Category Archives: Learning Theory

Got a minute?

The alarm on my phone chimes as I’m putting together behavioral case notes to send to a client’s veterinarian. I switch it off, then count 15 treats into my hand. Setting my phone’s stopwatch for one minute, I grab the toenail clippers and call Layla over. As the stopwatch starts, I quietly hold out a hand. Layla eagerly places her paw into my hand, and I click with my tongue and hand her a treat, letting go of her paw as she swallows. She puts her paw back into my hand and gets another click and treat. We do this four more times, and on the seventh try I gently tap one of her toenails with the nail clipper, clicking and treating her for holding still. She gets three more clicks for offering her paw, then I calmly clip the very tip of her dewclaw for another click and treat. We end the session with four more clicks and treats for offering her paw. I stop the stopwatch on my phone. It’s been 47 seconds since the start of our session. I thank Layla, give her a release cue, and return to writing my case notes. My phone’s alarm will go off again in another hour, and it will be Trout’s turn to enjoy a short training session. I decide that I’ll work on her newest trick, yodeling on cue.

Photo by Walter Rumsby

Photo by Walter Rumsby

This sort of training session is common in my household and in my client’s homes. Setting aside five, ten, or fifteen minutes to train every day can be difficult for the busy family or professional, but it’s easy to find a minute of time to work with your dog. A lot can be accomplished in sixty seconds!

Setting an alarm to go off once an hour whenever you’re home is a great reminder to work with your dog. Decide what you’d like to work on ahead of time, then keep it short and sweet. Ideally, it’s best to choose a skill that you can reward frequently: ten to twenty treats in a minute is a good goal to shoot for. If you count the treats out ahead of time and have them ready to go, so much the better.

So, what can you train in a minute? Here are just a few skills that I commonly have my clients work on:

- Loose-leash walking: snap the leash on your dog’s collar and spend sixty seconds walking around your living room or driveway.

- Recall: toss a treat across the room, then call your dog to come, grabbing her collar when she reaches you and then feeding a treat. Repeat this game as many times as you can in a minute.

- Muzzle or Gentle Leader love: click and treat your dog for targeting the muzzle or Gentle Leader. As your dog gets the idea of the game, begin feeding the treats inside the basket of the muzzle or through the nose band of the Gentle Leader.

- Stay: click and treat your dog for holding still as you shift your weight in front of him, gradually increasing the difficulty until you can jump up and down in front of him, turn in a circle in front of him, and walk in a circle around him without him moving a muscle.

- Ears, nails, and tails, oh my: if your dog doesn’t like to be touched somewhere, spend some time teaching him that touch predicts food. Touch the offending area (or the closest area you can touch without stressing him), then reward. This is a great way to teach dogs to enjoy brushing, nail trimming, ear cleaning, toothbrushing, or any other sort of handling.

- Sits, downs, and stands: can your dog differentiate these cues? Practice your sit-down-sit-stand-down-stand progression, mixing up the signals in an unpredictable order.

- Tricks: trying to teach your dog to fetch a tissue when you sneeze, bow, spin, or sit pretty? Work on it in little bits!

- Leave it and Zen: can your dog offer eye contact while you hold a treat out to the side? Can she ignore a treat in your open palm? Can she offer hand targets while a pile of treats is sitting on the ground?

- Noise desensitization and counterconditioning: if your dog hates thunder, beeping, or other noises, you can play those noises softly on your computer, following each with a tasty treat.

- Crate games: reward your dog for running into his crate. Practice manners when the crate door is closed. Teach him that the crate is a magic food spot where wonderful things happen.

- Attention outside: click and treat your dog for checking in with you as the two of you stand near an open door with your dog on leash. As your dog gets better at this, practice in your front and back yards.

- Scary objects: if your dog hates the blender, the vacuum cleaner, or the mop, pair the offending item with treats. Start with the scary thing stationary, turned off, and far enough away that your dog can eat treats. Gradually work on getting closer, then add movement, and finally noise.

These are just a few ideas, and pretty much any skill can be worked on in little chunks if you’re creative. Set a goal to train your dog for sixty seconds every hour you’re home, and you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll accomplish! So, what do you plan to work on this week? Share your one-minute training goals in the comments section below!

