Category Archives: Obedience Tips

Click for Action, Feed for Position

By this point, we’ve covered the importance of generosity in training and the reason why your rewards should vary based on the amount of work your dog is doing. Simply changing these two variables will often solve most training problems you encounter. However, rewards are complex, and there are a few more things to keep in mind as you utilize rewards in your dog’s training. Today, let’s talk about how you reward your dog.

Photo by Kristian Törnqvist

Photo by Kristian Törnqvist

The way that you reward your dog matters. Rewards are information for your dog, and the more clearly you can provide that information, the more quickly your dog will learn. In our original example of the ping-ponging dog who needed to learn leash manners, I mentioned that I would reward him by my pant seam with the hand that’s closest to him (my left hand if he’s on my left side, or vise versa). This is a deliberate decision that will not only help him to learn more quickly, but will also prevent mistakes and shorten my training time.

Clicker trainers have a saying, coined by the inimitable Bob Bailey: “Click for action, feed for position.” With my leash lunger, I will click when he’s lined up at my side and looking at me, and deliver the treat or toy wherever I want his head to be. Since I always deliver the rewards where I expect his head to be, he will begin to take greater care to keep his head in the “sweet spot” where good things happen. It’s impossible for a dog to simultaneously keep his head lined up with my hip and lunge at the end of his leash, so teaching him to place his head by my side will naturally eliminate the lunging behavior. Voila! Problem solved.

The flip side of this simple training rule can cause all sorts of unwanted results. Consider, for example, what would happen if I rewarded my dog with the hand on the other side of my body. If the treat or toy were in my right hand and the dog is on my left side, I would have to reach across my body to deliver his reward. This naturally pulls the “sweet spot” to an area right in front of me – a recipe for a dog who wraps around in front of you and trips you.

This simple rule can make or break all sorts of training scenarios. Delivering a treat on the floor in between your dog’s paws will create a much stronger down-stay than giving the treat above your dog’s head, where he has to reach up to get it. It will take longer to train your dog to go to his mat if you throw the reward off the mat each time he goes to it than if you put it right on top of the mat. Placing a treat directly into your dog’s mouth when he sits will produce a better sit-stay than if he has to rock forward to lap it up. Tossing your dog’s ball behind him after the click will build a better drop on recall than having him run forward to receive it from your hand, but receiving the toy from right in front of your belly button will help you build a better obedience front. Think about where you want your dog to be when he performs a behavior, and deliver the reward to encourage that position.

How has treating for position impacted your training? Please share your experiences and tips in the comments section!

The Importance of a Paycheck

Last week, we discussed the importance of generosity in training. This week, let’s talk about another key skill that makes professional trainers so successful: the rewards themselves.

There are lots of different ways that you can reward your dog. Let’s look at a couple different scenarios to see which might work the best.

Photo credit: Mr. T in DC, flickr

Photo credit: Mr. T in DC, flickr

Let’s go back to our ping-ponging dog who’s learning to walk on a leash. Remember him? This guy was a real handful for his owner, only walking by her side long enough to earn a click and treat, then rushing out to the end of the leash before repeating the whole sequence again. Click – treat – rush – circle back – click – treat – rush —- you get the picture. How frustrating!

When I started working with this same dog, I kept him busy. I got his attention before we started moving, then began rewarding him so frequently that he never had time to rush to the end of his leash. He was too busy earning his rewards!

Generosity will go a long ways towards solving many training issues that you find yourself in. However, generosity alone isn’t enough. The rewards that you use, and the way that you utilize those rewards, will make a big difference as well.

Think of rewards as paychecks for your dog. In order to be meaningful, paychecks have to be something that your dog actually wants, and have to be delivered after your dog has done the work to earn them. Think of each reward you give your dog as a trade for a unit of effort. In the beginning stages, we need to reward even the tiniest bits of effort, because your dog is learning what you expect of him. As he becomes more proficient and begins to understand the game, it takes less effort to produce the same result, so your paychecks will naturally begin to come less frequently. Denise and Deb explain this concept very well in their book, so if you haven’t read it yet now may be a good time to pick up a copy.

Thinking of rewards as paychecks for effort will help you to figure out how frequently and how lavishly to reward your dog. At home, where there are few competing distractions and I’m the most interesting game in town, I reward my dogs with kibble, praise, petting, and personal play. When we leave the house, however, it takes substantially more effort for my dog to work for me, so I give them a pay raise and reward more frequently with tug toys, chicken, beef, cheese, hot dog pieces, and personal play.

