Communication Matters

I have long admired Leslie McDevitt, MLA, CDBC, CPDT, and have read her book, Control Unleashed, several times. The first time being early in my career, and it had a lot of influence on me. Leslie teaches how to use games and communication to affect behavior change, and build confidence, trust and focus in the learner. I love that.

How do you and your pet communicate? How you answer that question will go a long way toward helping train your dog or bird (or other pet) in the most positive way. It is that kind of approach to teaching that I am continually striving to improve upon because I see learning in a positive way as discovery and enrichment and empowerment. It is an ongoing process that has huge capacity for improving the quality of life for every student and teacher.

There are so many factors that contribute to dog and parrot training effectiveness; one of those is the nonverbal conversation between both the giver and receiver of information. At any given moment in our relationship, our pets are giving us feedback as to how they are feeling about their environment. They may turn or move away, lick their lips or yawn, stare straight at a stimulus or avoid eye contact, growl or play bow, walk slowly or pull forward or sit and plant their feet stationary when on leash, take food gently or grab it quickly.

If we, as their caretakers, their protectors and their trainers, do not ‘listen to’ and heed what they are trying to tell us, that confidence, trust, focus, and discovery can all break down. Their capacity to learn what it is we are trying to teach breaks down. And our relationship can break down as well.

Earlier this summer I completed IAABC’s two-month Control Unleashed Mentorship with Leslie. In the first week, she shared with us how she has always seen her CU Program as being about that conversation about the environment between itself and its handler, allowing the dog to process information while remaining in a calm and handler-focused (think and learn) state. The dog is empowered by being able to ask to work more or less, to move closer or farther away from something; and to have those requests listened to.

What does this mean? Here are a few personal examples of conversations with a few animals I either have or have trained.

My conversation with a bird

When Dreyfuss, my pionus, is on a window perch, she will either stretch a leg or a wing, stand still, or spread her wings if I come near and she does not want to step up in that moment. On the other hand, if she does want to step up, she may shift her body weight back and forth, lean slightly forward, come closer to me, and even hold one leg up.

If I didn’t understand her body language, and moved my arm in to her body (putting it in a place where she was clearly trying to indicate non-aggressively that she didn’t want there) she would lunge. If that didn’t work, she would escalate her behavior to a bite.

When this happens with other bird owners, often the unknowing person may define their as being dominate, territorial or mean; but as you can see above, really it was just a case of a bird trying to communicate non-aggressively that she wanted to stay where she was at. Unfortunately, with repeated experience, that bird may come to realize the ONLY effective way to communicate with humans is to lunge at or bite them to get them to back off.

Learning how to have that conversation with Dreyfuss, to understand how she communicates, has helped me to modify her behavior in the most humane and positive way. I never force her to step up. I teach her that stepping up gets her good things and we practice it.  When she is on a perch and she does her ‘want to step up’ behaviors, I walk over to her and offer my arm. In this two-way conversation, we are both listening to each other. Dreyfuss is being empowered by having an effective, non-aggressive way to tell me what she wants. And, as a result, she wants to step up more.

A conversation with a dog

The other day, I was at the house of a new client and demonstrating how to teach a reliable sit behavior. We were in a room of their house and before beginning to train, this was a dog that was interacting with me and soliciting attention. However, when I stood there, still and facing him, waiting for him to sit, he would not stop moving.

Was this a case of a dumb or obstinate dog? Nope. This was a dog that was feeling uncomfortable with that pressure. As soon as I turned away and focused in another direction, he came up and sat at my feet. I was able to click and toss a treat away, and he came back and repeated his sit. We had a great game going. And, very quickly as his confidence grew, I was able to face him and he sat.

Without that two-way conversation, a trainer may have felt the need to increase pressure on him instead of decreasing pressure, which ultimately helped both of us succeed.

How do you and your pet communicate? How you answer that question will go a long way toward helping you change behavior in the most positive way.

 

Can I be of more help to you and your pet? Please get in touch!

How To Stop Your Dog From Barking Out Windows

It is not uncommon for people who share homes with a dog to complain about their furry friend bursting into a barking frenzy as a response to seeing or hearing something outside the window. Understandably the noise can be really annoying to human ears, especially when it comes at inopportune times.

There are so many reasons why dogs react to stimulus by barking, panting, running side to side, and have accelerated heart beats. It could be territorial or fear or barrier frustration, or for herding dogs, it could even be due to your dog’s instincts to herd.

