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.


It’s All Tricks

Ask someone to teach their dog to “Heel” and we’re talking serious obedience training. Stern voice, repetition, and sometimes even frustration when we can’t get it right. Ask someone to teach their dog to “Shake Hands” and the mood lightens. It’s hard to be serious when you’re teaching your dog a trick.

Guess what? It’s ALL tricks!

You read that right! Even an obedience “Heel” is a trick as far as your dog is concerned. Whether the behaviour is important to you or just for fun, your pet is relying on you to give him clear information to help him succeed. He is using that information to figure out what behaviours will lead to fun things happening for him, and when he figures that out he will try it more often! That’s how learning works.

So why do we like to get our panties in a twist over our basic “obedience” behaviours?

We don’t have to, and indeed we are likely to see better results if we lighten up. By relaxing, being clear, and having fun, we are likely to be more thoughtful when training our pets. A training failure is a puzzle to solve, not a serious offence, and we can work towards a training goal in partnership with our dog rather than trying to drill a behaviour into his muscle memory.

In the training classes I instruct or assist with, I like to give owners a trick to teach their dog. The dogs always learn the trick faster than any of the “serious” stuff. Why? I think it is because the owners have no preconceived idea as to how to teach a trick, while they probably have taught sit, drop, or stay a certain way in the past. Without the baggage people are free to try teaching without force, and they see the results quickly. If the owner is having a great time, their dog is usually loving training too.

shake hands dog

The important “tricks” vary from owner to owner as well. When Wilbur joined the Treat. Play. Love. family one of the first things i taught him was “Shake Hands”. Why? Because i had never owned a dog who could shake hands, and i’d always wanted one! That mattered to me. For someone else sitting at doors or retrieving may be more important, or perhaps that awesome down-stay. It’s not a matter of whether a behaviour is a “trick” or “obedience”, what really matters is if it is important to you, and that you and your dog enjoy the learning process together.

Train smart, not tough!

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!

“What” and “Why”

Last night I shared a quote by Sue Ailsby, from her free The Sue Ailsby Collection which can be found on her website. The quote generated a lot more response than I had anticipated when I posted it, so i’d like to take a closer look!

“WHY is not nearly as important as WHAT. Teach yourself to see what the dog is doing rather than worrying about why he does it.” – Sue Ailsby.

what and why
Wilbur is barking. Does he want to play, or increase the distance of something, or is he just being obnoxious?

I think the primary reason this struck a nerve with some followers is that the “WHY” in the context of this quote was misinterpreted. It’s referring to the “why” of what the animal is thinking, not the antecedent to the behaviour. If we use a puppy having an accident indoors as an example, we can change the “what” by giving our puppy more opportunity to go outside, and rewarding toileting on the grass. In days gone by people would get caught up in the “why” – he was teaching you a lesson for leaving him alone so long, he knew it was wrong but did it anyway, etc. Thinking this way tends to make us mad, which makes us more likely to respond impulsively by yelling, rubbing their nose in it, or smacking their bottom.

The only thoughts we can ever truly know are our own. We can ask our human friends what they are thinking, and often we can trust that they will respond truthfully, but we can’t ask the same question of our pets.

We need to look at what our pets are doing, and how we can best meet their physical, mental, and social needs to create a happy and well-balanced pet. By focusing on what they are doing we can get valuable information about how well we are doing, and what we could do better. We can learn the difference between relaxed body language and fearful body language, and address either appropriately, but we’re still measuring behaviour and not thoughts.

If we get caught up making assumptions about our pets thoughts, we are stepping onto a slippery slope. The science of behaviour change and modification looks at “what” the animal is doing (what we can observe) and how we can effect that by changing what happens prior (antecedents) or after (consequences) the target behaviour. We can also use the tools of behaviour modification to help our pets respond appropriately to different stimuli, through desensitization and counter-conditioning, but even then we are measuring what the pet is doing, not why.

The dangers of doing nothing

One of the most common phone calls we get is from owners with an adolescent or young adult pets who are misbehaving. Upon further enquiry the misbehaviour has been going on for months, sometimes even longer. So why is the behaviour suddenly annoying enough to call for help, and why does it take so long?

Speaking with owners, we have found that many people hold the belief that pets go through naughty phases which they will grow out of. With this belief in mind, most people live through the frustration of a naughty puppy, kitten, or parrot, then transition into the crazy teenage age, complain about their “hormonal” pet, and then finally reach the conclusion that nothing has changed and they can’t put up with it anymore.

