Category Archives for "dog training tips"
This week there have been a lot of conversations about rewards, timing of rewards, what types of rewards are effective, and how a lot of the answers to the above depend on how savvy the dog is. Intertwined in these conversations is always, “When can I stop using treats?” This question always vexes me. For those that use aversive training methods, no one ever asks, “When can I stop correcting and yanking?”
The real underlying question is, “When is my dog trained?” This question is really about expectations. “At what point can I get angry if my dog ‘knows’ a behavior but doesn’t comply?” I thought about this question as I sat in the Animal Hospital this week waiting for my dog. Shira had vomited all night, wasn’t eating and didn’t even run to the window when a cat appeared in the yard. She definitely wasn’t feeling well, so off we went to the Veterinarian. She hopped up on the scale when I asked, stayed there when I asked, hopped off when I asked, but didn’t sit when I went to the desk to sign us in. The dog next to us didn’t sit either. The difference between the two dogs was in what the owners did next.
Shira is 10 years old and knows how to sit. Her failure to sit on cue was communication, not obstinance. It turns out she has a rather bad urinary tract infection and upset tummy, certainly conditions that could make sitting uncomfortable. I simply looked at her and said “Okay,” which is my way of telling her I’d read her communication and nothing else was expected from her.
Unfortunately the same can not be said for the other owner. It was horrible to watch the butt pushing, leash yanking, body shoving and yelling from the woman with the other dog. The problem was, she expected her dog to sit, and when he didn’t, she got angry and embarrassed. It didn’t seem to matter that the dog was in a Vet’s office and obviously there for a reason. Or, maybe that was part of the reason. While no one in the office really cared whether her dog sat or not, there is a certain amount of perceived peer pressure to having a compliant dog, particularly around other dog owners.
So, at what point is your dog “trained?” For me, that point is when there is a 90% compliance to the cue under distracting conditions in any location. The problem with this definition is it takes a lot of time and effort to get there. Training your dog to sit with a 90% compliance rate in the home, yard and at class discounts a huge amount of other environments your dog may find themselves in. The Vet’s office is one, and one that they probably (or hopefully,) don’t visit very often. Even in familiar environments there can be novel changes. The squirrel across the street comes into my yard a few times a year. This means I only get a few training opportunities to work with squirrels, so I don’t expect perfection when the chattering, little, furry creature is in the tree.
Going back to the original question at hand, it’s time to save dogs and their owners a lot of angst, frustration and embarrassment. Your dog is never fully trained. There will be times when there will be a new environment or something the dog has never encountered that will be so stimulating your dog will blow you off. The point is not that the dog failed, but your actions in response to that failure. Getting frustrated with your dog bypasses a true learning moment for both of you. Is your dog telling you they are ill or injured? Or are they saying, “This is all new and I don’t know what to do!” If it’s the latter, seize the moment and teach. If you’re worried about peer pressure, there is nothing that screams “Good Dog Parent,” more than an attentive and thoughtful owner who works to make their dog more comfortable.
A lot of positive trainers train their own dogs using environmental cues. This means that the human goes about their business and the dog reads the context of the environment and behaves properly. Allowing dogs to think and pay attention, without the human needing to bark directions all the time, is a huge relief for the entire household.
As an example, this morning I was sorting the pile of mail that seems to magically double during the course of a week. I had two bags, one for shredding and one for trash. The trash bag was on the floor. When I took a break I left it there, like a beacon inviting a curious dog to stick their nose in.
The trash bag was in view as I sat on the sofa. Paisley, being the curious, “Oh! Let’s see what’s in here!” kind of dog, wandered over and stuck her nose in, then pulled her nose out and walked away. Party time! “Good girl,” and treats all around. Why? Paisley made a very good choice. She followed her curiosity, I allowed her to follow her curiosity and, curiosity satisfied, she left the bag alone. If she had wanted attention or was frustrated or bored, she could have easily started emptying the contents and scattering them around the room to throw her own party, but she didn’t.
Because Paisley has had positive experiences while interacting with items in her environment, and has been rewarded for behaving properly, it is likely the next time she sees a bag on the floor, (even if it has more enticing contents,) she will leave it alone.
So, what are some environmental cues you can use around the house? Checking out, but not emptying bags is always a good thing. It allows you to bring groceries home without worrying about your dog taking off with that fresh steak. Learning to wait when you open a door is another one. No need to say “Stay” or “Sit,” you just train the proper behavior to happen as you’re opening the door. Other ideas include, food being placed on the dining table means “Go to your mat,” or a doorbell ring means “Go to your crate,” or the sound of the front gate opening means “Come get me.” Picking up socks is my favorite. It never fails that I drop socks as I’m going to do laundry, so the dogs pick them up and bring them to the laundry room for me.
What other ideas do you have for using environmental cues to tell your dog what behavior to do?
The video is Paisley on July 4th as the fireworks started. She’s relaxed. Getting her to this point took some time, so I thought I’d share what I did. This is something that can be done while sitting on your sofa, a few treats at your side, and any sound that is startling and offensive to your dog.
