Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Strategies for both you and your dog.
My favorite wooden salad servers are decorated with Bugsy’s teeth marks. Excluding unprovoked attacks on innocent squeaky toys and the occasional disemboweling of one of his stuffed animals, he wasn’t a destructive chewer by nature, and never damaged anything else. When I came home from work and saw him enjoying these Costa Rican souvenirs, I could hardly blame him, and felt no irritation whatsoever. I understood: it was hunting season.
Because we had a strong aversion to being mistaken for deer and accidentally shot, our exercise was severely limited during the 10 days that hunters roamed the area. Instead of two daily off-leash romps in the woods around our 150- acre farm, we took leash walks down the road. It was clearly not enough for Bugsy, who compensated by chewing on the wooden “sticks” that were conveniently lying around. Every time I use the salad set, I’m reminded that even with well-trained dogs, exercise matters if you want good behavior.
Training obviously helps with problem behaviors, but it’s not the only way to avoid trouble. Dog trainers have long valued the role of exercise in minimizing irksome canine activities such as barking, chewing, jumping around like lunatics, being unable to settle down or sleep well, digging, whining and relentless attention-seeking.
One casual experiment supports these views: a group of dogs was divided in half; one half worked on formal training while the other half had their exercise increased to two 30-to-45-minute sessions a day. After six weeks, the dogs who had additional training showed improvements in both their responsiveness to cues and their problem behaviors. The dogs who had extra exercise also exhibited problem behaviors less frequently, although their responsiveness to cues had not improved.
The relationship between exercise and behavior is complex and sometimes surprising. For example, Schneider et al. (2013) reported that more exercise was correlated with lower levels of fear, less aggression towards familiar dogs and reduced excitability. Jagoe and Serpell (1996) found that dogs acquired for the purpose of increasing their owners’ level of exercise have a lower incidence of certain types of aggression, including possessive aggression and socalled dominance aggression. Lindsay (2005) hypothesized that this is due to the general physiological effects of exercise. So, how does exercise affect behavior through physiological means?
Endogenous chemicals (those produced by the body) may play a role in the effects of exercise on physiology and behavior. Like people, dogs can achieve an emotional state described as the “runner’s high,” which may be why the chance to go for a run is greeted with enthusiasm by our canine companions. It may also be why so many people believe the old saying, “A tired dog is a good dog,” though the admirable behavior exhibited by dogs who are well-exercised may be due more to chemistry than to fatigue.
A runner’s high is caused by chemicals called endocannabinoids, which signal the reward centers of our brains. Endocannabinoids lessen both pain and anxiety as well as create feelings of well-being. Running triggers higher levels of these compounds, which is why running makes us feel good.
If you just snorted derisively and thought that running makes you feel terrible and you can’t imagine why people put themselves through such misery on purpose, you aren’t alone. Though most dogs are excited about running, the human species, outside of a small percentage of fanatics of the sport (or weirdoes, as we are sometimes called), isn’t interested. Yet, the potential to activate the chemicals that cause a runner’s high exists within all of us. The capacity to experience that rush of good feelings is shared by dogs and people, even if we aren’t all dipping into it as frequently as our long-ago ancestors, for whom running long distances was part of daily life.
A study by Raichlen et al. (2012), “Wired to run: exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the ‘runner’s high,’” investigated the phenomenon. The researchers predicted that running would result in chemical reactions in the brain associated with pleasure in species with a history of endurance running, but not in species whose natural history does not include running. They studied three types of mammals—humans, dogs and ferrets—and found that the two with distance running in their evolutionary pasts (humans and dogs) exhibit elevated levels of one particular endocannabinoid (anandamide) after running on a treadmill. Ferrets, noncursorial animals, had no such chemical response.
Both canine and human brains are made to enjoy running, but this pleasurable, rewarding quirk of chemistry is not universal among mammals. Ferrets, as the study showed, derive no pleasure from it. (Friends who despise running have expressed alarm at the results of this study—it makes them wonder if they are part ferret.)
The behavioral benefits to dogs of running may be related more to contentment than to fatigue. Perhaps, what we call “tired” is actually better described as “happy,” “relieved of anxiety and pain” and “experiencing feelings of well-being.” If so, exercise may indirectly benefit dogs’ behavior because it elevates mood rather than simply makes them too worn out to misbehave. Since endocannabinoids lessen the anxiety that can be a source of problem behaviors, it’s easy to see how exercise could help.
