SIT, SIT, SIT!

Have you ever paused to consider what criteria you have for a “well-trained” dog? I have. As a dog trainer, I have had thousands of appointments with clients who tell me about how well-trained their dogs are, only to turn around and nag, beg, or cajole their dogs into obedience. I have had people insist that their dogs come when called 80% of the time or more, only to have the dog refuse to come when called even in the most distraction free zone we can find. Sit, sit, sit, no, Fluffy, SIT! is the litany for these people, only to have Fluffy sit and stare up at them in disbelief as though they are asking for the moon. Sitting is not difficult for most dogs to perform, but it sure seems difficult for many dogs to perform when asked in my presence.

Man with his dog
This is a great picture of a well trained dog. The dog and the man are leaning into one another, and they are obviously engaged with one another. I doubt that the dog just randomly sat on the middle of a bridge for a stranger, so that tells me he probably sat because he was asked, not because he was forced to or promised a cookie. He and the man are simply working together.

So what do I mean when I say “I have a well-trained dog”? I mean that I have a deep connection with the dog and we work together. Often the dog will perform for long duration in the absence of either treats or a threat. This means that in general, if I am out and about with my well-trained dog, and I need him to sit, he will sit on the first calm quiet and gentle request, and I don’t have to wave a treat in front of him, nor do I have to physically force him into position nor yank on a collar. I don’t have to loom, lean in or raise my voice. Furthermore, in the event that it is not a good idea from my dog’s perspective and he refuses, his refusal is understood to be reasonable from his point of view. Let’s parse all my conditions one at a time.
When I say that my dog will perform a behaviour on the first ask, and that I need only ask in a calm, quiet and gentle way I am thinking here about what it might look like when I ask someone to pass the salt. If we are sitting at dinner and I would like some salt, I might look at you, make eye contact, say your name and then calmly say “please pass the salt”. Pass the salt is generally a reasonable request at the dinner table, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort for you to respond and my expectation is that you will hear, attend to my request and just pass me the salt. In other words, not a big deal. So if I ask my dog to sit, and he is well-trained, I can just ask, and he will just sit.

Salting French fries in a bowl.
If we are eating at the same table and I ask you to pass the salt, I don’t usually need to raise my voice, threaten you, promise you a reward or loom over you. I can simply ask you to pass the salt. Well trained dogs are like this. It should be easy.

Let’s consider my “no treat” criteria. It is well understood that behaviours need to be reinforced in order to be built and maintained. The thing is that once a behaviour is very strong with a reinforcer of some sort, you need to randomize the reinforcement in order to maintain the behaviour. It is a bit like a slot machine compared to a pop machine. When you put a coin into a pop machine, you expect that a pop will be produced. You expect that this will happen every single time. This is different than a slot machine, where you are expected to put the coin in and pull the lever in order to get nothing! You might someday get something, if you are exceptionally lucky, but the chance of getting something big is really low. Sit as a behaviour works a little like this. Initially, when I am teaching a dog to sit, I am a pop machine. Every single time that the dog sits, I give him something he wants. At first this will be something like the pop machine. I am careful about two things at that stage. First is that I don’t show the dog what the reinforcer will be. Sometimes I use steak, or a special dog training sausage, or some cheese, or the chance to chase a ball or go through a door or get in a car, but I am not going to hang a piece of bacon off my hat in the hopes that the dog will perform based on a bribe. Bribes are technically reinforcers that are presented ahead of the behaviour and eventually, they will backfire on you. The dog will look for the reinforcer and measure if the offered item is worth what you are asking for.

Dog Waiting for Treat
Showing the dog a treat BEFORE you ask for the behaviour is called bribery. A well trained dog should not need to be bribed to perform a behaviour.