Myth: Peeing on Your Dog

Since I’ve worked as a professional trainer for years, I’ve heard it all. Most myths about dog behavior are silly and relatively harmless. That said, there’s one myth that’s resurfaced in the past couple months which has me shaking my head in bewilderment. Multiple clients have admitted to spitting in their dog’s food, peeing on their dog’s head, or otherwise using their own or their children’s bodily fluids with the intent of putting their dog in his or her place (which is implied to be “below” the human in a rigid hierarchy).

Spit-free kibble. Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

Spit-free kibble (we hope). Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

It can be hard to separate scientific fact from fiction for someone for whom dog behavior is a mystery, and I can empathize with my clients’ confusion. In each case, a trusted friend, family member, or even pet professional had recommended this course of action. In each case, my client was at a loss as to how to deal with his or her dog’s problematic behavior. While I wish that these clients had contacted me first, rather than after they had tried this technique (and in most cases, other recommendations from coworkers or neighbors as well), their hope was that following this advice would save them the cost of a private consultation with a trained professional.

The old adage of “you get what you pay for” springs to mind here. Free advice can be helpful, but for serious behavioral problems where the risk of failure could mean that a person gets bitten or your dog winds up homeless or dead, the stakes are just too high. Practice makes perfect, after all, and the longer a dog has the opportunity to practice the problem behavior, the worse the prognosis becomes. My clients and I have the most success when I can begin working with them at the first sign of a problem, rather than after months or even years of them attempting to solve the problem on their own.

So, why isn’t it a good idea to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head to “show him who’s boss?”

The core idea behind this advice is to elevate the owner’s status, based on the belief that dogs adhere to a rigid dominance hierarchy. However, this myth has been disproven over and over again. Wolves do have hierarchies, but they’re based on family arrangements with the mother and father leading the pack of children. Based on this knowledge, it only makes sense to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head if that’s what you would do to your [human] toddler when he misbehaves. Good parents – and good dog owners! – know that parenting is all about providing a safe environment for growth, with lots of patience, clear rules, and love.

Knowing that wolves form family packs greatly impacts our view of their communication and dominance hierarchies. However, drawing conclusions about dog behavior based on the behavior of their closely related cousins can be as erroneous as studying human behavior by observing chimps or bonobos. Yes, we share similarities. However, we’re not the same species. Dogs and wolves evolved from the same ancestor, but it’s likely that wolves have changed greatly from what they were tens of thousands of years ago. Studies of dogs in their native environment (village dumps) show that while wolves form close family packs, dogs do not. Mothers and puppies stick together, and dogs will develop friendships with other dogs, but the close-knit pack structure is just not there. This means that even if wolves did develop rigid pack structures that required forceful dominance displays, it would be inappropriate to extrapolate those behaviors to their cousins.

Even if all of this weren’t true, there’s still a major flaw in the idea of using bodily fluids to assert one’s dominance. Sure, it grosses us out to think about someone peeing on our head or spitting in our food. But does it really have the same impact on our dogs? Frankly, dogs love bodily fluids! When Layla lifts her leg and pees on another dog’s head (which she does on a fairly regular basis), the other dog never acts grossed out. Dogs lick one another’s mouths and eat vomit on a regular basis. They use their tongues to clean their genitals and lick at other dog’s urine. Some even eat poop (and many experts believe that human fecal matter may have been the main source of nutrition for early village dogs). We may think body fluids are gross, but dogs think they’re pretty fascinating.

The bottom line is that peeing on your dog, dumping the contents of your child’s dirty diaper on your dog, or spitting in her food is unlikely to create the behavior change you want. In the best case scenario, your dog’s behavior may be slightly suppressed due to her confusion. Worst case, you could scare your dog, damaging your relationship further, or unintentionally reward her problem behavior by providing her with something she finds fascinating or delicious. Either way, true behavioral change is unlikely, and you’re far better off consulting with a trained professional. As an added bonus, just think of how much money you’ll save on dog shampoo!

Brittle Dogs

Raven is a petite little mix of a dog. Dainty and precise, her movements are as graceful as a dance and she never seems to put a paw out of place. Her long legs and tail, sleek, short coat, and sharp muzzle remind me a bit of a canine supermodel. She learns new tricks at the drop of a hat (or a clicker, as the case may be), and is highly obedient.

