HOW IS YOUR TURKISH COMING?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW IS YOUR TURKISH COMING?

THE RACEHORSE DOWN STAY

 

 

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If your dog looks like one of these horses at the end of his down stay, you may want to think about what you are training and how you have achieved that. Many dogs we see think that lie down and stay means get ready to bolt at the end of that exercise. We want our dogs to see the down stay as an opportunity to relax.  30671328 – horses and jockeys leaving starting gate at york races

 

Can your dog lie down and relax when you ask him to?  I don’t mean does he lie down and relax of his own accord when you and he are just hanging out, but if you needed to pay at the veterinarian’s front desk, could you ask him to lie down and relax so that your hands were free to slide your card and enter your PIN?  You have likely taught your dog to lie down and stay, so why is it that so few dogs I see can do this without behaving like a racehorse in the starting gate?  You know what this looks like; the owner asks the dog to lie down and stay and he lies down, often on his chest with his haunches coiled underneath him ready to spring up and race off.  He may even be shivering in anticipation.

The down stay is perhaps the single behaviour I could absolutely not live without.  I can use a harness or head halter if I have to walk an unruly dog, so I don’t really need to teach my dogs to walk on a nice leash, and if they have a solid down stay that I can call upon from anywhere I can use that as brakes instead of a recall, but without the down stay I don’t think I could make it through my day.  I use my down stay ALL the time.  Let me give some examples!

We have horses.  When they lived on the farm with us, I would often take Eco out to feed and water the horses.  As a predator around prey species, it was easy for him to get them running when they first met him.  All he had to do was rush to the gate and slip into the paddock and the horses would bolt to the other side of the paddock.  This is a great way to teach a dog to chase horses because horses running away is fun for dogs.  This is also a great way to teach horses to stay away from me, as I am always accompanied by a dog.  But wait!  Eco had a stellar down stay.  We would leave the house and he would cavort around looking for a toy and when he realized we were heading to the horse paddock, he would start to race.  I would call out “down” and he would drop.  I would call out “stay” and he would stay, allowing me to get to the gate ahead of him.  Then I would call him closer and ask him to down and stay again, and do my chores.  In this way, he never learned to chase horses and the horses learned that he was safe.  Eventually we were able to walk amongst our tiny herd without the horses bolting and without Eco trying to get them to run.  Easy peasy!

Or consider this; when I am serving dinner to guests at the table, Friday thinks that helping would be a good idea.  She is curious and likes having guests over for dinner.  This past holiday season we had a dinner guest who brought her dog who ALSO likes to help serve dinner if you let him.  Now we have two friendly dogs in the house, who like to play with one another and who like to follow when you move from the kitchen to the dining room.  I asked both dogs to lie down and stay while I served dinner and then asked them to continue to stay while we ate.  Both dogs eventually fell asleep because both dogs understand that a down stay is not going to result in an opportunity to race out of the down stay and into play right away.

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Eco and Friday do a down stay together here. We often use a down stay when we have two dogs in a tight space. In our bedroom there isn’t a lot of room for dogs and people to move around so this is a good way to keep the dogs out from underfoot when making the bed or tidying up. Notice that both dogs have their heads down because they are relaxed and resting.

So how do we achieve this?  Yes, I am a very good trainer, and so is John and so is our dinner guest, but this isn’t magic.  This is the result of understanding some of the mechanics of the target behaviour and then teaching those to the dog.  The first thing to understand is that with young dogs we never ever teach them that the down stay is going to result in a big explosive release.  I see this over and over again, especially in dogs who are competing in agility and obedience.  The handler asks for a down and stay and then at the end, they release the dog and the dog bounces up and the handler throws a party.  It doesn’t take long for that dog to start to anticipate that the return of the handler is going to result in a great big hurrah and bounce, and his body needs to get ready to do that.  Internally, this means that the dog learns to raise his heart rate and tense his muscles when he thinks that he is going to get up.  If instead we teach the dog that he is always going to do something calm and quiet after the down stay, the dog never learns to tense up and get his heart going when the down stay is over.  My goal is to teach all my dogs, and especially my young dogs to come out of their down stay calmly and quietly and in a relaxed manner.

The next aspect to understand is that when we teach the down stay, we should not teach the down stay incrementally.  Teaching the dog that if they do a one second down stay they will be released sets them up to be really excited about the release at the two second mark.  When I was learning to train dogs, this was how we did it.  We mastered one second and moved on to two seconds.  Then three, five, 7, 10, 15 and so on.  By the time we had reached the pinnacle of the three minute down stay that we needed for the novice obedience test we usually had a classroom full of lunatic dogs all waiting like horses in the starting gate to leap up and race forward and play.  When I think about training this way, compared to how I approach it now, I smile in recollection of the antics that often ensued and I cringe in remembrance of all the machinations we engaged in to enforce that three minute down stay.  The perception was that asking the dog to lie down and stay for three minutes was incredibly difficult!

