A blog about dog training and dog breeding…and other sundry matters

Posts tagged ‘Dog Training’

Our First Day Back on the Field

Athena did very well on her first day on the field last Sunday.  I’ve been doing light training in the house, gradually easing her back into training.  She did a fabulous off-leash heel and amazing stays amid the most outrageous distractions.  I was very proud of my baby girl.  I was hoping she would earn her CD by December, but that might not be possible.  We’ve only now formalized the retrieve in the house, but of course the exercise will fall apart once we do it in unfamiliar places, like my backyard, or in the obedience ring!  I need to proof it in unfamiliar places.

We didn’t get around to practicing the retrieve at the field.  She gets tired quickly.  After being out to training then for a bit of a drive to drop something off at a friend’s house, all Athena did that night and much of the next day was sleep.  I’m hoping that her stamina will return by September 18th, the day of the obedience trials.

Before you call the dog trainer….

A few months ago someone called me frantically for help with her little dog.  Out of the blue, her reliably house-trained dog started peeing in the house.  She was at her wits end because the dog started doing this when she was off the island.  Now the dog peed in the house when left alone and during rain.  This lady was convinced the dog had developed a behavioral issue.

I thought otherwise.  When dogs, and other animals, start acting “weird” suddenly, the first thing to do is to take the dog to the vet and have it checked for medical issues.  Pain and illness in general will turn an otherwise sweet-natured dog into a shrieking banshee that will bare it’s fangs at the least provocation.

According to Dr. Debra Horwitz, a veterinary behavior specialist in St. Louis, MO, illness can cause behavioral changes in pets, particularly older dogs, that include soiling the house, aggression, destructive behaviors (chewing stuff), restlessness and “excessive vocalization.”

Old dogs, Horwitz points out, often suffer from Cognitive Disfunction Syndrome, similar to dementia in humans.  The disease manifests itself as disorientation, changed relationship to the owners, not recognizing familiar people initially.  Apparently the possibility of developing the Syndrome increases as the pet ages.

What are we to do?  Only a vet can best advice you on how to help your dog.  Supplements such as Sam-e and a diet containing medium-chain triglycerides can help.  As in aging humans, keeping the brain active also helps stave the effects of cognitive issues related to age.

In my friend’s case, her dog, a four-year-old small-breed,  had tick fever and a bladder infection.  No amount of training would have helped this dog.  It needed veterinary intervention, fast.


Horwitz, D. (2010).  Cognitive function in older dogs.  Clinician’s Brief.  Retrieved from http://www.cliniciansbrief.com/column/applied-behavior/cognitive-function-older-dogs?pyMBZBP3PA

Effective Training: The Reinforcer

Remember when training a dog, whether adult or puppy, that the reinforcer must be something that the dog finds rewarding (and not necessarily what the trainer thinks that the dog should like).  Some dogs are not “foodies” but prefer a game as a reinforcer; others prefer to be petted, or hugged, while some dogs cringe at being hugged, and do not find pettings to be particularly reinforcing.

If the dog is a “foodie,” then find the treats that the dog really enjoys and use those only when training.  This ensures that the treats do not lose their value to the dog, but will be highly effective as a reinforcer.

We Did IT!!!!!!!!

El Zima's Celestial Harmony, aka "Athena"I am so very proud of my girl, El Zima’s Celestial Harmony, aka Athena.  She placed second in the Beginner’s Class  at the Jamaica Kennel Club’s Obedience Trials held last Sunday.  Athena managed to place with only one week of consistent training.  She scored 185 points out of 200.  Not bad at all.
El Zima’s Celestial Harmony, aka “Athena”
White German Shepherd


She lost points due to handler’s error.  Okay, so it’s been a while since I’d been in the obedience ring, and it was my first attempt training and handling a dog in the Beginner’s Class, so I have to work on my technique.

Now we’re preparing for the Intermediate Class next month.  Keeping fingers and toes crossed once more; she has to learn to retrieve.

