The Power of Targeting   1 comment

In my Basics group class I always teach targeting, and this cue, more than any other, elicits the question, “Why are we doing this?”

Targeting typically refers to nose targeting, or teaching a dog to touch her nose to a target. The target can be a hand, something held,like a plastic lid, a target stick (an example of which is shown below), or a flat or standing object set up at a distance.

The Clik Stik, a retractable target stick with built-in clicker

(Note: I have received no incentive or reward for sharing the above training product)

Teaching a dog to nose target can have a plethora of possible applications:

  • An alternative recall: Targeting is a really fun, easy cue for your dog to perform. If for any reason you have a recall (come) that is not very strong, or you only have an emergency recall that you don’t use outside of emergencies or situations in which you are prepared to highly reward your dog for returning, or your dog is just not responding well to your typical recall at that moment, targeting can be another cue which has the same effect. If you ask your dog to target your hand (which you always have with you!) your dog will come running over to you, exactly the same as he would with a recall. Even if you do have a good recall, it can never hurt to have an alternate cue. Your dog may decide she likes targeting better than “come”-ing, so you might as well take advantage of that!
  • Teaching new tricks: You can teach many new tricks or cues by luring your dog, or moving food in front of his nose so he follows it into the correct behavior. While this can be quite effective, when dogs have food right in front of their nose they tend to not be thinking about much else! They will follow the food into the correct behavior, but they aren’t all that aware of what their body is doing. Eventually they will figure out what behavior is earning them the food, but this process can go much faster if instead of following food, the dog follows a target. By following a target much more of their brain power is available to think about what they are doing, and they will realize what is earning them the treat faster. This can also be helpful if you need some extra reach in teaching a cue, or you don’t want to bend over, because you can use a target stick to have your dog follow something farther away than your hand.
  • Working at a distance: If you need to send your dog away from you, for example, to send him through over a series of jumps, or to tell him to go to his bed, you can do this by sending him to a target. Sending to a target is often used for training dog sports like agility and flyball.
  • Bolstering a shy dog’s confidence: Shy dogs are often fearful of hands coming over or around their faces or bodies. By teaching a shy dog to target a flat hand, a hand coming toward her is no longer scary, because it is associated with a fun, easy game where she got lots of treats! This can not only help your dog feel happier, it can prevent bites that come from a scared dog snapping at a hand coming at her.
  • Positioning your dog: Sometimes we are out with our dogs in crowded spaces, and we need them to move out of the way. Rather than pulling our dogs where we need them to go with the leash, which often results in them planting their feet and bracing anyway, we can ask them to target our hand and have them easily and happily shift position. There are many other times you may want to position your dog: to get him into heel position, to set him in place for a photograph, or to help him get unstuck or untangled, for example.

These are just some of the possible applications of targeting. It is a very versatile cue, and while you may not see a useful application when you first teach it, chances are you will come across a time you are glad your dog knows it. Worst case scenario, even if you never use targeting in any practical application, it is never bad to teach your dog another trick and exercise her mind!

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Posted February 15, 2010 by Eileen in Training Applications

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We’re Going Carnival Crazy!   1 comment

Another blog post of ours, A New Kind of Stuffed Toy, was selected for another carnival! The carnival this time is Carnival for Pet Writers, which has information not only on training, but on many pet-related topics topics, along with humor and stories about animals. Check it out for a monthly set of fun and useful blogs!

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Posted February 11, 2010 by Eileen in Resources

Using a Muzzle   2 comments

Muzzles can be a necessity for any dog at some point in their life. As Katalin over at Special Paws Blog recently illustrated, even the most well-trained, lovable dog can run into a situation where a muzzle is needed! In her case, her dog had surgery, and she had been warned that the physical therapy can be painful, causing some dogs to snap or bite to let you know you’re hurting them. Because of this, the therapist requested that dogs wear muzzles while undergoing therapy. For a dog not used to wearing a muzzle, having one on can be a cause for a lot of anxiety, and would make the physical therapy scary when it didn’t need to be. The same is true for an injured dog who is terrified and in pain. If he is not used to it, putting a muzzle on him can amplify that fear a large amount. Training your dog to wear a muzzle, even if you see no immediate need, will help prevent stress in your dog if he ends up in a situation like these and needs to.

