To Change Your Pet’s Behavior, Try Changing The Environment

One of the greatest gifts that behavior science has given me is the incredible ability to modify behaviors in the least intrusive, most positive way. Often times I can set myself and my pets up for success simply by rearranging the Cincinnati certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, explains how arranging the environment can help to solve many dog and bird pet behavior problems.environment to make the wanted behavior easier than the unwanted behavior.

Sound confusing? It is really not.

 The ABC’s

I write a lot about the ABCs of behavior. It is the foundation from which I analyze what my pet is doing and what in the environment is influencing his learning.

Applied Behavior Analysis is a systematic approach to solving behavior problems by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs. It 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.

I’m going to focus on the A (antecedent) in this article. It’s important to note that antecedents do not cause behavior. However, they do serve as a sign to the animal that when A is there, that if the animal does a certain behavior, then there will be a consequence.

The implications of understanding this are huge. Here are some ways I can use antecedent arrangement as an effective, non-intrusive and positive way of setting my pets up for success:

parrot enrichmentKnowing that my bird, Chester (he passed away), was an incessant chewer who could easily destroy furniture (and did a long time ago), I changed the setting of his environment and provided him parrot enrichment activities. I made play stations on the floor to keep him mentally and physically stimulated if he got on the floor. I also weakened his motivation for coming off his cage by giving him lots to chew on inside and outside his cage.

To eliminate any possibility of my bird, Barnaby, from chewing on the window shade near his play cage, I moved the cage away a couple additional inches.

To prevent a puppy from grabbing onto my sweater, I can avoid wearing loose sweaters around that puppy or I can have a toy in my hand and make the toy very exciting or I can avoid sitting or laying on the ground near the puppy.

To prevent our dog, Sam, from barking at neighbors’ dogs, I can avoid leaving him outside by himself and unattended for long periods of time. (and also give him enrichment toys and more exercise…but that is another article)

Next time your pet is doing something you do not like, ask yourself, “Can I rearrange the environment somehow to prevent that behavior from occurring in the first place?”

Your answer may be the difference between your calling your pet ‘brilliant’ and calling him ‘stubborn.’ And I’d prefer brilliance any day.







Realize That Each Dog Will Learn Differently

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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Dog Body Language

When we share our homes with animals who speak a completely different language than we do, misunderstandings can happen so easily and with misunderstandings stress, anxiety and even aggression can easily erupt. I spoke with residents yesterday of a local retirement community where many people share their apartments with furry companions and much of that discussion ended up focusing on how dogs share their feelings. It is so important that I wanted to share it here also. Below is a description of some dog language.

understanding dog body languageHappy

Relaxed body muscles are a sign of a content dog. On its face, the corners of its mouth may be open or turned upwards slightly and it may be panting; its ears will be held neutrally; and its eyes will be normal shaped. While dogs perceive looking directly into each other’s eyes, they have often learned that looking at humans is a good thing (because we teach them positive outcomes occur when they do) so a happy dog may look at your with relaxed muscles. As for its body posture, a content dog will have overall loose muscles and be balancing on four legs. (Note that if it is happy AND in a playful mood, it will not be balancing on all four legs, but rather may have exaggerated movements WITH loose muscles.) Its tail may sway gently from side to side, curl loosely, or be held neutrally.


An excited dog will be alert and focused. Its eyes will be directed toward the stimulus it has detected. Its body will be natural in size but its weight may be centered over its rear or front legs as it readiness itself for movement. Its ears will be up, tail will more than likely be held high (with or without a wag), and mouth will often be open – even barking.


An aroused dog is intensely focused on something and ready for action. Signs to look for include:  ears forward or flattened, a closed or tense mouth, body weight on all four legs, a tail held high or a low, a very deliberate tail wag, tense eyes directed at what it detected, and raised hair on its back. Arousal can indicate alertness, excitement, fear or aggression; and body language will differ depending.


A fearful dog will try to look small, and may hunch over or cower close to the ground. Its tail will be held low or will be tucked between its back legs; and it might have its weight on its back legs to be ready for a quick escape or on its side legs to recoil; or it could either be moving quickly back and forth in hyper vigilance or moving slowly.  Its muscles will be tense. It could either look away from the aversive stimulus or look at what is scaring it. On the face, its ears will probably be flattened; its eyes may be smaller than usual or may show the whites of its eyes; its mouth will probably be closed and its lips may even be pulled back slightly. It may also flick its tongue or do an exaggerated yawn. The dog may also exhibit displacement behaviors – behaviors that are normal except at a time of conflict – such as yawning, licking of lips, sudden scratching or sniffing of ground, wet dog shake.

