Sunday, January 31, 2010

Non-Food Rewards

Anyone reading the advice I give on training would be forgiven for thinking that I depend 100% on food for rewarding my dogs.  But while I do use food quite a bit in training new behavior, the real reason I emphasize it so much in writing is because it's a safe bet that anyone's dog will respond to food.  It takes a jaded dog indeed to turn down warm chicken or sirloin.  However, I do use "life rewards" for behavior - in short, in return for good behavior, I let the dog do whatever it wants to do at that moment.

For instance, I'm trying to get Trooper Thorn and BeBop to do their Sits and Downs more promptly with less reluctance.  Now, part of that, of course, is just practicing more with clicks and treats.  But I'm making better progress using "life rewards".  Along walks, whenever I see that one of them wants to go sniff something and check it out, I ask them for a Sit or Down.  I make sure that I do it in a light hearted voice, not stern. And at first, I was falling into the bad habit of "making" them give me their attention if they were slow - touching them, a tug with the leash, a "Hey!"  Bad, Hudson!  Bad!  Luckily, I caught myself, and now the worst that happens if they don't give me a Sit or Down, or take terribly long to do it, is that we move on without them getting the chance to sniff.   No punishments!  Only the missed chance for a reward.

And lo and behold, I am noticing a marked improvement in the speed of their responses.  Not lightning fast yet, but it's only been a few days.  But much prompter than when we started.  They're starting to pair the behaviors with good things.

So, this is the advantage of non-food rewards - you always have them.  You're never without your treat bag.  You don't have to worry about your dog only performing when you have food.  Because, trust me, there is always something your dog wants, even if its just to go roll in that smelly spot in the grass.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Pitfalls of Punishment

My two dogs, Trooper Thorn and BeBop, have had to put up with being the Guinea pigs for everything I learned - and had to unlearn - about training.  Once upon a time, I trained them with Cesar Milan-esque methods: light leash pops delivered at the exact moment that bad behavior started.  This was usually no more than a furrowed brow or a stare as a precursor to bigger behavior, which the leash pop headed off.  I also got into the habit of getting their attention when training basic obedience (sit, down) by giving them a light pop if they hesitated or let their attention wander.

Later on, after I learned positive reinforcement methods, I began training them in much more complicated behaviors - circling left or right, walking backwards, kneeling, crawling, fetching, etc.

Now, here's the odd thing: all those complicated behaviors?  They respond to those with eagerness and verve.  But "Sit" and "Down," the simplest behaviors?  They do those very slowly and grudgingly.

Of course, it's not so odd after all.  "Sit" and "Down" were paired with punishment - the leash pop they'd get when they were slow or let their attention wander.  Is it any wonder that they're not eager to do something that so often made them uncomfortable?  Yes, they'll do it, but they won't like it.  The other behaviors were paired with rewards, treats for getting things right.  Those behaviors they find fun and snap right to them.

I have decided to get off my butt and see if I can finally correct the damage I did with Sit and Down, if I can turn them into a more positive experience for my boys.  But the truth is that I may never be able to get them to enjoy doing those fully.

And that right there is why you don't use punishment to train dogs - because the best you can hope for is grudging compliance.  Punishment can make a dog obey, but it can never make it eager to perform, and isn't that what you really want?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Lost Your Dog? Something you should know.

A colleague lost his dog recently when it jumped his fence.  After a harrowing day for both owner and dog, that ended with the dog being hit by a car and breaking a leg, everything is working out okay.  However, there are a few lessons all dog owners can learn from his ordeal.


I'm going to discard my calm and collected professional demeanor for a moment, and say that every time I see a dog without any sort of identifying tag on its collar, I want to strangle its owner until their eyes pop out of their head.  A personalized dog tag with your phone number on it costs FIVE LOUSY DOLLARS at PetCo.  There is NO excuse not to have one.  If your dog doesn't have one on it right now, you're being a bad owner.  Go out now and get one, no excuses.  Being microchipped is not enough - that will get your dog to you if it is picked up by Animal Control or taken to a vet, but if your dog has a tag with your contact information on it, it is far more likely to make it back to you just from a friendly stranger.  And every day your dog is loose free is another day to get hurt or stolen.

Now, my friend knew this, and had a tag for his dog.  But his dog had a "normal collar" and a "training collar."  The normal collar had a tag, the training collar didn't.  (And the chip in the dog had outdated information about a previous owner.)  And my friend had to rush to work after a training session and didn't switch the collar.  Guess when his dog decided to run away?  Which brings me to my second point.


