Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y is for Yacking

Y is for YACKING.

Don't you think I have talked enough this month?!? :)
I know I can talk a lot, but a whole month of talking about one subject just feels a little like overkill LOL.

Monday certainly thinks so! She's ready to practice, are you?!? Get out there and get busy!! Your dog won't learn anything until you PRACTICE <and practice, and practice, and practice....) :). 

Monday, April 28, 2014

X is for Xeno-greeting


Xeno defintion: stranger, foreigner, different.

So this fancy word means we are going to talk about appropriately greeting strangers. :) Everyone comes into training class and says 'I want my dog to stop jumping on guests.' And that is great, but what is even better is to focus on what you do want instead of what you don't want. What do you want your dog to do when guests come over? It's much more efficient to teach your dog a desirable behavior than trying to teach them to stop an undesirable one. So choose the type of greeting you'd like your dogs to present to guests. It can be anything you deem appropriate, but decide on ONE correct response and train for that, rather than permitting different behaviors at different times. That'll make it much easier for your dog to learn :). For example, Monday always grabs a toy, for some reason that seems to anchor her to the floor, while Bourbon knows he must sit. You can always use your Go To Mat exercise I talked about in the Unwind post.

I also covered this in my CGC series for Test Item 1 and Test Item 2. :)


You can't expect to change a lifetime habit in a few short minutes; you'll need a systematic plan. Break down the training plan into small pieces to achieve your goals. For example, having your dog sit to meet guests:
  • Start with the basic sit - does your dog perform it reliably with or without distractions and in any situation (and I mean ANY situation)? This behavior needs to be generalized to a wide variety of places and distractions.
  • Then progress at your dog's pace, you want to be sure to continue the training in small increments. Start with having your dog meet one familiar person at a time then progress to strangers than progress to groups. Just remember to take it slow!
  • Remember this is hard work for most dogs, especially for enthusiastic dogs. Reinforce generously and often.
  • If your dog does happen to practice jumping up on a guest, have that guest turn around and walk away where your dog can't reach them (they should still be on leash so you can control the space if needed). You should calmly ask for the sit again and have your friend start approaching, if your dog stands up have the friend stop. Repeat until your friend can approach the dog without it getting up. Most dogs get this after several repetitions :).
  • If you have a dog like Monday, who finds it easier to have a toy in the mouth, just keep a toy by the front door. When a guest comes over, immediately direct your dog's attention to the toy or throw it for them to go get (away from the guest).
  • You want to refrain from shouting at your dog when they jump on you or others. Shouting will just make them more excited and generally cause more jumping up to happen. You also want to make sure you aren't grabbing them or pushing them with your hands. Dogs generally perceive this as playing, a type of wrestling, and it just causes more excitement and jumping up.

Ok, now who is ready to practice some greeting exercises?! Is your dog good at controlling themselves during greetings? What method did you find to work best?

W is for Walking

Ok, Ok I am a day behind on my alphabet posts. Bear with me here, I will finish it out and hopefully on time if I can get caught up!!

Today W is for WALKING. Everyone wants a dog that walks nicely on leash, but we tend to forget dogs have to be taught this skill. Seriously, this is probably the number one request to fix when someone hires a dog trainer. Unfortunately, dogs aren't born knowing how to walk on a leash without pulling ahead or lagging behind, but there are many different ways to teach this.

Teaching leash manners can be challenging because your dog moves faster than you and is generally overly-excited about exploring outside. To teach your dog to walk without pulling, it's critical that you never allow them to pull. If you're inconsistent, your dog will continue to try pulling because sometimes it pays off. While you are teaching your dog not to pull, you should use a four-foot or six-foot leash. Flexi leads or long lines (leashes longer than six feet) work great for exercising dogs, but not so much for teaching them not to pull.

Last year I did a blog post on the loose leash walking part of the CGC (Canine Good Citizen) test. You can check out a few videos of me practicing with Monday on that post and check out a few training methods: CLICK HERE :).

Let's walk

First, we want to make sure we are setting up our dogs for success. For any of the techniques to work, you have to practice in situations your dog can be successful at. If you take them out to train and they are just an excited mess, pulling every which way, they are not going to learn, and you will just become frustrated. I've been there, I know how NOT fun that is. Don't be afraid to back up a step or two - work at home (inside),with only a few distraction. Then work in the yard. Next, work in front of the house. You get the idea :). Slowly make your training walks longer and longer and try to avoid distractions that your dog is not ready for.

Monday giving me great attention during a show
but obviously foraging slightly in heel position.
We want to arrange things so that loose leashes 'pay off' and tight leashes don't. There are tons of ways to walk on leash. You've probably seen dogs at shows or on TV who prance alongside their handlers, staring up with rapt attention. That perfect-heel-position, while beautiful, requires intense focus on both ends of the leash and extensive training in precision heeling. It's also not appropriate for long periods of time, like for your daily walks around the block or to the park. Precision heeling is good for dogs to know how to do when requested (like when high level distractions are present) but it's unreasonable to expect them to walk this way all the time.

Each 'type' of walking is taught according to the same basic formula - the dog is reinforced for being where we have asked them to be. The closer I want my dog to be to my side, the higher the rate and value of the reinforcer I use to train the behavior. When your dog is fluent at walking by your side, you can begin to decrease the rate of reinforcement, so that they can walk politely for longer and longer stretches between reinforcers.

A few things to consider

  • Until your dog learns to walk without pulling, consider all walks training sessions and keep them frequent, short, and fun :).
  • Find other ways to exercise your dog until they have mastered loose leash walking. You'll succeed more quickly if you find a way to tire your dog out before having a training walk because your dog will find it a bit easier to focus if they have expended their excess energy.
  • Remember your high value treats!
  • Walk at a quick pace. You are far more interesting when you move quickly and it leaves less time for your dog to get distracted.

You can use various methods to teach your dog to walk without pulling - no single method works for all dogs. My favorite approach is simply to be variable and unpredictable :). If my dog never knows when I might toss a high value treat on the ground, pull out a favorite toy, or head off in a new direction, she tends to keep an eye on me at all times.

