Monthly Archives: September 2011

Management: a Trainer’s Top Tool

Management refers to preventing your dog from making bad choices in the process of training. It’s one of the top tools in a positive trainer’s toolbox, and without it positive training can be difficult or even impossible.

Foster puppy Tank learned to enjoy his crate from Day 1.

Skilled trainers know this, and automatically manage their dog’s environment to set him up for success. One of the most common mistakes new trainers make is to allow their dog too much freedom too quickly. That old adage, “practice makes perfect,” applies to dog training too. If your dog gets to “practice” unwanted behavior over and over again, he’s going to get better at it.

Traditional, compulsion-based dog training did not require a lot of management. The trainer would set up situations where she knew the dog would fail, then punish the dog. Positive reinforcement training takes the opposite track. We set up situations where the dog can be successful, then reward him for making a good choice. Over time, we increase the difficulty. In positive training, we set the dog up to succeed.

This means that we need to prevent bad decisions. How can this be done? There are several management options that positive trainers frequently take advantage of:

  • Crates: crate-training your dog is one of the best ways to set him up for success. Consider this: a crated dog can’t bark out the window, tear up your couch, or pee in the living room. Crate training allows you to safely confine a dog or puppy when you can’t directly supervise. Teach your dog to love spending time in his crate by providing him with fun puzzle toys and chew options when he needs to be in there and feeding him in it.
  • Gates:baby gates can prevent a dog from getting into the kitty litter box, drinking out of the toilet, or barking out the window. Gate off portions of the house where you don’t want your dog to go without supervision.
  • Exercise Pens: ex-pens can function as moveable gates or work as a confinement option for crate-phobic dogs. They’re like portable fences, and have so many uses.
  • Leashes: leashes are for more than walking around the block! Put your dog’s leash on (and stand on it) before inviting guests in to prevent him from jumping on visitors. Take your dog to the park on a long leash so he doesn’t run off (hint: clothesline and a $1.00 clip from the hardware store works great to make a homemade 50-100′ leash).
  • Tethers: these are chew-proof leashes that can be attached to solid objects to keep your dog in one spot. Dogs can also be tethered to their owner by clipping the handle of the leash to your belt loop.
  • Visual Barriers: put up a solid fence in place of chain link to prevent dogs from fence-fighting. (Can’t afford a privacy fence? Tarps attached to the chain link with zip ties won’t look as sharp, but will do the job.) Cover your excitable dog’s crate to prevent barking in the car. Close the blinds during the day to keep your dog from barking at passersby.
  • Harnesses or Halters: Freedom Harnesses or Gentle Leader head collars prevent a dog from pulling on leash by turning him back towards you every time he pulls. Introduced and fit correctly, these options can be lifesavers for a small owner with a strong dog, or anyone with an adolescent dog. I use Gentle Leaders on every foster dog to install good leash and attention habits right from the start.
  • Muzzles: condition your dog to enjoy wearing a muzzle, then use it to prevent stool eating in the yard. Muzzles are also useful during behavior modification to prevent your dog from biting if he needs to be put in a situation that may stress him (such as vet visits).

These are just a few of the many management options available. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Prevent your dog from getting in trouble while he’s still being trained. Management options can become permanent solutions, but for most families they’re just temporary measures while the dog is in the training process.

We’d love to hear from you! Which management options do you use for your dog? Have you ever had to deal with a behavior problem that could have been prevented through management?

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3

Canine body language quiz: what’s happening in this series of pictures? The dogs are Joli, a spayed female Pit Bull (white and blue) and Leo, a neutered male Pit Bull (red). Post your thoughts in the comments!

Compulsive Training

If you took a training class 20 years ago, chances you good that you are familiar with compulsive training techniques. Compulsive training involves physically placing dogs in position (known by dog trainers as “molding”), using leash corrections when the dog makes a mistake, and using praise to reward the dog for good decisions. Compulsive trainers often use special collars, such as nylon slip, metal choke, or plastic or metal prong collars.

Paws Abilities doesn’t use or promote compulsive training techniques. Why?

Certainly, these techniques can be effective. A skilled trainer can use compulsive training techniques to achieve quick response to commands with little stress on the dog. However, we believe that clicker training works better and is less likely to cause unintended problems.

Prong collars are frequently used with compulsive training.