I see people without tags on their dogs, and they'll tell me, "We put one on him when we go out."  Guess what?  Your dog will not run away when you expect her to.  If there is a time that you do not have a tag on your dog, that is when she will run away.   It does not matter that you closed the gate or left her inside.  A meter man will open the gate while you are gone.  Maybe your house will be robbed and the burglar leaves the door open.  You cannot control the world - the unexpected WILL happen.  Be prepared.  Have the tag on your dog.  Have current pictures of your dog you can use on fliers.  Be prepared!


If your dog is hit by a car and injured and taken to a city or county animal shelter, do you know how much time you have?   Most will euthanize your dog within twenty-four hours if it is injured.  Think about that.  Let's say your dog gets loose and is running free somewhere.  You call the shelter, but it hasn't been picked up and so they don't have it.  Then, the next day, he gets hit by a car, is injured, and taken to the shelter.  Unless you think to call again, even though you just called yesterday, they will euthanize him within the day.

This is sadly just a reality of the restrictions animal shelters work under.  Money spent to treat a single injured animal could be used to house and feed dozens of others.  I wish forty-eight hours was at least the standard, and in some places maybe it is, but you cannot count on that.

On top of that, my friend almost didn't find out his dog was at the shelter even when he did call - they had a policy of requiring a person to come down to identify a dog.  Luckily, he was able to get someone on the phone who wasn't a completely jaded bureaucrat and recognized his description of his dog, but it was a VERY close call.

Sorry to use scare tactics, but it is a scary thing.  Hopefully, your dog will never get loose and run away.  But a little forethought and a little knowledge about your city's animal policies can go a long way.

(My friend's dog was found on the side of the road by an unidentified woman who drove it to multiple vets trying to find someone to care for it before finally taking it to the shelter and never left her name.  After my friend got his dog back, he and his vet managed to find a specialist who could do surgery to repair the leg, and the dog is resting and healing nicely.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

More reader questions: My dog is afraid of scissors!

J.C. asks:

My dog's acquired a fear of scissors from somewhere - he was about six months old when we got him, a terrier/Pekingnese cross (we think.) He has long hair that easily gets matted, and while we can take him to the groomer, I'd like to be able to trim little tufts and the suchlike every so often to prevent them getting worse. He doesn't mind being combed, but squirms like a mad thing as soon as he sees scissors. Any suggestions?
Yep. You'll need to set aside a bunch of little sessions over a few days to help get your dog into a new state of mind, but it should be doable.  You'll be using classical conditioning to establish a positive, eager response to the scissors. 

Something like this, maybe.
  • First off, get a new pair of scissors to use.  One that looks as different as possible from any previous ones.  Gimmick it up if you need to - put a bow on it or something. Dogs are terrible generalizers.  Usually this is a pain, meaning you have to teach your dog the same trick in many different situations.  But in this case it will work for you, as he's less likely to have generalized to "all scissor-type things"

  • Now, get a big bag of awesome treats. I'm a big fan of Natural Balance rolls - available at all pet supply places and easy to cut up into bite sized bits.  But anything tasty and smelly should work, like cooked chicken pieces.  Don't skimp and use dry biscuits - you're trying to overcome a fear here, so you want to pull out all the stops.

  • In a calm environment, give him a quick peek at the scissors.  A second later, give him a treat and hid the scissors.  Wait a few seconds. Repeat: bring out the scissors, give a treat, hide the scissors. Repeat many times.  Make sure to vary the amount of time between appearances.  Basically, you're going for " SURPRISE!!! Treat-scissors!!!"

  • When he is visibly excited about the appearance of the scissors (tail wagging, smiling), move them closer and repeat the process. Move up to having them right in front of his face. (Take your time. This whole process may take 2-3 days of periodic 10-20 minute sessions.)

  • Now hold them right up to his nose and see if he'll sniff them or touch them with his nose. The moment he does, hey, treat!

  • Start touching him with the scissors, always treating after each touch. Again, be sure to vary the moments between touches. "C'mon, c'mon! Touch me with the scissors already! I want a treat!"

  • Once you've moved up to being able to touch him anywhere on his body and have him happy for it, back up a step.  Have him see the scissors in your hand and make a little "snip" motion with them - and treat.  Repeat, getting closer and closer, making little snip motions around his body (not touching him).

  • Once you're sure he's cool and happy with the snip-snip sound, and is eagerly awaiting his treat, time to back up a step again - now have him lie down while he sees the scissors in your hand and you're touching/holding him the way you would to groom him.  Repeat.

