THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF DOG TRAINING

I happen to own two Swiss Army knives; both from Switzerland, although I have never been there.  One is mine and the other belonged to my late father.  For a long time I kept them carefully separate so I knew which one was which.  They are both special to me; mine was brought to me by my parents after they visited Switzerland and my father’s was given to me by my mother at his funeral.  They both have toothpicks and I haven’t lost either toothpick.  They both have two blades, a big one and a little one.  They both have a couple of screwdrivers (a Robertson and a regular flat blade one) and they both have the inevitable corkscrew which I have never ever used since I don’t drink.  They are very handy items even though they don’t come with every tool in the book.

5431707 - utility knife
I LOVE my Swiss Army Knife! I almost always have it in my pocket because I use it all the time. It does have its limitations, however, it is handy for almost every job. Sadly, it doesn’t come with a clicker!

Positive reinforcement is a bit like my Swiss Army knife.  I can use my knife both for cutting string and for opening a paint can.  I can use positive reinforcement to teach a dog to stay or to come.  I can use the Swiss Army knife to pick my teeth or to clean out the groove that the little tab belongs in on the lawn mower.  I can use positive reinforcement to help a dog with thunderstorm anxiety or to jump over a jump.  Both of these tools are widely useful.  The key to being successful is having a solid understanding of how the tool works, what it does and what it doesn’t do.

The easiest way I know of understanding what positive reinforcement is would be to divide the term into its component two terms.  Positive refers to everything that the trainer adds.  So, if I were to GIVE the dog a treat, I am positive.  If I YELL at the dog, I am also being positive.  Sadly, positive has a second and not useful meaning related to behaviour.  When we say we are being positive, we might be indicating something pleasant or desirable.  In training we simply mean adding something to the interaction.  Reinforcement is anything that increases the behaviour; so when the trainer adds something, and the dog does more of whatever we are training, we see positive reinforcement in effect.  This means that if the trainer YELLS at the dog and the dog BITES more often, we are positively reinforcing biting!  That sure doesn’t sound like the positivity of feeling good or better.

In its simplest form, positive reinforcement increases desired behaviours.  If we want the dog to sit more often, we wait for the dog to sit and add something he wants.  If the dog sits, randomly, we could get right up and feed him a treat.  If this happens 3 times in an hour in the first hour, and 7 times in the second hour, and 22 times in the third hour, and 21 times in the fourth hour, and 34 times in the fifth hour, we can see a trend where over time, the dog is increasing the frequency that sitting happens because the trainer added a treat each time.  Easy peasy, right?  This works for simple skills where the dog offers the behaviour in its entirety without having to learn something unusual or unnatural and we wall it capturing because we are capturing the behaviour as is.  What about more complicated things?

Complex behaviours can be developed through a process known as shaping.  You can think of shaping as a series of steps towards an end goal.  Heeling off leash is a behaviour that is very easily shaped.  Simply stand still and when your dog comes towards you, mark the behaviour (we use clickers, so I will just say click when I mean mark), and toss a treat away from you.  We are adding the click, and the dog keeps coming back to us after each tossed treat, which means that the behaviour of being with us is increasing, so this is still positive reinforcement.  Next, you could stand so that your right side is against a wall, and click when the dog comes into heel position, and toss the treat over your shoulder so that the dog goes behind you to get the treat.  In this way, he will begin to get closer and closer to a nice stationary heel position.  After a few reps of this, you might try taking a half step away from the wall, and continuing to click for being on your left side in heel position.  You would of course continue to toss the treat behind you to get the dog out of position, and then back in again.  When your dog is good at that, you might continue the progression by stepping further away from the wall.  Eventually your dog would be choosing to come to your left side even if you were in the middle of the room.  You could make a nice little game of this and begin walking forward one step and clicking when your dog keeps up with you, and then walking forward 2 steps and clicking for keeping up with that.  Progressively, you add more steps and then changes of directions and halts and eventually, you have very nice off leash heeling.

young hunting dog and hand with clicker
Positive reinforcement is the Swiss Army Knife of dog training. When you use a marker like a clicker to help the dog understand EXACTLY what you are teaching him, it can be a very powerful tool. Understand different aspects of positive reinforcement helps you to optimize your training.

Shaping can be applied to all sorts of tasks, from heeling to coming when called, all the way through complex things like backing away from you and spinning!  Shaping is a skill though and both you and your dog need to learn the process.  With one of my own dogs, D’fer, I had to stop using him as a demo for shaping after he learned to “shovel snow” by lining up to the handle of a snow shovel, pick up the handle and walk the shovel forward in under ten clicks!  He was really good at shaping but he gave my audiences an unrealistic expectation for how long shaping would take.

All this is very good information for building behaviours, but how about dealing with behaviours you don’t like?  Positive reinforcement can be really good for that too!  There is a procedure called Differential Reinforcement of Alternate behaviour, shortened to DRA.  It is also sometimes called DRO, with the O standing for Other behaviour.  What this means is simply that you mark or click for anything other than the behaviour you want to get rid of.  Let’s say you have a puppy who jumps up.  When he is doing ANYTHING other than jumping up, you can mark that and treat.  The fact is that most of the time the puppy is NOT jumping up, so you have lots of behaviours you can reinforce.  You can reinforce for four on the floor, running around, barking at the window, lying down, sitting, grabbing a toy, looking at the other dog, following the cat or getting on furniture.  Some of those behaviours might also be on your list of things you don’t want your pup to do, but none of them are compatible with jumping up.  This is a very flexible procedure, so you can either choose one of those things, or all of them, and either way you will decrease the jumping up behaviour.  In practice it is best to choose one behaviour and click that and only that, but at the beginning it may be best to just click for everything that isn’t jumping up to make the point that there are lots of things other than jumping up that you can click.

Another way to decrease behaviours is to reinforce the least iteration of the behaviour.  This works well for behaviours that go on and on, such as barking.  Barking can be looked at as one behaviour, or it can be looked at as a long series of behaviours.  When we look at it as a long series, it is easy to get control over it by clicking for the first few barks.  If you were to count how many barks happen before your dog just naturally stops barking, you might find for instance that he barks an average of 78 times.  I would want to get my click in before the fifth bark if possible, and initially, I would be following the click up with super duper good treats and lots of them.  I would want to make a big impression because barking is such an exciting behaviour.  I would keep doing this until I had an INCREASE in short bursts of barking.  It is much easier to get rid of barking altogether when it occurs in short bursts instead of over long duration!  Once I was in control of the barking to the extent that it only happens in short bursts, I could start clicking for single barks. 

All of these procedures have pitfalls, which is why I have a job!  I have had many students say to me “that worked for a bit, but it isn’t working any more”.  When you are using a Swiss Army Knife as your main tool, you may have to sometimes stop and change tactics in order to be successful.  Knowing that there are other blades to use when your first choice fails you is a valuable skill to develop as a trainer.  Positive reinforcement is my favourite training tool by far, and it is really useful to play with various ways to implementing it.

THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF DOG TRAINING

NEVER MIND “LEAVE IT.” “TAKE IT!”

Originally posted April 2013

This week I posted an image on my Facebook page of one of the dogs in our class doing an automatic leave it.  In our group classes, we store all of our treats on the floor in front of the dogs.  When a dog tries to snatch a treat out of a hand, we just close our hand around the treat and wait for him to ask more appropriately to get that treat.  The first thing we teach all of our puppies is that rude behaviour gets you nothing or a time out, and good behaviour allows you to ask for what you want and to get that.  A colleague commented that likely “it all has to do with the overall amortizing of value the dog has to the handler versus the quality of treats” and I disagreed.  Here is why.

