Category Archives: Tips and Tricks

The “Only Dog” Syndrome, part III

In addition to being stinted in the learning-to-be-a dog department, pooches that are the only canine in a home have a few other disadvantages. Especially if their sole house-mates are one or two adults, only-dogs usually have low Frustration Tolerance and little Impulse Control. Just like children with no siblings, they are used to having ALL their parents’ time and attention. They don’t get any practice in SHARING or TAKING TURNS or learn to WAIT for what they want!

Low Frustration Tolerance and an Impulse Control deficit manifest in somewhat the same ways. Even good-natured dogs with these issues are demanding and needy. They can be pushy, nippy, mouthy, and bark a lot. Though not having true separation anxiety (which is a panic attack beyond the dog’s immediate control) they don’t do well being left alone, and often are destructive when they are. They frequently guard resources, especially “their” people! However, though they “look” the same, and have similar causes, low Frustration Tolerance and Impulse Control deficit are two different issues.

Impulse Control is the ability to REFRAIN from doing the first thing prompted by instinct, excitement, wants, or needs. A good example is Dexter’s dinner bowl. Upon seeing his food bowl being lowered to the ground, Dexter’s first instinctive response is to grab at the food as soon as it comes within reach. Controlling these impulses (whether in kids or dogs) is usually called “good manners.”

Frustration Tolerance is being able to handle not getting something immediately, whether it be food, space or attention. Using the same example, if Dexter’s food bowl is raised out of reach every time he lunges, he may become increasingly aggravated until he “acts out” — barking and/or jumping up to get at the food. If he is an extremely driven, dominant dog, Dexter may growl and snarl. In both children and dogs this reaction is usually called a “tantrum.”

Even if they don’t have to Share or Take Turns at home, most children are sent to school and have to practice those skills with the other kids there. Dogs can be sent to doggie daycare and have the same opportunity. Unfortunately if the lessons aren’t reinforced at home, the poor manners and tantrums will continue. This is especially true for dogs because the canine brain isn’t set up to generalize as well as the human brain is. Dogs can’t easily apply lessons learned in one place/situation, with one set of people/dogs to different circumstances and with others.

Because both these problems have similar causes, they can be addressed with the same strategies. Improving Impulse Control of necessity means that a dog learns to tolerate frustration! And the exercises to teach them are pretty simple. The difficulty comes in the application, dealing with the pre-learning tantrums, and being consistent!

Teach Dexter to WAIT; for food, treats, playing, attention, etc. Don’t ask too much of him at first, one second is a good place to start. So, is his food bowl. If Dexter can Wait until the food bowl is on the ground and he’s told it’s OK to eat, that is the first BIG step! I recommend asking a dog to obey a command before he gets ANY good thing. (Note — if you always ask Dexter to SIT, pretty soon he’ll sit without being asked. The point isn’t that he puts his bottom on the ground, but that he OBEYS you. So, when he sits without a cue, ask him to DOWN.)

In addition, Dexter shouldn’t be allowed to dictate when you play with him or pay attention to him. If it isn’t convenient, tell him, “No!” and make it stick by ignoring him. Ignore the tantrum that will usually result at first. If Dexter is a clever pooch and does something naughty to get your attention, give him a time-out in a different room. Don’t yell because if you do, you just major lost points in that round — he made you look and pay attention to him, didn’t he?

When it gets right down to it, Manners are always best learned at home. Obedience classes can help Dexter learn to listen to you and learn some commands that will help you to teach him manners. Hiring a professional to consult in your home with Behavior Issues will teach you specific strategies to deal with tantrums and naughty behavior. But as Puppy-parents, we must insist that Dexter use good manners on a daily basis to have those lessons stick!

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How Far is Far Enough?

I watched both evenings of the Westminster Dog Show on TV this week.  The coverage was pretty good; certainly better than what a lot of less-prestigious dog shows get.  The TV audience got to see all (or very nearly all) the dogs have their moment with the judge.  Many times during the broadcast, the announcers explained to us that dog shows exist to identify excellence in breeding and encourage good breeding practices.

There is no denying that good breeders work hard to identify and eliminate health and physiological problems from their bloodlines.  Certainly all the dogs at Westminster are gorgeous and well-cared for — and seem happy to be there!  But every year, as I watch and hear the announcer describe the jobs each dog was originally bred to do, I wonder if all the dogs are still being bred with those jobs in mind.

