Some shocking truths

Common myths and misconceptions about shock collars

You want to do the best for your dog but you may be feeling frustrated about some annoying behaviors. Before you grab that shock collar, there are things you should know. Don’t you owe it to your pal?

#1 — “The shock collar doesn’t hurt my dog. I tested it on my arm. it’s just a little vibration.”

I know that it seems like the shock collar doesn’t hurt the dog, because when we test the collar out on ourselves, it might not feel so bad, but unfortunately, it can be very painful and scary for dogs. In fact, if the shock is not painful or scary, it won’t work to teach your dog anything.

Dogs need motivation to do the things we ask of them — no different than us getting paid to go to work. We have choices as to how to motivate them: we can give or take away something the pup enjoys, or we can give or take away something he finds unpleasant, scary, or painful.

For example, we can give pups delicious chicken when we call them to us, to teach them that coming back to us is a REALLY good thing, or we can use a shock collar that hurts them until they come to us. One way or another, we have to give them a reason to come.

Curious to see how a shock collar feels on people? Watch these videos:

#2 — “My trainer says that I should never use food to train my dog. She says I should only use praise so that he learns to respect me.”

It makes a lot of sense when you hear it, right? But the reality is that there is a lot of misinformation floating around about dogs. The sad truth is that trainers who make this claim are not being transparent. What’s motivating the dog to stop jumping or barking or to come to you is the fact that the dog is trying to keep from being hurt by the electric shock — not the praise.

So we have a choice: we can give the dog something delicious like CHICKEN for doing what we ask, or we can hurt or scare him to do it. Chicken comes with the wonderful side effect of your dog loving you more for giving him something fantastic. Electric shock comes with the potential side effect of your dog becoming afraid of you, other people, and/or other animals and potentially biting someone.

#3 — “I don’t use the shock feature anymore. I only use the collar with the beep on now.”

If I pull out a gun, and I cock it, are you any less scared than if I fired it? If your dog does what you ask when he hears the beep, it means that he has learned that the beep predicts a painful shock, just like cocking the gun predicts a bullet hitting you. While the collar is no longer physically hurting the dog, it can still be scarring him emotionally.

#4 — “There is no other way I could walk my dog. He is too strong.”

Walking our dogs can be so frustrating — and even scary — sometimes. We’re asking these four-legged guys, who can be incredibly strong, to stick by our side and go at our pace, regardless of their natural gate or external factors such as a squirrel darting by or a dog park getting closer.

Old-school dog training methods used devices designed to cut off the dog’s air (i.e. choke collars) or hurt him (i.e. shock collars and prong collars) in order to teach him to walk politely. Thankfully, we have much better technology today that is designed to help dogs walk on a loose leash without hurting or scaring them.

Front-clip harnesses — such as the Sense-sation Harness or the Freedom No Pull Harness — clip in the front of the dog (as you may have guessed from the name), to allow physics to take over and teach the dog to slow down. If he pulls ahead of the person holding onto the leash, the dog ends up turned around in the opposite direction than he wanted to go. The good thing that he wanted (moving forward towards something) was taken away from him. In order to be able to keep heading to that good thing, the pup has to slow down his pace.

#5 — “The electric ‘fence’ will keep my dog safe and happy.”

First, let’s talk about how electric fences work. The dog wears a shock collar which beeps to tell him he’s approaching a sensor wire buried underground. If he starts to cross over the wire line, he receives a shock to the neck to get him to move away. If he doesn’t find the shock annoying, painful, or scary, there’s no motivation to stop him from barreling through.

Must be more motivating

Shock collars only work to keep the dog on the lawn if the discomfort from the collar is more meaningful to him than the squirrel or bike or soccer ball or dog going by on the other side of the “fence.” Many dogs find the world outside of the containment system worth the pain they will endure to cross the line, and once they are off the property, they can run into traffic or encounter other animals who could hurt them. Sadly, when these dogs try to return, many fear the painful shock and can’t get back home.

People and other animals have free access

Because there is no physical barrier, people or other animals can freely come onto your property and harm your dog. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to read stories about other animals such as coyotes attacking pups who are outside alone, in a yard with an electronic containment system.

Dogs can become fearful of and aggressive towards passersby

With any aversive training device such as a shock collar, there is always a risk of “fallout behaviors” developing. Say your Border Collie, Marcus, is outside every afternoon when the kids next door play soccer on their lawn. Sometimes the ball rolls over to the edge of your property, and when Marcus chases after it, he gets shocked for attempting to cross the containment line. If the boys are right there to collect the ball when Marcus gets shocked, he could associate the pain with the kids and become fearful of children. And when dogs are scared, they use their sharp teeth and powerful jaws to defend themselves, so the odds increase that Marcus will bite a child.

