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Posts Tagged positive reinforcement

The Three D’s of Dog Training

The Three D's of Dog Training

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine made a great analogy about dog training. I’ve felt compelled to share it with my clients ever since.

“From the dog’s point of view,” he said. “It’s like a person being taught how to work on a car, except they’ve never worked on a car previously and also have no idea that they are being taught how to work on a car. The person teaching them can’t explain to them how to do it; they can only reward them when they get something right and indicate to them when they’ve done something wrong. Imagine them trying to change an alternator?”

I couldn’t help but chuckle at this comparison. It was such an accurate description of how dogs learn-  through a series of reinforcements and consequences.

Luckily for our dogs, we can make things easier by breaking down training into stages and adding variables gradually, significantly increasing the likely hood of success. In dog training, we call this The Three D’s.

The Three D’s

Duration

How long can your dog hold the behavior?

Distance

How far away can you move from your dog or how close can your dog be from an external stimulus before they break the behavior?

Distraction

What can happen around your dog while they are performing the behavior?

 

An Example of Training the Three D’s

One of the most straight forward examples of how we use the Three D’s would be to teach a dog to stay on a mat, commonly referred to as, “Go to your Place.” It is a foundational exercise many dog trainers (and pet owners) implement to help their dogs with impulse control.

To train a dog this behavior I would teach them lay down on a mat and reward them for staying on it. Then I would start to increase the time that they stay on the mat before rewarding them.

After gradually increasing that time to about 10 seconds, I raise the criteria for my dog. I am going to ask for the stay and back away one step. When I step back I am going to decrease the duration to 5 seconds, step back to the mat and reward them for staying with distance added.

Notice that when I added the distance, I decreased the duration. 

I will practice this a few times until I can back up one step for 10 seconds. Then I will add the second step, decreasing the duration again, and then building it back up. I repeat these exercises until the behavior is proofed.

Now, I’ll begin to add distractions. This is the big one. Once the dog is on the mat, I might move a few steps towards the door and come back. Next, I move over to the door, touch the door nob, jiggle it, and return rewarding the dog for staying put. Let’s add in that noise. I ask a friend to come by and knock on the door or ring the bell. I stay with my dog (decreasing duration and distance), while the friend knocks on the door. I reward my dog for staying put. I have them do it again, this time, I take a few seconds before rewarding, and then I add distance with further repetitions. Eventually, the dog will stay on the mat while I turn away, open the door and greet my guest before I release them.

It seems like a long process to accomplish one simple task, however each time your dog learns a new behavior, it becomes easier to learn the next. Just like a person working on a car, once they’ve replaced an alternator, it becomes easier to start replacing other parts. Eventually, they might even be confident enough to replace a timing belt.

The brain begins to remember the mechanics of learning. Every time you practice new behaviors with your dog, they learn them faster and faster. Our dogs want to learn, but it’s critical to remember that they have a harder time doing so. Using the Three D’s in dog training will help you achieve your goals better, faster and with less frustration! Have fun!

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The Ethics of ‘Results-Based’ Training

The Ethics of 'Results-Based' Training

Defined as moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or conducting of an activity, ethics is a topic that weighs heavily in dog training, but is often not talked about – at least to the general public.

As someone who went to school for journalism, ethics is always a topic that sits near and dear to my heart. I spent countless hours pouring over articles before sending our student paper off to print. In the author biased? Is the article factual? Is this best reporting we can deliver to the public?

In the vast world of dog training, there are many different types of trainers that have subscribed to working with specific methods of training. On the two extreme sides you have trainers, such as Emily Larlham who uses strictly positive reinforcement in her training, and the well known Cesar Milan, who primarily uses negative reinforcement and positive punishment- even if he doesn’t admit to that. I could go on and on about why so many dog trainers have moved very far away from the Cesar Milan methods of training, but that’s a whole other article in itself.

Today, I want to bring to light a phrase that is used more commonly by dog trainers that I find both off-putting and realistically unethical – “Results-based training.” If you did a google search and looked at various trainers’ websites, you would see it used frequently, popping up most often on websites of “Balanced Trainers” – or trainers who use all four quadrants of operant conditioning.

I find the wording of the phrase to be misleading to its audience for many reasons, but today I’ll stick to two.

It directly assumes that:

  1. Not all dog trainers are driven to find solutions to training problems and dog behaviors
  2. Clients understand that results driven training means “by any means necessary,” which includes using aversive methods.  

Assumption 1.. is so unbelievably inaccurate.  Assumption 2. is some pretty scary stuff.

