Good Dog: Behavior & Training
I love it when clients ask and answer this question
It’s a great joy to me when a client tells me, “So I just thought, ‘How would Karen handle this?’” and I heartily agree with the way they answered this question. Not only am I excited to hear that a critical training moment went well, but I’m thrilled to realize that the person is thinking like a trainer.
Here are some examples of situations in which clients have reported that they did what they thought I would have done. . . and they were right!
Shadow grabbed her wallet off the counter. My client knelt down cheerfully at a distance and she came over and willingly traded it for a toy.
Bono bolted through the door and the person remained composed enough to call him to come in happy voice, then ran in the opposite direction (away from the dog). Once Bono reached him, he reinforced that beautiful recall with a stuffed Kong pulled from the freezer.
Riley did something adorable—crossing his paws while lying down—and his guardian thought to click and treat to capture that behavior.
Willow resisted getting into the car, so the man made it easier for her by putting a blanket that she loves inside the car and by getting into the car first as an additional way to make it more appealing.
Benford was at risk of being taken by surprise by another dog on a walk. His guardian noticed that dog first thanks to his constant vigilance. He avoided the situation entirely and protected his dog by heading the other way and hiding behind a car until the other dog had passed by.
I often advise my clients about strategies for responding to unexpected situations, including being prepared, but in the moment, they still have to make decisions in real time and then carry out the plan. I love it when it works out for dogs and people alike!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Training dogs to use their indoor voice
A dog can’t jump on visitors if he’s sitting. He can’t run off if he’s on a stay. Training an incompatible behavior is a reliable way to squelch the unwanted.
But what about barking? Boston could bow and bark, bounce and bark, beg and bark. He barked on a stay, he barked while running with a ball in his mouth.
Boston was my guide dog, and though he loved to serve, he also loved to vocalize while on duty. At work, I often had to run him outside for an emergency bark break.
My husband, Bob, and I first thought of teaching him to speak on command in the hope that he’d learn to only bark on cue. We’d chase him around the house while tooting loudly on a beer bottle, a game he loved that set off a cacophony of woofs. “Speak,” we’d yell, and throw a treat as soon as he vocalized. It took Boston only two sessions to learn to speak.
Now we had the irrepressible Golden barking both on and off cue … but what, I wondered, was an incompatible behavior?
The epiphany came when I realized that it need not be exactly incompatible, just suppressed. We taught Boston to whisper.
This was super-easy to shape. Each day, only a softer bark elicited a treat. In a week, we had turned the volume down by half. A month later, Boston was whispering very quietly indeed.
When Boston retired, he became Bob’s pet, and they certified together under the Therapy Dogs International program. When they visited children in classrooms, Bob demonstrated how Boston could both speak and whisper on command. (Teachers often reminded their overly loud classes that even the dog had an indoor voice.)
Years later, when we adopted Dayton, another bouncy and vocal Golden, we put “whisper” into practice right away. Though the command hasn’t eliminated Dayton’s barking altogether, after a few woofs, he often reverts to whispering softly to himself as he roams the yard and house.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
She was taught to trade money for food
Dogs want food treats so much that they will generally do whatever it takes to get us to hand them over. Different dogs learn different strategies to accomplish this same goal. Some dogs learn to sit, other dogs figure out that making their cutest wide-eyed face works best and there are dogs who have been taught that begging at the table is effective.
One dog named Holly learned that the best way to get treats is to pay for them. As a puppy, she loved to take things from bags or purses in the house, and that included dollar bills. Rather than chase her around or try to wrestle her new treasures away from her, her guardians wisely opted to make trades. Holly would surrender the money to receive a treat. It wasn’t hard for her to figure out that if she had money, she could use it to “buy” treats. In dog training parlance, she had been reinforced (with treats) for having money in her mouth and letting her guardians take it away, so she began to do it more often.
In fact, she learned to search for money so that she could trade it for treats. Her guardians can tell her to go get a dollar if she wants a treat, and Holly will go find one. This family finds it amusing and allows her to have a stash of cash that she can use to “buy” treats. When she runs out, they replenish her supply. (She will often bring a dollar without being asked and put it on one of their laps to let them know she wants to exchange it for a treat.)
When it comes to getting treats, dogs do what works for them. As trainers and guardians, we can use that to our advantage by making a behavior that we like be one that works for them. So, if you want your dog to drop things, make that a strategy that will result in treats for them.
It is possible for this to go awry if what your dog learns to drop for treats is something you don’t want him to have in the first place such as your phone or your glasses case. It’s more fun (and less irksome) if you can teach your dog to drop things you want him to bring to you, such as the newspaper or your slippers. If there is something your dog is always taking that you would prefer not be in his mouth, make it inaccessible while you encourage him to take something else instead. Once he has established a new habit of bringing you the “right” objects, he will be more likely to leave those other things alone.
Has your dog learned that certain objects can be traded for treats?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Some dogs prefer recently acquired skills
“The new action is always her favorite!” one of my clients told me. And it’s true—whenever Stella is taught something new, she’s so excited about it.
