In North America, and likely in other parts of the developed world, we belong to the TV generation. If we don’t achieve a major milestone before the next commercial, then we don’t think we are successful, and we don’t think that we should continue along the route that we are already taking. In behaviour modification and training, slow and steady is almost always the key to success, and that doesn’t happen in the twelve and a half minutes that happen between network commercials. Perhaps if real dog training happened on network TV, people would have a better idea of what happens when you work on training with an animal. Wouldn’t that be a reality show? Four months of weekly installments on a puppy making great strides from time to time, interspersed with long periods of careful development of behaviours that form the foundation for more complex work.
I have a couple of students in class at the moment who tell me that their dogs are bored. Let’s look at what it means to be bored. According to Wikipedia “Boredom has been defined by C. D. Fisher, in terms of its central psychological processes: “an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boredom). There is more to it than that, and the boredom article goes on to discuss types of boredom and how they impact learning. Often what I notice in training is that the dog, in theory the learner, is not bored, but the trainer may be bored. Sometimes the dogs who are described as bored are independent and don’t really have buy in to the trainer’s agenda. So what can be done to better engage the trainer and the learner in the process, so that neither one of them experiences this unpleasant, transient affective state?
To start with, define what you want. If you want your dog to be interested in what you want her to do, you have to know what it is you want. If you have a dog who is mostly interested in doing his own thing, happy to turn his back on you, and engage with the universe as it interests him, then you are going to need to consider if what you really want is a dog who will engage with you. If you don’t then training is going to be a lot more challenging, because you are going to be in a battling economy of what is more valuable; me and the training process or every other thing in the environment. Attempting to train by being more interesting than dirt is hard work. Engagement with you is going to be rewarding for both you and the dog if you do it right. Consider playing your dog’s game for a moment.
If your dog is standing on the end of the leash gazing longingly out at the wall opposite you, yearning for the opportunity to explore it, then DO THAT. If you want your dog to engage with you, then engage with her. If you are all about training on your terms only, then you can try something else, but if you want your dog to engage with you on your agenda then at some point you need to meet her half way. Once you start engaging with your dog on his or her own terms, it is much easier to start to get your dog to engage with you. Engaging with your dog can be as simple as opening a bag of dog treats and helping your dog to explore that. Open the bag as you might for a young child. Look in. Offer it to the dog to look in. Before he can shove his whole head in to take everything, pull it away, reach in and get a treat out to share with him. If you use a bag of cheezies, you can give him one and then have one yourself. Sharing is a big part of engaging with your dog.
Once you and your dog are engaged with one another, then teaching skills is much easier. If you want to teach your dog to walk on a leash without dragging you along, you can take your dog on leash to a location where you have control over the stuff she wants. Then wait. If you are engaged with your dog, you will notice subtle shifts and changes in how she experiences the world. If she is standing there longing for the wall, wait. Now it is your turn. If you disengage from attending to your dog, then you won’t catch that moment when she turns to you and asks you what you are doing. She is only going to ask once, so if you miss that chance to share your treats with your dog the moment that she tries to engage the tiniest bit with you, then that chance is gone and the next time she offers to attend to you, she is going to offer you less not more attention. If you catch her asking to join in your game you can offer her something that you both find interesting.
What I observe time and again is that trainers don’t remain engaged long enough to actually get the engagement they want from their dogs. Beginner trainers often stand with their backs to their dogs, looking around at anything other than the dog they have come to train. If you cannot attend to your dog long enough to catch her when she attends to you, then why would you think that your dog will have any more attention than you do? If you cannot give your dog more than thirty seconds to disengage from whatever has caught her eye, then why would your dog stay engaged in what interests you, especially if it is difficult or needs a lot of concentration, as leash walking does?
Dogs are not automatons. They think, they breathe, they have interests of their own and they have their own agendas. We also have our own interests, drives and desires. Often, in order to have a dog, the dog ends up having to accommodate our interests more than we accommodate what they need. The dog’s priorities are her own, and if we are not going to share in what she is interested in, then why do we think she will share in what we are interested in? Most often we choose to get the dog, instead of the dog choosing to live with us, so if the dog is bored, especially in training class it is up to us to determine what she is interested in and use that as part of the training process.
Several years ago, on an email list, a woman mailed in talking about how her dog had nearly died because it had climbed up a five foot tall book case and stolen some pain meds and eaten them. She was on a rant about how important it was to keep things under lock and key and how you just never knew what a dog might get into. I was the lone voice saying that she had bigger problems than the immediate veterinary emergency. Her problem, whether she recognizes it or not, is that her dogs lack impulse control.
About 60% of the dogs I see with behaviour problems have impulse control issues. They steal things off of tables and counters, they eat the pockets out of clothing, they bolt out the door, they pull on the leash-generally, what they have learned in their lives is that if they want to have something, they ought to pull harder, jump higher, try harder, act faster and they can get what they want.
