Keep Going..or Stop

Just what does the clicker mean to your dog?

To my dogs; it (the clicker/marker word) means just three things:

  • Yes, that was the correct behaviour
  • Yes, there is a reward coming
  • Yes, you can stop doing that behaviour

This is the way I have used clicker training for the last 20+ years. I like the clarity it gives to my dogs; there is no guessing on their behalf, they know they have got the behaviour right and that a reward is coming. There is no doubt in their minds as to whether they should continue with that behaviour or whether they are free to move about and ‘re-set’ themselves or to even have a break.

I know a lot of people use the clicker as a ‘Keep going signal’ meaning that the dog keeps doing that particular behaviour that has been clicked for. Don’t get me wrong, I do use a keep going signal (KGS)at times, it just tends to be a verbal one and one that isn’t associated as a marker; it is more a verbal encourager than a marker, such as super dog, aren’t you clever?

Why don’t I use the clicker as a KGS? I want the dog to be crystal clear on what the clicker means rather than having meaning yes that behaviour is over one minute and the next minute it is meaning keep doing that behaviour. I don’t want the dog getting confused as confusion can lead to frustration and frustration can become an emotional part of the training process; really not something that we want.

Yes, I know lots of people successfully use the clicker as a KGS, precision marker and add in a separate release cue such as’Break’ or similar. However, my preference, is to keep my training ‘clean’ and to only use the clicker (marker word) as an event marker rather than a KGS.

As a side note, I also don’t use the clicker for Two-fers and Three-fers, I always reward after I have marked a behaviour, I don’t get the dog performing multiple repetitions of that behaviour for multiple clicks and only one reward. The click/marker is a promise of a reward being delivered and I have no intention of breaking that promise.

Of course, if the dog decides to hold that position after the click, then that is their choice and depending on what I am training, I may reward in that position or I may want them to move so that I can ‘re-set’ them. When I’m using 300 peck for teaching stays, I usually find, that after a few repetitions, the dogs naturally choose to stay in position after the click and that is fine. If they do move between the click and the reward or  the reward and the reset cue, then I’m not bothered, they have had ‘permission’ to break the position because I had marked the behaviour, and the click had ended it.

I am now experimenting with different markers that each tell the dog which reward is coming and how/where it will be delivered. So ‘Yes’ means the food is delivered to the dog and that they should stay put until the food arrives; ‘Get It’means the food is going to be thrown for them to chase; ‘Catch’ is fairly obvious and ‘Find It’ means search for food dropped on the floor. I’m also adding a marker that means drive to a dish/container of food (or the Memory trainer). ‘Go’ as a marker means yes you’ve done that correctly, now drive to that dead toy. We are working on ‘Fetch’ meaning chase a moving toy, ‘Take it’ meaning take the toy from my hands, and I need to clarify a tug marker.

We are having great fun and I’m loving the clarity that this approach is bringing to my training.

I will just add that, apart from using 300 peck to build duration, I don’t tend to switch to variable reinforcement schedules. My dogs are always rewarded for the correct behaviour; they are always on a continuous schedule of reinforcement. What I do move on to, is using variable reinforcers, so sometimes it is a piece of kibble that they get, sometimes, it could be roast beef. They maybe rewarded by being allowed to go and sniff or to go for a swim (or a wallow in the mud if your name is Asia). We might have a game with a toy, we might play chase games. They may get a scratch or verbal praise, their reward could be anything.  The correct performance of a behaviour will always be rewarded.

So just what does your click or marker word mean to your dog?

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Running Free – an understated need

Living with and working with dogs that are easily over aroused (poor impulse control) and those that are reactive to various things, I’ve recently be pondering about exercising these dogs.

Note: for the purposes of this blog, reactive dogs are those that lunge and bark at things like people, dogs, other animals, cars, jogger etc. I know all dogs are reactive (aware of and reacting to) to what goes on around them, if they weren’t they would be dead!