Stella knows a lot of skills already—sit, down, stay, wait, come, heel, touch, take it, leave it. She needs those skills because she is a service-dog-in-training. Most of these skills she knows really well and can do even in hectic situations. That’s important, because at times, she has lived in a house with up to nine people ranging in age from 6 months old to upwards of 90 years, two other dogs and four cats. Not every dog can hold a stay when a three-year old is running around, cats are zipping by her, and a few adults are talking at the same time in order to work out the day’s complicated logistics, but Stella can!
During the course of her training, Stella has also learned some tricks such as bow, crawl and sit pretty—and it’s about the cutest sit pretty you will ever see. She modified it on her own to grasp her handler’s hand. It always looks to me like she is praying reverently.
One of the reasons Stella has learned these tricks is that she loves to learn new things, so we’ve introduced them along the way. In some training visits to her home, we work on something new just because it makes her happy. She likes to work and enjoys all of her training exercises, but whatever she has learned most recently provides her with a little extra joy.
It’s not clear why that is, but there are a number of possibilities. Some dogs enjoy the puzzle of figuring out what they are supposed to do. Some dogs become bored of any routine and get very excited when something unexpected is happening. Others seem to relish learning something new because of the satisfaction of getting it right. Other dogs love the new trick because many trainers use the best food or especially high rates of reinforcement with new skills to help dogs learn them faster.
Does your dog get excited about learning a new trick or other skill?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
When shopping for a trainer, look behind the advertising language.
If you live in a big city like I do, you’re overwhelmed with choice for just about any service you can think of. I could get a different coffee and haircut every day of the week and never leave my local neighborhood. This is great, in theory, but how do I choose the best place for my morning latte? Who should I trust to get my hair faded just right?
Choice is also a benefit when you’re looking for a dog trainer, but you can end up facing the same kind of issues, with a lot more riding on the outcome than a bitter drink or a less-than-stellar ’do.
So how do we find the right trainer if we have only Google to go on? Online reviews are hardly fair and balanced, but we don’t always have the luxury of a personal recommendation. The answer is to learn how to interpret the language used on dog-training websites.
Think of a trainer’s website as an infomercial. Although we know it’s designed to convince us to sign up, if we’re savvy we can also pick through the language to find clues about a trainer’s methods and beliefs. Let’s start with the most common word, one that pops up on almost every trainer’s site: effective.
Of course, we all want our dog trainer to be effective. Who would sign up for Dave’s Ineffective Dog Training? We’re spending time and money trying to help our dogs become well-mannered citizens, and we don’t want to feel like our efforts have been wasted. However, there are many different ways to accomplish training goals, some more fraught with potential pitfalls than others. Efficacy is important, but ethics are important too, and are something that trainers also reflect in their word choice.
Words like compassionate, fair and humane indicate what trainers believe about themselves, but they don’t add much clarity for potential clients. All three are subjective terms; what I believe represents compassionate training might not be what you envision. Besides, what counts as humane and compassionate is determined by a trainer’s beliefs about how dogs learn and how best to teach them, so these words raise questions rather than answer them.
Trainers also use a relatively small number of more specific, objective sounding terms on their sites. Because these can provide a general idea of the kinds of things that might happen to a dog during training, it’s useful to understand what they mean. Following is a list of the most commonly used.
Trainers who describe themselves as “force free,” or some variation of “purely positive,” will never deliberately use pain or fear in their training. They will focus on finding ways to reward a good behavior that is incompatible with the behavior they don’t want to see, like sitting politely instead of jumping up on guests. Often, they’ll use a clicker and treats, paired with ignoring the dog when he’s doing something inappropriate.
The key thing to remember here is that although these trainers might see themselves as using only positive, gentle methods, what really matters is how the dog sees things. Force-free trainers who put clients’ dogs in situations where they feel uncomfortable, or who can’t teach their guardians the skills required to carry on after the session, can cause frustration and anxiety and even reinforce undesirable behavior.
Trainers who describe themselves as “balanced” may use everything from electronic collars to clickers in their approach. The balance here is between things designed to punish bad behavior and things designed to reward good behavior. However, not all balanced trainers will use every tool, or the same balance of rewards and punishments. Some will use punishment only in certain cases, others will use it most of the time. Many balanced trainers make distinctions among different breeds of dog, or different types of problems that they believe won’t respond to the kinds of reward-based approaches on which force-free trainers rely.
For example, many balanced trainers claim that although dogs can learn tricks using a clicker and treats, they can be taught to avoid rattlesnakes only by associating the snakes with something unpleasant, like a shock. Force-free trainers strongly disagree with claims like this, which has led to serious rifts within the dog-training community.
