The Bond Fostered by Training

I was on Facebook last week, and saw that one of my close friends had made the decision not to have one of her elderly dogs operated on to attempt to remove a cancerous mass from her leg.  Now it became abundantly clear why a few days earlier, that same friend was asking how well a dog can cope with only three legs, and how long recovery might take.  Only this time I knew which of her dogs she was talking about, so not only did I really feel for my friend and her special dog – I was hit pretty hard too.

You see, when I was “dog-less” for twelve months or so before bringing Inka home (and starting this blog), my friend would lend me one or another of her dogs to take to classes and train, and I felt honoured that my first “surrogate dog” was my friends’ very special sable collie.  Born with a form of diabetes and rejected by her mother, my friend raised her and hand-fed her.  When I first met her she was 11 years old, although I assumed she was around 5 or 6 – such was her love of people and vigour for life.

My friend and her dogs were there for me at a time when I really needed them, and after being snuggled back to having a dry face again by Starr and Inka, I realised that it was more than this reason, and empathy for my friend, that caused my sadness and tears.  Even though we spent the majority of our time together in class training, and very rarely “hung out” like we all do with our own dogs, the thought of this special girl passing is upsetting to me on a personal level because of the bond formed between us by clicker training.

I have read a number of times about the bond that is formed through the use of positive reinforcement training, and from experience I know this to be true – with some of my friends’ dogs, with dogs at the shelter I volunteered at, as well as dogs who have come in to classes I’ve assisted in.  But this is a very special, wonderful girl who has touched the life of a close friend of mine, and also helped my friend to help lots of dogs, furthermore she was a joy for anyone to meet; her life is and will continue to be celebrated by many, and it is for that reason that I wanted to share this poem:

I am standing upon the seashore.  A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze, and starts for the blue ocean.  She is an object of beauty & strength, and I stand and watch until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.  Then someone at my side says, “There!  She’s gone.”  Gone where?  Gone from my sight – that is all.  She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination.  Her diminished size is in me, not in her; just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There, she’s gone,” there are other eyes watching her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “There she comes!”  And that is dying. – anonymous

 

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After a hectic weekend of surprise sunshine, broken washing machines & the ensuing panic this week’s (fortnight’s?) blog post is a little late.  It’s either proof I shouldn’t work to a schedule, or proof I need to be more organised!

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“Instead of measuring a relationship with an animal by it’s “cheapness”, it should be measured instead by the amount of trust the animal holds”

People often say that training a dog using food and/or toys as reinforcers can and does “cheapen” the bond of a human-animal team.  What these people don’t realise is that there isn’t a team without some form of reinforcement for each potential member of that team.

Perhaps this makes more sense to me because I have ‘special’ dogs, who need someone in their life they can trust after a hard start; perhaps it makes sense to me because I’m interested in training my dogs in the quickest, most efficient, and least stressful way; or perhaps most people don’t really stop to think about this sort of thing (if that’s you, I think you should!).

I think the thing many people fail to realise is that dogs don’t actually come with a built-in desire to please humans – and let’s face it, not many humans do either!  Dogs are only “in it” for themselves, so if you can’t make it worth their while to do what you want, they’ll happily find something better to do.

Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonograph, ...

Would this be your dog?

Of course, there are a few options to choose from, but it boils down to two points: you can force your dog in to complying with your request; or you can show your dog that it’s worth his while to listen to you and do as you ask.

Yes, we know that whichever way you choose, your dog will be more likely to do as you ask but why use methods which intimidate, oppress, and diminish both the spirit of one half of your team, and the bond which holds your team together?

Why not use methods to build up your canine teammate, and strengthen your bond with each other, turning “working” with you, into “playing” with you?

After all, the only one who can show you the value of your “work” is your dog – so why not help him to see that value…?

Dogs on Drugs & The Book of Wonder

Starr started taking behavioural medication (AKA her “drugs”) during the second to last week in August of this year.  Since then she’s been both a wonderful brat, and a stressed little girlie; but I like to think that we’re starting to get somewhere with it all.