Consider the physical demands of this behaviour.  I want the dog to lie down, and chill out.  Relax.  Not chew a bone, just wait patiently.  Perhaps the world we live in today discourages us from seeing this as the easiest thing in the world to do; waiting rooms have television sets and magazines to keep us amused.  And heaven forbid that we might have to wait without amusement for 20 seconds while in line at the store; there are screens and visual activities to keep us occupied there too.  At home, how many of us have a television or the radio turned on from the moment we wake till the instant we drop off to sleep?  How many of us have something happening in the room while we sleep?  And what do we do about these distractions and busy makers?  We pay to attend yoga classes or get a massage!  This past year, I spent two weeks out in the bush, alone.  When I came back, I visited the home a good friend who has two active kids.  The day after I came out of the bush was Canada day, and she had invited family over.  The house was super busy, so I decamped to the front porch to sit.  One of the kids came out eventually and asked what I was doing.  “Sitting” I replied.  “Sitting and doing what?” she asked.  “Just sitting.”  Over the months since I was in the bush, I have lost that simple act of sitting and just being, but it is there in me, ready to reactivate when I choose to take the time and slow down a bit.

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When I am out in the bush, I do a lot of sitting. Just sitting. I don’t have to eat, or drink or read or draw because I am relaxed and enjoying the environment I am in. I am just sitting. A long down stay teaches our dogs that they can “just sit”. They don’t need a bone or a kong, or an activity all the time; they can relax and enjoy the environment they are in.

Our dogs are generally much better at just sitting than we are.  As I write, Friday is lying on the floor in front of our wood stove.  Her head is up, and she sometimes orients on me or John, or on something she hears, but generally, she is just…sitting.  Incidentally, sitting doesn’t necessarily mean being in the sitting position, it means being relaxed and content with your thoughts.  I have just finished my deer hunt for the year, when I go out in the bush for days on end and sit and wait for the deer to come in.  This year the deer didn’t come, but I got to see many, many wild animals, just sitting.  A chipmunk came and sat on my boot for about ten minutes.  Just sitting and watching the world.  When I shifted he was able to just move off, but while I was still, he was still too.  I saw rabbits doing this and one spectacular afternoon a young bald eagle.  Just sitting is a very natural activity that most mammals engage in for a good chunk of their day.  Asking a dog to lie down and stay for three minutes should not be that difficult.

So what changed for my dogs?  Why can they do the three minute down stay without distress now, when so many dogs struggle with this?  Very simply because I START with a one hour down stay.  When an 8 week old pup comes into my home, he learns sit, down and the cued take it in the first week.  We work on meeting new people and other dogs, and handling and his name, but we don’t work on a lot else.  Then at between 9 and 10 weeks, my puppies do their very first one hour down stay.  Here is what it looks like.

We get up in the morning and I take the puppy outside to toilet.  Then we come into the kitchen and I get out the pup’s breakfast and pour myself a cup of coffee.  Then I sit down on the floor and ask the pup to lie down.  As long as the puppy stays lying down, I feed him his breakfast one kibble at a time.  If you feed a homemade diet, you would just feed a little bit of food at a time; with the rule being very, very simple.  If you are lying down, I will hand you food.  If you are standing up or sitting, you get nothing.  I don’t keep reminding the puppy; I just wait.  The first time we may not work for a whole 60 minutes; I have to judge things on if the pup needs to toilet again, but usually we work for between 45 and 60 minutes.  Puppy kibble is great for this because it is smaller so there are more bites which makes for more training.  After three or four days of this, my pups are pretty clear that lying down pays BIG, so they lie down a lot more often.

After a few weeks of this, I usually add a tether; I teach all my adolescent and adult dogs the same behaviour, but I use a tether for a couple of reasons.  The first reason is that an adult dog might choose to get up and leave and I want to limit his choices.  The second reason is that most dogs are going to have to be tethered at some point in their lives and I want to make sure that they can do this while relaxed.

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Here a dog is learning to do an on tether down stay in class. Most dogs are going to find themselves tethered at some point and for an adult dog, it is easier to teach the down stay when they are on tether, so I make sure that my dogs understand how to be tethered safely.

Once the dog understands that lying down is going to keep me delivering treats, I start to move around; one step feed, two steps, feed and so on, until I can move out of sight.  Then I add more distractions; dropping napkin or tea towel for instance.  Then I make it more difficult; I want the dogs to look at distractions as a clue that they should settle in and relax for the duration, because you never know what Sue will present.  What you do know is that if you get up, the floor show will stop and so will the treats.

Over the course of my pup’s first year, they will do a daily down stay until I can do anything and they will remain in place.  Of course, along the way, I thin out the reinforcement, and with an adult dog who is very experienced, I will sometimes use activity as the reward for the down stay but ONLY if the dog is relaxed.  If the dog is at all tense or distressed, I make the game easier and feed more often but don’t stop training the behaviour.