LIMA AND HUMANE HIERARCHY
These terms are less common than the previous two, but they are gaining traction in professional circles as a way to explain both an ethical stance and a practical approach to dog training. LIMA stands for “Least Invasive Minimally Aversive,” meaning that with any set of possible interventions, the trainer will always try whatever is least likely to cause pain or punishment first, only moving to more potentially unpleasant options if he or she feels the need. (This position is endorsed by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.) The Humane Hierarchy was developed by Dr. Susan Friedman as one way of organizing potential interventions, from most to least punishing. A trainer who uses these terms is engaged with the latest thinking on ethics and wants to display this engagement to potential clients. It’s very unlikely that trainers who align themselves with LIMA will use punishment, especially for basic obedience issues.
BOOT CAMP (and other military terms)
This kind of language usually suggests that the trainer believes in punishment as the best way to manage behavior. Trainers who sell themselves as providing this type of intervention often also subscribe to ideas about dominance and “being the alpha.” They appeal to frustrated owners who are faced with dogs who seem rude and out-of-control, but their approaches can be harsh and lead to suppression, not modification. Trainers who describe themselves or their approach in this controlling, militaristic language are probably best avoided altogether.
NO SUBSTITUTE FOR SUBSTANCE
Although being able to parse these terms and understand them gives us more of a picture of how a trainer operates than the words “humane and effective,” it’s clear that each label still represents a spectrum of beliefs and approaches.
The only way to get the clearest possible information is to ask trainers directly. That means you’ve got to shop around, get in front of trainers, and ask unambiguous and substantial questions about what is going to happen to your dog, and why. Dog behavior consultant John McGuigan proposes the following questions, which every trainer ought to easily be able to answer: What will happen to my dog if she gets it right? What will happen to my dog if she gets it wrong? Are there less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
These questions don’t cover everything, and they can’t inoculate you against a marketing spiel, but they’re a good place to start. If you’re not comfortable with the answers you get; if the trainer becomes evasive and starts using concepts like “energy,” talking around the question or invoking his or her years of experience; or if the answer involves anything that is designed to cause pain, to startle or to do anything else unpleasant, think twice. It’s your responsibility to exercise due diligence when choosing a dog trainer, and it’s always better to risk being seen as a busybody than it is to put your dog in a situation you didn’t want or expect.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A soft mouth can be the difference between life and death for dogs.
All dogs come equipped with powerful jaws and teeth capable of inflicting injury, but they vary in their willingness to use them as weapons. Most save them for marrow bones, chews or Kongs, a quality that makes for good pets and great friends. The degree to which dogs learn not to use the full force of their mouths on people and other dogs is called “bite inhibition,” and it is the most important part of a dog’s education.
Unfortunately, all dogs are likely to experience unpleasant or stressful incidents, but those with proper bite inhibition will not cause much (if any) damage in response. That’s why bite inhibition is so valuable. If an injured or terrified dog air-snaps or inhibits his bite so effectively that contact with another dog or person causes no pain or injury, that’s a manageable problem by most people’s standards. If a dog with poor bite inhibition is in the same situation and inflicts serious damage, it’s a potentially disastrous problem from a physical, emotional and even legal standpoint.
Consider the following incidents from my own case files.
A visiting child loses his temper when the family dog distracts him during a game of ping pong by yawning and whining. The child hits the dog in the face with the ping-pong paddle, and the dog runs away yelping. A teenager tries to dress up her dog to match her own outfit, and the dog resists. As she continues forcing the clothes on him, he whines and struggles. After several minutes, the dog growls and snaps at her face but makes no contact. An elderly man trips and falls onto his dog while the dog is eating. The dog bites the man on the leg, leaving no mark. A toddler tries to climb on her sleeping dog to ride him like a horse. The dog stands up and begins to walk away, but when she tries once again to get on his back, he bites her on the shoulder, causing a bruise. When a man reaches to pet his friend’s dog, his watch catches on the dog’s collar. He gently tries to disentangle himself, and the dog bites him on the leg, leaving two puncture marks and some bruising. A woman walks into her dining room, sees a dog toy under the table and reaches down to get it. Her dog races in from the living room and bites her arm repeatedly, resulting in multiple punctures along with fractures to her wrist and arm that require several surgeries to fix.
In each instance, it’s easy to see why the dog was distressed. Yet, the seriousness of the responses was not directly related to the injustice or pain suffered by the dog, but rather, to the dog’s ability to exercise proper bite inhibition. It’s no exaggeration to say that bite inhibition can be the difference between success and failure in treating behavior problems, and even between life and death for the dog.
When evaluating risk, it’s reasonable to ask what’s the worst that could happen if for example, a gate is left open, a leash breaks or a person barges in unannounced. If the answer is, “Someone could get really spooked and be furious with us because our dog may bark, lunge or snap,” many people would be willing to take that chance. If instead, the answer is, “Someone could be badly and even permanently injured, require medical care such as surgery or be deeply traumatized,” far fewer would be able to live with that risk. The answer is really important because it will generally determine how willing people are to live with the risk, which in turn influences how committed they are to their dog and working to improve his behavior.
