WE GOT HIM FOR THE KIDS!

Originally posted April 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WE GOT HIM FOR THE KIDS!

ANDREW’S MOM

Andrew is a nice guy who has been training with Dogs in the Park for the past couple of months.  Andrew has a wife(P) and a daughter (B) and a dog (Henry) and of course he has a Mom.  Andrew’s mom is terrific.  Really she is!  She comes over and helps P to clean the house once a week.  She babysits so that Andrew and P can have an evening out (and B can have ice cream for dinner and they can blow bubbles in the livingroom).  She brings homemade cookies, and takes the family on outings they couldn’t necessarily do without the help of a grandma to co-ordinate the logistics, and she is sensitive to not overstaying her welcome. 

There is just one small problem.  Andrew’s mom doesn’t actually understand dogs.  And Henry struggles with anxiety.  I guess that actually makes two problems, neither of which would be nearly as large a problem as the two issues coming together is.  When you have someone in your life who just doesn’t understand dogs and you have an anxious dog, things can go haywire pretty fast.  In fact, almost every family with a dog has someone who plays the role of “Andrew’s mom”.

Senior woman baking
“Andrew’s Mom” can be anyone in your life who doesn’t follow the rules with your dog. Usually “Andrew’s Mom” is someone who is kindly and well meaning but who just doesn’t understand the situation.

Andrew’s mom is the person in your dog’s life who behaves in such a way that your dog just cannot succeed.  Often the person who plays the role of Andrew’s mom really, deeply and passionately cares about dogs in general, and often about your dog in specific.  In the case of Andrew’s mom, she really loves to love on Henry.  Henry does not love being loved on quite THAT much.  He appears to feel confined when Andrew’s mom tries to hug him, and that can cause him to tremble in fear.  The harder he trembles, the more that Andrew’s mom will try and get him into her lap, to hug him, to hold him, to stroke him and even to kiss his muzzle.  Andrew’s mom is in fact the reason that Andrew brought Henry to our school.  One afternoon, Andrew’s mom came over and cornered Henry in the livingroom.  B. was down for her nap, and Andrew’s mom was in need of some cuddling, so Henry was it.  Henry had been resting and made the error of looking Andrew’s mom in the eye when he woke up.  She came over, loomed over his dog bed, crouched down, and then gathered him up in her arms for a big “grandma hug”.  Henry, being sort of sleepy, and not really happy about hugs to begin with, had finally had enough.  He squirmed to get out of the hug and when that didn’t work, air snapped four or five times just to the left of Andrew’s mom’s ear.  Needless to say, pandemonium ensued.  Andrew’s mom screeched, Henry bolted for the back room where he liked to hide during thunderstorms and P yelled at Henry.  B woke up and began to cry, and Henry lost control of his bladder.

When the dust settled, P called Andrew and Andrew called me and I got the family (minus Andrew’s mom and B) in for an appointment.  When Andrew and P relayed what happened, I could see where everything fell apart for Henry, and the bite was not unexpected.  Did I say “bite”?  Yes.  In the business we consider this to be a bite, albeit a very inhibited bite.  A number of factors stacked up to create a circumstance where a bite was very likely.  Henry was resting and relaxed.  Then he saw Andrew’s mom.  Andrew’s mom was the first stressful thing, or trigger that he noticed.  Then Andrew’s mom came closer to Henry than he was comfortable with; that was the second trigger.  I would lay good money that if I had a video of Henry in that moment, I would have seen some warning signs that would have told me that Henry was uncomfortable, but even if she noticed the signs, Andrew’s mom did not listen to his cues to tell her that he was uncomfortable.  Not being heard could be another trigger for Henry.  When Andrew’s mom loomed over Henry on his bed, that is a third trigger.  When she reached for him and hugged him, that was a fourth trigger.  When Henry tried to wiggle away but could not get loose, that would be a fifth trigger.  Five or possibly six triggers was more than enough to elicit a bite!  The video below gives you more details about trigger stacking.

In fact, Henry pulled his punches and did not do any damage to Andrew’s mom.  Henry could have landed a serious bite causing her significant harm, but instead he air snapped near her face and then retreated.  When he was hiding in his safe place, he was so distressed that he lost control over his bladder.  Andrew’s mom felt really bad, and her response a day later was telling; she interpreted his losing control over his bladder as him being submissive and regretful of his bites, and so she ramped up her attention on Henry.  In fact losing control over his bladder most likely happened because of his extreme fear. 

Almost every dog with behaviour problems that I work with has an “Andrew’s mom” in his or her life.  These people are usually kind, thoughtful and caring people, who just don’t understand the whole situation.  I have seen many extreme forms of “Andrew’s mom”, from an uncle who allowed a very aggressive dog out of her kennel and into a holiday party of thirty guests, where she mauled someone, to the toddler who follows the dog everywhere all day long and never lets the dog rest.  As a behaviour consultant Andrew’s mom is so frustrating!  What we need are strategies to address the people in our lives who intentionally or otherwise subvert our efforts at helping our anxious, aggressive, reactive or fearful dogs.

One of the easiest strategies I have for guests is to hand them a cup of tea on a saucer with a cookie on it before bringing the dog into the room.  I don’t have to tell the guest to ignore the dog because they cannot interact with the dog while holding a full cup of tea on a saucer.  As soon as you say “don’t pay attention to the dog” your guest will inevitably look at the dog and often that sets Andrew’s mom up to interact in ways that are not productive.

Traditional teacup and saucer held in elderly woman's hands.
Andrew’s mom will have a really hard time reaching out for your dog if she has a cup of tea and a saucer, with no where to put that down when the dog first enters the room. This way you need not tell the guest to ignore your dog!

Another strategy I have had great success with when working with dogs and kids is to have a structured activity such as hide and seek to play.  The game goes like this.  The dog starts out in his crate and the kids get to hide something that would be of value to the dog.  You have to teach the dog the game first, but if you have a dog who will search for things, then it is easy to implement the game.  The kids get a set amount of time to hide the item, and then they have to sit at a table or stay in a room that the dog cannot get to while the dog does the search.  When the dog brings back the item, he waits in his crate while the kids hide the items again.  The kids don’t end up being Andrew’s mom because they have to wait their turn while the dog is loose, and the dog is confined while they hide the item.  This can work very well for kids up to about the age of 7.

While walking dogs on leash, almost everyone you encounter has the potential to be Andrew’s mom.  Almost all of us have heard variations on “dogs like me” or “I don’t mind if he misbehaves” and it can be very difficult to fend off these well-meaning strangers.  One of the easiest ways I have to keep people’s hands to themselves is to muzzle your dog.  Often a muzzled dog gets to walk through the streets undisturbed where an unmuzzled dog seems to be a target for every person passing by. 

Alternatively, I have simply said to people “I am in a terrible rush, sorry, I cannot stop to talk” and walked right on by.  Some people just won’t take no for an answer though, but breaking into a run and hurrying on by can actually help.  I have also sometimes been successful with telling people that my dog is ill and we have to rush home and get his medication.  Keeping the conversation flowing is not the goal though; you have to say your piece and then move on.

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When heading off Andrew’s mom, leash manners don’t count! Putting yourself between your dog and Andrew’s mom helps a lot, as can breaking into a run and hurrying on by.

I have even had trouble with professionals being Andrew’s mom.  At the vet’s office, I have often had to advocate for my dog when the vet or the tech want to proceed more quickly than my dog was ready for.  Things are improving for sure, however, we still have times when the vet may not realize or recognize that my dog needs a little more time.  When this happens, you sometimes have to be really clear with your vet that you need to travel at the speed of dog, and slow things down a little.  Use common sense when negotiating this with your vet however; don’t do this if you are in the middle of a medical emergency.

I think it is important to recognize that Andrew’s mom is well meaning, but still set clear boundaries about what is happening with your dog.  A good behaviour modification plan includes making sure that your dog has the time and space to process what is going on, and we cannot expect our dogs to become more tolerant if they keep getting triggered.  Knowing what your dog’s triggers are and setting things up so that the people around your dog don’t set those triggers in motion are essential to the process of successfully training your dog.

ANDREW’S MOM

FALLING IN LOVE

So, I have been the dogless wonder for almost two years now.  By this I mean that I earn my living as a dog trainer, but I don’t actually have a canine partner of my own.  My last two dogs were incredible partners, who died one year apart to the day.  Losing those dogs, first D’fer, and then Eco was difficult, but the loss was not why I didn’t run right out to get another puppy.  I have been very busy with my own growth and development and really don’t have the time right now to raise another puppy.  I am also not really sure if a dog would fit well with my current lifestyle:  I like to hunt and I spend long periods of time alone in the bush, canoeing and camping.  I like to take car trips on weekends too.  And I spend about two hours a day riding my horse.  So, getting another dog right now might not be the right thing to do.  But still, I consider the possibility.

For me, the process of getting a dog and developing a partnership is a bit like falling in love, and I have a good model for that to follow; having been married to John for the past twenty years, I can recognize the signs.  There are several stages.  The first stage is the looking around stage.  When John and I met, we were both in university.  We each had friends and things that we did, and at some point, our interests intersected and we met.  It was NOT love at first sight.  It wasn’t that we didn’t get along or anything, it was just sort of neutral.  I wasn’t looking to fall in love; I just wanted someone to go out with and to spend some time with.  John was nice, and we got along and we started to do things together.

