There are so many benefits to giving your dog a stuffed Kong, or other food chew toy or activity toy. When you just put food in a bowl, typically either your dog will either gobble it up quickly or graze slowly which may lead to your leaving food out all day. In either case, there the opportunity for enrichment really is not there. And by leaving food out all day, your dog will tend to value it less (not to mention it makes house training pretty difficult). Think about these food toys as enrichment and trouble prevention.
Are you among the many dog owners who have a pet those goes into ‘Show me the money’ mode before deciding whether to do anything you ask? It is such a common problem.
Why does it happen? Well, for one, humans are pretty good at holding food in their hand held in plain view when teaching their dog behaviors (so the student is being lured); and humans are also pretty good at responding to attention seeking behaviors by doing something deemed valuable by a smart dog – such as giving attention, a piece of food, or beginning a game of fetch.
Humans are also pretty good at inadvertently teaching different meaning to cues (such as giving a cue for ‘sit’ and when the dog walks away to find an awesome toy, is called back and given a treat upon arrival which is a multiple reinforcer for walking away instead of ‘sitting’ after the cue). In general, humans are pretty good at breaking down cues by using them at times when the chances are low that there will be success (among many other ways). And dogs are pretty good at figuring out that when the clicker comes out or a bag of treats appears, that suddenly the predictability of reinforcement for certain behaviors goes way up. (Please see my post on discriminative stimulus.)
Ugh, so, how can you break this cycle?
One way is to build ‘training’ into your everyday life. In other words, always be on the lookout for what your dog values at that specific time such as going for a walk, going out the door, playing tug or fetch, or sniffing a fire hydrant; and have spontaneous teaching moments using those things as reinforcers for wanted behaviors.
Note here that those ‘wanted’ behaviors should be taught in advance in a real training session.
Here are some dog training tips:
Make going out the door contingent upon your dog sitting on a mat until released. (Click here to read how to teach this.)
Make a game of tug contingent upon your dog sitting and waiting until you give your dog a cue to grab the toy. Or you can ask your dog to do any number of already learned behaviors prior to a cue for GAME ON.
Call your dog to come from another room with some kind of reinforcer – be unpredictable here. It could be that sometimes coming to you results in a game of chase or fetch. Other times you may run grab a cookie when he gets to you, or attach a leash (if he enjoys walks).
If your dog is behind a gate, you can teach your dog that his remaining seated while you walk up to and over the gate is what gets you to step over and pet him; while his getting up results in you walking away from the gate.
Do you see the pattern?
With all of these scenarios, the common elements are:
Consistency in cues/feedback to your dog
You are taking that dependence on food out of the equation
You are building value for listening to you and for doing behaviors you ask by teaching a positive association between you and positive consequences of behavior
You are decreasing that dependence on ‘Show me the money’
Here is a challenge for you. Can you name four or more things that your dog values? And can you brainstorm for ways in which your dog can use behaviors to GET those things of value?
Is it an issue of having more control?
The other day I began working with a client (and his dog) on loose leash walking skills. As I initially watched them walk together, I saw that, while they walked side-by-side without distractions, if Fido’s nose picked up on something to sniff, he simply stopped to sniff while his owner stopped with him. And, if Fido saw something ahead that he wanted to get closer to, he walked faster to the end of the leash until it was taught.
Why was this happening? Was this an example of a bad, stubborn who needed to be controlled better by his handler?
Not from my eyes. What I observed was a dog who was simply making behavior choices based upon where the value was for him. There is great sensory stimulation for sniffing; and, as for the pulling, well, it worked to get them to move toward what it was he wanted to get closer to. He was also saying with his actions that there was far greater reinforcement history with stopping when he wanted to sniff or pulling on the leash to go forward, than there was to walking by his handler’s side.
Something else that I observed what that his handler had not taught him with clarity as to what ‘he’ wanted Fido TO DO when the leash was connecting the two of them; and without that clarity, Fido made his own choices for getting what he wanted.
