strategy is “response cost”. Every time the dog jumps up, I quietly and calmly say “too bad” and put the dog in a crate, behind a gate or out of the room I am in. Most dogs quickly learn that if they jump up they lose all access to me, and if greeting is what drives the behaviour, they have lost the one thing that matters. Their response has cost them something they wanted. My dogs all learn that the cue “too bad” means they are going to lose something they want.
You should notice that in all three strategies, I don’t say anything to the dog about getting “off”. In fact the only time I say anything is if I am going to indicate to the dog that he has lost his turn. Only once he is doing what I want do I start to communicate with him again. I don’t end up with a dog thinking that I actually want him to jump up; he is clear that jumping up either gets him nothing or a trip to his crate or another room. Changing my behaviour results in changing the dog’s behaviour.
I should mention that I see the “off” issue when dogs get on furniture or counters too. The same principles apply. If you say “off” you are really saying “go ahead and get on or jump up until told otherwise” and that just isn’t a very efficient way to train your dog!
One of the biggest motivators for students to come in for training is a dog who is doing things we don’t like. There are some basic ways that we can help dogs to learn not to do what we don’t want them to do, and most trainers are really good at these. Once you understand what a trainer is driving at and why they have chosen the method they have, everything becomes much easier to follow along with.
The first thing I do when a client has a dog whose behaviour is a problem is define what the problem behaviour is. The solution is going to depend upon what the problem is. There is no single solution to every single problem, and the solutions I choose will depend upon the problems and the situations they occur within that are presented.
Controlling or managing the environment is often a great solution, and is usually the first thing I do in every case. If you can control what is happening to cause the problem, then you can avoid the problem at least for a period of time. If the problem is that the dog barks at the window, then the very first thing I am going to do is to get control over that window. If the dog is confined to the room with the window and is barking six hours out of every eight, then why would I expect the dog to not bark at the window when I am trying to take a quiet moment? The very first thing to do when looking at a behaviour we don’t want is to avoid the situation where the behaviour occurs.
In some cases this is a forever solution. If a client has a dog who jumps into the front seat of the car while she is driving, then my solution is going to be traveling in a crate. Traveling in a crate is safer for the dog in any event, but beyond that fact is that the dog is safer in a crate when traveling, so that is a permanent solution.
Our puppy traveled to us in an airline crate and has traveled in a crate in vehicles for his whole life.
Some problems cannot be permanently solved by changing the environment for the dog. Take jumping on people to greet. Your dog can be kept separate from people for a period of time, but that is not a forever solution. In this case I am going to choose to reinforce not jumping. There is a great game you can play with jumping dogs where you have three people who come in and out of a room. As they enter the room, as the dog approached but before he jumps, you drop a treat and then leave again. The next person comes in and does the same thing. You keep doing this until the dog gets the idea that the reward is going to come from below. At that point you can switch the game up a bit and ask the dog to sit before you drop the treat. Once the dog understands that everyone coming through the door is going to do the same thing, you can start working with a wider group of people and finally with strangers at the door.
Reinforcing for alternate behaviours (the learning theorists call this a DRA or DRO which stands for a differential reinforcement of alternate or other behaviour) is helpful if the dog is thinking about what he is doing, but not helpful if the dog is behaving badly because of fear. Consider a dog who barks when approached by a stranger and tries to hide behind the owner. This dog is afraid and he is not barking because he wants to greet, but because he is concerned about the stranger. This is the kind of dog whose behaviour can be successfully changed by pairing one thing with another. To do this, you get a stranger to appear and you give really good treats to the dog. Then the stranger disappears and you stop treating. The stranger reappear and you treat again. The stranger disappears and you stop again. You keep repeating this until the dog anticipates the treats when the stranger appears. From there it is a matter of teaching the dog that the stranger can come closer and closer and treats will keep coming, but don’t let the stranger get so close that the dog is overwhelmed.
In our group classical conditioning class, the focus is on pairing the approach of a stranger with food to make a pleasant association while keeping all the dogs in the room below threshold.
This sort of pairing is called Classical Conditioning. Classical conditioning is an effect originally noticed by Dr. Ivan Pavlov who was studying salivation in dogs. He would ring a bell and someone would bring in a bowl of meat. Dr. Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to salivate when the bell rang, before the meat appeared. They formed an association between the bell and the meat. Once you understand the effect, you can use classical conditioning in a huge variety of creative ways to teach your dog what is safe and what is dangerous.
