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.

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

Understanding Your Dog: Dog Body Language

Dogs use many signals to communicate and these are often used in combination. It would be unrealistic to ask people to become fluent in complex canine body language, but learning to recognize a dozen signals is a reasonable task and can make a world of difference, especially in situations where children are involved.

Illustrations of dog body language indicating stress.

Videos of dog body language: Part 1 ; Part 2

Every dog is different and each will have signals they favour more than others, but listed below are twelve common signals dogs use to indicate stress (i.e. excitement, confusion, anxiety, fear). Some of these behaviors are deliberate signals to others, some are physical responses to stress, and some are used to self-calm. When you see any of these, take note that your dog is probably under stress and you may need to intervene on his/her behalf to prevent problems.

Closed mouth
Look away or turn away
Lip licking
Half-moon eye or whale-eye (white of the eye is showing)
Shaking off as if wet
Yawning when not sleepy
Breathing changes (holding breath or begining to pant when there is no temperature change or exertion)
Increased hair loss and/or exfoliation (dander)
Meticulous grooming or frequent checking of body part
Scratching
Excessive salivation (when no food is present)
Sniffing

What can people do to manage a situation when a dog is stressed? In many cases, the dog will require extra distance and time to adjust to whatever is causing the stress, sometimes needing to be removed from the situation entirely. If children are nearby, the dog should be moved immediately to a safe distance. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because a dog isn’t growling or using other obvious signals of distress the dog must be fine with a situation.

In her book Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families (2009) Colleen Pelar highlights this problem and suggests dog owners think of a traffic light analogy when reading their dogs.  In her experience, many dog owners describe their dogs as being “fine” with something yet what she sees is that the dogs are showing early warning signals.  She points out that there is a difference between enjoyment (“green light” signals) and tolerance (“yellow light” signals), and that a dog’s tolerance can quickly be exhausted and cause him to start using “red light” signals.  She cautions adults to intervene immediately upon seeing the dogs giving “yellow light” signals.

Many dogs have learned to stop using subtle calming signals and jump quickly to more extreme signals like lunging, growling, barking, and even biting.  In many cases dogs have learned to do this because the subtle signals aren’t working for them: the “scary thing” goes away only when they use the extreme signals – signals that read as aggression. Dogs don’t generally start off this way but become “growly” when the humans around them haven’t been picking up on the lower level signals of stress and dogs are put into difficult situations: the dog is pressured to continue to let the child lay on him; the dog is required to get closer to the other dog before he is ready to do so; the dog is forced to be held by a stranger.  Dogs eventually goes over their thresholds and this is when humans finally seem to pay attention and intervene.  The child is removed from the dog; the other dog gets farther away; the stranger stops holding the dog keeps her distance.

To complicate this problem, many people also make the mistake of scolding or punishing dogs for using warning signals like growling, lunging, and barking.  They address the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem with this approach is that the dogs learn to suppress their signals and people think the problem is solved, when in fact what they’ve created are dogs that bite without warning.  Sometimes it makes more sense to people if they consider a similar situation for a young child: if a child is scared of something, then scolding or punishing will only increase the child’s anxiety.  Instead of scolding or punishing a dog for growling, lunging, or barking, people should look for the causes of these behaviours.  The dog is giving information about his emotional state and this is where the training should focus; a positive reinforcement program of desensitization and counter-conditioning will help change the dog’s emotional responses to the “scary thing” and as a consequence, the growling, lunging, and barking will no longer be necessary.

When people learn to read their dogs better, their relationship with their dogs can only improve.  Dogs will learn to trust their people more, their reactivity will decrease, and as a result, people will want to spend more time with their dogs.

Owners of over-reactive dogs or dog owners who want to prevent their dogs from becoming over-reactive (e.g. adolescent dogs) can contact me if they are interested in taking a class. 

 

Training Puppies

The three most important things your puppy needs to learn are:

  1. The world is a safe place.
  2. It’s okay to be alone sometimes.
  3. Where the potty area is and how to hold it.

These are in order of importance.

Teaching a puppy that its world is a safe place is top priority because there is a short window of opportunity to teach this. Before the age of 12 to 16 weeks, a puppy is more accepting of new experiences and the sights, sounds, smells that come a long with each experience. After 16 weeks, a dog becomes less accepting of new things and will be cautious and uncertain at first. Sometimes this can go really wrong and cause severe behaviours through adolescence and into adulthood.

Separation anxiety (and the unwanted behaviours that come along with it) is a complex problem that is very difficult to change once it becomes moderate to severe. Puppies are not designed to enjoy being alone, but it is a skill they will need (sometimes very quickly upon arriving to a new home). The unwanted behaviours associated with separation anxiety are in the top reasons why dogs are surrendered to dog rescues and animal shelters.

Housetraining is also one of the top reasons people give up their dogs. Training this successfully is a lot of work at the beginning but it’s worth it because it saves you a lot of work later. Going potty is a “self-reinforcing” behaviour (it feels good to the puppy to relieve the discomfort of a full bladder or full bowels), so it’s essential that you start early to teach a puppy that it’s more reinforcing to potty in the right area.

There is much more to training a puppy, but the three listed are the most important for raising a happy, confident, well-mannered puppy.

Dog Training: How Fast Can a Dog Learn?

“How long will it take for my dog to stop _______?”

“How much time will it take for my dog to be able to ________?”

I get questions like this often when people hire me to train their dogs. Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer other than “It depends on many things.”

How long has your dog been doing this behaviour? Is this behaviour self-reinforcing (feels good to the dog just to do it) or are there external factors that are reinforcing the behaviour (and can these be removed or used to reward an alternate behaviour? What behaviour would you like your dog to do instead? Does your dog have an intense emotion connected to the behaviour?

And there’s more.

How much time can you put into dog training? Are there others that interact with the dog who will be “on board” with the training plan? Do you understand that some behaviours are strengthened if you reinforce them infrequently? Are you willing to tolerate the frustration and extinction bursts that may occur as your dog tries to learn or “unlearn” a behaviour? Are you willing to change your own behaviours in order to be able to effectively train your dog in a way that your dog understands? Do you hold a strong belief that your dog is doing the behaviour “to spite you” or because the dog is “dominant” or because your dog “doesn’t respect you”? 

As you can see, there is no definitive answer in dog training — each situation is different and many factors must be considered. This is one reason why dog training programs on television and radio can be so problematic, even when the dog trainer on the program is highly qualified. People hear the advice and then think it should be tried at home with their dog. It may not work for your situation.

One thing I can tell you is that clear communication with your dog and following the principles of the science of behaviour will significantly speed things up. Misinterpreting your dog’s behaviours, trying to train when your dog is stressed, and misunderstanding the science of behaviour will slow things down.

Dog training is not rocket science. But it is science.