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There’s a lot of debate in the dog training world about positive reinforcement vs. aversive training. Most of us have been around long enough to know that aversive training methods were among the most prevalent training methods used until recently. As with corporal punishment and other forms of ‘teaching’ we’ve overcome in the human world, it’s equally important to be constantly reassessing and questioning our methods as we move towards a better understanding of dogs and how they learn. Tons of new evidence shows that canines learn fast with positive reinforcement. They also develop less behavioral problems associated with fear and anxiety and form healthier relationships with their people with positive reinforcement training.

When talking about punishment, we are most often referring to positive punishment in which the positive implies that something is being administered (as opposed to taken away) and punishment means that the desired effect is to minimize the behavior in the future. Therefore, whatever is being administered is undesirable by the dog (i.e. a pop on the collar). It is true that these methods can be successful, but at what cost? With aversive training, we run the risk of inducing fear and anxiety rather than an understanding of what behaviors we are looking for. Even if the dog seems to understand and ceases to exhibit the behavior, what effect has our punishment had on the relationship? Better yet, in simply punishing dogs for a behavior we don’t want to see, we lack the ability to show them what we’d like to see instead. Punishment can be confusing for a dog. Sometimes, the reaction that a dog may receive for a poor behavior choice has the opposite effect of reinforcing the behavior. Consider the fact that with aversive training, dogs tend to get a lot less positive attention overall so they may be more desperate for any form of attention. Another great risk with aversion techniques is that your dog will make negative associations with the environment in which it is punished. Lets use the example of a choke collar. You may have bought the choke collar for your dog because on walks, she gets overly excited about seeing other dogs and pulls strongly towards them. You’re worried your dog might pull your arm off, so you get a choke collar. Consider now what happens when your dog sees another dog on a walk and pulls. Granted, your dog cannot pull as hard without hurting herself, but the choke collar will cause some discomfort with any pulling. Every time that your dog feels this discomfort, she will be excitedly pulling towards another dog. It’s quite likely that the dog will make an association between the discomfort on her neck and the other dogs that she is staring at when this occurs. Now imagine if a form of punishment occurs only when your dog is looking at you! How horrible would it be for your relationship with your dog to be associated with such negativity? Negative associations happen far too often in the world of aversion training.

If given a choice between reacting with punishment and being proactive with positive attention, positivity is the overall better choice. In using positive reinforcement, you are able to direct your dog’s behavior and show them what you are and aren’t looking for. Positive reinforcement occurs when your dog is given a reward (positive) that has the effect of causing the dog to exhibit the behavior more often (reinforcing). When we talk about rewards, this doesn’t mean treats all of the time. Attention, toys, food, walks, sniffs, pets and even a ‘good dog’ can go a long way. By using all things that your dog finds rewarding as a response for positive behaviors, you’ll increase the probability of seeing those behaviors again. Withholding attention and all other rewards for poor behavior teaches your dog that those actions are not rewarding and they will start to exhibit them less and less. Training with positive reinforcement is not only fun and creative, but you get to maintain a healthy relationship with your dog. Overall, it is a better method to avoid stress, fear and anxiety. There are other important factors to make sure you are setting your dog up for success, such as managing the environment (see another blog post about that) and avoiding situations in which your dog is not ready to exhibit good behavior. Wouldn’t you rather set your dog up for success and be able to celebrate their good behaviors than constantly correct them and causing confusion or negative feelings? I find it best to avoid the frustration and negativity aversive techniques cause for both you and your dog… Instead, enjoy training your dog and use training for mental stimulation, an energy outlet and relationship building.

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IMG_0471WE’ve all been there. Just when you think your new puppy or rescue dog is getting the hang of things, you find a nice present left for you on the carpet. As frustrating as house training can be, and as simple as it may seem to you, the idea of going outside doesn’t necessarily come naturally to our pups. Just like with all positive reinforcement, your dog must learn that going outside is more rewarding than inside. This becomes even more tricky when you take into account how rewarding it is to relieve yourself when you’ve really gotta go! That’s why a strict schedule is such an important part of training.

