Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Many puppies need a little help
Try crawling down a flight of stairs on all fours, and the experience may give you instant insight into why so many dogs hesitate about going down. Having your head aimed down at such a steep angle takes some getting used to. There are dogs who struggle to go up and down the stairs, but it is far more common for dogs who lack experience with them to be especially resistant to going down.
Luckily, most dogs respond well if they are taught how to negotiate stairs in an (appropriately named) step-by-step process. The key is to teach dogs how to go down one or two steps at a time, avoiding having those steps be the ones at the top of a full flight of stairs, where the view seems a bit scary to most dogs.
Ideally, begin by working with a dog in a place that has just a single step, if one is available to you. Typically, dogs are comfortable taking a single step down onto a long stretch of level ground. Using a smelly delicious food treat, you can lure a dog up the step, and immediately lure him back down. If the dog is small, you can lift him up and then lure him down the step, enticing him to step down by having him follow the treat. I prefer to lure both up and down, so the dog feels more in control of the situation. Do this several times in multiple short sessions until the dog is going up and down the step without any hesitation.
The next phase of training involves having the dog go down a few steps at a time. If you have a place with only 2-4 steps, that is ideal, but if not, you can use the bottom few steps of a flight of stairs. It’s easier with small dogs who you can lift up to the step and then lure down, but with bigger dogs, you can lure up and down if the dog is able to turn around on the step.
If the dog is too big to do that comfortably and safely, then either try to find a place with just a few steps, or work at the top of the steps, but hold a blanket or pillow to block the view of the full flight of stairs and lure down 2-4 steps at a time and then move the visual blocker and do the next few steps. Sometimes just standing below the dog on the steps is enough to block the view or reassure the dog and give him the confidence to descend one step at a time. If you have stairs with a landing in the middle, consider yourself lucky because you can do half as many steps and get the dog down on solid flat ground. That makes for a nice intermediate stage.
Once the dog is comfortable with several stairs (depending on your options, this may be 3 to 7 stairs at one time), expand the number of steps until the dog can go down an entire flight of stairs on his own.
The following video shows a small dog named Radar who recently learned to negotiate stairs with this step-by-step process.
As with any training, don’t force the dog. Work slowly within the dog’s physical and emotional comfort zone to avoid falls. Be patient, only progressing to a harder task when the dog is clearly comfortable with the current one.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It often happens naturally, but can be taught
Many dogs know the names of the humans sharing their home. It’s only natural that they notice that certain words go with certain people. Many dogs will react to the names of their guardians with great enthusiasm when they are not present, perhaps anticipating their return. In the natural course of things, we humans use each other’s names a lot, saying hello, getting each other’s attention, and calling out into the void to see if they are around. We also use it to announce someone’s arrival, as in, “Rich is home!”
Training dogs to know people’s names on purpose is also possible. One of the easiest ways to teach a dog the names of everyone in the family is with a game called Family Circle. One person says, “Where’s Karen?” and then I call the dog to come. If he comes to me, he gets a treat or other reinforcement, but if he goes to someone else by mistake, he will be ignored. Then, it’s my turn to cue the dog about where to go, and I might say, “Where’s Rich?” at which point Rich will call him, and going to Rich is the right thing to do to get reinforced. This game works best with at least three people. With only two people, the dog may learn that the correct response is to go to the person who did NOT just say ‘Where’s . . .?” without necessarily learning names.
In the early stages of training a dog to play Family Circle, the dog should always be told the name of the person he must go find and hear that person call him to come. The person should also be within sight of the dog. Later on as the dog becomes competent at the task, the cue “Come” can be dropped, and later still, the game can be played when the person he must find is out of sight, so the dog must go search for that person.
I love this game because of its practical applications in the event of a lost person, or even one who has just gone out of sight or earshot briefly. Not only does it solidify their understanding of names with a game can be very useful, it also teaches dogs to find the person in response to the cue and gives them great practice with their recall. Among the other benefits are that the dog can get physical exercise without the people having to move, and it can help keep a dog occupied mentally when we are too busy to engage in more active play.
I’ve been thinking lately that dogs who live with only one person don’t have the same opportunities to learn guardian names. If there are no other people in your household, how often is your name spoken aloud in the presence of your dog? I wonder two things about dogs who live with one person: 1) Does the dog know the person’s name? 2) If not, does it matter?
