Teaching A Bird To Step Onto A Perch

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I have a perch in my kitchen that adheres to my refrigerator, and when I bring Dreyfuss (my Maximillum Pionus parrot) in with me, I usually keep her there while I am cooking. However, I began noticing the other day that when I’d move my arm to the perch for her to ‘step up’ onto it, she was simply remaining standing on my wrist with her weight 10-19-dreyfuss-smon both legs. The problem kept occurring so I thought I’d take out my behavior analysis hat and try to figure out what was happening.

With more careful attention, I realized that I had begun for some reason getting a few seeds out as I moved my wrist to the perch. Initially, I pulled the seeds out after her pause for a split second near the perch and then she stepped onto the perch to get the seed (held on the other side of the perch). Being savvy to training, that really was all it took for that split second to become longer and I was holding treats in my hand at the time.

Ah, I was reinforcing her behavior of standing on my wrist when it was next to the perch because the consequence of her doing that was my pulling out the treat and luring her to step up. I was creating this problem.

People do this all the time with their pets. I was just working through this with one of my dog training clients the other day.

So, what did I do to resolve this problem with Dreyfuss? I held treats behind my back as I moved my wrist (with her on it) near the perch, and waited. I waited until she eventually stepped up onto the perch on her own, and then I said, ‘yes’ and gave her a treat. Then we practiced that some more.

Problem solved! At least this time. Behavior is always evolving, and we are always influencing each other’s choices. There will no doubt be future issues I will need to analysis. Beginning by stopping to think about the function of that behavior is a great start.

Your Role In Training Success

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When you ask your dog to sit or lay down, does it ever immediately pop back up into a stand instead of stay in position? And, what happens when you are out for a walk and stop to talk to someone? Does your dog go exploring and begin to pull on the leash when you’d like it to simply sit by your side?

choices in dog trainingIt is easy to get frustrated when your dog does not do what you want, but we have to remember, pets are not mind readers. If we do not teach them what it is we want them to do in any given situation, they are likely to come up with their own choice that is based upon where the value is for them. Anytime they are doing something, they are doing what works for them in the moment to get something of value or avoid something aversive.

So, let’s talk about several points here as it relates to the human factor in training.

Your Role in Paying Attention

People tend to think about focus as it relates to their students. It is one of the reasons why short training sessions are best and why you are helping your pet to succeed when you train in an environment with limited distractions, or a distraction level in which your animal is still motivated and able to maintain its attention on the lesson at hand.

But you should not leave yourself out of this consideration. Anytime you are training, you need to be completely attentive to your student and your lesson. If a distraction occurs during training (such as the phone ringing or your wanting to talk to someone), take a pause. If you are just beginning to teach stay and your dog doesn’t yet understand the concept, release your dog before turning your attention to something else so you do not set it up for failure.


Remember, it is very difficult for an animal who doesn’t speak human to understand what we want them to do. When teaching, remember clear two-way communication is so important. Teach with small steps and great reinforcement for good choices. But also, remember that, if in ‘your mind’ you would like for your dog to sit at your side when you talk to someone while on a walk…that sitting by your side is a behavior YOU need to teach your dog, and reinforce it in that situation. Just as explained above, your focus needs to be on your dog’s behavior in that moment.

Realistic Expectations

If your pet continues to make unwanted choices, or if you ask your pet to do a behavior multiple times and your pet does something else, know that it is not because your pet is being dumb or obstinate. Instead, see it as a case of your student telling you it either needs much more positive practice of learning the behavior, or it is not motivated to stay focused in that moment. This is a time for you as the teacher to pause or stop the training and review what you need to change to help you both succeed the next time.

Watch what you are reinforcing

A common error I see among dog handlers is when their dog’s wanted behavior gets ignored and only its unwanted behavior gets attention. I have seen dogs sitting at their owners side quietly and getting zero reinforcement until the dog gets up and barks, at which point, the owner may yell (giving attention) and the dog gets self reinforcement in terms of adrenal and excitement. The owner may jerk the leash to get the dog to sit down but if the strength of the reinforcer overpowers the aversiveness of the stimulus, the pet will continue to choose to get up and bark. A better alternative is to concentrate on catching the wanted behavior and giving that behavior a lot of reinforcement.

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Realize That Each Dog Will Learn Differently

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I was reminded again the other day, the importance as a teacher of recognizing that different animals learn differently, have different thresholds for frustration, and different values of reinforcement. That recognition and application to the lesson at hand can very well be what either helps and animal succeed…or fail.

