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A popular example among positive dog trainers to illustrate the ineffectiveness of punishment is traffic tickets. North American culture tends to focus on punishing unwanted behaviors like speeding instead of recognizing desirable behaviors like driving your car at the appropriate speed. Now Cape Town Traffic Services in Africa is experimenting with positive reinforcement to see if it can improve road safety.

The department will be rewarding motorists for “gold star” behavior with engraved pens and key rings. Good behaviour will include not getting angry or upsetting other road users, signalling well in advance when changing lanes, slowing down on freeways to allow space for motorists entering from an on-ramp, keeping intersections clear in heavy traffic, and raising a hand to thank fellow motorists instead of using the emergency flashers. Of course, this is creating debate almost as hot as a Victoria Stilwell vs. Cesar Millan dispute with the nay-sayers chiming in with their usual pessimism.  Hopefully the department will measure and publish the results of this experiment.

Cape Town police are not alone in thinking positive reinforcement can change behavior. Volkswagen launched their “Fun Theory Campaign” this fall and it is already a viral sensation with millions of views on You Tube. The car manufacturer’s ad agency DDB Stockholm, based their new campaign on the idea that “fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better.” For example, the team set out to see if they could increase the number of people who would opt to take a set of stairs instead of a nearby escalator by making it fun to take the stairs. They changed the stairs into a giant, functional piano that was activated when people stepped onto the stairs. They found a 66% increase in the number of people who chose the stairs when they were made “fun.” You can view this and the two other videos the company has created in the first stage of their campaign at

What does all of this have to do with dog training? Well, if we can change people’s current perception about rewards and punishment in human learning then it will be much easier to get people to Train Humane with their pets. Once reward-based principles become mainstream, we will see an increase in people treating their dogs with respect and love and getting great results.

Halloween can be a spooky time especially for nervous dogs. Many dog owners cringe at the thought of dozens of costumed children repeatedly ringing their doorbell while their pooches do their best to protect the house from intruders or hide in a corner to get away from the ghosts and goblins. However, Halloween doesn’t have to be a night of terrors with a bit of prep work beforehand. It can actually be a great training opportunity to get the behavior you want when guests come visisting.
Start by situating your dog’s favourite bed or a mat a comfortable distance away from the door. If your dog has a habit of bolting out open doors, you may want to install a baby gate in the doorway for extra safety and security. If you have not already established a strong reward history with the resting spot, begin by clicking and rewarding any time your dog looks at the bed, walks towards it, sits on it and final jackpot (five times normal amount of treats) if your dog downs on the spot.
If your dog is hesitant about offering you new behaviors, you can lure them onto the bed and into a down with a tasty treat in your hand. Make sure you do not give a command if you have food in your hand. This is considered bribery and often results in a dog that only listens when they can see their paycheque is available. Food is a preferable reward for this exercise because it tends to relax most dogs and we are looking for calm behavior here. You may have to experiment to find something special to motivate picky eaters – don’t be afraid to try “human food!” Help your dog to relax on the spot with some massage and relaxed patting. There is a great selection of canine massage books and DVDs at Dogwise including the popular “Energy Healing for Dogs”  by Nicole Wilde .

Once your dog eagerly goes to their spot and downs you can start delaying your click and reward so your pup will remain in the down for a longer period of time. Remember to always toss your treat directly on the spot to avoid having your dog jump up to get rewarded after you click. If your dog has a habit of doing so, simply wait until your dog is down on the spot again before tossing the treat. It may take a few moments of deep thought on your dog’s behalf if you have been in the habit of rewarding out of position so be patient for the results you want.

You should also work on a release cue to let your dog know when they are allowed to leave the mat. If they get up before they leave the mat, simply guide them back to where they were and don’t expect them to stay for quite as long on your next repetition. Try to make your release cue a word or action that you don’t say or do frequently to avoid confusing your dog. After you say your release cue (we like the word “break”) hold a treat out to your side a few feet away from your dog and click when they get up to come get the food. After a few repetitions you should be able to release the dog and reward with some verbal praise for coming towards you unless you have a dog that would prefer to rest and relax in which case you may have to spend more time motivating them to leave their mat.   

