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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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!

Is your pet food motivated?

Let me give you a hint. Yes, your pet is food motivated.

Food is what we call a primary reinforcer. This means that it is needed for survival, and is therefore naturally reinforcing. We don’t need to pair it with anything, or condition it in any special way for it to be a good thing. Other primary reinforcers include water, shelter, oxygen, and sex. In training, primary reinforcers are the strongest rewards to use when teaching new behaviours.

Many people claim that they’ve tried positive-reinforcement training before, but their pet simply isn’t food motivated. I challenge this notion, because unless their pet is dead it must be eating. If their pet is eating, then some of those calories can be used for training.

There are a few things that might reduce a pets interest in food during training:

1. You’re being cheap with your food rewards

Stop breaking your treats into microscopic pieces. Imagine if someone fed you a piece of cake crumb by crumb, you wouldn’t enjoy it and you would probably give up on it before the piece was done. Bite-sized pieces are ideal, as they keep training speedy, but your pet would like to taste his hard earned reward!

2. You’re using a low-value food reward

If your pet has free access to a bowl full of dry food/seed/etc, why on earth would he work hard during training to earn what he can get for free? When training new behaviours, use something good – dogs might enjoy chicken or steak pieces, cats might enjoy some fish pate or tuna chunks, and birds might enjoy pine nuts or sunflower seeds.

3. Your pet is stressed/too highly aroused

If your pet is not familiar with training he may be too stressed or highly aroused to even want to eat. Start somewhere your pet is very comfortable, ask for easy behaviours, and end the session early. Some pets have to learn to enjoy training – it is worth the effort!

food motivated dog trainer

Some people choose to further manage their pets diet to increase their motivation for food during training, but in most cases no management further than feeding set amounts at set times (like you would to maintain your pets healthy body condition) is required. For some pets any treat, any time will do! We can work with you to figure out how best to motivate your pet during training.

And of course it’s not always about the food. The goal in positive-reinforcement training is to use food as a reward only occasionally in the long run. Once learned, a behaviour can be maintained using a range of secondary reinforces such as petting, praise, toys, and affection. It’s not about the treats, it’s about the motivation, and science has shown us again and again that food is the fastest way to hitting those early training goals!