If you live in a family in which you are the only human member, do you think your dog knows your name? What about those of you with multiple people in the family?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
This means “heel” but I use it for kids
Whatever skills you have from your career or any other experiences in life may get used in surprising ways once you have kids. For me, as a dog trainer and behaviorist, there are many obvious parallels between the way I treat my dogs and the way I behave with my children. To use just one example, I like to keep both kids and dogs in physical contact and right near me when there is any danger from cars.
Parking lots and streets are the scariest places in the world with either dogs or kids. In the dog world, that’s what leashes and heeling are for. I’m a tyrant about it with my kids. The rule since they were old enough to toddle was that whenever we were in the street or in a parking lot was that they had to hold my hand or touch the car. (This compares to having your dog on a leash.) When they got a little older (around 3 or 4 years) they graduated to “Stick Close.” In this video, my three-year old is holding my hand as we cross the street but my four-year old is “Sticking Close,” which looks a lot like heeling.
In fact, the only reason I called it “Stick Close” instead of “Heel” is because I didn’t want the other moms or the neighbors giving me weird looks. After we shot this video for me to use in a talk called “Applying Dog Training To Our Relationships With People” at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) conference, my three-year old son wanted to practice “Stick Close” which I had just started to work on with him. As I do with dogs, when learning something new, I work with only one student at a time, so my husband held onto my older son while I took only my younger one with me across the street.
On the first attempt to stick close, he bounced across the street. I was going to stop and start over, and then I thought, “It’s just like a shaping the behavior of a dog.” Shaping behavior is common in dog training and it means working gradually towards successively closer approximations of the true behavior that you want. In this case, the first approximation is that he was not running off, but generally staying next to me and moving in the right direction.
Later I worked towards having him walking rather than bouncing and paying closer attention to me and where I was going. Once I got into that dog trainer mode of shaping behavior and thinking about what I would work on next, listen to how much more of my dog trainer voice I acquired as I praised him. I was a dog trainer before I became a mom, and sometimes that shows!
Have you taken skills and ideas from your experience with dogs and applied them to other situations?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Understanding and helping fearful dogs
For the first month after he was adopted, Sunny spent his time in the corner of one room, in which he ate, slept, eliminated and watched the world go by. Murphy whimpered, barked, and chewed the carpet and the door whenever she was left alone. Tucker growled and lunged at every man he encountered. Maggie was inconsolable during thunderstorms— pacing, whining, circling, jumping in and out of the bathtub. Zoe was so shut down that she was unwilling even to face the door of her crate. Molly yelped and trembled when a chair was moved to a new spot; the vacuum, dishwasher or washing machine was turned on; or the door was opened.
All of these dogs have one thing in common: their behavior problems are a result of fear. But because fear-based behavior can vary so widely—from cowering under the table when a truck roars by to lunging at and even biting visitors—people don’t always recognize that the dogs exhibiting it are fearful.
According to Nicole Wilde, CPDT-KA, canine behavior specialist and author of Help for Your Fearful Dog, “There are lots of fearful dogs, but people call because of the symptoms. They rarely say, ‘I need help because my dog is fearful.’ They call because their dog is barking at visitors or shredding things.”
These fear-based behaviors don’t improve until the underlying issues have been dealt with. Further, as the fear worsens, so does the problem behavior. Dan Estep, PhD, CAAB, notes that, unfortunately, early and perhaps subtle signs of fear—ears pulled back, tail tucked, avoidance—are often discounted as things that all dogs do. If these signs are ignored, the signals may become more obvious and include panting and dilated pupils. Even then, it may be possible to distract the dog from the fear source. But, over time, fearful dogs act more intensely, become harder to distract, and then become destructive or reactive. Only then, when the problem is much more serious and harder to resolve, do people seek help. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs of fearfulness in dogs and intervene before the behavior becomes more difficult to deal with.
According to Estep, “fears have behavioral, physiological and subjective components.” Some dogs flee in an attempt to avoid the stimuli that elicit fear; these dogs may hide under the bed or behind their guardian, or simply turn away from whatever it is that frightens them. The appearance of some dogs’ eyes change when they are afraid—the pupils may dilate, or more of the sclera (whites of the eyes) may be visible in an expression known as “whale eye,” which may be the result of a dog watching what frightens him by moving his eyes so he can see it without looking at it directly. Or, a dog may scan an area repeatedly in a highly vigilant manner.