Dogs can become afraid of sounds

Because the shock is preceded by a beep, dogs can develop a fear of similar sounds, which can make life in our highly techie world difficult for those pups and the people around them. The dogs might tuck tail and flee in terror every time an iPhone beeps, for example, or a certain frequency plays on the TV or radio. Sound phobias are extremely difficult for animals to overcome, often requiring assistance from a veterinary behaviorist and medication to help them cope.

Dogs can become afraid to go outside

Some dogs learn to associate the lawn with the pain from the shock and become too scared to go outside or step off the front porch. They were absolutely happy to trot out onto the yard to pee before the collar, but now they won’t step foot onto the grass.

To overcome this newfound fear, we use a process called “desensitization and counterconditioning,” which takes a great deal of time and patience to work. This issue can also become quite expensive, as most people need help from a qualified trainer or behavior consultant to do the training correctly.

Basically, we figure out what location the dog is comfortable starting at (maybe it’s inside the doorway that leads to the front yard, or it could be somewhere on the front steps), and then we give him a party of delicious foods at that spot. When he learns that that location predicts tasty treats, we move a little bit closer to the grass, but once again, only to a spot where he feels safe and comfortable. This is a simplification of the process, but it can, at least, give you an idea of why it takes time and patience — and an advanced ability to read the dog’s body language — to help a pup overcome fear.

This information was generously shared by the Shock-Free Coalition. Animals have an intrinsic right to be treated humanely. Join us in saying “NO” to shock devices. Find out more or join the Shock-Free Coalition. Click here now.

shock-free-logo

 

The 3 Golden Rules that will supercharge your dog training

Super-effective, professional dog trainers use them and you can too.

 

Who doesn’t want to find the secret to jump-starting their dog training!  There is one simple, single letter in our alphabet that contains many exciting clues to successful training. Can you guess which one? Here’s a hint: it’s the first letter of our favorite furry friend. That’s right, D (like in dog)!

There are 3 Ds to understanding and achieving successful dog training. They are Distraction, Distance, and Duration. They come into play in every context and all training exercises. Many people wonder how super-effective dog trainers get such amazing results. The truth is they follow a set of rules that you can follow just as easily. And one of them is the golden rule of 3 Ds. The golden rule of three Ds is to only increase ONE of the three Ds at any one time. When you increase the difficulty of one, you should decrease the difficulty of the other two.

Every task we teach our dogs should start out easy (at the dog’s level of ability) and, as the dog masters that level of training, we should increase criteria by asking for a little bit more complexity.

Remember that dogs need a lot of help to understand that a cue such as come or sit, given in one situation has the same meaning in another. As soon as you change the factors influencing the task, factors we call the 3 Ds, you affect your dog’s chances of success.

Distractions

Distractions are part of life, especially for dogs. Let’s face it a dog can be distracted by just about anything from the high-value food reward to the wind blowing leaves. Distractions are part of dog training no matter what, so we might as well begin to work with them and take them into account.

Sometimes distractions are environmental sounds or sights. Other times we are doing distracting things, placing hands in treat pouches or pockets, walking too far away during stay training, or perhaps the dog is too close (distance) to the door or visitor for a sit and wait. Being aware of distractions and doing your best to set the dog up for success by lowering them will help your training immensely. In fact, I would say the number one reason why dogs are unsuccessful in training is some form of distraction.

When you add distraction, it’s important to temporarily lower your criteria in order to help your dog. You can do this by going back to a higher level of reward/reinforcement (such as giving treats more often).   Always start with the lowest amount of distraction and build on it as your dog does better with the training.

ready to learn

Distance

Distance can help or hinder your dog’s training. In the case of the reactive or over-aroused dog, you want as much distance as needed from the dog’s trigger when you begin to desensitize and counter condition the dog to that trigger that makes it reactive. Many clients make unsuccessful attempts at reducing their dog’s reactivity because they are too close to the distracting stimuli and usually for too long.

Conversely, you want a short distance from your dog when building duration for a stay or beginning to build a recall so you can keep up a high rate of reinforcement (giving the reward often) and maintain success and motivation for your dog. Don’t walk away too far away from your dog when training your dog to stay or asking your dog to come. Build up distance slowly. As you add more distance, you will increase your rate of reinforcement. That means you will decrease the time between treats so that he is being rewarded more frequently. As your dog gets good at a certain distance, you can slowly increase the time between treats. Your dog is successfully learning because he is only dealing with one criteria change at a time.

