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!

Which dog is for you?

I would like to introduce you to two of my canine friends, Wilbur and Tedda.

wilbur and tedda

As you can see, they have many similarities, but they also have many differences. They joined the family about the same time, and each has come with their own unique set of characteristics.

Wilbur is a real dog, living and breathing. From puppyhood he has shown an interest in his surroundings. He wants to investigate, meet people and dogs, he loves to chew, run, bark, dig, and play. He gives me feedback on my actions in the form of body language and behaviour. He has good days and not-so-good days. He has likes and dislikes. As Wilbur’s owner it is my responsibility to help him meet his needs on a daily basis, to provide him with good choices so he can keep busy and active without leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, and to provide him meaningful feedback in the form of training and interaction so that he knows what behaviour leads to good things happening in his day.

Tedda is a stuffed toy, designed to be played with by dogs. He has squeakers, which can be annoying, but his list of annoying behaviours ends there. He sits around looking really cute, and he’s soft and cuddly when i feel so inclined to interact with him. He doesn’t make a mess (unless Wilbur tries to de-fluff him), he is quiet, and he has very cheap upkeep. He doesn’t ruin my stuff, and i have no need to spend any time training him or teaching him to behave in ways i like. He is a very easy addition to the household.

Unfortunately many people acquire dogs thinking they will behave like stuffed animals. Seen but not heard. Still and quiet until called upon to spend a short time doing dog-stuff: fetch, belly rub, walk. Punished for engaging in other dog behaviours: barking, digging, chewing. There is no time given to teaching our dogs good outlets for these behaviours, and too much time given to trying to quickly suppress these annoying characteristics.

Dogs are not pre-programmed at birth to know how we want them to behave. They do not know, automatically, right from wrong. They don’t know we will be upset when they chew up our shoes, pull on the lead, or dig up our lawn, they just know it is great fun. When we invite a dog to be part of our family, we need to do so with a commitment that we will help them to be the best dog they can be. We will provide them with the training, enrichment, socialisation, and exercise that will let them show us how awesome their doggy behaviours can be.

If this is too much responsibility, then you can purchase a Tedda from your local pet store instead – they are very cute!

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.

My Baby, My Child, My Shadow

Recently i was doing my weekly groceries, and i was first amused but then concerned by the new packaging on a popular supermarket dog food. They now advertise in large print sentiments like “My Baby” and “My Shadow”. While i’m sure the marketing division means no harm, i’m worried by the underlying attitude that is being fed by such advertising.

my child my baby

I’ll start by being upfront in admitting that i utterly 100% adore my own dog. I often call him my “baby” and i refer to myself as “Mummy”. I hug him and kiss him all the time, and he loves the social attention. But i also exercise him, provide him with as much enrichment as i am able to, and i train him to succeed in our home. He might be my “baby”, but he is also a dog and he is treated in such a way that allows him to be the best dog he can be.

So why am i so worried about these dog food labels?

Too many dogs that i visit are suffering from very real behavioural problems that stem from them being treated like a human baby. They receive all the cuddling and love in the world, but no training or mental stimulation that is appropriate and necessary for a dog to have. They eat human food, and they follow their owners everywhere (even to the bathroom). It is in our nature as humans to love this sort of attachment to another living creature, but then we wonder why our dogs are behaving in ways we don’t like. They could be fearful of anyone new to the home, fearful of other dogs, terrified of being left home alone, and otherwise incapable of coping in our world.

My fear is that labeling popular brands of dog food in such a way is both supporting owners who treat their pets in such a manner, but also encouraging it. Wouldn’t it be great if the influential companies in the pet industry were instead promoting responsible dog ownership, nutritious feeding options, dog-friendly training options, etc. We need to help people learn how to raise their dog to be the best dog they can be, not a substitute child who will never quite cope. Prevention goes miles to avoiding common behavioural problems, and we want to help people to learn to train smart so they can love their pet – not just as their “baby”, but because they are an awesome dog!

What do we mean by “Obedience”

When we ask a dog owner what they hope to achieve with their dog, it is extremely common to get the response “I just want him to be obedient!” Of course what they mean is they want their dog to respond correctly to a range of verbal cues, which is a fantastic training goal for any owner to have.

Note that this post is about “obedience” as a concept for a pet dog that behaves how the owner wants, not “obedience” the dog sport!

What a lot of people don’t realise, or at least don’t think about, is that to achieve “obedience” they have to train all the individual behaviours they are hoping their dog will be able to respond to. It isn’t fair to expect a dog to sit on cue in the vet clinic or at the park if the only place they’ve ever practiced in the past is around the home with few distractions. Likewise it’s not fair to ask a dog to “settle down” or “RELAX!” when they’ve never been taught what that cue means – they don’t speak English.

dog trainer

Each new behaviour has to be taught in successive approximations (baby steps) so that the dog learns what we are asking for, and using positive reinforcement so they understand that by working with us they will gain access to things they value (treats, games, affection). Once our dog can perform a new behaviour at home, we have to then take the behaviour on road and possibly break it back down in a range of new and increasingly distracting environments. If we don’t take the time to train our dogs out and about, we can never realistically expect them to respond “obediently” when we ask for a behaviour – anywhere, anytime.