When we train we use food in two ways.  Firstly as a currency to communicate what we want the dog to learn.  If we want the dog to learn to sit on cue then we “pay” the dog in treats every time he sits and then we increase our criterion so that we only pay when we ask the dog to do something.  This is a very simplistic situation and I think if we stop at that point in our use of food we short change ourselves and our dogs.  The second way we use food in training is as a joint goal that the dog and handler get to together.  I think of training beyond the basics as a maze that I am negotiating with my dog to get to an end goal.

Given that we use food in these two ways, we have to start out by teaching the dog that food has value and he can get it if he does something.  I use a tool that most modern trainers are familiar with as “doggy zen”.  I put the dog on a leash so he cannot leave, and then I hold out my hand with a treat on it, just under my dog’s nose, so that he could if he wanted, take it.  Most dogs will immediately try for the treat.  As soon as I see the dog try for the treat, then I close my hand around it.  The dog controls what happens; if he hesitates, I leave my hand open and if he tries to get the treat, I close my hand.  When I can leave my hand open for a count of three I say take it and put the treat in the dog’s mouth.  Some dogs actually try not to take the treat at all at this point, but I make sure they get it.  We usually start with REALLY high value treats.  Once the dog understands not to snatch things out of hands, we do this with items on floors, on tables, on chairs, and so on, until the dog understand that he must stay back in order to get what he wants.  And if you are paying attention at this point, you should notice something very significant about what I have not done.  I have NOT said “leave it”.  I feel that leave it is actually a big problem for many pets and their people.

I am going to switch tracks here and use a little story to explain why “Leave it” is a problem.  Imagine for a moment you have been given tickets to a very fancy event; say a play.  It is ultra swank.  It is an all inclusive, get dressed up, have your hair done, fancy live theater event, and part of the event is hors d’ouvres at intermission.  At intermission, you and your absolutely stunning date, who is equally spiffed up as you are, get out of your seats and go to the lobby.  In the lobby you will find penguins.  The guys dressed in the fancy black and white serving outfits, holding lovely trays of canapés, and little bits of cheese on crackers, and some delicious fish and strawberry thing.  And your date breaks into a run, bashes into the first penguin he encounters, grabs the tray with one hand, and with his free hand starts grabbing hands full of the food on the platter and shoving it into his mouth.  Implausible?

46512615 - server holding a tray of appetizers at a banquet
It is generally considered very bad form to tackle the penguin and eat all the appetizers at a fancy party! Most of us know this and help ourselves to one or two things and leave the rest for the next people who show up!

This is how I think most dogs approach food; it is so rare and valuable and so hard to get to that when they see an opportunity, they go for it.  And what does the handler do?  “Leave it.  Fluffy, leave it.  Leave it, Fluffy.  LEAVE IT!  I said LEAVE IT!”  And then Fluffy takes the item anyhow.  Why did Fluffy disregard the human’s request?  Simply because Fluffy knows that leave it is a signal that she won’t have a chance to get what she wants.  It is in effect, a no reward marker.  It says “no matter what you do, you cannot have that”.  Leave it is the cue used in the moment to moment bits of life that you encounter with your dog to tell him that he cannot have what he wants, even though he has been minding his manners all the way along.

Going back to your date, imagine for a moment that you knew what he or she did to penguins at parties.  So as you get up you remind your date to be polite.  Your date, being the cooperative person they are agrees that this time they are going to be polite to the penguins.  You remind them not to rush the penguin.  You remind your date that everyone will get a turn.  Does this sound like a date you want to spend time with?  This is the contract that I see being made more often than not with the dogs and handlers that I encounter.

Coming back to “take it,” let’s think for a moment about a service dog.  I use a service dog to navigate the world.  When I go grocery shopping he is often faced with delicious food, right at nose level, or food on the floor.  Before we ever went out into the public, I taught him that he could have anything he wanted if he asked for it nicely, although sometimes he would have to wait.  I could not go through the grocery store and identify items one by one that he could not have.  He cannot have the soup that slopped on the floor outside the deli, or the cheese that is on the shelf at nose height or the bread and baked goods that are shelved in his reach.  He cannot have the cookie that the little boy is waving as he walks by us either.  He can ask, and I might say yes, or I might say later or I might say no.  When he was a young dog, I usually said “I have something better” and gave him a tidbit that was appropriate for him.  He asked, and I wanted to make him certain that I would listen any time he asked for something.  In that moment, I was using food at the currency to teach him to ask me for things he wanted.

Over time, I would sometimes say “later” and give him a tidbit every few times.  I would also begin cuing behaviours he really liked when he asked for things.  So if my dog asked for the crouton that fell on the floor in the bulk food aisle, I might say “not now, but if you want you can carry your leash for a moment”, a behaviour he really liked doing.  And over time, he generalized that if he REALLY wanted to have something, ask and I would listen and if I could, I might give it to him.

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One of the constant challenges of travelling with a service dog was simply that people would drop food in the train or on the plane, and my dog could not avoid either having it dropped on him or lying right next to something edible. I never had to remind D’fer not to eat things because I didn’t teach him to leave it; I taught him that nothing was available to him unless I told him he could take it!

The next thing I teach dogs when I am training is that the click predicts the treat.  I increase the time between my click and my treat to about thirty seconds, but between the click and the treat, my dog and I are working TOGETHER as a team to get to the food treat.  I start by standing right beside a table of treats.  I click, reach and treat, and then repeat.  Then I take a step away from the table, and I click and we walk back together to get the treat.  Then I do two steps and so on.  With my own dogs I will often take them out on the farm and I will click, run with them to the other end of the farm, and get a treat, and then click and run back and get another treat.  I want to increase the time between the click and the treat so that when I am working in a condition where I cannot immediately treat, everything following the click is part of the reinforcement cycle.  I once as an experiment at a conference clicked my dog for a behaviour and then left the ballroom we were in, walked down a hall, across a lobby, to the elevators, waited for an elevator, went up to the 8th floor, walked down a long hall way, opened my hotel room door, took my dog off leash, went to the bathroom and when I was finished, he was sitting by the treat bin on the dresser.  He understands that clicks predict treats and treats may come much later.  This is essential (although most dogs don’t need to be able to wait that long) to teaching a dog that they can rely on me to follow through with the treat, which is the step when food stops being a currency and starts being something we are both working towards.  We are a team.  Yes, I use treats as currency but once I have established a number of behaviours I don’t use it as a currency as much as a goal my dog and I work towards together.

I will often when I am travelling and I order food, order something for my service dog.  I order things like doughnut holes at coffee shops, and sugar cookies in delis.  Over time, my dog has learned that if I pay and put the item in my pocket it is his later.  By using doggy zen and take it instead of leave it, my dog has learned to ask.  By using clickers and delaying the treat, my dog has learned to wait.  This way I can eat my meal in a restaurant and my dog can look at the fry on the floor under the table and ask me, “can I have that?” and I can say yes or no.

What I have described above is a significant part of how we work with our students and their dogs in our classroom.  In our Levels classroom, all the students put their treats out within reach of any off leash dog.  We don’t start everyone off leash, but it comes very quickly; in under a month, most dogs can work around treat bowls and because of the philosophy, the feedback we get about this is that this carries over outside of the classroom.  See the video below for an example of a typical day in our classroom.

