Thursday, December 26, 2013

Summer Over the Holidays (and Logs)

Summer keeps on coming around when my parents visit, and she fits right in with the big dogs when it comes to running about, exploring, jumping, and, of course, practicing strong recalls. In fact, in order to get this shot, we had Summer sit stay so the humans could get out of the frame, and then she was called by a person standing behind the photographer. It took three or four tries to get a jumping shot this good, and she was a great sport the whole time.

And what would a group dog hike be without a photo of the daily stay? Summer's rapidly catching up in size to her cousins, and this shot shows off her awkward teenage ears nearly as well as the previous one.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Puppy Foundations: Biting

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My puppy is aggressive, what do I do? My puppy is biting us and nothing is working to stop him! How can I get my puppy to stop biting?

At eight weeks, puppies are typically interested in social interactions, and
they tend to explore the world with their mouths.
I field questions like these all the time from new puppy owners, particularly new Golden Retriever puppy owners. Frequently, Golden puppies go through a phase in which they become sharkmouthed little terrors, and families are often at a loss on how to eliminate this behavior quickly and safely.

Like jumping, biting is a natural, social thing puppies do. It's an attempt to interact and play with you. Puppies explore the world with their mouths, so when they nip at your hands or clothes, that's an attempt to explore you and engage in a social interaction. Sometimes, a worked up puppy will nip pretty hard and vocalize while he's doing it, which leads some new owners to worry that the puppy is aggressive or dangerous. While there are very rare cases in which puppies have neurological issues that cause unprovoked aggression, the vast majority of concerned owners simply have a puppy who gets overstimulated and mouthy.

I approach this behavior just like I do with jumping, and if you read both articles, you see the consistency in the philosophy between that one and this one. The key to getting rid of an undesired behavior like biting is understanding what motivates it, removing the reward for it, and rewarding an alternative behavior.

Understand the Motivation for the Behavior

With biting, the motivations are fairly straightforward: dogs mouth at each other while playing, and dogs explore the world with their mouths. So most mouthing isn't aggressive, and it certainly isn't related to dominance in most situations. Rather, it's an attempt to take out the urge to mouth things, and it's an attempt to initiate play with you. Getting your dog to stop doing it means understanding that so you can make sure that it doesn't get him the rewards he's seeking.

Remove the Reward for the Unwanted Behavior

The reward for biting is your attention. That means that loud noises, sudden motion, eye contact and continued interaction can all reinforce the biting. So if you're having problems with a nippy puppy, be sure you're not accidentally rewarding him by paying him more attention when he bites. A firm "no" is often recommended to stop a puppy from biting, but in my experience, it can actually be a reward since it can be mistaken for play or at least attention. So can pushing the dog away from you. Many, many dogs find a push highly reinforcing, even if you intend it as punishment. Jerking your hand away is also potentially a reward or potentially an accidental signal that you want to play.

Some trainers recommend a high pitched yelp when your puppy bites you, and I've seen that work well, since it's something that dogs sometimes do with each other to signal that a bite was unwelcome. However, humans aren't always great at speaking dog, and some pups simply misinterpret a yelp as a play noise and take it as a reward. If you yelp and your puppy gets even more energized, the yelp probably won't help.

One thing that works well to remove the reward is to freeze, become completely silent, and look up and away. The puppy is trying to get more interaction, so if you remove all interaction and energy at the moment that teeth touch skin, you can show him that biting is having the opposite effect from what he intended. He wants to play a prosocial game and interact with you; you're showing him that biting humans turns them into boring statues. Just like with other methods that use ignoring, the idea here is not just to ignore what you don't like but rather to remove the reward of your attention.

Again, like with jumping, you will typically see extinction bursts when a behavior is about to improve. The puppy may try biting harder or more excitedly for a brief period once he realizes that biting isn't getting him what he wants. That is a sign that your technique is working, and giving up during the extinction burst will simply teach the puppy that he's right to try biting harder. An extinction burst is a sign that you're about to be successful, so stick with it.

However, as with jumping, sometimes dogs are too forceful or intense for us to play statue long enough to teach them that it doesn't work. Most puppies who interacted with their litters up through eight weeks have learned enough bite inhibition that they don't bite intensely and break the skin, since their littermates have taught them how to bite softly, but you may not be able to ignore the biting of a puppy who was removed earlier or a puppy who is simply more intense than average. In these cases, you may need to non-reward your puppy by removing yourself entirely from the situation by, for example, standing up or stepping over a baby gate.

Reward an Alternative Behavior

A favorite toy can help satisfy a pup's urge to mouth and his urge to play.
You can often speed up the reduction in an unwanted behavior by teaching and rewarding a behavior that's acceptable to you and is incompatible with the unacceptable behavior. With biting, that means helping your dog learn how to interact appropriately while still taking out his urge to mouth and play.

Be sure that you have an appropriate toy at hand when you are playing with your dog. If he bites, you freeze and play statue. Once he stops mouthing for even a moment, waggle the toy. Praise him and play with him if he puts his mouth on the toy instead of you. If your timing is good, your puppy should learn that biting at toys gets him good things, but biting at skin or clothes takes away good things.

Another alternative behavior is licking. You can teach your dog to give you a kiss instead of a bite. In my family, licking is considered gross, so we tend not to teach this particular behavior, but many people like it when their dog gives them a nice kiss on the hand, so you can teach your nippy puppy to kiss instead of biting by praising him when he licks. You can even put a dab of peanut butter on your finger and only let your puppy at it when he is licking rather than biting that finger. Then you can say "kiss" when he is reliably licking instead of biting. That can give you a command for your nippy puppy that you can use rather than purely ignoring him. You can teach him that kissing leads to more positive interactions, including peanut butter, and that biting pauses or ends positive interactions.

The Takeaway

Most professional trainers have only seen one or two truly aggressive puppies in their lifetimes, and I've personally never seen one. I have, however, seen many puppies whose owners were concerned about aggression because the puppies were so growly and mouthy. So don't worry too much if you have a little landshark in the house. While it's possible for a puppy to be truly aggressive, it's extremely improbable. Instead, try to make sure that your pup is not getting accidentally rewarded for the biting with attention, sound, and eye contact. Remove all potential rewards when he bites, and give him an acceptable behavior that will allow him to gain a reward.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

No, Your Dog's Not Dominant

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Due to some popular TV trainers, the idea of dominance has taken on a major role in contemporary dog training conversations. The term has its origins in the 1940s, when it was used to describe the interactions of captive wolves. Some wolves seemed to rank higher in the captive pack than others, taking food first, mating preferentially, and leading the others. Some dog trainers decided to apply this philosophy to dogs, ascribing behavioral problems to the fact that the dog didn't see humans as "alphas" or "dominant" enough.

Is the dog on your bed and refusing to get off? That's because he's dominant and thinks he owns the space. Is your dog pulling you down the street on the leash? That's because he's dominant and thinks you are his follower. Does he growl when you come near his food bowl? That's because he's dominant and doesn't respect your right to bother him while he's eating.

