Category: Training

What Makes a Great Training Treat?

02Helpful Hints, Training, UncategorizedTags: , , ,
Dog Eating Treat

Be sure to pick a training treat that your dog enjoys!

At last, here is my written answer to the number one question I receive from owners learning to use clicker training with their dogs… what makes a great training treat? Here are the things I tell my clients to consider when choosing treats to use while training their dogs.

Size

You will be using a lot of treats when training your dog. In order to avoid weight gain, cut your treats into the tiniest pieces possible. My rule of thumb is that treats should be no larger than the size of a pea; for itty-bitty dogs, the treats should be half that size. I can tell you that there is no commercial dog training treat on the market that I have found that is small enough for training. I buy the usual “training treats” like Zuke’s and soft Tricky Trainers from Cloud Star and break them in half. Any soft treat can be cut into smaller pieces.

Texture

As a general rule, I do not use crunchy treats when training my dogs, and I suggest that my students avoid them too. Crunchy treats make a mess and encourage your dog to sniff the floor and hunt for crumbs, taking their attention from you. Dog biscuits are okay as an occasional snack, but leave them out of your organized training sessions. Soft treats are much easier and faster for dogs to chew.

Every once in a blue moon, I do encounter a dog that strongly prefers crunchy treats to soft ones! For those dogs, biscuits made for “small breed” dogs and freeze-dried treats tend to work quite well.

Taste

The golden rule of dog training is this: your dog decides what is reinforcing. One dog’s favorite, most desired treat might be mediocre to one dog, and revolting to another. Experiment with different flavors and textures of treats: sweet, salty, meaty, crunchy, chewy, mushy. Make a list of treats that your dog enjoys and try to build on it.

Offering your dog a treat they do not like can actually be punishing to them. Imagine a food that you hate: perhaps cilantro, sardines, or jalapeños. Now imagine that you walked to a nearby convenience store and all they had for sale was that food, and that food only. How likely would you be to go to that store again?

Ease of Handling

You need to be able to get treats out of your pocket or bait bag quickly, and shuffle treats around in your hand with ease. If they are sticky or goopy, it will slow down your training.

Cheese is a very popular dog treat, but warm temperatures (such as your body heat) can cause it to become melty or oily. Keeping cheese in a cooler until you use it will help tremendously.

That being said, dogs tend to love certain types of food that is not very easy to handle, such as canned dog food and peanut butter, and with a bit of ingenuity you can still use these things. You can use a spoon to deliver it to your dog. A long-handled wooden spoon works great for tall handlers with small dogs. A refillable squeeze tube like a GoToob is another great way to dispense soft, mushy food.

Visibility

In certain situations, you will want treats with a certain appearance. If you are tossing treats on to your dog’s mat or into the crate, you will want to make sure there is a color contrast between the treat and the surface you are putting it on. So if your dog’s crate is black, use light-colored treats so your dog can find them quickly. Time spent sniffing around, hunting for treats is time wasted. Similarly, if you’re tossing treats, you may not want a round treat that will roll away from your dog.

The Power of Peanut Butter

21Group Classes, Helpful Hints, Reactive Dogs, TrainingTags: , , , , , ,
Peanut Butter

Behold! One of the most versatile dog training tools known to man. (Photo Credit: Victoria Chilinski)

What’s your favorite training tool? Dog trainers are always looking for the latest and greatest items to add to their bag of tricks. My answer can be found at any supermarket or convenience store: peanut butter!

For Agility Dogs

My passion for peanut butter began while attending agility classes with Tessie. She is a whiner, and would anxiously await her next turn on the equipment by making all sorts of strange noises. Springers are capable of making some pretty bizarre sounds and Tessie is no exception. (We call her the canine tea kettle.) A PB-stuffed Kong kept her quiet and relaxed while waiting in her crate.

Later in her agility career, I discovered that Clean Run sells refillable squeeze tubes. By filling one with peanut butter, I could keep Tessie’s focus ringside. This was something I struggled with because Tessie doesn’t enjoy tugging away from home. (Canned dog food works really well in squeeze tubes, too!)