Of course, I’m glad that Bulldogs are no longer used to bait bulls for human entertainment.  It doesn’t bother me a bit that Poodles aren’t used for retrieving birds from cold water anymore. Most terriers probably have better homes now than when they were used as vermin-control on farms!   However, it seems like the dog breeds that still actually DO their traditional jobs in today’s world have an advantage that now-mostly-companion breeds don’t.

Those breeders of the Hunting Group, say, (and the judges awarding the honors in the ring) consider both form and function. The two considerations check and balance each other so that specific traits are not exaggerated.

On the other hand, dogs that “lost” their jobs to changes in society are judges solely on their looks. As an example, English Bulldogs haven’t baited bulls for at least 100 years, and they don’t look much like those English Bulldogs that did. Since their function — bull-baiting — was outlawed, their form has morphed so much that they seem a different breed altogether from their ancestors of the same name. The nasal structures are so pushed back to make the pronouced underbite that the dogs can’t gulp in enough air to keep cool in hot weather. Their legs are so short and bowed that they can only waddle. In any contest between a modern English Bulldog and a real, rip-snorting bull, the dog would be pounded into the ground because he couldn’t run, jump or reach high enough to grab the bull’s nose.

My favorite breed is the German Shepherd Dog, but these days I cringe when the Herding Group comes out. I know the “Best of Breed” GSD will have a top-line that is almost straight from his ears through the withers, the rump and hocks to the ground. Rin-Tin-Tin didn’t look like that! Roy Roger’s Bullet didn’t look like that. Buddy, the first Seeing Eye Dog didn’t look like that! The GSD’s stance in the ring is crouched down on his hind-quarters which is supposed to show how strong and ready-to-leap-into-action he is! It doesn’t look strong to me! It looks like the dog is either cringing or has a weak hind end.

“Wait a minute!” I hear folks saying! “GSDs may not herd animals these days, but they work in the military, police units, search and rescue and…” You’re right, they do! But the pictures I see of those modern working dogs DON’T have that exaggerated “show” top-line. Come to find out, a lot of them aren’t from American bloodlines, but are imported from Germany, the Czech Republic, and other parts of Europe. A dog in the news today, Kody, was just killed in action as a member of the St. Paul K9 police force. I’ve seen that dog on Animal Planet’s K9 COPS, and Kody had sturdy-looking haunches that only sloped very slightly towards the ground! His bloodlines were Italian! None of the working dogs on that show have the “dog-show” topline! I’m willing to bet most of them come from overseas, too.

There are many examples that make me want to cry, “Far enough already!” Please don’t think I’m trying to bad-mouth breeders or berate judges in the show ring. I think these changes have crept in incrementally and imperceptibly through the past 100 years or so because the “function” check was not there to balance the results. All I’m saying is that if I wanted to buy a GSD tomorrow, I would not like what the breeding stimulous of dog shows has produced. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve gone too far!

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The “Only Dog” Syndrome, part II

When I adopted Kita, I made a lot of training mistakes, but there’s ONE thing I did exactly right.  From our first day together, we walked, morning and evening without fail — mostly in a park down the street.  At each walk, we encountered other human/dog pairs on the same mission.  In the evening, EVERYBODY in the neighborhood seemed to be there with their dog(s)!  So Kita, though she was the “only dog” in our household at the time, got lots of socialization!

Kita met small dogs like Jack Russell Terriers and big dogs like Great Danes.   Kita met friendly dogs who wanted to play and adult dogs who hid (often between MY legs, oddly enough) when she wanted to play.  Kita met dogs that scared her (her first meeting with the Great Danes, Kita backed up snapping her jaws in panic) and dogs that were a bit reactive towards her (terriers especially barked and snarled at the ends of their leashes.) Kita met dogs that bowled her over in play, some who lifted a lip at her and some who didn’t tolerate other dogs, but liked her!

In other words, Kita got a lot of real-life experience with other dogs of all shapes, sizes and temperaments.  Plus, she got the experience while she was still young enough to be treated as a puppy by older dogs.  Adult dogs are programmed to be nice to puppies.  They will tolerate rambunctious behavior.  If the puppy makes mistakes in doggie protocol, an adult dog will usually reprimand the puppy in a much more restrained manner than if an adult dog acted the same way.   These lessons in proper doggie etiquette can’t be learned from humans!  Only dogs can teach other dogs the way to behave!

