BAD DOG?!!

Originally posted in April 2013

One of the biggest motivators for students to come in for training is a dog who is doing things we don’t like.  There are some basic ways that we can help dogs to learn not to do what we don’t want them to do, and most trainers are really good at these.  Once you understand what a trainer is driving at and why they have chosen the method they have, everything becomes much easier to follow along with.

The first thing I do when a client has a dog whose behaviour is a problem is define what the problem behaviour is.  The solution is going to depend upon what the problem is.  There is no single solution to every single problem, and the solutions I choose will depend upon the problems and the situations they occur within that are presented.

Controlling or managing the environment is often a great solution, and is usually the first thing I do in every case.  If you can control what is happening to cause the problem, then you can avoid the problem at least for a period of time.  If the problem is that the dog barks at the window, then the very first thing I am going to do is to get control over that window.  If the dog is confined to the room with the window and is barking six hours out of every eight, then why would I expect the dog to not bark at the window when I am trying to take a quiet moment?  The very first thing to do when looking at a behaviour we don’t want is to avoid the situation where the behaviour occurs.

In some cases this is a forever solution.  If a client has a dog who jumps into the front seat of the car while she is driving, then my solution is going to be traveling in a crate.  Traveling in a crate is safer for the dog in any event, but beyond that fact is that the dog is safer in a crate when traveling, so that is a permanent solution.

F025
Our puppy traveled to us in an airline crate and has traveled in a crate in vehicles for his whole life.

Some problems cannot be permanently solved by changing the environment for the dog.  Take jumping on people to greet.  Your dog can be kept separate from people for a period of time, but that is not a forever solution.  In this case I am going to choose to reinforce not jumping.  There is a great game you can play with jumping dogs where you have three people who come in and out of a room.  As they enter the room, as the dog approached but before he jumps, you drop a treat and then leave again.  The next person comes in and does the same thing.  You keep doing this until the dog gets the idea that the reward is going to come from below.  At that point you can switch the game up a bit and ask the dog to sit before you drop the treat.  Once the dog understands that everyone coming through the door is going to do the same thing, you can start working with a wider group of people and finally with strangers at the door.

Reinforcing for alternate behaviours (the learning theorists call this a DRA or DRO which stands for a differential reinforcement of alternate or other behaviour) is helpful if the dog is thinking about what he is doing, but not helpful if the dog is behaving badly because of fear.  Consider a dog who barks when approached by a stranger and tries to hide behind the owner.  This dog is afraid and he is not barking because he wants to greet, but because he is concerned about the stranger.  This is the kind of dog whose behaviour can be successfully changed by pairing one thing with another.  To do this, you get a stranger to appear and you give really good treats to the dog.  Then the stranger disappears and you stop treating.  The stranger reappear and you treat again.  The stranger disappears and you stop again.  You keep repeating this until the dog anticipates the treats when the stranger appears.  From there it is a matter of teaching the dog that the stranger can come closer and closer and treats will keep coming, but don’t let the stranger get so close that the dog is overwhelmed.

Good Dog Class Geoffrey and Laurie 2013-03-27
In our group classical conditioning class, the focus is on pairing the approach of a stranger with food to make a pleasant association while keeping all the dogs in the room below threshold.

This sort of pairing is called Classical Conditioning.  Classical conditioning is an effect originally noticed by Dr. Ivan Pavlov who was studying salivation in dogs.  He would ring a bell and someone would bring in a bowl of meat.  Dr. Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to salivate when the bell rang, before the meat appeared.  They formed an association between the bell and the meat.  Once you understand the effect, you can use classical conditioning in a huge variety of creative ways to teach your dog what is safe and what is dangerous.

Some behaviours are really persistent.  The dog isn’t frightened or concerned, and the dog might not be learning to do a different behaviour instead of the undesired behaviour, and you cannot avoid the problem.  In these cases, we sometimes have to pull out punishment.  Punishment is anything we do to decrease a behaviour.  Previously all the solutions were aimed at either avoiding the situation where the unwanted behaviour happened, changing the unwanted behaviour for a wanted behaviour, or changing the motivation for the unwanted behaviour.  Sometimes none of these alternatives are helpful.  In these cases we may need to consider using a punishment to change the unwanted behaviour.