We are often told to make sure that these dogs have relaxing, calming walks and to allow them to sniff. This is because these activities are inherently calming. I have no problem with that as a main activity, but I do think dogs need more than this; they do need to burn off some energy by being allowed to runabout and to play with their handler (or other dogs if they are sociable). We are often advised that allowing a dog to run about is too adrenalising and will make it more reactive or ‘hyper’. The flip side of that is, that if  a dog is never allowed off a lead to run about, it will have pent up energy just desperate to bubble out..think about it as a can or bottle of a fizzy drink that has been shaken up…all that energy needs to go somewhere and it will explode out once the bottle/can is open.

It must be very frustrating, as a dog, when you are kept on a lead for the majority of your walks, even if you are allowed to wander where you wish and for as long as you wish. Dogs do need to run and burn off their energy. Compare it to a toddler that has had to sit still for several hours and how they just have to have a run about afterwards. Consider how you would feel if you were only allowed to walk to the same places day in and day out and how much you’d enjoy doing something different.  Conversely, I’m not suggesting that you just let your reactive dog off leash to do as they please, but they do need to trot, run and lark about.

In my experience, the lack of off lead exercising can make reactive dogs more reactive and can bring out other unwanted behaviours. With those dogs that can be over aroused, an off lead blast is a great way of letting off steam and you may well find that they are less easily aroused after a good run and less easily triggered as well as a bit less OCD.

Of course, finding safe places to let these types of dogs off for a good run, can be difficult. If you have a dog that is a car chaser, it can be hard to find an area to let them run where they won’t see a car and be tempted to chase. For those dogs that are reactive to dogs and/or people, it can be hard to find somewhere to let your dog run off lead where there are no people or dogs. Often times, we end up walking in very secluded areas or very early or late at night, so that we can avoid those triggers.

17103796_1890622894549274_3683343764793018899_nIf there are no safe off lead walks near you, consider hiring a secure field for your dog to run off lead in. Several rescue organisations rent out their secure fields (such as Jerry Green’s and the RSPCA centers), some boarding kennels may rent out their secure exercising fields and, thankfully, there are a whole host of private secure fields that have been developed for dog walking purposes. These fields are usually available to hire for 30-60 minutes and some allow you to have dogs from more than one family sharing, so that you can have a safe place to meet up with your dog’s pals.

16938839_1890622881215942_961381504793021443_nThere is a fab resource on FaceBook called Dog walking fields – enclosed, private, off lead dog walking  which has details of secure fields all over the UK. I’m lucky that there are about 4 secure fields within an hour or so drive from me. Check the page out and find a secure place to give your dog a good off lead run. Great places to work on recalls as well.

Try it out, just once a week and you may see your dog’s behaviour improve for the better.

Costs vary depending on area, but somewhere between £5 and £10 is the likely cost and once a week, that has just got to be worth it.

Thanks to The Paw Park at Sand Hutton for allowing me to use a couple of their photos

 

 

To Ditch or Not To Ditch….

The Food Bowl that is.

We hear it all the time, don’t we? Don’t feed your dog out of their food bowl, let them work for their food out of Kongs and other food enrichment toys. There are some trainers and ‘experts’ that promote the idea that dogs should never get any food in a food bowl and that they should work for it all.

But is it really the best thing for the dog? Don’t get me wrong, I use food enrichment toys for my dogs. They have Kongs, K9 Connections, snuffle mats, slow feeding bowls and other food enrichment toys. I also use part of their daily ration to reward them for good behaviour during the day (and of course, they get ‘extra treats on top).

DSCF9576However, for some dogs, having to work for all their food causes huge frustration and this can tip over into training and may even result in behaviour problems such as food guarding appearing as well as things such as poor impulse control. We really don’t want frustration to tip over into training as it then becomes part of the behaviours that we are training (yes, emotions can be attached to behaviours during training) and when that frustration bubbles over the top, we can end up with an aggressive outburst  and someone (or some dog) is going to get bitten.

Yes, some frustration is good as we do need to teach our dogs (and kids) some frustration tolerance, so that they can cope with delayed gratification rather than just wanting instance gratification. Too much frustration is not good and can lead to aggressive outbursts (bit like a temper tantrum in a child), so we need to avoid that.

