Monthly Archives: April 2012

Keep Calm and Lie Down

“Lie down” is often the very first behavior I teach a new foster dog, as I find that it’s one of the simplest behaviors to capture and one of the most useful household manners for a dog to know. I’m always amazed at how much trouble people go to in order to teach their dog this simple behavior. There are as many methods for teaching “lie down” as there are trainers to teach it.

Envy participated in our B.E.S.T. training program for shelter dogs. She quickly learned that lying down earned her treats and massages!

If you’re working harder than your dog is to teach him something new, you’re doing something wrong. I prefer lazy training, which is why I capture downs. Here’s the thing: every dog has to lie down eventually. It may take a long time if a dog is anxious or excited in a new environment, but they do eventually need to rest or sleep. I just wait for the dog to lie down on his own, then reward him for doing so.

Whether you use a clicker to mark the dog’s behavior or not is a personal choice. I prefer to use the clicker, as this allows me to more accurately pinpoint the moment that the dog earned a reward, and thus speeds up the training process. Unless a dog is likely to be sound-sensitive, I usually don’t “load” the clicker before I start training, but rather let the dog make the association between his behavior, the click, and the treat by himself. Dogs are smart, and they figure out that the funny noise predicts good stuff quite quickly in the course of training. And like I already mentioned, I’m a pretty lazy trainer, and loading the clicker would just add an extra, unnecessary step to the process.

Dogs do what works. Rewarding the dog usually causes him to get up in the hope of more treats. That’s fine. I just ignore him, and when he lies down again I once again reward. Over time, he learns that lying down causes me to produce cookies.

At some point in the training process, usually after the first 10-20 rewards, there’s a lightbulb moment. This moment is one that most trainers live for, and it never fails to give me goosebumps. Suddenly, the dog realizes that his behavior is controlling my behavior. Lying down turns me into a human Pez dispenser, making delicious treats rain down like manna from heaven.

This moment of realization is incredibly powerful, especially for dogs who have never before had a relationship based on communication with a person. Dogs dig this, and this is a great way to turn any dog into a training junkie. In most cases, I can tell that the dog’s got it when he starts testing the behavior. He’ll walk over to me and stand staring at me, waiting until I turn towards him. As soon as I look at him, he’ll lie down, as if asking, “Is this it?”

Once the dog’s figured out the game, I can quickly put his lying down behavior on cue so that he’ll do it when I ask. Of course, just because a dog will lie down on cue in my office doesn’t mean he’ll be able to do so in the kitchen, the backyard, or the pet store. We’ll need to practice the behavior in each of these locations separately, but once we’ve got the behavior on cue we’re well on our way to having a solid down in any location.

So, how long does this process take? Even the most excitable adolescent foster dog usually starts offering downs within an hour or two of arriving at my house. I usually have these dogs crated or tethered next to me while I work on my computer, which means that the entire time they’re learning to lie down I’m also able to work on other important tasks. Within a couple days, most dogs have learned that lying down quietly in the house is the best way to earn attention and affection. This makes them much better companions than dogs who learn that barking, stealing objects, or running around is the best way to engage their humans.

What if your dog has already learned that obnoxious behavior earns your attention? No problem! Simply start marking and rewarding him every time he’s lying down quietly, and you may be amazed at how quickly his behavior improves.

This process works equally well to teach other behaviors that dogs offer naturally, such as sit, bow, and stand. It’s easy, elegant, and (best of all!) perfect for lazy trainers! Have you ever taught any behaviors by capturing them? Give it a try, and let us know how it goes!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

I have always marveled at how well dogs and people get along. They move so comfortably into your life, choose a chair to sleep on, figure out your moods, and have no trouble bending themselves to a curve that should be completely strange and inappropriate. From the first, they fall asleep so easily in a foreign land.

-Jonathan Carroll

Dog-Dog Socialization: Beyond the Dog Park

I don’t ever take my dogs to the dog park. The idea of the dog park is a great one: a safe place where dogs can play together and run free. However, in reality, I find that dog parks cause more issues than they solve, so I turn instead to other options for my own dogs.

Photo by Sangudo

There are several major problems with dog parks. The largest issue I personally have with public dog parks is the lack of oversight available for who attends them. I do not know the physical or behavioral health status of any of the dogs who attend, and the risk of exposing my dog to a sick or aggressive dog is much higher than with any other means of socialization. Unvaccinated dogs or those who are carrying parasites or viruses (such as kennel cough) are all possibilities. Since my dogs are healthy and are provided with appropriate immunizations and parasite control, this alone wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. However, behaviorally unhealthy dogs are a much bigger risk.

