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DogRelations™ NYC dog training is really about positive reinforcement training in an enjoyable and life enriching way. This means giving your dog a clear understanding of behaviors you want to encourage while having fun and developing a close relationship. Dogs thrive on honest, direct and consistent communication, just like friends who completely trust and rely on one another.
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A few days ago as I was walking Zeldi (who is always ready to play with pretty much any dog) when we ran into a woman with her puppy. The puppy was happy and made overtures that clearly showed he wanted to play. But what did the woman do? She restricted the pup with the leash, trying to get him to sit and not “jump” and play.
The result was that she was annoyed, the pup was disappointed and confused, Zeldi was frustrated, and I could not help but think: What signal is this puppy getting?
Aside from being unreasonable about her desire to have the puppy sit: she was also teaching the puppy that playing with other dogs is not desirable. Tensing the leash and forcing him into a sit by pulling the leash could cause the dog not only to think it’s a bad idea to play but that the pup could interpret the nervousness from his human as a signal that something is “wrong” and “be wary of other dogs”. In fact, this person could be creating a leash aggressive dog.
There is a time to teach and there is a time to play. Jumping around is part of play. Why stifle that? Why all of a sudden was it important for that woman to assert her “no jumping” rule?
Puppy manners are really important, I would be the first person to endorse civilized behavior. But we also have to realize that we cannot stifle our puppies’ needs.
As we teach our dogs we also have to allow them the space and time to learn in circumstances that are conducive to learning and paying attention. Let’s help puppies by manipulating the environment in such a way that makes it easy for them to understand the behaviors we are looking for at that moment. Then, once the puppy truly understands and is successful in a highly controlled circumstance we can add distractions and see if the puppy can still focus and perform. It is all a great game.
But we humans have to be reasonable. If you kind of know it would be futile to ask for something in a highly distracting circumstance, don’t even try. You are setting yourself and your dog up for failure.
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Imagine how you would feel if all you were told was: “This is wrong! Try again!” If you do not give any additional information what are the chances of the next trial being more successful? The chances of getting the next attempt “right” are pretty much close to zero.
I had a tutor once who was supposed to help me translate Latin texts. As soon as I was ready to translate my work, he would ask, “Are you absolutely sure this is going to be the correct answer?” And I would answer, “Well I am pretty sure, but I can’t be absolutely positive.” And so then he would tell me to be quiet until I was absolutely sure. Obviously not much was uttered in these sessions. I was pretty good at Latin and usually my answers were right, I never uttered a word because of the pressure.
Positive encouragement and a safe space to make mistakes makes a huge difference in the learning process.
In one of Karen Pryor’s books, she talks about meeting a couple of Labrador Retrievers who were perfectly behaved dogs. They had a history of aversive training and all initiative had been corrected out of them. They never did anything. Wonderful?
Frankly I don’t want my dogs to be too afraid to try something.
I recently encountered two other cases of dogs that had a history of aversive training and all initiative had been corrected out of them. Except they had been scared so badly that aside from becoming fearful to the point of being aggressive in certain situations, they did not even have the confidence to follow directions.
I felt particularly bad for one German Shepherd who came from a breeder who “trained” him for a year with a shock collar, a prong collar, and various other cruel means. The German Shepard was structurally damaged on top of being psychologically scarred.
I started to work on restoring his trust, if he ever had trust. The exercise was simple enough: I asked him to go settle on his bed. I pointed, guided and rewarded him each time. Usually a dog can figure this game out after a few reps, but not this dog. It wasn’t because he didn’t understand; it was because he was too afraid to take the leap of faith and risk being punished. Finally after a couple of sessions he mustered up enough courage to do it! It was a wonderful breakthrough for him and we celebrated.
My fervent wish is to raise awareness of how much psychological damage is done by baseless physical and emotional abuse. I recall a conversation with someone who told me, “I used the shock collar and it worked for a while, but now I cannot even touch my own dog and I am afraid of him.” That is major fallout.
