Monday, January 27, 2014

Why Chilling On The Mat Is Better Than Just Chilling

Unless you’re craving 24/7 action, which isn’t healthy for a dog and probably also not for you, life with a canine who settles at times is a lot more pleasurable.
There are two options:
Either you acquire a hardwired couch potato, and good luck with that because even if you expect a certain breed to be low-key, not every individual is and especially not when young, or you could teach a settle on the mat which works with every dog.

True, settling doesn’t necessitate a mat. Most dogs are very capable of finding a cozy spot when they feel like chilling out, but incorporating a mat has a whole bunch of advantages:

It becomes a visual and tactile cue for your dog to settle, and once it is you can transport it to different rooms in your home and indicate where you’d like her to slouch.
It helps when company comes. We all know what usually happens when the bell rings or there is a knock on the door: If the dog loves people, she gets excited, and if she doesn’t, she gets anxious. Either way, she barks, charges the door, and jumps because she is aroused, and because she doesn’t know what else to do. The mat could become the targeted spot you direct her to.
You can take the mat with you when you’re away from home. Many dogs are nervous in a new environment because they don’t know how their world works there, and the mat can anchor the pooch, like a security blanket.
That includes the training facility, where the mat can be your dog’s safe retreat, a spot you send her to when you are not actively working. Or it could make a specific starting point clearer for a dog, help her to learn the place from where the next activity begins. 
You can put a mat on the couch or bed to induce your dog to stay on her end, which means your guests clothes won’t be covered with hair, and you might have a more restful sleep.

A cautionary word: What you are aiming for is that the mat becomes an  important “my space” association, but with that the dog might also defend it against others. I am okay with that. My dogs are allowed to give “buzz off” signals that are appropriate – a growl for example. It is a different story when a dog overreacts and attacks a retreating dog, or lacks inhibition and there is a risk of a bite. In that case, there is a bigger issue at paw, and I advice you consult with an experienced and force free behavior specialist.
With most dogs, though, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. 
Here is how you can convince your dog that settling on the mat is a wonderful thing. 

If you like shaping, present your dog with a new and comfy mat, and mark and reward when she shows interest in it. Once she deliberately targets the mat to score a treat, stop reinforcing that and wait until she finds a new mat behavior, for example puts a paw on it. When she does that deliberately, stop reinforcing until two paws are on it – four – she sits – she lies. Keep the loot coming as long as she is on the mat, and stop when she leaves.
If you’re like me and shaping is not entirely your thing, place a mat beside you when you read, work on the computer, or watch TV. Don’t prompt, but whenever she settles on it, drop treats – fairly frequently in the beginning, or provide a yummy filled Kong, or a chewy/bone. Food is better than a toy because you want your dog to settle, not move around, but a toy to rip up can also work, just not one she rolls around and then chases.

I’ll let you in how cooking dinner and mealtimes play out in our house: I invite the dogs to join us with the come command if they’re in another room (which rarely happens), or with let’s go if they are near me (this is where you typically find my dogs). Dogs are very keen on human food, which means I get 100% compliance, so why would I want to miss such a great opportunity to practice recall or having my dog walk with me. 
The mat is placed approximately 6 feet from where we are, and if I have a rookie learner I’ll tether her to a piece of furniture or the bannister to set her up for success.
Whenever the dog reclines on the mat, I toss a piece of exactly what almost every dog wants: human food. With the rookie, tidbits land fairly frequently on the mat, but in time I can prepare a whole meal or finish dinner before I share some of my food.
A more alpha-oriented trainer might warn you that a dog who is keen on your food is status seeking, and when you give it you'd elevate her status, but that’s just crap talk. It is the giver who controls the resources and hence has the power, not the recipient.
What really happens is that your dog is motivated by something you control, mentally connects with you, is calmly attentive, practices self-restraint because she waits on the mat, or completely relaxes around the distraction of food. All behaviors you want in other aspects of your life together. 
Plus, including your dog into your social life strengthens your relationship. Food sharing is bonding, and you reinforce the mat settle effectively, which strengthens that behavior, which means your dog will offer it more reliably, relaxingly, repeatedly, and at one point you won't have to tether her any longer.
There is another benefit: Whenever you let a dog observe people doing stuff, in our house we call it supervising, you provide satisfying and tiring mental stimulation; enrichment without having to invest extra time – nowadays often in short supply.
And, settling on the mat around food sets the stage for the dog to learn to also settle when there are other distractions, for example when someone is at your door or entering your home. In that case, provide prolonged entertainment – the Kong, or chewy, or bone, and temporarily return to the tether.

