Category Archives: Obedience Tips

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!

The Allure of Luring

Luring is sometimes frowned upon by clicker “purists,” but it can be one useful way to help a novice dog figure out what you want or to get to the end goal faster with any dog. A lure is a small reinforcer, such as a toy or treat, that is used as a “magnet” to position the dog. Many trainers use lures to teach position behaviors, such as sit, lie down, or heel. While I rarely use luring with my own dogs, I certainly think it’s a useful tool to keep in your training toolbox.

Photo by niXerKG on flickr

Photo by niXerKG on flickr

Luring is quite straightforward for both dog and handler. The dog knows right from the start what’s at stake if he can figure out what you want (whatever’s in your hand at the moment), and you can easily show your dog what to do (by using the magnetic properties of the lure). When your dog gets it right, you simply click and give your dog his reward. Easy!

As straightforward as luring can be, it can also cause some problems down the road. In the beginning stages, some dogs become too focused on the toy or treat to think about what they’re doing. Especially for food- or toy-obsessed dogs, you may find that your dog is blindly following the lure without a clue as to what behavior earned him a reward.

Another potential problem with luring is that some dogs become dependent on the lure. They become “show me the money” dogs, not performing until they know what’s at stake. This is easier to prevent than it is to fix, but it’s certainly not a deal-breaker if it happens.

Preventing lure-dependency is as simple as not letting the lure become a pattern. Use your food or toy to help the dog get into position 3-5 times, then get the reward out of your hand. Make the same hand motion you were doing with your lure, and when your dog does the target behavior, click and produce his reward from a hidden place such as a bait bag, pocket, or from behind your back. You’ve now switched from bribing the dog (showing him what he could have ahead of time) to rewarding him (surprising him with something special after he does what you want).

If your dog has already learned to wait for a lure, this is a bit trickier to work through, but still not the end of the world. In this situation, we need to reverse expectations. Many dogs learn (rightfully so!) that if you’re not holding something in your hand you’re not planning to give him anything when he complies. Your goal at this point is to change your dog’s expectation by teaching him that he’s more likely to get a reward if you don’t have anything in your hand than if you do.

Start by putting a very valuable reward in your hand and showing it to your dog. This could be a favorite toy, a hunk of roast beef, or anything else that will really get your dog excited. Ask your dog to do the behavior you’re working on. When he does, praise and pet him enthusiastically, but do not give him the reward.

Now, take that tempting reward that’s in your hand and put it away nearby where your dog can’t get it but you can still get to it quickly. Perhaps you might set it on the counter, tuck it in a bait bag, or store it on top of a nearby bookshelf. Make sure your dog sees you put it away and knows that your hand is empty. Ask for the same behavior again, and wait. Don’t repeat your cue, and don’t be surprised if it takes the dog a few moments to comply. Wait him out. At this point he’s likely to very slowly do what you asked. The second he starts to comply (before he’s even completed the behavior!), click and give him the reward (pulling it out of your bait bag, sweeping it off the bookshelf, etc). Repeat this exercise several times a day until your dog starts to get the idea that an empty hand is likely to predict great things for him. And hey, remember to be fair, okay? If you ran into this problem in the first place you were probably being a bit stingy about rewarding your dog for listening, so spend a little more time proofing that behavior before asking your dog to do it for “free” again.

Luring can certainly be a useful way to teach your dog, as long as you do so thoughtfully. Just remember to switch from luring (showing the reward to the dog ahead of time) to rewarding (producing the reward after the dog has done what you asked) quickly so you don’t become overly dependent on it.

What behaviors has your dog learned through luring? Have you ever run into any problems with this training technique? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments below!

Loose Leash Walking

One of the most common goals our students come to class with is teaching their dog to walk nicely on leash. A dog who pulls their owner all over the place, tripping them and choking himself, is no fun to walk. Dogs who lunge and bark at people, bikes, cars, or other animals on leash make walks frustrating for all involved. These dogs may not get as much exercise as they need, because their owner finds walking them so aversive.

