Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Going the distance
I should have realized right away that something special was going on in a group dog-training session last spring. When I asked the participants to call their dogs to come and then run away, they all did, and with Whippet-like speed. Most people need lots of encouragement to run, and even then — looking sheepish — they tend to take a few half-hearted jogging steps at most. This was no ordinary group, but rather, some of the world’s best distance runners, athletes so good they are sponsored by the likes of Adidas, New Balance, Nike, Mizuno, Brooks and Reebok. They’re living and training in Flagstaff, Ariz., in pursuit of their Olympic dreams because this mountain town’s high altitude, abundant trails and sunny weather provide the perfect conditions for distance running.
Since that day, I’ve worked with other local elite runners, helping them teach their dogs to conquer fears of unfamiliar people, cars and leashes; stop chasing bikes; greet visitors politely at the door; walk nicely on leash; perform tricks like crawl, high-five, shake, spin and roll over; and continue running rather than be distracted by other dogs. The successes they have as trainers have everything to do with their success as athletes: they take what they already know about training to be world-class runners and apply it to training their dogs. The following principles apply equally to dog training and running.
Value consistent practice.
It’s not how fast you run in training, it’s more a consistency, those back-to-back 100-mile weeks.
Recognize that progress is incremental.
In dog training, there can be 100 steps from the starting point to the end point. Step one in recall work may be calling your dog to come when you’re standing in your distraction-free living room holding cooked chicken. Step 100 is calling your dog to come when he is chasing a rabbit with his best canine buddy. Small changes over time lead to success — a familiar concept for runners, who take years to build the fitness, technique and strategy required to race successfully at the international level.
Each workout seems to be building on the last.
Be goal oriented.
I often ask clients what they think success would look like. Do they want to be able to walk their reactive dog on leash through the neighborhood, or are they hoping to turn their little firecracker into a therapy dog? Do they want their dog to do a downstay when people enter the house, or is any behavior that involves keeping all four paws on the floor acceptable? Runners set goals, whether it’s running a personal-best time, following their race plan or winning an Olympic medal.
Setting an ultimate goal and stepping- stone goals help you to commit and make the ultimate goal tangible in your mind, which reflects in your daily actions, leading to success.
Welcome coaching and ideas for improvement.
Part of my job as a dog trainer and canine behaviorist is coaching — suggesting ways skills can be improved. I remind people to say a cue only once, help them with their timing, instruct them on modulating the pitch of their voice and guide them on giving clear visual signals. Coaches also give advice on modifications of everything from running form and breathing to when to make a move in a race. Athletes are accustomed to responding to their coaches, so they easily respond to my coaching, too.
Having a coach makes all the difference in the world, to offer outside advice with inside knowledge.
Know that little things matter.
Attention to detail, making sure to do all the little things right, is at a premium.
Understand that every situation is different.
Training Lucy is a lot like training for a big race that doesn’t quite work out. Training her one-on-one always goes really smoothly, like running a workout I’ve done a dozen times. In practice, everything goes fine, but race day can be a different story.
Accept setbacks as part of the process.
Progress is not always smooth. Setbacks teach us what we need to do to move forward. Accepting this as part of achieving goals is a trait these runners carry with them from their professional lives into their other pursuits, including dog training.
Setbacks are bound to happen, but if you approach it properly, I think you can come away much stronger and much smarter.
Elite runners love to win and hate to lose. In dog training, as in all endeavors, actively pursuing success makes its achievement more likely.
Times are nice, but I want that first place, that gold medal!
It’s a joy to associate with people who are so talented and willing to sacrifice so much in pursuit of their Olympic dreams. Yet, what I love most about working with elite runners is what I love about working with all of my clients: they love their dogs. “Many of the athletes and all of the coaches have dogs that we love like children,” says Trina Painter, assistant coach of Team USA Arizona, which includes many of these athletes. “They protect us, love us when we’re happy and sad, greet us with licks whether we’re sweaty or clean. They run with us and play with us. They keep us laughing with their silly faces and tricks and speak to us with their expressive eyes and body language. They are, for many of the runners, their best friend and source of unconditional love each day, and a wonderful warm and furry positive distraction from running.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Don't leave me!