Once I am sure that the dog knows that the behaviour of sit will be rewarded, I pull a little switch on the dog. I ask for the sit and I “goof”. Before I do this, I have to be really, really sure that my dog both understands what I mean when I quietly and calmly and gently ask for the behaviour. I need to have practiced this behaviour with a guarantee of a reward in a wide variety of places. Once I am really sure, I pretend that I forgot the reward. I might move away, and then ask the dog to perform the behaviour again. If the dog is convinced that I am reliable and that I just goofed, he will offer the behaviour a second time and usually, he will offer it with more intensity and vigour. The second time I ask, I throw a party and give the dog something EXTRA special. I might even goof again and give him his reward twice. The key here is to make that second sit, more rewarding than he thought the first one would be. Then I go back to rewarding every sit for a bit and then I “goof” again. I keep doing this until the times I goof are no big deal. Then I start goofing a little more often. I keep doing this until I have built a truly random level of goofs, but where the dog is still keen to do the behaviour. I am still randomizing what the reward is for the dog though. It is important that the dog is keen on the game. Eventually I have thinned things out so much that the dog is sitting for free more often than he is being paid but when he is paid he gets something really special.
A well-trained dog does not need a threat in order to work. One of the saddest trends I see from time to time in the training world is the idea that you have to deepen your voice and increase the volume in order to get the dog to do as he is asked. If you need to do this in order to get your dog to behave as you wish, you are not on the same team as your dog. Does this mean I have never raised my voice to my dog? Of course not; if the stakes are high, and his life is at risk, then yes, I would raise my voice and insist, but if I think I have to do this all the time, what does that say about my relationship with my dog? Not anything terribly pleasant! If you find yourself doing this, you should probably go back to reinforcing absolutely every sit.
Along with a threatening voice comes this issue of physically pushing the dog into a behaviour, or yanking on the leash to make the behaviour happen. When I am training a dog there are a few limited instances of when I might choose to use a physical penalty with a dog but in each case that is to stop a behaviour altogether, not when I need to make him start to do something. If a dog were eating something that could cause him harm such as a rock, I might grab him by the collar for instance, and try to startle the dog out of the behaviour, but I don’t use it to try and initiate a behaviour. Most of the time, when a dog is asked to do a behaviour, such as sit, and he refuses, if you jerk on his neck with the leash, you are just going to teach him to guess what you want. He isn’t going to know what you want. The most common effect of that sort of training is a dog who is slow because they are concerned that they are going to get hurt, even just a little bit, and they are afraid to act.

Training dogs of war
This dog is obviously afraid of something and the most likely thing is a physical prompt of some sort.  Why do I say that he looks afraid?  His ears are pinned and his face is tense and his feet are clenched.  His back is roached too!  This is not a well trained dog.

Another type of threat I see is looming over or leaning over the dog, and repeating the request in a louder or more demanding voice. Again, if you have to do this, you really need to go back to the beginning and start over. A well-trained dog doesn’t need you to loom over him or raise your voice. When this happens I often think of a scene from The Addams Family movie where the little girl, Wednesday, asks her uncle to pass that salt. Her mother, Morticia, sweetly prompts her, saying “Wednesday, what do we say?” and of course most of us think “please?” but Wednesday turns to her uncle, raises her voice and demands “NOW!” If you need to demand compliance from your dog, he doesn’t know the behaviour sufficiently well in order to be successful often enough to actually be well-trained.
To me the final stage of having a well-trained dog is to have a dog who has the possibility of refusing a behaviour when it is not a good idea for him to do that. This implies that if I ask for something reasonable, such as sit, if the dog refuses there is likely a pretty good reason for that. When I have a young puppy who seems to know sit refuse to sit, I find that the pup often needs to toilet. Sitting with a full bladder or bowel is uncomfortable. Forcing the puppy to sit under these circumstances is unkind and can interrupt house training. If I have a middle-aged dog who is very reliable on sit, and I ask for it and he doesn’t comply, I watch him move, because often the root cause is pain. Sometimes though, when an adult dog won’t sit, he may have another reason not to do as I ask. He may be afraid and feel vulnerable, or he may not want to sit down on something that is uncomfortable. I had one dog refuse to do a down stay, his strongest behaviour of all, because I left him on a bee’s nest. He stood up, moved three feet, and lay back down. I was really upset until I realized where I had left him. Sadly, this was during an obedience competition and he lost our class! I cannot get upset at a dog who had the sense to move himself before he got stung by bees. Luckily I had enough trust in him to trust that he would not behave randomly, and he had enough trust in me to change his position and keep himself from harm. I know of dogs who would have taken the stings of a nest of bees instead of moving because they had been punished severely enough for moving that bees were not a bad enough pain! I have also met trainers who were really proud of the fact that their dogs had been willing to take that pain instead of moving. That does not speak well to the depth of the relationship that the person has with the dog, and that is unfortunate. At the end of the day, I value my relationship with my dog more than I value instant and perfect obedience.

