One basic trick your dog can learn is not really a trick at all, but a behavior that can change your entire relationship with your dog.
That trick? Eye contact.
One of the most common complaints I hear is that a dog just doesn’t pay attention to his owners.
But why would he? Think about how much your dog ignores you (and other human voices and behaviors) every day, at your desire. He ignores you talking to your spouse, your kids, on the phone, to yourself. He ignores the TV and radio. He ignores the heating system, kitchen sink running, dishwasher, washer/dryer, shower. He ignores you walking around the house, preparing food, helping the kids with homework, doing housework. And we want him to ignore all these things, because if he were to pay attention and go on alert every time one occurred, we would never get a break from reassuring him all was well!
But then, in the tiny percentage of time that you want your dog’s attention, you expect him to know that, this time, this voice, this sound, this word, is directed at him. Maybe you call his name. But how many times do our dogs hear their names throughout the day? Maybe you talk to them as you get ready, but don’t expect a response. Maybe you’re telling a spouse about their antics. Maybe you’re explaining to a friend that you have to feed the dog. Or maybe you are saying his name to him, but it’s to tell him to stop doing something, or ignore something, or that he’s doing wrong. With all of those mixed messages, how can your dog know that this time, when you call his name, you want his attention?
Then take your dog outside, into a world of distractions, and you and your voice, which he has learned to ignore through long exposure, are the last thing on his mind.
To many, this seems like a helpless prospect. But it’s not.
One simple step you can take to improve your bond with your dog and help him stay attuned to you is to teach him that looking at you is rewarding.
Not when you call. Not when you get down to his level. Not when you jerk on the leash.
All the time. Any time. When nothing’s going on. When a squirrel runs by. When a new person approaches. When he’s out on a walk. Teach him that voluntarily checking in with you is a rewarding behavior!
This is really very simple. Carry your clicker (or have a vocal reward marker, like “Yes!,” to tell the dog when he does the right thing) and treats. And sometimes, start clicking for eye contact. Don’t make a sound. Don’t give a hint. Don’t try to pull his nose up to you with a treat. Just stand there (or sit there, or lie there), and wait. And when your dog looks your way, preferably when she makes eye contact, click and give a treat.
You can do this randomly throughout the day, but it helps to occaisionally have sessions of just rewarding a dog for eye contact, over and over. Many people notice that when they teach their dog to sit, their dog starts coming up to them and sitting all the time! The dog has learned that sitting is rewarding, and now will offer it on her own to see if it pays off. The same can happen with eye contact if you teach that it is a rewarding behavior by having sessions of clicking and treating it.
Start, like with any trick, in a non-distracting environment. Maybe your living room, where nothing that exciting goes on. Get your dog, go in the room, and wait. When she looks at you, click and treat. It’s that simple! As she gets better at it, and starts to stare at you, take a treat in your hand and hold it off to the side. Now your dog has to stop staring at the treat and look at you to get rewarded. It’s an easy-to-introduce distraction. Try changing other things. Turn sideways. Change position between sitting, standing, kneeling, or whatever else you can think of. Vary the distance between you and your dog. Once they’re a champ in your living room, try other locations. Remember, start easy. Go in your yard and practice before you head to the dog park and expect your dog to stare lovingly into your eyes!
As your dog gets the idea, you can stop the training sessions if you want, but keep randomly rewarding eye contact. This will give you a dog who is far more likely to check-in on his own, even when on a walk or at a park, because he knows that looking to you is rewarding. It also helps to strengthen the bond between you and your dog, because he has learned to stay aware of where you are and look to you for guidance. Obviously, there will always be times we want our dogs ignoring us. But if they learn to offer eye contact on their own, they learn that while they may ignore many of your actions and words, they shouldn’t ignore you.
Every dog should take at least one obedience class! It is a great way to expose young puppies to other dogs and people in a positive manner, to practice working in distraction, to bond with your new (or not!) dog, and to get some tips from a professional on how to adjust your training for your specific dog.
