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K-9 Prodigy

Unleash the genius in your dog

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Badly Behaved or Struggling?

Posted on 22 October, 2018 at 15:16 Comments comments (38)
Very recently I saw an article intended for parents/guardians of young kids; the article described the benefit of reframing kids who were “misbehaving” as kids who “were struggling to cope in a particular situation.” If you saw the kids as misbehaving you were more likely to get frustrated, angry and punishing. But if you saw the kids as struggling to cope, you’d be more likely to remain calm, patient and helpful.
 
Like many things, there’s a parallel here with dogs. Maybe especially with dogs. Dogs really don’t “misbehave” just to misbehave. If your dog is lunging and reactive with other dogs, he’s not doing it because he’s bad. What’s more likely is that he’s doing it because he’s extremely insecure, he’s worried about the other dogs, and he’s putting up a defensive front to ensure that they’ll keep their distance.
 
Once you realize this, you can take more proactive steps to correct the dogs behavior. The dogs problem is that he’s worried/afraid/concerned about the other dogs, so your first job is to teach him that he’s going to remain safe around them. This can be done by keeping distance from other dogs until he relaxes, helping him focus on doing other things such as easy obedience work or just playing with you, and then repeating this (gradually moving closer towards the other dogs) as long as he’s remaining calm.
 
Likewise, the majority of dogs who tear up all your belongings and have accidents in the house while you’re at work are having trouble handling your absence. It could be separation anxiety, it could be an excess of pent-up energy with no outlet. Either way, the dog is not misbehaving so much as having difficulty, and needs your help in learning to be calm while you’re gone.
 
Everyone loves a dog who never has any problems and takes the world in stride, but this type of dog is few and far between. The vast majority of dogs need their handlers help on occasion, or sometimes frequently, to cope with a difficult human world. If they do not receive this help, they struggle – and the struggle usually looks like bad behavior.

Don't Trick Your Dog!

Posted on 17 October, 2018 at 16:28 Comments comments (4)
One of the most difficult situations I see people getting into with their dog is when the dog is refusing to do something (usually failing to come when called, or refusing to get into a car or crate) and the owner or handler can not get the dog to do it and is trying to "trick” the dog into doing it.
 
This team problem does not develop overnight. Instead it develops over many days, weeks or even months, taking so long to become an official “problem” that most owners can’t even define when it actually started. But the pattern is usually something like this; I’ll take refusal to get into a crate as an example.
 
Week 1: Owner takes dog by the collar and puts it in crate, dog does not want to be in crate.
Week 2-4: Owner takes dog by the collar and puts it in crate, dog does not want to be in crate. Occasionally it balks or makes an attempt to dart away before being caught.
Week 5: Dog refuses to be caught by owner to be put into the crate. Owner gets a treat and lures the dog into the crate. Dog eats the treat and still does not want to be in crate.
Week 6-7: Owner gets a treat and lures the dog into the crate. Dog eats treat and does not want to be in crate.
Week 8: Dog refuses to follow the treat into crate. Owner gets a different, better treat and lures dog in.
Week 9-10: Dog follows the “good” treat into crate.
Week 11: Dog refuses to follow the “good” treat into crate. Owner produces an even better treat. Dog refuses this treat as well; will not get into crate. Owner uses treat to lure dog into bathroom, traps dog in bathroom, catches dog and drags it into crate.
Week 12: Dog refuses to follow any treat into the bathroom to be captured, and will not eat any treats and can not be lured or coaxed anywhere. Owner gets out the leash and walks towards front door, saying “Go for a walk???” in an excited tone. Dog rushes to go on the walk, owner leashes dog and leads dog into crate.
Week 13-14: The leash trick is still working; dog thinks it’s going for a walk but ends up being crated.
Week 15: Owner gets out the leash, stands by the door and says “Go for a walk?” in an excited tone. Dog refuses to go to owner or to be leashed. Owner can not think of any more ways to trick the dog into being crated; loses temper and chases dog around. Dog is becoming legitimately frightened by owner’s behavior and anger, and growls/snaps/bites owner when finally caught.
 
This pattern (and obviously it doesn’t always follow the exact timeline or order of events, but it does always start with the dog not wanting to do something and frequently ends with somebody getting bitten) is a terrible one to get into. Let’s break this whole thing down and see exactly where things went wrong, looking at it as a trainer might look at it.
 