Using appropriately valuable rewards generously will go a long way towards solving most attention and other training problems that you run into with your dog. What rewards work best at home for your dog? What rewards work best in more exciting or distracting environments? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments section below!

Training is a Numbers Game

Last week we discussed a common issue in dog training: the gap between professional and novice dog trainers. Everyone starts out as a novice, and I remember how incredibly frustrating it was to watch my dog perform like a trick pony for the class instructor and then go back to blowing me off when his leash was returned to me. The good news is that training is a skill that can be developed just like any other.

Photo credit: Stu Hill Photography on flickr

Photo credit: Stu Hill Photography on flickr

Returning to our example of a ping-ponging dog, let’s look at the overall picture with both the owner and myself teaching the dog how to walk nicely on leash.

As a reminder, here’s where our hapless owner was at last week: “My student’s dog lunges to the end of the leash, gagging a bit as his collar presses against his windpipe. His owner stops and waits, and within a second her dog moves back towards his owner’s side. The owner takes a step, clicks her dog for walking attentively alongside her, hands her dog a treat, and sighs in frustration as her dog immediately lunges out to the end of the leash again.”

Now, what happens when I take the leash? The first thing I do is to take a minute to get myself and the dog organized. The leash and clicker go in my right hand. If I’m using food rewards, my left hand holds the treats. If I’m using a tug or ball as a reward, this gets tucked up under my right armpit, with my left hand free to grab the toy and swing it into position right after I click. I position the dog at my left side, where I click and reward him several times before ever taking a step. Every time I reward him, I do so by my pant seam, since that’s where I want his head to go. I aim for continuous interaction, rewarding the dog so quickly that he doesn’t have time to get distracted by anything else.

Once the dog is interested in the game we’re playing, we can start adding in movement. I won’t move unless I have attention from the dog, so I look for bright eyes and alert eye contact. I talk to the dog: “Are you ready? Ready…? Let’s go!,” and step off, clicking and rewarding the instant the dog moves with me. He doesn’t have time to dart to the end of his leash, because I’ve rewarded him after just one step.

This sequence gets repeated several times, with me clicking and rewarding for each step as the dog follows me. Within a minute or so, the dog is really getting into the game, and I’m able to take several steps between rewards, telling the dog how brilliant he is for following me. I’m moving quickly, so the dog has to work to stay with me. The rewards continue at a steady pace, and after about a minute of work I stop moving and tell the dog how brilliant he was. In that minute, he never ping-ponged to the end of his leash. He was too busy earning good things!

If you watch the dog’s owner work him and then watch me working him, one huge difference will stand out immediately. That difference is the number of rewards that the dog receives for one minute of work.

Here’s a secret: good trainers are generous. We give a lot of feedback in a short amount of time. Most novice trainers tend to reward about three times a minute. I reward about ten times that.

To those new to training, this can seem a bit horrifying at first. That’s a lot of treats if you train with food, or a lot of work if you train with toys! If we look at it a bit more critically, though, it’s actually a very efficient use of our training time.

Here’s the thing: in one minute, I can accomplish the same amount of learning that would take a novice trainer ten minutes to accomplish. Furthermore, I can do so without the dog making nearly as many mistakes. And since I’m giving the dog more feedback, he learns more quickly, and I can ultimately fade the food or toy rewards faster.

You see, training is a bit of a numbers game, and that means that smart trainers use generosity to their advantage. Every behavior will take a certain number of repetitions for your dog to learn. Those repetitions can either happen over the course of 10 one-minute training sessions (using 30 rewards a minute) or 20 five-minute training sessions (using three rewards a minute), but either way, there’s no getting around the fact that they need to happen.

If there’s one skill that makes trainers in my Beginning Obedience classes the most successful, it’s their ability to be generous. It’s better to train in short bursts with lots of rewards than to train for long periods and be stingy. When I’m training a new puppy or newly adopted adult dog, I will often feed the dog continuously just for looking at me in a new location. This sort of interaction quickly creates a dog who won’t take their eyes off me, even if the midst of lots of distractions. Once I have the dog’s undivided attention, it’s easy enough to begin weaning them off the rewards. The hard work of building the behavior has already been done, and just like building a strong foundation for a house, the structure needs to be solid. If I didn’t reward as generously, it would take much longer to pour the foundation for attention, and along the way my dog would probably make quite a few more mistakes which would set our training back even further, weakening that foundation.

So, how can you become a more generous trainer? I suggest that you start by finding out where your baseline is. Train your dog for one minute, and see how many rewards you go through. Then, count out two more treats than you used before and train for another minute, seeing if you can get through all of the rewards before your timer goes off. As you practice with your dog, you’ll find that your ability to reward your dog quickly and generously improves.