However, finding a good trainer can be tricky. There is no national certification for trainers, so anyone can call herself a trainer, even with no experience. Additionally, many trainers still rely on outdated dominance techniques, which were disproven decades ago and can be damaging to dogs physically and mentally. So with all of the options out there, how do you find a good trainer?
- Observe a class. A credible trainer will usually not mind you watching one session. Watch the trainer’s teaching style. Watch how the dogs are reacting. Watch how the people are reacting. Can you see progress during the class? Do you understand the trainer’s explanations? Does everyone seem happy but focused?
- You should never feel uncomfortable! This is the number one rule in finding a trainer. If at any point while you are observing you feel uncomfortable with how a dog is being treated, or what an owner is being asked to do, or even just a gut feeling you can’t identify a reason for, go elsewhere. (If you do enroll in a class and are ever uncomfortable with what a trainer is asking you to do, politely decline. You are ultimately responsible for the safety and happiness of your dog, not them!) Dogs can be successfully trained to any level using positive training techniques, and there is no need for you to do something you are not comfortable doing. Find a trainer who agrees.
- Look for keywords. Words like “positive” and “clicker” are good keywords, that indicate the trainer will use dog-friendly (and human-friendly) methods of training. Words like “dominance,” “pack” and “alpha” are red flags that the trainer will be using outdated methods which may cause long-term damage to your dog.
- Ask for a guarantee. Ask if the trainer provides a guarantee that their training will be successful. The correct answer is no! Dogs are individuals with personalities, and like anyone they have good days and bad days. They are not black boxes. There is no way anyone can guarantee the lifetime response of any animal. Trainers who say they can are only showing how little they understand about animals.
- Request references. A good trainer should have happy clients who are willing to share their experience with you. Some trainers will have pages of testimonials, others will provide you with contact information of references upon request. If you are given phone numbers, use them! You can learn a lot about a trainer by how their previous clients view them, and this gives you a chance to ask an unbiased third party about questions important to you.
Finding a good trainer can seem overwhelming, but it is worth it! When you find a good trainer, you will be amazed at the change in your relationship with your dog, and your life together will become much more enjoyable.
Nutrition affects all areas of life. A healthy diet helps your dog live a longer, fuller life. It saves you money on vet bills for things like teeth cleanings, or many of the other “random” health problems that come up in a dog’s life. It gives them more healthy energy, and less manic energy. It helps their poo smell less and be smaller.
And perhaps, what people think of the least, it can affect your dog’s behavior.
So how do you find a good dog food? Here are some tips:
- Find a local natural or holistic petstore and ask them for help. Major chains require large-scale production to supply them. At that level of production, it is difficult to keep quality up, and often pet food makers begin to cut corners with respect to quality.
- Avoid foods with byproducts in them. Proponents of byproducts say that they are organ meat, like liver and hearts. In reality, quality pet food makers who include organ meat will list out the specific organs included. For example, “chicken liver” will be listed as an ingredient, rather than “chicken byproducts.” The requirements for meat to be listed as byproducts are very loose, and typically the “meat” included is diseased or cancerous. Proponents will also tell you that “byproducts” are not legally allowed to include things like beaks, feathers, and feet, but in reality the regulation says that such parts must be minimized to a level that is reasonable in a production factory. This is, obviously, a very open requirement which allows for a lot of those parts to be included.
- If possible, find a grain-free food. Dogs are carnivores. Unlike herbivores, who have long intestinal tracks, dogs have very short intestinal tracks. Humans are omnivores, and our food spends approximately 10% of its time in our stomach and 90% of its time in our intestines. It is in our intestines that the more complex grains are broken down into useable parts. In a dog’s digestive system, food spends approximately 90% of its time in their stomach (where the acid is 4x stronger than in our stomachs) and only 10% in their intestines. This means that they are not set up to use grains in any beneficial way. Studies have repeatedly shown that there is no minimum requirement of carbohydrates in a dog’s diet, because they do not need carbs. Thus, grains are nothing but empty fillers. They get turned into either fat or waste by your dog’s body. Why are they added to food? Because they are cheaper than meat. When you feed a grain-free food, you can feed less of the food, since there isn’t as much useless filler, and your dog poops less for the same reason! It also helps keep them from gaining weight, since there are fewer empty calories for their body to deal with.
