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K-9 Prodigy

Unleash the genius in your dog

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Should my child walk the dog alone?

Posted on 20 November, 2019 at 20:47 Comments comments ()
A dog can be a kid's best friend. Kids tend to love dogs! And if your family has a dog, it probably won't be long before your child is asking to take the dog out alone, without adult supervision.

Think carefully about your answer on this. It's going to depend on several factors, including your child's skills, the dog's skills, and the environment. Here are some things to consider:

Size of child and size of dog. In general, a dog that's 30% or less of the handler's body weight is going to be relatively easy to control. A dog that's 50% or more is going to be difficult or impossible to control without specialized training or equipment.

Is the child the only one who's walking the dog day to day? Kids often lack the ability to do consistent leash-walking. The dog frequently ends up pulling. Over time, this will cause the dog to lose much of his loose-leash skills, and begin to pull more and more. It's a good idea for an adult to walk the dog at least a couple of times during the week to review leash skills. Of course you'll also be coaching your child on how to prevent pulling and how to respond if the dog pulls, but this is a long-term learning project for most kids!

How's your child's ability to focus? While on a walk, whoever's got the leash is who's responsible for the dog. If your child has a tendency to get distracted and forget about the dog, it might be a good idea to accompany them on walks for a while to remind the child to focus, or to take the dog when the child needs a break.

What's your dog's temperament like? Is it an easy-going dog who's unflappable around many situations? This type of dog will be easier and safer for a child than a dog who's nervous. A dog who's reactive toward people or other dogs is never a good choice for a child to walk alone.

What would your child do in a worst-case scenario? This would usually be something like the dog is pulling after a cat or squirrel and the child has lost control and is being dragged, or an off-leash dog approaches your dog and there is a fight. What is the child supposed to do in this kind of situation? There's no one-size-fits-all answer for this; it will depend on many environmental factors, so the child needs to have the ability to make quick decisions on his or her own. This is an advanced level of cognitive functioning, so younger kids may not be able to do it at all, and older kids might not make the best choices. You can talk through some potential situations and see what your child thinks; above all the child should be conscious of his or her personal safety (including dropping the leash if needed to get away from a dangerous loose dog), and also think of the dog and of other people and dogs in the environment. It's most convenient to instruct the child to simply avoid potential conflicts, turning around or moving away when he sees one, but that's not always possible. 

If you do not live in an environment that you consider safe for your child to walk the dog alone, try to think of some options that will still let your child and dog have fun and safe time together. Maybe you could take them on a hike and let them lead the way while you trail behind. Maybe you can let them walk on a path in a park while you read on a bench. Maybe they can walk the dog in the company of friends or siblings; if anything goes wrong at least they'll have some extra hands to help. Make your decisions about kids and dogs carefully, and I hope they have a lot of fun together and stay very safe!

Should my dog greet other dogs on leash?

Posted on 14 November, 2019 at 19:55 Comments comments ()
It's pretty common for people walking dogs to let the dogs approach each other, sniff, greet, maybe play and interact. But it this always the best choice?

Be careful if you decide to let your dog meet/greet an unknown dog being walked by an unknown person. All dogs can be unpredictable, especially ones you've never met before. If your dog has a negative experience -- maybe the other dog growls or attacks -- this could have long-term effects on your dog, especially if it happens regularly.

Or maybe your dog doesn't have a negative experience -- maybe it has a great time! Although the dog's had fun, this experience can also affect its behavior on future walks. Now it sees other dogs as an opportunity for playtime, and can develop the expectation that it gets to go and say hi. Maybe now your dog is pulling on the leash and ignoring you in the presence of other dogs. And if you don't let it go say hi, frustration behaviors such as barking and leash-biting may be close behind.

The ideal situation for many dogs may be a hard-and-fast, easy to understand rule -- while your dog is on leash, he's to focus on you and not greet/interact with other dogs, and while he's off-leash he's free to meet, mingle and play.

Another option would be for you to tell the dog upfront (immediately, upon sight of the other dog) whether he's going to be allowed to greet the dog onleash. By giving your dog early information -- and being absolutely 100% consistent, you can often prevent a lot of frustration. Pick a consistent word or phrase that you can use every time your dog orients to the other dog -- "Go say hi" and "Not today," for example. Make your decision quickly -- there should be no grey area for your dog to be wondering if he's going to get to greet or not.