For Reactive Dogs

My next great peanut butter discovery came while working with our puppy Finch. He is reactive towards people and other dogs. Finch strongly prefers playing with toys over eating treats, especially outdoors, which is where he sees his triggers. PB was the answer. It was valuable enough to him that he would take it while working outside. I also use crunchy peanut butter to disguise his pills — the broken pill pieces blend right in with the nut chunks!

I think that there is more to this than enjoying a tasty snack, though. My theory is that the act of licking is calming to the brain. I think it may have its roots in nursing behavior. Horses exhibit a “lick and chew” displacement behavior which is sort of like an equine calming signal. Perhaps someday someone will research this — does the use of a “lickable” treat promote calm, relaxed behavior?

Kong toys are perfect for enjoying peanut butter! (Photo by OakleyOriginals)

I have noticed other benefits, too. Other dog trainers often use peanut butter for dogs that tend to bark during group training classes. The PB basically glues the dog’s tongue to the roof of his mouth, allowing the owner a chance to reinforce quiet, polite behavior.

For that reason, I began using PB with my Reactive Recovery students. That class is the noisiest, with several dogs that will start barking at the drop of a hat (literally!). It did help to quiet the class down, but it had a wonderful side effect. The dogs made the silliest faces as they licked the peanut butter from their muzzles, and the owners began to laugh!

The tension level in the class dropped dramatically. With the laughing came more relaxed handlers. They felt more comfortable in class and progress came more quickly as a result.

Peanut butter also provides another benefit while working with reactive or fearful dogs: counter-conditioning. Typically, counter-conditioning is done by feeding the dog lots of tasty treats while being exposed to a trigger (like a person approaching). No trigger = no treats.

Using PB takes some of the work out of counter-conditioning, because it takes the dog several seconds of licking to fully consume it. The whole time this is happening, the brain is making the association between the trigger and the wonderful taste of peanut butter.

For Excited, Jumpy Dogs

In one of my Basic Dog Manners classes, I discovered another fun use for PB: teaching four-on-the-floor to a very bouncy dog. Capturing moments of calm was difficult, particularly when working on loose leash walking. But we soon found that the little dog couldn’t eat peanut butter and jump at the same time!

As she licked and licked to get the PB off the roof offer mouth, she walked calmly with all four feet on the ground. Another student remarked that the change was so significant that it was if that dog had been drugged. Never before have I so desperately wished for “before and after” video clips. It was quite remarkable.

In conclusion, now I crack open a jar of peanut butter and prepare a few plastic spoons before all of my classes! I’ll leave you with this video clip of Finch enjoying peanut butter as a five-month-old puppy. If this doesn’t make you smile, I don’t know what will! 🙂

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Training How-To: Loose Leash Walking

00Training, Tutorials and How-To GuidesTags: ,

What is loose leash walking? Loose leash walking is an informal leash walking behavior. It’s not “heeling”, which is a precision walking behavior required for obedience competitions, but it can be a precursor to that. While loose leash walking it is acceptable if your dog sniffs, lags behind you, or forges ahead of you a little bit, as long as the leash stays loose.

Keeping the leash loose is a two-way street. Remember, your dog can’t walk politely if you are pulling her! (Photo Credit: Dave Fayram)

Why does my dog need to know it? Leash manners are invaluable for all dogs. Imagine taking your dog for a walk around the block, on a hike, or even just out to pee without getting dragged around. It is also important to teach for safety’s sake – a pulling dog is dangerous on icy sidewalks or steep stairs.  Plus, your dog walker will love you for training it!

How do I teach it? LLW is a duration behavior. Duration behaviors are taught in tiny increments. Remember, we don’t ask for a 15-minute sit stay right off the bat, so we don’t ask for 2 minutes of perfect LLW immediately either. Start teaching loose leash walking in a quiet, neutral environment like your living room or bedroom. To teach it, shape it step-by-step: take a step forward, and click and feed your dog a treat right at your side before your dog has the opportunity to sniff or wander off. Take another step, and click and treat for the same behavior. Repeat.

Using a head halter can decrease the likelihood that your dog will attempt to pull. (Photo Credit: Robert Tadlock)

If at all possible, try to feed your dog in motion, without stopping, when giving the dog a treat. It builds the behavior faster. Also, make sure treats are soft and very tiny so they can be eaten quickly while the dog is moving.

