Sunday, February 23, 2014

When You're a Dog, Context is Everything

Jax comes back on command in all kinds of situations because we
practiced and set him up to succeed around all kinds of distractions.

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

One of the most common statements we hear from training clients, particularly people who are training their first dog, is that the dog "knows" a behavior, but will only execute it in certain situations.

He sits inside, but not outside. She knows to come when we're in the backyard, but the second we start hiking, she completely ignores us. He totally forgets his manners when he meets new people!

The reaction is sometimes to punish the dog for "blowing you off." However, it's much more helpful to understand why the dog isn't complying, and I'll give you a hint: it's not insolence. It's because for dogs, context is everything.

Say you teach your dog to sit in the kitchen by putting his food in the bowl and only putting the bowl down if he sits politely and waits until you say "ok." This is a terrific way to help your dog learn to sit and also to teach him some self control. However, if you're a dog, you haven't just learned how to sit on command. You've learned to sit on command in the kitchen when your owner is holding a bowl of food. Your dog has no way of knowing which parts of the context and his behavior led to the reward of getting to eat the food.

If you move to the living room and use a handful of treats instead of a bowl of food, your dog may have trouble generalizing the behavior. In the kitchen, there was the hum of the fridge behind him, the feel of the laminate under his paws, the bowl over his head, the counter to his left, and the human is standing still. In the living room, the hum of the fridge is distant, there's carpet under his paws, the bowl has disappeared, there's an armchair to the left, and the human is gesturing. It can be difficult for the dog to understand that the common element that's so obvious to the human, the word "sit," is the important part.

That's why we typically teach things like the sit with both a hand gesture and a verbal cue. The hand gesture is easier for the dog to recognize between contexts, and then we can fade it away later if we want the dog to be able to execute the skill without the gesture. Even so, making a skill truly reliable in multiple locations involves more than just the gesture. It means helping the dog understand what the crucial parts of the sit are and what things are irrelevant.

If you could explain it to the dog, you'd say, "Sit means plop your rear end down immediately, regardless of where you are, and hold it there until you receive further instructions." However, your dog won't generalize the skill to new locations or learn that sitting next to you is the same as sitting in front of you unless you teach him. And don't forget that, depending on where you are, there may be sounds and smells you can't even detect that are screaming for your dog's attention.

We practice the sit-stay in all kinds of contexts so Comet can be reliable
in all kinds of situations and with all kinds of distractions.
So it's absolutely crucial that you practice all of your dog's core skills in different environments and with different kinds of distractions. And, when you do, you need to remember that a new context means your dog may not understand the skill. Never punish a dog for his failure to generalize; it's just not sporting. Many situations where the human is saying, "He knows it. He just doesn't want to do it" are really situations that involve the dog's failure to generalize.

Instead, assume that noncompliance means your dog doesn't truly understand, and teach the skill from scratch. He knows sit in the house but won't do it in the backyard? Teach it from scratch in the backyard, just like you did in the house. You should find that your dog will start to figure out which parts of the cue and the skill are the same every time. For example, each time he learns "sit" in a new context, he should learn it faster as he discerns the fact the cue ("sit") and the behavior (rear end on ground) are the important parts of earning the reward.

Context goes beyond just the surrounding sounds, sights, and smells. The dog's position relative to you matters too. If you only practice sit with your dog in front of you, facing you, that is what "sit" will mean to him. He won't necessarily understand what it means when you're walking him on the leash and you want him to sit beside you, facing in the same direction. So be sure to practice sit in front of you and on both sides of you as part of teaching your dog to generalize it.

Also, as you engage in the process of teaching context, it really helps to escalate your distractions gradually, since they're a key part of the dog's context. Don't teach your dog "come" in an empty room and then ask him to do it off leash at a chicken farm the next day. Work up gradually through escalating distractions, always making sure to set your dog up to succeed and to prevent self-rewarding if he doesn't comply. Once he knows sit in the house and the backyard, stop and practice it a couple of times out on walks. When he can handle that, go to the coffeeshop patio on a quiet day and work on it in the corner. Then practice in the house again, but put a nature special on the TV and see how far back to basics you have to go when there are geese calling and flying by in hi-def.