Once your pup can maintain a down stay on their mat for 15 seconds or so, begin breaking down the rest of the steps towards opening the door and having guests enter while you increase the length of time you expect your dog to stay. Remember to always build on success by taking baby steps to wards your end goal. You may want to invest in an interchangeable 9 foot leash length so you can keep your dog secure and your clicker on hand while you build your distance. Begin by rewarding after taking one step away from your dog. Don’t forget to practice turning your back on them as well. It is often useful to check over your shoulder when doing so to make sure your dog doesn’t leave the mat. Click when you are far away and go back into where your dog is laying down to reward. Remember, if your dog gets up after you click it is often beneficial to wait for them to down again before tossing the treat on the mat.

You will want to take small steps in the door opening process as well. Click and reward as soon as you put your hand on the door, then for turning the doorknob, then for opening the door a little bit etc. until you can open the door all the way and your dog will remain on his mat. Remember, a baby gate will help keep your dog safe at this stage of the game.

Once your dog can handle the door being opened and shut without moving, you can start labelling the behavior of going to and staying on the mat. Instead of using a command like “go to your mat” you may want to make the door bell or knocking the cue to go lie down and stay. Begin by ringing the door bell yourself or recruit a close friend or family member to help. As soon as the knock or doorbell occurs walk with your dog toward the mat until they lay down on their spot. As soon as they do, click and jackpot with up to five times the amount of reward they had been receiving.

With each repetition of the doorbell or knocking try not to walk quite as close your dog’s spot so they will actually start to travel further away from you to get to there. If your dog hesitates, let them think without speaking so as not to interrupt their thought process. Try looking at the mat instead of your dog so they will know what they should be interacting with. If your dog becomes disengaged with you or gives up, take a break but don’t make the break rewarding and when you go back to it, start at your last successful stage. Remember to always keep your training sessions short and your dog wanting more by ending the game first. Your dog will learn faster with short, fun sessions. If you hear a voice in your head say “just one more,” quit while you are ahead!

Your final step to having a relaxing Halloween or any time you have to answer the door, will be the most challenging for many dogs. When you have people enter the house, it is best to work with a team mate who can make sure your dog is rewarded for staying on the mat and not jumping all over your guests as they enter. You should practice this with a close friend who does not mind taking orders from you before the real guests arrive if you do not have a team mate. It will be important that your guests understand not to pat or pay attention to your dog unless they are down on the mat. You may also want to provide your visitors with a treat to reward your dog as they get closer to the mat and your dog stays down. Once your guests are in the house and comfortable or if you have some trick or treaters who would like to meet your dog, you can release them from their mat and reward for keeping four on he floor. For some great tips on how to accomplish this check out the second runner up of the 2009 Canis Film Festival.

Hopefully this Halloween will provide you with a chance to practice the skills that will pay off over the approaching holiday season! Remember out of every frustration comes a great learning opportunity!

Five Things Every Dog Should Know

Whether you want a pooch you can let off-leash at the dog park or one who can stroll with you along a busy sidewalk, there are five key life skills that will get you there. With a little digging you will find a trainer who can help you perfect these skills. Whether you are looking for personalized one-on-one training, small classes in a relaxed environment or larger classes with more real-life distractions, all of these options are available in most urban settings. Be sure to consider what teaching methods suit your personal style when you are choosing your trainer. Dogs don’t come preprogrammed to understand human language or any basic obedience so a good trainer will help you develop the skills to communicate clearly with your dog while building a strong bond. You may also want to visit where you can view videos that can show you how to teach your dog these important life skills quickly and with love.


Any time you are teaching your dog a new skill or if you are brushing up on one that may have gotten a little rusty, start off in a quiet environment like your living room or backyard. Once your dog is responding to your requests immediately, take your show on the road. Just remember as distractions increase, your expectations should decrease and you will have to reward good behaviours more often so that your dog understands exactly what you want him to do. Now onto those essential life skills!


