Friday, July 25, 2014

How to stop your puppy from barking

One of my clients has been having trouble getting their puppy to stop barking. They have tried ignoring him when he barks and rewarding him when he's quiet, but it hasn't been working. A friend of theirs suggested taking a  can of pennies and dropping it on the floor when the dog barks. They want to know what I think, so I thought I'd put my response in my blog so others could benefit.

Here's my advice:

Don't use a can of pennies.
I would not recommend using a can of pennies. Whatever you wouldn't do with a toddler, you shouldn't do with a dog, especially a young puppy. Basically, what the can of pennies does, if the best case scenario is achieved - meaning the noise was timed exactly right - the dog will learn that barking causes the feeling of a momentary heart-stopping fear of getting physically hurt. I won't go into all the reasons why using these types of methods in training is harmful and risky, but I will say that it usually swaps out one problem for one or several much bigger problems. In the case of barking, what if the puppy was barking because he had to go outside? Or if he wanted to warn you of danger? Or of anything else that you actually might want him to be able to communicate to you? Then you're not only teaching him not to bark, but not to tell you when he wants to go outside, or not to alert you when he things something is really wrong or when he's distressed. If he's barking for attention or some other reason, whatever is in his mind or environment at the time of the can dropping is going to be something he's going to avoid.

Why isn't the no-punishment approach working?
Anyway, enough warnings. What do they do about it, then? Their neighbors are angry and they are pulling their hair out.  And they've tried the force-free approach of ignoring him when he barks and rewarding quiet, which, like I said before, is not working. This is because changing behavior is a 2-pronged endeavor, and doing one or the other simply will not work 90% of the time. What these particular dog owners are doing is the first prong or component - they are attempting to install an alternative behavior. They're removing the reward for barking and rewarding for quiet instead. Great. However, they are not doing the other component, which is equally crucial. They are not preventing the unwanted behavior from occurring in the first place, thereby addressing the cause of the behavior.

So what should they do?
They should use the 2-pronged approach to behavior change - they should 1. prevent the unwanted behavior and 2. install an alternative behavior. Here's how:

1. Prevent the unwanted behavior
Pups bark for three reasons, usually. For attention or to communicate, to alert to something in the environment, or out of boredom. So to prevent these from happening, we want to do the following:
  • For attention: continue ignoring barking for attention. 
  • Use white noise and visual blockers to keep the pup from hearing every little noise and seeing squirrels, leaves and other things moving around outside. Wax paper is a good way to block a window but still let in light.
  • Give your pup the equivalent of a really good novel to get out all his mental energy. This takes creativity - I have yet to meet a puppy who is challenged and interested enough in a toy you just pick up off the shelf at petco. Use food-dispensing toys in creative ways - with interesting scents like fish oil or coconut oil - that are intriguing to your pup. Find ways to get him thinking and working and he'll have less mental energy left over to bark. This is major. If you do nothing else, do this, and you will probably see a change. In addition, this is necessary to success. You can do all the training in the world, but if your dog isn't getting enough mental stimulation, it won't work.
  • Make sure your pup is getting enough physical exercise and jaw exercise. Running and chewing.
2. Install an alternative behavior
We don't want our pups to bark, but we can't expect them to never want to get our attention or alert us to things. They depend on us for survival, so it is unreasonable to simply remove all their tools for initiating any communication with us as their caretakers. So here's what to do:
  • Reward for quiet in situations where he would usually bark. Alone in his pen, when a squirrel runs by, when someone walks up the stairs, etc. Also, reward when he stops barking - meaning, when he skips a bark, or seems to think to himself, "Is it possible this human won't respond to my barking?" Then you want say, "YES, that's exactly it, I don't respond to barking, I respond to you standing there and thinking about how to get my attention."
  • Train auto-behaviors. These are behaviors that your dog can offer without being asked to get your attention or to get a reward. For example, you can train your dog to "sit to say please." 
SO, that's my advice. Tried and true, and no risky punishment training involved. I'd love to hear other peoples' stories, ideas and comments - do you have any great ideas for setting up sensory barriers to stop your dog from alerting to every little thing? Or how to keep your dog busy for long periods of time? My favorite is a squirt of whipped cream in a Kong Genius. I'd love to hear your ideas.

Friday, June 13, 2014

What we're missing about the seductiveness of punishment training

There's a lot of discussion about the ills of punishment training among modern dog trainers. We know that there are many pitfalls - major emotional and behavioral fallout. So why do people still do it? Why is it so "seductive?" (Kathy Sdao used this word in her recent webinar entitled 'The Seductiveness of Shock'). 

One of the most commonly cited reasons is the temptation of a quick fix - a magic solution that, although ugly, we can turn a blind eye to for a moment and go on to a sunnier future. Since our dogs can't talk, we can apply a swift leash correction and pretend it doesn't really hurt, that a minute later it never really happened, and the result is a happy and harmonious existence of man and his best friend. (Obviously it doesn't just go away, your dog doesn't forget, and the emotional memory cannot but have negative effects - but that's another article entirely).

The other reason punishment continues in dog training is the unbelievable power of authority in human society. If someone of authority says to do something, many people will do it, even if it causes great pain to another living thing. It's this faith that we have in people who presumably have more knowledge than us to look out for the greater good.

