Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Training (But Were Afraid to Ask)

In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

Entering into a new training session, there are always a few consistencies.  I have only two hours to accomplish many things:

  • Gain the trust of the humans
  • Gain the trust of the dog(s)
  • Ascertain the situation
  • Develop a game plan for addressing the behavior issues
  • Create bonds of communication between dog and owner
  • Have fun.

It doesn’t necessarily happen in that order, but that’s a pretty good synopsis of everything I can accomplish in two hours.  It seems like a lot, but as I’ve stated numerous times, dogs aren’t stupid. I also believe that (most) people aren’t stupid either. There are, of course, occasionally the incredible human exceptions.  Dogs, however, are amazingly simple.  That’s why I’m able to keep my training sessions short and simple.  Remember, there is nothing wrong with your dog; he just sucks at being human.  And most people are pretty decent humans; they just suck at being dogs.  So, simply put, we need some communication going on, not a bunch of rules and regulations about how the two species should interact.  Three steps to working with your dog; that’s all it takes for any situation involving a dog to be solved.

I firmly believe dogs ask questions.  We’ve already agreed that dogs aren’t stupid, so of course they ask questions.  They’re curious creatures, and aside from wanting to know about their world around them, they want to know what you think of the world around them.  How should they react?  Should they react? And most importantly, is it time to eat?!

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All of their questions can be answered, but not all of them necessarily need to be answered.  There are simply some that must be answered.  But more on that in a moment.

Working with your dog involves 3 components: Piloting, Activity and Work, or what we refer to as The PAW Method.  To break it down:

Piloting: Answer your dog’s questions. They only ask “yes/no” questions, so it’s pretty easy to do!  Learn how here.

Activity: Keep ‘em moving and active.  Ever experience something called a runner’s high?  Yeah, well, neither have I, but I hear it’s wonderful, and dog’s are addicted to it. They need their Activity, and either you give it to them, or they figure out how to get it themselves, and that’s never a good thing.

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Work: Dogs aren’t stupid, nor are they merely knick-knacks strewn about your house to be idly admired: they are thinking beings with cognitive abilities that we still haven’t fully explored in the tens of thousands of years they’ve been with us.  In other words, keep them mentally engaged. A bored dog is truly a destructive force.

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That’s the groundwork, your foundation.  Make it a good, strong foundation, and you can build upon it by answering your dog’s questions. Dogs are binary, which means every question they ever ask you will require a “yes” or a “no”, which is different than “good” or “bad”.  Your dog is incapable of being bad: he will always choose what’s right for a dog, which may be in direct conflict of what’s right for a human.  Remember, you are merely answering questions for your dog, not punishing them, nor should you be inflicting pain or fear upon a dog.

Using “yes” and “no” can be very confusing.  When do you give negatives, and when do you use positives?  Simple.

Negatives/No

1) When you don’t like what your dog is doing.  Sounds simple enough, but you wouldn’t believe how many people don’t understand that “No” is a complete sentence and can be used liberally.  Ask yourself, “Do I like this behavior that Fido is doing?”  If the answer is “no”, then give them a negative.  Anything from jumping, barking, and getting on furniture to the simple questions Fido may ask on a walk: “Do we turn left here?”.  If the answer is “no”, then give them a negative!  Remember negative doesn’t mean bad, it just means “no”.

So how do you answer a dog’s questions?

Use your body language to answer these questions. If your dog is staring at a treat on the floor and then at you, he’s asking if he can have it. If you do not want your dog to have it, answer his question by walking in between him and the treat, facing him, with the treat behind you. This means that you are “claiming” the treat. You can move into his personal space to back him off it a bit.  Once he’s engaged with you, nothing, or everything (in other words, looking anywhere but at the treat), remove your strong body language by walking to the side or away from him. This shows him that he is giving you the correct response: accepting that the treat is yours. If he looks at your treat again, simply use the body language again.

Think of it as a game of hot/cold.  His question is, “Can I have that?”  The answer is “No”. You answer his question using that body language.  When he accepts the answer (looking at you, everything, or nothing, but definitely NOT looking at the treat), then you’re finished.  Remove your negative body language.  You may have to put the negative body language right back on him if he immediately tries to go for it, but that’s natural – it may take him a few times to accept your answer.  Remember, remaining calm is the key.  Anger should never be a part of this exercise.

