Starting EASY and Increasing the Level of Difficulty

When training any skill — new skill or advanced version of a skill — follow these guidelines for increased success and lower stress.

Essential to training reliable behaviours:

  • Repetition at easy levels before increasing difficulty, and
  • Increasing the levels of difficulty in small increments

Consider the 3 D’s of Difficulty and how you can adjust these to help ensure your dog can succeed with the task you’ve asked. If you are increasing one of the D’s, drop the other 2 D’s down to an easier level. Only increase one D at a time. 

The 3 D’s of DIFFICULTY:

  1. Distraction
  2. Distance
  3. Duration

DISTRACTION:

This is the environment you are asking the dog to learn in. Dogs can focus and learn more easily in environments that are “boring” for the dog (no new sights, sounds, smells and no sudden environmental changes). Usually, an easy environment is inside the home in a room that your dog is used to training in. If your has mastered a SIT/STAY in the kitchen, your dog may not find it as easy if you try it in a bedroom. Out in the dog’s yard is usually a moderate level of distraction for the dog — unless the neighbour’s dog is out or people are walking by the yard or a squirrel is in the tree nearby. Out on a walk in the neighbourhood can be less distracting than a new area outside, but not if you are training near the yard with the dog in it or the park where you play fetch.  You can be part of the environment (e.g. are you turning your back to the dog or facing the dog? Are you hopping on one foot? Are you sitting instead of standing?)

DISTANCE:

This means how far you are from your dog when your dog is performing the behaviour.

DURATION:

This means how much time you are asking your dog to perform the behaviour.

Training Tip: Keeping your dog under threshold around wildlife

When your dog is highly aroused by a trigger (e.g. a rabbit), your first approach will be to assess if your dog needs more distance from the rabbit in order to be able to watch it. Watching a wildlife (or any other trigger your dog has a positive emotional reaction to) is very reinforcing, so you want to try to set up situations where your dog is able to watch the wildlife without pulling on the leash (reinforcing the loose leash, with the reinforcement being dog gets to continue to watch the wildlife). And in advanced cases, you can even let the dog move towards the location where the wildlife is or was as the reinforcement for looking back at you (attention) and maintaining a loose leash (impulse control).
However — a big however — sometimes the longer the dog watches the more aroused the dog becomes (or the closer the dog gets, the more aroused the dog becomes). This is where you can do a few things to help keep your dog under threshold.
You can monitor your dog’s arousal and stick some food in front of your dog’s nose while he’s watching the wildlife. If your dog eats the food, then that is a good sign that he/she is under threshold. If your dog doesn’t eat the food, or takes it but doesn’t swallow it, or takes it with a rough mouth, then that is a sign that your dog needs distance from the trigger. In this case, you would prompt your dog away about 10 strides (or more, depending on your dog and the situation) and then see if you can set your dog up in a situation where he/she can look at the wildlife and be well-below threshold.
You can keep your dog moving but circle the trigger in a wide arc — in this way you aren’t getting closer to the trigger but your dog is releasing some pent up energy by keeping in motion. You can reinforce any attention the dog gives to you (treat or toy or praise) and let the dog look back at the trigger (if the dog is still under threshold). If you notice the dog is getting a little tension in the leash, then you can guide your dog a few feet away from the trigger (making the arc larger) and then when he/she calms, you can let the dog approach closer a bit. If an arc isn’t possible, you can zig zag towards the trigger (as long as the dog is well-under threshold).
Taking little mini breaks. Give your dog some time to watch, then prompt the dog to get distance or focus attention on something else for a minute, then let the dog return to looking at the wildlife. Small doses to the nervous system allows the dog to build tolerance.
FRUSTRATION: this can be a real problem the longer a dog watches wildlife (or other highly desirable positive trigger). This is where food and/or toys can help. Perhaps you can carry GOLD LEVEL food bit for such occasions. This could be a type of food that your dog ABSOLUTELY LOVES and doesn’t get any other time. Cooked muscle meat or organ meat is usually a good choice. But perhaps your dog absolutely loves bits of banana, or licks of peanut butter (bring a hollow rubber toy with it inside so you can let your dog have licks). For some dogs a great choice is bringing out a tennis ball or tug toy (or grabbing a stick from the ground, or in the case of a lovely dog I know, a Tim Horton’s coffee cup).
NOTE ON TOYS: The use of the toy on walks is not to stimulate your dog further, but rather to provide  reinforcement and an opportunity to release some pent up tension/excitement. This means you let the dog carry the ball or you toss it 3 feet in front of you and let the dog pounce on it. Or you pull out the tug and let the dog grab it but you don’t hang on, or hang on very lightly. Think of the toy as a way to release the pent up energy just like you would gradually loosen the cap of a bottle of fizzy drink. You want to let the pressure out but not too quickly.
For one dog that I used to walk (she’s passed away now, sadly) she LOVED people and wildlife. She learned quite quickly that if she didn’t pull, I would let her get closer to the squirrel in the tree and the rabbit in the field. In this case, I used “moving closer to the squirrel” as the reinforcement for looking at me. Then, later, I increased the criteria: she had to not pull. If she pulled, I stopped. If she still pulled I backed up. If she still pulled after backing up significantly, we walked away from the squirrel tree and tried again another time. Food was also a good option to help her, but it wasn’t always effective with wildlife. The absolutely BEST thing that I could ALWAYS count on to divert her attention away was a ball. Preferably a tennis ball. And I carried two, in case she already had the one when I needed to distract her again. The only thing better than the tennis ball in her mouth was the other tennis ball in my hand.