Punishments come in two flavours.  It is important to understand both of these because one of them can cause more problems than the other.  The first kind of punishment is negative punishment.  That is the kind of punishment where you lose access to something that you want due to your behaviour.  When you use negative punishment the dog may lose the chance to play, or may lose the toy he was involved with or may lose access to the person or other dog he was interacting with.  For the jumping dog, you can sometimes change the situation completely by going into the bathroom every time the dog jumps on you.  You withdraw your presence every time the dog jumps up and pretty soon, if the dog cares about being with you, the jumping stops.  In most cases of negative punishment, the dog is not greatly upset or distressed.

The other form of punishment is positive punishment.  This is when you DO something unpleasant to the dog when he does something you don’t like.  Positive punishment is the one place where we see the most problems in training and the greatest misuse.  You really cannot go wrong with management of the environment, DRO or classical conditioning.  Negative punishment is difficult to create trauma with, but with positive punishment there are huge risks.  If you are too tough, you can create fear.  If you are not tough enough, you can create tolerance of bad things.  If you give it at the wrong time, you can decrease behaviours you like and want.  If you don’t give it every time that the unwanted behaviour happens, you can teach your dog to gamble that he might get to do the unwanted behaviour this time.  If the positive punisher occurs in the absence of the bad behaviour, the dog won’t learn what not to do, but rather will learn not to try new behaviours that might be better.  There is also the risk that some classical conditioning will happen in reverse to what you thought might happen; so your dog might think that the positive punisher might be related to something that is actually safe.

Taking the example of the dog who jumps up; you could use a can of compressed air to stop him from jumping up.  There are big risks with this though, and they aren’t really very obvious.  Let’s say that the dog jumps up on guests at the front door.  You come to the door prepared and the dog predictably jumps up.  You spray him with compressed air and he gets off you right away.  Your dog looks around and notices the spray can in your hand, and figures out that the spray can is the source of the air (this is an example of a classical association).  The dog learns an interesting rule.  “Don’t jump up if the person is holding a can of air.”  This means that the dog may learn to check if the guest has a can of air before he decides to jump up.  The dog hasn’t learned to do anything different, he has just learned that if the guest doesn’t have a can of compressed air, the guest is fair game.

Then there is the situation where the can of air is not at hand, but the owner wants to punish the dog for jumping up, so after the dog has jumped up, she goes to get the can and spray the dog.  In this situation, the dog, not knowing what the owner is up to, follows the owner to where the spray can is kept and then gets punished for following the owner.  If the owner is the person who applies the air, the risk is that the dog learns that the owner isn’t safe.  This kind of damage happens all the time, and again this is classical conditioning at work; the dog has learned to associate the owner with danger.  Not the desired outcome by a long shot!  The dog may also learn that the rule about jumping up is to only jump up in the absence of the owner.  Again, we have an outcome that looks good, but isn’t quite what we had hoped for.

Finally a bad situation can occur when the dog experiences the same or a similar bad thing when he is behaving the way we want him to behave.  Consider the dog who is lying quietly on the grass by the driveway and someone comes out of the garage with an air compressor to fill the tired.  The whooshing noise that the compressor makes sounds like the compressed air can and we have caused the dog to stop lying on the grass and minding his own business.  We have taken the single event and spread it around to the environment and taught the dog a lot of things we wish he had not learned.

Positive punishment can be a safe and effective tool, but it is tricky.  In order to use it safely, we need to follow some rules.  It must be tough enough to solve the problem quickly and efficiently.  If the positive punisher is not tough enough, you just create a situation where the dog learns to ignore the unpleasant consequence.  If the dog described above didn’t care about the air can, the jumping wouldn’t stop and he would just learn to tolerate the air can.  On the other hand, if it is too tough, that can cause both physical and emotional harm.  If you used a spray can of mace for instance, you might damage your dog’s eyes and it is quite likely he would be very frightened of spray cans, compressed air and possibly you.  There is a huge responsibility on the part of the trainer to chose the right degree of unpleasant consequence to get a good effect quickly and efficiently, but not so much that you harm or frighten the learner.

You also have a responsibility to use a punisher that is unique.  Compressed air canisters are being sold now as behaviour solutions in pet stores, but people forget that we use compressed air in a number of ways.  We use compressed air to clean our computers, we use it to fill our car tires and if you have someone in your home who uses medical oxygen, the hose might detach and hiss the way a can of air does.  Compressed air canisters are very handy for breaking up dog fights, but should not be used to teach dogs to stop doing specific behaviours.