Then there are dogs who have bitten in the past in response to certain triggers. When working to counter condition your dog (teach her that the trigger is not stressful and thus no longer causes her to feel the need to bite) you may want her to wear a muzzle so that if you miss a warning sign she’s giving you no one is injured. This is especially important if you need to enlist the help of other people in counter-conditioning your dog. For example, if your dog will bite when her paws are handled, you will need to teach her to accept not only you handling her paws, but other people. While you may be willing to risk a bite, you don’t want to assume that your helpers will, as well.

In situations such as these, a muzzle can be a good tool. Read that again, because it is important. A muzzle is a tool. It is not a solution to a dog’s biting, it is a tool you can use while teaching her to not feel the need to bite, or that you can use in a short term situation when your dog is in pain and is likely to not have good control of herself. If you are working with a biting dog, it can help ensure everyone involved is safe. However, while this article is only about training your dog to accept a muzzle, recognize that it is only a useful tool either in short-term situations or when paired with appropriate training for the underlying biting behavior.

So you’ve decided that you want to teach your dog to accept a muzzle, either because you see an immediate need, or just for the possibility of needing it in the future. How do you ensure that your dog not only doesn’t find a muzzle stressful, but that he actually enjoys wearing it? I’ll go through the whole process, but be sure to break up your training in to 5 or 10 minute sessions, so the training stays fun and stress-free!

Introduce the muzzle to him slowly, and let him choose how quickly he will put it on. Get out the muzzle, and a bag of tasty treats. Now offer your dog a treat so that he has to stick his nose towards the muzzle to get it. Don’t go too quickly! How close your dog has to put his nose will be determined by his comfort level. Remember, the goal of this training is that your dog does not find the muzzle stressful. If you push him too quickly, even with food around, the muzzle will be associated with stress in his mind. Once your dog is eagerly looking to the muzzle, waiting for the next treat to appear, move the treat so it is a little further into the muzzle. Now your dog will have to put his nose either closer to or farther into the muzzle to get the treat (depending where you started). This may cause a little hesitation, but it shouldn’t cause him to balk. Ideally, your dog will be so happy with the game you’re playing that he won’t mind moving his nose an extra half-inch into the muzzle at all! If he balks or seems to get stressed, make the game easier. Put the treat back to where it was, or even further away, for a few repetitions, until he is having fun again. Slowly increase how far into the muzzle your dog has to put his nose to get the food.

If you move slowly enough, you should get to the point where your dog is happily jamming his nose all the way into the muzzle to get the offered treat. Once you hit this point, stop showing him the treat. Hold out the muzzle and see what he does. If he makes a move to put his nose in it at all, say “Yes!” in a happy tone, and offer him the treat inside the muzzle again. This way you are teaching him that you’re playing the same game, but that the muzzle itself is a cue to put his nose in and get rewarded, not the treat. This will allow you to muzzle him even if you don’t have any treats on you in an emergency. Repeat this game until you can offer the muzzle, and he will eagerly stick his nose all the way inside and wait for his treat.

At this point you can start to fasten the muzzle. Up until now you have simply been holding it out and letting him put his nose in, but if you were to let go it would either fall off or be easily pawed off. You are just going to add to the rules of the same game you have been playing all along that your dog loves. Offer the muzzle and let him eagerly stick his nose in, but don’t treat him yet. Instead reach out, grab the straps, fasten them, and give the treat. As soon as he takes the treat unfasten the strap and take off the muzzle. Once the muzzle is off ignore your dog for a few seconds, and repeat the procedure. Note: If you are using a cloth or mesh muzzle which holds your dog’s mouth closed, he may not be able to take a treat, or even lick some baby food off a spoon. If that is the case, put on the muzzle, and give him a different reward. Pet him, cuddle him, give praise, run with him (see the safety note below), do something that your dog loves that doesn’t involve opening his mouth. Once the muzzle is off ignore him for a few seconds, as above. This teaches your dog that having the muzzle fastened means that the good things are coming. Once it comes off life is not bad, but it’s a lot less exciting and fun! At first you may not be able to fasten the muzzle all the way. That’s fine. Remember: the goal is to keep your dog happy! If at any time his tail tucks or he acts upset, slow down and go back a few steps. This should be an enjoyable process! If he starts to get unhappy when you go to fasten the muzzle, start by just reaching out and touching the strap while his nose is in the muzzle and then rewarding him, slowly building up to fastening it. There is no step too small to take in your progress!