- Feed multiple protein sources. No one protein source is perfect. Just like we shouldn’t eat only one type of meat, our dogs shouldn’t, either. Allergies are really sensitivities. If your dog eats no meat but chicken, they are likely to develop a sensitivity to it. This is why so many dogs now-a-days are allergic to chicken, rice, and lamb: for generations they have been fed a diet based on that, and they are now overly sensitive to it. By rotating protein sources, such as between lamb, beef, chicken, venison, rabbit, etc., or feeding a food which includes multiple protein source, (or both!), you help to ensure your dog has a balanced diet and doesn’t develop allergies.
- Remember to find a pet food maker you can trust. There is a lot that can be done to lower the quality of food that is not visible on the bag. For example, anything added before the final processing does not have to be listed. If a producer gets chicken from China, and the provider of the chicken fills it with chemicals, none of those chemicals have to be listed as ingredients. The only ingredient listed would be “chicken.” Another way you can be misled is by the guaranteed analysis. The analysis lists the amount of protein in the food (for example). However, it does not mean that all of that protein is digestible. They could include shoe leather and count the protein inherent in that, but your dog would not be able to absorb any of that protein. Thus, a high protein content does not necessarily mean that your dog will get a lot of protein from the food.
A healthier dog food costs more per pound than a low-quality food. However, not only can you feed less of it per day (since there is less filler), you will save yourself a lot of money in vet bills over the years. I was amazed recently how, when I changed my dog from Wellness (a relatively high-quality food with grain) to a half-and-half diet of Wellness and Acana (a very high-quality grain-free food), there was a great improvement in his health. His teeth had begun to have quite the build up of plaque, but within a few weeks of switching his food it completely disappeared. Since I was better nourishing his body, it was able to fight off the plaque with no intervention from me. His coat became smoother and shiner. And he started to have more energy to run and play outside, but still be able to settle down just fine in the house.
If you’re going to bring a dog into your life and take responsibility for them, you are also taking responsibility for their health. And the single best thing you can do for their health is to feed them a high-quality food.
And feeding a high-quality food not only keeps them feeling physically good, it helps them have better focus and self-control, which leads to a dog who is easier to train and better behaved!
For a good basic comparison and analysis of various types of dog food check out: http://www.dogfoodanalysis.com/
Clicker training is one positive training technique that, when done correctly, can be extremely effective in teaching dogs virtually any new behavior. The clicker is a hand-held device that is used to clearly communicate with the dog when he has done the correct behavior. By teaching the dog that the sound of the click means a treat is coming, he learns that when he hears the “click” he did the right thing. It is similar to saying “Good!” when your dog does what you want, but it is much sharper and more consistent, and thus easier for your dog to understand. However, many people shy away from using it because of several myths that have been perpetuated.
Myth #1: I will always have to carry a clicker with me.
Not true! A clicker is used to teach new behaviors. Once your dog knows a behavior, you know longer use the clicker for it. So, for example, if you are introducing your dog to the “sit” cue, you would do so in a training session with the clicker in hand. Every time he sits, you would click, and then feed him a treat. Once he understands that he should sit to get the click, he will start sitting regularly. When he is doing this you can say “sit” as he sits down, and then feed the treat. After more repetitions, you can say “sit” and expect him to sit in response. You no longer need the clicker!
Myth #2: I will always have to have treats with me.
Nope! If you train your dog using clicker training (or any positive-training technique) you teach your dog that doing what you ask is fun. By having many repetitions of hearing a cue, doing what you ask, and getting a reward, your dog’s brain makes the connection that hearing the cue and responding is a great thing to do. Once he’s made this connection, you no longer need to feed him for every repetition. You can instead substitute real-life rewards (throwing his ball, petting him, letting him outside, giving him dinner) or have no reward at all, and your dog will still listen happily! With some dogs, you can even ask for an easy cue a reward for a harder cue they are learning – they enjoy obeying so much they consider it a reward!