While it is true that our pets do change as they grow up, we are still always in a position to be able to positively influence their behaviour. We need to get out of the habit of waiting for something to become a problem and then reacting, and into the habit of knowing how we do want our pets to behave and taking a proactive approach to help them reach those behavioural goals.

naughty puppy

We always remind people that if you do nothing, nothing will change. If your puppy is chasing your pant legs as you walk it may be “just a puppy thing”, but you can teach your puppy to move beside you, carry a toy, or sit for attention rather than waiting to have a 7 month old dog heeling you as you walk. Your biting budgie may be “hormonal”, but teaching her to station or step onto a perch will save your finger and maintain your relationship much better than keeping her cage-bound hoping she will grow out of it.

One look at any shelter or rescue website is enough to make you realise that they are full to the brim of young animals that didn’t “grow out of it”. Be proactive in helping your pet to succeed as a member of your family, and train smart, not tough!

Why Behaviour Matters!

It wasn’t all that long ago that animal welfare only required that we meet our pets physiological needs – they have food, water, and shelter, and get treatment for illness or injury if needed. Recently we’re realising that meeting an animals behavioural needs are equally important to keep an animal happy!

Most behavioural problems are normal animal behaviours being expressed in ways that are annoying or disruptive to the humans having to put up with them! Unfortunately by the time a behaviour is getting really annoying, the pet has usually been practising it for quite some time, making it a hard habit to break.

It is important for pet owners to learn about what their pets normal behaviour should be, how to give them outlets for their natural behaviours that aren’t destructive or annoying, and how to notice signs that their pet might be becoming stressed or unhappy. This is just as important as researching which vet to go to, what food to feed, and what toys and bedding they will need.

Owners often say they’d love it if their pet could just tell them what’s wrong! Our pets, whether they are dogs, cats, or birds, are well equipped with a wide range of body language and behaviours that can give us wonderful information about how they are feeling.

body language

A massive part of what we do at Treat. Play. Love. is helping owners to learn how to pay attention to their pets body language – the different ways a dog can wag its tail, the way a cat might back away and watch warily if its unsure, and how a birds eyes might flash before a bite. These are all clues we can tap into to improve how we interact with our pets, showing that we understand and respect what they’re trying to tell us.

Not sure where to start looking for more information? Just ask us! There are excellent books, e-books, websites and online groups that are all dedicated to helping owners understand their pets behaviour. We want to help people unravel the mystery so they can train smart, not tough.

Myth Busting: Dominance and Dogs

This is a topic i am extremely passionate about. I still remember when i got my first dog at 13 years old and a trainer came to our home to help me with training my new puppy. It was all about “uh uh!!” and “no!!” and most importantly about establishing myself as the “alpha” dog.

dominance dog trainerA long time ago, some research was done on a group of captive wolves. The researchers observed that there seemed to be a whole lot of conflict in the group leading to there being an alpha male and female and a group of subordinate wolves. The dog community liked the term “alpha” and, figuring that dogs descended from wolves, decided that to train their dogs they would have to be “alpha” too. This led to trainers instructing people to go through a range of routines, such as being first through doors, never letting dogs on furniture, always eating before their dog, etc, all in an effort to be “alpha” in the “pack”. In extreme situations people were even instructed to pin their dogs on their back until they “submitted”.

Since this original research was done, zoologists and others in the scientific community have spent time observing wild wolves and have found that these wolves actually live in family groups. Just like in a human family the breeding pair (parents) are naturally the leaders, and the offspring from previous litters live cooperatively to help hunt and raise the new litter. Eventually the older offspring will leave to find their own mates, and they will then become the leaders in their own pack. They are not vying for “dominance” or to be “alpha”, they are living and breeding cooperatively in a way that improves species survival.

Watch David Mech, original researcher who coined the term “alpha”, explain why it is no longer relevant.

It is important to note that wolves don’t usually physically fight amongst their pack/family over things like “status”, and even scuffles over resources are highly ritualized – meaning the wolves use their well developed range of body language to diffuse conflict before it becomes physical (it is a waste of energy, and a survival risk, to get physical with your own family in the wild). This raises questions about the validity of any kind of checking, tapping, or other “bite” substitutes traditional trainers use “to mimic dog behaviour” when correcting a dog.

dog body languageWe have also got a lot more information on how wild/feral dogs live in various parts of the world. Rather than working cooperatively in a group, or pack, they tend to live independently in areas rich in resources (such as at tips, or in villages). Rather than hunting to take down large prey, they scavenge alone. They come together to mate, and even that is random – not based on who is “alpha”.

