Treat the cause, not just the symptom

When working with any pet with a behaviour problem, it is important to look not just at what the problem is (e.g. barking, biting, scratching) but why the problem is occurring.

Traditional training relies largely on waiting for the animal to display the problem behaviour, and then reacting to this with some kind of aversive (or punishment). You might pop the dogs leash, flick the birds beak, or squirt the cat with water. Often this results in the animal stopping what it was doing…temporarily. By focusing only on the problem itself, without addressing the underlying cause, the animal will resume the problem behaviour.

Modern, force-free training looks at when the behaviour occurs, what triggers it, and how we can go about changing things so that the behaviour is less likely to occur in future. We also think about what we would rather our pet be doing, so that we can teach it how to behave correctly (using positive reinforcement) and by providing plenty of motivation when it gets it right! The combination of changing the environment to make the problem behaviour harder, and increasing the motivation to offer good behaviour, results in a pet that is eager to spend its time practising the good stuff!

dog training

If the animal is behaving a certain way because it is uncomfortable, or even frightened, by something, then we can gradually change its association with this trigger (using desensitization and counter-conditioning) so that it begins to feel good instead of frightened when the trigger is presented. At all times the animals behaviour is observed and respected. Believe it or not, the fastest way forward is to move at the animals pace rather than pushing it!

Next time your pet does something you don’t like, instead of being reactive try looking at the whole picture. What could be causing your pet to behave like that, and how can you help your pet to behave in ways that you like? By teaching your pet what to do, rather that what not to do, you are giving him the tools to be successful in a human world!

Train smart, not tough!

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It’s Real for Them

It’s very common to see and read about pets being punished for trying to let their owners know they are uncomfortable. It’s as though we’re so fixed on what we’re trying to get done, or what we think our pets should be doing, that we forget to  look at the picture that’s right in front of us.

When your dog barks or growls at an approaching dog or person, your cat hides when visitors enter the room, or your parrot lunges or bites when you reach into their cage, stop what you are doing and review the situation. Don’t pop the leash, drag your cat out, or flick your parrot’s beak. They are telling you they’re worried. Listen.

I recently read a light hearted news article that got me thinking. A postman in Canada was unable to deliver a parcel. On the delivery notice he ticked “Other” as the reason for failing to deliver the parcel, and he elaborated with “Bear at door” as the reason. I wouldn’t have delivered that parcel either! But what if his boss told him to stop being silly and just do it? Or told him he was being unreasonable, the bear wasn’t going to hurt him? That wouldn’t seem fair would it?

Bear

When it comes to things humans are afraid of (or cautious of) we can often empathise easily, because chances are that we might be afraid of something similar. Our pets, on the other hand, are often scared of things that we perceive as being benign. This makes it harder for us to take their fears seriously and even harder when it might mean we have to put in actual time and effort to help them come around.

Next time your pet tells you they are worried about something in their environment, don’t punish them, and don’t try to move them closer. They are telling you they are not ok. Help them to increase their distance, help them to feel more comfortable, and set them up better next time so they can feel safe from the start. What they’re experiencing may seem silly to you, but it is real for them.

Not sure how to help your pet? Consult with a trainer! That’s what we’re here for.  Train smart, not tough!

What’s my goal?

I want to pose a question that i don’t think we ask ourselves enough when we interact with our pets, especially when we are trying to get them to do (or stop) something. It’s too easy to behave reactively to a situation, without regard to whether we are behaving in a way that will make things better next time. When we are stuck in the moment, we may not consider the consequences. We need to ask ourselves “What am I trying to achieve?”, and then act in ways that will help us reach those goals with our pets.

It is common to see people acting in extremely counter-productive ways with their pets. Perhaps someone wants their dog to not lunge at other dogs on lead, so when they see another dog they start shortening the lead and restricting the dogs movement and choice. Or it could be that they approach their bird and chase it away when it lands somewhere it shouldn’t. What the owner wants, and what they will get, are completely opposite in these cases. Our behaviour influences our pet’s behaviour, so we need to get smarter.

