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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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)

 

Pressure and Parrots

Did you know that parrots were the catalyst for me to become interested in training and behaviour? Like most dog owners i “knew” how to train my dog, but when a problem cropped up with any of my pet parrots i would turn to others for advice. This helped me find a whole world of knowledgeable and helpful behaviourists, such as Susan Friedman, Barbara Heidenrich, and Jim McKendry (to name just a few).

One of the biggest factors that affects our success in training any species, but particularly a prey species with a high flight drive, is trust. So why does so much online training advice for parrots focus on the use of pressure and release (or negative reinforcement) and punishment? The use of these training tools wears down the trust our pets (of any species) have in us, and damage our training relationship and success.

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Bailee is happy to step onto my finger and sing his sexy good morning song

Let’s look at a common example, getting a parrot to step up onto your finger or hand. Many online “experts”, or even average Joe who knows a lot about birds, will tell you to teach a parrot to step up you should push into their belly until they lose their balance and step forward. What does this teach your bird about hands? Hint: nothing good! When their parrot then starts to lunge, hiss, or bite the approaching hand we are told “ignore the bite, don’t let him bluff you”. By using pressure to get our pets to behave, we are not giving them the opportunity to express the behaviour we like. When they show us their discomfort in our methods we should show them respect, not continue to pressure them into escalating their body language.

Many people will tell you that being bitten is part of owning a parrot, but this is simply not the case! If we choose to train with respect and give our parrots control over their behaviour we will achieve our goals much more quickly and without the bloodshed.

Our macaw is a great example of the benefits of reward based training. He was 9 months old when we purchased him, and had not been handled since weaning. He was scared of people, and hands. We were no sooner going to get near enough to him to press into his belly than we were going to leave our hand there to “take the bite”. Besides, we respected him too much to put him through that.

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Elmo at 4 years old, happy and relaxed on our hands

By building positive associations with ourselves and our hands (using favourite treats) Elmo quickly became interested in interacting with us, and so we were able to encourage him to move towards and eventually onto our hands. He was always free to move away again if he became unsure, and because of this his confidence in us grew quickly.

This is the approach we encourage people to take with any animal, but with the masses of advice online we feel this is especially important for parrot owners to understand. Parrots are highly intelligent, from the smallest budgie to the biggest macaw, and they deserve better than being pushed around. If you are having trouble with your pet parrot, or would simply like to learn a more parrot-friendly way to interact with them, get in touch. Train smart, not tough!

Walk the Dog, nicely please!

There’s a great saying in the dog training world, which goes something like this: “In dog training, jerk is a noun not a verb”. In other words, jerk should not be an action that you take when trying to teach your dog leash manners (or any other skills for that matter).

Traditionally, dogs are taught to walk beside their owner by praising them in position and giving a leash pop/jerk/tug/tap/correction/you-name-it when they pull forward on the leash. There is an assortment of collars, leads, and harnesses that are designed to help that jerk be felt more effectively by the dog, which should thus speed up the learning process.

I’ll start by saying i have been there, done that. Like most people, i was taught to jerk on my dogs leash when he pulled. We tried assorted harnesses, head collars, and training collars, all to no avail. Why doesn’t it work?

If i walked up to you and leaned against your side, you would lean back and resist (of course you would, otherwise you’d fall over). This is our opposition reflex, and our dogs have it too. When the leash goes tight, they oppose that force and pull ahead. Combine this with all the pee-mail to be checked, sights to see, and dogs to greet when you pull, and you have a recipe for some very well rewarded behaviour. Pulling works.

Now, if you apply a leash jerk with exquisite timing and precise force, you should be able to stop your dog pulling. The problem? Most owners (and trainers for that matter) do not have the physical training skills to apply that kind of timing. The result? Our intended message doesn’t get through, and you get a dog that still pulls. This is why you will see dogs who continue to pull to the point of injury regardless of whether they are wearing a check chain or other training aid.

So what is the solution? Loose-lead walking is a behaviour that can be easily taught with positive reinforcement when we set our pets up for success, and build the behaviour in baby steps. We love to get people started with their puppies at Puppy Preschool, but it is never too late to start.

loose lead walking

Start in a location with minimal distractions (such as your backyard) and practice moving one or two steps away from your dog and rewarding them when they follow. You can then build up the steps you take between treats, and select the position that you specifically want to reward (left or right side, slightly forward or behind). My own criteria for loose lead walking is that Wilbur can walk on either side of me, as long as the leash buckle hangs down and he crosses sides behind me (so i don’t step on him). When you have mastered the loose-lead walking in the yard, move out to the front yard, start tackling short trips up the street. As you increase the challenge, increase the rate of reward again. With time the walk itself becomes the reward, and the position is maintained through the foundation training you did in the beginning.

For a great poster on teaching loose-lead walking check out Lili Chin‘s work.

So why bother? It sounds like a lot of work! The great thing about teaching any behaviour with positive reinforcement is that your dog will develop a desire to learn and to participate with you during training. I want my dog to walk beside me because they love to be there, not because they’re afraid to move. Better yet, if your timing is off with positive reinforcement you will see it in your dogs behaviour. You wanted your dog beside you, but they’re slightly in front? Change when and where you reward. This is a far less stressful fall out for your dog that the fall out of a poorly timed leash jerk.

When i take my dog for a walk i want him to love being out with me, and to enjoy using his full range of senses to explore the world. My criteria is only that the lead is slack, with that met he is free to sniff, look, listen, and enjoy! Train smart, not tough!

 

Lures and Rewards

When it comes to using treats in training there is one concern at the top of most peoples list: “I don’t want him to only work for the food!” Indeed we see many cases where people have been put off using food because their pet is most responsive when they have a treat visible in their hand, and less responsive any other time. This is a highly undesirable situation, because most of the time when we need our pets to do something we will be empty handed.

