Category Archives: Learning Theory

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!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Mike Bouchard

Photo by Mike Bouchard

Most professional dog trainers have a grasp of learning theory on par with most psychology professors.

- Ian Dunbar

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Sini Merikallio

Photo by Sini Merikallio

Control of one’s environment can be a primary reinforcer.

- Virginia Dare

Playing with your dog’s food… good idea or not?

Imagine, if you would, that I handed you a great big slice of cake. Let’s pretend that it’s your favorite kind of cake, and it’s homemade with a big scoop of ice cream on the side. You smell the sweet scent of the gooey dessert, and eagerly pick up your fork to take a great big bite. Just as you’re lifting your fork to your mouth, taste buds tingling in anticipation, I grab your fork from you and take that bite myself.

Now, I’m going to assume that you’re a kinder, more patient person than I am. Assuming that, I’m going to guess that while you’re annoyed with me for grabbing your fork, you’re not going to knock me out over a single bite of cake (even though it is your favorite kind). I’ll hand your fork back, and you’ll go to take another bite. As you do so, I’m going to stick my hand onto your plate and start smearing your cake around. How would you react? Are you getting more annoyed? How much would you put up with before you physically removed me from your plate before you tried to eat?

Photo by Esteban

Photo by Esteban

It’s understandable that you would be annoyed with me if I kept messing with your food. Putting my hand in your dish and taking your food away from you as you tried to eat would be an indescribably rude behavior on my part. In fact, it’s so rude as to be nearly unimaginable in our society. So why do we do this to our dogs?

There’s a myth out there that we should play with our dogs’ food to teach them tolerance while they’re eating. Like most myths, it’s got a kernel of truth at its center. Guarding is a normal, natural behavior in most dogs, and if they’re not taught to share while they’re young they may become aggressive over resources like food, toys, or bones when they hit adulthood.

It’s easier to prevent guarding than to treat it. But messing about in your dog’s dish while he’s eating is not the way to go about it. In fact, it could make things worse. After all, it’s generally a bad idea to expect your dog to be more tolerant and peaceable about intrusions into his personal space than you would be. Dogs are pretty cool, but they’re still animals, and we don’t live in a Disney movie.

So, how can you prevent guarding in your dog if messing with his food bowl is off-limits? Simple. Just convince him that it’s worth his while for you to muck about with his stuff.

Doing so is so simple that it takes mere seconds at every meal. Just feed your dog as usual. Wait for him to begin eating. Then approach his bowl and toss something better than his dog food in. I use small cubes of cheese or chicken, but you could use anything your dog especially likes. It just has to be something that your dog prefers to his regular food.

That’s it. Lather, rinse, and repeat on a regular basis, and your dog will be absolutely thrilled to have you approach his food bowl. Instead of worrying about what you’re going to do, your dog will begin anticipating your arrival, since it always predicts something good. You’ll see this shift in his attitude reflected in his body language. Instead of eyeing you out of the corner of his eye, stiffening up, or gulping his food down more quickly, your dog will start to wiggle as soon as he sees you approach. He’ll back away from his dish eagerly, excited to see what wonderful gift you’ve brought this time. He’ll be so busy feeling happy that you’re approaching his food that guarding will never even cross his mind.

Of course, if your dog already guards his food, use your own judgment about the safety of this exercise. Generally it’s best to work with a skilled professional if your dog has ever stiffened up, growled, snapped, or bit when he was guarding something.

However, if your dog has not yet started guarding, now is the time to begin these exercises. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a few moments a week of food-bowl exercises such as this can prevent a great deal of problems later on. Do this exercise with new puppies as soon as they can eat solid food. Do it with your adult dog. Do it with foster dogs and shelter dogs. Do it with any dog who doesn’t yet guard, and you can prevent a lot of dogs from ever guarding at all.

Once your dog’s a rock star at this exercise with his food bowl, consider other situations in which you could do the same thing. Practice approaching your dog while he’s playing with his toys, chewing on his Nylabone, or eating a rawhide or bully stick. Each time, make sure that your approach heralds the arrival of a treat that’s much more delicious than what he had to start with. Soon your dog will be happy about you approaching him no matter what’s in his mouth.

Messing about with your dog’s food bowl is every bit as rude as sticking your hand in your spouse’s plate while you’re both eating supper. Let’s get rid of this harmful myth once and for all, and focus instead on teaching our dogs that we are trustworthy, kind, and respectful housemates. Next time your dog is eating, leave him to it in privacy unless you have positive intentions. Next time you’re eating cake, I promise I’ll do the same. It’s only polite.

“Needs Training”

The phrase is everywhere. It’s in adoptable pet bios on Petfinder: “Great with kids but doesn’t like to share his food, so he needs an owner who will take him to training classes.” It’s in newspaper ads: “10-month-old purebred needs new home with room to run. I don’t have the time to train him.” It’s in my email inbox: “What training class should we take to make our dog stop growling at our toddler?”

We see the phrase “needs training” everywhere, and you may be surprised to learn that it makes my skin crawl. There seems to be a widely-held belief that with a little obedience training, most behavioral issues will cease to exist. Sadly, this is not the case.