Next week we’ll discuss more ways in which you can use rewards to increase your dog’s compliance. In the meantime, I’m curious to hear what you think! What rewards does your dog work the very best for? Which behaviors did you struggle to train when you were just starting out, only to find that becoming more generous made all the difference? Please share your experiences and questions in the comments below!

The Ping-Pong Dog: Developing your Training “Chops”

My student’s dog lunges to the end of the leash, gagging a bit as his collar presses against his windpipe. His owner stops and waits, and within a second her dog moves back towards his owner’s side. The owner takes a step, clicks her dog for walking attentively alongside her, hands her dog a treat, and sighs in frustration as her dog immediately lunges out to the end of the leash again.

Sound familiar? This is a common scenario in training, especially with duration behaviors such as stay and loose-leash walking. Your dog clearly understands what behavior you want, but bails as soon as he’s received his reward. Not only does the click end the behavior, but your dog now seems to deliberately ping-pong out to the end of the leash as soon as the reward is delivered.

Photo by Nathan Rupert

Photo by Nathan Rupert

This is a frustrating problem, especially for a novice trainer who just wants her dog to walk nicely. It’s frustrating to have to stop and regroup every few steps of every walk, and meanwhile your dog doesn’t seem to be learning anything. If you have a large or strong dog, this just adds insult to injury since it can be physically difficult to stop moving forward when your dog pulls.

It’s at this point that inadequate trainers often switch to a “balanced” approach, incorrectly believing that the only way to get their point across to their dog is to correct the dog for pulling. They may begin administering leash corrections when the dog lunges forward, or may switch to a device that makes pulling physically uncomfortable such as a pinch or slip collar. Sometimes, this is the point at which a trainer will begin using negative rather than positive reinforcement, delivering low-level electric shocks to the dog any time the dog moves out of position.

All of this can be quite effective, if risky. It’s also completely unnecessary…. not to mention a bit unfair, as dogs do exactly what we train them to do. If your dog leaves after your reward, your dog is giving you valuable information about a hole in your training program. Bob Bailey is fond of saying that “the rat is always right,” which means that the animal you are training will always do exactly what you have taught him or her – nothing more, nothing less.

I’ll be the first to say that aversive techniques work. They wouldn’t still be around if they didn’t. And unlike some trainers, I don’t think every dog on a prong or remote collar is miserable or abused (although I certainly see enough issues with them that I don’t permit them in my training facilities). I also believe that we can do better, and I really struggle with the idea that the dog should pay for his owner’s lack of ability. If your skills are so poor as to make reward-based training a burden, do you really trust yourself to deliver fair corrections with good timing and the correct amount of intensity every time? All training requires a certain amount of skill, and if your skills are poor in one area of training it is likely that they could use some work in other areas as well. Don’t make your dog pay the price for your poor training.

So, how did you inadvertently teach your dog to become a canine ping-pong ball, and more importantly, how can you get him to stop?

In the next few weeks, we’re going to discuss just this question. There’s a reason why I can take your dog’s leash and have him heeling by my side, head up and attention locked on my every move, within just a few moments of taking his leash. It’s not magic, and you can do it too. Professional trainers have good timing, they’re good at setting criteria, and they reward frequently enough to keep the dog in the game. They also have good observation skills. These things are simple, and the good news is that you can develop all of these skills with a bit of practice. We’ll discuss each of these in more detail over the following weeks.

In the meantime, does this problem sound familiar? Where have you discovered holes in your dog’s training, and what did you do to patch those holes? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

The Handler you Hate: Why Training Treats Matter

I’m the handler you hate in dog class. My dog does well; he is focused and works hard to do things right. He gets lots of praise and tasty treats. He is happy to greet you but is clearly my dog. Worse than that, your dog is trying to leave you to come to me. Why? Do I have a special magnetism or sorcery?

Maybe 30 years of training and competing with dogs has something to do with it. Maybe I’m just incredibly lucky to always find the smartest mixed breed, rescue dogs in the country. Or maybe… I pay better with higher value treats.

Photo by Matt

Photo by Matt

I think it’s really just that simple. When asking dogs to focus, learn, and use lots of both mental and physical energy, they should be paid a fair “salary.” The better the treat, the better the work they are willing to do, not unlike us humans! Just because the label says “Dog treats” doesn’t mean your dog considers something a treat. Many of the products you can buy are not that interesting to your dog. They may enjoy the treat as part of the routine you have at home but they might not be willing to do the hard work for them. My dog never gets treats “just because;” treats are earned which increases their value.

