Archives for posts with tag: reinforcement

Warning: I am jumping onto my soapbox with both feet!!

If I were made queen for a day, one thing at the top of my to-do list — besides beheading any critics — would be to forbid anyone from ever establishing any routines for their dogs other than those for teaching a specific behavior.

I am on my soapbox today because I just spent a considerable amount of time with yet another client who is mystified as to why her new puppy, who was fine at first with going into the crate when she left, suddenly is freaking out about this process. She described to me the routine she carefully followed every time, right down to the puppy “lullabye” CD she put on for her, then asked if there was anything else she could do. Imagine her stunned silence when I said yes, definitely: Dump the routine. NOW!

“Everyone” had told her that routines are good for dogs. (Everyone except a trainer, I hope. Why does everyone think they are dog training experts just because they have a dog? I have a car, but I don’t for one moment think I am a mechanic. But I digress.)

I explained why I said it, then gave her suggestions about how to bust up the routine and work on what really needed to be done, which is to teach her pup to be okay by herself and to self-amuse so she is not dependent on interaction with a human all the time.

What’s wrong with routines?
There are many old beliefs that undermine your relationship with your dog, creating training challenges and missteps. The dominance myth takes the top prize — don’t get me started — but the second-place award in my view goes to the benign-sounding, but truly insidious and slyly damaging, “routines.”

What’s wrong with routines, you ask? After all, humans love routines. We take great comfort in our rituals, plus they help us to remember stuff, like locking our doors and not leaving our coffee cup on the roof of our cars.

But, to state the obvious, dogs are not humans. And they do not see routines the same way we do. For example, you may be shocked to learn routines are a huge contributing factor to separation anxiety. Here’s why:

Human thinks: I’ll do everything in the same order so my dog knows what to expect in the morning, so he’ll be okay with my leaving.

Dog thinks: Oh no, he’s doing all those things that end up with him leaving me! No, no! Don’t go!! I can’t take it!!

When you create a routine, the dog knows exactly what is going to happen. If he doesn’t like what happens, he is going to have a bad reaction to the routine. He doesn’t want you to leave, he wants to be with you. So with every step in the process, he gets more and more nervous. By the time you pick up your keys, he’s a basket case. Let the crate escape, peeing, pooping, chewing and curtain shredding begin!

This very same type of pattern, if used to teach a behavior like a sit/down or pottying outside, is how you get your dog to reliably respond when you ask him to do something: Just like he is sure you are leaving in the prior example — bad for him — he is sure a good thing will happen once his butt hits the floor or he pees in the back yard. The key difference is, once the pattern is established, we start to change it so we can progress — wean off treats, do behavior longer, ignore distractions, etc. In other words, this is not a routine but rather a progressive exercise. It changes, and the dog adjust to the changes, improving his response. In trainerspeak, this is called proofing or generalizing.

When you do the same things in the same way, your dog then expects that same pattern every time, along with the same result. Even when it’s a good thing — you pick up the leash, he’s going for a walk! — if the routine gets altered somehow, he will not handle it well. Put the leash back down without taking him out, and what happens? He might start pacing and panting, going over to the door and back to you as if to say Hey! Why aren’t we going? We always go when you pick up the leash!

(I cannot tell you how many clients tell me they have never used the leash for anything other than walks. I often ask them to leash up inside for work on specific issues, and it gets messy real quick because the dog lathers up when the routine is changed.)

Routines are rigid patterns that can create rigid dogs — they don’t bend, they break. They are incapable of flexibility, become beside themselves when presented with it, and can become quite insistent about returning to the usual pattern. A common example would be the dog who tells YOU when it’s time for dinner or for bed. A less-common example would be the dog who lays across your feet, and if you try to move, growls and snaps.

Create a ‘whatever’ dog who is calm and confident
Breaking up routines allows you to develop a “whatever” dog, the go-with-the-flow pup who adjusts to whatever is going on around him. (“Going with you? Staying home? Eating now? Eating later? Whatever!”) It’s actually a critical part of socialization, but one that is often missed by humans. Socialization is showing the dog the world so he is not afraid of it and knows how to act in it. A well-socialized dog is calmer, more confident, and very much a “whatever” dog.

This is so important that I am getting up on this soapbox and shouting, trying to get everyone’s attention: STOP WITH THE ROUTINES ALREADY!!! Your dog will be happier, and so will you.

So, to recap:

— Routines are BAD!

— Break up your routines to help your dog become a “whatever” dog.

— To teach specific behaviors, use progressive repetitions, slowly changing one detail at a time to help them generalize the behavior (e.g. Sit is the same no matter where I ask for it).

Need more help? Ask a professional — but be sure to ask them if they think routines are good or bad. If they say good, keep looking!

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Ah, spring! 

As  the weather warms, and the spring flowers bloom, another less heralded spring event begins: the rush of panicked calls and emails I receive from dog POGs wondering what is up with their pooches.

They are terrible walkers; jumping all over everyone; charging fences; going after people, kids, dogs; destroying the back yard; barking nonstop; not listening; not coming. I could go on for days, but you get the idea.

