Tuesday, October 18, 2011

You Can’t Save Them All: A Hard Lesson Learned This Week

This is a short story of Eva, a dog I trained for only a week. I was fired by the client because I use treats to train and don’t just make their dog obey.

I got a call from my vet to see if I was interested in taking on a special case. He normally doesn’t call me for referrals, he just forwards my info to his clients and they in turn contact me. This particular dog is so aggressive that he wasn’t sure if I wanted to have the client contact me.

Eva is a 4 year old German Shepherd Dog whom the owners have had since she was a puppy. The vet’s office has to double muzzle her when she comes in because she is so aggressive towards people. She has a history of multiple bites to people. There is nothing medically wrong with her. Her owners are in their mid 80’s (yes, 80’s!) and they just can’t control her anymore. Before I could say it, my vet said he felt it was just too much dog for them.

Slight tangent here:  What breeder in their right mind would sell a couple in their 80’s a German Shepherd Dog??? These people have never owned a GSD or anything close to that breed in their life. What happens to the dog if these people don’t make it to their 90’s? So I find part of the blame in poor Eva’s life with the ‘breeder’ (more than likely a puppy mill).

I told my vet to please give them my name and number; I’d like to help them with Eva.

Forward a week later and I get a call from the wife. Between her accent and the connection on the phone, it was difficult to understand exactly what was going on. So I scheduled a consultation and we’d see what I could do to help them.

At the consultation I learned a lot. One, this dog is fearful of everything and her way of dealing with it has escalated to bite first to get rid of person, vacuum cleaner, etc. She barks, growls and lunges still, but that period of time has shortened because in her mind it just isn’t effective anymore.

Two, this couple had no idea what their dog likes. I asked them what motivates Eva. They gave me blank stares. Okay, what will she work for? What does she enjoy? Again, blank stares. You have a working breed that is only allowed outside to go potty and doesn’t have a job or anything to do? I didn’t tell them this last sentence, but I couldn’t believe it. How can you have a dog since she was 8 weeks old and not know what she likes. Yet, you tell me she’s your baby. This was a BIG clue that I should have picked up on as to the kind of relationship they had AND wanted with her.

Their first trainer they loved, but he moved out of town and so they hired another trainer. This last trainer they felt was too nice and she’s been working with Eva for 2 years, 3 times a week. I thought maybe she was a dog walker and I misunderstood. No, she started out as Eva’s trainer, but lately they reduced the pay and she only does dog walking.

So, what did you like about this first trainer? Eva obeyed him completely, there was no hesitation. I asked next, did she ‘obey’ anyone else or just him? Oh, just him and they smiled. For anyone that doesn’t know, this means he used force-based training. Force-based training means that he used some form of hurting Eva so she would comply. It also means that Eva will only do what he says because she doesn’t want to get hurt again. Whereas, when others give her cues, she doesn’t have to comply because she won’t be hurt by them (nor rewarded when she does comply). This guy isn’t going to be with Eva 24 hours a day, so how in the heck is it effective for the long term?

We agreed that I would work with Eva Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with the goal of Eva being comfortable with guests in the house; in particular, their house keeper. Currently, someone has to be home the entire time the house keeper is there.

Day 1:  Eva tries to attack me twice. The second time she bit my purse; no punctures, just saliva.

Day 2:  I have the owners put a muzzle on Eva so that I can first get her comfortable with me. I discovered that Eva is very treat motivated. Yea!!! Now we’re onto something. Eva is getting to know and trust me.

Day 3: Eva comes right up to me and no longer barks, growls or lunges. I’m the treat lady! We can now work with the house keeper, who for the first time got to within a foot of Eva without barking or showing any signs of stress. Yea, we’re making significant progress.

Day 4:  I’m fired! I’m told they want a trainer like their first trainer who makes Eva do what they want. They don’t want someone who uses treats. Yes, the wife told me that exactly:  no treats, force Eva to obey. I asked her again:  So Eva only obeyed him, right? 
Wife:  Yes. 
Me:  So how is that effective training if she doesn’t do what is asked of her by others?  
Wife:  It doesn’t matter, that’s the kind of training that we want.

I told her that her dog is very fearful of people and that Eva now deals with it by being aggressive. The training I’m doing with Eva is for the long-term. She didn’t believe me that Eva was fearful of people. I could quickly see that she had made up her mind and so I left.

Every time Eva saw a person, the husband yelled at Eva to be quiet and yanked on her choke collar. Well, no wonder she hated people. If every time I saw someone and I got yelled at and hurt, I’d hate people, too.