When you start looking at more complex situations as situations where you and your dog are working together to get to a goal, then you build relationship with your dog.  Perhaps the biggest criticism I have seen of operant conditioning is that it is about manipulating your learner into doing things for you.  Certainly it is a model that will allow you to increase or decrease behaviours, but that is just the start.  We would hardly say that a child should not learn the foundations to reading and arithmetic because in the end we don’t want him to just recognize letters and numbers.  In the end we want children to be able to grow up and use what they learn in very broad contexts.  Once I have a foundation of behaviours built on a currency, then I can use those behaviours to do meaningful activities with my dog.  Regardless of what that is, if you look at the behaviours you ask your dog to do as a joint project together that has meaning for both of you, then you don’t need the food itself to get things done, and you don’t need to wave the steak under the dog’s nose get him to do something.  When you have worked carefully at teaching your dog both that he can have what he wants and that you are working with him to get it, then you have a cooperative partner instead of a dog who is scouting the world for things that he can get if he is only fast enough to get it before you utter the magic leave it words.  And THAT is the goal of teaching take it instead of leave it!

NEVER MIND “LEAVE IT.” “TAKE IT!”

DRIVING A FERRARI LIKE A TRACTOR

NOTE:  I began this blog about 7 years ago when I first sustained my head injury, and I never finished it.  I have a number of these in the queue, as you may notice if you read about Eco or D’fer who have since died.

I recently purchased a car.  It is a smaller SUV and I really like it.  I can put all my camping gear in it, and it is easy on gas and John and I can now each get to and from work without re-arranging our schedules to an overwhelming extent.  I could have purchased a sports car, but it would not do what I needed it to do; take me camping.  And I could have purchased a tractor, but it also would not do what I needed it to do; get me to and from work in a timely manner.  I chose a car that would suit my needs.  Dogs are a bit like cars in that different dogs have different traits. 

Red 1962 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder
A Ferrari would not be my first choice for ploughing a field or pulling something out of a ditch. If I wanted a vehicle that was highly responsive, very fast and pretty flashy, it would be a good choice.

I like fast, drivey, intense dogs.  I also like my lawn tractor.  You cannot treat a lawn tractor like a fast drivey dog, and you cannot treat a drivey dog like a lawn tractor.  I meet a lot of people in my line of work who greatly admire my big, black, fast, responsive dog and who would like one just like him.  Or they think they would like one just like him.  The problem is that they want to drive this dog the way they would drive a tractor. 

Drivey dogs, or dogs who are intensely passionate about doing things can be a lot of fun.  They can be exciting to watch as they race through their routines, pushing towards their own excellence in whatever discipline they excel in.  My dog excels at the protection phase of Schutzhund (sadly, I do not have the same skill or drive as he does or we would be competing!), and when the sleeve comes out a whole new gear sets in.  One of my staff describes it as similar to driving a tractor from across the lawn, which is what prompted this blog.

When you work with Eco, he is always looking for the next cue, the next piece of information, the next job.  He is almost one step ahead of me, and we have worked together for almost five years now.  When someone who is new to him works with him, they really have to be on their toes, because if you work slowly and methodically with him, he quickly looses interest and goes off to do his own thing.  Usually what he does under his own steam is to bark at the handler, bark at another dog, run around the room and search for Frisbees or Tugs or generally cause general mayhem.  With an experienced handler, he is quick and responsive, engaged and lively and a whole lot of fun.  Eco is a Ferrari when it comes to handling.  Fast, responsive and likely to get you in trouble if you aren’t paying attention.

Not too long ago, I trained a service dog for a lady.  This dog, a black lab, was a tractor of a dog.  She likes working a lot.  She is keen and willing, but not terrifically fast.  She drove me a bit nuts because she doesn’t drive much like a sports car.  She handles a lot more like a tractor.  She does the job, promptly, efficiently and carefully, but she is not the least interested in speed or manoeuvrability.  On the other hand, this dog is perfectly suited to the work that the lady needed her to do.

All too often I see people who are attracted to the Ferrari type of dog, but who are really better equipped to drive the tractor type of dog.  So what happens?  Much of the time, the Ferrari dog ends up being frustrated because his needs are not being met.  And often the people are equally frustrated because the dog is doing much more than they expected he would do.

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Everything about this Malinois says “I am on my toes and ready to go”. The Malinois is a Ferrari type of dog and that is why they are often used in sports like protection, agility and herding.

 

Consider a client I met with recently.  They had seen a demo with a Malinois in it.  The Malinois they met was a stable, easy going dog, or so they thought.  They watched this dog do agility, protection, obedience, tracking and sheep herding.  They heard about how this dog was trained to do other sports too such as Rally and treibball.  They got to know the dog for about five minutes after a show, and they were smitten.  They went right out and found a Malinois breeder who would sell them a dog and ship it across the country.  By the time that I saw the family, they had a terrible mess on their hands!

Their Malinois was nothing like the one they had met at the show.  Where the dog they met showed an extraordinary amount of self control, their dog seemed to be all over the map, snatching treats and toys any time he could and snapping at the heels of people passing on the side walk.  The Malinois they met was relaxed and chill after his demo, lying on the floor at his owner’s feet, happily observing the world around him.  In the two hour appointment we had to assess this dog’s behaviour, he rarely stopped moving and was often just racing around the training hall at full speed. 

“What is wrong with him?” I was asked.  “Nothing” I replied after taking a full history.  And indeed this was a very normal, untrained, barely socialized, under exercised and under stimulated high drive Ferrari of a dog!  This family would have been very happy with a tractor of a Labrador.  Yes, labs can come in a Ferrari version, and yes, Malinois can come in tractor versions, but the normal state of affairs for these two breeds is that Malinois are very active and driven dogs and Labs are active, but not so active that you cannot live with them and usually they are much more willing to follow along and do whatever it is that your family is into doing.

So, what do you do if you find yourself with a Ferrari of a dog when your life is all about tractors?  First and foremost, recognize that the dog doesn’t have a choice about the genes he was born with.  Some of us are hardwired to be out of doors and active more often than not.  Some of us are hardwired to be less active and may not enjoy the outdoor life nearly as much.  Some of us are wired one way and want to be something else, and this is kind of what it is like to live with a Ferrari when you are more of a tractor type.  I would love to be the kind of person who enjoys going to cocktail parties in a dress and heels, and although I can pull it off, I don’t really enjoy myself.

The first thing to do is to recognize that you live with a Ferrari.  Or if you are a Ferrari type of trainer, and have a tractor, recognize that too.  There is no amount of motivating that is going to make your mastiff as responsive as a border collie, and there is no amount of relaxation that is going make your Doberman enjoy watching the world slide on by your window for more than a short period of time.  Recognizing who your dog is, is the first step to making the most out of his innate talents. 

The next step is recognizing that you may have to compromise on your dreams.  My client with the Malinois was looking for a family pet.  They wanted a dog who would be happy in the house, getting daily leash walks, and hanging out while the family barbequed in the back yard.  They had no idea how much work went into training a dog like the one they met to do all the things he did.  Once they recognized that their dog was not a tractor, they needed to step up and make some changes in order to meet his needs.  Something that is important to recognize is that your dog did not ask to live in your home.  Once you have chosen the dog, you cannot get upset that he is anything other than what he is. 

The changes my clients had to make included teaching their dog that other dogs and people were safe.  This was a fairly long job, that would have been easier if they had done so when he was young.  Next they had to add a skills training session into their dog’s life every day.  It didn’t take long, but it was an every day activity.  Then they had to start exercising him properly and for an active herding breed, this is a pretty big task.  We started out by running him on trails while dragging a long line.  As he gained skills like coming when called, and making friends, we added him to our walking group and the starting going out on regular hikes with “doggy friends”. 

This particular Ferrrari was really lucky.  As it turned out, the teen aged daughter in the family caught the training bug, and she began to take him to regular training classes twice a week.  Then she tried out an agility class with a colleague of mine.  Then she went to a herding weekend.  From there, she got serious!  For a Ferrari type of dog, this was exactly what he needed.  Although he was always somewhat suspicious of new people and other dogs, he lived a very normal life, and the family was happy with him in the end and I would say he was pretty happy with them too.