Returning to Training and the Show Circuit

White German Shepherd

Image via Wikipedia

So I decided that I want to return to what I love doing the most, my passion: training my beloved dogs and trialling with them.  The decision came this morning after making some significant changes in my life.

We are rusty, my Athena and I, but I marvel at Athena my white german shepherd’s enthusiasm for training. We trained for a bit today after doing spotty work during the past few weeks.  Now with our first show coming up at the end of the week, I will train everyday, but I will not intensify our work.

You see, Athena is so enthusiastic about training, that she will not leave my side, except for the stays.  Her eyes are so bright and alert with her German Shepherd ears standing tall, and her tail in a perpetual wag.  She has this cute finish:  when she’s sitting directly in front of me and  I give the cue for her to walk around me and sit at heel, she literally jumps up out of her sit and wraps herself around my legs.

Our training sessions are priceless, and I don’t want to kill Athena’s enthusiasm by training hard and stressing her out.  As Sunday’s show will be our first in over a year, and we haven’t trained in about as long, our performance will probably stink, but as long as my dog enjoys being with me and enjoys being in the ring, that’s all that matters to me, and I’ll know that I have done my job as a trainer.

The Best Treats to Use for Positive Dog Training

The choice of treats are definitely very important in the world of clicker training.  First and foremost, the treats must be something that the dog really likes.  Secondly, the treats should be small, pea-size or slightly bigger for a large-breed dog and smaller for a small/toy breed.

I have found when training rottweilers and german shepherds that if the treats are too small, the dogs invariably choke on them.  If they are too large, you simply run out of treats before you are really finished training.  I tend to treat generously and often, so that is a big issue for me.

When training toy breeds, like pomeranians, if the treats are too large, the dogs will fill up quickly and you will have to either find an alternative to food as a reward, or quit training for that session.  I have never had this issue with my large dogs, so I can’t swear that it won’t happen to larger breeds.

Treats should be smelly and soft.  If they are smelly, they will be palatable to the dog; if they are soft, the dog will be able to eat the treat quickly and not disrupt the training session.  I store my treats in a zip-lock bag to seal in moisture and stuff it in my treat bag (which is nothing more than an insulated lunch sack for humans which I clip to my belt when I train).  When I’m finished training, depending on the treats, I store the zip-lock bag with any remaining treats in the refrigerator.

Because my dogs tire of eating the same treats over a long period of time, I tend to add variety.  So for several days or even weeks I’ll train using bits of cheese, then I’ll switch to bits of sausage, then pieces of boiled liver.  I have found sausage (hotdog) to be very messy as the links invariably retain lots of moisture, especially if you thaw them then serve.

Unlike many trainers, I do not mix treats within a training session.  It’s just too much work and gets cumbersome to manage during sessions.  Timing is important in clicker training, so you don’t want to be fumbling with getting the treats out of the pouch, especially when training an inexperienced or young dog.

Of late I’ve been using commercial treats for variety, especially for Athena, who is not a food oriented dog.  One of the treats, Scoops made by Seargent, is supposedly made with real cream.  It is a soft treat and breaks into small pieces very easily and are not nearly as messy as sausage.  I just started using Beggin’ Strips, too.  I like these treats because they are the least messy of all.  I can push a few strips in my pockets and not worry about messes.  Although they break up quite easily.  I have found that the dog needs some time to chew the treat during training, and depending on the size of the dog, if the treat is too small, the dog has a hard time chewing it.

Bottom line is, choose food that your dog truly enjoys.  The reward must be of a high value to the dog.  If the food isn’t something that the dog particularly relishes, then the very act of offering a treat becomes an aversive.

Training and Teaching: A balancing Act

The past few weeks have been hectic around here with my students getting ready to take their Royal Schools of Music exams, and obedience trials just around the corner.  The days go by so quickly, and before I know it, a whole week has passed and I have trained my dog but once.