The punishment must happen every time the behaviour happens and never happen if the behaviour is absent.  This means you cannot allow the undesired behaviour to happen unless you have the punisher at the ready and available.  You also cannot allow the punishment to happen when the behaviour hasn’t happened.  If the punishment is happening when it shouldn’t or isn’t happening when it should, the dog learns to gamble on the punishment, and every time he does the unwanted behaviour and doesn’t get punished, the absence of the punishment is in fact a reinforcer, and makes the undesired behaviour stronger.  This gambling is the route to building the strongest behaviours, which makes the mis-use of punishment potentially the best way to strengthen behaviours.

When used carefully and properly positive punishment is a fast and effective and humane way to stop unwanted behaviours.  When used improperly there are huge risks.  Why aren’t there such risks with managing the environment, DRO or classical conditioning?  Let’s look at that.  When you manage the environment you are avoiding the problem.  This means that you don’t see the problem behaviour, which just isn’t a problem!  When you use differential reinforcement of an other behaviour, then if the dog offers the unwanted behaviour, he doesn’t get anything he wants, but he does get what he wants when he does the other behaviour.  There is no risk to your relationship with the dog, to physical or emotional harm, or that he will gamble that the unwanted behaviour might be safe at a given time.  The only risk you have is that the dog may learn when rewards are available and when they are not and may try the unwanted behaviour when rewards are not available.  We can work around that by using a marker such as a click or yes, to tell the dog when he is making the choice we want him to make and then using that marker to bridge the time between the behaviour and going to get the treat.  Finally with classical conditioning, there is no risk that the dog will get injured or frightened at all; we are just treating him in the presence of a particular stimulus.  The worst thing that will happen is that he will learn that a particular stimulus will produce food.

With so many options available for training, it is important that we keep in mind the old medical adage of “first do no harm” and reach for the least harmful option first.  I would never want a doctor to not learn to do surgery, and I would not want a professional trainer who didn’t understand the use of positive punishment and how it works.  Never the less if your doctor only knows surgery, you may not get the best health care.  The same is true of trainers who only use punishment; they can cause more harm than good.  Before you reach for a positive punisher, think carefully.  Is there a better alternative?  There are times when there isn’t a better alternative, but often there is, and it is worth considering what your alternatives are and develop a training plan before you reach for something that may cause harm.

BAD DOG?!!

HE HAS A MIND OF HIS OWN!

I hear this statement all the time when people are talking about dogs who are doing things that the people don’t like. I have begun to ask “whose mind did you think he would have?” “You have a mind of our own” has become a statement that people use as a way of putting someone down for holding an opinion different from our own, or for doing things that are important to you but not to the person making the statement. Here is the thing. We each have a mind of our own! And that is a pretty good thing too. Imagine if we all had to operate from one point of view. Nothing would ever change, collaboration would not occur, and we would miss all sorts of amazing activities just because we all had exactly the same idea at the same moment.

61549135 - puppy eating food. dog eats food from bowl
This dog has an agenda. He is aware of the bowl and of the photographer, and he knows what those two things together mean; that it is time to eat. Asking him to do something that YOU want instead of what he wants in this moment is likely going to result in a contest of wills.

Part of the problem I think exists because we want our dogs to follow along and figure out exactly what it is that we have in mind like little furry mentalists. We behave as though dogs come preprogrammed with all of our quirks and preferences already installed. If I am going to get in the car, I shouldn’t have to put Fido on a leash and guide him there; he should just know that is where we are going and he should just do what we expect him to do. The problem is that Fido may not have read the memo! And Fido may have other things on his mind. Fido may be more concerned with emptying his bladder, or reading the pee mail, or he may perceive things we are unaware of that are tugging for his attention.

To start to address this issue of Fido having a mind of his own, you have to begin from the point of asking what is in it for Fido. Does Fido know what you expect and is it something that is of interest to him? I often see my clients making the mind of his own statement about things that they haven’t taken the time to properly teach, train and proof. Take leash walking for instance. Leash walking is actually a fairly difficult skill for dogs to master. We don’t walk at the right speed for most dogs, and we often don’t take into account that we may not indicate clearly when we are going to turn or stop, so if the dog gets distracted at all, he is going to goof and likely make the leash tight. Add in that unless the dog is elderly, his agenda is likely going to include things like pulling you to make you get to where he wants to go faster. If he wants to get to the park to get off leash, and he drags you down the road and gets to the park, then dragging you down the road is the most sensible way for him to get to his goal and his priority. Instead of fighting with dogs about leash manners, I suggest driving them to the place you are going to let them off leash and then work on leash manners separately. You will get a dog with better leash manners in the end with a lot less frustration along the way.

