How Dogs Learn – May 31, 2011

Dogs are very efficient in their behavior. If a behavior is inherently pleasurable (eating, playing, chasing, etc), or if doing a particular behavior gets something pleasurable for the dog (like food, attention, or social interaction), the dog will display that behavior more and more often. If a behavior is not pleasurable, if it does not work to obtain something pleasurable, or results in something unpleasant, the dog will use that behavior less and less. Whenever you interact with a dog, you’re constantly giving her feedback about what works to get the good stuff and what doesn’t work.

If a dog jumps up and gets attention, even if the attention is that you push him, then he knows that jumping “works” -– that is, it gets him attention and social interaction. If a he accidentally bites you in play and you don’t end the game, then he learns that play biting “works” or at least is not a serious impropriety -– the fun continues. So you can see why it is very important to manipulate the consequences of your dog’s behavior to be sure he is getting the right messages from you. This is a big responsibility.

The good news is that we can easily use the way dogs learn to “sculpt” their behavior, by consistently rewarding the desirable behaviors we see and ignoring or interrupting the undesirable behaviors. Gradually, you will see your dog behaving more and more in desirable ways, and less and less in undesirable ways.
But what about, for example, dogs who jump all the time? Well, that’s just it: no dog ever jumps literally all the time. Even with a dog that jumps a lot, there’s a moment when she isn’t jumping, so reinforce that moment with attention and some food! If you don’t like what she’s doing, show her what you would like her to do and then reinforce the new behavior.

Repetition and patience are key elements in dog training. There’s never a magic moment when the dog understands the meaning of our requests. Animals gradually become conditioned through lots of repetition that certain behaviors in certain situations will or will not “pay off.”

We use these principles -– rewarding desirable behaviors and ignoring undesirable behavior or removing rewards when the animal behaves in an undesirable way – and there is no need to use physical punishment. Dogs make associations with you and with the situation every time you interact with them. Thus, an unfortunate side effect of using punishment to try to train animals is that, while they may learn to respond to cues, or to stop doing something you don’t like, they may also form negative associations to you, to the situation, the environment, to people in general, or to training.

Furthermore, often you don’t get the result you wanted from trying to use punishment to train. Take for example a dog jumping on people. It’s not a desirable behavior to people, but in the dog-dog world this is usually an appeasing, friendly greeting gesture. If you use punishment to try to get the dog to stop jumping, you have to use a severe enough punishment the first time that it effectively outweighs the positive associations of the friendly greeting gesture. If the punishment is not severe enough, then, you are not effectively damping that behavior. You may even unintentionally be rewarding it. Furthermore, even if you succeed in punishing severely enough, some dogs may try to stop the punishment by offering an appeasement gesture rather than by stopping the undesirable behavior– so the result might be more rather than less jumping.

So, using punishment to train is pretty inefficient, difficult to do correctly, and, in order to be effective, must be severe. A much more efficient, friendlier way to train is to teach the dog a desirable, incompatible behavior: ask yourself, “If this is ‘wrong,’ what is ‘right’? In the case above, you could train the dog to sit to greet people instead of jumping.

Please keep in mind, physical punishment can jeopardize your relationship with your dog or cause her to become defensive or fearful. Surely that is not your goal. Besides, dogs aren’t trying to be “bad” when they do something you don’t approve of; they are just being dogs. It is unfair to punish a dog for being a dog. It is up to you, as the human with control of all of the resources, to sufficiently and benevolently teach your dog the rules of the house and to train him to meet your expectations.

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Find It! May 23, 2011

A wonderful exercise to teach – fun for the dog and for the owner – is “Find It.” At its most useful, it distracts the dog away from another dog or human.

