Monthly Archives: January 2013

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Andrea Arden

Photo by Andrea Arden

“I find training so peaceful, so much FUN now, and so do the dogs.”

– Debi Davis
(on crossing over from traditional training methods to positive reinforcement)

Loose Leash Walking

One of the most common goals our students come to class with is teaching their dog to walk nicely on leash. A dog who pulls their owner all over the place, tripping them and choking himself, is no fun to walk. Dogs who lunge and bark at people, bikes, cars, or other animals on leash make walks frustrating for all involved. These dogs may not get as much exercise as they need, because their owner finds walking them so aversive.

Photo by SC Studios

Photo by SC Studios

Many people expect their dogs to naturally understand that he’s supposed to walk by their side, but this is not a natural behavior for dogs. If you watch groups of dogs interact, they never walk side by side the same way that groups of people do. Instead, they form loose groups, zigzagging back and forth between points of interest. No one dog leads, and dogs come and go from the group as they wish.

I honestly think that many dogs believe that heel means “walk at the pace of death while ignoring everything interesting.” However, it is possible to teach your dog to walk nicely with you with just a little effort on your part.

First of all, remember that dogs do what works. If your dog pulls and you move forward, he learns that pulling works to get him where he wants to go. This is the biggest obstacle to teaching dogs to walk nicely. If you are inconsistant, sometimes following your dog when he pulls and sometimes insisting on polite walking, your dog will always default to pulling you because he will learn that it occasionally works. If you want to have a dog who walks nicely, make sure that pulling on the leash never works for your dog.

There are several ways to teach your dog that pulling doesn’t work. With young puppies, I simply stop moving forward as soon as the leash gets taut. If the leash is making a “J” shape, I move forward. If the leash straightens out, I stop moving until the leash loosens up again. Puppies are smart, and quickly learn that pulling is ineffective.

For older or stronger dogs, I oftentimes use a Gentle Leader headcollar or Freedom harness to prevent them from dragging me forward. For especially enthusiastic dogs, I start to back up as soon as the leash gets tight, so that pulling actually results in the dog getting further away from whatever he was interested in. As soon as the leash becomes loose, I start moving forward again. This method of walking forward and backing up quickly teaches enthusiastic dogs to control themselves in order to go where they wish to go.

Regardless of which of these methods you use to deal with pulling, it’s very important that you reward your dog when he gets it right. There are several ways to do this. First of all, I walk briskly when the leash is loose, since most dogs find a typical human walking pace incredibly boring. I also use a clicker or some other marker signal to tell the dog when he’s doing well, followed by a reward.

There are plenty of different rewards you can use to reinforce your dog for walking politely. I use a combination of tasty treats (chicken, roast beef, and string cheese are my typical go-to treats), tug toys, and environmental rewards for most dogs I work with. In the beginning stages, I reward for nearly every step to teach my dog what I like, then begin spacing the rewards out as the dog gets the idea. Reward right next to your side, with your hand touching your pant seam. Remember that where you reward your dog will influence where your dog hangs out. I usually teach dogs to walk on my left side, so I hold the clicker and the handle of the leash in my right hand, and leave my left hand free for treats or toys.

Environmental rewards can be very powerful, and I make ample use of them throughout my dog’s life. I walk my dogs because I want to provide them with enjoyable stimulation, and I think it’s very unfair to ask them to ignore everything interesting that they see or smell on our walks. If they see a squirrel, I teach them that we will chase that squirrel together as long as they look at me first to “ask permission.” Similarly, if they want to explore an especially enticing smell, they can earn that opportunity through polite behavior. I simply use forward motion towards whatever they find interesting as a reward for keeping the leash loose, and back away from the interesting thing if they forget to walk nicely and start yanking on the leash.

