Why Teach Go To A Mat

This week seems to be my week for mat work. Twice already I have been working with clients to begin the process of teaching their dog that a mat is a pretty awesome place to hang out and relax, as it is the place where valued stuff happens.

Teaching your dog to settle on a mat can help solve numerous dog training problems.The reason for training these two dogs to go to and settle on their mats is similar and different at the same time. One, a large lab, barks and jumps on guests upon their arrival. The other is a small dog who spends time sporadically during the day at his human’s work where he can hear people walking down the hall, car doors opening and closing, voices, telephones, and guests who walk in; and any or all of those stimuli can cause him to bark and run in circles.

In each of these cases, just saying ‘No’ to the dog, and with the lab, also trying to push him down or away, was not solving the problem. It is frustrating for those who live with dogs.  Why do dogs continue to do things that so clearly are not acceptable behaviors to their human companions?

What gets things of value will be repeated.

One thing is for sure, dogs are not behaving simply to annoy their people. They are simply animals who are doing behaviors that cause valued consequences – from their standpoint. A dog who jumps on visitors may be reinforced by humans that give attention, make noises, move in ways that appear to be play; and also by the dog’s own release of energy. There are many potential reinforcers for dogs who bark at noises and stimulus depending on their reason for barking. It could be that from a dog’s point of view, barking gets distance from a stimulus, gets attention or food, gets good people to walk in, is a release of energy, etc.

Here is the tricky part. This reinforcement need not occur after every incident of the behavior to maintain the behavior. In fact, intermittent reinforcement is the culprit of just about every (if not all) unwanted behavior that continues. It creates gamblers in learners, and lean reinforcement schedules cause great addicts. In other words, if there is a 1/500 chance that barking will cause a door to open with good people to walk through or get you attention or cause scary things to move away, then the dog will keep trying what works.

This is why, in order to solve problems in the most positive and least intrusive way, a component of your plan needs to be arranging the environment so as to prevent practice of the unwanted behavior. Another component is teaching your dog alternative and/or incompatible behaviors (a replacement behavior) that will get your dog a valued consequence. In doing this, with many repetitions, your dog will come to do the replacement behavior more because THAT behavior is associated with great outcomes.

And this is where the mat comes in. A dog cannot settle on a mat that is a distance from the door AND bark and jump on people at the same time, so we are spending time first teaching this dog to go to his mat, then settling on it, then working up to being able to stay with distractions, and then calm greetings. These skills are being worked on separate from the door before adding the door and real visitors into the mix.

As for the other dog, in just the first lesson there was a marked difference in his behavior in a short period. When he was sitting or laying down on his mat, he was already paying less attention to the noises than when he was walking around the office. When he did alert to a noise, I began teaching them to give him a treat ‘before’ he got up and began barking. Over time, with enough repetitions of good things (treats) happening after hearing a noise, he will come to have a different emotional response as well. (This is called classical conditioning.) Breaks to go outside and play are also part of his day. (Just part of what we are working on.)

The lesson here is that, when you are frustrated with not being able to stop that unwanted behavior, try thinking about it differently. If you don’t like what your pet is doing, then what would you like for your pet to do instead? Now that you can teach!

 

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Distractions As Reinforcers

Grass to sniff. A yard to run around. Dirt in which to dig. A human taking the leash means walk time!  People who move around and give lots of attention. Ugh, what do all of these have in common? They get many tails wagging and they have the potential to be major sources of dog handler stress.

…but they don’t need to be your enemy. In fact the opportunity to do all of those things can actually be an asset to your teaching and strengthening of wanted behaviors.

Distractions can be used as positive reinforcement in dog training to build value for behaviors. Certified dog trainer Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, explains.How so?

Looking at the science

On a higher level, remember, it is consequences that drive the future rate of a behavior. If an animal’s behavior serves to get it something that the animal values, then that behavior will continue and even strengthen. This is called operant learning or conditioning and the behavior is being reinforced. Additionally, classical conditioning is a reflexive type of learning where one stimulus acquires the capacity to evoke the same response as another stimulus. In other words, what happens AFTER something affects the emotional response to what happens first. If I gave my dog a piece of meat immediately after showing him a clippers, with enough repetitions, over time my dog would begin to think, ‘Yay, a clippers!’, just at the sight of them.

I will throw out one more piece of scientific jargon here. The Premack Principle states that a high probability behavior will reinforce the less probably behavior, and this does not always have to be positive, just more probably. As an example, going out to train animals or meet with someone is a higher probability behavior for me than writing this post; and I know that when I finish this, that I can go for a walk, which I would much rather do on this beautiful day. Therefore, I am more probable to get this done quickly to be able to go upstairs, change my clothes and be on my way.

How does this relate to training?

