Monthly Archives: April 2012

“Can you train my kids too?”

Clicker training is pretty cool stuff. People leave their first class orientations excited to get home and start clicking their dog. So it’s really no wonder that I hear this question (or similar versions related to husbands or bosses) on such a regular basis.

My honest answer is always the same: absolutely! The principles of reward-based training work for dogs, cats, tigers, dolphins, and goldfish. They also work for Homo sapiens.

Photo by Ed Yourdon

We wrote last week that the laws of learning are just that, laws. Just like the law of gravity, they exist whether you believe in them or not. Our brains really aren’t all that different from the brains of dogs, cats, or even goldfish. Sure, we may have a more highly developed pre-frontal cortex. But really, the basic structure is the same.

Whether you’d like your children to keep their rooms clean, your husband to call if he’s going to be late, your wife to turn off the light, or the client with developmental disabilities you support to cooperate with her cares, the principles of reinforcement and shaping will get you there. You may not be clicking and giving out M&M’s (although I’ve known some parents and caregivers who’ve had success doing so), but you can still modify behavior for the better.

The first step, just as with our dogs, is to figure out what your end goal is. Define the behavior you want. It’s difficult to train a negative. Just as I have clients reframe their expectations from “I don’t want my dog to jump” to “I’d like my dog to greet people by sitting,” make sure you’re focusing on what you’d like the other person to do.

Next, figure out how you’re going to get where you want to go. If I want a child to keep his room clean, I might have to start by noticing when he puts one thing away without being asked. This last point is important, by the way. The more you prompt the behavior, the less likely it is to last. Wait for it to happen on its own, and make sure you’re looking for the smallest step towards your end goal. If you wait for your child to clean his entire room, you’re going to still be waiting 10 years later. Look for something that’s likely to actually happen within the next day or two, and reward it.

The rewards you use will vary, but it’s important to be sure that they’re actually rewards and not bribes. Showing your dog a piece of hot dog to get him to sit teaches him that he should sit in the presence of hot dogs, but not that he should sit at other times. Telling your child that you’ll take him out for ice cream when his room is clean will get him to clean his room this once, but that’s not going to make him any more likely to clean his room in the future unless more promises of ice cream are forthcoming. Instead, wait for the dog to sit or the child to pick up one thing on their own, then surprise them with the reward. Rewards should be pleasant surprises, not wheedling promises.

Some people become offended when we talk about changing human behavior, claiming that “psychological manipulation” of this sort is evil. I think this attitude misses the big picture, which is that being kind and noticing when other people make an effort makes life better for all involved.

By concentrating on what you like instead of what you dislike, we can all become better people. The people whose behavior we wish to change still have free will, and your genuine praise, warm hug, or an unexpected outing or gift on occasion aren’t going to influence them so much that they do something that they wouldn’t already consider. We’re just making the behavior we want more likely to happen: they ultimately still get to decide whether they wish to do it or not.

Which reminds me: if the methods you currently use to train your dog aren’t something you’d be comfortable using on a pre-verbal child, it may be time to reconsider your dog training program. Adult dogs aren’t human children, and we should acknowledge that they’re a completely different species with their own complex language and way of experiencing the world. However, we know that dogs have about the same cognitive abilities as pre-verbal children in laboratory tests, and using methods on our canine companions that would be considered abusive towards children or people with disabilities seems a poor way to show our love for them.

Ultimately, it comes down to a simple point. You can relate to the people around you by nagging and yelling in frustration or you can relate to them by praising and noticing their efforts. The choice is yours.

It’s the Law

“I tried positive reinforcement. It didn’t work for my dog.”

Dealing with serious behavior problems, I’m oftentimes called in after a desperate dog owner has already tried many different things to correct their dog’s problem behavior. Dealing with behavior problems is frustrating and emotionally tasking, and I can understand why a person would be reluctant to try something they already believe to be doomed to fail.

All that said, learning and behavior are subject to laws. The laws of learning are no different than the laws of physics: they exist whether you believe in them or not. Saying that positive reinforcement doesn’t work is like claiming that friction doesn’t work or that gravity doesn’t apply to you.