When I get a new dog, the first step is finding a breeder who is breeding the sort of dog who will intersect with my interests.  I have a laundry list of things that the dog must be interested in.  It starts with being outside.  Outside is really important to me.  I go outside a lot.  Today I spent about 8 hours outside even though the temperature is just about freezing.  When I am outside I hike, fish, camp, canoe, hunt and ride my horse.  So I need a dog whose interests are going to be compatible with all those things.

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Sleek, athletic and thin skinned, the whippet would not be happy fitting into my life! In the look around phase, I would discount this breed for me, even though he might be perfect for someone else.

Knowing what my interests are means that no matter how pretty I think that a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is, I won’t look at them; they just aren’t sturdy enough to do the kind of heavy hiking I do and they would likely find my winter activities too cold.  No matter how funny I think basset hounds can be (and trust me, if you haven’t worked with a basset hound, you have no idea how funny they are!), they would not really like the canoeing I do.  No matter how much I admire many of the guarding breeds such as the Rottweiler, they most likely won’t enjoy being a resident dog at a dog training school.  German Shepherds can struggle with this work too, but if I choose carefully, I can likely find a good candidate, and my Chessies have all enjoyed this sort of work.  Having narrowed the field to two particular breeds, I need to keep in mind that I enjoy hunting.  A lot.  Which means that a Chessie is a better choice for me at this point in my life. 

The next stage is the stage where I am at right now.  It is the get to know you stage.  During this stage in my relationship with John, we went to the movies together, we went hiking, and we learned a lot about who the other person was.  Somethings we tried didn’t work out so well.  I never really enjoyed cocktail parties, and he used to go to a lot of them.  He really didn’t like swimming.  So we each had to figure out if those were things that we needed to do together, or if we could do without them.  Luckily, John doesn’t need to go to cocktail parties anymore, and we have agreed that for the very most part, I can swim without him!

In the dog world, once you know what breed or type you are looking for, it is time to get busy and look for a breeder who is going to meet your needs.  I will go to the dog shows, and visit breeders and meet brood bitches and sires, and eventually, find a breeder I like, who is breeding a bitch I like to a sire I like and then I will talk to them about their upcoming litters.  In the event that a litter is likely, then I will eventually purchase a puppy.

After that, there is the infatuation stage, and this is the stage that prompted this blog.  In this stage, everything is about being with the person you are madly, passionately, incredibly in love with.  This stage is so much fun.  The other person can do no wrong!  You want to be together all the time.  You think of nothing other than the other person.  It is so exciting.  This is the stage that I see the most often with people who have a dog new to them.  Everything is great!  Except that this puppy that people are so in love with has a number of frustrating habits.  Like chewing things up.  And stealing tea towels.  And running around the house randomly.  And not doing as asked.  I won’t even tell you about John’s frustrating little habits that came to light during the infatuation stage!  Luckily this stage is designed to help us to deal with these little deal breakers, and so we forgive the object of our desires and move on to the next stage.

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Puppies represent so much hope and the early days of a relationship reflect that hope for us all. Infatuation is part of what helps us to overlook the really difficult parts of learning to live with one another and it is an important stage, however it is not the best stage to be in.

The next stage in falling in love is where you get to really know your partner and you start to deeply appreciate them.  This is the long slow process of building a life long love affair and this is the part I think is the most important part of having a deep relationship with a dog.  Reflecting on this, I think it is probably the most important part of having a deep relationship with your human partner too.  This is the stage where you know your partner’s quirks, and you may even have a love/hate feeling towards those quirks.  Honestly, how hard is it to remember that the gate gets left opening IN to the kitchen?  If only John could remember!  On the other hand, if I came into the kitchen and the gate was left open the correct way, I would wonder who had been in the kitchen!  During this stage with D’fer he would regularly set up toys on the top stair to chase down.  He would place them “just so” and then nose them down and when they got to the bottom he would throw himself down the stairs after the toy.  Interminably cute, but insanely noisy and downright dangerous!  I could always tell if he was playing the game because of the suspicious silence while he set the game up and then all that banging and bumping as he ran down the stairs.  I loved that he had figured out this crazy, noisy and fairly sophisticated game, but honestly…who needs all that noise?

This is the stage in training where you no longer have to set up every training scenario as though it were a complete mystery to your learner; you and your canine partner have enough of a common language that you are able to figure out where the training game is going, what the point of the exercise is and how you will apply it to your lives.  If you have an Einstein of a dog, you may need merely expose him to the situation!  If you have a less intellectually gifted dog, you may have to walk him through the training scenario a few times, but he will trust that you are not leading him astray; he will follow along the game trusting that you will show him the point soon enough. 

Likewise, at this stage of training, your dog may tell you no and instead of making him do as you ask, you can trust that he will do his best and if he is refusing, he is refusing with good reason.  You may find your canine partner starts to offer “suggestions” of activities too, and you are tuned in enough that you can follow along with these ideas and see where they go.  I remember many years ago meeting Attila Szkukalek and his amazing dog Fly.  Attila and Fly are famous for their Gladiator routine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0RjKJfuPbE )amongst others, and we were talking about how he had trained various moves.  Attila related about how Fly herself had “suggested” one of the moves in the routine.  He felt the idea would work, so he took the idea and did that part of the routine in the manner that Fly had demonstrated it to him.  This level of understanding, trust and communication are the kind of “love” that I value deeply as part of my training relationship with my dogs.

As this stage of love grows, my dogs age, and with age comes the realization that dogs never live as long as we do.  Towards the end of his life, D’fer would anticipate my actions so accurately, and then offer me such funny ideas that I felt like he was reading my mind!  He would make me laugh when I was most in need.  He would give me the answer when my creativity could not come up with a solution on its own.  At that point in our relationship I came to realize that there is nothing more important than true love, and in the end, he taught me how to love better than I could have learned in nearly any other way.  He forgave my errors, he supported me when I needed it, he filled in the blanks when I didn’t know what to do.  When I reflect on all I have learned over the years, I have come to the realization that my human loves are a good template for how to love a dog, but also that a dog’s love will ultimately help me to love my human friends and family even better.

FALLING IN LOVE

WAIT A MINUTE!

At Dogs in the Park we run a drop in gym style program where students can come to more than 15 classes a week with their dog and learn about dog training.  When they have passed enough basic exercises, advanced classes open up to them.  When dogs come to training classes we always tell people to practice their skills regularly and often.  What we intend is that you will learn skills in the classroom that you will then take out and practice in the rest of your world.  If for instance, your dog has learned to sit at school in the classroom, we expect that you will practice at home, in your yard, at the park and on the street.  What we don’t expect is that students will attend all of our classes each week, although we have had students try and do so.

The problem with going to school every day is that the dog never gets a chance to experience something important called latent learning.  Latent learning is the kind of learning that happens when you are not paying attention.  Latent learning is the kind of learning that creates eureka moments for you.  One of the greatest learning moments of my life came about when I was struggling with a pamphlet to advertise my previous business.  I had been struggling off and on with my printer, the software and my computer to try and figure out how to make a double sided colour pamphlet using just the tools I had.  I tried all sorts of things and nothing was satisfying my vision.  Eventually, as we all do, I gave up the struggle with my problem and went to bed.  At about four in the morning I sat bolt upright in bed with the solution.  I rushed down to my home office and tried out my idea and then spent the next four hours printing exactly what I wanted.  Let’s examine the steps that led to my moment of clarity.

French bulldog sleep in bed
If you have ever been advised to “sleep on it” when trying to solve a problem, you were being told to use latent learning to your advantage. Dogs do this too!

The first step was getting a sense of what I wanted to do; I defined the problem.  This is a bit like when your dog is first exposed to a behaviour in class.  The dogs get a sense of the problem and they sort out what it is that you are driving at.  Sometimes this phase of learning can go along for a very long time.  For some dogs and for some people they need to probe the question for a long time to discover what it is that they are driving at.  There comes a point though, when probing the problem just needs to stop in order for the learner to reflect and make the connections between the pieces of the puzzle.

The next step is trying out solutions.  With my problem I tried changing the settings on my printer, and changing the format of my document.  This is the same stage of learning that dogs go through when they try out variations on their idea of what you are driving at with training.  This is the stage where the dog may try not doing the behaviour to see what the outcome is.  As a trainer this can be a very frustrating stage to go through and we can make life a lot harder on our dogs by endlessly drilling at this point.  Most dogs, like me, need to have the chance to give their ideas a try and fiddle a bit but then they are better off to take the time to back off and think about the issue for a bit.  Trainers benefit too because when they reflect on the issues they are working through they may come up with novel solutions and better ways of explaining what they want to their dogs. 

After fiddling for a bit, I went through a very annoying phase.  I would have been better to have gone on and done something different after I had fiddled with it, but being that I am stubborn and try really hard, I decided I would try even harder.  I see some of my students going through this phase when they attend a daily levels class but don’t go away and think about what they are teaching their dogs.  They don’t go away and think about alternatives.  They don’t leave the behaviour alone and let the dog think about the work they are doing.  Like me, they just push and try harder and they frustrate themselves, their instructors and most of all their dogs.