So again, Piloting is answering a dog’s questions. You would answer the question in the same way if he is asking if something is a threat (stand between your dog and the perceived threat, facing your dog, and simply back him off while standing up straight). Pretty easy, huh? The more you show your dog that you are capable of being in control and the Pilot, the more your dog will be able to relax and actually be a dog. He’ll look to you for guidance instead of feeling as though he needs to protect you and your family from every garbage can, dog and plastic bag in the neighborhood.

2) When your dog is “Yo, Bitch”-ing you.  Wow….there’s a term.  What’s “Yo, Bitch”, anyway?   Symptoms include: slapping you with their paw, trampling you, pushing you out of your seat on the couch.  Basically, any behavior that would translate to : “Yo Bitch, give me a cookie”, or “Yo Bitch, pet me”.  It’s as detrimental to your healthy relationship with your dog as it would be in any human relationship!  Respect yourself enough to expect respect from your dog.  Your dog is perfectly capable of a “May I Please?” instead of a “Yo, Bitch”, and you know the “May I Please?” look.  It goes something like this:

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“May I Please” ….have a cookie?  Go for a walk? Jump in your lap?  All of these can be answered with a “yes” or a “no”.  Your choice.  But if your dog is “Yo, Bitch”-ing you, the answer must be a negative.  Don’t accept a bully dog‘s behavior.

Positives/Yes

1) The “come” command.  Always, always, always…positive.  Give them a treat. Tell them how wonderful they are!  Scratch their belly.  Whatever it takes to get them to understand that what they did was wonderful.  If you need help with “recall/come”, check out this link.

2) Asking a dog to do a “human” behavior.  Your dog is a perfect dog, and can be expected to do dog things wonderfully.  Being a human, on the other hand…well, that’s a little different.  Any time you are asking your dog to do something that another dog couldn’t ask them to do, you must use positive reinforcement.  For example, a dog will tell another dog to go away, or play, or stay away from their toy.  But they don’t teach each other English (sit, stay, come, etc.), nor do they teach each other tricks.  If you ask a dog to do a human thing, make it worth their while.

3) When they’re calm.  This is the most important of all. I always tell my clients I want “calm” to be like a lottery ticket:

1) you have to play to win;
2) You probably aren’t going to win; and
3) But unless you’re holding a ticket, you’re definitely not going to win.

I want your dog holding a many lottery tickets as possible.  Because the more tickets they have, the better their chances are at winning.  Reward calm any chance you get, and pretty soon Fido will understand that “calm” is like a magic button he can press that will (sometimes) get him exactly what he wants.  If you see your dog sleeping on the floor, give him a gentle scratch behind the ears.  If you’re cuddling on the couch, give him gentle praise for being calm.

And remember, calm is about progress, not perfection. So if you’re dealing with separation anxiety, just reward progress.  If you are crate training, but your dog in the crate and walk into the other room.  He’s going to escalate to a decibel 11….simply wait him out until he goes down to an 8 before re-entering the room.  You are trying to catch a behavior: increased calm.  It’s not always immediate, and it is rarely perfect, but that doesn’t mean the behavior isn’t there to catch.  Make sure you reward it.

So let’s break everything down:

Your dog needs Piloting, Activity and Work (the foundation).  Only once you have given them what the need are you able to build upon that foundation by answering your dog’s questions using “yes/no”.  Pretty simple.  You’ll notice I didn’t give a lot of rules.  I hate rules.  They don’t take into account human and dog personalities.  I know many trainers who:

-Insist a dog should never be on your bed.  Why not?  I sleep better snuggled next to a dog.  Just remember it’s your bed, and your choice who is in it.

-Don’t give your dog people food. Because….?  My dogs get plenty of people food (in a healthy moderation, of course).  If it isn’t on the lethal list (grapes, onions, chocolate, etc.), and your dog isn’t “Yo, Bitch-”ing you for the food, go ahead!  Just remember, it’s their right to beg for food, (“Can I have some?”) just as it’s your right to answer “no”.  

- Never play rope toy/tug/wrestle with your dog because then they’ll know they can beat you.  News flash:  my dog already knows they can beat me.  Using that logic I should never run with my dog because they are faster.  Playing rope/tug/wrestling with your dog is all about setting your boundaries.  We bond through play, and this is a prime way to do it…if you wish.  Set your boundaries.  For example, when Sparta and I play, I have very limited rules:  she’s allowed to knock me down, grab the rope, even (carefully) bite me.  But the second I feel it has gotten too rough, I give her a negative, and she instantly stops.  Some days I’m up for a WWF-style match, other days I’m only good for a drastically diminished version.  Just because we romped hard yesterday doesn’t mean that’s what our game is going to be about today.  You set the rules for each and every match…anything from “no rules” to “not playing at all” is acceptable.  Think of it like Fifty Shades of Grey:  Anything’s okay so long as you are both okay with it.  That includes not wrestling at all.

