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!

Can you create the dog you want?

dog-and-kid-reading

In class or consultations I often see a clear incompatibility between a dog owner’s life style and/or abilities, and the dog they chose to bring into their family. I know sedentary older folks struggling with high energy puppies; parents with a toy breed who’s afraid of and snapping at their unstable toddler; an athlete who wants to take up an active dog sport with a breed that typically prefers to be a couch potato. Bad fit from the start, which causes frustration and, sadly, a dog that may be abandoned to a shelter. Of course, with lots of training and management, we can often improve an undesirable situation. But there’s nothing more beautiful when, with planning and research, the fit is just right.

I came across this great blog article by Dr. Jen Summerfield I want to share with you here. (Check out her blog .)

If you’re a dog owner, I’m sure you’ve heard this refrain.

Conventional wisdom says that young puppies come to us as blank slates.  Full of promise and limitless potential, ready to be molded into your ideal companion as long as you do your part – provide lots of love, the right amount of discipline, and appropriate training along the way.  If you’re a caring, responsible pet owner, there’s no reason that your puppy should not grow up to be a model canine citizen.

“Bad” dogs are the fault of bad owners, right?  After all, it’s all in how you raise them.

As always, in the world of behavior – it’s not quite that simple.

There are few myths in the field of dog training that get under my skin quite as much as this one.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so many kind, committed owners with deeply troubled dogs break down in tears during a behavior consultation, certain that they have done something to cause their dog’s crippling anxiety or aggression issues.  After all, they’ve had him since he was a puppy – so clearly, something must have been lacking in his upbringing.

Or perhaps it’s the countless number of fundamentally mismatched dog/owner pairings that every veterinarian and trainer sees on a regular basis.  The gentle elderly couple, with the adolescent field-bred Lab.  The busy young professionals with three children under the age of five, with the spooky English Mastiff who doesn’t like kids.  Or even the lovely middle-aged woman who wants to do therapy work in a local nursing home, with her aloof and introverted Chow.

What all of these situations have in common, at their core, is a lack of understanding combined with an unfortunate and excessive sense of optimism – an unshakeable faith in the notion that any dog can be molded into the perfect pet for the owner’s particular lifestyle, as long as they’re “raised right.”  That every eight-week-old puppy is a formless mass of behavioral clay, ready to be imprinted with whatever characteristics and personality traits are most convenient for their living situation and the wishes of their new family.

Unfortunately for all involved in the examples above, this is utterly and emphatically not true.

But wait, you might say!  What about socialization and training?  Can’t we influence our puppies’ adult characteristics through exposure to the things we want them to be comfortable with?  Can’t we teach them early on how we want them to behave, thus preventing any problems later on?

In other words, a perfectly socialized and well-trained puppy should be a foolproof bet to turn out the way we want – right?

Well… the answer, as they say, is complicated.

Don’t get me wrong – socialization and early learning are very powerful things.  (See my previous posts on these topics here and here for a more complete discussion of how they influence puppy development, if you’re interested.)  There is a lot we can do to set our puppies up for success, and also to address possible problems or behavioral red flags early on.  This is the “nurture” side of the nature-and-nurture paradigm, and it’s incredibly important – but it’s only half of the equation.

So what does nature have to say?

We all know intuitively that behavioral characteristics can be inherited.  After all, this basic notion is the reason for thousands of years of selective breeding in the dog world – it’s why we’ve been able to develop specific lines of dogs who are consistently driven to retrieve things, herd sheep, guard our homes, or track rabbits without any formal training at all.  Why, then, does it surprise us that other types of behavioral tendencies can also be passed from parents to offspring?

The truth is, your dog’s genetic background plays a tremendous (and often under-valued) role not only in what inborn skills he might have, but in who he is – whether he is friendly or reserved with strangers, tolerant of other pets or not, a high-drive athlete or a snuggly couch potato, easily startled by loud noises or relatively “bombproof.”

Since the 1940s, studies in canine behavioral genetics have consistently shown that traits such as fearfulness, impulsivity, problem-solving ability, working drive, and even tendencies toward aggression are strongly influenced by breeding.  Socialization and early learning can certainly help to sway things in one direction or another, but these forces are operating on a pre-existing genetic blueprint.

Is behavior moldable?  Of course it is – to a point.  You can only modify what you already have, not create the dog of your choosing from scratch.  So if you have specific goals for your pup or need a dog with a certain personality type, it pays to make sure that you’re getting a temperament you can live with!