Raven is beautiful and intelligent. She’s also alarmingly unstable.

Photo by Chris Suderman

Photo by Chris Suderman

The problem doesn’t lie in Raven’s owners. They’re lovely people, experienced in dog care and training. When they brought Raven home at 10 weeks of age, they started her in puppy classes right away and socialized her diligently. She became very friendly, playful, and polite with unfamiliar people and dogs, and enjoyed going to new places.

Then Raven had a scary thing happen to her. Late at night while her owners were walking her, a neighbor set off a firework. Just as the firework boomed, Raven noticed another neighbor walking past in the dark. She panicked, fighting and pulling to get home. Her owners were unable to calm her, and in her frenzy she was like a wild animal. By the time they got home, all three were exhausted, and Raven’s owners were very confused. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

After that scary night, Raven became highly reactive towards strangers after dark. She would lunge and bark at them, eyes huge. She was constantly on alert. Her owners started working on basic counterconditioning exercises with her and tried to get her walk in before dark each night. They were relieved that Raven was still friendly towards everyone she met during the day, and continued her socialization.

Then something else happened – this time, a painful procedure at the vet. Suddenly, Raven became afraid of new indoor environments. Taking her to new buildings became nearly impossible because she would refuse to go through the doors. She was on alert all the time in new places. She wouldn’t take treats or toys.

This pattern continued. Every time something even a little bit scary or uncomfortable happened, Raven’s behavior would shift dramatically. Her owners had never encountered fear reactions as intense as Raven’s before, and were at a loss about what to do. They had used the same socialization and training program successfully with multiple previous dogs. Nothing truly terrifying had ever happened to Raven. Yet within a year of the first incident, Raven’s owners found themselves living in a bubble.

Everything frightened their previously social and charming dog. Her owners no longer had company in their house because she barked at visitors. They no longer went on walks or took her with them to eat at outdoor restaurants. They brought a trainer into their home, but fired her after Raven’s behavior vastly deteriorated with the use of an electronic collar and some “hard love.” They talked to their vet about anxiety medication, and Raven started on Prozac.

So, what was going wrong?

Dogs are an amazingly adaptive species. They’ve evolved and been selected by us to live in every climate, every living situation, and with every species. Dogs guard vast herds of sheep in mountainous regions, trot down the busy Manhattan sidewalk amidst throngs of people, and work as a team to pull sleds in the frozen north. Dogs are kept as companions to adolescent Cheetahs in zoos. They guide the blind, sniff out explosives, and provide companionship.

Most dogs are every bit as adaptive as the history of their species would lead us to expect. With appropriate socialization, they can handle new problems with aplomb. Yet occasionally, I encounter a dog like Raven. These dogs do great as long as nothing bad ever happens, but fall apart at the seams when they encounter something frightening or uncomfortable. Once something has caused this general breakdown once, they seem to spiral even further down the rabbit hole, never recovering to their previous level of confidence. These are what I call “brittle” dogs, and if you’ve never lived with one, you can count yourself lucky.

Think of most dogs like a rubber band. If you pull on them a bit by exposing them to a situation that they were not socialized to as little pups, they may stretch out slightly, but will eventually return to their usual shape once the situation has returned to normal. They get stressed, but they have the coping skills to recover. They’re stretchy and flexible.

Other dogs, like Raven or like my dog Trout, are more like old rubber bands that have dried out. They look just like other dogs from the outside, but their core strength and elasticity is missing. If these dogs get stretched too far, they break. They shatter like glass, and no matter how hard their owners work to put the pieces back together, they’ll never be able to be used like a regular rubber band. They can only handle a little bit of stretch, and then they snap apart instead of snapping back together.

If you have a brittle dog and you know that your dog’s puppyhood and socialization were solid, there’s very likely to be a genetic component. These dogs are just wired differently. Nature provides lots of variety in the way it mixes the genetic cocktail of each dog who’s born. Variety is the stuff of survival, and desirable traits help their host live on to pass on the superior genetic advantage, while undesirable traits cause the host to die out. Except that our undesirable dogs are lucky enough to live in an environment where very little to no natural culling takes place. They don’t die out. They come to live with exceptional people like Raven’s owners, people who do their very best to help their dog become a normal rubber band.