I love operant conditioning (a method of dog training using positive techniques and negative punishment) because I find that my dogs retain what I teach them for long periods, even when I don’t get a chance to revisit the behaviors.  Athena, who won the Novice trial last November with High in Trial, will be entering Beginners in a few weeks.  My various jobs prevent me from focusing on her training they way I’d like to.

It’s been many weeks since I’ve worked her out of the yard and proofed any of her exercises.  She performs beautifully in the yard, but the challenge will come in the form of the myriad distractions on the day of the show.  I do what I can.

I came to the realization some time ago, that if I waited until I managed to train consistently (like everyday for a month) before entering a trial, I’d never enter another obedience trial until I was retired.  By then my dogs would all be dead, and I’d have to start all over again.  I made a resolution to enter at least two trials every year.  It is my ambition to put obedience titles on at least two of my seven dogs.

So, here I am, trying to balance the work that I do with my human students, which I love, with the work that I do with my dog students, which I also love.  I’m tough on my human students because I not only teach them how to play the piano, but provide them with life skills that will serve them well. 

I’m gradually learning to lighten up with myself where my dog training is concerned.  I do this for the sheer joy of training an animal.  I learn so many other skills in the process, and learn about myself, too.  Trials are an opportunity for me to enter the obedience ring with my best friend, my canine partner, to show the world what we’ve got, and most of all to have fun.  At the end of the trial, regardless of the outcome, I still get to take the dog home.

Taking an Intermediate Dog Back to Beginners

How many times have you trained in your living room, and your dog performed beautifully, but failed to obey when you took him out in public? 

There are several reasons for that.  Perhaps the dog is over-aroused, distracted, doesn’t find the cue convenient to execute at that precise moment (you are probably trying to get him to down near poop, or something equally disgusting), or he just may not know the cue properly.

Yesterday Tuvok and Gretchen went to SAR training then to agility.  Tuvok is my white German Shepherd puppy, whom I’m hoping will become one of Jamaica’s first SAR dogs.  He performed his sits and downs admirably.  Today when I worked him in the yard, which I rarely do, he just would not down. 

I took him inside and lured the down once more for about three times before fading the lure.  I am not a big fan of luring, but there are times when it is appropriate.  Tuvok knows his downs in the house, but for some reason didn’t want to do them in my yard.  

Once he got the downs fluently without the lure in the house, I took him outside once more.  He would not down.  I stayed outside, but lured the down once more for about three times, then I faded the lure and asked for the down with the hand signal.  He performed this time.

Sometimes when a dog doesn’t do a behavior on cue in a strange location, you have to go back to baby steps.  Although the back yard isn’t strange to Tuvok, he finds lying on dirt and grass strange because he’s accustomed to lying on tiles and wood floors in doors.  He is an indoor dog.  As he will be a working dog, it is vital that he complies with cues immediately when they are given to him.

How does one know when to Shape and when to Lure?

I am a big fan of shaping behaviors when I train my dogs.  I wasn’t always a fan, partly because I thought I’d have to wait forever for the dog to offer me a behavior that I could click and treat.  Because I’m the sort of person who likes quick results, I thought shaping just wouldn’t work. Shaping is a process where an animal is rewarded for performing small, incremental steps that he’ll build on to produce a complete behavior.

Instead of shaping, I used luring to train my two adult GSDs.  I was new to clicker training at the time, and obviously didn’t appreciate the merits of shaping.  I lured the dogs by holding food in my hand to get them to perform a behavior, like a sit or a down.  It worked because the dogs learned quickly.  I was very fortunate, though, that my two dogs didn’t fall into the trap that most dogs fall into:  they rely on the food in the trainer’s hand as their cue.  Once the food isn’t present, the behavior is no longer forth-coming.

Both of my puppies, Gretchen and Tuvok, learned their sits through shaping, and both have fast, reliable sits.  The downs have proven to be a bit more challenging, partly because I have been inconsistent with their training. 