A fearful dog could escalate too to a growl, bark or worse if there is no escape. A fearful dog is more likely to try to get distance when possible, but if that is not possible, may snarl, growl, snap or bite. Sometimes that dog will wait until the animal or person is moving away, before quickly darting out to nip them from behind.

Imminent Bite

If the dog freezes and becomes stiff, stands with its front legs splayed and its head low (or could be held high) and focused on you, shows its teeth and growls – stop interaction immediately, look away and give the dog a chance to leave. Do not approach the dog, talk to him or make eye contact. If you are trying to get something the dog has, it is best to let it go. Among other warning signs of aggression:  raised hackles (fur along its spine), possible wrinkles around its mouth, tail tucked and stiff or held high and stiff, mouth corner pulled back, its body weight could be over his front or rear legs depending on the situation; and it will usually growl, snarl or bark.

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Proofing and Fluency In Dog Training

It happens so often. People will tell me their dog knows behaviors such as sit, down, and stay but when I ask them to show me, either their dog does not immediately do the behavior or does not do the behavior at all. Or many times a dog will do the behavior that is proofing and fluency in dog trainingcued in one setting but not another.

When it comes to having dog training success (for you and your pet), it is important to understand the concepts of proofing and fluency – used interchangeably sometimes. What they all refer to is how well your pet REALLY knows and understands the behavior in a variety of circumstances and difficulty.

These are some great criteria to think about in terms of proofing and fluency:

PRECISION:  Is your dog doing the behavior just as you want the behavior to look? What should that behavior look like?

SPEED: How quickly does your pet do the behavior?

DURATION: Will your dog remain in position or continue doing the behavior until released to do something else?

LATENCY: Latency is the time between when you give the cue and when your student offers the behavior. Does your dog sit immediately when you ask?

DISTRACTION: Can your pet do the behavior when there are distractions present, of varying levels?

DISTANCE: Can your pet do the behavior when you cue it from 3 feet away? How about across the room or at the other end of the yard?

Different behaviors will have different criteria of relevant importance. In teaching stay for example, the most relevant of these criteria are duration, distance and distraction.

Teaching These Criteria

Firstly, remember, when it comes to teaching behavior, knowing what it is specifically that you are looking for (what should the behavior ‘look like’) is important because if you do not know, you will provide unclear guidance to your learner. For this article, I won’t delve a lot into teaching cues; however, please click here to read more. That is an important step in teaching fluency.

A few more tips on proofing behavior in dog training

  1. Work on one fluency criteria at a time. Initially, you have to ‘get’ the behavior to happen in order to reinforce it (and reinforce it heavily to build value), and give it a cue. So that comes first. (I’m talking about active behaviors vs a stay.) In teaching a stay, the three most important criteria are duration, distraction and distance. As you are working on teaching one criteria (and increasing its difficulty), lower the criteria you are looking for in the other areas. For example, once I have given a cue to the behavior ‘sit’ with specific specifications of what ‘sit’ looks like; while I am teaching latency (sitting immediately when asked), I’ll lower the criteria temporarily of what the behavior of ‘sit’ looks like. When working on a ‘stay’, if I have built up to a minute of duration indoors, I will dramatically lower the duration of the stay when I move to another environment. I will also lower the duration when I introduce distractions.
  2. When introducing distractions, begin with a low level distraction in the same environment with a high rate of reinforcement. As you move to new environments, in the beginning, keep the stimulus (like a group of people or person walking another dog) far enough away that your dog can continue to focus on you. You may want to increase the value of the reinforcer you are using also. (Please click here to read about your pet’s Awesome List.) Only increase the proximity between you and the stimulus when your dog is giving you feedback that he can still do the behavior and show interest in the reinforcer. Always start where you know your dog can succeed; and if he cannot, then take that as your feedback that you need to get further away (and/or lower your criteria and/or have higher value reinforcers).
  3. Once you work through these steps on several behaviors, you’ll find that all subsequently taught behaviors tend to generalize more rapidly.

Remember, learning will come much more quickly when the teacher gives a lesson plan filled with fun!