Issue #1:  The dog doesn’t want to go into the crate. This is the fundamental problem that set off this whole chain of events. Why doesn’t the dog want to go in? I would suspect things like the following and really do some introspection: Is the dog overcrated (too many hours in the crate?) Is the dog receiving appropriate exercise for his age and breed, and appropriate human interaction? Are there specific things that happen while the dog is in the crate that he does not want to endure? If the refusal to go into the crate happen most frequently when the owner is about to leave the house, some alarm bells about potential separation anxiety might be going off. More on this later.
 
Issue #2:  The owner is resorting to bribery with the dog; this almost always backfires. When training, it’s usually okay to lure the first few repetitions of a behavior with food shown up front, but strive to very quickly get rid of this practice. And it’s absolutely never a good idea to ask the dog to do something, have the dog refuse and then respond by bringing out a treat offering to “help” him do it. (All this does is teach the dog not to do things unless it sees the treat upfront, or the common complaint “He won’t do it without treats!”) It’s completely fine to reward with food after, and only after, the dog does his part first (without seeing food or having any indication that there’s food available.) You can do that forever if you want; it’s just really important that the dog does his part first. Otherwise the food is just a flat-out bribe.
 
Issue #3: The owner is continuing to upgrade the bribery offerings. “Find a really tasty treat that your dog can not ignore” is common training advice, but many trainers including myself are starting to steer clear of the super high-value treats in most cases. The problem with very high-value treats (liver or beef, etc) is that they can be so high-value that they overshadow everything else in the dog’s environment. Occasionally you do need to upgrade to a higher-value treat. But it shouldn’t be the first thing you do.
 
Issue #4:  The owner is continuing to offer the dog choices in a scenerio where the dog has already proved he can not make the correct choice. If you already know he’s not going to do the thing (go into the crate) because he’s not willingly gone into the crate for the last several weeks, then continuing to ask and continuing to get refusals will only further strengthen this refusal.
 
Issue #5: The owner is demonstrating to the dog that he (or she) is unpredictable. Dogs like it when people are predictable. They like when the appearance of the leash always means that they get to go for a walk. Behaving unpredictably, like pretending to go for a walk but then actually the dog goes in the crate, will erode the dog’s trust.
 
Issue #6: The owner loses their temper. Actually, anyone who’s read through the above scenario would realize that it’s not just a simple case of losing their temper. There’s a lot of desperation in the owner’s anger; he (or she) really has “tried everything.” It’s when humans are at the end of their rope and don’t know what else to do that human aggression can come out.
 
How on earth would you go about untangling this situation? Here’s a couple of things to look at and try:
 
1)      As mentioned above, the underlying problem is that the dog doesn’t want to go into the crate. Why doesn’t it want to, and how could we encourage it to be more compliant and happier in the crate so that it’s less of a struggle? We’ll ponder that for a bit as we right away put some other things into place.

2)      The very first thing is to get this dog out of the situation where it’s choosing whether or not to go into the crate, because it’s making the wrong choice. Once the dog gets to this level of trickiness, there’s no additional “tricks” you can do. So this dog will probably have to wear a house line, or “drag line” in the mornings. House lines are lightweight leashes that the dog wears and drags around behind it (no one’s holding the end.) They’re a little awkward in that you have to be careful not to step on it and to make sure that it doesn’t get tangled in any furniture. House lines should never be left on without supervision. In the morning you’ll get up and attach the house line to the dog first thing. Then you’ll go about your whole morning routine including feeding, pottying, exercising, getting yourself ready, etc.

3)      When you’re ready to leave for work you’ll announce something to the dog (something like “I’m going to work” or “Kennel up”; more on this later) collect the dog via the house line, and put it into the crate, unclipping the house line as you close the door of the crate and setting the house line down near the crate so it can be reattached immediately. Announcing your intentions beforehand will help bring your predictability back into focus for the dog.

4)      After the dog is already in the crate with the door closed, now is the time for the treat to be produced. Produce it from somewhere that’s not your pocket. Ideally, produce it from the kitchen cabinet. Return to the crate and toss it in (make sure not to accidentally let the dog back out of the crate.) See what the difference is between this treat and the original, bribe-style treats? In this case, the dog does the thing without being shown or hinted that a treat is available. In the former case, the dog was shown the treat before anything else happened.