When you get stuck in this phase of learning something, you start trying things that normally you would not try.  I once caught myself picking up my printer with the intention of dropping it to see if that would prompt it to print.  In case you are wondering, dropping the printer won’t make it print.  If you have ever been frustrated by a print job that just won’t work, you have probably also been tempted to shake up the printer a bit.  It just won’t work.  The equivalent to that in dog training is when the trainer abandons the lesson in favour of the result.  I watched one student of mine lift the dog onto a piece of equipment and then reward him, over and over again during this phase.  The dog learned that being on the equipment predicted treats, but he didn’t learn how to use his body to get onto the equipment, so in the end, the dog didn’t learn what the trainer had set out to teach him. 

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This dog looks like he is asking a question! Maybe his question is “what are you driving at?” This is a common question during training!

The “leave it alone and let the dog think” method of problem solving usually gets you better results.  Allowing the dog to have some time between when you first explain the behaviour to them and when you next ask them to offer the behaviour can yield some surprising results.  Often the dog needs a chance, just like I did with my print job to just let the training percolate a bit.  If you allow the dog to have the time and space to think about what they are doing, you can end up with faster more effective learning.

I should be clear though; latent learning won’t work if you don’t lay a good foundation and revisit the exercises from time to time, but if you just hammer away at the problem for days on end, you never give your dog the chance to just think about it.  So often I have watched a dog come along very quickly after they have had a few days off, if they have had a good solid exposure to the things you are teaching first.  If they don’t have a solid exposure, then they don’t make those leaps.  Latent learning is especially important for the intermediate and advanced dogs; they have a lot of education and learning under their belts and to deny them the chance to use that experience to support what they are learning by reflecting is really unfair.

So how do you know that you have done enough foundation work and you just need to leave it alone?  To begin with, this is most applicable in training of more complex, chained behaviours.  If you have been doing your foundational work with sit, down, stay, target with the nose, target with the paw and so on, then when you start putting together chains you may notice that your dog slows down a bit in his learning.  Work on something for ten minutes and then give it a break.  Work on something that the dog is already really good at for a few minutes.  Then come back to what you were working on to begin with.  Just this little break may allow your dog to regroup and be more successful.  If that doesn’t happen, leave the whole thing for a couple of days.  Come back to it when you and your dog are fresh again.  If you still aren’t successful, leave the whole thing for a couple of days and then come back to it again with fresh eyes and a fresh start.

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Teaching a dog to jump onto an obstacle to do a trick can be broken down into a number of steps. In this image we can see one person helping the dog to balance while the other person holds a toy for the dog to focus on. Helping the dog learn the parts of the behaviour gives him the foundation to hold a stand stay on the object later on. The dog will put the parts of the behaviour together over time.

In the days between when you introduce an exercise, and when you reintroduce the exercise, review in your own mind to make sure you haven’t skipped steps or become so focused on the goal of the exercise that you haven’t reinforced the foundational work sufficiently that it will make sense to the dog.  The time you take away from the training session will benefit you too!  It gives you a chance to reflect on and analyse your training, to form questions to ask your dog when you get back to it.  Down time is really important to good training for both you and your dog.

The one caveat about using latent learning is that there is probably an optimal time for each learner to leave the learning alone, and that time is probably different from individual to individual.  If you wait too long between sessions, you risk that the learner will forget the foundations you have worked on.  My general plan is to make a mental map that will allow me to help the dog find the way through the process of obtaining the skills towards an end behaviour.  It might look something like this:

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This is how I think of teaching a compound behaviour to a dog. I like to think about all the foundation behaviours, and then about grouping them into chunks and finally putting them all together. This is of course a very simplified version of the process for scent discrimination with a retrieve!

When you make a map of where you want to go in training, it is easier to see where you are going and where you are going wrong.  I might teach the Foundation Behaviours months before I work on the next level of training.  I might review the Foundation Behaviours in the weeks ahead of working on the next level.  Then I might introduce the “Two Steps to Glue Together” as two different behaviours and work on that for a few days.  Then I might leave it alone for a couple of days or even a week.  Then I might go back and see how the dog is doing with that second step.  If he is not getting the behaviours, then I might review the Foundation Behaviours again and try the next level behaviours a second time.  Then I might let it sit for a while again.  When the dog is able to give m the second level of behaviours easily, then I might introduce the end behaviour.  At this point in training some dogs get the idea right away and some of them need to try it a few times before they get it and a good number of dogs need to let the idea sit for a week or two.  I just keep revisiting success and then come back to the more difficult step or stage later until the dog puts the pieces together.

Latent learning can feel like a giant leap of faith.  It can feel like you are not really training at all, but with advanced dogs, it can really make the whole training process easier.  With my advanced students in our drop in classes, I often recommend that they attend one or two advanced skills classes each week and then one or two regular levels classes each week.  By training this way they can ping pong around the more difficult behaviours and let the power of latent learning work for them.  Wait a minute.  Let the dog think.  Reflect on your work.  Are there holes to fill?  Pecking away at the problem with breaks of days between is often the most effective way to train, and it is a whole lot more fun than getting to the point where you want to drop the printer or get frustrated with your dog.

 

WAIT A MINUTE!

I WENT TO THE GYM ONCE

Originally posted May 2013

I used to belong to the local gym, and I used to go every workday morning.  It was a great start to the day.  I would lift weights, and ride the exercise bike and swim and then have a hot tub and shower and get ready for work.  I had friends at the gym who would share their lives with me, and I would share my life with them.  Then we moved out to the country and the gym was really inconvenient to get to, and I was really busy, so I stopped going.  I am not in the least bit surprised that my weight went up and my fitness went down.  I used to be a gym rat, but not anymore, and frankly when you don’t go, you stop reaping the benefits.

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Once…I was this fit.  Not so much any more!

Dog training is like this.  Coming to puppy school when your dogs are really young has become the norm, and we think this is terrific.  In puppy class we teach people about recognizing when their dogs might be overwhelmed, when play is getting too rough and how to introduce your puppy to the family.  We teach older puppies how to sit, lie down, come when called and stay out of the trash.  Almost everyone in class meets someone who has a puppy who is a good play match for their dog, and they continue to stay connected with one another throughout their dog’s lives.

All too often though, we have families who tell us that they are “taking a break” from classes and training, and periodically we get a client who returns to us when their puppy has grown up into a four year old Dennis the Menace.  Bad habits creep up, and the family works around them.  The problems aren’t addressed, and then suddenly they are overwhelming.   Maybe the dog has learned that coming when called is an optional behaviour that results in driving away from the dog park.  Quite often the behaviour that brings people back to class is a dog who is pulling on leash.  Hard.  Every day.  Quite often the client will say to me “but we went to puppy class”.

Puppy class is a great foundation.  I really, sincerely do believe that every puppy deserves puppy class and I believe this so strongly that I am giving puppy classes away for free.  If you do nothing else with your puppy, come to class before he is 12 weeks of age.  Never the less, if you come to puppy class before twelve weeks, and you never come back, don’t be surprised if your dog’s skills and socialization decay and aren’t reliable.

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This pup is learning that being caught by a child is a safe thing!  This is one of the foundation skills that pups learn in puppy class, but you have to keep practicing in order to maintain the skills.

Building skills to begin with is like going to the gym.  When I first went to the gym, I didn’t have any skills.  I started out by doing weightlifting that started out small and built up.  I started out lifting small weights, and built up to my top lifts of 200 lbs.  I started out with short light aerobic work outs on the stationary bike and the eliptical machines.  Each day I did similar routines that carefully built up my fitness.  Each week the routines became more challenging and helped to increase my fitness level.  I became stronger and more aerobically fit.  Sadly, I have taken a break and I am not where I was at my peak of fitness.

If I wanted to get back into weight lifting and get back to my best ever bench press of 200 lbs, then I would need to establish a base line.  What is the most I can lift now?  I would bet that with my current tennis elbow and terribly out of shape body, that I would probably be able to lift somewhere between 60 and 70 lbs.  That is a far cry from what I could lift when I was working out with weights every day!  60 to 70 lbs being my baseline, I would work out with weights that are less than that to build strength.  I might lift 4 sets of ten reps of 40 lbs for a week, and then move up to that work out with 45 lbs.  In dog training, when you have taken time off, you need to figure out what your dog’s baseline is when you start back at class and then work up from there.  There is no point in starting at your dog’s best performance; that is not where he is.

If I had kept going to the gym instead of stopping and starting over the years, I might have exceeded my heaviest lift ever instead of getting flabby and out of shape.  Things got in the way though, and my priorities shifted.  I know this happens with our puppies too.  When it happens though, we cannot be surprised when skills decay.

Not only do skills decay if you don’t practice, but so can socialization.  Socialization is the process of carefully exposing a puppy to everyone and everything he will encounter as an adult.  If you do this diligently, and then keep your dog in the backyard for the next four years, he will no longer be confident about the things that he encounters as he passes through life.  Thus it is important to take advantage of the early window of time to start socialization, but throughout your dog’s life, you need to continue to keep him socialized.  A large gap between initial socialization and ongoing socialization can create a problem where the dog is no longer confident about stimuli that he may once have been very tolerant about.  If your dog has had a gap in exposure to the environment either due to illness or the vagaries of our busy lives, he may develop the kinds of problems we hope to avoid by doing socialization activities in the first place.