And what is in it for the dog? Walking on a loose leash may lead to the park in the end, but if it takes twenty minutes of fighting about keeping the leash loose to get you to the park, then is there actually any point? The problem with goals like getting to the park as a reward for loose leash walking is that the behaviour is too complex and of too long a duration to allow the dog to understand that it isn’t just the final forty steps of walking on a loose leash that count; it is all the steps. If you were going to be successful at making loose leash walking work for your dog, you would have to reward much shorter increments of the behaviour, which means either working on it for shorter periods of time, or perhaps not putting it into the most exciting part of the dog’s life. I think teaching loose leash walking on the way to the park is a little like trying to learn statistics at your wedding. You have bigger priorities to think about than the mean, median and mode! For you dog, trying to learn a complex behaviour such as leash walking while on the way to the park is probably more difficult than trying to learn stats at your wedding.

Happy dog walking on leash with woman at evening park during sun
Walking on a loose leash like this out in public is a complex task requiring the dog to keep pace with you and carefully attend to when you are going to stop or turn. Trying to teach it to your dog when his priority is to get to the dog park is often an exercise in frustration.

We also have to be aware of our dog’s priorities when we expect them to fall into line. If your dog is too cold, or too hot, or hungry or thirsty, or tired, or feeling sick, or if he has a full bowel or bladder, he is going to be on his own agenda to fill his own needs. It is unfair to ask our dogs to follow along with our plans when we haven’t met their basic needs for food, water, shelter and health. It is worse, when our dogs are in pain! All too often I see people asking very painful dogs to do things that are just plain difficult for them because it hurts. Some of the time the people are asking their dogs to do things that are not out of the ordinary, and the pain has crept up on them. Getting up off the floor, getting in and out of a car and walking on ice or hard surfaces are all things that get dogs into trouble if they are struggling with pain. If the dog has been doing these things and now he cannot, or seems reluctant, it can seem like he or she may have suddenly have had an attack of being on their own agenda, when in fact they simply can’t do what you want them to do.

Having a mind of his own is precisely what we want from dogs and yet, we also don’t want them to be that way either. We choose highly active dogs, and then we lament that they need exercise every day, not just when it suits us. We choose dogs with thick coats and then deplore that they are slugs in the heat or that they prefer to spend all day out in the yard when the temperatures drop. Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all though is that we want to share our lives with dogs who can hear and smell things we cannot perceive. This is really convenient when we want a tracking dog to follow a scent, or a guard dog to alert us to an intruder coming towards the house, but that works out less well when the dog is aware of things he wants and we cannot perceive. I see this all the time when I see dogs coming into the training hall. Before the dog even enters the room he knows if I am onsite, and if I am, often he is very excited to see me. Before the person knows what to expect, he is pulling to greet me and he has been building up a head of steam since they turned into the parking lot. I have also seen this in my own dogs who know exactly what I have brought for them before I pull it out of my pocket! This trait of living with a being who knows more about the world than we do can be endlessly exciting or frustrating depending upon what the situation might be.

22109099 - working the sheep
If we add a dog who is bred to keep up with sheep all day to our lives we have to expect that it is most likely that such a dog would need a lot of exercise! We are going to be much happier if we meet the dog’s needs for exercise before we try and ask him to do things that we want to do. Relationships are largely a matter of negotiation to make sure that we each get what we need.

When we say “he has a mind of his own” we really have said that we are not thinking in true partnership. We are thinking about how we want something that we are not getting ,or that we have a priority that we haven’t communicated well to our dog. In order to get the most out of our relationships with our dogs, we need to start thinking about how we move through the world with our dogs instead of against them. When we are in a deep and abiding partnership with a dog, we rarely run into situations where we are not at least more or less on the same page. As often as we ask our dogs to do things that they may not really want to do, we offer them opportunities to do things that are less than important to us. Like our human partnerships, the best partnerships with our dogs are a constant game of give and take.

HE HAS A MIND OF HIS OWN!

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT DOG TRAINING BY TAKING PIANO LESSONS

Several years ago, John’s mother bought him a good quality electric keyboard.  It is a really good keyboard and it has all kinds of odds n ends to make it flashy.  John liked the keyboard.  I LOVED the keyboard.  I loved the keyboard so much, that I went out and started piano lessons so that I could learn to play it.  I learned a lot of things in my music lessons that are really relevant to dog training, and I thought I would share.