Running is also associated with the production of other chemicals that reduce anxiety in mammalian brains. Schoenfeld et al. (2013) reported that mice given the opportunity to run handled stress and anxiety better than sedentary mice. The study observed the brains and brain activity in both groups of mice and found that runners had more excitable neurons in the ventral hippocampus, which plays a role in anxiety, than did sedentary mice. However, the active mice also had more cells capable of producing the calming chemicals that inhibit activity in that area of the brain, which lessens anxiety. The study supports the idea that for mice, at least, running improves regulation of anxiety through inhibitory activity in the brain. It is possible that the situation is similar in dogs, though without studying them specifically, we can’t know for sure.
Of course, behavior and physiology, and the links between the two, are never completely straightforward. There is evidence that cannabinoids can cause hyperactivity at low doses, even though they have calming effects at higher doses. What does this mean for our dogs?
Age, breed and individual differences play a role in the amount of exercise required to keep dogs’ halos on straight and prevent them from sprouting little horns, behaviorally speaking. Some thrive on small amounts of exercise. For others, the same amount of exercise— perhaps a leash walk at a leisurely pace—has the opposite effect. It invigorates them, and may actually induce hyperactivity. (That’s a bit discouraging for those of us whose goal is rarely, if ever, to pep dogs up, though some who compete in canine sports try to do exactly that.)
Recently, I was concerned that I might be inadvertently energizing a dog my family was watching. Super Bee, a Border Collie, belongs to professional runner and Adidas Ultra Team member Emily Harrison. Emily often trains with her dog, so Super Bee typically runs 60 to 70 miles a week. To say she is extremely fit is an understatement along the lines of me saying I sort of like dogs.
While Super Bee was with us, we made exercise a top priority. She went along on all of my morning runs, and my husband ran with her in the evenings. We supplemented this activity with long sessions of fetch; luckily, neither our kids nor Super Bee became bored with this game. Still, knowing that despite our best efforts, we would be unable to give Super Bee her usual amount of exercise, I worried that the shorter sessions would just amp her up.
Despite that risk, I never considered not exercising her, and I’m certainly not advising skipping out on getting a little bit of exercise if that’s all you can do. Exercise and the outings involved in getting it have benefits well beyond those provided by elevated endocannabinoids. There’s value in understanding the effects of various amounts of exercise on our dogs; various types of exercise, from hiking to swimming to playing tug, may have different effects as well.
Though we did not exercise her as much as Emily does, we made a good effort. Super Bee even seemed tired (or should I say contented?) a couple of times! It didn’t last long, but we’re still proud of our accomplishment. It probably contributed to Super Bee’s model behavior while she was with us.
Besides the well-known physical benefits of exercise, its psychological and behavioral benefits are profound and contribute to a high quality of life. The reduction of annoying behaviors and the good behavior that arises directly or indirectly from exercise certainly make the beautiful relationship between people and dogs that much better. What more could we want for our dogs than the highest quality of life, minimal anxiety, the most elevated feelings of contentedness and the best possible relationship with us?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tips for helping your dog “go” this season
“Help! My dog won’t “go” in the snow!” Some dogs hold it so long that it’s worrisome and others simply choose to go inside the house, even if this is something they would never do when the weather is more to their liking. Elimination problems when there is snow are common, especially for dogs who have never been in snow and for small dogs who struggle with cold to any degree. There are likely at least two reasons why dogs show a reluctance to eliminate when snow covers the ground.
Most dogs learn at a very young age what surfaces are appropriate for bathroom use. While still puppies, they experience certain substrates such as grass, leaves, concrete, or indoor training pads or litters, and those are what they are likely to prefer for the rest of their lives. When dogs encounter snow, they often just don’t know that it is okay to eliminate on it. Puppies who learn their housetraining skills during a snowy winter are far less likely to have this problem. So, even though I consider raising a puppy in winter to have its miseries, an advantage is that the dog is less likely to balk at eliminating in the snow each winter.
Another issue for dogs with the snow is the obvious one—it’s cold! There is the cold air itself and also the cold snow on their paws (and on their legs and bellies in some cases!) For dogs unfamiliar with snow, especially small dogs who are not fans of cold under any circumstances, they simply hate the feeling of cold and snow. This makes them resistant to head out at all, and unable to relax enough to go once they are outside, which is perfectly understandable.