To teach the exercise, put a treat on the ground, and say, “Find it!” After a few minutes of doing this, begin to throw the treats on the ground, or hide them behind doorways and under chairs. Then begin walking, and throw a treat on the ground in front of you and say, “Find It.” As the dog is finding it, begin walking away. She’ll get the treat and hurry to catch up to you. As she does, give her a voice signal to walk with you (“Heel,” “With Me,” whatever you like to use!) Do that again and again. The dog is either looking for the treat or looking at you. This gives her no opportunity to pick a fight! I like to do this with the dog on leash, taking great care NOT to pull the leash. The dog should learn to watch you – you should not be pulling him after you.

This can be extended to include the “Recall” or “Come” exercise. Throw the treat, and just as she’s picking it up, call her name. When she looks at you, say “YES,” (marker word) and hold a treat for her to come and get. Do it again and again. After she starts to be reliable, you can add the word, “Come.”

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Anxiety in Dogs – May 19, 2011

There are various kinds of anxiety in dogs – the most common is separation anxiety, followed by fear of strange objects, people or animals. Some of the symptoms include, but are not limited to: barking, digging, chewing, following the owner from room to room, excessive touching or licking, “dry” panting, whining, sweating from paws, soiling, sudden hair loss, self-mutilation, destructiveness, defensive growling and occasional aggression.

The cause of anxiety is usually quite simple – the dog’s needs are not being met properly, or were not met during the dog’s developmental periods.

Dogs belong in a pack (or family). They need structure, limits, and clear rules to be set by their leader. If the leadership – and companionship – of the pack is not adequate, or not available, the dog will respond in ways that are definitely anxiety producing in humans!

Most problems of anxiety can be solved – or at least helped – by strong leadership from you, the owner (and leader of their pack), and a solid routine they can count on. However, the dog must learn to accept the routine — and that can take time. The following are some guidelines for the owner of an anxious dog.

1. First, make sure the dog understands what you want and looks to you for leadership. Take him to class, or teach him obedience work at home. Make sure he gets enough exercise and stimulation. Ball playing in the back yard is good…but a morning and evening run is better.

2. Be aware how much he approaches you for attention and petting. If it’s a great deal, stop petting him every time he demands it. Ignore him, turn away. When he relaxes, you can call him and pet him — at your discretion. This builds up your status in your pack, and helps him to trust your decisions.

3. If the dog goes from human to human in his search for attention, develop a signal that tells all the family members that the dog is on a doggy time-out. If necessary, set up a tie-down (a 3-4 foot leash attached to an immovable object) to prevent interactions, but use it AFTER the signal begins.

4. If the dog follows you from room to room, desensitize him to your departure. Go from room to room, and leave the dog behind you, shutting the door after you. You can tell him you are leaving him. When you return to the room, there should be no verbal warning and no greeting. Be very matter of fact, very cool.

5. Leave the house for short periods of time (beginning at two minutes), and return… again, no fanfare; cool, non-emotional departures, warm, calm arrivals. Gradually increase the amount of time you are away. If appropriate, leave the dog with something delicious that he can work on for some time. A “Kong” rubber toy, with peanut butter or cream cheese stuffed up the middle is a nice treat that takes some time to work on. Take it away when you return. This gives him something to look forward to.

6. If the dog is shy or sensitive, encourage independence by teaching games — find it, hide and seek, and agility. Play limited tug of war; that is, keep the excitement level moderate.

7. Never apologize to the dog for leaving – say good-bye lightly. Upon your return, act as though you’ve never been away. Putter around the house for a couple of minutes before greeting your dog. In essence, act as though nothing you do is unusual or noteworthy. That will lower the dog’s anxiety level…and make both of you happier.