Livestock guarding dog
This Kangal or Anatolian Shepherd Dog is a good example of a tractor. He can and sometimes does run fast, but he was bred to pretty low key. His job is to hang out with the sheep, day and night (these are a short haired breed of meat sheep). Unlike a Ferrari type of herding dog that races around and moves the sheep, he blends in with the herd, and is only fierce and active if a predator or thief is threatening the flock. Mostly, he just hangs out, and that makes him a really poor choice for sports that require a dog to follow your directions quickly.

I think that it can be harder for a tractor caught in a Ferrari world.  I rarely see this kind of client in my behaviour practice and when I have spoke to these clients about their experiences most often, they tell me that they feel silly that they cannot motivate their dogs to do the things they enjoy.  Sometimes they tell me that when their tractor turned two, they went out in search of a Ferrari to keep them busy in the training world while their tractor was content to snooze his life away on the back porch.  Many tractor type dogs love a great walk, and they can for a very short period of time look exactly like a Ferrari, but for the very most part, they live and breath to rest.  What breeds might typically be thought of as tractors?  Many of the short faced breeds like the English Bulldog, the Pug and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.  A lot of the mastiffs, and the livestock guardians are too.  Yes, they can have short periods of time where they run and race, but they aren’t tuned in to go off like a firecracker and stay focused and dedicated to a job over time.  Those dogs are often the herding dogs, some of the retrievers, many of the pointers and some of the working breeds.

The take away is to know what you are looking for in a dog, and whatever dog comes into your life, to recognize what sort of personality he is, and meet his needs, whatever they might be.

 

DRIVING A FERRARI LIKE A TRACTOR

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DOG BRINGS YOU A DEAD SKUNK

Originally posted April 2013

Once upon a time, D’fer was a puppy.  He was a very happy go lucky, plucky, out of the box kind of puppy.  And he is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  D’fer’s breeder told me that she felt that chessies are more playful than many other retrievers and in the absence of legal “stuff to do” they will make up their own games.  This has proven true over Deef’s whole life.

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D’fer was a very plucky puppy!

At about nine months, my beloved dog came with me on a walk with about a dozen of my clients.  I had just started to do some serious retrieves with him, and he was working hard on “bring to hand”.  We had been working mostly with retrieving bumpers, those black and white plastic things that float, but I had given him a duck to fetch and he was doing really, really well with it.  I was a very happy dog trainer on that fateful spring day.

I remember the weather well, and how I was dressed.  I was wearing my spring windbreaker, along with a pair of leather gloves.  It was a very lucky thing that I had gloves on because D’fer chose that day to try something brand spanking new related to retrieving.  He brought me a dead skunk, at the state of decomposition where it is still recognizably a skunk, but it was past bloated and gross.  Partially dehydrated, and in one piece, Deef recognized this as “a valuable item to bring to your person”.  Which he did.  The $5000 question is…”What do you do when your dog brings you a dead skunk?”

If you are wearing gloves, you take it, and then cue your dog to your left side and you throw it and send him for the skunk again.  My students were to say the least, gobsmacked.  This was NOT what they had thought I would do!  I am not sure what they were expecting, but throwing the skunk was not on the list of things they had in mind.  D’fer on the other hand was VERY impressed.  Great game.  We played fetch about six times, and then I put the skunk and my gloves in a thorn tree and carried on my walk.

There are layers of lessons in this particular five thousand dollar question.  The first layer is “if you want your dog to be a working duck retriever, when he brings you dead stuff, find a way to make it worth his while.”  I didn’t want D’fer to decide that next time, he should hide his find and maybe roll in it.  Yes, the skunk smelt bad and yes, so did D’fer, but frankly I was going to have to bathe him anyhow, so why not capitalize on his “I brought you dead stuff” behaviour?  For the cost of one pair of leather gloves, I solidified in Deef’s mind that fetching dead stuff was just exactly what I wanted.

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An activity that D’fer found interesting.  I didn’t need to get in with him to share his joy in the activity.

In fact the next time he brought me something dead, a ground hog, I used it as a heel while carrying exercise and had him drop it and do seek backs with it.  After twenty minutes or so of THAT game, we heeled out to the deadstock pit that we kept for chickens, and I had him drop it in and then do a sit stay while we buried the groundhog.  After the ground hog burial, I got out a Frisbee and threw it in the swamp for him for another ten minutes.

The next layer to learn is that retrieving and in fact most of the things I teach my dogs to do are not behaviours in isolation.  They are behaviours that are part of activities that we do jointly that have meaning for both of us.  D’fer is my service dog.  Airports, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and city buses are not in general fun for the dog.  In fact, there is a whole lot of boring involved with the work that Deef does as a service dog, and there is not a whole lot of inherent reinforcement for doing what I need him to do.  Hours and hours and hours of heeling just isn’t fun and heeling makes up the lion’s share of what D’fer does as a service dog.  In order to make this something that he is willing to do, that he offers on a regular basis even when he doesn’t have to,

I think of the work we do together as needing meaning to both of us.  Deef has activities that he loves to do, and I integrate them into my day on a regular basis.  Deef loves meeting people he knows.  When we meet, I always make sure he gets a chance to say hi.  As a result, D’fer recognizes airports we land at, and he knows exactly who he is looking for.  When we land in New York he is looking for Cissy and Woody.  When we land in Cleveland, he is looking for Linda and Brent.  When we land at home in Toronto, he is looking for John.  The day we landed in New York and were picked up by Dennis, he was pleased to see his friend Dennis, but he was disgusted that Cissy and Woody were not there and he didn’t straighten up until we got to their house.  He travels to New York to visit Cissy and Woody, not Dennis, even though he really likes Dennis.

Making my work meaningful to my service dog has shifted my perspective on training a lot.  I recognize that D’fer’s motive for doing what we do is different than mine, but he isn’t just doing it because I reinforced him for doing it.  It has meaning in and of itself for him.  Like fetching the skunk, my motive was to get a reliable retrieve of anything, anytime and anywhere.  Deef’s motive was to play a game he likes.  Distilling this down to I reinforce behaviours I like is valuable in terms of understanding the training cycle and the process of developing behaviours, but it is simplistic in its evaluation of the overall life that D’fer and I share.  Recognizing that my dog has a different motivation than I do allows me to look for things that he might be interested in and sharing those activities with him.

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This is an activity that both D’fer and I enjoy! Looking for activities that are meaningful to both you and your dog is really important!

Having a relationship with a dog can be impersonal, like the kind of relationship you have with the guy who pumps your gas, or it can be deeply meaningful like the kind of relationship that you have with your spouse or it can be anything in between.  When all of your interactions are transactions the way that you have financial connection with the guy who pumps your gas, then you are missing the possibilities and potential for so much more.  When you recognize that your dog may have different motivations than you do and may have something of value to share with you, you deepen the meaning of your relationship with your dog, and you gain so much more.

Sharing in your dog’s interests, freely and with an open heart means accepting and understand something about the core of dogginess.  It means accepting that a skunk may be a great prize even if you don’t like it yourself.  It means that some of the time, you may have a dog who smells bad or who has done things that you find disgusting.  But it also means that when your dog shares things with you, you have a chance to expand your experiences, and often in a very good way.

