Monthly Archives: May 2013

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Nat Van Egmond

Photo by Nat Van Egmond

Once I spoke the language of the flowers,
Once I understood each word the caterpillar said,
Once I smiled in secret at the gossip of the starlings,
And shared a conversation with the housefly in my bed.
Once I heard and answered all the questions of the crickets,
And joined the crying of each falling dying flake of snow,
Once I spoke the language of the flowers. . . .
How did it go?
How did it go?

– Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

“But He Knows It!”

These days, most people are on board with the trend towards gentle, reward-based training. They understand that, like children, dogs should be taught new behaviors by setting them up for success and rewarding that victory rather than by waiting for them to make a mistake and then correcting them for screwing up. The use of toys, treats, play, and praise are becoming more widely accepted as research shows us that these methods are more effective than collar corrections, scolding, or physical discipline. But what do you do when your dog doesn’t comply? How can a reward-based trainer deal with a dog who refuses to listen, even when he knows what you want? Let’s explore this common problem area.

Photo by mpliu on flickr.

Photo by mpliu on flickr.

There are many different reasons why a dog might not comply with your wishes, and before we get any further let me just say that stubbornness, “dominance,” and willfulness are rarely the motivation behind your dog’s refusal to perform a well-known behavior. As frustrating as it may be when your dog appears to blow you off, it’s worth your while to take a big step back and figure out the true reason behind his disobedience.

Gaining the necessary distance can be difficult, so I often find it helpful to transfer my situation onto a human example. For example, one of the most common reasons behind “disobedience” is a simple lack of understanding. While we may think the dog knows what he is supposed to do, he oftentimes doesn’t fully understand the behavior.

Remember, learning is not linear. Just because your dog has performed the behavior successfully once, twice, or even a hundred times, that doesn’t mean he will always be able to remember what he is supposed to do in the heat of the moment.

We forget and make mistakes sometimes too! How many times have you been completely familiar with some material, but been unable to recall it when you needed it? I can think of plenty of times when I needed to remember a fact for a test at school but just couldn’t regurgitate that fact at that instance. How often have you brain-farted on someone’s name or lost a word? Dogs are smart, but don’t you think it’s a bit unfair to ask your dog to have a better memory than you do?

If your dog doesn’t obey, the first thing to ask yourself is whether you are sure, completely and utterly positive, that your dog fully understands his job. Ask yourself how many times he’s performed that behavior in this exact context in the past. Just because he knows how to sit on cue in your house doesn’t mean that he’ll understand that “sit” means the same thing at the park, the vet’s office, or even the front yard.

This brings us to the second reason most dogs appear to “disobey” at times: competing distraction. It’s harder for us to perform any behavior, no matter how well we know it, when there’s more going on. You may be a whiz at solving algebraic equations, but can you perform complex multiplication or division at the top of a roller coaster? Perhaps you’re a really wonderful driver, but does that mean you’ll always keep your eyes on the road, even as you drive past a big fire or accident? In the same way that we can forget the words to a song when asked to sing in front of a crowd, many dogs have difficulty performing when there’s more going on in the environment.

If your dog isn’t listening to you, ask yourself whether you’ve worked up to this level of distraction or whether you’re asking too much of your dog. Just as we start a beginning driver off in a parking lot, then have them drive on quiet country roads and in the suburbs before exposing them to rush hour traffic in the city, dogs need to be prepared one step at a time. I may start working on “come” in my house, then in my fenced-in yard with the dog on leash, then off-leash in my yard, then on a long leash at the local park, and finally off-leash at the local park before ever letting my dog hike off-leash. Letting him off-leash on a busy hiking trail without first teaching him a solid response to “come” in less exciting situations would be every bit as irresponsible as taking a fifteen-year-old driver to downtown Chicago at 5pm and trying to teach them to drive.

Finally, some dogs will appear to disobey because the balance of reinforcement is incorrect. You shouldn’t be surprised at this point to realize that we do the same thing. Back to our driving example, if you ask me to take a left turn but the stoplight is red, I’m not likely to turn even though I completely understand what you want me to do. There’s a competing motivation: my fear of causing a traffic accident or getting a ticket. Similarly, many dogs will not comply because they are more worried about outside consequences than they are about listening to you. I see many nervous dogs who refuse to lie down when asked because they are too scared to put themselves in such a vulnerable position. Pain (or fear of pain) can also cause this sort of response: when Layla started popping out of the agility weave poles, it turned out that she was experiencing neck pain.

Sometimes, dogs will disobey not because they’re worried about something else but because something else is motivating them more. Even though your kids love pizza, if they’re playing a video game they may become so engrossed in the game that they don’t come running for dinner when the pizza delivery person rings the doorbell. You might step out of the line you’ve been waiting in for half an hour to pick up a $20 bill you spy on the ground. As much as you love getting enough sleep, you may find it hard to tear yourself away from the Internet at bedtime. Similarly, your dog may not come when you call him, even though he’s usually quite reliable and really enjoys coming, if he’s having a blast chasing a bunny. If your young dog is busy watching another dog play, she may not be able to focus on you. In each of these cases, the fault does not lie with your dog for doing what comes naturally. Rather, you need to ask yourself how you can make complying with your wishes more rewarding for your dog than whatever currently holds her interest.