Luckily, they are ways to help your dog so that eliminating in the winter is still something that happens on the ground outside rather than on the carpet inside. One method that many use is shoveling out a patch of grass for them along with a path from the door to the potty area. I’ve had clients who have tried to minimize the work involved by shoveling a path to an area protected from the snow such as under a balcony or even under a trampoline. Most dogs are more likely to head out to take care of business if it’s easier to walk there and if there is a snow-free area available to them.
Many dogs do better if you go out with them. Not everybody wants to head out with their dogs in freezing temperatures to wade through the snow together, but if you find that it leads to success, it may be worth it to you. In some cases, several outings may be required. You can go out with your dog, and if he doesn’t eliminate within 5-10 minutes, take him inside with you, keeping him right with you on leash so he can’t sneak off and “go” in the house. After another 5-10 minutes, head outside together to try again. You can repeat this many times, and though it takes considerable effort, it does work for most dogs.
Some dogs struggle the most to eliminate in the yard when it’s snowy, but do better on walks through the neighborhood. If it’s not so cold that your dog’s paws can’t take it, walks may inspire your dog to eliminate. Being away from the yard is helpful, and the activity may make your dog’s need to go more urgent. Leading your dog to areas where other dogs have already gone (yellow snow has its benefits!) may encourage your dog, too.
Training your dog to eliminate on cue has helped many dogs potty in all sorts of new and confusing situations, including snow, but it’s most helpful to teach your dog this skill before the weather is working against you. There are two steps to this training process:
1) Reinforce elimination behavior by giving your dog a really great treat every time he pees or poops. Don’t wait until your dog comes running back to the house to give him the treat or he’ll think he earned the treat by running over to you. Stand right near him as he goes and give him the treat the instant he is done eliminating so he connects going potty with receiving a treat.
2) Once you have done this many times and he begins to look at you expectantly for that treat after eliminating, add in the cue. Take him outside as usual to eliminate and give the cue you want to use to tell him to eliminate, making sure to say it before he goes. Common cues are “Hurry Up”, “Get Busy” and “Go Potty.” With enough practice, a dog will learn that when you say the cue, he should take care of business. Continue to reinforce him with treats once you have added in the cue so that he knows he did the right thing and is happy that he did.
Once your dog can eliminate on cue, you can give him the cue in situations where he might not be sure that the area is acceptable, such as in snow or in a rocky area without grass. It’s just one more way that specific training allows you to communicate with your dog and make it easier for him to understand what to do.
Does your dog resist going potty in the snow? If so, how have you handled it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s more than just a cute trick
Years ago I taught my dog Bugsy to “back up” with the intention of adding it to his trick repertoire. It means just what it sounds like—to move away by taking steps backwards. My dog already knew how to crawl, wave, high-five, spin, shake, rollover, bow, and sit pretty, but I was searching for something new to teach him. I remembered seeing horses do this on cue and finding it adorable. I decided it would be Bugsy’s next trick, but I never imagined how useful it would be.
It began as a trick, which are behaviors I ask dogs to do on cue just for fun, but I began to use it functionally in an ever-increasing number of contexts. Bugsy already had a solid “stay” and knew how to “wait” (pause and refrain from going forward until given permission) when asked. Still, there were many situations in which telling him to “back up” was more helpful.
Dogs can sometimes get in the way, and asking them to “back up” solves the problem. I’m thinking of situations such as when I’m trying to open the front door, the pantry or the fridge and there are many pounds of lovable canine filing the space I need.
Being able to tell a dog to back away from a trash can, the dishwasher, another dog’s food bowl, a toy, or anything found on a walk that looks gross or even dangerous is so useful. It’s true that the cue “leave it” will also work in those contexts. However, having a dogs create physical distance between themselves and the forbidden object sometimes helps them resist temptation. “Leave it” only tells most dogs that they may not grab something, but it gives them no help deciding what to do instead. The cue to “back up” instructs them with a specific incompatible behavior to perform. (A dog cannot simultaneously approach the dishes in the dishwasher and back away from them.)
