Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The dogs’ behavior is fascinating
The kinship I feel with dog lovers allows me to share the following with no concern that any of you would fail to understand: Yesterday I was in need of an emotional pick-me-up, but I was short on time, so I wandered over to YouTube to look for a dog video that would quickly make smiling a sure thing.
The first video I came to was called “Dogs Welcoming Soldiers Home” and I watched it once just for pleasure, enjoying the reunions. I especially loved the Great Dane at about 1:20 because a Great Dane on its hind legs is always a striking image and because this was my childhood breed.
Then, I couldn’t help myself, and I watched the video again. This time, I observed the dogs carefully the way I do when I am working. Several aspects of the dogs’ behavior interested me.
The most obvious behavior was also the least surprising. These dogs were exuberant, leaping and spinning (presumably joyfully) when greeting their returning soldier guardians. They were out of control in the best possible way.
They were so revved up that energy was exploding out of them, and that included vocalizations. Many of these dogs were whimpering and whining and making other loud sounds, but not barking. It’s hard to say what all these vocalizations mean, but I feel comfortable saying that they were likely indicative of dogs feeling intense emotions. The sounds they made seemed very expressive to me, even though I can’t claim to know precisely what they were expressing. It is interesting to me that so many of the dogs made these sounds. Since this was a compilation video, it is possible that the loudest dogs were chosen because the person who compiled the clips found these sounds interesting, as do I.
The close physical contact that the dogs sought with the people was fascinating. The dogs generally seemed not to be able to get close enough to the people. Many of them seemed to be pressing their bodies against the people in a way that’s not typical. Primates, including humans, often seek out the ventral-ventral (bellies together) contact of hugs, but it’s not very common dog behavior. Even most dogs who jump are more likely to make contact with just their paws rather than with their bodies.
In other contexts, such as cuddling on the couch or floor, many dogs do seek close contact, but that is more often lying next to or on top of people, rather than behavior that looks more like a human hug. These dogs were not resisting hugs and being picked up the way many dogs often do, but seemed quite comfortable with those human actions. (A few even jumped into the soldier’s arms.) One exception is the Golden Retriever at about 4 minutes who tolerates but doesn’t love the prolonged hug from behind. Even this dog soon settles in and seems somewhat more comfortable with full contact with the person in a slightly different position.
The most surprising behaviors I noticed were the tail wags. It has been well documented that dogs experiencing positive emotions tend to wag their tail higher to the right, and the study found that to be particularly true of dogs greeting their guardians. I would have expected dogs to be so joyous when greeting a guardian after a long absence that their tail wags would be to the right. Yet, in this video, many of the dogs exhibited left-biased tail wags, which I found curious. Certainly, the dogs seemed happy to see the people. After all, their enthusiasm is what makes this video so wonderful in the first place.
I can only speculate about why left-biased tail wags were so prevalent in this video. Dogs cannot understand the concept of deployment, and since most of these service members were probably gone for about a year, it’s likely that the dogs were surprised to see them again. It is my belief that many dogs whose guardians are gone for extended periods of time have already grieved for these people as though they are gone forever, which could make their return wonderful, but also startling. Perhaps confusion or shock factored into the emotions of the dogs enough to counteract the joy of the reunion that I thought would lead to right-biased tail wags.
If you have had an extended separation because of military service or any other reason, what was your reunion with your dog like?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s not news, but it is science
I hardly think it will be a shock to anyone reading this, but according to a recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, positive training techniques are better than negative methods. Specifically, they promote less stress in the dog, and are better for the dog-person relationship.
A soon-to-be published study called “Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog-owner relationship” supports the beliefs of many trainers, behaviorists and guardians that there are substantial advantages to training with positive reinforcement.
In this preliminary study, researchers compared the behavior of dogs being training with positive reinforcement (desired behavior results in the appearance of something positive such as a treat or toy) to those being trained with the use of negative reinforcement (desired behavior results in the disappearance of something negative such as pressure on the leash or body). The data were collected in advanced dog training classes at two different training centers and the behaviors of interest were sitting and walking nicely on a leash.
The dogs being trained with negative reinforcement performed more behaviors that indicate stress in dogs (such as licking their mouths and yawning) and more lowered body postures (the tail down and either the ears lowered or the legs bent in a crouching posture) than dogs being trained with positive reinforcement. The dogs trained with positive reinforcement gazed at their guardians more often than the dogs trained with negative reinforcement. This suggests a stronger connection in those pairs, although the authors acknowledge that those gazes could be a result of dog looking for the reinforcement.
