Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Guide Dogs for the Blind changes training methods, and the results are amazing.
In the dog-training world, “crossing over” refers to switching from using old-school traditional training methods (catching the dog making a mistake and correcting that mistake) to modern positive- reinforcement methods (catching the dog doing something right and rewarding those good choices).
Quietly and without fanfare, Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB)—an organization with a rich history and proven track record of training safe and effective guide dogs—began the process of crossing over almost a decade ago. The results have been nothing short of astounding.
According to Michele Pouliot, GDB’s director of research and development, Karen Pryor Academy faculty member, international Freestyle champion and the force behind the switch, success rates have soared. Using traditional methods, roughly 45 to 50 percent of the dogs entering the formal training process made guide dog status. With the incorporation of clicker training (one type of positive reinforcement), 60 to 85 percent graduate and are successfully paired with a blind partner.
The transition officially began within the training department in 2006. Then, in 2013, GDB adopted an organizationwide mission of maximizing the use of positive reinforcement in all departments. Their current goal is to roll out the changes over a five-year period. All of the dogs in GDB programs— the dogs in formal training, of course, but also the breeding dogs, the smallest puppies and even career-change dogs— will benefit from the commitment to clicker training. For those in the formal training program, the advantages are already clear.
“The dogs are more enthusiastic, better thinkers and problem solvers,” says Pouliot. “Their attitude is over the top. They are confident of the job. They want to do it—they can’t wait to do it!” Pouliot says that dogs who are not part of formal training, such as the breeding dogs, will also gain from the transition. For example, rather than being wrestled on and off exam tables, breeding dogs will be taught to happily get on and off by themselves. This will eliminate some of the stress experienced by both dogs and veterinary staff.
People will also be affected by the switch to clicker-training protocols. Puppy-raising families, volunteers and the blind partners with whom the dogs are paired will all be learning the power of positive reinforcement training. As they are exposed to positive reinforcement, they will learn to notice and acknowledge what the dogs are doing right, rather than looking for mistakes. Those of us who have experienced this transition know that it has the potential to be life altering.
Karen Pryor, CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training, author of Don’t Shoot the Dog and the person largely credited with bringing clicker methods to dog training, is equally excited by how positive reinforcement training affects people. Pryor says that learning to train this way is rewarding, and the training itself can be a powerful experience.
As an example, Pryor says she watched a blind handler learn to teach his dog to find things like the mailbox and a signal- crossing button. “What was really amazing was watching this well-dressed man and the expression on his face when he got to reward his dog. He was empowered in this process, too.”
Pouliot says that the impact of clicker training on the dogs has been more than she originally expected. “We hoped we’d get the same performance, but a happier dog. What we didn’t expect was how much better the performance would be.”
One of the initial challenges Pouliot faced was teaching the dogs to ignore food in the environment. Trainers were concerned that using food in training might make it more difficult for the dogs to learn to leave other food alone—a fair concern, to be sure. What they discovered, however, was just the opposite. Clicker-trained dogs were much more successful at this than dogs trained with traditional techniques.
Part of what worked was having a specific food-delivery protocol—a list of food do’s and don’ts that helped make it clear for the dogs. For example, the dogs are not rewarded on the ground, only by the person handling the dog and only when the dog stands in a specific position. Pouliot says that consistency with the protocol is important to a dog’s success.
Like many monumental changes, GDB’s crossing over had humble beginnings. “I started with Guide Dogs for the Blind in 1974,” says Pouliot. “I grew up with them, learning traditional training techniques: waiting for the dog to do something wrong, correcting it and then praising for the right response.” She was entrenched in traditional training, as was the rest of the organization.
For Pouliot, the change began in 2000 when she explored clicker training with her own dogs and horses. Pouliot says that when she clicker-trained her horses—not just one, but all of them—to retrieve objects from across a field, she knew she was on to something very powerful. “That was my big ‘a-ha’ moment. I was so impressed with the success.”
Inspired, Pouliot went to work trying out clicker training with the guide dog program in mind. She conducted a few unofficial trials, training dogs who had already been dropped from the program for various reasons. One, a young female yellow Lab, was too afraid of other dogs to be successful as a guide dog. Pouliot began clicker training her with the primary goal of reducing her fear. Not only was Pouliot successful in turning around the dog’s fearful response—the young Lab went from being scared to actively engaging with the other dogs—but also, the Lab was able to finish training and go on to be a career guide dog.