When shaping does not “work”

Gretchen’s down is now on cue, but she still needs a lot more practice before I’d consider this behavior “fluent on cue.”  Tuvok, however, is a bit slower at offering the down.  I would click and toss his treats when he offered a down, and he’d get up for the treat.  I’d then expect him to go back into a down so that I could repeat the process.  I found that he would be slow at settling back into the down.  He had to sniff around first, then go check out something at the other side of the room, then he’d sit and look at me before sliding into a down. 

In an effort to teach this behavior quickly, I started putting the behavior on cue.  Did I mention that I love quick results?  What should have been a five-minute session easily turned into 15 minutes as I waited for the boy to resettle.  Then I had an epiphany one evening when I took Tuvok to a quiet spot in the parking lot of a shopping center to train.  He gave me sits on cue, but was not offering me downs, whether on or off cue.  He may have been overstimulated with the new environment.  At any rate, the cue “down” meant absolutely nothing to him.  I suspected that he hadn’t really learned the down properly, and I realized that I needed to back up a few steps. 

Luring with a twist

Instead of shaping this time, I decided to lure, because I suspected that would help him with his concentration issues.  I also needed Tuvok to learn this behavior very quickly.  I did mention that I like quick results.

I lured with food for about three repetitions with Tuvok, but I did something different this time:  I lured him with the food in my right hand, but once he was in the down, I offered the treat with my left hand.  The idea was that lure would not become a bribe.  After three repetitions, I gave the lure with my right hand without the food, clicked and treated with my left hand.

Within minutes he was offering me fast, focused downs, and  the luring hand now became a hand signal for the down, which is something that he’ll need for obedience trials later. 

No two organisms learn in the same way

As an educator I’m aware that no two organisms learn in exactly the same way.  I was proof of that growing up, and I’m very aware of that as I teach adults and kids.  I have found that it is no different in the dog training world.  My puppies are the same age as they came out of a recent litter that I bred.  Both are clicker trained, but their personalities are so different and their learning styles are different from each other and different from my other dogs. 

People often ask me  which of the two puppies is smarter, and that’s a hard question to answer.  They are different, but that doesn’t make one dog smarter than the other.  Tuvok learned the down in one session with the lure.  That was the faster method for him.  Gretchen never responded to the lure.  Whenever I tried luring,  she would lock her legs in a stand while contorting her neck to pry that treat out of my hand.  She was the better candidate for shaping.

The merits of shaping and luring

Shaping and luring both have a place in the animal trainer’s toolkit. I still believe that shaping behaviors are the most effect way to teach.  Had I re-shaped the downs with Tuvok and continued to train him in a less interesting environment, he probably would have learned the behavior with that method.  Shaping puts the animal in control because they quickly learn that when they offer a behavior, they are rewarded for it, and they will most likely repeat that behavior.  The behavior then becomes a strong one that doesn’t go away very quickly.  That is, the dog is not apt to “forget” how to perform the behavior. 

In Tuvok’s case luring helped him to stay focused on the task at hand.  He didn’t have time to go off to explore his environment, because he had a clear idea of what it was that I wanted.  It took the guessing game out of the training sessions where I waited for the down, and he sat there wondering if the clicker was broken.  As I continue training dogs, both shaping and luring will have its place in my repertoire of training techniques.

Unmasking the Myths Surrounding Positive-Based Dog Training

The Boston Globe featured a great article promoting positive reinforcement-based training.  This method, although widely used by animal trainers in zoos, trainers of working and performance animals, and pet dog trainers, receives its fair share of critics who are die-hard, card-carrying practitioners of methods originally espoused by trainers like William Koehler.

Today’s Koehler-advocates argue that punishment-based training “has always worked.”  Well, if it did, why is it that there are so many dogs with serious issues, and I’m not taking about dogs that are born with personality disorders–such as fear aggression– or whose brains are simply not wired correctly, but have never been exposed to punishment based training.  That’s the subject of a whole ‘nother blog article.

