Archives for posts with tag: teaching

Why does your dog pull you all over the place but walk beautifully for your sitter? Why does he pee in one room of your house but not others? Why does she jump on you but not Aunt Sara? Why does she not take stuff off your counters until you are out of the kitchen?

Hard to trust a dog who’s so unreliable. Guess in response you’ll have to monitor/supervise/restrain/constrain/avoid and otherwise completely contort your life forever…. Ha! Kidding. By the end of this post you will know why s/he’s like that and how simple it is to change.

Selective memory? Stubborn? Or something else?

Longtime dog POGs and well as newbies are often flummoxed by this seemingly erratic behavior (oh for a dollar every time a client describes a dog’s “sudden,” “for no reason” action). They give voice to many possible explanations: this is just how dogs are; he’s very stubborn; she’s not very bright; I need to be more dominant, etc.

Thankfully, none of these is accurate in most cases. Here is your Keep It Simple, common-sense reason for unreliability:

Your dog doesn’t do X all the time because s/he doesn’t know s/he’s supposed to. Which means you haven’t finished teaching yet. Your lesson is not complete.

See, dogs have this interesting way of learning that is very specific, and it can often fool POGs into thinking their work is done. Then when their dogs suddenly don’t do that thing, POGs blurt out things like “What is wrong with you?” and “You know this. You’re just being stubborn!”

Take the standard method of teaching Sit: Person says Sit, slowly raises a treat up and over a dog’s head till the butt goes down, then says GOOD and gives him the treat.

Humans see this pattern of two connected dots: Sit-reward.

Dogs see THIS pattern of connected dots: Sunny-warm-family room-TV on-kids nearby-near my bone-Mom standing facing me-staring-wearing shorts-hair pulled back-smells like peanut butter-holding FOOD!-in right hand-hand turned up-I hear a bird-cat just walked in-Mom said SIT in slow, high voice-moving FOOD!-must follow-butt touches floor-I get FOOD! And PRAISE!

…I may have missed a few, but you get the idea. Where you see a simple exercise, your dog sees a string of things all linked together somehow that results in him getting a treat. The more observant the dog is, the more dots he connects. (For the geeks, in trainerspeak, this is called associative learning.)

Our teaching job then must continue past the establishment of the basic exercise we see and enter into our dogs’ world so we can help her identify which specific dots in the long string are actually the ones that produce the reward (in trainerspeak: shaping). If we don’t do that, we then are leaving the dog to think that possibly ALL those dots are somehow connected to the result. Which means they ALL need to be present for her to produce the behavior we want.

So the next time you work your Sit exercise, if even ONE of those dots is not present, your dog may not Sit. Or he may hesitate. Or he may jump at the treat. And you will snatch the treat away. Or say “No, SIT” in a lower, irritated voice. Or push his butt down to “help” him. Now, not only has at least one dot disappeared, all these new dots have appeared! Are they connected to getting the FOOD or not?

It’s pretty easy to see how quickly this could get confusing for both parties. The break in communication and understanding can completely undermine the teaching process to the point where POGs literally throw up their hands and declare their dogs stupid, unable to listen, incapable of learning. Meanwhile, the dogs keep waiting for a clear message that never comes, and may well end up deciding we are not worth listening to.

We don’t realize what has actually happened — that something changed, the dog noticed, and he now isn’t sure what to do.

Dogs are very detail-oriented (good survival skill!), so they tend to notice way more things than we do. If we are aware of this, the learning process smoothes out substantially. POGs realize they need to reconnect the dots repeatedly as they expand their exercises, say moving to a different room, or a noisier place, or weaning off treats. It’s helpful to remember the less dots you remove at once, the easier it is to reconnect. One dot at a time is best. You are telling your dog, “Yes, I know I changed something again, but this is still the way you get the good stuff!”

Trainers call this proofing, I guess to mean they are proving the dog really knows the exercise. Connecting the dots makes more sense to me.

Continue the teaching by backing up a bit

Think back to a time when you were taught a new task. Did you get confused if a new step is added? Did you struggle if the task was done under different conditions, say noisier or with interruptions? How do you adjust — go back to basics by rereading the directions, listening again to the instructor, watching the video? Take a deep breath to calm and focus yourself? Remove the new step, reestablish the basic task, then attempt the new step again?

Dogs need the same help. So, the next time you start practicing with your dog, if she hesitates, does something else, looks at you with that confused Scooby-Doo face, simply back up in your exercise. Go back to the step she can do with enthusiasm and confidence. Repeat a few times then try your next step again.

If you still get hesitation/confusion, then you probably added/subtracted way too many dots at once without realizing it. Go back to the start and repeat the basic task just the way you first taught it. You may only need one or two repeats to reconnect the dots (watch for that little doggie light bulb to come on!). Once that happens, continue on to the next level.