Distance can be related to either how close you are to your dog in a training exercise (as in the stay and recall examples), but it can also relate to how close your dog is to a distraction. If your dog is very squirrel-oriented, is it harder to get your dog’s attention when he is 100 feet from a squirrel or when he 5 feet away? That’s right; the closer your dog is to the distraction, the harder it is for him to think and learn. Don’t ask your dog to listen to you when he is that distracted. Increase the distance from the distraction until he is able to listen to you. (Notice I said, “able to listen to you”. Your dog is not blowing you off when he is over aroused and not responding; he truly is unable to process what you are saying.)

 Keep your expectations in check. If your dog blew it, figure out why so that you can help him be more successful. It is up to you, as his trainer, to make it work for him.

Duration

Duration is also a very big factor for many dogs to either hold stays or deal with frustration and reactivity. You should always consider duration in training. Duration is a time interval. It can be how often you reward your dog, how long he holds the stay before he is rewarded or released, how long the door stays open before you release him to exit, and even how long he is staring at a distraction before you try to get his attention.

When working on stays of any kind, start with a duration that is easy so the dog understands the training, then build as necessary. Here’s an example of adjusting the frequency of the reward for a stay. After the first several treats (varies from dog to dog) begin to slow down the speed of reinforcement. Reward every 2 seconds and then 3 seconds and then 5 and 9 and so on. As you continue to decrease the time between treats, also begin to straighten out your position. This can be a sticky point, so gradually straighten up (stand up), then bend down to deliver the treat (for small dogs) and straighten up again. If your dog keeps popping up, you may have increased the time between treats too quickly for him to understand, or there may be other factors such as distractions in the environment.

Duration is also important to consider in terms of distraction. Let’s look at the squirrel example again. Which scenario is more challenging for your dog: Your dog glances at a squirrel for 2 seconds before you call him, or your dog has been staring at a squirrel for 10 seconds and getting more excited before you try calling him? Your timing is important to success. The sooner you try to get your dog’s attention the more successful you will likely be.

Do the math

 These three D’s are the mathematics of dog training. Only increase one of these at a time to really maximize your dog’s training. In general, when you increase one, you decrease one or more of the others. If you have been noticing your dog breaking stays, not coming when called, reacting to some dogs and not others or perhaps door dashing during sit and wait at doors, you may want to reconsider one or all of these 3 D’s in your training protocol. The 3 Ds will help you to be a better trainer and will turn your dog into a superstar!

Decker welcome 2

 

Clickers make training quick and fun

Anyone can do it.

What is clicker training?

Clicker training means using a sound (a click) to communicate with your dog. It marks your dog’s correct behavior the moment he does it.  Essentially the moment your dog does what you want him to do—like a sit or a down—you immediately click and give him a treat. This gives your dog instant, specific feedback. Dogs learn much faster with a clicker (up to 45% faster) and it makes training fun.

clicker

How does it work?

It is fabulously simple. First, we teach the dog that the click means he has earned a treat. Then we use the click to tell the dog when he has done something we like. The click becomes a predictor of a reward.

Now before you dismiss the idea of carrying around a tool with you, I want you to know that it is only used to teach new behaviors. Once your dog knows the skill you can fade out the clicker, so it’s not a forever tool. My dogs, for example, only see the clicker when I decide to teach a new trick. When I take it out of the drawer they get very excited. It predicts fun and treats.

In this video, Laurent is rewarding Luna every time she looks at him. Since he clicks the moment Luna gives him eye contact, she is getting precise and instant feedback which means that she will learn this so much faster. Imagine if no clicker was used. By the time the treat got to Luna she would no longer be looking so she would not immediately associate the treat with the eye contact. So much slower to teach…

How to start with your dog: charging the clicker

This means teaching your dog that click means treat.  To do this we will classically condition the dog to associate the sound of the click with him or her receiving a treat.

Step 1. Grab a handful of really yummy treats cut into small pieces.

Step 2. Every time you click, give your dog a treat (be careful not to click and treat at the same time; the treat must follow the click, not precede or coincide with it). To begin, repeat this 20 times in a row.

Step 3. Do this standing up, sitting down, while moving about, indoors, outdoors. Basically, make sure your dog understands that the click means treat in all situations.

Step 4. Do the exercise a few times a day for a 20 treats at a time until when you click you notice that your dog is eagerly anticipating the treat.

Good Mechanical Skills

Don’t give away that a treat is coming except with the click. For example, be careful not to reach for a treat, point the clicker toward the dog, or reach toward him with the treat before you click. This is distracting and can slow learning. After you treat, always bring your hand up to a neutral position (at your navel or behind your back) and keep it still so your dog does not get distracted and can learn quicker. Train yourself to insert a count or a word before you hand over the treat: Click. Count to yourself, one-one-thousand. Treat.