If you are going to let your dog meet dogs sometimes, which dogs? A quick read of the other dog's body language will give you some helpful information. Not all dogs want to meet your dog! If the other dog is cowering behind the owner, has a stiff body or tail, or is giving your dog a hard stare, that's not a good dog to meet. If the other is overpowering its owner or dragging or lunging enthusiastically to meet, that's not a good choice either. A good dog to meet would be calm and relaxed, standing, wagging its tail, on a loose leash and making soft eye contact. Make sure to ask the owner first if the dogs can say hi; move on quickly if the answer is "No." (Also move on if the answer is hemming and hawing, or reluctance, or a long explanation of how to do it, etc.) Keep the greeting short -- about three seconds is all that's needed. (Longer greetings tend to escalate most dogs.) Then "Let's go" and move on. It's a good practice to reward your dog for compliance in moving away from the other dog, after you've moved away. Don't use food in the immediate presence of the other dog though; this could be a safety risk if one of the dogs guards food.

If your dog wants to greet other dogs on leashed walks, whether or not he gets to do that should be your choice -- not your dog's choice. Before you choose to allow it, think carefully about whether it's a good decision and if it's a helpful one, and then make sure the greeting is done in a calm way, and then move on. If your dog does not want to meet the other dog, then you should respect its choice on that, and move on without forcing interaction.

Low Motivation

Posted on 2 May, 2019 at 15:24 Comments comments ()
What does it mean if your dog has "low motivation?"

It's not the end of the world if you hear a trainer say that about your dog! Unlike a child whose "low motivation" might predict years of difficulty and poor performance in schools, dogs with low motivation are often very successful at being great pets, and behaving just fine.

Dogs who have high motivation are usually the ones who pull on the leash, steal food, and jump all over you for attention. They want stuff, and they're not afraid to go and get it, even if this means getting in trouble or going against the wishes of their owners.

Dogs with low motivation may enjoy a snack or a sniff, but they're not willing to expend too much energy to get it. If they want something, it's not too hard to convince them otherwise; a quiet "no" usually does the trick just fine. They are frequently calm and compliant in everyday life; this is the type of dog who does not seem to "need" training -- they already behave pretty well. They're not motivated to get anywhere fast, so they rarely pull on the leash. They're not super-motivated to get food, so they stay off the kitchen counters; they like attention just fine but won't jump all over you in order to get it. Nice dogs, right?

Many trainers, high-level competitors and more active/advanced owners, however, feel that dogs with higher motivation are easier to train and will often intentionally seek out a "naughtier" dog, searching for a naturally energetic companion who will enough internal drive and motivation to work hard to earn rewards. If you want the type of dog with this kind of motivation, but don't have it, there are some things you can do to improve motivation. 

First, and this should hopefully be a given, make sure that your dog is in good health. Things like sore muscles, bone/joint problems, poor nutrition and obesity can cause what looks like low motivation. If you are in any way suspicious that some of your dog's unwillingness to work may be caused by something physical, then check with a vet.

If your dog's healthy, one way to help build motivation is to be more reserved about allowing your dog to access "free" rewards. Dogs who are free-fed (food constantly in a bowl that they're allowed to eat of whenever they want) for example, are usually not very motivated to work for food, because food is free and always available. Regular meals, where the dog is conscious that you're the one giving the food, can help. You can also start asking the dog to do something vefore you give it a toy or initiate play -- a "sit" before you throw a ball can go a long way in raising a dog's motivation.

Slowly, over time, many dogs motivation improves if you simply continue to work at it. Even if a dog doesn't particularly care about treats, if you make it about more than just food -- the interaction with you, the praise, the "earning" something -- gradually the dog will start to enjoy it more and more, and motivation should improve. You can also try blending treats with play (tossing treats, etc) or with verbal praise/petting/interaction, to see if that helps.

Increasing a dog's motivation can take a while, but it's usually doable!

Controlling Resources

Posted on 27 February, 2019 at 16:24 Comments comments ()
A lot of still-common, but old-fashioned training advice these days comes from some studies that were done on captive wolves back in the 1980's. Videos of these groups of unrelated wolves placed artificially in "packs" showed the wolves frequently fighting and struggling for physical control and social dominance. A pack-based theory of dog training emerged from this, promoting the idea that the basic relationship dogs have with others is an often physical fight for dominance. 

We know now that the study was mostly wrong. Wolves in true packs are family, and the wolves are much more on getting along and cooperating in order to get their needs met. It's very rare for a wolf to actually alpha-roll another wolf; if it does it's usually in a fighting context that may involve in one of the wolves actually being killed -- not just a routine thing that's done to remind everybody who the boss is. Leader wolves did not spend their time and risk their health fighting for rank or alpha rolling others. Instead, leader wolves controlled resources.They controlled the best spots for sleeping and the best parts of the food. Other wolves would demonstrate appeasement behaviors (rolling over, face-licking) and then would be allowed to participate.