Understanding these concepts is very important. Teaching an animal to do a wanted behavior in the most positive and least intrusive way, do it more, and do it precisely as you would like for it to look is not about forcing or controlling your dog or pet. It is about knowing what YOUR pet values in life, and then controlling the environment of the classroom and controlling the consequences of behavior to give you as teacher and your pet as student the best opportunity for success. It is not about you being the awesomeness police, barricading your pet from dirt, grass, toys and other people. It is about teaching your pet that the opportunity to dig, smell, chase, play, and be petted by strangers is gained by first listening to and doing something you ask it to do.

Do you want to go outside?
Awesome! Ask your dog to do a behavior it knows first.

Can you walk a step or two by my side?
Super! Let’s go sniff the fire hydrant!

Do you want to play a game of fetch?
Can you sit in front of me and give me eye contact? Terrific, chase the ball!

The list can go on and on.

Something to be careful of however, is HOW valuable or stimulating something is to your dog in that moment. Remember that your goal is to help your dog to succeed. If your dog is so focused on the stimulus in his environment that you will fail big time by asking your dog to do something at that time, then you are too close to the stimulus and/or you simply have not worked up to that level of learning. If a dog has no understanding of the concept of self control, meaning it pops up quickly from a cued sit or immediately bursts toward something it wants, then expecting it to wait until released to do something or to go to something is not realistic.

This is why it is important to begin the teaching process of behaviors in environments with minimal to know distractions, then practice in different environments, gradually increasing the level of difficulty as your pet can succeed.

Near me is a small shopping center. There is a strip of grass that separates its parking lot from the street where apparently many dogs frequent. It is a very HIGH value place for our dog, Sam, to want to sniff; and a great place to practice walking by my side. I began at a distance away where Sam could walk at my side and practiced reinforcing him with food for that, gradually coming closer to the grass. And, after being able to walk with me, I would tell him, ‘let’s go sniff’ and run with him to his favorite spot. Yep, over time he was very attentive to being at my side around that grass!

However, if I had taken him to that spot without doing foundation work with him…and lots of it, before going there, chances are it would have been a major struggle to get him away from the grass and we both would have failed in those lessons.

If you take the time to work through lessons and teaching foundation skills, as well as building your relationship with your pet to give your pet plenty of reasons to want to listen to you, and build in these life experiences into your classroom – think of the fun you will have together, and the behaviors you will teach!

Can I be of more help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

Dog Food As Enrichment

I often talk about the benefits of feeding at least a portion of your dog’s food, through training and activities including dog food puzzle and chew toys.  When we bring animals into our homes, we need to remember that enrichment is such an important piece of setting ourselves, our pets, and our relationship up for success. Providing our pets with opportunities to problem solve, exercise their minds and bodies, and use their senses allows them to expend energy they need to use in positive ways and also adds to their quality of life. If you don’t believe me, read my blog post about scientific research that demonstrated it.

(Although, just look at your dog when he/she is working to get food out of a toy or engaged in learning and you will see for yourself the value in having your pet work for food.)

Below are just a few of my favorite dog food activity toys.

The Kong chew toy is a great enrichment activity for puppies and dogs.

Kong Classic Toy

Kong Gyro

Kong Gyro

 

Kong Blue Satellite

Kong Blue Satellite

Buster food cube for dogs

Buster food cube

 

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Practicing Behavior Fluency

When you teach using positive consequences to behavior, you get a student who wants to engage, learn and listen.

Even Older Dogs Can Learn

learning and enrichment add to your dog's quality of life, no matter the age

 

This weekend, I was with my aunt’s 13 year old sheltie who has cataracts, has lost much hearing, and doesn’t move around like she did. I see learning as enrichment and I love teaching so I wanted to give Molly something constructive to do. I went to my car and brought in an orange cone and some dog treats, and began teaching her that when she touched her nose to the tip of the cone, she would get a piece of food. Soon, this dog who had been wandering through us aimlessly, not fully engaging with anyone, began wagging her tail and was intently interested in bumping her nose to the cone. After a few minutes, I took the cone up and came back to it later. Her just seeing it caused her tail to begin wagging again and she did about a dozen more repetitions of touching the cone’s tip. By the way…Molly is a dog who has had very little formal training in her life. It is just a reminder that learning and enrichment is important for all ages.

How Words Affect Behavior

Have you ever stopped to think about how difficult it must be to be a dog (or other animal) living with humans in dog training, our verbal cues and voice intonations affect our dog's success.many times larger than him who speaks a completely unknown language, who has rules that often times are secret until you do something to break them, and who expects you to easily understand what it is they want you to do at any given moment?

Oh my, we need to give our pets a whole lot more understanding and respect!