One basic method

The following method is one that I go over with all my basic training classes and it differs from what I covered in my CGC post (which was lure/reward). It requires that all or most reinforcement will come from behind you and that you will the toss the food to the ground (not far from your foot). This description is taken from Karen Pryor's clickertraining.com website:

Loose-leash walking is going to begin as a game. Here are a few simple steps you will train BEFORE you do any walking with your dog:
  1. Put your dog's leash on and just stand still. When your dog releases the tension on the leash, click and show him the treat in your hand. Let him see you place the treat on the ground by the outside of your left foot. Once he's eaten the treat, move to the end of the range of the leash so it is taut and stand quietly. When he moves to release the tension, click. Show him the treat and place it by your left foot. You don't care about eye contact. What you are teaching is that releasing the leash tension gets clicked and treated. Do this a number of times.
  2. Continue to stand now that your dog is not pulling. Now you will click for eye contact. After the click, treat by your left foot. Remember after he has finished eating the treat to move to the end of the leash. Click and treat three times for looking at you while on a loose leash.
  3. Again, just standing with your dog on a loose leash, looking at you, toss your treats right past your dog's nose to about three feet away. When dog eats the treats and comes back to you looking for more, click and treat by placing the food by the outside of your left foot. Move and repeat.
  4. Again toss the treat right past your dog's nose. When your dog finishes eating it and turns around to come back to you, you turn your back and start walking. (Just take a few steps in the beginning.) When you dog catches up to you, but before he gets past your pant leg, click and treat. Repeat.
Note: Make sure when you toss the food it goes right past the dog's nose. This is the warm-up. Now that you have the dog following you for a few steps it is time to start walking and reinforcing behind or next to you.

Your dog is on leash. You turn away from him and start walking. Your dog follows. As the dog catches up to you and is coming up next to you—maybe even makes eye contact—mark (click) and drop the treat next to your left foot. Don't keep moving and be sure the first few times that you let the dog know that you have food in your hand. Once he's finished his treat, start again. Show him the treat and then turn and take a few steps away from him, walk till he catches up, drop the treat next to you or a little behind.
Note: Dropping food next to your side or a little behind helps the dog to stay close to you. It prevents the dog from anticipating and forging ahead. So drop the food behind you or you can even let the dog take it out of your hand behind your back. Don't drop the food so far away that the dog has to drag you to get it.
Start again. Begin to walk in such a way that the dog is at an angle beside you or is behind you. As the dog catches up, drop the food behind you (or next to your pant leg). Once the dog has eaten the food and is coming back toward you, start walking away from him again. Try for more steps before dropping. Timing is everything! Don't let the dog get in front of you. If he does, pivot away, wait till he catches up BUT is next to you or slightly behind you (or his nose is at your pant seam), and drop the food.
Now it's your job to increase the number of steps before dropping the food behind you. Never drop food if your dog has gotten in front of you. Work towards walking more steps before rewarding. You can vary this and reinforce while he is next to you if you wish, or toss the treat way behind you so the dog has to hunt for it and then reinforce him for catching back up to you.
As your dog gets better and you can now walk quite a distance without forging and pulling, don't fail to reward intermittently. For your dog to walk without pulling he has to believe (because you rewarded him) that there is a better chance of good things near you than in the wide world. Use the long line if you have to control your dog and are not taking a walk. Remember, if you never let the leash get tight, your dog won't learn that he can pull you. What he doesn't know won't hurt him or you!

So boring leash-walking is out - fun leash walking is in. :) Remember there is no 'one right way' to do things. What fun things do you do to keep your dog walking happily with you on a loose leash?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

V is for Variable Schedule of Reinforcement


<As an aside I really wanted to use the word vanquishing today because I think it's a beautiful word but I couldn't make it fit with my topic LOL. :) Ok, carry on.>

Reinforcement rates and schedules, when done incorrectly probably make up 90% of the reason that dog owners end up without good results or are unable to achieve higher levels of training. But what is a reinforcement rate or schedule? It's a fancy term for how many times we deliver a reward (treat or toy) to our dog (rate quantifies per minute, schedule quantifies per behavior asked). In dog training we generally use a high-reinforcement rate, this allows us to keep their attention and keep them motivated, and a variable schedule of reinforcement, this allows to strengthen and improve behaviors.

There are many different reinforcement schedules, however there are generally two that I employ:

  • Continuous Reinforcement
  • Variable Reinforcement

Continuous Reinforcement

This is what we generally start with when we are teaching new behaviors. The continuous reinforcement schedule simply means that we reward every repetition. It gets us quick results and dogs love it! :). However, if you keep this reinforcement schedule for too long, it will start to work against you. Your dog will only perform if you have the reward. I don't know about you, but I don't generally walk around with treats in my pocket 24/7.

Variable Reinforcement

This is when rewards are given at random intervals or are of variable value and this schedule tends to produce the most consistent performance. The whole key here is for our dogs to not be able to predict what repetition will bring the reward. Think about casino slot machines - it's the same concept. If something works sometimes, both people and dogs are wired to do it more to make it work again. So you'll need to vary both the timing and the quality of the rewards, just like a casino. But you must be careful to reward your dog at least often enough to stave off frustration and giving up.

There are many different ways you can vary your timing of rewards depending on what your criteria is for each behavior - the length of time your dog stays in a position, the number of times they have performed a cue, and the difficulty of distractions in the environment. When I vary the quality or value of rewards, I do so on the quality of the performance. So in a training session, I will only reward my dog for above-average responses and of those I will give the best rewards for the best responses (based on a criteria I have set).

What kind of Reinforcement Schedule do you use?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for Unwind

U is for UNWIND. This is an important skill that our dogs need to learn. First, we need to make sure we are meeting their physical and mental stimulation needs with Exercise and Enrichment. Then we can focus on training and working on impulse-control behaviors.

