Saturday, February 20, 2010

I React, Therefore I Am

All scary things deserve a reactive response.
All [insert stimulus here] are scary.
Therefore, all [insert stimulus here] deserve a reactive response.

Ahhh…the joys of syllogisms. What does classical logic have to do with training your dog? Well, dogs are calculating this precise formula every day. Whether the reasoning has truth to it means nothing – in the dog’s mind, it’s a pretty valid argument.

Anyone who knows me, knows my dog B and her reactivity.  She sees a dog, she goes in to a barking frenzy.  She sees a leaf blowing across the street, she shoots off like a torpedo. She's reactive, it's just who she is. But that doesn't mean that we are going to lay down and accept that and never work on training again.  I work with her on a daily basis to get through her fears but I do it in such a way that it's always helping and never hurting.  If your dog reacts to anything with barking or fearful aggression, it's your job to find the most positive and productive way to help them through it.

So what can I do?

Decide when the behavior begins and how bad it gets. This is called determining your dog’s threshold. When your dog sees the stimulus and begins reacting, is it within 20 feet? 50 feet? Sometimes, the stimulus isn’t even within view. As a matter of fact, sometimes there are cues that notify your dog of what’s to come. If every time you vacuum, you first move the furniture then walk to the hall closet, chances are good your dog already knows to get ready for action before you’ve even brought out the vacuum.

If your dog doesn’t fixate on the vacuum when it’s down the hall and stationary, then this may be where you have to start. With your dog on a leash, move a bit closer. If he starts reacting, then move back to where he was comfortable.

Choose your weapon. Nooooo! Not a weapon for your dog, silly! Choose what you’re going to use as reinforcement. Make a wise decision: is your dog just not that excited about his kibble but goes wild over boiled chicken? Then this is the time to bring out the chicken! You want to bring out the big guns when you’re working on conditioning your dog’s response to something. Is she spastic about a certain toy? So much so that the toy gets chosen over boiled chicken? Then this is the reinforcement you want to use!

Begin working with your dog before they reach their threshold. If every day at noon, the mailman rings the doorbell and then shoves the mail through the mail slot, begin getting your dog’s attention before noon. Start at, say, 1155. You can begin this training session by asking for behaviors your dog is good at, like “sit”, and reward with the “boring” treats: kibble, etc. Something they still find tasty, just not over-the-top delicious. Then, when the mailman arrives, keep your dogs attention by rewarding when they focus on you when you call their name. If they don’t respond, don’t wear their name out. Simply take their leash and walk them farther from the door. (Please note: this isn’t read pull them from the door…)Remember your dog’s threshold – if he no longer listens to cues when he’s right in front of the door while the mailman is putting the mail in, move back to where you can get his focus.

Decide what you’re looking for. You want focus on you and not the stimulus. You want your dog to know that the stimulus is there, but there’s no reason for a reaction. Be very careful to tune in to your dog’s body language. Just because your dog is looking at you doesn’t mean that they aren’t still approaching threshold. Listen for whining and watch for uneasiness. Does your dog look a bit spastic and jumpy as if to say “Hurry! Hurry! Give me the treat so I can get back to barking at the vacuum!” If so, rewarding your dog now could teach him that acting that way is what you want. Calmly walk with your dog further away and begin the training again by asking for a desirable behavior, such as sit.

K.I.S.S. Keep it short, silly. ;) Working with a reactive dog is stressful – for you and your dog. Keep sessions very short, no longer than 10 minutes, to avoid overstressing the two of you. If you feel frazzled or out of control at any time, STOP! The session will go nowhere if you aren’t focused, patient and willing to help them through this. Don’t blame yourself and don’t get discouraged. Pick back up again in 30 minutes if you feel you’ve had enough time to recuperate.

So let’s review.

- Know your dog’s threshold, work at a level that they can focus on you

- If necessary, remove the stimulus (or remove the dog from the stimulus)

- Use high-value reinforcers (treats, toys, etc)

- Reward your dog’s focus on you and not the stimulus – ask for a behavior they know well, even call their name (remember: only once!)

- Progress at a level that you and your dog feel comfortable – sometimes it’s “two steps forward, three steps back” – that’s okay! As long as you’re making steady progress overall!