The down stay is probably the most important activity that I have to teach my young dogs, and it is the most important behaviour I use day to day with my dogs.  Doing housework?  The dogs are in a down stay!  Watching a movie?  Down stay!  Dinner guests?  Down stay.  Bringing in the groceries?  Down stay.  Planting flowers in the garden?  Down stay.  Grooming the horses?  Down stay.  Playing frisbee?  You got it!  Down stay!  I use the down stay everywhere, every day.  And for my dogs it is the clue that they should settle in and relax because it is likely going to go on for at least twenty minutes.  When I only need a short down stay, they are relaxed because they don’t start out with the idea that they are going to get up at any moment and race around.  And when I do release my dogs from the down stay with nothing planned to do next, most of the time my dogs will take a big stretch as they would when waking form a nap and then they walk off.  Racing is for racehorses.  Down stay is for just sitting!

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Friday “just sitting” by the woodstove while I write. We didn’t ask her to do this but because she has learned to do a one hour down stay, she will choose to just lie down and relax with us when we are working.
THE RACEHORSE DOWN STAY

CRYING AT A FUNERAL

FIRST published April 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRYING AT A FUNERAL

BUT SHE IS BORED!

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.

 

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If this is the attitude you bring to your training sessions, your dog won’t be very interersted in what you are doing. Dogs are very emotional creatures and they notice if we are not paying attention or engaging in the task at hand. Attitude in training is very much a case of you get what you give! Copyright: fserega / 123RF Stock Photo

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?

 

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Training should be a two way street. This trainer is taking advantage of her pup’s interest in the toy to establish a relationship so that later on when she asks the pup to do something she wants to do, the puppy will be more likely to share her game! Copyright: toonartist / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

 

 

BUT SHE IS BORED!

THE DOG CONTROLS THE DOG

Originally posted December 2010

Puppy Hardy learned at a very young age that just because something was offered, didn't mean he got to snatch it.  He also learned that he didn't have to hear "Leave it" to indicate it wasn't his to begin with.  He was about 3 months old in this picture.  Self control should start very early!
Puppy Hardy learned at a very young age that just because something was offered, didn’t mean he got to snatch it. He also learned that he didn’t have to hear “Leave it” to indicate it wasn’t his to begin with. He was about 3 months old in this picture. Self control should start very early!

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.

Teaching your puppies to control themselves and not snatch food from your hand will pay big dividends later in life.
Teaching your puppies to control themselves and not snatch food from your hand will pay big dividends later in life.

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!

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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.

THE DOG CONTROLS THE DOG

ONE TRICK PONIES

Originally posted in December 2010

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.

If a pony has only one trick, then that is the trick the pony will do when the situation warrants.  Copyright: ellende / 123RF Stock Photo
If a pony has only one trick, then that is the trick the pony will do when the situation warrants. Copyright: ellende / 123RF Stock Photo

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

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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.

If you live with a dog who is reactive to other dogs, which of these dogs would set him off?  Do you notice that the small dog in front has a lifted paw?  This may be a sign that he finds being in that group of dogs stressful and overwhelming!  Copyright: eriklam / 123RF Stock Photo
If you live with a dog who is reactive to other dogs, which of these dogs would set him off? Do you notice that the small dog in front has a lifted paw? This may be a sign that he finds being in that group of dogs stressful and overwhelming! Copyright: eriklam / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

ONE TRICK PONIES

CONSISTENTLY CONSISTENT

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.

Trainers often refer to puppies as blank slates. This doesn't mean that they don't come with their own preferences and personalities, but rather that they haven't learned anything yet. They have no awareness of the behaviours that will earn reinforcers. Copyright: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo
Trainers often refer to puppies as blank slates. This doesn’t mean that they don’t come with their own preferences and personalities, but rather that they haven’t learned anything yet. They have no awareness of the behaviours that will earn reinforcers. Copyright: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

We know that the puppy is able to sit, because we have seen him do so. When we make him Aware that the sit will earn rewards, he becomes Aware that the behaviour is relevant. Pair the behaviour with a reinforcer often enough and you will be able to put that behaviour on cue, and he will have Acquired the behaviour. Copyright: pryzmat / 123RF Stock Photo
We know that the puppy is able to sit, because we have seen him do so. When we make him Aware that the sit will earn rewards, he becomes Aware that the behaviour is relevant. Pair the behaviour with a reinforcer often enough and you will be able to put that behaviour on cue, and he will have Acquired the behaviour. Copyright: pryzmat / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

After Acquisition comes Application, where the dog learns to do the behaviour in a number of different places and under different circumstances and for different reinforcers. Copyright: lightpoet / 123RF Stock Photo
After Acquisition comes Application, where the dog learns to do the behaviour in a number of different places and under different circumstances and for different reinforcers. Copyright: lightpoet / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

Always means anytime, anywhere and often for no reinforcement. Copyright: amaviael / 123RF Stock Photo
Always means anytime, anywhere and often for no reinforcement. Copyright: amaviael / 123RF Stock Photo
CONSISTENTLY CONSISTENT