Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Willkommen is 10

Question! Is there such a thing as being too busy if someone loves every minute of it? Answer! Yes, if one forgets the dog’s birthday.
On November 15th Will turned 10, and we almost forgot. Almost because hubby remembered it late evening, and in reality we aren’t even sure if that is her exact birthday. Nobody knows cause Will was born feral. When she and the her litter were trapped in February 2002 they – the humane society people and veterinarian - estimated the pups age between 10-12 weeks, which puts whelping in November, and we chose the 15th cause it was a payday and allowed us to buy gifts, but what are the chances that we picked the correct date.
We got Will April 30th 2002. We were the 4th place she landed at, and her last chance. So, we could celebrate that day, too. A few of my friends who have rescue dogs celebrate the “got day”, not the birthday, but we don’t. I don’t know why, because I am really happy that we got Will. The extremely timid pauper pup turned into a fantastic dog. She is an easy keeper, is attentive -super attentive, heeds our requests and trusts me so completely that we can take her anywhere. She might not always agree with my choices, but she always wants to be with me, without being clingy, and without having separation anxiety, which means she can be left alone as well. The perfect companion, and confident, too. She transformed from flighty Willkommen to Willie the Conqueror.
Will is smart, subtle and sweet, and easy on the eye. Best of all, she is still active and healthy. And here we are, almost forgetting her birthday. But she didn’t mind. I mean, what could we get our diva what she doesn’t already have.
Love and affection? A lot.
Treats? Daily.
Home-cooked dinners? Yup.
Long walks? Twice a day.
Off leash outings? Regularly.
Her own photo blog post to celebrate her life? I highly doubt she cares, but here she’s got one anyway.
Happy Birthday ma Will – and hopefully there’ll be many more to come.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Every Time the Doorbell Rings

The autumn leaves that paint the Canadian Maritimes into magical colors are gone, and the beaches are void of people and bugs. Sure signs that winter is approaching; a time of year that heralds in festivities that bring friends and family together. Aside from the traditional gatherings to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, when it gets colder outside, many people’s homes become warmer, and not just because the furnace is on. It is the sharing of food and rituals that brings about a cozy and peaceful feel – only disturbed by: Your dog’s crazed barking every time the doorbell rings. Right? I know because my dogs are like your dogs. Or rather were like your dogs, because we worked on it, and now they do something other than announce that somebody is at the door.
Dogs react to the doorbell because it has become their cue that something is about to happen at the entrance point of the house. In other words, there is a relevant consequence the dog has learned that follows that specific sound: someone entering. Depending on the dog, the anticipation of the predictable event the bell, or a knock, announces triggers either anxiety or excitement. Either way, the pooch erupts in annoying barks because both emotions increase arousal and decrease impulse control. The dog, at that point, is out of his mind; he has you tuned out, which means that you won’t be able to shut him with a “no”, “come” or “sit”.
What most frustrated owners do next is catch up with the canine and body block him away from the door, which seems rather clever in theory, but in reality the human ends up playing goalie in the entrance space, and the dog is becoming more and more skilled in dodging his person. If that sounds like it would irritate the human and arouse the dog even more, you are correct. It does, and what typically happens next is the owner grabbing the collar, which also doesn’t work because it adds restraint frustration, and the dog then totally flips out.
That is often the point when the dog trainer is called in, and depending on what philosophy she follows, might diagnose dominance and advise to exile the pooch into another room or outside, or sharply correct him into shutting up.
I deal with the issue differently. I teach my dog an alternate behavior.
The cue will always be the cue, meaning that the bell will ring when someone requests entrance into your home. That is impractical, or impossible, to change. What we can alter, however, is what meaning it has for the dog.
Some people have a hunch that changing the pooch’s mind might be the solution and hang a treat basket by the door, for guests to give the dog a cookie as soon as they enter. But that is another idea that sounds good on paper, but is ineffective in real life and can increase arousal because the dog is, in addition to being excited about the person, now also excited about the expected treat. Or, if he feels queasy about the visitor, the cookie creates conflict because he still doesn’t like the stranger at the door, but wants what she holds in her hand.
My goal is the opposite. I want the whole entrance space to be dog free when I open the door to let someone in. The sound of the doorbell ringing still has relevance, and my dog can still get excited about it – and probably will cause calm-submission doesn’t magically happen just because I wish it so, but it announces that good stuff will materialize elsewhere: in the kitchen or living room, and that it comes from me, not the person at the door.
Once your dog habitually moves to another room, you can deal with the visitor in a casually calm and relaxed fashion, which brings the pulse rate down in dog and person.
Sounds like exactly what you want, doesn’t it?
The first step to achieve that is to find something that really floats your dog’s boat. For many it is a human-food stuffed Kong, and there could be a couple readymade in the freezer at all times. When the bell rings and the barking begins, walk to the door and shout out that you’ll open in a second, then happily clip a leash on your dog’s flat collar or harness – no choke or prong collar cause it is not about correcting the badness out of the dog - lead him to the freezer and hand over the Kong. With the yummy treasure between his teeth take him to his favorite mat, and perhaps loop the leash around a bannister or heavy piece of furniture to keep him put while he munches away, and then you open the door. (Separately, using yummy treats, practice down stays on the mat a lot, so that it becomes a desired spot to be not just when company arrives.) Repeat, repeat, repeat. Only doing it conditions a new behavior. Maybe you can recruit neighborhood kids to legally push the bell and run away.
Provided you have found something your dog can’t resist, and provided that you consistently follow the same routine, in no time, perhaps even before the Christmas crowd arrives, the sound of the bell will be your dog’s cue to run to the freezer and then, with his loot in his mouth, to the mat. No leash no more required.
The Kong works with most dogs, but some are more obsessed about toys. That was the case with our Aussie Davie, who loved all her humans without reserve, but was equally passionate about biting strangers. I assume that was the reason she was surrendered at the tender age of 16 weeks. For Davie it was an Airdog football that did the trick. Within weeks after she landed in our home, instead of charging the door she ran to the doggie-drawer in the kitchen where we kept her beloved toy. It came out each time the bell rang, and disappeared as soon as the visitor left. Dogs can’t bark if they have their mouths full with Kong or ball. No, let me correct that, Davie still managed to, but it was muffled and not annoyingly high-pitched, and she was happy and not aggressive, because company coming meant a quick play session with us.
Self-evident, I hope, is that the guest should ignore the dog until he is calm. Greeting should only happen if both dog and person want to, and only after the owner gives a specific release command. I like “say hello”.
And just to be clear, don’t deprive your pooch of toys and treats, but what he values most, the very special prize, only appears as the consequence of the doorbell ringing, and is always retrieved from the same place so that it, not the entrance point of your house, is where he’ll run to.
So, that is how I deal with the maddeningly barking pooch charging the door. There is another way, equally clever and dog friendly, and effective provided you have the time and opportunity to build the desired mat behavior incrementally before the dog is confronted with the big deal event: a stranger entering the house. You would first teach and practice going to the mat. I like free shaping it, which means you start reinforcing your dog’s interest in the mat, and then gradually raise the bar until he lays on the mat, and after that you gradually increase duration and distance he stays in position on the mat. I’ll put up a post up in the near future how I teach a position down stay.
Once your dog can be prompted to go to the mat – I like the word “mat”, or you could use the German word “platz” if you have a German shepherd, combine the verbal cue with the doorbell ringing. The last step is to omit the verbal cue, and the dog will go on his mat whenever the bell rings. The sound has become his conditioned cue to lay on the mat, and stay there.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Command Clarity