Some dogs develop the bite inhibition so essential for navigating life’s tricky and unexpected events while others don’t. Both genetics and learning influence the process. Though there’s genetic variation among individual dogs, some types of dogs are famous for soft mouths. It’s not surprising, for example, that dogs bred to retrieve game use their mouths gently to avoid damaging that game. Retrievers are also well known for being “mouthy,” meaning that they use their mouth, including their teeth, often. Though there are cases of dogs who are gentle with their mouths while retrieving but do not have good bite inhibition in social situations, it is more common that dogs who are able to exercise control in one situation are able to behave similarly in others. That does not mean that dogs with good bite inhibition won’t kill squirrels or tear up their chew toys. Bite inhibition is all about exercising control in social situations, but that does not necessarily apply to predatory behavior or to play with objects.
Experience with play biting and mouthing often leads to better bite inhibition, and like anything else, those who practice become the most skilled. Littermates are a puppy’s first teachers, one of several reasons that it’s beneficial for puppies to stay with their litter for about two months. As the young dogs play, they use their mouths to tug or gnaw on their siblings’ ears, tails, paws and loose skin. If one puppy mouths another too hard, the puppy who got hurt will yelp, stop playing and move away. This teaches puppies that hard bites, even if not intended to cause pain, result in an interruption in play. Singleton puppies and those taken from their litter before the age of five or six weeks often lack proper bite inhibition. It seems that puppies need their littermates’ feedback to learn to control the pressure they exert with their mouths.
Once puppies head to new homes, their education needs to continue, and that includes socialization with other puppies and dogs. This does not mean throwing a puppy into the dog-park scrum and hoping it will all work out. In that setting, puppies are far too likely to be overwhelmed and to experience it as we might experience a gladiator pit. Rather, it means supervised play dates with carefully selected and well-behaved canines.
Lessons from people are also useful in teaching bite inhibition. Though using their mouths on our hands, arms, legs, hair and clothes is natural behavior for them, dogs must learn to interact in ways that are appropriate in our world. An effective technique, one based on puppies’ earlier experiences with their littermates, is to startle and then redirect the young offender. If a puppy mouths too hard, yelp with a puppy-like sound (Aaarp! is the closest description of this sound that can be spelled), which often interrupts the puppy’s biting. Take advantage of that pause in the behavior by immediately giving the puppy something appropriate to chew on. Good options include bones, chew toys, Kongs, squeaky toys and stuffed animals.
A common mistake when using this method is to make the yelping sound and then fail to redirect the puppy. In most cases, although the sound will startle the puppy into a break in the mouthing, he or she will go right back to it unless given another, more appropriate object to focus on. Many people begin by doing both steps (startle and redirect), but as time goes on, they switch to startling without bothering to redirect. They then report that the technique doesn’t work.
While more than 90 percent of puppies will respond to this method if it is used correctly and consistently, there are indeed dogs who seem to get worse in response to high-pitched yelps, becoming even mouthier and more revved up. For those dogs, it’s usually effective to startle the dog with a deep-voiced “Hey!” or “Ouch!” Otherwise, the technique of interrupting the behavior and then redirecting the dog to an appropriate object is the same. If the puppy fails to respond to either sound, walk away so that he learns that biting brings an end to the fun.
It’s important to begin by startling and redirecting the puppy only in response to the most forceful bites. Employing this approach with every instance of mouthing can be overwhelming to the puppy, who is, after all, doing what comes naturally and exploring the world by mouth. So, the first goal is to teach the puppy not to mouth so hard rather than not to mouth at all. When the hardest bites have been inhibited, the next step is to startle and redirect after medium-force bites. Finally, once the puppy has learned to mouth people with only the gentlest of pressure, teach him not to do this at all by employing the same technique in response to any occasion in which his teeth touch delicate human skin, hair or clothes.
There are many recommendations out there for stopping puppy mouthing and I advise against most of them because they are inhumane and generally ineffective. For example, do not hold the dog’s muzzle closed, yell at the dog, jam your fingers into the dog’s mouth or swat the dog. Basically, it comes down to one piece of general advice: Don’t do anything that involves any kind of physical punishment that causes pain or frightens the dog.
Proper bite inhibition is incredibly important, and developing it requires lessons early in life. The normal process of learning bite inhibition is linked with puppy development and it can’t usually be learned later in life with the same degree of success. Dogs without this essential skill may cause severe damage—punctures, painful bruising and even broken bones on occasion. Learning bite inhibition is one of the first and most essential lessons for puppies, because it is about safety as well as being a well-behaved, polite member of society.
Dog's Life: Travel
A look inside Sunrise Springs Spa Resort’s Puppy Enrichment Center.
According to philosopher Bernard Williams, “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.” Imagine having four or five of them jockeying for attention, slipping and sliding as they try to gain favor. “Pet me!” “Give me treats!” “Play with me!”
But these young and slightly clumsy little chocolate, black and yellow English Labs aren’t here at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort’s Puppy Enrichment Center just to get their licks in. They’re here being trained to be service dogs for people with mobility impairments; traumatic brain injuries; combat injuries; autism spectrum, seizure, and emotional and anxiety disorders; developmental disabilities; and diabetes.