When we start training with puppies, we are not surprised that they don’t know much and we work at the easy things such as restraining yourself against snatching treats, and work up to the more complicated things like leash manners and coming away from play or food.  When I am passing my students on their various obedience skills I often point out to them key exercises that they should practice throughout their dog’s lives.  Some of the exercises that we do with the dogs form the foundations for other exercises and again there are similarities to exercising at the gym.  I think of these exercises as the warm up stretches that we do before we work out.  If you have been to class but now you cannot return for whatever reason, then you can maintain your dog’s skills by practicing some of the simple skills that you worked on early in your dog’s career.  If you can do this, then taking a break from classes is not going to ruin the work you have done.  I am stronger now than I was when I got my horse a year ago because I began lifting heavy feed bags and hay and other items involved in caring for my horses.  I am not as strong as I was when I worked out every day, but I am stronger than I was.

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This chocolate Newfoundlander practices his down stay in the presence of treats in our Levels Class.  Continuing classes through adulthood keeps skills sharp and helps you to develop new skills as you go along!

I may go back to the gym at some point, but for right now, I exercise by caring for and riding my horse.  My dogs come to classes regularly and we practice regularly both at home and in class.  When I get my next pup, he will go to classes three to five times a week until he is about a year.  At that point, I will likely ease up and go only once or twice a week to develop skills for competition or sport.  My dogs go to classes for their whole lives, because I like the benefits of continuing classes over the long term; like the gym, classes yield benefits in other parts of my life.  Not only do I have dogs who have current skills but I also have fun at class.  There are people I see regularly who I enjoy talking with, and sharing experiences with.  Come to think of it, I am missing the community I built at the gym.  It might just be time to go back.

I WENT TO THE GYM ONCE

DOG PEOPLE AND NON DOG PEOPLE

Originally written in 2015

I received a rather weird post to my business Facebook page, from a man in another city imploring me to teach my students to follow the city by laws.  His rant was full of frustration and anger.  He was SO frustrated that he complained to just about the only person who could not help him.  There is definitely a divide between the dog owning and the non dog owning community.  The only thing that both communities seem to agree upon is that they are fed up.

On the one hand are those who own dogs and who have to move through the public with those dogs.  Very few of us want to cause discomfort to the people who live near us, but sometimes things happen.  If you get caught away from home without a bag and your dog leaves a mess, there is little you can do.  My kingdom for bag stations and garbage cans on every street corner!  Dogs are dogs though, and they do things that we wish they would not, at least from time to time.  Beyond toileting in public, dogs do other things that non dog people may find uncomfortable or unfriendly.  They bark, lunge, pull on leash, whine, leave footprints, jump up and sometimes get into or onto things many folks wish they would not.

Non dog owners sometimes cause problems for dog owners too.  I have been yelled at, charged, had a bicycle try and run my dog over, had rocks thrown at me and experienced some pretty awful behaviour from the people I meet-and I have a very well behaved dog!  It seems like if I go out in public and my dog does not appear to be unpleasant or unfriendly, then I become a target for every non dog owner’s frustration, or the target for every child who wants to touch my dog.

A part of the problem is that as a society, we seem to have forgotten a few golden rules.  First and foremost, we seem to have forgotten that we should try and not interfere with the enjoyment of other people of the public places we go to.  Being physically present with a dog does not constitute a hardship in and of itself.  Neither does being in public without a dog.  If we could all remember that everyone, dogs too, need a bit of space that would help.  Acknowledge one another and say hello.  When I am walking my dog and a skate board comes up behind me, I may not hear that; call out and I will give you more space.  Common courtesy of acknowledging one another and helping each other seems to have fallen away when it comes to the interactions between dogs and the public at large.

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If you are walking your dog in a public space, carry a bag. Heck carry two! Or more. And if someone offers you a bag be gracious about accepting it! it would be terrific if posts like this were found more widely, because everyone gets caught short once in a while, but you should not be caught short every time you walk your dog!

Toiletting is perhaps the biggest issue I see.  If your dog toilets in public; clean it up!  I have been caught short without a bag from time to time, it happens to all dog owners-but it shouldn’t happen every single time you go out.  It shouldn’t even happen once a week.  If you are a non dog owner, and see that I am scrounging for a bag (I have even gone into trash cans looking for them!) and you have one…I will not be offended if you offer it to me.  And dog owners; if you are offered a bag, take it with some grace.  It is not the responsibility of the non dog walking public to carry bags, but believe me, it isn’t a horrid idea to help one another out!

Another common pet peeve between the dog owning and non dog owning public is a dog who should be wearing a leash but who is not.  Not only is it illegal in most places, but frankly it is incredibly dangerous in most places.  All a dog has to do is make one small mistake and walk into traffic and he is dead.  As a professional dog trainer I often have a cheapo extra leash with me.  I have given out dozens of them to people over the years.  If you own a dog, he needs a collar and leash and if I offer you one, please USE IT!  Yes, I regularly run my dogs off leash in places where they are safe from traffic but in town, regardless of how good my dog is, I use a leash and collar.  Last Friday, as I was leaving for Montreal, I arrived at the train station in Kitchener and there was a large Boxer, loose in the station (yes, inside!) without a leash or collar.  I travel with an older service dog; my first duty is to protect my dog.  Luckily I had help; John stood up and stood between me and the other dog-not only was this situation dangerous to the loose dog, but it was incredibly unfair to me and my dog as there was nowhere for us to go to escape him should he want to greet us.

As I mentioned earlier, I have had some horrendous experiences with the general public when I have been out with dogs.  One of my earliest experiences with socializing a puppy involved going out to a park and sitting on a bench to watch people go by.  There was a bench across the street from me, so I walked my young puppy over.  An older man was sitting on the bench at one end, so I went to the other end with my puppy.  Without a word, he reached over with his cane and very deliberately struck my dog across the nose, and then began to berate me for bring a dirty animal to the park.  Why?  I still don’t know.  Perhaps he had been frightened by a dog, but that is unacceptable behaviour and it certainly interfered with my right to enjoy the neighbourhood I lived in.

Humans are a social species.  We are meant to live in groups.  Everyone has the right to enjoy their neighbourhood.  What I think most people miss is the right to enjoy something is accompanied by the responsibility to protect one another when out in society.  That is part of being a member of a social species; we all contribute to the greater success of one another when we are part of a neighbourhood.  This means that both dog owners and non dog owners need to work together to get it right and stop interfering with one another.

The people who own dogs who are the least likely to cause problems for one another are those who are already proactive about their dog’s behaviour.  The people who come to puppy classes and training classes are not generally the ones who are causing problems by letting their dogs run loose.  They are taking action to prevent problems by educating their dogs about acceptable and not acceptable behaviours.  In our classes we teach a wide variety of things including toileting on cue which means that we can tell our dogs when and where they can go.  We teach leash manners which means that the dogs who come to our classes are learning now to walk politely beside their people.  We teach the cued take it which means that our dogs are not the ones who are loose and scoffing food off the sidewalk or out of your hands.

The people who don’t have dogs who are the least likely to run into trouble with dogs are those who understand a few things about dogs.  Just like most people don’t like to be hugged by strangers, most dogs don’t want you to touch them either.  Dogs are descended from predators and if you tease a dog and then run, they will likely chase you.  If you threaten a dog, no matter how nice the dog is, he is going to defend himself.  Most interactions between dogs and humans are really, really benign-most dogs are not going to do anything to you if they are running free without interference.  If you happen across an unaccompanied loose dog, catching him is not a great idea; call your local humane society but don’t try and catch the dog.  Catching dogs puts them in a position where they are vulnerable; and dogs who feel vulnerable may bite.  Beyond that, you don’t know the health status of a strange dog.  Dogs can and do carry parasites, fungal infections and diseases that we can get.  Leave catching strange dogs to the pros, especially if you don’t know much about dogs in general.

You may admire my dog, but please, don’t just walk up and touch him.  I happen to live with three very easy going, happy, friendly dogs, but not every dog accompanied by a person is a happy easy dog.  Many dogs need space for a variety of reasons.  You would never walk up to a total stranger and hug them, and no matter how much you may admire my dog, he is not an object to be fondled.  If you would like to meet a dog you have seen, ask the person who is accompanying that dog.  If you have been invited to greet a dog, greet him verbally first and see if he approaches for pats!  Don’t just touch him randomly.

Father and son patting dogs head
When I am hiking, and I meet a child, I usually prefer he doesn’t come over and greet my dog. At least in this case, the dog is on a leash (it is hard to see but it is there) and the child is being supervised by an adult, but I always wonder if the child is actually meeting the dog or if he is just touching him because he thinks he ought to. If you look at this image, the child is not really engaged with the dog! Dogs should not be treated like stuffed animals, to be mauled by anyone who wants to touch them.

