How Plain Vanilla Dog Training Gives Power To The People

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 behaviour).

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.

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From Growly to Gracious: Teaching Your Dog to Let Go.

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

Holding on 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.

Sebastian, the Golden Retriever, is very attached to his penguin, but he is even more attached to tennis balls and sticks.

“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.

Coco, the French Bulldog, is learning to let go of the tug toy.

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.

Coco, the French Bulldog, is able to let go of a tasty chew stick.

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.

Charley, the Beaglier, leaving food in hand
Charley, the Beaglier, has learned the “leave it” cue and knows that her patience will pay off.

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.

Sebastian, the Golden Retriever, tends to guard his tennis balls from other dogs, but also from humans. After “give” and “leave it” training he is well on his way to become less possessive.

Top 5 Dog Behaviour Myths – 2019 Edition

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 punishable offence.

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 them.

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.

No matter 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.

Fortunately, 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 human.

Take a Break and Play: DIY Dog Training Made Easy

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 their body 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

Even without 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.

Fortunately, 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.

Simply 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.

With that 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.

Merlin & Daisy have learned “on the fly” that staying out of the kitchen pays off.

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.

How to Get Your Anxious Dog to Play

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.

Suitable Reinforcement

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.

Differential Reinforcement

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.
Jezz at her favourite nature spot with coffee tray

What “No” Really Means to Your Dog

No has to be one of the most uttered exclamations by anyone living with dogs and, dare I say, kids. Of course, we have to control those little critters who seem to have nothing better to do than throw us challenge after challenge and make our lives difficult. They just don’t listen, do they? And, if our authoritative no doesn’t suffice, let’s just increase the volume and— voilà!—now we have their attention. For a few seconds at least. Then we’ll start over like a broken record.

Or maybe we belt out a formidable NO!! with such ferocity that everyone ducks for cover and gives us peace for the rest of the day. Ah, finally, we get the respect we so crave.

Except it’s all but a fleeting dream.

The Loud No

Yelling at someone to make them change their behaviour is not exactly what I would call a teaching method. It has—together with other forms of intended positive punishment—fallen out of favour with educators for good reason. Aggressive behaviour doesn’t just affect the well-being of our dogs, but ours as well. Like a quick meal at the nearest junk food outlet, it gives us instant relief but, if repeated, it gradually makes us worse.

Despite the short-lived benefits of raising one’s voice, the immediate result—in case your dog stops whatever they were doing—can be reinforcing. It’s easy to convince yourself that your strategy has worked. Let’s say you catch your dog chewing on the carpet. You yell NO! and the dog slinks away with tail low and quietly lies down on their bed. Success!

So, how do you feel ten minutes later or the next day when your dog is chewing on the carpet again? It may be time to revise your strategy.

Here is the problem: If your dog is highly motivated to engage in an activity such as chewing, be they a puppy, a recreational chewer or a dog seeking stress relief, they keep doing it. To counter this strong motivation, your threatening behaviour—in the form of yelling—has to be severe enough to have even the slightest chance of success. But even then, the dog’s behaviour is usually only suppressed for a finite time or as long as you are around.

Attempting to punish your dog’s behaviour with aggressive methods could even have the opposite effect, for example if the dog chews out of anxiety. Your aggressive behaviour gives the dog an even greater reason to be anxious, so they chew the carpet even harder to relieve their stress.

Now imagine your dog is anxious around the kids next door and growls at them. I’m sure you would be grateful that your dog makes their feelings known (so you can change them for the better) rather than turning those feelings into direct action. If you silence your dog’s voice by threatening them, what you fear might happen is far more likely to happen.

 

The Stern or Firm No

So how about we dial down the decibels and employ what is often referred to as the stern no or the firm no? Surely, this establishes our leadership and authority without the nasty side effects.

You might be in luck, if your target is human, of good hearing, sufficiently intellectually mature and dependent on your goodwill. Without the latter, well, at least you have a chance to start an argument. Try this with a toddler, a dog or a lizard and you can expect tantrums, disappearance acts or just plain indifference. Just like the loud no, the stern no is intended to stop the dog from doing something by exerting some sort of authority, so the tone tends to be threatening, regardless of the decibel level.

I suppose once upon a time commanding voices were thought to teach our children such grand values as respect, authority, discipline, obedience and loyalty. It seems odd that—while we have long realised that young children aren’t capable of grasping these concepts—we believe members of another species do a better job. Alas, a threatening voice does not teach your dog morality. They just learn to avoid you.

 

The Conditioned, or Learned, No

Because the word no, said in a resolute voice, has such a clear meaning to us humans, it is not really surprising that we use it with other animals as well. But, of course, a dog has no idea what the word no means unless—over time—they recognise a pattern and learn what happens after the no.

Let’s say your dog stalks your cat, prompting you to say no. Then, because your dog ignores you and starts chasing or pestering the cat, you get hold of the dog and put them in the laundry for a two-minute time-out. If you consistently repeat this pattern, your dog will learn that your no predicts time alone in the laundry, unless they leave the cat alone.

Time-outs can be highly effective, as long as you manage to deliver them consistently in a matter-of-fact way, without scaring the dog with either your voice or your actions. Once your dog has learned the pattern, they have a choice to avoid the negative punishment, i.e. the time-out. If you can pull this off, your no will take on the meaning of a warning. Congratulations. This is no simple procedure.