Fearful dogs may also adopt telltale body postures: crouching in a lowered body position or lying down and freezing. Many dogs whine, bark or make other distress vocalizations. A fearful dog who is forced to confront or contend with what’s scaring him or her may become defensively aggressive while still exhibiting signs of fear.
Dogs who are fearful exhibit many physiological changes: the sympathetic nervous system becomes aroused, which means an increase in heart rate and respiration and possibly shaking, trembling or panting. As Estep observes, “No one of these signs by themselves is a reliable indicator of fear or any other emotional state. It’s the pattern of these things together that indicates fear.” Both Estep and Wilde note that most common canine fears are related to loud or sudden noises, separation anxiety, and unfamiliar people. A fearful dog can be afraid of just about anything new, whether it’s a man in a hat, an umbrella, a garden statue, a double stroller, a unicycle or a motorized toy.
Just as the behavior exhibited by fearful dogs can vary, so can the reasons for the fearfulness. This may be because fear is such a common emotion. As Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, writes in For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, “Surely fear must be the universal of emotions, given its importance to survival. Without it, even civilized urban dwellers wouldn’t live to pass on their genes, because they’d stroll in front of buses and forget to lock their doors at night.”
McConnell’s example is apt: fear has an important function. Without fear, it would be difficult to recognize dangers to which the appropriate reaction is critical for survival. So, fear is not itself a bad thing. It becomes a problem when individuals of any species, including dogs, are scared of so many things, or the fear is so intense, that it interferes with their enjoyment of daily life.
Why Is My Dog So Fearful?
Experiments done with Pointers in the 1960s demonstrated that you can breed for fear of people in dogs.* Additionally, many dogs who are fearful have littermates or other relatives with this problem, which suggests a genetic predisposition. It’s hard to tease apart the effects of early experiences and genetics. For example, an entire litter of puppies could also be fearful of people because they were raised with no opportunity to meet them; proper socialization could have resulted in puppies without such fears.
Socialization is indeed important. It’s critical to expose puppies to new people, places, animals, sounds, objects and anything else they are likely to encounter throughout their lives. As Estep succinctly says, “Positive early experiences are critical for preventing fearfulness.” From ages three to 12 weeks, puppies are especially receptive to learning that the unfamiliar is not to be feared.
Not all fears develop in puppyhood, however. At age eight, a Miniature Schnauzer named Maxine suddenly developed a fear of other dogs, reacting with barks, lunges and growls whenever a dog approached. She even reacted to her companion dog—a four-yearold Miniature Schnauzer who had been her playmate since being adopted as a puppy. I met Maxine when I was working at a dog camp, and wondered if she were in pain, since sudden reactivity at an older age is consistent with the presence of pain. When the camp veterinarian examined Maxine, she discovered inflammation along the dog’s spine and noted that she yelped when that spot was touched. A canine chiropractor treated Maxine, and once her health improved, so did her behavior. A dog who knows that it is going to hurt when dogs leap on her or roughhouse with her could become one who reacts with behavior that’s intended to make them go away.
Not surprisingly, negative experiences may also lead to fear. For example, a dog who is hit by a car may become afraid of cars. Similarly, a dog who accidentally knocks over a bunch of two-by-fours in the garage may develop a fear of any long object such as wood, brooms or shovels, or become afraid of the garage.
Can Dogs Get Over Their Fears?
There are so many misconceptions about treating fearfulness in dogs that before discussing what to do, it’s important to know what not to do. Ascribing to any of the following myths is detrimental to progress when working with a fearful dog.
Dogs will grow out of it. Expecting a dog to “just get over it” is wishful thinking.
He must have been abused. The behavior that most commonly elicits concerns of abuse in a dog’s past is that the dog is only scared of men. While it’s possible that a man has harmed the dog, fearful dogs are often more reactive to men than to woman or to children, and this is particularly true of dogs whose socialization experiences were inadequate. It’s likely that men— with their larger size, deeper voices, broader shoulders and stronger jaws— appear more imposing to dogs.
He must have had a traumatic experience. It’s natural to assume that a dog who is scared of children has been teased by them, or that the only reason a dog would react badly to a broom is because of a terrifying experience with one. Yes, bad experiences sometimes lead to fear, but often, dogs are afraid of things that are new or unpredictable. So, the dog may fear children because they scream and move around in crazy ways, or he may fear brooms because he’s not used to them.
