Living With Kids And Dogs: Building Relationships

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One way you can help your child be a dog Super Hero is by jump starting your dog’s training (with sample behaviors like sit and come) and then teaching your child how to practice teaching your dog with positive reinforcement. Not only will you build your child’s confidence as he/she sees her accomplishments, you will be teaching your dog positive associations with your child which leads to positive relationships. A word of caution about your child walking a big dog: if your dog sees something and suddenly lunges or lurches toward it, your child could get hurt and your dog may be loose to run toward that stimulus. Always be very careful to actively supervise and be watching the surroundings as well as your dog’s body language. Even better, you can hold onto a second leash.Tip for interaction between kids and dogs

Teaching Your Dog Self Control, Zen, Impulse Control

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Self control or impulse control is not a skill dogs are born knowing. They see a squirrel, they charge after it. They smell scents and they stop to take it in. They see an open doorway and they run through it. They see tasty food and they grab it.

Teaching this is a great foundation for lots of other training…and success in your home.

Teaching is the key word.

Here is a fun and simple way to begin the process of teaching your dog or puppy self control, zen, impulse control or ‘leave it’ (different names for the same set of behaviors). It involves controlling the consequences of your dog’s behavior choices, NOT your dog. And because you are giving full control of your dog’s behavior outcomes to your dog, you are empowering him which builds confidence and a greater love for learning.

Supplies: yourself, treats (to begin, have lower value food if your dog will become too aroused by it or higher value food if your dog is less food motivated), and a clicker if you use clicker training.

Location: a place with minimal to no distractions

Game time: no longer than three minutes

Game rules:

Hold treats in your closed fist and allow your puppy or dog to investigate. Most will lick, paw at, or sniff your fist. Keep your fist closed and do not give any verbal instructions. Simply hold your fist closed while your puppy or dog is doing anything to try to get the treats.

If all of his unacceptable behaviors are continued to be met by a non-response from you, eventually he will turn away or back away. At the instant he does this, mark that behavior with a verbal word or click and open your fist (or you can just open your fist). Congratulations, you have just reinforced the first step or approximation!

It is important to note that just the sight of the treats is a reinforcer to your dog and will keep your dog in the game if your treats are of value to him.

What is your dog’s next decision? If he tries to reach for the food, guess what happens? The consequence of that behavior is that his opportunity to see the food is gone as you close your fist. If, however, he does not try to reach for the food, pick up a treat and give it to him.

If I am playing this with a very persistent dog, I will look for the tiniest of movement away from the food to immediately mark to get the game moving forward.

After your dog is successfully backing away from or able to remain in a behavior like a sit or down position while the open fist is presented, it will be time to increase the difficulty of the game.

The next step will be placing treats on the floor with your hand cupped over them. When your dog backs away or makes no motion toward them, you can spread your fingers or remove your hand. However, be prepared to very quickly move your hand back if your dog makes an attempt to go for the treats.

Some more advanced levels of this game include:

  1. Increase the difficulty by increasing the value of the food.
  2. Add a criteria of eye contact. I have not done that in my video with Sam, but if you’d like to teach eye contact, wait until your dog looks up at you to mark the behavior and give him one of the treats. It may be helpful to teach eye contact first in a separate lesson.
  3. Vary your body position and position of your hands. Can your dog still have eye contact with you and/or remain sitting or laying down while you are standing, taking a step back from the food? If so, mark and reinforce that duration. (Be prepared here to cover the food up quickly with your foot as your hand may be too far away to reach it before your dog gets to it, if he chooses to move to it.)
  4. Vary the reinforcer. This game is meant to be expanded on. Can your dog remain laying down or sitting or standing while you get ready to throw a ball? Can your dog remain laying down or sitting or standing when you walk to or open the door?

You can also add a cue to this. I tell our dog Sam, ‘wait’ and then ‘go get it.’

When you think about it, self control is a skill that helps our animals and our relationship with them succeed in so many ways. This is the beginning of the journey.

What other ways do you teach self control?

Dog and Pet Training Tip

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My behavior tip for today: When you are teaching an animal lessons in self control or anything else for that matter, it is so important to begin where your student is capable of learning. That means carefully introducing distractions only at a level where your learner can continue to focus and do the behavior you are looking for, and moving forward as your student can succeed. Short training sessions allows you both to focus on each other. #dogtips #dogtraining

dog training tip

Solving Parrot Behavior Problems

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On Facebook last week, someone in my network asked me some questions about parrots. They were questions I have heard before. I thought I’d write a post so that others too can learn from my answers.



Watching a repeat NaturePBS about the difficulties of raising and keeping Parrots.  They seem to exhibit bad behaviors due to sexual maturity and seeing their people as mates.  Would it be better to adopt 2 parrots together? Or can you get a parrot to see the relationship as parent/child and would that cut the risk of them exhibiting bad behaviors (biting, screeching, and self mutilation)?