Please note that none of this should be taken as a defense of breed-specific stereotyping or discrimination, on the theory that certain breeds are bound to be aggressive or otherwise “bad.”  There is a tremendous amount of genetic variability within every breed – so much so that it’s not possible to make any reliable predictions about behavior based solely on breed identification.  It’s much more valuable to look specifically at the parents and littermates of a particular puppy, or at a certain line of dogs within a breed.

So, what can we do with this knowledge?

If you have specific personality traits that you need in a dog, don’t choose a puppy based on looks or a cheap purchase price and assume that you can “make it work” – this rarely goes well, in my experience.

Instead, I would strongly encourage you to look into getting a puppy from an excellent breeder, with a good track record of producing dogs with the traits that you want – this is your very best chance of ending up with a dog that will be a good fit for you and your family.  Many owners need a dog that is reliably gentle and tolerant with kids, or with low prey drive because of smaller pets in the home, or easygoing and low-energy because they are elderly or disabled.  Getting an adult dog from a trusted source who knows the dog well (such as a breeder, or a good rescue group) can also be a great option.

This kind of predictability may not be important for all owners – which is fine!  Many of my clients don’t have any specific plans or goals for their dog, and their lifestyle is flexible enough that a wide range of personality types would fit into their household with no problems.  If this describes you, then you could absolutely open your home to a puppy or older dog with an unknown background and see where life takes the two of you.  There are many such dogs who desperately need homes, and the relationship that you have with a dog like this can be extremely special.

By the same token – if you are thinking about breeding your dog, or if you already have an active breeding program, please carefully consider temperament in your breeding decisions!  Most good breeders know this already and are very selective about which dogs they choose to breed, but this idea can be surprising to many owners who are new to the process and aren’t aware that personality traits can be inherited.  Excessively fearful or aggressive dogs should not be bred – period.  These issues should be taken as seriously as hereditary physical problems like hip dysplasia or degenerative myelopathy, as they are every bit as devastating for both the puppy and his/her new family.

And finally, if you have a pup from an uncertain background (or a known, not-so-great background) who is struggling with a behavior problem despite your best efforts, don’t beat yourself up!  For many of my clients, it comes as a relief to know that they have done nothing wrong – the misplaced guilt that comes with having a much-loved dog who is also severely aggressive or fearful of everything can be crushing.

It helps to understand that you can only play the hand you’re dealt; all dogs come with their own personalities and behavioral tendencies, for better or worse.  We can do a lot to help these dogs live safer, happier lives with training and careful management – we can build their confidence, teach them better coping skills to handle stress, and strengthen their bond with their owners – but we can’t change who they are.  And usually, that’s okay.

So if you have a dog like this, to paraphrase the famous Serenity Prayer – I would encourage you to work on the things you can change, and accept the things you can’t.

The trick is learning to know the difference.

Knock Knock. Who’s There?

It’s Not a Joke When Your Dog Jumps on Your Guests

Wouldn’t it be great if your overly friendly dog could sit calmly when your guests come into your home and not jump all over them? Or you can meet your neighbor on the street and be able to have a calm conversation. This takes on added significance with the approach of the holidays so start working on it now. (For this article, we are talking about friendly, exuberant greeters, not reactive, fear-aggressive dogs that do not want to greet but will continue to growl or bark at your guests.)

Usually the reason dogs jump up on guests is to get attention, to greet, or to be petted. But every time your dog pulls to get somewhere or jumps up and gets attention he is being reinforced for the bad behavior. To change misbehavior, you must remove whatever is reinforcing his behavior. Instead you will begin reinforcing only appropriate behavior.

There are several ways to accomplish this task when guests arrive. One includes sending your dog to a mat and teaching him (or her) to stay even in the face of distractions. This is an effective long-term solution and has lots of other applications, including going to friend’s homes, taking your dog to the vet, cooking or eating dinner, going out to a restaurant with your well-trained companion, or to get a dog out from underfoot when you are doing other tasks. Watch for the article that discusses mat training. In this article, we will build other behaviors to accomplish the goal.

ATTENTION IS KEY

It’s important that your dog is giving you attention and focus on a regular basis. If not, it will be hard to get his attention when something very distracting happens, such guests arriving. Begin by rewarding your dog every time he looks at you. Remember, behaviors that are rewarded increase in frequency. When he is doing this well, add minor distractions and wait quietly for eye contact. A distraction could be taking him to a different area in your house, then in the backyard, the front yard, on the sidewalk in front of your home, down the road, etc. If your dog is unable to give you any attention, the distraction may be too intense for him now; move further away or find another way to lower the intensity.