If we are trying to help our pet feel less wary, afraid, or stressed by a stimulus (like other dogs) then we have to make sure our handling isn’t adding to their stress. Restrictive or sudden movements with the lead and collar do little to help our dog make good associations, and plenty to increase their stress in that situation. Instead we could try working at a greater distance, and rewarding calm behaviour with something our pet likes (treats, toys, play, petting). How do we know if it’s working? Things will start getting better! How do we know it’s not? Things will get worse. We need to keep reviewing what our goal is, and making adjustments so we are steadily working towards success.

If our pet is not afraid, but rather engaging in annoying behaviours in an attempt to stay entertained, then we need to get proactive and set them up to interact with their environment in more appropriate ways. That parrot who keeps flying to the bench to throw your worldly possessions to the floor? Rather than adding to his fun with a game of chase, start setting his play areas up with new toys, foraging games, and browse (leaves/branches/flowers) to investigate. Provide social contact and play when you notice him hanging out on approved parrot-stations. Reward the behaviour you want to see more of, not the behaviour you’re trying to extinguish. And while you’re at it, clear the bench of all those enticing parrot toys (e.g. coffee mugs, car keys, can you tell i’m speaking from experience….).

parrots on the bench

As owners and trainers, we should always be thinking about how we can help our pets succeed in our homes. If something goes wrong and you find your pet engaging in unwanted behaviours, stop and think about how you can change the behaviour for good rather than how you can interrupt it just for the moment. Long term plans and smart training lead to long term results, which is what we all want! Train smart, not tough.

The Truth is in the Behaviour

People commonly complain that their pet either “knows” what they’re being asked to do, or that they “know” when they’re misbehaving. This accompanies feelings of frustration and betrayal, because if the pet knows what is being asked then they must be willfully ignoring their owner. Perhaps they are being described as stubborn, strong-willed, cheeky, or perhaps he’s “giving you the paw”.

I want to challenge this idea that our pets “know” but are choosing to act otherwise. I want to suggest to all pet owners that your pet is doing exactly what you have, or haven’t, trained it to do. The truth is in the behaviour!

If we keep in mind that pets repeat behaviours that lead to good things happening, we can generally find out why our pet is behaving a certain way. Is Fido ignoring you when you call? Perhaps he’s having fun where he is, sniffing something great, playing with mates at the park, or he’s otherwise engaged in something he considers fun. Pair that with the common history we create where we punish our dogs when they do come back to us, albeit slowly (scolding them for running away or ignoring us for so long), and you have a pretty darn good reason for your dog staying away. Perhaps he won’t sit when you ask him to hop on the scales at the vet? Have you ever taught him how to step onto a strange surface and sit in a room that smells of dogs, cats, and stressed animals? Doing a behaviour at home is not the same as performing out in the real world, we have to help our pets learn to respond in all places.

guilty dog training

And of course stress and fear interfere with our pets ability to respond to our cues. Even mild stressors can strongly influence our pets behaviours, causing them to either stop responding or start reacting – both of which are frustrating and sometimes difficult to manage when we’re caught unprepared. Take a look at the environment you are asking your pet to perform in: have you trained here before? Are you providing enough motivation? Is something worrying your pet?

We need to stop assuming that our pets are out to ruin our day, they’re not. All animals behave to gain access to the things they like. As owners we need to make sure we are a source of all things good to our pets, and that we help our pets to learn and understand the language we use to communicate with them. Stop getting frustrated with your “bad” pet and start getting proactive with your smart training.

The 2nd Pet…

Animal lovers are generally not happy with just one pet. The story tends to start with a first pet (be it a dog or a cat or a bird) that is just so awesome that the owner would love to have another like it. Maybe the second pet is for the owners benefit, perhaps it is intended as a companion for the first, or perhaps it is to be a pet for another member of the family. Indeed it can be really great fun to have more than one pet in the family, but here are some things to keep in mind.