The biggest mistake I see new handlers making with untrained dogs is trying to take them for long walks right from the start. This is an exercise in frustration (no pun intended) for both parties! Instead, I start new foster dogs off in front of my house. We will walk for the same length of time that we would if I was going on our usual walking route, but we simply circle around in front of my house (or in the city, stick to the sidewalk on your block). The dog still gets the same amount of exercise, but by limiting the amount of stimulation I’m exposing him to, he’s able to be successful and to earn lots of rewards for getting it right.

Once the dog can walk politely in front of my house, I’ll start walking him back and forth on my block, gradually expanding to a 2-3 block radius, then eventually going on longer walks in the park. I never increase the distance I walk him until he’s shown me that he can be successful where we’re at. Think of the walk as a process, not a destination. Remember that he’s still getting the same amount of exercise, and in fact most dogs that I work with are more tired by these training sessions than by their previous long walks, since mental exercise is much more fulfilling than physical exercise alone.

Walking politely by your side is an advanced skill, requiring focus and self control from your dog, so be patient as your dog learns. Every dog can learn to walk nicely!

Do you require your dog to walk on a loose leash? What tips and tricks have you found the most helpful in teaching this skill? Please post your stories and suggestions in the comments below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by K. Oliver-Dykes

Photo by K. Oliver-Dykes

I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.

– Mahatma Gandhi

High Drive Dogs

“Drive” is a highly desired aspect in most dog sports, whether your area of interest is agility, flyball, herding, hunting, coursing, or something else. Sport and performance dog handlers specifically look for “high drive” puppies and work to build their puppy’s drive further through tug, chase, and other games. Arousal and excitement are considered signs of a talented dog who will go far.


But there’s a dark side to this drive building, one that negatively impacts the performance of many otherwise talented dogs in their chosen sport. Here’s the thing: arousal and drive are not one and the same.

So often, I’m told about a “high drive” dog who is in actuality just frantic. “Drive” refers to focused commitment to a specific goal. A dog who ping pongs from one distraction to another without truly “locking on” to anything is not in drive, she’s simply distracted. Arousal is not drive, and high drive dogs do not necessarily show high arousal or excitement.

Consider Layla, a dog with high prey drive. If Layla finds a chipmunk in the backyard, she chases it up the downspout of my rain gutter. If I don’t interrupt her and bring her inside, she then pulls that chunk of gutter pipe off the house and carries it into the center of the yard (chipmunk inside). She stands or crouches, staring intently at the gutter pipe. This can go on for hours. If she moves at all, it will only be slight muscle trembling in her back legs. When the chipmunk inevitably ventures out, thinking that the coast is clear, Layla grabs it, quickly killing and eating it.

No one who watches Layla catch a chipmunk could have any doubt that she is intently focused on her task. When she’s working a chipmunk, she has laser focus on catching and killing it, and the rest of the world fades into the background. She doesn’t allow herself to become distracted by my other dogs, people walking past, or even other prey, such as the squirrel in the tree or the bunny outside the fence. This is an example of true drive.

Trying to build your dog’s drive by increasing her excitement may work really well if she’s naturally focused on and motivated by the task at hand. However, getting an excited but distractible dog further aroused is not only unlikely to make him more talented at the sport of your choice, it’s likely to make matters worse. The more aroused and frantic the dog becomes, the harder it gets for him to think.

If you truly want to increase your dog’s drive, work on his focus and on making the task at hand highly motivating. While Layla and Dobby came to me naturally motivated by toys and play, my youngest dog, Mischief, had very low drive for these activities. Now a year old, she will work very hard with intense focus, heeling for the chance to play tug or chase. She does this because I’ve made these things very fun and rewarding for her. Getting her excited without giving her something to focus that excitement on just results in a frustrated, bitey, barky dog and does nothing to increase her drive.

The take home message, regardless of which sport or activity you do with your dog, is clear. Select a dog who will naturally want to participate in your chosen sport. Whether you go to a breeder or rescue a dog, don’t confuse hyperactivity or franticness with drive. And once you bring home your new partner, nurture that dog’s focus and make working with you fun.