Dog Training Tip: What is a Reinforcement

To successfully train a dog, it’s essential that you understand what a reinforcement is and how to effectively use it to train a behaviour.
A REINFORCEMENT causes a behaviour to be more likely to happen again in the future.
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT is when you add something and this causes a behaviour to be more likely to be repeated. For example, you praise and treat when your dog is walking beside you. Your dog learns that his behaviour can make good things happen. (NOTE: NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT is when you remove something and this causes a behaviour to be more likely to be repeated. For example, you remove the pressure on the pinch collar when the dog is walking beside you.  Your dog learns that his behaviour can make bad things stop. A force-free trainer focuses on using positive reinforcement.)
The dog decides what is a reinforcer in that situation, not you. You may enjoy patting your dog on the head when he comes to you when you call, but dogs generally don’t like this, so if you do this, you will actually be punishing the behaviour you are trying to reinforce. Maybe your dog sometimes enjoys petting, but in some situations, the dog may not like it. 
The reinforcer needs to be delivered immediately after the behaviour (e.g within 2 to 3 seconds), otherwise the dog will not understand what behaviour you are trying to reinforce. For example, if you call your dog to you and she comes to you, but then you ask for a sit before you give the dog the treat, she will likely understand that the treat was for the sit and not for coming when called. Later, you can add sit into the mix as part of the routine you want to train, but for early training, give a treat for the recall. You can give a second treat for the sit.
Using a marker signal can help signal to your dog that the behaviour was correct and that a reinforcement is coming. This is helpful if your dog is working at a distance or if there will be another reason for a delay in delivering the reinforcer.  This signal can be a word (e.g. “Yes!”) or a sound (e.g a click) or even a visual cue.
Beware of unintentionally punishing a behaviour. Petting the dog in a way that the dog doesn’t like is a common example. Another is getting angry at your dog for coming to you: perhaps you called several times before your dog came to you; perhaps you are upset because your dog ran out the door or across the busy street; in these cases, if you scold your dog after he comes to you, then you are making it less likely he will come to you in the future. Another way people accidentally punish the recall cue is calling your dog for something the dog isn’t going to like such as a nail trim, perhaps, or the end of the fun such as leaving the dog park or coming inside the house. Practice calling your dog in a fun situation, give the dog a little treat, and immediately send your dog back out to enjoy the fun. This way, when it’s time to leave the dog park or come inside the house, your dog will be more likely to come when called because “come” won’t always mean that the fun will end.