15335940 - an image of a piano playing background
I learned a lot about dog training from playing the piano!

PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT

If I heard it once, I must have heard it a thousand times; if you practice the wrong thing you will get really good at doing it wrong.  I head this when my husband was taking voice lessons and I heard it again when I started taking piano lessons.  Yes, practice is important but if you make the same mistake over and over again, you just make your mistake permanent.

This is true for dog training too.  Eco and I are cleaning up our heeling right now with the intent of going into the ring in the winter to do obedience and rally-O.  We have practiced really sloppy heeling for about three years, so we have a lot of tidying to do.  It is very hard to remember that we are going back to basics because we have perfected sloppy heeling.  Now I am only asking for one good step together, but some of the time I get excited and forget and if we get one good step, I throw caution to the wind and take ten steps and by about the fifth step we are back to making the errors we are really good at making.

IF SOME IS GOOD, MORE IS NOT NECESSARILY BETTER

When we got the keyboard, I learned a very important lesson the very first day we had it.  Four hours is too long to practice the piano.  By about three hours and forty five minutes.  In fact if you practice playing the piano for four hours, you can expect your elbows to swell up, your fingers to go stiff and numb and forget fine motor activity for the next three days.  When I started piano lessons, I asked my teacher how long and how often I ought to practice.  Ten minutes twice a day she replied.  Ten minutes?  Heck I could do that between brushing my hair in the morning and eating breakfast and not even have to get up any earlier!  And I could absolutely fit it in while dinner was cooking after work.

Dogs are a little bit like this too.  If you feel a crushing need to train for four hours a day (and who doesn’t if they are dog trainers?  Likely this isn’t true of non dog trainers!), you need more dogs.  Lots more dogs.  For most skill based behaviours, dogs work best for short periods of time.  I realized this recently when I was coaching a novice handler in a class recently.  She was trying to get one to two hours a day of practice in.  I only work my dogs for twenty to thirty minutes at a go, and they are experienced dogs.  My puppy only works for ten to fifteen minutes at a time.  Ten minutes, twice a day, until you get the hang of things is likely more than enough.  If you are working on behaviour modification for a behaviour problem, this may not hold true, but in general, keep it short and sweet.

CHOOSE A ROLE MODEL

I started piano lessons when Jean Crétien was prime minister of Canada.  His wife, Aline, began taking piano lessons in her fifties when M. Crétien was first elected as prime minister.  In fact, she began taking Royal Conservatory lessons and by the time he left office she had completed the bulk of their classes and courses.  I figured that if the wife of the prime minister could play the piano starting in her fifties, why shouldn’t I be able to start the same thing as an adult?  And maybe, if I studied long enough I could play some of the works of Mozart or Liszt, or some other classical composer I had heard of.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 4, 2017: Monument to Ivan Pavlov
Ivan Pavlov is one of my role models. He was a scientist and he made some incredible extrapolations that lead us to a better understanding of learning and behaviour. He came from Russia and studied behaviour in the early part of the 20th century. I would love to see the world in such a way that the mysteries of behaviour were revealed through my work, just like Dr. Pavlov did!

As a dog trainer, we should try and be aware of the movers and shakers in our field.  We should know who is suggesting new ideas and who is writing and blogging and videoing about dog training.  We should know both who is proposing innovative ideas and who is sticking with the old ways.  It is also helpful to find someone local who can mentor you and who can be a good role model for you.  Pat Miller, Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell, Cesar Milan, Brad Pattison, Victoria Stillwell, Suzanne Clothier, Nicholas Dodman and Susan Garrett should all be familiar names to you if you are serious about getting into the training game.

FOUNDATIONS ARE IMPORTANT

When I first took piano lessons, my teacher gave me a children’s book to learn.  The first week that I took lessons, I learned to work my fingers independently and play a simple scale.  The second week, I learned to move my fingers over one another and reach the more distant keys.  Each week I learned to play different elements of more complex pieces.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning the foundations of more complex work.  One day, my teacher gave me a completely new piece of music and asked me to play what I read.  To my surprise, I was able to play a fairly complex piece of music.

This holds true in dog training.  The recall is a fine example of a complex behaviour that is made up of a series of simpler behaviours.  Your dog has to orient on his name and find you.  Then he has to disengage from whatever he is doing and come towards you.  If you want your dog to sit in front of you when he gets to you that is another simple behaviour to add to the chain.