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So stop complicating your bond with Fido.  No more lengthy list of rules and regulations trying to define your relationship with your dog.  Your bond is unique:  just as there will never be another bond like I had with my first dog, Darwin, there will never be another bond like the dog you have with your dog.  So no more One Size Fits All training style, nor endless rules for working with your dog..  Only you know what you need from your relationship with your dog, and now you have the foundations to build that relationship.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

 

 

“Mine” Craft – Working with Food Aggressive Dogs

“People aren’t against you; they are for themselves.” – Anon

A shelter dog undergoes the SAFTER test.  Food reactivity is guaged when the fake hand tries to take away the food.

A shelter dog undergoes the SAFTER test. Food reactivity is guaged when the fake hand tries to take away the food.

A few days ago I had a very difficult situation to work with.  The dog in question, a Shar Pei mix, I’ll call Lisbon, was food aggressive (had actually bitten people and other dogs in the house) as well as resource guarding (resource guarding is the same as food aggression, only in place of the food, she was aggressively guarding areas in the house she deemed as her own).

If a dog is reacting with aggression over anything other than their safety (i,e., they’re scared of you), or the safety of their pack, that’s trouble.  That’s the sign of a dog who is in the Pilot position, and who is frequently more than happy to try to take money out of your Piloting Piggy Bank.  Remember, whomever has the most money wins, so frequently these dogs are indeed the Pilot in the house simply because snapping and growing over a resource works.  Essentially, they tell you “no”, and it works because, well, teeth can be scary!  The more often they tell you “no”, and the more often you accept that as an answer, the more money the dog has taken out of your Piloting Piggy Bank.

Most other things aren’t quite so dangerous to work with because we are working with questions that the dog actually hopes end in a “no”.

Will that other dog kill me?

No, Fido.

Have any dogs ever died in a thunderstorm before?

No Fido, and I doubt you’ll be the first.

Resource guarding is different.  A dog has decided that something is theirs, and no matter what, they are keeping it.  Sometimes when I come into a house a dog is resource guarding, but their heart really isn’t into it.  They’ve accidentally become Pilot in the house because the owner has never properly communicated with the dog, letting them know that they don’t have to be Pilot.  Hint:  most dogs don’t even want the job!

These dogs aren’t resource guarding so much as taking all the perks that come with the Piloting position.  For a dog, being Pilot can be scary, terrifying, and generally sucks.  Just like not every human feels comfortable leading, the same is true for dogs.  If they’re going to be Pilot, there had better be some perks that come along with it!  These include the right to eat first, the right to sleep where they want to…basically, the right of first refusal for anything.  For the dogs who aren’t even really into the Pilot position, and didn’t want the damn job to begin with, merely Piloting them and taking the money out of their bank is sufficient.  They aren’t true resource guarders.

As Danika mentioned in her blog post On Food Reactivity….Nothing Personal.  Really.,   they aren’t doing it because they hate you.  Or because they want to hurt you.  In their minds, you are asking a question:  Can I have that back? They are answering your question (No), but you aren’t listening, apparently, so they have to answer it with more force, until you finally back down.

Dogs and wolves are a pack. They are a single entity driven towards one thing, survival and continuation of the pack.  In the pack, only alpha male and alpha female breed.  They are the Pilots.  They have (for the moment) the best shot of perpetuating the pack because they are the best dogs/wolves in the pack.  Obviously this can change.  Dogs and wolves don’t vote in who they think is the best for Pilot.  There’s no bribes.  Either you are or you aren’t and accepting another dog’s “no” to a question you asked can take enough money out of your Piloting bank to no longer make you Pilot.

Wolves deciding who's eating first. The wolf on the left is giving typical "back off, it's mine" body language. The wolf on the right is submitting.

Wolves deciding who’s eating first. The wolf on the left is giving typical “back off, it’s mine” body language. The wolf on the right is submitting.