I like to periodically feed my dog a treat for obeying, even after he knows a cue well. I don’t care how much you love your job, the occaisional “bonus” in recognition for your hard work will make you work harder, and the same goes for your dog. Remember, sitting or staying may seem easy to us, but in many situation it is work for your dog.
Myth #3: My dog will only do what I say if he knows I have a treat.
Not if you follow this very simple rule: Never show your dog a treat until after he has done what you ask. Dogs are smart – if they only get a treat when they see it in your hand as you ask for a behavior, they’re not going to do a behavior when they see no treat because they know none is coming! So do not set up this habit; never hold a treat while asking for a behavior. The beautiful thing about using the clicker is that you do not have to “bribe” your dog by showing him the treat. When you are in a training session you have your clicker, and the dog is working for the click. He cannot see a treat before he works. Once you have clicked you have told him what he did was correct. He already knows he did the right behavior, so you have a few seconds to reach into your pocket, or on the counter, or into the bag to grab a treat and give it to him. The treat does not have to come instantly, so it doesn’t have to be in your hand, bribing him to work. As your training sessions for a cue no longer use the clicker (as he has figured out the game/cue) you don’t have to reward every time. Your dog has not been seeing the treat before working, he has never known what he was going to get, or even if he would get anything, and he will still work because it has paid off in the past and it is fun!
For some behaviors you may show your dog the treat to lure him into position when you first introduce the behavior (for example, putting a treat in front of the dog’s nose and lowering it to the ground so that he lays down). If you start a behavior using luring, fade the lure (treat) as quickly as possible, preferably within a half-dozen repetitions. Dogs are creatures of habit, so if you do several repetitions with a treat in your hand, and then move your hand in the exact same way with no treat, he will probably still follow it! At that point you can stop showing him the treat until after he has completed his work.
Myth #4: Clicker training is too complicated.
Clicker training is no more complicated than any other method of training, and as with any method of training there is a learning curve for you and your dog. The difference between the learning curve in positive training and compulsory training is that when you make mistakes learning how to train positively, the worst that happens is your dog gets an extra treat. When you make mistakes learning how to train with compulsory techniques, you can permanently damage your dog, physically or psychologically, and destroy the bond you have with her.
The idea behind clicker training is very simple: When the dog does what you want, he hears a click and knows the behavior was right. Then he gets a treat. What can feel complicated is learning how to “juggle” a leash, treats, and a clicker, possibly while giving hand signals. To simplify, work at home in a small space off-leash, put the clicker on a wrist-band so you can drop it but keep it near at hand, and keep treats on a nearby table or in a treat pouch (a small pouch typically worn on the hip). The other thing that can feel complicated is that your timing has to be good. If your dog sits, and then looks to the right, and then yawns, and then hears a click, he’s going to assume the yawn was the right behavior. With a little practice, however, almost everyone can learn to catch the correct behavior. And if you make mistakes, like I said above, your dog just gets a few extra treats and will happily forgive you!
Myth #5: Clicker training takes too long.
Not once you and your dog know how to do it. Clicker training is really teaching your dog how to think. You’re not just physically moving them into a sit, you’re making them figure out what they have to do to earn that click. Until they learn how to think this way, it can take longer to teach a new cue than if you did just physically force them into position. Once they have learned how to think that way, however, you can add new cues like lightening! The other day I put a step stool in front of my dog, intending to teach him to step up on it with two paws. He had done a similar behavior over a year ago for a few repetitions, but it was never reinforced again, so it was practically brand new. Within four clicks he had the right behavior.
Click 1: Nosing the stool
Click 2: Pawing the stool
Click 3: Putting weight on the paw on the stool
Click 4: Putting both front feet on the stool
The whole process took under 30 seconds, and then he was doing the behavior reliably. He has been clicker trained for under a year, but he has the process down.
Here is a video clip of a trainer teaching her dog to pick up a ball and put it in a basket using a clicker. This was the first time the trainer had ever introduced this behavior or any similar one to her dog.