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Adolescent Dogs

A dog leaves puppyhood and enters adolescence at about the age of 6 months, and doesn’t leave it until it is 2 and a half or 3 years old. The most challenging age is usually between 9 and 18 months (which is when most dogs are surrendered to shelters). Some dogs pass through the phase with little trouble, but most drive their owners crazy! During this phase, it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Adolescent dogs have insatiable curiosity about the world, which they explore through all their senses, including taste. They have no idea what things are supposed to look like, or how much they cost. They don’t know what cars can do to them, or that people on bicycles are really people – to the dog, they can be moving objects, and moving objects were put there to be chased and nipped. Other bad behaviors can include:

• Digging – this is when they’re on their way to China by way of your lawn.
• Chewing – a brand new set of molars needs exercise, and furniture seems like a good place to start.
• Jumping up – many adolescents are extremely rough – they greet and play with you and each other as though both of you are made of steel.
• Running away – remember when your three month old puppy stuck to you like glue? Well, no more – this dog has places to go and people to jump on.
• Growling or snarling – some dogs figure this is as good a time as any to challenge authority – you.
• Obedience – Obedience? They’ve never heard of the word and don’t understand the concept.
• Not doing homework, taking your car, dying their hair – oops, that’s teenage people! However, dogs go through the same thing, in their own way.

So…what do you do about it? Wring your hands, clean up the mess…and MANAGE YOUR DOG.

Start by thinking of your dog as a phenomenally active two-year-old child. Parents expect to have to childproof their home against the damage a little-one can do; multiply it by ten and you have some of the damage that can be inflicted by your dog.

Here are some rules you might want to set to help keep your house (and sanity) intact.

Earn the right to roam. Many people crate train their puppies to help housetrain them. Continue to use your crate for sleeping purposes, and to put your dog in when you need some time to yourself. But don’t stop there. Limit your dog’s space in the house to a manageable size until you are pretty sure he’s trustworthy – a kitchen, or family room blocked by baby gates is one alternative. Then you can CATCH him as he begins to chew on that table-leg. And you can take ALL potentially attractive items off low tables – or even high ones if he’s a big dog!

Though many people use a doggie door, it’s usually not a good idea to let the dog have complete in and out privileges, certainly not at night. That gives him a very large space to protect, and encourages such behaviors as barking and fence fighting. Instead, let him use his doggie door when you are home, and confine him when you’re gone. Give him more space as he proves himself worth it.

Learn to play politely. If he has a habit of jumping on guests, even if he’s just overly friendly, take away his greeting privileges. Many – if not most – people don’t like to be greeted by paws on their chest. Set up a tie-down – a short leash attached to an immovable object – and when guests arrive ask them to wait a couple of minutes while you attach the dog to his tie-down. When he’s quiet and they’ve settled in, you can let him off his tie-down (though you may wish to leave a leash on for control), and he can socialize. This is better than putting him outside, where he will feel ostracized and may whine and bark, which you certainly can’t control while you’re entertaining your guests. If he whines or barks on the tie-down, say “quiet” and squirt water on him, or use a can filled with pennies to intimidate him.

If he jumps on you, try this method to discourage the behavior: REPLACE the behavior with a more acceptable one, and only reinforce that. For instance, if you come home from work and he’s jumping all over the place, stay calm, protect your body (!), tell him to sit (once! does no good at all to repeat the command to an excited dog) and when he backs off and sits, pet and praise him. Many of the other techniques we use teach the dog what NOT to do, not what TO do…and they need to learn what we want. To help you with that, ask him to sit before petting him ever…before throwing the ball…before giving food. It should be his way of saying “please.”

Control that mouth. If your dog chews on you, it’s called “mouthing,” and you should treat it as a serious problem. It’s an instant signal that playtime is over. If a dog is under three months of age, you can squeal like another puppy and stop playing for a few seconds… but for any dogs over three months, make sure they know it’s serious. Stop playing abruptly, freeze and growl “NO” (one of the few times you should say that word, which loses its value the more it’s over-used). When the dog backs off, smile and begin playing again. If the dog continues to mouth, go through the whole thing again, then walk away. Alternatively, freeze, place your hand around the dog’s mouth, hold it gently and apply pressure downwards (this is not violent or hard – it’s just a sign that you are displeased).