And dog owners; don’t put your dog up as a toy or object to be handled and touched.  Dogs have thousands of years of living with us and they live rich emotional and cognitive lives.  Requiring a dog to be touched who doesn’t want to be touched is unfair.  Ask your dog by giving him permission to greet-don’t just let people touch your dog as though he didn’t care.  Your dog cares deeply and deserves the chance to be touched on his terms.  If your dog is telling you he is uncomfortable about being touched, then don’t force the issue.  So many dog bites could be prevented if only the dog was permitted to leave when he was uncomfortable.

There are some conventions I would like people to understand about dog parks too; many problems could be avoided easily if we were to just all play by the same rules.  First and foremost, don’t encourage on leash greetings.  Very few handlers know how to leash handle in a way that is sufficiently sophisticated that they are going to avoid issues when their dogs meet on leash.  Tight leashes create an agonistic posture in dogs, and when your dog is approaching another dog in a way that looks threatening, that is how dog fights start.  Further to that, the dogs cannot leave, so if they want out of the greeting, they don’t have many choices.  Finally, on leash greetings tend to be protracted, like a handshake that goes on much, much too long.  There is no better way to annoy a potential friend than shaking their hand for too long.  Handshakes and dog greetings should operate on a count of one, two, three and we are done.  Off leash, most dogs do this.  On leash, with the people gabbing and not paying attention, greetings go on and on and on and everyone seems surprised when a snarl breaks out.

If your dog is off leash, and you encounter another dog who is on leash, for heaven’s sake, leash up!  The other dog cannot greet properly and he is captive to whatever the loose dog decides to do.  It is our responsibility as reasonable dog owners to make other people’s lives just a little easier.  Yes, I know we have all dropped the leash, had the fence fail, had the door open and yes, if you are the one holding the leash, you have to take action to prevent a blow up, but really, if you have a dog running loose, even in an off leash zone, please leash up when you encounter a loose dog.

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This is the sort of tricky situation that can go wrong really quickly. When someone turns up in the dog park with a dog on leash, call your dog and leash up. Don’t both getting angry that there is a dog on leash spoiling the fun; you don’t know why he is leashed up! It may well be that the on leash dog was having a great time playing and got injured and is leashed up to protect him from being more badly hurt. Someday that could be your dog. It is a common courtesy to leash up in the presence of another dog when the other dog is on leash.

Finally, if you are riding a bike or a board, please take care to give some space to dogs.  Not all dogs will chase a fast moving target, but if a dog begins to follow you, stop and put your bike or board between you and the dog.  In the event that the dog is unfriendly, you can protect yourself by keeping your bike or board between you and the dog.  In the event that the dog has strayed you are giving the owner a fighting chance of catching up and putting his dog on leash.  If on the other hand you are a dog owner whose dog has followed or chased someone on a bike, please, please, please go get your dog and leash him up.  Joggers can also stop to help dog owners catch their dogs.  It is very easy to be self righteous and say that the dog ought not chase, but that isn’t going to get you anything if you lead the dog so far from home that the owner cannot intervene and in the event that the dog is unfriendly, continuing on your way won’t prevent a bite.  If the dog is growling; he is asking for space.  If he is barking and chasing, he may just be having a great time, but he may not either.  Friendly behaviour in dogs is usually inefficient and involves a lot of vertical movement and curved approaches.  Encouraging the dog to chase does not help either; you can get a dog so highly aroused that he slips from friendly movement to more dangerous flat, straight line motion, making him more not less dangerous.  The faster you go, the more likely it is that this will happen, and given that dogs are fully capable of running at 20km/h or more, it is unlikely you will be able to get going fast enough that you can avoid a dog by outrunning them even on a really fast bike.

The bottom line and the take away message is that we all share the same space and it sure would be nice if we started to work together to get along instead of working against each other and creating problems that did not exist already.  And to the city of Toronto; I just passed through your down town core.  It would be a lot easier to clean up after dogs if there were a few more places to put the waste.  Just a suggestion to help start meeting the needs of the frustrated man who started me thinking about this!

 

DOG PEOPLE AND NON DOG PEOPLE

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

This is my blog on the mystery, mastery and amazement of muzzles.  I love muzzles.  Each one of my dogs has always had their own muzzle and when we go to the vet, we almost always have our own muzzle with us.  In fact the last time I was at the emergency vet I didn’t have time to grab a muzzle and the vet was completely surprised.  Do my dogs NEED the muzzles?  To be completely honest, I don’t know.  I would never ask my vet to find out the hard way!  My veterinarian spent many years after high school amassing a huge amount of knowledge to be the best animal doctor he could be, and I don’t think it is the vet’s job to avoid being bitten; it is his job to give my dog the best medical care possible, and my part in the deal is to make his job as easy as possible.

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This is one of my dogs, D’fer, having his foot looked at. He had a very deep laceration and the vet needed to have a look. You can tell that he is pretty stoic by the look on his face, but he was willing to co-operate. He was wearing his muzzle not because I thought that he would bite the vet, but because I don’t want to take the chance that this could happen.

A muzzle has even saved one of my dog’s lives once.  When Bear was about 14 he got sick; he was so sick that we booked an appointment to euthanize him.  We took him into the vet’s office and the vet needed to listen to his heart.  The key to getting a good listen to a dog’s heart is to prevent him from panting, and when dogs are distressed, they often pant heavily.  After about ten minutes of trying to hold Bear’s mouth shut, and he getting more and more wound up, the vet said “I am sorry, but I cannot hear your dog’s heart today but I don’t think we need to put him to sleep.  If only I could hear his heart, I could help him.  I asked why we didn’t just put a muzzle on him and the vet’s jaw dropped.  He thought that since I was a dog trainer, I would be very offended if he suggested that.  Just the opposite.  I pulled Bear’s muzzle out of my pocket and put it on.  He stopped panting and in fact relaxed a bit because we were doing something he was familiar with.  His heart was healthy and we were able to get a simple blood test that told us that he had Lyme disease.  With treatment, he lived another 18 months.

The fact is that although my dogs are all trained to accept all sorts of handling and frightening situations, if they are really truly and deeply afraid or in pain, they might bite.  Muzzles prevent bites, plain and simple.  My vet is an intelligent, well educated professional and his job is to help my dog to stay healthy, and to resolve health problems when my dog gets sick.  My vet’s job is not to put himself at risk of getting bitten.

I regularly work with dogs with serious behaviour problems including aggression.  I have had more than one student come to class with a dangerously aggressive dog who has already injured someone and be reluctant to muzzle their dog.  More than once a client has said to me “you are the dog trainer, don’t you know how to handle the dog without a muzzle?”  The expectation seems to be that I have some magic that will protect me when handling a dangerous dog.  I am good, but I am not magic! 

Close up of a dog muzzled
This is a groomer’s muzzle. They are inexpensive, easy to obtain, and easy to fit. When teaching a dog to wear a muzzle, this kind of a muzzle can really help your dog to learn that wearing a muzzle is fun because it is easy to give treats through it.

When I worked a service dog, I often had to travel.  When I was on an airplane or a train, I always carried a cloth groomer’s muzzle in my briefcase.  More than once my briefcase was searched and the agent would find the muzzle and ask me what it was for.  In the event of an accident where I needed to be evacuated, I wanted to be prepared that I could muzzle my dog if transport might be difficult.  I always try and plan for every contingency possible and one of those contingencies is that I might need to be carried out of an airplane on a stretcher, and my dog might need to be lifted up by someone he didn’t know.  A muzzle makes that much safer for the rescuer, which makes it much more likely that my dog would be saved in an emergency.

So how do I get my dogs accustomed to muzzles?  I start early for sure!  When my puppies are very young, I will sometimes feed them out of a coffee cup to teach them that they can take treats out of a confined space.  Then I move on to yoghurt containers as they grow, and smear peanut butter or some other soft gooey food item on the bottom.  When my dogs start seeing a yoghurt container as an opportunity to get their faces into something yummy, I cut a small hole in the bottom of the yoghurt container, and duct tape an elastic to make a head strap on the wide mouth.  I smear something in the bottom, and when the puppy is licking away, I slip the elastic strap over his head.  The elastic should be fairly loose to start with.  And then it is a quick step to shoving treats in the front of the muzzle.  Puppies think this sort of a handling game is lots of fun.  If the puppy fusses about the elastic or the yoghurt container, I just don’t pop the head strap over his head until the pup is really confident about the whole thing, and try again in a few days. 

Once the puppy, or sometimes the older dog, is happy about having the loose elastic strap around his head, and is not bothering the yoghurt container, then I switch to a regular muzzle.  My favourite brand of muzzle is still the jafco (https://www.jafcomuzzles.com/ ), but I also use a groomer’s muzzle for training; they are easier to carry in my pocket and they are the type of muzzle that the veterinarian will likely have.  I put the muzzle on loosely, and feed through the front.  I keep doing this until the puppy or dog is happy about the procedure.  From there it is fairly easy to get a puppy to accept the head strap being tightened.  In my experience, dogs accept the jafco very easily, and once I can tighten the head strap, I make sure that my dog has lots of chances to engage in fun activities such as playing with friends while wearing his muzzle. 