5)      After a few weeks of this, there should be no issue at all with the dog going into the crate. In fact, he might willingly be going in. I’d still keep the long line on for a really, really long time – just in case. I’d want to feel sure at a gut level that the dog had a new consistent habit. I wouldn’t try it without a long line to “see what the dog will do.” I would try it if I knew that the dog would do it correctly.

6)      I would continue to monitor the dogs behavior, and if there was a time when, maybe months down the line, he avoided the crate even briefly I’d go back to the long line regiment again before the issue got out of hand again.
 
Now, remember the part about why it was important to understand why the dog was avoiding the crate in the first place? I’d actually be addressing that all along, while I was implementing the above steps for behavior change. The dog would be getting all his meals in the crate. He might be receiving “go in/come out” reward-based training involving the crate as well as other enclosed spaces. If he slept overnight in the crate, it would be right next to my bed, not in the living room or garage. The best chewies would always be in the crate.
 
I’d also make sure that he wasn’t struggling with mild separation anxiety. For dogs with separation anxiety, the crate usually predicts owner departure and it’s common for them to form a very negative association with the crate because of this. So I’d be sure the dog didn’t have budding separation anxiety. I’d set up a video camera or ask a neighbor if there was a lot of barking and howling while I was gone. I’d inspect to see if he was eating or drinking while I was gone. I might put him behind a baby gate in one room while I hung out in the other room, to see if he was comfortable and could relax without being in my presence. If I saw signs of separation anxiety, I’d have to work on that – the dog will never be comfortable alone in the crate if he’s not comfortable with being alone in the first place.
 
I’d make sure that the dog wasn’t crated excessively. Ideally dogs get a break from the crate every four hours or so. This isn’t realistic some of the time, but I’d at least ensure that the dog received both mental and physical exercise before crating, and that if there was a day (usually a work day) when he had to be in his crate longer than recommended, I’d make sure that he was being enriched and interacted with during the hours possible to spend with him. If you’re just too busy for all this, you could look into dog walkers, dog daycare, etc.
 
Remember in the example above, where the dog ultimately ended up biting? That also needs a second look. It may have been that the dog was just frightened and acted impulsively and it will never happen again. It may have been that the dog made the one bite attempt, that attempt was not helpful in successfully avoiding the crate, and it will never try again. Or it may have been the first episode in what could become a pattern of the dog using aggression and biting to get what it wants. So I’d very carefully look into this and make sure that the dog was happily compliant in all other aspects of its life and that the owner knew how to read dog body language and could understand when the dog was at or near a dangerous point. I’d also be tremendously cautious for a good long time going forward with this dog. I would do a lot of training around other things that dogs typically are non-compliant with – moving off the sofa, getting into a car, standing still for grooming, etc. The dog would be getting regular, probably daily, obedience practice using reward-based training methods. Even though daily practice of “come, sit, down” etc won’t directly fix problems relating to aggression, they will do wonders to smooth out the back-and-forth communication patterns between you and your dog, and they will get the dog into a happier habit of complying with your requests. Your handling skills will also get better and your confidence will go up, which really goes a long way in giving you the ability to control the dog without resorting to desperation and trickery. 

Happy Housebreaking!

Posted on 8 September, 2018 at 15:02 Comments comments (1)
When you bring your new puppy home, right off the bat you get started in housebreaking! Housebreaking a puppy seems so mysterious to so many, but it’s really not. It’s really just establishing a habit of going to the bathroom outside, and not going to the bathroom inside. I’ve housebroken many puppies and they’ve all been very reliable and you can do it too! Here are some hints:
 
1) Don’t give your puppy free reign of the house right away. Free reign of the house is for dogs who are housebroken. The more area your puppy has to explore, the more area he has to potty inappropriately (as well as do other inappropriate things, like chewing. In fact in many ways chew training and housebreaking go hand in hand.)
 
2) Take your puppy outside. Frequently. Often. A lot of times. Maybe as often as once per hour. Maybe as often as once every fifteen minutes, if you are pretty sure your puppy has to go. It doesn’t count if you send your puppy outside, and you stay inside. (Opening the door and standing inside the warm house while the dog potties is for older dogs who are already housebroken.) You really need to know if he potties out there, and it’s also good to praise him for going in the correct spot.
 
