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.

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).

Dog Training Tip: Fence Aggression

This is for general information only. Please consult a variety of reputable resources, including a reputable dog behaviour professional. 

Walking past a yard containing a dog aggressively charging the fence is stressful for everyone. Every repetition of the event will increase the likelihood that the aggressive behaviours from the dog in the yard will occur again in the future, and likely more intensely. It’s a situation where the dog does not get used to it but instead becomes sensitized to it.

There are numerous devices and methods that are designed to suppress aggressive behaviours at the fence by delivering a consequence that causes the dog physical discomfort or anxiety. Dog training that tries to suppress the behaviour are more likely to increase the stress of the dog and make the aggressive behaviours worse, cause new unwanted behaviours, and lead to a dog that aggresses without the warning signals that have been punished.

But what’s the owner of such a dog to do?

Firstly, be sure that your fence is secure to keep everyone safe.  You may want to consider installing a second fence along the edges (or just the problem edge) to create a section of empty space several feet wide. This added distance could be helpful for the dog’s stress levels, as well as the ones for those on the other side of property line fence.

Secondly, set up other management and safety strategies to help to promote safety and help to reduce the intensity and frequency of the behaviours. This may mean keeping your dog inside during times of the day when the fence line is “busy” so to speak. It may mean taking your dog outside while on a harness and leash until the dog’s training has improved. Changing the type of fence may be helpful, as well (some dogs do better with fences that prevent the dog from seeing what is going past on the other side).

Thirdly, get help from a reputable professional  sooner rather than later because it’s much easier to change the behaviour when it’s mild than when it’s severe.  Be sure the person you hire understands how to address the underlying emotions that are causing the aggressive behaviours. TIP: “Dominance” is no longer scientifically acceptable and the theory of dominance to explain dog behaviour was disproved several decades ago.  

Here is a video of one way to use positive reinforcement training to reduce fence aggression. Of course, finding a way to reduce the dog’s arousal levels will help make the training much more effective.

 

 

Over-reactive Dog Behaviours

The information provided here only touches the surface of the subject.  If your dog has severe reactivity problems, please consult the services of a professional who uses positive-reinforcement methods rather than compulsion training (verbal “psst’s” or physical corrections and/or aversive equipment such as pinch collars, choke collars, shock collars, slip collars).  Compulsion-based methods attempt to suppress the emotions that drive the over-reactive behaviours, and they often result in an escalation of unwanted behaviours and new unwanted behaviours.

What is over-reactivity?

Over-reactivity can be defined as an over-the-top emotional response to common stimuli in the dog’s environment at a normal intensity (“normal” referring to the distance, exposure time, and behaviour of the stimuli).   These stimuli are commonly referred to as “triggers” because they trigger a response in the dog.  Some dogs are over-reactive to a small number of triggers (other dogs, kids on skateboards, the mail carrier) but some dogs seem to overreact to nearly everything (sounds, movement, new objects, things that are out of place).  In most cases the behaviours are due to frustration or fear, even if the dog is lunging and barking aggressively.  In the case of fear-based over-reactivity, these aggressive displays are often used as a way for the dog to provoke a response in the “new thing” to determine if it’s a threat or not or to make the “scary thing” go away.

What can cause over-reactivity?

Genetics play a significant role in determining a dog’s temperament, and it’s important to note that a dog can only progress as far as his inherited “nature” will allow.  What happens to a dog after he’s born will also have a huge influence on his temperament, especially socialization, training, and diet.  (Illness can also be a factor, so be sure to consult your vet if you suspect this may be the case.)

Poor socialization (deficits and “bad” experiences) during the first few months of a puppy’s life can lead to over-reactivity.  Puppyhood is when the dog learns what to expect in his environment, and if a puppy isn’t exposed in a positive way to the sights, sounds, and smells he is expected to encounter in his daily life, chances are he will have problems with over-reactivity.  The puppy then enters adolescence, a stage of development where his instinct is to be very cautious about new things. (During this time it’s common for dogs to experience “fear periods” where they seem particularly sensitive, often showing increased sensitivity to sounds and movement.) Extremely negative experiences, especially if they happen during a fear period, can also create a fear of something that lasts the dog’s lifetime. Even if a dog is well socialized during puppyhood, there is the risk of de-socialization if the dog is no longer exposed to new things, becoming overreactive to the environment outside of their yards.