That’s not to say that one’s attempts at positive reinforcement may not fail. If your timing, criteria, or rate of reinforcement are problematic, your dog may not learn what you’re trying to teach him. If your dog doesn’t like whatever you’re trying to reward him with, you may not succeed. If another reward (such as the relief your dog feels when he lunges and a scary person backs away) overshadows the reward you’re using, you may actually wind up worse off than when you started.

That’s where I come in. Professional dog trainers know the laws of learning inside out. We understand how the training system works, and we can tweak your training program so that you succeed.

Just as you wouldn’t represent yourself in a complicated legal case, it’s foolish to attempt to modify behavior on your own in a complicated behavioral case. Hiring a lawyer can save you money or jail time. Hiring a professional trainer can save your dog’s life.

If you’re dealing with a complicated behavior problem (or even struggling with a more simple issue that you just can’t get on top of), remember that you don’t have to represent yourself. There are people out there who can save you time and heartache. There are people out there who understand the laws of learning, and who can help you understand them too. There are people out there who want to help. Put the laws of learning on your side. Let us help your dog. You’ll both be happier for it.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Jared Tarbell

“Dog ownership is like a rainbow.  Puppies are the joy at one end. Old dogs are the treasure at the other.”

–Carolyn Alexander

“I trained him myself”

“I don’t need a trainer. I trained my dog myself.”

When I tell people that I’m a dog trainer, I typically get one of two responses. I’m either pumped for advice about a dog I’ve never met whose behavior I haven’t observed, or am told how well-trained the person’s dog is.

Photo by Stephen Mitchell

It always makes me so happy to hear about well-trained dogs whose owners love them. Since I’m most frequently called when things are falling apart, hearing about these special relationships never fails to warm my heart. It’s so wonderful to hear about devoted owners taking time to work with their dogs and teach them how to be the wonderful pets we all desire.

I have to admit to being somewhat surprised at how many people train their dogs themselves, though. Here’s the thing: I’m a professional trainer, and I would never dream of training my dog by myself.

My dogs attend training classes. Not just one class, but several. This is because I know that doing so is the very best way to help them become wonderful companions. I can (and do!) teach my dogs all of the basic obedience they need at home. Sit, stay, come, and polite leash manners are simple enough to teach. However, there’s so much more for a pet dog to know that just can’t be taught at home, and that’s where classes are so very vital.

My dogs attend training classes for socialization. It’s important for dogs to be exposed to new people and dogs in a safe, positive manner, and training classes allow me to do this. In class, my dog learns to focus on me around unfamiliar people and dogs and how to greet these new friends politely. He’s exposed to people and puppies of different ages, genders, sizes, and types. He learns to associate new people with pleasant things (hot dogs! training class!) and to control himself in their presence. He also learns that just because he can see another dog, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s going to get to act like a maniac, but should instead check in with me.

My dogs attend training classes to learn how to focus around distractions. It’s hard to produce lots of novel distractions at home, because my dog’s used to that environment. If I only ever trained at home, my dog wouldn’t understand how to listen to me at the vet clinic, the pet store, or the neighborhood park. A sit-stay in my living room is very different from a sit-stay in training class with its new sights, smells, sounds, people, and dogs. I want a dog who will respond to me regardless of what else is going on, which means that I need to teach my dog how to do this.

My also dogs attend training classes so that they’ll listen even when they’re excited. When the pizza delivery guy comes to the door, company visits for a barbecue, or fire trucks and paramedics rush to my elderly neighbor’s house, I still need my dog to respond to me. If he’s only ever been trained in the quiet of my home, he’s not going to have the impulse control and focus necessary to deal with excitement appropriately.

Finally, and most importantly, my dogs attend training classes so that I can learn too. Even though I work full-time as a professional dog trainer, that doesn’t mean I should stop learning. In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize I still need to learn. Every dog I train has something to teach me, and every class I attend likewise expands my knowledge base. Furthermore, the value of an extra set of eyes is indispensable. It’s easy for my relationship with my dog to cloud my judgement and make it harder to see what’s going on clearly, both good and bad. The class instructor can also give me valuable feedback on my own mechanical skills. Are my timing, expectations, or reward frequency hindering my dog’s progress?

Regardless of your skill level, training should not be limited to your home. In addition to all of the practical reasons to take your dog to a training class, a well-run training class will also be enjoyable for both you and your dog. Many a friendship (human and canine!) has begun in training class, and it’s quite common for my students to decide which classes to enroll in next based on which classes their classmates plan to attend next (especially in Reactive Dog classes, which really tend to form tight relationships).

