Is Your Dog Ready for Santa Photos?

The silly season is upon us and, if you are anything like us, you will be seeing all those cute Christmas costumes for dogs in the shops and wondering what your significant other would say if you bought them. But have you stopped to wonder what your dog (or cat) thinks?

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Wilbur says “I’d better get paid for this!” – Photo by Irresistible Desires

With Christmas just around the corner, we are bracing for the onslaught of “cute” and “funny” photos and videos on social media, showing humans laughing and having fun, while their pets try to cope with the hats, antlers, outfits, and strangers dressed in Santa costumes that are making them feel uncomfortable. Most people aren’t stressing their pets out on purpose, they just haven’t learned to notice the stress signals their dog uses to express discomfort. These stress signals can include repeated lip licking, yawning, panting, freezing/standing stiff/refusing to move, leaning away/avoidance, low ears or tail, and looking away.

It would be too easy for us to say “just don’t dress your pet up”, and where’s the fun in that? If you are inclined to get into the holiday spirit with your pet, why not spend a few minutes doing some training so they can enjoy the festive photo shoot too?

For hats and antlers, you can encourage your dog to put his head through the band for a treat. He should be free to move out of the head piece after he takes the treat. Practice a few times in a row, and you should notice that your dog is choosing to put his head through the band before you even ask, because he knows it will pay off! You can build duration (so you can get your photo) by feeding a few treats in a row while he is wearing the head piece, gradually increasing the time between treats. If he tries to swat the hat off, you’ve left it on too long! Try increasing the rate you are delivering treats at.

 

Costumes/t-shirts can feel more restrictive, and many dogs are uncomfortable wearing them. If your dog freezes and looks unhappy (refer to list of stress signals above), don’t persist with putting the costume on! If your dog is more relaxed about wearing clothes, then encourage him to put his head through the neck hole using a couple of treats, and then ask him to offer his paw (“shake”, if he knows that trick) so you can finish with the leg holes. Offer him plenty of treats while he’s dressed up, and don’t leave him dressed for long (unless the temperature outside/inside is cool, and he enjoys wearing coats/jackets/t-shirts).

Santa photos can be the biggest challenge of all for some dogs – what could be scarier than a stranger wearing bizarre clothes and grossly invading your personal space?! If you take your dog to a “Santa Paws” event, watch him carefully for signs of stress, and don’t persist if he is unhappy. Take treats, so you can reward your dog for approaching Santa, sitting still for the camera, and settling in line while waiting their turn. If possible, opt to hold your dog on your own lap while sitting next to Santa, or have your dog sit on the ground (or seat if they are comfortable to do so) in front of, or beside, Santa rather than on his lap. You could even ask Santa to give your dog a couple of his favourite treats!

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Wilbur rocking the Christmas spirit in a low-stress way! – Photos by Irresistible Desires

If your dog sees you with the costumes and races the other way, don’t despair – there are some other ideas for getting great Christmas photos without worrying your furry friend! You can ask him to sit or lie down with some Christmas lights in the background, or decorations scattered around, or you could opt for a simple (but adorable) Christmas bow tie or bandanna attached to their collar. There is also the magic of Photoshop, where you are only limited by your imagination (and skill with the software).

Don’t have fun at the expense of your dog (or cat) this Christmas! If you think reindeer costumes are adorable, then take the time to train your dog to LOVE getting dressed up too. A cute photo is not worth stressing your dog out.

 

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Putting Food to Good Use

Hands up if your dog loves dinner time? Mine does! For many dogs, dinner time is something that happens once or twice a day, and lasts for 30 seconds or less as they scoff the biscuits or wet food out of a bowl. Surely there is a way to make something so enjoyable last a little longer?

Slow Feeders

One strategy you could try is a slow feeder. These are designed to slow your dog down by making them manipulate the food out of grooves and pockets. You can buy assorted slow bowls from pet stores (or online), but you can also use a muffin pan from home, with a little of your dogs dinner in each section. You can make this more challenging by placing a tennis ball over some of the muffin moulds! Another slow feeder that we love is the Snuffle Mat. These are easy to make at home, or you can buy them custom made from the very talented Rachel at Snuffle Mats Australia.

Chewy finding treats in a cardboard box filled with toilet rolls – an easy toy to make at home!

