Every dog trainer worth his or her salt will acknowledge that training is not all about successes…those missteps, mistakes, and goofs that everyone experiences are what often teach us the most. When I asked Sara Braverman (whose history with DVGRR dates back to our really early days) to share her favorite tips, she was kind enough to include those that have worked and those that have not. All are most instructive, as you will see!
Three of Each – Good and Not-so-Good Tips
Tipster: Sara Braverman, DVGRR First Vice President/Volunteer/Adopter
Let’s start with three valuable training tips that have been especially helpful for my dogs.
1) First, the “wait” command is one of the most useful ones my dogs know. They learn to pause when a door in the house opens – and with teenagers coming and going, this is not only useful but an important safety measure! I also use this command when opening up a car door; the dogs know to wait before jumping out. Since I often have multiple dogs with me, this is definitely another way to keep everyone safe. I practice “wait” on walks as well, both with a 6′ lead and with the long lead I use when hiking in the woods. I let the dogs walk out a bit ahead of me and then periodically call out “WAIT!” When the dog pauses and looks at me, I toss a treat at them. They quickly learn that “WAIT!” means a treat will be falling from the sky and this helps them remember to listen to the command when it is truly needed.
2) For young energetic dogs and untrained foster dogs, nothing beats a round of “puppy push-ups” at opportune times. When a dog is doing that “bored little kid thing” of wandering around the house, messing with the other dogs and cats, mouthing inappropriate items, and so on, I call them to me and we do a quick but intense session of sit/down/sit/down/sit/down…i.e., puppy push-ups! I’ll do a few other commands, then a second session of puppy push-ups. This usually serves to focus their minds and burn off some of the excess physical energy. Soon they are ready to go find a dog bone and settle down to relax – at least for a while!
3) It’s a simple concept, but one of the most important things people should remember is that we can reward a dog best by listening to him and understanding what he values. Just like with humans, what is rewarding for one dog may not be rewarding for another dog. Once we figure out what works for each canine family member, our interactions can become SO much more successful. The dog feels “heard” and gets a reward that is meaningful. We too feel “heard” and have fun training. Win-win.
Now for my mistakes. Wow, I have made so many along the way, but learned a great deal in doing so.
1) One of the biggest that comes to mind was my long-ago use of a prong collar. I was pregnant and had two young, strong Goldens who both pulled on lead. Later, walking with the baby in a Snugli or stroller, I still needed the dogs to walk without pulling so hard. At the time, choke collars were typically recommended by trainers and books. The prong collar had just come on the market and was being touted as the more “humane” device, because it didn’t put pressure against the dog’s trachea – it distributed even pressure around the dog’s entire neck instead. So I bought one and it did indeed keep my dog from pulling as hard. However, it also taught my eager, dog-friendly boy that if he pulled to say hi to a dog friend, he received a correction on his neck (and one that was not so “humane” after all). He soon started to become dog reactive (i.e., to lunge, bark, and growl at other dogs on leash), which could have escalated to a huge problem. I opted to get rid of the prong collar and never used one again….ever.
2) Another mistake that comes to mind is not fully understanding the importance of continuing to socialize dogs. I know now that this is an ongoing process throughout the dog’s life – we don’t just teach our pups to be brave and then cross it off our list. Rather, we need to keep introducing dogs to new and novel experiences –people, places, situations, other dogs – and showing them that the world is a good and safe place.
3) Lastly, the reactive dog lessons….so many! I have fostered and adopted several reactive dogs and made many mistakes with the first ones. For example, I used to get very tense when I saw another dog approaching, knowing that MY dog was going to make a fool of both of us. My solution? I tightened the leash, scolded him for bad behavior, and took fewer walks. Nope, didn’t help.
Since then, I have learned the power of a loose leash (even when a voice in your head is saying “uh-oh”) and how well a happy, chirpy tone can calm an anxious dog. I have learned the importance of timing with treats and praise and the need to walk a reactive dog every day. I have learned to use my body to physically block my dog’s line of vision between him and the other “scary” dog. I have learned to set aside my pride and not worry about observers judging me upon seeing my dog’s fearful, yet seemingly aggressive, behavior. Instead, I have learned to ask people for their help. I explain the problem and enlist them and their dog in helping me desensitize mine.