Initially, when you begin mat training, make it a limited resource, which means  remove it when the session is over. That way you raise motivation, and your dog will be über-happy whenever you bring it out again and ready to work with you.
In that sense, release your dog, with a specific verbal cue like all-done or finished when she still wants to be on the mat.
Later on, you can leave it out, because your goal is that it becomes both a spot your dog chooses to go to when she wants to chill, and a place you can purposely direct her to.
With the former, your dog is allowed to self-release, but whenever you send her to the mat, you are also the one who releases her, either with your general cue, or a specific one when you want her to do a certain action next.

What position should the dog be in? To me, and most owners, it doesn’t really matter if the dog sits, lies or stands on the mat. She can choose whatever is comfortable, and I name the behavior, the being on the mat, settle. Naturally, with dogs authentic relaxation means they’re stretched out, so that is the position she’ll likely be in.
However, if you also use the mat as a momentary target point, a certain position is likely important and then do use your precise corresponding command for sit, down or stand.

Like with all training, the rules of adding duration, distance and distractions, one at a time and gradually raising the bar, apply here too.
Especially getting a solid mat stay in connection with the entrance door and people’s comings and goings can be a bit more complex than providing a mat and a filled Kong: You have to find the right motivator, very incrementally increase distractions, even build up to a frozen Kong to prevent that the dog becomes discouraged because getting the loot out is too difficult.
I will talk about all that in future posts, but your friendly behavior consultant can also help you with your and your dog’s individual abilities and challenges.

Friday, January 17, 2014

From Sit/Down to Emergency Position Stay

I won’t elaborate much how to teach a sit and down, because most of my readers know how to, but very briefly: I lure the sit with a treat in front of the dog’s nose moved over and behind his head. As he follows the treat, the head goes up and the butt down, and the moment he sits I name and reward the behavior.
You could also lure the down from a sit by moving the treat straight down and then out. Most dogs will follow the treat and lower their body into a lie position. Frankly though, I prefer to capture that behavior. There is no such thing as a dog never lying down, but many owners ignore it when it occurs at home, and then try to teach it 2 hours later in the training facility. Start at home, name and reward when your dog naturally lies, and you create a link between the action and the word, and then you can prompt the action with saying the word. 

Your dog knows what a command means when heeds your request immediately 9 out of 10 times, but chances are he’ll only perform in the context he has learned the cue/behavior combination. With sit and down, that is typically the person facing the dog. So the next thing you want to do is teach your dog that the cue still means the same when the context changes, e.g. the dog sitting at each side and behind you, or you standing, walking, sitting or lying on the couch.

Once your dog is not ambiguous what the command means, build in duration. Duration comes next because if your dog can’t hold a position if you are right there, he won’t be able to do it when you are a distance away. 

When we call a dog into action, a higher-pitched, sound-repetitive voice and snappy movements work best.
When we ask a dog to remain at one spot for a bit, it helps to use a non-regimental slooow-looow-staaay tone and congruent, slightly forward leaning with the open palm of your hand toward the dog, body language. No finger pointing. That is rude.
Most dogs will hold the position at least for a couple of seconds; tell him he is a genius and release a treat but not the dog. Neither the verbal praise nor the cookie should become an automatic signal for your dog that he now can get up and do what he wants.
Remind your dog to staaay, and repeat, and so on, incrementally increasing the time before you praise and reward.
Be exuberant, let your dog know how happy you are that he’s got it right and plays by your rules.
Always go to him and reward when he is still in the position you asked. Don’t call him to you and reward, because then you are doing a great job reinforcing the recall, but a lousy job toward mastering the position stay.