Reward-based dog trainers avoid the word no precisely because it has a default meaning to humans. It is almost impossible to deliver the word in a neutral tone, especially when your dog is about to do something you don’t approve of. To avoid slipping into the loud or stern category, it’s best to choose a more pleasant word or phrase as a warning (“gentle”, “easy”, “nope”, or how about the Aussie classic: “oi”), give a learned cue for cease & desist (“leave it”) or ask the dog for an alternative behaviour (come, sit, touch, fetch).

 

The Overshadowed No

In reality, the word no is rarely delivered in a neutral tone nor on its own. Its delivery is forceful and it is often accompanied—rather than followed—by some form of action, such as rushing towards, staring at or leaning over the dog, throwing things at the dog or worse. Your actions overshadow your words just like your tone of voice does. So, the word itself is entirely irrelevant. You could use any verbal uttering, because your dog responds exclusively to your body language and noisiness.

 

The Most Appropriate No in Dog Training

The most appropriate use of the word no in dog training is the one where you simultaneously slap your forehead because you left your puppy alone with what used to be your precious new throw rug (management fail); or when you finally realise your dog never sits longer than a split-second because you consistently rewarded them after they stood up (sloppy training mechanics); or when your dog does an instant U-turn away from a sweet-smelling possum carcass after hearing your irresistible voice and you realise you left those super tasty treats at home (badly missed opportunity).

 

Multi-animal households: The more the merrier or crowded house?

Dogs are social creatures, just like humans. And so are cats, by the way. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone gets along with everyone else, same species or not. Scenarios where individuals are more or less forced to live together and don’t always have a say in who they share with are common. Starting with the family you grow up in (and hopefully it worked out for you!), you may have moved on to share with friends or fellow students, and maybe even later in life, because you couldn’t afford a place on your own. Age or disability may also force you to live in a home where sharing with others is unavoidable.

There are situations where living together simply doesn’t work out. There could be a clash of personalities or incompatible lifestyles. There could be constant fighting or even an abusive relationship. If you are not able to change your situation and feel trapped in a social network, you are likely to suffer mentally, emotionally and, quite possibly, physically. I assume this may be a major reason that people disappear. And, it is mind-boggling just how many people go missing without a trace every year.

Now spare a thought for all those animals that we add to our homes. Not only do they not have a choice if they want to live with us in the first place, they also have no say every time a new family member is added. How do they cope? Well, not always very well. Some animals do wander off in search for a better life – mostly cats who have better survival chances than dogs – but most animals are unable to vote with their feet. They are either physically trapped or their dependency on us is so great that escape is not an option. And, just like humans, they get stressed, depressed and anxious if they have little control over their lives.

Trying to tick all the important boxes before adding someone to your family is ideal, but in reality neither our decision-making nor life itself are always ideal. Not even close. So, if you already are in a challenging situation, here are some things you can do to create a more harmonious household.

Everyone needs to feel safe

If you live in a mixed species household, consider the natural relationship between the animals (predator – prey?) and have safety measures in place. The risk of your dog preying on your cat or guinea pig may be low, if they have grown up together, but it is never zero. Leaving them alone together without supervision can end in disaster. So is leaving large dogs with tiny dogs or animals that don’t know each other well or have a history of serious fighting.

Of course, who is scared of who isn’t always clear-cut. If your dog tip-toes around the house because they are constantly vigilant of being ambushed by your cats, it may make for ‘funny’ YouTube videos but it sure is a hellish life for your dog.

If any of your animals is afraid of others in your household – and that includes you, your children and anyone who comes to your house – things need to change. For example, change how you manage your animals, think about how your own actions affect your animals’ behaviour and avoid anything that could scare your animals. Don’t be hesitant to engage a qualified positive reinforcement animal trainer or veterinary behaviourist to set you on the right track.

Everyone needs their own space

Personal space is not just a human need. Opportunities to retreat and not be bothered by other members of the family – human or other – are essential for everyone. For cats this means high places where dogs and kids can’t reach. For dogs this may be a crate, a playpen or a cosy bed under a desk that is off limits to everyone else. This is especially important, if the dog or cat is shy or anxious. Closely supervise any human member of the household who is not old enough or able to understand that animals are not toys.

Having separate feeding, resting and toileting stations for your animals is important. For example, don’t expect your three cats to share one litter tray, keep your puppy away from your senior who is desperately trying to have an afternoon nap and feed dogs separately who have a history of being a little too protective of their food. Stressful situations cause friction and, if repeated over and over, can escalate and make one or more of your animals decidedly unhappy and even sick.

Everyone needs to be listened to

Animals living with humans have one very significant problem: They can’t tell us how they feel or what they want. Understanding another species – which mostly means understanding what their body language and behaviour might tell us – is a science and needs to be learned from qualified animal behaviour experts. So, in order to understand your animal better, stick to sources that rely on actual animal behaviour research. Avoid following advice you hear on TV, social media or from anyone who thinks they have all the answers but no scientific data to back it up.

If you are able to recognise your animals’ emotions and moods, you can take immediate action if things are not well. Rather than being reactive to ‘unacceptable’ behaviour and potentially making a situation worse, your knowledge and understanding will turn you into a skilled planner, coordinator, negotiator, protector and friend.

 
 

To sum it up, if a multi-animal household is to have any chance of success, each individual must feel safe and have the right to express themselves in a species-typical way. Sometimes this means you have to get creative with how you provide suitable outlets for your animals’ favourite activities. You are, after all, a zoo keeper.