One of the problems is that dogs don’t have a good sense of safe and dangerous when it comes to the important things in modern life. They don’t understand that pills could kill them, that certain mushrooms in the yard could be toxic, that chocolate at the least will cause gastric upset and at the worst will cause death. They don’t know that jumping over the wall that prevents us from falling over the cliff could be a disaster, they don’t know that running into traffic is dangerous; they just don’t understand.
For this reason, it is important to teach your dog self control. Self control means several things. The first thing it means is “just because you can see it doesn’t mean it is yours”. Think about taking a four year old to a buffet table. Just because he can see that marvellous cake with all the sweet gooey icing doesn’t mean it is his. If mom and dad are the kind of parents who want their kids to grow up to be an acceptable member of society, they help the kid to choose self control over self indulgence. And this is what we are missing in our dogs.
Lately a lot of my novice students seem to feel that if there is something that the dog can see or sense that the dog wants, they are excused from insisting on good manners. This is akin to allowing the four year old at the buffet table to reach out and stick his fingers in that tempting icing, lick them and then repeat. Heck, the way some of my students approach this, they would be egging the child on. Go ahead sweetie…one little lick won’t hurt anything! Well it will. It will hurt that child’s chances of landing a job when he grows up, it will hurt his chances of finding a mate, it will hurt his chances of living a normal life.
Most recently, I experienced this in the company of my service dog. I had an appointment to be at a local business for a photo shoot, and there was a resident “puppy”. This puppy was somewhere between 6 and nine months old. My service dog does not love puppies, and when he is vested, his job is to take care of me, so we had arranged ahead of time to have the puppy off the premises. Needless to say, this did not work out; the dog was onsite when I arrived. I stood by the door looking through the window, and was waved in. I watched to see that the dog was removed from the room before coming in. Just as I got my coat off, the owner of the dog appeared with the dog in tow, vaguely guiding him by the collar. “He just needs to say hi,” she said. “NO!” I replied. “My dog doesn’t like puppies.” “It will just take a moment, he needs to say hello” she shot back. “NO!” I replied again; “this is a mistake. You cannot greet this dog, he is a working service dog”, I repeated, and stepped between her dog and mine. Still she persisted. “This isn’t about YOUR dog, MY dog needs to just sniff noses.” My dog was jacketed and I was in the middle of an anxiety attack to begin with, which didn’t help much, but honestly, why does she think that her dog MUST greet every dog he meets? (incidentally, a GREAT article to read about this is Suzanne Clothier’s “He just wants to say hi” http://flyingdogpress.com/content/view/42/97/ )
This attitude of allowing our dogs everything they want, when they want it and how they want it creates more behaviour problems than you might at first imagine. We don’t live in a canine utopia, where they can have every bone, chase every ball, greet every person and every dog they wish. Teaching your dog the basics of self control can be a life saving move. Teaching your dog to ask for things before grabbing them is the bare minimum for safety. Consider for instance the dog who has learned to control his impulse to eat everything within his reach. When your house guest arrives with a box of chocolates in her bag, your dog might sit and look longingly at the object of his desires, but he won’t tear apart the bag and the box, gorging himself on a sweet that might ultimately kill him.
The old saw “begin with the end in mind” is very true. When dogs are young, if we allow them to pull on leash, we are teaching them that later on, they can pull with impunity, and that means that they will be at risk of pulling whoever is on the end of the leash into traffic. It means that the dog will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries. It means that you also will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries. And it means that later on, you will have to retrain your dog to do something other than what you taught him to do as a youngster. The easiest way to teach a dog to keep the leash loose is to never let him move forward when it is tight. EVER. This means that when he is young and you are in a rush to get from here to there, carry him. This means that until he is really good at the exercise, don’t go more than a couple of hundred feet at a time on leash. And this means making it in his best interest to keep that leash loose. It also means that you need to know what a loose leash means. A loose leash is a leash that makes a “J” shape between the dog and the person. If it is straight, you are not giving the dog a chance to learn what a loose leash is.
Pulling is the tip of the iceberg though. Just because you have a dog doesn’t mean you should not be able to put a sandwich on the table. Far too often I see dogs who think that if they can reach it, it is theirs. Someone once sent me an email called rules of ownership for toddlers; it went something like this. If I have it, it’s mine. If I had it before and now you have it, it’s still mine. If I can see it, it’s mine. If you have it and I want it, it’s mine. And just like with toddlers, dogs often think this way. If we encourage this thinking by supporting it by allowing the dog to learn that anything he can reach is his, then we are going to create an adult dog who will climb book cases to get stuff that is not theirs. We are going to create a situation where the dog is difficult to live with, is pushy and obnoxious, and who will not leave things alone when he ought to. One of my students recently told me that she would rather avoid having anything dangerous in her house than train her dog to automatically leave things that were not his. This sounds good in theory, but on closer examination, we have a big problem. The problem is that the dog doesn’t just live in a safe little box. We take him out on the street where chocolates are dropped, and antifreeze is dripped and we have guests to our homes who leave avocado (toxic!) dip within reach, or drop raisins (also toxic) on the floor.