Gradually work up to taking two steps before clicking and treating. Then three steps. Once you have worked up to three steps, randomize how many steps you take before clicking and treating. Don’t always make it harder and harder (for example, 5 steps, 6 steps, 8 steps) because it reduces motivation. “Ping-pong” it by randomizing how many steps you ask for (3 steps, 1 step, 5 steps, 2 steps) for the best results. By varying the duration in this manner, you can work up to longer periods of LLW without losing your dog’s focus.

Remember that loose leash walking on a busy road or near the dog park is a lot harder for your dog than doing it in your backyard. As a result, be sure to decrease duration back down to 2-3 steps per click in exciting environments, and use high-value, super tasty treats when working near a lot of distractions to ensure your dog is successful. Loose leash walking is a hard behavior for dogs to learn – do not ask for too much too soon! It takes weeks of training to teach this behavior reliably, so be consistent and practice often.

We recommend that owners purchase a front-clip harness, such as the Freedom harness, and use that while taking their dogs for walks while the dog is still mastering LLW. Front-clip harnesses discourage pulling by gently turning the dog back towards you if he pulls. It is much harder for a dog to pull you anywhere when he is wearing a front-clip harness. Head halters can be used in a similar manner. Regardless of the equipment you decide to use, success comes from using a high rate of reinforcement to reward the dog for staying by your side and not rushing forward. Happy training!

Training How-To: Get on the Mat

01Training, Tutorials and How-To GuidesTags: ,
Dog on a Bed

You can use any object as your dog’s mat! Dog beds are a popular choice, but towels and small blankets work well, too. (Photo Credit: Howard Young)

What is “Get on the Mat”? The dog learns to relax on a ‘mat’ – a specific towel, blanket, or dog bed. This mat can be moved to any location, like your kitchen, the vet’s office, or the car, and your dog will know to stay on it and relax.

Why does my dog need to know it? Getting on a mat is a great behavior for dogs that are “on the go”. Dogs that know a mat behavior can be taken anywhere, because they will be able to settle down and relax once they get there. Their owners are then free to enjoy themselves and not have to worry about what their dog is getting into.

A mat behavior is also excellent for dogs that are a nuisance when visitors arrive to the home. Whether the dog is barking, jumping up on guests, or bolting out the front door, laying on a mat is an easy-to-teach behavior that is incompatible with those actions.

How do I teach it? First, choose your mat. This can be a towel, bath mat, fabric placemat, carpet sample, or dog bed. (In the future, you can generalize this behavior to other mats. Initially, use the same mat each time you train.) Next, get out your clicker, and prepare some tiny, soft, tasty treats that your dog really enjoys.

Sit on the floor, and place your mat in front of you. When your dog approaches, click and toss the treat on the mat. Then, click and treat your dog several times just for being on the mat, placing the treat either on the mat or directly into his mouth. Next, click and throw the treat off of the mat. (This “resets” the dog to approach the mat again. This is a two-part behavior: the dog needs to get on the mat, and then stay on the mat.) Click and treat when your dog gets back on the mat. Once again, click and treat several times, and then click and throw the treat off of the mat.

Dog in Car

This dog is very relaxed on his mat and is safely restrained in the car by a seatbelt harness. (Photo Credit: Jojof – Flickr)

Now move the mat just a couple of inches away from you. Again, click and treat when your dog gets on the mat, repeat several times, then click and throw a treat. Move the mat again. Keep moving the mat a few inches at a time so your dog learns to look for it no matter where it is placed in the room. Once your dog is reliably getting on the mat anywhere you put it, take it to other places in the house, in the yard, and even in the car to help cement your dog’s understanding of the behavior.

Next, shape for relaxation by rewarding sits, then downs on the mat. Delay your clicks to build duration one second at a time. Once the dog is consistently offering to lay down on the mat, encourage relaxation by giving the dog a favorite chew toy or bone on the mat, or by doing gentle, relaxing massage while your dog hangs out on his mat. Happy training!

Stop Free-Feeding: How to Feed Your Dog Regular Meals

00Helpful Hints, Training, Tutorials and How-To GuidesTags: , , ,
Stop Free Feeding Your Dog

Is there always a bowl of food on your kitchen floor? If so, you’re free-feeding. (Photo by JnL on Flickr.)

