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 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.

Dog Training Tip: Helping your Dog in an exciting environment

Some environments are very stimulating to a dog.

  • places new to your dog
  • places where your dog experienced something very intense (intense for your dog)
  • windy days: wind stirs up scents and can lead to a bit of sensory overload
  • rain or humidity: moisture increases bacteria growth and leads to an increase in the amount and intensity of the scents. This can lead to a bit of sensory overload.
  • places with lots of things happening
  • places where there are “triggers” (things that trigger a reaction in your dog

We cannot change the environment to make it less exciting for a dog, but we can control our dog’s access to it.

  • let your dog have more time sniffing and exploring an area before proceeding to a new section.
  • retreat to an area where your dog was previously calm to let your dog’s nervous system recover a bit before heading out to a new section. Sometimes it’s good to have a “home base” area where your dog is calm, and then head out in one direction and then back to home base to relax, then heat out in a different direction and back to home base. Another way would be to start at A, walk to B, back to A. Recover. Walk to B, then to C, then to B. Recover. (B has now become home base). Then walk to C, then to D, then to C. Recover. (C has now become home base).
  • the more time your dog spends in high arousal, the weaker his/her nervous system. Recovery periods can help, but you may need more frequent breaks and longer breaks. This analogy might help: think of your dog’s nervous system as a pot of boiling water on a stove. If we keep the pot just below a boil, it can begin to boil quite quickly.  If you turn the temperature down for short periods, you can prevent the water from boiling quickly, but eventually it will boil. Sometimes you can take the pot off the stove for a bit to let the water cool and then put it back on the stove again. Sorry if you don’t cook and this analogy is meaningless. LOL
  • Start very easy for your dog. Give your dog lots of distance from the triggers — it’s much better to start too far away and then get a bit closer than it is to start too close. Once the dog goes over threshold, the stress hormones are flowing (no way to stop them) and the nervous system will be significantly weakened for some time (maybe hours or even days if it was really intense). Boiling pot analogy. If you start with room temperature water, it takes less time for the pot of water to boil than it takes for that pot to return back to room temperature.
  • Just because your dog hasn’t “boiled over” yet, doesn’t mean your dog can handle more. Be sure to err on the side of caution. After “close calls” and “intense challenges” that your dog successfully passed, your dog will need recovery time.
  • Figure out if there is a less intense time to go to a location. Perhaps there is a time of day when there are fewer of your dog’s triggers around. Maybe your dog will be better able to self-regulate and make good choices if your dog has had a good nap, or a training session, or a play in the yard, or a full tummy, the day after daycare, or anything BUT the day after daycare — whatever it is that works for your dog. You are the expert of your dog. Be a detective and see what you can do to change the situation to help your dog control his/her own behaviours.

Remember, we can’t change our dog’s emotional state. We can control some of the things that influence our dog’s emotional state and we can help encourage some emotional states and discourage others. The rest is up to the dog. It must be at the dog’s pace.

Please read the short piece on how emotions drive behaviours.

Dog Training in Regina Just Got Better

The dog training options in Regina just got better. Dog owners can now train their dog to ride a Stand Up and Paddle board (www.SUPPupRegina.com). This program teaches dog owners how to ensure their dog enjoys the experience while showing good manners on the board to keep everyone safe and happy, including the person riding the board and others on the water (especially wildlife).

This SUP with your PUP certified training program is also a great way to socialize puppies and adolescent dogs to new experiences in a safe, positive way. Fearful, shy dogs can learn confidence with this certified program that uses science and positive, force-free dog training methods. It’s also a fantastic bonding experience for dog and owner. Having fun together is the best way to strengthen a friendship!

This program is taught by Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA, Regina’s first Certified Professional Dog Trainer certified with the CCPDT (www.ccpdt.org). For more information please visit SUP Pup Regina or use the contact link here.

Best Places To Train Dogs In Regina

Oak First Day of School Sept 1 copy

“My dog can do it in dog class but won’t do it on a walk.”

“My dog is okay around other dogs in dog class, but my dog is out of control when I walk my dog in the neighbourhood.”

“Dog class is too stimulating for my dog; the minute he sees the building he is out of control.”

These are common complaints, and they are valid. A lot of dog training is about “proofing” the skills learned in class (increasing the level of difficulty of the skill by increasing the duration, distraction, and distance you are from your dog), and part of this involves generalizing the skill to new locations. Just because a dog knows how to walk on a leash beside you in the dog training facility, doesn’t mean that dog can do it in the neighbourhood.  A traditional indoor dog class can do little to help people help their dogs transfer the skills to the real world.

Don’t get me wrong — indoor dog classes have their benefits. They are sheltered from poor weather, unforeseen distractions, and quality classes will reduce the risks of infection if they have a robust cleaning regime and restrict participation to dogs in good health. But they have their limits in real life dog training.

Unless the dog owner wants to participate in dog sports and shows, traditional indoor dog classes are not serving the average dog owner. The average dog owner wants their dog to have manners at home, in the car, and on a walk.

The best places to train dogs are the places where dog owners want their dogs to behave. In the places where dog owners want to bring their dogs regularly, so both the dog and the human can enjoy the experience.  And if precautions are take to protect a puppy’s immune health, some outdoor locations can be great places to work on puppy socialization.

Here are my top 5 picks of the best places to train dogs in Regina:

  1. Neighbourhood Park (the one you will use the most often)
  2. School Yards (not during school hours)
  3. Wascana Park (when it’s not too busy. Start easy and work up to more difficulty)
  4. Pet Supply Store (this is a HUGE challenge, so work on the skills well before trying them in this location, especially Leave It).
  5. Outside the dog park (far enough away that the dogs in the park are a bit of a distraction but not too much)

Traditional dog training classes and puppy classes are changing. Instead of a training your dog obedience in a dog training facility, let you and your dog enjoy the outdoor spaces in Regina while you train for real-world situations.