There was the time for instance when I was staying at a friend’s house with D’fer.  I was packing to leave the next morning and Deef was at loose ends.  We have done recreational SAR with D’fer and it is perhaps the game he loves best.  At home, if I am working around the yard and he is loose, he will often come with a stick or a toy and sit beside me and “ask” me to throw it.  If I am able I often do.  If I am not able to do that, then I will just tell him not now, maybe later.  In the yard, when he is told not now, he will often go and carefully place the item some distance away from me.  Then he will come back and get back into heel position; the position that he starts in during SAR.  One day when he did this, I cued him to search, and search he did.  He had placed the item, but he likes games, and I observed him racing all over the farm.  He looked in the woodpile and he looked around the flower beds and he looked in the trash pile and he looked in the horse paddocks.  He checked both under and on top of the lawn chairs and the bar-b-que.  And then he finally after about five minutes went to where he had put the item and “found”.

The night I was packing to leave, D’fer came and brought me a toy and I told him that I couldn’t play then, but may be later.  He took his toy and disappeared into the hallway.  A moment later, he came back and sat in heel position.  I cued him to search.  He looked in my eyes with complete disgust.  He really was appalled.  He went to his bed and lay down and sighed.  A minute later, he came back and asked again.  Not taking the hint the first time, I sent him to search again.  He made a leap forward like he normally does on a search and then sat back down and looked at me.  Curious, I stepped forward and looked out of my room.  The toy was on the floor.  I went to the toy, and picked it up and Deef joined me doing a chessie joy dance.  Then he took the toy and shook it and bounded up and down the hall for a moment.  I went back to my packing.

A few minutes later, he came back without the toy and sat again beside me and made eye contact.  This time, I thought I knew the game, so I went out my door and looked in the hallway.  No toy.  I looked in the adjacent bedroom.  No toy.  I looked in the bathroom; there it was.  This time, Deef didn’t join me in my find.  He sat in the hall and watched me search.  He did what I normally do on a search.  I watch what he does.  When I found the toy I made a big deal out of it and brought it to him and THEN he did the chessie happy dance.

The third time he hid the toy, he hid it in the adjacent bedroom and he tightened up his criteria for what he wanted me to do.  The third time I found the toy and he looked disappointed.  By tuning in to him, and sharing in his game I got more out of the whole experience.  I learned that he wanted me to do something more, but I wasn’t sure what it was.  I put down the toy and he sat.  We stayed that way for perhaps a minute and then Deef did something I find quite remarkable.  He showed me what he wanted.  He sniffed the book shelf.  He looked under the bed.  He looked under the night table.  He sniffed the dresser.  And then he looked at the toy and sat back down.  So I followed suit.  I looked carefully at the bookshelf.  I looked under the bed.  I opened the closet.  I looked up high and I looked down low.  And then I “found” the toy.

We played this game seven or eight times.  Being willing to follow D’fer’s lead and play his game was an incredibly rewarding experience.  Deef has offered this game from time to time since, but not often.  I never would have had this opportunity if I had distilled the sum of our relationship down to behaviours I had reinforced and made stronger.  If I had not always looked for the deeper meaning in the work that we did together, I would have missed this experience altogether.  I would have short changed myself and I believe I would have short changed D’fer too.

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Traveling by public transit is pretty borng for a service dog, but sometimes it takes you to places that are really interesting for both you and your dog!

The story of the skunk in many ways epitomizes what I try and share with my students.  Yes, by all means, understand reinforcement theory and understand how learning works and teach your dog lots and lots and lots of behaviours.  More than that though seek opportunities to include your dog in your life, and share with him what you do, and then be willing to let him share with you what is important to him.  If you do this, if you are diligent in this, then when you ask your dog to do things that are difficult or boring, that may not have meaning to him, your dog will begin to look for the meaning in what you are doing together.  Not everything that your dog wants to do is yucky or disgusting; often it is the mundane. When I was touring Wall Street, D’fer caught a scent and tracked someone on concrete for over ten blocks.  By being willing to follow him, I was taken into a deli I never would have visited, I went into and immediately left a very seedy bar, and I stopped at a mailbox that would not have caught my interest.  When we got to the park on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, I was treated to the sight of boats and ferries and birds and all sorts of magic that I would have failed to notice in my effort to get the most out of visiting the financial district of New York.  By being willing to share what D’fer felt was important, when he asked for a swim in the ocean, he was willing to accept not now as a legitimate answer to his question and he was willing to continue on our journey together.  All in all there is no greater gift than a partner who will share his skunk, and all of the Atlantic Ocean with you.  My relationship with my dog is truly magic.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DOG BRINGS YOU A DEAD SKUNK

THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN

I was listening to an audio book recently that was written in the late 1800s, and in one scene, the kids of the town got all excited because of the colourful handbills that appeared advertising a circus coming to town.  Now, I am not keen on circuses, however in that era they were rare and exciting events, and when the handbills started to appear, the information spread throughout the town like a wild fire.  Everyone talked about it for days.  The first clue that a circus might be coming in fact happened long before the handbills were posted.  The first hint of a circus was when a character from another town arrived in town and mentioned that he had seen the circus several days earlier packing up to get on rail cars in a distant town.  The rumour mill went wild!  Next came a letter from a friend in a town a little closer talking ab out plans to attend the circus that was coming to their town.  In fact all through the book that was not about circuses at all were mentions here and there, whispers, rumours and hints about the circus coming to town.  This was such an exciting event for the characters in the book, that it was mentioned over and over again, and there was an escalating tension that the circus was coming to town!

Circus show Snow Queen
In years gone by, the circus was an amazing and unusual spectacle. When the circus came to your town, you might write a letter to tell someone up the tracks that the circus was coming. These rumours allowed people to prepare for a big upcoming event.

When I walk into my training school, I am super sensitive to the expressions on the dog’s faces.  There is Fido, looking regal if a little worried in puppy class.  Is someone going to grab him and scare him?   He is a little worried about strange men and sometimes John the Puppy Guy is a little scary to him.  And Fluffy.  Fluffy is a happy go luck soul who is never phased by anything.  She is loose and floppy all over and you could pick her up and open her mouth and look in her ears and she would still be loose and floppy and happy all over.  I see Ralph.  Ralph is an instructor favourite; he is mischievous and silly and always looking for an opportunity to pull a prank like untying shoelaces or finding the ONLY treat left in your pocket…from the outside in.  I see the dogs and their facial expressions are sort of like the rumours of the circus coming to town.  I don’t need Fido or Fluffy or Ralph to be extreme to know how they are going to react. I hear the rumours and I know a little bit about what is coming up without having to go into more detail.

Contrast this with my students.  Fido’s family is constantly surprised that Fido is afraid.  Fido cannot give them a rumour of how he feels.  Fido has to hire a neon sign, send them emails and then get a brass band before his family recognizes the signs.  By the time that Fido’s family is aware of his fear, he is over threshold and may have peed on the rug.  They don’t hear the rumours of what Fido has to say, so they cannot respond to what he needs in time to head off a problem. 

I have been working professionally with dogs for over 25 years, and at first, I didn’t hear the rumours either.  In fact, I could be downright cruel in my insistence that my canine partner was “fine”.  The fact is that the majority of dogs I knew were more like Fluffy than like Fido.  They never put up handbills announcing that the circus was in town because they didn’t need to.  They weren’t that concerned about things.  They weren’t going to produce a circus at any moment.  Fluffy doesn’t give off a whole lot of subtle signals because for the most part, Fluffy is happy go lucky and either doesn’t care about the things that concern Fido.

And what about Ralph?  Ralph’s people are just plain fed up!  Yesterday Ralph climbed on the dining room table, grabbed a plastic bottle of ketchup, and ran through the house with it.  No one noticed him initially, but eventually he punctured the bottle and left dots of ketchup on the rugs throughout the house everywhere that he dropped the bottle.  He settled down in an upstairs bedroom and completely decimated the bottle, leaving bits of plastic all over the room, accented with streaks of ketchup on the bed, the desk, the chair, the dresser, up two walls and on the door.  Ralph finished his handiwork with pawprints in ketchup down the hall and into the bathroom.