We are often advised to feed young puppies (8 weeks of age) only from Kongs. Now young puppies need more food than an adult of the same size as they are growing so fast. They need to eat frequently and need nutrient dense food. They get hungry fast. The problem in feeding only via Kongs, is that the puppy cannot get enough food in its belly quickly enough to meet their hunger pangs. Hungry dogs will have low blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar levels can and do result in uncontrolled aggression. Just think how ratty and irritable you get when you are hungry. Hungry animals will resource guard food and people carrying food. They are hungry, so food is very important in their lives, so they will guard any source of that food; their Kongs, their owner’s treat pouch etc. and they will guard it from other people and other dogs.

Yes, there are plenty of puppies that have been fed only via food enrichment toys and have never developed resource guarding, but there are many that have, so it is something to be aware of. Some dogs are more food driven and struggle to cope with being made to eat their food slowly. Yes, we need to teach them to slow down (with having GSDs, I always worry about bloat).

Lara (GSD), has been horrendous. Even at 11 weeks, when she arrived, she has been almost frantic to eat her meals. Feeding her only via Kongs would have been an out and out disaster. She has been hard enough to teach to cope with using a slow feeding bowl, although she is better than she was and enjoys a meal from her snuffle mat.

With this ravenous-type pups,k they do need to eat the majority of their meals from a bowl, but you can also give them part of that meal in a Kong, on a snuffle mat or scatter feed it. This type of pup, can be very grabby over treats, so watch your fingers and teach them some slow treat control and Doggy Zen (see our online Self-control course).

Also. bear in mind what I said earlier; hungry dogs are going to be more impulsive, more easily frustrated, more irritable and easier to tip over into an aggressive outburst.

My advice?

Feed some of each meal in a food bowl; the rest can come from a Kong or scatter feeding as long as it doesn’t take the dog too long to get the food into their belly.

When you first introduce Kongs, they should be really easy to empty and should empty quickly, especially for puppies. We need to them to get the food out quickly to have satiate their hunger. If we make them too hard to empty too soon, all we are doing is building frustration in an already hungry dog. DSCF9538

Gradually increase the difficulty of the Kong.  For the really experienced Kong users, you may want to try freezing them first. For some recipe ideas, take a look at my frozen Kong recipe page

Don’t train a hungry dog. Even a dog that has had its meal will be happy to take food rewards (and their are loads of other rewards we can use other than food). Hungry dogs will lack impulse control, will get frustrated faster and will be more snatchy/grabby over treats and are more likely to tip over into using aggression. Make sure they have had at least 50% of their meal before you train (can be hours before your session) so that you have taken the edge of your hunger (and make sure you don’t train when you are hungry as you will be more irritable as well).

Kongs are fabulous as an entertainment toy; to keep your dog occupied for a little while. Heck, I use them myself and the dogs love them, but just be a little careful over how you use them and don’t make them too hard too soon or use them are the only source of your dog’s food.

My advice is to not ditch the bowl completely.

 

Lara’s Progress

Lara is now 15 weeks of age and has been here almost 3 weeks. Time flies when you have a puppy! She’s getting huge now and is almost as tall as tallest Springer Beau and bigger than Rush (cockerpoo).

She’s not just got bigger, her character has change, she’s no longer than quiet shy puppy; she is a thug! She’s bitier, noisier and more active, but on the up side, she does settle down whilst I’m working (she’s currently asleep at my feet) and she’s still go a great appetite.

Her appetite has led to some frustration when trying to feed her using a slow feeding bowl as she just couldn’t get the food out as fast as she needed to. I have changed her diet from one that had over 50% rice and only 16% meat in it (expensive food as well!) to one that contains 30% meat and 30% rice and that appears to be filling her up better (she doesn’t bolt her food as fast now, always a concern with a breed that is prone to bloat). She can now also cope with a slow feeding bowl, but in the early days, she had half her meal in an ordinary bowl to take the edge of her hunger and then the rest in the slow feeding bowl. When I saw that she was happy to tackle the slow feeding bowl first, rather than the open bowl, I knew she was ready for a full meal from the slow feeding bowl. No more frustration now when she has her food in a slow feeding bowl.