3) While you are spending all this time outside, make sure your puppy concentrates on the business at hand. This is not the time for play or petting. It’s usually best to keep him on a leash, so that he can’t range too far. If he starts chewing the leash or leaves, grass etc, calmly redirect him to the business at hand. He doesn’t get indefinite time to stand there, though. Two or three minutes; definitely no more than five – and if he doesn’t perform within that time period, back inside to your watchful eye.
 
4) Get to know any quirks that your puppy might have. Does he tend to get too distracted by the cat next door, and “forget” to pee until he’s back inside? (Try moving him around to the other side of the house, to reduce distraction.) Does he always poop twice in the morning? Does he have to pee right away after drinking water, or does it take a while? Every puppy will have specifics, so get familiar with them.
 
5) Keep an eagle-eye on your puppy while he’s in the house. If you’ve just witnessed him doing his business outside then maybe you have a 15 or 30-minute grace period where he can have a bit of freedom, but overall you want to keep a very close watch. This is to ensure that he’s not either pottying inside, or about to potty inside. You need to be close enough to interrupt him if he tries, and then rush him outside. (It’s a good idea to spend a few weeks wearing shoes inside the house, so there’s no delay if you need to pop outdoors.) And when you find yourself rushing outside at the last minute, it’s a good idea to pick up the puppy and carry him, so he doesn’t squat and start going while on the way out!
 
6) Crates can be your good friend. Crates work because most puppies will at least attempt to avoid soiling their personal bed area. This gives them the concept of “holding it” and not just pooping/peeing willy-nilly. If you’re not available to supervise your puppy, feel free to crate him, maybe with a good chewie. Now he can’t get into any mischief. Be careful not to overcrate, though – a few hours per day (plus overnight) is all that most puppies should ideally be crated for. A guideline for maximum length of crating is the puppies age, plus one, equals how many hours the pup can be crated.
 
7) Don’t rely too much on your young kids for help. If your human child is under 12 or so, they can definitely be part of the process, but usually young kids lack the focus and supervision skills to successfully housebreak a puppy. If you put the puppy in a room with two kids and almost any distraction (homework, video games etc) the likelihood is high that the puppy will go unsupervised and have an accident.
 
8) Don’t be too quick to assume that your puppy is housebroken and training is complete. If a couple of weeks go by and your young puppy successfully goes every time he’s outside, and doesn’t go any time he’s inside, it’s tempting to declare the puppy is successfully housebroken. Don’t do this! Housebreaking is a habit, and strong habits take time to form, even if the puppy is doing it right. Many puppies seem to “regress” in housebreaking at about age 4-5 months old, but usually this is not a true regression. Usually it’s just that they weren’t actually fully housebroken to begin with, and then the regimen ended too early.
 
All these pointers should help in making sure that your puppy is housebroken as painlessly as possibly, and reasonably quickly. Let me know if you need any additional guidance!

Things to Keep in Mind with a Leash-Reactive Dog

Posted on 23 August, 2018 at 16:37 Comments comments (1)
Living with a leash-reactive dog isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Most leash-reactive dogs are at least moderately fearful of various things in the world – usually people or other dogs – and when they see one of these feared beings while out and about, they respond by putting on an aggressive display, usually barking, snarling and lunging to the end of the leash.
 
It can be embarrassing and scary and potentially dangerous, depending on how strong your dog is. A simple walk can turn into a major chore. The training options to deal with leash reactivity can be complex and usually take a long time for the dog to fully heal from this problem.
 
If your dog is leash reactive, keep the following in mind as you work with him:
 
1)    This isn’t the dog’s fault. Dogs do not demonstrate reactive behavior (growling, lunging, barking, etc) to be “bad” or to bother their owners. Most reactivity is grounded in deep insecurity on the part of the dog. Your dog is worried or threatened by other dogs or people, no matter how benign they actually are, and lacks the tools and social skills to deal with the situation in an appropriate manner. Going over the top and having a breakdown is not fun for the dog. Most dogs develop leash reactivity due to their natural temperament or because of a series of negative experiences that happened on leash in the presence of other dogs or people. Over time they learned that showing aggression worked to distance themselves from what was concerning to them.