Click for Calm

Start by simply clicking your dog for calm behavior. I know, I know, I can just hear everyone say but how do I get my dog to even exhibit calm behavior so I can click them!?! At first management will come into play - find a spot to sit down and have your dog on a leash next to you. Ignore them and only click and treat when they decide to lay down. Try not talk to your dog when you reward them, you don't want to build arousal. Do several short training sessions every day and try to time them for right after an exercise session when your dog is tired anyway. At first you won't get long stretches of calm behavior and that is normal :). This is a gradual process. As your dog gets better at being calm for longer periods, be sure to reinforce randomly - sometimes for shorter pauses, sometimes longer. When your dog will remain calm for several seconds at a time, you can start adding a verbal cue. Over time you can phase out the click and treat and instead use other rewards such as calm praise or a gentle massage.

Here is another great Youtube video of this by my favorite Youtube trainer: CLICK HERE

Monday is really good at relaxing and she
always manages to find a perfect spot :).

Relax on a mat

Another variation of click for calm is to teach a go to your spot behavior. Whole Dog Journal printed a great piece detailing how to teach this so I will let them explain it :) - CLICK HERE. I love the go to your spot behavior and I teach the foundation of it in all my beginner classes.

Does your dog know how to settle or relax when they are not being the center of attention?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T is for Targeting

T is for TARGETING. Once you teach your dog to Target, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it. Seriously, it is that wonderful :). For some reason, despite is versatility and usefulness, targeting is not widely taught outside positive professional training and competition circles. I'm not sure why as it can seriously be applied to almost any training situation.

Targeting means your dog touches a designated body part (like their nose or paw) to a designated location (like your hand or a target stick). Nose targeting is the most common type taught, but it can be taught with any of your dog's body parts :). Dogs naturally use front paws and noses to do things, so it's easy to teach them to use those body parts to target. Other body parts - hind paws, hips, shoulder, etc - can be more of a challenge to teach! The designated target location can be anything imaginable, even a specific spot on the wall or any object you have. I use targeting a lot with Monday - it's her most favorite thing in the world!

Nuts and Bolts

Teaching your dog can be quite easy and many catch on fast. Here's a common way to teach your dog to target (with their nose) your left hand:
  • Start out with a treat and the clicker in your right hand and place your hand behind your back. Make a fist with two fingers sticking out with your left hand and also place that behind your back. You can use a flat
  • Show your dog your left (target) hand about an inch in front of their nose. You want to make it easy at first :). Your dog will probably touch your hand, expecting a treat. 
  • Click & Treat when your dog touches your hand with their nose. While they are chomping on that treat, put your hand behind your back and present it again when you're ready.
  • Repeat the fist three steps several times before ever adding your cue. For a nose target I use the cue Touch.
  • Adding the Cue once your dog has the hang of what you are asking can be very easy. If you're sure they will touch your hand, start saying "Touch" right before you put your target hand out. Make sure you click and treat for only those touches that you have asked for.
  • Moving the Target comes next :). Keep the movements small, maybe your dog has to take a step or two in order to touch your hand. Once your dog realizes that they'll need to move to the target no matter where it is at, you can move it farther and farther from them.
  • Randomizing Reinforcement comes last and finishes off the behavior. Now that the behavior is strong you should randomize how often you click and treat for the behavior. (Note we will be talking more about schedules of reinforcement on Friday.) Ask them to touch two times before clicking and treating. Then three times. Then once. Then once. Then four times. Then two times. You get the idea :). Vary the number of times you ask them to touch before they get clicked and treated - but don't always make it harder. If you continue to make it harder and harder, your dog may get frustrated and give up. The touches that don't clicked and treated still get praise :).
Here is a great video from my favorite Youtube poster demonstrating the steps: CLICK HERE

What if my dog doesn't touch?

If your dog doesn't sniff/touch your offered hand, then either wait her out or put your hand behind your back and present it again. You can also run some hot dog or other stinky moist treat on your skin to make your hand more enticing. Also ask yourself, does the presentation of your hand look like a different hand signal you've already been giving her? That could be confusing for some dogs so just switch it up to a different signal - only one finger sticking out, flat hand, etc.


Targeting has many uses:
  • boosting the confidence of a timid dog
  • keeping your dogs attention in the face of distractions
  • prompt your dog to offer a new behavior without a food lure
  • helping nervous dogs explore scary objects
  • it's the foundation for the 'go say hi' exercise taught to people-nervous dogs
  • teach your dog to close doors, ring bells, turn appliances or lights on and off
  • use it as an emergency recall cue
  • locating contact zones in agility
  • useful for teaching lateral movement for Rally and Canine Freestyle
  • moving your dog into proper heel position and keeping them there
Here is a fun video showing many different tricks and behaviors that were taught with a target stick.

Need any more ideas? :) As you can see Target has a million uses. 

Do you use hand targeting with your dog or other animal? For what? Please leave me a comment below :).

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S is for Stupid Human :)

Today S is for STUPID HUMAN.

Do you ever wonder what your dog (or cat!) thinks about you? I'm sure my dogs come up with some pretty interesting thoughts about my behavior, just like we are always labeling their behavior. Not everything we do makes sense to them and vice versa. :)

The key to training though, especially with another species, is to understand their behavior. Why do they do what they do? Dogs generally have reasons behind their behavior whether we think they are logical or not :). Their brains don't work the same way ours do, that is what makes them so special. They don't reason, they react. Dogs don't premeditate their actions, they assess a situation and react. Take the time the learn how your dog thinks and what makes him tick. And if you find an activity that is highly rewarding for him (like for some dogs digging is bliss, they LOVE to dig) use that in your training as a reward :).

Do you do things that make your dog wonder about you? :)

Monday, April 21, 2014

R is for Rookie's Story

Today R is for Rookie's story. I'm going to take a short break from my dog training theme to celebrate our youngest 'furkid'. A year ago this week we officially adopted him but I think we knew from the moment he came through our front door that he wasn't going anywhere :). I mean hello, he's a freaking twin with Monday, how could I resist that!!