Let me put this in another way. You have a child who is afraid of the dark. When you turn off the lights, he starts to cry. Are you going to yell at him? Shock him? Push him? Grab him? No. You’re going to help him build a different emotional state so that he can be confident in the dark. It may take some time. But since it’s dark half of each and every day, you realize that this is for the long term, that your child needs to feel comfortable in the dark.

Learning is the same whether it’s a dog, a whale or a human. If force-based training worked, you’d see trainers doing alpha rolls to orcas to make them submit. If you want to elicit a particular behavior, you let the dog know (reward) that’s the behavior you want. I never once heard any praise for Eva, only shouting and leash jerks.

When I left Eva’s house, I felt a sense of failure. I can’t control other people, yet it still was a hard lesson. The next time Eva bites someone, it may be her death sentence. And it’s not Eva’s fault, it’s her owners’ fault. They have been shown and given alternative, positive methods and they still chose traditional, force-based training. I wish I could say this was a nice old couple who are just in over their heads. But I can’t. Anyone who prefers to use aversive training for their dog isn’t nice.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Stay CALM!!!!

Sometimes our dogs embarrass us with their actions and we think the best way to respond is to yell at our dog because 1) it’s a very natural reaction us and 2) people around us will see that we’re handling the situation. For instance, your dog is barking his fool head off while you’re on your walk because he sees another dog across the street. You start shouting at him so he’ll calm down. Now you both look like fools barking.

If you’re barking (yes, to your dog, shouting is barking) and stressed, then your dog will be even more tense because he’s reacting to your elevated response. He doesn’t know why you’re yelling, just that you’re yelling. Set the example for him.

At first don’t even talk. Quickly remove you and your dog from the stimulus. Then breathe. Take a moment for the both of you to calm down.

I suggest carrying a fanny pack with you on your next walk. You can store your keys, baggies, phone and most importantly, smelly treats. Dogs use their nose for everything (recent research has indicated that dogs may remember routes by the smell, not by visual clues), so the smellier the treat, the better.

When you see the stimulus again that triggers your dog’s reaction, remain calm (fake it if have to). Next, before your dog gets to that threshold where he doesn’t hear you, either:  place a treat in front of his nose; or call his name, walk the opposite direction and reward him with the treat as soon as he turns his head. If you think your dog can handle seeing the dog, then the treat in front of the nose should get his attention and reward him with it. Have another treat quickly available and keep this treat slot machine going until the stimulus is gone.

If you think your dog’s reaction will escalate quickly just upon seeing another dog, then use the walking opposite direction method. It’s important that he sees the other dog (or whatever causes the reaction) first and then immediately follow with the calling of name, turnaround and rewarding for turning his head and paying attention to you. You have to be quick. Have more treats ready to keep rewarding for paying attention to you and not the stimulus.

The goal is to associate that stimulus with a new feeling, pleasure. It doesn’t matter if it’s fear or aggressive based. Both emotions look and sound very similar to most people. You want to condition him to stimulus = good.

As long as you keep him under that threshold, you will be making progress. If you let him get past that threshold, he isn’t capable of making cognitive decisions. He will not be able to focus on you, no matter how hard you try putting that treat in front of his nose. Plus, it may make matters worse. He can shut down completely or transfer his irritation to you. Neither is healthy.

By using these methods, it’ll be obvious to people that you are working with your dog to improve the behavior. I can personally speak on this level with one of our own dogs, Tristan. He was HIGHLY reactive on leash to dogs not behind a gate/fence on walks in our neighborhood (notice how specific it was). His was fear-based, but it sounded like he wanted to kill the other dog; not, what he was really thinking, which was, “OMG! Get away from me! Get away from me! You’re not getting away from me!! Why won’t you get away from me?”

And his frenzied response would work because eventually the other dog went away. But from his point of view the dog left the scene because of his hysterical behavior, not because the other dog was leaving anyway. So he was being rewarded for that response.

When my husband and I worked with him, people walking their dogs were very encouraging. They would smile and say how well he’s doing and what good boy he was. By us reacting calmly and encouragingly, people reciprocated. With everyone in a relaxed manner, we were able to modify his behavior with longer lasting results.

His “final exam” was when we encountered 2 small dogs wandering the neighborhood. They came right up to him in a friendly, non-threatening approach and he kept his focus on me the entire time. What a good boy!! J Oh, and did I mention that I was by myself with our 2 other dogs on this encounter? It didn’t happen overnight, but with consistent training, he was able to make new and better associations.