Think about it for a minute, just how complicated we make learning and succeeding with us. Do you use the word ‘down’ to indicate that you want your dog to lay down, and also, in the heat of a moment, yell ‘down!’ to indicate you want your dog to go from jumping on you to having all four paws on the ground? Do you ever yell ‘no!’ to your dog but your dog has no idea what he should do instead? How many different ways do you call your dog to come, in addition to the word you had actually practiced teaching? (I bet you don’t even know an exact number for that last question.)

One more way to help your pet learn (and help you be a more effective teacher) is to keep track of your cues – verbal and nonverbal – and make sure that you are using distinctively different cues for different behaviors. (I wrote more about teaching cues in this blog post.)

Here is another example to give you thought. I have heard people say ‘no bite’ when their dog goes to take a treat from their hand with too much pressure or ‘no jump’ when their dog’s two front paws leave the ground to land on an incoming human.

There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, this is assuming that your dog understands what the words ‘bite’ and ‘jump’ mean…and actually, if your dog had been taught by you what those cues meant, logically then, if you used those cues AFTER another word, then, wouldn’t your dog DO the behavior of jump or bite since it was cued by you?  The other thing here is that, more than likely, in these situations, your voice may be raised and your body language may be doing more to heighten your dog’s arousal which could result in your dog doing more of the behaviors you do not like.

Here is another tendency of humans. When frustration sets in as ears develop selective listening, it is the nature of many of us to get louder and more persistent with our voices. I have seen it happen time and again. Dog handlers ask their dog to come or to sit, and if the behavior is not done, the handler repeats words over and over, with more and more velocity.

And yet, another complication is the fact that we convey even more information by the tone of our voice.

Think about your own self and the difference between your emotional and physiological response to hearing ‘come here!’ in how a deep throated, loud tone from a face with tense muscles vs a high-pitched tone from a smiling face. In training, it is important to separate yourself from your emotions and use verbal tones to elicit the behavior from your pet that you want to see.

Remember, when your dog is not doing what you want it to do, it is not behaving to purposefully get under your skin. Your dog is simply doing what works for him to get something it values. In that moment, your dog is telling you the value is not associated with you. Additionally, as your dog’s teacher, if your dog is not doing what you want, ask yourself how well YOU have taught him with consistency and lots of positive practice in varying situations. It is not the cue that determines the future rate of behaviors. It is the reinforcement that comes after behaviors. Cues are simply green lights that tell learners that opportunity for good things is NOW.

Can I be of more help to you and your pet? Please contact me! 

Motivating Operations For Training Success

Yesterday morning, in the later part of a training appointment for a precious eight week old puppy, we spent a little time working on teaching her the crate is a good place to rest. It was after we were in their back yard moving around, having her thinking and playing. She was a tired little girl when we got back to her kitchen and she was most definitely needing some nap time. I left their house with a sleeping puppy completely zonked out with her head resting on a stuffed animal in her crate, and got to thinking about how motivating operations were at work here.

What do I mean by that?

Well, scientifically speaking motivating operations are environmental variables that have the power to either increase the value of a stimulus, event or object as an effective behavior reinforcer (this is called an Establishing Operation) or to decrease the value of a stimulus, event or object as a behavior reinforcer (this is called an Abolishing Operation).
That word ‘motivating’ is a key word here as motivation has a big role in learning. It boils down to a simple question – ‘What is in it for me?’ And a simple answer, “I will choose the behavior that serves to get me the most valued consequence FOR ME.”

As your pet’s teacher, you can impact your and your pet’s training success using motivating operations to heighten the value of behaviors you want to see. And remember too that sometimes this is most positive, least intrusive solution to solving a problem behavior while you are working on teaching your pet the skills and wanted choices to make in certain situations.

Here are some examples:

If you know your dog is very likely to have poor table manners when you sit down at the table, and you are having a guest over before you have time to teach your pet alternative behaviors at that time, one solution is to give your pet a long walk before dinner so that your dog will value resting more than bumping humans at the table. (There are other management choices you could make too but this is one example.)

On the flip side, your dog will value exercise more after a long nap. This would be a great time to practice active training and games.

You can heighten the value of a toy or a special kind of food by keeping it out of sight and using it just for training times.

On the flip side, this is one of the reasons why free feeding (leaving food in your pet’s bowl all day) is not a good idea, as your pet’s continual opportunity for the food will come to devalue it.

Motivating operations in crate training

Building value for napping and resting in the crate becomes easier when you practice it after giving your puppy active learning and playing time. Puppies go and go and then need to nap. Without that rest, a tired puppy – like a tired and cranky human baby – is prone to making poor decisions. Naps are important and taking one in a crate is a great place.

Yesterday morning, when the little girl was exhausted and inside her crate, her owner gave her tiny smears of cheese through the bars as she began to settle, first sitting, then laying down, and ultimately closing her eyes. She was completely asleep. With enough practice of this, she will come to learn the crate is a place to relax and will probably even seek it out when she needs a quiet space to be alone.