Some behaviours are really persistent. The dog isn’t frightened or concerned, and the dog might not be learning to do a different behaviour instead of the undesired behaviour, and you cannot avoid the problem. In these cases, we sometimes have to pull out punishment. Punishment is anything we do to decrease a behaviour. Previously all the solutions were aimed at either avoiding the situation where the unwanted behaviour happened, changing the unwanted behaviour for a wanted behaviour, or changing the motivation for the unwanted behaviour. Sometimes none of these alternatives are helpful. In these cases we may need to consider using a punishment to change the unwanted behaviour.
Punishments come in two flavours. It is important to understand both of these because one of them can cause more problems than the other. The first kind of punishment is negative punishment. That is the kind of punishment where you lose access to something that you want due to your behaviour. When you use negative punishment the dog may lose the chance to play, or may lose the toy he was involved with or may lose access to the person or other dog he was interacting with. For the jumping dog, you can sometimes change the situation completely by going into the bathroom every time the dog jumps on you. You withdraw your presence every time the dog jumps up and pretty soon, if the dog cares about being with you, the jumping stops. In most cases of negative punishment, the dog is not greatly upset or distressed.
The other form of punishment is positive punishment. This is when you DO something unpleasant to the dog when he does something you don’t like. Positive punishment is the one place where we see the most problems in training and the greatest misuse. You really cannot go wrong with management of the environment, DRO or classical conditioning. Negative punishment is difficult to create trauma with, but with positive punishment there are huge risks. If you are too tough, you can create fear. If you are not tough enough, you can create tolerance of bad things. If you give it at the wrong time, you can decrease behaviours you like and want. If you don’t give it every time that the unwanted behaviour happens, you can teach your dog to gamble that he might get to do the unwanted behaviour this time. If the positive punisher occurs in the absence of the bad behaviour, the dog won’t learn what not to do, but rather will learn not to try new behaviours that might be better. There is also the risk that some classical conditioning will happen in reverse to what you thought might happen; so your dog might think that the positive punisher might be related to something that is actually safe.
Taking the example of the dog who jumps up; you could use a can of compressed air to stop him from jumping up. There are big risks with this though, and they aren’t really very obvious. Let’s say that the dog jumps up on guests at the front door. You come to the door prepared and the dog predictably jumps up. You spray him with compressed air and he gets off you right away. Your dog looks around and notices the spray can in your hand, and figures out that the spray can is the source of the air (this is an example of a classical association). The dog learns an interesting rule. “Don’t jump up if the person is holding a can of air.” This means that the dog may learn to check if the guest has a can of air before he decides to jump up. The dog hasn’t learned to do anything different, he has just learned that if the guest doesn’t have a can of compressed air, the guest is fair game.
Then there is the situation where the can of air is not at hand, but the owner wants to punish the dog for jumping up, so after the dog has jumped up, she goes to get the can and spray the dog. In this situation, the dog, not knowing what the owner is up to, follows the owner to where the spray can is kept and then gets punished for following the owner. If the owner is the person who applies the air, the risk is that the dog learns that the owner isn’t safe. This kind of damage happens all the time, and again this is classical conditioning at work; the dog has learned to associate the owner with danger. Not the desired outcome by a long shot! The dog may also learn that the rule about jumping up is to only jump up in the absence of the owner. Again, we have an outcome that looks good, but isn’t quite what we had hoped for.
Finally a bad situation can occur when the dog experiences the same or a similar bad thing when he is behaving the way we want him to behave. Consider the dog who is lying quietly on the grass by the driveway and someone comes out of the garage with an air compressor to fill the tired. The whooshing noise that the compressor makes sounds like the compressed air can and we have caused the dog to stop lying on the grass and minding his own business. We have taken the single event and spread it around to the environment and taught the dog a lot of things we wish he had not learned.
Positive punishment can be a safe and effective tool, but it is tricky. In order to use it safely, we need to follow some rules. It must be tough enough to solve the problem quickly and efficiently. If the positive punisher is not tough enough, you just create a situation where the dog learns to ignore the unpleasant consequence. If the dog described above didn’t care about the air can, the jumping wouldn’t stop and he would just learn to tolerate the air can. On the other hand, if it is too tough, that can cause both physical and emotional harm. If you used a spray can of mace for instance, you might damage your dog’s eyes and it is quite likely he would be very frightened of spray cans, compressed air and possibly you. There is a huge responsibility on the part of the trainer to chose the right degree of unpleasant consequence to get a good effect quickly and efficiently, but not so much that you harm or frighten the learner.