Comet and Jax don't hold a reliable stay because they respect my
alpha status. They do it because it's been practiced and rewarded.
This philosophy often leads people to take the next step and to establish so-called dominance by taking physical action with the dog. The most common and problematic step is to engage in something called "alpha rolling" the dog. This move is intended to imitate something wild wolves supposedly do. The "alpha" wolf, in order to show he's leader, pins the other wolf to the ground by his throat. So the human, having arrived at the conclusion that his dog doesn't respect him enough, punishes him for bad behavior by pinning him to the ground by the throat. It sounds like it could work, and most of us would interpret this technique in a relatively gentle way and do it without hurting or surprising the dog too much. However, the alpha roll and other techniques like it are unequivocally a bad idea. There is never a situation in which pinning your dog to the ground by his throat is part of effective training.

Why not? First, let's address the reality of wild wolves and debunk the myth of dominance at its roots. It turns out that wolf packs in the wild do not typically engage in the physical conflicts that were observed in captive wolves. When wild wolves fight, they don't do so to establish rank; rather, they fight to the point of injury or death. In reality, nearly all pack-level interactions are all about avoiding a physical conflict by using body language and vocalization.

Don't believe me? Check out what L. David Mech, one of the originators of dominance theory, has to say about it these days. Actually, he substantially revised his wolf theories about fifteen years ago, but many dog trainers have not caught up, despite the fact that the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the largest, most reputable professional organization for pet dog trainers, has made a very clear position statement on the subject of training dogs through the lens of dominance.

Good leadership in modern, science-based dog training is all about clarity and setting your dog up to succeed. It's not about ascribing undesired behaviors to pseudo-scientific hokum about alpha dogs and then intimidating the dog through physical coercion or pain.

But, you say, I've seen that guy do it on TV and then the dog stops with the bad behavior. If it's such a bad idea, why does it seem to work? It seems to work sometimes because when you intimidate a dog that badly, one of the possible reactions is that the dog will become very still in an attempt to show he's not a threat. Rather than fighting and provoking more aggression from you, the dog decides to freeze in the hope you'll leave him alone. If your puppy nips you, and you flip him onto his back and hold him by the throat, there's a good chance he'll freeze, especially if you do it roughly. However, what you're now holding to the ground is a puppy who is terrified that you'll actually hurt him. You are not a leader; you are a bully.

Even assuming for a moment that dogs see humans as other dogs, if you went to another pack member, grabbed him by the neck, and threw him to the ground, he could, quite reasonably, assume that you were trying to murder him, and he would react accordingly. On TV, sometimes that means the dog freezes, and sometimes that means the human gets bitten rather badly. The nastiest bites are typically given by dogs who are in fear for their lives. When you pin your dog, you're asking for stitches, not obedience.

This kind of leadership philosophy creates no end of headaches for us who have to train real-world dogs with no TV cameras pointed at us. Owners come in with dogs who are alternately terrorized and energized by their owners. When you intimidate a dog who's jumping or biting, you often see the jumping or biting stop—only for as long as the dog is actually afraid. It's long enough for a TV camera to document what looks like success (though sometimes the cameras document a nasty bite instead), but if you actually have to live with the dog, what you typically end up seeing is a dog who ends up being highly energized and confused a few minutes or hours later. The dog's trust in people gets broken down, and the handler has provided little clarity for he what he actually wants.

Looking at dogs through the lens of dominance is a recipe for broken trust in many cases, and in some cases, it teaches dogs to bite humans as a last resort to fight back against what they may perceive as a physical threat. If your understanding of dominance leads you to poke, hit, kick, yell at, or pin your dog, it's leading you in exactly the wrong direction. You may get the short term appearance of calmness or a short-lived reduction in the bad behavior, but helplessness isn't the kind of calmness you want. You may teach your dog that doing that undesired thing leads you to become physical and intimidating, but is that really what you want motivating your dog's obedience? You can sometimes teach a dog not to jump by kneeing him in the chest, but is that really the kind of trainer you want to be?

Dogs really can be obnoxious sometimes. They can jump all over you, steal food, pull on the leash, and do a dozen other things that are incompatible with a happy human-dog relationship. However, they don't do these things because they think they are the lead wolf in a mixed pack of dogs and humans, and viewing their undesired behavior through the lens of dominance is a recipe for broken trust and, in some cases, a nasty bite.

So no, your dog's not dominant. Wild wolves don't establish dominance hierarchies in the first place; in the second, dogs aren't identical to wolves anyway; and lastly, your dog doesn't really see you as another dog. If your dog is doing something undesirable, that means he's not trained for that situation. It's your job to teach him, not to threaten him, and there are a lot of ways to change your dog's behavior without relying on intimidation or discomfort as your go-to response.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Snow Portraits

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This entry is actually being written and posted in February, but backdated, since I just stumbled across these photos from December that I apparently took on a snow day off from work and immediately forgot about. I vaguely recollect being struck by how gently the snow was settling on the dogs and how it was just cold enough that it didn't melt on their fur but just warm enough that it stuck.

I can also see from all the photos that I was playing around with focal length a little and trying to figure out exactly the depth of field that might make for a warm portrait on a cold day.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Puppy Temperament Testing

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I had the opportunity over the weekend to be the photographer for a very special gathering. A terrific litter of Goldens was being evaluated to decide which families should be matched up with which puppies.

When a responsible breeder produces a litter, that person typically has a goal for the puppies, and that's often the key distinction between a backyard breeder,which you want to avoid like the plague, and a hobby breeder, which is where you should get a purebred dog if you decide to go that route for your canine companion. A hobby breeder is somebody who has a competition dog hobby, like formal obedience, hunting, agility, or conformation showing. They produce dogs that can compete in that venue. For pet owners, that means an opportunity to get a dog who isn't being bred for profit and who has the qualities you want in a purebred.

When somebody breeds purely for profit (or just willy-nilly because they have a boy dog and a girl dog and they want more), they're probably not doing anything to protect and encourage the qualities that attract you to the breed in the first place. When somebody breeds with a goal in mind, they choose a breed that can meet that goal, and they make matches to produce dogs that can do it even better. Competing also helps prove that the dogs have the abilities that you want in your dog, like biddability, stable temperament, and the desire to retrieve.

In this case, that meant pairing up an obedience champion father and an obedience competitor mother. The resulting eight puppies were destined for obedience and family homes, so the breeding team evaluated them periodically as they grew, trying to figure out which would be the most intense personalities, which more laid back, as well as a host of other factors that they use to try to predict a pup's future personality and ability.

Today, as a last step in evaluating them, the puppies all went through the Volhard puppy test. It's not a perfect measurement of a puppy's personality, temperament, and working ability, but it's a helpful benchmark as you try to decide what puppy might best best for a family with kids, which one might be best for competition obedience, and which might be best for some other scenario.

As you can see, an umbrella is used to determine if the puppies startled at a visual stimulus, and to see how fast they recovered.

It really pushes you to ask questions about what's nature and what's nurture in a puppy's behavior and working ability.

While I found the test fascinating, I also truly enjoyed the chance to catch such a wide range of expressions on eight different gorgeous Golden puppies.

After the testing, we put the puppies in a large pen with the potential owners who were there to give their input on choices. That really gave me a chance to grab candids of the pups and to play with them myself.

While I wasn't there to pick out a puppy myself, little Blue Boy (on the right in this shot) won me over bigtime. I loved his attitude and spunk.

White Boy, though, was one of the most photogenic, making some of the silliest faces during our playtime.

After several hours of playing, meeting new people, hearing new sounds, being temperament tested, and playing around with brothers and sisters, the puppies started to crash and doze.