The largest problem with dog parks is that owners are often oblivious to or unconcerned about the behavior of their dogs. Many owners spend time at the dog park chatting with each other or on their phones, not even watching their dog. Dog parks are not appropriate places to bring dogs for remedial socialization, yet many people attempt to do just that. Many well-meaning people also bring their new or unsocialized dogs to the dog park with no idea of the dog’s comfort level around other dogs, a doggy version of “trial by fire.” Working as a dog behavior consultant, I receive calls and emails on a regular basis from people whose dog has either injured or been injured by another dog at the dog park. These calls range from a dog who has developed fear issues after being playfully jumped by a much larger dog at the dog park to a dog who literally ripped the ear off another dog when the two got into a scuffle over a ball.

There’s a saying among trainers: “if you go to the dog park long enough, something bad will happen.” While there are certainly lots of friendly, well-socialized, and healthy dogs who attend the dog park, it’s impossible to totally protect your dog from bad experiences in such an uncontrolled environment. This may not be a big deal for well-socialized, balanced, stable dogs, who will just shake off the bad experience and continue on. Young (under two years old), fearful, or easily upset dogs may not be so blase about the experience, however. One traumatic experience can set a dog up for a lifetime of fear or reactivity, something we trainers see all too heartbreakingly often.

As if this weren’t enough, I also avoid the dog park because of what my dog is likely to learn there. The average dog park attendee is an adolescent, setting the stage for a canine version of The Lord of the Flies since there are few adults around to keep order. Rude, pushy, and over-aroused behavior is often the norm. Practicing such behaviors teaches the dog that this is how he should interact with others of his species, and now we have a canine Tarzan or bully in the making.

Recall issues (where the dog refuses to come when called, or worse yet, plays “keep away” from his owner) are common at dog parks, and are a common reason why owners call me for training help. Dogs quickly learn that coming to their owners ends the fun, and start to avoid being caught. One client recently called me after she had to spend nearly four hours trying to catch her dog! She was finally able to snare the wayward pooch after her dog darted into the smaller fenced-in entrance area to greet a new dog.

So, how do I socialize my dogs? There are many great ways for your dog to enjoy the company of his own kind that are much safer and more enjoyable for all involved.

My dogs enjoy regular playdates with doggy friends. Playdates are based on my dogs’ age and play preferences, with my older dogs enjoying side-by-side walks (both on and off-leash) with their buddies and the new puppy enjoying regular off-leash chase and wrestling games with her friends. Ask around to find play partners for your dog: friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors are all great networks to tap. If one of you has a fenced-in yard, meet there for some off-leash play. Fenced-in tennis courts, baseball fields, and other such areas are also often available at local parks. One creative client of mine rented a neighbor’s fenced-in yard when she couldn’t find any other alternatives! A well-run doggy daycare can also provide your dog with regular access to other playmates, and you can feel comfortable knowing that the other dogs who attend daycare are also vaccinated and friendly.

Finally, my dogs receive regular socialization through training classes and dog sports. While the dogs may not directly interact with one another in these venues, they are still a vital piece of the socialization puzzle. Learning to focus on you and remain calm in the presence of other dogs is an important life skill. Human children are given time to play with one another and run around during recess, but also learn to sit still and focus in the classroom at school. Similarly, I don’t want my dog getting overly excited every time she sees another dog because she thinks she’s going to get to play. A dog who squeals and bucks at the end of the leash every time he sees another dog is not a well-socialized dog no matter how friendly he is, because he’s never learned how to control himself around his own species. Imagine if a human teenager or adult acted like that! Social behavior also includes the ability to just hang out calmly with members of one’s own species.

Some dog parks are better than others, and I may be more likely to attend a dog park with lots of space and trails than our local parks where dogs and people congregate around picnic tables. However, I honestly believe that there are better alternatives to the dog park. Providing socialization opportunities for my dogs is important, but that includes the responsibility to make sure that those opportunities are always safe and positive.

So, how do you socialize your dog(s)? Do you use dog parks, and if so, what do you do to ensure your dog’s safety? How are your local dog parks laid out? What socialization opportunities does your dog enjoy the most? Please share your stories and opinions in the comments below!

Playing With Your Dog: An Illustrated Guide

Thanks to the supremely talented Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings for suggesting this project. I had a blast collaborating with her! (Click on the image below to enlarge…)

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Paul G.

Sentiments of love and kibble never have the same currency as aged, moldy dairy product.
-Elizabeth Palaima

Lure Coursing

Lure coursing is a fun sport for dogs with high chase drive, such as sighthounds and terriers. This weekend, we went to a lure coursing trial, where Layla earned her first qualifying score towards her Coursing Aptitude title. This isn’t a sport we participate in frequently, since it’s the canine equivalent of a trip to Disney World and winning the lottery all rolled into one.

Here’s what it looks like: