Monthly Archives: September 2012

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

All my dogs have been scamps and thieves and troublemakers and I’ve adored them all.

Helen Hayes

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

“What a smart dog!”

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

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

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

Mischief (Photo by Sara Brueske)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study: Rags to Riches

Beebe came to us, sight unseen, from a rescue group in Tennessee.  We were given inconsistent information regarding her history.  The one constant was that Beebe had been in several homes over her three years and that not everyone had treated her well.

Beebe had severe anxiety issues.  She bonded with me immediately, but she ruined countless pieces of my clothing by jumping on me and carrying on uncontrollably whenever I would come home.  Beebe was fearful of my husband and almost everyone else, especially males.  She barked and charged as if she was going to rip apart anyone who set foot in the yard or came to the door.  The Schwans man said he would no longer stop if Beebe was outside.  She also had a fear of brooms, fly swatters, stairs, and being put on a chain.  She licked her lips a lot and spent much of her time with pupils the size of saucers.  She was usually in hyperactive mode, especially in the evening when my husband and I just wanted to unwind.

Even though my husband and I had owned dogs most of our lives, we had never dealt with a rescue dog and we were at a loss with Beebe.  If we yelled at her or tried to discipline her for her behavior, she would cower and promptly pee on the floor.

We thought time and love and a stable home would improve her behavior, but we made very little progress.  We tried melatonin, as someone suggested, but neither of us thought that was the answer.  And besides, it didn’t seem to make a difference.  After a year of constant struggle, we were at our wits’ end.  I couldn’t bear to let Beebe down by giving up on her, but we couldn’t take much more.

Then one of my rescue friends suggested that I contact Paws Abilities.  I was encouraged because I was told they had dealt with the problems that can be unique to rescue dogs.

I contacted Sara Reusche and she suggested that we set up a home assessment for Beebe.  I was very hopeful, but I was not prepared for how quickly Sara assessed Beebe and how effortlessly she got Beebe to respond in a positive way!  Armed with her bag of treats, Sara got Beebe’s attention and taught her a trick that remains her favorite to this day: “Touch!”

Beebe, my husband, and I learned so much in that hour.  We learned that Beebe needed to build confidence in order to allay her fears and anxiety.  In addition to general anxiety, she was suffering from fear aggression, submissive urination, separation anxiety, and just plain confusion.  She didn’t know who to trust or how to react anymore.

Sara taught us to look for signs of fear and anxiety: lip licking as a self-soothing behavior, pupil size, and body postures.  We learned to “read” Beebe, which opened up a whole new awareness for us.

We learned that disciplining her and yelling at her were the worst things we could do.  It reinforced her fear and anxiety and was very counterproductive.  Positive reinforcement, confidence-building skills (like tricks and puzzle toys), and withdrawing attention during unwanted behaviors were the keys to unlocking the beautiful and loving dog waiting within Beebe.

Beebe and I attended the Beginning Obedience Training Class to help her socialize with other dogs and people and to start building her confidence.  Not to brag, but Beebe was the star of the class!

Next we attended the Focus and Control Class so that Beebe could learn to calm herself in situations that would normally make her anxious.  She also learned to focus on me instead of becoming distracted.

Within months Beebe transformed from a fearful, hyperactive, reactive bundle of nerves into a confident companion.  Now she loves to go with us in the car and we trust her completely in social situations.  She gets along with other dogs and sees people as good beings who often carry treats!  (OK, I carry the treats and slip them one, but she doesn’t have to know that.)

Beebe was hit by a car in May and subsequently endured 3 surgeries and 2 months of rehabilitation.  During that time she regressed a little bit, but she never, ever became fearful of her veterinarian or his technicians.  As she rebounded from her injuries, she also regained her confidence and poise.  She is once again bounding up the hill with us twice a day, waiting politely to drink until the cats have had all the milk they want, and living her life as the best canine companion ever.

On August 29th, Beebe turned 6 years old. We look forward to many more years with her. Happy Birthday, Beebs!

– Sara Linker Nord, Mom to Beebe, the best dog in the world.

(Thank you so much to Sara for sharing Beebe’s story on the blog. She’s truly a special dog, and it’s been an incredible joy to watch her blossom into the social and happy dog she is today.)

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Stephanie

“Have you encountered situations where withholding love was the best solution?  Think of the best relationship you ever had.  Did you keep score?  No meaningful relationship is based on… ‘I’m sorry, you didn’t earn my smile, my touch, my attention.’  Deeply satisfying relationships are more emotionally open than that.”

-Kathy Sdao

Lessons from Shedd: Whistle While You Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Laura Caldwell

Training is the path between what we have and what we want. — Bob Bailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Sini Merikallio

“All dogs speak the same language, with different breeds having their own dialects, and individual dogs having their own signals and phrases that they use more than others.”

-Laura McKinney

Lessons From Shedd: Environmental Manipulation

Setting your animal up for success is one of the key qualities of a successful trainer. This concept can take many forms, but one of the most important is your ability to manage your animal’s environment. Environmental management minimizes distractions, prevents your animal from making mistakes, and allows you to focus on shaping and rewarding those behaviors that you like.

This black and white Tegu is provided with a comfortable square of astroturf, which serves to keep him in one spot during his training session in front of our class.

One frequent argument that opponents of positive reinforcement training make is that reward-based training is ineffective in an emergency or uncontrolled situation. “Clicker training may be great,” they say, “but what good is it going to do when my dog is chasing a squirrel towards the highway?” “How is it going to stop my dog from barking at the fence in the middle of the night?” “Are you telling me that I can’t tell my dog ‘no’ when he’s biting the delivery man in the face?”

All of these arguments ignore one of the most important facets of reinforcement-based training, which is setting the animal up for success. My response to questions such as these is always the same, “Why would you allow your dog to be in that situation in the first place?” If your dog does not have a good recall, why is he off leash in an unfenced area? If he tends to bark at noises, why is he outside unsupervised in the middle of the night? If you haven’t socialized him to delivery people, why would you allow him to interact with one? A smart trainer knows what their dog can handle, and doesn’t put the dog in situations that will overface him.

In order to manage your dog’s environment, you must be honest with yourself about your dog’s strengths and weaknesses. Using gates, crates, tethers, leashes, visual barriers, and the like will allow you to set your dog up to be successful. Smart trainers set the environment up for optimal learning.

When my shy adolescent dog, Dobby, began growling and barking at people as they walked past the house, I covered the front window so that he could no longer look out. Preventing him from practicing this behavior was a form of environmental management. I was then able to teach him to accept people walking past by sitting on my front steps with him on leash and rewarding him for calm behavior when people walked by.

Trainers at Shedd aquarium reduce the risk of aggressive behavior from the sea lions by always leaving a clear path to the water for the animals. If an animal becomes frightened, he can go back to the pool where he’s comfortable, and is therefore more likely to choose flight than to aggress at the trainer. The beluga whales are taught new behaviors in quiet areas away from the public before those behaviors are proofed in the noisier and more chaotic locations. Animals of many species are taught to go to specific targets so that they can easily be separated out from the group and so that large groups of animals can be worked together.

How do you manage your dog’s environment to set him up for success? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!