Teaching a dog to ask if he can have something is the easiest way to ensure that he doesn’t take things he shouldn’t. If you take a treat in your hand and hold it out to the dog, and then close your hand if he takes it before he asks, and only open the hand up when he backs off the treat, you start to teach the dog that snatching doesn’t work. If you make the dog wait for a moment or two, you start to teach him that good things come to those who wait. Instead of thinking about teaching dogs to leave it, think about teaching dogs that if they back off the treat, they can get what they want when you tell them to “take it”. Once you have this working nicely in your hand, you can then move on to getting your dog to sit before he gets the thing that he wants. In small steps you can use this method to teach him first not to snatch things out of your hand, and then not to snatch things out of the hands of others and then not to take things off of chairs or the floor and then not to take things off of tables or plates. In the end, you want the dog to not take anything that you have not indicated is his. It takes about four months to achieve fluency, but this is an exercise that can and will save your dog’s life. The day that I dropped ten migraine pills out of a bottle and onto the floor, my dog backed up two steps and made eye contact with me, was the day that I figured out that an automatic “leave it” wasn’t just a party trick, it was a life skill.
Many people understand the idea of teaching their dogs to sit before they give them a meal. A good idea in theory-but I have seen this backfire. When the dog is dependent upon the person to tell them to sit and to “stay…..staay…staaay….staaaaay”, and then the person says OKAY and the dog rushes the food bowl, what you are teaching is not self control, but to be impulsive on cue. Not a particularly good idea. You are in essence teaching the dog to have an explosive start, which would be great if you were doing agility, but not so good if you want your dog to learn to have good social manners in the house. Instead, you can try a tactic of making your dog’s dinner and wait for him to sit. When he sits, say take it and THEN put down the bowl. Don’t prompt him, don’t cue him; teach him an automatic please. Once you have a basic please, you can start working on duration between the food bowl going down and the release by starting to bend down to put the bowl down BEFORE you say take it. If the dog gets up before you release, pick up the bowl and start over. Work at it until making the meal becomes the cue to the dog to back off, and wait for as long as it takes for you to make the meal, dance the tango, make soup, and when your dog is relaxed, tell him to take his dinner. This is a bit like going to a formal meal where grace is said-the guy who digs in before the blessing is seen to be a glutton and a boor. If you teach your dog to wait till told, he will be practicing self control every day. Just make sure that you don’t release your dog until you can see that he is relaxed, or you will create impulsivity on cue.
Tonight I had an interesting class with some beginner students. Every time I went to help one particular student, her dog would disengage and pay more attention to me than to her. Her explanation was interesting; she claimed that I was somehow magically more interesting to her dog than she was. My efforts to explain that actually she had actually taught the dog that greeting on the dog’s terms was what was expected seemed to fall on deaf ears. Like the dog in the shop, this handler believed that her dog should greet everyone; after all, isn’t that what we teach in puppy class? That the dog should greet two to four hundred people in his first five months? Sure! Absolutely, your puppy should meet two to four hundred people in the first five months (or better yet, in the first four months), but we don’t mean to imply that the dog should be permitted to rush everyone he sees and interact at will. Like a young child, being taught to greet politely will pay off later in big ways. Imagine your teenager, applying for his first job, greeting his future boss with the kind of full body enthusiasm people seem to think is normal in dogs!
D’fer and Laurel show self control and loose leashes at the Royal Ontario Museum
Before your dog is 16 weeks old, socialization is the single most important priority in the dog’s life, but second to that, and for the rest of his life, impulse control is the next most important item on the agenda. My service dog, who I spoke about earlier in this article, is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. D’fer is a passionate, intense dog, who knows what he wants and is willing to work hard to get it. These traits are important in a dog bred to fetch ducks in the Chesapeake Bay in November-he wouldn’t be much good as a retriever if he were to say “sorry, no, the water is too cold today” or even “I was going to come up the rocky bank, but that dense brush got in my way.” D’fer, I am proud to say, has learned that he can have his heart’s desire-anything he wants, if he just asks nicely, by backing off what he wants, and looking at me, and sitting. He has learned the most important lesson of all. The dog controls the dog. And I control everything else.
Most of the dogs I work with live with serious anxiety and or aggression issues. Interestingly, I also live with a serious anxiety disorder. My anxiety manifests as panic, and I have a list of triggers as long as my arm. I am afraid of driving as a passenger in a car. I am afraid of teenaged girls. I am afraid of high schools. I am afraid of phoning people I don’t know. I am afraid of some crowds. I am afraid of going to Downtown Toronto. Conversely, I am NOT afraid of public speaking, sharing my vulnerabilities, taking an unpopular stand, standing up for the rights of the weak, intervening in a fist fight, or aggressive dogs. But when my anxiety is high, I reach for my old familiar strategy of panic. Like many of the dogs I work with, I have things I am anxious about and things I am not, but also like the dogs I work with, I am a one trick pony when I get triggered.