You also have a responsibility to use a punisher that is unique. Compressed air canisters are being sold now as behaviour solutions in pet stores, but people forget that we use compressed air in a number of ways. We use compressed air to clean our computers, we use it to fill our car tires and if you have someone in your home who uses medical oxygen, the hose might detach and hiss the way a can of air does. Compressed air canisters are very handy for breaking up dog fights, but should not be used to teach dogs to stop doing specific behaviours.
The punishment must happen every time the behaviour happens and never happen if the behaviour is absent. This means you cannot allow the undesired behaviour to happen unless you have the punisher at the ready and available. You also cannot allow the punishment to happen when the behaviour hasn’t happened. If the punishment is happening when it shouldn’t or isn’t happening when it should, the dog learns to gamble on the punishment, and every time he does the unwanted behaviour and doesn’t get punished, the absence of the punishment is in fact a reinforcer, and makes the undesired behaviour stronger. This gambling is the route to building the strongest behaviours, which makes the mis-use of punishment potentially the best way to strengthen behaviours.
When used carefully and properly positive punishment is a fast and effective and humane way to stop unwanted behaviours. When used improperly there are huge risks. Why aren’t there such risks with managing the environment, DRO or classical conditioning? Let’s look at that. When you manage the environment you are avoiding the problem. This means that you don’t see the problem behaviour, which just isn’t a problem! When you use differential reinforcement of an other behaviour, then if the dog offers the unwanted behaviour, he doesn’t get anything he wants, but he does get what he wants when he does the other behaviour. There is no risk to your relationship with the dog, to physical or emotional harm, or that he will gamble that the unwanted behaviour might be safe at a given time. The only risk you have is that the dog may learn when rewards are available and when they are not and may try the unwanted behaviour when rewards are not available. We can work around that by using a marker such as a click or yes, to tell the dog when he is making the choice we want him to make and then using that marker to bridge the time between the behaviour and going to get the treat. Finally with classical conditioning, there is no risk that the dog will get injured or frightened at all; we are just treating him in the presence of a particular stimulus. The worst thing that will happen is that he will learn that a particular stimulus will produce food.
With so many options available for training, it is important that we keep in mind the old medical adage of “first do no harm” and reach for the least harmful option first. I would never want a doctor to not learn to do surgery, and I would not want a professional trainer who didn’t understand the use of positive punishment and how it works. Never the less if your doctor only knows surgery, you may not get the best health care. The same is true of trainers who only use punishment; they can cause more harm than good. Before you reach for a positive punisher, think carefully. Is there a better alternative? There are times when there isn’t a better alternative, but often there is, and it is worth considering what your alternatives are and develop a training plan before you reach for something that may cause harm.
I happen to own two Swiss Army knives; both from Switzerland, although I have never been there. One is mine and the other belonged to my late father. For a long time I kept them carefully separate so I knew which one was which. They are both special to me; mine was brought to me by my parents after they visited Switzerland and my father’s was given to me by my mother at his funeral. They both have toothpicks and I haven’t lost either toothpick. They both have two blades, a big one and a little one. They both have a couple of screwdrivers (a Robertson and a regular flat blade one) and they both have the inevitable corkscrew which I have never ever used since I don’t drink. They are very handy items even though they don’t come with every tool in the book.
Positive reinforcement is a bit like my Swiss Army knife. I can use my knife both for cutting string and for opening a paint can. I can use positive reinforcement to teach a dog to stay or to come. I can use the Swiss Army knife to pick my teeth or to clean out the groove that the little tab belongs in on the lawn mower. I can use positive reinforcement to help a dog with thunderstorm anxiety or to jump over a jump. Both of these tools are widely useful. The key to being successful is having a solid understanding of how the tool works, what it does and what it doesn’t do.
The easiest way I know of understanding what positive reinforcement is would be to divide the term into its component two terms. Positive refers to everything that the trainer adds. So, if I were to GIVE the dog a treat, I am positive. If I YELL at the dog, I am also being positive. Sadly, positive has a second and not useful meaning related to behaviour. When we say we are being positive, we might be indicating something pleasant or desirable. In training we simply mean adding something to the interaction. Reinforcement is anything that increases the behaviour; so when the trainer adds something, and the dog does more of whatever we are training, we see positive reinforcement in effect. This means that if the trainer YELLS at the dog and the dog BITES more often, we are positively reinforcing biting! That sure doesn’t sound like the positivity of feeling good or better.
