There are plenty of DIY projects waiting to be done and—while you’re stuck at home and if you’re lucky enough to have a dog—why not give DIY dog training a go? No dog? No problem. Animal training works on cats, lizards, insects, spouses, kids and pretty much any organism you are able to mentally engage for more than a second. As for the method of training, force-free is the only way to safeguard against disastrous outcomes.
You don’t need to be a professional to train your dog but it helps to look for professional advice
DIY projects do have the tendency to turn disastrous when we try to wing it, lose patience or use less than adequate tools and materials. That’s me just a few days ago. I was up on a ladder attacking the sturdy steel gutter with a cheap hole saw. I didn’t buy a cheap hole saw to save money, but because the friendly staff member at my local hardware store told me it’ll do the job and the only alternative was to go for the professional and really expensive tools. Now, while I normally go for quality over price when it comes to tools and hardware, I don’t intend to drill holes in gutters as a future career, so I took the advice despite my gut instinct telling me otherwise.
How often do we follow advice from someone who sounds like an expert? You can guess the answer. Most of us don’t normally have time to do extensive research before every decision we make, so listening to someone who seems to know what they’re talking about is completely understandable. In addition, we sometimes silence that inner voice of ours, even if it keeps waving red flags at our imminent decisions. Of course, that voice it isn’t always right either, but a gut feeling may just be your saviour. I’d certainly listen to it, if someone’s advice sounds too good to be true or plain illogical. If that nagging inner voice has questions, get answers or get out.
Have a healthy dose of skepticism, of others and yourself, to prevent disaster for you and your dog
The internet is a DIY lover’s dream. YouTube is leading the “I can do this!” movement with a ton of easy to digest clips, covering every possible DIY project you could ever dream of having a go at. And it’s great! I love that so many people are willing to share their expertise for free. But it comes with two major caveats: 1) If we believe a few video clips give us the whole picture, we might become overconfident and make a mess and 2) The author may not be an expert after all and we are replicating someone else’s mess. The bottom line is, if we wade into a DIY project clueless, we set ourselves up to fail.
Which brings me back to my now toothless hole saw. My problem when shopping for the hole saw was that the packaging didn’t tell me what the saw could or couldn’t do. I didn’t have a clear picture and I needed more information. Then the staff member came to my rescue—or so I thought—and assured me it was fine. I allowed myself to be persuaded. The result of my hack job wasn’t devastating but it was crude and caused material damage. I can live with that. I messed it up and will do a better job next time. Please don’t take this approach when training your dog!
If you rate your dog’s welfare as essential, you are already more of an expert than a ton of YouTube trainers out there
Leaving out information is a common problem with dog training advice. People are not given a clear picture. You’re told how to get a job done but you’re not told how the recommended tools and techniques could potentially harm your dog—physically and psychologically. Or worse, your inner voice is silenced by assurances that everything will be fine. Just think about what’s at stake (your dog) and the risks you take (your dog may become fearful and/or aggressive and may never recover). There are good reasons to invest some time or money into a DIY project, especially if it’s DIY dog training. What can be a more compelling reason than the wellbeing and happiness of your dog, and ultimately your own happiness.
To get the bigger picture, first find out how dogs learn and what is considered best practice in dog training these days. This should steer you firmly towards the science of animal learning, specifically positive reinforcement, and away from confrontational and harmful training methods. And bingo. That video clip you just started shows a dog being yanked by the neck? A dog being pushed, pinned, sprayed, shocked, yelled at, growled at, forcefully restrained, intimidated and coerced in any way? A dog looking unhappy, confused, trying to get away from the “trainer”? Turn it off. Now you are already more of an expert than the author of that clip!
Keep these four major guiding principles in mind and you’re good to go
When searching for online information on how to teach certain skills or how to deal with behaviour problems, include terms such as “positive reinforcement”, “force-free”, “fear-free”, “reward-based” or “humane” in your search. But be aware that buzzwords are no guarantee that the information is sound. You can increase your chances by looking for reliable sources such as scientific pet blogs, for example Companion Animal Psychology, or force-free training organisations, such as the Pet Professional Guild or Fear Free Pets. Engaging a positive reinforcement trainer for distance consults—even if it’s just a one-off consult—might be a good investment. It will set you on the right track, prevent frustration and serious mistakes and can ultimately save you time and money.
Whichever route you chose, if you memorise the following four major guidelines (MPET), your DIY dog training project will not be a disaster:
Motivation: Use yummy food as reinforcer (or play/toys, if suitable).
Planning: Teach step by step. Set your dog up for success with an incremental training plan.
Enjoyment: Celebrate every little success. Have fun!
Teamwork: Never force your dog. Take breaks. Be patient.
I’ll go and drill another hole now. This time in a plastic rainwater tank. I’ve already drilled one and it worked beautifully. Carefully, at moderate speed so the plastic doesn’t melt, taking frequent breaks so I could assess my work and adjust it to avoid potential disasters. There’s nothing like having success without breaking anything in the process.
We are trapped. And so are our dogs. I have sympathy when a client speaks of their goal to walk with their dog without the need for a leash. Leashes are annoying and are a restriction to personal freedom. But there are good reasons to advise against this, apart from avoiding unpleasant encounters with the local animal control officer, who might just have a really bad day.
Maybe your dog is super friendly but other dogs may have a problem —which can quickly become your problem— in case your dog strolls over to say hello. Even seeing your dog being unrestrained could potentially cause other dogs, and people, serious distress. And, no matter how alert you are and how well your dog listens to you, neither dog nor human are machines. Things can go wrong in the blink of an eye.
So, while there may be situations where taking off that
dreaded leash has minimal risk, depending on location, time of day, your dog’s
age, physical abilities and temperament, it’s still best to let your dog loose
where it’s appropriate and leash up everywhere else.
Give Your Dog Freedom On- and Off-leash
Freedom from restraint is a matter of well-being and mental health, so give your dog plenty of opportunity to frolic freely at dog parks or wherever it is allowed and suitable for your dog.
If you are in an on-leash area with plenty of space, you could consider using a long leash, for example on nature hikes, in parks or in streets with wide sidewalks. Choose a leash of fixed length (3 – 5 metres is easy to handle, but make sure you check your local laws for restrictions of leash length) and stay away from retractable leashes. Always attach long leashes to the back of a comfortable harness to avoid forced somersaults or head jerks which can put an instant painful end to your outdoor adventure.
But doesn’t a longer leash mean “less control”? Yes, you have less physical control over your dog, but that is the point of learning to walk together: Less coercion, more voluntary cooperation. Walking your dog on a tight short leash for “better control” is a vicious cycle. The less freedom your dog has, the more they want to get away. Frustration grows and with it the urge to pull.
Learning to walk on a loose leash means the dog needs
to have the freedom to make decisions. A short leash does not give them that
Instead of ‘Walking Your Dog’, Aim to Walk With Your Dog
It takes some practise to learn how to walk comfortably and without mishaps while being physically attached to another individual. Have you ever participated in a three-legged race? It’s not easy! This description from a website for kids activities hits the nail on the head : “Imagine the teamwork needed to get this one right?!” Yes, indeed.
A dog and human walking in harmony while tied together requires teamwork. Each has to pay attention to the other and make concessions. A still widely practised “training” approach—dogs being yanked into line to adopt the human pace—has nothing to do with harmony. It bulldozes the dog’s needs and nature and it demolishes their joy and their trust in humans. What may emerge from the rubble is hopelessness or hostility.
Instead of being the bully on the team, we can prove how clever we are. We need to figure out how to teach teamwork skills to a dog. Of course, the dog won’t understand the concept of teamwork. The first step in our quest for success is therefore that we accept, and frequently remind ourselves, that the dog isn’t stubborn or wilful or dominant when they pull on leash. They just try to get to wherever they want to go, and they happen to have a human hanging off their neck. What a nuisance.
Choose Equipment That is Safe and Comfortable
Speaking of necks, having anything around them can result in choking, injury and death, so it’s not a bad idea to look for alternatives. It seems there is a product for everything these days, no matter if we need it or not, so a good dose of scepticism is required to avoid useless or even harmful gadgets when you go shopping.
A well-fitted, comfortable body harness is a safe and suitable choice
When purchasing and fitting a harness pay attention to freedom of movement and lack of “strangulating bits” which may cause pain or discomfort. If the dog has to walk like a shackled prisoner, because the chest strap hangs at their elbows, or like someone needing an urgent toilet break, because a belly strap pushes into their genital area, that’s not a clever solution. A snug, comfortable fit that doesn’t rub, pinch or squeeze means the dog can happily focus on working with you.
If your dog is like most dogs and generally walks at a faster pace than you, get a front-attachment (or front-clip) harness. You’ll get some immediate relief as the dog’s body is turned as they pull and therefore reduces the pulling force.
Attach a fixed-length leash that is long enough for your dog to sniff and explore freely but short enough to prevent them from getting too far away from you, e.g. 1.6 – 1.8 metres for regular sidewalks.
Head halters can offer a breakthrough in high risk situations
If your dog’s strength and impulsivity puts you at risk,
despite a well-fitted front-clip harness, a head halter might just safe
you from faceplanting. It can also prevent offence and injury to other people
and animals, for example if your dog is super friendly or super aggressive.