After she’d been on drugs for a week or so, I took a problem discussion point to the Facebook Recallers group and got so many wonderful, and brilliantly supportive comments from all around the Facebook Say Yes community.

I had used her tugging as an example of the way she seemed to be “losing drive” – she’d gone from a tugging maniac to a dog who could take it or leave it, even at home.

I got lots of great suggestions, and resources posted on my thread but most of all I was reminded to take it easy.

Starr, taking it easy (on the coffee table!)

I love my dogs, and would never push them into something they couldn’t cope with, but in wanting to unlock all that I know Starr can be, I wasn’t giving her the time she needs before she can give me her all and work alongside me.

I was rushing her, I realised, like a pushy-pageant-mom.

This did not make me happy, so we stopped.  I’ve stopped worrying that she’s mostly “untrained”, and I’ve stopped worrying that she doesn’t really enjoy training (yet – hopefully!), and we’re just going to play, have fun, and worry about all that other stuff later.

One thing that’s helping me with this is writing down all the little things that Starr does, all her little “personal” wins.  Of course, I’ve noticed these things since last December, and I’ve been happy when she’s won at something new or difficult, but I’ve not been recording them, and that means I’ve been forgetting things, or mis-remembering them.  So I decided that I should start writing  down all the great things Starr does, so that I have a record of how brilliant she is that I can look back on – either when she’s having a “bad” day (to remind myself it’s not her “normal”); or when she’s winning lots of ribbons and trophies (to remind myself how far she’s come).

Enter “The Book of Wonder”.  This is a special notebook just for writing down all the things that Starr either does, or doesn’t do that make me proud, or help me to know know that she’s becoming less anxious/more confident.  Things like “didn’t bark at a delivery man”, or “willingly approached auntie June and didn’t flinch when she moved her hand towards Starr”.

I try and find something to write each day, but the nature of life means I might not always get the opportunity, although I know that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s not progressing (sometimes quite the opposite!).

This past couple of weeks, I’ve been thankful for having a such a wonderful support network – whether that’s people I see every day, or every week, or even just a couple of times a year, or if I may never actually see them in real life!  I’m also thankful for Susan Garrett, her brilliant courses and all the wonderful people they attract!

The Problems with Yellow…

I read a blog post last week that was a rather scathing attack on the both the YellowDog and SpaceDogs campaigns (they’re kind of the same thing, but with different names & sponsors etc). I didn’t read the full post – I couldn’t take too many glib comments from someone I believe should know better and could have been less subjective, so that’s what today’s post is for. As much as I think the concept is fantastic, it does have it’s downfalls, and I’m going to objectively discuss some of them.

Yellow ribbon

The two most obvious issues are: many people who should use the scheme won’t; and many people will misunderstand the idea behind the scheme. On top of that, people may use the scheme as an “excuse”, to take their fearful/reactive/badly or under-socialised dog out and about and think the yellow item will provide some sort of protective bubble to keep people away from their dog, and that they will never have to train or help their dog in any way.

So, who should use the “yellow schemes”? This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these schemes were set up primarily for people who have dogs who are: unwell but still able to leave their home without putting others in jeopardy; recovering from illness or surgery; deaf, blind, or both; dogs who are undergoing training for a lack of appropriate and/or plentiful early socialisation; and dogs who have become reactive (i.e. fearful) after an unpleasant encounter, most often with another dog.

Yellow users

Sadly, many people with dogs who come under one or more of these categories don’t want to admit their dog has a “problem”, and with the medical causes (notwithstanding deafness, and treatable blindness), what starts out as a behaviour because the dog is unwell, can end up becoming a learned behaviour that is rather rewarding for the dog to perform.

Besides people who should be using these schemes often not knowing a single thing about them; the next biggest block to them is some of the people who do use the schemes.

There will – sadly – be people who misuse the scheme. They’ll slap a yellow ribbon on their dog’s lead and take him to a busy pet superstore on a Saturday afternoon, potentially blaming other people and/or their dogs for “making” their dog react, when in reality their dog should be left at home, or should be closely supervised at all times – not to mention undergoing training. Some of these dogs and their families may just need a little help from a qualified behaviourist, and some may be happiest with a quiet life of interactive toys and naps at home while their family has outings.