One of the first management recommendations I make to my clients is to stop “free-feeding” their dog. Free-feeding means leaving a bowl of dog food on the ground for hours at a time, if not all day long, rather than giving the dog regularly scheduled meals which need to be eaten immediately.

Here are some of the problems with free-feeding:

Free-fed dogs are harder to housebreak. Scheduled input of food means scheduled output of poop. If you’ve got a new puppy and you’re free-feeding it, you’re making house training infinitely harder.

It limits your dog’s motivation to eat treats. When I have a new client who complains, “My dog isn’t food motivated!“, more often than not, they’re free-feeding the dog. I tell clients this is like having a bowl full of $1 bills on the table, free for the taking, then telling your child he needs to earn his $5 weekly allowance. Why would he work when he can just grab a fistful of dollars when he wants?

You don’t know if your dog’s appetite has decreased. This can be a tell-tale sign of illness. When I feed my dogs, they immediately wolf down their food. If I ever put down a bowl of food and one of my dogs didn’t eat, that would earn them an immediate trip to the veterinarian. Also, if your dog ever needs emergency surgery, the vet will want to know when your dog last ate. If you’re free-feeding, that answer could be 30 minutes ago or 3 hours ago – you have no way of knowing.

It attracts pests. Disgusting but true – we’ve found ants and mouse poop in and around the food bowls of dogs that are free-fed.

Additionally, almost every free-fed dog I have met is overweight. Rarely, a dog may have a medical condition requiring it to be free-fed. If that’s the case, follow your veterinarian’s advice when it comes to feeding your dog.

How to Make a Change

If you’re ready to stop free-feeding your dog, here’s how you do it.

Step 1: Decide how often you are going to feed your dog. For most dogs, twice a day is enough – once in the morning and once at night. Puppies and small-breed dogs may do better being fed three times per day.

Step 2: Decide how much you are going to feed your dog. Some owners actually don’t know how much food their dog eats in a given day – they just keep the bowl full, and if it gets low, they dump in some more kibble. Use the amount listed on the dog food bag as a guideline for how much to feed your dog. (In my experience, these amounts tend to over-estimate how much food your dog needs.)

Step 3: Pick up the food bowl and clean it thoroughly. If you’ve been free-feeding for awhile, chances are it’s been awhile since your dog’s bowl was washed.

Step 4: At the next scheduled mealtime, measure out your dog’s food in the bowl and place it on the ground. Set a kitchen timer or your phone alarm to go off in 15 minutes and let your dog eat. She may not eat anything! Don’t worry about it.

Step 5: When that timer goes off, pick up the food bowl. If there’s anything left, measure it and subtract that from your first measurement so you know how much food your dog ate. Throw out whatever’s left.

Step 6: Do not give your dog any food until the next scheduled feeding. (An occasional training session or small snack is okay, but nothing more!)

Step 7: At your next scheduled mealtime, repeat steps 4 and 5.

Within 48 hours your dog should be eating most if not all the food you give her, and will begin eating as soon as the bowl hits the ground.

Troubleshooting

“My dog isn’t finishing her meals!” If your dog consistently does not finish her meals, you are probably offering too much food. Reduce the amount of kibble accordingly.

“My dog eats everything in her bowl and still seems hungry!” Most dogs are always “hungry” – self-control is not their strong suit. If your dog is wolfing down her food and you are feeding the amount suggested on the dog food bag, do not give her more food yet – wait a week or so, see if she’s gaining or losing weight, and adjust accordingly.

“My dog isn’t interested in the food when I put it down, so I added a little water/broth/chicken/dog treats/cat food…” Stop! Your dog is training you. If she ignores her food, you’ll add something exciting to it, therefore she continues to ignore her food until there’s a nice snack in it. If you want to give your dog a special snack, use it as a training treat, or add it to the food bowl before you put it on the ground – not after she’s decided to ignore her regular kibble.

It’s That Simple

This process really is not that difficult. All you need to do is stick to your guns, put down dog food 2-3 times a day, and not add any “goodies” trying to entice your dog to eat. A healthy dog absolutely will not starve herself. If you are concerned about your dog’s health, contact your veterinarian before beginning this plan.