A Fast Response to Their Name

Before you can give your dog any guidance through this crazy world, you have to have their attention. Teach your dog a speedy response to their name. Make sure you don’t waste your dog’s name by repeating it over and over, with idle chitchat or by using it if you are correcting a behaviour. Your dog’s name lets him know it’s time to stop catching up on the latest pee-mail and time to pay attention to you.


To play the name game, start off with your dog on a loose leash. Say his name and as soon as he turns around and looks at you, let him know what a good boy he has been. If he does not respond, back away from whatever is distracting him, until he turns around and looks at you. Keep your movements smooth and gentle. Only jerks jerk! Resist the urge to repeat your dog’s name as you are backing up. When we repeat ourselves, our dogs learn that the words we are saying have no real meaning and will not understand them. When your dog finally does look at you, let him know how happy you are with his choice.


Come When Called

You can keep your pet out of all kinds of trouble if he reliably comes when called. Whether it is a small child running with a tasty treat or a porcupine in the woods, your dog should be able to come away from these things and return to you before he has earned the privilege of being off-leash. If you are worried about your dog getting enough exercise before he has mastered this, invest in a long line that can drag on the ground. If you run into a situation that causes your pooch to lose his brain, you will be able to step on the long line and get control of the situation.



Loose Leash Walking

Loose leash walking prepares your dog for off-leash privileges. If you don’t rely on your leash to communicate then you are one step closer to off-leash fun in Point Pleasant Park. Loose leash walking also helps when meeting new puppy pals. A friendly dog can look aggressive to other dogs as well as people if they are pulling or lunging forward.


Many dogs become expert pullers because they are rewarded by getting to explore all of the exciting things at the end of a tight leash. If you would like to stay out of physiotherapy, start playing the red light, green light game. If your dog is pulling, stop walking forward and wait for the leash to become loose and reward your dog by walking forward again. If your dog has become a master puller, it may take you an hour to get around the block but with consistence your dog will quickly understand the rules of the game. For excessive pullers, you may want to jumpstart your training with a head halter like the Gentle Leader or harness like the Easy Walk Harness. Stay away from retractable leashes if pulling is a problem for you. Your dog will feel a constant tension in his leash as he moves forward and think pulling is the correct way to walk. 


Bomb-proof Stays

Whether you choose a sit, down or stand, your dog should know how to stay in one spot for extended periods of time, even if you are out of sight. Stays are a great way to prevent jumping up and can help an otherwise active or excited dog relax and be calm. A dog in a sit or down stay is under control and this will put other people at ease around your fur kid. At home use a stay if you are putting groceries away or preparing a meal and don’t want your dog underfoot.


Once your dog can sit, down or stand on command, gradually increase the length of time you want him to maintain the stay and intensify the distractions. Get creative with your distractions and try to incorporate things you are likely to run into out on your walks. If your dog leaves the stay before you have said it is OK, decrease the amount of time or the distractions so that you can build on success.


Give (Even if you Really Don’t Want To)

There are so many things your dog will think are great for chewing and eating. Pills, children’s toys, sticks, bones and litter are just a few examples that seem irresistible to the canine palate but can be dangerous if swallowed. Besides stopping your dog from ingesting dangerous objects, a give command will help prevent object and food guarding issues.  


As long as your dog has not developed any resource guarding, begin by hand feeding as many meals as possible to get your dog used to your hands around his mouth. Once you have established a trusting relationship, begin teaching a give command by trading an object that isn’t very important to your dog for something he likes better. Remember to always trade up during practice so in an emergency your dog will be happy to give up what he has with the expectation that you will give him something even better.


Life skills training doesn’t have to be a drag and by incorporating it into your dog’s daily routine, you will have a four legged friend you can take anywhere. Remember to make things fun to keep your dog engaged, happy and confident. While timing and consistency are important, you will be successful as long as you keep things positive and focus on rewarding the behaviours you love instead of trying to correct the ones you don’t like.