Don’t get me wrong – I have yellow ribbons, and I do use them for Starr and Inka, but not all the time. If I know that we’re going somewhere and they’re unlikely to be of use, the ribbons stay home; and regardless of whether they have the ribbons on or not, they always have the lion’s share of my attention.

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In other news, yesterday was Inka’s “official” birthday, he turned three, and we marked two full years of him being part of our family.

In further “other” news, I’ve decided to take a blogging break for the summer. It’s not that I don’t have plenty of things to blog about, but this summer is shaping up to be a good one weather-wise, plus I have my Susan Garrett exercises to work on, as well as Denise Fenzi’s heeling courses; not to mention I need to get organised to take Starr to the vets to see about having her put on medication. If there is anything that needs shared I will – of course – share it, but otherwise enjoy your summer folks and I’ll see you in September!

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Shouting Does Not Modify Behaviour

I can’t believe I’ve actually just typed that, but after last week I feel that it needs saying – and sharing!

I was on leave last week, and with the weather the way it was, any time I spent at home all the windows were wide open.  Early in the week, a neighbour was having some work done on their house; and during the first day I heard one of the workers shout at Starr.  She’d been barking at all the strange, new noises the workers were making, and while it was a little annoying, as far as she was concerned she had good reason to be anxious and try to make the scary stuff go away and/or alert me.

That’s why, when I first heard her being shouted at to “shut up”, I responded in kind and shouted back “don’t shout at my dog”.  Aside from the fact that it’s not the job of a complete stranger to attempt to change my dog’s behaviour, it certainly is not up to anyone else but me how their behaviour will be modified; not to mention that with that one action the worker showed how little he knows about dogs and behaviour modification (yes – I know – pot/kettle!)

‘Shout!!!’ by Maciek Łempicki

The next day, when a similar thing occurred, I was otherwise occupied attempting to make pizza dough (and failing horribly!), once I’d washed my hands and had moved on to other – less involved – tasks, I kept an ear out for the man coming to get tools out of his van.  That was the problem today – he was to-ing and fro-ing between his van and his work, and every time he slid open the door to his van, that set Starr on edge and she would bark until he went away again.

This time, I did better – for Starr, for the workers, and for myself.  The next time I heard someone at the van, I went and spoke to him.  It turned out that I’d missed a second worker arriving, and it was actually him I spoke to – but I asked him to pass the message on, that shouting at my dog was doing her no favours; she was barking because the strange noises outside made her nervous, and the best way for them to help me help her was to ignore her and not respond in kind to her frantic shouting.

This did the trick, and while they unsettled Starr as they continued to work, they didn’t shout at her any more.

Result!

However, I can’t help but find it sad that in general people think shouting will stop or change a behaviour.

Here’s the deal: it won’t, at least not permanently.  If you’re lucky, you might come across as so terribly, horribly, scary that whoever you’re shouting at doesn’t want to be anywhere near you, and will just do nothing whenever you’re around.  More likely, however is that (to stick with the example), the dog will think you’re joining in – either on their side, or against them.  Whatever the reason the dog is barking is now secondary to the support or opposition the dog is barking along to.

As a stranger, it’s never your job to modify a dogs behaviour – unless you’re being paid as a professional to do so, in which case you wouldn’t be a stranger.  As an owner, it’s generally up to you to find out why your dog is barking, and mitigate that in an appropriate way, unless you’ve employed a professional to help you.

In our house, we use classical conditioning: scary noise outside = yummy treat.  We also have cues: a cue to bark, and one to stop.  These have worked wonderfully for Inka, and while he still barks at some things, he’s generally pretty cool with external noises, or being quiet when he’s asked to be.  Starr, on the other hand, isn’t doing so well with these, but that’s part of the story of why I’m considering behavioural drugs for her, which is an entirely different post!

How do you deal with excessive barking in your house?