The treat must have high value to the dog and because I train daily, I am also concerned about the nutritional value of the treat. What do I use for training treats? I use things that are fragrant, small, and easy to chew, which for my dog means tiny bits of cheese, cooked meat, or egg.

So if your dog is having a tough time focusing in class, doesn’t really care about doing it right every time, or struggles to learn a new skill, consider that your dog may be asking for a raise. Try a training treat with a higher value, as rated by your dog, and see what a difference that can make.

(Note: Thank you to Dr. Kate An Hunter of Carver Lake Vet in Woodbury, MN for this week’s post! Paws Abilities is now offering training classes at Carver Lake. What treats does your dog find the most appealing? Please share your treat tips in the comments section!)

Why does my dog jump on people?

Jumping is one of the most common dog behavior problems we address in our classes and private lessons. A dog who jumps up on people is rarely welcome at human social functions. Not only is it considered impolite, but jumping can be scary for people who are not comfortable with dogs.

There are many reasons why dogs jump up, and it’s helpful to know that this is a normal canine behavior. Dogs who are not actively taught not to jump will put their paws on people, not because they’re bad dogs, but simply because they don’t understand that there are other ways to greet people they are meeting.

Photo by Grace (FlyNutAA on flickr)

Photo by Grace (FlyNutAA on flickr)

For most dogs, jumping begins early in life. Tiny puppies jump up to lick and sniff at adult dogs’ faces. Jumping up on other dogs is a normal greeting ritual for puppies, and as the puppies mature they no longer need to jump to sniff noses and breath, and thus naturally stop doing this. Puppies who are well-socialized to adult dogs tend to grow out of this behavior quickly, and no longer jump on other dogs except in play by the time they’re 4-6 months old.

Of course, puppies don’t just jump on other dogs. They also jump on people. Unfortunately, most people then proceed to pet, talk to, or play with the puppy, thus reinforcing the jumping. It’s always a good rule not to encourage your puppy to do anything you don’t wish him to do as an adult.

If your dog jumps on people in a friendly way to greet them, there are three simple things that you can do to address this.

The first thing that you can do to address your dog’s jumping is to make sure that it doesn’t get rewarded. If you greet your dog happily when he jumps on you while you’re wearing jeans but get upset when he does the same thing while you’re wearing your dry-clean-only work clothes, that’s not fair. Behaviors that are rewarded tend to get repeated, so if you don’t want your dog to jump up sometimes make sure that you don’t ever encourage him to do so.

Sometimes we also unintentionally reward jumping. For many dogs, negative attention is still preferable to no attention at all, and these dogs will frequently learn that jumping up is a great way to earn the attention they seek. In this case, the more you yell at your dog and push him down, the more likely he is to jump up on you, because it’s earning him the attention he desires.

Once you’ve made sure that jumping isn’t being rewarded, it’s important to prevent your dog from practicing. Remember that practice makes perfect, so the more chances your dog gets to jump on people, the better he’s going to get at it.

Preventing your dog from jumping can take several forms. A leash can be one easy way to prevent your dog from jumping on visitors. Hang a spare leash right next to the door so that you can easily leash your dog up before opening the door for visitors. Then simply stand on the leash, allowing your dog enough slack to comfortably sit, stand, or lie down, but not to jump. You could also consider using a baby gate to keep your dog away from visitors until he calms down.

If your dog jumps on you, it’s helpful to prevent this as well. One easy way to do this is to use some of your dog’s daily food or some small training treats to give him something better to do than jumping. When you are about to greet your dog after an absence or when he’s very excited and likely to jump, arm yourself with the food or treats before you see your dog. This may mean that you need to keep some food or training treats outside your door or in your pocket. As soon as you enter the area where your dog is kept, toss the food or treats on the ground. Timing is important here – you want to have the first thing your dog notices be the fact that you’re tossing goodies on the ground, so that you catch him before he even begins jumping. As your dog vacuums up the treats, you can pet him and greet him, thereby reinforcing his four-on-the-floor behavior.

Once your dog is no longer getting rewarded for jumping or getting the chance to practice jumping, you can teach him what you’d like him to do instead. This is an important step, because dogs do best if we can tell them what to do rather than just what not to do. Many people teach their dogs to sit before greeting others, and this can be one great option. Active dogs may also do well if they’re taught to go fetch a toy or to perform some other behavior that allows them to release some of their excited energy.

Next week we’ll discuss some of the other, less common reasons why dogs jump on people. In the meantime, please share your training stories, successes, and woes in the comments section below.

“Get to” or “Have to”?