There’s really no end to the situations in which asking your dog to “back up” is useful. I’ve used it when I need a dog to move away from a child or a person who does not love dogs, out of a crowded kitchen, out of my way as I carry a large pile of blankets that prevents me from seeing where I am stepping, away from a freshly painted fence, away from a swinging door, a swing or a car door, and away from an intersection with skateboarders flying by too close for comfort. I’ve asked dogs who were carrying large sticks to back away from people just for safety’s sake, and I’ve used this cue to tell a dog to increase the distance between himself and another dog if I see trouble brewing. It is endlessly practical, and I soon found myself using it way more often than wait or stay.
In addition to its great practicality, “back up” has the appeal of being relatively easy to teach. Start with your dog standing in front of you and attending to you. Move toward your dog calmly. When he takes a step backward, reinforce immediately with a click/treat or a treat. For some dogs, a couple of steps in their direction work best but for other dogs, a slight lean is most effective.
Continue to reinforce your dog for taking a step backward until he is doing it reliably. Then, continue moving toward your dog until he has taken more than one step backwards. Reinforce him for multiple steps. Once he understands that backing up is a way to earn treats, say the cue “back up” before moving toward him, and reinforce him for responding appropriately. With practice you can phase out the motion towards him so that he is backing up in response to the cue alone. You can use a visual cue such as extending your arm towards him instead of the verbal cue or in addition to it.
I use the verbal cue “back up” for this behavior, but other trainers use different ones. A few common cues for this same behavior are “back out”, “get back” and “beep beep.” Any of these cues will work equally well, so choose the one that you like best, keeping in mind that it’s best to avoid using a cue that sounds similar to any cues that your dog already knows for any other behaviors.
Some dogs will respond to your motion towards them by sitting down or by turning around. If your dog is a sitter during this training, try holding a treat a few inches over his head and moving it towards his back end slowly. This causes most dogs to step back rather than sit, and you can then reinforce the behavior. If your dog’s tendency is to turn, try to train him in a narrow hallway or between two large pieces of furniture so that there’s not enough room for him to turn around. Presented with such an obstacle, most dogs will try to back up as an alternative, providing you with an opportunity to reinforce the behavior you are looking for.
Does your dog have a cue that means to back up, and if so, when do you use it?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Sponsored by Karen Pryor Clicker Training
If you've ever dreamed of becoming a dog trainer or are already a dog trainer looking to further your education, you won’t want to miss the world’s largest all-positive training conference: ClickerExpo 2014!
Held every year in January and March, ClickerExpo features leading-edge training seminars taught by top trainers from premier animal institutions and schools from all over the world, all brought together by training innovator and author Karen Pryor. Learn the all-positive training techniques used by top animal trainers to teach any animal almost anything. At ClickerExpo you can practice teaching your dog to retrieve (not eat!) a hot dog and watch live training sessions by the faculty.
In addition to courses focusing directly on obedience, agility, service, and behavior management and science, you’ll find a wealth of in-depth courses that apply across disciplines. Teachers and attendees listen, practice, and learn from each other for up to three days of unparalleled interaction in over 60 Sessions and Learning Labs.
ClickerExpo is coming to Virginia March 28-30, 2014 at the beautiful Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel. Can’t make it to Virginia? Look for a 1-Day Live Broadcast in select US cities. For more information or to register, visit www.clickerexpo.com.
“I thought ClickerExpo was a fantastic experience to connect with other trainers with like-minded styles and to hear new ideas that people are working on.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog-related plans for 2014
Years ago, my sister’s New Year’s resolution was to give up New Year’s resolutions, and she was one of the few people who stuck to her plan. (Success rates are generally less than 10%.) Her secret was resolving to do something that she wanted to do anyway. If your resolutions for 2014 are dog-related, make success more likely by choosing to focus on one or a few things that are of real interest to you.
Simple ideas for dog-related resolutions are plentiful. Here are 10 possibilities.
1. Leave that cell phone in your pocket on walks so that you are truly present and spending time with your dog. It’s the time you spend together that builds the relationship, and this is one of the easiest ways to enjoy each other’s company.
2. Try a new activity with your dog. Classes in agility, tracking, fly ball are common in many areas. Hiking, weight pulling, dock jumping, herding, lure coursing and canine freestyle are just a few of the other possibilities.
3. Provide better nutrition for your dog. This is a big task for most of us, but even a few simple steps can make a difference. Try a higher quality dog food, add fresh vegetables to your dog’s diet or vow to measure your dog’s food for every meal so there’s no risk of overfeeding.
