Sunday, June 17, 2012

Self Controlled Canines Part III

In prior posts, I explained how to teach your dog "leave it" as well as how to move forward to apply this cue to other dogs/scenarios. Now, I'd like to build on this by offering up other exercises that help improve impulse control as well as provide a couple of examples of applying these principles to dogs who are displaying food aggression or dog reactivity.

Impulse control is all about teaching your dog to react to very stimulating situations in a calm and controlled way. The initial lesson is usually pretty easy for most dogs to grasp but the difficulty comes into applying those lessons to more exciting situations. For instance, if your dog is already fully engaged in rambunctiously greeting guests it is 100 times harder to get him to stop and focus on you than if you had set up the scenario and practiced with the dog before those guests ever arrived. At the end of the day, that's what really does make the difference; practicing in situations where you've set the dog up for success and then building up to the "real life" version of the activity so that your pet knows exactly what is expected and has been mentally prepared to handle it.

On the other hand, there are some really fun games you can play that will actually make your dog better at controlling himself even when he's all worked up! The first one is to teach him the "out" cue for when you're playing tug.
  • Get him super worked up with his favorite tug toy and then offer up another of his favorites from behind your back. He doesn't get the second toy until he's released the first. 
  • Once he's good at the release, add the cue, "Out!!" (Keep in mind that the reward here is simply the other toy; treats can complicate things for some dogs who fixate on them and forget about the toys.) Once your dog is fantastic at releasing the toy on command, eliminate the second toy all together. This is the tricky part! Your timing (be quick!) and energy level (be exciting!!!) are crucial because the reward for releasing the toy is now the joy of being able to grab it again! Get the game going again, wait until the dog is really into it, offer the "out!!" cue and wait for the release. Once the toy is released wait just a couple of seconds (keeping your body very still and holding eye contact with the dog) and as long as your dog doesn't try to snatch it away you can excitedly say "Take it!!" offer it back and let the game begin again. 
  • Make sure he gets a decent amount of tug time in before you give another "out" cue. A dog who will willingly stop on cue right in the middle of a super exciting game of tug is one who deserves some serious play time in return! 
This little trick is really the embodiment of what we ultimately want from all of our dogs when you stop and think about it. It involves the dog completely disengaging from an extremely stimulating sight/sound/activity. If he can master this then you're setting him up to eventually eliminate or prevent excessive barking, overzealous greeting, and other impulsive behaviors that we tend to find obnoxious.
Another great exercise is what I sometimes call "Doggie Drilling." Your dog should know at least a few cues and be reliable with them at home. Sit, Down, and Stay are a good group to use in practice but if he knows more, that's even better.
  • Get your dog's attention then ask for a simple cue like sit. Offer a treat just to pique his interest, then ask for two more (maybe down, then back up to sit if he knows how to do this - most dogs have to be taught to come back up into a sit from the down position so if you haven't worked on that then I'd leave that expectation out of this particular exercise). 
  • Don't ask for the cues in the same order each time and make sure you deliver the reward randomly; not always after every single cue. If your dog has mastered the "out" game mentioned above then this would be a great time to use an exciting game of tug as the reward instead of treats if he's very motivated by play. 
  • Even though we're randomly rewarding I do prefer to use a verbal marker ("Yes!!") after every correct behavior just so my dogs know that even though they didn't get a treat that time, they did actually perform the behavior correctly.  
  • The goal here is to make sure your dog never knows exactly when a reward is coming. He will keep working and offering behaviors because he knows at some point, the reward does happen. 
DO make sure that in the early days of teaching your dog these games that rewards still come pretty frequently so that he doesn't completely lose interest. Your own excitement and energy level will also be a huge asset in accomplishing this. When done correctly, Doggie Drilling helps prevent dogs from trying to "guess" what is going to be asked before you even get a chance to ask it. This also means they have to focus more intently on you to actually think about what you're asking instead of just assuming it's going to be the usual sit, down, then roll over routine. Do NOT offer a treat/reward for a cue that you didn't ask for when playing this game (or generally any time you're working on cues he already knows). He must learn to be attentive to you and wait for you to guide him. In addition to this, it is important to remember that all cues should be given consistently and clearly. If your hand signals and body language are muddy or inconsistent then you'll do nothing more than thoroughly confuse your dog. Also keep in mind that if he offers a behavior that you didn't ask for, just ignore him. No need to yell at, scold or punish him. The important part is that you do have his attention to some extent; it's just a matter of tweaking it so that it becomes true, solid, focus. He's "hearing" you so we just have to teach him to "listen."