If your dog got nervous/hyper because of the confusion, take an extra moment or two — slowly walk her off, take a few deep breaths, and quietly wait for her to relax a bit. Then go back to the basic task, etc. (If you can’t read your dog well enough to see all this, then it’s time to go back to basics for you — learn some more dog body language. A place to start: I’ve Never Had a Dog Like This! [https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B07RJV89YR ] has a sidebar in it that points out some important stuff about body language that will help you assess quickly.)

Hope this post connected some dots for you!

When I ask clients what their goals are for their dogs, whether we are dealing with basics or behavior problems, they tell me they want a “good” dog — that is, well-socialized, well-behaved, well-trained. They describe dogs that won’t jump on people, walk nicely on leash, play nice with other dogs, can be taken anywhere, always listen and so on. You know, perfect. And impossible.

I contend what they really mean is they want a safe dog. One they trust. One they don’t have to watch all the time. Or constantly have to keep a leash on, put away or be ready to say No or Off to whenever X occurs.

A safe dog is a more realistic and attainable goal than perfect, and it is a more clearly defined goal than “good.” Here’s how I define it:

A safe dog is one that happily and predictably makes the proper choice most of the time without prompting.

The key pieces of that definition are:

Predictability. POGs need to know their dogs will almost always act properly in a given situation.

Most of the time. Dogs will make mistakes sometimes.

Choice. Dogs can learn to reliably make an appropriate choice in a given situation.

Prompts (“Commands”). Dogs can’t make proper choices if they are always waiting for you to tell them what to do. What happens if you forget to tell them, or you aren’t watching, or you’re not even there?

Happiness. A good attitude is everything. It’s the gas that powers the behavior car. When everything a dog learns is taught with delight and great results, she will be happy to use what she’s been taught. Even when a dog fails to make a proper choice, it’s usually a one-off oopsie with no long-term effects.

Doesn’t that sound like something every POG wants?

The path to safety

If we have agreed that a safe dog is the goal, we next have to figure out how to achieve it. So how does one create a safe dog?

As usual, the answer is simple but not easy. Because, loving POG, it involves YOU changing — your thinking, your attitude, your approach.

That means thinking teaching not correcting/punishing/disciplining.

That means realizing your dog does what he does because A) he thinks it will get him what he wants or B) he thinks it’s what you want or C) he has no idea what to do and is just flailing. In all three instances, the dog is working off no information or misinformation. The only way to fix that is or provide correct information.

That means it is up to us to consistently give our dogs the information necessary to make the desired choice (i.e. this is what to do, this is why you want to do it). And regardless of if you are working on a Sit, a jumping problem or reactivity (“aggression”), every molecule of information needs to be delivered without a hint of threat (i.e. no yelling, no grabbing, no smacking, no yanking, no time-outs in a crate, no frustration, no anger). Because critical to the success of this approach is making sure your dog trusts you 110%. In other words, if you want your dog to be predictable, you have to be predictable too. (One of my favorite sayings is ” ‘Sometimes’ doesn’t work in dog training.”)

But just as you are not perfect, dear POG, neither is your dog. And while we don’t require 100% on things like Sit, we do on things like attacking other dogs and jumping on 90-year-old Granny. For those types of things, we cannot allow our dogs to err. To get to and stay at 100% on those things, in addition to teaching, you must add in some management (aka safety nets). Some common safety nets: Not putting your dog in a situation you aren’t sure he can handle without testing his tolerance first. Or if you have put him in a situation and see him getting nervous, calmly calling him away or walking him away. Using management techniques like this, you prevent a mistake from happening and — bonus — your dog will love you for noticing and trust you all the more. Which could lead to less and less management as time goes on.

Kind, joyful teaching builds trust and more

This isn’t rocket science, folks. Let’s put this concept in human terms: If I ordered you to sit in a chair, and every time you tried to get up I shoved you back down and said “No, Sit,” eventually you would probably stay seated, even though you had no idea why you had to sit in that chair. I got what I wanted, but you got — what? Nothing good, that’s for sure. Anger, confusion, anxiety, resentment are just a few of the possible reactions.

However, if I waved $5 at you and told you it could be yours for sitting in that chair, your butt would be down before I finished the sentence, right? And you would sit as many times as I wanted for $5 a pop (well at least until your legs gave out). If you started to get up, and I said whoops and put the bill away, you would quickly sit back down hoping the bill would reappear, making the clear connection between the action taken and the rewards resulting. This time, we both got something we wanted, making it something we both enjoyed doing. A game where everyone wins.

The next time I saw you, you might slide onto the nearest chair before I pulled a bill out of my pocket, just in case the game is again afoot!