Watch the video to see how this is done. Caela is doing a great job with timing.

Say “Yes”

You can use a novel word, such as “Yes!” in place of the clicker. You would pair it and then use it the same way as the clicker.  According to research, using a word to mark a behavior is effective but not nearly as effective as the clicker. You want to use a word that your dog does not hear all the time. “Good boy”, for example, is not the best choice.

Clicker rules

  • Click only once.
  • If you click you must treat even if you have clicked in error (we call that a freebie!).
  • The clicker is not a remote control. Don’t use it to call your dog to you.
  • Click during the desired behavior, not after it is completed. For example, when you call your dog to you click while she is headed your way, not after she has gotten to you and stopped or sat. The timing of the click is crucial. Give the treat after the click; the timing of the treat is not as important but try to get it there within a couple of seconds. If you’re not sure when to click, think of it like taking a picture of your dog at the exact moment he does the behavior you want. Snap! You got it.
  • Only click once for each desired behavior. Multiple clicks will be confusing to your dog. If you want to express special enthusiasm, increase the number of treats, not the number of clicks.
  • Click when your dog does something you like. Practice with something easy that the dog is likely to do on his own. (Ideas: sit; come toward you; touch your hand with his nose.)

In this video I am teaching Decker the beginning of a trick. He already knows how to hand touch (touch his nose to my hand); now he is learning to target a piece of tape, first in my hand and then stuck to a wall. Soon it will be placed on an open cabinet door or an open mailbox, and he will easily learn to close the door by pushing it with his nose. Eventually the tape is faded and a cue is added.

Easy peasy and so much fun! Your dog will enthusiastically work with you and learning is a snap. Happy training!

Empowering, Not Overpowering

Allow your dog to make some choices in life

Every day, in all of our lives, we make choices for ourselves and others. Oatmeal or eggs? Black pants or jeans? Turnpike or I-95? Have a conversation with one friend or another? Read or watch television? Go to a movie or write that blog article? Buy a house or rent? The choices we have over our lives makes us feel in control and less stressed.

We can apply some of these same ideas to our dogs (or other pets). When we don’t give dogs choices in some situations, they rebel with turning away, ignoring us, growling, or shutting down. They don’t cooperate with us or they fight us. And what we usually do is keep pressing on, trying to coerce or force them to do something that they find scary or uncomfortable. At that point, our poor dog gets labeled difficult or dominant. We might even consider it a training failure.  Can we make dogs more behaviorally healthy by offering them some choices?

Dr. Susan Friedman, Ph.D., a prior faculty member in the Psychology Department at Utah State University, is a frequent presenter at animal behavior conferences. “The power to control one’s own outcomes is essential to behavioral health”, she explains. She recommends that animals should be empowered to use their behavior to control events in their lives.

When dogs can make choices, we build trust with them. If the dog says no, we figure out why; we don’t force the dog to do something that’s uncomfortable. We get a lot of information from the dog that is willing to work with us. We know that he is motivated, interested, comfortable and willing. We’ve set him up for success.  And when the dog learns that he has a choice, often the thing he didn’t want to do becomes okay. Nobody fights; everybody wins.

This game of choices allows your dog to have a conversation with you. He (or she) will tell you, “I’m ready”, or “Can we please wait a moment?” Or even something as simple as “I’d rather walk that way today, thank you very much!” His life becomes a little less regimented where he is told what to do from the moment he gets up to his bedtime, what to play, what and when to eat, where to sleep. Our relationship with our dog becomes richer.

How do we begin to empower our doggie learners while still offering guidance and expecting good manners?

SHAPING

We use shaping to teach a dog how to solve problems and earn a reward. Small steps toward the final outcome behavior are rewarded until the final planned behavior is reached. It becomes strong and consistent. There is no luring, physical manipulation, or commands. The dog figures out behaviors that will be reinforced and wants to repeat them to earn more reinforcement. In a short time, you are increasing your criteria and expectations and your dog is happily learning. Here’s a good video to learn more about the art and science of this awesome training method.

DO YOU WANT TO WORK WITH ME?

If your dog is enthusiastically participating in the task or training lesson with you, it continues. If the dog becomes reluctant or disengages from you, the trainer either waits to see if the dog will re-engage, takes a break and tries again later, or picks a different activity that has interest to the dog. Try this. If your dog begins to ignore you during a play or training session, walk away, sit down, ignore your dog, and wait. If your dog comes over with wagging tail and eager face, enthusiastically get up and begin the same exercise again or try a different exercise. The important thing is that your dog indicated his interest in engaging you. Nice choice!