This and other equally exciting results encouraged Pouliot and others at GDB to begin an official pilot program. Pouliot and one of the training supervisors, Lori Brown, would formally train two dogs using clicker techniques. Because she had previously worked with dolphins (where positive reinforcement training is the norm), Brown was a natural choice for the pilot program.
The other trainers chose the dogs who would take part in the program; their candidates were considered difficult to work with, which set a very high bar for success. But after just one week, the transition in attitude alone spoke in favor of clicker training. The dogs had switched from being low energy and lacking enthusiasm to being animated and excited.
Following the initial success of the pilot program, Pouliot and her colleagues began working on specific procedures and techniques. By 2006, GDB was educating all 65 trainers on two campuses in this “new” method.
“The transition wasn’t instant,” says Pouliot. “In fact, it has been a long journey.” Because they couldn’t stop the training program long enough to establish the new routines and teach all the staff at once, progress was incremental. “We had to teach the staff in small chunks. Each year, we would add new pieces.”
Pouliot acknowledges that it was a challenge at times. Consider trainers—good trainers with 20 or more years of experience— being asked to learn and embrace new methods. But once they saw for themselves how powerful the method was, everyone got excited, and the transition moved forward at a steady pace.
Guide Dogs for the Blind’s organization-wide crossover to clicker training has and will continue to have a tremendous and powerful effect on the people and animals associated with its programs. But the reach of this transition has already been felt far beyond the immediate scope of the organization. Pouliot and GDB have shared the success of their program with guide-dog trainers worldwide through a series of weeklong seminars.
Pryor says that what GDB and Pouliot have done is not just develop a model for training guide- and other service dogs, but also showed how to reach people and organizations entrenched in traditions, and how to help them successfully make changes.
She also points out that the success of this program and the lessons learned about working in a positive manner for positive changes have had a big influence on her own life, giving her better tools to help with organizational transitions.
The magnitude of change brought about by the use of principles of positive reinforcement will continue to ripple outward to the larger guide dog world, the even larger service-dog-training world and beyond. How far? Imagine the power when a family-dog trainer can say to a doubting client, “These are similar to the methods used by Guide Dogs for the Blind. Let’s give them a try and see if they might work for your dog, too.”
Special thanks to Michele Pouliot and Karen Pryor for their contributions to this article.
The Puppy Handoff
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Beagle looks ready for the big leagues
Seeing a dog catch balls is common, but seeing one do it with her paws is not. Purin is a Beagle who has the ability to trap a ball like she’s wearing a baseball glove. Her dexterity and balance are both impressive, and it’s fun to watch what she can do.
Interestingly, though her body seems relaxed, and she seems happy most of the time, she follows roughly half of the 13 catches in this video with a tongue flick, which can be a sign of low level stress.
I’m not sure why Purin is tongue-flicking, because she does seem to be generally enjoying the game of catch, and does not show any signs of serious distress. She leaps up joyfully towards the trainer after most catches and generally seems at ease while waiting for the ball to be thrown to her.
Do you think she is having a good time or not?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Jumpy is a joy to watch
This video of Jumpy responding to a series of cues given by his trainer, Omar von Muller, is one of my top picks for showing, in an entertaining way, what dogs are capable of doing if people invest a lot of time and effort into training them.
When I watch this video, I mainly just enjoy it, but I delight in knowing that Jumpy has a wonderful life full of freedom, mental exercise and lots of time with his guardian. This dog has a lot of training experience and lives with a professional trainer whose work involves training animals for appearances in the film industry. (Von Muller is the trainer responsible for Uggie’s performance in The Artist and Water for Elephants.) I would never expect all dogs to be able to perform at this level, nor would I expect that most people would be interested in putting in the effort to achieve such a level of performance even if it were possible.
On the other hand, I would love it if, as a society, we acknowledged that reliable responsiveness to multiple cues is not an impossibility for most dogs. Sure, it takes some commitment to learn the training skills and to train the dog, but it’s not magic. It’s not an option for only one in a million dogs, either.
Videos like this always inspire me to teach new tricks, and I am eager to teach “Don’t you look at it,” which is a cue to look away from something. I have never taught that particular action, and I’m excited to give it a try.