If this happens on a regular basis, you may want to take steps to modify your dog’s behavioral reaction.

Here are a few suggestions. Please note that behavior is always the study of one, with differing environments, stimulus and animals. These are some general considerations to think about.

Let’s look at this behavior modification plan from the standpoint of the Humane Hierarchy, a ranking of training methodologies going from least intrusive for the learner to most intrusive. For more on this, please see my post.

Antecedent Arrangement

If you have ruled out a medical or nutritional variable, then let’s begin with antecedent arrangement. What can be done to manage the environment so that a) your pet will not have access to practice that unwanted set of behaviors and b) your pet will have less motivation to do the unwanted set of behaviors.

Remember, practice strengthens behaviors and if your pet has access to seeing and hearing those outside stimulus when you can not be in teaching mode, you will be setting your pet up to keep practicing and getting reinforcement from those behaviors.

If your dog is barking at what he sees out the window, then consider blocking access to that window. Drawing the curtains may not be the solution as curtains can be moved by a pushy nose. Some suggestions are preventing access to the window or applying a cling film (that can be easily removed) to the window (purchased at a home supply store).

If your dog reacts strongly to outdoor noises, playing white noise or a radio may help.

As a motivating operation, if you increase your dog’s mental and physical exercise, you will be making resting more valuable to your dog. Think in terms of exercising your dog’s mind and body through training, thinking toys and games.

Positive Reinforcement

In a controlled setting, when you are fully focused and in training mode, you can teach your dog behaviors you would like to see in him when he sees something outside.

A friend of mine saw trouble ahead when her neighbor began letting two dogs out to run and bark on the other dog training tips: how to stop your dog from barking out the windowside of the fence. Karen first saw Baxter, who is a certified therapy dog, running back and forth and she anticipating the barking that would come next. In that moment, she averted his attention quickly and then started putting together a plan. With high value treats, she began teaching Baxter that the cue ‘doggie doggie’ was for alerting (turning his head to look at them) to the other dogs, and then running to Karen for something awesome. She began teaching this inside, behind a window where Baxter could succeed before moving to outside.

What Karen was doing was very similar to Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That Game beautifully detailed in one of my favorite books, Control Unleashed. In a very simplified description, Look at That teaches your dog that *when* he looks at a stimulus, *then* something awesome happens like a pretty tasty treat getting delivered by a well liked human. As your dog’s teacher, playing this means being in a location and at a time when your dog will not be over threshold (in other words BEFORE the lunging, barking behavior begins). Begin by teaching your dog to look at something more neutral. As soon as your dog notices the stimulus, then you mark that behavior such as with a verbal Yes! or a click, and then follow it with a high value treat. As you have continued success, you can first move this game to a more distracting environment, and then a more distracting stimulus. (Leslie recommends teaching this with a cue.)

Very important here is the timing and consistency with which you teach this. Before going any further, I encourage you to read my post on classical conditioning.

As for timing, remember, for your dog to learn that one stimulus (in Karen’s case, the barking dogs next door) predicts another stimulus (tasty food), then the dogs barking must come before the tasty food.  Marking the very moment your dog sees the stimulus is very important as the quicker that consequence occurs after a behavior, the easier it is for an animal to build the association between behavior and consequence.

The management portion of this plan is important because if you allow your dog to practice reacting to his environment outside of your limited training time, you will make behavior change very difficult.

As for Karen, with enough practice, instead of barking back to the dogs next door, when he hears them outside, he runs to find his housemate.

In your house, you can practice classical conditioning without the cue as well.  In a controlled learning environment and without the cue, practice having your dog see stimulus such as people walking to your door or riding a bike down the sidewalk and immediately follow that with giving your dog a super tasty treat. (beginning this at a distance from the window or with people at a distance from your house where your dog will not begin barking and progressing only at the pace at which your pet can succeed at remaining calm – having relaxed body muscles and normal heartrate). The changes you are seeking are internal, involuntary responses. As trainer Kathy Sdao says, the emotional response to the second stimulus infects the emotional response to the first stimulus. You can do this exact same process only with sounds instead of visual stimulus.

To see a fun example of the effectiveness of classical conditioning, please watch this video.

On a last note, remember, if your dog jumps and barks at the sound of your doorbell, chances are pretty likely he has learned that jumping and barking at the doorbell causes the door to open and either – incredible people or scary creatures to walk in. That is another lesson for another day.

 

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