Photo by SC Studios

Photo by SC Studios

Many people expect their dogs to naturally understand that he’s supposed to walk by their side, but this is not a natural behavior for dogs. If you watch groups of dogs interact, they never walk side by side the same way that groups of people do. Instead, they form loose groups, zigzagging back and forth between points of interest. No one dog leads, and dogs come and go from the group as they wish.

I honestly think that many dogs believe that heel means “walk at the pace of death while ignoring everything interesting.” However, it is possible to teach your dog to walk nicely with you with just a little effort on your part.

First of all, remember that dogs do what works. If your dog pulls and you move forward, he learns that pulling works to get him where he wants to go. This is the biggest obstacle to teaching dogs to walk nicely. If you are inconsistant, sometimes following your dog when he pulls and sometimes insisting on polite walking, your dog will always default to pulling you because he will learn that it occasionally works. If you want to have a dog who walks nicely, make sure that pulling on the leash never works for your dog.

There are several ways to teach your dog that pulling doesn’t work. With young puppies, I simply stop moving forward as soon as the leash gets taut. If the leash is making a “J” shape, I move forward. If the leash straightens out, I stop moving until the leash loosens up again. Puppies are smart, and quickly learn that pulling is ineffective.

For older or stronger dogs, I oftentimes use a Gentle Leader headcollar or Freedom harness to prevent them from dragging me forward. For especially enthusiastic dogs, I start to back up as soon as the leash gets tight, so that pulling actually results in the dog getting further away from whatever he was interested in. As soon as the leash becomes loose, I start moving forward again. This method of walking forward and backing up quickly teaches enthusiastic dogs to control themselves in order to go where they wish to go.

Regardless of which of these methods you use to deal with pulling, it’s very important that you reward your dog when he gets it right. There are several ways to do this. First of all, I walk briskly when the leash is loose, since most dogs find a typical human walking pace incredibly boring. I also use a clicker or some other marker signal to tell the dog when he’s doing well, followed by a reward.

There are plenty of different rewards you can use to reinforce your dog for walking politely. I use a combination of tasty treats (chicken, roast beef, and string cheese are my typical go-to treats), tug toys, and environmental rewards for most dogs I work with. In the beginning stages, I reward for nearly every step to teach my dog what I like, then begin spacing the rewards out as the dog gets the idea. Reward right next to your side, with your hand touching your pant seam. Remember that where you reward your dog will influence where your dog hangs out. I usually teach dogs to walk on my left side, so I hold the clicker and the handle of the leash in my right hand, and leave my left hand free for treats or toys.

Environmental rewards can be very powerful, and I make ample use of them throughout my dog’s life. I walk my dogs because I want to provide them with enjoyable stimulation, and I think it’s very unfair to ask them to ignore everything interesting that they see or smell on our walks. If they see a squirrel, I teach them that we will chase that squirrel together as long as they look at me first to “ask permission.” Similarly, if they want to explore an especially enticing smell, they can earn that opportunity through polite behavior. I simply use forward motion towards whatever they find interesting as a reward for keeping the leash loose, and back away from the interesting thing if they forget to walk nicely and start yanking on the leash.

The biggest mistake I see new handlers making with untrained dogs is trying to take them for long walks right from the start. This is an exercise in frustration (no pun intended) for both parties! Instead, I start new foster dogs off in front of my house. We will walk for the same length of time that we would if I was going on our usual walking route, but we simply circle around in front of my house (or in the city, stick to the sidewalk on your block). The dog still gets the same amount of exercise, but by limiting the amount of stimulation I’m exposing him to, he’s able to be successful and to earn lots of rewards for getting it right.

Once the dog can walk politely in front of my house, I’ll start walking him back and forth on my block, gradually expanding to a 2-3 block radius, then eventually going on longer walks in the park. I never increase the distance I walk him until he’s shown me that he can be successful where we’re at. Think of the walk as a process, not a destination. Remember that he’s still getting the same amount of exercise, and in fact most dogs that I work with are more tired by these training sessions than by their previous long walks, since mental exercise is much more fulfilling than physical exercise alone.