One of the things that I have had to learn to do in order to cope with my mental health issues is to find new ways of behaving in the face of my triggers. One thing I do is to use a service dog to provide me with more space. Sometimes I hold internal discussions with myself to calm myself, or I can take medication, and sometimes I call a friend to talk me down. The thing is, when I first started experiencing anxiety, I only had one trick; stand there and go through a panic attack with its dizziness, the increased heart rate and the shortness of breath.
This is similar to the situation for many of the dogs I see. When faced with their trigger, they only have one trick; it might be barking and lunging, or growling or showing snarl face or something else, but essentially, it is their one trick. When the trick they have for dealing with an issue is to charge and bite, this can be a very dangerous situation, and the key then is to teach the dog more “tricks”.
Now this sounds simple and it is, but there is a catch. When your arousal is high, and you are disoriented, you are always going to go back to the default behaviour that has either worked best or worked most frequently. If what has worked best or most frequently is dangerous, then as trainers we have to teach the dog to find alternate answers. This is where environmental enrichment and trick training become essential for working with difficult dogs. When we do effective environmental enrichment, and we teach a wide variety of behaviours, what we are really doing is teaching the dog to come up with new answers to old problems.
Environmental enrichment is the practice of increasing the diversity of the environment that an animal lives within. The goal is to improve the dog’s quality of life, but at the same time, we can also use environmental enrichment to help teach the dog to solve problems in different ways. Simple strategies such as putting your dog’s dinner in a paper bag and teaching your dog to find different ways to open the bag to get his dinner can help the dog to learn new ways of thinking, and new ways of thinking are what solving behaviour problems are all about. Once you have moved away from free food in a food bowl to paper bags, changing the picture again is important; we don’t want to teach the dog ONE new strategy-we want to teach the dog to problem solve.
Staying with the mealtime strategies, you can then move to a rolling tricky treat ball- (http://www.omegapaw.com/products/tricky-treat-ball.html) -which requires the dog to figure out how to roll an item to get the treats to fall out. Once he has mastered this type of toy, there are new alternatives; Kong (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQDJkW46BBk) makes one that wobbles, but doesn’t roll, requiring the dog to learn to persist in trying new strategies. Hollow rubber toys that hold biscuits but allow them to roll to the bottom help dogs to learn completely new strategies for getting food, and once your dog has mastered these, you dog is no longer a one trick food pony.
Learning to consider more than one solution to a problem can also be addressed operantly through training. Dogs who are anxious can be difficult to train, because the training process itself involves elements of failure, and failure contributes to confusion and anxiety. Confidence develops when the learner is allowed to have as many successful experiences after expressing some form of effort. Building successes can be a bit of a trick, and part of being successful as a trainer is allowing the dog many, many opportunities to guess right, when the stakes aren’t high and the arousal isn’t high either. Errorless learning happens when the dog is able to be reinforced for almost everything he does, because the scenario is set up so that he doesn’t make mistakes. There is a trick to making this work though; you must avoid just randomly reinforcing everything the dog does. You still only reinforce the thing that you are training. Errorless training can be as simple as hiding a toy in the same place every day, and then progressively moving the toy step by step away from where it was originally; you set the dog up to learn to go to that place and begin to look for the toy. For this to be errorless, you need to begin by showing the dog that you are placing the toy, and then place the toy in the same place later when the dog is not engaging in the toy. Over time you control two variables to teach the dog to look for the toy; if he is watching you place it, and how far from the original place the toy is left.
As the dog becomes more confident about his looking, you can go to reward based training to help him to understand that risks are safe to take. This is where clicker training really can help a dog; the process of free shaping is invaluable to teach the dog to try new things. Games like 101 things to do with a box can help dogs to develop the skill of being creative; essentially, you click for any interaction with a specific object, and then you progress to clicking for variations on that original interaction. If your dog chooses to sniff the box for instance, you could click that. Then you could click for two sniffs. Then you can click for three sniffs, and then for a touch, and then two touches and so on. Each time, you offer the dog the opportunity to decide for himself, what his next behaviour will be. You don’t name the behaviour because there is really no end for an anxious dog; you want him to keep trying new things.
It is important to understand that free for all reinforcement will make anxiety worse. Many people have noticed that parental and teacher approval often backfires, and approval in the form of rewarding behaviour can backfire in dogs too. When support for the looser in a contest in the form of approval is offered, it can create conflict in the child. The child knows he has lost the game and hears from the teacher or parent that he has done a great job. Confidence is dependent upon success, but only on actual success. The power of success can be boosted by recognition, but approval for errors is very damaging. So if a dog is anxious, cuing and prompting and then rewarding behaviours can create a similar sort of conflict within the dog. He may be doing the actions you ask for, but his emotional state is still anxious. This is where classical conditioning can come in handy.