In its simplest form, positive reinforcement increases desired behaviours. If we want the dog to sit more often, we wait for the dog to sit and add something he wants. If the dog sits, randomly, we could get right up and feed him a treat. If this happens 3 times in an hour in the first hour, and 7 times in the second hour, and 22 times in the third hour, and 21 times in the fourth hour, and 34 times in the fifth hour, we can see a trend where over time, the dog is increasing the frequency that sitting happens because the trainer added a treat each time. Easy peasy, right? This works for simple skills where the dog offers the behaviour in its entirety without having to learn something unusual or unnatural and we wall it capturing because we are capturing the behaviour as is. What about more complicated things?
Complex behaviours can be developed through a process known as shaping. You can think of shaping as a series of steps towards an end goal. Heeling off leash is a behaviour that is very easily shaped. Simply stand still and when your dog comes towards you, mark the behaviour (we use clickers, so I will just say click when I mean mark), and toss a treat away from you. We are adding the click, and the dog keeps coming back to us after each tossed treat, which means that the behaviour of being with us is increasing, so this is still positive reinforcement. Next, you could stand so that your right side is against a wall, and click when the dog comes into heel position, and toss the treat over your shoulder so that the dog goes behind you to get the treat. In this way, he will begin to get closer and closer to a nice stationary heel position. After a few reps of this, you might try taking a half step away from the wall, and continuing to click for being on your left side in heel position. You would of course continue to toss the treat behind you to get the dog out of position, and then back in again. When your dog is good at that, you might continue the progression by stepping further away from the wall. Eventually your dog would be choosing to come to your left side even if you were in the middle of the room. You could make a nice little game of this and begin walking forward one step and clicking when your dog keeps up with you, and then walking forward 2 steps and clicking for keeping up with that. Progressively, you add more steps and then changes of directions and halts and eventually, you have very nice off leash heeling.
Shaping can be applied to all sorts of tasks, from heeling to coming when called, all the way through complex things like backing away from you and spinning! Shaping is a skill though and both you and your dog need to learn the process. With one of my own dogs, D’fer, I had to stop using him as a demo for shaping after he learned to “shovel snow” by lining up to the handle of a snow shovel, pick up the handle and walk the shovel forward in under ten clicks! He was really good at shaping but he gave my audiences an unrealistic expectation for how long shaping would take.
All this is very good information for building behaviours, but how about dealing with behaviours you don’t like? Positive reinforcement can be really good for that too! There is a procedure called Differential Reinforcement of Alternate behaviour, shortened to DRA. It is also sometimes called DRO, with the O standing for Other behaviour. What this means is simply that you mark or click for anything other than the behaviour you want to get rid of. Let’s say you have a puppy who jumps up. When he is doing ANYTHING other than jumping up, you can mark that and treat. The fact is that most of the time the puppy is NOT jumping up, so you have lots of behaviours you can reinforce. You can reinforce for four on the floor, running around, barking at the window, lying down, sitting, grabbing a toy, looking at the other dog, following the cat or getting on furniture. Some of those behaviours might also be on your list of things you don’t want your pup to do, but none of them are compatible with jumping up. This is a very flexible procedure, so you can either choose one of those things, or all of them, and either way you will decrease the jumping up behaviour. In practice it is best to choose one behaviour and click that and only that, but at the beginning it may be best to just click for everything that isn’t jumping up to make the point that there are lots of things other than jumping up that you can click.
Another way to decrease behaviours is to reinforce the least iteration of the behaviour. This works well for behaviours that go on and on, such as barking. Barking can be looked at as one behaviour, or it can be looked at as a long series of behaviours. When we look at it as a long series, it is easy to get control over it by clicking for the first few barks. If you were to count how many barks happen before your dog just naturally stops barking, you might find for instance that he barks an average of 78 times. I would want to get my click in before the fifth bark if possible, and initially, I would be following the click up with super duper good treats and lots of them. I would want to make a big impression because barking is such an exciting behaviour. I would keep doing this until I had an INCREASE in short bursts of barking. It is much easier to get rid of barking altogether when it occurs in short bursts instead of over long duration! Once I was in control of the barking to the extent that it only happens in short bursts, I could start clicking for single barks.