One factor often overlooked is diet.  Low quality or highly processed ingredients, heavy starch-based diets (i.e. kibble), additives, and gaps in nutrients can lead to behavioural problems in some dogs.  A healthy nervous system needs proper nutrition, and a weakened digestive system cannot properly digest food to get the nutrients the dog needs.  A damaged digestive system leads to food sensitivities, allergies, hormonal imbalances, etc., which can stress the entire body including the nervous system. As well, there is some evidence suggesting that the gut biome influences behaviour, and onea gut biome that is out of balance can adversely affect the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Current science is showing clear links between the nervous system and the digestive system (“the second brain” as some scientists are putting it).

Things you can do:

Reduce stress, provide mental stimulation and appropriate exercise and play, increase sleep and quiet time, improve diet, and work with a positive reinforcement trainer to help improve your dog’s ability to cope with things in the environment.  Do what you can to avoid isolating your dog because this can lead to an increase in reactivity.  But this doesn’t mean forcing your dog into situations he’s not ready for because this can reinforce and increase reactive behaviours.  Work slowly and systematically.

When discussing the behaviour modification for over-reactive dogs, it’s important to understand how essential it is to keep a dog under his threshold.  When a dog is over his threshold, it’s extremely difficult for him to learn new behaviours because his brain is in “reactive mode” rather than “thinking mode”, and each time he over-reacts to a trigger that behaviour is reinforced. To ensure you are able to keep your dog below his threshold, you need to be able to read his subtle signs of stress so you can intervene before he goes over his threshold. By the time he’s straining at the leash or vocalizing, it’s too late; he’s over his threshold.

It’s best to consult a professional trainer experienced in working with over-reactivity, especially severe cases, as this can be an involved and complex process.  Avoid any trainers who suggest forcing a dog to remain over his threshold to “let him work it out on his own”; these flooding techniques can overwhelm a dog – especially one with a sensitive nervous system already — and cause undesirable side effects.  Sometimes a dog will quiet down after a forced exposure and the humans think the dog is cured of his reactivity. This is not necessarily the case.  The dog may have exhausted his nervous system and temporarily “shut down”; he has not changed his mind about the trigger, but he may have changed his mind about you and how much he can trust you.  This dog may be more likely to bite without warning in the future, and this approach is likely to result in a more extreme reaction to the trigger in the future and/or a new, undesirable behaviour (i.e. regression in housetraining, aggression around food or toys, etc.).

Activities/Classes for over-reactive dogs:

Any class for over-reactive dogs should provide safe, controlled opportunities for reactive dogs to choose appropriate behaviours in the presence of the trigger.  It’s essential that the space be large enough for the dogs to have the distance they need to avoid sensitizing the dog further.  Some dogs need to be 100 feet away from another dog. If you are beginning to learn to read your dog and are working on giving your dog enough distance from “the trigger”, here is a good rule to follow: When you think your dog has enough distance — double it. There is a lot going inside your dog well before most humans ever notice the subtle signs of stress. By the time most humans see them (even trainers, and especially the trainers that are misinterpreting the signals), the dog is already anxious.

Dogs with over-reactive behaviours should be gently and systematically desensitized to their triggers while they remain below threshold, and if counter conditioning is a component of the training, the dog trainer needs an accurate understanding and skill level to implement it properly and train dog owners to do it, as well. And they need to understand when counter conditioning attempts may be interfering with the dog’s progress.

Anyone interested in taking a class for over-reactive dogs can contact Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA

 Testimonials

When Frasier and I moved off of our farm, his world got smaller. Gone were the days of running free through the cranberry bogs for our morning walks. In the city, he was confined to leash walks and he became increasingly frustrated and reactive to other dogs. If he saw a squirrel, he pulled so hard that I could barely stay on my feet. Walking him became a chore instead of the best part of my day. Then, we found Jennifer Berg. The training that she introduced us to has worked wonders. I can honestly say I enjoy walking my dog again!

~ Frasier’s “mom”

I’m thrilled with how quickly Lucy’s reactivity to other dogs has diminished!  And I remain impressed with Jennifer’s quick eye to point out the tiniest of stress reactions from Lucy. Many thanks for helping me become a more sensitive dog owner!

~ Nadine Baker

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.