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K-9 Prodigy

Unleash the genius in your dog

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How big should your dogs world be?

Posted on 18 July, 2018 at 15:05 Comments comments (495)
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 (92)

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!

How E-Collars Work

Posted on 26 June, 2018 at 18:37 Comments comments (28)
Some people swear by electronic collars (also called “e collars,” “stim collars,” or “shock collars”),  and some would never even consider putting one on their dog. Recently several countries in Europe have begun banning them; the Humane Society of the United States and the American Veterinary Association have officially recommended against them, and the number of both professional trainers and pet dog owners who use them is greatly reduced.
So how do they work? And what makes some people such believers in them? And what makes some other people so against them?
The core function of the e-collar is to discourage unwanted behavior by providing an electrical shock whenever the dog does it. Once the dog learns that the behavior causes the shock, the idea is that he will avoid doing the behavior in order to avoid the shock. The electric shock consequence can be given for either something the dog does of its own volition, such as barking, or for failure to respond to the handler’s command.
More sophisticated uses of the e-collar involve some sort of “warning” tone or vibration so that the dog is aware that it needs to act immediately in order to avoid the shock. For example, the handler will cue “Sit” and if the dog fails to sit immediately, the warning sound or vibration will happen. The dog knows that if it doesn’t comply, it will receive the shock, so it complies.
E-collars do sound tempting for many owners – an option for off-leash control, an option that really lets your dog know you mean business when you issue a request. And some trainers really like them and use them for every dog.
The main danger with an E-collar is the chance that the dog will begin to associate the shock not with the digging, jumping, running away etc that you want him to associate it with, but instead will associate it with random other things that happen to be in the environment at the same time. For example, if you are using an E-collar to teach the dog not to jump up on people (the dog jumps up, you beep/correct him), he may definitely learn not to jump up on people. But if he associates the sound with the people instead (here’s some people!, you beep/correct him), he may become wary or even aggressive towards those people. This is actually really common, and is one of the main reasons that most trainers really avoid recommending E-collars – an aggression problem is much, much worse than an overly-friendly dog who jumps on people.
In the right situation, for the right dog, with the right handler, an E-collar can work without potential for side effects. There may also be a situation where the need for immediate suppression of the dog's behavior is so great that it outweighs the risk. (Things like chasing livestock and rattlesnake avoidance are still fairly common applications for the E-collar.) But to use an E-collar fairly and correctly, the handler’s skill and timing must be impeccable. Beginner handlers who are struggling to control their dogs are often the first to want to gain control by using an E-collar, but the more inexperienced you are, the worse of a choice it is. It is unfair and potentially inhumane to subject the dog to shocks as the handler figures out, through trial and error, how to use the system. So only a highly experienced trainer should even attempt this tool. And you know the saying, “If you’re a good enough trainer that you can use an E-collar correctly, you’re a good enough trainer not to need one!”
The thing that really bothers me, though, about e-collar training is that the majority of the time, people use them to achieve the appearance of a trained relationship with their dog, without the actual trained relationship with their dog. People can spend literally years working with their dog to achieve the true connection and friendship that ultimately results in off-leash freedom and reliability. It’s organic and natural and the bond runs deep. You know the ins and outs of your dog and your dog is almost an extension of you. It’s a beautiful relationship to have and a beautiful one to observe. Like any relationship, it takes a while to get it to that level, and it is worth the time. A dog who, no matter what the environment presents, will choose you instead. Every time. Contrast this with an “I want my dog to be off-leash so I’ll make it so he can’t get away by shocking him if he tries.” Yes, it will work; your dog will be off-leash maybe earlier and younger than my dog, but what you’ve got is just an empty shell of that great organic and natural relationship. I'm after the real stuff, and hopefully you are too.

The Beauty (and necessity) of Maintenance Training

Posted on 19 June, 2018 at 13:08 Comments comments (333)
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!  