What activities does your dog have natural drive for? Do you agree with my definition of “drive,” or do you have a different idea of what this term refers to? Please comment below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Ashley Adcox

Photo by Ashley Adcox

“Observing and changing behavior has taught me the value of not imposing my own view of the world on other organisms (including people). If I am busy
interpreting behavior, I will often miss behavior that does not fit my
interpretation. An observer should first of all observe. After duly recording
what has gone on, then interpret, speculate, analyze, or do whatever, but,
first, observe critically.”

– Bob Bailey

Why I am not a Clicker Trainer

I do not consider myself a clicker trainer. This may surprise people who know me, since I appear to embrace all of the popular tenets of clicker training. I use a clicker or other marker signal to train, utilize primarily positive reinforcement, and avoid the use of force. However, I find it just as offensive to be referred to as a “clicker trainer” as to be compared to the Dog Whisperer.

I am a dog trainer. I am a teacher. I am flexible. I am willing to adjust my training plan for each dog. I find it insulting to be defined by the tools I do or do not use.

Photo by Karen

Photo by Karen

What is a “clicker trainer,” anyway? Is anyone who uses a clicker a clicker trainer? What if that person has a clicker in one hand and the remote for an electronic collar in the other? What if they never use a clicker, but use a different clear and distinct marker signal? Does someone who never uses food count as a clicker trainer? What if they only use food, and no other rewards? Does the animal’s attitude towards training have any bearing on whether someone can be considered a clicker trainer? Who gets to define what this means… Karen Pryor, other “clicker trainers,” the general public?

Many people seem to believe that “clicker trainers” are kinder than another trainers. I used to believe this too. However, I don’t necessarily agree with that statement anymore. I believe that it is possible to be incredibly unkind to an animal without ever hurting or scaring that animal.

I frequently see dogs who are miserable, even though they are not being popped or shocked, because their trainer is putting too much pressure on them. Some dogs wilt when a trainer stands quietly and watches them. Many dogs will work very hard for a piece of food, but find the work itself upsetting and therefore have no joy in performing it. Many dogs find it frustrating or demotivating to work with a trainer who doesn’t have clear criteria or basic mechanical skills.

I personally think it is every bit as unkind to put too much pressure on a dog in a clicker shaping exercise as it is to pop or “tap” him on a corrective collar. Understand, this doesn’t mean that we should never put pressure on our dogs. I consciously teach my dogs to handle frustration or pressure with confidence and aplomb. I want my dogs to approach difficult training exercises as interesting puzzles, and to feel good about their ability to win. I want my dogs to handle getting it wrong every bit as well as they handle getting it right. I want them to be motivated, not deflated, by failure.

Defining a trainer by the equipment he or she uses or does not use misses the bigger picture.

How does the dog feel while he is being trained? Is he happy and engaged or is he concerned? Does he approach training with joy or is he merely dutiful? Is he learning anything?

I am not a clicker trainer, but I choose to use a clicker or other marker signal to help my dog learn more quickly. I choose these tools because I feel that they reduce frustration and help the dog to more accurately pinpoint what he is doing right.

I hate it when trainers divide themselves into camps, as in my experience this only leads to name calling and tribalism. Defining ourselves by the tools we use is a small picture view of the profession. Instead, I would challenge myself and my colleagues to look at the big picture, which I believe boils down to two questions. 1 – Are the dogs happy? and 2 – Are they learning what they need to learn?

Defining ourselves by the tools we use loses sight of why we became trainers. I personally became a trainer because I want to help people enjoy their dogs. I absolutely have strong views about which tools can and cannot accomplish that goal, but I’m also willing to be open-minded. Just because I’ve never used a remote collar in over ten years of training doesn’t mean that I won’t ever use one. I can’t think of a situation where I would immediately apply that tool, but that doesn’t give me any right to condemn remote collar trainers who have happy dogs that are learning what they need to learn. Likewise, I do not use or permit prong collars in my training facility, but that doesn’t mean that I have any right to condemn other professional trainers who do so as long as the dogs they work with are happy and are learning what they need to learn.