4. Give back to the canine community. There are so many ways to help out such as walking an elderly neighbor’s dog, volunteering at a shelter or rescue, fostering a dog, or giving money to an organization that improves the lives of animals.
5. Teach your dog something new. Practical training skills such as walking nicely on a leash, waiting at the door or a solid stay all pay big dividends. Other possibilities are to teach your dog a new game so you can play together more. Fetch, tug, find it, hide and seek, and chase games are all options, though depending on your dog, not every game may be a good fit.
6. Make plans for your dog in the event that you die first. Financial planning so you can provide for your dog when you are no longer here as well as making arrangements for someone to be the guardian for your dog are two important steps.
7. Give your dog more exercise. This can be daunting so plan to make one small improvement to start. Perhaps add 10 minutes to a weekend walk or set up a play date with a dog buddy a couple of times a month. When it comes to increasing activity, every little bit helps, so taking one step in the right direction is a wonderful goal at this, or any, time of year.
8. Take better care of your dog’s teeth. Consult with your veterinarian about a dental cleaning or about brushing at home. Dental care helps improve overall health and can make your dog’s breath more pleasant, too.
9. Make plans in case of a medical emergency. Whether it is putting aside a little in savings each month or investigating pet insurance, the peace of mind that you’ve got it covered in the event of an emergency is worth a lot.
10. Go new places with your pet. Novelty is great fun for most dogs, so try to go a few new places this year. Perhaps a new pet store or a new hiking trail will provide your dog with an experience that is really enjoyable.
Love them or hate them, New Year’s resolutions are common this time of year. Do your plans for 2014 include any dog-oriented New Year’s resolutions?
News: Guest Posts
It’s that time of year when good doggy manners manner. Sophia Yin, DVM has these simple pointers for teaching how not to jump up on your guests, but how to be good hosts and greet them by sitting politely. Her techniques, like using high reinforcement rates, can be easily applied to other training essentials, like the “holy grail” of a solid recall. Give it a try! —Editor’s Note
Everyone knows that you should reward good behavior and ignore bad behaviors, right? So if your dog jumps on you, ignore the jumping and then reward with a treat when he sits, right? WRONG! This answer is wrong enough that if you're one of my interns and, after your first several sessions, you still think it’s right, you will not be an intern for much longer. Why? Because if this is the information you provide to clients, many will fail and turn to more punitive methods. The following are 5 essential tips for approaching problem behaviors such as jumping.
Tip 1: Don’t ignore the unwanted behavior. Remove the rewards for unwanted behavior instead. It turns out that if you ignore unwanted behavior, you may accidentally be rewarding it. You should instead remove rewards for unwanted behavior-which is very different. For instance, most clients complain that they are ignoring their dog when he jumps but they aren’t getting the results they want. They don't realize that the dog does not perceive their actions as removal of attention. Their hands are still dangling like tug toys or they are still walking around which makes them look interactive, see the video below. What owners should be told is to remove what their dog wants, attention in this case, within 0.5 seconds and do it in a way that the dog perceives that they have removed their attention. That may mean standing up completely straight and holding both arms folded against their body while they stand silent and stationary. Or it may just mean pulling their hands away and back to their body. If they remove their attention in a clear manner, they will see a quick and clear response from their dog.
Tip 2: Train the desired behavior first. It’s essential that the humans know to first train the good behavior—sitting politely—or it could take the dog forever to figure out what else will earn rewards besides jumping. A five or ten-minute training session where the dog earns 10-50 rewards is generally adequate.
Tip 3: Use a high reinforcement rate first. Then quickly and systematically reduce and vary the rate. Once the dog is sitting, the owners need to reward at a high reinforcement rate. Giving just one treat for sitting often won't hack it. The first treat you give is for sitting, but additional treats are for remaining seated so that Rover doesn’t just get up and try to jump again. At first, the treats should come rapidly—enough to keep Rover seated—but as soon as Rover is sitting stably at that treat interval, the interval should be increased and varied. This process should be repeated until Rover is sitting automatically and remaining stably seated. Then the focus should be on switching to other rewards such as petting and praise.