The second pet will be just as much work as the first, if not more. It will not be LESS work, and it will probably be more than twice the work to have twice the pets. Why would this be?

two dogs

To bond with the new pet in the same way as the first, you have to put aside the time to interact, play, and train the new addition just like you did the first. This is extremely important for many reasons. Two pets come to rely massively on one another for companionship, you need to ensure you are a significant person in both pets lives, that they can relax and be happy on their own, and that both pets have the trained skills you need them to know in order to enjoy sharing your home with them.

The importance of training both pets to be relaxed and happy on their own cannot be understated! More often than you might think one pet may need to go to the vet alone, travel separately, escape the yard, etc and it can be a nightmare if the other pet is unable to relax without their friend present. Training, socialising, and play are all great things to do one-on-one too, ensuring that each pet is confident about their world without needing their buddy beside them.

Something else to keep in mind is that if you are having trouble with your first pet, then a friend is not the answer. What would you do if you ended up with two problem pets? We recommend seeking help with your first pet to help them become a happy member of the family and then consider whether you still want a new addition. If you haven’t got time to train the first pet, then double trouble is going to be even harder to schedule into your day!

Two (or more) pets can be awesome, and they can be amazing company for one another when life drags us away from home. In some cases even another pet of a different species can make a big difference to a quiet house when the humans are away. Think about the pros and the cons, and make an informed decision with your next addition.

Train It, then Name It

When teaching any pet a new behaviour we need to do two things – we need to explain to our pets what we want them to do, and we need to give that behaviour a name (or cue). If we do these two things correctly we end up with a pet who will offer that particular behaviour only when prompted by the cue, and most importantly they will offer it when given the cue.

Most of us, myself included, were taught to go about achieving these two things backwards. We repeat the cue that we would like to use, while trying to make our pets do the correct behaviour. “Sit, Fido!” as we lure our dog’s nose up or push on their bottom, “Step Up, Polly!” as we bring out the sunflower seed or push our finger into our budgie’s belly. Is this wrong? Not necessarily. But is it an efficient, clear, and fun way to teach our pet something new?

Let’s take a look!

The biggest problem with teaching this way is that we are setting our pet up to fail. If they don’t yet understand that “Sit” means put your butt on the ground, or “Step Up” means step onto my finger, then they are quite likely to respond to our chanting the cue incorrectly. They might stare at us blankly, walk away in confusion, or try the wrong behaviour. We get frustrated that they’re not getting it, and they get frustrated that they’re not earning their reward!

So how else could we go about training?

shake hands parrot
Elmo has learnt that “Shakes Hands” means hold this finger.

Say we want to teach our dog to “Sit”. First things first, zip your lips! Your pet does not speak English, and verbal direction at this stage is unhelpful. In this example we will start training using a food reward. We take the treat, move it in front of Fido’s nose, and then slowly raise it above his head. As Fido’s nose follows the treat his head goes up and his butt goes down. Bingo! He’s sitting. Job well done! Now we can work on fading that lure into a hand signal, then we can explain that “Hey, you know when your butt hits the ground? That’s called SIT!”

It is very, very easy to train your pet to offer a certain behaviour, such as in the above example, without ever opening your mouth. This means that when we do add in the name for a behaviour, we can use our body language to ensure our pet responds correctly – we know they will, because we’ve already trained it! Imagine how much less frustrating that is for everyone!

But won’t our pets associate our cue with the behaviour faster if we keep repeating it? No, they won’t. By putting our pet in a situation where they may not respond correctly we are muddying our cue. When i ask my pet to do something, i am asking them to respond correctly first try. If they don’t, i zip my lips and find where the holes are in my training. Maybe i need to go back a few steps. Hearing a cue repeated again and again before actually understanding what they need to do only creates confusion. Does “Sit” mean look up, look left, yawn, scratch, sniff, squat, or what?!

It’s about training smart, and setting our pets up for success without confusion.

Pass the Salt, Please

You may be wondering what salt has to do with training your pets, so let me explain.

In a e-Book by Sue Ailsby that i’ve been reading (which you can download FREE here), she wrote something that really left an impression with me. She wrote that we should cue our pets to do something just like we would ask a friend to pass the salt across the table. That is we should ask our pets in a happy and friendly tone, rather than telling them what to do in a stern voice.

pass the salt

Why should this matter? For me it comes down to training. If you’ve truly put the time into teaching your pet what a cue means, and you’ve demonstrated that when he does the job he’ll get something good, then you should never need to get stern. If they don’t oblige, you either haven’t trained the behaviour well enough yet, or you need to increase their motivation.

Too often we see owners really getting frustrated with their pets, especially in the dog world. “Fido sit. Sit! SIT! SIT DOWN!!!” Eventually Fido might sit, but not with enthusiasm. He might only be sitting to avoid his owners wrath, or a leash pop, or a hand pressing down on his backside. If Fido knew that “Sit” means put your bottom on the ground whether we’re at home, outside, or at the vet, and he had been motivated well to perform that “Sit”, then there would be no need to get stern.

A friendly tone induces friendly feelings, and when we treat our pets with kindness and mutual respect THAT is when we see great training results. We are way past the days of drilling obedience into our pets. We have the tools to teach our pets any number of useful behaviours without using force or corrections. Next time your pet fails to listen to your cue, look at how you can train the behaviour rather than increasing the volume of your voice.

Train smart, not tough – and pass the salt, please!

Training Talk: Primary vs Secondary Reinforcers

People really like to get their panties in a twist when it comes to using treats when training their pets. It seems as though treats make you a lesser trainer, or that it is somehow insulting that your pet will work for food. This instalment of “Training Talk” will explain why food makes such a great reinforcer during training, as well as looking at other reinforcers we can use and when to use them.

In the first “Training Talk” blog we looked at reinforcement, and how when we reinforce a behaviour that our pet is offering we will see it more often. But how do we reinforce a behaviour? When training our pets we can use what we call either primary reinforcers or secondary reinforcers.

primary reinforcer is something that is essential to our pets survival, and therefore is a very motivating thing to work for. Common primary reinforcers are food, water, air, shelter, and sex. Now personally I’m not into depriving my pets of water or air, nor am I likely to put them out in the hot sun and make them train for the opportunity to get some shelter. I’m definitely not going to offer them any “special favours”, so to speak, for a job well done either. That leaves us with food. All animals eat. In my blog post “Is Your Pet Food Motivated” I look at reasons why your pet might not want to eat during a training session, as well as how to remedy the problem. I recommend you read that post if you feel your pet won’t work for food.

dog treats
An assortment of dog treats

Now, many people who oppose positive reinforcement suggest that for food to be an effective reinforcer you must first deprive your pet of food so they are hungry. It is true that most animals won’t work for food if they’re full, but we don’t need to starve them to train either. I like to use food rewards that are either part of your pets daily ration, or something extra tasty that only comes in a training session.

Secondary reinforcers are things that aren’t essential to survival, but over time and by being paired with a primary reinforcer (like food) have come to be motivating and enjoyable to your pet. Common examples are petting and praise, or a great game with a favourite toy. For many pets these things don’t mean much initially, but over time and when paired with things your dog really enjoys, they come to be reinforcing to your pet.

Secondary reinforcers are not as motivating as primary reinforcers, which is why trainers recommend teaching new behaviours using food rewards. Once that behaviour is learned it is actually to your advantage to start mixing it up with how you reinforce your pet – you would work harder too if a bonus could be just around the corner!

toy play reinforcer
Wilbur loves training for a game of tug!

Take care when training with secondary reinforcers. Remember that reinforcement is an individual thing. If you are offering a pat or praise, make sure you pet is offering the behaviour more often. If not, it is not being reinforced – try something more fun or tastier!

Teaching veterinary behaviours

Working as a vet nurse for the past 7 years has taught me a lot about animal behaviour and handling. The more i learn the more aware i become of the level of stress many pets experience the moment they come through the door at a vet clinic.