Compulsive training works based on punishment and negative reinforcement. The dog learns that if he doesn’t comply immediately, he will be punished. This punishment is something that the dog finds aversive, such as a leash correction causing a collar to tighten around the dog’s neck momentarily. Punishments can range from mild discomfort to outright pain. When the dog complies, he “turns off” the punishment and is praised. Praise serves to tell the dog that he’s safe for the moment.

We frequently have students ask to come to our upper-level classes after training with a local center that uses compulsive training techniques, including prong collars. They are surprised when I tell them that they cannot even bring their prong collar to class. There’s no need for uncomfortable, painful, or frightening training techniques in our program.

There are several drawbacks to compulsive training.

The biggest problem with compulsive techniques is the risk of fallout. Fallout is a term that refers to unintended consequences to a training technique. Done incorrectly or poorly, or done to a soft or anxious dog, compulsive training techniques can cause aggression or fear issues. We see this frequently with our Canine Behavior services. Many dogs become leash-reactive after being walked on a prong collar. This makes sense when you consider how dogs learn.

Dogs learn by associating two things that happen closely together in time. Consider a friendly dog who’s being walked on a prong collar. The dog sees another dog and wants to go say hi, so he pulls towards the other dog. The prong collar tightens around his neck, causing pain. He stops pulling. The owner thinks that they’ve solved their dog’s pulling problem, but the dog makes a different connection. After this happens several times, the dog learns that other dogs predict pain. This causes him to become reactive out of fear and anticipation of pain whenever he sees another dog, which causes him to lunge and bark, which causes more pain. A vicious cycle begins. This issue is incredibly common (so much so that we do multiple private consults for prong-collar-related leash aggression every month).

Compulsive techniques can also cause fear issues and sometimes result in a dog shutting down. When a dog shuts down, he stops moving or trying things and becomes very still. Sometimes owners mistake this for obedience, but a shut down dog is incredibly sad. No creature should be afraid to move.

Slip or choke collars may also be used with this technique.

Timing is a big issue in all training, but I would argue that it’s an even bigger issue with compulsive training. If your timing is a little off with clicker training, it may take longer for the dog to figure out what you want. That’s not a big deal, because the dog is still getting rewarded and enjoying the game. Contrast that to compulsive training, where a mistimed correction is not just confusing, but frightening to the dog. Occasionally trainers who have used compulsive training techniques will tell me that clicker training is too hard because their timing is off. Which do you think the dog would prefer, a mistimed click or a mistimed leash correction?

Compulsively trained dogs sometimes have a difficult time transitioning to off-leash work. If you rely on a leash and collar to control and train your dog, it can be a big step to let go of that control. Some dogs become wise to this, listening beautifully on leash and then running off the second the leash is unsnapped.

One of the biggest myths associated with compulsive training is that it is superior to clicker or other reward-based training because the trainer does not need to use food or toy rewards. Compulsive trainers say that their dog should work for them out of love or respect rather than working for food. While this sounds admirable, it’s simply not true. Compulsively-trained dogs work for praise, not because praise rewards their devotion, but simply because praise functions as a safety cue. These dogs learn that when they’re being praised, they’re not in imminent danger of an uncomfortable correction. Praise functions as negative reinforcement. It tells the dog he’s safe for the moment. A dog who works for praise is no more loyal or devoted than a dog who works for food or toys.

If you’re still using compulsive training, there are easier and more effective alternatives available to you. Contact us if you’re curious about learning more!

In future posts we’ll discuss other training techniques, including the use of invisible fences, e-collars, and common myths about clicker training. We’ll also discuss some potential problems with positive reinforcement training, and how to overcome them.

In the meantime, we want to hear from you! If you’ve crossed over from compulsive training to clicker training, what prompted you to do so? Did you find it difficult to make the switch? Do you have questions about compulsive training techniques or the difference between compulsion and clicker training? Please feel free to comment below.

Fueling Fido

Make the most of your dog’s meals! Do you ever wonder if your dog is eating the best food? Are you struggling with a picky pup or a pudgy pooch? Want to make mealtime more fun for your dog?

Wonder no more! I’ll be giving a free educational talk at Rochester Feed and Country Store tomorrow (September 24th) from 10-11am. Donations will be collected to benefit the MN/Midwest Pug Rescue. I hope to see you there!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

This picture of “hover Layla” from a lure coursing fun match last October always makes me smile. Lure coursing is one of Layla’s favorite things in the world. What are your dog’s favorite activities?

Rewards

One hallmark of positive reinforcement training is how excited dogs get to train. Positive reinforcement training should be fun for both you and your dog. If you’re not both having a great time, change what you’re doing!

