Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The source of a lifetime of learning
As I write this, I have just come back from a day at the 2011 World Herding Dog Trials in northern England. I was in the UK once many years ago, watching the International Sheepdog Trials. I was just getting started with sheepdogs and had not yet begun to work as a behaviorist. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot, and I hope to learn a lot more in the future. But the lessons I’ve been taught by herding dogs are as timeless as they are valuable, and are a fitting subject for my last regular column for The Bark.
Rewind the video to 1981, and imagine a dog and a sheep, nose to nose. Kate, a tiny, all-black Border Collie, and Number 437, a fluffy, white Cheviot sheep, are having a discussion about where the ewe should go next. This is where it all started for me: watching a Border Collie face-off with a sheep who had no intention of backing up.
Still in school, searching for a topic for a senior honors thesis at the University of Madison, I tumbled into the world of sheepherding much like Alice fell down the rabbit hole. Dr. Jeffrey Baylis, the professor who later became my dissertation advisor, suggested that I investigate a “natural form” of communication between humans and other animals rather than communication with dolphins as I had initially suggested.
Days later, I stood in a field a few miles north of Madison and watched Kate streak away from trainer/handler Jack Knox toward a flock of sheep on a far hill. As is so often true for each of us, I didn’t know that this one brief moment would change my life. All I was aware of at the time was the way my heart swelled as I watched the little dog run in a wide, sweeping circle up an emerald-green hill, stopping behind a cloud of wooly white sheep. I thought I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Thirty years later, I haven’t changed my mind.
It was sheepdogs who got me started in dog training and behavior, and sheepdogs who continue to inspire and instruct me. Herding may be a relatively rare activity — it’s hard to raise a flock of sheep in downtown Chicago — but its lessons are relevant to anyone who loves dogs. I offer them here in the hope that, in some way, they will mean as much to you as they have to me.
First, and perhaps too obvious to mention, dogs need clarity. Since we don’t share a common language, that’s not always easy. Heaven knows, it’s hard enough for two humans to communicate clearly, much less individuals of different species. Here’s an example from the world of sheepdogs of the challenges we face. Years ago, I had nothing but trouble when I was learning to work with a dog to split off (or “shed”) some sheep from the main group. It’s hard enough to develop the finesse required to separate a couple of sheep from the flock, but you also have to let your dog know which group he is required to move away. Time after time, I’d “tell” Luke to drive away one group and like clockwork, he would focus on the other. I’d be left standing open-mouthed, thinking, No, no! Not THAT one, the other one! How could he get it wrong? I’d use a crystal-clear sweeping arm movement, look directly at the group I wanted him to move and say “That one.” And Luke would make a 180-degree turn and drive away the other group.
It took someone who knew dogs far better than I to sort it out. “Where are your feet pointing?” he asked, after watching me unsuccessfully attempt to shed off some sheep at a clinic. “My feet? Do I have feet? I’m too busy with my eyes, my head and my arm to think about my feet.” Agility handlers around the world are smiling here, having learned, as I finally did, that dogs will most reliably go in the direction your feet are pointing, not where your arm or face directs. Sure enough, although I’d been pointing and looking toward the chosen group, my feet had been pointing the other way. To Luke, it was obvious which group I wanted; I can only imagine his frustration when he followed my instructions and then learned that, somehow, he hadn’t done what I wanted in spite of my “clear communication.”
Examples of inadvertent miscommunication between a person and a dog are endless. I have a litany of my own, which prevents any smugness I might be tempted to feel as I watch clients confuse their dogs. This issue of clarity of communication is surely the most basic and critical aspect of a good and respectful relationship. It is not a simple one, involving as it does many aspects of behavior — from understanding canine ethology, being able to “read” dogs, knowing how to use operant and classical conditioning and teaching dogs how to behave in an alien society.
The second lesson is best illustrated by yet another mistake I made, albeit a more amusing one. At least, it’s amusing now — not so much then. Picture a blue-sky autumn day and a festival of all things Scottish outside of Milwaukee. My friend, Nancy Rafetto, and I had been asked to do a herding/ retrieving demonstration for the Milwaukee Highland Games. It was great fun for everyone: people enjoyed watching the dogs and Nancy and I got to teach under-the-radar science by illustrating the genetic predispositions of different breeds. Her Golden Retriever returned any objects that she threw but play-bowed to the sheep, while my Border Collie, ignoring the balls, collected the sheep and returned them to me. First, we’d work each dog separately; then we’d throw a ball into the middle of the flock, send out both dogs simultaneously, and watch the retriever barrel through the sheep to retrieve the object and the herding dog gather the flock together again. At least, that was the plan. We’d done it before in a variety of environments and it was always a crowd-pleaser.
However, this time, I violated a basic rule of working with animals: be prepared. I had forgotten my whistle, which allows us to communicate with dogs when they are a good distance away and is far better than using vocal commands in a noisy environment. I remembered my whistle on our way to the festival, but thought, Oh, it’ll be fine. Famous last words in behavior and training, hey? It probably would have been fine, since Luke was well trained to verbal signals, but just before I sent him to gather the flock, a marching band struck up right behind us. I couldn’t hear myself think, much less communicate with Luke. The sheep were about 100 yards away, and I paused; they were enclosed by a tall, dense hedge, and I thought they would stay on the field until the band took a breath and Luke could hear my signals.
To my abject horror and the obvious amusement of the crowd, the sheep melted into and through the hedge like cartoon animals moving through a solid wall into another dimension. Nancy was left to entertain the crowd while I ran across the field, pushed through the hedge with Luke and looked desperately for my sheep in what was now a suburban neighborhood complete with sidewalks; multicolored, one-story houses; and two-car garages. We finally found the sheep on the porch of a blue ranch-style house. We pursued them into and out of the garage (I swear I heard someone say “Marge, I think there are sheep in our driveway”) and eventually drove them back through the hedge. The crowd had given up by then, and Nancy and I tucked our tails and drove home. We were not asked back the next year.
Not everyone has been as foolish as I, but it is universally true that one of the most important differences between professionals and the general public is the level of preparation. People experienced in the world of dogs think ahead: They think about where the new dog will sleep at night and are ready with X-pens or crates. They have treats by the door for dogs who are fearful of strangers. If they have a puppy, they have a toy in their pocket so they are always ready to divert the pup’s attention from the slippers to something more appropriate. They close the door to the guest room to prevent accidents, and are ready to neutralize urine smells if they find a puddle. It becomes second nature to always have something available to reinforce good behavior and, if possible, to prevent problems from happening in the first place.
The third lesson from sheepdogs comes from a friend, who was on the U.S. National Team for the 2011 World Sheepdog Trials. Peg Anderson had taken her two dogs, Silk and Spot, to England early enough to be able to practice for several days on the hills with local sheep. Although she lives on what I consider to be the perfect farm, with a large, open field ideal for competition practice, she and her dogs needed time to adjust to the new conditions of an unfamiliar country. For the first time in their lives, Peg’s dogs were doing exactly what they had been bred for. Not just herding sheep any which way, but gathering a large flock of sheep scattered like polka dots on a green hill that rose up so high it hurt your neck to look at the top. The dog streams up and up and up like water in reverse, coalescing the sheep into a unified group at the top. Then the entire flock flows down the hill like a wooly white ribbon.
There’s something about the scope of it all that takes your breath away, and apparently it had a profound effect on one of her dogs as well. Peg reported that Spot gained confidence and enthusiasm every day he was there. Like my Willie, Spot didn’t like the pressure that Midwestern sheep and tight spaces often put on a dog, but the f lighty sheep on the big, open hills of northern England brought out the best in him. He came home with more confidence than ever, and has retained it ever since.
The lesson here is not that we should feel guilty if we can’t go to England to work our Border Collies, or arrange for our Chesapeake Bay Retrievers to break ice to retrieve ducks. It is, however, a cautionary note with two parts: One, dog breeds were created not for looks but for behavior, and we need to do a better job of matching a dog’s needs with the environment in which he or she will ultimately live. Two, all dogs, no matter how pure or eclectic their breeding, are individuals. Spot blossomed on the big hills of northern England, but Peg’s other dog, Silk, changed little. She may have enjoyed her time across the pond, but it didn’t affect her like it did Spot. Two Border Collies, two individuals.
Understanding both aspects of canine behavior — breed-related predispositions and unique individual natures — should perhaps be common sense, but in my experience, common sense isn’t actually very, well, common. “No,” I’d say to far too many clients, “please don’t get a German Shorthaired Pointer for your elderly parents who live in downtown San Francisco,” and “Yes, I know that Labradors are generally friendly, social dogs, but your Labrador is a bit shy and sound-sensitive and will not enjoy flyball, no matter how hard you try.”
The final lesson is perhaps the most important of all.
Sometimes a sheep will face off with a dog: head to head, eye to eye, just inches between them. She will put her head down so far that her nose is almost touching the dog’s muzzle, and then feint forward. Insecure dogs panic and charge, causing the sheep to scatter like deer or, worse, to fight the dog in a nasty contest between sharp teeth and an anvil-like skull. In sheepherding circles, we call that a “wreck,” because rarely does any good come of it. But the best dogs, the great dogs, stand motionless, never flicking an ear or withdrawing an inch. It may take one second or it may take 20, but eventually, the ewe will sense the dog’s commitment, and turn her nose, twitch her ears and back away.
These dogs are models for those of us enmeshed in the controversies surrounding how best to raise and train our four-legged best friends. Those who believe that dogs deserve to be treated with respect and understanding need to stand firm, quiet and confident in our commitment. If I were queen and could change one thing right now in the dog world, it would be to give people the confidence they need to be openminded and not over-reactive to challenges, while standing strong for what they believe is right.
Like great sheepdogs, those of us who believe in knowledge and respect need to be calm but confident, patient but resolute. One by one, day by day, the naysayers of the training world will turn their heads and find their way into the fold.
With gratitude and thanks to the editors and readers of Bark magazine, I say, “That’ll do, friends, that’ll do.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Most dog trainers love the process of teaching dogs new skills as much as they love the results. That’s why so many of us have dogs who are better than a résumé at showing what we can do. Our dogs sit, lie down, heel, stay and come on cue; wait patiently at the house or car door until told to proceed; or back away from food on the floor rather than scarf it up. The love of training also means that dog trainers are particularly inclined to teach their dogs tricks.
Many people consider dog tricks completely frivolous, or at least think that time spent training dogs to do them could be better invested in teaching useful skills. But if people realized the practical value of tricks, they might be willing to engage their dogs in learning a few. Many tricks offer more than just charming performance opportunities; here are eight that fall in that category.
Crawl. I used to ask my dog to do this when I lived on a farm in Wisconsin and he got muddy walking through the fields. Depending on the season, I would have him crawl through snow or over grass to clean up a bit before we went inside.
Shake. I ask dogs to present a paw on cue when cutting their nails, or at the vet to make a blood draw easier. It’s also useful for checking for pad injuries or just toweling off wet paws after a walk.
Belly up. This cue tells dogs to lie on their backs with their legs in the air. Most often, I ask a dog to do this to get a belly rub, but it can also help a vet perform an examination more easily.
Beg. This is another way to get a dog to expose the belly, and I like to ask a dog to beg when I need to pull off burrs or seeds. If a dog’s balance is good, “beg” can also be a way to position a dog for a quick brush of the belly fur.
What? This is a cue to cock the head, which makes photos of dogs especially endearing no matter what position they’re in. The less time you spend trying to get dogs into specific poses, the more likely they are to have a nice expression on their face.
Bow. Having a dog perform a play bow on cue is more than just a cute trick; it can also help dogs who are a bit awkward or nervous around other dogs. The play bow is a social signal that means “What follows is playful in nature,” and performing one near other dogs can mean that social interactions start off on the right paw, easing tensions caused by confusing or unexpected behavior.
Up. I use this as a cue to jump or step onto something; it’s a great way to get big dogs to stand on the vet’s scale. It is even more useful when combined with a solid stay, but that’s not always essential.
Dry off. This cue, which tells dogs to shake their whole body, is a way to have dogs shake off excess water before coming inside after a walk in the rain or a bath.
Being able to ask a dog to perform a behavior makes many situations less anxiety provoking. If our dogs need to perform a certain behavior, either for medical reasons or to further that fruitless, endless pursuit of cleanliness, it’s better to be able to communicate what we want than to physically manipulate them. Even if we have their best interests in mind, our dogs have no way of knowing that. Rather than grab them, lift them or push them around—however gently—it’s advantageous just to be able to tell them what we want and have them do it on their own. Tricks involve dogs putting their bodies (or at least parts of them!) in all sorts of positions, and that variety of movement and behavior is what gives tricks their practical value.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The APDT is celebrating with free events for January
Now that the new year has started, it's time to reflect on this past year and set resolutions. Naturally some of my goals are always dog-related.
I've started hiking with my dogs, and plan on taking up snowshoeing for the winter, so one of my goals in 2012 is to strengthen my crew's recall. I'm also hoping that my puppy, Remy, will be ready to compete in his first agility trial by the end of next year.
For those with a similar mindset, January happens to be National Train Your Dog Month. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers started the event in 2010 to promote the importance and benefits of socializing and training dogs. January was selected because of the many pets adopted during the winter holidays. So many dogs are abandoned because of behavioral problems that could have been prevented with socialization and positive training.
To help new pet parents start off on the right foot, throughout January, the APDT is offering free webinars and Facebook chats with pet training and behavior professionals. Topics include Adopting a Dog, Breed Discrimination Laws, Housetraining, and Dog Safety for Kids. A full schedule is available on the event's web site.
In honor of National Train Your Dog Month, do you have any training related resolutions for 2012?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Identifying the moment
As our sons were playing at the park after soccer practice, my friend and I both watched uneasily. All four boys were getting along. They were laughing and nobody was left out. I said, “I wonder how long this can last. They’re hungry and they’ve already played soccer for an hour.”
She answered, “I was just thinking the same thing. It seems that it’s always when I think everything is going great that trouble sprouts up in a big way and I realize I should have cut things off already.”
It reminded me of certain aspects of working with dogs.
It’s a basic principle of working with a dog with behavioral issues that if you say to yourself, “Wow! This is going better than I expected. I think I can push on a little further,” that you must NOT do so. Every behaviorist and trainer has had to learn this by committing the error, but the time to stop is when things are going well.
It’s so often the case that people don’t follow this rule, with the result that the session starts to go south. I find this is especially true when working to help a fearful dog overcome fears or when dogs are playing exuberantly.
I mentioned this to my friend and her response interested me. She told me that she asked her mom, who is a preschool teacher, how she decides to stop an activity that’s going well and in which the kids are all behaving well for a longer time than expected. Her mom’s answer was, “That’s the moment. Right when everything is going better than you could have hoped for and over a longer period of time, you must move on to something else.”
Have you had the experience of letting your dogs continue what they were doing because it was going so well, only to realize a few minutes too late that you should have changed things up earlier?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A complete training guide
Leave-it, a cue that asks your dog to leave something alone, is up there among the most useful things you can teach your dog. Think of it this way: your dog might not stop chasing that deer into traffic on her own, but with an airtight leave-it cue you can stop her in her tracks and save her life. So whether it’s another dog, that slice of pizza on the edge of the counter, a squirrel, the person uninterested in your dog’s attention, or the baby’s toys, anything can be protected from unwanted attention with a well-practiced leave-it. Here’s a short drill you can practice with your dog every day to master this essential technique.
What You’ll Need
What To Do
Begin with one of the ordinary treats in an open palm. Lower it to where your dog can see it (pictured above).
When your dog tries to take the treat, close your hand around it. She will likely nudge at the treat. Ignore this behavior. Ignore any behavior attempting to pry the treat out of your hand. What you’re waiting for is even the slightest hesitation in interest.
The moment your dog shows even a fleeting second of hesitation in trying to wrest that treat from your hand, you bring one of the better treats out in your other open palm.
The dog gets this treat as a reward for that moment’s hesitation.
In repeating this drill over the course of days or weeks, you are building up your dog’s skills by waiting for incrementally longer hesitations until it becomes clear she is beginning to understand.
Here, Stella is showing more restraint than she did the first time she was shown the treat.
Still more restraint is being shown here. At this point, you can begin to integrate the verbal cue, saying “leave it” when the dog makes the move for the first treat. If she listens the first time, she gets the better treat in the other hand. If she doesn’t, the fist closes, you wait, and you try again together.
Pre-holiday prep helps dogs get comfortable in their costumes
Every year in New York City, the Tompkins Square Dog Run holds a Halloween parade and costume contest. Hundreds of dogs enter and thousands of people come to watch. This year the winning costumes were fairly tame, but in the past outfits have been over the top.
As fellow blogger, Karen B. London wrote, most dogs don’t like costumes, especially complicated ones. But it can be tempting to dress up the pups, especially if you have a party to go to. I try to pick out simple costumes and take the few weeks beforehand to make sure my dogs are happy to wear them. It’s not a good idea to just plop the outfit on your pup a few minutes before your party!
This year I got my new puppy, Remy, a racehorse costume, complete with a little jockey that sits on his back. He’s never worn a costume before, so I wanted to make sure it was a positive experience by introducing it to him slowly. There were three behaviors I trained before I put the costume on fully.
Velcro = yummy treats
The costume on my back is a good thing
I’ll even get into my Costume myself!
With a little preparation, Remy was soon happy to get into his costume and was ready to go to our training club’s Halloween party.
Have you trained your dogs to wear a costume?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Study finds training less often is beneficial for learning
There's nothing more fun than training a new puppy and watching them experience everything for the first time. Since bringing Remy home, I'm always thinking about how often to train and for how long.
I devote time every day for formal training. I do two to five sessions per day, usually for a few minutes at a time. I definitely find that shorter training sessions are more effective than longer ones. This is especially important for a puppy, but even for a adults, it's always good to keep them wanting more.
But is there a magic number?
A recent study looked at the effect of training frequency and duration on how fast a dog learns a new behavior and on retention.
The researchers found that dogs trained one to two times a week learned a new behavior faster than dogs trained daily. They also found that dogs learned faster if they had one training session instead of three in a row. The study didn't find any correlation between the training schedule and retention.
It's interesting that training less often would help dogs learn faster. However, I think this has more to do with training the same behavior every day, as they did in the study, than training every day. Dogs are smart and will get bored if they have to do the same thing a million times. When I train, I try to mix it up and work on different behaviors each day. I also find that dogs need time to process new information, so it's good to take a break and revisit behaviors a few days later.
How often do you train your dog?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s okay to change it
It’s common to adopt an adult dog with a name that doesn’t really thrill you, and many people have soldiered on for the rest of the dog’s life, stuck with a name that they just don’t feel right about. But if you don’t like your dog’s name, you can change it.
Names like Baby, Poopsie and Pudding are often not popular with new adopters. On other extreme, many people feel a mismatch when they adopt a dog who has been going by Killer, Spike or Vengeance.
Changing a dog’s name is one of the easiest parts of adopting and training a new dog. Here’s how you do it. Start by saying the new name and giving him something great like a piece of chicken, a belly rub or a play session if he looks at you. This teaches him to love hearing his new name and responding to it. Most dogs learn a new name within a few weeks if you do this multiple times each day, and some learn it in just a couple of sessions. Progress will be faster if you avoid using the name for no reason and also refrain from associating it with anything bad.