First and foremost, you need to figure out how long your dog can/should go in between potty breaks. A general rule of thumb is up to 1 hour for every month old your puppy is and no more than 8 hours for an adult dog. Some dogs differ in this timeline based on experience, size, how often you feed the dog, and the dog itself. When scheduling meals, make sure that your dog eats no later than 4 hours before bed and that water is no longer available 2 hours before bed. This will help your nighttime routine. Once you’ve established how long your dog can comfortably hold it, make a schedule to take him/her out as often as needed. Make sure to supervise your dog on all trips outside and give him/her a reward for going potty EVERY TIME. Once you head back inside, your dog can have some free time if they succeeded at eliminating outside. This free time to play and roam around can last about half the time in between having gone and your next trip outside. For example, If you are taking your puppy out every 2 hours, they get the first hour as free time. After free time is over, your dog needs to be tethered to you on a leash or in a crate or penned off area until it’s time to go outside again. If your dog didn’t go after 15 minutes the first time, he/she should be leashed, crated or penned for another hour before you go outside and try again. An example of a one day schedule for a 5 month old puppy might look like this:

7 am – Wake up and go outside immediately

7:15 – Free time to play (if dog went potty, otherwise confined and taken outside in an hour)

8 – Breakfast

9 – Leashed to chair while working on computer

11 – Outside

11:15 – Free time to play (if dog went potty, otherwise confined and taken outside in an hour)

1:30 – crate while running errands

3:30 – Outside

3:45 – Free time to play (if dog went potty, otherwise confined and taken outside in an hour)

6 –  Dinner

7 – Long Walk

8 – Free time to play

10 – Supervised in room while watching TV

11 – Outside

11:15 – Put in crate to sleep

*Take dog outside in the night if you hear any whining in crate, otherwise start schedule over the next day

One important factor that people often get use wrongly is punishment. Punishing a dog for going inside is not only unnecessary for training, but often detrimental to the dog’s progress. First off, your dog most likely will not make the correlation between the act of eliminating and you yelling or worse, physically punishing him. Instead he/she will most likely respond to your body language or associate what is on the floor with your anger without actually realizing what he/she did to cause it. Another unfortunate effect of such punishment is that your dog may learn that they shouldn’t go in front of you or where you can see it (Instead of realizing that location is the important factor). This makes training harder as your dog will be likely to go outside on the leash or in your presence and will instead run off and hide when he/she needs to go. Most importantly, any yelling or physical punishment will harm your relationship with your dog. The last thing you want is for your dog to develop fear or anxiety towards you. Instead, use management of the environment to avoid accidents and positive reinforcement to promote going outside! With a strict schedule and lots of encouragement (for yourself and your dog), your dog will be house trained in no time!!

 

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Puppia

Positive Reinforcement can only work by finding a suitable reward for good behavior. If you are having a hard time getting your dog to focus in a setting, first assess the situation. Are there too many distractions? Is something more rewarding than the treat? If so, work farther away from the dog’s threshold by decreasing distraction, distance or duration of the behavior you are asking for. If this is a common occurance when training, try a smellier, meatier treat that might be more enticing. If that doesn’t work, your dog may not be as treat motivated as some. Not to worry, there are many other ways to reward behavior! If your dog isn’t as motivated by treats, simply find another method of motivation.

 

Some dogs love attention more than treats. Try using petting and excited recognition whenever your dog performs the behavior you are looking for. Make sure to also take all attention away (and even walk away if necessary) when your dog isn’t behaving in a manner you like.

 

Other pups are motivated by movement and love being on the go. One great way to reward these active dogs is to take off in a run with them as soon as they perform the behavior you want. For example, if you are working on reactivity towards other dogs, start running in the opposite direction the second you see another dog (before your dog even has a chance to react).