I now find it such a thrill to work with a reactive dog – to show him that there is a better way to react, and no reason to be afraid. My dog knows I am to be trusted and that I will keep them safe, as well as reward them for calmer behavior. I feel joy at having lessened the burden of their worries and find that we all look forward to outings now.
Note: Sara’s article on our website, “Thoughts from a ‘Reactive’ Dog,” contains more of her great insights on this topic. Well worth a read!
Learning and Unlearning
Tipster: Donna Baker, DVGRR Education and Community Awareness Manager
Conventional wisdom would suggest that “learning” is a good thing and “unlearning” is a problematic thing, right? Well….not always. For my own foray into this post, I’ll talk about times when just the opposite is true. Of course, I’ll use my favorite canine subject to illustrate my points…13.5 year old Alli (10-239), who currently shares my life, home, and sofa, and owns my heart.
Canine learning is of course a very complex subject, one that trainers, behaviorists, and pet owners can spend many years studying and shaping. One aspect you’ve probably heard about, however, is the concept of “variable reinforcement,” especially as it pertains to dogs learning new behaviors. The related concept is “continuous reinforcement.” Both of these concepts are key elements of positive, reward-based training techniques.
Essentially, when you start teaching your dog a new behavior, you’ll get the best results by rewarding each and every time the dog performs the behavior. Dog sits, dog gets a treat. Dog sits again, dog gets a second treat. Dog sits a third time, dog gets a third treat. Receiving the treat (or any other kind of positive reinforcement) helps the dog learn what behavior is desired and what earns him or her the reward. This is continuous reinforcement.
Eventually, of course, you want to get to the point where treats aren’t as necessary to still elicit the behavior. If you just stopped giving treats/other reinforcement “cold turkey,” your dog would probably decide very quickly he’s no longer interested in sitting on command. What’s in it for him?? BUT, if you start using variable reinforcement, i.e., sometimes giving the reward and sometimes not, the dog maintains interest in the activity because he knows the chance to earn the treat is still there….just not every time. And – important point here – the fact that the treat does not come every time actually increases the strength of the behavior.
[You’ve probably heard the analogy of variable reinforcement being akin to the psychological appeal of slot machines – and that is indeed a great way of looking at it! Here’s one writer’s take on the candy machine versus the slot machine concept. ]
So what’s the downside here? Well, just as you can use variable reinforcement to intentionally strengthen the likelihood of a dog performing a desired behavior, you can also use it to unintentionally strengthen an undesired behavior. And here’s where Ms. Alli comes in…or really where her errant owner comes in (me).
Like most Goldens, Alli has the “nose nudge” down to a science. Actually in her case, it’s more like a “whole upper body nudge.” I’ve never captured in it in a picture but she’ll come over to where I’m sitting, climb halfway up so her front legs are on my lap, tilt her head and neck, raise one dainty but lethal paw, and swipe at me…HARD. Multiple times if necessary. Sound familiar?? I call it her “pushy broad” routine and I’ve yet to figure out what it always means. Clearly there are times when it means, “Mom, bathroom emergency!” but more often it’s Alli-speak for “I’m bored – pay attention to me,” “I’d like a cookie, please,” “Are you going to stare at that computer screen ALL night?” or “Ah-hem, you forgot to make my Kong again!” It can be cute, but honestly, it’s pretty annoying most of the time.
Trouble is, sometimes I turn away and ignore the behavior (if I’m really busy and sure it’s not related to a potty break), but other times I give in, get up, and resignedly deliver the cookie or the Kong or that attention she wants. Hmmmm….sure sounds like variable reinforcement, doesn’t it? Indeed it is, and what I’m unfortunately doing is ensuring that Alli’s “pushy broad” behavior (one I would prefer to see diminish) will instead continue as a major part of her communication repertoire. And why not? She’s learned that probably 60% of the time that paw swipe works, courtesy of her lowly human servant’s lack of consistency. So in this case, “learning” is not necessarily a good thing! Still sounding familiar???