 My answer:

Hi Deneen,

Drat, I wish I had seen that. I love that you want to learn and have taken initiative to ask the questions.  I will see if I can give you some clarity (and hopefully be of help to others who may be having the very same questions).

Let’s look first to the question, what is behavior?  In its most simplest description, behavior is a tool that animals – including parrots – use to get a desired consequence from the environment.  How do you know if a behavior ‘worked’ to serve that purpose? Well, if the behavior continues or even strengthens, then we know the behavior got the animal something it valued. If the behavior did not get the animal something of value, the behavior would weaken. Consequences of behavior – including biting and screaming – determine the future rate of parrot and dog behaviorthat behavior.

What does this have to do with the ‘bad behaviors’ (biting, screeching and self-mutilation) associated with sexual maturity?

In captivity,  ‘we’ as our pet’s caretakers have a lot to do with the rate and strength of our pet’s behaviors since behavior is influenced by its environment.

In Concepts in Behavior (by S.G. Friedman, Ph.D.; Thomas Edling, D.V.M, M.S.p.V.M.; and Carl Cheney, Ph.D.),  authors point out that “knowledge of the behavior patterns of free-range parrots, as well as environmental conditions that elicit and shape them, greatly increases our ability to predict, interpret and manage many parrot behaviors in captivity. “

They add that perhaps the most important things caregivers can learn from their pet birds are the behaviors that serve a communication function.  Parrots subtle body language involves nearly every feather on their bodies to communicate their comfort or discomfort, or desires. Problems arise when humans misunderstand or miss seeing that body language their pet uses to indicate boundaries of personal space. “Most species of parrots use threatening stances rather than outright aggression to drive off perceived intruders in the wild, and many of these behaviors are seen in captivity as well,” the authors wrote.

What are some examples of that body language? The authors list – Warnings may include raised nape feathers with wings slightly lifted, a raised foot held open at chest level, directed hacking motions with an open beak, and growling.  (referencing Lantermann W: The New Parrot Handbook. New York, Barron’s, 1986, pp 91-94. 19. Lattal KA: Continge)

As an example, Dreyfuss, my pionus, will use the displacement behaviors of stretching her wings and legs if I put my arm out at a time when she does not want it there.  If I did not move my arm away, she would escalate that behavior to lunging at it. And if I still did not move my arm away, a bite is sure to ensue.

And, if she ultimately needed to bite me to get distance from my arm, guess what behavior she would do more of in the future? She is much more likely to go straight for the bite because her past history would have taught her that stretching her wings and legs did her absolutely no good to remove my arm from her space. You can actually read something I had written awhile back on my solving an issue with her biting my approaching arm in this post.

If she then began biting my arm every time it was in her cage, someone else could say that was due to her being hormonal or any number of other reasons; however, I would know that the real underlying reason for her behavior was because quite simply…biting works for her when other body language does not. By the way, Dreyfuss is a bird for whom I will always need to closely monitor her body language but because I do that and also teach her positive associations with me, it has been a very long time since I have been bitten.  When it occurred, I always go back to see what ‘I’ did wrong.

As for screaming, which is a natural form of vocalization for birds, if it is occurring in excess while in captivity, we need to remind ourselves again that behaviors that are repeated are serving a function for that animal.  Ongoing behaviors that are even strengthening are being reinforced by something in the environment (meaning there is some valuable consequence to the animal from doing that behavior).

Rather than delving extensively into that here, I’ll refer to one of my very first writings about how I solved a screaming issue with Barnaby, my Timneh African Grey.   Actually, it was learning how to successfully modify his behavior (with lots of help and encouragement from Dr. Friedman, for whom I so grateful) that sent me down this whole journey of wanting to learn more about behavior science.

With many behavior problems, changing the environment rather than changing the bird is a great way to set your pet up for success. Chester, my Alexandrine Ringneck who lived with me for 18  plus years, was an incessant chewer. He had destroyed a piece of furniture once before. How I solved that problem was by giving him many different opportunities to have his needs met in appropriate ways with rolled up phone books in his cage, wood blocks, and more plus play stations on the floor.

Now let’s circle back to your questions: Would it be better to adopt 2 parrots together? Or can you get a parrot to see the relationship as parent/child and would that cut the risk of them exhibiting bad behaviors (biting, screeching, and self mutilation)?

I think the answer really is to understand that all pet bird behaviors are occurring to serve that animal a function. When we understand that, the question is not really about whether we should have a parent/child relationship but rather how can we as our pet bird’s caretaker arrange our bird’s environment to set him/her AND me up for success?