10-06-learn-smI was demonstrating the beginner self control game that I have taught to dozens of other dogs, in different circumstances. Here is a link to a description of that game. Basically, you are teaching a dog without any words that *if* it persists in going after food in your hand, *then* the consequence is that the hand remains closed. However, *if* the dog moves away from the hand, *then* the hand opens and *then* the dog gets that valued prize.

Many dogs *get* this concept fairly quickly but this dog is not one of those statistics. The presentation of the food in my closed first near to his head was just too much stimulus for him. He is a dog with an extremely low frustration threshold and an extremely high drive for food. He was becoming so aroused that he began jumping, pawing, mouthing, and panting.

Teaching him by following the same steps as I taught other dogs simply was not going to work in this case. If I had continued, I would have continued to set us both up for failure. So, we stopped. My clients and I talked for a few minutes, then they did some practice of showing me his ‘place’ behavior and I did some hand targeting with the dog.

When I went back to the self control game, this time the dog was sitting and I held my hand with the food a few feet from his face. This time he was able to succeed, for a very short time in the beginning, of staying in position before I marked that behavior with ‘yes’ and gave him a treat. We very quickly were able to proceed with my moving my food hand closer (marking and treating him for staying put) to his face with success by making that one small adjustment. AND, with each success, there comes more success with more practice and positive outcomes.

It was a great lesson in teaching. Always remember, just as in a school classroom where all children learn differently, there is no size fits all when it comes to dogs (or any animal). Some have lower tolerances for frustration and you need to adjust your reinforcement schedule or difficulty, to help them succeed. Others need further distance from or environments with fewer distractions. Some dogs may be highly motivated by a game of tug for a reinforcer and other dogs would have zero interest in that opportunity. As your pet’s teacher, a big part of your role is continually monitoring it all. If your pet does not understand what it is you are teaching and loses interest in the training, stop, analyze your training and come up with another strategy.

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Who Is Training Whom?

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Just for fun, kind of/sort of, do you live with a skilled human trainer? I remember once hearing Susan Garrett say that anytime two animals are living together, one is always training the other.

Do you want to stop your dog from doing problem behaviors? Here is another way of looking at the solution.What exactly does this mean? Well, we all are learning from consequences. It is never all one sided.

Let’s look at this scenario. If your dog bumps your leg when you are sitting in your couch watching tv, and you respond by talking to your dog, petting it, or getting it a treat, THEN one way of looking at it is that you have just provided your dog with positive reinforcement for bumping your leg. In other words, the immediate consequence of your pet’s behavior is something your dog values and something that has a high likelihood of strengthening the future rate of that behavior.

Applied Behavior is a systematic approach to looking at (and solving) behavior problems in terms of the environment that surrounds it. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a dog bumping a leg) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling? And what happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)? It is how I have been taught to look at behavior.

In the above case, this could be a simplified functional assessment.

Antecedent:      Human sits on couch
Behavior:           Dog bumps human’s leg
Consequence:    Human gives dog attention, a scratch, or a treat

Looking at it this way, it is easy to see that there is a very good reason your dog has for bumping your let.

But, how then can I say that your dog is training YOU? Let’s reverse this. Remember that behaviors that are followed immediately with something of value TO THE LEARNER, are behaviors you will see more of in the future. What are some potential consequences in this scenario that are of value to you (being the ‘human’), that are maintaining the strength of ‘your’ behaviors?  I can venture to guess it could possibly be your dog wags its tail or another behavior that gives you a positive feeling, or it could be that your dog will stop bumping you (temporarily). This is the way that functional assessment would look.

Antecedent:      Dog bumps human’s leg
Behavior:          Human gives attention to dog or a treat
Consequence:   Dog wags its tail or leaves human alone to go eat treat

So, you see, no matter how you look at it, you are both training each other. The key is to understand this learning process and then brainstorm strategies for changing this up so that the behavior you DO NOT like is not being practiced and not being reinforced, while another behavior that is acceptable is taught and reinforced heavily. (Think: instead of bumping your leg when you sit down to watch tv, what you would like for your dog to do instead…then go teach it!)

Watch What You Are Reinforcing

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I have some questions for you. Does your dog bring a toy back to you only to play keep-a-way as it gets within reaching distance? Does your dog back up from you when you reach down to snap a leash on its collar?