Which classes have you most enjoyed taking with your own dog? What did you find most helpful about the training class? Please let us know in the comments!

Relationship Q’s: Listening to Your Dog

Recently, several Paws Abilities instructors and students attended an APDT Rally Trial. During this successful weekend, we had many brags. However, not every moment has to do with ribbons and awards. I’d like to write about one of these today.

I’ve written about Dobby on this blog before. Dobby is an adolescent mixed breed (I call him a “Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog”). He came to me as a very fearful dog, pancaking his belly to the floor and peeing all over himself if he was so much as looked at. Dobby’s come a long way, and I’m incredibly proud of his progress. True to his nature, he was both earnest and enthusiastic during his time in the rally ring last weekend, trying his hardest to do as I asked. While I certainly have some further training to do with him in order to solidify his understanding of the rally game, he scored well in his first run, earning 209 out of a possible 210 points.

See for yourself here:

If there’s one characteristic that defines Dobby, it’s how very hard he tries to be right. This is a dog who desperately wants to do well, a trait that can be both a blessing and an enormous responsibility. Because of the relationship we’ve formed through training, Dobby will try with all his might to work through some pretty intense fear or stress if I ask him to.

Many clients come to me with dogs who are very similar to Dobby. These dogs are sensitive to the environment, to people, to other dogs. They worry, and they feel the need to be watchful in new situations. If the pressure becomes too much, they react by withdrawing into their shell or by exploding into an impressive series of barks and growls while lunging at the end of their leash. Some dogs, Dobby included, may bite if they feel sufficiently terrified and trapped. These dogs require their owners to support them, to protect them, and to communicate with them. Most importantly, though, these dogs require their owners to listen to them.

Working with a fearful dog, especially one with whom you have a strong relationship based on trust such as Dobby’s and mine, is an enormous responsibility. While we may understand that the things our dog finds frightening are harmless, our dog doesn’t feel that way. Forcing them to face their fears head-on because we feel those fears are silly damages our relationship and doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Fears and phobias are sticky things, as anyone who’s ever felt afraid yourself understands. If you’re terrified of spiders, you’re not going to be okay with me placing a tarantula on your lap, even if I laugh at you and tell you that the tarantula can’t hurt you.

Our first responsibility when working with a fearful dog is always to that dog himself. Silly as his fears may seem to us, they are very real to him. When Dobby entered the rally ring later in the day, I could immediately tell that he was more concerned than before. Why he was concerned is immaterial, and I honestly couldn’t say. We had the same judge, and while we had changed rings we were in the same building. The area was no busier than the one we had been in before. While I may not know his reasons, Dobby told me by his reactions that he was uncomfortable.

Check out his body language in this second video:

In this later run, Dobby felt the need to look around much more than before. He was sometimes slow to respond to cues, even needing a second cue to sit at one point because he was so busy looking for danger. He was conflicted, unable to devote as much attention to his performance because he felt compelled to keep an eye on the judge, the exhibitors, and everything else that was going on.

Many people would consider Dobby’s performance in this later run to be a training issue. I disagree. A fearful dog such as this loses focus, not because he doesn’t understand how to focus on his handler, but because his fear is forcing him to watch for danger. The lack of focus is a symptom, and the best way to treat it is to treat the underlying cause. Just as a cough suppressant doesn’t cure pneumonia, training the dog to watch you more closely in scary settings doesn’t cure the underlying fear issue, only masking it for a short while and setting the dog up to feel more pressured and conflicted. Dobby’s lack of focus here was not a training issue, but rather a confidence one. Because he didn’t feel safe and comfortable, he couldn’t give the performance he would otherwise be capable of.

So, what’s the best way to work with a dog like this? In Dobby’s case, I ended our run early. His performance wasn’t awful, and we certainly would have earned a qualifying score, probably in the lower 190’s. Because of his training and relationship with me, Dobby would have continued trying to do as I asked in the ring. However, asking him to remain in that situation where he was clearly uncomfortable would not have been fair to him. Many people were surprised when I walked out halfway through the course, since Dobby wasn’t doing as poorly as some of the other dogs who had already gone. This was immaterial.