A puppy that does not have this early interaction with other dogs will have a hard time learning those lessons in later life.  The average “only dog” meets other dogs just once in a while.  So, most of them are insecure around others, and react in inappropriate ways out of anxiety and stress.  Get two under-socialized and insecure dogs meeting and the problems escalate!  Add to the equation owners who are nervous because their dog shows some teeth, barks and/or growls and the stress levels increase exponentially!

A lot of clients tell me their dog “goes ballistic” when seeing other dogs on walks.  Not surprisingly, most of these are “only dogs” and have had no close interaction with other canines since they left their litter-mates at 7-8 weeks old.  Now, they are teens/young adults and since dogs are very social animals, they see one of their own kind and get really, really, really excited.  The adrenaline goes through the roof, they don’t know how to behave, they’re “tied up” (on a leash) — so they go off the deep end.

There’s an old saying — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.   It’s really true in this case!  Getting your only-dog puppy out of the house and meeting other dogs takes time and effort, but is at least 16 times less trouble in the long run than dealing with an unsocialized dog later in life.

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The “Only Dog” Syndrome

We all know that dogs are pack animals, like their wild cousins.  Canines were probably domesticated so easily because the human hunter-gatherer group dynamic was similar enough to a pack structure to feel comfortable to them.  In our modern world, when a family adopts Toby-dog, he adopts the family right back as his surrogate pack.

The single-family home is probably even closer to a wild wolf pack, in some ways, than the extended human clan of long ago.  There is a single mated pair that reproduces.  Most other members of the group are their offspring of various ages.  In some cases, an older, non-reproducing adult (grandma or grandpa) also lives there.  So, it’s pretty easy for Toby-dog to figure out relationships.

Allowing Toby to observe the family hierarchy and come to his own conclusions can create problems, though.  If Toby is adopted as a puppy, he will probably consider he is on equal footing with the other puppies — the kids. So, he can treat them in the same rough-and-tumble fashion as he did his littermates.  If he’s adopted as an adult dog, he may consider that his status is above the “cubs” and think he is entitled to discipline them when they don’t show him the proper respect.

These are probably NOT the same views held by the humans of the household.  A  dog in a household of humans must to be taught to obey all the two-leggers — even the kids.  Both adults and children can easily teach Toby that they are dominant — and without any confrontation or force!  Just show Toby that the HUMANS control the RESOURCES.  That means to get anything he wants/needs:  food, water, treats, toys, attention, petting, play, going outside, coming inside, getting in a lap/on the furniture… Toby has to follow a simple command (like SIT) before the human gives it to him!  There are other issues to be addressed, of course, but that’s the idea in a nutshell!

It’s especially important for the truly “only dog” who lives as a surrogate child in a household of one or two adults to learn this.  It’s too easy to give Toby the idea that he is the King of the Castle!  In canine society, the dominant dog doesn’t solicit attention — only the lower-ranking animals lick faces and beg to be noticed.  So, if “his” humans lavish him with “loving” — very natural to us — he gets the idea that he’s Mr. Big-and-Most-Important, because all the other “dogs” are fawning over him.  Oops!

I’m not saying we can’t kiss and cuddle our dogs!  I’m just suggesting that we need to balance it with making Toby “work” for our attention.  There’s nothing punitive about asking Toby to SIT (on the floor) before he gets up in your lap!  It’s good manners!  Just like we teach our human kids to say “Please” and “Thank you” we need to do the same with our dogs!

In one way, no matter how many humans are in the household, if Toby is the only dog it’s going to create other socialization issues.  Think of it this way, a baby is taken from his parents in one country and raised by foster parents in another.  When he meets someone from his “native land” as an adult, he will not understand their language or customs and may give offense without meaning to do so.  Humans, no matter what their age, don’t interact the same way as another dog would, so Toby needs to be taught how to speak “adult Doglish” by meeting with other dogs of all ages.

I’ve gone on long enough today, and will return to this topic tomorrow.  I just really want to stress how important getting your newly adopted dog out of your house and into some interactions with “his own kind” is!  It’s every bit as important as socializing him to lots of different humans.  And socialization needs to happen both inside and outside the home.

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Food overcomes Fear, part two

Yesterday I wrote about my Fridge-fearing canine, Kita. Though she is a rather extreme case, I honestly am surprised that more dogs don’t develop phobias over common household objects and appliances.  There is almost nothing in a dog’s DNA that prepares them for living in our homes with all the noisy machines, confining spaces, and un-natural (to a dog) objects and rules.  Integrating a dog (whether puppy or adult) into your home or introducing him to anything new — things will go smoother with judicious use of treats.

This holds true even for something as simple as a new (or especially the FIRST) collar.  All of a dog’s instincts tell it to avoid traps and confining, choking things, so it’s no surprise that dogs don’t feel yippy-skippy when we buckle a collar on them.  We can make that new, suspicious, even scary thing appear much FRIENDLIER by introducing it with food.

Hold out your hand with the collar looped over your palm and a treat resting on the collar.  Chances are Spot will eye that questionable object hanging there with some mistrust, but will eat the treat.  Repeat a dozen times and Spot will start to ASSOCIATE seeing the collar with getting a treat!    This actually changes Spot’s brain chemistry to create “feel good” hormones instead of “fight or flight” hormones when the collar appears.  Food literally (and chemically) overcomes Fear!  If you go slowly and reward Spot with a treat for letting the collar rest on his back, then on his nose, then when you finally put it on for (at first) a brief moment, he’ll probably look forward to seeing the collar and will learn to wear it with no struggle.

Food can also be used to DESENSITIZE a dog to already-established fears.  If Spot has had bad experiences with a leash, for example, treats can (literally and chemically) change his mind.  First off, get a really yummy treat that Spot maybe hasn’t ever had before — like CHICKEN!  From now on, he won’t get this special treat unless a leash is present.  If he was spooked by one particular leash, get a new one that is made from a different material.

Place the leash on the floor and put CHICKEN on it.  You might have to walk away at first before Spot will approach — he’s no dummy and if he’s scared of a leash he’s really scared wheb it’s in a human’s hands.  After Spot happily eats treats as soon as you place them on the leash — and looks up for more — hang the leash around your neck and sit on the floor (so you’re not bending over Spot with the leash hanging down, swinging and perhaps hitting him.)  Reward Spot with CHICKEN when he comes over to you while you’re “wearing” the leash.   When he’s easily doing that, rest a loop of the leash (still hung around your neck) over your palm and place CHICKEN on it!  At first, keep your hand still and let Spot come to it, but gradually move your hand with the leash — and the CHICKEN — around so Spot gets used to a moving leash bringing the CHICKEN!  Then reward with CHICKEN when you touch the leash to his collar.  You get the idea — at each step, Spot should equate the LEASH with the arrival of CHICKEN!

Of course, this sort of desensitizing takes many sessions over many days.  We must resist the temptation to see how far we can push Spot — one of our besetting weaknesses as humans!  Err on the side of caution and moving TOO slowly, rather than skipping steps.  Spot doesn’t know there’s an agenda, here.  He’s delighted to get all that CHICKEN!  He’s also pretty happy with you, and will learn to be happy with the leash if he’s not scared all over again through well-intentioned impatience.  Food overcomes Fear, but Rushing can Ruin things!

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Food overcomes Fear

My big, bad GSD mix, Kita, is afraid of the refrigerator.  Not all refrigerators.  She’s terrified of the one in our current home, a bit wary of a friend’s fridge, extremely nervous around one in a cottage we visit, and I don’t remember her showing any reaction at all to the appliance in our old house.  Kita doesn’t go to see anybody else, so my sample is limited, but it seems that the ice-maker is what sets her off.

I believe the refrigerator in our old home was the first Kita had ever encountered, since all her reactions pointed to never having been inside a house before coming to live with me.  That model was very basic, no ice-maker or anything high-tech like that. Then we moved to this house.  The refrigerator had an ice-maker, but it wasn’t hooked up to a water line until I had that done nearly 6 months after we moved in.  Kita didn’t seem to pay any attention to the fridge at all, until it started making ice.  This is speculation, because I don’t remember any huge traumatic incident, but I’m willing to bet that Kita was walking past it when some ice dropped in the bin, and that startled her.

The noise is quite loud and in our galley-style kitchen Kita must walk right past the refrigerator to go outside.  At first, I noticed that she trotted through the kitchen, but wasn’t nervous at other times.  Soon, Kita began to anticipate ice-dropping by reacting with “airplane ears” and panting to the gurgles and burbles of the ice-maker.   The cottage refrigerator that also makes her very nervous has the same system and makes many of the same noises, whereas the high-tech, well-insulated appliance (delivering ice to the door) in my friends’ home is very quiet.  Kita began avoiding the cottage kitchen, but would pass the quiet fridge with no more than a few doubtful looks.

