Dog Blog

Training Tip: My Dog Won’t Do It Unless I Have a Treat

This is a common complaint/problem for dog owners (or trainers) who are either inexperienced, ill-trained, or mis-informed. A version of this complaint is often cited by critics of positive reinforcement training, claiming that positive reinforcement methods don’t work and that you’ll have to bribe your dog for the rest of its life.

The good news is this is a simple problem to fix. It just takes an accurate understanding of how dogs learn and how to effectively use positive reinforcement (including the fading of LURES).

LURE vs BRIBE:

Treats (or other reinforcements — aka things your dog would like at the moment) are very helpful for training a new behaviour (or improving a behaviour in a more challenging context). Sometimes these reinforcements can be used to LURE a behaviour, but the LURE should be faded away ASAP to avoid turning the LURE into a BRIBE. A BRIBE is when your dog already knows how to do the behaviour in that context (at that level of difficulty) but refuses to do the behaviour until he/she sees the reinforcement.

For example, suppose your dog refuses to come to you unless he/she sees you shaking the treat bag. Perhaps you started using food to LURE the dog to come to you. Great! But after your dog is consistently coming to you when you have a treat in your hand (or the treat bag is visible to the dog), you need to start FADING THE LURE. This means you don’t show the dog the treat in your hand (or the treat bag on the counter) until AFTER the dog has come to you. When you start this, you may have to help your dog a bit by showing the dog the treat after the dog has started to come to you. Eventually you can delay this until the dog has come to you the complete distance.

This may take some time as you fade the LURE, especially if you are trying to get the behaviour in a difficult situation for your dog (an environment with lots of distractions, a longer distance, or a longer duration of the behaviour).

FOOD IS NOT FOREVER: FADING THE REINFORCEMENT

Ideally, you want the steps to look like this:

  1. You say the command (CUE)
  2. Your dog does the behaviour
  3. You praise and deliver the REINFORCEMENT immediately (within 3 seconds of your dog completing the behaviour, and no other behaviour is inserted between that desired behaviour and the delivery of the reinforcement).

Once your dog is consistently completing the behaviour without seeing the reinforcement until AFTER the behaviour is completed, you can begin to think about FADING THE REINFORCEMENT for the behaviour.

To do this, you need to ensure your dog is consistently performing the behaviour at the desired level of performance. Up until now, your delivery of the reinforcement has been consistent and predictable: like a vending machine (one that works well). When you start to FADE delivery of the REINFORCEMENT, you want to do this gradually. You want to start delivering a reinforcement most of the time (instead of all the time) — like a vending machine that usually works but every once in a while doesn’t provide your candy or drink after you put the money in. After some time at this stage, if your dog is still performing the behaviour at the level of performance you desire, you can fade the reinforcement another step, dropping down to delivering a reinforcement some of the time (like a slot machine instead of a vending machine). If the dog’s performance begins to degrade, then you have made it too difficult for your dog. You may need to move up to a higher rate of reinforcement for a bit and then move back and forth between “most of the time ” and “some of the time.” When you are happy with the level of performance and it’s been consistent for a block of time, you can try dropping down to delivering the reinforcement infrequently (like a slot machine that rarely pays out but it’s worth it when it does).

There are other factors involved in improving behaviours, so if you find these instructions don’t solve your problem, please contact me for help.

Training Tip: Barking at the Window

Firstly, if your dog barks at things going past the window, you’ll want to block your dog’s view when you are not there to train.  The barking at the window behaviour is likely being reinforced because from your dog’s perspective the things are moving away from the house as a consequence of your dog’s barking. This is one reason why many dogs bark even more intensely each time the mail carrier comes. As well, the more a behaviour is performed, the more difficult it is to change (like a bad habit).  Find a way to prevent your dog from barking out the window when you are not able to work on training. This could mean closing the drapes, preventing access to the window, or covering the lower part of the window with cardboard or some other material that can be removed during window training sessions.

Secondly, it’s important to try to determine your dog’s emotional state when seeing things outside the window. A dog’s emotions when seeing a squirrel or a cat may be very different from when seeing a person or another dog. If your dog seems fearful/anxious about the thing outside the window, your training approach may be a bit different.