All of these procedures have pitfalls, which is why I have a job! I have had many students say to me “that worked for a bit, but it isn’t working any more”. When you are using a Swiss Army Knife as your main tool, you may have to sometimes stop and change tactics in order to be successful. Knowing that there are other blades to use when your first choice fails you is a valuable skill to develop as a trainer. Positive reinforcement is my favourite training tool by far, and it is really useful to play with various ways to implementing it.
This week I posted an image on my Facebook page of one of the dogs in our class doing an automatic leave it. In our group classes, we store all of our treats on the floor in front of the dogs. When a dog tries to snatch a treat out of a hand, we just close our hand around the treat and wait for him to ask more appropriately to get that treat. The first thing we teach all of our puppies is that rude behaviour gets you nothing or a time out, and good behaviour allows you to ask for what you want and to get that. A colleague commented that likely “it all has to do with the overall amortizing of value the dog has to the handler versus the quality of treats” and I disagreed. Here is why.
When we train we use food in two ways. Firstly as a currency to communicate what we want the dog to learn. If we want the dog to learn to sit on cue then we “pay” the dog in treats every time he sits and then we increase our criterion so that we only pay when we ask the dog to do something. This is a very simplistic situation and I think if we stop at that point in our use of food we short change ourselves and our dogs. The second way we use food in training is as a joint goal that the dog and handler get to together. I think of training beyond the basics as a maze that I am negotiating with my dog to get to an end goal.
Given that we use food in these two ways, we have to start out by teaching the dog that food has value and he can get it if he does something. I use a tool that most modern trainers are familiar with as “doggy zen”. I put the dog on a leash so he cannot leave, and then I hold out my hand with a treat on it, just under my dog’s nose, so that he could if he wanted, take it. Most dogs will immediately try for the treat. As soon as I see the dog try for the treat, then I close my hand around it. The dog controls what happens; if he hesitates, I leave my hand open and if he tries to get the treat, I close my hand. When I can leave my hand open for a count of three I say take it and put the treat in the dog’s mouth. Some dogs actually try not to take the treat at all at this point, but I make sure they get it. We usually start with REALLY high value treats. Once the dog understands not to snatch things out of hands, we do this with items on floors, on tables, on chairs, and so on, until the dog understand that he must stay back in order to get what he wants. And if you are paying attention at this point, you should notice something very significant about what I have not done. I have NOT said “leave it”. I feel that leave it is actually a big problem for many pets and their people.
I am going to switch tracks here and use a little story to explain why “Leave it” is a problem. Imagine for a moment you have been given tickets to a very fancy event; say a play. It is ultra swank. It is an all inclusive, get dressed up, have your hair done, fancy live theater event, and part of the event is hors d’ouvres at intermission. At intermission, you and your absolutely stunning date, who is equally spiffed up as you are, get out of your seats and go to the lobby. In the lobby you will find penguins. The guys dressed in the fancy black and white serving outfits, holding lovely trays of canapés, and little bits of cheese on crackers, and some delicious fish and strawberry thing. And your date breaks into a run, bashes into the first penguin he encounters, grabs the tray with one hand, and with his free hand starts grabbing hands full of the food on the platter and shoving it into his mouth. Implausible?
This is how I think most dogs approach food; it is so rare and valuable and so hard to get to that when they see an opportunity, they go for it. And what does the handler do? “Leave it. Fluffy, leave it. Leave it, Fluffy. LEAVE IT! I said LEAVE IT!” And then Fluffy takes the item anyhow. Why did Fluffy disregard the human’s request? Simply because Fluffy knows that leave it is a signal that she won’t have a chance to get what she wants. It is in effect, a no reward marker. It says “no matter what you do, you cannot have that”. Leave it is the cue used in the moment to moment bits of life that you encounter with your dog to tell him that he cannot have what he wants, even though he has been minding his manners all the way along.
Going back to your date, imagine for a moment that you knew what he or she did to penguins at parties. So as you get up you remind your date to be polite. Your date, being the cooperative person they are agrees that this time they are going to be polite to the penguins. You remind them not to rush the penguin. You remind your date that everyone will get a turn. Does this sound like a date you want to spend time with? This is the contract that I see being made more often than not with the dogs and handlers that I encounter.