As a culture, we tend to view tasks that need to be done in two different ways. There are “get to” tasks, those that we enjoy and that we look forward to, and there are “have to” tasks, which we do because they need to be done but which we don’t look forward to in the least.

Get to or have to? Dobby loved heeling. Photo by Kelvin Andow

Get to or have to? Dobby loved heeling. Photo by Kelvin Andow

This mental dichotomy starts early, and only gets more pronounced as we age. Much of adulthood is made up of “have to” tasks. We “have to” go to work, pay taxes, mow the lawn, wash the dishes, and go to bed at a decent hour so that we can get enough sleep. Those of us who are lucky also have lots and lots of “get to” tasks, but ultimately we are meant to see adulthood as quite a bit of “have to.”

The difference between “get to” and “have to” tasks all has to do with motivation. “Get to” tasks are reinforcing in and of themselves. They’re enjoyable, which is why we look forward to them. “Have to” tasks, on the other hand, are reinforcing only in the sense of relief we feel when they’re done. Finishing a “have to” task feels good, because there’s a sense of completeness. Until the “have to” task has been finished, it looms over our head.

Sadly, our society often views “get to” tasks as somehow less important than “have to” tasks. Our culture places great significance on doing the Responsible Thing, which is equated with something unpleasant. I’m afraid I’m a bit of an outlier in that my day-to-day work is made up of “get tos” rather than “have tos.” The very fact that I’m excited to start my day with blog writing, email responses, book keeping, and client appointments makes me a freak.

Dog training also tends to be divided into a “get to” VS. “have to” mentality. We want our dogs to understand that they absolutely must come when we call them, walk nicely on leash, urinate outside, and greet others appropriately. They may get to learn agility, perform tricks, or participate in other “softer” things, but basic manners training is often approached in much the same way we approach education for our children. In both cases, any use of force or coercion is justified as a necessity so that the learner understands that life is made up out of “have to” moments and that disobedience or thinking outside the box is out of the question.

But is this really the best way?

Research has shown that we can achieve our end results either way. Both the use of remote (electronic shock) collars and the use of reward-based training using treats and toys were equally effective in curing dogs of livestock chasing. Dogs trained using clicker methods are equally as reliable in performing complex service and guide tasks as those trained using traditional choke collar corrections. Children who are given a chance to follow their passion, explore their interests, and learn in a collaborative classroom environment are every bit as successful in their academic endeavors (and their careers throughout their lives) as children who are given a traditional compulsory education.

As a culture, I think it feels uncomfortable for us to explore these facts because there’s a great deal of cognitive dissonance present. Growing up, responsibility was often equated with “have to” moments for most of us, and the fact that we can achieve our goals without compulsion therefore flies in the face of everything we were told. I’m here to tell you that it is possible, and it is okay if that idea makes you feel uncomfortable. Isn’t a little mental discomfort an acceptable price to pay for not having to hurt, intimidate, or compel those we love?

Reward-based training – the kind of training and behavior modification Paws Abilities employs in all of our classes and private consultations – is all about providing your dog with “get to” opportunities. It’s about building a common language between you and your dog so that the two of you can collaborate as partners to tackle any problem or challenge. It’s about joy, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Done well, it’s also not only as effective as any “have to” method, but more effective.

Reward-based training is the difference between a reliable recall and a reliable and joyful recall. Any training method out there, followed religiously, will result in a dog who will come when you call them away from any distraction. Training methods wouldn’t still be around if they didn’t work, so whether you use rewards such as treats, toys, and Premack moments or use a more traditional method such as a remote collar, long line attached to a metal (choke or prong) collar, or walking your dog down, regular practice and consistency will give you results.

The difference between the methods is how your dog feels at the moment you call. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement respond instantly with great joy, excited that they get to perform a recall. Dogs trained with methods based on punishment or negative reinforcement respond instantly because they understand that they have to come to prevent unpleasant consequences from occurring. The end result is the same – a dog who spins on a dime and races to his owner – but the emotional baggage is very, very different.

I want to emphasize that last point, the end result. I often hear from people who say that reward-based training didn’t work for their dog because they rewarded a few recalls with treats or toys and their dog still didn’t develop a reliable recall until they employed the use of aversives. Because “get to” moments were so rare (or even nonexistent) in many of our educations, we seem to deeply distrust them as a culture, and that shows in responses such as these. Reward-based training, done properly, absolutely works as well as compulsive training: study after scientific study has proven this. Throwing a few treats at a behavior without proofing it and building up to high-level distractions isn’t good training, and it’s therefore every bit as likely to fail as improper use of a remote collar or long line method.  The problem lies not in the method itself, but in your application of that method.

