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One of the greatest challenges clicker trainers face is making the technique palatable to the average dog owner. Most dogs seem to get it right away. A few well timed clicks paired with a valuable reward and it is easy to get a bouncy, pouncy pooch to sit calmly and focused next to you. On the flip side, most people take years to learn the intricacies of timing, reward schedules and all of the terminology that accompanies research that dates back to Pavlov’s dogs.

Since the inception of the Clicker Leash Co., our primary focus has been to boil clicker training down to concepts that can be understood and applied by the everyday pet owner in five minutes or less. We have attended numerous trade shows and expos where we have been competing with countless other products and dog training techniques.  Often we have 30 seconds or less to get people’s attention and peak their interest before they move on to the next tantalizing booth.

We have found the key to reaching most people is to stay away from the jargon that we and other fellow “dog geeks” (we use the term affectionately and with pride) love to throw around. We have broken the years of science down into a few simple concepts. “If you like it, click it” is one of our favourite phrases that we use to explain how to use a clicker. Instead of taking hours to explain the four quadrants of learning theory to people, we sum things up with this one pivotol sentence. The concept is simple and it is catchy so it will stick in people’s heads much easier than positive and negative reinforcement and punishment. We try to use lots of real life, human examples when we explain our training methods so people can quickly visualize and relate to what we are saying.

We also focus on the emotional aspects of clicker training. Let’s face it, this is why most people fall in love with the technique. It enriches the bond people share with their dogs. Because it is such an effective training tool, clickers make people feel a great sense of pride in their dog. Clicker training builds respect and trust into our relationships and this is key to winning people over from dominance-based camps. Dog ownership is evolving into dog parenting and people are looking for ways to train their dogs without using fear and harsh corrections.

Please leave a comment and share your ideas on how to quickly and effectively relay the benefits of clicker training and positive reinforcement to the average dog owner so we can all learn from each other. Together we can make dog-friendly techniques mainstream and relegate punishment and dominance-based methods to a corner of the past!

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The queen of clicker training, Karen Pryor, released her new book “Reaching the Aninal Mind” yesterday and the launch garnered her a spot on Good Morning America. Kudos Karen! If you missed the show you can watch it here.  Karen demonstrated clicker training with a bouncy five-month-old Golden Retriever puppy who had been recently adopted by one of the show’s staff members. She worked with the puppy for ten minutes the day before and taught it a nose touch on her hand, explaining that this was a foundation behavior that could be used to get the pup to go wherever you would like without using force. She had the puppy jump onto the couch and then jump off (it was very good at jumping on her too!).

We are happy Karen got the exposure that she did for clicker training but we would have liked to have seen a clearer explanation as to how people can incorporate it into their everyday lives and all of the benefits that come with this method like the enriched bond it forms between human and canine, the speed with which animals learn, the safety of clicker training and the fact that you don’t always have to use food treats to reward the dog. The host even made a comment about all of the treats and the dog getting fat. In our opinion, this is one of the greatest obstacles for clicker training. People who don’t understand conditioned responses and the fact that you gradually eliminate your rewards when you use clicker training argue that the dog isn’t working for the person, they are just working for the food. It is important that people know they can use ANYTHING the animal wants or needs to make clicker training work for them and this point was not driven home. If you control the resources, you control the dog.

Could Karen have won over a lot of dominance-based trainers and people who love dog whispering by explaining that a clicker helps them control the resources in their dog’s life thus making the person important to the dog? We have found that when you use clicker training, you become the gateway to wonderful things which helps instil a great deal of respect between you and your dog. Hopefully this is just the beginning of clicker training’s journey into the mainstream and as we all get more practiced at speaking with the media we will be able to clearly get our key messages across and make an impact on the general dog owning public.

He is very dominant. Of all the words used to describe the goofy dog that was vying for my heart on the adoption floor, these are the ones that stuck with me. I inherently knew what the shelter manager was talking about even though Buddy was my first dog since childhood and I had never studied anything about dominance theory during my university career.  “He won’t start any fights but he won’t back down,” he informed me. Well, I can live with that I thought in my adoption afterglow.

Over the next couple of years I used dominance to explain many of Buddy’s undesirable traits that appeared as he entered social maturity without the assistance of obedience classes to learn appropriate manners. With a wave of the dominance wand I was able to explain all of his inexplicable behaviour problems – counter surfing, bullying puppies, humping, occasionally destroying the recliner and getting into scraps with unneutered male dogs. Everyone seemed to agree and all understood what I was talking about without a detailed explanation. He is just being dominant, I would explain and everyone would nod in agreement.

I was offered plenty of free advice that ran the gamut of using a choke chain to control him, to humping him if he humped another dog. I thought surely these secrets of dog training would help me and my pooch. I had put any memories of the tedious learning theory courses I had studied in university out of my mind and grabbed a hold of dominance theory. It was easy to understand and could be used to describe why a problem was happening and how to solve it. Long ago I had blocked the rules of reinforcement and punishment from my mind that are the foundation to understanding how all animals (including dogs) learn and respond to their environment. It was boring and none of my friends at the dog park ever talked about it.

Since those early days with Buddy, I have heard dominance used to excuse separation anxiety, dog-dog aggression, aggression towards humans, rambunctious play styles and inappropriate greeting rituals. Dominance has become a fixture in dog culture but few understand its true meaning or how to apply it when safely training their four-legged companions.

 According to a number of dog trainers regularly featured in mainstream media, it is important for people to assert their dominance over pet dogs in a style that mimics wolves. They encourage clients to alpha roll unruly pets and otherwise force them to submit in order to correct or prevent problem behaviours. Often, these methods result in immediate “results” because the animal is frightened and temporarily stops the offensive behaviour. However, they do not learn an alternative, appropriate behaviour and often get into the same trouble when they feel it is safe, usually when their caretakers aren’t watching. Some dogs will even stop the unwanted behaviour permanently but may be difficult to train in the future because they fear the consequences of their actions.

What the dog training celebrities seem to have forgotten is that being dominant in the animal world means you have control over resources. These resources include food, preferred resting places and mates. As humans with opposable thumbs and big brains, it is easy for us to be dominant without ever touching, hurting or intimidating dogs. We already control access to our dogs’ food, water, sleeping area, outdoors, affection, friends and toys. By asking our dogs for a desirable behaviour, for example a sit, before we give them access to these resources, we become important in our dogs’ lives and earn their respect in an unaggressive manner.

There is a reason the celebrity trainers who focus on “dominating” dogs warn people not to try their techniques at home. What makes for entertaining television doesn’t always make safe training. Often, they will use force or flooding to change dog behaviour but in essence they are suppressing the problematic behaviour by shutting the dog down. When you suppress behaviours by scaring a dog, you have done nothing to change the behaviour and it may be lurking, waiting for an opportunity to rear its ugly head. Further, when dogs start to distrust their humans, the risk for dog bites increases exponentially.

The easier, scientifically proven way to train a dog without any fallout is to reward behaviours you like and withhold rewards when a dog presents a behaviour you don’t like. When we control access to our dogs’ resources, we control our dogs. Dominance trainers are right when they say not to give everything to your dog for free. They explain that this makes us the alpha. However, the success most people experience with this technique can also be explained by learning theory. Any time a dog is rewarded for an action, they are more likely to repeat it in the future. For example, if you get your dog to sit and wait until you exit a door first (a technique normally prescribed to gain rank), your dog will learn that to get access to the outside, they need to sit until you tell them otherwise. They are not respecting you as dominant, they are earning a powerful reward for sitting and waiting – getting to go outside and explore the world!

Another flaw with training philosophies that focus on dominance theory is that they are based on studies from the 1940s that looked at captive wolves, taken from various packs. The wolves were not part of a natural pack that typically consists of a breeding pair and their offspring from the previous two to three years. The wolves that were observed by the scientists of the time were in an unnatural situation that resulted in increased aggression and fighting.

Modern research of free-roaming dogs has found submission displays are much more important than dominance displays to maintain the peace. Because wild dogs are scavengers and opportunists, not typically predators, they generally live more solitary lives than wolves without structured hierarchies. If you observe an “alpha roll” between two dogs, try to note whether the dog on top forced the bottom dog there or whether the submissive dog actually offered his belly up.

Next time someone tells you a dog is behaving a certain way because he is being dominant, see if you can identify what might be rewarding the dog’s behaviour instead of accepting the dominance diagnosis. Consider the bouncy dog that jumps up on everyone despite being pushed down, kneed or grabbed. Is the dog trying to dominate everyone he meets or does he find human touch so rewarding that it doesn’t matter what form it takes? This approach also works for the growling dog in the safety of his owner’s arms. Is he trying to dominate approaching strangers or does the growling usually cause people to go away and leave him alone with his favourite people?

When you are watching dogs and trying to figure out what could possibly be encouraging an unwanted behaviour, remember rewards are as varied as the personalities of our four-legged friends. Food, playing, cuddling and praise are obvious rewards but dogs can also be rewarded by their own actions. A barking dog may enjoy alleviating feelings of frustration through their vocalizations or they may like the attention it gets from their human companions.

It is important to provide your dog with a clear understanding of what they are required to do to live peacefully within the rules of our society. Given that approximately 90% of aggression in dogs is fear-based, it is critical to provide structure and feedback without using scare tactics. Alpha animals (ie: the parents) act in a calm, relaxed way, leaving aggression to the insecure and defensive. People who work with wolves are quick to point out that they do not tolerate forceful humans. We are unable to communicate with the accurate timing and types of signals dogs and wolves use to converse within their respective species.

Dogs give many clear but subtle signals when they are stressed. Once you know what to watch for, it is easy to pick up on the red flags that indicate when a dog is upset. Test your dog communication skills the next time a dog training show is on TV. Pay close attention to the dog’s mouth, eyes and ears. Is the dog yawning frequently but doesn’t seem to settle? Does the dog repeatedly lick his lips? Can you see the whites of his eyes? Are the ears pinned back? If you look at the dog’s body, is it tense and moving slowly or staying close to the ground? Is the dog panting heavily without having done any physical exercise? Is the dog sniffing the ground frequently in an attempt to avoid eye contact? Each of these clues will tell you a dog is feeling insecure or even frightened. A frightened dog is a potentially dangerous dog depending on whether it chooses fight or flight.

Other not-so-subtle signals that dogs use to communicate with their humans include growling, barking, baring teeth, hard stares, air snapping and actually biting. Of course we try to keep our sensitive skin from experiencing a dog bite but many of the popular trainers also insist on shutting down the other signals dogs use to communicate, again accusing the dog of trying to dominate their owners with aggressive displays. When a dog growls or bares their teeth, they are sending out a loud and clear signal that they are not comfortable. Stopping this form of communication without addressing the root cause and helping your dog feel more comfortable, results in the dog trying to communicate more clearly. A dog that tries unsuccessfully to warn their people with a growl may progress to a snap. If the snap doesn’t get the message across then the dog may resort to making contact with skin.

Establish yourself as a leader by controlling access to resources and you will have a dog that works happily and confidently for you. If your dog is doing something you don’t like, take the time to train a new, incompatible behaviour and use the resources your dog wants or needs to instil new habits. Not only will you have a well-behaved pet, you will have a dog that loves, respects and trusts you.

Here at the Clicker Leash Co. we strive to bring humane training tools to the masses so people can develop well-behaved pets while building a life-long bond based on trust. But the possibilities are truly endless when you use positive reinforcement to train your pet and nothing illustrates this better than this amazing video that is currently being featured by Lindsey Hein on Examiner.com.  

Interestingly, this video was filmed in the 1950s and begs the question why anyone ever used anything other than positive reinforcement as the foundation for dog training? How did punitive and dominance-based techniques ever rise to popularity when the power of positive reinforcement is so evident?  Hooray for Jay Sisler and his amazing pooches!