Puzzle Toys

A step up from a slow feeder is a puzzle toy. These need to be chewed, rolled, or manipulated by your dog to make the food come out. There is a phenomenal range of puzzle toys on the market, and some simple ideas you can make at home too. You can’t go past a classic Kong toy for a durable and versatile food toy, or you could put some of your dog’s dry food in an empty plastic bottle (lid off) and let them push it around to get the food out. Whatever toy you start with, make sure the food falls out easily so your rookie dog doesn’t get frustrated and give up. This is a common problem that people have when introducing puzzle toys. Remember, your dog is used to getting their food without effort from a bowl. Don’t increase the challenge too quickly! With practice, your dog will gain some persistence and you can try more difficult puzzles.

Wilbur loves eating dinner in a Kong Classic

Scatter Feeding

If you are time poor and not inclined to stuff food into a puzzle toy, you can’t go past scatter feeding. Take the cup of food you’re about to put in your dog’s bowl, and toss it on the grass instead. This will give your dog the opportunity to sniff around to find his dinner, which is lots of fun and takes longer than eating from a bowl. You could also scatter the food in a deliberate trail around the yard, for your dog to follow when you leave for work. If you have more than one dog, you should supervise them when trying this idea, and separate them if they growl or snap over food.

Training Rewards

Put aside a portion of your dog’s food for the day, and use it to reward good behaviour! This could be spontaneously throughout the day, or specifically used in a training session to teach your dog something new. Behaviour that’s rewarded is repeated, so why not put some of your dog’s daily calories to good use!

Sammy and Lucy were happy to sit for treats at Puppy Preschool

Why Bother?

Most pet dogs are alone for long periods of time (while we work), and don’t necessarily get the stimulation they need when we are home. Even if you spend an hour or two walking or playing with your dog, they still have 22+ hours to entertain themselves. Providing your dog with enrichment and training using some (or all) of their daily food means they have plenty of opportunities to work their nose, body, and mind, and fewer hours available to get into trouble. Brain games and training are, in my experience, one of the most effective ways to tire an active dog out.

People often get concerned that using treats in training will make their dogs fat, when the reality is that too much food (no matter how it is offered) is going to cause that problem. Plenty of dogs are over-fed from a bowl, and suffer from obesity, boredom, and inactivity. By putting your dog’s regular diet to better use, you can train and play without worrying about weight gain! Who ever said food had to come from a bowl anyway?

Need More Ideas?

If you would like more tips and strategies for enriching your dogs day using their food, contact us or find us on Facebook!

The Misuse of Training Tools

Whenever the issue of training tools or equipment comes up in an online discussion, trainers who advocate for a vast and varied range of methods always throw out the following argument:

“If used properly, *insert chosen tool* doesn’t hurt/harm/cause stress to the dog.”

The more dogs and people i work with, the more i am realising that this argument is not enough to justify the ongoing use of potentially harmful equipment, whether the potential for harm will be physical or psychological.

My professional experience and ongoing continuing education lead me to use and recommend training methods based on the principles of learning theory and behavioural science. Current best practice(1,2,3) in the world of professional dog training is to use reward-based training methods and thoughtful environmental management to encourage the learner to make desired behavioural choices.

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Photo by Irresistible Desires

Training is a skill that we humans have to practice, and humans make mistakes! When i make recommendations for equipment or methods, i want to feel confident that even if my client completely buggers it up their dog will not suffer from the mistakes of their handler. If your treat-delivery and timing is off, training won’t be particularly effective but your dog is unlikely to suffer any long-term stress or discomfort (except perhaps obesity if you’re not accounting for treats in their daily food intake). If you haven’t got the hang of your front-attach harness, then your dog will still be comfortable while you figure it out. If you stuff your Kong too tightly, your dog might experience some frustration (or they will walk away).

The ethical dilemma lies, in my opinion, with equipment that relies on avoidance in training. Aversive training relies on the dog wanting to avoid or relieve an unpleasant sensation or experience(4). That could be a raised voice, a jab with a finger or foot, or a specific training collar. Not all of these things necessarily hurt your dog, but they have to be sufficiently unpleasant that your dog wants to avoid them or they would simply not work.

A dog trainer with exceptional timing might deliver corrections at such a level that the dog makes the desired association and the target behaviour reduces, however it is important to remember that a trainer has years of practice to be able to work as effectively as possible with the equipment they choose to use. What happens if the timing is off or the level of correction is wrong? This is something i see frequently when dog owners try to follow recommendations of some professionals and use aversive equipment on their own dog.