They are so cute together :).

A rocky start

Rookie's original name was Rocky :), when Illinois Doberman Rescue Plus pulled him from the shelter in November 2011 they changed it to Hockey and when I brought him home to adopt foster I started calling him Rookie. It only took me a year and a half to make him an official family member :). He was turned into Chicago Animal Care and Control by his owner and thank god he was! Poor Rookie didn't have a great start to life - he had Demodex Mange and holes in his wrists that reached all the way to the bone. He was only 8 months old and had only known pain and discomfort :(. Our friend Amy did a great story that gives an overview on his history back in 2012 as part of her disregarded dogs series. He is such a heartbreaker.

One of the holes in his wrist. Poor dude :(.

Wasn't he just cute and pathetic?!? :)

It's taken three years to get him healthy and hopefully we are in the homestretch for this little man. We've had lots of ups and downs but through it all he has been such a trooper. I couldn't ask for a better personality outta him. He gets along with everyone he is introduced to (dog and human) and loves to learn! He just finished his first group class (we had to postpone some learning due to his health) and was a rockstar. I was so proud!

He has become such a handsome man!
Photo: Amy Turner
Technically his birthday is sometime in March but since it's so close to his Gotcha Day (and that I have an exact date on) we are rolling them together for celebration :). Since it was Easter weekend I didn't have time to bake him anything but I did take Mr. Rookie to a local park for some one-on-one fun time - he enjoyed the playground. And then we stopped out at Brekke's to pick up some pig ears and elk jerky, yummy. Rookie is such a nice guy, he wanted to make sure there were some for everyone :).

Rookie checking out his score :).

Notice the thief in the background LOL.
He didn't want to wait for his birthday treats.

Happy Gotcha Day and 3rd Birthday Rookie!!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Parenting.com Article - Teach Kids Proper Pet Care

While I don't have kids {yet}, plenty of my friends do and I also work with many kids every summer through our county 4H program. A common theme I have observed is kids getting really excited to pick out a pet and bring it home...and then a few weeks later the excitement is over and the chores tend to fall to the parent. So how do you keep kids interested and enthusiastic past that initial excitement?

Teach Kids Proper Pet Care: Keep kids interested and invested past the pet store

Some kids will promise to do anything in order get a new pet, but it can quickly become a challenge to get them to follow through with their pet-care chores after the novelty wears off (and trust us, it will). Planning, parental involvement and open communication can make pet ownership a positive experience for all family members.

1. Make a list of all pet-care responsibilities, and talk with your children about which chores they feel they can handle. It's better to give a child an easy daily chore than a difficult one that occurs less frequently. Discuss why the chore is important and what could happen to their pet if the chore is not done (the animal could go hungry or get sick, for example). Make sure all family members participate in chores, and rotate those chores. Remember to serve as a role model. Children can learn responsible pet care by observing your behavior.

To continue reading click here

Have you tried any of these suggestion? What have you found to work with your kids?

Check out my other Parenting.com articles:

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for Quintessential Dogs

Q is for QUINTESSENTIAL DOGS. You have a quintessential dog when they represent the most perfect companion FOR YOU. The nice thing about dog training is that it's not one-size-fits-all. You get to pick what you want your dog to be able to do and you get to decide what 'annoying' behaviors you are willing to live with.

It constantly amazes me how well our dogs adapt themselves to living in our 'normal' world (which is totally crazy for them!). But dogs are one of the most intelligent and adaptable creatures that we share our lives with. So they are more than ready to play whatever training 'game' we have devised and learn whatever behavior we think appropriate. Many people get stuck on what they don't want their dog to do, instead of focusing on what behaviors they would like to see. Saying no doesn't give the dog any information about what you would like instead, so try to be proactive and set your dog up for success. The more they are successful they more they will continue that behavior :).

River says he's trying to be a
quintessential companion.
But it all comes down to a simple question: how badly do you want to change your dog's behavior? Only those with true commitment and dedicated motivation will succeed in creating their quintessential dog. Your full commitment is required to get over whatever behavioral hump is in your way and don't forget to visualize your ultimate goal. Seeing it is the first step to believing it :).

So motivate yourself to practice with your dog every day. Remember to keep it FUN! Dogs aren't robots :), but with commitment, patience, practice, and positive reinforcement, you'll start seeing results within a short time span.

If you already have your quintessential dog I'd love to hear more about them in the comments below. If you are still working towards your definition of perfection :), how is it coming along?

Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Proper Treat Delivery

P is for PROPER TREAT DELIVERY. While there is no right or wrong way to deliver a tasty reinforcer to your dog, there is certainly a better way to do it :). There are three main components in treat delivery: 1. how to hold the treat, 2. how to deliver it, and 3. positioning it in regards to your dog's position.

Holding - it does a body good

Many people hold treats out for their dog with the tips of their fingers. Again, that's not wrong but if you have a slightly aroused or anxious dog, you are increasing your chances of inadvertently getting your fingers bit. Your cuticles will thank you for holding the treat differently :). I recommend holding the treat in your palm and using your thumb to keep it there. This also allows you to form a small cup with your hand allowing your dog's nose to push inside for the treat, even though they can't actually reach the treat until you let it go with your thumb. Or if you are using tasty human food as a reinforcer, you can do what I sometimes do - spit it at the dog :). Of course please work on your spitting skills beforehand. This helps reinforce your dog to look at your face instead of focusing on your hands.

The delivering that smiles back

There are a few different ways to deliver reinforcement and which one you choose will depend on your training situation and your dog: 1. delivering it right into your dog's mouth, 2. delivering it certain spots on the floor (excellent when doing shaping), and 3. or having your dog catch it (think toy reward here especially). When I am working on a stationary position (like sit, down, stand or stays) I like to deliver the treat directly to my dog's mouth. This helps reinforce what I am rewarding them for and helps them not move out of that position :). Another time when I would deliver the treat directly into the mouth is if I was working on desensitizing or counter-conditioning because I want the dog immediately rewarded and rewarded in a calm manner. As mentioned above, when I'm working on shaping a behavior I will strategically reward my dog in certain places on the floor so that they reset themselves to continue building the behavior. And lastly, having your dog catch a treat is great for building motivation or drive (as it somewhat simulates activities relating to prey) and increase their excitement level in participation.