As part of their training, the dogs are taught to be patient as well as comfortable with being handled and spoken to by many different people in a variety of environments. When they’re older and ready to work, they will truly make a difference in their partners’ lives, helping them become more independent, self-reliant and confident.
This tranquil northern New Mexico resort is able to offer its guests opportunities to interact with the adorable Labs as part of its collaboration with Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW). Founded in 1995 in Santa Fe, ADW now has the largest assistance dog studenttraining program in the world.
The facility at Sunrise Springs is the brainchild of ADW’s founder, Jill Felice, and Sunrise’s Andy Scott. The two longtime friends decided that guests could benefit from contact with these healthy, welltempered dogs and observing their development and training firsthand. The puppies add another level to the spa experience, as do the Silkie chickens, also on the premises and available for guest interaction; the chickens are known for their calm temperament and fluff, which adds an additional layer of relaxation to this wellness oasis. (Marie Claire magazineis calls Sunrise Springs “the perfect escape for the animal lover.”)
The puppies are born at the resort, and staff trainers—professionals, student trainers ranging in age from eight to 18, and veterans with ADW’s Warrior Canine Connection—prepare the dogs to be mission-ready when they’re placed with their human partners. They teach the dogs 90 commands, including how to open doors; climb stairs one at a time; and “under,” which means to put their bellies on the ground under a chair or table when their person sits.
The dogs are also taught to step over Styrofoam tubes to learn agility, fetch rubber balls from a baby pool to learn retrieval skills and even to use a ramp. The trainers take them into public places to further refine the commands. All this helps the puppies become better problem solvers, smarter about handling the critical situations in which their future partners will require assistance.
The puppies’ spacious pen is set up in a large room, and guests are encouraged to interact with the dogs during visiting hours, known at the resort as Open Puppy Studio. In addition, there’s an adjacent playroom well stocked with toys, and a large pen out back. The puppies and their trainers are also free to roam the resort’s many acres of gardens, paths, walking trails and undeveloped land.
Guests are asked to remove their shoes and wash their hands before entering the center. Once they’re inside, Britte Holman, who runs the center and is the first supervisor of this new program, encourages them to engage with the puppies, and answers any questions they might have. She also reminds them that if they wave a ball at a puppy, they must toss it, because the dogs need to know how to follow through. When it comes to assistance dogs, this is especially critical, since when they’re on the job, their people will be relying on them to respond promptly and accurately to commands. This type of training is extremely demanding, as errors can have serious consequences for both dog and person.
Clickers are used to train the puppies, and the reward after a click is food. Other rewards include toys, pats and verbal praise. The clickers are also used to shape and reinforce critical behaviors. The trainers do not use the word “no,” and choke chain collars are never employed.
The dogs help to choose their human partners and are placed with them at two years of age. Some of ADW’s dogs are with their people for life; others work in facilities, such as children’s advocacy centers or with district attorney’s offices, spending their lives with their handlers in homes carefully screened by the organization before placement.
Like all of ADW’s training programs, the focus at the Puppy Enrichment Center is on the dogs’ mental, physical and emotional well being, all of which are important to the eventual heartfelt relationships they will forge with their people. They are truly four-legged solutions to human challenges. Come see for yourself.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A “Dog-torate” in Occupational Therapy
Niko may very well be more popular than any Big Man on Campus has ever been. He’s not that big, and he’s actually not a man, but this Labrador Retriever spends far more time in college classrooms than most students, and he is adored. Niko is trained as a service dog, and is a key member of the Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. The goal of this program is to help students in the occupational therapy program, healthcare professionals and members of the community learn about service dogs.
The world of service dogs is filled with information that is not common knowledge. Because people are not aware of all the ways that service dogs can, well, be of service, many people are missing out on additional ways to live independently and in fully satisfying ways. More education is part of the solution.
Not very many people know all the ways that service dogs can help people with disabilities, or the proper etiquette to observe around a service dog. Fewer still are familiar with what protections the law offers to service dogs and their people. This lack of knowledge usually means that people may behave in ways that are annoying or unhelpful in the presence of a service dog. For occupational therapists, such gaps in their knowledge could mean doing their jobs less effectively. Service dogs are often underutilized in plans to help a person achieve independence and improve their higher quality of life. The Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa aims to change that. With Niko’s help, professors at OU-Tulsa are able to educate students about service dogs with practical, interactive hands-on experience and demonstrations.
By teaching students and other members of the community about service dogs, Niko helps reduce the barriers faced by people who need and work with service dogs every day, and that means that people’s lives are enhanced by the program. Over 500 people receive education each year through the Professor Paws Project, which was developed by Assistant Professor Mary Isaacson. To honor this contribution to the community, the City of Tulsa has just designated May 9, 2017 as “Professor Paws Day”. On that day, Niko will officially walk in the graduation ceremonies. (Think of it as Niko receiving his “Dog-torate”.)
