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!