Did this video inspire you to teach your dog something in particular?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog trainer Denise Fenzi talks about methods and perceptions with
On engagement and relationship building:
However, in the switch to food-based training, we seem to have lost some of our basic positive interactions and expressions of joy with our dogs. Instead of learning to joyfully work together, we “pay” our dogs with cookies—and once they’ve paid, many owners forget to tell their dogs how proud they are of whatever [the dogs] accomplished. I think this is a terrible loss. Humans can be so much more than Pez dispensers!
Great training should not be about substituting cookies for approval. Great training should be about getting needed behaviors (often through food), then taking it further. That next step —relationship—is what fascinates me about dog training.
Building a relationship with a dog is much the same as building a relationship with another person. While sharing food is a fundamental pleasure, no one would say that the meals “create” the relationship. Food simply supports one aspect of it.
What’s really being developed (quite possibly over a meal) is an understanding and an awareness of that other person; the thing that develops, which we call relationship, is incredibly hard to explain or put into words. It is sympathy for their circumstances —both what goes right and what goes wrong. It’s about knowing what makes them happy or sad. It takes a relationship to know that, since each person has unique needs. The stronger your relationship with another, the more likely you’ll make the right choices.
We can have exactly the same type of relationship with a dog, but I think very few people are aware of that. When I think about the time I spend with my dogs, most of it [involves] trying to build that underlying foundation. I study my dogs carefully to understand what matters to each of them. I pet them and play with them, and soon I learn what does or does not work for each one. I know what frightens them, and I support them as needed. I also know when to back off and let them solve their own problems. And each dog is completely different!
I do use lots of food and toys to train. But at the end of the day, my goal is much bigger than acquiring behaviors. It is finding out what we can become together. Since this is a unique process (just like it is a unique process to develop a relationship with another person), it never gets tiresome, boring or “rote.” It’s fascinating. And it can take you places that most people have no idea were possible with a dog.
On what her peers in IPO and competitive obedience think of her use of positive reinforcement:
At the lower levels, I think most competitors like what I am doing and are interested in learning how to train with more positive methods. At the middle levels, I think there is curiosity mixed with a good dose of doubt. They have been raised on the idea that dogs must learn that they have no choice about training, and they struggle to believe that this might not be correct. This level of trainer is already using mostly positive methods to train new behaviors, but they don’t understand the final steps that are important if you want to compete and still not use compulsion.
At the middle/high levels, I am an irritation. They want to believe that they have the most current and best methods, and it irritates them that I am succeeding without compulsion, because they are convinced that it is not possible. This group often speaks very poorly about me, but they know nothing about my methods nor do they show any interest in learning. They have already decided that what I am doing is not possible. The high level trainers mostly ignore me. They are successful however they are training, and they neither know nor particularly care what else might work.
Of course, those are generalities. I have supporters and detractors in all camps, but those are my basic observations.
News: Guest Posts
“Do As I Do” scores high
A rambunctious five-year-old Labrador Retriever who until a few months ago knew not a word of any language, obeyed no command, charged around the house or zipped through any hole in the fence before one could utter the name he didn’t seem to recognize has become my 91-year-old mother’s great and constant companion. He sits or lies by her when she is sitting or lying down. He moves with her when she goes somewhere with her walker and when she tells him to give her clear passage. He accompanies her when she walks around the pool for exercise. She says, “He is a good boy.” My mother has never trained a dog. She had a nice trained dog once, but she had been trained by someone else and given to her.
But Rocky, as he was named by my mother’s granddaughter, received no formal instruction from any source. He was neutered, which helped slow him down, but more profoundly, he and she opted for companionship and accommodation over ignoring each other. She talks to him constantly, telling him what she wants him to do. If she praises him, she is not effusive. She may occasionally slip him some food when she is cooking, and he will if given a chance steal her breakfast bagel. There is no system to it, but there is consistency.Top of Form
More than a few dog trainers who follow behaviorist principles that require a stimulus, a reward or punishment, for learning to occur would argue that Rocky is untrained—that is that he still will not perform on command the actions demanded of him—except he comes when called. He moves when told. He tells my mother when someone is at the door and stands by her when she opens it, thereby providing at least the illusion of protection. If that is not training, what is it?
My friend and fellow Psychology Today blogger, Marc Bekoff (“Animal Emotions”), might call the process dog teaching or dog learning.