Q Charley, a rescued three year- old Lab who’d spent his entire life in an outdoor kennel, was scared of everything when we first got him. He’s been with us for eight months and now, he panics when we leave him alone. We have two crates, one in our house and one in our car. He goes into the home crate and stays there for about an hour. I’ve been gradually closing the door and even leaving the house, and when I come back, he’s fine. However, when we leave him in his car crate, he just loses it, so distraught that he’s destroyed a crate bed and a quilt. Is this separation anxiety? We adore him and want to help him, but what can we do?
A Charley is obviously suffering from a form of separation distress, which is not uncommon for a dog who has spent so much of his life in relative isolation. Fear of abandonment and the desire to seek reattachment are what drive some dogs into a panic when left alone, and the resulting destructive behavior is a manifestation of this desperate feeling.
Extensive research has shown that dogs suffer from the same kinds of fears, phobias and anxieties as do humans, even experiencing the canine equivalent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It would not surprise me if Charley were suffering from a version of PTSD, which could be triggered by being left alone in novel places, even in a car that he knows. Dogs who become distressed when left alone typically do not do well in confined spaces such as crates, and in Charley’s case, it’s obvious that his anxiety is a result of his previous confinement.
You seem to have made good progress desensitizing Charley to the crate in your home, and a similar routine needs to be adopted for the crate in your car. Until he is completely comfortable being in the car without you, it’s better for him to stay at home, where he feels secure. If you try leaving him in the car too early in the process, he will revert to his former behavior, so it is vital that the following training steps be implemented slowly.
To begin with, show Charley that being in the car is a good thing. At various times during the day, walk him to where your car is parked and either feed him his favorite food in the car or play his favorite game around it. Open the doors and sit next to him while he is in his crate, with the crate door open so he can leave if he wants. Allowing him the freedom to make choices will help increase his confidence. Give him a durable rubber toy stuffed with food to chew when he’s in the crate. If, however, he decides to leave, gently take the toy from him and place it in the crate again, showing him that’s where he gets the nice stuff!
If Charley is comfortable in the crate while you drive, take him to a variety of places and repeat the exercise, which will help him learn that being in the car with you in different environments is a good thing. Only when you see that Charley is eager to be in the car crate with the door open should you start closing the door for short periods while you sit with him. Gradually increase the length of time the door is closed.
It goes without saying that a dog should never be left in a car when the weather’s warm (or very cold). In direct sunlight, a car can heat up within minutes, even on relatively cool days. If you know that you will be running errands or going to dinner, leave Charley at home.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A simple approach is often effective
“I’ve been putting my hand in his food while he’s eating since he was a puppy, so he’s never growled at me over his food.” This sort of comment sets my teeth on edge because repeatedly bothering a dog who is eating is actually an effective technique for teaching dogs to behave aggressively around food, NOT a great way to prevent it. Many such dogs start to growl, snap, or bite when someone comes near their food. It’s like they’re saying, “Enough already. Leave me alone!” If a dog is constantly bothered while eating but never displays food bowl aggression, it shows that he’s a great dog, not that harassing him was a good idea.
The natural response of many dogs when you approach, reach for, or take away their food is some canine version of, “Hey! It’s mine! Back off!” Creating a response that’s the canine equivalent of, “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, here she comes!” is a great way to prevent dogs from developing food bowl aggression.
You want your dog to feel happy when you approach him while he’s eating, and even when you reach toward his bowl or take it away. Dogs who are happy about your approach are not going to growl or snap to get you to leave.
If you regularly walk by a dog who is eating and toss a treat to him, you are teaching him to anticipate a treat whenever you approach him at his food bowl. Once he learns that your approach predicts something good, he’ll be happy to see you coming.
To begin, walk by your dog as he eats and toss a treat without stopping. Do this only 1-2 times during any feeding session and don’t do it every time your dog is eating. Overdoing it can cause a dog to feel irritable, the same way many people feel in a restaurant when a waiter refills the water glass after every sip.
If your dog begins to look up in anticipation when you approach, he is ready for the next step, which is to walk towards him, stop, toss the treat, and then walk away. The step after that is to reach towards the bowl, toss a treat and then walk away, and the last step is to pick up the bowl, put a few extra treats into it, and then give it back to your dog before walking away. It usually takes a few days to several weeks to work through each successive step.
This technique can prevent food bowl aggression. If your dog is already behaving aggressively around his food, or if at any point in this process your dog shows signs of aggression or tension (such as stiffening, growling, eating faster, hovering over the bowl, snapping, or showing his teeth), stop and seek help from a qualified trainer or behaviorist.