Raven was four years old when I met her, but the truth is that she could have been any age. Had she not been startled by the stranger at the exact moment fireworks went off, or had she not had to have a painful veterinary procedure shortly after that, or had any of the other perfect storm of bad experiences not happened to her, she would probably be a happy, outgoing dog to this day. Bad luck and bad genetics ganged up on her and her owners in a very unpleasant way, and so instead of a bright and charming dog I met a stressed and fearful one who was absolutely not equipped to deal with my presence in her home.

So, what can you do if you suspect that you have a brittle dog?

1. Socialize, socialize, socialize. Remember that socialization refers to giving your dog positive experiences. Use treats, toys, and play to make new experiences fun and rewarding. Since brittle dogs put so much more weight on negative experiences than on positive ones, you need to make sure that the vast weight of your dog’s positive experiences can override the potential fear of one bad experience. Consider a dog who’s had thousands of good experiences with other dogs, meeting polite dogs and having a blast playing with them. This dog is much more likely to recover from being attacked by an unfamiliar dog than one who has only had five, ten, or even one hundred positive experiences with members of her own species.

2. On that same note, classically condition everything. Anytime your dog hears thunder or fireworks, meets a new person, goes to the vet, or encounters something new, turn the experience into a fun game using treats, toys, and play. Brittle dogs need extra feedback to know that novelty is not something to be feared, but rather an occasion to engage their curiousity. Since we know that brittle dogs develop fears and phobias more easily than most members of their species, the best thing we can do is to change their emotional response to new situations to one of joy and excitement.

3. Protect your dog. Brittle dogs are more fragile than most, and it’s helpful to keep this in mind. Since one bad experience could cause a dramatic shift in your dog’s ability to cope, take extra care to only expose your brittle dog to situations that you know he or she can handle. Understand that I’m not telling you to wrap your dog in bubble wrap – it’s still important to let him be a dog and to encourage him to explore new opportunities. But do be sure that you’re not setting him up to fail. Brittle dogs, for example, should not be dog park dogs, because you don’t know whether the other dogs at the park are always going to be friendly. A stable dog would be able to deal with the occasional snarky or possessive dog encounter at the dog park, but your brittle dog can’t. Instead, set up safer doggy play sessions by walking and enjoying off-leash time with known stable and friendly dogs.

4. Proactively teach your dog coping skills. Don’t just assume that your brittle dog can handle new situations. Instead, prepare him for each situation he’ll need to handle ahead of time. Teach him general relaxation skills using the Protocol for Relaxation, for example, or do some pretend blood draws while feeding peanut butter by gently restraining him, splashing cool water or alcohol on his leg, and poking his vein with a capped pen to prepare him for an upcoming vet visit. If you wait to work with your dog until he shows you where the problem areas in his socialization lie, it may be too late. Instead, assume that everything requires some proactive involvement on your part and avoid those issues altogether. Remember, an ounce of prevention will save you from a pound of cure!

5. Consider medications. Like Raven’s owners, you may find that your dog has a true chemical imbalance that needs to be corrected by medical intervention. Just as some dogs need insulin or thyroid supplementation, some brittle dogs need daily medication to increase the available serotonin in their system. Medications can also assist your brittle dog in overcoming new fears. A veterinary behaviorist is the best person to work with as you figure out which meds will be the most helpful.

So, do you have a dog who was given all of the proper socialization and early training but who just can’t cope with stress, or is your dog flexible and stable? And what about those “brittle” dogs who didn’t get the right socialization – how are they different? We’ll explore that topic next week! In the meantime, please share your experiences, tips, tricks, and questions in the comments section below.

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!

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!