If you know what your dog’s triggers are, you can start to tease apart the criteria that he can and cannot cope with. If your dog is anxious about other dogs for instance, the first thing to do is to figure out how far away from the other dogs your dog has to be in order to be calm. Don’t mistake the absence of behaviour found in the shut down dog for calmness. Being shut down is the result of being overwhelmed, and being overwhelmed is unfair to a stressed animal. It is what I go through when I have to drive in a car with a reckless driver; I may not look stressed, but I certainly am. To get an idea of what it is like to be completely shut down think about what it might be like to be in a bank during a robbery. When a gunman shows up and threatens you, you don’t show your stress; the obvious person will be the target. When you are overwhelmed, you will behave as normally as you possibly can, and hope not to be noticed. When a dog is overwhelmed, he may appear normal but in fact be very upset. You have to look for the subtle signs, the sweaty paws, the rapid eye blink rate, the jerky movements, to tell you that your dog is over his ability to cope well. A very effective way to determine if your dog is close to or above threshold is to offer him treats. If he takes treats normally, ask if he can do a simple behaviour he knows well; if he can, he is not yet at threshold. If he takes treats roughly, he is really close to his threshold for tolerance. If he refuses the treats, he is likely over threshold. And if you find that he has an upset stomach or diarrhoea, you can be certain that he was far over threshold even if he wasn’t showing you other signs
You can also figure out other aspects of your dog’s triggers. If dogs seem to trigger your dog, is it all dogs? Is it only black or white dogs? Is it only small or large dogs? And if you can eliminate the dogs from your dog’s life that concern him, you can begin to present the dogs who are a problem at a low enough threshold that he can begin to integrate those dogs into his repertoire. The mechanics of classical conditioning are very simple-you present the stimulus (in this case a triggering dog) at a low enough intensity (either far enough away, or not moving or otherwise not triggering for your dog) and you pair that with the opportunity to do something he really, really likes. Most often food is used for classical conditioning because you don’t have to take it away from the dog, you don’t have to worry about it going missing, and you do have to feed your dog anyhow. If you have two dogs who live in the same house who don’t like one another, you can feed them separated by a barrier where they can see one another, but cannot interact. If the dogs begin to snarl or growl at each other, you are working too closely, and classical conditioning can only happen when the stimulus is presented at a low enough threshold that the dog isn’t already triggered.
I am often asked if comforting an anxious dog will make them more anxious. It won’t. Consider going to a funeral; mostly likely you were upset and possibly crying. Alleviating a bad emotion comes by decreasing stressors, by having support from loved ones and by being in an environment where you can express your emotions in safety. You won’t feel any better if the funeral director told you to hold it together, and act happy. There is no reason to believe that this is any different for dogs. If you have a dog who is anxious and upset by something, and seeks support and calm by getting into your lap, then let him. If he finds comfort by leaving, then allow him to go. Do what you can to alleviate anxiety in the short term, and you will teach your dog that you are trustworthy and that you will help him to determine the best and safest thing to do in a crunch.
I often see new trainers create conflict in their dogs by setting the dog up to fail, and then rewarding the dog’s effort. Some students are so keen to have their dog succeed that they reward EVERY behaviour that the dog offers. Rewarding every behaviour can be a good first step in a dog who is really shut down, when we want to teach the dog that offering behaviours is acceptable, but when you want to teach the dog a particular behaviour, waffling between reinforcing variety and reinforcing a particular behaviour, you end up confusing the dog, and this means that although you are “rewarding” the dog, you are creating confusion instead of success and that is the sort of thing that makes a one trick pony dog more uncertain and less successful. Another way that my students set their dogs up to fail is to recognize that the dog is over threshold and take him far into the territory of fear and anxiety. Or some of the time, they recognize that the dog is in distress and make the dog face his fears anyways. None of these tactics sets the dog up to learn more than their one trick in the face of danger. As trainers what we need to learn is to set our dog up to learn new tactics, using what we know about triggers, thresholds, operant and classical conditioning, and remembering what it feels like when we ourselves experience anxiety.
Regularly I get students in my classes who tell me that they want other family members to attend classes so that everyone will be consistent. Consistency is important in training, but what I mean by consistent and what my students often mean by consistent is often different. My students often spend a lot of time trying to replicate cues to their dogs that look identical regardless of who is giving the cue. I have often watched students who give an absolutely perfect imitation of one of the instructor’s body postures and positions when it comes to giving the cue and I know of people who have practiced cuing in the mirror. I am fairly sure that the dogs don’t care how consistent the cue is however. When learning, I think that MOST dogs care a lot more about how consistent the outcome is.
There are several learning stages that dogs go through when they are being trained. An easy way to think about the stages of learning in dogs is what I refer to as the 4 As. The first stage is awareness. During the awareness stage of learning, the dog gets a vague notion of what you are trying to teach. Either you lead him through the activity, or you shape it, or you capture it, but you make it easy for him to develop an awareness of what you want him to know. At this stage, you would not normally use a cue to tell the dog what you want because he does not yet know what it is that you are driving at.
The next stage is acquisition. This stage is where you add the cue, and the dog gradually develops proficiency in the behaviour. The third stage is application and this is the stage during which the dog learns to do the behaviour in a wide variety of circumstances, and if you have been using prompts, props or lures, you would fade these. In the fourth stage, always, the dog always performs the behaviour in context and on cue and never offers the behaviour when it would be inappropriate to do so.