The researchers conclude that positive training techniques are less stressful for dogs and likely better for their well being. This matches my experience with dogs and the people training them. How about you?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The trick is in the voice
“Are you such a good dog? Can my sweet girl wag her tail!” It’s lovely to see a dog respond to these questions with a great big tail wag. It’s even more charming if she can take it a step further by performing one of my all time favorite behaviors. Here’s a description of the next step.
The person continues by saying, “Now listen very carefully because instead of wagging your whole tail, I want you to wag just the white part.” When the dog wags just the white part at the tip of her tail, it’s a real crowd pleaser.
Of course, this particular format of the trick requires that the dog’s tail is white at the tip only, and that is only true of some dogs. For dogs whose tail has no white at the end, you need to change your phrasing, perhaps saying, “Wag just the tip” or “Now just give me a little wag” but the dog’s behavior is the same.
It is possible to train a dog to wag her tail in response to the cue “Wag your tail” and to wag only the tip of the tail when she hears, “Just the white part.” However, some dogs will perform the behavior you want without really being trained to do so. The secret is in the enthusiasm of the person’s voice. When you say something along the lines of “Are you such a good dog? Can my sweet girl wag her tail!”, you need to say it in the overly exuberant manner that we all have when praising or greeting our dogs. It’s that enthusiasm that is going to make your dog wag her tail whether she’s been trained to do it on cue or not.
Then, to elicit the small, just-the-tip tail wag, you completely change your tone of voice, becoming very serious and talking more slowly, quietly and slightly deeper. So, when you say, “Now listen very carefully because instead of wagging your whole tail, I want you to wag just the white part”, the key is not what you say, but how you say it. Many dogs will respond to the change in your energy level by dialing back their tail wag to a less lively one, and for dogs with a white-tipped tail, that makes it look like they are cleverly responding to your instructions to wag only the white part.
Some dogs reliably do this the first time and every time, but in other cases, it takes some trial and error to figure out exactly what tone of voice and level of enthusiasm prompt the dog to exhibit the right amount of tail wagging for each part of this trick.
How does your dog’s tail respond when you vary your tone of voice and level of enthusiasm? Do you have a wag-the-white-part (or a wag-just-the-tip) dog?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Making this challenge more manageable
“I would walk my dogs more often if they acted like that!” the man said as Lucy, Baxter and I passed him on the sidewalk in my neighborhood. Both dogs were walking calmly, one on either side of me. They were relaxed, their leashes were loose, and it was a pleasant walk for all of us. While I was dogsitting for them, I was happy to take them out for two long walks a day and some round-the-block-to-pee outings.
It’s fun to take dogs out when they are well behaved, but the sad truth is that if it is miserable to take dogs out for a walk, those walks don’t happen as often as they should. That’s especially true if multiple dogs are involved. After all, it’s one thing to have a single dog pulling you around the neighborhood, but it’s far worse when it feels like a complete sled dog team is putting their muscle into hauling you around. It’s no fun and it’s not safe, especially in winter if you live where there is snow and ice.
The good news is that there are various ways to improve your experience when walking multiple dogs. I like to place the options in two different categories in my mind. Some are short-term solutions and others are for the long term.
One way to make your walks with more than one dog more enjoyable is to change the equipment you are using. Just adding head collars such as the Gentle Leader or the Snoot Loop can make a huge difference. These collars fit over the nose of your dog and act very much like halters on horses. When fit properly, it’s like having power steering for your dogs, and they have helped many people have control over their dogs in a gentle humane way. Another option is the Easy Walk Harness, which also puts physics on your side so that dogs are unable to pull as they can with basic flat collars. I don’t recommend prong collars or choke chains because they can injure and scare dogs.
Before taking all your dogs out on walks with any new equipment, I recommend taking each one alone at least once. These various collars and harnesses are not difficult to use, but it’s sensible to get the feel of walking each dog with something new before trying it en masse. Taking dogs out one at a time allows you to concentrate on how each individual is adjusting and reacting to the change. If you need to make an adjustment to make it fit better, it’s easier to handle that without the rest of the crew.