Dog on the woodem bench
A well trained dog should be willing to perform the trained behaviour anywhere, anytime, under many different circumstances. This dog is wet, and the bench is likely not very comfortable to sit on, but he is willing to sit and stay for the picture.

As a final point, not included above, I feel that a well-trained dog should know more than just one behaviour and he should be able to perform those behaviours in a wide variety of situations and circumstances. Being able to perform them in only one place or under only one circumstance does not reflect good training. It should not matter to the dog if you ask him for a behaviour while you are standing in front of him, or beside him, or on the landing of your deck, or if you are sitting in a chair. He should understand the behaviours in a wide variety of situations, and of course that means practicing, from the beginning, everything your dog is being trained to do.
So when I think about a well-trained dog, I am not thinking about a little canine robot, but I am also not thinking of a dog who is completely on his own agenda either. I am looking for evidence that the dog and handler are working together, in partnership, as a team. I am looking for evidence that the human is helping the dog without luring or bribing the dog. I am looking for evidence that the dog is thinking things through and not performing the behaviour solely to get the reward or to avoid some harsh penalty. That is what I mean by a well-trained dog.

SIT, SIT, SIT!

YOU SHOULD!

Recently we had the family of one of our Good Dogs give a lecture to us about how they collected data while they trained their dog.  In their presentation they brought up the issue of what they thought they “should” do with their dog, and it reminded us of all the things that our clients do that they are told they “should” do, but for which there may be no real need. How many of us hear a little voice in the back of our head telling us what we “should” do? Should you really do those things?

Many people think that they “should” walk their dogs around their neighbourhoods every day. Should you? Does your dog actually like walking around the block? Most dogs find leash walking very frustrating. We don’t walk at the right speed for dogs, and most dogs don’t want to walk past everything they see. It is very difficult to get enough exercise for your average dog just by leash walking, so that means that you aren’t doing much more than providing a place for your dog to toilet by taking him for a leash walk through the neighbourhood.

If you are actually committed to taking your dog for a neighbourhood walk, you may want to take him for a sniff instead of a walk. To teach him the activity, grab a handful of treats and go out and hide them along your route. You are only going to have to do that once or twice, so don’t worry, this isn’t going to mean a second walk for you. Get your dog on leash, take him outside and point out all the treats you have stashed. The key to this activity is that it is something you do with your dog jointly. It is not you mindlessly walking down the street with your dog sniffing to his heart’s content. A good sniff walk involves you pointing out the things that are important to both of you. When you are pointing out the treats, he is rewarded for following your directions and gets the hang of the activity. Once your dog understands that you are pointing out interesting things, you can start pointing out things other than treats. Try and look for things that would be interesting for a dog to sniff, like the vertical surfaces where another dog may have left some “pee mail”. When you tune into what your dog is interested in, walks become a whole different experience for both of you.

Tagesanbruch
This is what it looks like when I approach a corner with my dogs! If we need to wait as this person does for the oncoming car to pass, then it fine with me if my dog chooses to stand.

How about the idea that dogs “should” stop and sit at every corner? This is one I see people struggle with all the time. I suspect this tradition came from the early days of guide dog work, back in the 1920s when some guide dogs were taught to stop and sit so that the blind person knew where the corner was. There are many different ways that guide dogs signal their person now, but should your pet dog stop and sit? Is it useful? Often it isn’t. I don’t teach this to my own dogs. Most people do this in the hope that if their dog is ever loose, he won’t run across a street, but most dogs don’t make the connection between coming up to the corner on leash and off leash as being the same thing. There are other ways that we can teach the dog to stop at the edge of a street, but those are complex beyond the scope of this blog.