Controlling resources is something that humans are very, very good at. In fact, you control just about every resource that could possibly be important to your dog. You control the door out to the backyard, the can opener, whether or not food is in the bowl; you control car rides, the length and distance of dog walks, and if your dog gets to meet other people or not. You can control not only which toys you buy for your dog, but when and if he plays with them. 

Because you control these resources, you can use them to maintain a strong leadership and sharp sense of discipline in your dog. You control whether or not the door opens, so the dog learns to sit and stay to get the door open (because that's the only behavior you'll accept; otherwise that door is staying closed! All the jumping and barking in the world isn't going to work.) Your dog is highly motivated to get at these resources, so he'll quickly learn that the best way to get at them is to listen to you and be obedient.

If you're just getting started, a good practice to get into is to withhold things of value from your dog until it performs an obedience request of your choice. It could be something as big as some heeling followed by sits and downs before his food bowl is placed onto the ground, or as small as a polite pause and checkin before you invite him onto the sofa. To make things very clear for your dog, you'll want some kind of cue that means he's been successful and can now access the resource: "Okay!" or "Get it!" is fine.

Doling out treats during structured training sessions is also, when you think about it, doling out resources. You give a cue, your dog responds, you reward by giving a reward/resource. Over time, with continued training and practice, your dog will learn that it's in his best interest to listen to your obedience requests and please you. And this will be in effect all the time, not just if you have rewards available.

Outside of regular training sessions, you can also experiment with making resources magically "happen." This is especially good for things like weaning off treats and making sure the dog will listen to you whether or not there's anything in it for him. Prep for this by planting food or toys somewhere they wouldn't normally be (don't let your dog see you doing this!) Then, completely out of context of normal training, randomly ask for some obedience (make it an easy request, if you're not sure if the dog will respond without seeing the food up front), and when the dog does it, praise like normal but also run to your secret stash of rewards and play/feed away! This will create a dog who will respond immediately whatever/wherever you are.

When you think about it, you've got control of almost every resource your dog could ever want or need. Start using that to your advantage, and your dogs behavior and obedience will immediately improve!

New Training Frontiers: Mimicry Part III

Posted on 11 February, 2019 at 16:48 Comments comments ()
Still hanging in there after the first two posts of this series? Great!

If you’ve been playing along with the exercises in the previous post, and all seems to be going well – your dog is correctly stationed and waiting while you do your behavior demonstrations, and then responding to whatever verbal cues he knows for the various behaviors, and you’ve repeated sessions several times so it all looks very easy, go ahead and do the following to check your dogs understanding of mimicry so far:

First, do about 2-3 repetitions of your basic pattern so far: station the dog, perform the behavior, cue “Your turn!”, cue behavior. Is your dog keen and eager and quick to perform? (Wait another day or so if he seems tired or not into training.)

If all is well, then for the next behavior, station then dog, perform the behavior, cue “Your turn!” and…pause. Maybe 1 or 2 seconds. It’s very likely that you’ll see the dog begin to initiate the behavior. Mark instantly, once you see the initiation – don’t, for example, wait until the dog has completed the entire “spin” before marking. You want the dog to know instantly that he’s right, after taking this leap of faith in performing on just the mimic cue.

If your 1-2 seconds go by, and the dog is still stationed, go ahead and cue the behavior, and reward just like normal. Then move on to the next behavior, but again pause after the “Your turn!” Again, mark right away once you see the dog begin to do the behavior.

Repeat. The dog should soon be confidently copying your movements on your cue “Your turn!” Remember, this is all still with behaviors that your dog has already been trained and already knows how to do. You’ll learn how to introduce a brand-new behavior…soon…

Too much science and not enough action?

Posted on 5 February, 2019 at 18:57 Comments comments ()
Dog trainers current on modern training methods make a big deal of science; it’s really important. The laws of learning state that such and such will result in such and such; rewards will tend to increase a certain behavior; punishments will tend to decrease a behavior; there are primary and secondary reinforcers; operant conditioning will always have a classical conditioning tagalong, etc. This kind of stuff is interesting to read and of course, really, really important. I’m definitely not suggesting that people should ignore the science behind dog training: in fact, it’s one of the first things you should start to wrap your mind around, if possible.