The take-home message here is pretty cool, in that it opens up a whole new world of possibility. We can teach those who rely on us without resorting to force or intimidation. We can help to shape their world into one of exploration and wonder. We can transform every day into a stream of delightful “get to” moments in which they can feel fulfilled by using the skills we’ve helped them develop. We can, in fact, even do the same thing for ourselves. Adulthood doesn’t have to be about “have to” moments. Your dog’s obedience, your child’s education, and your own life can be based on “get to” opportunities without sacrificing the end results. All it takes is a little perspective, a little knowledge, and an understanding of motivation.

Leadership 101

We hear a lot about leadership with dogs. But what does that mean, and how important is it to our dogs? Like any social creature, dogs use a variety of signals to navigate day-to-day life, and they look to those they live with to do the same.

Photo by Chris K. Photography

Photo by Chris K. Photography

Traditional advice urges owners to eat first, go through doorways first, alpha roll their dogs, force dogs to walk behind them, and engage in similar behaviors designed to artificially increase their rank in their dogs’ eyes. The message drips with fear (not to mention a healthy dose of paranoia): if you don’t work hard to keep your dog down, he’ll stage a household coup. Dogs are social climbers, we’re told, and if we don’t view every interaction as a contest that we must win, our dogs will take advantage of some perceived weakness and take over.

So here’s the thing: leadership is important to dogs. The vast majority of dogs do best when they feel like someone confident and in control is making responsible decisions for them. But using force doesn’t make you a good leader. It only labels you as weak.

You see, dogs with high status don’t do a lot of jockeying for position. They’re secure in their place, and they just don’t feel the need to butt heads with others.

We do the same thing. The president doesn’t feel the need to make jokes at his assistant’s expense to solidify his political position. The top CEO of your company doesn’t go around reminding middle management that she could fire them at any moment. The principal doesn’t steal the kindergartners’ lunch money to teach them their place. So why do we feel the need to do this with dogs?

Any time we shove in front of our dog at the door, stick our hands in his food bowl just to make sure we can, or haul him behind us on the leash, we’re certainly sending a message. But it’s not the message of calm, confident control a true leader would send. Instead, we’re telling our dog in every way possible that we’re concerned about our status. We’re telling him that we don’t have what it takes to be a great leader, and you can bet that he’s getting that message loud and clear.

The most fighting happens in middle management, whether you’re a person or a dog. If you’re “fighting” your dog for leadership, you’re in essence telling him that you’re middle management rather than the CEO. Is that really the message you want your dog to receive?

So, we know that force certainly isn’t the best way to gain your dog’s compliance and admiration. Your dog isn’t staying up at night plotting to overthrow you. Here’s how you can be the best leader possible.

Frankly, you already have all the tools you need to become a wonderful leader at your disposal. All you have to do is make use of them.

One of our primary advantages over dogs is our ability to use our opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs are like magic to dogs: they can cause door handles to turn, refrigerators to open, and dog treats to appear from sealed packages. They can snap leashes on and off, find just the right spot under the collar to scratch, and operate faucets to refill water bowls. These tasks, and many more, are your ticket to becoming the Grand High Poobah of your household.

You see, great leaders provide for their followers, and dogs intrinsically get this. You’re probably already giving your dog all sorts of wonderful things: fresh water, food, walks, access to the great outdoors, ear rubs, toys, and everything else he needs. To become a great leader, all you have to do is leverage these interactions by asking your dog to say “please” first by performing a simple task (such as sit). Just like with children, “please” will become a magic word for your dog. When he wants anything, simply ask him to sit calmly and look at you first. Voila! Instant leader.

I think Patty Ruzzo said it best. “I don’t know if my dogs respect me or not, but they’re greedy and I have their stuff.” So leverage your dog’s stuff. Stop fighting him. You’ll be amazed at the difference such simple things can make in your relationship.

How do you help your dog to look to you for guidance and leadership? Share your tips, tricks, and stories in the comments below!

How to Teach Your Dog to Come When You Call

It was a terrifying sight. Dodging and weaving, the Dachshund slipped through busy traffic, heedless to the danger around him. His eyes were locked on the ditch across the highway, where the bunny he was chasing had just disappeared. Luckily for him, his life was saved by the quick thinking of a group of drivers, who temporarily blocked traffic until the dog’s frantic owner could corral him. His leash trailed behind him, having been yanked out of his owner’s hand when the rabbit bolted in front of them.

