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.
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.
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.
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:
You’re out with your puppy and pass your neighbor’s house.
You see your neighbor about to press the garage door opener.
You wait for her to press the button.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Why it’s a good idea
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.
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:
Give the cue to release
Your dog releases
Give a food reward
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 this sound like the situation in your house? If the front door is open, your dog bolts through it. If you leave some food on the counter for 5 seconds, you dog jumps up and eats it. If you open the car door to get your dog out, he tries to jump out onto a busy street. Unless you constantly reprimand your dog (“No!”) or frantically try to grab him he does not behave as well as you would like.
You can change those behaviors! It’s Your Choice (IYC), a phrase coined by noted trainer Susan Garrett, is about controlling the consequences of your dog’s choices rather than trying to control the dog. We start small and teach the dog she or he always has a choice. If your dog chooses correctly when working with you, good consequences will follow (the chance for reinforcement). If the dog makes an inappropriate choice, the consequences will be clear (no reinforcement). But the consequences will never be a function of you trying to coach or intimidate your dog in any way. In the end we teach the dog self control rather then imposed control.
A dog with self control has learned to have impulse control when in stimulating environments. Rather than leave you to chase the squirrel, steal a toy, or investigate every crumb that may be on the ground, the dog will play your game knowing rewards will be earned contingent upon following your rules. The It’s Your Choice game starts out teaching your dog to make easy decisions when faced with a chance to steal rewards. Building upon successes, you can grow this game into any form of distraction training you can imagine.
Eventually your dog’s impulse control becomes so brilliant, you can trust her or him unsupervised with a roast on the kitchen counter within reach, or not to grab the chicken bones found on the street or in the trash. The dog will learn to want to make the right choice. This is self control and does not require your eagle eye scouting every training horizon for distractions that may cause your dog to leave you in search of alternate rewards.
Choosing correctly earns the dog the reinforcement and teaches a strong foundation for self control. The dog learns to control himself. If an incorrect choice is made we control the reinforcement (not the dog); we prevent access to the reinforcement if the dog makes an incorrect choice.
For example, if your dog is sitting at the door (a good choice) and he gets up as the door opens (a poor choice), the reinforcement goes away. What is the reinforcement? It’s the chance to go out the door. How do we remove the reinforcement for this bad choice? It’s simply that the door closes. Your dog quickly learns that in order to exit the door, the butt needs to stay planted on the ground. There is no need to keep telling the dog what to do such as “stay” or “no” when he tries to go out the door. The consequence of his actions teaches him very clearly.
Here’s a video illustrating a simple way to start teaching your dog good impulse control. This is Bryn, a 9 week old puppy. Notice how she works through her desire to get the treats out of my hand.
These are the rules to follow when playing the IYC game.
Don’t move your hand (unless the pawing or chewing on your hand are painful);
Give your dog a treat out of your hand only if he is not moving toward your hand and is patiently waiting (reinforcing the good behavior you are building);
Quickly close your hand (removing access to reinforcment) as a consequence of your dog moving toward it.
Try to stay silent and give your dog a chance to think about the consequences of his choices. The time to speak is to cue your dog to get the treat when you reward him for making good choices (using”get it” for example).
Now go and try this with your dog and start building a strong foundation of self control!