Category Archives: Advanced Training

“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 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!

Is it really disobedience?

It was our seventh rally run of the day. Layla and I waited patiently at the start line, her eyes bright as she gazed up at me. When the judge gave us the okay to start, we began the course, my dog’s tail keeping time with the beat of my feet.

Photo by Robin Sallie

Photo by Robin Sallie

 

When we hit the third sign, I asked Layla to stay in a sit as I left her, and she popped into a stand. I asked again, and she went into a down. We circled away from the sign, then came back and she held her sit-stay as I walked away.

I had already noticed that Layla was striding short in her right rear leg earlier in the day, especially when she first came out of her crate. I had a friend watch one of our runs, and she noticed the same thing. She also wondered whether Layla’s left hip could be sore.

It was clear that Layla wanted to keep working. We had two runs left, both in our favorite class, Level 3. Not knowing whether she was sore from an old neck injury or something new, I decided to scratch those runs.

Because of our history and relationship, it was very clear to me that my dog wasn’t disobeying in the ring, but rather communicating. Sadly, this is not always the case, and I see many dogs who are corrected for “disobedience” when they are really trying to tell something to their people.

Remember, your dog cannot tell you where or why it hurts. He can’t choose which sports or activities he participates in. That’s on you, and it’s on you to make sure that your dog both enjoys and can physically do anything you ask of him.

If you use any compulsive training, you need to ask yourself very seriously whether pain or discomfort could be contributing to your dog’s behavior before you correct him. If you use motivational training, you better be damn sure that your dog isn’t hurting himself in his efforts to earn whatever reward he loves so much. Much like Layla will push through pain for the joy of working with me in rally obedience (and for the lamb lung she gets to eat after she’s done!), many dogs will ignore their physical discomfort in order to get a treat, toy, play session, or other valued reward.

Physical limitations can cause a whole host of problems that masquerade as behavior or training issues. Two of my rally students have discovered that their large dogs had hip issues after I pressed them to see their vet. One of these dogs would sit more slowly and reluctantly the longer he worked, and the other tended to “puppy sit” to one side rather than sitting straight. Had we approached either of these issues as a training problem and started drilling sits, we would have been causing unnecessary pain to these lovely, willing dogs. Putting these wonderful dogs into conflict by asking them to do something that was uncomfortable over and over would have been cruel, but knowing that they could have pain issues allows us to focus on working with them in such a way that we build their muscles and make the tasks we wish them to complete doable for their physical limitations.

Outside of the sports community, many behavior problems are caused by pain. Recently, I worked with clients whose elderly dog had begun growling at their toddler. The dog was clearly in conflict, eager to interact with the child but concerned about being hurt. The child would crawl on the dog, and he would turn away, lick his lips, and eventually growl. Once the parents took their dog to the vet for pain medication and started providing him with a safe place to get away from the toddler when he was sore, he stopped growling. He wasn’t aggressive, just arthritic. Growling was the only way he could communicate how very much it hurt him when the toddler climbed onto his inflamed joints.

When I consult with pet or performance dog owners, I frequently ask that they see their vet before further appointments. A cracked tooth, thyroid disorder, ear infection, or back pain can and will cause changes to behavior, and all the training in the world will do nothing if the physical problem isn’t addressed. I see a much greater number of allergies or GI issues with my anxious and reactive dog clients than with the dogs I see in regular training classes (and if you’re a researcher who could help quantify this, please contact me – I’d love to work with you!). Physical stress causes behavior changes: just think of the last time you were sick or hurt.

We need to be our dogs’ advocates. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. Dogs are rarely lazy or disobedient or stubborn, but are frequently unmotivated, unable, or unsure about the task in front of them. Don’t be afraid to seek a second or even third opinion, either. Many of my own and clients’ dogs have been diagnosed only after seeing a specialist or sports vet who had more experience with the problem. Vets are only human, and no vet will get every diagnosis right every time. If you think something’s going on with your dog, keep pushing until you get an answer. You’d want those you love to do the same for you.

Have you ever had a physical problem masquerade as a behavior or training issue? How did you discover what was truly driving your dog’s “problem” behavior? Please share your stories in the comments below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Sini Merikallio

Photo by Sini Merikallio

“See behavior, click behavior: What you click is what you get and what you got is what you clicked. If the dog is giving you something you don’t want, it is almost certainly the result of your training, so stop and figure out how you got there. Don’t replicate failures but build on success.”

– Morgan Spector

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

This image was created by the amazingly talented Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings. Check out her blog for video clips of all of these animals! (Thanks to Lili for letting me help with this project. It was a lot of fun to work with you again!)

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!

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!

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.

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!