Are you teaching your dog behaviors you do not like?I see it happen so often. And when it does, I often see humans persisting in reaching out to grab hold of the collar or making lots of effort to take that valued object from their dog’s mouth.

It is so important for us to remember that our pet’s are constantly learning from us, what behaviors have value based upon the consequences those behaviors cause. Our own actions are giving our pets that important feedback. Without realizing you are doing it, you may be teaching your dog to hold onto its toy or quickly dart away from you after approaching because doing that is pretty fun. It gets its human to engage, to chase, to tug on the item.

The other day I was working with a dog (and its owner) who was moving backwards upon presentation of a leash; however, once clipped on, his tail wagged, he was alert, and he was focused on moving to the door. (I see this a lot and have worked through this a lot.) His body language told me this wasn’t a case of a dog avoiding wanting to go outside. Actually, we could only guess why he was backing away from the leash presentation but this we knew, that behavior was being repeated which told us it was being reinforced in some way. Within less that two minutes, however, that all shifted and he was walking in to me and sitting in front of me while I clipped on his harness.

Why the change? I focused on the behavior chain that I wanted to see, which was to move toward me and stand or sit calmly with his face forward while I clipped on the leash. This was accomplished through shaping. I marked (with YES) small approximations toward the final behavior. Those approximations included movements toward me, sitting in front of me, and keeping his head forward.

This is just a reminder that if your dog is doing something that you don’t like. Remember that, as a teacher, you’ve absolutely got the power to teach new behaviors by shifting your focus to what you want your pet to do instead…and making that ‘instead’ of value to your pet.

Training Should Be The Highlight Of Your Pet’s Day

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This past weekend, I spent a phenomenal two days learning from world renowned and respected dog trainer, Denise Fenzi. Denise is an incredible handler and teacher who uses a deep understanding of dogs, clarity and fun in building strong and reliable behaviors.

“Training,” she reminded us at the outset, “should be the highlight of your dog’s day.”

4 tips for making dog training the highlight of your pet's dayThat is such a powerful statement that gives much to think about. How often it is that people tell me their pet will only do what they want when they have food in their hands, but even then, their dog may check out of the lesson. Why does this happen, how can you instead make training fun and stimulating so that your dog will want to be an active participant in your classroom?

Let’s put this into human perspective for a minute. In what environments are you most stimulated to want to learn and excel? What are the traits of a teacher who instills in you a genuine love of learning? Are you more engaged when you are forced to do so or are doing so out of a sense of obligation, or are you more inclined to pay attention when it is your choice and you are greatly reinforced for your actions? Are you more apt to want to push yourself toward goals when those goals seem completely out of reach and the road to achieve them is very unclear, or do you work harder when you can see a path and you experience smaller achievements along the road?

Now, put yourself in the shoes of a dog living with an animal who speaks a foreign language, often keeps the rules hidden until you break one, and may simply expect you to know what they mean when they tell you to do something. It really does amaze me sometimes at how much our dogs are capable of learning from us under often very difficult learning environments.

As your dog’s handler, owner, teacher, and caregiver, every interaction you share with your pet is one that is capable of either strengthening or breaking down your relationship. Remember that every time your pet has a positive experience with its environment including getting something it values as a result of its behavior, your pet is learning to associate good stuff with that behavior…and if you are part of that consequence, then you can become super awesome from your dog’s point of view.

I digressed for a paragraph. Okay, so let’s think about how YOU can make training the highlight of your dog’s day. These are a few thoughts to keep in mind.

Four Tips For Improving Your Dog Training

Your mindset counts. When you go into training, is your focus on ‘making’ your dog do a certain behavior, forcing your dog to do what you want, or is it about having an awesome few minutes with your dog where you are both left wanting more?  Often when teaching obedience behaviors (such as down, sit, stay, or leash walking) people tend to speak in more monotone or forceful tones, be more rigid, and smile less. However, when teaching trick behaviors people tend to smile more, speak in different tones, and even laugh some. The truth of the matter is that behavior is behavior. If you think about teaching leash skills or stay in the same way that you think about teaching roll over, both you and your student will be in a different frame of mind.

