Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Rewarding Nothing!

I worked with a client last week who had described her dog as "hyperactive."  When I met them for our appointment, I found her dog to be easily over-stimulated and quick to offer behaviors that got him attention, albeit negative attention, from his owner and others. He would bark, spin, jump, vault off of guests, grab clothing and hands, etc. I was exhausted just watching him!  His owner was at her wit's end and embarrassed by her dog's "over the top" behavior.  She couldn't figure out why, in spite of verbal corrections and time outs, the "bad behaviors" persisted.  If this situation, or something similar, is happening to you, affecting your relationship with your dog, then let's get to work!

We all do behaviors and repeat behaviors that have consequences we desire or find rewarding.  So, while some people love to run and find that rewarding, there are others who find running to be a form of cruel and unusual punishment!  Running is a behavior and whether it's rewarding or not is determined by the person doing the activity.  It's the same thing for dogs.  While one person might enjoy their dog jumping up on them for attention and thus reward that behavior favorably by petting that dog, there are other people who hate being jumped up on by a dog and will yell, shove the dog, put up their knee, and squeal to get a dog to stop jumping on them.  But, here's the thing.  Both of those people are reinforcing the dog for jumping up and that's why the behavior persists.  Dogs are looking for consequences and in the case of jumping up, the dog getting loved for it and the dog getting yelled at are both receiving attention and that's why they keep jumping. 

So what should you do for the dog that jumps up?  Walk away. Ignore them.  Don't give them any attention at all.  I like to think of this as "passive training."  Basically, you are refusing to engage a dog who is doing those annoying behaviors.  This will only be successful in getting the dog to change their tune and do what you want them to do IF you reward the behavior that you actually want to happen.  In this case you will be rewarding THE ABSENCE OF THE BEHAVIOR (that is, rewarding NOT jumping up). Yes, this means you have to have treats in your pocket at all times, but really, why wouldn't you?  The moment that jumping, spinning, vaulting dog quit doing those behaviors last week, I tossed a treat for him and walked away.  I rewarded the absence of the behavior.  He was clearly flummoxed as that had never happened before!

When I asked the owner if she'd ever rewarded him for NOT doing those behaviors she hated, she admitted that she really didn't think she had; she was just grateful and relieved the times that he didn't. But, you see, that's the problem.  Rewarding the dog with negative consequences AND/OR offering neutral or no consequences when they get the behavior right (meaning they don't do what they aren't supposed to do), results in a dog who can't see the value for them in doing the right thing.  They don't see the value in lying on their bed because when they do that, you don't reward/respond/react.  Again, I'm not asking that you throw your dog a ticker tape parade, showering them with treats and praise, for simply lying quietly on their bed.  I understand that this is what they're supposed to do, but do they know that?  No.  They won't know that unless you reward the behavior of lying on the bed.  We all need to get in the habit of rewarding the absence of the behaviors we'd really like to see be extinguished. 

By the end of my appointment, the dog was no longer doing all of these annoying pushy, loud behaviors.  He was lying a few feet away from me calmly.  All I had to do to get that behavior was only reward that behavior.  I finished the appointment by shaping continued calm behavior and giving him a large chew to work on as I moved to leave their house.  So, instead of body slamming guests as they exited the house, he was there in the kitchen, chewing happily on the yummy chew stick I'd brought for him.  There were consequences, and he clearly understood.  Calm behavior would get the rewards now.  Passive training works! You can (and should) reward the absence of behaviors you don't like just as much as, if not more than, the behaviors you are trying to teach your dog. Thus, while I certainly think a dog learning to stay has great value, I also think a dog learning to stand/sit/down without being asked to stay also has value.  I can reward the stay when I ask for it, but more importantly for those easily over-stimulated dogs, I can reward the absence of frantic behaviors, in whatever form that absence takes.

I'm really looking forward to my follow up appointment with this client as she's been excited to see how fast this new game plan is working for her, her dog, and her family.  They are all feeling relieved and less stressed out which I'm sure is making the dog feel less anxious as well.  Now that her dog is calmer and can focus, when can move on to the real, active behavior training that she wants to do with him.  

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me. 