CONSENT TEST

You can use a consent test to allow your dog to choose if he wants to continue playing with another dog or even to continue being petted by you. If another dog is on top of him pinning him down during a play session, gently remove the other dog by applying a little pressure around her chest and moving her off. Does your dog jump up and return happily to more play? If so, it was fun and he wants to keep playing. If he moves away, he has made the choice that the play was uncomfortable or stressful and he needs a break. Support that choice by helping have his time to himself apart from his playmate.

You can also use a consent test for petting, called the 5-second rule. Pet or rub your dog for up to 5 seconds. Then take your hands away. Does your dog lean into you for more? He has made the choice to continue the interaction. However, if he turns his head away or moves away he has indicated that he’s had enough and has not consented to more. This is a good exercise for children to learn when they are interacting with their family dog.

YOU CHOOSE

Here are some simple ways you can incorporate more choice in your dog’s life.

  • Which way? Let your dog choose the path he wants to take on a walk.
  • Which hand? Hold two different treats, one in each hand and let your dog choose.
  • Wanna Play? Allow him to choose the toy he wants to play with you.
  • In or out? Let your dog decide if he wants to hang out with you or wander around the secure yard checking out sights and smells.
  • Cool down? Your dog can decide to continue to play ball or pause for a refreshing soak in the pool.
  • Chicken or beef? Let your dog choose the topping that’s going on his kibble.

Here is Seele deciding which toy she wants me to throw. She is new to the game but it took only a short time before she figured it out.

THE BUCKET GAME

This game, created by London-based behaviorist Chirag Patel, allows your dog to have a conversation with you. Initially created for husbandry techniques, such as veterinary procedures, brushing or medicating without fuss or stress, this game can be used in a number of ways to let your dog tell you when he needs to take a break or when he feels comfortable continuing. It can easily be used to work with barking, training games, or to enhance your overall relationship with your dog. I can see some possibilities for dogs that react to things in their environment. It’s really great for food manners too.

We teach the dog to focus on a small bucket. They choose whether to look at it or not; we simply wait. Your dog will focus on the bucket, keeping his face 1-2 feet away and out of the bucket. When they look, we immediately mark it (clicker or “Yes!”) and reward. He will focus towards the bucket to signal he is ready to start a training conversation with you and will remove his focus to signal you to stop, take a break or change the speed of the conversation. Your dog gets to start making some choices such as the ones mentioned above as well as whether he stands, sits, lies down.

The duration of the look increases (we wait to reward, slowly increasing the time between the look and the reward). Then distractions or procedures are slowly added, perhaps touching ears, or bringing out a brush or eye meds.

During the Bucket Game, your dog will tell you:

a. when they are ready to start
b. when they want to take a break
c. when they want to stop
d. when they want us to slow down

View this video introduction to the Bucket Game (below) and then check out the videos at Chirag’s Bucket Game Facebook page.

 

Before you begin teaching the Bucket Game, you will first want to teach your dog how to wait for you to hand the treats from the bucket and not mug you for them. Read our blog article on It’s Your Choice. This is all about choice too!

YOUR MISSION

Today, begin to think about the many wonderful opportunities for more choices you can provide in your own dog’s life and begin consciously offering some. Then observe your dog to understand what he needs emotionally during the encounters and support him. This protocol is a nice step forward in our relationship with our dogs and builds joy into new experiences.

Is Your Dog a Scaredy Cat?

You can help your dog change his fearful behavior.

Last week I worked with an adorable 7-month old Australian Shepherd, Bear. His concerned owner brought him to me because he is very fearful of strangers and will bark, growl and lunge when they get too close.

When the owner and Bear arrived at Lucky Dog she followed the instructions I had previously given her.  I was already sitting in the training room and I did not get up to greet either of them. I wanted to remove as much social pressure from Bear as possible, and sitting quietly helped. The owner sat down across from me and we began to talk about Bear. She let Bear off leash to explore the room. I noticed Bear’s fearfulness immediately. He stretched to inspect items around the room, lacking the confidence to get too close to unfamiliar smells and items. Initially, he mostly avoided me but any time he came anywhere near I tossed high-value food (chicken morsels) even further away from me. I did not look at, or speak to Bear initially at all. I just kept ignoring him and tossing chicken at a safe distance away from me. I was glad to see that he was able to eat because many fearful dogs will not.

Eventually, he began to relax. He chose to move closer to me, and one time put a foot on my lap to encourage me to give him more chicken.  I calmly gave him a morsel but did not pet him. Giving him time, not applying any pressure to him by avoiding interacting with him, associating myself with something desirable, and keeping him at a distance all allowed him the time and space to feel safer. I was able to begin working with him on a limited basis near his mom as we worked on strategies and behavioral tools for changing his behavior.