Incorporate fun and your dog’s Awesome List into your training. Speaking of changing your mindset when teaching controlled behaviors, Denise Fenzi teaches incorporating games into heeling exercises. After a good step or two in position, the handler can take out a tug toy, cue the dog to run around a cone, or toss a ball for example. Woaza does that build value for the wanted behavior! I’ve written about play numerous times on this blog. I love to use it in training because it has such potential for revving up the value of the wanted behavior I am teaching. It is the Premack Principle at its best. If you are unfamiliar, the Premack Principle basically states that the more probable behavior (like chasing a ball) will reinforce the less probable behavior (like sitting and staying).  Remember that it is the consequences that make behavior more or less probable in the future, so to strengthen behaviors it is important to teach animals the contingency between their behavior and the valued consequence that comes immediately after the behavior. Therefore, knowing what your pet values is an important step toward positive training. I call this the Awesome List and wrote a post about it.

Train in an environment where your pet can focus on you and the lesson. Remember, your pet is constantly making choices based upon where the value is for it. If you are trying to teach your pet in a place where the environment has way more value than your lesson, you will not win and you probably will end up teaching your pet to ignore you while you end up being frustrated. In these cases, you may end up resorting to punitive strategies to force your dog back into giving you attention but anytime you teach with aversives, you get an animal who will only work to the level it needs in order to avoid punishment, who may become fearful or even reactive, and who will come to associate you with those negative experiences.

Break your lesson down in small chunks. As your pet’s teacher, it is your job to help your student succeed. Teaching a behavior in too big of steps, can make it too difficult to learn and when this happens your pet may become frustrated, and begin to bark or simply check out. Always think about how you can teach the behavior in the simplest way so that your pet can succeed and you can succeed. Shaping is a training strategy that involves teaching behaviors by breaking that final ‘target’ behavior down into smaller increments known as successive approximations and reinforcing the animal at each incremental step until the final target behavior is learned. It is like the hot-cold game we played as a child and it is a lot of fun.

Are you ready to make your dog’s day? Great, time to go train!

Three Steps To Solve Dog Counter Surfing

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I think my parents are among the only dog companions who actually find joy in watching our Sam stand with his two front paws on the kitchen counter in search of dinner leftovers. For others, this behavior known as counter surfing is generally not welcome.

I have heard a lot of complaints about ‘bad’ dogs who persistently are in search of higher surfaces. But, before I talk about solutions, let’s talk about labeling these dogs. Are these dogs really being bad? (And what does bad really mean?) Or are they simply doing something very natural to dogs…using their senses to seek out food?

Let’s look at this from a behavioral analysis perspective briefly. Remember that all behaviors that are repeated, and even ststeps to stop your dog from counter surfing by Cincinnati certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnikrengthened, are occurring because there is a reinforcement history in place. And, also intermittent reinforcement – meaning sometimes a behavior works to get a valued outcome and sometimes it does not – is the maker of extremely strong, persistent behavior as it creates the gambling effect.

That being said, if there is a super smelly, super tasty piece of food on a counter, your dog is very likely to put its paws up onto the counter to try and get it. After all, in addition to the ultimate possible outcome of getting that food, your dog is also being reinforced by the activity itself. Think about the value in providing your dog with a food enrichment toy and how focused your dog becomes on working to get the food out. It is exercise for its mind and body, and it is downright fun for your dog.

With an activity that has the potential of bringing so much value to your dog, think now of your expectations that your dog naturally ignores the counter just because you want it to. Behavior, unfortunately, does not work that way.

Using aversive strategies, as I remind frequently in this blog and in my training, are not my choice for a solution. Firstly, as is the case in any training, the timing of your consequence needs to be immediately after the behavior and it also needs to be strong enough to weaken that behavior. But, also, teaching with aversives can have so many potential negative ramifications including that it can create fear, apathy or even aggression; it does not help to teach the learner what to do instead; and YOU can be come associated with those aversive consequences.

What is a better solution?

Thoughtfully Arrange The Environment

An antecedent is a setting event for a behavior to happen. A piece of steak or other tasty food within reach can absolutely be an antecedent for your dog’s behavior of counter surfing. If there is a piece of food on the counter, *then* you can predict your dog will put its front paws there.

Keeping in mind that your goal is for your dog to NOT have any practice of the unwanted behavior (and reinforcement for that behavior), think about what you can do to manage the environment so as to not set the behavior into motion to begin with. Some ideas include having your kitchen gated off so as to prevent those paws from being close to kitchen counters when humans are not watching, and providing your dog with another activity such as a food enrichment toy while you are preparing dinner.