2)    This isn’t your fault. Most owners are quick to blame themselves, feeling that they are showing insecurity that the dog is picking up on. The truth is that the situation is much more complex. The owners are showing insecurity because the dog has shown serious problems before. It’s a vicious circle – the dog blows up, the handler becomes even more insecure. The dog is more likely to blow up because the owner is insecure. The dog blows up and the handler becomes even more insecure. Don’t try and project a false sense of confidence; your dog will not be fooled. You will become confident once you know how to handle the situation and have begun having successes.

3)    Your dog is an individual and you can set up his lifestyle individually. Don’t worry if all the other dogs are going on long walks through complex neighborhood. The other dogs are not your dog. Your dog might need shorter walks through quieter locations. Your dog might need to be driven offsite because there are too many off-leash dogs in your location.

4)    Change will come. A commonly-heard maxim for this kind of work is “Slow is fast.” It’s okay if you spend three weeks (or even three months) doing your training work at a distance so far from other dogs that you can’t imagine that it will ever realistically transfer to a real-life scenario. But keep working at that distance. The easier your dogs initial training setups are, the more confidence the dog will get, and this will transfer directly to harder situations down the line. Leash reactivity training usually has a slow start, unlike many other kinds of training where things start happening right away. Realize that the slow start is normal, and letting it take its own time will prevent you from rushing, teaching a shaky foundation, and then having to go back and redo everything. This training is going to happen at the dogs pace, so whatever baggage, past experience, temperamental nervousness or whatever else the dog is bringing to the picture are going to factor in – let them.

Training in Hot Weather

Posted on 15 August, 2018 at 18:38 Comments comments (0)
Training in the hot weather – no one likes to do it! I’ve always wondered what people who live in constantly hot locations – Arizona, Las Vegas etc – do about the hot weather when there’s dogs to be trained. Does everyone just rent air conditioned training buildings?
 
Luckily, Oregon is really only truly hot for a few weeks out of the year. Here’s some of the ways I’ve found to cope:
 
Train early! It really, really, really is worth it to get up an extra five or ten minutes early and do a very short training session, especially if you’re working on something that’s high energy like recalls or jumping. Most dogs feel most fresh in the morning.
 
Hot weather naturally slows dogs down; take advantage. This is not to mean that it’s ok to purposely overheat and exhaust your dog in the name of training, but if it’s not overly hot and is simply warm, you can actually use this as a stamina and control-builder for things like loose-leash walking and settle in public. Young dogs tend to overexert themselves early, usually during the first ten minutes of a walk. At some point they realize it’s hot and they’re getting tired, and they’ll slow. Eventually, they’ll learn to conserve their energy and start out a little slower. Again, I’m not suggesting that you purposely overheat or tire your dog just so he’ll learn to self-regulate. But I don’t have a problem with letting the natural environment teach your dog a lesson; even if you don’t do this intentionally many young dogs settle down quite a bit after their first hot summer.
 
Work on as much “inside” stuff as you can. Maybe you can even move some furniture around to give yourself a little more space. Here’s some good training exercises you can do in the house:
 
1)      Recall games (come when called.) Dump several treats for your dog to eat while you sneak off and hide in a different room (make it easy at first – no hiding that’s too difficult.) Call your dog and when he runs to you and finds you, praise a lot and dump another small pile of treats so you can take off again. For most dogs, keep this to only 3-4 repetitions or the dog will start to get tired – it’s important that your dog is actually galloping, not just trotting or walking, during recall practice.

2)      Food distraction work. In the kitchen! You can run through an obedience routine with food distractions hanging out on the counter, then on a table, then on the floor. You can “accidently” drop a loaf of bread during the sit-stay, then “forget” to pick it up for the come-when-called. A training buddy can sit around snacking as you heel by. You get the idea!

3)      Indoor Parkour. If you’re a Parkour fan, and you don’t mind your dog up on furniture, you can exercise your creativity muscle and think of some Parkour exercises for your dog to do inside.

4)      Distance work. Put your dog behind a baby gate or other barrier (you should still have visibility of your dog.) Standing right outside the gate, cue “sit” or “down” or “stand.” Reward and then try re-cueing from a slightly farther back location. Work up to being able to stand all the way across the room and cueing position changes.
5)      Work on your own training skills. One of the best ways to practice your own training skills is by training “throwaway” behaviors that you don’t really need your dog to know. (Usually tricks.) The world will not come to an end if you do not successfully train “Play dead” for example, but while you’re working on it you will be improving many of your own skills – skills at luring, adding duration to behavior, adding and modifying cues, etc.
 