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The Four Quadrants Of Consequences

Yesterday, I watched as a client’s puppy jumped and wiggled when she tried to clip a leash onto his collar.

“Is that the behavior you would like for him to exhibit each time you present a leash?,” I asked. “No,” was her answer.

I explained how, from her puppy’s standpoint, he is learning that his jumping behavior must be the cause for her to put his leash on since she clips the leash on immediately after he begins jumping. In other words, since his behavior was continuing, and even strengthening, we then know jumping is being positively reinforced by clipping on his leash. I then showed her how to teach him based upon consequences what behavior it was that she wanted him to do instead, which was sitting with his head still while the leash was clipped.

Here is the thing that is so important to remember about behavior. It NEVER occurs in a vacuum. Behavior is simply a tool that animals use to get consequences. They either use behavior to move toward something positive or to move away from something aversive. It is whatever happens immediately AFTER a behavior that influences the future rate of that behavior.

I thought I’d write about those consequences to give you a little more insight. There are four quadrants of consequences. They are Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment and Negative Punishment.

A good way to think about them is in this graphic.

four quadrants of behavior consequences

So, what exactly does all this mean? I’ll explain.

Scientifically speaking Reinforcement is any consequence of a specific behavior that INCREASES and/or STRENGTHENS the future rate of that behavior. Punishment is any consequence of a specific behavior that DECREASES the future rate of that behavior.

People often think that reinforcement only refers to things like food or a toy, but reinforcement by definition simply means ANY consequence that causes a behavior to increase. On the flip side, punishment does not only refer to scolding, spraying with water, or spanking. Punishment is ANY consequence that reduces the probability of a behavior. It is important to note here that ONLY the animal that is doing the behaving chooses whether a consequence is a punisher or a reinforcer. Always, that value is from the eyes of the learner.

As some examples, if, after your bird screams, you yell back at it; and the bird continues to scream and even scream louder, THEN we know that your bird is being reinforced for screaming by you yelling back at it. If you reach down and pet your dog after it jumps on you, then your petting it is reinforcing its jumping. On the other hand, if you walk out of the room when your bird screams and your bird screams less in the future, then, from a scientific standpoint, your leaving the room is punishing your bird’s screaming behavior. Similarly, if your dog begins barking and pawing in his crate when you walk away; after which, you turn around to tell him quiet AND his behavior continues when you begin to walk away; then you know your turning back around and talking to him (attention) is reinforcing his pawing/barking.

Let’s break this down even further.


Within Reinforcement, there is Positive (R+) and Negative (R-).  R+ means something is added to the environment that is of value to that animal.  To that animal being the key words. You may think you are giving your pet (or child or co-worker for that matter) positive reinforcement by giving it a treat or toy, but if the rate of that behavior is not increasing, then by definition it is not a reinforcer to that learner.  (Please see my post on the difference between reward and reinforcement.) Let’s say for example, you are teaching your dog to come to you and when he gets there you give him a nice head rub while telling him he is a good boy. BUT he begins coming LESS to you when you call. Then, you are actually not reinforcing his recall behavior. In fact you are by definition punishing it.  If, on the other hand, you give your dog a nice piece of meat or take out a favorite tug toy when your dog comes, and he comes MORE often and more quickly with a tail wagging, then you know you are giving an R+ consequence.

Looking at a scenario with a bird, if your bird begins to scream when you pick up the telephone; and the consequence is your putting the phone back down (which inevitably you will need to do eventually); and your bird screams MORE when you answer the phone, then we know that your bird is receiving R+ for screaming when you answer a call. (Note: Important to solving this behavior problem then is figuring out what that consequence is that is maintaining the behavior in that circumstance.)

R- on the other hand means something that the learner considers aversive is removed from the environment immediately following a behavior. If, after your dog growls at you, and you back away, then your dog is being reinforced negatively for growling and he will growl more when you approach him (probably at a specific time or circumstance). His growling worked to get something aversive, which was you, to back away. (Please read my post on what you should do if your dog growls.)  If, an approaching stranger takes steps backward after a bird runs to the back of his cage; and that bird runs to the back of his cage more when someone it does not know comes close, then that bird’s behavior is being negatively reinforced.


Positive Punishment (P+) refers to a consequence that is adding something to the environment that is aversive to the learner immediately after a behavior. If you jerk your dog’s leash or give him a shock using an E-collar when he pulls on a leash; and he pulls on the leash less in the future, then you are using P+.