At first, Kita’s antics to avoid the dreaded Refrigerator Monsters seemed funny and not a serious problem.  Would that I knew then what I know now!  A dog’s phobias and fears, if left unaddressed, deepen and worsen with time.  Now, after many years of the fear settling in, Kita goes through a ritual every time she must pass our refrigerator:  hesitating, looking at it, taking one step, then looking again, backing up a step, putting out a front  paw, making a couple of bobbles in the direction she wants to go as if she’s revving up her courage, and at last trotting past — fast!  If something (even the cat) is blocking her “only possible” path along the cabinets on the far side of the kitchen, she can’t bring herself to take the plunge.  If someone steps in the way as she’s trotting through, Kita puts on the brakes, skids and is obviously terrified.

I know she’s panicking in that situation because she will refuse to take a treat. That is a bench-mark used almost universally by dog trainers to test a dog’s stress level.  A dog that is able to accept and eat a treat, while it may be showing signs of extreme nervousness, is not experiencing a traumatic level of anxiety.  Kita won’t even touch a treat held under her nose until she is in her safe zone — which is apparently off the kitchen’s tile floor and onto the carpet of a room on either side.

Kita used to eat her dinner in the middle of the kitchen, not right next to the fridge, but within a few feet.  Gradually, she needed her bowl placed further and further away until it was actually on the carpet.  Then darkness began exacerbating the fear.  Soon, Kita absolutely refused to pass through the kitchen if a light wasn’t on.  I could kick myself now, but it wasn’t until she’d reached that point that I realized what a problem had developed.

Here’s the interesting thing — if anyone stands at the opposite end of the kitchen WITH A TREAT — Kita will trot through without her whole “ritual.”  One quick look to make sure the Refrigerator Monster is in its corner and she goes!  This is another universal in dog training — a dog accepts anything that brings or is connected with food. Food can be used to overcome Fear.

It’s also axiomatic that the higher the food’s “value” (in the dog’s eyes) the more fear the dog is willing to overcome for it!  A dog will do a lot more for a bite of steak, or gravy than for her kibble.  Most dogs will even be willing to put up with a bit of nervousness for just their usual boring bowl, as long as we don’t ask too much at one time.

Especially when a dog has reached the level of panic that Kita experiences, progress is very slow.  I’m using both her dinner and special treats to encourage Kita to overcome her fears.  We are gradually moving her food bowl closer, so she is now eating with the bowl on the tile.   Each day, I move the bowl to a different place — sometimes closer, sometimes backing away a bit from the Refrigerator Monster.  Sometimes in her “only possible” safe path, sometimes on the other side in the scary zone!  If I have a special treat, like some broccoli scraps (go figure, the dog loves cooked broccoli!) she must come in the kitchen to get them!  Kita hasn’t accepted food with all four feet on the kitchen tile, yet, but we’re getting there.

Today, for the first time, Kita pushed a bowl she was licking along the tile until it was in front of the refrigerator.  She knew what she was doing and gave the boxy beast some doubtful looks!  But she kept on licking until every bit of gravy was gone.  It’s going to take some time, but she’s on her way!

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An-ti-ci-pa-a-tion…

Several years ago (OK, so it was many years ago!) there was a TV commercial for some brand of ketchup.  The visual was a hamburger with a bottle of the red stuff poised  to pour over it.  The ketchup was moving ve-ry sloooow-ly as somebody sang Carly Simon’s “Anticipation!”  The point was that the best things in life (including ketchup, apparently) are worth waiting for and appreciated more when we look forward to them.  It’s a philosophy that most humans try to espouse — even if not over ketchup.  Dogs don’t!

Dogs aren’t really into savoring the moment.  Dogs want to get from A to B as fast as possible — and are always looking for short-cut C!  So they commonly produce an activity labeled “anticipation” by dog trainers, but utilizing an alternate meaning of the word: to act in advance.

Just like the know-it-all who interrupts mid-sentence with smug expectancy of what you’re going to say, dogs take a pinch of previous experience and jump to conclusions!  When I was a kid, we had a GSD who, upon seeing anyone pick up a treat, would Sit, Offer a Paw, Lie Down, flop over in a Dead Dog, Roll Over, then pop back up and grin in expectation of her reward.  She’d do all this without a cue being spoken and faster than it took me to type it all.