Any time, any place, positioning

In many cases the positioning of the reward will help your dog clue into the final goal much faster, or as mentioned above, keep them in a certain position. For example, if you are teaching the front position (where your dog comes and sits in front of you) and you always reward them with your right hand, your dog will start sitting crooked towards your right hand. It won't even matter that you are clicking or marking the correct moment and have great timing. The presentation of the treat will shift your dog's position and they, of course, are just making it easier for you to find their mouth :).

Presentation of the reward (as much as possible) should always be done in a way that is reinforcing or stabilizing the behaviors you are working on. You should always make it a habit to reward your dog with either hand, interchangeably, so that your dog knows that rewards come from both side and it will help cut down on anticipation position shifting.

One last thought

Another thing to remember is that the delivery of the reinforcement should be a distinct, separate action from your click or marker word. If you click the clicker (or say the marker word) at the same time you are moving your hand to deliver a treat, in most cases your dog's focal point will be on the movement of the treat hand. The sound of the click (and information you were conveying with click) will be diluted or blocked altogether.

Have you given any thought to your treat delivery process? :)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for Oh My!

O is for OH MY! Which is something I say a lot because of my dogs :). I am actually regurgitating a post for today - a post from my series of confessions. See, while I am talking about training your dog all month I don't want you to have an expectation of perfection. Our dogs will never be perfect, they aren't robots. They are living beings that make mistakes, act goofy, and in general play to life's silly side.

Confessions of a Dog Trainer - 3

I am a dog trainer. At least most days :).

Generally, people expect a dog trainer to have trained dogs. Perfect little robot dogs. Well, not so much in my case (what FUN would that be?) - people who have met my dogs can attest to the fact that they are NOT perfect. Nor will they ever be. They have personality...and a touch of insanity :). Hey, it makes life fun!

We like crraaazzzzzyyy....
Photo: Amy Turner
So if you come to my house, please expect to see at least three dogs on the couch. Another dog is usually on the chair, with yet another barking out the window. Of course, this is after they've barked at YOU for at least five minutes. :) With five dogs they are always under foot and in your way! My dogs do not usually sit quietly in a corner waiting for your attention - they demand center stage (and they are pretty good at it!).

To continue reading click here...

Do your dogs have a touch of insanity as well? I find it's quite the spice of life :)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Nagging

N is for NAGGING. Everyone has heard the age old saying "Do not repeat a cue. I repeat. Do not repeat a cue." :) Yet, we've all heard (and probably done ourselves) those owners saying Sit over and over while their dog is blithely unaware. At that point, we are inadvertently teaching our dog to wait until the second or third (or fourth or...you get the idea) cue before they are required to respond. It's like nagging :).

Nagging feels right

We, as humans, take language for granted and we tend to forget that animals don't think of words as we do. They understand words as sounds that are connected to particular situations. We make our mistake by assuming cues cause behaviors to happen :). But if a dog doesn't know the association between the word and its meaning, saying it twice or ten times will make no difference. We are really good at patterning, and most of us don't even realize we are doing it. For most people the magical number is 3 - sit, sit, SIT, and then you mean it. Generally, it's because we get irritated at about the same time each time this happens. But once you reach your magical number, generally you get angry or frustrated and two things happen - your voice and your body posture changes. That certainly doesn't make training fun for you or your dog.

River says "You are boring me with
your meaningless words."

It's a bit of a fix

Don't panic if you realize you have been nagging your dog for behaviors. Consistency is key here too - not only in the verbal and physical cue, but also in how you respond after you give the cue. So try to give your cue once and then wait for 20 seconds to allow your dog to realize that you aren't going to keep saying it. If your dog does what you have asked withing that time frame, praise and reward them! If your dog simply stands there, you have a few options:
  1. If your dog isn't complying with your request because they are too distracted, maybe you are over threshold. Go further away from whatever is distracting them and ask again.
  2. If your dog isn't complying but is still focused on you, turn your back and walk away. Your dog will mostly likely follow you to get another chance for their reward. Give the cue again and give them another 20 seconds to comply.
  3. If your dog still isn't performing the behavior you are asking for, then help them. It may be just that they really don't understand the cue in the current situation. So using either luring or shaping get them to perform the behavior and reward. Then focus on teaching them until you are certain that they know what you want in all situations.

Do you ever catch yourself nagging your dog? Or even your spouse? :)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Managing Thresholds

M is for MANAGING THRESHOLDS. 'Threshold' is a kind of buzz word in dog training and is generally used in three contexts: over threshold, under threshold, and sub-threshold. So what do these terms really mean??

The term 'threshold' can have a variety of uses, but when you simplify it (and I am ALL for simplifying), it just a clear point at which something changes. The line between desirable and undesirable behavior :). So from a dog training perspective the threshold is an 'imaginary line' where a stimulus is intense enough to produce an effect on your dog - the exact point where your behavior starts to break down.
Bourbon over threshold at a Coursing event.

The threshold of your life

All dogs have a threshold. Some dogs, like Bourbon, have low thresholds - his behavior becomes undesirable VERY quickly in the presence of stress. Other dogs have high thresholds, sometimes I wish I had one of those dogs :). Generally, when a dog is under threshold, they appear calm and under control, and they are capable of taking treats (this can be an important facet of thresholds). When a dog goes over threshold, there are varying responses depending on their personality. Some shut down and withdraw into themselves, and may avoid the stressful object or situation (this type of reaction is sometimes hard for dog owners to realize). Other dogs appear out of control (think Bourbon!) - screaming, lunging, and generally making a huge display of anxiety and arousal. These are much easier recognized and what everyone refers to as reactive.

