Friday, December 16, 2016

Training the Dog 1: A Discussion on Distraction Training

Training isn't just about solving or stopping behavior issues from happening, it's about working towards being a team with the dog of your dreams. Every single time you train behaviors, you are teaching a dog--a living creature with her own thoughts, emotions, and personality.

In Basic Obedience class, where the dogs learn sit, down, come when called, etc they are laying down a strong foundation. However, many trainers, for dogs at this level, are focused on the behaviors, and, as stated before, every time you train behaviors, you are teaching a dog. So, other than the behaviors, what is the dog learning? Trainers who know this can better choose methods for each behavior which support their overall program and support the growth of the dog-owner team. Teaching actual behaviors comprises perhaps 10% of all training you do with your dog. The other 90% is maintaining behaviors and making them stronger in the face of distractions.

Let's focus a little bit on distraction training. Dogs will choose not to listen for many reasons. The top 3 reasons why dogs will get distracted, in my experience, is because: They want to play with that thing over there more than they want to play obedience with you, their nervous systems are overloaded with stimuli, and they don't understand what you want out of them.

I tell my students that we are building thinking dogs. I want a dog who has the ability to weigh the two choices in their mind, obedience vs distraction, and can clearly choose obedience over distraction. If they can do that, then the dog will actually be motivated to problem solve their way into achieving obedience in the face of difficult distractions. Which will mean that, when the dog is put into a difficult situation, they will not only be able to choose the choice that benefits the team (picking obedience over competing reinforcers), but that choice will create a dog that will value work even more. It's really cool. Here's an example of one of the games I play in Level Two to build this:

I also tell my students that dogs are emotional creatures and that, like people, they either make good decisions or emotional ones. When their nervous systems are overloaded, a dog is either just a crazy-bean going around and jumping on everything or they are super stressed out and withdrawn into themselves. Dogs stress up or down. The crazy dog stresses up. The dog that practices avoidance (looking away, trying to escape obedience) is stressing down. With my dogs, I try to build emotional self-control and a habit of calm. I also build the skill of the dog being able to calm themselves after being energized and to be able to think even while intense and hyper. This is one of my students showing the calm mindset I am talking about while playing another "choose work over reward" type of game. I tell my students that dogs usually have a lead foot, they get to 100mph pretty easily, but don't know how to apply the brakes and that's what gets them into trouble. Basically, the foundation the dog has learned should teach him how to drive at a speed (be at a level of arousal [excitement]) where he can best listen to you.

And sometimes, the dog doesn't understand what is asked of her. Some people can be frustrated with this one even though it's the most obvious. Dogs do not generalize well. What works in the living room, they don't know also works out in the real world until you explain it to them. One of my students didn't understand how to do a stay out in the middle of the pet store. I told the owner to break it down as if you were teaching it anew. Ahhhh, I see. The dog seemed to say. That thing works out here, too! He then added ten or fifteen feet to the stay plus added faster movement away from the dog. Just took an extra minute of explanation, then the dog was all about working and the team could progress. Imagine how unfair it would have been if the dog was corrected for not complying with a command when the problem was simply that he did not understand or was not confident in that environment.

When you train a dog, it's more elegant and cleaner training if the foundation games will eventually turn into distraction training and will help the dog be able to finish her behaviors in different environments. I believe that choosing work (obedience) over rewards, teaching healthy ways to cope with stress, and showing the dog you will always be a fair teacher are important things you should not neglect in your foundation.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

New Page with Links and Resources

I decided to make a new page full of my favorite books, videos, and other easy-to-access resources. I also typed up the reasons why I included them on the list and how they helped my dog and/or could help other dogs. I highly recommend everything on the list. I will definitely add more to it once I think of more. I will, in addition, post links to any cool articles I find.