As your dog accepts the muzzle being fastened, leave it on for longer and longer periods of time. Keep the rule that while it is on, good things are happening, once it comes off, all the good things stop. No congratulating your dog for doing so well after you take it off! That will teach her that the muzzle coming off is desirable, and she will not like having it on. Instead, congratulate her while it is on. That’s the hard part, after all! Slowly build up the amount of time your dog will happily wear the muzzle, always taking it off before she gets stressed. Once she is happily wearing it for more time than you would need to work on desensitizing her to her trigger (having her paws handled in the above example) you can start counter-conditioning her trigger safely, with her muzzle on and adding no stress. If you’re training it for a rainy day, build up until she will happily wear it for at least 10 minutes. Remember to practice with the muzzle occasionally so your skills stay sharp, though once she likes it the rewards can go down in value and frequency.

Congratulations, you now have a dog who gets excited when he sees the muzzle come out, and can’t wait to get his nose into it! Whether you need it right now, or might in the future, you can add one more check to your list of mastered skills.

Safety Note
Never leave a dog unsupervised wearing a cloth or mesh muzzle which holds their mouth shut. Also never leave it on for longer than about 20 minutes, especially in warm weather. While wearing a cloth or mesh muzzle a dog cannot pant or drink, which can be dangerous for long periods of time, especially in warm weather. This is the main reason I typically prefer a basket muzzle of either wire or plastic, which completely encases your dog’s mouth but does not hold it shut. Another reason is that with a cloth or mesh muzzle while a dog cannot bite, he can pinch since there is typically some give in it. This can still be painful!

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Enjoying the Walk   1 comment

All dogs, no matter what their size, need exercise. Walks can be a great way to not only physically exercise your dog  (and yourself!), but to mentally exercise him through all of the sniffing, exploring and experiencing he does. However, when your dog pulls on the leash, walks quickly cease to be fun. When they’re no longer fun, we tend to take our dogs out less frequently…leading to them getting more excited when they do get out…leading to them pulling harder…leading to us walking them less frequently…and so on, until our dogs almost never go out for the exercise they need. Pretty soon other behavioral problems start to occur due to the excess mental and physical energy, things like barking, digging, chewing, hyper-active behavior, door dashing, and the list goes on. So how can we teach our dogs to stop pulling?

First, think about why your dog pulls. It’s not to annoy you, it’s because they want to GO and see that leaf, and that bush, and what just moved?, and lets keep going, and there’s so much to see we better go or we’ll miss it!, and ooooooh, another dog!! Our dogs pull because it works: when they pull, they get to go where they want. Now, the person on the other end of the leash may be yelling and swearing at them while they go there, but that does not come close to outweighing the coolness of everything around them. Even if a dog is receiving leash corrections, or wearing a prong or pinch collar, often his brain is so consumed with taking in everything around him, and the pain or discomfort just doesn’t penetrate. Combine this overstimulation and automatic reward of moving forward with a natural instinct to pull against pressure, and it becomes clear why our dogs pull!

Now that we understand their motivation, what is the best way to stop them from pulling? Take away their motivation: don’t let them move forward while they are pulling. From now on, whenever your dog is on the leash it is her job to keep the leash loose. When you are walking your dog, the instant you feel tension in the leash beyond what you have decided is acceptable, plant your feet and do not move. Do not call to your dog, do not jerk on the leash, just wait and feel. Eventually, when your dog is not getting rewarded by moving forward, and all of the stimulants around her aren’t changing and staying exciting, she’ll look back at you as if to say, “Well aren’t we going to go?” When she does this the leash will slacken, you can tell her good, and move forward. You may only take one step before there is tension in the leash again, so again, you will plant your feet and wait. Pay close attention to what you can feel through the leash; often you can’t see your dog shift visibly, but she does shift enough that the tension in the leash is relieved. Once you feel there is no more tension in the leash, say, “Good!” and move forward. By making the rule about when your dog gets to move forward based on how the leash feels rather than where your dog is relative to you, you can train your dog to keep the leash loose no matter how much slack you’ve given her. By not speaking to her to encourage her to loosen the leash she learns that she has to keep the leash slack all the time, not just when you ask her to.

At first this is a very frustrating process. You may be standing on the street for 3 straight minutes, waiting for your dog to relax enough to even try to figure out how to move forward again. It may take you 30 minutes to get down your driveway. If at all possible, use walks for training and exercise your dog in other ways; at off leash parks, playing fetch in the backyard, swimming, whatever works; until they have learned the rules. This will help you get less frustrated about how long it is taking you to go down the block, because there’s no need to go down the block! The purpose of the walk is to move any distance without tension, not to cover a certain amount of ground. Depending on how long your dog has been pulling and being automatically rewarded for it, it may take your dog one day to figure out the new rules, or it may take several weeks. Most dogs will start to figure out that when you stop they need to shift back pretty quickly, but it can still take a long time until they are reliably keeping the leash slack so you don’t have to stop. If you are consistent, however, you will end up with a dog who is a pleasure to walk not only at your side, but ranging in front of you, or even 10 or more feet out.