The result of this process is a sentiment that’s a joy for me to hear: “My dog doesn’t growl over his food because I taught him to love it when I come near him while he’s eating!”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Cue ’em in
Trainers spend a dog’s lifetime teaching new cues and behaviors, but there are a few worth teaching every dog sooner rather than later.
Learning these cues and behaviors allows your dog to reap the benefits of being a well-mannered member of society. Education is never a waste!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Mental exercise improves quality of life
I love this video of a dog going performing a series of tricks and tasks. (It helps that this dog is so cute it hurts!)
The first thing I notice when I look at this video is an adorable dog performing tricks. But I also see the benefits of a dog who has had ample mental exercise. This dog looks incredibly happy as she goes through her repertoire.
Everybody knows that dogs need physical exercise but the fact that mental exercise improves dogs’ quality of life is sometimes overlooked. The joy that is so evident in the dog in this video makes her the poster child for the importance of providing dogs with lots of activities. It’s so wise to supply dogs with ample stimulation so that they are not bored, and many of us have lifestyles that make that a significant challenge. Training dogs to perform tricks is one way to accomplish this, and there are many advantages.
1. Dogs can be trained at home so there is no need to drive anywhere.
2. Tricks can be taught and practiced by working a few minutes here and a few minutes there each day, so it is easier to work into daily life than many other activities.
3. Training dogs to do tricks is often a light-hearted activity. That makes it easy to be happy and have fun while doing so, which is good for the relationship between people and dogs.
4. Dogs often receive a great deal of positive attention when practicing or performing their tricks, which makes them feel good.
5. You can post videos of your dog doing tricks on YouTube and spread the happiness around.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Study looks at sugar, self-control and performance
We ask a lot of our dogs. We ask them to resist food on the counter, to stay inside when the front door is open and to be quiet when dogs are barking next door. With my new puppy, I’ve been thinking a lot about self-control, which is the foundation for everything from household manners to agility skills.
In humans, research has shown that there’s a relationship between the brain’s glucose supply and self-discipline. A recent study found that this is true for dogs too.
The experiment, published in this month’s Psychological Science, looked at the length of time a dog worked at an impossible task.
In the study, some of the dogs were put in a sit-stay for 10 minutes to “deplete their fuel reserves” and the rest of the dogs were put in a crate for 10 minutes. The dogs were then given a treat dispensing toy, known as a Tug-a-Jug, altered to make it impossible to get the food out.
The dogs who exerted self-control in the sit-stay gave up after less than a minute, as opposed to the crated pups who gave up after over two minutes.
The scientists hypothesized that the self-control needed for the sit-stay depleted the dogs’ blood sugar supply, weakening their ability to exert “goal-directed effort.”
To test this theory, the scientists repeated the experiment with one difference. Half of the dogs performing the sit-stay got a sugar drink before going on to the Tug-a-Jug task. As a control, the other half got an artificially sweetened drink.
Amazingly, the sit-stay dogs that got the sugar drink performed just as long as the crated dogs. The pups who got the artificially sweetened drink showed no improvement.
Most of us will probably never give our dogs a performance-enhancing drink, but it’s interesting to know how taxing the behaviors are that we ask of our dogs. When I’m training, I usually alternate between practicing impulse control and playing games like tugging. Now I see why it’s so important to keep training sessions short and fun!
News: Guest Posts
And they have much to say
An amazing event occurred recently at AnimalSign Center. There, I teach dogs, horses and cats enhanced communication skills. I use AnimalSign Language, which is much like Baby Sign or Gorilla Sign, but it’s made for domestic animals. I think nothing of seeing dogs K9Sign that they need water, want specific foods or naming people at the door, or on the phone. But a few weeks ago, I was awed by Chal, my German Shepherd, who K9Signed a startling communication.
Chal had been limping on her right hind leg. I couldn’t find her problem, nor where her pain was. I wanted to know where the problem spot was, to fix the problem, make her more comfortable and to be able to tell the vet at our upcoming appointment. So, I simply asked Chal to tell me where she hurt. I signed to her ‘Where’s Your Ouch?’ I fully expected Chal to answer by tapping a spot on her right leg. She didn't! Instead, Chal signed ‘Here’ by pointing to her right, lower nipple area. She tapped it, and then looked right back up at me.