For me, it was a great learning day to get into the head of ethical breeders and the way they match up puppies and owners. And it's just plain fun to get on the floor with eight Golden puppies.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Things Your Dog Shouldn't Eat

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I originally wrote up this list for my mom to print out and put on the refrigerator since she hadn't had a dog in so long and wanted to be super safe with Summer, so I figured I'd clean it up and post it as a corollary to the Thanksgiving safety article. It includes common foods that are fine for people but toxic to dogs, common toxins found around the house, and some other common ingestion issues that cause trips to the veterinary ER.
  • Chocolate. Theobromine is a chemical found in chocolate, and it's toxic to dogs. Its toxicity is relative to the dose, and the darker the chocolate, the more theobromine it has, so small amounts of milk chocolate are generally harmless to dogs. However, in dark chocolate or in baking chocolate, the concentrations are much higher and a smaller amount of chocolate can be harmful.
  • Grapes and raisins. The mechanism of toxicity isn't known, and not all dogs seem to be susceptible, but it has been confirmed repeatedly that some dogs can experience acute renal failure after just a few grapes or raisins.
  • Macadamia nuts. As with grapes, the mechanism for this toxicity isn't known, and it appears to vary greatly from dog to dog, but it's a confirmed problem. Symptoms include vomiting, lethargy, and shaking. Most dogs survive macadamia poisoning, but it's obviously best not to gamble.
  • Antifreeze. Obviously, antifreeze is poisonous, but what's not obvious is that it's sweet tasting. Many dogs will lick it up spilled antifreeze if, for example, it leaks out of your car onto the driveway. Very small amounts of antifreeze can be fatal.
  • Some household plants. I don't have space for the whole list, but you can look up your plants on the ASPCA's list of toxic household plants to be sure you don't have anything dangerous in reach of your dog.
  • Onions. Onions contain a chemical (thiosulfate) that can cause anemia in dogs. As with theobromine in chocolate, the danger is dosage-dependent, so a little bit of onion shouldn't cause a problem. However, you do want to keep your dog from eating large amounts of onions.
  • Garlic. Garlic also contains thiosulfate, but many dogs happily eat garlic, and many dog foods contain it, so it's not something I worry about. Nonetheless, it may technically be toxic.
  • Avocado. There is some debate surrounding the toxicity of avocados. The pits are definitely toxic to many mammals, as are the leaves of the plant, and the meat of at least some varieties are toxic to dogs. If you want to do your research on what varieties of avocado are safe, go for it, but don't just give avocado willy-nilly to your pup.
  • Salt. Dogs' kidneys are generally more sensitive to damage than ours, so be careful that your dog doesn't get a chance to ingest large amounts of salt. Play-doh contains quite a bit of salt, so keep an eye on your dog if he eats a bunch of it.
  • Caffeine. Dogs can be very sensitive to caffeine, so be sure your dog doesn't get a chance to ingest anything with a significant quantity of caffeine in it.
  • Alcohol. It's obvious that alcohol isn't for dogs, but what's not obvious is that many dogs like the taste of beer and of some sweet liquors and will drink them if they're spilled or if glasses are left within reach. A relatively small amount of alcohol can be dangerous for dogs, so don't play around. And no, it's not funny when a dog drinks beer and staggers around.
  • Xylitol. Xylitol is an artificial sweetener found in some human foods and is frequently the sweetener in sugar-free chewing gums. It is very poisonous to dogs, so a dog who ingests a pack of chewing gum needs to go straight to the vet ER.
  • Corn cobs. Corn is sweet, and the cobs frequently still have some butter and salt on them when we finish with them and throw them away. A dog can easily break off big chunks and swallow them, and they are a common cause of intestinal obstructions in dogs.
  • Human pharmaceuticals. Human and canine physiology are quite similar, and many medicines that work for us are also used for dogs—typically in smaller doses since their bodies are smaller. But even medicines that might be safe for a dog in the right dosage are almost certainly an overdose if he swallows even one or two human pills. Also, some human meds have sweet buffered coatings that may tempt a dog if the pills are left in his reach. Lastly, there are some human medicines that are toxic to dogs even in tiny quantities. The lesson here is to keep all human meds out of the reach of your dog and never to give a dog human medicine unless it is specifically cleared by your dog's vet.
  • Fat. Fat is, obviously, an important part of a dog's diet. Dogs need lots of good fats. However, a large quantity of fat ingested quickly can cause diarrhea or vomiting, and if a dog gets too much fat in a short period of time, he can develop a condition called pancreatitis. Acute, severe pancreatitis can be fatal if left untreated. Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include vomiting, diarrhea, distended abdomen, hunching up, lethargy, and fever. If your dog eats a large amount of fat and seems to be feeling ill afterwards, call your vet sooner rather than later.
  • Cooked bone. We don't feed our dogs a raw diet, but many people who do give their dogs raw bones as part of the feeding protocol. Dogs seem to be able to break up and properly digest raw bones—though there are some precautions raw feeders take that you'll want to read about if you go in that direction with your dogs. However, cooked bones are another matter entirely. A bone that's been heated will splinter when it's chewed, and those splinters can perforate a dog's gastrointestinal tract if they're swallowed. They also can cause obstructions. Both of those problems can be fatal, so keep cooked bones away from your dog, and call the vet right away if your dog gets into any cooked bones.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Posing Up and Down

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Comet, Jax, and I decided to take a long walk through Timberlands Preserve in Guilford. We've been there a few times before, but today we did more than a little loop. We managed to make a five mile trek out of our exploration.

We were about halfway through when I took this picture, and Comet is clearly having the time of his life.
I guess all of our work in agility class paid off. Comet walked from the torn up stump of this tree on the hill to the right all the way out to the middle, all while nonchalantly holding a tennis ball he found. He was even willing to hang out there, cool as a cucumber, while I fumbled for the camera.

Jax followed him partway out but jumped off and then stood underneath, giving alternating funny looks to Comet and to me.

We capped out the day by taking a sunset group shot together. The dogs were, as always, really good sports about being posed, and it's great proofing for the daily stay when the handler does something weird and new like hunkering down in front and below.

So it ended up being a bit of a day for posing up and down.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dog Safety on Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving offers lots of opportunities to have fun with family and dogs, but it also poses some risks. Some of these risks are fairly obvious, but if this is your first time hosting a large number of guests and making a large number of dishes, here are some things to keep an eye on.

Grynn knows how to beg on command,
but she doesn't beg during mealtimes.

Holiday Foods and Dogs

Your guests may not be up to speed on some common food items that can hurt dogs. The veterinary ER invariably has a surge of visitors on or after Thanksgiving because not every visiting family member realizes that their urge to give a dog a special treat on Thanksgiving may do a lot more harm than good.

A little tidbit of lean, cooked turkey is a nice thing to share with your dog on a special day. That's wonderful on its own. However, if several guests are slipping your dog turkey under the table, it may go from fun to dangerous pretty quickly. Dogs are at risk for pancreatitis if they eat too much fat too fast, and there's a lot of fat on a turkey, especially in the skin. If dogs eat a significant amount of skin or fatty meat, they may need a trip to the ER. Signs of pancreatitis include vomiting, hunching up, vomiting, lethargy, and diarrhea. Acute pancreatitis can be fatal in rare cases, so take this one seriously and make sure your dog doesn't get a ton more fat than normal.

Most dog owners know that cooked bones can splinter when a dog chews them, causing a significant risk of perforation or obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract. However, not every guest may know this, and a well-intentioned aunt or uncle may want to slip your dog a turkey leg when they're done with it—dogs love bones, right?