Walking one dog is easier than walking two, three, four or more, and another short-term option is walking the dogs one at a time. While this is less efficient and results in either more time walking for the humans or less time walking for each dog, it is still preferable to nobody getting a walk. There are people who adopt this strategy permanently, but for most people, it’s just a way to give dogs exercise while working up to walking dogs together once again.
Working towards group walks means training! It may not be intuitive, but if dogs are to be expected to walk nicely on leashes, they have to be taught to do so. Just like any other skill, it takes practice for your dogs to learn and perfect. It is best to work on training each dog in individual sessions before working with them all simultaneously.
The first step in training a dog to walk nicely beside you is to encourage him to be by your side and reinforce him when he’s in the right spot. In an open area with no other dogs present such as a fenced-in yard, let your dog know that you have tasty treats (or a ball or squeaky toy if your dog prefers toys over treats) and then help him earn them every time he walks beside you. Click your tongue, smooch, slap your leg, or wave a treat next to you, and let him have the goodies for taking a stride or two next to you. If he gets ahead of you, turn around and treat him for catching up. Make sure to give him the treats when he is next to you rather than in front of you since you are teaching him it’s fun to walk next to you, NOT that’s it’s fun to be out in front. The goal is to be interesting to your dog so that he wants to be next to you. Changing your speed and direction will make you more interesting to most dogs, so make sure you speed up, slow down and make a lot of turns.
Once the first step is going well, the next step is to teach your dog that it’s fun to pay attention to you and that wonderful things will happen if he decides on his own to join you and walk next to you. In a safe open area, walk in big circles. Resist the urge to help your dog attend to you. The idea is to teach him that he will be glad if he decides to walk next to you, and he can’t learn that lesson as effectively if you encourage him in any way. The goal is for him to learn that choosing you over everything else in the environment will result in good things for him. It’s important to use high quality treats and reinforce your dog for making good decisions about his behavior and attention.
The third step is to add a leash and go on a walk to work on this behavior. Shower him with treats every time he is in the right position. If he is behind you, encourage him to catch up and reinforce him for doing so. If he gets ahead of you, turn around so that he has the opportunity to catch up to you and receive treats. This is a good time to add in the cue “heel” so that eventually you can cue him to perform this behavior. Say “heel” every time you move forward when he is by your side. Heeling is not easy for dogs, so make sure to give a lot of treats in these early stages of training. Giving too few treats is one of the most common mistakes of novice trainers. Remember to be generous like experienced trainers are! Later, you can reduce the frequency of treats. Intersperse short sessions of heeling on the walk, relying on your equipment in the interim periods to prevent your dog from pulling. Most dogs require lots of practice before perfecting this skill, and many short sessions are more effective than a single longer one.
The last step is to put your dogs together and walk as a group. If you have many dogs, you may need to start with pairs of dogs, then triples and then work up to the whole canine family walking together. Some people find that walking all of their dogs on one side works best, but others have an easier time with one dog on one side and one or more dogs on the other. Only you can decide what is best for you and your dogs, but it’s a good idea to observe your dogs to help figure out the best option. Sometimes a dog is uncomfortable walking beside a particular dog and it makes sense to honor that and adjust positions accordingly.
I enjoyed all my walks with Lucy and Baxter, and that’s what I wish for anyone, whether they have more than one dog or not. The combination of equipment that helps eliminate pulling and training dogs to heel should make walking your dogs a recreational activity instead of it feeling like a grueling endurance event.
News: Guest Posts
Does it smell weird in here to you?
You know what I’m talking about. That nagging feeling that something smells “different,” but you just can’t put a finger on it. This has been my life for the last three days. Day after day, I’d enter the living room and think, “Did it always smell like that in here? It smells different, right? What is that!?”
On the fourth day, I finally sat down on the couch to read a book. On the coffee table before me sat a bowl of chestnuts. They had yet to be roasted. “Chestnuts don’t have a smell,” I thought. To the right of the chestnuts, the remote. Electronics, also void of smell (although my Game Boy got moldy, and that smelled). Then, I saw it. Next to the remote sat the biggest, most obvious thing on the table, the centerpiece you might say. A large, overripe cantaloupe. It had been there for 6 days and with the radiator pumping out heat (because it is so cold!), the cantaloupe was starting to mush, and that mush was permeating the air and my nostrils. How could I miss it? It was the most prominent thing in the room. Yet day after day, I missed that the gnarly cantaloupe was behind the new stench.
That’s how I feel about dogs. Not that they are starting to smell (although some of them might be), but that despite them being major parts of our lives, we can overlook the important bits.
I left 2013 by posing a question: How Well Do You Know Your Dog? Part 1. The answer: If judging by smell, you know your dog pretty well. In one study, people could identify the smell of their dog compared to an unknown dog in a “smell test.” I finished Part 1 suggesting that while we might be attuned to some nuanced bits of our dogs — like their smell — we’re not attuned to all parts of them, like behavior. I’ll explain.
Is Snoopy happy?
We know happy! But…
But fear was different. Study participants who were dog professionals did a better job identifying fear compared to both dog owners and people with little dog experience. The authors suggest that “professional experience with dogs aids proficiency in interpretations of fearful behavior.” It didn’t matter how many years the dog professionals had spent working with dogs; they had the same proficiency in identifying fear.
So why did dog professionals do so much better in identifying fear? One reason could be that professionals looked at more dog body parts for clues, such as the eyes, ears, mouth and tongue, while non-professionals looked at fewer body parts, focusing primarily on legs, paws and tails. More details in the figure provided by Wan et al. (2012).
The researchers summarize: “The results of the current study are among the first to demonstrate that the perception of an emotion in dogs can be associated with human observers’ level of dog experience.”
While many of us love dogs to pieces (Buzzfeed reminds me of this on a daily basis), noticing and interpreting their subtle behaviors can take practice. That’s okay! Behavior observation can be learned.
Keeping an eye out for fear
What does fear look like? It can include a wide variety of body parts and body postures. Wan and colleagues explain, “…fearful dogs are said to reduce their body size – crouching into a low posture, flattening their ears, and holding their tails in a low position. Shaking, yawning, salivation, freezing, panting, paw-lifting, and vocalizing are examples of other behaviors that have been associated with fear in dogs.”
Maybe, in certain contexts, you notice fearful behaviors in your own dog and want to help decrease it. Like gymnasts, fear is flexible. Just as dogs can sensitize to stimuli, so too can they habituate. With classical- and operant-conditioning techniques, behavior management, and maybe some professional assistance (see below), dogs can have a modified outlook on life. What does a modified outlook look like? Check out Masey’s progress over at Reactive Champion.
Sometimes we just can’t piece it together that the cantaloupe smells. But of course, a trained fruit expert would exclaim, “Julie! Your cantaloupe is rotting.” You see where I’m going with this. Sometimes dogs are fearful, and the clues are right in front of us, like a rotting cantaloupe. Learn to recognize dog fear behavior. This is a blog about dogs after all. Not cantaloupe.
Photo: a muddy dog…..is a happy dog via bambe1964; National. Flickr Creative Commons
References & Recommended Reading
This article first appeared on DogSpies, Scientific American. Used with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tips for helping your dog “go” this season
“Help! My dog won’t “go” in the snow!” Some dogs hold it so long that it’s worrisome and others simply choose to go inside the house, even if this is something they would never do when the weather is more to their liking. Elimination problems when there is snow are common, especially for dogs who have never been in snow and for small dogs who struggle with cold to any degree. There are likely at least two reasons why dogs show a reluctance to eliminate when snow covers the ground.
Most dogs learn at a very young age what surfaces are appropriate for bathroom use. While still puppies, they experience certain substrates such as grass, leaves, concrete, or indoor training pads or litters, and those are what they are likely to prefer for the rest of their lives. When dogs encounter snow, they often just don’t know that it is okay to eliminate on it. Puppies who learn their housetraining skills during a snowy winter are far less likely to have this problem. So, even though I consider raising a puppy in winter to have its miseries, an advantage is that the dog is less likely to balk at eliminating in the snow each winter.
Another issue for dogs with the snow is the obvious one—it’s cold! There is the cold air itself and also the cold snow on their paws (and on their legs and bellies in some cases!) For dogs unfamiliar with snow, especially small dogs who are not fans of cold under any circumstances, they simply hate the feeling of cold and snow. This makes them resistant to head out at all, and unable to relax enough to go once they are outside, which is perfectly understandable.
Luckily, they are ways to help your dog so that eliminating in the winter is still something that happens on the ground outside rather than on the carpet inside. One method that many use is shoveling out a patch of grass for them along with a path from the door to the potty area. I’ve had clients who have tried to minimize the work involved by shoveling a path to an area protected from the snow such as under a balcony or even under a trampoline. Most dogs are more likely to head out to take care of business if it’s easier to walk there and if there is a snow-free area available to them.