A leash kept short and tight can increase stress, create negative associations, and gives a dog no opportunity to learn loose lead walking. A choke or prong collar that is applying near-constant pressure is causing ongoing discomfort in response to a wide range of stimuli. A electric barking collar that is inconsistent in timing, or causes a dog to scream in fright or pain, is not effectively reducing barking. But what’s worse, if aversive tools continue to be used with poor timing or execution, the potential for long-term stress and discomfort (or even injury) is great(5).

Dogs make strong associations with their environment depending on how they feel. If they learn that the appearance of other dogs, people, vehicles, etc consistently result in them feeling uncomfortable then you may end up with a more serious behavioural problem than you started with.

By definition, if a behaviour is being reinforced it will increase – you will see more of it. If a behaviour is being punished it will decrease – you will see less of it. If you are working with a trainer, or on your own, and your dog’s behaviour is persisting without change, then it is time to stop and review the plan! When you are using reward-based methods you will feel frustrated if nothing is happening, but if you are using correction-based methods then your dog’s physical and psychological well-being may be at risk.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” – Albert Einstein

As a professional dog trainer, my goal is to equip you with the tools and methods to allow you to work happily with your dog towards training success. I want both you and your dog to enjoy the process! Remember, training is a skill that takes practice to master. By choosing a force-free trainer you are investing in long-term behavioural change for your dog, using scientifically-proven methods that will improve communication and teamwork between you and your furry friend.

 

References

1 AVA Reward-based Training Guide

2 AVSAB How To Choose A Trainer

3 PPG Australia Humane Hierarchy

4 Definition of Aversive – Cambridge Dictionary

5 AVSAB Position Statement on the use of punishment in dog training (including adverse effects of punishment training)

 

A Dog’s Job Description

Earlier this week we looked after a puppy for a friend. Henrietta is an 8-10 week old mixed breed foster puppy from the RSPCA, and we had her for about 8 hours. Anyone who has recently spent time with a puppy will know that they can be busy little creatures, and keeping them out of mischief feels like a full time job. It also got us thinking about what we expect of these little guys when we bring them home.

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Henrietta is adorable, cheeky, and ready to learn

When the average Australian household decides to add a dog to the family it would be fair to say that they are expecting the dog to:

  • Be friendly to family and friends, including other pets in the home
  • Be affectionate and playful, but not rowdy or rough
  • Respond to verbal cues such as sit, drop, stay, and come
  • Walk nicely on lead, ignoring other dogs, people, and good smells
  • Be friendly to all dogs they meet
  • Go to the toilet only outside on the grass
  • Settle quietly when no one is home, or the family is busy with other activities

There will be some variation amongst households, such as whether the dog will be allowed in the house or not, whether she will be allowed on the furniture or not, etc, but for the most part if a dog can meet the above job description they will fit in well with most families.

Now here’s the problem: it is an exceptionally rare dog that comes with the above skill set already learnt! The average dog will:

  • Be social with people she knows, but may bark at strangers (including friends, postmen, tradies, etc)
  • Be curious about other pets, perhaps even chasing them if they move quickly
  • Crave social contact, resulting in overly-enthusiastic greetings when you get home from work
  • Have no understanding of English words such as “Sit” or “No”, no matter how loudly you say them
  • Want to investigate every interesting sight, smell, and sound when out walking, at a much faster and more erratic pace than most humans walk
  • Be selective about which dogs they want to play with, preferring friends with similar play styles to their own
  • Go to the toilet wherever the urge strikes
  • Get restless, lonely, or bored when left alone or ignored, and find fun in the form of chewing, chasing, digging, or barking

Henrietta matched the average dog description perfectly! When she arrived at our house she was met by Wilbur and our large macaw, Elmo. There were also smaller pet birds moving around in their cages, and some lizards scuttling around in their enclosures. There were so many things to see, hear, and smell!

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Wilbur was ready to teach Henrietta everything he knows

Rather than leaving her to make her best guess about what to do, we called her to follow us outside and walked around on the grass with her until she did a wee. She got lots of praise and some treats for doing the right thing, and then we came inside. She was a little wary of Wilbur, who is bigger than she is and likes to growl when he plays, so Wilbur was on lead and Henrietta got lots of treats whenever she approached him or solicited play. Wilbur got treats too, for lying down quietly while the puppy explored.

In preparation for having a puppy in the home we had already packed away anything we didn’t want her to chew, which meant our shoes were out of reach, and all that was left on the floor were dog toys that were appropriate to chew on. We shut doors to rooms that were out of bounds, and encouraged our puppy to stay nearby by calling her in a happy voice if she started to wander off, and rewarding her with praise and treats when she returned.