  • Now that he's cool with you holding him while making little snip-snip motions all around his body, go ahead and snip a TINY piece of hair.  Probably best to end that session there.

  • Next session, do some snip-snip motions, then snip a little piece of hair, then just some motions again.  Work up to more and more hair being cut.

  • Voila, you're cutting your dog's hair and he's thrilled. Start phasing out the treats, till maybe you're just giving him only one at the very end of a grooming session.

Here is a video of Jean Donaldson using a very similar technique to get a dog acclimatized to a Gentle Lead harness. In your case, it will probably take longer, because she's working from a blank slate (the dog has no previous emotional connection to the harness), while you have to overcome bad feelings. But the techniques and timing are the same.

Books every dog owner should have on their bookshelf

DFW asks:

"My girlfriend and I are looking at getting an English bulldog puppy at some point in the nearish future. While she grew up around dogs, I have never owned one. What's a good resource for learning how to be a good dog owner? I'd like to avoid bad habits on my part before they start. The dog would be a pure companion animal."

It doesn't take a lot of effort to learn the basics of good dog ownership.  Here's three books that I think cover the bases of how to establish a good relationship with your dog, understanding your dog (and yourself, too), and to train your dog.  If these are on your shelf, and you make a moderate effort to put them into practice, you've got your bases covered.

 "How to be the Leader of the Pack" by Patricial McConnel 

Super cheap and short. Teaches you how to have your dog's respect without resorting to force. 

The Other End of the Leash 

Also by Patricia McConnell. Also not really a training manual, but a fantastic book on how people and dogs' instincts both clash and work together. It's a great read, and just understanding so much of why both we and dogs act the way we do will make you a better dog owner.

The Power of Positive Dog Training, by Pat Miller

 This is a training book, and probably the best there is at both being accessible by newcomers and also being comprehensive. It's not short (~250 pages), but it's broken into easy to manage sections (training, chewing, housetraining, problem behaviors, etc), and provides a great week-by-week basic obedience syllabus for your puppy that covers all the important commands plus some fun tricks.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Q&A TIME: Dog Barking in the Backyard

F. S. asks:

Dunno how easy this one is to answer. We have a Black Lab/Cocker Spaniel named Trip and over last few months he has at night been barking at the back of our yard (it is on a hill so wooded past the yard). We think it is something has made a den there.

He's an indoor dog but is allowed into the backyard whenever he wants. He gets a mid-day/late-morning for a walk in a park for about a hour-and-half.

Now he has a quite loud bark so it is mainly we don't want to bother the neighbours. Is there any training techniques to stop him barking, or perhaps a deterrent from going to the very back of the yard (like how some scents keep animals away)?

First off, good job on the exercise, though it does remove my most common advice. Dogs that bark a lot in the backyard are often just suffering from boredom and excess energy because they don't get regular walks. That's not your case, though.

There's a few options you have here. First up is simple management: keeping Tripp away from the area that makes him bark. At a garden supply store or maybe a hardware store, you should be able to buy a cheap short wire fence that you just stick into the ground, and provide a barrier between him and the back of the yard. (This is dependent on whether he's likely to just jump over/barrel through, or if he'll respect it.)

The fence will allow you to control when Trip gets to the part of the yard that sets him to barking. And you'll want to let him into that part of the yard, because you're going to use that to teach him proper behavior, so that you don't have to use the little fence anymore...


Now, there's an interesting characteristic to training animals - if you train an animal to do something on command, it becomes less likely to do it without the command. This isn't fullproof - my dogs sit on command, but they also sit on their own. But I find it works well for barking. In short, if you want your dog to stop barking, sometimes the best method is to teach it to bark on command. Huh.

I'd take Trip (and a baggie of treats) out to the back fence where he likes to bark (and at the time he likes to bark), and say "Speak!" and wait for him to bark. Encourage him/get him worked up if you need to. When he does, say "Good boy!" and treat him. (If you're doing "clicker training," which I'll describe here soon, you'd click instead, but for now we'll just use "Good boy!")

Say "Speak" again and wait for a bark, then say "Good boy!" and treat. In short order, Trip should be barking right after you say, "Speak!" and then probably looking for his treat. Now you start varying the intervals between giving the command. Start with a few seconds, then work up to random lengths of time between a five seconds to a minute or more (this may take a few days). Do not get into the habit of repeating the command over and over if he doesn't bark right away! Wait at least 30 seconds before saying "Speak!" again. (Although, in the very beginning, you can go ahead and use body language to get him worked up enough to bark if necessary.)