They weren’t doing this before, you cry. Why is this happening? 
Ah, spring. Or rather: Uh…spring. 
I live in Northern Ohio. We have winter here, and this year like many other places, we had a fairly nasty one. So we tended to stay in, hibernating, seeing and doing less, hunkering down, waiting for…spring!! Then we burst from our house-caves, raced to the garden centers, parks, ball fields and all that other outdoor stuff we haven’t been able to get to for months. And many of us took our dogs with us. More fun with a dog along, right?
Maybe. See, we happily adjust to the new circumstances, but many dogs don’t. If your dog is new to you, or a puppy, she may have never seen all these places, activities, people before. And she doesn’t know what to make of it. And you did not tell her what it is and what to do with it because you didn’t realize she doesn’t get it. It’s outside! She’s been outside! It’s all great, isn’t it??
I walk my dog Tawny every day, 365, unless it is life-threatening to one of us or she doesn’t want to go. In the winter, I see absolutely no one else. Fine with me. Not in a mood to be neighborly in 10 degrees and a wind-whipped snow storm. Come spring, the fair-weather walkers come out, and Tawny and I have to review our exercises for how to act around other dogs (she is scared of them and gets defensive), while working to avoid as many bad walkers as possible (defined as person casually holding leash loop, usually on phone, and dog yee-hawing all over the place. Danger, Will Robinson!).
In plain terms, most people stop socializing their dogs during the winter (and other times too) and think the dog will be just fine when they pick it up again months later. But think of it this way, if your dog is less than a year old, most of his life has been spent isolated in a house. How would he know what to do in a park, in a crowd of people, around other dogs, around screaming kids, around a ball game, when squirrels and birds are racing around? Same thing for an older dog who has been with you for less than a year. 
They don’t know!! And we, instead of realizing and helping, freak out. Many thankfully call a DogLife Skills Instructor/trainer for help, but many more try to deal with it, mishandle it and make it worse. Suddenly, they have That Dog. They are mystified as to how it happened.
That’s how, people! The solution is proper exposure. The well-socialized dog is the one that has experienced the environment, understands it’s not a threat, and knows how to act when she’s in it. Happy news: It’s never too late, so get going! You want to be outside anyway, right? Fix the problem, and you will enjoy it much more.
Want to know more about dealing with bad reactions? Visit my store http://cp-hipdogs.com/train/shop/ and look for the DogLife Skills Guide “Fear and Overreaction!”

At a client’s house recently, working with her adorable nine-month-old, 95-pound puppy.

She mentioned that, after early success following my instructions, her dog was once again bothering/chasing their cat. “What’s going on?” she asked with exasperation.

Diagnosing time! Here’s roughly how it went (my questions, her answers):

Happening in specific places/situations? No, random.
Cat starting any of it? Possibly, somewhat.
Pup runs up and what happens? Bugs, starts pawing, cat doesn’t leave but starts hissing.
What do you do? Yell and charge over there.
Is that effective? No.
How much are you telling pup she’s wonderful when she exists peacefully with/doesn’t bother the cat? Not at all. I thought that was fixed.

Ah. There it is.

I titled my book Reverse Dog Training for a very good reason: because I believe most people, when faced with a behavior problem, don’t just do the wrong thing, they do the exact opposite of what they should to solve the problem.

This client is further proof of my point. The kickers here are:

– She had already been given the right thing to do, had used it, and it had worked beautifully. The cat was left completely alone.
– After a brief period of success, she stopped using the mark/reward system completely. Dog was “fixed” in her view. (Wished she had told me this!)
– The dog, no longer getting the attention reward she was getting used to for ignoring the cat, slides back into the old habit of going after the cat, which she knows will get the desired results (yelling is attention).
– Everyone is back doing the same thing, and getting the same bad result. And she is wondering what went wrong?

Good/bad of marking
What is wonderful about a mark/reward system is it can work really fast. This can also be a bad thing if you don’t realize that to keep it working, you have to keep doing it (albeit slowly scale back on how often, aka progressing) and permanently change YOUR habits.

When something works immediately, it is thrilling to the owner/POG and makes us trainers/DLSIs look like geniuses. But we — or at least I — always caution that the problem is not gone. We have started the process of eliminating it. It is “fixed for now.”

How to ‘fix forever’
To get “fixed forever,” you have to continue to follow the instructions you were given, slowly varying the exercises and making your dog aware that s/he should do this same thing no matter the circumstances (“proofing” and “generalizing” are the words trainers use).

Put simply, a new habit usually will not erase and replace an old habit in a matter of days or even weeks. And I would contend the longer the old habit (problem behavior) has been in place, the longer it will take to get a reliable new-habit response.

Instant success may be fun — heck, it IS fun! — but long-term success is sooooo satisfying. Well worth the extra work.

If you need help expanding your exercises to get your dog “forever fixed,” see my e-booklet Next Steps! How to Progress Beyond Treats.

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