Dog Arousal And Training

In all my years of sharing a home with dogs, and all my work with them, many times I’ve seen and experienced the impact of arousal on a dog’s ability to learn and problem solve what I am teaching.

dog arousal and trainingI saw that again at a recent workshop of Suzanne Clothier. The demonstration dog was pulling on her owner’s leash from the moment she came out of her crate, barking, wagging her tail, moving quickly, jumping and bumping her handler. And when her owner/handler sat to talk with Suzanne, those behaviors continued. It was of no surprise then, that when her handler got up and asked her to sit, stay or jump over a hurdle, in that moment she was not able to focus and do what was asked. Her clear decision making ability was broken down.

On the other end of the spectrum, I was at a client’s home last week to train his labradoodle. The room wasn’t well lit and she was moving slowly and then layed down on the carpet. In that moment, she was not an active participant in learning controlled behaviors because she valued rest more than she valued movement. She was unmotivated. Continuing to try and teach her active behaviors at that time would have been counterproductive.

While very different and with very different motivations, both of these dogs shared the fact that they were not in their optimal learning zone. I first heard this spoken of in an online course I took from world champion agility trainer, Susan Garrett many years back. Susan (and I have since heard and seen many others since talk about it) told us about a bell curve of arousal for dog learning. A dog that is over stimulated has a difficult time with good  decision making and self control. In simplified terms, inhibitory control refers to the process of altering one’s learned behavioral responses in a way that makes it easier to complete a particular goal. Self control is an important aspect of inhibitory control.

On the other hand, the dog that has too little arousal is distinterested and unmotivated in the lesson.  There is a ‘just right’ place somewhere in the middle where a learner is at its optimal level for focusing.

So, back to those two examples. In Suzanne’s workshop, she worked with the handler in teaching her dog to lower her (the dog’s) arousal – meaning to lay at her feet, relaxing her muscles and lowering her heart rate – while she sat in a chair. When the woman got up to work with her dog after her dog was in a lower arousal state, her dog was able to focus and sit, stay, jump over the hurdle perfectly. With my client, when we walked out of the room and re-entered, his dog was standing wagging her tail, moving around and engaging with us. (Incorporating games like tugging into your training can also help to build arousal in your dog. Just use caution that you don’t play a game that will cause your dog to get over-aroused or you will run into the other problem.) The response we got from asking her to do behaviors was very different. She not only did the behaviors perfectly but with a tail wag too.

I want to note here that there are other considerations too. Not in this case but perhaps your dog is tired because it has had a lot of exercise, it is the end of the day, or you have already been training for a long time and your dog is mentally and physically fatigued.

What is the take away lesson for companion dog owners?  Learning through experience your dog’s sweet spot on that arousal spectrum will go a long way toward helping you both build success. If your dog becomes over stimulated, work on lowering its arousal. You may want to use a more calming voice and slower body movements. Working in an environment with minimum distractions, only adding difficulty as you and your pet can continue to focus on the lesson, allows you to have better control of minimizing or eliminating competing reinforcers. If your dog is on

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.

0-website-post-contactSubscribe to newsletters of Cincinnati dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik

Self Control Is An Important Skill For Dogs

A reminder, teaching your dog or puppy self control skills and to stay is important in so many contexts…waiting at an open door, for calm greetings, for YOU to initiate play as just a few examples. Here are some tips for beginning to teach it.  The game that I show here for teaching self control can be used in so many other applications, substituting other environmental reinforcers for food such as the opportunity to sniff, to play with a ball, to tug, to go outside, to have a leash put on, to go into or out of a car.

tips for teaching dog self control and waiting

Teaching Your Dog Self Control, Zen, Impulse Control

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

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

Teaching is the key word.

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

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

Location: a place with minimal to no distractions

Game time: no longer than three minutes

Game rules:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some more advanced levels of this game include:

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

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

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

What other ways do you teach self control?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Google+