If you wobble your hand when your bird (who is standing on it) puts his head down to nip at you, and your bird puts his head down less in the future, then you are also using P+. You have added something unpleasant to your pet’s environment.

Negative Punishment (P-) refers to a consequence that is removing something positive from the environment to decrease the probability of a behavior. When you turn your back and walk out of the room when your dog barks in his crate or your bird screams in his cage, if the barking and screaming behaviors decrease in the future, then you have used negative punishment (assuming that your dog and bird see value in your presence).


Learning and understanding this, you realize that using positive reinforcement 100% of the time would be difficult to do; however, I make the commitment to use the most positive and humane strategies possible to modify and manage behavior.

The Humane Hierarchy is a ranking of training methodologies going from least intrusive for the learner to most intrusive with Level 1 being the most socially acceptable and giving the animal the highest amount of control. How do you think those quadrants rank in terms of most positive to the learner? Please click here to find out and learn more about the Humane Hierarchy.

A Tip For Parents Of Kids And A Dog

On teaching loose leashing walking with your dog and your child….

On growing Dog Super Heroes: First teach your dog the value of walking by YOUR side by marking and reinforcing your dog for being next to you; and then teach your child how to be a calm, positive teacher to your dog the same way. Dog Super Heroes know they should never pull on their dog’s collar or jerk his leash because dogs do not like that and could even be injured. If you live in Cincinnati, and have a child between the age of 6 and 10, please consider joining me for my My Dog’s Super Hero class Jan 23 at United Pet Fund. Special thanks to my friends at Hulafrog Cincinnati Eastside, OHCincinnati Family Magazine and Hamilton County Public Health for helping to spread the word.

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.

Link to info and registration for My Dog’s Super Hero, a Cincinnati dog training (and bite prevention) class for kids, please click here.

dog training tip: teaching kids about training their dog on loose leash walking

Canine Hip Dysplasia: Symptoms and Exercises

Do you know what hip dysplasia is in dogs? And what types of exercise can help a dog that has it? I spoke with Physical Therapist Ginger Jones, CCRP, at Care Center Animal Hospital in Cincinnati about the symptoms of hip dysplasia and some helpful exercises for dogs.

Care Center Animal Hospital in Cincinnati uses a water treadmill to exercise dogs with arthritis or hip dysplasiaHip dysplasia is one of the most skeletal diseases in dogs. It is an abnormal formation of the hip joint, which includes a ball and socket, and which can lead to gradual deterioration and loss of function.

While any dog can develop it. Large and giant breeds such as German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Saint Bernards, and Great Danes have likelier genetic predispositions to it.

Here are some symptoms to watch for:

  • Difficulty rising from a seated or laying down position
  • Reluctance to climb stairs, jump or run
  • Pain in hip joints
  • Having back legs unnaturally close together
  • Decreased muscle mass in the thighs
  • Enlarged shoulder muscles from bearing more weight on the front legs
  • Decreased activity
  • Lameness
  • Shifting their whole back end to move their back legs

 “As soon as you learn your dog has it, it is important to begin exercises to strengthen muscles and stabilize the joint,” Ginger said.

Types of exercises recommended by Ginger for dogs with hip dysplashia:

  • Incorporate into your walks going uphill some so as to shift his weight to his back legs to strengthen those muscles.
  • Practice sitting and getting back up for both strengthening muscles and stability. It is important to begin with a small number of sits in the beginning and gradually increase that.
  • If your dog has not had surgery, be careful with jumps as the pushing off can be painful; however, you can gradually build up to running some. Ginger recommends beginning with three 5 minute walks, adding a couple minutes daily each week. Once you get to a 20 minute walk, THEN she said you can initiate some jogging. “It is okay to run some as long as you build up to it first,” Ginger told me.
  • Swimming and walking on a water treadmill are good exercises.
  • Pushing a ball is a good exercise as it requires your dog to hold his head down, which takes the weight off of his hips and not all exercise should be about adding weight to the hips.
  • Doing an activity that requires your dog to move his head from side to side also helps with stability and core strength as he shifts his body weight with the movement.
  • Balance exercises are great. Smaller dogs can stand on a Bosu ball and practice shifting their weight from right to left. You can also practice having your dog raise one front paw and then the other, and practice walking on uneven surfaces.
  • An exercise to avoid is agility as this requires too much fast paced, quick directional change movement.
  • For front limbs, walking is important. Giving your dog a treat ball will cause your dog to lower his head and put more weight on his front limbs. You can also put something on your dog’s nose, which will encourage him to use his front limbs to get it off. Walking downhill is also good for front leg work.
  • Caveletti exercises are good for arthritis and hip dysplasia as they increase the range in the front and hind limbs, increase flexion, and is good for placement of the feet and balance, and core strength. You want to start at a very low height and build it up. Six caveletties is a good number for that.