Thank you guys for following my blog! Here is the link:

Recommended Books, Videos, etc.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Low-Stress Handling Tutorial Notes and Explanations

This is my dog getting her nails clipped. When I first got her, her nails were overgrown and she was afraid of the clippers. The reason she's so calm is that I've built a system of consent with her. What this means is that if she needs a break, she can ask for it and I will honor her request. Before I manipulate her paws, I ask her if she's ready before I do so. When you give your dog more power and control in this sort of situation, you also give her more confidence and more reason to trust you.

When you go to the dentist, the dentist doesn't hold you down and put things in your mouth against your will. Rather, you hear "say ah" and the dentist will explain what he or she is about to do to you and if you are ready for it. Small things like this helps you feel more at ease.

The focus of a training program to get your dog to be able to get the nails clipped should not be to get the nails cut. Believe it or not, the only thing you should ever focus on is how comfortable your dog is. That was all I focused on for my dog. Within a month, she was as comfortable as she is in the above video.

Below, I have a video tutorial of the process I took to get there as well as an explanation for the training choices I have made and why they were important:

Step 1. Start with impulse control exercises to teach a calm marker word
A calm marker word is important when building calm behaviors where it will be useful to mark the exact moment the dog has succeeded in a task. The calm marker word tells the dog "yes, you've earned the cookie, but wait for me to calmly hand it to you." 

I usually just start teaching it with a normal leave it. When I say good, I pick up the treat and hand it to my dog. That's it. Note in the video the difference between good and Pip's normal marker word yes. Also notice how she gets calmer and calmer with each good.

Step 2. Touch the dog while the dog is leaving the treat.
I gently touch the dog's toes. All she has to do is hold still and then I'll mark with good as I touch her feet and after I say good, I take my hand off of her and reach for the cookie. The dog is actually working for both the food and for the hand to retreat. A good trainer recognizes every reward the dog is working for--not just the one you intended for the dog to work for.

Note the calm treat delivery. What that means is that I put the treat under her mouth so she has to lap it up out of my hand rather than snatch at it. 

Step 3. Practice with a cookie pile and feed from the pile
Pip is aware of the cookie pile, but is not obsessed about it. But the point is that the dog stops focusing so intently on the treats and is more focused on what you are doing and what you are asking of her. If your goal is to do this exercise without the cookie pile, you may start fading the cookies by putting them further away and eventually hiding them.

If the dog pulls her foot away, let her. It's important feedback for the both of you: It tells your dog that you will honor her requests for space and it tells you that you pushed your dog further than she was ready for. My dog Pip is a rescue from the shelter and she typically begins every nail clipping session by pulling her foot away to see if this is still true. It always is. Then, she proceeds with confidence.

I use low value rather than high value cookies for this training for several reasons:

  1. High value rewards skew the dog's threshold. Many dogs will do things that make them uncomfortable for the sake of a reward that they really, really want. There used to be a game show on TV that was based on this concept, where people did things that they would never do for the sake of a substantial cash reward.
  2. The dog's focus should be on what's going on--not on the reward. In addition, I don't direct the dog's attention onto or away from anything. I want the dog to look where she needs to look. Doing it this way also helps the dog have an easier time transferring the coping skills they are using to times when there are no rewards. The dog is working more for feeling comfortable and safe than for the cookies themselves.
  3. Using low value rewards also forces the trainer to work at the dog's pace. Dogs are very honest. If she won't let you touch her paw for a piece of kibble, but will let you have your hand reach towards her as long as it stays 18 inches away, that's where you have to start.
  4. Low value rewards help promote calmer behavior. Using low value rewards brings down the energy level of training in general for a dog. Handling a nervous dog is absolutely a place where you want the dog to display a calmer affect.
Final Notes
Once again, the dog sets the pace. The reason why this method works is it gives the dog a safe structure in which to feel mildly stressed, learn to process, and cope that stress at the pace the dog needs to do so. You can adapt this structure for different behavior issues as well.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Why I Train the Way I Do

I want to describe my training method today. In another month, I would have had my crazy shelter dog for a year. She has blossomed into an amazing little dog in the almost-year I've had her. No longer is she the afraid-of-everything, bitey, barky, adrenaline junkie who just couldn't stop. Now, she's an eager training partner who gives me everything she can. We're going to chase titles in our next year together. I attribute our great progress to the training methodology I chose to use with her.