Have you changed a new dog’s name? What was the old name and what’s the new one?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Exciting upcoming seminars
Dog books and seminars excite me more than makes sense to most people, but you’re with me, right? It’s just so FUN to learn more about dogs. No matter how much we know, there’s still so much out there. Every opportunity to drink from the fountain of knowledge is worth pursuing. And one of the best of these opportunities is coming up at the end of this month in the form of a weekend seminar in Madison, Wisc.
On Saturday, October 29, Patricia McConnell will present her “Advanced Canine Behavior Seminar,” with the latest information about development, genetics, learning, cognition and play behavior. She’s an engaging speaker with so much knowledge to share.
Sunday, October 30 features Ken Ramirez discussing “From Purgatory to Nirvana: The Path to Enlightened Training.” If you want to improve your training skills and go from being a good trainer to a great one, this seminar will offer the information and inspiration to do so. He’s a riveting speaker with tons of incredible videos. You will leave this seminar so excited about training and so full of ideas to try that you’ll be tempted to wake your dog up from a sound sleep just to get started.
I hope many of you can go, and that you’ll share your experiences if you are able to attend.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Q. My six-month-old whippet mix is driving me crazy. From the sweet, quiet pup I adopted, he has turned into a hellion. He now barks at me — probably for attention — and at other dogs (especially at the dog park), and even nips me during play. Is he trying to dominate me?
A. Pushy puppies, or dogs who display behavior such as nipping at people or barking at other dogs, are often thought to be displaying dominance, a frequently misunderstood concept. While dominance does exist in a dog’s world, it is not as prevalent as people have been led to believe. Dogs who have not been taught manners or how to play appropriately will often adopt their own behavioral “style” to get attention, and this style is frequently rude and pushy.
At six months of age, your puppy has entered adolescence, a phase where boundaries are tested and the “crazy” brain takes over. Rather than responding confrontationally, as is easy to do when we don’t understand a behavior, find ways to help your pup make good choices instead of bad ones. At this stage, his puppy brain is like a sponge, absorbing situations and experiences. This makes it the perfect time for positive learning to take place.
One of the best ways to teach a pup how to greet and play is by taking him to a puppy socialization and manners class. Manners training will help you understand and communicate with your pup, while socialization with other dogs will teach him how to play appropriately. A good class will show you how to teach your puppy a reliable recall, which gives you the opportunity to redirect negative behavior onto a toy or treat. This tells him that leaving play and coming to you are good things. If he ignores you, quietly remove him from the room for a time out until he is calm enough to return to playtime. If he resumes his pushy behavior once he is back in the room, repeat the sequence until he learns that making the right choice means he gets to stay where the fun is.
The same method can be used to curb his nipping behavior. If he nips during play with you, either get up and leave the room for a minute or two or have someone else hold his leash while you play and remove him from the room if he nips you. Play and your attention are rewards for keeping his mouth to himself.
While some dogs thrive on being at the dog park, others find it overwhelming. Observe your pup’s body language to see if he is barking at other dogs because he is overexcited and wants their attention, or because he wants them to stay away from him. Stop taking him to the dog park until you understand and address this behavior in class. Practice makes perfect, and rehearsal of negative behavior makes that behavior harder to change.
Choose a puppy class that utilizes positive-reinforcement methods only. Dogs who are trained this way are not only more tolerant and self-controlled, they behave much more predictably.
Positive training techniques center on working the dog’s brain in a nonconfrontational way, rewarding positive behavior, establishing rituals and predictability, training incompatible behaviors that negate the bad behavior, and lessening a dog’s anger and frustration. Because behavior is influenced without force, the dog’s trust in his person is not violated the way it can be when harsher methods are used (which they unfortunately still are by trainers who espouse outdated dominance and pack-leader theory).
Positive, however, does not mean permissive, and discipline in the form of vocal interrupters, time outs or ignoring bad behavior is used to guide the dog into making the right choices rather than suppressing negative behavior through fear or force.
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