Some dogs can’t hold a sit or down even briefly. In that case you are allowed, in the beginning, to hold a treat in front of his nose to help him understand and get a few moments in.
You can repeat your command, and more than once if you have to. Lorna McMasters in “Dancing with Sheepdogs” says that it verbally encourages the dog to keep doing what he is doing with a known word.
When he is about to break, interrupt him, for example with an Ah, remind him to stay, and generously reward him when he does, then release.
If you missed the moment and your dog self-releases, put him calmly back in position. Act normal, breathe, and try again. It’s about trying again and learning, not correcting. If you aim for cooperation, you always want to be appealing rather than repelling.
If it happens often, you are making the mistake of pushing too hard. Adjust the conditions.

When your dog holds a stay for a minute or so without needing a reminder or reward, incorporate distance and walk away, initially facing the dog and only one step, or just leaning back if your pooch is a little scared and particularly  person-dependent. Gradually increase the distance one step at a time; always working at your dog’s feel-good level, and in the beginning shortening the duration before you reward’n’remind.
This is a something you can put in your back pocket regardless what it is you are training: Making one component easier when a new one is added to the exercise prevents that the dog becomes anxious and checks out – physically, mentally or emotionally, because learning with you is too difficult.
Remember different contexts? Before you lengthen the duration again, get your dog, gradually, used to seeing you walk away with your back turned.

Working in the environment is the last part, because obeying around distractions is typically the most difficult part, so you want to make sure the exercise feels familiar and good.
When you take the show on the road, continue to proceed as slowly as you need to set your dog up for success. That includes not coercing a dog into a down, not even with a cookie, in the obedience class if he is too nervous to be in that position in that environment.
Taking your time in the front saves you time in the end because you don’t have to backtrack – Paraphrasing Steve White.
Begin with one step outside your door, then practice in the front yard, the sidewalk, the street corner, parking lots, near a playground or school zone – all the way to, eventually, the dog park.
If your dog can only manage a sit 30 feet away from another dog or person, reinforce that. Tomorrow it will be 25, then 20, until he sits relaxingly while you chat with a neighbor next to you.
Be aware that when animation increases, the degree of distraction does accordingly, so increase the distance with your dog, and stay closer to him for support. Once the animated stimulus is familiar and feels safe, you can decrease the distance to it, increase the duration – the period of time you hang around, and finally the distance between you and your dog.

A sit, down or stand stay is precision work and the dog should remain in the one you asked. However, you must be fair and accommodate your dog’s physical and emotional needs at the moment, and cue the one you believe he will be most comfortable doing - generally, or in that given situation.

With a position stay your dog practices self-control, and he will tire out because waiting and observing while you hide a toy, throw the ball, or handle another dog, is work and focused effort. That kind of mental work blended into physical exercise can prevent that your dog becomes too pumped and frenzied.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, if a dog trusts the exercise to the point where he will hold a position even when something makes him uneasy, you can place and leave your dog anywhere, anytime. That’s the emergency position stay and the benefit is clear: When a loose dog or child, for example, aims toward you, you can deal with the situation before your dog does.
It saved our Aussie twice in a lifetime from biting a child.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Touch: The Many Purpose Hand Target Game

What it is: 
The dog is briefly touching the palm of your hand with a closed mouth. It is not a punch or prolonged push, it is not licking, and it is not going after food in the hand. 

How to teach it: 
Teaching touch is über-easy. Start by holding the palm of your hand in front of the dog’s nose, and it won’t hurt if it smells like cheese or chicken. Almost every dog will be drawn to the hand and automatically touch it. The moment he does, mark with a verbal yes or a clicker-click, and give a treat from the other hand. Always treat from the hand that is not the target hand, because you want your dog to learn that it is not about food in a hand. In addition, feeding from the other hand moves the dog’s nose away from the target hand immediately, and we’ll get the brief soft touch we are after. 
Once your dog deliberately targets the hand to score a treat, switch hands. 
Only mark and reward when you get a nose touch. You don’t want a lick. However, if you have an avid licker, initially do reward so you don’t discourage your dog, but once he understands the command, reward only when he licks a little less, and then a little less, and so on until you have the closed-mouth touch. 
When your dog solidly targets both hands on cue, move the target-hand farther away, higher up, or lower. In other words, play with it and have fun. 