 

Summer Time and the Weather is HOT!

We in the UK have been lucky enough to have some really lovely weather this past fortnight or so.

We’re quite lucky, living where we do there’s easy access to a lot of water – the sea is only a 5 minute drive away (although we go a little further to stay away from the crowds); and the nearest lake is only about 20 minutes away.

Obviously, when we go, we go later on in the evening so it’s cooler; but what can we do at home to keep our dogs cool – especially for those of us who aren’t lucky to live close to a body of water?

Luckily the below infographic was shared with me by TheUncommonDog.com, and I thought it’s worth passing around.

Some other things you can do to help keep your dog cool include: –

  • stuff and freeze a food carrier toy, such as a Kong, Orbee, or Tux, giving it to your dog when it’s frozen will help to cool them down, and give them a ‘mental workout’, meaning they won’t need as much physical exercise
  • walk your dog when it’s cool out, this is easier said than done – it’s already pretty warm in the mornings when I get up, and it’s still very close to, if not over, 20’C around 9pm
  • train your dog, on the days when it’s far too hot to go for a walk, doing some training at home will help your dog to use up some of their excess energy, and you don’t even have to train anything “fancy” – sits, downs, stays, and waits will have the same effect as leg weaves and other “tricks”
  • if you really must take your dog out in the heat, invest in a cool coat – there are a number of varieties available, from sun-reflecting material to various ones which you soak in cool water and wring out before use; Inka has one and it’s wonderful for him when we need to use it.

What about you – what do you do to help keep your dog cool in the heat?

NB: I have received no compensation from TheUncommonDog.com for writing this post and sharing their infographic, beside the knowledge that I’m helping other pet owners to be more aware of their furry family member’s needs in the heat.

Where We’re Going Wrong…

So, I’ve had some time to think this weekend, and I think I know where we’re going wrong when talking about dog packs and/or dominance:

Theory:

a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena: Einstein’s theory of relativity. Synonyms: principle, law, doctrine.
Hypothesis:

A tentative explanation for an observation, phenomenon, or scientific problem that can be tested by further investigation.
So you see – when talking about the now dis-proven dominance/pack dog training ideas, we shouldn’t be calling them theories, because they’re not; they’re hypotheses.
Learning theory, on the other hand, is a theory.

 

Be Your Dog’s Advocate This Summer

It’s officially summer time.  That wonderful time of year when we in the UK hope we will have long, warm, sunny days.

We daydream of walks at local beaches and lakes, or on hills and fells; we think of all the things we could do at the weekend: go to a local beauty spot, visit a nearby picturesque tourist town, take a day trip to an ancient wonder, sit in the beer garden of a local pub.

Many of us – when weather allows – will follow through with these plans; those of us with family dogs may also take them along for the trip when we’re going somewhere that welcomes them, sometimes a dog may be taken for a trip even when he’s going to be sitting in the car as the destination doesn’t allow pets.

But, wait – have you considered whether your dog would want to go?

When we have summer days out, we make a distinction: we either take Inka & Starr and go somewhere they’ll be happy going to (a quiet beach, a lake with a little used area, or similar); or we leave them at home and go somewhere they they are less likely to enjoy.

Sure, I’d love to be able to take them both to Keswick, or to local agricultural shows or fun days where I could enter them in the requisite dog show, and plenty of other places too; but knowing my dogs, I know that – at least for now – they wouldn’t enjoy that kind of atmosphere.  People everywhere, lots of noises, children who are neither trained nor leashed, and dogs who are leashed but often untrained are just some of the things we’d face.

Days out are supposed to be fun, and I know they wouldn’t enjoy that, just as I wouldn’t enjoy fending them off.

Yes, I could use it as a teaching opportunity for people who insist on doing “The Wrong Thing(s)” with other people’s dogs but why subject us all to that stress?  When I’m out with my dogs, I want to devote my time to them – not to ensuring the guy who “all dogs love” doesn’t put his clammy paws all over my obviously anxious dog(s); and I want us to have fun.  Running around a field is fun, running a gauntlet of people who are mostly clueless about dogs is not.