Please take the time to condition your dog to the head halter and consider working with a force-free trainer who is experienced with head halters. That way you avoid the risk of causing injury or discomfort to the dog. As with a body harness, you don’t want the dog to be preoccupied with the equipment, so comfort is crucial.
How to Go About Walking With Your Dog
Keep it positive
Teamwork is about making concessions to achieve a goal that
works for all. However, don’t bank on your dog’s selflessness or cooperation—or
any other perceived human virtue—but embrace the cold hard reality of why
animals do the things they do: Because
they gain something that is of value to them or they avoid
something that is detrimental to them.
I’m not in the business of training an animal with things
they want to avoid because that’s how we ended up yanking, choking and
shocking our dogs and then having to deal with the emotional and behavioural
fallout. I want dogs to be happy.
This is why I recommend training with positive
reinforcement. The dog’s reinforcement is nice food and access to other
things they desire, and your reinforcement is that you don’t get your arm
ripped off. Sounds fair to me.
Know where you are and know where you’re headed
Before you start, take a moment to assess your ultimate goal. If you are hoping to take your dog to the Sunday morning farmers’ market or have them join you for a puppuccino at the local cafe, walking on leash may not be the first goal you have to address. If your dog is overcome with anxiety in busy environments teeming with people, dogs and other things that scare them, deal with this first. And, realise that your dog may never be a candidate for these sorts of activities.
Walking on a loose leash doesn’t need to be any more
than what it says. Your dog doesn’t have to walk behind or beside you, they
don’t have to walk only left or only right, they most certainly don’t have to
heel. Your goal, surely, is to walk with your dog in a way you can both enjoy.
To get there, an assessment of your dog’s and your own
skills is in order. How badly does your dog pull and how have you responded to
it in the past?
You may have inadvertently reinforced pulling—potentially for months or years—simply by following your dog who is following their nose and dragging you along in the process. Remember, if it works, your dog keeps doing it. If you can train yourself to immediately stop every time your dog rushes ahead, great, but it is rarely a good strategy on its own. Your dog is likely to experience a lot of confusion and frustration unless you practice loose leash walking with positive reinforcement first.
Start with lots of small treats at high frequency and knock out the competition
The ideal incentive to get our dog’s cooperation is food. Quality
and quantity matter so be prepared to liberally dish out the good stuff. How
frequently you give a treat—the rate of reinforcement—entirely depends
on your dog. They set their own pay rate.
Lots of small morsels of something yummy, given at high frequency, can teach your dog in no time that “staying within range (of the leash)” is a worthwhile activity. If the dog seems “distracted” , looking for other things to do instead of focussing on you, your food reinforcement isn’t sufficient. Either you don’t pay often or well enough, your dog isn’t hungry, or you are working in an environment that has too many competing things going on.
Whatever food you use to motivate your dog to walk with you,
it has to be high enough in quantity and quality to knock out the competition.
It makes sense then to start with no competition, i.e. just you and your dog at home, and with a bag of treats your dog is willing to work for. And that first exercise of “walking together in close proximity” can even be done without a leash.
Take your time to build your skills and protect your training
It’s easy to destroy something in an instant but building
something requires planning and patience. Good skills take time to develop. If
walking your dog on leash is something you are dreading right now—despite using
a front-clip harness or even a head halter—it may be better to pack your dog in
the car and drive them to the dog park, rather than walking there. If this
isn’t an option, spend a little time to drain some of your dog’s energy by
playing fetch or tug before you go for a walk.
Celebrate intermediate steps. Practise at home before taking
on the big wide world outside where everything seems to be hellbent on throwing
you and your dog off course. Once you do venture outside, turn short periods of
your on-leash walks into training sessions rather than frustrating your dog and
yourself by asking for too much too soon. Train on your way home from
the dog park rather than setting your dog the impossible task of strolling towards
the dog park. Train in quiet environments first before you run the gauntlet of
people, other dogs, garbage trucks, possum poo, cats and whatever else the
neighbourhood puts on display.
If you can’t suspend on-leash walks in public until you and your dog are more advanced—i.e. if you can’t get your dog out and about for physical and mental enrichment another way—protect your training with discrimination cues. It will help your dog to distinguish between “training walks” and “free walks”. My go-to cues are mostly verbal cues (“walk”, “slow down”, “back”) for ““training mode” and sometimes a longer leash for “free walks”. Other cues could be attaching the leash to the back of the harness or the collar while you’re training and to use the front attachment of the harness at other times.
Accept your dog’s impulsiveness and stay on top of your own
Whenever you feel a pang of anger or frustration, because
your arm socket just suffered another violent jerk, stop and breathe. Taking a
deep breath may not give you rosy thoughts, but it may buy you just enough time
to avoid an impulsive, and potentially damaging, response. Now you can—with great
wisdom and aplomb—help your ‘distracted’ team member back on track.
A smart technique to go from angry to astute is to observe your dog: Are they still straining at the end of the leash towards whatever got them so excited, seemingly oblivious of your presence or disapproval? Do they turn and look at you, quizzically and innocently, as if to ask: “Why are we stopping?”
That’s because they are oblivious and innocent. When
I say ‘your dog hasn’t got a clue what you want from them’ I’m not doubting
their intelligence. They just happen to do things differently from us because
they are a different animal. Naturally, they do things that work for them.
Since we are the ones who request that dogs change their behaviour for our benefit, the ball is in our court. How do we marry our slow and even pace with our dog’s “trot & stop rhythm”? We do it by making concessions, such as frequently stopping and letting them sniff, and by making it worth their while to walk at a slower pace in between.
Observe and respond in a timely manner and facilitate success
Pay close attention to your dog so you don’t miss their little successes. You want to quickly give a treat whenever you see your dog make “good” decisions, even tiny ones. For example, your dog may voluntarily slow themselves down, if ever so briefly, before they get to the end of the leash. This may be the first sign that they have made an association between their own pace and the consequence of a tight leash which results in both of you coming to a stop.
Giving timely feedback is essential. Stop if your dog gets to
the end of the leash. If there’s time, alert them to it (e.g. “slow down”)
whenever they accelerate forward.
Reinforce with treats, praise, access to anything of interest and continuation
of walking as long as your dog walks at a pace which keeps them in sync with
Watch what your dog pays attention to. Rather than waiting until they rush towards a tree, another dog, a person or anything else that needs to be attended to pronto, anticipate it. Use the person, dog or tree as a target and a reinforcer and get your dog to do something for you first. This can be a simple head turn to look at you, taking a step or two back, a brief wait or sit or—finally— to walk on a loose leash towards the target. You can even set up “walking towards a target” as a training exercise at home.
At all times, know what your dog is capable of in the current situation and be ready to reinforce whatever you can get from them. If it’s a 1-second head turn for a sprint to a tree, so be it. It’s a win. Most importantly, recognise when your dog is struggling with other issues and cannot focus on what you are trying to communicate. Anxiety is the biggest culprit and it is easily missed. Sensitivity to your dog’s emotions and how they perceive the world is your and your dog’s road to success.
Change is in the air and it is causing anxiety. As we learned from the latest instalment of the climate change debate, strong emotional reactions are not limited to the change itself—be it the change in climate or the change required to deal with it. We also quarrel over how to change people’s minds. How do we package and deliver the message that change is necessary? Is it the factual narrative of someone with decades of expertise and experience, like David Attenborough, or is it a passionate and emotional plea from someone who is young enough not to be a cynic, like teenager Greta Thunberg? I say it’s both.
We Need Both Passion and Wisdom to Combat Suffering and Injustice
We need more Davids and more Gretas to help us adapt to the changes which are an inevitable part of life and social living. We need them so we can combat suffering and injustice. We need them so we can make the world a better place for all. We need them so we can all live long and prosper.
Passionate calls to and for action are crucial to every major social change in our society. We need Gretas, so we take notice of problems, and we need Davids, so we can understand and tackle the problems. Unfortunately, we allow demagogues, salespeople and politicians to manipulate us with their one-liners and misleading promises. We are, overwhelmingly, impulsive shoppers and unaware consumers—not just of products and services but also of information—and it does not bode well for us and most of our fellow creatures.
Gretas can talk to us on the same emotional level that prompts us to buy miracle anti-wrinkle cream and magic dog training collars. But there is an important difference: Gretas have Davids behind them to back up their enthusiasm with solid scientific data. Sometimes they are even the same person.
Traditional Dog Training Methods Are Still Causing Suffering and Distress and It Needs to Stop
teenager I wanted to scream from the rooftops, just like Greta, about
environmental destruction, about animal abuse, about social injustice. These
days, I have more than my passion to add. I have made a career in animal
welfare and while my focus is on dog training and behaviour, my work is
relevant to community safety and human welfare.
While trying to help dogs and their people, I have witnessed the fallout from traditional training methods and equipment. The lack of change in dog training, and in animal welfare in general—despite decades of research and a heightened awareness of animal sentience—is maddening. At times I want to be a Greta and vent my frustration in a passionate speech to the world: Why are we still forcing animals to do what we want by making them fear us and causing them pain and distress? Why don’t we have better laws to protect animals and send offenders to jail instead of letting them off with petty fines for animal cruelty? Why do governments continue to show knee-jerk reactions to dog bites, such as discriminatory and entirely useless breed-specific legislation, instead of being proactive with community education programs on animal welfare and safety? Why are aggressive dogs labelled “vicious” instead of being recognised as victims? The list goes on.