Always when working on solving pet behavior issues, I like to work from a standpoint of focusing on what it is you WANT your pet to do instead of focusing on stopping the unwanted behavior; while preventing or at least minimizing opportunity for practice of the unwanted behavior – and especially for reinforcement of the unwanted behavior.
I won’t get into the mechanics here but with loose leash walking, that means spending time teaching your dog how you WANT him to walk on a leash (whether by your side or simply with a loose lead) with positive reinforcement. And, as for those distractions, instead of keeping them off limits to your dog, think of them as powerful positive reinforcement tools you can use in your training kit. You can teach your dog that walking a few steps by your side earns him the opportunity to go sniff that incredible fire hydrant; or that walking next to you and sitting or stopping when you stop gives him the opportunity to say hello to that person across the street.
Stop thinking about controlling your pet, and switch to controlling the consequences of your pet’s behavior. And always remember to have fun along the way.
I have seen and heard about the problem with large and small dogs and puppies. Instead of walking with all four paws on the ground on a loose leash as their head is facing forward or slightly to the side, they are grabbing at the leash to pull it, chew on it or play with it. (NOTE: I will refer to this as ‘bad leash behavior’ in this post.) Ugh, it is a frustrating problem!
So, why does it happen and what can you do about it?
Why it happens
There are many reasons but what they all have in common is this. Behavior is simply a tool animals use to get consequences. If that behavior persists and even strengthens, then it is being reinforced by the environment.
That being said, it could be that a puppy has not had enough exercise prior to clipping that leash on which means your puppy has a greater need for mental and physical stimulation. Jumping at or tugging on a leash while the human on the other end is reacting in some way by either tugging back or pushing the puppy down or another reaction, may be even heightening the value then of your puppy’s bad leash behaviors since, from the puppy’s perspective, ‘bad leash behaviors’ cause games with humans to begin.
Another possible cause could be that your puppy has a real need for chewing or having something in his mouth, and the leash being in close proximity to your puppy’s mouth is an easy solution. The sensory stimulation from having something in his mouth could be a reinforcer for maintaining or strengthening those ‘bad leash behaviors’.
It could also be that your puppy is over stimulated by his environment or even stressed by his environment and those ‘bad leash behaviors’ are being reinforced by the release of tension.
Your sudden attention to your puppy could also be a source of reinforcement.
What can you do about it?
Well, one thing I do not recommend is the use of reprimands. Not only are there so many potential serious side effects from punishment (please see this post) including that punishment does not serve to teach your puppy what you want him to do instead and that your puppy will come to associate you with that negative, in order for punishment to be effective, it needs to be strong enough to stop the behavior.
Instead, think about the function that the ‘bad leash behaviors’ serve for your puppy – in other words, what is of value to your puppy that he gets by doing those behaviors? What can you do to prevent those unwanted behaviors from occurring in the first place (and getting reinforced)? And, what can you do to lower the value of that consequence and also teach your puppy a different behavior that can get him the same or greater value.
It may seem like a lot to think about but it really just takes some consideration, and practice.
These are just a few ideas:
Teach your puppy to sit with relaxed body muscles while you clip on the leash to begin reinforcing that response from the beginning.
Teach your puppy that walking beside you with a loose leash is what gets great things to happen. I may use a combination of tug toys, food, or the opportunity to sniff a mail post as a reinforcer for walking at my side.
Teach your puppy to hold a ball or other toy in his mouth on walks if your puppy is one that likes the sensory stimulation of having something in his mouth.
If you need to walk your dog at a time when you can not be in training mode (like when you are rushing him outside to go potty), you may want to use some management to help you both succeed. Using a double-ended clip, you can attach a metal choke chain (the only time I will use a choke chain) to the color and clip the leash onto the other end of the choke chain. Puppies are much less likely to get reinforcement from chewing on metal.