Another concern is the turkey carcass you leave behind after you've carved the meat off. Some families leave it in the kitchen to be picked later, which means it's unattended during dinner. Some leave it on the dining room table, which means it's unattended after dinner. Either way, that big, tantalizing carcass can tempt even a dog with good manners to break the rules and pull it to the floor. That means the potential both for your dog to ingest cooked bones and to ingest far too much fatty meat and skin. Keep an eye on your dog and your carcass. If you're like us, you'll pick the remaining meat and get those turkey bones straight into a big pot so you can start making your turkey soup stock right away.

There are also the other common foods that are fine for people but potentially dangerous for dogs, and again, your guests may not all know not to give these foods to dogs. If you put raisins in your stuffing, for example, it's not safe for a dog to have it. Some dogs don't appear to be sensitive to grapes and raisins, but there is documented evidence that some dogs can experience renal failure after consuming a relatively small number of grapes or raisins.

Chocolate is also a concern in holiday gatherings. There is a chemical in chocolate (theobromine) that's toxic to dogs. It takes a relatively large dosage to cause poisoning in a dog, but it does happen. Theobromine is found in higher concentration in darker chocolates, so don't worry if your dog ends up swallowing a couple of M&Ms. However, if your dog consumes a very large amount of chocolate or gets at any dark chocolate or baking chocolate, you could have a serious situation on your hands.

Turkey, raisins, and chocolate seem to be to be the biggest concerns at Thanksgiving, but you can check out my list of foods that are known to be toxic to dogs or even print it out and keep it on the fridge for reference if you want to make sure your family and guests are aware of the common threats.

If you're worried about your guests' knowledge or responsibility, consider crating your pup during the actual Thanksgiving dinner itself or for any other part of the gathering in which there might be a risk to your pup. If you have a relatively small number of guests or if they're all experienced dog people, dinners like this can be a good time to work on your dog's manners or to work on teaching your dog to go to his spot while folks are eating. However, if you're not sure, there's a pretty big risk of your dog getting something that he shouldn't eat, and there's also the issue of having your dog get rewarded for begging around the table, which some folks find endearing but many of us find annoying.

Comet is a well-behaved guest when he visits my family for Thanksgiving.

Guest Dogs

One of my favorite parts of holidays is getting together with our extended Golden family. Between my parents, my sister's family, and us, there are four Goldens. Even though they get along famously, that many dogs does require a watchful eye, no matter how stable and well-behaved they are. If your guests are bringing dogs, be sure that they've had a chance to meet and get used to each other before the big day if you can. You want to set them up to feel relaxed and comfortable around each other, and the excitement and disturbance of a large family gathering can raise the anxiety level of some dogs and undermine their ability to relax and feel safe around new dogs. Try to have first greetings be outside and off leash if you can, as leashed greetings can interfere with dog body language and create problems where there don't have to be any. Indoor greetings are OK too, but again, take the dogs off the leash and try to do it before the party in a quiet area of the house.

Also realize that not all dogs really get along. You can set two dogs up to have a positive first interaction, but you can't guarantee that they'll be friends. If you have two dogs that seem to get at each other, leaving them underfoot during a noisy party is probably only going to make the problem worse. You may have to have them take turns in a crate and work on their relationship another time.

Open Doors

Last Christmas, as Andy and I were leaving my sister's place in Boston, we came across an old Golden in the middle of the road. Fortunately, she was docile and friendly and allowed me to leash her and walk her out of the road. Looking up and down the road, we decided to knock on the door of a nearby lit-up house to see if they knew where she belonged. Sure enough, that was her house, and the family who lived there was very surprised that she had slipped out. In the hustle and bustle of folks coming in and out, she had walked out the door unnoticed. If things had been just a tiny bit different, we might have hit her. It's not an onerous task to keep an eye on the dog if members of the nuclear family can take turns being the designated dog-watcher.

Jax has mastered the art of charming the other guests in order to get petted.

Training Opportunities

Holidays can provide some training opportunities for you and your pup if you're not also playing full-time host. You can practice greeting friendly strangers as they enter the house if you're working on not jumping or other greeting skills. You can teach your pup to go to his spot in the dining room while people are eating, and you can reward him with turkey from the table (an article on "go to your spot" is coming soon). You have to make the judgment call based on where you are in your training, how big your gathering is, and what hosting roles each family member has, and don't be afraid to let your dog take short shifts in the crate when there's too much going on. It's better for the dog to spend a little time in the crate than to get untrained, overfed, or let out into the street by your well-intentioned extended family.

Untrained Humans

If you do have your dog out and enjoying the holiday with you, which is obviously the goal, be sure to train the humans so they don't hurt or untrain the dog. Uncle Fester might think he's great with dogs, but if he's leaning way in and speaking loudly in the dog's face, you need to intervene, either by crating your dog for a while or by crating the misbehaving Uncle.

The same goes for children. Your kids might be amazing with your dog, but children really have to be trained in order to have a positive interaction with dogs. It should go without saying, but it often doesn't, that children should not be allowed to poke dogs' faces, yank their fur or tails, or climb on dogs. And the majority of dogs don't like hugs by default. Some do, and some can be trained to like it, but for most dogs, the default setting is that they do not enjoy being encircled and held. Just because the dog tolerates being manhandled by a child without biting the child doesn't mean it's fair to the dog. The humans might think it's cute, but chances are the dog is feeling stressed and unhappy.

You are your dog's only advocate when it comes to untrained humans, so step up and either train the humans or remove the dog from the situation.

Set Your Dog Up to Succeed

If you do decide, as we usually do, to have your dogs in the main part of the party for the whole thing, it really helps to get up a little earlier and take them for a long walk or hike to tucker them out before the party starts. A well-exercised dog is a much better host or guest than a dog who didn't get his daily brain and body workout.

And be sure to catch your dog making good choices. It's much easier and more pleasant to train your dog that begging leads to nothing and that lying down quietly leads to treats and petting.

Summer Joins the Daily Stay

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Summer's learned how to stay since our last group photo, so when my parents visited and hiked with us, we were able to do a proper daily stay. It's impressive that she can hold a stay when she's still such a teeny puppy, but at the same time, she's a whole lot bigger than she was in our first group shot.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Loose Leash Walking

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When I first trained Gus to behave politely on the leash, I trained him not to pull by popping the leash gently when he pulled. It was really just a jangle of his tags to remind him to pay attention, not a nasty yank or anything particularly painful or intimidating, and it worked. He became a dutiful non-puller on the leash. I thought I had to teach him not to pull.

When he and I went to CGC classes that were much more geared around motivating a dog with rewards and catching him doing the right thing, we went from a strong team to a happier, stronger team. He was a great teacher. He taught me that I could train him the old fashioned way, and he'd come through for me bigtime, but he also taught me that he'd do even better if I stopped worrying about showing him he was "wrong" and focused on being super clear and motivating him when he was right. It was one of my first lessons in catching my dog doing something right.

I learned that, rather than teaching a dog not to pull, I could teach him to offer a loose leash; that was a real awakening for me. That's the mindset that this process is based on: you build a connection with your dog, and you extend that connection so that she learns to pay attention to you and offer slack on the leash. You can use a modified version of this to teach your dog truly precise heeling, but this article is focused on teaching dogs, even young puppies, to stay with you and behave nicely on the leash.