Some other additional tips Ginger suggested:

  • A good, well cushioned orthopedic bed goes a long way. For larger dogs who don’t want to lay on a bed due to its warmth, you may want to buy a cooling mat.
  • A slick surface is more difficult for your dog to move on and may limit his mobility further. Area rugs, gym or yoga mats placed on wood floors will be helpful.
  • Extra weight means more pressure on those joints so if your dog is some extra pounds, consider putting him on a diet.
  • With arthritis, the best modality is heat. Before any exercise, Ginger recommends putting a heated rice bag on your dog’s problem joint and doing some warm up exercises before a walk.
  • Your vet may recommend anti-inflammatory supplements.

Tips For Stopping A Pet’s Problem Behavior

I get the question all of the time…”How do I STOP my pet’s (unwanted) behavior?”

Many times when I ask follow up questions, I learn the question was asked because attempts at stopping the behavior Tips for solving dog and parrot problem behaviorhave failed.

Here is the thing to keep in mind about behavior. If it is occurring, it is happening because it has a reinforcement history. Simply stated, behavior is a tool that living beings use to get consequences. If the behavior serves to get the animal something of value (to the animal) – meaning the behavior is followed by something the animal values – then you will see more of that behavior. Researcher Edward Thorndike named that relationship between behavior and its consequences the Law of Effect; and it states that the strength of a behavior depends on its past effects on the environment. (Paul Chance: Learning & Behavior, fifth edition)

Okay, so what does this have to do with why those attempts at stopping unwanted behavior are not working?

The simple answer is because that behavior is still getting your pet something it values – maybe it is not every time, but at least sometimes, your pet can count on a consequence it wants. This is called an intermittent reinforcement schedule and it is the best way to build long lasting, strong behaviors as you are also turning your pet into a gambler. That reinforcement may not necessarily be from you (it could be the release of adrenalin when your dog barks at a stimulus or it could be the sensory stimulation of having something in his mouth when a teething puppy grabs a cloth), but it could also be reinforcement you do not even realize you are giving.  Maybe when your dog jumps on you, you ask him to sit – a behavior that was taught with a VERY STRONG reinforcement history which makes sitting a reinforcer for jumping because you asked for it immediately upon your dog jumping. Uh oh!

It could also be that the competing reinforcers for doing an unwanted behavior way outweigh any negative punishment you may use (such as a leash jerk). Your dog will then continue to run to the end of a leash toward the distraction because past history tells your dog that action is off the charts in terms of sensory stimulation, adrenal rush, possibility of play, etc. Withstanding a leash jerk may be worth the effort – or it could be that your dog becomes so focused on that distraction that he just physically cannot think about you.

Complicating matters further, in the times that you try to simply just ‘ignore’ a problem behavior, you have probably learned that it is a nearly impossible task to do. You may inadvertently do something that could potentially be reinforcing your pet’s behavior without realizing it, like batting a pawing dog which could be a sign of play or looking at a screaming bird.

Something else that will more than likely happen when you try to ignore an unwanted behavior is that your pet will increase the intensity of that behavior. The scientific explanation for this is called ‘extinction burst’. In operant learning (learning from the consequences of behavior), extinction means withholding the reinforcing consequences of a behavior. While the overall effect of extinction in dogs, parrots and other pets is to reduce the frequency of the behavior, the immediate effect is often an abrupt increase in the behavior. (Learning and Behavior by Paul Chance)

During the extinction burst, you may think you have just made your pet’s problem worse; however, if and only if you can continue to withhold reinforcing consequences from that behavior, then you will more than likely see a fairly rapid decline in the behavior. But if you can not continue to withhold reinforcing consequences and you ‘sometimes’ give in by paying attention to your pet, getting him a treat, etc, then guess what? Congratulations, you have just taught your pet that only the escalated behavior is what gets him that valued outcome.

There is a lot to think about here. The overarching theme, however, is that failed attempts at modifying unwanted behaviors make it that much more difficult to create change. The good news is that animals are constantly learning, and so there are teaching opportunities within every day.