If your dog enjoys watching the things outside the window and the barking is a result of this excitement, then try this: cut off your dog’s view out the window (e.g. close drapes, pull down blinds, or put a piece of cardboard over the lower parts of windows your dog can see out of). When your dog is quiet, open up the dog’s view. When the dog barks, cut off the dog’s view. NO WORDS ARE NEEDED.  Let your dog learn that his/her behaviour at the window can make good things happen (you open up the view out the window) or good things go away (you cut off the dog’s view).

If your dog seems anxious/fearful about the things going past the window, has mixed feelings, or if you aren’t sure, then use the method as described above but make a slight change. When your dog sees the thing outside the window, hold a piece of high value food in front of your dog’s nose and let your dog eat the piece of food. There is no behaviour required by your dog and your dog does not have to look at you for the food. You are trying to build a positive emotional response to the “thing” by associating its appearance with delicious food. Try to let your dog understand that that when the “thing” appears, tasty food will immediately appear after. Continue to feed piece after piece from the time your dog notices the “thing” until the time the “thing” is past and is no longer of any concern to the dog. The food “goes away” after the “thing” goes away. Don’t add any encouragement for your dog to look at the “thing”; you are merely there to dole out the food when the “thing” appears. After a while, if your timing is correct and if the intensity of the “thing” isn’t too much (see troubleshooting tips below), your dog will begin to predict the appearance of the food after seeing the “thing.” You will notice the dog will look at the thing and then look at you in anticipation of the food — food that you have not yet brought towards your dog’s nose. When you start to see this happening, you’ll know that the work you’ve been doing (classical conditioning) is starting to have an effect and change your dog’s behaviours. Eventually, your dog’s emotions will shift away from distress; your dog will begin to have positive feelings about the “thing” outside the window. When you are certain your dog is now happy to see the “thing” outside the window, you can remove the food from the training and use the opportunity to look out the window as the reinforcement for calm (non-barking) behaviour (as described earlier in this post).

What if your dog won’t eat the food? If your dog won’t eat the food (or is not really swallowing the food) you can try a few things:

  • use a higher value food
  • do this training at a time when your dog is a bit hungry
  • reduce the intensity of the “thing” outside the window by giving your dog a brief glimpse and then cut off the dog’s view. The shorter exposure time may help.
  • use a translucent material to reduce the intensity of the “thing” outside the window
  • try the training at the window when the “thing” is not going past. The view out the window without anything walking past might still be intense for your dog. In this case, open up the view and start letting your dog look out the window while you deliver pieces of food to your dog. After a few pieces (or even one piece) cut off the dog’s view. This may be the starting point your dog needs.

Should you still give the piece of food if your dog barks?  Most of the time barking at the window is a symptom of the dog’s over-aroused nervous system. Like a reflex.  If your dog lets out a few barks but is still eating the food, the barking should reduce pretty quickly. If your dog’s barking doesn’t seem to be quickly reducing in frequency and intensity (within the first session), then you need to reduce the intensity of the “thing” (e.g. see tips for when the dog won’t eat the food).  If you are certain your dog has learned to bark to make you give a treat, then that is easy to fix: just remove the food from the window training and use access to the view out the window as the reinforcement for quiet, non-barking behaviour.

How long should a training session be? It depends. Take mini-breaks (30 seconds?) to allow your dog’s nervous system to calm a bit between exposures. Try to avoid letting your dog go “over threshold” (an over-aroused nervous system). If your dog starts to show signs of increasing arousal (stress) like taking the food more roughly, heavier breathing, or any other signs you notice with your dog, then take a longer mini-break, reduce the intensity of the exposures, or stop the session. A session could be something like a total of 20 minutes (totalling up the exposures and mini-breaks). Or it could be shorter or longer, depending on the dog.

If you would like one-on-one help with this behaviour, please contact me for a private session in your home. 