But what I am suggesting is that science, knowledge, and understanding of dog behavior and training theory by itself are not going to make you a good dog trainer. It’s definitely part of it, but just reading, understanding and theorizing are not enough. Along with the theory and knowledge, you also need some good, old-fashioned, hands-dirtying, sweaty WORK. As in, hours. Hours spent actually working with dogs and actually achieving training goals. Hours spent messing up, training things you don’t want and then having to un-train them, training things that you’ll later find will interfere with other things you want to train. The 10,0000 hours to mastery…is really a thing. This is where you’ll find out that you don’t actually have the perfect sense of timing that you know from the books is so important. This is where you find out what “consistency” actually means. But it’s also where you develop that perfect sense of timing. It’s where you develop the discipline and habit to be consistent. It’s where you gain a better understanding of all your theory and knowledge, because you see it happening and working right before your eyes.

If you’re interested in dog training, then yes; read about dogs, watch the videos and go to the seminars. But if you find that you’re on Facebook talking about the pros and cons of various techniques and methods, rather than actually out and about and DOING the various techniques and methods, stop and get up, put your shoes on, get your dog, and go do it.

New Training Frontiers: Mimicry Part II

Posted on 7 January, 2019 at 17:28 Comments comments ()
New Training Fronttiers: Mimicry Part II
In the last post we discussed the prerequisites needed for starting Mimicry training. If you’re following along and have worked on isolating six behaviors that your dog can perform fluently on verbal cue alone, and you’ve figured out how you’re going to do your stationing and have practiced that with your dog, you can go ahead and get started!
Pick three of the six behaviors to start with.
Station your dog.
Perform one of the behaviors (for example, spin in a circle.)
Cue “Your turn!” or “Copy!” or “Do it!” (whichever you’d like, just remember to be consistent.) Within one second, add your verbal cue for the behavior (“Spin!”)
Mark and reward when the dog completes the spin.
Move on to your next behavior, for example, lie down.
Station your dog.
Demonstrate lying down.
Cue “Your turn!” and within one second, add your verbal cue “Down.” Mark and reward.
Keep your sessions short; this work is actually pretty hard for most dogs. Make sure to end your sessions before the dog gets tired or bored, even if this means you only do one or two repetitions of each behavior. Never repeat the same behavior more than twice; for example you could do a Spin, then a Down, then a Jump, then a Down – but don’t do a Spin, then a Down, then a Down, then a Down.
Do about five sessions with this exact structure, and you should start to notice something that will seem magical….
Then check back for the next post in this series!!

New Training Frontiers: Mimicry Part 1

Posted on 3 January, 2019 at 13:22 Comments comments ()
It’s a fun, yet complicated time to be a dog trainer, as there are constantly new methods and techniques being developed. One that I’m currently working on is “mimicry.”
Mimicry is simply learning something by copying it. Humans do it all the time: “Do this,” I can say, and demonstrate a task like shortening a leash or presenting a hand target, and the person can immediately do it. Dogs, on the other hand, don’t really get this. In fact it was long thought that they couldn’t learn by imitation or mimicry at all, other than very basic things that young puppies could pick up from their mother.
We are finding that this really isn't correct -- the truth is that dogs can definitely learn through imitation. It’s not a natural learning mechanism for them, but they can be taught the concept of watching a demonstration, then repeating the behavior. This is very exciting for most trainers, as it means that now there can be a very fast way of teaching very complicated behaviors.
Here’s a little bit about my experience working through this training procedure for the first time with my 4-year-old Golden retriever, Halo. And there should soon be some videos up on the Facebook page so you can see it in action! If any of you want to try this training method out, I’m definitely happy to help!
There are prerequisites. Your dog must have about six distinct, stand-alone behaviors that it knows on verbal cue only. This is crucial. So many times we think that our dog knows a specific cue or command, but it’s actually relying on our body language or some feature of the environment in order to do the behavior. Your dog has to know what to do when you stand completely motionless and say the word. It’s best if your stand-alone behaviors include some that the dog can do independently (spin, lie down, wave, etc) and some that involve an object (retrieve, jump, fly, any of the Parkour behaviors etc.) The other important thing is that a human can replicate any of the behaviors.
Practice the prerequisites, aiming towards no body language or other cues – verbal only! – until your dog is very quick to do the behavior – you want him to leap into action immediately on your verbal cue.
Separately, practice a “stationing” behavior – “Wait” or “stay” – this will hold the dog in one place while you do your demonstration for the dog to copy. Practice a lot of handler movement while the dog is working on stationing – jump around, roll around, run around – so the dog gets used to remaining in place while you’re doing things.
After you’ve got everything planned out and your dog is fluent with the verbal cues for its six behaviors and can stay at an observation station while you do stuff, you’ll be ready to move on to Phase II of Mimicry training – so stay tuned!