Despite the frustrating state of things, I have to be more of a David than a Greta, at least in my work. I don’t change people’s minds with emotional pleas but by showing them a better way to solve their problems and achieve their goals. The ones who insist on using force—despite the known fallout from coercion, despite the risk for the animal and the wider community and despite having learned about force-free alternatives—are the ones who will be left behind.
Population Growth Increases the Risk for Aggression in Dogs and People, so Let’s Act Fast and Make a Better Future
Human societies have survived and prospered because of their ability to change and adapt. But now we have to change faster. We don’t have the luxury of space anymore. We are increasingly crammed together in urban communities and the risk of conflict is rising. With an ever growing number of people and domestic animals, complaints and confrontations become more likely and more acrimonious and mental health problems affect humans and other animals alike. We need to take care of ourselves but we also need to treat our animals kindly and with respect. A stressed dog is a much higher bite risk than a dog who is allowed to make choices and feels safe and happy because of it.
We can all be
Davids and Gretas and play a role in facilitating change, no matter how
seemingly small the contribution. A conversation at a dog park, a casual
comment, a friendly suggestion is all that may be required to set a person and
their dog on the path to success and away from tools and techniques which cause
pain, fear and frustration.
The change in dog training is already here but it is not happening fast enough. This is why we need many more Davids and many more Gretas. You can be part of the change.
I very rarely eat ice cream, but if I do, it’s always vanilla. Years ago, I read somewhere that my generation was addicted to vanilla because there was vanilla flavouring in pretty much everything we ate or drank as babies. Not sure, if that’s a myth, but to me, vanilla tops any other flavour, including those with mouth-watering names such as chocolate chip cookie dough or new age vibes like keto kefir coconut.
There is nothing plain about plain vanilla. It’s tasty.
It’s uncomplicated. It works.
Transparency is Lost in the Battle for Newest and Sexiest
You’d think we don’t have to change something that works, but humans never stop in their quest for new and better things. And that’s great, of course. Think new technology which can make our planet and our lives healthier and safer. On the other hand, the constant churning out of new products, services and ideas isn’t always about making things better, let alone the betterment of humankind. Instead, we need new products and services to make our economy tick over. Business relies on it, marketing tells us we need it and we happily consume it. And, if forest bathing, pet jewellery or garlic ice cream makes us happy, then that should be a good thing.
Problems start when the colourful marketing and tempting promises lure us to buy a product or service which subsequently doesn’t deliver or even causes harm. Competition also means that established products and services may get thrown under the bus for no other reason than being considered “dated”, unless someone discovers that the “old stuff” actually worked really well, dusts it off, applies a new coat and sells it again.
What is lost in all of this is transparency. What exactly
does a product or service give us for our money? If we peel away the layers of
spin, which target us on an emotional level, what is it that remains?
Finding the Plain Vanilla of a Product or Service Gives Us the Power to Choose Wisely
The “gourmet wild-caught salmon terrine with baby garden
peas and turmeric sprinkle” may make our mouths water, but the cat doesn’t even
care that the mush in the sachet is the stuff that was swept off the floor at
the close of the wholesale market. Falling for appetitive labelling rather than
reaching for the generic “cat food with fish” item on the supermarket shelf usually
results in nothing more than a slightly higher price tag, so no harm done.
But if the boot camp operator guarantees to turn our dog
into the “perfect family member” in just a few weeks, if the doggy day care staff
assure us their experience in dog training results in “better behaved” and not
just tired dogs, if the behavioural trainer talks about “relaxation exercises”
and wants to “improve our relationship with our dog”, we need to ask a lot more
questions. What exactly do these people do to change our dog’s behaviour?
Just like a plain vanilla version of the delicious sounding cat food is protein, fats and carbohydrates, we can find a simple explanation behind getting a “better behaved” dog: Behaviour change via operant conditioning.
The Plain Vanilla Mechanisms Behind Behaviour Change are Operant and Respondent Conditioning
The most used category of animal learning in dog training is behaviour modification by consequences (aka operant conditioning). The dog is likely to repeat a certain behaviour in the future in a similar context, if it has resulted in a consequence they consider positive. Equally, they are likely to avoid doing things in the future which have resulted in something they consider negative.
The dog also associates positive or negative emotions with people, other animals, things or events which are present or occur in the environment whenever they experience something they consider negative or positive. This is in fact the second relevant category of animal learning (aka respondent conditioning) and it always comes along for the ride, if we invite it or not.
The questions we need to ask before we buy is: Does the product or service provider intend to change our dog’s behaviour by providing positive or negative consequences and what emotional associations might our dogs form with us, other people, other dogs or anything else in their environment as a result of this?
If Language Blocks Us from Making Good Choices, We Need to Ask Questions
Right now, dog training products and services are still
heavily geared towards providing negative consequences to stop the dog
from doing whatever they are doing and it taps into our cultural acceptance
that “bad behaviour” should be punished. What it ignores entirely is that the “bad”
behaviour we see in our dogs is usually perfectly normal dog behaviour (i.e. we
are punishing the dog for being a dog)
but also that it may not even be under the dog’s voluntary control (i.e.
despite negative consequences the dog is simply not capable of changing their
The problem is, especially now that positive reinforcement training (i.e. providing positive consequences for behaviour) is slowly but firmly gaining followers, we are not always told that the goal is to punish our dog’s behaviour or that a specific product or method causes negative emotions in our dogs, let alone the potentially devastating fallout from this approach. So the language we may encounter carefully avoids going into the nuts and bolts of the mechanism that causes behaviour change.
Being a “better leader” does not stop our dog from lunging and
barking at the other dog and neither does a “training collar”. Instead, yanking
the dog by the collar, using a commanding voice or sending an electric shock through
the training collar and into the dog’s neck is what might achieve the change in
behaviour, as long as it frightens or hurts our dog enough to override the urge
to go for the other dog. And that only, if our dog has enough voluntary control
over their actions to begin with.
On the other hand, a trainer or product may appeal to us because they sound modern and “new agey”. Taking a holistic approach, strengthening the bond with our dog and creating a calming environment may well be part of the overall approach, but it still doesn’t tell us how the intended behaviour change occurs. Having a good relationship with the dog does not stop the dog from lunging and barking any more than “being a good leader” does but providing positive consequences for an alternative behaviour might.
Or maybe the trainer proposes a different plan? Rather than focussing on providing positive consequences for behaviour (i.e. operant conditioning) we attempt to create positive emotions with whatever causes the dog’s behaviour (i.e. respondent conditioning). And—lo and behold—the dog’s behaviour changes as a side effect of changed emotions! Yes, such is the power, and interwovenness, of operant and respondent conditioning. It works both ways.
Transparency and Simplicity for the Win, Now and in the Future
The gist of all this is that we need to be smart consumers and not only for the sake of our dogs, but for all dogs and everyone who loves, lives and works with dogs. Once we understand how behaviour change is achieved, we can evaluate what a product of service provider is offering and choose the one which is transparent and puts our dog’s welfare first. And if the trainer advocates a different or “new” method, we can question the mechanism of behaviour change.
Of course, research never stops. It will increase our understanding of how animals, including our dogs, perceive and interact with the world, why they behave the way they do and how they learn. In time, it may well modify our current knowledge and practises or extend them. Right now, we have all we need to teach our dogs useful skills, help them form positive associations with the world they live in and make them happy.
And let’s not forget: Apart from operant and respondent conditioning, there is an even simpler way to change behaviour: We can manipulate the dog’s environment and add or remove things. After all, if there’s no dog to set them off, our dog has no reason to go berserk. Just like a puppy, who only has access to their own toys, is not going to shred our pillows. Management of the dog’s environment to influence their behaviour (sometimes referred to as antecedent arrangement) may be the plainest vanilla of all.
This post is part of the Train 4 Rewards Blog Party thanks to Companion Animal Psychology.
Minimalism is back in fashion. If you have been swept up by the latest decluttering movement, I do hope you stopped short of throwing out your dog’s toys. It sure feels good to let go of stuff, but do not expect your pooch to share your enthusiasm. Dogs do get attached to things. Some dogs get attached a lot.
Have you seen it in your dog? The body freeze when you approach, the hovering stance to shield the valued possession, the menacing glance from the corner of their eye. Did you think you could whisk that limp old bunny away from your dog, assuming it was worthless after having been thoroughly destuffed? Maybe your dog thought otherwise and—sensing your treachery as your fingers angled for the guarded treasure—promptly let out a growl?
Congratulations, if you have found liberation from hoarding by convincing yourself to let go of things. Your dog, however, will only become fiercer in their guarding with each of your attempts to pry things from their jaws or paws. They don’t feel liberated. They feel robbed!
When Letting Go of Things No Longer Means Loss, Your Dog Has No Reason to Guard Them
to important stuff (primarily: food, mates, a place to rest), even defending—or
guarding—them aggressively, helped
our dogs’ ancestors to survive and make more wolf babies, so no surprise the
trait is still around. But despite the genetic link, it is possible to teach your
wolf-in-a-dog-skin to no longer guard
the things they value.