So back to resource guarding.  It isn’t a bad behavior.  Remember, nothing a dog does is bad; it’s always perfectly correct.  For a dog.  However, as humans, we can not safely tolerate resource guarding.  It’s dangerous, and for kids, it’s the second biggest reason I see them get bit, (first is teasing or torturing the dog).  The difference is, a bite because a child is manhandling a dog is usually a sudden nip.  Yes, it may cause blood even (remember, you’re supposed to be covered in hair and loose skin, like a dog, not soft vulnerable flesh), but it’s typically not that bad unless the dog hit a lucky spot.  With resource guarding, it can be a lot, lot worse.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  resource guarding is one of the few things (the only?) that I will tell a client to put a dog down for.  Yes, they can be worked with, and you can indeed take the Piloting position back, but you will have to defend it the rest of your dog’s life.  They may challenge you at any moment.  You may absent-mindedly drop food on the floor, lean over to pick it up, and the dog decides at that moment to claim it, meaning a bite.

These dogs can be the sweetest, kindest dogs on the planet, as Lisbon is.  Wonderful, loving family pets.  But once the food comes out, they are like a vampire who hasn’t fed being led through a blood bank.  Yucky, ugly things ensue.

So back to Lisbon:  how did things end?  Well, they haven’t yet.  They never will.  Some dogs you can slack with on the Piloting and still be fine.  Lisbon’s owner will always be on alert for any sign Lisbon is trying to take money out of his bank.  Lisbon’s owner is single with no kids, so he doesn’t have to worry about a child being bit.  He also understood the severity of the issue.  He is dedicated to the training regime, which includes:

- Feeding Lisbon after a successfully Piloted walk.  A walk done correctly (read: you are leading, not your dog) takes money out of their Piloting Piggy Bank.  We want to empty Lisbon’s account out as much as possible before feeding.

- Lisbon will always be on a leash during feeding times, just like you always wear a seat belt in the car.  You may never truly need it, but there’s nothing like feeling safe to help bring out the Pilot inside of you.

- Hand feeding Lisbon.  Food only comes from him, and no other source.  We want to remove everything as a possible option for Lisbon to acquire food.  She need to be dependent upon her owner for all food. Food is placed on the counter, and Lisbon will be seated and fed one handful at a time, and only if she is calmly waiting.

- Removing signals that may increase energy during feeding time.  For example, when Lisbon sees her owner grab her food dish on the counter, she knows her owner is about to feed her.  Her energy level goes way up, and she can be difficult to manage.  Lisbon will never be fed out of a bowl again.  Even the vessel used to contain the food while she is being hand fed will be switched out frequently so she never knows if food is coming or if her owner is merely grabbing a cup for some coffee.

- Dropping food on the ground doesn’t mean it’s yours!!!  Lisbon’s owner, while hand feeding Lisbon, will occasionally gently place food on the ground behind him, moving very slowly.  If she lunges for the food, he can redirect her with the leash, wait until she’s calm, and then slowly pick the food up and throw it away.  Lisbon will never have the right to food on the floor.  Ever.  If she remains calm during that little exercise, she will get another handful of food.

- Never toss food at Lisbon.  The very act of snatching food in the air is aggressive.  In some dogs it’s not a big deal, and is even amusing (Darwin could catch food out of a dead sleep!), but those dogs aren’t really jockeying for Pilot position.  We are driving the point home that calm is the only thing that gets Lisbon food, and lunging towards food won’t be accepted any more.

- Getting her used to disappointment.  A lot of resource guarding dogs get upset and retaliate if they think they were about to get food but don’t.  For example, the now-defunct food bowl.  If Lisbon’s owner simply picked up the food bowl to move it without feeding her, Lisbon might retaliate.  You were supposed to feed me, remember?  Touching the food bowl is a visual marker that is supposed to end a certain way, and if it doesn’t…bad things happen.  So he’s going to get her used to disappointment.  Dropping the food on the floor is a good start, but sometimes putting food in a cup on the counter, creating calm with Lisbon, and then dumping the food back into the bin, all in a controlled manner.  Calm doesn’t always get Lisbon food.  It’s merely the only way she might get food.  It’s like the lottery:  you don’t always win, but unless you play, you aren’t going to win.

Hand feeding... in the good way

Hand feeding… in the good way

I have great hopes for Lisbon and her owner.  Lisbon is a great dog, and they made wonderful strides in the two hours I was with them.  Lisbon’s owner is dedicated, and he understood the severity of the problem.  If anyone has a chance at a safe, wonderful bond with a resource guarding dog, it’s him.

Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio