The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.
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.
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!
In recent weeks, we’ve discussed fearful and brittle dogs. Some dogs can have the best start in life and still grow up with behavioral concerns. Other dogs missed out on critical socialization experiences as puppies, which impacted their development. But what about dogs who have had it even worse? How does trauma impact dogs?
Some of the dogs we take into our homes don’t just come from neglectful pasts but have lived with outright abuse. Sometimes this abuse has been due to mistreatment at the hands of a past owner, and sometimes it has happened in the current home despite to the owner’s very best intentions. Trauma has a lifelong impact on many dogs.
Training is still an unregulated field, which means that there are still many so-called trainers who use aversive training techniques to address behavioral problems. There’s a reason why the AVSAB, the organization for the premier experts in animal behavior, has a position statement regarding the use of punishment in training. Manufacturing fear or avoidance in an already panicked animal does not create an environment where critical learning can take place. I’ve heard of trainers shocking dogs who suffer from separation anxiety for barking in their crates, hanging dog-aggressive dogs by their neck when they lunged at others, and strapping electronic collars to dogs’ genitals in the name of behavior modification.
Remember that you are your dog’s advocate. If something doesn’t seem right to you, it is up to you to put your foot down and protect your dog. Even something as seemingly mild as squirting a reactive dog with a water bottle or gently placing a frightened dog into a fear-inducing situation (such as setting a dog who is afraid of slippery floors onto the middle of the kitchen floor) and preventing that dog from leaving can have long-lasting consequences. While you may have had the best intentions when you followed the advice of the trainer on TV or tried a technique that your coworker swears by, if your dog responded by panicking or shutting down and if you’ve noticed that your dog’s behavior has deteriorated since that time, it’s possible that your dog could be experiencing a canine version of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD.
PTSD is most well-known as a disorder frequently experienced by veterans, but any survivor of trauma may experience the symptoms. Little is known about why some individuals experience symptoms that can range from mild to debilitating while others who were present in the same event can emerge unscathed.
Extreme fear oftentimes results in altered perceptions of the event. Triggers associated with the fearful event do not engage the hippocampus, which is usually responsible for memory, but rather the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions. Strong flashbacks to the original panic state can be instantaneous, and are not under the dog’s conscious control. Just as you’re unable to control the contraction or dilation of your pupils when you feel strong emotions, a dog experiencing Post Traumatic Stress symptoms such as this is absolutely unable to stop feeling the way he does in the moment.
The triggers for this flashback state may not make logical sense. Scents, textures, certain movements, and even the time of day can all trigger this instant fear reaction. While some triggers are easily explained, such as Layla flinching and dropping to the floor the first time I carried a rolled up newspaper into the house or a previous foster dog slinking away if he smelled alcohol on a visitor’s breath, others are less easy to tease apart and may never be completely identified. A foster dog several years ago would occasionally yelp when he was touched, even after soliciting attention, but the vet could find nothing physically wrong and his quick fear reaction never manifested twice when the same area of his body was touched. Another dog that I’m working with right now will begin trembling for no apparent reason several times a week, hiding under the bed and occasionally voiding her bladder in terror. While her owners are keeping diligent notes, they haven’t been able to pinpoint the source of these episodes.
If your dog has a history of trauma, whether suspected or confirmed, here are some guidelines to remember.
1. The dog determines what’s traumatizing, not you. While you may not have thought that holding your dog down for a simple nail trim was that big a deal, your dog may have a different opinion. Watch your dog’s body language for signs of stress such as lip licking, yawning, slower or faster movement, freezing, and turning away so that you can intervene if a situation starts to go south. Pushing through such situations can almost guarantee that they’ll create new fear triggers in many dogs.
2. Create safe places. One of the reasons that mat work is so very helpful for so many dogs is due to its clear structure of safety. By making the mat a positive place where treats, relaxation, and massage take place, we can create a positive conditioned emotional response to the mere presence of this training tool. Once the mat becomes a safe place, make sure to keep it that way. Don’t let anything bad happen to your dog on the mat. You can create other safe spaces as well – places in your dog’s environment where good things happen and where there is no pressure placed on the dog.
3. Give your dog choices. One of the fastest ways to traumatize any mammal is to take away all of his or her choices. Manufacture opportunities for your dog to make choices about his or her environment, schedule, and care as much as possible. Whether you let your dog decide which way to turn at the end of the block, wait for your dog to offer a foot for nail trimming, play with nose work, or give your dog several different beds to choose to sleep on, choice is hugely important. Set your dog up to make good choices, then reward those choices to build the dog’s confidence.
4. Always try to end on a good note. Research has shown that people who experienced identically unpleasant procedures created very different memories of those procedures depending on how traumatic the final moments of the procedure were. While we don’t know whether dogs have the same cognitive recall abilities, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try to make the last few seconds of any unpleasant experience as pleasant as possible. For example, Layla is very concerned about having her feet handled. I file her nails instead of clipping them because this is more comfortable for her, and she is in control of how fast or slow nail trimming sessions go. She is also free to leave at any time if she gets too scared. At the end of every nail-trimming session, I practice simply touching the nail file to her toenails for less than a second, followed by a food reward. Because each session ends with these quick successes, she’s more comfortable allowing me to handle her feet when it comes time for the next session.
5. Your dog is not his story. If your dog has a history of trauma, it’s important to be aware of that past, but equally important to help your dog succeed in the present. Too often, we get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves about our dogs’ pasts, and forget to pay attention to the animal in front of us. While trauma can have lasting consequences due to its huge impact on the way the brain develops and processes information, patient behavioral modification and an environment of safety can have equally powerful effects. See your dog for who he is in the moment, rather than who you expect him to be. He may surprise you.
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.
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!