BACKCHAINING, BACKCHAINING, BACKCHAINING

Backchaining is the process of learning all the elements of a series of behaviours, and then rewarding the last of the behaviours and practicing the last behaviour over and over again, until you feel really confident about that.  Then you practice the second to last behaviour and the last behaviour and get your reward.  Then you practice the third to last, the second to last and the last behaviour and get your reward.  When I was learning pieces of music to play on the piano, I would backchain them all.  One day my teacher asked me to play a new piece of music that I had never seen or heard before.  I looked at the sheet music for a minute and then asked her how she wanted me to start.  From the beginning she said.  I asked if she minded if I did it a little differently the first few times through, and she asked what I wanted to do.  I explained backchaining to her and she began to laugh.  She had been in a graduate program in music before anyone had taught her that little trick, and she learned how it was that I was learning so many pieces so quickly; I just played the final bar until I was smooth and then the final two bars and so on.  My reward was hearing the music come out the way that it ought to sound.

Backchaining is a useful but seldom used method in dog training.  Especially when a dog is being asked to learn a complex sequence for competition or for service work, backchaining is highly useful.  If you want your dog to learn to fetch the paper for you, you would simply teach him all the elements of the behaviour; go to the door, wait till you open it, wait till you tell him it is safe to go and find the paper, find the paper, pick up the paper, carry the paper back to the door and then hold the paper until you tell him to give it to you.  Then when the dog knows all the elements individually, you would practice only the part where he holds the paper until you ask him for it.  Then you might leave him on a sit stay where the paper is normally delivered, walk back to the house and call him to come and then give you the paper when you ask, and then give him his reward.  After practicing this stage for a period of time, you would ask him to sit and stay at the location that the paper was delivered, and go back to the house.  Once you were in place you would cue him to pick up the paper, and wait for the rest of the sequence to occur, and reward him for giving you the paper when you asked.  You would keep adding to the chain of behaviours until your dog was doing the whole thing in one smooth sequence without prompting from you.

LEARNING A KINAESTHETIC SKILL IS DIFFICULT

When I first started playing the piano, I felt like an octopus.  88 keys, ten fingers, two hands, three pedals, two feet, and sheet music felt awkward and uncomfortable.  I felt like I was in some sort of a battle with the keyboard.  Gradually over time, I learned to master about 64 of the keys (nothing I ever played required the very high or very low notes), both of my hands, all my fingers and the sheet music.  Then we moved, and the keyboard didn’t get unpacked, so my musical career came to a rather abrupt end.

During my short time in music class I learned something really important that I try and remember every time I get a new student in my training hall.  Kinaesthetic skills take time to learn well, and I must break elements of  the skill out so that my students can be successful.  If the student is feeling overwhelmed by a clicker, a leash, the treats, the dog and all the other dogs and trainers in the room, I ask myself which elements can I isolate so that the task is easier for the student.  We use tethers so that the students can learn clicker skills without having to juggle the leash.  We use treat bowls because they are easier for the student to reach into than a bait bag or a baggy.  Sometimes I let a student practice with one of my own dogs so that they can experience first-hand what it feels like when all the elements are in place.

Reshetiha, Nizhniy Novgorod Oblast, Russia - 02.25.2017 - Siberian Husky sled dog race skijoring competition. Skier man skiing with Husky dog in harness.
Skijoring, the sport of cross country skiing while your dog pulls you looks like a tonne of fun, but you will have to relearn to ski, and handle your dog at the same time. Dog training is at its core a kinesthetic skill, and it requires that you are patient with yourself as well as with your dog while you sort out all the techniques!

One of my mentors advised me many years ago to try a new skill each year; martial arts, horse back riding, playing the piano or tennis.  It doesn’t matter what discipline I try, each time I try something new, I learn again that my muscles don’t do what my instructor’s muscles do, and what comes naturally to my instructor won’t come naturally to me, just as what I do with a dog won’t necessarily come naturally to my students.  This year, I returned to riding after fifteen or twenty years away from the saddle.  I learned again that I have a lot to learn, and what comes naturally to my instructors and mentors doesn’t come naturally to me.  As the fall gets colder, I think about what I might try next year.  Sailing?  Maybe.  Or oil painting?  How about calligraphy?  There is something for me to learn about dog training in all of them; it remains to be seen what that might be.

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT DOG TRAINING BY TAKING PIANO LESSONS

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.

dscf0086
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.

90333638 - a belgian malinois sheepdog lying in the grass he does not move
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.

f012
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.

centre wellington-20110903-00057
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.

ready!
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.

20130503_111553
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