He should be punished. Punishment will make the dog more fearful, and must not be used as a way to change any fear-based behavior. When bad things happen to a dog in the presence of what scares him, it makes the fear and the problem behavior worse, not better.
A drug can fix this. In some cases, and always under the supervision of a veterinarian, pharmacological intervention may be appropriate, in conjunction with behavior modification and other techniques for helping fearful dogs. However, there is no magic pill that instantly cures fearfulness in dogs.
He’s just being stubborn. When a dog refuses to get in a car or crate, resists allowing the vet to examine him, or won’t go down the steps to the basement, many people perceive his behavior as obstinate. But with fearful dogs, stubbornness is not the problem, any more than a kid standing on the high dive and refusing to jump is being mulish.
He’s trying to dominate. Status is a fact of life for many social species, but when dogs are afraid, their social standing is not the issue. Trying to fit all behavior problems under the heading of dominance does far more harm than good. Happily, more and more people recognize this perspective as outdated and counterproductive.
Petting or consoling him will reinforce the fear. Pia Silvani’s comment on this common misconception is simple and to the point: “With all due respect, this does not make a bit of sense.” It is okay to reassure your dog that everything is fine in a calm and confident manner. To ignore him when he is clearly distressed is about as logical as refusing to hug your child when she wakes up from a nightmare. They are not going to become more fearful when they are reassured, but failing to do anything risks teaching them that you are not available when they need you most. Wilde tells her clients, “Be affectionate with your dog, but if you are overly worried, your dog will be, too. It’s fine to reassure your dog casually with an upbeat tone, but don’t coddle them with nervous energy.” McConnell devoted an entire Bark column to explaining why it’s not only okay, but actually helpful to soothe dogs who are afraid. (“I’m Okay, You’re Okay,”).
You just have to live with it, or get rid of the dog. Thankfully, this is not true, but resolving a dog’s fear-based problem does take effort. As Jacobs puts it, “It’s not easy and it never happens as quickly as you’d like it to. It’s going to require more work, time and energy than you anticipated.” Many dogs recover completely, and still others improve greatly, though they may always remain on the cautious side; some situations may always be overwhelming and should be avoided.
So, How Can I Help My Dog?
Visit your veterinarian. The first step should be a thorough medical evaluation to determine if health problems are playing a role. Dogs who are in pain may develop fear of anything that exacerbates the pain, such as being touched, being approached by a playful dog, a leash or collar, or a sport class like agility. Older dogs may develop fears and phobias following physical changes, including cognitive deterioration or loss of sight or hearing. A myriad of other physical problems can be in play as well, and any underlying medical issue should be resolved.
Do all you can to protect your dog from frightening situations. This may involve being an advocate for your dog, such as stopping strangers from petting him or refusing to let a family member use power tools until you get the dog out of the house. Management of the environment is a lot of work, but it’s work that pays big dividends. Protecting a dog from exposure to situations that scare him is a great way to start, because every time a fearful dog becomes afraid, the problem is compounded. And as Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, says, “One of the most horrible experiences of life is to be stricken by sudden terror. Another is to be continually consumed by the persistent feelings of anxiety that gnaw away at you, destroying your sense of security in the world.” For dogs who are reactive to the point of snapping or biting, preventing situations in which the dog feels the need to do this is essential for the safety of others as well as for the well being of the dog.
Never force your dog to approach something that scares him. It’s not going to help, and it may make the situation worse, adding yet another scary experience that confirms his belief that something is worth being afraid of. Wilde advises that we allow the dog to make the decision about approaching or avoiding a potentially scary situation.
Help your dog develop confidence. Developing your dog’s confidence can help him overcome his fearfulness because these two states of being are not compatible. Anything that allows a dog to experience success is good for his selfesteem and adds to his self-assurance. Training dogs to perform behaviors on cue—standard obedience exercises, targeting, responding to their names or performing tricks—can build confidence. So can getting their nourishment from food-reward puzzles or foodstuffed toys, because accessing the food is an accomplishment. Play is also a way to help dogs feel confident. Once a fearful dog is comfortable enough to happily engage in play, a positive feedback loop develops. The more they play, the more confident they are, and the more confident they are, the more they play.