This is the beauty of kind, joyful teaching, and the main reason why it is the surest path to a safe dog. Virtually every exercise results in success for POG and dog, with few mistakes! Good feelings are attached to everything your dog does. No fear, anxiety or mistrust appears because it is not warranted.

That happy attitude brings confidence — Look at me, I know what to do here! Confidence promotes qualities in your dog like tolerance and forgiveness. And even if she isn’t sure what to do, she is more likely to make a choice on the good-attitude side (re-read the chair example) because that’s all she has in her behavior bag. Fear-based or defensive-based behaviors are much less likely to come from a happy, confident, trusting pooch.

Proper, reliable choices made happily. Now that is what I call a safe dog!

I love love love answering questions. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I’ve been to many events where I’ve put out a donations box with an “Ask the Trainer” sign and reveled in the challenge of coming up with a helpful answer to every question. 

When I am with a client or in a class/seminar, I will answer the same question over and over again without hesitation, knowing it can take many repetitions to get the message across and the answer to stick. 

The questions serve many purposes: They not only allow me to share the most up-to-date information available, but also they give me important insights into what comprises the POGs’ database of information, how motivated they are to work, what is lacking, what is causing the problem. 

Among these many questions are productive, insightful ones which make me glow with happiness. But there is one question that I am almost guaranteed to hear at the beginning of any POG contact; unfortunately, is also the one I have determined is the most destructive, the most counterproductive, and the biggest obstacle to fixing any problem I’ve been summoned to handle.

It is this: What do I do when Sparky does [bad thing]?

The “bad thing” can be anything from doesn’t come to pulls on walks to jumps to growls to bites. It really doesn’t matter what the Thing Dog Does You Don’t Want Dog to Do is. The problem is the question itself. The problem is that the POG is asking it at all.

Asking that question tells me that the POG is:

 – being reactive instead of proactive, meaning s/he is not preventing the “bad” behavior from happening so it can be forgotten and replaced.

 – allowing the “bad” behavior to continue, meaning the dog is practicing and reinforcing that behavior over and over.

 – focused on the wrong thing: correcting the “bad” behavior instead of creating the “good” behavior.

 – sees the unacceptable behavior as something “bad” that needs to be “corrected” instead of a habit that needs to be replaced. (Dogs don’t have a right/wrong value system, so it is an exercise in futility to try to teach them right from wrong.)

When I hear that question, I know that the technique and timing of the loving, caring POG’s actions are so far off that the result is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what s/he is trying to accomplish. To wit: The POG is making the situation worse instead of better. 

How can that be? Here’s a typical scenario:

The question: What should I do when Sparky jumps?

 – Usual scenario: Once dog has jumped, POG reacts in one of many ways — from saying No/Off/Down/Sit, pushing the dog down, holding the dog down or some less-kind ways I won’t go into here. The dog is talked to, touched, petted, etc. all of which are ways of reinforcing behavior. 

All these great things happen AFTER the jump has occurred. Dog is satisfied with the result of the jump and learns that every time he wants attention like that, a jump is exactly the way to get it. 

Meanwhile, POG thinks that the problem has been successfully handled because the jumping has stopped. 

The truth is the following pattern has been taught: Jump => Get Attention. POG has not corrected anything, the jumping will recur. POG reaction will get more intense, further reinforcing the behavior. 

Here’s another typical scenario:

The question: What should I do when Sparky pulls on the leash?

 – Usual scenario: Once dog is pulling, POG reacts in one many ways — from saying No, jerking the dog back, telling dog to sit, winding the leash up until the dog is beside POG in a tight-leash death grip, speeding up to let dog get some energy out/do her business/enjoy her walk and hoping for a slowdown later. The dog is talked to, touched, petted, treated, etc. and also gets to keep walking, all of which are ways of reinforcing behavior.

All these things happen AFTER the dog has pulled. Dog is satisfied with the results of pulling and learns that whenever he wants to get to something and/or get attention, all he has to do is pull.

Meanwhile, POG thinks s/he has successfully communicated with the dog because eventually, from tiredness, satiation or pure luck, the dog walks on a loose leash for awhile.

The truth is the following pattern has been taught: Pull => Get Where I Want to Go. POG has not corrected anything, the pulling will recur. POG reaction will get more intense, further reinforcing the behavior. 

See a pattern? Good! Want to create a different one that will actually address the problem behavior? 

The better question

There is a similar but much much better question to ask that puts POGs in proactive/teaching mode instead of reactive/corrective mode. 

It is: What’s the best way to deal with a dog that does X?

Now we’re talking! And here’s the simple answer: 

  1. Prevent the behavior you don’t like.
  2. Teach a new behavior you do like using fun and motivating rewards like food.
  3. Ask for and reward the new behavior in the situation the old behavior usually happens in.
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat!!