Most owners are not patient. They make noise, they nag their dog, or they yank on the leash. Give your dog time to think and adjust. Just wait your dog out, even if it takes a minute or more, and be ready to mark the behavior of him orienting toward you (by clicking or using a verbal marker such as “Yes!”) and then treating. The bigger the distraction, the higher value the reward should be.

Build up the focus in small steps. First reward just turning toward you. Later you’ll wait for eye contact.

SIT HAPPENS

An effective way to accomplish your goal of your dog not jumping on your guests is to teach your dog a solid sit and then build in distractions. If your dog is sitting, what is he not doing? That’s right; he is not jumping up. Begin by asking your dog to sit for all interactions. Does your dog want a treat, dinner, a toy, a belly rub, to jump on the couch and cuddle with you, play with a toy, go out the door, get on or off his leash? Guess what? Your dog can begin to work for these things that you are now giving away for free by sitting first.

Start with asking for a sit. Don’t keep repeating the cue, simply wait. If you need to, leash your dog first so he does not go looking for something easier to do. He will eventually sit and when he does, reward him with a treat. (If you use a clicker or marker word such as “Yes!”, you will mark the behavior as soon as it occurs and then treat.) Eventually, he will begin to sit automatically and the reinforcement will become the thing he wants (such as going out the door) instead of a treat. Build duration by withholding the treat for a second or two at first, and then longer and longer.

Here are the steps to polite greeting. Be sure to start in an area with low distractions, and build your dog’s behavior slowly. Your dog may be at a kindergarten level right now. Don’t expect college level results by setting him up to fail with distractions that are too great (such as with guests) until you have built up solid behavior. Be sure to train with an upbeat, positive attitude because your dog will feed off this and want to work with you.

Step 1. Practice in a distraction-free zone getting your dog to sit/stay at your side. Be sure to reward frequently with treats and enthusiastic praise to reinforce this behavior. He should also be offering eye contact while sitting. (This should be easy because you have just spent lots of time rewarding it, right?)

When he’s good at this you can add distractions (step 2).

Step 2. Start with your dog on leash at least 20 feet or more away from the distraction and ask for an immediate sit (eventually the sit should become automatic). Immediately reward. If he can’t sit calmly at this distance, increase it until he can. Your dog should not only be sitting, but also maintaining eye contact with you. Distractions can include a bowl with some treats, or a toy placed on the floor. These should be lower value at first (something your dog wants but is not overly crazy about), and increase the value as your dog improves.

Keep his attention by rewarding him frequently in the sit using treats and happy praise. (See video #1)

Step 3. After a moment, if he is still sitting, you can move a little closer and repeat the above steps. In the beginning of the training, only take one or two steps at a time before asking or waiting for a sit.

If your dog pulls at any time, he gets penalty yards. Move far enough away from the distraction to the point where he can again pay attention to you and choose the correct behaviors.

Continue this process until your dog is moving next to you, sitting immediately when you stop, and giving eye contact. The leash should always be loose. You need to give your dog a chance to choose the correct behavior, otherwise how will he learn? If he chooses incorrectly and pulls toward the distraction, the consequence will be to remove the potential reinforcement of or getting the treats or toy (or eventually getting to greet) by moving him further away before trying again. (See the article, “It’s Your Choice”.)

Step 4. When you are about 4 feet away from the distraction, stop. The leash should be shorter than this distance so your dog can’t self-reward and pull toward the distraction before you can control him by turning away; but it should always be loose. If your dog is calmly sitting, release him to go and get the toy, eat the treats in the bowl, or, eventually, greet.

ADDING A PERSON

Step 5. Start over at Step 1 and practice with a friend or neighbor who can stand still and not talk to your dog. That is a distraction that you will add later. You can speak with your friend/neighbor but don’t lose your connection with your dog. (Watch video #2)

If you get to Step 4 and your dog has not pulled or gotten up from the sit, you can release him and tell him to “go say hi”. If your dog begins to pull or jump, immediately turn and walk away to a point where he is able to focus on you.

Step 6. Within 3 seconds of the greeting, call your dog or lure him away with a treat so he does not have the opportunity to get over excited and jump up. Do not allow him to practice bad behaviors.

Remember to decrease the distance between your dog and the other person slowly. Your dog needs to be able to sit politely and pay attention before decreasing the distance to the distraction or the thing he wants.