But there's something we're missing about the seductiveness of punishment training, and I think it's at the crux of the average dog owner's reluctance to abandon punishment.  People tend to see behavior change more in terms of discipline than choice. Discipline, for the purposes of this post, means preventing yourself from doing something you want to do. That's how we operate, generally. Dieting means not eating that donut and eating a salad instead, even though we really want the donut. Quitting smoking means not smoking. Conditioning, however, means wanting to do something different. We worry that if we don't make a conscious effort to NOT do something, we may still do it. But maybe that's why we smoke, why we have trouble with diets, and why we stay in unhappy relationships when we shouldn't. If discipline is such an effective way of changing behavior, why is it so hard, even if we are getting punished every day for our lack of it? It's because it doesn't work on its own. The absence of a behavior is NOT something that truly registers with us. Being rewarded for NOT eating too many calories is ok, but what if we could instead truly crave non-fattening food just as much as the fried goodness, red meat and cheese? That's what reward-based dog training is all about - creating healthy behavior, not just creating a vacuum. And that's why it works better than punishment training. According to punishment-based trainers, our dogs should see a squirrel, feel that desire to chase it, but just bottle it up and not do it. They should have discipline. But that bottled up energy - it doesn't disappear. Reward-based trainers instead focus on getting the dog to see a squirrel and feel a desire to do something else. Get hungry and want to eat a salad, not a cheeseburger. So much better than wanting that cheeseburger and foaming at the mouth outside of Five Guys. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Zen Dog on Channel 11 News

Well, they're pretty off-base with the Buddhism emphasis - we're definitely not trying to get your pets to meditate. But they certainly got the positivity part right! See the clip here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

3 Common Dog Behavior Problems Solved.

Everything your dog does has a purpose. Think of a behavior you want to change. Identify its purpose. Show your dog that she can achieve this purpose with an easier and/or more purposeful behavior than the one you want to eliminate.  That's dog training, plain and simple.

Here are some examples:

1. Your dog pulls on the leash.
Purpose of pulling on the leash, for your dog: To move forward.
The behavior you'd prefer to result in moving forward: Walking on a loose leash.
Solution: When the leash is loose, move forward faster. When the leash is tight, i.e. your dog is pulling, don't move forward at all.
Result: Dog learns that he can exert less energy to move forward AND move forward more efficiently by walking next to you than by exerting a lot of energy pulling on the leash.  This will become his default behavior.

2. Your dog jumps on you.
Purpose of jumping on you, for your dog: Food and/or attention.
The behavior you'd prefer to result in food and/or attention: Calmly lying on dog bed.
Solution: Only give her food or attention when she's lying calmly on her dog bed. Ignore her when she's jumping on you.
Result: Dog learns that she can exert less energy to get food and/or attention by lying calmly on her dog bed than by exerting a lot of energy jumping on you.

3. Your dog chews your shoes.
Purpose of chewing your shoes: It feels good.
The behavior you'd prefer to result in that good feeling: Chewing on appropriate things.
Solution: Make sure your dog likes the chews you're giving him more than your shoes.  Then associate chewing on his own things with the sight of your shoes.  I.e., dog sees shoes, dog gets kong filled with peanut butter.  Dog sees shoes, dog gets braided bully stick.  Dog sees shoes, dog gets frozen marrow bone. Dog sees shoes, dog gets squeaky stuffed toy.  Remove your shoes from his vicinity when you're not around so he loses the memory of how good it felt to chew on them, and they only remind him of how good it is to chew on his own things.
Result: Dog learns that chewing on his own things feels good. Having your shoes around reminds him that chewing on his own things feels good. Having your shoes around makes him want to chew on his own things.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Pet Parents or Pet Owners?

There's been a general push by the pet industry to market the idea of "pet parenting."  This includes encouraging pets to sleep in our beds, eat gourmet food, and engage in other such practices that are usually only reserved for the human members of our families.  Also, it means putting the same amount and type of resources into pet care as we do for child care.  

The foundation for this concept has clearly existed for quite some time.  Pet owners do owe their pets proper love and care for the duration of their lives - that is the pact we make when we take ownership of them.  That means that throughout financial hardships, life changes and other bumps in the road, we still have to provide for our pets.  For this reason, the pet industry has long been considered "recession-proof."  But companies like Petco and PetSmart are taking this to a new level.  They want to grow and solidify their business, so they're upping the ante for human investment in their furry counterparts.

But what does the concept of "pet parenting" mean, really?  This article in Slate talks about the implications.  I think there's certainly some merit to the author's argument that pet owning and parenting a child should be separate ideas.  But, I see pet parenting as a separate thing from parenting already.  Dogs have different needs than children, obviously.  Pets play a different role in our lives than our kids do, for sure.  But does that mean that we still don't parent our pets, in a way?  We still have to equip them to live in the world comfortably and efficiently.  We have to provide for their emotional, physical and nutritional needs.  Owning a plant is different - we have no obligation to the emotional lives of our plants, but we do need to provide it with nutrition and physical safety.  So those two things might be the defining factors of "parenting" -- providing for emotional well-being and instruction on how to exist in the world, both of which we do for our dogs and cats as well as for our kids. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Salty Paws Solution


I live near Prospect Park.  I took advantage of the snow day to bring my dog to the meadow to romp in the snow (which he loves - he's truly a sight to behold).  I saw at least three people on the sidewalks carrying their dogs (one definitely over 60 lbs) to avoid the salt stinging their poor paws.  I would have done the same exact thing.

BUT, my dog was wearing booties.  And I did my homework - the best booties are the ones WITH VELCRO.  All other ones will come off.  My dog has houdini-ed his way out of many a bootie.  True, running in 2 feet of snow in a meadow will knock off any kind of doggie footwear, but I take off the booties when we get to the meadow because there's no salt there anyway.

If your dog has paw sensitivity issues, there is definitely hope.  My own dog would cower and hide when he sensed I was even thinking about coming within a foot of his paws.  With a little desensitization and counterconditioning, we worked through it, and now I put his booties on by tapping each leg one by one and saying "Lift." It can be done.

And now, here's a hilarious video of dogs wearing booties for the first time.  Don't worry, they get used to it.