Remember, no one wins a shouting match. Remain calm and be the example for your dog.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Introduction to Training Your Dog

Summer is just about over and school is beginning. So, I thought I’d write about the basics of beginning to train your dog. Before you start training your dog a command/cue, there are few nuggets of information that you’ll need to keep in mind.

First, in order for your dog to perform a command, he must know it is directed toward him. Every command is prefaced with your dog’s name. For example, “Fido <your dog turns his head towards you>, Sit.” If you say, “Sit, Fido.” your dog didn’t know you were talking to him, so he didn’t hear that first part, Sit.

Now that you have your dog’s attention, when you give a command say it only once. It is very tempting for us to repeat what we say over and over until our dog finally complies. This only teaches him that he doesn’t have to perform the behavior the first several times it’s said. He’ll learn that Sit = Sit, Sit, SIT, I said Sit your butt down now. Dogs are discriminate learners; meaning, they learn exactly as you teach. Say, “Fido, Sit” along with the hand gesture. And that’s it. Really, it’s that simple.

If he doesn’t Sit right away, hold the position (do not move!) until he Sits. This is an important step in your dog learning that he must do as he is told. If after a couple of minutes, you give up, your dog just learned that all he has to do to get out of Sitting is wait a few minutes and you won’t make him do it. Remember, you are the one training your dog, not the other way around.

It also teaches you not to throw out commands that have no meaning. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say Sit, Down, Stay but their dog never completed the first task before the human went onto the next one. I guess they were just hoping if you throw several commands, the odds are one of them will work.

Once your dog completes the cue you have just given, you have less than 3 seconds to reward. After 3 seconds, his ability to associate the reward with the behavior is gone. That is why it is extremely important, especially in the beginning, to reward quickly. As soon as the behavior is provided, tell him Good Boy! and pop a treat in his mouth. If you say, “Fido, Sit”, be sure to reward while he’s Sitting, not when he bounces back up to receive his reward. He’ll learn Sit means either 1) Sit and then Stand or 2) Stand (because that’s when he’s getting the treat).

Lastly, the leash is used sometimes for safety in certain environments. He can’t walk off or go after a squirrel if he’s tethered to you. But, it shouldn’t feel like a punishment from your dog’s point of view. Hold the leash loosely and do not tighten your arm while holding the leash. If you’re holding the leash tightly, your dog’s natural opposition reflex will kick in; he’ll pull away from you. See my earlier blog for more info as to why dogs pull on their leash.

Here are the training nuggets boiled down:
  1. Have your dog’s attention
  2. Say the command only once with the hand gesture
  3. Hold position with him until he complies
  4. Give the reward within 3 seconds
  5. Have a relaxed arm while holding the leash

Monday, July 11, 2011

When Your Dog Growls, Say Thank You

Say what? Yep, you read that correctly. Most people are probably asking, But why would you say thank you for showing aggression?

First, it’s not necessarily aggression that your dog is expressing. Second, he’s telling you he’s either stressed, anxious, or just uncomfortable. Lastly, he doesn’t want to bite; otherwise, he’d do just that and not give you the warning signals.

Dogs communicate beautifully, we just don’t understand or usually see the first 10 signals they give us. Then they are left with no choice but to bite because we’ve ignored these very important cues earlier in the interaction.

It’s very rare for a dog not to give warning signals prior to the bite or fight. I’ve seen it happen and believe me you want your dog to growl, air snap, stiffen and all the other signs that he’s stressed. It gives you time to react. There was no history of the first year of this dog’s life. So, somewhere along the way he was either 1) reprimanded/punished for the growls and snapping, 2) it didn’t work and he was forced to fight anyways, or 3) he just didn’t learn it from lack of socialization as a puppy. I had literally less than 2 seconds to respond before he attacked another dog. Luckily we had already muzzled him because of previous encounters.

Now, I’m not saying let your dog growl to no end. My point is if he growls, calmly remove him from the situation. Find out what it was that caused the stress and work towards building positive reactions under threshold. Then slowly (VERY slowly!) build up his confidence to handle the situation without stress.

Growling is somewhere in the middle of warning signals (sometimes called calming signals because that’s what the dog is really trying to do). Beforehand, he would have given much subtler cues, such as his eyes may have widened and thus seeing the whites. After the growl is the air snapping. Again, this is meant to say I don’t want to bite, but push me further and I might do just that. The air snaps might be followed by a bite, but barely contacting the skin (another warning). Or, it might be followed by complete quiet and stiffening of the body. This is the dangerous one, if you don’t act by removing your dog quickly from this situation, he will definitely bite. 