So we know that wolves don’t waste energy vying for alpha status, and we know that despite common ancestry, feral dogs behave and live in completely different ways to wolves. So why are we still “dominating” our pet dogs?

Dominance, as it applies to dogs, is not about status but rather about resources. If you have two dogs, one might always be first to get to the food (or perhaps it can take food from the other). This dog is dominant in that context. When it comes to play the other dog might get the ball first, and so it would be dominant during play. It is a description of behaviour in context, not a description of personality type, and it is a fluid state.

Describing certain behaviours, such as jumping up, stealing food, and rushing through doors, as the dog being “dominant” is not only flawed, but it instantly puts us in a confrontational state of mind. We have to show the dog who is boss!! Actually, dogs jump up to get closer to our face, a natural dog greeting, and because we often accidentally reinforce behaviours such as this. They steal food because it tastes great, and we haven’t taught them not to. And they rush through doors because there is something good on the other side. These are training problems, not personality problems.

We need to stop using dominance as an excuse to bully our dogs. Rather than pushing them around and engaging in pointless routines, we can be good leaders by showing our dogs what we want them to do in ways they can understand, such as through positive reinforcement training, and motivate them to do it again next time. Try it, your dog will appreciate it!

Is your pet motivated?

Begging Dog

There are a range of factors that influence whether or not your pet will perform a behaviour when you ask, but a big one that is often overlooked is motivation. You’ve asked your pet to do something, now they’re wondering “what’s in it for me?”

Many people hold the belief that our pets, particularly our dogs, should do what we say “to please us”. There are a number of things wrong with this expectation, but in particular is the fact that animals don’t live by what’s right or wrong in the world but rather by what brings them good things and what causes bad things to happen. They repeat behaviours that bring them good outcomes, and avoid behaviours that lead to bad things happening.

Which brings us back to motivation. You’ve asked your dog to come, but he’s having a blast barking at dog on the other side of the fence. You’re empty handed, and you sound mad. What’s in it for him? Not much! He could stay at the fence having a blast, or he could come to you and get in trouble. He has no concept that it will please you if he comes on cue, he is just interested in how it affects his day.

There are a range of ways you can motivate your pet to work with you instead of ignoring you. Try using favourite treats, games, toys, attention, and praise during training. If you can teach him that listening to you leads to all his favourite things happening, then the stakes are in your favour next time you cue a behaviour. The more good history you build, the better the stakes get for you.

Next time your pet seems to blow you off when you ask him to do something, take a minute to think about what you’re offering him in return. Are you asking him to stop doing something he’s enjoying? Then you had better up your game!

Why train with positive reinforcement?

We live in a society that has traditionally relied on using punishment based training methods for decades. With such a long history doing things one way, it is only logical that some people resist trying something new. Here are some reasons why you should consider positive reinforcement.

Goblin the princess parrot learns that touching this chopstick with his beak results in him earning a treat

1. Positive reinforcement teaches your pet what to do. Traditional training methods depend on our pet doing the wrong thing so that we can then punish it to teach it not to do that again. The problem with this is that punishing a behaviour merely suppresses it without changing the underlying factors that led to the wrong-doing in the first place. By using positive reinforcement you can stay one step ahead of your pet by teaching it what you actually want it to do, keeping both your pet and yourself happy.

2. Positive reinforcement increases the human-animal bond. Traditional training methods require your pet to experience negative stimuli to work (e.g. pain, fear) which often leads to a state of mind called “learned helplessness” where your pet simply ceases to try new things for fear of being punished. Positive reinforcement teaches your pet that its behaviour can lead to good things coming from you. Not only does this create a pet that is keen to try new things, but it creates a strong association between you and good things happening. Now that’s what you want for your pet!

3. Positive reinforcement applies to all animals. Traditional training was limited to animals that we were able to physically intimidate or control. For animals that easily become frightened or aggressive these methods were not practical (which is why cats have a reputation for being hard to train). Positive reinforcement can be used easily on all animals, you just have to figure out what motivates them.

4. Positive reinforcement is great fun. Nobody wants their pet to see them as the bad guy! Training with positive reinforcement is fun for both the trainer and the trainee. Nothing beats the moment when you shape your pet to do something cute like a wave or high five. The scope of things you can teach with positive reinforcement is endless, limited only by your imagination and patience.

Whether you own a dog or a cat, a fish or a bird, i encourage you to give positive reinforcement training a go. If you are unsure about how to get started, or are having trouble finding out what motivates your pet, then don’t hesitate to contact Treat. Play. Love. for more information.