Additionally, if your puppy does get a hold of that leash, it is important that you be very careful so as to NOT reinforce it. Many times I have found that if I drop the leash immediately when a puppy mouth touches it (although still holding the end, just dropping the length to the ground) that it becomes boring.
Also, by knowing under what conditions your puppy is most likely to begin those ‘bad leash behaviors’ – like when he is stressed, over stimulated or lacking exercise, then take care to not walk him in those conditions until you have sufficiently taught him wanted behaviors, taken care to give him an acceptable outlet for getting his needs met (like giving him something to hold in his mouth), and/or are managing the situation so practice is less likely to occur.
I see it happen a lot. People ask their dog to do a behavior (give their dog a cue) and their dog does any number of things EXCEPT the behavior that is asked of it to do.
Among those reasons:
In your dog training, the cue has been severely weakened by negative consequences occurring after a behavior (as an example, you call your dog to come from play and then lock him in a room by himself or you ask your dog to sit and if he is slow, then you push his rear end to the ground).
The cue was not ‘proofed’ meaning it was not taught in a variety of environments with a variety of criteria, and so what your dog may know in one situation does not generalize to ALL situations.
Doing anything BUT the behavior cued results in a bigger payday than doing the behavior that is cued.
In your dog training, the behavior that was intended to be cued has not been taught with clear criteria and fluency, and thus the cue meaning for the learner is different from the meaning you had intended. As an example, you may want your dog to ‘stay’ in a down position for five minutes until released but your dog gets up in five seconds. One of the many questions you should be asking yourself is, ‘does my dog really understand what I mean when I say stay’? It is easy to forget that dogs do not speak human.
What is a cue anyway?
Scientifically speaking, a cue is simply a stimulus that elicits a behavior. Discrimination is the tendency for learned behavior to occur in one situation but not in other situations. (Learning & Behavior, Paul Chance) Therefore, a change in the environment known as a discriminative stimulus becomes a cue for that behavior to be set into motion.
It is important to remember that it is the consequences of that behavior, positive or negative, that determine the future probability of that behavior occurring. The cue is simply an indicator to the learner that that window of time for that consequence to happen is now.
How do you create strong cues?
These are some general tips.
Knowing this about learning, the way to build huge value for cues is by first teaching the behavior that you want to see with the criteria you are looking for, by giving the behavior huge valued reinforcing consequences.
Since you are teaching an association between a cue and a behavior (and the behavior’s consequence), by teaching the behavior first, not only are you pairing the cue with the behavior that is of the criteria you are looking for, you are also pairing the cue with valued consequences that the learner learned through many repetitions. When is the time to add the cue? Add the cue when you can reliably predict that the wanted behavior is about to happen.
Always remember to teach new lessons in environments where your student can succeed so begin in an area with minimal distractions at a time when your dog will be motivated to give you attention.
After successful repetitions and lessons of your dog doing the behavior following your cue, if your dog does not do the behavior after your giving your cue, be very careful not to reinforce your dog’s unwanted choice. Instead, pause and then cue again. If your dog still does not do the behavior after several tries, that is feedback to you as the teacher that you need to go back a step in teaching the behavior. You can also practice being careful not to reinforce your dog for doing the behavior when he does it without the presence of your cue. This is called teaching stimulus control, meaning you are teaching your dog that he will ONLY get reinforced for doing the behavior when cued DURING active training.
Another note about cues is that they should be short and distinct.
Oh yes, and learning AND teaching should be fun!
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ~ Albert Einstein
I love this quote. In its great simplicity, it speaks volumes for both effective teaching and learning. This, from a world famous, brilliant physicist known for his general theory of relativity and recognized with a 1921 Nobel Prize.
I think about this often when I am doing dog training and behavior consulting. A question foremost in my mind is always, ‘how can I help my student succeed with this lesson?”
If the lesson is too difficult student frustration can lead to poor motivation, and with poor motivation focus on the teacher can quickly evaporate. When that occurs, teaching – at least teaching what we WANT our student to learn – is often not effective.
