Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The age-old complaint, "my dog only listens when I have food."

I was volunteering this past summer for a rescue organization, handling a black lab mix-looking puppy who couldn't have been more than three months old.  I was having a great time getting her to do a few basic skills for potential adopters.  She clearly hadn't had any training before, and the woman who worked at the kennel where she was being boarded confirmed this.  When I told her that Mandy (the puppy) had been successfully practicing Sit, Down and Paw, she said, "Yeah, well, of course she'll do that for treats."

Yes, Mandy would do all those things for treats.  And lucky for us that she would, because that's what makes it so easy to train her.  Why would I not use treats?  If you have poor eyesight that can be remedied with prescription glasses, why not get the glasses?  Yes, you'll have to wear them on your nose, and they  might be cumbersome at times.  But wouldn't you rather that than not be able to see?  I would rather have to reinforce my dog's behavior with treats every once in a while than have to either intimidate them into compliance or just have an ill-behaved dog.

But I am, in fact, being kind of unfair to the kennel woman.  We aren't referring to the same practice when we talk about using food in dog training.  Debby McMullen, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, explains that food can be used in dog training in three ways: as a bribe, a lure, or a reward.  The woman from the kennel was deploring the use of food as a bribe.  I am endorsing the use of food as a lure or a reward.  And it's true - she's right that using food as a bribe will likely teach your dog not to listen to you unless he sees the food in your hand.  And that's not good.

So in conclusion: Use food.  Use it sparingly to get your dog into the position you want to reward.  Then fade out the food by faking out your dog.  Use the same hand motions but without food in your hand as a lure.  Your dog will perform the same behavior, thinking you have food - so start to make it clearer and clearer that you have no food visible on your person as you cue him to the behavior.  He will realize that not seeing food does not mean that you won't produce it out of thin air if he just does what you ask.  That food magically appearing out of thin air is the reward.  Reduce the frequency of the reward, but keep it present so the behavior remains strong.  That's a quick description of how to correctly use food.  Don't bribe your dog, and you won't teach him to expect that.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The easiest way to change your dog's behavior EVER.

As a trainer, sometimes I feel like I could write pages and pages of recommendations for my clients about what I think they should do with their dogs.  First of all, I don't have the time for that.  Second of all, I may think I know best, but ultimately, their relationship and lifestyle they share with their dog is their own.  What I think interpret as a priority may not be, and what I think is doable on a daily basis may be way out of the question in reality.  So, shocker of all shockers, I don't write a mini-novel for each client, fortunately for them.  I have to edit myself.  And when I do that well, the results are that much more positive.

I just watched a webinar by certified applied animal behaviorist Suzanne Hetts.  One of the things she recommended was so dang simple yet brilliant.  A prescription for success in one short recommendation that basically empowers dog owners to create their own programs that fit their lives perfectly.  Here it is:

Pick three behaviors that your dog already performs that you like.  Reward your dog for those behaviors ten times a day.  

Basically, she's just put all us professionals out of business if people learn how to really harness this advice.  It addresses so many rules of thumb that we hold so sacred, like:

  • Train your dog to DO things, not to NOT DO things.  Think in terms of what you do want your dog to do instead of what you want him to not do.  It's almost impossible to train the absence of a behavior without traumatizing your dog into avoiding a whole group of behaviors, including trusting you.
  • Behavior that is rewarded will be repeated
  • Communicate with your dog.  Observe what she is doing and tell her what you think of it by giving clear feedback - effectively in the form of anything she likes, like food, play, etc.

So make your own training curriculum, and switch it up every day.  It won't take long before you're noticing a marked improvement in your dog's behavior.  This is so important and frighteningly simple, I wish every dog owner would do it.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Buckle up your dog

A lot of you are probably planning to travel with your dog over the holidays. If you're going on long car rides, it's a good idea to buckle her up. You don't need a special dog seatbelt, although those are probably safest. You can just use a back-fastening halter. Attach the leash, then wrap it around the headrest.