The situation described above is the result of a common training error, which unfortunately leads many people to write off treats from their training entirely. Instead, why don’t we look at the different ways we can use treats with our pets.

food lure

Most commonly, people use a treat as a lure. This means they show their pet the treat, and use it to move or guide their pet into the behaviour they want (raise the treat for a sit, lower it for a down). Using lures can be a quick and effective way to get a behaviour started, but when you fail to fade that lure out in the early stages of training things start to go wonky.

Treat. Play. Love. will help you to learn to use treats as rewards, or reinforcers, which come after the behaviour has happened (like a pay check for a job well done). We can keep the treats tucked safely out of sight, and only bring them out once the job is done. To guide, or shape, a new behaviour we might initially use a food lure, or we could use our body language, good timing, or a target. By using the treat after the behaviour, our pets need to focus on us (not the food) if they are going to figure out how to get the job done. This is a much more desirable situation!

An important, and often forgotten, part of any training program is to change the rate of reward from a constant (every correct response gets rewarded) to a variable (only some get rewarded) schedule. By gradually expecting more from your pet as they become skilled at the job you’ve given them, they will become more persistent training partners who can work for longer periods of time without needing a treat. Rewards can also come in the form of praise, affection, games, toys, etc, depending on what your individual pet enjoys most.

A good human example is our pay check. It’s a fair bet that we would stop turning up to work if our boss stopped paying us. Of course we don’t get our pay check in little bits day-by-day, we maintain a high standard of work (i hope) over the course of the pay period (usually 1-4 weeks). Daily we might be rewarded by thanks from a co-worker, personal satisfaction at doing something well, etc.

This is what we want to aim for with our pets – good work ethic between pay checks, and loads of “life rewards” to keep them positive from day to day. Not sure where to start? Get in touch and we can set up a training session, or point you in the direction of some great group training classes where you can learn how to use treats to their greatest effect. Train smart, not tough!

Learning to Learn

“When there is no fear or pain, learning can occur immediately.” ~ Alexandra Kurland

I saw this quote on a Facebook dog training page recently, and it got me thinking. It can be hard to stay positive in a society where dog training too often means “putting the dog in his place” or teaching through aversive methods. But this quote really speaks to what i try to share with my clients and their family pets.

Fear and pain, even at very low levels, actually inhibit learning. They cause an animal to experience stress, which means they are primarily focusing their energy towards avoidance behaviours – how can i make this stop? Training methods that involve sharp sounds (ah, tsst, grr), leash corrections, taps, touches, and physical manipulation typically create a situation where an animal is uncomfortable (physically or psychologically) while performing the unwanted behaviour. They can escape this discomfort by doing what the trainer wants. The end result is there, but the journey wasn’t a whole lot of fun for anyone (trainer or trainee).

One of my favourite moments to witness in a training session is the moment that a clients pet realises that their behaviour can make good things happen. Some trainers refer to this moment in training as a light bulb moment, the moment when our pet suddenly switches on to what we’re doing. They know their role in the training game, and they love it!

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Positive reinforcement training typically uses a bridge, or marker, to let the animal know when they have made the correct response. When we first introduce a marker our pet has no idea what it means. Within a few repetitions though, you can see a change in their demeanour. They start looking for that moment, that marker. If one thing doesn’t work, they try something else. They become active participants in the training process. They become creative. They learn to learn.

This is what i teach people. By handing over an element of control to our dogs, cats, birds, etc we can empower them to be part of a team where we work together to achieve our behavioural goals. This style of training is not just for tricks. It works on any species, and can be applied with great success to basic training as well as working through complex behavioural problems.

Perhaps the most exciting this is it can be used on our pets regardless of their training history. Picture a dog that is waiting for a leash pop, but instead gets feedback that they’ve got it right! Nothing beats the change in that dog’s demeanour as they light up and start working with their owner.

You don’t need to be tough to change behaviour, you need to be smart. Help your friend learn to learn – you will both love it!

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!

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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!

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.

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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.

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.

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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!

Just doing it for the food

Some people really get their knickers in a twist about using food when training animals, as though it is somehow cheating or insulting that their pet will work for food. We want to show people how to use food to motivate their pets in training, without bribing their pets or feeling like their pet is only in it for the food.

I like to think of a treat in training like my paycheck. If i didn’t get my paycheck each week i feel fairly certain the standard of my work would decline. Does that mean i’m only working for the money? Nope! I love working with great people, meeting awesome animals, and doing what I love. I also volunteer some of my time to helping local animal organisations, which i enjoy for the experience and warm fuzzies. I’m not working just for the money, but money is motivating for people. Food is motivating for animals!

When we teach our pets something new, we often start off with a treat visible. Our pet can see what’s on offer, and by the position of the treat we can help our pet do the right thing. When the treat is visible like that, we call it a lure (or a bribe). Lures can be really useful early on in training, but if you don’t fade them quickly you will end up with a pet who only responds when he can see what’s on offer.

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That’s why I show people how to keep their treats hidden, and how to use either a clicker or a word to tell their pets they have done the right thing. The pet doesn’t know what treats are on offer, but through training experience we can teach them that listening to us pays off. As your pet gets the hang of a new behaviour, you can start to vary the rate at which you offer the treats. You become a random treat dispenser, and your pet will keep responding in the hope that this time it pays off!

By using treats to motivate your pet during training, you are proving that you are the source of great things, and that, by responding to you, your pet can gain access to things that he likes. Just like i enjoy the people, animals, and work that i do, your pet will enjoy the game of training and the time spent with you. By making training motivating and fun, your pet will genuinely look for ways to engage in training games with you. Training through positive reinforcement strengthens the human-animal bond.