I love my dogs, and I show them that by sometimes leaving them home, even if I’d much rather take them with me and let them in on the fun. After all, who has fun when they’re worried, stressed, or anxious?

Starr enticing Inka to play at home, in her own special way…

 

Why is Recall So Important Anyway?

I know I’ve posted about recall before, but I love it! Whether I’m training, practising, or using that one special word; recalls are fantastic and they’re also one of my ‘markers’ as to whether I’m comfortable allowing an individual dog off lead in any given situation.

Even with my first dog, I knew that teaching a reliable recall was a very important thing, but it was only when I happened across Susan Garrett’s take on recall – as a way to evaluate your relationship with your dog – that it fell into place in my mind.

* If I’m going to allow my dog to have some off lead freedom, I must trust him 100% to come back to me when I ask
* That means that he must want to come back to me, even if I’m asking him to move away from something “really interesting” such as a rotting sheep carcass (yak!), or kids playing football
* If I want a reliable recall, then I need to define both ‘reliable’, and ‘recall’.
* I also must set specific criteria, and stick to them – what will my cue be, how many times will I say it, will I use a visual signal as well, what specific behaviour(s) will it elicit, and so on

So, first things first – define what I’m training, and set criteria:
Reliable: dependable, consistent, unfailing, steadfast, certain.
Recall: often used in terms of memory – remind, recollect, evoke; also used when quality control issues affect one or more of a company’s products – e.g. “there was a recall on yoghurts”. In dog training, recall is the set of behaviours the dog performs when you call him or her to you. Exactly how fast, how close, and so on are part of your criteria.

My criteria
My dog’s recall behaviour will involve:
* Responding as soon as I say his cue, on the first time I say it (that quick response may one day save his life)
* Turning and moving away from whatever he is engaged or interested in
* Locating me, usually visually – though if he’s out of sight I will encourage him without using his recall cue again (and then work on him keeping better track of me, and me of him)
* Running back to me as fast as he is able
* Returning right to me, and staying close to me – no staying out of grabbing distance, or coming back and immediately going somewhere else

What I would add to that list now: –
* Now that I use a release cue, I would also add that he stay with me while I leash him up and we walk on, or until he is verbally released.
* I would also list the dog’s distractions and reinforcers, and rate them so that when the time comes I can pair a distraction with a reinforcer of equal or higher value. This list would need updated as we worked our recall, so it will need to be kept safe!

“Wait a minute!” You say, “I have a husky – who should never be off lead anyway – and we generally walk in the city, where it’s not safe or legal for any dog to be off lead, I don’t need to teach her recall, do I?”

Well – no, and yes.  If you’re 100% certain that her lead, flat collar, and/or static harness will never, ever break; and you can be completely certain that you will never, ever, ever let go of the lead, no matter what’s going on around you, then maybe I can let you off.  For the rest of us that are fallible: even if you don’t intend to ever have your dog off lead, it’s a good idea to train a recall anyway, that way if something ever does go wrong, you have at least a chance of having your dog come back to you rather than disappearing over the horizon.

So now that we know our criteria (to come straight back to me the first time I call, and stick around), how do I go about training?  Technically, I guess recall could be shaped, but that would likely be a slow process!  Since recall is so important, I think it’s much better to train it.

Obviously since I signed up to Recallers, the way I teach recall is changing; but since I paid good money to be a ‘Recaller’, and I respect Susan and her propriety information I won’t/can’t share it with you in that way (though I’m sure there’ll be lots of videos of various bits and pieces in the future).

However, I can share this video of Starr and I again.  This is one way I teach recall – I have my dog “chase” a thrown piece of kibble, I mark when she turns around, and when she returns to me she gets three or four tasty treats.

As with all good training, we start off somewhere not distracting (in this case, we started indoors), and slowly work up to very distracting environments, using a lead or long line as appropriate (in our enclosed garden, she’s fine off lead).  I help her to make the right choices – by marking the turn; and I make the right choices achievable – I don’t take her to the beach on a sunny Sunday afternoon, take off her lead and expect her to stick around, much less come when I call her, without plenty of practice of what I do want first.