Actually, I recommend using harnesses for your dog any time they are on leash. It's just much safer and more comfortable, not to mention an easy training aid for the dog that pulls. The harness doesn't put pressure on your dogs trachea like collars do, and a damaged trachea is a lifelong problem. Even if your dog doesn't generally pull, she can still do plenty of damage with one lunge towards a squirrel. And the front clip doesn't let your dogs forward pulling pay off - it swings them around without letting them move straight forward. If it fits correctly, you'll see results.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"If you walk into a wall, you will get hurt."

My aunt, a veterinarian, once argued for the use of shock collars by dog trainers by saying, "Well, if you walk into a wall, you will get hurt."  She meant that if dogs get shocked for doing something wrong, that was okay, since we humans experience the same type of consequence and don't consider it unusually cruel.

But it's not the same.  How many times after you walk into a wall will you repeat that action?  Never, if you can help it.  So you've learned your lesson after one broken nose.  That happened for one reason and one reason only: timing.  You felt pain the moment your face made contact with plaster, and so you were able to make the connection between forceful impact with a wall and the painful consequence.

Training dogs using punishment doesn't work that way.  Because our timing is so dreadful when attempting to catch the actions of dogs who see many more frames per second than we do, they rarely ever make the connection between what we consider the "wrong" action and the consequence.  So they produce that action again and again, getting shocked, yelled at, kicked out of the house again and again.  What a miserable way to live - and forget about learning anything.  After all, would you be able to think clearly if throughout the course of your day a fist would come out of the sky and punch you in the face?  Would you get kind of anxious, paranoid, unsure of yourself and your environment since you never knew what situations would cause that punch to land on your nose?  Imagine - you wake up, forget to brush your teeth.  Hit in the face.  Go to eat breakfast and sit in the wrong chair - hit again.  Then, you finally proceed to go about your day.  Just as you've almost forgotten about the looming danger, you're hit again and have no idea why.  My guess is that after the he third blow, you'd be ready to yell at anyone who looked at you funny.  Not surprisingly, dogs react the same way to constant aggravation.

Positive trainers see plenty of fallout from shock collar courses and even much lesser forms of punishment like raised voices or intimidating physical postures.  None of it is worth it! 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Welcome DC Dog Lovers! Useful tips from a DC dog trainer.

Welcome to my new blog.  I hope you find it interesting and informative.

I remember when I got my third dog several years ago, and I was confident that I knew all about dogs.  Training them, interacting with them, etc. - I had lived with dogs before, I watched a lot of Dog Whisperer, and read a book or two about obedience training.  But I was sorely mistaken - and very unprepared.

Riis (named for Riis Park in NY, where I'm from) is a mutt that I adopted from a rescue organization.  He was found with the rest of his litter in a cardboard box on the side of a road in Memphis, Tennessee.  By the time he got to me, he was about four months old, ten pounds, and full of fear and anxiety that manifested itself in a whole host of behavior problems.  He was reactive to other dogs, had severe touch sensitivity - would flinch when touched anywhere on his body, and completely freak out when you went near his ears or paws - and was generally fearful of any unfamiliar noise or movement to the point that he was literally stopped in his tracks a dozen times a day.

Nothing I did to train or modify his behavior was working.  All the information I found was either really distasteful (using shock collars and other aversives) or I didn't understand enough to really believe it would work.  I felt guilty for failing to help my dog and myself, I felt confused about why I couldn't change him using all the expert advice I had come across.

Finally, I found a trainer who employed positive training methods.  For once, her reasoning made sense to me.  So much so that it changed the course of my professional life.  I've been working with dogs ever since, and it has made me a more observant and compassionate person to people and dogs alike.

The contents of this blog, then, should hopefully provide some comfort to dog owners who feel like they're out of ideas, at the end of their rope, or just want to learn more about how they can interact and understand their dog in a more positive way.
Riis, fixated on a piece of broccoli on our kitchen table.

Happy reading!