So why are thresholds important? If your dog has gone over threshold then they are too stressed to learn. Their flight or fight instinct has been activated in the brain and learning cannot take place because factors of survival become the primary importance. But just to make it harder for us :), threshold levels are fluid and contextual. For example, your dog may do fine 10 feet away from a trigger today, but tomorrow he may be reactive at 15 feet away. The threshold levels vary depending on several factors - location, number or types of people or dogs present, physical considerations, hormones, past history or assocations - the factors are endless. 

Seeing is job #1

So how do you gauge your dog's threshold? Mostly through observation of four major things: overall body language of your dog, their automatic reflexes, the environment, and your dog's response to the environment. Dog owners, especially those with reactive dogs, need to learn how to assess their dogs and the environment continually. So learn as much about dog body language as you can, especially your dog's body movements during a wide variety of emotions. And when watching the environment pay attention to triggers and patterns. Notice which things cause your dog to go over threshold - you want to be able to predict what will cause your dog to react (but try not to anticipate a reaction!) so that you can adjust your distance or intensity accordingly. As your training goes on you'll find that your dog's threshold is changing. They should be able to keep it together better, and longer, in the presence of triggers.

It's a balancing act to find what is 'just right' to have our dogs be successful in any given situation. For those of you lucky enough to have a 'normal' dog, it's still important to learn your dog's body language and understand how they respond to the factors in the environment. Remember, all dogs have a threshold so pay attention to the early warning signs of stress

Do you have a reactive dog? What are some things you do to keep your dog under threshold?

Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for Locations

L is for LOCATIONS. A big part of proofing our dog's behaviors is taking them on the road :). You need to practice everywhere with everyone! Seriously, if you want your dog to respond to cues no matter where you are, you have to practice in all those different locations. Dogs learn new behaviors quickly, but they are lousy generalizers. They tend to revert back to old, ingrained behaviors in new environments with new stimuli.

Taking it on the road

Once your dog is proficient in the desired behavior you are working on in a lower distraction setting (in your house or in class), you are ready to take your training on the road. You want to make sure to take small steps in this as well - start with practicing in your yard or in your driveway. Then move to short walks around the block. Then try an outing to a park. And so forth.

Monday practicing a sit-stay
on a bench at a local park.
Its important to proof your dog's skills everywhere, which also exposes them to learning with new and different distractions each time. By increase the stimuli in your dog's learning environment and remaining consistent, your dog will continue to adapt his learning and think 'Hey, those rules apply everywhere!' :)

Here is a list of some of our favorite places to practice:

*All rooms of the house (including the bathroom!)
*The backyard
*My neighborhood block (my neighbors enjoy the show!)
*The local parks
*The local pet stores and other stores that allow dogs
*The Farmer's markets
*Friends and relatives' houses
*Group classes

If it all falls apart

If your dog's behavior falls apart in a new environment - go back to basics. Help your dog perform the behavior you are cueing with a treat or toy as a lure. You may even need to back up from whatever is distracting them to get more focus on you. Try to get five to 10 successful repetitions while gradually weaning them off the extra help. Standing there and repeating the cue when your dog is too distracted to hear what you are saying is not teaching the dog anything but how to ignore you.

Increasing your rate of reinforcement to keep them attentive and working is also a good idea when you start out at a new place. As they become more consistent, you can lower your reward rate and rely more on secondary reinforcers or verbal encouragement. With a little patience and practice, it won't be long before your dog realizes that their training working everywhere, regardless of the distraction.

Bring on the public

Overall, learning this way is more like real life for the dog, and the learning tends to become more permanent because the dog begins to realize that the cues work everywhere. The more distractions you practice around, the quicker your dog will learn to generalize their response to your cues :). So be creative and get out there!!

Where are your favorite places to visit? Have you practiced your dog's behaviors there?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Damien's Best Dog Toys: A Bloggerview

At the end of March I contacted Mark at Damien's Best Dog Toys to participate in their 7 Question Blog series. I agreed to answer 7 questions in return for a few toys donated to the Animal Rescue League of Iowa :). That's a win-win in my book! Here is my bloggerview with Mark:

Welcome to this week’s installment of the 7 Questions blog series.

This week I am very excited to hear for Erin Topp, CPDT–KA.
Erin is what I would call a true dog lover.  She is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, owner of Topp Canine Solutions, LCC, and the writer of The Five Dog Blog.  Erin is also certified to administer the AKC Canine Good Citizen test, she is the president of Cyclone Country Kennel Club, the superintendent of a 4H dog project, a volunteer for Animal Rescue League of Iowa , and a foster home for Illinois Doberman Rescue Plus.
Somehow in between her job, her volunteer work, and maintaining her blog she was able to provide some really great answers for my 7 questions.   In exchange for her time and effort the Animal Rescue League of Iowa will receive a donation of 3 Damien’s Best Dog Toys in her name.

7 Questions for Erin

DBDT: Can you tell me about the animals that you have currently living with you?  Please include names and what you might know about their breeds.
Erin: I currently am down to 4 dogs of my own living with me and then a rotating foster. Sadly, I lost Baron (my 7-year old Doberman) back in November to advanced Wobbler’s Disease which is very common in Dobermans. Bourbon is my eldest – he is a 9-year old Doberman that doesn’t understand the meaning of slow. He was a Hurricane Katrina Evacuee and to this day still hates water! Vito will be 7-years old this coming July, he’s what you would call a big mouth in a small package :). He is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier mix rescued from a shelter in Chicago. Monday, an American Staffordshire Terrier, is (at best guess) also turning 7-years old this year. I adopted her from Chicago Bully Breed Rescue almost 5 years ago and she truly is my heart dog. And then there is Rookie, another American Staffordshire Terrier and my most ‘normal’ dog :). He will be 3-years old later this month. Currently, my foster is a 5-year old Doberman named River available through Illinois Doberman Rescue Plus.
Erin and her extended family
Erin and her extended family
DBDT:  I noticed from your blog that you are a Certified Professional Dog Trainer; at what point in your life did you know that you wanted work with dogs as your career?
Erin: Believe it or not, it took me a long time to realize that my life basically revolved around dogs. Ever since I can remember I wanted a dog, but my parents always said no. When I was about 10-years old they agreed to let me get a dog on one condition – I had to take my grandma’s 8-year old Beagle through 4H for the summer first. Their goal was that I would learn how much responsibility having a dog entailed – I don’t think they ever envisioned what that actually set in motion :). But yes, I took Julio (the beagle) through all the weekly training classes and showed him at the County Fair, even earning a blue ribbon! My parents followed through with their end of the bargain as well and I got to adopt my very own dog. We had Freedom (a Border Collie/Springer Spaniel mix) for almost 15 years. That started my love affair, but it wasn’t until much later in my life when I adopted Bourbon and had to deal with all the problems a 70-lb reactive Doberman presented, that I realized how much I loved working with dogs and learning about canine behavior. And I’ve been training (and adding dogs!) ever since. I am just ending an 8-year long career in Veterinary Medicine publishing to start my own dog training business and make that my primary career focus.
DBDT: As a professional dog trainer, what is the one thing that you would like every dog owner, or potential dog owner to know, and why?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for Keywords