Group classes, by the way, are an invaluable way to help teach a dog to generalize a skill. Each time we teach Family Dog Training Basics, we warn the students that their dogs' obedience will go out the window during the first session and that it's a good thing in the long run.  Even a dog who's pretty good in the house and backyard will typically lose his obedience when brought into a dog training center and asked to execute his skills with five other dogs in a large room. But when the dog learns or relearns those skills in that distracted environment, you're setting him up to generalize his sit, stay, loose leash walking, and recall so they hold up out in the real world when you need them. In fact, one thing you'll see at a training center's group classes is that the trainers will bring their own young dogs, even when it's a class they've taught a million times. They're not there to learn the curriculum; they're there to practice with a dog in the environment and to get pointers from other trainers.

So the next time you're frustrated because your dog "knows it" but isn't complying, try to consider the way a dog sees the world and the way he learns new skills. For you, sit means sit, but for your dog, sit may mean something much more difficult to generalize. Humans are great at generalizing, but when you're a dog, context is everything.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dog Ads

For somebody outside the purebred dog world, brag ads and litter announcements might be a bit foreign, but in Golden Retriever world, they're important. When you finish a championship in the conformation ring, or when you plan a litter you're really excited about, you might want to announce it to the world.

The Golden Retriever Club of America puts out a quarterly publication called the Golden Retriever News, and it's really the premier spot to advertise if you're a Golden Retriever enthusiast.

A couple of friends have asked me to design ads for them over the last year or two when they've had big milestones to celebrate. I noticed that the majority of the ads tend to consist of some shadowed text and some photos and/or cutouts of the dogs, so when I did ads, I tried to be more creative. I tried to zero in on what the people loved about their dogs and to capture that, along with the purpose of the ad.

Ever since the ads have been appearing in the GRNews, I've been getting inquiries about my portfolio. So I figured it made some sense to collect a couple of ads together for the curious.

This is the first ad I did, a "brag" for my friend Jill's dog Lush. Lush finished her championship at a relatively young age, and then while we were working on the ad, she finished her grand championship, so we updated it and sent it out to print. I actually mentioned this ad in an earlier post because I was so proud of team Lush.

A large, print-friendly PDF of this ad can be downloaded here.

Then, Jill bred Lush with a terrific stud dog named Gunner, so we announced the litter with this ad.

Lush has been an easy subject for ads, because of Jill's incredible work with the camera (and some work from Schwarcz Photography in this ad).

The backgrounds for both Lush ads come from Jill's nature photography, run through Photoshop filters and some other digital magic.

A large, print-friendly PDF of this ad can be downloaded here.

Most recently, I did this brag ad for a beautiful dog named Sammy. Just like in the previous ads, I essentially relied on Jill's great photographic work. She took all the candids of Sammy used in this ad.

For this one, I actually talked back and forth about what Sammy's owner loved about him, and I thought it would be special to present the ad as a thank-you note to Sammy and some snapshots spread out on a desk.

You can find out more about Jill's photographic work, including how to hire her if you live in her area of Maine, at PoeticGold Farm.

A large, print-friendly PDF of this ad can be downloaded here.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ignoring Isn't the Same Thing as Permitting

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

Some confusion arises sometimes when people discuss reward-based training because it can be hard to understand how you teach a dog not to do something without making it unpleasant for him. People who don't understand—or who don't like—non-aversive training sometimes confuse positivity for permissiveness, not understanding that rewarding what you want while ignoring what you don't want is not equivalent to letting a dog do whatever he pleases. Positive does not equal permissive. You can be quite structured with your dog and hold him to a very high standard of reliability and precision without scaring him, intimidating him, or inflicting an unpleasant sensation on him.

However, you do have to be careful when you ignore undesired behaviors, since some unwanted behaviors allow dogs to reward themselves. It might be more helpful to borrow an awkward word from psychology and suggest that trainers get in the mindset of nonrewarding undesired behaviors rather than ignoring them.