Step 7. As he learns to sit calmly you will begin to increase the amount of time between treats and go closer before stopping and waiting for a sit. Eventually the reward is the greeting and no treats will be needed. You will also build in the added distraction of your friend speaking to your dog, first in a calm voice and then in a more excited tone.

Now that your dog can pay attention to you when he wants to greet, add in the sound of the doorbell or knocking, and then the person coming into the home. Alternatively, you should consider putting your dog in a comfortable room with a stuffed Kong until all your guests are settled, and then bring him out on leash, practicing his calm walking, sitting, and calm attention to you. When you and he are ready, give him permission for an abridged greeting to keep his arousal level low. If your dog is behaving calmly with your guests, you can either drop the leash (it’s there to step on if he starts acting too excited), or release him if you are confident of his behavior.

Enjoy your nice, calm companion! What a perfect gift for the holidays, or any time of year.

Tug-of-War: Do it right and keep it fun

Tug can build impulse control and awesome obedience skills!

First, forget the myth

For decades, dog owners have been told never to play tug-of-war with their dogs because it increases aggression in the dog. This isn’t true—every study done refutes the notion. Playing tug-of-war doesn’t turn your dog into a predator; he already is one. The game simply provides a safe and enjoyable outlet for the behavior.

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Why it’s a good idea

Tug-of-war is:

  • A tremendous cardio workout and brainteaser for your dog.
  • A great way to teach your dog to listen to commands even when excited and distracted.
  • Exercise that can happen indoors, outdoors, in short sessions, and with little space.
  • Likely to lessen any behavior problems resulting from under-stimulation and boredom.
  • A potent motivator for snappy obedience.

The caveat

Tug-of-war, however, should be correctly trained and always played by the rules. Remember: Control the game and you control the dog. Follow the method and rules laid out here, and you are in for a great time with your dog:

If your dog hoards the tug toy, show zero interest. If, when your dog “wins,” i.e. you let go of the tug toy, he leaves and hoards the toy, play hard to get. Never chase your dog or get into a battle involving speed or agility. You won’t win and psych-outs work much better, so pretend you couldn’t care less.

Notice and reward steps in the right direction. If your dog tries to re-engage you in the game by dropping the toy in front of you, praise him and try again. The goal is for your dog to learn that the tug toy is infinitely more fun when brought to life by you than when dead. Patience is key here, especially with inveterate hoarders.

Before playing tug-of-war

Put the release on command.

Decide on a release command such as “Out,” “Give,” or “Drop.” Before getting your dog excited about playing tug for the first time, practice some low-key exchanges with him. The sequence is:

  1. Give the cue to release
  2. Your dog releases
  3. Give a food reward
  4. Give the cue to re-take the toy

Teach this: Start by trading for a treat. Give your release cue first and then hold a treat at your dog’s nose; when your dog releases the toy he gets the treat. After enough repetitions, your dog will begin to release the toy after you have cued his release and before you have brought out the treat. Immediately reward this great behavior! At first the reward will be the treat, but over time the reward will be another fun game of tug.

Every game has penalties.

During actual tug-of-war games, apply the following penalties:

A 30-second time out. For any failure to release the tug toy, stop play and leave the room for 30 seconds.

End the game. For a game misconduct like grabbing your clothes or your hand with his mouth, stop the game altogether. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this was an accident. Dogs can have exquisite control and I don’t believe that mistakes happen often.

When your dog knows, loves, and is hooked on tug-of-war, ending the game abruptly is by far the most potent motivator against rule breaking.

The 4 tug-of-war rules.

1. Your dog has to release the tug toy on command.  Of course, you have thoroughly trained the release command, so any failure to  comply should result in a stop play penalty.

2. The game only happens when your dog is sitting and you say so. Designate a tug toy as the one-and-only tug toy, reserved for this game only. Decide on a take command such as “get it!”  Then teach your dog that he has to sit before being given permission to get the toy.

The easiest way to train this rule is to practice it while playing. Wait for or ask for a sit. Show your dog the toy. If your dog gets up or goes for the toy before you have released him with his “take it” cue, the toy goes out of his reach or behind your back. Stand neutrally, quietly and calmly and wait for him to sit again. Once he has, release him to get the toy and have a short fun tugging game. When he gets good at the game, add additional time he has to wait before he’s released to get it, and then add distractions, such as waving the toy near him or slapping it on the floor while he remains in the sit and waits patiently with anticipation and excitement.