Dobby's reward for attention is a fun game of tug with his disc! Photo by Sean Silvernail.

With positive reinforcement training, we reward the dog for behaviors we like. Rewards can be anything the dog likes. The ideal rewards are quick, portable, and highly enjoyable for the dog. We’ll break down some of the main training rewards below.

Food: in training classes, we primarily use food to reward dogs. This is because food is fast, portable, and all dogs like it (if your dog didn’t like food, he’d be dead). The ideal training treat is tiny (the size of a pea or smaller), soft, fairly healthy, and highly palatable. Some examples of training treats I frequently use include string cheese, roast beef, chicken, beef heart, venison liver, and hot dogs. If you use commercial dog treats, look for meat-based treats with little or no sugar.

Tug toys: these are great rewards to use for behaviors that require some genuine physical effort on the dog’s part, such as recall or heeling. Tug is a wonderful game for many reasons (more on this in future posts), and it’s worth putting the time in to teach a young dog good tug skills. Even reluctant tuggers can often learn to enjoy this game.

Fetch toys: balls, squeaky toys, and other small toys can be tossed for an extra burst of speed. Like tug, these rewards are best given for active behaviors such as coming to the obedience “front” position, performing an agility obstacle, or retrieving.

Play: no toys necessary! Many dogs are very playful and enjoy playing short chase or gentle tag games. This is a great reward for heeling: when the dog catches up to heel position, tag her shoulder and take off in a different direction with a gleeful, “betcha can’t catch me!” When she catches up to you and gets back into heel position, click and reward with something else.

Life rewards: think of all the things your dog loves to do. Is there a way you can make these activities into rewards for good behavior? Perhaps you could require that your adolescent male puppy walk on a loose leash up to the fire hydrant before he gets to sniff and pee on it, or that your snuggly Shih Tzu sit before you invite her into your lap.

Whichever rewards you use, mix them up! I like ice cream, but if all you ever give me is ice cream I’ll eventually get sick of it and want some soup instead. Your dog should never be able to predict which reward he’ll get next. Will it be chicken? Cheese? The tug toy? The opportunity to play with another dog? Keep him guessing, and you’ll keep him engaged!

So, what are your dog’s favorite rewards? Do you have any creative rewards that you use to “jackpot” especially stunning performances? What potential rewards have you tried that your dog didn’t care for? Let us know by commenting below!

How We Train

Paws Abilities uses positive reinforcement techniques (and more specifically, clicker training) for every dog. Why?

Quite frankly, we use what works. Clicker training has proven to be faster, more effective, and more resistant to extinction than other methods. There’s a reason it’s used in zoos and aquariums worldwide to train everything from fish to tigers to penguins. The principles of positive reinforcement training even work to train goldfish! Type “clicker trained fish” into YouTube or Google, and multiple videos of trick-trained goldfish will pop up. If it works for a goldfish, it will certainly work for smarter animals, such as your dog!

Years ago, dog training was done in a very confrontational manner. Dogs were taught to “do it, or else.” If the dog didn’t comply immediately, he was punished by a sharp jerk on his neck or other physical punishment. Luckily, today there’s a better way. It’s not ever necessary to hurt, scare, or intimidate your dog in the name of training.

Clicker training creates happy dogs!

Clicker training is a precise way of communicating to your dog when he is right. The clicker is a small mechanical device that makes a cricket noise when pressed. Whistles can also be used in place of clickers.

The clicker works as a marker signal. We want to mark the instant the dog makes a good choice. By clicking when your dog does a good job, you’re telling him “you did something right, you won a prize!” Think of the clicker as a camera that lets you take a picture of the exact behavior you want the dog to do.

The click always predicts that something good is coming: a toy, a treat, a special game, or anything else your dog is very motivated to work for. Since the dog is working for the click, we are able to use treats or other things that the dog likes as rewards for good behavior rather than needing to use them as bribes to get the dog to comply.

In addition to its benefits as a precise marker, the clicker bypasses the verbal processing area of the brain and goes straight to the amygdala, which is the emotion center. The clicker becomes associated with instantaneous feelings of joy, making training a natural “high” for your dog.

In future posts, we’ll explore some of the downfalls of other training methods, ways to set your dog up for success, and some common myths about clicker training. In the meantime, I’m curious to learn about your personal training history. Did you start off with clicker training, or have you “crossed over” from another method? Do you have any questions about clicker training or other training methods? I look forward to your comments!