Puppy Abby's jumping was self-rewarding, so we removed the opportunity
to jump and rewarded an incompatible behavior (a sit).
For example, if your dog is chewing on the drywall, you can't just ignore him. He is rewarding himself with the chewing. If your dog steals a cookie from your toddler, eating the cookie is a strong reward for the behavior, so ignoring it is essentially rewarding it. In both scenarios, the dog is being rewarded and thus is learning to do the behavior more frequently and more intensely.

If, however, you nonreward these behaviors, they will diminish, especially if you reward something incompatible with the undesired behavior. If you know your dog wants to chew the drywall, you need to manage the problem by removing his access. A baby gate, a piece of furniture, even a tether to you could help you make sure he's not rewarded. And you should reward him for taking out his chewing urges on appropriate toys. When he chooses something like a durable Nylabone instead of the wall, walk over and quietly drop a treat in between his paws. Chewing a toy is incompatible with chewing the wall: as long as he's chewing the toy, he's not chewing the wall.

If he's stealing cookies from the toddler, you first need to remove the opportunity so he's not rewarded. If the toddler is wandering around with a cookie and your dog has a food theft problem, try crating the dog for that brief period or gating him off in a different section of the house. That way, you're making sure he's not getting rewarded instead of just ignoring a self-rewarding behavior. The incompatible behavior here, by the way, would be "leave it." It is absolutely possible to teach a dog—without ever yelling at him or making his life unpleasant—that he needs to leave the toddler's cookie alone because there are other ways for him to get rewarded. A dog who knows "leave it" can learn to march right away from the toddler and over to you for food. Check out Susan Garrett's "It's Yer Choice" method for some ideas on teaching this kind of impulse control.

The next time you hear somebody complaining that positive trainers are permissive or don't have solutions for problems like jumping, biting, chewing, and stealing, remember that folks who say that either don't understand how nonrewarding works, or they've been watching ineffective trainers. When good trainers work on an undesired behavior, they're careful to identify any potential self-reward so it can be removed. And smart trainers look for the opportunity to teach the dog what they do want instead of just yelling at the dog for what they don't want.

To state the principle as simply as possible: nonreward the undesired behavior, and reward an incompatible, desired behavior. That should decrease the undesired behaviors as quickly as possible without intimidating or hurting the dog. And that's the goal, right?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

All Alone in the Woods

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

This day, I saw that a light snow was predicted to start falling around 3PM, so around 3, I started a long hike with the dogs in the woods. A light, icy swirl slowly gave way to a steadier fall of fluffy snow, and the distant sounds of traffic faded. Most other hikers seemed to have planned to be finished before the snow began, so the woods slowly became quieter and less inhabited, until it was just me, the dogs, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk high up in the canopy above the trail. He was too high for a photo, and there were too many branches in between him and us, but I caught this shot when he called and the dogs looked for the source of the sound.

The snowy weather might just be Jax's favorite, though he seems equally to love leaping through muddy marshes.

Eventually, the woods fell almost silent, except for the sound of snow hissing past the dry, yellow leaves the beech trees forgot to drop in autumn. So we took another lap of the trail; it was too beautiful to leave, and our cares could wait a little while longer for us to come home to them.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Training for the Veterinarian's Office

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

When we talk about training and plan the curricula for training classes, we often talk about real-world skills and proper healthcare, but I'm not sure all dog owners put enough thought into preparing their dogs specifically for the vet's office. Dogs who are more prepared for a vet visit are easier to examine, and they end up receiving better healthcare. If your vet is constantly trying to read your dog's body language in order to avoid a bite, or if your dog is constantly struggling against a technician who has to hold him firmly, the vet isn't going to be able to be as thorough or as careful as he can be if your dog is calm.

Imagine trying to look into a dog's ear. If the dog is jerking his head to get away from the doctor's otoscope, and the doctor can only get it in while the tech is firmly holding the dog's head and body, the vet will not want to traumatize the dog by looking in the ear for as long, and that view will be disrupted by the movement of the head, no matter how still the tech tries to hold the dog. And some dogs do more than struggle; they nip or even bite at vets and vet techs because they feel threatened.