K is for KEYWORDS. Here is a word cloud (or whatever you want to call it) of keywords in dog training. <I needed a mental break day LOL!>

I'm new at these configurations - is there a favorite website for creation? An easy way to get these put together? Leave me a comment with some advice (trust me, I need it!).

Friday, April 11, 2014

J is for Journaling

J is for JOURNALING. One of the hardest things for me to do! It's well known that logging performance is one of the keys to continual growth and progress, whether it's a fitness program or dog training :). Journals serve as motivators, record books, training guides, organizational tools, and reminders of why you are involved in training for when the going gets tough.

Get the journal out

I am actually horrible about journaling my dog's training. I am striving to be more consistent and have started using it daily (even when I don't train!) in order to get into the habit. Once it becomes a habit it will be much easier :). Here are a few steps I took to start incorporating a training journal:

  1. Create your journal or pick up a notebook and designate it as your training journal. It doesn't have to be a hardcopy notebook, it can be an Excel spreadsheet, but it should be easily accessible and comfortable for you to use.
    This is a notebook I picked up
    for my journaling!
  2. Decide what information you are going to record. The basics should include the date, what you did, where you were at, and how long you spent on it. I also like to include the type of rewards, what distractions were present, and any additional thoughts or observations I might have add. I'm always thinking of something and trying to get myself to remember it for later - that never works :) but now I write it down!
  3. Keep your journal where you see it :). Seriously, this does help. Having something right in front of your face is a great reminder that it should get done.
  4. Make it a habit. Don't skip a day, because you'll forget about important details and no matter how much you promise to yourself that you will make it up, you won't. The farther behind you get, the harder it is to get started again. It can be a chore but the benefits are huge :).

It's journal time

In the beginning your journal will be like a guidebook to help you remember what you did last session and help provide structure to your training sessions. As you progress, it'll become a motivating source when things don't go as planned - you can go back to the beginning and see how far you've come. Rereading history helps put current challenges into perspective :). It's much easier to see how far you've come when it's on paper in front of you! So go get started :).

No matter your training goal, a journal will help you achieve your training goals. So create and get into the habit of recording (and then don't get out!).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I is for Ideal Timing

I is for IDEAL TIMING. Timing of your marker (clicker or verbal) is important because it marks the behavior and gives your dog information, that yes, that is what I was asking for. The reinforcement (food, toy, etc.) comes after the click. Your dog quickly learns that the behavior they were doing when they heard the click will be reinforced. Practicing mechanical skills to improve your timing, increases your skill at delivering a clear and precise message to your dog.

Clicker mechanics

Clicker training involves several physical (mechanical) skills - watching your dog for the behavior to happen, marking the behavior with a click (i.e., knowing when to click - TIMING), and delivering a reinforcer to your dog. Lucky for us, these skills overlap and they get better with practice! For example, improving your observation skills will naturally improve your timing on when you click for behaviors. :)

When I first started clicker training, I was clumsy and my timing was off. It felt awkward and slightly embarrassing :). But practice does bring improvement and as I became comfortable, I got loads better!

Silly dog, practice is for humans

Before you start clicking away with your dog, it's a good idea to practice your skills sans dog. This will allow you to get comfortable with the mechanics and gain some coordination first :). There are plenty of clicker 'games' out there that you can play to improve your timing (and also your observation skills).

Here is a great video with two common clicker games:

Another fun game you can play requires a human friend :). Get together and decide in advance what behavior you are going to click - for example, raising two fingers like a peace sign. If your partner raises one finger or three fingers, or any other combination of figures, you don't click, but the instant she raises two fingers in a peace sign, you click.

You'll start to notice when you have played these games and practiced your timing, you have also improved your observational skills. Win-win :). Now that you have practiced your clicker mechanics to a level of comfortableness, it's time to add the dog!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

H is for How-To

Today H is for HOW-TO. Just exactly how do you get behaviors you want from your dog? And how do you get them to keep repeating those behaviors?

Pure Behavior

There are generally three ways to solicit a behavior so that you can mark it: luring, shaping, and catching.


Luring involves using a treat like a guide to help your pet into a desired position. The lure (a tasty treat) is held right in front of your dog's nose and then moved while they follow it. For example, to lure your dog into a sit position, hold a piece of food in front of their nose and slowly draw it upwards angling slightly back towards their butt. The food will draw your dog's nose up and in return also lower their butt. As soon as their rear end hits the floor, click and treat for the sit. After just a few repetitions, you can remove the food and use the same hand motion as before to prompt your dog to sit. Over many more repetitions, you can gradually make this hand signal smaller and shorter to whatever signal you desire for the final cue.