In the first two stages, awareness and acquisition, it is essential that the outcomes are always consistent. If for instance, you are teaching your dog to stand on a platform, then in the awareness stage each and every time the behaviour occurs, the trainer MUST produce some sort of an outcome, and that outcome must be consistent. I like to use marker training for sits, and sits are an early foundation behaviour for my dogs, so I click and then throw a treat away from the dog for each and every sit until sits are super reliable. I would bet money that in a given training session if I have been reinforcing sits, the dog will finish that session up by offering me a sit after each treat. Why wouldn’t he? I have been extremely consistent, and he likes treats, so he is going to do what gives him treats! The click just marks exactly what it is that I am training (the sit) and the click is always followed by a thrown treat. This makes training very, very clear to the dog. Our job as trainers is to help our dogs to understand what behaviours will predict what outcomes.
If you have been in the world of dog training for any amount of time you have likely heard about variable schedules of reinforcement as a way to maintain known behaviours. While this is a very useful way to help dogs to learn duration of behaviour, it can backfire when you are working on the early stages of behaviours. In the first two stages of learning, you really want to work hard to make sure that your dog understands exactly what will result in a predictable outcome. In the final two stages we can start to change up the variables, but only when we are certain that the dog understands what the cue means, and what will happen when the behaviour is carried out.
An important part of consistency is to know which stage you are in and to work within that stage. The first stage, awareness, is all about learning the mechanics of the behaviour. You may need to use equipment, the landscape and your reinforcers very carefully at this stage to “explain” the behaviour to the dog. You know that your dog is ready for the second stage when he starts to offer the behaviour readily after each reinforcement is delivered. If you have been consistent, your dog will get through this stage in very short order and be ready to move on to the second stage.
In the acquisition phase, you can start to name or attach a cue to the behaviour. From the dog’s perspective the only thing that really changes between awareness and acquisition is that a cue is attached to the behaviour, and if you don’t give the cue, the predicted outcome won’t occur. At this phase you might start to do the behaviour in slightly different locations or under slightly different circumstances, but your dog should still be able to count on the consistent outcome to his behaviour. Coming back to the example of teaching your dog to step onto a small platform, and he is offering to put all four paws on the platform willingly and eagerly each time after he has received his treat thrown off to the side, then you are ready to name it. As your dog is on the way back to the platform you might say “pose” as he is on his way back to get all four feet onto the platform, and then mark the correct behaviour and throw a treat away for the dog to get. Over several repetitions, the dog will begin to associate the cue with the behaviour. Although the cues should be accurate, keep in mind that repeating your cues absolutely exactly time and again will not necessarily serve you well. If you have been careful to cue accurately in a certain pitch and cadence, then there is a pretty good chance that if you have a cold, or if you get startled when cuing your dog may not feel that the cue is sufficiently accurate to follow. In my experience, slightly messing cues can actually help the dog. Now this doesn’t mean using “pose” some of the time and “pretty” at other times, but saying the cue word slightly differently is not the end of the world. What will degrade your training more than anything will be if after your dog starts to offer the cued behaviour you suddenly start to use difference consequences. In these important learning phases, your dog counts on your to provide the same outcome to the behaviour he offers, each time he offers that behaviour.
You know you are finished with the Acquisition phase of the learning process when you can cue the behaviour, casually, formally, while sitting down, while standing up and still get the same high quality behaviour that you built in the awareness phase. If you have been careful to not move beyond this phase until your dog is truly ready for it, then you will be able to move smoothly into the phase where consistency starts to run the other way; instead of you being consistent for your dog, you can start to teach your dog to be consistent for you. The third phase of learning is Application and this is the phase where we start to work towards anytime, anywhere for anyone.
To start the Application phase, I want to continue to be consistent for my dog. Now though, I will start putting my new behaviour in a chain. Let’s say that my dog knows how to come when called and he is really good at it. Returning to my go to platform example, I might ask my dog to come away from something that he was doing by calling him, and when he came to me, I would ask him to pose. This is a two behaviour chain (come to me, pose) and the pose behaviour is the one that I reinforce. Once I had marked and rewarded the desired behaviour, in the case the pose, I would ask for a different behaviour such as the sit and then ask for the pose again and mark that and reinforce. I would keep doing two chains and then three, four and five chains until I could get pose into a very long sequence of behaviours, consistently reinforcing that last. Once my dog was willing to pose even after doing a whole bunch of other behaviours, then I would ask him pose and add in a second behaviour AFTER the pose. For the first time, I am being just a tiny bit inconsistent. I am starting to teach the dog that when I ask for a behaviour, I need him to consistently give it to me. This is where the nuances of consistency come into play. When he is reliably giving me two chains, then I start asking for longer chains, and I really start to take the behaviour to new places. If the new place is particularly difficult (say in class with a big and active adolescent beside you), I might go back to the second phase of learning, Acquisition, before practicing chains with the dog. The more you mix it up at this point though, the better your dog will get at consistently offering you the same behaviour over and over again. This is the point at which you can also start to offer a wide variety of reinforcers for the behaviour. If you started out using food treats, you can switch to using toys. The dog has a really good idea about what the behaviour is, and now you can start integrating the behaviour into his life.