Your dog should learn that though he shouldn’t play roughly with you, he can play roughly with OBJECTS. So the same time you teach him not to mess with your skin (or any other human’s), teach him to play tug of war with a toy he likes. The tug part is easy (!) – teaching him to drop it can also be easy. You just have some treats handy, and while the dog is tugging, you say, “drop it,” and push a treat in the side of the dog’s mouth. As he tastes the food, he’ll let the toy go. Praise him, and start the game over again. Within minutes, he’ll be tugging and letting go at your command – after all, this is a win-win situation!

Sharing is good. Ever try to take something from a toddler when they don’t want you to? Expect a battle – it can be hard! Same with adolescent dogs. In the dog world, what’s mine is MINE, and they need to learn that food and objects are really yours – but you’re very generous with them. With food, as your dog finishes eating, walk up to him, tell him to sit, and offer him better food. Put a bit in his mouth, and a bit in his bowl. You don’t need to take food away from him if you play this game a lot.

Exercise is essential. The only good adolescent is a tired adolescent. Two long runs a day are good. Dogs were designed by nature to be active in the morning and evening hours, and we can help that by exercising them at that time, and encouraging rest in between.

Learn to say please. Teach your dog to sit before he gets anything he wants – food, attention, petting, whatever. Better yet, take him to school¸ where he can learn how to behave in a civilized manner. Obedience classes often improve a rocky relationship, and can be fun for both owner and dog.

The best news is that things will get better with your management, time, and age, and by the time your dog is 3 or 4 years old, you’ll have the dog you always wanted.

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Resource Guarding – Facts and Information – May 8, 1011

Canine Possession Aggression……..object guarding, this is the act of aggressively protecting objects such as toys, pigs ears, rawhide chews, bones, or articles that the dog has found or stolen, such as socks shoes underwear tissues and human food.

The ears going back will be part of typical body language relating to this behavior. The dog then will go into a crouch over the object, displaying a whale eye, that is the head turned away but the eyes are swiveled back towards you the perceived threat to his possession, the whites showing, you may also find the lips are slightly pulled back almost in a grin. Look at pictures of whales and you will see why whale eye gets its name.

Mine! All Mine.
So why would the dog want to protect these objects? Simple answer is that it’s normally a learned experience. Either it is a reaction from their siblings taking and tugging objects away at an early age, or we teach them this behavior by our actions and reactions. As a puppy, your dog wandered through parts of the house, picking up and investigating any little object left lying around. However as soon as he picked up something we did not want him to have, we immediately snatched this precious possession away.
Before long, our intrepid pup would pick up an object then run away so we couldn’t take away his find, he would scamper either to another room, the garden, under or behind a table, settee, or chair anywhere where we could not easily relieve him of his treasure.

So what do we do? We follow him to wherever he has hidden away, shouting leave it, or drop! What does the little monster do, he whale eyes you and starts to growl. He has now learned a couple of very valuable lessons.
1. When you give a command, he does not always need to obey.
2. If he shows aggression, you back off.
And by our actions, we have successfully taught him to resource guard.

To train the dog so that it wants to give up the object, that the dog will think it is fun and rewarding to let you have these treasured articles back.

Start Early
Your puppies and adult dogs should be used to having their mouth touched, when you then wish to remove something it isn’t seen as confrontational. From the day you get your dog, either as a puppy or adult dog, brush his teeth, play with his flews (the floppy bits on the upper lip), open his mouth, check his tonsils, look down his throat, do this in a positive fun way with lots of praise and the occasional treat.
Purchase a long rawhide knot or bone. Hold on to one end of the knot while the dog chews on the other. He may want to play tug, but just hold do not pull away, in time he will get used to your presence and relax and just chew.

It is important for your dog to view you as the provider of all good things. You can do this by tightly controlling the dog’s environment. Keep all but one or two toys up off the floor and take the others down only when you want to play. Make sure you offer an item with a command like “Take it.” When you are tired of the game (you that is, not the dog), tell the dog to “Drop” or “Give” Give him another item or treat in exchange, and then pick up the first object and put it away.

Do you know your dog’s likes and dislikes? Compose a list of all the things your dog really enjoys including food, toys, treats and activities, rank them in a hierarchical order, In exchange for dropping the first item give your dog a second, “better” item. For instance, if tennis ball retrieving is third on your dog’s list, reward him with cheese, frankfurter or puffed jerky for dropping the tennis ball. If your dog attempts to pick up a bit of rubbish in the street, command him to “drop” and then throw or give him his tennis ball.

Give a Cue
Teach the word drop or give, do it in a fun way with a happy high silly voice. Start by allowing him to have something that is not so valuable then trade with him for his favorite treat, what is his favorite treats or game? Do you really know your dog’s likes and dislikes?
This is fine for teaching young pups or dogs that are not presently guarding but what about ones that are already way down the road of resource guarding. Training a young puppy is relatively easy. Re-training an older dog is more difficult, but not impossible.

Trade and Reward
Firstly take away all objects the dog is guarding, that could be toys, tissues, chews, bones, pigs ears or sleeping places, that includes beds, sofas or chairs. You may not be able to move the latter but you can cover it, put a box or something else on it that will restrict access. Do not allow access to these precious resources a number of days.

You need to prepare for the next stage if the guarding is articles such as toys chews bones etc, prepare some of the dogs really favorite treats, cheese or frankfurter tends to be high on the list. Then get a low value object, it may be a tissue or a sock, a pigs ear for instance may be perceived as high value. Try to be slightly to the side of the dog rather than face on and relax, take the tension you may feel out of your body as the dog will both smell and sense your fear and this could trigger a reaction.

Offer the object to the dog but try and keep hold of it as the dog takes it, use whatever release command you have decided on it could be “drop” “give” or “trade” immediately produce the tasty treat from behind your back and exchange. Praise when the exchange takes place and give back the object you first exchanged.

Set scheduled times to repeat this exercise at least four times a day but also just do it in opportune moments. Gradually up the anti of treasured goods. Over a period of time the dog will start to look forward to your approach and game. It is at this time that you give your dog the object and walk away, at first come back immediately and trade gradually making the time and distance you walk away longer, until you clearly see the dog is having no problems with your approach whatsoever. Then only give a treat every third time, then every tenth, take the object away and immediately give it back extending the period on this until the guarding behavior disappears.

As with food guarding, you want to build a positive association around people approaching the objects being guarded. The dog needs to understand that approaching people and the removal of objects can be positive and rewarding.

Location or Bed Guarding
This is not always as simple as it may seem, as the severity or incidence may be related to who is approaching. It may be that a woman can approach the bed or sleeping place but not a man, an adult but not a child. It is not always tied to the object being guarded, but more to the relationship or lack of it of the person approaching the resource.

Sometimes this behavior manifests itself when we try to move the dog off a sofa or when we handle or stroke the dog. It is worth in these cases making sure the dog is not ill or in pain as this could stimulate aggressive reactions.

As with other forms of guarding, make this a positive experience. Gauge how far you can approach before any aggressive reaction occurs. Initially keep to this distance and as you pass throw a treat, praising the dog at the same time. Make sure you do not praise or treat if there is growling or any show of aggression. Gradually decrease the distance over a period of time, do not rush the exercise, if the dog starts to react go back a few steps and start again. Change your angle of approach and the person who is approaching. Always try not to approach head on come in at an angle from the side give lots of verbal praise for a calm and passive reaction from the dog.

Maintain the Status Quo
Over time your pet will come to realize that your approach is a positive experience and the guarding will hopefully cease. However if it starts up again repeat the exercise. You should practice once a week exchange or trade, for the remainder of the dogs life.

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Positive Reinforcement Training – May 3, 2011

Because animals learn from their experiences, everyday they learn something new, or what they already know is reinforced. One type of learning, called operant conditioning, occurs when individuals learn the relationship between behaviors and their consequences. Behavior that is followed by positive consequences (such as a treat) will increase in frequency and behavior followed by negative consequences (a squirt from a water bottle) will decrease in frequency.