And if the old behavior does happen (which it will because no one is perfect)? Then interrupt quietly (that means no talking), slowly, with as little energy as possible. Wait for a calm down/different choice from your dog. Pile on the rewards for that. Over time, your dog will make the practical choice to doing the new rewarding behavior instead of the old behavior that no longer delivers for him.

And you will never have to ask the Worst Question Ever again!

Need more? See my books Reverse Dog Training: A Fresh Perspective for Solving Common Problems and I’ve Never Had a Dog like This! How Modern Society Has Impacted Our Best Friend and What We Can Do About It. 

My new client had obviously had a tiring day with her rescue dog. We had been working on some reactivity issues with visitors, and unfortunately Thanksgiving got in the way of our teaching plan. While the day wasn’t a failure, both POG and dog tried hard but also made mistakes throughout the day. By the time her relatives left, my client was burnt to a crisp.

She emailed a report to me, and she ended with a question: “…have you ever worked with a family who isn’t able to turn this behavior around?”
I knew this was a bad-day/exhaustion-based question, so I gave her my usual responses (yes, but: rarely; you didn’t fail, nothing bad happened so something good happened; this is expected; you did fine; she did fine; you can do it; back to work!). My answer satisfied her; in fact, she reported she had since had a great session with her dog. We were back on track.

Yet, for some reason, her question niggled at me. Of course, I had clients who couldn’t reach their goals for their dog. The reasons varied from life changes to “I am afraid she’ll hurt someone.” The common thread comes down to the POG being physically and/or emotionally unable to continue. Essentially, they give up.

It happens to all of us, DLSIs/trainers and POGs alike: We get that challenging dog, and/or we have a spectacularly bad day, and/or a series of bad days/events, and we run out of coping juice. We go into meltdown mode, selecting from the despair menu of crumpled crying, primal screaming, boisterous swearing, redirected anger, manic cleaning and/or yard work, and extreme self-doubt (that’s my list anyway). Generally, after a while, we pick ourselves up, shake ourselves off and get back to work.

But not always. And that got me to wondering: What if I had given up? 

The Tawny Test

My darling girl Tawny was a challenging dog. And that is putting it mildly. She had a lot of issss-ues, if you will, and she was stuck with someone who had her own issss-ues plus, unfortunately, a similar personality–quick-reacting, impatient, intolerant. We were gasoline and a match. Bad combo! Add in the fact that I was wet behind the ears as a trainer, just starting out and with a lot to learn about what “dog training” really was, and oh my, what a recipe for disaster. 

In my group glasses, I would hold up a piece of paper with stuff written on both sides. This was Tawny’s “bad dog” list–all the behaviors we had fixed, from jumping and digging to separation anxiety and reactivity (“aggression”). I stated I had to write it down so I wouldn’t forget any of it because the problems were all gone, but emphasized that it didn’t happen overnight.

In fact, it was often a slow, hard slog for both of us as we worked to understand each other and learned how to communicate. I was slower on the uptake most of the time, and amazingly Tawny for some reason was very tolerant of my flailings and failings then. And still is, I might add. There were times when I blew it, she blew it, and we both blew it. There were times when something would work for awhile and then suddenly stop working. There were times when I questioned whether I should even have a dog, much less try to teach one anything.

But each time, after the ceremonial wailing and rending of garments, in fairly short order, I slid back into the driver’s seat and eased back onto the course. It was unthinkable to me to do anything else. Tawny was depending on me to sort this out with her. Had I given up, I would have let her down, and also let down all the other dogs who needed my help. I would have let myself down too. I couldn’t let that happen. Quite simply, failure was not an option. 

What I didn’t know then but know now is that arduous, tortuous journey produced marvelous, far-reaching results. I have the dog I always wanted–safe, reliable, well-mannered, a joy most of the time–an achievement I could barely have imagined at the beginning. Even more unimaginable is how much she changed me, pushing me to be a better trainer, better POG, and better human being. Had I not kept trying, neither of us would be the beings we are now. We both hung in there, and today we both are reaping the rewards. 

This is especially meaningful to me now, because I am in a personal situation that allows me little time to manage anything in my life, especially an ill-behaved dog. But she is performing majestically, and I thank her every day for it.

Learning resilience

In trainer circles, we talk about the resilience of dogs, how some bounce back better than others. My dog taught me how to be resilient, and I will be forever grateful I didn’t give up on her, or me. I judge no one who makes a different decision. This is simply my story. I hope it helps someone else struggling to hang on in a bad moment.

More help can be found on my Trained With Kindness (TWiKi) site (“Frustration Emergency?“) [http://www.trainedwithkindness.com/take-action-now-heres-how/frustration-emergency-read-now/] and my CP-HIP site (Problem-Solving Formula e-booklet on my Store page). [http://cp-hipdogs.com/train/shop/]

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