Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Training is for the Life of Your Dog

I don’t want to sound like Debbie Downer, but let’s face it, dogs are sentient beings who think and feel. Therefore, sometimes when new experiences are thrown at us, we are reminded of what we need to work on the next time it happens.

I learned a new training exercise for me when I took Tristan to the vet for his annual wellness exam today. He’s always been a bit shy and squeamish when it comes to shots and bloodwork, so I was prepared. I had treats for us to play a Find It game while waiting for the vet and vet tech (to get him relaxed and in a jovial mood). Plus, I brought a container with some peanut butter (natural kind of course!) to have Tristan lick from my fingers while the vet and vet tech did their business at his back end.

What I didn’t take into consideration was that I would need to pick him up to get him on the examination table. He’s a 45 lb. cat. Okay, he’s really a dog. But he’s so lean and flexible I swear he must have been raised by cats while out on the streets the first year of his life. Because he’s 45 lbs. I don’t typically lift and carry or hold him.

He was in a sit position and I bent down to pick him up and hold him like a baby, with head over shoulder. After a few seconds of that, he squirmed and contorted and eventually wiggled his way out of my arms and onto the floor. Whew! No broken legs. But, boy do ‘we’ have something to work on.

After a few moments of gently coaxing and persuasion, with heart rate down for both of us, I did it again. A whole lot quicker this time and got him on the table with a glob of peanut butter for him to start licking before he knew what was going on.

Pretty much smooth sailing after that; got him back on the floor as soon as the blood was drawn and shots given. My vet and I chatted for a bit and Tristan just lay quietly on the floor. Bygones!

Guess what I’ll be working on with Tristan (and the rest of the dogs)? Holding and picking them up, but it will be in short successful stages. The end result… to love being a baby in mom’s arms.

It will be a very similar process to what we did with Katja and nail trimming. That used to be a full week process. Now, easy peasy. Time us! I bet we can do it less than a minute AND she enjoys it.

First, we put treats around the nail trimmer and let her get used to the device. Next, we moved the trimmer next to her paws and opened and closed it. Treat! Then, when she was comfortable with the moving of the nail clipper near her feet, we trimmed one nail and treat. Tada! Session done. She lets us handle her paws, so that wasn’t so much of an issue.

Each day we would do a nail or two with lots of treats and happy talk. And end it at that, just a nail or two. From there we would build up to an entire paw. WooHoo!! We were almost home free at this point. Sure, it may have taken a month of what seemed like constant nail trimming, but this is a dog who needs her nails cut several times a month because they grow so fast.

It takes an initial investment in creating a nurturing, positive experience with stressful tasks. But, it’s well worth it when you think about it. Dogs will need their nails trimmed and bodies examined for the duration of their life. Wouldn’t it be much nicer if it was a pleasant experience for both you and your buddy?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

January is Train Your Dog Month

The number one killer of dogs isn’t cancer or other diseases, it’s euthanasia in shelters. Most shelters won’t be filled with adorable eight week old puppies. Nope, they’ll have 9 – 18 month dogs who have either been turned in by their owners for behavioral issues or found on the streets because their owners dumped them there because of behavior issues (I have one of those!).

In recognition of the newly adopted dogs over the holidays and resolutions being made, January is the perfect time to get started training your dog. You may be thinking that your dog doesn’t need training; after all, you’re not competing or showing your dog. Not so fast. Take a look at the photo below.

Katja & Nikita with Santa, 2007

Were you able to capture your dogs for that holiday photo in just a few minutes OR without getting frustrated? At the time this photo was taken, we only had Katja and Nikita for 5 months. They didn’t start learning basic signals until we adopted them at the age of 15 months.

A little background on Katja and Nikita
They were found living under a house. Best guess is they were around nine months at the time. The lady who found them, fostered them and insisted they be adopted together because of their strong bond with each other. Fast forward 6 months and here come two suckers (my husband and I) who were looking to adopt two adult dogs.

From day one, I worked with them on basic signals and a regular routine. We think they were adopted out at one point and returned. So, they had gone from who knows where, to the streets, to a home, another home, back to first home and finally to their forever home. I needed to quickly establish confidence and security in these two girls. What better way than teaching them stuff to do on cue in a safe rewarding environment?

Back to Santa Photo Shoot
So, when it came time for Santa pictures, all I had to do was tell Katja, Down --> Stay; and Nikita, Sit --> Stay. They knew what we wanted because I had been practicing (aka training!) the cues with them beforehand. We went behind the photographer. He clicked several pictures. And Bob’s your uncle! We were done in just a few minutes. Happy dogs, happy us and a very happy photographer!

The same couldn’t be said for the dogs before and after us.

So, I ask again…think you don’t need any dog training? 
How are you going to communicate to your furry companion what he should be doing (instead of focusing on what he shouldn’t be doing)?

By teaching your dog basic manners (e.g., sit, down, stay, come, leave it, let’s go), you will eliminate many behavioral issues. Because you are communicating what you want your dog to do, he’ll be less stressed and frustrated trying to figure out what you want him to do. Happy dogs, happy people!

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.