The last game I want to mention is called "Freeze." This one is pretty simple but does require careful listening from your dog.
  • Do what it takes to get him playful and excited (call him over, wrestle him around a bit, make him chase you), then....
  • Say "Freeze!!" and stand tall, hands behind your back, waiting for him to stop and watch you. 
  • Once he's stopped and given you eye contact without bouncing around playfully the game can start again.
Sessions for this could end up very short or fairly long, depending on how motivated your dog is by the excitement. This can be a good one to practice in frequent but short bursts on a regular basis. You can also incorporate it into other training sessions or activities such as Doggie Drilling.

All of these games are fun and incredibly helpful in harnessing a dog's energy and teaching focus. This is especially true for young, energetic dogs. But how do you use these types of techniques to help dogs who have more serious issues?

Dog Reactivity: My border collie mix, Cricket, has had issues with reactivity to other dogs. In general, she is extremely excitable when it comes to nearly everything, and in the past this has led to some unpleasant encounters with her fellow canines, especially the smaller ones. She is a shelter dog and her background is murky, though I suspect lack of socialization may have been a big part of her problem. Because of her "unique" personality, she's had issues with other dogs when playing or when being introduced. Her play style can be overbearing and even threatening to other dogs and the same can really be said for her manner of greeting them. This tends to put the other dog on the defensive almost immediately and while Cricket has never hurt one, she has gotten into some scary scuffles due to her social awkwardness and over-excitability. To counteract this, I worked very hard on her ability to "leave it" with other dogs in various situations. I focused on getting her attention and then immediately channeling her energy into other activities. We'd go from a "leave it" straight into some doggie drilling with moments of nothing but focus thrown in. We worked at varied distances from other dogs, to keep her level of excitement in check so that it couldn't be misdirected. Over time she really mastered the art of not completely fixating on what another dog is doing, even in our own home. Her focus is instead on me, and that has allowed us to make great strides. I found that the more I practiced this the less she cared about the other dog in the room. For Cricket, we really had to tap into that energy and actually put it somewhere else rather than struggle to suppress or bottle it. She's still an excitable border collie mix, but the results of our training have been fantastic and we've been able to take in foster dogs without worry of her getting too rough or tormenting them with her relentless pushiness. Even better, there was no need to use a prong, choke, or shock collar. Just some time, patience, and understanding of what needed to happen.