It can be enormously frustrating when your dog refuses to perform a well-known behavior. However, the bottom line is that we’re only human, and we make mistakes sometimes. Dogs are only canine, and they, too, can be fallible. Instead of punishing your dog for their failure, it’s worthwhile to your relationship, your training, and the trust your dog puts in you to give him the benefit of the doubt. Next week we’ll talk about a few practical things you can do to improve your dog’s reliability, but in the meantime, please share your questions and stories below. What situations have you initially thought your dog was being stubborn or willful, only to later discover that she had a good reason for disobeying you?

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Andrea Arden

Photo by Andrea Arden

“Listen a hundred times; ponder a thousand times; speak once.”

 Turkish Proverb

Helping People Enjoy Their Dogs

It was clear to anyone watching them that the little dog and his owner loved each other. Despite all her frustration and her ineptitude, the little dog’s owner was trying her very hardest to help him. And despite all of his anxiety and stress, the little dog was trying to work with her.

And they were failing miserably.

Photo by Rosa Money

Photo by Rosa Money

They had been failing together for five years. The owner would take her little dog to classes and agility trials and seminars. She went from one trainer to another, collecting a plethora of habits and ideas along the way. A patchwork of training methodologies and theories clung to her. She tried and tried and tried, and her dog tried his hardest too. And they failed, and they failed, and they failed again.

The little dog was on edge all the time. He tried to listen to his handler, worked his heart out for her really, and yet when it all got to be too much he couldn’t help lunging and barking. He truly couldn’t control it. The stress would spill over and he would crash and burn yet again. His owner would drag him away, raging and out of control.

When I took the dog’s leash in class and began working with him, his eyes cleared. His movements slowed and he started taking treats less frantically. He took a deep breath and shook off. I demonstrated the exercise for his owner, and when I went to hand the leash back to her, her little dog didn’t want to go. He tried to follow me away from his owner, and I saw the embarrassment and frustration and guilt cross her face in a raw and naked moment that broke my heart.

The owner had the best of intentions. The dog adored her. But the pure relief of working with someone who was clear with him, who listened to and respected him and his limits, and who was not themself on edge, was more important to him in that moment than those five years of pain and hard work that his owner had put in.

This is the challenge that professional dog trainers face.

Any trainer worth his or her salt can take a dog’s leash and help that dog. We can read your dog and adjust the exercise to perfectly suit his needs in the moment. If we’re any good, we can do this so quickly and make such minute adjustments that you won’t even realize that we’ve just split our criteria in half and upped the rate of reinforcement by 50%. You may not even be able to see the tiny changes in the amount of pressure we place on your dog, turning our body slightly to the side or moving a few steps away from a stressor. This stuff is automatic for us, because we’ve been doing it for years and we understand the dance that true training entails.

It looks like magic. And it’s meaningless, unless we can help you do it too.

The little dog’s owner was on edge and jumpy herself. She automatically tightened up on the leash and administered constant tiny little jerks on her dog’s collar (a technique she’d learned years ago) whenever she got nervous. The more she tried to control her dog in these situations, the worse he got. She took him to classes and trials constantly in the belief that if she didn’t continuously expose him, the little dog would backslide. She delivered treats quickly and imprecisely, not to mention far, far too infrequently to provide the amount of information her dog required to feel comfortable. Her dog was miserable. She was miserable. And they both loved each other, through all the misery and frustration.

This is the challenge of a professional dog trainer, then.  Not to make myself look good, but to give you the skills you need so that you can do that too. Paws Abilities’ motto is “helping people enjoy their dogs,” and that is my primary mission as a professional trainer.

So what could I do for the woman and her little dog? Frankly, I could be kind. I could be as patient with the owner as I was with her dog. I could help her change her behavior in tiny little bits. Just as a rehomed dog with a patchwork history may take months to trust a new owner, I would never expect a client who has worked with so many other trainers to change her ways all at once, or even to trust that changing her ways was the right thing to do. Instead, I could show her the possibilities and help her set manageable and realistic goals.

Professional trainers sometimes forget that human behavior can be shaped in the same way that we shape animal behavior. If you are dealing with problematic behavior in your dog, you owe it to yourself to find a trainer who will respect you every bit as much as they wish you to respect your pet. And if you’re working as a professional trainer and cannot remember to be as kind to your human clients as you are to their dogs, frankly, you need to find another profession. The principles that shape solid animal training: shaping new behaviors through successive approximations, building solid foundational skills, adjusting our criteria based on the individual in front of us, and using a high rate of reinforcement to cement understanding, are all equally important when teaching people.