Add No Fuel To That Fire

Additionally, it is important to have a plan that *if* mistakes happen (which may occur), that reinforcement is not available or greatly minimized for your dog’s behavior of putting its paws on the counter. A house rule of NO food left on counters is always good to have in a home with a dog prone to searching it out. Also, note that your attention to your dog after the behavior is set into motion may just be another reinforcer.

Teaching an Alternative Behavior

Remember that your dog is going to make a choice based upon where the value is for it. If you teach your dog that going to its mat, for example, is huge value because when it goes there great things happen….like a piece of that terrific meat lands between its paws, while you remove the value of counter surfing (by keeping food away) – which choice do you think it will learn to do if its goal is to get something of value? As your training progresses, you can put that mat behavior on an intermittent reinforcement schedule.

Building value for alternative wanted behaviors can also be captured by keeping your eye out for your dog making the choices you want to see, and reinforcing those decisions.

The great benefits to teaching this way are they are adding more enrichment to your dog’s life, teaching your dog what you want it to do, and strengthening your relationship.


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A Reminder About Behavior

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I’m sharing one of my periodic reminders…whether you call it training or not, your pet is constantly taking in feedback from its environment (including you). Behaviors that “work” to get your pet something “it” values, will be repeated. It is that simple and that complex. If your pet continues to do something you do not like, think about what is setting that behavior into motion and what is reinforcing the behavior. Looking dog (or parrot of other pet) behavior problems from this perspective is the first step toward seeking the most positive, least intrusive solution.

the first step to solving dog behavior problems

Dog Resource Guarding – Should You Approach?

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What should you do?

dog resource guarding - should you approach?

This may be your favorite shoe, but it is best to not approach this gal right now.  She has something of high value to her. Her eyes have shifted toward you and she is hovering over her shoe. Possessive aggression or resource guarding can pose serious danger. If you push the limit, she probably will escalate to a low growl or snarl…and may eventually snap. Do not practice challenging your dog or stealing her possessions. In this instance, you could redirect her attention to another valued activity or ignore her. Then set her up for success in the future by teaching her to reliably give you things when asked, and teaching her that giving up things of value only means she either gets those things right back or something of greater value.


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Are You Puppy Police?

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When the subject comes up of scolding a puppy (or dog) for getting into something humans think it shouldn’t, chewing up something of value to humans, or going potty in the house, I want to remind you of this comparison I like to use.

You are in essence playing the role of the traffic cop who is watching passersby from the side of the road to pull over and punish (with a traffic ticket) them for driving over the speed limit. Think about that for a minute…if you have ever seen those flashing red lights in your rear view mirror, has that very irritating fine – and mark on your driving record – caused you to stop driving over the speed limit every time you get in the car. Or does that experience cause you to be more vigilant in looking for police when you want to get somewhere faster?

Here is the thing about punishment. It has so many potential negative ramifications, among them being that it can create apathy, fear, anxiety and even aggression; and if you are the punisher, then you will become associated with that aversive consequence. Punishment also does not teach your pet what you want it to do instead.

Why punishing your puppy for bad behavior won't stop behavior. Another thing to keep in mind is that, just as with any consequence, if you are scolding your puppy for a behavior that was done in the past, too much time has gone by for your puppy to learn that association between the unwanted behavior and the punishment so you could be simply teaching your puppy that doing whatever it was doing at the very instant just before you yelled (which could be coming to you) caused you to respond that way. I am sure that is not your intention.

So, here is the other thing, if are having the housetraining problem of your puppy peeing on the rug for example and you yell, spank or do something else aversive to it at that instant, think about it. Are you really teaching your puppy to never pee on the rug (What happens if his bladder is really full and he has to relieve himself?) or are you teaching your puppy that if he cannot wait and has to go, that he better find a spot that is out of view from humans (think about your lesson with the traffic cop)? If your puppy is bored and his teeth ach, and he really needs something to put in his mouth, do you think your punishment would teach him he should never chew on whatever happens to be available, or do you think you are teaching him to stay away from you when he has a human object?

One more point is that, once you have gone down that road of using aversives with a puppy who has had accidents in the house, it is so much more difficult to do effective housetraining since your puppy will be less likely to go potty in front of you (and you need to be able to see him go so that you can provide reinforcement immediately).

Lesson here: Set your puppy up for success with good management to prevent unwanted behaviors from being practiced while you are teaching your puppy the behaviors you want to see…with lots of positive reinforcement!

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