Food Aggression: It is pretty rare to find severe food aggression in a puppy the age of nine or ten weeks old, but it does happen. In the case of our foster puppy, Kota, that's exactly what we got. Not just simple, hungry, growling but full on Cujo-esque food guarding if a human hand touched his bowl. It was shocking, to be completely honest! But Kota is fully blind and came from a less-than-stellar situation. He probably had to put up a fight for his food in order to get it before his sighted siblings gobbled it up first. Sad story or not, it had to be dealt with or else we'd have much bigger teeth to deal with later on. As with other problem behaviors, especially aggression, the first step is to try to prevent the dog from practicing that behavior again. Your goal shouldn't be to encourage the dog to act out just so you can "correct" it but to prevent and then extinguish the behavior by introducing a new routine or a new behavior that doesn't allow the one you don't like. So, with Kota I immediately started teaching "leave it" in scenarios where he didn't usually show signs of food aggression. For instance, we started out the training with me holding kibble (I didn't use anything more tempting as I didn't want him to get too worked up and risk practicing more aggressive behaviors) just as you normally would teach this cue. When he showed a true understanding of what was going on I put some kibble on the floor and practiced there; again, just as you would with any other dog. Once he was good at both of those exercises, I used his actual food dish (but away from his crate where the serious aggression had been displayed) and dropped just a few pieces of kibble in there so he could hear it. I practiced with the bowl just as I had practiced with the food on the floor and he did very well. I then added more kibble and moved his bowl around the floor with my hand. From time to time, after asking him to "leave it" I'd offer the bowl of food for him to take but leave my hand inside of it while he ate. The results were exactly what I'd hoped for and after several practices I was able to do all of this at meal times in his crate. We have not seen a sign of food aggression since and I have no problem reaching into his bowl. We do continue to practice from time to time just to keep the lesson fresh in his mind.

Of course, the fact that Kota was a very young puppy was a huge advantage. Tackling the problem early on meant he didn't have months and months to practice the aggression which would have only made the problem more serious. It also meant that it was handled without pain or fear, which could have easily led to him becoming even more insecure and distrusting of humans as he grew up. Instead, he's happy and confident and he knows what the dinner time routine is. He also knows that the dinner time routine consists of him having his dinner without anyone trying to steal it. "Leave it" has taught him that taking a step back and being patient doesn't mean he loses out on something good; instead, he gains it.

The same principles do work with older dogs, it just takes quite a bit more time and effort. Often, an older dog has had plenty of practice using aggression to hold on to his food and so he has even more reason to believe that it's the right thing to do. On top of this, most owners (and even many trainers) tackle food aggression with hitting, yelling, holding the dog back, or other such methods. In doing so, they yet again reinforce to the dog that dinner time is all about having people (or other dogs) threaten to take away your meal or generally keep you from eating it. Clear communication goes out the window in exchange for a chaotic, tense struggle during which the human thinks he is enforcing his dominance while the dog simply believes he's having to fight for his meal. This is yet another good example of training that attempts to suppress a dog's emotional/mental response to a situation versus training that actually changes his mentality. Instead of making meal time a struggle, it's so much more beneficial to teach your dog a brand new meal time routine. Set him up for success and don't even give him the opportunity to practice aggression. Not only is everyone far less stressed, but the result is a dog who happily embraces your presence around his food instead of one who, internally, is still very tense, unsure and unstable.

Doing things the right way takes time and work. It doesn't happen overnight and "quick fixes" in training are no better than quick fixes for most other things in life. Instant gratification has a habit of coming back to bite you (or those around you) later. My hope is that this series of posts has given you a better idea of how to handle and understand some of the most common complaints from dog owners. Remember that training is all about communication but it also requires patience and understanding. No one is perfect, and that includes your dog. Just because he doesn't act like a robot doesn't mean there is something wrong with him. Thankfully, he is an individual personality with a deep bond to you. This means that you can actually do some remarkable things when you gain his trust, teach him using appropriate methods, and regard him as a unique, intelligent, but sometimes quirky creature.

As mentioned before, I strongly suggest enlisting the help of a qualified, professional trainer (who uses science-based proven methods as opposed to "alpha/pack/dominance" theory) to help you if you're experiencing problems with serious aggression. While I can provide examples and explain how these particular techniques have worked for me, I cannot "diagnose" your dog's aggression problem over the internet and do not suggest that you do so yourself without the help of someone with a very thorough understanding of dog behavior and psychology. Quick tip on choosing a trainer: If they break out the choke, prong, or shock collars and simply instruct you to correct every time the dog "misbehaves" then you're absolutely in the wrong place. If you've missed previous posts on this subject and would like more information about why these techniques are inappropriate, please send me an email and I will be happy to discuss this with you: