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Here at the Clicker Leash Co. we believe you can shape the dog of your dreams through positive reinforcement training but we also recognize that sometimes our dogs’ personalities or natural instincts may make some of our goals unrealistic. We have all felt moments of disappointment when we realize we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. That is why we found this video of a dog who had been bred and trained from birth to be a service dog so touching. This special dog’s instinct to chase birds unravelled her handler’s plans but instead of giving up on the dog completely, the inspired handler transformed her into a “Surfice Dog.” This is an inspiring story for anyone dealing with a challenging dog. Sometimes they won’t be what we want them to but they may make an even greater contribution to this world than we could have imagined.
We’ve all seen them – the dogs who take their owners for a walk as they pull them down the sidewalk at break neck speeds. When puppies are very young, they are not capable nor do many want to pull their people down the street. In fact, we often hear the complaint that a new puppy doesn’t want to walk at all. So how does it get from one extreme to another?
The first thing to consider is it takes two to tango and it takes two to pull. When your young puppy becomes more adventurous, he will begin to enjoy smelling new smells and meeting new people and these will be very rewarding experiences for him. When you allow him to do these things while he is pulling or lunging forward, you are telling him he is being a good dog and you really like it when he pulls you toward things by giving him access to these things. If having a dog walk politely and safely on a loose leash is important to you, then you have to make sure your puppy does not get rewarded for moving forward on a tight leash. Timing and clear communication are important here. With a Clicker Leash, simply click as soon as your puppy offers you any slack in the leash and then reward by moving forward, being sure to stop again if the leash becomes tight. Make sure your puppy does not get access to people and places when their leash is tight. You may feel like you are playing a game of red light green light but with young puppies this method will typically begin to work quickly as long as your timing is good and you are consistent. If you allow your puppy to pull occasionally, they will try more and more often to do so in the hopes that they will get to whatever it is they want to explore even faster.
This method has proven to be effective with many puppies but the easiest way to train a dog to walk beside you and something that makes the red light/green light technique even more powerful is rewarding the dog for passive attention.
Begin by clicking and rewarding any attention your dog gives you. Do not ask for your dog to “watch” or “look” or try to get their attention. Just observe them as you are walking and if they pay any attention to you, click and reward next to your side closest to the dog. For some dogs this may be as little as an ear twitch or brief glance in your direction. Don’t reach out with the treat, feed it at your leg to build some reward value for the space around you. As your dog comes to understand that orienting to you and walking near you is a rewarding activity, he will begin to offer you more attention for longer periods of time. As you practice this activity, you can increase your expectations and begin delaying your click for longer periods of time, gradually fading out the click and rewards when your dog is conditioned to walk nicely beside you. Make sure to practice around a lot of distractions that your dog is challenged with on a regular basis, rewarding heavily if your dog can maintain their focus on you as you approach and pass the distractions.
We first learned about passive attention exercises in Leslie McDevitt’s wonderful book “Control Unleashed” and Jane Killion’s equally amazing “When Pigs Fly.” If you have a difficult-to-train dog, one that becomes overexcited and reactive or shuts down due to fear, these two books paired with a Clicker Leash will help you effectively nurture your dog through their issues.
It is always surprising how much people will protest the use of food in dog training. Time and again it is argued that the dog shouldn’t work for food, they should be working for YOU. It is true that some dogs enjoy working just for the sake of working (Border Collies come to mind). Other dogs are perfectly content to work for verbal praise or attention from their owner. We often call these the “what can I do for you” dogs. However, there is nothing shameful about owning a “what can you do for me” dog and more often this is the case. Dogs are reknown opportunists. If there is a way to create pleasure for themselves, they usually find it. If they see you as a reliable source of pleasure, whether it come in the form of food, praise or play, then at the very least you will have a nice foundation for a strong bond between you and your dog. This is a worst case scenario if your timing happens to be off with your rewards, if you don’t know how to fade rewards out and put them on an intermittent schedule or if you bribe your dog by always giving commands with food in your hand. At the very least your dog will still really like you!
Here at the Clicker Leash Co. we enjoy watching trainers like Victoria Stilwell and Zak George on Animal Planet. In Stilwell’s case she is normally called in to deal with unruly behaviour. She uses positive reinforcement to teach incompatible, desirable behaviors to replace the stuff that drives most owners nuts. On George’s new show Super Fetch, he teaches really cool and practical tricks to dogs, again, using positive reinforcement. George refers to the rewards as “currency.” We like this because it helps people see the reward for what it is. Most people don’t love their jobs and wouldn’t perform daily tasks if it weren’t for the pay cheque they receive every two weeks. Of course people would probably be more productive if their rewards were tied more closely to the individual tasks but that just isn’t practical for most employers. Fortunately it is practical for most people to do when they are training their dogs!
In one of his recent blog posts on Dog Star Daily, Eric Goebelbecker discusses “5 Myths About Training Dogs with Treats.” Check out his post for some great arguments on why it is OK to use treats to help teach your dog new behaviours. If you have been having problems with your dog training and haven’t tried rewards to motivate your dog, what have you got to lose? Remember, only your dog can determine what is rewarding so experiment to see what really gets the tail wagging! Happy training!