I took this picture in my office. It was dinner time and Ozzie and Desi had to come to see if they could get me moving to fix them their meals.  They didn't bark, nudge, whine, or fuss.  What they did do was lay quietly about 3 feet away from my desk and stare at me patiently until I got up and fed them, thus rewarding the absence of obnoxious, pushy hungry-dogs-in-the-house behaviors.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Well, That's Not Entirely Correct!

It's been a crazy week and it's only Wednesday!  So many random thoughts and ideas racing around in my brain as a consequence of seeing and advising this handful of clients and their pets. There seemed to be a common theme though with everyone I've met so far; surprise regarding their misinterpretation of their pet's behavior. Misinterpreting behavior and behavior cues can lead to more serious problems, particularly if those cues you missed were early indicators of deeper issues, or something completely different than what you had assumed. Here are just a few examples:

The Problem: Your dog won't let you put his collar on, he just walks away.  You call him, sometimes he comes, sometimes he lays down where he is.  You ask him to sit and he just stands there looking at you.  He's defiant, right?  According to the internet, it's time to start some harsh corrections for that inattention and disobedience. Actually, no.  This dog isn't being defiant per se.  He's been living in a home without any type of positive reinforcement in the form of treats.  He's gotten plenty of physical attention, but not one snack.  The backstory: His allergies had led his owner to discontinue using treats in his training starting when he was 12 weeks old.  Now he's 2 years old, and while he appears defiant, he's actually just trying to figure out what's in it for him.  Basically, whether he does what he's asked, or he doesn't, there really isn't any consequence he cares about that much.  I spoke to their veterinarian and we determined that a single ingredient treat could be used with this dog for training purposes.  Once we re-introduced treats to reinforce executing the correct behaviors promptly, and used the lack of treats for behaviors executed slowly or not at all, suddenly this dog was doing exactly what he'd been asked.  He wasn't defiant at all, he just wanted to get paid.  Final Thoughts: Research shows that while dogs enjoy being told they've done a good job and they do like to receive physical attention (pats/strokes) from their owners, what they really love and value most are treats.  

The Problem: Your dog has bitten you more than once.  Your brother-in-law told you the bites are happening because you let the dog walk all over you.  Your neighbor told you that you're getting bit because you sit on the floor with your dog and allow him on the furniture. Even your vet told you that you need to "be the alpha." The Heart of the Matter: Well, those bites are happening not because of anything you've done, but because your dog CHOSE TO BITE YOU.  Dogs do have choices; a growl, snap, or simply walking away would have sufficed. You getting down on the floor with your dog or allowing them on the furniture isn't the reason why you got bit; again, you got bitten because that's the choice your dog was willing to make.  And frankly, most dogs are unwilling to make that kind of choice. They'll put up with all sorts of indignities and slights and never consider biting a human, let alone biting the one loving on them on the floor or the sofa.  So, if your dog bites you, stop thinking this is a "you" problem.  This is a "them" problem.  Your dog isn't wired correctly; dogs who bite people don't stop, they go on biting people, sometimes causing very serious injuries.  Final Thoughts: You don't need to be your dog's alpha because there's no such thing. Such an outdated and misleading term! Dogs know we are in control as we have thumbs and can open cabinets, containers, and the refrigerator.  We control their bowls, access to fresh water, etc.  It's pretty clear we are the "top dog." If your dog is biting you, it's time to remove that dog from your home.

The Problem: Your dog is pulling you down the street on walks, chasing after squirrels, trying to meet other dogs, and attempting to pick up everything they see on the ground. Clearly you need to put a pinch collar on your dog so you can deliver corrections every time she pulls. The fact that your dog yelps with those corrections, and continues to pull is of little consequence as you were told to just tighten up on the prong collar and shorten the leash. Reality Check: Well, actually, tightening that pinch collar and shortening the leash are just going to make your dog more anxious.  Instead, let's look at this leash pulling as being rooted in anxiety and treat the underlying anxiety first.  I had the owner put a flat collar and 6 foot leash on her dog and start doing walks inside the house.  That's right, indoors, no distractions.  If the dog pulled, she just stopped and dropped the leash, using her voice and treats to lure the dog to walk with her, no pressure.  Within about 30 minutes, her dog could walk around the house, happily without pulling.  We moved to the yard and practiced the same exercises.  Within a couple of days, she could walk their block, leash loose in her hand, dog happily trotting along, sniffing, but able to be redirected before picking anything up.  Our next appointment, we'll be headed for a walk at a local park.  I'm bringing a head halter and a ThunderLeash just in case the flat collar and regular leash don't work when there are squirrels, bicycles, etc. The moral of the story: Pulling dogs aren't always disobedient dogs.  A lot of the time, they are anxious dogs who need their anxiety addressed before they can enjoy those leashed walks in public spaces without pulling.

