Sunday, October 27, 2013

Puppy Foundations: Sit Stay

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

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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.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Blue Sky

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We like to complain about the weather in New England. I do think folks everywhere complain about their weather; it's practically the only thing that distinguishes us from chimps and dolphins at this point—though I do wonder if one dolphin ever turns to another as they're swimming along and says, "This North Pacific Drift is making me sweat like a Harbor Porpoise."

Like hypothetical dolphins, we often complain that a sweaty summer falls straight into a series of depressingly cold, wet days of raking leaves, followed by the unremitting shoveling of slurried driveways. However, New England does—in between humid season, wet leaf season, and back-breaking slush season—offer cool, clear days when the foliage is out in full force and the sky is bluer than blue.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Puppy Foundations: Crate Training

Comet, 2008

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I strongly advocate for crate training new puppies from the first days they're home. While I understand that some people feel it’s not fair to lock a dog in a small space—and I'm sympathetic to that viewpoint—my experience is that it's an invaluable asset for housebreaking a young pup and keeping him safe, and it's that it’s an invaluable lifelong skill for a dog to feel comfortable in a crate. It has also been my experience that a properly exercised dog who is conditioned to like the crate and is only crated for an appropriate amount of the day ends up sleeping for 95% of the time he spends in there anyway.

When you bring a pup home, you need to build positive associations with the crate before you even close the door. Set up shop right next to the crate together, and toss small treats into the crate. If he’s nervous about even going in, make a little Hansel and Gretel trail of cookies around the entrance so he gets comfortable there. Then put one far enough in that he needs to put one paw in to get it, then two, then more. The key is to keep it low key and positive. Acclimation sessions should be short and should end on a good note. If your puppy seems stressed, then ask him for something easier and end the session. A constant theme in my dog training advice will continue to be that short, low-key sessions several times a day are typically more effective than long or intense sessions, especially for potentially stressful situations.

Once he has the hang of prancing in and out to get his cookie, practice closing the door, giving a cookie, and opening it right back up again.  If he's never forced, he'll probably be pretty happy to go in there and get a special treat every time. Once he has the hang of it, make the cookies more sporadic, so sometimes he goes in and gets a "good boy" but no cookie. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to give it a cue, like “crate.” Pretty soon, you should have a dog who runs into the crate, turns around, and looks at you expectantly.

Once you’ve graduated to closing the door, spend time together when he's in the crate and you're can hang out right next to him, working quietly on something. Periodically pop in a cookie when he's been quiet and settled for a while. You want lots of associations with fun, family, and food in order to balance out feelings of loneliness or anxiety. During Comet’s first days in the crate, I would send him in there when he seemed tired and then lie on the floor with the door open, blocking him in with my body. I’d read a book or doze off, and he’d figure out how to lie with his head on my arm. It is one my my favorite memories of his puppyhood.

If you do need to crate him before he feels totally safe and good there, don’t coax him in. Just place him in gently, close the door, and walk away with a minimum of fuss. If he cries, you need to ignore it. It’ll be heartbreaking at first, but if you talk to him, reenter the room, or open the crate door, you’ll teach him that the crying works. Only quiet dogs get let back out.

As long as positive associations are built carefully and the dog is not crated excessively, crate training pays off beautifully in a dog’s life. And during puppyhood, crate training can lead to a mostly housebroken pup in as little as a week or two.

A brand new pup cannot hold his bladder for very long, and pups develop at different speeds. At eight weeks, pups may need to pee as often as every half hour, so until he is about three months old, don’t plan to leave your pup for more than an hour or two, or you risk a miserable experience for him that can set back his progress. At night, nature slows down the waterworks, but even so, many pups cannot last more than a couple of hours without a potty break. The first few nights, it’s wise to plan to get up every few hours to let the pup out. Always bring him to his same potty spot outside, put him down, and praise him and give him a treat if he eliminates.

If that works well with no accidents, or if he does not need to pee during some of the breaks outside, give him longer stretches at night. Some pups can do six or eight hours pretty early in their lives. Others will need breaks every few hours for the first few weeks. Comet did not develop bladder control until about fourteen weeks of age, and it was a simple matter of his physical development. If left too long in the crate, he would pee under himself, so we had to be in the habit of letting him out several times a night. At fourteen weeks, the switch flipped, and that little muscle developed enough that he could hold it all night.

Once a dog doesn’t need the crate for safety and housebreaking reasons, there’s no need to continue crating as a general practice, but it’s a wonderful lifelong skill. For example, my adult dogs no longer need the crate at home, but they take turns in a soft crate so we can do multiple classes in a row at the training center. Without that skill, we wouldn’t be able to do as many classes together or go to a dog event where they’re competing and have to take turns in the ring. I also might use the crate to separate them during mealtimes so we can track food more carefully, or when another dog visits and we need to keep them separated when we leave the house.

The crate has the potential for abuse if a dog is crated too often or for too long at a stretch, but crate training is both the fastest way I know to housebreak a dog and and a wonderful asset for those who want to take their dogs more places and engage in the widest possible variety of activities.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Summer Arrives in October

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My love of Goldens started with the sweet dog we had when I was a kid. In fact, his name, Chestnut, appears in all of my dogs' registered names. My parents didn't get another dog for themselves after Chess died and my sister and I grew up, but they've always loved borrowing ours when Andy and I go on vacation.

Recently, they finally declared themselves ready to have a dog again. They wanted a Golden girl to be their office mascot at GBW Insurance and to join them on their walks in the local preserves and parks in their area. After some hunting about, we found them a lovely girl from the right litter with exactly the right temperament for the job.

Today, they picked up their puppy from her breeder in Maine and stopped by Branford on their way back home. And we were introduced to Summer, Goldiva's August on Chocorua's Summit.

Chocorua is one of my mom's favorite hikes in the world, and Summer was born in August, the month when she's hiked it most. Plus, it makes a subtle reference to Gus, whom my mom loved very much.
Andy and I were, of course, enthralled with her, and Comet and Jax were big fans too. They even posed out on Branford Green with her, though she wasn't all that cooperative and kept wandering out of frame.

Nonetheless, with a little perseverance and some luck, we did get one good shot in the late afternoon sun of our two old friends and our fluffy new one.