Since her dog knew how to think with the clicker, she learned the new fairly complex behavior in approximately a minute. With more repetitions the trainer could then name the behavior, and have a highly reliable cue!
Also, since clicker training really makes your dog think, it is great mental exercise for him. You may take your dog on long runs every day, but if he never gets any mental exercise he can still have excess energy to burn since his mind hasn’t been worked. Many people find that a good training session tires their dog out as much as a good walk, and a tired dog is a happy dog (and one who isn’t getting into trouble)!
In short, clicker training can be a great way to train many dogs. The clicker is a training tool which helps you communicate with your dog effectively. Once you and your dog learn how to use the clicker together, you’ll both have a blast learning new cues at the speed of light!
Early development of clicker training was done by trainers working with large marine mammals. You can’t physically manipulate a killer whale into position, nor can you give them a leash correction, so a new method had to be developed!
Virtually any animal can be clicker trained; horses, cats, and chickens are some o f the more common subjects.
Recently I came across this post by Mary, the host of the Clicker Carnival, at her blog Stale Cheerios, in which she describes clicker training her goldfish! Watch this video she put up showing her progress.
If a goldfish can be clicker trained, your dog can be clicker trained!
After reading our previous post on the many different places your new dog or puppy could come from you’ve decided you do not want to contribute to pet overpopulation and the suffering of dogs in puppy mills, and so you will be getting your new companion from a shelter, rescue, or responsible breeder. You want a specific kind of puppy, and none of the shelters or rescues near you have any available right now, so you want to find a responsible breeder. How do you make sure the breeder you buy your puppy from is responsible, and is not a back yard breeder, or worse, a puppy mill in disguise?
- Visit the home of the breeder. Meet the parents of the puppies, or the mother at a minimum. The parents should live with the family in the home as pets, and should appear friendly, well-socialized, and healthy. Remember, behavioral tendencies can be inherited, if mom is skittish there is a good chance her puppies will be, too! The puppies should be in a clean, safe environment within the home, and if they are 5-6 weeks or older they should be out in the hustle and bustle of family life so they can get used to it. Too much isolation can lead to a fearful adult. Looking at pictures of the home is not enough – puppy mills can take pictures of homes and put them online – this does not mean the puppies are actually raised there! If you cannot visit the home, have someone you trust do so for you. If that is not possible it is safest to look elsewhere. Be sure you meet in the home, meeting in a “neutral location” is often code that you are dealing with a puppy mill.
- Make sure they only breed one type of dog, or two at most. Every breed has their own potential health problems, and a breeder should be well-versed in them. By focusing on one breed the breeder ensures that they are fully prepared for all of the potential issues that could come from breeding these dogs.
- Ask what health and genealogical tests have been done on the parents. The breeder should have given both parents full medical exams before the breeding, and should have checked that no congenital problems were present in either parent. They should also have looked back at least three generations in the parents’ history to ensure that there is not a history of congenital problems and that the parents are not closely related.
- The breeder should ask you questions about yourself. A responsible breeder will want to know where his puppies are going, that they will be cared for, and that you are ready for everything that goes along with the specific breed. They should also be available for contact with questions even after the puppy is home.
- Ensure they will take back any puppy at any point in her life if her family cannot keep her. This is one of the most important criteria to me. Even if you cannot foresee any condition in which you would need to give up your puppy, such situations can happen, if not to you, then to other owners. If every breeder took responsibility for every puppy they bred for their full lifetime, there would be no need for shelters.
There is nothing wrong with wanting a puppy, as long as you make sure that puppy is coming from a place that is good for dogs and good for their people! A puppy from a responsible breeder will be healthier, happier, and less likely to present behavioral problems, saving you money and heartbreak as you spend the next 10-20 years with your newest family member. When you are looking for a puppy, be sure the breeder you find meets all of the criteria listed above, and you’ll be off to a great start!
There are many places from which you can get a dog – a shelter, a rescue, a pet store, a puppy mill, or a breeder. Some are better than others, for the dogs and for you.