Think about the behaviours that are actually important to you, your dog, and your family. Does your perfect dog sit at door ways, come when called, and go to his bed on cue? Perhaps he walks on a loose-lead, shakes paws, and plays fetch? For each person the criteria for “obedience” is different, so it is important to set yourself and your dog training goals that you can work towards as a team.

If a behaviour breaks down, or your dog doesn’t respond to your cue the way you were hoping, instead of getting upset at your dog’s “disobedience” try looking at what could be distracting your dog, whether you’ve trained the behaviour you asked for well enough, and whether you are providing suitable motivation for the level of distraction you are working with. A scratch behind the ears might cut it at home, but cheese might get the job done at the park. Look at it as a training problem, a puzzle to solve, rather than as a naughty dog problem. Some causes of disobedience that we’ve run into have included a dog needing to go toilet, not wanting to sit or drop on wet grass or hot concrete, or being distracted by a person or dog in the distance. Be considerate of your dogs needs and limits.

“Obedience” is achievable, but it’s easier to work towards if you define it in terms of individual behaviours you want to teach. Set goals and priorities, and enjoy the process of working towards a co-operative dog. Train smart, not tough!

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.

Is he in training?

This afternoon I set out with my own dog, Wilbur, for a walk to explore the neighbourhood. When we go walking I always have my little treat pouch with some of Wilbur’s favourite treats, my phone, and a couple of poo bags. Being a pup of only 6 months old he’s still learning a lot of different skills, and he gets treats for excellent responses on walks.

A few minutes into our walk, another dog and owner (who we have met before) was across the road, ready to cross and come towards us. I stepped Wilbur just off the path, asked him to sit, and gave him a couple of treats and the dog came nearer. The dog’s owner was watching us, and asked “Is he in training?”

What a fantastic question! Every minute we spend with our dogs, we are training them, whether we want to or not. They are learning about the things that we like and don’t like, what they can expect from us in different situations, and when they’re likely to get our attention. Around the house and out in the big wide world our dogs learn what sights, sounds, and smells are interesting and fun for them, and which ones might be a threat of something unpleasant, and of course which ones are just neutral (and boring). Some dogs might be wary, and some dogs might be bold, but they are all discovering things about their family and their world all the time.

wilbur training walk

Our walk today was even more interesting than usual! Wilbur was learning about walking past distractions (like barking dogs, other walkers, interesting smells), he learnt about sitting for pats from strangers and kids (and even let them shake hands, polite young man that he is), he learnt that sometimes kids have doughnuts that they won’t share. We practised sitting when we see another dog, and that sometimes we just let them pass and other times we can say hello. We even learnt about saying hello to people in wheelchairs!!

When we left the house today I couldn’t have guessed just how many new and interesting learning opportunities we would have on our walk, but today I was proud to be Wilbur’s mum because he responded to all these things calmly, happily, and with confidence. And I sure was glad to have my treat pouch so I could pay a job well done – let’s see what our next walk brings!

Are we having fun yet?

These days there are so many awesome things that we can do with our dogs. In most cities you will find off-leash dog areas, dog beaches, social dog walks, fenced dog parks, and a host of other activities. There are also numerous events that aren’t specifically organised for dogs, but where dogs and other on-leash pets are welcome too. This could include local markets, pet stores, community events, etc.

It can be so much fun getting out and socialising with other dog people, checking out the breeds that people own, introducing your dog to other people and puppy friends. We love our dogs so much, so why wouldn’t we want to show them off?

Check what’s going on at the other end of the leash – is your dog having fun too?

million paws walk townsville 2014
Wilbur at the Townsville Million Paws Walk 2014 – checking out the sights

Often event organisers and dog owners are well-meaning when they take their dog out and about, but for many dogs these social experiences can be overwhelming for them, especially if they are really only used to quiet walks around the neighbourhood.

Signs that your dog may be unhappy or too stressed in a certain situation could include inactivity and hanging close to you all the time, hyperactivity or hyper vigilance, pulling at other dogs and people beyond the point of being able to be redirected, barking or growling at other people or dogs, or showing stress signs such as trembling, yawning, licking his lips a lot, keeping his ears tucked back, and sniffing or pacing a lot. These are just some examples. Go to any heavily populated dog area and you will see plenty of dogs who would prefer a good game at home or a walk in a quieter area.

If you dog is showing signs of stress, what should you do? Remove your dog from the situation as soon as possible, and work on a plan to make that sort of outing something enjoyable. Depending on your dog you may just need to work on some basic manners training, or perhaps get help to develop a plan to change the way your dog views these things altogether. Or maybe these social outings aren’t actually important to you and your dog. There is a widely held belief that all dogs should be social butterflies and love any dog we set them up to play with. This just isn’t the case. Your dog may prefer to play with just a select few canine friends, or maybe none at all. So long as you help teach him not to feel afraid, and help him to pass on by without stress, there is no reason why you have to visit social dog locations.

Part of our responsibility as dog owners is to help our dogs be well socialised, confident, and happy members of society. They should be able to go out and about by our side without feeling afraid of day-to-day activities, sights, and sounds. Beyond that, if we want to get involved with our dogs at community events, it is important that we look out for our dogs and help them to enjoy the experience too! We are doing it for the dogs after all!

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!

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.