We’ve learned about “punishment or correction” in theory, and the negative side effects, but to experience it first hand is far more troubling. Don’t let it come to that!
When teaching a new skill, we usually teach it through successive approximations. It’s like going from a rough sketch to a detailed painting. I have talked previously about comparing behaviors to a picture you have in your mind, then refining the image in successive approximations until you get the exact picture and thus ultimate understanding by the dog of what your mental image actually looks like.
For example if I teach the dog to offer a sit, at first I might not care where the dog sits or how long the dog sits but over time I can communicate quite precisely when and where I want the dog to sit in relationship to me.
What I would like to discuss here is that in order for the dog to learn a more refined understanding you must keep asking more and more of the dog. But in the process, you will definitely have more success if you allow the dog an easy answer in between making the puzzle harder and harder all the time. It makes the atmosphere more relaxed. If all of a sudden, it’s easier to guess right the dog as we ourselves do, gets the feeling “Oh that’s child’s play! Ha, no brainer!” I am sure that you have had an experience like this yourself.
So, if you decide to mix the easy “pong” into the learning experience the dog will feel encouraged and then gladly try to sit longer or closer or facing in a different direction. Rather than expecting the learning curve to ascend in a straight line, allow the variation that happens naturally and use the “ping-pong” effect.
Recently I watched an online seminar by Laura Monaco-Torelli, who specializes in teaching animals to accept so called “husbandry” procedures voluntarily. Anything from allowing the human to administer ear drops, accepting needle pokes/injections, having their blood pressure taken or getting weighed at the vet’s office. She actually applied the ping-pong effect in that process which was really interesting and informative to me.
One of the important reward factors that we tend to neglect are “space” and “time”. We tend to use mostly desensitization and counter conditioning to habituate dogs to certain scary or unpleasant procedures, not paying enough attention to those two strong reinforcements, namely space and time.
Let’s take the example of the dreaded nail clipping:
One day, for no apparent reason, my adolescent puppy would run away just when I touched the bag in the closet where the nail clipper is kept. When she was a puppy she let me clip her nails and I made sure that she was always rewarded. She never had an accident with the clipper, never any pain associated with the nail clipping that was apparent, but all of a sudden, she decided she hated the nail clipper. So much for puppy training.
After watching Laura’s webinar I told myself that I should be able to handle this dammit. First, I would go to the closet, open it and not take out the clipper, then reward her. That took no time whatsoever. Then I started taking the nail clipper out completely out of context. I would slowly move, allow her to look at the clipper and then reward her, paying attention to the fact that I presented the nail clipper FIRST and then the treat. I did not want to “lure” her with a treat to “let me” touch her with the clipper because, as we have learned in the past the treat becomes a predictor for a nail clipper appearing and thus gets devalued really fast.
After very few repetitions she was comfortable enough to settle down and allow me to touch her feet briefly with the nail clipper. However, I would not hold her paw and would allow her to withdraw the paw when she felt ambiguous. I would WAIT her out until she was ready to present the paw again. And here I think is the key point: to show her that the nail clipper might look scary but does no harm, I would touch her flank with the clipper and reward. Then touch another part of her body and then go back to the paw. I see this as an equivalent to the ping-pong of making it harder and easier intermittently. All of my movements were slow and I stayed calm. I did not put time pressure on her or myself! Time and space = reassurance for both of us.
Rather sooner than I expected she allowed me to clasp the nail with the blades of the clipper. I still didn’t actually clip. Then, after returning to other body parts I felt that she was not afraid of the clipper. I then opened and closed the clipper so she could hear the sound a couple of times. Again, the high value treat followed this. Finally, we both felt calm and confident, I closed the clipper around the nail and actually clipped! I gave her calm but intense praise and a high value reward. But I did not stop there: I did another “mock” clip and rewarded her greatly for that (NOW: HOW EASY WAS THAT?!!) and then she was done!