Practice desensitization and classical counterconditioning. These techniques are often the core treatment for fearful dogs. Systematic desensitization is a structured way of repeatedly exposing your dog to something that he fears, but starting at a low level so that fear is not induced. Then, gradually, during many sessions over a period of weeks, months or even years, the intensity of what frightens him is increased so that he can get used to it at each level before moving on to the next. Scary things are made less scary by being smaller, slower, quieter, farther away or otherwise less intense. Exposing your dog to what frightens him at an intensity level that is too low to induce his fear is completely different than forcing him to confront what he fears by overdoing it and actually scaring him. (For details on these techniques, Patricia B. McConnell’s booklet, The Cautious Canine, is a great resource.)
Classical counterconditioning consists of pairing up what frightens the dog with something the dog loves more than anything else; eventually, the dog realizes that the scary thing predicts the wonderful thing. If your dog fears people, then every time he sees someone, he should immediately receive a fantastic treat or highly prized toy or other item. Eventually, the dog will have a positive emotional reaction to seeing a person, because he knows that something good is about to happen. Exposing your dog to the trigger that scares him, starting at very low levels of intensity and gradually working up to more intense exposures, is most effective. In practice, desensitization and classical counterconditioning are often done together.
Some dogs progress rapidly, but others make progress that can only be detected when viewed long-term, over years or perhaps over the dog’s entire life. No matter which pattern describes your dog, it’s important to work gradually, and as Wilde says, “go at the dog’s pace.” You must only move to more intense triggers when the dog is clearly comfortable at the previous level of exposure. Fearful dogs must be handled carefully and with endless patience.
Build a good foundation. Most behaviorists and trainers agree that in addition to specific behavior modification, a good foundation for helping dogs overcome their fears is built from many aspects of their daily life. Good nutrition, regular exercise and predictable routines are all helpful. Other potentially therapeutic techniques or alternative and complementary therapies include massage, Tellington TTouch, anxiety wraps, Bach f lower essences, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
What Determines How Well a Dog Will Do? Almost all fearful dogs can improve, but the degree to which a dog overcomes his fear depends on many factors. Estep and Wilde agree that the human partner is a huge factor in the eventual outcome. Motivation is critical for success, as is an understanding of the situation and the amount of time the person is willing to commit to it. The use of gentle, positive methods is also linked with improvement. Mild fears or those of recent development have a higher likelihood of successful resolution. The dog’s genetics play a role as well; the stronger the genetic component of the dog’s fears, the harder it may be to overcome them.
Wilde sums up the basic approach to helping fearful dogs: “It takes time and patience … Always be gentle, positive and kind … Never, ever use physical force or corrections.” Jacobs echoes this advice: “Your dog’s trust in you is the most important building block in the foundation for building her confidence. Never use any type of punishment or correction which scares or intimidates your dog.”
Though it can be gut-wrenching to watch a dog live in fear, there are also positive aspects, and that may be part of the reason why some people are drawn to fearful dogs. Wilde has a long-standing history of relating to them: “I always had an empathy for the fearful ones. I was drawn to the shaking dog in the corner.” She points out that having a fearful dog “teaches you a lot about subtleties of canine body language. You become tuned into your dog. You learn to manage things. You gain increased empathy for your dog. You expand your knowledge and patience.”
Helping a dog who lives in fear is a common undertaking—many people, knowingly or not, end up living with a dog who is afraid. To succeed in treating a fearful dog so that he can conquer his fears requires knowledge, consistent effort and extraordinary patience. It’s not easy, but it’s gratifying to see the difference in a dog who has been the beneficiary of this hard work. While it is an experience that is likely to have lows that are lower and highs that are higher than expected, many guardians report that it is immensely rewarding to work with their dogs and help them overcome their fears. As though we needed further convincing that dogs of all types, including the fearful ones, enrich our lives!
The Bark had a chance to speak with Ken Ramirez about his experience with clicker training and what the future holds for him in his new role as Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer for KPCT.
The Bark: Why is it important that people successfully train their companion dogs?
Ken Ramirez: There are so many reasons that training is important. It is a critical part of good animal care, just like veterinary care, nutrition and a safe environment. You cannot give animals all they need unless it includes a training program. Good training helps teach animals how to live successfully in our world, and helps to build a strong lasting relationship between people and their pets.
Bark: Tell us about your professional experience with operant conditioning or clicker training.