What to do if your dog doesn't like treats or toys

Posted on 5 June, 2018 at 17:51 Comments comments (87)
Every so often there’s a dog who does not really care to work for treats or toys or praise; it may enjoy those things but not care enough for them to have a motivational impact. What do you do about these dogs?
The long answer is that you slowly, over time, build up the “value” of the treats, toys and praise – hand-feeding meals is a time-honored way to develop more food drive, or making the dog work for some or most of his kibble (“no free meals!”), and spending time encouraging your dog to play with you (in some cases, especially with rescue dogs, you have to literally teach them how to play), and building your relationship with your dog until your praise really starts to have meaning for him.
But until you get your reward systems in place, then what?
One thing to think about is that if a dog doesn’t want the treats, toys and praise, what does he want? Most likely the answer is ACCESS. He wants to sniff the grass, go exploring, continue the walk, check things out. And you lucky owner, do have control of your dogs access to stuff. You decide what he gets to sniff, where he gets to go, what he gets to see. The great news is that you can use this “access” to stuff as a reward that’s equally or even more motivating than traditional treats!
Let’s say you’re walking by a patch of inviting grass. Your dog really wants to sniff the grass, but is willing to walk with you on the boring sidewalk instead. “Sit,” you request, but the dog just looks longingly at the grass. You don’t budge though; you’re not going to move off that sidewalk until you get what you want, which is a sit. Finally the dog sits. Praise and “Go sniff!” as you trot your dog over to the grass and reward it with a good sniff session.
What will happen next time you walk your dog past a distraction, and then cue “Sit”? I would bet that it sits very quickly!
You don’t have to allow access as a reward every single time, but it helps if you occasionally allow access. I once had a dog who loved to run so much that she would do anything if the reward afterwards was to run for a couple of steps. After a while, as she grew more experienced with training, she started to develop a taste for treats and toys as well, and now she’s willing to work with those too, but for initial work running was her favorite reward. She’s now a great dog who can work without rewards outside of practice sessions, so be prepared to think outside the box and come up with other reinforcers if your dog doesn’t seem to care about food or toys right now.

Using flashcards in training!

Posted on 31 May, 2018 at 20:41 Comments comments (291)
I’m experimenting with a new system for homework – one of the things that gets tough for more advanced dogs is just keeping track of everything you need to practice. It’s easy to practice the things that are easy and fun, but harder to remember to practice things that are more of a challenge. And what about the things your dog learned two months ago, but you haven’t really made use of; is he going to forget all of those? 

I tried making some flashcards for my own dog Halo, and so far so good. When I really thought it through, there are almost 100 flashcards of exercises, commands, etc. That’s…a LOT. I’m working through about 5 of them per day. They’re going really great and after the first week or so I decided to try it with some of the dogs in the string, and that’s going great also!  

Here’s how you can get started with flashcards – I’d suggest to keep it as simple as possible to make sure that it’s actually easy to do as a habit.  

Get yourself some index cards – the Dollar Tree has a pack of 100 for $1! I’d suggest the bigger size of cards so that there’s more room to write on them.  

On individual cards, write down the name of one exercise, drill or command your dog is learning, such as “Sit.” The cards should be simple skills or behaviors that can be done quickly; you’ll want your skill cards to be able to be worked through in 30-60 seconds each.  

You can work through your flashcards however you’d like. I just keep a pile of them on my dresser, and pick whichever ones are on top to do. If I have lots of time I take a handful, or if I’m in a big hurry I might only pick one. Work through your card and then make a quick note of your session – indicate where you practiced (in the kitchen, in the backyard, etc) and a very brief note of how your dog did. That’s it! You’re done with that card. Rotate it back into the pile.  

You can also take some flashcards out with you the next time you go on a walk or other training outing. A quick review of “sit-stay” or "down" before you get into the car, for example, is so easy.   As your dog progresses in training, just add more and more cards for the new things it’s learning. You will likely be practicing mostly on what’s new, but keep your old cards in the rotation and review them every once in a while.

Give it a try!

Training with Compassion and Respect

Posted on 15 May, 2018 at 18:22 Comments comments (70)
Throughout all training, you must respect the dog. Respect the dog, its history and experiences, its learning process. More than a few times, I have seen people rescue a dog, often a stray off the streets, have it for a month or two, and be bewildered by its fear and aggression. Their reasoning is the dog has nothing to fear now, since it’s got a loving home, and the aggression is just plain uncalled for.
Now obviously you’ve got to change this behavior (I’m not saying that it’s acceptable!) but if you come at it from a place of “This is ridiculous; you need to stop this right now,” you are completely disregarding that dogs past and experiences.  This may be a dog who has actually had to fight off or run from dogs who were trying to attack it, resorted to growling or biting to defend the only food it will get to eat that day, or been chased, scared or injured by strangers. That’s been its reality, and just because your reality is one where dogs and people are friendly and life is, at its core, safe, does not mean your dog shares or believes your experience.
When you adopt your dog, you are conscious of your decision to protect it, care for it and make sure it has everything it needs for the rest of its life. This was an easy decision for you; you love your dog. Your commitment is absolute. Your dog has no way of knowing any of this. To him you are just another person; he has no way of knowing your intentions or plans.
“Training with compassion and respect” is one of those ideas that can be too general or too vague, so here’s some specifics to keep in mind.
1)      Give the dog enough time. All dogs learn at different speeds. Some may be very slow. Many learn more slowly than we’d like; humans in general tend to prefer instant results.