Yes, it was very cute, and yes, she was a very smart dog.  However, this wasn’t necessarily a display of her “smarts,” just a dog’s impatience to cut to the chase.  (It also displayed a defect in the way we trained her — always asking for behaviors in the same order, but that’s another subject…) All dogs do this sort of thing.  Once they make the connection between Behaviors (A) and Rewards (B) they want to get there as quick as they can and so THROW a behavior (one or more) out there, hoping they’ve guessed right and that will be the Shortcut (C) that gets them to their desired goal.

Another way of looking at it is Fifi considers her owner to be sort of a Vending Machine stocked with Doggie Treats.  So, when Fifi wants one, she starts doing her tricks, hoping that one of them will push the right button to make a treat drop.  This works pretty well for Fifi!  It’s soooo cute and it makes us laugh and because the dog has “worked” for it, we give her the treat.

Unfortunately, this makes Fifi less inclined to listen for a cue the next time!  Yet, it’s amazingly easy to persuade Fifi to listen.  First, we have to stop rewarding behavior we didn’t ask for.  Yes the dog “worked” but if your employee shredded a document instead of filing it, you wouldn’t reward him, would you?  So, if your dog SITS when you were going to ask for a DOWN, she shouldn’t get a treat.  Even if she SITS before you were going to ask for a SIT, she can’t really read your mind and still shouldn’t be rewarded.  Reward obedience, not just behavior.

Instead, no matter what trick Fifi “throws” at you, ask for a DIFFERENT one.  If she keeps on trying one behavior after another without listening, simply turn away.  With your back to her, wait for 10-15 seconds.  By doing this you are taking 1) your attention, 2) the treats, and 3) the opportunity to earn those treats away!  The Vending Machine’s buttons have left the building! That will make Fifi feel like listening!  If she scoots around to face you, simply keep turning your back until the 15 seconds is up, then turn around and try again.

For most dogs, this does the trick.  It’s like magic!  Fifi suddenly concentrates on what you’re SAYING because you’ve taken away the rewards of guessing — i.e. the short-cut!  You may have to repeat the turning-away trick several times, even in the same training session.  Certainly, you’ll need to do it every once in a while in different training sessions.  Sometimes the smarter the dog and the more willing to work, the more they try to anticipate, especially if we aren’t going fast enough for them.

Anticipation occurs all the time with dogs.  Move her leash from the counter to its proper hook next to the door and Fifi frolics, clearly expecting a walk!  Looking through your purse jingles the car keys and Fifi runs in her crate with sad, reproachful eyes.  Dogs cope with their world by being able to predict what’s going to happen.  They learn that A happens before B and jump to conclusion C.  Most times, as in these examples, Fifi’s reactions are cute and harmless.  The only time ANTICIPATION becomes a problem is when we undercut our own authority by rewarding Fifi for behavior we didn’t ask her to do.

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Darkest before the Dawn

One of the trickiest issues in dog training is how to get rid of bad habits — behaviors the dog has been doing for a while.  Most of the time, it isn’t that difficult to isolate the problem or plan a strategy to deal with it.  That’s usually pretty simple.  Not EASY, but not complicated.  What makes the whole process more than a lot of owners can deal with is that dogs don’t give up on bad habits without a fight.

Say Butch is used to family members slipping him tidbits at the dinner table.  The family decides that he’s getting too fat and agree to stop “table treating.”  But Butch doesn’t get the memo.  So, he tries what’s always worked in the past.

He’s had the family well-trained and usually, the ole sad-puppy eyes does the trick.  The family holds out against this.  Rather than give up, Butch just moves to DEFCON 2 — nudging elbows.  Still the family, reminding each other, manage to ignore him.  By now, 5-10 minutes has gone by and Butch is going to pull out all the stops.  He barks, and paws at elbows.  The barks get louder and the pace of the pawing picks up!  It’s annoying and because they’re feeling guilty anyway, somebody gives in and slips him a goodie.  And in doing that, they’ve made sure that Butch will do more and for longer at the next meal.

What the family doesn’t realize is that the “ramping up” of Butch’s demands is a signal that he was close to giving up.  The psychological term is EXTINCTION BURST.  Things get worse before they get better; it’s always darkest before the dawn of new behavior.  This happens with humans, too.  The 2-year-old’s tantrum gets louder and louder and louder, but if he’s ignored, he’ll hit a wall where it’s just not worth the trouble and the tantrum will quickly taper off.

Unfortunately, “giving in” — a very natural thing to do as the Extinction Burst is never pleasant to endure — is the worst thing we can do.  In fact, it teaches the dog (or 2-year-old) that he just has to keep going LONGER and LOUDER to get what he wants.  If we aren’t 100% consistent with ignoring the bad behavior, we just reinforce it even more.

“Oh come on,” I hear you say, “Isn’t 95% good enough?”  Well, the way our brains work, no it isn’t!  Psychologists have done studies that prove INTERMITTENT reward is the strongest goad to continuing behavior.  Think of all those folks in casinos putting money into slot machines.  It’s not because they ALWAYS get a payback.  No, it’s BECAUSE the next time MIGHT be the time they hit the JACKPOT!

I’m not saying that ignoring is the solution for every behavior problem.  I’m not even saying that it will always work in my doggie and toddler examples above. There are a lot of other factors.  Is the extinction burst behavior dangerous to anyone?  Is the perp winding himself up into an emotional fugue where the behavior passes beyond his conscious control?  So, it’s best to consult a professional to help evaluate the situation and create a treatment plan.

My point is that dealing with established behaviors is going to involve an INCREASE in that behavior and only by steadfastly working through the darkness  — with no faltering — will we be able to bring better behavior to light.

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Doggie Drive

When I adopted Kita, a GSD mix, two cats already shared my home, and I didn’t want a dog that would view them as chew toys and/or lunch.  Kita was listed on Petfinder by a little shelter up near Traverse City.  My application to adopt was accepted, but as that’s a long way to drive, I made sure I called and asked the ONE important question first: “Does she have a strong prey drive?”  The staff member said, “Oh, no!  Not at all!” or something like that.  I even explained that I had cats and didn’t want to put them in a stressful situation when adopting a dog.  The worker reassured me that there would be NO PROBLEM!

She LIED!

Actually, I don’t think it was conscious prevarication.  I think they threw a ball for Kita and she ignored it.  This seems to be the standard test for prey drive.  Well, Kita is bored by balls.  She’s slightly more excited by squeaky toys — especially if they’re fuzzy.  A cloth squeaky toy lasts about 15 seconds:  squeak-squeak, squeak-squeak, and then its head is torn off.  What she really loves is live, furry fauna that she can CHASE, catch and kill!  Because Kita has an extremely STRONG prey-drive!

Of course, by the time I discovered that, I was back home, 2-1/2 hours away from the little shelter and Kita was hunting my cats throughout the house.  And I do mean HUNT — I’m sure she wasn’t playing! One cat spent the next 6 months in the basement, only feeling safe there because Kita couldn’t fit through the cat door.  We eventually worked things out, and Kita no longer tries to eat the household kitties, but anything outside is fair game in every sense of the phrase.

This has made me wonder about testing methods.  When I volunteered at the Humane Society of West Michigan, I sat in on temperament testing.  The only test for prey drive was throwing a toy.   I’ve looked up temperament tests online to use in my business, and ALL of them I found depend on the dog’s reaction to a tossed toy or crumpled paper — essentially equating fetching with prey drive.

Not only Kita, but her companion GSD, Rilka, were utterly indifferent to any form of fetching, and most toys that you’d use in such games like balls or frisbees.  No matter how enthusiastically I would offer a toy and how excited I would get, once that toy was tossed the girls would just stand and look at me like, “You want me to do WHAT?”  Yet, BOTH of my girls enthusiastically hunted rodents from small (mice and moles) to large (woodchucks.)  Rilka also was death to any low-flying bird!  But both of these girls tested as having a low prey drive.

Only one temperament test used a slightly different method.  They recommended pulling a towel on a string past the puppy.  This is a bit better.  However, I would expand on that.  I’ve put one of those new “unstuffed” animals (with squeakies in head and tail) on a string attached to a dowel.  This gives me a fishing pole with a prey item as bait!(One of my favorite TV trainers, Victoria Stillwell of IT’S ME OR THE DOG calls this a “Fox on a Stick!” You can buy them ready-made at the pet store, but making one is cheaper.)

Kita LOVES this she will chase it for as long as I will cast it around.  Her reaction to the fox-on-a-stick is identical with her reaction to the live, furry fauna she hunts outside.  Indeed, I have to work on her “drop-it” cue so she doesn’t tear the head off whenever she catches it!