 

If your dog is more motivated by toys and playtime, that can Easily be used as a reward as well. Always have a fun toy, ball or chew on you and interact with these toys whenever your dog is exhibiting positive behavior. Throw the ball or play a quick game of tug-of-war as soon as you see the behavior you are looking for.

 

Even if treats do work, it’s useful and exciting to switch things up a bit. Try using these other techniques alongside treats. Make sure to always be communicating by voice and with your own body language. Most importantly, have fun and your dog will too!

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Dog

 

Is your dog reactive to the sound of the leash? Do they start to get anxious when you put your shoes on or grab your keys? Many dogs have learned that these cues mean something! Whether good or bad, dogs often learn to react accordingly to the stimulus itself. So how do you change that reaction? By desensitizing them to whatever the stimulus is.

Lets use the example of grabbing the leash. Start by picking the leash up and putting it back down repeatedly. Do this often and randomly. The more often this act is not associated with the dog actually going outside, the less likely they are to react as if it is. Practice doing this over and over when you have no intention of going outside.

When it is time to go outside, pick the leash up and start to move towards the dog. If there is any reaction whatsoever, put the leash back down and walk away. Continue this pattern of picking the leash up and putting the leash on the dog and heading outside. If there is any excited response at any time, move back, put the leash down and walk away. You want the dog to realize that the only thing that will get them on the leash and out the door is calmness!

This technique works for excitement or fear. Make sure you are careful not to move to quickly with a fearful or insecure dog. If your dog tends to have separation anxiety and the act of you grabbing the keys causes a response, use this technique of picking up keys repeatedly and also use a distraction (such as a kong filled with peanut butter) when you are about to leave.

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Most people have a harder time teacher their dogs to come when called than they do with most other basic cues. Why does this happen? Many reasons… To start, we have a poor habit of only asking our dogs to come when they are already distracted by something. This is similar to ignoring the well behaved dog laying in the corner and giving attention to the hyper dog who is mouthing you and jumping on you. Then we wonder why they do that more often than lay in the corner?!

We need to work on things at a level the our dog is ready and able to comprehend. After all, we can’t expect a musician to play Mozart in their first year of learning! Equally as important is not asking for something when we know it isn’t going to happen! Remember, if you call your dog to come when they are chasing a squirrel, you’re asking your dog to give up the reward of chasing a squirrel. A dog who has practiced this cue enough times and been rewarded with treats or praise may very well oblige knowing how rewarding it can be. However, a dog still working on this skill is more likely to ignore your cue. Why ask when you know that the word will lose meaning?

Another mistake we often make is to get frustrated at the lack of response and immediately show how angry or upset we are as soon as we get our dog’s attention. What message does this send? Well, to a dog, this reaction would likely feel like a punishment for coming to you. If we punish our dog when they eventually come, are we convincing them to do it quicker next time? NO!

So how do we successfully work on a recall? We start small, just like everything else. In the house with no distractions, call your dog’s name or use exciting noises or movements to entice your dog to come. The second they start moving towards you, say the word “come” and then “good” followed by a treat upon arrival. Why don’t we say “come” before they start moving towards you? Because we don’t want to lose the meaning of the word. This prevents us from using the word “come” over and over without the response we are looking for. In fact, if your dog is already very selective of when they choose to respond to the cue, you should actually start over with a new word such as “here”.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of things with no distraction indoors, move outside when there is little to no distraction and work out there. Remember to slightly increase only one of three factors (distance, duration or distraction) as you continue to move forward in training. Eventually, you can have a dog that will come from across the park right in the middle of a squirrel chase.