If you are worried about your dog’s behaviour, and especially if it goes beyond playing keep away and maybe a little growl here and there, I strongly recommend you work with a competent trainer. Not the type that tells you to be more of a “boss”, but someone who actually understands the process of desensitisation & counterconditioning. Someone who knows that positive reinforcement is the method of choice for the modern dog trainer, not overpowering and intimidation. They will assist you with a step-by-step protocol until your dog no longer feels worried about losing things of value.
For less serious cases there is another pathway which you can pursue. It involves teaching your dog to release things from their jaws on cue (e.g. “drop it”, “give”) and to refrain from picking something up (“leave it”). Both are very useful behaviours for any dog and are also a good add-on to the more stringent protocol for serious guarding cases. If you are diligent in your training, the desensitisation & counterconditioning required to change your dog’s guarding behaviour will come along for the ride.
Learning a behaviour with positive reinforcement has the very convenient side-effect of creating positive emotions in your dog: Emotions not only associated with the learned behaviour, but also the context of the learning experience and the person involved—you!
If your dog is a guarder, you want them to learn that relinquishing or forgoing a prized possession no longer equates to loss. To achieve that, you have to make it worth their while and return their temporary “sacrifice” with interest, i.e. a big fat—usually edible—bonus.
“Leave & Let Go”: Two Behaviours for the Goal of Trust
If you have one of those dogs who love to chase a tennis ball but are reluctant to let go of it, you have already witnessed the conflict that is tormenting your dog: They love it when you throw the ball, but they won’t give it to you. And, if you try to pick it up, they’ll beat you to it!
Some people opt for the easy solution of carrying two tennis balls. That’s fine, if the dog actually drops a ball to chase another. And, if they don’t learn to stuff two or more balls into their mouth, including one they pinched from another dog, and run off. Managing your dog’s guarding behaviour can be a workable solution, but it doesn’t help your dog one bit with resolving their emotional conflict.
To get your
dog to willingly spit out whatever they hold in their jaws, you need your dog
to trust you. Trust simply means that your dog has learned that good things
come from you, if they let go. During “let go” training, they not only get the
surrendered treasure back, but they get a sizable bonus on top of it. It’s a
bit like spending $20 on a lottery ticket and then winning a holiday for two in
Bali. Not bad, hey?
Your dog thinks so too. Or more precisely: dogs understand value. However, to let go of 20 bucks is not as easy for some as it is for others. If $20 aka a tennis ball is too much for your dog to part with, then a ¢50 rubber duck may be your starting point. Of course, the value of the item is not what you spent at the shops, but the value your dog attaches to it. To another dog your dog’s ¢50 rubber duck may be a treasure worth fighting tooth and nail for.
A Game of Tug: The Perfect Start for Learning to Let Go
Tug is a fun and high energy game. And, it is a good
opportunity to teach your dog to let go of something. Here is how I do it:
As you play the game, randomly—but not too often (you want to have a fun game with your dog after all)—say your let go cue (e.g. “let go”, “give”, “drop it”, whatever you like) in a cheerful voice. Then, immediately put both hands over as much of the tug toy as you can and quickly pull it between your knees (so you can clamp it tight). Hold completely still until you feel your dog’s jaws soften their grip (it will happen eventually, just wait silently and do not move; do not repeat your cue). Praise your dog and—as soon as the toy is released—resume the game.
It is a good idea to also teach a “take it” cue or similar. Restart the game after giving the cue, but only if your dog does not lunge at the toy in your hand. One second of being patient is enough to begin with. That way your dog learns not to rip toys or other items out of human hands without invitation.
There are other, less physical ways to teach letting go, for example offering a treat after you say the cue. I prefer the above version, precisely because it is physical and because it keeps the game going. The tug game itself is the dog’s reinforcement for releasing the toy. However, each case warrants its own variation and fine-tuning, so decide what works best for you and your dog.
Over several games, you should notice that the dog starts releasing the toy faster and faster once they hear the cue. You can then start practising with other non- or lowly-guarded items, e.g. the ¢50 rubber duck. Gradually work your way from holding the item in your hand to letting your dog have possession of it before you give the cue. Reinforce the dog for letting go with a super yummy treat or throw the item (or another item), if that’s what your dog prefers, or both.
Important points to remember when teaching your dog to let go:
Never rip the item out of your dog’s jaws
If your dog doesn’t let go on cue, leave them alone and practise more with lower value items first. Also, adjust your hand position (and eventually your distance to the dog) to make it easier or harder for the dog to surrender the item (holding and touching the item with your hand is easier; being further away is harder).
avoid using a “commanding” voice when you give the cue
Dog training is not about threatening your dog with your tone of voice. It’s about building an association between the cue, the dog’s behaviour and what follows (in this case: reinforcement by resuming play or giving a treat). And, dog training is about consistent repetitions of carefully defined steps.
Use fabulous food for reinforcement
Food is still widely underused in dog training, and that although it is the easiest, most convenient and efficient reinforcement there is. It works for all dogs, because all dogs have to eat. Please don’t be one of those people who deprive their dogs of tasty food. Be generous and your dog will be happier and enthusiastically take part in whatever training task you give them.
Refrain and You Will Gain: Teach Your Dog the Value of Not Approaching or Touching Something
It would be an odd thing, if a dog snubbed freely available food within their reach. I’d assume they must have just eaten a massive meal (that wouldn’t be reason enough for many dogs, though!) or they are sick, stressed or anxious. Or, they have been asked to leave it alone.
Your dog can learn not to approach something, if—just like letting go—you make it worth their while. After you’ve taught them not to touch food, you can extend it to anything you want your dog to stay away from: The glass jar you just smashed on the floor, a person doing Tai Chi at the local park, even the cat next door.
Again, it is
important to proceed in steps that allow the dog to succeed. Repeatedly placing
food on the floor in front of the dog and saying “Leave it” may not be the best
start, if your dog keeps going for it. Not only do they hear a cue over and
over again, without forming an association with the behaviour of “leaving it” (which erodes the cue), but you risk
frustrating your dog because you keep putting food in front of them but don’t
let them have it.
Additionally, if you make it so hard for the dog that they keep “failing”, you may get frustrated too and blame the dog rather than your training approach. Before you know it, you are back to using a stern voice, or worse, and make your dog and yourself even more stressed. And that’s no longer positive reinforcement training. It’s not really training at all.
So, start easy. Avoid using the cue until your dog has learned the behaviour of “leaving it”. The protocol I follow (which I learned at The Academy for Dog Trainers) starts with food in a closed hand and reinforces the dog for a mere 1-second of not trying to get to the food. Just one second of impulse control and the dog gets the food. It sets your dog up for success and keeps them happy and engaged.
Have a Go, Take Your Time, Have Fun
If you are keen on DIY and your dog’s aggressive behaviour is not severe, give it a go. Even then, you may find consulting with a good dog trainer can point you in the right direction and save you some time.
Most importantly: Have a plan, i.e. a breakdown of how you are going to teach your dog the desired behaviours, take it one step at a time and have fun. Celebrate intermediate successes and generously reward your dog—and yourself!—for the effort.
Finally, here is Sebastian. He became more and more possessive over his tennis balls during adolescence. Although his growling was mostly directed at other dogs, he also grabbed the ball and ran whenever a human tried to pick it up. After a couple of weeks teaching “give” and “leave it”, going to the off-leash park has become a lot more fun again.
Dog doors offer a great convenience to fur parents to give their pooches access to outdoor spaces such as yards or balconies. Who wants to accompany their post-puppy-stage companion to the toilet spot every time nature calls, especially at night time? Depending on their age and health, it can also be rather inconvenient for your dog to hold it in. Some bodily organs have limited patience and no regard for convenience. So, if you come home or wake up to a mess, please never blame your furry friend.
Identify the Culprit Behind Your Dog’s House Soiling
When your dog soils the house, there can be a range of
reasons. What is certainly not the
reason for leaving unpleasant surprises on your beds or carpets is any sort of
intentional depositing, for example out of ‘revenge’. Sometimes our brains are
too complicated for their own good and spin a story where there is nothing but
a simple cause and effect.
The reason your dog urinates and defecates in the house is typically one or more of the following:
of house training
The most simple explanation could be a medical
condition, especially if your dog’s house training breaks down all of a sudden,
so a visit to the vet is a good start.
Apart from physical ailments, mental or emotional problems can also play a role. Separation anxiety is commonly behind a loss of bladder or bowel control as are other forms of anxiety, stress and fear. Identify what your dog is distressed about—ideally with the help of a behaviour vet or animal trainer with proven expertise in behaviour—and, most importantly, stop any sort of punitive handling and training.
A rather common cause for house soiling is incomplete house training, so go back to basics. There is no magic bullet to teach your dog not to wee or poo in the house. It comes down to management, supervision and reinforcement.
Then there is the matter of access to the preferred
toilet spot. Putting a dog door in for the dog to go out whenever they please
seems like a great idea but your dog has to think so too.
Anything new you introduce into your dog’s life is best accompanied by yummy treats so the dog immediately forms a positive association with it. Nevertheless, some dogs may need further help to actually use the dog door without your assistance.
Here are some common factors that can affect your dog’s
love or hate of the dog door.
size of the dog door
Make sure your dog can easily fit through the door rather than having to squeeze their body through. Security may be a concern, in case you have a large dog, although having a large dog may also be a good burglar deterrent. On the other hand, I have had to squeeze my body through a dog door more than once to get entry to a house, so it certainly has its advantages, if you lose your house keys.
design of the dog door
There are a range of designs that can affect your dog’s liking of the door. Hard or soft plastic, see-through or opaque, round or rectangular. Consider how hard your dog has to push or how high they have to lift their paws to get through. Do your research, read reviews or, even better, test different doors before shopping.
location of the dog door
You may not have a lot of choices of where to place the dog door depending on the design of your home. Most commonly, dog doors are installed in backdoors or windows. But where exactly is the door leading to? If it rains, does the dog have to step out into the wet or is the outside space covered? Is it shady on hot summer days or does the pavement heat up so much that it feels like stepping on hot coals? What else could prevent your dog from stepping through the door? Maybe the neighbours kids’ trampoline is right next to the fence and your dog fears the jumping kids. Or maybe the neighbour’s dog goes berserk whenever your dog uses the dog door. Lots to think about.
ease of entry and exit
The location of the door may create additional obstacles for your dog to get in or out. I knew a Schnauzer who refused to step outside through the dog door but had no problem coming in. As it turned out, the step down from the dog door, which was built into the laundry door, was simply too high. The dog had trouble to physically bridge the height and she might have also hurt herself in previous attempts in doing so. Adding a little platform between the door threshold and the courtyard, so the dog could step outside without having to resort to acrobatics, solved the problem in this case.
An unfortunate encounter
with the dog door, especially on first use, can easily create dog door dread.
For this reason, I highly recommend introducing your dog to the door with a bag
of yummy treats. With you on one side of the door and the dog on the other,
encourage your dog to step through—initially holding the door open, if
necessary—and then pay her with a treat and praise her for her bravery. Repeat
this until the dog shows no hesitation when stepping through the door. Lots of
positive experiences provide an ideal buffer against possible future mishaps.
If your dog does have a bad
experience, such as getting stuck in the door or getting a fright by an
external event, say a thunder clap, while going through the door, first
consider the previous points and possibly make some changes to the dog door.
Next, rebuild your dog’s confidence by teaching her, step by step, that the dog
door means wonderful things, i.e. super tasty snacks.
Some dogs are generally afraid of novel things or lack the confidence to explore. The procedure to make your dog use the dog door is the same as after a bad experiences (tasty snacks!) but, if your dog has problems with more than just the dog door, I strongly suggest a consult with a behaviour vet. Living with anxiety is no fun for anyone!
Case Study: Willow, the Worried Whippet
During a recent house-and dog-sit with a pair of Whippets, I helped one of them overcome her dog door anxiety. Apparently, her fear of using the door arose after she was hit in the face by the flap when she tried to follow her brother through the door. The door in question was of round design with a hard-plastic flap, firmly held in place by magnets.
After the incident, Willow would only use the door, if
the flap was held open. My initial advice was to temporarily replace the flap
with a plastic sheet or fly screen and then gradually reintroduce the hard
A simpler solution may have been to replace the door
with a larger version and a soft-plastic flap. However, more assistance is
usually required to rebuild confidence after a bad experience.
So, while I had the pleasure to stay with the Whippets, I spent a few minutes daily on behaviour building and counter-conditioning.
Breaking the Behaviour Down Into Manageable Steps
The first step was to get Willow to push the door open just a little with her nose. With me on the other side of the door and a piece of chicken held right at the bottom of the flap, she eventually managed to push—albeit quite awkwardly at first: pushing with her teeth!— and quickly snatch the treat before pulling her head back again.
Next, I had to prevent her from pulling back straight away, so I quickly fed another piece of chicken after the first one and so on. The goal was to get Willow comfortable with the feeling of the dog door resting on her head or neck for a few seconds.
Very quickly this seemed rather easy for Willow, so now was the time to move the food lure out of sight and encourage her verbally to push her head through the door before I reinforced her with a treat. The intention was to break the reliance on the food lure.
The next step was getting a leg through. This turned out to be a rather interesting looking affair. Despite her small stature and spindly legs, it took Willow some trial and error before she figured out where and how to place her legs. Initially, I offered assistance by holding the door up and then slowly lowering it onto her back.
After managing to get her front legs through and collecting a few pieces of chicken with the flap resting on her back, Willow still tried to escape the scary door with a quick forward hop. It would have been disastrous, if she had pulled back at this stage and rammed the door into her spine, so keeping the forward motion going with treats was essential.
By moving myself away from the door very gradually and feeding repeatedly as I did so, I eventually managed to convert her panicky hop into a more graceful step-through.
Repetition and Continued Reinforcement
From there I kept repeating a full step-through with
lots of verbal encouragement and reinforcement with chicken to grow Willow’s confidence
and comfort with the door. The chicken, or other food reinforcement, was now
only delivered once she had mastered the entry or exit on her own. I also celebrated
each success with plenty of praise.
I had transitioned from food lure directly at the door to reinforcement delivered at a distance from the door after a successful exit or entry. Now I needed her to be able to do it without me.
First, I increased my distance from the door and eventually walked out of sight, still using lots of verbal encouragement. I also used Willow’s brother as a draw card: I would go outside with him, closing the back door behind us and leaving Willow inside. I then made a point of first feeding him outside, then playing with him with lots of hullabaloo, and moving further and further away from the door. Willow, not wanting to be left behind, conquered her dog door dread faster and faster to join the party.
When my house- and dog-sitting time with the Whippets came to an end, Willow was able to go through the dog door without my presence and without encouragement or food offers. She had not yet managed to leave the house at night on her own when nature called, but I left with the confidence that continued practise and repetition, including at night time, would soon have her soar over that final hurdle.
And now I have learned that her humans have decided to install a bigger dog door with a soft flap! :)
Q: My dog does [ insert favourite “misbehaviour” here ]. Is she trying to be dominant? A: See last question.
Q: My dog does what he wants. He doesn’t respect me. How can I become a better leader? A: See last question.
Q: How can I maintain a pack-hierarchy in my multi-dog household, so everyone knows their place? A: See last question.
Q: Why use treats? Shouldn’t my dog just do what I want because I say so? A: See last question.
Q: If I don’t punish my dog when he behaves aggressively, doesn’t that mean he’ll do it again? A: See last question.
Q: My dog’s behaviour is a problem for me. What can I do about this? A: Finally, you’re asking the right question.
Your dog is a sub-species (Canis lupus familiaris) of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and belongs to the family of Canidae and the order of Carnivora.
I’m not telling you this to boast about my knowledge of
taxonomy (anyone can Google this), but because we really do need frequent
reminders that our dogs are not human. I’m quite sure, having a bear or a
gorilla in the house wouldn’t require repeated reality checks, but with dogs we seem to habitually forget what they really are.
Your dog is
a dog and will always behave like a dog, no matter how much you wish it were
otherwise. Behaving like a typical member of one’s own species should not be a
Now, I’d assume that bringing a dog into your home meant you were looking for a companion. Dogs are really good at that. But because they are still dogs, we usually need to take some action to make sure they don’t wreck the furniture, kill the cat, alienate our friends, offend the neighbours and attract lawsuits.
If you have
recently adopted a puppy, you need the same superhuman patience as new parents.
And you have the unnerving responsibility to protect and nurture a new life.
Can you imagine a parent placing a shock collar on their
baby or pressing their little body to the ground until they stop crying?
Pushing their face into their own poo because they had an accident during nappy
change? How about yanking a toddler by a neck chain because they toddled in the
“wrong” direction? Or maybe a bit of a whack under the chin or a knee in the
chest or some yucky substance sprayed in their face? How else does that
stubborn toddler learn to “behave”? How else are they going to respect you as
their leader? And, if they are really rebellious, then we just strangle them
until they faint or pummel them until they curl up in the corner. That’ll teach
We do all of these things to dogs—animals who are no more able
to comprehend what we expect from them than a 1- or 2-year old child—and no one
calls the cops.
what age, breed or size your dog is, no matter what task you might assign to
them, there is never any need or justification to make them fear you.
I know it is not the most brutal methods I have to steer you away from. You don’t want to hurt your dog. But I want to hold up a big warning sign that when you enter the dark foggy forest of dog training you have a high chance of doing a Hansel & Gretel. The advice you will mostly come across is drawn from last century myths and the avalanche of books that have been written spreading those myths. The language may have changed, and some methods are less overtly medieval in nature. But packaging a house of horror in gingerbread doesn’t make it any less dreadful or dangerous, just more insidious. Better to avoid the witch in the first place.
The risk of being conned does not only come from external sources. What about your own tendency to blame your dog for having human intentions? Stubborn, disobedient, naughty, rebellious, dominant—how many times have you thought your dog “misbehaves on purpose”? It is not their brains that give rise to those thoughts, it’s yours. Funnelling human thoughts into canid brains has only ever led to confusion, frustration and misery—on both sides of the relationship.
It may take a while to rid yourself of this, but you can
safely drop the notion that you need to be the alpha dog or even a leader. Your
dog is not going to usurp you. They are not lying in wait for you to drop your guard. Your dog is really just trying to figure out how they can
get you to hand over some food or throw a ball or even just say a few nice
words and scratch them behind the ears. That’s all they need to be happy.
more and more people who live and work with dogs are done with folk knowledge
and “dog training gurus” and are turning to fear-free and cooperative teaching
and learning. Please join us on this exciting journey. This is the future and
it’s already here.
The science of animal learning and behaviour gives us all we need to create a functioning household of individuals, even if one or more of those individuals are not human.
With a puppy under around 16 weeks of age your biggest advantage
is the chance of prevention. Put all
your time and energy into giving your youngster a ton of positive experiences,
so they feel safe in this world. Go overboard with teaching them that
nothing bad comes from human hands, that
all the people and animals and things around them are no threat to them. Handle
them with care, like you would a baby, but let them explore the world—under
your gentle guidance and armed with treats—like they were a toddler. You may
safe your dog from a lifetime of anxiety and yourself from the fallout.
The positive experiences shouldn’t stop once your puppy has
bumbled their way into adolescence and beyond.
There is a German saying which
I’ve always liked: “Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus”. It literally
means “how you shout into a forest is how it’ll resound back at you” (FYI: Dark,
dense German forests often have echoes; or at least that’s what I remember from
my childhood). Sometimes your actions not only result in a similar response
back though, but an exaggerated one. So much for the advice to punish your
dog’s aggressive behaviour. Good luck with that.
Squabbling between your canine house mates shouldn’t throw
you into a leadership crisis either. Dogs generally sort out who has priority
access to which resource and when—food,
toys, beds and more—without your interference. However, if your mediation is
required because the furries are at loggerheads, don’t go looking for a hierarchy
and most certainly don’t “support” one, or you risk starting a fire where there
was only a bit of smoke.
Relationships between individuals are more complex than a corporate
company structure or a military hierarchy.
If one of your dogs gets a little too “intense” over a
resource, teach them that no one is a threat to the things they value and that
good things come to them when the other dog(s) in the household get access to those
same valued resources.
Aggression is best prevented or reduced by not giving your
dog a reason to be aggressive. Don’t threaten them, scold them and pester them
but be a source of everything good in
your dog’s life. Good food, play and toys, companionship and cuddles—it’s what
makes your dog happy and they’ll love you for it.
Use good food and play abundantly to reinforce your dog for
all those things you want them to do.
Your dog’s behaviour will match the value they
get out of doing it. So, provide value and build up your dog’s skills, and your
own, step by step. Then show off in
front of all those misery trainers and their miserable dogs. Enjoy the look on
their faces when your dog comes bounding back to you from mid-chase across a wide
open field with tongue lolling and eyes sparkling in anticipation of the ham
and cheese sandwich in your pocket. Your dog will be the happiest dog in the world and you their happy
January is the “summer of tennis” here in Melbourne, which meant I was “forced” to spend a considerable amount of time in front of the TV. It has also been a very hot month, so watching the athletes slug it out from the air-conditioned comfort of the couch made this an acceptable and rather enjoyable past time.
Unfortunately, it also meant I was bombarded with the same ads during commercial breaks over and over again—something that tends to create a negative emotional response in me to the advertised product or service.
As a dog trainer, I know all about negative emotional responses because I see them in dogs all the time. The responses can be to us, our actions, the things we do to our dogs, certain situations or anything in the environment that makes dogs fearful, anxious, annoyed or aggressive. It shows mostly in theirbody language.
Does Training Your Dog Seem Like a Chore? Try the Opportunistic Approach.
If you live with a dog, you will have your own negative emotional responses to the things your dog does or doesn’t do. But even the mere idea of training your dog can cause a negative emotional response, if you consider “dog training” a chore. If this is the case—if you feel you have little time or motivation to teach your dog—I may have some ideas for you.
Whenever I was sufficiently fed up by those annoying interruptions to my tennis binge watching, I grabbed some treats and turned my focus to the dogs I was with. I call it my “quick & dirty Australian Open version of lazy dog training”.
So, here are
a few “on the fly” activities you can do with your dog whenever you have some
down time. Be it TV ads or waiting for your pasta to cook, those brief times
when you don’t quite know what to do with yourself offer an opportunity to do
some fun stuff with your dog (or cat, or any animal for that matter). Before
you know it, you may find you have actually taught your dog, and maybe
yourself, some mighty useful skills. And, who knows, it may spark your interest
in doing some more “methodical”—and more efficient!—dog training in the future.
But if not, that’s totally OK too.
Have a go. All
you need is a container full of yummy treats and some toys within easy reach
and you can train whenever and for as short a time as you feel like it.
Wait a Second! Teaching Your Dog not to be Pushy
getting up from the couch, you can teach your dog some basic things, such as
being patient. It will probably come as no surprise that patience is not in your dog’s natural repertoire. And it’s even
worse, if you haven’t taken your dog out to the park or for a walk yet. Under-exercised dogs and impulse control do not go well together.
if you can play fetch and tug with your dog from the couch, you can teach them
to control their impulsiveness at the same time.
The key is to start easy. Before you throw a toy or start the tug game, ask your dog to wait for just one second. Any attempt by your dog of jumping at and grabbing the toy results in a delay of play until your dog manages to hold back for one second only. Just hold the toy at a distance (e.g. above your head) where they can’t get to it or move the toy out of the dog’s reach every time they try to grab it. Once your dog pauses for one second, quickly start the game: Throw the toy/ball for the dog to fetch or start a game of tug by making the tug toy move away from the dog.
One second is all you need to get your foot in the door and, most importantly, it sets your dog up for success. The opposite—trying to get the dog to wait longer than they are able to and possibly adding verbal reprimands such as “no!” or “ah ah!” when they try to grab the toy—will only lead to frustration, and possibly intimidation, and your dog may not want to play at all anymore.
When your dog is good at pausing for one second, you can throw in some two or three second pauses. This is all you need for many day-to-day applications, such as opening doors without the dog rushing through, being able to manoeuvre without having the dog underfoot or jumping up at you and not having toys or food ripped out of your hands.
To get a tug toy off your dog, by the way, a good option is to make the toy go dead. Just grab as much of it as you can and hold it very still (sit/kneel/lean on the toy), so the dog can’t move it or rip it from you. The moment your dog lets go of the toy voluntarily, praise them and resume play. A less “physical” option is to offer a treat in exchange for the toy.
Come Here, Go There: Moving Your Dog Around in Space
Another skill that you can teach quickly and with little effort is hand targeting, i.e. teaching your dog to target your hand with their nose.
extend one arm, elbow straight and your palm facing the dog. Have a treat ready
in the other hand (hidden, e.g. behind your back). Encourage your dog to
approach and wriggle your fingers to make your empty hand a more interesting
target. If your dog is still not moving towards it, place a small piece of food
under your thumb to get the game started. When your dog’s nose comes close to
your hand or even touches it, say a cheery “yes!” and immediately give your dog
a treat from your other hand. Keep repeating this until your dog reliably
approaches the palm of your hand when you hold out your arm.
You can use
any other item, instead of your hand, to play this targeting game. It’s fun to
watch how quickly the dog learns what earns them the treat. Of course, your
timing skills are crucial for your dog’s success, so this is a nifty little
exercise for humans too.
The seemingly simple behaviour of targeting your hand opens the door to all sorts of interesting skills. Apart from getting your dog to come to you, you can use it to move them to any place you like—onto a mat, up on the couch, off the bed, over agility equipment, around your legs, back to your side when pulling on the leash, on the scales at the vet’s office and more. The applications are endless. And all of it without using any force to move your dog!
Getting Your Dog to Stay Out of The Way
Ever had a dog underfoot in the kitchen and almost tripped or spilled something? Your dog may be keen for pieces of your sandwich to rain on the floor, but they won’t be so happy, if you spill hot coffee or drop a frying pan. Dogs underfoot can be a real health & safety hazard. So, I like to keep them at a distance when I’m busy in the kitchen. The same goes when I work with power tools or things that are dangerous for dogs.
Last week I was house-minding with two delightful Labradors. One thing that became obvious very quickly was their immediate and unyielding presence whenever I moved into the kitchen. There was a body in front of me at every turn which required me to either divert or push through them. Every water droplet or speck of material that landed on the floor was subject to intense investigation. Every remotely edible crumb was sucked up by whoever pounced first. Even my exhausted “I’m just making coffee” announcements were consistently followed by hopeful eyes looking up at me before they turned their attention back to the floor.
sort of eager anticipation, I knew just the solution.
Clearly the dogs were highly motivated by food, so all I needed to do was handing out tasty treats whenever the dogs remained outside the kitchen while I was inside. I gave them pieces of cooked chicken, cheese, mashed sweet potato with tuna and, on occasion, whatever food I was eating myself. At the same time, I never gave them any food in the kitchen. This meant I had to be careful not to drop food on the kitchen floor and—in case it did happen—throw myself between the food and the dogs before they got to it. All of this works better, of course, if the dogs have a place to sit or lie on outside the kitchen.
As it happened, there was a rug at the end of the kitchen area, so I didn’t even have to provide a dedicated “stay training mat”. The rug became the go-to place for the dogs to settle down on every time I entered the kitchen and we did “stay training on the fly”.
Whenever I walked to the kitchen, I directed (see below) the dogs onto the rug and gave them a treat each.