First, any time a dog is reactive, it usually starts with one sense. For fireworks it’s hearing. I was lucky that the neighbors were “practicing” for months before the holiday. I could see the flash in my windows before the bang happened, which allowed me to be able to reward calm before Paisley reacted. There is a breathe that happens before the bark, it’s that split second you have to reward calm right as the sound is fading.
After the sound has ended and the dog goes back to relaxing, reward calm. It is important not to try and correct the barking. After all, it’s a scary sound that sounds much louder and much harsher to dogs than it does to us. Yelling at the dog will just associate BOOM with getting yelled at, and we want the dog to relax, not get stressed.
We worked on this pattern every night for weeks. Flash > BOOM > “good girl!” > bark bark bark > dog relaxes > “good girl!”
It’s important to get the reinforcement (“good girl” or treat or toy,) before the barking and again just as the dog settles. After a few weeks the period of time between bark and calm became shorter. Another two weeks and Paisley didn’t get out of the “down” position to bark at the BOOM. A few weeks after that we were down to one bark and then eventually none.
What other sounds are your dogs reacting to?
I was 12 when I went on my first airplane trip alone to visit relatives in Hawaii. It wasn’t the best trip. The captain didn’t let me see the cockpit, which I was told I could do, and when got off the airplane I didn’t see anyone I recognized. Eventually the plane was empty and the waiting room cleared and I was alone. My aunt and uncle had forgotten I was arriving.
As the flight attendants were leaving the airplane, they saw me and gave me change for the pay phone so I could call my aunt and uncle to come get me, then waited with me until they arrived. I have no recollection of the airline or the names of the flight attendants, I only remember that when I needed help, nice people were there.
Stories like this have been repeated numerous times in my life; the person that found my checkbook and returned it to the bank, the person that saved from being crushed against the railing at a concert when two drunks started fighting, the truck driver that managed to stop his big rig when I blew a tire on the freeway and then stayed to help. In every circumstance, I needed help and someone was there to help.
When we talk about rescuing dogs, we are usually talking about rescuing them from life in a shelter, but how great would it be if our dogs could look back on their lives and remember other times they needed help and we were there. Times when they were stressed or scared or alone and we were there help them through it. We have opportunities for this kind of “rescue” every day.
Our dogs live in a modern world of electronic hums, weird sounds, strangers coming and going, UPS trucks that make the most annoying sounds when they stop, stray cats and dogs, and us crazy humans who are inconsistent with our rules and put weird equipment on our dogs. A lot of that, if not most of it, can be scary for a lot of dogs, and our tendency is to look at what the dog is afraid of and minimize it; to force the dog to move forward to confront the scary thing because we don’t think it’s scary. To put this in perspective, if you’re afraid of spiders that would be the equivalent to you seeing a spider, screaming, and someone picking it up and following you with it to make you confront it. Would that be helpful to you? What if someone yelled at you and pulled at your shirt collar in an attempt to make you stop being scared? Would that be helpful? I’m okay with spiders, but I guarantee you, nothing you could hit me with would be worth getting closer to a snake. Absolutely nothing.
When dogs freak out it’s usually because either the scary thing is entirely new and they don’t know how to react, or the thing is known and has some history of being not so pleasant and our dogs want to make the scary thing go away. Unfortunately, our dogs bodies react to stress the same way ours do, with increases in stress hormones that can lower the lifespan of the dog.
Studies have shown that the old wives’ tale that we shouldn’t comfort a fearful dog is false. We aren’t “reinforcing fear,” and if we think about it, if we were running from a crazy lady chasing us with a spider we might look for a bastion of safety with a nearby stranger. Hopefully the stranger could either make the crazy lady stop or get rid of the spider. That’s not “reinforcing fear,” that’s being helpful. We should encourage the idea that we are a safe haven, a spot to run to when things get scary. It’s certainly better for our dogs to run to us than away from us, especially during fireworks season.
So what is being helpful? In the moment, the safe haven idea is the first step. We want our dogs to run to us, or stay by us, in the presence of scary things. Reward them when they look at you or run to you, either by praise and pets or treats if you have them nearby. Really reward your dog if they turned to you or came to you in the presence of something scary. Recognizing fear in our dogs is sometimes difficult. Shrinking and hiding are easy to view as fear, but barking and lunging and spinning can also be fear. If you can lead your dog away, do it and make a mental note that this particular fear needs to be addressed with a professional. Remember, ongoing stress reduces the lifespans of our dogs.
If the situation isn’t something you can control like fireworks or thunder, minimize the scary sounds by closing doors, play music and give your dog a safe place to ride it out. That safe place can be next to you on the sofa, in a crate or, like my parents Border Collie, a nest of blankets in a closet. In any case, do something. Good leadership is controlling a scary situation as much as you can for the benefit of your dog. If you do this enough, you will create a treasured lifetime of helpful memories.