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Dog

A recent visit to the dog park inspired me to write about the responsibilities of dog owners who take their furry companions to play there. It’s important to note that I have very mixed feelings about dog parks in the first place. The idea of a place to bring dogs that is safe for off leash play and interactions with other dogs and people is great. In theory, it should be a place for exercise, socialization, and even a ideal spot for like minded (dog loving) people to mingle. However, there are a lot of things that people don’t consider (or fail to understand) when it comes to dog parks and the dangers of such a seemingly wonderful place…

First off, dog parks are for dogs! I know this may seem obvious to a lot of you, but what isn’t necessarily obvious is all that this entails. Anyone bringing their dog(s) here should have a basic understanding of who their dog gets along with and who their dog doesn’t get along with. If you go to the park knowing, for example, that your dog doesn’t like men with hats on. Noticing a man with a hat inside the park should be enough to deter you from entering. Same goes for any other type of person or dog that you know your dog may have a hard time with. When in doubt, LEAVE!

That being said, there are usually (and should ALWAYS be) restrictions on what types of humans are allowed in the dog park. Small children have no business being there. As much as a toddler would love to be surrounded by dogs in a park where he/she can run around and pet new furry friends, it is an extremely dangerous place for a them! This is the encounter that I had at my last visit to the dog park. My dogs and I were first greeted by a two year old when entering the park. Luckily, Kona and Hobbes are used to children, so this little girl escaped with just a few licks to the face from Hobbes. I wouldn’t be surprised though, if even my own kid loving pups had knocked her down on their way to chase a ball or meet another dog in sight. Any dogs that are afraid of or aggressive towards children could posed a much worse threat. As one other dog parent said so eloquently ‘Children aren’t allowed here. If my dog jumps up and nips her, it’s not my fault, it’s her idiot mom’s fault.’

As much as I agreed with this lady’s statement, I decided to take a calmer, nicer approach to try and teach this family about the danger they were putting their toddler in. The little girl was being escorted by what seemed to be her older teenage sister while the mom sat in the small dog area with the stroller. I approached the teenage girl and calmly stated, “from a dog trainer’s perspective, that little girl is in a very dangerous position. This park is for people to bring dogs to, and those dogs don’t always feel comfortable around children. She could get bit or even knocked over by a couple of dogs playing. Children aren’t allowed here for a reason, I wouldn’t want to see her get hurt.” The teenage girl honestly hadn’t thought about all this and seemed to understand what I was trying to say. She immediately went back to the other park with the little girl (still not out of the woods, but at least only the family’s small dogs were in there).

It dawned on me that dog parks are dangerous because of either people that don’t understand what the parks are for or people that just don’t understand dogs (including their own). Either way, I would love to see more education out there in regard to dog parks and how to use them responsibly. I plan on educating as many people as I possibly can! Please make sure you understand your dog well enough to know that they will be comfortable in this setting, and that you are always ready to walk away if there is ever a moment of tension.

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For those of you with playful lap dwellers or cuddle bugs, you know that your dog always wants to be next to you. Instead of letting your dog dictate when he/she gets to be on top of you, why not make that decision yourself. Not only will this allow you to eat on the couch in peace, but setting these boundaries is great practice for impulse control for your furry lapdog.
Start by gently brushing your dog off and standing up every time he/she jumps up on the couch uninvited. Do this a few times to get the message across. You don’t need to say anything or do anything physical other than stand up (and brush them off if necessary, although standing is sometimes enough). This will get the message across that there will be no attention given when your dog jumps up uninvited! Next, call your dog over while sitting on the couch and ask him/her to sit next to the couch. Once seated, pat the couch and enthusiastically invite them to come sit with you. Calmly pet your dog and give him/her attention and love. This will teach your dog that they will get the attention they crave when they politely sit and ask to come up first. Repeat this over and over until your dog gets the idea.
DO NOT let your pup jump up uninvited again. Always stand up and/or brush them off so that you can try again with a polite sit. This technique will work on any furniture, so make sure you use it for beds and chairs and anything else your best friend crawls onto with you. Many of you will still use almost every opportunity to invite your dog to sit with you, and I am guilty of that myself… At least this way, on the rare occasion that you don’t want all that fur and slobber on you, you can actually avoid it! Lets face it, your family and friends may also appreciate the lack of a dog in her lap when they visit…
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Girona, Spain