The cheeky pup had a real aptitude for jumping onto the couch and climbing along the armrests and back like a mountain goat. Our preference is that furniture is off-limits for dogs in the house, so each time she hopped up we tapped the ground and called her down (using that same happy voice). What happened when she got down? Lots of treats. It is essential that we give any dog we bring home plenty of feedback when they make good choices. Henrietta wasn’t jumping on the couch to be naughty, she was just being an adventurous pup! As the day progressed we could anticipate that she would try to jump up on the couch, and encourage her to stay on the ground to earn treats instead.

As the afternoon wore on Wilbur managed to convince our young friend to play with him. They were having a great time playing bitey-face, chase, and tug-o-war, and we broke up the play with some basic training like sit and drop. Play between dogs can go pear-shaped when they are left to play for long durations (someone always gets grumpy), so it is important to provide the opportunity to settle and rest between play-bouts. Sometimes you will need to enforce rest periods by separating the dogs and giving them something to settle with, such as a stuffed Kong toy.

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Henrietta and Wilbur playing “bitey face”
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Henrietta inviting Wilbur to play tug-o-war
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Henrietta chewing quietly on a cow hoof

To finish our day together we took Henrietta along to an introductory session (no other puppies) at Puppy Preschool. This meant we needed her to be on lead, which she hasn’t had much experience with! When we clipped a lead to her collar we called her to follow us without letting the lead go tight, and gave her lots of treats as she followed us around. Some puppies get spooked when they feel a tight lead on their collar, so it is very important to make an effort to keep that lead loose when you first introduce it to your dog (that’s right, you make the effort, not your dog).

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Puppies need plenty of sleep

Overall our day consisted the opportunity to play, toilet, and rest, and at the end of our afternoon together we sent a very sleepy puppy back to her foster home! Whether you bring home a puppy or an adult dog, and whether it is forever or for a few hours, it is up to you to ensure that you set your new housemate up for success. Dogs simply don’t come preset to behave the way we like, but they are ready to learn. Make it easy for your new dog (or old dog) to make good choices, and be ready to provide them with lots of goodies when they do things you like. Having a plan of attack before you bring a dog home will make life a lot easier for everyone!

Your Dog’s Fear Is No Joke

There is no denying that sometimes our canine companions appear to be afraid of some rather strange things. Many things that cause our dogs to startle, flee, or growl can seem trivial to us, such as images or videos of other dogs, their reflection in a mirror, statues, balloons, kites, costumes, etc. For some dogs any novel item, particularly one that moves or makes noise, can be scary. It is easy to laugh when our dog jumps or growls at something silly, but is that the most helpful thing we can do to calm our friend?

Many of us spend so much time with our dogs that we think of them as part of the family. We talk to them, play with them, and care for them. It’s no wonder we sometimes expect them to understand the same things we do! But, by laughing at your dog’s fearful behaviour, putting them in a situation you know will startle them, or trying to take them up to their “bogeyman” to show them it’s ok, we are failing to acknowledge what is really going on. Your dog is scared. He doesn’t know that the object or situation isn’t dangerous, and he certainly isn’t “in on the joke” if you have set him up.

Rather than laughing and forcing your dog to approach or stay close to something he is scared of, allow him to move away to a distance he feels safe. For some dogs being able to review the situation from a distance will be enough to discover that the object that startled them isn’t scary at all. Other dogs might require some help.

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Giving Wilbur distance allowed him to watch the giant motorised snail and decide it was safe

When Wilbur was approximately 6 months old he began to startle and growl at statues. This included garden gnomes, animal-shaped garden ornaments, and artistic sculptures in public places. Are statues safe? Yes! Of course they are! Are they scary? To Wilbur they were. Rather than drag him up to a statue that he was trying to move away from, we started to play a game. I’ve seen this game called “look at that” or “touch the goblin”, and it simply involves rewarding your dog each time they look at or approach something they find spooky. We played this game with the scary sea turtle statue at The Strand (Townsville). After we had retreated to a distance where Wilbur was no longer growling at the statue, i began to mark (“yes”) and reward (with pieces of chicken) each time Wilbur glanced at the statue to make sure it hadn’t moved. Pretty quickly he clicked onto the fact that looking at the statue was making good things happen, and he started to take longer peeks, and then took one step, two steps, etc until he was walking all around the statue and sniffing it all over. By turning the situation into a game, Wilbur conquered his initial fear within a minute or so.