2)      Look at your own training and handling before declaring a lack of success is the dogs fault. Is your training and handling something that a dog can understand?

3)      Look at your training plan – while any specific method, technique or plan may have worked for you in the past, this is a different dog, and might need a different method.

4)      Do not force the dog. With a very few exceptions in emergency-type situation, force is never a good idea. It may get the job done in the short-term, but over the long term you are eroding the dogs trust in you.

5)      Do not make fun of the dog. I really don’t find the “shaming” type photos on Facebook entertaining. I do not appreciate owners calling their dogs name “Dummy,” “Stupid,” or “Jerk” or worse. Your dog is not a dummy, not stupid, not a jerk. Anthropomorphic name-calling is absolutely unhelpful, and every time you label a dog in a specific way, you are further reinforcing your perspective of him as such.

Training Concepts #1: Neutral/No Consequence

Posted on 15 May, 2018 at 18:21 Comments comments (71)
Although some dog training concepts seem a bit technical and jargony, they can still be really helpful! I will try to break down a few of them so you can keep them in mind and use them as needed. First up:
“Neutral consequences tend to reduce frequency of behavior.”
What this means:
We all know that “good” consequences (treats, praise etc) tend to make behavior increase in frequency, which is why we use them so often! And “bad” consequences (time out, etc) tends to decrease unwanted behavior. But what happens if there is no consequence – the dog does a behavior, and nothing at all happens?
Many owners are terrified of this – “he’s getting away with it!” “I don’t want him to think that’s acceptable!” But in actual training terms, a truly neutral or no consequence tends to have the same consequence as a punishment in that the dog is less likely to do the behavior next time. It’s usually far better with much more lasting consequences to let the dog try something and see for itself that it won’t work – this way, the dog usually will not try again.
Dogs (and most other living creatures) will always expend the minimum effort required, so if a particular behavior or effort has no effect, the dog will not persist with the behavior. For example, if a dog arrives in a new home with a propensity for counter-surfing (jumping on the kitchen counters to get food.) Perhaps at his old house, this behavior was frequently rewarded because there was often food available to steal. But at this new house, there is never food on the kitchen counters, because the house is dog-proofed. The dog might jump up multiple times to check for food, but it will never find any. There is never a “reward” (found food) for the jumping up. Finally, the dog stops trying. The owner never had to interrupt the jumping up, provide time outs, reward for not jumping up, or do anything else. The behavior stopped because there was never a reward, so the dog gave up and stopped trying to do it.
This can, however, backfire if you think there is no reward to the dog for a particular behavior, but actually there is one. This happens all the time for boredom barking. The dog barks, and the owner thinks “I won’t reward that barking with my attention” and ignores the dog. This is all well and good and will work if the dog was truly barking for attention. But what if the dog was barking because it was bored, and the barking was fun? If that’s the case, then the barking is being rewarded by being fun, and the training plan to “ignore the barking” won’t work, and will actually make it worse! So be very careful with this concept, and make sure that the behavior you don’t want is not accidentally being rewarded. 
You should also keep this concept in mind as you wean the dog off rewards. Neutral consequences tend to reduce frequency of behavior, so if you repeatedly recall your dog off enticing distractions, and then ignore the correct behavior, you will likely make the dog begin to consider whether or not to even bother next time. So don’t “drill” (repeat over and over) behaviors without reward; bring rewards back if you are specifically practicing in a set-up training session, and when you are outside training sessions use commands only as you need them and reward with praise.