Training Tip: Dog Jumps Up When He/She Wants Something (e.g. food bowl, treat, toy)

This is fairly easy to address if you understand a couple concepts in training. Dogs learn a lot by trial and error.  Let your dog learn that his/her behaviour can make A) “good” things happen, and B) “good” things stop or go away.*

Setting up the learning situation can look like this:

Food Bowl:  lower the bowl when the dog is doing a behaviour you like, and if the dog starts to do a behaviour you don’t like (e.g. jumping up), immediately stop raising the bowl and, if necessary, put the bowl back on the counter out of the dog’s reach. Wait for the dog to self-correct and immediately begin again to lower the bowl. When beginning this, don’t expect perfection. Start with waiting for the slightest improvement in the behaviour then lower the bowl. You can gradually raise your expectations in small increments. For example, you might wait for the dog to have four paws on the ground as the criteria that makes you lower the bowl. You might increase the criteria by waiting for the dog to sit for split second before you start to lower the bowl, but later you might wait for the dog to sit for a full second or two, then begin to lower the bowl. You might give permission for the dog to eat after just a split second of the bowl being on the floor. Later, you might expect the dog to wait a full second and then maybe two seconds. (NOTE: be sure to be fair to your dog and not expect too long of a wait for the food dish that is sitting right in front of the dog. This can be interpreted as teasing the dog depending on the situation.)

Toy: Pick up the toy the dog desires when the dog is doing a behaviour you like. If the dog begins to do a behaviour you don’t like (e.g. jumping up, barking, nipping at your hand to get the toy), immediately put the toy down, or out of sight, or out of reach on a counter/cupboard, or walk away from it if it’s a toy that the dog needs a partner for (e.g. tug, fetch).  Don’t raise it up and dangle it out of reach since this will likely teach the dog to try to jump for it. Wait for your dog to self-correct (e.g. sit, back off from the toy, bring the toy to you to tug or throw, drop the toy in front of you — whatever behaviour you are wanting). As explained earlier with the food bowl example, don’t expect perfection when beginning this. As well, be sure to resume play or to bring out the toy right after the dog self-corrects. If the unwanted behaviour continues after 3 chances, then put the toy away and try again later when the dog is calmer.

Treat: Wait for the behaviour you desire then begin to get the dog the treat out of the package or cupboard or container. If the dog is just learning and doesn’t really know that the treat container or treat cupboard contains treats, you might want to start this training at the point when you begin to lower the treat. If your dog jumps up (or does any other unwanted behaviour, like barking), immediately stop and reverse (e.g. raise the treat, put the treat back in the container, etc.). Wait for the dog to self-correct and immediately reinforce that self-correction with resuming giving the treat.

NO WORDS ARE NEEDED.

Adding words can slow down the learning. Adding words can become a distraction to the dog and your voice could be carrying stress/frustration that would add to the stress/frustration of the dog, interfering with the dog’s ability to learn.  Talking to the dog can reinforce the dog’s unwanted behaviours (in the case of dogs that crave any attention at all, even when the attention is not in a happy form.) For the most effective communication with your dog, remove your words and concentrate on creating consequences that can teach your dog that his/her behaviour can make good things happen or good things stop/go away.

NO NEED FOR NON-REWARD MARKERS. A non-reward marker is a signal (usually a word like “oops” or “nope”) to indicate to the dog that the behaviour was not the right one. There is scientific evidence that indicates that non-reward markers do not improve learning and in fact can become punishers that can lead to increased stress/frustration. Your dog will easily figure out that the behaviour isn’t the right one because it didn’t cause you to lower the food bowl, pick up/tug/play with the toy, deliver the treat, etc. No need to add a non-reward marker, especially if there is a risk it will interfere with learning.

*FYI: These are simplified explanations of two of the four quadrants in the science of Operant Conditioning: Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment.

Training Tip: House Soiling and Separation Anxiety

If a dog urinates/defecates in the house when left alone, it might not be a “house training” issue, but it might be caused by anxiety/distress at being left alone (isolation anxiety) or being away from a particular person or the family (separation anxiety). (For this discussion, “separation anxiety” will include isolation anxiety and separation anxiety.) “House Training” is about teaching the dog how to hold its bladder/bowels, where it is appropriate to potty (e.g. outside), and how to signal to the humans in the home to be let outside to potty. Addressing separation anxiety is about teaching the dog how to be comfortable being left alone.