Whenever they followed me into the kitchen or moved into the kitchen at any stage, I immediately directed them back onto the rug—every single time.
Initially, I delivered treats while the dogs stayed on the rug at a very high frequency, i.e. every 1-5 seconds.
As the dogs improved, i.e. stayed on the rug more often, I decreased the frequency of treat delivery but kept it random (no fixed intervals) and sometimes gave a higher value treat or more of it.
When one of them walked into the kitchen, but the other one stayed, the one who moved was simply directed back on the mat and the one who stayed received a treat.
If you have practised hand targeting (see previous chapter), “directing” a dog is easy. Otherwise you can use a treat as a lure to get started. Try to transition quickly to not having food in your pointing or targeting hand though. The goal is that the dog does the behaviour first and then you bring the treat out and deliver it.
The whole exercise may be easier, if you can ask your dog to lie down on the mat. A dog is more likely to “settle” while lying down rather than sitting or standing. However, this has to be either pre-trained or you could simply lure your dog down on the mat with a treat to begin with. Don’t worry about this, if it adds too much complexity for now. Your dog may even lie down by themselves after a while.
Maybe you don’t mind having your dog in the kitchen or following you around, which is perfectly fine. But there will always be situations when it can be extremely helpful to have your dog out of the way or settled on a mat.
As you can see, teaching your dog to wait, stay or come can be done in a rather casual way and be made to fit into your daily life. Yes, overall it can actually take longer and does not teach behaviours as reliably as carefully planned and executed dog training protocols and sessions. But, if it helps you to teach your dog anything at all and make your life—and that of your dog—easier, it’s worth a go.
Being sick is no fun. No matter, if our ailment is of a physical or mental nature, it robs us of having a good life and doing the things we love. Anxiety, phobias or depression can be as debilitating as broken bones or battling a disease. And it’s no different for our dogs.
But, just like us, dogs can benefit greatly from engaging in physical and mental activities, solving puzzles or playing games. It may start as nothing but a temporary relief or a distraction, but it may also grow into a newfound appetite for life. Often, the first step is the hardest, so here is some advice on how to get started with your dog.
Having to Worry About Their Environment Can Make Your Dog Sick and Unhappy
Does your dog shy away when someone tries to touch them, trembles at the vet or groomer or gets upset by noises? Does your dog seem withdrawn or inactive despite being neither physically incapacitated nor very old? Does your dog growl at people or other dogs, or worse?
Dogs who worry about their environment most or all of the time have a stressful life. They often do not have the confidence, drive or energy to engage in playful or investigative behaviours. Instead, they stay where they feel safe and avoid attracting attention. If they are pushed out of their safe environment, they may respond with fearful or aggressive behaviour.
The reasons for this can be multiple. A dog may have been born with a natural shyness or had adverse early life experiences. They may have suffered some form of trauma or been exposed to regular verbal or physical punishment. Or maybe they simply missed out on good socialisation during the critical first few weeks in life.
Although it may seem the easiest option to just leave the dog alone, it usually does nothing to improve their quality of life and their mental health may deteriorate further. Also, the old “leave the dog alone” advice for any dog that shows aggressive behaviour doesn’t really work anymore these days, at least in our modern urban environments. Dogs live in close contact with us and conflict is almost guaranteed since neither dogs nor people are always in a position to get out of each other’s way. So, we better make sure our dogs are happy where they live and look after their mental health as well as their physical health.
Getting Your Anxious Dog to Play Can Add Greatly to Their Quality of Life
Complete care for anxious, fearful and fear-aggressive dogs requires
A great option for enrichment for anxious dogs is capturing and shaping a behaviour. It is a non-invasive—and therefore non-threatening—way to get your dog to do things. The initial behaviour can be as simple as your dog looking at an object near them, let’s say a cardboard box you just put on the ground. If you want to capture this behaviour, immediately praise (or say a cheery “yes!” or use a clicker, if you prefer) and give your dog a tasty treat every time you put the box down and your dog looks at the box.
It will usually only take a few repetitions for the dog to connect the dots: I look at the box –> I get a tasty treat. Soon the dog may not just look at the box, but actually move towards it. After all, isn’t it interesting that looking at a box earns you a treat? There must be something about this particular box. So, let’s check it out!
Eventually, your dog may offer other behaviours such as pawing at the box or biting it, so you reinforce these behaviours and eventually stop reinforcing merely looking at the box. You have shaped your dog’s behaviour from noticing the box to engaging with it. From there you might decide to shape ripping the box apart, so you only reinforce biting and no longer pawing. Next you reinforce vigorous biting and no longer gentle nibbling.
Where you go with this is up to you and your dog. Maybe your dog discovers how much fun it is to rip cardboard boxes apart and doesn’t need food reinforcements anymore or they love finding some tasty morsels you have hidden inside the box. The important thing is that your dog is having fun. And, hopefully, you have fun watching your dog being happy.
Jezz the Anxious Collie Having Fun
The following video shows some scenes of shaping engagement with an object, in this case a carry tray for coffee cups. It started one day when a friend and I had take-away coffee at a park with Jezz, the anxious Collie. There was no particular agenda. Jezz simply had a sniff at the tray when I tossed it on the ground and it went from there. Now she runs at it, picks it up, tosses it into the air, sometimes rips it to pieces and seems to get a genuine kick out of doing so. That was all that mattered. Anxious Jezz having fun!
While this may not seem a remarkable behaviour for dogs without anxiety issues, for dogs like Jezz, who can jump at her own shadow, this is a huge step forward and almost wondrous to watch. Here is how we got there:
A Safe Environment
The first crucial ingredient is the environment: There is a clearing surrounded by natural bushland, set along a creek in suburban Melbourne, where Jezz loves to hang out. In fact, I believe she would happily adopt this place as her permanent home. We frequently see the iconic Kookaburra and other native birdlife and there is even a hive of Australian bees being busy in a tree hollow. It’s a little oasis where Jezz feels safe and comfortable.
Next, the reinforcer: I needed food which Jezz loves and wants more of. I mostly used freshly cooked or dehydrated chicken breast and sometimes cheese. Don’t make assumptions about what type of food your dog will work for. Test it by offering a large range of goodies. Most dogs prefer moist treats with meat, fish or cheese to dry kibble.
Observational & Timing Skills
The moment I saw Jezz sniff at the cardboard tray one day, I praised her with a cheery “Yes!” and immediately reached into my pocket for a treat. Jezz knows what reaching into my pocket means: There is a high chance she gets a tasty treat. How does she know this? Because she has experienced it many times over: I reach it into my pocket and out comes a treat.
My timing was crucial here. If I had left even a few seconds pass before reinforcing Jezz with praise and food, she would not have made the connection between her investigation of the tray and the treat delivery.
Being able to watch Jezz approach the tray meant I had to be vigilant and ready to reinforce her with food. If I had missed one or more approaches, I could have missed my chance entirely since without the food reinforcement there would have been no reason for Jezz to continue approaching the tray.
To develop Jezz’s new found skill further I had to take it up a notch and be more discriminating about which behaviours I reinforced and which ones I ignored or reinforced to a lesser extent (lower value treats or praise only). Differential reinforcement simply means that we reinforce certain behaviours but not others. The “other” behaviours can be anything that the dog may also be interested in doing at the same time, but which doesn’t get us closer to our goal.
In Jezz’s case I simply wanted to encourage any engagement with the tray that looked like play. Grabbing it and running with it or tossing it into the air was great, but she also enjoyed pawing it and chewing pieces off it, so I reinforced that too. Eventually I stopped reinforcing her for merely approaching and sniffing the tray. As a result, she did that less and, more often than not, went straight for the more playful behaviours of grabbing, tossing, running with the tray and—once she got a little tired—dissecting it.
If my goal had been to teach Jezz to pick up the tray and bring it to me, I could have only reinforced her when she put her mouth on the tray but not when she was pawing it. Typically, after a dog has put their mouth or teeth on an object a few times, they start lifting it off the ground occasionally. Once the “new” behaviour, in this case “lift off” happens often enough, the simpler behaviours, in this case “mouthing” are no longer reinforced. Then we wait for the next behaviour to pop out, in this case “taking a few steps with the tray in her mouth” and once this occurs at a sufficient frequency, we no longer reinforce a simple “lift off”. And so on.
When to stop reinforcing simpler behaviours and only reinforce the next closer approaches to whatever end goal you have in mind is a judgement call and, if made too early, can lead to frustration and eventually quitting in the dog. On the other hand, reinforcing the same behaviour for too long, can mean progress is very slow and the dog may even quit because it gets boring!
Here is anxious Jezz with her new toy. Happiness can be found in the most simple things.
So-called “anti-bark collars” aim to silence a dog’s voice by delivering electricity, odours or ultrasonic sound to the dog’s senses. The use of these devices can have serious short- and long-term welfare implications for the dog, so why do dog-loving people use them?
Across the bench, the language used to promote anti-bark collars and similar devices is misleading, presumably to dispel any lingering doubts a potential customer might have. Apparently, people do have doubts about these gadgets and rightly so. But instead of properly addressing those doubts and being clear about possible side-effects, the product descriptions are full of meaningless labels.