OK, so they're not exactly fighting (don't have any photos of that). The middle dog is having the time of his life being picked on by his older sisters.

Yelling can be the worst thing you could do in this circumstance. Yelling is like barking to dog and it just makes the situation more intense and stressful. You want to redirect your dog to something positive and regain his front brain thinking.

I call it happy talk, but see if you can redirect by high-pitched chatter. Something along the lines of Who wants a treat? Oh, look there’s the cookie jar. Use words that your dog will recognize and will cause him to think and thus, react differently.

A couple of times a year there’s a little tension between our 2 females. I can tell from experience that if someone yelled, there was a 100% chance it would escalate to a fight. If someone got up suddenly and talked in a high-pitched voice, WooHoo! Who wants a treat? Then clapped and said Yeah! All of the sudden the girls would be running to the treat jar. We would make them do something (e.g., sit, down, shake) and then give a treat. Whew, fight was diverted.

So, if your dog is communicating that he’s stressed, remove him from the environment or make the environment less stressful. Then you can work towards building his confidence for later encounters.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Walking Your Dog: The Basics

Walking your dog nicely is probably the most popular reason that people enroll their dogs in basic obedience classes. They love the idea of walking with their dog. It’s great exercise and an opportunity to socialize with others. But after several sessions of getting pulled around constantly, the leash gets retired. Or, for those who have to walk their dog for potty breaks, it’s a chore that one must get through.

So, why do dogs pull? First, you have to understand dogs a bit. They repeat a behavior because it’s safe or rewarding; they don’t repeat a behavior because it’s dangerous and penalizing. When your dog pulls, he gets to move forward…bingo! reward. What if you stop? Don’t say a word (any attention is good attention to your dog) and be still. See what your dog does. Does he look at you as if to say, Hey, Let’s go? If he comes back to you, move forward. Every time the leash slackens, you move forward. Every time the leash is taut, you stop.

What about leash pops? Some may call them corrections, but a correction is something that corrects. Leash pops don’t correct, they just annoy dogs at best and hurt at worst. If I pulled your arm to come with me, would you naturally come with me? Probably not. We have an opposition reflex. So do dogs! If you pull them with the leash, they are hardwired to move in the opposite direction, not the direction of the pulling. It boils down to being a survival skill; getting away from the attacker who’s doing the pulling.

Besides why would I WANT to be by your side if you keep yanking and pulling me? How enticing is that? Make it safe and rewarding for your dog to be by you; not that your dog is near you because of fear of being jerked. And frankly, when I walk my dogs, for the most part I don’t care if they are glued to my side, in front of me or behind me. As long as the leash is loose, then it’s all good.

When you start your new walking ritual, start small and build upon successful steps. This begins with getting the leash on your dog when he’s calm. If he’s not, just wait. He’ll learn that when he’s calm the leash is attached and you will move forward. If he’s not calm, everything stops. Do not be tempted to tell him No, Stop It or other words you may use. You also need to remain calm. :-) Remember this is new to your dog; he’s built a habit that needs to develop into a different habit.

Once he’s calm with getting the leash on, proceed to the door. The moment the high excitement comes back, stop. Next step, open the door. Just because the door is open doesn’t mean that you HAVE to go through it. Wait it out. If it’s just too much excitement for your dog, close the door and walk away.

The first few days you may not even get out of your driveway. That’s okay. This is something new to both of you. If you walk a mile of constant stress, it’s not very enjoyable for either of you. But if you spend 20 minutes a day building upon successful baby steps, then in a month you may get to walk that mile of carefree strutting. A month or so is not very long when you consider the investment of being able to nicely walk your dog for years to come.

Monday, June 27, 2011

How to Use Treats When Training

Treats are probably the easiest way to reward your dog in training. Luring with a food treat can accelerate his learning, especially in the beginning when your dog has no idea what you want. But there is a little skill needed to prevent it becoming a bribe.

Most dogs LOVE to eat and therefore, consider food a high reward and will be motivated to continue to receive the reward. There are a few dogs out there who think treats are alright, but really could care less if they got one or not. Find out what motivates these finicky pooches. Is it ball? Belly rubs? Just hearing your voice? That will be their reward. It’s really important for your dog to perceive it as a reward, not just you.

When considering a treat, use small soft treats. Your dog can quickly gobble them and he won’t be loading up on the calories. Many companies now make pre-cut soft treats, but the ole favorite is Natural Balance’s dog food rolls. You can cut them into any size piece, so they’re great if you have particularly tiny or giant dogs (or both!). Plus, they’re lower in calories than traditional treats.