Once my dogs understand how to wear a muzzle and once they are relaxed and happy about going for a walk while wearing one, the key is to keep that skill fluent.  You have to practice regularly.  In my house, we sometimes have happy muzzle day on Mondays.  Happy muzzle day is the day that you get to play muzzle games, or go for an off leash walk, or play with your friends while wearing your muzzle.

simple muzzle training
Here is my handout outlining how to get a dog started on muzzle training.

Muzzles are a little bit like shoes for babies.  Babies don’t like wearing shoes.  They don’t enjoy having their feet confined.  Dogs and puppies don’t like having their faces confined either!  If you take the time to properly train your dog to wear a muzzle, then your dog is not going to fuss when he needs to do so.  Additionally, puppies who are taught to wear a muzzle properly rarely mind wearing a head halter unless you put a lot of pressure on the leash when using the head halter.  That is a topic for a whole other blog though!

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Every year at this time, I start preparing my clients for the holiday season, and every year, I come up against the same thing; families want to include their dogs, but they often have very unrealistic ideas about what their dogs should be doing with their families.  People want their dogs to be part of gift opening activities, however, they don’t want the dogs to take every gift from under the tree and tear it apart.  People want their dogs to be around during the holiday feast, but they don’t want him to beg at the table.  And families like to include dogs in greeting the guests at the front door.  The problem is that everyone has this idea that it is somehow or another going to all work out, without ever preparing their dog for the big day.  Incidentally, I see this in families who want to include their dogs in their weddings, funerals (yes, I had a client who wanted her dog to go to her late husband’s funeral, and called up to ask my advice on how to best include him!), birthdays and other family events.

I like to include my dogs in most of my activities too, and so people are often surprised that they may come to visit me and never see my dogs.  I am actually more likely to bring a dog to visit you than you are to see one of my dogs when you come to visit me.  I feel like saying that the reason for this is that I am a control freak, and that would not be untrue but there is a lot more to it than that.  It starts from the point that I really want my dogs to be successful.  I really, really want them to be successful.  Yes, they goof, but the vast majority of time, after people have met my dogs they say things like “wow, I wish my dogs behaved as well as that!”

18735699 - portrait of multi generation family
Including your dog when visiting is an art that includes actually training the dog. This dog has been taught to sit and stay in a relaxed way with his family, showing that the family has prepared the dog for a group portrait.

The way that my dogs get such a stellar reputation is simply that I train them to do what I want them to do and then I plan interactions to compliment what they know.  All my dogs know how to do a one hour down stay by the time they are 6 months, so if I have to take them somewhere, I can depend on them to lie down and stay for at least an hour.  This means that I can start taking them quiet places to visit for up to an hour at a time so long as their other needs for food, water, exercise and social contact have been met.  This can be a lot of fun.  I can go out with a friend for coffee somewhere, or I can go to someone’s home, or they can come to visit me.  In this way I teach my young dogs that there is an expectation about the down stay no matter where it happens.  The thing about this is that I don’t take my pups out with people who are going to upset my training plans.  I only take them places where I know they will be supported and successful in what I want them to learn.  If you are the type of guest who is going to tease my dog out of her down stay and into play, then she can rest in her crate while I am visiting with you.  If you have kids who might be too quick or too much fun for a puppy to resist joining in the fun with, then she can rest in her crate, where she won’t learn bad habits right off the bat.

With my older dogs, who know the drill, I will have them out while you visit, if I am confident that you are the kind of guest who knows how to mind their manners around my dogs.  I expect that my dogs are going to mind their manners around my guests, but by extension, I expect that my guests will mind their manners around my dogs.  When I am visiting with you, you are the person I am interested in, so I want to be able to spend my time focusing on you!  I don’t need to spend all my time pleading with my guests so that they are not getting my dogs unnecessarily excited, and I don’t want to spend my time with you chastising my dogs if they goof and forget their manners.  So unless and until I am very certain that my dogs cannot be tempted out of their down stays, it is most likely that they won’t be coming out of their crates or the yard if you are at my house for a short visit.

If you are visiting for more than an hour or so, I usually make some time for an activity that everyone is going to enjoy with my dogs.  If I have a new adult dog in my home, who doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t have the training to participate, you still won’t meet that dog.  It isn’t fair to the dog to be asked to behave himself when he doesn’t understand the rules.  If people are up for it, we can go for an off leash walk around the farm at a time that works out for the rest of our day.  If people don’t want to go for a walk, we sometimes go out for a game of fetch, one dog at a time.  In the event that people don’t want to go outside, then I will bring the dogs out one at a time, to do some tricks and maybe play some scent games.  What I do with my dogs and you will depend upon who you are, what your experiences are with my dog or dogs, and what the activity is for the day.

So how do you include your dog in the holidays while also making sure that your dog is going to be successful?  As always, it depends.  If I am expecting your family to my home in the mid afternoon, to stay for two nights, and participate in two formal meals, brunch, gift giving and the normal hubbub that comes along with a houseful of people who don’t normally live there, I am going to give some thought to how to set up for success.  If I am going to visit you, the process is analogous, as I will outline below.

Dog tearing up Christmas present
Gift giving is a large part of many traditions! If your dog does not already know how to automatically leave items that are not his, leaving him to his own devices during the holidays almost always results in a dog who gets into something he ought not. This may result in something funny, but it could also make someone who worked really hard on the perfect gift really upset, and rightly so! Managing expectations, using crates and leashes and teaching your dog what you expect of him is a better choice than allowing him to cause this sort of upset.

When I am expecting guests, I always make certain that my dogs get a really good run before you are expected to arrive.  For my dogs that usually means getting them out and off leash, preferably in a group of other dogs.  This is fairly easy for me; we live in the country, in a place where we have over forty trails to choose from and we know a lot of dog families so getting real exercise is not terrifically difficult for me.  If I am going to go visit someone, I always look for a walking trail on the way where I can stop for at least 40 minutes to run my dog or dogs.  I want to start out a guest experience, either as a host or as a guest with a dog who is not full of beans and silliness.

Once I get that out of the way, when I get home, I make sure that I have a good supply of toys pre-stuffed to give my dogs in their crates.  Stuffing Kongs properly means knowing your dog very well, and understanding how they work on toys.  With naïve dogs, I will just put kibble and chunks of treats such as liver, sausage or cheese loosely in the Kong.  I will put the whole thing upside down in a coffee mug so things don’t fall out while stored.  With more experienced dogs, I will do the same thing, but add a plug made from sausage or cheese.  Locally we can get a product called Rollover (https://rolloverpetfood.com/product/beef-dog-food/ ) that works very well to plug a kong.  There are many brands the world over of this type of product.  With dogs who are really good at this, I will use Rollover to lock in the kibble on multiple levels; I will alternate a layer of kibble with a layer of rollover until the Kong is completely stuffed.  Kongs stuffed in this way can be dropped, thrown, or bounced and they won’t spontaneously empty.  For the truly serious Kong chewer, I will freeze these to make emptying them really difficult.  Although I mention Kongs here, there are now a wide variety of toys available to stuff.  Just make sure that you can blow through the toy so that you don’t create a vapour lock that can suck your dog’s tongue into the toy.  You can find my blog on safe toys at https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/safe-toys/ .

Once I have a well exercised dog, and a pile of stuffed toys ready, then I am ready to entertain you.  If I am travelling, I bring the toys with me.  Regardless of if I am answering the door or ringing the doorbell, that initial excitement is not part of my dog’s lives because they are in crates when it happens.  Usually they don’t have a Kong at this point.  If I am arriving at your house, my dogs are in their crates in the vehicle, and if you are arriving at my home, my dogs are usually crated for about a half an hour before you arrive. 

You may be wondering why I do it this way.  When dogs are permitted to greet every single guest every single time, they never learn to do that politely.  Imagine for a moment if your closest friend greeted you the way most dogs greet people at the door.  Imagine how you might feel for instance if your dad or your uncle were to rush the door yelling and hooting and hollering, and then leapt up at you and tackled you to the ground.  Even if the intent was benign, you would not be pleased.  When my dogs are well enough trained to lie quietly and approach gently, they can greet people at the door.  I use behaviours such as the one hour down stay (https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/the-racehorse-down-stay/ ) proofed against doors to teach my dogs what to do but I don’t allow my dogs to just greet.  Usually when I am visiting for two nights, I have a pile of things to bring in and I leave my dogs in their crates in the vehicle until I am ready to bring the rest of my things in. 

Often if you are visiting me, I will have coffee waiting, and we can sit down to visit a little, and this is when I like to bring my dogs out.  My dogs understand that people sitting around drinking coffee means that they should find a place to settle.  If I have a young or naïve dog, I will often bring him in on leash, and have treats available so that I can reward him for calm and quiet behaviour.  Once you and the dogs have had a chance to meet quietly, either by you going to them to give them treats, or they coming and sitting beside you to get a treat, then they are free to go about their day.  People have often commented when they stay with me about how my dog’s “excited” greeting is very low key.  They are obviously pleased to meet you, however they are not whining, jumping up or knocking you over.

If I am visiting, I usually bring yellow mats for my dogs (dogs see yellow and blue, so I want something that they will recognize as their own) and they do a down stay once we are in the house.  When I am visiting, my dogs are not allowed to move freely through your house without permission.  They don’t know the rules of your house, and I don’t want them to be in your way.  When I move from one place to another in the house, they follow me, either because they have been taught to do that, or because they are on leash. 