If the dog is calm, needs little or no holding, and shows no signs of reacting dangerously to being examined, the vet will be able to take her time and really visualize the whole ear canal. The same goes for your dog's eyes, teeth, joints, lymph nodes, and every other part of the hands-on exam your dog will get at a regular checkup or at an emergency appointment. Dogs can't tell us what hurts, so the physical exam is even more important in a veterinary visit than it is in a human one.

Obviously, vets deal with reluctant patients all day, and they get very good at working with struggling dogs, but no matter how experienced and dedicated your vet is, the easier your dog is to work with, the better care he's going to get.

There are two major tacks we take when thinking about the vet: getting dogs used to the kinds of things that will happen to them, and teaching dogs little commands and skills that will help them get through an appointment smoothly.

Practice the Exam

During a Paws N' Effect Family Dog Training Basics class,
Roma learns that giving her paw voluntarily is fun.
First, consider all the kinds of things that happen during a vet exam, and then practice them at home with your dog. If you can teach your dog that being handled is a low-key and fun thing, your dog can learn that the vet is just playing the same low-key game. So from the very first day your get your dog, practice the things that vets do: check your dog's ears, pull up his lips and look at his teeth, pick up his paws and look at the pads and nails. Handle him all over. Be liberal with rewards when your dog allows you to handle a sensitive area like his ear or paw. This is a great opportunity to bond with your dog, and you can combine it with your grooming regimen so your dog learns that being handled isn't going to be traumatic and can in fact lead to some yummy treats and lots of mellow petting.

Be sensitive to your dog's reactions. If you have a brand new puppy with a laid-back temperament, he may never particularly care that you're handling his ears, checking his gums, and examining his paws. In these situations, you are trying to simply build and reinforce his trust so he doesn't lose it as he ages. Dogs do frequently lose this trust, especially if the vet is the only one that looks in his ears or handles his paws, so make it part of your home care ritual for your dog, even if he's already easygoing. You want to keep him that way.

If, however, you take on an adult dog that already has major trust issues or a feisty puppy that hates being held still or prodded, you can't just stick your finger in his ear, jam a cookie in his face, and hope for the best. Watch for signs of anxiety, like yawning, drooling, fast panting, tight or hard facial expressions, ears down or to the rear, etc. If your dog is starting to react badly to what you're trying, ease off immediately and try something easier. For example, if your dog jerks his paw away when you try to hold it, just reach your hand toward it without touching it and give him a reward. Work up gradually, over several daily or twice-daily sessions until you can just touch it. Then work up to holding it and examining it. These behaviors are lifelong skills, so you don't need to rush them, especially since rushing can backfire.

Teach Your Dog to Move

Your dog will need to get good at moving around in a vet's office. You may need him to get on one side of you as you stand at the counter to pay, or he may have to move from your side to the front of you so the vet can examine him. Or, you may need to get your large dog to step up on a scale that's several inches off the ground. Practice your sits and stays, but also practice hand targeting or something similar. If your dog can learn to move toward and then touch your open palm, you can have him move himself onto the scale and then sit, and that's a lot less traumatic than being picked up or pushed. 

If you have a large dog, your vet may examine him on the floor, but if you have a small dog, you may want to practice picking him up and having him stand quietly on a table. Just as with the rest of these skills, you want to read your dog's reactions and not push him too fast. The table can be a lot more scary for a dog than you'd think, so do very short sessions with lots of rewards, and don't ask your dog for two things at once when you're trying something new and scary. Don't ask him to stand on a table for the first time and ask him to sit-stay there, even if he knows sit-stay. When in doubt, take baby steps.

Practice at the Practice

Don't forget that the vet office itself is a training opportunity for your dog's general skills as well as an important place to practice the vet-specific skills you've been developing. Bring some yummy treats. A beloved toy can work too, but be considerate if you go this route. Super stinky treats, balls, or toys with squeakers can be a bad choice since they can rile up the other dogs in the waiting room. You want things that make your dog feel rewarded but that won't cause other dogs and handlers to have problems.