Professional dog trainers (not to be mistaken for hobbyists), have spent years studying various training methods in addition to having countless hours of hands on experience. I have met and engaged with trainers from all different backgrounds who reflect various philosophies and have yet to meet one dog trainer in my travels who’s only concern is making money off of their clients. I would willingly argue that the goal of all dog trainers is to achieve the best solutions for their clients, both human and dog alike. My point is, it’s just a matter of how they achieve those results.

The truth of the matter is, dogs don’t exist in a vacuum. Dog training is so much more than forcing compliance out of our dogs in order to achieve results. Professional dog training is evaluating each dog as an individual, allowing that dog the time to learn new behaviors and then giving them the chance to succeed. There is no one-size fits all approach. I think all dog trainers can agree on that.

However, science shows time and time again that when we try to change behavior or force new experiences onto our dogs too quickly, it can lead to long-term damaging effects. When the brain is put under stress, cortisol levels increase, which engages the internal fight or flight instinct (this happens in humans too). This instinct causes the dog to function enough to get through (aka survive) a situation, but does not always address the root of the problem nor does it encourage the dog to make a choice, decreasing the likelihood of the dog making the “correct” choice again in the future when put in that same exact situation.

The brain under stress does a terrible job at retaining memories, let alone transferring them into long term memory. If nothing else, when forced to comply under stress, the dog’s brain and body either learns how to shut down to further avoid conflict or react negatively out of fear. At the end of the day, when you are the one holding the opposite end of the leash, it will be damaging to the overall relationship between you and your dog.

Some people need solutions to problems right away.As a trainer, I understand that. Pet owners may not want to take the time, or may not have the time, to improve their dog’s behavior using the most humane methods by following the Humane Hierarchy. However, it is critical for consumers to understand what balanced training is, and what “results-based” means so they can make a moral and ethical choice for their dog and their relationship.

When reading the phrase “results-based training,” the consumer needs understand that they are waving a portion of their dog’s trust in order to gain the results they desire by using certain methods advertised as communication tools, such as choke collars, shock collars, spray bottles, finger pokes, etc. And while your dog is actually shut down or over aroused, it can easily be mistaken by the untrained eye as your dog looking obedient or happy. Not all dog trainers even understand this difference, hence the importance of having an education in addition to hands on experience.

I love my dog, just as my clients love theirs. I want my dog to work with me, not for me. This is the type of relationship in which I find dogs and people the happiest. I’m incredibly blessed to have gotten the level of experience and knowledge that I have in this industry and I am happy to share that with fellow dog lovers and my amazing clients. The dog training industry is highly unregulated. As a pet owner, no matter what trainer you chose, it is critical to educate yourself on their training methods and the long term effects of those methods on your dog.

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Holidays: The Social Dog vs The Anxious Dog

Holidays: The Social Dog vs The Anxious Dog
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Moose explores his new surroundings for the holidays.

Hurray! We all survived Thanksgiving! I’m hoping that yours was filled with laughs, fun and food! I for one got to take Moose, my new forever pup, on his first multiple day adventure to my Aunt’s house and beyond.

This was a perfect opportunity to mix in some training while being faced with many new and fun distractions! I brought things that were familiar to him – his toys, blanket, bed, and favorite treats, and sprawled them around his new space. After letting him wander my Aunt’s house briefly, the first thing we did was refresh some of his basic cues. Remember, dogs do not generalize behaviors well – they actually kind of suck at it – so whenever you are bringing your dog to a new environment, it’s important to remind them that they do know how to do all the behaviors they know at home!

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Moose makes a friend in Brooklyn.

Moose, ended up doing very well and was a huge hit with the family! He even came down with me to Brooklyn, made a new doggie friend and helped me pick out some new skates!But all of this got me thinking about how many dogs (and families) miss out on this bonding time because of poor behavior? I have actually never had the chance to experience a good holiday myself. Having a social dog now is pretty amazing, but it wasn’t always so.

My holidays used to be SO stressful because my dog at the time, Charlie <3, could not be in these types of environments. My holidays were always mixed with lots of travel, dog walkers, coordination and seriously timing everything perfectly so Charlie would not know the difference between a day I was leaving the house for work and a day that was a holiday or special occasion. You may think I am crazy, but any slight change in routine and he knew. Yes, he knew! If I didn’t plan things right, I would come home to a stressed out dog- dilated pupils, heavy panting, urine puddles and trails everywhere and sometimes on really bad days, something I loved totally destroyed.

My anxious boy, Charlie, always creeping around the dinner table. Lots of talking and excitement would stress him out.