I'm a positive trainer. That means that I reward good behaviors to teach my dog to make good choices to avoid or solve behavior issues. If you've followed my blog or Youtube channel, then you will know how I handled many of my dog's behavior issues without resorting to pain, fear of pain, threats, application of force, discomfort or intimidation of any kind. I do this because what I want is a dog who is confident, responsive to cues, and eager to learn without losing her spark of life. Below is a video showing Pip off leash at a picnic.

I utilize clicker training. Clicker training is using the clicker as a tool to build behaviors in ways that luring alone could not accomplish. I think that the most important method clicker training introduces is shaping. Interestingly enough, you don't need a clicker to clicker train. All you need is a distinct marker. Pip has a couple that I have conditioned in different ways, including the word "yes." I do this because I want a dog who understands a system of communication and is able to learn new skills extremely quickly. She has a sustained nose touch because she completely understands what she's supposed to do to earn her reward.

I also focus on my dog's emotional state. How does she feel in a given situation? A lot of people neglect this aspect when making sure the dog feels safe, secure, and happy first would prevent a lot of "my dog is too distracted" or "my dog won't take rewards." I always focus on if Pip feels safe first. I carry this over to my dog training classes with dogs that are too stressed or overwhelmed to take rewards. I do this because it creates a dog who trusts me, who knows I will keep her safe, and who knows I will listen to her needs before I ask her to do difficult things. Below is a video of her nails being clipped. I hope you notice her brighten up when she sees the clippers! 

Pip gives me 100% when she works with me because I really try to make the training all about her. I threw the item badly in this video, but look at how she just never gives up on her task. 

She's my little diamond in the rough. I can't wait for what incredible things we'll do next year! 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Pip Progress: Pip's Picnic

I always focus on my dog's emotions and stress levels in a situation. I teach Pip to make good choices when she's stressed and teach her healthy coping mechanisms such as being able to look at and look away from the things that used to trigger her into an aggressive display (barking and lunging). I teach her she should sniff the ground when feeling mildly stressed instead of fixating on her triggers until she reacts. 

In the above video, which is from April 2016, I'm teaching her that she has the choice to move away, ask for space, and you can actually see that this has carried over to so much of her other training as well. Her behavior issue of biting me after walks is completely gone and I can safely take off her harness after walks without risk of a bite. And... Pip went to a picnic!

These two videos above are of Pip at a picnic which are very recent (June 2016)! She did amazing and was comfortable and quiet. I could not have done in a few months ago and she would have been panic-barking at everyone without all of the work I've made on teaching her how to cope with stress, make good choices, and trust me.

Pip was very easy to manage at the picnic. She didn't bark or lunge at anybody and was mostly quietly moseying around. To the left is a photograph of the Pipster being comfortable at the picnic.

What helped her a lot was Otis being there. Otis is the black and white dog. He's a chow-dalmatian mix and is, believe it or not, ten years old. He's my dad's dog, but I was the one who trained him, so I often say my dog when referring to him. Otis used to be incredibly dog- and human-aggressive, but you can see from the videos how Otis is always welcome at picnics and parades now. I used the same training I used for Pip (teaching to make good choices and stay relaxed). I used all positive methods and did not introduce punishments in any part of the behavior modification.

I can't wait until Pip is able to be chill like Otis. Her temperament underneath her nervousness is actually a lot better than Otis's anxious one so I believe she'll eventually be confident enough to trial.

Otis sniffing Pip calmly. It's very important to me that my dogs are able to
show calm interest in other dogs instead of being aggressive or too excited.

Otis walking away after sniffing while Pip shows interest in a person.

Otis is probably the most photogenic dog ever. Show him a camera, he models.