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After a game of “touch the goblin” Wilbur was happy to investigate and sit beside the sea turtle statue

Why didn’t i just take him up to the statue to show him it was safe? It’s simple, fear doesn’t work that way! I know plenty of people who are scared of snakes. On the other hand i love them. If i was to plonk a snake on one of my snake-phobic friends they would freak out, regardless of if i was telling them “it’s ok, he won’t bite”. Chances are they would lose all trust in me and be forever suspicious that i might put them in another scary situation! That’s not what we want for our dogs. We want to be the giver of all good things, the person they can look to when they are unsure, and the person who will help them feel safe.

A quick look on social media shows us that many dog owners fail to consider their dogs when posting and viewing “funny” videos. Before you hit “like” or upload the video of your dog jumping in fright at a dancing teddy bear, stop and consider how that experience was for the dog. Dogs don’t act! If they are behaving like they are scared then they are scared. They may recover quickly from being startled, or their fear may be prolonged, but either way that is not the role we should aim to have in our dog’s life.

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Thanks to force-free training methods, Wilbur is no longer worried about statues we find on walks

Next time something spooks your dog, put down the camera and find ways to help your dog feel more confident. If they are fearful of a range of different things in a number of situations, or if their fear is persistent or severe, then you may need some help from a trainer or vet behaviourist to assist you and your dog on the way to a fear-free life.

Why Attend Puppy Preschool?

All too often, Puppy Preschool is an after-thought for new puppy owners. Perhaps they are confident in raising a puppy, they don’t have time, or they are waiting until their puppy has finished their vaccination. Other families might not sign up because they have another dog at home, so they aren’t worried about “socialisation”. In this blog post we will look at some reasons why Puppy Preschool should be a top priority when you bring home a new family member.

“I’ve always had *insert breed here*, so i know how to train this puppy”

Even experienced dog owners can find a number of benefits in attending puppy classes. In many cases a new puppy will be joining the family because an older dog has recently passed away. This means, for many families, it has been 10+ years since they have owned a puppy. Joining a puppy class can be a great way to find out what’s new in the world of dog training, as well as an opportunity to jog your memory on some of the puppy problems that you haven’t had to deal with for over a decade! Every puppy is an individual too, so this puppy may bring a range of challenges that you have not yet encountered, and your class instructor will be able to help you survive puppy-hood.

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Wilbur (bottom left) attended Puppy Preschool and made lots of new friends

“I have another dog at home, so my puppy has plenty of socialisation”

Socialisation refers to the process of introducing your new puppy to a range of new people, animals, places, and experiences. When we bring our new puppy home at 8 weeks old, they are in their critical socialisation period. This means their brains are like sponges, ready to take on new information. If you set them up with plenty of positive introductions to new experiences they will develop into confident and curious young adults, but if they are limited in their exposure or they have scary experiences, they can become timid and afraid in new situations. Puppy Preschool is a safe opportunity to bring your puppy into a new environment where they can meet new people, and learn to focus and relax in a stimulating environment. Play time with other puppies is a fun component of Puppy Preschool, but there is so much more to be gained by attending a well run class.

“I can’t take my puppy out until he is fully vaccinated”

The critical socialisation period is finished by approximately 14-16 weeks of age. It is still important to continue introducing your puppy to new experiences beyond this age, but they are likely to be more cautious in unfamiliar situations. A pup that is kept at home, without any new experiences in the outside world, until they are fully vaccinated at 16-18 weeks of age has lost a wonderful opportunity to easily make happy associations with the big wide world. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour and the Australian Veterinary Association both agree that the benefit of attending puppy classes prior to completing puppy vaccinations far outweighs the risk of disease spread, which is minimal when attending a class run indoors on disinfected floors. In addition to puppy classes you can also take your puppy to friends houses, on car rides, and to other places where you can carry them. We have even had clients who take their pup out in a stroller so they can see the sights before they are fully vaccinated!

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Chewy learned about food toys at Puppy Preschool

“I’ll go to a training class later”

Prevention is better than a cure! There is no time like the present to begin teaching your puppy the skills he will need to make an excellent addition to your family. By attending puppy classes within the first few weeks of bringing your puppy home, you can teach them what you expect right from the start. There is no need to wait for problems to appear before you start training! Keep in mind that many well-run puppy classes book out weeks in advance, so if you are planning on bringing a new puppy home try to book them into a class as soon as possible. We love when clients phone us before their puppy even comes home!