Many owners understandably get confused about giving a fearful dog food or comforting them. Isn’t that reinforcing the behavior? Teaching your dog to feel safer or associating something scary with something good does not strengthen scared feelings, it helps change them. Fear does not feel good and comforting your dog is not going to make your dog want to be more fearful. Even high value food or other reinforcers will not remove the instinct to protect oneself in a scary situation.

You can, however, use something of value, such as treats, to change a dog’s attitude toward the fearful situation. Let’s say you are really afraid of snakes. If there’s a snake 5 feet in front of you, me comforting you is not going to make you more fearful of the snake. But if I take you far enough away from the snake so that you were still aware of it but feeling calm and I began handing you $50 bills  you will eventually become more interested in the money than in the snake. At that safe distance you might begin to associate the snake with something super good and you would look forward to seeing it. This simplified explanation of classical counterconditioning and desensitization can work for a dog’s fears too.

I used tasty food with Bear to make him associate me, an initially scary person, with something good, but it was done in a way that respected his need for space and the time to safely form his own opinion that I was not scary.  This is Bear toward the end of the session looking less worried than he was at the beginning:

Bear Hurst

Here are some tips to help your fearful dog.

  • Understanding what your dog is afraid of is important in the process of helping him change how he feels.
  • Don’t punish your dog for being fearful. You need to change his or her feeling and punishing your dog may make it worse. You can punish away a growl but it will not change the underlying emotion. If your dog does not have a growl, the next escalation of fear might be a bite. Growling is information and indicates your dog’s discomfort with something happening. Quickly assess the situation and figure out how to change it.
  • Fear can take many forms including, growling or lunging (fight), cowering, hiding or trying to run away (flight), or shutting down and not being able to respond at all (freeze). Sometimes anxiety can cause hyperactivity such as a dog zooming around an agility field and not listening at all. Familiarize yourself with your dog’s body language that indicates he or she is afraid.
  • Try not to get anxious yourself; fear can be contagious. That means, for instance, no tightening up or jerking the leash.
  • Remove your scared dog from the situation that is causing the fear. You can create distance; limit his visual exposure such as using body blocking or a natural barrier such as a hedge or car; or change his line of sight. Pushing your dog to face his fear will not make him feel better (would sticking a snake in the face of a snake-phobic person work?) and may adversely affect your trust relationship with your dog.
  • Give your dog something else to do when he sees something (at a safe distance) he is afraid of, such as scattering high-value treats in the grass and having your dog search for them. We have several effective behavioral tools we use to help a fearful dog to modify his behavior.
  • Work with a knowledgeable trainer or behaviorist to help change your dog’s behavior. Most important, have empathy and patience because true behavior change takes time.

First Impressions Count

Socialization is the key to creating a confident dog. Here’s how to do it right.

You’ve probably witnessed the dog on walks that lunges or barks ferociously at every dog he or she sees. Or maybe you own that dog. That poor dog is stressed and fearful. One of the causes of this kind of reactivity is lack of early socialization.

Dogs see the world as safe, good, dangerous, bad, or neutral. You want your puppy to see the world as safe and good. The time in your puppies life when he is most open to novel experiences is before 18 weeks of age. This is the time to get him out there, so go! But do it right.

puppy-play-main_street_hub
Puppies, like children, need to be taught appropriate play skills. This is from our Ideal Puppy class.

Here are 3 great tips.

Tip 1: Use Great Rewards

Pair new experiences with something your puppy loves like food or play. Figure out what his favorite treats are and reserve them for creating strong positive associations.

Bryn- Home Depot
Puppy Bryn is having fun at the hardware store.

Tip 2: Ace The First Encounter

First impressions count. If your puppy’s first encounter with something new doesn’t go well, it takes a lot of work to change his mind. Always try to make first experiences particularly rewarding. If your puppy is not enjoying the experience, he will show it by turning away or trying to leave, tucking his tail, cowering,  pulling his ears back against his head, and/or averting his gaze. If this happens help him by giving him more distance or leaving the situation.

Bryn and goats-crop
This is Bryn’s first experience with goats!

Tip 3: Timing Is Everything

You should reward your puppy as soon as something new happens, but it’s important that the new thing happens first. For example:

  1. You’re out with your puppy and pass your neighbor’s house.
  2. You see your neighbor about to press the garage door opener.
  3. You wait for her to press the button.
  4. As the sound begins and your puppy’s ears perk up, you treat him with yummy food bites and use a happy, cheerful voice.

The association we want your puppy to make: Garage door noise = Good things happen.