Niko is not the first service dog to be involved with the education of occupational therapy students at OU-Tulsa. Before Isaacson trained Niko, she trained a service dog named Samson, and began incorporating him into her classroom instruction. Samson regularly attended classes, which allowed her to demonstrate the specific ways that a service dog can have an impact on a person’s daily life. Whether it is opening the fridge, retrieving dropped items, helping remove someone’s socks, or turning lights on and off, students were able to see what a difference such assistance can make to a person with a disability.
After training, Samson was placed with a high school student with cerebral palsy. That was 6 years ago, and now Samson lives on a college campus and continues to assist the same person. Having Samson participate in classes during his training and before his placement was so beneficial to students that people recognized the value of having a dog present on campus permanently.
As a result, the goal all along for Niko has been different than for Samson. Rather than being placed with someone as a service dog or working directly with patients, Niko will remain at OU-Tulsa in order to continue educating people about service dogs. As far as staff at the university know, the Professor Paws Project is the only program of its kind. However, its success suggests that this might not be true for long.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
During their first appointment, my clients told me that their dog had “severe territorial aggression,” and that they had been advised to euthanize him. I looked at the wide-eyed and quaking Hound mix hiding under a chair and had a strong suspicion that the label given to this dog was far from accurate.
As it turned out, the dog was actually terrified of strangers. Not only was his problematic behavior based in fear and totally unrelated to any concept of territory, he had never hurt anyone. He whined, barked and showed his teeth to anyone he didn’t know who got too close to him, giving them an awful scare, but even when people tried to pet him (unwise, but it happened!), he didn’t bite.
Over the years, situations like this have made me increasingly disillusioned about the labels that are so often applied to dogs’ behavior problems. I find that labeling often does more harm than good, especially when the label is wrong.
It’s not surprising that we want to label dogs’ behavior issues: it matches the system we use for people. In the realm of human health care, labels are necessary because billing codes are required for insurance coverage of both treatment and medications.
Having a label for a dog’s behavior problem may also make it easier for us to access information and resources. Learning that it is a known syndrome or problem often makes us feel better even before there’s any discussion about what to do to improve the behavior. It’s a natural human tendency—just naming a problem can give us a sense of control over it. But sadly, mislabeling interferes with arriving at an appropriate response to the problem, whatever the problem turns out to be.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to labeling behavior problems is that it provides a verbal shorthand that speeds up communication. There’s an appealing simplicity to using a short phrase or two to identify a dog’s issue rather than going into great detail about each incident, especially when many people are involved. (It’s not unusual for an evaluation team to include a behaviorist, a veterinarian and a trainer, as well as other experts.)
On the other hand, describing the behavior in detail lends an accuracy to the situation that labels sometime obscure.
For example, every year, multiple clients seek my help with separation anxiety because they have been told (erroneously) that their dog suffers from it. The dog may be showing behaviors often associated with separation anxiety —including excessive barking, eliminating indoors or destructive chewing—but the real problem can often be revealed with a thorough description of the dog’s behavior before, during and after the guardian’s departure.
When the real issue is boredom, incomplete house training or a simple (which is not to say easy!) case of adolescence, changing the undesirable behavior by approaching it as a case of separation anxiety is unlikely to be successful. Rather than medication and complex protocols to desensitize the dog to departures and the cues that precede them, the real solution could be to add activities and enrichment opportunities, return to Housetraining 101 or provide a long exercise session before putting the dog in a crate with appropriate, long lasting chewables.
It is also common for people to consult with me because their dog is “protective” of them. Lila brought in Banjo because every time anyone got near Lila, Banjo barked, growled and lunged. Lila was concerned that he would hurt someone, but delighted by his bold confidence. Trouble was, after taking a case history and observing Banjo in a variety of contexts, I could tell that he was not protecting her so much as he was possessing her. He guarded toys, food, sleeping spaces and anything he considered of value, including Lila. He was not her brave protector, but an insecure dog who considered her to be the best bone in the world, and he was not going to let someone else have her. Mislabeling Banjo’s behavior as “protectiveness” rather than of “possessiveness” hindered attempts to change this behavior, and interfered with Lila’s understanding of who Banjo was.
Another negative of labeling behavior problems is that it oversimplifies the situation. If a dog is called a “fear biter” or even labeled with the more professional sounding “fear-based aggression,” it implies a simplicity that is just not there. Even among the many dogs whose fear drives aggressive behavior, differences are enormous. Dealing with a dog who is afraid of red-headed children (and therefore reacts badly when in the presence of one) because he was once traumatized by an attack from such a child requires a very targeted approach to overcoming that fear. Modifying such a specific behavior is different than working with dogs who are afraid of everything; dogs who missed out on socialization early on but are great with familiar people; or even dogs who panic and bite as a reaction to loud noises such as gun shots, fireworks or the crash of pot hitting a tile floor.
A related drawback of labeling behavior problems is that the label implies a solution, again, much like the human medical model, in which a diagnosis necessarily points to a specific treatment. Boxed-in thinking about how to change undesirable behavior can short circuit continued investigation. Using the label “arousal-based aggression” gives the impression that the situation is thoroughly understood and that all that is needed is an appropriate behavior modification program, one that emphasizes predictability and includes exercises to help the dog learn to practice self-control. However, that label may mask the dog’s anxiety and the need for intervention to address it.