Have your dog sit facing you (on leash), show her a treat, and step backwards saying "OK, follow me!" or whatever "let's go" command comes naturally to you. Walk a few steps backwards, and then give a treat as the dog follows you, marking the behavior each time with a clicker or with a happy "yes!" At first, you need a high rate of rewards so your dog realizes that it's a fun game you're playing, and it's really important keep moving backwards as you reward, rather than stopping as you give treats. The behavior you're looking to mark and reward is staying connected with you and moving at the same time. It may take you even more practice than it takes the dog to get the hang of this, but that's just fine. One mistake to avoid here is luring. If you need to show your dog a treat at first in order to get her attention, that's OK, but as soon as possible, you want to teach your dog to follow you without having to see the treat. Hold the treats in a closed hand, reach out to the dog to give one, and then bring your hand back in to your chest.

Once you can walk backwards, mark, and reward smoothly, and your dog knows to prance along and watch you, it's time for the second phase. Some dogs are ready after a few trial runs with the backwards walking, but some may require a few sessions of walking backwards with high rates of rewards before they're ready to move to the second phase. If your dog doesn't keep attention on you when you try this step, go back to the previous step and practice it a few more times with nice high rates of reward so your dog really has it down.

For the second phase, put the leash, your right hand and the treats in your left, and start walking backwards, marking and treating as before. When you have a really good connection going, pivot clockwise and reward her with the treat when she reaches desired position at your left side. When she hits the spot right at your hip, mark it with your click or "yes!" and treat while still moving. It really, really helps to make sure she gets the treat when she's in the right spot. Remember that you're trying to teach her that being by your hip is fun and rewarding, so be sure to mark and reward her when she's there. Drop your hand down right along the seam of your pants and give the treat from a backwards-facing hand. Always reward along that pant seam and with the hand that's on the same side as the dog. If you reach forward to reward her, that's where she'll learn to walk. If you reach across your body to reward, you'll teach her to forge forward and come in front of you.

Peacock and her handler learn the pivot at Paws N' Effect in 2013.
So remember, for the pivot, you need to:
  • have the leash in the hand on the opposite side from where you'll want the dog.
  • have the treats in the hand on the side the dog is going to end up.
  • mark with a "yes!" (or a click if you're coordinated enough to have a clicker in your leash hand) when the dog is in the right position.
  • reward with your palm facing backwards.
  • reward at the outside seam of your pants.
  • reward while still moving.

It will take you several tries—or more—to get the hang of pivoting and rewarding. And you're going to need the hang of it because your dog is probably going to forge ahead of you right after getting the treat. If she does, change directions, say "let's go" (or whatever you've been saying), and walk backwards. This way, you're triggering her to remember the game you already worked hard to ingrain with her as super fun. Then, when you have her attention and have rewarded her a couple of times while walking backwards, you can try the pivot again.

You can also try this work indoors and take the leash out of the equation entirely. If you're the most interesting thing in the room, you can work on walking backwards, pivoting, and rewarding without worrying about having a leash in your offside hand. You can also throw the leash over your shoulder so it's out of the way as you work. The idea is to build a relationship and a connection to keep your dog around you, so you don't need to be pulling on the leash unless you are in a larger space and you can't keep the dog with you.

Play this game a couple of times a day for about five minutes, and remember that it's a fun game you play together, not rigid training to induce compliance. If she gets bored and it's hard to get her attention, you're playing for too long. You want to end games while she still wants to play, not after she's lost interest. And if you're having trouble coordinating your feet, your leash, and your treats, you'll get good at it faster if you practice in short sessions that are less likely to induce frustrations.

Don't forget to switch sides. In competition obedience, dogs heel on the left, but in the real world, you want your dog to learn to walk on both sides. If you only practice with your dog on the left, you'll teach her to try to get over there, even when you actually want her on the right. If you plan on competition obedience some day, you can use different words for each side, for example, "heel" on the left and "side" on the right.

Also, avoid the classic mistakes that folks make with leash skills. If your dog pulls, you must show her that it does not work. If she pulls towards a person she wants to greet, you cannot let her drag you over there at all. If she pulls and gets to greet, you just told her that pulling is what you want her to do when she wants to greet somebody. If, however, she pulls and you stop and wait her out and only let her move forward when she offers loose leash, you're teaching her that offering loose leash gets her where she wants to go.

Another classic mistake is luring for too long. You can lure a little when you're first walking backwards and teaching the game in the early stages, but when the dog is learning to walk by your side, you need to avoid using the treat as a magnet. Hold treats up by your chest or in the opposite hand and then pass them to the dog-side hand and drop that dog-side hand down to the seam of your pants to reward. Then bring it right back up out of her face.

After a few weeks of short sessions, you should have a dog who thinks it's super-duper fun to prance alongside you because when she does, you become a happy treat-dispensing machine. Once she starts to get the hang of it, you slowly phase the treats by asking for a longer interval between each, but always stay generous with your praise. Make sure to practice indoors, in the backyard, and out on the street, so the sense of the game carries from place to place and new distractions don't get in the way.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Catch Your Dog Making Good Choices

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When I first started training dogs, I worked from a mindset that was geared towards motivation, shaping, and building a bond, but I bought into methods that often went right to mild and then escalating punishment as a first-line way of dealing with many common scenarios. I ended up with wonderful obedience, but I always noticed that the behaviors that were trained more with punishment were less reliable and less joyful than those trained more with rewards.

For example, I trained Gus to walk politely on a leash primarily by popping the leash when he pulled. It was really just a jangle of his tags to remind him to pay attention, not anything painful, and it worked fine. He became a dutiful non-puller on the leash. I thought I had to teach him not to pull, so I taught him that in a way that was relatively gentle but still had punishment at its core.

When I learned to make my priorities centered around motivation, rewards, and catching my dog doing something right, we had a real breakthrough.

Comet and Gus learned early on that recalls and check-ins are highly rewarded.
I learned that, rather than teaching a dog not to pull, I could teach him to offer a loose leash; that might seem like a pretty subtle distinction, but it was a real awakening for me. Even dogs who have a confirmed habit of bad pulling can be retrained by being taught that pulling doesn't work—not that it's unpleasant, simply that it's unsuccessful—and that offering a loose leash is rewarding.

Nearly everything in a real world scenario of having your dog be a good citizen in and out of the house can be trained in terms of teaching him what to do rather than teaching him what not to do. It's the difference between "it's wrong to be underfoot in the kitchen while I'm cooking" to "go to your spot out of the way if you want to stand any chance of getting some of this chicken."

The dogs and I are not only happier to train with this mindset, but I also get results a lot faster. I think it stands to reason that it would. I was telling my dog "quit it." Once I learned more about training, I moved to "quit it; do this instead; good dog." Now I do "that doesn't work; try something else; good dog." It's faster and more fun for all of us, since the dogs learn to try to figure out what I want, rather than fearing that they'll do something that will cause me to tell them "no." Now I work hard to catch my dogs making a good choice so I can reward it, rather than worrying about catching them doing something wrong.

I also try to keep my eyes open all day long to catch my dog doing something right. If we're on the coffee shop patio and he settles down to relax, I try to remember to share a little fragment of muffin once he's all calm and nice. That works much better to teach a dog to settle and stop begging than yelling at him for doing the wrong things. And I try not to take it for granted when my more mature dogs are immediately good gentlemen who lie down quietly on the coffee shop patio. I make sure to praise them, scratch their ears, and drop them a little reward once in a while in order to reinforce what they're doing. Sometimes we take a good behavior for granted one we have it, but if anything, the dog deserves even more rewards for being good on the first try, right?