When you think tools, the things we use to direct our dogs into desired behaviors, don’t just think material leashes and collars. Tools are also commands; verbal and non-verbal cues your dog has learned to understand and will heed to.
In my career, I never met a dumb or stubborn dog. I am not kidding. I met many that are too anxious or wound up to learn‘n’listen, or fearfully avoid humans cause they experienced that they’re not always trustworthy. And I met many that seek a connection, want to pay attention, but are confused because their person isn’t making any sense. In other words, training failure happens not because the dog is a few marbles short, but because the human is unpredictable, inconsistent or imprecise, and the dog tunes him out.
Dogs are marvelous creatures. They share many of our emotions, and some of our cognizance. That part allows them to comprehend how human-specific communication signals, our words and gestures, correlate with actions and consequences. But their thinking brain isn’t as developed as ours, and that means that we have to be really clear when we teach. If we’re not, the dog quickly becomes confused and loses interest, and then gets the stupid or willful label.
First, you need to have clarity in your own mind what it is you actually want your dog to learn. My advice is to grab paper and pencil, sit yourselves down with a glass of wine – juice for the kids, and jog down what behaviors are important for you, and what corresponding cue you want to use. One word for one behavior. That is very important. What I often see is an owner who uses the same word for different actions, and expects the dog to sort out what he’s after at the moment and obey accurately. A common example is “come”, used for: return to me from a distance, but also follow me on a leash or let’s move together in one direction. Another one is “off”, used for: stop counter-surfing, stop jumping, and periodically also drop what’s in your mouth.
If you’re ambitious and want to teach many behaviors, come up with many words. Magnet your list on the refrigerator door, so that each family member can easily refer to it and training can be consistent.
If you train using a verbal/hand signal combination, don’t forget to use the hand signal or your dog might be confused. Only the brainiest pooches will respond correctly if you use either/or. All others can learn to, but you need to teach it.
Be equally clear what behavior you are after at the moment, cause that is the one you need to reinforce. That is especially important for the rookie learner and when you teach something new. For example: when you work on a position stay, reward the pooch when she is still in that position, and then release. So, if you think “duration down stay on a mat” and your dog complies, don’t call her to you and reward, because then you reinforce coming, not the duration down stay on a mat. Once your dog has mastered a word with the corresponding action, not before, you can chain several together and reward in the end. Another one is attention around distractions. If it’s attention you want, reinforce attention, regardless if your dog sits, stands or lies down. Once attention is solid, you can add whatever position you like her to be in to the mix.
Can you teach several commands concurrently? Or should one be reliable before you hop to the next? It depends on the dog. Bright and easily bored ones can benefit from being challenged with a variety, while slower learners might find it easier to proceed to a new command only after they grasped the previous one. In any case, even gifted pooches must revise old stuff periodically, but once a command/behavior combination is cemented into their memory, it can be surprisingly long lasting. Davie performed all her Rally O’ stuff after a year and more of not revising. She also remembered where the neighbor’s cat used to roam, and long after they moved still checked the spot.