Training Tips for Dog Park Skills

So you want to take your dog to the dog park. Or maybe you already do but you are frustrated with your dog’s behaviours while in the dog park. Most trainers are not fans of dog parks because so many things can go terribly wrong. But, for those who really want to take their dogs to a dog park, here are some tips to help you help your dog behave better in the dog park.
Firstly, it’s essential that you understand what a reinforcement is and is not, and how to effectively use it to train a behaviour. Read more about that here.
The Overall Training Approach is this:
Start with Kindergarten and progress through the grades as your dog’s skills improve. 
  • Start in an open area that is free from distractions. When your dog’s skills are good enough, you can try them in an area with the dog park in the distance. As your dog’s behaviours improve, work closer to the dog park. Once your dog can behave well enough outside of the dog park, then you can try those skills inside the dog park.
  • Use a long leash (with a harness) to transition your dog to off-leash skills. Start with a 15 ft leash. When your dog is consistently behaving well 15 ft from you, then you can consider extending the distance to 30 ft. Work up to 50 ft. Practice safe leash handling skills to avoid injuries (to you and your dog). Use a longer leash that is sturdy enough for your dog and won’t cause rope burns or cuts. 15 ft leashes can be purchased for under $20 and they are not too much of handful. Some stores (in Regina or online) sell 30 ft leashes and even 50 ft leashes.
What skills should you work on?
1. Check-ins. This is when your dog voluntarily gives you his/her attention, and ideally comes near you. You want to reinforce these check-ins every time to ensure that the behaviour is highly likely to be repeated in a higher distraction environment. At the beginning of the training, use a very high value reinforcement along with your praise. As your dog improves, you’ll want to gradually wean out any reinforcements that you won’t be using inside the dog park.
2. Recalls. You want to train your dog to come when you call the first time. You may need to get the help of a force-free trainer to work this and point out some common mistakes that can be teaching your dog NOT to come when you call. A shock collar is not suitable for use in a dog park. It will lead to stress and distress and that will lead to aggression (fear-based, frustration-based, or other). If you need help training your dog a solid recall without using shock collars or other punishment-based methods, a force-free trainer can show you some very effective ways to train this behaviour so that your dog LOVES to come to you when you call (rather than being afraid not to come when you call).
3. Loose leash skills. Using a long leash, you still want your dog to practice loose leash skills. The leash is just a safety line and shouldn’t be used to guide your dog around. Your dog should be able to come to you, walk with you, or leave that thing alone (e.g. creek, dead thing, etc.) without you having to use the leash to control your dog. The whole purpose of loose leash training is to have your dog behave without needing a leash. But the leash is there just in case.
LEASH SAFETY:
USE A HARNESS TO TAKE THE PRESSURE OF YOUR DOG’S NECK. Hitting the end of the leash at a high speed will cause injury if the leash is attached to a collar or a head halter. The harness should not pinch and should not have thin straps that might cause discomfort if the dog pulls hard. A vest harness that fits well is a good choice.
Pick up the slack so the leash doesn’t get tangled in legs (yours or your dogs) and so that you can slow your dog down gradually before he/she hits the end of the leash. Letting your dog run and hit the end of the leash hard can cause injury (even with a harness) and is no longer an acceptable training method for force-free, humane training.