 

Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

Should You Punish Your Dog From Growling?

I’ve seen and heard about it happen all too often. A child may reach over to take a dog’s toy or give a dog a big bear hug only to be greeted by a low growl from the dog, followed by a scolding to the pet. Or a dog on a leash tenses his body muscles and escalates into a snarl when something in the environment pushes him beyond his comfort level, only to have his leash jerked by the person on the other end.

dog bite prevention - why you should NOT punish your dog for growlingHere is the problem with that. Outside of play, dogs may growl for a number of reasons – whether out of fear or discomfort, resource guarding, or offensive aggression. The common factor in all of these reasons is underlying stress. Dogs growl as a warning signal when their other ways of communicating (such as tense muscles, closed mouth, or looking away) have not worked for them.

Punishing a dog for communicating that things are not right in his world is taking away his early warning signs and his ability to communicate non-aggressively. If you take this tool away from your dog, you are removing the underlying reason for why his behavior had to escalate in the first place. You are in essence taking away his last safety net to give him distance from his trigger, and giving him no other option but to escalate his behavior even further into a bite. Additionally, it can become a

The unfortunate thing is that once your dog has learned that whale eyes, turning away, licking his lips, curling his lip, holding his tail low, or even growling will not work but biting does, that past experience will teach him to choose biting again the next time a situation gets tense.

Please do not blame your dog. Instead thank him for warning you that you need to pay closer attention to his environment and his body language.

Children and adults need to learn how to avoid situations that may cause a dog to growl such as grabbing at your dog’s toy or food, giving him a big bear hug or looming over him. At the same time, beginning early to desensitize your dog to a variety of situations, people, and touching is important because a behaviorally healthy dog will communicate stress and discomfort incrementally starting with the mildest body language.

If a dog growls at you, give him safety by stopping what you are doing and giving him distance from his trigger (whether that is you or something else in the environment). And then analyze what happened so as to avoid situations that cause him to growl in the first place. A trainer who focuses on positive reinforcement can help you with an individualized behavior modification plan.

Reduce Frustration By Changing Your Focus

At an appointment the other day, we were going to go outside to begin working on leash skills. And, as my client picked up the leash, her dog’s arousal quickly rose as he began jumping on her and biting her arms. Frustrated, she told him, “NO!” and tried pushing him down all to no avail. He continued to grab her sleeves.

dog training tips for solving behavior problem by Cincinnati certified dog trainer Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KAThis had been her mode of trying to stop his unwanted behavior in the past…and it was not working. There are many potential reasons for that.

Past experience has probably taught her dog that the leash coming out means valued time exploring the sights and smells of the neighborhood was going to follow. That can be a pretty exciting event in the day of a dog. The thought of that event can understandably cause a dog’s heartrate and activity to increase in anticipation. A human’s movement, attention and loud voice can even heighten that arousal response in the dog. And, if that human then clips on the leash while the dog is exhibiting that set of behaviors, the dog is actually learning that biting, jumping, and pushing get the opportunity to go for a walk. After all, that is what typically happens.

Even if a loud reprimand did work to stop the unwanted behaviors, at least momentarily, the problem with that approach is the handler is not giving the dog enough feedback to help that dog succeed in the future – meaning, the dog is not being taught a different, more human acceptable set of behaviors to get the same result…which is having that leash attached. Other potential problems are the dog will come to associate its handler with that aversive, the dog may shut down and begin showing avoidance behaviors, or even the dog may begin showing some aggression.

Going back to this particular situation, I had my client put the least out of sight and then asked her what behaviors she would like to see in her dog when the leash comes out. Her answer – to sit and look at her while she clipped the leash (and in this case other collar) to her dog’s neck. OK, now THAT is something we can teach her dog.

So, next time she asked her dog to sit before taking out the leash. If he got up and jumped on her, the leash went away. Then after a pause, she started again. And this time he remained seated. She was able to then teach him in small successive steps (this is known as shaping) to remain seated when the leash was shown, then as the leash was presented closer and closer and ultimately clicked on his neck. The process took a couple minutes to teach and we were out the door for more lessons.

When you change your focus from simply stopping behavior to teaching your dog what you would rather see him do, not only will you be solving problems, you will be strengthening your relationship.

Teaching Moments Abound

My reminder to you…every moment of every day is a teaching and learning opportunity for you and your pet. Reinforcers are all around. They are that chance to go outside, to play ball, to clip on a leash, to greet a human, to chew or sniff. They are powerful tools in your behavior change toolbox because every time that you pair one of those valued life experiences with a behavior, you are adding value to that behavior…and you are giving your pet reason to do that behavior again, and again.

reinforcement in dog training

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