It might not be as quick or as systematic as one of the common schools of training, including those that use electric collars and choke chains and those that rely on clickers and food rewards or other positive re-enforcers. But then again the results might be quicker, deeper, and longer lasting.
I have seen no statistics on the numbers of dogs educated in this fashion, but I imagine it is substantial. Essentially it relies on the dog’s innate curiosity, desire to please, and recognized ability to imitate behavior and recognize words and emotions, traits which arguably thousands of years of living with humans have served to enhance. It also requires the human have an interest in being with the dog and interacting with him or her in a meaningful way—what used to be referred to as “quality time” with the hound. Praise and rewards are meted out more according to the person’s nature than any program or schedule. They do not have to involve food. Our Kelpie Katie was unmotivated by food—she would ignore food rewards—but when a tennis ball appeared she went on high alert. Even then the ball was not essential to her learning something.
This intuitive style of dog teaching is not without its intellectual underpinnings thanks initially to Edward Tolman in the first half of the last century. He proposed that learning had intrinsic value and that people and animals could learn in the absence of immediate rewards—latent learning it is called. That idea underpins what is called the social theory of learning, which also views learning as a social endeavor that can involve imitation of behavior that is demonstrated or verbally described.
In an article in the January 28, issue of Applied Animal (Behaviour Science, entitled “Should old dog trainers learn new tricks? The efficiency of the “Do as I do” method and the shaping/clicker training method to train dogs,” Claudia Fugazza and Ádám Miklósi of the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, look at a canine system of social learning that relies on the dog’s great capacity for imitation called Do As I Do (DAID) compared with clicker training, which relies on the timely delivery of rewards to employ the dog’s associative abilities in shaping its behavior. (The article is only available by subscription, but here is the Abstract.) The clicker becomes a stand-in (secondary re-enforcer) for the actual re-enforcer, usually food. Clicker training is individualized instruction that requires the dog to figure out what earns rewards.
Fugazza, a graduate student in ethology developed Do As I Do in order to study social learning in dogs. To do that she had to develop protocols for teaching them. Judging from its success, it should gain a wide following. In this method, trainers, usually the dog’s primary human companion, use standard reward-based techniques to teach the dog to associate a small number of gestures with the command, “Do It!” The dog is then shown a new task and taught to perform it upon being given that command.
For this study, Fugazza and Miklósi compared the speed in learning three sets of tasks of increasing complexity, from knocking over a glass (simple) to opening or closing a locker or drawer (complex task) to a sequence of actions, like hopping on a chair and ringing a bell or opening a locker and removing a purse (compound). Objects were involved in each task that were not considered part of the family dog’s normal repertoire so that mastery of the task could be construed as learning. In the simple task there was no difference in performance between clicker-trained dogs and Do As I Do dogs, but that changed as the tasks became more difficult. Do As I Do dogs performed noticeably better, with more of them learning the task in the allotted fifteen minutes than clicker-trained dogs.
No one knows how the dogs are making the connections, and in their conclusion Fugazza and Miklósi thought it more important to downplay that result in favor, Miklósi said in an email, of providing trainers with as many methods as possible so they can choose the one best suited to their needs.
That is a tactical decision rather than a scientific one. It is grounded in the recognition that, especially commercial dog trainers and trainers of working and service dogs, like to use what has worked for them in the past with the kind of dog on which it has worked. That is one reason punishment-based forms of dog training persist.
For home schooling, time, patience, devotion—and a daily reminder of who has the big brain—are the keys to success and those come from discipline we often need more than the dog.
Used with permission of Mark Derr and Psychology Today, see more from Mark Derr’s blog “Dog’s Best Friend.”
Also see http://thebark.com/content/dogs-are-asked-just-do-it
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
Collection of online dog training videos
If you’re looking for extra frustration in your life, may I suggest trying to locate dog helpful dog training videos on the web? They are the proverbial needle in the haystack, and trying to find them is an excellent strategy for destroying your daily productivity.
Finding the right dog training videos is a daunting task because there are millions of videos out there and many of them have problems ranging from not being useful to being potential harmful to you and your dog. For novice trainers, it’s a huge challenge just to determine which videos feature techniques that are both humane and effective. Even the most experienced trainers can struggle to wade through the endless amount of material to find what they are looking for.