How can you solve it?

In a very simplified explanation, begin by focusing not on STOPPING an unwanted behavior, but by arranging the environment so as to try to prevent your pet from practicing (and building a reinforcement history from) that behavior (as much as possible, anyway) while teaching your pet another, acceptable behavior that can serve to get him the same or higher value than the unwanted behavior. On the occasion that your pet does do the unwanted behavior, pay attention to assure that behavior does not get anything of value – or as little value as possible.

For the dog who is on leash and working around distractions, several things his caregiver can do to help him succeed include having enough distance from the distraction where he can be below threshold; and having his caregiver mark and reinforce him for noticing the distraction while continuing to have loose body language and maybe even looking back at his caregiver. In other words, having enough distance so that he is least likely to practice running to the end of his leash (and getting reinforced for it) while also teaching him that staying near his caregiver with loose body language in the presence of a distraction is pretty awesome.

Below is a three step process.

  1. Ignore the unwanted behavior. Period. If your dog is pushing your knee or whining to get your attention, it is best to get up without any eye contact and simply turn away or leave the room.
  2. Differential reinforcement. While you are ignoring the unwanted behavior, reinforce either an alternative behavior (one that takes the place of the unwanted behavior) or an incompatible behavior ( one that cannot be physically done at the same time as an unwanted behavior – laying on a mat is incompatible with bumping your knee)
  3. Thoughtfully arrange the environment. If you do not want your dog to bump you when you sit on the couch when you watch tv, some solutions can be putting him in another room or tiring him out with exercise prior to your favorite show so that resting is his more valuable choice.

My favorite parts of solving behavior issues this way is that you are actually providing enrichment opportunities for your pet as you are teaching these new skills, you are making learning positive, and you are strengthening your relationship with your pet.

Halloween Behavior Tips For Your Dog

We’re coming up on one of my favorite holidays, Halloween, but it is not necessarily the favorite holiday for pets. Here are a few behavioral tips to help your pet have a stress free holiday.

A note about costumes
If you want to dress your dog in an outfit, please make should make sure your dog is comfortable. Dogs will communicate this with their bodies.  Some signs of a happy dog are:  Should dogs wear Halloween costumes? How to have a stress free holiday for your dogrelaxed body muscles; loose lips or even open mouth with loose tongue; rhythmic panting. If wearing an outfit causes your dog to feel stressed, he may be more likely to become reactive – especially when on a leash, in the dark, with so many strange sights and sounds and kids running around. Some signs that a dog is not comfortable include: his tail may be down, his body may be tight, he may have a tense mouth, you will see the whites on the sides of his eyes, his ears may be back, he may yawn or lick his chops.

Exercise your dog well BEFORE Trick-or-Treaters arrive
By doing this you will raise the value of rest and lower the value of excitable behaviors.

Teach behavior skills IN ADVANCE of the holiday
If your want your dog with you when opening your front door or while sitting at the street, the time to be teaching behaviors such as settle, sit/down, stay, and calm greetings is before that first doorbell on October 31.

Teach dog positive associations with Halloween noises and possible sights
In advance of the holiday, you will help your pet by teaching him positive associations with the strange costumes and noises that will be around. Practicing pairing noises with a tasty treat while your dog is not stressed will help to teach him those noises and sights are good things.

Systematic desensitization is a positive approach to not just overcoming fear, but also to         teaching the animal to re-associate the fear-eliciting stimulus into a feel-good eliciting             stimulus. (This process is called counter conditioning.) With systematic desensitization, you      gradually expose the animal to what is scary to it and the criteria for advancing to the next     step is your watching his calm behavior and only moving forward at a pace that does not elicit       even the mildest of fear responses. The beauty of this is that the animal is always in total control. And empowerment builds confidence. If you need some guidance for doing this successfully, please seek professional help

Dogs with any kind of reactivity and/or fear issues should be out of sight
You may have the best of intentions, thinking you are helping your pet to get used to different sights and sounds but if your dog has an established fear response, you could actually be increasing your pet’s emotional response. The time for successful counter conditioning is not in the height of an environment where the dog is overwhelmed with stimulus.