Walking politely by your side is an advanced skill, requiring focus and self control from your dog, so be patient as your dog learns. Every dog can learn to walk nicely!

Do you require your dog to walk on a loose leash? What tips and tricks have you found the most helpful in teaching this skill? Please post your stories and suggestions in the comments below!

Lessons from Shedd: Why You Don’t Really Want a Smart Dog

“What a smart dog!”

As I worked with Mischief, an adolescent mixed breed, the onlookers watched in awe. Mischief was engaged and happy. Her stubby tail wagged and she responded quickly and precisely to every cue she was given. She watched me intently, ignoring the small crowd of Beginning Obedience students gathered around us. Several people remarked positively on her apparent intelligence.

I’ll let you in on a secret: Mischief isn’t that bright. She just enjoys training, and understands the clicker game.

This is ideal, because she’s a wonderful pet. She’s also a great performance dog: at 10 months of age, she’s earned her first rally obedience excellent title with all first-place wins.

Mischief (Photo by Sara Brueske)

This common misperception about intelligence happens with any well-trained animal. People are amazed at how “smart” the beluga whales, dolphins, sea lions, and otters are at the Shedd Aquarium. However, IQ has little to do with it.

We can train sharks, goldfish, rodents, lizards, and hermit crabs. The laws of learning apply to all species, and Ken Ramirez is fond of saying that you can train an earthworm and a graduate student the same way.

Many dog owners are quick to tell me how smart their dogs are. I always respond with my condolences. Here’s the thing: smart dogs are much harder to live with.

Smart dogs get bored quickly. They’re creative, and quick to figure out their own entertainment. They’re more likely to test the limits, push at boundaries, and question rules. They require more from their owners: more training, more attention, more play and exercise, and above all, more skill. My smart dog, Layla, figured out how to open up the fridge door and back gate on her own – something Mischief would never dream of trying to puzzle out. Which dog would you prefer to live with?

Intelligence has nothing at all to do with trainability. Sure, a smart dog may learn a skill more quickly. However, that same dog is also more likely to test your criteria for that skill. Once she knows what you want, she’s going to start trying variations on that behavior to see just how hard she really has to work.

A less intelligent dog may take longer to learn the skill initially, but once she knows what you want, she’s going to be happy continuing to comply without continually offering improvements or modifications on the behavior.

So, how do you find an easy dog if intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with it? Most people actually want a biddable animal, one who is bred to work and cooperate with people. Breeds who are bred for cooperativeness, such as sporting, toy, and herding breeds, tend to be easier to train than those breeds who have been bred to work independently, such as terriers and hounds. This trait, called biddability, is what you’re probably looking for if you think you want a “smart” dog.

Is your dog smart? Biddable? Please share your stories and comments in the section below!

Lessons from Shedd: Whistle While You Work

At Paws Abilities, we use clickers in our training program. Whether working with a new puppy, an experienced competitive obedience dog, or a dog-aggressive and anxious pooch, we find that the clicker serves to clarify and speed up our training program. The trainers at Shedd and other zoos and aquariums worldwide agree.

A trainer at Shedd holds his whistle in his mouth, ready to mark this Beluga whale for performing the “elevator” behavior on cue. Photo by John Kroll.

Clickers and other marker signals are referred to as bridges in the animal training community. This is because the click sound “bridges” the time between when the animal performs a correct behavior and when the trainer is able to deliver the reward.

Any signal can be used as a bridge. We use clickers in dog training because they are cheap, easy to use, and distinct. Many marine mammal and pinniped trainers use whistles, as the sound carries through the water and leaves their hands free to handle training tools or deliver fish. Advanced animals can be transitioned to a verbal bridge such as “yes” or “good” for known behaviors. Verbal markers aren’t recommended for novice trainers or animals as they are less distinct and precise than a mechanical signal, but can be helpful for more advanced teams in certain situations.