Sunday, February 14, 2010

My Doggie Checklist

I want a dog who:

is happy to just be spending time with me - even if it's lying next to me while I type on my laptop all morning.

forces me realize how good it actually feels to run as fast as I can chasing birds. (Sorry birds)

wants to keep learning (and reminds me it's my job to facilitate that learning).

makes me laugh.

makes me cry...hell. I want a dog who makes me feel.

is lazy sometimes.

annoys me.  Without that, I will never learn to be as patient as I should be.

reminds me not to take myself so seriously.

reminds me not to take them so seriously.

needs me to keep my composure - because it's my leadership they're looking for.

comforts me when I'm just not up to being a leader that day....

Thank you to S and B for meeting (and exceeding) all of the criteria on my checklist. ;)

Happy Valentine's Day to both of you!

Love you,


Saturday, February 13, 2010

If You Don't Eat Your Meat, You Can't Have Any Pudding!

My niece is at an interesting time in her development.  At 19 mos. old, she's constantly testing her environment.  She will cry if she wants something and if she is rewarded with what she wants, she's learned, "the next time I want something, cry." If I withhold giving her what she wants until she is no longer crying and I wait until she politely asks for it, I've taught her that the next time she wants something, crying may or may not work; however, if shes just asks for it, she will get it quicker.  Similarly, if she wants dessert, she has to finish her dinner. No dinner? No dessert.  The rule is straightforward and clear. I am consistent so that she knows what to expect every single time.

At the risk of receiving eyerolls from skeptics, this is no different from training your dog. 

If your dog wants something, they have an arsenal of behaviors readily available for experimentation.  They look in to their doggie database and recall what has worked best in the past.

"Let's see...last time I wanted this toy, I barked."  BARK!

This is when the ball is in your court. You can choose to give them the toy or you can ask them to sit instead.

"Sit, Puppy."

If they sit, you reward them with the toy. This provides them with a wealth of information. You've not only told them what TO do, but you've indiscretely told them what NOT to do.  Without reprimand. Without yelling. Without correction.  You've told your dog, "If you want something, barking will reap no reward. Sitting will."

Clear. Concise. To the point.

If I vary these rules before my dog understands them, I've only muddied the waters.  If I sometimes let my dog have the toy after a bark, my dog learns, "try barking next time, it sometimes works".

My niece is testing out how what kind of consequence (good or bad) crying will yield.  She will still test me when it comes to finishing her dinner and expecting dessert.  That's fine - I know the rules because I set them.  If I'm sure to stick with it, the unwanted and unrewarded behavior will fade because it's just not paying off.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow My Dog

It's been a cold winter in the last week alone. Thursday night we prepared for the record 30" snowfall - I'm thinking we were in the percentile that got more than that. Last night and today, we got another 10" just as we finished clearing the parking spots. I haven't seen this much snow since my years spent living in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. And here it is, dumped on top of us right here in the DC Metro region by Mother Nature.

As beautiful as snowfall can be, it can also be a pain. The dogs have no where to go to the bathroom (unless I get out there and pave a path). They can't get their normal exercise so I have to keep them active and engaged mentally. Just as people get stir-crazy, you can bet dogs do too. I have been working from home and my sister and niece have been here as well. The noise and activity level has been at an all-time high. You better believe the dogs notice this in comparison to their normal days spent in quiet slumber on every couch in the house. (I can't prove that last part, but I've gathered some incriminating evidence over the years such as sunken couch pillows, slobber spots and extra dog hair...)

The best advice I can give: keep yourself connected with your dogs and how they're feeling. Learn some new tricks, work on perfecting old tricks and, if you have a multiple dog household, give each dog their special "me-time". Take notice when your dog is acting funny - it could just be that she, too, is experiencing a bit of snowverkill.

Stay warm!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

One Month Down

It's been one month since my sister and niece came to live with me.  I think it's safe to say the transitional phase is winding down! The dogs are becoming more comfortable with the faux pas that kids make: screaming, running, pulling and the total invasion of personal space.  Congrats to Sarah for being patient with the "Nigh-night Sarah" game in the video below. She was rewarded quite handsomely...