I’m sure you can think of many more things to work on while you’re trapped inside your (hopefully air conditioned) house as the temperatures climb, but this list should get you started!

The Formality of Training

Posted on 28 July, 2018 at 14:53 Comments comments (6)
When many dog owners view highly-trained dogs, especially dogs competing in the obedience ring,  they see a picture of strict formality. The handler stands straight as an arrow and verbal commands are often brisk and firm. There is no talking to the dog during a training exercise and only limited praise afterwards. The dogs are not performing for rewards; the handlers are not carrying rewards. Everything is as tight and polished as a military drill.
 
I think this gives people the idea that in order to get their dogs to look like those highly-trained ones, they should look and act just like the handlers in the ring. If that’s what high-end training looks like, the assumption is, then that’s how we should work with our dogs.
 
This is definitely incorrect! Those highly formal dogs you see were trained the formality, the same way they were trained everything else. It’s just another layer on top of all their other training.
 
If you would like to add some formality to your dogs training, then first work on fading out all extra cues and minimizing your movements, and standing up straight and tall as you give commands. So many people get into the habit of saying “Down,” as they lean down and point at the ground. Stand up straight and say “Down” in a crisp, clear voice, and if your dog doesn’t lie down right away then you can go ahead and give a quick hand signal clarification, and then reward. After enough practice he should be lying down on just your verbal cue.
 
If your dog seems worried or concerned when you move and act formally, or if he just doesn’t read it as being interactive and wanders away, you can take an extra step to help him realize that it’s a good thing when you look this way, and it predicts fun and interaction. Move into a formal posture, hold it for a moment, and then produce a toy or treat. Do this several times, and soon he will excitedly engage with you when you look like you’re going to be working.
 
It can be helpful to go to an obedience competition and watch competitors before and after they’re in the ring. Most handlers will warm up very informally, with a lot of rewards and play. Gradually their handling will formalize, until they’re ready to walk into the ring, and the performance will be formal. After they leave the ring, there will be an explosion back into informality, likely again involving a lot of rewards and play.
 
If you like the look of a high level of formality in training, then go ahead and train for it! And if you prefer to just be informal, then that’s fine too!

The Non-Compliant Dog

Posted on 28 July, 2018 at 14:52 Comments comments (6)
Before determining that your dog is truly non-compliant, make sure of the following:
 
Is your dog in any pain or is it feeling unwell? Often the first signs of illness will be non-compliant behavior. Years ago I was called out to work with a dog who was causing some trouble in the yard. He was digging in the flower beds and then refusing to move out of them. This sounded bad, but when I went to see, the dog was obese (like, morbidly obese.) The yard was out in full sun and the dog would drag himself, panting, to the only shady cool spot (the flowerbed.) He’d scratch around to get into the damp dirt, and then flop into it. If you called him, he’d sort of pant apologetically and flop around. This dogs non-compliance was very clearly due to his health and physical condition – he was overheated and obese.
 
Does your dog actually know what it’s supposed to be doing? Before I announce that my dog is “refusing” to lie down, I need to make sure that he actually knows what “down” means. If I lured him into a down position a few times in the house and gave him a cookie for it, and then a couple of weeks later did it again and that was it, then he likely has no idea what I’m asking for, now that it’s next month and we’ve really only practiced the two times. If I’ve never practiced with distractions present, and now there’s distractions present, I similarly can’t say with certainty that he’s fluent enough in “down” to do it with distractions. This would be an issue where the dog has had insufficient training – not a compliancy issue.
 
Is your dog mentally capable of what it’s supposed to be doing? I see fear issues masked as compliancy issues all the time. The usual situation is the dog who’s tense about the environment being asked to sit or lie down, and the dog refusing. Why is the dog refusing? Usually because sitting or lying down are more vulnerable positions and the dog is remaining vigilant and wary, not willing to relax for a moment. When you get the dog into a more comfortable environment though, it suddenly becomes responsive again.
 
So, if you have mentally run through all these possibilities and determined that your dog is very healthy, is appropriately trained and has had sufficient practice, and is running at an even emotional keel and is still not complying with your request (often because there are more interesting things going on), then non-compliance may be at play here.
 
Non-compliance is usually when the dog would rather be doing something other than what you’re requesting. It would rather get up and move around than remain in settle position. It would rather continue romping in the backyard than come inside. Situations where you can easily identify what the “dog would rather do” are most likely to be non-compliance.
 