Cute little Shiba Inu dog lying on doormat at home
Go lie on your mat is one of the essential behaviours that my dogs need to know to help them be successful guest dogs and host dogs. I look at my dog’s mat as his chair at the table. I can decide where he needs to lie, and make sure that everyone knows not to disturb him there. This includes your dog in your activities without creating the kind of chaos that can occur when he doesn’t know where he should be or what he should do.

There is an exception to these rules for my dogs.  If you know my dogs really well, and you know how I want you to interact with my dogs, then I may allow them to meet you at the door.  Friday has a young friend who visits a few times a year, and when she comes to visit, Friday will circle her and smile, and she will bend over and tickle Friday all over.  They are delightful to watch because their behaviour is highly reciprocal.  I contrast this with most greetings is a dog who is so excited and who has no idea about what is expected, and a human who spends most of her effort fighting off the affections of the dog.  This is not a healthy greeting, and it doesn’t reflect what I expect of my dogs or of my guests.

Once the guest/host greeting phase is over, my dogs are usually fairly settled and behave towards my guests as they would towards John and me; they are happy and relaxed, but they don’t spend all their time overwhelming people with their exuberance.  If at any time they are struggling with what I believe is appropriate and healthy interactions, I will take them back to their crates, give them a stuffed toy to keep them amused, and then go back to visiting.

At meals, my dogs will either be in their crates with their dinners, or lying quietly behind my chair.  I don’t want my dogs to learn to bother people who are eating, and I don’t want either my host or my guest to teach my dog bad manners by rewarding behaviours that I don’t like, so most often my dogs are crated through dinner.  Given that holiday feasts are often accompanied by candles and multiple courses that have to be served and cleared away, this makes things easier for everyone.  My dogs love their crates, so this is easy for us.  I feed all meals at home in crates so that I can see who is eating, and who is not, and so that I can ensure that with multiple dogs, no one eats anyone else’s food.

Often holiday visits include gifts exchanges.  If I have a dog who is really savvy about guests, I will have them do a down stay as part of the activity, however if they are not, then they spend that time in their crates.  It is a short period of time in my dog’s life, but it can make such a difference in the memories that are created at the holidays.  Consider for instance if someone has spent a lot of time and effort planning a special gift for another person and the dog completely overshadows the experience.  You want the gift giver and recipient to remember the exchange, not how the dog jumped into the picture and stole the show, or worse how the dog destroyed the gift itself because he didn’t know how to keep his paws to himself.

In between meals and gifts, I still need to meet my dog’s needs for food, training and exercise.  Often this is an opportunity to include family members in activities where they can more actively interact with my dogs.  When this is not possible, I may do a few tricks here and there.  This serves to give the dog a role in the gathering, and also to give people who may not know my dogs to interact with them in a way that I can control.  It is a win/win when the dog has a role and is appreciated for himself.

Senior man practicing tricks with dog
Tricks can be a great way to include your dog in the holiday activities, and part of the fun is that you can break almost all the rules! Normally I would not encourage a dog to put his feet on the dinner table but in this case, being at the height of the high five recipient means that the old man doesn’t need to bend down to participate! Setting clear rules for your dog when teaching the trick makes this a safe and fun activity.

All of this requires planning and training, and certainly it is not how everyone experiences holidays with their dogs.  I wrote this blog after a Facebook exchange with a colleague who was lamenting her experiences visiting with her dog.  A number of trainers chimed in with their horror stories of visiting with dogs, and I mentioned that when I had guests, often my dogs would stay in their crates.  We were all surprised to find out how many of us crated our dogs when guests arrived, and how few of our non-professional trainer friends did not.  I often see posts on social media saying things like “the dog lives here, you don’t” along with a laundry list of poor behaviours that I should expect when visiting that person’s home.  When I visit, I am not coming to be drooled on, sat, on, pestered, or hassled into play.  Yes, my dogs live here.  No, I don’t expect them to make visiting me a chore.

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

WHO IS TRAINING WHOM

Originally published June 2013

I love training dogs.  I am a pretty good dog trainer too.  Dogs fascinate me.  I could watch dogs interact over and over and over and over again for hours.  I love horses just as much but have less experience with them, and I spend hours watching them, learning about them, observing them.  Horses are just as cool as dogs and different.  As a professional trainer, I get great amounts of joy from watching my dogs and interacting with them.  Training them provides a framework and a platform for communication with them and that is extremely cool.  I love the interplay of communication between me and the dog.

One of the most interesting things to observe in dogs is when they start turning the tables and training us.  Almost every dog who has been through a training class does this.  In its simplest forms, when the puppy starts to circle and look like he is going to toilet, then we rush to the door, he is training us to rush to the door and take him out.  Training happens when behaviour changes dues to consequences.  If you were sitting and reading a book, and the puppy’s behaviour causes you to jump up and open the door, then the puppy trained you to do something in response to what he is doing.  How does this work?  In short, in order to avoid an unpleasant outcome (cleaning up a bathroom mess), the person will jump up and let the puppy out to pee.  Over time, the puppy will refine his cue.  At first, in order to get the person to jump up and open the door the puppy has to actually toilet on the floor.  Next, the puppy has to look like he is going to toilet.  Then the puppy just has to look at the person in a particular way.  Pretty soon, the puppy just has to glance at the owner and lickety split, the owner jumps up and lets the puppy out.

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The magic “fill up my bowl look” that this dog has used to train his people to fill his bowl.  Image credit: logos / 123RF Stock Photo

In the scenario above, who is training who?  Is the person taking careful note and getting the puppy out to pee, or is the puppy teaching the person to jump up and open the door?  Is the puppy’s toileting behaviour being maintained by the reinforcement of an empty bladder or is the person’s behaviour being maintained by the lack of messes on the floor?  These questions reflect the more subtle nature of training.  When you influence the behaviour of another being, your behaviour is changed in turn.

Most of us want to train our dogs to do things like sit or lie down, or come when called, and it is fascinating to learn about the two way street of communication that really makes up training.  If the dog is motivated to teach you to give him treats it is pretty easy for him to get you to do that over and over again, by offering you a behaviour you like.  So you choose the behaviour that you will get in order to make you give a treat.  The dog chooses either to give you that behaviour or to not give you that behaviour, depending in part how much he wants the item you have on offer.

In a manner this is an economic relationship.  You have something to offer.  The dog has something to offer.  You can choose to trade or not.  If your dog offers you something you don’t want, you don’t have to play.  If you don’t have something the dog wants, he may choose not to offer you anything you might be interested in.

That is the simplest of explanations of what might happen during a training event.  When you do a lot of training, the dog starts to initiate more and more interactions.  About five years ago, I went to do a training session with a client in a hotel room.  I arrived with coffee and the client and I, who hadn’t seen one another in several months, sat down to chat.  At first the dog hung out with us.  Then she started to get jumpy.  Then she vocalized a bit.  I ignored the dog’s behaviour.  The clients ignored the behaviour.  And after about fifteen minutes, the dog I had come to work with walked away from us, entered her crate and faced the wall.  She faced the wall for about five minutes and then she came out and sat in front of me and made eye contact and looked meaningfully at her crate.  The dog was pretty clear that if I didn’t attend to her and start training right now, she would time me out a second time.  This is a dog who understands the training game really well and she applied the rules she understood to try and get me into her game.  What she did to me was absolutely the same as what I might do to a dog who was not attending to me; she took herself and her assets and removed them from me.  When she felt she had timed me out for a long enough time, she offered me another chance to play.

I am fortunate enough to have lived with enough dogs who understand the training game that I have been trained to do a number of very complex behaviours.  The other night, D’fer came up to bed with a hockey ball in his mouth.  He lay down halfway across the room from me and dropped the ball in front of himself.  He looked at me, and pushed the ball at me.  The ball rolled to me, and I caught it.  Deef looked at me and I rolled it back to him.  He mouthed it a bit and then placed it in front of himself and rolled it to me.  I picked it up and rolled it back at him.  We repeated this seven or eight times and then he carefully placed the ball on his bed, curled up around it and went to sleep.  I am pretty sure that D’fer feels that I need to be trained from time to time and he is diligent about training me.  I got to play with the ball as long as I was willing to roll it back to him.

D’fer has taught me all sorts of behaviours and when he thinks I am misbehaving, he is prone to timing me out by taking his toys and removing himself from the situation.  And he has a very sophisticated understanding of how training works.  Today he spent some time training a young woman about training.  He went to a leave it lab with a thirteen year old girl.  He understands the leave it behaviour.  He also understands young trainers.  And he enjoys playing with the variables in order to see what happens.  This amuses D’fer more than perhaps more than anything else in his life.

Knowing the rules of training makes D’fer an interesting dog to work with.  When his learner starts to lose interest in the task at hand, he becomes more animated and interesting to the learner.  When he is playing the training game with someone who is a novice at training, he may know the behaviour they are learning about, but he doesn’t always let the person know.  He will make mistakes that he knows won’t result in a reinforcer.  If the person isn’t getting the hang of things, he will give the person a “freebie” and do the behaviour perfectly to keep them in the game.  Then he will go back to a subpar behaviour to teach the person about how to train the behaviour.  An interesting dog to play with indeed.