Undisclosed Fact: Anti-Bark Collars Aim to Silence Your Dog Via “Positive Punishment”—A Method Which Is Neither Safe nor Humane
The marketers are at pains to ensure you that the devices are
“safe”, “harmless”, “gentle”, “without pain or fear” and “humane”.
and their modus operandi is a benign
“correction”, “vibration” or “stimulation”.
Despite this lack of unpleasantries, the collars are obviously designed to stop your dog from barking, so we are made to believe that a
“safe static correction“, a “gentle, yet effective, spray”, a “spray of harmless citronella” or a “harmless but effective ultrasonic sound”
can do just that.
Of course, all of this sounds a lot better than naming the actual process behind the reduction in barking. We can’t know how the dog feels about whatever “stimulation” they receive, but if it does indeed lead to less barking in the future, then the correct term for the process of how this was achieved is punishment (or more correctly: positive punishment—more on that below).
Putting the word punishment on the product description isn’t so good for sales, I would assume. But, more importantly, naming the exact mode of behaviour modification by which those collars operate would call for full disclosure regarding the known risks associated with it.
Undisclosed Fact: Your Dog Always Barks for A Reason and May Not Be Able to Just Stop
The companies also want to assure you that your dog’s barking is
“unnecessary”, “excessive” and a “nuisance”.
Thus, the use of anti-bark collars is completely justified, because—clearly—your dog barks for no reason and way more than they should. So, it’s perfectly fine to give a them a “reminder” to turn their annoying barking off. Nothing wrong with a little zap to zip it, right?
But, who makes that call? Who decides, if or when your dog’s behaviour is unnecessary or excessive?
Where in the product description is the suggestion to consult with a qualified canine behaviour expert to identify why the dog is barking in the first place?
Dogs do not bark “unnecessarily” or “at nothing” or “for no reason”. Just because the reason isn’t obvious to us, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Proponents of anti-bark collars want us to ignore this. They try to make us believe that our dogs are not normally functioning biologically beings but rather something we can turn off on a whim, like an annoying TV commercial.
Rounding up the sales pitch are often entirely inappropriate qualifiers such as
“deluxe”, “attractive” and “exclusive”
to cause further distraction from exactly how these devices work. More glitter thrown into your eyes.
Anti-Bark Collars Need to Come with A Risk Statement Until A Total Ban Is in Place
Maybe the product descriptions were written by people in the marketing department who are more accustomed to selling the latest lifestyle gadgets or fashion accessories. Advertising a product that aims to change the behaviour of a living organism is a whole different ball game. It requires disclosure about exactly what will happen to the individual who is exposed to the device and how this will affect their short- and long-term behaviour and well-being.
Positive punishment—which is what all these collars rely on—has known risks, and everyone who considers buying these products needs to be made aware of it. Add to that the risk of leaving your dog alone with a device around their neck that can not only malfunction but function in a manner you did not expect.
What we need clearly displayed on anti-bark collars (and related devices, such as electric fences) are risk statements, similar to what we see on cigarette packs. Better yet: Let’s just ban all of these contraptions and stand shoulder to shoulder with other progressive countries that have already done so, instead of being the laggards.
The Risks Associated with Anti-Bark Collars
The science of Animal Learning and Behaviour tells us that behaviour is controlled by environmental conditions (external and internal). So, a dog’s barking might be triggered by the neighbour’s children playing in their yard, a noisy truck rumbling past the property, a hot air balloon flying over, a burglar breaking into your house or because the dog is in pain or suffers from fear or loneliness. Internal conditions are impossible for us to fully understand but we can detect them by watching the dog’s behaviour and body language.
In addition to triggers, behaviour is also controlled by consequences: A behaviour is likely to occur more often in the future, if it leads to favourable outcomes for the animal (reinforcement), and less often, if the results are not so good (punishment).
Anti-bark collars operate via positive punishment (adding something to the dog’s environment to reduce the behaviour of barking). Punishment can be a very effective way to reduce behaviour, so what’s so bad about it?
Aversive Consequences Can Create Negative Associations with Any Trigger Or Anything In The Environment
The timing and “clean” execution of positive punishment may be easy enough in a laboratory, but there is no guarantee your dog won’t form unintended associations when they receive the shock, spray or sound from the anti-bark collar. Anything that the dog may hear, see, smell or otherwise perceive at that time may become associated with the negative experience. The neighbour’s kids, the cat on the fence, a hot air balloon flying over—anything. Now the dog feels even more motivated to bark when confronted with those elements in the future. Anxious and aggressive behaviour can easily follow.
Aversive Consequences Can Cause Apathy, Anxiety And Aggression
Attempting to block or suppress an individual’s behaviour by providing aversive consequences has known risks. Dogs who are happy and confident may become anxious, apathetic or aggressive following the use of anti-bark collars. This can manifest itself only in certain contexts or it can generalise and affect the dog’s behaviour in other situations. The frightening part is that dogs who show less behaviour overall, i.e. dogs who become less active or even apathetic, are often labelled “well-behaved” dogs. But a decrease in overall behaviour is not a sign of being well. It’s a sign of being mentally or physically ill.
For dogs who bark out of anxiety, for example those who suffer from separation anxiety or noise phobias, the use of aversive consequences can be particularly catastrophic. The collars simply heap more nightmarish experiences onto the dog’s already troubled mind.
When an individual is at the mercy of forces they cannot control, their quality of life is seriously compromised.
The Well-Being of Beings Is All About Control
It may seem the use of an anti-bark collar means giving your dog a choice: “Shut up or suffer the consequences. It’s up to you!” But, the dog may not have such easy control over their barking, and even if they do, how does it affect their emotional health, if they can’t speak up anymore?
There Is No Joy In Confusion And Frustration
Let’s imagine you attend a show by one of your favourite comedians—the type that makes people laugh so hard that their bellies ache and their eyes water. But soon you realize that something is wrong. Every time you laugh out loud, a bug that is stuck deep down in your ear starts buzzing. When you stop laughing, the buzzing stops. You have no way of removing the bug from your ear or squashing it. You try to suppress your laughter to avoid the annoying buzz, but the comedian is just so darn funny, you can’t help but burst out laughing. Would that drive you mad?
It depends. Maybe you get used to it after a while and keep laughing out loud. Or maybe it is so frustrating or even painful that you leave the show, see a doctor and get that buzzing bug out of your ear. Lucky you for being able to seek help.
And Then There is Only Panic
Now assume you get yourself trapped in a secret room in a medieval castle and no one knows you’re there. You yell out for help when all of a sudden a high-pitched sound causes a sharp pain in your ears. You are momentarily confused why your cries for help would seem to trigger this ear piercing tone, but your intense fear to be forgotten and die a slow and horrible death in this room is overwhelming. So, you keep screaming at the top of your lungs despite the pain in your ears and you bang on the door until your hands bleed. Finally, with your voice failing, your ears pounding and your fingers broken, you realise that no one is coming to rescue you. You are all alone.
Hopefully, by that time you wake up and realise it was all just a bad dream. Lucky you.
If the latter scenario sounds fantastically dramatic, just think: How panic stricken does someone have to be to mutilate their own body? Separation anxiety can do that to a dog. They do not bark for no reason. They are screaming for help.
No matter, if your dog barks out of joy or concern, to talk to other dogs in the neighbourhood, raise the alarm or cry for help, it is a valid expression of their personality and their state of mind. If we simply put a lid on it, we may do a lot more harm than we ever imagined.
How To Reduce Your Dog’s Barking Without The Fallout
Make Your Dog Feel Safe
If there is any suspicion of separation anxiety, address this right away. This is a welfare issue and any attempts to suppress your dog’s cries for help will only make matters worse. With the help of a vet or behavioural vet and trainers who are experienced in desensitisation protocols for separation anxiety, you can make your dog feel better and remove the reason for their barking.
The same goes for noise phobias or any fear- and anxiety-related problems. Get help so you can help your dog.
Make Your Dog’s Life More Interesting
Lack of stimulation is a problem for most dogs who spend too much time alone, especially when there is not much going on in their lives even when you are home. Taking your dog to the park or for a walk before you go out for the day and leaving them with food puzzle toys rather than feeding from a bowl is a good start. However, depending on your dog’s individual needs, a 10 minute walk around the block and a toy with dry kibble might not cut it. So, find out what activities it takes to make your dog happy and tired. Sports, games, interactive toys, food puzzles and positive reinforcement training are all good options.
Keep Your Dog Inside
Noises in the neighbourhood are often a trigger for barking. If your dog has noise phobias, this is a serious matter which falls into the same category separation anxiety and requires expert help. Even without a strong fear response, your dog might become distressed or highly aroused from exposure to certain noises. Since, unfortunately, you can’t control the world around your home, this means the dog must have access to the house or a place that muffles the outside sounds.
Consider leaving your dog inside while you’re out, at least during certain times when specific neighbourhood noises in your area are more likely to occur. Many dogs do much better when they can sleep inside the house during your absence. There are less distractions and they are less likely to be woken up by noises. Leaving the radio on or a white noise machine can help too.
Combine this with increasing your dog’s physical and mental stimulation and you have a recipe for success. No need for reach for a gadget that promises you quick relief but doesn’t mention the real price you pay.
Pierce W.D. and Cheney C.D. 2017, Behaviour Analysis and Learning. A Biobehavioral Approach. 6th edn, Routledge, New York