If we're hiking, and my dog comes to check in without being asked, I try to remember to praise him or give him a treat for that, since it's a behavior I'd like to see more of. If he offers a polite greeting to a stranger, I remember to praise and pet him, rather than taking it for granted and only paying attention to his greetings when he's doing something wrong. You build stronger, deeper habits with these rewards, and your time with your dog centers around encouraging his good choices and building on them, rather than a stressful series of "no" to this and "no" to that. Faster, more effective, and more fun? Sign me up.

Take a look at your training goals, especially in areas where you and your dog are struggling to connect and be successful. Are you caught up in teaching your dog what not to do? Or are you finding opportunities to set your dog up to make a good choice so you can reward it? Isn't training more fun and rewarding when you're trying to catch your dog doing something right so you can praise and reward him?

Late Foliage

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Foliage season may be over on all the websites and guidebooks, but the myrtle stays green and the burning bush holds its leaves a bit longer than you'd think.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Dog for All Seasons

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There's no such thing as perfect weather. Some days really stand out to you as overwhelmingly ideal and beautiful, but others don't look so wonderful at first, but turn out to be just perfect for what you're in the mood for. Today, that was some wandering. Comet, Jax, and I headed out to Westwoods and Guilford and got happily lost for a while, finally circling back to the bluff above Lost Lake for a little photo time. The dogs had to be on stay anyway, since there was a small group of people eating sandwiches just to my left, so it made for a good opportunity to snap a photo of a couple of handsome dogs and some pretty scenery.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Teaching a Dog Not to Jump Up

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Most dogs like to jump up on friends and family, and most owners have to train their dogs to keep all four on the floor, especially during greeting times. There are a lot of different methods out there for eliminating this problem behavior, but some of it is unnecessarily harsh or complicated, and the harsh methods sometimes backfire. I've worked with dogs whose owners put e-collars on them and shocked them hard when they jumped on company. Methods like that are a recipe for disaster, and you often end up making the dog skittish and upset without doing much about the jumping.

Dazz does the good kind of jumping at Paws N' Effect, 2013.
Here's the understanding I favor for dealing with problem behaviors in general and for jumping in particular: dogs do what they practice, and they do what's rewarding. The more times a dog repeats a behavior, the more likely he is to do it in the future, and the more the behavior is rewarded, the more likely he is to choose it in the future. So if we practice things with our dogs and make them rewarding, the dogs learn to do them.

The flip side of that principle also helps us identify the source and solution to problem behaviors. If the dog is doing something you don't like, it's because that behavior is somehow getting practiced and rewarded. So you can reduce problem behaviors by preventing the dog from practicing them and getting rewarded for them. Improvement comes even faster if you can practice and reward an incompatible behavior.

For example, if your dog jumps on company, he's doing it because it's rewarding and because he keeps getting the opportunity to do it. Eliminating that undesired behavior means stopping him from practicing it and stopping him from getting rewarded when he does it. Teaching him an incompatible behavior, like sit, can accelerate the process.

Jumping is usually a prosocial behavior, a behavior intended by the dog to promote social interaction with the jumpee. Your dog is trying to play in order to greet and bond. He's trying to get closer to the face of the human or to check out whatever the human might be holding. It's quite counterintuitive to him to stay on the floor and wait for the human to greet him, so it doesn't seem sporting to me to punish the dog for being inquisitive and social.

Jax does a good kind of jumping in March 2013.
As humans, we typically want the bond, but we typically don't want a dog who jumps or mouths because that can be frightening or even dangerous. Jumping is very cute when a ten-pound puppy does it at ten weeks old, but when a sixty-pound adult dog does it, he risks ruining people's clothes, scaring people who don't know he's friendly, or even knocking over a fragile person.

If the dog jumps up and people start hollering and the jumpee pushes him, you may be accidentally rewarding him. The yelling means a lot of extra social energy, and the pushing is a cross between getting petted and playing. So don't do it. He wants social interaction, and he needs to show an appropriate behavior in order to get it. And don't use a method that hurts your dog, like stepping on his feet, hitting him, or shocking him. He's trying to play, and it's poor form to punish him for it instead of teaching him how to play appropriately.

So with jumping, you need to remove the opportunity to practice it, and you need to be sure he doesn't get a reward for jumping when he does it. Since it's a prosocial behavior, the first step is to show your dog that jumping backfires and doesn't give him the continued social interaction he wants. When the dog jumps up, remove all attention, energy, and excitement from the situation. That means looking away from the dog, being quiet, and keeping your hands off him. Turn sideways, fold your arms, and look up and away. Face a wall if you can so he can't come around front to jump more. Teach him that jumping makes humans boring. You're not just ignoring this behavior; you're nonrewarding it very precisely.

When he offers a different behavior that's appropriate, like keeping all four paws on the floor or even sitting, come back to life. You're rewarding him for showing appropriate behavior, and non-rewarding him for inappropriate behavior. Sometimes when you come to life, he'll jump again, so go back to being a statue. After a few repetitions, it'll start to click with him that the jumps are backfiring, but the polite behavior will get him what he wants.

As you try this, be aware that getting rid of an existing bad habit sometimes involves an extinction burst. When the behavior stops working, the animal will sometimes try it even harder for a short period. Just think of it from the dog's perspective: for a long time, the jumping has been working to make the people interact and make noise. When all of a sudden it stops working, the dog might try a jump, then try another, then try a whole series of more intense jumps. Why isn't it working!? This kind of burst can lead people to abandon a technique, right as it's about to work. If you abandon it right then and go back to yelling at the dog, you've taught the dog to be even more intense. He's just learned that the reason it wasn't working briefly was because he wasn't trying hard enough. So take extinction bursts for what they are: a sign that the behavior is about to improve.

If you're serious about tackling this problem, make sure to train the humans the dog is interacting with. If some are carefully nonrewarding him for jumping but others are yelling, pushing, or playing, that's going to undermine the dog's progress.

What if you are careful to nonreward your dog but he keeps jumping anyway? With some dogs, especially young ones who have not practiced a pattern of jumping, it's enough to be a boring statue for a few seconds and to reward a polite sit a few times. However, with dogs who really like jumping or with dogs who already have a confirmed jumping habit, the jump itself can be a reward, so removing the social interaction isn't always enough to break the pattern. It may be rewarding enough for some dogs simply to get closer to your face or to go through the fun athletic exercise of bounding up and down. In these cases, ignoring it isn't enough.

Another common scenario involves a confirmed jumper is simply too active to wait out. If you have kids or an elderly family member, or if your dog is scratching at you as he jumps, it can be unsafe and painful to try to just wait him out, especially through an extinction burst.

So if ignoring isn't decreasing the behavior, and you're absolutely sure you're not in an extinction burst, adapt the method. Try leashing the dog during greetings, and step on the leash so he can't jump. A six-foot leash is long enough to drop a loop down to the floor and step pretty quickly. If you do this, be sure the dog doesn't have more than an inch or two of slack. He can get hurt leaping upwards if he gets some momentum before he hits the end of the leash. You also don't want to give him too little slack and create downward tension. You still need him to feel rewarded when he's choosing not to jump, and being pulled toward the floor is definitely not rewarding.