Guelph-20121025-01020
Cooper teaching shaping.  He generally isn’t interested in treats.  He is mostly interested in engaging people and changing their behaviour.  His reinforcement seems to be the act of training itself.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

There is another dog I know who is interesting in a similar way.  Cooper, the Welsh Terrier who stayed with us for about two months last fall.  Cooper taught a number of veterinary students about shaping.  He really enjoyed it.  Seanna, his person, likes to Curl; that game of hurling rocks around, and sweeping ice for points.  Curling is a very social activity and Cooper often gets to go to the Curling Club with Seanna.  This past winter, Cooper figured out that the people who weren’t on the ice Curling, they could be engaged in the training game.  He will approach a person and offer them a trick.  If the person responds by giving him a treat, or engaging him in a game, he will stay with that person for quite awhile.  If the person pats him or says Good Boy, he moves on.  Over the course of the Curling season, Cooper taught most of the Curlers to give him treats when he did tricks.  Here is the interesting part; he isn’t particularly interested in the food.  He is interested in the game.  In my own kitchen I have sat down to hand feed Cooper and he disengages.  He isn’t interested in getting treats.  He is interested in the game.  By engaging in the game, you get the opportunity to engage with Cooper.

If you watch for this phenomenon, you will likely see this in your own dog.  Most dogs who live with people do this to a certain extent.  At its simplest form, the dog will teach you to open doors and fill water and food bowls.  At its most complex, it is a beautiful interplay of exchange of information and opportunity between you and your dog.  This level of engagement is a special gift, a connection and the possibility I hope for every day when I step into the classroom and help someone to teach their dog to sit.  Sit is more than just a behaviour we want to develop for the price of a couple of treats.   Sit is the opening move in a step by step journey of communication where behaviour changes in both directions.

WHO IS TRAINING WHOM

WHAT’S THE POINT?

For those of you who know me well, you likely know that I don’t really enjoy repetitious drilling.  I am pretty sure that most of our animal learners don’t either.  I had a riding coach who once told me “you got the move right, why are you practicing what you already know?” and I think she had a good point.  Once you have mastered the behaviour, what exactly is the point of practicing it over and over and over again until it becomes stale and boring for your animal learner?

For me, this is one of the real challenges to training young puppies.  The early skills that you have to teach puppies are important in order to build a solid training history, but once my puppy has a solid grasp on them, I want to move on.  I DO train my puppies of course, and I encourage others to spend the time with their young naïve dogs teaching them the foundation skills that they will need too, but it is not my most fun training time.  If I could just install sit, down, touch, go to mat, stay, come when called and you control the click as a little program without doing the work I probably would so that I could get on with the stuff that is more fun.

Miniature Poodle Puppy
Teaching a young dog that click means treat and that they can control the click is an important part of foundational training, but clicking and treating hundreds of times would be tedious and is unnecessary.

Here is the problem with dogs who have been in training for a few months.  Most dogs get to the point where the foundation behaviours are known and they aren’t much fun for the dog any more!  Sit?  Got it.  Not worth the kibble any more!  This sequence is not an uncommon sight in my classrooms.  The dog has learned the behaviour, and the owner then asks for that behaviour over and over and over again.  The dog knows how to do it, and he has gotten to the point where asking for it, drilling it and repeating it leads the dog to start to mentally ask “what’s the point?”  I will point out that he is not articulating that in words, but from what I can see an awful lot of dogs don’t want to keep practicing things just because you want them to do it.  At this point in training one of two things needs to happen.  Either the trainer needs to start to move the training along, or the trainer needs to start to apply the behaviour to something that makes sense to the dog!  Both strategies are useful.

So let’s look at sit.  If you have a young dog who knows how to sit, you can start to make that more challenging to the dog right away.  It isn’t difficult.  I like to make a mental list of all the places I have asked my puppy to do this.  In the kitchen?  Yup.  The living room?  Yup.  The bathroom?  Oooohhh!  That one is trickier!  I keep adding rooms until my dog is able to sit in any room in the house.  Then I start to add in places outside.  Front yard, back yard, on the porch, the driveway, the sidewalk, the park.  When I run out of places, I add in objects.  Can you sit on a mat?  A cushion?  That one is tricky!  A boulder? A stump?  A wall?  A bale of hay or straw? In a puddle?  The technical term for this process is generalizing.  I am generalizing the dog’s ability to perform the behaviour to a wide variety of places and contexts.  You can think of this as the Green Eggs and Ham of dog training. 

There are other ways of generalizing too.  Can your pup dog the same behaviour no matter who asks for it?  When your dog is able to follow your directions in a number of venues, will he follow it for your brother?  Your daughter?  Your best friend?  Your trainer?  I am looking to train every cue such that my dog will follow that cue anytime, anywhere, for anyone, and that means getting very specific about what I am teaching.  I cannot expect my dog to follow the instructions if he doesn’t know them and if he hasn’t had the chance to follow a cue in new places and with other people, I cannot expect him to be successful.

Still though, these are just foundational behaviours, and after practicing sit here, there and everywhere, my dog is going to start asking that all important question “what’s the point?”  Why should he sit?  What if he doesn’t want to?  What if it isn’t worth a piece of kibble?  I am willing to do many things, but some of the time, I just don’t feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if you offer me money or some other incentive to do it.  the caveat is that if I think there is a good reason to do something, I will do that boring little thing, often for no reward.  This is the important point to remember when our dogs hit that point where they have mastered the foundation behaviours but those behaviours don’t have context.  When there is no point to doing the task, the dog may begin to refuse to play the game.

So how do we give context to behaviours?  Simply put, we stop rewarding them with food, play or touch.  We start to put the behaviour into other activities.  Most dogs willingly sit for dinner; that is part of the ritual and routine for many dogs, so it makes sense to them to just do it.  In fact, you can really annoy some dogs by offering them a treat before you put down the bowl.  The reward for the behaviour is to get to eat dinner, however most of the time, the dog is just thinking about what the routine might be for getting to the meal.  The same goes for dogs who are required to sit before doors open, or who have to sit before they get their leashes on.  The sit just fits into the routine, and it has meaning to the dog. 

Dog at summer
Once your dog knows how to sit, you should start asking him to do that in a wide variety of places and conditions. Just because he can sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean that he will necessarily sit on the front lawn, in the park or at the vet’s. And just because he can sit on the floor doesn’t mean that he will sit on a mat, on a chair, on a stool or on a low wall. Generalizing the behaviour means that your dog will do the behaviour anywhere, anytime and no matter who asks him to do it!

We can go one better than that though.  We can start making games for ourselves with our dogs that involve the foundation behaviours that get so boring so quickly.  Using sit as our example again, we can start asking our dog to sit before we do things together, such as fetch, search or find me (or even better, find someone else!).  The sit becomes embedded in other activities and gains meaning as part of other fun activities.  Now the dog has a reason to perform the behaviour and that makes the behaviour itself much more meaningful to the dog. 

You can kill the joy of the sit if it is the only behaviour you integrate this way however.  If you only embed the sit, it is a little like playing scrabble where you only get four letters, a, e, s, and t.  There are a very limited number of words you can spell with those four letters and if you try and play scrabble with these four letters, it is going to be a tedious and boring game.  You might choose to play that way at first in order to teach someone the concept of the game, however in the end, you will get tired of the limits set upon you by having so few letters to use.  As your dog gains more behaviours, you can start to play the same games with more “letters” or behaviours.  Now, instead of only having sit to insert into your activities, you can make the required behaviour a surprise.  You start making dinner for your dog, and before putting it down, you ask your dog to lie down, or sit, or touch your hand with his nose.  When your dog gives you the behaviour you ask for, you can give him his dinner.  In this way, behaviours become letters in the infinite game of training scrabble.

Cute little Shiba Inu dog sitting on doormat at home
When there is context to a behaviour, dogs are more willing to do the behaviour. Many dogs know that if they sit by the door, it is quite likely that someone will open the door for them. Once the dog has the context for the behaviour you need not reinforce the behaviour with a treat; the door opening is certainly a reward, however, it is also part of the communication that we share with our dogs as part of the activity, and this is all part and parcel of having a well trained dog. When he understands the behaviour in context and the behaviour is part of the formula we don’t need to reward it every single time.

You can in fact extend this game into more and more complex activities that become meaningful for you and your dog.  At Dogs in the Park, we run a games class each week for the dogs who have passed the foundation behaviours needed in order to play.  We play things such as musical chairs (integrating leash manners, sits and downs into an activity), leap frog (go to mat) and recall relays (coming when called over and through distractions).  By participating in group activities where the behaviours are applied instead of just drilled dogs become more willing and eager to perform those behaviours that have become stale and boring when you just drill them. 

It is important to note that advanced behaviours can suffer the same fate as those foundational ones; drill the agility tunnel or the perfect front in obedience for too long and your previously enthusiastic dog will start to ask “what’s the point?”  Once your dog asks that question about behaviours you have worked hard to polish, it doesn’t take long for an advanced dog to start asking that same question about more mundane behaviours too.

WHAT’S THE POINT?