In summary, Puppy Preschool is a fun opportunity for you to help your puppy experience new places, new people, new dogs, and new skills. At Treat. Play. Love. we keep our class size small to maximise the benefit for you and your puppy. We prioritise helping each puppy feel safe and confident in all class interactions, and we love helping new owners teach their puppy the skills they will need to make great pets.

 

Does your dog listen or watch?

Humans love to talk! We use words to explain things, ask questions, and to communicate with those around us. It makes sense to try to use our words to communicate with our dogs too, but it may surprise you to learn just what cues your pet is picking up on.

When we teach our dog a new behaviour, we usually try to pair that action with a word. As our dog’s butt hits the ground we say “Sit!” and then say what a good dog they are for sitting. What many people fail to realise is that their dog may be paying more attention to what you are doing with your body.

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Wilbur sitting when given a hand signal

We talk all the time, and of all the words we say, relatively few have any significance to our pets. Some words become reliable predictors of fun activities (e.g. dinner, walkies), but for the most part our dogs can safely ignore our chit-chat without consequence. Our body language can be more reliable. If we move towards the fridge, a snack may be imminent. Putting on our shoes could mean time for a walk. It pays for our dogs to pay attention to what our body language is saying, as it is often their first hint as to what is coming next.

Let’s go back to teaching our dog to sit. Even though we may say “Sit!” as their butt hits the ground, how did we get them to sit in the first place? In most cases we moved our hand in a predictable gesture above their head. This may resemble the food lure most people initially used to teach sit. Some dogs even notice very subtle motions, such as us leaning our shoulders forward slightly as we ask them to sit. In the scheme of your dog’s day, paying attention to these things pays off better than keeping an ear out for a particular word. In fact, our body language and actions can be so significant that our dogs don’t actually pick up on the words at all, which is why when you repeat “sit, sit, SIT!” you may not get any response.

It can be very useful to teach our dogs to respond to verbal cues in training, and the good news is that it is actually quite simple. The important thing is the order that we offer our cues. To teach our dogs a new verbal cue, we first want to teach them the behaviour (using a food lure, target, shaping, etc). Then we can use the following method to add a new cue:

NEW CUE (e.g. “Sit”) – OLD CUE (e.g. hand signal) – REWARD

It is very important that the new verbal cue is offered first, followed by the old visual cue. If we give both cues simultaneously it is likely that your dog will focus more heavily on the visual cue (as that is how dogs communicate most easily). By offering the new cue first, your dog starts to learn that the new verbal cue consistently predicts the old cue, and they will begin to offer the correct behaviour.

If your dog does not respond correctly to a visual or verbal cue, chances are they haven’t yet learned it as well as you think. Take some time to go back to basics with them, and help them out by breaking the behaviour down. Consider if they are distracted, if you’ve practised in that situation before, and if you are adequately motivating them.

Below is a short video of Wilbur demonstrating some of his learned behaviours, offered on both visual and verbal cues. As a general rule he learns visual cues (hand signals) more quickly than verbal cues, but following the NEW CUE/OLD CUE method we have easily taught him both (he can even read flash cards for SIT and DOWN).

Your Dog Is Barking For A Reason

Barking is a common behavioural problem for modern dog owners. More than ever before, we live close to our neighbours and we are gone from the home for many hours each day. A barking dog can cause headaches, neighbourhood disputes, and can even lead to the family dog being surrendered or rehomed.

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Photo by Liz Brimson

Due to the level of disruption a barking dog can create, both at home and with neighbours, many people look to solve the problem as quickly as possible. This often results in training devices, such as bark collars, being used. These devices fail to address the reason your dog is barking, which means you might succeed in temporarily stopping the barking, but without addressing the underlying cause you won’t see lasting change. More importantly such devices can have negative effects on your dogs stress levels, and can lead to more severe behavioural problems developing.

So what can you do to reduce your dogs barking? To answer this we need to understand that barking can be a symptom of a wide variety of problems that may be affecting your dog. Let’s have a look at some of the more common reasons for excessive barking, and how you can help your dog learn to cope better in those situations.