Tip 4: Use a flash lure to prevent Rover from getting the first jump in. If your dog tends to jump on you and then sit afterwards, you should change your strategy FAST so that you don't accidentally reward this chain of behaviors—jump then sit. You can add in what I call a flash lure before Rover has a chance to jump. As he’s running over to you but before he has a chance to jump (preferably when he’s about 2 steps away), suddenly flash a treat right to his nose level by just straightening your arm. This will cause him to stop will all four feet on the floor. When he's completely stationary, you can quickly bring the treat all the way back to your body and clearly out of his reach so he knows he doesn't get it yet. Once he sits, then he gets the treat.
Tip 5: Practice a lot in a short period of time. Because your goal is to develop a new greeting habit with your dog, it’s essential that you practice a lot over a short period of time. For instance, if you set up the situation where your dog is excited to see you five times a day and each time he earns 10-20 rewards and never has a chance to jump then by tomorrow he will probably be sitting automatically in this situation. By the end of the week, the good behavior should be a habit!
That's, of course, assuming that in between your practice sessions he didn't have a chance to get rewards for the opposite behavior!
These are some important subtleties that can help you get behavior changes quickly. It’s important to apply these principles to all training exercises to get the fastest progress.
Used with permission from Dr. Sophia Yin, visit her on drsophiayin.com
A great story out of the UK about the “Woof to Wash”—a new invention that turns a washing machine into one that can be operated by a dog. It makes it rather simple to train service dogs to help disabled people to do their laundry with it. Dogs unlock the machine using a “pawprint” pad, then they pull a rope to open the door, close it with their noses and then bark to start it going. These dogs can even strip beds and fill laundry baskets, and then load and empty the machine too. Amazing, isn’t it?
Inventor, John Middleton had seen a video from the nonprofit, Support Dogs, showing how a dog can strip a bed and load a washing machine, so he thought that he could go one step further and come up with a “bark-activated” machine itself. So with a team of engineers and with the help of Miele, the home appliance maker, they completed this project in little over two weeks.
Support Dogs has trained service dogs using voice commands and hand signals so they can help their owners fetch post, turn on light switches, open doors, assist in dressing and undressing—and now do a complete laundry cycle
As Rita Howson, its director of operations, hailed the bark-activated washing machine and praised John for coming up with a simplified bespoke machine for their clients.
She said “A normal washing machine can be very challenging so the single programme machine is very helpful.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Events include webinars and contests
The focus of the fourth annual Train Your Dog Month in January 2014 is on training the family dog with the manners necessary to improve the daily life of both people and dogs. The basic skills are those in the Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) program of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT).
In honor of Train Your Dog Month, APDT will offer free webinars to anyone who is interested in learning more about teaching basic skills to dogs. The behaviors that will be covered include sit, down, stay, coming when called, loose-leash walking, and wait. Additionally, there will be Facebook events promoting the value of taking dogs to training classes and the quality-of-life advantages enjoyed when dogs know basic behaviors and can perform them when asked.
In addition to webinars and chats on Facebook, there are contests to celebrate and support this event. Two of them involve the creation of videos, so get ready to find your inner filmmaker! The Training Testimonials contest is open to anyone, so whether your credentials consist of being a dog guardian or being an experienced professional dog trainer, you can enter. Awards and $25 VISA gift cards will be given to the three people who create the best one-minute or shorter videos of testimonials about the improved relationship and quality of life due to training your dog. Winning videos will be those that best illustrate the benefits of training a dog to the general public.
One contest that is only open to APDT members involves making a C.L.A.S.S. “Viral” Video. The object is to show the everyday dog guardian the basic principles of the Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) program in two minutes or less. The winner will be given free registration to the 2014 APDT Conference.
Having trained dogs personally and professionally for many years, I’m a huge believer in the value of having dogs who are trained well. It’s a lot of work, but also a labor of love to train your dog and teach good manners. It’s also a great kindness since it really can make your dog’s life better. It’s easier to give trained dogs freedom, to take them all kinds of places, and to allow them to be a greater part of your life. Also, the ability to communicate what you’d like your dog to do minimizes the frustration, misunderstandings and danger that can damage quality of life and put a strain on the relationship.
Train Your Dog Month is a great way to begin a whole new year of training your dog!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Attentiveness matters for safety and convenience.
Ian’s dogs—Maggie, Molly and Jake—display various levels of attentiveness while they’re together on the trail. Maggie looks back every few seconds, as though she’s afraid he’ll disappear. Molly’s mainly interested in Ian when she’s thirsty. Jake checks in from time to time, typically when he’s startled by an unusual sound or comes to a bend in the trail. When Ian calls them, they all run joyfully to him. In response to their names, each pauses and looks toward him, suspending activity while waiting for more information. Each has also been trained to look at him in response to the cue “watch.” Though these dogs have different levels of natural attentiveness, they are uniformly skilled at responding to cues for attention.