Leave It! – Or Don’t? Self Control vs. Imposed Control for Dogs

01TrainingTags: , ,
"Leave it!" Do you need to teach this to your dog?

[Photo Credit: Andrew Hyde]

“No!” “Leave it!” “Off!” These are three cues that are more familiar to some dogs than “sit”, “come”, and “good dog.” Surprisingly, they often work against dog owners and serve to reinforce the very behaviors the owners are trying to punish.

A scenario: At the pet store, a bag of dog kibble has torn open and spilled all over the floor. A man is walking his dog down the aisle. His dog notices the kibble and lunges forward to eat some. “Leave it! No, leave it!” He commands his dog to stop, but it falls on deaf ears, and he sees no other choice but to drag his dog away from the food. The dog has been rewarded (by the kibble) for ignoring the “leave it” cue.

Here’s an idea: What if you didn’t have to constantly tell your dog how to behave?

When my dogs see food on the floor, or a toy on the bottom shelf at the pet store, or gum on the sidewalk, they look at it and then look to me for direction. They do not lunge toward it or grab it. They know that the only way they will get access to that thing they desire is through a verbal cue from me.

My dogs do not know what “leave it” means. What does “leave it” mean to your dog? “Don’t touch that?” What exactly are they supposed to do instead?

Clarity in Dog Training – No “Leave It” Necessary

If I invited you into my house and said “don’t sit on the blue chair”, what would your response be? Two things: you would look at the blue chair (I drew your attention to it by mentioning it, didn’t I?) and you would not know where you should sit. There are lots of other seating options in my house – couches, a rocking chair, dining room chairs, a loveseat, even the floor!

What if instead, I invited you into my house and said “please sit next to me on the couch.” You won’t even consider the other seating options. I told you exactly where to sit. There is no confusion.

To bring this back to dog training, I call my dogs with their name or the cue “come” if they are showing excessive interest in something that is not available to them, like a chicken bone on the street. They know to turn away from that thing and come to me to earn a reward instead. I do not say “no” or “leave it”, because it is incomplete information – those cues tell them they can’t have the chicken bone. Now what?

My mantra in dog training is “teach self control, not imposed control.” I teach my dogs, and my clients’ dogs, to default to asking politely for something (via eye contact, or offering to sit without being told to do so) rather than grabbing for it themselves. The training process is deceptively simple. The hardest part is for owners to embrace the concept of letting the dog make a choice, rather than preventing him from making a decision on his own by commanding him to not do something.

In my next post, I’ll show you a video demonstrating how I teach self-control around food. In the mean time, I have some food for thought for you: if you have taught your dog a very strong “come” cue, why not use that rather than “leave it”? Are two cues better than one? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Puppy Nipping: A Plan to Stop It

10Helpful Hints, Puppies, Training, Tutorials and How-To GuidesTags: , , , , , ,

Puppy nipping is one of the most frustrating behaviors that new owners report. It hurts! But you’ll see a big reduction in puppy nipping in a short period just by getting some human cooperation.

Puppy Nipping - Dachshund

If this is a familiar sight, it’s time for a new training plan! (Photo Credit: Renata Lima, Flickr)

Let’s start by examining why your puppy is putting his mouth on things. I don’t like to spend a ton of time pondering why a dog is doing what he’s doing, but puppy nipping is such a frustrating behavior for owners that I find it helps to consider the puppy’s point of view.

Beginning at a young age, puppies bite each other during play. This behavior starts before you bring your puppy home from the breeder or rescue organization. The puppies are play-fighting and learning their own strength. If they bite a littermate too hard, the other puppy will respond with a high-pitched yelp. This tells the biter to tone it down next time.

This is why a common nugget of advice is “If your puppy bites you, shriek in a high-pitched voice.” This sometimes causes the puppy to stop. But sometimes the puppy thinks your noises are fascinating and bites harder next time; it gets him excited and worked up!

It just depends on your puppy… and your ability to make a high-pitched puppy yelp, something most men can’t do. I prefer to use methods that work more reliably. Here is the plan we use with our clients, as well as in our Puppy Day School program.

Step One

Institute a new house rule: everyone interacting with the puppy is “armed” with a soft, biteable toy. It should be long enough to keep your fingers away from the puppy’s mouth when playing. This is always within the puppy’s reach when you’re petting her, playing with her, or snuggling together. Praise the puppy for interacting with the toy.