At least 30% of dogs have a phobia of loud noises. This time of year is particularly hard for our furry friends, and making sure they are comfortable and safe can help us avoid intense anxiety in our dogs and destruction in our homes. The best training technique is to work on some noise desensitization far ahead of time. Buying soundtracks with noises and playing them very softly at first while giving your dog lots of treats and love. Slowly increase the volume and continue to do so, never getting loud enough that your dog starts to get anxious. Practicing with noises such as thunder and fireworks in this manner will help your dog learn that there is nothing to fear with these noises, but rather loud noises = treats and love! If you’re left with two little time to do such training (like most are at the moment), try managing the environment to set your dog up for success. Keep a close eye on them today! If you have to leave them anywhere, give them lots of positive things to do such as a treat dispenser, peanut butter filled kong, new toys or chews, etc. Turn on some loud music to drown out the sound of fireworks or thunder. If thunder is the main issue, keep an eye on the weather and try to be home when there are suspected thunderstorms or hire a pet sitter to come by. Remember that anxiety is serious and avoiding it is very important for your dogs health. Happy 4th of July to everyone and their dogs, may you all have a rewarding holiday!

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One of the absolute best training tools is the ‘Look at That’ method (or LAT as it’s known in the world of dog trainers) and it has many implications. What better way to get your dog used to a calm reaction to a stimulus than to give them a reward as they calmly watch the stimulus go by? This technique is extremely helpful in reactive and fearful dogs. You can stage a training session with a friend if your dog is reactive to people, or another pet that is under a friend’s control if your dog is reactive towards other pets. You can even practice this with wildlife if you are able to stay outside the threshold and move away if the stimulus moves in your direction. If by yourself, a park is a good place to start, just choose where you post up wisely. For this example, I will explain for a dog that is reactive towards other dogs. To start, simply ask your dog to sit (or lay down, although not all dogs like to stay in a down position when there are things happening around them) in an area where there are no current distractions with high quality treats to reward them. Choose a spot that is far enough away from any stimulus that might elicit a response, a spot that it is just barely outside the threshold of your dog’s likeliness of reacting. Make sure this spot will remain just outside that threshold so for the duration of the training. If your dog reacts at any point, move farther away, you are too close! Once you have your dog in a sit or down, wait for any dog nearby that you are looking to practice with. As a dog approaches, have your body in between your dog and the dog nearby and slowly allow your dog to look at this other dog. As your dog sees the other dog, say ‘good’ and reward with a treat. The idea is that your dog won’t have time to react to this other dog and will instead focus on a yummy treat that it has been rewarded for not reacting and staying calm. If your dog seems to be too fixated and starts to elicit a reaction, move in front of his/her view and continue to talk calmly and reward as long as no reaction occurs. Once you are able to repeat this exercise for a few sessions with at least a handful of stimuli walking by each time, you can practice a little bit closer to the stimulus. Eventually, the threshold for your dog’s reactivity will be closer and closer until you can practice walking by other dogs (or people or wildlife). Such a simple yet effective technique!

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Wanting to teach your pup a new trick, but not sure how to get them there? Try breaking it down into small steps that your dog and you can be successful at! Start with the basics and make sure you dog understands a ‘touch’ command to get them excited about using a food lure. Teach ‘touch’ by putting a hand out (without a treat) and waiting for your dog to become curious enough to inspect. The second their nose touches, say ‘touch’ followed by a positive reward marker (click or ‘good’) and treat. Continue this until they are good at touching on command. Once they have this down, they will be more inclined to follow a food lure. Remember that you can be as creative as you’d like using the lure to get your pup into a ‘down’, ‘roll over’, jump through a hoop and much much more. Just make it easy at first and reward for small steps towards what you are looking for! For example; if you are trying to work on a ‘roll over’, start with a down and then drag your lure along their hip until they start to roll onto their back. Make sure to reward these steps at first and then slowly reward more and more turning until they have made it all the way over. The more creative you are, the more mentally stimulating it is for your pup and the more fun you can have!

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