She’s continuing her education with regards on self control around food, which is much easier now that she isn’t so hungry and with recall games (luckily I’m a member of Susan Garrett’s Recallers programme, so lots of games to play). I do need to go back and revisit the collar grab game as we’re going through a bit of a blip with regards to that.

We’re having loads of fun playing tug games with various tug toys, but work is needed on getting her to bring items back. Normal enough stage for a puppy.

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She is bitey, and will be started to change her teeth soon. When she gets bitey, she is given an appropriate object to chew one. As with most puppies, squealing like  a puppy just makes her bite harder, so re-direction onto an appropriate chew toy is important. I need to find some old towels to moisten and freeze, so that she has a cooling chew toy for when those gums are sore.

We’ve had a couple of days where Lara has had a bit of an upset tum; not bad enough for a vet visit, but enough that she’s had to wake me up several times overnight to go out. She is good as she does let me know when she needs to go out and her house training is coming on fabulously, but I could have done with a bit more sleep. I have definitely had ‘puppy brain’ for the last couple of days and have gone through the ‘why did I get this puppy/’ ‘This was a mistake’ stage. Funny how things improve when you get a good night’s sleep as I did last night.

We’ve also started playing with teaching her to put her front feet on objects (only low ones) and she’s learning to search the living room for hidden treats (easy searches to start with). She still has little meanders on lead whilst the big dogs runabout, and she’s finally started to play with the other dogs, but that is supervised.

We are now having an issue with her coming in from outside. She’s getting a bit big to pick up and fetch in (she really is a big puppy for her age!) and  have fallen into the bad habit of luring her in through the back door (bad trainer) and so she has started holding out to see what is offered,k before she decides whether to come in or not. It’s cold and  I really don’t want to stand there with the door open for several minute whilst she decides to come in, so a new strategy was needed.

She now gets about 30 seconds to decide whether she is coming in or not. There is no food in view and I’m not luring her. If she decides to come in the door, that behaviour is marked and then a food reward is produced and given. If she decides that she isn’t going to come in, the door is closed and I’ll open it a minute or two later and try again. I think it took six attempts the first time I tried this, we are now down to just two attempts on the last go. Something I need to keep working on until it is cracked.

Apart from these minor problems and a bit of redesigning of the leather suite, Lara’s ast 3 weeks have been progressing in the right direction.

Her microchip is registered in my name, but I do need to change her KC registration over to my name.

I do need to get some more photos of her though!

Chillaxing…Learning to Settle in the Real World

I’ve just had three days at The BFA Flyball Championships. Some very exciting racing and a real adrenaline rush for both dogs and handlers. As I was only racing one dog each day, I had plenty of time to just hang about near my van and relax, so I took the opportunity to work with Mint on getting her to just relax, settle down and chill at the side of me in this busy environment. This got me thinking about teaching our dogs to chillax and just how important it is.

As you can see, Mint relaxed so much, that she actually fell asleep.

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Not only does it do us good to be able to just settle and relax in an environment, it does our dogs good as well. Teaching them to settle and relax, also means that we can relax.  Just imagine how relaxing it would be to take your dog to a dog friendly pub, and have then just settle down beside you whilst you have a meal and a drink (or two!).

Having a dog that doesn’t switch off can be very tiring and frustrating for the owner, but just imagine what it must be like for the dog to be constantly on the go and to be unable to relax? That’s not good for the dog’s health and welfare and often leads to the owners getting frustrated with a dog that won’t calm down and may mean that the dog gets left at home whilst the owners go for days and evenings out.

So, how do we teach our dogs to relax and settle? A lot does depend on your dog’s personality; you may need to start off training a settle when your dog is already a bit tired or you may be able to train this when the dog is  a bit fresher.  You can start this off at home or when you are out on a walk. You will need something relaxing for you to do (read a book, check your Facebook, sit and watch the World go by, watch a TV documentary, practice your meditation, anything that will keep you calm and relaxed). If you are off out and about, you will probably need to take something to sit on, unless you know there  is a seat in that location.