Working from Home

Posted on 10 December, 2018 at 16:52 Comments comments ()
Working from home with your dog sounds like a dream come true. Relaxing mornings where you can get up leisurely and go out for a nice walk before settling down in front of the computer for the day’s work. Your dog will curl under your feet as you type away and send emails to co-workers, supervisors and customers. In the afternoon, maybe you’ll head to the coffee shop for a change of scenery; your dog will come too, of course. When the work is done, you’ll sign off and head out to the park.
The reality is often very different. In real life, the dog is barking its head off at the mail carrier just as you’ve got the most important customer on the phone. He’s whining for attention as you’re trying to focus on an important document. Or, there’s perfect silence…which you enjoy for a while before suddenly realizing that he’s probably getting into trouble, and jumping out of your chair to find him happily shredding the sofa cushions.
But…it CAN be a special pleasure to work from home with your dog. Here are a few keys to make it easier.
1)      Structure the day. If you don’t put in a structure, then your dog will come up with his own structure, and you probably won’t like it. So plan out the day. Maybe when you first get up you’ll have coffee and feed the dog, then take him on a walk, and then settle in to work at 8 or 9 a.m. Structured exercise is especially important for this – your dog is more likely to sleep through those long stretches of desk work if it’s had a good romp in the morning and maybe another one at lunch.

2)      If you’re going to have your dog in your office or workspace with you, practice leashed settles near your desk. The leash is to keep him from getting into too much trouble and keep him generally in one spot.

3)      If your dog tends to bark a lot (at people going by, at birds, etc) consider reducing visibility – blinds down in the living room, or (again) having him settle under your desk so he can’t see and react to every little distraction.

4)      When you get up to walk or exercise your dog, make sure you’re getting up not in response to him doing something or getting antsy. Part of the settle implies that the dog has to lie there until you decide to get up – not until the dog is acting so naughty that you’re forced to get up and entertain it.

5)      If you have an important conference call to make, you might consider putting the dog into a separate room or its crate, ideally with a stuffed Kong or chewie that will take it a long time to eat. The last thing you want is your dog to start barking or getting into trouble while you’re trying to work with the clients.

If you know that you’re going to have a very busy day ahead of you, it’s no shame to get a dog walker or do dog daycare for part of the day.

Hopefully these tips help; good luck at your work-from-home job!

Test Your Training!

Posted on 9 November, 2018 at 13:56 Comments comments ()
Testing out your dogs skills and your training abilities in the competition obedience ring is a great way to see how you’ve done, but even if you don’t want to compete (many people don’t) you can still occasionally “test” yourself and your dog to see how you’re doing.
Dr. Ian Dunbar, the veterinary behaviorist who popularized both puppy classes and positive reinforcement-based training, uses the “test, train, test” method to ensure that your dog is in fact making progress with its training. With this method, you first “test” the dog to see how it’s doing in any particular situation. For example, you might walk the dog down the block and see how often it remains in good leash-walking position versus how many times it pulls ahead. Take note of the number of times (using numbers rather than vague descriptors such as “she did pretty good”) and note them. Then, go into your training period. Maybe two or four weeks? After this period is over, “test” again – walk down the same block, and count the number of times the dog was in good leash position. Has this number increased? If so, you have actual data that your training is working – keep at it! If not, then you should look into changing some things, put that into practice, and test again further down the road.
If you want to try this, keep your tests small and focused on the things you’re actually working on. So the questions wouldn’t be “Dog behaved himself at the park, yes or no?” but “Did he respond to come when called off medium-level distraction? High-level distraction? Could he sit-stay while another dog played fetch in the distance? Did he unload politely from the car?” The more specific you are, the more helpful the “test.”
After you’ve done your initial test, you now have to actually work on the things your dog missed! Don’t just give up and say “He didn’t come when called.” You now can continue working with your dog, but this time you have data! If the data says your dog has improved, then just continue with what you’re doing. If your dog hasn’t improved, then figure out why. Maybe you need a new training method or maybe you just need to improve the one you’ve got (look at your timing, reward structure, difficulty levels etc.) Don’t test too often – maybe once a month or so. The vast majority of your time should be spent training.
Give this system a try, especially if you’re not sure whether something you’re doing is working!