The Adolescent Dog

Posted on 30 April, 2018 at 16:55 Comments comments (72)
A dog’s development can be categorized into roughly three different stages: Puppyhood, Adolescence, and Adulthood. There are “subcategories” of behavior within the three, such as the puppy fear period, etc, but these three main stages can be helpful as a jumping-off point.
Adolescence is usually described as the age between 6 months and 1 year; depending on the breed that upper cut-off limit can be 14, 18 or even 24 months. Many trainers refer to the adolescent dog as a “teenager” and this is usually a fairly accurate description.
Adolescence is the most difficult time for most pet owners. Your sweet, cuddly puppy who followed you around and seemed to worship you is gone; replaced by a wild thing who’s growing stronger, bigger and faster each day. The puppy who amazed everybody in Puppy Kindergarten with his leash walking, downs and recalls suddenly can not follow a simple “sit” cue, and don’t even think about “stay.” The puppy who followed you around through the park without a leash is suddenly rocketing out your car door  the moment it’s open and is halfway across the soccer field.
Here are some do’s and don’t to help you navigate this stage!
Assume that your puppy is a dud. He’s totally not a dud!
Assume that all your early training was a waste and the puppy has forgotten it all. It wasn’t and he didn’t! All your training is still in there!
Decide to switch training strategies mid-stream and go into a more punishment-based or compulsory training method. That will usually only give you short-term effects and it will likely cause the puppy to avoid and/or ignore you even more. 
Lose all your patience and your cool. This is just a phase. He’ll outgrow it!
Structure your dogs life and environment so prevent as many errors as possible. This is not the time to try off-leash work at the park. Definitely not time to be unsupervised in the backyard too much. Instead you should try to set things up so that he can not mess up too much.
Be patient. In just a few months this phase should be over, and then you’ll have a very well-behaved adult dog, as long as you stick with it.
Continue your regular obedience practice. Even if it feels like you’re slogging through the nine millionth rehearsal of “Sit, Stay, Come,” the regular practice will remind the dog of your leadership.

Working with Training Helpers ("Decoys")

Posted on 12 April, 2018 at 17:14 Comments comments (189)
Training helpers (also called “decoys” or sometimes “stooges”) can be invaluable in training your dog. They are there to bridge the gap between initial training phases and “real world” training. The real world involves things you can’t control, but since you can to some extent control your decoys, they can provide a great transition.
Here’s an example of one way decoys can be used to help.
Let’s say you are training your dog not to jump up on people when greeting. You practice the routine – turning away when your dog jumps, rewarding with attention when it remains standing with four feet on the floor. Pretty soon your dog is greeting you correctly every single time.
Now you take the dog outside, and a friendly stranger asks to pet your dog. You decide to allow this, and your dog is SO excited about this new person that it immediately jumps up on the new person.
“Oh, you’re friendly!” says the new person, laughing and petting the dog enthusiastically as it jumps more and more.
“She’s not supposed to jump!” you try saying, “you’re supposed to turn away if she jumps! No, don’t let her jump!”
“Oh, it’s okay!” the new person says, happy as can be as you stand there seeing all your hard work slowly being erased. What lesson has your dog just learned? “DEFINITELY jump on strangers – they love it!”
The general public has no idea how they’re supposed to interact with dogs, or even how you’d like them to interact with your dog, even if they have great intentions and really do love dogs. Your decoy person is there to help solve bridge that problem.
In the best case scenario, you know your decoy but the dog has not met him or her yet. The decoy, however, is prepared to interact with your dog in whatever way is needed for its training plan. So, back to that first jumping dog scenario – your dog either stands to greet the decoy and gets petting and attention as a reward, or it jumps on the decoy and gets nothing as the decoy turns and leaves abruptly. What lesson has your dog just learned? “The same no-jumping rule applies to strangers as well as family.”
Decoys can be your friends or family members; ideally someone the dog hasn’t met before or doesn’t know very well. Before you and your decoy start work, explain exactly what you want to accomplish and give specific instructions. Be very specific on this; for example instead of saying “Ignore the dog,” try something like “Play a game on your cell phone and don’t look up.” Instead of saying “Walk about 50 feet away from the dog” you can instruct “Walk between this tree and that tree.”
If you are dealing with any sort of aggression issue, your main concern is going to be safety. If your dog has bitten someone or if you think it will bite, you should be using a muzzle. Put in whatever other safety features you think are needed, also. You can even use a “protected contact” scenario, where your decoy is safely behind a fence or gate, just in case you drop a leash or something happens.
What other situations are good to use decoys in? Food distraction exercises, or any time you are preparing for competition or Canine Good Citizen and need a “judge.” If you work with your decoy on more than a few occasions, eventually your dog will begin to recognize him or her, and then some of the “novel” factor wears off – so it’s best if you have an assortment of new decoys.