Applying The 3 Rules

New place. Give your puppy plenty of time to explore and get comfortable. Try to get him to play with a toy, chase you, or toss some yummy treats on the floor for him to find.

New person. Ask all kinds of strangers and children to give your puppy a treat before petting him. If your puppy is shy or unsure of himself, have people toss a few treats on the ground or have them stand at a distance while you calmly feed your puppy. You can also teach your puppy to sit (or any cute trick) so you can have people ask your puppy to do something. That stops them from immediately trying to pet your puppy, which can be overwhelming for him. Once your puppy is comfortable, go ahead and let him interact with the new person at his own pace.

New dog. Not every new dog is guaranteed to play with your puppy, thereby giving your puppy a good experience. That means the reinforcement for meeting a new dog needs to come from you and the best time is directly after your puppy sees the new dog. Get in the habit of rewarding your puppy for simply looking in the direction of another dog. Not only will you create a positive association, but you will help prevent all-too-common behavior problems in adult dogs like barking at other dogs while on leash, barking at dogs (or people) when behind a fence, etc.

For how long? This is not just for baby puppies. Continue to build your dog’s confidence through social maturity, which in most cases is 2 to 3 years of age. Is your dog not a young puppy? It’s not too late to get started building more confidence.

Your puppy should be exposed, in a positive and safe way, to as many experiences as possible. Here is a scavenger hunt you can play with your dog. Please share your experiences with us.

scavenger-hunt-for-puppies-copy.jpeg
(Thanks, Robin Bennett!)

 

The Science of Pleasure

Or, How to Turn Your Dog Into a Training Addict

It’s interesting how much we have in common with our dogs and other animals. The brilliant neuroscientist, Robert Sapolsky did a behavior experiment with monkeys. He was looking at the pleasure centers of the brain and specifically the neurochemical dopamine. He explained how monkeys and humans commonly generate the highest levels of dopamine when pleasure is anticipated, not when pleasure is actually experienced.

To determine that, he had monkeys pushing levers. After a certain number of pushes a light would come on and then the next push would generate a food reward. He measured the dopamine output in the monkey’s brain and discovered that it went up the highest when the light flashed. This was in anticipation of the pleasure of the reinforcement.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. When the monkeys got the reward only 50% of the time the dopamine levels went through the roof. Evidently, the word, “maybe” is very addictive. The uncertainty of the reward makes the dopamine increase.

For those of you who are science-y, here’s a short and very captivating video of Dr. Sapolsky on this topic:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axrywDP9Ii0

This is why humans play slot machines. What happens when you put money into a slot machine and it doesn’t pay out? You put more in. In fact, the longer you sit there, without winning, the more sure you are that the jackpot is coming. The slot machine strings you along with almost, but not quite, break even payouts and you keep playing because you’re sure it’s going to pay off. This is called variable reinforcement and it can make behaviors stronger in dogs too. By using variable reinforcement, the dog trainer becomes the slot machine. You can create a little gambling addict – a dog that keeps playing the game because he believes that the reward will come if he plays long enough. The dog will work harder for less reinforcement.

It sounds pretty good, right? Maybe. As Karen Pryor states, “Once a simple behavior has been learned, a long and unpredictable schedule can in fact maintain behavior that you DON’T want, with incredible power.” (If you’re interested in reading more about reinforcement schedules, click here. She is an author and educator specializing in behavioral psychology.) When your dog pulls you on walks and you move forward allowing him to do pull, you are reinforcing (strengthening) the behavior. If you decide to teach your dog not to pull and you stop moving when he pulls forward (or you go the other way) you will teach him to walk politely, right? Not so fast. To change the behavior, you will need to be very consistent, because if you allow him to pull occasionally, you are now using a variable reinforcement schedule and he will learn to pull you like a freight train. Oops!

As humans we often naturally train with variability. When our dogs respond to a cue slowly and reluctantly we tend to be disappointed and the dog is not reinforced well or at all. However, when our dog responds with enthusiasm and exhibits brilliance at the task, we become very excited, use high praise and give out many treats in a row (called a jackpot). In this way, our dogs learn what generates the greatest and most valued reinforcement.

The best way to build new behaviors is to reward your dog every time he does the behavior correctly. This is a continuous reinforcement schedule. Don’t be stingy and don’t be in a hurry to move to a variable schedule. Every time the behavior is performed you click and then treat. Reinforcement strengthens behavior. Your dog gets rewarded and he wants to do it again. Build the behavior in low distraction environment, and then build in more and more challenges.