An Ounce of Prevention

Trout stands in the kitchen, head and stumpy tail down, back hunched. She doesn’t feel well, and she hasn’t felt well for quite awhile. Her symptoms are frustratingly vague for all their severity. She has episodes of gastric reflux severe enough that she attempts to stop the discomfort by eating whatever she can reach – licking fur off the carpet, swallowing grass, and most dangerously of all, chewing and swallowing pieces of cloth and stuffing from her dog bed or toys. She’s had several impaction scares, but as yet has managed to pass everything. She trembles occasionally and stretches constantly, trying to find a comfortable position. Her stomach rumbles and gurgles (a symptom called borborygmos, which seems appropriate). To add insult to injury, she has a raging urinary tract infection

She’s being treated by an internal medicine specialist, and we’re hopeful that we’ll figure out what’s making her feel so poorly in the next few weeks. In the meantime, she’s on a regimen of medications to manage her symptoms. Antibiotics, cranberry supplements, fish oil pills, famotidine, probiotics, tramadol, and sucralfate all keep her comfortable. She’s not an easy dog to medicate, though, as her appetite is poor. Luckily for her, I have some tricks up my sleeve, and the two of us have history together.

troutsick

Like all puppies who come to live with me, Trout has been conditioned from an early age to accept medication. I start right away with puppies, opening their mouths only to pop a bite of hot dog or chicken onto their tongue. I restrain them gently, handling them all over their bodies as they lick peanut butter off a spoon. They lick baby food from syringes, and learn to be comfortable with the restraint positions necessary for blood draws.

All of this prep work is easy to do, and the results have a lifelong benefit. Every dog will need medication at some point in their life, whether it’s antibiotics for a minor infection or pain pills as their joints get old and creaky. We prepare our dogs for life by teaching them to come when called, walk nicely on a leash, and greet people appropriately. Why not also teach them to be comfortable taking medication and being examined by a veterinarian?

This idea is par for the course in the exotic animal world. You can’t hold an uncooperative dolphin or elephant down, and if you try to restrain a wild prey animal like a gazelle it may go into shock and die from the stress. No one wants to shove a pill down an uncooperative tiger or hyena’s throat! Animals in zoos and aquariums are prepared for medical procedures as part of their daily training, and I strongly believe in doing the same thing for our pet dogs. Just because we can get away with holding dogs down to get stuff done doesn’t make it right, and restraining a dog for the sake of expediency is always a losing battle in the long run as it just makes future vet or grooming visits more difficult.

One of Trout’s medications needs to be given at least two hours before and after food, which means that we can’t wrap it in anything delicious. The pill gets dissolved in water, then the slurry is squirted down her throat with a syringe. She’s not a fan, but she cooperates. She gets this medication every eight hours, so in between doses she gets two or three syringe-fulls of baby food. Since the delicious syringes outweigh the icky ones, she continues to accept medication with no complaints.

Pilling her also requires a bit of forethought. She’s compliant about letting me shove a pill down her throat if it’s necessary thanks to plenty of practice having treats popped into her mouth after I open her jaws. However, it’s always better to get compliance, so I try wrapping the treats in delicious food first. So far braunschweiger (a pork liver spread) is a clear winner, and she takes even the most bitter pills wrapped in a pea-sized smear of this. Canned food, cottage cheese, yogurt, hot dog pieces, Easy Cheese, and commercial Pill Pockets have also been effective in getting her to take her medication.

Like many dogs, Trout can be a bit tricky. She’ll take the pill wrapped in something else, but then spit the pill out and swallow the treat. If your dog likes to pull this trick, try feeding multiple small “treat balls” in a row. Feed a small bit of the wrapping (yogurt, braunschweiger, etc.) by itself, then a bit with the pill, then another bit or two with nothing in it. If you feed these quickly enough, your dog will be so focused on the next treat that she won’t notice the pill (or at least won’t have time to spit it out).

Trout’s a rock star about all of this care, but not all dogs are. If your dog is especially difficult to medicate, you can ask your vet about getting the medication compounded. A pharmacist will mix the medication with chicken, salmon, beef, or other flavor so that your dog thinks it’s a delicious treat. This seems to work especially well for bitter medications, and while it does add some cost to your prescription it may be worthwhile for the reduced stress on you and your pet. This works for cats too!

Note: I’ve had several friends and clients ask if they can help with veterinary expenses, which have climbed to almost 12.5% of my yearly income in the last month alone. If you’d like to donate, you can do so here through PayPal or here through the GoFundMe site. Your positive thoughts, prayers, white light, and other good vibes are also very appreciated. I feel a bit weird accepting donations, but Dobby’s costs last year depleted my savings account to such an extent that I’m incredibly grateful for your offers to help. I’m always amazed at what a supportive, caring community the dog world is. It’s a wonderful, warm feeling to know that people all over the world are pulling for my little white dog. Thank you!