Ian can hike with his dogs off-leash, confident that they will pay attention to him if he asks them to, even though at least one and sometimes two of them are less interested in him than in the world around them. Only Maggie consistently gives him her attention spontaneously, but they all attend to him on cue. Spontaneous attention and attention that’s given on cue are both valuable.
Inborn or Learned
Few dogs are as naturally attentive as most of us wish; if yours isn’t, don’t feel bad, don’t feel guilty and for goodness sake, don’t wonder what you did wrong! Your dog, like most dogs, just isn’t inclined that way. For some guardians, that’s a good thing. Plenty of people prefer dogs with their own interests who can amuse themselves and aren’t staring at them expectantly, riveted by their every action.
While a strong relationship can help with attention issues, I’m not suggesting that a good relationship will guarantee a high level of attentiveness: it won’t. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, and if your dog is not highly attentive in all situations, it certainly doesn’t mean that the relationship is flawed or in any way lacking. It just means that for whatever reason, your dog is focusing on other aspects of the environment.
Many people find that their dogs are so engrossed in the environment and all its wonderful smells that getting them to pay attention outdoors feels like swimming upstream. Though such “nose to the ground” dogs are indeed among the most challenging when it comes to working on attentiveness, many of them are actually attending to their people without obvious signs of doing so. It’s common for those with dogs who are particularly responsive to the environment to note that their dogs always know where they are when they’re out and about. However, the dogs’ top priority in that context isn’t interacting with people, it’s interacting with the environment. They tend to show their affiliation in other ways at other times, and that’s where the strength of the relationship is more obvious to the casual observer.
Many factors affect your relationship, including your respective personalities and your interactions over time. If your dog associates you with treats, enjoyable training, massages, outings, toys and games, you’re more likely to have his attention. In the best of relationships, there’s also an intangible quality: some individuals hit it off in an indefinable, magical way. Strong bonds of love are often made of those special and inexplicable connections.
If a relationship is damaged or not very strong, the dog may give more attention to someone else. Some of the saddest cases in my practice have been those in which the dog isn’t that interested in the person. For example, a man moved back in with his mother and spent tons of time walking and playing with her dog. The dog adored him, but took virtually no notice of the woman. Multiple times each day, she cued him to hug her, which meant jumping up on her, putting his paws on her shoulders and staying that way while she squeezed him. She wanted affection from the dog, but the dog clearly disliked it.
We improved the relationship between the woman and her dog by having her engage with the dog in ways that were fun and satisfying to him. Once she had developed the habit of taking him out for walks, playing fetch with him daily and massaging him afterward, he was drawn to her, and the amount of attention he gave her increased accordingly. She stopped asking him for hugs, and he spontaneously cuddled up beside her. She no longer had to beg for his attention or affection.
Putting Attention on Cue
The problem many of us have with a dog who is not responsive to cues, especially outside, is not so much a matter of devotion but of training. For most dogs, learning a “pay attention” cue in the face of a whole world of wonder is essentially a difficult, high-level trick and must be taught as such. Yes, some dogs learn this quickly and thoroughly without too much trouble, but that’s unusual. For most dogs, expect topquality responses only after consistent, long-term training efforts.
In the larger scheme of things, a cue to pay attention is essential because it is the basis of all training. You can teach a dog just about anything if you have his attention, but it’s virtually impossible if you don’t. Asking for a dog’s attention is a top priority for professional trainers, which is why it is often the first skill taught in classes or private lessons.
This is especially valuable for dogs who don’t frequently offer their attention spontaneously. For naturally attentive dogs, attention training is largely about putting a behavior that frequently happens on cue. Teaching dogs to give attention when they don’t consistently offer it on their own requires more time and effort because you have to teach the behavior and associate it with a cue.
The two most common cues for attention are “watch” and the dog’s name. “Watch” tells a dog to look at your face, and it’s a great way to keep a dog from paying attention to things that cause him to act in an undesirable way. Saying the dog’s name lets him know that he should pay attention to you and wait for more information. Once you have your dog’s attention, it’s easier for him to respond to other cues, including “down,” “stay” and “come,” or simply to follow you in a new direction on a walk. It’s important to reinforce these behaviors so your dog’s glad he did what you asked. If he learns that he’ll receive a treat or have a chance to play for giving you his attention in response to the cue “watch” or to his name, he will be more likely to give you his attention when asked in the future.