Below is an excerpt from an article I published a few years back. The information has proved very helpful for many clients over the years. There are also some resources listed at the end that you may find helpful.

Separation Anxiety can be a very difficult problem to address. If you require one-on-one professional help, please contact me for a private consult. 

Separation Anxiety

There is a big difference between a dog that chews up the furniture out of boredom and one that does it because of separation anxiety. Exercise, mental stimulation, restricting the dog’s area when alone (perhaps in a cozy crate), and providing enough chew items are some things that can help keep the bored dog from chewing the furniture. These things may provide some distraction for the dog with mild separation anxiety, but the approach to working through this disorder is much more complex. One of the hardest things for people to accept is that a dog with separation anxiety is not “being bad” or “getting revenge.”

Dogs are social creatures and learning how to be alone can be a difficult thing for some dogs. Some dogs are anxious about being left alone and some are anxious about being separated from a particular person with whom they’ve bonded strongly. When working on a plan to address this problem, it’s important to know if the dog suffers from one or the other (or both). Often there are simple things dog owners can do (and avoid) to help reduce mild separation anxiety or even prevent the problem in the first place. Separation Anxiety is something that usually gets worse if it’s not addressed early or properly, so if your dog is showing signs of distress when left alone, it’s best not to ignore it. There’s a very good chance that the dog will not “get over it” but instead will become more sensitized to being left alone.

Unfortunately, many people let the problem become extreme before they get help, and sometimes they get some bad advice that makes the problem worse. (Separation Anxiety is not a ‘dominance thing’ and cannot be “punished away” and letting a dog cry it out can make things worse.) Sometimes the problem becomes so severe that the owners who love these dogs dearly have no choice but to euthanize or surrender the dog. Dr. Ian Dunbar ranks this problem as one of the top reasons why people give up their dogs to shelters. Finding the right home for a rescue dog with separation anxiety is a difficult task, and sometimes people are not aware of the problem (or the extent of the problem) when they adopt the dog.

Having even a bit of knowledge about what to do and what to avoid can make a big difference. If your dog has mild separation anxiety or if you want to prevent this from becoming a problem, have a look at the following tips and resources. If you have a dog with moderate to severe separation anxiety, you may wish to consult a reputable professional for help, but be sure to find a professional that understands behaviour modifcation and specifically how to use desensitization and counter conditioning effectively.

Quick tips:

Take the emotions out of your departures and arrivals. Communicate to your dog on an emotional level that your arrivals and departures are “no big deal.”

If your dog is excited to see you when you arrive, wait until your dog is calm before giving your dog attention; avoid direct eye contact, touching your dog, or talking to your dog until your dog is fairly relaxed. You can let him out to pee and that sort of stuff, but limit your attention. When your dog is calm, pick a special chair or place to deliver your greeting; you’ll likely notice that he begins to wait for you there for the greeting. When you do greet him, try to keep it rather low-key and not too intense, even though you may have really, really missed him when you were gone.

Try to avoid having very exciting things happen too soon after your arrival. Sometimes the anticipation of a super fun thing (e.g. a walk) can get your dog worked up. You want to avoid stirring up emotions too close to your departures/arrivals.

Some mild to moderate physical and mental exercise an hour or so before you leave can help some dogs with separation anxiety. However, the exercise should not over-stimulate your dog, but instead meet some of her physical and mental needs and encourage a more relaxed state. Playing intense games like fetch or tug can cause some dogs to become too stressed, so figure out what works for your dog.

Vary the order of the ‘clues’ your dog has picked up that signal you are leaving. Do some of these things on days when you aren’t going anywhere (e.g. pick up your keys and sit and watch TV; wear your work shoes for an hour at home on a day off).

Crate training your dog can be very helpful. Teach your dog to LOVE being in his crate; have him spend time in there when you are home, too, so he doesn’t associate it with you leaving. Feed him his meals in his crate. Give him super yummy treats that he gets ONLY when he’s in his crate. If your dog has already learned to dislike his crate, you’ll have a tougher job. Contact a professional who understands behaviour modifcation, positive reinforcement, and specifically how to use desensitization and counter conditioning effectively.

To help take the “sting” out of your departures, you can keep your dog occupied with a long-term treat such as a bully stick, a meaty bone, or a Kong-type toy that is stuffed with little bits of yummy things. If you want to make a Kong-type toy last longer, layer it with yummy bits and canned dog food or peanut butter and then freeze it. Be sure he has lots of positive experiences in his crate with these items when you are home so he doesn’t begin to associate these things with being left alone.

 

Helpful Resources:

 

Free webinar on Separation Anxiety

Books:
I’ll Be Home Soon! How to prevent and treat separation anxiety by Patricia B. McConnell (2000)
Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-step help for your dog’s separation anxiety by Nicole Wilde (2010)

 

 

Dog Training Tip: Loose Leash Walking

Dogs need to learn how to walk on a leash. This sounds obvious, but think about it: walking beside the human at a steady pace in a direct line (usually a straight line) is not a normal way of walking for a dog. If you watch off-leash dogs walking with a friend (doggie or other) they move in curves, and romp, and stop and sniff, and romp to the next spot, and race ahead or lag behind and then catch up.  The point I’m trying to make is to have patience with your dog, break this difficult task into steps that your dog can learn (from easy to hard), and try to find a balance between your needs/wants and your dog’s needs/wants. Is the walk mostly for the dog? For you? Or for both of you?

NOTE: there is the misconception that there is a “proper way” for a dog to walk on a leash. Well, if you are competing in a dog show or dog sport, then yes, there are specific rules to how the dog should walk. But for casual dog walks, you can decide what the rules are. It doesn’t matter if the dog walks on your right or left side (unless you have a good reason why you prefer one side to the other). It doesn’t matter if the dog walks beside you or in front of you or behind you, either. Unless you have a good reason why you prefer one position. I like to have dogs walk ahead of me because then I can keep an eye on them (what they are sniffing and what they might be trying to consume along the way), but there are some parts of a walk where I like the dog beside me (to keep the dog out of the way of something or closer to me for safety).

To let the dog sniff or not sniff? Well, that’s your choice. I like to let the dog stop and sniff (as long as it’s safe for the dog to do so). Dogs see the world through their noses; not being able to stop and sniff seems unfair or a set up for frustration — like taking a child to the fair but not letting the child go on any rides or play any games. As well, sniffing can be very calming  for dogs — they are gathering information about their environment and their “thinking brain” is being stimulated. A 15 minute walk with lots of sniffing can calm a dog as much as a 30 minute non-sniff walk that focuses on physical exercise. I like to plan dog walks by using TIME rather than DISTANCE. If it’s a 30 minute walk, I let the dog sniff as long as he/she wants (again, as long as it’s safe) and I make sure to head back at the 15 minute mark. Sometimes I’ll encourage the dog to disengage with the sniffing and move along, but if I have no where I have to be, I’m usually happy to let the dog sniff as much as the dog wants.

But there are rules on a walk. I want the walk enjoyable for both of us.

I don’t allow a dog to pull me. I teach the dog that pulling doesn’t work to get where he/she wants to go. When the dog pulls on the leash, I stop. I wait until the dog makes the leash loose, then we proceed. Sometimes after waiting a bit, if the dog isn’t self-correcting, I’ll offer some guidance: I might prompt the dog to step towards me by patting my leg, making a kiss noise, turning my body in the direction I want the dog to move, or even starting to walk in the opposite direction (not a sharp jerk on the leash, but a gentle and increasing pressure on the leash that the dog must then follow).

I sometimes will also carry bits of yummy food to reinforce the dog for walking beside me. I might be walking along and have a piece of food in my hand as my arm hangs by my side. The dog generally smells the food when walking beside me (I might have to lure the dog to my side a few times until the dog learns that there might be food in my hand). I will also use the yummy food on occasion to reward the dog for a “voluntary check in.”  A “voluntary check in” is basically the dog looks at my face without me prompting him/her. I’ll praise and treat to encourage the dog to do more of this behaviour that I like. At first I may have to prompt the dog to look at me (e.g. say the dog’s name or make a novel noise to get the dog’s attention) and then praise/treat for that behaviour. But after a while the dog learns that this behaviour is rewarded — often at first, then intermittently later on.

What if the dog is too aroused on the walk to “behave”?

Emotions drive a lot of behaviours. Your dog’s behaviours are mostly guided by the emotional state. If your dog’s nervous system is over-aroused, then there is very little chance of your dog learning any new behaviours and the behaviours they currently know will begin to fail.

Learn to read your dog’s subtle stress signals and then control your dog’s access to the environment so that your dog can control him/herself.

Read that again. Don’t try to control your dog. Instead, control your dog’s access to the environment so the dog can use self-control. Start before you leave the house/yard. Wait for the dog to sit before you put the leash on. Wait for your dog to sit before you open the door. Wait for your dog to sit before you step away from the door. You can use bits of food to reinforce this if you need to, but generally, if the dog wants you to put the leash on, open the door, start the walk, then you can use these things as rewards for the sit.

Walk in stages. Don’t proceed to the next stage of the walk unless the dog is showing self-control. Spend a little time in the zone you are in (e.g. sniffing the lawn, the bush at the end of the driveway, etc.). Turn around and go back to a previous zone if your dog is getting over-aroused (e.g. the dog is pulling more frequently or more strongly). If you walk back and forth along the sidewalk or path, your dog is still getting the same number of steps, but the area is becoming less exciting and your dog will calm itself and you can then begin to extend into new zones with new things to sniff.

Many dogs have become SENSITIZED to going for walks. They have learned that the walks are extremely stimulating (exciting, scary, startling, etc.) and they learn to anticipate the extreme experiences before they even leave the house for the next walk. Only by lowering the intensity of the experience of the walk can be begin to condition the dog — to DE-sensitize the dog to walks.

Practicing the loose leash walking skills in the home and yard will also help the dog transfer these skills on a walk. Don’t expect your dog to learn a new skill in an environment that is too exciting. It’s like trying to teach a kid math in Disneyland.

For more tips, have a look at this article

Dog Training Tip: Dog Jumps Up During Greetings

Dogs tend to jump up during greetings because they want the person’s attention (e.g. eye contact, touch, voice). To some dogs, even “negative attention” like pushing the dog away, scolding, etc. can be reinforcing, making the jumping up even worse.

The best solution I’ve found is to give the dog attention ONLY when the dog’s four paws are on the ground. Remove your attention (eye contact, voice, and touch) when the dog is jumping up on you — turn your head away for a clearer message. Wait for the dog’s paws to return to the ground. If the dog seems to be “hanging on” you can turn your whole body so the dog’s paws slide to the floor. The instant the dog’s paws are on the ground, you can offer a small amount of attention — perhaps look at the dog briefly and smile, then look away and return you gaze in small doses — too much at once is too exciting. You could instead choose to speak to the dog (e.g. praise) in a calm voice, or perhaps let the dog sniff, lick your hand, or a calm and brief pet or two. You want the attention you give to be small doses.

What will likely happen as your dog is still learning, is that the dog will jump up again after a bit of attention. Just remove your attention again and wait for the dog to put paws on the ground. You may have to step behind a barrier to let your dog calm down a bit. Avoid giving any attention to the dog if you can unless the dog is calmer and has four feet on the ground. Eventually your dog will figure out that his/her behaviour can make you give some attention (what the dog wants) AND that his/her behaviour can make you remove your attention (the opposite of what the dog wants).

Start with waiting for four paws on the ground, but over time you can progress to expect a bit more from your dog (e.g. a SIT for the greeting). You’ll want to practice SIT in other contexts so that your dog is better able to perform in an exciting environment.

Contact me if you would like further instruction on this or other dog training & behaviour.