Passing Triggers

It is very common for dogs to bark at people, vehicles, and animals that pass the house. This is usually their response to a perceived threat, and your dog is saying “go away”. Unfortunately for us, the trigger usually does go away. From your dogs perspective, they bark in a menacing way and that yellow-bellied trigger (mailman, dog walker, etc) moves away with their tail between their legs. Barking in this context works! If you don’t alter this situation your dogs barking will become worse, because thanks to their barking the household is safe from those pesky passersby.

One of the most effective steps you can take to reduce this barking is to limit visual access that your dog has to these triggers. This could mean using weed-mat to block out the view through the fence, window film to prevent your dog seeing through to the street, or perhaps leaving your dog in a different part of the house or a smaller yard where they don’t have access to a view of the street when you’re not home. It is not good exercise or enrichment for your dog to be on guard all day, watching for someone to bark at. They will appreciate the opportunity to relax away from their “duties”.

Boredom

When you consider the hours spent alone at home, it is a wonder that more dogs aren’t going stir-crazy. Dogs that bark at the slightest movement around the yard (leaves, birds, etc) may be engaging in the most interesting option available.

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Food puzzles can provide excellent mental stimulation for a bored dog

Rather than yelling for your dog to “shut up”, give your dog something more appropriate to do. Provide them for an outlet for all that energy! A combination of physical activity (walks, play) and mental stimulation (food toys, puzzles, nose work) is your best bet. If your dog is busy, active, and mentally stimulated they will have less time and inclination to make their own (noisy) games when you are busy or away from home.

Learned Barking

If your dog is barking at you to demand attention/play/food then you have probably inadvertently taught them that barking works. Humans are masters at ignoring something until it is creating a problem for us. If you’re sitting on the couch, engaged in a book or something on your computer, your dog is probably nearby and somewhat bored. If they bark, do you look at them? Talk? Tell them off? Compared to the dull monotony of you sitting idle on the couch, many dogs find that kind of engagement rewarding.

Instead of fussing when your dog is noisy, pay attention to the situations where he is likely to bark at you. Find ways to engage with your dog before he starts barking, and reward him for quieter behaviour. At first you might only have very brief windows of opportunity to reward your dog, but with practise the brief moments will get longer. You can also redirect your dog to a more appropriate activity. If you’re settling in for a long and boring couch session, perhaps you could give your dog a stuffed Kong or chew to keep busy with.

Separation Anxiety

Of all the causes of barking this can be the most heart-breaking and challenging to deal with. Sometimes the first hint a person has that their dog is having problems when home alone is a letter in the mailbox from an unhappy neighbour. It can be overwhelming to learn that your dog might be barking for extended periods when you are not home. Barking as a symptom of separation anxiety is often prolonged in nature and starts shortly after you have left home. It may not be every time you leave either. Some dogs have learned to cope with you daily departure to work, but when you go out for dinner their world falls apart. Setting up a webcam can confirm whether your dog is barking non-stop when you leave, or if they are barking at specific times (e.g. when the mailman drives up the street).

If you suspect that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety you should contact a trainer or veterinary behaviourist promptly. There are some very effective protocols for helping your dog to cope when you are not home, but you will need help and encouragement to be successful. You can also find some great resources online, such as Malena DeMartini’s website.

Dogs can bark for a great number of reasons, but they never bark for no reason at all. Rather than jumping straight to yelling at your dog or punishing them for barking, take a moment to try to understand why they are making so much noise, and get help to find a solution that addresses the cause rather than the symptom. Quick fixes, such as bark collars, may provide you with immediate relief, but what about your dog? He will appreciate you taking the time to help him to cope more effectively with the day-to-day reality of modern life with dogs.

Pyramid Pan Dog Treats

When we saw this idea on Eileen and Dogs blog, we knew we had to try it for ourselves. We quickly located the Pyramid Pan on eBay and waited patiently for it to arrive in the mail. Apparently they are also available from Woolworths, and probably other homeware-type stores too (though we have been keeping our eyes peeled, and haven’t seen it in Woolworths, Coles, or Spotlight). The Pyramid Pan’s actual use is for low-fat roasting, so the meat doesn’t sit in the fat.

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The Pyramid Pan

To make my treat batter i used a fairly unscientific recipe of approximately the following ingredients:

1c cooked chicken (chopped) OR 1/2c cooked bacon (chopped)

2-3tbsp light cream cheese spread

1/2 egg

1/2 – 1c tapioca flour

Water to reach desired consistency

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The stages of mixing

Put the meat and cheese spread in a food processor and blitz until it looks disgusting (like creamy cat food or tuna). Then add the egg and tapioca flour and blitz a little more. At this point it will either form a dough-like ball or it will look quite sticky and pasty. Finally, add some water to achieve a…smooth, yoghurt-like consistency. Smooth is MUCH easier to work into the Pyramid Pan than a thicker/stickier batter.