Coming back to “take it,” let’s think for a moment about a service dog. I use a service dog to navigate the world. When I go grocery shopping he is often faced with delicious food, right at nose level, or food on the floor. Before we ever went out into the public, I taught him that he could have anything he wanted if he asked for it nicely, although sometimes he would have to wait. I could not go through the grocery store and identify items one by one that he could not have. He cannot have the soup that slopped on the floor outside the deli, or the cheese that is on the shelf at nose height or the bread and baked goods that are shelved in his reach. He cannot have the cookie that the little boy is waving as he walks by us either. He can ask, and I might say yes, or I might say later or I might say no. When he was a young dog, I usually said “I have something better” and gave him a tidbit that was appropriate for him. He asked, and I wanted to make him certain that I would listen any time he asked for something. In that moment, I was using food at the currency to teach him to ask me for things he wanted.
Over time, I would sometimes say “later” and give him a tidbit every few times. I would also begin cuing behaviours he really liked when he asked for things. So if my dog asked for the crouton that fell on the floor in the bulk food aisle, I might say “not now, but if you want you can carry your leash for a moment”, a behaviour he really liked doing. And over time, he generalized that if he REALLY wanted to have something, ask and I would listen and if I could, I might give it to him.
The next thing I teach dogs when I am training is that the click predicts the treat. I increase the time between my click and my treat to about thirty seconds, but between the click and the treat, my dog and I are working TOGETHER as a team to get to the food treat. I start by standing right beside a table of treats. I click, reach and treat, and then repeat. Then I take a step away from the table, and I click and we walk back together to get the treat. Then I do two steps and so on. With my own dogs I will often take them out on the farm and I will click, run with them to the other end of the farm, and get a treat, and then click and run back and get another treat. I want to increase the time between the click and the treat so that when I am working in a condition where I cannot immediately treat, everything following the click is part of the reinforcement cycle. I once as an experiment at a conference clicked my dog for a behaviour and then left the ballroom we were in, walked down a hall, across a lobby, to the elevators, waited for an elevator, went up to the 8th floor, walked down a long hall way, opened my hotel room door, took my dog off leash, went to the bathroom and when I was finished, he was sitting by the treat bin on the dresser. He understands that clicks predict treats and treats may come much later. This is essential (although most dogs don’t need to be able to wait that long) to teaching a dog that they can rely on me to follow through with the treat, which is the step when food stops being a currency and starts being something we are both working towards. We are a team. Yes, I use treats as currency but once I have established a number of behaviours I don’t use it as a currency as much as a goal my dog and I work towards together.
I will often when I am travelling and I order food, order something for my service dog. I order things like doughnut holes at coffee shops, and sugar cookies in delis. Over time, my dog has learned that if I pay and put the item in my pocket it is his later. By using doggy zen and take it instead of leave it, my dog has learned to ask. By using clickers and delaying the treat, my dog has learned to wait. This way I can eat my meal in a restaurant and my dog can look at the fry on the floor under the table and ask me, “can I have that?” and I can say yes or no.
What I have described above is a significant part of how we work with our students and their dogs in our classroom. In our Levels classroom, all the students put their treats out within reach of any off leash dog. We don’t start everyone off leash, but it comes very quickly; in under a month, most dogs can work around treat bowls and because of the philosophy, the feedback we get about this is that this carries over outside of the classroom. See the video below for an example of a typical day in our classroom.
When you start looking at more complex situations as situations where you and your dog are working together to get to a goal, then you build relationship with your dog. Perhaps the biggest criticism I have seen of operant conditioning is that it is about manipulating your learner into doing things for you. Certainly it is a model that will allow you to increase or decrease behaviours, but that is just the start. We would hardly say that a child should not learn the foundations to reading and arithmetic because in the end we don’t want him to just recognize letters and numbers. In the end we want children to be able to grow up and use what they learn in very broad contexts. Once I have a foundation of behaviours built on a currency, then I can use those behaviours to do meaningful activities with my dog. Regardless of what that is, if you look at the behaviours you ask your dog to do as a joint project together that has meaning for both of you, then you don’t need the food itself to get things done, and you don’t need to wave the steak under the dog’s nose get him to do something. When you have worked carefully at teaching your dog both that he can have what he wants and that you are working with him to get it, then you have a cooperative partner instead of a dog who is scouting the world for things that he can get if he is only fast enough to get it before you utter the magic leave it words. And THAT is the goal of teaching take it instead of leave it!