To encourage your dog to walk nicely, it can help to carry a clicker and treats on your walks. Whenever your dog is in an especially good position, or has stayed on a slack leash for a long time (a “long time” will vary dog to dog and by how far in the process they are), click and give him a treat right by your hip (the best place for him to be, no tension there!). This will reinforce that when he walks nicely not only does he get the reward of going forward, he will sometimes get extra treats and to keep going forward! (It can also be helpful to have a clicker and treats on a walk in case you run into a situation where you want focus, a distracting situation your dog does well in, or if you want to practice cues outside your house.)

What if you can’t physically stop your dog because he’s more powerful than you? Try the product that is often called “power steering for dogs”: a head collar. A head collar has two loops which connect beneath the chin. One loop goes from below the jaw to right behind the ears, and the other loop goes around the dogs nose and sits high up on the muzzle, near the eyes. The leash attaches where the two loops connect under the chin. A head collar is not a muzzle; dogs still have an almost full range of mouth movement and are able to take treats, pant, drink, bark, bite, and even vomit if need be. Some dogs cannot hold a tennis ball, because that requires their mouth to open very wide. A head collar works on the same principal a halter does on a horse. Can you imagine leading a horse by a rope thrown around its neck? Unless you had a very well trained animal, you would have a hard time taking the horse anywhere. Attach the rope to a halter, however, and you can control the horse (which is a much larger animal than any dog). By leading the head, you can lead the whole animal. Please remember: You should never give a leash correction to a dog wearing a head collar. You have so much control over their head and neck you can cause serious neck damage if you jerk on them. If you are careful, however, this is a perfectly safe and non-painful product. Introduce the head collar slowly. Ask your dog to put their nose through the nose-loop by holding a treat on the other side, so they can choose how fast they want that contact. Slowly start to buckle the second loop while they’re eating, and leaving it buckled for longer periods of time. Some dogs have a hard time adjusting to the head collar, but almost all dogs will. I like to compare wearing a head collar to wearing glasses. If you’ve ever worn glasses you probably remember that when you first put them on you were acutely aware of them being there every minute. But after a few days, you forgot they were even there! If introduced correctly, most dogs will react the same way, and even if they don’t they’ll certainly put up with it to get to go on a walk! Some of the major brands of head collars are:

Halti
and
Gentle Leader.

There are many brands of head collars, each with some slight differences from the others, but they all work on the same principle.

Another tool that is often useful in reducing pulling is a no-pull harness. There are many types of these, as they can work by swinging the dog’s body around or causing slight discomfort in various ways when the dog pulls. A no-pull harness will give you less control than a head collar, but for dogs with short noses or dogs who do not pull too strongly, a no-pull harness can make a difference. For a summary of different training aids for pulling, including the various types of no-pull harnesses, see this table.

Walks should be a time you and your dog can enjoy together. It is important, especially if you have a larger or more active breed, that your dog gets out for a walk every day. Almost any of your dog’s bad behaviors can be improved simply by exercising him sufficiently. The good news is, with the right tools and the right training, your dog can walk nicely on a leash!

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The Clicker Carnival   1 comment

We are proud that our recent blog post, Growling is Good!, was selected to be included in this month’s Clicker Carnival. The Clicker Carnival is, in the host’s own word, “a monthly collection of the best blog posts related to clicker training, positive reinforcement training and operant conditioning.” So head on over for some great information hand-picked from around the web!

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Posted February 5, 2010 by Eileen in Resources

Positive Reinforcement Works On People, Too!   Leave a comment

Often what we ask our dogs to do is hard, or uncomfortable, or requires some level sacrifice. Asking your dog to sit to greet people rather than jumping is a lot less fun than letting excitement take over, and a lot less natural than greeting them face to face! Asking your dog to leave that fascinating roadkill he found alone is asking him to give up one of the coolest discoveries in dogdom! Asking your dog to stop chasing that squirrel and return to your side is HARD and goes against all of his instincts!

One of the basic ideas behind positive training is that if you make appropriate behaviors rewarding, dogs will be more likely to (happily) do them, even if they require a higher level of effort than the alternative or are in other ways naturally less appealing.