We use a clicker to train new behaviors because it’s extremely precise and dogs can learn 40% faster!  Every time the behavior occurs you click and then follow with a treat. The click predicts the treat. The dog performs with better understanding. I believe the click might even create an anticipatory dopamine surge like when the light flashed for the monkeys.

Here is a short video demonstrating clicker training a dog to a new skill, in this case my Aussie mix Runi. The skill is interacting with the Staples Easy Button. We train mostly in silence, allowing her to process the information received by the click and treat, but sometimes when a dog does something really well it’s hard not to also enthusiastically praise, a reinforcer that you’ll see in a video later in this post that Runi really responds to.

https://youtu.be/rtpMj6OXxaA

Runi-clicker-training-Easy-Button
Watch the video  You click the behavior you are building and want to strengthen and then follow the click with a treat.

You start teaching the dog in easy steps so he can be successful and has a desire to continue. When he gets good at that easy step you will raise the criteria to improve the behavior and make it a little harder. Now the reinforcement schedule is a little less predictable. The requirements are a little different and your dog will not be reinforced every time. Again, quoting Karen Pryor, “Reinforcement may go from predictable to a little unpredictable back to predictable, as you climb, step by step, toward your ultimate goal.”

For the dog who is a new learner, this unpredictability can cause him to give up. That’s why it’s important to allow your dog to learn at his level and not make things too difficult too quickly. You can lower your criterion (go back a step in learning and make it easier), ask for something he knows how to do well, or wait and try again at a later time or day. Build up his confidence slowly to create a dog that loves to learn and learns quickly.

I often hear from frustrated owners how their dog does this or that behavior perfectly at home but acts like it’s new in the classroom setting. For your dog, it just might be! Dogs don’t generalize well so if all of their learning takes place in the kitchen at  home, doing it at Lucky Dog might look completely new.

Every task we teach our dogs will have several different levels of complexity from very simple, to very difficult. One of the most common mistakes made by dog owners is to try and climb those levels too quickly.

The 3 Ds of dog training are known as Duration, Distraction, and Distance. They come into play in every context and all training exercises. Many people wonder how super-effective dog trainers get such amazing results.  The truth is they follow a set of rules that you can follow just as easily.  And one of them is the golden rule of 3 Ds. The golden rule of three Ds is to only increase ONE of the three Ds at any one time.

Remember that dogs need a lot of help to understand that a cue such as come or sit, given in one situation has the same meaning in another. As soon as you change the factors influencing the task, factors we call the 3 Ds, you affect your dog’s chances of success. (Look for an upcoming article on how to adjust the 3 Ds effectively.)

The other factor to consider is the type of reinforcement you are using. Here’s some homework for you. First, identify your dog’s primary reinforcers, those things your dog wants and will work hard to attain. It could be a favorite toy, a specific kind of food (identify each one your dog likes and rank them), playing tug or fetch, social interaction such as petting and praise, or something he wants to do in the environment such as lizard hunting or foraging in the grass.

Second, rank from low to high, your list of reinforcers. Which ones have the highest value to your dog? Match the reward to the behavior being trained and the situation. For example, in a highly distracting environment and you know that your dog’s focus will be different and more difficult to maintain, use a very high value reward. Sit down now and make a list, then number them from most favorite to least favorite. This will be helpful to know when you are training for different behaviors.

Here’s a video of my dog, Runi, retrieving the newspaper. I always reinforce this behavior, every time she does it. Sometimes she gets a food treat and sometimes she gets praise and petting. Not all dogs value praise/petting. Runi values it highly. But I always reinforce the behavior and she does it joyfully. Check out this video.

https://youtu.be/iVBTUaSrBPQ

Runi-enjoying-praise
Watch the video. Okay, maybe I went a little overboard with the praise while filming! She’s happy to do the behavior now for a lot less. The behavior has been so highly reinforced that she would do it without the promise of a reward.

One of my other dogs, Decker, does not really care for either praise or petting. Here he is doing a behavior that he knows and he is receiving a mid to lower level food reward, banana. His favorite reinforcement is something that is activity-related such as chasing a ball or playing tug. If we were working in a very distracting environment or I was asking for a difficult behavior I would choose one of those, or a high-value food reinforcer such as chicken.

https://youtu.be/HZXptuGYApg

Decker-sit-pretty
Watch the video. It’s not hard to get the concept of giving a food treat for a job well done, but I wanted to include this video because Decker is pretty cute and always enthusiastic!

So, according to Dr. Sapolsky, how do humans and monkeys (and dogs) differ? It’s the lag time that makes the difference. How much lag time can there be between the work and the reward to still elicit the behavior? An extremely long lag time is uniquely human. Humans  can maintain high anticipation levels for literally decades waiting for their reward. However, for your dog, keep ’em coming!