Paying attention will be easier for your dog in some contexts than in others. Typically, dogs are more likely to pay attention inside than outside, and when there are no distractions—no squirrels or cooking aromas on the breeze.
Like any other skill, giving attention on cue requires practice and takes time to teach. Gradually working toward giving attention in increasingly challenging environments is a good strategy. Improving the relationship so that the dog is more inclined to pay attention will also improve your dog’s responsiveness to you.
Ideally, dogs keep track of where their person is. It’s a sign of maturity to be able to sniff in the grass, romp with a canine buddy and still occasionally check in. Though dogs with certain natural tendencies are more disposed to do this, others can be trained to act the same way.
When I’m teaching dogs to exhibit this behavior, I do it in places that allow them to be safely off-leash, where they can wander and sniff to their hearts’ content. When the dog is in his own world and not attending to me at all, I position myself so that I can see the dog but he can’t see me. When he looks up and seems just a little concerned, I call him to come, reinforcing him for his successful search. (If he becomes stressed, I come out of my hiding spot so he can see me, and still reinforce him for coming to me.)
This is a good way to perfect recalls and teach your dog that it’s wise to keep track of you, but it only works with dogs who are connected enough to care when they think for a moment that their person is lost. It is not helpful with aloof dogs or those who are completely unperturbed by your absence, and it’s just cruel to disappear on a clingy, nervous dog. Reserve this technique for those who are stable enough to handle your absence and connected enough to care—which, fortunately, is the majority of dogs.
Remember, when we talk about our dogs paying attention to us, we are really talking about two things: spontaneous attention and attention given on cue. There are many ways to improve both kinds of attentiveness, but that doesn’t mean you can change a dog’s essential nature. All the training in the world isn’t going to turn an aloof and independent dog or a dog who is wildly distracted by the smells of the great outdoors into one who is compulsive about checking in and never lets you out of sight. It is, however, possible to teach any dog to respond properly to the cue “watch” and to his name, and to come when called.
It’s also possible, and desirable, to strengthen your relationship with your dog to increase his attentiveness to you. The more fun and satisfying your interactions are, the more likely your dog is to give you his attention spontaneously or on cue.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Boy, did I misread the situation!
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be really wrong about something. I’m not someone who always needs to be right, which is lucky, because I was amusingly off the mark this time.
We have several different mail carriers for the route on which I live, including some regular substitutes. I recognize them all, though our interactions are limited to the hello, how-are-you, and thank you sort of exchanges. Then, a little while back, I noticed that one of the mailmen was acting a bit odd around me. He hesitated when he saw me, sometimes looked down avoiding eye contact, and generally seemed a bit uncomfortable. He sometimes seemed embarrassed, but he also seemed to be staring at me in his mirror if I came out to get the mail after he passed.
I tried to convince myself that I was imagining it, but that didn’t work. I’m a trained behaviorist as well as a very social member of society, and something just wasn’t quite right. He seemed more interested in me than was appropriate, and he certainly knew where I lived. It was making me feel very uncomfortable.
Finally, one day when I was outside cooling down after a run, he pulled the mail truck over by where I was, looked right at me, and said, “Karen, I have a question for you.” I waited, feeling sure that this would not be good.
Then, he said, “Do you work with dogs?” When I said that I was a behaviorist and trainer, he asked if I would mind if he asked me a question, to which I agreed. The question was about a dog in his family who was very friendly, but who jumped up a lot during greetings, especially when anybody came through the front door. We talked for a bit about what he could do to change the dog’s behavior, and in the next week or two, we checked in about the dog’s progress, which was rapid.
From the day he asked me about the dog, our interactions returned to being normal—friendly and relaxed. Here I thought something sinister was going on, when he simply wanted to ask me about his dog, but clearly felt unsure about whether he should. (It’s surely the case that because they see the sort of mail we receive, all of our mail carriers know way more about us than we know about them!)
He knew he needed help, but seemed unsure about asking for it from someone on his route. I love that he wanted to improve his dog’s behavior and I love that his dog is doing so well. Most of all, I love that I was so spectacularly wrong.
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