Through my involvement with Puppy Preschool, Adolescent Training, and Obedience Club I am often recommending and teaching people how to practice handling their dogs to better prepare them for visits to the vet. People often don’t realise that vet visits don’t have to be big dramas, and that it doesn’t take a lot of work to teach a new pet to enjoy being handled! And it isn’t just dogs we can prepare for the vet either.

Dogs and cats will benefit from being taught to enjoy:

  • Having their ears handled
  • Having their paws picked up, held, and manipulated
  • Having their tail handled
  • Having their body and belly stroked and massaged
  • Having their mouths open
  • Sitting and settling on a table or raised surface
  • Stepping onto and sitting on a raised surface (dogs – for the scales)dog training townsville

A dog or cat that has previously been exposed to this sort of handling will have a much easier time during their vet visit that one who is rarely handled in these ways. They will also be easier to check over if they get a prickle in their paw, or another minor injury you might want to check.

Birds will benefit from being taught to enjoy:

  • Stepping onto a t-perch on some scales
  • Going in and out of their carry cage
  • Being wrapped and held in a towel (gradual process)
  • Having their feet picked up and handled
  • Having their wings handled

Birds that are familiar with being handled in these ways are much more relaxed during a veterinary check up, plus you will be able to do some of their routine care (like nail trims) easily at home.

It is important when introducing your pet to new handling that you take it nice and slowly, and reward them for calm behaviour with each step in the right direction. Use lots of yummy treats, and don’t be afraid to take treats with you for vet visits too. Speak to your vet clinic as most will be more than happy for you to come in during a quiet period to do some training with your pet. It helps your pet to relax if they sometimes visit the vet just for cuddles, treats, and training.

Training Talk: Punishment

This instalment of “Training Talk” is going to look at punishment. This might seem an odd topic to find on the blog of a force-free trainer who utilises positive reinforcement, but it is my belief that it is important to understand not just what you recommend, but also what others recommend.

Punishment is a word that holds a lot of unpleasant associations. When we hear the word we tend to think of a smack or harsh words. In the world of training it isn’t quite that simple.

Dog Training

Punishment is simply something that decreases the chance of our pet repeating a certain behaviour. When our dog barks or our bird squawks and we yell “NO!”, we are hoping that they will stop the noise and hopefully not do it again. This example, and many other commonly used “punishments” are rarely as effective as we would like.

Just like reinforcement, there are two types of punishment we can utilise in training. The first is the most well known, positive punishment. This sounds contradictory, but all the positive means is that we add something to decrease a behaviour. We might add a loud noise to stop a barking dog, a squirty bottle to stop a scratching cat, or a yank on the leash to stop a pulling dog.

We can also use negative punishment. This sounds silly too, but like the positive means to add something, the negative means we take something away to decrease a behaviour. When we use negative punishment we take away something our pet likes in response to their misbehaviour, it’s like a time-out. This is what people are hoping to achieve when they “ignore” their pet for doing something naughty, they are taking away their attention, but often there are environmental factors outside our control that may be undermining our efforts.

Timing is everything in training, and this is true of punishment too. If we want our punishment to affect our pets behaviour, it needs to happen immediately following the behaviour we want to see less off. This means if you discover your pets misbehaviour hours after the event, you just need to move on. Punishing you pet will be damaging to your relationship, and completely irrelevant to your pet. Also consider how hard it is to properly “time-out” your pet immediately following something naughty – by the time you get them to the naughty corner or back in the cage, 10 things have happened since the behaviour you want to punish, and the lesson is lost!

If we get our timing right we can stop unpleasant behaviours, but we have to realise why punishment works to decrease a behaviour. It works because our pet doesn’t enjoy the outcome, most often because what we do is aversive (or unpleasant). Training with aversive’s create stress and anxiety for our pets, which can lead to bigger problems long term. We would do better to look at why the problem behaviour is occurring, and looking for ways to prevent it happening again while teaching our pets more acceptable behaviours that we can reward. This is much more enjoyable for both us, and our pets.

Train smart, not tough!