Lots of talking and excitement would stress Charlie out.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have done a lot more to work with him, but he was so complicated it was hard to figure out where to start. Good thing I am here now as a professional, to help you with your pup! So here’s some tips and tricks I picked up along the way, mixed in with a little dash of professional advice just in time to get ready for Christmas.

Things You Can Do Right Now

  • Plan Ahead
    • Play the scenario out in your mind
      • What has this looked like previously?
      • What can I do differently this time around?
    • Discover the trigger that sets off the behavior chain
      • Is it the door bell?
      • Is it loud talking?
  • Understand
    • Think about why your dog is anxious
      • Are they sensitive to noise?
      • Are they sensitive to space?
  • Take Action – guide and comfort your dog during situations where they become anxious instead of getting frustrated
    • Can you create a safe space?
    • Can you give them a toy or puzzle to focus on?

 

Thinking Ahead to the Future

  • Establish a relationship with good dog trainer
    • Seriously, just like having a life long relationship with your vet, when you are the owner of an anxious dog, it is so helpful to have a professional to bounce ideas off of for upcoming situations. I wish I had done this sooner!
    • Don’t think for two seconds you are bothering your trainer by calling them or reaching out. If you have a GOOD dog trainer, they want to help you and your dog through difficult situations whether they are getting paid or not. Let them know you have a big family event coming up and discuss best scenarios and options.
  • Make a plan
    • Start with a management plan!
      • How will you deal with specific scenarios in the future?
    • Don’t let anyone dismiss your thoughts or ideas!
      • You and only you understand the relationship you have with your dog. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are over reacting, or being a “crazy dog lady” (yeah, I’ve heard that), or “s/he’s fine” or “let them figure it out,” when you are trying to better your relationship with your dog.
    • Get everyone on the same page
      • All family members should understand the plan, the goals and celebrate even the smallest of achievements!
  • Work with your dog when they are not anxious.
    • We all do it. We get used to our dogs “the way they are.”
      • With an anxious dog, it’s easy to get stuck in this rut because, let’s face it, dealing with an anxious dog is exhausting. However, dogs are always capable of learning new things.
      • Fact: Work with your dog when they are not anxious and they are more likely to respond to you when they are.

 

We all love our dogs and want what’s best for them. Don’t stop at expecting poor behavior or normalizing it! Work with your dog to help them through their difficult times! And if you are lucky enough to have a social dog, make sure you work with them to keep them social too!

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The Moose and The Motorcycle

The Moose and The Motorcycle

You’ll commonly hear dog trainers talking about the importance of socializing your dog. Because all dogs are different, some are more likely to be social on their own than others. Regardless of the social nature of your dog, fearfulness can still develop towards people, objects, other dogs, specific locations and various situations.

Depending on how well you know your dog, you instinctively begin to predict things that may make your dog fearful, such as loud noises or fireworks, and prepare for those situations. Other times, you may not know a trigger before it happens.

New things are scary

Take my newly adopted pup Moose as a case study. We’ve been a team for about two months now, and I’m slowly starting to figure out things that make him nervous, such as young puppies and screaming children. I keep a list in my head and know that if I will be around any of his fear triggers to bring my special treats with me. It’s important to give your positive interactions through times of stress. But, you can’t expect to just have treats on you everywhere you go, right? Right.

When walking out of a building the other day, Moose makes eye contact with a yard ornament that moves, and has bright colors, and he totally and completely wigged out. I mean, he bellowed out the loudest bark I’ve heard so far. He then proceeded to start growling and backing up. He backed up so hard, he slammed himself into the door.

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Day two. Even from this far away, you can see his focus on the yard ornament and if you look even closer, you can see his hackles raised.

Here I am, walking out of a building, carrying my jacket under one arm, a cup of coffee in my hand, a binder full of training paperwork under my other arm and now a dog having an epic meltdown in a parking lot full of people and other businesses.

The easiest thing for me to do in this circumstance would have been to drag him to my car which was not very far. Above being a dog trainer, I am a human, so yes, I thought about it. However, avoiding situations doesn’t accomplish much and there’s no learning involved in that, so where’s the fun?

So I place/drop all of my things on the sidewalk, turn him around and walk back into the building. I give Moose a moment to calm down so he can focus on me. Once his brain has come back to reality, I ask him for sit and give him some pets. I connect with him. This is important. I’m still here for you buddy.

We venture back out the door, and I remind him, “Moose, I’m still here.” I speak softly to him and encourage him to follow me.