Then, there’s the issue of shame; giving a dog’s problem a label makes it seem more serious and alarming to many guardians and may also make them feel unnecessarily ashamed of their dog’s behavior. That’s especially true of any label that includes the word “aggressive,” which carries such a stigma. It’s too bad that a stigma exists, but since it does, it makes sense to be mindful of it when discussing dogs’ behavior with their guardians. People are often devastated to be told that their dog is aggressive, especially if the dog is sweet and loving within the family. It can be even harder for a family whose dog is behaving out of character due to an injury or other physical ailment to accept a label of “aggression.” If the dog is in such pain that the problem behavior is just the dog’s attempt to keep people from touching him because he has learned it will hurt, I would rather say that— even if it is long and a little unwieldy—than call the dog aggressive. Even if it is modified by the term “pain-induced,” the word makes people feel bad, and that’s not helpful.
It’s common for people who are told that their dog is “fear aggressive” to be more daunted and overwhelmed than if they are told that their dog is fearful, and is acting the way he does because he can’t say, “Please, oh please, don’t come any closer—you’re scaring me! And for heaven’s sake, don’t pet me because I can’t handle that except from my closest friends.” If people understand that dogs are barking, growling or biting because they are desperate to increase the distance between themselves and whatever scares them—other dogs, people, trash cans, bicycles—and will only stop if we can help them overcome their fears, there’s less judgment and more hope. Focusing on the behavior itself— what the dog does—and discussing the motivation behind it avoids problems that can arise with simply labeling the behavior.
I recently consulted with a family whose dog was a victim of a labeling error that had hindered their ability to help him. This family’s sweet, three-year-old Newfoundland was urinating inside the home and because their veterinarian could find no medical reason for it, she had referred them to me to handle the “housetraining” problem. One complication with this particular label is that there is no agreement across disciplines about what it means. To many people, house soiling without a medical cause is always related to housetraining, but behaviorists recognize that many issues involving urination indoors can be signs of appeasement behavior or a need to mark territory, among other possibilities.
It was a challenge to get contextual information from the family about the problem because they just kept saying, “He pees everywhere, and it’s such a mess!” and then detailing the clean-up, which was no doubt considerable given that the dog weighed 125 pounds. With persistent inquiry, however, I was finally able to get a fuller picture; it turned out not to be a housetraining problem after all. The dog’s housetraining was solid, but he peed during greetings. As a puppy, he urinated whenever he greeted anyone, but now he only did it when greeting the husband or the occasional male visitor, especially if the visitor reached for the dog.
Recognizing that the inappropriate urination was a specific type of social issue (often called “submissive urination” and somewhat unusual in dogs older than 12 to 18 months of age) rather than one of bladder control— or not knowing or caring where it was appropriate to eliminate— made it easier to address the real issue: the husband’s approach to his sensitive dog. Though he thought he was doing right by his dog by being firm and applying stern, consistent discipline, he was open to a new approach. I was able to help the family by teaching the husband kinder, gentler and more effective ways to interact with his dog and influence the dog’s behavior. As a result, the dog stopped urinating in the house. No program designed to solve a housetraining problem would have achieved this result, which had the added benefit of improving the overall family dynamic as well.
The temptation to put a name on a problem is strong, and many of us are quick to embrace it. However, while labeling seems like an intuitively obvious approach, the downsides are too important and too numerous for me to be on board with it. Labels can get in the way of seeing the dog, focusing our attention on a pathology and turning the dog into an example of a specific behavior problem rather than what he or she actually is: a complex individual and a unique case.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Having your dog’s attention is one of the most important and underrated aspects of positive dog training. It’s obvious when you think about it – how can you train your dog, if your dog doesn’t pay attention to you? Luckily, we’ve come up with three simple and fun exercises designed to help get your dog’s attention, making training your dog a little easier.
TEACHING YOUR DOG TO BE A GOOD STUDENT
Training your dog to pay attention teaches them to be a good student, ensuring that they will sit quietly and wait for instructions – once these foundations are in place, training your dog will become a great deal easier. Later on, we will cover two of the best attention exercises available, which are centred on being a good student, paying attention and awaiting instructions.
Although it is often underemphasised by dog training experts, ensuring your dog is capable of paying attention is one of the core principles in positive reinforcement training, and an absolutely necessity if you are to ensure your training is a success. This post aims to rectify this issue, by providing you with the mind-set and training exercises required to train your dog to be pay attention – eventually leaving you with a happy, well-trained and trusting member of the family!
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE YOUR DOG’S ATTENTION?
The easiest way to see if your dog is paying attention to you is to observe whether or not he is looking at you and following everything you do closely. Once you have an attentive dog, this will be very obvious, especially to other family members or friends, who will note that your dog seems to follow you around and work for your attention – particularly at feeding time!