It’s every owner’s worst nightmare: a dog who gets away and ends up hurt or killed because he doesn’t respond to his recall. There are a lot of dangers in our world, and it only takes one mistake at the wrong time or the wrong place for your dog to find himself in a bad situation. Teaching your dog to come when you call him could save his life, and will certainly save you some frustration. Here’s what you can do to help your dog develop a rocket recall.

Photo by M. Maddo

Photo by M. Maddo

First of all, remember that dogs don’t come preprogrammed with recall software. While your little puppy will naturally run to you when you engage him, that response will fade as he hits adolescence. Dogs learn what we teach them, and it’s no more fair to get mad at your dog when he doesn’t come in from the yard if you haven’t put the training time in as it is to get mad at your child for coming home late if you haven’t taught him to tell time.

Let’s begin at the beginning, then. As I’ve written before, I strongly believe that it’s unfair to ask more of our dogs than we would of ourselves. So, let’s start with your recall. If your child, coworker, or significant other calls you, do you always drop what you’re doing and run to them? Let’s think about those times when you wouldn’t. If you’re engrossed in some other task, you may ignore them or call out, “just a minute!” or “what?!” instead of running to them. What would it take to increase your reliability? Take a minute to really think about this. If you want your dog to respond immediately and enthusiastically every single time you call him, how can you make sure that he never gives you the doggy equivalent of “just a minute!”?

Many dogs have a problem with their recall cue. Perhaps you’ve been screaming at your dog to “come” for years and he rarely listens, or perhaps you’ve used it at times you shouldn’t have. If you think there’s any chance that your cue has become poisoned (associated with unpleasant things) or that your dog has learned to ignore it, start by choosing a new cue. Instead of calling for your dog to “come,” what about using “here,” “to me,” “now,” or even “cookies”? It doesn’t matter what cue you use. All that matters is that you use it consistently and put in the time to make sure it’s effective.

It’s easy to abuse your dog’s recall cue unintentionally, so be very careful to only use it responsibly. Consider it from the dog’s perspective. If you occasionally give him a treat when he comes, but also sometimes trim his toenails or administer ear meds after he runs to you, he’s going to be suspicious when you call him. That’s not the response we want! Only use your recall cue for pleasant things, especially early in training. If you’re going to do something to your dog that he’s not a big fan of (or worse yet, something he actively hates), just go get him without saying anything. Don’t break your cue by letting it become paired in your dog’s mind with anything icky.

Remember, too, that dogs learn through repetition. As you’re working on your dog’s recall, only call him when you know he’s going to come. If you’re not sure he’ll respond, don’t risk teaching him that he can ignore you. Instead, just go get him. If you’re not willing to bet $50 that your dog will run to you the instant you call him, you shouldn’t be calling him. (Don’t panic when you think about this. As his reliability increases you’ll be willing to make that bet more and more frequently.)

Just as with any training, it’s important to manage your dog’s behavior until you’ve trained him. I use long leashes to safely give young or untrained dogs freedom without risk. Generally, I don’t allow my dogs off leash outside of safely fenced areas until I know that I can call them off anything we encounter: wildlife, children, other dogs, ice cream trucks, or whatever other distractions are most alluring for your dog.

Training a recall involves lots of repetition. The goal is to create such a quick, reflexive response that your dog doesn’t even stop to weigh his options. I know that if my predatory dog Layla ever paused to do this cost-benefit analysis, chasing critters would win over coming to me every single time. Since I have such a history of rewarded recalls with her, though, she doesn’t take the time for mental calculations. She just runs to me when she hears her recall cue, the same way Pavlov’s dogs would drool when he rang a bell. Her response is conditioned.

Start inside, in a boring area. Say your dog’s name in a cheerful tone of voice, then say your recall cue word as your dog starts to move towards you. When he arrives, surprise him with his favorite treat. The surprise is important here. We don’t want your dog to only come when you have treats, although in the beginning stages you need to always have treats. The treats should be a reward, not a bribe. Be very generous with the reward so that you really make an impression. Leslie Nelson recommends rewarding for a full thirty (yes, 30) seconds after your dog arrives, and I find that this works really well.

Try to surprise your dog with a recall at least three times a day. Say his name, say his recall word as he starts to move towards you, and surprise him with really delicious treats. I use lamb lung with Layla because it’s her favorite. Dobby works for tuna or cream cheese, and Mischief loves blue cheese or rabbit.

After a few weeks of practicing your surprise recall at least three times a day, try using it when your dog is mildly distracted. By this point you should be getting a very enthusiastic response! If you’re not, keep working on the surprise recalls or get help from a professional until you’re seeing the level of joy and excitement you’d like. Once your dog is reliable around mild distractions, move up to moderate distractions, and eventually tough distractions. Expect this process to take a couple months with a naïve dog, and even longer if you’re retraining a dog who had already learned to blow you off.