It is important to remember that in order for us to teach a behavior and strengthen its future rate, we first need to ‘get’ the behavior to occur so that we can follow that behavior with a reinforcing consequence. I continue to remember observing in a two day class with reknown trainer Dave Kroyer a session where he was coaching another trainer on teaching her dog to put his nose in a hole of a scent box. There was a moment when her dog was not ‘getting it’ and began pawing at the box. Dave’s response was to pick the box up and ask the trainer what they could do to help her dog understand. The answer was to put the box on its side. With that small change, her dog immediate went to the open hole and placed his nose inside.
And, once you and your student have success, then you can build upon that success from there by incrementally adding to the behavior as your learner can continue to succeed.
What are some ways in which you can make your lesson plan as simple as possible but not simpler?
For one, begin teaching in an environment with minimal other distractions. It is hard enough to focus on learning something new. With stimulus going on around you, it is that much more difficult to focus. Please read this column I had written on the importance of decluttering the teaching classroom.
Break the behavior down into small steps or approximations, and reinforcing your learning after each behavior approximation toward the final behavior. This is known as shaping, and it is a lot of fun to practice. Please click here to read a past post about it.
Be aware of the importance of timing when it comes to teaching new behaviors. Contiguity refers to the closeness in time between the behavior and its consequence while contingency refers to the degree of correlation between the behavior and its consequence (*if* I do this behavior, *the* this is the consequence that will follow). The less time there is between the behavior and its consequence, the quicker and easier the animal can build that relationship. Please click here to read more. The immediacy with which you can ‘click’ and mark a correct behavior is one of the reasons why clicker training is so effective.
Use reinforcers that are of value to your learner. Remember, it is the learner that gets to decide what is of greatest value to him/her and that can change throughout a day. Learners will always choose to do the behavior that gets them a consequence of the greatest value to them so plan ahead and make sure you’ve stacked the deck in your favor. You can read more in this post.
Have you ever tried to stop an unwanted pet behavior by simply ignoring it? If it is a behavior that is really difficult to ignore, like a bird’s scream or a dog’s whining, you probably know, that strategy is pretty difficult. And there is much potential fallout with punishment. Here is a dog and parrot training tip: use a combination approach called differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior (DRI). I explain in this older post.
Commonly, people who are having trouble teaching their puppy a proper potty area, or who are having problems with their puppy chewing on things not meant for puppy teeth, also happen to be people who do not use a crate – or practice good management.
The problem is prevention of practicing unwanted behavior while teaching wanted habits and behavior is absolutely critical when it comes to setting your puppy up for success. After all, he was not born understanding your house rules. He has mental and physical needs and will find ways to get those needs met in either acceptable or unacceptable ways (according to your perspective anyway). Without the management component, your puppy may choose to do behaviors you do not like but the reinforcement he gets from his environment for doing them is going to create long lasting habits.
Last week I puppysat for a client and shared my home with this adorable little girl.
While here I didn’t even have one circumstance of her pottying indoors or grabbing something that was not intended for her to have. On her last day, she even let me know twice when she needed to go outside to relieve herself.
What did I do? Every waking moment of every day, she was very carefully managed. When she was not in her crate, she had a leash attached to her (although not attached to me indoors) and I was actively supervising her. After opening her crate door, she and I engaged in fun play (with a teaching component in there) or training. Going outside to potty always occurred after a few minutes of activity and she always went. I could tell when she also needed to make a bowel movement and waited for her to continue sniffing to finish all she needed to do before taking her in.
One day I could tell she needed to do this but she kept getting distracted so I took her inside with me and kept her right next to me with a watchful eye. We went outside every ten minutes to no avail. Finally, before taking her another time, we played fetch in my living room and she immediately went as soon as we got to the grass. If I had not been as careful as I was on this day, there is no doubt she would have just had a bowel movement on my carpeting and by doing that, she was beginning a reinforcement history for a habit I did not want her to learn.