With shaping, you gradually build a new  behavior by clicking and rewarding a series of small stages that culminate in a final behavior. Shaping can be a great method for training new behaviors or behavior chains that your pet doesn't do naturally. You start by rewarding the first small behavior that begins the final behavior you are aiming towards. When they have mastered the first step, you ask a bit more of them - requiring them to do the first step and the next small step to earn the click and treat. For example, to get your dog to wave, you might start by clicking and treating when they shift their weight off one paw slightly. Once they are shifting their weight smoothly over several repetitions, you raise your criteria to only clicking when they raise their front paw off the floor an inch. When they have those paw raises down, raise your criteria again to increase the distance by an inch or two before you click. By reinforcing each tiny step, the final behavior is built without any frustration but a lot of enthusiasm :).


Capturing means that you catch your dog in the act of doing the behavior you want (without any prompting). It's obviously a great method for training behaviors that your pet already does naturally. For example, if you are training your dog to lie down you should situate yourself in the same room as your dog and just wait. The instant your dog lies down, click and toss a treat on the ground a few feet in front of them. They'll have to stand up to take the treat which will reset him so that he has to perform the act of lying down again. Continue the sequence of waiting for your dog to lie down on their own, and then clicking and tossing a treat the moment they do. With repetition, your dog will eventually look at you and lie down and at that point you can start putting a cue on it.

Dude, you're getting a cue!

Whether you've used luring, shaping, or capturing to get a behavior you want, your next step is to add a verbal cue. (Refer back to my C is for Consistent Cues entry for tips on cues.) If you've used luring, you'll know you're ready for a verbal cue when your dog is consistently doing the behavior as soon as you give your hand signal. :) If you've used shaping or capturing, you can add the cue when your dog is confidently repeating the behavior, without any other behaviors in between.

Adding the cue:

  • First say the cue word you'd like to use (say it only once, don't nag!)
  • Then use your hand signal or wait for the behavior.
  • Click and treat the instant your dog performs the behavior.

After you've added the cue, don't reward the behavior anymore unless you have given the cue first. And remember, be sure to say your cue before your pet does the behavior you want, not at the same time :).

Which one of these methods do you use most often? Why? :)

Monday, April 7, 2014

F is for Focused and Fun

Today my F is for FOCUSED and FUN. Who doesn't like to have to fun?!? I know our dogs are especially excited for fun things :). And excitement feeds motivation, which gives us a willingness to work that will light our training sessions on fire!

Many times people and their dogs get bored practicing the same exercises over and over during training. That isn't fun for anyone! Think of new ways to practice behaviors - hide and seek for recalls, new places (like on the stairs or in the bathroom) for stationary positions, incorporate novel objects (like boxes or hula hoops), or use toys and play intermixed with the cued behaviors. I try to work as much play into a training session as I can!

Monday gives great focus :).
Which brings us to focus - the more fun your dog has while training, the more likely they will remain focused on you. Focus is key because how can your dog learn what you are teaching if he's not paying attention? :) Here are a few tips to help build focus and maintain the fun:

  • Keep training short: 5-10 minute long sessions a few times a day is easier for the dog to handle. Also make sure to end your training sessions while your dog is still interested in working for you, leave them wanting more :).
  • Work at the right pace: try to structure your sessions so that your dog remains successful the majority of the time. You want to shoot for 80-90% accuracy before making your training harder.
  • Add distractions early: once your dog has mastered a behavior, incorporate distractions before adding the other two variables (duration and distance). For a good example of this check out the two videos I featured in my Stay post last month.
  • Vary the reward: change up the type of treats you offer (remembering to keep them high value) to keep it interesting. Toys can also be alternated with food or with other different kinds of toys. I like to also employ fast movements and games of chase - what dog doesn't enjoy a quick game of chase? :) I use that a lot when working on loose leash walking.
  • Be in the moment: this one is for us :). Make sure to give your dog your full attention - remove distractions like TVs and phones. If you want your dog to focus on you, you have to give them focus right back.
  • And remember to ALWAYS EMPHASIZE THE POSITIVE (plus check your attitude!). Positive reinforcement training builds confidence and joy and in training.

Keep training light and fun for your dog (and you!) by effectively using food, play, and plenty of praise and enthusiasm. How much fun is your dog having?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

E is for Exercise and Enrichment

Appropriate Exercise and Enrichment increases your dogs ability to focus. And who doesn't want a dog that can focus on what you are asking?!? :)

Exercise Wanted

Lack of appropriate outlets for energy makes it much harder for your dog to practice the behaviors you are training. So first, if your dog has been a couch potato, make sure to check with your veterinarian before you start an exercise program with your dog. The average dog will benefit from a minimum of two outings per day, usually an hour on one outing and a half hour on another. If you have an enclosed area (like a fenced-in yard) off-leash exercise is best as it allows your dog to monitor his own exercise (you of course should be out there enticing him into playing!), and scheduling play dates with friends' dogs can be a great way for your to dog to burn off energy. You can also take your dogs out jogging, roller blading, or bike riding if those are things that you enjoy. Just remember to start out with short distances and build up your dog's stamina for distance just like you would your own.

If you don't want to put the mileage on the pavement, don't forget about playing fetch and tug-o-war. Those are great activities for your dog to expend more energy than you :). And for those dogs that have orthopedic problems, swimming is always a great choice. Vito heartily supports swimming! There are also athletic dog sports that you can participate in - agility, flyball, disc competition, and more!

Vito and I participating in some fun agility.

Choosy Mothers Choose Enrichment

Dogs love to solve problems and they love to use their nose - enrichment food toys combine both these skills :). All animals enjoy spending time and effort in obtaining food, it fulfills their natural seeking instinct. So rather than give your dog its food in a bowl, give them a puzzle to solve instead. Offer your dog their dinner in a Kong, Buster Cube, or other food puzzle. Hide small containers of food around the house and teach your dog to go find them. Or better yet, take their bowl of food and toss it (the food) into the backyard so they have scavenge to find it. Sounds evil doesn't it? :)

A few of the food puzzles we have for our dogs.

You can check out two enrichment toy reviews I've posted:

What are your favorite activities to exercise your dog? Do you use food puzzles for enrichment? if so, which ones are your dog's favorite? We are always looking to add to our collection :).