A few days later, I was brushing her. I showed her the nail clipper… presenting them very slowly. No adverse reaction from her! We went through a couple of mock trials, I went to clip her dew claw and it was EASY!!!!
Now don’t you think the 15 minutes I invested in the nail clipping exercise was worth it? Compare the time involved in solving the problem and weigh it against a lifetime of dreading the nail clipping.
A little patience goes a long way and is a million times better than the quick and dirty; one person restraining the dog and the other person nervously fumbling around to cut the nail as quickly as possible. So much was achieved by allowing the PING-PONG effect to do its magic!
Let me just say that the word “treat’ implies that there is something particularly special about the quality or the palatability or the salience. Remember that “treat” also can be an experience that is pleasurable. In the life of your dog that could be a great game, a cuddle or a belly scratch, a ride in the car or going to the pet store.
Food rewards are a very obvious way of marking a behavior because it’s practically impossible for the dog to misunderstand that it is a reward or pleasurable consequence for something they have just done. It also registers in a non- intellectual and instinctive way. The scientific label is that it is a “primal” reward. Primal meaning: it is necessary for sustaining life.
I will discuss “edible” treats here.
If you buy training treats: please read ingredients!!!
Most commercial small and soft treats have glycerin and undesirable preservatives in them even though the front of the package says ALL NATURAL or HEALTHY. Freeze dried raw meat or food patties are a much better option.
It is also a very good idea to notice which foods the dog adores and which ones are only moderately interesting to him.
Your dog will always appreciate food rewards but because the value of the food transfers into the activity that the food was associated with you will not depend on food. You only need it once in a while to keep the behavior alive, but that is food for thought for another post.
Jumping and barking are both highly self-reinforcing behaviors. In plain English that means that the activity is something a dog really enjoys, it feels good and hence the dog will be happy to bark and jump again and again. Correcting such a behavior is very difficult, mostly because it so easily turns into a game. From the dog’s point of view:
If you don’t want your dog to jump and/or bark for greetings, prevent it by being proactive:
This subject is likely top of mind for many people as the festive season approaches and we have more guests coming and going than usual. Practicing these steps with your dog will not only ensure polite holiday greetings but also a calm canine throughout the year!
In my mind, the definition of a reward would be a pleasant consequence for a behavior that one would like to teach or reinforce. Ok, so rewarded behaviors increase in frequency, I get it, I get it, there is no need to think any further. I hold a cookie for the dog and tell the dog to sit. The dog sits, I feed the cookie…end of story.
Well, not so fast! There are quite a few things that deserve consideration here.
The most common misunderstanding is the lure vs bribe scenario. Let me give you an example: When first teaching a puppy a basic behavior such as “sit” you might hold a cookie or a toy over his nose. As the puppy looks up to see what’s there he will most likely end up with his butt on the ground which is the behavior you wanted to elicit. You then feed the cookie or play with the toy. Perfect.
However, if in the process you don’t fade the cookie out once the dog begins to understand your hand motion and ping pong your rate of feeding, then the dog will ONLY sit if you have a cookie in your hand. You and the dog become dependent on the cookie and the cookie is a bribe. Your dog will expect the cookie or mistake the cookie as a signal to sit and will only sit when the cookie is present.
The second scenario and the more subtle but worse scenario is: You wave your cookie and call the dog. The dog runs to you and you lock the dog into the kitchen or end some other fun game he was just engaged in. Or you wave the cookie, the dog comes and you start clipping his nails. All of a sudden the cookie turns into a predictor of “something bad is about to happen” and devalues the “wow” effect the cookie had before.
It is therefore important to consider the consequences as well as the value of the reward. If you want to habituate a puppy to something the puppy is scared of or feels uncomfortable about, consider very carefully the order in which the reward appears. Be sure to present the “scary thing” (the harness, collar, the brush, the stairs, the injection needle) first and then give the reward for tolerating the object of discomfort for a fleeting moment or at a closer distance without recoiling. Only then can the dog be classically conditioned to understand injection needle = YAY roast beef!!!
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