Any time Trip barks when you haven't told him to, say "Nope!" and turn your back on him for 10 seconds. Ignore him completely. Then turn back around and continue the game.

You see what you're doing here? You're training Trip to bark when you say "Speak," and only when you say "Speak." Start working other parts of the yard, then inside.

When he's got this pretty good, within the first couple of days, start phasing out the treats. Say "Good boy!" but every so often, leave out the treat. Then only treat about every other time, then less and less often. Try to stay random. Eventually, you won't be treating at all except on very rare occasions just to surprise him.

Now, the stronger you build this command, the less likely he is to bark without it, but I'd be surprised if it was 100% - sometimes he's still going to hear something outside that fence and get to barking. So, let's build a couple of other behaviors on top of that.


If there's anything else that gets Trip to barking, let's use that to teach "Quiet." (For a lot of dogs, ringing the doorbell does the trick. You can either have a friend hang outside and ring your doorbell, or for about $15-20, you can buy a doorbell set from a hardware store and just ring that inside your living room.)

Whatever works, get Trip barking. After two or three barks, say "Quiet!" in a firm (not yelling), low voice. Now wait for him to stop barking. Don't do anything else while waiting. The moment he stops barking for a second, say "Good boy!" and give him a treat. Ring the doorbell again and repeat. Before long, Trip will stop barking when you say "Quiet" and then you treat him.

Don't make the session more than 5 minutes or so. You can have a few sessions through the day, but keep them all very short. He's barking because the sound stresses him a bit, and you don't want to make that worse.

Once he's got that down solidly (may take a few sessions), start saying "Quiet" softer and softer. Be consistent about saying it always after the first two barks. Probably, Trip will only ever bark twice after a while, because that's always when the command comes.

Eventually, you try not saying "Quiet," and see if Trip stops barking after just two barks. If so, praise him mightly and treat him. Give him a another try, and then quit that session and pick up later.

Start working the Quiet command from different parts of the house, or standing farther and farther away from Trip. Advance quickly, but in baby steps.

If you catch Trip barking at the back fence, grab a couple of treats and go to him and say, "Quiet." When he stops, say "Good boy" and treat. After a few times like that, he'll get the connection that "Quiet" in this context means the same thing as it did with the doorbell.


This one's pretty easy. Get some REALLY good treats - pieces of meatballs, or diced up steak. Call Trip from the other side of the room with a loud, friendly "Come!". As he comes towards you, turn partially away from him and move away from him, like you're starting a game of chase. As soon as he gets to you, give him the awesome treat and lots of praise.

Surprise him with this multiple times during the day. Furthermore, make an effort not to make a habit of calling him to you only when he has to stop doing something fun. If he's playing in the yard, call "Come!", give him a treat, and then immediately let him go back to playing. He will start coming to you much more responsively and eagerly.

Anytime you see him by the back fence, but he's not in a barking jag, call him to you and praise him and play with him and give him the awesome treat.

Just as with "Speak," phase out the treats slowly, but make sure to surprise him every so often with one.


If Trip is typical, within a couple of weeks, you can have a dog that
  • barks less because he thinks its only worth it to do it if he's asked to, 
  • knows that "Quiet" means he needs to stop barking if he wants any chance of a reward, 
  • and will come running to you when you call him away from the fence.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Far and away the most common complaint among dog owners is that their dog drags them along on the leash. "So, your dog's taking you for a walk, huh?" the wise guys say. Time to teach your dog to get with the program and start working as a team.

First off, you have to understand that walking nicely on a leash is a pretty unnatural thing for a dog. Their casual walking speed is much faster than ours, and their incredibly sensitive noses are much closer to the ground. In essence, we're telling them "Walk incredibly slowly and ignore everything interesting."

On top of that, most animals seem to really like actively resisting someone pulling on them. Push or pull on somebody and they automatically push or pull back. So, when you pull on a dog's leash, you're pretty much begging them to pull even harder. Obviously, that's a fool's game if you want the dog not to pull.

So, my recommendation for people who want their dog to stop pulling is

  1. Don't use a choke chain. For a dog that pulls, these can damage their trachea, and there's no real reason to use it. If you need something to help control your dog, see my suggestions below for alternative collars.

  2. Let the dog only have 2-3 feet of leash. Don't let them run out to the end of a 6' leash if they like to pull, and absolutely don't use a retractable leash. (More on that later.)

  3. Keep the hand holding the leash by your side, and make sure you have a good grip on it. Loop it around your hand if need be. I also recommend hooking a thumb into your pocket or belt to make sure your hand stays at your side even if the dog pulls. You're going to let your body do the talking, not your arms.