However, it is worth remembering that some dogs are discrete – they might not seem interested in where you are or what you’re up to, but the moment you disappear, they’ll appear right next to you – my dog can even be upstairs while I’m working downstairs, but the moment he can no longer hear the sound of me typing on my computer, he’ll come down to check that I haven’t nipped out without him. This is attention in a nutshell - when your dog is aware of your movements and what you are doing at any time of day.
IS HAVING YOUR DOG’S ATTENTION REALLY NECESSARY?
You might wonder if all this talk about attention is overrated – this outlook is typical of more traditional or ‘old school’ trainers, who believe you can get better results by forcing your dog to pay attention when you demand it. In my experience, though, this approach doesn’t work anywhere near as well – there’s a notable difference between a dog who focuses on you because he has to, and one who focuses on you because he wants to please you. The goal of this post is to help you reach a point where your dog is focused on pleasing you, as this is the easiest way of training him successfully.
DON'T TAKE YOUR DOG'S ATTENTION FOR GRANTED
In my experience, dog owners take a lot of things for granted – too many, in fact. When a dog first comes into the home, he relies on us completely, and we have his full attention at all times. After a few weeks, however, your dog will relax into the environment and encounter new, fresh and exciting experiences which are more interesting than you – and that’s not good news for your relationship, particularly where training is concerned. By remaining at the centre of your dog’s world, you’ll not only enjoy a stronger bond with your dog, but stand a much better chance of being able to train him successfully.
So how do we accomplish this? With consistent training – every day, all year. By making training a habit, you’ll make it second nature for both you and your dog, ensuring you’ll have the basics – sit, come here, down etc. - covered quickly and efficiently, allowing you to move onto more complicated routines.
Now that we understand what it means to have your dog’s attention and why having your dog’s attention is so important, we can move onto the frameworks we use for teaching attention, along with a few simple exercises you can undertake to ensure your dog is always paying attention to you.
YOUR DOG KNOW WHEN YOU'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION
First things first - when training your dog to pay attention to you, you have to really be present with your dog, not just physically but mentally; remember, your dog can feel you! He knows when you’re sad and when you’re happy, and certainly knows when you are lying and when you are not. By taking an active role in training your dog, you can make the framework very simple, rewarding your dog not only with treats but praise and happiness. Here are three of my favourite ways to train your dog to pay attention to you:
DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #1 – EYE CONTACT
The first exercise is based around eye contact, and is the exercise that teaches your dog to sit quietly and pay attention to the teacher. Grab some treats and then sit beside your dog, waiting for them to look at you. This requires a bit of patience the first time you train this, but hang in there – it’s worth the wait! Once your dog lifts its eyes to meet yours, praise them warmly (or use your clicker) and reward your dog with his favorite treat. Then simply keep still and wait for them to meet your gaze again - keep doing this until your dog understands that he will be rewarded for looking into your eyes, and he will be more than happy to do it whenever necessary.
DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #2 – HAND TARGETING
Sometimes, you’ll need get your dog’s attention in order to protect them from something that might harm, scare or upset them. Occasionally dogs will become fearful and, naturally, will look to either run away or attack – neither of which are desirable outcomes. However, it is possible to interrupt this natural response by training your dog to keep attention on you even in stressful situations. Try putting your hand in front of your dog’s face, the palm of your hand right in front his nose. Say nothing, as it is important that your dog learns to make these associations for himself. Once your dog touches the palm of your hand, give him a reward in the form of praise or a treat. Repeat this exercise, and eventually your dog will come to understand that when your hand is down, he can receive a reward by touching it – and while he’s focused on you, he will be unable to focus on whatever might be scaring him, allowing you to avoid conflict with others and protecting him from harm!
See the below video for an example of how to do this.
DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #3 – IMPULSE CONTROL
This exercise is called impulse control, and is really more of a concept that an exercise, because there are so many variations to work with.
Once your dog knows that he should be looking at you (see exercise #1) you can use this when training him. For example, you can ‘drop’ something from the kitchen table and if your dog tries to grab it, simply cover it with your foot. When your dog then sits and eventually looks at you, make sure to praise him and then allow him to eat the dropped food. Once more, your dog will learn to associate looking at you with praise and a reward – and over time will begin to realise that everything he wants can be channelled through you. As far as your dog is concerned, you are the origin of everything that is good in life. Clever, right? See the following video for more information.
As you can see from the video above, treats are often used as a reward for behaviour we wish to encourage. With this in mind, I usually retain around half of my dog’s rations, which I distribute throughout the day during training sessions. If treats are not withheld, your dog will either lose motivation to be rewarded or simply end up overweight – by rationing them and associating them with good behaviour, you can ensure your dog is healthy and well-behaved.
In summary, the most important, fundamental principle of dog training is attention – both your dog’s and your own. This element of training is sadly underutilised by most dog training experts, so make sure you don’t make the same mistake – ensure your dog associates paying you attention with rewards and praise, and you can ensure your training exercises are easy and successful. Good luck with your training!
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