When you teach, sandwich difficult tasks between easier ones, and always end on a high note. Your dog will remember that training and obeying is fun, and not a drag. And give the pooch a break. Recent studies suggest that dogs retain better if they have a resting period after the session. Like people, sleeping on in might be a good idea.
Another aspect folks are often unclear about is if it is okay to repeat a command. Unlike many of my colleagues, I find repeating acceptable, even advantageous, under certain circumstances. Ideally, a command should only be given when you have your dog’s attention, when she’s tuned in. Realistically, that doesn’t always happen, so in my world it is okay to remind the pooch what we just said, and for that matter, that we really mean it. Yes, it is allowed to crank up the firmness of your voice, but not volume. A herding dog client quizzed me on that not too long ago. He was concerned about repeating and his stern tone when he does, but felt he needed to with his young, still somewhat unripe Border collie who is sometimes slow to "down" because she wants to continue to work her sheep or turkeys. Of course, a herding dog who fails to drop on a dime moves even closer to the animals and might spook and scatter them, so it's important.
On that note, it is also okay to encourage the dog when she’s on the right track but a little nervous, uncertain and hesitant, but use your pleasant voice then, not the firm one. Let’s not forget that Chaser, the Border collie who comprehends 1022 words, needed about 40 repetitions in a row before she connected the dots.
Repeating is okay, machine-gun like orders without giving the dog time and opportunity to obey, is not. Imagine your partner asking you to do something, and releasing verbal diarrhea right after: “do it – do it – doit - doitdoitdoit…”. Annoying? You’d tune that person out real fast, right? Yeah! Back to the dog labeled dumb and stubborn. I have a 20 second rule, which means after that I’ll help my dog succeed.

When you give a command you know your dog knows - and make sure you know, don’t just assume that she understands that signal in the context you are using it - ensure that you are able to enforce it. If you can’t enforce it, don’t give it. And the person who gave the command is the one who does the enforcing. Even if you have better rapport with your dog than your teenager, hold back and don’t interfere.
Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Behavior Analysis at the University of North Texas, coined the term Spoiled Cues, which means that if you say a word but won’t get the behavior, or the dog is reinforced for a different behavior than the one you aim for, the word becomes useless as an information and guidance tool.
For example: you might say heel while the dog pulls you to the fire hydrant. From the dog’s point of view, your heel-word becomes the cue to pull. Or you yell come while she runs in the opposite direction. If that happens often enough, come will be her cue to run away, and you become more and more frustrated and impatient, and your dog senses that and wonders what’s gotten into you, and is even less likely to want to be near you. In her mind, she does exactly what she learned to do when she hears you utter one word, or the other.
Spoiling also happens if the command brings about a negative emotion. If sit on walks is only requested in the context of a worrisome trigger (dog/man/child) approaching, then on walks “sit” becomes the dog’s cue that potential trouble is ahead. The word is spoiled, because it raises suspicion and anxiety. The dog might obey when you can enforce it, but reluctantly, and when she has the chance might refuse because it feels bad.

Training is educating the dog how our words and gestures are relevant to her life. If the pupil doesn’t learn, it is the teacher who has to figure out where the problems are and adjust accordingly. Using force makes as much sense as beating knowledge into a child. Some dogs might need more repetitions than others, or progress more slowly, but with patience every one has the potential and hardware to get it. The beauty is that when that happens, you can manipulate your dog’s behavior from the distance. The mental and emotional bond is what is keeping you connected, and material tools like leash and collar are only there because the law stipulates it.