What it is good for: 

  • The interaction can become a reward in its own right, which means you can use it instead of food to reinforce another behavior. When you teach loose leash walking, for example, you become a moving target and your hand, not a treat in your hand, is both lure and reward. 
  • When it is familiar and fun, it can re-center a dog who feels uneasy in a new environment. Anything familiar can lower anxiety, but with touch you have the added benefit that it engages the dog, and he gets to move, and that can also relieve stress. 
  • It is one of the best ways to redirect a dog from an unwanted activity, specifically jumping. Once your dog follows your hand on cue, you can bring four paws to the floor, or structure jumping if you own a spring-loaded dog with a strong intrinsic drive to bounce up - boxers and some terriers come to mind. 
  • Touch is an excellent way for children to interact with a dog, and to move the dog away from their body and face. The dog learns appropriate and rewarding ways to engage with kids. 
  • Touch closes the dog’s mouth and can help with puppy nipping. 
  • It can help with aroused herding dog nipping. Play catch-me-if-you-can, and when the dog is getting close to your legs, stop and direct him with an outstretched hand away from you. With quickly aroused dogs you may have to start with only a few, slow steps, but building on that you should increasingly be able to run faster and become more animated. It teaches the dog space balance, and a routinely closed-mouth while aroused during chase comes handy when the dog plays with other dogs. 
  • Touch opens up a different way to communicate. Often dogs that grab or mouth do so to get a human’s attention. That kind of mouthing is often labeled as biting, but typically happens either because the dog has never learned a proper way to communicate, or because the dog is highly aroused and hasn’t been taught acceptable outlets. Touch will help with both. 
  • Once the dog follows the hand as a pointer, teaching tricks, for example to ring a bell, is easy. Put your hand behind the bell and each time your dog touches the hand, the bell rings. Reward, and incrementally move the hand away. You can also lure your dog without food to: twist around his body, move around yours, weave through your legs, in a certain position, or on an object. 
  • Place a postage stamp on your hand and teach your dog to touch that. Once he targets the stamp, you can place it anywhere and teach him to touch different body parts, and objects. It can help with dogs that are fearful of, for example, a broom or the nail clipper. The idea is that the scary thing becomes part of a familiar game, and the dog, at one point, will seek it rather than shy away. 
  • Touch does not solve aggression issues, but the familiar and feel-good cue can shift a dog’s mind when he too close to a person and suddenly becomes tense. It can serve as an emergency signal that closes the dog’s mouth, and hence can prevent a bite. And if you reward your dog generously when he returns to you, you train a touch/walk away combination and have a built-in copout, a habitual behavior how to return to safety, and that can also lower stress.
  • Touch works with dogs that are defensive of their space. Inviting the dog to follow the hand gets him to move, but in a non-confrontational way. To reiterate, you still must address the underlying reasons why the dog is aggressive, but for the moment you defused a potentially dangerous situation, and touch is in fact part of my space guarding behavior modification protocol, because when a person is playful, the dog perceives him as less threatening, which can lower the need to be defensive. 

I mentioned that touch can become a reward in its own right, and with many dogs that is indeed the case. They seek the interaction and no treats are needed to reinforce touch once it is learned, plus it can take the place of treats in other contexts. However, if you have a highly food motivated dog, don’t skip treats. Touch, like other life rewards, shouldn't be seen as instead of, but in addition to, and one more way of having structured fun with your dog. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Mastering the Walk Without Whispering

Pulling on the leash is a behavior many dog owners complain about, naturally, because it makes a walk unpleasant at best, and unsafe at worst when the animal at the loop end of the leash is pulled off her feet. It’s a problem, and a common one at that. Why? 
For starters, and despite what you hear on TV, moving right next to or behind someone for the duration of a walk is not natural to dogs.

If you watched dogs that travel together, off the leash and not lorded over by a human, you don’t see them march constantly in a linear configuration. Rather, you could observe a variety of arrangements: moving parallel, widening and shortening distances, one lagging behind and then catching up, one running ahead and then waiting, all the while staying mentally connected to the others - and all regardless of age, gender or status. 