The bottom line is that rally obedience (and every other dog sport out there) is a game that we play with our dogs. Our dogs don’t care about the ribbons, the titles, or the bragging rights. They care about doing something with their person. If my dog is not having as much or more fun than I am, I owe it to him to listen to what he’s saying. In Dobby’s case, he was telling me that he wanted to leave. Treats and praise were less important to him than getting away from the uncomfortable situation.

Working with a fearful dog is an enormous responsibility. By putting Dobby into a situation where he felt concerned, I was stepping onto dangerous ground. Trust is a precious and fragile thing, and each time we overface our dogs, we begin to erode that trust. By listening to what my dog was telling me and aborting our run, I was protecting that oh-so-sacred responsibility that my dog has granted me. I was showing him that he could depend on me to listen to him and to put his feelings first.

After we left the ring, I took Dobby for a long walk outside, where he decompressed by sniffing around, rolling on his back in the grass, and playing with a couple dog friends. We ended our day on this positive note, with Dobby feeling comfortable and content. I couldn’t be more proud of his ability to communicate with me and to bounce back from situations that formerly would have left him pancaked in fear.

After Dobby’s last run, a student asked me whether I felt her dog was too stressed in the ring. My answer to her was that I couldn’t answer that question. Every dog is different, and a more confident dog may do absolutely fine with the level of stress that Dobby exhibited. Furthermore, a year ago I wouldn’t have gone into the ring with Dobby if he showed some of the displacement signals apparent on the video, because he was much more fragile then. Only you can examine the relationship you have with your dog, and only you can determine what is best for that individual dog in that moment of time.

Regardless of which sport we choose to play in with our dogs (or whether we decide to do any sports at all), listening is the most vital skill we can bring into the ring. This applies to everyday life just as much as to any sport: vet visits, walks in the park, and trips into the pet store all provide us with the opportunity to support and communicate with our dog. Know your dog. Stop demanding, and start listening. You may be surprised by what you hear back in return.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“We who choose to surround ourselves with lives more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.”

-Irving Townsend, “The Once Again Prince”

APDT Rally Trial Brags

Congratulations to every one of the Paws Abilities teams who competed in APDT rally this weekend! We had a great weekend for titles and awards, but more importantly, I was so proud of how supportive and helpful everyone was with one another. Experienced competitors were so helpful with mentoring new participants in the sport, from walking courses together to videotaping runs to answering questions. Each of the Paws Abilities family cheered on and encouraged one another, and I couldn’t be happier to be part of such a great group.

Below are some of the accomplishments from this weekend:

  • Mitchell, a mixed breed, earned his Level 1 title under Amy’s guidance. This was their first rally trial ever.
  • Evan had two picture-perfect runs in the Junior class with his two mixed breeds, Charlotte and Jordi. All of the adult handlers could learn something from watching his kind and patient handling style, and it was clear that both of the dogs absolutely adore him.
  • Shelly earned two legs in Level 1 with both Charlotte and Jordi. Charlotte also earned High Scoring Mixed Breed under her guidance as well as the Sophie Award, which is given to the Level 1A team exhibiting the best positive working relationship built on trust and respect.
  • Tank the Schnauzer mix earned his Level 1 title with Linda.
  • Willow the Australian Shepherd earned multiple legs in Level 1B, and is halfway to earning her Level 1 excellent title. She also had her very first experience in Level 2, and her focus on Carrie was amazing.
  • LeRoy, a mixed breed, earned multiple legs towards his Level 1 excellent title with Julia.
  • Ruler the Basenji earned his second Level 2 leg with Laura.
  • Laura also helped her Chihuahua cross, Cruiser, earn his second Level 1 leg. This may very well have been the cutest rally run ever.
  • Jade the Australian Shepherd earned her Level 1 title with Denise in an incredibly flashy performance.
  • Dalton the mixed breed earned his first Level 1 leg with Sarala and enjoyed every minute of it.
  • Mischief the 6-month-old puppy earned her Puppy Title with an Award of Excellence and also completed her first leg towards her puppy excellent title. She earned first place in every one of her classes. Sara entered Mischief in the trial as a “North American Yodelhound” since her actual breed mix is unknown.
  • Dobby the Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog earned two legs towards his Level 1 excellent title with Sara.
  • Layla the Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog completed her Level 2 Excellent title and also earned a leg towards her Level 3 excellent title. She was the High Scoring MMBC Member Dog.