Six Tips To Use Distractions In Dog Training

It is a very common problem of companion pet owners. Their dog ‘knows’ a particular behavior like sit or stay but seems to completely forget or tune out when there are distractions around. And often that dog may be labeled bull-headed, stubborn, dumb, or dominate.

dog training tips for using distractionsThe reality, however, is any number of reasons… the behavior may not have a strong reinforcement history, it may not have been taught with consistency, there may be a stronger value for the dog to do anything but the behavior asked for are just some of the potential causes but none of them have to do with the labels listed above.

I was just working with one of my puppy clients the other day who thinks everything that moves and tastes yummy is absolutely fascinating. When we began working on loose leash skills, instead of working against those distractions (a battle that will be hard fought) we worked WITH them.

In her first lesson, she was catching on pretty quickly the contingency that *if* she runs to the end of her leash after a moving leaf, *then* the opportunity to chase it went away but *if* she took even one step in the beginning with me or her owner, *that* she got the opportunity for awesome fun of leaf chasing.  We also worked on the same type of exercise adding in asking her to sit for the opportunity to get food in a bowl or greet a stranger walking by.

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 out to do other activities I would rather do. Therefore, I am more probable to get this done quickly to be able to leave my house and the opportunity to leave has become my reinforcer for writing.

From this puppy’s perspective, chasing leaves is a highly probable behavior. Sitting and walking on a loose leash are less probable, but the sitting and walking on a loose leash can become more probable to her by pairing those behaviors with the consequence of chasing leaves.

Here is the thing. If your learner is SO focused on that other stimulus that she cannot think about anything else, then you as her teacher can make some modifications in your lesson plan to help her succeed.

Remember, the less opportunities there are for your student to practice (and get reinforced) for unwanted behavior choices, the quicker you will be able to teach and build value for wanted behavior choices.

Here are a few tips of training your dog (or other pet) successfully with distractions:

Add distance

If your pet is so close that all she can think about is the distraction, then you are too close. Back up to where you and your student can succeed and begin working on the behavior then. Here is a post I wrote about how adding distance from a front door was how I taught a dog to eventually sit at the door.

Distance is your friend whether you are working on a reactivity issue or teaching self control. By exposing your student to a stimulus at a level that does not evoke an undesired response and gradually increasing the intensity of the stimulus as your pet can continue to succeed (either with relaxed body muscles for a reactive dog or with the ability to do a specific behavior), you are desensitizing her to that environmental stimulus.

Easy Does It On Distractions

Add distractions only at a level where your pet can continue to succeed. Just because your student can sit in your quiet living room and on your porch, does not mean you are ready to take that training to an active park or pet store.

Compiling a list of potential distractions will help, ranking them according to their level of distraction. And know that distractions are cumulative, meaning several low level distractions in an environment can add up to a higher level distraction.

As You Increase Difficulty With One Criteria, Lower Other Criteria

Know that as you add distractions, this is going to make the lesson plan more difficult, so lowering other criteria will be helpful. For example, if, in your home you had worked up to 30 second duration and being able to walk five feet from your pet with your down/stay behavior; know that when you take this lesson on the road, in a more distracting environment, you will want to begin working with much less distance and much less time duration, and work back up to those criteria.

Increase The Rate Of Your Reinforcement

This is sort of an extension of my previous tip on lowering criteria. Increasing the rate of reinforcement can help you to keep your pet’s focus around environmental distractions. As an example, if your dog is walking with a loose leash next to you on a quiet street and you are able to mark and reinforce that behavior only once every twenty to thirty steps; when walking your dog in a new environment with more distractions, you may need to temporarily lower that criteria to reinforcing every few steps and building back up to higher criteria.

Increase The Value Of Reinforcement

Remember, when teaching by choice, animals will make a decision based upon which choice will get them the greatest value. Knowing your pet’s Awesome List is so important, and that changes. Do not try to compete against something your pet REALLY wants unless you stack the odds in your favor. (And remember, those distractions can actually be used as reinforcers too!) You can also use play as a reinforcer, such as tugging. A dog who is fully engaged in a game of tug or chasing a Frisbee is a dog that is not fully engaged in noticing the person walking by.  (Please note that if your dog is fearful and reactive to stimulus, you may want to work with a positive trainer to help teach your dog a new association with that aversive stimulus.)

Practice, Practice, Practice

There really is no quick fix to teaching solid behaviors around distractions. Consistent training with much practice in a variety of settings with valued reinforcement, accurate marking of behavior, and smart trainer decisions about when to raise and lower behavior criteria will get you there.


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