  4. When the dog pulls on the leash, STOP. Just dead stop in your tracks the very second you feel the leash tug in your hand.

  5. Your dog will pull for a few seconds, most likely. But at some point he will relax, or look back at you, or start to sit, or do something other than pull. The very second you feel that relaxation, start walking forward!

  6. Repeat #3 and #4. When you first start this, you WILL be stopping on almost every step, because the second you start moving, your dog will rush to the end of the leash, and you'll stop again. But I am confident that if you are consistent, then by the end of a block or two (which will take a long time to traverse), your dog will have gotten the message and will be pulling much much less.

  7. Start over on the next walk. It will feel like your dog will have forgotten everything. But if it took you 3 blocks to get your dog to stop pulling the first time, this time it may only take 2.8 blocks. And the next time, only 2.5 blocks. And so on, until - usually within 2-4 weeks - your dog will have learned that the best way to move forward is to never pull on the leash.

Some variations/tips:

  • If your dog doesn't seem inclined to relax once hitting the end of the leash, and is still pulling like mad 30 seconds or a minute later, try shuffling backwards just a few inches, pulling him back slightly. Your dog will break the pull in order to keep his balance, and that's the precise moment you start walking forward. Repeat.

  • Use the things that your dog is pulling towards as the reward for stopping the pull. That's an awkward sentence, so let me use an example. You're walking and your dog sees a squirrel up ahead and, BAM, hits the end of the leash trying to run towards it. You instantly dead stop. Your dog is frustrated, but eventually stops pulling for a moment - that's when you start slowly jogging towards the squirrel! Your dog will pull again and you'll stop. But every time he gives you some slack on that leash, you take him quickly even closer to the squirrel. The very thing that was making him pull turns into a VERY powerful incentive to keep the leash slack. This is called the "Premack Principle," and it's one of the most powerful dog training tools there is.

  • Don't forget to give your dog plenty of opportunities to sniff and pee - just make sure that you're doing the deciding. At many times on your walk, during one of those moments that your dog is not pulling (again, even if it's just for a third of a second), say "Check it out!" or "Go sniff!" and give him the full length of the leash to go sniff and pee on whatever is interesting to him. After a minute or so, say, "Let's go" and confidently start walking along again.


Choke Chains: No. They carry the chance of injury for the dog and offer no advantages that can't be done in a safer way.

Retractable Leashes: No. The tension in the retracting mechanism means the dog ALWAYS feels like you're pulling, so it will never learn to walk properly. On any medium or larger dog, they're incredibly unsafe for both other people, animals and the dog itself. If it full out charges to the end of the line, two things can happen. One, the cheap plastic of the locking/retracting mechanism breaks and the dog is loose, still charging at whatever it wanted to get. Two, the mechanism holds, and the dog is yanked back at the height of a full charge, probably suffering whiplash and other neck trauma. Just no.

Martingale Collars: These are like choke chains, but they are limited in how much they can constrict, so lessen the chance of injury. They come in all-cloth and part-chain versions:

If you absolutely feel you must give your dog "corrections" (sharp yanks on the chain to punish bad behavior), use these. However, I recommend not using corrections in most cases. More later.

Prong Collars:

Used to make pulling physically uncomfortable or even painful. Only use on extreme aggression cases. Consult a professional. These can easily end up heightening aggression, or causing it in dogs that weren't aggressive in the first place.

Premier Gentle Leader:

Excellent for very powerful dogs with which you can't simply stop and keep the dog in place. The Gentle Leader attaches the leash under the dog's snout, so that when the dog pulls, its head is pulled to the side and around, completely redirecting the dog's direction. Takes all the fun out of pulling. However, dogs pretty much hate having stuff on their faces, so you'll have to condition your dog to accept it. Plus people always think it's a muzzle and are wary of your dog. (It's not a muzzle - it doesn't restrict a dog's mouth at all.)

Warning - the Gentle Leader is NEVER to be used with sharp yanks or jerks on the leash. It is far too easy to injure the dog's neck with sudden movements. For that same reason, it is important that you only allow 2-3 feet of leash, so the dog can't rush forward and injure itself.

Premier Easy Walk Harness:

Again, the leash clips in front - this time in front of the chest - redirecting the dog if it tries to pull. The advantage is that dogs don't mind stuff around their chest and people won't act like your dog is muzzled. Also, doesn't present the possibility of cranking the neck like the Gentle Leader does. The disadvantage is that it doesn't give as much control or leverage. But for medium-sized dogs, or dogs that pull, but not ferociously so, this can be a great tool.