The Problem:  Your dog lays on top of your feet every time you sit down.  He does move if asked or when you stand up, but you read on Facebook that dogs that do this are dominating their owners and need to be discouraged from doing so. Reality Check:  Your dog sitting or laying on your feet, leaning against your legs, etc. is simply affection; your dog is choosing to be near you.  I actually capture and mark these behaviors in my own dogs (meaning, I am alert for their occurrence and give treats and praise and love in response) because I want my dogs to do this, and not just for me, but for people we visit in the pet assisted therapy environment where my dogs work. Interesting Side Note:  Pre-COVID, I had the opportunity to hear Sue Sternberg speak at a conference. Sue is a renowned dog trainer who does the bulk of her research in shelter settings.  Anyway, she had developed an assessment that can be done quickly when evaluating shelter dog temperaments.  One of the behaviors she coded was something called an "anal swipe."  I know, this sounds gross, but bear with me.  Basically, an anal swipe is a behavior where a dog rubs its butt against someone's legs, feet, etc., essentially marking that person as theirs, thus imposing some control over the person being marked.  This was considered an unfavorable or flagged behavior and a marker for a dog that bears further testing and assessment.  The one exception? If that swipe occurred by a dog toward someone they already knew, particularly the owner.  In this case, as with the dog sitting on your feet, this is just an indicator of an existing relationship, making the context of the behavior way more important than the actual behavior itself.  Nothing more, nothing less. Fun Fact: Now that you know about anal swipes, you are going to feel compelled to watch every dog you see in a group setting and see who they're butting up against and when, just saying.

I guess the takeaway here is this.  While you may get some good advice on the internet, from your family, and from your neighbors, that may not always be the case.  It's good to check with your veterinarian, and even better to ask a trusted trainer or behaviorist. As I always say, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me. 

Westley always keeps an eye, and often a paw, on whoever is in the room. He's not dominating me in this photo, he's letting me know I'm loved.  He's also going to know right away if I get up for a snack he might be able to share!

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

House Training 101

I receive questions all the time related to housetraining a new puppy.  My advice is the same whether that puppy is 8 weeks or 8 months old; it's going to take patience and perseverance on the part of the humans to accomplish the task.  And while some dog breeds are easier to housetrain than others, no puppy is ready, mentally, to be fully housetrained until he or she is a year of age.  Yes, a year of age.  Those puppies whose owners are bragging about their dogs being housetrained at 3 months, 6 months, etc. should be bragging about how amazing the humans in their home are at reading the signs in their puppies and getting them outside to toilet!

For years, housetraining was referred to as "housebreaking," the implication being you are breaking a dog in on the rules or breaking down their resistance to being told not to toilet in the house.  Dog owners were told to put newspaper down on the floor for their dog to use to relieve themselves; basically teaching dogs to toilet indoors!  And then they were supposed to roll up a newspaper and swat their dogs for toileting mistakes, drag the dog over to the house soiling mistake and rub their nose in it, etc. Must have made those newspapers a bit confusing! We've learned a lot since then.  We now know that swatting the dog or rubbing their nose in their own excrement only makes them stop trusting us AND just get better at hiding where they toilet in the house for fear of getting caught in the act and punished for simply relieving themselves.  When dog owners began crate training, using pens to confine their dogs, etc., house training made a move in a more positive direction. By capitalizing on a dog's natural tendency to keep their den or sleeping area soil-free, crate or pen training resulted in puppies having fewer indoor accidents when their owners weren't watching them.  But crates and pens aren't everything, you still have to show your puppy where you DO want them to toilet, take them there frequently, and reward them after the job is done, not mid-stream/mid-squat.  Setting up a designated toilet area in your yard means a puppy that understands where to toilet, even in the greater outdoors.  And if you have one of those puppies who gets sidetracked on those bathroom breaks, you can set up an exercise pen outdoors to use as a designated toilet area; leave them there to toilet and go back inside yourself and watch them.  Once they toilet, and only then, can they come out of the pen and explore the yard, supervised, of course.