Once you have the right length of leash between your foot and the dog, the greeter should ignore him while he's attempting jumps and interact with him when he chooses to keep all four on the floor. If he sits, try to give him enough slack to do so. When he's doing something right, you should try to keep tension off the leash and to reward him with attention or a treat. Set him up so you can prevent him from practicing the undesired behavior, but also set him up so you can catch him doing it right.

Regardless of whether you just need to ignore a little or whether you need to use the leash, make sure to teach your dog a rock-solid sit. I've already gone over some methods for teaching it, and if you consistently practice and reward the sit with your dog in lots of situations, you can use it as a behavior that's incompatible with jumping. If your dog has a strong sit, you can ask him to sit when he starts to jump. Reward him when he sits. If you have a strong sit trained, you can use it instead of a leash for habitual jumpers. If the sit's not quite strong enough, it won't work, so if you find yourself repeating "sit, sit, Baxter, sit" at your jumper, your sit's not strong enough for the situation, so don't weaken it by nagging a dog who's not obeying.

Between carefully applied ignoring, using a leash to prevent practice, and using sit as an incompatible behavior, you should be able to train away problem jumping pretty quickly. If it doesn't seem to be working for you, leave a comment with your issue and I'll try to figure it out with you.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Puppy Foundations: Sit Stay

Copley, Finn, Tally, Comet, and Jax practice the daily stay in 2010

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

Though you obviously can't expect a brand new puppy to hold much of a stay, you can absolutely begin to lay the foundations of solid self-restraint and attention that make up the heart of a strong stay. As with the other "Foundations" articles I've been writing, this one focuses on what you can do with a puppy in the early stages to help give him rock-solid behaviors later in life.

The core of the stay is self-control, and I think that's where a lot of stays break down. The dog understands the behavior, but the handler hasn't built up a rewarded habit in which the dog knows how to look at distractions without having to get up and engage with them.

The other key component of a successful, real world stay is something called proofing. A dog can understand a behavior really well, and you can build a deep habit through repetition and rewards, but when something brand new happens, it can confuse the dog's sense of what's going on and thus disrupt the behavior. For example, you can have an amazing stay in the house, in the backyard, at dog class, and at the coffeeshop, and the dog will hold beautiful stays in those locations and in other locations that are similar. However, if you bring him to a soccer game and a kid kicks the ball near the dog, me may break his stay because you never proofed him against that situation. He's never practiced holding his stay while watching a ball fly by.

So with puppies, the name of the self-control game is to practice both the behavior and to do some low-difficulty proofing.

Even a young pup can learn to hold a stay if you are gentle, patient, and reasonable in your expectations. Once your puppy can sit fairly reliably, get him into a sit next to you. Put your flat palm in front of his face like a policeman, and say "stay." If he holds his sit (and he should, since you taught him to wait for a release word when sitting), mark it and reward him. Then release him. Always use your release word at the end of a stay so the dog learns to wait for that word. You decide when stays end, not the dog.

Reset your puppy into a sit next to you, give the hand signal and say "stay," and then wait a couple of seconds before marking the success and rewarding the pup. If you wait too long and the puppy breaks the stay, simply withhold the reward and reset him. Resist the urge to tell your puppy "no." He's a puppy, and he has no idea what you're asking for. A "no" is neither fair nor clear at this stage. Instead, go back and build forward from the last point where you had success.

Always, always, always set your puppy up to succeed and reward him for it. Don't set him up to fail and then punish him. Aside from being kinder and having fewer potential side-effects, rewarding success is simply faster than punishing failure because it teaches the dog what you want.

When your puppy can reliably sit next to you, receive the stay hand signal and command, and actually hold it for a few seconds (literally 3-5 seconds), start to work in multiple rewards. Don't forget that the marker, whether it's a "yes!" or a click, is not a release word. You want your pup to be able to receive a mark and reward for holding a stay and then keep holding the stay until you release him. That's how you're going to extend the duration of the stay and also proof it.

Holding a stay at all is probably enough of a foundation for most puppies, though if your puppy likes the game, you can certainly progress from here by having him stay for longer intervals between rewards or by having him stay in front of you instead of the side, using the same hand signal and word. Remember, if you're a puppy, staying next to a person and staying in front of a person aren't the same thing, so your pup may have to relearn from scratch. Dogs aren't good generalizers in the first place, and puppies even more so.

As always, if your pup is breaking the stay or you find yourself repeating yourself, go back to something easier. All you're looking for is for your pup to learn that when you say "stay" and give the hand signal, he needs to wait expectantly for rewards and then the release word.

When dogs get older, we practice the "stay" in all kinds of contexts, like waiting at the door to be let out, waiting politely for you to make his dinner, and even holding a stay when company comes through door before he's allowed to greet. We also have adult dogs do a "daily stay" when we're out hiking so they get the hang of staying in all kinds of contexts. It makes for great photos, since you can pose the dogs someplace nice for a pretty landscape shot, and then you can release them for a fun action photo.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Summer's Weekend at Dog Camp

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My family affectionately calls it "Dog Camp" when Andy and I dogsit for their dogs, and we had our first opportunity to run a mini dog camp for Summer when my parents had to attend a memorial service in Maine.

I headed out to a local favorite hiking spot, Guilford Timberlands, and let Summer rip. My mom has been working painstakingly with Summer on her recalls, and that work was highly evident in her time with us. Summer really knows how rewarding and fun it is to come back to the human, and I held up my end of the bargain with tiny pieces of fresh baked chicken.

She got to romp around with Comet and Jax, and all three are truly fast friends. Summer has come along stunningly fast in her social skills and her basic training in a short time. She's a credit to the skill and attention my parents have brought to bear in her early training.

Stay, however, is something they haven't worked on much yet. So when we headed over to the Guilford Green, Summer was great at staying near us, but she didn't yet know how to hold in one spot despite all the distractions, and she kept wandering over to check me and the camera out.

She's a gorgeous, sweet pup, and it's a bit startling to see such strong foundation skills in such a young puppy.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Puppy Foundations: Teaching the Sit

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I'm coming at this article with a two-pronged approach because I want to share a gentle way to teach a pup to sit, and I also wanted to share a key way you can be clearer with your dog—marking behavior.

Comet learns to sit, 2008
The core idea of a reward-based training program is based on a basic fact of canine—and human, but we'll get into that later—psychology. Dogs do what they practice, and they do what's rewarding. The more times a dog repeats a behavior, the more likely he is to do it in the future, and the more the behavior is rewarded, the more likely he is to choose it in the future. Much of my training is based on this principle, but this article focuses in on how to reward effectively and precisely, and it does so in the context of teaching your puppy sit.

The first principle of rewarding is that the dog determines what's rewarding, not the person. You can't force your dog to like something he doesn't like. With that in mind, I often use food as a reward, but it cannot be the only tool in your training repertoire. Some dogs don't care that much about treats, and some that do still won't take one when they're excited. If you find yourself begging your dog to take a treat, it's not a reward. So keep in mind that even though I'll describe the sit with a treat as the reward, you can use a toy, a game, or praise as a reward as well—whatever motivates your dog. Good trainers are creative and diverse with their rewards.