Building Duration of a Behaviour 

Your dog is good at giving you the behaviour you are wanting (e.g. attention) but after the treat is delivered, your dog stops the behaviour (perhaps thinking that the treat delivery is the release cue). How to increase the duration of a behaviour?
There are a few ways that you can try:
One way is to delay the delivery of the treat slightly. Praise immediately after the behaviour but then use your voice to serve as a bridge as you then take a slightly longer time to get that treat out of your pocket. Then you may advance to taking a slightly longer time to begin to move your hand towards your pocket. The goal is to stretch that time but not too fast. Teach your dog to learn to wait by starting with little delays of the treat delivery.
One way is to delay the marker signal. The marker signal is the signal that the dog has learned means that she/he did the right thing and a reinforcement is coming. Some people use the word “Yes” some people use “Good dog” and some may use a clicker sound. It can be anything but it is something your dog has learned  means that he/she did the right thing and a treat is coming. Perhaps your starting point is 1/2 second, meaning, your dog will perform the behaviour for 1/2 second and then you mark it (marker signal) and then deliver the treat. If your dog is very good at waiting 1/2 a second before you mark and then treat, try stretching your dog to 1 full second before you give the marker signal. If your dog stops doing the behaviour after 3/4 of a second, stay silent and wait for the dog to do the behaviour again and try marking it at 3/4 of a second (before your dog stops doing the behaviour).
One way is to let your dog know that there may be more than one treat coming — or not. If your dog is stopping the behaviour immediately after he/she gets the treat, then have several treats in your hand and begin to deliver a second and third and fourth treat in a row right after the first treat — before the dog can stop doing the behaviour you initially asked for and were treating with the first treat. This is the first step to extending the duration of the behaviour. After you see that your dog is learning to wait for the second and third treats, then you can start to stretch that time a little between the treats. Stretch gradually in order to maintain the level performance. And sometimes have four treats in a row, and sometimes have two treats in a row, and sometimes three and sometimes one. When you give the “last treat” for that behaviour (e.g. your dog has looked at you for the length of time you wanted) give a release command of some kind to let the dog know that it’s okay to stop the behaviour now. It might be a verbal cue or a visual cue (hand signal or a nod or something else you do with your body or eyes).

Improving Tolerance Around Triggers

I focus a lot on reading your dog’s arousal levels, to ensure that your dog A) is not becoming sensitized to stimuli in the environment and B) is able to behave and think and learn (a stressed brain — excitement or anxiety — doesn’t function well).
When you are working on helping your dog learn to self-regulate around triggers, reading your dog’s arousal level is essential. You want your dog to be under threshold. You allow your dog to approach the trigger (increase the intensity of the trigger) until your dog reaches the threshold distance (the smallest distance where your dog is still able to be “under threshold”). After spending a bit of time at that distance, you retreat from the trigger (lower the intensity of the trigger) and give your dog some recovery time. How much time do allow your dog to spend at the “threshold distance”? The answer is “just enough but not too much.” LOL And the answer will differ depend on your dog’s nervous system that day at that time in that situation. How much time do you allow your dog to spend at a low intensity distance for “recovery time?” The answer is “not too little” and you need to read your dog’s subtle body language and know your dog well to know if he/she needs more time for his/her nervous system to recover.
And remember that the last half of the class may be very different than the first half: your dog’s nervous system might be getting overloaded after 30 minutes of the class (or less for some dogs). We like to hope that the longer the exposure time, the more the dog will become used to it, but this isn’t always the case. The dog’s nervous system gets tired just like ours does after a long period of stress.
And we always want to err on the side of caution to avoid the opposite to our goal — we don’t want to SENSITIZE the dog to the trigger, which can easily happen if we are setting our hopes and expectations too high. This is often the case if we find that the dog doesn’t seem to be improving.
So, here’s a little tip:  
 
When you are setting a goal, make the goal about your dog’s arousal level, not about the distance or duration. 
What I mean is that if you are thinking “I’m going to see if my dog can pass by that trigger at distance X” then your focus is on “distance X” and you may be inadvertently setting your dog up to fail (or to become sensitized to the trigger). If you change your thinking to “I’m going to see if my dog can maintain an arousal level of 2 as we pass by that trigger” then your focus is on the dog’s arousal level. The distance your dog needed at that time will be noted by you for future encounters, but that distance is not the goal.

Foxtails Dangerous to Dogs

Foxtail barley and Canada Wild Rye are two plants that have dangerous barbs that can penetrate into your dog’s tissues and continuously work their way deeper causing serious problems. Do not let your dog run through, sniff around, or chew on grasses with these plants mixed in. It’s a good idea to thoroughly check your dog’s entire body (including the belly, armpits, between the toes, face, and in the nostrils, ears, and mouth).

Please take the time to read the articles below so you can better protect your dog and know the symptoms to watch for:

Foxtail Barley — A Danger to Your Dog (from Animal Wellness Magazine)

Why Foxtails Are So Dangerous to Pets by Dr. Karen Becker