Yes, status. Dominance, again contrary to popular belief, is not the reason why your dog wants to be ahead of you. 
In our house, bossy Aussie Davie was clearly the dog that controlled the others’ space, and yet she didn’t give a rat’s tail where they, including a foster puppy, positioned themselves in relation to her on a walk. 
In “Evolution of Working Dogs”, Raymond Coppinger and Richard Schneider write that in a sled team the lead dogs are not chosen for strength, but because they are willing to take directions from the driver; they are the literal leaders of the pack not because they dominate all others, but because they are most responsive. I referenced that with an acquaintance who is a knowledgeable and conscientious Siberian husky breeder, and she said that with double leaders one knows the commands, while the other has the drive to keep the team going. 
Tracking dogs are also typically in front, and are also mentally connected to the handler. 
And I get the same from my dogs. I am rarely physically in the lead, but I am metaphorically. I signal which direction we’ll take – a signal my dogs are checking for whenever we come to crossroads. 
To sum the: the-dominant-one-is-the-one-walking-in-front fairytale up, here is a quote by one of history’s unarguably greatest leaders: “A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are directed from behind.” Nelson Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom

So, what’s the point? Dogs may not be dominant when they pull ahead, but they still pull, and that’s still a problem. 
Well, if we could convince the public that pulling has more to do with lack of cooperation than lack of submission, then perhaps the everyday owner would feel less challenged and more inclined to handle the issue without the use of pain. That alone might contribute to better leash manners: Believe it or not, a dog who experiences discomfort near you wants to be away from you. 
But even a dog who likes her human might pull, because, as said, the natural traveling range relative to each other is greater than 4-6 feet, which means that whenever we clip a leash on a dog we automatically set her up to fail. 
I bet you see the dilemma. Of course, dogs must be leash managed, at least at times. So what can we do? 

We could stop reinforcing it. 
Every step a dog makes on a taut leash teaches her that pulling works, and which way you walk doesn’t matter. Unless a dog has a specific destination, neither changing directions nor backtracking helps, because moving is reinforcing in its own right. You add what you believe are penalty yards, but your dog gets to move even more and maybe circle around you – what a pleasing consequence for pulling, especially for the herding dog. 
Reality is that as long as your dog succeeds with pulling, she’ll continue to pull undeterred by your frustrated badgering and ineffective tugging. 
There is another thought coming from the classical conditioning front: Does a tight leash become an associated cue for pulling? I am not so sure. My dogs walk off the leash, on a tight leash, and a loose one, exactly because moving is an intrinsic drive and self-reinforcing. However, maybe the opposite has weight: If moving only happens if there is a slack in the leash, the loose feel links with moving and the dog might halt when the leash gets tight.  
In any case, the answer is to stop walking the moment there is leash tension, wait until your dog reorients to you and creates a loose leash again, and then you move and only as long as there’s a slack in the leash. When you are about to make your first step together, add your walking cue. Mine is let’s go
Easy as pie and it works - other than that it puts most everyday dog owners in a jam: People want to cover ground because they think they must in order to meet their dog’s exercise needs. Thus, they continue the pulling relationship.
I suggest treating the leash walk as any other training exercise: Short sessions and incrementally incorporating distractions, even if you only get to the end of the driveway, while providing physical outlets separately on a long line or off the leash. You might be surprised how much the mental training tires your dog out, and with practice, you will get increasingly less pulling and can walk with the leash loose for increasingly longer periods. 

Dominance isn’t the issue; being attached to a slow-moving biped is. Being outside is exciting for your dog: seductive smells and sounds, and memory of past fun in certain places, compel her to get there speedily. 
The way to counter that, and hence decrease pulling, is for you to become more desirable. Don’t walk faster if your dog is bored unless you always want to walk fast, but make yourself more attractive. 
Play catch-me-if-you-can: in a securely fenced-in space off the leash, otherwise on a long line. As usual, begin where there are no or few distant distractions, and expand from there outward. 
Whenever you are snappy and animated, your dog pays attention and becomes curious about you, and that’s when you cajole her to catch up. When she is within a 3-4 feet range, give her your full attention, abruptly change directions, speed up, or toss a food treat. That will make the environment less appealing and you more, and she’ll begin to want to be within the 3-4 feet range because she experiences that life is great there. Then, when you clip a 6-foot leash on, you have loose leash walking.
Being near you becomes a habit, and once it is you don’t have to be that overtly high-spirited anymore, but being attentive never stops. Reinforce attention when your dog gives it, and attract attention when she doesn’t. 