Here is another basic but very useful article about variable reinforcement from one of my favorite authors, Kathy Sdao: “Dogs as Gamblers” As Kathy notes, “This type of unpredictable reward in return for a relatively low-cost behavioral investment can create intensely persistent habits.” Just be sure the habits are ones you want to encourage in your dog!
Now that I’ve shared one of my training foibles, let me talk about one of my successes. Alli (and Morgan before her) have taught me a lot about how to use “unlearning” in a positive way. By working though some of Alli and Morgan’s behavior challenges, I’ve become a big fan of “counter conditioning” as a training technique. I didn’t fully understand this term or the process behind it at first, and find that many other dog owners, both novice and more experienced, lack full comprehension as well.
In reality, the concept is quite simple – it essentially involves changing the dog’s negative association to something into a positive (or at least neutral) association. Here is a great definition from WebMD:
To “condition” means to teach, and to “counter” means to change. So counterconditioning just means to re-teach the pet to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked. We do this by associating the feared thing with something good so that it predicts good things for the animal. As soon as the dog or cat sees the thing, we give him a delicious treat to create a pleasant emotional reaction. Over many repetitions, the animal learns that whenever that thing appears, good things happen! Eventually, the process produces a neutral or positive emotional reaction to the sight of the previously feared or disliked person, animal, event, place or object.
So you can see why I think of this as “unlearning,” in that the dog is “unlearning” the previously negative or fearful association to whatever it is we are trying to counter condition. Seen in this context, “unlearning” becomes a desirable outcome.
With Alli, I’ve used this technique to help her gain a higher comfort level with grooming. When Alli first came into DVGRR’s program, she was very leery of being touched in certain places and needed to be muzzled for her pre-adoption grooming. After she became “Alli Baker,” I was determined to make grooming less of an unpleasant, upsetting experience for her. Ideally, I wanted grooming to be something she enjoyed, but decided I would be happy with simply getting her to tolerate it more comfortably.
I now have Alli groomed every few months by my colleague Heather Hatt and we’ve made very good progress – no muzzle is needed and only rarely does Alli object to Heather touching, brushing, or trimming her. We’ve used a variety of techniques to help achieve this improvement, but in my opinion counter conditioning has been the most essential factor.
To counter condition my feisty old lady to grooming, I’ve taught her that getting up on the grooming table and being brushed or trimmed means she will be allowed to lick peanut butter off of a spoon. Not just once, but multiple times during the session! This is a super special treat for her, so it serves to not only distract her from what Heather might be doing, but more importantly, show her that “good things happen” when she is on the grooming table.
I’ve also used other high value treats (“high value” meaning something extra yummy that isn’t on the usual daily menu), such as the Lickety Stik® product that dispenses meat-flavored liquid, for our counter conditioning purposes.* Oh, and during our last grooming session, I remembered there was half a left-over bagel in the Gateway kitchen so I used little pieces of bagel in addition to peanut butter. (Remember, this is a dog who will do anything for bread!!)
Now, I can’t say that Alli really loves or looks forward to grooming (in fact, she tends to give Heather the cold shoulder for a few days after one of her “spa” appointments), BUT it is definitely a less stressful and more positive experience for her than it used to be. (Which, of course, means it’s also less stressful and more positive for me! )
Here are some videos I found that help illustrate the technique of counter conditioning:
Handling and Grooming Counter Conditioning – McKenzie Lesson 1: On the long side but very well done and instructive. This trainer is using a much more intensive and step-by-step process than I have with Alli, with excellent results.
Jean Donaldson gets conditioned emotional response when fitting Gentle Leader: Great video showing how this well-known trainer gets a dog to see the Gentle Leader as something highly desirable as opposed to something to avoid.
Pit Bull vs. vacuum cleaner: There are some things I might do differently in this video, but it shows how the trainer is getting the dog to associate the scary vacuum cleaner with yummy treats, thereby making it much less scary.
You can see that if done correctly and well, counter conditioning may take a lot of patience and time – it’s not usually a “quick fix” but it’s well worth putting in that time to see the change in your dog! For more detailed reading on counter conditioning, I like this article by Jolanta Benal, otherwise known as the Quick and Dirty Dog Trainer. She is one of my favorites.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this two-part post on training tips and I’d love to hear some of yours. Happy training!