I listened to her response and checked the spot. Near her slightly red nipple was a small bump. I thought this tumor surely would be a cancer, just like the left-sided tumor (low-grade malignancy) I discovered a few years before. I had that whole mammary chain removed, and now, wanted her right chain to be removed too. Read more about the situation and Chal’s status in my blog (www.animalsign.org/blog.php). I’ll be tracking her progress physically, and cognitively as we learn more K9Signs to keep her mentally stimulated during recovery.
Chal and I had begun K9Signing since she was one year old. One exchange we worked on (when she had an infection) was the K9Sign ‘Where’s Your Ouch?’ where Chal responded with ‘Here.’ She learned to tell me where she hurt. Now, Chal has demonstrated that dogs can not only tell you where they hurt, but also detect and communicate the location of their own tumor spots. They have done this for humans, now we know they can do this for themselves, too.
Dogs can tell you what they sense in as much detail as they’ve had training to. Imagine what your dogs could communicate with K9Sign training, perhaps: A mouse is in the wall; Smoke is in the hall; Francois has fallen and has low blood sugar; Basement all water; I am thirsty; My hip hurts; Blood under the rock; or Jacque is coming home!” Dogs have their own natural communications that needs to be respected, but they can expand and build on that core skill. Doing so would stimulate their minds and develop their brains—as it does in humans. We humans are provided years of language education; dogs should get some, too!
K9Signing is useful for many dogs: working, assistance, service, shelter/rescue, companion, older, those in rehabilitation, or with special needs. K9Sign is now used by companion pets, dogs aiding the deaf or hard-of-hearing, and by therapy and other working dogs (for mold detection, etc.). Dogs have K9Signed to indicate water, food, chicken, liver, toys, play, go potty, keys, help, and many other objects, and discomfort/pain. The K9Sign gestuary includes signs for fire, names of people, position of people (on the ground or up), bed, crate, phone, household objects, and more. The K9Sign Gestuary is 100 words long and growing.
K9Sign benefits people (personally and scientifically), dogs themselves, and the human-canine relationship and bond. People benefit by improving the communication with their dog for companionship, play, work or services. Instead of dogs just alerting by fetching, barking, sitting and pawing to signal something, K9Signing dogs can be specific and tell you what they are alerting to. This enhances the dog’s skills.
Imagine what details a dog might express about the environment. A dog for a blind person might sign ground has big step-down, a search and rescue dog might sign number of people, dead, alive, or blood about people trapped under rubble, or your companion dog might sign fire, heart attack, seizure type, and who is in trouble.
K9Signing gives us a tool to further understand and study canine communication potential. Many organizations examine canine expressive communication-vocalizations and natural body language. AnimalSign Center is the only organization that educates, trains and studies dogs who are in intensive communication (especially expressive) training, or better education.
Dogs benefit from K9Sign. Imagine how empowered dogs might feel if they could tell you what they want and need, where they hurt, why they bark, what dangers are, or what they smell (that could fill a book). Successful communication reduces frustration, enhances joy and provides mental clarity, stimulation and brain development.
The benefits of enhanced communication include a deepened human-animal bond, as well as increased wellness for humans and animals. These alone are worth the effort.
Most dogs can learn to K9Sign, if they want too and can move (at bit). Dogs with movement issues or in rehabilitation can do this, and it keeps them mentally active, while reducing boredom. The most challenging dogs to teach are those who don’t have respond to typical reinforcers. They may not consider food or toys rewards. I’ve met only a handful. Dogs with IBD (irritable bowel disease), who can’t eat much, can be rewarded by licks, or even just smells, of food. Non-food rewards such as scratches and pats sometimes work. Very obedient dogs tend to take a longer to teach spontaneously use of K9Signs. These dogs wait for instructions to sign, rather than spontaneously offer signs. Once they realize they are free to offer signs, they do, and love it!
Dogscan learn as many signs as they can differentiate thoughts and make moves. I predict that in the next year my Border Collie, Starlight, will have learned 100 K9Signs. She now knows 10 K9Signs, but will surely ‘out-sign’ Chal soon. Most clients are happy with less than 10 signs, other clients are going all the way and adding to their vocabulary regularly. They send me signing stories often. Read more on that in my book and blogs.