Dump the batter onto the Pyramid Pan, and use your spatula to work it into all the little holes. By some reports from other people who have tried this, spreading the batter can be quite time consuming. I found that with the smoother batter and my flexible silicone spatula that it was very easy and quick. When all the holes are filled with batter, scrape any excess off with your spatula.

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Dump the batter onto the Pyramid Pan
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The batter is evenly spread over the holes and the excess scraped away

Now we made two batches, and concluded that our second attempt was best. The first we baked in a fan-forced oven at 180C for 7-8 minutes. The treats around the outer rows were well cooked, but the inner ones were a little squishier (maybe your dog would prefer this). The second batch we baked at a lower temperature of 160C for about 15 minutes, and the treats were more evenly cooked and crispy.

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Comparison of batch one (left) and batch two (right)

Once baked let the tray cool enough to touch, and then lift the corners so that all the treats fall into the centre (it’s really satisfying to do this part).

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Cheap thrills…
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Lots and lots of chicken/cheese and bacon/cheese dog treats

We’ve tried a few different storage methods (sandwich bag, plastic container, fridge, freezer, cupboard), though as they are preservative free your best bet for storing large quantities of these treats would be the freezer (just pull out a small amount as required). The drier you bake them the better they would last outside of the freezer (we’re guessing).

The Pyramid Pan itself was a piece of cake to clean. It was pretty much clean once the treats fell out, but a quick shake off and a rinse did the job just fine. It is also dishwasher safe if you would prefer to pop it through for a thorough clean.

Finally, of course, we had to check if Wilbur liked our baking…though frankly his judgement can’t be trusted, he’ll eat just about anything! He gave them two paws up! We will probably be back in the kitchen tomorrow to finish off the ingredients we bought, and we might try some peanut butter flavoured ones too.

*edited to add* Both the humans in the house can confirm that the bacon/cheese recipe tastes just fine, but Wilbur wondered why we were tasting his treats!

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Wilbur says the Pyramid Pan Treats are GREAT!

The Social Dog

Most clients i see want to spend time with their dog in social settings – friends houses, walks with friends, dog parks, the beach, etc. Sharing time with your dog and others can be one of the great joys of owning a dog. For some chilled out pooches it comes naturally to be social, but for others it can be more challenging (and some would prefer to stay home altogether).

One of the biggest challenges that we face as we prepare our dogs to be the social butterflies we so desire is the misconception that socialisation equals play. We try to do the right thing with our new puppy or adult dog by bringing them to as many play dates as possible and letting them mingle with other dogs. This can go well, or not…

Recognising inappropriate play can be really difficult for the average dog owner. It is easy for overly boisterous dogs to pursue a more polite or shy dog relentlessly, and equally easy for a shy dog to be overwhelmed without being noticed.

Rather than jumping in the deep end with play, take time to learn about body language so you can interrupt if play goes pear-shaped. The Dog Decoder app is a great resource for any dog owner to learn about basic dog body language.

Also spend time on some foundation training skills with your dog. Teach him that great things happen when he stays calm while other dogs are around. Help him learn to focus on you and respond to cues in the face of distraction. The majority of the time when we see other dogs it won’t be appropriate for them to play (e.g. passing on walks, in training classes, at dog-friendly cafes), so teaching your dog to be calm around other dogs should be your top priority.

When you do introduce your dog to new friends, focus on keeping the play short and happy and space out the play with short pauses where you reward settled behaviour. Happy play involves loose and wriggly dogs, lots of play cues (play bows, loose waggy tails, etc), and respect of the other dog. The players should take turns chasing and being chased, wrestling and being wrestled, etc. If you think either party is not enjoying themselves, pause the play.

Play fighting can easily degrade into actual fighting, and play chasing can become predatory, which is why those frequent breaks let everyone stop and chill, and keep from becoming over-stimulated.

Dog friends are awesome, but only when everyone is getting along and having a great time. Putting your dog in social situations that make him uncomfortable won’t help him to feel better around other dogs, it will likely make him feel worse. Your job as a dog owner is to ensure your dog is safe and happy, and that may or may not include play dates with other dogs.

If you need help with dog training in the Townsville area, contact Treat Play Love today.