A Bite Prevention Tip For Kids And Dogs

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As I am thinking about my My Dog’s Super Hero kids’ class, I wanted to share this reminder. To teach your dog positive associations with your child, encourage your child to sit beside your dog instead of standing over, leaning on top of, or giving a big bear hug to your dog. Create situations where your dog can relax and enjoy time with your child. Some body language to look for in a relaxed and/or happy dog is: body weight evenly distributed, open and loose mouth, laying with one foot tucked under, tail wagging side to side or in a round motion.  #biteprevention

bite prevention tip for kids and dogs

Why Repeating Cues Breaks Down Behavior

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Ever had a nagging mother or significant other? You know how you eventually tune them out? That is called habituation and our dogs can do that too. It’s a great idea to teach the behavior that you want to see and get it rock solid before adding your cue. And begin practices in a place with minimum to no distractions. If you are needing to repeat a cue over and over, your dog is giving you feedback. And if you continue, you will weaken that cue. Instead, go back and work on strengthening the behavior with high value reinforcers. Teach your dog that doing the behavior you want him to do is going to be absolutely worth it for him.

5-01 hear

Using Play In Dog Training

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When you think about pet training and behavior management, do you also think about playing?

Think about it for a minute. Think about how much more engaged you are in an activity or a conversation (and tuning out the outside distractions) when you are laughing and being challenged.

Have you watched your dog or your parrot or cat when he is really focused on figuring something out?  I have seen dogs with reputations for jumping on their owners at kitchen counters, not even taking the time to look up when they are busy trying to figure out how to make food come out of a toy. And guess what else I saw in those dogs…tails wagging and wiggly bodies. Those are dogs that are having fun.

I have seen play described as ‘the vehicle by which children learn to relate to others, to solve problems and to regulate improve your dog training with playtheir emotions.’ Those are words to give you thought when it comes to effective teaching, learning and quality of life.

Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and author of Authentic Happiness, goes further and says play is one of three pillars of mental health – the other two being love and work.

Of course he is talking about human beings but non-humans have mental and physical needs as well.

There is such a long list of reasons why play is important to our pets. Just some of them include: release of energy, mastering new concepts, conflict resolution, gross and fine motor skill experiences, self control development and confidence development.

So, let’s bring this back to training. What are the benefits to including play as a reinforcing consequence for doing another behavior? Well, for one, it adds variety to the lesson if you keep your dog guessing as to whether sitting will get him a treat, a great chase, or an opportunity to tug. Games can be taken on the road. You may not have food available when you are out with your dog and he does just what you want him to do, but you sure can run the other direction or pick up a stick and throw it.  And, with all these awesome experiences, the side benefit is that your dog will come to associate you with those awesome experiences and that makes for even more awesome relationships.

Here are a few other ideas for incorporating play into training.

Sunday night I had a couple minutes and thought I’d work with our Sam on targeting and stationing (standing with his front two feet on a round platform). He had already eaten, and so was not at his optimal motivation level for food. Still, I had a student who was totally focused – even when I was using lower value food. How? After I clicked, instead of delivering his treat to his mouth I tossed it…and he ran to get it. Then he’d run back to the platform and I’d click and toss a treat in another direction. The speed he was moving was incredible and he had no notice that in the other room, my mom was cleaning up from a chicken dinner. The game of it (and the rapid rate of reinforcement) was what kept his focus.

I also love to create games and then incorporate behavior skills that I have taught him (and others) to strengthen those skills. It is the Premack Principle at its best! (To learn more about the Premack Principle, please click here.) To tug with a toy, you can teach your dog that play begins when you initiate it (maybe you ask your dog to sit or do another behavior before giving the cue to tug); and that it stops when you give the cue. Embedded in a hide and go seek, you can practice the behaviors of sit or down/stay, release cue, coming when called, sitting at your feet and even waiting as you toss a treat on the ground before being release to get it.

There are so many ways to incorporate play into your lesson plan. I’d love to hear what you do.

Remember, always have fun!

If Trainers Can Teach Wild Animals Without Coercion, Pet Owners Can Too

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I was watching a video of a trainer at a park and wanted to share this thought I had. Definitely something to give you thought…trainers of large, undomesticated animals teach behaviors without physical correction. If they can do that, we can do that too with out pets. It is how we build a love for learning. #dogtrainingtips

dog training tip on setting animals up for success

A Dog Training Tip: Practice Consistency

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Sam wanted to pop in again. He has a feeling many of his friends are just as confused. It is important to remember, we have a lot to do with the success of our pets. If we don’t provide clear criteria and cues on what behaviors we want to see (and reinforcement for those behaviors), it is awfully difficult for them to understand what behaviors we want to see – and to understand the meaning of our cues. #dogtrainingtips

dog training tip on consistency

Kathy Sdao: Teaching and Loving Your Older Dog

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I found a picture the other day of our dear Butch doing a behavior he was most known for, sitting up with his front paws in the air. It was something we didn’t need to teach. Butch would walk up to anyone and just sit like that, and undoubtedly we got a lot of questions – ‘What does he want?’