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Sometimes puppies will destroy things when they are unsupervised and sometimes they do that when the are distressed. Close supervision and careful attention to the dog’s behaviour will help you to better understand when he is struggling so that you can help him to find a better outlet than the upstairs couch cushions.

Ralph is a bit like Dennis the Menace.  Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.  He is not intentionally getting into trouble, but his communications are so subtle that his family doesn’t notice that he needs something in time to head off disaster.  He is curious and engaged in his world and he has no idea that his behaviour is unwanted or unsafe.  The interesting thing is that some of his behaviour, like racing through the house or not settling are rooted in confusion, a lack of training or anxiety.  Ralph is unable to ask to go out, so even though he had a good start at toilet training and only toileting outside, his people didn’t notice the rumours of his need, so he had to look somewhere else to go.  His first efforts included peeing in front of the family on the rug, but that made the people angry and that frightened Ralph.  Ralph bolted because he was frightened, and learned two things.  First, he learned not to pee in front of the family and second, he learned that when he was uncertain, anxious or upset, running would relieve that feeling.  Some running leads to more running and pretty soon, Ralph was running through the house all the time. 

Ralph also learned some other lessons inadvertently.  He learned for instance that there are many fun games for puppies if you don’t shout loudly when you are playing.  He learned that being in the same room as his family meant that he wasn’t allowed to do these fun things.  Things like getting on the dining room table.  Ralph learned that he doesn’t need to spread rumours because he can take care of things himself and do all the fun stuff he wants if he doesn’t communicate too much.

In all three cases, the family will have a better relationship with their puppy if they learn a little bit about their dog’s body language.  In Fido’s case, he will be less fearful.  In Fluffy’s case, the family will become more aware of the big things because they are not usually big things for Fluffy.  Taking her needs into account will give them an even bigger world to explore together.  And in Ralph’s case life will just be a whole lot less chaotic.

Almost everyone recognizes the brass bands and circuses of their dog’s communication.  The dog who barks and lunges wants space.  The dog who cringes and cowers is afraid.  The dog who bounces through life like a rocking horse come to life is happy and relaxed.  But what about the rumours?  What about the quieter signals?  What do they look like?

Freezing is a signal that most of us see but don’t see.  It is a rumour so it is easy to disregard.  Your dog sees something and he pauses, or freezes and most of the time, once he identifies what it is that he is looking at, he moves right on.  The freeze is like a decision point.  It is a point where the dog identifies something as relevant, but not necessarily as important.  When we see this happening, we should take note.  Fido freezes a lot because his world is pretty scary.  Fluffy freezes rarely because she is much more confident, so when she freezes we should take note that something fairly important may be going on for her.  Ralph freezes rarely because he doesn’t often stop to look at things; his response when the other two puppies would freeze is usually to bolt without thinking. 

Yawning tibetan mastiff puppy embracing sleeping tabby kitten an
This puppy is yawning and looking away. He might be tired, but more likely he is fed up with what was most likely a long photo shoot to get him into position with the kitten. Yawning is a way that dogs have to show us that they are a little concerned, but it also happens when they are tired. Just like us!

Yawning and shaking off as though wet when they are dry are two other subtle signals that dogs use to show us that they are overwhelmed in one way or another.  These are more of the rumour type of signals; they can fade into the background when you aren’t paying close attention.  Fido does this a lot and it often gets disregarded because his people often think he might be tired.  The dad in Fido’s family explained the shake off as Fido being dusty!  Fluffy only yawns when she is tired or shakes off when she is wet.  And Ralph is such a busy boy that his family hasn’t noticed him doing either behaviour.  It is hard to observe a dog who is conspicuously absent.

One thing that we are often frustrated with as instructors is when a client says to us “but he does that all the time” when we try and share what we know about what dogs are saying through their behaviour.  When you cannot read the rumours, you may not realize how often your dog is in distress.  When we point this out to you, we don’t do that because we dislike you or your dog; we do so because we recognize that your dog is upset and we want to help.  Dog body language is a long study; we will never be as good at reading it as the dogs are, but there are many good resources.  A favourite is Barbara Handelman’s Canine Behaviour A Photo Illustrated Guide.  You can find it at https://www.dogwise.com/canine-behavior-a-photo-illustrated-handbook/ .  I helped to edit that, so I know that the images and text are well laid out and well explained.  Another good resource is The Language of Dog DVD.  You can also find that on Dogwise at https://www.dogwise.com/the-language-of-dogs-understanding-canine-body-language-and-other-communication-signals-dvd-set/

In the story that started me thinking about this blog, the message that a circus was coming to town started out as a whisper, a rumour.  Then it was talked about a little bit.  In the end, it was a big hairy deal.  The handbills were printed and everyone went down to the train station to see the arrival.  The whole town talked about the circus and a brass band was on hand to make sure that everyone knew that the circus had arrived.  It is well worth spending some time learning more about what your dog is “saying” since he is going to be talking to you through his behaviour for the rest of his life.  When we hear the whispers of what your dog wants to say to you, instead of depending upon the brass band level of message, we can often avert the circuses that ensue when the dog feels he needs to get the message across immediately.  Your dog should not need a brass band to tell you when he is afraid, distressed or upset, and both your life and his will be much easier when you can address his issues quickly and efficiently because you heard the first rumours of what he is experiencing.

 

THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN

THE BARE NAKED DOG

Originally posted April 2013

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Bare Naked And Beautiful!  Photo: Melanie Wooley

Recently a competing dog training school posted pictures of their graduating class to their Facebook page.   The album featured six smiling families with their dogs in a sit and a graduation certificate and individual brags beside picture.  On five out of the six dogs, they were obviously wearing prong collars.  Interesting.  Two of the six dogs showed clear signs of distress and one dog appeared to be really frightened.  All the people were wearing big smiles and the instructor made a point that he was graduating six well trained dogs.  Hmmm.  Why do six well trained dogs all need prong collars?  And why do well trained dogs look so stressed?  Could it be that the people feel that their dogs are under control by virtue of the equipment that they wear?

Jumping back twenty years or so, I remember when the leash laws first came into Guelph.  There was a lot of publicity about dogs being leashed on a leash that was no more than two metres in length and being under control without a lot of information about what exactly under control meant.  One fine summer day, I was out in the park in a legitimate off leash area with my dog off leash.  Being a dog trainer, I was doing what I am prone to doing; I was training my dog.  I left him on a sit stay, and walked about 50 metres away.  A woman came along with her two kids and stopped dead and then began to scream at me to get my dog under control.  Fifty metres away, my dog sat panting and looking around, and this woman continued her tirade about dangerous dogs.  My leash was around my shoulders as it usually is, and my dog was relaxed and I was really confused.  At first I protested that my dog WAS under control.  This seemed to rev the woman up even more.  After several minutes of this, I called my dog and she and the children began to shriek.  My dog came and I leashed up and the woman finally relaxed a tiny amount and told me that the new law required my dog to be under control.  I had an aha moment.  By under control, she meant ON LEASH.  Under control means something entirely different to me.

19204095 - running beagle puppy with his master on the walk
This puppy is off leash, outdoors and running, but he is STILL under control. His intense focused look is just what we expect to see in a puppy learning to come when called!

When I first started to offer dog training classes I mostly had my students using the traditional chain slip collar that we now understand can cause a lot of injuries.  I don’t use them any longer and don’t allow them on my training grounds.  The risk of injury to my students’ dogs is just too high, and I think that they really gave us a false sense of what it meant to be under control.  When control is entirely reliant on stopping bad behaviours from happening, then we aren’t actually teaching dogs to have self control; we are teaching them that if they do things we don’t want, they will get hurt.  Again, I have to reflect that as a society we have a funny way of thinking about “control”.  We spent most of our time teaching the dogs what they could not do and how badly we could hurt them if they stepped out of line.