Many dogs do better if you go out with them. Not everybody wants to head out with their dogs in freezing temperatures to wade through the snow together, but if you find that it leads to success, it may be worth it to you. In some cases, several outings may be required. You can go out with your dog, and if he doesn’t eliminate within 5-10 minutes, take him inside with you, keeping him right with you on leash so he can’t sneak off and “go” in the house. After another 5-10 minutes, head outside together to try again. You can repeat this many times, and though it takes considerable effort, it does work for most dogs.
Some dogs struggle the most to eliminate in the yard when it’s snowy, but do better on walks through the neighborhood. If it’s not so cold that your dog’s paws can’t take it, walks may inspire your dog to eliminate. Being away from the yard is helpful, and the activity may make your dog’s need to go more urgent. Leading your dog to areas where other dogs have already gone (yellow snow has its benefits!) may encourage your dog, too.
Training your dog to eliminate on cue has helped many dogs potty in all sorts of new and confusing situations, including snow, but it’s most helpful to teach your dog this skill before the weather is working against you. There are two steps to this training process:
1) Reinforce elimination behavior by giving your dog a really great treat every time he pees or poops. Don’t wait until your dog comes running back to the house to give him the treat or he’ll think he earned the treat by running over to you. Stand right near him as he goes and give him the treat the instant he is done eliminating so he connects going potty with receiving a treat.
2) Once you have done this many times and he begins to look at you expectantly for that treat after eliminating, add in the cue. Take him outside as usual to eliminate and give the cue you want to use to tell him to eliminate, making sure to say it before he goes. Common cues are “Hurry Up”, “Get Busy” and “Go Potty.” With enough practice, a dog will learn that when you say the cue, he should take care of business. Continue to reinforce him with treats once you have added in the cue so that he knows he did the right thing and is happy that he did.
Once your dog can eliminate on cue, you can give him the cue in situations where he might not be sure that the area is acceptable, such as in snow or in a rocky area without grass. It’s just one more way that specific training allows you to communicate with your dog and make it easier for him to understand what to do.
Does your dog resist going potty in the snow? If so, how have you handled it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
They respond to photos of familiar faces
You know your dog knows who you are, right? That enthusiastic greeting when you come home is proof positive that he recognizes you. But what clues him in to your identity—the sound of your footsteps, your voice, your unique smell, that palpable charm? That may all be possible, but recent evidence suggests that dogs can actually recognize faces.
The ability to recognize faces is important for social animals. When living in a group, identifying individual members and being able to distinguish them from one another is essential for keeping track of specific social interactions. For dogs as well as humans, this skill is highly developed.
In a recent study called How dogs scan familiar and inverted faces: an eye movement study published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers investigated facial recognition in the domestic dog. They concluded that:
These results are similar to those found when studying humans and other primates with the same technique used in this study—tracking eye movement. Across the many species that have been studied previously, primates are more interested and spend more time looking at faces of members of their own species. Similarly, primates look at the eyes of faces, just as dogs did.
This study also investigated dogs’ responses to faces that are shown upside down. Such inversions are interesting to cognitive scientists because there is evidence in other species that inverted faces are not processed the same way as faces that are oriented in the normal way.
Humans are able to identify faces quickly and accurately because we have a mechanism to identify faces that is separate from the system used to identify other sorts of objects. The face is looked at as a complete structure with tiny differences in the configuration of its parts rather than as separate parts as we do with other objects. When faces are upside down, the process of facial recognition is disrupted and we are forced to identify the face as we would other objects, as parts that must be looked at and evaluated individually rather than as a whole. The facial recognition that is usually so effective doesn’t work well on inverted faces. They are processed as other sorts of objects are—piece by piece—rather than as an integrated whole, which is why we are not as good at identifying faces in this way.
Dogs, according to this study, fixate on upside down faces longer, suggesting that it is more difficult for them to identify them than when they are upright. They do spend a lot of time looking at the eyes even in upside down faces, which suggests that they do recognize these images as faces despite their position.
Because dogs have lived with humans for so long, they provide an interesting model for studying facial recognition since they are adept at identifying individual faces in their own as well as in our species.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It influences their orientation during elimination
A new study called Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field published in the Journal Frontiers in Zoology has demonstrated that dogs can sense and respond to magnetic fields. It is the first time that this has been shown in this species. Researchers found a measurable change in behavior based on the conditions of the magnetic field.