This is how I did it with Mint at the weekend.  sat myself down in my chair with Mint on the lead and a good book and a coffee. Mint was on lead and was allowed to explore the environment. I sat back, took a few deep breathes and tuned myself out from the noise of the flyball going on in the next field. I read my book (The Fitz and The Fool series by Robin Hobb..well worth a read) and just kept my eye on Mint. After a while, she stopped pestering me and just lay down. That was the time that I very quietly, calmly and slowly praised her ‘Goooddddd giirrrllll’, just enough for her to hear me but not enough to excite her into getting back up again. We continued in this manner for a good 40 minutes or more. You can see from the picture above, that she eventually chilled enough to just go to sleep. This is a huge deal for her as she is such an environmentally aware dog and such a stress head at times, which is why I am so keen to teach her to relax and switch off in novel environments.

Here is another picture of Mint settling and relaxing in a training class environment. Another big deal for her as there were other dogs and people present. 14311251_1179757615430107_442914007508741822_o

Although she hasn’t gone to sleep in this image, you can see from her eyes that she is relaxing and thinking about going to sleep and you can see that her body is relaxed. Her ears tell you that she is still aware of the other dogs and people, but not enough to worry her.

I must admit, it was lovely to just sit and chill with her and I found that I was de-stressing as well (living with a dog like Mint can be very stressful). The biggest benefit for me, was that when Mint was popped back into her crate in the van, she actually laid down quietly (even though the van doors were still wide open and we had vehicles, people and dogs as our close neighbours). This is huge as she’s usually barking at everything around her and sometimes spinning in her crate.

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Maybe not the best quality photo, but a milestone for this girlie.

Other ways you can use to encourage your dog to settle at your feet (or near you) is to tether a stuffed Kong to your chair. This prevents the dog from just picking the Kong up and moving off with it and keeps them occupied close to you. I often suggest this for people to use in training classes as it keeps their dog occupied whilst others are being worked. See my Facebook page Get Stuffed for some ideas of frozen Kong recipes.

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Proactive not Passive

I love  clicker training. I love the way the dog (or other animal) is a willing participant in the learning process. I love how fast the learning process can be and how much fun can be had.

Unfortunately, some people dismiss clicker training because they think we are just a bunch of hippies that try to ignore bad behaviour and just passively wait for the dog to offer good behavior before we reward. Whilst I am sure that some trainers attempt to use this  ineffective approach, a good trainer (regardless of what tools they prefer to use), will adopt a proactive approach to solving unwanted behaviour (so-called bad behaviour).

So how do we clicker trainers and other positive trainers deal with unwanted behaviour? Well management is high on our agenda and ignoring behaviour should be fairly low down: depending of course, on what the unwanted behaviour is. If my dog ignores a sit cue, I’m probably going to be fairly chilled about it all and not stress. If it ignores a recall cue, I may get a bit worried if the dog is clearing off to chase rabbits, other dogs or just going over to bug other people and dogs…..that one would mean that I’d have to go and put some work in on proofing my recall around distractions and making sure that I pay the dog a decent wage for ignoring those distractions and heading back to me. Management would involve a long line clipped onto a harness.

So what if my dog is jumping up people. Am I going to ignore that behaviour and wait until the dog decides it is going to do something else? Absolutely not! everytime the dog jumps up someone, it is getting rewarded, so the behaviour is going to increase and not go away by being ignored. What I need to do, is reward the dog for doing something else; something that it can’t do at the same time as jumping up. Sit is an excellent one to pick (as you can’t jump up whilst you are sat) as is keeping four paws on the floor. So again we’d manage the situation by keeping the dog on a lead and then rewarding the dog for either sitting or keeping its feet on the floor when people are about, and then as people approach and then when people come over and say hello to the dog.

What about a dog showing aggression? Am I going to ignore that behaviour and wait for the dog to do something else? No! This needs addressing. Again management will come in to protect whatever the dog’s target is; so lead, muzzle (once the dog has been trained to accept one) and then work is needed on treating the emotional component of the aggression (if it is ear based), on treating the pain (if the aggression is medically related) and then desensitising the dog to its triggers. How to deal with this, would need several blog posts, but do look out for our TRUST programme. Also see our blog post on Muzzle types to ensure that you choose the correct type.