I’m talking here about dogs that have had their choke collars popped, or been hung by their collars everytime they see a human or another animal nearby, and are now terribly dog or people-aggressive.  I own one such dog, my rottweiler Busta.  When I started out training, I used these same harsh methods because I didn’t know any better.  My method of teaching Busta to ignore other dogs was to yank his prong collar and yell “leave it” everytime a dog appeared on the horizon.  Well guess what, Busta associates other dogs with pain, so he goes over the top when he sees them.  He’s terrible on walks; he’s terrible in the car.  I don’t carry him in the car much because he’ll destroy the backseat to get to another dog.

The Boston Globe makes some interesting points, and a few that need clarifying.  First of all, postive reinforcement does not mean permissive.  It is not acceptable for a dog to jump on people, go potty in the house, chew up furnishings, or bark for hours on end.  Trainers do not simply ignore unwanted behaviors.  We, instead, do one of two things: distract the dog so it will discontinue the behavior, or ask it to offer another behavior that are incompatible with the unwanted one.

In a training situation, where I’m training specific behaviors, like heeling.  I reward the dog with a click and treat when it’s walking on my left side, shoulder in line with my knee.  The clicks and treats cease once the dog forges ahead, lags behind, or decides to walk on my right side.  Sometimes I’ll call the dog back, but very often the dog realizes that I’m no longer interacting with it and will return on its own accord. Pretty soon the dog gets the idea:  “heel” means walk on Mom’s left side, because really good things happen there.

Positive reinforcement doesn’t not mean that you have to spend a really long time teaching an animal a behavior.  I found that to be true with punishment-based methods.  If you are teaching a behavior for the first time, like sit, or chase your tail, or lick your lips, and you have the right approach, the dog will learn these behaviors very quickly.  My puppies learn new behaviors in a few days.

What takes long is changing a dog’s emotion to some stimulus.  If you have an over-the-top aggressive dog, yes, a positive reinforcement approach to behavior modification will take a long time.  Why? Simply because you are working against a behavior that the dog has learned over a period of time, and has been rewarding to him in the past.  An aggressive dog has learned that snarling and lunging at people will make them back off.  The perceived threat has gone, the dog is rewarded, so the dog adds this behavior to its repertoire.

Think of human behavior.  A child has a really bad experience during a medical procedure; every subsequent visit to the doctor elicits behavior that makes carrying out the procedure difficult or impossible. Positive reinforcement has to work against the child’s emotional reaction to the procedure, and it’s subsequent behavior, and that is very hard to change.

According to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Cesar Millan’s approach to dog training creates a “…quick fix that will unravel.”  When a dog experiences punishment for lunging/snarling at humans, it learns to avoid the punishment by not engaging in the behavior in the first place.  The dog no longer reacts.  Unfortunately, though, the dog’s emotions remain the same:  it still feels as though humans are a threat. 

Now that’s dangerous.  To the unsuspecting human, the dog appears “cured” of its aggression.  The dog tolerates people walking by it, or being petted. Then one day, when it’s owners feel that those aggression days are long behind them, a veterinarian leans over the dog during an examination, or a child hugs the dog.  Disaster strikes.  The dog looses it, and savages the vet or the child.  The dog is labeled “dangerous” and is then euthanized, simply because fear got the better of it and it just couldn’t think of another appropriate behavior.

What gives positive reinforcement an edge over punishment-based training is that it is based upon science.  Clicker training, as the Globe article points out, developed out of B.F. Skinner’s work on operant conditioning.  It is applicable to all species of animals–from fish to humans–because it is based upon the science of learning.  True, all clicker trainers sometimes have to go on gut instinct when working with a dog, because like humans, not all dogs learn in the same way.  But their decisions made on the gut level have the science of learning theories behind it.  That, to me, is enough to make me try this method on both my canine and human students.

To read the article, click here.

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