After time spent directly interacting with her, when I did not want to ‘actively’ supervise her, I always put her back into her crate and, being tired, she just laid down and rested for sometimes a couple hours while I got things done.
In keeping with this routine, the crate was not a negative to her but a positive as it was time that she could settle herself after being mentally and physically engaged. (If your dog sees being his crate as a bad, stressful place to be, please spend time teaching your dog a positive association with it.) And time that she was laying in her crate while I was cooking, working or cleaning was time that she was NOT biting on furniture, seeking out shoes, or making an unwanted potty choice.
Additionally, because I spent so much time and energy playing fun and engaging games with her toys, those toys were becoming of great value to her. And, since animals make decisions based upon where the value is, she was choosing to seek out her toys more and not pay attention to my things.
With this consistency, by the last day, I was able to leave her in my living room and walk out of the room, out of sight for short periods and twice she actually told me when she needed to go outside to go potty.
A big mistake that people make when it comes to having new pets is a lack of consistency, a lack of management, and a lack of teaching wanted behaviors with lots of positive reinforcement. If you are finding that your puppy is making poor decisions, instead of blaming your puppy, think about what you can do differently to help him to succeed.
These young children learned important lessons about dog body language, how to play safely with their dog, and how to be a positive dog trainer at my most recent My Dog’s Super Hero class at the United Pet Fund in Blue Ash. They did a fantastic job – so did my demonstration dogs, Daisy and Bunny. Teaching kids and parents these classes is about strengthening relationships and preventing dog bites.
The other day, someone was complaining to me of how her dog really gets her mad when she is on the telephone. It seems that as soon as she picks up the receiver, he begins to bark and pace at her feet, which makes it very difficult to focus on her conversation.
“What do you do when Hank does that,” I asked.
“I immediately tell him no but he does not listen. Sometimes I will push him away or I will get him a toy to divert him,” was her answer.
Whenever a problem like this arises, it is always important to remind yourself that behavior always occurs for a reason. And if it is repeated, then it is being reinforced by something in the environment.
I have been taught to look at behavior through the lens of Applied Behavior Analysis, a systematic approach to solving behavior problems that involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a dog barking) 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 this woman’s circumstance, the antecedent is her picking up the telephone receiver; the behavior is her dog barking and pacing; and the consequence to her dog is her attention and/or being given a favorite toy.
When you look at it this way, can you see how that barking and pacing behavior is getting reinforced? And how her picking up the phone has actually become a learned cue (we call that a discriminative stimulus) to bark and pace in order to receive that reinforcement?
Here is how I’d write that out:
A: Mary picks up the telephone receiver
B: Hank barks and paces at her feet
C: Mary gives Hank attention and a favorite toy
Prediction: When Mary picks up the phone receiver, Hank will bark and pace more often to get Mary to give him attention and a favorite toy.
Once you see that, developing a strategic plan to modify Hank’s behavior in the most positive, least intrusive way becomes clearer.
There are so many possibilities. Antecedent change is probably going to be the most effective here because, let’s face it, once Mary is on the telephone it is going to be difficult for her prevent Hank from building upon his reinforcement of that behavior.
A few suggestions for antecedent change strategies include: Mary could give her dog a favorite toy whenever she picks up the telephone AND BEFORE Hank begins the problematic behavior; or she could teach Hank a reliable sit or down and stay with a huge reinforcement history and then ask Hank to do one of those behaviors after picking up the phone AND BEFORE he begins the barking and pacing.
She should also have a plan in place in the instance that she cannot prevent the unwanted behaviors from occurring, so as to at least minimize the amount of reinforcement Hank receives. With a portable telephone, she can stand up and turn her back to him for example after the behaviors begin.
These are just a few ideas for solving this. When you look at behavior in the context of its environment, it gives you a very different perspective on your pet and your pet’s behavior; and it allows you to develop solutions that not only help your pet to succeed but strengthen your relationship as well.