I first worked with the woman and her dog two years ago. I did not forbid her from taking her dog to classes or trials, although I gently recommended against it and commended her when she chose not to put her dog into these stressful situations. I did not yell at her when she jerked on the leash or forgot to treat her dog, but instead gave her easy suggestions to follow that were incompatible with these training mistakes. I was empathetic when she admitted that she found training frustrating and disheartening, and adjusted the exercises in the class she was in so that she would leave each class feeling joyful at the success her dog had made.  And she still failed, but less often, and her dog still blew up sometimes, but less than he used to, and he recovered from these situations much more quickly. And they both learned to relax just a little bit more, and to trust one another just a little bit more.

This woman has floated in and out of our classes several times in the last couple years. She’s done some private training with me too. Recently she contacted me with a success story, and we celebrated her achievements. She still pushes her dog too far sometimes, and sometimes she forgets how to give him the information he needs. But she tries, and her dog tries, and they love each other. They’re much further along than they were two years ago, and they’ll be further still next year.

Training a dog is easy for those of us who have done it for any length of time. Professional dog training is difficult. Finding the compassion and patience to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space in which novice handlers can learn takes real skill, empathy, and ongoing education.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Dave Fayram

Photo by Dave Fayram

“We now understand that higher-level thinking is more likely to occur in the brain of a student who is emotionally secure than in the brain of a student who is scared, upset, anxious, or stressed.”

-Mawhinney and Sagan

Training Your Reactive Dog

We’ve discussed what reactivity is and how to manage your reactive dog. Now let’s get to the meat of the problem: what can be accomplished with training? Quite a bit, actually! Consider Layla, who used to lunge and bark at dogs, people, bikes, and even lawn ornaments. She recently earned her ARCHX title in rally obedience, which required her to walk past many unfamiliar dogs and people in a crowded, charged environment, then work off-leash and sometimes at a distance from me with focus and precision. She was able to ignore barking dogs, chattering people, and the judge following us around with a clipboard. Outside of obedience, Layla also works as a neutral dog for shelter dog evaluations and Growl classes.

This transformation didn’t take place overnight, and it required diligent training and management. However, the rewards of watching my formerly anxious and reactive dog handle situations that previously sent her into a frenzy with confidence and aplomb are well worth all the work. Learning to communicate with one another has deepened our relationship and turned our training from a dictatorship to a partnership.

Photo by Gus.

Photo by Gus.

Every reactive dog is different, but the general principles of working with a reactive dog are very similar. Here are some of the key aspects to keep in mind as you work with your dog:

1) Work with a professional. Okay, this may seem a little self-serving coming from a trainer who spends the majority of my time working with reactivity. But in all seriousness, you need to find a kind and experienced trainer who can either work with you in person or remotely (many trainers now offer Skype appointments or telephone consults). Not only will you benefit from having an extra pair of eyes devoted to your training, but working with someone who is not emotionally involved will keep you and your dog on track.

Still not convinced? Consider this: when one of my dogs started to display reactive behaviors, I hired another trainer to work with us even though this is my career. I could reel off the steps to solving a reactive behavior problem such as my dog was experiencing in my sleep, but I knew I was too close to the problem to be objective.

2) Manage stress carefully. Whether your dog becomes anxious or experiences “good stress” from over-the-top joy, stress hormones are hard on the body and may impact your dog’s ability to learn. If you know that chronic stress is influencing your dog’s behavior, consider taking a cortisol vacation.

3) Learn a new language. Dogs have a complex, nuanced vocabulary, but they don’t use verbal language like us.  The more we can learn about what their body language is saying, the less frustrated they’ll be and the easier it will become to prevent reactions. Do you know what a wagging tail, lip lick, or turn away mean?

4) Teach impulse control. Most reactive dogs have a very difficult time controlling themselves. Teaching your dog to control himself (as opposed to you physically controlling him) will give him the tools to turn his own emotional thermostat down if he starts running too hot. Games such as “it’s your choice,” off-switch games, doggy zen, and leave it are wonderful ways to increase your dog’s self control.

5) Make relaxation rewarding. Mat work, the Protocol for Relaxation, and bodywork (such as TTouch and other massage) are great for reactive dogs. Think of them as canine biofeedback. Many reactive dogs have a hard time relaxing, so help your dog learn to let go.

6) Change the association. In many cases, reactive dogs have been corrected or punished in some way for their behavior. Even if you haven’t ever scolded your dog for reactivity, this step never hurts. Changing the association deals with emotions by pairing pleasant things with the appearance of the trigger. Done correctly, this quickly results in a dog who turns and looks expectantly and happily at his handler upon spying the person or thing that used to provoke a reactive outburst. The Watch the World game is a great place to start with this.

7) Finally, teach your dog what to do instead. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t want your dog to react like he used to, make sure you teach him some alternate behaviors that he can use in those situations. Whether you use hand targeting, a Whiplash Turn, the Look at That game, Emergency U-Turns, or attentive heeling, having an easy behavior or two that your dog can perform to earn a reward can make the difference between success or failure in a tough situation.

If you live in Minnesota, consider contacting us for private training or signing up for an Agility Unleashed, Focus & Control, or Growl class to address your dog’s reactive behavior. Too far away to work with us? Look for a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in your area.

If you’ve worked with a reactive dog, which of these principles did you find the most helpful? Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Stephanie

Photo by Stephanie

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”

– Martin Buber