A big piece of the housetraining puzzle is learning the cues that your particular puppy needs to relieve himself.  Some puppies sniff around, circle, whine, or even approach a door or window when they need to go.  Others will give no apparent sign and just drop and go wherever they happen to be.  Some puppies have to toilet seconds after they finish eating while others don't need to go for 30 minutes or more.  All puppies need the opportunity to toilet when they wake up in the morning, before and after naps during the day, after play, any time they get startled, scared, or excited, after eating and/or drinking, and before bed.  That's a lot of trips outside!  If you break that down time-wise, your puppy should have the opportunity to toilet outdoors every 30-45 minutes that he is awake.  I'm always asked if I can write up a sample schedule for a puppy to help new or first time puppy owners get the hang of this, so here goes.  And, again, individual schedules will vary depending on the humans' schedule, breed of dog, and their individual metabolism.

6 a.m. Let your puppy out of their crate and take them outside to toilet.
6-8 a.m. Feed your puppy breakfast, offer them water, play with them, train them, etc. Let them outside every 30 minutes, so 4 total trips outside if they are awake for 2 hours.
8 a.m. Bathroom break then down for a nap
8-10 a.m. Nap time in their crate (don't wake them up if they are still sleeping at 10 though!)
10 a.m. Let your puppy out of their crate and take them outside to toilet.
10-noon Feed your puppy lunch, offer them water, play with them, train them, etc. Let them outside every 30 minutes, so 4 total trips outside if they are awake for 2 hours.
Noon  Bathroom break then down for a nap
Noon-2 p.m. Nap time in their crate (don't wake them up if they are still sleeping at 2 though!)
2 p.m. Let your puppy out of their crate and take them outside to toilet.
2-4 p.m. Feed your puppy a snack, offer them water, play with them, train them, etc. Let them outside every 30 minutes, so 4 total trips outside if they are awake for 2 hours.
4 p.m.  Bathroom break then down for a nap
4-6 p.m. Nap time in their crate (don't wake them up if they are still sleeping at 6 though!)
6 p.m.  Let your puppy out of their crate and take them outside to toilet.
6-8 p.m. Feed your puppy dinner, offer them water, play with them, train them, etc. Let them outside every 30 minutes, so 4 total trips outside if they are awake for 2 hours.
8 p.m. Do a quiet activity with your puppy to get them ready for bed.  Brush them, handle them, pet them, let them chew on a bone or toy on your lap or near you.
8:30 p.m. Bathroom break then off to bed for the night.
8:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.:  Your puppy should sleep most of this time, but many will have to go outside at least once during the night.  These nighttime bathroom breaks are just for relieving themselves.  Do not give your puppy tons of attention in the middle of the night, and don't give them a treat either.  You want those middle-of-the-night bathroom breaks to go away as soon as possible for your own sanity!

You will notice from this schedule that I've built in naps in the crate, training time, play, and handling time for teaching cooperative care.  These are all important, foundational activities that need to happen for a puppy to be well rested, mentally and physically stimulated, and socialized. Don't let your puppies play so hard that they pass out on the floor, and don't let them just sleep wherever they happen to lay down for a moment.  Schedule those naps and put them in their crates.  Puppies sleep more soundly and wake up more rested if they sleep in their crates.  It's a fact that well-rested puppies are less mouthy and have fewer housetraining accidents, and frankly, who doesn't want that for their puppies?

You will also notice from this schedule that I've built in 3 meals and a snack.  This is ideal for most puppies as those meals are small and less likely to make them feel bloated or too full to function. Some puppies need more meals than this, and others fewer.  Talk to your veterinarian about the best feeding schedule for your individual puppy.  And remember that those are mealtimes, meaning you put the food down for a set period of time and pick up the bowl whether they've eaten everything or not. I like to give puppies 15-20 minutes to eat.  Anything not eaten is tossed.  Having established meal times and not allowing puppies to free-feed means that the humans will have a fighting chance of knowing when their puppy needs to toilet.