We take some time walking towards the thing. He is doing okay with some reassurance, but stops again about 15 feet away and has another fit. Patience is key. We take about two steps back and I ask him again for some eye contact and a sit (this is where foundational training also becomes so important). He looks at me, he looks ahead, he looks back at me and gives me a slight tail wag. At his pace we continue.

It took some time for him to feel comfortable going up to it, but eventually he did. He sniffed it, and backed up. He looked at it a bit. I reassured him it was okay. He sniffed it again, turned away from it. He still didn’t trust it fully, but he began to accept it.

Finally, he came to his own conclusion he’s uncomfortable with it, but willing to tolerate it’s presence. On this good note, I said, “okay, let’s go dude”, and we headed back towards the car. The next day, we repeated our exercise. On day two it took us about half the time of day one. Progress!

 

Why is it important to have taken the time to do this with my dog? 

  • We just worked through a fearful situation together
  • He learned how to do something other than become reactive to something he is scared of
  • We just spent time bonding by working through a problem together

 

Socialization and why it’s important

You’ll often hear dog owners say whole heart-idly that their dogs is fearful of men, or brooms, or newspapers because they must have been abused or suffered at the hands of a terrible hat-wearing man with sunglasses that liked to read newspapers and occasionally raise them over their dogs head. But what is actually more likely, is that the dog may have had a lack of exposure to sunglasses, hats or large objects moving above their heads. In Moose’s case, it was obvious he had never seen anything like this spinning lawn ornament before. Without ever having a good experience to relate these things to, the dog has nothing to base it’s reaction on. By basic means of animal survival, it’s smarter to be cautious of something until you know it does not pose a threat.

So taking what we now know into consideration, understand that fearfulness in dogs is absolutely normal. In fact, dogs that are over confident tend to be the ones that professional trainers keep an eye out for. However, for dogs to survive and continue to develop in our society and our societal standards we must work with them to either prevent fearfulness by socializing them as youngsters, or we must work to counter-condition their current fears through positive associations. The more your dog is exposed to in a positive way, the easier it becomes for them to overcome their fears in situations down the road.

Too much socializing?

Believe it or not, some dog owners make the mistake of going a bit overboard with socializing. I often hear from dog owners that they were told to take their dog everywhere with them as a puppy and to make sure to get them used to being around other dogs at a young age. What I actually see happen are puppies taken to overwhelming situations such as Church Street in Burlington or to the big dog section at the Shelburne Dog Park for “socializing.” For dog trainers, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than seeing well-meaning dog owners traumatizing their dogs at young ages by flooding them with situations they are not developmentally prepared for. Every time I see a puppy get pinned at the dog park or jump back at the sound of a car horn on a busy road, I cringe. If the owners seem open to helpful feedback, I typically will engage in a conversation with them then and there. However, not everyone is always open to feed back from a stranger in public. Side note: The one thing that makes a trainer’s job difficult? There are dogs everywhere, but you can’t help every dog or owner you see.

Tying it all together

At the end of the day, the goal here is improving you and your dog’s amazing relationship. Each person-to-dog relationship I work with is unique and requires a different pace, structure and attention. Watching a dog’s trust build with their owner is my favorite part of what I get to do. Listen to your dog. Don’t ignore their fears and don’t force your dog into situations they are unsure of. Truly love your dog and your dog will love you back.

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Understanding Positive Reinforcment

Understanding Positive Reinforcment

Dog trainers who use mainly or all positive reinforcement methods while training dogs and teaching clients frequently come under fire from balanced (trainers who use both positive reinforcement and positive punishment) and aversive trainers (trainers who almost all positive punishment techniques includes prong collars, shock collars and e-collars).

Many of them think we don’t believe in leadership, they think we let the dogs walk all over us, the most ridiculous of them claim that we are using treats to bribe dogs into doing what we want. What these trainers don’t have is a true grasp on classical and operant conditioning, knowledge of the dangers in behavior suppression or long term effects of aversive techniques.

Dog training is a very technical profession. I actually spent about three years watching dogs for roughly 40 hours a week. That comes out to about 6,000 hours of hands on experience in dog-to-dog behavior. I thought I knew a lot. I really thought I knew what various behaviors meant, the cause and effect of corrections, red flags and a general understand of dogs. But really I just knew exactly that-  what I thought.

I moved forward with learning how to become a dog trainer about two years ago. I finally opened a book and started reading. I found webinars and started watching. I interned with a local certified trainer through the ABC program. I was shocked by how much I really didn’t know. Many of the behaviors I believed to be one thing, turned out to mean something entirely different. As a matter of fact, I am reading a new book and just yesterday learned something new about a behavior I’ve been watching dogs do for years! Dog training is one of those fields that requires us to stay on our toes for better or for worse because the field is constantly evolving.