Ramirez: I began my training career working with guide dogs in a very traditional training environment. However, right out of college I had the opportunity to work with a variety of marine mammals, birds, and big cats in several zoological facilities. That is where I was introduced to the world of positive reinforcement and marker-based training. That experience changed my life as I experienced how powerful this type of training is. Not only is it force-free and fun for the animals, but it assists in developing strong relationships with each animal partner. I went back and re-read all my animal behavior text books, made contact with my professors, and began trying to understand why this type of training was not more wide-spread, except perhaps in the world of marine mammal training. My quest for knowledge exposed me to Karen Pryor and some of her early works. I read every positive reinforcement training article I could find, sought out conferences and training organizations that could forward my knowledge and understanding of effective positive reinforcement training. I had the good fortune to travel to many corners of the world and work with a wide variety of species of animals, and discovered just how universal this technology really is. In 1989 I was hired by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to oversee the development of their animal training program. Since joining Shedd, I have had the good fortune to oversee the care and training of more than 32,000 animals representing over 1500 species. I continued to consult with many zoo and aquarium programs worldwide. Then, in 1997, Western Illinois University asked me to develop a graduate course on animal training, which I still teach today. In 1998, I returned to dog training as a consultant to several search and rescue dog teams, which led to my involvement in many other working dog programs including service dogs, law enforcement, and a return to guide dog work. When Karen Pryor decided to start ClickerExpo, she chose Chicago as her inaugural location. She invited me to that Expo as a guest speaker, which led to an invitation to join the faculty the following year, and I have been on the faculty ever since.
Bark: What has been the biggest revelation about this method of training animals?
Ramirez: The biggest revelation for me every time I train an animal is how much they enjoy the process and how it assists in relationship building. Additionally, as someone who began my career more than 35 years ago using more traditional training methods, I always marvel at how well positive reinforcement works and how much stronger and precise behavior is trained in a fun force-free environment.
Bark: Is it your experience that most animals enjoy learning and training exercises?
Ramirez: Absolutely. That’s what makes positive reinforcement so effective—the animal is a willing partner in the process and it is so much fun for them.
Bark: What has you most excited about working with Karen Pryor's clicker training programs?
Ramirez: I am excited about everything that Karen Pryor Clicker Training represents. Karen was an inspiration to me personally as I was seeking good information about the use of positive reinforcement training during the early stages of my career. I am passionate about educating people about the power of positive reinforcement and the beneficial impacts it has on the welfare of the animals in our lives. Each program, whether it be the ClickerExpos, the Karen Pryor Academy, or the production of positive reinforcement books and training tools furthers the education of the public about marker-based positive reinforcement training. I am excited about helping to continue and further the amazing body of work that Karen has produced over the years.
Bark: Do you currently have a dog, cat or other pet?
Ramirez: I have had dogs my entire life. Sadly, my 12-year-old Spaniel that I adopted from a shelter after my first Clicker Expo 11 years ago, recently passed away. I will probably look for my next dog at one of the local Chicago shelters sometime later in the year. However, I established a dog training program with dogs adopted from local shelters at the Shedd Aquarium several years ago, and I consider the four dogs in that program close companions and training partners. These four dogs include a Pit Bull, an Airedale, a Shepherd, and a Lab.
Ken Ramirez is a regular consultant for zoos, oceanariums, and parks around the world. He has held top leadership positions in most of the profession’s associations, including as past president of IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association). As part of his leadership, Ken has been involved in the creation of a certification process for animal trainers in zoological settings. He has been featured on television and in the media numerous times, including as host of a popular Australian television series Talk to the Animals. Ken has been on the faculty of KPCT’s ClickerExpo conference since 2005; he also teaches graduate-level courses at Western Illinois University.
Ken began his training career working with guide dogs for the visually impaired and has maintained a close connection to dog training ever since. At the Shedd Aquarium, Ken spearheaded the development of a program to rescue dogs from animal shelters and to train and care for them in order to show the public the transformative power of marker-based positive-reinforcement training. Outside of Shedd, Ken’s canine work includes training for search and rescue, guide and service work, scent detection, animal husbandry, and more.
A winsome Pit Bull lands a role on the Great White Way
When actors James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, Leighton Meester and Jim Norton take the stage in the Broadway adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at the Longacre Theater, they share it with a geriatric—though spirited—co-star. Resting comfortably on a quilted pillow for much of the show is Violet, a deaf, 14-year-old Pit Bull.