Should your dog sleep in bed with you? Studies show that 60% or more of dogs in North America do! Dogs have likely been sleeping with us for millennia. We have used them as living hot water bottles, for company and to warn us of danger. If you like to sleep with your dog, go ahead. Unless your dog is dangerous to you in bed (I did have one client whose dog attacked them while they were sleeping!), then if you like it, go ahead. There is no reason not to do that.

Spending time together
If this makes your family happy, why wouldn’t you have your dog in bed with you? Only once have I recommended not having the dog in bed with my clients. That dog had night terrors and would attack in his sleep. Otherwise, go ahead if it makes you happy.

How about “should you eat before your dog?” In my life that would often be very inconvenient! Often Friday will eat at 5 in the afternoon at work between classes but John and I don’t eat until 9:30 or 10 when we get home from work. I think some folks think that the dog eating after they do means that they should only feed the dog after they eat, but in our home, that is often inconvenient. Usually one of us will feed the dog or dogs, and the other of us will prepare the meal. When it doesn’t work out that way, our dogs will lie down while we are eating and patiently wait their turn. This takes training but it is reflective of how we live with one another. We value being polite to one another in our home, and that includes the dogs, so when it is not your turn to do something, then you wait politely until it is.

How about “You should always go through the door first?” This one is a particular pet peeve of mine. Often, I want the dogs to go out the door first so that I can see what they are up to, and so that they don’t trip me by rushing up behind me and knocking into me. When I am getting ready to leave, I will often ask the dogs to go out first, but if there is a reason for me to go first, then I just ask them to wait. I do the same thing when I go up or down the stairs, especially if I am carrying something; I decide who goes first and who waits till I am at the top or bottom as may be the case, in the interest of safety.

Girl and dog going down the stairs
It is physically difficult for dogs to go up or down stairs at the same speed we do, so generally, in the house, I will send my dogs up or down ahead of me or ask them to wait so that I can avoid tripping on them. Should you do this? It depends! Would that work for you?

I love the “shoulds”. Should you? Should you never? Always good questions. How about if instead of thinking in terms of “should, you think in terms of “what do you need?” or “how will this work for me?” Should you exercise your dog every day? Does he need it? If he is a healthy, adolescent dog, I would argue that yes, he needs to be exercised every single day. But if he is an adolescent dog who is recovering from hip or knee surgery he may not need to be exercised at all! If he is an elderly dog exercise may cause him harm. If he is an adult dog and has had heartworm disease, exercise may kill him. When your friends and neighbours start saying “you should exercise that dog” and exercising him is not in his best interest, “should” gets bolstered by guilt. And then guilt pushes you into second guessing, and then you get stuck between what you “should” do and what everyone else wants you to do. Many years ago, I had a client who had a 7 month old husky. The dog was in desperate need of exercise, but the man had been in a car accident when the dog was only 5 months old. My client had a trach tube, and thus could not go out in our cold winter weather. The vet told him that he “should” exercise the dog. I went in and helped this nice man meet his dog’s need for exercise by doing stretches, slow stair walking, searches in the house, and puppy push ups. Was it ideal? No, but it was what was the most appropriate for my client. Never the less, the neighbours left him a nasty note in his mailbox one day when the dog howled while he was out, accusing him of not exercising his dog. Should gets in the way of a lot of things, including being aware of what you actually need, or what you can actually do.

There are a few things that I think every dog family “should” do. You should get good preventive veterinary care for your dogs. You should see who your dog actually is and what he actually needs so that you can actually meet his needs. You should make sure that he is properly socialized as a puppy so that he can have the best life possible. You should keep your dog up to date on his shots. You should give your dog an education so that he can cope with the world he lives within. My list of shoulds are things that lead to better overall health and welfare for your dog and your life instead of a list of rules to follow in the hopes that your dog will fit into someone else’s mould of what living with a dog is intended to look like. Many of the “shoulds” come to us from police, military and service dog training where the dogs have very specific roles and what is interesting is that these rules may have been accurate for a period of time long ago, but are no longer useful for our current lives.

When you are living with a dog, look at what works for you and your dog. Look at what fills your needs. And leave should for another dog family; “should” does not need to govern your or your dog’s life.

 

YOU SHOULD!

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.

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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.

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.

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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