In comparison, Pip really has to work on her modelling skills.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Pip Progress: Graduation and Distraction Training

Pip has graduated from her Basic Obedience class with flying colors. She started as the creepy kid yelling in the corner and just a whirlwind of mayhem and stress and fear to the best little doggy I could ever hope for! She still needs help with her fear of people, but lately it has been easily manageable as she doesn't really have the intense freak-outs that she used to have. At the end of the class, she held a stay in a crowded room with a happy expression. "I got this," she seemed to be saying with confidence. I just have to keep working with her.

Now that she's less fearful all around, I have been able to really amp up the difficulty of her distraction training and have taken it outside. She does great near our apartment and in grassy fields, but still falls apart in pet stores and other enclosed, indoor spaces with tons of people.

Look at this video, I can't believe how far she's come. She's my lovely girl. You can see directly how difficult games indoors and asking her to choose me over the reward over and over again helps her to be able to process the distractions outside and tune them out. To me, she looks like a typical, young dog in this video. Before, she wasn't able to do this. But she's been improving steadily day by day.

Most of my training had been on what I consider important foundation skills as well as teaching her how to be less afraid of the world. Now, I'm finally able to work on fun tricks. She learned "tall" (standing up on her hind legs) and "wave" (lifting her left paw in the air) rather quickly.

Here I'm attaching a verbal cue to her wave behavior. I've also been teaching her backwards circles around me. She's actually getting it really fast and I didn't need the wall since she backs up directly straight from my hand, so I just sort of chase her around me with my "back up" hand signal. Once she has muscle memory and fluency with this exercise, I will attach the word and then fade my hand. She's already starting to get the rhythm of the trick. I'll try to film the progress we're making on that trick.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Increasing Difficulty and Handling Mistakes

When training your dog, you want to vary the challenges you give her. Sometimes, it will be hard and sometimes it will be easy. And sometimes, you'll hit that sweet spot where it's hard enough for the dog to feel challenged and easy enough for the dog to win, over and over again.  Challenge and mistakes are a natural part of training, especially once you get into the more advanced stages of your training. When laying down foundations, you want the learning to be as errorless as possible.

I started the training session by combining two well-known behaviors in a training session, matwork and platformwork. I expected her to make a few mistakes, but she did it perfectly from the get-go, even with the cookies on the floor. She didn't even look at the cookies on the floor. I finished this set (I train so that the short sets contain only a few reps) and continued with the session. Some sets were easier than this one and some were much harder. And it's okay if the dog makes some mistakes on the harder ones. It just all depends on how the mistakes are handled and what the team learns from them.

Here are some of the mistakes Pip made in this session. I picked out the two reps that I think show some good ways to teach your dog about how the team will handle mistakes. In the first rep, I show Pip she's allowed to take alternative routes if the temptation is too great. She follows my direction and hops onto the mat when asked. After she finished that, I asked her to hop onto the platform. It is obviously hard for her to make that choice, but in the end, she made it and didn't need to take the alternative route. I reward her not just with treats, but with a couple easy reps.

After a few easy sets, I ask for another which is too difficult for her. I try to make it easy by calling her away from the food, but the temptation is too great and she runs over and starts eating the food on the floor. I don't chase her or move her or rush her. Instead, I hurry to save the rest of the treats and then I put away the props so that it's very obvious that the consequence for deciding "Well, now it's too hard, I'll just do what I want" is that the training session ends. You can see how she begs to try again. When I set up the props, she tries them both in turn.

However, this time, notice that I make it only slightly easier for her because I understand I pushed her way too hard in that rep and I knew I did (bad trainer). I didn't want to make it too easy (which would teach her that if she doesn't feel like doing something, she should mess up and then I'll make it easy for her) so I put the treats not between the two props but alongside the path she would take. On the way to the mat, she slows down for a second to look at the treats. She knows it's too tempting when I ask her to go to the platform, so notice that she makes a slight arc away from the treats (perfectly OK) and makes it to the platform. I end the set and the session there.