In general, you want to keep situations where the dog can avoid compliance to a minimum. This is why you don’t introduce true off-leash work too early, for example; all early off-leash work needs to be done either in a fenced area or on a long line.) Don’t let the young or novice dog be in a position where it can consider your request, determine “no,” and move on to self-reward for this – for example, if you call your dog back to you, he decides “no,” and then proceeds to race further off in the park.
 
So let’s say that your dog can’t actually get away from you and self-reinforce, but you’d still like him to lie down and settle while you finish your coffee. In this case, a firm but steady insistence is best. One of you is going to win; it should be you. At no point should this devolve into anything physical that you do to the dog – no squashing it into a sit, for example. And nothing that involves you losing your temper and yanking or yelling at your dog. Instead, you are going to “close the dog’s world” until he or she complies. This means cutting off all other possible means of reward; for example, you might shorten the dogs leash so that it is unable to sniff or move around too much. You can move yourself into your dogs line of sight; make very sure that you are not scaring your dog as you do this, but facing the dog can often refocus it as you “insist” on getting its attention (you are doing this through body language and movement; not by yelling at it or jerking it.)
 
The two most important things you can do to ensure long-term compliance are: 1) Make sure that you’re not just randomly giving cues or commands that you have no means of following up with. It’s a huge error to attempt to call a novice dog or puppy off a high-level distraction. The distraction will prove too tempting, and the dog will learn that it does not actually need to come back to you, and you will have no way of stopping this learning. 2) Make sure that most of the time, the dog is pleasantly rewarded for compliance. Coming when called should usually initiate walks, treats, attention/play, etc.

How big should your dogs world be?

Posted on 18 July, 2018 at 15:05 Comments comments (36)
I always pick up great new methods and techniques whenever I attend a training conference or seminar; sometimes I also pick up good concepts or “themes” for training. At this most recent seminar I attended about working with fearful, aggressive or reactive dogs, a discussion popped up about how “small” a dog needed its world to be on any particular day or any particular time, and it was great so I thought I’d share it with you!

Many fearful, anxious, reactive, aggressive or stressed dogs simply can not cope with too much at one time. If you go out for a walk and there’s dogs, kids, skateboards, cars…it’s too much for these dogs, it’s overstimulating. Their behavior will break down rapidly. It’s simply too much for that dog, at that time.

The better thing to do would be to “shrink” your dogs world so that it was exposed primarily to things it could handle, with small and controlled increases in difficulty and challenge so the dog could meet them successfully. This will improve its confidence and is what will lead to long-term improvement. So maybe instead of your dog/kids/skateboard/car walk, maybe you drive to a quieter park. Most of your walk is going to be sniffing and strolling in the grass. Maybe some kids on skateboards, or dogs, or whatever, will show up briefly in the distance. The dog will check them out, you’ll encourage him, he’ll be fine, and then you’ll move on. Success; the dog has now gotten through a walk without breaking down or becoming frightened. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow it will also get through walks without breaking down or becoming frightened. It is important to gradually increase stressors/challenges on these walks or your dog will not actually make progress; however, if the challenges are ones that the dog can handle, his confidence will continue to improve until ultimately he’ll be fine in truly difficult situations as well.

The necessity for a daily walk, and daily “socialization” has been popularized through the media, and of course it’s important for dogs to get out and exercise, but the truth is that for many dogs, it is not helpful to get them out and simply practice anxiety and stress over and over. What is most helpful is to get them out into what they can handle, allow their experience of “success” (i.e., no anxiety, no overthresholds or barking) to increase their confidence (it will) and then expand the world gradually.

Secret Training Weapon: History of Reinforcement

Posted on 18 July, 2018 at 15:04 Comments comments (5)

Many dog owners search and search for the correct tone of voice, hand signal, or word to get their dogs to do what they want. If there was just a magic “tone” that would get the dog to come when called, for example! People will try a friendly tone, a calm tone, a warning tone, a growly tone. Maybe a new tone works once or twice, but then it stops working, and the owner is back on the search for yet another tone. Or hand signal. Or body language and posture. Or whatever.

Now, tone and body language and hand signals and cues definitely all figure in to your dog’s obedience, but not in the “magic” way that many people think! What’s the “magic” way to make your dog do as you ask?