While human behavior may be motivated by ethics or a moral code of right and wrong, an animal’s behavior is motivated by what works for him. Your pet decides how to behave based, in part, on whether or not particular behaviors will get him what he wants or allows him to avoid things he doesn’t want.

When you make the behaviors that you want your pet to show also work to get your pet what he wants, you’ve set up a win-win situation. Behaviors that are rewarding, and work for your pet will increase in frequency. That’s the power of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement also strengthens the human/dog bond and is fun for both you and your pet.

What is Positive Reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is anything your pet will work to receive. This might include food, treats, play, toys, catnip, petting, and attention. Pets differ as to what they consider valuable and rewarding so it is up to you to experiment to find out what your pet wants and will work for.

Avoid adopting the attitude of expecting your pet to do things “because you said so” without some reward. Would you go to work every day if your boss didn’t pay you but simply because he expected you to do it for him? This kind of attitude is actually expecting your pet to behave, not because of the goodies it will bring him, but because he will avoid something unpleasant (you scolding him or being mad at him). While that sort of approach can be effective, it certainly isn’t very enjoyable for you or your pet and it won’t create the happy sort of trusting relationship that benefits both of you. You must reward animals to get them to do things reliably.

Verbal praise is not inherently rewarding for all pets. Sometimes it only becomes rewarding to a pet if it has been paired with some other strongly rewarding consequence like toys or treats. You’ll learn more about this type of “secondary reinforcer” later in this blog. Some pets, usually dogs more often than cats, which are described as “eager to please,” may do anything for a kind word. For these pets, social reinforcers such as praise and petting are quite valuable to them. But don’t be surprised if your pet isn’t in that category. You’ve learned from other pamphlets in this series the importance of preventing your pet from repeating unwanted behaviors. That’s because behaviors themselves can be inherently rewarding. Digging in the back yard, scratching the drapes, jumping up on the table, or chewing up a remote control—all behaviors you don’t want your pet to do—are their own reward. Remember, behaviors that are rewarded will increase in frequency.

Using Positive Reinforcement Effectively
To get the most out of positive reinforcement, you must know what to use and when to use it.

When to reward your pet.
You must reward your pet when he’s in the act of behaving appropriately. Let’s say you see your cat scratching her post, and get a treat from the cabinet to reward her. She finishes scratching and runs to the kitchen, where you give her the tidbit. You haven’t rewarded scratching her post, but instead rewarded her for running to the kitchen. Whatever behavior your pet is doing at the time you deliver the reward is the behavior that will be reinforced. A delay of even a few seconds may cause your pet not to associate the reward with the behavior.

How often to reward your pet.
When you are trying to teach your pet a new behavior, it is best to give the reward every time your pet does the desired behavior. Once your pet has learned the behavior, it’s actually better to reinforce the behavior randomly, some of the time. This means you don’t always have to have a treat in your hand, but you should surprise your pet with a treat from time to time, and always praise or pet your pet for a job well done. Save the best rewards for the most difficult situations.

What to use for rewards.
You already learned that whatever your pet will work to obtain can be used to reinforce behavior. The more you can control your pet’s ability to obtain the specific reinforcer you are using, the more valuable and effective it will be. This is another reason why praise and petting may not be all that reinforcing for many pets. Most of us who love our pets tend to talk to them and touch them frequently. Because attention from us is readily available, it becomes less valuable as reinforcement. This doesn’t mean you should stop petting and talking to your pets, it just means you may need to find other items to use when you really want to reward good behavior. Use tidbits for example, only as reinforcement, rather than giving them to your pet “for free.” If you are going to use play to reinforce certain behaviors, you can hold back one special toy to use, rather than allowing your pet free access to it.

Save the best rewards for the best behaviors. If your cat comes to you rather than chasing your other cat, play with her until she’s worn out, rather than just a brief 30 second play period. If your dog comes when you call him in the dog park, give him a whole handful of treats, not just one.

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