A new site called Clickety Clips is seeking to streamline the process by cataloging the best dog training videos to make for easier searching. Only videos using positive methods are included. Because the site is committed to positive training techniques, clicker training videos are featured prominently, but if you train with other markers or with a different style entirely, there is still plenty of material of great interest.
The videos are arranged by general topics such as Puppies, Wellbeing, Talks and Fun. Within each main category, the videos are organized further. For example, in the Puppies section, there are videos in the following categories: house training, recall, biting & chewing, before you get a dog, kids & dogs, basic cues and walking.
Clickety Clips is still a new site that is building its inventory of videos, so I suspect it will grow from its modest numbers now to considerably more in the future. It has some great videos from Sarah Whitehead, Sophia Yin, Ian Dunbar, Susan Friedman, Jean Donaldson and Gwen Bailey among others. I’d like to see them include videos from other well-known trainers including Karen Pryor, Laura Monaco Torelli, Patricia McConnell, Pia Silvani and Teoti Anderson.
I had a lot of fun wandering around the site and watching more videos than I had time for. Two of my favorites are Sue Sternberg’s At the dog park: the importance of participating and The Family Dog’s How to kiss a dog (not). It’s refreshing to see video after video with reputable information and useful instructions.
Have you checked out this site yet and found a video that you really loved?
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.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Strategies for both you and your dog.
My favorite wooden salad servers are decorated with Bugsy’s teeth marks. Excluding unprovoked attacks on innocent squeaky toys and the occasional disemboweling of one of his stuffed animals, he wasn’t a destructive chewer by nature, and never damaged anything else. When I came home from work and saw him enjoying these Costa Rican souvenirs, I could hardly blame him, and felt no irritation whatsoever. I understood: it was hunting season.
Because we had a strong aversion to being mistaken for deer and accidentally shot, our exercise was severely limited during the 10 days that hunters roamed the area. Instead of two daily off-leash romps in the woods around our 150- acre farm, we took leash walks down the road. It was clearly not enough for Bugsy, who compensated by chewing on the wooden “sticks” that were conveniently lying around. Every time I use the salad set, I’m reminded that even with well-trained dogs, exercise matters if you want good behavior.
Training obviously helps with problem behaviors, but it’s not the only way to avoid trouble. Dog trainers have long valued the role of exercise in minimizing irksome canine activities such as barking, chewing, jumping around like lunatics, being unable to settle down or sleep well, digging, whining and relentless attention-seeking.
One casual experiment supports these views: a group of dogs was divided in half; one half worked on formal training while the other half had their exercise increased to two 30-to-45-minute sessions a day. After six weeks, the dogs who had additional training showed improvements in both their responsiveness to cues and their problem behaviors. The dogs who had extra exercise also exhibited problem behaviors less frequently, although their responsiveness to cues had not improved.
The relationship between exercise and behavior is complex and sometimes surprising. For example, Schneider et al. (2013) reported that more exercise was correlated with lower levels of fear, less aggression towards familiar dogs and reduced excitability. Jagoe and Serpell (1996) found that dogs acquired for the purpose of increasing their owners’ level of exercise have a lower incidence of certain types of aggression, including possessive aggression and socalled dominance aggression. Lindsay (2005) hypothesized that this is due to the general physiological effects of exercise. So, how does exercise affect behavior through physiological means?
Endogenous chemicals (those produced by the body) may play a role in the effects of exercise on physiology and behavior. Like people, dogs can achieve an emotional state described as the “runner’s high,” which may be why the chance to go for a run is greeted with enthusiasm by our canine companions. It may also be why so many people believe the old saying, “A tired dog is a good dog,” though the admirable behavior exhibited by dogs who are well-exercised may be due more to chemistry than to fatigue.
A runner’s high is caused by chemicals called endocannabinoids, which signal the reward centers of our brains. Endocannabinoids lessen both pain and anxiety as well as create feelings of well-being. Running triggers higher levels of these compounds, which is why running makes us feel good.
If you just snorted derisively and thought that running makes you feel terrible and you can’t imagine why people put themselves through such misery on purpose, you aren’t alone. Though most dogs are excited about running, the human species, outside of a small percentage of fanatics of the sport (or weirdoes, as we are sometimes called), isn’t interested. Yet, the potential to activate the chemicals that cause a runner’s high exists within all of us. The capacity to experience that rush of good feelings is shared by dogs and people, even if we aren’t all dipping into it as frequently as our long-ago ancestors, for whom running long distances was part of daily life.