When you first teach a new cue to your dog, have the treat out to lure your dog. After several repetitions, he’ll start to grasp the concept and the lure can be tapered back to a reward. This means that you’re not blatantly showing him that you have a goodie; he’ll see the treat when he performs the cue given.

Don’t bribe your dog. If your dog understands what you want and you feel you have to bring the treat out to get him to perform the cue, then it’s a bribe. Sometimes if you wait a few seconds for him to complete the command, he’ll do it. Just hold still, be quiet and let him think. So many times we just want him to do it now and don’t give the dog enough time to think about what was just asked of him. We throw up our hands and the treat out to have him do the command quickly. It’s not a race. Be patient. If your dog is thinking, yeah! That means he’s using mental energy and will be tiring out.

Timing is important for him to associate the reward with the cue he just did. You have less than 3 seconds for him to make that association. That’s it. Otherwise, he’ll think he’s getting rewarded for something else.

Nikita is lured for new command, Dance.
Nikita is rewarded for new command, Dance.

Once you have about 80% success rate with a cue, then you can move towards giving a treat on a variable ratio (remember PSCH 101 in college?). Sometimes he gets a treat, sometimes he doesn’t. Dogs don’t have a sense of morality, so they won’t hold it against you if you didn’t treat the last time. Think of it as a slot machine. How many people sit in front of those electronic boxes performing the same behavior over and over because little pieces of metal might spit out?

TIP:  You can also only provide treats to the best or fastest cue to encourage that behavior over the sloppy or slower ones.

Eventually you can wean treats off altogether and just tell your dog Good Boy and that will be enough for him. But in the beginning you want to heavily treat to motivate your dog and show him, yes, that’s what I want.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Training Before Behavior Modification

You might be thinking, “What does teaching my dog commands have to do with teaching her not to do that annoying habit?” It has everything to do with it. Training and behavior modification go hand in hand (or paw in paw as the case may be); they are not isolated skills despite what a certain popular dog psychologist may lead us to believe.

So many times I’ve heard people say they love everything about their dog, except (fill in blank). They wish she wouldn’t do this or that. Ask them what they would like her to do instead and they tilt their head a little and look confused.

We get so focused on what we DON’T want our dog to do, that we forget what we DO want our dog to do. For example, if you don’t want your dog to jump on people, what would like her to do instead? Sit? Go to her bed? Well, tell her that. It really can be that simple.

That was my Ah-Ha moment in dog training. When my trainer explained instead of focusing on what not to do, focus on what you want your dog TO do.

I can say, “No, no, no, stop it, stop it, stop it, blah, blah, blah…” all day long to my dog. But if I never tell her when she’s doing something right, she’ll try to keep guessing (and consequently be stressed) or worse, give up and resign to being a blob. Does this sound familiar in our own lives? How many of us have had bosses where we felt like we can’t do anything right because our boss was always pointing out the things we did wrong. Yet she never gave us appropriate feedback of what she wanted to see happen instead?

Also how many times have we completely ignored when our dog was being a well-mannered little girl and only comment when she goes berserk? We just missed tons of opportunities to say, “Yeah, good job!”

In every behavior modification, I start by teaching owners and their dogs basic (and sometimes advanced) commands. Then, we move towards that goal of getting rid of those annoying habits (from our perspective!). I’ll sometimes put those annoying behaviors on command to give the dog an opportunity to still ‘misbehave’, but it’s in a controlled setting. And I control it by turning it on and off.

Going back to the jumping example. This is where teaching your dog commands meets behavior modification. Teach your dog to sit. If your dog is sitting, she can’t be jumping. If sitting is still too tempting for her to bounce up, then teach her to go to her bed. This removes her from the super excited situation of “Oh my God, my butt is wiggling so hard that I can’t control it”. It also gives her something to do that will teach her the self-control she needs until the situation isn’t so exciting anymore.

You can also teach your dog to jump on command. WooHoo, an opportunity to be a dog and jump. Have you seen how dogs greet each other? Especially labs and bully breeds. They don’t just shake hands, how do you do; they body slam each other like basketball players coming off the court after a 3-pointer. Just be sure to immediately follow the jump cue with a sit cue to keep her from getting too excited again. 

Kajta, Jump
Kajta, Sit

So, the next time you get frustrated at what your dog is doing, tell her a command instead. By consistently giving her things to do, you’ll also be building upon your relationship in a positive way.