You can bring your dog closer than 3-4 feet, and built heel work into every walk. Instead of tossing the treat out, drop it when she is right next to you, or let her nibble on a closed fist that contains a treat to slow her down, periodically releasing it. 
Jennifer Arnold, you might have seen the PBS documentary "Through A Dog’s Eyes", doesn’t punish when a future assistants dog leaves a person’s side, but allows her to lick a wooden spoon dipped in peanut butter when she doesn’t. Is it real choice or coercion with a cookie? Jennifer Arnold: “Choice is allowing the dog to find out what feels good”, and she also says that all obedience comes easier with dogs who learn from the start that being by a person is a happy spot. 
The spoon only serves as a tool. The dog, in addition, also receives a lot of attention. The spoon eventually disappears, the attention never does. 

You want to be the cake and icing for your dog, but that doesn’t mean that you can or should forget the environment completely. 
A quality walk is much more than moving: It is being in the environment together, and that includes being sensitive to the fact that some things you might not appreciate are important to your dog and vital for her wellbeing. Exploring with the nose is such a thing, and although I don’t propose letting your dog pull you, she must have autonomy where she wants to sniff. The dog is the one who knows what’s sniff-worthy – you have no clue. The moment she is done with social media and ready to move with you again is another good time for your verbal walking cue. It’ll become a feel-good signal, my goal with every command, and then you can use it to prompt your dog without triggering anxiety or resistance, which is the case when what you say is a warning and threat. 
If you facilitate access to what is important to your dog even if you don’t comprehend it, like a parent does who drives her kid to football practice even though she dislikes the sport, the bond between you and your dog deepens more, and she wants to be with you more, and you get more attention, and so on.
Being attentive to one another is walking with a friend. The goal is not the person walking the dog, or the dog walking the human, but walking together – coordinated cooperation you can’t force with putting a rope or choke collar high around a dog’s neck. 

That is the ideal I am aiming for, and in my experience it is achievable with perseverance. However, there can be hurdles:
If your dog has a long history of reinforced pulling, progress can take time. Every person, at some point, experienced how hard it is to get rid of a habit, and it is not any different with a dog. 
Change is also more difficult with dogs that are outside a lot unsupervised, or let loose at the dog park as their primary form of activity. They are used to stimulation away from you and will not suddenly pay attention to you just because you put a leash on them. 
A pup corrected for following, common in the name of popular but misapplied boundary training, becomes uncertain about following. While working with a client at a local dog park, we met a 4-month-old Border collie puppy, the owner boasting how perfect her pup was - except that she won't come when called. 
She also explained that she, on day one, enticed the pup to follow, and then corrected her when she did. The owner referred to recall troubles, but my hunch is that pulling might also be an issue. 
For some people the loose leash protocol is impractical. Maybe you walk the kids to school each day, or maybe you love long walks, and it makes no sense leaving the dog at home. Perhaps there isn’t enough time in your day for both training and exercising, and maybe you don’t mind a tight leash all that much, because then you can see what your dog is up to, and you don’t drip over it. 

Truth is that people live in the real world, not a theoretical concept however effective it may be. So, if managing works best for you, that’s okay. A front clip body harness gives you decent physical control and, unlike aversive gear, makes the walk pleasurable for your dog as well. Remember, you can force your dog next to you with certain tools, but you can’t force how she feels about you. My favorite is the Freedom Harness, and there are suppliers in many cities. 
Still, don’t skip training altogether. It is good mental stimulation, you are working on the connection you ultimately want, and in time leash manners will improve. Using distinct walking gear: The harness for “free-dog” walks when you’d put up with some pulling, and a flat collar for “training” walks when you strictly enforce the loose leash, can expedite progress. 

There is one more reason why a dog pulls: Anxiety. Merely being outside can feel scary for some dogs even without the fear triggers present. The dog is aroused and tries to flee before something really bad happens. She pulls regardless which direction you are going, and often harder toward the car or home, the familiar refuge she wants to get back to. 
Other signs that your dog might be agoraphobic are frantic sniffing and/or excessive marking and/or over-reaction, barking and lunging, when a specific stimulus is in the vicinity – a stimulus seemingly benign to you.  
If this reads like the reason your dog pulls, I recommend you consult with an experienced, force free behavior specialist. There is a solution for that too, but it can be complex and multi-faceted, and addressing it the wrong way can make matters worse.