Chal helped me create K9Sign and has known 50 signs. With her hind leg problems, she now K9signs mostly with her head, front legs and body movements. My horse Princess knows how to EquineSign, and she has 100 up her hoof! She was the one who got me started with AnimalSign in the mid 1990s.
My book, Dogs Can Sign, Too: A Breakthrough Method for Teaching Your Dog to Communicate to You, explains the background, foundations for and history of K9Sign. It also includes a how-to section with 25 K9Signs and pictures, with elaborate instructions on how to teach each sign. Each sign includes tips to help you get through typical challenges and milestones.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
NY sought to require graduation from obedience school
In a perfect world, everyone would have great relationships with their dogs--teaching basic manners, providing lots of exercise, and participating in an activity together like agility or therapy work.
Last week, a bill was proposed in New York that would require people to successfully complete a basic obedience class with their dogs or risk having their pet taken away.
The goal of the bill is to “minimize vicious dog attacks, the destruction of property and unnecessary human or canine deaths; to better acquaint dog owners with their dogs; to teach dog owners proper obedience techniques, which will help owners to have better control of their dogs; and to minimize aggressive dog behavior and negligent dog owner behavior.”
At first glance, the bill seems like a great idea. I only wish more people would take a basic obedience class and spend dedicated time each week bonding and working with their dogs. But I can see many potential problems with the legislation.
For one, not everyone lives in an area like New York City where there are many training classes available. Cost or distance could make a class prohibitive for some people.
Second, the bill would allow the state to establish requirements for dog obedience schools. What and who would define successful completion?
Last of all, I could see this bill making people resent dog training. All of us positive trainers know that the fastest way to get someone to hate something is to try to force them to do it!
New York’s bill has since been defeated, but what do you think about making obedience class mandatory?
News: Guest Posts
Simple advice from a training wunderkind
If you’re a dog lover, you’ve probably seen “Useful Dog Tricks performed by Jesse.” The YouTube video has clocked more than 9-and-a-half million hits to date—so someone is watching the wirehaired Terrier with Cleopatra eyes chew the scenery (metaphorically, only).With an always-wagging tail, the tri-colored Jack Russell merrily opens and closes drawers, turns a lamp off and on, cleans countertops and windows, pull off his booties, opens a wallet, closes a door, helps someone off with her sweatshirt, shoes and socks and retrieves her sandals, and on and on. Who is the wise and seasoned pro behind the scenes? How many years of study and practice went into helping Jesse discover his inner superstar? Well, there’s no pro and not a lot of years either. The woman behind the clicker is 21-year-old Heather Brook of Litchfield Park, Ariz., who before Jesse came into her life had never trained a dog. Clearly, what she lacked in experience, she made up for with patience and love. Heather got the 8-week-old puppy when she was 16, and discovered early on, he needed an outlet for his boundless energy. So she turned to trick books and Karen Pryor’s clicker-training website. Always relying on positive reinforcement, she helped Jesse master an impressive variety of tricks that she captured in videos that went viral and eventually landed the duo appearances on The Rachael Ray Show (“Amazing Animal Tricks”), The Late Show with David Letterman (“Stupid Pet Tricks”) and in several commercials. While the attention has been exciting, Heather says, “the time spent together is what made it worthwhile.” What’s her advice to would-be trainers?
News: Guest Posts
Victoria Stilwell returns for another year in Bark, and a third season on TV
New year, new challenges, new solutions. We’re thrilled the calm, compassionate and straight-talking Victoria Stilwell returns to answer reader questions in 2011. In our February issue, she tackles one dog’s new habit (acquired during the holiday) of counter-surfing. As per usual, Stilwell’s prescription requires seeing the situation from the dog’s point of view and employing a combination of positive training and smart management strategies—and no “scat mats.” She’ll be responding to readers’ questions—one per issue—all year, so send your canine puzzler to email@example.com with the word “Stilwell” in the subject line.And while you’re waiting for your next issue, check in on the new season of It’s Me Or the Dog, which premieres on Saturday, January 8 at 8 p.m. (ET/PT). Among this season’s collection of out-of-control owners is Jill Zarin, best known as one of “The Real Housewives of New York City,” who can’t reign in her cantankerous Chihuahua, Ginger. There’s plenty of solid training advice and more than a small dose of family therapy. We also hear there are a few surprises, including training a micro-pig!
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