Archive for the ‘Clicker Training’ Tag

Clicks for Eye Contact   Leave a comment

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.

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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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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