Specifically, they found that under certain conditions, dogs choose to pee and poop with their bodies aligned along the north-south axis and avoided orientation along the east-west axis. They studied 70 dogs from 37 different breeds over a two-year period, observing 1893 defecations and 5582 urinations. Observations were all made while the dogs were off leash and in open fields so that they were not influenced by walls, fences, fire hydrants or other objects.
The researchers collected data on dog directionality (and hopefully all the poop, too) and found that the way dogs face is not just a matter of chance. They ruled out such factors as time of day, angle of the sun and wind conditions. Their analysis found that the Earth’s magnetic field explained dogs’ orientation when doing their business. Interestingly, the pattern only emerged when the magnetic field was stable, which was only about 30 percent of the time. The Earth’s magnetic field can become unstable due to such factors as the variation in solar winds and the sun’s magnetic field. During such periods of instability, dogs did not show a preference for aligning themselves along the north-south axis and oriented randomly.
This research has been written about extensively in the media, possibly because any scientific research that involves potty talk is inherently amusing to journalists. Though the behavior that the researchers studied was elimination, to focus on that is to miss what’s really important about the study.
What I think is so fascinating is the revelation that dogs are able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field and that their behavior is influenced by it. It has been known for a long time that dog senses, particularly the sense of smell, mean that they are responsive to stimuli that we humans aren’t aware of, but the fact that dogs can act, in some manner, as though they have an internal compass is just as fascinating.
Previous studies have found that cattle, deer and foxes sometimes align their bodies with respect to the magnetic field. Sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field has previously been demonstrated in species that migrate such as birds and whales, and also in honey bees, whose navigational abilities are legendary.
Of course, people have long asserted that dogs can find their way exceptionally well, and I’ve even known people who said that it was like their dogs had internal compasses. Finding out that dogs can in fact sense the Earth’s magnetic field, just as compasses can, makes their navigational abilities perhaps more understandable, but no less extraordinary. It was in part dogs’ remarkable homing abilities that made the researchers suspect that dogs might be sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field in the first place.
Why dogs are choosing to orient themselves in this way is the big question, and hopefully future research will pursue it. I look forward to seeing research on that subject as well as experiments investigating other canine behaviors that may be influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s more than just a cute trick
Years ago I taught my dog Bugsy to “back up” with the intention of adding it to his trick repertoire. It means just what it sounds like—to move away by taking steps backwards. My dog already knew how to crawl, wave, high-five, spin, shake, rollover, bow, and sit pretty, but I was searching for something new to teach him. I remembered seeing horses do this on cue and finding it adorable. I decided it would be Bugsy’s next trick, but I never imagined how useful it would be.
It began as a trick, which are behaviors I ask dogs to do on cue just for fun, but I began to use it functionally in an ever-increasing number of contexts. Bugsy already had a solid “stay” and knew how to “wait” (pause and refrain from going forward until given permission) when asked. Still, there were many situations in which telling him to “back up” was more helpful.
Dogs can sometimes get in the way, and asking them to “back up” solves the problem. I’m thinking of situations such as when I’m trying to open the front door, the pantry or the fridge and there are many pounds of lovable canine filing the space I need.
Being able to tell a dog to back away from a trash can, the dishwasher, another dog’s food bowl, a toy, or anything found on a walk that looks gross or even dangerous is so useful. It’s true that the cue “leave it” will also work in those contexts. However, having a dogs create physical distance between themselves and the forbidden object sometimes helps them resist temptation. “Leave it” only tells most dogs that they may not grab something, but it gives them no help deciding what to do instead. The cue to “back up” instructs them with a specific incompatible behavior to perform. (A dog cannot simultaneously approach the dishes in the dishwasher and back away from them.)
There’s really no end to the situations in which asking your dog to “back up” is useful. I’ve used it when I need a dog to move away from a child or a person who does not love dogs, out of a crowded kitchen, out of my way as I carry a large pile of blankets that prevents me from seeing where I am stepping, away from a freshly painted fence, away from a swinging door, a swing or a car door, and away from an intersection with skateboarders flying by too close for comfort. I’ve asked dogs who were carrying large sticks to back away from people just for safety’s sake, and I’ve used this cue to tell a dog to increase the distance between himself and another dog if I see trouble brewing. It is endlessly practical, and I soon found myself using it way more often than wait or stay.