When you would bet me a nickel that your dog will do the desired behaviour on cue, you are in the final or always stage of learning and you can expect that your dog will consistently offer the behaviour when you cue him to do so and not offer it to you when you don’t ask for it. At this point you need to know where you want this behaviour. With the pose behaviour, you might practice it from time to time to maintain fluency, but you really don’t want to just ask for the behaviour in random situations and expect to get it. Gratuitous tricks annoy dogs just as much as they annoy people. If you know how to type, you will willingly do that when you want to communicate, but you won’t likely be pleased if I ask you to do so at a dinner party or in the middle of a game of tennis. Just because you CAN type, doesn’t mean you will want to do so all the time. Let’s say you taught your dog to do this behaviour so that you could get him to stand still on the vet scale. By all means, practice it and reward it from time to time, but don’t just ask for it randomly. Ask for it in context and it will be there. Throw it into behaviour chains from time to time to ensure that he is fluent in the behaviour, but don’t ask for it all the time or you will decrease his consistency in giving you what you ask. If you have been consistent all the way through, he will continue to be consistent when you need the behaviour.
Doors seem to be high voltage issues for so many people with dogs. You answer the door, and your puppy bolts through and greets whomever is on the other side. You want to pop out to the driveway and hand something to your neighbour who is passing by and the door doesn’t latch and your dog is now running down the street and out of control. Your sister comes to dinner, and not realizing that dogs don’t know about doors stands with the front door propped open so that she can call her kids in from play. Doors are contentious issues for dog owners. Several times a year, clients contact us to tell us that their dogs have bolted out the door and been hit on the road, so for me, this is a very important issue.
Only rarely do I post the steps that I use to teach a behaviour, but today I am going to make an exception. I have had a look around at what other trainers are offering and I have my own thoughts about door manners, so I will say that this blog is about the parts I think are important, not what everyone else does. When I am training I always keep in mind what I want to end up with. My criteria is simple; when faced with a door to the outside of a building, I want my dogs to know that they should never leave without permission. What does that look like? That means that if I am having my furnace fixed and the repair technician leaves the door open while he grabs his toolbox, my dog isn’t going to inadvertently get out of the house. An open door does not mean that you are necessarily going out. I want my dogs to understand that an open door and a closed door are the same thing; stay in the house unless invited out. There is an important part to this whole behaviour. The key is that what the person does at the door is NOT important. This means that if the door opens of its own accord, the dog’s behaviour should be the same.
To start with, I want to make the door really relevant to my dog. I want my dog to understand that an opening door is important, but it doesn’t mean that we are going through. I start at home, by my front door and I work with the dog OFF LEASH. I don’t want to have to fade anything I don’t want or need to fade. When working on this in classes, the dogs are on leash, but at home, I practice without the leash. What I do is walk up to the door, drop treats and walk away. I do this many times in a row without ever touching the door itself. This step is very simple; I walk up, drop treats and then leave, without ever saying anything to my dog.
The next step is to drop the treats, open the door and close the door and then walk away again. I want my dogs to be very sure that I have developed an obsession with approaching, dropping treats and then opening and closing the door. So far, you will notice that we have not gone through the door. During this stage of training I only go through the door with my dog in the event that my dog is on leash. I want my dog to be really, really aware of how different it is to go through the door compared to having the door open and have nothing to do with him.
I continue to practice with my dogs, dropping treats, opening the door and then at some point when they are really convinced that the door opening and closing has NOTHING what so ever to do with bolting through the door, I drop the treats as normal and open the door and go through and close the door myself. I come right back in and drop treats as I close the door and pass the dog. I am working really hard at this point to make staying inside the more rewarding behaviour. If my dog shows the slightest interest in going out the door, I return to an earlier stage and work at that until we are ready to open the door without the dog showing any interest in going through it.
Once I can walk in and out of a door without my dog showing interest, then I work at the next step of the game. For this I usually have to put my dog’s leash on to keep him safe if he goofs, but I don’t want to use it for anything more than a safety line. I start as before, approaching the door and then dropping treats. I open the door and call my dog to go through ahead of, with or behind me. I want to practice all three situations, as they may be relevant to me at various times in my dog’s life. Let me explain. If I am staying with someone who has a backyard, I may wish to send my dog out ahead of me or by himself, so it is important to be able to send him ahead. We may be going in or out of a vet clinic so we may need to go through a door together. And if I am unsure of what is ahead of me, I may ask my dog to fall back and behind me and wait until I have gone through the door first. Regardless of which position I have put my dog in as I go through the door, I stop and drop treats just after the door. I want my dog to pause at the door. I don’t want him to think that just because he has gone through the door that there isn’t more to do. The whole goal is to get him to use the door as a signal or cue to slow down and not bolt.