The second principle of rewarding is marking the moment of successful behavior precisely so your dog knows exactly what behavior led to the reward. In methods that incorporate the clicker, the clicking noise marks the behavior. That works wonderfully and has a number of advantages. But you can accomplish nearly the same thing by saying, "yes!" in gentle, positive tone. The key is that you use your marker at exactly the moment the dog does the thing that will lead to the reward. For the sit, that means saying "yes!" right as the rear end touches the floor.

Remember: success is going to be more about your clarity as a handler than about your puppy's personality or intelligence. To that end, remember these principles: don't say commands your puppy doesn't know, mark the moment of success, and follow a mark with a reward.

Summer works on sit with a dry leaf as lure, 2013
Hold a treat in your fingers and show it to your pup. Then as his nose is focused on the treat, move the treat upwards above the puppy's eye level and move it toward him a little. As his head comes up and back to follow the treat, his rear end should lower to the floor. Mark the moment of success by saying "yes!" Then follow the marker immediately with a reward. If you were luring with a treat, be sure to give the treat as part of the reward.

You may have to practice a little in order to figure out the hand motion that will get the pup to sit reliably. That's OK, and it's one of the reasons you shouldn't be saying your puppy's name or "sit" yet. However, it will help if you start at the puppy's eye level and then bring your hand up a few inches, because that will translate nicely to a hand gesture once you fade the lure away and stop showing your puppy a treat.

Remember to say "yes!" at the moment the puppy hits the sit position. Make sure his rear is in full contact with the floor—so you're not teaching the puppy to half-sit. Timing your marker is actually a bit challenging when you're first starting out, but stick with it. If you are fun and generous, your puppy will bear with you and you'll get the hang of it.

Once your pup is consistently sitting when he sees the lure and gesture, you can start saying "sit" as you make the hand motion. If your rewarding is generous and your marking is precise, you should progress fairly quickly together.

The last piece of the puzzle is fading the lure. The biggest pitfall with food lures is that they can turn into bribes if you don't fade them early enough in the process. You don't want to teach your puppy to evaluate what you have in your hand and compare it to whether it's worth it to obey. If you get in the habit of showing your puppy a treat and then asking for compliance, you'll end up in situations where you either don't have a treat or where the treat simply isn't motivating enough.

So once you're seeing a reliable behavior that uses the lure, the mark, and the reward, take the lure out. Do the command exactly as before, except this time, don't hold a treat in your fingers. Hide it in your other hand, behind your back. If you've repeated the behavior enough times, and you change as little as possible besides the location of the treat, your puppy should sit like normal. Then, mark the moment of success and bring the treat around from behind you.

I've described all of this as if it takes place in one session, but you'll have more fun with your pup if you make sessions brief and frequent and only take one step forward every few days. Spend 3-5 minutes a couple of times a day on "sit" and your pup could have it in a week or less. Keep sessions short and light-hearted, and always end while your pup is still having fun. Puppies have short attention spans, and you'll lay really good groundwork for long-term fun training together if your sessions always end with the pup wanting more, rather than ending with your begging the puppy to pay attention.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Puppy Foundations: Recall

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What age can you train a dog? Any age. Dogs are never too old or too young for training. The key is to give the dog something that's developmentally appropriate for her age. When it comes to puppies, even brand new ones, that means making sure that desired behaviors get rewarded and that undesired behaviors don't get practiced or rewarded. It means setting your puppy up to succeed and then rewarding her for her success.

Puppies are too young to train with intimidation, fear, or discomfort. In other articles, I'll get into why I think those things are generally inappropriate for older dogs too, but most people can see right away that they're not fair game for puppy training. Instead, you need to find ways to manage the behaviors you don't want, so they don't get practiced or rewarded, and reward and practice the behaviors you do want. That's how reinforcement creates reliable commands.

Lush, learning puppy recall foundations in 2011.
So, in order to have a dog that comes to you reliably, even when heavily distracted, it helps to lay the groundwork as early as possible in a puppy's life. The first principle of this training is to find ways to encourage your pup to come to you and to make it enjoyable for her.

Puppies are naturally social and naturally attracted to sound and movement. Pick a place that's not all that interesting, like a room in the house, or even the backyard if your pup is already used to it and isn't obsessively sniffing around. When your pup wanders a few feet away, make a little spectacle of yourself. Soft whistles, squeaks, and other high-pitched sounds are naturally interesting, as is motion, so shuffle or stamp your feet.

The object here is to get her attention and to get her to come to you without saying her name and without saying the cue word (e.g., "come"). She doesn't know "come" yet (or you wouldn't be reading this), and she probably doesn't really know her name. You don't want to throw wasted cues at a dog because that weakens the cue. You want her name to mean "look at the human" and "come" to mean "run right to the human and sit." The behavior needs to come before the cue, and then you attach the cue to it and reward. You should only use a cue when there's a strong chance the pup truly understands it and will obey it.

So you're shuffling and squeaking, and your pup hopefully perks up and runs right over. When she arrives, praise her and reward her. A yummy treat is great, but there are many other kinds of rewards, like toys, attention, gentle praise, and pets. Don't restrain her to give her her reward, or it won't be a reward. If your puppy doesn't want the treat, don't grab her collar and shove it in her face. If she'd rather sniff around some more than get pets, don't hold her so you can pet her more. When you are seeking to reward a dog, remember that rewards are defined by what the dog likes, not by what you think she should like. And when you've given the reward, be sure to release your dog back to whatever she was doing as soon as she successfully finishes the behavior and enjoys her reward. That release is a kind of reward in itself.

Repeat this game for a few minutes at a stretch several times a day. Once you feel like she's doing it consistently, you can add the cue, "come!" or "here!" when you're sure she's committing to coming to you. Remember, though, that you're laying the foundations of this skill, not polishing or proofing it. You're teaching this puppy that when you are a super fun human who is generous and rewarding when she comes over. You are teaching her that returning to you does not end playtime and is never unpleasant.

To that end, avoid the classic mistakes that people make when teaching recall. Never punish a dog, intentionally or otherwise, for coming to you. Sometimes we get frustrated when a pup is ignoring us, so we want to tell her "bad dog" in some way for that behavior. However, if you make coming to you an unpleasant experience, that's what the pup will remember. She will not understand that she is being punished for ignoring if she is punished when she finally gets back to you. Furthermore, scolding or otherwise punishing your dog, even if you manage to do it while she's ignoring you rather than while she's coming back, will not teach her to come any faster or make the behavior any more reliable in the long run. You want your dog to come to you joyfully because of trust and because of rewarded habit, not because she's afraid you'll yell at her or punish her for disobeying.

Also, don't repeat commands. If you misjudge and say a cue (like "come" or even her name), and she doesn't do what you want, don't repeat yourself. Every time you throw a wasted cue at your puppy, you teach her it has no value. If she doesn't come when you say "come," that's because she either doesn't understand or because whatever she's doing has more value to her than the habit and reward of the recall behavior you're working on. With puppies, this will frequently be the case, which is why you don't want to say her name or the cue in the early stages.

Comet, Jax, and Ojo doing a snappy recall at the Salt Marsh.
However, the more she successfully repeats the behavior of joyfully running back for a reward, the more powerful the habit will become. Once you have a consistent habit of a pup who runs to you, you can add her name and "come!" in low-distraction situations. With plenty of practice, good rewarding, and setting your dog up to succeed in more and more difficult situations, you are working toward a dog who can be handled off lead with no equipment or treats. And, one day, you'll be able to call your dog away from a stranger on the trail or from chasing birds at the salt marsh, and you'll feel like a training genius.