Set yourself up for success by keeping a soft toy in your back pocket, another in a basket on top of the puppy’s crate, and another in the room where you tend to hang out with your pup the most. I recommend braided fleece toys and “unstuffed” plush toys (the kind that resemble roadkill).

Puppy Chewing Shoelaces

Tuck in shoelaces, sweatshirt drawstrings, and other dangly bits of clothing and jewelry to set your puppy up for success. (Photo by Nicki Varkevisser, Flickr)

Step Two

Don’t tempt your puppy! For at least the first few weeks, avoid wearing nice clothing or anything loose-fitting or dangling around her. Change out of your nice work clothes before interacting with your puppy. Tuck in shoelaces and sweatshirt drawstrings, and remove large earrings and necklaces, too.

This eliminates the puppy’s opportunity to grab on to these things and elicit an exciting reaction from you. We don’t want the puppy to learn things we wish she wouldn’t, such as “grabbing my mother’s earrings makes her squeak and push me around. That’s fun!” Not a good lesson.

You can also use bitter-tasting spray on things that you’re not likely to touch often, such as your shoelaces. The bitter taste can transfer to your fingers, so if you use this method, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly before handling food or touching your face.

Step Three

When your puppy mouths your hands, pull them away from her and keep them out of her reach for several seconds. I recommend sticking your hands in your armpits – your puppy can’t nip them there! Ignore your puppy for about 5 seconds. If she continues to try to nip during this time, it may be necessary to stand up or even leave the room.

After this little time-out, calmly present your toy to your pup and resume interacting with her. Praise and play with the puppy for engaging the toy, licking your hands, or just being polite. Repeat this step when the pup bites. Be consistent!

Remember that screaming or shouting at the puppy, pushing her away, or physically punishing the puppy by pinching her lips or clamping her mouth closed will either intensify the biting or scare the puppy, potentially leading to fearful and aggressive behaviors in the future.

If your pup bites on your clothing, gently remove the clothing from her mouth and prevent her access to that article of clothing. If she’s chewing on your shirt sleeve, stand up and roll up your sleeves. If she’s chewing on your pant leg, leave the room or step to the other side of a baby gate or puppy pen so she cannot reach you. Ignore her for a few seconds, then offer her the toy to play with.

Closing Thoughts

The purpose of these training steps is to teach the puppy that when she has the urge to put something in her mouth, she should pick an appropriate toy rather than your hands or clothing. Puppies need to bite, mouth, and chew as they grow, so rather than fight that instinct, channel it into appropriate items.

If you need to give your puppy a “time out” more than two or three times in a 10-minute period, she is either very wound up and needs a bit of exercise, or is overtired and needs to be put in her crate for a nap. Remember that the time out does not teach the puppy anything. It just provides an opportunity for your puppy to calm down enough to try other ways of interacting with you, which you must then reward.

Training How-To: Hand Targeting

01Training, Tutorials and How-To GuidesTags: ,

What is hand targeting? It’s simple! The dog learns to touch his nose to a human’s hand. That’s it!

Why does my dog need to know it? Hand targeting is one of the most versatile behaviors you can teach your dog! It gives boisterous youngsters and shy, wary dogs something appropriate to do when presented with an outstretched hand. Instead of mouthing the hand or backing away, the dogs know to nose-poke it instead. It can also be used to teach dogs to walk on a loose leash, and to move dogs from one place to another, such as from the couch to the floor.

Strata touches his nose to Katherine’s hand.

How do I teach it? Get out your clicker, and prepare some tiny, soft, tasty treats that your dog really enjoys. When your dog is paying attention to you, offer your hand to him, about 6” from his face. When he investigates your hand by sniffing or licking it, click and give him a treat. Repeat this several times until the dog is consistently touching his nose to your hand every time you offer it to him.

Next, make the behavior more challenging by presenting your hand in different locations. Move your hand slightly to the left or to the right, and click/treat when your dog touches your hand. With practice, your dog will be able to hand target regardless of where you offer your hand.

When your dog is touching your hand every time you present it to him, and you have practiced the behavior in different locations and around distractions, it is time to introduce the cue. Happy training!