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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.
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 www.thefuntheory.com.
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.
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!
We first learned about the “Look at That” (LAT) game from Leslie McDevitt’s brilliant book “Control Unleashed.” One of the most common dog training issues is on-leash reactivity. Our gut instinct is to tell Fido to knock it off or to try to console them and make them feel safe by patting them and speaking in high pitched voices. Unfortunately for a lot of dogs our attempts at canine communication are often misinterpreted and we see an increase in snarling, lunging and barking at approaching triggers like animals, people or moving objects. If we scold our dogs for acting like a lunatic when triggers approach, we run the risk of creating an even more negative situation for our already stresed or anxious friends. When we try and reassure Fifi that everything is going to be OK, they don’t hear our words but may assume based on our high-pitched tone that we like it when they are nervous and scared and they may enjoy the extra attention it gets them.
Although it goes against our human nature, the Look at That game diffuses both of these situations and quickly results in increased confidence and focus on mom or dad instead of incoming triggers. For a detailed description of the “Look at That” game, we encourage you to check out Leslie McDevitt’s web site and buy her easy-to-understand book or videos but we wanted to give you a brief overview of the exercise because the Clicker Leash makes it so easy to do.
The key is to keep your dog below threshold (ie quiet and calm) while teaching them to look at a stimulus they do not normally like and rewarding them for looking at it. To train LAT, use your Clicker Leash to click and reward your dog the second they look at a trigger as long there is no reaction. If your dog is too intense with the triggers being used, start with a neutral target like a piece of paper or other item your dog has no association with and again click as soon as they look at it. When your dog is offering a quick glance towards the target, name it “look.” Your dog will quickly start to look at their triggers and turn back to you for a reward. If your dog does not turn quickly, it is likely because they are over threshold. You should increase the distance between you and the trigger and try again.
Begin playing LAT with a different neutral distraction for about 30 seconds, as often as you can each day. Gradually progress to more challenging distractions such as favourite toys, the mailman, squirrels and approaching people. Once your dog has mastered the game with various distractions, you can progress to using dogs they like and then strange dogs. Remember, the key here is to keep your dog calm during this game. If they begin to growl, bark or lunge, they have gone over threshold and you need to start again with more distance between you and the object.
If youhave a particularly stressed, anxious or reactive dog, you may also want to check out Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. The protocol provides a clear set of exercises to do with your dog to help teach self control in exciting situations. Remember to keep your training sessions brief and fun so your dog will want more! For more training tips and free video tutorials visit www. clickerleash.com