So what do I call myself, then? How do I differentiate my training services from those of other trainers if I don’t like labels? Frankly, I let results speak for themselves. If pressed, I’ll call myself a professional trainer or possibly a behavior consultant if I’m helping someone deal with a serious behavior issue. I don’t get wrapped up in what people call me, but instead focus on what I do, which is to help people enjoy their dogs. I adhere to professional standards, such as the Humane Hierarchy and the LIMA (Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive) model. I keep my education current, and proudly share my certifications and educational background with anyone who asks. Most of all, I never stop learning, whether it be from other trainers, my clients, or, most importantly, the dogs themselves.

I am not a clicker trainer. I am a teacher for both people and their pets. I am an advocate for both people and their pets. And I am sick of the cult-like devotion some of my colleagues have to labels. Let’s focus on what’s truly important: happy, confident dogs learning what they need to learn.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

We can spend so much of our time wishing that our dogs were different, rather than appreciating who they are and just working with what we’ve got.

– Leslie McDevitt

“He’s very protective”

“He’s very protective of me,” bragged the owner of the German Shepherd I had been called out to evaluate. “He won’t let anyone near me.”

Photo by Dan Foy

Photo by Dan Foy

Indeed, her 18-month-old Shepherd was telling me in every line of his body that he did not want me anywhere near him. Head down, eyes wide and staring, muscles tense, and softly growling, he was not a dog I had any desire to approach. He was not, however, “guarding” his owner.

Many fearful or insecure dogs act just like this Shepherd, growling and posturing when people come near their special person. However, their body language tells the true story: these dogs are worried. Their weight is often shifted over their hindquarters, and they rarely position themselves in between the new person and their owner. They lack confidence, and make up for it with their “the best defense is a good offense” approach.

So why do they only show this behavior when they’re by their person? Simple: they’re only brave enough to show how they feel when they have “backup.” Social animals, whether dogs or people, tend to be more likely to act aggressively if they are part of a group whom they believe will back them up. We’re all a little braver with our buddies nearby.

Make no mistake, these dogs could still bite. However, allowing your dog to act in this way out of some misguided notion that he’s “protecting” you is both dangerous and unfair. It’s dangerous to other people, who could become victims of your dog’s insecurity if he ever feels pushed to defend himself. It’s unfair to your dog, who is stuck in a conflicted, adrenalized state any time he encounters someone new. It’s a bad situation all around.

The best “protection” dogs are those who are well socialized, confident, and self-assured. A dog needs lots and lots of experience with people before he can pick out a truly threatening person from someone who’s merely a little different. To a dog who views everyone as a potential threat, your tipsy neighbor returning from the bar, your nephew with Cerebral Palsy, and the burglar who breaks into your home are all equally terrifying – and all just as likely to get bitten.

If your dog growls and barks at unfamiliar people, he’s telling you he needs your help. So how can you help him? Teach him that new people predict wonderful things. Teach him to look to you for help when he’s unsure how to react in a new situation. Show him a more optimistic worldview. Protect him from his fears just as fiercely as you wish him to protect you from true threats, because to him those fears are very truly threatening.

Do you have a truly protective dog, one who loves everybody, or an insecure dog? Please comment and tell us about your dog’s personality!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Hiroyuki Takeda

Photo by Hiroyuki Takeda

“Question: when do I punish a dog? Answer: never, ever. Question: when do I reinforce a dog? Answer: never, ever. I do not punish or reinforce a dog, only the behavior. I love the dog equally independently of whether the dog performs a behavior to my liking or not. If it does, fine; and life is great! If it doesn’t, tough luck, we’ll have to work a bit more on that; and life is still great!”

-Roger Abrantes