When I am able to walk up to the door and my dog anticipates that I will drop treats, open the door and walk through and he anticipates that I will drop treats, I start reversing the order of the activity. I walk up to the door and open it first and then drop treats. At this point I go back to working on just one side of the door at a time. I want my dog to notice that the door is opening and that the opening door doesn’t predict going through; it predicts dropping treats. When I can count to five and my dog neither leaves nor looks out the door, I know that I am ready to drop treats, step through the door, and then step back in and drop more treats.
If you have persevered this far, you must be beginning to think that I am unusually detail orientated and patient. I might be detail oriented, but really, I am not that patient. I just keep doing this when I have a few moments here and there until I see the results I want. This is a case where I am not paying the dog to pay attention to what I tell him to do, I am teaching the dog to be aware of what is happening around him, and the more intense I am about the dog attending to me, the less successful I will be in terms of training the desired behaviour.
When I am able to step out and back in and my dog doesn’t even think about going out the door I will begin calling him through the door again. Notice that my criteria here don’t include my dog sitting; rather I am interested at this point in creating a situation where my dog will wait patiently for the door to open and then close and not bolt through. Soon I will add in the sit, but it is an automatic sit, not a cued sit. To do this, I approach the door and reach out to touch the door handle. At this point I stop and wait and wait and wait. At some point, the dog is going to ask himself why I am stuck, and what he might be able to do to get me unstuck to move on with the procedure of open the door and dropping the treats. I want touching the door handle to be the cue that the dog uses to tell him to sit. When eventually he tries sitting (and with most dogs, if I have done the background work, it takes less than two minutes the first time!), I drop treats and open the door. I keep repeating this over and over and over again until my reaching for the door handle causes him to sit. During training I will wait as long as it takes, but I won’t move on until the sit is both automatic and quick.
When my dog has started to figure out that reaching for the door will only be followed by treats if he is sitting, I want to speed that up significantly. To do this, I mentally count while I am waiting for the sit for five repetitions. Suppose I was working with a dog who took a count of 15 the first time, 12 the second time, 16 the third time 4 the fourth time and 11 the fifth time. From this data, I can notice that the dog is taking far longer to sit than I want, and I have a rough estimate of how long the dog takes on average. I am going to disregard the 4 count sit because although it is closer to what I am looking for, it happens too rarely to impact what I am working on in the moment. Using the 4 numbers that are pretty close together, I can figure out that I want to only reinforce sits that take less than a count of thirteen. With this in mind, I will approach the door and put my hand on the handle and then start to count. If I get to thirteen without a sit, I walk away. If my dog sits before I get to thirteen, I drop my treats as before. When my dog is reliably sitting at less than a count of thirteen, then I will drop my number a bit; let’s just say that I will start walking away if my count reaches eleven. I keep dropping this number until my dog will sit at a count of three. Three is a reasonable number to live with, and at that point I can move to the next step.
Once my dog is reliably sitting when I approach the door and I can open the door and he will stay sitting while I drop treats, it is time to start to lengthen the amount of time that he waits before I treat. I like to build up to at least three and preferably five minutes. I continue to ask him to walk through the door with me from time to time, dropping treats on the outside of the door too. The door itself should be a very strong cue about behaviour, and the desired behaviour is not “run out the door and hope for the best”!
At the point where my dog will hold a five minute sit stay while I stand in the door, I start to introduce guests to the picture, and I decrease the rewards. I truly want this to become an automatic behaviour that my dog just does without my input. I want my dog to see the open door as an important piece of information; don’t go through unless told, regardless of who opens the door, who or what is on the other side and what rewards are available. If I am outside the house, I will sometimes open the front door and drop treats inside so that the reward for the door behaviour remains strong regardless of when the door opens, who is opening it or what is happening outside.
Notice that at no point do I tell the dog what to do. Never. Not once! If I tell the dog to sit or stay or prompt the dog or correct him for moving then I am the thing stopping him from bolting out the door. Successful door manners rely upon the behaviour occurring even in my absence.
Below is a video I made outlining the steps I take to teach a dog to stay inside when a door opens. I used my elderly Chesapeake D’fer to demo this behaviour. D’fer knew this behaviour really well as a much younger dog, but doesn’t get to practice it much because he is quite arthritic and no longer gets up when people come or go. You will notice that D’fer takes a long time to sit and at one point struggles to get in the house. I did not follow the sequence to the end because he was becoming uncomfortable and his comfort was more important than doing a demonstration.
I will add in here that for my own dogs there are exceptions to the door rules. When I am working with or training a service dog, I teach them to give me eye contact through every door, but to keep moving. I do this so that we can pass smoothly in and out of buildings when I am out and about. In general though, for pet dogs, the door itself should be the cue to tell the dog what to do. Imagine now what life might be like for your dog if you could throw open your front door and your dog would not run out. Would it make your dog’s life safer? I think so, and I hope that this blog will help prevent door bolting accidents.