Remember that practicing at the vet isn't like practicing at home. Your dog won't know his commands as well, and he may be less inclined to play or eat treats. New environments, particularly intimidating ones, lower a dog's ability to remember and perform his trained abilities. So whenever your dog seems to have "forgotten" something, ask him for an easier version of it, and be sure to reward his successes generously. Also remember to catch your dog making good choices, even if you haven't asked for them. If your dog settles down at your feet, remember to pet him, praise him, and give him a treat. If he greets the vet politely and lets the vet pull his lip up and look at his gums, reward that.

Many vets will have their own jar of cookies in the exam room, but they don't tend to have lots of small pieces of soft treats. So it's great if the vet wants to give your dog a cookie at the end of the exam, but you need to make the effort to reward all the little behaviors in between, like when your dog allows himself to be held, doesn't jerk his head while being examined, or gets on the scale when you hand target him there.

Even before the exam begins, take the opportunity to work together. When you're waiting, play a mellow game with your dog. The aforementioned hand targeting can be turned into "treat button" a game that lots of dogs love to play, where you simply move your hand to a new spot and give your dog a treat when he touches it with his nose. 

Maggie plays the eye contact game with her handler
at a Paws N' Effect Family Dog Training Basics class
Playing or working with a human can really drain the stress and bad energy out of a situation. If a dog is wound up, it almost always helps to play a game or work on an easy skill together. You can work on targeting, sits, downs, giving paw, eye contact, name recognition, leave it, or any of a dozen other games and skills that a dog can do without moving around much. For nervous dogs, a "no big deal, let's a play a game" attitude is often more comforting than anything else, especially since some of the things that humans do to comfort dogs, like hugging or speaking in a high voice, can actually increase a dog's anxiety.

Lastly, don't punish your dog. When a dog is nervous punishment like a stern voice or a leash pop can't decrease nervousness; it can only add to it. If your dog reacts negatively to the other dogs in the waiting room, a stern voice him isn't going to help; it'll just sound to him like you're nervous and reactive too! If he growls at the vet, poking him or yelling at him is only going to confirm to him that he's in a threatening situation. 

It also simply isn't fair to punish a dog who forgets some training while overloaded with all the unfamiliar and potentially scary things at the vet's office. If your dog is misbehaving, you need to set your expectations more reasonably and reward him for the good behavior you can catch while managing the behavior you don't want.  The more practice and rewarding you've done at home and other locations, the more likely the dog is to transfer the behavior to the vet's office, but even the best-trained dog will forget some stuff when he's feeling nervous at the vet.

Good Patients Get Better Care

It would be hard to overstate the difference in care you can get for your dog if he's an easy patient. A good vet won't shortchange an unruly patient, but the simple fact is that the vet can get more information in the exam if the dog is quiet and calm. With some practice, you can have a visit that's smoother and less stressful for both you and your dog, and your beloved dog deserves the absolute best care you can get him.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Small Explosions

We've posed dogs in front of the ice at Westwoods before, but this dramatic spot is right where the trail makes a sharp left, so it's easy to get the dogs up there to pose. The active quarry is less than a half mile to the photographer's left, so I snapped a quick exposure when the dogs turned their head to look toward the sound of a small boom coming from the quarry.
Sometimes, deep snow brings out the puppy in the dogs as they leap over snow dunes and explode through drifts.

They absolutely exhaust themselves over the course of an hour or two. In some kinds of snow, the footing is difficult for me, so on days like this, I'm much slower than normal. Fortunately, the dogs more than make up for lack of speed and distance with their enthusiastic zooming.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Ice and Moss

This Sunday saw my parents visit for a quick lunch and hike, and with the freezing and thawing in the recent weather, there were icicles galore aside the Westwood quarry trails. Thus, ample opportunity to pose the dogs.

Summer came along, obviously. I handled her stay while my mom took pictures of her in front of the icicles, but I caught her enjoying a stick for a brief break on a mossy rock.