But what do you do if your dog doesn’t respond when you call him? Honestly, if you’re working within the parameters detailed here, that shouldn’t be happening very often, if ever. Remember that you’re not going to call your dog unless you’d bet $50 he’ll come. Don’t make risky bets!

That said, sometimes something will happen to distract your dog on his way to you or you may misjudge the situation. If that happens, resist the urge to call him again unless you’re fairly certain he legitimately didn’t hear you the first time. Instead of teaching him that he’ll get a second chance if he blows off your first cue, do something else to get his attention.

Clapping, making kissy noises, and running away often work very well to draw a dog’s attention. If these don’t work, walk (don’t run, which may spark a “catch me if you can” chase game that you’re sure to lose) up to him and collect him quietly. Resist the urge to punish him, as this would only teach him that allowing you to catch him is a bad idea and make him more difficult to get in the future. If he’s wearing a long line (which he should be, if he’s still unreliable), step on the line to prevent him from moving further away, then walk along the line until you get to him.

When you’re close enough that you’re quite certain he’ll respond to you, whether that’s 5 feet away or 5 inches, say his name and try your recall again. If he responds, praise and pet him enthusiastically but withhold the food reward. Ask him for another behavior he’s good at, like sit or shake, then try another short recall from that distance and reward him as usual. The message is that if he doesn’t respond the first time he’ll have to work harder the second.

It’s definitely worth your time to teach your dog an especially reliable recall. Not only can it provide your dog with a better quality of life by giving them more freedom, but it gives you peace of mind.

Does your dog come when you call them? What did you find the most helpful in teaching him to respond? Please share your questions and ideas in the comments below!

How can I make my dog obey?

Last week we discussed the reasons behind the frustrating problem of your dog disobeying you. (And if you haven’t read that piece yet, please go read it first before you go any further. Really. We’ll wait.)

As helpful as it can be to understand the reasons behind your dog’s behavior, there are still times when it’s really important that your dog listen to you. So, how can you increase your dog’s reliability? Let’s explore two of the easiest things you can do to help your dog respond more enthusiastically, every single time you ask.

Photo by Vincent Brown (flickr)

Photo by Vincent Brown (flickr)

1. Train responsibly. While this was already mentioned in passing last week, it’s such an important thing that it bears repeating. If your dog isn’t obeying, give him the benefit of the doubt. Rule out physical and emotional pain first, and if you have any reason to suspect that your dog is hurt or anxious, address that problem immediately.

Remember that dogs, like people, learn gradually. If you know a situation is too difficult for the level of training your dog currently has, don’t expect your dog to succeed in that situation. Young learners, whether human or canine, deserve to be taught in such a way that they build on success rather than setting them up for failure. Gradually make training exercises harder for your dog as he gains proficiency, and help him out if he’s struggling.

2. Make it worth his while. How, when, and why you reward your dog can make or break your training. Most new trainers tend to reward infrequently, but doing so is shooting yourself in the foot.

Remember, dogs learn through repetition. The more frequently and generously you reward your dog, the faster he will learn. Make sure the rewards you use are those your dog really wants, as well. If your dog isn’t willing to work for whatever you’re offering in the moment, it’s not going to change his behavior. Kibble or even just praise may work fine to train your dog at home, but you may need to offer chicken or tuna at a busy dog event.

Furthermore, don’t limit yourself to one reward. Mix them up! In addition to food, consider using toys, play, and access to things your dog loves. If your dog lights up when he gets to chase bunnies, why not let the opportunity to move towards a bunny be his reward for focusing on you? If your dog really gets into digging, put the behavior of digging on cue and then let your dog dig as a reward for obeying when you’re in areas where it’s appropriate for him to do so. For dogs who love sniffing and peeing on every vertical surface, give your dog the opportunity to relieve himself in exchange for his compliance with one of your requests. By approaching your relationship with your dog in this way, you can develop a rich partnership in which you both get exactly what you want by working with one another. How cool is that?

Ultimately, the responsibility for your dog’s behavior falls on your shoulders. After all, you’re the one with the opposable thumbs (not to mention that big prefrontal cortex)!  And that’s not a bad thing. The more you work with your dog, support him, and help him succeed, the more he’ll give back in terms of his focus and willingness to try for you.

Now it’s your turn, blog readers. How have you improved your dog’s reliability? What tips and tricks would you like to share with others? Please add to the discussion in the comments section below!