Because Violet, who plays ranch hand Candy’s (Jim Norton’s) dog, has a wandering eye and has become fast friends with fellow cast members, she is banned from the green room. Instead, she shares a dressing room with Lydia DesRoche, an NYC dog trainer—and the first female dog trainer on Broadway—who has successfully taught her when to walk onstage and where to sit for the seven minutes she appears during each performance.
“Violet’s task is to connect with Jim (Candy),” DesRoche says. Based on his dapper looks, DesRoche’s own 15-year-old Pit Bull, Blue, whom she rescued as a puppy from a junkyard in Harlem, was originally cast in the part. He was replaced by Violet, his understudy, one week later, when he repeatedly missed his cue to get up from the makeshift Depression-era pillow he was parked on for the show. (Offstage, Blue, now the understudy, and Violet occupy the same, large, pillowy bed. Even though there are two, they prefer to share.)
In the play, Candy’s dog is unnamed, but both he and his dog have outlived their usefulness on the ranch. “The other ranch hands lack sensitivity towards animals; the dog has no purpose and therefore, they want to shoot her,” says Norton, an Olivier and Tony award–winning Irish actor and dog lover who has raised his own Boxers in Ireland.
“Because Violet’s deaf, she always looks at you very intensely. Her deafness enhances her ability to concentrate, to pay attention,” he says. “We’ve done 23 shows, and as it comes to the moment when Joel [one of the ranch hands] takes her away from me, each time she looks at me more intensely. Dogs are so perceptive. They have qualities we don’t know about.”
A veteran stage actor, Norton admits to being more calm and “very relaxed when on [stage] with Violet. They [dogs] live in the moment. It’s interesting to observe how content they are to sit.”
Although Norton was raised with dogs in Dublin, he had never before acted with one. “Star quality is the ability to displace air,” he says. “Babies and animals are not aware of how attractive they are. They don’t try to get attention, so everybody’s drawn to them. Actors can learn a lot from Violet. She takes the spotlight because of her stillness. Everybody’s looking at her.”
Violet was given up by her owners to Brooklyn Animal Care and Control, one of the city’s kill shelters, in 2011. Then, her name was Cheyenne and she was about 10 years old. She was also emaciated, had an abscess on her neck (most likely the result of a dog bite) and her ears had been unevenly cropped close to her head. Despite that, she was sweet-tempered and became a favorite with the shelter staff.
“She had the most pleading eyes,” says Christy Allen, who had owned a Pit Bull before she adopted Violet. Allen, with her 10-pound Miniature Pinscher, Bella, in tow, took the subway from their home in Central Park West to the shelter in East New York. The next day, she brought Violet home. Allen and DesRoche are neighbors, and when Allen needed help with dog training, she called DesRoche.
I work as a vet in city shelters, and can testify that Violet’s adoption was nothing short of miraculous. Geriatric dogs in general are harder to place than younger, healthy ones, and dogs of any age surrendered by their owners do not require the same mandatory five-day hold in the shelter as strays. They can be euthanized to make space. However, dogs are kept longer if they endear themselves to the staff and are healthy. Violet’s flirtatious “eye,” sweet demeanor and sheer luck saved her life.
There is also, of course, the stigma that Pit Bulls carry. Nationwide, approximately 75 percent of all Pit Bulls and Pit Bull mixes who wind up in shelters are killed. Some cities and countries have Breed Specific Laws (BSL) that ban outright the ownership of Pit Bulls. Denver, Colo., is one of them; Ireland, Jim Norton’s home, is another. “They’re so gentle and so sweet,” he says. “It’s awful the way they’ve been abused and used as aggressive guard dogs. It’s a problem of our making.”
At every show, DesRoche is stage left. Violet’s deafness spares her the loud gunshot in each performance, but it also deprives her of the audience’s applause. The trainer continues to work with Blue in the event he’s needed as an understudy and, thanks to her positive reinforcement training methods, he’s now getting up on cue. “They never stop loving to learn,” she says, observing her ancient dog’s newly found youthful spirit.
Of Mice and Men is due to run through July 27, 2014. In between shows, Norton spends downtime with Violet, enjoying her company. “When the show’s over, I’ll miss her terribly.”
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.
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