In my introduction to dog training class, I had an activity that I did with one of my own dogs.  I dressed him up in every piece of dog training equipment I owned.  I put on a halter and a harness, a chain collar, a flat buckle collar, a martingale, a dog coat and a prong on him.  I would put him through his paces and one by one take all the equipment off.  I would point out to my audience that my dog was happy to work bare naked.  I did a lot of work with that dog and it was wonderful exciting happy work, even though I started him on a pain based system.  What I learned with that particular dog is that it is not the equipment.  It is the relationship.  Control doesn’t depend upon the collar, it is reliant on the relationship.

Relationship is what really creates a dog under control.  At Dogs in the Park, we start all of our dogs on flat buckle collars and two metre leashes, and we do the first few classes with the dogs tethered to the wall.  We recognize that we are not starting with dogs who have self control or even owner directed control.  We work towards getting the dogs off the wall as quickly as we can.  We want the dogs to be successful and the people to be successful too, so we take out the variable in the equation of the dog making the wrong choice.  We tether and work on SELF control.

Dog with ill eyes pulling leash walking at winter park
I am much more concerned about this on leash dog than I would be about the off leash puppy above. Everything about this dog tells me that he doesn’t want to be with the person on the end of the leash and that he is pretty intent on getting to where he wants to go. Being in control has nothing to do with the equipment the dog is wearing and everything to do with the amount of education that dog has, the relationship he has to the person he is working with and the situation that the people have put him into.

My dog out in the park was demonstrating self control.  He was controlling his impulse to go and run up and say hi to the kids.  He was controlling his impulse to go to the river to swim.  He was controlling his impulse to lie down.  My dog was in control of himself and he was doing what I wanted him to do; he was minding his manners and staying where I had left him.  This is the level of self control that is easy to live with.  I didn’t have to worry about this dog pulling people over; he wouldn’t dream of pulling on leash.  I didn’t have to worry about him leaving either; he knew that staying was the game at the moment.  In training, that is the goal.  A well trained dog is a dog who is happy and confident and who will mind his manners, even if he is bare naked.

Getting from the point of being tethered to the wall and learning to not take treats and to not knock people over when they come in to greet to being able to be left on a sit stay or a down stay at fifty metres does not need to be painful for the dog, but it is an important step in developing self control.  It should in fact be fun for everyone.  At home, you should be doing most of your training off leash.  The leash is a great tool but it is only a tool and it is not about great training.  It is what we use when we must, not what actually teaches the dog to do something.  What actually teaches the dog to do things is not the equipment he wears or the words that you say, but the direct outcomes of his own behaviour.

The key to getting from point A, the dog who is out of control to point B the dog who will do distance stays while his person is being screamed at is a process of steps.  Seeing the pictures of the graduating class of the other school reminded me of how important steps and stages are.  At the very beginning, I have to acknowledge that the dog does not understand what I want.  If pain is the tool we choose to explain this to the dog, then we need to be able to set the dog up to learn quickly and efficiently that there is a way to avoid pain.  The pain should be minimal and rare and the dog should understand how to not get hurt.  In the old days when I was first learning to train we would do set ups where we would set the dog up to fail so that he could learn that he would be hurt if he made the wrong choice.  I realize now, especially when I look at pictures and video from those days that my dog was often concerned about being right and worried that she would get hurt.  The picture of the graduation class brought home some pretty strong memories for me, some of which I am not entirely proud of.

Now when I look at the journey from point A to point B, I ask myself if the dog is relaxed and happy.  If the dog is relaxed, then I know that he understands what I want him to do.  I look not only at if the dog can do the skill, but also if the dog is comfortable about it.  If the dog is not comfortable I reassess what I am asking him to do.  When we start a dog in training at Dogs in the Park, they start on the wall and we ask the question; “are you comfortable enough to take treats?”  If the answer is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to click and treat?”  If the answer to that is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to refrain from taking treats when you should not?” and if the answer is yes, we ask the question “are you comfortable enough to offer behaviours?”  If we get a no, then we work with the client to determine what we need to do to make the dog feel safe and comfortable enough to work in our classroom.  We ask the dog.

Training is not just about skills acquisition.  It is also about the emotional state of the dog, and the relationship that the dog has with you.  When a dog feels confident about you and the work you are doing, he is eager and keen to try new things.  He doesn’t look worried or concerned.  He doesn’t look like something might go wrong at any moment.  When a dog feels confident about what he is doing he is willing to engage in things with you, and that is what partnership is about.  It is not just about skills acquisition at all; it is about everything that the dog is thinking about and experiencing including how the dog is working with you.

So I come full circle back to the graduation pictures that my competitor posted.  The people look thrilled and proud.  Half the dogs look relaxed.  The instructor describes his clients and their dogs as well trained dogs and people.  But three of the six dogs look unhappy and at least five of the six dogs are wearing devices that operate on pain.  None of the dogs is looking at his person as though that person was interesting or cool.  This is where we started at Dogs in the Park.  I am really glad we moved on to where we are now.  The pictures I post of my clients don’t show a whole lot of graduations.  We don’t graduate dogs anymore.  We celebrate when they achieve levels.  And we see a lot more happy and a lot fewer stressed dogs.  I am really proud of what we are doing here, and I hope my students are just as proud of themselves; our dogs learn skills and they also learn about partnership and relationship and trust.  And when you dog trusts that you have his back, he will do nearly anything for you.  One step at a time, towards a goal that is meaningful for both of you.  I am so glad my competition posted their pictures.  Sometimes I just need some confirmation that I am heading in the right direction.

THE BARE NAKED DOG

WE GOT HIM FOR THE KIDS!

Originally posted April 2013

The family dog probably has one of the world’s most difficult jobs.  Compare life as a family dog to life as a herding dog.  Every morning, the herding dog wakes up with the sheep, guides them to pasture and moves them from place to place.  Between times, the dog rests and relaxes and at meal times goes up to the house to get a meal.  The family dog however gets up with mom or dad earlier than the kids and likely goes out to the bathroom, and for many family dogs, that is the last predictable thing that happens all day.  The kids get up, and Michael, eight, who is supposed to feed the dog,  has a throat infection.  Sally, ten, has a report due at school and she wants to spend time finishing that instead of taking the dog out for his morning play session.  Mom has to reschedule her morning meeting with the lawyer so that she can take Michael to the doctor and she is busy hustling Sally through her report and breakfast so that she can make the bus.  Dad is in the kitchen making breakfast so that Sally and Mom can get their mornings started but the griddle won’t heat up and he has a bowl full of pancake batter sitting on the counter and all the other frying pans are dirty.  He puts the pancake mix in the fridge and gets out cold cereal, all while Michael is complaining that he can’t eat because his throat is sore.  Meanwhile, the dog is bugging Michael for his breakfast and Mom and Dad are so frazzled that it doesn’t immediately occur to them them that Michael is feeling so crummy that he hasn’t gotten to feeding the dog.  The day often devolves from there.

Yes, the dog gets fed and he gets walked, but often the expectations we have for family pets is a little out of line with reality for the pet.  Often I hear “Fluffy belongs to the kids, and she is their responsibility”.  I am certain that most parents don’t really think that Fluffy is entirely the kid’s responsibility, but too often it is presented as though the dog is their whole responsibility.  If we re-framed this about a younger sibling things would look much different.