He was a really special little guy, as were and are all of our pets. Through the years I’ve seen three of our dogs live through being a senior with many health declines such as loss of hearing and vision, arthritis, and other medical issues. They all had special places in our hearts, and it wasn’t always easy to see their struggles.

We bring animals into our homes for companionship and what they give us in return is something so beautiful and meaningful. Unconditional love and the feeling of being valued by another being is a basic need we all share. Pets provide that to us. I think that is why we see time and again why people will spend money on their pets’ well being before they will on themselves, and why we mourn their loss to the extent that we do.

It is also why, when reknown dog trainer and behaviorist Kathy Sdao stood before us dog trainer Kathy Sdaoat the Karen Pryor Clicker Training Expo with tears swelling in her eyes as she spoke of her most recent loss of one of her own, each one of us in the audience had a lump in our throat as well.

Her presentation was one of several that she gave at the Expo. This one was on tips for ‘Teaching, Loving & Living with Your Older Dog.’

I’ve read and heard much advice on this topic from others but Kathy had a beautiful way of talking about concepts familiar to all of us as dog trainers and reminding us how that science can be applied to add quality of life to our older pets.

Here are a few of the points she shared:

Use classical conditioning to kindle the spark of life

Classical conditioning (also referred to associative or respondent learning) occurs when a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with an existing eliciting stimulus. It’s important to note that this is not learning new behaviors, but conditioning new elicitors for reflex responses.

To help you understand – A real life example of this is the dog who salivates at the sound of the can opener because it has been repeatedly paired with yummy food or that same dog who begins exhibiting a fear response (panting, rapid breathing, muscle tension) around men in white coats after a man in a white coat repeatedly did things to cause that dog pain. A child who has been bullied in a classroom may begin to perspire, get nausea, and have increased heart rate before entering that classroom again.

How does this apply to the spark in older dogs?

Well, understanding this, Kathy reminded us to make a list of what still gets our dog’s heart pulsing, tail wagging and legs moving. If we repeatedly pair something that our dog ignores with something on that list, eventually the presence of those ignored activities or objects may serve to get his heart pulsing, tail wagging and body to move.

Use operant conditioning to provide a happy retirement

With operant conditioning, behaviors are learned, strengthened and modified based upon the past consequences of those behaviors. If a behavior serves to get the animal something of value (positive reinforcement), then that behavior will increase and/even strengthen in the future. If a behavior serves to get the animal something aversive (punishment), then that behavior will be suppressed in the future.

What a powerful tool operant behaviors are to the quality of life of an animal!

Kathy reminded us to think about those behaviors that we would like to see more of in our older dog and look for opportunities to reinforce those behaviors with what is of value to him.

With young puppies, for example, we may want to teach calm behaviors like laying down and sitting but we want to actually encourage movement in senior dogs. Behaviors like pre-walk barking and turning in circles that we discourage in a young dog, we want to encourage to our older dog. How do we do that? Simply, when our dog barks and turns in a circle, we put his leash on him and maybe even give him a nice, smelly treat. (assuming those are two things he values)

Expect changes in compliance

It is important to remember that our dog’s ability to do some behaviors may be dog trainer Kathy Sdao on senior dogs and traininglimited because of physical decline – cognitive acuity, sensory deficits, and/or musculo-skeletal degradation. His responses to our cues may no longer be flashy like sitting in a split second. “Let go of the dog you remembered,” Kathy told us, “and see the older, stiffer, confused dog doing her best.”

For clarity, we can transfer cues from those using visual and auditory senses (like the word ‘sit’ or a hand signal) to more tactile and olfactory senses (like a touch or the scent of lavender).

Teach eating

Another important behavior to reinforce, Kathy reminded us, is eating, as appetite fades with age. Some common mistakes Kathy spoke of include:

  • free feeding (please click here to read my post about free feeding)
  • putting all of our dog’s food in his bowl instead of using some for training
  • trumping the meal in our dog’s bowl (if he does not eat it, then we add something better)
  • lower the value of the food by following it with an aversive
  • handfeeding our dog if he stops eating

Instead, apply the same principles for teaching eating as we teach anything else. If we want our dogs to eat MORE from their bowl, then WHILE they are eating from their bowl, we can add a high value treat.

 About Kathy Sdao:

Kathy has been passionate about animal training ever since she quit a good job to move halfway around the world to train dolphins at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory at the University of Hawaii. Now, 30 years later, she offers her expertise as a certified behaviorist to dog owners in Washington State and across the world, to seminar and webinar audiences and to professional training organizations. Please click here to visit her site.

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