I wonder how many times dogs are brought back to a shelter because they weren’t fully tested.  Kita is sill with me partially because of my stubborness, but I admit the decision was easier because of the long distance that would be involved in trying to return her.  One thing is for sure, though!  The next time I adopt a dog, I’m bringing a fox-on-a-stick with me to do my own test for prey-drive!

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To Bribe or not to Bribe?

There is a school of thought in dog training that abhors rewarding with treats because they claim that’s BRIBING the dog to display good behavior.  I prefer to think of treats and other rewards as benefits the dog can EARN by performing a behavior on cue.  To me, a bribe is offering and/or delivering a treat BEFORE the behavior — in other words, before it has been “paid for!”

I also use treats to lure a dog into new behaviors.  In this situation the treat IS proffered before the behavior happens, but it isn’t delivered until that behavior is accomplished.  However, there can come a time when that same treat proffered as the lure becomes a bribe. Once the dog learns what the cue means and will obey it 9 out of 10 times, she doesn’t need the treat as a learning motivation any longer.  If your dog won’t obey a command unless you have a treat in your hand, then the treat has become a bribe.

To avoid this situation we need to wean our dogs off the food rewards.  There are several ways to do this.  The first one I use is to “lure” with the same hand gesture, but WITHOUT a treat in hand and then deliver the treat with the OTHER hand.  The treat could have been in that hand behind my back or be taken from a pocket or container AFTER the dog obeys the cue.

The second method I use is making the dog work a little harder and perform more than one behavior for the one reward.  I “mark” every behavior with a “Yes!” — this lets the dog know that it has, indeed, obeyed correctly.  (Remember that “Yes!” is a promise of a treat to come — it doesn’t have to be delivered immediately.)  However, I start by only asking the dog to obey two commands before getting a treat, gradually working up to 3, 4, 5.  Also, I vary the number so the dog can’t predict when the treat is coming!  The theory behind this is, not knowing when the pay-off is coming, the dog is more invested in working.  It’s the same psychological reason we keep pulling that handle on the slot machine, hoping that the jackpot will come THIS time!

A third strategy for weaning a dog off treats is to start using “real life” rewards.  This means rewarding with praise, petting, a toy, play, or any other resource.  It works best when used in “real life” situations instead of official training session.  For example — asking the dog to SIT before putting the food bowl on the floor, DOWN before getting on the bed, to STAY for a few moments before opening the door so she can go outside.

There are times to use a good, old-fashioned bribe, though!  I use bribes every day when asking a dog to go into its crate.  Now, the dog has learned the cue, but she is fully aware that going in the crate means she will be shut inside and (probably) left alone in the house.  This isn’t a strong, positive motivation, and I want the dog to ALWAYS feel happy about going in the crate.  So, I try to “sweeten” the deal by throwing a dog biscuit in the crate as I give the order to go inside.  This becomes a recognized ritual  When I pull “those” dog biscuits out of the container, most dogs run to get in the crate before I have time to get there with the treat.  Officially, this is a “bribe” because the treat is offered before the behavior, but I’m willing to use anything that gets such a positive response from the dog!

I’m also in favor of bribes if the safety of the dog is in question.  If your dog slips her leash, and doesn’t come right back to you, that isn’t the time to work on her RECALL skills.  Get a big ole dog biscuit out and wave it around enticingly!  Or if she’s busy eating a piece of paper — pull out a hot dog and ask her to TRADE!  Trading can usually be managed by getting the dog away from the “bad” object and then asking for a SIT before giving the treat.  If you can do this, you’ve managed to make her work for the treat so it’s not really, totally a bribe.

The important thing to remember about bribes is that the dog isn’t learning anything (except how to exploit the system.)  Now, in my crate example, the dog THINKS she is “working” me, but I’ve managed the situation so I get the behavior I want offered willingly.  Other situations abound where dogs can really take advantage of their owners!  I once saw a woman placing treats every two feet to get her dog to go outside into the yard to go potty.  That is a case where the dog has learned how to “play” her owner!

I guess it all comes down to if you are the player or the playee!  Dogs are masters at working the system — any system!  Start by working all known cues (that the dog can perform 9 out of 10 times) gradually weaning off food rewards.   Examine WHY you’re giving a treat in other situations.  Is the dog working for it, or has she figured out how to push your buttons to get a reward for free!

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