Technically there’s no such thing as dog training “magic,” but if there was something close to it, that would be having a history of reinforcement.
 
If my dog comes when I call, it’s not because I’m using a specific tone of voice. It’s because my dog has a history of being reinforced for coming when called. It’s been rewarded dozens, maybe hundreds of times. It’s been reinforced with treats, toys, playing, running, being released back to play, going for a car ride, being let outside, being let off leash, getting to meet another dog, getting to say hi to a new person. Coming when called is a very, very valuable behavior for my dog and he knows it. He is going to come every time.

So your secret weapon is a “history of reinforcement.” How do you get it? With practice, but smart practice. For the majority of your training repetitions, you should be thinking in terms of setting the dog up to succeed, so cue only when you think he’s likely to do it. This will look like lots and lots of easy reps that he does successfully and is rewarded for. Every now and then you might throw in a harder, “challenge” rep to stretch him a little further, but the meat and potatoes of your practices should be easy. If you make it easy for the dog, he will respond correctly, he will get his reinforcement, and your reinforcement history will build, and that behavior will get stronger.

Trainers frequently refer to this concept as “building value” for a certain behavior or exercise. If your dog is constantly getting treats while sitting in heel position, then there’s a good chance he’s going to default to heel position. Heel position becomes valuable for the dog and he’s always going to want to get there and stay there. You can also build value for sit and down stays, for going into a crate, for sticking with you in the face of distractions, or for anything else you’d like your dog to do more and more of. It’s a simple technique that can be used for complex training; pick something you’d like to be valuable for your dog and then give it a try!

The Beauty (and necessity) of Maintenance Training

Posted on 19 June, 2018 at 13:08 Comments comments (15)
Once your dog has received basic training, great! You have put a lot of time into training your dog. He’s functioning at a high level. You’re having a great time taking him out and about and doing all kinds of fun things together. Your friends and neighbors are jealous. Everything looks great.
 
As the months go by, however, there’s a little slip here and a little blip there. Your dogs once good leash-walking skills are now “usually” good leash-walking, but sometimes he pulls towards things he really wants. Your good reliable recall is now he “usually” comes when called. Sits are a little slow but he still does them, downs are even slower. He’ll do a sit-stay for a good amount of time, but frequently gets up before he’s actually released.
 
Fast forward another few months. Now your dog is pulling more than he’s walking nicely, his recall can no longer be considered “good,” and you find yourself struggling for control in many situations. What’s going on here? The dog looked so good seventh months ago!
 
What’s going on is that for the dog whose training is not maintained, eventually it will begin to disappear. This is because of consequences. If there are negative or no consequences to a dog’s good behavior, that good behavior will start to fade away. If there are no or good consequences to a dog’s unwanted behavior, that behavior will start to increase. Of course most owners aren’t intentionally punishing the dog for things like come when called, and they’re not intentionally rewarding the dog for things like pulling on the leash and jumping on people. But for the dog, even unintentional rewards and punishments will start to have an effect as the months go by.
 
For example, your dog pulls very slightly on the leash as you are in a rush to get  from Point A to Point B. You’re in a hurry and anyway it wasn’t a very hard pull, so you ignore it, and the dog gets to sniff ahead of you at something it wanted. To the dog, this sniffing was actually a reward for pulling, and it will probably try again tomorrow, but maybe a little harder of a pull this time. Gradually the pulling will take hold as the dominant behavior.
 
Or, you use your dogs brilliant recall (come when called) to collect it from the dog park. The dog comes running; you leash up and go home. The next day you call it because you have to trim its nails. The next day, you call it away from its favorite playmate. To the dog, now coming when called is not a good thing – it means either that the fun is ending or that something unpleasant is about to start. If this keeps up, the dog will get slower and slower to come when called, and will likely eventually stop doing it at all.
 
This is where maintenance training comes in. During maintenance training, you focus on providing consequences to the dog so that its training and skills remain sharp. So those beautiful recalls result in treats and play, and those leash pulls result in a reset and repeating the sidewalk. The more maintenance training you do, the more highly-tuned and responsive your dog will be, but most people can get away with doing it 1-3 times per week (depending on your dog, of course!) I also do maintenance training for client dogs, so if you just don’t have time but want to keep your dogs skills sharp, I can definitely help!  

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