A study by Raichlen et al. (2012), “Wired to run: exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the ‘runner’s high,’” investigated the phenomenon. The researchers predicted that running would result in chemical reactions in the brain associated with pleasure in species with a history of endurance running, but not in species whose natural history does not include running. They studied three types of mammals—humans, dogs and ferrets—and found that the two with distance running in their evolutionary pasts (humans and dogs) exhibit elevated levels of one particular endocannabinoid (anandamide) after running on a treadmill. Ferrets, noncursorial animals, had no such chemical response.
Both canine and human brains are made to enjoy running, but this pleasurable, rewarding quirk of chemistry is not universal among mammals. Ferrets, as the study showed, derive no pleasure from it. (Friends who despise running have expressed alarm at the results of this study—it makes them wonder if they are part ferret.)
The behavioral benefits to dogs of running may be related more to contentment than to fatigue. Perhaps, what we call “tired” is actually better described as “happy,” “relieved of anxiety and pain” and “experiencing feelings of well-being.” If so, exercise may indirectly benefit dogs’ behavior because it elevates mood rather than simply makes them too worn out to misbehave. Since endocannabinoids lessen the anxiety that can be a source of problem behaviors, it’s easy to see how exercise could help.
Running is also associated with the production of other chemicals that reduce anxiety in mammalian brains. Schoenfeld et al. (2013) reported that mice given the opportunity to run handled stress and anxiety better than sedentary mice. The study observed the brains and brain activity in both groups of mice and found that runners had more excitable neurons in the ventral hippocampus, which plays a role in anxiety, than did sedentary mice. However, the active mice also had more cells capable of producing the calming chemicals that inhibit activity in that area of the brain, which lessens anxiety. The study supports the idea that for mice, at least, running improves regulation of anxiety through inhibitory activity in the brain. It is possible that the situation is similar in dogs, though without studying them specifically, we can’t know for sure.
Of course, behavior and physiology, and the links between the two, are never completely straightforward. There is evidence that cannabinoids can cause hyperactivity at low doses, even though they have calming effects at higher doses. What does this mean for our dogs?
Age, breed and individual differences play a role in the amount of exercise required to keep dogs’ halos on straight and prevent them from sprouting little horns, behaviorally speaking. Some thrive on small amounts of exercise. For others, the same amount of exercise— perhaps a leash walk at a leisurely pace—has the opposite effect. It invigorates them, and may actually induce hyperactivity. (That’s a bit discouraging for those of us whose goal is rarely, if ever, to pep dogs up, though some who compete in canine sports try to do exactly that.)
Recently, I was concerned that I might be inadvertently energizing a dog my family was watching. Super Bee, a Border Collie, belongs to professional runner and Adidas Ultra Team member Emily Harrison. Emily often trains with her dog, so Super Bee typically runs 60 to 70 miles a week. To say she is extremely fit is an understatement along the lines of me saying I sort of like dogs.
While Super Bee was with us, we made exercise a top priority. She went along on all of my morning runs, and my husband ran with her in the evenings. We supplemented this activity with long sessions of fetch; luckily, neither our kids nor Super Bee became bored with this game. Still, knowing that despite our best efforts, we would be unable to give Super Bee her usual amount of exercise, I worried that the shorter sessions would just amp her up.
Despite that risk, I never considered not exercising her, and I’m certainly not advising skipping out on getting a little bit of exercise if that’s all you can do. Exercise and the outings involved in getting it have benefits well beyond those provided by elevated endocannabinoids. There’s value in understanding the effects of various amounts of exercise on our dogs; various types of exercise, from hiking to swimming to playing tug, may have different effects as well.
Though we did not exercise her as much as Emily does, we made a good effort. Super Bee even seemed tired (or should I say contented?) a couple of times! It didn’t last long, but we’re still proud of our accomplishment. It probably contributed to Super Bee’s model behavior while she was with us.
Besides the well-known physical benefits of exercise, its psychological and behavioral benefits are profound and contribute to a high quality of life. The reduction of annoying behaviors and the good behavior that arises directly or indirectly from exercise certainly make the beautiful relationship between people and dogs that much better. What more could we want for our dogs than the highest quality of life, minimal anxiety, the most elevated feelings of contentedness and the best possible relationship with us?
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