Shelters take in animals who no longer have homes, either because their people brought them in or because they were found wandering the streets, and houses them in a group facility. Many dogs at shelters are purebreds, and there are many lovable mutts. Most shelter dogs are adults,which leads many people to not want them because they are afraid of the possible bad habits the dog already has. Often, however, there will be less training involved in retraining a shelter dog in the few areas he needs it than in training a new puppy in everything. Shelters can be a great place to get a dog if you are open to some unknowns and want to do good for an animal in need.
Rescues are organizations which take in certain dogs who meet their criteria (for example, a certain breed, close to being euthanized but with a good personality) and hold them until homes can be found. The dogs are often held in foster homes, living with a family until a home can be found. This usually means you will have more detailed information about a dog from a rescue than you would from a shelter. A great place to find shelter or rescue dogs in your area is Petfinder, and online directory of animals available for adoption across the country.
Pet stores carry very young puppies, often puppies who are too young to have left their mother. All of the puppies sold in pet stores come from puppy mills or irresponsible breeders. A responsible breeder will never give their puppy to a pet store. Because price is the bottom line, it is rare that genetic or health tests are done on the parents of the puppies, and the puppies are usually very under socialized before arriving at the store, which means that there is a high likelihood that pet store puppies will have health or behavioral problems – or both! Pet stores will lie about where their puppies come from. Buying puppies from a pet store is in all ways a bad idea; the puppies typically cost more than they would from a responsible breeder, have not had health tests done on their parents (a guarantee is offered after the fact in case genetic problems show up, but they do nothing to try to prevent the problems, gambling that by the time they do show up you’ll be too attached to the puppy to return it), are poorly socialized, had poor early care, are highly likely to show health problems leading to high vet bills, and buying from pet stores supports the horrific organizations known as puppy mills.
Puppy mills are disgusting organizations in which dogs are kept in tiny cages, deprived of human contact, and often do not have their basic requirements of food, water and cleanliness taken care of. In mills dogs are mass bred like livestock. Often such organizations will say their dogs are fine, because they follow USDA standards. However, USDA standards only require dogs to be kept in a cage with enough room that they can turn in a circle. They do not ever have to be let out of that cage in their entire life. When adults get to old to breed, puppies do not look enough like they should (i.e. a “designer” mix which looks too much like a purebred), or puppies get too old to sell, they are killed. Dogs from puppy mills rarely receive vet care, and so suffer from conditions like having their teeth and jaws rot away, urine burns where the dog is so caked in urine the ammonia actually burns the skin, legs and feet which are broken or torn off in wire cages, hernias which can reach the size of grapefruits, sores between the pads of the feet from standing on wire, all of which are typically left untreated.
Breeders come in two kinds, responsible breeders and what are known as back yard breeders. Back yard breeders are casual breeders who breed without the knowledge or care required to do so responsibly. Often they just breed a litter or two for fun, have puppies accident, or breed their dogs to make money. They typically are not well versed in what is involved taking care of a pregnant mother, how to deal with problems in the birth, the early stimulation and socialization the young puppies need, and as with puppy mills the parents are not screened for health problems and the proper pre-natal care is not given. Puppies from a back yard breeder will be more socialized than from a puppy mill, but otherwise they are very similar in their likelihood of health issues and behavioral issues. It is back yard breeders and puppy mills who have led to the extreme overpopulation in our nation’s shelters, largely because they do not take responsibility for their puppies once they are sold.
Responsible breeders care for their dogs. They do health checks, give their mothers prenatal care, know what to do in the emergencies that can surround whelping, and know how to care for and stimulate their young puppies. They take responsibility for all the puppies the sell, and ensure that the puppies go to good homes.
If you are looking for a puppy or dog, finding a shelter, rescue, or responsible breeder is not only best for the dogs, it is best for you. You will end up with a healthier, happier dog who will live a long, full life with you. Check back for more information on how to find a responsible breeder, and how to make sure you’re not inadvertently buying from a puppy mill.