After all, practice makes perfect and if she practices ignoring me, or having me chase her for twenty minutes before I can get her back on the lead (after calling her repeatedly) then that will become her “recall” behaviour – and that is not what I want!

What about you – is recall important for your dog(s)? Do you have a special way of teaching it?

Are You Bribing Your Dog?

There seems to be a fallacy in the world of dog training, and indeed even outside of the world of dog training, and dogs in general.

I’ve had knowing looks on the street, overheard strangers commenting at the beach or lake, had comments directed towards me in person and online, even my mother has (once again!) chided me for my seemingly “poor choices”.

If you train your dog with treats, you’re bribing her.

Bribing – Craige Moore

There I said it.

Anyone who’s anyone knows that all dogs love and respect all humans, and will do as we say because it makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside when they make us happy by doing as they’re told; so it follows that anyone who’s anyone also knows that dogs don’t need treats, or any form of reward, for working for humans. And if you choose to use treats, you’re bribing your dog to do whatever it is you want him to do, because he wont do it out of “love and respect”, or for the joy it brings him in knowing you’re happy with him, he’ll only do it for the food in your hand.

Clearly, all the people making such comments are amazing, wonderful even. They may have spent their whole life working, but they have never once taken a penny – or anything else – in recompense; or if they have they’ve given it all away again.

They have no need of reward or recognition from their employer (or customers, if they’re self-employed), they do the work because they like the fuzzy warm feeling it gives them to help others, and that’s all the payment they need.

Oh, wait…

That’s not true.

While some people can, and do, volunteer their time; the majority of people in gainful employment need to take home a pay cheque every month (heck, even people who are not in gainful employment still have to find a way to get the money they need!).

I don’t know about you, but if my employer decided to stop paying for my time I’d certainly be looking for another job – let’s face it, for humans, money is a very powerful secondary reinforcer.

Money gives us roofs over our heads, various methods of travel, the ability to buy food, books, clothes, music, tickets to the cinema, theatre, or concerts, and even the ability to have and appropriately care for our animals.

Animals see no value in money (aside from the ones who may see value in eating it). They tend not to have pockets to keep it in, or places to keep a lot of it safe, and they don’t have bills to pay, so money as a form of payment is as meaningless to them as hotdog slices as a form of payment is to you and I.

But just because they don’t see value in money doesn’t mean they don’t see value in being “paid”.

Especially when training new behaviours, your dog (or human, horse, goat, lamb, cow, chicken…or any animal) needs paid. They need to feel value in their work (learning), and this value comes from rewards – not only food and toys, but also other things they enjoy doing – digging, barking, running around, sniffing…whatever floats their boat.

These rewards do a number of things: * firstly they help the animal to learn that the rewarded behaviour is worth repeating;
* it adds “money to the bank” for the behaviour, meaning that at some future time when you need to ask for the behaviour and only have dry, biscuit treats (or, worse, nothing at all) your dog is more likely to do as you ask, and not mind too much that you didn’t have some liver or a favourite tug toy handy (however, after this type of situation it would be worth “refreshing” the behaviour in your dog’s mind – and increasing your “bank balance” – by training the behaviour with one or more of your dog’s desired rewards, especially if you made a large withdrawal – such as recalling your dog away from unexpected livestock or wild animals;
* additionally, training using the rewards your dog wants (rather than the ones you think he should want) also has the added bonus of teaching your dog that you’re worth listening to;
* and it’s great for building a strong relationship with your dog.

Looking at that list, I wonder why we aren’t all training with rewards. For me, it all comes back to working: I want my dog to want to be with me, and to not only want to interact with me; but to enjoy interacting with me – whether we’re playing tug, or whether I’m training a drop on recall.

It pains me to see a dog who wants to be nowhere near his human, after all, dogs are social creatures and should have the strongest bond with their ‘family’; but to think that some people actively dislike despise “treat training”, well…I don’t want to think about what they do to their dog in the name of training