This rule infraction is extremely common in tug-of-war games, so don’t sweep it under the rug. If your dog continually goes for another retake before being invited, or is extremely aroused and is jumping all over you instead of sitting and waiting, end the game for a short period of time.

Building impulse control, where your dog is reinforced for making a good choice, is   an important part of the “It’s Your Choice” lifetime program for your dog.  (Check out this previous blog article).

3. The game stops often for obedience breaks and calm behavior. Tug-of-war is one of the great recyclable rewards for obedience training. Alternate back and forth between the tug game and obedience to spot-check your control over your dog during the game and to teach him obedience when he is excited and distracted. This also teaches him to go from high arousal to a calmer behavior, which is an important concept for dogs to learn. Every initiation of the tug game is a potent reward you can use to select a particularly nice obedience response. Your dog will try fanatically hard to improve his obedience to get you to restart the game. For example, try using it as a valuable reinforcer for exercises such as coming when  called. What’s more, through repeated association over time, the two activities will blur in your dog’s mind, eventually making him love obedience training.

4. Zero tolerance of sloppy jaw control. Your dog will sometimes make contact with your hand or other part of you. Sometimes he might even latch on to you or your clothing as though you were a tug toy. Don’t let this go unnoticed. Screech “Ouch!” even if it didn’t hurt and abruptly end the game. This is game misconduct every time. Dogs can control their jaws with great precision if given a reason to do so. (Don’t use the loud “Ouch!” if it excites your dog more.)  With this rule you not only remind your dog of the sensitivity of human skin and the great necessity to keep his jaws off people at all times, you have also trained this while he is excited.

That’s it. Now have fun with it.

If your dog isn’t breaking any of the rules, let him get as excited as he wants. This includes head shaking, strong tugging, and growling. But maintain the rules through constant practice and testing.

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

A powerful tool to change your dog’s behavior.

This morning, after a ferocious clap of thunder, I was reminded of the power of classical conditioning.  Most of us know the story of how Ivan Pavlov in 1902 showed how classical conditioning can be used to make a dog salivate to the sound of a bell. Every time a bell was rung the dogs in his lab got food. After a number of repetitions of this procedure, the ringing of the bell caused the dogs to salivate even before the food was presented. The dogs had learned to associate the bell with the food. This response was learned, or conditioned, so it is called a conditioned response.

Pavlov also discovered that for the association to be made, the two stimuli had to be paired together closely in time. For all of you science wonks out there, this is how it works.

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Every time your dog runs into the kitchen at the sound of his bowl because he knows it’s dinner, gets excited when you pick up the leash because he associates it with a walk, gets anxious when you pick up your car keys and purse because he know you’re about to leave, gets happy when you pick up the clicker because he knows a training session is about to begin, or growls and barks at another dog because one time he was attacked, are all examples of classical conditioning.

So what does all of this have to do with thunder? In some dogs the sound of thunder may send them cowering under the coffee table. Early life experiences can contribute to sound sensitivity.  Very young puppies have little or no fear of novel sounds and experiences. From 3 weeks to about 8 weeks of age is an ideal time to introduce puppies to all kinds of sounds. Sounds they hear at this age, especially paired with something positive, will most likely not be scary later. As they get older, fear can increase. Puppies that are given early and positive experiences of novel sights and sounds are less likely to develop problems down the road.

Desensitization, gradually increasing the intensity of the stimulus while keeping the dog below the fear threshold, is often paired with classical counter conditioning (changing the association of the sound or event from a negative to a positive). Together they can help restore a sound sensitive dog’s confidence. This entails exposing the dog to the upsetting noise in gradually increasing increments while providing him with positive reinforcement such as high-value food.

Here is an illuminating video on counter conditioning, or changing an association from a negative to a positive experience.

So what did my 7 year old border collie Decker do when that loud clap of thunder reverberated through the house this morning? He got excited and began to search for a toy. Odd behavior, right? Nope. From the earliest moment that I brought Decker home, every time it thundered, which is often in south Florida during the summer, I would become very excited and animated, quickly grab a toy and engage him in a short game of tug, one of his highest valued activities. Over a short period of time, he associated the peal of thunder with something fun, and actively searched out a toy to play with me. Preventing a problem, not waiting to treat one, is classical conditioning at its best. Thanks, Pavlov!

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Decker waiting for a toy.

If your dog is suffering from a behavior problem, consult a behaviorist or a trainer who is familiar with working with phobias and fears.