Volkswagon has taken the same principle, and tried it out on people, calling it “The Fun Theory.” They take things that are not that hard to do, but that most people don’t find worth doing, and make them fun to see if that will encourage more people to do them. For example, they transformed a staircase, which is right next to an escalator, into a giant piano that sounds each time you put a foot on a step. Their results are no surprise to positive trainers – making a behavior more fun encourages people to do it! The day after they installed the giant piano on the steps, 66% more people took the stairs than normal.

Here’s another example where they took a glass collection station and turned it into a arcade game. Check out the results:

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Discarding Dominance and Leading with Love   6 comments

Everyone wants a well-trained dog, one they can walk down the street with to the envy of all around, who is calm and friendly in the house, and does all you ask of him in an instant. But as any dog owner can tell you, that’s not easy! How do we go about transforming our dog into that perfectly behaved pooch?

In our society today, it is considered common knowledge that any misbehavior by our dog comes from her trying to assert herself as “leader of the pack.” Our relationships with our dogs are looked at as power struggles. Any affection we show our dog or reward we give her is considered showing weakness, inviting her to take over. To maintain order, we are taught we must intimidate our dogs into submission, giving them painful corrections when they misbehave, and physically overpowering them until they comply with our wishes. This is the only way, we are told, that we can have a good relationship with man’s best friend.

In reality, this view of canine behavior is outdated and has been proven inaccurate. The theory comes from 1947 research which was done on unrelated wolves in captivity who were put together to form a pack and observed while hunting. With no supporting evidence, the research was then extrapolated to apply to free wolf packs, which are typically made up of a breeding pair and their offspring, to those wolf packs at all times, not just while hunting, and to domesticated dogs’ interactions with each other and with humans. We now know that the conclusion of this study is not applicable to the interactions of wild wolves, let along domesticated dogs who have been selectively bred for thousands of years. For more explanation of how this theory has been disproven, see the references at the end of this post.

This is good news for dog owners and lovers everywhere! Now we know that to have a happy and loving dog who is a joy to have in the family, we do not have to dominate or intimidate him. Rather, by using modern methods of conditioning, we can teach our dogs to follow the rules of our household. Using these methods not only do our dogs what we ask, they take joy in it!

Think of Pavlov’s dogs. Every time a bell rang, they salivated. This was an automatic and predictable response; the dogs heard the bell, and they eagerly anticipated food. Now imagine what Pavlov could have accomplished if he had asked his dogs to earn the sound of the bell. Say, for example, that every time a dog laid down, the bell was rang, and the food promised by the bell followed. You can imagine what would happen: pretty soon he’d barely be able to walk with all the dogs lying around his feet, hoping for the sound of that bell!

This is the principal on which clicker training works, but instead of a bell we use a “click.” By teaching the dog that the “click” means they get food, soon we have dogs who are excited and eager to figure out what we want them to do to earn the “click.” Once they have learned a cue, we stop using the “click,” but because that behavior has always been a fun thing they’ve wanted to do, they will continue to happily do it when asked. And wouldn’t you rather have a dog who gets excited when you ask him to do something rather than cringes?

Recently, Debbie of fearfuldogs.com wrote a post I absolutely love, illustrating the common perception among Americans that training your dog has to mean forcing him into submission. She points out that the good behavior she gets from dogs comes from teaching them the “culture of human,” rather than demeaning or punishing them until they figure it out. Her story is a great example of how powerful positive training can be, so that even those who don’t necessarily put stock in it recognize the results.

Modern research supports the power of positive training, as does the experience of trainers of all kinds of species, including chickens, cats, and dolphins (ever tried to give a dolphin a leash correction?). It is good for your dog, good for you, good for your family, good for your relationship, good for everyone! So give it a try, and discover how quickly and eagerly your dog can learn.

A Few Resources Debunking Wolf Pack/Dominance Theory

Position statement on dominance training by the American Veterinary  Society of Animal Behavior

Database of publications by recognized wolf expert L. David Mech

Specific article by L. David Mech through the United States Geological Survey (USGS) discussing the lack of a heirarchical system in wolf packs

Specific article by L. David Mech discussing modern science’s almost unilateral acceptance that “alpha wolves” do not exist

Article on dominance training by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers

Article on dominance theory by the head of the International Positive Dog Training Association

Discussion of 1947 wolf pack research compared to more recent dog pack research with conclusions

Interview with Ray and Lorna Coppinger, biologists, trainers, and authors

Article on the myth of dominance theory (no references but very accessible)

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