One last note on that schedule.  Where you see "play time" please note that this doesn't necessarily mean that you need to actively play one-on-one with your puppy.  This can mean offering your puppy a puzzle to work on such as a Kong, Busy Buddy, etc. It can also mean giving your puppy a Nylabone to chew on or a rope toy to play with by themselves. You don't want your puppy to think that every waking moment they will have your undivided attention; that is unrealistic and impossible to maintain long term.  Puppies need to build confidence and learn to occupy themselves when the humans are busy.  Just remember that your puppy needs to be confined to an area that you can control and that is safe for them if you aren't watching them directly. Or, alternatively, you can attach a leash to your puppy's collar or harness and tether that leash to you as you work.  That way, your puppy gets some passive leash training while also learning to occupy themselves when you are around but busy, AND you know that if they start to fuss or pull away from you on that leash, it's time for one of those bathroom breaks!

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Here is Ozzie as a puppy, working on training in our backyard.  Once he toileted outdoors, we would work on basics like come, sit, down, and stay.  Ozzie was a quick study, lucky for us!

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

That's Easy For You To Say!

I worked with a client over the weekend who has a  rather "defiant" young adult dog.  I'm putting defiant in quotes because that's a loaded word that implies that her dog was willfully non-compliant and resistant.  What I saw wasn't really defiance per se, but a bored dog who had been receiving inconsistent reinforcement from the owner and other caregivers, creating a situation where the dog appeared to be doing nothing since when he did something, right or wrong, he never knew that his behavior had consequences!  I got the dog's attention on me (that chicken in my pocket once again!) and started reinforcing very basic tasks such as touching my fingers, staring at my feet, sitting, laying down, and letting me pick up one of his paws.  Each of these behaviors received verbal reinforcement and a bit of chicken.  I explained to the owner that every behavior has a consequence and she needs to show her dog those consequences.  She said, "That's easy for you to say!"  She then asked if I wanted to move in, because clearly her dog was only going to listen to me!  At this point, I needed to give the dog something to chew on so I could delve a little deeper with this owner.

You see, it isn't that it's easier for me than it is for the dog owners I work with, it's simply that with more than 30 years of experience, I know what works and what doesn't.  My job is to be like those crib notes we used back in high school in college; I'm here to summarize and condense all of the learning and techniques you should be using into one easy-to-follow game plan.  And for the frustrated dog owners who've said to me, "Well, of course, this works for you!  Your dogs are probably perfect!"  I'm here to tell you, my dogs are not and have never been perfect.  And I love them just the same.  No, really.  Every dog I've ever owned had some issue or some quirk that needed work.  My first dog, a Westie, had the worst recall.  He was a terrier who followed anything that moved.  My Border Collie mix Shadow?  She was incredibly fearful and anxious. She lived under a coffee table in my apartment for the first 3 months we lived together.  Anyway, you get the picture.  I've never once suggested that a client use a technique or method that I've not already done myself.  I practice what I preach:  positive reinforcement, easy to understand consequences, and rules that are easy to follow and don't change.  My dogs know that if they bark incessantly there will be a consequence and that consequence has never changed. I teach owners to do it the same way.  Same with recall. I play recall games with my dogs and work on a long line when teaching recall with distractions in public settings. I do it the same way with clients and their dogs.

Turns out, I am what researchers are now calling an "authoritative pet parent." This doesn't surprise me given that this designation comes from the human parenting research which places human parents into three categories, authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive, and I was (and am) an authoritative human parent as well. My client with the "defiant" dog?  She was a permissive pet parent. I'm going to post the study that looks at pet parenting style tomorrow on my business website.  Here it is, just in case you don't follow my page regularly:

Managing behavior problems isn't easy for anyone, even professional dog trainers, behaviorists, or veterinarians.  Behavior problems are challenging for all of us.  I will never tell you that they are easy to fix as I feel that saying that trivializes what is going on with your pet. What I WILL tell you is that we can work on a management game plan that includes actionable, proactive methods that can be used to get those behavior problems under control.  And those methods will be ones I've used on my own pets too.  Nothing like being the proverbial guinea pigs for any new method I try, just ask Ozzie and Desi!

My client from the weekend has already sent me her first progress report and she and her "defiant" dog are off to a great start.  Just goes to show that it was easy for me to say AND, more importantly, easy for her to do.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

One of the things that is "easy for me to say" is add in some interactive toys for your dogs!  Daily brain games for dogs keeps their active brains stimulated and gives them something to do that doesn't require you playing too. Here's Westley with his "Mad Scientist" Puzzle from the Trixie company.