Imagine for a moment we weren’t talking about Fluffy but rather Ryan, Michael and Sally’s younger sibling.  Imagine for a moment that Mom and Dad got up in the morning and changed young Ryan’s diaper, and then it was Michael’s responsibility to feed young Ryan and Sally’s responsibility to get him dressed and ready for the day.  The idea that an eight  year old and a ten year old would be responsible for a young child is appalling, and yet we hear this regularly in our puppy classes.  In one family, if the child did not feed the dog, he went hungry.  And if the other children didn’t toilet the dog outside, they had to live with the mess inside until one of the children took it upon themselves to clean it up, usually with much nagging and screaming on the part of the other members of the household.

I am a person who strongly believes that we don’t give your youth enough freedom and responsibility in our society.  As a Scout leader for many years, I was constantly faced with boundaries that we were not permitted to allow our kids to cross, often limits that made little or no sense.  When one of my groups of kids wanted to go bowling I helped them to plan the trip and reminded these 14 to 17 year old kids that they needed to figure out how they were going to pay for the trip.  No one wanted to confront the issue, so in spite of weekly reminders, they never sorted that aspect out.  On the day of the trip we all gathered and they had no money to go.  I let the group work out how they wanted to resolve it.  One of the parents stood to the side very agitated feeling that I was being unfair to the kids when he could just give them the money they needed.  I gave the kids the chance to figure out a solution, which they did.  A phone call was made and the group committee arranged to drop off the funds needed (we had arranged this ahead of time).  The desire to not let the kids miss out on something they hadn’t planned for was so strong that the parents in attendance would have bailed the kids out before they solved their problem.  I absolutely believe that kids should be permitted to fail early and often and develop resilience and problem solving abilities early.  I just don’t believe that should be done at the expense of a pet’s well being.

When a family gets a dog, the adults need to understand that it is the family dog, not the kid’s dog.  Rarely do six and seven year old kids have the resources to research an appropriate breed, purchase, arrange transport to and from the breeder, arrange and pay for veterinary visits and do all the training of a young dog.  I love having kids in class, and to make it successful we have to take a number of things into account.  First and foremost, we have to understand what a child is capable of.

Preschoolers are not capable of walking your mastiff, no matter how cute it might be in theory.  A large or giant breed dog needs only to walk quickly to knock down and drag a young child.  With preschoolers we teach them in class that they must ask their own guardians and then the dog’s person before offering to greet the dog.  If the dog chooses to back away, then the greeting is a no go, and that should be the end of it.  Often preschoolers are not as interested in greeting the dog as Mom and Dad are in having the kid greet.  Many years ago, when I was training the first service dog I ever trained, I was out in the mall with him and a mom with her toddler spotted us.  “Look” she said; “A doggy, in the mall!”  I kept walking.  The child was in her arms and clearly not interested.  She followed us down the length of the mall, through a crowded bookstore and into a coffee shop all the while babbling to her kid about the doggy in the mall, describing him, and his jacket and that he was inside the mall.  Finally the child showed interest, and she offered him the chance to pet the dog.  After this whole scene played out, I turned to face her and said “I am sorry, this is a working service dog and you may not pet him”.  Her response was interesting.  She turned beet red and said “Some people have NO manners” and left in a huff with her now screaming child.

Preschoolers are a slightly difficult group because they are interested in the world, but in short bursts.  They don’t need to have long periods of interaction to be successful.  If they are not initially interested in the dog, there is lots of stuff that we can do to make them safe around dogs other than interacting with them.  In general, my guideline for working with preschoolers and dogs is that they need to work at the speed of the preschooler and if the preschooler isn’t interested, then give them something to do along side of the dog, instead of insisting on an interaction they may not be interested in having.

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This is a beautiful idyllic image, but this dog could seriously harm the child if he bolted.  Mom and Dad should be holding a second leash!  Image credit: auremar / 123RF Stock Photo

 

5, 6 and seven year old kids are often very interested in dogs.  They may draw the dogs or spend time reading books on dogs independently.  This age group is a group that needs to learn safety rules around dogs and can assist with some of the care of a dog.  They may be able to leash walk a smaller well trained dog, but asking a 6 year old to be responsible for the exercise and feeding of any dog is really more than we should expect.  Kids in this age group can be included in training sessions where the dog already knows the behaviour.  I recently spoke with a Mom on the phone who wanted to be able to drop her six year old and their 7 month old intact male German Shepherd off at my training hall for the hour lesson.  Accepting them in the class would have been completely unrealistic in terms of training the dog or helping the seven year old to be successful with the dog.  When working with kids, it is essential that as the instructor, I set both the dog and the child up for success.  Usually this means training the dog ahead of the child and then including the child in a separate training session where the dog follows the kid’s directions and Mom or Dad assists the child in being successful.

The process of training a dog may be boring for kids if the dog doesn’t know what to do, so make sure that your dog understands what you want and then teach your kid how to make the behaviours happen.  Integrating kids into training is a matter of learning how to make the activity interesting for both your child and your dog.

About two years ago, we had a family with a Springer Spaniel come to class.  This family got it.  Everyone came to the first class.  The two kids, 7 and 9 years old, sat down near Mom and Dad with colouring books and crayons, reading material and video game.  Mom and Dad worked on our down stay exercise and then included the kids in the feeding stage.  They played statues with the kids while the dog learned to stay.  Mom and Dad worked in cooperation with one of them working with the dog and the other helping the kids to be successful.  After the stay, Dad worked on leash manners with the dog and the kids went back to their books and games.  When the dog started to get the hang of it, Mom organized the kids into stations and the dog walked back and forth between the kids, with the kids treating after Dad clicked.  This went on for all eight weeks of the classes; a beautiful dance of dog, kids and parents, working together.  When it works it works really, really well.

As kids get older, they develop better coordination and balance, strength and ability to follow directions.  By the time kids are about ten years old, they can continue work that Mom and Dad have started.  So if the parents are capturing sits, downs, stands and touches, the kids can be in charge of the clicker and the treats.  As the dog gains skills the kids can start working on chains of behaviours with the dog.  The nine to twelve year old group is developing the skills to be able to work more independently but still under direction with Mom or Dad on site.  They still are not able to take on the full responsibility for the dog though; they shouldn’t be asked to take the dog to the vet for instance.

Thirteen is the age are which we accept volunteers at Dogs in the Park in our puppy program.  In Ontario you have to do a certain number of volunteer hours in order to graduate from high school and we are pleased to be able to share our program with teens.  Young teens can be quite competent dog trainers and we allow this age group to handle their own dogs within reason.  If the dog is extremely strong or unruly, then we do not allow them to work unassisted, but if the dog is an appropriate size and temperament we allow this age group to work their own dogs provided that a parent or guardian is on site.  At this age, we love to see the ability of both the dog and the kid begin to shine.  What we don’t allow is kids under 16 to be dropped off and picked up while the child is solely responsible for the dog.  In the event of a veterinary emergency, the child would not be able to drive the dog to the vet clinic for instance.  This is just not appropriate.

Young teens can be very responsible for the family dog.  They can be responsible to feed and exercise the family dog, but parents still need to be aware of this getting done; if it isn’t done, someone needs to notice, because the dog should not take the fall for an error on the part of the child.  Veterinary care and training decisions still need to be made with the parents though; expecting a child to be solely responsible for the dog is unrealistic and unfair to your dog.

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Puppy Class is designed to help families to work with their puppies.  Children should not go to puppy class without their parents.

The key with family dogs is to recognize that an adult needs to be responsible for the dog.  We would not expect a child to be responsible for the upbringing of another child including feeding, enrichment, medical care and education.  We should not expect children to be solely responsible for the upbringing and care of a dog either.

WE GOT HIM FOR THE KIDS!