Dogs are awesome creatures. They are opportunists, they are smart, they have impeccable timing and they have an incredible ability to learn way more than we give them credit for. Taking the time now to understand how your dog learns and what his true motivators are is crucial to forming a loving, respectful and positive relationship with your pet. The days of dominating are over and no it’s not because we like to hand out free cookies; it’s because actual science has proven there are more effective (and humane) ways to train your dog.

If you are interested in learning more about forming a better relationship with your dog, contact me! It’s seriously never too late to start!

To learn more about Classical and Operant Conditioning, and why it works, read this awesome Blog Post on Positively.com!

 

 

 

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Fireworks and the Absolute Myth of Reinforcing Fear

Fireworks and the Absolute Myth of Reinforcing Fear

I was holding back writing about the Fourth of July. It’s that one time of year that all dog lovers’ Facebook walls get flooded with articles about keeping pets indoors, playing calming music, creating forts under coffee tables, etc. I certainly didn’t want to add to that collection- there’s already plenty of that information out there!

However, last night my dog was having her yearly melt down and I happened to be traveling with her and some friends. Now, here we are in a new place, with new people and she completely out of her comfort zone. One of my friends mentioned the idea of not coddling her, because she heard that it reinforces the fear of the fireworks. Okay, let’s stop there!

This is so far from true! Here is another myth created by dog trainers and “dog experts” that has no actual scientific truth or back up. The sad thing is, that I believed this at one point to be true as well! You know where I first heard this? From watching “The Dog Whisperer.” How can you not believe sometime that is being broadcasted as fact on National Geographic? So, no I don’t blame you for believing it either.

Dogs look to us as their companions. We are their leaders, their support system and their strength. In a time when your best friend is most vulnerable, would you turn your back and ignore them, or even worse, punish them for being afraid? What would that do to your relationship? It would probably ruin it a little bit.

Remember above everything else to love your pets this weekend. Be aware of their mental state. If your dog asks for space, give your dog space. If your dog asks for comfort, comfort your dog! Most of all, have a fun, safe and happy Fourth of July weekend!!!

Read this awesome article by Patricia McConnell about why you can’t reinforce fear in dogs!!!

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Meet Sue Ellen

Meet Sue Ellen

Derp! I am Sue Ellen!!! My free training session by Dogs Rock! Vermont was number 3 of 118. Today we worked on loose leash and focus skills! I am a sweet and gentle girl who loves snuggles and butt scratches. 🐶 If you are interested in learning more about me, please visit All Breed Rescue Vermont at http://www.allbreedrescuevt.com/animals/detail?AnimalID=9834236

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Why Do Dog Trainers Hate Caesar Millan?

Why Do Dog Trainers Hate Caesar Millan?

Cesar Millan took the world by storm with his show, “The Dog Whisperer.” As a young dog enthusiast, I once used to love him too! I dreamed of the day I could meet Mr. Millan and thank him for the countless animals he had saved. I even hung out with a local “dog whisperer” because certainly there had to have been some merit to all this pack leader talk.

Then one day it all clicked and I realized- it was wrong. Cesar, the miracle man who saved all the death row dogs, the one I dreamed of meeting one day, was wrong.

I realized that companion dogs are not pack animals. We bred them out of that a long time ago. Every dog is an individual; their sociability thresholds fall in different places and change in various situations. Companion dogs follow strong leadership, not dominance. True leaders don’t threaten their followers, they build trust, respect and compassion.

This realization didn’t happen overnight- it took years of education. I spent half a decade watching dogs interact with one another on almost a daily basis – internally itemizing cause and effect. I took it a step further and attended seminars by world famous dog trainers and listened to what they had to say and evidence they had to show. I spent countless hours working with shelter dogs. I started reading book after book about cognitive behavior and conditioning. I saw with my own eyes what “dominating” behavior did to dogs over time. How dogs with no regard for human companionship reacted and behaved under pressure.

“Red Zone” dogs cannot be cured in a 60 minute TV show, but they can be taught to suppress their social cues to the point that they learn to stop giving warnings. They can learn very quickly to suppress their aggression until they have a moment of brief confidence and a split second to act upon it. Dominance “works” because you stop SEEING the behavior, but has the behavior been changed? The answer is no.

My train of thought above was triggered by this article written by Mikkel Becker and Dr. Marty Becker.

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