This dog doesn't need training. He needs quality management and behavior modification ASAP. Photo by claradon on flickr.

This dog doesn’t need training. He needs quality management and behavior modification ASAP. Photo by claradon on flickr.

Trying to solve behavioral concerns with basic training misses a very important point: behavior modification and obedience training are not the same thing. While it’s true that basic manners training can help to manage and control some behavioral problems, it often doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Basic obedience training is important for all dogs, including those with behavior problems, but it’s not a magic cure-all, and treating it as such does a disservice to the dogs and people who are left dealing with a larger issue that hasn’t been addressed.

So, what’s the difference? Training teaches behaviors. Training will solve problems that result from a lack of understanding. If your friendly dog jumps up on people in greeting, teaching her to sit when people approach will solve that problem. In that case, your dog just didn’t understand that putting her butt on the ground was the best way to meet people. In the same vein, if your dog pulls on the leash, teaching him to walk nicely by your side will solve your leash pulling issues. Your dog just needs to learn that walking next to you is the fastest way of getting where he wants to go. In both cases, training solves the problem by explaining to your dog which behaviors are the most effective at getting what he or she wants.

Sometimes, however, problem behaviors are not simply caused by a lack of understanding. If your dog’s behavior problem is driven by emotions, then behavior modification is needed. Behavior modification changes the emotional response your dog has to a trigger. If, for example, your dog jumps up on people in a forceful way, then squirrels to the side when they try to pet her, simple training will not fix her jumping problem. Because the jumping is driven by an underlying discomfort with people in her space, the jumping is simply a symptom of her anxiety. Until the anxiety is addressed, the jumping (which in this case is a distance-increasing behavior) will continue, because your dog is very worried about the people. Similarly, if your dog lunges and barks at other dogs on leash due to fear, aggression, or overarousal, focusing on teaching loose-leash walking is putting the cart before the horse. Until your dog’s reactivity is addressed, he may be unable to walk nicely on leash in the presence of other dogs – not due to a lack of understanding, but simply because he’s too worked up to function.

Of course, obedience training is an important part of any good behavior modification plan. It’s easier to work with a reactive dog who had good leash manners in the absence of triggers than to work with one who pulls like a freight train 100% of the time. It’s easier to work with an anxious greeter who has a good sit-stay when there are no strangers present than to work with one who doesn’t know what sit means. But focusing purely on training basic manners when your dog needs behavior modification will be inadequate at best. At worst, it may make the problem behavior worse if your dog is forced to cope with scary or upsetting situations (such as the close proximity of new people or dogs for a dog who has social anxiety) in a training class.

If your dog’s problem behavior is driven by emotions, we need to address those emotions in order to permanently change the behavior. Failing to do so is likely to cause other behavior problems to develop. If we teach the anxious greeter to hold a sit-stay so that people can pet her but do not address her anxiety about strangers, for example, that anxiety will still manifest somehow. She may show conflicted body language such as lip licks and whale eyes. She may tap out and urinate on herself. She may growl or bite. All of these behaviors are symptoms of the underlying problem, just as the original jumping and squirrelly behavior were.

If, however, we address her anxiety from the start, teaching her that she does not need to interact with people who worry her and that her owner will protect her, we will likely see the jumping and squirreling around disappear over time. In this case, jumping and acting silly were simply symptoms of a bigger issue, and when the bigger issue is addressed the symptoms disappear on their own. Once the dog understands that her owner won’t let people touch her if she’s not comfortable, we can then switch to obedience training in order to show her ways to interact with strangers that don’t cause her discomfort, such as targeting their hands or shoes, or perhaps playing the “look at that” game.

For a leash-reactive dog, the same sort of emotion-driven approach works. The lunging and barking is a symptom that tells us that the dog is experiencing strong emotions of some sort. Reactive dogs may act this way due to a variety of emotions (frustration, excitement, fear, etc.). That’s okay – we don’t necessarily need to know exactly why the dog is acting this way, as long as we can acknowledge that the presence of other dogs causes a problem. Knowing that, we can play the Watch the World game. Over time, this game will change the dog’s emotional response to other dogs to one of happy anticipation, which will result in him turning towards his owner when he spies another dog. The lunging and barking will go away on their own as the emotions that used to drive them are replaced.

If your dog is experiencing a behavior problem, it’s important to understand that obedience training alone may not be enough. Training your dog in basic manners is important, but it’s even more important to address the root cause of any behavior problem: the emotions that drive it. A skilled trainer can help you figure out why your dog is acting the way that he is. Even more importantly, we can help you put together a plan to change the core emotions that are driving your dog’s behavior. When we change the way your dog feels about things, he will change the way he behaves accordingly.

Some (many!) dogs legitimately need obedience training. However, many more dogs also need something more. They need behavior modification to help them deal with the very real emotions of fear, insecurity, excitement, frustration, or anger. Giving these dogs the help they need to cope with the world they find themselves in is the kindest and most effective thing we can do as their guardians and caretakers.

How do you think we can address the common misperception that obedience training can solve all behavioral problems? Please help me brainstorm… I’d love to hear your ideas!

“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.