Thursday, May 6, 2010


I had a great bit of serendipity the other day with a client.  I'm helping them train their mastiff, Madison.  Madison is a great huge beast of a dog, and a total lover.  But she has some slight timidity issues that sometimes result in her barking or growling.  Pretty minor, but given her size, and that her owners would like her to be a Therapy Dog (which she totally will be, she was born for it), it is definitely something to address.

I wanted her owners to know how a dog naturally responds to something that scares it, and I actually demonstrated by playing the role of the dog.  A dog, upon seeing something that startles or scares it, will back away very quickly and then check things out from a distance.  Then it will circle around and approach from another direction.  Usually it will back away again before getting all the way close.  After a few seconds of checking things out from a distance, it will circle in, getting even closer.  Eventually, it will get to within sniffing/touching distance - and then run away again.  Typically, when it approaches again after that time, that is when it has finally decided to be comfortable with the new thing.

(It is on that second-to-last approach, where the dog first gets close enough to touch, that most people blow it and try to pet a dog that is afraid of them.  That was really just a test to see if you could be trusted to stay cool and not move.  By trying to get too friendly too fast, you fail the test.  Wait a little bit longer for the dog to come back to you and then hang out on its own.  Then you can give a little scratch under the chin.)

So, I had gone through this whole comical pantomime of acting like a dog, and I could see the owner sort of got it.  And then I had my stroke of luck - while we were talking, Madison, giant 100 lb mastiff, was startled by a grasshopper!  And right there in front of us, Madison proceeded to reenact everything I had just done.  She jumped back away from the grasshopper.  She circled around and approached it again, and then jumped back.  She circled and tried again.  And then, after a couple more cautious approaches, she sniffed it - and then walked away unconcerned.

Other than being hilarious, there was a valuable lesson in all of that.   It is usually our own clumsy use of leashes and fences that create problem anxiety in our dogs.   If you give a dog freedom to deal with fear on its own, without trying to force it closer or farther away or impose your will on it, a dog will work through things on its own quite well.  Even grasshoppers, the mastiff's mortal enemy.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Positive reinforcement as a training method is not *just* giving treats for good behavior. There is a precise methodology to it, developed by B.F. Skinner, refined by Marian and Keller Breland and generations of trainers since.

In order to get an animal working as hard and eagerly as possible for you, the rewards should be, surprisingly, small. Instantly digestible treats that the animal enjoys, but leave wanting more. They should come only when the desired behavior is performed; if the animal can get the treats in other ways, they won’t have as much incentive to do what you want them to.

Most importantly, the treats should not come regularly, but in what we call an “Intermittent Reinforcement Schedule” - in other words, in a random, unpredictable manner. If the treats come every time, the animal will feel free to slack off, confident that it can always get more treats later. If the treats aren’t constant, but are predicable, the animal will learn to not bother when treats are unlikely, and only try when they’re likely to come. So they must be moderately rare, and unpredicatable.

My iPhone is the best positive reinforcement trainer I’ve ever met.

Its treats are email messages, texts and Facebook updates. They’re all very small and instantly consumed (mentally). They only come if I check my phone. But they don’t come every time I check my phone.

What’s the result? My phone has trained to check in with it over and over throughout the day. I would actually hate for someone to actually do a count of how often I check it. And that’s with me knowing that I’m being trained, and how. When I look at many other people, reflexively checking their phones in the middle of conversations, conversations in which they are interested and engaged, I am in awe of the power of positive reinforcement as a training tool. Truly, we must use this power only for good. Unlike the gaming industry.



We’ve all seen them, the tiny dog being carried around like a fashion accessory or a teddy bear surrogate. Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, Shih Tzus, and so on. “Aren’t they adorable?” people coo. And yes, they are cute little guys. Until you reach out to pet one and it tries to snap your finger off. Or barks like its having a fit at any one who walks by while the owner sits sipping their latte outside the coffee shop, only stopping when it is picked up once again into its owner’s protective embrace.

And that right there is the problem. Stop picking up your dog! You’re not doing him any favors. And you’re spreading the misconception that all little dog are yappy, neurotic messes. Which just isn’t true. I’ve known many calm and assured Chihuahuas. But you want to know what the common denominator was between all of them? They weren’t carried around - they walked on a leash by their owner just like any larger dog.

Which is the answer. Treat your toy dog like it was a full sized Labrador. Stop protecting it from the world. Stop cuddling it to you all the time. Let it get out in the world and sniff around. Let it be afraid every once in a while - and then let it get over that fear. Don’t let it get away with barking or growling just because its small - that sort of behavior would be terrifying in a larger dog, and it should be no more acceptable just because it comes from a small one.

I met an actress with two Pomeranians that were giving her problems - they were totally un-housetrained and undisciplined. When I outlined a few basics for her - such as crating them overnight so they couldn’t pee freely in her house overnight, and feeding them just twice a day to control when they would eliminate - she looked at me aghast. “They can’t hold it all night! They can’t go the whole day between feedings!” Luckily, I was currently being a trainer on a movie set with several trained Chihuahuas, and I was able to simply turn to one of their owners and say, “Can you dog, smaller than her Pomeranians, hold it all night? Go several hours without food?” “Of course, they can,” was the answer.

I turned to the actress and explained, “Your dogs, as cute as they are, are the proud descendents of wolves. It’s time you started treating them accordingly.” I’m pretty sure she didn’t listen, but if we all spread the word, maybe other people will. And Chihuahuas and Pomeranians and Shih Tzus and Yorkshire Terriers can all stop being overcoddled toys and learn to be calm, confident dogs.