In addition to its great practicality, “back up” has the appeal of being relatively easy to teach. Start with your dog standing in front of you and attending to you. Move toward your dog calmly. When he takes a step backward, reinforce immediately with a click/treat or a treat. For some dogs, a couple of steps in their direction work best but for other dogs, a slight lean is most effective.
Continue to reinforce your dog for taking a step backward until he is doing it reliably. Then, continue moving toward your dog until he has taken more than one step backwards. Reinforce him for multiple steps. Once he understands that backing up is a way to earn treats, say the cue “back up” before moving toward him, and reinforce him for responding appropriately. With practice you can phase out the motion towards him so that he is backing up in response to the cue alone. You can use a visual cue such as extending your arm towards him instead of the verbal cue or in addition to it.
I use the verbal cue “back up” for this behavior, but other trainers use different ones. A few common cues for this same behavior are “back out”, “get back” and “beep beep.” Any of these cues will work equally well, so choose the one that you like best, keeping in mind that it’s best to avoid using a cue that sounds similar to any cues that your dog already knows for any other behaviors.
Some dogs will respond to your motion towards them by sitting down or by turning around. If your dog is a sitter during this training, try holding a treat a few inches over his head and moving it towards his back end slowly. This causes most dogs to step back rather than sit, and you can then reinforce the behavior. If your dog’s tendency is to turn, try to train him in a narrow hallway or between two large pieces of furniture so that there’s not enough room for him to turn around. Presented with such an obstacle, most dogs will try to back up as an alternative, providing you with an opportunity to reinforce the behavior you are looking for.
Does your dog have a cue that means to back up, and if so, when do you use it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Her own qualities helped her survive
A few days ago, Crosby the Golden Retriever was rescued from the Charles River by officers in the Wellesley Police Department. Crosby had fallen through the ice and was unable to return to shore. The ice was too thick for her to break through and swim for safety. It was too thin to support her weight and allow her to walk to shore, even if she had been able to climb onto the ice from the water.
Officers in cold-water survival suits swam out to her and hauled her 50 yards back to shore. Without their help, she is unlikely to have survived. She was swimming back and forth in the freezing water when rescuers arrived and without help, she would have been at great risk of drowning due to hypothermia, exhaustion, or a combination of the two.
When I watch the video of her rescue, I see many factors that helped Crosby to survive. The rapid response, skills, and equipment of the police department obviously played a critical role. The technology that allowed the guardian’s location to be pinpointed from her 911 call was also important.
As a canine behaviorist, what I notice most is how the dog’s own qualities played an important part in her survival. Specifically, I observed that this dog was fit, emotionally stable, and social, all of which contributed to the success of a challenging rescue.
Fitness. Swimming in freezing water is exhausting. We don’t know how long Crosby was in the river. It wasn’t long enough for her to freeze, but it was long enough for her guardian to call for help, for police officers to arrive, to prepare for the rescue and to reach her 50 yards from shore. Some dogs would not have had the physical abilities required to stay above the surface that long, so Crosby’s fitness was a huge asset in this emergency situation.
Emotional stability. Nobody could watch the video and claim that Crosby looked happy at any point, but she did not seem panicked either. She was calm in the water before she was rescued, while the officers pulled her to shore and afterwards as she was dried off and entered the vehicle. It’s hard to imagine that she wasn’t frightened, but she held it together. If she had freaked out, it would have been entirely understandable, but it would have made her rescue less likely. A dog (or a person) who is too emotionally distressed is less able to cope with immediate dangers. Because she was able to stay calm, she helped herself stay afloat until she was rescued.
Social. By social, I’m not referring to dogs who are wag-the-back-end-off-during-greetings friendly. I just mean dogs who are comfortable around strangers. Dogs who are not social enough in this way may shy away from rescuers. Tragically, this is a real issue for dogs in water catastrophes and in fires and also for those who flee after car accidents. Crosby was clearly at ease with the strangers helping her in the water, and the one on land drying her off so she could begin to warm up. Even a dog who is frightened of people may be scared enough in an emergency situation to allow them to help. However, a dog like Crosby who is social will almost surely be able to accept the help of people working to rescue her.
I’m not taking anything away from the skills of the police officers who rescued Crosby. They performed an exemplary rescue of a dog who was in real danger. It’s just that I can’t help but observe that Crosby made the rescue just a little bit easier than it might have been with a dog who was not so fit, emotionally stable or social.
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