What about barking? Am I going to ignore that? Generally, no I won’t, although it does depend on where and when it occurs. I probably won’t try to stop my dogs barking when they first go on the beach for a run, but I will stop them barking in the house, when someone comes to the door and barking at me to get me to throw a toy. barking does tend to be a rewarding thing to do (makes the dog feel good inside), so ignoring it isn’t really going to make it go away. We need to be proactive and teach the dogs what quiet means.

Dogs can’t bark and sniff (bit like we can’t talk and sniff…try it!), so if your dog starts barking, pop a tasty treat on their nose, they will sniff (and go quiet), then say quiet, count to 5 and then reward. You have just rewarded your dog for 5 seconds of being quiet.  You can build on this and gradually increase the duration of the quiet behaviour.

For dogs that bark when people come to the door, then I really like Kikopup’s approach of using a positive interrupter to interrupt the barking so that you can then reward the quiet behaviour. Works even if you have multiple dogs.

For dogs that are getting over excited and barking because they want to play with that toy now! I’d be wanting to work on their self-control (impulse control). I play a series of games to help to teach the dog to stay calm and focused, no matter how exciting the game or the environment. These games now form part of my successful EPIC self control and focus course

We’ll have  a look at other so-called problem behaviours in another post in the future. Have a think about the behaviours that your dog does that are maybe not appropriate and see if you can think of a proactive approach to teaching your dog to do something else instead.

If you’d like to do more about why dogs bark and the other ways in which dogs communicate, then join us on our online Canine Communication course

 

 

 

The Myths about Playing Tuggy with Your Dog

Tug is a fabulous game to play with your dog but sadly many dogs never get to enjoy this game with their handlers. Why is this?

  •  Playing tug makes dogs aggressive

Playing tug does not intrinsically make dogs aggressive, it actually makes them more careful with their teeth IF you play using the following rules:

Play stops if canine teeth touch human skin or clothing

Play stops when you want it to.

Teaching a dog to be careful with its teeth is very important in this day and age. Playing tug without rules can result in a dog that thinks that the tug game also includes playing tug with people’s clothing and or grabbing hands to play tug. Using the rules above menas that tug games are controlled and safe.

  • Letting my dog win the tug game will make my dog dominant

Play between dogs is very much a game of give and take and our games with our dogs should also be interactive. Watch what happens when you let your dog win the tug toy; does the dog suddenly try to take over the World or does it bring the toy back and thrust it at you in an attempt to get you to play again. Generally dogs will bring the toy back to you and try to engage you in play, which isn’t the behaviour of an animal trying to be dominant (if you still think that dogs are here to be dominant of people  there is plenty o information on the Internet which disproves this thinking).

  • Playing tug will make my dog ‘hard mouthed’

This is a common belief of gundog trainers. In actual fact, playing tug is a great way of a dog releasing tension (they hold tension in their jaws) and again by teaching them to play tug with rules ensure that the dog learns to be careful with its teeth. I’ve actually found that playing tug is great for keeping a soft mouth in my gundogs but obviously we have specific toys for tug and different ones for retrieving. The dog then learns contextually i.e. I can bite and tug hard on this toy but need to be gentle with this retrieve item.

  • Play tug will make my dog want to kill small furries

I’m not quite sure where this idea comes from, unless it is some people think that by playing tug with a hunting breed such as a terrier will make the dog want to go off and hunt and kill small furries. Yes dog will shake the tug toy when they’ve won it, but this does not mean that they are going to develop into rabbit and rat killers. In fact, it is more likely to provide an outlet for those instincts. Playing tug is a great reward for a dog that has just recalled away from a prey animal such as a rabbit, hare or deer.

Tug is a fabulous interactive game that helps to build the relationship between dogs and their humans. Tug means that you are playing with your dog, not just throwing a ball for then to retrieve and amuse themselves. Tug is a great reward for your dog, great for teaching self-control (Impulse control) and is terrific fun! A good energetic game of tug is a great workout for both dog and handler and should leave you both feeling tired. Enjoy 🙂

To learn more about how to build Self-control/Impulse control in your tug play sign up for our online course.