Bridges do not have to be auditory. I use a “thumbs up” signal for my dogs, and we oftentimes use this same signal for deaf dogs in our program. A flash of light or the vibration of a collar could also serve the same purpose. Many of the animals at Shedd were conditioned to a tactile bridge, where the trainer would pat the sea lion or dolphin on their side in a specific way to mark the behavior they liked.

Whatever bridging stimulus you decide to use, Ken emphasized that it’s important for it to be distinct and easy to replicate. It should serve no other purpose in the animal’s environment.

So, why use a marker signal at all? What makes the clicker or whistle so powerful?

Marker signals allow trainers to be accurate and precise. By clicking or whistling at the exact moment your animal performs the correct behavior, you can help him to learn more quickly exactly what it is you like. It’s often difficult or even impossible to deliver a food reward or secondary reinforcer to the animal at the precise instant he does what you want, but by using a marker we can still communicate to him exactly what earned that reward.

Furthermore, the bridge can be transferred from trainer to trainer easily, allowing a wider variety of trainers to work with one animal. When an animal understands to listen, watch, or feel for the bridging stimulus, he concentrates more fully on the task at hand instead of focusing on the food or other reward.

Novice trainers often worry that they will need to carry a clicker with them for the rest of their dog’s life. Nonsense! The clicker allows us to teach your dog more quickly and easily. It’s simply another teaching tool. Once your dog understands the behavior, it’s easy to fade the clicker.

What bridging signals do you use to train your dog? Do you use different signals in different environments? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

Lessons From Shedd: “When can I get rid of the treats?”

“When can I get rid of the treats?”  This is one of the most common questions we receive in our Beginning and Puppy training classes. If ever anyone was focused on the wrong question in training, this may be it. Let’s explore this common training issue.

The sea lions at Shedd are rewarded for a job well done with fish or squid. Photo by Sage Ross.

People can’t wait to stop using food in training. Some people feel that their dog should listen to them because of their natural authority or “alpha-ness.” Some want their dog to just do it because he loves them. Some feel that using food somehow cheapens their relationship. I disagree.

Food enhances relationships. How many family counselors suggest eating at least one meal together a day? Why do couples go out to eat at nice restaurants on dates? Why do we bake cake or other goodies for those we love on special occasions? Eating together enhances your bond. Taking the time to provide another with food shows that you care about them.

Here’s the deal: your dog has to eat. In fact, he has to eat every day. Most dogs eat multiple times a day. Regardless of your view on using food in training, you still have to feed your dog. His food can be used to train him. Why waste this opportunity?

One of the ways in which exotic animal trainers are able to achieve such complex and reliable behaviors is through their use of the animal’s daily food ration in training. Let me be clear here: the animals eat regardless of what happens in the training session. If an animal doesn’t want to train, he or she is still fed. Withholding food is cruel and unnecessary. If your animal isn’t interested in training, this is probably due to operator error. Are you putting too much pressure on him? Being too stingy? Too unclear? Asking for too much? Training in too distracting of an environment? Regardless, your dog is giving you great information. Take a good, hard look at your training program, and start over.

Understand, I’m not saying that food has to be the only training tool you use. This would be stupid and short-sighted. Use a variety of secondary and tertiary reinforcers. A smart trainer keeps things interesting for the animal. Neither am I saying that you should reward your dog for every single behavior. Once an animal understands a behavior, you can switch to rewarding him intermittently.

Also understand, I am not recommending using food as a bribe. If your dog will only listen when you have a cookie in your hand, you’re probably using that food incorrectly as a bribe rather than a reward. Rewards come after a job well done.

All this said, it makes me incredibly sad when someone can think of nothing other than how soon he or she can stop rewarding their dog with food. Why would you want to? You’re going to give that food to your dog anyway at some point. Make it count. Enhance that bond. Reward your dog for a job well done. Share food with your best friend. Eat together, grow together, build that relationship.